Kris woke up spread eagle on his kitchen floor feeling like he’d been hit by a runaway sleigh attached to twelve rabid reindeer. He remembered going to Yule Tide’s with Nick and Rudy—two school buddies he hadn’t seen in ages. Rudy, because he’d moved away from the tiny town of North Pole, Maine years ago and now lived in New York City. Nick, because even in a town with the population of twelve hundred and two, life got in the way. Plus, with everything going to shit between the economy, lagging tourism and finally, the last insult, no snow...well, it made a person want to hole up and be alone.
Kris had been doing a lot of that lately.
But Rudy was in town for a short trip and he’d been buying. They’d drank beer, then tequila, then something pink and sweet with the word fuzzy in it, then more beer, then...well, who the hell knew what then. Certainly not Kris.
He sat, holding his pounding head on his shoulders with one hand to make sure it didn't roll off. The other clutched a black velvet bag. Kris stared at it for a moment.
He had no idea where it had come from or how it had come to be in his possession, but he had such a tight grip on the thing that his hand hurt. The bag was huge and at the bottom was a bulge that indicated it wasn’t empty.
Jesus, had he robbed somebody?
He discarded the horrified idea at once. No way. He hadn’t been that drunk.
Cautiously, he loosened his grip and peered inside. He caught a glimpse of something red, something white and something kind of creamy yellow. Frowning, he reached inside and one of those somethings moved.
With a shout he released the bag and hit his feet. WTF?
As he stared at the bag, the bulge at the bottom separated, became two bumps—one stationary and the other squirming like a whole nest of snakes. Except it wasn’t making snake noises. As Kris watched, the wiggling bump moved to the lip of the bag and out popped...
Where the hell had he gotten a puppy? And why had he stuffed it in a bag?
“Hey, there,” he said, hunkering down beside it. It was a cute little lab with golden fur and big brown eyes. It wagged its whole body in its excitement to see him, set its front paws on Kris’s thigh and stretched up to lick his chin. “Where did you come from?”
“Wruff,” it answered and licked him again.
Kris rubbed the little fat puppy’s belly before digging in the bag again, intrigued at what else might be in there. He pulled out a red hat with a white trim at the crown and a fluffy white ball at the end. A Santa hat. Ho, ho, ho. Scowling, he reached in again and out came a Santa suit—jacket and pants. Shiny black belt and boots followed. At the very bottom was a cheesy beard, wig and...a miniature Santa hat and a leash.
“I think that one’s yours,” he said to the dog.
“Wruff,” the puppy answered.
As he stared at the bizarre collection and the black bag which, of course, was meant to hold toys for all the good little boys and girls, he had to wonder yet again...what had been in that fuzzy, pink drink?
He had no recollection of when, where, or why he’d lifted a puppy and a Santa suit, but somewhere in that alcohol saturated memory of his, he remembered a guy dressed like the jolly fat man himself, scolding Kris for being such a Scrooge and telling him he’d been relegated to the Naughty List.
Kris let out a shaky laugh that made his head hurt even worse. Had to be a dream—a nightmare. Kris dreaded Christmas—had since he was a boy and his dad had died on Christmas eve, followed a few years later by his mother—not on Christmas eve, but close enough to make December and all the holiday cheer, just a grim reminder of two people he’d loved who died too young.
He shook his head, rattling the few brain cells that had survived the drinking binge, and returned his attention to the bag, the suit and the puppy. Where had all this stuff come from? The pup gave him another lick, pranced in a circle around his feet and then trotted over and peed on his kitchen floor.
“Outstanding,” he said, shaking his pounding head. With a weary sigh, he got out the paper towels and disinfectant. The pup tugged at his pant legs as he cleaned the puddle, thinking it all great fun.
“You may be cute, but you’re not that cute.”
Deciding he’d better take the little mutt out before it decided to do other things to his floor, Kris scooped it up and headed for the door. The squirming bundle of fur thought this a grand adventure and nearly wiggled right out of his hands in its effort to lick Kris’s ears. Kris tried not to be charmed by the creature, but who could help it?
