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"Pip," six-year-old Kelsey whispered to her nine-year-old brother. "This mall is so crowded. How will we ever find our parents?"
It was the Friday after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year. Drawn by well-advertised sales and a sudden, panicky awareness that Christmas was only a month away, shoppers had turned out in droves. And the mall was ready for them.
Cheery renditions of Christmas carols blared from unseen speakers. Dozens of artificial Christmas trees sparkled and glittered. Greenery, lights, tinsel and bowsit was a carefully choreographed Christmas wonderland.
Pip and Kelsey walked hand in hand through the chaos, wide-eyed and openmouthed. They were looking at a veritable wall of legs and backsides ahead of them.
"We'll find them," Pip said with a confidence that belied his nervous expression. "Don't worry."
Kelsey's faith in her older brother was unconditional and limitless. She smiled at him and squeezed his hand, trusting him to make everything right. Just as she'd always trusted him to take care of her.
A colorful gingerbread house had been constructed in the center of the lower level of the four-story mall. A front porch supported by large plastic peppermint canes held an inviting, oversize rocker. In it sat a plump figure dressed in red, whose warm smile gleamed from under a thick white beard. A long line of children waited to sit in his inviting lap, their eyes shining with anticipation and greed.
"Pip, look!" Kelsey pointed. "It's Santa."
Pip nodded, glancing from the gingerbread house to the dollar-a-ride train slowly circling in front of it. He was worried that Kelsey would want to ride the train; the ten dollarstucked into the pocket of his worn jeans wouldn't last long if they spent it on rides.
But Kelsey had another idea. "Let's get in line and talk to Santa. He'll know where we can find our parents."
Pip winced. "Kelsey "
She was tugging at his hand, pulling him toward the end of the long, restless line of children. "He'll know, Pip," she said confidently, looking up at him with her enormous, bright blue eyes. "I'm sure he will."
Pip started to speak, but found he couldn't shake the unwavering trust in Kelsey's eyes. He shrugged. "Okay, you can talk to him. But don't expect too much, Kels. After all, he's just one of Santa's helpers, remember? And whatever you do, don't tell him we're here by ourselves, okay? He'll call the welfare people."
Kelsey's eyes grew even rounder. She shook her head vigorously, the movement causing her long, white blond curls to sway around her thin shoulders. "Santa wouldn't turn us in," she insisted. "Not before we have a chance to find our parents."
Pip groaned. "Kelsey, promise you won't tell him."
She heaved a long-suffering sigh. "Okay, I won't. But I will tell him we want to find our parents by Christmas!" she added with an uncharacteristic touch of defiance.
Pip nodded. "Okay, you can tell him that." It couldn't hurt, he decided.
It seemed to take hours before they finally reached the head of the line, though it couldn't have been more than thirty minutes. Pip shook his head at the elf-garbed woman who wanted to take their pictureonly six dollars for a four-by-six instant snapshot in a commemorative folder, she told them brightly. He walked his sister to Santa's chair, then stood guard nearby as she climbed eagerly onto the man's velvet-covered knee.
Shrewd but kind green eyes studied Pip for a moment before turning to his giggling sister. "What's your name?" Santa asked her, his voice not booming and loud, as she'd expected, but warm and friendly.
"Kelsey Coleman," she replied, with just a hint of a reproving frown. "But I thought you'd know that already."
"Kelsey?" He seemed surprised as he peered at her through his tiny round glasses. "Goodness, how you've grown since last year! I hardly knew you."
Appeased, she giggled again. "I've grown about four inches," she informed him proudly. "And that's Pip," she added, waving a hand toward her brother. "He's grown feets and feets."
"Yes, he is much bigger than he was," Santa agreed, turning those intent eyes on Pip once again.
The boy shifted position, feeling a bit uncomfortable beneath the scrutiny. He was relieved when the white-bearded man turned his attention back to Kelsey.
"So, Kelsey," Santa said encouragingly, "what can I do for you this year?"
The little girl took a deep breath, clasped her tiny hands tightly in her lap and gazed up at him. "I only want our parents this year, Santa. I don't need any toyswell, not many, anyway," she amended carefully. "But mostly I just want our parents."
Santa blinked behind his lenses. "Your parents?"
She nodded fervently. "Not our first parents, of course. They're dead. But Pip says we can find new parents who will love us and take care of us and always let us be together. Aunt Opal and Aunt Essie don't really want us and they said they're going to split us up after Christmas, but me and Pip ain't going to let them. Pip says no one can split us up, especially after we find our new parents. Will you help us find them, Santa?"
