Excerpt: Christmas in July
Till death do us part.
Grace Flaherty, owner of the Sugar Plum Bakery, tried to drown out the wedding vows she couldn’t get out of her head by humming a song. Her breath hitched when she recognized the melody—“Amazed,” her and Jack’s song. It was as if he knew what she was going to do and tried to stop her. A warm spring breeze wafted through the screen door, and she closed her eyes, letting its soft caress soothe her aching heart.
Today was her husband’s thirty-ﬁfth birthday, and the day Grace said good-bye to him.
“I’m sorry, Jack. I can’t do it anymore. I can’t keep pretending you’re coming home,” she whispered as she put the ﬁnishing touches on the cake, tying a yellow ribbon to the tiny white picket fence that circled the pink fondant house.
Since the day Jack’s Black Hawk went down in Afghanistan and he’d been listed as MIA, she’d clung to the hope he’d come home to her and their two-year-old son. But where hope had once sustained her, now, seventeen months later, the gossamer threads held her in limbo. The not knowing was making her crazy. She had to move on with her life and somehow heal her broken heart. And the only way she knew how to do that was to let Jack go.
Kneeling on the stool beside her, her son Jack Junior dumped a bottle of blue sprinkles onto the stainless steel prep top instead of the cupcake she’d given him to decorate.
She sighed, prying the bottle from his small ﬁst.
" Me do.” Under a tumble of curly dark hair, a frown puckered the brow of his sweet face. “Mommy sad.”
So sad that it hurt. “No, Mommy’s happy.” She gave him a hug, touching the tips of her ﬁngers to her cheek to ensure there were no tears. Grace had been schooled at an early age to hide her feelings, and it amazed her how easily her son picked up on her emotions. Then again, she could never hide her feelings from his father, either.
F orcing a smile, she handed him a miniature American ﬂag. “Put it on your cupcake,” she said as she attached one to the Victorian’s front porch. His hand darted in front of her. “No . . .” She swallowed a frustrated groan when he smashed the ﬂag in the wildﬂower garden, taking out two poppies and a sun-ﬂower. If she didn’t hurry up, he’d destroy the cake. She quickly retrieved the chocolate sugar plum from the refrigerator.
Typically, the sugar plum contained an engagement ring or a wish. This one held Jack’s wedding band, a good-bye note, and a wish for her future. A man’s man, her husband didn’t wear jewelry and had only worn the ring on their wedding day. Their life had been ﬁlled with such promise then, promises and dreams, like the house on her cake. But while her dreams with Jack might be over, she was determined to create new ones for her and her son. Different dreams, but just as bright.
Instead of hiding the sugar plum in the cake like she always did, she placed it beneath the house. She couldn’t risk someone ﬁnding it, but she needed the sugar plum to be there. It wouldn’t be her signature cake without it. And lately she’d been receiving letters from people whose sugar plum wishes had come true. Something her silent business partner and friend—not that Madison McBride knew what the word silent meant—had been happily exploiting. Grace didn’t believe there was anything magical about her cakes, but if there was a chance . . .
The stool wobbled as Jack Junior tried to get down. “Me go party,” he said, referring to the gathering Jack’s friends had organized to celebrate his birthday at the Penalty Box tonight. After putting in twelve hours before picking up her son at the sitter— two of her employees had called in sick that morning— the last thing Grace wanted to do was spend an emotional evening with the citizens of the small town of Christmas, Colorado, who believed with all their hearts their hometown hero would one day come home. It wasn’t as if she could plead a headache or heartache and drop her cake off and leave. They expected her there, as upbeat and as naïvely positive as they were.
At the thought, Grace wearily scooped her son into her arms. “As soon as mommy’s cleaned up the kitchen, we’ll go.”
“No!” Wriggling in her arms, he tried to break free.
She couldn’t handle his Flaherty temper right now, but nor could she leave the bakery in a mess. She put him down and reached for the broom. “Here.” She handed him the dustbin. “Let’s play catch the sprinkles.”
After an exasperating ﬁve minutes, even though the black-and-white tiles were clear of sprinkles, Grace reached for the mop, then stopped herself. She was being ridiculous. Instead, she searched for something to occupy her precocious son while she cleaned the prep top.