He turned the knob on the backdoor and pulled. The door didn’t budge. He tried again, finally risking putting the puppy down so he could use both hands. He twisted and turned, pulled until the tendons in his arms bulged and it felt like his head might explode. Nothing.
Cursing under his breath, he double checked that he’d thrown the locks, confirmed that, indeed, the bolts were back. But the damned door wouldn’t open. At his feet, the pup whined.
“I know, I know,” Kris muttered.
He moved to the front door, dog at his heels. That door wouldn’t budge either.
“Damn it,” he shouted, putting his weight into the task, thinking the wood must have swollen in the damp. But it wasn’t damp out. It had been the driest winter anyone could recall. No snow. No rain. No hint of either. A heat wave in North Pole, Maine with Christmas just around the corner. It was beyond comprehension.
Pissed off and hung-over, he turned around in frustration and let out a startled shout. The Santa suit and bag he’d left on the floor now lay carefully arranged over the back of his sofa. Jacket spread out above the pants, belt looped at the waist. Boots at the end of the white cuffed legs. Hat beside them.
Kris looked at the puppy. The miniature Santa hat sat propped at a jaunty angle over one of its ears.
“How’d you do that?” he demanded.
Predictably, the puppy answered, “Wruff.”
Angry now, feeling like the brunt of a joke he hadn’t gotten, Kris stormed to the back door and jerked on the knob again. It gave not an inch. Feeling trapped, confused, and at the end of his rope, he turned and found the Santa suit had relocated to the kitchen. With the same meticulous placement, the suit sprawled across his kitchen table.
“What the fuck is going on?” he demanded.
Another ten minutes of trying to escape his own damn house and Kris grabbed a hammer from his tool belt and busted one of the panes of glass in the backdoor. He reached out and tried the knob from the other side with no success. Cursing wildly now, he busted all the glass panes in the door, pounded down the spindly frames and tried to climb through the opening.
An invisible force pushed him back so hard he fell on his ass. Shaken, freaked out, pissed off and still hung-over, Kris gave it the good fight, trying again and again while the puppy watched with its head tilted curiously, offering encouraging barks every once in awhile.
Finally, exhausted and so confused he couldn’t think straight, Kris collapsed on the floor, sitting with his back to the wall and his hands dangling between his bent knees. The puppy happily jumped on his lap and begin licking him again.
A shower made him feel better. Clean, shaved, teeth brushed and three extra strength aspirin later, he’d convinced himself that he’d overreacted. The doors had been stuck—sure. But that stupid suit hadn’t moved and nothing had pushed him back from crawling through the broken glass to freedom. Obviously he’d still been a little drunk and considering he’d consumed enough to forget how he’d ended up with a puppy and the Santa bag, he shouldn’t be too surprised that a few hours sleep hadn’t cured his intoxication. But now he felt clearheaded and ready to face the day, return the stolen goods if he could find their owners, and get on with things.
He reached for the clean clothes he’d set on the bathroom counter. They weren’t there. Towel wrapped around his hips, he went into the bedroom, thinking he’d been mistaken about where he’d left them. What he found was the Santa suit spread out on his bed. The puppy snoozed in a little ball, half in, half out of one of the toppled boots. Frowning, Kris hurried to his closet and pulled out a pair of jeans, a long-sleeved t-shirt and socks. He yanked the shirt over his head, donned a pair of boxers and stepped into his jeans, catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror as he reached for his work boots.
He was dressed in the Santa suit.
The sight of his reflection caught him like a blow. He spun, looking at the bed where the suit had been laid out. His jeans and t-shirt waited in its place.
For half an hour, Kris had tried to get the stupid suit off but like the doors that wouldn’t open, he’d failed. Finally, after being manipulated by God knew what freak of nature, he’d found himself fully garbed, from white wig, to beard, to shiny black boots. His front door opened without so much as a squeak. The backdoor, too.
The puppy yapped with glee when he put on its leash and headed out, its little red and white hat bobbing merrily as it trotted ahead of him. It seemed to know where it wanted to go. Dazed and numb, Kris followed it.
