Shopping was far from Arthur’s favorite pastime, but when it came to Christmas gifts, he refused to delegate the responsibility to his assistant. He’d learned that lesson the hard way early on in his relationship with Gwen when his request for a nice piece of jewelry turned into a ring she completely misinterpreted. He’d then been stuck explaining why that wasn’t the intent, and the cool period that followed for several months afterward had been pretty miserable as he tried to get back into her good graces. In hindsight, he probably should’ve taken it as a sign, but he still believed they’d been in love when they married. He was the one who’d worked so many hours and left her alone. He couldn’t really blame Gwen for their marriage falling apart because she was lonely and he wasn’t there to notice.
But ever since, Christmas gifts had been a task he accepted head-on. He’d been rubbish at picking them out in the beginning. He had a hard time understanding what would be appropriate, like when Morgana gave him hell for the expensive knife set he got her the year she got her first flat. It was a perfectly practical gift, he’d thought. Good quality. And she didn’t have a decent set of knives. He’d checked on his first visit. Apparently, according to the very long email Morgana sent him after he’d had to cancel out of her Christmas party, it was too “impersonal,” though what could be more personal than filling a need someone obviously had in regard to their home?
As he parked his car in the garage, Arthur sighed. Ten years later, and he still didn’t get it. He also didn’t cancel out of parties anymore. Two years in a row of doing that to Morgana had convinced him no amount of work he might get done was worth having her holding it over his head for the next six months.
December hadn’t quite taken hold of the weather, allowing Arthur to leave his coat open as he strolled into the market. The crowds weren’t bad for a Saturday morning, but with three weeks left until Christmas, he knew they would get much worse. Better to get done early and avoid the crush later on. He had better things to do with his time than try to keep from tripping over kids that somehow managed to escape any responsible adult.
His list this year was short. Morgana and Gwaine, their two kids, his father, and a handful of people from work. Morgana was done. Since she was six months pregnant with her third child in six years—it still amazed him how she and Gwaine went at it like rabbits, a detail both had little problem sharing since one of their favorite hobbies was to embarrass Arthur as much as possible—he’d already arranged for a spa day so she could get pampered without having to worry about the children. The rest of them, however, required more thought. He didn’t actually have many ideas, but everyone kept extolling the virtues of the market’s new revamp, so he was holding out hope he’d get inspired.
It was actually much nicer than he’d anticipated. Stalls were decorated in an array of reds and greens and golds and silvers, and music underscored the chatter as he roamed the aisles. He couldn’t even spot the speakers, which was fairly impressive. They’d redesigned the layout as well, to make room for the new Santa’s village at the market’s heart. They called it Wonderland, and Arthur could only hope it lived up to its promise. Kids were a tough sell these days.
He needn’t have worried. After only ten minutes in the market, he found himself humming along to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” smiling at strangers he passed, and even wishing a woman who ran over his toe with her pushchair a happy Christmas. There was something in the air, he decided. It was impossible not to respond to it.
The signs for Santa were literally everywhere. Curious about what they’d done to merit such an enthusiastic response from the public, Arthur abandoned his shopping expedition and followed them to the market’s core. Before he ever saw the entrance, he noticed the roof. It was a massive dome made out of glass, and every once in a while, he could’ve sworn he saw snow swirling around inside it. When the entire structure came into view, his jaw dropped.
Wonderland was contained within a giant snowglobe. It was raised off the ground on a massive dais, decorated to emulate the circular base of the handheld type. People entered via a short flight of stairs, only to disappear within the snowy vista surrounded by the glass. A smiling blonde woman dressed as an elf stood at the arched entrance, regulating the traffic in and out, and every couple minutes, she yelled, “Who wants to see it snow?” When the crowd shouted yes, she pulled a giant red ribbon that hung at her side.
A second later, snow began to whirl inside the globe. Arthur smiled.
“That’s brilliant,” a young mother said next to him. “So much better than last year.”
He couldn’t resist a closer look. Winding his way through the crowd, he watched as some parents accompanied their children into the village, visible as they milled around inside. He smiled up at the blonde when he reached the stairs.
“Can just anyone go in?” he asked.
“Oh, no,” she said. “Only those who believe in Santa.”
Another time of year, and he would’ve rolled his eyes at her. But the magic of the moment had him placing his hand over his heart instead.
“I solemnly swear I believe in Santa,” he said.
She swept a dramatic arm toward the doorway. “Then you may enter.”
The interior was as charming as the exterior. The dome wasn’t actually glass, but a good enough substitute to help the illusion. Though one could see outside, the sense of being in a snowglobe grew with each step he took through the cobbled streets. Fake snow blanketed the ground and eaves of the miniature buildings, with flowers and bushes made out of sweets lining the paths. Animatronic reindeer were fenced in to one side. One even had a nose that would go bright red whenever it lifted its head.
The children were as enamored with the milieu as they were excited to be seeing Santa. They blocked the path to get a better look at the full-size sleigh parked next to a building labeled as Santa’s Sleigh Shop. It was hitched up on one end, and the sound of tools clanking emanated from beneath. The best part of all were the very long legs clothed in green tights with the largest, pointed red shoes he’d ever seen sticking out from the end.
