Authors: Donna Alward
“Now, Lainey, that would be an invasion of privacy. I'm offended you'd think I'd do such a thing.” He put a hand to his heart. “I'm a cop, after all.”
Her lips twitched. She walked over to him, not caring about the draft, and looked up into his face. Damn, he was handsome. “You forget, I've known you for a long time, Todd Ricker. I know you'd do such a thing.”
“I'm just glad it's too cold for you to run my underwear up the flagpole.”
He nearly choked on his laugh and she raised an eyebrow. How the boys from the baseball team had gotten the principal's underwear, no one knew. But they'd run it up the school flagpole on a Saturday and it had stayed there until the custodian had taken the rather large-sized panties down on Monday morning. It had never been proven who did it, but Lainey had known. It had Todd written all over it.
“Go on,” she said. “I'm not paying to heat the outdoors.”
With a mock salute he pulled the door closed and she watched him make his way to the guesthouse. Moments later the outside light came on over there, too, and she knew he was inside.
In her private space.
Despite her words, she actually did trust him not to snoop. Because Todd had kept his sense of humor, but she knew one thing for sure. He'd grown up and acquired a sense of honor and duty, too.
It made for one hell of a potent combination.
Lainey finally turned off the lights and headed out the back door to the small cottage. She loved her little space. It was close enough for her to get on-site if she was needed, but it gave her some privacy, too. She'd had Tom do the heavy renovations, but she'd decorated it herself last summer, choosing the colors and painting the walls and purchasing some new furniture.
The snow stung her cheeks as she hustled along the shoveled path. It wasn't far, but even so she was covered with white when she turned the knob and opened the door. She closed it quickly, not wanting to let out the heat or let the snow blow in.
Todd was kneeling before her fireplace, jabbing at the flaming wood with a poker, and this time Lainey was guilty of checking out his ass.
Mercy, he was hot. Always had been. He was tall, a good six feet, with dark hair and brown eyes that were warm as melted chocolate and twice as sinful. Being a cop in a place as small as Jewell Cove wasn't all that physically demanding, but it was obvious he kept himself in good shape. Today, off duty, he wore jeans and a plain black hoodie. Even so, the slim line of his hips and the width of his shoulders were evident.
“I thought I'd build a fire,” he said, picking up a small log and placing it on the flames that were licking along the smaller bits of kindling he'd arranged.
Lainey finally moved instead of staring, and took off her coat and boots. After they were stowed away, she shivered. “I forgot I'd left the heat down,” she apologized. “Sorry about that.” She'd turned the heat down during the day and hadn't been back over since the storm started and people had begun arriving.
“No problem. This gave me something to do, anyway.” He hadn't turned on the TV or anything. The room was completely quiet other than the odd snap from the fire.
“Do you want something to drink?” She smiled, reminded herself to relax. She'd known Todd for years. And yes, she'd had a big crush on him back in the day but nothing had ever happened between them and it wouldn't now either, right?
“I wouldn't say no.” Todd brushed off his hands and stood, sending her a smile. “It's been a long day. For both of us, I expect.”
She went to the kitchenâreally just a working area off the main roomâand opened a cupboard. “I don't have an extensive liquor cabinet,” she said, rooting around. “There's some vodka here, I think. And something pinkÂ â¦ God, I think Cindy brought this over in the summer.” She found a square-ish bottle and took it out. “Aha. And whiskey. That might do the trick on a cold night like tonight.”
“Works for me.”
She took down two short glasses. “Ice?”
Lainey nearly laughed when he looked horrified at the idea. “Okay then.” She poured a couple of fingers' worth in each glass and went back to the living room, then handed him a glass before sitting down on the sofa.
He sank down beside her, not too close, but not at the opposite corner, either. Her pulse throbbed at her wrist at the simple nearness of him. She lifted her glass for a sip, hoping her fingers weren't shaking. It wasn't like her to be nervous like this.
“Don't you want to toast?” he asked.
“Oh.” Heat rushed to her face. “Well, go ahead.” She smiled brightly.
He thought for a minute, his brow puckering in the middle, while Lainey wondered what the heck he was thinking. Then his face brightened and he smiled at her and lifted his glass.
