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"But Mommy? Are you sure Santa's coming this year?"
Tia Dickinson looked down at her six year-old son, Brandon. Though several inches of snow were thick on the ground, the early morning Denver sun shone in through the window in their apartment, lighting up his features. She smiled at the innocent look on his face.
Having adopted him just after his second birthday, she was ever amazed at their physical similarities: He had her café au lait skin; her sandy-brown, naturally curly hair; her dark, sparkling eyes; her inquisitive, yet bubbly personality. It was as if he were hers biologically.
However, now, his dark eyes were still bright, but were now tinged with a bit of sadness.
"Of course Santa's coming, honey," she said, buttoning his colorful SpongeBob SquarePants coat. Brandon hated the childish coat, now at the age where he preferred to have a big-boy coat. But for now, his current coat would do well to protect him from Denver, Colorado's bitter cold.
Once he was all buttoned up, Tia tweaked Brandon's cute, button nose, causing him to smile; his missing front tooth giving him an impish grin. "It's like I told you earlier," Tia said, "Santa's still coming, but he's just not bringing as much this year. But he's definitely still coming."
The corners of his tiny mouth turned downward. "But how's he going to find us?"
She sighed deeply, remembering how they had to suddenly move from their large, newly built house in a suburb of Denver to an older apartment in a lower-income part of the inner city. "Santa knows everything, honey. He can find us."
"But how?" Brandon asked as she put on his gloves.
"Never you mind," Tia said, finishing his winter wardrobe with a warm hat. "Just do well in school today, and Santa will take care of the rest."
She shuffled him to the door, grabbing her coat and her keys on the way. "And don't forget what I told you before: Toys are good, but family and friends are what really matter."
"I know, Mommy," he said, exasperated. "But how is Santa going to find us?" he asked again as he put his bookbag over his arm.
Tia paused at the doorway. "I'll tell you what. After I drop you off at school, I'll go to the North Pole myself and check. I'll make sure Santa has your list and that he knows where we live now."
Brandon's eyes widened. "You're going to see Santa today? Can I go? Please?"
Tia shook her head as she ushered them out the door and down to her car. "Santa says that all kids have to go to school. So, only grown-ups can go see Santa. But I promise: Come Christmas, you'll have everything on your list."
"Promise?" he asked, once he was buckled into the passenger's seat, his dark eyes looking up at her.
"I promise," she said.
Then she turned on the ignition, and gave him a bright smile, but she couldn't help the tinge of sadness that had suddenly settled deep in the pit of her stomach.
Later that morning, as she walked into Denver's Cherry Creek shopping center, she was bombarded with the trappings of Christmas. There were brightly decorated trees galore in the upscale shopping center, along with tinsel and miniature bunches of mistletoe. In the center of the mall was the Santa display, with a rotund impersonator cheerfully taking requests from the cute children in the line.
More sadness washed over Tia, and she realized that she had to give Brandon a good Christmas.
He'd simply been through too many hardships that year.
Tia adopted Brandon as a single parent, so there was no father around to help shoulder the load. Her own parents had died years earlier, and, as an only child, the responsibility of raising her son fell squarely on her shoulders.
However, from the very first day, she loved him dearly and happily accepted the responsibility. She loved their time together and worked hard to build a good life for the both of them. The same year he came to live with her, she bought Brandon the house with the big backyard that she wanted him to grow up in. For four years, they lived in a nice home in a brand-new subdivision on the outskirts of Denver. Furthermore, she enjoyed her job as an executive secretary at a Fortune 500 company and was making a great living.
Despite some tough times as a single parent, life had been good to them.
That is, until last year.
In January, her department's budget was cut in half, and she'd lost her job, as did her boss and half of their department. Adding insult to injury, she'd had no luck finding another job that was comparable. Over that year, she eventually found a series of part-time jobs, but they just didn't bring in enough income.
Luckily, the Denver Department of Human Services office granted them a food assistance benefit card, which went a long way towards buying groceries. Unfortunately, making her monthly mortgage payment proved to be impossible. Her caseworker was as helpful as possible, but the burden became too much for her.
This year, faced with foreclosure, she and Brandon had to leave their house and downsize into a smaller apartment. And if things weren't bad enough, her part-time work began to dry up, her hours having been cut, and now even making the rent was uncertain.
