For the readers and fellow writers wandering onto my site, wondering if I’m someone you want to read…figure there’s no harm in dropping the first chapter of #SecondChances here, at least until I publish it officially 🙂 Enjoy!
Deep inside the satin-lined pocket of the well-loved Santa Claus suit he wore, his phone vibrated violently against his outer thigh for the eleventh time in the past four hours. He didn’t need to fish it out to know it was his mother—for the eleventh time in the past four hours. He’d already answered two of the calls on his last break, not to mention replied to a handful of text messages /and/ rang the on-call nurse, even though he felt like it was pointless. It wasn’t like there was much he could do but relay information, but if it gave her peace of mind, so be it.
Damn he hated this.
Up front in the lobby, a little girl with pigtails had thrown herself dramatically on the hardwood floor, twisting and kicking and screaming bloody murder because she didn’t want to wait in line. She wanted to see Santa Claus and she wanted to see him /now/ and no amount of cooing and coddling from her incompetent mother was helping the matter.
On top of that, his assistant was trying to manage the clients while coughing up a lung every five minutes. The poor thing looked like he felt—dead on her feet and totally /over/ today. God, he was over the holidays in general and they were only halfway through December and that wasn’t like him at all.
His family /lived/ for the holidays. Christmas was such an integral part of their blood. There was so many traditions passed down from generation to generation, so much so that Grandpa Nick had founded this little slice of holiday cheer when he’d retired in .
Old Saint Nick’s was his dream project, born of his heart and soul. His grandfather had wanted some way to give back to their tight-knit community. He’d bought the little shop on the courthouse square with it’s plate-glass front and had turned it into a place where kids and adults alike could come enjoy a slice of Christmas and meet Santa Claus. Years later, it was a yearly thing now in Sundog Park. It might’ve been a tourist attraction to some, but for the people who’d known and loved Grandpa Nick, his memory lived on.
He loved the shop. He loved the people and the joy on little kids’ faces when they saw Santa in the flesh. It was just…complicated this year. Nikolas Steele III hadn’t planned on taking on the family business for a long time. Especially not at twenty-eight and without a single gray hair in his beard, but things happened. Cancer happened, and now? Stressed out was an understatement. Nikolas would’ve given just about anything for a smoke break.
With another round of coughing, Mara Crosswind doubled over, hacking up gunk into a tissue in the most unladylike of ways. Nikolas glanced up at the ancient hand-carved wooden cuckoo clock on the wall and his lips twisted down into a frown. They were still technically open for four more hours, but he didn’t think either of them would make it that long.
“Hey, do me a favor, would you? Flip the sign,” he said as she dabbed at her watering eyes. Her gaze flicked up to him, obviously questioning his decision, but Nikolas shook his head. “Do it. You need to see a doctor before you end up with walking pneumonia. Your health is worth more than this. Flip the sign and lock the doors. We’ll finish up the clients left in the shop and call it a day. Okay?”
Relief flooded her reddened cheeks. “Thank you, Nikolas.”
“It’s Saint Nick to you, Elfie,” he said around a chuckle, gesturing to her own green and red get-up, complete with a pair of realistically molded elf ears. Thank god for Amazon Prime. Mara started to laugh, but it fast turned to another set of body-wracking coughs, thick and rattling. He was gonna put his bet on bronchitis and that meant he needed to find a stand-in photographer pronto.
Just another layer to heap on to the pile of stress.
He straightened his red velvet robe and settled in for the next kid. The hellion that had just screamed bloody murder stomped in next, trussed up in a complicated silk and lace outfit with way too many frills. Her face was as bright red as her dress, flushed and tear-streaked from her tantrum. Her slip-on flats clapped against the polished wooden floor as she shot a glare at her mother, who looked just as charming as she’d sounded.
Mara made a face and ducked behind the camera. Probably because the heavyset forty-something with a soccer mom bob and pasty makeup was none other than her sister-in-law.
The little girl climbed up into his lap and squirmed, grinding her bony butt over his knee. Her blue eyes were bright with a fire only an enraged toddler could have. “You aren’t really Santa Claus. Momma says you’re a fake.” Her lips pursed into a pout and her mother offered an apologetic smile. Nikolas had to suppress the snort that begged to be released.
“Maybe your Momma doesn’t believe in me anymore,” he said simply, with a wave of his white-gloved hand. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t believe. What’s your name, sweetheart?” He fell back into that smooth, soothing tone his father always used, smiling behind the itchiness of the beard.
She side-eyed him, like she wasn’t quite sure she could trust him. “Priscilla Amelia Greyson,” she said, and not without a touch of pride. She looked at him for a moment and he’d never seen such a condescending little four year old. Jesus. At least she’d stopped wiggling. That in itself was a small miracle.
“Of course. How could I forget you, Priscilla.” He winked and leaned in. “But I need you to do something for me, okay? See, Santa Claus exists because all the little boys and girls around the world believe in him. Their love and their belief make magic happen and that magic makes it possible for him to fly from house to house, near and far, and deliver presents every Christmas. If you stop believing in him, there would be no magic…and if there was no more magic, you see, there would be no Christmas.”
Her jaw loosened, eyes widening just a fraction. “…Really?”
