Read Do You Believe in Santa? Online

Authors: Sierra Donovan

Do You Believe in Santa? (5 page)

“It'd be fun. At least, until you went broke.”
“Which is where the business part of my brain kicks in.” His smile faded, and his eyes grew serious. “You see—the business side isn't such a bad thing. It's what pays the bills.”
Mandy nodded. “I know. But I'm not the one you need to convince.”
“Right.” He put the keys in the ignition, but once again, he didn't start the car. Instead, he turned to face her, as much as the front seat of the truck would allow. “Mandy, there's something I want to get out of the way.”
She waited.
“I'm going to start asking around about available property in the next couple of days. This spot, for one. When I do that, people are going to know why I came to Tall Pine pretty quick.”
She tried to anticipate his train of thought. “So, you want me to wait until that happens, and after that, I won't need to worry about mentioning it to other people.”
“Right. But there's something else you need to worry about, and I think you know what that is.” He fixed her with the same direct stare she'd seen earlier, when he asked about her ankle.
Mandy felt a tickle of apprehension.
He rested his left hand on top of the steering wheel. “You might not want to be seen with the guy from the big-city hotel chain. From what you've told me, there's probably going to be some friction about that. Whatever kind of flack you might get . . . you probably know more about what to expect than I do. But maybe you don't want to deal with it.”
He seemed to be waiting for her response. Mandy wasn't sure where he was going with this, so she had no idea what to say.
“I'd like to keep seeing you,” Jake said. “But I get the impression you haven't been anxious to be seen with me in public, and I don't want to feel like we're supposed to hide. In a town this size, maybe that'd make things too awkward for you. I can understand that. But I don't want to be a deep, dark secret. If you're not okay with that, just tell me now and I'll get out of your hair. No hard feelings. Seriously.”
Those brown eyes looked at her steadily. It took several seconds for his meaning to sink in.
That's
why he thought she'd fibbed about a hurt ankle, and ducked her old classmate at the movie theater.
“Jake, I—” She started to correct him and stopped.
Maybe the easiest thing was just to let him think that. The truth was a lot more complicated.
He kept his eyes on hers, his expression almost unnervingly calm. Mandy shifted her gaze back to his hand, resting on top of the steering wheel.
Not just resting on it. Gripping it.
As if what she said next really mattered to him.
She took a deep breath and picked her next words carefully. “I didn't mean to act like there was anything wrong with being seen with you.”
“But? Is there a disclaimer coming?” He could certainly put things in businesslike terms.
“No buts. I'd love to keep going out with you. In public.” She'd just have to take her chances.
His eyes lost some of their serious look, and Mandy saw his hand on the wheel relax perceptibly. Her heart kicked up.
“You're sure?” Jake smiled. “People aren't going to throw rocks at you?”
“Well, not for
that.”
Mandy tried to keep her thoughts clear. He'd been open and direct with her; he'd stuck his neck out. She could do the same. Instead of taking the safe route, she could repay honesty with honesty. She should do it. This was a perfect time.
She tried to imagine telling him:
Jake, I believe in Santa Claus.
Instantly, she pictured the look on his face: disbelief, maybe followed by amusement. Or a hint of pity. She'd seen those expressions too many times growing up. She didn't want to see any of them on Jake. Not now. Not unless there was no way around it.
He saw her for what she was—most of it, anyway—without the preconceptions of everyone else in town. He liked what he saw. And she liked the way he looked at her.
Let me have this. At least for a while.
It was August. Things were quieter at the store. His hotel project might not even get off the ground, and he could be gone before the Christmas season even started. She didn't like to think that way, but it was a possibility.
Maybe he'd never know.
And maybe the Brooklyn Bridge was still for sale.
Jake pulled her out of her thoughts. “You've got another reason to worry about your reputation, you know.”
She eyed him cautiously. “What do you mean?”
“Well, here we are at the drive-in. I told you, everyone knows what goes on at these places.”
His grin was teasing, and once again, Mandy felt light as a feather. A feeling that she was just where she belonged, because she knew exactly what to say.