The streets of North Pole, Maine, looked bare and sorrowful with only a few intrepid shoppers out and about. He remembered going to Las Vegas once. He’d arrived at night amidst the glow of casino lights. The place had seemed magical to him. But the next morning, lit by the unforgiving sun, it had looked dry and dirty and completely without allure.
That’s how North Pole felt these days. The flailing economy had taken a toll on this town. An apartment building just off Prancer Street that had once sported blooming poinsettias and immaculate lawns had been foreclosed on. Rumor had it that new owners had bought in, but Kris couldn’t see any signs of life in its future. The dark windows and dead plants served as a grim reminder of North Pole’s future. It felt like the whole town might dry up and blow away before too long.
“Look, Mommy, Santa Claus!” a little girl cried in delight as Kris walked by. Kris recognized her mother, Merry. They’d been neighbors and gone to school together as kids.
He smiled and gave her a self-conscious wave. Yeah, I know I look like an ass. “Hey, Merry,” he said.
Merry returned the greeting with a frowning, nervous glance and kept walking, dragging her kid along when the little girl obviously wanted to pet the puppy.
She’d acted like he was some creepy stranger in a Santa suit out trolling for kids to molest. Granted, after Mr. White—who’d been the town’s Santa for as long as anyone could remember—died, they’d had a couple of really bad Santa wannabes. The first had had the personality of a rock and the second didn’t know what sober might feel like. But Kris had known Merry most of his life and even if they weren’t best friends, she should recognize him behind the ridiculous beard and know that he wasn’t some creep.
Surprised and a little hurt by her reaction, he kept walking. Frank Elveson, another native to North Pole who Kris had known since childhood, passed by, gave him a cheery wave and said, “Hey, Santa,” but Kris didn’t see even a flicker of recognition in his eyes. No curiosity about why Kris would be traipsing down Main Street in a freaking Santa suit. No teasing about the white beard and wig. It made no sense. Kris had been known as the town Scrooge for years. No one should take Kris dressed as Santa as the norm.
Disgusted with everything, he veered into Sugar Plums Bakery for a cup of coffee and a muffin or two. The puppy sniffed with interest and let out a couple of excited yaps as the enticing scents of fresh baked muffins and cookies wafted around them. Jenny Bells—who he now remembered had appointed herself designated driver after finding Kris, Nick and Rudy shitfaced in the bar last night—twinkled at him and the puppy, served him coffee, two pumpkin muffins and a few doggy bagels which, she said, contained only organic ingredients and would be good for the little guy.
But not one single flicker of recognition crossed her features.
“Thanks, Jenny,” he said as she handed the bag over the counter.
Her eyes widened in surprise. “You’re welcome, Santa.”
He stared at her, noting how her eyes scanned his features, searching for something familiar. Searching, and not finding it. This day just got weirder and weirder. A startled bark of laughter burst from his lips. Only it didn’t come out as a chuckle, rife with sarcasm.
It came out, ho ho ho.
No. No. No.
Kris beat it out of there as fast as he could, mindlessly following the puppy which strained at its leash, some destination in mind. It came to a stop at the big, gaudy Santa chair waiting empty, outside of Always Christmas Department store in the shadow of the looming Christmas tree which hadn’t been lit this year due to budget cuts. No money for fixing all the busted and burned out lights.
“Oh hell no,” he told the little dog.
But once again, something gave him a shove and Kris found his ass planted in the chair. Three attempts to get out of it were all it took for Kris to get the message. Like the doors, like the stupid suit, he wouldn’t be escaping until whatever crazy force had hijacked his day was good and ready to set him free.
“What do you think you’re doing?” a woman demanded before he even had the chance to catch his breath.
Kris turned and found Holly McClaussen standing beside him, reaching for a sign that lay face down on the ground beside Santa’s throne. He must have knocked it over. When she lifted it he read, “Santa is out feeding his reindeer.”
Kris took a sip of his coffee, letting his gaze roam lazily over her tight expression and stiff shoulders, thinking seeing her was the best thing to happen to him all day. What he really wanted to do was admire all the nice rounded curves below the scooped neckline of her sweater, but he forced himself not to go there.
