Christmas Blues

CHRISTMAS BLUES
Author: Leigh Jarrett
Genre: Holiday Contemporary Romance
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Excerpt:

Summer wasn't finished with us yet. The sunbaked blacktop beneath my feet, pungent from the heat, radiated a steady, scorching warmth up my body as I crossed the street. It was mid-September, and my position as the job site safety inspector for Hollins Construction had brought me to Denver, Colorado, more than forty minutes outside my usual region of Boulder.

The resident inspector in Denver had taken his family on holiday to Europe, leaving me struggling to cover both his and my territory.

I rolled up the damp sleeves of my white, button-up shirt as I made my way toward a coffee shop down the road from my last inspection of the day. My shirt had started the day clean and crisply ironed, but now it was rumpled and sticking to the small of my back. The clothing we were required to wear as professionals entering construction sites was insanely inappropriate for the current weather. We'd been sweltering in high-eighty-degree heat for weeks.

The handle of the coffee shop's door felt cooler than the surrounding air as I gripped it and pulled it open. I was welcomed by a gust of what felt like an arctic breeze, in contrast to the air outside. I took a deep breath of it, inhaling relief from the heat and a pleasant assault of freshly brewed coffee and cinnamon buns.

If I didn't have other commitments, there was every chance I wouldn't have left this coffee shop any time soon. I looked back across the street at my car. I'd left the inspection reports I needed to complete by the end of the day lying on the passenger seat.

Later.

I'd head back out to the car to retrieve them once my body had cooled enough to brave the heat again.

The young, pink-haired woman behind the counter caught my attention by clearing her throat and greeting me as Sir. I'd reached the front of the line, but my mind had wandered. I was thinking about the long drive home to Longmont, realizing it would be late by the time I arrived.

I'd need to call my sister and ask her to pick up the kids from the after-school babysitter's—again. She wouldn't be pleased. She'd picked them up twice already this week. Luckily, today was Friday, meaning I'd be home for the next two days, relieving my sister, Janice, of her Auntie duties—favors actually… in other words, her continual saving of my ass.

I perused the board of coffee options and decided on something cold.

"Mocha Frappuccino, please," I said as I opened my wallet and peered inside, not sure if I should use my debit or credit card. I had no idea how much money was in my bank account. The kids had needed new clothes and a ridiculous amount of school supplies for back to school last month. Taylor, my eldest son, aged eleven, had been the most troublesome in the clothes shopping mayhem. He'd insisted the other two, Cindy aged eight, and Marcus aged five be left at home—with my sister while I'd taken Taylor out on his own.

Thankfully, she'd agreed …again.

"Your name?" The bubbly female voice tugged me away from my wandering mind again.

"Sorry. It's Ryan." I removed the solitary credit card from my wallet. I didn't like using it for anything other than business expenses, but there was no sense in taking the risk of having my debit card declined. I'd never been this short of money before, aside from my college years. But everything was different now. I had mortgage payments, medical insurance, orthodontics, baseball, karate, ballet lessons—and a ton of other expenses to cover. Being a parent was expensive, and without my wife's income, I was struggling.

I wandered to the end of the counter to wait for the barista to complete what I hoped would be a drink capable of chilling my insides, matching the gradual cooling of my skin.

"Ryan?" A voice behind me had me turning around. I wasn't sure if I'd misheard my name being called. I didn't know anyone this far from home, and I didn't recognize the well-groomed, dark-haired man approaching me; the cosmopolitan style of his clothing throwing me off even further. Bare feet in white sneakers, torn couture jeans with silver wallet chain, black and white striped shirt, and tailored suit jacket. People didn't typically dress like that in Denver.

"Ryan Middleton?" The man reached out to shake my hand, grinning as if greeting a life-long friend, his neatly trimmed beard accentuating his lips launching to speak before I'd had an opportunity to reply. "What are the chances? I haven't seen you since …I was like, what …thirteen? I just moved back here last week, and here you are."

He clapped his hands together after releasing my reluctant grip. I had no idea who this guy was. The handshake had been awkward, but he'd persisted undeterred. "Did you move out this way?" he continued. "I thought for sure you'd stay in Longmont. You never struck me as a big city guy. What about your parents? I sure miss them …Bill and Evelyn. Your mom was always such a riot." He sighed and laughed softly, shaking his head. "Sam and I used to drive her insane."

A drop of ice-cold condensation ran down my arm from where I was holding my plastic cup full of reprieve from the heat. The straw had yet to find its way to my mouth. How could this guy possibly know so much about my family when I had no idea who he was?

"I'm sorry, I don't think …," I stammered.

"Oh man, you have no idea who I am, do you?" His neck flushed red, spreading right the way up to his cheeks. "Of course, you don't. The aged thirteen thing since I saw you last…." He extended his hand again. "Michael Sanderson. I was a friend of your brother's."

"Mikey?" I clapped my hand into his, laughing.

I'll be damned.

It was no wonder I didn't recognize him. The annoying, scrawny, pimple-faced teen, the kid who always asked way too many questions, ate all the M&Ms out of the mixed nuts, and borrowed video games out of my room without asking, was standing before me, unrecognizable.

Well, almost unrecognizable. Now that I knew who he was, his animated expression, intense green eyes, and habit of speaking way too fast confirmed his identity. Michael had been my younger brother, Sam's best friend for years. His family had moved away partway through their junior year. I'd been twenty-one at the time, busy at college and all that went with it, reading, studying, …and spending time with my girlfriend, Rebecca.


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