Posted at Dec 13, 2015 12:27 pm
A short story by Lisa Brown Roberts
“Yay Trina!! It’s Christmas, Christmas, CHRISTMAS!”
There’s nothing like the scream of a five-year-old she-devil to get a person moving on a sleepy holiday vacation day.
“Technically, Gilly, we still have five days until Christmas,” I reminded her, sidestepping her whirling dervish dance as I entered the foyer of her house. She wore reindeer jammies and her crazy red hair had a life of its own.
“Hi Trina.” Mrs. Forrester emerged from the kitchen dressed in a business suit, barefoot and wearing two mismatched earrings, something that happened often. “As usual, you’re a lifesaver.” She smiled gratefully as I hung up my coat.
I was happy to help out Mrs. Forrester. After a crazy summer spent nannying Gillian and her BFF Max, I was confident I could handle a day with Gillian, even if it meant sacrificing some of my precious sleeping-in-during-vacation time.
Well…I felt mostly confident. I wouldn’t have my wingman/boyfriend/Super Nanny with me today. Slade was no doubt still asleep. When I’d told him Mrs. Forrester had called me for emergency babysitting he’d laughed and wished me luck. I should’ve been annoyed at his glib response, but he’d promised to take me to dinner and a movie tonight as a reward for handling Gillian on my own for a whole day.
“Just don’t let Gilly cause a scene in the mall since I won’t be there to save the day,” he teased. Slade didn’t pass up many opportunities to gloat about his nanny prowess, which had been revealed during our summer of co-nannying.
“Whatever, slacker,” I retorted. “Gilly and I are going to have a fantastic day together.”
“Uh huh,” he said. “You sure you want to take her to the mall? Maybe you should hang out at her house. Watch some boring documentaries.”
I heard the teasing in his voice. Last summer we’d had a huge fight about showing documentaries to the kids we were babysitting. That failed documentary viewing had led to a mutiny by the kids against my uptight nannying style, which led to my own meltdown, which led to Slade stepping up to reveal his superior kid whisperer abilities…which led to a mostly epic summer and me being the star of my own unexpected romance with Slade.
“I’ll see you tomorrow night,” I said, ignoring his warning. “Don’t be late.”
He laughed because we both knew he’d be a little late – just enough to torment me. “Tell you what, if you survive the mall with Gilly, I promise to be on time. Maybe even early.”
“That’d be a Christmas miracle, Slade.”
“You surviving the mall with the rampaging redhead or me being on time?”
“Very funny, Super Nanny.” I huffed my most exasperated sigh, but I never could stay mad at him. “I’ll see you at seven. On the dot.”
The Tinder Pines Mall is beautiful, as malls go, but for someone like me who gets a little panicky around crowds it might not have been the best choice. After driving around in circles in the parking garage, stalking exiting shoppers hoping for their parking spot, I was ready to give up.
“Maybe we should go the Children’s Museum instead,” I suggested, “or the dinosaur museum.”
“No!” Gillian exclaimed. She crossed her arms over her chest, puffing out her lips to make her crankiest pouty face. “I want to go shopping!”
As I got cut off for a parking space yet again, I heard Slade’s teasing voice in my mind. “Are you sure you want to take her to the mall?” No way would I give him the satisfaction of being right. Two more loops around the parking garage and I finally scored a parking spot.
Once out of the car I tugged Gillian after me like squawking bird. “I want a pretzel first, Trina! And some candy. And then the Build-a-Buddy store. And then the play area…”
Her chattering was incessant, but once we entered the packed mall the cacophony of holiday shoppers drowned her out. I knelt down to stare into her big blue eyes. “No matter what, do not let go of my hand, okay?”
She looked ready to argue, then appeared to think better of it. “Okay.” She blinked innocently. “As long as we go where I want to go.”
My wish for Slade the Super Nanny was immediate and intense. He had Gillian wrapped around his finger. She’d do whatever he said and wouldn’t dare do anything that might upset him.
Not that he ever got upset- he just rolled with the punches. That was part of his nannying superpower. Sometimes being a slacker paid off in unexpected ways, as I’d learned from him over the summer.
