O’Rourke was going to pay for this.
In his five years on the police force, Officer Justin Weaver had done and seen many things that made his stomach churn and his skin crawl. He’d endured sleepless nights on stakeouts, or from nightmares, broken up fights, put up with verbal abuse, and been caught in cross fire.
He’d even been pepper sprayed.
But none of those things bothered him as much as this assignment, playing Cop Kringle for Holly Hollow’s annual Ho-Ho-Ho Patrol, and riding in a pimped-out police car. There were antlers poking from the windows, a blinking red Rudolph nose attached to the grill, and even a three-foot plastic Frosty the Snowman mounted on the roof. Justin hoped the motor pool hadn’t stashed an inflatable ornament in the trunk or something, ready to spring out as soon as the car started rolling. They called it a sleigh, but mostly it looked like a car that had been puked on by the Ghost of Christmas Present.
Justin’s musings were interrupted when his partner, Kevin O’Rourke, climbed into their squad car with two covered cups. “This beard has fleas,” Justin muttered. “It’s making me itch.”
“Ho ho ho.” Kevin handed him one of the cups. “You’re lucky you only have to wear it for a week, Santa.”
“Don’t call me that.” Justin peered into the rearview mirror. He looked like a derelict. With mange.
“Sorry, dude. It comes with the suit. Embrace it.” Kevin flipped the tab on the cup cover and blew into it. “Drink up before the parade starts.”
“When Lieutenant Hanley told me I was going to go undercover for the week, I didn’t expect I’d have to be Cop Kringle. I thought I was going to be something good. Like a drug dealer or a mob guy.” Justin yanked the itchy beard off his face.
“Aw c’mon, Weave. It is good! You’re collecting toys for needy kids and making dreams come true. What could be better?”
“Something more…I dunno. Dignified?” He pulled the stupid red Santa hat off his head, too, then tossed both the hat and the beard into the back seat.
“Dignified is for dweebs,” Kevin said. He stretched out in his seat and yawned. “Besides, you’re gonna get an elf!”
“I don’t want an elf.”
“Sure you do. With any luck, she’ll be hot.”
“We’re talking about my luck. So she’ll be ninety.” Justin flipped the tab on the lid of his cup. The scent of peppermint rose to greet him. “What is this? It’s not coffee!”
“Sure it is. Candy cane–flavored coffee.” O’Rourke grinned at him. He knew Justin loathed flavored coffee.
Nearly as much as he disliked Christmas. Peppermint coffee was over the top.
“I hate you,” Justin said.
His partner shook his head. “No you don’t. You fa-la-la-la-love me, and you know it.”
“Get out of my car.”
“It’s not your car, it’s the city’s car. And right now, it’s a sleigh.”
“Get out of my sleigh.” Justin put the cup in the cupholder. “Before I pepper spray you.”
He didn’t mean it. Not really. Well…maybe a little. Because being Santa for a week was worse than Christmas carols at Halloween. Christmas was a farce as far as he was concerned, and it had been since he was seventeen years old. Since that Christmas Eve when his world had fallen apart, and his life had changed forever.
“Thhhpt.” Kevin blew a raspberry. “Pepper spray away. I’m not getting out until your elf gets here, Santa.”
Justin sighed. The problem with making threats you didn’t intend to keep was that they became ineffective over time. “One of these days, O’Rourke. One of these days…” Justin shifted on the seat and winced. On top of everything, the Santa suit seemed two sizes too small. It pinched. Mostly in the places a man didn’t want to be pinched. And when Justin shrugged his shoulders or moved, the scent of dust rose around him. Ugh. “I need an antihistamine. This suit should have been bagged and boxed.”
“Better dust than must,” Kevin said. “Maybe you can hang it up outside and hit it with your baton.”
“Maybe I could burn it,” Justin said. “Then I wouldn’t have to wear it. If I give you a million bucks, will you put this stupid costume on and pretend to be me?”
Kevin paused. “Do you have a million bucks?”
“Sure. I know a guy.”
“Doubt it.” Kevin leaned forward and peered out the windshield. “I think I see her.”
Justin’s stomach clenched. “I don’t know why I need an elf. Micheletti never had an elf, and he was Cop Kringle for twenty years.”
“Yeah, but now you’re Cop Kringle. Times have changed. Get over it.”
Justin thought about asking if Kevin was responsible for his being chosen for the assignment. “I don’t know why they even replaced him. I thought the whole charade was going to retire along with Micheletti.”
“Easy answer. Social media. Anti-police videos. The suits up top decided that they needed a jolly Saint Cop to collect toys, distribute them to poor kids and foster kids, promote goodwill and—most importantly—inspire friendship instead of fear.”
“Still doesn’t answer the question, why me.” Justin rolled his eyes.
