Read Do You Believe in Santa? Online

Authors: Sierra Donovan

Do You Believe in Santa?

Mandy's voice stood out to Jake above the others, not just because she was standing next to him, and not because her voice was better than anyone else's, although it did have a sweet timbre. Just because it was Mandy's.
Jake looked down at her, and the glow on her face was more than the soft, colored light cast by the tree. It was a look of pure joy and contentment.
She does this every year,
he thought.
And every year, she loves it just as much.
Was it because she'd lived her entire life in the same town and didn't have anything to compare it to? If that were the case, you'd think the brightness in her eyes would have gotten dimmer by now. She'd stayed in Tall Pine, taken a ton of ribbing about her vision of Santa Claus, and still she glowed. Maybe that was because this was where she truly belonged. Maybe Mandy's roots in this town ran as deep as the roots of the Tall Pine tree.
Up to now, Jake reflected, he'd been content to move from place to place. It had been convenient, he supposed, to avoid any reminders of past mistakes, to start over again in a new place and make a fresh impression.
Maybe it was time for him to put down some roots, too . . .
Books by Sierra Donovan
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
Do You Believe In Santa?
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
To Mom, who taught me to believe in Santa
Christmas spirit is about believing, not seeing.
—Santa Claus,
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for,
the evidence of things not seen.
—Hebrews 11:1
When Mandy Reese was eight years old, she saw Santa Claus.
She slipped out of her room on Christmas Eve after her mother went to bed. As Mandy tiptoed down the hall, trying to be silent, she thought of the poem:
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse....
The Christmas tree was still lit up in the living room, as if it, too, were waiting. The nighttime cold of the house bit through her flannel nightgown, and Mandy wished she'd grabbed her robe and slippers. But she didn't want to risk going back down the hall and waking her mother. So she pulled a heavy blanket down from the back of the sofa and curled up under it. She laid her head on the arm of the couch to get a good view of the tree at the end of the room near her head, and the fireplace at the other end, down by her feet.
Barely daring to breathe, she waited.
The lights from the tree were bright enough to show the time on the clock over the mantel: almost eleven-thirty. Mandy's vigilant eyes drifted from the fireplace to the tree and back. She knew there was no way she'd fall asleep.
But it felt as if some time had passed when something made her sit up.
The only light in the room still came from the tree, yet somehow it seemed brighter in here. Her eyes darted to the fireplace. And he was there.
He did wear a red suit, although it was a darker red than she'd seen on the Santas at the store—the ones she'd always been told were just helpers for the real Santa. His beard was full and white, his eyebrows were bushy, and his eyes were blue. Not quite twinkly, a little more serious than that, but warm and friendly as they met hers. She'd heard that watching for Santa could make him pass you by, but that hint of a glimmer in his eye told her she wasn't in trouble.
Mandy opened her mouth to speak, but she couldn't think of a single word to say. The whole room felt hushed, as if time were standing still.
She couldn't be dreaming because her heart was beating so fast. But she remembered to pinch her forearm, hard, just to be sure. It hurt, all right.
He took a step backward, toward the chimney, and raised a black-gloved finger. At first Mandy thought he was going to put it to his lips, signaling her to be quiet. But he rested it alongside his nose, just like the poem, and nodded.
The room brightened, and Mandy had to shut her eyes against the glare.
When she opened them, the light in the room had returned to the normal Christmas-tree glow, and he was gone. She heard the clock on the mantel ticking; she didn't remember hearing the sound while Santa was in the room. The hands showed it was just after midnight, although she knew for certain she hadn't heard it chime.
She pinched her arm again. Once again, it hurt. When she looked down, she saw a small red mark forming right next to the spot she was pinching now.
Under the tree, she couldn't see any difference in the number of presents. But she remembered what her mother always told her: Santa Claus was about more than presents.
“I saw him,” she whispered.
When Mandy told her mother about it the next morning, her mom checked the doors and windows and counted the presents under the tree.
“I thought you believed in Santa Claus,” Mandy said.
“I do.” But the worried look didn't quite go away.
