An all-new novel in Debbie Mason’s USA Today bestselling Christmas, Colorado series.
It’s beginning to look a lot like love …
Spring fever has hit the small town of Christmas, and deputy Jill Flaherty has developed a serious case. The object of her unrequited longing is none other than a former pro-hockey player who’s her long-time crush and the most eligible bachelor in town. As her thirtieth birthday nears, Jill’s determined to finally get Sawyer Anderson’s attention … and keep it forever.
Everyone in town knows Sawyer is a player on and off the ice. So no one suspects that he’s been yearning to settle down and have a family, to be just as happy as his best friend and his beautiful wife. But when his best friend finds out the bride Sawyer has in mind for his happy ever after is his off-limits baby sister, it might be a hot summer in Christmas in more ways than one.
Release date: June 28, 2016
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 400
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Happy Ever After in Christmas
Deputy Jill Flaherty sat at her desk wrapping her brother’s birthday present for his surprise party that night. The yellow helium balloons she’d ordered were currently bouncing in front of her face. She lifted her hand to bat them away, ripping the paper off the present in the process. A present that she’d been painstakingly wrapping for the last ten minutes. Frustrated, she swore under her breath while shaking her fingers to free them of the tape and brightly colored tissue paper.
“You’re stuck,” Suze announced in an authoritative voice from behind her computer.
“Thank you for your insightful observation,” Jill grumbled at the forty-something woman sitting at the dispatcher’s desk across the room as she bent her head to pull the tape off her fingers with her teeth.
Suze leaned around her computer and grinned. “I didn’t mean literally. I mean you’re stuck, stuck. That’s why you’ve been so bitchy lately. You have the pre-thirtieth birthday blues.”
“It’s my fingers that are stuck, not me. And I’m not…” Jill sighed. “Okay, so maybe I have been a little bitchy. But it’s because of all the overtime I’ve been putting in the past couple of weeks. I’m tired.”
She ignored the reference to her thirtieth birthday. She wouldn’t admit to Suze that she was partially right. Like an ominous black cloud, the big three-o loomed large in Jill’s mind. It always had. Her mother had died two days before her thirtieth. Preparations for Jack’s thirty-seventh birthday had served to remind Jill that her thirtieth was only five months away.
“Because you don’t have a life.”
Jill lifted a hand still covered in tape and paper in an are-you-kidding-me gesture. “I do so. I have—”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. You have friends and family and a job you love. Still doesn’t mean you have a life. You put yours on hold when Jack was MIA. I had a front row seat so I know what I’m talking about.” Suze held up her hand when Jill opened her mouth to defend herself. “I get it. We all knew how hard it was for you dealing with Jack being missing while working two jobs and taking care of Grace and little Jack. It’s why I cut you some slack. But here we are two years later, and you still haven’t pressed the restart button.”
“I have a life,” Jill reiterated without elaborating. Suze had stolen her ammunition. If having friends, family, and a job she loved didn’t count, Jill didn’t know what else to say.
As another balloon danced in front of her face, she thought back to Jack’s birthday two years earlier. The Penalty Box, the local sports bar, had been decorated with a hundred yellow balloons that warm night in May. Half the residents of the small town of Christmas, Colorado had shown up to share their memories of Jack and pray for his safe return. By then it had been seventeen months since his Black Hawk had been shot down over the mountains of Afghanistan.
In all that time they hadn’t received a single word as to whether he was alive or dead, not even a ransom demand. They’d had nothing to hold on to but hope and faith. At least Jill had been holding on. Right after they’d sung “Happy Birthday” in honor of her brother, she’d found out she was the only one who was.
Still tough to think about, Jill thought as she rubbed the phantom pain in her chest. The memory of the raw, ugly emotions that had cut through her that night. Anger and hurt that his wife Grace planned to move on with her life. The searing burn of jealousy and betrayal that she’d planned to move on with Sawyer Anderson, Jack’s best friend and the man Jill’d had a crush on since she was ten, and had fallen in love with when he’d kissed her at her brother’s wedding. Not that Grace and Sawyer had ever come out and admitted their intentions or feelings, but Jill had recognized the signs.
And then, within seconds of discovering Grace’s betrayal, one of the worst moments in Jill’s life had turned into the best. Breaking news had flashed across the television screen behind the bar that Jack and his crew had been found alive.
A chair scraped noisily on the tile floor and drew Jill back from that night. Suze moved the bouquet of balloons and took a seat across from her. “Okay, so tell me, when was the last time you hid the salami?” she asked.
