Author's Note: Getting this one out just under the wire! This is complete fluff. There is no real story here. So if you don't like that kind of thing, please skip it, if you do, enjoy! I hope you all are having a wonderful holiday season and that the new year brings us all peace and happiness.
Emma entered her daughter's bedroom to find her little girl digging through the clothes in her bureau. "Lanie, what are you looking for?"
"I want my unicorn dress. It not here."
"It's over here." Opening the closet doors, Emma pushed hangers down until she found the tunic with the unicorn applique Lanie wanted. "Is this what you want to wear today?"
"Yes." Lanie clapped her hands. "Me and Daddy go shopping today."
"I know." Emma smiled at her little girl's excitement. Neatening up the mess her daughter had made of the clothes in the drawers, she found the colorful, striped leggings Lanie usually wore with the top. "Here you go. Do you need help?"
Lanie held up the leggings. "Which way?"
Taking the bottoms back, Emma arranged the material and then helped her daughter step into them. "There you go."
While Lanie finished getting dressed, Emma went into the attached bathroom and found her daughter's hairbrush. "Ponytails or hair clips today?"
"Clips, please, Mommy."
"Come pick which ones you want." She laid out three sets, hoping to make the decision process quicker.
Lanie bounded into the bathroom and studied the selection. "The red bows."
As Lanie bounced around, Emma attempted to brush her hair. "Hold still, please."
"Don't worry, Daddy won't leave without you." Emma slid in one barrette and then the other. "There. All set." She placed the brush on the counter. "Let's get your shoes on."
Together they went to Lanie's closet and found a pair of shoes. Emma sat her daughter on the bed and assisted her in getting them on her feet.
"I need my monies." Lanie hopped down and grabbed a little silver purse from her nightstand.
"How much do you have in there?" Emma figured her daughter had a few dollars and some change.
"Look!" Opening the zipper on the inside pocket, Lanie showed her mother two twenty-dollar bills along with a few singles.
"Where did those come from?" Blinking, Emma wondered how her daughter collected forty dollars.
Lanie gave her mother a huge grin. "Uncle Sonny give me 'cause I a good girl. I buy lots of Christmas presents."
Emma sighed. Time to talk to Uncle Sonny again about bribing his god daughter. "Who are you buying presents for today?" She placed the long strap of the bag over Lanie's head, making the small pocketbook hang at her daughter's waist.
Lanie took her mother's hand, and they headed out of her room. "Silly Mommy, me and Daddy get your present."
Downstairs Clay finished loading the dishwasher with the breakfast dishes while he waited for his daughter. Once that was done, he looked for any other chores he could take care of before he and Lanie went out. Their house exuded the Christmas spirit. While he was spun up, Emma decorated the entire place and put up the tree. He did his best to pull his weight when he was home, but most of the work fell to Emma.
On today's shopping trip, he planned to help Lanie choose a gift for Emma, but he also hoped to find something to add to his gift for his wife. He already bought her the Roomba she asked for, but he knew buying your wife a vacuum for Christmas wasn't a great gift. The robotic cleaner would save time, but he never wanted her to think he expected her to do everything. Sure, his job meant she ended up shouldering more of the load, but he did his best to not take that for granted
Before Emma, Christmas had been just a day to him. Sure, he celebrated the holiday as a child with his grandparents, but being missionaries, their festivities were very understated. Later he enjoyed the day with those he served with and their families but being deployed for it never upset him. Being with Emma for Christmas had changed his opinion of the season, and now experiencing it with Lanie and seeing her excitement for the holiday made it a truly special time.
"Daddy! Let's go!" Lanie came down the stairs, only Emma holding onto her hand stopping her from tumbling down in excitement.
Clay grinned at his little girl's enthusiasm. "We need to put on our coats first."
Together the three of them walked to the mud room off the kitchen. Glancing over Lanie's head, Emma caught Clay's eye. "She has over forty dollars in her purse."
Clay's eyebrows rose. "Where did she get that much money?"
Tilting her head, Emma lifted an eyebrow.
"Right." Clay nodded. "I'll talk to Sonny again."
Grabbing his jacket off a hook, Clay shrugged it on while Emma helped Lanie slide her arms into hers. Emma zipped up the front and patted Lanie on the chest. "Keep your purse zipped closed, and Daddy will help you when you need money, okay?"
Emma kissed Lanie, then straightened and kissed Clay as well. "You two have fun."
"We will." Clay swung Lanie up in his arms. "We're going to stop for lunch too. I figured we should give you more time for your conference call with Stacey."
