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DO YOU BELIEVE IN SANTA?
DO YOU BELIEVE IN SANTA
Evergreen Lane #1
Released Sept 29th, 2015
What grown woman claims to have seen Santa Claus? Mandy Reese, for one—on a very special Christmas Eve when she was eight years old. These days, Mandy works at a year-round Christmas store in Tall Pine, California, where customers love to hear about her childhood encounter with Saint Nick. But when Jake Wyndham arrives in town—charming, gorgeous, extremely practical—Mandy faces a dilemma. Deny what she saw, or let Jake think she’s sugarplum crazy?
Jake scouts hotel locations all over the country, but he’s never met anyone quite like Mandy before. Her warmth and sparkle are irresistible, but…meeting Santa? Really? Jake’s no Scrooge but he’s definitely skeptical. Then again, there are all kinds of things Jake never experienced until he came to Tall Pine. Like autumn snow. Mind blowing kisses. And the magic of falling head-over-heels, madly in love…
Most days, Mandy brought her own lunch and ate it in the back room, but today she felt like getting out.
She stepped onto the sidewalk and breathed in the evergreen scent that Tall Pine was blessed with all year round. Most people who lived here said they stopped smelling it after a while, but Mandy never did, and she never got tired of it.
Not sure what she was hungry for, she turned to the right of the store, where most of the restaurants were located. As she approached the Pine ’n’ Dine, she noticed a familiar-looking man seated at a table near the black wrought-iron fence that enclosed the restaurant’s patio. Thick brown hair, light blue polo shirt, khaki slacks . . . and a folded bag from The North Pole on the table in front of him. Yep. It was the man who’d just bought the pinecone necklace.
He was facing the street corner just past the cafe, his left side to the street, giving Mandy a view of his profile. He leaned slightly back in his chair, a large tablet of paper resting on his knee. A pen or pencil moved over the page, and as she got closer, Mandy made out a studious expression on his face. Sketching? Curious, she stepped closer to the wrought iron fence, trying to sneak a glimpse.
Instead of a drawing, she saw a lined sheet with columns of handwritten figures.
Numbers, she thought. Disappointed, she started to sidle away, but her shoe scraped on the gravel, and he turned in her direction.
The slight furrow disappeared from his brow, and a wide smile crossed his face. “Hey, it’s the Christmas girl.”
His quick transformation caught Mandy off guard. “That’s what they call me.”
“Always?” As she fumbled for a response, he prodded, “You must have a name.”
“Mandy.” She smiled. “Mandy Reese.”
“Jake Wyndham.” Straightening in his chair, he held out a hand to her over the bars of the little fence. “It’s nice to run into you again.”
She took his hand and felt her smile get bigger. “Long time no see.”
Brown eyes met hers with a steady, perceptive look. No wonder she’d pegged him for an artist, instead of an accountant or whatever he was. Mandy fought off a sense of self-consciousness.
Jake released her hand and shifted in his chair. “So, help me out.” With his pencil, he tapped the menu on the table in front of him. “I haven’t ordered yet. What’s good here?”
That was easy. “I love the Chinese chicken salad.”
He nodded. “Do you have a second choice, keeping in mind that I’m a guy?”
Mandy fumbled for a response. Was he flirting with her? It wasn’t like she had a lot of practice, so it was hard to tell. The local men her own age were all the same ones who’d teased her in school, and the clientele at The North Pole wasn’t heavily male. Last summer a customer had asked her out, but she didn’t think one sixteen-year-old blond surfer dude really counted. Mandy Reese. Twenty-four- year-old cougar.
“I don’t suppose you’d care to join me?” he asked.
Her heart thumped. Maybe he was flirting, or maybe he was just being friendly. Either way, she didn’t take long to debate her answer. “Sure.”
Mandy circled to the restaurant’s entrance to join him. Didn’t he know she hadn’t even gone to her prom? Of course he didn’t. Not that this was anything like prom. Just a friendly lunch, not exactly a date.
After they ordered, Mandy nodded toward the tablet Jake had stashed on the unoccupied chair at his right. “So, what’s with all the numbers?”
“Well, here’s the deal.” Jake glanced at the pad of figures. “I work for Regal Hotels. It’s a national chain. Have you heard of it?”
She recognized the name from television commercials. Mandy nodded.
“They sent me to see about opening a new location out here. Sometimes things look good on paper, but you can’t be sure until you come up and see a place.” He nodded at the pad on the chair, like a third party at their lunch. “So far it feels great. This is a really nice little town.”
He looked at her as if he were paying her a personal compliment. When Mandy didn’t respond, he went on.
