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The Santa Express

The Santa Express

Santa's Secret Helpers, BOOK 4

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 292 5-Star Reviews

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Shelley Jones is an accountant by day and one of Santa’s Secret Helpers by night. Helping Pastor John organize the next fundraising event for the church should be easy. But taking children on a train ride around Flathead Lake in mid-December is asking for trouble—even if it is The Santa Express.

Pastor John McDonald wants to make the world a better place. And he’s doing it, one day at a time, from a small town called Sapphire Bay. Raising money for the tiny home village is his top priority. 

When The Santa Express is in danger of being canceled, Shelley and John have to work together to make the event happen. And maybe, if they can leave their troubled past behind, they’ll create a little Christmas magic of their own.

Chapter One Look Inside

John stared at the spreadsheet on his computer. When he’d arrived in Sapphire Bay to be the pastor of The Connect Church, he didn’t know balancing the budget was part of his job. He did his best, but sitting in front of a computer was the last place he wanted to be. Fortunately, other people in the community were only too happy to keep the church’s finances organized. But with Christmas only a few weeks away, everyone was busy with their own work.

With a resigned sigh, he picked up another receipt and typed it into the spreadsheet. Without knowing exactly how much money they had left in the fundraising budget, he couldn’t allocate any money for future events. And right now, he needed every dollar he could find.

A soft knock on his office door was a welcome distraction. Looking up, he smiled at Bailey Jones. As well as being a good friend, she worked tirelessly on the church’s fundraising committee. “I thought you and Mabel were delivering our latest Christmas wish?”

“That was the plan, but Mabel’s husband hurt his leg. They’re on their way to see Zac at the medical clinic. Do you want to deliver the Montgomerys’ gift basket with me?”

Usually, it wouldn’t take much to get John away from his desk. But Bailey’s sister, Shelley, was waiting to see if they had any extra money for The Santa Express, their next fundraising event. “I’d love to help, but Shelley wants some more money for the train ride around Flathead Lake. If I don’t get back to her in the next hour, she’ll bombard me with texts.”

Bailey sent him a rueful smile. “She means well.”

John hoped so. If they were going to finish the tiny home village, they needed all the money they could raise. And The Santa Express was a key part of their fundraising program. “I appreciate what she’s doing. It can’t be easy working from Boston.”

“Shelley’s used to long-distance projects.” Bailey checked her watch. “I need to leave in the next few minutes. After I’ve delivered the gift basket, do you want me to come back and help you?”

“I’ll be okay. You’re as busy as I am.”

Bailey smiled. “What we’re doing in the church is just as important as my work as a counselor. Besides, I know how determined my sister can be. Once she starts something, nothing else matters.”

“I’ve noticed.” 

Bailey chuckled. “Good luck with finding some extra money.”

John sighed. “Thanks. I’ll need it.” And with those words ringing in his ears, he picked up another receipt. 

Ten down, thirty-eight to go.

* * *

Shelley stepped out of the Brown Bear charter van that had brought her from Polson to Sapphire Bay. Each time she visited the small Montana town, she felt an overwhelming sense of rightness, as if this were the place that could fill her life with happiness. And each time she left, a small piece of her heart stayed right here, with her two sisters, in the pretty lakeside town they called home.

“Here are your suitcases, ma’am. Did you have anything else?”

Shelley smiled at the driver. “No, that’s everything. Thanks for giving me a ride.” 

“You’re welcome. Have a nice day.” 

While other passengers boarded the van, Shelley extended the handles of her suitcases.

For most of their journey from Polson, the driver had told her about the history of Flathead Lake, the steamboats that had transformed this part of Montana, and the settlers who’d come here looking for a new life. 

A little like herself. 

She moved out of the way of a woman pushing a stroller and headed toward the general store. The one thing she hadn’t expected to see was the number of people on Main Street. 

