"Come on, Mommy!" Kristen Alexander said, tugging at her mother's sleeve. "There's no one in line this time."
"Wait a minute, honey. Let me tie your shoelace." Lauren Alexander squatted down and blew out a quick breath as she made a bow in the Technicolor laces of her six year old daughter's sneakers. Kristen was as hard as ever to keep up with these days.
The shopping mall had been crowded all evening, filled with holiday shoppers carefully selecting their Christmas gifts. Scanning the area, she now saw only a handful of scattered shoppers left, carefully gripping their bundles. With less than three weeks left until Christmas, Lauren had hoped to be farther along with her Christmas shopping. This latest trip to the toy stores, meant as a fishing expedition to find out just what would catch Kristen's eye, had produced nothing but unrest. She'd hoped to make this a special year for Kristen. So far, it wasn't turning out to be what she'd planned. There was no way she would be able to afford the kind of Christmas she'd hoped to have.
"Mommy!" Kristen squealed, "I don't want to miss Santa Claus!"
"Okay, give me a kiss," Lauren requested, reaching out to give her a brief hug. Smiling, Kristen quickly obliged. "Do you want me to go with you, baby?"
"No-o-o-o!" Kristen said, rolling her eyes at her mother.
"I know you're a big girl now, but I had to ask. I'll be standing right at the end of the ramp, okay?" Lauren assured her, feeling a tug at her heart. Her little girl was so grown up at six years old. Time was flying by so fast. She only wished she had more time to spend with Kristen to watch her grow.
Kristen trotted up the ramp a few feet and stopped short, abruptly turning and racing back. "My letter for Santa! Mrs. Hopkins helped me with it. I forgot it at home!" she cried with all the panic of a little girl who'd just lost her kitten.
"No, Krissy, I have it. Mrs. Hopkins gave it to me when I picked you up after work. Remember?" Lauren pulled the sealed envelope marked "North Pole" out of her purse and handed it to Kristen. "Go on. The mall is going to be closing soon."
Kristen's exasperated expression was replaced with a chubby faced smile as she clutched the letter to Santa in her little hand and bolted up the ramp.
Thank the heavens above for Mrs. Hopkins, Lauren thought. If she didn't watch Kristen before and after school every day, she couldn't have taken that job at Woodlawn Industries as a customer service representative. She'd still be waitressing and paying baby-sitters top money just to make ends meet. At least now, she had a chance to make something for herself and Kristen. The Woodlawn position offered her the chance for advancement and training she never would have gotten if she'd remained at the restaurant she'd worked at since leaving home.
She watched Kristen race to meet Santa, determined to tell her Christmas wish. She sighed, feeling her heart fall. If only she had the money to give her all the things she wanted.
* * *
Kyle Preston watched as a little blue eyed cherub of a girl, no more than a first grader, came racing up the ramp toward him. It was as hot as a burning August day in this Santa Claus suit. He'd been wearing it for the last three hours and was soaked skin deep from his boots to his white beard. He needed a shower and a good meal. To say that he was tired was the understatement of the century, but seeing the delightful sparkle of a child at Christmas was worth all the hassle and discomfort of playing Santa Claus.
"Ho! Ho! Ho!" he called out as the little girl came bustling toward him. Extending his hands in front of him, he gently lifted her into his lap. "And what's your name, little one?" he asked in his disguised Santa Claus voice.
The little girl looked up at him with wide saucer eyes and murmured softly, "Kristen. But my mommy calls me Krissy."
"That's such a pretty name for a pretty little girl. Have you been a good girl for your mommy this year, Kristen?"
"Yep. Sometimes I don't pick up my toys before bed though. Am I gonna git in trouble with you for that?" She didn't look at him. Instead, she stared off down the ramp where a woman in a bulky blue coat stood waiting. Seeing no one else in the vicinity, Kyle presumed it to be her mother.
"Is it all the time, or do you just forget once in a while?" he asked with Santa Claus authority.
"I thought you were 'spose to know those things? Mommy always says you can see me when I don't listen." She looked up at him wide-eyed and innocent.
He chuckled, despite himself, in his normal tone. Then remembering his part, he altered his voice and ho-ho'd a laugh that made Kristen giggle. "Well, Kristen, it's too big a job to look at all the kids all over the world. So I have to ask for a little help every now and then. You don't mind that, do you?" He posed the question not expecting a reply, but to his surprise, Kristen looked up at him thoughtfully, contemplating her answer.
