As Clara rounded the corner of a shelf, a young boy holding a toy horse ran right into her. Unable to steady herself, she fell backward, and the boy fell on top of her.
“Henry! I told you not to run when you’re in the store.” A well-dressed man in a suit, wearing a bowler hat, ran over and helped his son up to his feet, then helped Clara to hers as well. “Are you hurt? I’m terribly sorry.”
Clara dusted herself off, fixed the bustle of her skirt, and smiled “I’m fine. Thank you.”
The man held his son by the shoulder. “Henry, what do you tell Miss Clara?”
The young boy’s shoulders slumped as he stared at the ground. “I’m sorry, Ma’am.”
Clara held her hand out to Henry. “That’s alright. No harm was done. Just be careful. I don’t want you to get hurt or break anything.”
Henry shook her hand as his father ushered him to where he was before the incident.
The rest of the evening was busy, but incident-free. Clara waved goodbye to the last customer of the day before she closed and locked the door. She tidied up the shelves, righted several dolls, and returned spinner tops back into their bin. When she finished, she straightened her back and stared proudly at her work. Crystal snowflakes and hand-blown Christmas ornaments sparkled from the gaslight fixtures. Delicate porcelain-faced dolls in satin and lace dresses smiled back at her from a shelf, and carved wooden animals beckoned to be hugged and blocks painted in bright colors wanted to become a tower.
In the corner, bins of rubber balls and beautiful marbles all seemed to want the children to come back to play with them. She tucked an errant lock of her dark auburn hair back into its bun before her fingers ran across the edge of a beautiful wooden music box. She loved the box with its snowflake made of tiny pieces of inlaid ivory and silver on the lid, which she carefully lifted, smiling softly as she did.
The Christmas song What Child is This? began to play its beautiful and haunting melody, as Clara counted the cash from the cash register. She placed an amount back into the till and securely pocketed her profits from the day.
She hung her apron onto a nail behind the register and slipped her wool cloak over her white mutton-sleeve cotton blouse and forest green woolen skirt. Closing the music box she lowered the gas lamps to their lowest setting casting a dim yellow-green glow.
Clara unlocked and opened the door, stepped outside, and turned. A cold wind tugged at the hem of her cloak and skirt. She slipped the cloak’s hood over her head and held her cloak tightly around her neck as she locked the door behind her. She paused and smiled as her gloved hand affectionately ran across the name of her store, Victoria’s Treasures. “Good night, my lovely store. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She bundled against the cold as she walked along the wooden sidewalk and quickly slipped into the local bakery. The warmth from the ovens and the enticing smell of baked breads, cakes, and pastries made her inhale deeply.
She spotted the older woman come out from the back and wipe her hands on her apron. Her silver hair was braided and twisted into a bun at the nape of her neck. A white kerchief covered her head and tied under her bun. “Clara! How nice to see you. Did you just get off work?”
Clara slipped her hood off. “Hello, Agatha. Yes, it was so busy even though we’re still a few weeks away from Christmas. I do enjoy watching the children in my store. I’m glad I can put smiles on so many faces.”
“Yes, please. Lily loves your cookies and sticky buns.”
Agatha winked. “I’ll give you a couple of extra sticky buns for her. No charge.”
Clara smiled back. “Thank you.” She handed Agatha the money.
“Do you have time to chat for a bit? I just made a pot of tea.”
Clara nodded. “That would be lovely, of course!”
Agatha flipped the lock on her front door and the two women walked to the back room where a small, wooden table sat in the corner next to a large wood-burning oven.
Agatha poured hot tea into two cups and placed a plate of gingerbread cookies on the table.
Clara removed her cloak and draped it on the back of her chair. She crunched into a cookie. “Mmm! I can’t get enough of your gingerbread cookies. And they go so well with tea.”
“Thank you. The recipe has been in my family for generations. If you want to bring Lily by next Monday, she can make a gingerbread house. I’ll have all of the ingredients ready for her to decorate it.”
“That would be wonderful. I know she’ll enjoy that, although I have to make sure she doesn’t eat all of the candy decorations before she can decorate the house.” Clara laughed.
Agatha chuckled and nodded. “I remember years ago the Peterson boy came to make a gingerbread house and he ate so many gumdrops he had a tummy ache. I had to run down to Albert and Betsy’s dry goods store to buy some more for the other children.”
