“AN ‘I FLEXED and the Sleeves Fell Off’ shirt for Rick…a Sriracha crate for your dad…a grilled cheese maker for Beth…and a wine glass that holds an entire bottle of wine for your mom.” Holly Clark laughed as she shook her head, her dark brown curls swaying as she closed my shopping bag and set it on the chair beside her. “Please explain why anyone would need a grilled cheese maker. That’s, like, the easiest thing in the world.”
“You don’t remember the time Beth set the kitchen on fire making cookies? I don’t blame you for blocking it out. I’m still traumatized,” I said, picking up my glass of hot buttered rum and taking a long, throat-warming sip. It was a holiday tradition, Christmas shopping with my best friend and devouring copious amounts of the delicious beverage and The Clove’s famous gingerbread loaves—you know, after we’d spent almost all our money on gifts.
“Then hey, genius: maybe giving Beth something for the kitchen wasn’t the smartest idea. I can’t imagine she actually asked for something to help her burn the house down. Is this some kind of new McAllister family gag gift Christmas?”
I held up my hand in a Boy Scout’s salute—it didn’t matter that I was never a Boy Scout, right? “I swear they all mentioned those things at some point this year. Although, I might’ve added some, uh…interesting additions.”
“Oh no.” Holly dug back into the bag, and when she pulled out one of the books, the horrified expression on her face made me almost spew my drink. “What’s Your Poo Telling You? Oh my God. Miles, please tell me you aren’t giving this to your parents.”
“Bathroom reading material at its finest. My dad’ll love it.”
She shoved the book back into the bag. “That is so wrong.”
“It’s so right. Admit it: you want one.”
“Not for Christmas!”
“More appropriate for a birthday gift opened in front of all your friends?”
Holly rolled her eyes and groaned. “You’re hopeless. Tell you what, how about we don’t exchange gifts this year.”
“Too late. I already got you the perfect gift.”
“Take it back, then.”
“No way. Do you know how hard it was to track down a working banana phone?”
“A banana ph—” Holly snapped her mouth shut and lifted her hand to get the waiter’s attention. “Could we get the check, please? My friend’s lost his mind. I think it might be fatal.”
Chuckling, I broke off a piece of the last gingerbread loaf and popped it in my mouth. She was complaining now, but she’d be grateful for an actual gift to unwrap, and come on, the banana phone was awesome.
“By the way, what did you get for the white elephant gift for Zack’s party?” she asked.
“The… Aw, man. Nothing. I forgot.”
Holly smiled triumphantly as she stole the last of the gingerbread. “Guess that means I’m all done and you’re a slacker. Pay up.”
She got a special Miles death glare for about five seconds before I groaned and pulled my wallet out of my pocket. Also a tradition—a really stupid one, I was beginning to think—was that whoever finished their shopping last bought dinner. And here I thought I’d had this in the bag.
After I begrudgingly paid the waiter, we left and Holly linked her arm with mine.
“Since you’re into the ridiculous this year, what about something like that?” She pointed to a novelty store with a huge leg lamp display straight out of A Christmas Story.
“Not bad, Clark,” I said, veering us in that direction. “Not bad at all.”
TWENTY MINUTES LATER, we stood in the middle of the crowded store, other customers bumping past us every five seconds as I debated my options.
“What do you think?” I held up two boxes. “Shot glass roulette or a hard cider kit?”
Holly wrinkled her pert nose. “Neither?”
“Not helpful.” I looked at my narrowed down choices and was about to bust out “eeny meeny miny mo” when Holly said, “The roulette’s cheaper.”
“Then roulette it is.” I put back the hard cider kit and shot her a wink. “See? That was helpful.”
“Speaking of helpful, remind me which wrapping paper you use so I don’t pick your gift.”
I grinned. “Deal.”
Before I could move in the direction of the checkout, a hard shove from behind knocked me into the display, sending boxes of roulette kits flying and nearly knocking me off my feet. Whoever said the holidays brought out the best in people clearly hadn’t been to the mall a week before Christmas.