“I said, what are you doing in Santa’s chair?” Holly repeated.
“Just enjoying the view,” he murmured, fishing a doggy bagel out and giving it to the puppy before snagging a muffin for himself and taking a bite.
He’d had a thing for Holly since he was thirteen that he’d never really outgrown. But she’d always be a little too...everything for him. Too pretty, too smart, too untouchable. Thinking about her was as far as he ever got. She’d been trying to turn around the downward spiral of her daddy’s department store for years. Rumor had it that old man McClaussen was just too set in his ways to listen to any of her ideas, though. Recently he’d heard that the store teetered at the edge of bankruptcy and some big chain—Smart-Mart—had been sniffing at the property. Nothing good could come of Smart-Mart moving in on them.
Holly brandished the sign in front of him. “This sign was on that chair for a reason, Kris,” she said.
He’d been half certain she, like everyone else, would be fooled by the ridiculous Santa suit and look at him like he was a leper in red felt. Her use of his name filled him with relief.
“You know who I am?”
Her brows shot up. “Funny. The suit is good. Very authentic. But it’s not exactly the greatest disguise in the universe. I can still see your eyes.”
She paused at that and stared into his eyes for a long moment. Kris found himself staring back at her, thinking he’d recognize hers anywhere. They were as blue as the bright sky above them and they reflected every single thought she had. He wondered what they looked like after she’d been kissed breathless. He’d wondered that before. Many times.
“I am surprised to see you in that suit though,” she went on, oblivious to his rising...awareness. “I thought you hated Christmas.”
He did. His dad had been a UPS driver and he’d been delivering those last minute packages when a drunk driver had hit him head on, killing them both. The doctors blamed influenza for his mother’s demise years later, but Kris knew she’d died of a broken heart, made worse by all the garish merriment of the yuletide season.
Before he could answer, Holly said, “I can’t pay you. You can sit here until Christmas comes and goes, but there’s nothing in the budget for Santa.”
He felt himself blushing. “I’m not sitting here to get paid.”
“No? Then why are you?”
“I’m trying to drink my coffee,” he said, popping the last bite of his muffin in his mouth and washing it down with caffeine.
She stared at him for a long moment. “You realize that kids are going to see you. They’re going to want to talk to you.”
Inside his head, a multitude of angry curse words played out. “Yeah, so?”
She sighed with exasperation and Kris couldn’t help but watch her breasts strain against her sweater. He’d thought about them before too.
“So you have to be nice, Kris,” she said. “You can’t tell them to get lost. You have to smile.”
He glared at her.
“Let me hear you say ho ho ho.”
Not on her life. He opened his bag of muffins and pulled the second one out, snagging doggy bagel number two for the puppy as well and tossing it down. Holly watched him through narrowed eyes and after taking a big bite, he offered it to her.
She almost smiled. “I mean it,” she warned. “If I hear any complaints, I’m going to....” She trailed off and he sat calmly, eating his muffin and drinking his coffee.
Finally he prompted, “What? What are you going to do to me, Holly?”
He hadn’t meant it to sound so suggestive—okay, maybe he had—but he and Holly had been circling each other since junior high. Somehow they’d always managed to avoid connecting. He’d gone away to school and by the time he’d come back, she’d gone and gotten married for about a week and a half to some dick she’d met at Boston University. He’d met the guy when she’d brought him home. Kris hadn’t liked him on sight.
But as she stood there now in her boxy red sweater that tried to hide all her lush curves, her straight skirt that covered most of her shapely legs and those sensible heels, Kris wanted nothing more than to change the status quo between them. Except he was stuck in this damned Santa suit and who could take a man dressed like Santa Claus seriously? Especially when said man had been cursed with a name like Kris Kringle in real life?
As if she’d heard his thoughts, she shifted and a faint blush crept up her cheeks. “This is a bad idea,” she said. “I think you should take your muffins and your puppy and go home, Kris.”
“I’d really like to do that Holly,” he said. “But I can’t.”