“That’s my girl.” I attempted to channel his laidback attitude. “We’re going to have an epic day, right?”
She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “Where’s Slade?”
I knew why she asked- because he’d shown us both the true meaning of epic one afternoon last summer that would be etched forever in my favorite memories vault.
“He’s home sleeping.” I tugged her next to me, aiming for the pretzel store where my best friend Desi was working. Maybe we could score some free food.
“He should be with us,” she grumbled, but at least she kept pace with me. “So should Max.”
I knew she missed her pal Max so I held her hand tightly, anxious she’d bolt at any moment, distracted by the shiny holiday sparkliness beckoning from every store.
Desi stood sentry at the cash register in Pretzel Logic, which was packed full of customers, the line snaking out the door. She caught my eye and sent me a pleading look for rescue. Ha. As if I could.
I grinned and shrugged. She tilted her head, gesturing me inside. My stomach knotted. No way was I cutting the line because I didn’t want to cause a riot, but Gilly was three steps ahead of me, dragging me toward the front of the line.
“Hi Desi!” she shrieked. “Me and Trina want pretzels!”
“Hey!” barked a crabby looking guy juggling multiple shopping bags, “no cutting the line!”
“Yeah,” echoed several other customers. “Go to the back of the line.”
Desi drew herself up to her full five feet, ten inches, glowering at everyone like Tyra Banks about to unleash the crazy. “They are not cutting the line,” she growled. “Y’all just simmer down and wait your turn.”
Clearly her manager was on break, or maybe the holiday shopping vultures were finally cracking my friend’s cool façade.
“My break’s in ten minutes,” Desi said. “Meet you at the fountain.” She grinned at Gillian. “Mustard and cheese special coming up, little girlfriend.”
“Yay!” Gilly released my hand to twirl in a circle.
“Thanks.” I waved, quickly exiting the store and wondering how my friend dealt with all these crabby shoppers without totally losing it. Gillian was a challenge, but she was only one girl and she…wait…where was she?
I spun around, frantically scouring the crowds for a diminutive redhead, panic knotting my stomach. My eyes scanned the surrounding stores. Build-a-Buddy was just two stores down; with any luck I’d find her there.
“Gilly!” I called, running through the crowd. “Gillian Forrester, come here right now!” Shoppers stared after me as I ran, but no one offered to help. My heart beat wildly and cold sweat made me shiver. I couldn’t lose her…I couldn’t….
“Trina, look at this reindeer! Can I get her?” Gillian bounced around inside the Build-a-Buddy chaos clutching a stuffed reindeer dressed in a tutu.
Limp with relief, I sagged against a display of tiny clothes. “Gillian Marie Forrester, come here right now.” I enunciated each word slowly as my relief morphed into anger. “We are going home.”
Her face crumpled as she hugged the reindeer to her chest. “But we just got here! We can’t go home! You promised me an epic day!”
Several of the parents gave me sympathetic looks but a few shot me judgmental eye rolls. I’d like to see them deal with her. I closed my eyes, taking deep breaths and counting to ten just like I used to do when Slade drove me crazy, before I accidentally fell in love with him.
“Okay,” I opened my eyes. She still clutched the reindeer like a life preserver. “I’ll give you another chance. But you have to stay with me. No running away. If you want to look at something, tell me and we’ll go together. Deal?”
She sniffled and nodded, glancing around for backup, but Slade wasn’t around to fall for her wily tricks.
Mrs. Forrester had told me not to buy Gillian any toys since Christmas was almost here and she had a pile of presents under the tree. Instead, her mom wanted Gillian to focus on others. Her mom gave me money and instructions to buy a gift for a girl they were sponsoring through their church as part of an adopt-a-family project. Gilly had also brought ten dollars of her own spending money.
“Do you think Sarah would like this reindeer?” I asked, gently prying the reindeer from her grip.
Gillian frowned. “Who’s Sarah?”
“The girl you’re supposed to shop for. She’s five, just like you, remember? But her family doesn’t have money for gifts so your family is being Santa Claus for her family.”
