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She wasn't a stickler for holiday traditions, but this was just wrong.
Lindsay Bradford pushed aside the sagging string of plastic mistletoe that hung just inside the Blue Lagoon's doorway, only to see a half-naked, drunken Santa seated next to the jukebox. She gave serious consideration to heading back to her apartment. The bar was packed. No one had noticed her yet. If she ducked out now, Dace and Jolie would just give her a hard time tomorrow and that would be the end of it. There was nothing worse than being the last to arrive at a Christmas party, anyway.
Especially a party comprised mostly of cops.
Not for the first time, she questioned the wisdom of coming here tonight. Just the thought of being surrounded by a bunch of off-duty policemen had her palms dampening. The fact that the only two friends she'd made in Metro City had turned out to be detectives was the height of irony. But there was a limit to her appreciation for the ironic.
Some fool saw fit to provide drunk Santa with a mike. If that wasn't a sign, nothing was. She backed slowly toward the door.
"All you lovely ladies out there," he boomed in a surprisingly sexy baritone, "c'mon up here and see me. Don't be shy. If you've been nice girls all year, I've got something for you. And if you're on my naughty list " He gave an exaggerated wink, eliciting hoots from the audience. "C'mon up here and sit on Santa's lap."
Lindsay rolled her eyes at the feminine squeals of laughter. Several women obviously lacking in discrimination and good taste accepted the invitation and made their way to the dance floor. She took this as her cue to leave.
She wasn't feeling particularly festive, anyway. The palm treeswrapped in rope lighting that lined the California streets didn't evoke the same holiday sentiment as did a decorated, freshly cut pine.
And how incongruous that her longing for home was never so strong as during the holidays. The same time of year she'd chosen to leave Wisconsin and her family behind.
Turning, she headed for the door. But her exit didn't go unnoticed.
"Lindsay! Hey, Lindsay!"
"Lindsay! Over here!"
As she recognized the voice, her stomach dropped. Pasting a plastic smile on her face, she turned to see a disjointed arm waving from a corner booth nearby. It was attached to Mitch Engels, a coworker from the restaurant.
Great. She could do drunk or she could do crazy. She wasn't sure she was up to dealing with both.
Resigned, she walked over to his booth, where, unsurprisingly, he was sitting alone.
"So d'ya hear what happened?" He slurred the words as he attempted to smooth his thinning brown hair. "Can't believe it. Neldstrom's such a bastard. Hate that bastard so much."
"Haven't heard anything," she answered truthfully. She'd worked her shift and headed home for a quick shower and change to avoid arriving here awash in eau de fry grease. But she wasn't especially eager to get deluged with the latest in the ongoing battle between Mitch and the restaurant owner.
"He fired me! Said I'd missed too many shifts." Mitch hiccuped wetly. "Didn't even care I'd been sick. That I need the job. He just took me off the schedule and said I was done. At the holidays, too. The bastard."
Drunken Santa began an off-tune rendition of "Blue Christmas." And Lindsay was definitely feeling bluer than she had when she arrived.
"I'm sorry about that, Mitch. Really." If anyone epitomized victim, it was Mitch Engels. He was short, plump and prematurely balding, with pale blue eyes magnified by thick, horn-rimmed glasses. He was a nice enough guy, if something of an odd duck. Many at work gave him a wide berth, but Lindsay had always felt sorry for him. She was intimately aware of how it felt to not fit in. "If you need help looking for another job "
Mitch flung out one hand, knocking his bottle off balance. Only quick reflexes saved Lindsay from a beer bath. "Don't want another job! Want my job. You're just like the others at Piper's. You just want me gone."
Lindsay gave a sigh and sat down across from the man, who looked like he was working himself up to full hissy-fit status. "Mitch." She took his hand in hers, squeezing hard enough to get his attention. "You know that's not true. I want to help you. Why don't you go home and go to bed. You can call me tomorrow and we'll talk about your options, okay?"
He looked pathetically hopeful. "I can call you?"
She wondered if he'd ever heard a female issue that invitation before. Judging from his reaction, probably not. "We'll talk about the job," she emphasized. The last thing she wanted was to shift his bubbling emotions from his unemployment woes to her. "Here's my number." She found a pen and scrap of paper in her purse, and scribbled the cell number she'd given out to few others.