Additionally, with the move, Brandon had to change schools. Tia's heart hurt at the fact that her little guy had to deal with even more upheaval. To his credit, however, Brandon was a trooper. He kept a smile and continued to have the bright, sparkling personality he'd always had. As such, she wanted this Christmas to be extra special.
But she had no idea how that was going to happen.
As she made her way through the mall, Tia kept her head up, and silently wished the happy shoppers a Merry Christmas. "No sense in being mad at someone else's good fortune," she said, as she walked past the upscale stores.
Passing by all of the shoppers, she took the escalator to the second floor and headed toward the center display of white artificial Christmas trees. Her heart skipped a beat as she walked to "her" tree.
She peered at the very-familiar spot on the middle of the tree and held her breath.
Then she gasped.
Brandon's nametag was still there.
Her heart dropped.
Through the DHS office, Tia signed up for the Salvation Army's Angel Tree program. Not wanting anything for herself, she signed Brandon up to receive gifts through generous donors.
The day after Thanksgiving, the mall set up trees that had nametags for each of the children in the program. Each child had written a wish list with two or three items, and the lists were attached to each child's nametag. As directed, the mall patrons went to the trees, picked out a name, or names, and bought gifts according to the child's wishes. The donors then took the gifts to the mall office where they were wrapped and prepared for delivery on Christmas Day.
She was a bit embarrassed earlier as she walked by all of the expensive stores on the way to the Angel Trees, but as was explained to her, more affluent shoppers most likely had more disposable income to donate to such a worthy cause.
Tia then noticed that several of the tags around Brandon's name had been selected, but Brandon's tag was still there. Her caseworker had warned her that girls' names usually went quicker than boys' did, but Tia still had faith that a generous Angel would pick Brandon's name and fulfill his Christmas wish list.
With now only two weeks left until Christmas, she sighed as she touched Brandon's nametag.
"I need a miracle, Santa," she whispered. "An Angel. A Christmas Angel. For Brandon."
Then she thought about her empty apartment building, and more importantly, her empty bed. "And for me, Santa, please send me a Christmas Angel too. Someone to love. And someone to love me. Someone kind and good. And someone who loves kids."
Going back to the tree, she silently re-read Brandon's list. A huge wrestling fan, all he wanted was a few WWE wrestling action figures and a miniature wrestling ring. He also wanted a new set of crayons and a new coloring book. And last on his list was a new, big-boy coat.
Tia smiled, wanting to give him so much more, but proud and happy at the fact that out of everything that had happened to them, he still had the ability to dream.
All of a sudden, Tia heard a soft, feminine voice speak. "There's a lot of needy kids out here, huh?"
She spun around and found herself looking into the eyes of the most beautiful woman she'd ever seen.
"Ex..excuse me," Tia stuttered.
The woman smiled as she picked a couple of nametags from the tree. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you. I was just noticing how many more names there are this year than last year."
"You've done this before?" Tia asked.
The woman nodded. "I own a company and we adopt several children each year. And every year, there are more and more children to help."
The woman pointed to Brandon's nametag. "You're going to pick that name?"
Embarrassed about her circumstances, Tia took the easy way out. "Yes," she lied. "I wanted to get a boy's name this year."
The woman smiled. "I completely understand. I have a son myself. And secretly, it's so much fun to buy for boys!"
Tia smiled back. In the moments that followed, she studied the stunning woman next to her, who was now looking at more nametags to select.
Tia first noticed the woman's rich, dark skin. The color of deep chocolate, the woman's skin was smooth and flawless. She had long, black hair that was pulled into a long ponytail. The wisps of hair that escaped, perfectly framed the woman's beautiful face and striking features.
The woman's lips were full and luscious, and were colored in a rich berry lipstick. She had gold shadow on her eyelids that made her dark eyes sparkle.
She wore a simple, knee-length, black wool coat, but had a soft-white cashmere scarf, with a matching beret and gloves. She had an expensive handbag slung over her shoulder, along with a short, black wool skirt and tall leather boots that encased her shapely legs.
"Do I pass inspection?"
Tia looked up to see the woman looking right at her. Tia's café au lait cheeks flushed crimson with embarrassment.
