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"Smile for the picture," she said sweetly, standing a few feet from the elaborate thronelike chair and Christmas tree being used for "Pictures with Santa."
Santa Claus's deep blue eyes narrowed behind his gold-rimmed glasses, but his lips curved in a smile hopefully only she could tell was forced.
How had she talked Dr. Dirk Kelley into helping when the Santa she'd arranged for the event canceled at the last minute, leaving her desperate for a replacement? So desperate she'd asked a man she'd treated as if they were just friendly colleagues for the past two months and not more, all the while walking on eggshells at the sharp undercurrents between them.
"Ho, ho, ho, what do you want for Christmas this year, little boy?" Santa asked, sounding more like the Abominable Snowman than a jolly old man full of Christmas spirit.
Despite her awkward physical awareness of the man beneath the suit, it was all Abby could do not to snort. Did Dirk really believe that voice sounded Santa-ish? Hadn't he sat on Santa's knee as a kid? Watched Christmas television shows about jolly Saint Nick? Anything that would clue him in that Christmas was the most magical time of the year and that for these kids he was part of that magic? Something they'd always remember?
For all she knew, he hadn't.
Although they'd started out with a bang the night they'd first worked together, she really didn't know much about the handsome doctor who'd knocked her socks off from the moment she'd met him.
She knew very little about him or his past. Although, thanks to that morning, she spent way too much of her present thinking about him and how much she'd like to feature in his future.
The kid on Dirk's lap, around five, wiped the back of his pudgy hand across his runny nose. "An Xbox, and a cellphone, and a digital voice enhancer, and a "
The list went on. And on. Even Abby's eyes widened at some of the items the kid listed. What had happened to a baseball glove or a bicycle?
Santa's bushy white brow rose as he regarded the kid. "Have you been that good this year?"
Another wipe of the face, then a nod. "I have. Extra-good."
"I'll see what I can do." At the mother's frantic look, Santa diplomatically added, "But Santa's on a budget. To be fair to the other good little boys and girls, I'll have to prioritize and just bring one or two of your list items."
The mother heaved a relieved sigh.
Santa set the boy off his lap but, rather than walk away, the kid wrapped his arms around Dirk's neck and planted a noisy kiss on a high cheekbone Abby had doctored earlier with rosy rouge. "I love you, Santa."
Abby's insides melted. How sweet! This was why she'd volunteered to organize this event. Why she volunteered with so many Christmas events. To help bring holiday magic alive for others.
Only Dirk looked more like he was being cooked alive than feeling the magic.
"I.uh." His eyes cut to her with a distressed plea for rescue. He didn't have to say anything aloud. Abby got the message loud and clear.
Not in a million years could she deny him. Not when his gaze held hers and she had a resurgence of the connection she'd instantaneously felt with him, had a resurgence of the connection they'd shared that morning. One so real, so tangible, she'd felt in sync with him, had comforted and been comforted.
No, she couldn't deny Dirk much of anything within her power to give. Obviously. Besides, she was good at helping others, giving to others. It's what she did. What she'd always done. What was expected of her by all who knew her, especially this time of year.
Wondering at Dirk's evident rising unease, she put her hand on the boy's back and gave him a gentle pat. "Santa loves you, too. Don't forget to keep being extra-good between now and Christmas. He'll be watching."
At the last, the kid shot a wary glance toward Santa, his face contorting in shock. "Even when I'm in the bathtub?"
"No, not then. Just when you're being good or bad." Sending an apologetic smile, the boy's mother took his hand and led him away. Several times he glanced over his shoulder, waving goodbye.
Standing to tower above her five feet, six inches, Dirk bent to whisper in her ear. "Santa needs a break. Stat."
His rush of warm breath tickling her ear filled her with Christmas magic, from her head to the tippy-tips of her toes. This so wasn't the place to be getting hot and bothered by Dirk and his overabundant male magnetism.
In a Santa costume, for goodness' sake.
How could she possibly be turned on by a man dressed in her deceased father's treasured Santa suit? Although she loved Christmas, she wasn't prone to Christmas fetishes. Then again, it wasn't the suit but the man inside it lighting up her world like the most overdecorated house in the neighborhood.
