“Then he laid a finger aside his nose . . .” Mandy told the wide-eyed four-year-old boy.
From her crouched position, she glanced past the brown-haired boy’s shoulder for just a moment. His mother, standing behind him in the little shop, was smiling with a touch of the Christmas glimmer in her eyes, even though it was the middle of August.
“. . . and, whoosh! He went right up the chimney.”
“Did he drop anything?” About half of the children asked her that.
“Nope. He was very careful.”
“Did he bring you what you wanted for Christmas?”
A lot of them asked her that, too.
“There were a lot of presents under the tree,” Mandy said carefully, glancing past the boy at his mother again. “But after he left, I couldn’t even remember what I wanted that year. You know why?”
“Because seeing Santa was the best Christmas present I ever got.”
Mandy straightened, smiling at them both. She didn’t often have the chance to tell the story in the heart of summer; this visit was a treat. One of the nearby store owners must have sent them over.
“Did you ever see—?”
“Robbie.” The little boy’s mother patted his shoulder. “We’ve taken up enough of this lady’s time.” She met Mandy’s eyes. “Thank you. We’ll take these.”
The woman handed Mandy a pair of peppermint-striped salt and pepper shakers, and Mandy took them behind the counter to the cash register. “I love these. I have a set at home.”
As Mandy wrapped the shakers in tissue paper, Robbie’s mother fished in her purse for her wallet, still glancing over the necklaces, key chains and other Christmas knickknacks displayed on the countertop. “It must be hard not to take the whole store home with you.”
“Oh, I think I already have.” Mandy grinned as she rang up the sale.
The North Pole was the kind of store that wouldn’t stand much of a chance outside of a mountain town: ninety percent Christmas merchandise. But when visitors to Tall Pine wandered the shops on Evergreen Lane, most of them stepped inside for a quick look, and many left with a knickknack or two. Mandy thought it might be something about the mountain air and the scent of pine that helped people catch the Christmas spirit, even in the off-season.
As Mandy handed the customer her bag, Robbie said, “Hey, that’s you! Are you famous?” He was pointing at the two framed newspaper clippings on the south wall. One was the original story the paper had run the year Mandy told the television reporter about Santa Claus. The other was from six years back: SANTA SIGHTER GOES TO WORK AT CHRISTMAS STORE. The photo showed an eighteen-year-old Mandy standing in nearly the same spot she was right now, smiling behind the counter. She didn’t know if anyone else could see the slight discomfort beneath the smile.
“No, I’m not famous,” she said, feeling a trace of a blush warm her cheeks. “They just wrote a couple of stories about me. Because not everyone gets to see Santa.”
The framed clippings were the only part of the job Mandy didn’t care for, but it was the reason Mrs. Swanson had hired her. And Mandy had wanted, with all her heart, to work at The North Pole. It was filled with the things she loved, and she loved telling her story to the kids who occasionally came in to hear it. The clippings reminded her of the hard part, the kidding she’d taken all through school. But if it meant being here every day to share the magic, then so be it.
Robbie took his mother’s hand as she led him toward the door.
“Hey.” Mandy reached into the crystal bowl on the countertop. “Want a candy cane for the road?”
“A candy cane? In the summer?”
“Sure, why not? They’re still fresh, I promise.” Mandy winked at him. “I had one earlier this morning.”
Mother and son stepped forward, and each of them took one of the short, cellophane-wrapped candies.
“Merry Christmas,” she said.
The little boy waved, and the sleigh bells hanging from the door jingled behind them as they left.
Jake Wyndham strolled the sidewalk of Evergreen Lane, peering in the occasional window. He’d already checked out a T-shirt store and a sporting goods shop. He’d looked over the menu posted in the window of a sandwich shop, but it was too early for lunch. The street had a lot of foot traffic, a healthy sign on a Saturday morning. So far, everything he saw supported his company’s research: Tall Pine looked like a town that drew a fair number of weekend visitors.
Up ahead, two red-and-white-striped poles supported the awning over the entrance to another store. It didn’t quite look like a barber shop. . . . No, wait, those were supposed to be big peppermint sticks.
Jake got close enough to see the display in the nearest of the two windows flanking the entrance to the store. The large sill was decked in cotton that passed for snow, with a miniature Christmas village laid out on top. Tiny children on little toboggans pretended to slide down an improvised hill.
The red letters on the shop window read THE NORTH POLE.
Okay, this could be interesting.
He pulled open the door, to be greeted by the jingling of the bells that hung on it. From speakers overhead, Jake recognized a voice that he never heard any time of year but December: Bing Crosby.
“May your days be merry and bright. . . .”
They weren’t kidding around about this. Reindeer, snowmen and nutcrackers filled the shop: figurines on shelves, pictures and plaques on the walls, jewelry and key chains hanging from display hooks in front of the counter. Artificial Christmas trees, large and small, poked up from corners and alongside rows of shelves, decorated with price-tagged ornaments. It was a world of red and green, peppermint and pine. Jake had never seen anything like it back home in Scranton, that was for sure.
