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Josh Westbrook turned to face Mikey, his eight-year-old brother. "It's too cold this time of year for rattlers to be out."
Mikey's eyes widened, and the lenses of his brand-new glasses made them look bigger than normal.
"Even on the Bushman Trail?" he asked.
"It's not like we're in darkest Africa or anything." Josh crossed his arms, trying to be patient and not having much luck.
They were just walking along one of the paths in the canyon that ran along the side of Mulberry Park. The Bushman Trail was only what some of the neighborhood kids called it.
Josh supposed it might be called other things, too. The canyon was a great place to play. And it was usually littered with aluminum cans and bottles a kid could take to the recycling center.
"Are you sure there aren't any snakes out here?" Mikey asked again, looking all scared.
"Yeah," Josh said. "I'm sure. We learned about it in school."
Mikey seemed to think about that for a minute, then said, "Okay. But can you slow down a little? I've got a blister on my heel, and my foot hurts."
Josh glanced down at the faded Skechers that he'd outgrown a couple of years ago and his brother now wore. One dirty lace was broken, and the other was loose. "You better tie your shoes, Mikey."
"I will. But maybe we ought to go home now. If we get hurt or killed or something, Mom will find out that we left the yard. And then we'll be in big trouble."
Mikey was always stressing about stuff like that, and Josh couldn't help but roll his eyes. "She won't be mad at you. I'm the babysitter, and you're just doing what I told you, right?"
"I guess so. But she doesn't like it when we don't obey. And if something happens—"
Josh didn't let him finish. "What's going to happen? I'm here to protect you, aren't I? Besides, we're not going to get anywhere near those houses on Nutcracker Court."
Mikey used a dirty index finger to push his glasses back along the bridge of his nose. "Yeah, I know. But I got this really weird feeling like something bad is going to happen to us." He looked up and all around like the sky was going to open up and rain down snakes on them or something.
"Would you stop with that heebie-jeebie stuff, Mikey? I know you watched that dumb TV show about psychics, but that doesn't happen in real life."
Mikey scrunched his face as if he wasn't convinced, but at least he didn't argue anymore.
"So come on." Josh turned back to the path they'd been following through the brush and weeds. He didn't have to look over his shoulder to know that Mikey was right behind him. He could hear his footsteps.
To be honest, though, Josh wasn't all that sure about the psychic stuff. Maybe there were guys who knew things before they happened. It was also possible that God talked to people in dreams or gave them visions. But he'd never admit it to his little brother.
Mikey was a real wussy when it came to things like that, and Josh couldn't let him get all freaked out about something he had no control over.
Besides, there were a lot of other things they could worry about, like having to move out of their house before Christmas.
Their mom might not want them to know the truth, but Josh wasn't dumb. She never had enough money to pay the bills. Besides, Josh had answered the phone a couple of times when the landlord called, and the man let it slip that his mom was behind on the rent.
When he got the last call, it had worried him—a lot. So he'd prayed about it and asked God to do something—like letting him find a buried treasure or a briefcase full of money. But he hadn't found squat yet.
So now he was looking for the next best thing—empty cans and plastic bottles they could trade in for some cash.
"There's another one," Mikey said, pointing to an old beer can that had been scrunched. "I'll get it."
Before Josh could scan the area for more cans, he heard a bark, followed by a second one that seemed a little bit louder.
He supposed all dogs sounded alike, but he couldn't help looking up the slope to the fence that surrounded the house on Nutcracker Court that they tried to stay away from. Sometimes, when he and Mikey got too close to that backyard, a big, mean dog would bark like he was going to bust through the wood and eat them alive.
Actually, Josh wasn't totally sure that it wouldn't.
As the barking grew closer, fear splashed across Mikey's face. The lenses of his glasses magnified his eyes to almost twice their size, as he looked to Josh for direction. But Josh didn't know what to do, either.
Before he could even give it much thought, a big, ugly brown dog, with its tongue dangling out of its mouth, came loping through the weeds—straight at them!