“I feel pretty safe,” she said. “After all, this truck doesn't have a backseat.”
His eyes glimmered as if she'd challenged him with a dare. Before she knew it, he'd pulled her into another delicious kiss. It was several minutes before either of them spoke again.
When Jake lifted his lips from hers, he tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “So, can I take you out to dinner again tonight? In front of God and everybody?”
Not trusting her voice, Mandy nodded.
Chapter 5
Jake stepped out of Tall Pine's only commercial real estate agency with five property listings and a promise from the real estate agent to track down the out-of-town owner of the old drive-in site.
Inside, he'd gotten his first taste of what Mandy had warned him about. When he went in asking about property, the receptionist's eyebrows had shot up. He felt like the guy in the movies who strolled into the saloon saying he was looking for the fastest gun in the West.
He fired up the truck and went to check out the other properties. The agent had offered to take him out to look, but he hadn't seemed too disappointed when Jake said he wanted to do the initial exploring on his own. No high pressure there, but then, the man might not have taken him seriously. Jake had probably looked like a kid with a checkbook, possibly an empty one at that. It wouldn't be the first time he'd been taken for a guy fresh out of college. Sometimes there were advantages to being underestimated.
Once he brought up Regal Hotels, it would be a different ball game.
He checked out the locations and made conscientious notes of the pros and cons. By lunchtime, he gave in to the magnetic pull of The North Pole. After all, he had to eat, and there was no reason he had to do it alone.
But when he walked into the store, he didn't see Mandy. Instead, a woman with glasses and meticulous dark gray hair stood behind the counter. Mrs. Swanson, at a guess.
He considered feigning some browser-type behavior while he waited to see if Mandy emerged from the stock room, but decided to stick with the direct approach. As he walked up to the counter, Jake found himself standing a little straighter. For some reason he'd pictured Mrs. Swanson as a grandmotherly, Mrs. Santa Claus type. Based on her professional demeanor, that wasn't the case. “Is Mandy here?”
“She's off today.” The steel-haired woman inclined her head slightly. “Are you the gentleman from Hallmark?”
“No, I'm Jake Wyndham.” His name didn't appear to ring any bells. “It's not business.”
He wondered if any vendors' reps came around the store to see Mandy on not-business.
Maybe not, because the woman's eyebrows lifted a fraction. As her glance passed over him again, Jake had a definite sense of being sized up. The feeling reminded him of being seventeen years old and meeting a girl's parents for the first time.
Belatedly, he stepped forward and offered his hand. “You must be Mrs. Swanson.”
She shook his hand, studying him with one more moment of frank curiosity before her neutral, polite facade fell back into place. “It's very nice to meet you. Mandy is back in tomorrow. We open at ten.”
No information volunteered that wasn't strictly business. Jake had to applaud the professionalism, but now he missed the curiosity he'd glimpsed. If Mrs. Swanson had asked him any questions, it might have given him the opportunity to ask a few questions of his own.
Apparently Mandy hadn't mentioned him. His male ego stung a bit over that one. After all, this was the woman Mandy had her Christmas dinner with, and she'd told Jake about
that.
Trying to wedge a foot into what appeared to be a rapidly closing door, he offered, “Mandy says some very nice things about you.”
“I think highly of her, too. She's a lovely girl.”
As Jake tried to read the woman's neutral tone, Mrs. Swanson's eyes wandered to an unlikely spot: the wall at the far right side of the shop. Jake saw nothing exceptional there, just a red-and-green array of Christmas stockings, collector plates and a couple of snowman prints.
“You have a beautiful store,” Jake said. “Mandy tells me you stay pretty busy year-round?”
Her eyes returned to him. “We're slower now, to be sure,” she said. “But we get a fair number of visitors, and sales are steady.”
Business. A topic both of them felt at ease with. “How long have you had the store?”
“Nearly ten years. I bought it when I retired from teaching. The woman who sold it to me was about to close the shop altogether. It took a few years to bring the business up to where it is today.”
