Kristine Cheney's Website
If you like Hallmark Channel style holiday stories, you will love Secret Santa
Holly Gordon’s estrangement from her family makes loneliness of the Christmas season hit close to home. Volunteering for the annual Ashton Falls Secret Santa Program is more than a comfort, it’s a blessing. Just knowing she’s able to help another hurting soul experience the joy of a heartfelt Christmas makes her own reality a tiny bit sweeter, that is, until Marcus Jenner ends up on her list.
Marcus Jenner is more than a bronze, muscled looker. This Chickasaw loner isn’t happy being placed on the town’s Secret Santa list. Suffering from the blow of a devastating loss, he has chosen to withdraw from living almost completely. For the life of him, he can’t figure why this pretty little blonde keeps bumping into him, calling him by name, and insisting on giving him presents. Unfortunately for Marcus, every time she does, a billowing cloud of havoc seems to ensue. Why can’t this uninvited vixen leave him alone?
They say time and fate have all of the answers. Holly, in all of her innocence, is drawn to Marcus like a moth to the flame. But Marcus has no intentions of submitting to the threat of his newfound feelings. A painful exchange pushes their lives into a pendulum chaos. His demand for privacy is granted by Holly’s hidden illness. Her sudden absence hits him hard, especially when the arrival of a stranger delivers the rest of his gifts. Right away, he knows something’s horribly wrong.
Love and selfless giving can rouse a wounded, sleeping heart. But sometimes a Secret Santa gets a few unexpected gifts of her own.
Holly scanned the list of checked off names, straining to decipher her own scribbled prose by the awkward red glow of Volkswagen dashboard lights. Shoving the list back into the gut of her purse, the crisp folded papers crackled loud in protest between her fingertips. In only two more strokes, it would be midnight. Time would soon pay its annual homage to the start of the beloved countdown, ushering in the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Her spirits remained cheerful despite several hours delivering nine of her ten secret packages. In a few short hours, every unsuspecting recipient would open their front door to behold a surprise. Every gift had been meticulously wrapped, bowed, and tagged with love, waiting for discovery in the morning.
Holly refused to submit to exhaustion, but her tired eyes struggled to keep a clear view in focus. Constant growls and rumbles of hunger drifted from the pit of her neglected stomach, which threatened to digest itself in a staged revolt. All seven and a half inches of her pedicured feet, including her red painted toes, throbbed with the persistent ache of pins and needles. But with the tenth delivery left to go, she refused to rest until her task was finished. Marcus Jenner’s house would be the final stop this snowy, frigid December eve. Turning a left onto Hibiscus Street, the radial tires of her salsa red Beetle sloshed through another mottled puddle of dirty, sleet-drenched powder.
A glimpse of the lovely suburban house filled her otherwise empty belly with the sweetest swirls of butterfly tickles. Energized by another burst of child-like excitement, Holly decided the quaint, cottage-like home was her kind of perfect.
Despite the ample bite of winter, the front landscaping was meticulously maintained and attractive. Sculpted points of snow-capped hedges offered walls of privacy from view of the neighbors. The huge expanse of lawn was tucked in winter’s slumber beneath a virginal blanket of glistening white. Flower beds were everywhere, even surrounding every tree trunk. All of them were filled with frosty kissed roses and adorable, hibernating bushes. Each garden was illuminated with stakes of bright decorative lighting, and surrounded by curves of costly stone edging. Sturdy, thick arms of tall, boisterous trees hung skeletal and bare, completely void of their leaves. The abundance of their size boasted its promise to bring the luxury of a lazy, shade-filled summer.
Pulling up to the curb, Holly silenced the idling of the engine with the swift turn of her large VW key. Aware of the need for stealth, she was careful to close her door with only the slightest latching sound. Even without a sleigh, it was difficult to contain her jolly little snicker. It was only because she did feel a bit like Santa Claus.
This was her seventh year participating in the Ashton Falls Secret Santa Program. Callers to the town’s charity hotline knew the annual holiday drill. Day after day, several residents left pleading messages, volunteering the names of precious spirits they felt in desperate need of cheer. Every story tugged at Holly’s insides, their tales oftentimes sad and devastating: a disabled homeless veteran, a single mother struggling to survive on her own, a group of orphaned children growing up in foster care.
The calls trickled in until the last deciding moment. Casting final votes for the ones who would receive the gifts was every board member’s uneasy burden. Every Secret Santa would be given an assigned list that bore the names of their chosen. Just like every year before, Holly would deliver packages to her ten coveted souls. But every Santa knew the rules. Out of those who would receive a single, solitary gift, she would have to decide which one of them would receive an additional present for all Twelve Days of Christmas.