The memory of her mother's reaction kept Mandy from mentioning Santa when school started again in January. If her mom didn't believe her, the other kids surely wouldn't, and Mandy didn't want to fight about it. So she kept it to herself, like her own special secret. Until the next school year.
It was mid-December, and she was leaving school Friday afternoon to catch the bus. There hadn't been any snow for a couple of weeks, but there was a snap to the air as she walked. Mandy was so busy looking up at the sky for signs of snow, she didn't see the crowd outside the gate until she was nearly there.
Students clustered around an auburn-haired woman who held a microphone. A man stood nearby, aiming a video camera at the woman. Then it clicked. Mandy had seen her on the television news.
As the kids crowded around the reporter, she held a microphone in front of some of them, one at a time. Most were younger than Mandy. Older kids jockeyed behind the TV reporter, trying to poke their heads into the picture.
“I believe he's real,” a little blond boy, probably a second-grader, said.
“He always eats the cookies we leave for him,” a fair-haired girl, who looked like his sister, said.
Mandy joined the group as if drawn by a magnet. Since many of the children were shorter, she could see over their heads.
“What about you?” The reporter aimed her microphone at a brown-eyed girl with short black hair.
“I don't know.” Her voice was very soft. “I think so.”
“I used to believe in Santa, but I know better now.” That was Julie Ashman, from Mandy's own class. Mandy felt her blood start to simmer. Being wrong was one thing, but saying things like that in front of these little kids . . .
“Santa Claus is a fake!” one of the taller boys behind the reporter shouted toward the microphone.
“No, he's not!” The little blond boy looked faintly horrified, and Mandy could see uncertainty creeping into his face.
The reporter tried to regain control, turning her microphone toward the smaller boy again.
“Oh, yeah?” the big boy jeered. “Have you ever seen him? Not in a store. That doesn't count.”
She couldn't stand it. Mandy shouldered her way in. “
saw him.”
Everyone turned in her direction. Mandy's face felt hot, but she was determined to set them straight. “He was at my house.”
“Not your dad, all dressed up,” the older boy scoffed.
“My dad doesn't live with us anymore,” Mandy said, “and I saw Santa Claus in my living room last year.”
Suddenly the microphone and the camera were pointed at her, and Mandy felt the words rush out, spilling the details she'd played over and over in her mind. The story she'd kept bottled up for nearly a year.
Chapter 1
“Then he laid a finger aside his nose . . .” Mandy told the wide-eyed four-year-old boy.
From her crouched position, she glanced past the brown-haired boy's shoulder for just a moment. His mother, standing behind him in the little shop, was smiling with a touch of the Christmas glimmer in her eyes, even though it was the middle of August.
“. . . and,
He went right up the chimney.”
“Did he drop anything?”
About half of the children asked her that.
“Nope. He was very careful.”
“Did he bring you what you wanted for Christmas?”
A lot of them asked her that, too.
“There were a lot of presents under the tree,” Mandy said carefully, glancing past the boy at his mother again. “But after he left, I couldn't even remember what I wanted that year. You know why?”
“Because seeing Santa was the best Christmas present I ever got.”
Mandy straightened, smiling at them both. She didn't often have the chance to tell the story in the heart of summer; this visit was a treat. One of the nearby store owners must have sent them over.
“Did you ever see—?”
“Robbie.” The little boy's mother patted his shoulder. “We've taken up enough of this lady's time.” She met Mandy's eyes. “Thank you. We'll take these.”
The woman handed Mandy a pair of peppermint-striped salt and pepper shakers, and Mandy took them behind the counter to the cash register. “I love these. I have a set at home.”
As Mandy wrapped the shakers in tissue paper, Robbie's mother fished in her purse for her wallet, still glancing over the necklaces, key chains and other Christmas knickknacks displayed on the countertop. “It must be hard not to take the whole store home with you.”
“Oh, I think I already have.” Mandy grinned as she rang up the sale.
