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James Fitzpatrick, known to his co-workers as Fitz, his mother as Jimmy-boy, his stepfather as That Kid, and most of the women he met as a heartless bastard, slid through the shadows, blending in silently. It was a cold night in Boston the wind was blowing, but at least the snow had stopped for the time being. Two weeks before Christmas and the snow on the ground was wet and slushy. He was wearing black Converse All Stars, because they were fast and light and blended in with the night. They were also made of canvas and soaked with wet, dirty snow.
His feet were the least of his problems. The patrol car was cruising past the alleyway, the bright beam of light scouring every corner, but he was skinny enough to duck back, flattening himself against the brick wall, holding his breath. He didn't want to have to shoot another cop, but he wouldn't hesitate if he had to. Right now there wasn't room for sentiment. He was out to survive, at all costs.
The police cruiser kept moving, but he didn't allow himself to relax, even for a moment. Two blocks over, the Downtown Crossing district was jammed with shoppers, and there was always the possibility he could blend in with them. But the police were everywhere, searching for him, and he couldn't count on luck.
He slid out of the shadows, cursing as the pain lanced him. The bullet had gone straight through him, ruining the expensive leather jacket his ex-girlfriend had given him, which was probably a good thing. He was tempted to dump it, but he was bleeding like a pig. The cops didn't know they'd winged him, but it would be easy enough to follow the blood trail.
He bent down and scooped up a handful of the dirty snow, packing itagainst his side where the bullet had grazed him, letting out a low, profane litany of curses under his breath. The rapidly melting slush should slow the bleeding down, just enough so that they'd lose his trail. In the meantime he had to find a way to get the hell out of there and find the woman he'd targeted.
He could hear the noise of the crowd two blocks over, the incessant ringing of the bells from the sidewalk Santas. If he didn't figure out how to get out of Boston fast, he was going to end up dead. Boston cops had a habit of shooting to kill when one of their own was shot, and Detective Grady Barber was dead. The man who killed him had to pay.
He turned the corner, keeping close to the sides of the building. Macy's and Farnham's were up ahead, along with the various big discount stores that had taken over the rest of the stately old department stores his mother had loved. He could see the lights up ahead, the crowds milling. He couldn't hide in the shadows forever. She'd be in there somewhere, but with the hole in his side he couldn't wait forever for her to emerge.
He glanced down at his side. He was wearing a black T-shirt, and any blood would be hard to spot. He could stay in the shadows and wait for them to find him, shoot him.
Or he could move.
And James Fitzpatrick moved.
"That is the most hideous dress I have ever seen in my life," Jackie said, never one to mince words.
Dr. Eloise Pollard ignored her, staring at her reflection in the three angled mirrors. "You're right," she said. "Nothing I can do about it. It belonged to Richard's mother and he's insisting it would break her heart if I didn't wear it. I'm just lucky that Farnham's is willing to do the alterations on it."
Jackie shook her head. "I wouldn't call that luck. It serves you right for waiting 'til the last minute to choose a wedding dress. If I know the old bat she's just trying to make you look ridiculous so Richard will change his mind. Even with professional alterations you're going to look like something out of Gone With the Wind."
Ellie closed her eyes for a moment, hoping when she opened them the reflection would be better. It wasn't. She looked like a giant wedding cake, festooned with garlands of lace. Exactly the wrong look for her strong, big-boned body. "It's just for one day, and it means a lot to Richard. And isn't that what matters?"
"Absolutely not. If you go into a marriage trying to please your fathead of a husband you're doomed from the start," Jackie said, leaning back against the dressing-room wall.
"He's not a fathead."
"I would have thought an Aussie would have more common sense," Jackie went on, undeterred. "You're all supposed to be practical and down-to-earth. Richard has a stick up his ass. He'll probably want you to stop practicing medicine and stay home to raise his fatheaded children."
"Hey, they'll be my fatheaded children, too," Ellie protested. "And I can keep my practice and be a mother at the same time. It'll just require a little juggling."
"I don't see Richard as a juggler." Jackie pushed away from the wall. "I need a cigarette. Take off that godforsaken dress and come with me."
