Three college girls lounged around their dorm room, eating unhealthy snacks, drinking sugar-laden sodas, and playing with each other’s hair. Twinkle lights draped the walls and Christmas music filled the air, providing an air of gaiety.
Callie Thomas sat on a beanbag chair, her dark almond eyes focused intently on the swift movement of her nimble fingers. As she plaited the hair in front of her, she held her head still to allow the rhythmic brushing of her own long, dark locks.
Sitting on the floor in front of Callie was Emma Howes. A sea of serenity, Emma sat in the lotus position and waited for her roommate to complete the intricate braiding of her long, light brown hair.
In contrast, the remaining member of the trio did not sit still at all. Seated on the bed above Callie, Trixie Belden bounced in time to the music as she brushed Callie’s hair. Her own long blond ringlets dangled freely down her back. While the other girls could be described as conversing, Trixie was definitely chattering away.
“I can’t believe the ball is in just two more days. This semester has flown by!” Trixie said for at least the fifth time that evening.
Emma smiled softly, amusement lighting her gentle voice. “I’m glad you’re so excited about the ball, Trixie, but I still find it hard to believe you’re eager to dress up frilly for a fancy party.”
Callie snorted indelicately. “Frilly? There’s not a damned frill on her dress. Understated elegance. It’s disgusting how freaking good she looks in something so… simple. Almost plain. In case I haven’t mentioned it lately, I hate you, Trixie.”
Giggling, Trixie grabbed a handful of Callie’s hair and yanked. Callie stopped braiding long enough to turn around and scowl at her. Emma admonished them both.
“Now, now, girls. Finish the task at hand.”
“Yes, mother,” Trixie and Callie chanted in unison, restoring their happy mood as Emma just rolled her eyes.
Turning her attention back to the Snowflake Ball, the charity dance the girls were planning to attend that weekend, Trixie said, “I just can’t help thinking that Saturday’s going to be a magical night.”
Callie shot a warning glare over her shoulder, but Trixie just winked and grinned.
“My parents certainly try,” Emma said.
“Your parents do an amazing job, Emma!” Trixie exclaimed.
Trixie wasn’t just talking about the ball. Emma’s parents were both doctors at the local hospital. Before Emma was born, they had lost a nephew to leukemia. In response, they started a foundation in his memory that paired their hospital with the biology department at a local university researching cancer cures. That was the biggest reason Emma had chosen to attend Blake University, where she’d met Trixie and Callie. The Snowflake Ball was one of many fundraisers for the foundation, but it was the only one that the Doctors Howes personally chaired each and every year.
“When I was little, the Snowflake Ball was magical,” Emma sighed wistfully. “Then I got old enough to care about boys,” she finished with a grump.
“Speaking of boys,” Callie said with a mischievous grin, “will you be spreading your magic pixie dust on the boys again this year, Trixie?”
Trixie whacked Callie on the head with the hairbrush.
Callie and Emma laughed, while Trixie sighed. She was tired of being teased about last year’s ball. She’d had fun, and helped other people have fun. Why did people have to make it more complicated than that?
Impressed by Emma’s parents and their foundation, Trixie had been eager to attend the ball her first year at Blake… planning to work the event, to help out somehow. Emma’s mother had insisted, however, that Trixie could be most helpful by being a guest and helping to ensure that other guests enjoyed themselves. After all, the tickets were quite costly. The foundation wanted to make money, but wanted to give their supporters something in return. They promised a lovely evening, and it was imperative to the Howes’ that everyone had a good time.
To that end, Trixie had circled the room, being sociable. Several times, she turned down requests to dance from young men who could clearly get any girl to say yes. She sought out people not having the time of their lives. She took her mission to help very seriously, after all. She’d spotted Benny, from one of her classes. She knew he had a crush on Becky, who liked him as well, but both were painfully shy. They were hovering on opposite sides of the room. Trixie had asked Benny to dance, then maneuvered him around the room to Becky. Making up an excuse about needing to help Dr. Howes and apologizing for abandoning Benny, Trixie had asked Becky to take over her dance.
She’d given them little choice, so Benny and Becky had danced together at that point. Once the ice had been broken, nothing could stop the tide. They kept dancing all night long, and were still together and going steady a year later.
After her successful plot against Benny and Becky, Trixie had sought a new target. Earlier in the semester she’d had to attend a dinner where scholarship recipients had to mingle with donors to thank them for making their education possible. She’d endured the dinner by talking to a classmate just as uncomfortable as she was, Joey Chen. She’d learned that night that Joey’s mother had forced him into ballroom dancing lessons, and he’d even won a competition. Trixie decided his skills could come in handy at the Snowflake Ball.
Coaxing shy Joey out onto the dance floor had paid off. With an opportunity to show off his considerable skills, Joey became confident and self-assured. And Oh! Could he dance! After two dances with Trixie, girls were lining up for a chance to dance with Joey. Once he started chatting with his dance partners, his sweet and funny personality shone through. By the end of the ball, Joey Chen had become the most popular guy in school.