When I righted myself with Holly’s help, I turned around, fully prepared to let the inconsiderate jackass have it—
“Are you okay? I’m sorry, this place is a madhouse.”
My whole body went still as I gazed up at the man with the smooth-as-whiskey voice. Taller than me by a good three inches, and with a head full of thick black hair someone would be lucky to run their fingers through, the…err…inconsiderate jackass just so happened to also be the most gorgeous man I’d ever seen in my life.
“Are you okay?” he asked again, but then he jerked forward slightly as a group of laughing teenaged girls, oblivious to anyone around them, moved past us. His arm went up in front of me, as if on instinct, to block me from getting bumped into…again.
Swoon. I’m officially swooning.
“I’m…” I blinked, hardly able to form a coherent sentence while his dark eyes were trained so intensely on mine. “I-it’s fine. I’m fine.”
One of his eyebrows arched, and then those gorgeous eyes of his swept over me, and as they did, I felt it every-freakin’-where. When he was done with his perusal, his gaze met mine again. “You are that.”
I completely blanked then. Brain gone, breathing faint, voice nonexistent. He was beautiful.
“I don’t know about you, but I think I might stick to online shopping next year,” he said, a crooked smile turning up his lips, which, of course, my eyes zeroed in on and couldn’t stop staring at.
Stop looking at his lips. Stop that. Stop iiit.
“Shot roulette, huh?” He nodded to the box in my hands, and heat flooded my face.
“Oh, it’s not mine,” I said, automatically tucking the package behind my back. “I mean, it’s not for me. It’s a gift. For someone else. Who’s not me.”
Obviously, I thought, wanting to bang my head against the wall. Geez, when had I turned into a bumbling mess?
He chuckled and ran a hand over the light dusting of scruff covering his jaw. I tried not to lick my lips at the movement, but I couldn’t seem to be held entirely responsible for my actions at the moment. After all, he was dressed in business attire, a navy suit tailored to his tall, muscular frame, and heaven help me, that was my kryptonite.
“Well…” he trailed off.
“Well.” Behind me, Holly poked my back furiously.
“I guess I’d better get back to shopping,” he said. “Good luck with this crowd.”
“Yeah, me too. I mean, you too.” When I stumbled over my words, his smile only grew, and I wanted to whack myself over the head. Then he winked at me—unless that was some sort of eye twitch I was imagining—and walked away.
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” Holly said, coming up beside me and squeezing my arm tight. “Miles, you have to go get his number. Did you see how he was checking you out? And he’s so hot, like drop-dead, please-let-me-have-your-babies hot.” When I didn’t respond—because my tongue had lolled out like one of those Looney Tunes cartoons and I physically couldn’t—she shook me. “Hello. Earth to Miles. He’s getting away.”
Swallowing, I looked down at the box in my hands. “I need to pay for this.”
“I’ll pay for this. You go.”
Holly stared at me like I’d gone completely brain-dead, which I supposed I had. “To talk to the hot guy. You barely said two words while he was trying to make conversation with you. You seriously need to work on your flirting skills.”
“Why? He was just being nice.”
“Nice? He eyed you like a delicious cut of steak.”
“That’s ridiculous. He was just checking that I didn’t break any bones so I wouldn’t sue him.” I headed toward the register and got in line as Holly huffed behind me.
“Miles, have you looked in the mirror lately?”
“Look, I’m not just saying that because I’m your best friend. If anything, I’d call you out for looking a hot mess. But…you’ve gotten pretty damn handsome lately.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh, please—”
“You’ve got this whole cute nerd thing going on with the button-ups and corduroy pants. And this hair?” She reached up and mussed my brown waves. “Like, I can do this and it makes it look even better. I don’t know how that’s possible.”
“It’s called ‘need a haircut.’”
“No, it’s called ‘get your butt out there and show that gorgeous specimen how hot you are.’”
