It'll take a tall, hot Texan and a little holiday spirit to mend a broken heart and catch a Christmas killer...
Savanna Edwards is feeling downright Scrooge-like. Who can blame her? A truly unjolly Santa -- suit, beard and all -- just repossessed her car because of her ex's shady business dealings. She'd like to murder the no-good-lying cheat, but somebody already did that for her - and left him right in the middle of her kitchen, wrapped up with a bow.
Detective Mark Donaldson has a rule against getting involved with his neighbors. He can look - and he's studied every sweet curve of Savanna from across the street - but he can't touch. So when she lands on his doorstep in need of help, he finds himself torn between being naughty or nice, and fights every urge to unwrap her like a shiny new Christmas present.Trouble is… even Mark can't resist a little holiday magic…and there's definitely something magical happening between him and the girl next door.
“Get your hand off my bumper!” Savanna Edwards clutched her pink, nubby housecoat to her chest against the frigid December air as she bolted across her yard to her driveway. Cold mud oozed between her toes.
“Did you hear me?” she yelled over the sound of “Grandma Got Ran Over By a Reindeer” bellowing out of the wrecker. She came to a sudden stop, her breath catching with shock at the sight of the man hooking up her Mustang.
Santa Claus was stealing her car.
“I heard you lady.” Crouched down at her bumper, his long white beard dangled between his knees. He even donned the traditional red suit with the floppy hat sporting a white ball. When he finally looked up, his eyes widened.
The cold snuck beneath her robe, and afraid something might be showing, she tightened the housecoat around her. A chilly gust of wind tossed a heavy strand of mayonnaise-laden hair onto her forehead. That’s when she remembered she also had on a neon blue facial mask.
“What do you think you’re doing?” She’d heard the clanking while soaking in the tub—her Saturday morning pamper-me ritual. Having just replaced her mailbox after the neighborhood juvenile delinquents had smashed it to smithereens, she’d bolted out of the tub thinking she’d caught the hoodlums red-handed. It hadn’t been delinquents she found, but a wrecker backing up into her driveway behind her car.
Santa stood, his eyes roaming over her. “Just doing my job, Ma’am.”
“That’s my car.”
“Title Mama would argue that fact.”
“You give them a title, they loan you money? You pay ’em back, no problem. You don’t pay ’em back, you get me.”
“I didn’t borrow money using the title.” Even as she said the words, doubt formed in her gut. Her ex was a certifiable asshole, but he wouldn’t have stooped this low, would he?
Oh, hell, who was she kidding? Clint had brought his intern into her house while she’d been at the hospital with her dying mom. He had no stooping limits.
He walked to his truck and pulled out a clip board. “Read it and weep.”
Savanna glanced at the papers. There it was—her heart plummeted—her ex-husband’s signature on the contract. She really did feel like weeping.
When she looked up, Santa was back to work hooking up her car. “Stop! Please. This is a mistake. I got the car in the divorce. So if someone gave him a loan on it, it was . . . illegal.”
The wrecker driver’s eyes cut up to her. “I hate it when that happens.” He actually sounded sincere.
She felt the skin-firming, pore-reducing mask tighten her face. “Just let me call my ex and get this resolved. Please.”
“Sorry,” he muttered.
Blinking back the sting of tears, she saw a curtain in the house across the street flutter. Her gaze shot to the neighbor’s front door. Was he coming to her rescue? If anyone could help, he could.
After ten seconds of no one walking out, her gaze shot back to Repo Santa. “Look, he got the house, I got the car. It wasn’t even fair, but I didn’t want the house after . . .”
He stood up again. The Jolly Ol’ Soul’s knees popped, even though he didn’t look that old. “You seem like a nice lady. A little weird maybe.” He stared at her face. “Really weird, but I have a job to do. I’m Santa, I give to those who are good and take away from those who are bad.”
“I haven’t been bad.” Her heart pounded. She knew if she didn’t calm down she was going to hyperventilate. Or worse, she would fly into a complete rage and start kicking St. Nicholas’ ass. She could see the headline now: Local florist bashes Santa.
Her gaze cut back to the house across the street. She paid city taxes, the city paid her neighbor. That meant he basically worked for her. Tightening her robe’s belt, she high-stepped it across the street hoping to make it before Santa got away with her car.
