The other day, I shared the first chapter of Untangling Christmas over on the Sweet Romance Reads blog.
If you missed it, here it is today! 🙂
“I need a favor.”
Mike Clarke lowered the newspaper he held in his hands and glanced up at the woman who set a warm cinnamon roll on the table in front of him. The spice, redolent of home and holidays, drifted upward to his nose, eliciting a growl from his empty belly.
Brenna McCrae ignored the sound and refilled his empty coffee cup with the steaming dark brew he favored.
Mike leaned back in the chair, fighting the urge to inhale the cinnamon roll in a few hungry bites. Cream cheese frosting melted into a decadent pool around the base of the tender pastry, enticing him to sample the creamy sweetness.
Rather than give in to the indulgence, he studied his best friend’s wife. Since he’d moved from Oregon’s biggest city of Portland to Silverton five months ago, the lovely woman fed him breakfast every morning at her bistro, often packed a lunch to go for him, and rarely asked for anything in return. Brock and Brenna offered him unconditional friendship and acceptance when he’d needed it most. He’d do anything for either of them. All they had to do was ask.
With a smile full of masculine charm, he took Brenna’s hand in his, kissing the back of it. “Whatever you need, coffee girl.”
“Hey! Keep your lips off my wife,” Brock McCrae cautioned, as he stepped inside the bistro and took a seat at the table, scowling at Mike in feigned offense.
Mike laughed and released Brenna’s hand, reaching out to take a giggling toddler from Brock. He tugged off the stocking cap covering the child’s head and made a silly face that produced more giggles.
“You don’t need to lay on the flattery or charm, Mike. I’ll bring your bacon and eggs out in a minute.” Brenna carried a high chair over to the table and settled her son in it. Her hand caressed the boy’s soft curls before she looked to Mike again. “Will you really help me out?”
“You know I will, Brenna. What can I do for you?” he asked, taking a deep swallow of the coffee. It was hotter than he expected and burned all the way down his throat, but he didn’t blink or flinch.
“I don’t know if you heard, but the Silverton Foundation is hosting a Festival of Trees to raise funds for the newly opened community center your brother was kind enough to help establish.” Brenna sank down in the chair Brock pulled out for her. He kissed her cheek and draped an arm around her shoulders.
Mike nodded his head. “Levi mentioned something in passing about it the other day, but to be honest, I didn’t really listen to what he said. That brother of mine is always working on some fundraiser or charity event, so they all sort of roll together.”
Brock laughed and poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot Brenna left on the table. “Don’t let Levi hear you say that. You’ll be in big trouble.”
“Generally, I am anyway,” Mike said, returning his attention to Brenna. “What does my little brother need help with and how did he rope you into another one of his projects?”
“Levi didn’t ask for my help with anything,” Brenna hurried to clarify. “The new foundation director is an old friend, and I offered to help her organize the event. It will take place in the warehouse over on Maple Street. The space has been empty for a few years, but it’s perfect for the festival. The problem is that there aren’t enough outlets and those that are there appear questionably safe to use.” Brenna smiled at Mike. “You’re the best electrician in the area, so I was hoping you’d have time to go over and check it out. Ideally, we could use at least a dozen more outlets. We’d also like assurance the existing wiring won’t catch fire and burn down all the trees before the event.”
Mike sipped his coffee, doing his best to keep an impassive expression on his face. “When do you need all this free labor to be completed?”
“The trees begin arriving the Monday after Thanksgiving.” Brenna spoke with her gaze fixed on a point over Mike’s shoulder, unwilling to look him in the eye.
He straightened in his chair and glared at her. “Are you nuts? That’s next week! With Thanksgiving tomorrow I’m running behind as it is. You are killing me, Brenna.”
“Please, Mike? It would be such a help and give us peace of mind to know the wiring is safe.” The pleading look she gave him obliterated his hastily formed excuses. “Pretty please?”
He scowled at Brock. “How do you tell this girl no?” A sigh rolled up from his chest and out his lips. “It looks like I’ll be heading over to the warehouse this afternoon. Want to come along?”
Brock laughed and thumped Mike on the shoulder. “She’s already enlisted me to repair a section of the warehouse where the roof leaked before they put a new one on last year.”