“So for starters, I come up here, talk to some people, crunch some numbers. Get a feel for the population, how much tourist traffic there is, cost of putting in a location. That’s step one. If everything looks good, I start working with city officials, checking into land availability, permits, that kind of thing.”
“Oh.” So their little chat was actually a fact-finding mission. Mandy looked at the tablet again. She decided she didn’t much care for the uninvited guest on the chair between them.
Something else about his mission niggled, and she wasn’t sure what it was.
“Tall Pine is more than numbers,” she heard herself say.
“Of course it is.” His brown eyes took on a puzzled look. “That’s why I’m here.”
Their waitress arrived with their drinks—a Coke for Jake, iced tea for Mandy. The interruption gave Mandy a chance to remember that he was just\ doing his job. She plucked the slice of lemon from the edge of her glass and adjusted her expectations, officially filing this lunch under not-a-date.
“You say you’ve lived here your whole life?” he asked when the waitress left.
He rested his chin on his folded hands. “And you don’t like the idea of someone coming here and sizing up your town.”
“I guess that’s it.” She stirred her tea. “Sorry. Nothing personal.”
“Don’t be sorry. It’s your home.” Jake contemplated her. “It’s smaller than the other areas I’ve worked in,” he said. “We’ve been in the major cities for a long time, and a whole lot of the suburbs too. The thinking is, when we branch out to nice tourist towns like this one, customers can find a place to stay that’s consistent. We’re not fancy, but we’re dependable. People know what to expect from a national chain.”
That was the problem.
“You’re going to have a hard time here,” she said.
“You’re talking about a national chain. Look around you.”
Jake obliged, casting his gaze up and down the sun-dappled street.
“Do you see any fast-food franchises? Chain department stores? Even our grocery store is mom--and-pop.”
“And I’ll bet you pay higher prices because of that.”
“Maybe.” She shrugged. “The nearest town is Rolling Hills, and they don’t have a chain grocery either. I’d say the nearest one is an hour away, so I don’t go comparison shopping. Some people go down the hill to buy their groceries once a week, or a couple times a month—”
“And the town loses business that way.”
Mandy bit her lip.
He leaned forward. “You see, once a Regal Hotel opened up here, there’d be more jobs. More shoppers. More money would stay up here, because you’d have more customers for your stores.”
She couldn’t argue with that. But—“You’re missing the point.” She gestured out toward the sidewalk. “It’s deliberate. They’ve made it a point to keep big nationwide businesses out of Tall Pine. So it doesn’t look like every other town in America. It has its own personality. Its own—”
“Character.” He nodded. “I get what you’re saying. But if you weigh the benefits—”
He was back to ledger sheets again. She held up her hands. “Remember, it’s not me you need to convince.”
“But it’s a lot of people who feel the same way you do.” He didn’t seem particularly wounded. In fact, he smiled. “A small army of Mandys.”
She felt the corners of her mouth tug up. “Makes me sound kind of dangerous.”
“Oh, I can think of worse things.”
Their food arrived. At a loss, Mandy jabbed at her Chinese chicken salad. Here she was, across the table from a nice-looking man who seemed like a decent person, and she was arguing with him. And he was being so calm and reasonable she had no right to get mad at him.
“Hey,” he said when they’d been eating in silence for a minute or so.
Mandy looked up. His eyes were serious now. She couldn’t remember the last time anyone had looked at her so directly. Why did he have to be talking about hotels, for heaven’s sake?
“Thanks for being honest. You’ve given me an idea what I’ll be going up against, and I understand.” His eyes wouldn’t let her go. “But I want you to know—I’m not here to ruin any of this. I meant what I said. I’ve just been here a few hours, and I really like it. I won’t be bringing in bulldozers towing in half a dozen McDonald’s or what-have-you. It’s just one hotel.”
“But as soon as there’s one chain outfit, it opens the door for more. That’s the way the town council’s going to see it.”
He nodded, and they finished their lunch.
When the waitress brought their bill, Mandy reached across the table for it. “How much do I—?”
Jake brought his hand out and laid it on top of hers. “No. My treat. I invited you.”
He imagined a warm little current running from her hand to his. Maybe she felt it too, because her blue eyes looked at him uncertainly.
“Thank you.” Her smile, so quick at the store, was a little dimmer out here.
“No problem.” He returned her smile, hoping to bring up the wattage in hers. “I enjoyed the company.”
That reserved look remained, and it dawned on him: this had started out as a friendly lunch, and he’d been all business. Stupid.
Jake set out his payment card in the plastic tray the waitress provided. He used his personal card rather than the corporate one, although the company paid for his meals when he was on the road. Mandy wouldn’t be aware of the difference, but he’d know.
