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Finished with her pre-sentence report, Mallory Larsen picked up a box wrapped in shiny red and silver Christmas paper and turned a speculative gaze on the only other probation officer left in the office past closing time on a Friday—Shamus Burke. She'd give making friends with him one last stab, and if a present given from the heart didn't work, she was done trying.
Shamus rarely spoke unless he had to, and his stare was so intimidating their coworkers avoided him whenever possible. No one had minded when he'd skipped out on the Christmas party earlier that afternoon. No one except her. Because he hadn't used to be so mean.
On the contrary. A couple years back, the former police detective had really enjoyed the Christmas season—at least from what she'd seen while he and his wife participated in the church's Christmas cantata along with her. He'd always been friendly with other church members and happy to visit with residents at the nursing and assisted-living homes where they'd sung. His love for the Lord had radiated from him.
As had his love for his wife. They'd had the kind of relationship Mallory had always yearned for. She'd admired him from afar, and wished for a man like Shamus to come into her life.
But then he'd dropped out of church—and out of sight—to catch his wife's murderer. When he'd resurfaced again as Mallory's coworker at the Shepherd Falls County Probation Office a month ago, all traces of the old Shamus were gone. He'd acknowledged remembering her but then had been tense and uncommunicative and a royal pain to all of them, and she wanted to see the old Shamus back. This new one was just too hard to live with.
Gift in hand, sherose and walked right by the sparkly Christmas cards edging the desk of her best friend, Ginny Keane, but couldn't resist stopping at Mosey Burnham's workspace to press the top of his cherry-cheeked, tabletop Santa's head.
"Ho, ho, ho!" the Santa called out, which made her grin and got Shamus's bent, black-eyed gaze pointed in her direction, one eyebrow lifted.
Oops. So much for ambushing him so he wouldn't have a chance to think of an excuse to refuse her gift. His eyes narrowed as she reached his desk, which was the only one in the room that didn't have anything Christmasy on it. Sad, considering this was the same man who once sang in the cantata performance wearing a small Santa pin. Shamus needed help. Giving him her most cheerful smile, she held out the present.
"Merry Christmas," she said.
He didn't reach out or nod his head. He just stared. Which wasn't a bad thing, necessarily. With his black, wavy hair, thick eyebrows and the crinkled corners of his black-velvet eyes, he was awfully easy to look at.
Too bad he wasn't as easy to deal with.
No matter. He was getting the gift whether he wanted it or not. She could be stubborn, too, if it were for someone's own good.
"You missed the Christmas party earlier. I brought a handmade gift for everyone, and this one's yours." The silver, scissor-curled ribbons on top bounced as she presented it again.
For a few seconds, his eyes flickered with some emotion she couldn't quite catch, but then the intense stare was back. His shield.
"I didn't stay for the party on purpose," he said.
"I realized that when you came back after you thought everyone had gone home and scowled when you saw me."
"I didn't scowl," he denied.
"You always scowl." She wiggled the present in front of him, but he didn't reach for it. "You do it to scare people off."
The edges of his mouth almost turned up, but he caught himself. "How come it doesn't work with you?"
"Because the only person who scares me is my mother and her plans to get me to move back home." She flashed him another big grin. He merely continued to stare at her as if that hint of a smile had never happened.
Her grin faded.
"Your scowls don't work on me," she told him, "because I don't give up on most people that easily. That amazing trait is why I'm in this line of work."
She laid the box down at the side of his desk. "If you're shy, you can take it home with you to open. I don't mind. I just wanted to make sure you weren't left out."
He didn't say anything. She wasn't about to let his silence intimidate her, but she felt so awkward standing there. His total lack of response to her gift made her feel stupid for trying to be kind.
Turning, she walked back near her desk to get her coat from the rack. What she'd said was true—she didn't give up on people easily. But in Shamus's case, four weeks of invitations and being her usual sunny self hadn't worked. It was time to quit. She knew from sad experience that there were some people who needed to wallow in their misery, and the last thing she was going to do was join him. Not her. She'd lived in a house of misery growing up, but she'd gotten out, discovered the Lord and joy in her life, and become happy. She was determined to stay that way.