“Congratulations. It's hard for small retailers to stay afloat, especially these days. And this store is so specialized—well, you're obviously doing something right.”
“Oh, I can't take much credit.” Mrs. Swanson smiled with an unexpected warmth, and Jake had a feeling he knew the secret of her success.
“Mandy?” he said.
“She made such a difference,” Mrs. Swanson said. “She came in here fresh out of high school to ask about a job. I'd been running the store by myself, and I certainly wasn't planning to add any staff. But she was so sincere about wanting to work here, and it seemed—appropriate.”
Mrs. Swanson's glance flickered to the far wall. “She's been wonderful for business,” she said. “She has something very special.”
Her eyes returned to Jake, and that hint of sentiment vanished. “I make it a point to treat her well.”
He didn't think he was imagining the message in her words as she looked at him.
 
 
“Merry Christmas,” Mandy told the young couple as she sent them out the door with a carefully tissue-wrapped “Our First Christmas” ornament.
She liked seeing a husband and wife together in the store. A lot of men killed time elsewhere while their wives shopped here. And she loved the fact that she played a small part in helping them build a Christmas tradition.
Mrs. Swanson entered on the same jingle of bells on the door that saw the newlyweds out. Good. She could take lunch soon. The work day seemed longer than usual today, probably because she had a date with Jake tonight.
Mrs. Swanson stored her purse behind the counter. “A young man was here looking for you yesterday.”
“Jake?” The name was out of Mandy's mouth before she thought about it.
“Yes, that was it. I told him you'd be back at work today. I didn't want to disturb you on your day off.”
“Oh, that's all right.” Trying for secrecy was a lost cause. Trying for nonchalance instead, Mandy picked up the feather duster and cast her eyes around for some surface, any surface, that might need her attention. “He called me at home.”
“Still busy with that housecleaning project?”
“I finally made some real headway.” She'd constructed a tower of boxes in the hall closet that would put a New York skyscraper to shame, and she still hadn't been able to fit everything inside. She'd finally resorted to stuffing the last few boxes into her bedroom closet. “The house looks civilized now.”
Mandy hoped she'd achieved the flavor of a mountain cabin, leaving out some of the pinecone ornaments and the swag of artificial evergreen underneath the fireplace mantel. The cardinal snow globe occupied a place of honor on the table in the entryway. In the kitchen, the Christmas village she'd painted over the years still decorated the tops of the cabinets.
A little bit of Christmas in every room. And she was exhausted.
Mrs. Swanson nodded. “It's good to be prepared for company.”
Expecting any?
might have been the unspoken question. Mandy decided not to hear it. She started toward the south wall with her duster, then belatedly changed direction, steering away from the space where the clippings had hung. She found a shelf of tiny blown-glass figurines and set to work.
But the missing clippings weren't so easily avoided.
“Take a little extra time on your lunch break today,” Mrs. Swanson said. “That way you can pick up some new frames at the drugstore. Find a nice pair of matching ones.”
The feather duster froze in Mandy's hand. Slowly, she turned to meet Mrs. Swanson's watchful eyes.
“It's still August,” Mandy said. “Do you think there's any way we could give that display a little rest? Just until the Christmas season starts.”
“Mandy.” Her boss's voice was gentler than she expected. “You know that's a big part of what makes the store special.”
“Sales are good. Especially for summer.” Mrs. Swanson regarded her in silence. “I'll keep a running total,” Mandy rushed on. “If we fall behind where we were last year, I'll hang them back up. And I'll put them up for good at the very beginning of November.”
She didn't know whether Jake would be here until November, or if her secret could possibly hold till then. But she wanted as much time as she could buy.
Mrs. Swanson's eyes held hers. Her boss might have stopped teaching school ten years ago, but she obviously had no problem putting two and two together.
“Is he worth it?” Mrs. Swanson asked.
“I think he could be,” Mandy said. “I just want a chance to find out.”
 
 
That evening, November seemed far away.
Mandy stood beside Jake at the railing overlooking Tall Pine's tiny lake, holding a chocolate-dipped ice cream cone in one hand, Jake's hand in the other. They'd reached the pond just before sunset.
