Lee steered the ‘Vette through the maze of the parking lot, looking for a free space. The amount of cars already parked there amazed him. He’d just about given up hope of finding a spot when a blue hatchback pulled out of a slot near the back of the lot. He fought the temptation to pretend he didn’t see the space and head back to the office. Feeling guilty, he pulled into the slot, and exited the vehicle.
He stared at the imposing structure trying in vain to figure out a way to avoid entering the building without reneging on the promise he made to his partner. The sky—a dreary gray, reflected his mood perfectly. Seeing no way out of the unpleasant situation, he sighed and trudged through the parking lot toward the entrance where he would meet his wife.
She waited for him inside the vestibule between the double set of doors. He smiled at her and her entire face lit up, setting off a warm glow in his heart, changing his world from drab to vibrant. It still amazed him that this beautiful woman was his wife, and he thanked his lucky stars for a ten-percent chance of rain and twenty-five men in red hats, every day.
“Hello, beautiful,” he greeted her before lowering his lips for a sweet kiss.
She held his face in her hands, kissing him back. Her warmth seeped into his skin, chasing the cold from his cheeks. Pulling away, she wiped her lipstick off his mouth. “Hello, sweetheart. Are you ready to get started?”
“Not really.” He’d rather be surrounded by armed KGB agents than go through those doors. “Why don’t we put this off for a few days? After all, the boys are with their dad, your mother is in New York with Captain Kurt, and we have the house all to ourselves.” He drew her closer to his body, and pressed his lips to hers. “Let’s go home.”
She returned his kiss before pulling away. “Oh, sweetheart, I promise, it won’t be that bad. Besides, the house will be just as empty when we get home.”
One look at Amanda and her ‘I mean business, buster’ look, and he knew nothing he could say would sway her. He heaved a defeated sigh, “come on, let’s get this over with.” He clasped her hand in his, and together they entered the mall.
The noise hit them as soon as they opened the doors. Johnny Mathis crooning about the most wonderful time of the year, shoppers talking, uniformed men and women ringing bells soliciting donations, and the excited squeals of children anxious to see Santa, all blended into a cacophony of sound.
He had to hand it to Amanda, she had a plan of attack established for this venture, and executed it with a military precision that would have done Delta Force proud.
Within the first ninety minutes, they visited five stores. Amanda made purchases in all of them, completing most of her shopping list and weighing him down with shopping bags.
His feet were killing him, his back ached, his stomach growled, and to top it off, it had to be a thousand degrees in the mall. He wanted to go home. If only he could convince his wife to complete her shopping list with pre-packaged gifts—like his trusty scarves, then her shopping would be done and they could be home snuggled up together on the couch enjoying a nice bottle of wine and a romantic fire, instead of traipsing around the shopping center.
Skirting other bag-laden shoppers, they worked their way down the corridor to the next wing of stores. He dodged around a group of giggling girls and almost up-ended an elderly couple. No wonder Amanda stayed in such great shape, navigating the mall was much harder than the obstacle course at Station One. Somehow, he managed to make it to the end of the walkway without injuring himself or his fellow shoppers.
Amanda stopped walking, and waited for him to catch up. Standing next to her, he asked “Where to next?”
Getting no reply from his wife, he turned to face her. At the look of pure joy on Amanda’s face, when she spotted the enormous Christmas tree in the center of the mall, his bah-humbug feelings vanished. Her holiday spirit infected him, and he found himself humming along with Burl Ives as they walked around the artificial spruce.
Santa’s workshop, nestled into the corner, had a long line of eager children and their exhausted parents waiting for a chance to sit on Santa’s lap, and whisper their most coveted gift request into his ear.
“I remember taking Phillip and Jamie when they were younger. They asked Santa for the same thing every year. Phillip wanted a pony and Jamie wanted his dad. I had to stop taking them, Jamie cried each time Santa didn’t bring Joe home.”
“The Colonel never had time for such frivolity. But I still wished Father Christmas would bring my parents back.” The painful reminder of all he lost managed to sour his mood again. He envied the kids waiting in line with their parents, and hoped to one day to carry on the tradition with his own children.
