Meet the Bards of Mid-Holiday Madness
A close-knit group of book lovers gathers for a celebration of wintertime storytelling.
Surrounding themselves with the peculiar magic of an enchanting bookstore.
Enjoying the curious limbo between holidays.
EllaJane and Chris delight in telling the tales, not expecting the new story unfolding in their own lives.
From Victorian London to Appalachia, from epic fantasy to romance to found family.
Join Kari Kilgore as she, EllaJane, and Chris discover winter holidays from five wonderful fictional worlds, and a bonus sixth romantic story that brings the whole collection together.
Includes five original winter holiday tales from Kari's series worlds: A Timely Bit of the Best Bad Luck, A Meeting of Two Renegade Minds, The Real Gift of the Santa Train, A Current Made of Joy, and Discovering Home.
EllaJane Cole had spent almost every one of her forty-three holiday seasons in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia. So she thought she was familiar with all the joy and magic the days between Christmas and New Year's could bring.
A picturesque snowfall more often than not, enough to transform winter-dark and bare trees into a snow globe fantasy land, with the undulating contours of the hillsides underneath only adding dimension and intrigue. Decorations that ranged from the latest in flashy, electronic-modern gadgets all the way to hand-gathered cedar trees and wreaths.
Carefully kept treasures from decades gone by snugged up to brand-new online or dollar store finds.
Her favorites were gleaming glass ornaments of every shape and color, with hollowed out indentations full of elaborate details inside. That or bright, festive scraps of fabric from everyone's sewing piles, stitched up over bundles of hard candies or sometimes leftover herbs and spices after the frenzy of holiday baking. Between those and special-bought oranges, grapefruits, or even tangerines studded with spiky cloves, the heavenly aroma of a holiday house in the mountains alone sent her straight into an intoxicating haze of wintertime nostalgia.
She'd spent a couple of days over in Bountyfield around Christmas this past week, soaking up all that excitement and love with her sprawling, rowdy family. Luckily for her, they'd always been truly the most important and lasting ingredient for holiday delights.
But right now, sitting in her temporary home in the basement of the enchanting Odds and Endings Bookstore in Lightning Gap, Virginia, EllaJane basked in a brand-new variety of holiday magic.
One she was about to add her own unique blend of creativity and excitement to.
She was taking her first-ever turn as the official Odds and Endings Mid-Holiday Madness Bard.
The basement itself set the stage for merriment on a scale she'd hardly dared imagine as a little girl dreaming of telling her own stories someday. Everyone she'd talked to during her first month of her writing residency told her the same thing.
When they first descended the hidden staircase from the main bookstore above, even after thousands of volumes packed all over the huge Victorian house, none of them could take their eyes off all the literary treasures lovingly tucked into every possible space.
Hand-made bookshelves as old as the house lined the walls, all age-worn and dark and beautiful. Each holding everything from ancient and priceless leather-bound books to hardcovers from every era to paperbacks shiny and new or yellowed and often-read. Covering any subject fictional or not, with almost as many reference books as tales sprung from inside a writer's mind.
The only requirement for taking up precious space in the heart of both the bookstore and the house was that a member of the Odds and Endings family treasured it.
But the truth was EllaJane suspected space in the basement didn't quite work the same way it did out in the world. Time seemed to travel by its own set of changeable rules as well.
All part of the magic of Odds and Endings and Lightning Gap itself.
She'd even found hand-lettered, hand-made paper-and-board books from a century ago, when the house was being built in 1918. Sharing shelf space with scratchy volumes of the history of Lightning Gap, Felten County, and many of the surrounding towns and counties.
With all the different kinds of maps and books of records any writer or book lover or history nerd or map geek could possibly want tucked or rolled or pinned up in between.
Several of those book lovers sat in the basement with her now, relaxed and comfortable in dark brown leather chairs surely nearly as old as the house, gathered close by the gorgeous fireplace. A roaring fire set against a magnificent maple mantlepiece and beautiful hand-painted purple and green tiles drove away the chill of a late December evening.
Much like the distinctive purple house that held the bookstore above, the basement was cheerily decorated for the season. Ropes of sharp-smelling pine and shiny holly, with bright red berries for accents, were draped over every available surface. Very traditional Victorian Christmas crackers—thumb-length cylinders covered with decorated paper twisted at both ends—sat in piles on the mantle and hung from the adorable little cedar tree beside the fireplace.
Underneath the tree, strewn with multicolored versions of artificial candles, stacks of books bound in wide, sparkling green and red ribbons waited for the end of Mid-Holiday Madness. One for each person gathered for this special night.
Not just any books, of course, not at the heart of Odds and Endings. These were collected volumes by several of the authors-in-residence over the years. Most unwrapped, with their vivid covers making up for the lack of holiday paper.
But each bundle also contained secret books wrapped in plain brown paper, carefully chosen for each person, and related to the tales to be told over the next several days. EllaJane had helped choose all of them, aside from the one that waited for her.
Any cold that dared linger in limbs or fingers or toes quickly fell victim to a sip of Mrs. Carabelle Seagon's Special Warming Recipe mulled cider, full of cinnamon and ginger and cloves, and a few secret ingredients she'd never reveal.
The not-so-secret addition that warmed inside and out was a generous splash of fine bourbon for anyone who wanted one, for both the cider and the always-available Earl Grey tea.
Mrs. Seagon wouldn't have cleared five feet tall even if she'd ever worn high heels, and tonight she'd dressed her slender frame more casually than usual. Rather than a sensible skirt or sturdy pants, she wore a modern and entirely typical vacation wardrobe of sweatpants and a matching hoodie.
In the same shade of purple as the house, of course, and decorated with sparkling patterns of candy canes in copper and gold.
