by MCJ

A special wish at Christmas and one Santa Claus can't ever hope to give. Or can he?

Author's Notes: Life is precious. Never take anything you have for granted. Live every moment as if it were your last. As you read this epilogue please take the time to remember Lynne L. Inouye...a beautiful, gentle human being with a kind heart and wonderful soul who died unexpectedly in October this year. Lynne affected me and so many other writers on this site with her words of support and encouragement. Rest in peace, dear friend, and Merry Christmas to you all from Australia... Yours... mcj

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four

Chapter One

He had to be the worst rendition of a Santa Claus the world had ever seen.

In fact, the more she stood there and thought about it, the more she was convinced anyone could have done a better job. Where in the world had he come from? Wherever it was, he should have been well and truly left there. The suit didn't fit, his beard was all crooked and for the love of God...where were the bushy white eyebrows?

"Why don't department stores pay attention to the details any more?" she frowned in discontent. "Children aren't stupid nowadays. They're intelligent and they notice these things."

Josephine Tracy moved restlessly from one foot to the other and heard herself sigh.

The line to see Santa Claus hadn't moved for over ten minutes and quite frankly she'd had enough of that pathetic little man. At least the Santa Claus they used to have in Kansas was life-like and his "ho-ho-ho's" were from the heart.

"Now there's an understatement," she thought to herself, reminiscing of happier days in the past. "Not only was old Jeremiah Jensen a character, he was the closest thing to Santa Claus the world would ever see."

She glanced over at "the best Boston had to offer" and shook her head in disgust.

This...this...man... for want of a better word, was hopeless.

Old Jeremiah hadn't needed to shove a pillow down his front and pray to the Lord he wouldn't have to stand up when a child came running over to see him. Jeremiah's girth had been all his own and no-one had been prouder of it than he was.

Good southern cooking and one too many "root beers" on a Saturday night. That was Jeremiah's secret, even if it did get him into trouble with the gallstones every now and then.

But irrespective of how he got to be the man he was and how he managed to stay that way, Jeremiah Jensen was real, every last inch of him, and he could make any child who saw him believe he was really Santa Claus.

The reminiscing continued.

That beard of his had been real too. Jeremiah had possessed the most amazing whiskers, ringlets of white silken hair, which varied in length depending on the season.

In the summer he trimmed it back to cope with the dry Kansas heat but by December he made sure it was long again so the children could to reach out and touch it, eyes wide apart with awe, while he chortled a merry 'ho-ho-ho' and asked what Santa Claus could bring down the chimney for them for Christmas.

Santa Claus and a child's unconditional belief in his abilities...

Together the combination had spelled happiness in Kansas for as long as she could remember.

With that reality hit her squarely in the face and her smile faded.


...something that had certainly taken a back seat in the lives of these little ones this year.

Josephine Tracy's eyes grew sad as she looked down at the five little boys beside her who had all been entrusted to her care. Her precious Grandsons were the only reasons she was still standing in this God-forsaken line and even though "Santa Claus" was driving her crazy, she'd stand here all day for them if she had to.

She'd promised them since Thanksgiving she'd take them to see Santa Claus so they could tell him what they wanted for Christmas.

"Only if you're good for Daddy," was the condition. "And you let him get on with his work."

She watched their impassive little faces as they stood waiting for their turn in the line-up and became more determined than ever to honour that promise.

Josephine contemplated them in silence.

They were such precious little boys, each and every one of them. The eldest three were well mannered, respectful and polite and the two babies never stopped smiling at anyone who cared to give them their attention.

But it wasn't the babies she was worried about.

It was the other three.

It had been well over nine months now and even though she'd tried to keep their day to day lives on track and as normal as humanly possible, the nine year old was still guarded and solemn, the six year old remained quietly aloof and the four year old with the big blue eyes hardly opened his mouth at all.

She bit her lips together and remembered the earlier conversation.

He was a wonderful Father to his children but he still wasn't coping well with what had happened to his wife.

He didn't want her to bring them here and expose them to a man making promises he mightn't be able to keep. He didn't understand why she had to take them there in the first place. He'd make sure there were presents for them under the Christmas tree. What more did she expect him to do?

"Mom, please." he almost pleaded. "I've been through enough this year without feeling like I've disappointed the kids at Christmas time, too."

When she told him he was being silly and the children would be happy with whatever they got for Christmas, his jaw set in exactly the same way his Father's used to do.

"It's not the point, Mom..." he said defensively. "I don't want them to go."

"Besides," he added, somehow trying to justify himself. "The five of them are a handful whenever I take them out together and John's a real worry when he starts his dreaming and wanders off."

"Next year." He finished feigning a half-hearted, preoccupied smile. "The babies will be older then and I might be able to wrangle a day off work so I can take them over there myself."

Next year.

She tried not to let him see her shaking her head. If only he realised how often he said "next year" when it came to his five little boys.

Next year things would be better.

Next year he'd have more time.

Next year he would make things up to them.

Next year...next year...next year.

She exhaled and leaned forward to squeeze his shoulder. She knew he was still grieving and appreciated how fragile his emotions were when it came to her, but even though it hurt him to hear it, he needed to understand why taking his sons to see Santa Claus this Christmas was so dreadfully important to them all.

"Jefferson...honey...please listen to me," she said, trying to say things as gently as she could. "Lucille always made a point of taking the children to see Santa Claus and it was very important to her that they went. Their Christmas won't be the same if you don't allow them to go this year and that's not a good idea."

She felt terrible as he swallowed, averted his eyes, and literally shrank away from the argument. For a few minutes he grappled to compose himself before he finally mumbled inaudibly into his chest.

"I realise all that, ma'am, and I don't mean to sound ungrateful for your offer or anything. But my boys need to understand a lot of things around here aren't the same for them anymore and while I have to work day and night to keep our heads above water, I can only apologise for being away from them and try to do my best."

It had taken some delicate manoeuvring; once Jefferson Grant Tracy made up his mind about something he very rarely budged; but eventually she'd managed to convince him that her taking his sons to see Santa Claus was one of the few things that didn't have to change if he really didn't want it to. If it would make the little ones happy, she was more than willing to do it for him, and then "next year," when he was feeling better, he could take the time to do it for them himself.

The tall, handsome young man in the business suit hung his head in defeat. He was tired and miserable and lonely and all he wanted to do was what he thought was best for his five motherless children.

"All right, Momma...you win." he said. "Take them to see Santa Claus if you think it will mean so much."

She kissed the top of his head with quiet satisfaction.

"That's using good sense, sweetie." she assured him. "Trust me. It's the right thing to do."

With that he straightened up, called the eldest three children into the lounge room and sat them down to face him. They were going out with Grandma, he said, trying not to sound gruff, and they needed to listen to his instructions. When he was sure he had their attention the stern lecture about behaviour began, followed by the warning to stay "close to Grandma" and the final directive to "help out with their two little brothers."

"And before you start with the wish lists..." he rumbled, watching Virgil and John's eyes grow round. "I don't want you going overboard and asking for everything in sight."

"Is that clear, boys?" he reiterated, deliberately looking each of them up and down.

Their "Yes, Daddy," sounded respectfully in return.

Her thoughts returned to the present and this slow-moving, never-ending line. If she could ask for just one thing for Jefferson right now, she knew what that would be.

He hadn't been the same since he'd lost her and it was a real God-damn shame.

The frown returned.

They'd all been standing here for over an hour now and Alan was starting to become restless. Newly mobile and liking nothing better than to drag himself across the floor from one place to the other, he wasn't taking too kindly to being restrained. His blue eyes silently demanded his freedom and the demand was quickly escalating towards more than a wail or two of protest.

"Shhh, Alan; Daddy said we have to be good." Scott began anxiously, crouching down beside the pram and offering him his teddy bear. "Don't cry. We won't have to wait much longer."

Alan's complaining stopped as he smiled at the attention and happily began to chew on the ear of the bear.

"We wouldn't have to wait at all if "Santa Claus" had some sort of restrictions," she grumbled, listening to the continuous prattling of the little girl situated on his knee. "I swear that child over there hasn't taken a breath for ten solitary minutes."

With that a tiny voice piped up.

"Grandma," he said.

Josephine Tracy startled. It wasn't often John made the effort to speak, particularly in a public place where he knew people would notice him. She looked to where the two big blue eyes gazed solemnly up at hers.

"What is it, sweetie?" she asked attentively, reaching out her hand to stroke his hair and exquisite little features.

"Grandma..." he faltered. "How come that girl is allowed to ask for everything she wants?"

Josephine Tracy rolled her eyes. She should have figured that one was coming. John was a terribly analytical child and it stood to reason he would eventually make the observation, especially with the words of his father banging ever so loudly in his head.

