Waiting at the checkout counter at Extreme Toys, jam-packed with kids and parents with only two weeks left until Christmas, Christian Bradley smothered a grin while listening to a conversation between the two school-aged boys standing next to him. Both had their noses pressed to the glass of the video game display case.
“I want a Holo Game System so bad,” the blond boy in the raggedy jacket exclaimed.
“Me too,” his redheaded companion replied. “But it costs a thousand bucks, and my mom says I’ll have to wait until the price comes down. She said even Santa couldn’t afford to give them to all the kids who want them all over the world, so I shouldn’t even bother asking.”
The first boy’s head snapped around, eyes wide in horror. “You don’t still believe in Santa, do you, Judd? That’s for babies!”
The second boy looked more horrified than his friend when he realized what he’d said. “Heck, no! I stopped believing way back in second grade. I’m only telling you what my mom said.” With his face crimson red to match his hair, he added, “And don’t you go telling everybody I believe in Santa Claus, Marty Cress, or I’ll punch you.”
As if expecting to get hit right then, Marty leaned away. “I’m not saying anything, jeez!”
Both kids fell silent and turned back to the display case.
It took everything Christian had not to burst into laughter. He’d had a similar conversation with his best friend when he was their age. Not the part about Santa, but wanting something for Christmas they had no chance of getting. Back then, it wasn’t a just-released new technology 3D holographic gaming system, but a Sony PlayStation, the game Dragon Ball Z. And for him and Sam, they might as well have wished for the moon. Any gift beneath the tree on Christmas, let alone one with a $150 price tag, was a remote possibility for two poor boys from St. Andrews Children’s Home.
Sam’s mother had been doing time in Logan Correctional for cutting a john who refused to pay for services rendered. Christian’s dad had been serving twenty years in a Michigan prison for aggravated armed robbery. Products of a broken foster care system, both boys had been destined to follow similar criminal paths until Sister Anne at St. Andrews had saved them.
He took in the first boy’s scruffy clothes and the other’s dirty hair and had to wonder if they were like him and Sam had been.
“Jimmy Hastert in my class got the new system for his birthday,” Judd announced all of a sudden.
“‘Course he did,” Marty muttered. “He gets whatever he wants.”
“Yeah, he’s so lucky. His dad’s a rich brain surgeon or something.”
Judd stared at him with his mouth open a moment. “What?”
“Mom says he gives rich ladies who can afford it bigger boobs, and he’s rolling in it because of their narci… um, narcicis…” He shook his head when he couldn’t quite get the word out. “Aw, heck, I can’t remember the word she used. It was a big one. But it means all they think of is themselves and their looks, and their boobs.”
Both boys snickered, and Christian relaxed. If their classmates had parents who could afford $1000 game platforms, and if they attended school with doctors’ kids, they weren’t living on the streets. And both quoted their mothers’ chapter and verse, so they had at least one involved parent, which usually didn’t necessitate a stay at St. Andrews.
They appeared to be ten-year-old boys who didn’t like to wash—nothing uncommon there.
“You know something else?” Judd asked.
“Jimmy’s dad has one of those B-Tech Holo-watches, too. I saw him showing it off at the Christmas play. Swear to God, a 3D movie shot out his wrist two feet in the air. And it wasn’t fuzzy, but as clear as you standing right next to me.”
“Awesome,” Marty breathed.
“It was way cool, and the screen part was thinner than paper.”
“No way! I’ve seen ‘em on TV, and they’re thin like a credit card, not paper. The commercial even says so. You’re full of it, Judd.”
“Am not! I saw it with my own two eyes, which is better than TV. And they are too thinner than paper!”
“Credit card!” Marty argued.
“Paper,” Judd shot back, adding a shove for good measure.
“Aw, what do you know?” the blond grumbled, and giving as good as he got, pushed back.
“I know paper is thinner than plastic, numb nuts!”
With the argument having spiraled down into name calling, they began shoving harder. Judd sent his buddy into a customer waiting to pay, her arms loaded with toys. Christian moved closer, ready to break it up when the woman stepped in to handle it.
“You boys stop that fighting right now,” she scolded them sharply. They stopped instantly, probably responding to her ticked-off mom tone from daily experience. “Where is your mother?” she demanded impatiently while glancing around.
