The Reluctant Santa

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Chapter One

            “His soul is mine,” Devon, the devil's angel, said. He watched the humans, who were oblivious to his presence, gathered in the sales office. One of the best things about being an angel was his ability to pop into just about anywhere and spy on his subjects without their knowledge. He could observe the humans as if were watching a play and even occasionally act as director.

            A chill wind howled outside the downtown Denver office, heralding the arrival of winter and the holiday season. The perfect time of year to increase his soul count. Devon studied his next soul, a brown-haired young man with expressive brows and a quirky grin. Unbeknownst to him, the salesman's life meter was about to expire unless he made drastic changes.

            “Devon," a voice echoed into the atmosphere before the being that irritated him the most shimmered into his vision. “Doing a soul count before he's yours?”

Slowly, an angel materialized, clad from head to toe in a white leather jacket and white knee-high boots fit snug over white leather pants. A gold belt around her waist, held a cross that signified sergeant, angel, first class. Her halo was tilted at a rakish angle. In earth terms, Gabriella looked hot.

“Whoever is in charge of your wardrobe, I like the changes they’ve made,” Devon said, letting his eyes rake her until a searing heat reminded him he was crossing boundaries. "Please tell me they ditched the boring robes."

With a toss of her blonde hair, her blue eyes flashed, glinting silver as her brows rose. “My robes are hardly boring, but no, one of my cases is a motorcyclist. I'm riding shotgun today, trying to keep him from splattering all over the highway. The robes kept blowing up in my face, so I found a solution.”

"Nice!" Devon shook his head and forced his eyes back to the human whose life he'd soon influence. “I thought your promotion at Easter took you out of the saving souls division.”

            Gabriella smiled as the air around her shimmered. Why didn’t the angels from purgatory patrol get that shimmery essence?

“Devon, we work so…well together” she said, drawing out the word until he wanted to snap at her. He held onto his temper.

            “We're all looking for ways to make quota this time of year. Only the strongest stay out of the pit, and every time I come up against you, I lose. But not this time. This one belongs to me,” he announced, staring at the man whose only interest in life was making money. No family, no girlfriends, no friends—just work and money.

            Gabriella tsked. “Now why would you want to send this poor man to hell for eternity? He just needs a little coaxing to choose the right path.”

            Devon sighed. “His time is about to expire. I'm here to collect his soul.”

            “Maybe,” she said. “Unless, I can give him some guidance and save him from evil.”

            “Not this time. Heavenly angels may not be able to play dirty, but I can,” he said, smiling at Gabriella. “And I intend to win this one.”

            Gabriella laughed. "Always so arrogant, Devon." She glanced at their human. “His case is challenging, but I'm certain I can help him.”

She turned toward Devon, her brows rising. “Playing dirty landed you where you are now. Why should I expect anything less?”

            “How I got here doesn’t matter. I need this soul,” he snapped. "You make your soul count or the big man sends you back to the pit to fight and claw your way back for another chance."

            “And Colin McDermott needs to be saved,” Gabriella said, swirling back to their subject. “I mean, look at the poor man. He has no idea his priorities are in the wrong place. He's a selfish, greedy man because he's unloved."

“Love!" Devon exclaimed. "You heavenly angels think loving someone solves everything.”

Gabriella shook her head at Devon, her blue eyes darkening with some sort of power. “Even you deserved love, Devon. In fact, if I had been your angel, I would found someone to show you love. Hopefully, you'd have been smart enough to grab the lifeline."

“Well, you weren't my angel, and now I'm the big man's soul catcher.”

“It's simple, Devon. Why would you want to lure more men into the darkness you already face?” she asked.

Devon clenched his fist, struggling to control the frustration that spiraled through him. Hell was not a place anyone planned on going. “The pit!" he said. "Let’s just concentrate on the human.”

"I already was." She contemplated Colin McDermott. “He's quite handsome with those long, sandy lashes and sparkling honey eyes. If I were human, one look and he’d melt my heart.”

“Women on earth know he's not a good risk. I could wrap this case up before Christmas, if you weren't here."

“Too bad. I'm here to keep you from destroying him,” she said, giving him a stern frown. “The poor soul has no idea of what he's about to face. I'm sure you’ve got some nasty surprises in store for him, some hard to resist temptations. But hopefully, with my guidance, he'll make the changes his life needs.”

            Devon shook his head. “No, by Christmas he’ll be mine. Count on it."

***

Colin McDermott sat across from his boss in the Denver headquarters of ECM Rx Software Incorporated. Dressed in his best suit and tie, trying not to fidget, he waited for his boss to announce the new western director of sales.

