Yours by Christmas by Jennifer Youngblood
A recovering alcoholic turned firefighter, a mysterious woman with a secret, and the Christmas miracle that just might save them both. Beckett Bradshaw knows what it’s like to be on top of the world and then to come crashing down to the lowest form of human existence, living on the streets. It has taken a huge amount of hard work and self control to get where he is today. He’s content with his job as a firefighter and so incredibly grateful for the miraculous recovery of his young daughter. When a mysterious old lady shows up at the fire station and makes a prophecy that Beckett will find love by Christmas, he doesn’t believe it. Beckett doesn’t dare pray for the desires of his heart for fear that he’s used up all of his miracles. Then, Beckett meets the beautiful and vivacious Ava Lawrence and starts to hope that maybe he really can find love. Beckett is hesitant to tell Ava about his checkered past for fear that she won’t want him. However, Ava has a few secrets of her own that could destroy everything Beckett has built. Will a Christmas miracle be enough to bind two lonely hearts together or will the scars of the past prevent Beckett and Ava from finding the lasting love they most desire?
It was the kind of cold that would freeze a person’s toes and fingers off. In another time and place, Beckett wouldn’t have spent more than thirty minutes outside. Tonight, however, he was grateful for the cold. It sank through the holes of his worn shoes, moving up his legs and torso like morphine, numbing his aching heart. The cold snuffed out the fire raging in his head—the voice that screamed of his failures and how any path to redemption was forever barred. He trudged through the snow, oblivious to the trash littering the sidewalk or the bars covering the windows of the aging buildings. The sights and stench of the streets would’ve horrified him before, when he was donning two-thousand-dollar suits and driving a Lexus to his high-rise office in the center of downtown Salt Lake City. Now, it was as commonplace as breathing. The frigid wind picked up. He pulled his thin coat tighter around him as he tucked his chin into his neck and plodded forward. Normally, Beckett’s senses were dulled to the point where he hardly remembered the life he lived before. Alcohol was the great cure-all. If he drank enough of it, he could hardly remember his own name. Today, however, was different. Today was Jasmine’s birthday. She was turning seven today. Beckett didn’t want to think about Jasmine with her happy, rosy cheeks and cocoa-colored ringlets. The trusting look in her deep brown eyes. The lilt in her voice when she called him daddy. Jasmine wanted a pink Barbie cake with sparkles. Tears pressed against his eyes as he swallowed. Unbidden scenes from the accident flashed before his eyes, the guilt knotting his gut. It had been a normal day. Pressures at the office were increasing. Beckett was always behind. Nothing he did was enough to satisfy his bulldog boss. Before darting out of his office to pick up Jasmine from her dance class, he’d taken a few swigs out of the flask he kept hidden beneath a stack of files in his bottom desk drawer. One minute he was driving, the road a blur, Jasmine chattering about a new dance she’d learned. The next minute, everything changed. Beckett felt the blunt force of the crash the same instant he heard the sickening sound of crunching metal. Then came the worst—Jasmine’s terrified screams that gave way to intermittent whimpers. He’d called 911, screaming into the phone. It seemed to take forever before the wail of the sirens pierced the night air. A few hours later, in a sterile hospital waiting room, a grim-faced doctor would deliver the blow. Jasmine’s ankle had been crushed. It would require multiple surgeries, and there was a chance she’d never walk again. Melinda’s face had crumpled, tears streaming down her cheeks. As Beckett went to hug her, she pushed him away, condemnation burning in her eyes. “This is all your fault!” she spat. “Please, Melinda.” His voice had cracked with desperation. “I—I’m sorry. I never meant—” He reached for her again. She got up in his face. “I can smell the alcohol on your breath.” For an instant, Beckett saw something in her eyes—a sliver of the love they’d once shared. Before he could blink, however, her eyes went flatter than dull pennies as she turned her back to him and walked away. It was then that he’d known, he was dead to her. He loosened his silk tie and threw it into the garbage on his way out of the hospital. That was six months ago. He wet his dry lips, the thirst for a drink rising in him like a greedy vulture demanding to be satisfied. He paused and leaned against the side of a building, removing the bottle from inside his coat. Beckett took a long swig, appreciating how the liquid burned down his throat. Another couple of drinks helped ease the pain. The snow was falling harder, large blobs coating everything in white. Cars moved along the streets like cautious snails, trying to avoid contact. The world felt still, like he was in one of those snow globes Jasmine loved. Beckett’s breath