“Sorry, ma’am,” Marty muttered while shooting Judd a death glare. He also hissed a warning. “You’re gonna get us kicked out.”
“If we do, it’s all your fault.”
Christian struggled to contain his laughter. Best friends one minute, at each other’s throats and fighting like brothers the next, he and Sam had been exactly like them. They’d argued over everything, whether the sky was blue and the grass was green, like typical boys.
“Cut it out, you two.” Stew Morrison, the toy store manager, barked when he walked up to the counter. Marty and Judd stopped arguing and fell quiet, apparently recognizing the waning patience of a male authority figure. “Aren’t you with an adult?” he asked, glancing around like the woman had.
“Mom told me to hang out here while she shopped,” Judd admitted.
Stew grunted. “We’re too busy for horseplay. Go find her.”
“But she’s buying shoes!” he protested; a fate he thought worse than death considering the look of alarm on his face.
Marty whined his agreement. “Shoes are boring, mister. Your store is way better.”
“You got money to buy?” Stew inquired, his hands on his hips as he looked them over.
“No,” they grumbled.
“Then you get to argue paper or plastic out in the mall. It’s crowded enough in here for my paying customers without a ten-year-old wrestling match. Now scoot, or I’ll page her.”
The boys paled and scurried away, practically tripping over one another. The adults nearby chuckled, but every kid watching gave them a sympathetic look because they knew the worst thing to happen to a kid, the real fate worse than death, was having your mother paged to come get you for the entire mall to hear.
Stew, who’d been helping Christian with his order, slid his Amex Platinum card across the counter with the receipt. “You’re all set, Mr. Bradley. We’ll take care of everything else from here.”
“Is this all of it? Nothing on back order or out of stock?”
“You got my last Nerf Accustrike Alphahawk. The rest of your order was sent in early enough to fill every item on your list. You’re lucky. Some of those toys flew off the shelves this year.”
With a nod, he scanned the two-foot-long cash register tape. The ink was light and even if he strained, hard to read. “What about the blonde Baby Go Bye Bye?”
“We sold out yesterday, but we had yours on reserve. Along with a dozen Lego sets, ten Barbies with accessories, Play-Doh sets out the wazoo—which Sister Anne is going to kill you for. She complained last year it got stuck in the carpet. And there’s a boat load of action figures with villains for them to fight. Art sets, musical instruments—something else the nuns aren’t going to thank you for—and twenty glow-in-the-dark fidget spinners, the two packs, I could go on.”
“And the new B-Tech game systems?”
“You got two, and let me say, like everything your company comes out with, it’s awesome. I bought one for my kids after trying it out in the store.”
“Good to hear.” His response came out more dismissive than he intended, but the man was a talker, and he had to be somewhere else soon. Christian glanced at him when he remembered something else. “Does this include the items I emailed to you yesterday? They had two new arrivals. A brother and sister whose elderly grandmother passed. There were no other relatives, unfortunately.”
“At Christmas, geez, that’s rough.”
All forty-two kids at the St. Andrew’s Home for Children had suffered hardships, some sudden, others were born into it. None lived blessed lives. Saying they had it rough was a gross understatement. He knew it better than anyone, having grown up like them. Although he didn’t correct him; what was the point?
“And you made arrangements to have it gift wrapped and delivered by five o’clock on the twenty-third, as we agreed?”
“I called the manager at the card shop who runs the gift wrap counter. They hired extra holiday workers this year, and were glad to help. He has your credit card on file, and will take care of the delivery, as well.’’
He considered Stew’s amused, yet slightly irritated expression. He didn’t mean to grill the man, but had entrusted him with something important. Christian would be the one to get an earful from Sister Anne if it wasn’t right, or the order arrived late. And there was another reason, one more important than any other.
“Excuse me if I seem a bit obsessive. If this isn’t right, one of those kids will be mighty disappointed when Santa shows without a gift with his or her name on it.”
The annoyance left the manager’s face; he didn’t squirm, but it came close. “We triple checked it. I don’t want to be the guy who spoils Christmas for a kid who got dealt a crappy hand in life, believe me.”
