Mall Santas weren’t supposed to be hot.
Heart thudding from his run through town, Hunter stopped short inside the storage room, the back door to the parking lot slamming shut behind him with a gust of frigid air. He blinked at the vision standing in front of him like a mirage amid the stacks of dusty boxes and crates.
Was he still asleep? Was this a fever dream? Because mall Santas were supposed to be old and kind of short and schlubby. It was the law of the universe or something.
Yet this Santa—probably mid-forties and wearing shiny black boots, red velvet pants with fuzzy white cuffs, and a matching red velvet coat hanging open—was something out of a Details lumberjack photo shoot or one of those fireman calendars Hunter’s mom got every year that he used to secretly jerk off to as a teenager.
A white tank top stretched over Santa’s broad, muscular chest, dark hair peeking out the top of the cotton, his nipples hard and skin a warm olive. His short hair and full, trimmed beard were way more pepper than salt, but the scattered silver highlights were crazy sexy. He had to be at least six-two and towered over Hunter, arching a dark eyebrow.
Please ask if I’ve been naughty or nice.
Hunter blinked at him, his porno fantasy evaporating as he tried to catch his breath. “Huh?”
“You’re late,” Santa accused gruffly.
“Oh. Right.” A burst of anxiety froze out the sizzle of lust that had warmed Hunter’s veins. “I know, sorry.” He panted softly, pulling off his wool hat. His hair fell over his forehead, and he pushed a strand out of his eye. “I overslept.”
Santa stared at him as if he was profoundly stupid and/or pathetic. “It’s almost noon.”
What are you, my father? Hunter squirmed with embarrassment. He despised being late, but he couldn’t turn back time now and erase the last twenty minutes. He hadn’t intended to stay up until almost four playing God of War, and then he’d set his alarm for ten p.m. instead of a.m. because he was a tool.
He knew this—he didn’t need inappropriately hot Santa to remind him. Mall Santas were also supposed to be jolly and kind, not judgy assholes. He rolled his eyes. “Whatever. You’re not my boss. And where’s Mr. Tremblay?”
“Broke his hip.”
“Oh. Shit, that sucks.” Old Mr. Tremblay had been Pinevale’s mall Santa for as long as Hunter could remember. “Um, I’m Hunter. Hunter Adams.” A couple hours north of Toronto, Pinevale wasn’t so small that he knew everyone in town, but Hunter definitely would have remembered seeing this guy around. Where on earth had John found him?
“I’m Mr. Spini.”
A first name was apparently unforthcoming. Who did this guy think he was? Hunter was twenty-three, not some kid. Before Hunter could say as much, John Singh bustled in through the mall entrance beyond the boxes, pushing wire-rimmed glasses up his nose and wearing an incredibly ugly reindeer sweater with fuzzy antlers. In his fifties, he and his husband, Desmond, lived a few blocks from Hunter’s mom. He was short, stout, and always in a hurry, but was usually smiling. Not now, though.
“I know, I know. Sorry.” Hunter’s face went hot as he shrugged off his backpack and pulled out the ridiculous candy-cane tights. Keeping his head down, he unlaced his boots and stripped off his jeans, goosebumps spreading over his skin in the chill of the storage room, the floor freezing. As he tugged the tights over his boxer briefs, he looked up and met Santa’s gaze, which swept down Hunter’s body.
“What?” Hunter shoved his socked feet into the too-tight black slippers with toes curved inward and golden bell on the ends. He muttered, “I look lame, I know.”
Not all of us can look unfairly hot in these costumes.
Santa said nothing as John handed him the padded belly, long white beard, and red velvet hat with white trim. “Final touches.”
Hunter buttoned the green velvet jacket that barely covered his ass and junk, the fluffy white cuffs landing two inches above his wrists. The seams were snug around his shoulders, and he couldn’t really lift his arms. Last time he played elf was his senior year of high school, and he hadn’t realized how much he’d grown in five years. He’d been a late bloomer, although usually he still felt like that pimply, bony kid.
“Good thing this is the last year for Santa’s Village.” Not that he’d be desperate enough to be an elf again next year. He was getting a real job in January if it killed him. A job that didn’t require a humiliating costume.
Then he felt like a dick and quickly added, “I just mean because the costume’s too small on me now. It sucks that the mall’s closing.” Even though it was the Mall That Time Forgot and was super depressing.