“Here's to the girl who lives up the hill. If she won't, her sister will. Here's to her sister.”
He winked, saluted with his glass, and took a healthy drink while she burst out laughing.
“Where in the world did you hear that?” She sipped at the amber liquid, felt the warmth of it slide down her throat and into her belly, leaving a fiery trail.
He shrugged. “Have you met my grandmother? She's got a saying for damn near everything. I always think I've heard them all and then she'll come out with another one.”
Lainey relaxed against the sofa cushions. That was what made Todd so dangerous. It wasn't just the looks. The true sexiness came from his sense of humor and how he seemed to put everyone he met at ease. She'd been home for five minutes and she already had a drink in her hand and her guard down. “Cheers.” She saluted with her glass. “It's been a long day.”
“Amen to that.” Todd took another drink. “This isn't half bad. And look at you, drinking it straight.”
“Because I'm a girl?”
He laughed. “You are? When did that happen?”
She swatted at his arm and his laugh settled around them, warm and sexy. Oh my. Maybe whiskey to ward off the chill wasn't such a good idea. Because things were feeling warm all rightÂ â¦
They sat in the quiet for a few minutes, both of them sitting back with their heads against the cushions. Todd turned his lazily to look at her, a thoughtful expression on his face. “Hey, Lainey? How come we never dated, huh?”
Inside she felt like her tongue was about to be tied into knots and butterflies swooped and swirled in her stomach. But that was inside. Outwardly she kept her composure and looked back at him. “Probably because you never asked me.”
“Hmm. Clearly an oversight on my part. You're not as scary as you used to be.”
She snorted. After all this time, she doubted he was really interested. Just because she felt like a silly girl around him didn't mean she'd lost her mind. “Me, scary? What's the matter, have you exhausted the inventory in town?”
“Ouch.” He got up and retrieved the bottle from the kitchen counter, brought it back, and added a splash to his glass before putting it on the coffee table in front of them. “Jeez, I'm not that much of a player.”
A smile twisted her lips; a silent laugh. “Of course you're not.” She added the tiniest bit of whiskey to her glass, too.
“Hey. That's sarcasm.”
“Oh, well done!”
“That was, too,” he mumbled.
“Okay, smarty-pants.” He sat up a bit. “You said because I never asked you. Does that mean you would have said yes if I had?”
“Only in a weak moment,” she fired back with a cheeky grin, feeling immensely proud of how quick on the draw she was tonight. What were they doing? Flirting? Passing the time? What would happen next, a game of Truth or Dare? Was it wrong that she hoped so?
Todd looked around her small living room and tilted his head a bit, then looked at her curiously. “Hey. I just realized something. You don't have any Christmas decorations in here.”
And just like that, the whiskey soured in her stomach. “Gee, would you look at the time,” she replied drily, turning her wrist to look at her watch. Only she wasn't wearing one because like most people, she relied on the clock on her phone.
“Interesting.” Todd relaxed and crossed one ankle over his knee, holding the glass negligently. “I think what we have here is a big ol' Scrooge. Or Grinch.” He grinned. “Naw, you're too cute to be a Grinch. And you're not even green.”
“You're a pain in the ass.”
“But I'm right, aren't I? Just what have you got against Christmas, anyway?”
She gulped some of the whiskey, letting the heat burn the back of her throat. She really didn't want to talk about Jason tonight. It was bad enough she'd spared him a thought earlier.
“You were at the inn. There are lots of decorations over there. There's even a big Christmas tree in the parlor. But waitÂ â¦ you didn't go in there, did you? You were being antisocial.”
He frowned, and her little jab didn't deter him in the least. “The inn isn't here, though, is it? Of course you'd decorate for guests. But you don't have a tree, and here it is, theÂ â¦ what date is it today, anyway?”
The whiskey was starting to take a toll, softening the edges of her mind. She had to think for a moment. “The twentieth.” She frowned. She remembered last December twentieth very well. That was the day she'd taken her wedding dress back to the store. There was no way she was going to leave it hanging in her closet.
“That's right. December twentieth and no tree. No lights. NoÂ â¦ you know, those big red flowers. Or pine boughs. Or presents.”