“No buts, McAllister.”
I sighed and lifted up on my toes, doing a quick scan of the walkways outside the store, and felt a mixture of remorse and relief when I didn’t see him. “He’s already gone.”
“Then go track him down.”
“I’m not going to track him down.”
“Yeah, because you’re a chicken.” She crossed her arms. “I can’t believe you let him get away. He could’ve been the one.”
“Sure he was.”
After paying and adding another bag to my pile, we ventured out into the mall, which, even at the late hour, was still crammed full of people. A week until Christmas and all the last-minute shoppers were frantically pushing past each other to grab everything on their lists.
Lucky for me, I was finally done, which deserved a pat on the back…or maybe another one of those hot buttered rum drinks.
“So did we get everythi—” I started, but Holly gasped.
“Oh my God, look!” She grabbed my hand and dragged me over to the railing overlooking the first floor, her attention caught on something below. “Santa’s still here and the line isn’t insane.”
“So let’s do it. We have to.” She tugged on my hand, pulling me toward the escalator, but I stopped in my tracks.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. You’re not suggesting we go sit on Santa’s freakin’ lap, are you? Because I’m gonna have to pass.”
Holly turned around, and when she saw I wasn’t budging, her bottom lip popped out. “Miiiles, please? When was the last time you took a picture with Santa?”
“Uh, when I was eight and still believed he’d bring me a Tonka truck set for Christmas.”
“And you got it, remember? You made me race you for three months straight.”
“Sooo, you should ask him for something you really want.” She gave me a mischievous smile and nudged my side with her elbow. “You know. Like a boyfriend. The seriously hot one that you flubbed things up with a few minutes ago. He just might give it to you.”
“Santa might give me a boyfriend? Wrapped up in a bow under the tree and everything?” I gasped and put my hand over my heart.
“Don’t make fun.”
“Aren’t we a little old to still believe in Santa?”
“Twenty-five isn’t old. Besides, we’re still kids at heart.”
“Ugh. That might be the cheesiest thing I’ve ever heard you say.”
“Oh, come on, Miles, it’s Christmas. Like the one time of year we’re allowed to be super cheesy and watch all the awesome holiday Passionflix movies we want and listen to ‘I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas’ nonstop without anyone judging us.”
“But nothing. You’re doing this with me, Miles Graham McAllister, so you might as well embrace it.”
I let out a low whistle as I threw an arm over her shoulders. “Using my full name to get what you want now, huh?”
“Hey, I’m not above bribery either if that’s what it takes.”
I didn’t doubt that for a second, just like I knew there was no way I was getting out of this without making a run for it.
“Okay, fine,” I said. “But I wouldn’t do this for anyone else—”
Holly shrieked and wrapped her arms tight around my waist. “Yaaaay. This is why I keep you around.”
“That and I pay half the rent,” I teased.
Her chocolate-brown eyes sparkled at me. “That too.”
Holly walked us over to the escalator, and as we rode it down to the first floor, I eyed the scene before us. The elaborate setup that served as Santa’s workshop had ten-foot flocked Christmas trees, overflowing with ornaments, standing tall on either side of the huge red and gold throne Santa sat on. His elves were busy tending to the customers and attempting to make the children in line and in his lap smile.
Man, I would not want that job.
Santa’s hearty laugh brought my attention back to the man sitting in the middle of the action, and I had to admit the mall had done a good job picking out the guy. Rosy cheeks, glasses perched low on his nose, and a round belly filling out his red-and-white jacket and trousers. A toddler sat in his lap now, with a small hand wrapped around his long white beard, and when the little girl tugged, the white curls, surprisingly, didn’t fall down his face. Huh. Maybe he prepped all year for this by growing it out.
As we joined the short line, one of the elves made their way over to us, looking entirely too perky for what had to be an exhausting day of dealing with people. Or maybe that was my exhaustion talking. Shopping was hard work, and my bed was calling.
