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Enjoy this sneak peek from Home for Christmas in July!


Noelle

Joshua Morgenthal brandishes the glazed cinnamon roll at me as if it were a knife. The menace in his eyes is real, but the effect is undercut by the thin layer of frosting coating his whiskered chin. I lock eyes with him and inhale deeply, keeping my right palm outstretched. 

“Mr. Morgenthal, hand over the pastry.” I use my sternest librarian voice.

He shakes his head violently, sending a spray of crumbs spewing onto the colorful carpet.  

“You’ve already had one Christmas roll,” I point out. “And I specifically heard your husband tell you not to have any more sweets before he left.”

I could hardly have missed it. Ryan’s clear voice cut through the hushed library like a bell when he shouted the warning over his shoulder from the memoir and biography section on his way to the exit. The Mistletoe Mountain Public Library is usually a hive of activity—we’re not one of those quiet libraries with the ‘no talking’ signs. But since the majority of the patrons this morning have their mouths stuffed with sweet rolls, we could be mistaken for one. I’ll have piles of sticky, frosting-covered books to wipe down before closing.

I chide myself for the silent complaint. I shouldn’t be so grouchy—or Grinchy. It is Christmas, after all. Well, Christmas in July, to be completely accurate. But in this town, there’s no functional difference.

Mr. Morgenthal’s gaze darts away from mine. He scans the lobby wildly as if searching for an escape route. At least he isn’t going to bother denying the truth. Good call, what with the evidence all over his chin and the front of his shirt, not to mention the floor. When his bright brown eyes return to my face, he gives me a soulful look.

“Ah, come on, Noelle. Can’t you look the other way? Let an old man have some sweetness in his drab, bitter life, why don’t you?” He sticks out his glazed lip in a pout.

In point of fact, I was looking the other way when he grabbed the pastry. He waited until Roxie, the delivery driver, dropped off a big box of new mystery releases. Then he pounced. While I was focused on the latest book in the Maisy Farley mystery series, he slyly helped himself to another Christmas roll. 

“Nice try. The roll. Now.” I fist my left hand on my hip for emphasis.  

We stare at each other. I really don’t want to have to wrest the treat from his hand by force, but we both know I will if I have to. The seconds tick by. I ignore an itch on my nose. Finally, our dramatic standoff ends when he snorts in disgust and slaps the thing into my palm, sticky side down.

“Thank you,” I say, adding lots of sugar to my voice to make up for depriving him of the real thing.

I get a grunt in return.

As I wrap the roll in a festive red napkin then use a green one to work on my gunked-up hand, I give him a bemused look. “Were you trying to have a hypoglycemic episode?”  

“No.” He glares at me.

The whole town knows Mr. Morgenthal has diabetes. The whole town knows just about everything about everyone. Sweet Merry’s, the bakery food truck, even has a sugar-free confection named for him.

“Why don’t you have Ryan take you for a Josh’s Jelly Roll after lunch?” I suggest.

He fake gags. “No way. Merry’s making chocolate sponge this week.”  

“For the Jule-logs?”

He nods and wrinkles his nose. “I don’t like the chocolate ones so much.”

“You have my sympathies. But I still don’t want you going into insulin shock in my library.” 

“Oh, it’s your library, is it? And here I am laboring under the impression that this is a public library, paid for by my tax dollars. Anyway, I’m just trying to get into character.”

“Into character for what?” I search my memory. I don’t think he’s in the cast of Mountainside Players’ production of It’s A Wonderful Life, but to be honest, I haven’t been paying much attention. I’m not feeling very Christmasy this year.

“Didn’t you hear? I’m playing Santa at the festival next weekend.”

I give him a bewildered look. “You’re July Santa?”

He chuckles. “Tell me about it. Who ever heard of a Jewish Santa? Ryan thinks I should say ‘oy, oy, oy’ instead of ‘ho, ho, ho.’”

“I shake my head, still confused. “No, you’ll make a fabulous Santa. But why isn’t Nick Jolly doing it? Nick always plays Santa at the Christmas in July festival. It’s a tradition. He’s Santa, and ….”

As I trail off, he nods sadly. “Without Carol to play Mrs. Claus, I guess he doesn’t want to do it this year.”

My stomach twists and I start shaking as if I’m the one who’s been mainlining sugar. I haven’t thought about it, I realize with a guilty flush of heat in my cheeks. Nick’s wife died last August. This will be his first Christmas in July without her. Even though he made it through the real Christmas last winter, this one’s probably going to hit him harder.  

I know it’s hitting me harder. Carol Jolly was my best friend—had been ever since middle school, when she was still Carol Booker and thought the Christmas in July festival was the corniest, cringiest event in a town full of corny, cringy events. This isn’t the most surprising take, given that we were eleven. But she maintained her healthy disdain for the summertime Christmas festivities throughout high school and most of college.

Her views shifted radically, though, when she and Nick bought the Inn on Mistletoe Mountain right after they got married. She threw herself into the holidays, and they took on their roles as Mr. and Mrs. Claus even though they were only in their early twenties. This year, Christmas in July isn’t going to be the same without Carol’s open house, her famous ice cream snowman cakes, and her warm, lilting laughter. Nothing’s the same without Carol.

I squeeze my eyes shut to hold back the tears that threaten to fall and feel a rough hand close over mine. 

