Read Do You Believe in Santa? Online

Authors: Sierra Donovan

Do You Believe in Santa? (7 page)

Chapter 7
He was finally starting to acclimate.
Jake jogged to the rear of his hotel and walked the rest of the way to the front entrance, so he wouldn't be flat-out huffing and puffing when he made his entrance in the lobby. By his best calculations, he'd made it a mile today. At home, that would have been pitiful. Here, it was progress.
He'd persisted with his morning running routine since he got to Tall Pine, but the change in altitude had been a blow to his ego. Less than ten minutes into his first attempt, his lungs had turned into a small, achy box in his chest, without room to catch enough oxygen. Today, the thinner mountain air still seared his lungs. But at the same time, it felt clean and invigorating.
The cold air would have been just the thing to clear his head, if a certain petite brunette didn't keep nudging at the edge of his thoughts. It didn't feel like a bad thing. But it wasn't like him. In the past, he'd spent too many dates letting business strategies and ledger columns intrude on his thoughts. Now Mandy was following him around, and she didn't even know it.
Who needs to see ghosts?
Maybe once he could run another mile, he'd be better able to focus. In the meantime, there was business at hand. Today was Friday, and he'd managed to get through a whole week without taking any serious forward steps to start the ball rolling on the hotel. Fact-finding was all well and good, but the fact was, he'd been stalling and he knew it. That had to stop today.
With a few more deep breaths, he crossed the long front porch in front of The Evergreen Inn. A few chunky wooden chairs waited for anyone who'd care to take a seat and watch the quiet side street just off Evergreen Lane. If the hotel owners were to widen that porch and add a few tables, they'd have an area that really invited guests to linger.
Not that it was up to him to tell them their business. In fact, before long, he'd be setting up a business to compete with theirs. He was starting to feel almost guilty about it. Silly. He'd never felt guilty staying at a Red Roof Inn while he set up a Regal Hotel, and they were much closer to being in the same bracket. This would be apples and oranges.
Cooperative competition,
he reminded himself.
But as he walked in and smiled at the desk clerk, a sixtyish woman who ran the place with her husband, it didn't feel that way. He'd played his cards close to the vest longer than he should, and he hoped it didn't come back to bite him.
The woman behind the desk—Phyllis, that was her name—returned his smile with a slightly puzzled one of her own. He'd been here too long to be a typical tourist, especially with no wife or family in tow. But he probably didn't look much like their usual business traveler, either. Or did they get any of those here? Probably not.
Before he put in for Regal's permit, he'd better talk to her. But not before he'd had a shower.
He just hoped, after he told her, that their little continental breakfast of self-serve cereal and wrapped Danishes would still be open to him.
“You were right,” he told Mandy as they sat down at a table inside the Pine 'n' Dine. “Tall Pine is different.”
He'd grabbed her out of The North Pole for an early lunch, one final effort to forestall his next step on the hotel project. Going to the town hall to set things in motion would be like diving headfirst into chilly water.
“How'd Phyllis take it when you told her?”
“She thanked me for being honest with her. But she looked wounded.” There wasn't a waiter or waitress in sight. Jake picked up two menus from the wire rack at the side of their tabletop and handed one to Mandy. “I felt like I should buy her a basket of fruit or something.”
“You did the right thing.”
“It's not like I had a lot of choice. If she didn't hear it from me, she'd hear it from someone else, and that would be worse.” He laid his menu flat in front of him and ran a hand through his hair. “It's never been like this. It's always been business. All of a sudden I'm starting to feel like I'm messing with somebody's livelihood.”
“Business is always somebody's livelihood,” Mandy said.
“Yeah. Mine.” He picked up a cracker packet, realized he didn't want it, and set it down. “I come in, I get the job done, I make a living. I don't think I've left a bunch of DoubleTree carcasses behind me. The little hotels here—I don't think we'd put them out of business either. But I can see where they'd be worried.” He passed his hand through his hair again and looked at her ruefully. “You don't think I'm Satan, do you?”