With delicate care, each name had been written on a stiff sheet of pink construction paper, cut into little neat squares, and folded twice before being dropped and shaken in the flared bowl of her floral-lined burgundy hat. The tips of her fingers had fumbled in search through the snaps of entries. It was almost as if each of them were crying out to her heart, begging to be favored. Privy to the revelation of her of victor, Holly had discovered her champion. Marcus Jenner’s moniker had been the one staring back at her.
Estranged from her family, the seasons hit a little close to home. Just knowing she helped another lonely soul experience the joy of a heartfelt Christmas, made her own reality just a tiny bit sweeter. It mattered not if anyone knew of this secret role she played. The blessing of giving was what made her satisfaction run so deep, especially when no one expected to receive anything.
The weight of her black, heeled boots crunched with every step, sinking deeper through the newest layer of snow. Her hand bore the weight of a small, foil-wrapped package. Barely able to contain her excitement, Holly almost crushed the bow held tight against her chest. A glance at the large, storybook windows revealed shimmers of light escaping the scalloped edges of thick tapestry curtains. Up on the rooftop, radiations of heat battled brisk, chilly air, forming billowing puffs of steam rising from the chimney in victory.
It took two steps to breach the lovely, raised front porch. Easily half the length of the house, the patio’s bright, festive timber was made of redwood. While the jubilant glow of the carriage wall light seemed to welcome her, a delicious woodsy scent enveloped all of her senses in agreement. Decorative wicker chairs and tables were lush and fancy. Padded rocking chairs were idle and empty, waiting for visitors.
Stapled lines of cording graced the edges of the eaves. Bulbous strands of unlit, holiday lighting hugged the crown of roof in shadowed desolation. The absence of colorful illumination made Holly ponder with surprise. Why would anyone think of hanging Christmas lights and not turn them on?
With the shrug of her shoulders, she found the perfect location to set down her gift. Bending over and reaching forward, she carefully balanced the box upon the reflective glass top of a close wicker table. She squealed in alarm when someone grabbed her from behind. Engulfed by a grip that could rival any beam of steel, Holly couldn’t mistake the feel of a masculine arm wrapped tight around her waist.
With a whooshed pull, she was lifted off the ground and swept into the house like a limp rag doll. The warmth of her backside melted into the front of the one who held her too close. She grunted at being handled rough and then set down abrupt. Holly endured the whirling half-spin turn of her captor’s confrontation and inhaled a gasped breath of shock. The angry man standing before her was not what she expected. Instead of facing some old wrinkled, Ebenezer Scrooge, the sight she beheld made her knees liquefy like heated jelly. If this man wasn’t latched on to her, surely she would have fallen to the ground.
The only words swirling throughout her mind were tall, dark, and please-kiss-me handsome. Easily thirty-something, this muscled hunk had to be the sweetest blend of Caucasian and proud Native American ever. For the first time in her life, Holly decided she didn’t mind a two-day shadow on a man’s face. His fine sculpted nose and pretty-boy cheekbones were certainly higher than the glorious star atop her Christmas tree. Mythological height allowed him the privilege of towering over her. In her wildest estimation, he must have been at least six-foot-seven.
The glow of his light, amber eyes seemed to scorch her from beneath the arches of his smooth, ebony brows. The vivid impact of his stare created a jaw-dropping contrast to the depth of his medium, mocha complexion. Wet spikes of his cropped, raven hair seemed to beckon for the lingering stroke of her touch. Were the fibers of his missing shirt crying out in anguish to be kept from covering every rippled chord of his flexed muscles? Button-fly Levi’s hugged his every curve. Denim never looked so good. A thorough examination over the broad expanse of his bare strong shoulders was enough to make Holly swoon. To make matters worse, his golden skin was covered with rolling beads of water. Wanton images of him naked in the shower made her squirm, so she bit her bottom lip to dispel the naughty thoughts.
“Who are you? What are you doing on my porch?”
Shaking her head, Holly struggled to find the words. Despite her best intentions, it was impossible not to stare. Ogling the wall instead would have only made it more obvious. The bottom line: that idea was just plain stupid. She couldn’t help her stutter. “I-I’m sorry, I wasn’t stealing! To be honest, I was just...”
The purse of his plump, angel lips couldn’t hide the delicious bounty of his pout. He quickly cut her off. “You’re presence here is uninvited. Don’t you know you’re trespassing?”