Small Christmas trees stood outside each store and fairy lights twinkled from the verandas overhead, adding to the festive atmosphere for the shoppers. If the stores were as busy as they appeared, everyone would enjoy a good Christmas. 

Unlike the other buildings, the lights inside the general store were turned off. 

Shelley peered through the front window. She’d met Mabel and Allan on her first visit to Sapphire Bay. As well as groceries, their bright, colorful store sold everything from clothespins to lawnmowers. She couldn’t understand why their front door was locked, especially when the town was so busy.

“The general store is closed,” a female voice said from behind her. “Can I help?”

Shelley turned around and grinned at the pretty brunette. “Hi, Brooke.”

Brooke’s eyes widened in surprise. “Shelley! I didn’t recognize you.” She gave her a hug, then glanced at the two large suitcases sitting on the sidewalk. “Has Bailey finally convinced you to stay for a long vacation?”

“Sort of. I finished my last contract earlier than planned. Bailey’s wanted me to come to Sapphire Bay for a while, so I thought I’d surprise her and stay for a few weeks.”

Brooke’s smile disappeared. “Your sister isn’t here. After she delivered a gift basket, she drove to Polson with Steven and Mila. I think they’re buying some new rugs.”

Shelley bit her lip. This might not have been such a good idea. “Are they away for the weekend?”

“I don’t think so.”

She breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness for that. I know where Bailey keeps her spare key for the cottage. I’ll wait there for her.”

“Did you need something from the general store?”

Shelley pulled her cell phone out of her pocket. “I forgot to bring my charging cable. I was hoping Mabel and Allan would have one.”

“They might, but Allan fell off the stepladder. Mabel took him to the medical clinic and I don’t know when they’ll be back. What type of phone do you have?”

“A Samsung.” Shelley showed Brooke her phone. “It’s about three years old.”

Brooke looked at the charging socket. “Come with me. I’ve got a few charging cables in Sweet Treats. I might have something that will work.”

Shelley didn’t need to be asked twice. As far as she was concerned, Brooke owned the best candy and cake store in Montana. “Main Street is a lot busier than the last time I was here.”

Brooke wheeled one of Shelley’s suitcases toward her candy shop. “It’s been crazy. Everyone’s doing their Christmas shopping. For most of the morning, we’ve had a line of people waiting to come into the store.”

“Do you think it’ll get any busier?”

“I don’t know, but we’re enjoying the extra sales.” Brooke opened the front door of her store. “Follow me into the kitchen. Hopefully, one of the cables works.”

As soon as she stepped inside Sweet Treats, Shelley smiled. The delicious scent of chocolate and fudge tickled her nose. Two women stood behind the counter, chatting with the customers as they slid candy into bags. A few people were sitting at tables, sipping hot drinks and eating muffins and pastries. 

Sweet Treats was the kind of store you didn’t want to leave, especially on a cold afternoon.

Shelley pulled her suitcase to the left and walked around the back of the counter with Brooke. Compared to the front of the store, the kitchen was a peaceful haven. With its wide, stainless steel counters, and shelves full of packed candy, it was Shelley’s idea of paradise. 

She stood beside one of the shelving units and read the labels on the containers. Raspberry Ripple Marshmallow, Orange Delight Fudge, and Shelley’s all-time favorite, Chocolate Fudge. “Do you ever run out of candy?”

Brooke opened a drawer. “Sometimes. We try to keep ahead of the online orders and what we sell in the store, but we’re still surprised by the popularity of some candy.” She held up a charging cable. “Will this fit?”

Shelley tried it in the socket. “It’s perfect. Can I borrow it until I buy another one?”

“Keep it for as long as you like. Are you sure you don’t want to wait here for Bailey?”

“I’ve been sitting in a van for an hour. The walk to her cottage will do me good.”

“With two suitcases?”

Shelley slipped the charging cable into her pocket. “Honestly, I’ll be okay. The sidewalks are mostly clear of snow.”

