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Capri Snow's first thought was that the Santa who sat so alertly beneath the white gingerbread archway of Bridesmaids Creek's Christmastown looked a bit off. He was tall for a Santa, broad-shouldered, and his tummy had shifted, as if he wasn't comfortable and had tried to move the proverbial bowl full of jelly away from him. If that wasn't odd enough, he was staring at her seven-months pregnant belly as if he were envious of her roundness.
"Come on," her best friend, Kelly Coakley, said, dragging her. "You promised to have a picture taken with Santa for the Bridesmaids Creek Courier?''
Yes, she had, so she let Kelly push her onto Santa's lap. There were plenty of things one did on the committee of Bridesmaids Creek's popular Christmastown, and posing for a holiday photo op wasn't a horrible thing. It was just that one of Santa's white eyebrows had come partially unglued, showing his real eyebrows to be jet black, which Capri found a bit unnerving. He pulled her closer, and Capri examined his bearded face. His electric-blue eyes gazed at her intentlyand she registered that Santa had much firmer thighs than she would have thought for an elderly manager of holiday elves.
In Bridesmaids Creek, anybody could get roped into holiday duty. This Santa was probably a hapless dad who'd been talked into the Christmas shenanigans by the authoritative Mrs. Mathilda Penny. "I'm sure Santa has better things to do than pose for the Courier, Kelly," Capri said, trying to encourage her friend to hurry it up a bit. Truthfully, she felt very shy about her weight (okay, she hadn't put on that much baby weight, but she felt misshapen and awkward), and something told her it was time to leave Father Christmas's well-muscled lap.
"He doesn't mind, do you?" Kelly beamed. "I bet Santa likes having his picture taken." She clicked a few more photos, enough, Capri thought, for a full spread in a national magazine.
"That's got to be plenty," Capri said, trying to get up from the man's warm lap. She couldn't quite make it to her feet, and Santa gallantly gave her a little push from behind. "Thank you," she said, determined to be polite, though she was well aware he wouldn't have had to give a starter push to a more svelte female.
He blinked at her over the festive snowy beard but didn't reply. Capri decided they'd taken up enough of his time. "Thank you for participating in Christmastown. We really appreciate it."
"There. That wasn't so bad, was it?" Kelly asked as they stepped away.
Capri glanced back at Santa, whose gaze remained fixed on her as he sat, completely unmoving, on his white Christmastown throne. "That is no harmless elderly Santa."
"I know." Kelly giggled. "He's an undercover cop."
"Kelly!" Capri gasped, astonished. "I know security is tight this year, but I don't think Mrs. Penny would hire an undercover cop to listen to the children's wish lists."
"That's exactly what she did," Kelly said, inspecting her camera with some approbation. "That's Mrs. Penny's nephew. She said that with all the weird stuff going on in Bridesmaids Creek in the past year, she wasn't taking any chances on the safety of the kids. Mrs. Penny loves a good whodunit more than anyone, but I can't disagree with her desire to keep this event safe."
Capri took a fast peek at Santa. His gaze was no longer on her, but trained on some men near the ice sculptures that would greet visitors when the event opened in two hours. The twinkling lights would be on, and Christmastown would be in full swing, overrun by eager tots desiring a turn at Santa's ear.
"Rats," Kelly said. "Sorry, Santa. You'll have to put up with Capri for a couple more seconds. I didn't have the camera set properly." She gave Capri a gentle shove back toward Santa, and it seemed to Capri that Santa reached out for her a bit more enthusiastically than he should have.
Trust Mrs. Penny's nephew to be a diligent St. Nick. Capri once again pasted a smile on her face as Kelly struggled with her camera. Santa seemed happy to have her back on his lap, though he kept his hands off her, which Capri appreciated. The last cop she'd knownher almost-ex-husbandhad never been able to keep his hands off her.
It was something she badly missed about Seagal.
"Okay, I fixed it," Kelly said. "Smile!"
Capri smiledthen yelped with surprise as Santa shoved her out of his lap, chivalrously making certain she didn't hit the floor. He sprinted toward the ice sculptures and the exit, clearly in excellent physical shape.
Kelly's mouth dropped open. She lowered the camera for a moment, hastily bringing it back up to her eyes to capture the excitement. Santa leaped onto a snow mound complete with festive village snowmen, rolled to the ground and, just as four uniformed police officers converged on the scene, Santa disappeared under a virtual dogpile of bodies.
"I knew he was trouble!" Capri dusted the fake snow from her designer pregnancy jeans and red fuzzy sweater. "Although I'm surprised Mrs. Penny's nephew would be knee-deep in some kind of issue with the law."
