What happens when the Santa mannequin you end up sitting on…isn’t a mannequin after all?
Emma could never imagine that taking a seat on the lap of the Santa mannequin would lead to a Christmas flirtation with the possibility of oh so much more.
Noah’s used to women chasing him after being named one of the city’s most eligible bachelors. But Emma is completely different from every other woman he’s met. Suddenly he’s the one seemingly doing the chasing.
Can he turn this flirtationship into something real?
AVAILABLE NOVEMBER 29th, 2020
Read for FREE in Kindle Unlimited!
paperback coming soon
“Thanks for shopping with us at Sweet Inspirations, enjoy the cookies…” I said for what felt like the thousandth time today, handing over the shopping bag filled with fresh-baked goodies to the harried-looking, thirty-something mom and her young toddler, who was already sneaking one last cookie from the sample tray.
Literally, the last cookie.
I sighed to myself as they walked away then glanced around the small little area in front of the bakery counter. Enough time to fill the tray back up—everyone else seemed like they were browsing the display cases and not yet in need of assistance…which, in this case, was just me.
I need more staff.
My baker, Ronnie—already working another extra shift—was on an extended lunch break before going on a marathon to restock everything we had already sold out by mid-afternoon.
I pushed through the swinging door decorated with a large cardboard Santa that had a bag of presents over his arm, into the spotless kitchen, and set the tray down in the oversized stainless-steel sink, grabbing a fresh one from the counter.
I put a forest green napkin with Noël printed on it and started setting out a mixture of cookies—chocolate chip, cherry, shortbread, gingerbread—and added a couple pieces of chocolate fudge from the cooler. I hesitated over the last piece on the sheet, then thought what the hell and popped it into my mouth.
The chocolatey sweetness melted in my mouth, and I smiled as my eyes closed for just a few seconds. Just enough of a pick-me-up to get me through the rest of the shift.
I grabbed another small handful of napkins and headed back up front, setting the tray down on the edge of the counter then looked around. No more than a handful of people at the tables, drinking tea and coffee and having a cookie or two along the way.
A man and his young daughter were browsing the cookies through the display window.
“Did you want to try one?” I offered with a smile, the sample tray in my hands again.
“Why not?” The dad picked two cookies, handing the shortbread to his daughter and taking the gingerbread for himself.
“Let me know if you need anything.” With another smile, I then headed back, closer to the till. One of the older women from the tables was returning to the counter, no doubt for a refill. I smiled as she held her cup out to me.
“You’re going to run out before the night’s through,” she said with a grin.
“The coffee or the cookies?” I laughed, turning to refill her coffee.
“Both. Can I get two more of the oversized?” She pointed to the cookies in the display case.
“Of course.” I picked up a plate from beneath the counter and added two of the jumbo-sized chocolate chip cookies onto it.
She slid a five-dollar bill across the counter to me. “Keep the change.”
I smiled to myself while ringing it up on the register and glanced around once more. Things were picking up again. It was almost the dinner hour, and no doubt more people would be headed to the food court.
The store cell phone rang, blaring out a peppy rendition of ‘Merry Christmas Baby.’ I answered on the second line of the song, propping it against my shoulder.
I recognized the voice. One of my newest hires. “Hey, Lynn.”
“So a little bit of bad news…”
My stomach dropped at her words. “How bad is bad?”
“I can’t make it in tonight. My tire’s flat, and the service said it would be almost two hours.”
“Perfect.” A sigh escaped me. That was going to leave me almost on my own for the night.
“I’ll make it up.”
I could hear the apology in her voice. “It’s okay, don’t worry about it. Stay safe. We’ll talk later.”
I ended the call and tucked the phone into my apron, then served another handful of customers, welcomed back my baker who I sent straight back to work, and tried to figure out who I could call on short notice.
There was one name. And she’d hate me for doing it, but desperate times, desperate measures. I picked my cell phone up and hit her number.
It rang two and a half times before she picked it up. I glanced at the time. She could already be on her date.
“Hello?” Her voice was a tad bit breathless like she’d rushed to the phone.
“Hey yourself. What’s up?”
“I kind need you to come in.” I took the order from the man at the counter, added the dozen assorted cookies to the cardboard box, and started putting it together.
I sighed, wrapping the red satin ribbon around the box and hastily tying the bow, then straightened it before adding it to the gift bag and passing it to the man who was holding out a twenty-dollar bill. “I need you to come in.”
I rang up his purchase, then handed over the receipt and his change.
“And I need to be on this date. Do you know how long it’s been?’
As Meg’s best friend, I probably should have known the answer off by heart. But right now, my mind was blank. “Weeks.”
“Months. Months and months and months.”
“I’ll fire you.”
“I can get another job easier than another date lately.”
“I hate you.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Then I won’t be coming in early tomorrow. You can handle it all by yourself.”
“I will.” She sounded adamant, which meant no use arguing with her. “See you later.”