“You know, you’re never too old for Santa Claus. Would you like to wait in line?”
“What I’d like is to finish shopping, and get out of here.” He winked to soften his harsh words knowing Amanda’s query was an attempt to comfort his little boy’s sadness.
“Okay, we accomplished a lot today, just let me buy my gift for the Secret Santa, and then we can go home."
He made an effort to recapture the pleasantness of a moment ago. “Piece of cake. Whose name did you pick?”
“I can’t tell you, it’s supposed to be a secret.”
“Doesn’t matter. A box of DeVerona chocolates or a bottle of liquor makes a good gift.”
“I agree. They’d be perfect gifts if I’d have selected Francine or Leatherneck, but I picked.” She paused before divulging the name. “Oh, well, I guess I can tell you. I picked that new girl Stephy from accounting, and I wanted to get something a little more personal.”
“Trust me, they’re perfect for Stephy. Who can resist chocolate?”
“You’re right. Everyone loves chocolate. They even have a store here in the mall. Let’s go.”
With her arm tucked securely in the crook of his elbow, they walked in the direction of the candy store, window-shopping along the way.
"THAT'S A BIT NAUGHTY, ISN'T IT?"
Amanda drew them to a halt outside of Rebecca’s Fantasy pointing out the display. There in the window, a mannequin wore a barely-there, red-velvet teddy trimmed in white faux-fur, including the strategically placed cutouts. The model held a matching G-string in her hand. A red-lace garter belt and black fishnet stockings completed the sexy ensemble.
He waggled his eyebrows and chuckled. “It’s naughty in a nice way, a very nice way.”
“Oh, you, come on.” She tugged his arm and started walking again, pulling him away from the window. “The DeVerona store is across the way and two stores down.”
Since he felt like a bull in a china shop in the small confectionary, he opted to wait outside while Amanda made her purchase. Scanning his surroundings, the stimulating window display grabbed his attention once again.
Even though the provocative get-up wasn't to Amanda's taste, vivid fantasies of his wife modeling the sexy outfit, and then him slowly peeling her out of it played in his mind. Maybe, he’d go into the store, and see what other enticing lingerie they had to offer. Just as he started to cross the aisle, Amanda exited the candy shop.
“Well, that completes my list for today. Ready to go home, big guy?”
“You know I am.” He reached for the final shopping bag. “Here, let me carry that.” She handed him the gold bag before, once again, slipping her arm through his.
As they headed for the exit to the parking lot where she left her car, Lee gave one last wistful look at the window of Rebecca’s Fantasy. The image of Amanda in one of the frothy confections popped into his head again.
“Thank you for coming with me, this afternoon. I know this isn’t your idea of a good time.”
“No need to thank me. I always have a good time when I’m with you.”
As they neared the exit, Amanda buttoned her coat, and since his hands were full of bags, she buttoned his as well, before returning her hand to the crook of his elbow.
Flurries had fallen while they shopped, and a light dusting of snow covered the ground. He squeezed his arm closer to his body in an attempt to keep Amanda from slipping on the wet pavement.
They arrived at her car without incident. After she unlocked the door, he stowed her packages on the back seat, while Amanda settled herself behind the wheel.
Just as he leaned in for a kiss, Amanda spoke, “Lee, you never told me who you picked for the Secret Santa.”
“That’s right, I didn’t.” He grinned. “I know how to keep a secret.” He kissed her passionately, effectively silencing any protest she might make.
He took advantage of her speechlessness and stepping out of the doorway, he began closing the car door. “I’m just a few sections over. I’ll meet you home. Drive carefully the roads may be slick in spots. I love you, Mrs. Stetson.” He blew her a kiss and closed the door.
He waited until she pulled away and drove out of sight, before turning to go back into the mall. Now, he had to make two stops, one for a box of chocolates for his public Secret Santa gift, and the other at Rebecca’s Fantasy for a very private Secret Santa exchange. “Merry Christmas, to me,” he whispered.