Sleigh Bride (Mistletoe Montana #12) by Xavier Neal

Chapter One

How is it I always get roped into this type of thing?

Do I just have “Will Do Anything for Nephew” tattooed on my forehead?

Does my older brother, Sparrow, just have a sixth sense about this shit that he passed down to his kid?

A seductive feminine voice softly purrs, “You look good with a beard, Lark.”

I turn around and toss the beautiful woman who has come to be one of my best friends over the past year a sarcastic look.

“And, the overnight beer gut?” Da’Nika Martin fakes a swoon and fans her caramel-colored complexion. “Hot.”

“Excuse you,” the stern tone of voice is accompanied by a point to the fake stomach, “this is all cookies, thank you very much.”

Giggles escape her, and she swiftly tries to catch them in the palms of her dainty hands.

Of all the people that I’m stuck doing this with, I’ll freely admit, I’m glad it’s her. Pretending to be Santa for a bunch of preschoolers is one nightmare, but having to pretend to be Santa with someone like Megan Storwell – a woman whose smile clearly belongs starring in another horrific Krampus movie rather than anything associated with the classic Tim Allen holiday franchise – would’ve had me roasting his chestnuts over an open fire. With Da’Nika as my partner in holiday crime, I, thankfully, know exactly what is in store for the next two and a half hours. Our friendship started over a last cookie negotiation during a cultural event we were attending for the minis that run our lives – despite the fact they aren’t directly our minis. Da’Nika’s Goddaughter and my nephew, Oren, are not only in the same class but often each other’s preferred playmates.

They’re, basically, two parts of the same chocolate chip cookie.

And, in weird ways, so are we.

She pushes up her tiny Mrs. Claus glasses, “Is your newfound plumpness from cookies or muffins?”

The alluding to what it is I do outside of this stuffy, itchy, red suit successfully gets me to chortle. “Hey, why don’t we leave muffins for Santa? You know? Mix the shit up? I’m more of a muffin man, anyway.”

“Because tradition dictates cookies.”

“Eh. Depends on the tradition.”

“Is this…really the debate you wanna get into two minutes before show time?”

“Nah,” I casually brush off, “but after it? We will absolutely be settling this shit over pizza, Guinness, and hockey highlights.”

Excitement instantly rushes into her dark brown gaze.

Our shared love of hockey is one of the many reasons this friendship works.

It also helps we share a love for the same team.

Go Dalvegan Dragons!

My head motions towards the door to imply we should get going, and Da’Nika twirls that direction to saunter off. The two of us exit the classroom designated for hiding our belongings at Little Elves Private Preschool in relaxed silence and head down the hall for the event room where families are waiting.

Everything here in Mistletoe, Montana is Christmas-themed down to the snow shoveling services that are offered. With a name like Mistletoe – where it’s been established to embrace the holiday season year round, especially considering the high tourist population we get even in the “off season” – sticking to the theme is crucial to the survival of any business, whether it’s big or small.

Schools are not an exception.

Neither are neighborhoods.

Nothing manlier than telling chicks you’re hoping to fuck that you live in Gingerbread Grove.

“Can’t believe I’m giving up one of my only mornings off to let strange children cry in my lap,” I grumble a little closer to the doors we need to enter. “Do you know what I could be doing instead?”

“Anything,” Da’Nika says on a snicker. “Like, literally anything else would be better than wearing these costumes kids are gonna sneeze and wipe frosting on like we’re just giant napkins.”

There’s no stopping the cringe that crosses my face.

Fuck, she’s right.

So right that I can practically already see the snot caked on my jacket.

“Yeah,” my agreement is muttered at the same time I admire the coat’s cleanliness one last time, “doing anything else would probably be better than this.”

“Lark!” An unexpected squeaky voice calls to me. “Lark, honey!”