A SHARLA BROWN CHRISTMAS – Sneak preview!

Thank you so much for your interest in A SHARLA BROWN CHRISTMAS. I had a ton of fun writing it and hope you love this little sneak preview.  😊Ev

Chapter 1

The dark night was cold and dismal with heavy clouds that blocked all starlight and spewed a mix of rain and snow. Sharla’s Toyota shuddered under the blustery assault. All she wanted to do was turn around and keep driving, but she had nowhere else to go.

Grinding to a halt, Sharla pulled her jacket’s hood up, wrapped her scarf tightly, then climbed out of her little sedan. A biting wind threw slush into her face and shrieked through the leafless trees and desolate evergreens surrounding the nearly empty parking lot. Gnarled old trunks and branches groaned and swayed under the storm’s onslaught—and sounded a lot like she felt. She looped her grocery bag over one arm and helped her eight-year-old daughter Tegan out of the back seat.

Huddled together, she and Tegan minced across the icy pavement toward the bleak apartment complex. Their new “home.” Sharla tried not to wince at the thought, the same way she tried not to observe how the windows in each of the three buildings looked like row upon row of blank staring eyes and that the equally dark glass doors seemed like sad, gaping mouths.

“Hey,” called a low voice from the shadows. It was quiet and flat, not overtly aggressive—but Sharla jumped regardless. Rats. She’d been hoping to avoid the greeting party who pretty much lived in the shadows by the door, but no such luck. Three young males lounged by the entrance, outside the feeble glow of the caged light bulb mounted above their heads. Late teens, or maybe younger—it was hard to tell because of the oversized sweatshirts they wore, hoods always up—they were still intimidating. Tonight she supposed she should be happy. There were only the three. Often there were six or seven.

“Hey,” she muttered back. There was no point, after all, in being openly rude and she hoped that by responding to them whenever they talked to her, she earned a little respect, didn’t show fear.

“So is that your sister or what?” asked the second of the boys, indistinguishable from the first in nearly identical garb.

By “that” he obviously meant Tegan. Sharla was almost amused. Almost. The kid was, what, trying to gage her age to decide if he should hit on her? She was probably old enough to be his mother.

“My daughter.” She stabbed her entry code into the badly worn key pad. It looked like it should be gummy and gross, but was surprisingly clean. The door opened just as the kid said, “Cool.”

“Yeah,” Sharla agreed, feeling the whole conversation was a bit nonsensical. “Have a good night.” Then she and Tegan were inside, the heavy door stuttering shut behind them.

“Why are those teenagers always outside alone in the dark?” Tegan asked as Sharla released her grip on her.

Why, indeed? Sharla thought. “I don’t know.” She shrugged. “Maybe they’re waiting for their moms to come home so they can help carry the groceries or something.”

There was half a beat of silence. Then Tegan’s merry laugh tinkled like a bell. “Oh no, Mom. I don’t think that’s it at all.”

Sharla sighed, but she was tired of worrying about the teens. She had no way to help them. “Oh no?” she mimicked. “Well, I think I should tickle you.” She waggled her fingers in mock menace.

Tegan, forgetting the boys exactly the way Sharla intended, shrieked and took off down the hallway, over a carpet so shabby it had a path-like wear line down its center. Once upon a time—a very, very long time ago, from the looks of it—the carpet had been black and gold. Now it was gray and beige everywhere except for at the very edges where it met the dingy stucco walls. Again, the best thing that could be said for it was that it was clean. Sharla chased her giggling daughter past locked doors she rarely saw people enter or leave, till they reached their own unit.

Once inside, in keeping with her neighbors, Sharla locked their door too and slid the deadbolt for good measure. Tegan, oblivious to anything except that it was warm inside and her mom had promised to make spaghetti for dinner, ran to get her dolls, giving Sharla a detailed recap of the newest plot in her complicated play life.

Sharla got the ground beef and onion frying, then listened to her voicemail with an increasingly deep frown. Though she was smart enough (by now) not to get her hopes up, she still couldn’t completely prevent a small tense ball of disappointment from forming in her belly.

Two more potential landlords who were sorry to inform her that her application had been rejected.

