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Hands on his hips, Police Sergeant Noah Briscoe, head of the general investigations unit, stared at the smoldering rubble of what was once the number-one historical landmark in Pine Crest, Virginia. The mansion home of Colin T. Price, arguably the most beloved governor who ever held the state's office, and visited by over half a million tourists a year.
The acrid stench assaulted Noah with dark memories that he impatiently shoved aside. No. He would not go there.
But how did he block out the past when charred metal thrust up from the smoldering heap like blackened bones, taunted him, reminding him of another burned house, another injured woman, another ruined Christmas?
When the call came in, Noah had been at a twenty-four-hour gym, working out his frustrations. Lately, he'd had trouble sleeping and it had a lot to do with the stress of the holiday season. Crime went up in November and December. Robbery, shoplifting, domestic abuse. Something about the holidays riled people. If it were up to Noah, he'd outlaw the whole damn thing.
But there was a secondary reason he hadn't been able to sleep. Sexual frustration. He hadn't had sex in almost a year and he seriously needed it bad. There was only so much exercising a man could do, after all.
And whenever he thought of sex, he thought of Alana O'Hara, the fiery, redheaded defense attorney he'd almost talked into bed this past summer, before common sense prevailed. They'd flirted for weeks, shared a deep wet tongue kiss in her office and gone out on exactly one date.
At the end of the evening, after they took the making out far past second base in the back seat of his SUV, Alana had chickened out, telling him that while there was no denying the sexual chemistry, they just weren't compatible.
She was right.
They were oil and water, but hot damn that woman was something else. Great body, mind like a steel trap, strong opinions she wasn't afraid to voice. Noah suppressed a smile.
Thinking of Alana had the desired effect. It got his mind off those disturbing Christmas memories.
Now, refocus. Task at hand.
The arson investigator, Bic Beckham, was poking around in the ashes. Crime scene technicians snapped photographs. Firefighters moved to and fro. Noah's men were busy stringing out yellow crime-scene tape and setting up portable floodlights to aid the investigation and keeping the lookie-loos at bay behind sawhorse barricades.
An ambulance sat at the curb, strobes flashing red into the night as the paramedics loaded up the unidentified, unconscious woman who'd been found in the foyer of the mansion. She'd been overcome by smoke inhalation before she could reach the door.
Which raised the questions, who was she and what had she been doing in the mansion after hours?
After Noah finished here, he would follow the ambulance to the hospital to check on her condition. If she died, this would become a murder investigation and Homicide would take over.
"Briscoe." Bic beckoned with a crook of his finger. "C'mere"
Gingerly, Noah picked his way around puddles of water and hot debris to where Bic stood beside a pile of crumpled bricks that had previously been one of the mansion's four fireplace chimneys. "Whatcha got?"
"See here." Bic pointed to a thin blackened triangular mark seared into the brick paving stones that surrounded the toppled fireplace.
A very narrow V-shape char pattern was indicative of a fire that burned hotter than normal. Say, for instance, one that had been assisted by an accelerant. Noah ran a palm over his whisker-roughened chin.
"I'll know more when the embers cool and we can start sifting through the ashes," Bic said. "But between this and what the firefighters observed of the fire's behavior, it looks like we've got a case of arson on our hands."
Noah raked fingers through his hair. Who would want to burn down the town's biggest tourist attraction, and why?
Bic returned to his work. Noah called his men over, told them it was suspected arson. Most arsonists had a need to watch the fire they'd set and that was often how they were caught. "Anybody among those rubberneckers strike you as suspicious?"
"You mean besides Santa?" asked Jimmy Thornton, an earnest-faced, wet-behind-the-ears rookie. Santa?
Noah's gaze shifted in the direction Jimmy indicated. Sure enough, there was a man in a Santa suit standing in the middle of the crowd. Noah's gaze locked with the blue-eyed man of indeterminate age.
Santa held his stare, and inexplicably, Noah felt a chill pass straight through his bones. Was it just his aversion to all things Noel? Or was his gut trying to tell him something?
"Go find out who he is," Noah told Jimmy.
"You don't really think Santa is the arsonist, do you?"
Naive kid. Noah cocked an eyebrow, drilled him with a hard look. "You never heard of Bad Santa? He's not above breaking the law just because he's wearing a Santa suit."
Jimmy flushed. Looked embarrassed. Not so many years ago, the young rookie was hanging his stocking on the fireplace mantel. Hell, he probably still did.
"Thornton." Noah jerked his head in the direction of the chubby guy in red. "There's no such thing as Santa Claus.
Get on it."
"I'm going, Sarg." Jimmy hustled off. "Scrooge."
Noah turned to see Bic grinning at him. "Not you, too."
"Oh, I'm fully aware that arsonists come in all shapes, sizes, ages and outfits," Bic said. "But seriously, why would the guy commit arson while wearing a Santa suit? Too restrictive. Attracts too much attention. Not too mention he'd get soot all over himself."
