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The cowboy Santa Claus inside McKenna Feed ogled her like a kid eyeing the year's most popular and impossible-to-find toy.
Jenna Darlington stood at the checkout counter inside the family-owned store and tried to ignore the blatant stare coming from the man in red. hard to do when he wasn't making any attempt to hide his perusal.
And what was with Santa being here already? It wasn't even Thanksgiving. Didn't most stores wait until after Turkey Day? Couldn't they finish one holiday before starting another?
Sitting in a high-backed chair covered in rich burgundy velveteen, Santa had propped his cheek on his fist, the position skewing his bushy white beard toward the left.
"I'll be right with you," the employee behind the counter told her, making an apologetic face because of whoever was on the other end of the phone.
Jenna could hear the woman's loud voice from where she stood, so she checked her watch and tried to control her fidgeting. She had a small window of opportunity to complete her transaction before school let out and, given her humiliating task, she'd prefer to finish with no one in line behind her and close enough to overhear. Especially her children.
Jenna leaned her hips against the counter to stare outside the long stretch of windows at the front of the store. The picturesque scene of North Star, Montana, looked like a photograph. Big, fat snowflakes drifted down lazily, and store windows were filled with color.
But she was like one of the leaf-bare trees lining the street, colored lights tossed haphazardly through the limbs. Yeah, she could pin a smile on her face and pretend all was well, but it wouldn't change the fact she felt naked and vulnerable. While everyone else called out greetings and gathered into stores bursting with music, she struggled to hold herself upright.
What was she going to do? Winter hadn't taken a firm hold of Montana, yet, but it was shaping up to be a long one. And despite a day spent checking on possible leads, it appeared every job in North Star from waitress to shampoo girl had been filled with people like her needing extra cash for the holidays.
"Ma'am, let me check on this and call you back. Give me your number and"
The person on the other end of that call cut off the clerk midsentence and he gave Jenna another apologetic glance.
Jenna counted to ten and checked her watch again. This was ridiculous. If she didn't need the refund so badly, she'd walk out and deal with it another day.
Santa shifted his position and Jenna noticed the move in her peripheral vision despite her best intentions to ignore him. Worst yet, he was still watching her. She could feel his gaze on her like a physical touch and it made her hyperaware.
Oh, for pity's sake, she didn't have the timeor the patienceto stand here and pretend she was merry or tolerant. Not today. Screw the commercialism Christmas had become. How dare they turn the holiday into a money-hungry mess that made every parent who was unable to provide shiny new things for their children feel like the lowest of the low?
The weight on her shoulders grew to mountainous proportions and the rough-hewn edges of her purse dug into her shoulder through the thickness of her coat. Her twins were going to be so disappointed. Last Christmas had been somber because it had been the first without their father. So Jenna had hoped this Christmas they could celebrate like normala new normal anyway.
But waiting while the clerk ignored her? "Excuse me? I'm trying to be patient but I'm in a hurry."
The store clerk covered the phone's mouthpiece and said, "I'm sorry, ma'am. I'll be with you as soon as I can." The guy pointed to the handset glued to his ear before he turned his back to the counter.
'Tis the season.
Santa shifted yet again, this time leaning forward in his chair and lifting a hand to the white wig as though to scratch an itch.
Santa could stare all he liked but she absolutely, positively would not make eye contact. She wasn't in the mood for idle chitchat while she was forced to wait.
"Anything I can do to help you?" Santa asked.
Yeah, ignore that, her mind taunted.
Santa had a nice voice, one that was deep and rich and flavorful, like pit-smoked beef and au jus that melted in your mouth.
And it's familiar. But where had she heard it before?
Unable to place Santa's voice, she shook her head, her gaze firmly focused on the clerk.
His you sure hit her with the force of a fist and the air left her lungs in a gush.
The first time Chance McKenna had said those two words to her, she'd stood outside Jeff's hospital door, reeling from the news of his death. Chance had asked if there was anything he could do then, too. She'd said no, because her husband was dead. At that point what else could Chance or any of Jeff's climbing friends do? The damage had been done.