“It’s okay to miss her,” Mr. Morgenthal says in a gentle voice. “We all do.”

I open my eyes and manage a wobbly smile. “I’m fine,” I lie.  

“You don’t have to be, you know.”

His empathy threatens to push me right over the edge. If I don’t get a grip, I’m going to end up sobbing at the circulation desk. He either senses weakness or is trying to distract me from my grief because he reaches right over the desk and snatches the napkin-wrapped roll. Then he trots toward the front door with surprising speed and agility.

I sprint around the desk and race after him, yelling for him to stop in the name of blood sugar.

*****

By the time I dodge a mother and son checking out the display of seed packets from our heirloom seed library and race outside, Mr. Morgenthal’s halfway down the street.

“I’m calling Ryan!” I shout.

He glances over his shoulder and gives me a playful salute before he jaywalks across High Street, cackling as he goes. I skid to a stop and catch my breath to make good on my threat. I fish my phone out of the pocket of my dress and pull up Ryan’s contact information. After I leave a voicemail tattling on his sugar fiend of husband, I wheel around to head back into the library and bump directly into a wall at full speed. Wait, not a wall, a chest. As I bounce back from the impact, my brain catches up with my body and I realize I’ve just smacked into a broad, muscular chest covered in soft brushed cotton.

“Did you just get outrun by an octogenarian?” a familiar voice asks in amusement.

I look up to see Nick Jolly’s full lips curving  into a broad smile, and I can sense he’s holding back laughter—barely.

My face heats as I defend my athleticism or lack thereof. “One, Josh isn’t an octogenarian. He’s only seventy-eight. Two, he’s faster than he looks. And three, he has the advantage of a sugar rush.”

“If you say so.” 

I study his face. The hint of his smile lingers, but his gold-flecked hazel eyes are dull, devoid of their usual twinkle. My heart squeezes to see him this way.

“Hey…,” I begin. Then I falter.  I don’t know what to say to him.

While I cast about for a way to bring up Carol, his loss, the summer Christmas festival—all of it—he asks, “Was it one of Merry’s rolls that got Josh in trouble?”

“Um, yeah, it was.”

He beams again, this time with fatherly pride. “She’s a helluva baker.” The smile wars with the sadness that radiates off him.

“She is.” I could leave it at that, and maybe I should. But I don’t. I swallow hard and add, “She gets it from her mom.”

Carol loved to bake. Her creations weren’t as fancy as Merry’s are, but every cake, cookie, and pie she made was infused with warmth and emotion. She used to swear that a pinch of love was the secret ingredient in all her recipes.

Nick’s face tightens and the muscle in his left cheek twitches. “She does.”

It’s not even noon, but the July day promises to be a warm one. Nowhere near warm enough, though, to account for how sweaty I am as a result of this encounter. I should go. I’ve left the circulation desk unattended, which is less than ideal. And I’ve clearly upset him by mentioning Carol.

But, for some reason, instead of mumbling a goodbye, I say, “Josh told me he’s filling in for you as Santa. Why?”

Nick’s expression shutters. He scans the street, looking for an escape. I can give him one. I mean, I am supposed to be inside, checking out materials and saving diabetics from themselves. But I don’t take the easy way out. I owe Carol at least that much. So I watch his face and wait.

Finally, his shoulders slump and he sighs. “Noe.”

I don’t flinch at the old nickname, though I want to. He’s the only one who’s ever called me that. “What?”

“I can’t. I can’t do it. I miss her so much.” He scrubs a hand over his face, and my heart seizes. 

I reach out and wrap my hand around his upper arm. “I know,” I whisper.

“You don’t,” he rasps. “You can’t imagine.”

“I don’t have to imagine. She was my best friend, long before she even met you. I do know. I miss her every day.”

“It’s not the same.”

He’s right, of course. It’s not. It’s so much worse. Not because I think the way I loved my friend is remotely the same as the love the two of them shared, but because, at the very end, I lied to her.  I can’t say any of this to him, though.

It takes me several seconds to wrangle my emotions under some semblance of control. He stares at me, his gaze curious and steady, while I focus on my breath and try to hold back the tears that once again are building behind my eyes.

“Do you need help with the open house?” I finally manage, chickening out from saying anything more meaningful.

He swallows and shakes his head. “We’re not having one.”

“What do you mean you’re not having one?”

The Inn at Mistletoe Mountain has been hosting an open house to kick off the Christmas in July festival for as long as I can remember. Since before Nick and Carol took it over.

“It’s canceled this year.”

I gape at him. “You can’t just cancel it. I’m happy to lend a hand if you need help.”

“I appreciate the offer, but I don’t want a house full of people. Not this year.”

Abdicating the role of Santa is bad enough. He can’t get rid of the open house, too. The summer open house was, hands down, Carol’s absolute favorite holiday event. My mind spins as I try to find the words to convince him not to do this. “Nick, it’s a tradition, but it’s more than that this year. It’ll be a chance for the whole town to come together and celebrate Carol. Don’t take that away from folks.”

“Sorry, Noe.”

And then it happens. A fat teardrop leaks from my left eye. I turn and flee into the library. Behind me, I hear Nick calling my name, which only inspires me to pick up my pace. I dodge a pack of preschoolers trotting over to the gazebo with their music teacher to rehearse their song for the festival and run like a man trying to abscond with a frosted cinnamon roll.


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