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The Night Before Christmas
By Lori Foster Erin McCarthy Jill Shalvis Kathy Love Katherine Garbera Kylie Adams
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2005 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWith the sluggish winter sun hanging low in the gray sky, Detective Parker Ross dragged himself out of his salt-and-slush-covered car. Howling wind shoved against him, jerking the car door from his hand to slam it shut. His dress shoes slipped on the icy blacktop and he almost lost his footing. The frozen parking lot echoed his muttered curse.
Cautiously, he started forward, taking in the depressing sight of his apartment building. The landlord's attempts at decorating had left bedraggled strands of colored lights haphazardly tossed over the barren, neglected bushes that served as landscaping. Some of the bulbs had blown, while others blinked in a drunken hiccup.
On the ground near the walkway, a dented plastic snowman lay on its side, half-covered in brownish slush, cigarette butts, and scraps of garbage.
Damn, but he'd be glad when the holidays passed and life returned to normal.
Slinging his soiled suit coat over his shoulder, his head down in exhaustion, Parker trudged along the treacherous, icy walkway. He didn't have an overcoat with him because the last perp he'd tangled with had destroyed it. Weariness and disgust kept him from noting the frozen snowflakes thatgathered on the back of his neck; after such a bitch of a day, even the frigid December weather couldn't revive him.
A hot shower, some nuked food, and sleep-that's all he needed, in that exact order. Once he hit the sheets, he intended to stay there for a good ten hours. He had the next week off, and he didn't want to do anything more involved than camping on his couch and watching football.
God knew he deserved a rest. The past month of holiday-evoked lunacy and criminal desperation had left him little time for relaxation.
Parker saw Christmas as lavish, loud, and downright depressing. With his planned time off, he intended to hide out and avoid the nonsense.
Now, if he could just slip into his apartment without Lily Donaldson catching him ...
Thinking of Lily sent a flood of warmth through his system, rejuvenating him in a way the frozen weather couldn't. He was old enough to know better, but no matter how he tried, Lily tempted him. She also infuriated him.
She aroused his curiosity, and his tenderness.
She made him think, and she made him hot.
She had trouble written all over her. He wanted to be all over her.
In the ten months he'd known her, Lily had influenced his life far too often. Smart, kind, gentle. She carried food to Mrs. Harbinger when the old lady fell ill. She argued sound politics with fanatical Mr. Pitnosky. Both intelligent and astute, Lily smiled at everyone, never gossiped, and had a generous heart.
She loved Christmas, which rubbed him raw.
And she had a terrible case of hero worship. That was the hardest thing to deal with. Parker knew he didn't possess a single ounce of heroism. If he did, then resisting her wouldn't be so damn difficult.
In a hundred different ways, Lily made it clear she wanted to be more than friends. But her age made him wary, her enthusiasm scared him to death, and her love of a holiday he scorned showed they had little in common.
On top of all that, he had serious doubts about her occupation.
Yep, a conundrum for sure. Parker hated to think about it, yet he thought about it far too often. Not once had he ever noticed any work routine for Lily. Sure, she left her apartment, but not dressed for anything other than a real good time. Always made up. Always decked out, dressed for seduction.
Sometimes she left early, sometimes late.
Sometimes she stayed gone for days, and some days she never left the apartment at all. But that didn't stop a steady stream of admirers from calling on her. The only reason Parker could tolerate that situation was because the guys seldom lasted more than a few hours, never more than a day.
Whatever Lily did to support herself, she sure as hell didn't punch a time clock.
He'd tried asking her about her job a couple of times, but she always turned evasive and changed the subject, leaving Parker with few conclusions to draw.
He was a selfish bastard who refused to share, so even if the other roadblocks didn't exist, no way could he let their friendship grow into intimacy.
That didn't mean he could keep his mind off her. Throughout the awful day-hell, the awful month-thoughts of Lily made the hours more bearable. He imagined her sweet smile, the special one she saved for him. He imagined that deep admiration in her eyes whenever she looked at him.
He imagined her lush bod, minus the sexy clothes she wore.
Seeing her now would shove him right over the edge. Avoiding her was the smart thing to do.
He planned to duck inside as fast as his drained body would allow. If she knocked, and he knew she would, he'd pretend he wasn't home.
After rubbing his bloodshot eyes, he opened the entrance door to the apartment building and stepped inside. Whistling wind followed in his wake-and still he heard her husky voice, raised in ire.
Shit. With no way to reach his front door, Parker paused by the mailboxes and listened. Lily's usually sweet voice held a sharp edge of annoyance. She probably had another smitten swain who didn't want to take no for an answer.
Peering out the glass entrance doors, Parker considered a strategic retreat. Maybe he could drop by a bar and get a beer. Or visit his mother-no, scratch that. His mom would start trying to rope him in for a big family get-together, caroling, or God-knew-what-other holiday function.
Maybe he could ...