She latched on to the cupcake liners he’d dumped onto the counter and sat him on the ﬂoor at her feet. “Can you put these back in the tube for Mommy?”
He nodded. She rufﬂed his baby- soft hair before turning to clean up the icing and sprinkles. The crushed ﬂowers called to her. She needed the last cake she made for Jack to be perfect. When an over- the-shoulder glance revealed her son to be engrossed in his task, she reached for the gum paste and cutter.
Less than ten minutes later, she’d replaced the last of the three ﬂowers in the garden and turned to her son. “Jack . . .” He was gone.
Panic overwhelmed her as the memory of another child who’d gone missing on her watch came back to haunt her. She pushed the thought aside as her gaze darted to the narrow space between the industrial ovens and refrigerator.
“Jack, it’s time to go to the party,” she cajoled, kneeling to look under the prep table. At the sound of a shuddering crash from the front of the bakery, she uttered a panicked, “Jack,” and shot to her feet, racing through the swinging doors.
Chunks of wet plaster had knocked over a round bistro table, water gushing from a hole in the ceiling above. In one breath she was thanking God her baby hadn’t been hiding under the table, while in the next she was crying out his name, her voice ragged with fear.
“I’ve got him, Grace,” a deep male voice called from the kitchen. Sawyer Anderson, Jack’s childhood best friend and owner of the Penalty Box, came through the swinging doors with her son in his arms. The former captain of the Colorado Flurries, a professional hockey team, Sawyer had been there for Grace since the day Jack went missing. Incredibly good-looking and laid-back, he was the one person she’d been able to share her fears with. The one person who understood why she couldn’t keep pretending Jack was coming home. His support made it easy to be with him. Only lately, it’d been too easy.
She reached for Jack Junior, who wrapped his small arms around Sawyer’s neck. She laid a palm on her son’s back, the steady rise and fall of his breath and the warm body beneath his navy T-shirt calming the panicked gallop of her heart. “Where did you ﬁnd him?”
“Back alley. I was coming to check on you . . .”
She closed her eyes. She’d been so focused on making sure the ﬂowers were exactly right that she hadn’t heard the screen door open.
“He’s fine, Grace.”
“Only because you were there. If you . . .” She shook her head, trying not to think of what could’ve happened. Of what had happened that long-ago summer. “Thank you.”
From beneath the ball cap pulled low on his dark-blond hair, he scanned her face, then lifted his gaze to the ceiling. “Shit,” he muttered.
“Shit,” said her son.
Grace shot Sawyer a don’t-you-dare-look as he fought back a laugh. “Jackson Flaherty, what did I tell you about using the S-word?” Grace’s sweetly innocent child had been spouting expletives with an alarming frequency, and now it seemed she’d discovered the reason why.
“Me no say shit, Mama, me say shh.” He grinned at Sawyer, who’d lost his battle with laughter.
She narrowed her eyes at the two of them.
Sawyer winced. “Okay, buddy, I’ll make you a deal. No more S-words this week, and Mommy’ll bring you to the bar for a root beer ﬂoat on the weekend.” He raised a brow at her.
He shrugged. “Worked for me.”
Obviously it worked for her son, too. He nodded. “Me like beer.”
“I’m sure that’s just what your mother wanted to hear,” Sawyer said, handing her Jack Junior. “We need to do something about the leak.”
Distracted by her son’s safe return, she’d forgotten about the gaping hole in the ceiling. She wished she could ignore it completely and the dent it was going to put in her meager bank account. Leaning over the table, she called to their tenant, “Stu, are you up there?”
“Stu, up there?” her son echoed.
“He’s not there, Grace. Get me the keys.”
“ How can you be . . .” She caught the sympathetic look in Sawyer’s eyes. “You think he skipped out on us, don’t you?” She groaned. “Jill’s going to kill me. She wanted to put him out when he didn’t pay last month’s rent, but I thought . . . Jill’s right. I am a sucker.” Hefting Jack Junior higher on her hip, Grace rounded the display case and opened the cash register drawer.
“You’re not a sucker,” Sawyer said as he followed her. He took the key she retrieved from under the tray and held on to her hand until she looked at him. “You were just trying to give the guy a break. Nothing wrong with that.”