And then, miracle of miracles, Jackson Jeffrey’s harried voice filled her ear. Her current landlord had finally deigned to return her latest calls. Wow. A crackle of static made parts of his message difficult to understand, but an apologetic—if slightly terse—note came through loud and clear. “As I said in response to your last message. If someone calls me, yes, I’ll provide a good reference. You pay on time. You’re clean. You’re quiet.”

There was a scraping sound, like a chair dragging across the floor, and the static in the recording ceased. “Also, I’m sorry to confirm that your suspicions might be correct. It can be harder to get a new place when this is your address. It’s unfair and unfounded now, but Valley Estates and its tenants still have a bad rep.”

Sharla stirred the browning meat viciously. So she wasn’t paranoid. She really was being discriminated against, just like she and her mother had been when she was a kid. She tried to tell herself that the tears filling her eyes were triggered by the fragrant onions.

“And one more thing,” came the landlord’s final growl, “you don’t need to keep calling me with complaints. You’re unhappy here. I get it. I wish you good luck in finding a new place.”

Good luck. Right. Because that was something she’d had a lot of lately—

“Stop it,” she commanded herself in a whisper. “Just stop it.”

Sharla took a deep breath and tuned into Tegan’s happy burble, coming in a steady stream from the small living room. Apparently her dolls were having spaghetti for dinner, too. When art imitates life! It made her smile and shake her head at herself. In all the crucial ways she did have luck, had been—and was—blessed.

Yes, coming to this small town from Vancouver was an adjustment, but a worthwhile one. The cost of living was way less here; eventually she’d be able to buy her and Tegan a house. Sure, she wouldn’t have taken this apartment, sight unseen, if she’d known locals considered it a slum—but she hadn’t known and couldn’t do much about it now. Besides, if she couldn’t manage to get them a new apartment, it would motivate her to save that much more diligently.

It was easy to feel sorry for herself and easier still to feel…lonely. She needed to focus on the important things. She had something a lot of single moms didn’t—the memory of a wonderful husband. The pain of losing Caleb in a car accident when she was expecting Tegan aside, their beautiful little daughter thrived. A living testament to him and a constant encouragement, motivation—and joy—for her.

She had a solid, dependable income, a good way to support herself and her child. Bookkeeping in a small sole proprietorship out of her own home might not be everybody’s idea of excitement, but it gave her security and allowed her to work around Tegan’s schedule. It was an added bonus that she’d been able to keep most of her clients when she moved and had others referred to her by word of mouth. Otherwise her new address might’ve worked against her business prospects too. The benefit of the online global workplace!

And while Christmas was less than a month away and she had no idea how to make the holidays here, in this place, cheery not dreary, at the very least, they’d be snug and warm. Plus, Tegan was enthusiastic by nature. She’d be tickled pink by anything they did for Christmas, even if they just had spaghetti again.

Sharla added liberal amounts of fresh minced garlic and dried oregano and basil to the meat. The spicy scent filled the apartment, making it extra cozy. The simple things in life really were the good things. She would strive to remember that and to be grateful for all she and Tegan had, instead of dwelling on what they lacked.

She was tempted to call her landlord back and to apologize for all her recent phone messages, but thought better of it. No doubt Mr. Jackson Jeffrey could care less what his tenants thought, so long as he got his monthly rent.

Chapter 2

Jake glanced at his phone. No messages. He exhaled in noisy relief and scrubbed his hands through his hair. A whole twenty-four hours without a complaint or “concern” from Apartment C-113. Apparently checking off the annoying task in his never ending mental to-do list yesterday and calling Sharlene Brown, a.k.a. HML—high maintenance lady—back had done the trick. For the time being anyway. Was it super pathetic that he was relieved his call had gone to voicemail? He wished he’d never heard her name or, at least, that he’d been the one to process her application and talk to her when she first made contact. Molly was great, but she accepted anyone who applied. It was one of the reasons he hadn’t replaced her when she left to live with her daughter and took over the property management duties himself—so he could have control over who they let in. Well, that and to save money. He was sure if he’d talked to HML himself, he would’ve realized she was looking for something different than what he and Valley Estates could offer. What’d she expect for six hundred bucks a month anyway? The Ritz Plaza?

Jake was still grumbling to himself when an alarm on his phone beeped. Shoot! It was that time already? He sprang into action. They needed to have lunch if they were going to make that meeting on time.