Lily's voice grew more insistent, and Parker's protective instincts kicked in. Damn it, even if it fed her goofy misconceptions about him being heroic, he couldn't let some bozo hassle her. Giving up on the idea of escape, Parker trod the steps to the second floor. Halfway up he saw her, and he forgot to breathe.
A soft white sweater hugged her breasts. Dangling, beaded earrings in a snowflake design brushed her shoulders. Soft jeans accentuated a deliciously rounded ass.
Previously spent body parts perked up in attention. Nothing new there. No matter what Parker's brain tried to insist, his dick refused to pay attention.
Lily's pale blonde hair, pinned up but with long tendrils teasing her nape and cheeks, gave the illusion that a lover had just finished with her. Heavily lashed brown eyes defied any innocence.
And her bare feet somehow made her look half-naked.
His heart picked up speed, sending needed blood flow into his lethargic muscles. Predictably enough, he went from exhausted to horny in a nanosecond.
Vibrating with annoyance, Lily stood just outside her apartment. A fresh, decorated wreath hung from her door, serving as a festive backdrop.
Lily loved the holiday. And he loathed it.
But for now, he couldn't let that matter. Lily had a problem. She had a dispute.
She had ... a guy on his knees?
Parker blinked in surprise at that. Lily's confrontations always involved men. More specifically, they involved Lily rejecting men. But a begging guy?
That was a first.
Glued to his spot on the stairs, Parker stared, and listened.
"It was not a date, Clive. Not ever. No way. I made that clear."
"But we had lunch," Clive insisted, reaching out to grasp her knee. "Just the two of us."
While stepping back, out of reach, Lily exclaimed, "I picked up the bill!"
Clive crawled after her. "But I would have."
She slapped his hands away. "I didn't let you-because it was not a date."
"Lily," he moaned. "I thought we had something special."
"Tuna fish on rye is not special, Clive. Now get up."
At her surly reply, Parker bit back a smile. Lily excelled in brokenhearted boyfriends, and this guy looked very brokenhearted. Poor schmuck.
As Clive obediently climbed to his feet, Parker looked at Lily-and met her gaze. The surprise in her brown eyes softened to pleasure; she gave him a silly, relieved smile-expecting him to heroically save the day.
And Parker supposed he would.
He'd taken one step toward her when good old Clive threw his arms around her. "I love you!"
"Oh, puh-lease." Lily shoved against him, but Clive wouldn't let go.
"I do," he insisted. "Let me show you how much."
Glancing toward Parker, Lily said, "Don't be stupid, Clive. I know why you're here."
Parker knew why, too. Lily was sexy and sweet, and Clive wanted in her pants.
"You're after my money," Lily stated, causing Parker to do a double take.
"Lily, no!" Clive cried.
"You're broke, Clive. I know all about your business going under, the losses you've sustained."
"Temporary setbacks, I swear."
"Right. Temporary, because you figured I could shore you back up." She leaned away from Clive's hold.
"Noooo." Clive tugged her close again.
Straightening her arms to hold Clive off, Lily looked at Parker. "Well, don't just stand there."
Smirking, Parker took the remaining steps to the landing and caught Clive by the back of his coat. Because he was tired and annoyed-and damn it, he didn't like seeing other men slobbering on Lily-Parker rattled him.
"The lady said to leave." For good measure, he shook Clive again before setting him several feet away from Lily. "Now beat it."
Flustered, Clive straightened his coat with righteous anger. "Who the hell are you?"
"Just a neighbor."
"Then this doesn't concern you."
Given his height of six feet four, Parker had the advantage of looking down on most people, especially shorter people like Clive. "I'm a cop. I've had a shitty day." He leaned toward Clive, forcing him to back up. "I've dealt with a three-car pileup. Got knocked into a damn curb full of blackened slush by a mob of happy shoppers. Got jumped by a crazy woman stealing a bike for her kid. Had to break up a riot during a VCR sale. And wrestled with a goon robbing Santa of donations for the homeless. I am not in the mood to tell you twice."
Clive gulped. "I just need to explain to her ..."
"She's not interested in your explanations."
Lily moved to stand beside Parker. "No, I'm not." She curled her arms around one of his for no reason that Parker could find. She did that a lot. If she spoke to him, she touched him-almost as if she couldn't help herself.
And it drove him nuts.
"All right." Dejected, Clive fashioned a puppy-dog face. "But you're making a mistake, Lily. I do love you. With all my heart." He turned and slunk down the stairs like a man on the way to the gallows.
When the door closed behind Clive, Parker mustered up his good sense and peeled Lily's hands off his arm. "Good night, Lily." He headed for his door.
"Good night?" She hustled after him. "But ... what do you mean, 'good night'?"
"I'm beat. It's been a hell of a day." Parker refused to look at her. Just being near her made him twitchy in the pants. If he looked at her, he'd be a goner.
"Sounds like." She scuttled in front of him, blocking his way. "I never realized that detectives got into so many physical confrontations."
That damned admiring tone weakened his resolve. "It's the holidays." He couldn't help but look at her, and once he did, he couldn't look away. "It brings out the worst in everyone."