Clara beamed with joy. “I think you and I have the best jobs in the world.”
Clara shrugged. “When people walk into our shops, they instantly smile and are filled with joy. The wonderful smells in your bakery transport people back to when their parents bought them the same gingerbread cookie for them when they were children. I have so many parents walk up to me and thank me for carrying the toys they grew up with.”
“I never thought of that.” Agatha nodded.
Clara leaned forward. “To be frank with you, I think half the time an adult comes in to buy a toy for their child, they’re actually buying it for themselves.” She giggled and looked at the clock. “Oh, dear. I should really get going. Besides, I don’t want you to have to stay too late to finish what you were doing.”
The two women stood up and hugged. Clara held Agatha’s hands in her own. “Please come over for dinner tomorrow. It will be nothing fancy. Most likely beef or chicken stew. I promised Maurice I would make it for him since he loves it so much.”
Agatha gave her a skeptical look. “Are you sure? I don’t want to impose on you.”
“Not at all. I only know how to make enough stew to feed a small army, so definitely do come.”
Clara’s friend nodded. “Okay. I’ll bring a nice, crusty bread for your stew.”
“Perfect. I will see you then.” Clara hugged her friend again before she grasped the twine that tied the boxes of pastries. “Thank you for the tea and cookies.”
“It was no trouble. Please give my love to Maurice and Lily.”
Clara stepped outside and the wind died down. It had started to snow and, in the short time she had been visiting with Agatha, had blanketed the surfaces enough that everything was white. The sounds around her seemed muffled from the snow. The only sound she heard was the crunch beneath her boots.
Just a couple of blocks from the store stood a large house. It still towered prominently with the pride and workmanship that money could afford. As Clara walked into the yard, only then did the painted lady show her age. Spots of faded and chipped paint along with unruly bushes and trees made it apparent the owner either did not have the time or money to give it the upkeep it deserved.
Clara kept walking down a snow-covered path along the property line to the vast back yard. Careful not to slip down the hill, she stepped inside of the small guest cottage and turned on the gas lights. The warmth from the wood-burning stove and roaring fire in the small fireplace felt good. She sighed. “God bless you, Maurice, for getting the place warm for me before I got home. I may be kicked out for not being able to pay for my rent, but at least I’ll be warm for another night.” She was greeted by a black and white cat, who rubbed up against her leg. “Hello, Nigel. I missed you, too.”
Without removing her cloak, she placed a small bundle of cash in a tin under her sink, then untied the bundle of cardboard boxes and peeked inside each. “Oh, Agatha, you shouldn’t have.” She rearranged the baked goods and tied up the larger box, kept the smaller box with a sticky bun and a few gingerbread cookies on her table then walked over to the main house with the larger box of pastries.
The door opened, to reveal an older gentleman beaming in delight. The crown of his head was bald, what gray hair he had left was neatly trimmed, and his face was one big smile. “Clara! Please come in from the cold.”
“I told you that vest would look good on you, Maurice!” Clara brushed an imaginary piece of lint from his shoulder.
“Do you like it with the red shirt? Maurice proudly showed off his wardrobe.
Clara nodded. “I love it.” She handed him the box of pastries. “I stopped by the bakery. I thought you and Lily would enjoy the sticky buns for breakfast tomorrow. Agatha threw in a few cookies too. She sends her love to you and Lily.”
Before Maurice could thank her, a small girl with brown pigtails and a pink dress ran up to Clara and squeezed her with the biggest hug the young child could muster. “Clara!”
Clara giggled. “Well, hello my little Lily pad.” She hugged the little girl back.
Lily leapt around Clara. “Ribbit! Ribbit! Ribbit!”
Clara laughed loudly. “Lily pads don’t ribbit. Frogs sit on lily pads and serenade each other with a ribbit.”
Lily spied the box. “Are those cookies?”
Clara nodded. “And sticky buns.”
Lily’s eyes became wide. “Can I have one now?”
Clara corrected the young girl. “It’s ‘please, may I have one now?’ And I think your grandfather wants you to eat your supper first.”
Lily tugged on Maurice’s trouser. “Can Miss Clara eat dinner with us? Please?”
Maurice shrugged. “It’s up to Clara. I have more than enough food for the three of us.”