"Let's go see what's happening." Kelly pulled Capri with her.
"What happened is that Mrs. Penny's nephew is a bad cop. I'm going to talk to Mrs. Penny and tell her that next year I want her to double-check all the Santas and workers' records for possible felons. And fake cops."
"I don't know," Kelly said. "Looks like he's leading someone off in handcuffs."
Capri watched as Santa and the police escorted what looked to be a very unsavory individual toward a squad car. The police high-fived Santa, and male laughter floated over to her and Kelly.
"At long last Mrs. Penny has a whodunit happen right here in Bridesmaids Creek," Capri said with some disgust. "I'm going home."
"Aren't you going over there to find out what that was about? You're one of the co-chairs of the festival!"
"Mrs. Penny will do the honors more effectively than I ever could. Besides, I've had quite enough of Christmastown for one year, thanks." To be honest, she had a bit of a tummy ache, probably from all the excitement. If she mentioned that to Kelly, her friend would make a federal case of it and send up the alarm that the newest resident of Bridesmaids Creek was about to make its appearance just in time for Christmas. "See you later. Remember, early cleanup tomorrow morning at 8:00 a.m."
"Scrooge!" Kelly accused, but Capri kept walking toward her car. Her stomach was somersaulting like mad. She figured they'd had enough excitement for one night. She got into her small car and drove away.
The police had expected something to happen tonight or else there wouldn't have been an undercover cop dressed as Santa. But they hadn't bothered to tell her, one of the event's organizers.
Something was not good in Christmastown.
Two hours later Capri was in her worn flannel pajamasred and decorated with yellow smiley faces wearing Santa capsand in no mood to do anything but sit in front of her fireplace and read the cozy mystery Mrs. Penny had lent her when her doorbell rang. Most likely it was her mother, who by now had every bit of news about Christmastown's big night.
"Who is it?"
The hunky Santa with the bedroom eyes? "Go away," she said, her pride still slightly damaged that he'd shoved her out of his lap so dismissively. "If you're here to discuss future Christmastown employment, you'll have to make an appointment with the event organizer, Mrs. Penny. She hired you."
"Is that any way to talk to one of history's most revered figures? I've heard good Santas are hard to find. And the kids love me."
"Revered indeed." Mrs. Penny lived in the gingerbread-styled house next door and at this hour would have her nose pressed to the glass wondering why a car was parked in front of her neighbor's house. Capri was twenty-seven, but that didn't mean that every single thing she did wasn't dutifully reported to her mother and anyone else with the slightest bit of hearing left.
His voice was familiar; he sounded astonishingly like her almost-ex, Seagal West. But that was impossible. Seagal was with the Texas Rangers, and she wasn't sure exactly where he was working these days. Besides which, Seagal wore Stetsonsshe'd bet her last cup of Christmas cheer he wouldn't be caught dead in a festive red Santa cap.
"Go away before you wake my neighbor!" Capri said, though she was dying to know what had happened tonight. Something told her that if she opened the door, she'd be face-to-face with more than a handsome cop. Sexy Santas were not on her Christmas list.
"I've been assigned to you. So open up, doll, before we scandalize the entire neighborhood, and not just the mystery-scribbling Mrs. Penny."
Assigned to her? Capri jerked open the door. He was dressed in regular street wear: casual jeans, loose shirt not tucked in, boots. Standard Stetson, for him.
It was the Bridesmaids Creek Santa.
And he was killer handsome, just as he'd always been. Unfortunately, Santa was also her almost-ex-husband, the only man guaranteed to break her heart. "What do you mean, assigned to me?" Capri demanded. "What is going on, Seagal?"
"Can I come in?"
"Absolutely not." She raised her chin and closed the door an inch. "Say what you have to say right there."
He shrugged, and Capri could tell he was amused by her demand. "Suit yourself. But Mrs. Penny just raised her window about three inches so she can hear us. If you want your business broadcast in Bridesmaids Creek, and rumors of us getting back together"
"Make it snappy," she said, pulling him inside.
He smiled. "Hello, beautiful."
"Keep it professional, if you're here in a professional capacity, Seagal," she said, realizing she sounded as prickly as a spiny cactus. "Long time, no see."
He glanced at her stomach, and she realized Seagal felt awkward. As if he wasn't certain whose baby she carried.
"Yes, Seagal," she said with a sigh, "we are having a baby."
His whole demeanor changed.
He looked absolutely thrilled.
