“Excuse me.” Sullivan took a step back, sucking in his stomach to let Debbie pass him. She gave him a sweet smile on her way, her reindeer earrings flashing between red and green. They were adorable cartoonish decorations that weighed her lobes down so much that the holes stretched.
I’ll have to ask her where she got those. He didn’t have any visible piercings, but he had a few fun places to dangle a flashing Christmas tree ornament. The only problem would be if the heavy thing caught on his shirt. If that happened, it was bye-bye nipples.
The area was packed with employees who he’d barely seen for the entire year. At the first sign of food and presents, they’d all pushed out of their offices to congregate in the largest boardroom. Jingle Bells played in the background, but even with the volume cranked, he could scarcely hear it over the din of conversation.
It was hard to believe how much the company had grown. When he’d started at the office, there had been a mishmash of twenty employees who had given multitasking a whole new meaning, and while their numbers had multiplied, the outdated boardrooms had stayed the same.
“Can I have your attention, folks?” Samantha shouted while perching on the edge of a stationary office chair. She was tiny, but her voice carried across the room and cut through every conversation with the same sharpness as her four-inch heels.
Sullivan wasn’t sure how she managed it. He could bellow and one person in twenty might give him a second look, but she only had to whisper and she had every ear. Maybe she was just scarier than he was.
“First off, Merry Christmas, and thank you all so much for taking the time to participate in this year’s Secret Santa.” She wobbled on the chair before sending Sullivan a winning smile. “I know we have a lot of new faces this year, and this has always been one way to help make everyone feel welcomed.”
A touch of warmth settled into Sullivan’s stomach. Five years ago, he’d single-handedly started up a social committee for the company, and since then, he’d made more friends than he could count. Work was, well…work, but he tried his best to keep people wanting to come back every day.
The first year of Secret Santa had been an overwhelming success, with nearly everyone signing up. After that, it had almost become mandatory…like taxes.
“I think I’ll get Sully and Mark to hand out gifts to everyone, and you’re all welcome to mingle as long as you’d like. Just a reminder that the office will be closing down for Christmas break soon, but I’ll see you back in a few weeks, broke and sober.” There were a few awkward chuckles before silence fell.
Crap. Sullivan face-palmed. Samantha was four years sober, and she still made the worst drunk jokes he’d ever heard. She thought they were funny, too, which was the worst part.
Time to play savior.
He rushed to the front of the room before she could start speaking again, parking himself next to the tree and reaching out to stabilize her with one hand as she started to lose her balance.
The tree was a glorious thing that he’d carted all the way from the lot and through the front doors. The needles had been a disaster, sticking in every bit of carpeting and stabbing people at random when they insisted on only wearing socks.
There were over sixty gifts underneath it, most decently wrapped and a few in brightly colored bags. The only eyesore was the T-shirt that had a piece of tape on it with a name. Whoever had left it hadn’t bothered to wrap it.
Reaching around the back of the tree, he pulled out his stash of emergency bags and slid the T-shirt inside one of them. Every year there was someone who didn’t get a gift or a proper wrap job, and he’d learned early on to keep a secondary plan in place.
Helping Samantha down from the chair, he grabbed the first gift, reading the tag carefully before handing it off to Mark. As the pile went down, he had to point off into the crowd and call a few names, showing Mark the way as he stumbled. The guy tried so hard, but he was terrible with names and faces.
The crowd slowly dispersed as the gifts went out, leaving some breathing room as the temperature soared. Next year, he was going to rent a hall so he could watch Cindy unwrap hers with careful precision so she didn’t rip the paper, and Tony, who always skipped the card and went right for the prize.
“You are the best, Sullivan Forrest,” said Samantha as she made her way back to him, a bit of blue tissue paper clinging to her heel.
He wiped the sweat from his brow, grabbing the closest discarded paper box to fan his face. “It was a good turnout this year.”
He reached for the small box with Samantha’s name on it that was snuggled right at the base of the tree. She’d been his best friend for longer than they had worked together, and he maybe cheated every year to make sure he always got her name.
“Oh dear, I wonder what that could be,” she said with a fake gasp, taking the small package. “And who could it be from? I feel like they know my colors.” She glanced from the bright pink paper to her matching shoes.
“Just open it.” He fought down his flush as she opened the box, tugging the tissue paper out and tossing it to the side. It wasn’t hard to match when that exact shade of pink was her favorite.
“Oh, Jesus, will you marry me?” She pulled out the candied apple that was coated with chocolate and caramel, clutching it to her chest. It was almost a pound of pure sugar and calories, but it was one of her favorite things in the world. “Is it okay if I don’t share?”
Laughing, he nodded. That’s why I bought two. The apples were expensive as hell, but also one of the most addictive things on the planet.
“Thank you so much, Sully.” She pulled him in for a hug and he returned the squeeze, trying not to smoosh her tiny body.
People frequently told him that he was built like a bear, which made sense, since he had accidentally ripped the lid clean off an industrial garbage bin once. It’s a long story. Sometimes he didn’t exactly know his own strength.
“Okay, so don’t freak out.” She set her apple carefully on a nearby table before reaching into her purse and bringing out a small box. “I maybe ignored the ten-dollar limit, but you’re my best friend, and I’ll spoil you if I want to.”
Wrapped with blue paper and a gold ribbon that she’d probably spent an hour trying to perfect, it was heavy when he took it…much heavier than he’d expected.
“You’re killing me, Sully. Just open the damn box.”