• • •
Mark Donaldson backed away from the window, and stared at the steaming cup of coffee he held. Santa versus Smurf. Had to be a dream. He took a long swig of coffee, gave the caffeine a second to do its magic, and then looked out again.
He wasn’t dreaming.
And now his blue-faced, hot-looking neighbor was hot-footing it across the street. He dropped the curtain. She couldn’t be coming over here, could she?
He peeked out again. Yup. She was. The pounding started on his door. “Shit.” His gripped his cup tighter.
Just because she knocked, didn’t mean he had to answer.
Blowing on the too-hot coffee, he waited for her to leave, hoping she’d assume he wasn’t at home, or was still in bed. As the pounding continued, he surmised his neighbor was behind on her car payments and . . .
The doorbell chimed.
Then he heard her. “I know you’re in there. I saw you looking out your window!”
Frowning, he went and opened the door. A gust of 34-degree wind blew in and reminded him all he had on was a pair of boxers.
Her gaze shot to his eyes, then slipped down to his bare chest, and then inched down a bit more where it lingered around the belly button for an appreciative second, and then shot back up.
His gaze bypassed her blue face and gooey hair and shot to the V opening of her robe, slipped to the swell of her exposed breast and stayed there.
She clutched her robe tighter to hide the nice view. He didn’t do a damn thing to cover up. Let her look. It was all she was going to get from him. All he was going to get from her.
He took a slow sip of his coffee. “Yeah?”
“I need you,” she bellowed, sounding breathless.
He choked on the hot liquid.
Good line. It had been too long since a woman told him that, but this was a first. Never had it come from one painted like a smurf. Not that he didn’t know that below the mask was a pretty face. And while he wouldn’t mind another peek behind the robe, he’d seen and appreciated her body numerous times—from his side of the street, and with her clothes on, of course.
Well, he’d undressed her in his mind on more than one occasion, but that didn’t count.
The temptation to cross the street and introduce himself had crossed his mind. But logic had intervened. ‘Never get your meat where you get your bread.’ Meaning, don’t date anyone at work. And while he didn’t work with her, he was sure there was some kind of clever idiom about not sleeping with your neighbor. Maybe, ‘Don’t shit in your own backyard.’ That would work.
As pretty as she was, that had bad idea written all over it. Not that he’d had any other ideas lately. It had been a long time since . . . His gaze shifted back to the V at her neckline.
Another cold wind blew past her. He relented, and still holding the mug, he crossed his arms over his chest. “What do you need?” He knew damn well what she was going to say. But part of him liked having her on his doorstep — even if it wasn’t going to lead anywhere.
She hesitated. “You’re a cop.”
Yeah, that he was. And a plainsclothes cop. So how the hell did she know about that? This was a prime example of why he hadn’t gotten to know his neighbors. He didn’t want them coming to him with their speeding tickets and crap. He frowned. So she thought he could flash his badge and prevent Santa from impounding her car.
She thought wrong. He wasn’t even working for Piperville Police Department. He and his partner had recently transferred from Houston to a smaller precinct, Attalla, where they’d both been hired on as Homicide. They’d gotten bored of chasing robbers, and thought murderers would be more interesting.
“Santa Claus is stealing my car.” She pointed across the street.
Maybe she’d been a bad girl. “Are you behind on your payments?”
“I don’t owe payments on it.” She sighed. “It appears my ex-husband got a loan using the title, but the car belongs to me, so legally, if they take the car, they’re stealing it.”
He looked across the street then back to her. “Was the car in his name?”
She drew in a deep breath. “It doesn’t matter. The courts gave it me.”
He frowned. “It matters. I’m sure your lawyer told you to get the legal documents changed over.”
She glanced back at Santa hooking up her car. He caught another peek at the opening of the robe. Was she . . . naked beneath that thing? Things in his boxers started to twitch. Yup, it had been too long since he’d allowed himself some temporary company. The fact that he always went for the temporary kind was another point to why playing with the neighbor wasn’t a good idea.
She turned back to him. “I pay city taxes and you work for the city. You have to stop him.”
Right there, that’s the reason he didn’t get to know his neighbors, so how the hell . . . “I’m a homicide detective. If you had a dead body, I’d be your man. But I don’t deal with the car repos. I don’t even work for this city.”
