Read an Excerpt
'Tis the Season Bundle 2
By Aimee Carson, Amy Andrews, Heidi Rice, Kate Hardy, Liz Pelletier
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2012 Aimee Carson, Amy Andrews, Heidi Rice, Kate Hardy
All rights reserved.
"You want me to be Santa." Mitch stared at his boss in disbelief. Was C.J. temporarily insane? Or had he eaten way too many candy canes from the box one of their clients had sent and was on the sugar rush to end all sugar rushes?
Mitch wasn't Santa material. No way. No how. Hadn't his last girlfriend even nicknamed him Ebenezer? Not that Mitch was ever mean with gifts; he just hated Christmas. For him, Christmas wasn't the season of joy and goodwill. It was a season of misery, and he'd learned that the hard way. Nowadays, he always worked between Christmas and New Year so his colleagues who had kids could take time off and enjoy the holiday season with their families. It came with the bonus of being the perfect excuse for not being able to join his own family on the other side of the country for the seasonal fights.
Being Santa at a Christmas party for children just wasn't him, Mitch knew. He was more than happy to give a donation to the party — a donation large enough to give the kids a great time — but actually being Santa, turning up and taking part ...
"You can say no," C.J. said idly.
But Mitch could read the subtext: if he said no, there would be consequences. Because this was most definitely a test.
He waited, hoping that his face looked a lot more inscrutable than it felt.
"I'm looking at retiring next year," C.J. said.
Which was why Mitch had worked stupid hours for the last six months, proving that he was good enough to step into C.J.'s shoes.
"I need to be sure that whoever heads up the firm after me can keep all the balls in the air. So we run the best campaigns, for the best clients, with the best staff."
"Uh-huh." Mitch did all that already. And he knew C.J. knew it.
"But it's not just about business. Holford's has a heart," C.J. said softly.
So that was what C.J. wanted him to prove? Being Santa would show that Mitch had a heart, too. That he'd lead from the front. And in C.J.'s book it was clear that leading meant having a heart.
Mitch didn't agree. To make a business a success, you had to keep emotion out of it. As far as he was concerned, keeping emotion out of everything was the way to go.
Santa — or not Santa.
No. That wasn't the real choice. Santa — or watch someone else take the job he'd worked for. And it irked him that he was being held to account like this.
"So you want me to wear a ridiculous costume and dole out presents to kids who probably won't even get to play with them before their parents either break them in a fight or sell them to get money for their next bottle of booze," Mitch said.
He regretted the words the second they were out of his mouth. Because it shed way, way too much light on his past. A past he'd kept from everyone in Philly.
But to his relief, C.J. didn't seem to be focusing on what he'd just said. Luckily. "It's at a hospice."
Being Santa for terminally sick kids.
Mitch definitely didn't have a choice. Not without seeming like the meanest-spirited person on the planet. "Okay. So I dress up as Santa and take a present to every bed? Is that it?"
C.J. shook his head. "It's not for the kids in the hospice. It's for their brothers and sisters. So just for an hour the focus is on them and they get to enjoy a little bit of Christmas. Even if the rest of the holidays turn out rough."
In other words, if their siblings don't make it through Christmas.
Mitch blew out a breath. C.J. might have a heart, but Mitch also knew that his boss was a hardheaded businessman. If C.J. did something, it was for a reason. And Mitch couldn't quite work out the connection with the hospice. "May I ask, why the hospice?"
"This stays with you," C.J. said. "Just as it stays with me that your parents drank, fought, and broke your toys every Christmas."
Ah. So C.J. had been listening. And he'd worked out the rest of it for himself. Mitch wouldn't make the mistake of underestimating his boss again. "Agreed. And, um, thanks."
C.J. didn't smile. "Twenty-five years ago, Stella and I spent Christmas at that hospice. Watching our son die and not being able to do a damn thing about it."
Mitch couldn't imagine what that was like. He had no terms of reference, except maybe the time his new brother-in-law broke his sister's arm. He'd been twelve, too young to do anything about it other than beg Barbara to leave the guy.
She hadn't, convinced that her husband wasn't all bad and she could change him. She'd been proven wrong, on both counts. And she'd made the same mistake with husband number two, who'd eventually left her with a pile of debts, a black eye, and three children under the age of three.
"And what I noticed when I went to grab us a coffee," C.J. continued, "were the other kids. The ones who sat quietly and never asked for anything. The ones who'd lost their belief in Christmas because they knew their brother or sister wasn't coming home. That's when I decided to hold a Christmas party for them, in Billy's memory. There was another woman there, a woman who ran a bakery. Her boy ..." His breath caught. "Well. Same as Billy. When she found out what Stella and I were planning, she offered to help. So Betty does the food for the party, while I buy the gifts and play Santa."
"Okay. I'm in," Mitch said.