"I...I was just..."
The woman laughed. "It's okay. I was just teasing." She now had several nametags in her hand. "Well, I have all my names. It was nice to meet you...um..."
"Tia," she said as she held out her hand. "Tia Dickinson."
The woman's grip was soft and firm all at the same time. "Nice to meet you, Tia. I'm Angela. Angela McKinley." Then she took her nametags and slid them in her purse. "Good luck to you, Tia, and have a Merry Christmas."
"And the same to you."
Tia, still awed at her beauty, watched her walk away. A sly smirk on her face, she then turned back to the tree.
Then she gasped.
She was horrified to see that Brandon's nametag was still there.
"Oh no!" Tia groaned. "She must have thought that I was taking his nametag!"
Her shoulders slumped. "Great job, Tia," she said, scolding herself. Sadly, she looked at her watch and realized she still needed to run some errands before picking Brandon up from school. She turned to leave, but stopped cold when she heard the same soft voice.
"You know, I don't know what it is, but something made me come back here."
Tia looked up to see Angela again standing next to her. "Excuse me?" Tia said.
"I was saying, I don't know what it was, but something made me come back to this tree. I think I'm supposed to get another name."
"Another name?" Tia asked.
Angela nodded. "As I walked away, something told me to check my nametags. When I did, I realized that I only had girls. I guess I'm back to get a boy's name."
Tia's eyes grew wide. "Really?"
Angela looked at the nametag on the tree that Tia had been looking at. "I thought you were going to take that name," she said, peering at the tag. "Brandon, isn't it?"
Tia panicked, embarrassment again rushing up inside of her. But she decided to ignore it, in favor of the truth.
"I have a confession to make," Tia said. "I wasn't going to pick that name." She nervously shuffled from one foot to the other. "See, Brandon's my son. That's his nametag. We...we...we need help this year. I was just here checking to see if someone had picked his name yet."
Tia's face grew hot, as she stared at her feet.
"Well, it looks like someone has."
Tia looked up. "Huh?"
Angela had a big smile on her face as she held up Brandon's nametag. "Looks like Brandon's nametag's been chosen."
Scalding-hot tears welled up in Tia's eyes. "Oh God, thank you! Thank you so much!"
Angela reached into her handbag and pulled out the other nametags. "I guess it was a good thing that I came. See, my assistant usually handles this, but she resigned two months ago after she got married and her husband was transferred out of town. So I have Angel duty this year."
Angela then took Brandon's nametag and added it to the others in her hand. "Anyway, you can do me a huge favor, Tia."
Tia reached for a piece of tissue in her purse and quickly wiped her eyes. "What's that?"
"Well, if you have time, can you help me go ahead and get all the gifts right now? We can get everything together, and, that way, you can help me find what Brandon wants too." She hesitated. "That is, if you have the time?"
Tia checked her watch again. Her errands could wait. As such, she had plenty of time before she had to pick Brandon up from school.
"Sure," Tia said, a bright smile crossing her face. "I'd love to."
Over the next two hours, they shopped at a number of stores in the mall. Getting along immediately, they laughed and shared funny stories as Angela purchased several items of clothing for each of the children, including Brandon's new coat.
As they shopped, Tia was surprised to find her initial attraction growing. Angela proved to be generous, sweet, kind and caring. Not to mention drop-dead gorgeous. Tia found herself wondering if Angela was gay and whether she was single.
Taking care of Brandon meant that her dating life had been put on hold for quite some time, so she wasn't quite sure of the current protocol to find out who was gay or not, let alone whether they were single. So Tia just kept cool and admired the beautiful woman from afar.
Once all of the clothes had been bought, they went to the toy store and, according to the wish lists, picked out several items for each child. After they were all done, they went to the mall office, and dropped off the gifts, making sure that all of the paperwork was correct and that each gift would get to the right child.
"You were a big help today," Angela said as they sat in the mall's food court. Sipping on cups of hot chocolate, the two women got more acquainted. "I couldn't have gotten this done without you."
"It was my pleasure. And thanks again for Brandon's gifts. I appreciate that so much."
Angela was quiet as she stirred her hot chocolate. "So this year's been tough for you?"
