Rebecca Chandler's Christmas motto was simple: "Wake me when it's over."
It wasn't that she was a Scrooge, quite the contrary. Rebecca could bake reindeer-shaped cookies and wrap presents with the best of them. In the spirit of the holiday, she had served up turkey and stuffing at the local homeless shelter, and had even knocked out a few of those self-serving Christmas missives, chronicling the humdrum lowlights of yet another year in her boring life.
Rebecca forced herself through the merry motions, but, in reality, she found the demands of the season as appealing as a year-old fruitcake. There were three things in life she detested merely as a matter of principle: shopping, waiting in line, and holiday music. December invariably brought all three.
Rebecca avoided the holidays by doing what any self-respecting, young newspaper reporter would do, by working 24-7.
"Chandler!" the editor's voice thundered across the newsroom. Rebecca didn't even flinch. She had long since grown used to Bob Bolton's bellowing summons and knew she had a good thirty seconds before the next sonic boom. The second one was always a little louder, a bit more impatient, and included her full name.
"Rebecca Chandler!" he shouted above the din. He was ten seconds early. Rebecca sighed and clicked the mouse to save her document.
"What now?" she said, glaring at him from his office doorway.
Bob Bolton was perched in his usual editorial position -- leaning back in his leather desk chair, his chubby fingers laced behind his bald head. The middle button on his wrinkled, white, short-sleeved shirt was undone as usual. Bob's "uniform," as the newsroom crew referred to his wardrobe behind his back, also consisted of socks that collected in rolls around his ankles, scuffed loafers, and any variety of gray pants. He was loud and boisterous, and loved to lord over the newsroom like a prison warden. He prided himself on being able to see every cubicle from his well-positioned mahogany desk. For Rebecca, his gruff manner no longer cut any ice. She could see past his nail-eating drill sergeant exterior. Bob hated that. Nevertheless, he played the part for fear he'd lose control over his beloved Indianapolis Sentinel staff.
"So, I heard you had an encounter with the Beard Bandit today," Bob said. "How many does that make?"
"Seventeen," Rebecca sniped.
"Wanna tell me about it?" Bob asked.
"Not particularly. But I will." Bob raised his bushy eyebrows in response as she continued, "It was quite exciting, actually. I was standing on a corner in Lockerbie Square talking to a Salvation Army Santa. His name was Edwin. He's working his way through architectural school and was kinda cute -- "
"Cut to the chase, Chandler. My arteries are hardening."
"The chase. Yes, well, I was engaged in my riveting interview with Edwin when a hooded skateboarder appeared, seemingly out of thin air, snatched the beard from Santa's chin and then darted away into holiday traffic without so much as a glance backward."
"And you just stood there?" Bob questioned.
"At first, yes," Rebecca fired back. "Then I gave chase and was nearly hit by a Toyota minivan."
"So you let him get away," Bob barked, ignoring the minivan part.
"No, Bob, I darted out into traffic, ran across the tops of half a dozen cars Jackie Chan-style, tackled the kid and disabled him with a swift but lethal blow to the neck. Street-corner Santas all over the city are hailing me a hero."
"Okay. Okay," Bob sighed. "Tell me you at least got a good look at him."
"He was wearing a hood."
Bob rubbed his chin as if deep in thought. "Seventeen victims...what's this punk trying to prove, anyway?"
Rebecca shrugged, already bored with this conversation. "I dunno. Maybe Santa forgot to bring him the BB gun he wanted when he was ten and he has lingering issues."
Bob sniffed at her attempt at humor and took a sip from his Indiana Hoosiers coffee mug. "Well, stay on it. Whoever this kid is, he's selling papers. Maybe when he decides to come in from the cold, you can get him to turn himself in to you. Something like that happened to that beat reporter for the Telegraph last year."
"Yes, but that was a serial killer. This kid swipes fake beards."
Bob cleared the phlegm from his throat and began shuffling the papers on his desk. Rebecca recognized the telltale signs. "Let me guess. The Beard Bandit isn't the real reason you called me in here. Is it?"
Bob gave her his best "I-don't-know-what-you're-talking-about" face, and then, when he saw Rebecca wasn't buying it, slipped into a sheepish grin. "All right, you got me."
"What is it this time, Bob?" she sighed.
"Rebecca, did I mention how much I enjoyed your story about the three-legged dog last month? You know, the one that saved the old lady from the fire. You write with such warmth and sincerity."
"Uh oh," Rebecca said, her radar on full alert. A compliment from Bob Bolton could only mean one thing. "What do you want, Bob?"
"Want?" Bob said, feigning innocence.