Christian studied him carefully for another moment before he folded the receipt and slipped it inside his coat pocket. He also offered his hand. “Thank you for your assistance.”
“It’s very generous of you to do this every year. If I haven’t mentioned it before, I admire your dedication.”
It was throwing money at a problem, something he had plenty of, except his efforts weren’t nearly enough. Each year the list grew longer, and this year St. Andrew’s was seven kids over capacity. In addition to his volunteer work, his two hundred employees at his corporate headquarters pitched in. He required twenty hours of community service each year—paid by him, of course—and his foundation raised money for centers like St. Andrew’s and over a dozen other children’s charities in Chicago. He hoped his efforts made a difference, no matter how small.
Noticing the clock on the wall read 5:30, he cut the conversation off with an abrupt, “I’ve got to go.”
Stew glanced at the time too. “You better hurry. The line is probably down to the elevators by now. If you want, you can go out the back door. It connects to the service hall, which will save you time.” He locked the register and signaled to one of his cashiers to take over. “Follow me, and I’ll show you.”
It took a few minutes to get through the crowded aisles to the back of the store. If Stew was right, and the door opened onto the same hall where the employees’ locker rooms were located, it would save him ten minutes. Still plenty of time to get into costume and to his workshop.
For each of the past five years, Christian had played Santa six nights a week, at a mall near where he had grown up on the west side of Chicago, before St. Andrew’s. Not the best of neighborhoods, it was older, getting run down, and most of the residents were hard-working men and women trying to do well by their families, yet never seemed to get ahead. Crime was on the rise, but not like in the ghetto, although Humboldt Park and West Garfield were only a few blocks away.
Playing Santa gave him a chance to keep in touch with the needs of the community, and he enjoyed the kids, especially the little ones, so full of excitement this time of year. It was also a nice break from running his company, which was a challenge and something else he enjoyed, but could get stressful.
The only drawback—the hot suit, and the fake beard and wig. As he followed Stew, he started having second thoughts about adding more batting to his belly. But a precocious seven-year-old had commented Santa wasn’t as fat as she expected, and he was doing it for her, and all the others that waited in long lines to tell him their wishes. He’d covered by saying Mrs. Claus had him working out, which wasn’t far from the truth. He hit the gym three days a week and did crunches and pushups each morning, which kept him from acquiring Santa’s round shape because the rest of his time was usually spent in meetings or in front of a computer. And, with a hectic schedule it was easy to resort to a diet of fast food, which was available at nearly every corner or by delivery on speed dial, since he had no Mrs. Claus to look out for him.
Not because he didn’t want one, he just hadn’t met the right woman yet. He had a few requirements—someone who understood where he came from, shared his ambition, the love of children and family, and who shared an affinity for a snuggle on his lap, as well as an entirely different kind of lap time. This last condition was what had derailed most of his budding relationships. Growing up alone, without a home or anything to call his own had left him feeling powerless. As an adult, in his career and personal relationships, control was essential. He didn’t expect total power exchange, nor did he want it, but he insisted on being the dominant partner in and out of the bedroom.
When he’d shared his outdated beliefs with the few women he’d gotten close to, most were surprisingly okay with the bedroom activities. But the idea of any bleed over into real life, which included the possibility of a real punishment, was met with a slap on one occasion, being stormed out on most times, and being called a few choice names every time. It would take a rare woman, with an open mind and a need to submit as strongly as he needed to dominate, for him to be happy.
As Stew opened the door to the service hall and held it for him, Christian paused to say thanks, but barking stopped him mid-sentence. Both men turned to locate the source. At the far end of the long corridor, near the doors to the mall, cages sat stacked end to end, and three high. He didn’t notice whether they contained dogs, cats, or mountain lions because his eyes fixated on the curvy backside of the woman bent over peering into one on the bottom row. She was wearing a snug pair of jeans that molded to her round ass like they’d been painted on. He willed himself not to react, but failed, getting rock hard in an instant.
“Good thing you’re not in costume yet. Folks would talk if they saw Santa checking out the wrapping girl’s killer ass.”
“You know her?” he asked, ignoring everything other than the fact he knew the owner of the incredible rear end.
“That’s Holly Carpenter, one of the seasonal workers hired for the gift wrap counter. She’ll have her fingers all over the gifts you bought the kids at St. Andrews.”