Josh's heart nearly jumped right out of his chest.
"It's him," Mikey said, as he ducked behind Josh for protection.
Great. Josh wanted to run away himself, but he hadn't been lying when he told Mikey he'd take care of him. He just hadn't expected to have to stand up to a ferocious dog.
Before he could grab a stick or a rock, the dog slowed to a stop and plopped down on its haunches.
That was a good sign, wasn't it? Maybe the mutt was friendlier than they'd thought.
"Take it easy, boy. We're okay." Josh slowly reached out his hand, like he'd seen guys do on Animal Planet, and the dog lurched forward as though they'd been long-lost friends.
"Hey," Mikey said. "He's not so mean after all."
The goofy mutt gave Josh's hand a wet, sloppy lick.
"What kind of dog is he?" Mikey asked.
"Who knows? I've never seen one like him before." In fact, the wooly creature looked like the kind of dog a Yeti might have.
Josh patted the mongrel on the top of its head. "Maybe he only barked at us before because he wanted to play or something."
"Or else he wanted to escape his owner," Mikey added.
Josh wouldn't blame him for that. He'd only seen the guy once, but he'd been wearing a bathrobe at lunchtime. And his black hair had stuck up like he never combed it.
"Hey," Mikey said. "The dog's kind of ugly and has a mean bark, but he's really nice. Maybe we should take him home. We could tell Mom that we got her a watchdog for Christmas. He'd make a cool present."
A dog, even a big, ugly one, would be kind of cool to have, but a pet would mean one more mouth for her to feed, and that might only make things worse.
"I don't think so," Josh said, wishing things were different.
As the boys stroked the dog's long fur, dry leaves crunched and twigs snapped.
Josh looked up to see a barefoot man wearing light blue pajama bottoms and a white bathrobe that gaped open and revealed a broad, hairy chest. His frown was enough to scare Josh all over again.
"What do you think you're doing with my dog?" he asked.
Mikey eased closer to Josh. "We aren't doing anything, mister. Just petting him."
He had a yeah, right expression on his face. "Who let him out of the yard? The gate was wide open."
"We don't know," Josh said. "We weren't anywhere near your property."
"Well, somebody turned him loose. And they took off his collar."
Josh wondered if he could outrun the man. Maybe, but he had Mikey to think about. And with a blister on his foot and laces that never stayed tied, his kid brother would never be able to move fast enough.
"I've told you before to stay away from my house," the guy said, his tone sharp and angry. "And to quit harassing my dog."
"We didn't get anywhere near your yard." Josh tried to stand tall, act tough, and look older than his twelve years, but his voice came out a little wobbly. "And we weren't making any noise. Your dog just came running up to us. We thought he was going to bite us, and if he would have, our mom would sue you."
The man, whose dark hair was messed up just like before, narrowed his eyes and mumbled something about a crazy litigious society.
Josh had no idea what he was talking about, but that wasn't a surprise. The guy was clearly nuts. What kind of whack job slept during the day?
"What's your name?" the man asked, zeroing in on Josh. But maybe that was because Mikey had slipped almost completely behind him by this time.
Trying not to let the guy—or his little brother—know that he was starting to shake in his shoes, he lifted his chin and told the truth. "Josh Westbrook."
"What's your telephone number?" the guy asked.
No way would Josh give him that information, but before he could clamp his mouth shut and cross his arms in defiance, Mikey rattled it off.
Josh wanted to clobber his kid brother. What had he been thinking?
The guy didn't write it down, though. Maybe he wouldn't remember it. But then again, that was probably just wishful thinking since it wasn't all that hard.
When they'd first moved into the house on Canyon Drive, his mom had asked for a number that would be easy for Mikey to remember.
Too bad they'd given her 555-1122.
The man pulled the tie from the loops on his robe and, using it as a leash, wrapped it around the dog's neck. "Come on, boy."
