Whenever Iris struggled with Shannon Shepard, she’d think about her mother, Irene. Irene had a soft touch that won people’s acceptance of her husband’s ideas. When Iris found herself in a Mrs. Santa Clause costume, she was the least bit surprised.
Thanks to Irene’s “soft touch,” Iris was the piano player for the sing-along with the senior center members. It was an easy enough request to fulfill. Especially when Irene stopped by the craft store with a dozen of her Christmas bell-shaped monster cookies. “It’ll be all the usual songs,” Irene lifted the edge of the clear wrapping on the plate. One whiff of the brown sugar, and chocolate, with the hint of cinnamon, and Iris agreed.
Irene may have had a soft touch, but she could be ruthless in her use of it. She waited until Iris was off in a corner with Jordan’s great aunt. Betsy had just made a joke about Jordan checking out Iris. Iris balked and Betsy negotiated on Jordan’s behalf with knowing nod and understanding eyes. “He’s a diamond in the rough.” So Iris was in the let’s see what possible mood already. Then Irene stood behind Betsy and smiled sweetly. “I don’t want to put too much pressure on you, but we need a Mrs. Clause. Do you know of anyone who would be available?”
Iris gushed as she fanned the air with a napkin to dry Betsy’s candy cane red nails. “This is your time to shine.”
“Me?” Betsy fended off Iris’s suggestion with unparalleled swiftness. “I just got my nails painted.”
“I was thinking of someone else.” Irene tilted her head and widened her smile to the pretty please level.
Iris turned to see who else Irene could have been talking to. When she didn’t see anyone, she directed her attention back to Irene…to find two conspirators with grins so sweet they had to have contracted a cavity or two.
Betsy’s sweet, “She forgot to mention Jordan is Santa Clause,” set the picture. The two kindest older women of Paradise Hills had set her up.
“Shannon would be better,” Iris stammered through her suggestion. “They would have time.” She was about to say to be together but changed her wording at the last second. “To rehearse. While I play with the kids.” After Iris said it, she thought it was a perfect plan. Shannon and Jordan would have something to connect. It would be a sign. The mayor’s daughter would carry on the family’s part in the Christmas season.
“Shannon is with Carrie at the gift wrapping day at the high school.”
There were so many holiday activities in Paradise Hills. It was hard to keep up with them sometimes.
“The only difference is you’d wear the Mrs. Claus costume over your clothes. Everything will be the same.”
But it wouldn’t. Something about being the Mrs. Anything to Jordan flustered Iris. It was the same game she had lived since high school. Life dangled a worm in the form of Jordan. He’d brush her hair out of her face on a windy day. Or he’d feed her a taste of his food off of his spoon. Iris’s resolve melted a little, and she’d think to herself, I like this. I think I’ll try it. Then when she moved to go for it, Jordan pulled away. The next day he’d go to a game with the guys. Or he’d made plans to do something with his grandmother.
Iris’s last thought before she drifted into a restless sleep was wondering if her affection for Jordan had interfered with his happiness. So, she didn’t want to pretend that they were a couple because her heart would want what it couldn’t have.
“Can I think about it?” Iris asked.
“That’s a yes if I ever heard one.” Betsy pressed her palms together for a soft clap.
“Rod will be so pleased,” Irene’s eyes thanked Iris. “He thinks so much of you. Now we know why.”
It turned out that shifting to Mrs. Clause’s role wasn’t as much of a hardship as Iris had made it out to be. She pretended like she was her grandmother. Every girl was special, and all the boys had something charming that endeared them to her. The felt hats with ears the kids wore helped.
The boys and the girls sang along with Iris while the senior center members joined along from their seats. When they finished the sing along, the kids munched on cookies and drank lemonade. It was so much fun; Iris almost forgot about Santa until the sleigh bells echoed through the halls. Then she fell back into her role. She clutched her hands together and exclaimed, “Oh my, we must have some good boys and girls here today.”
“I was!” Brown-haired Brittany bounced in her enthusiasm. “You can ask my mom, she’ll tell you.”
One of the boys exclaimed, “I’ve been nice to my brother all week.”
“Santa is really coming?” A cute girl with curly brown pigtails pressed her palms into her cheeks.
There were many things Iris loved about Christmas. The child’s belief in good things coming to them was at the top of the list. A brief visit from Santa brought them joy and a sense of wonder. For one month, they subscribed wholeheartedly to the concept of possibilities. Committed to her role as Mrs. Clause, Iris exhaled her joy when Jordan a.k.a. Santa entered the room. “There is the man we’ve been waiting to see.”
Santa walked into the crowd of children. “Ho, ho, ho! Who do we have here, Mrs. Claus?”