            For the last six months, Colin had maintained the highest sales of any of the producers in his district. Logan Spencer had been his closest competitor, but Colin knew Logan had failed to beat him.

With four short weeks until the start of the new year, the sales director’s position in the California office must be filled before December 26. The new director had to pull the sales team together and calculate the projections for the next year. In the next three weeks, he had to be on the ground and working that division.

            Colin had the highest sales numbers in the company. The position was his.

            “As you know the reason I called the two of you to my office is about the sales director’s position. All year Colin's been number one with Logan trailing close behind at number two. Unfortunately, I can only name one of you western sales director, and your year-to-date sales are now dead even.”

            Colin glanced over at Logan, and the man grinned at him. The bastard had to have sold something substantial in the last week to have tied him. For months Colin had sacrificed his personal life, worked nights, six and seven days a week, yet Logan had managed to catch him.

            Colin glanced at Ed Tieger, his mentor, the man who’d taught him everything he knew about sales. He refused to meet his gaze directly.

            “I’ve spoken to the president of the company. We’ve decided to make this a competition.” The older man folded his hands on top of his desk and leaned toward the two of them. “To help boost our year-end sales figures and to find out which of you has the most drive to acquire this position, we're issuing a challenge. Whoever brings in the highest sales numbers in the next three weeks will be the new western sales director. This competition involves no one else on the sales force. Just the two of you.”

“But I had the most sales,” Colin objected, acutely aware of how hard he’d worked in the last six months to win this position.

Ed nodded, his gaze steadfast on Logan. “But now less than a hundred dollars separates the two of you.”

He gave each man a hard, long look that caused Colin’s gut to clench with dread. “Three weeks, gentleman. May the best salesman win.”

Colin stood and shook Logan’s hand while he leaned in close. “Best of luck to you, but that position is mine.”

Logan laughed. “I snuck up on you last month. I can do it again.” He released Colin’s hand and slapped him on the back. “Don’t slow down long enough to look over your shoulder, or I'll blow right on by you.”

A surge of determination roared through Colin.

Game on. The position belonged to him.

He walked out of the office, taking the stairs two at a time, ready to tackle the task and prove once and for all that Colin McDermott was the best man for the job.

Pushing open the glass door leading outside the office building, he stepped into the frigid air and drew his coat closer as the wave of cold hit him.

The repetitive ringing of a bell drew his attention to a man dressed as Santa. A red kettle stood beside the entrance to the office. The man's smile drew his attention to the kettle, and the memory of a frightened little boy sleeping inside a Salvation Army homeless shelter reminded him of where he’d come from. He never wanted to be homeless again.

That promotion would be his.

He looked at the man closely, "George is that you?"

The older man laughed. "Hey, how are you, Colin? Are you working the food line for us this Saturday?"

Colin shook his head, "No, something has come up. I'll be working here.” He tilted his head toward the building.

"That's a shame. The guys enjoy it when you serve. They'll miss you."

"Tell the men I hope to be back next weekend. I'll definitely be in before Christmas."

Colin yanked out his wallet, pulled out a hundred, and stuffed it into the kettle.

“Thanks, Colin. Merry Christmas.”

"Merry Christmas, George." Colin hated Christmas, but hell, it could have been the Fourth of July and he would have donated. He knew how much the shelter needed the cash. His donation wasn't about Christmas, it was about surviving another day.

***

Brooke Warren watched as her best friend and coworker Amelia Carter stepped onto the elevator.

“We have no Santa,” Amelia Carter said, raising her hands dramatically as the elevator slid toward the hospital's administrative floor. "And the party is in less than an hour."

“What happened?” Brooke asked, thankful they were alone.

Amelia rolled her blue eyes. “While putting on his Santa costume, the old geezer fell in the men’s room and hit his head on the floor. The janitor found him passed out cold. Seems he’d been celebrating the holiday season a little early. His blood alcohol level was two point zero.”

“Oh my God!” Brooke said, horrified at the thought that the children in the hospital had almost been exposed to a drunken Santa Claus. As assistant administrator, her mind immediately went to the publicity nightmare this could have caused. News at ten, drunken hospital Santa listens to sick children's wishes.

“Is he all right?” she asked, concerned for the poor man and not wanting the hospital involved in a lawsuit.

“Yeah, first we bandaged his bleeding head and then security called the cops, who cuffed Santa and took him to jail for public intoxication. He’ll be detoxing in a cell for several days.”