The North Pole was the kind of store that wouldn't stand much of a chance outside of a mountain town: ninety percent Christmas merchandise. But when visitors to Tall Pine wandered the shops on Evergreen Lane, most of them stepped inside for a quick look, and many left with a knickknack or two. Mandy thought it might be something about the mountain air and the scent of pine that helped people catch the Christmas spirit, even in the off-season.
As Mandy handed the customer her bag, Robbie said, “Hey, that's you! Are you famous?”
He was pointing at the two framed newspaper clippings on the south wall. One was the original story the paper had run the year Mandy told the television reporter about Santa Claus. The other was from six years back:
The photo showed an eighteen-year-old Mandy standing in nearly the same spot she was right now, smiling behind the counter. She didn't know if anyone else could see the slight discomfort beneath the smile.
“No, I'm not famous,” she said, feeling a trace of a blush warm her cheeks. “They just wrote a couple of stories about me. Because not everyone gets to see Santa.”
The framed clippings were the only part of the job Mandy didn't care for, but it was the reason Mrs. Swanson had hired her. And Mandy had wanted, with all her heart, to work at The North Pole. It was filled with the things she loved, and she loved telling her story to the kids who occasionally came in to hear it. The clippings reminded her of the hard part, the kidding she'd taken all through school. But if it meant being here every day to share the magic, then so be it.
Robbie took his mother's hand as she led him toward the door.
“Hey.” Mandy reached into the crystal bowl on the countertop. “Want a candy cane for the road?”
“A candy cane? In the summer?”
“Sure, why not? They're still fresh, I promise.” Mandy winked at him. “I had one earlier this morning.”
Mother and son stepped forward, and each of them took one of the short, cellophane-wrapped candies.
“Merry Christmas,” she said.
The little boy waved, and the sleigh bells hanging from the door jingled behind them as they left.
Jake Wyndham strolled the sidewalk of Evergreen Lane, peering in the occasional window. He'd already checked out a T-shirt store and a sporting goods shop. He'd looked over the menu posted in the window of a sandwich shop, but it was too early for lunch. The street had a lot of foot traffic, a healthy sign on a Saturday morning. So far, everything he saw supported his company's research: Tall Pine looked like a town that drew a fair number of weekend visitors.
Up ahead, two red-and-white-striped poles supported the awning over the entrance to another store. It didn't quite look like a barber shop.... No, wait, those were supposed to be big peppermint sticks.
Jake got close enough to see the display in the nearest of the two windows flanking the entrance to the store. The large sill was decked in cotton that passed for snow, with a miniature Christmas village laid out on top. Tiny children on little toboggans pretended to slide down an improvised hill.
The red letters on the shop window read T
Okay, this could be interesting.
He pulled open the door, to be greeted by the jingling of the bells that hung on it. From speakers overhead, Jake recognized a voice that he never heard any time of year but December: Bing Crosby.
“May your days be merry and bright. . . .”
They weren't kidding around about this. Reindeer, snowmen and nutcrackers filled the shop: figurines on shelves, pictures and plaques on the walls, jewelry and key chains hanging from display hooks in front of the counter. Artificial Christmas trees, large and small, poked up from corners and alongside rows of shelves, decorated with price-tagged ornaments. It was a world of red and green, peppermint and pine. Jake had never seen anything like it back home in Scranton, that was for sure.
He stepped slowly forward, the old tenet of “you break it, you bought it” echoing in his head. Thankfully, the rows of shelves weren't so close together that bumping into them was a hazard. What had felt like a manic clutter at first glance was actually arranged rather nicely. A cluster of mugs here, candleholders there . . . and, Jake was astonished to see, a whole shelf devoted to salt and pepper shakers. Did people really—
Jake turned to see a pretty, dark-haired woman step from behind one of the Christmas trees a few feet to his left. “Can I help you find anything?” she added.
“Not at the moment.”
She had a warm, ready smile, and her eyes were a deep blue. She held an ornament that looked like a little wooden rowboat. Jake's eyes went from the ornament to the tree, and he saw it was decorated with other outdoorsy items: elk, geese, pinecones, even a snowman with a fishing pole.
“I see you're going with a theme,” he said.