It was the first time he'd felt guilty in the near twenty years since he'd walked out of his family's front door and never looked back. He'd always assumed his boss had simply chosen not to have kids, putting his business before his family. Obviously not. The older man clearly still longed for a family. He hurt every day that he hadn't seen his son grow up. He missed the grandkids he and Stella hadn't had a chance to have. Whereas Mitch ... He had the next best thing to what C.J. had lost. Parents. Three sisters. A horde of nieces and nephews he hadn't seen for years, other than in photographs. A family he'd walked away from without looking back.
He pushed the thought away. "When, and what time?"
"Christmas Eve, from three until four. The presents will be there waiting for you — the Friends of the Hospice wrap them for me and label them." C.J. handed him a bag. "Here's the costume."
One hour. That was all he had to do. One little hour. Mitch could manage to grin and bear it for an hour. He'd borne a hell of a lot worse over Christmases past.
"I'll e-mail you the address of the hospice," C.J. said.
Mitch nodded. "Right." He paused. "Can I, um, contribute to the cost of the gifts?"
"No. They're already bought. It's not about the money," C.J. said.
No. It was about time. About giving something that couldn't be bought. Helping children forget their worries for just a little while.
How many times as a kid had Mitch wanted that? To forget, just for a little while? To pretend that he was like all the other kids, with a family who loved one another and a dad who didn't drink and a mom who never "walked into a door"?
"I won't let you down," he said.
The older man held his gaze. "That," he said, "is exactly why I asked you."CHAPTER 2
Ellie loved Christmas.
She surveyed the table in the hospice playroom now that the children had had their fill. Good, she'd judged it about right. About half the food was gone, leaving enough for nibbles for the staff on their breaks. Sandwiches, sausage rolls — no, they were called pigs in a blanket on this side of the Atlantic, she corrected herself hastily — gingerbread cookies cut into Santa shapes that she'd baked and iced that morning, bowls of chips and dips, carrot sticks, breadsticks, and the star-shaped cheese straws she'd practically grown up making for Christmas parties and knew everyone loved.
Betty's elf costume fitted her perfectly — luckily Ellie was the same height and shape as her godmother — and this was definitely the best way to spend Christmas. Well, second-best. Her first choice would've been four thousand miles away. But she couldn't face another day of sympathy and kindness from her family, especially on Christmas Day. She'd had more than enough of the pity party. Putting a little sparkle into someone else's Christmas was much better than thinking about the lack of sparkle in her own.
And it humbled Ellie to see that there actually was sparkle here. The children really appreciated the Christmas party. They'd played party games and sung carols and eaten their fill of the food Ellie had laid out for them. Just for a little while, they could almost forget that they had a sick brother or sister as an inpatient who wouldn't be coming home again. Just for a few minutes they could enjoy being children. Enjoy the magic of Christmas.
All they needed now was Santa.
C.J. Holford. Even though they'd planned the party together for nearly a quarter of a century, Betty didn't actually know the man's first name, just the initials that he went by.
Ellie glanced at her watch. Ten to three. Santa was supposed to make an appearance at three, but surely this C.J. person would need time to change into the Santa suit and get himself ready? He was cutting it close. Or maybe she was being uncharitable — maybe he'd been held up and hadn't had the chance to contact the hospice to let them know he was going to be late.
If he wasn't here in the next five minutes, she'd just have to tell them that Santa had had to rush off in his sleigh because of an emergency and had asked his Chief Elf to help out here. She hoped they wouldn't mind too much that they wouldn't get to see the man in red himself.
Just then, a dark-haired man walked in to the playroom, carrying a bag that Ellie assumed contained a Christmas gift for someone at the hospice. He glanced around, looking slightly lost.
She went over to him. "Are you visiting someone?" she asked, ready to direct him to the wards.
He looked surprised. "You're English."
"Ye-es." What did that have to do with anything?
He gestured to the badge she wore saying "Chief Elf." "If that means you're in charge, I assume you're Betty?"
"Betty's my godmother. She's in the hospital, having a hip replacement. I'm her stand-in this year." Ellie frowned. "So, are you C.J.?" She'd expected him to be much older, around Betty's age rather than her own.
"No. I'm a stand-in, too."
She noticed that that the stand-in Santa didn't bother giving her his name or asking hers. And she had the distinct feeling that he didn't want to be here. With his designer suit and what she'd guess were handmade shoes, he didn't look as if he belonged here, either. He didn't look like the kind of guy who was used to kids; he seemed more like some of her old clients at the restaurant in London, the sort who were focused on business to the exclusion of everything else. Media or finance, she'd guess.
His expression was inscrutable, but his slate-blue eyes were filled with panic. What scared him? she wondered. The fact that this was a hospice? Or was this the first time he'd ever had to be Santa and he didn't think he'd be able to handle it?
Well, tough. Today was about the kids, not about him. He'd just have to shape up. "Everything's ready." She lowered her voice so the kids wouldn't overhear her. "You can change in the charge nurse's office — it's the first door on the left when you leave the playroom. The supplies are all in there."