“Both of you together?” the elf asked, not seeming surprised in the least to see two twenty-somethings in line to see Santa—which made me feel slightly less absurd.
“Yes, please,” Holly said, practically bouncing on her toes. We chose the package we wanted and each handed over a ten-dollar bill. “This is so much fun. What should I ask for?”
We looked at each other at the same time and said together: “A new job.”
Laughing as we moved up the line, I nodded. “Definitely a new job. And a sexy boss.”
“I don’t need a sexy boss to distract me.”
“I didn’t mean for him to distract you.”
“Ooooh,” she said, catching my drift. “Okay, so a job for me and a sexy boss as eye candy for you. Got it.”
“Actually…the likelihood of Santa delivering a person on Christmas is pretty low. I think I’ll ask for a new car instead.”
“From Tonka trucks to new cars. We don’t ask for much, do we?”
“Hey, you started this.”
The line moved quickly, and before I knew it, we were next. One of the elves smiled at us and led us down the candy-cane-lined walkway toward Santa’s chair. Although, as we approached, I realized it wasn’t a chair at all, but an oversized throne that made anyone sitting in it look smaller than he really was. In reality, Santa was a tall, sturdy man, which was a good thing, since he’d have to hold the weight of both of us.
His blue eyes twinkled as he watched us climb the stairs, and a loud, jolly ho ho ho boomed out of him, causing Holly to startle beside me.
“Miles McAllister and Holly Clark,” Santa said, spreading his hands wide. “Come up here and tell Santa what he can do for you.”
Holly’s eyes went wide as she gaped at him. “How’d you know our names?”
Because his elves told him, I was about to say, but Santa beat me to it.
“Santa knows all,” he said, winking, and then he patted his thighs. “Sit, sit.”
Holly was quick to obey, perching on his left leg, while I carefully took a seat on his right.
“I hope we don’t break your lap,” I joked, making sure not to put my full weight on him. Big guy or not, he probably had to ice his thighs every night.
“Don’t worry. No need to be shy,” Santa said, patting me on the back like he knew what I was thinking. “Have you both been good boys and girls this year?”
“Oh. Uh…” Holly looked at me with apprehension in her eyes, like she hadn’t been expecting that question and didn’t want to be quite that honest with Santa, and I chuckled.
“Define good,” I said.
Another ho ho ho rumbled out of Santa. “Ah, I remember how it is at your age. Not to worry. Neither of you are on my naughty list.”
“Really?” Holly said, surprised, and then she shook it away and sat up taller. “I mean, of course we’re not.”
I smirked as one of the elves waved to get our attention for the photo. Knowing if I ruined the picture, Holly would probably disown me, I straightened and smiled brightly, but let it drop as soon as we got a thumbs-up. Man, if my brother ever got hold of the evidence, he’d never let me live this down.
“Holly,” Santa boomed, “what is it you’d like this Christmas?”
It was like a sudden bout of shyness overcame my best friend as she peeked up at Santa from under her lashes. “Well, if it’s not too much to ask, I’d really, really love a new job. Something in fashion, preferably, but really anything that doesn’t include getting coffee for my horrible bosses ten times a day.”
Santa chuckled. “Ah yes. Your bosses are on my naughty list, so I think I might be able to put in a good word for you elsewhere, Holly.”
“Really?” She beamed. “Thank you, Santa. Oh, and if the new job can pay a little better too, that’d be amazing.”
He let out another belly laugh. “Is that all?” When she nodded, Santa turned his attention to me. “And for you, Miles? What can Santa bring you?”
With the sincere, open expression on his face, you’d almost believe he could give you whatever your heart desired. But I wasn’t a kid anymore, and I didn’t believe in silly things like Santa and a bunch of magical elves and reindeer, no matter how cool I’d thought they were growing up.
“I, uh, don’t really need anything,” I said.
“No? Maybe there’s something you want, then? Anything at all.”