Lily tugged at Clara’s hand. “Please, Clara?”
Clara nodded. “If I’m not imposing on your evening.”
“Oh, not at all.”
Clara affectionately looked at Lily. “Besides, how can I refuse that sweet face? Thank you.”
Maurice took Clara’s cloak. “It’s not much. Fried pork chops and baked beans. By the way, thank you for the bean recipe. Lily actually likes beans when I make them this way.”
“Isn’t it amazing what a little molasses and sugar do to the humble bean?” Clara remarked with a smile.
Maurice set another place setting at the table then disappeared into the kitchen. He returned, carrying a plate of pork chops and an earthen crock pot of beans to trivets on the table. Clara brought out a small serving bowl of mashed potatoes and gravy.
Maurice dished up the plates, then Clara automatically reached over and cut Lily’s pork chop into small, bite-sized pieces. “Maurice, the food looks and smells delicious.”
“Thank you,” he replied, taking a bite of pork chop. His brow furrowed though, as he pushed the beans around on his plate.
“Is everything okay, Maurice?” Clara observed his mood carefully.
“Hmm? Oh, yes.”
Lily ate a spoonful of beans, oblivious to any tension. “Do you miss your home, Clara?”
Clara was lost in thought, wondering what Maurice was worried about. When Lily tapped her on the shoulder, she was puzzled for a minute before she remembered what she was asked. “Oh, you mean Chicago? It’s not really my home anymore, not since my adoptive parents passed away, but sometimes I do miss it.”
“Do you plan on staying here, or will you be moving on like you originally planned?” Maurice asked, as he cut into his meat.
Clara was taken aback by the sudden way he asked the question. “Well, I, uh, haven’t decided. I do like it here. Everyone has been so nice, and I’ve made friends. But it will really depend on whether I will be able to support myself.”
“My tooth is loose.” Lily played with the tooth with her tongue. “I hope it falls out tonight.”
Clara leaned over and whispered, “The tooth fairy only comes to well-behaved children. You’d better finish your dinner and sit up straight.”
Lily did as she was told.
Clara glanced at Maurice. His worried look deepened. “Maurice, is everything okay?”
“Hmmm? Yes. Um, I’m fine.”
The evening passed with Lily telling Clara every detail of her day. Clara listened and nodded, but still, she wondered why Maurice was so somber and quiet.
After dinner, Clara helped Maurice with the dishes while Lily practiced her piano scales in the drawing room. The sound of the occasional wrong note made Clara smile. “I remember when I had to practice piano, and my scales sounded just like that.”
“But you eventually got better, didn’t you?”
Clara shook her head. “My scales always sounded rough, even after years of lessons. I just didn’t have my heart into it.”
Clara put a dish into the cupboard. “Thank you so much for dinner. I think your cooking has improved.”
“Thank you. You’ve helped me quite a bit.” He handed Clara another dish to dry.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I invited Agatha to dinner with us tomorrow.”
Maurice froze for a moment. “You did? Why did you go and do that?” He almost sounded angry.
“Did I do something wrong? I thought you were good friends with her.”
He grouched and mumbled. “Yes, we are. I just, well, it’s just I get a bit tongue-tied around her.” His face blushed.
“Don’t worry. Lily and I will do all the talking to fill any awkward silence.” She nudged him with her elbow.
Other than a huff, Maurice didn’t respond. He just kept washing the last of the dishes.
Clara looked toward the kitchen door and glanced at Lily struggling on the keyboard. “Have you heard anything from your son? The last I heard he was planning on visiting you and Lily around Thanksgiving.”
Maurice sighed. “Daniel makes a promise to visit every year around the holidays, but never shows up. Her face always lights up with anticipation, waiting to see her father, and then she cries when he doesn’t come. She should be enjoying Christmas. So I stopped telling Lily a couple of years ago since she seemed so heartbroken.”
Clara held his hand to offer him support. “I’m so sorry. I have a hard time understanding how he can be so cold and uncaring to his own child, no matter what.”
“It’s just a shame that he isn’t interested in getting to know his own child. Margaret died from complications giving birth to Lily, and he blames this poor child for ruining his life.” He shook his head. “After Margaret’s death, he was going to drop her off at an orphanage, but I told him I would take care of her.”
