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Here Comes Santa ClausHere Comes Santa Claus

Leisure Books
October 2001
ISBN-10: 0-8439-4918-X
Reissue:  October 2003

You are cordially invited to join
George Garrison
Molly Oliver
In the joyous celebration of their wedding
At 7 p.m. on Monday, December 24, 2001
At Our Lady of the Snows Chapel
Snowdon, Maine
Reception to follow at
The Holiday Inn.

             RSVP Requested by December 10


Thursday afternoon, four days before Christmas Eve...

"Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way..."

"American Airlines, Flight One-oh-one to Boston is cancelled. Passengers are directed to the information desk for further instructions.

"Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way..."

"U.S. Air, Flight Six-seven-three to Syracuse is cancelled. Passengers are directed to the information desk for further instructions.

"Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way..."

"United Airlines, Flight Nine-eight-five to Bangor, Maine is cancelled. Passengers are directed to the information desk for further instructions."

"Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way..."

On and on the staticy public address system went with cancellations of what appeared to be all northbound flights in the face of a coming blizzard. The only planes taking off today from Philadelphia International Airport were those headed south, or to the western U.S. Since the southbound storm was headed this way and would probably hit full-force tomorrow, chances were there wouldn't be any northbound flights tomorrow, either.

As a backdrop to the distressing announcements, speakers in the airport terminal piped out, over and over and over, like a stuck record, a bouncy version of Jingle Bells. Meanwhile, holiday travelers--those not stunned over being land-locked at this all-important time of the year--laughed and called out to strangers with jolly "Merry Christmas" greetings as they hurried along toward their designated gates.

One person in particular was feeling less than jolly. "I hate snow. I hate that sorry song. In fact, I'm beginning to hate Christmas." Navy Commander Samuel Merrick slunk lower in his naugahyde booth and glared out the window of the airport coffee shop. He watched grimly as fat snowflakes were beginning to come down like celestial post-it notes...reminders that mere mortals and their technological advances, such as aircraft, could be frozen in place on a whim of the gods.

In the midst of Sam's grumbling to himself, Lt. Andrew O'Dell slid into the opposite booth and handed him one of the two cups of coffee in his hands, the whole time smiling. "Now, now, Slick. Since when did you become the Bluebird of Christmas Happiness? Or rather, the Blue angel of Christmas un-Happiness?" he corrected, staring pointedly at the Blue Angel crest that was positioned proudly on Sam's uniform...just as it was on his.

He and Andy were current members of the renowned six-man Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron. Considered the best of the best, these jet pilots performed high-precision, aerobatic maneuvers in breath-taking, razzle dazzle air shows across the world. Although their flying talents were famous, the Blue Angels' main role was to serve as role models and goodwill ambassadors for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

"Easy for you to say, Andy. You're not gonna be stuck in the City of Brotherly Love for the next day or two. You're almost home...just a short puddle jump to Harrisburg."

Andy didn't look a bit sympathetic...probably because his thoughts were consumed with his fiancée--a dairy farmer, of all things--whom he hadn't seen in three months. He and Andy had come up from Pensacola, homebase to the Blue Angels, less than an hour ago. It should have been a short layover for them. Then, after Christmas, they'd travel to NAF, the Naval Air Facility, in El Centro, California, where the squadron wintered.

"Knowing you, Slick, you'll find something to occupy your time," Andy said in an awestruck voice.

Oh, swell! Another Navy nugget suffering from a bit of misplaced hero worship.

As if on cue, an American Airlines flight attendant walked by, gave Sam a quick once-over, then flashed him a not-so-subtle smile that said clearly, "Hey, sailor, I'd like to know you better," before sitting down with companions at a nearby table.

"See, see!" Andy hooted in an undertone.

"It's just the uniform. Women have this thing about men in a killer uniform."

"Hah! You don't see them going ga-ga over me, do you?"

"Ga-ga?" Sam questioned with a raised eyebrow, even as he instinctively returned the woman's once-over. His slow, lazy perusal registered her trim figure and attractive facial features and the fact that she could pass for a red-headed version of Cameron Diaz. Even better, her legs were a shade longer than a Hornet jet stream. Still, he turned back to his coffee with an "Oh, well." shrug. Reciprocating her smile would amount to an he was not interested in. In fact, he'd become bored with the whole dating game for a long time now.

Sam wasn't a vain person...well, not too vain...but he'd had no trouble attracting females since he was thirteen years old and discovered that his dark hair, blue eyes and tall frame were assets to be milked for all their worth. But it wasn't just his looks. Hell, he'd gotten charm down to an art form before he'd turned ten, and earned his nickname of Slick which had stuck all these years, right down to being his call name in the Blues. Yep, charm had been a necessary survival skill when dodging the law and criminal elements in the inner city neighborhood where, during his early years, he'd been raised--or, rather, ignored--by a druggie mother, who'd been practically a kid herself.

But now Sam was feeling all charmed out. He didn't give a flying fig about meeting another woman--gorgeous or not. He was tired. Perhaps it was this forced trip back to Snowdon, Maine...a place he had studiously avoided for fourteen years, ever since his high school graduation. He had no choice now, though. His old mentor, George Garrison, was getting married, and he couldn't let him down. He'd promised he would be there by Christmas Eve, and he would be, by damn...blizzard or not.