Luckily Scott spared her the pain of a response. It may not have been exactly appropriate, but his rudimentary observation of women was better than nothing in a crisis.

"Johnny, it's like this..." he said, his voice equally as serious as his brother's. "Girls have to ask for lots of things at Christmas because they change their minds so often they don't know what they want."

She turned her head in surprise and fixed her full attention on the eldest.

"Now how do you suppose you came to that conclusion, young man?" she demanded, preparing herself for the explanation. "I believe I'd like to know."

The curly haired nine year old reddened and became guarded.

"I heard Daddy say it to someone a while back," he said, carefully selecting his words. "So I guessed it must be true. Is that right, ma'am?"

Josephine Tracy went to deny the statement but then thought better of it. "Daddy" was their hero and what "Daddy" said went.

"I suppose if Daddy said it, he must be able to back himself up," she replied tightly.

With that, John nodded his head, satisfied with the explanation.

Not so Virgil.

"I wish I was a girl, then." he commented glumly. "If I was I'd be allowed to ask Santa for everything I wanted for Christmas, too."

"No you wouldn't, Virgil," Scott instantly interjected. "Daddy told you not to."

Virgil pouted and folded his arms in defiance.

"I already 'member what Daddy told me, Scott. I'm not dumb."

"It's remember, Virgil," Josephine Tracy said firmly, taking the time to correct his current flaw of speech. "Now start again and say the word "remember" for Grandma."

"Reee...member," Virgil obliged, still glowering at Scott.

"That's better," she replied. "And the next time you go to say that word, sweetheart, I want you to think very carefully before you do."

Virgil nodded his head obediently, but before long his emotions ran away with him.

"Anyway, Scott," he sulked, glaring at him up and down. "I wasn't going to ask Santa Claus for everything I want. I heard Daddy tell us no and I know I'm not allowed."

"I know you know, Virgil...I was only reminding you," Scott glowered back.

"No you weren't..." Virgil snapped. "You were bossing me like you always do."

"No, I wasn't bossing you."

"Yes you were. You always boss me."

Despite how close they were and the warning they had received from their Father about behaviour, she could sense an altercation brewing between those two. She watched their eyes flashing and their faces reddening and knew she wasn't wrong. Scott hated his authority being challenged and Virgil hated being told.

A lethal combination...

"... and the unmistakeable traits of their Father..." she murmured quietly to herself "...even if the second one does live and breathe Lucille every waking moment of the day."

But she guessed she couldn't blame them for becoming aggravated. It wasn't exactly exciting for a child to stand dead-still in a line of faceless people, especially when they'd had to do it for well over a blasted hour.

"So, then," she intervened, trying to provide a distraction. "Have you young men given proper thought to what you're going to say to Santa Claus?"

She glanced over to see the child with the never-ending list finally waving her goodbyes.

"I hope so," she warned, pointing out the obvious. "Because it's our turn to talk to Santa next."

Suddenly a veil of grey seemed to lift from overhead and for the first time in nine months she witnessed both John and Virgil smile at each other in unison.

"I have, Grandma!" Virgil enthused, trying to resist the urge to jump up and down with excitement.

"Me too, Grandma." said John.

Gordon and Alan simply grinned at each other, egged on by the eagerness of their brothers.

"What do you think, Allie?" Virgil encouraged, crouching down on the other side of the pram and smiling at his baby brother. "You want me to ask Santa Claus for something good for you, too?"

The baby boy beamed at him widely and reached out to touch his face with chubby, inquisitive fingers.

"He needs a new teddy bear," Scott said solemnly, indicating the tattered and frayed looking object lying face down on the floor. "You should ask Santa Claus for that."

"OK, I will!" Virgil exclaimed, forgetting all about being angry at his "bossy" older brother.

Then his face became serious and he looked to his big brother for advice.

"But what about Gordie, Scott? He still can't talk good enough to ask for something he wants and I don't want him to miss out from Santa Claus."

Before Scott could reply, the timid little voice piped up.

"Gordie wants blocks."

Virgil's attention riveted in John's direction.

"How do you know that?" he demanded imperiously. "Gordie doesn't talk good enough to say."

Four year old John didn't hesitate to defend his suggestion.

"He does need them because he's always giving mine to Alan."

He continued almost with distaste. "And then Alan puts them in his mouth and they go all slippery."

"Oh dear." Josephine Tracy grimaced, picturing the somewhat sordid scene. "None of it sounds too good to me from a Grandmother's health perspective. "

She reached out and tousled John's hair again as he nodded gravely at her in agreement.

"Are you going to be the one to ask Santa for the blocks, sweetheart?" she asked the little boy.

John looked apprehensive and immediately shook his head.

"No, sir, ma'am. Not me."

Josephine Tracy found herself becoming unhappy again. It was obvious the child was worried he would be disobeying his Father if he asked for more than what he wanted for himself. Jefferson didn't mean it but sometimes his generic instructions were a little too generic for his own good. They certainly weren't any good for the children. But Virgil soon lightened things up by placing both hands on John's shoulders and looking him squarely in the eye.

"You're allowed to ask Santa for 'em, Johnny, cos the blocks aren't something you want for you." he explained patiently. "It works like this, see...if you ask for something for someone else, that something else doesn't count as something else for you."

His velvet brown eyes looked towards her for affirmation. "That's right what I'm saying, hey, Grandma?"

"Well that's quite a few something elses from one very small young man," she laughed, trying to fathom what on earth he was on about. "But you are absolutely right when it comes to John asking Santa for blocks for Gordon, sweetie. Daddy won't mind, and I'll tell him all about it for you if you're worried it's not allowed."

Virgil smiled at John.

"See, Johnny, I told you so. Grandma says Daddy says you can."

"OK." John agreed reluctantly. "If Daddy won't get mad, I'll ask."

But it was the six year old whose eyes now danced with life.

"I love Christmas, Grandma," he said happily, taking a deep breath and looking about with joy. "We had so much fun with Daddy last year. I can hardly wait to have fun with him again."

At that moment all the warmth she was feeling in her heart somehow seemed to die away.

Last year.

Yes it had been fun.

Last year Jefferson had romped and played with his children until all of them fell to the floor in exhaustion.

Last year Jeff and Lucille had sat in front of the fire with their arms around each other when the children had finally gone to bed.

Last year she had sat nearby watching Jefferson and Lucille.

This year there would only be Jefferson.

And she would have to sit and watch that, too.

But thankfully there was little time to dwell upon how she was going to deal with Christmas. They were finally being motioned forward towards that pathetic excuse for a Santa Claus and the little ones could hardly contain their joy.

"You just mind yourself, Josephine," she warned, reluctantly leading the children in his direction. "Lucille's more than likely watching all this from heaven and she wouldn't take too kindly to you spoiling the moment for her sons by telling the management what you think."

"Ho- Ho-Ho," said Santa in his pitifully unauthentic tone. "Merrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrry Christmas!"

She braced herself and looked heavenward. "On the other hand, Lucille..."

But polite as always, she heard herself reply.

"A Merry Christmas to you, too, Sir."

"Why, thank you, ma'am, " he replied, before looking jovially at each of the children. "My goodness..." he acknowledged, "...what handsome little boys."

"Yes, they are," she said matter-of-factly, ignoring his compliment completely. "These are my Grandsons and each of them has something they'd like you to bring for them this Christmas. I hope it's all right that they tell you."

"And you should straighten your beard a bit before they do, you foolish man," she mumbled to herself.

"Ho-Ho-Ho," Santa boomed out again, obviously not hearing her. "Of course it's all right to tell me! Now who wants to go first?"

Virgil immediately raised his hand.

"Me, please, sir!" he shrieked, before scurrying hurriedly into his lap.

The world's worst rendition of a Santa Claus listened attentively as Virgil carefully said his name, spelt it twice and reminded him that he was six years old now and not five like he had been last Christmas.

"Indeed you are," observed Santa. "And you've gotten bigger since last time I saw you, too."

Virgil's eyes grew wide.

"I have, sir?" he breathed.

Santa laughed. "At least six inches or my name isn't Santa Claus."

"Wow," smiled the chestnut haired Tracy child with the beautiful big brown eyes. "I must be getting real, real big."

His excitement grew.

"And I've been real good all year too, Santa," he announced. "You ask my Grandma. I always set the table and I go to bed right whenever she tells me. I don't ask for anything, neither, after I go there... not even a drink. That's the truth, Santa Claus. "

Santa looked over and waited expectantly for her confirmation.

"Yes, he has been good, Santa," she agreed readily. "He's been a very good boy."