She pushed it across the table toward him. "But you really need to go home now and sleep it off. This place is full of policemen." She doubted that could make him as nervous as it did her. The Blue Lagoon was primarily a cop bar, although its location near Piper's meant some of the restaurant workers were regulars, as well. "You don't need any trouble."
Given the fact that most of the occupants in the bar were probably as loaded as Mitch, she might be overplaying that card, but he accepted the number and her words with alacrity.
"You're right. I'll go." He lurched upward before he'd slid to the end of the booth and nearly toppled face-first onto the tabletop. Lindsay got out and helped him to his feet, gently guiding him toward the door.
"You comin', too?" He swayed, nearly knocking both of them into a harried-looking waitress.
"No, we'll talk tomorrow, remember?" She opened the door for him, ushered him through it. "I'm supposed to be meeting friends here." On the spot she made a commitment to stay; it was better than the alternative. "Grab a cab and get home safely. Talk to you soon."
Before he could muster an answer she withdrew into the noisy bar and shut the door after her. The string of mistletoe hung limply above her, a possible omen of her evening ahead. Certainly it hadn't begun too auspiciously.
Lindsay began to thread her way between tables, looking for Jolie and Dace. The shock of having a pair of cops as friends was secondary to having made friends in Metro City at all. She was usually careful to avoid relationships. It was easier to move on when she wasn't leaving behind anyone she cared about.
And she'd been getting that itchy feeling lately. The one that told her it would soon be time to choose another city. Another job. Another life.
Jolie caught sight of her first and stood, waving her over to a table near the back of the bar. Lindsay felt something inside her lighten. Maybe for tonight she would forget that itchy feeling, and the reason for it. Forget her nonexistent love life, violent past and hopeless future. Spending time with her two favorite people would be the high point of her week.
But when she drew closer to the table and saw a third person seated there, she mentally readjusted her expectations downward. What was drunk Santa doing at their table, and how long before they could get rid of him?
"About time you got here," Jolie scolded cheerfully. "I was about to send Dace to your place to get you."
"I got hung up at work." She exchanged hugs with her two friends.
Dace gave her a quick once-over and grinned as he reseated himself. "You clean up good. Not that the filthy apron and Piper's chef's hat aren't attractive."
Jolie gave him a quick elbow jab. "You look great."
What she looked like in the buttoned-up white shirt and black gauchos, Lindsay knew, was a constipated librarian. She didn't care. Her thrill-seeking days were behind her. And she realized the importance of dressing the part of whatever identity she'd donned for the moment.
With an innocent expression that Lindsay immediately distrusted, Jolie gestured to the stranger and said, "And this shirtless wretch is Jack Langley. I've mentioned him to you, remember?"
Lindsay narrowed a look at her friend. Make that ex-friend. This was Jack Langley? The buddy of Dace's that Jolie had mentioned several times wanting her to meet?
Drunk SantaJackpicked up her hand and sent a caressing thumb skating across her knuckles. A lock of his black hair had escaped from beneath the fur-trimmed Santa hat and fallen rakishly over his forehead. His devil-dark eyes and lopsided grin were guaranteed to melt the coldest of female hearts. Lindsay's remained steely.
Jolie continued, "And this is Lindsay Bradford. Jack, behave. I'm going to get Lindsay a drink. C'mon, Dace."
Dace looked confused. "Why do I have to come?" Jolie grabbed his arm and he stood, long-sufferingly, to trail behind his fiancée.
"I'll bet you're a good girl, Lindsay." Jake raked her with his liquid-coal gaze and a corner of his mouth kicked up. His smile deepened the dimple in his chin. "You look like one. Luckily for you, I still have something in my package for good little girls."
Her brows rose at the transparent euphemism. But then he reached into a paper bag on the table and withdrew a handful of "gifts," setting his offerings in front of her.
She surveyed the slightly wilted fruit slices and paper umbrellas with a jaundiced look before transferring her attention back to him. "This reminds me. I have a few Christmas disappointments I want to discuss with you. Let's start with that lame Barbie you brought me when I'd specifically asked for a G.I. Joe."