Gillian kicked her trademark red glitter shoes into the carpet, still glowering. “But I want the reindeer.”
I took a deep breath, picturing Slade’s laughing face and imagining what he’d say to her. “Let’s check some other stores, and get more ideas for Sarah’s gift. But first Desi’s bringing us pretzels, so we’ll meet her at the fountain.”
She raised her teary eyes to mine. “What if someone else buys the reindeer?”
I grinned. “That’s the great thing about this place- they can always make a new one. For Sarah, if that’s what you decide.”
She frowned. I knew she wanted the reindeer for herself, not Sarah. I put the reindeer back on the display shelf, then gently took her hand. “Just think how yummy that pretzel’s going to taste.”
Desi removed her paper chef’s hat as she sat next to us dressed in a puffy white blouse and boring black pants. She hated Pretzel Logic’s uniform, but put up with it because she had no choice. She stretched out her long legs and leaned her head against mine.
“I’m so tired, Trina. Summer was a cakewalk compared to this. Remind me never to work retail during the holidays ever again.”
“Wanna trade?” We watched Gilly toss pennies into the fountain. I wondered how much time I had before she stripped down to her undies and attempted to go for a swim. Not really, I reassured myself. She wouldn’t dare.
“I’d trade jobs in a heartbeat,” Desi said. “I’d have that girl under control in five minutes.”
I snorted. “You and what army?”
Desi lifted her head from my shoulder and yawned. “You’ve got it easy, T. If she gets totally crazy you can just pick her up and haul ass out of here. I’m stuck here until closing tonight.”
“Aw, that stinks.”
She shrugged and sipped from her soda straw. “It’s okay. Trey’s picking me up after and we’re gonna hang out.”
I waggled my eyebrows suggestively. “Hang out, huh?”
She smirked. “And what are you and the gorgeous hunk of Slade man doing tonight? Reading Tolstoy?”
I blushed. “Dinner and a movie.”
She laughed. “And by movie, I assume you mean excuse to suck face in the back row until the ushers kick you out.”
“Don’t be gross, Dez.”
She cocked an eyebrow. “Pardon me, Miss Clemons. I’m sure you two won’t even touch each other.”
We both knew that was a lie. I was addicted to kissing Slade. Fortunately, he shared the addiction and showed no signs of wanting to enter rehab.
“Look, I’ve gotta get back, but I’m off tomorrow, miracle of miracles. We should hang out.” Desi stood up, stretching, and I noticed several guys checking her out. Even in her silly uniform she was a knockout.
“Sounds like a plan. Text me tomorrow.”
She glanced over her shoulder and a grin split her face. “Maybe I don’t wanna trade jobs with you after all. Good luck, girl.” Then she practically skipped away, laughing.
Instinctively, I jumped up and bolted toward the fountain, dreading what I’d find. Gillian had taken off her shoes and was stomping through the water. She threw back her head and belted out “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” at the top of her lungs to an appreciative audience of other kids who clearly wanted to join her in the splashing.
Without pausing to think I lunged for her, yanking her out of the fountain. Still kicking wildly, she drenched me in water, but never stopped singing. Her tiny audience cheered her on, and amidst the cheers a familiar deep and sexy laugh floated right into my ears, and my heart.
I turned toward his voice, releasing my hold on Gillian. She spotted him instantly and ran toward him shrieking with delight, especially when she saw the boy at his side- Max, her best friend in the world.
Tall and fit, dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt hanging open over a faded blue t-shirt, Slade looked like the anti-fashion model. His too long blonde hair was tied back in the leather cord I’d given him last summer. Fashion wasn’t his forte, not like it mattered.
He ruffled Gillian’s hair as she bounced around his legs like an excited puppy, but his gaze stayed on me. I knew I was blushing because he’d busted me in the middle of a Gillian meltdown, just as he’d predicted. And because he always made me blush when he looked at me like that.
He cocked an eyebrow expectantly, apparently wondering why I hadn’t run to him like an excited puppy, too. As he took in my folded arms and my scowl, his grin deepened.
