At almost twenty-one, Emma White’s life is a mess. Leaving a note to her parents, she ran away at sixteen determined to make it as an actress. Four years later and nothing has improved. It’s Christmas, it’s hot and she is secretly living in the store where she works as a Santa’s helper in Santa’s Grotto.
Toby is twenty-eight years old. He’s rich and single. After suspecting someone is robbing the store, he waits to see what’s going on. He comes across Emma who has made herself right at home. She is obviously down on her luck, so instead of calling the police he takes her to task himself.
Unsure of what to do with Emma, Toby takes her to stay with him for a while. It doesn’t take long for the two to start a steamy affair. Things seem to be going smoothly, but how will this hot Aussie react when he finds out about her missing past?
“Merry Christmas!” Emma said to another spoiled child as she held out a candy cane.
The little blonde cherub snatched it from her hand ungratefully and tore off the wrapper.
This was the job, walking up and down the line in Santa’s grotto passing out lollies to the families that were waiting to have their photo taken with the big man himself. Some were entranced with the moveable figures and the little people that had been hired to play the elves. Most of the adults had sour faces after standing in the long hot queue listening to the constant drum of whinging kids. Even for the parents that had well behaved children there was the sound next to them or behind them of someone else’s dissatisfied child.
“I don’t like peppermint,” a cranky little boy said to her before spitting it on her pointy shoes.
She sighed and looked down at the overly large green felt shoes with the bells on the toes. What was she anyway? One of Santa’s helpers apparently, even though she was average sized. The irony was that this grotto was overrun with little people acting as elves but they were up on the ledges pretending to build toys. Tough gig.? A little girl smiled and tugged on her green felt helper shirt.
“Merry Christmas,” the cute little blonde said sweetly. “You’re pretty.”
“Oh thank you.” Emma said patting the little girls head and delving down to the bottom of the basket. “You’re pretty too.” She winked at the child before passing her a cherry-flavored candy cane. So she probably wasn’t supposed to pick and choose, but it seemed like the right thing to do to reward the nice kids with the better tasting treat.
“I want one of those ones,” the bratty spitter said.
“Sorry Honey, that was the last one.” She gave him her best fake smile before moving down the line without feeling even a little bit guilty. She was a helper wasn’t she? Santa had a Naughty and Nice List and so did she.
The line was dwindling now and Emma was feeling grateful. It was so hot in her costume. She could see everyone else was feeling the same. Santa was shifting uncomfortably in his sleigh and pulling at his beard and the elves looked like they were drooping like a bunch of flowers without water.
“You okay?” she asked Jack. Jack was her friend and the only person other than his wife that knew of her situation. The little person had caught her hiding out on her second night here and he hadn’t told. That had earned her trust and trust wasn’t something she gave away easily.
“I’ll live. It wouldn’t kill them to turn up the air con a little though would it?”
“I know. Why can’t we ever embrace the idea of an Australian Christmas photo with Santa in board shorts on the beach?”
“Because Santa doesn’t live in Australia; he lives at the North Pole!” Veronica said sternly. “Haven’t you got some more canes to hand out?” She stomped back to her table, shooting an angry glance at Emma as she went.
“She doesn’t like me.”
“Yes she does.” Jack weighed his words. “She thinks I should tell on you.”
“Oh yeah, she must be really over the moon about me. I can feel her love from here.”
“Now, now, it’s not like that, Veronica thinks it would be for your own good. That it would force you to go back to your family. And we need this job Emma. We don’t need to get blacklisted by an agency.”
“It wouldn’t.” Emma narrowed her eyes. “I would live under a bridge first.”
“Okay, calm down, I didn’t say I was going to tell; I just said that that’s what she wanted. You know though, that even if you manage to get away with this, the grotto comes down on Christmas Eve.”
“I’m hoping to have enough money by then to find something.” She scowled as the small angry woman watched her suspiciously. “What if Veronica tells?”
“How can you be sure?”
“I can be sure.” He shot his wife a look that made Emma’s belly curl and Veronica put her head down and went quietly back to work. Jack patted her hand. “It’ll all work out. You know you have me if you need to talk, and Veronica for that matter. I know she has a bit of a tough shell but she’s a softie really.”
“Thanks Jack. You’re a real friend.”
“You’re welcome. Do you have something to eat?”
“I’ll find something. Don’t you worry about me.”