I sighed, turning my phone off and slipping it inside my jeans pocket. The Christmas music overhead blared loud and clear, and I swore they’d upped the level just a touch. A glance at my watch showed still at least another three hours of this. And it was starting to get crazy busy. Half a dozen people were scanning the display cases. A few more were starting to line up, and a couple were waiting for a spot at the tables before placing an order. The traffic in the mall itself had been picking up, too, in the last little while. I figured the weather warning they’d issued earlier that morning had passed, or people had just decided to brave the conditions anyway.
I pulled my phone back out and sent a quick text, before grabbing a few things and heading to the back for a moment.
The kitchen smelled of freshly baked cookies, gingerbread mixed with chocolate chip and shortbread, the last ones Ronnie had taken out of the oven before she’d reluctantly gone out on her late lunch break.
I moved around the impeccably clean space, the bright overhead lights a contrast to the softer lighting we had up front. I set the tray down in the oversized stainless-steel sink, then opened one of the nearby drawers, pulling a festive Christmas napkin from the stack within.
I loved the holidays and made sure we had every little extra touch I could find. From snowman and snowflake tissue paper to snowman-printed ribbon and wrapping paper, to the napkins and the holiday mugs.
I’d wanted to create an experience. A brief escape.
I opened one of the fridge doors, finding the waiting stacks of freshly cut fudge, chocolate, mint, and cherry. The specials for the day. We changed the menu almost weekly during the holidays.
Ronnie had come up with some fabulous recipes—cakes, cookies, pies, fudge.
She smiled as she came in, setting down her purse in the small staff nook in the back before coming back out. Her cheeks held a hint of pink, fresh from her walk back into the mall. “I got your text. What’s up?”
“Short-staffed. Any chance your daughter is in need of some extra Christmas money?”
Ronnie had a nineteen-year-old daughter who’d helped out during the summer.
“When does she not?” She laughed softly. “Layla would love to.”
“Can she work tonight? I need help at the counter, boxing and putting things together.”
“I’ll get her on the phone.”
I smiled. Layla was capable, friendly, and above all right now, available.
I handed Ronnie my phone to call her.
Half an hour later, Layla was there, her hair pulled back in a smooth ponytail, black sweater and jeans on, reindeer earrings dangling, and a smile on her face as she refilled the sample tray and helped customers. When there was finally a lull, I grabbed her a drink from the cooler in the back.
“Thank you. I owe you one,” I said, holding the drink out to her.
“It’s fine. Thanks for thinking of me.” She took a sip of the soda then smiled.
I nodded. “If you’ve got some extra time over the break…”
Clearly. If Meg’s social life suddenly improved, I was going to be more than looking. I was going to need to hire a lot of extra help. My best friend had been one of the reasons the place had taken off the way it had; she’d put in almost as many hours as I did some days to get everything up and running, and now, three years later, it seemed to be paying off. Or at least starting to head in the right direction.
“Count me in.”
“Great. I’ll look at the calendar tomorrow and get you on schedule.”
As soon as things started to die down a bit, I put her to work helping at the counter, taking orders, and then eventually taking over while I went to the back to help Ronnie out.
She handed me the newest inventory, and I sighed, rubbing my forehead on the way to get my phone and open the app to re-order what she needed for the next morning.
Before I knew it, the last of the shoppers were streaming out of the café, and Layla took the last of the cups and plates to the back just as the overhead announcement came through the space.
“Thank you for shopping at the Kenton Town Centre mall…it’s nine o’clock and our stores are now closed. Please exit through entrances three, fifteen, nineteen, and twenty-two. Our mall will reopen at ten a.m. tomorrow for your shopping convenience. Happy Holidays from everyone here at Kenton Town Centre.”
I hadn’t been so relieved to hear the mall is closed announcement in ages. Ronnie helped me with closing as Layla pulled the doors shut across the front of the store and locked them tight, officially marking us as closed for the night. I breathed a sigh of relief, letting myself finally feel the soreness caused by my high heels.
We restocked the bags for the morning, brought up more boxes from the storage closet, then cleaned the machines. Everything else was taken care of. I was the last one out and locked the door before stepping out into the mall. Most of the stores’ lights were on, with staff doing just what we’d been busy with, clean up and restocking. The holidays were chaotic, for sure. And it was still only less than halfway through December—still a long way to go before we turned the calendar page and things started going back to normal.
“Do you want to grab a bite?” Ronnie asked as we set the last of the supplies out for the front of the café.
Meg was going to open in the morning, whether she liked it or not. Ronnie would be back before sunrise to start on the next day’s baking. At least, she had assistants helping in the morning, helping fill the small menu for the day.
“I think I just want to go home and soak my feet…” I wiggled my toes experimentally and found them not wiggling in the slightest.
Ronnie laughed at what no doubt was the look of pure exhaustion on my face. “Maybe tomorrow?”
“Absolutely. And on me, both of you. Thanks for helping out, Layla. You helped more than you know.”
“And I’ll text you the schedule tomorrow.”
“I can come in same time, if you want?”
“That would be great.”
I waved as they walked off, then checked the gate one last time before I turned and started making my way down to the far side of the mall where I’d parked. My jacket was slung over my arm—no need to put it on while still inside.