The dog only half-obeyed the guy. He kept trying to turn back and look at Josh and Mikey as though he wanted them to help him get away.
And who could blame him? Josh wouldn't want to go home with that man, either.
"Do you think he's going to call Mom?" Mikey asked.
"No," Josh said, even though he wasn't so sure about that.
When he got home, he was going to turn the ringer down on the telephone—unless the phone bill hadn't been paid, and it was shut off and not working already.
Their mom didn't need to deal with something like this. She was way too busy and stressed out for that.
And the fact was, Mikey wasn't the only one who needed Josh's protection.
The house had grown quiet, other than the clock ticking softly on the mantel, and although Carly Westbrook was ready to take a bath and soak in a hot tub before climbing into bed, she wanted to look over her bank statement one more time. In spite of her best efforts to make payments, the stack of bills seemed to be growing.
There was only so far she could stretch a hairdresser's monthly income, and it was time to face reality. Her financial condition was in dire straits, and she had to plan for a move.
But where would she go if she wanted to keep the boys in the same school? Mikey had been a poor reader, and in spite of getting him a library card during the summer and working with him each evening, it hadn't seemed to help much.
There'd been talk of putting him back into first grade, which she hated to do unless it was really necessary. He'd already repeated kindergarten once.
His teacher, Mrs. Hornkohl, who'd been giving him extra help during recess and after school, had suggested a visit to the eye doctor, which had been a real blessing. It turned out that Mikey had a vision problem that hadn't been detected, and his new glasses had made a remarkable difference.
Of course, that also had meant an additional expense that she hadn't counted on right before the holidays.
Carly blew out a sigh. It hadn't always been this tough to make ends meet, but after Derek left her, she just couldn't seem to stay on top of the bills no matter how hard she tried. And she kept getting pink notices that the power company was going to discontinue service if she didn't make a payment by a certain date.
In fact, after dinner this evening, while the boys were taking their baths, she'd tried to make a phone call to tell one of her clients that there'd been a cancellation and she could fit her in after all, but she'd found the line dead. At first, she'd been afraid that she'd lost service because she hadn't paid the bill. But then she'd noticed that the cord had been removed from the wall jack.
Thank goodness for that. But each month there was al ways an unexpected expense, like the new glasses and the optometrist bill.
Now, with an eviction process underway, she realized that a Christmas tree and presents for the boys were clearly out of the question this year.
Yet, worse than that, where would she and the kids go at the end of the month? To a motel? To a shelter?
She pushed the check register and bank statement to the side, clasped her hands together, then bowed her head.
Lord, I'm at my wit's end. I don't know what to do anymore. I need some debt relief—or a better-paying job at a salon that has a wealthier clientele. But I guess what I really need is a Christmas miracle. She'd no more than said, "Amen," when the phone rang, and she nearly bolted from her chair. If this was the Christmas miracle she'd been asking for, God had moved a lot faster than she'd hoped.
But in spite of her faith, she was also a realist. There was no telling who was on the other end of the line or what they wanted.
"Mrs. Westbrook?" an unfamiliar male voice asked.
"This is Max Tolliver."
The guy who lived on Nutcracker Court? A week ago, when the boys had mentioned a run-in with a grouchy man and his vicious dog, she'd driven by the house they'd described and had noted the name on the mailbox. She'd wanted to know more about him in case things ever escalated. In fact, she'd almost stopped in to talk to him that day, but had decided to keep driving.
"What can I do for you?" she asked.
"You can tell your boys to stay away from my house and property. They've been harassing me and my dog."
Her grip on the receiver tightened. "I'm not sure what you're talking about. How have they been bothering you?"
"They walk along the backside of my fence, which riles up my dog. And then he starts barking and howling. I work nights and sleep days, so you can understand why that's annoying. I've asked them to stay away, but they don't. And today they let the dog out. I had to go down to the canyon and bring him home."
Had Josh and Mikey been on the Bushman Trail again?