“Uh oh,” he said, moving quickly to close the gap between us, “looks like I’m in trouble and I just got here.”
I tried to keep scowling at him but it was impossible. As soon as he saw the hint of my smile, he reached out to pull me into his arms like I belonged there, which I totally did. He tilted his head down and I stood on my tiptoes, wrapping my hands around his neck in a move we’d perfected over the past few months.
“Just so you know,” I whispered, needing to prove my point before I succumbed, “I totally had things under control with Gillian.”
“Mmm,” his lips brushed against mine, sending tingles shooting through me. “I never doubted you.” He kissed me softly. “But I missed you, and Max wanted to hang with Gilly so we thought we’d come find you.” He kissed me again, much less politely this time, and in the distance I heard Gilly break into our theme song, “Slade and Trina, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.”
I knew I should stop the kiss because we were in the middle of a crowded mall, but I didn’t want to. I let myself pretend we were alone- no Gillian, no Max, no hundreds of shoppers brushing past of us, some of them muttering about PDA and teenage hormones.
Slade broke the kiss first, leaning his forehead on mine. “Let’s dump the kids in an orphanage so we can have some alone time.”
My cheeks warmed as I pushed against his chest. “We’d go to jail. Totally not worth it.” I shot a protective glance toward Gillian and Max, who were happily tossing pennies into the fountain.
He straightened, pretending to look offended. “My kisses aren’t worth jail time?”
I fluttered my eyelashes. “That one almost was. But not quite.”
His slips slanted into a cocky grin. “Liar.” He trailed a finger down my cheek, stopping at the racketing pulse in my neck. “I can feel how much you’re lying.” My traitorous pulse sped up.
“Some of us are on duty.” I tried to look official as he tugged gently at the necklace he’d given me. It was engraved with “BB,” his nickname for me.
He leaned down to whisper in my ear. “Guess I’ll just have to try harder, BB. Later tonight, when we’re off duty and I have you all to myself.” Then he stepped back, leaving me breathless.
“Why are you on duty, anyway?” I asked. “Max’s mom said you didn’t need to babysit this week.”
“Yeah, well, I was bored.” He shrugged. “And I figured I might as well drag Max along.”
“Now you’re the liar.” I poked his chest with my finger. “You didn’t think I could handle the she-devil on my own.”
“And clearly I was right. “ His grin melted my insides like it always did, even though his words ticked me off.
“I don’t need your help, Slade.”
He raised his eyebrows. “I thought we settled this months ago, Trina. We work best as a team.” He glanced at the unruly crowd of shoppers, which felt like it had doubled in size since he’d arrived. “Unless you really want me to go…” The laughter in his eyes was a double-dog dare because he knew I hated big crowds.
“You drive me crazy, you know that?” Of course I wanted him to stay, and Max, too. The four of us would have a lot more fun than just Gillian and me.
He took my hand, lacing our fingers together. “Come on, kids,” he called, and of course they came running. “Last one to Santa’s sleigh is a reject reindeer.”
Gillian froze, staring up at Slade with wide eyes. “Santa is here?” She clutched at her chest like a tiny actress about to faint. “Santa is in THIS MALL? Right NOW?” She reminded me of Will Ferrell’s character in Elf, screaming with excitement about Santa’s impending visit.
For the first time in a long time, I saw a crack in Slade’s go-with-the-flow vibe. He swallowed and tugged at his hair. “Uh, yeah. He sure is.” He glanced at me for support, but I just smirked, thrilled to see him even the tiniest bit rattled.
However, my smirk faded as Max’s face paled and he reached for my free hand. Slade and I shared a worried glance. The kids wouldn’t be scared of Santa, would they? I smiled down at Max reassuringly and my heart swelled. Max and I had bonded last summer, over a shared fear of heights, among other things.
Everything would be just fine…I hoped…
The line to see Santa was ridiculously long.
“Maybe this isn’t the best idea,” I muttered to Slade as Gillian and Max played a game of tag with other kids waiting in line.
He side-eyed me. “You bailing already? Want me to take the kids by myself?” He knew just how to push my buttons, but I wasn’t falling for it.