"I don't mind. Mommy needs help sometimes, too," she said as innocently as an angel.
He was too much of a sap for this job, he decided. Maybe it was his nature or maybe it was growing up in an ever expanding family, but he had a soft spot for this little girl. She was cute as a button with her baby fine blond curls framing her face. Looking down the ramp, he decided her mother wasn't half bad herself. She appeared a bit tired, but pretty in a simple girl-next-door kind of way. Her flowing ash blond hair fell both to the front and back of her knee length coat. Even from the distance they were at, he recognized that mother and daughter bore a strong resemblance and had the same saucer shaped eyes.
Kyle turned his attention back to the pressing matter at hand and asked, "So, what do you want for Christmas this year?"
Kristen's little face brightened even more, if that was at all possible, and she stuck out the envelope she'd been crumbling nervously in her hand. "Here. I wrote it down so you won't forget."
"Well, I'm impressed. You did this all by yourself?"
"Mrs. Hopkins helped me."
He took the envelope and, after breaking the seal, plucked out the note. "Is Mrs. Hopkins your teacher?"
"Nope." She shook her head back and forth with exaggerated motion. "She's my baby-sitter. We live on the top floor of her house. She plays Barbies with me when Mommy can't cuz she has to work."
"Well, let's see what toys we have here on your list." Kyle opened the note and began to read the "Dear Santa" aloud, but stopped as soon as he began.
Plez send me a daddy for Christmas so Mommy doesn't have to work so much.
Luv, Krissy Alexander
Kyle felt his chest tighten. This letter decided it. He was much too much of a sap for this job.
"You don't have a daddy, Kristen?" he asked softly as he re-folded the note.
"What happened to him?" he asked, immediately doubting the wisdom of putting forth such a question to someone so young.
"We never had one. Mommy says we do just fine as a twosome. That means just Mommy and me," she clarified, nodding her head with certainty.
"Oh. You're pretty smart for a girl your age."
"I know. Mommy tells me so all the time," she said unabashed.
"What's your mommy's name?"
"Lauren Alexander. She's over there. Hi, Mommy!" Kristen waved her hand frantically. The woman at the end of the ramp beamed with pride and waved back.
"Your mommy is very pretty," Kyle said mostly to himself when he saw how Lauren Alexander's beautiful wide smile brightened her face and made what he mistook as being simple much more appealing.
"Yep," she answered as if the point was not debatable.
He looked down at Kristen and smiled. "There must be some toy you'd like Santa...uh...me to bring you Christmas morning."
"Nope. Just a daddy. I think my mommy could use it."
Kyle couldn't help but laugh at the double meaning of her words. "Glad to see you're looking out for your mommy, Kristen. But what about you?"
"I never had a daddy." Her eyes narrowed in as she frowned. "So I don't know. Does that mean you're not gonna git us one?"
Kyle had spent the first twelve years of his life being shifted around until he found a family that would love him no matter what. The most impressionable years of his life were spent thinking no one cared, that he was nothing special. Looking at Kristen, he knew she was special, but did she?
And Lauren Alexander. Obviously she was alone, raising her daughter the best way she could. It had to be a hard thing to have no one to lean on.
Looking back on his life, Kyle realized he'd pretty much forgotten what that had been like. These days, as far as family went, his cup runneth over. There were a lot of people to do the leaning and even more to do the leaning on in the Preston household. Yeah, it had to be hard for Lauren Alexander if her young daughter felt it necessary to give her Christmas wish away.
"No, Kristen. That doesn't mean you're not going to get a daddy. It's just..." he started, but couldn't quite find the words to explain the complications involved in such a request. Especially when Kristen looked up at him with wide puppy-dog eyes.
Why couldn't she have asked for an Easy Bake Oven?
All of the sudden, he found himself feeling abundantly protective of Kristen and her mother. This was, after all, the holiday season. It was a time when all should reach out to their fellow man, woman, or as in this case, child.
He tried a different tactic, hoping the little girl would quickly see the flaw in her request and ask for something more Santa Claus possible. "Don't you think that your mommy would want to pick out a daddy on her own? What if she doesn't like the daddy I bring?"
Kristen looked puzzled. Exactly what he'd wanted, although he had to admit to himself he didn't enjoy trading innocence for the turmoil in her expression. He just couldn't see any other way around this without flat out telling her he couldn't do it. That would be like telling her Santa Claus didn't exist at all and there was no way he'd be the one to say such an evil thing.