He heard the rest from a distance, drawn like a moth to a flame to Miss Carpenter. Damn, he hoped she was a miss.
He stopped at the edge of the cages, close enough to hear what she was saying.
“Who’s a pretty boy? Yes, you are.”
The allure of her soft, lilting voice made the stiffness pushing against his zipper worse. Moving closer, he squatted next to her and peered into the cage. His position served dual purposes, hiding his rather obvious swelling problem, and sharing a common interest while getting an introduction.
She threw him a sidelong glance. “Are you with the shelter?”
“Pardon?” he asked, startled by her brilliant blue eyes.
“The no-kill shelter.” She waved her hand at the signs on a few of the empty cages. “I’ve been talking to this lonely guy, and waiting for someone to come for ten minutes. I wanted to ask about him.”
“I’m not, sorry.” He glanced at the plastic pocket on the outside of the cage. “From the long ears and wavy fur, he looks like a cocker spaniel mix.”
“I think so too.”
“You’re interested in adopting?”
“I’d love to, except the apartment I’m in now doesn’t allow pets. I was hoping the shelter could hold him a few weeks until I find a new place.”
“You’d move to take him on?”
Quick and engaging, her smile contained a hint of shyness. “I love dogs, but not so much I’d move solely to have one. My lease is up for renewal, and the new property owners raised the rent more than I can afford. I’ve been searching for a new place. Now, instead of apartments, I’m thinking about a renting a house with a big fenced-in back yard.” Dropping onto all fours, she leaned forward, lifting a hand to the wire cage. While she got a sniff and a lick from the excited dog, Christian’s attention shifted to the back of her jeans. Everything about Holly attracted him, but her curvy round ass surpassed all expectations.
He cleared his throat. “Maybe you could leave a note with your name and number, or check back on your break. I saw a sign at the main entrance; they’re here all week.”
Sitting back on her heels, she watched the squirming bundle of fur in the cage. It gave him a moment to take in her long blonde hair falling in soft waves down her back, her flawless, creamy complexion, and sweetly curved lips shimmering with gloss in a bubblegum pink—beautiful. He almost told her so, but she popped to her feet.
“Great idea.” With her head bent, she dug through the small bag hanging from her shoulder. From his vantage point, still squatting, he noticed a hint of color suffusing her cheeks that hadn’t been there before. Her eyes shifted to his briefly, before darting away when she saw him watching. He grinned, unable to help it. She was cute, sexy, and shy, rolled into one delightful package.
He stood, angling his body to conceal his visceral reaction to being near her, and found himself staring at the top of her head. Compared to his six-foot-three-inch frame, she was petite, barely reaching his chin. She would tuck perfectly into the circle of his arms, her softness in front or back cushioning the hardness of his body. His erotic thoughts did nothing to lessen his painful erection.
When she extracted a pen and crumpled piece of paper, he watched as she scribbled a note, catching her bottom lip between her straight white teeth as she concentrated. Once done, she tucked the folded note into the empty description card holder on the spaniel’s cage, having to bend over to do so. By force of sheer will, he kept his eyes from migrating to her gorgeous ass.
Seemingly oblivious to his internal struggle, she turned to him with a captivating albeit timid smile. “Hopefully, I’ll get a call. Gotta run or I’ll be late!”
She hurried down the hall, her mass of blonde hair swirling around her shoulders. At the door, she gave him a little wave and called to him once more, “Thanks for the idea.” Leaving the whimpering puppy behind, she disappeared into the crowded mall.
Christian inhaled deeply and slowly blew it out. Glancing at the disappointed animal, he muttered, “I feel your pain, buddy. Maybe if we’re good, Santa will bring us both Holly Carpenter for Christmas.” And damned if he wasn’t going to do everything in his power—with or without pull from the North Pole—to make his wish a reality.
Assuring the hall was empty, he shifted his hard-on to a more comfortable position. He strode stiffly to the double doors labeled employees only. Thanks to the lovely Miss Carpenter’s fascination with an adorable brown and white spaniel pup, and his weakness for a beautiful blonde with bubblegum lips, he was going to be late for his own job.