There was a pause in the conversation. She looked at Maurice. “You have been so quiet this evening. And for the past few months, you haven’t been your usual happy-go-lucky self. I know things aren’t easy because of your son. Is there anything I can do?”
He pursed his lips and took a deep breath as he dried his hands. “Clara, you have been through so much and had the courage to move away from what was so familiar to you to start a new life.”
“I don’t think I would have been able to do so without you. I’m forever grateful for your help.” Clara stacked the dish and dried another.
Lily bounded into the kitchen. “I’m done practicing!”
Clara watched as Maurice managed a smile. His face looked tired and beaten by time and circumstances.
“Young lady, I think it’s time for bed for you.” He stood up.
Lily ran to Clara. “Can Clara tuck me in?”
Clara winked. “How about I help you get ready for bed and we both tuck you in?”
Maurice nodded. “I’ll be up in a few minutes.”
Lily grabbed Clara’s hand and tugged. Clara looked at Maurice as she stumbled a few steps before she disappeared up the stairs. “I’ll make sure she washes behind her ears.”
After getting her washed up and changed, both Clara and Maurice tucked Lily in bed and then walked back downstairs.
“Clara, may I speak with you for a moment?”
“Sure.” She followed him back into the kitchen and sat down at a small table.
“I spent the day going over my finances, and I’m so sorry, but it’s just, well… I need to charge you more rent for the store next month.”
Clara’s heart fell. She tried not to show any emotion and just nodded an acknowledgment.
The elderly man continued, unable to look her at her. “I have tried to see if there was any other way to make up for the income, but there isn’t much I can do without losing this house. I had never expected to be raising my granddaughter on my own. I’m sorry. At least for now, I won’t raise your rent on the apartment. I hope you understand. It’s just business.” He handed her papers with the new rental amount. His eyes welled with tears.
“Thank you, Maurice. I understand. You have been so gracious. I can see from your expression how hard it was for you to tell me that.”
He held her hand. “You’re like the daughter I never had, and like a mother to my granddaughter. My hope is that your business will have picked up enough, especially during the holidays.”
“That is my hope as well. I suppose though, if I have to close the store, it will be a sign that I need to move on.” Clara bit her lip. She forced a smile on her face. “It will all work out, somehow. It’s getting late so I should get home. Thank you for a wonderful dinner. And don’t be late for dinner tomorrow.” She put her cloak on and hugged Maurice.
“Can I bring anything?”
Clara nodded. “Yes. Please bring yourself and Lily, and your appetites. See you tomorrow evening.”
“Good night, Clara.”
The snow had stopped, and the temperature was colder than earlier in the evening. Clara barely noticed though, as she was numb and in shock from the news. Once she entered the cottage and closed the door, she leaned her back against the wall, slumped down to the floor, and cried. She picked up Nigel and held him tight. “How am I going to make these payments? I’m barely able to make ends meet as it is.” She wrapped her arms tightly around herself and Nigel, and wept.
Daniel’s blue eyes stared at a small ceramic Christmas tree on the credenza. His square jaw clenched as he sighed. He muttered to himself. “Why does everything have to remind me of Christmas and Lily?”
“Daniel! Wake up. Did you hear our question?” His friend and coworker George snapped his fingers in front of his face.
Daniel snapped out of it. “I’m sorry. What were you asking?”
George laughed. “That must be some gal you were daydreaming about. I asked you if we should reroute the train tracks around the mountains instead of having to blast a tunnel into the hill, and if rerouting to follow the valley would a better solution?”
Daniel pulled out the geological survey map. “Unfortunately, this area is prone to flash flooding and the soil is unstable. It would be faster to build even though it would double the distance to the other side of the mountain range, but the tracks would have to be replaced or repaired after every rainstorm. That just isn’t cost-effective in the long run.”
George rolled up the blueprints and maps and handed them to an engineer. “Blast away it is.” As the other two men left the office, he slapped Daniel on the back. “Hey, friend. I’ve noticed you haven’t been completely focused on your work the past few weeks. Is everything okay?”
“Yes…actually, not really. My father is begging me to visit. I haven’t seen him or Lily since after she was born.” His face showed the pain of the memories that flooded his thoughts.