So much for the Christmas miracle she'd been praying for. She certainly didn't need this heaped on her.
She knew she shouldn't let Josh be in charge of his brother, but what could she do? Quit one of her jobs? Hire a sitter?
"I'm sorry that the boys have been bothering you, Mr. Tolliver. I'll talk to them and make sure it doesn't happen again."
"See that it doesn't."
She nearly let it go at that, but thought better of it. "They're sweet little boys, Mr. Tolliver. They don't mean any harm. I'm not sure how old you are, but surely you remember what it was like to be a child."
He chuffed, then said, "I'm not a mean old man, if that's what the boys told you. I don't have fangs or a dungeon in the basement filled with rats. I'm just a guy who appreciates his peace and quiet."
"I'll tell them to stay far away from your property, Mr. Tolliver. And as a side note, you won't have to worry about my sons much longer. We'll be moving within the next couple of weeks."
"Where are you going?" he asked.
She didn't respond. It really wasn't any of his business, but even if it had been, she didn't have a ready answer.
If God had a plan for her and the boys, He hadn't given her a clue as to what it was.
After phoning Mrs. Westbrook, Max Tolliver fixed himself a snack of microwave popcorn and a mug of hot coffee, then he settled back into his leather desk chair and tried to get back to work. He did his best writing at night, but as his fingers rested on the keyboard and he stared at the computer screen, his mind went blank.
For some reason, he couldn't seem to get back into the story he'd created.
What had possessed him to ask that woman where she and her family were moving? He really didn't care, as long as they left the neighborhood.
But the question had just rolled off his tongue, a leftover habit from his former job, he supposed. As a probation officer, he'd had to stay on top of the defendants who were on his caseload.
Excerpted from Christmas on Nutcracker Court by JUDY DUARTE Copyright © 2011 by Judy Duarte. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted November 16, 2012
Judy Duarte’s Christmas on Nutcracker Court is a heartwarming holiday novel that is sure to pull at your heartstrings! The characters from Fairbook range in age, sex, occupation, wealth and health. I found myself drawn to one of the main characters, Carly, and her two children, as I could relate well with them. A single mom of two boys, trying to make ends meet she isn’t looking for love. However, it seems to sizzle in the air every time she is around Max Tolliver and his dog Hemmingway. She only wants the perfect Christmas for her children, yet it seems every time she turns around, something else happens. . ..
Duarte does an excellent job incorporating the mysteries of Maggie the house sitter, which you pick up on fairly early in the novel. If you are looking for a feel good holiday book, this is the one to read! If it doesn’t make you want to reach out to your community, nothing will!
Posted March 26, 2012
Posted March 21, 2012
Posted November 19, 2011
Review by Molly: I'm all about Christmas, so getting the chance to read this novel was a treat for me. It really got me in the festive mood that's for sure! With a name like Christmas on Nutcracker Court, who WOULDN'T be ready for Christmas to come?
This is my first Judy Duarte novel but it won't be my last! This story is filled with lots of wonderful characters and a fantastic plot line. Carly's character is one I could truly identify with. Being a single mom of two boys myself, I know what it's like to struggle. I could picture myself through the story AS Carly. Poor Max. He's a crotchety old man and definitely the Scrooge of the story! Of course there are other great characters to become friends with but my heart really went out to these two characters.
The plot is, as I said fantastic. The true meaning of Christmas lies nestled deep in the heart of the story. Each page turn brings you closer to the ending of the story and to the magic of Christmas.
If you are looking for a good book to curl up with next to that roaring warm fire, why not grab a copy of this new novel by an obviously talented author. I am going to go back and check out more of her work and add them to my growing wish list. Definitely a keeper and one that I recommend highly!