“Yes, really. Santa needs you to believe in him. Can you do that for him?”
Priscilla hunched her shoulders, but her lips twitched up at the corners in the beginnings of a smile. “Do I get a present if I do?”
He laughed in the way only Santa Clause himself could laugh—hearty and full of ho-ho-hos. “Of course, little girl! What do you want for Christmas, Priscilla?”
“I want an iPad and the new Monster High doll—the vampire, not the zombie—and a One Direction CD and… I want a pony. A black pony named Sugar.” She bounced up and down in his lap, squirming once more as she reached up to twirl a pigtail between her fingers before nibbling on the frayed ends of the blonde strands.
“My, my. Santa will do his best to make your Christmas very special,” he said gently, tapping her chin with his fingertip to draw her face back up. Her gaze met his and he smiled. “Remember to believe in him. Old Saint Nick needs your magic, okay Priscilla?”
She pulled a face, like she was done believing in his mumbo jumbo, but she nodded and then grinned a gap-toothed smile, big as you please. “Okay, Santa. I promise.”
“There’s a good girl. Now sit still so Elfie can take a picture for your Momma,” he said, shifting her around so she was facing the camera. Her legs swung off his lap, heels kicking against his shins. She flattened her hands over the silk taffeta of her dress, then posed for the camera like a damn model. The flash popped with a flare of light that made little spots dance in front of Nikolas’ eyes. “I’ll see you next year, Priscilla. Be a good little girl!”
“Okay, Santa. Oh.” She paused to contemplate something. With a wicked little grin, she cupped her hand around her mouth and stage-whispered, “Tell Rudolph hi. Give him a kiss for me, but don’t tell the other reindeer that he’s my favorite.” She slid off his lap to land with a click of shoes on the floor. She danced over to her mother, the flouncy layers of her dress bouncing with each step.
The moment the door shut behind them with a merry chime of bells, Nikolas shot up out of his seat, scrubbing both hands over his face. “How many are left in the lobby? I need a damn smoke break.”
“…Nikolas.” Mara gave him the stink eye.
He grunted and waved her off. “Yeah, yeah, you and my mother both. I already told myself this is my last carton. It’ll get me through the holiday rush, anyway. I promise I’ll quit. Okay?” He meant it, though. The last thing he wanted was to end up on the other end of an IV line, getting pumped with chemical pharmaceuticals that supposedly killed cancer. Guess they did a pretty good job at killing you, too. The side effects of the chemo alone were enough to make him want to stomp out the cigarette before he ever lit it.
“Nikolas, honey, it’s your life. You don’t have to promise me anything. Just think about your poor mother.”
He groaned out loud. “I can only deal with one thing at a time, Mar.”
“Go.” She gestured to the back door that led to the alleys behind the courthouse square. Someplace no one could see jolly old Saint Nick lighting up a cancer stick. “Five minutes. We have one kid left. The end is near.”
“Glory god, hallelujah,” Nikolas said with a laugh before grabbing the pack of camels and making a beeline for the alley. The moment he lit up and inhaled that first icy blast of menthol, he could feel his muscles, like tightly coiled springs, slowly relax. With each puff and exhale of smoke through his nose, his spirits rose. Why did something so bad for you have to be so good?
“One more kid,” he told himself as he stubbed out the cigarette on the chipped brick of the alley wall and let the butt fall to the snow-damp ground. One more and he could close shop, lock the doors, and go home and take a hot shower to relieve some of this pent up energy. One more. He could do this. He took a leak and adjusted his suit in the mirror, puffing up the pillow that made up his big belly. Santa Claus couldn’t be skinny—it just wasn’t right. He fixed his beard, took in a deep breath, and went back out into the parlor.
He sat down in his chair and gestured for Mara to send the last client in. A chubby little girl with a full head of coffee-colored curls launched herself at him. She was maybe five, if that, but she didn’t seem to have a single worry in the world as she wrapped her short arms around him and hugged him. “Santa! Daddy, look! I told you! I told you he was real!” she chimed out and Nikolas all but melted. This. This was the reason he did this. Not for spoiled little kids like Priscilla, but for the ones with hope in their eyes.
“Of course he’s real, princess.” Her father shuffled into the room and his laugh, low and husky, made goosebumps prickle across every single inch of Nikolas Steele’s skin. His head popped up fast enough to nearly give him whiplash as his gaze landed on the tall, broad-shouldered man who stood almost awkwardly in the center of the room. He stood with his hands stuffed into his pockets and his elbows jutting out at an odd angle, like he wasn’t sure what to do with his hands.
For a moment, all Nikolas could do was stare at the man, whose expression twisted up, almost painfully rueful as their eyes met and held. He didn’t look away. Nikolas couldn’t. He was trapped there, transfixed as his pulse began to jackhammer, shattering every last thought in his mind in rapid succession as he gazed at the dark-haired man who’d walked out of his life six long years ago.
“Hello again, Saint Nikolas,” he murmured.
Niko swallowed around the lump that was fast forming in his throat. Even though he stood right there, right in front of him, smiling despite the world-weary lines etched into his face, Nikolas couldn’t believe his eyes.
Ky Kendall was home.