For an entire year, Trixie had been teased about leaving a magical mark on Benny and Joey’s lives. She could live with that, she decided with a sly smile, because Emma was her next target.
Callie caught the look on Trixie’s face and gave her an elbow to the ribs. The hardest part about plotting with Trixie, she decided, was keeping Trixie from giving herself away. Finishing the last braid, she stood to stretch. “Emma, I can’t believe you made me do that much work just so your hair will have a little bit of kink to it for tomorrow. Why not just wear it braided tomorrow?”
“What a waste of the kink!” Emma replied. “My hair would be awesomely kinky the next day if I did that, but that’s Saturday. I can’t be all kinky for the ball! I need my hair in some kind of upsweep for that.”
“Not me!” Trixie danced around the room excitedly. “Look at how perfect my curls are!”
“Told ya that stuff works,” Callie said. “Not that I ever get a single curl in my hair no matter how hard I try, but my sister’s like you. When she puts that product in, it takes all the frizz out and her curls just look perfect. And she does in five minutes what mom spends five hours at the salon to get.”
“You did thank her for me, for the recommendation, right?” Trixie preened in front of the mirror. Never fond of her curls, she’d been amazed by the girls at school her first year who’d asked her jealously what she’d done to her hair to make it curl like that. She’d offered to trade with several of them. After a couple of drizzly, humid days last spring had caused frizz-asters that left her near tears, she had been ready to cut it all off. Callie had begged her not to do so.
The hair survived the summer by virtue of a perpetual ponytail, and when they’d returned to school in the fall Callie had arrived with a present for Trixie from her sister. She swore it was the perfect curl-care product and forced Trixie to try it. After a couple of weeks of experimentation and learning a new regimen, Trixie suddenly loved the curls she’d always cursed. Basically a leave-in conditioner, she worked the product through her hair with her fingers while it was wet, and her hair dried perfectly. Taking care of her hair was so simple, so easy, and it looked so good! It stayed perfect all day, too, as long as she didn’t touch her dry hair with a brush. That created a frizz-aster of epic proportions (she’d learned the hard way), so she tossed the brush, meaning she did far less to her hair than ever before with far better results.
With a simple change in hair care product, there came a major change in her personality. For the first time she cared about her clothes and makeup, because she wanted the rest of her to look as good as her hair did. Trixie was confident, and generally a happier person.
“Of course I did, at Thanksgiving,” Callie replied. The only problem left with Trixie was the way she turned down every single guy who asked her out. Emma might be Trixie’s project this Christmas, but Trixie was Callie’s. All she had to do was find the right guy to make Trixie’s night magical, too.
The three roommates turned to each other and smiled. Their excitement was building. They didn’t know how or why, but they were each sure that Trixie was right; this year’s Snowflake Ball was going to be a magical night.
Saturday morning dawned cold and clear. The girls gathered their things and journeyed across town to the Howes’ home, stately and elegant, and conveniently located across the street from their ultimate destination. The former mansion which now housed the city’s historical society would be the site of this evening’s Snowflake Ball.
When they arrived, Emma’s mother greeted them. As they headed towards Emma’s room, Trixie drew Dr. Howes a few paces back. “Dr. Mom, have you heard from Troy?”
“I just got off the phone with him,” Dr. Howes replied, smiling with pleasure at Trixie’s nickname for her. “He apologized for waiting until the last minute to RSVP for the ball, but he hadn’t wanted to come alone. His roommate’s best friend is visiting this weekend, so he didn’t expect James to want to come with him. James’ friend, however, is interested in the foundation, so all three of them will be coming tonight.”
“Troy plus two, Emma plus two,” Trixie grinned. “Works for me!”
Dr. Howes offered an indulgent smile and a warning. “Be careful, Trixie. They’ve been best friends since they were little, but it’s never been romantic. As much as I think Troy is perfect for my Emma, they’ve never even noticed each other.”
Trixie snorted. “They notice each other a-plenty, but neither one will admit it. Trust me, by the time I finish with them tonight, their feelings will be revealed.”
Callie had dropped back and heard the tail end of the conversation. Nodding her head towards Trixie, she said to Dr. Howes, “If only she could follow her own advice.”
Curiosity piqued, Dr. Howes quirked a brow. “Oh?”
“Shut up,” Trixie grumbled.
Grinning evilly, Callie went on, “You mean you haven’t heard all about her big brother’s best friend? Mr. Wonderful?”
“No, I haven’t,” Dr. Howes’ eyes twinkled with delight. “I’d love to hear all about him.”
“Tonight is Emma’s night,” Trixie declared grumpily. “If everything works out tonight, we can discuss Mr. Wonderful later.”
Trixie stalked off and caught up to Emma. Callie called after her, loud enough to be heard across the street, “You do realize you just called him Mr. Wonderful, right?”
Emma started laughing. She didn’t need to have heard the rest of the conversation to know to whom Callie was referring. Trixie was as predictable as the blush flooding her face.
Trixie shot Callie the evil eye. “I hate you, you know.”
Callie grinned. “I know.”
