Miracles don’t just happen on 34th Street. They can happen right in your living room—if you’re willing to believe…
What grown woman claims to have seen Santa Claus? Mandy Reese, for one—on a very special Christmas Eve when she was eight years old. These days, Mandy works at a year-round Christmas store in Tall Pine, California, where customers love to hear about her childhood encounter with Saint Nick. But when Jake Wyndham arrives in town—charming, gorgeous, extremely practical—Mandy faces a dilemma. Deny what she saw, or let Jake think she’s sugarplum crazy?
Jake scouts hotel locations all over the country, but he’s never met anyone quite like Mandy before. Her warmth and sparkle are irresistible, but…meeting Santa? Really? Jake’s no Scrooge but he’s definitely skeptical. Then again, there are all kinds of things Jake never experienced until he came to Tall Pine. Like autumn snow. Mind blowing kisses. And the magic of falling head-over-heels, madly in love…
Mandy had only been to Barrymore’s Steakhouse once before, on an ill-fated date a couple of years ago. Fact: still believing in Santa Claus at the age of twenty-two made even the former high school chess-club champion feel cool by comparison. He’d laughed at her. Then tried to backtrack. The evening had never quite recovered, and she hadn’t gone out with him again.
She wasn’t going to let that happen tonight.
If Jake stayed around very long, it was just a matter of time before he heard she’d seen Santa
Claus. But like Cinderella with her conjured dress and pumpkin coach, Mandy wanted at least one night of being normal. Of not trying to explain herself.
“That’ll be all. Thanks.” Jake handed the menus back to the waiter, a thirtyish blond man she didn’t recognize. It was the main reason she’d chosen this restaurant. At any of the places on Evergreen Lane, someone on the staff was likely to be an old classmate, or one of their siblings. It was a wonder that Mandy hadn’t known the girl who took their order at the Pine ’n’ Dine this afternoon.
“So, I promised you no shoptalk,” Jake said. “Tonight it’s your turn. Has Christmas always been a big deal for you?”
“Always.” If you only knew. “I know some people get tired of it. I’ve just never been one of them.”
“Oh, I think most people like Christmas. It’s just that for most people, once a year is enough.”
“You know, people say that to me all the time. But they still come into the store.” A smile touched her lips. “You did.”
“You’ve got me there.”
Jake had changed into a crisp white shirt with a deep brown tie and a tweedy light brown jacket. Almost like the kind of coat professors were supposed to wear, except that he looked way too young to be a professor. He managed to look dressy and casual at the same time. She knew he’d never been here before, but there was something in the way he sat back from the table that gave the impression of comfort.
Mandy picked up her water glass. “Here’s what I see every day. Some customers are like me. They love it right away. Then there are the ones like you. Their first reaction is, ‘What the heck?’ But they come in a little farther, like they’re trying to figure it out. They look around, they hear the music . . . and it usually happens. They get that Christmas feeling.”
Jake’s eyes glinted. “And they usually buy something.”
“Well, usually. But that’s not the point.”
“Sure it is. The store’s in business to make money.”
“Okay. But what do the customers get out of it?”
When he didn’t reply, she answered for him: “A little piece of Christmas.”
“You’re right. If a business doesn’t supply a benefit, it doesn’t stay in business. But for you, that little piece of Christmas is there twelve months a year. Doesn’t it get . . .”
“Less special? Not for me.” Mandy considered. “The way I see it, those other eleven months out of the year—they’re mine. When the whole world isn’t surrounded by Christmas, and people aren’t so busy getting stressed out about it, they come into The North Pole and just enjoy it. And I get to give them that.”
Jake nodded. He seemed satisfied. Maybe even impressed. “You win.” He picked up his glass of soda. “I’m not a total Scrooge, by the way.”
“Not many people are. It’s just easy to lose sight of Christmas when you’re right in the middle of it. What’s Christmas like for you?”
“Well, it’s the one day of the year I know I won’t be working.”
Mandy flinched. “Seriously?”
“Okay, I’m exaggerating. It’s a couple of days. And I always spend it with my family. It’s . . .” He shook his head with a smile. “Chaos. Complete and utter chaos. My dad calls it the annual invasion.”
That sounded better. “Relatives?”
He nodded. “Two days before Christmas, everyone converges on my parents’ house. And I mean everyone. There’s me, my mom and dad, my older brother and his wife. They have a little girl, Emily. That’s who the pinecone necklace is for. But then there are aunts, uncles, cousins . . . and tons of food. My mom cooks a lot of it, but everyone brings more. There are kids you haven’t seen for a year, so you’re trying to keep everybody’s name straight, what grade they’re in, and who got their braces off, and it doesn’t really matter because you can’t hear a thing.”
“It sounds wonderful.”
“I guess it is.” His gaze drifted past her, and Mandy knew he wasn’t seeing the inside of the restaurant at all. “The only one who’s not making a racket is my dad. He’ll sit in his armchair while everybody’s rushing around. He acts like he thinks everybody else is nuts, but you can tell he loves it. But by the next day, everybody clears out to go to their own homes. My brother and his family usually stay a little later. It’s amazing how much quieter the house seems with only six people in it.”
