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Nutcracker Sweet


By Lynn Crandall

Copyright

© 2017

Lynn Crandall


All rights reserved.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission from the author: exceptions are made for brief excerpts used in published reviews.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, corporations, institutions, organizations, events, or locales in this anthology are either the product of the authors’ imaginations or, if real, used fictitiously. The resemblance of any characters to actual people (living or deceased) is coincidental.


Cover Design by Sharon Clare of The Book Nook

Book Design by Tamara Eaton




About this Book


A year after her sister’s death, Noël Hartley is haunted by memories of Christmas past. All around, life is going on, including all the happy celebrations of Christmas. Noël is having nothing of it, or the firefighter who failed to save her sister Regina from the deadly fire.


Firefighter Jonah Grant is going through the motions of working and living his life. The night he fought a fire in Regina Hartley’s house replays over and over, but always ends the same. He went into a fire to save her, but came out without her.


A wall of pain keeps Noël and Jonah apart and alone in their suffering, though in mid-size Cranberry Cove they're finding it challenging to avoid one another. But when a stalker puts Noël’s life in danger, Jonah has to find a way to prevent another tragedy and prove to her that their futures rely on facing the past.

Nutcracker Sweet

Copyright

About this Book

Table of Contents

Dedication



Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine



Acknowledgments

About the Author



Dedication



To Mike,

For too many things to name,

but most of all, for loving me as I am.





Chapter One


NOËL HARTLEY COULDN’T ESCAPE from poinsettias in the reception area of Cranberry Cove Community Services Center or the music from The Nutcracker playing throughout the building. She covered her ears. Christmas surrounded her.

With Christmas spirit breathing down her neck, she felt eighty-two, not twenty-eight. Of course, her fellow social workers were in the spirit of the season. But the shimmery garlands, the tiny twinkly lights, and the holiday songs stabbed her heart, painful reminders of special times spent with her sister Regina. Before she died.

Those holiday celebrations the two spent together—snowball fighting, ice skating, Christmas Eve with her family—all ended almost a year ago when a fire raged through her sister’s house, a fire that had taken her life.

Strains of “Swan Lake” drifted from the hall, and Noël silently screamed inside. She marched to her office door and closed it. She sat down at her desk and rested her head in her hands. “Oh, Reggie.”

It was incomprehensible that life never paused for the rest of the world when Reggie died, and winter became spring. Spring turned grass green and daffodils popped up around town. The sun of summer brought out backyard barbecues and swimmers to Michigan lakes, normal pastimes that reminded her of fun times with Reggie. When summer turned orange and gold with fall, Noël witnessed others forgetting Reggie, and expecting her to get over her grief.

Noël’s gut ached.

No matter that Reggie’s death happened eleven months ago, it still hurt. It hurt hard. All-things Christmas only added to her sorrow because it was Reggie’s favorite time of year. So many memories of good times with her sister haunted her. Worst among all the worsts was the earworm of “Swan Lake.” It replayed like Chinese water torture in the background of her mind, reminding her that this year she and Reggie would not be going to see the community’s performance of The Nutcracker ballet.

Resolve to stop tears from breaching her façade, hardened muscles in her face. It didn’t matter that Reggie had died almost a year ago in January, grief still hung on Noël like a heavy coat that was two sizes too big.

Her phone jangled just in time to save her from dropping into bottomless grief. “Hello, this is Noël Hartley.”

“Hi, sis.”

“Hey, Brie, how are you?” She braced for her younger sister’s usual request—money. “How is school?”

“Oh, you know. I’ve got sophomore-level classes. My English major is dullsville. How are you?”

Noël waited for the other shoe. “I’m fine. Work is good.” She stared up at the ceiling, counting the cobwebs. “The weather is wintry.”

“Yeah, snowy. I like the snow.” Brie cleared her throat.

That neither of them could come up with much to say dragged Noël’s energy like an undertow in Lake Michigan. “You sure you’re okay? You know, it’s Christmas and all.”

“Yeah, I know. We all miss Reggie. I’m tired of trying to avoid thinking about her, but it’s hard. I’m calling to—” Brie paused.

Arrgh. Here it was, her request for money. Noël pursed her lips. Nice thought to have about your sister.

Brie blew out a breath. “Mom and Dad should be here, not off living in Paris. It’s wrong.”

“We all handle our grief in our own way. Theirs happens to be relocating to somewhere they won’t constantly be reminded of Reggie.”

“Yeah, they left us.” The despair tinging her sister’s voice thudded hard in Noël’s gut. “It’s not going to seem like Christmas. I know that sounds silly.”

Noël swallowed hard. If she were honest, she would agree with Brie. But as the oldest, she needed to keep the family image alive for Brie and her younger brother Oliver. Didn’t she?

“It’s not silly, sweetie. Could it be you want your “normal” back, not just our typical family Christmas?”

Brie sniffed and said nothing.

Noël shook her head. From somewhere she needed to drag a pep talk, for her sister’s sake. She drew in a deep breath. I can do this. “How about if you and Oliver come over to my place this weekend and we can decorate a Christmas tree?”

“Have you talked to Oliver? I haven’t heard from him in weeks.”