Dr. Howes laughed at their antics as she and Callie caught up to the others. “Oh, I do hope you girls have a wonderful evening, with or without any Mr. Wonderfuls.”
Emma smiled at her mother. “Don’t worry, Mom, we will. And I promise to keep these two from killing each other or making a scene.”
Trixie and Callie hugged Dr. Howes. “Don’t worry. Tonight will be magical!”
The ballroom at the historical society building was lined with a dozen Christmas trees, all decorated with antique ornaments. Handmade lace snowflakes hung from the ceiling and chandeliers. Artificial candles were everywhere, creating ambiance without presenting a fire hazard. Emma and her friends proclaimed the room to be “charming and enchanted”.
The girls played hostess for a while, greeting guests and directing them to the refreshments or the restrooms as needed. They were sociable and friendly with everyone they met, and enjoyed themselves. All the while, there was an anticipation that something greater was yet to come.
Callie caught Trixie in passing between the ladies’ room and the eggnog punch. “Emma keeps looking for Troy, even though she pretends she isn’t.”
“She’s so in love with him,” Trixie said. “I wish she could just tell him how she feels.”
Raising one derisive eyebrow, Callie commented, “Because that’s just so easy, in your personal experience.”
Trixie glared at her friend. “No, it’s not easy.” She paused for a deeply romantic sigh. “But I just think that it would be so worth it for Emma and Troy.”
“But not worth it for you, Trix?” Callie asked gently. “Maybe you should take your own advice.”
“I know,” Trixie admitted. “However, we still have a week left of classes and then exams before going home for Christmas… and I don’t even know if he’s coming home this Christmas. He didn’t come home for Thanksgiving.” She shrugged philosophically. “Tonight’s our magic night, and since my Mr. Wonderful isn’t here, we just have to concentrate on Emma and hers.”
“Nice dodge,” Callie accused. “It would serve you right if your Mr. Wonderful walked through that door right now.”
Trixie glanced toward the dance floor, seeing several happy couples waltz by. It was easy to imagine herself in the arms of her brother’s best friend, Jim Frayne. Unfortunately, he was in his first year of graduate school and she’d barely heard from him all semester. Not that she’d tried too hard to communicate with him herself, of course. She always imagined he would meet a perfect girl at college, and any communication from her would be an unwelcome intrusion.
Hiding her morose thoughts from Callie, she just commented, “Too bad it barely qualifies as a remote possibility.”
Emma joined them then. “Pretty soon we’re going to have to start dancing, or Mom will have our heads.”
“Speaking of…” Callie nodded to where Dr. Howes was making a beeline for them.
“Oh, girls,” Dr. Howes seemed genuinely distressed. “You have to help me!”
“What’s wrong, Mom?” Emma cried.
“Tiffaney has her claws into Troy’s roommate already,” her mother explained. “You need to rescue him!”
Trixie pressed her lips into a thin line, barely suppressing a derisive snort. “He’s probably loving every minute,” was her cynical comment.
Tiffaney was a sore subject with the three girls. She was a beautiful, charming, wealthy socialite who loved to surround herself with handsome young men and rub her popularity in the faces of other girls. She especially rubbed Trixie the wrong way. Emma and Callie weren’t sure why, exactly, except that it had something to do with someone named Dot.
Fortunately, Dr. Howes shared their opinion of Tiffaney. “No, he’s not, dear. Troy says he’s in love with the girl next door back home, and the poor boy looks very uncomfortable. Please, Trixie, wave your magic wand and go rescue him.”
The magic wand comment irked Trixie, and she began to pout. “Why me?”
“Because while you are rescuing the poor roommate, Emma and I will be protecting Troy and the best friend from being her next victims,” Callie replied with a decisive nod.
Seeing that that would play well into her plans to push Emma into Troy’s arms, Trixie realized she was trapped. She didn’t have to be gracious about it, though. She folded her arms and stamped one foot like a little child. “I fail to see why anyone thinks I can draw a guy away from Tiffaney.”
“Oh, quit your griping and go save Troy’s roommate,” Emma complained.
Dr. Howes agreed. “They’re over by the montage,” she directed.
The montage was a wall of photos and testimonials that were displayed each year, telling of the success stories of the foundation’s work. In addition to these happy tales which helped donors to see value for their dollars, there were memorials for people close to the foundation who’d lost their battle with cancer. These reminded people that the fight was not over, and encouraged continued financial support for the work of the foundation. It was always a popular spot during the Snowflake Ball.
The girls made their way towards the montage, Trixie grumbling all the way. Emma fairly glowed, knowing she would see Troy any second. Callie found the entire scene most amusing.
A moment later, Emma stopped short with a loud gasp. Trixie looked at her friend in concern. “What’s wrong?”
“Trix, isn’t that your brother?”
Trixie and Callie looked where Emma was pointing. Sure enough, there stood Troy with Trixie’s oldest brother, Brian. Next to the pair of young men was a vivacious blonde draped all over a tall, uncomfortable-looking redheaded gentleman. Trixie’s eyes narrowed into tiny slits, and she seethed with a jealous rage.