He was playing Santa as a favor to her—she had no choice but to get her feelings under control and not attack the man's lips with hers in front of all these children.
She gave a calm nod and told the waiting crowd, "Sorry, kids, but Santa needs to check in with his elves to make sure all the toys are being made just right." She smiled brilliantly at the children and their parents. "We'll be back in ten minutes."
As expected, moans and groans greeted them from the families in the long line. Despite Dirk's obvious need for a reprieve, she sensed his hesitation, liked him all the more for it. Still, he'd said he needed a break and she'd seen in his eyes that he really did.
"Come on, Santa." Smiling brightly, Abby looped her arm in a red-velvet-covered one and spoke loudly.
"Follow me, and I'll take you to where you can use your special Santa phone to call the North Pole and put in the requests for presents you've heard so far. There's only two more weeks until Christmas, so they need to get started filling the orders right away."
Gratitude shining in his eyes, Dirk nodded, pasted on a fake smile, and waved at the crowd.
"I can't believe I let you talk me into this," he mumbled under his breath while allowing her to lead him away from the masses gathered at the community center just to meet him. "This is madness. Pure commercialized madness."
She still couldn't believe he'd said yes, either. Sure, he was the one man capable of delivering her Christmas wish, but long and lean Dr. Dirk Kelley playing the role of Santa to dozens of children was another matter altogether. They'd worked together long enough for her to realize kids made him uncomfortable, that he was quiet and kept to himself. Her friend and fellow nurse Danielle called him Dr. Dreamboat. Abby called him what she most wanted for Christmas, but had never said the words out loud, not even to her tabby cat, Mistletoe.
Regardless, Dirk was doing her a huge favor and she was grateful. Smiling, she quirked a brow in his direction. "Ah, Santa, where's your Christmas spirit?"
He snorted. "I lost it somewhere between demands for a new computer and the kid who wanted a Mercedes-Benz." He shook his red and white hat and white wig topped head in dismay. "What happened to kids wanting Tinkertoys and tricycles?"
Although he pretty much echoed her earlier thoughts, Abby just shrugged. "Now, Santa, stay with the times. It's high tech and electronics these days. You'll have to get your elves with the program."
"Apparently," he said wryly. The moment they stepped out of the main walkway of the community center and into the privacy of the employee break room where they'd left their things earlier, his broad shoulders sagged. "I'm not sure I'm going to last another hour. Christmas just isn't my thing, Abs."
"Bah, humbug, Mr. Scrooge." While trying to decide if he was serious about the Christmas comment, she gave an internal sigh at his use of his pet name for her. Did he have any idea how that sent shivers through her? That every time she heard it she was instantly taken back to being in his arms, to the first time he'd whispered the name when they'd been tangled together beneath her bedsheets? "Surely you can make it another hour." She sighed theatrically. "Guess men of endurance are a thing of the past, too."
"Don't you believe it," he warned, grinning for real for the first time in over an hour, his eyes taking on a dangerous gleam despite his costume and obvious dislike of his role. "My endurance is just fine. Better than fine."
She raked her gaze over his red fur-covered body. The padding beneath the suit didn't begin to hide the wide shoulders and abundant male charisma. Not really. Abby had caught more than one mom in line eyeing Santa as if they'd like to sit on his knee and ask for him in their Christmas stockings If they knew Santa was none other than scrumptious Dr. Dirk Kelley, Santa would have had to beat the women off with a giant candy cane.
Besides, thanks to the particularly rough night they'd first worked together, Abby did know all about Dirk's endurance. If only she could forget what amazing stamina the man wielded at the tips of those magical fingers. What stamina the rest of him had delivered. Twice.
Dirk Kelley didn't need a sleigh and flying reindeer to take a woman to soaring heights.
Maybe somebody should thwack her with a giant candy cane for even letting memories of that morning creep into her thoughts. Hadn't they agreed they'd made a mistake? Memories like those could only cause her to want to sit on Santa's lap and tell him what she'd like to find under her tree on Christmas morning.
