Holly’s father is quitting the business. The problem is – he’s Santa Claus.
The only way to get her father back to work is to accept his challenge to get just one person to realize the true meaning of the season. Another problem - he gets to pick that person. He chooses Michael Sutton, hard-nosed and hard-hearted Vice President of Property Management at the local mall.
Holly races the clock to prove to Michael that Christmas is more than just the latest video game and begins to find cracks in the wall he’s placed around his heart. As the days count down to Christmas Eve, she discovers a heartrending holiday secret that just might cause her to not only lose the challenge, but also her own heart as well.
Hollaway, New Hampshire Fall 1980
Nine year-old Mikey Sutton stopped running only long enough to look for the baseball cap that had fallen from his head. He turned in small circles, his brown eyes scanning the area until he saw the flash of red peeking out from between a break in the brush. Scoping it up with one hand, he restarted his mad dash toward his house. In a few hours the World Series would begin and his mom said he could watch it until bedtime if he finished his homework.
Some members of the small New England town’s Little League Teams traditionally gathered at the ball field in the morning before school to talk about the previous night’s game. Mikey loved baseball, but wasn’t very good at it. However, he was good at talking. Maybe he could talk himself into an invitation to try out for one of the teams for next season. Sure, he could just show up at the field in the spring and get in line, but with an invitation he just knew he’d make it.
He started up the front steps of the small white colonial style house in which he lived with his mother and sister. He had just put his hand on the aluminum handle of the old storm door when his foot slipped off the edge of the concrete steps. Still hanging onto the handle, he jerked backwards, his knee slamming into the edge of the brick border. He let go of the handle and fell sidelong into the flowerbed landing in a mixture of mulch and weeds just as the door caught the mailbox. He felt a sick feeling in his stomach when the screen tore.
Righting himself, he winced when he looked down and saw a tear in the patch his mother put on the knee of his blue jeans. She’d put it on to hide the first rip he’d put there sliding into third base playing stickball down the block. He bent over and stuck a finger into the hole, feeling the warm sticky feel of blood.
He looked up just as his mother came to the door. “Michael James Sutton, I should have know you were at the root of all the noise out here.” She had on her coat and hat.
“Are we going somewhere?” He asked.
His mother caught the door before it hit the house for a second time. She joined him in the flowerbed. “The seasonal merchandise has come in at the department store. Mr. Colton asked if I could take on some extra hours and help out in the storeroom for a few months. You and Sissy have to go to Mrs. Hall’s everyday after school. Weekends, too. Your sister’s already there. I was waiting for you.”
“Mom, the World Series. Phillies-Royals. Tug McGraw, Mike Schmidt. You said I could watch it after I do my homework. Mrs. Hall never watches anything but the shopping channel.
“I know, honey, but we could use the extra money.” She reached down and took his hand, noticing the blood smear on his fingers. “What is this?” She followed his guilty gaze to his knee.
“It was an accident, honest.”
“I’m sure it was. Just like before. No one breaks a nose or tears up a knee on purpose. We’d better get that cleaned up.”
They walked back inside the house and she shrugged off her coat and headed for the bathroom, appearing a few moments later with hydrogen peroxide, some tissues, Bactine and some Band-Aids.
Mikey slipped off his jeans and perched himself on the old plaid hassock in the living room. He watched the first aid efforts as he spoke. “I can stay here. I’ll do my homework and watch the game. Nothing else. Promise.”
“You can do your homework at Mrs. Hall’s.” She dabbed at his skin with the tissue, gently cleaning off the dried blood.
“But mom, the game.”
“There’ll be other games, honey.”
Mikey pressed his lips together. “I never get to do anything. You work all the time and I hardly get to see you this time of the year.”
“It’s October, honey. The store needs help to get ready for Christmas.”
“Christmas isn’t until December. Why do you have to go now?”
“Because now’s when the season begins. I get extra work when it’s available. You know that. And the holiday time brings steady work for three months”
“But then Sissy bosses me around until after New Year’s.”
She gently placed the Band-Aid in the center of his knee and peeled the covering from the adhesive. After patting the strip in place, she tousled his sandy brown hair. “I’ll talk to your sister and tell her to be nicer to you. Now, let’s go. I don’t want to be late.”
Mikey pulled on his jeans with an angry tug. “I hate Christmas.”
His mother stooped down so her gaze met hers. “You don’t mean that.”
He pursed his lips. “Yes, I do. And I always will.”