* * * * *
Emma waved goodbye to the last of the Christmas Grotto staff and walked towards the exit doors. With a quick look around her to make sure no one was around to notice, she darted into the ladies room and leaned against the door, her heart thumping while she listened to the footsteps of the workers as they left the department store for the day.
“Thank God,” she whispered when she was finally alone. She was bone tired and hungry. Maybe she could try and get up to the cafeteria floor see what was left over in the fridges.
When she thought enough time had gone over, she opened the door and slipped out of the ladies room. Over the last couple of weeks she’d had plenty of time to figure out where the security cameras were and she knew that the cleaners did their work in the mornings. All she had to do was hide in one of the large packages under the Christmas tree at the opening of the grotto; they didn’t ever touch those. She also knew the times when security did their walk-throughs but it was too risky to try another floor; the layout of the cameras could be different. She shelved the idea of visiting the cafeteria, as too risky. It would have to be a hunt on this floor again. The idea of another bit of chocolate or shortbread nearly sickened her, but it was better than starving.
* * * * *
“That girl should be home with her family, not sleeping inside a shop like some kind of bum,” Veronica said as she and Jack walked through the employee parking station. It was hot and she was glad they’d shed their elf suits before they had to face the humid summer evening.
“She isn’t a bum. She’s just a stubborn kid.”
“Uh huh. Which is why she should could come clean that she’s broke and go home to her mama.”
“I’m sure she will when she’s ready.”
“Well, I hope you’re right,” Veronica sighed, “If she gets caught and they find out that we knew what she was doing and we didn’t say anything, then we could all lose our jobs.”
“That won’t happen,” Jack insisted.
“Well it’ll be a jolly old Christmas if it does.” Veronica slid into the car and slammed her door.
Jack tried to hide his annoyance at Veronica’s anger. The girl was obviously down on her luck, and he wished his wife could find a little more sympathy for their co-worker. “I don’t like what she’s doing either, Honey, but I don’t know what else to do. I even offered for her to come stay with us but she won’t. She thinks you don’t like her.”
“I never said that I didn’t like her,” Veronica argued. “I’m just scared, that’s all.”
“Tomorrow I’ll think of something,” he promised.
“You’d better,” Veronica grumbled.
Jack was about to pull out of the now abandoned Jackson’s Department Store car park when a familiar silver Maserati convertible slid into its executive spot.
“Oh shit,” Jack said.
“See? I told you. Let’s hope Emma hears him coming so she can hide.”
“I wonder what he’s doing here,” Jack wondered.
“Maybe you should get out now and tell him you think someone’s been sleeping in there.”
“You can’t seriously be thinking I should do that,” Jack objected. “What if he calls the police and has her arrested? At least this way she has a chance of not getting caught.”
“I don’t want her to get arrested. I just want all of us to keep our jobs.”
“Then I guess we just have to go home and hope for the best. It’s Christmas, the season of hope. Things will work out. If she escapes getting caught this time, then I’ll have a big chat tomorrow and insist that she either comes to stay with us or goes home.”
Veronica rolled her eyes. “Whatever, Jack. But at the moment, we need to get the kids from daycare.”
“Yes, we do. Whatever happens, it’s going to be tomorrow’s problem now.”
* * * * *
Toby Jackson used his swipe pass to let himself into the building and turn off the alarm. At a meeting today, one of the department heads had expressed security concerns. One of the kiosk owners had reported small amounts of food items had been disappearing from the shelves. She was, she said, sure she’d fully stocked the shelves the night before.
Toby had gone through the security tapes personally. It wasn’t the few boxes of chocolates or packets of cookies that worried him. It was the fact that someone had managed to either sneak in or stay on after closing. If they could steal small items then it was quite possible that they were testing to see what they could get away with before planning a much larger haul. What he discovered while perusing those tapes gave him quite a surprise. Unless he was very wrong, this little thief was not part of a crime ring. She was wearing pajamas, for heaven’s sake. Toby Jackson decided if he was going to get answers, he’d start by catching the pajama-clad thief in the act.
* * * * *
Emma changed into her sleep shorts and cami. It wasn’t very comfortable to crawl across the floor in her skimpy pajamas, but it was definitely better than trying to sleep in the bulky Santa’s Helper costume. Even with the air-conditioners on it was hot. After closing when they went off, it was sweltering.