"That's great!" He followed her as she walked into the formal living room of the house they'd once shared. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Because you left," she said simply. "You said you needed time to figure things out."
He looked dumbstruck. "I don't need to figure anything out. You were the one who said you had doubts."
This was true. She had said that. The long nights when he was away, the stress of her taking over her grandmother's flower shop, had put a strain on their marriage. She'd been hurt when Seagal leftand scared that if he found out about the pregnancy, he still wouldn't want their marriage. Or worse, he'd find out about the pregnancy and feel as if he had to come back to her out of a sense of misplaced responsibility.
The problem was, she'd always been in love with Seagal, and she knew very well he'd married her because he'd been on the rebound. That fact alone had made her very uncomfortable over the two years they'd been married.
"Capri," he said, "when were you going to tell me about the baby?"
When? When indeed. She hadn't wanted him to come back only to resent herand he would have. At least, she thought he would have. "I would have let you know before the birth."
"Which is tomorrow?" he said, casting a disbelieving glance at her stomach. "When's the due date?"
She glanced toward the calendar hanging on the kitchen wall. "Hopefully, Valentine's Day." She took a deep breath. "But I've been having little aches and pains I didn't have before. The doctor said it's not anything to be concerned with, but"
"Good thing I was assigned to you." Seagal sank onto a flowered sofa he'd never been partial to, apparently settling in for the long haul. "I can protect you and be here for the baby's birth."
Capri blinked. "So why do I need someone assigned to me? What is going on?"
He looked as if he was considering how much to tell her, and Capri reminded herself that caution had always been one of Seagal's hallmarks. His other sexy hallmarks included jet-black hair and white teeth. A strong, wide chest. He was tall, as tall as her brother, Beau, who was a good six-two. And so handsome she could hardly take her eyes off him, even though they'd barely spoken during the separation.
"Don't water down the story, please," she told Seagal.
"You created the floral displays for Christmastown?" he asked, shifting into cop mode.
"Yes, like I did last year. Everything was almost the same this year, with a few minor changes, mainly involving the types of flowers that were available."
"This year drugs were concealed in the arrangements. Specifically, pot seeds. They were brought in in the containers you ordered, and then hidden in the bottoms of the vases. It would have been a clever plan if they hadn't been such blabbermouths. And that guy we nabbed was a rush of good information."
She frowned. "Impossible, Seagal. I worked on every one of the displays myself."
He nodded. "I know. That's what Kelly said. They had to have been concealed after you did the designs. Nice pajamas, by the way."
She'd forgotten she was in her happy-face pajamas. And it was late. Mrs. Penny would be having a field dayno doubt her phone line was buzzing. "You have to go, Seagal."
"Actually, I have to stay. Official capacity."
"I don't want the rumor mill starting up, and I'm sure you don't, either."
He made no move to stand. "I could ask for another officer to take over, but frankly, I figured you'd be more comfortable with me in the house than a cop you don't know."
"Not quite," she said, fibbing like mad. No one would believe that the two of them staying under one roof was coincidental or official. That was the problem. "What happened to Mrs. Penny's nephew? Kelly said he was supposed to be the Santa."
"Last-minute change." Seagal looked pleased about that. "Why didn't the proverbial grapevine let me know I was going to be a dad? Even in Dallas, I should have heard about it from my old cop buddies here in town.
My partner usually keeps me informed of the news in Bridesmaids Creek."
She frowned. "Because I didn't tell anyone you were the father. Only Kelly knew."
Capri sat down, finally deciding Mrs. Penny's curiosity was going to have to wait. "It seemed best, considering our situation."
She didn't think she'd ever seen her husband look more unhappy, except when they'd decided to separate.
"The divorce is final in two weeks," he said quietly. "The day after Christmas. You weren't planning on giving us much of a chance to get back together."
"Because of a pregnancy?" Capri shook her head. "Seagal, if you'd wanted to come home, you would have long ago."
"I can't blame you for feeling that way." He cast a longing eye at her stomach. "You look beautiful, by the way."
Secretly she was flattered, even if she knew Seagal was being kind. "Thank you."
He nodded. "It's true."
She didn't say anything else. Things were too uncomfortable between them as it was. "What are we having?"
She looked at him, seeing real interest in his eyes. "I don't know. I didn't want to find out," she fibbed.
"I'm going to be there," he said softly.
He leaned back on the sofa, trying to seem casual. The depth of his voice told her that Seagal was anything but casual.
"All right. Just no looking under the sheet or seeing me naked."
He smiled. "Always good to know the ground rules."