Noah Elliott twitched his nose and tried to ignore the tickling sensation of the white beard. He didn’t know how Santa Claus managed, but he had a new respect for the jolly man. A smile curved his lips at the crush of children surrounding him, faces tipped up in joy and wonder, blinking in the flash of colorful lights strung amidst the towering pine trees surrounding the mansion.
He gave a hearty ho-ho-ho, giving his nose a quick swipe with his elbow, and dispersed gaily wrapped packages to each child. His black lab, Sammy, rolled happily in the snow, making the kids giggle with delight.
“Do you like my reindeer?” he asked in a deep voice, pointing to his fur friend.
“Sammy isn’t a reindeer!” Abagail said, her cheeks pink with cold. “He’s a doggy!”
“Not today. He’s Santa’s helper. Come here, boy.” Noah whistled and knelt down. The lab barreled into him, licking at his beard with canine enthusiasm. “You forgot to wear these.” He slipped the set of furry antlers over the dog’s head, garnering another fresh surge of giggles. “There. That’s much better, now you can properly pull the sleigh.”
Sammy plopped down, his tongue lolling out as he seemed to smile at the festive crowd. The kids broke into applause and he barked in response.
“This town really loves you.”
He turned his head and faced his friend, Tom Henrich. The man was tall, blonde, and elegant looking but tonight he’d placed third in the ugly holiday sweater contest and wore his ribbon proudly. He owned an accounting agency and did most of the tax returns of all the businesses in town. He had a dry wit that consistently made Noah laugh. “Starlight Bend is my home,” he said simply, his gaze surveying the glorious spread of acreage on top of the mountain, all decorated for Christmas. Banquet tables were set up and filled with food and a dazzling array of desserts, topped off with a chocolate crystal fountain. Lights and ornaments adorned the thicket of pine trees, creating an intimate winter wonderland. Friends and neighbors swarmed the property, spiked apple cider in hand, while cheerful carols echoed from the wifi speakers.
“You chose us,” Tom said, his voice intent. “Before you came, we were all on the verge of bankruptcy. Local businesses were folding left and right. Sherry and I were discussing leaving our home and starting somewhere new. Then you showed up like a real Santa Clause.”
Amusement curled his lip. He arched a brow at his friend. “You thought I was a jerk when I first came to town,” he reminded him.
Tom laughed. “Yeah, I did,” he admitted. “Thought you were one of those holier than thou billionaires wanting to buy up the property and sell it off to make money.”
“I did make money.”
Tom shook his head. “No, you invested in us. The town. You financed all the businesses and gave us our homes back. You brought Starlight Bend back to life.”
Noah shrugged. “I made money in the long run,” he pointed out. “Everyone’s now making a profit, including me. It was smart business.”
Tom snorted. “Sure. And what about financing Ernest Paladine this past year with a full ride to Harvard? You making money on that?”
“Ernest will be my lawyer one day and deserved a shot. So yes, it was an investment.”
“And the Christmas Wishes charity? Granting wishes to children who really need some happiness is a real ruthless business deal, huh?”
Noah smiled, refusing to play the game. “Give back to people and you’ll always get it back.”
“Was that a bell ringing? You get your angel’s wings now?” Tom teased.
“Stop making me sound so nice. Women don’t like nice men, remember? They like the bad boys.”
“I don’t think Roslyn minds,” Tom pointed out. “Are things serious between you?”
Noah swung his head and gazed at the pretty honey blonde with the big blue eyes. Roslyn caught his eye and waved to him, and he waved back. They’d been dating for a few months now, and things had settled into a nice rhythm between them. She was an elementary school teacher who seemed to fit into his world rather well, happy in both the Montana small town and travelling with him on his many business trips. She was delicate and a bit fragile, enjoying him taking on the protector role. Maybe, there was more there to explore. “Not yet, but I’m hopeful.”
“You deserve happiness, my friend. The town took up a collection to give you a present.”
Tom handed him a package tied with a red ribbon.
Noah frowned. “No need for that. I enjoy throwing the holiday party.”
Tom gestured to the huge scrolled gates that were consistently flung open in welcome. His mansion sat on top of the mountain, overlooking the town. “It’s not just the holiday party. You throw a gathering every few months, including dinner parties and charity events. Everyone always feels welcome in your home, which is hard to do when it’s more of an estate than a house.”
“You still didn’t need to get me anything.”
“We wanted to. Will you be quiet and open it, please?”