"If only you knew just how good they've all had to be," she thought silently to herself. "Especially this little one, when his Daddy can't cope with who he looks like."

"Well I'm very glad to hear that, Virgil," Santa replied, proceeding to draw him close and asking what he wanted for Christmas.

The special secret whispered and the teddy bear for Alan requested, Virgil dutifully went to move off Santa's lap for one of his brothers to take their turn. But before he did, he sat perfectly still and asked the inevitable question.

"Santa," he said, tilting his head to one side and analysing him carefully. "Do you really land your sleigh on our roof and bring presents down our chimney?"

"Ho-Ho-Ho, of course I do!" boomed Santa as sincerely as he could.

Virgil looked troubled.

"Gee, Santa, do you think that's a very good idea? You see our Daddy lights the fire on Christmas Eve so he and M...oh..."

The little chin dropped.

The little eyes grew sad.

Virgil floundered for a few moments, not knowing what to say.

"I guess you won't get burnt, Santa," he finished quietly, preparing to move away. "I forgot that Daddy doesn't sit near the fire no more."

Santa looked after him before fixing his probing eyes on hers.

Hers didn't flinch.

"Come on John. It's your turn now," was all she said, encouraging the little blonde towards Santa's knee. "Mind your manners and sit up straight, now."

John's expression was a mixture of apprehension and delight as he happily climbed into Santa's lap and gazed up at him with adoration.

"So your name's John, then?" Santa smiled.

The little boy nodded.

"And how old are you, John?"

"Four, sir," he said, in his even little voice.

"And do you have anything special you'd like to tell Santa Claus about yourself?"

"No, sir. Nothing."

"Not even how good you've been?" he coaxed. "Santa likes to hear things like that."

This time the blonde head shook from side to side.

"No, sir," he said.

It took a lot of encouragement but in the end Santa breathed a sigh of relief when John finally opened up to tell him what he wanted for Christmas.

"Is that all?" he asked incredulously, hardly believing a child of four could only want a book about the stars for Christmas.

"Yes, sir," he nodded solemnly. "I like stars very much and that's all I want you to bring me."

He bit his lip and slowly built up his courage.

"Plus some blocks, please," he blurted, before his face began to fill with alarm.

"They're for my little brother," he added hurriedly. "Please, Santa, I don't want them for me."

Again the probing eyes of the man masquerading as Santa Claus asked her for the answers.

Removing John from his lap, she deliberately avoided his gaze and motioned Scott forward with the two babies. She was sure at age nine Scott wouldn't want her to hear what he had to say to Santa Claus and using the babies as an excuse for him to do so seemed to be a very good plan.

Scott dutifully wheeled his baby brothers forward as instructed, totally unaware of her intentions.

Santa smiled and leaned forward to tweak the chins of youngest Tracy children. Normally they were social and smiled at everyone, but at the sight of Santa Claus in all his unrealistic glory, all Gordon could do was stare and all Alan could do was suspiciously look him up and down, ready to dissolve into tears at any moment.

"I'm really, really sorry, sir," Scott floundered as Alan, as usual, didn't let them down. "My little brother doesn't mean to be rude to you. He wasn't born last year when we saw you last and he doesn't take too well to strangers."

The man behind the Santa suit looked with admiration at the tall, good-looking nine year old with the impeccable manners and a maturity far beyond his years. He recognised what his Grandmother was trying to do. Most of the children around his age were the same and they needed special encouragement. They wanted to confide in Santa Claus but they didn't want anyone else to know about it.

"That's all right, son," he assured him, raising his voice above the din. "Santa's used to things like this. Now... how about you letting me know what you want for Christmas while Grandma takes the little ones away."

He motioned Josephine Tracy forward to remove the babies and when he saw that she had, he looked back at Scott in expectation.

"All right, son. It's safe for you to tell me now."

Scott shuffled his feet, looked about awkwardly and finally shook his head.

"I don't want anything from you this year, thank you, Sir."

"Nothing?" Santa quizzed. "Come now...that can't right. Every boy and girl wants something special from Santa Claus at Christmas."

Scott bit his lip.

"With respect, sir... I know that you're not real. I found out all about that last year."

Santa Claus listened without emotion.

"I see," he eventually said. "And are you sure what you found out last year was absolutely true?"

Scott shrugged and looked at the floor.

"Yes, sir. For the most part I think it is."

Santa paused thoughtfully.

For the most part.

It was obvious the child wasn't sure, or still wanted to believe in something.

"I'm sorry to hear you feel that way." he offered cautiously. "May I ask you how it is that you found out?"

Scott hesitated.

He wasn't supposed to be awake last year when he saw them and he'd never told anyone what he'd managed to see.

It had been his parents who had placed their presents under the Christmas tree last year. They had waited up until midnight and thought everyone was asleep. He'd been too excited to think about sleeping and had crept downstairs for an unforgettable glimpse of Santa Claus. But instead of seeing a jolly old fat man with a great big sack, he had only seen his parents in their pyjamas floundering around in the firelight.

He had watched as his Father screwed up his face and bravely ate the Christmas cake he and Virgil had made for Santa Claus. He had watched as his Mother reluctantly ate the carrots they'd left out exclusively for the reindeer. And then he had watched his Father laugh and lovingly kiss his Mother in the darkness as the flames of the open fire smouldered and began to die down.

"No, Jeff...the baby..." she had whispered, pulling away.

He hadn't understood why she had said that as the two of them made their way to bed.

Scott lingered further.

Despite the intensity of his memories he knew he was expected to consider the feelings of others, and that included "Santa Claus". He wasn't allowed to say things which hurt or offended anyone else. It was the Tracy way, his Mother had told him, and even though she wasn't here to tell him anymore, he would never forget his Mother.

"I'd rather not say, sir," he said with extreme difficulty. "But the way I figure it, if you really were real, you wouldn't need to ask me what I wanted for Christmas. You'd just go right ahead and bring it for me."

His voice lowered.

"And you see, sir, I know you can't do that for me even if you wanted to."

A set of dark blue eyes looked with childhood honesty into the eyes of a Boston Santa Claus.

"Nobody can."

Chapter Two

The December night was bitter and the air around him had bite. Almost without thinking he pulled his collar up to protect his face and block out the rest of his upper body from the elements.

They said more snow was expected tonight and the falls in Boston would be heavy. More than likely he wasn't going to get to the business meeting tomorrow as most of the roads would be blocked.

"Just what I need," he sighed despondently. "Snowed in with five kids and a half million dollar contract at stake."

Half a million dollars.

He paused, looking around the darkened neighbourhood, and took a moment to reflect on the one piece of good news he'd had in the business all month.

He was so happy he'd finally scored himself the contract, even though payment was to be made in increments and not guaranteed for Christmas. The Air Force was a very important customer and he'd really missed their business when he fell apart after Lucy died. The call last week had been unexpected, but the news it conveyed was welcome. His designs were the best available on the market at the moment and they were prepared to forget the inefficiency of his past few months and give him another chance.

Continuing up the path, he congratulated himself for finally pulling himself together. If nothing else the contract eased the financial position, something which worried him constantly from the moment he opened his eyes in the morning to the moment his head hit the pillow.

Once his thoughts ran away with his finances the guilt began to work overtime.

More money meant more work and more work kept him away from his children. But more money also allowed him to indulge the children a little more and bring some much needed smiles to the house this Christmas.


The coldness of the air matched the coldness of his heart as his mood changed and he remembered a time when there were nothing but smiles in this house...smiles, hugs, and a cheery hello before she let the rabble loose on him to play their games with "Daddy."

He heaved another huge, unhappy sigh.

Not anymore.

These days Daddy didn't have time to play games with anyone.

He finally reached the end of the pathway and stepped gingerly onto the darkened concrete porch. Pausing, he made sure he took extra care. He didn't want a repeat of last night's painful experience and equally painful aftermath.

Last night he'd damn near killed himself, somehow slipping on the icy concrete and ending up on his back. He still didn't know how he did it and he was lucky he hadn't broken anything when he did, but lucky or not, twenty four hours later his tailbone still hurt like crazy and he sported some very nasty bruising.

Closing his eyes, he mentally prepared himself for what he knew he was about to face inside.

They were wonderful kids but after twelve hours of business meetings, difficult clients and problems they were the last thing he needed to deal with at the end of the working day. It didn't help that he was tired tonight and all he wanted to do was stand under a hot shower, eat a decent meal and have a little bit of time to himself before he went to bed.

He scoffed as reality told him in no uncertain terms that none of it was actually going to happen. When he walked through that door, whether he was in the mood for it or not, he would be bombarded with three little voices all vying to tell him about their day and two babies who didn't understand why he was exhausted and couldn't give them his undivided attention.

