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There was something not quite right about Santa Claus.
Anna didn't see it so much as feel it, a vague uneasiness that spread through her the moment he glanced in her direction. But it was there, and it was unmistakable, and she wondered for a moment if she should call security and have him checked out.
He stood in the middle of the crowded mall, between Anna's shop and a small dress boutique across the aisle, ringing his bell next to a Save the Children donation canister. Something in his eyes said he couldn't care less about the children, however, and for the brief moment he looked at Anna, she was pretty sure his interest lay somewhere else entirely.
Like the area just south of her neck and shoulders.
Anna was in the middle of helping a customera gentle old woman who wanted a peach-blossom body care set for her granddaughterand did her best to ignore Santa's leer, chalking it up to typical Neanderthal behavior. But Anna had her share of lascivious looks in the past, and this one seemed to go beyond the norm and straight into the realm of creepy.
Was this guy even authorized to be here?
He wasn't your typical holiday bell ringer. Most were retirees looking for something to do, but not this one.
He was about thirty years old, and there was a shady, wanted-poster quality to his demeanor that couldn't be disguised by the floppy hat and the fake white beard. Strip away the red suit and all the padding, and you'd probably find a common street thug underneath.
Maybe Anna wasn't being very charitable herself. Maybe he was just a poor unfortunate who was down on his luck and needed any job he could find. That wasn't unusual in this economy.
After what she'd been through over the past week, Anna would be the first to admit she wasn't in the greatest frame of mind. So maybe she should cut this guy a break.
Still, there was a sense of menace in his look that seemed to say he wanted something from her, and the kernel of dread doing somersaults through her stomach right now was not a feeling she could easily ignore.
Just go away, she felt like telling him. Pack up your stuff and leave.
And to her surprise, a few minutes later, he did.
Anna had doubts about coming back to work tonight. Thought it might be too soon. In fact, she didn't normally work at night, but with only three days left until Christmas, and a store overflowing with anxious last-minute shoppers, she didn't feel she had a choice.
Trudy had done a wonderful job of covering for her the past week, but it was time for Anna to swallow her grief and get on with her life. If not for herself, then for little Adam. He deserved a normal Christmas.
As normal as it could be, that is.
She also had other matters to consider. Anna's Body Essentials was her baby, and with her lease about to expire and her rental fee threatening to increase, she couldn't afford to sit at home obsessing over all the things she could have said or done that might have kept her brother, Owen, alive.
The sheriff's department psychologist had told her that it's typical for the family of suicides to wonder where they might have gone wrong.
"Owen took his life because he wanted to," he'd said somberly. "Not because anyone drove him to it. It's unlikely there's any way you could have stopped him, short of catching him in the act."
"My mother thinks that if we'd paid more attention, seen the signs "
"The signs aren't always evident, Anna. Especially when you only see someone a couple times a week.
Owen probably felt it was his duty to put on a brave face, make everyone believe he was okay. Such behavior isn't atypical."
Anna had listened carefully, nodding politely, more stunned by this turn of events than the psychologist could ever possibly know, but she hadn't said what she was thinking at the time.
That she wasn't entirely convinced that Owen had committed suicide.
It just didn't make sense.
Admittedly, her brother had seemed agitated lately, and he hadn't been in the best frame of mind after losing his job. But he was one of the most happy-go-lucky people Anna had ever known, and even if he was depressed, she just couldn't believe he'd try to find the solution through a bullet to the head.
Not the Owen Sanford she knew.
She had no proof of this, of course. Just gut instinct. But one thing Anna had learned in her time on this planet was that her instincts were rarely wrong.
When she finally broke down and confessed this belief to the psychologist, however, she was treated as if she were a child with a vivid imagination, her ability to reason clouded by grief.
And who knows? Maybe that was true.
Maybe she hadn't known Owen as well as she thought she had.
After saying good-night to her last customer around 11:00 p.m., Anna closed up shop then spent another hour in her office, catching up on some of the bookkeeping she'd neglected for the past week. As she worked, her gaze drifted to a photo of her brother on the desktop, the one with that smile that always reminded her of their father.
She remembered how strong Owen had been when Daddy had his heart attack. How he had stepped up and become a man in the face of their tragedy, consoling their devastated mother and watching after an eleven-year-old sister who had handled her grief badly by withdrawing from the world, locked in her room, blasting Nirvana at all hours.
That girl was all grown up now, with a three-year-old son and a two-year-old divorce, doing her best to eke out a living as she coped with yet another family tragedy. And the sad irony was that the person she needed most right now was Owen.
Little Adam needed him, too. After the divorce, Owen had taken over as surrogate father, and she knew that his absence in her son's life was a hole about the size of Veterans Memorial Stadium.
A hole that might never be filled.
