chapter one i knew if i opened the door any hope of a quiet christmas would vanish. i glared at the man on the other side of the leaded glass window. my former fiancé, don march was supposed to be in washington d. c., not spirit springs, idaho. he was supposed to be out of my life. not ringing my doorbell two days before christmas. when he saw me, he pushed open the door. if i’d known he was in town, i would have locked my doors. i stood my ground. “don, what are you doing here?” he didn’t say a word, he pushed me back past the entry table, grabbed me, and kissed me. i jerked away and kneed him. my intention was to strike hard enough that his father would feel it. he sunk to the floor. i’ve been working out. and, yeah, i fight dirty. i figured it was warranted since he had eight inches and a good hundred plus pounds on me. so there mr. two-timing-pos. “ensley,” he gasped. “that should teach you not to touch people without permission.” jack stood a few inches behind me. he is so quiet even his truck whispers when it’s running. pushing the door closed, he watched don struggle to get to his feet. don didn’t make it. this christmas had promised to be difficult. don’s presence squared the difficult quotient. as if that were even possible. i was still trying to gather the fragments of my destroyed career and dealing with my dad dying in my arms. all with nominal success. “march, what the hell are you doing here?” jack is used to being in charge, he’s sheriff jack trace, of spirit springs and more. what, i’m not sure. i’m working on it. “trace,” don grimaced as he worked to get to his feet. “i might…ask you…the same thing.” oh, please, don knew exactly why jack was here. he’s the reason i’m wearing a christmas red cashmere sweater and black silk slacks, and why i’d spent the last hour trying to get my makeup perfect and strong-arming my brown hair into behaving. jack is welcome any time he wants to come over. don is not. don struggled to stand. now that he was on his feet, i thought an instant replay of my greeting was in order. after all, he had more than a little to do with ending my career. that brought up the memory of him cheating on me with my former supervisor. i swear at times jack can read my mind. he put his arm around my shoulders in a kind of you-probably-shouldn’t motion. he set a bottle of my favorite wine on the entry table and turned his attention to our intruder. “i was invited.”
the two men faced each other. jack’s hands curled into fists. don’s did the same. the last thing i needed right now was a lot of broken furniture. besides, jack had just returned from one of his unexplained absences two days ago. he always comes home a little worse for wear. i stepped between them before any punches were thrown. both men’s cell phones rang. “trace.” “march.” they have a shared past, one jack refuses to talk about. i’m not asking don. i don’t want to speak to him. ever. jack and don glared at each other as they listened to the voices on the other end of their phones. jack glanced at me. it’s a toss-up who knows better what a total bastard don is. jack, because he’d had professional dealings with him. or me, because i’d been semi-engaged to him when he’d cheated on me. i say semi because i had the ring, and i’d told him, no, but he insisted i think about it. we’d both learned the hard way, the price of contact with don was always too high. they hung up. “doc, there’s a situation,” jack said. “i’m sorry. i have to go to the office.” “i’ve been called to the sheriff’s office, also.” don forced the words through his clenched jaw as he shot jack a contemptuous glance. jack stepped aside. “march.” he motioned for don to leave. under the porte-cochere gracing my hundred-year-old-brick home sat jack’s brand-new silver ford f250. with the snow tires he’d put on it, the vehicle looked ready for anything. his old ford had met its maker on a mountain road south of town a few days before halloween. that same day jack had been shot and we’d nearly been blown up by some ruthless people who were now either awaiting trial or dead. don walked out to his car. i stopped jack. “i don’t want him here.” “i know.” jack smiled, then leaned closer and whispered, “i’ll be back.” his words sent a shiver of expectation through me as he walked away. jack is gorgeous, and just, all around great. he’s tall, 6’3,” with slightly unruly light brown hair. i’m not sure if it’s naturally disobedient or if it’s more a matter of wear and tear. his hazel eyes captivate me with their kaleidoscope of gold, brown, and green. he has shoulders to die for, and his kisses are a study in seduction. after a couple, my brain is unable to string together a coherent thought as it hungers for the next kiss. it’s easy being with jack. he makes me happy. jack helped me catch the garbage who’d murdered my dad. it was more of a him-solving-it and me-getting-in-the-way situation. being a doctor—albeit a research physician—had come in handy throughout the process.
