PURCHASE A COPY
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Savannah slipped into the elf costume and was surprised and delighted to find that the dress actually had pockets. So that was something. She glanced at her reflection in the mirror. It was not good.
The striped stockings were not flattering, and the length of the dress on her tall frame made it a mini-dress. She cinched the wide black belt in a desperate attempt to show she had a waistline but the Peter Pan collar still made her look like a doofus. To top it all off, her pointy hat had a jingle bell on the end of it and it rang with every step she took. Ridiculous.
She stomped out of the bathroom and through the office. Whose idea was this Santa-and-elf thing? Shouldn’t they have run it by her?
She found Maisy and “Santa” on the front porch. He was leaning over the railing and waving at cars that drove by and calling, “Ho ho ho.”
Savannah glowered at Maisy.
“Oh, you look so cute,” Maisy cried. Joaquin turned around and took in the sight of Savannah. The grin beneath his bushy white beard was wide.
“Don’t!” She pointed at him. “If anyone is laughing at anyone, I’m laughing at you because you’re wearing a fake beard and a belly pillow.”
“Better than fake ears,” he said. He lifted a white-gloved finger and poked the pointy ear sewn into her hat. She smacked his hand away.
“Stop that,” she said. She turned to Maisy. “You owe me so huge for this.”
“No doubt,” Maisy said. “This is definitely above and beyond, especially for someone as ambivalent about the holidays as you. I really appreciate your digging deep and taking one for the team.”
“Come on,” Joaquin said. “Let’s go out to the street and see if we can wave people in.”
Maisy handed Savy a cloth sack full of candy canes. “Have fun!”
“What? No!” Savannah protested. It was bad enough people coming to the shop might see her but if they stood on the street everyone would see her in this ridiculous getup.
“What’s your elf name?” Joaquin asked as he walked
“I don’t have an elf name,” she snapped.
“Then let’s make one,” he said. “How about Snickerdoodle Jingle Bells?”
“No.” She gave him a grumpy look to mask the laugh that almost escaped.
“I know.” He snapped his gloved fingers but no sound came out. “Mistletoe Merrybottom.”
“Shut up.” This time a snort escaped and he grinned at her. She ignored him. “You can call me Elf. It’s a nice gender-neutral name that’s easy to remember.”
“Boring.” He rolled his eyes but he didn’t argue. He continued down the walkway then began to walk toward the center of town. Savy hurried to catch up to him.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Going where there’s more foot traffic,” he said. “We need to be on the corner to direct shoppers toward the bookstore.”
Savy was not having it. She stopped walking. It took Joaquin a couple of paces to realize she wasn’t behind him. He paused and looked back at her.
“I am not going to stand in the center of town dressed like an elf,” she said. “Public humiliation was not a part of the bargain when I came to help Maisy out.”
He studied her for a moment. He looked as if he was undecided as to what to say. Savy almost told him not to bother since there was nothing he could say that would change her mind.
Finally, he just sighed and continued walking. “Suit yourself,” he said. “But since it’s going to take a Christmas miracle to save Maisy’s bookstore, I, for one, am willing to make an ass of myself if it helps her keep her shop.”
PURCHASE A COPY
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Jason chuckled, and a slow smile spread across his lean face, and oh, her heart did the craziest little flip. Despite the sweating and the weird situation, Jason Clements, newbie to Painted Barrel, was handsome. He was tall and wiry, and his cheekbones were blade sharp. His eyes were piercing, and his dark hair was cropped extremely short—naval regulation, maybe? But his smile was utterly breathtaking.
And he was smiling at her. Even though she was being goofy and weird and wearing ridiculous reindeer antlers, he was smiling at her. Sage Cooper.
It was a heady feeling. In that moment, she wanted to help him and get more of those smiles. Sage genuinely loved helping people, but she had a different goal in mind when she looked at Jason. She just wanted him to smile again.
“You really don’t know how to ranch?” she asked.
He pursed his lips and shook his head.
“Why did you lie?” It didn’t seem like a job anyone would take on the spur of the moment. There were easier jobs out there than ranching, and they probably paid a heck of a lot more.
Meaning that he had a secret. Well, that was all right. She’d always thought of herself as an open book, but things had changed over the last year. After all, weren’t her dating app profiles a secret? A humiliating, awful secret that Greg would laugh and laugh about if he knew . . . and then tell Becca? Who would then tell everyone in Painted Barrel?
Yeah, Sage knew all about keeping things secret to protect yourself.
“I won’t ask,” she told him. “But I can help you.”
Jason looked at her with a frown and then dawning realization. “You can get me some books?”