“You never mentioned Troy’s roommate’s last name,” she ground out through tightly clenched teeth.
Emma looked at her warily. “I swear, Troy only ever said James. It’s such a common name, and I never had any other details.”
Callie was trying hard to choke down her laughter. “It looks like Mr. Wonderful walked through those doors, after all.”
If looks could kill, Callie would have dropped on the spot. If it had been any other girl, Trixie might have been hurt or annoyed, but because it was Tiffaney, she was just furious. Trixie needed to rein in her temper or things were going to get ugly.
Emma grabbed her by both shoulders. “Deep, cleansing breaths, Trix. If he’s the kind of guy you say, after ten seconds he’ll be disgusted by Tiffaney, but too polite to just ignore her. You have to rescue him, but you have to be your sweet, charming self to do it.”
Trixie nodded. “I know, I know. Give me a minute to get it together. You two go on ahead.”
Emma hesitated, and exchanged a wary look with Callie. “Okay, but don’t take long.”
“I won’t,” Trixie promised.
Emma and Callie headed towards the young men, while Trixie edged around a column and leaned her head against it, taking several deep breaths. She’d positioned herself so she could see her friends, but they couldn’t see her. She concentrated on her spying activities until she felt a tap on her shoulder.
“Why is the most beautiful girl in the room slinking around instead of dancing?”
Trixie turned to see a gorgeous, well-built guy with olive skin and deep brown eyes, which were dancing with delight as he grinned at her. She crooked a brow. “And what do you hope to gain from your flattery tonight, Tommy?”
Voice dripping with lust, Tommy replied, “An introduction to Troy’s tall, dark and handsome friend.”
Trixie smacked him hard across the chest. “Tomás! That’s my favorite big brother!”
Tommy’s interest was piqued. “The med student?”
“Yes.” The one word managed to sound like a reprimand.
“Are you sure he’s straight? Maybe he just doesn’t want to disillusion his innocent, adoring little sister.” Tommy’s smirk let her know he was more teasing than serious, but she detected a lingering shred of hope that his words were true. He draped an arm around her shoulder and batted his eyelashes.
She glared at him. “You’re obnoxious.”
“I know. But you’re dodging… you still haven’t answered my question.”
“About Brian being gay?”
“No,” he chuckled. “About why you’re hiding behind the column instead of talking to your favorite big brother.”
Trixie sighed and leaned her head on his shoulder. “Just trying to get my temper under control so I don’t make a huge scene and claw Tiffaney’s eyes out.”
Tommy glanced toward Troy and crew. “Hmmm… so the hot redhead currently wearing the blonde bimbo – and shooting jealous daggers my way, I might add – must be none other than the famous Mr. Wonderful, huh?”
“Jealous daggers?” She looked up at him with big, hopeful eyes.
The hopeful look was too much for Tommy. “How can I help, Trix? Should I decapitate the witch?” He leaned down and whispered in her ear, “Or should I just keep making him jealous?”
Trixie chewed her lip, indecisive. Then she shook her head. “No, I’ll take care of him. Once I get him away from Tiffaney, though… any evil plans you want to make to keep her from going near him again would be appreciated.”
Tommy laughed out loud. “You got it!”
Trixie threaded her arm through his and dragged him in the direction of her target. “Come meet my friends.”
Although Emma had been reluctant to leave Trixie, she was quite eager to reach Troy. Callie attempted to contain her amusement.
Looking up and seeing them coming, a wide smile lit Troy’s face. “Emma!”
Emma returned the smile. “Hello, Troy.” She nodded to the dark-haired man beside him. “Hi, Brian. I don’t believe you’ve met Callie.”
Troy looked at her in surprise. “You know Brian?”
Brian smiled. “Nice to meet you, Callie. For all Troy’s talk about Emma, I didn’t realize he was talking about Trixie’s Emma.”
Callie smiled back. “Likewise. When Emma mentioned Troy’s roommate James, I didn’t know it was Trixie’s Jim.”
Jim blushed until his face matched his hair. Brian and Callie exchanged a look of wicked glee, instantly becoming partners in crime for the evening. Emma cleared her throat uncomfortably. “Well, we haven’t met Jim yet.”
Disengaging his arm from Tiffaney with difficulty, Jim reached out to shake her hand. “I’ve heard so much about you; it’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Emma.”
Emma smiled graciously. “You too, Jim.”
Callie reached over to shake Jim’s hand next. “I must say, Trixie’s description didn’t do you justice.”
Jim eyed her warily. “Thank you, I think.”
“And you’d have known Emma if you hadn’t bailed on Spring Break last year.”
Brian smothered a cough.
“Jim was busy, Callie,” Emma censured her friend. “Leave him alone.”
Tiffaney grabbed Jim’s arm again and huffed loudly. Jim looked abashed. “I’m sorry, Tiffaney. I should introduce you.”
“Don’t bother.” Callie voice was colder than the Arctic.
Tiffaney tossed her hair. “Oh, we’ve met,” she said with condescension.
