Are you looking forward to the Christmas Wishes and Cowboy Kisses boxed set coming out next month? Have you pre-ordered it for only .99? You'll receive 23 holiday-themed sweet romance novellas sure to warm your heart and get you ready for the Christmas season! Click here to order now - the price is going up after release day!
And to whet your appetite, here's chapter one of the story I'm including in the set - Cowboy Claus!
copyright@Amelia C. Adams
Kelli Moore checked the time on her phone yet again. It was twenty minutes after three, and her Santa Claus should have been there in full costume at three o’clock sharp. It wasn’t like Uncle Abe to be late. If anything, he was always early—he loved playing Santa. Maybe he’d forgotten that they’d changed venues and he was waiting for her downtown. She sent a quick text, hoping he’d remembered to turn on his phone.
She turned back to the shipment of candy canes that had arrived the day before. A quick swipe with her box cutter revealed row after row of neat packages, and she caught the faintest whiff of peppermint, her favorite smell in the world. She was such a sap—she loved Christmas and everything about it, including the smells. All right, especially the smells. She took another deep breath and closed her eyes, a smile on her face, only to be pulled from the moment by her ringtone. It was, of course, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”
The caller ID read Abe Gardner.
“Hey, Uncle Abe,” she said by way of greeting. “The candy canes are here, your throne’s set up—all I need now is a Santa.”
“He’s not there yet?”
“What do you mean, he’s not there yet? You’re the one I’m waiting for. Where are you? You didn’t end up downtown, did you?”
Abe chuckled. “I’ve got some bad news for you, sweetie. Now, don’t get upset—it’s all under control—but I had an accident this morning, and I’m at the hospital in Denver.”
“What?” Kelli instantly felt sick, and she sat down on the edge of Santa’s throne. “Are you all right? What kind of accident?”
“Well, this is the sort of unbelievable part. I fell off my roof.”
“You . . . you did what?”
“See, I had a bunch of snow building up and I was worried about the weight on my shingles, so I climbed up there to shovel it off, and the next thing I knew, I was on the ground with the wind knocked out of me and a few broken bones. The docs here have taken good care of me, though, and I’ll let you sign my casts.”
“Your casts? More than one cast?” Kelli rubbed her left temple, which was starting to throb. “You said you’re fine.”
“I am fine. I’m on a morphine drip, I have a cute nurse, and I’ll get to come home tomorrow. Like I said, everything’s under control, and I have a friend of mine coming down to take my place as Santa. I thought he’d be there by now.”
“I’m sure it’ll be okay.” Kelli glanced around, but didn’t see any likely elderly gentlemen making their way toward the Santa booth. “You told him where and what time?”
“You bet. Probably got stuck in traffic or something. Listen, Kelli—I’m really sorry. You know how much I enjoy helping out, and under ordinary circumstances, I’d be there. . .”
“I know.” She expelled a breath, hoping to ease the pressure that was building in her chest. “Just concentrate on getting better, all right? We’ll make it work.”
“Thanks, sweetie. Oh, gotta go. My cute nurse is here with some sort of pill for me to take.”
Kelli stared at her phone after Abe disconnected. She couldn’t believe any part of what she’d just heard. “Who falls off a roof?” she said aloud.
“Apparently, Uncle Abe.”
The rich, low voice was filled with amusement, and she turned to see who had walked up behind her.
Oh, no. Just . . . no.
Jeff Gardner stood there in all his impossibly good-looking cowboy glory, a garment bag draped over one arm and a sheepish grin on his face. “Hi, Kelli,” he said. “How are you?”
She just blinked. She had no words.
He nodded toward the bag he carried. “I’ve got the costume, and I’m ready to go. Where should I change?” He smiled a little wider, and she could have sworn that his teeth sparkled just like teeth always do in corny toothpaste commercials.
She swallowed. “You’re . . . you’re the replacement Santa?”
“But . . .”
“I know I’m too young, but Uncle Abe tried all his friends and none of them were free. I can wear a fake beard—other Santas do it all the time. Not the same as Abe’s real one, but we’ll do the best we can.”
“That’s . . . that’s not what I was worried about.” Now Kelli really felt like she might throw up. What horrible sin had she committed that the fates thought this was the proper punishment?
He lifted an eyebrow. “And just what are you worried about? That I’m going to drop some poor kid on their keister, or that I’ll spill the beans about not really being Santa, or . . .?”
“I just don’t know if you’re right for the role.” She turned away, trying to hide the feelings that must be showing all over her face. It made sense that Abe would ask Jeff to step in for him. After all, Jeff was Abe’s actual nephew and didn’t just call him “Uncle” because everyone else did. But Jeff was also one of the most horrible human beings Kelli had ever met—at least, that’s how he’d been in high school, and she didn’t think it was possible for a person to change that much in just eight years. Santa was supposed to be good and kind and loving, not . . . Jeff.
“I see. I guess if you don’t need a Santa . . .” He turned as if to leave.
“I do need a Santa.” She stood up, determined to stay calm and collected during this unexpected disaster. “I need one badly. I’m just . . .” Frustrated. So frustrated. “Are you sure you can do this? I mean, you can be friendly and happy and spread Christmas cheer for four hours a day, every day, until the last minute on the 24th?”
