The sound of “Jingle Bells” playing on the mall’s loud speakers followed me as I fought my way through the hoards of shoppers. The music put me in the Christmas spirit and I started humming along as I walked.
This was my first visit since the new mall had opened and foolish me, I’d hoped to avoid the crowds. But there’s simply no avoiding the crowds when it comes to Christmas shopping–unless you start in July. Too many people in one place made me nervous and it took courage for me to shop knowing I’d have to brave them alone.
It was lonely this year without Jake by my side. He was always laughing, joking and holding me close. Where was he? I wondered.
Maybe he had some new woman in his life, and if so, would he be faithful to her? In the spirit of the season, I tried hard to wish him well but soon gave up. He’d hurt me too much to earn my forgiveness.
I stopped in front of a store window, staring at the display of bright lights and Christmas cheer. The place appealed to me and I decided to begin my shopping inside. I strolled in the door at a leisurely pace, deciding to take my time and not feel rushed.
My family had insisted on drawing names that year and I knew I could only expect one gift, but that didn’t stop my generous heart from wanting to buy something for everyone. I might be on a budget but I had a talent for rooting out bargains, and with the economy still in the dumpster, there were bargains galore this season. I felt sure I could find something for everyone on my list and not bankrupt myself in doing so.
I spied a tie on sale that I knew Dad would like and headed toward it.
“Hello, pretty lady. Would you like to tell Santa what you’d like for Christmas?”
Startled, I dropped my list and bent down to recover it. A hand attached to a bright red sleeve beat me to it.
“Here you go. I’m sorry I startled you,” Santa’s eyes twinkled with mischief as he handed me my list.
I tried to walk away, but Santa’s arresting gray eyes and handsome face held me in place as though he’d stapled me to the floor. I could feel my face becoming hot and knew I was blushing. Santa’s smile grew broader.
“If you tell me your name,” he coaxed, “I can check to see if the elves got your letter. You did write one telling me what you’d like for Christmas didn’t you?”
“Nice try,” I chuckled, “but my mommy always told me not to talk to strangers.”
“But how can Santa Claus be a stranger?” he laughed.
“I think you know the answer to that.”
“You shouldn’t talk that way to Santa,” a small voice interjected.
“Everybody knows about Santa. Tell him your name or your stocking might be empty on Christmas morning. You might even find some oil in it for being naughty.”
The small crowd that had gathered around us laughed. Where did they come from?
“Bobby, Santa doesn’t put oil in stockings,” remarked the woman holding the boy’s hand. “He puts coal in stockings, not oil.”
“But Mom, I thought he might have upgraded to oil.”
The crowd laughed again and little Bobby turned bright red.
I smiled. “It’s okay, Bobby. I’m not being mean to Santa. I’m sure we’ll work something out.”
I turned back to Santa and saw victory gleaming in his eyes, but I wasn’t so easily defeated. “I’ll send you a letter, Santa.” I said sweetly. “And tell you what I want. I’m leaving now to buy stationery and a stamp.” And it’ll be a warm day at the North Pole when you get it.
Santa frowned. “Why not tell me your name, so I’ll recognize it when your letter comes?”
I sighed. “My name’s Tess. This has been fun, but I have to leave. Bye, Santa.”
I heard Santa tell Bobby, “Don’t worry. I promise I’ll find her. She won’t be without a gift under the tree.”
Bobby and the crowd cheered as I walked away shaking my head. Don’t make promises you can’t keep,Santa.
I stopped to look at the tie and picked out one in a color I knew Dad would like. As I stood in line at the cash register, Santa and the gang trooped on by headed for a display with a sign saying “North Pole” over it. Clearly he’d been on a break while talking to me and it had cost him his free time. “Serves you right, you big flirt,” I whispered.
After paying for the tie, I scurried out of the store before Santa decided to come looking for me. I’d seen another store I wanted to check out, but made sure no handsome Santas were in sight.
Nothing in the store caught my eye. I checked my watch and decided to leave. I could finish shopping online. It would be easier.
Keeping my eye out for the handsome Santa, I managed to get out of the mall and to my car without running into him again. I chuckled at the thought of seeing him under a stack of kids reciting what they wanted for Christmas.
