TWELVE NIGHTS AND COUNTING DOWN TO CHRISTMAS
Every Christmas the threats started again. They came delivered in red greeting cards, and this year Romana was forced to take them seriously. Even if it meant turning to Jacob Knight—the sexy detective she'd always kept at arm's length. After seven years, he was bigger, stronger and more man than she was prepared for. His dark past endangered Romana—but only his arms could provide protection from the convicted killer bent on exacting revenge. And as the nights grew longer and more difficult, their passions threatened to erupt—and expose them to dangers as irresistible as they were reckless.
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"It's the perfect scent for you." The woman behind the department store perfume counter gave one of her test bottles a spritz. "Mysterious and exotic, with a hint of Eastern spice."
Romana Grey sniffed her wrist. "It's lovely, but I'm not shopping for me."
A finger in her spine preceded a cheerful, "Note to self, Ro, as females, we're always shopping for 'me,'even in December." Romana's cousin, Anna Fitzgerald, picked up another bottle and sprayed the already pungent air. "This smells expensive."
"Ten dollars a pump," the saleswoman confirmed, then excused herself to intercept a group of excited teenage girls.
Fitz set her forearms on the glass case. "So, who are you shopping for today? Mom, Grandma Grey or one of your six sisters-in-law?"
"Five. Noah's divorced." Romana gave her wrist a shake.
"This really is nice." Then she glanced at her watch. "Why are you here at three in the afternoon?"
"Some wires fried in the main lab. The forensics team's been evacuated until morning." Out of the corner of her eye, Romana saw Fitz finger a tiny bottle. "I was bagging a hair sample when I smelled the smoke. Well, actually, Doc Patrick smelled it. You know himtall, sexy dude who never remembers to get a haircut and whose socks don't match."
Romana swatted her cousin's wandering fingers. "Stop doing that."
"I'm not going to steal it."
"And I'm supposed to know that? It's me, Fitz. I arrested you twice for shoplifting when I was a rookie."
"Then got me into rehab and back on the straight and narrow. I'm a respectable citizen these days, thanks to you, a kindly judge and a totally cool bunch of coworkers in forensics. Which brings me back to Patrick North. Unmarried, shy, in need of a female to match up his socks."
Romana knew where this conversation was headed. Her cousin's mind was a one-way street. "Patrick worked with Belinda Critch, Fitz. I hate the way it all circles back to that. It feels like everyone around me knows or has a connection to somebody who was involved in her death."
"Cops know people in forensics, Ro. It's the nature of the biz. Belinda analyzed body fluids. She got around. You knew her, I knew her, and, trust me, so did a whole lot of men."
"Including my ex." Romana toyed with a fat genie bottle. Her much-anticipated shopping trip was starting to suck. "I figure Connor slept with at least two of his female coworkers. Belinda was probably one of them."
"Connor was also taking bribes from Cincinnati drug lords." Fitz sniffed. "Don't sweat the loss of a creep."
"I never sweat my losses, but marrying Connor Hanson wasn't the smartest thing I've ever done."
"No, divorcing him was."
"Good point." Shoving her brief funk aside, Romana sprayed a cotton ball, frowned and wrinkled her nose. "This smells like jalape o peppers."
"It smells like Belinda Critch."
It did, actually. Romana warded off another pang of guilt and dropped the ball into a silver waste receptacle. "Belinda's gone, Fitz. Life goes on."
"That's a fact. You traded cophood for a college degree. I got my head screwed on straight and managed to work myself up the forensics ladder to a great tech job. It's not your fault or mine that Belinda Critch is dead. Maybe it's Jacob Knight's fault, but no one could prove it, so one way or another, her killer's probably still out there."
"Not helping me here, Fitz."
"Sorry." A pause, then, "Do you think he did it?"
"That's it, just a flat no? Come on, Ro, someone put a bullet in her chest, and Jacob Knight was involved with her once."
"If a guy I dated in high school turned up dead tomorrow, would that put me at the top of the suspect list?"
"I think you're not sure about him, and that's why you get twitchy when the subject comes up. You saved Knight's life, and, bam, two days later, Belinda's dead. Critch said Knight threatened her, so he must have believed it. Although " She drew an air line with her finger. "Knight's partner did stick up for him. Michael O'Keefe " Her smile flashed quickly and dimpled. "Who am I to doubt the word of a fellow Irishman?"
"An Irishman you dated once as I remember."