“No, I’m not bailing. I’m remembering previous debacles with these two. Remember the butterfly incident? The circus clown freak-out?”
Slade wrapped an arm around my shoulder and I leaned into him, inhaling his piney, sunshiny scent that still made me swoony.
“They’ll be fine, Trina,” he reassured me. “Besides, there’s nothing we can’t handle together, right?”
“Don’t say that.” I stared into his sky blue eyes. “You’re tempting fate.”
He grinned and leaned down to kiss my nose. “I’m not interested in tempting fate. Tempting you, on the other hand…” His kiss moved to my lips but I made him stop.
“We’re surrounded by parents!”
“Yeah, but not our parents.” His grin was positively evil.
Gillian ran over to us, Max at her heels. “Why are you guys always kissing?” She glared at Slade. “Did you put your tongue in her mouth? That’s gross!”
Slade shot me a sly wink as I struggled to get back into nanny mode. “Never mind about that, Gillian.” I said. “What are you going to ask Santa when you meet him?”
“I have a lot of questions,” she said, hands on her hips. “And I want to talk to Mrs. Claus, too.”
Slade and I exchanged a look.
“Uh, Mrs. Claus is in the North Pole,” Slade said. “Just Santa today.”
Gillian sniffed. “She probably does all the work anyway, while Santa has all the fun. Like my mom says about my dad.”
I bit back a laugh and turned to Max. “What do you want to ask Santa, sweetie?”
He looked troubled. I hoped he wouldn’t be the one to have a meltdown today. Lots of kids were scared of Santa; maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.
“I don’t know.” I had to lean down to catch his whispering. “I’m not sure I want to meet him, Trina.” He squeezed my hand. “Did you bring your lavender oil?”
Uh oh. Last summer Max and I had shared a secret: rubbing a little bit of herbal lavender oil on our wrists when were scared or nervous. I thought it was just a placebo effect, but Max believed it was magic.
“Sorry, Max. I don’t have it with me.”
His face crumpled. “I don’t want to meet Santa.”
Slade knelt down to look Max in the eye, resting a hand on his shoulder. “Hey bud, we don’t want to do this without you. How about if the four us meet Santa together? We’ll be right there with you.”
Super Nanny to the rescue. Again.
After endless games of “Would You Rather” it was finally our turn to meet the jolliest elf in the world. His harried helper elf warned us we only had five minutes.
“How about ten minutes?” Slade bargained. “Five minutes per kid?”
The helper elf was not amused. “It doesn’t work that way. Go.” He pointed toward the raised platform where Santa waited.
Was it my imagination, or did Santa look sort of shell-shocked?
As we approached the fake throne, Santa tapped his watch and shot a glare at a female helper elf perched on a stool next to his throne. “Break time,” mouthed Santa.
I glanced at Slade. “This is—”
“Gonna be fine, BB. Take a breath.” He squeezed my hand. “We’ve dealt with worse.”
“Worse than a cranky Santa?” Fortunately the kids didn’t hear me.
Gillian marched right up to Santa, hands on her hips. I hurried to catch up to her, ready to yank her away in case things got crazy. I glanced over my shoulder. Max held Slade’s hand, his eyes brimming with tears. In one quick move, Slade lifted Max onto his shoulders, and relief snuck threw me when I saw Max grin from his high perch.
Slade always knew what to do. Always. It was freaking annoying, except when it was cute.
“So,” Gillian said, scowling with her hands still on her hips. “I want to know why you don’t read my letters.”
Santa blinked in confusion, then rolled his eyes. I felt my blood begin to boil. Anyone who played Santa should not eye roll little kids.
“Of course I read your letters. What’s your name, kid?”
Gillian tapped a foot impatiently. “You’d know, if you’re really Santa.” She narrowed her eyes suspiciously and I took a step closer.
Santa glanced at me, but no way was I helping him out. In fact, I was considering reporting him as soon as we were finished.
“Look kid, I get millions of letters a year. And you ain’t the only redhead in town, either. Give Santa a hint. Time’s almost up.”