She narrowed her eyes and leaned toward him. He got a whiff of perfume that smelled so good he wanted to wrap an arm around her and pull her closer. Hell, he wanted to wrap both arms around her and pull her right onto his jolly, old lap.
She frowned. “Are you drunk?”
“Nope.” Not anymore. He was stone cold sober now, like it or not.
His disclaimer seemed to do little to lighten her mood. She said, “You’re not on our payroll. You’re not covered by our insurance. If something happened... If someone tripped on the way up to see you. If you fell out of your chair—”
Kris choked on his coffee. “If I fell out of my chair?” he repeated.
“It could happen.”
He laughed and dammed if that ho, ho, ho didn’t boom out like fireworks on the Fourth of July. All around them people who’d been bustling by, wrapped in their own thoughts, faces strained with the burden of a holiday season without any cheer—all of them stopped and stared.
“Jeez,” Holly said. “That was impressive. But it doesn’t change a thing.”
Actually, it did. Because in that instant, Kris once again had a glimmering memory from the night before. A voice, deep and merry, telling him he’d been a very naughty boy and that it was time to make amends. Disturbed and unsure now if it had been real or an alcohol-induced hallucination, Kris tried to follow the echo of the voice to its source but came up with a blank wall. People in this town told tall tales of meeting Santa Claus in the strangest places, but Kris had never believed.
Holly waved her hand in front of his face. “Come on, Kris. Don’t make this harder than it has to be. Out of the chair.”
Just looking at her was making things harder than they had to be, but he didn’t suppose she’d appreciate the humor of that. He would love nothing more than to get out of the chair. But he felt like his ass had been cemented to it and he knew that he wasn’t going anywhere.
He tossed the last doggy bagel down to the puppy waiting so patiently at his feet, brushed the crumbs off his beard and jacket, drained his cup, stashed it in the bag and handed it to her. “Could you toss that for me, beautiful? Looks like I’ve got a line.”
“Beaut...” She sputtered for a moment. “Don’t call me that.”
Her face pinked and her eyes flashed. She glanced down at herself with a look so self-deprecating, that it made something in his chest tighten. When she met his eyes again, he saw anger and hurt.
She didn’t know just how beautiful she was.
The insight hit him hard in a morning that had been filled with startling realizations.
“You need to look at yourself through my eyes for awhile,” he said softly, not meaning to actually speak the words. But there they were, clear and true, thickening the air, pulling taut a connection that might have always been there, too lax to notice.
Now it thrummed between them.
Holly stared at him speechless, emotions flashing in her eyes, awareness practically shooting sparks across the short distance separating them. Then, flustered, still blushing, she glanced over her shoulder and saw that at least twenty-five people stood in line, children dancing beside their mommies and daddies in their excitement to see Santa. Kris hadn’t thought that twenty-five people had been out but evidently some invisible, silent Christmas bell had been rung and a crowd had gathered.
Holly leaned in, poking him with a finger. “This is not over, Kris.”
He caught her hand, pried open her fist and pressed a kiss to her palm. Her mouth fell open as she watched him but she didn’t jerk her hand away and so he kissed it again, letting his tongue dart out for a taste of her. She smelled like heaven and he couldn’t wait to get her alone—because in that moment he made up his mind. The time had come to stop circling Holly McClaussen.
Just as soon as he could ditch the Santa suit.
“I’m banking on that, Holly,” he answered, catching her eye and winking, trying to look as if his Santa drawers hadn’t suddenly become painfully tight.
She stood utterly speechless for a moment before snatching her hand away, tucking her sign under an arm and waving the first child up to Santa with all the aplomb of an orchestra director. But that tell-tale blush colored her pretty face and for the first time in a long, long time, Kris felt a little Christmas cheer settle low in his gut. He heard her caution people to be careful not to slip as she headed back to the store. At the door she paused and gave him one, last searching look that damn near set his blood on fire before primly about-facing and marching inside.
Despite his determination to never, ever laugh again while dressed in that stupid suit, he let go another ho ho ho as she disappeared from sight.
Order Kissing Kris Kringle:
eBook - November 3, 2014
Lucky Me Publisher
ASIN: B00P84TULS BN ID: 294-0150354814
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