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Brian adjusted the red stocking cap, trying to cover his dark brown hair.
He'd bought the costume on a whim a few years ago with the intention to play Santa for his sister's children. Due to unfortunate circumstances, it had never been used. The cheap red suit came with an itchy white beard, but no wig. His own black rubber boots, which he used to wade through concrete, completed the look.
Leaving the hat askew, he stepped back and studied his reflection. He needed a haircut. His costume was "one size fits all" and poorly made. The fuzzy white cuffs of the jacket didn't reach his wrists, the pants were too baggy, and the black plastic belt gaped at his waist. He looked like Homeless Santa.
He grabbed a pillow from the mattress on the floor and stuffed it under his jacket, fashioning a jolly paunch. There, that was better. As he headed outside, he picked up the bag of gifts and put the Dear Santa letter in his front pocket.
At 9:00 a.m., the sun was already blazing. It was going to be a hot Christmas in Oceanside, California. There wasn't a cloud in the perfect blue sky. Brian had spent most of the morning on his surfboard, and the waves were in fine form. He might go back later for an afternoon session.
His pulse kicked up a notch as he approached the house next door. He hardly knew his neighbors and wasn't sure what they would think of his getup. The single mom who lived there had never even spoken to him, and her daughters were quiet as mice.
If the girls hadn't left a letter in Brian's mailbox last week, he wouldn't have considered buying them gifts. When he found the envelope, addressed to the North Pole, he'd opened it to investigate. At first he'd assumed that the girls had mistaken his mailbox for their own, because the two were side by side. Then he read the letter and realized that they hadn't wanted their mother to see it.
The girls had penned the note to Santa in simple words and neat sentences. Judging by her careful signature, Mandy was the older daughter. Her sister, Alyssa, had scrawled her name at the bottom of the page in pink crayon. They asked for a couple of moderately priced toys that "Mommy can't buy this year."
Brian could easily afford the extra gifts; he had very few family members to shop for. But the last item on the list was something that no one could delivernot even Santa. He'd been touched by the request and felt a powerful compulsion to make his neighbors' holiday a little brighter.
They could all use some cheering up.
Whistling the tune to "Jingle Bells," he knocked on the front door. "Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas," he called out, preparing to leave the wrapped presents on the stoop. Before he had a chance, the door swung open.
Mandy and Alyssa stood there in red dresses, their dark hair shining. Twin expressions of wonder lit up their well-scrubbed faces.
"Santa," the younger girl breathed, fooled by his outfit.
Brian winked at her. "Have you girls been good this year?"
The both nodded dutifully, eyes wide.
He reached into his bag, finding a present for Alyssa. She jumped up and down, delighted to receive it. Mandy, who was at least five, probably knew he wasn't the "real" Santa. But she accepted the second gift with a shy smile, examining his ill-fitting suit. If she found it lacking, she didn't say.
"We have cookies for you! My mommy made them."
Brian glanced around, wondering where she was. "Okay."
Mandy raced into another room, coming back with a loaded plate.
"Thanks," he said, grabbing a bell-shaped cookie off the top. He didn't have much of a sweet tooth, and these confections looked almost too pretty to eat, with silver accents and delicate icing. But they tasted like a dream, light and almondy. "Mmm."
He was about to wish them a Merry Christmas and take his leave, along with a handful of those delicious cookies, when the girls' mother appeared. The moment she stepped on the scene, the cookie lodged in his throat.
She was wearing a short towel, secured over her breasts. Her skin was wet, her dark hair dripping on her bare shoulders.
Brian did a double take, startled by her near-nudity. He couldn't help noticing that she had a great figure. He'd never registered that before, but he'd never seen quite so much of her. She always wore shapeless clothes and big sunglasses.
"What are you doing?" she gasped, staring at him. She had frantic blue eyes and a smattering of freckles across her nose.
Brian tried to chew the bite of cookie, which had turned to sawdust in his mouth.
"You opened the door to a stranger?" she asked the girls.
Mandy set aside the cookies, appearing stricken. "Go to your room," she said, clutching the towel in a white-knuckled grip. "Both of you!"
"Can we keep the presents?" Alyssa asked.