“Terry?” he called. No answer. He padded down the hallway to his son’s small bedroom. Sure enough, there he was, curled up on his bed, nose deep in one of the old comic books he could never be parted from. Laughter and noisy cheers carried from the parking lot. Jake crossed the room to peer out the frosty window. A group of kids were playing street hockey, nets set on either end of the vacant parking lot. That was one benefit of living in a building where almost no one could afford a vehicle: a safe outdoor gym space. Not for the first time—nor the last, he was sure—he felt sad that his son was odd man out.

“I hate hockey,” Terry muttered as if he’d heard Jake’s unvoiced thoughts.

“I know, I know.” His son’s friendless state strengthened his resolve. They would attend the single parents’ play group that his phone’s alarm had reminded him of. A million other things begged doing, but this was more important. Terry needed to meet some kids his own age. He didn’t have a mother or any siblings—

Jake gripped the bedpost, gritting his teeth against the sandpaper chafe of old pain. It had lessoned over the years, but his grief and disbelief over how Melody had left him and Terry when Terry was just three months old never totally went away—and sometimes hit with fresh, surprising sharpness.

Somehow, though it was the last thing Jake had ever wanted or worked toward, his son was growing up in a situation painfully similar to the one he’d lived through as a boy: knowing he was unwanted, being rejected, by one of his very own parents. The least, the very least, Jake could give Terry, since he’d failed him so badly, was the chance to make a new buddy or two.

You could use a friend yourself, some inner voice chipped in. Jake clamped down on the thought.

“Wash up, son. There’s a grilled cheese with your name on it.”

Terry sprang from the bed like he hadn’t eaten in years. “And tomato soup?”

“You bet.”

 

Chapter 3

 

Sharla hadn’t enjoyed her first visit to the single moms’ group hosted at a government run health unit a mere block away from her apartment, but figured it wasn’t fair to write it off after one drop-in—not fair to Tegan, that is. With school out for winter break, her social butterfly daughter couldn’t get enough of other kids to play with, plus she loved the climbing wall and the sand and water table.

Now, Sharla’s second visit, she still didn’t feel at home. The moms seemed nice enough, but the two leaders, Eileen and Karly—Eileen, in particular—were a tad condescending. Eileen literally sniffed when she learned where Sharla lived, like she’d smelled something off, and she had the bad habit of announcing super obvious things to the group.

“Kids need to eat nutritious food,” she’d announce out of nowhere, then look around expectantly like the group should be awed by her wisdom. “Vegetables are excellent sources of fiber and vitamins.”

Two moms exchanged a glance at this and one rolled her eyes. Seeing Sharla notice her response, the eye roller whispered, “She’s not as bad as she seems.”

“For someone who lives on snob hill and thinks that because we don’t we all must be idiots who feed our kids nothing but KD,” the other agreed.

Still, minor complaints aside, it was nice to have a fun, affordable outing for Tegan when the weather was so awful and Sharla was looking forward to the craft—a little family of Christmas angels that would look super cute on her and Tegan’s door.

Thus decided, she started filling out the personal information packet the group required after you’d joined them more than once.

She was ticking through a list of allergies—no, no, no—when a commotion near the front of the room made her look up.

A man with tousled brown hair and a skiff of five o’clock shadow that Sharla wanted to run her hands over—What? Where had that thought come from?—was standing by the door. He mumbled something, looking shy and unsure.

“I’m sorry, what part of ‘Single Mothers Support Group’ didn’t you get?” Eileen shrilled. “Can’t handsome men read?”

Sharla squirmed. Did Eileen have any idea how grating and rude she sounded, how inappropriate her ill attempt at humor—if that’s what it had been—was?

The man raised his hands, his face crimson. “I’m sorry. I thought the board in the hallway said single parents.”

“Yes, there are single parent groups. Two of them. Men meet Tuesday night. Women meet Saturdays.” Eileen’s tone implied the poor man had argued or challenged her, which he hadn’t.

The room, which had been buzzing with soft conversation, fell into silence, and Sharla knew she wasn’t the only one feeling humiliated on behalf of the red-faced dad.

“Would you mind too much if just for today…I mean, my son’s already playing in the kids’ area—” His voice trailed off at the curt shake of Eileen’s head.

He was already backing out of the room. “I’m sorry, I’ll just get my son and—”

The words burst from Sharla before she thought better of them. “He really can’t join us just for one day? It’s not like making a Christmas craft is some critical women-only event.”

