“That's got to be most of the town.”
She nodded. “This is a small community, Mr. . . .”
“Wyndham,” he reminded her, throwing in his best smile. “Jake.”
“Mr. Wyndham. And a project of this nature would have a sizable impact on the community.”
He wondered if she left the five-dollar words behind the desk when she left work. But her voice wasn't unkind. Her eyes betrayed a hint of the “do you know what you're up against?” he'd heard from Mandy the day they met.
“I understand.” He kept his smile in place. “What do I do first?”
“The next town council meeting isâ” She flipped up the page of a small wall calendar hanging from the side of her cubicle. “September eighteenth.”
“You're kidding.” He cleared his throat. “I mean, that's surprising.”
“It meets the third Wednesday of every month.”
A city council that only met once a month? Jake was starting to wonder how Regal had found Tall Pine on the map.
“I see. Is it possible for me to have that item placed on the agenda now?”
Mrs. Cassidy reached for her keyboard again, and Jake thought he saw one corner of her mouth turn upward. As if she knew she was helping him fire the next shot heard around the world.
That evening, after work, Mandy didn't get into her car to drive home. She made a beeline for the diner.
At just after five p.m., it was already busier than it had been at lunchtime. The Friday-night tourist dinner trade was coming in. The stand-up sign in the waiting area had been turned around from P
Mandy walked past the sign. She wasn't here to sit.
Sherry was at the back of the restaurant, pushing through the swinging door that led into the kitchen. Mandy followed her in, ignoring the faint protest of a young brunette waitress behind her.
“Sherry,” Mandy said.
Grabbing two plates from the cook, the redhead wheeled around. “Hey, you're not supposed to beâ”
When she saw who had followed her, she fell silent. Mandy felt a twinge of guilt for bursting in at the dinner rush, but this couldn't wait.
She licked her lips. “Sherry, I know you're busy, and I won't take a lot of your time. But I need a big favor.”
The other waitress came in, tearing an order from her pad, and Mandy stepped aside. After the girl gave the order to the cook, Sherry handed her two plates to the brunette.
“Tiffany, could you take these to table four? I owe you one.”
Bewildered, Tiffany took the plates and left.
“So,” Sherry said, eyes gleaming with curiosity. “Does this have anything to do with Mr. Tall, Dark and Gorgeous?”
“This is serious.”
“I guess so.”
“Please don't say anything. About Santa Claus.”
Sherry blinked. “What?”
“The Mandy Claus crack, Sherry. He doesn't know about it. He's here on business, maybe not for very longâ” Mandy cleared her throat. “Just don't tell him I saw Santa.”
“So now you're trying to keep it a secret?” Sherry asked. “Good luck with that.”
“Sherry, it's the first time
guy hasn't known.”
“He's going to find out sooner or later,” Sherry said. “What are you going to do then?”
“I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.”
Sherry frowned. “Don't you think the longer you wait, the worse it'll be?”
Mandy had thought about it. Constantly. Sensible Jake, with his warm smile and his facts and figures. Wondering which side of him would win out.
Tiffany entered and handed an order slip to the chef. “You've got two more customers at your tables,” she told Sherry.
Sherry nodded. “Be right there.”
“I don't think it matters how long it takes him to find out,” Mandy said. “I think the reaction's going to be the same no matter what.”
“You think he'd bail out on you? Maybe you should give him a little more credit.”
“Sherry, there's a reason I've never dated much. The odds that he'd really believe meâ”
Picking up two loaded plates from the counter, Sherry turned around, eyebrows raised.
“You mean you're holding out for a guy who believes in Santa Claus?” Sherry shook her head. “Sweetie, you're going to have a long wait.”
Sherry elbowed her way through the swinging doors, leaving Mandy standing alone in the kitchen. The cook looked at her questioningly, as if to say,
Are you going to grab a plate or get out?
She walked outside. It was still broad daylight at five-thirty. Usually, by late August, Mandy enjoyed watching for the days to get shorter, sniffing the air for the first breath of fall. Colder air and stiffer breezes brought the promise of Christmas.
This year, the thought of Christmas brought a mixture of anticipation and dread. It was the time of year she lived for. It brought more customers to the shop, more children to tell her story to....
And Mrs. Swanson would hold her to her promise to hang the newspaper clippings up again.
If Jake was here for the Christmas season, there was no way she'd be able to hide the truth from him.
Sherry was probably right. Mandy should come clean now. For good or for bad, the moment she'd seen Santa Claus had formed a huge part of who she was. If Jake didn't know about that, he didn't really know her at all.
But if the hotel project didn't go through, she wouldn't have to deal with it. Plenty of other people had summer flings, she reminded herself. At this early stage that was probably all she meant to Jake. He knew, hotel or no hotel, that he'd be leaving eventually, heading clear back to the other side of the country.
She didn't want Jake to fail. And she didn't want him to leave.
Mandy breathed in deeply, trying to tell if she detected any scent of fall at all.