I walked carefully, my feet making me more than aware with every step that those boots had been a very, very bad idea.
But they’d looked so good this morning with my jeans and red sweater.
I slowed down my pace, telling myself to enjoy the festive sights of the empty mall. The tall Christmas trees decorated with metallic ornaments in silver, gold, green, blue, and red, every tree with a different color scheme.
The stores I passed were still lit up, employees doing what we’d been, restocking, cleaning up. Music streamed out from one or two. I waved at a familiar face in one of the shoe stores.
The Christmas decor was everywhere: on storefronts, their windows decorated, some appearing as though it was a frosted glass. Boughs hung from above, with bright oversized shiny red, silver, and gold ornaments decorating their greenery. I rounded the corner slowly, my feet once again making me question the wisdom of parking so far away. Every step generated another beyond painful pinch of my toes and I was super sure I’d be the proud owner of a new blister or two on the back of my heels.
Maybe tomorrow, I’d break tradition and park a lot closer.
I kept my eyes out for any bench or available seat, but, because of the holidays, every bench and seat had been removed for more kiosks and Christmas trees.
Apparently, the mall’s motto was the more kiosks, the better.
I sighed, my steps becoming more and more of a slight hobble with every slow step forward, and then I rounded the corner and found myself facing a possible oasis.
They’d redone it this year. It had been a cabin scene the last few years I’d been there, but now…it was entirely different. Brand new and majestic, this one was almost two levels high, kind of reminiscent in some parts of a silvery, snowy gingerbread house without the roof. It had thick candy cane pillars, and enough glistening silver sparkles to reflect any light anywhere. Maybe that’s why those stores were dark.
I’d barely paid it a lot of attention when it had gone up, but now… now, it had my full attention.
The elves who waved people in to see Santa usually had a stool, didn’t they?
I was really sure they did.
Slowly, I inched closer, my heels clacking loudly in the quiet, crossing my fingers there would be something to sit on within a manageable distance.
The bright, red plush carpet that led visitors inside was cut off by two golden poles and a velvet rope with a wooden sign asking patrons to come back again tomorrow.
I moved one of the poles back slightly, giving myself just enough space to squeeze through between the pole and the entrance of Santa’s property, and stepped in.
It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the difference in lighting inside Santa’s space. My gaze roamed over the nearby area where the elf would be stationed.
A small high counter and register, but no stool for the poor elf to sit on.
If there had been one, it was well hidden away by now.
A dejected sigh escaped me as I glanced around the set-up.
I definitely needed a spot to sit for a minute or two.
There was no way I was going to make it to my car without stopping for a break where I could actually sit down—and sitting on the ground wasn’t an option, because once I got down, there was no way I’d be able to get back up without twisting, or worse yet, breaking my ankle in these stupid boots.
A person needed a place to sit, and for this person, the throne Santa sat on looked as good a place as any.
The closer I got, the more I realized there was a figure in the chair.
Along with the lifelike figure of Mrs. Claus over by the corner window and an elf across the way, they’d really gone all out to make it look real. Putting a fake Santa in the chair while the real guy was out getting a coffee was a cute idea.
I looked around.
Definitely no one walking around yet. And I didn’t plan to be there that long—five, ten minutes tops, just to give myself a break and get out of these shoes.
Decision made, I headed over, tottering a little more in my heels than normal.
I let out a deep breath while sitting down on Santa’s lap, letting my eyes close for a couple moments as I leaned back into Santa’s broad chest.
I smiled in relief, nestling against the soft velvet of his coat, took another deep breath as I opened my eyes.
I reached into my purse and took out my cell phone. Might as well take a selfie while there. It really was a cute set-up, and I wouldn’t have a chance to get a pic in there any other time.
I brought up the camera, found the perfect angle, and smiled brightly as I snapped the picture.
The first one looked a little blurred.
One more, I thought with a small nod.
I adjusted myself just a little, leaning more into Santa’s chest, angling the camera a little higher.
I took a second.
My lights even seemed to sparkle with the twinkle lights still going on.
“Decided to stop and see whether I was naughty or nice…” I said, typing out my caption as I leaned forward.
I swore I heard a low laugh.
I shook my head, admonishing myself for skipping dinner. Three gingerbread cookies and a few pieces of fudge did not make for a meal replacement. I’d stop at a drive-thru on my way home, treat myself to some onion rings and caffeine, then go home, eat, and soak my feet.
I hit post, then put my phone back in my cross-body bag. Then leaning forward, I undid the zipper down the side of left boot then slid it off.
I even wiggled my toes for a moment or two, swearing I had feeling in them once again.
I repeated it with the other, undid the zipper, about to let the boot fall to the carpet with a soft thud like the first had…except this time, I leaned too far forward when I reached the bottom of the boot.
I started falling forward.
Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion as I tipped forward, my arms flailing for a second while I tried to figure out the best way to land.
“Fruitcake!” I yelled my work-safe swear word while preparing to take a tumble.
Suddenly, a pair of strong arms encased in rich red velvet wrapped around my waist to keep me from falling any further.
Santa is real!