Her husband Arthur sat in the chair beside her, as always, dressed in a matching outfit in his preferred shade of warm chocolate brown. Everyone else, EllaJane included, had taken on a similarly at-home variety of cozy, loose clothing.
Not a single pair of hard pants anywhere to be seen.
She wasn't quite brave enough to wear her horribly mismatched pajama and robe combination with company there, so she'd opted for charcoal gray sweatpants and her faded Bountyfield High School sweatshirt. No one here had seen her in her eye-straining overnight getup besides Chris Ramsey, sitting beside her on the sofa in his own black sweatpants and t-shirt.
After all, Chris was a vital part of her writer-in-residence year at Odds and Endings. Besides living in his own basement apartment and sharing her night owl tendencies, Chris had played a role in every short story, novella, and novel-in-progress taking shape on EllaJane's laptop.
Not because he was her co-writer, not in the traditional sense.
Chris was more than her muse, too.
Chris was her character, and would be throughout the rest of the year of her residency.
And he'd continue to be her storytelling partner over the next several magical nights of celebrating this odd pause between two major holidays, and the restful space before the beginning of a brand new year.
Adorable little antique tables sat between the chairs and sofas, draped with their own evergreen garlands and each sporting a real candle in red, green, silver, gold, or purple, of course. The gleaming wooden surfaces were just big enough to hold the candles and delicate teacups in faintest purple, matching plates stacked high with Mr. Seagon's light-as-air-and-twice-as-crispy ginger cookies, and a book or two.
But none of the six people and one sweet hound dog who'd joined her and Chris for this special evening had any reading material close at hand.
They were here for a different kind of celebration.
When EllaJane and Chris joined in the long, proud tradition of sharing holiday stories told right out loud.
For some reason that no one seemed to remember anymore, but everyone insisted on following for every gathering at Odds and Endings, Mrs. Seagon stood at precisely eleven past the hour, clasping her hands together and sharing an infectious grin.
"Welcome one and all to the annual celebration of the days in-between," she said in her soft, musical voice, her lilting mountain accent bringing a sparkle to every word. "That time of year when all of us who are able take the chance to pause and reflect. To think back on the year getting behind us, and ahead to the new one about to dawn. And most importantly for the Odds and Endings family, the chance to sit back, enjoy each other's company, and take in some of the best holiday storytelling ever to grace anyone's eyes or ears."
Everyone around the circle either applauded or held up their teacups and took a sip, leaving both EllaJane and Chris grinning and blushing at the same time.
Mrs. Seagon sat, and Mr. Seagon stood, holding his own much sturdier coffee mug with the same stylized O&E logo on the side that decorated the covers of the impressive number of books written by other authors-in-residence.
"We have an extra-special treat this year, courtesy of EllaJane and Chris. Like any writer worth her salt, and any character, the two of them have been reading up a storm the whole time they've been here. And while like all the rest of us, they love any book that came to life with a little help from Odds and Endings magic, they both happen to have a favorite of all the ones they've discovered on our shelves."
He turned his smiling gaze toward EllaJane and Chris, and she was certain she caught more than the usual mischievous sparkle in his blue eyes.
"That's just one of all the ways these two are perfectly suited for each other. Now to avoid spoiling the surprise, I'll let them tell you all about it."
EllaJane blinked, struck by a most uncommon ability to pull words to mind when it came to talking about writing. And by the stirrings of heat unrelated to either the fire or the bourbon.
She risked a glance at Chris, and his wide eyes were equally dazed. But his slow, shy smile only cranked up her internal fires a little bit more.
None of that changed the fact that six other pairs of eyes were watching her expectantly (the dog was snoring), and the Seagons weren't the only ones with knowing affection in their smiles.
"I... Well, I'll just jump right into the storytelling if that's okay with all of you." She let out a quiet sigh of relief at all the nods and a sprinkling of good-natured laughter. "What we decided is we'll keep the storyteller a secret for now. But I'd bet all of you know at least one of the stories, and we have enthusiastic permission for what we want to do. All I'll say is there are a lot of stories of all lengths, genres, and moods to choose from."
She turned to Chris, thankful that he took up the thread just as they'd discussed earlier that day. That gave her a chance to watch him talk, with a new appreciation for the wavy black hair curling just past his collar, shot through with silvery highlights just like her own, and his lively green eyes.
She decided she was better off ignoring the full curve of his lips right now, and concentrated on his words instead.
"One of the great things about having so many different kinds of stories and worlds to choose from is EllaJane and I have all kinds of room to play and share. So we decided to tell stories about the winter holidays, all set in one of those worlds. These all came to us while we were working together on other projects. And we're both tickled silly to have the chance to share them with you."
He flashed her a confident smile and an encouraging nod. Between that and the bourbon, EllaJane was ready to jump into the story.
"For our first night, we decided to take you to another world altogether. A world of castles and magic and mages, flying horses and monsters and lonely little boys. But with all that, they still celebrate winter holidays together as a family. Even with all the strangeness in the world we're about to visit, I know you'll find a lot you recognize. I hope you enjoy hearing the story as much as Chris and I will enjoy telling it."
EllaJane closed her eyes for a few seconds, letting the crackling warmth and earthy aroma of the fire soothe away her bout of...curiosity about Chris.
At least for a little while.
The equally warm expectations of an attentive audience took care of any lingering nerves.
She didn't lose all awareness of him, sitting beside her, sharing his support and lending his imaginative presence in this story as in several others already, with nearly a year's worth ahead of them. She'd definitely have more to consider in that area later.
For now, she opened her eyes, smiled at Chris, and sank into the weird half-trance the two of them shared more and more easily as they learned how to work together.
The truly in-between place, where the shared worlds of their imagination—and that of the author who'd brought their borrowed world for the night to life—dwelled and kept their own plans and schemes and secrets.
EllaJane began to tell the tale.