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Seaside Christmas: A Sweet Seasonal Escape

He can’t stand her. She thinks he’s crazy. Will their feelings stay etched in permanent ink?

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He can’t stand her. She thinks he’s crazy. Will their feelings stay etched in permanent ink?

Cruz Hunter has always stuck out in his small hometown. Now that he’s covered in tattoos, the residents peg him as even more of an outcast. It seems like the whole world is against his dream of opening a local tattoo parlor.

When he finally finds the perfect place for his new business, Cruz discovers a pastor and his daughter have already bought it. The only thing more irritating than the change in his plan is Talia, a beautiful and feisty argument in a dress. Cruz would like nothing more than to have her out of his life and his mind, but for some reason, she’s the only thing he can think about.

If Cruz and Talia can stop arguing long enough, opposites may do much more than attract.

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Excerpt

The snow glistened in the sun and crunched under Cruz Hunter’s boots as he walked toward the building that would soon be his.

“It’s perfect, yo.” He turned to Jake, his younger brother. “Wait until you see it up close.” This road had yet to be treated, so they had to park and walk a block.

Jake tightened his scarf. “Almost looks like a church.”

“It was—a long time ago. Then it was a restaurant before being abandoned.”

“It’s going to take some work.” Jake squinted.

“Not too much, dude.” Nothing was going to crush Cruz’s enthusiasm today. The old, brown building with peeling paint and weather-worn wood paneling was going to be his—just as soon as he signed the papers. “Mostly just the outside. It’s gonna be perfect for my tattoo parlor.”

“Well, you know I’ll help as much as I can.” Jake didn’t sound convinced.

“Don’t judge it ‘til you see the inside.” Cruz pulled up a leather sleeve and scratched his newest tattoo, the feet of a dragon which was part of a much larger work going up most of his arm.

“I won’t,” Jake promised.

Cruz’s pulse raced with each step as they neared the building. There wasn’t a person alive who could convince him it wasn’t the most beautiful building in existence. He’d wanted to open his tat shop for as long as he could remember, and with Kittle Falls being such a small town, it had taken a lot of work to convince the town council to even consider giving him permission to open a shop. They finally conceded when he found a property at the edge of town where no tourist would ever accidentally stumble upon it.

“It looks pretty cool,” Jake said. “How are we going to see inside?”

“Windows, man. Ever heard of ‘em?” Cruz laughed and gave his brother a playful shove.

“You mean those fancy glass things some buildings have?” Jake joked.

They finally reached the property line. Cruz took a deep breath, taking in the sight. “Isn’t she beautiful?”

“Um…”

Cruz stared at the solid structure. “You see hard work and a building as aged as old man Kittle himself—”

“Who’s long been dead,” Jake added.

“But I see opportunity. A dream fulfilled.” Cruz stared at the building a moment longer. “You ready to see her up close?”

“That’s why I’m here.”

Cruz took a step forward, but froze when the front door opened.

“Ghosts?” Jake asked.

Cruz held his breath, not sure of the answer. “Maybe it’s our lucky day,” Cruz said. “If the door’s unlocked, I can give you the grand tour.”

A slim, middle-aged man wearing black slacks and matching shiny shoes stepped out onto the porch. He appeared to be speaking to someone inside. A beautiful blonde about Cruz’s age, wearing a blue dress under a long, thick winter coat stepped out.

Jake turned to Cruz and arched an eyebrow. Cruz shook his head.

“What’s going on?” Jake whispered.

“I ain’t got nothin’.” Cruz took a deep breath of the chilled early-December air.

“Building inspectors?” Jake asked.

“Maybe.” Cruz frowned, watching the duo. They acted like they owned the place.

Finally, the guy closed the door and locked it, stuffing the key into his jacket pocket.

Cruz exchanged a worried glance with his brother as irritation set in. Something wasn’t right. He stepped forward, meeting the two of them at the bottom step.

“Greetings,” said the man. He smiled warmly at Cruz.

Cruz didn’t respond.

“Are you a neighbor?” asked the girl.

“You could say that,” Cruz said. “Who are you?”

The man smiled and held out his hand. “My name’s Pastor Allen Tisdale, and this is my daughter, Talia.”