don, on the other hand, is jack’s height. he has striking ice blue eyes and black hair that’s expertly cut to lay exactly right. his body is one of someone whose trainer knows precisely what he’s doing. as i stood in the doorway, half of me ached with curiosity to know what circumstances would call these two titans to jack’s office. the other half was happy to let it play out without me. my only christmas decoration hung on the front door. the wreath, of pine boughs, had a bright red ribbon twining through the greenery. the frosted pinecones provided the perfect accent. it lay gracefully against my white door. two weeks ago, jack and i visited the tree lot in mullen. we needed three wreaths, one for my place, one for his, and one for the b&b. we’d laughed as we selected the three wreaths and two trees. he’d been intent on picking the homeliest tree on the lot. on purpose. if this had been any other time, i would have smiled at the memory. i watched don’s rental car, followed by jack’s ford, pull around the driveway and onto the street. snow began to lightly fall as i leaned against the doorframe. the large flakes against the evergreens reminded me of a christmas card. i closed the door and went to change into jeans. five minutes later, i left brique house for the b&b, three-hundred yards away. i walked through the grove of pines and leafless deciduous trees veiling my home from the rest of the world. leaving the darkness of the glen, i came out into a swirl of blowing snow. i glanced up. the clouds had been gathering all day. there’d be no stars tonight only snow. i pulled my jacket up around my ears. i wanted to talk to jane. she’d stayed after my dad died because in her words, “i don’t have anywhere else to be, and someone has to see to those cats.” i knew she could go anywhere, and the cats lived with me…sort of. right now, they were at the b&b, probably guarding one of the heat vents. since the weather had turned cold, the two of them were constantly in search of a warm spot. as i came around the corner, i saw the shaw’s car still parked next to the old school building turned b&b. when the shaw’s checked in three days ago, jane and i made it clear we’d be closing the twenty-third. since that was today, i was surprised to see they were still here. they’re an odd couple who border on strange. barbara shaw is a perfect medium. her hair is ordinary brown, and her eyes are lifeless brown. neither attractive nor unattractive just average. her husband nate is tall and skinny with slimy black hair and watery blue eyes. his gaze tracks people with a squinty intensity. it gives him a disturbing persona. he makes me shudder. they’d told us they were here to celebrate their first anniversary. yet, they didn’t spend much time together. i shrugged. everyone’s relationship is different. when i’d been with don, we’d gone to official gatherings or parties and newsworthy events. it had all been very public. nothing personal. like a picnic, or a
saturday morning at a farmer’s market or even a movie. we’d gone to a few plays, but only if the right people were there. hindsight is so clear. jack is the opposite, we were always doing something special together. running…well, until winter set in, then we’d taken walks in the country as the snow floated down around us. lois, jack’s spinone loves the white stuff. it provides her with an endless source of fun. we’d laughed as she stuck her head in a drift. when she pulled out she shake her long ears, sending snow flying in all directions. jack and i even grocery shopped together. i smiled. nothing is special unless you’re with the right person. jack is my right person. the thought stopped me. i hadn’t known him long enough to feel that way. had i? be careful, i warned myself. you know your track record with men stinks. “jane,” i called as i walked in the back door. “in here, boss.” i found her in the dining room half of her sticking out from under the christmas tree. she was reaching for something at the base of it. she came up with mason, our big black-and-white cat and resident scoundrel. he delights in disassembling what he can and knocking the rest to the floor. cats. jane let him go, and he scampered up onto a nearby chair. the boughs of the tree had restyled jane’s soft blonde hair. “that cat is rascal.” she pulled her sweatshirt down around her slim waste. around us, the dining room was decorated with red and green plaid tablecloths. the pine centerpieces with their bright colored candles gave the room a festive atmosphere. neither decorations nor the sparkling lights on the tree could restore my good spirits. “let me help,” i said. we returned the silver garland to its rightful place on the tree. i reached out, saving a red ornament from smashing on the vintage hardwood floors. “thanks. that crazy cat is set on taking this tree down one decoration at a time.” the cats arrived at the b&b a month before i did. someone had thrown them away like last week’s garbage. fortunately, they landed in jane’s backyard. mason rolled on his back and stretched his paws out as if to say, “come play with me.” when no one obliged him, he sat up and began taking a kitty bath. mattie, the gray tabby, lay in a sunny spot on the sill of one of the tall windows gracing the front of the building. i went to where she lay. this window overlooked the snowy meadow out front. even with all the white, the memories of that dark october night flooded back. i could still see the life-light fade from my dad’s eyes as i held him in my arms. it was a memory that would live with me forever. “i thought the shaws were checking out today,” i said as i turned from the window. “they asked if they could stay until later this evening. i didn’t see any harm.” she paused. “ah. we aren’t guest-free.” no.