Jim was about to reply when he glanced across the room and spied Trixie, her head resting on the shoulder of a guy who seemed to be enjoying having his arm around her. A wave of jealousy swept through him and his green eyes narrowed to tiny slits.
Brian caught the look on Jim’s face and glanced over his shoulder. He saw the guy whisper something in his sister’s ear. Brian caught Callie’s eye and nodded in Trixie’s direction with a questioning frown. Callie looked where he’d indicated and rolled her eyes in exasperation.
During this silent interchange, Troy was being mindful of the wall of tension separating Tiffaney from Emma and Callie. He knew it would only get worse when Trixie arrived, and was trying to think of a way to diffuse the situation. He considered asking Tiffaney to dance just to get her away from the other girls, but then Emma shifted slightly closer to him. He looked down into her lovely brown eyes with those fascinating golden flecks and knew, without a doubt, that asking Tiffaney to dance would be the worst mistake he could make.
Emma’s look was questioning, uncertain, wondering what was going through his head. Seeking to reassure her, Troy grabbed her hand and gave it a squeeze. He smiled at her, and she smiled back, tension fleeing with that one look. Troy glanced up and saw Trixie and Tommy headed their way, arm in arm. Keeping Emma’s hand firmly in his, he greeted the newcomers.
“Trixie! There you are!” he exclaimed. Somewhat less exuberantly, he said, “Hi, Tommy.”
Smiling brilliantly, Trixie responded, “Hello, Troy! Tommy, you know everyone else, but I’d like you to meet Jim and Brian.” Turning to her brother with an impish smirk, she said, “Brian, this is Tomás. He doesn’t believe me that he’s not your type.”
The color drained from Brian’s face, and he sputtered and choked. “I’m sorry?”
Tommy chuckled good-naturedly. “It’s the story of my life. The best looking guys are always straight.”
Brian looked back and forth between Trixie and Tommy in shock and confusion. “I… I… I don’t know what to say.”
Trixie patted his arm teasingly. “Oh, sweetie, it’s best not to say anything at all.”
His sister’s tone penetrated Brian’s shock and he recovered his equilibrium enough to glare at Trixie. “You’re evil.”
“I don’t know,” Jim said with a conspiratorial gleam in his eye. “I think she just paid you back for the Fourth of July.”
Trixie’s eyes flew wide, and she turned to smile at Jim in delighted surprise. No one would understand the remark except Brian, but the clear defense from Jim was just what Trixie needed to hear.
Brian blushed and turned his glare on Jim. “You’re evil, too. You two deserve each other.”
Everyone else in the group heard Brian both issue a challenge and give his blessing… everyone but the selfishly oblivious Tiffaney. Mindful only of her own interests, she said, “Oh, he deserves so much better than the little pixie. Jim, why don’t you stick to a real woman, like me?”
The gauntlet had been thrown.
Callie resisted the urge to look down and see if there was actually a big metal glove on the floor in the middle of the group. Visible or not, it was there. Instead, she focused on the fact that Brian’s instinctive urge to defend his little sister was about to boil over. Jim’s reaction was critical, and Brian could ruin it.
She grabbed Brian’s arm and pulled him toward the dance floor. “We need to dance. Now!”
Jim was waging an internal battle, trying to keep his desire to throttle the tart beside him from winning out over his very deeply ingrained need to be nice to people, especially females. One glance at Trixie’s face, however, changed his mind. She looked like she was trying to decide between storming away and physically assaulting Tiffaney; underneath all that, however, her feelings were hurt. And that Jim couldn’t stand to see.
Turning to Tiffaney with a look of utter contempt, Jim said, “Tiffaney, get away from me. If you had a clue, you’d wish you were more like Trixie.”
Turning to Trixie, Jim stepped forward and offered his hand. “Trix, would you care to dance with me?”
Smiling, she curtsied formally and accepted his hand. “I’d be delighted.”
Tiffaney pursed her lips into a pretty pout and looked for her next victim. “Troy…”
Troy held up a hand to stop her. “Don’t even think about it. I came here tonight to see Emma.” That said, he pulled a more than willing Emma out onto the dance floor.
Tommy remained, snickering. Tiffaney attempted to regain her dignity, looking down her long nose at him. “What do you think you’re looking at?”
“Not much, apparently.”
Huffing and stamping her feet like a small child throwing a temper tantrum, Tiffaney said, “Oh… I hate you!” Then she turned and stalked away.
Tommy laughed out loud. “God, I love a good party!”
When they hit the dance floor, Brian muttered, “Thanks.” After that he was silent, and Callie was content to let him work on controlling his temper. As they moved about the room, Callie tried to observe the group they had left behind. Once Tiffaney stalked off, Callie heaved a sigh of relief.
“Mission partway accomplished, anyway,” she mumbled.
That finally caught Brian’s attention and kicked him out of his brooding. He glanced around the room, spotting Jim dancing with Trixie, and Troy dancing with Emma. He looked to Callie with amused interest. “So which couple is your target?”
Callie flashed him a wicked grin. “Trixie declared tonight to be all about Emma and Troy. I, however, am all for turning the tables on her.”