“Aren’t you done yet?”
Recognizing the surly tone, Holly didn’t look up from the gift she was wrapping. “Only another minute. What kind of bow would you like?”
“You’re working on my package?”
Her hands paused on the large hexagonal box that had taken at least four full sheets of wrapping to cover. There was no mistaking it was the same one the ill-tempered woman had slammed on her counter ten minutes ago, wrapped or not.
“Uh, yes. I’m almost finished, now about the bow…”
“That cannot be my package. If it is, you’re as stupid as your bleached blonde hair makes you look. I wanted candy canes, not candy stripes.”
She bristled at the insult, mainly because it was incredibly rude, and because never in twenty-five years had a drop of bleach touched her hair. The nerve of the woman! It took every ounce of control she possessed—which wasn’t much during the height of the Christmas shopping season—not to tell her where she could shove her huge, oddly shaped, nearly impossible to wrap package. Instead, she took a deep breath and urged herself to remain calm.
When she turned to face the sneering older woman, she struggled to hold back a flinch. Not pretty the first time she’d seen her, with her mouth twisted in anger and her forehead creased like a pair of pants left in a drier for days, she looked downright scary. Her eyes had gone all squinty thanks to the tight knot she’d twisted her jet-black hair into. It did nothing to soften her already harsh features. Put her in a shirtwaist dress buttoned to her pointy chin, slap a flat wide-brimmed hat on her head with a big ugly flower in front, and she was Almira Gulch, the bicycle-riding old biddy from The Wizard of Oz, reincarnated.
Continuing her rant, the woman flung her hand toward the rack of paper. “I requested the cute wrap with the candy canes and gingerbread men, not this hideous red and white zebra-looking crap which is enough to give any normal person seizures.”
After wrapping for four hours nonstop, Holly’s feet ached, her lower back screamed in agony, and her bitch tolerance had evaporated. She didn’t need this grief, but she did need the money. And like any service worker who wanted to keep their job, she bit her tongue in the face of an unreasonable patron and tried to remedy the error, taking the blame herself.
“My mistake, ma’am.” It so wasn’t. “I’ll do it over, right away.”
“See that you do, and hurry,” the pinch-faced biddy declared snidely. “I don’t have all day.”
While tearing open the package that had taken her at least fifteen minutes to wrap, she questioned for the hundredth time what she’d been thinking taking a seasonal job at the Westland Center during the holidays. She’d known it would be this way. Wrapping came last, which meant shoppers arrived at her counter tired, irritable, and anxious to go home, and she got the brunt of their misery. Occasionally someone was polite and used please or thank you. And once in a while she got a dollar in her tip jar. Mostly, her customers were grumpy, although no one had come close to Miss Gulch.
Trying to ignore her venom, she cut several sheets of the candy cane/gingerbread style paper, which Holly thought entirely too busy, much more so than the candy stripe, but whatever, and started over.
While painstakingly closing one end of the awkward box for the second time, the phone rang. She raised her finger in the woman’s direction and answered it.
“I can’t make it tonight.”
No greeting, no exchange of pleasantries, nothing. Typical Derek. As was cancelling at the last minute. She’d RSVP’d for two to her neighbor’s weeks ago. Now on top of arriving at the tail end of the party, she’d be doing it less a plus one.
“Did something come up at work?”
“Thus the reason I can’t make it.”
On top of what she was dealing with already, she didn’t need Derek’s rudeness.
“Too bad, the Wyndcrofts’ parties are always a lot of fun. Listen, I need to get back to work.”
“Wait. We’re still on for Wednesday, right?”
“You mean your office party?” Why did she bother with this asshole? He treated her like crap, never did anything she wanted to do, and got ticked off if she tried to get out of one of his social events that revolved around his job. Derek was a CPA at a firm specializing in forensic accounting. He and his colleagues might get off on yammering about insurance fraud and dirty claims for hours, but Holly found it incredibly boring. She tried to take an interest because she was with him, had gone so far as attending a conference with him in Florida a few months back thinking to get some serious beach time in before the fall term began. Except he’d dragged her to dry lectures and cocktail parties with dull people she didn’t know. Ugh, what a snooze fest!