Concord, New Hampshire, Present Day
There comes a time in everyone’s life when he or she is forced to accept the fact that Santa Claus is reserved for small children and adults who still want to believe. Holly Winters wasn’t a child.
“Dad,” she called out, “We’re going to be late for the meeting.” She yanked open the closet door in he bedroom. Standing on tiptoes, she jabbed at the red box on the top shelf with her fingertips until it angled forward and fell into her outstretched hands. “Dad!” she called out again when she didn’t hear him answer her. She stepped into the hallway, box still in hand, and heard the water running in the bathroom.
Satisfied her father had heard her, she walked to her nearly made bed and gently set the box on the quilted comforter. She flung off the lid and smiled at the sight. The red velvet costume with white fur at the collar and cuffs reminded her how much she loved her seasonal job as an elf at the mall.
She dug out the matching hat. Perching it neatly on her head, she stared at her reflection in the mirror. Tucking blond curls behind her ears, she adjusted the angle so the fur-trimmed ball wouldn’t bounce around and hit her in the eye as she walked. “The meeting’s in an hour,” she called out to her father as she heard the door to the medicine cabinet over the sink in the bathroom slam shut. “We’ll have to step it up if we’re going to be ready on time.”
“I’ll be done in a minute,” he called back. “Can you get me a towel from the closet?”
The white ball swung back and forth like a seesaw in motion as she walked down the hall of the house she shared with her father. Grabbing a green towel from the middle of the pile, she smiled. May as well get into the spirit of the season.
“Here you go, Dad,” she said, as she prepared to toss the towel through the bathroom doorway.
But when she stepped onto the blue tiled floor, she stopped the motion top-arc. Her father stood facing the large mirror on the wall. His white-hair curled down to his collar and joined with the snowy white beard that tumbled down his face like a New England snowfall to rest on the banded collar of the red Henley-style shirt he had on. He turned toward her, apples of his cheeks rosy from the steam rising from the hot water running in the sink, his blue eyes framed by eyebrows that looked like slashes of fluffy white cotton.
There was only one thing wrong. The beard was slathered with heaps of frothy shaving cream.
“What are you doing? There’s only four-weeks until Christmas!” “I know,” he replied glancing at her reflection in the mirror. He lifted his chin. “Maybe I should cut some of this bread off with the scissors first or else it won’t come off easily.” He angled his head fist to the right and then to the left, intently surveying his handiwork.
Holly watched as her father dabbed the long bristled soap brush he held in one hand into the soap in the ceramic mug on the countertop. She dropped the towel and grabbed onto his wrist. “Stop. You can’t shave. Not now. Not for another month at least.”
“Don’t need a beard this year,” he replied calmly.
She followed his gaze toward the floor and could see the white fur of his own red velvet hat peeking out of the wastebasket next to the sink. She pointed to it, a puzzled look on her face.
“You can’t quit.” She pulled the hat out of the trash by the white furry snowball on its point. “You love playing Santa. You love Christmas.”
He took the hat from her hand and dropped it back in the trash with enough dramatic to win an academy award. “Loved,” he emphasized. “Past-tense. It’s already been Christmas for three months in the mall. Teenagers are clamoring for the latest video gadget that always costs more than it’s worth and lasts just long enough to get through the holiday season. Parents are waiting in long lines to buy some toy that compliments some movie. The holiday spirit has been ruined by merchandising.” He jabbed at the air, the brush in his hand splattering soap on the mirror until it look like sprayed snow. “I’ve decided that I can’t be part of the commodities blitz any longer.”
Holly inched the trashcan behind her with her foot so none of the soap spray would get all over the hat.
“Maybe I used to love the holidays, but…” he pursed his lips and shook is head, “not any more. All synthetic and no heart these days. Let them use one of those hot-air blow-up Santas this year.”
Michael Sutton, Vice President of Property Management for the Colton Mall, shot a sidelong glance at his assistant. The man was hunched over an Excel spreadsheet, stoop shouldered, cradling it like a high school final exam. The assistant looked up and gave Michael a nod, the signal intended to assure him that everything would be fine.
Somehow Michael was not convinced. “Well, Phil? What’s the bottom line?” His answer was the rhythmic tap of fingers on calculator keys.
“Give me a few minutes,” Phil replied.
Michael held up his fingers. “You have two, Phil.”
Phil nodded, the calculator keys clicking faster.
“I need to know what the increase in utility costs will be if I keep the mall open an extra hour from now to Christmas before the meeting for the stakeholders begins.”
