>Emma tugged her pointy hat into place. She was a woman on a mission, never mind the elf costume. She was ready to get a boyfriend.
The last few weeks, she had been spending more and more time with Frank. They had gone to dinner with friends, met for a private lunch, taken each other to the movies, and even braved the mall together for some holiday shopping. He had been free with the hugs, and had nonchalantly asked her opinion on what a woman "just like you" would want for Christmas. He had even given her a peck on the cheek after dinner with the Westons, but that had been the extent of it and Emma was starting to get frustrated with his glacial pace.
It was perhaps her own fault. She had set the easy tone early on. "Just friends" was just fine with her when she still had a bad taste in mouth from her previous boyfriend, the One Who Shall Not Be Named. Her good friend George had complimented her restraint in jumping back into the dating pool too soon, but when he started making digs against Frank, Emma had suddenly found the younger man more interesting.
To start dating during the holidays was always a challenge, and she knew it had impeded Frank's interest in her as much as it had her interest in him. Each of them had a calendar full of parties focusing on family, work and friends. It was awkward to go through each invitation and decide which would be a good event to bring a new significant other. Family parties were straight out. She didn't want her sister or father reading too much into this fledgling relationship. Office parties were a veritable minefield of having enough of a good time to please her supervisors without having so much of a good time that she got carried away. Parties with friends would be the safest, and they already knew many of the same people. Parties with friends would make a perfect debut.
Gift giving was also a dreadful game of chicken in a new relationship. How did one decide on a budget? Spending too much sent the signal that she was desperate to please or thought the relationship meant more than it did. Spending too little would insult him. Even if she could decide on a budget, she still had to find the perfect gift. It was nerve wracking! She had suggested a cashmere scarf for herself, but Frank had been impossible to nail down on gift ideas for himself, always ending with, "but you don't have to buy me anything."
Frank had been willing to be her best guy friend for weeks. He was a gentleman, but he'd jump at the opportunity to upgrade his title to Boyfriend. Tonight he was going to get his chance.
Candy-cane stripes spiraled up her leggings and her blue flannel vest was trimmed with silver and faux fur. Any other time of the year, she wouldn't be caught dead in an outfit like this, but right now she was Twinkletoes the Elf, and she was here to help kids talk with Santa, and to help their parents go home with photographs of that magic moment.
For two weeks a year, she gave up her evenings to work at the Santa stand. It always made Christmas feel more special to her to see it through the eyes of a child. Sometimes, sure, they were just as greedy and materialistic as adults, but other times they just took her breath away with their simple, innocent desires. Hanna, who organized the whole thing, not only donated the proceeds to the local women's shelter, but also provided that shelter with free vouchers so that the women could get free pictures of their children sitting with Santa..
Tonight, the Santa in question was none other than Frank. Michael had volunteered as Santa for the last five years, but he had slipped on a patch of ice yesterday and today he was hobbling around on a twisted ankle with his arm in a sling. He'd be ready to put the beard on in a week or two, but Christmas waited for no man so Emma had offered up Frank. She already knew he didn't have any special plans for the next few evenings. He seemed to warm to the idea when she told him about it on the phone and had rung off with the promise to call Hannah for the details.
She watched him walk out in full costume, bundled up in the pants, padded jacket, boots, gloves, beard and hat. She could barely make out his eyes and cheeks underneath the costume, but he waved at her and gave a hearty, "Ho ho ho!" that sent the kids squealing.
Families had been lining up for a while when the Santa stand finally opened, so Twinkletoes barely had time to glance back at Santa while as she answered questions, ran credit cards or other forms of payment. After the first ninety minutes, Snowflake the Elf announced that Santa needed to take a break to feed his reindeer. The kids groaned but Twinkletoes promised that they would be right back. Mrs. Claus then came out to read Christmas stories while they waited.
Emma glanced at Frank's retreating back and decided it was time to make her move. She gave Snowflake notice that she was also taking a break, and skipped after Santa.
She caught up with him just as he entered the break room.
"Ho ho!" he greeted her in character.
Emma worked fast. She shut the door and locked it-- the trauma of some child discovering Santa with an elf while Mrs. Claus recited a poem about Rudolph was not something she wanted on her conscience. Then she spun around, yanked Frank's beard down below his chin, and kissed him.
He was a little taller in the Santa boots, and with all that padding, his shoulders seemed a little broader. Even his five-o'clock shadow felt more stubbly than she expected. Her own eyes were shut but she easily imagined his eyes opening wide as his entire frame stiffened in surprise at her boldness. Still, she had no cause to complain; after a moment's hesitation, he began to relax, and she could feel his hands on her waist pulling her closer. His reserve, once broken, disappeared completely.
Emma knew she was a good kisser. She had received more than one independent and unsolicited compliment on her abilities in that department. But Frank, she had to admit, was really good, much better than she knew she had a right to expect for a first kiss.
She nearly giggled in satisfaction, and chastised herself for taking so long to get to this point.
When he said, "Emma," it sounded like longing satisfied, but he did not speak in his deep Santa voice, nor in Frank's normal voice, not even in the "sexy Frank" voice she had thought up earlier when she devised this ambush.
No. When he said, "Emma," it was in George's voice.
Emma gasped and pushed him away.
"George!" She clapped her hand over her mouth in surprise. "What are you doing here?"
He stared at her, dumbfounded. "Um. I'm Santa Claus."
"But where's Frank?" was all Emma could think to ask.