“Nothing wrong with your powers of observation, Officer Ricker. When do you make detective?” She made her voice syrupy sweet, hoping to distract him from his line of questioning. Her engagement wasn't some big secret in town, but she didn't necessarily feel like talking about her ex or how he'd ruined Christmas for her forever. She took back all the nice thoughts she'd had about Todd being a cop. He was far too observant and nosy right now.
He leaned forward now, peering into her face. “Come on, Lainey. It's almost like you don't do Christmas. Not even a little tree. You're not Jewish or anything, are you?”
“No, I'm not. I just haven't been in the mood this year, that's all.”
She got up from the sofa and went to the kitchen, took the last gulp of liquor, and put the dirty glass in the sink.
It was time to get Todd a blanket and a pillow and go to bed.
She marched past him to go back to the door, then reached inside her coat and took out a small bag. “Here,” she said, tossing it toward him. “Emergency packet. We keep them in a cupboard in the main house.”
He removed the tape from the bag and peered inside. It contained a foldable toothbrush, travel-sized toothpaste, little bottles of body wash and shampoo and mouthwash.
“Hey, thanks,” he replied, finishing his drink. “This is handy.”
“I'll get you some blankets and stuff.”
She disappeared into the bedroom, went to the closet and got out a spare quilt and a soft pillow. The living room would stay warm, particularly if Todd put another few logs on the fire. When she marched back out, Todd had put his glass in the kitchen and was now standing in front of the fire, one hand on the mantel, staring into the flames.
“Here you go,” she murmured. “There's an extra throw on the back of the sofa if you get cold.”
“I'll be fine.”
He turned around and their gazes met. The alcohol had mellowed her quite a bit, reinforcing some of her barriers but breaking down others. She shouldn't be staring at him so boldly. She'd deflected his questions but she knew she hadn't fooled him at all.
“Why aren't you in the mood this year? The real reason. Because most people at least put up a little tabletop tree or a wreath on the door or something.”
She swallowed against a lump in her throat. Damn him. He wasn't teasing now, either, and it made him harder to put off. His dark eyes were soft with understanding, even though there was no way he could know. If he'd just been nosy, she might have been able to brush it off. But instead, it was like he cared.
“It's justÂ â¦ well, I don't know if you remember or not, but last year this time Jason broke off our engagement. It kind of ruined Christmas for me.”
“Right.” His eyebrows pulled together as he frowned. “Why did he do that again?”
She shrugged. “He said he'd found someone else. That it wouldn't be fairâ¦” Her voice wavered and she cleared her throat. “Oh, I'm not getting into the gory details. Let's just say it tainted my view of the holidays.”
Todd nodded. “Well, if it helps, I think he's an idiot. And because he's an idiot, you're better off without him.”
She stared into the fire, oddly touched by Todd's declaration. “Intellectually I know you're right. If he was in love with someone else, getting married would have been a disaster. It's just that in the middle of all the Christmas joy and happiness, I was canceling wedding plans. We were having a Christmas wedding, you know. Everything had been bought. Dresses, flowers, decorations. Place cards had been printed, centerpieces made up, a wedding-night suite booked. And everything had been green and red. Ugh. Anyway, every time I see all the decorations and hear the carols and all that, it brings me down.”
“Then we need to bring you back up.” He stood back and crossed his arms. “You can't let one person ruin the most magical time of the year. You've got to come out swinging.” It was a declaration, and one that sounded like he was about to do something about her scrooginess.
She just wanted to get through the holidays in peace.
“Hey, I tried. A girl can only eat so many cupcakes before her pants get a little too tight.” She sighed. “You know what the worst part is, Todd?” She didn't quite know why she was confiding in him so much, except that maybe she'd had a little too much whiskey and the fact that she no longer felt like she could vent to her girlfriends, who'd been so supportive in the early days. She knew they all expected her to be fine now and had probably gotten sick of her being such a downer. “The worst is that for the longest time I kept asking myself what she had that I didn't. Was she prettier? Smarter? Funnier? Sexier?” She shook her head. “Man, I sound so stupid saying that.”