Authors: Michele Dunaway
A LITTLE CHRISTMAS JINGLE
St. Martin's PressÂ Â
Â Â New York
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For my beloved mother, Louise J. Feager (Dec. 24, 1937-Jan. 17, 2013), and in remembrance of my critique partner, Joyce Adams Counts (2014), and favorite “son,” Peter Waggoner (1988-2013). You all always kept asking when the next book was coming, so this one's for you.
Some books just flow, and this was one of those. I must thank my agent, Jessica Faust, who believed I could do this project, and my editor, Eileen Rothschild, for giving me the chance and making it so much fun. To my friends Julie Picraux, Pam Wagner, Susan Benedict, Lisa Brown, Julie Pavez, Jenny Hassell, Cynthia Rill, Liz Walsh, and Jenni Fly, who have stood by me through some trying times, as well as Alice & Kate, who know that when Mom writes, they have to forage for food (only the cats seem to get fed) and thus have become the queens of takeout. I don't say it enough, but, my beloved girls, you make me very proud. Writers maintain every book has a soundtrack, and this one found its inspiration in The Reserve and Jim Petersâwatching you live reawakened the muse. I must also thank my readers for sticking with me all these yearsâhere is another St. Louis book just for youâand, last but not least, thanks to my teacher cohorts, and my current students and all my former studentsâwho every day remind me that I am lucky enough to have two of the best jobs in the world. You all inspire me.
“Up on the rooftop, reindeer paws â¦”
Or was it “pause”?
As the chorus of impromptu Christmas caroling beganâand it wasn't even ThanksgivingâJack Donovan tugged at the annoying starched edge of his white shirt collar. Tuxedos were for proms and weddingsâtonight was neither. He skirted the edge of the Chase Park Plaza's Khorassan Ballroomâsupposedly the best in St. Louisâignoring the two well-heeled women who gave him pointed looks before blushing and giggling.
Jack adjusted his black bow tie, wishing he could remove the required dress-code noose. While he really didn't have anywhere else to be, this was so not his scene. If the floor opened and swallowed him whole, he wouldn't mind. Maybe then he could also ditch the rented jacket that tightened every time he crossed his arms.
He eased into a corner, ensuring he was clear of the mistletoe sprigs hanging strategically between dangling strands of soft, tiny, white Christmas lights. He sipped from the brown long-necked bottle he'd been carrying for most of the evening, the King of Beers now lukewarm.
Celebratory cheers erupted as the carol reached its crescendo, and then the band resumed, much to Jack's relief. Christmas started earlier and earlier every year. Case in point, it was only seven days into November and some decorator had gone crazy with the holiday decorations: the ballroom was littered with poinsettias, miniature Christmas trees, silvery stars, glittery snowmen, and that damn mistletoe he'd been dodging all night.
He moved deeper into the shadows, edging around one of the almost life-size cutouts of the single men featured in the first Sexy Public Servants of St. Louis Charity Calendar. He'd known Joe Marino, firefighter and Mr. September, since Catholic youth soccer when they'd faced each other twice in the championship round. Now both were the faces of local charities, but while Joe seemed to relish the growing crowd of women, Jack wasn't thrilled with his sudden fame as Mr. December.
Unlike Joe, who'd at least gotten to wear turnout gear suspenders, pants, and coat in his photo, Jack wore only a Santa hat and low-rise jeans in his. Across the room a crowd of women added him to their Instagram accounts by surrounding and posing with the nearly naked cardboard version of Jack in all his holiday glory. Did one woman just paw his cardboard chest? Jack rolled his eyes heavenward. Great. More ammunition for his mother, the South Side's expert matchmaker. He loved his mother, but lately she had been harping on how he needed to find his soul mate, settle down, and start a family. She'd also been tossing women at him right and left. As the holiday season approached, she'd redoubled her efforts. Jack so far had avoided Susie Crenshaw, Alice Foster, and Laura Simsâwho were all on his mom's current list of potential dates. All three had made a beeline for him earlier, clearly preprogramed to seek him out. As he'd signed Susie's calendar, she had slipped him her phone number.
Jack dangled the beer bottle between his fingertips and wished he could leave. What the hell had he been thinking, agreeing to all this? Oh yeah, his lieutenant had insisted, and one did not cross Lt. Steven Jones. Besides, Jack had been told, the calendar needed a cop, and as Jack was the face of the six-month-old St. Louis Police Department's Animal Cruelty Task Force, saying no hadn't been an option.
The publicity would be good exposure, he'd been assured. Considering the state of undress in Mr. December's photo, he'd been exposed all right. Thankfully, one-twelfth of the proceeds went to pet charities he'd been able to personally select, so at least some good would come out of his embarrassment. Even so, he couldn't help but grimace as some woman across the room tweaked his one-dimensional nipple and took a selfie; he prayed it was only a Snapchat that faded after a few seconds. As it was, his damn photo was already up on Google images, and two days ago the guys at the precinct had decorated his locker with hundreds of overlapping, baseball-card-size copies. It had taken a full twenty minutes to peel off the tape slivers.