"Man, oh, man! I can't imagine what it must be like to have women...and men, double takes when you pass by...just because you're so good looking. God, I envy you." Though he was in perfect physical condition, as required by the Blue Angels regimen, Andy would never be described as handsome...not with all those freckles and his gap-toothed, David Letterman smile and a cowlick sticking up on his crown, in spite of his short haircut. Sam was only thirty-two, but he felt old compared to the exuberant, impressionable and over-talkative Andy, who was a mere twenty-six. Andy had just joined the Angels this past year, while Sam was in his third year with the Angels...including ten years with the Navy, after college.

Taking a deep breath, he said, "Andy, I envy you."

"Me?" Andy was clearly taken aback.

"I've seen the pictures of you and Cindy...and the farm she inherited when her parents died. You can tell, just by looking at the glow on her face, how much she loves you. And that farmhouse will be perfect when you start to raise a family. Hell, you've already got a readymade family with those younger sisters she's helping to raise." He shrugged, at a loss to explain himself further. "You've got it all."

Andy's Adam's Apple bobbed up and down a few times before he choked out, "Yeah, I guess I do."

"Tell me what your Christmas will be like," Sam encouraged, wanting to take the attention away from himself.

Andy smiled and his face lit up like a Christmas tree. "Cindy and I both come from big families. I have three brothers and two sisters. She's got three younger sisters. Then, there are lots of aunts and uncles and grandparents. Loud, that's the best way to describe our Christmases. And crowded. Plenty of good, homegrown food. Always a stuffed turkey and a baked ham. My mother makes the pies...eight of them...two each of pumpkin, apple, mince meat and lemon meringue. Aunt Nellie makes the cakes; my favorite is Devil's Food with boiled icing. Yummm. We probably never got as many big ticket items as other kids did, but I can't recall feeling deprived." He thought for a moment, still smiling, "It's a happy time."

That's exactly how Sam had always imagined a family Christmas should be. The Waltons...only better.

"How about you, Slick? What do you do on Christmas?"

"Get drunk."

Andy tilted his head quizzically, not sure if he was kidding or not.

"How's this for a dose of reality? My earliest Christmas memory is of me grabbing the bell from the Salvation Army lady, whacking her over the head with it, and stealing all the money in the kettle."

Andy narrowed his eyes at him. "Exactly how old were you?"

Sam blinked several times in rapid progression. What had come over him to reveal a memory he'd thought long-buried? Finally, when Andy refused to accept his silence as a reply, he told him, "Eight."

"Ah, Slick!"

"It was a long time ago. No big deal!" he said gruffly.

Andy seemed about to say more, then cut himself off. "Hey, I have an idea. Why don't you come home with me for Christmas? Good grief! My cousin Valerie would go ga-ga over you. She's a massage therapist." Andy jiggled his eyebrows meaningfully.

Sam laughed. "I wish I could. Especially with a ga-ga massage therapist. But I have to be in Maine by Monday."

Andy put his hand on Sam's forearm. "You seem really down in the dumps. It's not just the weather delay, is it?"

Thank goodness, Sam's cell phone rang then. He was spared from answering Andy's question...a procedure which would involve even more painful revelations.

"Merrick here," Sam said, flicking up the lid of his cell phone with a thumb and holding the mini console to his ear.

"Samuel! It's so good to hear your voice," a jovial voice spoke out.

It had to be George. He was the only one who could get away with calling him by his given name.

In the background could be heard the loud barking of dogs...lots of dogs. George was a veterinarian, and the man who had practically saved his life as a wayward teenager, along with the lives of his best buddies, Kevin "JD" Wilder and Stan Kijewski, fellow inmates...uh, residents...of the White Mountain Home for Boys in Snowdon, Maine. Kevin, a former cop and currently a D.C. private eye, and Stan, until recently a pro football player with the San Diego Typhoons, were supposed to meet up with him in Maine.

Sam could pretty well guess why George was calling now. He had asked the three of them to come back to Snowdon this week to be best men at his wedding. Now, George was checking up on he always had. "When can Molly and I expect you? Chowder's on the stove, just the way you always liked it. The weather's getting a mite rough up this way, and I wanted to make sure we get to the airport in time to pick you up."

George's deep Maine burr was a welcome melody to Sam's ears. Furthermore, "a mite rough" to a Maine old-timer meant ten-below temperatures, wind chill equal to a North Pole gale, and snow to the rooftops...what the rest of the world considered emergency crisis conditions.

"Uh, George, have you turned on the TV today?"

"No. Mable Gentry's poodle was constipated again. I keep telling Mable not to give her dog cheese doodles."

"Mrs. Gentry still has that poodle? Bella was her name, right?" Sam had worked enough in George's kennels as a teenager that he knew his regular customers, even after all these years.

"Yep! Bella. Mus' be more'n fifteen years old. But what was that you said about the television?"

"Huh? Oh. I asked if you've turned on the TV today."