The waitress brought his card back, Jake signed the payment slip, and they rose to leave. “Mandy, I want to ask you two favors.”
“People don’t know why I’m here yet. For the first couple days, I’d like to keep it that way while I’m asking around about things. It’s easier to get a natural answer when they’re not thinking about why I’m asking. Could you not mention it to anyone yet?”
“Okay,” she said cautiously.
“Number two.” He drew himself up a little straighter and plunged ahead. “I just wasted a perfectly good lunch talking business with you. It’s not what I planned on. Would you go out with me tonight? No shoptalk this time. I promise.”
The faint furrows between her brows faded.
“You mean, like dinner?”
“Dinner, maybe a movie—you name it.”
She seemed . . . what? Unsure what he meant?
Resistant to the idea? The sandwich he’d just eaten formed a ball in Jake’s stomach. He must have come off like a real jerk.
“Okay,” she said, still looking a little confounded.
“Where can I pick you up? I’ll meet you at the store if that makes you more comfortable.
“Oh.” She glanced down at her clothes. The simple blouse and slacks she wore now looked fine to Jake.
“You wouldn’t need to change unless you really want to,” he said. “That is, we could save the caviar and escargot for the second date. I mean, if you . . .” He trailed off.
And suddenly, there it was. A warm smile, worthy of the ones he’d seen back at the store. Jake’s stomach loosened.
“I was just thinking I should go home and get a sweater before we go. It gets a little chillier at night.” Mandy dipped back down to the table and grabbed a paper napkin. “I’ll write down directions.”
“I have a GPS.”
She fished a pen out of her purse. “The roads up here give GPS nightmares.”
She leaned over the table, and Jake watched dark waves of hair fall against her cheek as she filled the napkin with a series of lines, curves, and captions with street names. To his relief, she added her address and phone number at the bottom. Which one would get him lost first, between Mandy’s directions and his GPS—at this point, he couldn’t tell.
He took the napkin from her and squinted. “Let’s see. Turn left at the X, follow the squiggly line, make a right at the arrow—”
“Hush. You’ll thank me.”
They parted on the sidewalk, with Mandy heading back to her store while Jake continued his walking tour. He’d just had lunch, but he felt lighter as he headed down the street.
Then he rounded a corner, and his cell phone went crazy.
He pulled the cumbersome thing out of his pocket and watched the messages load.
When it was over, he saw he’d missed eleven e-mails, three texts and a voice mail. Probably Mark at the home office, wondering if Jake had fallen into a hole. He scrolled back and found that the string of messages started at ten-fifteen. Obviously, Tall Pine was in a cell phone dead spot with occasional pockets of service.
Oddly enough, he hadn’t even noticed until now.
Mandy-the-Christmas-girl had gotten him a little distracted.
He liked her. A lot. A light shroud of shyness seemed to surround her, but he hadn’t seen a hint of it in the shop, or while she’d balked at the idea of his planting a hotel in her hometown. He wondered if she was right about the reaction he could expect from the rest of Tall Pine.
Jake thought about the look on her face when he told her why he’d come here. Startled. Disillusioned. Maybe even betrayed.
Almost like he’d told her there was no Santa Claus.
I had already gotten this book when I signed up to do my review. I typically start all of "Holiday" books on Thanksgiving and read them through New Years. The past few years, for me at least, were slim pickings. So when I saw Do You Believe in Santa? and read the blurb I was pretty excited.
Maybe I should have reined that in some. And maybe that is why I was sort of disappointed in this book.
I said sort of.
It's a perfectly sweet and charming little romance(maybe too much so). I'll admit Ms. Donovan has beautifully described/developed the town of Tall Pine-enough so I'll probably check out the next book.
And Mandy is sweet, who she is, her sense of belief in Santa/magic is just that. Sweet and kinda magical.
Although Jake is a practical hero, he becomes smitten with Mandy pretty quickly and seeing him fall under the magic/spell of Christmas was special.
I will admit the head jumping between the two was abrupt and confusing at times though.
Overall, this was a nice Holiday romance that both put me in a Holiday mood and put smile on my face.
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Sierra Donovan is a wife, a mother of two and a writer, though not always in that order. Her greatest joy is helping people find true love on the printed page. She is a firm believer in Christmas, classic movies, happy endings and the healing power of chocolate. Sierra’s first novel, Love On The Air, was a Holt Medallion finalist. Her 2014 Kensington debut, No Christmas Like The Present, won the Golden Quill Award for Sweet Traditional Romance. Her 2015 novel, Do You Believe In Santa? marks the beginning of Sierra's new Evergreen Lane series. You can email Sierra at email@example.com, or visit her website at www.sierradonovan.com.