John had been the mall manager for ages, and he’d been a good boss. When Hunter had emailed him on the off chance he had seasonal work, he hadn’t been thinking of playing elf again, but beggars couldn’t be choosers and all that. He’d been lucky John had given him the job at all.
John waved his hand. “No offense taken. Gotta move with the times. Did you hear they’re putting in a Marshall’s and an Outback Steakhouse? And the old grocery store on Lake Street is shutting down and a big one’s going here. It’ll be box stores: Treeview Plaza instead of Treeview Mall. The new owners are keeping me on to manage, so I’m good. Security, snow removal—there’s still a lot to coordinate.” Sweat beaded on his brown skin, and he swiped a hand over his forehead. “It’s a sauna out there—the heater’s stuck on high.”
Hunter shivered. “Yet it’s freezing back here.”
John grimaced. “Same in my office and the bathrooms, but obviously there’s no sense in paying to fix it. The last day is December thirty-first, and then they’re tearing this old dog down and rebuilding come spring. But first we need to give this mall one last Christmas to remember. Right, team?”
Santa buckled the wide black belt around his fake belly, his long white beard obscuring the lower part of his face. He muttered, “Why did I agree to this?”
“Because you’re a good friend who’s doing me a favor at the last minute. I’ll find someone else for next weekend, I promise. Plus all the money’s going to buy toys for kids and turkey dinners. With the factory closing down this summer, it’ll be a lean Christmas for a lot of folks. So that’s why you agreed to this, for the record.”
Santa only grumbled under his breath in response, jamming the hat on his head.
“Wait. All the money?” Hunter’s stomach dropped. “Are we not getting paid?” After three unpaid internships in Toronto since he’d graduated university and still no actual jobs, he’d come home early to Pinevale for the holidays to live in his old bedroom and play mall elf one more time. At least he’d be getting minimum wage—or so he’d assumed.
“No, no!” John clapped Hunter on the shoulder. “You’ll be paid. But Mr. Tremblay had offered to give up his salary this year and donate it to Toys and Turkeys—that’s what we’re calling the fund. Nick followed suit.”
“Oh.” Hunter glanced at Santa—this Nick Spini, who watched him with a disdainful sneer.
Shit. Was Hunter being selfish? Doing eight-hour shifts Saturday and Sunday for two weekends would give him money for presents for his mom, sister, and his new niece. He’d been hoping to find some other seasonal work during the week since Pinevale wasn’t big enough to warrant a full-time Santa’s Village, and with the tiny, ancient mall closing, there wasn’t enough demand for pictures with Santa for more than the two weekends.
Granted, he’d spent the majority of the last four days since he’d taken the Greyhound home playing video games and eating Doritos instead of job hunting, but he’d just wanted to not think about the mess of his life for a little while. The internship he’d just quit had expected twelve-hour days just like the other places, and he was burned-out.
Familiar acid flooded his belly. Before Hunter could explain that he needed to make money for working after more than a year of interning for “experience” and “connections” and to “get his foot in the door”—only to have said doors slammed in his face as soon as he tried to actually earn a living, Nick said, “Can we get this over with?”
Instead of calling him out for being a bag of dicks, John only laughed. “That’s the holiday spirit. Come on, Grinch. Time to grow that heart. I know you’re not used to being around people, but just think, What would Eric have said and done? Then do that.”
Nick huffed, and Hunter couldn’t tell if he was pissed or kind of laughing? Wondering who Eric was, Hunter grabbed his elf hat and followed Nick out of the storeroom after they stashed their stuff in an old staff locker. His eyes were drawn to how the red velvet stretched across Nick’s wide shoulders. He was a mountain of a man.
They made their way over the ugly brown brick floor, a weird cobblestone that was probably done in the seventies before there were accessibility laws. Half the stores had closed already, and although John had hung wreathes and garlands on the brown brick walls, Treeview Mall was clearly in its death throes.
It was windowless, low-ceilinged, and one story in a square horseshoe shape, like a time capsule of ugly seventies design. The handful of old men who spent hours a day in the tiny food court area with only two greasy food options—Roy’s Burgers or Donut Time—watched silently as they passed, paper coffee cups in front of them. The peppy strains of “All I Want for Christmas is You” played through the mall’s speakers, Mariah’s voice echoing on the cobblestones.