“Is it broken?” a little boy in front said.
“I’m sure it’ll be fixed in time for Christmas,” his mother replied.
The owner of the legs slid out. Unlike the woman at the door, this elf was male, very male if his slightly too-tight costume was any indication. When he rose, he stood well over six feet tall, too, forcing almost everyone who’d been watching to tilt their head back to meet his smiling eyes.
Arthur did as well. He didn’t often find the nerve to admit his attraction to men, but in cases like this one, it was equally impossible to deny. Frankly, Santa’s mechanic was hot. Broad chest. Broader arms. Powerful thighs attached to powerful legs that went on for miles.
And then he smiled down at the little boy who’d posed the question, and it was so warm and inviting, Arthur’s stomach flipflopped.
“Are you worried about whether or not Santa’s going to make it to your house this year?” the mechanic asked.
The little boy shrank into his mother’s legs, eyes wide at the sight of this giant elf. Still, he managed a rapid nod.
The mechanic crouched down so they were now at a better level with each other. “Well, don’t be. ‘Cause you know what this is?” He held up the tool he’d brought out with him from under the sleigh. “It’s a magical spanner. Santa gave it to me special. When I use it to work on his sleigh, it can never break down again. Here.” He held it out. “Want to hold it?”
Though he was slow to accept, the little boy took the spanner from the elf and turned it over in his hands. Then, every other child in the crowd wanted to do it. Arthur hung back and watched as the elf took his time with each one before sending them on their way to stand in the queue to meet with Santa.
His blue eyes landed on Arthur once the last child was gone. “Did you lose someone?” he asked.
Arthur smiled. “No, I was just enjoying the show. You’re very good with them.”
The elf shrugged, but before he turned back to the sleigh, Arthur caught a pink stain rising in his cheeks. “Kids are easy. Especially this time of year. They just want some magic to believe in.”
Arthur wasn’t prepared to walk away yet, though. “This is the perfect place for it. I’d heard the stories about the new market, but seriously, this is above and beyond. Whoever came up with the idea of the snowglobe is a genius.”
The elf chuckled. “Not quite, but thank you for thinking so.”
Arthur straightened. “You’re not saying this is yours, are you?”
“Not entirely. It was a joint effort.”
“But you’re an elf.” A very tall, incredibly gorgeous elf, but Arthur kept that part to himself.
“Because part of our contract requires one of us to be on site at all times in case something goes wrong.” His gaze strayed beyond Arthur’s shoulder. “Sorry, but another group is coming through. Thanks for the interest. I’ll let my partner know our work is appreciated.”
He disappeared under the sleigh again until only his calves and feet stuck out like before. Arthur stepped out of the way to allow the next group of children to oooo and ahhh around the sleigh, before another question, very similar to the first, prompted the elf to re-emerge.
His smiles were as genuine the second time around. Arthur wandered off before he was done so he wouldn’t get booted as a security risk to the children.
His shopping went downhill after he left Wonderland. The stall owners were friendly enough, but his thoughts kept going back to the mechanic and his claims of ownership. Who was he? Was there any validity to his claim?
If he truly had designed the snowglobe, even with a partner, he could be a valuable asset for Pendragon Industries. Arthur was always looking for innovative thinkers, especially since Uther seemed so determined to stick to the tried and true rather than challenge convention.
After an hour of fruitless shopping, Arthur headed back to Wonderland. He wanted another opportunity to talk to the overgrown elf.
And it had absolutely nothing to do with how attractive he was. Or not much, anyway.
Rather than make a spectacle of himself by going in again, Arthur found a table at a nearby cafe to wait. He killed time by pulling out his phone to search for everything he could find on the market’s new Christmas feature. It didn’t take long to find useful information. His second hit, actually. A press release interviewing the creators. Merlin Emrys and Percival Ackerman.
Since no photo accompanied the release, Arthur googled each of the names. He started with Merlin, but the gangly, dark-haired young man was definitely not his mechanic. Percival Ackerman took longer to track down. Where Merlin seemed to be everywhere on social media, Percival was not. Everything that referenced him seemed to come back to the press release. Arthur had to dig deeper to find something not published in the last six months.
He found it on a charity website, of all things. It was for a fundraiser for a children’s hospital up north, where they’d raised quite a chunk of change with a medieval-themed faire. The most popular attraction had been the knights, and there, standing amidst a group of other men all dressed in similar chainmail, was Arthur’s mechanic.
Arthur sat back, his gaze straying to the snowglobe. Percival Ackerman. Creator of dreams. Maybe he’d offer that as a job title when he proposed coming to work for the company.
He was on his fourth cup of tea when a familiar face appeared in the entry. With a smile and a wave at the blonde elf, Percival came into the market and veered toward the street. He gave no glance backward, and his definitive stride suggested a specific destination in mind. Arthur tossed a twenty-pound note onto his table and took off after him.