Gently, Lily said, "That's not true."
His day had been just bad enough to shatter his resolve. He wanted to vent. To Lily. Somehow, he knew she'd understand.
To disguise his level of emotion, Parker snorted. "The wreck I mentioned? It sent two innocent people to the hospital."
Concern clouded her beautiful eyes. "I'm so sorry to hear that."
"I got called in because the arresting officer found psilocybin mushrooms in the car of the idiot who caused the wreck. Enough to know he's a dealer."
"Hallucinogenic drugs," Lily breathed, surprising Parker. "How terrible. Will the victims be all right?"
Parker eyed her. What the hell did Lily know about mushrooms? "I don't know," he grouched. "Last I heard, the woman was in surgery." She had two kids who'd be counting on her to be there Christmas morning. Parker hoped like hell she made it.
"Escaped without a scratch."
"But you'll see to him, I'm sure."
Parker ground his teeth together, pissed off all over again. Lily sounded so confident in his ability. "I'd already arrested him once on a charge of manufacturing methamphetamine, but he failed to appear in court. At least this should cinch a conviction."
Lily inched closer, her expression sympathetic, her mood nurturing. "Your job isn't often an easy one, is it?"
Damn, she looked sweet and soft, and far too appealing. Parker cleared his throat. "Look, Lily, I'm beat. I don't want to talk about work." He didn't want to tempt himself with her. "I need to get some shut-eye."
Her hand settled over his, her fingers warm and gentle. "At least let me explain about Clive."
Cocking a brow, Parker said, "It was pretty self-explanatory."
Leaning on the wall beside his door, her gaze somber, she studied him. "I had no idea Clive harbored an infatuation. He said he wanted to talk about business, my schedule was clear ..." She shut down on that real fast. "It was not an intimate lunch."
The nature of their business made Parker's stomach roil. "So you said."
"I guess you got an earful, huh?" She didn't sound all that embarrassed. "He lied to me, Parker, saying he wanted to help with a project of mine, telling me he wanted to be friends. Can you believe his nerve?"
"The world is full of creeps, Lily." What project? No, he didn't care. "Good night."
Lily's voice dropped. "It's barely six o'clock."
Sticking his key in the lock, Parker tried to ignore her nearness. An impossible task. "I've been up over twenty-four hours. I can't see straight anymore. Fast as I can get a shower and find some food, I'll be turning in." His door opened. He stepped inside ...
Lily followed. "Poor baby." She touched him again, this time on his right biceps.
Even through his shirt, Parker felt the tingling jolt that shot through his system and fired up his gonads. She might as well have grabbed his crotch for the way it affected him.
Unaware of his rioting libido, Lily said, "I feel terrible that you got pulled into the middle of my mess after all you've been through today."
Before he could censor himself, Parker said, "It's getting to be a habit."
Lily tilted her head and smiled. "I can think of worse habits than drawing your attention."
Please don't go there. "Sorry." Parker ran a hand over the knotted muscles in his neck. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded."
"I understand. I ... I do seem to have a bad track record with guys."
"I don't blame myself, though." Rather than explain, she brightened her smile and changed the subject. "Now that Clive's gone, why don't you let me thank you with dinner?"
Parker took a step back, then stopped to curse himself. Damn it, since when did women have him retreating like a green kid in middle school?
Since Lily had moved in-smelling, looking, probably tasting like sex.
His body flinched in excitement, and he quickly steered his thoughts in a new direction. "That's all right. I'll just grab a sandwich or something."
"I have plenty of fresh leftovers. Fixing you a plate of ham and potato salad won't take any longer than making a sandwich." Coy, Lily ducked her head, and one long blonde curl fell over her breast. "Besides, today is my birthday."
Ah, shit. "Yeah?" And he heard himself say, "So are you legal yet?" The second the words left his mouth, Parker clamped his lips shut. Too late.
"Actually," Lily said, gazing up at him in adoration, "I've been legal for a while. I'm twenty-four now."
So it wasn't as bad as he'd told himself. He still felt ancient. At thirty-eight, he was old enough to be her ... older brother.
"My folks are on vacation," Lily continued, and she took a tiny step forward, full of entreaty. "They won't get home till Christmas morning. My friends are all with their families. I don't have anyone to celebrate with-but now you're home."
Just the thought of spending the night with Lily had Parker's heart dropping to his stomach.
"Really, Lily, I'm shot. I'd be lousy company."
"You don't have to entertain me."
Peculiar desperation clawed at him. If he ever had her, he wouldn't want to let her go. But the roadblocks all remained. "I need a hot shower."
Her gaze dipped over him with approval, lingering on his belt buckle, then the open collar of his shirt. Parker felt his nostrils flare at her interest, and knew he fought a losing battle.
"I think you look ... fine."
Coming from her mouth, fine sounded like the greatest flattery.
Excerpted from The Night Before Christmas by Lori Foster Erin McCarthy Jill Shalvis Kathy Love Katherine Garbera Kylie Adams Copyright © 2005 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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