The dratted Santa suit itched.
In fact, Jonah Stevenson realized with dawning horror, the suit was infested with fleas.
Vigorously, he scratched an ear. He had to get out of this blasted thing before the merciless bugs flayed his meat from the bone. He didn’t intend on letting children sit on his lap and risk passing the torture on to them.
“I gotta go,” he muttered to the slender elf standing on the podium beside their sleigh, which consisted of an elaborately painted cardboard-and-plywood structure.
“Go?” The young woman blinked at him. “What do you mean? The store opens in two minutes and a mob of kids are waiting outside to see Santa. You can’t go anywhere.”
If he wasn’t so uncomfortable, he might have taken the time to admire the way her short, ginger-ale-colored hair curled about her sweet gamin face. A face for which she had obviously been hired, but Jonah could think of nothing except stripping off his britches as quickly as possible.
“Listen, lady, I’ve got something I have to take care of. The kids will just have to wait.” Jonah started for the exit.
Miss Pixie sprang forward, arms outstretched, blocking his way. The jingle bells on her red-and-white striped elf hat jangled merrily as she moved. “I’m sorry, but you’re not leaving.”
“Excuse me?” Jonah scratched furiously at his neck. What was this woman’s problem? He was certain the department store wasn’t paying her enough to act as his warden. “Are you telling me what I can and cannot do?”
“I know what’s going on here, and I don’t approve.” She sank her hands on her hips and frowned. Stem condemnation glistened in her olive green eyes.
Worry rumbled through Jonah. Could she have somehow guessed his secret?
“What are you talking about?” Jonah clawed at his beard. The buggers were eating him alive. He had to get out of this vermin-plagued costume.
“I know what’s going on and I can help. My mother is a social worker.”
“I don’t care if your mother is Margaret Mead, get outta my way.”
“Margaret Mead was an anthropologist,” she corrected. “Not a sociologist. An anthropologist studies mankind. A sociologist studies social groups.”
“Who gives a rat’s patoot?”
“Anger.” She shook her head. “A classic symptom.”
Openmouthed, Jonah paused long enough to stare at her. The woman was certifiable.
He tried to sidestep around her, but she anticipated his move and went with him step for step as if they were waltzing.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” she continued earnestly.
Okay, maybe having fleas was nothing to be ashamed of but Jonah didn’t wish to announce his plight to the entire world. He remembered a particularly humiliating experience that happened to him in fourth grade when his favorite teacher, Miss Applebee, had discovered lice in his hair.
Jonah cringed. The suit had to come off. Not only because of the fleas, which were indeed reason enough, but because the besieged costume reminded him of his crappy childhood.
He raised a finger and wagged it under her nose. “Get out of my way, sweetheart, or I swear I’ll walk right over you.”
“The children are depending on you, Santa. You represent something pure and honest and wonderful. How can you shatter their dreams? Don’t those little kids mean more to you than alcohol?”
“Alcohol?” He blinked at her.
“I know a few of the store Santas that Carmichael’s hired this season are down on their luck. Men who can’t hold regular jobs because they have drug and alcohol problems. Men who just need a helping hand and someone to care about them. It’s not your fault that you’re an addict but it is your responsibility to stop drinking.”
Jonah threw his hands in the air. “You’re a lunatic, you know that? I’m not an alcoholic.”
“Denial!” she crowed triumphantly. “Another classic symptom.”
Swiveling his head, Jonah searched for redemption from this verdant-eyed zealot and got none.
Instead, he saw at least three-dozen shoppers and their ardent offspring bearing down on him at warp speed.
“Santa! Santa!” the children chanted.
He had to escape. Jonah faked left, then went right and sprinted past the pixie.
“Hey,” she cried, “you can’t expect me to face these excited kids alone. They want Santa.”
People in hell want ice water. The phrase ran through his head, but he didn’t say it.
The elf woman chased after him and grabbed the tail of his Santa jacket before he could bolt through the door marked ‘Employees Only’.
“You’re not going anywhere, Santa,” she growled and dug in her heels. “And if you do, I’ll report you to the store manager, Mr. Trotter.”
Jonah bared his teeth and willed the fleas to jump onto her. He tried to shake her off, but she held on with more tenacity than carpet lint on a wool jacket.
“Look, Mommy, that elf is trying to hurt Santa,” a child said.
Oh great. Now they had an audience. “Let go,” Jonah said through gritted teeth.
“No.” She narrowed her eyes and clung tighter.
Jonah grabbed the corner of his jacket and jerked hard, intending on dislodging her. Instead, he ended up dragging her closer.
He saw a dusting of freckles across the bridge of her cute little nose, a tiny half-moon scar on her otherwise flawless forehead. Another time, another place and he would have admired her tenacity.
But not here, not now, not with fleas feasting on his flesh.
“Mommy, Mommy, make that elf leave Santa alone!”
“You’re scaring my daughter,” a woman in the crowd protested.
This wasn’t right. He shouldn’t be drawing attention to himself. The whole point of this stakeout was to hide behind Santa’s jovial facade. His boss, Chief Truman West, would have Jonah’s hide if he blew his cover on the very first day.
Jonah had known this was going to be an awful assignment. The chief made it clear that this stint as Santa was punishment for smashing up the mayor’s brand-new Lexus during his last undercover duty, never mind that it had been an unavoidable accident.
For the past year, Jonah had worked undercover in Rascal, Texas as part of state-wide task force to crack down on human trafficking from the Mexican border up through west Texas. Jonah was originally from El Paso, and no one in Rascal knew he was a cop. Even though he had totaled the mayor’s car in a high speed chase, he hadn’t blown his cover. He’d been arrested and thrown in jail by his boss in a bid to keep his identity hidden.
The local lowlifes he’d been hanging with lauded him as a hero for stealing the mayor’s car and he’d told them he’d gotten off with probation and had to serve community service as a store Santa.
The fleas were gnawing on him as if they hadn’t had a meal since last Christmas. Jonah couldn’t help wondering if Carmichael’s, the only department store in Rascal, had stowed the mangy suit at a dog kennel. He couldn’t take any more of this.
Something had to be done.
Jonah clamped his hand over the pixie’s wrist and pried her fingers loose. Then, before she had time to get another hold, he bolted through the door.
Once in the vacant storeroom, he ripped off the beard and scraped his face with the vigor of a poodle scratching at full throttle.
Next, he snatched the bedraggled felt hat from his head and flung it to the floor.
His fingers grappled with the big black buttons on the front of his suit, fleas hopping in all directions. He jerked off the padding strapped around his waist to simulate Santa’s bulk, kicked off his boots and shucked down his pants, his mind on one thing only.
What he hadn’t counted on was that relentless, do-gooding female elf with the persistence of an Attica prison guard.She burst through the door, catching him standing there in nothing but his briefs.
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