It might be lonely without Jake, but that didn’t mean I felt ready for another man in my life—even if he was Santa Claus. When I was ready to love again, I wanted a man who was honest and faithful. The flirtatious Santa, tempting as the scoundrel was, didn’t fit that description. The guy probably flirted that way with all the women he saw. His job provided him with a great way to pick up women. Of course most of the women he’d see would have kids and husbands.
I wouldn’t let myself believe the guy in the Santa suit had singled me out. I’d thought Jake was that way, too, but he just loved women and attracted them in droves.
The phone rang as I walked in the door of my apartment. It was my best friend, Nora, who’d probably called my cell phone, too, but I always kept it off when I was driving.
“I’m calling to remind you about the Christmas party.”
“How could I forget? You have it every year.”
“Are you saying you don’t want to come?”
“It’s not that I don’t want to come exactly, it’s just that I don’t have a date.”
“No big deal. I can fix you up with someone. In fact, I know just the guy. You two would be perfect for each other.”
“No thanks. I don’t do blind dates.”
“You’re coming to the party, Tess.”
“You win,” I sighed. “But I’ve got to go,” I lied. “Someone’s at the door.” I hung up before she could say another word. It was no use arguing with her. Unless I wound up with a broken leg or something, I’d have to go.
The afternoon of the party I showered and dressed early, all the while trying to think of a way to get out of going. I finally decided to go to the party and sneak out early. Once the party got going, I knew Nora would be too busy to keep an eye on me.
She greeted me at the door with a glass of champagne in her hand. “You’re early. Come in, Tess. There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”
“I told you not to fix me up with anyone,” I whispered.
“Oh, he’s not just anyone,” she laughed. “But first let me get you something to drink.”
I felt tempted to bolt for the door, but figured Nora would tackle me and bring me back. I gritted my teeth and tried to smile.
Nora returned with my drink. A tall stranger wearing sunglasses accompanied her.
“Tess, I’d like you to meet Cole.” Cole and I shook hands.
“Nice to meet you, Tess. I hope you don’t mind the shades, I’ve had a headache all day and bright lights only make it worse.”
Something about his voice seemed familiar, but I didn’t know why.
“Cole! There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you.”
Nora scowled. “I don’t remember inviting her. Stay put, Cole. I’ll take care of this.”
My best friend shot across the room with a smile pasted on her face. I almost felt sorry for the blonde that Nora was about to evict her from the party. Nora had a thing for party crashers and wasn’t shy about confronting them.
“I don’t know who that woman is.” “She thinks she knows you,” I commented skeptically.
“Many people think they know me,” he said cryptically. “Would you like to join me? I’ve found a potted palm to hide under.”
I laughed at that. “Are you one of Nora’s projects, too?”
“Projects? Oh, you mean is she trying to fix me up with someone? Not yet,” he grinned, “but I’m sure I’m on her list. Looks like she’s headed back this way. Come on, let’s make our escape.”
Cole grabbed my hand and led me to a far corner of the room. We watched in relief as Nora gave up her search and started talking to some other people.
“I think we’re safe for a while. So how do you know Nora?” I asked. “I’m her new boss.”
“She must have forgotten to tell me she had a new boss. She loves her job.”
“She’s a good secretary. I hope she’ll stay a while.”
I was nursing my second drink when I noticed Nora on the prowl again. Cole set his drink down and looked at me. “What do you say we get out of here and go get a cup of coffee? I think I’ve had enough alcohol for one night.”
“Sounds good. I’m not much of a drinker either.”
Nora caught my eye as Cole and I were leaving. I waved and mouthed a thank you. Nora frowned and a determined look came over her face as she marched towards us. Cole grabbed my hand. “Let’s run for it. For all we know she’ll come sprinting out here after us.”
“You’re her boss, can’t you do something?”
“I thought you knew Nora.”
“Point taken,” I giggled. “Come on, I’ll race you.”
Cole followed me and pointed to a sports car parked nearby. “My car’s over there,” he said. “I’ll meet you at the coffee shop down the street. See you there.”
I caught my breath in the car and wondered what I was doing running off with Nora’s boss. I knew I’d hear about it the next day.