A sad resignation marred his handsome features.

At thirty five he hadn't expected to be left alone to cope with five children, but the cold hard fact of the matter was he could feel as sorry for himself as he liked. Jeff Tracy had been left alone and there was nothing Jeff Tracy could do about it.

He pictured the faces of his five little men. It wasn't their fault he'd been left alone to raise them, and no matter how bad he felt about things sometimes, he would never lose sight of the depth of the love he had for them. With that in mind he tried to look on the bright side before he opened the door to the house.

At least he had his Mother to lean on in all of this, he supposed. She'd been a tower of strength from the beginning and was great with helping him deal with the kids. She did a pretty good job of holding his head together, too, when things started to get the better of him and life became too tough. But it was the little things she did that made his life seem better. She could always be relied upon to have supper on the table when he came home from a meeting, a bottle of warm milk ready to give to Alan and the laundry washed and sorted so he didn't have to do it himself.

Feeling a little better, he slowly turned the door handle and began to walk inside.

There they were, all sitting eagerly on the couch. All three of them in their pyjamas...all three of them with smiles on their faces...all three of them waiting to tell him about their day...

Right on cue the excited chorus went up.

"Daddy!" they shrieked happily, rushing forward to hug him.

"Hi there," he said, removing his coat and trying to hug all of them in return. "You're being very good for Grandma by the look of things. Where is she at moment? In the kitchen?"

He looked over at them expectantly while he moved to hang the coat in the closet. It didn't go un-noticed that Scott and Virgil quickly exchanged worried glances.

"Grandma's in the bathroom, Daddy." Scott eventually informed him with reluctance. "Gordie kind of fell over a few minutes ago and she thinks he's split his lip."

He tried not to show his aggravation but after building himself up for the inevitable ever since he left the car, the words escaped from his lips before he had the chance to check them.

"Not again!" he growled, shutting the closet with a bang and striding in the direction of the bathroom. "What the hell was he doing this time?"

A trail of blood along the carpeting and some very unhappy sobbing soon confirmed the inevitable diagnosis.

"Mom, what's happened? Is he all right? " he demanded as he rushed through the bathroom door in alarm.

"I'll let you know in a minute," Josephine Tracy replied stonily, trying to restrain the hysterical red haired toddler in an attempt to get a look at the injury.

Her hand extended towards him.

"Hand me that cloth, will you?" she directed above the screaming.

"Yes, ma'am," he mumbled, rummaging through the endless items of children's clothing before holding up the only recognisable cloth he could find

"Are you sure you want this one, Mom? I think it's kind of dirty," he commented helplessly.

"Any cloth's fine when the child is bleeding half to death," she quipped, snatching it from his hand and pressing it to the little boy's lip. "Thank you. Hopefully now I might be able to see what he's actually gone and done to himself."

"Shhh baby." she comforted, holding the cloth firmly and trying to rock him in her lap. "These things happen when Grandma's boy tries to climb chairs when she isn't looking..."

"Chairs?" he frowned. "Since when has he started climbing on chairs?"

"Since now, Jefferson, I'd hasten to say," she frowned back. "What the hell do you think?"

And that had heralded the start of his evening...his Mother feeling the need to develop her sarcasm and him trying to eat his supper one handed and comforting a traumatised Gordon on his lap.

The evening didn't get any better either, with him taking business calls one handed and trying to settle a restless Alan.

And then, just when he thought he might be able to sit back and relax in peace and quiet for a while, he was held to ransom on the couch and forced to hear all about Santa Claus...

They may have only been six and four but they certainly made sure he was listening to each and every word they said. They carefully balanced themselves, one on each side of his lap, fixed their big Tracy eyes on his and began whether he wanted to hear what they had to say or not.

"Daddy? Daddy, are you listening?"

"Yes, Virgil, I'm listening."

"I told Santa I was six today, Daddy."

"He knew I was four, too, Daddy."

"And he said I'd got big."

"Daddy, did you know Santa knew my name?"

"No, he didn't, Johnny. Grandma had to tell him."

"He did so already know."

"No, he didn't. You're making that up."

"He did so know, Daddy. Daddy? Daddy are you listening?"

"Yes, John. Daddy's listening."

"He didn't know his name, Daddy. I heard."

His deep voice intervened. "Boys..." he warned. "Don't argue, please."

"I'm sorry, Daddy."

"I'm saying sorry, too, Daddy. But not to you, Virgil."

"John. That's enough."

"Yes, Daddy."

"Anyway, Daddy, I said to Santa then that I'd been real good."

"Daddy I said I was real good, too."

"No, you didn't, Johnny. You didn't hardly say nothing."

"Yes I did, Virgil."

"No, you didn't. You just sat there."

"No, I didn't."

His deep voice intervened again. "Boys, for the last time, stop that..." he rumbled. "Daddy's tired."

"Daddy, you can sleep in my bed."

"Daddy, you can sleep in mine, too."

"That's enough about the sleeping arrangements. Can we just get back to Santa Claus?"

"Yes, Daddy. Did you know that he really does land a sleigh on our roof?

"And he said he comes down our chimney, too!"

"Daddy, please say you won't light the fire this year."

"Please don't light it, Daddy. Santa will get burnt real bad if you do."

It was then the barb pierced him and despite the innocence of those childish words, a lump like concrete began to form in his throat.

The fire.

Their fire.

Christmas Eve, eleven years ago.

The crackling of wood in the silence...the warmth of the brandy...her body snuggled lovingly into his...an engagement ring hidden under the pillow in their bedroom...a proposal about to happen.

"No, boys..." he said quietly, swallowing the lump and deliberately shutting out the memories. "I won't be lighting the fire at all this Christmas, so you can be assured Santa Claus is quite safe. "

He lifted the two of them from his lap, signifying the conversation about Santa Claus had ended.

"I think that's enough for today, OK?" he directed, grimacing at the pain in his tailbone as he rose slowly to his feet. "It's past your bed time and Daddy has work he has to do."

"But, Daaaaaaddy." they objected.

"But, Daddy nothing." he warned. "I said it's time for bed."

"Yes, Daddy." they then said obediently, each hugging him in turn before doing the same to their grandmother.

"Yeah, we know, Grandma," they giggled, scampering towards the bathroom before she opened her mouth to remind them.

"That means you, too." he emphasised turning towards his eldest. "Unless of course you've got something else to add about today's big visit to Santa Claus."

Scott stood up and dutifully began to fold the blankets Virgil and John had discarded on the couch.

"No, sir." he murmured quietly. "I don't have anything to say."

Jeff Tracy watched him, puzzled. There had been something very different about Scott's demeanour tonight and he'd noticed it as soon as they sat down to supper. Normally Scott conversed well, too well sometimes for a nine year old, but tonight he'd been distant and hadn't eaten much of his food.

"Are you feeling all right, son?" he asked, brushing his hand across Scott's forehead. He hoped the boy wasn't coming down with anything, especially this close to Christmas. In the Tracy household illness was a catastrophe. One usually meant two, and then numbers three, four and five came down with it and the whole house ended up in uproar.

"Oh, no," he heard his mother groan when he commented Scott seemed a little warm. "Don't tell me...."

Scott's eyes flickered past his Father and straight towards his grandmother. Past experience had taught him that if Grandma thought an epidemic was looming, he'd be confined to his bedroom in an instant with nothing but a thermometer sticking out of his mouth.

"I...I...I'm not sick, Grandma," he stammered. "I'm just tired."

The deep voice between them seized the obvious opportunity.

"Well if that's the case, then..." it rumbled, "... Bed!"

Scott's eyes moved to his father's.

"Yes Daddy. I was just going."

The hug between them was brief and he seemed to linger afterwards more than he usually did. Initially he thought Scott was waiting for his brothers, but when Virgil and John said their goodnights and headed off to bed without him; Jeff Tracy knew there was something else. Scott only lingered when he had something on his mind. His eldest son was so much like himself he couldn't help but recognise the signs.

Placing an insistent finger under Scott's chin, he tilted the troubled little face to his.

"You want to tell me what's on your mind, then, or do I have to guess?"

Scott bit his lip and looked everywhere but at his Father.

"No, sir..." he faltered.

Jeff frowned.

"Does that answer mean 'no, sir, you won't tell me' or 'no, sir I have to guess'?"

For a few moments he could see Scott struggle with how he was going to express himself. The words finally came with difficulty.

"Daddy... I'm sorry...it's all my fault... I wasn't watching... I should have been but he wasn't doing it when I was... He waited till I wasn't...and then he fell... I should have noticed..."

His bottom lip trembled.

"I'm real, real sorry about Gordie, Daddy. I'll take better care of him next time."