"Thanks. You know how she likes to talk. I won't want to cut her off, so then she feels positive about our conversation and remembers that when we start negotiations for my new publishing contract in January."
"Strategic thinking. I'll text you from the diner before we leave in case you want us to bring you home something." Clay headed out the door carrying Lanie.
"Bye, Mommy!" Lanie waved at Emma over Clay's shoulder.
"Bye! Be good!" Emma's voice followed them as Clay walked down the driveway to his truck.
Opening the back door of his extended cab, he settled Lanie in her car seat. "What do you want to give Mommy for Christmas?" He asked as he buckled his daughter in.
He shook his head. "That sounds like a present for you, not Mommy."
Lanie wrinkled her nose as she thought. "Something pretty."
"Mommy does like pretty things." He closed the door, and went around to the driver's side to climb in. Buckling his own seat belt, he started the engine.
He had some gift ideas he could steer Lanie to once they were at the store. "Let's go to the mall and see what you find." Pulling out of the driveway, they headed to the stores.
Shoppers, weighed down with bags of gifts, crowded the mall. Clay held tight to Lanie's hand, not wanting to lose her in the crowd. Navigating the sea of people with his little girl slowing down to admire the sights was challenging.
Clay stopped and turned to her. "How about I carry you, baby?"
She lifted her arms to him. "Okay."
Lifting her up, he settled Lanie on his hip. Not having to keep to his daughter's slower pace, Clay began moving through the throngs of people much more quickly. "We'll go in the store up here, and you can look around."
He glanced briefly at his daughter leaning her head on his shoulder. "What's so funny?"
"Your beard tickle me."
"Yeah?" He grinned. "Like this?" He rubbed the side of his chin against her cheek, sending her into gales of laughter. "How's that?"
Her arms tightened around his neck. "Daddy!"
Clay laughed and dropped a kiss on the top of her head. "Okay, ready to shop?"
Making his way to the accessories department, Clay set Lanie on the ground. "Do you want to buy Mommy a scarf to keep warm this winter?"
Lanie slowly walked around the displays, fingering the different materials. "No."
"Okay, over here are some bags. Let's see if any of those could be Mommy's present." He took Lanie's hand in his and led her to the handbag area.
Studying the different purses intently, she made her way around the tables. She pointed to a patent leather bag with a large amount of metal hardware on a counter. "That one sparkly."
Clay shook his head. His daughter had a thing for sparkly, but he knew the bag was not Emma's style. Also, the cable locking the purse to the display told him the price would be high. Nordstrom might not have been the best choice for their shopping expedition. "I think that one's expensive."
"Not enough monies?" She frowned up at him.
"No, baby, it costs more than you have." Of course he would give her more money to purchase her mother's gift, but not for something so costly that Emma wouldn't like. He knelt in front of Lanie. "How about we go look upstairs?"
"Okay." She took his offered hand, and they navigated their way towards the escalator. Before they reached it, Lanie made a sharp turn to the right. "Princess shoes!" She made a beeline for the ladies' shoe department.
Following in his daughter's wake, Clay worried she wanted to buy shoes as a present. He was confident he could choose the correct size for his wife in most clothes, but shoes would be a complete guess. Although, his daughter did know her mother's preferences well if she thought shoes would be a good gift.
Lanie examined each display table carefully. The department contained a large selection, but none met with his daughter's approval.
A saleswoman approached Clay. "May I help you find something?"
"My daughter is trying to find a Christmas present for her mother."
"Ah." The woman nodded and turned to Lanie. "Are you looking for something in particular?"
Lanie's face grew serious. "Princess shoes."
The woman's brow wrinkled. "Hmm, I'm not sure we have any princess shoes. What exactly do they look like?"
Lanie blinked at the saleswoman and raised her eyebrows. "With pretty sparkles on them."
Clay bit his lip to keep from laughing at his little girl's expression of disbelief. She obviously thought this woman should know what princess shoes were.
"We do have some shoes in the New Year's Eve collection that might suit. They're over by that wall." The saleswoman pointed to a display in the corner.
"Thank you for your help." Catching his daughter's hand, Clay pulled her away before she gave this woman any more of a side eye.
They found the party shoes. Lanie inspected them all and her shoulders slumped. "No princess shoes."
Clay rubbed the top of her head. "I'm sorry, baby. Let's go upstairs and see if they have anything you like up there."
He picked her up and walked to the escalator. As they rode up, Lanie's head tilted back to admire all the holiday decorations. The wonder in her eyes made Clay smile.