George shook his head. “I’m sorry about Margaret. I miss her too. I used to tease her and asked what on earth she was thinking about when she fell in love with you. But, no matter what, you can’t bring her back. And you can’t blame an innocent infant, your daughter, for her death.”
“Maggie would still be alive if she didn’t give birth to Lily.” Daniel knew it was wrong to say it, but it always popped out like an uninvited guest.
George patted his friend’s back as he shook his head. “A terrible loss, but you need to forgive and move on. Think about what Maggie would want. I don’t think she would want you to ignore your only child and the daughter you had with her. You have an opportunity to take time off to be with your family. Your work through the mountains can’t happen while the mountain passes are closed, and they won’t open up until spring. Doesn’t your father live in Colorado Springs? It isn’t far from us here in Denver. Spend some time with your family, before your father is gone and Lily gets much older. You’re missing out on her entire childhood, Daniel.”
With that parting remark, George left the office. Daniel leaned over the desk and stared at the small tree. A feeling of dread and resentment filled him as he tried to justify why he couldn’t go, but he didn’t have an excuse this time. The last thing he wanted to do was to face his young daughter.
Why can’t she just go away so I can forget about her?
His hands tightened into fists as he hung his head in resignation. It was no use. He could never forget about her.
A week later, Daniel stepped off the train in Colorado Springs. Smartly dressed, in a gray wool suit and matching vest, he even wore gloves and a black Stetson hat. He straightened his silk cravat and French sleeves under his jacket. It was late evening. Despite its small size, the town was bustling. Couples on holiday had arrived to spend time soaking in the therapeutic bath houses. The horseman of the private carriage loaded his luggage onto the back. Daniel looked around.
“Sir, are you expecting anyone?”
“No. No one is expecting me. I guess I just did it out of habit. I used to live here, but I haven’t been here in a few years.” Daniel climbed into the carriage.
The driver slowly made his way through the main street of town. Daniel glanced out the window and spied a toy store. “Driver, can you please stop? I want to pick up something for my daughter.”
The driver obliged and Daniel stepped out and headed into the store. The warm glow of the lamps made the store more charming than he imagined it would be.
He couldn’t help but notice a beautiful woman helping a couple make their selection. He slowly walked around the shelves and displays, never taking his eyes off of the salesclerk. He picked up a doll with a delicately painted porcelain face. He glanced around the shelf and noticed the stunning woman was no longer there. He took a step toward the counter.
“May I help you, sir?”
Daniel forgot to breathe. Her kind smile, soft voice, and pretty face left him dumbstruck. Her wavy, auburn hair was pulled back and braided in such a way as to frame her face. as its long, thick locks fell down her back past her shoulder, and her green eyes sparkled in the lamplight.
Clara tilted her head. “Sir, are you okay?”
“Hmmm? Oh, yes. Thank you. Actually, I’m in a bit of a quandary. I’m buying a gift for a young girl, but I don’t know what she likes.”
“The doll you are holding is one of our most popular ones. What color is the girl’s hair?”
Clara reached for a doll with brown hair and a blue dress. “Girls like their dolls to look like them.”
Daniel nodded. “Oh, yes. This one is pretty.”
“Is there anything else you would like?”
Daniel pursed his lips as he thought. “Maybe something else… like a keepsake? Perhaps a small box or piece of jewelry?”
Clara showed him a glass display case. “I just received a few music boxes from New York made by a wood carver who specializes in inlay. He does lovely work and most of what he makes are one-of-a-kind pieces. I wasn’t sure if they were going to get here before Christmas.”
Daniel looked in the case. “They are lovely. What about that one? Is that one for sale?” He pointed to a music box behind the counter, on the shelf.
Clara retrieved it. “Oh, this one is special. The mechanics inside play the entire song. And there is silver and ivory inlay on the cover. It’s quite expensive, which is why I keep it behind the counter. Of all of them, it’s my favorite. I love the song.” She opened it and the melodic sounds of the Christmas carol What Child is This? Began to play.
Daniel felt a sudden pain that resonated throughout his soul, as the song reminded him that he abandoned Lily. “May I ask why you like the song so much?”
“The song was one that my mother used to sing to me at bedtime around the holidays.”
“Of course. I see.”
“I hate to ask, but is that music box for sale?”
Clara took a deep breath. “As much as I would love to keep it, I need the sale more.” She wrote up the bill. “Let me wrap these for you.”