Slade and Max moved closer to us. I glanced at Slade, who watched Santa suspiciously.
“My name is Gillian Marie Forrester. And I want to know why you didn’t bring me a potato gun last year, like I asked. Also the motorcycle.”
Santa snorted. “Motorcycle? Kid, you’re barely old enough for a two-wheel bicycle. Why the he—”
“Hey Santa,” Slade interrupted. “Maybe you should ask her what she wants for Christmas this year.”
“I’m totally reporting him,” I whispered to Slade. “He’s a menace just like in the Bad Santa movie.”
Slade smirked. “I don’t think he’s a criminal, T.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Are you mocking me?”
He totally was.
“I want a hockey stick,” Gillian announced. She stepped closer to Santa, waving a finger in his face. “And not some fake toy one. A real one, like the Avs use. And I want—”
“Time’s up,” said the exhausted looking helper elf, hopping off her stool.
Gillian spun around, eyes flashing. “I’m not finished!” She pointed to Max, still happily perched on Slade’s shoulders. “And my friend hasn’t even talked to Santa yet.”
“Don’t you want a Barbie doll like a good little girl?” Santa asked Gillian. “Instead of a potato gun?”
What kind of sexist question was that? If I were a cartoon, steam would’ve shot out of my ears.
“You shouldn’t tell kids what toys to request,” I said. Now my hands were on my hips, just like Gillian.
Gillian stomped her foot. “I want to talk to Mrs. Claus!”
“Please,” begged the anxious helper elf, wringing her hands. “Your turn is over.”
I reached for Gillian just as Santa said a very bad word under his breath.
“Santa has to put five dollars in the swear jar!” Gillian yelled.
Santa looked ready to add a hundred dollars to the swear jar.
“Please go,” the elf begged me in a pleading whisper.
“He’s a terrible Santa,” I whispered back.
The elf nodded. “I know. He’s the sub. Regular Santa got sick.” She swallowed nervously. “We put in a call for another sub but he isn’t here yet.”
“Hey!” hollered a dad waiting at the bottom of the platform with three rambunctious toddlers. “Your turn’s over. Move it!”
Slade spun around, clutching Max so he didn’t fall off his shoulders. “Dude, chill out. We have a situation here.”
“Situation?” The dad stepped forward, his face turning purple. “I’ll give you a situation.”
“Hey!” I jumped in front of Slade. “You don’t want your kids talking to a swearing, sexist Santa, do you?”
The guy’s eyes widened. “Seriously?”
I nodded vigorously. “He’s totally inappropriate. I’m going to report him.”
A security guard hustled over. “What’s the problem here?”
“Santa needs to go,” I replied. “He just dropped the f-bomb in front of a little girl. Plus he tried to tell her what toys she should play with.”
The guard stared at me. He was enormous, but I wasn’t intimidated.
“That’s a serious accusation, young lady.”
Slade lowered Max from his shoulders. “I’d listen to her if I were you. She was the mastermind behind a boycott that shut down a Burger Barn.” He raised a fist. “Power to the people, yo.” His eyes twinkled with mischief. Maybe he should be Santa.
The guard frowned, then motioned to the helper elves. “Put up the cookie break sign. Tell everyone he’ll be back in fifteen.”
I snorted. “Not likely. Unless you have another Santa ready to go.”
The guard glowered at me. “You stay right here. And get that redhead under control.”
“Gilly!” Slade called. “Get over here!”
She gave Santa one last piece of her mind, then turned and stomped down the steps. Meanwhile the elves roped off the steps and put up the cookie break sign. Parents started hollering in protest. A few kids burst into tears.
“Let’s make a break for it, BB,” Slade said. “You don’t have to save the world every day.”
I stared at him, appalled. “We can’t leave. We have to officially report that guy. Just think of how many kids he’s traumatized!”
The guard heaved himself onto the stage. He pointed to the fake North Pole scenery and Santa slunk away behind a cut-out reindeer, pausing to shoot us daggers with his eyes. The guard motioned for us to stay put, then spoke into his walkie-talkie.