There wouldn’t be if she could afford to, but she couldn’t, at least not yet. Stu, a recent divorcé whose wife had had an affair and gotten both their home and their children in the settlement, had easily garnered Grace’s sympathy. She hated the thought she’d been played.
“I could be wrong. Maybe he didn’t skip out on you. Give me a couple of minutes upstairs and—”
She shut the register drawer and locked it. “I’ll go with you.”
“You sure? He might have left the place a mess.”
“Oh, I didn’t think of that.” Going into the apartment was hard at the best of times, and this was not the best of times. There were too many memories of Jack there. It was one of the reasons Grace had moved in with her sister-in-law a year ago, the other being the extra income from the rental.
Jack Junior held out his arms to Sawyer. “Me go, Da. Me go you.”
A soft distressed cry escaped from Grace, her arms tightening around her son.
Sawyer bowed his head, then raised his eyes. “I wish, buddy,” he murmured as he rubbed her son’s head and held her gaze.
She averted her eyes, nervously clutching the neckline of her white blouse. “Sawyer, I can’ t—”
He lifted his hand to caress her cheek. “Yeah, I know. It’s too soon. But—”
“What the hell’s going on here?” Jill, Grace’s sister-in-law, snapped, keys jangling in her clenched ﬁst as she strode through the front door. Eyes the same vibrant blue as her brother’s were dangerously narrowed beneath her dark hair, her blade-sharp cheekbones ﬂushed with Flaherty temper.
Grace went to take a guilty step back. But Sawyer, with a gentle yet ﬁrm grip on her shoulder, held her in place. He gestured to the mess on the ﬂoor. “There was an accident. I’m going up to see what I can do.”
Her sister-in-law looked up at the ceiling. “Son of a —”
“Jill,” Grace interrupted her in an exasperated tone.
“Sorry.” Hands on the hips of her tan uniform pants, Jill’s lips ﬂattened. “So Stu decided to leave us a good-bye present when he skipped out, did he? Wait till I get a hold of the little pri—”
Sawyer cut her off. “I’ll take care of it. Help Grace get the cake and Jack Junior to the party.”
The look in his eyes dared her to argue. Which she probably would, because when Jill and Sawyer were in the same room together, ﬁreworks were guaranteed. Jack had always thought his sister had a crush on his best friend. She’d been their shadow growing up. If their interactions of late were anything to go by, Jill no longer loved Sawyer; she hated him.
Grace released a grateful breath when her son broke their silent standoff. “Me go party.”
“Right.” As quick as Jill’s anger ﬂared, it dissolved with one word from her nephew. “Are you going to show me the cake you and Mommy made for your daddy?”
Jack Junior nodded as Jill took him from Grace’s arms and headed for the kitchen. He looked back at Sawyer and opened his mouth.
Don’t say it, Grace prayed. Don’t call him Da. Jill would never understand that it was normal for a little boy without a father to be looking for one. She’d blame Grace for spending too much time with Sawyer. Given what he’d just said to her, maybe she’d be right.
“See you at the party, buddy. Save me a piece of cake.”
Jack Junior grinned. “Me have beer.”
“Nice, Sawyer. Now you’re corrupting my nephew.”
“Don’t listen to her,” Grace said as she went to drag the garbage pail over to clean up the mess.
“I’ll take care of it.” Sawyer stopped her with a hand on her arm. “Don’t let her get to you, Grace. You’re not doing anything wrong.”
“ I know. It’s just . . .” She shrugged, then looked up at him with a smile. “Thanks for everything.”
“ It’s not your thanks I want,” he said before heading for the door.
* * *
With the cake in her arms, Grace walked the half block along Main Street with her son and Jill. Jack Junior giggled as his aunt swung him up the street by his hands. “No wonder he’d rather walk with you than me,” Grace said.
Jill laughed. “Mommies aren’t supposed to be fun.”
“Thanks.” Grace wasn’t fun; she was boring and overprotective. She used to wonder what it was about her that her adventure-loving husband had fallen in love with.
Jill cast her a sidelong glance. “I was teasing. You’re a great mom.” She stopped, lifting a protesting Jack Junior into her arms. “Are you okay?”