“You both are terrific,” Brenna said, rising to her feet with a happy smile. “I’ll be right back with the rest of your breakfast, Mike. Do you want your usual, Brock?” Her husband nodded and she disappeared inside the kitchen.
Mike ate his cinnamon roll, four pieces of crispy bacon, and eggs fried just the way he liked while he discussed Brock’s construction business and jobs they’d both work on in the coming weeks. Finished with his meal, he ruffled the baby’s hair, hugged Brenna, and told Brock he’d meet him at the warehouse at two that afternoon.
At five minutes before two, he pulled up at the warehouse and sat in his truck, studying the structure from the outside. Although empty, the building certainly didn’t appear abandoned. A fresh coat of camel-colored paint with deep red trim looked neat and appealing. The parking lot was clean, as though a sweeper had recently cleared the surface.
Mike stepped out of his truck and lifted a toolbox, shrugging deeper into his coat to avoid the chilly November wind whipping around him. The pewter-hued sky promised to bring an unwelcome storm. He just hoped it would wait a few hours until he was home for the night.
His long legs swiftly covered the distance from his pickup to the front door. He yanked it open and walked inside. The lobby was empty, but the muffled sound of voices drew him down a hallway to a door that opened into the large expanse of the warehouse’s storage area.
He stepped into the open space and looked around, aware of the glare and hum of the bright fluorescent lights overhead. Several people worked on various projects. Three women sorted tangled balls of lights. Four high school girls giggled as they looked his way, pretending to busy themselves with plastic storage tubs full of fake pine garlands.
Brock and two of his crew installed sheetrock panels in one corner of the room. Mike ambled toward his friend.
“Hey, man,” Brock called. He hurried down the ladder and held out a hand to Mike in greeting. “Thanks for coming over.”
Mike shook his hand. “Like your wife gave me a choice. Seriously, dude, how do you turn her down?”
Brock grinned and thumped Mike on the back. “What makes you think I possess the superpowers that would require? If you haven’t noticed, when my wife makes a request, we all jump to do her bidding.”
Mike chuckled. “But that’s because her requests are few and everyone wants to keep the best chef in town happy.” He pointed to a nearby outlet. “Do you know where the breaker is located?”
“Step right this way, my good man.” Brock affected an accent befitting a carnival barker and swept his hand toward a room at the far end of the warehouse.
An hour later, Mike had gone through the entire building, made a list of needed supplies to update the wiring, and repacked his toolbox.
“Do we need permission from the owner of the building to do the electrical work?” Mike asked as he held a piece of sheetrock while Brock nailed it to the wall.
“No. Bill Ferrelly owns the building. He told Miss Taggart to do whatever she wanted with the space. He’s providing use of it at no charge and will foot the bill for the utilities as part of his donation to the event.”
Mike stared at his friend. “Who’s Miss Taggart?”
Brock stopped working and glanced at him. “She’s Mr. Ferrelly’s niece and the director of the Silverton Foundation. Miss Taggart happens to be the one organizing this event. Evidently, Brenna was friends with her in middle school. That’s how you and I were roped into helping with this little project. Even if Brenna hadn’t coerced us into volunteering, your brother would have eventually found some way to involve us. He and Kat have promised to donate a tree and attend the auction.”
“With all these bleeding hearts around us, I suppose we are doomed to help with any and all events like this one. It’s a good thing I don’t mind doing charity work.” Mike checked his watch. “I need to drive out to a new job site. I’ll be back Friday and take care of the wiring.” He turned around and nearly dropped the toolbox he carried on his foot.
A red-haired woman hustled toward them, wearing a cheerful smile and an eye-popping outfit. For all appearances, she dressed in an assemblage of clothing appropriate for a belated Halloween party. The bright purple sweater, short blue plaid skirt, and yellow cable-knit tights with gray ankle boots weren’t an ensemble a normal adult would choose to wear on an average day.
Mike stiffened as she approached. He didn’t like redheads, bubbly personalities, or women with the fashion sense of an attention-seeking adolescent.
“That’s Miss Taggart,” Brock said quietly, tipping his head toward the woman.
“And you couldn’t have warned me sooner?” Mike growled in an angry whisper. “Tell Brenna she’ll have to find someone else to do the work.”