There was a long sigh on George's end. "Don't tell me, you're on TV again. Goldurnit, boy, you've got more moxie than good sense. I couldn't believe that somersault you did in your aeroplane over the White House last summer. I hope you're not gettin' yourself in trouble again with my weddin' so close."

Sam smiled, loving the way George's conversations tended to ramble. He even loved the sounds of all the yips and woofs and bow-wow's and meows that always seemed to surround him. Most of all, he loved the way George was concerned about him, as if he were still "Slick Merrick, Teenager-In-Trouble"...again.

"George, you are in the midst of a major storm, and it's headed this way. I'm stuck at the airport in Philly, with all flights northbound being cancelled for the time being, possibly the next two days."

There was a long pause of silence. "Does that mean you're not coming?" George's voice was soft when he spoke, and full of disappointment. Just like it was the time Sam had shoplifted those condoms from a convenience store when he was fourteen...or when he'd gotten picked up by the police for speeding when he was fifteen...or when he'd broken both legs skiing down Suicide Run after an ice storm when he was sixteen.

", I'll be there. I mean, I'm almost certain I'll be there. It's just a delay for now."

"Hold on a minute." George could be heard talking to a female in the room with him. Probably his fiancée. Finally, he came back and informed Sam excitedly, "Molly came up with a perfect solution for you." He paused in a ta-da manner before suggesting, "You can hitch a ride on the Santa Brigade bus."

"What the hell is a Santa Brigade?" Almost immediately, he added, "I beg your pardon, sir." Old habits died hard. George never tolerated bad language.

"The Santa Brigade is a troupe of volunteers from Winter Haven. And they're headed back up this way any day now. They better be. They're all invited to the porchbreaker of a weddin' celebration we're planning."

"Winter Haven? The retirement community?" Good Lord! What did a retirement community have to do with him?

"Yep. For years, a bunch of the residents have been dressing up as Santas, entertainin' kids hereabouts with magic and stuff. Then, three years ago, they rigged up this special bus so they could travel down the eastern seaboard visiting homeless shelters and such for a couple weeks before Christmas. They're famous, boy. Haven't you ever heard of 'em?" He was talking to the female in the room again. "Molly just reminded me. They were on Good Morning America las' week. Dint'ja see 'em? Diane Sawyer sat on Morey Goldstein's lap. That old fart's gonna have a head so big when he gets back here his hat won't fit. You remember Diane Sawyer. She passed out in a Blue Angels plane a few years back. I saw it myself on the TV."

Sam braced an elbow on the table and put his forehead in his palm. Between George's rambling and the approaching snow storm, Sam felt the mother of all headaches beginning to throb behind his eyes. "George, what do all these geriatric Santas have to do with me and my cancelled flight?"

"Be careful how you use that word geriatric, boy. I'm in that category now, too."


"Those geriatric Santas, as you call them, are the answer to your prayer, Samuel."

What prayer? Call me crazy, but I don't recall praying for a long time...probably since the time my mother told me she was abandoned me when I was ten. Sam shook his head, hard, to clear it. He was becoming way too maudlin today.

"At this moment, they're at the Good Shepherd Shelter in Allentown, Pennsylvania. That's right down the road from you."

"I hate to tell you this, but Allentown isn't down the road from Philadelphia." Andy whispered some specifics to him. Then Sam informed George, "It's a two-hour drive under good conditions."

George was talking right over him. "Molly's ringing up their bus driver right now. You remember Betty Morgan."

"Betty Morgan is the bus driver? The Betty Morgan? I thought she was a Marine." Betty, nicknamed Betty Bad-Ass by him and his buddies, had caught him necking one time behind her father's garage with Sally Sue Simpson. She'd given him a lecture that day, complete with blue language that still turned his face red in memory, on the need for always carrying proper rubbers. And she hadn't been referring to boots, either.

"Retired. Now she's a Nascar mechanic...famous, actually...and a bus driver for the brigade on her off-time. Orders everyone around like a drill sergeant. What's that you say, Molly? Oh, Betty wants to know if you can you be in Allentown by fifteen hundred hours?"

"I can't be there in one hour," he replied testily, glancing at his wrist watch and making some quick mental calculations. "It's already two o'clock. I have no means of transportation handy. There's not enough time. And the weather's getting bad." Besides, I have no desire to ride for a day or more in a crowded bus with a bunch of senior citizen Santas through a blizzard. Not to mention Betty freakin' Bad-Ass Morgan. She'd probably give me a more up-to-date lecture on prophylactics.

George ignored all his protests, and was giving him the number of Betty's cell phone, which Sam jotted down on a napkin.

"Don't let me down," George said then. The wily old fox was manipulating him to his will, just like he always had.

"I'll try to find a way to get there in a day or two, George, but I'm not coming on a Santa bus," he pronounced firmly.

"Now, don't rule it out. There are no guarantees that the storm won't get worse, and you'll be stuck in Philadelphia through Christmas. Talk to Betty. See what you can arrange."

"I'm not coming on a Santa bus."

"Maybe you could hire a taxi to Allentown."