“This is a moms group.” Eileen paused meaningfully between each word, in case Sharla had a learning disability or something. “Which means women. It’s important to have a safe, male-free space, so that every and any woman can come without feeling threatened or intimidated.”

The heads in the room swung as if on one neck, looking at Sharla, then at Eileen, then back to Sharla again.

“But his little boy will be so disappointed.”

Eileen shrugged. “Then he should’ve read the posters more carefully. Supplies, Karly?”

Karly began passing out bundles of fabric and conversation started up again, the conflict obviously over and forgotten already. Sharla supposed she understood Eileen’s point, though she still felt badly for the guy.

“But Dad, we just got here,” a small voice carried from the boot room. “Why’d you bring us if it’s for moms? You know we don’t have a mom in sight.”

A few ladies laughed—not meanly, but Sharla winced. She was halfway out of the room, when Eileen stopped her, looking surprised. “Aren’t you going to do the craft? Karly has your stuff ready for you.”

“Next time—sorry. I just realized I have another place I’m supposed to be.”

Eileen’s expression said she thought Sharla was a basket case or worse for being in one spot if she was supposed to be in another, but Sharla strode on resolutely.

In the kids’ room, she was surprised to find Tegan craning her head out of the door, almost like she was expecting her. “Mom! Did you see that boy in the red shirt? He forgot this.” Tegan waved a Snoopy comic.

“Well, let’s go find him and give it back, shall we?”

By the time, Sharla got Tegan signed out and they’d bundled into their winter jackets, mittens, and boots, however, she was sure they’d be too late to catch up with the man and his son.

Sure enough, the parking lot, full of vehicles accumulating layers of snow and frost, was void of people. Oh well, she’d tried. Suddenly a horn bleeped and an engine grumbled to life.

“Mom, there!”

Sharla glanced to where Tegan was pointing. The man was standing by a silver SUV, which he had unlocked and started so it could warm up, then climbed out of to scrape the windows. His son held a windshield brush too.

“Excuse me,” Sharla called, then hurried over, feeling tongue-tied. Eileen was right about one thing. The guy was handsome, all right. Very attractive, actually. Tall with broad shoulders and a lean build. Soft looking, shiny brown hair that matched his son’s—and called for hands to ruffle through it. A strong jaw and that bit of stubble that she’d already noted and liked. He didn’t give off an “I’m great looking and know it” vibe, like so many good-looking men did, however. If anything, he seemed sort of shy.

“Yes?” the man asked—and looked understandably confused when she didn’t say anything.

Tegan rescued her. “This fell out of your pocket.” She held out the Snoopy digest. The boy slapped his coat pocket as if confirming he really had dropped the comic, then broke into a gap-toothed grin. “Thanks!”

“I like Snoopy a lot,” Tegan informed him as if he’d asked, “‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ is my favorite Christmas movie and my mom’s name is Sharla Brown, but she hates Charlie Brown jokes.”

“Yeah, because it sounds like her name, right?” the boy added, like A) it needed saying and B) wasn’t obvious. The two kids were obviously kindred geniuses, Sharla thought with amusement—then was baffled as a pensive expression crossed the man’s face. What was up with him? The kids’ exchange was a bit bizarre, but young children’s conversations often were. It wasn’t exactly worrisome.

“That’s right,” she agreed, nodding at Tegan and finding her voice again. “My daughter wanted to return your son’s comic, but also…I saw what happened back there, and I…well, felt bad.”

Sharla lowered her voice, in case the man wouldn’t approve of her suggestion and would resent her bringing it up in front of the kids. “I thought maybe you guys would like to join us at a certain golden-arched restaurant. It’s less than two bucks to get a coffee and apple slices with peanut butter dip. The kids can have a snack and play in the ball pit for as long as we can stand. It’s a great treat for super cheap,” she finished—then wished, lamely, she’d left of with “great treat” and not added that it was cheap. It wasn’t like she couldn’t afford a spontaneous splurge from time to time. She’d come a long way from the extremely tight times of her own childhood, but that kind of budgeting clung hard.

The man’s green eyes (dark gray-green, actually—like ocean water or something, Sharla thought) narrowed slightly as if whatever he’d been expecting her to say, it wasn’t that. Then he smiled and his eyes changed—were still green, but warmer and lighter somehow, a tropical sea, not the familiar Pacific.