“Mike,” Brock placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it. “Don’t be that way. Not ten minutes ago, you said it’s a good thing they asked you to come before they started plugging in dozens of strings of lights because the wiring might explode. Think of all the people this fundraiser will help. Focus on that, not the pretty woman in charge of it. You can’t hate every woman with red hair just because of…”
Mike didn’t let him finish before he snapped, “I don’t think she’s pretty. She looks like a flame-headed freak dressed for a frat house costume party.” Although he spoke in a low tone he assumed no one but Brock would hear, his voice carried in the cavernous building.
The woman stopped a few feet away and boldly stared at Mike. “Flame-headed freak?” Her left eyebrow crept upward as her gaze traveled from his scuffed work boots to the shaggy dark hair on his head. “Surely even a cavedweller like you can come up with something more creative than that.”
Chagrined, Mike wanted to squirm under her perusal. So what if he hadn’t felt inclined to shave or get a haircut for a month or… six. It wasn’t any of her business, anyway. However, he hadn’t meant for her to overhear his rude comment. “My apologies, Miss Taggart.”
She shrugged and held a hand toward him. Several bracelets jangled around her wrist, tinkling as she waited for him to accept her outstretched hand.
Reluctantly, Mike shook her soft fingers. A jolt shot from where her palm touched his all the way up to his head then down to his toes. He released her hand and stepped back, alarmed by the sizzling current coursing through him. If he didn’t know better, he would have thought he’d been electrocuted. He’d experienced the zinging sensation enough in his work to know when it happened.
“No need to apologize, especially when you don’t mean it.” She waved a dismissive hand at him and turned to Brock. “Is this the electrician?”
“Yep,” Brock said, slapping Mike on the back. “Miss Taylor Taggart, it’s my pleasure to introduce Mike Clarke, the best electrician I’ve ever met and my best friend. I promise he usually exhibits much better manners.”
The woman eyed Mike again. “I appreciate you coming over. When can you start?”
Although Mike had already decided he’d find someone else to do the job, he was as surprised as anyone to hear the words flowing from his lips. “I’ll get a permit this afternoon and come on Friday to get started. It will take a few days to update the existing wiring and Brenna mentioned you wanted additional outlets. Is that correct?”
“Yes, it is, Mr. Clarke.” She moved away from the two men and motioned for them to follow her as she pointed to where she wanted outlets installed. “Is that a possibility?”
“It is, Miss Taggart, but I have other jobs to do and will only be available to help this weekend.” Mike wondered when his mouth and brain had suffered such a major malfunction. After meeting crazy Taylor Taggart, he did not intend to offer his help. Yet, he’d just committed himself to working all weekend on the wiring.
“I’m sure you’ll be able to finish what is needed, Mr. Clarke. It’s wonderful you’re willing to do this, to help our fundraiser be successful.” She studied him more closely. “Are you related to Levi Clarke?”
“He’s my brother. Can you see a family resemblance?” He rubbed a hand along his scruffy beard.
“Barely. Levi is such a gentleman and looks the part. His wife is absolutely stunning.” Disdainfully, her gaze swept over him again.
“Yeah, Kat is gorgeous and Levi is a lucky man,” Mike said. Genuinely happy for his brother, Levi married the love of his life in a late spring wedding that was the talk of Portland for weeks. Too bad the girl Mike planned to marry turned out to be such a…
Rapidly pulling himself from his maudlin thoughts, he glanced at Miss Taggart again. Red hair, smooth and shiny, swung around her face in sassy layers that put him in mind of a feisty fairy.
Incredibly long, dark lashes rimmed blue eyes the color of frozen winter lakes. Those intriguing orbs held a mixture of intelligence and amusement. Unlike most redheads, no freckles dotted her creamy complexion. A pert little nose sat above a pair of perfectly kissable lips.
Despite her ridiculous attire, he might have given her a second look, if he didn’t so thoroughly loathe redheaded women.
She and Brock stared at him, waiting for his response to a question. Embarrassed, Mike shifted his toolbox from one hand to the other and strode toward the door. “I’ll be here Friday.”
Desperate to get away from the woman, he hurried outside, tipping his face up to the bone-chilling rain that fell in heavy drops laced with sleet. He needed something to distract him from the insane longing he felt to rush back inside and kiss Miss Taylor Taggart. Maybe he’d end up with pneumonia and not have to see the woman again.