* * * * *
Toby moved through the back rooms of the floor and came out in a different department so he had a good view of the confectionary area without being seen. He didn’t have to wait long and the scene before him didn’t disappoint. When his pretty young thief crawled through the Christmas trees, he almost laughed out loud. The only thing that stopped him was her fine frame and the fact that she didn’t look very old. He realized as he watched her that he was now more worried than annoyed. She was obviously making the mall her temporary home. But who was she and why was she there?
He waited until she was by a candy kiosk and reaching for a pack of imported chocolates before clearing his throat to make his presence known.
She stopped dead, hand still in the air.
“What do you think your playing at, Miss?” he asked folding his arms and moving around to where she could now clearly see him. ?He took her arm and helped her to stand. “Well?”
Emma winced. “Would you believe I was in the bathroom and accidentally got locked in?”
“No.” She was actually going to lie? If there was one thing he couldn’t stand, it was being lied to.
“Would you believe?”
“No again.” Toby was losing patience here. He was getting the impression that this girl was making light of the situation. Did she think it was okay to stay here and help herself to whatever ever she wanted?
“But you didn’t even let me finish!” she objected.
“Because I know damn well you’ve been hiding out here for the last week and living off very expensive junk food from my shelves. I’m not going to stand here and listen to your false excuses.”
“Yes, oh. Now would you like to tell the truth this time?”
“No, not really.”
That was it; the last of Toby’s patience evaporated. He tucked the bratty waif under his arm and smacked her bottom a half a dozen times. Her thin shorts were no protection and he had her dancing with those few solid smacks. “Don’t be so rude! You are in big trouble Missy, now answer my question.”
Emma’s hands flew back to cover her stinging bottom. “I didn’t mean to be rude. I think you about covered it, is all. It’s like you said. I was staying here and eating your food.” She chewed at her lip nervously. “I’ll reimburse you for the chocolate and the cookies when I get paid, although, I really have to tell you that the Christmas cookies are overpriced. And they’re not homemade, either. I don’t care what the label says.”
“Are you serious? You’re still being lippy? There are more smacks where those few came from, believe me. I don’t want the money for the food. What I want is to know why you are living in a shop instead of a house. How do you even shower?”
“I’m not dirty! I shower in the staff room,” Emma huffed. “And you have no right to touch me.”
“I wasn’t suggesting that you were dirty. But you are trespassing and shoplifting; I think you got off lightly. You don’t even sound sorry, so if you don’t want me to call the police then I think you should start talking. I want to know where your home is.”
“I don’t have one.”
“You don’t have a home?” Toby was shocked. Everybody knew that there were homeless people but it was the first time he’d come face to face with one. She was so young, or at least she seemed to be.
“No. I don’t have a home.” Emma answered. She used to…
It was a week after her sixteenth birthday and Emma had made a momentous decision. She paced her room, up and down, round and round while she thought about what she was going to write in the letter to her parents. Lots of girls moved away from home, it wasn’t a big deal was it? She wasn’t a child and it was her future, wasn’t it? It may be a cowardly way to go about things but they refused to see things from her point of view. The way she saw it, she had no other option.
Dear Mum and Dad,
I want you to know that I love you and I’m sorry that I didn’t say goodbye in person. I’m sorry that you wasted all that money trying to educate me and I’m sorry that I didn’t finish, but I know in my heart what I’m supposed to do. Most of all I’m sorry that you don’t have enough faith in me. I know I’m meant to be an actress and I know I can make it big. One day when I’m famous I’ll come home and I’ll pay you back for everything. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.
Love, Em xo
Emma had walked away that night while her parents were still sleeping and she hadn’t been home since. That was four years ago and she still remembered the note verbatim. It amazed her that she managed to fit so many I’s into one short letter. There were a few things keeping her from going home. The obvious one was pride; she had thrown in their faces plenty of times before she wrote the letter that they had no faith in her, that they didn’t think she could make it as an actress, that they were naysayers and boring. There was no way she could go home in defeat to admit that they’d been right all along. The second reason was a mixture of guilt and fear. She had treated them badly; she could see that now and she wasn’t sure they’d even be happy to see her.
Toby looked intently at this young woman. He had no idea what to do. He couldn’t bring himself to call the police and he couldn’t just leave her any more than he could toss her out to fend for herself.