Jeff Tracy softened immediately. So that was it. He probably should have guessed. Scott was terribly protective of his little brothers, particularly the babies, and if they were ever hurt or unhappy he blamed it on himself.

Gently tousling the nine year old's curls, he smiled and tried to reassure him.

"Hey let's not go beating ourselves up too much about that, huh? The lip didn't need any stitching and Grandma's pretty sure he'll live."

He turned around to look at his mother, who was sitting bolt upright on the couch worrying about an epidemic.

"Isn't that right, Grandma?"

Josephine Tracy's face relaxed and in the end she smiled, too.

"There," he said, turning back to Scott with satisfaction. "If Grandma thinks your brother's going to live, we both know for a fact that he will. No-one goes and disobeys Grandma around here without a pretty good excuse, do they?"

He smirked and gave Scott a wink. "Not even Daddy, if he's smart."

Scott's tear filled eyes still gazed worriedly up at his father. "Yes, Daddy, if you say."

"Well that's exactly what Daddy says," he stressed, giving him a longer hug and shooing him off in the direction of his bedroom.

Once he was out of earshot, Josephine Tracy made the observation that a thermometer might still be a good idea, just in case he'd gone ahead and caught something. The little boy hadn't been himself all night and in her opinion there had to be more to it than Gordon.

"Oh?" he enquired, folding his arms defensively. "What makes you say that?"

Her answer was simple. The child had been acting strangely long before Gordon had fallen off the chair tonight. In fact he'd been acting very strangely ever since his conversation with Santa Claus. She didn't know what that man had said to him, but no matter how many times she'd asked him what it was, he'd refused to tell her anything thing about it.

"It bothers me, Jefferson." she stressed. "It bothers me a lot."

Jeff Tracy shrugged his broad shoulders.

"Relax, Mom. He's nine now and pretty bright...more than likely he's worked out the truth about Santa Claus this year and he's feeling a bit disappointed."

Her face reddened.

"That's not true, Jefferson," she snapped, hotly denying his words. "I know for a fact you still believed in Santa Claus when you were Scott's age. Why should your son be any different to you?"

Her statement took him back to a Kansas Christmas and his own upbringing as a child. Christmas on the farm had been magic but the only reason it had, sat directly opposite him on the couch. His father had no time for Christmas when there was work to be done in the fields. Fortunately his mother had refused to listen to him. She made the house festive, baked herself to a standstill and even though they couldn't afford any luxuries, always made sure "Santa Claus" left a present for him underneath the Christmas tree.

His eyes glistened at the memory of those times.

Life had gone a long way for him since then.

"Well, maybe I'm wrong, Mom," he conceded, dismissing the subject completely. "I'm wrong about most things to do with the boys these days. Now I'm going into the kitchen to make myself some coffee. You want some?"

"Thank you, dear, I do," she said, pulling the blanket on her lap further up to encase her shoulders. "It's very cold in here tonight, and a hot drink will do me good."

He ignored her subtle hint about the current state of the temperature and disappeared in the direction the kitchen. He hadn't made the effort to light the fire once this winter, not even when the snow storms came and he began to shiver himself. Her hands fidgeted nervously at the thought of broaching the delicate subject. It wasn't as if she didn't understand how he felt about it but if the weather got very much worse tonight she was really going to have to insist.

Her eyes moved towards the fireplace, visualising Virgil's worst nightmare...Santa Claus rocketing up the chimney with his fur trimmed pants on fire... She began to laugh at the image and the fact that Virgil was worried sick it was really going to happen.

Instantly she berated herself. Laughing at the child's fears wasn't what a good grandmother should be doing...

She laughed again.

But it was funny.

"Penny for your thoughts, Grandma," he smiled, setting the cup down beside her and moving to sit next to her on the couch. "Dreaming of making your escape out the back way, are you?"

"What's that, dear?" she queried, her thoughts a thousand miles away.

"You were smiling at something, Mom." he pointed out." I thought you must have found a way out of this nightmare and had decided to make a run for it."

"Who says I want that, then?" she frowned, reaching for the cup. "For your information I might be quite happy being in this nightmare with you, Jefferson. And besides even if I didn't, we're both in this together, remember? I told you that nine months ago. "

"Yeah, Mom," he admitted, feeling foolish at the tasteless joke. "I know."

They both sipped their coffee and watched the snow drift downwards from a darkened sky. He took so much solace in her strength and determination. He could be as negative as he liked but she never stopped telling him things would get better. When he started losing faith in himself she always said she believed in him. She never stopped telling him he was a good father and wonderful man, and Lucy would be proud of the way he was raising their five little boys.

"Count your blessings, not your troubles," she told him, "And if your math is half as good as mine at the moment they should both add up to five."

But as the night wore on, and with only five days to go until Christmas, they couldn't dwell too much on how they were battling to cope with life without Lucille. It was time to talk about Santa Claus and what he was going to "bring down the chimney" for the children for Christmas. Fortunately the trip this morning to the Department Store wouldn't cause too much damage to his credit card.

"You need to find a Teddy Bear of some sorts that's suitable for a baby...not white, I swear, Jefferson because it won't stay white for long. You also need some plastic blocks for Gordon that look like John's - mainly in yellow. He has a fixation for that colour at the moment. Now, you can get those from the Department store where I took the children today. Third floor, aisle two, " she directed. "Are you with me, son?"

He nodded his head and tried to look like he was remembering.

Next she moved from there to the book store. "The name of the book is 'Bright Sky, Big Star.' Don't know who the hell wrote it but it's on the bottom shelf...blue with a big gold star on the cover. That's all Johnny wants, so for goodness sake make sure you find it."

"Big Star. Bright Sky," he repeated.

"No dear. Bright Sky. Big Star. Get it right."

Then she had him imagining himself in the art supply store which was three doors down on the right. "They have all the colours Virgil likes on the fourth shelf - and if you buy the full set of browns they throw in a sketch pad for free."

"As for Scott..." she paused. "Scott, I'm not so sure about."

"I was going to get him a model plane," he offered, making the best suggestion he could. "He used to like building those."

"Good thinking," she agreed. "More than likely they're on the third floor, too, then."

"Is that in the toy store?"

"Well I don't think you'll find them in the book store, son."

"Sorry, Mom. Guess not."

He made a mental note to himself to write all that down once he finished his coffee. He'd never had to shop for the boys before and he felt really nervous he was going to make a mistake. Lucy had always handled that side of things at Christmas. Until now he only had to go out and buy the Christmas Tree.

But feeling comfortable the children would be attended to, he finished his coffee and continued to sit and watch the snow.

"Mom," he said in the silence.

"Yes, sweetie?"

"Thanks for taking the kids to see Santa Claus for me today. I'm sorry I was such a pain about it when you offered."

"That's all right, son. You've been more painful than that in the past."

"Gee, Mom, thanks a lot for the compliment."

"You know you're always welcome, dear."

The snow continued to fall.

"Mom," he said, once again breaking the silence.

"It made them happy, did it?"

"Yes, it did, dear. Very happy."

"You know that's all I want for them for Christmas, Mom."

"That's all either of us wants for them, Jeff."

His eyes became sad and his handsome features grew distant.

"What about me, Momma? Do you think I'll ever be happy again?"

Instinctively her hand closed over his.

"Oh, sweetie." she whispered. "All I want for Christmas this year is to see you happy again."

"And sadly, I know it's something I can't give you."

Chapter Three

The knock on the door was insistent, and by the number of bangs to the minute, whoever it was had very urgent personal business.

"All right. All right," she muttered, scurrying as fast as she could with a baby in her arms. "Hold on to your hairpiece."

With only three days to go until Christmas, the world as she knew it seemed to have gone mad. The queues in the Department Stores were excruciating and even a simple shopping expedition to buy diapers and some baby formula for Alan had turned into the survival of the fittest.

Luckily for "Santa Claus," this included the queue to see him. She swore if she saw that man even looking like he had five minutes to spare she'd be over there like a rocket demanding a very long minute of his time. She was still unhappy about how quiet Scott had been since the day he'd been to see Santa Claus, and even though Jefferson kept telling her otherwise, she knew it had something to do with him.

However, if Scott was saying nothing, Virgil's enthusiasm was more than adequately making up for things. After months of grieving day and night for his mother, Virgil had literally come alive since the visit to see Santa Claus. He played the two Christmas carols he knew on the piano, drew rendition after rendition of Santa Claus, all with the poor man's pants on fire, and when he wasn't being creative, happily chatted to his little brothers about the fun they were going to have at Christmas.

Finally reaching the door, she looked around with dismay at the current state of things in the lounge room. He'd taken the eldest two out to help him with the Christmas tree and to appease John for being intentionally left behind, had allowed him the privilege of "unpacking" all the decorations.