Anna felt tears in her eyes and knew that this was her cue. She couldn't pretend anymore. She was just going through the motions here and needed to get home.
Shutting down her computer, she grabbed her keys and her purse and her jacket and let herself out the back door.
Then she navigated the wide hallway to the service elevator, still thinking about Owen and trying very hard not to cry.
The underground parking lot was nearly empty at this hour.
There were maybe five cars total, most of them hidden by shadow. The maintenance down here was shoddy at best and half the fluorescent bulbs were either dead or on life support. It was the employees lot, after all, and who cared about the employees?
Anna was almost to her car, a gray Ford sedan, her footsteps reverberating against the cement walls, when she thought she saw a flicker of movement in the corner of her eye.
She paused, turned, found nothing there. But that didn't keep her heartbeat from kicking up a notch.
Was she alone?
Feeling the sudden need to move quickly, she continued on toward her car, fumbling for her keys as she went, pressing the remote to unlock it. A moment later she was at the door, about to open it, thinking she was just being silly and paranoid, when
a pair of hands grabbed her from behind, pushing her back toward the aisle. Headlights came alive in a dark corner and a battered green van shot toward her.
Anna tried to twist away. Saw that her attacker was none other than Santa Claus, still wearing that ridiculous hat and white beardhis face hard, his eyes as empty as the parking lotand she knew immediately that she was in very big trouble.
"Where is it?" he hissed. "Where's the button?"
This surprised Anna. She had no earthly idea what he was talking about. She sputtered something unintelligible, the dread she'd felt earlier coming back like a blow to the belly.
She tried again to twist away, but he kept shoving her into the aisle.
"We know he gave it to youwhere is it?"
He shoved her hard and she slammed against the side of the van, which was directly in front of them now. Reaching out, he gripped a handle, slid the door open then grabbed her again and pushed her toward the seats inside.
"Please," she cried, "I don't understand what you want from me."
"The hell you don't." Anna heard a soft snick. San ta had popped his switchblade. He pointed it at her throat. "Get in, sugar lips, or I'll cut you right"
There was a roar behind thema rumbling, beefy engine coming to life, filling the parking lot with the sound of a jet taking off.
They both turned and saw a large black motorcycle emerge from the shadows. It rocketed straight toward them and didn't slow down, the driver's face hidden by his helmet and visor.
Santa's eyes went wide and he grabbed Anna by her jacket and spun her around, pushing her directly into the bike's path.
Then he was scrambling into the van, shouting "Go! Go! Go!" as Anna stumbled forward and lost her footing, falling to her knees.
Pain shot through her as her kneecaps pounded into the asphalt. The bike roared straight for her, its lone headlight illuminating her terrified face. Then it quickly veered to the right, its driver laying the machine on its side as he struggled to maintain some kind of control.
The bike skidded into a cement post, crashing to an abrupt halt, but the rider had already jumped free and rolled to his feet. He pulled a gun from the small of his back as he started running toward the van.
The van peeled out, laying a long patch of rubber, the squeal so loud it pierced Anna's eardrums like feedback, as the man in the motorcycle helmet raised his gun.
But before he could fire, the van screeched around a corner and up the exit ramp, disappearing from sight.
The man in the helmet looked as if he might squeeze off a shot anyway, but then he lowered the gun, tucked it under his leather jacket and turned toward Anna.
Seeing that she was still on her knees, he moved quickly and helped her to her feet.
"Are you all right?"
Anna nodded, wincing against the pain, and looked up at him as he reached for the visor and raised it.
She had expected to see a stranger, forever grateful that he had intervened, but to her utter astonishment the man looking back at her was someone she knew.
She hadn't seen him in four long years, but it was a face so achingly familiar that she suddenly felt her legs weaken, thinking for a moment that she might collapse again.
All at once her heart began to thump wildly against her chest and she couldn't quite breathe as shock began to overcome her.
He smiled at her then, a smile laced with a hint of melancholy, a subtle sadness reflected in his intense blue eyeseyes that spoke of a history between them that would never be forgotten.
"How've you been, Anna?"
It was Brody Carpenter.
Owen's best friend.
The man she had once hoped to marry.
Anna didn't know where even to begin.
After all these years she had pretty much given up on ever seeing Brody again. Had halfway convinced herself that he was either dead or living under an alias somewhere, never to be found.
Her life with him seemed to be part of some vague, half-imagined fantasy relegated to a part of her mind she rarely visited. Surely no more than once or twice a day.
Yet here he stood in front of her. Not an illusion, but a living, breathing human being who didn't look much different from how she remembered him. The same rugged jawline, the same hard, angular body. The wide shoulders. The strong hands. Towering over her as he always had.
She suddenly felt as if she'd been hurtled into the pasta feeling that was both exhilarating and unsettling.