“Come with me,” he said finally.
“Are you taking me to the police station?”
“No,” he said. “I’m taking you to get a proper meal. Where are your things?”
Emma pointed to the Grotto. “Can I come back here after I eat? I won’t take anything else. I promise.”
“No. You can’t stay here. You’ll stay with me, at my house.”
“Whoa!” Emma stopped dead in her tracks. “I might be a bit down on my luck but I’m not going to work for a meal.”
“Well, of course you’re not, you silly girl! I’m offering you a room with a proper bed and a soft pillow, air conditioning and definitely a door that closes. All free, and the food is included in the deal.”
“Oh, really?” Her voice was dripping with cynicism. “And exactly what do I have to do to earn it?”
“Be honest with me, that’s all.”
“I don’t know,” she said hesitantly. “I think you might be a bit bossy.”
Toby rolled his eyes. “Go get your stuff. I’m not leaving you here.”
“See, I told you that you were bossy. Look, I’m not hurting anything or anybody here. Really. I’m fine. The sleigh is quite comfortable, although I might suggest that you make it a bit cooler in here during the day because Santa sweats something awful in my bed.”
Toby couldn’t contain himself any longer. He grabbed one of Emma’s arms and walloped her a few more times. This girl would try the patience of a saint. Maybe he should just take her to the police and be done with it. Who was he kidding? There was no way he was going to do that.
“Like I said. Go get your stuff. Now.”
Emma’s mouth fell open and once again her hands shot back to cover her assaulted backside. “How dare you!”
“Oh, I’ll dare to do more than that in a minute. Now move.”
A few moments later, a more compliant Emma returned with her backpack. Toby took it and slung over his shoulder. “Let’s go.”
It seemed to Emma that they were never going to get to wherever they were going. When they drove straight past yet another McDonald’s she could have cried, literally. Hadn’t he said he was going to feed her? Her bottom was still stinging a little and she hadn’t had a chance to eat anything since the sandwich Jack had given her at lunchtime. She could almost taste a Big Mac now. He must have sensed her disappointment or read her mind.
“We’re nearly there. I’m going to cook you some real food.”
“You cook?” Emma thought that rich people had someone do all that everyday stuff for them.
“If I’m hungry, I do.” He chuckled.
“I just thought that someone like you would, I don’t know? eat out or have a cook.”
“I do have someone that comes in but she won’t be there this time of night. Besides, I like to cook. My housekeeper does start the preparations on some things, but she usually leaves it for me to finish off.”
“So you live alone?”
“Yes, I do. Most of the time, anyway. You know you haven’t even told me your name.”
“Emma.” She grew quiet as she thought about what he’d said: Most of the time. Did that mean he had a girlfriend?
“Emma what? I’m sure you’re not one of those special people with just one name.” He smiled.
“No, it’s just Emma.” Emma stopped, unsure whether she could trust him.
“You may as well tell me. I can easily look up your employment records.”
“I’m not employed by you; I was sent there from an agency.”
“Just as easy to trace. I don’t know why you’re so worried unless you have something to hide.”
“Okay, geez. Keep your pants on. My name is Emma White.”
“Thank you, Emma White. Would you like to know my name?”
Emma glanced at him. He hadn’t known who she was, but she certainly knew who he was. She had ogled him on many occasions when he’d visited the store. She thought he was hot.
“I know who you are,” she said. “You’re Toby Jackson. Your grandfather founded the company and your Dad took over from him. You’re twenty-eight years old and at the moment, you’re in charge while your Mum and Dad are holidaying in Italy.”
“I’m impressed. Have you been studying me?”
Emma shrugged. “People talk over lunch.”
“So you eat real food for lunch, not chocolate?”
This man had way too many questions. It was making her squirm on her already irritated bum. “Do you think you could close the roof on this thing? I’m wearing my pajamas here.”
Toby pressed a button and closed the roof. “Nice change of subject, Emma. So let me tell you what I think happens at lunch. You watch people eat and you tell them you already had yours.”
Emma closed her eyes. She was hot now and wished the top were down again. “I do eat lunch,” she said defensively. “I have friends who bring me food.” She expected him to ask who the friends were, to ask her if they were accomplices. She wouldn’t give them up, not even Veronica. They were the only people she’d really been able to call friends for a long time. The one-word reaction she got though surprised her.