Touched by the gesture, he slowly unwrapped the box and slid out a beautifully carved figure of Santa Clause in shiny silver. His bag of toys and red coat glittered in red rubies. Something was engraved at the base. He moved closer to study the words.
The Santa Clause of Starlight Bend.
He looked up, blinking away a strange sting in his eyes. “Thank you, Tom. It’s beautiful.”
“You’re welcome. We’re all grateful you chose this town to make your home in. We’ve all benefited from your business and friendship. Just wanted you to know that.”
Noah clapped him on the shoulder and they both gazed out at the happy, laughing crowd. A surge of peace and happiness hit him, knowing this was exactly where he belonged.
He had everything he’d ever wanted.
A week later, Noah stayed late to close up the bank, giving Cissy a chance to go home and spend an early evening with her son. He liked the quiet of the stately brick building after everyone left, and enjoyed cruising down Main Street when the streets were deserted and a winter hush settled over the town. Humming White Christmas under his breath, he finished up and locked the door, heading to his sleek black Hummer. He drove down Main Street, enjoying the blanket of thick white snow covering the pavements, the cheerful wreaths on the light posts, and the holiday displays in each of the store’s windows.
He was just passing the Sunflower Café when he noticed thick puffs of smoke pouring out of the side windows. His gut lurched, and he fumbled for his phone, quickly dialing 911. Throwing his gear into park, he jumped out of the vehicle and raced to the front door. With a firm jerk, it opened under his hand.
Why wasn’t it locked?
Trying to ignore the panic, he stepped inside and saw the kitchen in flames. The fire blazed in fury, beginning to travel quickly to the only route of escape. “Is anyone here?” he shouted at the top of his lungs.
As he retreated toward the door, back to safety, he heard moans.
Without hesitation, he ran toward the sound down the hallway, and found two teen boys huddled in the corner of the bathroom. They looked half unconscious, slumped almost into a fetal position. Thick smoke rolled into the room and strangled his lungs. Quickly, he dragged them to their feet and toward the small window at the end of the hall. He yanked it a few times before the creaky wood frame gave and fresh cold air poured in.
He shook the first boy’s shoulders, trying to get him to focus. Damnit, it was Todd Halpren and he was only seventeen. “Out the window!” he shouted, helping Todd over the sill. The crackle of flames entered the hallway and a sooty type blackness enwrapped them like a beckoning villain. Trying not to show his fear, he desperately turned to the second boy, who he recognized as Todd’s best friend, Scott. The heat was blistering, roaring up right behind him, and with fumbling fingers he managed to get Scott free of the window at the same time a terrible cracking sound exploded in the air.
He looked back, just for an instant.
The last thing he saw was the beams of the ceiling crashing down on his head.
Then there was only blackness.
Noah stared sightlessly out of his one eye. His face was still wrapped up like a mummy, along with his hands, and the familiar blistering pain throbbed under his skin. The sterile hospital room held all the basics. It was a private room, but he’d learned another valuable lesson. It didn’t matter how luxurious a hospital suite was if it couldn’t fix him.
Money didn’t take away pain or turn monsters back into princes.
Money didn’t equal miracles.
Money bought the best surgeons who’d already let him know half of his face would never be normal. His ear was gone, along with his eye. His hands had a better shot at regaining full dexterity and the least amount of scar tissue. He was on his third surgery and pain was his constant companion, along with an aching emptiness in his gut.
He didn’t turn his head, but recognized Tom’s voice. Heard his footsteps as he came tentatively to stand beside him. Noah imagined the way he tried to hide his horror and his gaping stare at the man who’d he’s seen a few months ago at the holiday party. A man who’d once been whole and happy. A man who’d once had everything.
“What are you doing here?” he asked tonelessly.
Tom cleared his throat. Noah heard the scrape of the chair as it was dragged closer. “Checking up on you, of course. How did the latest surgery go?”
“I’m sorry, Noah. For everything.”
He didn’t respond. Just let the silence settle in the room. Noah had learned it was the best way to get rid of people. Silence was dreaded and avoided at all costs. The longer he allowed it to drag on, the faster his so-called visitors fled.
“Roslyn said you refused to see her.”
He acknowledged the blast of pain as emotional rather than physical, but he was too detached to really linger on it. After a while, they all bled into one another anyway. “Roslyn had a hard time looking at me. She was nervous and scared. She didn’t deserve to be put through this—it wasn’t what she signed up for.”