All in all, Derek Jones was about as exciting as getting underwear for Christmas. The cotton kind, plain, no lace or design, uninteresting, and utterly boring.
She needed to break it off with him. It’s not like they were in love, or even in lust. Far from it. He’d never tried to get past first base, and after she’d discovered what a bad kisser he was, she hadn’t wanted him to. He kept his mouth closed, and he pressed too hard, smashing her lips against her teeth, which hurt.
When he’d asked her out, she’d agreed because Derek was a friend of a friend. Passably cute, his personality was sadly lacking, making him a five at best. Granted, she was no supermodel; still, people called her pretty. And, although she wasn’t wildly extroverted, others seemed to enjoy her company. Maybe she’d rate a seven, overall, on a good day.
There was a lot about herself she’d change if she could. Her hair that wouldn’t hold curl, and with humidity—something Chicago had in abundance during the summer—turned into frizz bomb city! She had a decent body, with a C cup, narrow waist, and shapely hips, but no matter how many miles she put in on the treadmill, her booty wouldn’t go away. Most men considered tits and ass an asset, but not Derek. He didn’t find much about women to his liking as far as she could tell.
Lately, she’d been questioning if he was gay. He sure liked hanging out with his guy friends, and for a twenty-something male seemed to have no interest in sex, at least not with her. She’d been kicking around the idea he was using her to make him appear straight, someone to show off at social events and work functions. There was a term for it. She tried to remember…
A beard! That was it. Perhaps she was Derek’s beard.
“I don’t think I can make it on Wednesday. Maybe this weekend we can get coffee and talk.”
“Miss!” The woman’s shrill voice made her jump, and she almost lost the phone.
When Holly glanced her way, she was scowling. “Are you getting paid to wrap presents or talk on the phone? Where is your manager? This is unacceptable.”
“Derek, I’m sorry. I’ve got a situation. I’ll call you.”
“Don’t bother,” he snapped. “We both know this isn’t working.”
The line went dead. No goodbye, have a nice life, or even an angry ‘kiss my ass’—he’d broken it off and hung up on her. Of all the nerve.
She wanted to slam the receiver, not because she was upset over it ending, but from the rudeness surrounding her. Didn’t people have manners anymore or a little common decency?
Gritting her teeth, she finished the job, doing the best she could. After slapping a white bow on top, she carried it to the woman with the basket of cards.
“Your total is twelve dollars. The cards are free. Pick one and write whatever you like.”
The woman gaped at her. “This looks like a five-year-old wrapped it with her feet, or a monkey.” She eyed her. “Since you don’t look five, you must be the latter.”
Fed up with her crap, Holly snapped, “If you can do better, go for it! No, better yet, just go. You are impossible to satisfy, and this box is impossible to wrap.”
“I never!” the woman sputtered.
“Apparently,” she shot back. “If you had, maybe you wouldn’t be such a raging bi—”
“Is there a problem here?”
She cringed, seeing her boss at the end of the counter.
“This woman is incredibly rude,” Miss Gulch told him.
Holly crossed her arms. If that wasn’t ironic, like a Dalmatian calling a leopard spotty, she didn’t know what was.
“I want to see the manager.”
“That would be me,” he informed her.
“She should be fired,” the woman demanded, loud enough to draw curious stares. “Not only for being incompetent but for calling me a raging bitch.”
“I didn’t say it. I swear, Mr. Barnes.” It wasn’t a lie, not entirely. If he’d arrived a nanosecond later, then yes. Giving him a pleading look, she desperately hoped he would recognize the woman for the witch she was, and not do as she suggested.
“It’s all right, Holly,” he assured her. “I’ll deal with this. Why don’t you take your break now.”
Close to tears over letting the hateful woman push her buttons more than anything, she bent to get her purse from the drawer where she’d stashed it. Her gaze fell on the stainless-steel scissors on the counter. A vision of her spinning and hurling the gleaming blades like a ninja star popped into her head.
She blinked, trying to rid herself of the violent image. Yet the notion of the woman keeling over dead and sparing every other potentially abused clerk or service worker she might encounter this holiday season was too darn satisfying. It would be her gift to the mall, and very likely the entire Chicago area.