And that was a family.
Kids anxiously waiting to rip into brightly colored packages.
Aunts, uncles, cousins, parents and grandparents to fuss and carry on about everything from setting the table for Christmas morning breakfast to who was the most surprised by their gift.
A man to share her life with, to love her, and surprise her with something special just for her. Not necessarily something expensive, just something with meaning, something from his heart.
Like the beloved Christmas village pieces her father used to give to her mother before they'd been killed in a house fire when Abby had been seven. She wanted to experience what her parents had shared, to open a package and glance up with excitement, not at the physical gift but with the love with which it had been chosen. She wanted to see that love reflected back at her in the glow of twinkling Christmas morning lights.
But on top of all that, she wanted Dirk. Abby sighed.
Other than her very busy volunteer schedule and long work hours, Abby led a lonely life. Oh, she had friends, lots of friends, amazing friends like Danielle, but she didn't have someone to come home to, someone to whom she was the most important person in their life, someone to love and be loved by. Only her tabby cat Mistletoe cared whether or not she came home in the mornings after working the emergency department night shift.
Oblivious to her onset of melancholy, Dirk adjusted his belly padding, scratched at his glued-on beard. "I'll never complain about a monkey suit again. After this getup, wearing a tuxedo will feel like a real treat."
Pulling herself from her unwanted self-pitying thoughts and trying not to think about how handsome Dirk would look in a tux, out of a tux, Abby focused on the here and now. She had a great life, a great job and great friends. She was a needed, productive member of society. At the moment she was needed to give downtown Philadelphia children a magical visit with Santa.
Abby wasn't the kind of woman to disappoint. Not when she had any say in the matter and never when it came to children and Christmas.
"Better let me adjust your beard there, Santa." She tugged on Dirk's fake white beard, soothing down the coarse lifelike hair he'd ruffled with his scratching.
Just touching him prickled her skin with goose bumps.
Glancing everywhere but at her, he fanned his face. "Man, this thing is hot."
He was what was hot. Hot as a roaring fire she'd like to warm herself next to. Oh, my! Abby turned away before she had to fan her face, too.
"You think that's why Santa's cheeks stay red?" She reached into the break room's refrigerator and pulled out a cold bottle of water.
"I thought it was from kissing all the mommies under the mistletoe," he surprised her by saying.
Abby blinked at him, at how the corners of his mouth hitched upward ever so slightly. Was he flirting with her?
Laughing a bit nervously, she handed him the water. "Well, there is that."
Twisting off the top and taking a long swig, Dirk sagged into a chair, his blue gaze lifting to hers. "Tell me I don't really have to go back out there."
"You don't have to, but you will, anyway."
He would, too. In the short time since he'd arrived in Philadelphia, just a couple of weeks prior to Halloween, Dirk had proved himself the type of man who didn't shirk a commitment. Even one he so obviously regretted having made. Why had he? Guilt at what had happened between them? At his hasty retreat into "This never should have happened" immediately afterward? She'd hid her hurt. She knew she had. And she'd told herself she should be relieved—workplace romances never seemed to end well.
"You're right." Even for a guy dressed like Santa Claus his sigh was a bit too melodramatic. "I will, but you owe me, Abs. Big-time. Any time. Any place. Any thing. You owe me. Take note."
Despite how her heart tattooed a funky beat at his unexpected words, wondering if maybe that morning haunted him, too, Abby placed her hands on her hips. Or maybe it was because of his words she felt the need to stand her ground. "I think 'any' is a bit too general."
"Nope." He shook his Santafied head. "Any it is."
She sighed. How bad could owing him be? They'd both agreed falling into bed together had been a mistake, the result of a particularly bad night in the E.R. where three people had died due to trauma received in a multicar accident. Although they'd done everything medically possible, the internal injuries had been too extensive. An elderly man had suffered a heart attack and hit another car head-on. He'd died instantly, but a two-year-old girl and her mother had been alive, barely, when paramedics had rushed them into the emergency room. The mother had died within minutes, the child soon thereafter. Abby's heart had felt ripped out by shift change.
Posted June 23, 2011
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