She inhaled. “Well, there’s going to be a dead body if you don’t stop him, because I’m either going to kill Santa or I’m killing my ex.”
Desperation shined in her blue eyes, eyes that looked brighter due to her blue face. Frowning, he walked over to the sofa and snagged his leather jacket, and slipped it on. “All I can do is check if he has the proper paperwork. If he does, you’re on your own.”
He was right. She was on her own. As Santa drove off with her silver Honda, Savanna Edwards couldn’t have looked unhappier. Or bluer. A couple of tears ran down her blue cheeks. But damn he hated seeing a woman cry, even a smurf woman.
And then bam! Just like that, he felt bad. He couldn’t have stopped Santa, but damn it. Did he have to be so callous? Christ! Was he turning into his parents? Afraid to feel any empathy for fear someone would use it against him?
It wasn’t her fault he’d been in a bad mood for two years. Or that during that time he’d only gotten laid a few times. And none of them had even been particularly good. He opened his mouth to apologize, but she spoke first.
“Thanks for nothing!” She stormed back inside her house, slamming the door in her wake.
He sighed. “Merry Christmas.”
• • •
Three hours later, Savanna, parked her rental car in front of Juan’s Place, to meet her friends for their bi-monthly get-together. She’d almost canceled and spent her Saturday buried in her bed keeping her cat company. But since she’d reneged on going on the girl’s annual Vegas trip, Bethany, one of her best friends, had threatened to kidnap her if she didn’t show. Bethany, a criminal lawyer, didn’t make idol threats.
So here Savanna was, pissy mood and all, about to meet her best buds and send them off on a three-day trip without her. Well, at least two of them were best buds. Bethany and Jennifer had been in her life since junior high. Mandy, an acquaintance of Bethany, had joined the group more recently.
“What are you driving?” Bethany, the only redhead in the group, asked, as Savanna dropped into a chair.
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Spanish Christmas music blared from above and someone with ADD had strung twinkling lights from every place stringable.
“Okay.” Jennifer’s shrug sent her brown ponytail bobbing off her shoulders.
“It’s not okay,” Mandy insisted. “We tell each other everything. I even told you about my new boyfriend’s fascination with—”
“And we didn’t have to know about that,” Bethany said. “Now every time I see him, I get this visual of him . . . doing it.”
Savanna swallowed. “If you must know, Santa stole my car.”
“Santa?” Mandy asked.
“Yeah.” She waved down Leonardo, the waiter.
“Do you mean that metaphorically or literally?” Mandy asked.
“Don’t push her,” Bethany said. “You see that forehead wrinkle? When she has that, you don’t pry. She’ll tell us in her own time. She always does.”
Savanna rubbed her forehead. “Is it too early for margaritas?”
“This must be serious,” Jennifer said.
Savanna slumped back in her chair. “If I get drunk, will one of you drive me home?”
“Of course we will,” Bethany said. “You did it for me when I got my divorce.”
“Fine.” Savanna motioned at Leonardo again.
He offered her a fluttery wave as if to say he’d be over shortly.
“Okay.” Jennifer looked at Mandy, who was now working for a manufacturing business. Mandy, blond and pretty, had cut her hair short to downplay her femininity because of her job. “Finish what you were saying about turtle doves.”
Mandy sat up and continued, “Well, each department was asked to choose one of the twelve days of Christmas to decorate our department. Mr. Pancy, my boss, wanted to go with the Nine Ladies Dancing. The guy’s such a pervert he considered hiring nine strippers. I argued that the doves would be the best choice. I mean, who doesn’t love doves? They are beautiful, make cooing noises, and did you know they’re monogamous?”
“Monogamous?” Savanna asked.
“Yeah. Isn’t that romantic?” Mandy answered.
“Please,” Savanna said. “You can’t tell me that there’s not a male dove somewhere who thinks he has bigger beak, and isn’t strutting his stuff in front of some younger, hot-looking dove and saying, ‘Hey baby, come to my nest and let me ruffle your feathers while my wife is off taking care of her sick mama!’”
“So it’s about Clint?” Bethany looked back at Mandy. “Told you she’d tell us.”