A tall brunette caught his attention as she wove through the crowd, a long expanse of leg sliding through the thigh-high slit in her red dress. He didn't realize he was staring until she stood directly in front of him and held out her hand. “Hi,” she said, her voice creating a shiver of awareness he hadn't felt in years. “You must be Jack. I'm Kat.”
Damn. Talk about being caught off guard.
He smiled automatically, as he'd been doing all night. “Hi.”
Her fingers warmed under his, and he instinctively held on a second too long before letting go. Odd. “So someone”âshe looked over her shoulder as if searching for that personâ“told me you're the first member of the mayor's new task force.”
“It says that in the calendar, yes.”
Susie Crenshaw walked past, head swiveling as she searched for someone; Jack sank deeper into the shadows, closer to the emergency exit doors.
Kat noticed, and moved helpfully to block him. “Ex?”
Jack shook his head. “Nothing like that.”
“Ah.” Mirth lifted perfect lips, and her brown eyes twinkled. “One of your groupies. I saw how they fawned over you. Don't worry. You're safe with me.”
Since his interest in the opposite sex had chosen this moment to reemerge, he wasn't so sure anyone was safe. That beautiful mouth begged to be kissed. He searched for a benign topic, then said the first thing that came to mind. “Did you buy a calendar? Did I already sign it?” He'd signed hundreds earlier during the group autograph session.
Although surely he would have remembered her. Those succulent red lipsâlips that matched the color of her sleeveless velvet dressâwrapped around the edge of her champagne flute, and as she swallowed, Jack's underused libido flared to life. Brown hair up in a knot revealed a creamy white neck perfect for planting kisses on, and he longed to do just that. He hardened.
“Ten of them actually and no, I'm good.”
His eyebrows arched. Lost in trying to calm his lower half, had he heard her correctly? “You bought ten?”
She laughed, a light melodic sound that he wouldn't mind hearing over and over again. “It's for charity, and I'll give them to my staff.”
She fingered the gold chain at her neck, and his gaze traced the filament down to where the jewelry dipped into the V of breasts caressed by hugging velvet. But with his mom's “Eyes up, Buster” admonition ingrained in his head since puberty, he focused on her faceâand found brown eyes a man could drown in as he counted each little gold speck. And when those long brown lashes fluttered down â¦ He swore his heart skipped.
Red lips puckered humorously as she added, “Oh, and I can't forget a calendar for my grandmother, who's in a nursing home and says she's never too old to look. I'm sure she'll like your â¦ Santa hat.”
“And you?” The words popped out of his mouth, his genuine interest surprising him. He could practically hear his mother shout “Saints be praised!” For the past two years, ever since Julie ended their five-year relationship because of his commitment phobia, he'd felt not a flicker of interest. “How's your Christmas spirit?”
A rosy flush that matched her dress spread over her pale skin, momentarily distracting him. If the band played, he didn't hear it. Time seemed to freeze, if only for a second. “So?” he teased.
She shifted her weight, the revealing slit showcasing a long expanse of creamy mile-high leg his fingers itched to caress. Her mouth wrapped around the flute edge, and she took another long sip before replying. Underneath his jacket, Jack started to sweat.
Had someone turned up the heat?
“Well, everyone knows December is my favorite month. I love Christmas and everything that comes with it. â¦”
“Including Santa hats?”
“Maybe. I've been known to wear one or two when the occasion warranted.”
That beautiful laugh trilled again, and those lashes fluttered down. Bright red painted nails toyed with her necklace, the color a seductive contrast against her pale skin. Desire to see her wearing nothing but heels and his hat made Jack lose his train of thought. Two years of nothing, not one iota or flicker of interest in the opposite sex, and suddenlyâ
“Jack! There you are!”
Jack winced at the familiar voice. Not only was Virginia Edwards Barker a doppelganger for a tad younger Betty White, but the seventy-something socialite could rival Jack's grandmother in determination and grit in getting her way. She'd been bossing the calendar men around all evening.
“Looks like I'm needed,” Jack said as the head of the charity calendar committee made a beeline for him. “Not that I wasn't enjoying this.”
“Can we talk later?” Kat asked. Her fingers touched his arm. “I love animals. I'd like to get more involved and â¦”
Even through two layers of clothing he felt the searing of her touch, as if she'd branded his skin. Nerves short-circuited; his brain registered only the word
. How many women tonight had asked him, “Are you involved with anyone? Would you like to be?” How many phone numbers had been thrust at him? He stepped backward, that distasteful word like a bucket of ice-cold water.
“Finally!” Virginia caught her breath and smoothed her taffeta gown. “It's taken me five minutes to find you. We're going to do a group photo for the paper. Did you forget?”
He never forgot anything, and his sharp mind was one reason he'd become a detective. He saw clues others missed and could recall them long after the fact. However, for a man who loved being in control, he had lost track of time and hated the idea of yet another picture. At least this time he'd be clothed. Jack faced Kat, those full red lips begging to be kissed, his emotions and memory a rare jumble. Maybe he had heard her wrong?