“He’s a fake,” Gillian announced, hands on her hips. “The real Santa would never swear.”
Max burst into tears. “I knew Santa wasn’t r-real.”
Slade leaned over to whisper in my ear. “And you said the mall would be a piece of cake.”
“You keep an eye on the redhead. I need to do damage control with Max.”
Slade shrugged, grinning. “Some things never change.”
“Come on, Max.” I took his hand and led him to a corner away from the chaos. We settled onto a bench and I held his hands in mine. “Look at me, sweetie.”
He sniffled as he watched me with his chocolate brown eyes.
“Santa is real.” I glanced at the stage. “But he couldn’t be here today, so he sent a helper.”
Max sniffed again. “The fake Santa is mean. He said a bad word.” He wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “Is that policeman arresting him? For swearing at Gilly?”
How I wished. “No,” I said. “But I think he put him in a time-out.”
Max nodded, his expression serious. “I don’t want to meet him. I want to leave.”
I sighed wearily. I’d been crazy to think this day would go smoothly. I glanced at Slade, who was talking to the security guard. Gillian was talking, too, waving her arms around and stomping her little foot. She was going to be a great attorney some day, just like her mom.
“How about a snack?” I suggested. “Then Gilly has to pick out a present for a friend. I know she’d like you to stay. Maybe you could help pick the present?”
Max hunched his shoulders. “I don’t know.”
We sat quietly, then I asked, “What would you have asked Santa? The real Santa, I mean.”
Max looked at me shyly from underneath his eyelashes. “I can’t tell you.”
“Yes, you can. You know I’m good with secrets.” I smiled conspiratorially. “I might even be able to get a message to Santa.”
Max shook his head stubbornly.
“Okay,” I said. “But if you change your mind, let me know.” I stood up and tugged him to his feet.
Gillian ran toward us, Slade sauntering behind her like nothing was wrong. I wondered what sort of crisis would actually make him run.
“We’re all fine here,” Slade said, and I rolled my eyes.
“Don’t go quoting Han Solo, dude.”
“Why not? Han’s the man.”
“I like Luke better,” Max said.
“Not me,” Gillian piped up. “Princess Leia’s the best.”
Slade and I shared a smirk. Gillian could give the princess a run for her money.
“Do we need to fill out any paperwork?” I asked Slade.
“Nah, he believed us. When he checked in with his boss he found out we weren’t the first complaint.”
I stared at the long line of kids waiting. “But what about all those kids waiting to meet Santa?”
“A sub’s on the way. But he won’t be here for half an hour.”
“Oh my gosh! What are they going to do?”
Slade shrugged. “I don’t know. Not our problem, though.”
I narrowed my eyes, considering Slade. He couldn’t pass for Santa, not even with a fake beard and tons of padding. But an elf…
“I cannot believe I let you talk me into this,” Slade grumbled ten minutes later. “You’re gonna pay, BB.”
He looked adorable in his fake elf ears, red and green outfit covered in jingle bells, and pointy shoes with bells on the toes. The crabby helper elf had dredged up a spare elf outfit when I threatened to report him as an accessory to Bad Santa.
I fluttered my eyelashes, and trailed a hand down Slade’s arm. I stunk at flirting, but for some reason he always fell for it. “I’ll make up for it later.” I stood on my tiptoes and kissed him. “Promise.”
His grin reappeared. He was definitely the sexiest elf around.
“Come on. They’re gonna love you.” I dragged him to the grand piano decorated with sparkling garland and stuffed toys from Build-a-Buddy.
Slade sat down and ran his hands over the keys, getting everyone’s attention, then pinned me with a glare. “I can’t decide if I’m doing this because I love you or because I’m crazy.”
“Both?” I suggested, then ducked in case he felt like throwing a stuffed animal.
The girl helper elf addressed the crowd. “We have a slight delay until Santa returns,” she said into a microphone. The crowd rumbled, then Slade’s shockingly gorgeous baritone drowned her out, crooning the opening notes of Santa Claus is Coming to Town.
