Christmas Eve, 9:50 a.m.
Santa looks at me from across a table topped with half a dozen platters of decorated baked goods and scowls. His plush red suit looks a little worse for wear. His eyes are definitely not twinkling, his cheeks look nothing like roses and his nose doesn’t resemble a cherry in the slightest.
“Um.” I clear my throat and smooth down my ruffled apron. It’s decorated with little kittens wearing Christmas mittens and seemed festive and adorable until Cranky Claus walked in the door. Under the scrutiny of his cynical gaze, I feel sort of ridiculous, which irritates me to no end. “I think there’s been a mistake. I ordered a—”
“Santa?” he says, gesturing to his attire.
“Well, yes. But I was expecting someone…” I let my voice drift off. Someone else. I was expecting someone else entirely.
He arches a brow. “Someone older?”
I shake my head, even though he’s right. Men in their thirties with chiseled jawlines and dreamy, sea-green eyes have no business playing Santa. Unless maybe for a cutesy bachelorette party, but alas, not the vibe I was going for. “No, that’s not what I meant.”
He frowns down at his abs. There’s six-pack lurking there. I just know it. “Bigger?”
“Nope.” His Crossfit physique is nothing that a pillow or three wouldn’t cure.
His frown deepens and he crosses his arms. “What then?”
“Jolly,” I say.
“Jolly.” He rolls his eyes.
My face goes warm. Why am I standing here arguing with him? Oh, right—because I have a list a mile long of customers who’ve signed up for Santa pictures today, my busiest and most lucrative day of the year.
“Yes, jolly is pretty much a requirement.” I jam a hand on my hip.
He smirks at my apron, and a swarm of rebellious butterflies take flight in my belly.
“Ho ho ho,” he says flatly.
This is so not going to work.
“Forget it. I’m sorry you’ve wasted your time on Christmas Eve and all, but there’s obviously been some sort of mix-up at the agency. My regular Santa should be here any minute.” I peer past him, toward the big shop windows facing Lovers Lane. Yes, it’s an actual street in Dallas, Texas, nestled among a cute, retro shopping district. Try not to read anything into it.
To my great dismay, there’s not another Santa in sight out there. Tiny snowflakes dance against the glass. A white Christmas Eve in Texas is a rare and precious thing. The snow isn’t sticking, but it’s magical all the same. Or it would be, if I weren’t spending it with moody Father Christmas.
“The regular Santa you’re referring to is Hal Golding?” he asks.
My stomach churns. How does he know that? “Yes.”
Hal has played the part of Santa at Tasty Treats’ annual Christmas Eve party for the past four years in a row, since the year I first opened up shop. He’s a sweet older gentleman with a genuine white beard and a belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly. Best of all, he’s the living embodiment of jolly.
Cranky Claus shakes his head. “Hal’s not coming.”
I blink at him. Again, how does he know these things? “What do you mean he’s not coming?”
I have the list. I’ve checked it twice. Forty-something customers have signed up for Santa pictures this year. I need Hal.
“He broke his foot hanging up Christmas lights.” Cranky Claus shrugs. “I’m all you’ve got.”
Joy to the world, lucky me.
“Are you sure?” Where on earth did the talent agency find this man? Was there a mix-up with someone who’d requested a brooding loner-type for an underwear ad?
“It’s Christmas Eve, but if you think you can pull a more qualified, more jolly Santa out of a hat at this late date, be my guest.” He takes his Santa hat and jams it on his annoyingly handsome head. The white ball at the end of it swings in front of his eyes. His eyelashes are sooty black.
I glance at the old cuckoo clock that hangs above the cash register area just as it strikes ten o’clock. A little wooden dog pops out of a set of swinging doors and barks ten times. Cranky Claus is rolling his eyes again. My back is turned to him, but I can just feel it.
I sigh in his general direction.
“Fine.” This is happening. I’ll just have to make the best of it. “But can you at least try and pretend to be jolly?”
He’s an actor. It really shouldn’t be that much of a stretch.
“Ho ho ho,” he says again, with even less enthusiasm than before, if such a thing is even possible.
He glances down at a platter of cookies on the table between us. They’re shaped like little reindeer faces with pretzels for antlers.
He tilts his head as he reaches for a cookie—the closest he intends to get to actually asking if he can have one, apparently. My only response is a saccharine smile.
Be my guest, Surly Santa.
He bites into the reindeer and immediately blanches. His eyes start to water as he emits a rather satisfying gagging noise.
“That’s a liver biscuit,” I say. Who’s laughing at my kitten apron now? “This is a pet bakery.”
* * *
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