"You remember very well. O'Keefe's cute. Okay, older than me, but I like an age gap."
"You like any gap when it comes to men."
"Guess I have something in common with Belinda, after all. Maybe two things. Her brother Dylan's kind of cool, don't you think?"
"Uh-huh. Tell me, Fitz, is there a man we both know that you don't like?"
"Yeah, Jacob Knight. Except I don't not like him, I'm just not sure of him. Critch was convinced that Knight killed his wife, so much so that he pulled a gun on him. But there you were, on the scene and duty-bound to jump in, with no idea who was wrong or right. Come on, Ro, a dilemma like that would give anyone twitches."
Romana erased the smell of peppers from her fingers with peach hand cream. She considered changing the subject but knew Fitz would only find a way back. With a sigh, she said, "It's guilt I'm feeling, okay? Not about helping Jacob in that alleythat's what cops dobut because I didn't listen to Critch when he said his wife's life had been threatened. He had no proof, there was nothing to go on. Someonenot Jacob" she shot her cousin a warning look "wanted Belinda dead. I didn't investigate the allegation after Critch was arrested, but I should have, because that's also what cops do."
"Well, yes "
"Jacob said he didn't murder her. I believe him." Was determined to believe him. "Subject exhausted. I mean that," she said when her friend's mouth opened.
One long look, and it closed with a snap. "Tell you what." Fitz's eyes sparkled. "Why don't we go sit on Santa's knee? I hear he's a hottie under the white whiskers."
Glad for any reprieve, Romana went with the idea. She ticked off items on her fingers. "I want new ice skates, a mountain bike, scuba gear and a cool white Boxster. But I'm only telling that to the real Santa Claus."
"Your doting dad."
"He's playing Father Christmas at an outdoor festival in Boston this year. Something to do with the barbershop quartet he sings with when he isn't whizzing around the globe producing travel shows for cable TV."
"Lucky him. My father's still upholstering sofas and chairs at Barret Brown. I think he's going to stuff a bright red recliner in my stocking this year."
"I'd love a new chair from Barret Brown."
Fitz's cheeks went pink. "I'd rather have James Barret. Did I tell you he used to give me little boxes of chocolate tied up with red bows whenever I'd stop in and see my dad at the factory after school?"
Romana grinned. "So that's how you developed your sticky fingers."
"Ha-ha." Fitz's expression softened. "What a hunk James wasis."
"The hunk's married to an heiress," Romana reminded her.
"Think jailer with claws when you think of James Barret's wife, and confine your lust to more available men."
Fitz lapsed into silence before venturing a subdued "Warren Critch is out on parole."
Romana examined another bottle. "I know. A friend from the station called me three weeks ago and again on Monday when his parole was granted. I'm not surprised. By all accounts, Critch was a model prisoner."
"A lot of the people Belinda worked with in forensics are still there. Warren's a hot topic right now. I'm sorry, but so's Jacob Knight."
Romana gave in and let her mind slide back six years to a Cincinnati alley where one very out-of-control chemistry teacher had been holding a gun on one remarkably controlled homicide detective.
She'd been on patrol that afternoon with her veteran partner. They'd been dispatched to a downtown alley after a witness had spotted a man with a gun. She and her partner had separated at the entranceway. She'd taken the rear approach.
To this day, Romana could still feel the adrenaline that had pumped through her system when she'd spotted Warren Critch.According to Critch, Jacob had pushed Belinda to have an affair. When she'd refused, Jacob had threatened to kill her.
Critch had been raving, oblivious to everything except the man in front of him. Anyone could have crept up from behind, it just happened to be Romana. With the barrel of her Glock pressed against his neck, Critch's mind had begun to function. He'd backed down and finally dropped his gun.
Two days later, his wife had been murdered.
Romana sighed as the memory dissolved. "I don't think I saved Jacob's life, Fitz, so much as I talked Critch into seeing reason."
"The consensus in the lab is that Warren Critch would have pulled the trigger, Jacob Knight would have died, and instead of being a free man today, Critch would be facing life without parole for killing a cop. Point being, I think Knight's dangerous, Ro. Gorgeous but dangerous."
A feeling of inevitability crept in. "Fitz, Jacob's "
"Tall, dark and sexy as hell. Like a rock star. Or maybe a bad boy grown up."
"He's not James Dean."