"And then he could just say it's from sliding down a chimney. Perfect excuse."
Bic laughed and went back to what he was doing. Noah circled around to the front of the building, which was still largely intact. The foyer was where the first responders had found the unconscious mystery woman. She hadn't had any identification on her person, but maybe she'd had a purse. He touched the doorknob. It was cold.
He pushed open the door. Unlike the rest of the house, this area had less debris. Water from the firemen's diligent soaking dripped and splattered all around him.
Noah squatted, pulled a flashlight from his jacket pocket and shone it over the foyer floor. The heat had buckled the old mahogany wood. What a shame. He shook his head, ran the beam over the charred Persian rug that delineated the foyer from the parlor. His mother had brought him here on a Christmas tour when he was a kid. She'd loved both history and the holidays.
Dammit, there were those old memories again. It had been twenty years, but Christmas was a bitch, and now with the fire destroying the mansion it was inevitable he'd think about that other fire.
He scrubbed a palm down his face. What was going on? He'd made peace with his past long ago. Why had he been thinking about it lately?
Stop it. Pull out some of your X-rated daydreams of Alana O 'Hara. Remember the one where she's dressed up in thigh-high black leather boots and a little red bikini?
Noah smiled at the visual. Their relationship might never have gotten off the ground, but Alana was a big help when he needed to redirect his attention. Just thinking about those million-mile-long legs and that full head of lush auburn hair
Something glinted in the beam of his flashlight. Wait a minute. What was that? His brain caught up with his eyes and he realized what he was seeing.
A gold belt buckle attached to a long, four-inch-wide black belt. The belt was large enough to encircle at least a forty-four-inch waist.
He straightened, took a pair of rubber gloves from his pocket and then leaned over to carefully lift a curl of blackened wallpaper that draped over the belt. It looked exactly like the sort of belt Santa Claus might wear. What was it doing here in the foyer of the Price Mansion?
Contrary to what television would have people believe, only fifteen percent of all arson cases were ever solved. Could he have gotten lucky right off the bat?
Noah peeled off the gloves, went outside and called to one of the crime scene techs to come photograph the evidence before bagging and tagging it. He scanned the crowd, searching for Santa or the rookie Jimmy Thornton, but saw neither.
Another one of his officers approached. "Sarg, we got a witness."
The officer consulted his tablet computer. "Agnes Gaines. Lives next door."
"Where is she?"
The officer indicated an elderly birdlike woman positioned behind the nearest sawhorse.
"Bring her over," Noah instructed.
The officer assisted the woman around the barricade. She was thin as a licorice whip with a tidy cap of snow-white hair. She wore a man's peacoat thrown over pajamas and house slippers. A pair of oversized glasses made her brown eyes appeared owlish.
"What did you see, Mrs. Gaines?"
"Miss Gaines," she corrected. "I never married."
"You saw something?" he asked, guiding her back to the topic at hand.
She nodded. "I couldn't sleep and I got up to make myself a glass of warm milk."
"What time was this?"
"Hmm, around eleven-thirty."
Noah glanced at his watch. It was 2:00 a.m. now. "What did you see?"
"I happened to notice the full moon shining through my kitchen window. I love a full moon, so I stepped out on the back porch for a good look."
He wanted to tell her to cut to the chase, Reader's Digest version, but he forced himself to be patient. Active listening was an essential tool in a good police officer's arsenal. "Yes, ma'am."
"The moon was hanging right over the Price Mansion, such an elegant old structure. Such a shame." She shook her head. Noah cleared his throat.
"I'm digressing, aren't I? Well, the moon was shining brightly and I saw the front door of the mansion open. I was paying close attention because there were no lights on inside and the building closes to the public at five, so there shouldn't be anyone in there. I was thinking it might be prankster kids. Then the door opens up and guess who struts out?"
"I have no idea, ma'am."
"I'm being coy, aren't I? Excuse me, Officer, it's a bad habit of mine. I was a high school drama teacher for forty-two years."
Noah shifted his weight, leaned forward and stared at her hard. "Yes, ma'am."
"Are you going to guess?"
Her mouth puckered in disappointment. "How did you know?"
"Lucky guess." He flicked his gaze to the patrol officer who'd brought Agnes over. "Walk Miss Gaines home."
"Yes, sir." The officer extended his arm to the witness. "This way, ma'am."
Santa Claus in the crowd. The belt from a Santa costume found in the foyer. And an eyewitness who placed a man in a Santa suit exiting the mansion just before the blaze started.
Ho, ho, ho. Merry fricking Christmas.
Jolly Saint Nick had just become Noah's number-one suspect.
Alana O'Hara was having one sizzling sex dream, featuring none other than the extremely virile Sergeant Noah Briscoe, when her ringing cell phone woke her just when they were getting to the good part.