please, don’t let it be don. i needed him to be passing through. anything, anything, except what i knew she was going to say. “oh?” i held on to my glass half-full attitude. “a man came by earlier, said he was a friend of yours and jack’s and needed a room for a while.” “was he tall, dark hair, blue eyes, attractive?” she nodded. “he said his name was don march.” my glass not only spilled, it shattered. she studied me. “he’s not a friend?” “no. he’s the man i was engaged to in d. c. it’ll be okay.” i knew it wouldn’t be. “i thought about sayin’ no. the name sounded familiar, but i couldn’t place it.” she tilted her head. “he said you were expecting him.” of course, he did. he’d say, or do anything to get what he wanted. the problem was i had no idea what his plans were. “i remember now, he’s the one who got you fired.” she stood straight and put her hands on her hips. “i’ll throw him out.” i smiled. “let’s hope he finishes what he came here to do, and leaves.” nothing was ever easy with don. “he does seem like the determined sort.” she picked up the big cat to keep him from rearranging the garland again. “he knows we’re closed christmas eve and day. no breakfast. he said he had plans.” i could only imagine what they were. it didn’t matter. uncle stan was coming, and we were all going to jack’s tomorrow. i couldn’t wait. the magic of christmas has always held the promise of a new beginning for me. i know most people consider new year’s day as the beginning. it’s always been christmas for me. i sighed as my phone vibrated in my pocket. jack’s picture appeared on my screen. “hi, jack.” “meet me at the bar and grill.” he hung up. the tightness in his voice was in stark contrast to his whispered words earlier. he hadn’t said goodbye. he always said goodbye. judging by his tone, nothing good had happened at his office. i handed jane a christmas card. “i’ve got to go. i was going to mail this, but since they’re still here, would you give it to the shaws? there’s a coupon inside for next year. please, wish them a merry christmas for us.” she took the envelope. “is this don march going to cause us trouble?” jane and i had been through a lot in our short time together. dad’s death had hit us both hard. jack and i nearly getting killed a few days later hadn’t made things any easier. i was ready for a quiet, uneventful holiday. “oh, without a doubt.” she sighed. “we don’t need any more excitement.” with a glance at the envelope in her hand, she said, “i’ll take the cats to your place.” “thanks. i’ll see you later.” brique house is a large two-story brick structure. hence the name. i wondered why they’d used the french spelling. i’d asked jane if
she’d wanted to share the large house with me. she’d said no. she liked her little place near the old stables. i’m sure it has more to do with uncle stan’s visits than the house. they have an arrangement. i hurried and slipped back into my silk slacks and red sweater. they’d be cold, but they’d look great. i’d abandoned my christian louboutin’s as outdoor wear for the season. two feet of snow, plus four-inch heels, equals something broken. i took them with me. it doesn’t snow inside the bar and grill. i walked up to the hot springs bar and grill ten minutes later. the only dinner restaurant in town is a large log structure. outside christmas lights outlined the eaves. above the main entrance hung a six-foot wreath. in the coat room, i put on my black heels. hey, you can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take away her shoes. i hung my jacket and shoe bag on one of the hooks. inside was body to body. holiday music intertwined with the laughter and conversation of the patrons. the massive elk antlers above the equally impressive stone fireplace were festooned with tiny blinking lights. the poor animal was probably rolling over in his grave. as i scanned the room for jack, lacey harris stepped in front of me. she’s the bartender here and the mayor’s daughter. her long nails dug into my arm. a cluster of mistletoe clung to her long, straight red hair. at least, it was red this week. “jack wasn’t enough for you?” “what?” she is under the illusion i stole jack from her. their relationship is a figment of her imagination. “don was here earlier today asking all about you. he’s back, and he wants to see you as soon as you get here.” she squeezed my arm tighter. “are you going to leave with don? why wouldn’t you? you and your fancy clothes don’t belong here. he’s gorgeous and so big city. maybe i’ll have a go at him. yeah, i’d like all those fancy people back east.” poor lacey. “don isn’t the kind of man—” “are you kidding? he’s handsome and important. he isn’t like the cowboys around here.” she hesitated as if to put extra emphasis on her next words. “or a small-town sheriff.” she shook my arm hard. don has a ruthless james bond façade. “lacey, you—” i started over. “i’m not going anywhere.” i decided to ignore the reference to jack. it wouldn’t do any good to go down that road again. i pried her vice-like fingers loose. she grasped my arm back. “what do you do for these guys?” not only had don’s arrival ruined my evening with jack, it had jeopardized our prospects for a calm if not merry christmas. right now, lacey was in the process of making my bad mood, worse. “why don’t you leave with don?” i thought it was worth a shot. maybe she’d be happy with the d. c., life. “i could if i wanted. i’m not giving up on jack. he’ll get tired of you and come back to me.” “where are they?” the conversation had gone full circle and i was tired of her ridiculous rantings.