A taxi? Is he nuts? "I'm not coming on a Santa bus."

"Oh. Molly just reminded me about somethin'. The director of Winter Haven is on that bus, too."

So? "I'm not coming on a Santa bus."

"You know who that is, dontcha?"

I don't care if it's Julia Roberts. "I'm not coming on a Santa bus."

"Reba Anderson."

The wind was knocked out his stomach, and his heart raced wildly. Jet pilots and astronauts, and especially Blue Angels who performed tight maneuvers fighting gravitational pull, were taught to lift weights regularly and learn how to tense their abdominal muscles as if to prepare for a stomach punch. It was called "hooking." Without it, they might lose consciousness. In essence, the news about Reba hit Sam like a lethal G-force, and he'd had no chance to "hook."

Through discipline and occasionally alcohol, Sam had kept thoughts of Reba banked in the recesses of his memory. Now, they all came rushing forward, like a burst dam.


"That was a low blow, George," he said when he could finally speak with a modicum of calmness.

"Huh? All I said was that Reba was on the bus. I know you had a crush on her when you were kids."

Yep, George is manipulating me, bigtime. "A crush? I was crazy about her."

"Well, ya mighta told her that...before you skipped town like a cat with its tail on fire."

"That was fourteen years ago. I was headed for the Naval Academy," he pointed out, then took several deep breaths to control his temper, before adding, "She's married, George. Why rake up dead ashes?"

George gasped. "Samuel H. Merrick! You are ten kinds of a fool. Reba Anderson got divorced more'n ten years ago. I don't think she was married for six months before she discovered that Whitby boy was light in the loafers."

Reba isn't married? he marveled. Thank you, God! Apparently, he hadn't forgotten how to pray, after all.

The most incredible feeling swept over Sam then. It took him several moments to realize that it was happiness, the kind of happiness a little kid experiences, awakening on Christmas morning, when he believes that everything is possible.

He caught himself smiling like an idiot before he spoke into the phone again, "It appears I'll be riding on the Santa bus, after all, George."

A burst of static erupted in the phone, and just before the line went dead, Sam thought he heard George murmur, "I thought you would, son. I thought you would."

Reba? After all these years, I'm going to see Reba again?

I wonder if she's changed. I wonder if she'll think I've changed.

Will she be happy to see me?

Does she still care?

Do I still care?

Apparently, he did. Why else would he be feeling so goofy? His heart swelled and almost burst from his chest. His brain raced at shutter-speed with images of him and Reba over an eight-year period, from the time he first arrived, mid-year, to be a reluctant student in the Snowdon, Maine, public schools, while residing at the White Mountain Home for Boys. Reba had befriended the cocky ten-year-old he'd been then, somehow sensing that he'd been shaking on the inside.

Whereas he'd been self-confident, at least on the outside, and popular, Reba had been self-conscious and shy. Always on a diet, she'd claimed to be perpetually twenty pounds overweight. She was least five-foot-nine; so, it never showed as far as Sam could tell. He'd always thought she was just right...rounded in the right place. And soft.

"Hey, Slick, come here!"

Sam was jarred out of his reverie by Andy who was in the corridor outside the coffee shop, talking to two men carrying camera equipment emblazoned with the WBZ-TV logo. After placing a few dollars on the table, Sam walked outside.

Andy introduced everyone all around. It turned out one of the fellows, Larry Bassinger, had been a frat brother of Andy's when they were in Lafayette College together a few years back.

"I heard you talking on the phone about needing to connect with The Santa Brigade in Allentown," Andy explained.

"Yeah," Sam said hesitantly.

"Well, guess what? Larry just told me, they did a feature story on those cuckoo-birds last night when they were in Philly."

Larry nodded. "Our phones have been ringing off the hook all day. People want to know more about them."

"Soooo?" Sam addressed his question to both Andy and Larry, the whole time watching out of his side vision as the other guy, Frank Butler, was setting up his microphone equipment, as if to begin an interview.

"So, they have a helicopter, ready to take off. They're supposed to be doing some weather shots, but what the hey!" Andy threw his hands up in the air as if he'd just produced a miracle.

Why is everyone rambling around me today? Can't anyone just get to the point? He folded his arms across his chest, a clear sign of impatience.

Andy continued to beam at him. "They're willing to help you, and in return you help them."

"That's about as clear as pea soup in a ship's galley."

"You give them a feature story, and they get you to the Santa Brigade in Allentown."


"I'm thinking we should title the piece, `Blue Angel Drops Out of the Sky'," Frank told Larry.

"That would be good, that would be good," Larry said. "Or how about "Santa Gets a New Helper."

As understanding began to dawn, the only thing Sam could say was, "!"

"Geez, Sam, now that I think about it, this is not a good idea. Really, you could get in serious trouble with the Navy, not to mention the FAA, and any number of local agencies." Andy was frowning with concern.

"Yeah," Sam agreed, but all he could do was grin. Man, oh, man, did he love a challenge!

But this was a helluva dilemma. Was he really going to parachute out of a news helicopter to join a wacky Santa group wheeling up the highways to Maine in the middle of a snow storm?