Phil didn’t look up, but kept on running the numbers. “One more minute,”
Michael shifted in his seat, stretching is arm across the back of an empty chair next to him. No one ever sat next to him at these meetings, and that was just fine with him. He angled the face of his Rolex toward him. Just as well, in about five minutes he’d have no time for chitchat anyway.
This was not good, Holly thought as she approached the employee’s parking lot at the mall. Her father was apparently so serious about quitting, that he was skipping the seasonal staff meeting. Although she did manage to secure a no shaving promise, she got the feeling knew it wouldn’t last if she didn’t do something to change his mind soon.
He was wrong. Christmas still had heart and a lot of it. Sure, maybe the Christmas in July sales were a little over the top, as were the decorations in some of the stores by Labor Day, but the heart was still there, she just knew it. It may take some convincing to get her father back into his red, velvet suit, but she could do it. She was sure of that, too.
She tugged open the heavy metal door at the employees entrance and stepped into the long corridor dotted with the back doors of some of the stores in the Colton Mall. Her heels tapped on the tiled floor as she headed for the Community Room. She could hear the low drone of voices hush and a distinctly male voice take over as she got closer.
Resisting the urge to burst in and apologize, she opened the door wider and tried to slip inside unnoticed. It didn’t work.
Holly spun toward the source of the voice and dropped her purse in surprise. “Yes, I guess I am,’ she replied. “But only a little,” She nodded her thanks to a co-worker who picked up her bag and handed it to her. “If I missed anything important, I can stay and catch up.”
“That might be a good idea, Ms….
“Winters. Holly Winters.” She felt her brows furrow in inquiry as she looked around the room. “Where’s Sissy? She usually organizes the holiday staff.”
“My sister can’t be here this morning, so she asked me to fill in.”
“Oh, then you are…”
His tone seemed stiff, his body language shouted uncomfortable. Holly grimaced. “I guess I should have known that.”
“I don’t know why.”
“Sissy said she had brother who was a bit uptight about the holidays, and you’re the only one in the room who fits that description.”
A few people laughed. Michael frowned. “And when did she tell you that?”
“Last year. We were talking about family and she mentioned that her brother didn’t like this time of year.”
A low drone of voices speaking in undertones buzz rose like a swarm of approaching bees as some of the people in the room reacted to Holly’s comment.
“Hum. I’ll have to speak to Victoria about that,” he said, his mouth creasing in obvious disapproval.
Her green eyes darkened in bewilderment. She couldn’t image why he sounded so irritated. This meeting was a formality. Everyone in the room worked together at holiday time for years and knew what to do and when. But she guessed Michael wouldn’t know that. He never dealt with the Christmas Crew. She pointed to the back of the room. “Maybe I should sit down.”
Michael nodded. “That would be a very good idea.”
She made her way to an empty seat, most of the twenty or so people in the room acknowledging her scolding with a comment or smile in her defense. She laughed when Louie, a crusty retired army vet, hired because he was short and could be an elf, whispered “the man needs to be scrooged” as she passed.
In response, Michael stopped talking and waited until she was settled in a seat in the back. As noiselessly as possible, she hung her jacket on the chair back and tucked her purse under it. She clasped her hands in her lap and followed his movements as he paced back and forth at the front of the room.
He didn’t seem at all comfortable speaking to them. He read from prepared note cards and didn’t look up much. She’d never actually met him in the five years she worked the holidays at the mall with her father. He kept mostly to himself, in the executive offices on the top floor. Never having a reason to go up there, she had conjured up an idea of what he must look like from the stories she’d heard about him.
He wasn’t as tall as she expected, perhaps a smidgen over six feet, and not as lanky. From what she could tell by the perfectly tailored fit of his obviously expensive suit, this man was well muscled. If it weren’t for the scowl, he would be rather handsome. His hair reminded her of the color of warm apple cider and she’d never forget his eyes. Irritation at her being late had wiped some fire into their warm brown color, but that’s not what had surprised her. It was the flash of indecision she saw there when he looked at her.
She watched as he turned his back to get some forms from the corner of the first table and noticed how his broad shoulders filled out his jacket, the lines of his upper body tapering in lean contours. When he began passing out some paperwork, his gaze locked with hers. She smiled and he quickly looked away from her.
“Is everything all right?” she asked him when he held out a payroll form and work schedule to her.
“Yes,” he answered as though he was question surprised that she would ask.