“This was a nice idea,” Jake said.
Mandy didn't answer. She was involved in a race against time with her ice cream cone, trying to catch the vanilla that was leaking where the thin chocolate shell joined the cone.
After dinner, they'd gotten the cones at Penny's Ice Cream Shoppe on Evergreen Lane. From there, Mandy had brought Jake two blocks around the corner to the little park that encircled Prospect Lake, the town's fishing spot. The timing had been perfect; by seven-thirty, the sky had just begun to turn golden, the color reflected in the water. The handful of fishers on the other side of the lake were gathering up their gear before it got dark.
“I didn't even know you had a lake here,” Jake said.
Mandy successfully navigated the ring of escaping vanilla before it reached her right hand. Her left hand stayed entwined with Jake's as their elbows rested on the railing—not very practical for eating ice cream, but his fingers laced through hers felt wonderful.
“It's more of a glorified duck pond.” She looked down at the water a few feet below as some of the resident birds drifted closer. She ventured another bite out of the thin, creamy chocolate shell, releasing chaos as more vanilla escaped. She caught it with her tongue, trying to keep up. “They have to stock the lake with fish. It's man-made. If all the tourists knew about it, it'd be empty in a day.”
“You do a lot of that up here, don't you?” Jake had already eaten his way through his ice cream's chocolate shell and was nearly down to the cone. “You like to keep things just small enough.”
“It's nice.” She ventured a glance away from her unstable, trickling ice cream to look at Jake, surprised to find him watching her rather than the lake. “What about you? You do a lot of trying to make things bigger.”
“It's my job.” He squeezed her fingers lightly. “And it's an unfortunate fact of life. If things don't grow, they have a tendency to die.”
“We're not trying to turn into Mount Douglas.” Mandy chased another round of vanilla around her cone, now self-consciously aware of Jake's brown eyes following her progress.
“You couldn't. You don't have a ski resort.”
“We don't get enough snow. We're not as high up.” A big section of chocolate slid precariously down its melting vanilla base; Mandy barely caught it in her mouth before it fell to the ground.
“Exactly. So you need to make the most of what you do have.”
“How can you advertise peace and quiet?” How could you successfully argue a point in the middle of eating a dipped cone? “If we get too busy, it won't be peaceful and quiet anymore.”
“It's a delicate balance,” he said. “But if you want your businesses to stay healthy . . .”
Jake trailed off, and she felt his gaze as she circled the melting vanilla before it reached her hand.
He said, “I'm going to have to help you with that in a minute, you know.”
She glanced at Jake. His expression hinted at an interest in something more than ice cream. And somehow, he'd managed to get safely all the way down to his cone.
Mandy's face warmed. “You're better at multitasking than I am.”
She lowered her eyes and concentrated on catching up with him. Jake seemed to be done with his discussion of controlled economic growth, at least for the moment.
As far as she could tell, he made sense. Maybe a little too much sense. It was hard to think of Tall Pine in terms of profit and loss. It was home, and while she knew tourists were good for business, she'd never thought very hard about what brought them here. Except for snow, and that was one thing no amount of planning could control.
As the sky deepened to a light orange, Mandy finished her ice cream, saving the last bit of cone for the ducks that still drifted lazily in the water. The birds had learned long ago that the presence of humans, sooner or later, added up to food. She tossed the piece into the lake and watched the ducks converge on the spot. The winner dipped its head into the water with a soft plunk. Others swam nearby, hoping there was more where that came from.
“Look what you started,” Jake said. “I should have saved some of mine.”
“Sometimes I come here with leftover bread.”
“We could do that next time,” he said.
Next time.
The two simple words had a sweet ring to her ears. How quickly all this was starting to feel normal. Like something that was meant to be.
Two other, unwelcome words crowded into her brain:
Tell him.
She shivered, and Jake put his arm around her shoulders, shutting out a chilly breeze that was just starting to creep past the barrier of Mandy's sweater. But that wasn't what had made her shiver.

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