“You make a terrible Santa. You don’t look a thing like him.”
Zach Delaney glanced up and found Abby Owens, the ten-year-old daughter of his best friend, Suzannah, standing before him in the back room of Kringle Animal Clinic where he was getting dressed for the clinic’s annual photo-with-Santa-for-pets day. A frown marred her freckled face and preteen worry shimmered in her light blue eyes.
“I don’t?” he asked, trying not to show his amusement. She looked so serious. “You sure?”
She nodded solemnly. As usual, Abby had an opinion. She was a confident, outspoken young lady, and Zach admired that about her. He was glad she wasn’t afraid to express her opinions. Suzannah was doing a great job of raising her alone after Keith had died.
“Not at all. You’re a terrible Santa.” Abby added a dramatic sigh and put a palm to her chest. “Terrible, terrible.”
Zach glanced down at his costume. He was glad his appearance disappointed her. He didn’t want to look like Santa. Heck, what healthy man in his thirties would?
“Thank you.” He flashed her a smile. “I’m very glad to hear that.”
“You shouldn’t thank me.” Abby tugged on the hem of his too-short sleeve, trying to pull it down over his wrist bones.
“Why not?” It was all he could do to keep the laughter from his voice. He didn’t want Abby to think he was laughing at her. She was only ten. As much as she liked to consider herself an adult, she was still a child.
“You should worry. What if little kids see you? They’ll be heartbroken that you aren’t the real Santa. This is terrible.”
“We can say I’m an amazingly good-looking Santa helper,” he said. “Santa’s helpers don’t have to be perfect.”
Abby released another dramatic sigh. “That won’t work. This is awful. You need to look old, and you need a big belly.”
“So, what are we going to do?” he asked.
“Hang on.” She ran off, hollering, “Mom!”
Ah, reinforcement. Abby had gone to find the cavalry.
The holiday season was one of the many things Zach liked about his hometown of Kringle, Texas. Sure, Kringle had a bit of a holiday feeling about it year-round, but when December came, the town went into full-fledged Christmas mode. Every street lay decorated, and there was a constant stream of Christmas festivities. Even at the veterinarian clinic. It was impossible not to get caught up in the exuberant fun.
He would have preferred not to get caught up quite in this Christmas festivity. He wasn’t a costume kind of guy.
While he waited for Abby to return, Zach considered the Santa costume the vet, Dr. Chloe Anderson, had given him to wear. Suzannah worked for the Chloe as a receptionist, and together, along with Abby, the two women had convinced him to dress as Santa for the annual Pet Pictures event.
He’d reluctantly agreed. Heck, he wouldn’t have done it at all if Suzannah hadn’t been the one asking, but he’d do just about anything for Suzannah and Abby. Even if it meant dressing up in a well-worn, extra-extra-large red velvet Santa costume.
Suzannah entered the backroom of the vet clinic trailed by her daughter who was gnawing on her bottom lip, twirling a strand of her long light brown hair around her index finger and shaking her head.
A smile curled Suzannah’s lips. “I hear you don’t have a belly like a bowl full of jelly.”
“See, Mom? What did I tell you? Ter-ri-ble.”
Unlike Abby, Suzannah didn’t seem the least bit bothered by his poorly fitting costume. Instead, she laughed. “Abby’s right. You look awful in that outfit.”
He couldn’t say the same about her Mrs. Claus costume. As usual, it didn’t matter what she wore, Suzannah was so beautiful it took his breath away.
She possessed pale blonde hair and deep blue eyes. The kind of eyes that reminded him of the Texas sky in summer. Despite being a young, slim, vibrant woman, she’d done a good job of dressing up as a portly elderly lady. She had a tidy white wig on her head, little gold glasses perched on her nose, and plenty of padding all around.
“You look nice,” he said.
“Nice?” She canted her head, that smile still lighting up her entire face, and rested her hands on her hips.
He chuckled. “Let me rephrase. You make a very attractive older woman,” he added. “I can see why Santa married you.”
She did a little twirl to show off her costume and batted her eyelashes. “I am quite the catch, aren’t I?”
“Watch out. All the single men at the senior citizen will come a’courtin’,” he teased.
She was a catch. He’d known it for decades, long before she married his best friend, Keith Owens. Long before Keith died in a motorcycle accident, leaving behind a heartbroken widow and a little daughter. Suzannah was special.
She seemed happy today. Over the course of the past three years, she and Abby had healed, but he knew she still missed Keith.
“So, what’s the verdict? Can we save this mess?” he asked, sweeping a hand at his getup.
Having Suzannah hovering this close to him was difficult. More and more these days, he had trouble getting it through his thick cowboy skull that they were just friends. She smelled so good. Like holiday cookies and spice cake. What they had felt like a heck of a lot more than just friendship. At least it did for him.
“You need more stuffing,” she announced, stepping back and studying him again. “We need to make you look bigger. That’ll help. Back in a jiff. Abs, come help me.” She and Abby took off.
Zach sighed. Today definitely fit into the “no good deed goes unpunished” category. He’d agreed to help with these pictures thinking it would be no big deal. How much did a guy have to look like Santa to pose with dogs and cats?