“Well, not exactly.” She hugged Order of the Phoenix tighter to her chest, as if to bolster herself. “But I do have a ranch.”
His eyes flared with interest, and the breath stole from her lungs. Oh, were his eyes gray? She liked that. She liked that a lot. “You do?”
“Everyone here does. There’s not much around Painted Barrel but ranches, you know?”
He gestured at the mail desk, where Greg’s pamphlets were spread. “But I thought you . . .”
“Municipal clerk. I know. I am.” She went to tuck a lock of hair behind her ear, flustered, and ended up smacking her reindeer horns. “My father was the mayor of this town before he passed, and he got me a job as a municipal clerk when I was a teenager. And I sort of stayed on and have done it ever since. But yeah, my father has a ranch, and now that he’s gone, it’s mine. I’ve sold all of the cattle but two, and just one horse. You can come over to my place and practice until you get comfortable, if you like.”
He stared at her, stunned. “You’d do that for me?”
She beamed at him. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”
Sage watched, fascinated, as his jaw clenched. “Reasons.”
“Because most people don’t do things out of the good- ness of their hearts. Not anymore.” He rubbed his jaw again. “Can I pay you?”
Sage waved a hand, dismissing the thought. Once she sold all her father’s acreage, she’d have more money than she knew what to do with. “Don’t be silly.”
But he gave her another intense look, leaning in. His height was . . . amazing. She gazed up at him and felt as if he were the tallest—and handsomest—man she’d ever seen. Oh, her new crush was baaaad. “I’d feel better if I didn’t owe you,” he murmured.
An idea occurred to her, and she clutched the book tighter. Did she dare? Should she ask? Her mouth worked silently, and then before she could think better of it, she blurted, “I do need a date.”
PURCHASE A COPY
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“You can call me Trooper Holiday,” Kate corrected him.
“I apologize.” Though Templeton Cross did not look apologetic. “We keep it pretty informal around here. It helps remind us we’re not active duty anymore. Trooper Holiday.”
And there was . . . something else in the way he said that. It shivered all the way down the length of her back. Kate sat taller, but the glint in his dark eyes told her he knew why.
When he couldn’t. Of course he couldn’t.
“Let’s get back to this latest incident two nights ago. I’m assuming you know the details.”
“I know the details because I know a thing or two about explosives,” Templeton said, which was agreeing without incriminating himself, as Kate was certain he knew. “And I tend to take a dim view of them being used in the place where I live. Call it a weird preference of mine if you want. So, yeah, I’m aware that some joker blew up a boat. Until your office called us, we figured it was the usual drunk nonsense. Because, let’s face it, out here it usually is.”
“Was it drunk nonsense that knocked your friend Rory on the head and left him tied up for a few hours last spring?”
“My recollection is that he fell.”
“That’s not even a good lie. A man like you can do better. I’m sure of it.”
“First, how can a recollection be a lie? You know what memories are like. So unreliable. And second, what do you mean by a man like me?”
Kate smiled. “This whole performance. Swaggering in late. Lounging around like you don’t have a care in the world. I understand why Alaska Force picked you to be their ambassador. You seem so friendly. So approachable, until a person realizes that it’s all a show. And I saw your face when you walked in the door. Before you started smiling so much. I think that’s probably a whole lot closer to the real Templeton Cross.”
She didn’t know when the tension between them had gotten so thick, but she didn’t do anything to break it. She waited, her gaze steady on his, to see what he would do.
To see who he was.
“I’m pretty sure there’s only one Templeton Cross,” he said after a beat, his voice a deep, amused rumble. “I don’t keep extra ones in a jar by the door.” He tapped a lazy finger on the table between them. Kate figured he was reminding her of his intense physicality, the way men often did. Though she didn’t usually feel it inside her, as if he’d stroked her with that finger. “Life isn’t a Beatles song, you know.”
“I read your military file, and what wasn’t classified made it pretty clear that you’re one of the most dangerous men alive today. And what I have to ask myself is why a man with your background would spend so much time trying to convince me that he’s a tabby cat.”
“A tabby cat? I can tell you with one hundred percent honesty that I have never attempted to act like a tabby cat in my entire life.”
“You’re only making this worse for yourself,” Kate said softly. “You’re making me wonder what you’re trying to hide. And when I start wondering about things, it tends to lead to investigations. And those investigations tend to lead to convictions. Incarcerations. You get where I’m going with this.”
“I can’t say I’m a big fan of cages. Or courtrooms.”
“Then I suggest you help me.”
“I’m nothing if not helpful.” His gaze got significantly more intense when he stopped smiling. “How about this? Alaska Force is being framed.”
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