“Happy Thanksgiving to me,” I muttered, tossing the newspaper onto the desk in my office. “I should be stuffing my face and wearing my fat pants, but no, I’m here watching my career go up in flames.”
Parker Grant, my younger, much sassier assistant, pulled the lollipop from her mouth and shrugged a shoulder. “Instead of being with your family and enjoying this calorie-free holiday, you get to spend it with me.”
I gave her a look that said I was not amused. “What are we going to do? We can’t have Christmas without Santa.”
She chewed her lower lip before popping the sucker back in her mouth. “I don’t know,” she mumbled around the damn thing.
“Years,” I complained. “I’ve given this job, this career, years of my life, and it is all going to end because I can’t get a fat guy to dress up in a red suit. Hell, I don’t even need him to be fat or a guy. Who does this?”
She picked up the paper and scanned the article I finished reading. Once again, she pulled the sucker from her mouth. “You had to know this was coming, Harper.”
I scowled at her. “I didn’t expect it to come on Thanksgiving. Santa is supposed to be here in less than twenty-four hours! Do you know what tomorrow is?”
It was a rhetorical question. Of course, she knew. Everyone in retail knew what tomorrow was. It was Black Friday. That term was going to take on new meaning in my case. I was going to lose the job I busted my ass to get because there was a Santa strike. Striking Santas was a new one.
“What about one of your brothers? An ex-boyfriend?”
I rolled my eyes. “I don’t have any brothers.”
“An ex or current boyfriend? Offer a little sexual incentive. We just need someone in the suit for tomorrow. We can figure out the rest later.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend. I don’t even have an ex-boyfriend.”
“I didn’t know you were a nun. You sure do cuss a lot for being a nun.”
She was trying to be funny. I wanted to shake her. That would only guarantee my firing. “I’m not a damn nun. I don’t have a current or an ex-boyfriend because I have given my life’s blood to this store. Banner Brothers Department Store basically owns me.”
“That’s a problem for another day,” she commented.
She was being way too lackadaisical for my tastes. I was freaking out and she was sucking on a lollipop and twirling her hair. I supposed that was the benefit to being the assistant and not the head of merchandising and marketing for one of the most prestigious stores in Boulder, Colorado.
The place had been in business over a hundred years and was an institution in its own right. I was about to blow up that institution by failing to produce Santa on the most important day of the year.
“Do you know anyone?” I asked her. “Boyfriend, brother, father, uncle?”
“Nope. Why don’t I put an ad on Craig’s List? We’ll offer to pay double for the day.”
“That would work if there wasn’t a cabal of Santas. I’m sure they’ve put out the word that anyone putting on a red suit for money will be forever banished.”
“Not everyone is a part of the Santa coalition or union or whatever they have going on. We just need some average Joe looking for a few extra easy bucks.”
“That could work,” I said. Then I thought about two years ago and shook my head. “We can’t do that. There’s not enough time to do a background check and you know what will happen if we get some seedy dude in here.”
“Oh yeah, we don’t want to do that again.”
“Seriously, if these rich assholes would have listened to me when I warned them this was coming, we wouldn’t be the ones holding the ball right now. I told them they had to pay these Santa guys more money. I warned them, and I warned them, and they ignored me. Now look what’s happened. Do you think they care? No. They don’t care because they expect me to fix it.”
Parker tossed her sucker in the trash and put on her serious face. “We’re going to start a new trend.”
“Yes. I’m going to figure out a new marketing strategy that does not involve Santa. We can come up with some signs or something that say Santa is enjoying Thanksgiving with his elves and will show up in December.”
“I like the idea, but how are we going to do that in such a short timeframe?”
“There’s been no advertisement, no media, nothing indicating Santa would be here tomorrow. People assume he will be, but we’ll ignore it. We’ll pretend this was all intentional. It’s all about the sales.”
I nodded, slowly getting on board. “It is all about the sales.”
“Then that will be our focus in the store. We’ll work on the Santa problem behind the scenes.”
She was stuffing things into her satchel. “What are you doing?”
“It’s Thanksgiving. I’m going home and stuffing my face. Are you going to your parents’ house? Don’t tell me you are skipping Thanksgiving. There is nothing you can do here. Nothing. Go home. You know this will be the last time you see anyone until New Year’s.”
I slowly shook my head. “No, I need to doublecheck the displays and make sure everything is perfect. If we are going to ignore the elephant in the room, I need to make sure there is plenty to distract customers and Bob Banner.”
“Bob Banner is the reason we are in this mess,” she growled. “He is a scrooge. If he would have given them a little bit of a raise or offered them some kind of employee discount, we would have Santas coming out our ears. Him and the other Richie Riches decided to keep their wallets sealed tight and now they are going to ruin Christmas.”