“But I thought you said you didn’t love him anymore.” Mandy sounded concerned.
“I don’t love him!” Savanna snapped. “He used the title of the Honda to get a loan, and didn’t pay it. I’m soaking in the tub with my blue mask on when a wrecker driver dressed like Santa pulls up and starts hooking up my car to take it away.”
“You didn’t get the title turned over to your name after the divorce?” Bethany asked.
Savanna shook her head. “I know I was supposed to. It was on my list to do, but—”
“Don’t beat yourself up,” Jennifer said. “Grief screws you up.” Jennifer who’d lost her mom when she was sixteen was still grief stricken. But then again, Savanna could understand. Losing your mom sucked.
“I can’t believe Clint did that!” Bethany seethed.
“I can,” Mandy added.
“I told that asshole what would happen if he messed with you again!” Vengeance, the kind she used in the courtroom, tightened Bethany’s tone.
Savanna rested her palm on Bethany’s hand. “It’s not your fault.” Because Clint was Bethany’s cousin, and the one who’d introduced them, Bethany felt responsible. “I married the jerk. You even warned me.”
“Give me the information and I’ll look into it,” Bethany said. “I swear, I’ll chew his ass up one side and down the other in court! He’ll pay for this.”
Savanna reached into her purse and pulled out the paperwork. “Here’s everything Santa gave me.”
Bethany looked at the paperwork. “Is the guy’s last name really Claus?” She grabbed her phone and dialed a number. “Mr. Claus,” she said,” this is Bethany Carver. I’m Savanna Edwards’ lawyer. Can you tell me . . .”
“Only five more days till Christmas. ” Leonardo popped over to the table. “Have you beautiful bitches decided what you want for Christmas yet?”
“I want a body lift,” Jennifer said.
“Your body is tight,” Leonardo said.
Mandy huffed. “I want my new boyfriend to stop lighting up his farts.”
Bethany, still talking to Santa, held up her hand. All eyes went to Savanna. “I want my ex dead with a ribbon tied around his pecker!” She frowned when she realized she’d said it too loud. Laughter filled the restaurant.
“Sorry.” Savanna looked up at the waiter and Bethany moving away from the table. “Can I have a margarita?”
Leonardo chuckled. “Honey, you don’t have to explain. I’ve had more than one guy break my heart, too. Men can be evil creatures. But we still love ’em, don’t we?”
Right then, Bethany returned. “Okay, I’ve officially started working on the case.” She frowned. “Unfortunately, I can’t promise how long it will take or even if I can get your car back. It’s already been turned over to Title Mama.”
“What are you going to do about a car?” Jennifer asked.
Savanna let out a gulp of air. “I guess I’ll have to use the money from the life insurance.”
“She’d want you to use it,” Bethany said.
“I know, it’s just . . .” Tears filled her eyes. “I’m sorry. It’s been over a year, and I should so be over this.”
Jennifer leaned closer. “You don’t just get over your mom dying. Plus you lost your mom and your marriage the same day. That’s a double whammy.”
Savanna took a deep breath. “I thought I was over the whole Clint thing and . . .” She shook her head. “I am over him. I don’t love him. I’m just mad. And . . . using the money doesn’t feel right.”
“Have you been to her gravesite and talked to her like I told you to?” Jennifer asked.
“No.” Savanna’s lips trembled.
Bethany leaned her shoulder into Savanna’s. “Your mom had the insurance for ten years. It was to take care of you. You shouldn’t feel guilty.”
“I know that here,” Savanna pointed to her head. “I just don’t know it here.” She put a hand over her heart.
“Maybe this will help!” the deep, slightly accented voice said. “It’s on the house.” Juan, the owner of the restaurant, a tall, dark and gorgeous man, set a frozen margarita in front of her. “You know, Savanna, there is nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” He smiled. “Maybe not kill your ex and tie a ribbon around a certain body part, but I would hire it to be done if you wanted me to.”
They all laughed, Savanna included. Juan had asked her out a while back, but Savanna had told him she wasn’t ready to date. Sadly, it wasn’t altogether true. She was ready, or close to it, just not with him.
“I’d do it for her,” Bethany said. “And I’d tie that ribbon in a tight bow!”
“Remind me never to make you mad,” Juan said and grinned at Bethany.