He nearly lost him in the crowd. Only Percival’s height kept him in sight, and even then, he seemed to disappear more than once, long enough for Arthur to pause and hunt around until he found him again. He finally caught up to Percival near the parking garage, but when Percival stopped and looked back to see who had called out his name, Arthur hesitated.
This was crazy. He’d just chased down a man through a public market, a man he knew next to nothing about except he was insanely creative, great with kids, and possessed unbelievable arms. Nothing he said was going to make this better, especially since he was very well aware that Percival’s physical appeal had as much to do with finding him as his professional acumen did.
When he didn’t say anything after nearly a minute, Percival cleared his throat. “Is there something I can help you with?” he asked, every word careful.
He had to say something. “I was hoping we could talk. Away from the kids. Just you and I.”
“Away from the kids.”
“That’s what I said.”
Percival let his gaze drop, slowly, though crawling might’ve been a better description, down, down, down over Arthur’s body until Arthur felt his flesh begin to warm from the attention. When Percival looked up again, a small smile canted his lips.
“I’m about to run out for a quick bite,” he said. “Care to join me?”
Arthur glanced over his shoulder. “You’re not eating here?”
“No. I tried that the first day, but I only get half an hour, and I ended up spending most of that time talking to the kids who recognized me from the exhibit.”
“So…you’re going into town city to eat dressed as an elf instead?”
Percival laughed. “I tend to be conspicuous, no matter how I’m dressed.” He tilted his head toward the garage. “So? Want to come?”
It was the perfect opportunity. He had plenty of time to get his shopping done in the weeks to come. “Absolutely.”
Percival stuck his hand out when Arthur neared. “I should probably formally introduce myself, then. Percival Ackerman.”
Percival stiffened. His hand fell away first, and he retreated a step, his now-wide eyes locked on Arthur. “Pendragon? As in…Pendragon Industries?”
“That’s the one.”
“What…” He coughed, finally looking away to cover his mouth. Then he tried again. “What exactly did you want to talk about?”
Arthur shrugged. “Your work. It’s brilliant.”
The embarrassed blush from earlier returned. His face was almost as red as his costume. “I thought…” Grimacing, he backed up another step. “I’m a bloody idiot.”
“From what I’ve seen, that’s pretty far from the truth.” But Percival’s demeanor wasn’t relaxing again, and now Arthur itched to know what was going through his head. “Do you have a problem with my company?”
“No!” Percival’s head snapped up. “God, no. I just…it’s nothing to do with that, honest. Would you like to wait on this until my partner Merlin can join us? It really was a joint creation. In fact, he’s probably the one you’re more interested in. He’s the one who got the snow effect to work inside the globe. All I did was come up with the idea.”
Creative dreamer was sounding more and more accurate. But while Merlin seemed to be the mouthpiece for the pairing, Arthur wanted to wait before including him. “No, you’re the one I want to talk to. You seemed fine with it a minute ago.”
“That’s because I thought…” Again, he seemed unable to finish his sentence. He finally sighed, his shoulders sagging. “I thought you were flirting with me. That’s why I asked you out.”
All the air whooshed out of Arthur’s lungs. Asked him out? That meant Percival was into guys. Dangerous territory, there. It was one thing for Arthur to harbor an attraction he knew wouldn’t go anywhere, but if the feelings were mutual, he was entirely doomed. He really needed be to focus on his rationalized purpose for seeking Percival out, not the selfish one that hoped for a genuine chance to get to know Percival better.
But when he opened his mouth to say just that, he stopped. Percival looked miserable about the confession. More than anything else, Arthur wanted to make that go away.
“Well, for the record, it wasn’t just professional interest that made me say yes.” His heart hammered against his ribs. “And I can honestly say I’ve never chased someone through a market for a potential job interview.”
Percival regarded him through his lashes. “Yeah?”
Arthur edged forward, grateful when Percival didn’t run. “How about we go with our original instincts and see where it takes us?” Since Percival could admit it, so would he. “And if it doesn’t work out, you have Merlin call my office tomorrow to set up a more formal meeting. I still want to talk about the possibility of you two coming to work for me. I’d be an idiot to let you slip through my fingers.”
Some of Percival’s confidence returned, his body straightening, his gaze more direct. “Can Merlin call your office anyway? He’ll kill me if I put a date over an opportunity like this.”
Arthur smiled. “Even if the date’s with me?”
“Probably more so,” he said with a laugh.
“Deal.” He fell into step next to Percival as they continued onto the garage. “I have to say, though, I’ve never gone out with a giant elf before. This should be very interesting.”
“I’d say it makes us even.”
Percival nudged against Arthur’s arm, a teasing glint in his eye. “I’ve never gone out with a millionaire mogul before.”
“Nope. Still not even.”
They reached the door to the stairwell. Feeling more light-hearted than he had in months, Arthur grinned up at the man he had a feeling was about to irrevocably change his life. “We won’t be even until I’ve got my own pair of oversized elf shoes.”
It might’ve been the single greatest sound Arthur had ever heard.