It would be really dangerous.

I've done crazier things in my lifetime...lots crazier.

I could be risking my career, just like Andy said.

Been there, done that, what's new?

I might be making a fool of myself.

Damn straight.

Reba Anderson is there.

He smiled to himself then.

Santa Brigade, here I come!


Reba Anderson was one happy camper...well, Santa Claus.

Even with snowflakes the size of cotton balls drifting around her, Reba couldn't feel anything but happy. She and her nine fellow Santas had just provided some much-needed holiday cheer to thirty-one homeless adults and children at the Good Shepherd Homeless Shelter in Allentown, Pennsylvania--their twenty-eighth entertainment program of the holiday season. They had only six more to go before returning to their homes in Maine on Christmas Eve, four days from now.

Dressed to the gills in St. Nick attire, she stood near the fold-down steps of the souped-up Santa Brigade bus, hitching up her Santa belly. Smiling to herself, she recalled a time when she was so self-conscious she never would have donned a fattie outfit, too worried over what others might think. Although she had never been fat, she was proud of her now svelte figure--one which she'd maintained for ten long, jogging-filled years. It was a sign of her growing self-confidence and contentment, she supposed, that she no longer cringed over her appearance...or that of the bus which sported a bright, fire engine red paint job and a hokey Rudolph hood ornament.

She was checking off on her clipboard each member of the outrageous, endearing, senior citizen Santa troupe as they emerged from the shelter--actually, a church annex--and made their way carefully through the cascading snow and over slick sidewalks to their mobile home-away-from-home, which was parked in the empty church parking lot.

Reba's heart swelled with pride as she watched the members of her group chat and laugh together about the act they'd just completed. Truly, they'd become like a family. A family of Santas.

Maudeen Livingstone, who was known affectionately as Cyber Granny because of her fascination with computers, stuck her head out of the bus window and informed Reba, "I just got an email from a dollar store in Scranton. If we can stop there on the way to Poughkeepsie, they have a load of gifts for us, including," she chuckled gleefully, "... a couple dozen more Chia pets." The seventy-five-year-old Maudeen was a wiry, irascible grandmother who had operated Snowdon's one and only hair salon/barbershop for many years, Clip 'n Curl. She had a penchant for ever-changing hair-do's. Today her hair was fiery red and curly

Reba joined Maudeen in chuckling. Their beloved Cyber Granny used her computer like an industrial clearing house for donations and requests for help, matching supply with demand. At any one moment, she could tell you exactly how many fruitcakes they had on hand, or Lincoln Logs, or doll babies or whatever. The Santa Brigade relied almost totally on donations from private and business concerns. And they weren't picky, either. Nosirree. The first time someone had donated Chia Pets, they had all groaned, figuring only idiots would want those cornball items. But it turned out they were very popular in the mostly colorless homeless shelters, which were bereft of any greenery.

Sometimes business concerns were devious in their donations, just looking for tax write-offs for bad merchandise, like The Budget Bazaar which gave them twenty-five wreaths with hidden motion detectors that were supposed to play "Jingle Bells" when someone passed by, but instead played, "Here Comes Peter Cottontail." The only time Reba had refused a donation was when Good Times Haberdashery in Newark tried to pawn off three dozen samples of "The Real Man's Christmas Belt." Mistletoe hung from the belt buckles.

"Scranton wouldn't be too far out of our way," Maudeen said, interrupting her preoccupation.

"Talk to Betty about any stops you want to make. You know the approaching storm is a concern." Betty, a retired Marine officer and current Nascar mechanic, was their bus driver.

"Yep," Maudeen agreed. "We've gotta get back to Snowdon by Christmas Eve, guaranteed. Don't want to miss George's wedding. Plus, my grandkids are coming in from Boston that night."

Even as they talked, Betty completed a second check of the air pressure in the huge tires and was now flipping up the hood of the bus...not an easy feat for most women of her diminutive size. But Betty was not like most women. The feisty, no-nonsense woman, with the CB handle, "Tough Cookie," had trucker and police connections all over the eastern seaboard to make sure their Santa troupe would get where they needed to go.

"Should we be worried about the weather conditions? Maybe we should stay overnight here in Allentown."

Betty slammed the hood of the bus shut, after having checked the oil and antifreeze, then addressed Reba. "We'll be fine...for now. I want us to make as good a time as possible today, though, hopefully to Poughkeepsie, do the show there, and move on northward. I don't think the blizzard will affect us, seriously, till we cross the Vermont line. I'm not saying we won't have to take it easy, but I can handle a little snow."

Reba nodded, more than willing to leave all the transportation worries in Betty's capable hands. She turned to check off the last of her passengers. That's when she noticed that Betty was staring with amazement toward the sky. It took a lot to amaze Betty.

"Look! Look!" Several of the Santa Brigade members had rolled down the windows of the bus and were pointing to the sky.

Reba joined them in gazing skyward where the thwapping sound of a helicopter was clearly audible overhead, and visible, even through the thickening shower of snowflakes. It was one of those news helicopters...the type that did traffic and weather this case, WBZ-TV. But that wasn't what had excited her senior Santas, or the people streaming out of the homeless shelter to gawk at the heavens. There was a man parachuting out of the, two men. The first was wearing some kind of military uniform. The other was obviously a TV cameraman who had his lens pointed at the other person and at the gathering crowd below.