pushed out a warm mist against the air as he continued to his destination. Fifteen minutes later, he went in through the backdoor of a shelter. A middle-aged, portly man with a tapered salt and pepper beard was sitting behind a metal desk, chewing on a pencil as he stared at the screen of his laptop. When he saw Beckett, he waved in recognition as he stood, pulling his pants over his belly. “Hey, Blanket Man. I wondered what time you’d show up here.” He went to a nearby counter and picked up a stack of blankets, depositing them in Beckett’s arms. “It’s a cold one tonight. The temperature’s falling into the single digits.” “Yes.” “I’m sure there’ll be plenty of people who can use these blankets. Some ladies from a local church dropped them off today. It’s mighty kind of you to deliver them. After you get done passing these out, there are plenty more.” Beckett nodded. This was how the conversation always went, with Scotty making small talk and Beckett throwing in a few short answers and nods. Scotty didn’t seem to mind that Beckett didn’t want to talk. He was always pleasant, and he looked Beckett in the eye when he spoke to him. Most people didn’t. The homeless moved through the city like faceless ghosts, scavenging what they could to survive. “Oh, by the way, I reserved you a spot at the shelter tonight. It’s too cold to be outside.” “Thank you.” Beckett’s hands ached from the cold. He’d had a pair of gloves once, but they were long gone. “Tell everyone you see that they need to get indoors.” Scotty’s mouth turned down in a frown as he pulled at his beard. “This is the kind of weather that kills people.” If only Beckett could be so lucky. Death was preferable to his miserable existence. Several times, he’d looked up at the tops of the buildings, thinking how easy it would be to just jump and end it all. He didn’t know what was keeping him here. Maybe it was cowardice. Even now, he craved life and the bottle. Maybe it was Jasmine. His heart clutched as he pushed the thoughts away. He no longer had a wife or daughter. He was a nobody. With the blankets in hand, Beckett went out the door. After the warmth of the shelter, the night felt colder. He suppressed a shiver, forcing himself to embrace the cold as his feet worked through the snow. His first stop was a group of four men at a nearby park. They were sitting on the ground, huddled close together, their backs resting against a waist-high concrete wall. “It’s Blanket Man,” an older man named Beaker exclaimed in a hoarse voice. No one went by their real names on the streets. They used names that fit the person’s personality or features. Beaker had a large, pitted nose. He held up a gnarly hand. “Join the party,” he said glibly. “It’s a little cold, but what can ya do?” He laughed at his own joke. Slim Jim, sitting next to him, barked out a raspy smoker laugh, his thin shoulders shaking. “Yep, we’re having us a party.” He raised a hopeful eye to Beckett. “Got anything to drink?” “Or a cigarette?” a young man with greasy hair and glassy eyes asked. A pang shot through Beckett. The kid was a newcomer. He couldn’t be more than eighteen or nineteen years old. His face was gaunt, his eyes ringed in hollow circles. It seemed such a shame for him to be here, strung out on drugs. Even as the thought ran through his mind, Beckett laughed inwardly. He, of all people, had no room to judge. No one on the streets would ever imagine that he used to be an executive at one of the most prestigious financial advisory firms in Salt Lake. Out here, he was a scruffy drunk who delivered blankets to those who didn’t have the presence of mind to seek shelter when the temperatures plummeted. He didn’t really know why he felt compelled to go out night after night, delivering blankets. Maybe it was a form of atonement for his past sins. All he knew was that he couldn’t seem to rest until the blankets were handed out. “Nope, sorry. I’m all out of both,” Beckett lied, “but I do come bearing gifts.” No way was he sharing his booze. He’d spent a full day cleaning trash out of a yard to earn the money to buy this bottle. He handed them each a blanket. “It’s supposed to be down in the single digits tonight,” he said, repeating Scotty’s words. “It might be wise to get to a shelter.” The cold seeped into his bones, making him feel sluggish. Beaker waved a hand. “Nah, too crowded. We’ll be all right.” The young man started singing a song about them being all right. “Suit yourselves.” Beckett moved on to the next stop, passing out more blankets. He suspected that a few of the people were so far gone in their minds that they didn’t even realize they were cold. One man was holding an animated conversation with an imaginary person, laughing one second and shouting curses the next. Maybe Beckett would end up that way—not having a clue who he even was. When the blankets were gone he returned to the shelter, intent on making one more round before hunkering down for the night. “Hey,” Scotty said, “you’re back.” Beckett gave a curt nod of acknowledgment and went to the counter, picking up an armful of blankets. Scotty touched his beard. “Uh, Beckett, before you head back out, there’s someone