Jill frowned. “What…”
Suze rolled her brown eyes as she peeled the last of the tape and tissue paper from Jill’s fingers. “Bumped uglies…Did the horizontal mumbo?”
“I have no idea what you’re—”
“Oh for godsakes, when was the last time you got laid?”
Since the answer didn’t immediately pop into her head, Jill hedged, “What does that have to do with anything?”
“And there’s your problem. You can’t remember, can you?” Suze said as she rolled the paper and tape into a ball.
“Yes, I can. Seven months ago,” she said, taking a guess. Then realizing the number of months might unwittingly validate Suze’s no-life pronouncement, Jill added, “Before you say anything, I’ve been busy.”
Suze pursed her lips and tossed the ball into the garbage can. “Don’t buy two-sided tape again. And it was eight months ago with that accountant from Logan County.”
“Really? Huh. I could have sworn…” She took in the I-told-you-so look on Suze’s lightly freckled face. “Oh, come on, that doesn’t mean anything.”
“Yeah, it does. It says it all. You have unmemorable sex with unmemorable men. And do you know why you do?”
“No, but I’m sure you’re going to enlighten me,” Jill said, carefully working the rest of the paper off Jack’s present with a pair of scissors.
“Fear,” Suze said, taking the scissors from Jill’s hand and looking her in the eyes. “You’re afraid to get your heart broken. That’s why you spend your time fantasizing about the man and life you want and not doing anything about it.”
“I do not fantasize about Sawyer,” Jill blurted without thinking. She caught the triumphant look in Suze’s eyes and quickly added, “Or any other man in town.”
“Umhm,” Suze said as she opened the gift box, carefully removing the framed photos from inside. It was a collage of Jill’s favorite pictures of Grace and Jack with Jill’s nephew. “You want this, don’t you? The house, the baby, the man of your dreams, the whole enchilada. I want that for you, too, girlfriend.”
Jill looked away from the photos and shrugged, turning to pull another roll of gift wrap from the bag at her feet. “I guess. Someday,” she said in an offhand manner, unwilling to admit how much she did. But Suze knew her too well to be fooled. She needed a distraction. “What about you? You won’t be able to use the boys as an excuse for much longer. They’ll be heading to college in a couple years.”
Suze arched an eyebrow while sliding the framed photos back into the box. “You wanna play it that way, fine. Here’s what we’ll do.” She taped the box shut, then leaned across the desk to grab two pieces of paper out of the printer. She handed one to Jill.
“What’s this for?”
“We’re making our life-goal lists. Or in your case, get-a-life list.” She took the gift wrap from Jill. “I’ll take care of this while you write down yours. I have to think about mine for a bit seeing as how I already have the kids and house.”
“Don’t be smug,” Jill said, looking at the paper like it was bomb about to detonate and she didn’t have the code. Maybe because there was a part of her that knew Suze was right. If Jill wrote down what she really wanted, she’d actually have to do something about it. Sometimes living in a fantasy world was easier. You didn’t have to deal with rejection, the hurt and disappointment.
By the time Suze had wrapped the present, Jill had one item on her list. It was the only one she felt comfortable enough to write down.
“I knew you wanted to be sheriff,” Suze said with a self-satisfied smile, then grimaced. “Make sure you don’t show anyone your list. No one’s supposed to know Gage isn’t running for another term. He’ll figure out I accidently overheard his conversation.” Suze put her hand over Jill’s to stop her from ripping up the sheet of paper. “Don’t. You have to write them down. There’s a higher percentage that they’ll happen if you do.”
“Yeah? Where did you read that, Facebook?” Jill asked her friend and coworker who spent more time on social media than anyone she knew.
“Oprah. Now come on. No more stalling. Stop editing yourself and just write them down.”
Jill bent over the paper, shielding it with her arm, and wrote down the rest.
“You have to let me see,” Suze complained, but before she could take the list from Jill, the phone rang. “Sheriff’s department, how can I …Oh, hi, Boss. What’s up? Jill? Yeah, of course she’s here. Where else would she be?”
Jill scowled at her and took the phone, rolling her eyes when Suze pressed the speaker button. “Hey, Gage, what’s up?”
“I need a favor. The seniors’ hockey league are playing the last game of the season today, and I need you to take my place.”
“Ha! Good one. Now, what are you really calling about?”
“I’m serious. We’ve got two guys down, including me. You know how competitive Ethan is. If we lose the game, he’s gonna blame me, and I’ll never hear the end of it. Brad already agreed to fill in for one of the other guys.”
