Just Home for the Holidays - Deborah Cooke


New York City—December 2019

It’s the most horrible time of the year.

Every year, Hunter replaced the words in Christmas songs with choices that seemed more appropriate to him. He hated the holiday season, but this year, it was shaping up to be worse than ever. Jax had put her foot down at Flatiron Five Fitness and wouldn’t let him work more than forty hours in either of the next two weeks. She’d also insisted that he couldn’t work every Friday and Saturday night at the dance club. He still had his full week of work, but no matter how he looked at it, Hunter saw way too many waking hours blank on his schedule.

Worst of all, he had only a four-hour shift on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In the afternoon both times. It wasn’t nearly enough.

Hunter needed something to do.

He needed a project, a mission, a quest that was so all-consuming that he completely forgot that it was Christmas. In Manhattan, with bells on every corner and reindeer in every window and carols blasting from speakers everywhere, that seemed like a serious long shot.

But he had to try. It was exactly a week to Christmas Day but he still didn’t have a plan. He was heading into work for the weekly meeting, feeling uncharacteristically grumpy, when his phone rang.

His big sister.

“Hey Char. Ho, ho, ho and all that.” Hunter didn’t have to hide the truth from her.

“I thought so,” she said. “You really aren’t coming home, are you?”

Hunter never went to his sister’s place in San Diego for the holidays. He wasn’t going to remind her of that, or point out again that her place wasn’t his home. “Nope,” he said simply instead. “I’ve got work to do.”

“Just tell me there’s a girl,” Char said. “Just tell me that you’re madly, deeply in love and can’t bear to be parted from her for a single moment.”

“There are lots of girls,” Hunter said. “And women. A whole island full of them.” He didn’t tell his sister that he was having his annual dry spell. That would have been too much information.

And Char, being Char, might use it against him. The last thing she needed was emotional ammunition.

Char sighed. “I just don’t want you to be alone.”

“But you know that all wishes don’t come true.”

“You’re determined to be miserable, aren’t you?”

“I’m determined to keep from inflicting myself on you. Go ahead. Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Make the Yuletide bite.”

The baby cried then in the background and Char made a sound of frustration. He heard her footsteps then she consoled Evie, officially the most adorable child in the world.

She liked Hunter. At two years old, she already showed good taste.

“Say hi to my favorite angel for me,” Hunter said. “I’ll see you in the spring, like always.”

“Well, you know you’re always welcome. Any time.”

“I know. Hey, got to go.”

“Wait.” Char’s voice dropped and he knew she would say something that would stab him in the heart. “It wasn’t your fault, you know.”

Hunter winced but forced himself to keep his reply light. “That’s what they say.”

“Oh, Hunter, I just want to give you a hug.”

“After the holidays, we’ll lock in the dates for the spring,” he said.

“Uh huh,” she said and he was relieved to hear a smile creep into her voice again. “Am I the only female on the planet who doesn’t believe every promise you make?”

Hunter grinned. “Maybe. Don’t spread it around.”

“Have some fun. Please.”

“Hey, I’m in the Big Apple. There’s a lot to do. Don’t worry about me.”

“I do.”

“You’re the only one who does that.”

“Well, maybe you should think about changing that,” Char chided.

Hunter rolled his eyes. He was the last guy in the world who would make a commitment to anyone or anything. He’d learned the hard way that there was no point in counting on tomorrow. “Don’t hold your breath,” he said with quiet heat.

Char laughed. “I’m not, but you could go ahead and surprise me one day.” Evie giggled close to the phone. “Tell Uncle Hunter that you love him and miss him.” Evie uttered a string of those incomprehensible sounds that only Char seemed to understand perfectly.

“Love you, too, babe,” Hunter said and took the chance to escape. “Later, Char. I’m heading into the subway.”

That was a lie, but it worked. He shoved the phone into his pocket, balling his hands into fists as he strode the last few steps to the club. The last thing he wanted was to be alone with his memories and

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