Dear Santa

 

DEAR SANTA
Special Edition #1864
ISBN #978-0373-248643
November 2007

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Grant Braeburn might be insanely rich, but emotionally, he’s bankrupt. No surprise, then, that his marriage failed...or that he’s somehow never really connected with his three-year-old daughter. Then his ex is killed in a car crash, leaving Grant a woefully inept single father. Haley will never want for anything material, but how on earth do you explain to a small child that she’ll never see Mommy again?

Desperate, he turns to Mia Vaccaro, Justine’s best friend and Haley’s “aunt”...even though he and Mia basically can’t stand each other. But the down-to-earth lawyer-turned-party planner will do anything to help the little girl she loves with all her heart, even if it means sharing a mansion with a man whose favorite beverage might as well be O positive...and who has a secret that could not only shatter Mia’s faith in her old friend, but, as Mia and Grant find common ground in their concern for a hurting, confused child, could destroy the future, as well.

 

EXCERPT

Dear SantaWhere is she?” Mia tossed in Grant’s housekeeper’s direction as she catapulted herself through the mansion’s open door, simultaneously unwinding her scarf and shrugging out of her tweed jacket.

“Upstairs, in her room,” the older woman said, relieving her of the garments. “But—”

“Thanks.”

Mia strode across the black-and-white tiled floor in the mini-rotunda that served as a vestibule, deaf to the screams of Money, money, money! reverberating from the high-ceilinged space. That she’d made it up here in one piece was a miracle in itself, considering all she really wanted to do was curl up in a corner somewhere until the world made sense again—

“Mia. Wait.”

The deep voice hit its mark like a sharpshooter’s bullet. Already at the foot of the curved staircase, Mia spun around, her gaze colliding with a pair of steely lasers, nailing her to the spot. Not until then did she realize she was panting, as though she’d run all the way from Manhattan instead of driven. Vaguely, it dawned on her that she hadn’t even changed clothes after she’d talked to Grant, that she was still in the same rumpled jeans and who-gives-a-damn hoodie she’d been wearing to schlep fake fall foliage to the Pierre for the Chins’ anniversary party the next night, that her tortoiseshell clip was hanging by maybe two teeth to her long, thick hair.

That she looked every bit the scatter-brain he undoubtedly thought she was.

“Grant! I’m sorry, traffic was a bear on the Henry Hudson, I got here as soon as I could!”

One side of his mouth ticked. Grant Braeburn’s version of a smile. “Clearly. Thank you. Before you go up. . .?” He gestured toward a room off the entryway. His office, if she remembered correctly. She’d been in the house before, of course – for the wedding, once after that for dinner with Christopher, a night branded in her memory as somewhere between miserable and excruciating. But she wasn’t here to see Justine’s ex, she was here for the little girl who’d wrapped herself around Mia’s heart from the first time she’d laid eyes on the baby when she was less than a day old.

“Mia!” came the imperious tone when she started upstairs. “We need to talk!”

“Later!”

She’d already reached the landing when his fingers wrapped around her arm. A lesser woman might have been intimidated – or, in other circumstances, turned on – by the man’s grip. Or at the very least, let out a soft, feminine squeal of surprise. Instead, Mia went for the severely pissed off look. One that nicely complimented Grant’s own.

“Dammit, Mia – I don’t want you breaking down in front of Haley.”

“Not a problem,” she said, yanking out of his grasp and striding across a billion bucks’ worth of Oriental runner toward Haley’s room. Whatever issues Grant had with her – or she, him – would have to wait. Preferably until they were both dead and buried—

The thought literally made her stumble, although she righted herself before Grant could notice. She hoped. But despite the heartburn-from-hell dissolving her digestive system as they spoke, she wasn’t about to crumple.

Not yet, anyway.

Grant loomed behind her, much too close, as, through Haley’s open door, Mia could see her sitting quietly in the middle of her bed in her teddy-bear-flecked pajamas, sucking her thumb – a habit given up months ago. And clutched to her small, far-too-fragile-looking chest, Mia realized with another fiery blast to her midsection, was the stuffed lion Justine had only just given her.

“Hey, little bit,” she said softly, and the child’s head shot up. A second later she’d streaked across the room to wrap her arms around Mia’s thighs.

Then she tilted her head back, hope and worry and confusion tangled in her eyes. “Did Mommy come with you?”

Crap. Mia glanced over at Grant, whose glower had rearranged itself into something much more worrisome, then lowered herself to one knee, lumpy throats and heartburn-from-hell be damned.

“No, baby,” she said softly, brushing Haley’s curls off her cheek, praying she was striking the right balance between reassuring and serious. “Mommy’s not here.”

Haley disengaged herself to swing back and forth, clutching the toy. “Then are you going to take me back to the city?”

Slowly, Mia shook her head. “No, sweetie-pie. You’re going to stay with your daddy now.”

The little girl frowned. “Daddy said Mommy got broken an’ the doctors couldn’t fix her.”

“That’s right,” Mia said, swallowing back tears.

Soft brown eyes shifted from Mia to Grant and back again. “Like Hump-y
Dump-y?”