They ran away, little faces crumpled in dismay.
Brian managed to swallow. "I'm sorry. I had no idea this would be a problem"
"Get out," she said, pointing her finger. Although her stance was strong and self-assured, her lips trembled, betraying her fear.
He retreated in surprise, unaware that he'd stepped over the threshold. "I'm sorry," he said again, tugging the fake beard down his chin. "I didn't mean to scare you. I'm Brian Cosgrove, from next door."
Her gaze darted from him to the half-opened presents on the floor. "Have you visited my children before?"
Brian was so astounded by her question that he almost didn't catch its meaning. Was she implying that he wanted to harm her daughters? His stomach curled in revulsion. "No," he said, shaken by the charge. "Hell, no."
"Then how could you know what they wanted for Christmas?"
He reached into his front pocket, bringing out the Dear Santa letter. "They left this in my mailbox."
She took the note from him and scanned it, her mouth thin.
It was on the tip of his tongue to explain that he thought he was doing her a kindness. His only impression of her before now was that of an overworked parent. He'd watched her leave the house early in the morning and trudge home late. Her girls had sad eyes. Intuition, and the Dear Santa letter, told him they were struggling.
He'd also studied his own reflection in the mirror often enough to know what a wounded soul looked like.
But the empty place inside him gaped wider than ever at her harsh treatment. Instead of trying to reach out to her, he distanced himself further. "I'm sorry for stopping by unannounced. It won't happen again."
She kept her attention on the letter, silent.
He turned and walked away, crushing the delicate cookie in his closed fist.
Leah read the message three times, her heart aching.
Mommy can't by a lot of presints this year. She said not to ask you for new toys. But Alyssa wants a doctor Elmo and I want a Hello Kitty camera. We also want Daddy back from heaven.
Mandy and Alyssa
She folded the paper in half, her vision blurring with tears. Her neighbor's visit had shaken her to the core.
When she'd heard the deep rumble of a man's voice, she'd panicked. She turned off the shower and leapt out of the stall in a surge of adrenaline. Wrapping a towel around her body, she burst from the bathroom and rushed down the hall.
Seeing a strange man inside her house had brought back terrible memories. Eighteen months ago, she'd walked in on her husband's murderer. She'd dropped her groceries and run out of the house, calling 911 on her cell phone.
The criminal was still at largeand Leah prayed he'd never find her.
Her neighbor looked nothing like the cold villain who'd shot John in the head. He was taller, leaner, not quite as dark. As soon as he introduced himself, she recognized him as the surfer next door. She saw the man coming back from the beach almost every morning. He was always barefoot, surfboard under one arm, wet suit pulled down to the waist. Something about him made her uncomfortable.
Unsettled by the surprise encounter, she peeked through the horizontal blinds, studying her neighbor's driveway. He'd moved in about a month ago. His beat-up white truck said Cosgrove Construction on the passenger side. His house was small and rundown; she was surprised it hadn't been razed.
He was just another down-on-his-luck handyman.
She let the blinds snap shut, aware that she'd overreacted and embarrassed him. She'd also yelled at the girls in front of him, which made her feel lousy. Mandy, in particular, was sensitive to loud voices. Alyssa was too young to remember the fights.
After she secured the lock on the front door, Leah went to her bedroom and pulled on her bathrobe. In her manic state, she hadn't even thought about donning it. She must have looked like a crazy woman.
She'd also forgotten to set the security alarm before she hopped in the shower. An unforgivable oversight.
Shaking her head, she padded to the girls' room. Mandy had slammed the door shut, which wasn't allowed but she let it pass, turning the knob and slipping inside. The space was cramped, filled with two single beds. Alyssa was playing with an ABC puzzle on the floor. Mandy lay on her bed, arms crossed over her chest.
She was mad. Well, so was Leah.
Knotting the belt at her waist, she sat down on Alyssa's bed, addressing both daughters. "What have I told you about opening the door to strangers?"
"Not to do it," Alyssa answered promptly.
"So why did you?"
Mandy stared up at the ceiling, petulant. "It wasn't a stranger," Alyssa pointed out. "It was Santa."