She smiled at the little boy who was methodically removing the ornaments from the boxes and his helper, "Hurricane Gordon," who was just as meticulously spreading them from one end of the lounge room to the other.

She grimaced.

She hoped whoever was on the other side of the door wasn't expecting any perfection.

Much to her relief the door opened to only reveal the mailman, who stood on the porch like a frozen statue clutching a large well wrapped package.

"Mornin', ma'am," he shivered, stiffly extending his pen and book in her direction. "I've got another package for Mr. Tracy this morning. Do you mind signing here?"

Josephine Tracy smiled, juggled Alan on her hip and immediately obliged with the signature. Jefferson had been getting lots of packages to do with the business since he'd been trying to run things from home.

"Sure is cold today, isn't it?" she commented, handing him back the book.

The mailman glanced behind him at the bleak winter's day.

"You sure got that right, ma'am," he agreed. "I swear the temperature's dropped another ten degrees since I made my rounds yesterday. Can't even feel my feet anymore."

"No, me either," she admitted, looking downwards at her slippered feet. "And unlike you, I haven't even left the house."

She closed the door with the package tucked awkwardly under her arm. Much to her dismay she noticed Alan was shivering a little, too. Her determination grew. No matter what excuse he was able muster up this time, when he came through that door with the Christmas tree he was going to be informed he was about to light the fire. She understood they had other heating and she understood the fire wasn't necessary, but she also understood it was absolutely freezing at the moment and if there was a fire available to be lit, he should be going ahead to light it. If nothing else, he had to consider the children.

Resigned to what she knew would end in an argument for sure, she went to lock the package in his study; the small cluttered room at the end of the hallway which doubled these days as his office.

"Oh, well," she thought, placing the package on the desk, "the issue of the fire had to come to a head eventually."

As she turned to relock the door, the origin of the package somehow managed to catch her eye. Hardly able to believe it, she quickly did a double take, examined the writing carefully and as her blood pressure soared to the point of complete and utter explosion; tried her best not to feel angry.

They hadn't even given him a telephone call since the day they walked away from him at the cemetery. No calls to check how he was coping with the children, no calls to ask if he needed help.


He'd told her to move on with things and forget about it; he guessed they had to blame someone for what had happened to their daughter. She told him that was all very well for him to say so. She'd never been a judgmental person, it simply wasn't part of her make up, but she swore if she ever got the opportunity she would be telling them exactly what she thought of the way they had treated her son.

As she closed the door to the Study, she smiled sadly at baby Alan and decided against insisting he do anything with the fire. The arrival of the package would push enough of his buttons without her pushing his other more intimate ones too.

Two big brown eyes sparkled above a bright red button nose.

"Isn't this tree the best in the world, Grandma?" he breathed in exaltation, forgetting how cold he'd been in the sourcing. "Daddy said 'what the hell' to the man when he asked which one we wanted and then he let us get the biggest one."

"Virgil, you weren't supposed to tell Grandma I said that!" Jeff Tracy grumbled hauling the pine tree through the door. "What are you trying to do? Get me into trouble or something?"

She chose to ignore the little boy's words.

"Trouble!" she exclaimed instead, casting an eye towards a mischievous Gordon. "Mark my words, Jeff, there'll be more than trouble around here if we don't find somewhere safe to put it."

Virgil's big brown eyes grew wider.

"We can put it over there, Grandma," he indicated, pointing at the large vacant space near the piano. "That's where Daddy put it for us last year!"

"Are you sure it was there?" she frowned. "I thought Daddy put it over near the fire."

Virgil shook his head.

"No he didn't, Grandma. I 'member good. Daddy put it over there."

He stopped and immediately corrected himself.

"Sorry, Grandma...Reeeee...member."

"I don't care where the hell we put it just as long as I can put it somewhere," Jeff Tracy moaned from underneath the branches. "Can you please make up your mind, Mom? This thing's heavy."

"All right, put it over near the piano, then." she instructed, "and hurry up dear before you go and give yourself a hernia."

"What do you mean, before?" he huffed, heading towards the piano.

"Daddy," said the solemn little voice.

Jeff Tracy moaned again and dropped the tree to the floor in fatherly aggravation.

"What, Scott?"

Dark blue eyes lifted warily to his.

"Daddy," he said. "Maybe it would be a better idea if we put the Christmas tree near the door."

Virgil's lip dropped immediately.

"Nooooo, Scott." he pouted. "If Daddy doesn't put it near the piano we can't sit underneath it and sing songs."

Instantly the atmosphere in the lounge room plummeted to almost match the temperature.

Jeff Tracy's lips tightened at the image he'd rather not remember...perched on the edge of her piano stool, arm affectionately draped around her shoulders, winking at three giggling little boys and one grinning baby... trying to master the words of her infamous English carols...

"No, I think we'll still put it near the piano, Scott," he finally said, struggling to hold himself together. "It's a little too draughty by the door."

He moved the tree into place without another word.

"It looks lovely there, dear," she complimented him hesitantly.

"Yes, ma'am," he agreed, still grappling to hide his emotions. "Yes, it does."

The tree decorating began soon after, in an atmosphere of sadness. They were all affected by their loss and trying hard not to show it. Fortunately, for once Gordon's mischief was a welcome diversion. As fast as the ornaments were being put on one side of the tree, Gordon was busying himself with the task of removing them and carrying them around to the other.

"I can't believe how many silver bells I found in that box," Jeff Tracy commented in amazement.

"No, Daddy...there was only one."

He looked down at John, who had unpacked the ornaments earlier.

"Only one?" he exclaimed, hardly able to believe it. "No way, little guy. I know for a fact I've put at least twenty five on this tree."

A search of the tree by everyone failed to locate the evidence.

"I did," he mumbled, peering into the branches for the tenth time and shaking his head in disbelief. "I'm absolutely sure I did."

Virgil giggled.

"Yes, sir, you did, Daddy. But I think they were the same one."

He frowned and cast a glance at his candid second son. "What do you mean, Virgil?"

Virgil giggled again and pointed at a busy Gordon.

"Oh, dear," she laughed, watching him redden right to the roots of his hair.

With that Scott and John began to giggle too.

In the end he surrendered to a real and deep seated need to be happy and forget about the worries he had in his life for a while. It started as a chuckle but after a few moments it grew to a laugh before he proceeded to chase the little red haired offender around the Christmas tree and grab him from behind.

Her eyes glanced heavenward and said a silent thanks for the first sound of genuine happiness she'd heard in the house in over nine months.

She couldn't bring his Lucy back.

She couldn't take away his pain.

But she could try to help her son through Christmas and to enjoy his little boys again.

If ever she needed a miracle to happen, she sure as hell needed a miracle to happen now. The little boy hadn't stopped crying for over two hours and for the first time in her whole life she didn't know what to do.

He'd been quiet again all through supper.

He'd put himself to bed early.

He'd even let her take his temperature three times without as much as a whimper.

But when she began to search his bedroom for the elusive missing Christmas Star, he dissolved into tears completely, and finally told her what was wrong.

The star which adorned the top of the Tracy family Christmas tree was something very special. It had come to them from England as a gift from Lucille's grandmother.

It was the last thing placed at the top of the Christmas tree.

His Mother used to tell them the star was a sign they were a family and a sign that no matter what came their way each year, they would always be together. His father had noticed it was missing once they'd finished with the decorating of the tree.

As usual all heads turned to Gordon, but a quick search of the Tracy lounge room soon revealed he hadn't been involved.

All eyes now looked to John. He had such a special devotion to the evening star he was immediately suspected for the star's disappearance.

John began to cry at the inference.

"I didn't take Mommy's special star, Daddy. I didn't. It wasn't in the box."

The tears had come from the bottom of his heart.

An apology was given to John and a search immediately launched to find the missing star.

Three hours later and every inch of the house overturned, there was still no sign of it to be had.

"Please don't cry, kids," Jeff Tracy pleaded with his three devastated little boys. "Daddy will go to the store tomorrow and find one exactly the same."

It had bothered her immensely that something so precious to Lucille's past could have possibly gone missing in the house. She was determined to find it no matter what, and launched her own personal search of the Tracy residence. But in doing so had inadvertently stumbled on the most private and personal memory her eldest grandson possessed of his mother.

He was facing the wall with his head crumpled into his pillow when she stole quietly into his bedroom. She didn't think he'd have it, but she had to assure herself she'd covered the possibility. As she sifted through his neat dresser drawers and carefully checked the back of his closet, he turned around to look at her and immediately began to cry.

"It's all I want for Christmas, Grandma," he sobbed in her arms over and over again.