"Well, the last time you called me in here to butter me up I ended up spending Independence Day with America's oldest living veteran."
"And turned in some of your best work, I might add."
Rebecca fixed him with a defiant glare. "Bob, it was beyond pathetic. He was a hundred and four. He had no idea where he was and every time a firecracker went off, he started looking for a foxhole." Bob snorted as if he found this mildly amusing. "When do I get to be a real reporter?" Rebecca asked finally, her voice dropping to avoid her coworkers' curious ears.
Bob edged forward. She'd just entered his discomfort zone. "Soon," he assured her. "I'm grooming you."
"You've been saying that since you had hair," Rebecca retorted, no longer caring who heard her. "I'm tired of just covering the feature fluff. I want something with teeth. Give me a real assignment."
Bob leaned back in his chair, his eyes narrowing, his demeanor shifting from uncomfortable to suspicious in an instant. "So, you think you know it all now, eh? And features are beneath you. Is that it?"
Rebecca sighed heavily. She was losing patience. "No, Bob. I just want to feel like my talents are being appreciated, that's all."
"I appreciate your talents," Bob said defensively. "Did I ever tell you how much I appreciate your willingness to work holidays?"
Rebecca winced. Bob had buried the lead. "The answer is no," she said firmly.
"Wait, what's the question?" Bob said, again dipping into his acting reservoir.
"You were about to ask me to sacrifice my Christmas...again," Rebecca shot back, heading him off at the pass.
"I was?" Bob made one last attempt before giving up and grinning like a used-car salesman. "Okay. I was. But not just for any old story. This one's really special -- a perennial favorite."
"Let me guess," Rebecca said. "The candle-lighting ceremony in the park?"
"Nope," Bob said, enjoying her little guessing game. "Even better. Think -- readers' favorite."
"The snowman-building competition," Rebecca fired back, sure she'd nailed it this time.
"No. Think heartwarming, life-affirming -- a real tearjerker," Bob said.
"The Hell's Angels Toy Drive." Bob gleefully shook his head. "I give up," she said, enjoying how her boss sagged in disappointment that the game was over.
"Hamden, Indiana," he said finally. "Ring any bells?"
"Not Secret Santa," she said, with as much disdain as she could muster.
"That's the one."
"Bob, that story's so tired I'm getting sleepy just thinking about it."
Bob raised his eyebrows in disbelief. "Not according to our readership," he defended. "Year in and year out, Secret Santa is our most popular holiday story."
Rebecca checked her watch, hoping the hint would do the trick, but Bob would have none of it.
"Every Christmas Eve, a mysterious stranger appears out of the mist to bestow a gift on some poor, less fortunate sap," he said, now up out of his chair and into full selling mode. "Readers eat that stuff up."
"That's funny," Rebecca said with a smirk. "It gives me indigestion."
"I've already slated it for the feature front, Christmas Day," Bob said, sitting on the edge of his desk. "Naturally, I want my best reporter on the job."
Rebecca glared at him, hoping her expression alone would be a sufficient answer. But she could tell from the look in his eyes -- he wasn't about to budge. "Spare me, Bob. The real reason you want me is because I'm single, and you assume I have nothing better to do for the holidays than spend it in some podunk town in the middle of nowhere."
"I'll up your per diem to thirty bucks," Bob bargained. "And I'll throw in one of my wife's rum cakes."
Rebecca had heard enough. "Forget it. I couldn't care less who got a new oxygen tank in their stocking and -- despite what you might think, I do have plans this Christmas. Ryan is taking his 'fiancée' to Maui."
"Anybody I know?" Bob asked, in a feeble attempt at humor.
"Very funny," she replied tersely. "He plans to pop the question soon. I can feel it. And when he does, I will hesitate for an appropriate period of time -- say ten seconds -- and then give him a resounding Yes!"
"Okay, Chandler, I'll cut you a break," Bob responded. "But don't come crying to me when Winstead wins the Pulitzer for the Secret Santa story."
"Aloha," Rebecca said, exiting his office with a triumphant smile.
Copyright © 2003 by The Polson Company
That's what she thinks. Rebecca didn't count on Hamden, Indiana, a town that claims to live the Christmas spirit all year long. Small-town USA, complete with a main street diner and an Annual Christmas Pageant, Hamden is home to a cast of quirky characters, a handsome millionaire...and the most unlikely Secret Santa of them all. Determined to uncover the identity of the holiday philanthropist, Rebecca quickly learns that things are not always as they appear, and in the process of looking for Santa, Rebecca finds love, the honor of sacrifice...and the true meaning of Christmas.
Giving in its purest form
expects nothing in return.