"It wasn't Santa, dummy," Mandy said.
"Hey," Leah scolded. "Be nice."
"Who was it?" Alyssa asked.
"A man pretending to be Santa," Leah said.
"Was he a bad man?"
"Probably not, but you girls need to be more careful. I don't want anyone to hurt you or take you away from me."
Hearing the quiver in Leah's voice, Alyssa looked up from her puzzle. She scrambled to her feet and gave Leah a hug. "Okay, Mommy. I love you."
Leah pressed her lips to the top of Alyssa's head. "I love you, too, sweetie."
Mandy let out an exaggerated sigh. She pretended not to like displays of affection. When Alyssa let go, Leah leaned over Mandy, kissing her nose before she could squirm away. "I'm counting on you to watch over your sister."
Mandy's expression softened. She was already protective of Alyssa, and enjoyed being responsible. "He wasn't bad, Mom."
"How do you know? Because he had presents?"
"He liked your cookies."
"That doesn't mean anything," she said, her cheeks heating. If she wasn't mistaken, she'd also seen a hint of masculine appreciation in his gaze. Brian Cosgrove liked full-grown women. And he knew a good cookie when he tasted one. She felt guilty for throwing him out of her house.
Taking a deep breath, she removed the Dear Santa letter from her front pocket. "Why did you put this in his mailbox?"
"I didn't want you to see it before the mailman came."
She looked from one daughter to the other, pressure building behind her eyes. "You know that your daddy isn't coming back, right?"
Alyssa's face fell. She nodded once and returned to her floor puzzle. Mandy focused on the ceiling, her chin quivering. This was a subject they'd all rather avoid. John hadn't been a perfect husband or an ideal father, but they missed him.
On days like this, the loss was almost unbearable.
Leah couldn't scold them for writing the letter, or for wanting their father back. She felt powerless over the situation. If only John had been able to control his gambling addiction. If only Leah had discovered his secret earlier.
Pushing aside her regrets, she rose from the bed and went back to her room to get ready. She had to apologize to Brian. Her stomach tightened at the prospect and she nibbled on the edge of her fingernail, wondering what to wear. She'd planned to spend the day toiling in the kitchen. The choices were limited because she owned few nice outfits. After rifling through her clothes, she put on her best jeans and a dark green tank top.
Vanity had her reaching for the makeup kit in the back of her underwear drawer. She applied a touch of mascara and a hint of lip gloss, her hands trembling. After shoving her feet into black flats and running a brush through her damp, shoulder-length hair, she walked down the hall to retrieve the presents.
Brian had bought her daughters exactly what they'd asked for. The toys were from two different stores, and had probably cost him a day's hard labor. She took the half-wrapped gifts to the girls' bedroom, watching their eyes brighten with hope. "I'm going next door to say sorry. You both stay right here."
"Can we play with our new toys?"
"I suppose," she said, setting them down. If Brian didn't accept her apology, she'd offer to pay him back for the gifts.
"We'll have to write a thank-you note."
They both agreed, tearing into their presents. Leah never left them unsupervised but she'd only be gone a minute. Tugging on the hem of her shirt, she walked outside, squinting at the strong California sunshine.
In Kansas City, they'd have had a white Christmas.
Her pulse fluttered as she approached his screen door. The thin barrier was torn in several places, and had a flimsy-looking frame. If she wanted to, she could slip her hand inside and reach the latch. She felt a twinge of resentment over his lackadaisical security. Single women couldn't afford to be so careless.
As she raised her hand to knock, she saw Brian standing in the kitchen. He'd ditched the fur-trimmed coat and not bothered to put on a shirt. His skin was smooth and tanned, his torso etched with muscle.
While she watched, her mouth going dry, he lifted a plastic water bottle to his lips and took a long drink. Her eyes traveled from his strong brown throat, which worked as he swallowed, to the fine sheen of perspiration on his chest. The red Santa pants he was wearing rode dangerously low on his waist, held up by a thin white drawstring, and his stomach looked as flat and tight as a drum. This was no bowl full of jelly.
She might have made a noise, because he caught sight of her and startled, the bottle slipping from his hand. It bounced off the tile floor, spilling everywhere.