"But Mommy doesn't have any time to find a daddy. That's why I figure it's up to me." She nodded her head with determination.
If there was any way to bottle that kind of pure love and devotion, he'd do it. That soft spot was turning to mush as Kyle felt his heart grow warmer with every thump. He knew he couldn't do his usual routine and tell the child she'd only get her wish if she was real good and picked up her toys when asked. In the end, she'd only surmise she'd done something wrong for Santa not to grant her Christmas request.
"I can tell you love your mommy a whole lot," he murmured softly.
Kristen nodded her reply. A weary smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. Or maybe she was tired, he thought, remembering the time. The mall was closing at any moment. The grilled gates had already been slammed down and locked up on the front of some stores. Custodians were busy emptying the trash cans and vacuuming the carpets. As Kyle panned the area, he saw that the last remaining shoppers had already vacated the premises.
Turning his attention back to Kristen, who was now yawning as she lazily leaned against his chest, he said, "I can't make any promises for this year, honey. Being so close to Christmas, all the daddy's have already been spoken for. But I'll see what I can do for next year," he promised.
He wasn't at all pleased with his answer. What he wouldn't do to make Kristen's dream come true? He looked down the ramp at Lauren Alexander. She gave him a forced smile that hinted of impatience as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other, her hands jammed deep in her coat pockets.
"You be the good girl I know you are and there will be something extra special for you on Christmas morning. Okay?"
It was late. He was hot as hell. He had to get home, have a hot shower, and grab a good meal.
But none of that mattered, because now he just felt like a dog. Why couldn't she have asked for a puppy? he thought as he watched Kristen trot toward her mother. He could have easily run right down to the pet shop at the mall and picked out a golden retriever, or collie, or whatever kind of puppy looked cute as a button, just like the little girl. Instead, she asked for the one thing a Santa had no control over.
There were times in his life when Kyle had known failure. Going from nothing to being the owner of his own shopping mall in Western Massachusetts had given him cause to stare failure right between the eyes. But in all his thirty years, he never felt as low and pitiful as he did right now.
His appetite suddenly gone, he decided the heck with the dinner. He changed out of his straight jacket and called it a day.
* * *
Lauren turned the key in the ignition for the second time and said a silent prayer that the car's engine would turn over.
"Not now," she moaned, a sinking feeling flooding her. She'd already secured Kristen in the back seat and fastened her seat belt. A quick glance in the rear view mirror showed the little girl had already fallen asleep.
Popping the lever that released the hood of her late model sedan, she noticed the light panel. Her hands instinctively pushed the knob on and off in frustration when she realized she'd left her lights on the entire time she'd been shopping. Now her battery was dead.
"Good going, Lauren," she chided herself.
After climbing out into the cold, she lifted the hood and blankly stared down at her car engine, feeling the bitter cold sting her exposed cheeks. Taking in another frosty breath, she realized she had no idea what she was looking at and no idea what to do. Cursing, she kicked the air in frustration.
To add insult to injury, it had begun to snow while she'd been in the mall. Any other time it would have brought out the playful spirit of Christmas in her. She'd always loved a white blanket of snow on the ground during the Christmas season.
She glanced over at Kristen and saw that she was already fast asleep, slumped over in the back seat. The snow was going to make it more difficult to carry her to a pay phone and call a tow truck, but she had no other choice. The temperature had dropped considerably in the few hours they'd been shopping and it wasn't safe to stay exposed for too long.
Twisting her body around, she saw that the parking lot was empty. At least she'd parked in a well-lit area just below a lamppost, something working late nights at the restaurant had taught her to do many years previous. As she gazed up at the bright light above her, she became hypnotized for a fleeting moment by the colors of the dense snow falling like crystals from the sky.
"You stuck?" a deep voice, one that sounded much too close for comfort, called out and startled Lauren, causing her to swing around.
She licked her chapped lips and stared at the tall man who had seemingly come out of nowhere. His hair was wet and matted, colored a mousy blond. He was hunched forward slightly with his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his sporty ski jacket.
"No," she lied. The last thing she needed was some deranged wanderer to come by and steal what little she didn't have. Lauren quickly shifted her thoughts to Kristen, sleeping in the back seat. He could take anything he wanted, but she'd walk through fire to protect her precious daughter from harm.
"Interesting," he returned, darting a glance in the direction of her exposed engine.