“You don’t think I can?” He looked at her for a moment, then something of a realization crossed his face. “You’re thinking about high school, aren’t you?”
“Well, yes. I mean, it’s kind of hard not to.”
He nodded slowly. “I see. And I understand. If you’d rather I leave . . .”
Kelli exhaled. The doors to the North Pole at the Candy Cane Lane Christmas Mall would be opening in mere minutes, and without a Santa Claus, what was the point? Lonely elves standing there with nothing to do. Children all set to have their pictures taken . . . on an empty throne. What a terrible start to Christmas week for the mall and for all these families.
“No,” she said at last. “You can change through that doorway. Just . . . please . . . don’t embarrass me.”
He winced a little at her words, but nodded and walked off in the direction she’d indicated.
Don’t embarrass her? Why had she said that? She sank down on the throne again and took a deep breath. She was letting herself get way too worked up about this. It was true that she and Jeff didn’t have the greatest history together. History or algebra or social studies . . . He was the kid who was always in the back of the classroom being loud with his friends and making rude comments in the hallways. He bullied the younger kids and made Mrs. Vincent, the vice principal, cry one day—and that woman never cried. And it wasn’t only that—the way he’d treated Kelli personally . . . well, she wasn’t going to waste time remembering all that. She had other, more important things to do. But he was not Santa material, and no red suit or fake beard or padded belly was going to change her mind.
Jeff pulled off his boots and set them in the corner of the tiny room where he’d been told to change. Then he reached into the garment bag and pulled out the Santa suit Aunt Lorraine had sewn twenty years ago, the suit Abe had worn with pride every Christmas season since. Jeff remembered standing next to her sewing machine watching her make it, amazed at how fast the needle flew up and down, excited to see it come to life in her hands. At the time, he thought Uncle Abe actually was Santa. Now that Jeff was an adult, he still thought it was possible.
Except Santa wasn’t supposed to fall off roofs. He was supposed to know better than that, despite what cheesy Hollywood movies might lead people to believe.
When Abe had called Jeff in from the stables and asked for help, Jeff thought he’d be carrying a Christmas tree into the house or doing some other kind of simple chore. He hadn’t expected to drive his uncle into Denver for emergency medical care, and he definitely hadn’t expected to be sent back home with the mission of filling in for Santa. And Kelli Moore? Maybe she was the biggest surprise of all. He’d had no idea she ran the North Pole and that he’d be working with her.
Kelli Moore. He couldn’t help but chuckle as he pulled the suspenders over his shoulders. She’d been one of those cute nerds in high school—the kind with glasses and her arms full of books, but with a great smile and a lot of sass. He’d liked her back then, but he didn’t have the self-confidence to go against the unwritten rule that stars of the football team don’t date nerds. There were a lot of things he’d change about his high school years if he could, and Kelli was at the top of that list. Especially knowing that she still remembered all of it and had a good reason to carry a grudge.
Using the mirror leaning against the wall for reference, he put on the fake beard and mustache, grimacing at the way they tickled. Then he pulled the hat snugly over the whole getup and analyzed his appearance. Not too bad, not too bad. He’d never be an Uncle Abe, but he could probably fool this group of kids long enough for them to take their photos and be on their way.
He shoved his own clothes into the garment bag and stowed it in the corner with his boots, then opened the door and walked back out to find Kelli. She was standing by the entrance to the North Pole, checking her watch, a worried look on her face. When she saw him, she gave a short nod.
“That’ll do. Go ahead and take a seat, please. There’s already quite a line out there.”
Jeff nodded in return and climbed the two steps to his throne. Why did Santa have a throne, anyway? Why not just a chair or a bench . . . Jeff had never thought about it, but now he was curious. Two young ladies in elf costume took up positions on either side of him, each holding a basket full of candy canes, and the photographer stood at the ready. He supposed they were set to go.
Kelli checked her watch one more time, then took a deep breath. “All right, everyone! Remember—bright and shining smiles, stay calm even if someone throws up or kicks you, and let’s make some memories here today!”
Jeff leaned over and spoke to one of the elves. “She’s joking, right? Nobody’s actually going to throw up or kick us, right?”
The girl laughed. “Oh, it happens. Not every day, but . . . yeah. It happens.”
Jeff settled back into place, shaking his head. He didn’t imagine that getting kicked by a small child was anything like getting kicked by a horse—which he’d experienced and didn’t care for—but it still didn’t sound too awfully fun.
Kelli opened the door that separated the North Pole from the rest of the mall, and sure enough, families began streaming in. Some of the children squealed and pointed when they saw him. Not sure what to do, Jeff gave an enthusiastic wave, and the children cheered even louder. One little boy toward the front burst into tears.
“They sometimes cry, too?” Jeff asked the same elf.
“Oh, all the time,” she replied. “But don’t take it personally. Some kids just get overwhelmed easily. In fact, the first hour tomorrow is specifically set aside for children with sensory processing disorders, but I’m sure Kelli will tell you all about that when we’re done here today.”