“What are you going to do? The children are expecting Santa this afternoon.”

“I don’t know. My secretary is on the phone right now, trying to find any available Santa before the party,” Amelia said, tossing her long blonde hair.

With a personality that attracted children, Amelia was perfect as the person in charge of charity work at the hospital. People gravitated toward her, and she raised a lot of donations for the small hospital.

Brooke shook her head, distressed at the idea of the children not seeing Santa. “You have a party scheduled on every floor for the next three weeks. It's a little late in the season to start searching for a new Santa.”

How could she help her friend? Brooke liked to think that while they healed people, she made certain their hospital had the best work and patient environment possible.

“So far, I can’t even find a suit.”

“Wow,” Brooke said. “That really sucks.”

They reached the office door, and Amelia halted. “Gotta run see if Joyce has located either a suit or a Santa.”

            “Yeah, I’ve got a meeting in five minutes with a pharmaceutical rep. If you find a suit, I’ll be Santa,” Brooke volunteered. “But just for today.”

            Amelia laughed. “God, I love you. I may have no choice but to take you up on your offer. I would do it, but I'm in charge of making certain that every child gets something from the hospital besides a whiff of Santa’s alcoholic breath.”

            “We can’t disappoint the children,” Brooke said.      "I know. If I find a suit, you're on.”

            “Talk to you later,” Amelia said, hurrying off toward her office.

            Brooke turned toward the conference room, wondering how quickly she could end this meeting. She opened the door, surprised to see the hospital’s IT director there ahead of her. She hadn’t known he planned to attend.

            The small room held a large table and chairs centered in the middle with a beverage area in the back. Bob, the IT director, turned and moved toward her, his tall, lanky frame blocking her view of the drug sales rep. “Brooke, there’s someone here I’d like you to meet. He's working for a company that could possibly save us thousands in drug costs.”

            He moved to the side and Brooke felt her mouth fall to the floor.

Oh Damn! Oh Damn! Oh my God, she hadn’t seen that face in years.

There in front of her stood her college sweetheart, the man she'd thought she would marry. The man she’d fallen in love with and dreamed of spending the rest of her life with until that fateful day when he’d rejected her, and unknowingly, the baby she’d carried.

Tall, strikingly handsome, muscular, with a boyish grin and sparkling honey-warm eyes, Colin McDermott grinned at her like she was lunch and he was starving.

***

            Colin stared in disbelief at Brooke Warren, the girl who'd dumped him in college. Right before graduation, she’d abruptly stopped seeing him, refused his telephone calls and disappeared from campus. Later, he’d learned she had finished her exams and hadn’t waited on graduation but immediately left town, leaving him bitter and disillusioned.

            Shocked, he studied her as the memory of that time seemed to rise from the shadows. Didn't he deserve an explanation? A reason why she'd ended their relationship so abruptly that she couldn't even say good-bye?

Memories of the way her gorgeous red hair had fallen across his shoulders when he’d made love to her flashed through his mind and left him aching.

Yeah, he'd do her again given half the chance. This time, he’d just disengage his heart. Because she'd left his fragile organ bloodied, bruised, and sporting a no admittance sign.

Emerald eyes focused on him in surprise as she held out her hand. All the anger at her disappearance threatened to surface and choke him, but he pushed it down deep. He needed this sale, even if it meant kissing up to the girl who’d lied and said she loved him one moment and played Houdini the next.

            “Er…nice to see you again, Colin,” she said, grasping his hand, her body stiff. Quickly she stepped back.

            Her touch was warm, her hand soft, as he looked into eyes that reminded him of emerald Irish hills and ignited a spark in his midsection.

            Damn, she was even better looking than she had been in college. Where once were sharp angles, now soft, round curves lay beneath her clothes. Her auburn hair called to mind russet sunsets in spring and awakened a pang of memories—the two of them studying together, the way she looked while she slept, and the night of his frat party when they’d both consumed the spiked punch and had wild monkey sex.

            Young and naïve, he'd thought they’d always be together, but she'd run out just like everyone he’d ever cared about. She’d disappeared from campus, and he'd never seen her again until today.

Since that lesson, his focus remained on making his first million and never looking back. And this new position would get him one step closer to his dream.

            “Since you guys know each other, I'm going to leave you,” the IT director said. “Colin, call me if I can answer any of your questions.”

            “Thanks, Bob,” Colin replied, as Bob walked out the door, leaving them alone. She was probably married with a couple of kids by now. Yet he yearned to ask her why she'd vanished leaving him to wonder what he'd done wrong.