"I don't enable," Ellie said absently. "And the dress isn't that bad, is it?"
"I'm getting married in a weekI don't think there's anything I can do about it." She tugged at one ruffle, trying to smooth down the frilliness. She should have known better. Women who were six feet tall didn't look good in girly-girl ruffles, particularly if they were possessed of a traditional hourglass figure. She should have told Richard no, should have chosen something plain, something that would disguise her voluptuous curves like her lab coat.
"I'm going for a cigarette," Jackie said again. "I'll meet you outside when you come to your senses."
"Don't hold your breath," Ellie muttered. There were times in her life when she didn't have much of a choice, and this was one of them. She wanted to marry Richardhe was the perfect man for her. Tall enough, elegant, old-Boston money that had at first dazzled her. She'd had no one left in Australia when she came to Boston for her residency, and no reason to go back. Richard came equipped with a new familyhis gorgon of a mother, his three overbred sisters, who looked at her as if she were a rabid dog, and three totally cowed brothers-in-law. All Richard's sisters had flat-out refused to wear The Dress, and she should have realized why.
She sighed. Worse things had happened in this life. She reached behind to unzip the dress, only to encounter an endless row of silk-covered buttons that she couldn't even begin to unfasten without dislocating her shoulder.
"Bloody hell," she muttered. Jackie had fastened the damned thing for her, and now her friend was off polluting her lungs and the less-than-pristine air of downtown Boston, while Ellie was trapped inside this spun-sugar creation, waiting for the tailor who would alter it for her.
To top it all off, an alarm suddenly blared through the sound system, drowning out the manic cheer of "Holly Jolly Christmas."
"We've been ordered to evacuate the building by the Boston Police Department. Please make your way to the nearest exit in an orderly fashion. There is no need to panic. Leave your packages behindyou'll be allowed in to collect them as soon as we're given the all-clear."
Ellie yanked harder on the dress, but the buttons held. The siren kept blaring, so loud that it was giving her an instant headache. A moment later one of the staff knocked on the door. "We need to leave the building, Dr. Pollard," she said. "Please come now."
Ellie could just hear her over the noise of the alarm. She shoved her feet into her turquoise Crocs, grabbed her purse and headed for the door.
The woman had already gone, along with the location of the overcoat Ellie had given her, and the crowds were heading for the escalators like a herd of cattle heading for the slaughterhouse. She had no choice but to join them, holding her pouffy skirts close to her body and mentally cursing. At least Jackie was already outside.
The escalators weren't working, and they had to walk down them. Ellie nearly went flying when she hit the uneven last few steps, but there were enough people packed around her to keep her from falling. In the distance she could see the glass-fronted doorways leading out to Washington Street, and snowflakes had begun to drift down once more.
"Happy bloody Christmas," she muttered, letting herself be swept along by the crowd, spilling out onto the slushy Boston streets with what seemed like thousands of other shoppers.
There was no way she could find Jackie in all that confusion. The police were herding people away from the building, and they were armed to the teeth, an unnerving sight. She could hear people mutteringterrorists in Farnham's department store? A mad bomber?
People were starting to panic, and she felt herself being pushed and pulled by the crowd, shoved away from the building as the police entered it at a run, their guns drawn.
"Crap," she said, unnerved, as she was shoved against another body.
A body in red. She found herself eye-to-eye with one of the sidewalk Santas. His face was covered with the fake silk beard and wigonly his eyes were visible. They weren't reassuring. He had cold, bleak eyes, with long dark lashes, and the snow fell on them, melting instantly.
"Excuse me, Santa," she said breathlessly, trying to move away from him.
His white-gloved hand came down on her arm so hard she let out a squeak of pain. "Where's your car?" he demanded, his voice rough, dangerous.
"My car?" she echoed. "Are you out of your mind ?" Her voice trailed off as she felt the metal jab against her rib cage.
"Do you know what that is?" Santa said.
"I expect it's a gun," she said in a calm voice.
"You're right. Now where's your damned car?"
"I took the T," she said.
