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A Very Merry Christmas
By Lori Foster Gemma Bruce Janice Maynard
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2006 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOsbourne Decker had no sooner pulled his truck into the frozen, snow-covered parking lot to start his night shift than his pager went off. Typical SWAT team biz-a barricade with three subjects holding two hostages. He'd grabbed his gear, run into the station to change so he could respond directly to the scene, and from that point on, the night had been nonstop. Being SWAT meant when the pager went off, so did the team.
After a lot of hours in the blustery cold that stretched his patience thin, they resolved the hostage situation without a single casualty. And just in time for his shift to end. He couldn't wait to get home and grab some sleep.
He'd just changed back into his jeans, T-shirt, and flannel shirt when Lucius Ryder, a friend and sergeant with the team, strolled up to him. Osbourne saw the way Lucius eyed him, like a lamb for the slaughter, and he wanted to groan.
He fastened his duty firearm in a concealed holster, attached his pager and cell, grabbed his coat, and tried to slip away.
Lucius stopped him. "Got a minute, Ozzie?"
Shit, shit, shit. He already knew what was coming. Lucius would be on vacation for ten days-the longest vacation he'd ever taken. He'dbe back in time for Christmas, but laying low until then, soaking up some private time with his new wife in Gatlinburg. But the wife was concerned about her loony toons twin sister.
And that's where Lucius wanted to involve him.
"Actually," Ozzie said, hoping to escape, "I was just about to-"
"This won't take long."
Ozzie thought about making a run for it, but Lucius would probably just chase him down, so he gave up. He dropped his duffel bag and propped a shoulder on the wall. "Okay. Shoot."
"You think Marci is hot?"
Ozzie did a double take. "Is that a trick question?"
"No, I'm serious."
Serious, and apparently not thinking straight. Marci and Lucius's wife, Bethany, were identical twins. No way in hell would Ozzie comment on her appearance. Hell, if he admitted he thought Marci was beyond hot to the point of scorching, well, that'd be like admitting that Lucius's wife was scorching, and his friend sure as hell wouldn't like that.
If he said no, it'd be a direct cut to Bethany.
"She's a replica of your wife, Lucius, all the way down to her toes." Ozzie shook his head. "You really want to know what I think of her?"
Struck by that observance, Lucius said, "No. Hell no." He glared at Ozzie in accusation, then slashed a hand in the air. "Forget I asked. I already know you're attracted to her because you went out with her a few times."
"No way, Lucius."
Lucius warmed to his subject. "I thought you two had something going on for a while there."
"You were chasing her pretty hot and heavy-"
Ozzie forgot discretion. "She's a fruitcake. Totally nuts. Hell, Lucius, she stops to talk to every squirrel in the trees."
"She does not." But Lucius didn't look certain.
"She even chats with birds." Ozzie nodded his head to convince Lucius of what he'd seen. "She gives greetings to dogs as if they greet her back."
"She's not that bad," Lucius denied, but without much conviction.
"Not that bad? I've heard her carry on complete conversations with your dog!"
Lucius shook his head. "It's not like that. Hero doesn't talk back to her. She just ... She's an animal nut, okay? She's real empathetic to them, so she likes chatting with them."
"No shit. But she doesn't chat the way most of us do. She chats as if she knows exactly what they're saying, when anyone sane knows that they're not saying a damn thing."
Lucius paced away, but came right back. "It's an endearing trait, that's all."
Because Ozzie loved animals, he might have been inclined to agree. But crazy women turned into insane bitches when things didn't go their way, and he'd had enough of that to last him a lifetime. There was nothing more malicious, or more determined on destruction, than a woman who ignored logic. "No thanks."
"Okay, look, I'm not asking you to marry the girl."
"I'm not marrying anyone!" Just the sound of the "M" word struck terror in Ozzie's heart.
"That's what I said, damn it, and keep your voice down."
Ozzie glanced around and saw that the others were watching them, their ears perked with interest. Dicks. Oh, yeah, they all wanted to know more about Marci. None of them would hesitate to go chasing after her. In the three months that they'd all known her, more than one guy on the team had tried to get with her.
Course, none of them had yet discovered her whacky eccentricities. Then again, maybe none of them would mind.
In a more subdued tone, now infused with annoyance, Ozzie said, "Any one of them would be thrilled to do ... whatever it is you want me to do."
"Bullshit. This is my sister-in-law we're talking about. Any of them would be working hard to get in her pants."
True. And it pissed Ozzie off big time, but rather than say so, he pointed out the obvious. "And you think I wouldn't be?"
Lucius's eyes narrowed. "Not if you know what's good for you."
Ozzie threw up his hands. "Great. Just friggin' great. So what the hell am I supposed to do with her, if not enjoy her?"
Disgruntled, Lucius growled, "You talk about her like she's a pinball machine."
"Right." Ozzie rolled his eyes. "With a few lights missing."