Their hands met as she took the form from his hand and he dropped them. They bent down reached down for the papers at the same time, and this time, their fingers first tangled, then entwined.
Warmth spread up Holly’s arm. His hand felt solid, his grip strong. She looked into his eyes and became almost spellbound by the intensity of their golden brown color. For a few moments, their gazes held firm, his eyes delving into hers almost intimately. Neither broke contact until she smiled at him again.
“Fill these forms out and have them back to payroll in a week,” he said, his voice wavering just the smallest bit.
“Sure,” she replied. “Oh, and I’ll need one for my father.”
“Yeah, Clausie,” Louie piped in. “His name’s really Jack, but we call him Clausie ‘cuz he hasn’t missed a Christmas in fifteen-years.” He looked around the room. “Where is he anyway?”
“He, ah, slept late today,” Holly offered. “But he’s ready and raring to go.” At least I hope so, she silently added when Louie nodded his approval.
“Good,” Louie said, scanning the forms he’d been handed as though he were about to take a test in a foreign language. “Wouldn’t be Christmas without him.”
Michael closed the door to his office, unsure why he was so irritated. On second thought he did know. It was holiday time and his sister was out of town. But that wasn’t everything.
He looked down at his hand and furrowed his brow. He still felt the softness and feather-like touch, reinforced by what almost seemed to him now like a caress when be bent down to pick up the forms he’d dropped. But it wasn’t the touch of another hand that gave him that impression. It was a few strands from the veil of Holly Winters’ golden-red hair that had brushed the back of his hand. The strangest urge to drop the forms again so he could touch the incredible curls that looked the color of molten copper had welled up so suddenly that he almost acted upon it.
But he’d looked into her eyes instead. Big mistake. He became mystified, instantly captured by a pair of crystal clear green eyes fringed with dark lashes. When she smiled at him he swore he could see light sparkle across her eyes.
He blew out a long breath of air he hadn’t realize he’d been holding and shook his head. He must be working too much.
“Dad, I’m home.” Holly tossed her keys on the table near the door.
“In here,” he called back.
She found him sitting in the living room, pipe in hand, looking at a fire he’s just built in the hearth. The glow in the hearth warmed his skin, whipping a ruddy red onto his cheeks and across the bridge of his nose. To her, he belonged on a Christmas card.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said when she sat next to him.
“About the holidays, I hope.”
“Yes, and about how much you like a good adventure.”
She smiled. “I remember a few that didn’t turn out so well.” She pushed up the sleeve of her blue sweater and ran her forefinger over a two-inch scar by her elbow. “Got this one when Tommy Miller dared me to climb the tree in the center of town square.” She pushed the sleeve back into place. “Would have made it too, if he didn’t throw that rock at me.” She laughed. “Hope you don’t want me to climb something. My gazelle days are over.”
“No, this challenge isn’t a physical one. It’s harder than that.”
“It could be. That is if you mean what you said about Christmas still having heart.”
“You know I do.”
He puffed on his pipe. Wisps of smoke curled the air like gray ribbons. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Of course I do. You said it wasn’t a physical challenge, so what is it? Beat you at checkers? I’ve done that. I know, a cryptogram race. I know how much you love those and they’re a little cerebral.”
“Neither of those.” A smoke ring curled in the air before he spoke. “I’ll be Santa again this year if you can get just one person who doesn’t believe in the spirit of Christmas to change his heart.”
Holly brightened. “I can do that. Everyone gets jolly at Christmas.” She rose and clapped her hands together. “Okay, I have to get your red suit to the cleaners, polish the belt buckle and..”
“Not so fast,” her father warned. “There’s one catch.”
Holly dropped into a chair opposite him. “And it is?”
“I get to pick the person.”
She eyed him suspiciously. “I’d say you’ve already picked him. Who is it?”
“They call him the Colton Grinch down at the mall. Hard-nosed, hard-hearted as well. All business and no pleasure as far as anyone can tell. Grumpy as all get out this time of year and, quite frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the man smile.” He took another puff on his pipe, the rich scent of good tobacco filling the air. “You up for it?”
“Dad, I met someone today at the staff meeting who sounds a lot like the person you’re describing.”
He set the ebony pipe in the ashtray on the table next to his overstuffed chair. “Did you now?”
“Victoria Ames couldn’t be at the meeting, so her brother had to run it.” She leaned closer to him when his smile broadened. “Dad, surely you can’t mean…”
“I most certainly do,” he replied, a hint of satisfaction in his tone like a game already won. “I choose Michael Sutton.”