They all laughed again and the pressure in Savanna’s chest lightened. Nothing like being with her friends. And even knowing a handsome guy was interested made her feel . . . Well, it boosted her ego, but unfortunately her ego was the only part of her the hot Latin guy affected. He was like looking at a piece of calorie-laden dessert with fancy frosting. One that she didn’t particularly like all that much. It was pretty to look at it, but didn’t tempt her.
When Juan left, Jennifer crossed her hands over her chest. “I think you should come to Vegas with us. Forget about this and let’s go have fun.”
Savanna shook her head. “I can’t. Especially now.”
“I told you I’d spot you a loan until you decide to use the money,” Bethany said.
“No,” Savanna said.
Bethany’s gaze shifted to the bar. She leaned in and whispered. “Okay, stay home and go out with Juan. Seriously, I’d date him for his butt alone.”
“We’d probably get free food and margaritas,” Mandy said.
“He’s hot,” Jennifer said. “And that voice . . . I could come just listening to him talk.”
Savanna spoke low. “I just don’t feel the spark.”
“Divorce impairs your sparking abilities,” Bethany said. “Sometimes it takes being recharged.” She glanced back to the bar. “And Juan looks like he has recharging potential.”
“Oh, my sparking abilities are working.” Savanna sipped her margarita, remembering how good her neighbor had looked. “I went to my neighbor begging for help this morning. You know, the good looking blond, green-eyed cop I told you about. Well, even during a crisis, I was sparking all over the place. The guy answered the door without a shirt on and he looked like he walked off a magazine ad. I thought six packs like his were air brushed. But nope.”
“Wait,” Mandy said. “He’s a cop but he didn’t stop Santa from stealing your car?”
“I said he had nice abs, not that he was nice. He looked at the guy’s paperwork and didn’t do a damn thing.”
“In his defense,” Bethany said, “he couldn’t do anything if the paperwork was in order. But I’m glad you said he was there. If I need a witness that you told the guy it was your car, he’ll do just fine.”
“I’m not sure he’d testify for me. Really, he was . . . almost a jerk. He could’ve at least pretended to be sympathetic.”
“The good-looking ones are assholes,” Mandy said. “Look at Clint.”
Savanna frowned. “Please, don’t give Clint an easy out. He’s not even that good looking.”
“I don’t think Clint’s hot at all,” Bethany said.
“That’s because he’s your cousin,” Mandy said. “He’s just a good-looking asshole,” she said with surprising conviction.
Bethany’s phone rang. She looked at her screen. “Hmm, it’s Santa again.”
“Tell him all I want for Christmas is my car back,” Savanna said.
“What are you doing here?”
Mark looked up from his desk at his partner, Jake Baldwin, propped against the doorjamb. “I could ask you the same question. What? Did Macy already kick your ass out?” His gaze went back to the computer as the information filled the screen. “I told you she was too good for you.”
“Only because you wanted her for yourself,” Jake shot back.
“If I really wanted her, I’d have taken her,” Mark teased then refocused on the screen.
“How’s that? I’m better looking than you, and your bank account wouldn’t have impressed her.”
“And that’s why I liked her,” Mark muttered in humor, as he continued to read. Besides a couple of outstanding speeding tickets, the cops had gone to the guy’s house on a domestic violence call last month. The girlfriend, an Amanda Adams, had refused to press charges.
“I swear, you make being rich sound so hard,” Jake said.
“It’s being rich and so damn good looking that’s tough,” he said and leaned back in his chair. “Where is your better half?”
“At a baby shower.” Jake walked in and leaned against Mark’s desk. “I went by your house to see if you wanted to shoot some hoops. When you weren’t there I thought I’d come here and catch up on some paperwork.”
“You should’ve called,” Mark said.
“I was hoping you had a hot date and I didn’t want to interfere.” Jake gazed at the computer. “What’s this about?”
“Just looking into something for a neighbor.”
Mark eyed him. “How do you know—?”
“I stopped by your house a couple weeks ago and you weren’t there. She was mowing her lawn. We struck up a conversation.”
Mark’s mind went to the time he’d watched her mow the lawn. It’d been right after they’d both moved in . . . over the summer. She’d been wearing shorts and a bathing suit top. He’d gotten a beer and sat by the window to enjoy the view.