Brad was a recent hire. Young, smart, and ambitious, Jill had no doubt when word got out Gage wasn’t seeking reelection, he’d throw his hat in the ring. Since the guy was also handsome and charming, he could pose a serious threat. Which was probably why Suze was widening her eyes at Jill and nodding like a bobble-head doll. But there was no way Jill was volunteering to play. “I’d like to help you out, but I promised to decorate the Penalty Box for Jack’s—”
“Don’t worry about it, girlfriend. I’ll go over after my shift and decorate,” Suze said, stabbing the first line on Jill’s list.
“Wow, thanks, Suze,” Jill said through clenched teeth. “But I’m sure you have more important things to do. Besides, you’d be better off getting someone who actually knew how to play the game, Gage.”
“Come on, you practically lived at the arena and spent more than half your life around Sawyer. You know hockey.”
She’d lived at the arena because she had a crush on Sawyer, not because she loved hockey. Though she kinda did now. “Yes, I know how the game is played, but I don’t play the game. You need to find someone who does.” And they better be good, because former NHL superstar Sawyer Anderson was on the opposing team. So was Jill’s brother.
“He’s found someone. You. Don’t worry, Gage. She’ll be there.”
Jill stared at Suze.
“Great. Thanks, Jill. I owe you,” Gage said.
“Dammit, Suze, why did you do that?” Jill demanded as soon as her boss hung up.
“Did you not just hear Gage say he owed you? You’ve had five complaints filed against you this month alone. You need—”
“Four. Mrs. Burnett was exaggerating. The tree branch was a hazard, and I didn’t cut her phone line. I tripped over the wire and it came out of the wall.” Which was one of the reasons Jill was feeling a little stressed and overworked these days. Since most of her complaints had come from the seniors in town, Gage had volunteered Jill to work twenty hours a week at the nursing home in hopes she’d learn a kinder and gentler approach.
“Regardless, it’s in your file until she withdraws the complaint. But you’re missing the point. Brad’s a suck-up, and he hasn’t been written up. You need to do some sucking up of your own. The only way you’ll be elected sheriff is if you have Gage’s full support.”
“Well, he’s not going to feel very supportive if I lose the game for them. Suze, the only hockey I’ve ever played is street hockey with Sawyer and Jack when I was nine.”
“You’ll be fine. You’re as athletic and as competitive as Brad. You’ll get the hang of it in no time.” She wiggled Jill’s list out from under her arm. “And this is a great opportunity for you to prove to Sawyer that you’re perfect for him.”
Jill grabbed the paper from Suze and folded it in half. “I didn’t write, prove to Sawyer I’m perfect for him on my list. I wrote, ask him out.” Saying it out loud caused Jill’s stomach to heave. But the more time she’d spent on the list, the more obvious it became that she really had put her life on hold. And clearly, with the approach of the big three-o, she wasn’t getting any younger.
“Maybe you should have, because you are. He just doesn’t know it yet. And you know why he doesn’t, Jill?”
“No, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me,” she said under her breath.
“He doesn’t because you’re so busy working, the only time he sees you is in uniform or at Grace and Jack’s. You need to show him another side of you. Not the cop or his best friend’s baby sister.”
At that moment, Jill was showing Sawyer her backside. Her heavily padded backside. It was the second half of the third period, and she’d taken a hit from one of the opposing players that sent her flying into the air and onto her knees.
“I give her a four. What about you, buddy?” her brother said from where he leaned over the boards with Sawyer looking down at her.
“She did a perfect one-eighty and got great height, but she blew the landing. So yeah, I’d have to give her a four. You know what, we’re winning, and I’m feeling generous. I’ll give her a four-point-two,” Sawyer said.
“Bite me,” Jill said as she pushed off the ice and got to her feet without looking at them.
“What’s that, Shortstop?” Sawyer asked, not bothering to hide his amusement.
She turned and lifted her stick at the electronic scoreboard, ignoring his use of her childhood nickname. She was already mad enough. They’d been teasing her relentlessly throughout the entire game. “You might want to take a picture of the score. You won’t be winning for much longer,” she said, then skated to where the ref waited for her to get into position.
Some people considered the Flaherty temper a character flaw. At times so did Jill, but right now she took advantage of that rush of adrenalin and temper. As soon as the ref dropped the puck, she was on it. What she lacked in finesse, she made up for with grit and determination as she skated up the ice toward the goalie. She faked out the right defenseman—it wasn’t that hard. The third line on Sawyer’s team wasn’t that good, and the reason Jill’s team was two goals away from tying the game.