Reaching the women's clothing department, he placed her on the floor. "How about we look at the sweaters?"
Lanie nodded and began her search. She stopped a few times to touch different ones and went back to two a few times. Finally, she stopped at a table of lightweight wool knits. Looking through the colors, she pulled out a deep blue sweater. "This one! It soft and pretty."
"It is soft, and Mommy will like that blue." Happy Lanie had made a choice, he began looking for Emma's size. Flipping through the piles of folded sweaters, he wasn't finding a small in blue. His search started to become frantic as he realized they might have to start the present search all over again.
"May I help you?" A saleswoman materialized by his elbow.
"Yes, please, I'm trying to find this sweater in blue in a size small."
"It for my Mommy," Lanie piped up.
The saleswoman smiled at Lanie and began looking through the sweaters, neatening the mess Clay had made as she went. "Hmm, I'm not sure we have it in small. There is this navy."
Lanie crossed her arms over her chest. "No, this one."
"Lanie, be nice." Clay gave the saleswoman an apologetic smile. "Sorry."
"That's alright. She's a woman who knows what she wants." The saleswoman moved around the high back of the display. "There are more in these cubbies." She leaned down and pulled out three or four more sweaters. "Here's a small in the blue you like."
"Thank you." He turned to his daughter. "What do you say?"
Lanie beamed at the saleswoman. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. Would you like to check out, or are you still browsing?"
Clay was more than ready to pay for Emma's gift. "I think it's time to check out."
"I can take you at the register right here." The saleswoman moved to a nearby counter with the sweater.
They followed her over, and Clay reached in his pocket for his wallet.
"No, Daddy. I use my monies." Lanie tugged at the zipper on her little purse.
Doing some quick math in his head, Clay realized with the markdown and the current sale, Lanie did have enough to pay for the sweater. "Are you sure, baby? I can put it on my charge card."
"I sure." She tugged the bills out of the pocketbook.
"Just these ones." He left the twenties in her hand and tucked the singles back into her bag. Then he picked her up and seated her on the high counter.
The saleswoman scanned the tag on the sweater and placed it in a bag. "Would you like a gift box?"
"Yes, please." Clay hoped they'd come across some group wrapping presents to raise money for charity. If they didn't, he'd have to wrap it. Maybe they could stop on the way home for some gift bags.
Lanie handed her money over and received her change. Clay helped her put it with her other money and zipped up the purse.
The saleswoman stepped from behind the counter and handed the shopping bag to Lanie. "Thank you. Have a lovely holiday."
Lanie peeked in the bag and grinned. "Thank you."
Lifting his daughter in his arms, Clay smiled at the saleswoman. "Thank you. You too."
Present hunt concluded they left the store.
Holding on to Lanie, Clay made his way back through the mall. He wanted to stop in the sporting goods store down the way. Recently he and Mikey had talked about personal locator beacons for hiking, and he wanted to purchase one for his brother-in-law for Christmas. He thought it would be useful as the younger man had become an avid hiker.
"We need to pick up a present for Uncle Mikey before we go."
"Okay, Daddy." Lanie held her bag with Emma's gift tight in her hand.
They made their way past Santa's grotto, where a long line of families waited for their turn for a photo. Emma had taken Lanie to see Santa while he was spun up. Clay had admired the photos when he came home.
"Look, Daddy! Santa!" Lanie pointed with her free arm.
"I see him."
"Santa! Santa!" Feverishly, Lanie waved at the big man.
Surprisingly, Santa heard her over the noise in the mall, and he returned her wave as he waited for his next guests to approach.
"He waved to me, Daddy!"
"He did, baby." Clay gave Santa a grateful nod as they passed.
"He know I a good girl." She gave a satisfied nod of her head.
Holding in another laugh, Clay agreed. "He does."
They entered the outdoor store, and Clay went directly to the display of hiking supplies. He set Lanie on the ground. "You stay right here by me, okay?"
"Yes, Daddy." She leaned into his leg.
Examining the three beacons the store stocked, he immediately eliminated one as being too pricey and much higher end than Mikey needed. As he studied the options on the other two, a salesman joined him. They fell into a discussion of the pluses and minuses of both units. Eventually, Clay chose the one he thought better suited to the type of places Mikey would be hiking. The salesman pulled a boxed locator out of the drawer under the display and carried it to the counter to ring up the purchase.
Turning to follow, Clay reached to take Lanie's hand again. She wasn't there. His eyes darted around the store. She was nowhere to be seen. "Have you seen my little girl? She was right here."
