Marlett shuffled his feet in the clean straw. “Was there a problem?”
“Problem?” Nicholas ground his teeth together and spoke sharper than he intended.
Although a creature who laughed every day of his life, over the past twenty centuries, Marlett had clearly become sensitive to the moods of his Santas. “Come in the house, Nicholas. I’ve got hot chocolate waiting.”
“It’s easy enough to do. You put one foot in front of the other, it’s called walking.” Marlett’s eyes twinkled. He was used to being obeyed. Every Santa Claus for two thousand years had complied.
Nicholas looked past him into a morning sky where the sun wouldn’t rise for another three or four months. “I have to go back out.”
“No, you don’t. Don’t be ridiculous. It’s late, you need rest.”
Nicholas removed his hat, then ran his hands through sweat-soaked hair. This one day a year it was longer than he normally wore it, and his beard had come in, full and bushy. “You don’t understand. One present hasn’t been delivered.”
Marlett must have heard the desperation that spoke of pain. “I was wondering when that was going to happen.”
“What do you mean?” Nicholas wasn’t a man who could swear, but at times like this, it would certainly come in handy. “Is this your doing?”
“Then your father didn’t tell you?”
Nicholas snorted, sounding, oddly enough, like the reindeer which had just left. The previous Santa Claus had not been known for long heart-to-hearts with his son.
The jingling sound of Marlett’s bells was jarring, invasive. “Nicholas, get the present. I know what it is. The fact that you could not deliver this is not the disaster you think. You are still Santa. You haven’t lost any of your ability. I’ll explain.”
Nicholas released the top button of his suit and exhaled slowly, letting a long stream of breath escape. “The problems of the world cannot be solved over cookies and hot chocolate.”
“This one can. Your father—” he started, but Nicholas cut him off.
“I am not my father. I can never be my father.”
“No one’s forcing you to be, are they?”
Nicholas growled. That was exactly what they were trying to do. He was supposed to be his father. Wasn’t that the whole point? The fear which had held him in such thrall hadn’t dissipated. It tightened his guts, made his muscles weak, his head spin.
Exhausted, bone-weary, Nicholas slumped against a barn wall, sinking slowly until he sat in the straw. His head dropped low on his broad shoulders. His hands shook. “Tell me what it is, before I take another step.”
Marlett climbed into the sleigh, pulling himself up, then disappeared momentarily. He reappeared with the gift. The wrapped package was small, tiny almost, compared to the size of most gifts Santa delivered.
Odd, Nicholas thought, he hadn’t known it was there and he’d always known before.
“Here, open it,” Marlett said, after he climbed out again.
“Are you telling me this is my gift?”
“Yes, and no.”
“Which is it?” Nicholas didn’t have strength in his arms to reach out.
“Open the gift, then we’ll talk.” Marlett tossed it gently and the present landed unopened into his lap. Nicholas wasn’t certain he could control the tremors in his hands enough to get them to tear ribbon and paper. “I can’t do it,” he said. He closed his eyes as a dozen conflicting emotions battled within him, topped by the two most prominent: exhaustion and despair.
Marlett retrieved the box and did the deed himself. He revealed a small jeweler’s box, and inside a diamond ring, the stone modest, probably a half carat. He handed the box over to Nicholas, who handed it right back.
“I know what that is,” Nicolas said. “Although my experience is limited, I can tell you this isn’t the type of present Santa normally delivers.”
Marlett laughed until the barn rafters echoed with the sound. “Have you never heard how Santa takes a wife?”