“I was only delivering a package.”
The narrow of his beautiful stare promised he wasn’t convinced. The heated twitch of his fingers made her realize their exact location. His massive hands were embedded on the bare crest of her hips, just over the waistband of her designer blue jeans.
“I don’t mean any trouble! I’m Holly, and your name is on my Christmas list.” Great! She'd spilled the beans. Now she would have to explain she was his Secret Santa!
“Holly, huh? Seasonably ironic, but I’m not expecting any package. Whatever it is, I don't want it. Take it back to whoever sent it!"
“But, I can’t take it back!” It was true. She didn’t know who requested his name be placed on her list. “Please, just keep the gift and I’ll be on my way.”
The sudden press of his washboard abs against her belly forced Holly to take a few instinctive steps backward. Moving in an awkward two-step motion, her palms suffered every glorious twitch of the muscles flexing in his chest. Tiny spheres of moisture seemed to burst in explosion against the flat of her palm, igniting the chill of excitement that raced down her spine. Jolted back to reality, Holly snapped out of her lustinduced stupor and realized what he was doing. In a blur of hurried motion, he was forcing her back toward the door.
“Then donate it to charity. Thank you for your visit, but it’s time for you to go."
She didn’t miss the thick coat of sarcasm in his voice. The heels of her boots dug in as a last resort and skidded noisily across the tiles before getting caught on the raised hump of threshold. Teetering unsteadily, Holly was about to lose her balance. Crying out in distress, she instinctively looped her arms around the masculine bounty of his neck. Any distance between them was instantly negated. The tempting curve of his mouth was only a pucker away from her lips. Her cheek brushed against the rough scruff of his chiseled, handsome face. For a brief moment, she caught a glimpse of his concern. His eyes softened and filled with light. The furrow of his brow made a liar of his rough exterior expression.
Was the echo of his breathing just as ragged as her own? His voice resonated low, like the flashes of tiny pulses. But even in her innocence, she recognized his tone was husky, as if laced with passion. “Are you all right? I didn’t mean to push you so hard. It’s just that I haven’t, well, I
mean…it’s been a while since…never mind!”
Holly didn’t miss the wilted cluster of blackened berries nestled among the dead, cracked leaves of mistletoe. Surely they were from last Christmas? Regardless, the menace was hanging directly above them in the doorway, just past the raven pitch of his hair. He must have realized she was staring at something, because he caught her gaze and quickly followed it to the target, locating her distraction. With a smug, knowing chuckle, the intensity of his amber stare was again searing the back of her eye sockets.
“I’m okay, Marcus,” she offered almost breathless, as if lost in some kind of enchanted spell. Oh, but she could smell him. Clean and tropical fresh, his man scent reminded her of some sexy, exotic shower of the islands. Even the Old Spice Guy would have sobbed in the corner in shame. The solid feel of his warm, bare chest should have melted the soft angora sweater right off her body. But as quick as she had found his sympathy, he made a full recovery. His face was once again a disappointing palette of stone. The pertness of his interrogating shake was completely unexpected.
“How do you know my name?”
She tried to explain, but this time, very carefully. “The list...”
“What list am I on?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Then tell me who placed me on the list.”
“I don’t know.”
With a loud growl, Marcus lifted her over his shoulder like a five pound sack of flour. Stepping over the threshold in a rush, he set her down hard on her feet, the click of her heels thumping hollow upon contact with the fine, redwood porch. His long body leaned toward the table and with a foiled ripple, snatched up her present. Her jaw dropped in horror when he shoved it into her hands, crushing the pretty gift box. “Save it, woman! I don’t care about your list, or your present. Goodbye, Holly.” With a large step backward, he breached the safety of his house. The blurred flash of his swinging red door slammed directly in her face.
Tears stung Holly’s eyes and blurred her vision. The solid lump forming within her gut was nothing short of nauseating. Every muscle in her body trembled with grief, while her soul filled to the brim with a heavy burden of sadness. Giving the package a careless, disgruntled toss, she watched the box tumble several times before coming to a tilted stop within the dimple of a fancy bench cushion.
Stomping her boots, Holly hit every wood step on purpose. If she were lucky, the echo of every hollow knock would rock that jerk right where he stood. But deep inside her heart, she truly wasn’t angry. Why did she find it so difficult to blame him? Raw, exposed emotions got the best of her. Every cell in her body throbbed with the sting of being wounded. All of her willpower reduced to calamity and waste, she ran crying to her car. How could anyone refuse the joy of a present?