Chapter One

“Jingle bells, jingle bells…” Santa encouraged the well-dressed older women lined up, ready to sit in his lap, to sing off-key at the top of their lungs. It was clear that it wasn’t shopping that brought the women to the only outdoor mall in Tarpon Cove, the lot of them decked out in huge smiles, blowing kisses. A couple of them I recognized as “friends” of Crum’s. Santa waved his arms, encouraging their raucous behavior. At the end of the song, he clapped and bowed, which left the women giggling like schoolgirls.

The ill-fitting suit in the corner, who had mall management written all over him, stomped over, steam practically rising from his head. Whatever tirade he was about to unleash came to an abrupt halt when the twenty-five-foot Christmas tree rocked side to side, toppling over and partially covering Santa’s gingerbread house, which the mall had built for the big man’s “family” and used for processing the pictures of the children who sat on Santa’s lap. Large ornaments crashed to the ground, sending shards of glass flying.

From where I was standing, I could see that Mrs. Claus had awoken from her drunken stupor and stumbled into the tree… and by whatever miracle escaped going down with it. She covered her dismay at the crunching under her feet with a giggle and lurched over to Santa’s throne, making herself comfortable and hiking up her skirt, mumbling, “Damn dress.”

A few of the women in line screamed, jumping back. Two of them attempted to squeeze under the velvet rope. To jump into Santa’s arms? That turned out to be a bad idea – one’s bouffant got stuck on the stand and brought the barricade tumbling down on their backs. They lay in a heap, arguing over whose fault it was that they were sprawled on the ground.

The handful of children in line started crying. Too much adult drama.

“Fabiana Merceau, get back over here,” I hissed at my partner, who was trying to slink off into a shoe store located temptingly close. If I was going to have a headache, then so was she. That’s what best friends did – they shared.

Fab stomped over to my side, arms crossed. “Madison Westin,” she mimicked. “Crum had the nerve to suggest that I be one of Santa’s elves. The costume is threadbare, ugly, and it smells. And even if it were brand new, I wouldn’t do it.” She added, “No way!”

It took everything I had not to burst out laughing. We had been drinking eggnog lattes at our favorite bakery when I got a frantic call from Santa.

“Everything’s gone south on me,” Crum, the shopping center’s newest Santa, had huffed. “The missus passed out. One elf didn’t show. I really need your help. Get over here as quick as you can.”

I’d managed to hold back a loud snort, but just barely. “What exactly do you want me to do?” I asked before realizing he’d hung up.

I hadn’t bothered to fill Fab in on what was happening, being deliberately vague because I knew I wouldn’t stand a chance of her setting one of her designer shoes into the middle of this mess if she knew about it in advance, especially if she found out it had anything to do with Crum. At least, not without intense blackmail.

Professor Crum resided at The Cottages, some beachfront property I owned. He loved women and drama and always had some unsuitable moneymaking scheme up his sleeve. I’d almost laughed when he told me he’d gotten the Santa job, thinking uncharitably that no one else must have applied.

Fab and I had arrived just in time to snag a good vantage point where we could see the drama unfold and overhear every word.

The mall suit jerked Crum by the arm, trying to drag him off to one side, but Santa dug in his boots, slowing their progress. “I let you choose your own helpers, and what a disaster that’s turned out to be.” The man’s anger vibrated through his body. “The only reason you’re not fired on the spot is that I can’t get a replacement here today. Now you listen to me – if you need this job as much as you say you do, get your act together and now.”

The old “poor mouth” routine. Crum demonstrated all the eccentricities of a bag person but was far from one. He was a retired college professor with a healthy pension.

“I’ll take care of everything,” Crum reassured the man. He turned, rolling his eyes, caught sight of me, and almost tripped over his feet getting to me before I could duck out.

I’d put money on his idea of taking care of the problem being throwing a hissy fit or walking off the job in a huff. The only thing stopping him was all the people around, who would laugh about it for the next decade.

The man stopped in front of me, out of breath, his agitation at an all-time high. “Get Miss January out of here,” Crum said to me in a mini-panic. “Then hurry back.” He ran his eyes over me. “You’ll fit in the dress.” At my puzzled expression, he said, “Think of the children.” He glared at Fab, who’d started laughing.