Great. Not only was he contented with being miserable, now he was dragging others into his pit. Shamus typed another sentence describing a probationer's part-time job, but he was distracted. Mallory Larsen had a rep, at church and here, for doing good that came straight from her heart. Her eyes were practically begging him to be happy. She deserved a thank-you at the very least. The only thing holding him back was that he didn't want to give her the impression her gift had made the least bit of difference in his life. It hadn't.
But that wasn't her fault. Nor was it the Christmas season making him like he was. It was just the total lack of joy in him since what felt like… forever, but had only been a year and six months, give or take.
He should have figured Mallory wouldn't go home early. Not because she was a workaholic, but because she cared about her probationers and worked overtime for them. Him? He honestly had nothing else to do, and with each of the six probation officers in Shepherd County, Indiana, carrying almost two hundred cases, the department had an endless stream of work. He might as well get some of it done.
Sitting back in his chair, he watched Mallory shrug on a beige coat with a fur collar over her red sweater and white slacks. She pulled her long, chestnut-red hair free from her collar and let it fall over her shoulder. One lock fell near a sparkling Christmas-wreath pin to the right of the fur.
Funny how he'd stopped being able to concentrate on his work the second she'd pressed down on the Santa's head and laughed, but he could focus just fine on her. Well enough to see every detail of her clothing, hair and face. And well enough to see how fast her cheerful smile had faded when he hadn't laughed at her joke and refused to take her gift.
He asked God once more to help him change his attitude, right then and there. His faith made him keep praying, even though he didn't think it would do any good. He'd come to believe after his wife's murder that the Lord wanted him to suffer for a while.
God didn't seem any more friendly, either, by the time Mallory left her desk, heading toward the front office door, which was kept locked to offer the officers some protection from the riffraff—uh, make that probationers—they served. The look on her delicate features was gloomy compared to her normal, smiling face, and he couldn't stand it anymore. If God no longer cared about his life enough to answer his prayers and truly change his heart, then he would have to pretend.
"Mallory?" he said as she turned the dead bolt on their office door.
Her hand paused as she turned her head to look at him, hope lighting her eyes.
"Thanks," he said with a nod. "For thinking of me." He still didn't care that she had, but acting was a valuable trait for a detective, and he'd learned it well.
Her lips curved upward, but her eyes dimmed with suspicion. She was seeing right through his insincerity, but at least he'd tried. It was the best he could do.
Opening the door, Mallory walked through and left it to shut on its own. Shamus barely had enough time to remind himself once again what a louse he was when he heard a startled shout and a grunt outside the door.
Mallory. No one should be in that hall. Muscles tightening, he drew his weapon and rose, just as Mallory was propelled through the almost closed door back into the room by a man who had a Smith & Wesson pointed at her head.
* * *
This couldn't be happening. In less than three seconds, Mallory had gone from a tiny bit of progress with the icy Shamus Burke to being held hostage by… whom? She recovered enough to look sideways at the man who was holding her arm in his shaking fingers.
Her mouth dropped open. Bud Tripp? Meek, mild-mannered accountant Bud Tripp, who had stolen a thousand dollars from his employer to move so he could get his teenage daughter away from bad influences, and had even been paying it back when the theft was discovered? If the gun hadn't been real, she would have thought someone was playing a really bad joke on her.
"Mr. Tripp, what on earth are you doing?" She yanked out of her probationer's loose grasp and faced him. The man, in his early fifties, was flushed red, perspiring heavily and shaking with fear or maybe cold. His jacket was too thin for the icy air outside, and his awkwardly fitting ball cap didn' t look very warm, either. His dress slacks were soaked at the bottom, probably from snowdrifts. He had a backpack on his back that looked stuffed. If it contained his possessions, maybe he'd been evicted from his new rental home and was having a mental breakdown.
That would explain everything. Which would be nice, because she definitely had no clue what he was doing.
