Hailey has always wanted to keep believing in magic, but her world feels extremely ordinary. What magic exists for a too snarky, mousy-haired, accountant in training to find? Except there’s a unicorn playing in the park.
Lizzie just wanted a moment to relax. The falling snow lured her into the dark playground where she was sure no one would see her. Except someone does, and that someone is wonderful and perfect.
Lizzie’s worlds collide when she finds her pretty stranger in a campus coffee shop. Can she set aside her ingrained caution long enough to let Hailey in? And can Hailey convince Lizzie that she’s ready to keep Lizzie, magical complications and all?
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My feet stuttered to a stop on the sidewalk and I stared with wide eyes into the snow-covered park.
I squeezed my eyes shut for a second and then blinked them open again.
Nope, it was still there.
I tugged my stretchy gray glove down to bare the back of my wrist and pinched a bit of skin between my teeth for a second. I dropped my hand and waited to wake up for what seemed like an appropriate amount of time—though really, how would I know?
But I waited, and when I decided to be done waiting, it was still there.
There was probably a unicorn in the park. There was a unicorn in the park, and it was playing in the snow like a puppy. Or like a foal, I guess.
Or I was hallucinating. It was ten o’clock on Thursday of finals week, and I had drunk enough coffee today to sustain a national guard platoon, so that was totally possible.
But a tiny little part of me—the part of me that was still a little girl who wanted to believe in magic that I was trying desperately to hold onto—really wanted to believe that unicorns were real and there was one right in front of me.
But that was impossible, right? I was definitely hallucinating after spending too much time staring at my laptop screen while drinking too many caramel mochas.
Then the unicorn started playing in the deeper snow that had drifted into the dips under the swing set—so cute—and got its horn stuck in one of the chains. At that point, I decided that this was way too ridiculous to be a hallucination.
I slapped my gloved hand over my mouth to stifle my slightly hysterical giggle. Stuff like this just didn’t happen to me. I was the one who stubbornly believed in magic even though absolutely nothing even remotely magical ever happened in my life. I was going to college to become a small business accountant for fuck’s sake; it didn’t get much less magical than that. Well, unless you were a small business owner that needed an accountant, I guess, but still. Mousy-haired, brown-eyed, too-skinny-to-be-fashionably-slender, accountants in training did not see unicorns in the park.
The unicorn made a small sound of distress and jerked its head, its horn pulling roughly at the chain it was stuck in. The rough clinking sound jolted me out of my frozen disbelief, and I dropped my hand.
I gnawed on my lip anxiously as I watched the unicorn tug futilely against the chains. When a particularly hard tug sent it spinning around in a prancing circle to keep its balance and it managed to get the entire swing—hard rubber seat and all—wrapped around its head, I frowned and stepped off the sidewalk.
There was no way I could leave it like that, potential hallucination or not.
I walked as quietly as I could, not wanting to startle the poor thing. The going was a bit difficult, what with it being well after dark and the streetlights along the sidewalk being the only light nearby. While the ugly pole lights easily provided enough light to see into the park, they didn’t quite provide enough light to walk competently though drifted snow over slightly uneven ground. I did not, however, fall before I reached the swing set, so I was calling the journey a win.
The unicorn was distracted enough that it didn’t see me until I stumbled over the little log that surrounded the swing set’s base. I didn’t know how it managed to be oblivious until then because my winter coat was loud, and my breathing was loud, I had sworn a few times, my footsteps were clumsy and loud, and my messenger bag rubbed—loudly—against my butt. I was just, in general, loud. Maybe the noise from the swing’s chains blocked out everything else? It was probably overwhelming, all around its head like that.
Whatever the reason, I stepped over the little log undetected, but the crunch of snow under my next step had the unicorn freezing in place.
I paused, eyeing that big body and pointy horn warily. I took another cautious step forward, hesitating again when the unicorn turned its head to see me better.
“Gooood, hor—goooood unicorny,” I singsonged quietly as I moved forward slowly. “I’m just going to get the yucky chains off your head. Please don’t stab me.”
It snorted. If it were human, I would have said the sound was amused.
Standing in front of the pretty supernatural creature now, I reached up and tentatively patted its nose. The unicorn bumped its nose into my palm and wiggled its lips against my glove. I wasn’t hugely familiar with horses—or horse-type creatures—but I was taking the lack of biting as a good sign.