“Of course not.” She smiled across the table at him. “Snidely Whiplash, maybe. But not Satan.”
“You're a good guy, Jake.” Mandy's blue eyes went serious. “That's why you're worried about it.”
He grinned weakly. “I'm worried about going down in flames. Nothing too unselfish about that.”
Mandy ran a finger lightly over his hand on the table. “It'll be okay.”
Her tone said she wasn't sure just how. But somehow, hearing her say it meant a lot. Jake took a deep breath, counted to twenty, and shifted his attention to the menu.
The pictures and prices were just starting to make sense to him when a waitress arrived and set two glasses of water on the table.
“Hey,” she said. “It's Mandy Claus.”
Jake chuckled. He hadn't heard that one before.
To his surprise, Mandy flinched.
“Hi, Sherry,” she said.
The waitress looked about Mandy's age, with strawberry-red hair that almost certainly wasn't her natural color. Sherry's eyes went to Jake with roughly triple the amount of curiosity he'd gotten used to in Tall Pine. Then she switched back to Mandy. “How are things at The North Pole?”
“Business as usual.” Mandy's voice was cheery as she smiled back at the waitress, but her smile seemed just a little too tight.
Sherry took their order, her gaze lingering on Jake. Maybe she had a penchant for playing up to other women's boyfriends. Mandy didn't introduce them, and her attention stayed fixed on Sherry until the redhead walked away.
“Mandy Claus,” he repeated after Sherry disappeared into the kitchen. “That's a new one.”
“It gets old after a while.”
Older than Christmas carols year-round?
Jake wondered. “You didn't mind when that little girl called you the Santa lady.”
Her cheeks reddened. “That's different. She was a little girl.”
There was some kind of undercurrent here. Jake took a guess. “Was she in your class in school?” He inclined his head toward the kitchen.
“All the way through.” Mandy took a drink from her water glass.
“Want me to pull her hair for you?”
It got a laugh out of her, which was what he wanted. And of course, it was a joke. But if Sherry had given Mandy a bad time in school, Jake found he didn't feel as kindly toward her.
Mandy shook her head. “Sherry's okay, really. I just . . .” She leaned forward and rested her elbows on the table, her chin in her hands.
“What's it like?” she asked. “To go someplace where nobody knows you? You do it all the time.”
She looked so earnest. Even wistful.
Jake thought about it. “It does give you a kind of freedom,” he said. “You start out fresh. Nobody knows about your old mistakes. On the other hand, you have to keep reestablishing yourself, and that takes some work. It can get tiring. When I was a kid, I hated it. We moved around a lot when I was younger. My dad would get a better job, a promotion, and there'd be a new house, a new school, a new city. By the time I got the hang of it, we settled down. I was thirteen.”
“So, staying in one place was better?”
“Well, sure. When you're a kid you want some continuity. It's tough leaving friends right when you get to know them. But it was a learning experience. I think it's made it easier for me to learn my way around when I come to a new town.”
She studied him and shook her head. “Starting over in a new place sounds exciting. But it's hard for me to even picture it.”
“What's it like for you? Living in the same place all your life?”
“It's hard to say.” Mandy jiggled her water glass and watched the ice cubes shift. “I don't have anything to compare it to. And it's probably a lot different if it's a bigger place. Here, I know just about everybody, and they know all about me.” She rolled her eyes and took a drink.
“There've got to be some pluses, right? Or you wouldn't still be here.”
“Maybe the pluses are the same as the minuses.” She set down her glass. “People know you, so you don't have to explain a lot about yourself. But they've got this idea of who you are—” She lifted her shoulders in a shrug. “It's comfortable, and it's limiting.”
He couldn't imagine Mandy wanting to be any different. “What would you change if you could?”
