A Christmas Tale by Sharla Wylde
“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” The excited screams from my five-year-old filled the car and beat against my brain pan. Sitting in stopped traffic to take her to see Santa in a Christmas parade was not my ideal Saturday. My ex-wife, though, had deemed it an appropriate outing for my weekend.
Celebrating a successful marketing campaign the night before had not been the best of plans. My head still throbbed. At least it would be only slightly chilly today. Texas weather in December was normally ideal.
“Brinklee. What have I told you about screaming in the car? Daddy has a headache. Please calm down.”
“But Daddy! It’s Santa! He wants to talk to you.”
That caught my attention. “What are you talking about?”
I craned my head back to see her in the backseat, strapped into her car seat, pointing toward my window. Forcing the throbbing lump of a head back to its normal position, I shifted in my seat to glance to my left.
Whoa! How had I missed this? My car was on the interstate offramp which would lead into the city limits where the Christmas parade would occur in less than two hours. Inched up beside me, trying to squeeze onto the offramp, was a black pickup truck. A very large and very real red sleigh, with holly and bells painted on it, sat in the truck bed. On the side of the truck’s door panels was painted a smaller rendition of the sleigh pulled by eight reindeer with a jolly fat Santa on the seat.
But the most amazing sight was the passenger of the pickup—Santa. When he caught my gaze, he waved and made a rolling motion with his hand; the universal sign for lowering the window.
Now mind you, I stopped believing in Santa Claus many, many years ago, but I was not such an ass (my ex’s words, not mine) that I would dash my daughter’s belief. Plastering a smile on my face, I lowered my driver’s window. On a whim, I lowered the back one too so Brinklee could get a better glimpse at her idol.
“Good Morning!” Santa greeted us with a laugh and a smile. The guy was definitely in character.
The cars in front of me inched forward another foot but I refrained from moving until I knew what Santa wanted. I was fairly certain that the man was trying to reach the same parade that we were.
He leaned out the window and back slightly to give Brinklee a wave and greeting. She giggled and shyly whispered ‘Hi’. Now she stops screaming.
“Morning, Santa. What can I do for you?”
He turned back to me, but his smile drooped into a frown. “Would you mind letting us in front of you? We’re on our way to the parade.”
“I don’t mind. We’re heading there ourselves.”
Santa lit up. “Wonderful! If you let us and our trailer in, you can slip around us and between the trucks. You’ll get there faster.” He winked. “Call it a private escort.”
The cars in front of us moved ahead several feet this time. I heard a voice from the other side of Santa make a comment but I couldn’t understand the words. Santa turned to address them before coming back to me.
“Can you help us out?”
“Please, Daddy? I want to see Rudolph.”
I glanced back and this time noticed the second pickup truck pulling a horse trailer. I would have bet a million bucks those were not horses.
I waved toward the widening gap before us. “Please go ahead. I can’t hold up Christmas.”
“Thank you, Sir,” Santa boomed, “Make sure you come see us. You get an extra special visit.”
The truck surged ahead and skillfully maneuvered in front of us. The traffic took that moment to open up and move. I watched the sleigh slide around us, Brinklee clapping and laughing with glee. The second truck pulled forward enough to block the vehicles merging from behind. The passenger motioned for me to move ahead, between Santa and his reindeer.
I gladly accepted and slipped between them. Then the magic happened. Traffic moved and picked up speed. Within minutes, we left the off-ramp and turned onto the main road toward the park where the parade would begin and end. The Santa trucks were royalty the moment we entered the city limits. Police directed us toward the entrance and around the stopped vehicles.
My headache lifted with the friendly faces and waves we encountered. Brinklee shouted ‘Merry Christmas’ to everyone who waved. This was better than surprising her with a trip to Disney World last April.
It still took over twenty minutes to locate a prime parking spot. Santa, sleigh, and the reindeer had been directed onto another road within the park and disappeared behind the crowds. Brinklee was almost in tears when I pulled into the row the attendant directed us to. Shutting off the car, I turned toward her only to have her unbuckling her own seatbelt and hurrying to the door.
Snatching up my wallet and phone, I barely beat her out of the car where I had to grab her to stop her from running off.
“Hold on. What’s wrong, baby girl? I thought you were happy.”
“We lost him.”
She nodded, the tears threatening to spill.
“Don’t worry. You heard him tell us to stop by and see him. We’ll head toward the booths. I’m sure he’s over there.”
Her face lit up. “Really?”
“Yes. Really. Now dry the tears and let’s go.”
Brinklee threw her arms around my neck. “I love you, Daddy.”
“Dad, I wish you would let me handle the driving.” I’d kept quiet that morning when he’d directed me onto a different route than I’d planned on taking. I’d even kept quiet when he continued to tell me to slow down, although I wasn’t speeding and the reindeer trailer had no problem keeping up.
But I refused to stay silent when he’d convinced the guy to let us in front of him on the off-ramp. It wasn’t so much talking him into letting us in, it was the comments afterward. He was nice. Good looking too. Did you see him? Cute little girl too. I hope they do stop by later.