Santa listened to every word of the child's artless rambling. Pip held his breath, regretting his sister's tendency to talk too much and hoping this Santa's helper wouldn't do or say the wrong thing. Kelsey was so easily crushed.
"You know, Kelsey," Santa said slowly, "I usually bring toys for Christmas, not parents."
She nodded, a bit disappointed with his answer.
He scratched his beard. "However "
She brightened and looked up hopefully when he spoke again.
"I'll see what I can do," he said, gently squeezing her hands.
Pip thought his sister's smile was brighter than all the Christmas lights in the mall. "Thank you," she said, impulsively throwing her arms around the man's substantial waist. "Oh, thank you, Santa."
"Now, now, you must wait until afterward to thank me," he admonished. He reached into a nearby basket and plucked out two candy canes. "Here's a candy for you and one for your brother."
"Thank you," she said, hopping down from his lap. "When will we find our parents, Santa?"
"That remains to be seen. But in the meantime, have you seen the new doll shop upstairs on the third floor? I'm sure you'll enjoy it. It's one of my very favorites."
Kelsey's face lit up again. "A doll shop?"
Pip swallowed a groan, knowing where he'd have to take her next.
Santa patted the little girl's blond head, then looked at Pip. "You take very good care of your little sister, you hear?"
Pip nodded somberly. "I intend to, sir."
"Good. Oh, and you might want to look into the sporting-goods store across from the doll shop. There are some fascinating things to be found in sporting-goods stores these days."
Pip took Kelsey's hand. "Maybe I will."
He fancied that he could almost feel the warmth of the bearded man's smile as he and Kelsey walked away.
Pip nearly gagged when he saw the name of the doll shop. "Beautiful Babies?" he groaned. "Give me a break."
But Kelsey was still tugging at his hand. "I want to go in, Pip. Santa said it was his most-favorite store. Please? I just want to see it."
Pip couldn't hold out against her pleading eyes. He sighed manfully and allowed himself to be towed inside.
Kelsey was entranced from the moment she walked into the shop and saw the rows and rows of dolls. Baby dolls. Fashion dolls. Collector dolls. Handmade dolls. One-of-a-kind dolls. Pip could certainly understand why Kelsey liked the place; if he were a girl, he thought indulgently, he'd probably like it, too.
"Pip," Kelsey said in the high-pitched, breathless voice she reserved for very special excitement. "Look."
The doll was displayed at Kelsey's eye level. It had thick, curly dark hair, huge black eyes and a painted pink smile. It wore a pale blue dress with white lace, and tiny white shoes. Pip thought it was okay. Kelsey, apparently, thought it the most beautiful doll she'd ever seen.
"Oh," she whispered. "Can I pick it up, Pip? Please? I'll be very careful."
Pip checked the store. Other kids were holding dolls, admiring and cuddling them as their mothers watched or shopped. "Sure," he said. "You can hold her. But just for a minute."
Kelsey lifted the doll as though it were made of the most fragile glass rather than soft plastic. Such love shone from her eyes that Pip wondered if maybe he could buy her the doll for Christmas. He was already trying to decide how he could hide it from her when he saw the price tag dangling from one pink, plastic wrist.
He gulped. Even if he spent his whole life's savings of ten dollars and thirty-five cents, he couldn't come close to buying the doll for Kelsey.
"Uh, Kels? You'd better put it back," he urged. "You don't want to get it messed up or anything."
"I won't hurt her," Kelsey returned, cradling the doll against her little chest. "I just want to hold her for another minute."
A woman approached them from the back of the store. "You like that one?" she said encouragingly, her voice musical and friendly.
Pip expected Kelsey to answer. When she didn't, he looked around to see why. He found her staring open-mouthed at the woman, a look of shock on her baby face.
Frowning, he followed her gaze. He couldn't quite understand his sister's reaction. The woman was pretty well, he supposed most people would call her beautiful. She had thick, wavy, shoulder-length dark hair that framed her face and moved when she did. Large, almost-black eyes surrounded by long, curling lashes. A little nose and a nice smile.
A pink smile, he realized. Just like the doll's.
He suddenly understood. The woman looked very much like the doll Kelsey had taken such a liking to. She was wearing a blue shirt with white lace at the collar, and a full blue skirt with lace pockets. She was even wearing white shoesthough hers were sneakers, not the shiny vinyl of the doll's shoes.
