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Santa vs. the Secret Shopper
A billionaire, secret identity, enemies-to-lovers, holiday romance
What happened to Connor during the robbery?
Get this story from Ivy Hunt as part of the Secret Santa: A Christmas Romance Collection.
A freaking fat suit.
This is what I’ve been reduced to—selling my soul and packaging it as Christmas cheer.
I eye my brand-new gut in the narrow mirror, then glance at the three-piece ensemble on the garment rack and scowl. Instead of my Tom Ford jacket, pants, and tie, there’s an oversized red velvet coat, matching trousers, and a hat with a white cotton ball on the end.
Would have been nice if a new outfit had been custom-fitted for me, but given the getup is part of the tradition my family is so freaking fond of, the best I can hope for is decent dry cleaning.
I draw one sleeve to my nose and sniff, ready for soot and mothballs. The scent of cookies assails me, and I drop it.
There’s a single knock on the door of the small, windowless stockroom that serves as Santa’s dressing area—and my personal hell—for the duration of my tenure as the Forrester & Sons Department Store Santa. It’s the polar opposite of my executive corner office, a mere block and fifty stories away.
“Hold on!” Shit. I snatch the combo mustache and beard and pull it over my face. The elastic band snags on an ear before I can settle it on my upper lip and chin. Fuck it itches. But there’s no way I want anyone to recognize me in this getup.
Before I can tell whoever’s out there to scram, my grandfather’s longtime assistant, Meredith Carter, peeks in. She’s all put together, her hair up in an elegant bun. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it down. The only thing to note the passage of time is the updo went from black to salt-and-pepper to the silver it is now.
“You almost ready, Zach?”
I roll my eyes. “Does it look like I’m ready?”
She walks in and shuts the door behind her. “Hurry, or you’ll be late.”
“Do I have to?” I wince at the petulance in my voice. I sound like a toddler instead of the thirty-one-year-old adult that I am.
Meredith’s green eyes twinkle, and I swear her lips twitch the slightest bit before they flatten into a stern line. “How much do you want this?”
The same question I’ve been asking myself for weeks. I want the CEO position at F&S International—also known as my family business. The one that started at this very location, the Forrester & Sons department store, over a hundred years ago.
Tale is, the family made its first fortune selling toys—my great-great-grandfather, Oliver Forrester, was short-staffed at the time and ended up playing Santa at the store. In a supposed holiday miracle, the day after Christmas, shares he had in a railway company spiked. Since then, every CEO-in-waiting has been required to follow this asinine ritual of donning the Santa suit before assuming leadership of the F&S International, and somehow, in a string of crazy coincidences, the handover always resulted in a period of exponential growth. And no one’s leaving anything to chance.
The proof is in the Christmas pudding. Great-grandfather Mitchell Forrester played Santa in the 1920s and listed F&S on the New York Stock Exchange. Only a few days later, the stock skyrocketed, making F&S a household name. His son, my grandfather, Harold Forrester, put on the red suit right before expanding into international property development, setting up offices in London, Hong Kong, and Sydney.
“I want it.” My teeth grit tight. “I’ve worked my whole life for it.”
“Well, you know what you need to do. Otherwise, you end up like him.”
Him. Dear old Dad. The only Forrester who refused to play Santa. Apparently, his words were ‘over my dead body.’ Now, said body isn’t actually dead. It just resides on a hundred-and-fifty-foot-long yacht that cruises the Mediterranean, complete with an onboard office that he uses to run the Forrester Foundation.
Meanwhile, Grandfather maintained his role as the head of the company while he groomed me to continue the family legacy, working me doubly hard to make sure I didn’t end up like his son.
And I did. I’ll do whatever it takes.
Ivy League business degree? Check.
Start in the stockroom? Check.
Work your way up with roles in each department, amid accusations of nepotism at every step? Check.
Now I’m SVP and acting-CEO, running things on a day-to-day basis. The role is mine in every way but name.