Her only answer was the familiar scent of pine trees. She lived surrounded by them twelve months a year, but their aroma still carried an inextricable link to Christmas.
Word got around fast.
By Sunday afternoon, every establishment Jake walked into felt like that old Western saloon. From the filling station where he gassed up the truck to the little market where he picked up groceries for his kitchenette, curious stares followed him.
When he stopped at the Pine 'n' Dine for coffee Monday morning and Sherry asked him how the hotel business was, he figured Tall Pine had been officially saturated with the news.
Jake met the stares with smiles and started introducing himself. People were polite, even friendly, but he could sense an invisible shield in front of them. He reminded himself of how they must feel. They thought he was coming here to change the town, rather than make the most of what they had. He decided to make his initial goal a modest one: to show the people of Tall Pine that he didn't bite.
The biggest surprise was Mandy. Whenever she was with him, the glances that followed him went up exponentially. He'd thought she might shrink away or try to distance herself from him, but if anything, she stood closer, meeting curious looks with direct eye contact. He didn't see her make any attempt to hide their relationship.
Labor Day weekend brought the Tall Pine Fall Festival, and Jake was pleased to see Phyllis's hotel flooded to the gills. Just up the road, the Tall Pine Lodge also boasted a
sign by Friday morning. Good news for them, good news for Regal. It showed there was plenty of business to go around. He texted the home office with news about the crowd.
So far, his regional director was being patient about the delay caused by the town council meeting. Mark knew Jake could keep up on the rest of his work online and over the phone, and Jake had pointed out that he could use the extra time to get better acquainted with the people of Tall Pine, especially the powers-that-be. So, while Mandy manned a table for a sidewalk sale at The North Pole, Jake dove into the thick of the Fall Festival.
Sidewalk sales lined both sides of Evergreen Lane, but the event culminated at the town square, where the lane dead-ended. Here, more tables and booths were set up, including a small section of vendors holding a miniature craft fair. But most of the booths in the town square represented Tall Pine's community organizations: the chamber of commerce, the local Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, veterans' groupsâeven a dunking booth for the mayor.
Jake wasn't going to touch
He smiled, shook hands and mingled. By late afternoon he'd met four of the six members of the town council, who greeted him with carefully neutral smiles. This wasn't the venue to pitch the project, and Jake knew it. He just made sure they knew who he was.
By four p.m., he worked his way back down Evergreen Lane to pick Mandy up at The North Pole shortly before the store closed. He got there just in time to help Mandy and Mrs. Swanson drag in the two long tables from the sidewalk sale.
“How'd you do today?” he asked as they set the table down near the store's front windows, where they could easily bring it out to the sidewalk again in the morning.
“Busy,” Mandy said, straightening her red top. The tip of her nose bore a trace of sunburn from her hours outside, and her dark hair fell around her face, slightly tousled. It looked as if she hadn't had much time to stop today.
“It was our busiest day this month,” Mrs. Swanson said.
September had, of course, barely started. Her expression remained a total deadpan. Jake was pretty sure she was kidding, but not sure enough to risk laughing.
Instead, he turned to Mandy and held out the simple brown gift bag he'd carried in with him. “I brought you something.”
He could have waited until they got out to the truck, but for some reason he was anxious to have her see it.
“Early Christmas present,” he added.
Mandy had given him a light blue windbreaker earlier this week, passing it off as an early Christmas gift. He'd spotted his little surpriseâa bauble, Mandy would probably call itâon a craft table along Evergreen Lane, and he hadn't been able to leave it behind. Part of it was that she'd caught him unawares when she gave him the windbreaker, and he welcomed the chance to give something in return. Part of it was simply that he'd thought of her immediately when he saw it.
She accepted the bag, her smile a little tentative. “You didn't have to do that.”
“It's nothing huge. It just made me think of you, so I grabbed it.”
As she held the little package with red and green tissue paper poking up out of it, he could see the glint of temptation in her eyes. “You want me to open it right now?” She glanced self-consciously toward Mrs. Swanson, who stood at a discreet distance.
“Unless you want to wait till December.”
Her smile grew. After another fleeting moment of hesitation, she set the bag on the table, plucked out the tissue and reached inside. She fished out a little handcrafted wooden sign with a wire hanger on top.
It read W
in green letters, painted with white polka dots to look like old-fashioned fabric. A red Santa hat had been cut into the top left corner at a jaunty angle, as though its wearer had hung it there casually after a long night's work.
Mandy's reaction wasn't what he expected. She raised a hand to her mouth in surprise.
He tried to read her expression. The gift didn't match the windbreaker in size or value, he knew, but...
“I guess you already have a lot of Christmas things,” Jake said. “I just saw it at one of the craft tables, and it reminded me of you.”
Her hand still in front of her mouth, she asked, “Do you like it?”
He nodded cautiously. “Do you?”
She lowered her hand to reveal her smile, along with a slight flush to her cheeks. “I did when I made it.”
