Excerpt: When you ask your grumpy neighbor to stand in as Santa in your new toy shop…

The man might be handsome, but the reluctance twisting his face was almost comical. Lara would have felt sorry for him if she wasn’t in such a bind.

“Fine,” Peter finally gave in.

Thank God. Prayers answered before she’d even prayed them. Someone was definitely looking out for her.

She glanced down, to find Snowball still sitting at their feet, watching them with interest. Did cats smile?

“Thank you,” she mouthed, semi-embarrassed to be thanking a kitty-cat-slash-Santa-hat-thief.

With a quick smile at Emily for her help, Lara proceeded to tug a visibly reluctant Peter right out of the bakery, into her shop, and to the office in the back. She pointed at the Santa suit hanging off her standing lamp. “I’ll leave you to change here. Cassie is already dressed in her elf costume. I’ll send her to get you when we’re all ready for Santa to make his big appearance.”

She bit her lip, considering his rather crabby expression. “Would a big Ho-Ho-Ho as you walk into the room be too much to ask?”

“I’ve landed in hell,” she thought he muttered under his breath. But before she could take it back, he said, “I’ll see what I can muster.”

“Thanks.” Before she scared him off with more requests, she scooted out of the office, closing the door behind her.

Ten minutes later a hush fell over the crowd as the tallest Santa Lara had seen in a long time stepped into view. She glanced at his feet and had to swallow down a loud laugh that wanted to escape at the sight of his red velour pants barely coming to the tops of his black boots. His personal boots, she noted, not the shiny fancy ones that came with the suit. Good thing the jacket was made large for the belly, or he’d be popping out of it. As it was, this Santa was ripped.

Peter planted his feet wide and crossed his arms, which strained the seams of jacket enough that she thought she could hear threads popping. He looked over the tops of the wire rim glasses perched on his decidedly-not-button-shaped nose.

“Ho. Ho. Ho,” he boomed. Though he sounded more like he was barking orders, his gruff, gravelly voice also decidedly not jolly.

Dismay sunk in her stomach. Her new Santa was going to scare these kids into tears in ten seconds flat. What had she been thinking, dragging Peter in here? The man was the grumpiest Santa to ever take on the role.

“Now…” His blue eyes were far from twinkly as he stared at the gathered children waiting in line. “Who has been naughty and who has been nice?”

Lara lifted her gaze to the ceiling, seeking a miracle, and waited for the tears as silence hung heavily over the store for a solid, excruciatingly long ten seconds.

Then a little girl giggled. “Mama, he sounds like you when you tell me to clean my room.”

Which started the adults twittering with laughter. Seeing that they thought it was funny, the other children started to giggle too, the laughter building.

Peter, seeming to play up his crotchety Santa bit, cocked his head, eyeing them narrowly. “Hmmm…” was all he said.

Then he stomped his heavily black-booted feet over to the throne, plopped down, and looked at his helper. “Elf Cassie, I hope you brought me only nice children today.”





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