She smiled sweetly and extended her hand, also.

Cruz flicked his head in acknowledgment, but ignored their extended hands. “What are you doing here?”

Jake stepped forward, taking Allen’s hand. “Excuse my brother. I’m Jake Hunter, and he’s Cruz. You must be new to Kittle Falls. Welcome.”

“Thank you,” Allen said. “Talia and I have bought this building. I understand it was a restaurant for a decade or so, but we’re going to restore it to a church.”

Cruz stared at him, unable to find words. That was probably a good thing, considering the words he would have chosen.

“You bought it?” Jake said, stepping closer to Cruz. Jake undoubtedly expected Cruz’s notorious temper to flare any moment.

“Yes, and we couldn’t be more thrilled.” Allen smiled kindly. “We’ve both had a challenging time with my wife’s recent passing, and this project is just what we need. That and a fresh, new start.”

“I’m sorry to hear about your wife,” Jake said, inching closer to Cruz. Soon, he’d be standing in front of him.

“You actually bought it?” Cruz asked. “Or you’re looking into buying it?”

Allen pulled out the keys. “We just picked these up from our realtor.”

“Laura Hoffman?” Cruz asked, clenching his fists.

“Yes. You know her?” asked Allen.

Cruz’s nostrils flared. “She’s the only one in town. And a backstabber, too.”

Talia stepped closer to her dad, tilting her head. Her gaze lingered on Cruz. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” Jake said. Then he turned and whispered to Cruz, “We’ll find you a better building. I’ll help.”

Cruz wanted to break something. Not only had Laura lied to him, so had the entire city council. After everything he’d gone through to get the approval—had it just been a farce? To shut him up? Kittle Falls was his town, too. He had every right to open a business anywhere he wanted. And he’d even been willing to go to the outskirts of town to keep the old fuddy-duddies happy.

“Is your brother okay?” Allen asked Jake.

“We thought he was going to buy the building,” Jake said.

Cruz spun around and marched down the road, not trusting his mouth. He knew it wasn’t Allen or Talia’s fault, and he didn’t want to take his rage out on them. He’d never been so angry in all his life, and now understood the expression ‘seeing red.’ That was exactly how he felt—his anger had overtaken every sense. It was all he could see, smell, feel, hear, and taste.

Cruz stormed toward his brother’s car, only vaguely aware of his brother speaking to the Tisdales. He wished he had his motorcycle, but he’d left it at Jake’s place knowing these back roads would be icy and dangerous. Now all he wanted to do was ride over to the city council and give them a piece of his mind.

Or had it been the realtor acting alone?

More than likely, they had decided this together. Everyone knew Cruz was going to buy the old church building. Why hadn’t Laura given him a heads up?

Cruz glanced back, seeing his brother still speaking with Allen and Talia. He pulled out his smart phone and found Laura’s number. It went to voice mail.

“Avoiding my calls, I see. Why didn’t you tell me the pastor was looking at—no, purchasing—the building? Did you think I couldn’t handle it? Because I could. What I can’t deal with is being lied to. Just be straight with me, that’s all I ask.” He hung up before he said something he’d regret. The last thing he needed was to say something inflammatory while being recorded.

He climbed into Jake’s car and slammed the door. His brother was still over there, chumming it up with the people who had crushed his dreams. Not that anyone would be able to keep Cruz Hunter down for long. He would find another building if he couldn’t find a way to get the church building—and he knew that was a long shot, considering Laura had managed to find a pastor to purchase and restore it. The city council had to love that.

Did he have any of their numbers? He scrolled through the long list of contacts, but didn’t see any. He’d mostly dealt with them in person and over email. Email. That was it. He went over to his email app and found the last discussion with them.

He wrote out the angriest, most vehement letter he could. It was ugly enough to make a grown man cry and a foul-mouthed sailor blush.

The driver’s side door opened and Jake sat, closing his door. “I know you’re upset, but that was kind of rude.”

“I don’t care.” He deleted the email for the same reasons he’d kept his voicemail to Laura short.

“They’re both really nice, and they didn’t even know anyone else was looking at the building.”