Mandy turned over the sign and showed him the initials written in red marker behind the Santa hat:
Jake stared. “You're kidding.”
What were the odds? The craft table had held dozens of pieces of bric-a-brac, some of them Christmas decorations, some not. This had been the one that jumped out at him.
“She made those after Christmas a year or two ago when I gave her a Skilsaw,” Mrs. Swanson said. “We brought them out for the craft fair.”
Jake studied the handwritten initials. “So, what does the
“Lee. That was my grandmother's name.”
She flipped the ornament back over, and Jake took another look at Mandy's handiwork. He didn't know anything about the artistic nuance of craft painting, but . . . “You did a nice job. You should sell those here.”
Mandy pointed to a little stack of signs at the far end of the sale table they'd carried in.
“We kept some here,” she said, “and I gave some to Linda for her consignment table.”
“Well, there goes your profit,” Jake said. “I went through a middleman.”
Mandy chuckled and, standing on tiptoe, crooked her arm around his neck for a short hug. Right in front of Mrs. Swanson. Jake felt absurdly pleased.
“Now I've got one to keep for myself,” she said. “Thank you.”
“You know, I just realized,” Jake said, casting his eyes over the store, “you don't have much Santa Claus merchandise in here.”
Mrs. Swanson drifted away toward the counter, while Mandy frowned thoughtfully.
“You're right. We don't order too many Santa things,” Mandy said. “Maybe it's because he's so hard to get right.”
“So much of the Santa stuff you seeâI don't know. His suit is such a bright red, it looks sort of fake. And his smile . . . It's hard to explain. It can look kind of corny.”
Jake's eyebrows went up. “Mandy, I'm surprised at you. You almost sound like the Grinch. Don't you believe in Santa Claus?”
Mrs. Swanson made a sound as she retrieved her purse from behind the counter. Something like a strangled cough.
Mandy turned nearly as red as the decorations she'd been talking about. “I believe in Santa as much as anybody. It's just that he's . . . magic. And that's hard to put on a plate or a pillow.”
Jake tried to follow her point. “So you feel like it's better to leave him to the imagination.”
“Something like that.” She fingered the hat at the corner of the little ornament. “That's why I didn't try to do the face.”
“Well, now that that's settledâ” Mrs. Swanson passed them on her way to the door. “Good night, you two.”
Yes, Jake strongly suspected the woman had a sense of humor.
“Well, Christmas girl,” Jake said, “shall we go celebrate the unofficial end of summer?”
They reached the town square in under five minutes. The flavor of the festival had shifted in the short time Jake had been gone. With evening approaching, the focus was changing from crafts to food. Most vendors were putting away their wares for the day, and the aroma of barbecued meat grew more enticing as the late afternoon breeze carried it along.
With Mandy beside him, the Fall Festival became less about making contacts and more about enjoying the moment. Any more schmoozing could wait until tomorrow.
A stage had been set up in the center of the town square lawn, and strains of an acoustic band tuning up reached them as they picked up their barbecued sandwiches. They headed for the folding chairs set up on the grassâonly a hundred or so, Jake noticed, as if they'd planned for a modest crowd.
As they walked between the seats, Jake noticed a tall, sandy-haired man standing at the end of a row, watching them. Mandy changed direction and doubled back to one of the rows they'd already passed, closer to the stage but farther from their viewer.
Jake hadn't seen anything like that since their first night at the movie theater. His first thought was the same one he'd had then. “Ex-boyfriend?”
He wondered if she'd play dumb, but she laughed. “Scotty Leroux? No way.”
Jake took another look at his lanky potential rival. He knew male appreciation when he saw it, and he couldn't exactly blame the guy for the look he was sending Mandy's way. He also couldn't help feeling smug.
She pulled Jake away. “Come on.”
He let her draw him to a pair of seats she apparently deemed a suitable distance away. A little farther forward, so it would give Scotty Leroux a view of the backs of their heads. They sat down.
“What's the deal?” Jake asked.
“He's the one who came up with âMandy Claus,'” she said. “I've been hearing it since fourth grade.”
Jake frowned. “Fourth grade? You couldn't have been working at the Christmas store in the fourth grade.”
Jake cast a quick glance over his shoulder. This time the other man looked away.
Jake said. “You may not care for him, but he sure likes you.”
Mandy shook her head.
“Come on. Why is that so hard for you to believe? I can tell from where I'm sitting.”
“You don't know him.”
“No, but I know guys, because I happen to be one. You know how a first-grader shows a girl he likes her? He punches her in the arm. By fourth grade, it gets a little more subtle. He still can't admit he likes her, so he teases her.”
Mandy shook her head again and bit into her sandwich.
“What I still don't get,” Jake said, “is how âMandy Claus' started that early.”
She hesitated. But then again, she was chewing.
When she finished her bite, Mandy said, “I was exaggerating.”
All Jake could see was her profile. She'd become deeply engrossed in watching the band tune up.
If past experience was any indication, she hadn't been exaggerating, any more than her ankle had been sprained on their first date.