“That's just it. I don't know.” She folded her arms around herself. “I tried once. After my mom died. I thought,
What's keeping me here?
Aside from the fact that I didn't know the first thing about selling a house. So I tried an experiment.”
He waited for her to go on.
Mandy said, “You know, I've never told anybody about this.” Her eyes drifted past him. “I took a couple days off, and I drove up to Mount Douglas. I stayed at a hotel, I drove around, I shopped, and I didn't see a single soul who knew me for three days. I wanted to at least try it out, see what it might feel like to live somewhere else. Even if I decided not to leave, I thought it would be a nice break.”
An uncharacteristic frown formed between her brows. “It was
I felt invisible. Lost. Like I'd been dropped on another planet. Everything was foreign. And that was just Mount Douglas. Same mountains, same trees . . . not exactly the big city.” She rattled the ice in her glass. “So I came back here, and here's where I've been ever since. It's home.” She shrugged, and a little weight seemed to fall off her shoulders with the movement. “It's beautiful up here. I don't have to explain myself or introduce myself, and there are a lot of nice people. The worst thing is, they know everything I've ever done.”
Mandy turned toward the kitchen, and sure enough, Sherry was headed their way with their plates.
“Now's your chance,” Jake whispered. “Hair-pulling?”
Mandy bit her lip, and for a minute Jake thought she might giggle. But as Sherry set down their plates, the two women exchanged glances again. Jake would have given a lot to have a lesson in female telepathy, because something unspoken was going on here.
Sherry straightened, directing her question toward Mandy. “Anything else I can get for you?”
Mandy shook her head.
“We're great,” Jake said. “Thanks.”
Sherry smiled and turned away.
“You know, I can think of two things wrong with your experiment,” Jake said.
Mandy contemplated him over her sandwich.
“You say you felt lost,” he said. “That's because, number one, you went there without any real purpose. I've got a job that sends me places. I've got something to do when I get there. Number two, whenever I leave home, I know I've got a place to come back to. Even if I hardly ever see it.” He grinned. “And, confession time. In Pennsylvania, I'm just twenty minutes away from my parents. So I've even got access to good home cooking.”
“You mean, you're spoiled rotten.”
Jake picked up his sandwich.
was right. Mandy lived in the same home she'd grown up in. But there was no family to come home to.
I never thought about how good I have it.
Fortified by lunch, Jake set out on his next order of business.
From the outside, the Tall Pine town hall had a rustic charm. Instead of the usual concrete and pillars, the A-frame building reminded Jake of a Swiss chalet, trimmed with the natural woodwork that seemed so popular around here. Decidedly unbureaucratic.
Inside, though, the illusion gave way to the usual faceless lobby, big for the sake of being big. This was a government building, all right. It should have made him feel more at home; he'd done this a lot of times by now.
He followed the signs to the permit office and passed through the glass door into a room with no-nonsense gray carpet and windowed counters. Squaring his shoulders, Jake walked up to the first window, where a fiftyish woman sat. Her hairstyle reminded him of Mandy's employer. Sculpted waves didn't seem to have gone out of style in Tall Pine.
Jake noted her name plaque on the window as he walked up: M
. C
“Hello, Mrs. Cassidy. I'm Jake Wyndham. I'd like to find out the procedure for opening a new business here in town.”
The woman behind the counter donned a pair of black reading glasses and slid her keyboard toward her. “Purpose of the business?”
“It's a hotel.”
“Name of the owner?”
“Regal Hotels.”
Her fingers froze over the keyboard. If there had been anyone else nearby, Jake was sure his or her head would have swiveled around. In his mind, he heard a whiskey shot glass fall to the floor of his imaginary old Western tavern and shatter.
“I see.” She recovered gamely and peered at him over the plastic rims of her glasses. “Use of the land will have to be reviewed and approved at a public meeting of the town council.” It sounded like she had the regulations memorized. “Any businesses within five miles will be entitled to give their input.”

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