“Yeah, baby. Like Humpty Dumpty.”

“But Hump-y Dump-y’s not real. Mommy said.”

Bugger. “Well, that’s true, but—”

“So where is she?”

Oh, brother. Mia glanced up at Grant, desperately hoping for a bone, here. Justine hadn’t been particularly religious that Mia knew of, and Grant’s spiritual bent was anybody’s guess. However, since no bone seemed to be forthcoming, Mia decided to go with thirty years of Catholic indoctrination and let the chips fall where they may. “She’s in heaven, sweetie. With the angels.”

“What’s heaven?”

Ah. Clearly she was introducing new material. “Someplace really, really nice where people go after they die.”

“It’s far away?”

“Yes. Very far.”

Her brow puckered, Haley fingered Mia’s loose hair. “C’n you get there in a taxi?”

“No.”

“How ‘bout an airplane?”

“Nope.”

Almost expressionless, Haley looked at her for a long moment, then down at the lion. A second later, she held the lion out to Mia, who wagged one of the lion’s floppy paws and said softly, “Who’s this neat guy?”

“That’s Henry. Mommy gave him to me.”

“I know. I was with her when she bought him for you.”

“You were?”

“Uh-huh.”

After another moment’s thoughtful consideration, Haley leaned over and whispered, “I have to go to the bathroom,” and Mia whispered back, “Okay,” and the little girl bounced off, Henry safely tucked under one arm. Mia struggled to her feet; her hands stuffed in the front pocket of her hoodie, she frowned toward the bathroom door.

“You’ve already gotten ten times farther than I could,” Grant said behind her, the words brittle as dry sticks. Mia turned her frown on him, thinking And whose fault is that? From what Justine had said, the man hadn’t even tried to fight for joint custody. Not that Jus would have given it to him, but still.

But this was hardly the time to call him on any of it. She walked to the other side of the room, idly poking through the little girl’s collection of Dr. Seuss. “Weird, isn’t it?” Mia said, sliding Horton Hears a Who back into the bookcase. “To think there’s a time when we have no concept of what death means.”

Dear Santa“Do we ever?” he said softly.

She had nothing to say to that.

After several excruciatingly awkward moments, they heard a flush, then the water running. A minute later, Haley emerged from the bathroom, Henry still in tow. “Henry had to go pee-pee, too,” she said, climbing back up onto her bed. “He feels much better now. ‘Cept he’s sad.”

“Oh?” Mia said, sitting beside her. “How come?”

“’Cause he misses his mommy.”

Mia braced herself, even as she forced a smile to her lips. “But he has you to take care of him, right? So maybe he’ll stop feeling so sad.”

Haley’s eyes swerved to Grant, then back to Mia. “But I’m not as good as her, she reads stories to him an’ buys him ice cream and toys and stuff to make him feel better after he gets his shots. Who’s gonna read to him if his mommy doesn’t come back?”

Was this normal, Mia wondered, that despite “Henry’s” being sad, Haley herself seemed more perplexed than unhappy? Mia reached out to smooth Henry’s flyaway mane. “Well, I suppose you could read to him,” she said, but Haley shook her head.

“I can’t tell what all the words are yet. Mostly I just look at the pictures.”

“Ah. But you know, I bet Henry would like looking at the pictures with you. Or maybe,” she added with another darted glance in Grant’s direction, “Henry’s daddy could read to him? Why not?” she added when Haley shook her head again, more vigorously this time.

“’Cause I don’t think he knows how, either.”

“You don’t think his daddy knows how to read?” Mia said, her words piercing Grant’s almost palpable stillness.

Haley hugged the toy harder. “I don’t think he knows how to read to Henry.”

“Well. . .maybe Henry could show him?”

A faint crease marring her brow, Haley seemed to think this over for a second before she shrugged and said softly, “Maybe.” Then she yawned and knuckled her eyes, a sleepy, overwhelmed little girl whose mother was dead and whose father, Mia uncharitably thought, had turned out to be a major disappointment.

“C’mon,” she said gently, tugging the covers out from under the itty-bitty butt. “Time for sleep.”

Without protest, Haley squirmed underneath the covers, hugging Henry. “Will you be here when I wake up?” she asked, and Mia’s heart broke.

“Oh, honey. . .I wish I could, but I’ve got work to do in the city tomorrow. But I’ll be back soon.”

Wide eyes searched hers. “You promise?”

Damn. But then, what were the odds of her being creamed by a semi or offed by a trigger-happy mugger or a flowerpot falling on her head within forty-eight hours of Justine’s death? So Mia sucked in a huge breath that was equal parts prayer and will-power and said, “I promise, baby,” she said, then bent over to wrap the little girl in her arms. “Big squeezies. No – biiiig squeezies!” she said again, and Haley strung her tiny arms around Mia’s neck and hugged her for all she was worth. Then they rubbed noses and Mia laid her down again and gave her about twenty kisses before finally tearing herself away.

As she stood, however, she mouthed, “Your turn,” at Grant. Who, after a moment’s panicked eye-lock, moved toward the bed. . .only to pivot back to Mia with a weird mixture of sorrow and relief on his face.