“Jill,” Brad called out, tapping his stick on the ice. The auburn-haired and blue-eyed cutie was wide open. But he’d already scored twice. As both defensemen skated toward her, Jill eyed the net the same way she eyed the target at the shooting range. At the top of the hash mark, she wound up and took her shot and…scored.
Her teammates on the bench banged their sticks against the boards while those on the ice rushed her. Brad reached her first. A wide smile split his handsome face as he gave her a hug and lifted her off her feet.
Sawyer’s fans booed loudly, and that meant the majority of people crowded in the stands behind the opposition’s bench. The competitive midget hockey team he coached was out in full force as were a large contingent of well-endowed blondes. No doubt at one time or another he’d dated each and every one of them.
She glanced at her brother and Sawyer. As if all their athletic coaching over the years had paid off, the two of them wore proud grins. She wouldn’t be surprised if they’d patted each other on the back when she scored. But they weren’t looking so proud or happy when she scored three minutes later. Unlike her first goal, her second was a fluke. The picks of her right skate got stuck in the soft ice, sending her into the defenseman who had the puck. Her stick caught the edge of the puck, and it rolled into the net.
But her teammates high-fived her just the same as she took her place on the bench. Ethan, Gage’s best friend and district attorney for the county, slapped her on the back. “For five years straight we’ve lost the end-of-season game to these guys. Now, thanks to you, we have a chance to take the cup. Gage should give you a raise.”
A raise would be nice, but she’d rather have her boss’s endorsement for sheriff, which would result in more money. But it wasn’t fair to take all the credit. “It was a team effort. Brad scored, too.”
Ethan didn’t respond because he was busy pumping up the team. “Clock’s ticking down, boys. Time to bring the cup home,” he said as he skated onto the ice with his line.
Sawyer also skated toward center ice. He hadn’t played professional hockey in more than seven years. A dirty hit and a severe concussion had ended his career. But he still had the speed and the long, easy strides that had made him a star. The only reason they were able to hold him off was their goalie—a lawyer who worked for Ethan and a former professional hockey player, too. At six four, the guy was built like a tank and filled the net.
“You’re something else, you know,” Brad said from beside her.
Jill drew her gaze from Sawyer as he faced off against Ethan. “How’s that?” she asked, lifting her water bottle to her mouth.
“You’re amazing. I’ve never met another woman like you. There’s nothing you can’t do.”
Jill choked on the water while searching his face for a sign he was teasing. She kind of hoped he was, because if he wasn’t, that meant he was interested in her. And she didn’t want him to be interested. She didn’t want to reject him if he asked her out. Rejection sucked on any level. And he was a nice guy, even if they did end up competing for Gage’s job. Plus they worked together. “I can’t cook. Well, I guess I could if I had to, but I don’t like to. And I can be a bitch, just ask Suze.”
He laughed. He had a nice laugh. “You forget I work with you, too. But hey, we all have bad days, and you’ve been putting in a lot of overtime.”
Totally nice guy, dammit. She prayed for a fight to break out on the ice, just not one involving Sawyer. He couldn’t risk another concussion. But no, he was tearing up the ice on a breakaway. It was a beautiful sight. She could watch him skate all day. The crowd roared as he showed off his legendary stick-handling abilities. With a flash of a smile and his perfect white teeth, his passion and love of the game lit up his gorgeous face. Then he drew back his stick and took a powerful shot. She held her breath. Disappointment echoed off the building’s rafters when the goalie deflected the puck.
She’d been so caught up in the play that she hadn’t realized Brad was speaking to her. “Sorry. What did you say?”
“I was wondering if you’d like to get a drink with me sometime?”
She groaned inwardly, wishing she’d either ignored him or said something about the game to distract him. Now she had to figure out a way not to hurt his feelings. “I’d really like to, Brad. But…Gage has a no-fraternization policy.” She caught a hint of disappointment in his blue eyes. “I wish he didn’t. You’re a great guy.”
“I feel the same about you. But you’re right, I wouldn’t want to jeopardize my job.”
Before Jill could ask his thoughts about his future with Christmas’s sheriff’s department, Ethan opened the door to the players’ bench. As he and his line filed back in, he said, “Get out there, you two, and do us proud.”
“But we’re on the third line, not the second,” Jill protested even as she stood up. Brad was already over the boards.
“You two are on a winning streak. Now go out there and show them up,” he said, pushing her out the door without warning. Her skates went out from under her and she landed on her butt.