Tia took a deep breath. For some unknown reason, she felt a real kinship to this generous woman. Ignoring her natural reticence, she quickly explained their circumstances.
"So you see," Tia said when she'd finished, "we've needed a bit of help lately."
"Well, so do I," Angela replied.
Angela pulled out a business card and handed it to her. "I run a construction company here in town."
Tia took the card. "McKinley and Associates? And you do construction? Wow. That's impressive."
Angela smiled. "I inherited the company from my dad. But I really need a new assistant, since Carolyn left. Would you be interested?"
Tia's heart nearly stopped beating. "Me? Are you sure? We barely know each other!"
Angela smiled more brightly. "You've been a great companion so far. And a wonderful helper. I'd love to have you on my team."
Then Angela grew more serious. "But I will need quite a bit of help. Ever since Carolyn left, things have gotten really backed up. And with Christmas coming soon, a lot of my staff will be taking time off, so I'll need a lot of help getting things organized and back where they were." She paused. "So...I won't be taking you from a significant other, will I?"
Tia shook her head. "Brandon's got a great babysitter, so he'll be fine. But as far as a significant other? I haven't had a girlfriend in quite a while, so no."
Angela smirked. "Girlfriend, huh?" She plucked the card out of Tia's hands and quickly wrote on the back. "Anyway, here's my cell. Call me tonight and we'll get you started tomorrow, okay?" She handed the card back to Tia.
Tia took the card back. She saw Angela's cell phone number, and the small heart that Angela had drawn next to it.
Tia smiled, growing warm at Angela's affection. "I most definitely will."
Later that afternoon, Tia pulled up to Brandon's school and cut the car off. As she waited, thoughts of Angela raced through her mind. A few minutes later, though, right on schedule, Brandon bounded out of the front door, over the snow and the ice, and ran to the car.
"I told you about running," Tia said, reprimanding him as he jumped inside. "That ice is slippery."
He barely got into the car before the barrage of questions started. "What about Santa, Mommy?" Brandon asked, breathless. "Was he there? Did you see him?"
Tia feigned forgetfulness as she buckled him in. "Santa? What about Santa?"
"Mommy!" he cried, exasperated. "Did you go to the North Pole like you said? Did you see Santa? Did you give him our new address?"
Tia smiled. "I sure did, honey."
Brandon nearly jumped out of his skin and his face lit up like the Christmas lights in the school windows. "Really, Mommy?"
Tia tweaked his nose. "I most certainly did. And you're going to get everything on that list. And Santa got us something else too."
"Santa got Mommy a new job!"
"Yea!" Brandon squealed, his face as bright and happy as she often remembered it. "Santa's great!"
Tia nodded, as tears came to her eyes, glad that Brandon was so joyful. "She sure is."
The next morning, once Brandon was at school, Tia reported for her first day of work. McKinley and Associates was located on two floors of a tall, glass building right in downtown Denver. Fortunately, it was a short commute from her apartment.
She found Angela to be a sympathetic boss, but also very sure and confident about how to run her company. As such, Tia fit right in with her and with the other staff. As the days progressed, Tia began to enjoy going to work everyday and sharing in the camaraderie that Angela fostered.
Using the skills she'd acquired at her prior secretarial job, Tia first began organizing Angela's schedule, even making suggestions as to how Angela could be more efficient with the office technology she already had available to her. For example, Tia synched Angela's BlackBerry with the office calendar function on both of their computers, which allowed the two women to conduct business even when Angela was out of the office for hours at a time.
Angela was so impressed with Tia's first couple of days, that she expanded Tia's job, and her pay, to include a review of the files in the computer system. As Tia began to organize all of the company files, she found that although all of Angela's construction files were computerized, her father's old files weren't. In fact, many of the elder McKinley's files were still in storage boxes. Armed with a definitive purpose, Tia immediately began to catalogue all of Angela's files with those of her father.
Fortunately, Tia had a friendly neighbor that had two children of her own that Brandon liked to play with. With her new income, Tia was able to pay the woman to keep Brandon until late in the evening. She used those extra hours to work more with Angela. In just over a week, by working evenings and the weekend, Tia had computerized all of the files, and cross-referenced them by job type, job size and the amount the job brought in.