He glanced up at Jake. “You’re married.”
“I talked to her, I didn’t ask her out. I even hinted she should meet you.”
Mark frowned. “You told her I’m a cop. You’re the reason she came banging on my door!”
“Excuse me for sending a pretty woman your way.”
“She’s my neighbor,” Mark said.
“You don’t shit in your own backyard.”
“What?” Jake laughed.
“It’s a comparison. You know, like you don’t get your meat the same—”
“Got it. Believe it or not, even without a master’s degree, I’ve heard of idioms, but what I don’t get is why you’re equating sex with shitting. No wonder you don’t get lucky very often. And when you do, they don’t hang around.”
Mark stared up at his partner having a little more fun than he should. Not that it was a surprise. Giving each other hell was what they did. “Since when is my getting lucky any of your business?”
“Since you get grumpy when you don’t get any.” Jake looked back at the screen. “So who’s Clint Edwards?”
“Savanna’s ex.” Mark frowned. “She had her car repoed this morning. She said her ex used the title illegally to get a loan and he hasn’t been making payments.”
“Sounds like a nice guy.”
“So you and her . . .” He held out his hands. “Are you . . . you know?”
“No, she just came over this morning hoping I’d save her car from Santa.”
Mark frowned. “The wrecker driver was dressed up like Santa.”
“Ouch. That would make it sting more.”
“Yeah,” Mark said.
“So you’re going to look into it for her?”
“No, I was just . . .”
“Looking into it.”
“Yeah, but she admits that the title was still in her husband’s name. I can’t do crap.”
Jake’s brow pinched. “Then why are you even checking?”
“I don’t think she was pleased with me when I couldn’t stop it.”
“Oh, hell, you gave her the Donaldson ‘tude, didn’t you?”
“I don’t have a ‘tude.” But he knew it was a lie. His upbringing had left residuals on his outlook.
“Yeah, you do. You act like a dick. Then you realize your rich brat persona is coming out, and you feel bad and you go overboard trying to be nice. It’s how you operate.” Jake crossed his arms over his chest. “I’ll bet you’ve already apologized.”
Mark frowned. “No.” He’d been planning to when he saw a car rental place pick her up. Then when she’d driven back home, he’d gone to get dressed, but she’d left before he’d stepped out.
But there was always tonight.
• • •
The cold had Savanna pulling her coat closer around herself, but she continued to talk. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been here, an hour, two, long enough for her butt to go numb, but it felt right. Not the numb butt, but the talking.
“I know it’s crazy, but it feels like if I use the money I’m saying that I’m okay with you dying. And it’s not okay. I don’t want your money, Mom. I want you. Fifty was too damn young.” Savanna brushed the tears back.
She’d ended up hanging out the entire day and evening with Bethany and Jennifer. Then Mandy came over later and Savanna drove them to the airport.
She’d started home after that, but she remembered Jennifer’s question. Have you been to her gravesite and talked to her like I told you to?
She hadn’t. Hadn’t come back since the funeral . She blamed it on being busy at the flower shop, blamed it on having to deal with the divorce. Blamed it on the fact that the cemetery was an hour and a half away. But tonight the truth clawed at her conscience. She hadn’t come because it was easier to pretend it hadn’t happened. Sure, she missed her mom like the devil, but missing her wasn’t the same as accepting she’d never see her again, that they’d never spend an afternoon drinking tea and talking about their next mother/daughter vacation. She’d never spend an entire day shopping for the craziest Christmas mug, or look forward to seeing what kind of mug her mom would get her.
This next year they were supposed to go to New Orleans, tour the old homes, hit a few casinos, drink café lattés and eat tons of beignets.
There would be no beignets.
So instead of going home, she’d driven to the cemetery. One of the gates had been locked but she found the side gate open. The moon provided just enough light for Savanna to see her way to the back of the tree-laden cemetery. It should have been scary, surrounded by graves and huge trees with Spanish moss dangling from them like in some scary movie. But it wasn’t. Maybe because she didn’t believe in ghosts, if so her mom would have come back, or maybe because Savanna really wanted to talk to her mom.