“What? I am letting you handle the driving. I might make suggestions, but you’re in the driver’s seat.” The man I knew as Dad and everyone else knew as Santa gave me an innocent look—his brows raised, eyes wide, straight-faced. He didn’t fool me. I knew exactly what he was up to. Matchmaking.
I’d just parked the pickup in the vendor parking area. Standing in the chill, we watched the truck and trailer pull in beside us.
“I know what you’re doing and don’t pull the innocent act with me. I know you better than anyone except Mom.”
A slight sadness crossed his face. I knew he’d thought of Mom in that moment. Sitting at home, resting. Two weeks ago, we’d had a freak ice storm. She had gone out to check on the reindeer and the other animals on our small ranch, only to slip and fall on a patch of ice. One of the men who helped my parents found her thirty minutes later. She was lucky she hadn’t caught pneumonia, although she had broken her leg.
“She’ll be right as rain in a few weeks. You heard the doctor.”
He chuckled, “Yes. You can’t keep my Katie down for long.”
Our discussion was side-tracked with the arrival of a parade official. After greeting us and giving directions, we set about unloading the reindeer and sleigh. We only traveled with four of the original eight deer for these smaller shows and parades. The sleigh moved on wheels with sled runners hiding the tires.
Dad also dressed for the part of Santa. I remember when I was young and we’d go out to a restaurant. If he was greeted by people as Santa, he ho-ho-ho’d his way through a conversation, never missing a beat. Oh, people tried to trick him or throw him off, but Dad always remained in a good humor and never failed. I had no idea how he did it. Mom said he was born to be Santa. I believed it.
Halfway through harnessing up the deer and the sleigh, I noticed a little girl with long black hair pulled back. She wore a pretty red dress with white lace trim, red sneakers, and a smile as wide as the Grand Canyon. She was watching intently, craning her neck to see everything.
The man standing by her side had his phone out, probably making a video of us. I swallowed hard when our gazes met. Soft, warm chocolate brown eyes. He smiled and directed his phone toward me.
I’m not much on being in the spotlight. That’s my dad’s calling. I spoke to Frank, the man who’d driven the reindeer trailer, and asked him to finish the harnessing, then I strode toward the tall, broad-shouldered stranger hoping he was single. I didn’t normally do that. Take an immediate interest to a man, but there was something about this guy.
He turned off his phone and dropped his hand to his side, his other one going to the little girl’s shoulder. “Sorry, this is fascinating. The reindeer and everything.”
“Where’s Rudolph?” The little girl spoke up, excitement tinging her voice.
“I don’t think he’s here, Brinklee.”
I stoop to be at the same level as the little girl. “Is that your name, Brinklee?”
“That’s a beautiful name. My name is Lily.” I jerked a thumb to the handsome man beside her. “Is this your brother?”
She giggled. “No, he’s my daddy.”
I straightened and looked directly at him. “Hello.”
His gaze was intense, piercing into my soul. Did he feel the same exciting tug? The same exhilarating connection? It was more than just a physical reaction.
He held out his hand. “I’m Barron, but my friends call me Bear.”
Hmmm. Interesting name. I took his hand. Energy zinged along my arm and flowed through my body. I pulled back. Interesting reaction. It’d been a long time since a man had that kind of effect on me.
“Santa told us to come visit.” Brinklee interrupted Barron’s and my staring session.
“Yes, I did.” Dad’s voice boomed across the small area. I jumped at the loud sound and turned away from Brinklee and Bear. Dad strode toward us and stopped in front of Brinklee. Dressed in his red pants and coat, fur-lined with black buttons and belt plus the iconic black shiny boots. His coat was open, it was too warm, and he held his hat in his hands.
She knew the routine. “Santa, Brinklee and her dad, Barron are here looking for Rudolph.”
Dad gave me an odd look with one eyebrow raised. I scowled. He chuckled. I never could put anything past him.
He went down on one knee in front of little Brinklee. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. Rudolph had to stay at home. He has a cold and has to rest so he can fly on Christmas Eve.”
Her eyes widened and her little mouth formed an O. Then she turned serious and nodded. “That’s good. Mom makes me stay in bed when I’m sick.”
My heart fell. Of course, he’s married. Little girl, dad, mom. It happened in many families.
He quickly interceded, “Yes, her stepdad is a nurse so he knows these things.”
Hope surged through me. I glanced up and met his gaze again. His lips lifted into a smile and his eyes danced with humor. He had known I didn’t like the idea of him being married. There was that little connection we seemed to share.
Brinklee giggled. “Daddy isn’t married. He says it’ll be a long time in h…”
Bear playfully clapped a hand over her mouth and laughed awkwardly. “Kids.”
His daughter pushed away his hand and giggled more. She was a happy child.
“Brinklee. How would you like to meet Dancer, Prancer, Comet, and Cupid? I can introduce you.” Santa stood and reached for her hand. She looked at her dad first, getting permission from a nod. Trustingly, she thrust her hand into Santa’s and let him lead her away. Bear motioned for me to go ahead of him as he moved to follow. Santa or not, he would not let his little girl out of his sight.