"No, you didn't. You have car keys hanging off your purse. Now where the hell is your car? Don't make me hurt you."
His fingers were digging hard into her forearm. She was going to be bruised for her wedding, she thought, feeling a little giddy. "The parking lot on Winter Street."
"Take me there."
"Listen, you just take the keys," she said, reaching for her purse to fumble with them. "It's a blue Toyota, license plate EKU-893. I won't tell anyone. "
"Start walking," he said. The pressure on her arm didn't lessen. "Now."
It wasn't like he gave her any choice. His hand was clamped on her arm, he was holding her close enough so that no one could see the gun pressed up against her ribs. She was going to die, she thought. She'd run up against a serial killer with a bride fetish and she was going to die.
But not any sooner than she had to. She started walking, in step with him, away from the crowds, into the shadows of the city. Normally the side streets would be almost as crowded, but everyone was heading in the opposite direction, going to see what the fuss was at Farnham's. They didn't even give the unlikely combination of Santa and a bride a second glance.
"Are you the one they're looking for?" she asked in a low voice.
"The police. They evacuated the store and someone said they were looking for a terrorist."
His laugh was totally without humor. "They're not looking for a terrorist," he said. "They're looking for a cop killer."
"And that would be you?" She didn't know why she asked, she really didn't want to know the answer.
"That would be me," he said. They'd reached the parking lot, but there was no attendant. Unfortunately her Toyota was in plain sightif it had been buried behind other cars, he would have had no choice but to leave it. And her, hopefully.
He didn't even ask if it was her carhe just hauled her over to it as he yanked the key ring from her purse strap. "Don't make any noise," he said, shoving her into the front seat. The skirts of her dress billowed around her, and he pushed them in after her before slamming the door.
She yanked at the hem, but some of it was still caught in the door, and she started to open it when he slid in beside her, behind the steering wheel, tossing a brown sack into the backseat. "Don't do that," he said. "I don't want to have to hurt you."
"Look, you've got my car. What do you need me for?"
Santa looked at her from behind the masses of false hair, his eyes cold and hard. "Comic relief," he said, and started the car.
A moment later they were out of the parking lot, just missing the attendant, who'd emerged to demand payment. And they were off, heading through the crowded, slushy streets of Boston, past the Christmas decorations and the bright, festive lights and the sounds of carols and "Joy to the World" floating on the cold night air.
They were off. And she was going to die. Two weeks before Christmas. In her wedding dress. Killed by a crazed Santa Claus.
In for a penny, in for a pound. She leaned forward, switched on the radio, and Christmas music poured out, filling the car.
Santa cursed, shutting it off. "I'mnot in the mood," he snarled.
"Are you going to kill me?" Her voice was steady.
"Not if you don't annoy me. I'll drop you off somewhere outside the cityyou can find your way home."
"Aren't you afraid I'll tell the police?"
He shot a glance at her from under the heavy white wig. "Good point. You're right, I should kill you." He sounded so offhand about it her stomach churned.
"Oh, don't feel you need to," she said politely. "I'd be happy to keep it quiet for a few days. I'm going to have to inform my insurance company after a while, but you're more than welcome to keep the car for now."
She couldn't see his mouth, and she didn't want to, but for some reason she had the sense that he was smiling. "And I'm supposed to trust you?"
"I'm a bride. Who could be more trustworthy?"
"Saint Nick," he said wryly. "And that's a butt-ugly wedding dress."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You heard me. That's a butt-ugly wedding dress. Your boyfriend blind?"
"It's his mother's."
"Oh, honey, you're marrying the wrong man."
Her initial panic was fading, replaced by real annoyance. "I'll have you know this is a very expensive, very pretty dress," she said, fluffing out the billowy skirts. "And I " She stopped. The dress was stained, large splotches of red against the side and the skirt. The side he'd held her. "Have you been stabbed?" she demanded, the rest of her fear vanishing.
"What's it to you?"
"Answer me. Have you been hurt?"
"Shot," he said. "Just a graze. It's been bleeding like a son of a bitch, but I'll live."
"You need to have it looked at."