So sitting in the cold, dark graveyard, the moon’s silvery glow the only light, she told her mom she’d been right about Clint not being the right guy for her. Though she wasn’t sure he was anyone’s right guy. She told her about Santa stealing her car, and for some reason she told her about the rude, shirtless, great-abs neighbor. As time slid by, she finally told her mom goodbye . . . for the first time. It hurt like hell, she cried. Well, more like she wept. But it was cathartic.
As she got up to call it a night, the moon suddenly got lost behind a cloud. The dark got darker. The wind whispered through the graveyard. And then she heard it. A shuffling noise right behind her. Her heart stopped and she swung around.
Mark stayed up late catching up on his Netflix. After he showered, he’d headed to bed when he heard a car crank its engine. Wearing nothing but a towel, he went to his bedroom window. His eyes went straight to Savanna Edward’s driveway. A pair of taillights rolled past Savanna’s house as if they might have just pulled away from her curb, but it wasn’t the rental car he’d seen her drive away in earlier.
He went to bed, but for some reason instantly recalled the peek he’d gotten beneath Savanna’s housecoat. But damn, he had to stop obsessing over her. He owed her an apology and planned to give her a number to a lawyer he knew accepted pro bono cases. Obviously, if her car being impounded was a big deal, she couldn’t afford a lawyer. But after that, he’d retreat back into his cave, and secretly have his fantasies about her.
He didn’t need to shit in his own . . . dropping back into bed, he raked a hand over his face. Jake was right. That was a bad comparison, but the point remained. He didn’t need to start a relationship with a neighbor. It could get messy. He didn’t do messy.
He just walked away. Or they did.
I don’t want to be married to a cop. Robyn’s words whispered through his head.
He hadn’t been thrilled with her career choice of political advisor. It reminded him too much of his parents, whom he’d wanted to escape, but he’d accepted it because he loved her. Who knew the love hadn’t been a two-way street?
Your dad told me he’s cutting you off if you don’t take the bar exam.
His dad always made threats. His mom wouldn’t let him carry through with them. But it wouldn’t have mattered. Most of the family money didn’t come to him through his dad. It was a trust fund from his grandfather, but Robyn hadn’t known that. And he hadn’t known or realized his money had been so important to her.
Grow up, Mark, stop playing cops and robbers, and do as your dad says. Or . . . I walk away.
Ultimatums, he hated them. So he’d opened the door and gave her directions out of his life. He was better off without her. He knew that. His biggest issue wasn’t getting over her. It was getting over feeling like an idiot. Feeling used. They had dated for two years, lived together for six months. He’d loved her. Thought she’d loved him. Thought she was marrying him for himself and not for the family’s money or prestige.
After that, every relationship he was in, with the exception of his relationships at work, had him second-guessing people’s motives. Even if it wasn’t about his money. His last almost girlfriend, who didn’t know about his bank account, whom he’d dated for only a couple of weeks, had handed him a stack of parking tickets.
I thought this was one of the perks of dating a cop.
Turning on the television to chase away his thoughts, he watched a reality show about pawn shops. At the commercial, he heard another car pull up. He glanced at the clock, midnight. He shot up to the window. It was her. Alone. What had kept her out all night? A man? Did his neighbor have a lover she’d run to after her bad day? Lucky guy.
He watched her hurry to her front door. He’d bet she was all warm and soft under that jacket. His hands itched to slip under that black cloth and find that warmth, to touch what had peeked out under the housecoat this morning. What kind of lover would Savanna be? A little wild and crazy? Slow and sensual? Right now, both appealed to him.
But damn, he needed to get that woman out of his head.
• • •
As Savanna unlocked her door, the hair stood up on the back of her neck. She’d been jumpy since the skunk startled her at the cemetery. The thing had stood there with yellow beedy eyes and just stared at her. She’d been lucky he hadn’t turned around and skunked her.
When her hair continued to dance on her neck, she looked over her shoulder, her gaze ending up at the house across the street. She could swear she saw the blinds shimmy. Was he watching her?
Her mind recreated an image of Mr. Hottie without his shirt—a dusting of light brown hair across his chest, then a treasure trail disappearing into his boxers. Remembering his I-could-care-less demeanor this morning, she shook off the image.