“And Christmas Eve?”
“Really quiet. Lots of last-minute preparations behind closed doors. Then usually we’ll watch a movie. It’s kind of the calm after the chaos. Then in the morning, we open presents and go out to breakfast. But the best part is all the buildup.”
Mandy nodded. “That’s because when it comes, it’s over so fast.”
“Unless you work at a Christmas store.”
Jake picked up his drink. “What about you? What do you do for Christmas?”
“A little quieter than that. The last couple of years, I’ve had dinner at Mrs. Swanson’s. She’s the owner of the shop. This year I think I’m going to invite her over instead. I’ve never cooked a turkey by myself before.”
He frowned. “Where’s your family?”
Mandy took in a deep, slow breath. “I lost my mom three years ago. Everybody else is out of state.”
Jake looked startled. He set down his glass. “She couldn’t have been very old. What happened?”
“An aneurysm. One of those things you don’t see coming. She was forty-seven.”
“What about your father?”
“They got divorced when I was eight.” She felt a tight smile cross her face. “He came to the funeral.”
“I’m sorry. I had no idea.”
“Of course you didn’t. You just met me.” She shook her head. “But it’s okay. The thing about my mom . . .” She stirred her iced tea with her straw, aware of Jake’s eyes on her. “She did so much, and I just didn’t realize it. You don’t think about those things when you’re a kid. She must have worked so hard. She worked at the bank up here, so I was a latchkey kid, but when she got home, she always had time for me. She made sure I knew I was important to her. We never had a lot of extra, but we didn’t need much.”
She didn’t go into the rest of it. After her mother died, Mandy found out just how hard her mother had worked to make sure her daughter would be all right. The house was paid off, so it was Mandy’s, free and clear. There had even been an insurance policy for good measure. Not bad for a reluctantly single mother.
Mandy tried to put her finger on what she wanted to say. “I wish I could have had her longer. Of course. But . . . she left me with something. She made me want to make other people happy. Maybe that’s what my job is really about.” Jake studied her, his eyes quiet and direct. She just hoped he didn’t feel sorry for her.
“I’ve never met anyone like you,” he said finally. By the time they left the restaurant, the sky was darkening, and a chill had crept into the air. Mandy slipped her sweater on. As they walked toward the car’s parking spot alongside the curb, Jake took her hand. Her fingers curled around his, and she was surprised how comfortable it felt.
“Still up for a movie?” he asked.
She hesitated for an instant. “Sure.”
Tall Pine Cineplex was the only theater in town. On a Saturday night, there was an awfully good chance she might run into someone from her old school there, and there was no telling where the conversation might go. She’d just have to think on her feet.
Jake stopped and turned her toward him just before they reached the car. “Mandy.”
She hadn’t realized until now just how much taller he was; even in her heeled boots, she needed to tilt her head back to look up at him.
His eyes were fixed on hers in that direct stare she was beginning to know. Now he seemed as close to being uncertain as she’d seen tonight. Somehow, Mandy found that reassuring.
“There’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while,” he said. “And I’m hoping you won’t mind.”
He stepped down from the curb, taking his height down several inches. He still stood taller than Mandy, but now his mouth was just slightly above hers. Jake lifted his hand and ran a finger lightly down the side of her cheek. There was no mistaking what he meant.
Mandy thought of the way it felt when she jumped into the cold water of the Tall Pine pond on a hot summer day.
I’m not ready for this. . . .
Running his fingers underneath her jawline, Jake tipped her chin up toward him. Her heart was thrumming so loudly she was sure he could hear it.
I haven’t had nearly enough practice at this. . . .
His lips met hers lightly, and Mandy felt something inside melt. She closed her eyes and drank in the warmth, the softness, the nearness. His other hand came up to frame her face. The kiss was gentle, unhurried, and the street around them felt unusually still. It was as if the world had paused.
Oh, I could do a lot more of this.
Her knees were shaking, so she brought her arms up around his waist and held on.
Why had she thought she needed a sweater?
After another long, melting moment, he lifted his head and smiled. “I hope you don’t mind,” he repeated.
Mandy didn’t trust her voice. She nodded. Then shook her head.
She felt light as a feather, and she knew it was too good to be true. She might not turn into a pumpkin at midnight, but this couldn’t last. A little voice in her head nagged her: You know you can’t keep this up, right?
She brushed the little voice aside with, I can try.
printed page. She is a firm believer in Christmas, classic movies, happy endings and the healing power of chocolate. Sierra’s first novel, Love On The Air, was a Holt Medallion finalist. Her 2014 Kensington debut, No Christmas Like The Present, won the Golden Quill Award for Sweet Traditional Romance. Her 2015 novel, Do You Believe In Santa? marks the beginning of Sierra’s new Evergreen Lane series. You can email Sierra at email@example.com, or visit her website at http://www.sierradonovan.com.