“Alright, so we just have to get the swing off your head, and then we can pull the chain off your horn. Okay?”
It stamped at the ground at couple times and lowered its head. It didn’t have to lower its head too far. It seemed sort of small for a horse? It was dainty and pretty and its shoulders—withers?—only reached my chest. I was somewhat less than average height for a woman—okay, fine, I was short—so that seemed way smaller than any pictures of horses I’d ever seen.
Whatever. It wasn’t actually a horse, was it? So it didn’t matter what sizes horses usually came in. And its short stature made this easier, so yay.
I grabbed the black rubber seat of the swing and lifted it off the unicorn’s forehead, twisting it around and trying to figure out where all the chains led. “You’re just lucky that the only bus I can catch this time of night drops me off on the other side of the park,” I chattered, starting to sort through the mess. This was worse than untangling a necklace you’d forgotten in the bottom of your purse for a week. “My normal bus home stops at the other end of the block, and you’d have been stuck here until the mom squad showed up in the morning. And then you would have made the paper for sure. ‘Unicorn found trapped in swing set in eastside park. Are other supernatural creatures real? Results of scientific testing available next week.'” I yanked and grunted a little. “Dumbass pretty unicorn.”
The unicorn blew raspberries at me, shaking its head a little and seeming indignant.
The last tangle of chain came free with a jangling, clinking racket. I draped the ugly seat over my shoulder to keep the chains slack and eyed the link stuck on the horn. The horn was pointy—very pointy—at the tip but widened quickly, so the chain was caught pretty close to the end.
I took off my gloves and stuffed them in my coat pocket. It was cold as fuck out, and the chains were cold even through my gloves, but I sort of wanted to minimize the chances of my hands slipping and getting skewered by a unicorn horn. Though that would be a fun story to tell in the ER if I wanted to make them test me for all the drugs.
I planted my hands on my hips, which probably looked ridiculous with the swing still draped over my shoulder and my puffy winter coat, and I stared down the fidgeting unicorn. “Okay,” I said sternly. “You lower your head again, I’ll grab the chain, and then we both pull. You will not accidentally skewer me.”
The unicorn made a quiet sound very similar to—but not quite the same as—a neigh. It lowered its head and rearranged its feet, obviously getting ready.
I blinked. “Okay then.”
Choosing not to dwell on the fact that the mythological creature in the park apparently understood English, I wrapped my hands around the swing chain on either side of the unicorn’s horn. Oh shit, that’s cold! Coldcoldcold ow.
“On three,” I hissed out, attempting to ignore the biting cold attacking my fingers.
The unicorn braced its feet and leaned back a little. It looked like a cartoon character.
I giggled quietly, earning myself an annoyed snort, which only made me giggle again. I cleared my throat, reminding myself that if we didn’t get this done, my fingers were going to freeze and fall off.
“Okay,” I said seriously. “One, two, three!”
I pulled as hard as I could. The unicorn skittered backward in the snow, feet slipping and neck stretching. When the chain didn’t move, I snarled a little. I repositioned my aching fingers, then gave the chain a sort of twist and yank. There was a sound reminiscent of nails on a chalkboard but worse, and then the chain came free. The unicorn and I both stumbled back, nearly falling on our asses.
We both took a moment to get our feet to stop sliding around in the snow, then eyed each other speculatively.
I held my hand out, palm up in the traditional horse pose I’d seen modelled in a million horse-girl movies. “So, I don’t suppose…”
Please, PLEASE let me pet you again, pretty mythological creature.
It blew air at me with a little pbbt sound and stuffed its nose into my palm. I giggled. I was petting a unicorn! The soft hairs on its chin were tickling my palm, and its breath was warm on my skin.
This was the best day ever. Best. Day.
I smoothed my hands over its nose and up its cheeks, then gave an experimental forehead scratch. I wound up with a horse’s head stuffed into my chest and a unicorn horn sticking over my shoulder. This could not be real.
Except it was.
I buried one hand in its mane and stroked its cheek. “You are so pretty,” I told it seriously. “And soft. How are you so soft? Horses aren’t soft. They’re kind of bristly and smooth. You’re soft, though. Even your mane. It’s all silky. So pretty. Such a pretty… Hmm…”
I stepped sideways and bent at the waist, quickly peering under the unicorn’s belly. Straightening, I cooed, “Such a pretty lady.”
