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Jessica Patterson was done with Christmas.
No buying of a pine tree that would shed all over her wall-to-wall carpet. No hanging of a festive red-bowed wreath on her front door. And no candy cane cookies on a gaily decorated platter with dancing snowmen who sported goofy stone-created smiles under their little carrot noses.
She'd done enough Christmases. No more, not for her.
"Where's your red suit?" Mindy Newcomb, her best friend for ten years, leaned against the counter of Jessica's toy shop, arms crossed over her chest.
"It's December nineteenth and you haven't even taken it out of the attic yet. The town Winterfest is in three days. And you don't have so much as a paper snowflake in the window. What's wrong with you?"
Jessica straightened a display of white teddy bears set up in the center of Santa's Workshop Toys. The pale color was all the rage this year in stuffed pals, so Jessica had made sure to stock up. "I told you, I'm not staying here for Christmas this year. I have a round-trip ticket to Miami Beach, a mega bottle of SPF 45 and a brand-new Speedo. I am not putting on the Mrs. Claus suit because I will not be here."
"I really thought you'd get over this by now."
"What do you mean, over this?"
mood you've been in." Mindy waved a vague hand. "Come on, Jessica, you love Christmas."
"I used to love Christmas. I don't anymore." The clock chimed ten. Jessica crossed to the door, flipped the sign to Open then headed to the register and checked for the right ratio of quarters and nickels. She knew to start the day with a lot of small change, particularly now that school had let out for Winter Break. The children of Riverbend would be in soon, spending their allowances on the myriad of small items laid out on the dime and quarter table, biding their time until the ho-ho-holiday with super bouncy balls and new sets of jacks.
Mindy slid onto the stool behind the counter. When Jessica joined her, she laid a hand on her friend's, her eyes welling with sympathy. "I know the holidays have been pretty hard on you since Dennis died."
Jessica nodded and swallowed the lump in her throat. Two years and yet there were days when it felt like yesterday. "Christmas just isn't the same without him." She glanced at the pictures on the wall, a collection of images featuring happier days with Mr. and Mrs. ClausJessica and Dennis Patterson.
They'd started soon after they'd married fifteen years ago, donning the suits with padding, then as the pounds crept up on Dennis, he hadn't needed the extra pillows. He'd looked good as he rounded, like a teddy bear she could curl into.
But those very pounds had been his undoing, putting a strain on his heart that it couldn't handle. Yet he'd kept the doctor's warnings from her, ignoring the ticking time bomb in his chest because he loved being Santa. Loved his life. And hated anything that would put a crimp in it. He'd been all about being jollyand never about anything serious.
She'd loved that about Dennis, until she realized that was the very thing that had cost her the man she loved.
Every year, they'd played the Mr. and Mrs. Santa roles, delighting in the smiles on the children's faces as they'd handed out toys and candy canes, putting on a real show at the annual Riverbend Town Winterfest. They'd posed for pictures, even built a sleigh and set up a little decorated housea glorified shed, reallyin the town park, where children could come and spend a few minutes visiting with Old St. Nick, telling him what they wished to see most under their Christmas tree.
After Dennis had died too soon at forty-eight, leaving Jessica a young widow at thirty-seven, she'd carried on the show for one more year, for the memory of her husband, for the kids they'd loved. But those kids had grown up. And the ones she'd seen in the past couple years hadn't exactly been the Norman Rockwell version of Christmas spirit.
Jessica turned away from the pictures. "The whole thing stopped being fun a long time ago. Besides, I lost my Christmas spirit after Andrew Weston defaced my Frosty."
"He was just a kid, pulling a prank."
"Mindy, he painted him green and hung him from the oak tree in the center of the town lawn. Said he was releasing Frosty into the wild or something. Then that Sarah Hamilton
" Jessica shook her head. "I try never to think badly of a child, but that girl knows exactly how to get on my nerves."
"She is a bit of a"
"Brat," Jessica finished, then immediately felt bad because Sarah was really only a product of her unconventional upbringing. "And that's not a word I use lightly."
"She's been through a rough time, Jess. She only lost her mom, what, two months ago?"
Jessica sighed and sank onto the second stool. "I know. I don't think she has any family left. She's been living with her babysitter, which has to be hard on her." Sarah had taken to hanging around the store after school a lot lately, asking questions, always wanting Jessica's attention at the busiest possible times. Driving Jessica nutsand pitching a fit if she didn't get Jessica's undivided attention when she wanted it.
"If she had a dad, he's not around." Mindy's lips pursed in annoyance with the missing father who would leave his child stranded like that. "And Kiki never even said who he was."
"She was an odd duck, wasn't she?" Jessica thought of Sarah's mother, who'd waitressed at the downtown diner and had died her hair a different color to suit her different moods. Rough and out-spoken, Kiki had stuck out in Riverbend like a hammerhead shark in a tank full of angel fish.
Having Kiki for a mother explained a lot about Sarah's behavior. Jessica knew enough about the woman to know the words schedule and discipline weren't in her vocabulary. For a woman like Jessica, who'd lived by a schedule for more than three decades, Kiki's life wasn't just unusualit was crazy.
"Sarah's had a difficult life," Mindy said,
"between living with Kiki and now being practically orphaned."
"And normally I'd be all sympathy and cookies."
Guilt once again knocked on Jessica, and she vowed not to say another bad word about anyone, and especially a child. "But this year, it's like I've run out of patience. Every time a kid comes in here, I'm tense and annoyed."
"That's not like you."
"I know. Plus, the kids aren't the same, Mindy. They don't believe like they used to. Kids today are
" Jessica threw up her hands.
"Jaded. Angry. Pierced and tattooed." Jessica laughed, but the laughter wasn't filled with humor, it was dry and bittersweet, touched by longing for the old days. For Dennis's patient touch, his understanding of kids, his year-round love of the holiday season. He was the one who had embodied Christmas, not her. She'd gone on last year, for his sake, his memory, but she hadn't had his ability to create the same magical spell. To pull something out of nothing. "Yeah. Dennis and I always said that when this stopped being fun, that was when it was time to hang up the red suit and white wig."
She slipped her hand into the space beside the register and withdrew the pamphlet she'd picked up at Olive's Outlandish Travel that morning. Even Olive had given her a look of disappointment as she'd handed over the round-trip ticket and the brochure, but Jessica remained resolute. "This is where I need to be for Christmas," Jessica said, further cementing her resolve to leave town.
"Pristine white sand. Gentle, lapping waves. Hot sun baking on my skin. Cabana boys bringing me drinks with little umbrellas." She pointed at the picture of a Caribbean paradise, then ran a finger along the words printed at the bottom of the resort's advertisement. "And especially this. 'No small children allowed.'"
"But you love kids. You love Christmas." Jessica shook her head, refusing to be dissuaded from her plan. Next thing she knew, she'd be handing out candy canes and posing for pictures. The adults in Riverbend might miss the extra entertainment at the Winterfest, but Jessica wasn't fooling herself into thinking the children would notice one way or the other. The town seemed to have lost its sparkleor maybe she had. Either way, playing Mrs. Claus wasn't on her agenda, not this year. Maybe not ever again, especially without a Santa by her side to add that extra spark of magic. "My mind is made up and my bag is packed. I'm leaving tomorrow."
Mindy rolled her eyes. "There's nothing I can do to talk you into staying? To being Mrs. Claus one more time?"
Jessica laid a hand on Mindy's and looked her best friend straight in the eye. "Honey, I wouldn't be Mrs. Claus again if the big guy himself came all the way down from the North Pole and got down on his knees to ask me."