here to see you.” Beckett frowned, hearing his own name. Not once, in all the times he’d come to this shelter to pick up blankets, had Scotty called him by his real name. Up until now, Beckett hadn’t even realized that Scotty knew his name. Suspicion stirred inside him. “Who is it?” he demanded. It had better not be his former boss! Jack Bisson had come lurking around once, about a month after Beckett had thrown in the towel. He urged Beckett to check himself into a rehab center, saying he’d even pay for the treatment. “Think of your wife and daughter,” Jack had said. “With Jasmine’s ankle in such bad shape, she needs you now more than ever.” Beckett laughed in his face, telling the pompous man in no uncertain terms exactly what he thought of him. Had Jack shown him an ounce of compassion when Beckett was working, instead of riding his case 24/7, Beckett might not have turned to alcohol. Then, he never would’ve been drinking the night he picked Jasmine up from her dance class, and he wouldn’t have had the car accident that shattered her ankle. Beckett balled his fist, squeezing the blankets. He’d refrained from punching Jack Bisson in the face the last time he showed up. This time, Bisson wouldn’t be so lucky. “Where’s Bisson?” he growled. Scotty frowned. “I’m not sure who that is.” He scooted back his chair and stood, his eyes resting on the blankets in Beckett’s arms. “Maybe you should put those down and follow me.” Reluctantly, Beckett complied. When they entered the large common room, Beckett scanned the crowd of people, packed like sardines into every available inch of floor space. When he saw them across the room, his breath froze in his throat. He couldn’t do it! His eyes narrowed as he spun around to Scotty. “What is this?” Scotty held up a hand. “Your wife and daughter have gone to great lengths to find you. The least you can do is hear them out.” He lowered his voice. “I know your history, Beckett. That you’re a good man. You had a career, a wonderful family. That man is still in there. You just have to find him.” Beckett let out a harsh laugh. “If I were a good man, my daughter wouldn’t be in a wheelchair.” Tears rose in his eyes as he cleared his throat and swallowed. He’d lost count of the number of times he’d dreamed of seeing Jasmine over the past few months. A hot anger coursed through his veins. Melinda had no right to bring Jasmine here. Maybe she wanted Jasmine to see firsthand how far her dad had fallen. Everything in him wanted to turn around and flee as far from here as he could get. “Daddy!” Jasmine’s face lit up as she waved. Too late to run. Beckett sighed in resignation as he forced his feet to move forward. When he reached them, he stood there awkwardly, at a loss for words. Melinda’s pinched face said it all—that he was an embarrassment. Melinda had always been concerned about social status and the image they portrayed to the world. He could only imagine what she must think of his ragged clothes, scraggly beard, grimy fingernails, his unwashed stench. He was a walking skeleton, a shadow of his former self. Jasmine was beaming. She seemed oblivious to the change in him. “I’ve missed you so much.” She held out her hands for him to hug her. Beckett’s feet stayed rooted to the floor. He wanted to hug her, but life on the streets had hardened him to the point where personal contact seemed foreign. Finally, he patted her hand instead. She was soft, untouched by the ugliness of the streets. “Good to see you, pretty girl.” His eyes settled on the cast, visible beneath her sweat pants. He hated himself in that moment, wished he could disappear into nothing. How dare Melinda bring Jasmine here! He wanted Jasmine to remember him as he was before. Not now, consumed by his vice. He glared at Melinda. “What’re you doing here?” Melinda looked thinner than he remembered, her face drawn and pale. It seemed like it had been another life when he’d loved her. Melinda lifted her chin, a protective hand going over Jasmine’s shoulder. “I came here because of Jazzie,” she said stiffly. “It was her birthday wish.” Jasmine gave him a searching look. “Come home with us, Daddy.” Her voice cracked. “Please.” “For her sake,” Melinda added. “You need help.” Her jaw tightened. “It’s bad enough that Jasmine’s going through all the pain and suffering of her ankle. Must she lose her father too?” The words came out in short, angry bursts. She gave him a hard, resentful look. “You’re being selfish.” Tears bubbled in Jasmine’s eyes, her lower lip trembling. “Please, Daddy, come home. We miss you.” Selfish! Loser! Drunk! Beckett’s head felt like it was splitting in two. Oh, how he wished he could relive that dreadful night of the accident, that he could go back and nip the drinking in the bud before it turned into a hideous monster. He thought of the bottle beneath his coat, the need for a drink overwhelming. He hated this—loathed his weakness. Tears pooled in his eyes. Beckett Bradshaw was an illusion. There was nothing left of that man except pain and regret. “I’m sorry,” he uttered as he fled. The last thing he heard before he darted out the door into the cold was Jazzie’s anguished cry. “Daddy!”