Holly quietly huffed a humorless laugh. So much for peace on earth and good will toward men. Without looking at the wicked witch, she opened the half-hinged door, and with purse in hand and a bloodthirsty revenge fantasy whirling in her head, moved out from behind the counter, possibly for the last time.
“You can’t let them get to you.”
She skidded to a halt; Santa Claus from across the pod stood in front of her. They’d spoken several times, mostly friendly banter. There was something oddly familiar about him. Of course, it was the red suit and curly white beard, but also something more. She peered closer, though she couldn’t get a hint of the man beneath all the hair; his costume fit perfectly, one of the best she’d ever seen.
“I beg your pardon? Did you say something?”
He wasn’t looking at her. Instead, he was watching her boss trying to placate the customer. Great. He’d witnessed the incident too.
When she started to move past him, he shifted into her path.
“You can’t let the customers get under your skin. Kill ‘em with kindness, I always say.”
She almost choked. Had he known what she was thinking?
His mouth twitched with amusement. “You have a very expressive face,” he explained with a shrug of his broad, red velvet-covered shoulders, and without her even asking.
She eyed him suspiciously, before dismissing her crazy notion. Neither Santa nor the man in the suit had mind-reading capabilities. “Tell me more about this kindness strategy you have. Are you talking from experience? I wouldn’t expect Santa Claus to have disgruntled customers.”
“You’d be surprised.” His beleaguered sigh spoke more loudly than words ever could. “Mostly it’s the parents, but I don’t dress like this for them. It’s to give their kids a bit of Christmas joy, so that’s where I focus.”
She nodded, still finding it odd to be standing there talking to Santa.
He tilted his head and smiled down at her. This particular Saint Nick was tall, well over six feet, and his grin revealed straight white teeth through the coils of snowy curls.
“I’m glad you decided not to.”
“Not to what?”
“Do what you wanted to do with those scissors.”
She gasped. “I don’t know what you mean. I didn’t…”
“No, although you thought about it.”
Not the bowlful of jelly belly kind he was known for, his laugh was a rumbling, sexy sound. The idea stunned her. Santa, sexy? Ew!
“Remember,” he continued, as he propped an elbow on the counter, “those on the naughty list get coal in their stocking. Especially bad girls who contemplate homicide, even when it’s justifiable. They deserve to be punished with something other than coal, don’t you think?”
As Holly wondered what he meant, her gaze dropped, and she noticed his hand next to hers. Rather than wearing his usual gloves, his hand was bare. He had long fingers and neatly trimmed nails, and the veins were corded, giving the appearance of strength. It wasn’t an old white-haired man’s hand at all, and big enough to cover both her cheeks in a single swat.
She jerked, appalled where her kinky mind had taken her. Now she was thinking about Santa spanking her. Holy Christmas! She liked a racy romance, when she found time in between studying and papers: spanking, alpha males, a good BDSM club story, and ménage, the naughtier the better, but picturing Santa Claus smacking her backside was all kinds of wrong. She was overtired; the fourteen-hour days must be getting to her.
“Well, I should be getting back.” He tapped the counter twice. “Enjoy your break, Holly.”
“Wait,” she said, while squinting at him and ducking a bit, trying to see under his glasses. “How do you know my name? Do I know you?”
“You’re wearing a name tag, sweetheart.”
Her hand flew to the brass pin, and her face flooded with heat. “Right, how silly of me.”
“Enjoy your break. I’m sure when you get back, the nasty woman will be gone. Remember my advice when you get another Scrooge-like customer.”
She wrinkled her nose as she guessed, “Kill ‘em with kindness?”
“Yes. The effort is minimal, usually gets them out of your face quicker, and won’t earn you a stint in the state pen doing hard time, like using scissors will.”
She gasped. He did know what she had been thinking!
He tipped his head to the red velvet throne and the mile-long line of excited kids waiting for him across the pod. “I should get back. After I hear the kids Christmas wishes, I need to work on my naughty and nice list. Think about which one you should be on, Holly.”
With a wink of his eye and a twist of his head, he strode off. He did so with long, energetic, confident strides, not those of an overweight senior citizen. And he let out a big booming “Ho Ho Ho.” The sound carried and the kids cheered excitedly, while she headed off in the other direction contemplating the strange encounter.