Jeff wanted to ask some follow-up questions, but Kelli had already organized the first part of the crowd into a line, and a cute little girl with blonde ringlets was bouncing up and down on her toes just on the other side of the velvet rope.
“Are you ready, Santa?” Kelli asked, one hand on the rope.
“I’m ready, Kelli! Let’s meet some kids!” Jeff mustered up a hearty “Ho, ho, ho!” as Kelli unhooked the rope and allowed the blonde girl through, her mother trailing behind.
The girl ran up the red carpet and all but jumped onto Jeff’s lap. He tried not to “ooph” as she landed with an elbow in his stomach—even a pillow for padding didn’t soften that blow.
“Well, hello there,” he said, trying to remember what Uncle Abe had told him about talking to the children. “What’s your name?”
She rolled her eyes. “Santa, don’t you remember me? It’s Adelaide. From last year?”
“Of course, of course,” Jeff replied. “It’s just . . . it’s just that you’ve grown so much, I hardly recognized you.”
She seemed to accept that answer. “Well, this year, I really need to talk to you about my Barbies. They don’t have a house!”
“Oh, that’s terrible,” Jeff replied. “So, you’d like a Barbie house for Christmas?”
“Yes, please, but . . .” She paused. “Did you know that some people don’t have houses?”
Jeff glanced over at Kelli. He didn’t know if she could hear anything from her spot at the head of the line, but he sure could use some pointers on how to reply to that. A look at his elf friend didn’t help either.
“I did know that,” he said after a moment. “It’s very sad, isn’t it?”
“Yes. It’s so sad.” Her lower lip trembled. “So, maybe you could do something about that, Santa. I mean, you could make some houses for people while you’re making houses for Barbies.”
“I . . . um . . . I’ll talk to the elves about it,” Jeff replied, and her smile immediately returned.
“Oh, thank you, Santa! Thank you!” She gave him a big hug. “Okay. I’m ready for my picture now.”
Jeff posed for the camera, a little girl on his lap and a rock in the pit of his stomach. He’d only spoken to one child, and already he felt completely unfit for the task. How was he supposed to answer questions like that? He’d thought this would be all about dolls and trains and maybe puppies, and yet the first kid out of the gate had to bring up real sorrow and suffering—and he didn’t know how to give her real comfort. He didn’t have any to give.
The rest of the afternoon went smoothly. No one threw up, no one kicked, and only two children cried. None of them asked any more difficult questions, although he was thrown for a loop when one boy asked for an iguana. His mother stood behind him, frantically mouthing “No!” Jeff finally told the boy he’d have to see because the elf in charge of pets was allergic to lizards.
When the shift was over, the elves waved at him, told him he did a great job, and went to change. He stayed on his throne for a few minutes to give the girls their privacy in the dressing area—at least, that’s what he told himself, but he really wanted to watch Kelli a moment longer. She’d caught his eye several times during the afternoon. He’d seen her talking to parents, laughing with them, reorganizing the line as need be, explaining things to people who were getting impatient with the length of the line—she was amazing. She really had a touch with people.
At last, she closed the door to the main hallway and turned to face him. “You did a good job,” she said as she walked up the red carpet toward him. “I was skeptical, I admit—but you proved me wrong.”
“You were probably wishing I’d fallen off the roof instead of Uncle Abe,” Jeff said. “That’s the kind of substitution you really could have gone for.”
“The thought did cross my mind.” She glanced away, and Jeff wished he could read the emotions he’d seen on her face. “But you bailed me out, and that’s the important thing, right?”
“Right.” He stood up and came down the stairs, feeling a little creaky after not moving for four hours. “So, I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Yes, but please come right at three. That gives us a little time to coordinate. Also, I should let you know that we’ve set aside the first hour tomorrow for children with sensory processing issues.”
“Yeah, one of the elves was telling me about that. I’m not sure what it means, though.”
Kelli leaned against one of the striped poles that marked the way to Santa’s throne. “These are children with autism or other disabilities who become overwhelmed when there’s too much light or sound or chaos around them. We dim the lights a little, we turn off the Christmas music, and we soften our voices. You’ll need to be careful not to ‘ho, ho, ho’ too loudly or suddenly. Some of the children won’t want to sit on your lap—they’ll stand next to you instead, or they might prefer to stay right with their parents. Some will be very friendly and outgoing, and others might choose not to make eye contact at all. Just follow each child’s lead, and their parents will often give you hints about what’s needed as well. The important thing is that every child gets the chance to meet Santa in a way that supports them and feels safe to them.”
Jeff nodded. “That’s great. I mean, that you set aside that time just for them so it doesn’t get too wild and crazy in here.”
“I got the idea from a movie theater, actually,” she replied. “And it made so much sense, I wondered why more places don’t do it. It’s not hard to turn off the music and dim the lights for a bit, and it makes such a big difference.”
“Well, I’ll be glad to help out.” He turned toward the dressing room, then paused. “I know I’m not your ideal Santa, but I promise, I’ll do a good job.”
“Just keep doing what you’re doing, and I’m sure everything will be fine,” she replied. He just wished she sounded more convinced.