Cole and I talked and laughed at the restaurant. He was a funny guy and kept making jokes about what Nora was going to do to us when she caught us. I couldn’t resist his humor. I’d been far too glum lately because of Jake and laughter was what I needed to get out of my funk.
“Stop it,” I pleaded. “My ribs are getting sore from laughing.”
Cole smiled. “I’ll try to show some mercy, but you have to listen to one more joke.”
I wanted to see what Cole’s eyes looked like without the sunglasses, but didn’t think asking him to take them off would be a good idea. I’d known light sensitive people before and felt sorry for him.
“Is your headache better?”
“Much, but I’ll keep the sunglasses on just in case.”
“I’ve enjoyed this, Cole, but it’s getting late and I should be leaving.”
“I’ll walk you to your car.”
“Thanks for the apple pie and coffee. I enjoyed myself.”
“And thank you for being my partner in crime. I’m not a party person, but your friend insisted I come.”
“Nora can be persuasive,” I commented.
He honked once as he drove away. I liked Cole and hoped I’d see him again, but maybe I was deluding myself. He’d had plenty of time to ask for my phone number and hadn’t.
The next morning was Saturday. I decided to sleep in, but the phone rang at eight o’clock in the morning. I groaned when I saw who was calling.
“Aren’t you the cunning one, stealing my boss away like that? You disappeared before I could introduce you to the guy I told you about,”
“But I thought it was Cole you were talking about.”
“Cole’s my boss. I have to tread lightly there. So did you two have a good time? Has he asked you out?”
“We had a good time, but he didn’t mention seeing me again.”
“I’ve got to be going. Next time stick around. You would have liked the guy I had lined up for you. I can set it up another time.. .”
“Sorry. I’m not interested. There’s a call coming in on another line, I’d better go. See you.”
I didn’t want to be rude, but Nora’s meddling was tiresome. She meant well, but sometimes I let her bully me around too much.
The doorbell rang a few minutes later. I hurried to answer it thinking it was Nora. Didn’t the woman ever give up?
I threw open the door.
“Cole! What are you doing here?”
“I came to see you. I tried to call earlier, but your line was busy.”
“I was talking to Nora. Would you like to come in?” I glanced down at my bare feet and tattered robe. “Have a seat while I go change into something decent. There’s coffee in the kitchen if you don’t mind making it.”
When I returned, Cole was sipping a cup of coffee. He looked up at me and smiled.
“This is great coffee! There’s plenty left for you.”
“Thanks. Do you still have a headache this morning? There’s some aspirin in the cupboard.”
“I hope you don’t mind the shades.” “No. Of course not.”
I found a can of refrigerated cinnamon rolls and popped them in the oven. By the time I pulled them out, we’d started on a fresh pot of coffee.
“Those sure smell good,” Cole commented.
“Homemade would be better, but this is the best I could do on such short notice.”
After breakfast, Cole helped me clean up.
“Why did you come over this morning? I never did ask you.”
Cole blushed. “I. . .er. . .I just wanted to see you. I had such a good time last night that I thought we could figure out something to do today if you’re not busy. Are you?”
“No. I don’t have any plans.”
“Great! Would you like to go for a drive? I’ll even spring for lunch.”
“Just a minute. . .”
I turned on the dishwasher and listened to the machine start to hum. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”
I grabbed my purse and followed Cole out the door, but gasped in surprise when I saw his car.
“I didn’t realize you had a Jag. I’ve always wanted one.”
“Me too,” he laughed. “I kind of collect sports cars.”
“How many do you have?”
Cole was a great conversationalist and he kept me laughing as we drove through the quiet countryside. We stopped at a small deli on the way back to town. After lunch, he drove me home.
“I’ve had a great time today, Cole. Thanks!”
“Thank you for coming.” He paused a moment. “I plan to drive around and see the Christmas lights tonight. I hear there are some mind-blowing displays this year. Would you like to come?”
I didn’t want to sound too eager. “Sure, why not? I love Christmas lights.”
“Great! I’ll pick you up at six and we can have dinner first.”