"Maudeen!" Reba yelled.

Maudeen jumped in her window seat near the front where she'd been continuing to work with her laptop.

"Did you arrange another publicity stunt?"

Maudeen craned her head out the window and looked up to the sky. Even in those few seconds, snowflakes were covering her curly red head. "Nope, but I woulda, if I'd thought of it. There's no such thing as bad publicity," she pronounced and ducked back inside with a decided shiver.

Reba wasn't so sure about that. It wouldn't be good PR for their Santa Brigade if one of these yahoos broke a neck skydiving. And, really, they didn't have time now for another interview, although God Bless the media, big and small, who had covered their trips the past few years. The exposure they gave them brought in the gifts and monetary donations that made this charitable endeavor possible.

"Oh, for Pete's Sake! I think I recognize that fellow in the uniform," Betty declared with a sniff. She was staring up at the sky with a pair of of many that had been donated by a bankrupt sporting goods chain. "Isn't it just like him to pull such a stunt?"

"Huh?" Reba said. "Let me use those." With the aid of the binoculars, she squinted upward at the figures who were rapidly approaching the parking lot. Suddenly, a prickling sensation tickled the back of her neck. No! It isn't possible. He wouldn't show up here, of all places. Not now. Not after all these years.

Reba handed the binoculars back to Betty, who seemed equally stunned with disbelief as the men landed safely and disengaged themselves from their harnesses and parachutes. They both removed helmets and dropped them to the ground. People from the homeless shelter rushed forward, along with a few cops who had pulled up, sirens screaming. Everyone was talking at once.

The man in uniform, who must be frozen to the bone since he hadn't worn a jumpsuit like the other fellow had, pushed doggedly toward the bus, ignoring the crowd and shouted questions. His gaze swept the bus area, as if searching for someone...then locked on her. He started resolutely to close the short distance between them.

Reba's heart skipped a beat as she backed away slowly.

"Sam Merrick?" she asked in a voice hardly more than a whisper. Or was it a whimper?

He must have heard because he nodded.

Oh, he looks so good. His dark hair was much shorter than the last time she'd seen him, fourteen years ago. Not the buzz cut normally associated with GI's, but short on the sides and neck, nonetheless. There were fine lines crinkling the edges of his eyes and mouth, both of which appeared oddly vulnerable as he stared at her. If anything he looked better than he had before, and he'd always been stop-traffic handsome.

How must I look to him? she wondered, realizing suddenly that she still wore the Santa suit with the big belly, though she had removed the hat and beard, which she clutched in trembling fingers? Like a fool, that's how.

As if in answer, Sam's scrutiny swept over her in that slow, sensual way he'd perfected with women since practically toddlerhood. His perusal lingered over her midsection, and a smile twitched at his lips. Then he stared directly into her eyes.

"Reba," he said huskily, "you look just the same as always."

She gasped, clutching at her big belly. Over the years, she'd practiced many scenarios and scripts in her mind, imagining what he would say or do if she ever met him again. And what does he say? That she hasn't changed at all. Well, she had. And not just on the outside. He should have noticed, she decided irrationally. He should have come back sooner. The louse! The two-bit jerk! Where is his famous charm?

"What are you doing here?" she blurted out.

He chuckled, and, oh, what a familiar sound that was! Sam had the sexiest chuckle in the world. "I was stuck in the Philadelphia airport, and when George told me that you were here, well, I decided on the spot that I had to come, and..." His voice trailed off, and he just shrugged.

"You came here to see me?"

He hesitated with uncertainty. "Uh-huh. And because I need to hitch a ride to Snowdon with your know, for George's wedding. I talked to your bus driver on the phone and she gave me directions to--"

Reba's head swiveled to Betty who leaned against the side of the bus, blatantly eavesdropping on their conversation. "You never mentioned Sam to me," she accused.

"Ooops!" Betty said. "Guess it slipped my mind." She wasn't fooling Reba. The old fool had deliberately withheld that news from her.

Tossing her hat and beard to the ground with disgust, she turned her attention back to the Show-off Jerk before her. She put a fist on each of her padded hips and demanded, "You heard I was here and just had to come all of parachute?"

"That's the short story. Can we go somewhere private? I'll fill in all the details later."

Reba had finally come to her senses. Who the hell did he think he was? Who the hell did he think she was...some clueless teenager who would be impressed by his romantic gesture?

"You haven't changed at all, Sam Merrick. What a juvenile prank! Guess you figured I'd just swoon all over the place, like all your other women."

"Other women?" he sputtered. "What other women?"

She gave him a look that told him exactly what women she was referring to, as if she didn't read the tabloids, or get reports back from George on occasion. Did he think she was a clueless twit, stuck in the Maine boonies?

Sam put both of his fists on his hips, mirroring her actions, and glared back at her. "What's got your Santa belly all a-jiggle, Reba?" he asked, a teasing tone to his voice. "I thought you'd be pleased that I..."

