Darkness bathed the house, quietness filling every corner.

At the end of the hall, Danny’s bedroom door stood ajar, and Isobel could just make out her little brother’s snores emanating from within.

She hurried to the stairs, not caring if she woke him, her bare feet thundering down the carpet-covered steps. “Da—”

Isobel jerked to a halt midway down, surprised to see her father enter the foyer, his upturned face clean-shaven, his expression questioning. He held his briefcase in one hand, a travel mug of coffee in the other. He wore black slacks and a clean white button-down shirt, the silver pin-striped tie she’d given him last Father’s Day laced through the collar.

He raised his eyebrows at her.

“Miss the bus again, kiddo?” he asked, a slightly bemused look on his face.

Isobel stood motionless on the stairs, her thoughts racing. As the blank spaces of all the current whens and wheres refilled, the frantic beating of her heart began to slow. Spotting the darkened Christmas tree through the living room archway, she felt a warm gush of relief wash through her.

Nationals. The competition. It had all already happened. She’d been home from Dallas for a week now. She hadn’t missed the bus, either. In fact, she’d been early.

They had won, too. Trenton High Spirit Squad now held the all-too-rare title of three-time NCA champions.

Isobel could still hear the squad’s piercing screams of victory echo through her head. In her mind’s eye, she pictured them all huddled together, a squealing, teary mob of blue and yellow, everyone clamoring to lay a hand on the gleaming golden trophy.

“Third time this week,” her father said, drawing Isobel’s attention back to his presence in the foyer.


With glazed eyes, she followed his movements as he set his briefcase down next to the umbrella stand. He stepped forward, grabbing his gray wool peacoat from where he’d hung it on the banister post. Juggling the coffee mug between his hands, he kept his gaze steady on her while he shrugged the coat on one sleeve at a time.

“Think I’m going to have to talk to Coach about this,” he said. “Tell her to cool it a little next time on all those extra practices. I’m just waiting for the day you wake up from the nightmare where you think you lost.”

Isobel grasped the stairway banister. She clutched the wood hard, her fingernails digging into the cherry finish. Slowly she lowered herself to sit on the edge of one step while fragments from her dream began to resurface, bobbing up like driftwood from a shipwreck. Amid the tangle of familiar and unfamiliar, mundane and frightening, one quiet face floated forward to occupy the forefront of her mind.

She was beginning to wonder if she would ever again be able to picture his eyes the way they’d been before . . . before . . .

“Hey. Relax, Izzy,” her father said, leaning forward to nudge her knee with a fist. “Trophy’s in the bag, champ.”

The dream—it always started out with her being at final practice. And though she’d had it a handful of times now, it had never lasted so long. Every time before this, every single time, she’d awoken as soon as she saw him—as soon as she realized that his being there wasn’t possible and that she had to be dreaming. In other words, as soon as she became lucid.

This time had been different, though. Somehow she’d managed to forget about reality long enough to remain within the dream. Long enough for him to show her what he’d wanted her to see.

But what had he wanted her to see?

“Sooo,” her dad said. “I know it’s Christmas Eve, but as you can probably guess, I’ve got to head into the office for a couple hours. Very Bob Cratchit of me, I know.” He checked his wristwatch. “I should be back early, though. Noon at the latest. You and I are still on for our last-minute mall trip, right? I still have to pick up your mother’s gift from the jeweler. Orange Julius on me?”

Isobel nodded at him. She’d have agreed to anything in that moment so long as it would make him go away, so long as it would let her be alone again so she could concentrate on salvaging the bits and pieces of time spent with Varen, even if she couldn’t be 100 percent certain if those moments had been real.

They had to have been real, though. It only made sense that he would try to reach her this way. He had seemed so solid, so there. Her hand still tingled from where he’d held it, her skin alive with the memory of his warmth.

“Oooo-kay,” Isobel heard her dad say, “then I’ll call when I’m on my way to pick you up. In the meantime, Izzy, why don’t you try going back to bed? I think you’re still a little worn out from the all the competition stuff. I mean, they call it winter break for a reason.”

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