“She’s already asleep,” he whispered, and Mia thought, You wanna bet?

Grant trailed her down the stairs, thinking about God-knew-what, Mia thinking that as much as she hated, hated, leaving Haley, she could not wait to blow this joint. Preferably while her guard was still firmly in place. But when she zeroed in on the curvy-legged table in the foyer where Etta had parked her stuff, Grant said behind her, “Don’t go yet. Please.”

She owed this man nothing. Not her time, and certainly not her emotional energy. That particular on-switch had been disabled a long, long time ago. So more fool she for whatever it was that derailed her, made her turn back. Provoked an actual flicker of sympathy at the vulnerability in those icy eyes.

“I really have to get back—”

“Ten minutes,” he said, and she sighed and dumped everything back on the table, then tromped back across the foyer, past the Jackson Pollack dominating the east wall, underneath the opera-house-sized crystal chandelier suspended from the twenty-foot ceiling, over the Persian rug larger than her first apartment.

Money, money, money. . .

Grant stood aside to let her enter the office, gesturing for her to sit. Anywhere, apparently. At least a half dozen chairs begged for the privilege, mostly contemporary leather numbers in rich browns and tans, a tweedy club chair or two for variety. Funny, she would have expected lots of chrome and glass, assorted shades of black.

An open stainless steel casket, maybe, discretely placed in a far corner.

Mia briefly shut her eyes, picturing nuns the world over sighing in dismay. However, the only alternative to the grossly inappropriate flashes of black humor that overtook her whenever she was majorly stressed was grief-induced catatonia. And anyway, she could have sworn the casket comment had been in Justine’s voice, accompanied by a burst of laughter and a lifted glass of Chablis.

Shoving aside an image of Justine as Mia last remembered her – runway beautiful and pulsing with energy, her eyes sparkling with mischief as they tromped down Madison Avenue arm-in-arm on a spur-of-the-moment shopping spree – Mia flopped down in one of the leather chairs. Still, the image, and the truth, lurked at the edges of her consciousness, waiting to pounce.

Ten minutes, she thought, her jeans rough against her palms as she scraped them over her thighs. I can hang on for ten more minutes—

“Were you able to eat before you came up?” Grant asked quietly, his brows slightly dipped. Mia shook her head. “Would you like something, then? A sandwich, at least—”

“No, I’m good.” Except she then realized her mouth felt like she’d been French kissing a blow-dryer. “I could use some water, though.”

With a curt nod, Grant crossed to the small bar on the other side of the room, his loose-fitting black sweater (fine-gauge, she was guessing cashmere), the matching cords, doing nothing to disguise the six-foot-plus package of solid, pulsing testosterone underneath. On paper, the man looked good. Okay, in person he looked good – all head-turning gorgeous with his dark hair and those eerie gray eyes, tall and fit and broad of shoulder, the way leading men used to look before somebody decided, for some inexplicable reason, that potent masculinity was overrated.

Add smart (investment whiz of the straw-into-gold variety) and insanely rich (ditto), and. . . Well. Mia supposed she could see the attraction. If one were into men whose beverage of choice was Type O Positive.

She shut her eyes again. Go straight to hell, do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dollars. . .

“Here you go.”

Jumping slightly, Mia opened her eyes again to see an uber-masculine hand proffering a heavy, deeply etched glass and a parchment-colored cocktail napkin. “Thanks,” she muttered, gulping down half the glass as Grant – still standing, still watching her – took a measured sip of his own drink. Something ambery and undoubtedly potent. And even more undoubtedly expensive.

“Are you all right?” he asked, startling her enough to make her hand jerk, sloshing water over the edge of the glass.

“I’m fine,” she said, dabbing at her front with the napkin. She tried a smile, then thought, Why? “Although to be frank, I don’t think it’s really hit yet.”

Grant lifted his drink to his lips, then, inexplicably, relieved her of the damp, crumpled napkin before striding back to the bar to dispose of it. “I assume you and Justine were still close?”

“Uh, yeah. Sure.” She waited out the twinge of hurt, of uncertainty. “It’s been a strange couple of years,” she said, fingering the glass’s rim. “Lots of changes for both of us. So we didn’t see each other as often as we used to. Before, you know. She married you. Especially once I left the firm.”

Dear SantaAnother image blossomed in her mind’s-eye, Justine hooting with unladylike laughter in the middle of the sidewalk, making strangers (in Manhattan!) smile. Deep inside, grief stirred and stretched. Not yet! Mia thought, swallowing it down. “But I’d never had a friend like Jus.” After a moment’s contemplation of her drink, she took a sip, then said, “Although I suppose that was due as much to timing and circumstance as anything. You know,” she filled in at Grant’s speculative look, “both being the new kids at the firm at the same time, not to mention new to the city, neither of us having a sister. . .”

Her hand shook when she lifted the glass again. “But I always knew I could count on her. Trust her. And I can’t believe. . .” Her eyes filled. “I can’t believe she’s g-gone,” she whispered.

And the floodgates gave way.

 

(c) 2007 Reprinted with permission of Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. All rights reserved.

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