“It's fun.” The girl hung the boat on a branch and reached into a box resting on a nearby stool. She fished out another ornament—appropriately enough, a fish. “I could never stick to one thing on my tree at home. There are so many personal memories that go with Christmas decorations. But it's fun to do it here.”
Jake watched deft fingers with unpainted nails hang up a dark-furred grizzly bear. “How does your store do when it's not Christmastime? Is it pretty slow?”
“Oh, it's quieter, for sure.” She gestured around the store, empty of any other customers, with a little shrug. “But people trickle in. And when they do, they usually buy something.”
“Locals? Or tourists?”
“I guess you'd say local tourists. People from maybe an hour or two away. During the summer they like to come up for the day because it's cooler up here in the mountains. And in the winter it gets pretty crazy. We're the first town people hit when they drive up to go to the snow.”
“‘Go to the snow'?”
“Sure. Down the hill, it never snows. You usually have to be at least four thousand feet up to get snow in Southern California.” She studied him with a quizzical frown.
He stepped back, feeling as if he'd been found out. “Sorry, I'm from Pennsylvania. The idea of driving somewhere to
snow never occurred to me.”
She grinned. “I guess so. If you never get snow, it's a novelty. Up here we have to dig our way out of it sometimes. But it's so beautiful.”
She looked almost starry-eyed. Clearly, she hadn't gotten over the novelty of snow. “Have you lived here long?” he asked.
“All my life.” She picked up the box and stepped back to view her handiwork. It brought her one step closer to Jake, and he sneaked a look at her contemplative profile. Her blue eyes had a soulful look he couldn't remember seeing on any adult.
He took his eyes from her face before she caught him staring, and noticed a silver bell earring dangling from her earlobe.
Silver bells . . . Oh. Right. Got it.
Apparently satisfied with the tree, she walked past him with a smile, taking the box behind the counter and setting it down. “So,” she said, “what brings you here from Pennsylvania?”
“Do you have anything for a seven-year-old girl? My niece,” he added, not sure why he felt the urge to clarify.
Her eyes went ceilingward as she contemplated the problem.
The reason he'd come to town wouldn't be a secret for long, but Jake found he usually got better answers to his questions if people didn't know why he was asking. Regal Hotels had sent him to set up their next location, and the demographics of Tall Pine looked great. But getting the perspective of locals often came in handy.
The woman's eyes roamed over the store. “Really, just about anything, except maybe for the glass breakables,” she said. “Are you looking for something a little less seasonal? For a souvenir?”
Jake nodded. “Exactly.”
“Does she like jewelry?”
He hesitated.
“Oh, I don't mean diamonds and rubies.” That smile reached her eyes every time. “Just a little bauble.”
She reached over to a display rack of necklaces on the countertop, turning it to show the different designs. Bears, Santa hats, Christmas trees . . . Her fingers came to rest, cupping a tiny pinecone about the size of a thimble. His niece, Emily,
like that.
“We sell a lot of these,” she said. “They're real pinecones, but they're treated with lacquer so they'll last. Pinecone . . . Tall Pine?”
Got it.
Jake eyed the price tag on the chain: ten dollars. “That's perfect. Thanks.”
She wrapped the necklace in tissue paper as gently as if it were a crystal vase. Meanwhile, Jake became aware of the music from the speakers again. It had left Bing Crosby and moved on to Nat King Cole. “Do you ever get tired of Christmas music?”
“You'd be surprised how often people ask me that.”
Not really.
“But I never do. There's so much good Christmas music. I bring a lot of it from home.”
She rang up the necklace and handed him the bag, silver bells glinting below her ears. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” he said before he thought. With Nat King Cole in the background, it came as a reflex.
He walked out the door, bells jingling behind him. The warm summer day came as a shock after being surrounded by mistletoe and holly.
An unexpected voice piped up in his head, as if it were chiming in with the bells:
You should have asked her out.
The multipaned door swung shut. Too late.
Besides, he had work to do, and he knew where to find her.
Resisting the urge to look back through the glass, Jake set off to continue his fact-finding foray up the street.

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