If one more kid tried to pull his beard, he was going to roar.
Joe looked at the small spawn of Satan currently sitting on his lap and held in the urge to growl. The kid was maybe five years old, had blonde hair, blue eyes and dimples galore. His first thought was she was adorable. Now, after she’d pulled on his Santa beard during the picture, he knew better. She was nothing but trouble. If he really were Santa, he would give her coal in her stocking and a letter advising her parents to put her in the naughty corner.
The photographer’s words were more of a warning than a cue to get ready for the second picture. So Joe played his role, ho ho ho’d, and smiled for the camera while the brat on his lap asked him for a pony.
There had been a time when Joe hadn’t dreaded Christmas so much. Back when he was a kid and everything about Christmas had still seemed so magical. Not so much anymore. It sucked when you spent the holidays alone. To say he was a bit bitter about the holiday season was an understatement.
Which was part of the reason he couldn’t believe he was here at The Mall of the Smokies, being the damn Santa. How had he gotten wrangled into this position again?
His buddy Sam. Buddy. So much for never leaving a man behind, he thought. There he sat, covered from head to toe in red velvet that was none too fresh and none too clean, thanks to the boozy sweat of the previous wearer. Of course, he’d also had more than one kid with a leaky diaper on his lap that day.
And Sam, where was Sam? Nowhere to be seen.
Joe and Sam had served together in the Marine Corps, but once Sam had completed his term of service, he’d come back home to help run the family business, a lodge in the mountains of East Tennessee. Joe, having nowhere to go after getting out of the service himself, had taken Sam up on his offer to crash at the Bearadise Lodge.
There was just one catch. The Lodge was sponsoring Santa’s Workshop at the local outlet mall, and they were short one Santa. Apparently, the old Santa had been fired for drinking on the job.
Damn that Sam!
After only one day of being Santa, Joe could see why the previous hire had been driven to drink. These kids were hell on his nerves. Like the blonde brat who was once again pulling on his beard. He was just about to give her a little growl when she hopped off his lap and ran giggling to her mother, who gave him an unapologetic glance before dismissing him entirely.
This job would have been so much easier if he were in a shifter-run community. Then he could growl all he wanted. Instead, he was dealing with humans and had to keep his feline traits under wraps.
As the next kid, a little boy about the age of four, climbed on to his lap and proceeded to fart, Joe did his best not to cringe. Bullets and bad guys he could deal with. Snot-nosed kids were apparently his downfall. He’d only been at this for a day and he was thinking of telling Sam he could shove this Santa job where the sun didn’t shine. Joe didn’t even want to think about doing this until Christmas Eve. Three days away. Three long, miserable, endless days of bratty kids, droopy diapers, and disaffected parents more interested in their phones than their kids.
In fact, as the next kid proceeded to sneeze all over him, Joe considered walking out right then.
But then something happened that kept him glued to his seat. His sharp lion senses caught a new smell among the crowd. Peppermint and sugar cookies.
Mate, his lion roared inside his head.
The one person that was cosmically meant for him and him alone. The woman that Mother Nature deemed his. He scanned the crowd until he finally saw her at the end of the line, waiting to come see him.
Short, with generous curves that would fill his hands, she had black hair pulled to the top of her head in a messy bun. He wondered what color her eyes were, being too far away to see them. Scanning the rest of her body, he suddenly stopped when he came to the thing that shocked him the most.
A kid on her hip.
Was it her child? From this far away, he couldn’t scent the small one. Had someone already laid hands on his mate? His lion roared again, only this time it was in protest. No one should touch his mate but him! He would slaughter the man who had dared give his mate a cub.
“SANTA!” the elf behind the camera shouted.
Joe snapped his attention back to the man he was going to eviscerate for taking his concentration away from his mate, only to find a scared human staring at him. It was then he realized the child on his lap was shaking in fear.
The elf inched forward to whisper so the others in line couldn’t hear. “You growled at him, Santa! Say you’re sorry.”
His stomach sank. To say he felt like a colossal piece of shit was an understatement. He had been so wrapped up in his emotions that he had let his lion slip out a little in public, which was a big hell no in the shifter rules. Joe looked at the little boy on his lap and gave the kid a big smile, trying to play off what had happened. “How would you like a stuffed lion for Christmas? They go grrrrrrr.”
The little boy looked at him with wide eyes that slowly turned from fear to curiosity. “You can make a stuffed lion that growls?”
Joe nodded. “Sure can. I can put the elves to work on it right away if that’s what you want.”
The little boy scrunched his face up in thought but then shook his head no. “I really want a bike for Christmas, Santa. Can I have that instead of the lion?”
Relieved that the boy was no longer scared, Joe gave him a big grin and a wink. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Yippee!” The boy squealed as he jumped off Joe’s lap and ran to his mother, who was waiting for him next to the photographer.
Joe watched as the boy happily walked away, then quickly turned his attention back to his mate, who was watching him from the back of the line with big wary eyes. The mating scent was too strong. He couldn’t tell whether or not the child was hers, but that didn’t matter.
She was his.
And if that meant he had to accept another man’s cub into his home to claim his mate, then that’s what he would do. Although he would take great pleasure in rubbing his scent all over both woman and cub every chance that he got. Just to make sure that everyone knew that they were now his and his alone.
Copyright © 2017 Jessie Lane & Chasity Bowlin.
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