Brooke sighed. “All right, but be careful.”

With a smile on her face, Shelley left the store. Bailey’s cottage wasn’t that far away. As long as the wheels on her suitcases didn’t snap, she’d be fine.

* * *

John drove around Flathead Lake toward town. After spending an hour working on the fundraising budget, he’d left The Welcome Center to visit a family who needed his help.

Cleo and Richard Burne had moved to Sapphire Bay two years ago. Their jobs as online customer service staff could be done from anywhere in Montana. So, instead of staying in Great Falls, they’d moved their family to Sapphire Bay to enjoy small town life and be closer to Cleo’s parents. 

A few months ago, they were made redundant. Richard had found a part-time job in a store on Main Street, but it wasn’t enough. Without the food parcels that John delivered, their lives would be even harder. 

It was the worst time of the year to be looking for more work, but John had an idea. And if that idea worked out, Cleo might have a job before Christmas. 

The support and kindness of the folks of Sapphire Bay wasn’t something he took for granted. For the last six years, he’d proudly called Sapphire Bay home. And each day he did what he could to make everyone’s life a little easier.

A woman’s bright red hat caught his attention. She was walking along the sidewalk, struggling to hold one large suitcase, while another bounced along behind her. With a light dusting of snow falling, it wasn’t the time to be outside, hauling goodness knows what in her oversized bags.

John pulled over to the side of the road. His eyes widened when he saw the woman’s face. It couldn’t be Shelley. She was supposed to be in Boston. Although she was helping him organize the steam train ride, she’d said she wasn’t coming to Sapphire Bay until the day before the event.

Her gaze connected with his and her shoulders slumped forward. She didn’t look as though she was thrilled to see him.

He rolled down the window and frowned. Even though they texted each other most days, they’d only met once. But that was enough. After assuming, before she’d met him, that he was in his seventies, then sending him long emails about the event, John was grateful she didn’t live any closer. 

“Hi, Shelley. Can I give you a ride somewhere?”

She pushed a wet strand of hair off her face. “Hi. I’ll be okay.” 

She started walking and he reversed his truck. “You’ll get the flu.”

“I’m going to Bailey’s cottage. It’s only around the corner.”

He supposed that, if you lived in Boston, Bailey’s house wouldn’t be considered far away. But in the middle of a snowstorm on a cold December afternoon, no one else was crazy enough to be walking outside. “Get in. I’ll drop you off.”

Shelley placed the suitcase she was holding on the ground and rubbed her hands together. “Are you usually this bossy?”

“Only when someone’s doing something that doesn’t make sense.” He unclipped his seatbelt and stepped out of the truck. A blast of freezing air hit his face. “It’s too cold to be out here.” 

Without waiting for more excuses, he grabbed Shelley’s suitcases and slid them onto the back seat. “Unless you want me to carry you, I’d suggest you get in the truck.”

He opened the passenger door and waited for Shelley.

With a deep sigh, she walked toward him. “Thanks. I appreciate you stopping.”

John’s eyebrows rose. “Are you feeling all right?”

“I think so. Why?”

“That’s one of the few times you’ve thanked me.”

Shelley frowned. “I’ve said thank you lots of times.”

“Texts don’t count.”

“Of course, they do.”

John closed the door and sat in the driver’s seat. “Messages sent by text aren’t the same as saying the words.”

“Mom and Dad said the same thing the other day.”

He glanced at her before doing a U-turn. “Did you come to Montana to speak to the Colemans?” One of the biggest hurdles to the event was getting approval from a rancher to use his barn. Originally, the Colemans were happy to help, but something had changed. Without their support, Santa’s Secret Cave wouldn’t happen and the whole event would be in jeopardy.

Holding out her hands, Shelley sighed as hot air flowed from the vents. “Talking to the Colemans is at the top of my list. I’d also like to start organizing the flower fundraiser Bailey asked me to do. I haven’t told my sisters, but I’ll be here for a few weeks.”