All of the children turned to Iris in expectation of her introduction to them. Not one to disappoint, Iris replied, “These are boys and girls who spread some Christmas joy.”
Jordan spoke with a booming voice that impressed Iris. If she were a kid, she’d believe he was Santa. “I felt the holiday spirit. Was that you trying to get my attention?”
His eyes connected with Iris’s, and everything around them ceased to exist. She whispered, “Yes,” and then gasped in fear. In the excitement of the moment, Iris had told Jordan her secret.
“Yes,” the kids exclaimed. Their enthusiasm broke the trance with such force Iris blinked. Perhaps Jordan hadn’t seen into her soul. Just maybe, her secret was still secure.
A couple of the grandmothers weaved through the tables to get to the kids. With their help, Iris lined up the kids for their chance to talk to Santa. After the kids shared their Christmas wishes, Jordan gave them a box that had a sticker craft. The boys got airplanes, and the girls got paper dolls.”
The rest of the afternoon was a blur filled with cookies, cocoa, and laughter. Santa waved goodbye, and the kids sent him off with calls of Merry Christmas.
Iris’s head pounded from all the input. She didn’t think there was any more room in her heart for the holiday spirit.
Humming the lyrics to “Santa Baby,” she practically floated down the hall to the administrator’s office, where she planned to change out of her costume. Iris pushed open the door to discover, too late, Jordan had the same idea. He was in his plain white t-shirt and the Christmas boxers she bought him last year as a gag gift.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Iris squealed and pulled the door shut behind her. She wasn’t there long enough to see much, but what she had caught had her blood racing through her veins. Fully clothed, Jordan was a cutie. Partially-clothed, Jordon took her breath away. Iris fanned herself. “Oh my.” It was a vision she hoped would remain with her for the days to come. Iris tiptoed away from the office—like if she walked away quietly, Jordan would forget she walked in on him. She hadn’t made it to the end of the corridor when he called after her.
“Iris, I’m done. The room is all yours.”
Iris, still holding the enormous skirt of the dress with her fingertips, turned to talk to Jordan. Even with his clothes on, the man brought her visions of flowers, and rainbows, and happily ever afters. Iris scurried back down the hall and slid past him into the room. She threw him one last look before saying, “Thank you.”
Despite the blip of embarrassment, Iris couldn’t help smiling. Today Jordan was the one giving the presents. He gave the kids the gift of his time. When a child asked for a large present, Jordan didn’t give a blanket, you can have it. He expressed appreciation for the toy, or in one case, horse, requested. It was always followed by an inquiry for a smaller item. “I have a clumsy elf that is in training. If she or he knocks over the toys, what can I bring you instead?” He wasn’t a parent, but already knew how to affirm a child while getting them to see something realistic.
Iris and Jordan had been in each other’s lives for so long, yet she was still learning new things about him. He offered a solution for a situation where the requested gift didn’t make it under the tree. Iris marveled, People had no idea how amazing a person my best friend is.
She quickly changed and folded the Mrs. Claus costume. With her outfit packed, Iris opened the door. At the sight of Jordan’s shadow, she pipped a little squeak.
Jordan rolled his eyes, but the warmth in his face told Iris she delighted him. The warm thrill that came with it sent Iris into a tailspin. Her feelings for Jordan were taking control, and there was little she could do about it. “You didn’t scare me,” she joked.
Jordan chuckled. “I wanted to make sure everything was okay between us.”
“Why wouldn’t it be?” Iris wondered if this was about the look they shared when he asked her if she was waiting for him.
“Okay, maybe it was just me.” Jordan shrugged.
He was so close, Iris’s nose swam in the scent of his aftershave that released hints of leather and something clean. “I had fun with you today.” There keep it simple, keep things safe.
“I did too.” His smile softened. “It’s nice being able to give gifts to people. I like it.”
“It is.” Iris loved seeing people’s faces when they received the presents she gave them. Their persona was dull with fatigue, loneliness, or overwhelm. Then they’d open her present, and a spark of joy changed them. The simple act of showing care had so much power.
The charge in the air drew Iris to Jordan. Her conscience fought with her, screaming pull away.
“Iris. Why do I feel like kissing you?” Jordan’s husky voice added to the trance effect. He leaned closer to her closing the gap between them.
“I think it’s the whole Mr. And Mrs. Clause thing. Maybe you have a holiday fetish?” she joked.
“Or.” Jordan touched her cheek with his fingertips. Their lips were so close she could smell the mint from the candy cane he had eaten. “It’s time I gave you a Holiday Kiss.” He then planted one on her lips.