Oh, for goodness' sake, did she have to spell it out for him? Forget what she'd thought about him being focused. He might be beautifully dressed and gorgeous to look at, but he clearly didn't have a clue. "Supplies for the man in red." She forced herself to smile. This wasn't the time or place to have a fight with him. "Is there anything else you need?"
She noticed that he didn't bother with politeness. He sounded grumpy, too. Totally un-Santa-like. She'd just have to hope that he'd make a bit of an effort once he was in costume. "They're expecting you at three."
She glanced pointedly at her watch. "Then shouldn't you ...?"
He raised his eyebrows. "I didn't realize Santa's Chief Elf would be so bossy."
"Look, I just want the kids to enjoy this." His rudeness annoyed her enough to add, "As a stand-in, I was here early enough to make sure I learned the ropes and knew what was expected of me." Which was exactly what he should've done, too.
"Uh-huh." His face was utterly inscrutable. And Ellie really, really wanted to push him into a puddle.
"Excuse me," he finished coolly, and strode off toward the door.
* * *
Talk about a bossy English schoolmarm. Who did the Chief Elf think she was, judging him and finding him wanting?
Though Mitch was guiltily aware that she had a point. Had it been any other job, he would've been there early. He wasn't sure what spooked him more: the fact that this was a hospice and these kids would most certainly not be having a happy Christmas, or the fact that he was being Santa and had the weight of their broken dreams on his shoulders.
It was the first time he could remember doubting himself since he'd come to Philly. Not good. So he was going to have to fake this, for the kids' sake.
What did Santa actually do?
It had been years since Mitch had visited Santa's Workshop. He'd been so young that he couldn't remember what it was like. Though he definitely remembered the fight his parents had had afterward — his father yelling at his mother for wasting good money taking the kids to see some loser in a red suit pretending to be Santa.
That was when Mitch had learned that Father Christmas didn't actually exist. Or the Tooth Fairy. Or the Easter Bunny.
Ironic that he spent his time nowadays at a PR agency, promoting dreams.
He pulled himself together, changed into the red suit, and stuck his beard in place, then checked the sack marked "supplies." The bag contained neatly wrapped presents, all named — so they'd clearly been chosen personally. This was something that his boss definitely hadn't delegated. The wrapping, maybe, but the attention to detail was C.J.'s hallmark.
Would his boss expect him to take over that role, too?
He forced himself to smile — even though the beard would hide his face, he knew from years of training that a smile always sounded in your voice — and strode through the door. "Merry Christmas, everyone!"
The kids all cheered and gathered around.
While he'd been changing into the Santa suit, someone — most likely the Chief Elf, he guessed — had set out a chair for him. Mitch sat down, put the sack of presents down beside him, took out the first one and read the label. "Is Monica here?"
A little girl who looked about ten years old came over shyly.
"This one has your name on it." He handed the present to her. "Merry Christmas."
"Am I allowed to open it now?"
He had no idea. And with all the years he'd been in PR, he really should've known better. He should've checked his brief properly and asked for clarification on the finer points before he'd even started this. He glanced over at Chief Elf; being the bossy English schoolmarm type, no doubt she'd already asked the question and knew the answer.
To his surprise, she actually smiled, and gave him the tiniest of nods.
A smile that made him feel as if the whole room had just lit up. He really hadn't expected her smile to be that gorgeous. Or to affect him this way. And this was totally ridiculous. He was here to do a job. Nothing more.
He forced himself to focus and smile. "Of course you can open it, Monica," he told her.
The little girl looked thrilled when she took off the wrapping paper to reveal a book. "Thank you, Santa, this is just what I wanted! It's the next in the series I've been reading."
Yup. C.J. had done his homework. This was real attention to detail.
Mitch handed out the presents one by one. Each child seemed genuinely thrilled by his or her gift — even the teens he'd half-expected to be bored by the whole thing because they were more than old enough to know that Santa wasn't real. Yet they were careful not to spoil it for the little ones. Or maybe they were just joining in the magic, relieved to leave their worries behind for just a little while.
It was humbling.
And he understood exactly why C.J. had asked him to do this. Exactly what his boss had wanted him to learn.
The next name Mitch called was Sam's. The little boy looked about five years old, and his sulky expression warned Mitch that he'd have to be careful.
"Merry Christmas, Sam." Mitch held the present out to him.
The little boy shook his head. "No, thank you."
A child refusing a present from Santa? That hadn't been in his brief, either. What now? He glanced at the Chief Elf, but she was biting her lip and looking worried. Clearly this hadn't been something she'd thought to ask about beforehand, either.
Excerpted from 'Tis the Season Bundle 2 by Aimee Carson, Amy Andrews, Heidi Rice, Kate Hardy, Liz Pelletier. Copyright © 2012 Aimee Carson, Amy Andrews, Heidi Rice, Kate Hardy. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.