"No, he's way better, and I'm betting a whole lot badder." A picture flitted through Romana's head of an enigmatic face, slightly haunted, slightly hunted, narrow-featured and, yes, gorgeous. The collar of his leather jacket was turned up in her vision so his dark hair fell over it and skimmed his shoulders. Steely eyes stared at her, and his mouthwell, she didn't want to linger too long on that feature.
She felt Fitz tap her arm, noted her cousin's contrite expression and struggled with a laugh. "Let me guess, you're sorry. Again."
"Let's rewind to sitting on Santa's knee, and top it off with a trip upstairs for coffee and a Danish pastry. The Garden Room's been transformed into a Russian ice palace for the rest of December, and I gotta tell you, Ro, if ever anyone looked like a Russian ice princess, it'd be you."
"I'll try and take that as a compliment." Romana separated two bottles from the montage in front of her. "Tatiana perfume for my mother, the newly promoted radio station manager, and Opium for me."
"Former ice princess copreally did mean it as a complimentand current avant garde professor of criminology at the University of Cincinnati."
With a determined shove, the black cloud that had been hovering on the edge of Romana's mind dispersed.
Warren Critch was out of prison, that was a fact. The parole board felt he'd served sufficient time for his crime. True, he'd sent her a Christmas card every year of his incarceration, but the messages inside hadn't actually amounted to threats. She'd gone over them several times. So had a number of her police friends.
Critch was bitterperfectly understandable. Didn't mean he'd jeopardize his newfound freedom by seeking revenge. He'd been blowing off steam in his prison cell. Romana taught the subject; she knew how the criminal mind worked. Or should.
"Wow." Fitz winced as the saleswoman held out a pretty blue bag and a short bill. "That's some hefty total. Guess coffee's on me."
Romana reached into her purse, felt the envelope that hadn't been there an hour ago and, without looking, let her head fall back.
"Then again," she said to the reindeer suspended from the store's ceiling, "maybe no one really knows how the criminal mind works."
"Money, Ro." Fitz elbowed her. "Unless you're thinking of developing sticky fingers yourself."
Romana ignored the telltale red envelope as she hunted for her credit card. "Order me a cinnamon Danish, and a double-double coffee, okay? I need five minutes alone with my cell phone to call an old friend."
"Is he as hunky as Patrick?"
A chill, possibly borne of fear, or more likely of some weird anticipation, feathered along Romana's spine. "Oh, he's hunky enough." She fingered the flap of the red envelope.
"I'm just not sure how happy he'll be to hear from me."
December darkness fell early over Cincinnati. Snowflakes from an approaching weather system fluttered and danced and added to the already festive feeling in the air. Jacob Knight sat in his converted loft with his feet propped on the radiator and watched as pockets of red, gold and green lights winked to life around him.
He could see some portion of Fountain Square and the silver-blue glow that surrounded it. Thanksgiving had come and gone; it was all about Christmas now. About family and friends for most, more about bad memories for him.
When the phone rang, he debated briefly, then picked up. "Knight."
"Well, what d'you know, he exists. I've talked to your voice mail so many times I was beginning to think you'd skipped the country without telling anyone."
Jacob swallowed a mouthful of coffee, kept his eyes on the expanding Christmas glow. "I'm still waking up, O'Keefe. Keep it short and simple."
His former partner released a breath. "Critch made parole two days ago."
"Yeah, I heard."
"He came across sweet as pie for the review board."
"I guess he figured surly wouldn't cut it."
O'Keefe grunted. "I'm worried about you, pal. Critch will want answers. If he decides to look for them, you know where that'll lead him."
Jacob finished his coffee, dropped his feet to the floor and pushed out of the chair. "Critch wrote his own answers six years ago when he found Belinda dead in their home. If he comes after me, I'll deal with him."
"Oh, he'll come," his former partner assured. "The question is how, when and where? Will he do it from the front where you can see him, or will he blindside you? I'm betting on a blindside."
"It's a good thing I'm trained then, huh?" Jacob glanced at his voice mail. Eleven messages, but the majority of them were probably from O'Keefe.
"You need a watchdog, my friend, or a mother. Better still, a wife. You also need to have some fun. Do you realize it's been two years since we've gone to a Reds game? Hell, it's been half as long since we even had a beer together."
"You're day shift, I'm night. The city's jumping, and the department's short-staffed."
"Yadda, yadda. Those are excuses. But pleasure aside, the fact remains, Critch is loose, and I don't think any shrink ever really got inside his head during those prison years."
"I'm a good cop, O'Keefe."
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