He stepped slowly forward, the old tenet of “you break it, you bought it” echoing in his head. Thankfully, the rows of shelves weren’t so close together that bumping into them was a hazard. What had felt like a manic clutter at first glance was actually arranged rather nicely. A cluster of mugs here, candleholders there . . . and, Jake was astonished to see, a whole shelf devoted to salt and pepper shakers. Did people really—
Jake turned to see a pretty, dark-haired woman step from behind one of the Christmas trees a few feet to his left. “Can I help you find anything?” she added.
“Not at the moment.”
She had a warm, ready smile, and her eyes were a deep blue. She held an ornament that looked like a little wooden rowboat. Jake’s eyes went from the ornament to the tree, and he saw it was decorated with other outdoorsy items: elk, geese, pinecones, even a snowman with a fishing pole.
“I see you’re going with a theme,” he said.
“It’s fun.” The girl hung the boat on a branch and reached into a box resting on a nearby stool. She fished out another ornament—appropriately enough, a fish. “I could never stick to one thing on my tree at home. There are so many personal memories that go with Christmas decorations. But it’s fun to do it here.”
Jake watched deft fingers with unpainted nails hang up a dark-furred grizzly bear. “How does your store do when it’s not Christmastime? Is it pretty slow?”
“Oh, it’s quieter, for sure.” She gestured around the store, empty of any other customers, with a little shrug. “But people trickle in. And when they do, they usually buy something.”
“Locals? Or tourists?”
“I guess you’d say local tourists. People from maybe an hour or two away. During the summer they like to come up for the day because it’s cooler up here in the mountains. And in the winter it gets pretty crazy. We’re the first town people hit when they drive up to go to the snow.”
“‘Go to the snow’?”
“Sure. Down the hill, it never snows. You usually have to be at least four thousand feet up to get snow in Southern California.” She studied him with a quizzical frown.
He stepped back, feeling as if he’d been found out. “Sorry, I’m from Pennsylvania. The idea of driving somewhere to visit snow never occurred to me.”
She grinned. “I guess so. If you never get snow, it’s a novelty. Up here we have to dig our way out of it sometimes. But it’s so beautiful.”
She looked almost starry-eyed. Clearly, she hadn’t gotten over the novelty of snow. “Have you lived here long?” he asked.
“All my life.” She picked up the box and stepped back to view her handiwork. It brought her one step closer to Jake, and he sneaked a look at her contemplative profile. Her blue eyes had a soulful look he couldn’t remember seeing on any adult.
He took his eyes from her face before she caught him staring, and noticed a silver bell earring dangling from her earlobe.
Silver bells . . . Oh. Right. Got it.
Apparently satisfied with the tree, she walked past him with a smile, taking the box behind the counter and setting it down. “So,” she said, “what brings you here from Pennsylvania?”
“Do you have anything for a seven-year-old girl? My niece,” he added, not sure why he felt the urge to clarify.
Her eyes went ceilingward as she contemplated the problem.
The reason he’d come to town wouldn’t be a secret for long, but Jake found he usually got better answers to his questions if people didn’t know why he was asking. Regal Hotels had sent him to set up their next location, and the demographics of Tall Pine looked great. But getting the perspective of locals often came in handy.
The woman’s eyes roamed over the store. “Really, just about anything, except maybe for the glass breakables,” she said. “Are you looking for something a little less seasonal? For a souvenir?”
Jake nodded. “Exactly.”
“Does she like jewelry?”
“Oh, I don’t mean diamonds and rubies.” That smile reached her eyes every time. “Just a little bauble.”
She reached over to a display rack of necklaces on the countertop, turning it to show the different designs. Bears, Santa hats, Christmas trees . . . Her fingers came to rest, cupping a tiny pinecone about the size of a thimble. His niece, Emily, would like that.
“We sell a lot of these,” she said. “They’re real pinecones, but they’re treated with lacquer so they’ll last. Pinecone . . . Tall Pine?”
Got it. Jake eyed the price tag on the chain: ten dollars. “That’s perfect. Thanks.”
She wrapped the necklace in tissue paper as gently as if it were a crystal vase. Meanwhile, Jake became aware of the music from the speakers again. It had left Bing Crosby and moved on to Nat King Cole. “Do you ever get tired of Christmas music?”
“You’d be surprised how often people ask me that.” Not really. “But I never do. There’s so much good Christmas music. I bring a lot of it from home.”
She rang up the necklace and handed him the bag, silver bells glinting below her ears. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” he said before he thought. With Nat King Cole in the background, it came as a reflex.
He walked out the door, bells jingling behind him. The warm summer day came as a shock after being surrounded by mistletoe and holly.
An unexpected voice piped up in his head, as if it were chiming in with the bells: You should have asked her out.
The multipaned door swung shut. Too late.
Besides, he had work to do, and he knew where to find her.
Resisting the urge to look back through the glass, Jake set off to continue his fact-finding foray up the street.
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