“Just like in Elf,” I whispered to Max and Gillian, picturing the grand finale when Zooey Deschanel stood in a carriage and sang by herself because somebody had to get that sleigh in the air.
My body vibrated with happiness as I listened to Slade sing. If it were possible, I was falling even more in love with him by the second. I’d discovered Slade’s top secret amazing singing voice over the summer, but if there was ever a time for him to bust out like American Idol, this was it.
I took a deep breath and just like in the movie I chimed in, horribly off-key but hoping to get the crowd involved. Gillian and Max joined me, Gilly’s volume making up for Max.
“He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake…”
From out of nowhere, the burly security guard appeared next to us and joined in, his voice booming and on-key. Slade grinned and that was all it took for the whole crowd to join in.
Once again, Super Nanny saved the day, keeping the crowd laughing and singing until sub-sub Santa showed up.
This Santa was the real deal. His belly shook like a bowl full of jelly and his eyes twinkled even more than Slade’s. His laugh probably made angels giggle. He shook Slade’s hand and waved to the crowd, encouraging them to give Slade a raucous send-off, which they did. Slade bowed with a flourish then swaggered over to us, swooping me into his arms and kissing me.
The crowd cheered even louder.
“Merry Christmas, BB,” he whispered in my ear.
“Merry Christmas, elf,” I whispered back. “You still taking me to dinner tonight?”
His answering grin was sly and sexy. “Want me to wear the elf suit?” He leaned in close. “Bet you’ve never made out with an elf.”
I swatted him on his jingle-belled chest. “You’re impossible.”
Gillian tugged on my hand, interrupting our flirting.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I want to get the stuffed reindeer.”
Uh oh. “Um, maybe we—”
“Not for me,” she interrupted. “For Sarah.” She tugged me down to whisper in my ear. “I’ll even spend my own money to get her a reindeer necklace.”
Another Christmas miracle.
I stood up as Gillian turned her shining eyes on Slade. “I think you’re a real elf, Slade.”
He tugged her red hair. “Shh. Don’t tell anyone.”
Max pulled my hand until I bent down to his level. “I got my wish, Trina,” he whispered.
“You did? What was it?”
He smiled shyly. “To see real Christmas magic.” He pointed to Santa. “He’s the real Santa, Trina. I can tell.”
Max pointed to the crowd, laughing and singing carols, completely unlike how it had been before Slade entertained everyone. “See?”
“Maybe Slade’s magic, too,” I whispered, “Because he helped make everyone happy.”
Max nodded. “So are you, Trina,” he said. “Because you made the bad Santa go away.”
That made me laugh, and once I started, I couldn’t stop. I had to document this crazy day. Still laughing, I pulled my cell from my pocket, wishing I’d thought to video Slade singing.
“It’s the elf suit, isn’t it?” Slade fake-glared. “You take a picture of this and I’ll never kiss you again.”
I put my phone back in my pocket just as Desi ran up, screeching to a stop next to us.
“Slade Edmunds!” She pointed a finger at him, out of breath. “You’re joining the men’s choir at school. I won’t take no for an answer.” Desi whirled on me. “Did you know he could do that?”
“Do what?” I feigned innocence. I’d never told Desi about the time Slade serenaded me. That was top secret information.
“No men’s choir,” Slade said. “But next time Santa needs a wingman, I’m your guy.”
Much later, Slade and I curled up together, entwined on his family room couch, the gas fireplace glowing, Elf playing on the ginormous TV.
“Epic day, babe?” he whispered in my ear.
I kept my eyes on the screen, but managed to fist-bump him his shoulder. “You know it.”
“Unacceptable,” he said, angling my head away from the screen. “If I wanted fist-bumping, I’d have invited Alex over.” He pulled me onto his lap, then clicked the remote and the movie shut off, replaced by music. “We’ll finish the movie later. Deal?”
Who could argue with the elf who saved the mall from a Christmas riot?
Baby it’s Cold Outside played on the stereo, and as Slade’s lips claimed mine, I could’ve sworn I heard jingle bells and a booming “Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas!” in the distance…
PLAYING THE PLAYER: the full-length novel about Slade and Trina
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