“No, but one of us could call him. He probably has his head in his books, trying to finish up finals.” She hoped he was. Her twenty-three-year-old brother, tender-hearted and full of life, was on the five-year plan for his bachelor of fine arts degree. Oliver’s irrepressible nature had gone dim after Reggie’s death, and their parent’s absence hadn’t helped. Geez, people, it doesn’t take a Master’s in Social Work to know the family actually falling apart after a death would add to the trauma. What happened to her happy family? “Hey, what about your finals?”

“Don’t change the subject.”

Was that a lift in Brie’s tone? “We will discuss your studies, but okay, we can do that later. Do you want to call Oliver?”

“No, he’s been ignoring me.” Noël couldn’t see dismay in her sister’s eyes but she could hear it.

“I’m sorry. Don’t take it personally. He’s coping too.”

“Don’t take it personally? Are you crazy? Of course, it’s personal. He’s one of my best friends, or was, and he isn’t talking to me.”

“It’s the hardest of hard to recognize Oliver is doing the best he can, but it’s true. We all are. I’ll try him. I’m sure he’ll want to join us, so let’s set Saturday afternoon as a date.” Regardless of her lack of Christmas cheer, Noël wouldn’t sit by and let her family fall into an abyss.

“I’ll bring the peppermint mochas.”

“I’ll make the cheddar ball and have crackers to go with.”

“Ooo, the cheese ball with the zing?”

“You bet.” Their exchange was almost, almost, light-hearted. “I’ll make fudge too, Mom’s recipe.”

Silence on the other end made Noël’s skin prick. Had she gone too far?

“When everyone around me loses their mind, I can always count on my big sister to be a soft place. Thanks, Noël.”

“I love you. Now, I better go grocery shopping.” The chuckle her sister shared with her warmed her heart like no peppermint mocha could.


* * *


JONAH GRANT WANDERED THE grocery aisles searching for something easy to make for dinner. His cupboards and his fridge were nearly empty, except for old Halloween candy, bread, and a jar of dill pickles. Nothing of substance for him, a thirty-year-old man. But he wouldn’t fine his usual meal-in-a-container frozen dinner here at the Eat Right health foods store. It was close to the fire station, though, so he had grabbed his optimism and growling stomach and walked the few blocks, hoping to find something other than goat-milk cheese and soy yogurt. Birdseed for humans and other plant “alternatives” were not on his menu.

He bent and sniffed the organic cauliflower and cremini mushrooms. Oh boy, this was going to be harder than he’d thought. He looked around for something appetizing, but stopped short when he saw her weighing some kind of greens. Everything around him stopped, or rather everything fell aside, and he froze in place. Noël Hartley brought him to his virtual knees, not because her long brown hair glistened in the light, or because her fit physique was perfect. No, the sight of her took him back to the night of the fire, the one in which he’d failed to save her sister. In mid-size Cranberry Cove, it was hard to avoid anyone, but he had been doing just that for almost a year.

A shudder traipsed through him, thinking of the Hartley family. He’d been high school classmates with Noël’s sister; his brother had even dated her. He didn’t know the family well, but he knew he’d blown it up, even sent Mr. and Mrs. Hartley across the ocean. A memory tightened his chest. He’d wanted so much to beg their forgiveness that he’d stood outside their front door and tried. That’s when they told him they were busy getting ready to move and shut the door.

Ringing in his ears drowned out all other sounds in the grocery story. He backed behind a shelf of pistachio nuts and pumpkin and chia seeds to gather his composure. He was the last person Noël would want to run into. No, there wouldn’t be any small talk between Reggie’s sister and the fireman responsible for Reggie’s death.

His pulse raced. Get a grip, man. If he could make his feet move, he would march out to the street and keep marching until he could disappear inside Cranberry Cove Fire Station Four.

But he stayed still, letting his body come back to life. This wasn’t the first time their paths had nearly crossed, but each time he had gone through the same whole-body shut down. He couldn’t ever escape what happened that night at Reggie’s house when her wood stove had caught fire.

It was a firefighter’s nightmare, his dad had said, himself a former firefighter. But the words hadn’t helped because the facts remained that he’d gone into the fire and a young woman died anyway.

He shook his head. No, he couldn’t go to the memory pit right now, not here. He peeked around the shelving unit and caught a glimpse of Noël as she headed toward the bread aisle. This was his chance. At six-foot-four, he felt like the green giant as he moved away from his hiding place. Briskly, his head down, he strode down the aisle toward his escape.

“Excuse me, could you help me get that box of crackers on the top shelf?”

The female voice sounded familiar and he looked up, ready to assist the woman. His heart stopped. Please floor, open up and swallow me now.

It was Noël Hartley, standing two feet away and asking for help. She blinked, twice, and swayed a tiny bit. It was a very quiet sound, but he heard her gasp.

“I’m sorry.” The words just fell out. “I mean, sure.” He couldn’t move.

She held his gaze, silently, for a full, frozen minute. “Hi, Jonah. Do you mind?” She pointed to a box of seven grain, sea salt crackers. “Please? I’m five-foot-six, but that’s a tall shelf.”

She had to justify asking for help? So she was nervous, and that made him sick. He grabbed the box and handed it to her, his arms were heavy logs. “Just one box?”


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