She bolted upright, feeling hot and achy and frustrated. Why did she keep having erotic dreams about the man? It had been months since the date that had ended with a heavy petting session and the consensus that a relationship between them was untenable. She should have forgotten all about him by now.
Apparently, her subconscious had not. It was the third time this week she'd dreamed of Noah.
Maybe she should have just had sex with him and gotten him out of her system. She had to admit, he'd been a fabulous kisser and the things he could with his fingers .
She blew out a breath. Pure magic.
The phone rang again. She snagged it up. It was her boss, Dwight Jacoby.
"Got a public defender case for you," he said.
Of course. Those were the only solo cases she got. Unlike the majority ofjurisdictions, Pine Crest did not have a public defender's office. Instead, they used a panel of private law firms for those defendants who could not afford their own counsel. The firms operated as contractors and received fixed compensation from government coffers. Junior members of the law firms cut their teeth on such cases. "Yes, sir. What's the crime?" She tossed back the covers, got out of bed. Phone calls at three in the morning were part of the drill. As she talked, she stripped off her pajama bottoms and stepped into the skirt she'd worn the day before.
"Arson. Price Mansion."
"You're kidding. The Price Mansion burned?"
"Ahh, that's a crying shame. I loved that place."
"It is a town icon."
"Who's the accused?"
Dwight snorted. "This is the good part."
She slipped an arm from one sleeve of her pajama top, transferred the phone to the other ear and eased her other arm out, as well. "What's so funny?"
"What about Santa Claus?"
"Apparently, he's the firebug."
"No. Really?" In the darkness, she pulled open the bureau drawer, found her bra and wriggled into it. She hated hearing this. Alana adored Christmas. It was her absolute favorite time of year.
"Real name is get this Christopher Clausen. He works at the Pine Crest Mall, denies he started the fire even though they've got circumstantial evidence that proves otherwise and he's claiming he actually is Santa Claus. It's why I assigned you to the case. You've got that wide-eyed Christmas spirit."
"Why do I feel like I've stepped into a remake of Miracle on 34th Street?"
"Because you have." Dwight laughed. "Get down to the police station. They've got him in interrogation room two and they're waiting on you."
Fifteen minutes later, sans makeup, Alana knocked on the door of interrogation room two at the Pine Crest Police Department. The door opened and she found herself staring into a pair of sharp brown eyes.
Unnerved, her gaze slid past a rumpled, light blue button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up revealing tanned forearms, on down to long lean legs encased in black trousers and finally to a pair of new leather shoes that clearly had been tramping around a fire site.
She could smell the smoke on his clothes. Quickly, she darted a glance back at his face, wishing she'd taken the extra five minutes to put on some mascara, lipstick and blush.
No wonder she kept having sex dreams about him. He exuded a primal male energy that tugged low in her belly.
She knew he'd been up all night investigating the fire, but he looked alert and wide-awake, staring at her with that intense, cynical stare of his. Even so, there was an inner calmness about him that appealed to her. She came from a boisterous, argumentative family of mostly attorneys and judges who could debate either side of any issue. Noah was a man of singular convictions. Right and wrong. Black and white. While her world was totally gray. Complex and complicated.
Was that part of the attraction? The delineated simplicity of him?
"I'm Mr. Clausen's court-appointed counsel," she announced.
Noah sized her up with an appreciative glance, his gaze moving from her eyes to her lips and on down her body. Everywhere his gaze roamed she heated up.
Then he took a step closer and reached out and touched her sweater over her heart.
Startled, Alana jerked back.
"Let's not feed into his delusion," Noah said.
It was only then that she realized she wore a Santa Claus pin on her sweater. "Oh." She blinked. "Oh."
Smoothly, Noah bent his head, found the pin clasp and unhooked it. His knuckles grazed just over her breast.
She stopped breathing.
He stepped back, extended his hand. She held out her palm and he dropped the Santa pin into it. His masculine potency reminded her why she'd called things off between them. With his sarcastic wit, dark outlook and drop-dead gorgeous body, he'd simply been too much for her to handle.
"I'm not delusional," said the man handcuffed to the interrogation table. "I'm the real deal."
For the first time, Alana noticed her client.
He was dressed in full Santa regalia. She couldn't pinpoint his age. He was past middle-age, but not elderly. He possessed a robust figure, twinkling blue eyes, rosy cheeks and a genuine smile beneath a thick white beard. Red suit and hat with furry white collar and cuffs, black boots, white gloves. The only thing missing from the outfit was a wide black belt.
"Hello, Mr. Clausen," she said, "My name is Alana O'Hara."
"The spirit of Christmas." Clausen smiled.
"That's about all he'll say," Noah supplied. "Now that you're here, I'm hoping we'll get somewhere."
"What are the charges?"
Noah told her. She hadn't heard about the woman injured in the fire. That added a whole new wrinkle to the arson case. Santa was in deep trouble.