Lucius drew a deep breath to regain his aplomb.
Ozzie watched him. He really didn't want to get on his buddy's bad side. Lucius stood six feet four inches tall, and though he was a good friend with a sense of style that leaned toward raunchy T-shirts, he also took anything that had anything to do with his wife very seriously.
"Nice shirt," Ozzie commented, hoping to help Lucius along in his efforts to be calm. The shirt read: "World's Greatest" and beneath that sat a proud-looking rooster.
"Forget the shirt." Lucius glanced at his watch. "I need to get going. Bethany's waiting for me. So do we have a deal or what?"
He had to be kidding.
On an exhalation, Lucius barked, "I only want you to keep an eye on her. There've been a few strange things happening-"
"Like her talking to turtles or something?"
"Your sarcasm isn't helping," Lucius warned him. "I meant something more threatening. Marci feels like someone's been following her. She's not a woman given to melodrama-"
"That's a joke, right?"
"So her concerns also concern me," Lucius finished through gritted teeth. "And they concern my wife, who won't be able to enjoy our belated honeymoon unless we both know someone is keeping an eye on Marci. Someone I can trust not to hurt her."
"I don't hurt women."
"Exactly." Lucius glanced away. "But I was talking about her feelings, actually."
Seeing no way out, Ozzie crossed his arms over his chest and conceded. "So what's in it for me?"
"What do you want?"
"I very recently inherited a farmhouse from my granny. It needs some work-"
"Done." Lucius stuck out his hand.
Whoa. That was way too easy. "Understand, Lucius. This is an old house. I don't want to just slap up drywall and cheap paint. I want to maintain the original design and-"
"Shake on it, damn it, so I can go."
Ozzie shook and, he had to admit, anticipation stirred within him. So he'd be seeing Marci again. Huh. He had very mixed feelings about that, but mostly he felt challenged.
Rather than release his hand, Lucius tugged him closer to whisper, "Put on your coat. You're advertising a stiffy. And, you know, I think maybe you should be wearing my shirt." Then the bastard walked away laughing.
Ozzie glanced down at the rise in his jeans. Cursing his overactive libido, especially where it concerned Marci Churchill, he turned his back so no one else in the room would notice.
He didn't have a full boner, but rather a semiboner. Though for a man of his endowments, it showed about the same.
And just because they'd discussed Marci.
How the hell was he supposed to watch over her, be close to her, and not touch her?
Working night shift meant that Ozzie seldom saw daylight during the winter. It was dark when he went to bed and dark when he got up. He missed the sunlight. But at least the bitter cold of December helped him keep a clear head while he pondered the ramifications of getting close to Marci again.
Oh, he saw her often enough. Bethany dragged her around all the time, and Bethany and Lucius were nauseating in their marital ecstasy. That meant whenever the team got together after work, the twins were there.
And given what the twins looked like, no doubt more than one fantasy took place in their honor. But for Ozzie, he only fantasized over one twin: the cracked one.
He saw her at picnics, at a local bar where they all hung out, at parties, and sometimes in the station, waiting for Lucius to get off work.
Marci fit right in, laughing with the men, joking, and turning down offers. Sometimes she watched him, and sometimes she pretended he wasn't in the room.
But no matter what she did, the chemistry between them was enough to choke a bear.
As Ozzie's truck cut through the snow and sludge clogging the streets, he absently took in the multitude of lights decorating houses and businesses. He liked this time of year. It was pretty. But this would be his first Christmas without Granny Decker and he already missed her so much it was nearly unbearable.
He was thinking of warm Christmas cookies, songs on the piano, and strings of popcorn, when he spotted the confusion in front of the funeral home. Lights from a police car flashed blue and red and an elderly couple, bundled in coats over pajamas, gestured with excitement.
Ozzie pulled up behind the cruiser and parked. It took him only moments to identify himself to the officer and to find out that someone had stolen a donkey from the Nativity scene erected on the funeral home's lawn.
Marci. Somehow, he just knew she was behind this. She'd probably claim the damned donkey was shy, or that he didn't like the colored lights, or God-knew-what. But Ozzie's instincts screamed, and so with a few more words to the officer, he gave up on the idea of sleep and instead headed to Marci's apartment.
Lucius used to live in the apartment across from Marci but, thankfully, he'd recently moved out-so Ozzie didn't have to worry about Lucius finding him at Marci's door. He and Bethany had purchased a home of their own. Lucius still owned the apartment building, but he left Marci in charge of it.
Not a good idea, in Ozzie's opinion, given that Marci was a kook. But far be it for him to tell Lucius how to run his business.
When he parked out front of the building, Ozzie looked toward Marci's porch window and, sure enough, her inside lights were on. Okay, so it was seven-thirty and she was maybe getting ready for work.
Or hiding a donkey.