And now? Talk about a cruel joke. The last person she needed or wanted to witness her embarrassing plea for a refund was a member of the Rock Gods, the group of extreme rock climbers her husband had belonged to until he'd fallen to what would be his death. "No, thank you," she managed to say.
"I'd be happy to point you in the right direction. Ignore the cast. It's all for show."
That last playful, boastful comment confirmed her suspicions and nixed any remaining doubts that Santa was indeed Chance McKenna. She gave the store owner more than a passing glance, the knot in her stomach swelling to whale-size proportions.
He had one foot propped on a cloth-covered stool. The cloth didn't reach the floor and revealed three fifty-pound sacks of grain stacked atop each other to the requisite height. The sight of the black wrapped cast made her feel ill.
She'd been lucky the day she'd placed the items in layaway during the Labor Day sale. Chance had been nowhere to be seen at the timehe had been off on a climbing expedition that resulted in the broken foot. Now here it was, barely a week before Thanksgiving, and he was still laid up. When would he or the others learn that their little hobby was dangerous? Hadn't Jeff's death been warning enough? "I'll wait."
She wanted no help from him. It would send her over the edge of sanity to have to explain to a member of the Rock Gods why she couldn't afford Christmas. Neither Chance nor the others understood. And as much as she'd loved her husband, Jeff hadn't understood, either. If he had, he wouldn't have risked his life in the name offun.
"I will," she said.
It wasn't like her to be so rude. Really. She was a nice person. But she had to get out of here. If the clerk didn't get off the phone right this very second, she'd
"Sorry about your wait, ma'am. What can I help you with today?"
"Santa! Mommy, it's Santa!"
The excited cry of a child and the squeaky sound of boot-clad feet running across the polished concrete floor pierced Jenna's brain and left an ache any mother would despise. Her attention shifted to Chance's rapid attempts to right his skewed beard.
She watched as Santa pulled a little boy onto his good leg, the building's interior ringing with several boisterous ho, ho, ho's that almost sounded like the real thing.
The boy was around six, maybe seven. Towheaded, with freckles across his nose. Both mother and child were nicely dressed, making Jenna more than aware of her ancient coat with its frayed cuffs and one broken button she'd never gotten around to replacing.
"Ho, ho, ho! Have you been a good boy?"
"Good, good. And what do you want for Christmas, little man?"
"I want a Big Green Fishin' Machine."
Unbidden, Jenna's gaze turned to the large display of the expensive fishing rods stacked against the wall behind the counter. It was the onethe onlything her son had asked for for Christmas. True to its name, it was large and green and had an orange lightning strike on the reel and handle. It came equipped with a matching tackle box with all the so-called necessities. "Ma'am?" the clerk asked.
"I need to cancel my layaway," she said, before she could call herself too many names for falling short as a parent. She should have tried to better prepare for the situation she found herself in, because she'd known, deep down, something would happen. The same way she'd known, deep down, that she couldn't trust Jeff to prepare for the worst.
But she hadn't, and now her kids were paying for it.
"Darlington. Jenna Darlington."
"What was in it?"
Glaring at the offending products, she swallowed. "A Big Green Fishing Machine."
Chance McKenna had a hard time concentrating on what the kid in his lap was saying. While the boy went yammering on about all the stuff he wanted, Chance tried to tune into the low-voiced conversation taking place at the counter. "Got that, Santa?"
He looked down at the boy and tried not to notice the snot leaking out of the upturned nose. "Yeah, yeah, I heard you. But remember now, Santa has a lot of children to give toys to, so if you don't get everything, it doesn't mean I don't like you or anything."
The kid's mouth dropped open, his lower lip beginning to quiver. "But I want it all. Mommy, I want all the toys I asked for!"