Reba was not in the mood for being teased. "Ooooh, you are a real piece of work, Slick."

Sam had always hated it when she'd called him by that nickname, even though he'd accepted it from everyone else. Apparently, he still didn't like the appellation coming from her lips because his jaw tensed and his fists got tighter.

But then he softened, and the look Sam gave her spoke volumes, caressing her soul. He told her, without speaking, that he wanted her...only her.

For that moment, anyway.

The man is smooth...I'll give him that. Good thing I caught myself in time. I'll be damned if I allow him to turn that famous charm on me. "Do you expect me to be jumping with joy when you finally show up after fourteen years?"

"I heard...I heard that you got married. In fact, until today, I thought...well, I still were...and, after all, how was I to know that..." The usually cool Sam stammered as he spoke.

"Give me a break! I was married ten years ago. Where were you thirteen years ago? Or twelve? Or eleven? You know, those first three loooong years after you left?"

"I can explain," he said and tried to reach for her.

She stepped aside...not an easy task for a hefty Santa...and put up a halting hand. With tears welling in her eyes, Reba realized that her long-buried dream had come true...Sam had finally come back. But it wasn't like her dreams at all. In fact, this was her worst nightmare.

"I've never forgotten about you. Never."

Reba could have wept at the sweetness of those words. If only they were true! But it was undoubtedly a phoney sentiment meant to achieve some ulterior always. A Slick-ism. "Cut the crap, Slick. That doesn't even pass the giggle test."

"Reeebbbaaa," he cajoled huskily.

Really, it was untenable. The jerk still thought he could charm the pants off her. Well, darn it, he probably could, if she wasn't careful. Inhaling deeply to calm herself, Reba looked at Sam. Then she looked at the snow bank behind him where city crews must have plowed the parking lot during a previous storm. Then she looked back at Sam again. Finally, she did the only thing a once-jilted female could do...she shoved a world-famous Blue Angel in the chest, knocking him flat on his back.

"Charm that, Slick," she said and stomped off toward the bus.

Nine Santas clapped in appreciation of her long-overdue spunk. And a television camera filmed what would be heralded in the evening news programs as, "Blue Angel Gets Wings Clipped."

Reba should have felt silly, or regretful, but she felt damn good.


Sam was feeling good...damn good.

It didn't matter that he was lying flat on his back in a pile of snow. It didn't matter that Reba was so pissed at him that smoke practically steamed from her ears. It didn't matter that a whole bunch of people were gaping at him. It didn't matter that the TV camera was rolling, and geriatric Santas were voicing their opinions right and left. It didn't even matter that a blinking police light nearby indicated some serious questioning on his horizon. He was exactly where he wanted to be...within radar range of Reba. Now, the real work began. If there was one thing Samuel H. Merrick, Commander, U.S. Navy, knew how to handle, it was a challenge.

In one fluid motion, he rose to his feet, dusted off his butt, and took off after Reba, whose fat Santa ass had the cutest wobble to it. Later he might inform her of that anatomical fact, but not right now...unless he wanted to land in the snow again.

She was about to board the bus when he grabbed her by the upper arm. Before she could say, "Buzz off, bozo!" or something equally appropriate, he pulled her--feet dragging, free arm flailing, mouth sputtering--toward the church annex. Once inside what appeared to be the vestibule of a chapel, attached to a church homeless shelter, he drew her into an alcove.

Privacy, at last.

Reba, at last.

"," Reba said through gritted teeth, struggling vehemently, but to no avail. He had her backed up against the wall, his flat stomach pressed against her pillowed stomach, her two hands held above her head, locked in place by his fingers entwined with hers.

Sweet mother! She is the sexiest Santa in the world.

"," she repeated.

"Never! Never again!" He basked in his first close-up examination of the girl he had loved...who was now the woman he...loved? He wasn't sure about that, but, before this Christmas was over, he was going to find out, for damn sure.

The adrenaline rush he got when making a rifle-shot pass down a runway before streaking toward a clear blue sky was nothing compared to this. The beauty of a four-plane diamond formation, wing tip to wing tip, at five hundred miles per hour was nothing compared to this.

Pilots had an expression called "flying too close to the flame." Well, he'd thought he'd done just that on a hundred different maneuvers, but it was nothing compared to this. With sudden insightfulness, he realized that Reba was his flame, and always had been. And that's why he'd stayed away.

In many ways, she looked the same, just as he'd told her, though more mature, of course. He was so very glad she hadn't changed much. In his convoluted logic, he figured she'd stayed in place for him.

Long, honey blonde hair fell to her shoulders and beyond in a thick swath that he'd always loved and she'd always hated. He wanted to take a strand between his fingers and rub sensuously, but he wasn't taking a chance on releasing her...yet.

Her eyes were the same caramel brown, but different; they'd seen pain. That saddened him a bit. He'd always told Reba she had smiling eyes; a person could tell she was smiling without ever seeing her mouth. He would make her eyes smile again. Yes, he would.