Ozzie slammed his truck door, trudged through the crunchy snow and ice, and went up the walk, inside, and up to Marci's door. He knocked twice.
Breathless, Marci yelled, "Just a moment!"
His body twitched. More specifically, his cock sat up and took notice of her proximity. Damn it.
A full minute later, Marci opened the door. A look of pleasure replaced her formal politeness. "Osbourne. What a surprise."
He stared down at her and thought, if she'd just not talk about animals, if she'd just smile at him like that, he'd be happy to ravish her for, oh ... a few hours maybe.
When he said nothing, her smile widened, affecting him like a hot lick. She wore a soft pink chenille robe, belted tight around her tiny waist. Her small feet were bare, crossed one over the other to ward off the chill. Her baby-fine, straight brown hair had the mussed look of a woman fresh out of bed-or fresh inside from the blustery outdoors.
Shaking out of his stupor, Ozzie looked beyond her. He saw nothing out of the ordinary in her tiny apartment, but that didn't clear her.
She took a step closer to him, staring up in what seemed like provocation to him, a heated come-on, a ...
She tilted her head and said, "Osbourne?"
Lust tied knots in his muscles. He cleared his throat. "Busy?"
Big blue eyes blinked at him, eyes so soft, and with such thick, long lashes she didn't need makeup. "I just got out of the shower, actually." She patted back a delicate yawn. "It's early. Would you like some coffee?"
He'd like her.
Flat on her back.
His nostrils flared, but not from the scent of brewing coffee. "All right." Yet he stood there. He knew that once he stepped over the threshold, he wouldn't be able to keep his hands off her. Damn Lucius for putting him in this torturous position. And damn his weakness for wanting her. He knew, absolutely knew, that off-kilter broads not based in reality were a complete and total pain in the ass.
Yet he trembled with the need to gather her near and devour her. Marci got to him in a big way and he hated it. With most women, he enjoyed himself, and he made sure they got enjoyment, too. Mutual enjoyment, yeah, that's what he liked.
Not this insane torment and out-of-control craving. Not this trembling lust and gut-twisting need.
He stepped in and demanded, "Where's the donkey?"
She twittered a laugh. "Donkey?" Giving him her back, she sashayed into the tiny kitchenette and got out two mugs.
Spellbound, Ozzie stared at her ass. Through the chenille, he could see the perfect heart shape of that fine behind, the softness of it, the slightest jiggle. When Marci wasn't tormenting him or conversing with critters, she taught an aerobics class, and it showed in the graceful muscle tone, the feminine strength of her willowy ...
"What donkey, Osbourne?"
Lost in fantasies, he stared at her, confused.
Her lips curved, and she prompted, "You asked me about a donkey?"
Oh, yeah. He took an aggressive stance. "There's a donkey missing from the funeral home's Nativity scene."
She raised her brows at him, then lowered them in thought. As she came back to him, carrying the coffee, she asked, "And you assume I stole him?"
She offered him a mug, and he accepted. Their fingers touched, and it struck him like a jolt of red-hot electricity. The old John Henry jumped up with a hearty, "Hello!"
"Why would you think I did?"
The pounding of his heartbeat almost drowned out her question. "Did what?"
This time she laughed. As if speaking to a slow-witted fool, she repeated, "I'm curious, Osbourne. Why would you think I stole a donkey? I have no record for thievery. In fact, I have no criminal record at all."
He couldn't think while drowning in lust. He had to get a grip or run like a scared rabbit, and running had never appealed to him. He dragged his gaze from her and strode to the couch, seating himself in the middle.
Rather than look at her again-because that'd do him in-he sipped his coffee, then set the mug on the end table. "I think you took the donkey because you have some weird thing going on with animals."
"It's not weird."
He smelled her approach. Like a starving man, he inhaled the scent of woman, of sex, of pure, ripe temptation.
"It's a gift." Marci sat beside him, and the instant her hip brushed his, he bounded up as if she'd goosed him.
From several safer feet away, Ozzie turned on her. "Do you have the stubborn ass or not?"
Again, she seemed to ponder it. "What type of donkey are we talking about?"
"What type?" He frowned at her. "What the hell does that-"
Her eyes locked with his, she set aside her own coffee and rose from the sofa. As she stalked toward him, he went mute.
Horny and mute.
No one stalked like Marci Churchill, with that particular enticing gait.
"Marci," he warned, and he really, really meant it.
"Is it a miniature Mediterranean, a standard, large standard, or-"
"I have no friggin' idea. There really are different types?" He shook his head. "Who cares?" She drew nearer, and he felt himself sinking deep. "The important thing is that the donkey is missing."
"Donkeys aren't really stubborn, you know. They're just more laid-back and self-preserving in nature than many animals."
Self-preserving? Why did she always say the most peculiar things? "What does that mean?"
Excerpted from A Very Merry Christmas by Lori Foster Gemma Bruce Janice Maynard Copyright © 2006 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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