But Grandad won’t budge in the ritual. If I don’t get my ass into this goddamned red velvet suit, I’m out. The board will vote someone else for the CEO position. F&S International will no longer be a family company, a fate worse than death, as far as my unyielding grandfather is concerned.
“Well, we’re sure as hell not telling anyone about this,” I tell Meredith.
“My lips are sealed.”
I peek out the door. Santa’s Village is empty, but not for long. Soon it will be teeming with little people—little people I have no experience with. What do I know about Christmas? Dad’s off on the other side of the world. Mom passed away when I was a kid. But the clan will regroup at the yearly New Year’s Gala, just in time to take photos that will grace the cover of the annual report to shareholders, proclaiming F&S International a family-run company with traditional values—the ones with a high digit and an obscene number of trailing zeros. It’s also the gala where I’ll formally be announced the incoming CEO, all ready to take over the first business day of the following year.
The door swings open again, and a bald, heavyset man walks in. If it weren’t for the store security badge pinned to the lapel of his dark suit, I’d peg him for the bouncer at a club in the Meatpacking District. He nods at Meredith. “Morning, Miz Carter.”
She beams. “Tommy. How lovely to see you.”
Tommy-the-Bouncer grins, wide and toothy. “You, too, Ma’am.” But when his gaze swivels to me, no trace of humor remains. “And who are you?”
Somehow, I force out, “The new Santa.”
Meredith jumps to my rescue, smiling. “This is Oliver Mitchell. He’s here from the Boston store for the season.”
As if I need any more reminders. Even my middle names carry the weight of the Forrester legacy, having belonged to my great-great-grandfather and his father.
He squints at me, then points at my head.
I growl as I yank off the black Yankees ball cap I’ve kept low over my face. He runs narrowed eyes over me. Meredith clears her throat and taps her watch. Tommy takes a step back with a shrug. No question who the boss is around here.
I take a deep breath.
Shit. This is it.
Both Meredith and Tommy shamelessly watch as I tug on the loose velvet pants, struggling to keep the miles of fabric up as I fasten the belt and shrug into the padded jacket.
Meredith steps forward and starts to do up the buttons, but her arthritic fingers tremble. I cover her hands with mine. “I got it.”
She looks up at me with a soft smile.
I take my time with each gold disc. Every closure is another band around my ribs.
The snowy wig comes next. I grab it from the rack, plop it on my head, and add the glossy boots, white gloves, and a black belt.
Finally, Meredith crowns me with the scarlet hat, adjusting the cottony pompom so it hangs over the side, right in my peripheral vision.
Yep. As if I need one more reminder of today’s fashion choices.
She straightens the mustache and beard, nudges a pair of square reading glasses up my nose, then steps back. My transformation is complete.
“Oh, aren’t you adorable!”
I shoot her a black glare at the same time as a soft snort sounds behind me. But when I swivel back to Tommy, his expression is completely stoic—freaking jokers all around.
The suit sags on my trim form even with the belt, compliments of my morning routine at the gym. I can’t imagine what the guys would say if they saw me like this. Noah would smirk, Thorne would take bets for how long it would take me to cave, and Ryker would pose for a selfie and blast it out into the world. Assholes, the whole lot of them.
“We need to find you more padding.” Meredith raps her knuckles against my artificial belly.
Tommy looks at me again, up and down. “I’ll make sure it happens, Ma’am.”
He turns to me, no more humor evident in his stare, and holds out a white plastic card. “Your store ID. It’ll let you into all the personnel-only facilities. There are staff break rooms on each floor.”
He cocks his head to one side. “No smoking in the building. If you need a cigarette, go outside, but not in the suit.”
Yeah. No fucking way. I’d freeze my ass off before heading outside dressed like this.
“There’s lunch available on floors three, five, and eight. Your card also includes a daily stipend for the coffee shop on the mezzanine if you want those fancy drinks and hipster shit.”
“Welcome to Forrester & Sons.”