“Sure it does. You’re so very full of the Christmas spirit.” O’Rourke grinned and touched his finger to the brim of his cap in salute.
“Ha-ha, very funny.”
“I know.” O’Rourke nodded and smiled.
“I still don’t see why I need to get saddled with an elf.”
“Because we never needed one. But this elf comes with a camera. She’s going to record every little moment of your ho-ho-ho-ing and report it nightly to the community. See? So everyone is gonna see you suit up as Santa. You’ll be a star.”
“I don’t want to be a star. I’m a cop. And she’s a civilian.” As far as Justin was concerned, she would be in the way and a distraction. Being a cop was dangerous. It didn’t matter if you were collecting toys or on patrol—if some nut decided to open fire, you had to do the job.
“You’re worried about your post-traumatic stress,” O’Rourke noted. “Don’t be.”
“Easy for you to say. You don’t have it.”
“Yeah, but I’ve been your partner long enough to know when you’re having a bad day with it. I know what will set you off.” His partner lowered his eyebrows. “Don’t worry, Weave. Lots of people know about it now. Lots of people have it. She’s not going to think you’re weird or anything if you tell her about it.”
Justin sighed. O’Rourke was right. “Probably not.”
“She might think you’re weird just because you’re you, but not because you have issues with being anxious or whatever.” O’Rourke smiled. “She’s a reporter. From what I understand, she’s been in combat situations as a correspondent. She can handle life in the big city. Besides, you’re going to be dealing with little kids, not criminals.”
“Even worse.” Justin would simply set ground rules as soon as this tagalong climbed into the car, let her know what she could and couldn’t do, and make sure she realized she wasn’t in charge. He had a feeling she’d be the bossy type, telling him what to do, how she wanted the report to go. But he was resolved: this was his sleigh, dammit.
Even if he was the least Kringly Cop Kringle ever to take the reins. Everybody knew he was more of a Grinch than a saint when it came to Christmas, so for him to get assigned to the post was a shocker. Definitely it had been rigged by someone. Justin had his suspicions, and his partner Kevin was his prime suspect. He’d keep digging—outright accusations would get him nowhere.
He had his retaliation all lined up: he’d make sure Kevin got shoved in the Officer Cottontail suit for the community Easter egg hunt. And egg roll. And Easter parade. Even if Justin had to promise to work the worst shifts for the next six months to make it happen.
It was what cops did with one another. Justin didn’t feel a bit guilty about it. Torturing your partner for your own amusement was part of being in the brotherhood. He was already picturing the insinuations he’d make about carrots, just to irritate his partner. And he’d priced photo T-shirts with the guy who silk-screened the uniforms for the precinct softball team; adding a pic of Kevin in the bunny suit to the front of each shirt would be worth any price. An entire season of humiliation served his partner right. Justin didn’t mess around. Vengeance is mine.
“Yes. There she is!” Kevin jumped out of the car and slammed the door, leaving Justin alone with his disgusting coffee. He thought about getting out to greet her, too, but then he’d have to put on the beard and hat. Besides, all the rest of his fellow officers currently gathered in front of the “sleigh” in preparation for the parade would start razzing him just as much as O’Rourke had already. He’d be damned if he’d give them the satisfaction.
He and the elf were going to be stuck together like Rudolph and his red nose all week; he might as well as enjoy the last few moments of “me” time he had left before his holiday hell began. He pulled out his phone and started scrolling.
But curiosity won out, especially when he glimpsed long legs and red hair by the mayor’s parade float, and spotted O’Rourke in full chick-magnet mode. Maybe it was good he was getting a break from Kevin if he could sense when his partner was emitting pheromones and testosterone. He put his phone down and reached for his radio mike. “All right, O’Rourke. Stand down and bring my elf to the car like a good boy.”
O’Rourke glanced over the top of the float at him, then pushed his hat up from his face with a single rude finger.
Well, that wasn’t nice. “You’re going on my naughty list, O’Rourke.”
His partner laughed, but he couldn’t tell if it was because of his threat or because of something the redheaded elf had said. Either way, the elf turned and began walking to the car with O’Rourke at her side. She held on to his partner’s arm and minced across the icy parking lot in ridiculous sparkling red stilettos; as she walked, she stared intently at the ground, her face hidden behind her long, curling red hair. He couldn’t see her face.
He could see his partner’s, though. O’Rourke grinned like a maniac. When he caught Justin staring, he gave him a thumbs-up. Not that he needed to, because from where Justin sat, his elf looked pretty darn good, with a green-and-red elf costume that hugged her soft curves like a lover.
Justin sucked in a breath. His elf was tall, and even better, a redhead. His favorite. For once, it seemed, his luck had changed. Then the elf lifted her head and familiar green eyes met his through the windshield.