After Cole dropped me off, I stood in the window watching him drive away. I knew I liked him, but what would Nora say when she found out? I pushed the thought of Nora away and went to take a shower. I knew I’d figure out a way to deal with her.
Cole and I started going out and I wondered if I should buy him something for Christmas. The holiday was only a week away. I decided to go with my gut and get the guy something. It couldn’t be too personal. I didn’t want to scare him away.
Meanwhile, Nora wasn’t speaking to me. Someone told her about Cole and me, and she threw a fit. “Don’t you know you could put my job at risk, Tess? What if you dump him and he takes it out on me?”
“I thought you wanted me to have a man in my life!”
“I do, but I don’t want it to be my boss. So stop seeing him!”
“Sorry. No can do. I like Cole—a lot. And I’m not going to run him off because you tell me to. You don’t run my life, Nora.”
“I think you should find a new best friend.”
“Sounds good to me,” I said and hung up the phone. There was no use trying to persuade Nora that dating Cole wouldn’t affect her. It was futile to try.
Cole looked good in red, so I hunted through the stores until I found him a bright red sweater. It was a gift that wouldn’t scare him off. I didn’t think he’d be easy to scare off, but I didn’t want to chance it. Better to get him a safe gift like the sweater.
We were getting closer every day and I wondered when Cole would try to make love to me. So far he hadn’t even tried once. I knew he respected me, but did he want me? The memories of my time with Jake still haunted me. He’d pretended to be a gentleman, too, and he’d conned me good. I didn’t feel Cole would do it, but sometimes I was a poor judge of character.
Christmas Eve found me preparing dinner for Cole. It would be just the two of us. His present sat under the tree—a bright green package with a large red bow on it. I was chopping carrots when the doorbell rang.
“Coming!” I called.
I opened the door and gasped. “What are you doing here?”
“Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas, Tess. Don’t you recognize me?”
The department store Santa stood on my doorstep with a gift and a bottle of wine in his hands.
“Cole? Is that you?”
“What you don’t recognize me? Oh. . . I forgot. This is the first time you’ve seen me without my shades. Or at least the first time you’ve seen Cole without his.”
I frowned, uncertain whether to laugh or cry.
“Please don’t be angry. I know I should have told you that I fill in for Santa at the department store sometimes, but I wanted to surprise you. Please don’t be mad at me.”
“Is that why you’ve been wearing the sunglasses?”
“Yes. But I really do have issues with light sensitivity.”
“Yeah. Right,” I said as I started to close the door.
“Wait!” he said, as he pushed against it. “Please give me another chance, Tess. I promise I’ll be honest with you.”
“Oh, all right. Come in, but don’t think I’ve let you off the hook for this.”
“You won’t be sorry,” he said. “Something smells good, what are you cooking?”
“Something light. We’re invited over to my parent’s house tomorrow for a feast.”
Santa—I mean, Cole—followed me into the kitchen. I turned around to get something and bumped right into him. That’s when he kissed me.
“I brought mistletoe,” he whispered in a husky voice. I looked up and saw the sprig he’d been holding over our heads.
I laughed. “You think of everything, don’t you?”
“I do my best.”
Before I could say another word, Cole scooped me up and carried me out of the kitchen.
“Put me down!”
“Well at least tell me where you’re taking me.”
Cole didn’t say anything until we entered my bedroom and he laid me on my bed. He lay next to me and began kissing me all over. An hour later, I felt at peace wrapped in his arms. I’d never felt that way before, not even with Jake.
“I’ll be right back,” Cole said as he gently pushed me back on my pillow. He returned a moment later with a small package in his hand.
“This is for you, from Santa.”
My heart thundered in my chest as I tore the wrapping from the gift.
“Oh, Cole, it’s beautiful! Thank you.”
He helped me put the heart shaped necklace around my neck, and kissed me afterwards.
“This is going to be a great Christmas,” I whispered.
Then I remembered something. “I heard you promise that little boy that you’d find me and give me a gift.”
“I did. Just remember, Santa always keeps his promise.”
I smiled and kissed him back. “He’d better.”
“Merry Christmas, Tess.”
Two years have passed since Cole and I got married. Everyone likes to joke and call me Mrs. Claus, but I don’t mind.