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That Christmas Feeling
By Catherine Palmer Gail Gaymer Martin
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNever again, Claire Ross fumed as she stepped through the front door onto the porch of her aunt Flossie's house. So much for spreading the Christmas spirit. Lifting the fragrant pine wreath she had brought as a gift, Claire jammed it onto a nail in the door and stomped across the sagging wooden floorboards.
She had never met a more irascible, heartless, crusty old windbag! The woman was impossible. Picking her way down the damp and splintered steps, Claire vowed that this first time she had visited her great-aunt would also be the last. No wonder the entire Ross family had disowned Florence Ross. She deserved it.
"And stay gone!" a voice crowed behind her.
Claire swung around in time to see Aunt Flossie point a double-barreled shotgun into the gray Missouri sky and pull the trigger. At the deafening blast, a pair of doves fluttered screeching out of a nearby oak tree, five yowling cats hightailed it from under the porch and every dog in a three-mile radius of Buffalo, Missouri, began to bark. Stunned, Claire watched as her aunt grabbed the Christmas wreath off the front door and sent it sailing like a Frisbee across the yard.
"Don't need Christmas 'round here!" Aunt Flossie shouted. "Don't need it, don't want it!"
Breathing hard, Claire stared at the tiny, white-haired woman. Flossie wore a faded pink bathrobe with its terry-cloth loops picked into long strings by the horde of cats that lived in and around old Ross Mansion. The robe's hem hung uneven and frayed around her thin ivory calves. Socks - one navy, the other black - were rolled to her ankles. And a pair of men's leather work boots with steel toes and untied laces anchored her feet.
Hair splayed out like dandelion fluff, Flossie stared at her niece. Her sharp blue eyes narrowed as her mouth turned down. "This is my property," she sneered. "You stay off!"
"Believe me, I have no intention of ever -"
A wailing siren drowned out Claire's words as a blue car sped toward them down the narrow paved road. Emblazoned with the word Police in bold white letters on the side, the squad car pulled to a stop beside the gray picket fence that surrounded Flossie Ross's yard. The siren died, the driver's door swung open and a man Claire instantly recognized as Robert West, Buffalo's police chief, stepped out.
"Miss Ross," he called as he rounded the fence and strode down the driveway. "How many times have I told you not to go firing guns inside city limits? Now, give me that thing!"
"You can't have it, you ol' turkey buzzard!" Shaking the weapon, Flossie tottered down the steps. "Get outta my yard!"
Claire's fury at her aunt shifted to concern as the chief stalked toward the old woman. Rob West was not a man to defy. Six feet four inches tall, broad shouldered and narrow hipped, he had been quarterback of Buffalo High School's winning football team and a state-champion wrestler. Though Claire had returned to her hometown the previous summer and had been teaching high school history since the start of the fall semester, she had yet to cross paths with Rob.
Not that she'd been looking for him. In school, Rob had been a popular, handsome athlete and the beloved boyfriend of the prettiest, blondest, curviest girl in their class - the sweetheart he had married the day after his graduation from the police academy. Until a teacher paired the two mismatched freshmen for an ongoing four-year research project, Rob had paid scant attention to Claire Ross with her coarse red hair, ghostly pale skin and rail-thin body. It didn't help that she adored school, loved to read and made it perfectly clear she thought Rob West was as dumb as a Missouri mule.
Still, they had somehow ended up becoming friends - easily teasing each other, sharing ideas and even confiding secrets. He called her Clarence and sneaked her pieces of her favorite brand of bubble gum. She called him a nincompoop and a lamebrain, and she blew bubbles, which he mashed onto her nose.
In the course of the four years, Claire made sure the research project progressed, and eventually she even convinced Rob that Buffalo's role in the Civil War really was an interesting topic. He made sure the other guys didn't malign skinny Claire behind her back, and she actually ended up getting a date to her senior prom.
"What are you shooting at today, Miss Ross?" Rob asked. "Is a stray dog after your cats? Or are you mad at the garbage truck again?"
"It's her." Flossie pointed a thin finger at Claire.
"She's trespassing on my property."
Rob's bright blue eyes focused for the first time on the younger woman. His brow furrowed as he took off his hat. "Claire Ross? Is that you?"
"Of course it's me," she said. "I drove all the way over here to bring my aunt a Christmas gift, and she -"
"She started right off griping about my cats!" Flossie cut in.
"Everybody in town gripes about your cats," Rob retorted. "You're in violation of city ordinances, Miss Ross. Only four cats are allowed per household. A city license is required. You've got to have proof of current rabies vaccinations for each cat. And it's against municipal code to allow your pets to run loose off your property."
"So what? They're not my cats anyhow. People drop 'em here, and I take 'em in." She gave a loud snort and shouted, "I'm a kindhearted animal lover, that's all!"
"How many cats do you have now? It was sixteen the last time I came out here."
Excerpted from That Christmas Feeling by Catherine Palmer Gail Gaymer Martin Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. . Excerpted by permission.
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