He slapped a hand to his chest, feigning shock. "Those damn elves. They must have mislabeled the package. That's it. Danny the dyslexic elf is getting the ax."
She didn't smile, because it would only encourage him. "Your elves told me working for you is a lot like working in an office. They do all the work and the fat guy in the suit gets all the credit."
He looked amused. And he still hadn't relinquished her hand, despite her discreet tugs. "Half a suit. Half the credit. And they're just smearing my name because they want to unionize." He lowered his voice, and the sexy timbre sent a quick shiver over her nerve endings. "So how about we compare notes before Dace and Jolie get back? I'll tell you what they told me about you if you do the same."
That stopped her short. "They've talked about me to you?" She wasn't sure she liked the sound of that.
"Attractive, even though she plays it down, straitlaced, needs to loosen up a little, good sense of humor, mean at cards," he recited rapidly. "Your turn."
"I'm not sure I remember them mentioning you," she lied. "Are you the one who spent time in prison?"
He gave a loud bark of laughter as Dace and Jolie approached the table again. "Mean, and not only at cards. I like that."
She finally succeeded in wresting her hand free. And found herself curling her fingers into her palm, trapping the heat that lingered. "I have a feeling, Langley, that your 'likes' would fill several dozen little black books."
Jolie set a bottle of Corona in front of Lindsay and sat down again next to Dace. Jack shot the other man a look. "Don't know what you told her about me, but she's got the totally wrong impression."
Dace tipped his bottle to his lips. "She must have. She hasn't run out of here screaming yet."
"Perhaps her impression has something to do with your wardrobe," Jolie put in dryly. "Not everyone finds half-dressed Santas appealing. Go figure."
Jack leaned toward Lindsay, his look of contrition as insincere as that of a ten-year-old altar boy caught sampling the sacramental wine. "The stuffing and the beard were hot. I normally wear shirts. Almost always." He paused, as if to reconsider, then corrected, "At least a lot of the time."
Because she was feeling a little warm herself, Lindsay picked up her beer and drank. And took the time to remind herself of all the reasons she'd sworn off men just like Jack Langley.
He fairly sizzled sex appeal. Anyone with a pair of X chromosomes was bound to respond to it. And it didn't hurt that she had an up close and personal view of his rock-solid build, which had no resemblance to the real Santa's. She'd never given it much thought, but she doubted Jolly Old St. Nick had ever had such broad shoulders, muscled arms, or that washboard belly. Which was a real pity for Mrs. Claus.
But Lindsay was through looking for thrills. In life, and in men. Safe, solid and secure were the new parameters of her life. And if that equated with dull and dreary well, at least it kept her alive.
There was nothing remotely safe about Jack Langley.
She set her bottle down and listened politely as the other three talked shop. Despite what she'd said earlier, she remembered everything Jolie and Dace had ever said about the half-naked man sitting next to her. Specifically that he and Dace went way back. That he was a detective like her two friends, assigned to the same SWAT squad. He wasn't a negotiator like Dace and Jolie but was one of the guys who entered the building when an assault became necessary. An adrenaline junkie, she figured, watching him as he conversed. The kind who thrived on danger and risk. The kind who hadn't yet found out that excitement carried its own risk and all too easily could turn deadly.
"Doesn't matter." Jack lifted a shoulder and reached for his beer. And it was annoying to find herself more focused on that expanse of bare skin than on his words. "I'm cleared for duty, and our squad's in line for the next incident. Don't worry about me, I'm ready."
"What happened?" The words were out of Lindsay's mouth before she could stop them.
"He was injured in that explosion at the Metrodome a few months ago," Jolie informed her, her gaze still on Jack. There was a slight furrow between her eyes that indicated Jack hadn't completely alleviated her concern.
"Hurt my leg, but it's healed." Jack picked up one of the sadly wrinkled drink umbrellas from the table in front of him and reached over to tuck it in Lindsay's hair. "Nothing to worry about. But if you'd like to kiss it better, I could be persuaded to drop my Santa britches and show you the wound on my thigh."