Posted November 17, 2011
Welcome to Fairbrook and especially Nutcracker Court where almost all halls are decked out and almost everyone is jolly. You¿ll meet Carly Westbrook; divorced, hard-working Mother of two sons; Josh and Mikey, and is a hairstylist as well. She continually worries about making ends meet with her growing family and its mountain of bills. It seems like Carly just starts to see the light at the end of a very dark tunnel when an emergency of some shape or description sets her back on her heels once again. The ¿Diamond Lils¿; a various-aged poker-playing group, are a merry mix of personalities. Lovely, Blonde Lynette, who is a well-off widow, wonders if she will ever be able to trust again like she did with her beloved Peter. Slightly dyslexic Susan, also a widow, prays for a relationship and a child and feels they are going unanswered¿and she can hear her biological clock ticking loudly. Rosa, who along with Husband, Carlos, are older than the rest and volunteer throughout their community and their church, but never quite take the time to ¿smell the roses¿ themselves. Last, but not least, there is Helen; who leaves Nutcracker Court and the Diamond Lils for awhile to enjoy a long-awaited cruise. Helen has left the care of her house in her Cousin ¿Maggie¿s¿ hands¿or has she?? Maggie has a way of understanding people¿s problems and feelings and dispensing advice. When the Diamond Lils disclose that they have saved up a tidy sum to go on a luxurious trip to a big poker tournament in Laughlin, Maggie has other ideas. You¿ll also be introduced to the two handsome bachelors of Nutcracker Court¿Max; who, is still stinging from his divorce, and has taken a leave of absence from his job with the county HR Dept. to follow his dream of writing his first novel while caring for the ¿always on the run¿ shaggy scamp of a dog; Hemingway. Across the street lives sandy-haired, self-employed, beach boy Grant; who is as mysterious to women as he is good looking. Through all of the trials and tribulations within everyday life plus the holidays fast approaching, one item is a constant in each life¿FAITH! If this book doesn¿t get you in the spirit for those special days ahead, I¿ll be surprised! Watch out for ¿kickers¿!! Thank-you Ms. Duarte--I¿ll be waiting for your next adventure in Fairbrook. Nancy NarmaWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 17, 2011
The residents of Fairmont are getting ready for Christmas and some have more holiday spirit than the rest and some have much more to be thankful for than the rest ¿ take single mom and hairstylist Carly Westbrook who is more worried about keeping she and her two sons fed and under roof than Christmas buying. And now she has to worry about eccentric neighbor Max Tolliver who¿s dog keeps showing up to get her boys in trouble. The Diamond Lils are a group of poker playing girlfriends who are also about to find out what the real meaning of Christmas is all about and the real value of prayer too. But there¿s also Christmas magic in the air in this town and it seems that answering prayers and keeping the faith is something that these folks are going to see first hand. Judy Duarte gives us a touch of magic with this delightful holiday story based on faith and prayer and the power of both. Her plot is a simple one of everyday life, of hardships and plenty that is an easy read. She doesn¿t just give us larger than life characters but real everyday folks down on their luck and real life worries that most of us go through at one time or another. But what the real magic is, is how she tells her story, the smiles it will bring and sometimes the tears, and at the end how your heart will be lighter for reading it. She also gives us more than just a holiday tale but a life enriching journey that will take us into the depths of despair that doesn¿t dim faith but embraces it. It¿s also a love story, a family drama, and a contemporary work that will fill you with hope and light no matter what time of the year you read it. And most important it¿s timeless and ageless and can be enjoyed by every member of the family, young and old, male and female. Thank you Ms. Duarte for an enjoyable trip to your fascinating fictional town and Merry Christmas to you too.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 10, 2011
As a thriller/suspense reader, this is a little out of my genre, however I have read one of Judy Duarte's books before and they are uplifting, spiritual and truly a luxury to read. Something can be learned from her books, the true love of one another, the power of faith and prayer and kindness, which in this day and age is much forgotten. Characters rich with flaws, faith and kindness learn about themselves and each other, the characters are well developed, work together well and devlop complex relationships throughout the book. This is a very fast read, that is truly worth reading. I loved it!!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 11, 2012
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