Inhaling a deep breath, determined to concentrate on now and not the past, he unfurled his clenched fists. He needed this sale, so how could he ease the tension in the room and get the appointment?

            “Wow, you look great. As beautiful as right before we graduated,” he said, hoping that tense little smile on her face would soften. If she was the gatekeeper, he was in deep trouble. A sale to her hospital was necessary to his success.

            “Thank you,” she said, staring at him, hardly moving.

She wasn't falling all over herself after not having seen him for six years. He pictured a big red stop sign on Brooke’s beautiful, flawless face. She wanted no part of him. His first priority would be getting past her to the decision makers.

“How have you been?” he asked, wondering how she’d wound up here in this small town hospital and wishing he could ask her what he really wanted to know.

“Wonderful,” she replied, not asking about him. She glanced down at her watch. “Look, I need to make this quick.”

So much for a happy reunion. She wanted him gone, and quickly.

“Yeah, I know my time with you today was for only thirty minutes, but I wanted to give you an overview of how our product could help Crystal Mountain's number one hospital.”

They were all number one hospitals, but she didn’t need to know that.

“Colin, our pharmaceutical contract is not up for bidding at this time. Leave me your card and phone number, and I’ll be sure to contact you before our contract renews.” She started to walk away.

He gave a little chuckle. Stop sign number one. “I'm not a pharmaceutical rep. Our product helps hospitals track their drug purchases and how much they’re spending and makes certain you're not being overcharged for the medications on your contract.”

She gave him a look that said he could be selling gold bricks at half price and she’d still show him the door, and probably slam and lock it behind him.

Her lips turned up in a smile that didn't quit reach her eyes. “Your product may help reduce costs, but right now is not the time for me to consider a purchase like this for our hospital. I’ll call you when we're interested.”

“On January 1 the price goes up over five thousand dollars,” he said, not totally dishonest, just slightly exaggerating the truth. “Bob put us in touch with you," he reminded her. "He thought the hospital could save a lot of money using our product.”

“Give me your card and I’ll contact you after the first of the year.”

The door burst open as a blonde-haired woman ran into the conference room out of breath and panting. “Sorry, but I can’t wait. I’ve got a suit. The party is in fifteen minutes.”

Colin watched the two women’s eyes communicate without saying a word. Slowly they turned and observed him, and an uneasy feeling settled around him at the tension in the room.

A silly smile played on Brooke's lips, and a sense of foreboding zipped along Colin’s spine. She faced him, grinning like the cat that’d eaten the last living canary.

“Okay, I'll make a deal with you. I will listen to your sales pitch in its entirety on Tuesday at nine a.m. if you will put on a Santa suit and play Santa for our children’s Christmas party right now.

“Me?” he said. Had she gone bonkers since college? “You know I think Santa is hoax created by the toy companies. I hate Christmas.”

She shrugged. “Look. We have a children’s party scheduled in fifteen minutes and our Santa showed up drunk. I need a Santa."

He shook his head, knowing instinctively this wasn't a good idea, yet he needed this sale.

"You want an appointment to show me your product. I’ll listen to your spiel if you play Santa for one afternoon.”

Colin took a deep breath and exhaled. He'd targeted six hospitals and needed at least four of them to purchase the product in order to beat Logan. This hospital was one of his must-sell-or-be-left-behind’ locations. If wearing a Santa suit for a couple of hours got his foot in the door, he could do it. All he would have to do is listen to whiny kids tell him their wishes.

But what could he get out of the deal besides a chance to show Brooke his product? And she clearly was resist to purchasing from Colin McDermott.

“Who are the decision makers in this hospital?” he asked.

Brooke looked at him strangely as she told him the names of the people who decided on major purchases.

“If I do this for you, you'll guarantee at least three of them will attend the meeting, including the head of pharmacy.”

She contemplated him for a long moment before she turned and glanced at the woman standing in the doorway like she intended to refuse Colin. Finally she turned back toward him. “I can’t guarantee their presence, but I’ll ask them.”

“How will I know you asked them?” he questioned. He needed some guarantees.

“If they can’t attend the meeting, I will give you their cards, and you can contact them directly.”

That seemed fair enough. At least he would know who to contact when she said no. He sighed. “So what do I have to do when I play Santa?”

A confident grin spread across her face, and Colin knew she thought she'd won this interaction. But he'd at least gotten an appointment, and that was all he needed to make a sale. He'd gotten screwed into playing Santa, but he’d win the grand prize.

Even if he had to wear a Santa suit to do it.