Brian winked at her. “Sounds like tonight will be more fun than I thought.” He twirled her around in a complicated move, causing her to laugh. “So tell me, is Emma as bad as Trixie?”
“Oh, God,” Callie groaned. “So much worse. Trixie is sort of oblivious, and simply accepts the erroneous notion that Jim’s not interested. Emma, on the other hand, is depressingly convinced that she’s not worthy of Troy’s consideration, will never be good enough for him, yadda, yadda, yadda.”
“So Emma’s more honest about her feelings, then,” Brian said.
Puzzled, Callie asked, “What do you mean?”
“My darling sister happens to believe that Jim is perfect, and she is far from it,” Brian replied knowingly. “She doesn’t think she’s worthy, either. The difference is, Trixie doesn’t believe in admitting weakness. Since unworthiness would be a weakness, she won’t admit it. So she pretends to be accepting… but she’s lying.”
“That makes a surprising amount of sense,” Callie mused. “It could also explain her obsession with ‘fixing’ Emma and Troy. After all, if there’s hope for Emma, there might be hope for her.”
“Except,” Brian argued, “she doesn’t think Troy’s perfect. She probably thinks he’s just right… for Emma, that is.”
Callie frowned. “Wonderful, not perfect.”
Brian snorted. “The most wonderful boy in the world.”
“So, Mr. Overprotective Big Brother,” Callie said, earning her a roll of Brian’s eyes, “is he?”
“Jim’s not perfect,” Brian swore. “Wonderful is a bit much, in my humble opinion.” Then his eyes softened with a gentle smile. “But he is just right… for Trixie.”
“Does he know that?”
With another roll of his eyes, Brian grimaced. “Having lived with both of them, I promise, Jim is worse than Trixie. In fact, the only thing more pathetic than Jim’s pining over Trixie, is listening to Jim complain about listening to Troy pine over Emma.”
Callie laughed so hard her sides hurt. “In other words, if we make them see the light, the real winners are you and me – who will finally get some peace.”
“Never thought of it that way,” Brian said thoughtfully. With another wicked grin he added, “Maybe we should get busy.”
The couple danced their way over to Troy and Emma. Leaning toward them, Callie asked, “So what did Jim say to Tiffaney?”
Troy related Jim’s response; Emma added, “He was perfect. Trixie was surprised and thrilled.”
Looking at her like she was nuts, Troy said, “Why should she be surprised? Jim thinks she walks on water!”
Emma shook her head and responded patiently, as if speaking to a confused child. “Jim thinks of Trixie like a favorite little sister.”
“He what?” Troy nearly shouted. Reining in his volume, he continued, “You’re nuts! The entire world knows he’s in love with her!”
“Everyone but Trixie,” Emma’s reply was scornful.
“How could she not?” Troy was incredulous.
Neither one noticed Brian and Callie slinking away before they burst into gales of outright laughter.
Emma raised one elegant eyebrow. “Jim’s never said anything to Trixie to indicate he feels anything but friendship.”
Troy challenged her right back. “Has Trixie said anything to give him a reason to think he should?”
Suddenly realizing that this conversation applied equally to herself and Troy, Emma became nervous. “N-n-no,” she stuttered, eyes focused firmly on the buttons of the festive holiday vest under Troy’s tuxedo jacket. “She’s afraid to.”
A ton of bricks landed squarely on Troy’s head. Shaking his head to clear his mind, he offered, “Maybe he’s afraid, too. Maybe they should stop being so afraid of each other.”
Emma slowly raised her eyes to meet his, barely managing to contain the tears pooling there. Hoarse and raspy, she whispered, “She’s not afraid of him. She’s afraid of losing him.”
She was trembling. Troy drew her closer, wrapping his arms as tightly around her as he could manage, and leaned his forehead down until it touched hers. Being completely honest with her, for maybe the first time, he whispered, “You don’t have to be afraid of losing me, Emma. You’re my everything, my whole world. I can’t exist without you.”
A single tear tracked down Emma’s cheek. Troy wiped it away with his thumb, then lifted her chin. The look in her eyes took his breath away.
“Oh, Troy,” Emma said. She tried to tell him how she felt, but she was so choked up that was all she could get out. Instead, her eyes spoke for her. The love that shone there was eclipsed only by the level of pure joy. The smile which began timidly spread to light her entire face.
Although Troy had always thought her pretty, nothing could compare to how beautiful she was to him in that moment. “Oh, Em,” he whispered before crushing her to his chest. He buried his face in her hair and held her close to his heart, where she belonged.
Emma listened to the beat of his heart and felt her own sync to match. In that moment of complete happiness, she thought that Trixie had been right about how magical this night could be.
For the first few turns on the dance floor, Trixie just reveled in the feeling of being in Jim’s arms. When she felt like the silence was going to become awkward, she smiled up at him. “Thank you.”
Jim gave her a fond look and shrugged. “I was just being honest.”
“Tiffaney expects people to like her just because she’s so beautiful,” Trixie said.