No, I’ve just said good-bye to the man I loved with all my heart, and if you ever found out, you’d never forgive me. “Tired. It’s been a long day. Not to mention the ceiling caving in and Stu skipping out on the rent.” Grace sighed. “I’m sorry. I should’ve listened to you.”
“ I’m sorry, too, about earlier, with Sawyer. It’s just seeing the two of you . . .” Jill held the door to the bar open with her shoulder. “Jack’s coming home, Grace. You still believe that, don’t you?”
I wish I did. “Of course I do,” she said, smiling in response to the greetings their friends called out. It seemed like half the town had crowded into the rustic-looking bar with its exposed log walls and wood-planked ﬂoors. Jack Junior reached for one of the hundred yellow balloons that were tied to the chairs and bar stools.
Gage McBride, Christmas’s sheriff, came over. “Hey, Grace, Jill.” He kissed both their cheeks and took the cake from Grace, setting it on a nearby table. His wife, Madison, who was not only Grace’s partner and friend but also the town’s mayor, took Jack Junior from Jill and untied a balloon from the back of a chair.
“Here you go, sugar.” Madison smiled at Grace then rolled her eyes when Nell McBride, Gage’s great- aunt, sauntered over with her best friends, Ted and Fred, in tow. “Here we go.” Madison sighed.
Gage, standing behind his wife, grinned. “You’d better give me Jack Junior.”
Madison handed him off to her husband and took a seat, rubbing the barely noticeable baby bump beneath her ﬂoral sundress. “I’m sitting, okay?”
Ted pulled out a chair, and Fred plunked Madison’s pink-sandaled feet on it. “Now, you stay put, girlie,” Nell ordered.
T he three of them shared a couple of their memories of Jack before moving off to join their friends at a large table near the jukebox.
“Gage, you have to talk to them. I can’t take ﬁve more months of this,” Madison complained.
Her husband leaned over and kissed her. “I’ll give it my best shot, honey. But the three of them are almost as stubborn as you are when you set your mind on something.”
“Hey, I’m not stubborn.”
Gage snorted. “Come on, buddy,” he said to Jack Junior, “let’s go play some air hockey.”
Grace felt a sharp twinge of longing. In the beginning, she and Jack had been as head over heels in love as Gage and Madison. She wondered if she’d ever have that again. The thought made her feel horribly disloyal. But who was she trying to kid? The citizens of Christmas, especially Jill, would never forgive her if she moved on with someone else. And it wasn’t as if she’d leave town. Her father’s military career had taken them all over the world, and Christmas was the only place that had ever felt like home.
“I’ll be right back,” Jill said.
Madison pulled out a chair. “Come sit with me.”
"How are you feeling?” Grace asked as she took a seat.
“Not you, too. I’m ﬁne.” Madison looked at her closely. “But you’re not. Do you wanna talk about it?” “
We had a mini-catastrophe at the bakery. There was a leak in the apartment and part of the ceiling came down. Sawyer’s . . . What’s wrong?”
Grace arched a brow.
Madison grimaced. “It’s Gage. He’s worried Sawyer—”
She was right. They’d never allow her to move on. “We’re friends, that’s all.”
“Forget I said anything. And don’t worry about the leak. Your insurance will cover the damage. Plus, I have an idea that’s going to make us rich.” Grace’s skepticism must’ve shown, because Madison said, “I’m serious. I’ve been thinking about all those letters. We’re going to create a story about a Sugar Plum Fairy being the one who granted their wishes. We’ll sell T-shirts, and books, and wands . . . Anything we can think of, we can sell.”
Grace could almost see the dollar signs flashing in her business partner’s blue eyes. She didn’t want to be a downer, but she had to ask, “Umm, won’t there be an issue with copyright? There’s a Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker .”
“The Sugar Plum Cake Fairy, then. My friend Vivi can write the stories. Can you do the illustrations?”
Grace nodded. As a little girl, she’d loved to draw, but had stopped the day her sister died. It wasn’t until Grace started working on the designs for her cakes that she rediscovered the joy, the deep sense of satisfaction she got from drawing.
“Fantastic. I’m so excited about this, aren’t you?”