She shoved me and made an annoyed wicker.
“What, you’d rather be a pretty thing?”
That got me another shove, though it was gentler this time.
“Well, I know it was probably rude to check, but it’s not like I could ask you. Neigh once for girl, twice for boy.”
She neighed once.
“Oh,” I said, slightly chagrinned. “Sorry. How about I keep telling you how lovely you are, and we move on?”
The unicorn backed up a step and turned—pranced, really—in a slow circle, preening a little.
She really was pretty. She was this soft sort of shimmering white color, except her mane and tail; those were filled with shimmery pale grays and silvers. A bit of a pale gray stripe started at the end of her mane and went maybe a foot down her back. There was gray near her hooves too, where the hair was a little longer.
Her body was mostly horse-shaped, but she looked delicate. Not fragile, just dainty. Smaller than the average horse, like I’d noticed before. Her horn was pretty, textured in a spiral pattern like you always saw in drawings but not as long as I’d have thought. It did look sharp, though.
Done with her turn, she came back and shoved into me again, pressing her head into my shoulder.
And that was when I realized that the absolute prettiest thing about her was her eyes. They were slightly strange looking to me because they were horse’s eyes—well, I assumed they were like a horse’s eyes; how would I know?—but they weren’t brown. They were pale, pale gray, almost silver, with a spikey blue ring around the pupil. “Wow,” I whispered.
She nudged me with her nose, clearly wanting more pets and scratches. I obliged, cooing over her all the while and meaning every awestruck, besotted word. “Such a beautiful lady. So pretty. All shimmery and soft. And smart.”
The sound of a car door slamming somewhere nearby made us both jolt. We turned to look down the street warily.
I sighed. “You should probably go. It’s late and cold, but people are still out, you silly beast. I don’t want you to get caught.”
She stamped a foot and leaned hard into me, her shoulder and leg pressing into my side. If she were human, she’d be pouting.
“Nope. You need to stay safe, pretty lady. Off you go.” I stroked her neck, then shoved her a little. “Scram.”
She pranced backwards a little, blew warm air in my face, then turned and headed for the trees. Her dainty, high-stepping prance made me grin. I watched until she disappeared into the shadows, then I stood and watched the woods kind of wistfully.
Eventually, a car drove by, and the sound drew me out of my daze. I pulled my gloves out of my pockets and tugged them on as I slipped and stomped my way through the snow, back to the sidewalk. I grinned back at the park one last time before I headed home.
A short bark of laughter popped out of my mouth before I could stifle it. Unicorns. In the park. Playing in the snow.
Best. Day. Ever.
Aunt Meredith was going to kill me. She was going to murder me dead.
What had I been thinking? Playing in the snow in the park like a youngling with no sense.
And oh, that had been just absolutely mortifying. Having to be rescued by the prettiest girl I’d ever seen because I’d gotten my horn stuck in a swing set. Aunt Meredith wouldn’t have to kill me. I was going to perish of embarrassment just as soon as I got my clothes back on. Fairies, it’s cold.
I winced, remembering how cold the pretty woman’s fingers had been when she petted me. I really hoped we hadn’t damaged her.
Shivering, I buttoned my jeans while I tried to wiggle my feet into my tennis shoes. Why had I decided a few minutes of freezing my butt off before and after shifting were worth it for a chance to play in the snow in my unicorn shape? If I had been sensible about the temperature, I wouldn’t have gotten myself into this mess.
But if I hadn’t shifted and gotten—oh, fairies—stuck, then I wouldn’t have been petted by the pretty girl. I had liked being petted by the pretty girl.
Most people didn’t bother to pet me when I was shifted. They were much too busy shifting themselves or going about their own business to stop and give me forehead scratches. Well, Aunt Meredith did sometimes. But Aunt Meredith didn’t tell me I was a beautiful lady while looking at me with big, awestruck brown eyes with tiny, sparkling ice shards on their lashes.
Sighing, I shoved my hat down over my tangled silver-blond hair, pulled on my gloves, and picked my way out of the trees. Aunt Meredith, I reminded myself. I was in so much trouble. I did not have time to moon over pretty girls who may or may not live nearby.