George physically recoiled as understanding struck him. "You thought I was Frank."
"Of course I did!" she nearly shouted. "Frank had volunteered to be Santa. He's supposed to be here tonight, not you."
George eyes ranged wildly around the room, stopping everywhere but on her. He paced, the short quick steps to the right and left that showed he was agitated. "Hannah called me this morning to ask me to fill in tonight because Frank got a better offer. Apparently some woman he's been mooning over for months finally gave him the time of day and agreed to go out with him tonight."
Emma squeezed her eyes shut. "He's on a date?" she asked, not wanting to hear the answer. All her hopes for Frank turned to ash.
George started to say something but it was just too much for Emma to deal with. She bolted out if the communal break room into the short private hall that led to restrooms and a drinking fountain. She did not stop fleeing until she was safely locked inside the women's restroom.
Alone at last, she barked out, "Oh, my god!" before realizing that George could probably hear her. That set off a round of mute cursing. When that was exhausted, she desperately wanted to call Hannah and make sense of what had just happened. But her phone was in the locker she shared with Rita, aka Snowflake the Elf, and getting her phone would put her in front of George again.
Why hadn't Hannah told her about Frank? She knew that Emma had been toying with the idea of dating him since Thanksgiving. He met all the criteria Emma had in a boyfriend. They might not have felt an instant romantic attraction, but Emma had finally decided it was worth pursuing.
And now, instead of Frank, she had made a huge mistake with George.
Thoughts of George brought on another round of silent cursing. Santa costume or not, how could she have made such a stupid, colossal blunder? This was not something they could gloss over or laugh off. She had kissed him, well and truly, and he had absolutely, irrevocably kissed her back. While she could claim a case mistaken identity, he had no such excuse. He had certainly been surprised by her, but he hadn't stopped her. Unlike Emma, he hadn't pushed away.
She started pacing. In the close confines of the bathroom, she was stuck pacing like George: three steps to the toilet; two steps to the sink; two more to the paper towel dispenser. How was she going to go back out there and face him? How was she going to face him ever again? How were they to hide this from their mutual friends?
Why did it have to be George? Emma knew this was a mistake, but why did it have to be George? Of all the guys Hannah could have called to fill in as Santa, why did she pick him? So many of the men she could have asked would have been significantly taller or shorter, or fatter or thinner than Frank, so that Emma would have realized the switch before it was too late. So many men she could have kissed by mistake and then laughed it off as a blunder, or perhaps casually dated once or twice, and then never bothered seeing again.
But not George. They were good friends. He knew her; he knew her family. He had helped bring her dad home from the hospital after his last operation, and had built the ramp that allowed her father to climb the porch safely. He had given her that pep talk before she had applied for her promotion, and had bought the first round when she got it. He let her drag him to modern gallery openings when no one else wanted to go. He rarely gave her relationship advice, but when he did it was always sound. And he had cheered when she finally got fed up with the One Who Shall Not Be Named.
And it wasn't just that. She knew him too. She had picked out his Mother's Day gift for the last three years. She had been his un-date to his younger brother's wedding. She had dropped him off and picked him up at the airport countless times for business trips. She had gone quietly to whatever sub-titled art house flick caught his fancy. She had helped him move to his new apartment, and had supervised the rearrangement of his furniture when he ran out to bring back beer and pizza to thank his friends. And she had continued to offer to set him up with whatever smart, attractive, single woman she met, despite the fact that he had never taken her up on it.
Their relationship had been perfect, until five minutes ago when Emma had irrevocably botched it. If it hadn't been for that stupid kiss, she could imagine...
What could she imagine? That they would grow old side by side? That she would end up with Frank or some Frank facsimile? And George, who would he end up with? What kind of woman would make him happy? Emma tried to picture some gorgeous, smart woman on George's arm-- an international super model-slash-pediatric oncologist or some other impossible combination-- but the view was spoiled by the sneer curling her upper lip. And when she thought of him kissing this fantasy woman just as he had kissed her, her hands balled into fists. She did not want to witness his happily-ever-after as some platonic sidekick.
She stared into the mirror and tested the corners of this revelation: she wanted George to find love and happiness, just not with someone else. Did it naturally follow that he should find it with her?
If so, should she have abandoned him in the next room with a white beard hanging off his face and a forlorn look in his eyes?
Dreading the time she had spent alone, Emma flew back to the break room. George had managed to repair his Santa costume while she had her miniature crisis, but now that she knew it was him, the effect was ruined. That posture, the tilt of his head, the way the fake wire frames balanced on his nose: it wasn't Santa or anyone else, it could only be him.
"Emma, please," he cut her off, talking quickly, nervously. "I realize you've no doubt got a speech prepared by now. But whatever it is, can I just not hear it tonight? That's all I'm asking. Just a few hours reprieve from whatever is if you've got to tell me?"
"I don't want to hear it. Not tonight. Look, I feel bad enough as it is. I'm sorry, Emma. I'm sorry. I just... I just don't want to talk about it now."
Emma shut her eyes and tried to take a deep breath but her heart was hammering so wildly in her chest that her lungs barely had room to work. She was seized by a crazy idea. It might just be crazy enough to work. And if it didn't, well, things couldn't get much worse.
"Fine, George. You don't want to talk. Let's not talk." She closed the distance between them and grabbed a fistful of beard, yanking it below his chin again before he could protest. For the second time that night, she kissed him.
It would not be the last.The End