The woman was studying his sister with a curious smile. Probably wondering why Kelsey was looking at her as though she had two heads or something, Pip thought with a grimace.
He nudged his sister. "She thinks the doll's real pretty, ma'am," he said. "Put it back on the shelf, Kelsey."
Kelsey replaced the doll with visible reluctance, though she hardly took her eyes from the salesclerk.
Pip caught his sister's hand and tugged her toward another display. "Look over here," he said, hoping the woman would turn to another customer. "These dolls are dressed like fairy-tale characters. See, there's Cinderella and Snow White and"
Kelsey suddenly regained her voice. "Pip!" she squeaked, clutching his arm. "That's her! That's my mom." She was still looking at the dark-haired woman, who'd turned to answer a question from a very pregnant customer.
Pip blinked. "Huh?"
"She's 'xactly what I wanted. She even looks like the doll."
"It's her, Pip. Really. That's why Santa sent us to this shop. For her!"
"Do you think we should tell her now? That we've picked her for our mom, I mean. Do you think she'll be excited? I am!"
That was obvious. Feeling as though the situation was rapidly getting out of hand, Pip tried to calm his sister, who was tugging eagerly at his hand again. "We can't just tell her that, Kels. We have to have a plan."
Since Kelsey had great respect for Pip's plansafter all, hadn't it been one of his plans that had brought them to this mall in search of parents?she grew still and nodded gravely. "What plan?"
Darned if he knew. "Let's just watch her for a minute," he suggested in a conspiratorial murmur. "We want to be sure."
That seemed reasonable to Kelsey. They pretended great interest in the dolls while they crept closer to the sales desk, where the woman had gone to ring up a sale for the pregnant woman.
"Ryan, do we have any more of the red-and-green-plaid wrapping paper?" a tall, red-haired woman behind the counter asked. "I can't find any."
The dark-haired saleslady turned to answer.
"Ryan," Kelsey whispered. "Her name is Ryan. Isn't that pretty?"
Pip had always considered that a boy's name himself, but he kept quiet, continuing to watch the woman who so fascinated his sister.
"It's been a madhouse today, hasn't it?" the redhead was asking, pretending to wipe her brow with one hand. "Why do I have the feeling we're going to be here very late tonight restocking and doing paperwork?"
"You don't have to stay very late," Ryan assured her. "I know Jack will be impatient for you to get home. I can handle most of it myself."
The redhead made a face. "You will not. I told you I'd help you get through the Christmas season and I will. Jack will understand. It's you I'm worried about. You're going to be so busy during the next month that you'll be lucky to have any social life at all."
Ryan shrugged. "What social life? It's not as if I'm dating anyone right now. Face it, Lynn, I'm a single in a doubles' season. I might as well be working instead of sitting at home watching old Christmas movies on cable."
Several customers approached the desk, their arms loaded with purchases. Both Ryan and the woman she'd called Lynn snapped to attention.
So she was a single lady. Could be a problem.
Pip took Kelsey's hand, figuring they'd lingered in the doll shop as long as they could without attracting undue attention. "C'mon," he murmured. "Let's go."
"The plan," he reminded her when she hesitated. "We have to work out the plan."
She nodded and followed him out, with only one last, wistful look over her shoulder. Pip wasn't sure whether it was directed at the doll or the woman named Ryan. Maybe both.
Scratching his head, he looked around the crowded mall, as if in search of inspiration. He spotted the sporting-goods store across the way.
"There's the other shop Santa told us to visit," he exclaimed. "Maybe we'll get an idea while we're in there."
"Maybe that's where we'll find our dad," Kelsey agreed.
Pip wasn't so sure it would be that easy, but at least visiting the sporting-goods store would buy him some time to think.
During the past week, it had occurred to him that he and Kelsey could find the parents they'd been longing for at the malldidn't the advertisements all say that you could find anything at the mall? Teeming with shoppers, the mall seemed a good place to look around, pick out some likely looking prospects.
He hadn't expected Kelsey to pick out a single lady. He'd sort of hoped for a set.
Kelsey was more interested in the store employees than in the merchandise so artfully displayed for Christmas browsers. She frowned.
"I don't think I like that one," she said, pointing to a scowling clerk behind the sales desk. The unpleasant-looking man was arguing with a customer about a return, and there was a vein throbbing in his skinny neck, as though he was really angry. "I don't want him for my dad," she stated flatly.
"Me, either," Pip agreed, eyeing the shopkeeper's soft-looking hands. Sissy hands. Probably never held a football in his life.