Short Stories 366:317 — “Must Be Santa,” by Annabeth Albert

“Must Be Santa,” found the charity anthology Gifts for the Season, is a revisit with Teddy and Nick from Better Not Pout, which I listened to on audio and enjoyed a couple of years ago. That means this story isn’t about a romance, since the fellas already got their happy-together-ending in the novella that came before, but now Nick and Teddy have been together for a while, settling into their jobs and new lives as husbands, and have decided they’re open to being foster parents. They’ve taken the classes, gotten their home ready, created a bedroom with bunkbeds for a boy (or two) that may or may not happen any time soon.

And then “any time soon” happens after all, but not quite how they expect, with not a pair of tween boys, but a ten year old girl and her younger brother, both of whom have had a double-rough ride in losing their mother first, and then the grandmother who was taking care of them having a major health setback. Nick—Mr. Gruff, former military man, organized and structured, and local cop—and Teddy—social worker, holiday elf, ball of extroverted energy—have to change direction on a dime, and make it all work for the holidays. I should also note that I think, despite this being a revisit of characters (something that happens a lot in this anthology), this particular story does hold up on its own merit as a complete story rather than being an extended epilogue, and gives characterization aplenty to the characters involved for those who haven’t read the romance where they debut.

Ultimately, this is still a holiday happy-ever-after kind of story, so you know things will work out, but Albert quite cleverly keeps the focus a bit more on Nick and Natalie. Nick, who isn’t as sure he’s capable of all this as Teddy is, and who is someone who likes a plan of attack, quiet time, and organization, is at first sure he’s in over his head. (And, of course, they both are, because two foster kids with multiple recent bad events is more than anyone is ready for). But a few scenes with Nick and Natalie in particular form these wonderful turning points in the tale as Nick realizes what kind of little girl she is, and they bond even as they occasionally lock horns. For the “They need a system!” line alone, this story won my affection, but as a whole it was a lovely treat of a holiday story of a family coming together.

By the time I closed Gifts for the Season, I found a quartet of stories I enjoyed, and I want to take a moment to point out that it’s a charity anthology and a good cause, so I don’t regret the purchase, but if there’s a singular flaw in this anthology it’s that most of the stories aren’t stories, exactly, but brief revisits with characters from previously published novels, and my experience reading them was mostly feeling disconnected with not enough of an idea of who the characters were, as the authors assumed readership would come into the tale pre-loaded with that knowledge. So, I can’t really recommend the anthology in and of itself as a whole on its own merit, but as a charity donation, the four stories I’ll be mentioning felt worthwhile.

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