That was news to John. “You weren’t planning on being here until the day before our event. What made you change your mind?”

Shelley’s hands dropped to her lap. “I finished my contract in Boston earlier than I thought I would.”

He was surprised she hadn’t looked for another job. “Well, Bailey and Sam will be pleased you’re here.”

The sharp glance Shelley sent him made him regret his words. “I didn’t mean that the way it came out. I’m sure lots of people will enjoy meeting you.”

“You still haven’t forgiven me for assuming you were old, have you?”

John slowed down as he turned into Bailey’s street. “Of course, I have.” 

Shelley didn’t look as though she believed him. “Even though I didn’t know you were behind me, I shouldn’t have said anything about your age. You’re only eleven years older than I am and I’m definitely not old.”

Her comments had stung John’s pride, but it wasn’t her fault. Some days he felt much older than forty-two, but that was more to do with what he’d seen and not the number of years that had gone by. What Shelley didn’t know was that her comments had coincided with one of his not-so-easy days.

He pulled into Shelley’s sister’s driveway and frowned. “It doesn’t look as though Bailey’s home.”

“Brooke said she’s in Polson with Steven and Mila. I’ll call her to let her know I’m here.”

John peered through the windshield. With dark, menacing clouds gathering overhead, the weather was getting worse. “Do you have a key?”

“I know where she keeps her spare front door key.”

That made him feel slightly better about leaving her here. “I’ll get your luggage out of the truck.” 

By the time he stepped onto the veranda, Shelley was running her hand along the top of the doorframe. “You’re kidding?”

She looked over her shoulder and grinned. “Got it!” 

“I can’t believe Bailey would leave her key there. It’s too obvious.”

“This is Sapphire Bay.” Shelley opened the front door. “Land of no crime, happy families, and an awesome church.”

John didn’t know what startled him more—the way Shelley’s eyes were alive with mischief or the flattery coming out of her mouth. “You still need to be careful.”

Her cheeky salute made his heart pound. 

She peeled off her wet hat and sneezed. “Excuse me. I—” Another sneeze ripped through the entrance. 

“You’re soaking wet. How long were you outside?”

Reaching into her jacket pocket, Shelley pulled out a handful of tissues and blew her nose. “Not long.”

John looked more closely at her face. With a red nose, bright pink cheeks, and wet tendrils of hair plastered against her forehead, she looked like a pretty, dark-haired cat that had been lost in the wilderness.

He picked up her suitcases and left them beside the coat stand. “You need to change into some dry clothes, and I need to go home.”

Shelley sneezed into the tissues. “Thanks for bringing me here.”

“You’re welcome. Let me know when you’re seeing the Colemans. I can drive you to their property.”

“I’ll call you tomorrow.”

John nodded and looked into Shelley’s brown eyes. “Remember to call Bailey.”

“I will.”

And while Shelley was sneezing into the tissues, he walked back to his truck. He should be happy she was here to organize their last fundraising event before Christmas. But he wasn’t—and he didn’t know why.

Fans of Netflix's Virgin River series will love this small-town, feel-good romance!

Shelley Jones is an accountant by day and one of Santa’s Secret Helpers by night. Helping Pastor John organize the next fundraising event for the church should be easy. But taking children on a train ride around Flathead Lake in mid-December is asking for trouble—even if it is The Santa Express.

Pastor John McDonald wants to make the world a better place. And he’s doing it, one day at a time, from a small town called Sapphire Bay. Raising money for the tiny home village is his top priority. 

When The Santa Express is in danger of being canceled, Shelley and John have to work together to make the event happen. And maybe, if they can leave their troubled past behind, they’ll create a little Christmas magic of their own.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ "This series is a heartwarming, small-town must read!"

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ "The love story we all need in our lives. Sweet and heartwarming!"

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ "Every page radiates warmth and love. I couldn’t put it down!"

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