And speaking of her mouth...Blessed Lord, what a mouth! That hadn't changed, thanks be to God and genetics. Her upper lip was fuller and puffier than the lower. A supremely kissable mouth.

What would she do if I grazed the pad of my thumb across her bottom lip?

Bite it off, no doubt, he answered himself with an inner chuckle.

"Reba," he said in a husky whisper, his head lowering. "I'm going to kiss you, honey."


"Shhhh, don't resist. I know we have lots to discuss. Please, just give me a chance."


"I've made mistakes. I owe you a million apologies."


"You married another man, for chrissake! All these years I thought...I was picturing you with..." His voice choked up so he couldn't continue. "Later. We'll talk about this later. But, first, God help me, I want...I kiss you. Just one kiss, babe. Just one."

In that flutter of a second before his lips met hers, she moaned. That's all. A moan. But he recognized the moan for what it was. Despite her "No, no, no's," she wanted this kiss as much as he did. Where he and Reba were concerned, there was magic when they touched...always had been.

He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. The scent of holiday evergreens, beeswax candles and incense permeated the air. In a closed room upstairs, he could hear children's voices raised in a screechy version of "Silent Night," probably preparing for a Christmas recital. Were they homeless children, or students from a religious school affiliated with the church? Or angels that God had sent to serenade his reunion with Reba?

Above all the Christmas ambience was peppermint. He smelled it on Reba's breath before he tasted it on her lips. She must have candy canes in her Santa sack, he surmised with an irrelevance that surely bordered on madness.

"Sam," she breathed.

"Reba," he breathed back.

At first, he just settled his lips against hers, and, miracle of miracles, they still fitted together perfectly.

Then he set about the serious business of kissing. And, yes, he took his kissing seriously...especially with Reba.

Slanting and molding, parting her lips with his. Deeper. Harder. Then softer again. Pleading and demanding. Once, when he came up for breath, he whispered, "I love kissing you."

Smiling against his mouth, she said, "You always say that."

She was right. He had always said that before...during and after their hours and hours of kissing...the kind of hormone-heavy torture only teenagers could inflict on each other, and enjoy the process.

"You're trembling," he informed her with male satisfaction.

She laughed. "You're gloating." And she didn't even seem annoyed over that. He must be making progress.

"I love kissing you," he said again, because it felt so right. Time spiralled backwards then. It could have been now, or fourteen years ago. Some things never changed.

He kissed her and kissed her, with all the expertise he could gather and with all the yearnings he could not bank. One long, never-ending, forever kiss. If he stopped the kiss, the dream might end. The magic might disappear. He kissed her soft and coaxing till her lips went pliant. Then, blood thickening and senses inflaming, he kissed her deep and wet till her knees buckled, and he had to release their interlaced fingers so that he could put his hands on her pillowed behind to hold her up.

"I'm a fool," she whimpered on a sigh. "Like always, I'm a fool where you're concerned."

"My fool!" he agreed. "Be a fool for me, baby. Only me. That's right. That's the way."

To his surprise and delight, Reba put her arms around his neck and drew him closer.

He was the one who whimpered then, especially when she opened her mouth wider and touched his tongue with hers.

"You taste like peppermint," she said against his mouth, not breaking contact.

"I taste like you," he answered with a growl. "And you taste like...home."

That seemed to snag Reba's attention because her body went still. Taking his face in both her hands, she broke their kiss and held his head away. "Home?" she asked, her voice grainy with arousal, and something else...something much more dangerous...hope. "Are you really coming home, Sam? For good?" The expectant expression on her face about broke his heart.

No, no, no! Now is not the time for somber questions. "Later, honey," he murmured, and tried to resume the kiss.

She would have none of that and averted her face. "Sam, are you coming home?"

He could feel his face flush. "Of course. I'm coming home for George's wedding. JD and Stan will be there, too. It'll be great." Even he recognized how lame that sounded.

She shook her head at his evasiveness. "Are you coming home, for good?"

How the hell do I know? Man, my blood turns cold just thinking about living in that town again. But Reba would be there. And I'm a grown-up now. A Blue Angels pilot, to be precise. Well, golly, Merrick, there's a big call for pilots in Podunk, Maine. Oh, shit! Oh, damn! Oh, God, let me say the right thing.

He hesitated a moment too long, and Reba pushed her hands against his chest and ducked out of his embrace. She put several feet between them before he had a chance to gather his testosterone-foggy senses. "Reba, this is all happening too fast. I need time."

"Time!" she spat out. "You've had fourteen years to make up your mind, Sam. If you don't know now, you never will."

"You don't understand."

"Yes, I do, Sam. I understand more than you can imagine. Perhaps it's best that we met like this again. I needed the closure." She regarded him with soul-wrenching disappointment.

"Closure?" A tight vise was squeezing his chest walls, and he could barely breathe.

"It's over. Finally, and forever." There were tears in her eyes, but Sam could tell that she meant every word.

"But the kiss. You can't deny the kiss, Reba. The magic is still there between us, no matter what you say."

She stared at him for what seemed like an eternity through misty brown eyes. Then she declared flatly, "That, my friend, was a good-bye kiss."

With that, she was gone.

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