Tom let out a tiny sigh. “I figured as such. Listen, Noah, she’s a lovely person but not the type to dig deep when things get rough. Better you figured that out now than later.”
Maybe. Maybe not. Did it even matter?
A different type of tension rose between them. Noah could practically sniff it out—his other senses heightened by being bandaged and losing half his sight and hearing. “I don’t think you’re here to discuss Roslyn right now. What is it you need to tell me?”
A pause full of meaning. Then his voice filled with regret.
“The Halpren and Moore family filed a lawsuit against you. I just heard from their lawyer who wanted to take my statement. You’ll be served shortly.”
“How much?” he asked.
Noah waited. Waited for the agonizing hurt to tear through him, but maybe the fire had also taken away his ability to feel. Or maybe he was just getting used to it. “I thought the boys admitted they’d snuck into the café to smoke cigarettes and steal food. That they caused a grease fire and got trapped in the bathroom, passing out from the smoke inhalation.” His voice rose faintly in question. “Didn’t I save them both when they had committed a crime? Didn’t they admit to being in the wrong?”
Tom cleared his throat. “They’re changing their story. Said the café held faulty equipment and the door was unlocked, which makes you liable as the registered owner. Scott is only sixteen so they’re suing on a bunch of grounds, including endangerment of a child.”
“I see. I understand now.”
“Listen, with the type of lawyers you can hire, I’m sure you’ll get it thrown out of court.”
“What are the townspeople saying?”
Tom’s lack of response told him all he needed. No wonder he’d hardly had any visitors. The entire town was against him, siding with the families. No wonder he’d been swarmed with press and phone calls asking for interviews and statements. It wasn’t about casting him in the billionaire hero role at all. It’s been about tearing him apart and blaming him for the entire accident and getting him to pay.
He’d been so stupid.
He’d never had any true friends at all.
“I’m sure many of them will come around. You know how Todd’s father is, whipping up drama and loving the attention. He signed on with that celebrity lawyer who likes to take on these types of cases and get a lot of press. People are caught up in the frenzy. It’ll fade.”
“No, it won’t. I need some time alone, Tom.”
“I can help. Let me try to—”
The scrape of a chair. Another pause. Then the sound of the door being clicked.
Noah stared at the blinding white ceiling and thought for a long time before he decided on what needed to be done.
A few weeks later, he settled the lawsuit.
He withdrew to his mansion, closed the gates, and never came out again.
And he never, ever helped another member of Starlight Bend again.
Owen Salt watched the man and woman kiss on the carousel. He turned to his mom and made a face. “Gross! They’re kissing!”
His mom laughed and squeezed his hand. “When adults love each other, that’s how they show affection.”
“I’m never gonna kiss anyone. Especially a girl.”
“Then you don’t have to.”
He nodded, liking her answer. “Isn’t Mr. Elliott cool, mom? He’s like a superhero. He wears a real eye patch, and wants to help me save the animals, and survived a real life fire. I think he’s even cooler than Batman.”
“I think he is, too.” His mom teared up, which hurt his insides, but then a real smile curved her face. “Guess what? He says he’s gonna take us on a special trip across America. We’re going to this fancy hospital for kids. They do all these cool experiments and we may be able to find something to help you out, kiddo.”
“Kids with cancer like me?”
“Yep. How does that sound?”
“I think it sounds great.” Owen studied his mom hard, but this time her smile was genuine, and she looked really happy too, instead of being worried all the time. He knew she was real tired and worried about him, which made him sad. But tonight, she’d eaten cotton candy with him, and laughed on the scrambler, and didn’t warn him about sugar or spinning too much. Plus, all his friends were here, Derek, and Kayla, and Logan, and Adam. He was super lucky to get his wish, and get to share it with his best friends.
As the Ferris Wheel reached the top, his mom gave a girly scream, which made him laugh, and when he looked out over Starlight Bend, a strange feeling of peace settled over him. He just knew everything was going to be okay. He was going to beat leukemia, and open a rescue place, and see the world one day.
“Things are going to be okay. Do you believe that?”
There was only determination and truth in her eyes as she gazed back at him and
nodded. He realized she wasn’t just agreeing with him to make him feel better. She also knew it would all work out. “Yes, I do. I believe that with every inch of my being.”
He smiled at her. “This is the best night of my life.”
She smiled back. “Me, too, Owen. Me, too.”
The snow fell, and the lights glittered, and the world looked beautiful from up high.
Yeah. This was the best night of his life.
And he’d never forget it.