The salesman shook his head. "No. I saw her while we were talking, but I didn't see her leave." He placed the beacon on the counter and went to check behind the nearby clothing racks.
Clay began combing the store as if he were clearing a target on an op. How could he not notice her walking away? He should have been paying better attention. What would he tell Emma? Panic lurked at the edges of his consciousness, but he pushed it aside to continue his search. How much time did his conversation about the beacons last? It couldn't have been long enough for Lanie to get far.
Where could she have gone? He blocked the thought that someone could have taken her. The mostly likely scenario was that her curious nature had her off her own looking at things that interested her, oblivious to the worried adults around her.
His tension rose as he cleared the space with no sign of her. He glanced out the door, seeing Santa's grotto down the way. "Maybe she went back to see Santa. I'm just going to check down there."
Before he could leave, a female sales associate called to him. "Sir! I think I found her." She gestured to a circular clothing rack.
Clay hurried back to the spot near where he looked at the hiking beacons. The young woman pushed aside the hangers of snow pants, and there asleep on the rug with some fallen clothing as a pillow was his daughter.
Relief washed over him. "Thank you! I was afraid something had happened to her."
"No problem." The associate smiled. "This happens more often than you think."
"Also, my wife would have killed me."
Both salespeople laughed.
Clay handed over his charge card to pay for the beacon, then knelt by Lanie. "Hey, sleepyhead, ready to go?" He gently shook her shoulder.
"Daddy?" Lanie's eyes blinked open. "We done shopping?"
"Just about." Picking her up, he stood, shifting her in his arms so she could lay her head on his shoulder. He awkwardly signed the charge slip and took the bag with his item. "Thank you both again. Happy Holidays."
Back in the parking lot, he strapped Lanie into her booster seat and placed their bags next to her.
"Now lunch?" Lanie squirmed in her seat.
"First we're going to stop at the jewelry store so Daddy can get Mommy a present, then we'll have lunch." Clay adjusted the strap on the seat to make it more comfortable.
They drove away from the mall to a small strip of stores right by a diner. The diner was near Clay's first apartment in Virginia Beach and a longtime favorite of his and Emma's. In the strip of stores was a family-owned jewelry store than Clay had purchased from in the past. He found the prices fair and the service to be excellent. He had recommended the place to other SEALs.
Getting Lanie out of the truck, he carried her as he walked down the row of stores.
"That where Mommy go for pretty nails." Lanie pointed to a nail salon they were passing.
Clay stopped walking. "It is, isn't it?" He went in and approached the counter. The shop was crowded with women getting manicures and pedicures.
"Can I help you?" A woman greeted him at the front desk.
He set Lanie down. "Don't go far." He then turned to the receptionist. "I'd like to buy a gift certificate for a manicure and pedicure."
"What kind of manicure? Regular polish, dip, or gel?"
Clay sighed. "Um, I don't know. Can I just give you an amount and if there's money left, she can use it to pay for part of the next one?"
"Sure, we can do that."
While her father talked with the woman at the counter, Lanie edged over to watch a nearby woman's manicure. The woman smiled at her.
"Are you getting pretty nails?" Lanie returned the woman's smile.
"Yes, I'm going to a Christmas party." The woman showed Lanie her completed hand. Her nails were red with a snowflake painted on her ring finger.
"Ooh! Pretty snowflakes."
"Thank you. Do you get pretty nails too?"
"Sometimes with my Mommy. We do pink." Lanie glanced around at the women in the shop. "My Mommy the prettiest."
The woman smiled again. "I'm sure she is. You must look like her." She glanced at Clay at the counter then to her friend seated at the next station. "And Daddy's no slouch either."
Her friend and the two manicurists giggled.
"Ready to go, Lanie?" Clay interrupted before Lanie could say anything else. "Thank you for keeping her occupied."
"No trouble. We were discussing pretty nails."
Clay grinned. "A topic dear to her heart."
The women all laughed.
"Have a good holiday." Clay took Lanie's hand and led her out of the shop.
Watching them exit, the woman fanned herself with her free hand. "Whoa, that smile. Why are all the good ones taken?"
"You don't know. He could be a dog." Her friend switched hands with her manicurist.
"Please, he's out Christmas shopping with his kid. He stopped to buy his wife a gift certificate to a nail salon. And he was polite to me without being creepy flirty." She waved her manicured hand at the window. "And now he's gone into the jewelry store. He's a keeper."
Entering the jewelry store, Clay walked to the counter. He recognized the man there as the owner. "Hi, I'm interested in buying some earrings for my wife."