Cruz glared at his brother. “I can’t deal with niceties now. I’ve never been so furious in my entire life, and that’s saying something. Walking away was the best I could do.”

Jake nodded. “I get it, but it’s not their fault. I’ll help you find someplace else, okay?”

“That was the only place! It took me this long to get the city to agree to the church, and then they turned on me.”

“I know it’s hard to see now, but you can’t really blame them for giving it to a minister who wants to restore the building rather than someone who wants to turn into a tattoo shop.”

“I’m not an idiot, Jake. I get it. But I still have every right to punch something. Like Laura’s windshield.”

“Want me to take you to the club? They have a punching bag in the weight room.”

Cruz narrowed his eyes. “Just take me back to your place, yo. I need to go for a long ride on my bike. Gotta clear my head before I do anything else.”

“Swear your fist won’t meet anyone’s skin?” Jake asked.

Cruz glared at him.

“Just checking.” He turned the key in the ignition. “We’ll figure something out. If you want me to talk with the council, I will.”

“You have enough on your plate.”

“Hey, anything you need—I’ll help. I hope you know that.”

“Don’t get mushy on me,” growled Cruz.

Jake pulled onto the main road, which had been sanded and cleared of snow. “I’m serious. You’re more than a brother—you’re my best friend.”

“Should we pull over and sing ‘Kumbaya?’”

Jake snorted. “Never change, Cruz.” He turned up the radio. A popular song from their teen years played. “Remember when we used to sing this together?”

“Yep.” And that was the last thing Cruz wanted to think about. He, Jake, and their younger sister, Sophia, would dance around the house belting out the words. Sophia would usually use a hairbrush or flatiron as a microphone, but the two brothers would use anything. It had almost been a contest to see who could find the craziest object.

“Sophia actually sang it better than this girl,” Jake said.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“How come you don’t ever want to talk about Sophia?” Jake asked.

“You’re going to bring that up now?” Cruz fumed. “I’m already holding back from destroying something. I don’t want it to be your face.”

“Have you even visited her grave?”

“It’s not the time! Shut it.”

Jake turned off the music and they rode the rest of the short drive in silence.

Why would his brother bring up Sophia now? Was this Jake’s idea of good timing?

They pulled into Jake’s driveway. Cruz got out and slammed the door before Jake had even come to a complete stop. He headed for his bike and pulled his helmet onto his head harder than necessary.

The front door opened and Tiffany stepped onto the porch, waving. Her belly stuck out from the coat she obviously couldn’t zip up. “I made fresh cookies. Want to come in, Cruz?”

He took a deep breath. “Can’t. Sorry, Tiff. Next time?”

It was time to clear his head, and he certainly couldn’t vent his anger in front of his expecting sister-in-law. She was already having a rough pregnancy and was supposed to avoid stress. He threw himself onto his motorcycle, started it, and waved before driving away.

~~~

Talia Tisdale shook her head as the two brothers drove away.  “Can you believe him? Storming off like that.”

Her dad patted her back. “I wouldn’t be happy about being lied to, either. Also, a hope deferred makes the heart sick.”

“True.” That reminded Talia of her own recent disappointments. “I can’t believe the realtor did that to him. She seemed so nice.”

“I don’t understand it myself.”

“Maybe we can do something nice for him. I don’t know what, but something to cheer him up.”

He shivered. “I like the way you think, but let’s get in the car first. I don’t know how you can wear a dress today.”

“All my warm stuff is still in boxes. I didn’t expect snow in California.”

“I tried to tell you when we were packing that the northern part of the state is chilly in the wintertime. And the locals keep saying this is going to be an especially harsh winter.”

They got into the car and he started it. “Do you want to eat at home or stop in somewhere?”

“I’m too way too tired to cook tonight.”

“Me, too. I saw a deli not far away. Does that sound good?”

“Sure.”

They drove just a few minutes before her dad pulled into a parking spot.

“I don’t think I’m going to get used to everything being within a ten-minute drive from any given point,” Talia said.

“It’s quaint, and I think we’ll adjust soon enough.”

Talia already missed their old suburb, which felt like a big city compared to this place. She missed her friends, but most of all, she missed her mom. She sighed.

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