She wasn’t wrong. “I’m not about to tell him that and neither are you. We’ll figure something out.”
“Go home, Harper.”
“And do what?”
“You work too much. You just said you don’t have a boyfriend. That’s because you are here all the time, and when you aren’t here, you are elsewhere doing stuff for here.”
“I don’t mind it. Besides, what am I going to do? Go to my parents’ house, eat until I can’t move, and then pass out on the couch?”
“Yes. That’s what you do on Thanksgiving. Hang out with your dad and watch football. Enjoy a nap. That is exactly what I plan on doing.”
I curled my lip with disgust. “I hate football and I really hate naps. Nothing but a waste of time and they make you feel worse when you get up. The entire day is lost.”
“Sleeping is definitely a waste of time,” she said sarcastically.
“Go home. Eat. Be merry.”
“I’ll be merry next month,” she said, correcting me. “Now I’m going to be thankful.”
“Got it. I need to check the displays.”
“Hey, are you suggesting I didn’t do my job?”
She sighed, putting a hand on her hip. “I know. I know. It’s just your way. It’s why you are the boss.”
“I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow morning. Do not be hungover.”
“I’ll be here.”
She left the office. Sitting around and wallowing in my misery was not going to help save my job. I needed everything to be perfect tomorrow. If I had any chance of saving my job, I needed to make sure the displays were on point. No mistakes.
I walked out of my office and down the empty hall, passing the offices of the other administrative personnel. I was used to being in the place all alone. I was always the last one out and the first one in. I took the employee elevator down to the bottom floor of the four-story building. I walked through the gray hall that employees and janitors used to move through the store without being seen. I stepped through the door and into the store. The floor gleamed and the scent of pine and cinnamon was in the air. That was my idea. We wanted to get customers in the Christmas spirit.
I knew a lot of my coworkers thought I was an uptight bitch. I probably was. I was a perfectionist and I would not quit until things were perfect. Sometimes, that required me demanding the best from those I worked with. They didn’t always like that. I didn’t believe in good enough. I was Harper Lincoln and I wanted that name synonymous with excellence. Being diligent had gotten me to where I was today. Accepting whatever came my way or accepting good enough would not have earned me a four-year-scholarship to an elite prep school that paved the way for another scholarship to USC.
I couldn’t stop being good. When I accepted okay, I was accepting a life that was mediocre. I was not mediocre. My dad always told me I could be better than him. I didn’t think I was better, but I was doing much better financially. I was able to help them out. I wasn’t the poor little girl anymore.
Of course, if I didn’t pull off a miracle, I could very well find myself back in poor little lady territory. I walked to a display of gorgeous, pristine white teddy bears with gold stitching and a shiny gold bow. The year was embroidered onto the foot with various messages that marked a first occasion, like first Christmas, first Christmas in a new house, marriage, and so on.
I picked up one of the bears that was just a little titled. I held the plush bear in my hands and smiled. It reminded me of a very special teddy bear I’d been given. It felt like a lifetime ago. Teddy bears were not my thing, not anymore. They brought back memories of good times that ended badly.
I put the teddy bear back and moved on to another display of ornaments. I did a little tidying, picking up one that had a heartfelt saying about a loved one in heaven. It made me sad. Not that I had anyone in heaven, but one day, I would. Why was I at work and not spending time with my parents while they were still alive and well?
I shook off the feeling. I would see them at Christmas. It made no sense to go home for one day when Black Friday loomed. November and December were the two busiest months of the year for me. Technically, I did the planning all year for the one big event. There was no way I could slack the day before. They understood. They wanted me to succeed and encouraged me to push on.
I took the escalator up to the second floor, checking out the display of women’s holiday dresses that were going to be on sale at a steep discount. Parker had done an amazing job with the mannequins, creating the perfect scene of a holiday gathering with the whole family. Each of them were dressed beautifully.
The quiet of the store began to feel loud. Too loud. I was a little too accustomed to quiet. I went home to a quiet apartment. “Stop it,” I ordered myself.
Lately, I had been on this kick where I felt really alone. Not just alone but lonely. I was used to being alone, but it never really bothered me before. I blamed the holidays. Everyone felt a little lonely around the holidays. I was fine. I had more than enough work to keep my mind focused.
It was when I went home that the loneliness crept up. That was why I chose to spend time at work. It made my life a little easier to cope with. I didn’t want to be sappy and think about the fact I didn’t have a man, and with the way things were going, I never would. I was destined to live the rest of my days as a single workaholic.
“You’re being dramatic, Harper,” I lectured myself.
I had to lecture myself. No one else was around to do it.