“Thank you. I’d like that—and it looks like Terry will love it.” He motioned to his son who was speedily flipping the corners of his comic, animating a series of small drawing on the bottom of each page, much to Tegan’s delight.

The kids tore through their apple slices and disappeared into the maze of climbing equipment that towered above a massive ball pit before Sharla’s coffee even cooled to a comfortable drinking temperature.

With the kids no longer present, keeping her and Terry’s dad—Jake—entertained and distracted, Sharla was hyper aware of his proximity. He stretched his long legs under the table and accidently brushed hers. To Sharla’s mortification, a tremor of attraction quaked through her. Jake straightened in his seat, yanking his legs back, as if jolted. Had he felt something too? Of course he hadn’t—because there was nothing to feel. Jean-clad legs touching jean-clad legs, how risqué!

She sipped her coffee to hide her discomfort. What was wrong with her? She’d had coffee with other men, some of whom she’d dated a few times before she ended things, since Caleb died—but she’d never felt remotely like this. And she didn’t even know Jake. She wished her stupid face would stop flaming and giving her away.

They chatted about the easiest and most obvious topic—their kids—and discovered they were the exact same age, just one month apart, and attended the same school but different classes. Jake was as happy with Terry’s teacher as Sharla was with Tegan’s, but like her, or maybe like every parent in the world, he had other concerns about his son’s school life, which he touched on lightly.

“Have you lived in Greenridge long?” Sharla asked after he mentioned he worried because Terry didn’t have any friends.

“Not quite a year. My father passed and left me some property. It was sad circumstances, but it gave me something Terry and I both needed. A fresh start.” Jake looked surprised again, maybe by his candor.

“Sounds like me and Tegan—wanting a fresh start in small town, that is.”

“Oh yeah? And how’s it working out for you?”

Sharla sipped her coffee again and shrugged. “In some ways, great. In others…well, there are always adjustments to be made, right?”

“What’s the adjustment?”

“Well, I was really happy to find an affordable place. Part of my reason in moving us to a small town was that I’d like to buy us a house one day. I work from home—I’m a bookkeeper—and make okay money, but not city money.”

“Affordable anywhere these days is a big deal. Where do you live?”

Sharla shifted uncomfortably. Would Jake be another person who looked down on her because of her address? Then again, what did she care if he did? If he was that shallow, it would be nice to not invest any more time in a potential friendship. “I have a two bedroom in Valley Estates. Have you heard of it?”

A sudden look of comprehension, like he’d clicked a difficult puzzle piece into place, creased Jake’s forehead. Then horror froze his features. That was the only word Sharla could use to describe it. Horror.

It irritated her beyond belief. “Oh come on, so what? Yes, it’s a total dump, and yes, the owner obviously doesn’t care about anything except collecting rent, but it’s not like living there is a crime.”

Jake’s eyes lost their light and went muddy and opaque. He shook his head as if searching for words, but not finding them. Then he set his to-go cup down and stretched out his hand. “I guess I should’ve been more formal in my introduction. I’m Jake, short for Jackson, Jeffrey.”

Sharla stared at his outstretched hand, but didn’t shake it. “That’s a weird coincidence. Jackson Jeffrey. That’s the name of my—”

“Landlord,” Jackson—Jake—filled in flatly. “Yeah, I thought your name sounded familiar too, but I didn’t place it right away. Your legal name is Sharlene, I presume, but you go by—”

Sharla,” Sharla confirmed miserably. What were the chances? The only guy to spark her attention in forever would be her slumlord.

She wracked her brain for whatever awful things she might’ve said about her apartment just now, but was pretty sure she’d left it at dump—oh, and that her landlord didn’t care about anything except money. Oops. She stood by her criticisms, however—and by the complaints she’d left on the phone, but still…awkward.

Jake stood, his jaw tight, his expression closed and coldly polite. “It’s time for me and Terry to get going. Thanks again for the invitation.”

“Yeah, uh, no problem.” Sharla couldn’t think of anything else to say, which was fine. What else was there to say, after all? At least all her previous correspondence with her landlord had been via phone or e-mail. Going forward, she’d keep it that way. She’d never have to relive this humiliating coincidence again.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

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