We walked side by side, keeping them close. “Now that we have my marital status resolved, what about you?”
“Me?” My voice squeaked. “Single. Never married. No kids.”
“Good.” His glanced down, a pleased look on his face. “I mean, that’s good to know.” Only a few inches taller than my five-foot-eight, he was fit and strong, most likely a regular at a gym. His black hair shone rich and thick in the sunlight. His golden skin hinted at a Latin heritage.
Over the next several minutes, Santa entertained Brinklee while Barron and I chatted. I quickly learned we had several things in common, from movies and books, to baseball and football teams.
If I had been looking for a man to drop into my life, Bear would have been perfect. The problem was, I wasn’t looking.
What other world-altering dimension had I fallen into? This woman…this gorgeous, sexy woman was kind, thoughtful, funny, and sexy. Did I say sexy? Damn. Dressed in jeans, a red button-down shirt, and cowboy boots, her brown hair pulled into a ponytail, and her brown eyes filled with mischief, she had my attention. Her laughter and smile wrapped around my heart. Her words and comments challenged my mind. Her body and voice spoke to my soul.
And within an hour, I knew I was in love. I hadn’t fallen this hard for my ex. We’d dated in college, got pregnant, married, and later divorced—all within three years. This feeling with Lily was different and special. A warm, pleasant sensation seeped into my body and my soul. It felt as if I’d known her forever.
“I have a fabulous idea.” Santa turned to us, breaking into our conversation about the Cowboy’s recent games. “What if Brinklee rode in the sleigh with me?”
I jerked my gaze away from Lily at Brinklee’s gasp of delight.
“Please, Daddy. Can I?”
My father-protective guard flew up. I would not let her out of my sight. If she was going, I was going.
Lily took my hand and gave a little squeeze. “I walk beside the sleigh. You can join me.”
Looking down, I met her encouraging smile. She had sensed my trepidation and offered a compromise.
“I’d like that. Brinklee would love riding with Santa.” I leaned a little closer and whispered, “Thank you.”
Santa let out a jolly Ho Ho Ho.“Then it’s settled. It’s time to go. Ready?” He bent toward Brinklee who nodded in excitement. With another Ho Ho Ho, he picked her up and settled her into the sleigh.
Taking a moment to button his coat, he turned to Lily and I. “Let me know if your feet get tired.” He winked and climbed onto the bench beside my daughter. A minute later, the reindeer moved, one of Santa’s men leading them.
“He’s not going to stop for us if we get tired, is he?”
Lily started forward. “Nope. I hope you wore your walking shoes.”
I glanced down. I’d worn jeans, t-shirt, and brown loafers. Not really made for walking, but at least I’d be with Lily for a little bit longer.
* * * *
Over the next hour, my feet ached but Brinklee was having the best day of her life. I had to admit, I was having a pretty good day too. With two other Santa helpers on the other side of the sleigh, I managed to stay beside Lily while we passed out candy canes. All thoughts of the pain in my feet disappeared when I witnessed how excited the children were to see Santa. And to think, Lily did this for her job.
After the parade, Santa greeted his fans. Lily found an elf hat for Brinklee and had her help by Santa’s side. Passing out more candy canes or escorting nervous children, my daughter shone with enthusiasm. I’d never seen her so assured, so supportive, so picture-perfect.
Hours later, an exhausted but delighted Brinklee was tucked into her car seat. On my cell phone, she regaled her mother with the day’s events. I stood outside, waiting for a moment to talk to Lily.
“She can barely keep her eyes open.”
I turned at the sound of Lily’s voice behind me. She smiled. I couldn’t help but return the grin. “She’ll be passed out before we’re on the toll road.”
“I’m glad you were able to join us today.”
Closing the gap, I continued the banter. “I’m glad Santa needed me to let him over.”
“I was her age when I rode in the sleigh for the first time. I’ll never forget it.”
We stopped, facing each other, toe to toe. It was now or never. Lily would be gone in a few minutes and I didn’t want to lose her. “Can I call you?”
Lily tilted her head and watched me for several moments. “Even after Santa’s matchmaking scheme?”
That surprised me.
“You do know that the only reason he asked for you to let him through the traffic was because he considers himself a matchmaker. He’s tired of me taking my time.”
Interesting. “Doesn’t bother me any. I think he made a good choice.” I reached out and clasped her hand. “I would really like to get to know you better, with or without Santa’s permission.”
Lily laughed lightly. Stretching up on her toes, she leaned in and placed a kiss on my cheek. Her whispered breath on my skin sent shivers racing down my spine.
“He’s my father.”
I froze at her words. It made sense. The looks. The words. The closeness. Father and daughter working together. I’d love to have that relationship with Brinklee when she was an adult.
I relaxed and looked into Lily’s gorgeous brown eyes. “I think your dad is an excellent matchmaker.”