“I’m enjoying the moment,” he said with a wistful smile. “I might ask you for the receipt in a second, but for now, I’m imagining that you got me something that I’ll love.” He laughed as she smacked him.
“You can be replaced, you know.” She stuck out her bottom lip in a pout. “Last year’s wasn’t that bad.”
“It was a bag of coal,” said Sullivan, raising one brow. He hadn’t been that bad.
“It was charcoal for the barbecue. All the guys were freaking out about this awesome charcoal that made their pork chops taste perfect.” She rolled her eyes.
“I don’t have a barbecue.” He gave her a level stare, trying to keep his fond smile at bay. She was a great friend, but sometimes she was a bit scatterbrained.
“Okay, I made that part up. I forgot last year, and it was the only thing at the store that wasn’t like fifty bucks. It was either that or waterproof matches.” She let out a sigh. “They aren’t always that bad.”
He begged to differ. Two years ago he’d gotten an actual mousetrap. It had come in a box, and she’d claimed that she’d thought it was the board game.
Not to mention the expired coupon from the year before that.
Or the Starbucks gift card with a balance of four dollars and thirteen cents.
“I’m holding my breath over here,” said Sullivan, looking at the box. It fit just in his palm, so he doubted that it was lethal—unless she’d wrapped him a jar of cyanide.
“I had a trusted friend give me solid advice on it this time, so if you don’t like it, you can take it up with him.” She tapped her foot impatiently.
“I’m your only friend.”
His laugh died as he unwound the ribbon, ripping the paper and pulling the top of the box open. His breath caught, his eyes tearing up immediately. “It’s…”
“It’s your parents,” she said, touching the necklace and turning the charm so it was the right way up. It was rectangular, similar to a military dog tag and was attached to a thick chain. Instead of a name and number, there was an engraved picture of his parents. The amount of detail was astonishing, the carved lines capturing the smile on his mother’s lips and the patient gleam of his father’s eyes.
“I know they aren’t with us anymore, but I thought you would want them with you for Christmas. This is the best way I knew how to make that happen for you.”
He cleared his throat, touching his fingertip to the surface of the picture. It shimmered in the lights from the Christmas tree, the silver lines capturing every detail they’d had in life. “It’s beautiful.”
Samantha knew better than most how hard the loss had hit him. Every Christmas had been laced with tradition for him, but this one was going to be so different without them—no Christmas Eve dinner or Eggs Benedict on Christmas morning, no unexpected gifts that he told them every year not to get and no quiet moments of Dad reading to them in front of the fire.
Sniffing, he wiped his cheeks with the back of his hand, turning away before Samantha could catch him. He waited until he had himself under control again before he spoke. “It’s passable.”
Her smile was infectious, dragging his grief away as she grabbed the necklace from him and secured it around his throat. It settled against his sternum, a surprisingly heavy weight that was full of remembrance.
“I was going to steal some of their ashes from your mantel and put them in a little necklace for you instead, but Lincoln said that would be too creepy. He suggested the engraving and even set me up with a little shop downtown.” She patted him once on the back before she pulled away, leveling him with a look. “You like it, though? Really?”
Who is Lincoln? He spent nine hours a day with the woman, and he was certain there wasn’t anyone by that name in the company. She’d never mentioned him before, either. She had a lot of boyfriends, though, not that he was judging. It was better than his zero.
“I love it,” he said, squeezing her shoulder. “Thank you so much, Samantha.”
She waved him off, picking at one of her manicured nails where a bit of sparkling red had peeled away. “Don’t thank me. Thank Lincoln. He’s the brains of the operation.”
Okay… “Who is he, exactly?” A boyfriend was most likely. Samantha had gone through three dates in the last week, had three guys on trial at the moment, along with two in a long-term poly relationship. He had no idea how she found time for all of them.
Sullivan didn’t have the attention span that she did. When he fell in love, he wanted to fall so deep that he’d never even want to look at another man again. Pouring out his soul to another human being and having them cherish it was the only thing he really wanted. Unfortunately, that was hard to come by for a hopeless romantic like himself, especially with his quirks.
“Oh.” She bit her lip, looking around before she lowered her voice. “He’s my pen pal.”
What? He’d had a pen pal in grade school, but he’d lost touch with them after the semester had ended. He honestly didn’t even know it was a thing anymore. With every kind of social media, pen and paper were on their way out.
“You know…from the program,” she said, lowering her voice even more.
“Oh.” He looked around, eyeing up Harry who was lingering by the tree. “AA has pen pals?” He covered his mouth in case Joyce was watching. She could read lips like a pro, and he did not want to start any more rumors.
Samantha nodded once, her lips pressed into a line. “Not always, but I found this program and his name was in the system, so I reached out. Anyway, yeah, Lincoln is my pen pal. He’s a great guy, really. He rambles on for pages about this and that, and it’s always so interesting. I swear he’s the smartest guy I’ve met—or not met, because I’ve only ever written to him. You should write him and thank him, though. It would be good for you. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if I gave you his address. It’s just a PO box.”
He curved his lips up, his laughter nearly bursting through him. “Somebody has a crush.”
He hadn’t seen her so hung up on a guy since eleventh grade when Perry Larson had transferred to their high school and had taken the halls by storm.
“Shut up,” she pushed his shoulder playfully, barely budging him. Her cheeks flushed.
“You know what? I will write to him.” If nothing else, it would keep Sullivan’s mind off his first Christmas alone.