Christmas Eve, 6:20 p.m.
Holly immediately disavows the compliment. “I never said you were cute.”
“I’m pretty sure you did,” I say, glancing down at Holly’s puppy who burrows into my lap, all warm fur and soft, pink belly. “I heard it, and so did Charm.”
Charm sits up and cocks her head.
“See?” I say, and then I sneeze. My eyes feel like someone just poured a bucket of sand into them.
Holly holds up a hand. “Wait here. Don’t move.”
Charm stares longingly at Holly as she disappears into the storage area of the bakery. The poor dog can’t seem to decide whether to stay snug in my lap or follow her mistress.
I’ve realized something over the past few hours—there are worse fates than playing Santa to a bunch of animals. Who knew?
Not that I plan on admitting as much to Uncle Hal. Or Holly. Or even Charm. This cannot turn into a regular thing. I already have a job that I’m not allergic to.
“Found it.” Holly swishes back into the room waving a bottle of purple liquid. “Take this. Maybe it will make you feel better.”
She shoves the Benadryl at me. I uncap it and take a generous swig. This is by far the most bizarre Christmas Eve I’ve ever experienced.
“You’re going to be okay, right? I don’t need to take you to a hospital or anything, do I?” Holly glances toward the window, where snow patters against the glass in increasingly larger white clumps.
I attempt a reassuring grin, but it feels more like a grimace. “No hospitalization necessary. I’ll be fine.”
“Good.” She exhales, and then a quiet smile tugs at her pretty bow mouth. My fingertips tingle. She’s a Christmas present I desperately want to unwrap.
Never going to happen.
“I can’t believe you stayed,” she says. Her voice is tender—barely above a whisper, but warm enough to fog a frost-covered pane of glass.
It feels like we’re inside a snow globe. Everything here is softness and light while outside the real world rages on.
“I couldn’t leave a woman wearing candy cane tights without a Santa,” I say with a shrug.
Then I swallow. Hard. Over the past several hours, I’ve watched Holly hustle like crazy to make Christmas Eve special for a surprisingly large crowd of people and their animal companions. She greeted every human, dog, cat and rabbit (yes, a rabbit) by name. She’s pretty, yes, but her earnestness might be the most attractive thing about her. I envy it as much as I’m drawn toward it.
“It looks like you’ve made a killing today,” I say, eager to move the conversation toward a subject that doesn’t leave me with a poignant ache in my chest.
She glances at the ginger-jar overflowing with dollar bills. “Oh, that? No. It’s going to the animal shelter around the corner. The Santa pictures are a fundraiser.”
And damn if a lump doesn’t form in my throat.
Charm lets out a soft little whine. The dog is onto me.
Holly is too, apparently. “You had a good time today, didn’t you, Santa?”
“My idea of a good time doesn’t generally require medication.” I take another pull from the bottle of Benadryl.
Charm hops down from my lap. I stand and walk toward Holly, closing the space between us.
She tips her face up toward mine and flashes a triumphant smile. Visions of mistletoe dance in my head. I’m drunk on Benadryl and something that feels strangely like Christmas magic.
Again, I tell myself I need to get out of here, but my feet stay planted firmly in place.
“You ho ho ho’d,” she says.
“No, I didn’t,” I say.
But it’s a lie. I did indeed ho three times in rapid succession. Ho ho ho.
I’m not sure what came over me. As much as I want to blame it on the allergies and my raging sinuses, I know I can’t. Sitting in that ridiculous velvet throne with all manner of animals in my lap while Holly flitted about writing names on dog bones with icing and spreading Christmas cheer got to me. I’m only human.
“Maybe I did,” I finally say.
“I knew it!” She looks me up and down. Charm prances in circles at our feet. “You’re not as Scroogey as you pretend to be.”
“That’s not a word,” I counter.
Holly shakes her head. “Why are you a Santa actor if you dislike Christmas so much, anyway?”
She narrows her gaze at me as if she can somehow see straight into my thoughts. If she could, she’d know why I am the way that I am. She’d see the truck headed straight for my parents’ station wagon on a long ago Christmas morning back. She’d see the street covered in blood and bits of broken glass. She’d see a little boy sitting beside his uncle in a church perfumed with lilies and grief.
I’m glad Holly can’t see those things. If she could, she’d pity me, even all these years later, and that’s the last thing I want. I’d rather have her think I’m a complete jerk than feel sorry me.
“I’m not a Santa actor. I teach high school math.”
“I don’t understand.” Holly’s forehead crinkles and I have the absurd urge to smooth it with the pad of my thumb. “Why are you here?”
“Hal is my uncle. He broke his ankle yesterday, and he didn’t want to leave you in a bind.” I take a step closer to her and notice that her dark hair smells like crushed candy canes. I’m not the least bit surprised. “So here I am.”
Her gaze drops slowly to my mouth. “Here you are.”
About the Author:
USA Today Bestselling Author Teri Wilson writes heartwarming contemporary romance with a touch of whimsy. Three of Teri’s books have been adapted into Hallmark Channel Original Movies by Crown Media, including UNLEASHING MR. DARCY (plus its sequel MARRYING MR. DARCY), THE ART OF US and NORTHERN LIGHTS OF CHRISTMAS, based on her book SLEIGH BELL SWEETHEARTS. She is also a recipient of the prestigious RITA Award for excellence in romantic fiction for her novel THE BACHELOR’S BABY SURPRISE. Teri has a major weakness for cute animals, pretty dresses and Audrey Hepburn films, and she loves following the British royal family. Visit her at www.teriwilson.net or on Instagram @TeriWilsonauthor