I’d opened my mouth to speak when my eyes caught on a tall, dark-haired man moving through the crowd. My heart skipped a beat—hell, several beats—as the gorgeous guy from my store run-in stopped outside a candle shop maybe twenty feet away.
Oh no. If he saw me sitting on Santa’s lap, that would be it for me. I’d die right then and there from embarrassment.
“Miles,” Holly said, and then flicked my knee to get my attention, but I was too focused on my new crush, if only to make sure he didn’t look my way. Please don’t look this way.
I vaguely heard Holly apologize before saying, “Miles would like a boyfriend.”
“Holls!” I jerked my head in her direction, and she gave an innocent shrug.
“Mmm, is that true, Miles?” Santa asked. “Would you like someone special to spend your Christmases with?”
“I mean…doesn’t everyone?” I glanced back over to the candle shop, but, just my luck, he was no longer standing there. Great. I’d lost him. Again.
“Or maybe there’s someone in particular you’ve got your eye on?” Santa’s gaze followed mine, and when I turned my head toward him, Santa gave me a knowing smile.
“Well, we’ll just see what I can do for you, shall we?” he said, that twinkle in his eye making my stomach flip with nervous anticipation. Which was crazy, because it wasn’t like either of our wishes would be coming true. He was a mall Santa, not the real thing. Basically the equivalent of a pop-up shop psychic hired to entertain. A fake.
“Yeah, sure. You do that,” I said, getting to my feet. I was ready to get out of there. Especially before gorgeous guy came back and I was busted asking Santa for Christmas wishes.
“One more thing, Miles.” Santa motioned for me to come closer, and when I reluctantly leaned in, he said, “You might want to rethink your sister’s gift. Or just…keep an eye on her.”
My eyes widened, and I jolted back so fast that I nearly lost my footing on the stairs, but Holly was right there steadying me, her jaw on the ground, matching mine.
“Holy crap,” she whispered.
How would this Santa guy know about my sister’s gift? Maybe he had elves spying on people around the mall, eavesdropping on conversations. Yeah. That had to be it. What a scam.
“Now off you go,” scam Santa said, giving us a cheerful wave. “Have a merry Christmas, Holly and Miles.”
“Right.” Holly recovered first and returned his wave. “Merry Christmas, Santa.”
I narrowed my eyes on the old man, trying to figure out his game, but Holly’s hold on my arm was firm and insistent. She dragged us down the path to where one of the elves held out our picture packet, and when we were out of earshot, she said, “Oh my God. Can you believe that?
I scoffed. “I know. What a bunch of crap.”
“Wait, what? Crap?”
“Don’t tell me you actually fell for all that.”
“He knew about your sister!”
“Please. It was a lucky guess.”
“No way. He was for real.”
Sighing, I placed my hands on her shoulders. “Holls, I know you were named after Christmas and this is, like, your thing, but don’t get your hopes up, okay? I mean, I hope you get a new job, but it’ll be because you kick ass and not because some guy in a suit made it happen.”
Holly pushed a brown curl away from her face and lifted her chin. “We’ll see about that. Now come on, Grinch. Let’s get home and start wrapping. But we’re watching The Trouble with Mistletoe, and I don’t want to hear a word about it.”
“No complaints from me. The guy’s hot.” I grinned and took her bags, adding them to mine. A feeling of being watched prickled the back of my neck, and I looked over my shoulder to find Santa laughing, twin girls propped up on his lap. He inclined his head toward me and winked before turning his attention back to the little girls.
I frowned and turned away, and Holly and I trekked across the mall to where I’d parked earlier. The night had veered off into weird territory, but it was nothing late-night cocktails and eye candy wouldn’t fix.
And speaking of eye candy… If “Santa” wanted to send the guy I’d run into earlier my way, who was I to complain?
Tell you what, “Santa.” You put that guy under my Christmas tree this year, and I’ll happily eat my words, I thought with a snort.
Yeah. Never. Gonna. Happen.