Jim turned his eyes heavenward and appeared to be praying for patience. “You’re so frustrating.”
Trixie was genuinely confused. “What? Why?”
His green eyes fixated on her, Jim reached up and tugged on the silky curl which never failed to fall across her forehead. “On the one hand, I love the way you are so modest, unassuming, and, to be honest, clueless. Sometimes, though, I wish you could see yourself they way I do.”
Trixie stared up at him, mesmerized. Her mouth suddenly went dry, and she licked her lips – oblivious to the instantaneous leap in Jim’s pulse rate. “And how is that?” she asked.
“You are, by far and away, the most beautiful woman here tonight. You don’t need a ton of gaudy jewels, or ruffles and feathers, to stand out in a crowd. Your beauty is natural, glowing, radiant. No matter what technical standards of beauty Tiffaney may fall under, she doesn’t hold a candle to you.”
On any other day, under any other circumstances, Trixie would have blushed and stammered a denial. Something was different tonight, though. She wasn’t sure if it was the holiday glitter or the intense look in Jim’s eyes, but his compliments buoyed her.
Trixie replied, “I suppose, since you are the most honest man I know, I have to believe you.”
Eyes twinkling, Jim nodded. “I wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true.”
They smiled at each other and blissfully continued dancing as the music shifted seamlessly from one song into the next. All of a sudden, Trixie frowned.
“What’s wrong?” Jim asked.
“I got so distracted I forgot my primary mission for the evening,” she answered, chagrined.
“Oh, no,” Jim groaned teasingly. “What case are you working on now?”
Trixie slapped at his shoulder playfully. “The only mysteries tonight are mysteries of the heart.”
Jim raised a questioning brow. “Whose heart?”
“Emma’s,” Trixie said. “Emma’s and…”
“Troy’s,” Jim finished for her.
Trixie grinned. “Want in?”
“That depends. Is she as bad as he is?”
Jim laughed. “Then I feel sorry for you. Troy frustrates the heck out of me. Sometimes I want to grab him by the shoulders and shake him until he gives up and just tells Emma how he feels.”
Trixie chuckled. “Then why don’t you?”
Suddenly serious, Jim replied, “Because then he might tell me to follow my own advice.”
Her heart skipped a beat. Trixie glanced up, hope shining brightly in her big blue eyes, only to encounter a surprising depth of desire in his. More daring than she’d ever been, Trixie whispered, “Then why don’t you?”
Jim wanted to let himself drown in her eyes forever, so he had no idea why he looked up just then. When he realized that they were passing under a big sprig of mistletoe, however, he decided it was the smartest thing he’d ever done. He stopped moving just as she noticed where he was looking. Her encouraging smile was his undoing. What he had intended to be a sweet, simple kiss quickly deepened into the most intense, passionate experience of his life.
Finally pulling away, panting, Trixie looked up desperately. “Please, please, please tell me you were planning on staying in town tonight. You can’t do that and then walk away an hour later.”
Trying to get his own breathing under control, Jim buried his face in her luscious curls. “How is me at Troy’s house and you in your dorm room any better?”
“We were having an informal after-party at Emma’s house, hoping to force her to spend more time with Troy. I don’t care if I have to be in a room full of people and behaving, I just really, really need to be with you.”
Jim sought her eyes and tenderly stroked her cheek. The need and desire he saw on her face reflected his own feelings. He smiled. “That works for tonight. But you know what I think? I think the next two weeks until exams are over will be the hardest in our lives.”
Trixie groaned. “Shut up. I want to think about how perfect tonight is, not how bad tomorrow will be.” She smiled seductively. “Besides, Christmas break is suddenly looking very promising.”
“Miss Belden, I love the way you think,” Jim replied before claiming her lips again.
Trixie threaded her fingers through his hair and returned his kisses measure for measure. She remembered telling Callie that tonight was their magic night, and Callie saying it would serve her right if Mr. Wonderful walked through the door. Well, he had, and the night had worked its magic. Perfectly perfect.
Brian snagged two flutes of champagne from a passing waiter. He handed one to Callie, and they clinked glasses cheerfully.
“It looks like our work here is done,” Callie said.
“Now what do we do?” Brian asked. “It’s still early.”
“For now, we enjoy good food, fine champagne, and have fun dancing,” Callie replied. “Later on, we have a casual after-party at Emma’s house… where we tease the living daylights out of the sappy happy couples.”
Brian chuckled. “Fine, but let’s exercise a little restraint. I don’t want to implode their relationships before they even get started. One happy night is not enough to save us from their pining. It has to last.”
Callie pouted. “Spoilsport. Are you always so annoyingly right?”
“Absolutely,” Trixie butted in, snagging the champagne from Callie’s hand. “Where are Emma and Troy?”
Brian rolled his eyes, and pointed to the other side of the dance floor. “Over there, being only slightly less nauseating than the two of you.”
“Really?” Jim sounded disappointed. “I was really looking forward to making him man up by saying, ‘See? I followed my own advice and it worked great!’”
Callie laughed. “Well, since they were arguing about the two of you and your more than obvious feelings for each other, I’d say you did your part towards pushing them together.”