She thought that he was crying because he wanted to have his mother back, and tried her best as always to give what little comfort she could. Even though it was all he wanted, she said, no-one, not even someone who could work miracles, could give him something that God was saying was impossible.

"I know she can't come back, Grandma." he heaved desolately into her shoulder. "But only Mommy knows where the star is..."

With that it all tumbled out of him... a ritual and a special bond of love only he had been allowed to share with his Mother.

Each year, seven days before Christmas, she left a special note telling him where she had hidden the star that would adorn the top of their Christmas tree. The note was always placed lovingly underneath his pillow. It was never easy for him to guess where it was because the note always contained a puzzle.

The clues of the puzzle were well thought out and they got harder and harder every year. Sometimes she had to help him but irrespective of that, he was eventually rewarded with the honour of retaining her beautiful silver ornament until Christmas Eve, when Daddy was asked to place it on the top of the Christmas tree.

"I look under my pillow every night, Grandma," he hiccupped. "But there isn't any note..."

He began to cry again.

"I guess she can't write me notes from heaven, Grandma, even though I want her to."

The words "I know, baby," somehow paled into insignificance as she searched the depths of her soul for something else to say to those tragic little words.

"It's all I want for Christmas, Grandma," he sobbed to her again. "Nothing else."

"Mommy's star means that it's Christmas...and Santa isn't real enough to bring it to me."

Chapter Four

He had to admit the place felt warmer, but he hadn't given in without one hell of a fight. Every reason he could offer as to why he shouldn't light the fire was matched with every additional reason as to why he should.

The room was warm enough...no it wasn't, it was cold.

They had other heating they could use...they were using it already and it wasn't nearly enough.

They had more blankets than they knew what to do with...yes, well, they had a fire, too, if he cared to think about it .

And finally when the other thirteen excuses were all systematically dismissed, he offered the worst and most fatal excuse of all...

He couldn't light the fire because Santa Claus was coming down their chimney tonight and he'd promised the children he'd make sure that Santa would be safe.

"What, son!" she almost choked, unable to believe he'd try to get out of it with something as pathetic as that.

"You heard me, Mom," he argued with his usual stubborn determination. "I promised Virgil and John I wouldn't light the fire at all on Christmas Eve, remember? I can't go breaking promises I make to the kids...especially promises I make to them at Christmas."

"Really? Well you broke your promise about buying them another star, didn't you now?" she frowned pointing an angry finger at the Christmas tree. "Too busy to get out of the house today, you said..."

"I was busy, Mom." he thundered. "The new contract's important. I told you that."

She started to become angry.

"Your children are just as important as that contract," she stressed. "And so help me if you can't find the time to go and make them happy with a star to put at the top of their Christmas tree, at least find the time to do something to keep them warm while they're the hell not looking at it."

His voice lowered.

"That's not fair, Mom. You know how hard I work to provide for those kids."

Her voice lowered too.

"Yes, Jefferson, I do know how hard you work, but it's not fair to them and I'm sorry if it offends you to hear me say it. It's Christmas Eve and it's cold, and of all nights of the year when they should be feeling happy and safe and warm, it's tonight. Now I'm asking you one last time to light the fire before I finish in the kitchen with your babies. If you don't, I'll go ahead and light the damn thing for them myself."

That had been the end of the argument... or at least the argument with her. Virgil only needed to take one look at what he was doing to launch into a major panic attack.

"Noooo, Daddy!" he pleaded in alarm. "You can't light the fire. Please, sir...Santa Claus is coming down the chimney tonight and his pants'll catch on fire."

"You tell that to your grandmother," he replied in a huff, ignoring the frantic pulling on the tail of his shirt. "She's the one who wants the damn thing to be lit tonight, not me."

The little boy looked towards the kitchen but in the end thought better of arguing with his grandmother.

"Awwww, Daddy..." he complained. "Santa Claus won't come to any of us if he knows we got a fire."

He tried to control his growing aggravation but it certainly wasn't easy. Of all the Tracy attributes his second son possessed, determination to get his own way was definitely one of his best.

"Virgil..." he swallowed, trying to keep his temper in check. "He came last year. He'll come this year."

"But Daaaaaddy...you promised. You promised me and Johnny. "

Jeff Tracy's eyes glanced to where the star was missing at the top of the Christmas tree.

"Sometimes promises have good reasons to be broken, Virgil."


The little boy began to wring his hands in desperation at the visions of a smouldering Santa Claus.

"Settle down, Virgil. I'm telling you, Santa Claus won't get burnt. I'll make sure the fire I'm lighting is well and truly out before I go to bed. You can count on it."

"But, Daaaaddy."

He counted to ten, looked down at the little boy who was the spitting image of his wife and said slowly, carefully and distinctively,

"Virgil, Grandma wants this lit and she's not going to get off my back until I light it."

With that the flames were ignited, leaving Virgil devastated, his mother appeased and...as the evening wore on and he sat staring into the flames with a scotch in his hand...him...a very long way from Boston...

Houston...Texas...eleven years before.

That guy had a special talent and he could really play a mean saxophone.

They both enjoyed his music and they often came here for a meal in the evenings to relax and talk about his day. The manager always gave them special consideration and provided a darkened corner with a back door entrance so he wasn't recognised too freely. He didn't like being asked questions about the impending moon landing and she didn't like their private life exposed.

It was their first Christmas Eve together since she had left England to be with him in America and tonight, they sat together as a couple, hands intertwined, enjoying the music of the saxophone in the most exclusive corner of the restaurant.

The meal had been wonderful and the bottle of wine they'd shared had been good. As he looked at her in the candlelight and inhaled the scents and aromas which surrounded him, he told himself he was the luckiest man in the world.

He couldn't remember a time when he'd felt quite so mellow and relaxed.

She had to be the most beautiful woman on this earth and he couldn't have been any more in love with her if he tried. He couldn't take his eyes off Lucille Amanda Evans that night. She was his everything...she was his world...and tomorrow when he woke up next to her on Christmas Day he was going to ask her to share that world with him forever...and one day be the mother of their children.

The saxophone played sensually in the background as their eyes met in the candlelight.

"Have yourself...a Merry Little Christmas," he serenaded, gazing deep into those eyes. "Let your heart...be light..."

She smiled and leaned forward towards him, the flames of the scented candle between them, illuminating her perfection.

"You're terrible," she whispered.

He leaned towards the candle too until their lips almost touched through the transparency of the yellow flickering flame.

"And you're beautiful," he whispered in return.

"I'm serious," she whispered.

"So am I," he whispered in return.

The evening wore on as their eyes continued to meet in the candlelight.

The saxophone played sensually in the background.

"You wanna dance with me, Luce?" he breathed, his body craving to be closer.

"Oh, yeah," she breathed.

He stood up with her in the darkness and moved to meld her into his arms in the most intimate corner of the dance floor.

Their bodies moved as one as he held her.

The saxophone played sensually in the background.

"Luce," he murmured, his body now craving more. "Let's go home now."

"I thought you'd never ask," she murmured.

The Houston air was cold that night but as they left the restaurant together his whole being throbbed with the love that he felt for her. That Christmas Eve all he wanted was to hold her in his arms...now...and for the rest of his life.

Snuggled together on the couch.

Two glasses of expensive brandy.

The brush of her lips against his.

The words.

"I love you, Jeff."

His fingers tracing the perfection of her features.

The words

"I love you too, Lucy."

Her touch where he craved it the most.

The warmth of her body next to his.

The intimacy.

The intensity.

That night it just seemed so right for it to happen.

"I wish this night would never end," she murmured as her eyes began to close.

"It won't," he murmured, picturing the engagement ring tucked underneath her pillow.

A gentle kiss to her sleeping forehead.

"All you have to do is say yes to me, my princess."

Boston - eleven years later.

He needed a drink.

He couldn't deal with the memories of how it used to be any longer.

He couldn't deal with how she made him feel.

He also couldn't deal with one thing going wrong after the other when all he was trying to do was make Christmas a little more bearable for his children.

First the debacle of the missing star...then the issues with the fire...and to make matters worse his five little boys were soon going to have to find out that Santa Claus didn't shop too well in Department stores either. Alan's teddy bear was bright pink, it was the only one left that was safe for a baby, Gordon's blocks were red not yellow, they'd run out of stock, Virgil's art equipment came without any browns, it was a new shipment and they seemed to have omitted the brown, and, after forgetting the name of the book for John he hoped to hell the one he got was right.

The only thing he was sure about was Scott's model plane and from the way the kid had acted all day he didn't even want it. All he wanted was a letter he couldn't give him from his mother to find a star that was nowhere to be found in the house.

