Authors: J.M. Madden
Tags: #Romance, #Military, #Christmas, #Xmas
Duncan nodded, completely understanding her reasoning. “Well, whatever you decide to do, know that I am in your corner rooting for you.”
Shannon wiped her face and gave him another quick hug. “I know you are, Dunc. You always have been and I really appreciate that. I wish the women out there in Denver knew how wonderful you were. They’d be beating down the doors to get you.”
He laughed for her sake. “Yeah, okay. If you say so.”
“I do,” she told him firmly. “I think the perfect woman is going to walk in the door someday soon and I hope I’m there to see it happen. I’m going to go wash up. Thank you for checking on me.”
As she pushed into the women’s room he straightened, planting his cane and pivoted to return to the party. But he didn’t get very far.
Sweet little Mercy with her big, forest green eyes stood staring up at him hopefully. “Do you know where Santa is? Can you check the boys’ bathroom?”
Duncan raised his eyebrows but was careful not to laugh at the earnest young lady standing in front of him. “I’m not sure where he is.” Duncan took a moment to peer inside the men’s room for a moment then came back to the hallway. “Not in there.”
Tears filled her eyes and dripped down her cheeks.
With a huge effort, Duncan lowered himself to one knee before her, ignoring the pain lancing through his hips and wiped the tears from her cheeks. “What’s wrong, Mercy? Santa will be out in the main room in a few minutes, I’m sure. Can’t you wait?”
She sniffed and shrugged. “I just wanted to talk to him before he went out with all the other people. So he wouldn’t forget me.”
Duncan tugged on a lock of her hair. “How could he miss you? You’ll be right there. And there aren’t that many kids out there.”
“I know,” she sighed dramatically. “But this is important.”
Nodding, Duncan rested both hands on top of the cane. “Is there anything I can help you with?”
She looked at him in consideration, her tears drying up. “I don’t know. You’re Chad’s boss, right?”
“I am,” he said softly, wondering where the conversation was leading.
“And he has to do what you say, right?”
His eyes narrowed. “Kind of.”
She looked down at her feet, then up at him. Her eyes were as guileless as they could be and Duncan knew he was about to be walloped. Tears began leaking again and he groaned.
“Can you,” she whispered, “make him be my daddy? For real?”
Duncan heard the desperation in her voice and it made his heart ache. With a sigh, he settled onto the floor, legs stretched out in front of him. He patted the space beside him and she plopped her bottom down then clutched his hand.
Duncan weighed his words carefully. “I can’t make him be your daddy, but I think Chad already
to be your daddy. It just takes some time for big people to do things.”
She huffed out a breath, leaning her head against his arm. “It really does!”
He chuckled at her vehemence. “Why do you need him to be your daddy right now?”
She was quiet for several long seconds. “Well, there’s a girl at school that said I can’t ask for a daddy for Christmas because that was too big. I’m ‘sposed to ask for toys and stuff. But I want a daddy more than anything.”
Duncan adjusted his hips on the floor, smiling. “Well, I don’t think it’s too big. Not at all. Santa will be out in a few minutes and I think you need to tell him how important it is to you.”
Mercy sighed and nodded her head. “I will. You really don’t think a daddy is too big of a gift?”
He shook his head. “Nope. I think it’s the perfect time to ask for a daddy.”
She grinned up at him, tears all gone and hopped to her feet. “Thanks, Duncan!”
Mercy ran back to the group.
Duncan sighed as he watched her little form take off. Oh, to be that mobile again… he hoisted himself to his feet and wandered back to the crowd.
had didn’t like
the outfit. It seemed like such a flimsy disguise. Mercy would see right through the fake beard and cushy belly. Wouldn’t she?
He grabbed up the sack of toys in the red velvet bag and slung it over his shoulder. He adjusted the white gloves on his hands, trying to straighten out the fingers of his gnarled left hand. If he held it on his lap they probably wouldn’t notice the curl. Maybe he could hold some candy canes with it or something. He’d have to play it by ear.
There was a cheer as he entered the room and he let out a bellowing
ho ho ho
. A couple of the kids let out cries of joy, but poor little Jameson, dark hair standing straight out from his head, started to cry.
Chad did his best to circle the room, giving out candy canes as he did. When he made it across the room he took the designated Santa chair, over-decorated with red fabric and tinsel. It was a magnificent chair, right beside a huge Christmas tree stacked with gifts. After he got the lists from the little kids and sat for the photo ops he was supposed to run back to the office, get changed, then come back out and disburse all the gifts beneath the tree. Chad didn’t know how he’d ended up doing all the work but he enjoyed it too much to complain.
Drew and Mercy were standing together waiting for him to call them up. Trying not to play favorites, he called Drew up first. The little boy was a little self-conscious at first, but once Chad commented on the action figure he held the little boy’s list poured out of his mouth. Chad really tried to remember everything the boy told him.
“Hold on, hold on. I’m Santa,” he said, enjoying the booming voice he’d found, “but I can’t do all of that. I have too many kids around the world to deliver for. If you had to pick three things for me to bring what would they be?”
Drew screwed up his little face in thought, his dark eyes so much like Ember’s. After a minute he gave Chad a list he could remember. Ember snuck up and snapped a picture of the two of them together, then she took Drew’s hand and led him away.
Chad looked at Mercy, love filling his heart, and crooked a finger to her. There was zero recognition in her face. She stepped forward and climbed onto his lap, her eyes shadowed with worry. “What’s wrong, little one?” he asked in his fake Santa voice.