"What is?" She tried desperately to appear unfazed.
"Well, I'm no expert, but I have never known someone to fill their engine with snow before taking it out for a drive," the stranger said teasingly, his hot breath misting as it hit the cold air. He moved to the front of the car, half out of her view, presumably looking at the engine.
Crow bar! That's what she needed now, she decided. If she only knew where it was kept in her car, she was sure she could make good use of it, if need be. Now was no time to beat herself up about not paying attention during drivers Ed class. Something else to thank Kristen's father for at some later date since he was the subject of her attention during that fateful time in her life. In any case, it didn't stop her stomach from lurching forward with every move this stranger made.
The man stuck his head out from behind the hood. "Nothing seems to be disconnected. Let me try the engine."
"That won't be necessary," she blurted out. There was no way she was going to let some stranger climb into her car and drive away with her baby. In an attempt at bluffing, she informed him, "I've already called my husband, and he'll be here any minute."
"No he won't." The aplomb in his voice, more than his words, told her that he was unconvinced.
She struck a threatening pose with her arms held out in front of her, fists clenched, and shouted, "Don't come any closer. I'm a black belt in Karate."
He glanced at her blankly and darted his eyebrows upward. "No you're not."
Lauren's pulse quickened, and she nervously shifted her body weight from one foot to the other, grounding herself in. The mama bear in her reared up and her claws stretched out in full fighting force. Just let him try to take her little cub away. She'd make sure it was the sorriest day of his pathetic life.
He shot her a mocking grin that tilted ever so slightly. "Why don't you use some of that heat to fire up the engine?"
"Huh?" Her heart pounding in her chest, Lauren unclenched her fists and stepped back toward the driver's side door.
"Try turning the ignition."
"What do you want?" she asked suspiciously, her guard never faltering.
"You don't have to be afraid. I just want to help you and your daughter get home before you freeze to death out here."
A bone chilling fear shot up her spin. He hadn't been close enough to see a child in the back seat. How could he have known? "Are you stalking me? I have a gun, you know. And I won't hesitate to use it!" She stuck her thumb and her index finger out and aimed it at the most sensitive part of his male anatomy, sneering at him.
"I believe you would," he said. Tilting his head to one side, he blew out an exaggerated breath, emitting a cloud of mist from his mouth. "But if you're going to bluff, at least try to be a little more convincing. Right now, you're about as threatening as a kitten."
"Kittens have claws," she warned, flexing her fingers.
"Cats have claws," he amended. "You, my sweet, are still a kitten."
Lauren straightened her spine and huffed. "I'm going to scream. Is that threatening enough for you? The security guards will be more than willing to arrest you on the spot and throw your sorry butt in jail for...for..."
"Helping you? No, they wouldn't do that," he said confidently.
"What makes you so all mighty sure, buster?" she shot back, verbally attacking him. Nothing else seemed to make a dent in him and she was running out of bluffs.
"Because I'm the one who signs their pay checks." He turned back at the mall and extended his hand. "I own this place."
"No you don't!" she challenged. She wasn't born yesterday. On her own since she was pregnant at eighteen, Lauren knew a snow job when she saw one.
He blew out another quick breath and shrugged. When he moved his hand toward his back pocket, Lauren screamed loud and long.
The stranger stopped dead in his tracks. "What on earth did you do that for?"
"Don't try anything funny!" she commanded, holding her hands out in front of her as a shield.
Ignoring her, he extracted his wallet. After sifting through it, he plucked out what appeared to be a business card and extended it to her. "See for yourself. Kyle Preston, owner of Preston Galleria."
She quickly glanced at the card in his hand without taking it, then followed his gaze to the sign on the two story building behind him.
"How do I know you're legit?" she asked, still leery of accepting his story. She'd been a fool once when she was young, taking every little word as being the truth. That only left her alone, struggling to make a life for her and Kristen. She couldn't afford to keep making that mistake.
"I assure you that my intentions aren't mercenary. Please, just get behind the wheel and try to start the car. If my instincts are right, all you have is a dead battery," he said evenly, seemingly tired of the game.
"I know that's all it is." She folded her arms across her chest, feeling pretty proud of herself for at least figuring that one on her own. "I left my lights on."
"Oh. Good," he said in resignation. "Then I'll jump you."
"Not on your life!" She struck her Karate pose and ground her teeth, the mama bear in her coming to life again.