"I gotta have some space, Momma," he told her, striding tearfully towards his study. "I'm sorry. I just can't look at that fire anymore."

"Dear Santa,

My name is Scott Carpenter Tracy and I live a long way from the North Pole. I live in Boston. I'm nine now and very good most of the time. I only want one thing for Christmas this year, Santa, and if you are real like Grandma says you are, you will work out how to get it for me. Please leave my letter from Mommy underneath the Christmas tree. If you do, I'll know Mommy and Daddy were just helping you last year and you are a real person.

Thank you."

She'd found the hand written note hidden in the branches of the Christmas Tree. A tree he couldn't really afford, but all he wanted to do was to see his children happy.

Josephine Tracy fought back a tear, knowing there was nothing more she could do to grant Scott's special Christmas wish.

The little boy would wake up Christmas morning and there wasn't going to be any letter from his Mommy.

There wouldn't be any Christmas Star.

And his Daddy would have the additional pain of having to sit there and watch him cry.

He had to be the worst rendition of a Santa Claus the world had ever seen. The suit didn't fit, his beard was all crooked and his eyebrows weren't even remotely white.

But as she watched him from the darkness, Santa Claus moved with silent efficiency from one end of the lounge room to other.

She didn't have a clue what he was doing, actually by the way he kept stopping, starting and scratching his head she didn't think he had much of an idea either, but irrespective of that, he was methodically counting his paces, double checking them again and trying to get something right.

In the end the stoppings and startings inevitably found him standing, perplexed, right beside the Christmas Tree.

Frowning, she heard him mutter unhappily. "Damn it. That can't be blasted well right."

She watched him more closely as he went back to where he started from and began the whole process over again.

Once again he ended up beside the Christmas tree.

"Oh, well," he shrugged, reaching into what looked like a very large sack. "Here goes nothing, then."

She couldn't have been more enthralled at what she was witnessing from the darkness. From the sack came presents, each carefully wrapped and lovingly placed underneath the Christmas tree.

After his sack was empty he stood back to admire his work.

In the stillness of the room she saw the world's worst rendition of a Santa Claus walk towards the fire and reach into his pocket for something else.

He looked down at it for a long time. He ran his fingers over it, slowly at first and then gently as if it meant the world to him.

Finally he lifted it to his lips, lowered his head in front of the fire and quietly began to cry.

"I hope I got it right for you, Luce," he whispered.

Then he turned to plunge the white envelope he held right into the depths of the Christmas tree.

"You'd better make sure the fire's out," she warned him softly from the darkness. "You promised your son ten times that you would."

His head turned hesitantly as she came to stand beside him in the half-light of the fire.

"Yes, Momma. I was going to see to that next," he acknowledged. "Only... I'm not quite ready...yet."

Josephine Tracy's head nodded in the firelight.

"I know."

A young father's eyes met hers.

"I suppose you think I'm stupid wearing this." he shrugged. "I only wore it in case Virgil or John were watching me...you know...doing this. They've lost enough this year without losing their belief in Santa Claus."

She smiled and placed her arm around his waist.

"I think you look rather believable, Jeff."

Although his smile was sad, he responded with an affectionate arm around her shoulders.

"Thanks, Mom...


"Yes, sweetie."

"I found the star tonight."

"Oh, sweetie," she breathed, her eyes shining with joy and relief. "That's wonderful. Where on earth did you did you find it?"

The pain in his voice was evident as he set about trying to explain.

Tonight as he sat in his study feeling sorry for himself, he finally decided to open the package he had received from England several days before. Until tonight, he had left it unceremoniously thrown in the corner of his office, feeling bitter and trying to overcome how he felt about Lucy's parents sending presents to his children where they hadn't cared a dime about them in over nine months.

There had been presents in the package as he suspected. Five in all.

There had also been a box wrapped in a special silver paper.

There had been a letter for him from Catherine Evans, Lucy's mother.

Inside that letter there was an envelope addressed to Scott...

...in the distinctive handwriting of his Mother.

His explanation continued.

For some strange reason Lucy had sent the star to her mother three weeks before she died. The star had been accompanied by a set of hand written instructions clearly intended for Scott's eyes only. Lucy hadn't offered an explanation for the unusual act and Catherine Evans had assumed it was because Scott was getting older and too astute for her to leave the star so easily locatable in the house. Lucy had asked her to return the star and the instructions to Boston in plenty of time for Christmas.

"I spent the last three hours reading the instructions over and over again so I knew where to put the star for Scott to find, but somehow I always end up getting it wrong and I finish up standing right back next to the Christmas Tree."

Josephine Tracy smiled sadly in the firelight. She was sure Lucille had somehow known and had planned all this from the beginning.

"Well I think you might have found the right place to put it, Santa Claus," she said, stroking the side of his face with love. "What do you think?"

His head drooped.

"I hope so, for Scott's sake, ma'am."

"Oh, Jeff. You are such a good daddy," she told him. "And don't you ever forget it."

He stood beside her in silence, gazing longingly into the dying embers of the fire.

He didn't want to talk about being a daddy right now.

Without a word, she knew it was time to leave him and slipped away into the darkness.

He had done everything to give his five little boys the very best Christmas that he could.

He needed to be alone now...

By the fire.

And relive the memories of what he had before and knew he couldn't have again this Christmas.


He awoke alone hours later in the semi-darkness of the lounge room.

Almost instantly he felt himself shiver.

She was right.

It really was cold in here without the fire.

He rubbed his eyes and yawned.

The clock said five past five.

He must have fallen asleep on the couch.


The little shadow on the couch beside him caused him to startle and open his eyes wide.

"Scott!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing up?"

The little shadow didn't flinch.

"I wanted to see if Santa Claus was real, Daddy."

"Errr...hmmm," he mumbled uncomfortably in his disarrayed "white beard." "I see."

"I thought you were him for a moment, when I first saw you sleeping on the couch."

The little shadow moved closer, seeking the warmth and security of his arms.

"Me? Santa Claus? No, son, I just dressed up like this in case he wanted someone to help him again this year. Guess I must have fallen asleep before the action, huh?"

The little shadow nestled closer to his fur trimmed chest.

"Do you stay up to help Santa Claus with our presents every year, Daddy?"

His arms tightened around the sturdy little body. What to say, without saying anything. How to lie without really lying. How many times had he needed to do that to protect his children from the sadness of their reality in these past nine months?

"Most years I try to stay awake to help him out, Scott. Saves time with the delivery...you know."

"Did Mommy used to stay awake to help Santa Claus, too?"

It hurt but he had to force himself to talk about her.

"Yes, Scott. Mommy always did."

A curly little head nodded with understanding, now comfortable with what he had witnessed from the stairwell last year.


"Yes, son."


Instinctively he lowered his head to his little boy.

"I know...I wish Mommy was here too Scott."



"Can I look at what Santa Claus brought us for Christmas?"

"Now you should know better than to ask me that. Grandma will bust her nut if she catches us peeking at the presents."

"I know, Daddy, but..."

"But what, Scott?"

"It's just that I need to know before the others wake up..."

"Know what?"

"If he's really real."


"Santa Claus."

He smiled, rose from the couch and walked towards the Christmas tree with his eldest son in his arms.

"Well I won't tell Grandma if you don't," he whispered.

All he wanted for Christmas was to see his children happy and in the few minutes that followed with his precious eldest son, his only wish for Christmas was granted to him tenfold.

"Daddy..." Scott breathed, holding out the only thing he wanted for himself. "Looooooook..."

Tears welled in Jeff Tracy's eyes as he acknowledged the exquisite handwriting of his precious Lucille.

"It's the letter you wanted from Mommy," he nodded, trying his hardest not to cry. "Looks like Santa Claus came through for you after all, huh?" .


"No, Scott, I don't think your Grandma would mind if I let you open something Santa brought to you from Mommy."

A nine year old child with a face of joy cautiously opened the envelope and went on to savour each and every word of the magical lines.

"She really wrote this to me, Daddy...she did...look...see...she called me pumpkin."

"Yep," he swallowed, tearfully remembering how much he used to detest Lucy calling his eldest son "Pumpkin." "Mommy really did."

The special letter.

The special clues.

All a little boy wanted for Christmas.

"To start our special journey my pumpkin needs something big...

He makes a special wish and prayer and remembers there's a twig...

He walks five paces to the left and that's as far he goes...

He walks ten paces to the back and tweaks his cute little nose...

He turns the way his fingers work and walks diagonally back...

The star is where my pumpkin is and where Santa Claus leaves his sack."

Two little hands rummaging eagerly underneath the Christmas tree.

A silver package.

A special Christmas star.

And the special gift of giving that had allowed this moment to happen.

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