"Welcome back. We can help you with that." He waved over a young woman. "Marcia here, can assist you."
Marcia joined Clay and Lanie. "Hello, you're looking to buy some earrings. Do you have any specific ideas in mind?"
"Not really." He glanced around the store as he thought. "White gold might be better as my wife wears a lot of that. Um, maybe something dangly."
Marcia smiled at his description. "Alright, let me pull some, and we can go from there." She placed a velvet tray on the counter then opened a display case. Reaching inside she selected different pairs of earrings and placed them on the tray for Clay to view.
He studied the options in front him. Lanie gripped the edge of the counter and tried to see as well. Clay swung her up onto his hip. "What do you think?"
Clay shook his head. "Sparkly is your favorite." He frowned as he continued to examine the different pairs. None of them were quite right.
"If you don't like any of these, I can bring out more."
"I like these." He pointed at a pair of small hoops with diamonds. "But I think my wife would prefer a bigger hoop."
"I have a similar pair with a larger hoop. Let me get them." She moved to a jewelry case further down and opened the back. Reaching in, she removed another pair of earrings, brought them back and placed them on the tray. "The stone placement on these is more intricate, but the hoop is a larger diameter."
"I like these more." He picked the earrings up and showed them to Lanie. "What do you think, baby? Will Mommy like these for her Christmas present?"
"Yes! They booful!" Lanie clapped her hands.
"High praise. We'll take them." He handed the earrings to Marcia.
"Lovely. Would you like them wrapped?" She placed the earrings on the tray and began returning the other pairs back to the jewelry cases.
"I would love to have them wrapped. Thank you." He reached in his pocket for his wallet and took out his charge card.
Marcia completed the sale while another associate wrapped the box with the earrings. Once the sale was finished, Marcia handed the bag to Clay. "Thank you and have a wonderful holiday."
"Thanks, you too." Carrying Lanie and his gift, Clay headed out of the store.
Walking across the parking lot, Clay headed with Lanie to the diner for their lunch. "Lanie, now that we have presents for Mommy, it's important we keep what they are a secret until she opens them on Christmas. Can you do that?"
"Yes, Daddy." Lanie shook her head up and down to emphasize her answer.
"Are you sure?"
"I promise it secret."
"Okay, because Mommy will want to be surprised when she opens her presents on Christmas." He figured he had a fifty fifty chance of Lanie telling Emma about her gifts before the twenty-fifth.
They entered the diner and approached the hostess stand. The spot was a popular eatery in the area with most of the tables occupied. The hostess smiled at them. "Hi, just the two of you?"
"Yes. Is it a long wait?" He hoped not as their shopping expedition had tired him out, and he was ready to sit.
The young woman glanced at her seating chart and back into the dining area. "Actually, it should be about five minutes. We just need to prepare a table."
They watched as a bus boy cleared a table and wiped it down. Once he finished, the hostess grabbed some menus, a coloring sheet, and some crayons and walked them to the booth. "Here you go. Your waitress should be by in a moment."
"Thank you." Clay helped Lanie take off her coat and then settled her on one side of the table with the coloring supplies. He gave the menu a cursory glance as he knew it so well. "Lanie, what do you want to eat?"
"Mac and cheese, please." She was intent on filling in the red on Santa's suit.
He relaxed back in his seat and watched Lanie color. He was beat. How did Emma do this all the time?
One of the longtime waitresses came by with wrapped silverware for their table. She recognized Clay and Lanie as regulars. "Hi there. How are you two doing? Where's the missus today?"
"Hi, Maxine. We're good. My wife had a business call today, so we went out Christmas shopping."
"That's fun. Did you see Santa?"
"I did." Lanie looked up from her coloring. "He wave at me! And we got presents. Daddy give Mommy sparkly earrings!"
Clay ran his hand through his hair. "Lanie, remember the presents are a secret until Christmas."
Maxine burst into laughter. "Good luck with that. Okay, are you ready to order?"
Clay gave her their food and drink orders. Not long after, she returned with their drinks and then their food. As they finished eating Clay texted Emma and asked if she wanted anything. She replied with a request and Clay put the order in. As soon as Emma's food was ready, he paid the bill, left a tip, and gathered up Lanie and her artwork to head to the truck.
They arrived home not long after Emma completed her Zoom call. As they entered the house, she came down the stairs. "Perfect timing. I am ready to eat. How was the shopping?"
Lanie dashed over to her mother. "Mommy, I color for you." She handed Emma the coloring sheet from the diner. "I see Santa. He wave to me. We buy presents. Daddy give you—"