"Put down your weapon, Tripp!" Shamus ordered, moving out from behind his desk, his department-issued Glock pointed at the smaller man.
Mallory's eyes darted to Shamus, whose hands were a whole lot steadier than Tripp's. "The gun is unnecessary, Shamus. Mr. Tripp doesn't want to hurt us." Her voice was sharp, and she instantly regretted it. She wasn't like that. She'd never be like that. Softening her tone, she added, "But you're so sweet, trying to protect me."
"I was a cop for ten years. It's what I was trained to do," Shamus told her between gritted teeth, his gaze never drifting from the gun Tripp held. "And I am not sweet."
"Heroic, then," Mallory said. She meant it. No man had ever tried to protect her like that. She liked it.
Shamus just scowled, and so she turned back to Tripp. She wasn't afraid. She had a natural instinct about people—even a judge had told her that once—and Bud Tripp was not a killer. She had gotten to know him on her last home visit with him. Good thing it was just last week. With all the probationers she had to keep track of, she might not have remembered the man otherwise—that's how safe and normal Tripp was. She didn't have any idea why her probationer was doing this, but she honestly didn't believe he would hurt her.
Shamus hurting Tripp, though, she wasn't sure about. Her instincts were all out of whack when it came to the former detective.
"Mr. Tripp," she said, keeping her tone as authoritative, yet low-key, as possible, "please put that gun down. I know you don't want to harm anyone, and I would hate it if you accidentally hurt yourself."
"I, on the other hand, wouldn't lose any sleep over it."
Shamus's intimidating words worked. Tripp swung his gun downward, and Mallory sighed with relief.
"Ms. Larsen is right about me," Tripp said, his voice squeakier than Mallory remembered. He focused on her. "And she's a really kind person—"
"Yeah," Shamus broke in. "We'll put that on her tombstone. She was a kind person, and it got her killed."
Oh, this was so not the man she'd been acquainted with, and admired, two years ago. That man would never have put anyone down like that. Mallory pursed her lips. Apparently Shamus thought she was a fool for trusting Tripp… or for being nice in general—she wasn't sure which. Either way, for some reason, his criticism hurt.
"That's it, Shamus," she said. "You're officially off my Christmas gift list for next year."
His stern gaze flickered with what looked like disappointment to her. She must be seeing things.
"Don't criticize Ms. Larsen," Tripp ordered Shamus, shifting his weapon back toward him.
Shamus didn't respond, just kept his own weapon pointed straight at Tripp, his wide shoulders steady. No negotiations possible with Shamus Burke, it looked like. Okay. That just meant she'd have to defuse the situation before Shamus took action, so no one would get hurt.
She refocused on the former accountant.
"Let's pretend he's not here, Mr. Tripp," Mallory said, doing away with authoritative and trying soothing. "Tell me what's wrong. Tell me how I can help you." She beckoned for his weapon, but Tripp raised his free hand.
"You two have to leave," he said. "The building has to be empty."
"Why?" she asked, drawing out the word. Her subdued manner seemed to be working, judging by the way some of the fear had left Tripp's voice, and his shoulders had slumped. But then, to her right, she sensed Shamus stepping forward.
"Drop the weapon, Tripp!" he ordered again.
Shamus was definitely getting on her nerves. Mallory took a deep breath to keep herself from saying something not so nice. She was a Christian and needed to show Shamus some understanding. He didn't know her at all. He had no idea she was capable of handling this on her own.
The first step was to make Shamus see Tripp as a human being. She said a quick prayer under her breath and then turned to him. "Shamus, please," she said. "Can't you see he's scared to death?
"That makes two of us," Shamus said.
"You?" she asked. "Frightened? I don't believe it."
"Yeah, I'm scared he's going to end up killing you." Shamus took another step forward. Tripp backed up to where he could see both of them at once, arcing the gun back and forth nervously.
"Please don't try to stop me!" he said. "This man—he says he took my daughter, and if I don't do this, he'll kill her."
Posted February 25, 2011
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