Dropping like a rescue helicopter hovering overhead, the kid's mother grabbed the boy and patted and fussed, looking only slightly embarrassed by the boy's behavior and more than a little ticked off that Santa had tried to save mama's bank account.
"I know, sweetheart, I know."
An earsplitting wail erupted from the kid and deafened Chance momentarily. Biting back the response he wanted to give, he held up the basket with candy canes. "You want one for the road?"
The kid wiped his knuckles under his nose, then shoved those same fingers into the basket, grabbing a handful instead of only one.
The mother continued to pat and soothe, and she shook her head at Chance.
"Next time, just listen to his list," she said, turning away and hurrying toward the door. over his mother's shoulder, the boy stuck his tongue out at Chance.
"Mommy, that was a bad Santa."
"I know, honey. We'll drive to see one in Helena tomorrow."
Chance watched as the doting mother carried her sniveling brat out the door, glad the kid was gone. All that fuss and the mother hadn't purchased so much as a packet of hand-warmers. When her darling baby grew up, his parents were going to regret the spoiling.
Shifting yet again, Chance attempted to settle himself into the uncomfortable chair and tossed the basket onto the table beside him.
"What do you mean? I need a refund."
Jenna's voice drew his attention. Feigning boredom, he closed his eyes and strained to hear the conversation, thankful no one else was nearby.
"I can refund everything but the clearance items. once you put those in layaway, they became yours. I can return the money you paid over the amount of those items, but I can't give you the full price. Minus the clearance, you've got a total of fifty dollars coming back to you."
"That's it? Look, I know I should've read the fine print, but I didn't, okay? Can't you make one exception? Something's come up " She lowered her voice even more. "I really need the cash."
Chance got to his feet and onto his crutches without looking like too much of a one-legged loser. The moment he put the crutches in front of him and the rubber bottoms hit the floor, Jenna's head jerked toward him and a pinched look overtook her pretty features. Yeah, he felt the same way. Every time he'd seen her in town since Jeff's death he'd felt bad about what happened, even though every climber presentincluding himhad done all they could to save Jeff. There had been too much damage. "Is there a problem?"
There was no mistaking the hot flush of embarrassment or angermaybe both?that surged into Jenna's cheeks. Whatever was going on, she didn't want him involved. Not that he wanted to be. What did you say to a widow? Especially one he found himself thinking about more than he should?
"No," Jenna said with a firm shake of her head.
"She wants a full refund," Dooley, Chance's assistant manager, explained. "But she has clearance items in the layaway."
Jenna wouldn't make direct eye contact with him.
"Can I ask what's come up?"
Her chin lifted faster than a rocket. Her chest did, too. Through the opening of her thick winter coat, her breasts rose and fell beneath a brown turtleneck.
He'd always had a love-hate relationship with tur-tlenecks. Snug, they outlined a woman's body but at the same time they covered far too much. In this case, he was thankful she was covered. Considering the circumstances, noticing wasn't something he ought to be doing, since Jeff had been his friend.
"I don't owe you an explanation. I simply want a refund."
"Store policy is no refunds on clearance merchandise," he quoted. "So unless you can give me and Dooley a good explanation, we're going to have to stick to it."
That wasn't necessarily true. He could give Jenna or anyone else a refund if he so chose, but she'd piqued his curiosity, so the rule worked in his favor.
Inhaling, Jenna glanced at her receipt. He almost missed her wince and the way her fingers gripped the gloves in her hands.
"I need the layaway refunded because I lost my job at the school. The grant that paid my salary wasn't renewed. Happy?"
Happy? No, of course not. She was a single parent. A widow, no less. And it was seven weeks until Christmas. No kid deserved to wake up Christmas morning to find the space beneath the tree bare. "I'm sorry to hear that."
Jenna's blue-green eyes were rimmed in deep navy, and, gazing into them as he was, Chance was reminded of the ocean in the Caribbean where the water was so unique. But however pretty, there was no mistaking the resentment in them when she looked in his direction, and her chin lifted even more.