The women who worked in La Belle Style, the old-lady clothing store that was sticking it out to the mall’s bitter end, gathered in the doorway as they passed. “Hunter!” Mrs. Buckingham called. “Don’t you look adorable!”
He gave his mom’s friend a weak smile, cringing as he felt hundreds of eyes on him as they reached the line of families, restless kids exclaiming in excitement at seeing Santa. The kids squealed and cried, “Santa!” and Nick jolted before waving at them as if remembering he was Santa.
Tugging down his green jacket, Hunter felt like a bigger loser than usual as he followed in Nick’s wake. Hunter was five-eight, so not super short or anything, but he was a scrawny kid in comparison. He was blond and could barely grow a beard, and Nick was teeming with hair and muscles and manliness. Which was weird for Santa Claus, but he was working it, definitely catching the attention of the moms waiting in line in front of Santa’s Village.
Hunter supposed elves weren’t supposed to be manly, but the merry ding! of the golden bells on his shoes with each pinched step didn’t do anything for his self-esteem. Not that he was planning on picking up guys at the mall—he was hopeless in that department. Still, he felt as gangly as he had back in high school.
The village was an ancient gingerbread house sort of thing that had seen far better days, but John had strung it with tons of colored Christmas lights and garlands to cover how faded and decrepit the painted plywood was.
Nick settled himself on a wide bench. The line of people were roped off at the end of the fake candy path that wound through little snow-sprayed Christmas trees, so at least in the village there was a bit of breathing room. Hunter was surprised there was such a sizable crowd, but there wasn’t much to do in Pinevale.
He frowned at the bench. “No throne thingy?”
John shook his head. “The whole sitting-on-Santa’s-lap thing is inappropriate these days.” He pointed to the bench, which had a backrest. “This way the kid can sit beside Santa, and there’s room on both sides if siblings want to come up together.”
“No one’s sitting on my lap,” Nick growled.
Hunter rolled his eyes. “You realize you have to be nice to the kids, right?”
Nick only stared at him above his fake white beard. His eyes were a steely gray flecked with yellow, and it was really annoying how hot he still was even though he was apparently a dick.
John clapped his hands, putting on a big grin. “Okay, showtime!” As he led Hunter back down the path, he whispered, “Nick’s a grump, but his bark is worse than his bite.”
Hunter wanted to ask how John knew him, but there wasn’t time. “If you say so.”
“Trust me. Okay, you remember how it goes? I take the money from the parents, and you ask the kids their names and escort them to Santa.” He peered around. “Where’s our photographer… There she is.”
“Hey, guys!” Courtney Campbell joined them with a smile, her dark ponytail swishing and a big camera around her neck. She was in her forties and ran Pinevale’s little photography store. She wore jeans and a snowman sweater, and it didn’t seem fair that she didn’t have to dress up. “Hunter, didn’t expect to see you pulling on the candy-cane tights again.”
Well, I’m almost twenty-three, I can’t get a real job, I’m freeloading off my sister in TO, I have a shit-ton of student debt, I honestly hate working in an office, I’m still a virgin, and I have no clue what I want to do with my life, so why not make the humiliation complete by being a mall elf again?
He managed to smile. “Yeah. Me either.”
“Hunter’s doing me a favor,” John said. “I had to beg, but he agreed.”
Hunter gave him a grateful smile for the lie. “It’s no problem.”
John winked at him and turned to the line of people. “Sorry for the delay, folks! Rudolph got a flat!” The crowd laughed agreeably, and John murmured to Hunter, “Fa la la la la!”
Gah la la la la was more like it, but Hunter slapped on a smile, trying to choke down the worry about money and his future and what he’d do after the holidays. His mom would let him stay as long as he wanted, but what was he going to do? What did he even want to do?
He’d gotten an English lit degree because that’s what he was good at, and it was useless in the real world aside from ticking off the requirement of most companies to have a BA in something. He couldn’t even get an entry-level job, and he’d worked his ass off at those internships.
His gut twisted, pulse kicking up and his breath catching. Fuck, he just felt so out of control.
“It’s Santa!” a little girl squealed, jerking Hunter back to the present. His life was an aimless shit-show, but at least he had a job to do. He took a deep breath and pulled on his green elf hat, the white fuzzy brim already too hot on his forehead. No matter. Even with a grumpy, brawny, stupidly sexy Santa to put up with, he was going to be his best elf self. With bells on—literally.
Copyright © Keira Andrews
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