Apparently, quite a lot.
He glanced up. Suzannah and Abby were coming down the hall carrying large cushions purloined from the furniture in the clinic’s waiting room.
This did not bode well.
“We’ll get you looking jolly in no time,” Suzannah assured him. She shoved a large cushion at him. “Put that down your pants.”
He studied the cushion, then reluctantly accepted it. Then he looked at Abby. “I don’t understand why I can’t be a fit and thin Santa. Maybe Santa’s gone paleo?”
Abby giggled. “No way, Jose. Santa is round and jolly and loves cookies.”
“But couch cushions?”
“Zach,” Abby said his name in an exasperated tone. “You said you’d do this, so that means you have to do it right.”
He wanted to argue, but she had a point. He also believed in doing things the right way. He’d been a rancher through some tough times, but he’d hung on and thrived by making sure he always did the best he could.
“Okay.” He blew out his breath and shoved the cushion down the front of the baggy red pants. He’d pulled the suit on over his jeans and t-shirt, and he had on a belt, but he knew it wasn’t big enough to go around the cushion.
“The cushion will fall down,” he said.
“We have dog leashes,” Abby announced, doing a little jig. “We can strap it to you.”
It took some doing, but eventually, the three of them secured the cushion in place. It surprised him that Abby didn’t suggest they use duct tape to keep the pillow strapped to him.
“There you go,” Suzannah announced, pulling the top of his red outfit down over the cushion and smoothing it in place. They wrapped the costume’s large black belt around what now passed for his waist and cinched it tight.
“You should be fine as long as you don’t ho-ho-ho too much,” Suzannah snickered, and patted his arm.
Dr. Chloe, a petite redheaded woman, appeared in the doorway. She’d dressed as an elf, decked out from head to toe in red and green with lots of bells and a pointy hat.
“Is Santa and Mrs. Claus ready?” she asked.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” he admitted, reluctantly following the others to the front of the clinic where the photo shoot was being held.
Chloe Anderson was a terrific vet who did everything she could to ensure that the pet owners of Kringle, Texas, had a memorable holiday by offering pictures taken of their beloved furry friends with Santa and Mrs. Claus. Chloe was one more reason he loved this town. You couldn’t beat Kringle for friendliness.
Chloe and her staff had created a nice little Christmas staging area with chairs for Santa and Mrs. Claus. Plastic toy soldiers surrounded the chairs and a fake picture of a fireplace served as a backdrop. Christmas music played from the smartphone that Chloe had hooked up to a speaker box.
“To set the mood,” Chloe announced when she’d cued up the music app. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” came pouring out.
At the moment, Chloe buzzed around setting up a table of treats for the after-party. Dog biscuits on one side of the table, peanut butter cookies for the pet parents on the other and paper cups of apple cider.
“Wow,” Abby said, her eyes as wide as silver dollars. “I can’t wait until I’m a vet and have my own clinic just like Chloe. I love animals and peanut butter cookies so much.”
He shot a glance at Suzannah who ruffled Abby’s hair and then met his eyes over the top of her daughter’s head, worry in her eyes. While she supported her daughter’s desire to become a vet, he knew Suzannah didn’t know how she’d pay for Abby’s college and vet school. While Keith had had a modest life insurance policy, it wasn’t nearly enough to cover Abby’s education. Suzannah had never actively discouraged her daughter from her dreams, but she did often offer up other career possibilities, but she couldn’t dissuade her daughter.
From the time Abby was a small child, she’d vowed to one day be a vet, and she’d never wavered on her goal. Some people just knew from an early age why God had put them here on earth and Abby seemed to be one of them. Zach was one of those people too. He’d known he was born to be a rancher from the time he’d bottle-raised his first baby calf. He and Abby shared a love of animals great and small.
Though Abby didn’t have any pets. In the past, she’d had fish and hamsters and turtles. After Keith died, she’d wanted to get a dog or a cat, but Suzannah told her cats and dogs were big commitments and she had to wait until she was old enough for the responsibility.
It surprised Zach to see Ava Miller setting up a tripod and camera. Ava had left town a few years ago, and the last he’d heard, she was living in Europe. She’d gone to high school with Suzannah but Ava got out of Kringle as fast as she could. Not everyone loved his hometown the way Zach did. But just like everyone else in the room, Ava was in a costume. In her case, she’d dressed as a giant candy cane.
“Hi, Ava. I didn’t know you were back.”
“Just got home last week.” Ava bobbed her head and the crook of the candy cane above her jerked up and down.
“Are you home for Christmas?” He smiled at her.
“Maybe for longer than that,” she murmured, but her returning smile was tight, as if she didn’t really want to be in Kringle.
“How are your folks?”
“Good, good.” Her body language said she really, really didn’t want to talk about it, and Zach wasn’t the kind to pry, so he dropped it.
“You two look adorable,” Ava said, nodding at Zach and Suzannah. “You make a perfect couple.”