Boots meowed behind the door and Savanna walked in. The darkness enveloped her, reminding her that, besides her mom’s cat, she was alone. Completely and totally alone. Her chest suddenly felt hollow.
The heater kicked on and her relatively new one-story house, in a semi-nice neighborhood, groaned. She felt the darkness again. Obviously she’d been so upset in leaving today that she’d forgotten to leave the entryway light on. Had she even fed Boots this morning? She recalled setting out a dish. Okay, she wasn’t a totally bad pet owner. “Kitty, Kitty.”
She dropped her purse on the small bench seat in her entryway. Boots did a figure eight around her ankles. Savanna knelt to give the cat a scratch behind the ear, her loneliness fading. “Sometimes I wonder if Mom didn’t get you for me.” Another sting of tears hit her eyes. Her mom had gotten the cat after she’d been diagnosed with cancer and only two months before she died.
“You hungry? Let me change clothes and I’ll feed you.”
Savanna darted into her bedroom, hit the lamp switch, stripped off all her clothes and donned a white silk nightshirt. The warm slinky fabric caressed her body. In some distant part of her brain, she longed for something other than silk to touch her. Maybe Bethany was right, it was time to start dipping her toe into the dating pool. Her mind went to Juan, then pushed the thought away. Not him. The image of the neighbor’s naked torso filled her head.
“Not him either,” she muttered, but her skin went super-sensitive again.
She tossed her clothes in the hamper. Boots called her from the other room. “Coming, sweetie.”
She walked through the dark living area and into the darker kitchen and headed for the stove to switch on the oven light.
“You hungry? Mama’s—” Her foot caught on something and she went down.
“Shit,” she muttered, her knees taking the brunt of her fall. Unsure of what had tripped her, she went to stand, and instantly became aware of something sticky on her palms.
Standing up, she rubbed her right knee, and felt more moisture there. Boots meowed again. Savanna looked up, her vision still adjusting to the darkness, only allowed her to make out shapes. Her breath caught when she realized exactly what the shape looked like. She turned and hit the light switch. Light splashed across the room. From that second on everything seemed to happen in slow motion.
She blinked. Her lids fluttered closed, then open.
She saw the dark sticky red substance on her palms—and on her knees. She drew a mouthful of air into her lungs. The metallic smell filled her nose. Not believing her eyes, she swiped her hands on her night shirt. The smear of red on white had her choking on another gulp of air.
She raised her eyes. She saw . . . him.
Clint naked on her kitchen floor.
A naked Clint lying too still.
A naked Clint with his eyes open, but with no life.
She saw Clint’s throat . . . slashed.
Saw Clint . . . dead.
Blood pooled around his body.
A ribbon tied around. . .
She saw Boots’ bloody paws swatting at the ribbon.
She screamed, but nothing came out.
She turned and ran.
Ran for the door.
Ran out the door. Without her keys.
Ran without a thought of where she was going. Or that she didn’t have on any underwear.
Then she remembered. If you had a dead body, I’d be your man. Her neighbor’s words echoed in her head like a dream. The scream locked in her throat finally escaped.
The dark night seemed to swallow it.
She bolted across the street into his yard. She continued to scream. Her mind felt numb as if someone had just given it a shot of Novocain. Clint’s image kept flashing in her head.
Black dots filled her vision. She pounded on her neighbor’s door, her knees wobbled, the numbness in her mind spreading to her arms and legs.
• • •
Mark had barely got in bed when the scream had him jackknifing up. The pounding at his front door had him grabbing for his gun.
He got almost to his front door when he realized he was naked. Bolting back to the bedroom, the screams had him foregoing get dressed. He snagged his towel and darted back out.
The cry for help grew louder. He ran to the window to see what awaited him on his porch. His neighbor. Just his neighbor—screaming in a frenzy.
He knotted the towel around his waist and opened the door. “What is it?”
His kept his gun down, but his gaze shifted around, seeking a threat.
Nothing. No threat.
He focused back on her.
She’d stopped screaming, her whole body working to bring the oxygen in and out. Shaking. Uncontrollable shaking. Eyes wide. White face.
Panic. He’d seen it numerous times on the job.
But it was what was on her nightshirt that had his breath catching. Blood?
“What happened?” he demanded.
“Body.” One word slipped out. She slumped forward, falling into a dead faint.