Lilly stumbled, and it wasn’t because of any ice under her stupid, impractical, inappropriately sexy shoes. Justin. Justin! Justin Weaver stared through the windshield of the “patrol sleigh”—an adorably and festively decorated squad car.
She hadn’t seen him in ten years. He was her childhood best friend’s big brother; he was her big brother by proxy. Or whatever it was when you didn’t have a brother, but your friend let you pretend hers was yours. Lilly’s heart leaped.
Her joy and excitement at seeing him slowly faded as he glared at her from under furrowed black brows that didn’t hide his black-as-sin eyes. His lips were set in a dark frown instead of a bright smile, and his chin—well, his whole handsome face, actually—was stony and fierce. She shivered, and Officer O’Rourke tightened his hold on her arm and drew her close beside him. “Everything okay?”
“I—I… Well, yes…” Words failed her.
Words never failed her. She was a broadcast journalist. Talking was what she did, who she was. Pull it together, Maddox, she told herself. Maybe Justin doesn’t recognize you.
It would be so much easier to just turn and run. But she couldn’t. And she wouldn’t. Because if she did, she’d never get the slot at Channel 10. Her entire career hinged on this opportunity. At least, that’s what her producer had told her. But more than that, she really wanted to work full time for Channel 10 because then she’d be close to home.
Home—to Lilly—meant here. Close to her childhood best friend, Hannah, who’d been like a sister. And Mary, who’d been more of a mother to her, more maternal and loving, than her actual mother. And Justin, too. They were the family of her heart. At least, that’s what she’d thought.
She hadn’t even considered the possibility she’d run into Justin this week. Even though he was a cop, just like his and Hannah’s dad had been. The coincidence seemed too convenient.
Maybe it was fate. Or maybe he’d discovered she was the ride-along for the week and had finagled a way to be Cop Kringle. The thought warmed her heart.
But his icy gaze froze her blood. Justin glared through the windshield at her like he’d just spotted a crime in progress.
“You got quiet.” Officer O’Rourke opened the car door for her. “Probably because you spotted my partner. He’s ugly, I know, but don’t let that scare you. He’s really not that bad a guy when you get to know him. Even though his costume smells like the storage room.”
Lilly frowned. She’d always thought Justin was kind of cute. In fact, she couldn’t remember a time when she didn’t have at least a little bit of a crush on him. Even as a six-year-old, she’d decided she was going to marry him. She could remember it like it was yesterday.
“When we grow up,” she’d told Hannah, “I’m going to marry Justin, and then you and me will be sisters for real.”
“Yay!” Hannah had said, clapping her hands and jumping up and down so that her blond curls bounced. “That’s the best idea ever!”
“No, it’s not,” Justin had said, curling his lip. “I’m never getting married. Girls are gross.”
“But then we’ll be family for real,” Hannah had chided. “Besides, you told me you like ginger girls, like Lilly.”
His cheeks had reddened, and he’d looked at Lilly. He sighed, clearly conflicted. But then he nodded. “Okay. I’ll marry you, Lilly. But don’t think we’re doing any kissing. I don’t want your cooties.”
“No kissing. I promise!” Lilly had nodded. It was only fair. Her parents didn’t kiss, so why would she and Justin have to? Besides, he was right. Kissing. Cooties. Gross. “Pinkie swear.”
“Pinkie swear.” Justin had locked his little finger with hers. “We’ll get married, but we’re not kissing. Ever.”
Lilly wished they were little kids again. Things were so easily solved.
She put her foot in the car and started to sink into the passenger seat, but Justin jumped out of the car as fast as if…well, he could catch cooties from her. “No. Just—no. I’m not riding with her for a week.”
She straightened and stared across the car’s roof at Justin. Behind her, Officer O’Rourke barked a laugh. “What’sa matter, Weave? She too much elf for you to handle?”
“She’s not—she’s—I—” he spluttered. Lilly completely understood. If she tried to talk, she’d be spluttering, too. “She’s no elf. She’s Lilly Maddox.”
“Yeah? And? What’s your point?” His partner moved to the other side of the car.
“She and I—she’s my little sister’s best friend. Or she was.” Justin ran his hand through his dark hair, and Lilly’s heart leaped. It was such a familiar gesture. It meant he was flustered—as if that weren’t already obvious. She couldn’t help but miss the longer locks of his youth, hanging past his ears and curling around his shirt collar; now he had a cop’s haircut with practically no hair to run his fingers through. But it didn’t detract from his good looks. It only enhanced them. She couldn’t help but sigh, even as she wanted to yell. Or cry. Or something.
“Justin?” she said.
Officer O’Rourke narrowed his blue eyes. “So? What’s the problem, Weave? You already know her. That’s great. You won’t have to worry about looking like an asshat in front of her.”
Justin glared at her. If they could, she was sure, his dark chocolate eyes would be shooting bright red flames. If she didn’t act fast, her opportunity would be over before it even began.