Personally, Zach agreed with her. He helped Suzannah settle into her chair, and then he took his seat beside her. He had to do a little rearranging of the belly cushion when he sat down, but eventually, he was ready for the onslaught of pets and pictures.
Chloe unlocked the front door where a line had formed outside the clinic and led in the pet parents and their charges. Zach braced himself for puppy kisses and a shower of pet hair. He didn’t mind that part. He loved critters. It was just the Santa suit he wasn’t a big fan of.
In the costume he felt like a giant dork, but at least Suzannah was along for the dork-fest with him.
Kringle’s mayor, Dave Holton, walked in first, pulled by his Great Dane, Charlie.
“Well, I’ll be. Santa and Mrs. Claus look great.” Dave shook Zach’s hand. “What do you think, Charlie?”
Charlie lunged forward, half jumping, half crawling on Zach, and then he flopped down with a loud hmph.
Zach struggled to steady the dog, but Charlie was enthusiastic. His long tail slapped against Zach’s knees like a metronome.
“What does Charlie weigh?” Zach grunted and clung to the dog’s thick collar to keep him still.
“He’s about one hundred and twenty pounds.” Dave laughed. “A big fella. But he’s under the delusion that he’s a lapdog.”
Zach patted the massive animal. Thank goodness he adored dogs and had three of his own, otherwise being squashed and drooled on could get pretty unsettling. “Yep, he’s a big one.”
“Seems like Charlie approves of you, Santa.” Dave leaned forward and scratched Charlie’s head. “In fact, I can’t remember the last time Charlie had such a great time with Santa and Mrs. Claus.”
Zach narrowed his eyes at the mayor. The last time Dave looked at him in that way he’d roped Zach into some charity event.
“They do look great, don’t they?” Abby bounced on her toes, clapped excitedly and grinned at her mother and Zach. “I helped whip him into shape.”
Dave chuckled. “Knowing you, Abby Owens, I imagine you did just that.”
Zach didn’t point out that just a few minutes ago Abby had called him a terrible Santa. Apparently, the couch cushion had done the trick of turning him into a reputable rendition of Kris Kringle.
“Abby, what would you think of Zach and your mom appearing as Santa and Mrs. Claus in the Christmas parade week after next?” Dave asked.
“Awesome sauce!” Abby clapped her hands.
Hmm. Zach would bet his prize bull that Dave had planned this sneak attack. The mayor had to know asking in front of Abby would guarantee that Zach and Suzannah would ride in the parade dressed as the Clauses.
“Why do you want us in the parade?” Zach asked.
For years, Ava’s parents, Ted and Marjorie Miller, had portrayed the iconic couple in the Christmas parade, why not this year? Was something wrong with the Ava’s folks? He hoped not.
“Scheduling conflict,” Ava piped up from behind the camera. “Kringle Kritter Rescue is having a huge adoption event the day after the parade. They’ve gotta focus on that.”
Her parents ran a local animal rescue, and Zach knew this time of year was busy for them, and he was glad to hear it wasn’t a health issue. But still, he didn’t want to play Santa in the Christmas parade.
“Things happen, and what we all love about Kringle is the willingness of our townsfolk to jump in when a need arises,” Dave said and wriggled his eyebrows.
The grin on the mayor’s face did nothing to settle Zach’s mood. He was being manipulated yet again, and he really wanted to say no. In fact, he’d do just that, but Abby started hopping up and down like a pogo stick.
“I think Zach and Mom are perfect for the parade.” Abby enthused.
Suzannah cleared her throat and nodded at the people and pets waiting to have their pictures taken. “Ahem. We’ve got folks lining up. Let’s get this show on the road.”
Abby dashed over to a little girl who looked to be about five, waiting at the front of the line with her mother. The girl stared at Zach and Suzannah with wide-open eyes.
“Are you happy to see Santa and Mrs. Claus?” Abby asked.
The little girl bobbed her head. “I’ve been good all year,” she said, her voice low and filled with awe. “I promise.”
Abby threw a saucy look over her shoulder at Zach and her mom. “They should be in the Christmas parade, shouldn’t they?”
“Yes,” the little girl said. “Oh, yes!”
Dang it. Abby knew she had him cornered. She might be a ten-year-old little girl, but he swore, she could sell stilettos to snakes.
He glanced at Suzannah, hoping she’d be the voice of reason and come up with an excuse, any excuse, to get them out of riding in the parade. They’d already agreed to pose with the kids and the pets. Did he really to cruise around town on a float?
But one look at Suzannah’s face and he knew she wouldn’t be an ally in this fight. Instead, she looked delighted at the prospect.
He started to protest, but two things happened at once.
First, Charlie shifted his weight, making it difficult for Zach to prevent his fake stomach from slipping. Then as he grabbed at the cushion, he felt Charlie’s wet tongue drag across his face.
Laughing, Ava snapped the picture at just the wrong moment.
For the love of Pete. He shifted Charlie into a more stable position and turned to look at Suzannah. “Just so you know, Mrs. Claus, you owe me big time for this.”
“Good boy.” She laughed as the great Dane licked Zach’s face again. “Very good boy.”
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