Her brother laughed. “You wanna play with the big boys, Shortstop. You gotta get rid of the girlie skates.”
“Ouch, looks like that hurt. You might want to sit this one out, Shortstop,” Sawyer said, leaning on his stick as he watched her struggling to get up. His mouth twitched with amusement.
“Don’t let them intimidate you, Jill. I’ve got your back,” Brad said, slapping at her brother’s stick with his.
“Thanks,” she murmured and took her place across from Sawyer. Standing six three without skates, he towered over her with them on. He grinned down at her. She scowled up at him. “You won’t be smiling once we—”
Five blondes wearing short skirts and white T-shirts with Sawyer’s face covering their boobs drowned Jill out as they shook their pom-poms and yelled, “Go, Sawyer. Go, Sawyer. Go, Sawyer.”
Jill rolled her eyes. “They’re a little underdressed, don’t you think?”
He glanced at them and lifted a padded shoulder. “It’s May. Arena’s warm.”
Seeing him look their way, the women cheered louder and shook their pom-poms harder. Sawyer gave them a sexy smile and waved.
On top of Jack’s and Sawyer’s teasing, the women and his flirty response set off Jill’s temper. She was going to beat them, and she was going to beat them bad. “Ref, you should be calling him for delay of game,” she said to the kid with the puck in his hand. It was Trent Dawson. One of Sawyer’s star players and his manager’s son.
Sawyer laughed. “Good try, Shortstop,” he said, slapping at her stick with his.
Jill ignored him and got in position, casting a sidelong glance at Trent. Just as he was about to drop the puck, she said, “I don’t flipping believe it. They’re flashing their boobs!”
Sawyer lifted his head to look at the same time Trent released the puck. Jill got the drop on Sawyer, shooting the puck to Brad.
“You always did play dirty,” Sawyer said, laughing as he whizzed past her.
Within seconds he’d wrested the puck from Brad and was heading back into their end with breathtaking speed.
“The only way to win this game is take Anderson out,” Brad said with a determined look on his face as he skated past her.
Wait? What? “No, Brad, you…” She started to call after him, but he was already heading for Sawyer. No matter how much she wanted to win—not only to make a point to her brother and Sawyer, but to get in Gage’s good graces—she had to stop Brad. Another concussion could cause Sawyer irreparable damage. She skated as if his life depended on it. Sawyer was at the hash mark, Brad a foot behind him. She launched herself at Brad, putting an arm behind him to protect his head as they fell. She let out a whoosh of breath as she landed hard on her teammate, releasing a pained groan when her chin hit the ice.
The crowd roared. Sawyer had scored the winning goal.
* * *
Sawyer waited on the sidewalk outside the Penalty Box for Jill. “Why didn’t you stick around for the cup presentation?” he teased, holding up the trophy as she approached wearing a white shirt, jeans, and white sneakers.
Her dark, shiny hair swung across her shoulders as she gave her head an annoyed shake. Her full pink lips flattened when she reached his side. “You may not have noticed, but my team wasn’t exactly impressed that I lost the game for us.”
“Come on, you guys didn’t stand a chance. We win every year. But just for curiosity’s sake, why did you take out Brad? Did he tick you off?” As Sawyer well knew, it didn’t take much to tick her off. She had her brother’s temper. Only Jack’s twelve-year stint in the military had taught him to control his.
She shoved her sunglasses on top of her head. “No, he didn’t tick me off. He wanted to win, and he was going to take you out to do it.”
“Wait a sec, are you telling me that you blew the game to protect me?”
Color stained her blade-sharp cheekbones. “What was I supposed to do? Do you want to suffer a permanent brain injury? Because that’s what could happen if you take another blow to your fat head.” She crossed her arms and looked away.
Sawyer would have laughed if not for the pressure building in his chest. It was rare for Jill to let her guard down. Half the time she was either scowling or growling at him. But every once in a while, like now, she’d show him how much she cared. “I appreciate you trying to protect me, Shortstop. But I can take a hit, you know? It would take someone a lot bigger and badder than Brad to take me down.”
She lifted her chin. “All it takes is one time. You shouldn’t be playing hockey, even if it is recreational.”
“Appreciate the concern, but we have a no-body-contact rule.” He frowned, noticing a scrape on her chin and raised it with his knuckle. “You have a bruise. Did you hit the ice when you fell on top of Brad?”
She batted his hand a way. “I’m fine. It’s not a big deal.”
He slid his hand from her chin to the nape of her neck, th. . .
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