A Touch of the Heart

an excerpt

Chapter One

From his mezzanine floor, Alex looked out over his store and smiled. He loved Christmas and all the excitement that went with it. He always made sure that his shop was decorated, and he even supplied mince pies, mulled wine, or coffee for his browsers. While the decorations were already up, he wasn't starting the food and drink until the following week.

This year, along with the other treats, he was giving serious consideration to having a Santa as well as an elf. The Santa could listen to the kids while the adults sat for a moment with their nibbles. The elf would both direct people to Santa, and also do any gift wrapping the adults needed. That meant Alex's cashiers remained free to ring up the sales and deal with any queries or returns.

West's Gifts Wonderland was his pride and joy. He was sure he had something for everyone. Set in a well-positioned and spacious niche in a boutique mall, he had a good-sized ground floor for his goods, plus a mezzanine where he had his office. He'd filled the store with shelves and tables that held books and specialty CDs, gourmet foods, small kitchen appliances and accessories, luxury bath goods, even some fashion accessories. They were all popular small gifts, and in the run up to Christmas, his shelves could get quite bare.

Today he thought he might interview for his Santa. His mind turned to the man whose letter had played such a part in his deciding to actually have a Santa as well as an elf. Alex returned to his office tucked at the back of the mezzanine and sat at his desk.

Taking a file from the drawer, Alex opened it, and stared at the letter it contained. The paper was exquisite. Alex had a minor fetish for notebooks and pens, and hoarded them at every opportunity. However, he wasn't sure he could have brought himself to write on this paper. He held the cream sheet up to the light and admired the watermark, then the perfect handwriting, and finally studied the attached photograph.

The blond-haired man in the picture could be anything from Alex's own age of thirty-four upward. There was an ageless quality about him, and his azure-blue eyes and easy smile held intelligence and warmth. The letter was a specific application for store Santa. Alex scratched his head. In previous years, Alex had gotten his staff to dress as elves, but he hadn't really thought about a Santa, and he had no idea why anyone would approach him.

At least, he'd never considered it, until now. He tapped his finger on his desk. The seed had been planted and the idea was one he couldn't shake off. It felt right. There was no other way for him to put it. He closed his eyes, picturing his floor space.

There was an area he could use. Perfect for where the kids could talk to Santa while the adults rested nearby with coffee and a mince pie, and where the elf would wrap their gifts. The more he thought about it, the more excited he felt, and the more right it seemed that the man in the photograph should be his Santa.

On a sudden whim, he picked up the phone and dialed the contact number. The voice that greeted him was an almost melodic baritone.

"Hello. Michael speaking."

"Ah, hello. I'm Alex West. I own West's Gifts Wonderland. You wrote and asked about a position as a shop Santa. Are you still interested?"

"Absolutely. Have I made the interviews?" Michael's voice rose a little with anticipation.

"Um, yes. Although I have to be honest and say that I'd only be able to pay minimum wage, and it would just be for December, so only just over three weeks' work. I can't offer anything more, as my shop's fully staffed. Are you still interested?"

"That's perfect. I have other work I do, and three weeks will be ideal. When do you want to interview me?"

"Are you free this afternoon?"

"Nothing like the present. Yes. I can be there this afternoon. How about two thirty?"

"Marvellous. I look forward to meeting you." Alex replaced the receiver and his gaze dropped to the photo on his desk. With a shrug, he put it and the letter back into the gold file and plotted the changes he'd need to make with the shelving and tables in the shop.

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