She blinked and pinched at her sparkly blue party dress. “I have a really important thing on my list but it may be too big.”
Chad tilted his head and adjusted the wire glasses over his eyes. “Well, I won’t know if it’s too big unless you tell me.”
Mercy chewed on her lip, then glanced around until her gaze connected with Duncan. With a nod and a wave of his hand his boss encouraged his little girl, and Chad wondered what had gone on there.
“Well,” she said finally, “I wanted to ask you if you could make Chad my daddy. Not for just a little bit but for all times? I promise I’ll clean my room and everything. Mommy wants him too.”
Chad felt his heart stall out in his chest as he looked down at the little doll that had stolen his heart over and over again. And he realized she had just stolen it one more time. “Well,” he said, treading carefully, “that is a big request. He’s offered to marry your mom, right?”
She nodded, blonde ponytail swinging. “Yeah, both of us, but that was a long time ago.”
“It takes a while for big people to do things.”
Mercy scowled. “Yeah, that’s what Duncan said too, but I want him to be my dad before I go back to school. That way I can prove to Rosie Jenkins that she was wrong. That I can ask for things from Santa other than toys. And then Mrs. Caldora will stop asking me what happened to my old daddy. She’s mean and he was mean too, but Chad isn’t. I really want us to be a real family.”
He fought the emotion tightening his throat. “Well, I’ll have to see what I can do. That’s a really big request.”
Mercy nodded and leaned up to give him a big hug. Chad returned her squeeze and helped her drop to the floor. His eyes connected with Lora’s as she retrieved Mercy and he wondered how he could convince the little girl he would be there permanently.
Chad posed for pictures for a few more minutes. Jameson puckered up and cried when Kendall tried to hand him over, so after a few big guffaws and waves and ho ho hos he walked out the front door. Once out of sight he circled the restaurant and entered through the rear door, walking to the office to change back into his regular clothes. Within just a few minutes he was slipping back out front to hand out toys and gifts. Mercy’s request would have to take a back burner for a while.
Duncan’s gift from all of them arrived while he was getting changed. Freaking hell this was going to be good.
Chad started handing out gifts, first to the kids, then to the adults. There were laughs all around as wrapping paper fell to the floor and ribbon was tossed away. Chad was particularly proud of the black t-shirt he’d had printed up for Duncan. It read, ‘Save a Humvee – Ride a Marine!’ There were laughs all around and Duncan pulled the shirt on, proving what a good sport he was. Chad laughed as he thought about what was coming.
John gave him a wave when he was getting to the end of the gifts and Chad cursed to himself. Shit! He’d forgotten to grab Shannon’s. He jogged back the hallway and pushed the big square box down the hallway and into the main room. The commotion drew everyone’s attention. When he called Shannon’s name she jerked in surprise.
Shannon didn’t even
want to know what was in the box. She sighed and forced a smile through her crushing disappointment. It was too big to be a ring, obviously. She glanced at John but he was scowling. The look on his face did not bode well.
Stepping forward, she untied the big red bow on top of the silver box. The ribbon fell to the floor and she lifted the lid off. The box had been cut so that when the lid was removed the front of the box fell forward. Shannon jumped out of the way. There was another box inside, smaller. Wondering how many layers there were going to be to this gift, she lifted the lid off the interior box then jerked back in surprise. A golden-haired puppy had jumped against the side of the cardboard. It jumped again, gave a sharp yip and tumbled out onto the floor when the box tipped over. Since Shannon was right in front of it the dog came straight to her.
Laughing, she let the puppy attack her with its tongue, licking her faster than she could turn her head. She laughed for a moment then suddenly burst into tears. The dog cocked its head at her, obviously concerned.
“Why are you crying?” John growled, rolling forward.
Shannon shook her head, mopping at her eyes, unable to articulate why she was so disappointed. Instead of the commitment she’d been looking for he’d committed her to more responsibility. Frustration built. She tried to breathe through it but it continued to grow. Then she got just plain mad.
“Why did you give me a dog?” she all but yelled.
John’s eyes widened a little at her tone then narrowed. “It’s a Christmas gift. I thought it was a pretty nice one.”
Shannon shook her head. “It’s a commitment without a commitment,” she snapped. “You just gave me this so that you wouldn’t have to give yourself.”
Cocking his head to the side, he glared at her. “I give you myself all the time.”
“No, you don’t. You give me pieces. But you keep the rest back, protected. I’ve been with you for a year now and I love you, John, but you drive me nuts sometimes.”
The puppy licked at her tears. Shannon stroked her fuzzy head. It wasn’t the dog’s fault that John was oblivious.
“She has a name,” he told her gruffly. “It’s on her collar.”
Scratching under her chin, Shannon felt for the tag on the collar but she couldn’t find it. There was something tied to it though…
She looked down at the diamond ring twinkling in her hand. Then up at John. He still scowled, but now she could see the insecurity shadowing his dark eyes. He had planned it this way. Tears obscured her vision at her stupid impatience. How long had he been planning this? She got up off her knees to cross to him, ring on her palm.
“That was very sneaky, but I want to hear you say it.”
Without hesitation John took the ring from her hand. “Shannon Murphy, I know I’m a pain in the ass to live with and love, but I absolutely adore you. I can’t imagine living my life without you. Will you marry me?”