“at the back table.” she spun around and returned to the bar. leaving me to wonder if it was snowing in her world, too. i zigzagged my way through the jovial crowd toward the back table. it’s tucked in a corner where the light bulb mysteriously always needs to be replaced. lovers use the faint glow seclusion to their advantage. jack and don were intent as they faced each other across the small table. as i drew closer, i heard them talking. “i’ll tell her everything, trace. then, we’ll see what she thinks of you. see how long she stays,” don said as he leaned forward. the look on jack’s face stopped me. his eyes were hard, and i knew he was struggling to control his anger. “she won’t believe you,” he said. “maybe not, but it’ll plant a seed of doubt. she’ll start questioning what kind of monster you are.” don leaned back in his chair. “she questions everything. she’ll start to dig and—” jack glanced up. he stood. “doc, you look great.” he smiled and pulled a chair out for me. don stood. it struck me how much the two men were built alike. tall and muscular. if the lights were any lower, i wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. “thank you.” i sat next to jack. lacey sauntered over, her eyes locked on don. “can i refresh your drink?” the yarn in her bright green sweater strained against her ample chest. “please.” he smiled at her. the same practiced smile he’d trained on me a hundred times. when she left, i asked, “why are we here?” more precisely, why was i here? “we’re waiting,” don said. i was about to ask the question again when lacey returned. “that guy.” she turned to point to someone. she had a confused look on her face as the turned back to us. “he was there a second ago.” she shrugged. “anyway, he wanted me to give this to you.” she held out an envelope. jack reached for it, and she snatched it back. “it’s for don.” lacey touched don’s hand as she presented it to him. with an enticing grin, she ran her long red fingernail up his arm and rested her hand on his shoulder. i thought she was going to hold out for jack? now it seemed don was in her sights. or was she trying to make jack jealous? poor lacey. she shot jack a glance to be sure he was watching. he wasn’t. “thank you.” don gave her another smile and squeezed her hand. when we were alone, he ripped open the envelope, then showed it to us. “it’s empty,” i said. i still had no idea why i was here. “it’s a go,” jack said. as don took out cash, jack whispered, “i’ll drive you home.” he knew as well as i did, i had my car. i’d pick it up later. as we made our way through the crowd i asked again, “jack, why am i here?”
“he ordered me to call you. i don’t want you involved in this…situation.” he paused. “none of this feels right.” i was surprised. was don, jack’s boss? that had to be a toxic combination. as we walked through the happy crowd, jack shifted gears and said, “i’m impressed.” we wove through the crowd. “how’d you get in here, without falling, in those shoes, with all this snow? or is it one of your girl secrets?” when i’d first arrived in spirit springs, i’d had a problem navigating the town’s crumbling sidewalks. “trade secret.” i slid my hand into his. touching him always made me feel like i was seventeen, experiencing the thrill of being with my first real boyfriend. jack is no boy. he stopped and faced me. “this isn’t what i’d planned for tonight.” i could tell by the way he’d said he’d be back. “what’s going on?” i asked. “i can’t tell you. it’s classified which makes your presence completely out of line.” classified? interesting. “so why am i here?” jack scanned the crowd. for a second his attention settled on don as he talked to someone at the bar. “not here.” i felt the muscles in his arm tighten. i got my bag and jacket from the coat room. he pushed the door open, and we walked out into a wall of large snowflakes. i held fast to his arm. “i want you safe. i don’t know what he’s trying to accomplish, but for tonight he’s calling the shots. this is”—he stopped— “an unusual circumstance.” jack told me once don had saved his life. he’d also said the debt was paid. “i don’t want anything to do with don.” then it occurred to me— “don, isn’t your boss, is he?” “god, no. this whole thing has a—” he struggled with what to say as we stopped beside to his truck. he brushed a flake from my face. “i want this over with and him gone.” he kissed me. jack knows his kisses distract me because i’ve told him so. from the smile on his face when i told him…let’s just say he is more than happy to divert my attention, and i’m eager to let him. “you’re asserting your unfair advantage.” “if i had a choice—” he shook his head as he opened the truck door for me. the five-minute ride to my house was silent. i wasn’t sure if jack was concentrating on the snow-slick road or the upcoming mission. i sat next to him wishing i had the power to send don back to washington or mars. it would be the best christmas present ever. i wasn’t going to let this go. i wanted answers. we stopped under the porte-cochere, and i put my hand on his arm. “tell me what’s going on.” don’s words still echoed through my mind. “i’m telling her everything.” jack pressed his lips together. “it’s classified.” he isn’t only the sheriff, he’s ex-delta force. every now and then he vanishes for a few days. so, i’m not sure if he’s ex or not. i’ve often wondered where people think he went on those sudden trips. i asked phyllis once, she’d expertly dodged the question. jack helped me out of the truck. he wrapped me in his arms and his warm citrus aftershave filled my senses.
“come in,” i whispered. “i’ll make a fire.” he kissed me again. “tomorrow night.” he hesitated as if to say something more. instead, he kissed me one more time and got back in his truck. i watched as he pulled out onto the street and vanished behind a wall of snow. tomorrow night. the words echoed in my head.