“Thank you.” Daniel pulled his billfold out and placed the money on the counter.
Clara placed the wrapped boxes into a bag. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you here before. Do you live here?”
“I used to, but after college, I got ma… well, I moved to Denver. I know this is very forward of me to ask, but may I ask you what your name is?”
“Clara. Clara Ashwood.”
“Hello, Miss Ashwood. My name is Daniel Miller.”
“Hello, Mr. Miller. I hope you have a nice visit while you are in town, and safe travels back.”
Daniel smiled. “I hope to see you again, Miss Ashwood. Have a good evening.”
“I hope so too. And thank you for your patronage.” Clara counted the money. “Wait! Mr. Miller, you gave me too much money.”
Daniel smiled at her warmly. “Yes, I know. I know that music box meant a lot to you, and I wanted to make sure you were compensated generously for giving it up to me. Merry Christmas.” He tipped his hat and walked out to his carriage.
Just a few blocks from the store, the carriage stopped in front of his father’s house. Daniel stared at the house and took a deep breath. “Here goes nothing.”
The driver walked his bags up to the doorway. He tipped the driver and hesitated when he held his hand up to knock on the door.
Daniel bit his lower lip and knocked.
When the door opened, he was greeted by his father, who looked as if he were about to cry. “Daniel? I can’t believe it’s finally you.” He hugged his son. And he hugged him back with everything he had.
Daniel held back the urge to cry. His father looked older and worn.
His father embraced his son’s arms with his hands. “I’m so glad to see you. Please, come in.” He helped his son with his bags.
Daniel fidgeted as he removed his gloves. He nervously looked around.
“If you’re looking for Lily, she went to bed already. You can see her first thing tomorrow.”
Daniel felt a bit of relief and relaxed and nodded. He was here to see her, but he was already overwhelmed, just seeing his father.
“Are you hungry? You’re probably tired from your trip.”
“I could use a bite, if it’s not too much trouble.”
Maurice smiled. “I was just about to raid the kitchen myself for snack.” He ushered his son into the kitchen. He uncovered a partially eaten pie, sliced a wedge and served it Daniel before he placed another slice onto a plate for himself. He poured milk into two glasses. The two men sat at the small table.
“You look good, son. How are things Denver? Have you met any women?” Maurice bit back a smile, knowing he was stirring the pot.
Daniel could feel the blush rising. “Dad! To answer your questions. Denver is just fine. And while yes, I have talked to a few ladies at parties and dinners, none of them suited me at all. Though, I did meet a nice lady in one of the shops here in town.” Daniel ate a forkful of pie and memories of his childhood flooded his mind. “Is this chess pie? I remember Mama used to make this for us. I didn’t know you could bake.”
“Me? Oh, no. I’m just good enough to make an edible dinner. Mrs. Flinch at the bakery made it. She stopped by at lunch to check on me and Lily, and dropped the pie off.”
“I don’t think anyone west of the Mississippi can make a chess pie as good as Agatha. I didn’t realize how much I missed her baked goods.”
Maurice wiped his mouth a cloth. “So Daniel, how long will you stay?”
“The Toymaker’s Christmas Dream” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
In the heart of Colorado Springs, Clara Ashwood stands as a beacon of joy and creativity, with her toy shop as a haven for the dreams of children. With her radiant smile and a heart as pure as the snow outside, she pours her soul into every toy she creates. But beneath her cheerful exterior lies a yearning for something more, a longing for a love that seems as elusive as the winter’s breeze…
Will the holiday season bring her true love, or will her heart remain as untouched as the pristine snow?
Then, into this wintry wonderland steps Daniel Miller, a man shadowed by a past steeped in sorrow. Haunted by the loss of his wife and the daughter he left behind, he returns to Colorado Springs, a place he vowed never to see again. His heart, frozen in grief, begins to thaw in the warmth of Clara’s presence.
Will his scars prevent him from seizing this unexpected chance at redemption?
As the festive season swirls around them, Clara and Daniel find their lives intertwining in the most unexpected of ways. Amidst the twinkling lights and festive cheer, a sinister plot brews, threatening not just Clara’s beloved shop but their burgeoning love. Will their newfound connection be strong enough to withstand the storm that looms ahead?
“The Toymaker’s Christmas Dream” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.