When he caught the double meaning of his words, he revised, "I'll bring my car around so that I can jump start your car's battery."
With that, he was gone. Lauren wasn't sure if he'd come back after the way she'd attacked him. Kitten, my butt, she fumed. She had claws just like the next cat.
Kyle was gone for what seemed liked hours, but in reality was only a few minutes. The cold may have had a hand at the slow passing of the time. She couldn't feel her toes in her boots anymore.
What would it hurt to accept some help from a stranger? she thought as she moved to the back of the car. She'd conditioned herself not to trust anyone in the past seven years. Maybe she was becoming too hard, too cold. And although Kyle Preston looked like he'd been put through the proverbial ringer when he appeared out of thin air, he did seem sincere about just wanting to help.
And it was more than that, she had to admit to herself. Except she couldn't quite put a finger on what it was about Kyle Preston that made her think she should trust him. Without something tangible for her to grasp on to, trusting was a dangerous thing to do to say the least.
After inserting the key in the lock, she opened the trunk and pulled out the blanket she kept there for just this type of emergency. She was just placing the blanket over Kristen when she saw headlights approach. The vehicle stopped head to head with her car and Kyle jumped out.
"Why don't you sit in your car? You'll be warmer. I'll only be a minute," Kyle said as he opened the hood of his Jeep and began connecting jumper cables.
Lauren slid into the driver's seat and rubbed her hands together, thankful that this ordeal would soon be over. She blew a hot breath through her frozen fingers before positioning them on the frigid steering wheel as she waited.
"Ready?" she called out the crack in her window after hearing a car door slam.
There was a sudden roar of the Jeep's engine. Then Kyle hollered, "Go ahead and try to start her."
Lauren turned the key in the ignition once. The Ford whined in protest until, finally, the engine turned over. She released the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "Thank God," she whispered, looking up at the ceiling of her car.
"You should run it for a few minutes before trying to drive. Let the battery get a little more juice." Kyle quickly removed the wires conjoining the two cars and closed the hoods.
She floored the gas pedal to warm the engine and turned on the heat in the car before climbing out.
"I don't know how to thank you," Lauren said softly. Embarrassment flooded her with the memory of the way she'd behaved earlier.
"No need. You're all set now." Kyle smiled warmly. As he spoke, the sound of his resonant baritone voice soothingly settled her fear. She looked at him and, for the first time, she felt completely at ease. His face was kind, his smile was warm, and she realized he meant what he said, he only wanted to help.
"I apologize for the way..." she started, staring down at the inches of snow on the ground that had accumulated during the short time.
As if sensing her embarrassment, Kyle broke in and said, "Like I said. There is no need. Good will toward men and all that holiday cheer. Woman in your case, Ms. Alexander. You and Kristen are all set now." His eyes grew bright as he gazed at her. Despite the calming effect the deep timbre of his voice gave her just a few short moments ago, she now felt as if she'd just been struck by a bolt of lightning.
Fear racked her body causing her to shudder. "How do you know my name? M-my daughter's name?" she stammered, not missing a beat. She hadn't told him, but he knew. That feeling of ease was short-lived. She trembled, more fearful than she'd been earlier when she foolishly bluffed.
Kyle dug his hand deep into his denim clad pocket and extracted a crumpled piece of paper and held it out to her.
"What's this all about," she blurted out, her eyes fixed on his hands, her breathing becoming shallow.
"You don't have to be afraid. This will explain it all. I promise you." He smiled warmly and Lauren wanted to trust him if only to believe in simple kindness.
With shaking hands, she took the piece of paper, warm from being in the pocket close to Kyle's body. She held it up straight so that she could see Kyle while reading the words on the paper. "Dear Santa..." she read out loud, then read the next part silently. "Oh, no," she moaned.
"I know. That's just how I felt."
Lauren shot him a skeptical glance. "How did you get this?"
"Kristen gave it to me."
"That's impossible. Mrs. Hopkins just helped her with it this afternoon and-"
"And she gave it to me in the Mall," Kyle finished for her.
She looked at him quizzically, still trying to comprehend the course of events leading up to his seizure of her daughter's precious note.
"It's not that hard to figure out, Lauren," Kyle said warmly. His dark eyes gleamed with the light from the lamppost. He wore no hat to protect his head from the falling snow. Now his hair was filled with powdered flakes, matting it down. His grin was bright and wide as he informed her, "I'm Santa Claus."
# # #
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