“Yes, it’s a great idea.” Anything that had the potential to increase the bottom line was welcome news to Grace. She just didn’t know where she’d ﬁnd the time to do everything, but it was exactly what she needed right now. The perfect way for her to move on with her life.
Madison glanced at the door and reached for her hand. “Okay, just breathe.”
“What . . .” She followed Madison’s gaze and swallowed, hard. Jill followed behind their friends—the twins Holly and Hailey and Sophia and her sister-in-law Autumn— with a life-size cut out of Jack tucked beneath her arm.
A warm hand gently squeezed Grace’s shoulder. Brandi, one of Sawyer’s waitresses and another of Grace’s friends, set a drink in front of her. “This’ll help. It’s a Hero. Sawyer named it after Jack.”
“Thanks, Brandi,” Grace murmured, wrapping her ﬁngers around the cold, frosted glass.
“ What do you think?” Jill asked, setting up the card- board likeness beside Grace as the other women took their seats around the table. They placed their orders with Brandi while commenting on the lifelike Jack in his desert camouﬂage fatigues and Kevlar vest, a helmet tucked under his arm, his sexy grin flashing perfect white teeth in his deeply tanned face.
“ There’s nothing hotter than a man in uniform. And Jack Flaherty was—” Autumn, the owner of Sugar and Spice, the woman who made Grace’s chocolate sugar plums, quickly corrected herself. “— is hands down the hottest man I’ve ever seen.”
H e was. And looking at him now, Grace felt the same heart-stopping punch of attraction she did on the night he strode into the Washington ballroom to receive his Medal of Honor.
Sophia, owner of the high-end clothing store Naughty and Nice, pointed at Jack and in her heavily accented voice said, “Yes, and he is coming home with me tonight.”
“Grace?” Jill said, looking hurt.
She took her sister-in-law’s hand “It was a great idea, Jill. It’s like he’s here with us.”
Jill smiled, her eyes bright. Brandi came back with their drinks, and they lifted their glasses. “To Jack.”
Everyone in the bar followed suit, and then, one after another, they stood to share their stories about Jack and their prayers for his safe return. By the time they were ﬁnished, Grace had downed two Heroes.
Jill clapped her hands. “Okay, time for cake.”
They cleared the table and placed the cake in front of Grace. She stood, relieved that her emotional torture would soon be over. Gage, with Jack Junior in his arms, took his place beside Madison.
Sawyer came up behind Grace and whispered, “Hang in there. Not much longer.”
Before she could turn to ask how it went at the apartment, Jack Junior yelled, “Da, Da.” And put his arms out.
Grace’s breath seized in her chest.
Several people said, “Aw,” while her friends quietly sniffed. “He’ll be home soon, buddy,” Jill said, swiping at her eyes.
Grace wheezed out a relieved breath. Thank God, no one seemed to realize he’d meant Sawyer.
But Sawyer did. “How about that root beer ﬂoat I promised you, buddy?” He went to take Jack Junior from Gage, who gave him a hard look before passing him over. Of course Gage would notice, Grace thought miserably.
“Me want beer.”
Everyone laughed as Sawyer carried her son to the bar. After they sang “Happy Birthday” to Jack, Grace cut the cake while Jill handed out the pieces.
She reached across Grace, bumping into her. “Sorry,” she said when Grace stumbled.
The knife jerked and hit the house, toppling it over, revealing the chocolate sugar plum underneath.
“Hey, no fair, it’s supposed to be hidden in the cake,” someone grumbled.
Grace sucked in a panicked breath and dove for the sugar plum. Jill beat her to it.
Her sister-in-law laughed. “Finally, I got a sugar plum.” As Jill opened it, Grace wished the ﬂoor would open up and swallow her whole. Jill’s laughter ended on a choked sob.“How could you? How could you give up on him?” she said, her voice a strangled whisper.
“Jill, let me explain,” Grace called after her sister-in-law who strode for the door.
From behind the bar came a shrill whistle. “Everyone quiet,” Sawyer yelled, directing their attention to the flat screen behind the bar where a newscaster announced breaking news. Sawyer turned up the volume. “We have just received unconfirmed reports that the four crew members of the Black Hawk that went down in the mountains of Afghanistan seventeen months ago have been recovered . . . alive.”