“Good,” Trixie said firmly. “Emma’s mooning was annoying enough when I could perfectly understand how she felt. Now? I’d have to strangle her.”
Jim wrapped his arms around her waist from behind and pulled her to his chest. “I was just thinking the same thing. Of course, now all four of us will be moaning about how hard it is to be apart.” He grinned evilly at Brian and Callie. “You two are screwed.”
Brian closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I may have to kill people in their sleep.”
“I thought you said we deserved each other,” his sister smirked impudently.
Brian tried to glare at Trixie and Jim both. Instead, he turned to see his best friend in the whole world and his adored little sister looking happier than he’d ever seen either of them. His frown turned into a reluctant smile. “You do.”
Callie was less sentimental. “You deserve each other, but we don’t deserve to have to put up with you.”
“Why?” Emma asked. “What did Trixie do now?”
“Tried to remove Jim’s tonsils with her tongue.”
Trixie smacked Callie’s arm. “Evil wench!”
“Yes. Yes, I am.”
Troy started laughing. “Em, I don’t think you have to worry about anything changing with your roommates.”
“Apparently not,” Emma mused. Turning to Trixie, noticing how very comfortable she looked wrapped in Jim’s embrace, Emma quirked a brow. “So, I take it you won’t be sprinkling any more pixie dust amongst the males here tonight?”
Trixie glared at her. “You’re as bad as she is. I hate you both.”
Brian coughed. “Pixie dust? Among the males?”
Troy snickered. “Come on, Brian. I told you and Jim about the hot blonde who danced with every guy here last year.”
Trixie’s eyes sliced to Troy. “I’m acing forensics. You know what that gives me? Inside information on the best ways to kill people and get away with it.”
Jim tightened his arms possessively around her. “She won’t be dancing with anyone else tonight. I don’t think I can let go that long.”
Instead of getting riled about Jim making demands, Trixie looked at him adoringly and melted against him. Understanding Jim’s feelings exactly, Troy wrapped his arm around Emma and she snuggled against him. Callie and Brian stuck their fingers down their throats and made gagging sounds.
Emma stuck out her tongue at Callie. “You asked for it, you know.”
Callie glanced at her friends, and couldn’t help but smile at how happy both looked. “I know, I know.” Then she pulled her rough and gruff face back on as she waved her hands towards the dining room. “Now, no more smoochie-faces! Let’s eat!”
The six young people wandered toward the full buffet spread in the next room, chatting gaily. From the balcony overlooking the ballroom, Dr. and Dr. Howes observed happily.
Dr. Dad, as Trixie called him, nodded in approval. “I told you it would be the Snowflake Ball that finally did it,” he said to his wife.
Dr. Mom agreed. “After all the work we’ve put into making this a magical night for so many years, I’m glad this was such a special night for our Emma.”
“And Troy. I’ve thought of him as my own since he was five. Looks like it might be true some day.”
“Don’t rush things,” Dr. Mom admonished.
“I know, I know,” her husband reassured her. “I’m not trying to marry my only daughter off already. I just want her to be happy.”
“She looks pretty happy right now.”
“So do Trixie and Jim. Two for the price of one!” Dr. Dad grinned. “Sounds like a pretty successful night.”
Dr. Mom snickered. “Even Tiffaney seems to finally be having a good time.”
Her husband spotted the naïve young man enraptured by the beauty in question. “They’ll have a good time tonight,” he said knowingly. “Poor lad won’t figure out until later what a nightmare she is.”
“Let her have her magical night, too,” his wife replied. “So… is it too soon to start plotting against Callie for next year?”
“Tonight was easy; we knew what guys to make sure were here for Emma and Trixie. I didn’t expect them to make it quite so easy, but we did our part.” Dr. Dad stroked his chin. “I don’t think research is enough at the moment. I think we have to wait for Callie to meet the right guy before we try to set her up.”
Dr. Mom huffed impatiently. “I guess I’ll have to get to know more of Trixie’s friends. There must be someone I can focus on while planning next year’s ball. It’s no fun if I’m not trying to make it especially magic for someone in particular!”
An arm snaked around her and drew her close. With a kiss on her cheek, the man she adored said affectionately, “You’ve got an entire year! Just enjoy tonight. Besides, we still have magic to work at home to keep the happy couples on cloud nine all night.”
“I know you’re right. I’m just excited!”
“Dance with me, my love. Let’s enjoy our own magic for a while.”
The Doctors Howes danced for the rest of the evening, a rarity at their event. After dinner, the three young couples joined them. The magic of the Snowflake Ball kept everyone in high spirits. All in all, a successful night indeed!
Merry Christmas, Wendy!!
I have a few other surprises up my sleeve for you, too, because 1) you're such an incredibly awesome friend; 2) you're a fantastic cheerleader who constantly encourages my writing; 3) your requests were so incredibly easy to accommodate; and 4) I adore you!!
|Thanks to Bonnie and Jo for the emergency edits. Mucho gracias for the MAJOR save on the stupid mistake!!!!|