The huge pickup ahead of Paula Lewis's cop cruiser was spattered with frozen mud and straw, beat up but serviceable, with rugged tires intended for rough roads. Looked to her like it belonged to a cowboy. About all she could see of the man at the wheel were big shoulders and a Stetson.
He was probably in town to see the sights and raise a little hell. Denver was a magnet this time of year. The glittering Parade of Lights that kicked off the Christmas season started tonight. People came from all over to view the gorgeous floats and the bands marching past brick and stone buildings that were dressed up in lights too.
Solo for this shift, Paula was going to miss most of the excitement. Her usual partner had bailed on her, and there was no one available to sub for him. But other officers were in the area if she happened to need backup. Absently, she listened to the cop talk coming over the radio. Nothing noteworthy going on.
So far, her routine patrol around the civic center had been uneventful, which was good. The officers on the evening shift had been briefed on which streets were closed to vehicular traffic and other details. The parade would start in a few hours. It was already dark.
Paula braked when the pickup's taillights flashed again. The driver kept slowing down, then speeding up again without ever going over the limit. A yellow light at the next intersection brought him to a complete halt. Paula gripped the steering wheel, rocked by the jolt of stopping short. She'd expected him to go through it. She shook her head. The cowboy was cautious. Or lost.
When he leaned sideways to peer at the street sign, another car swung to the left and went past her. Its headlights gave Paula a glimpse of the cowboy's chiseled profile above the turned-up collar of his denim jacket. The light turned red, and he straightened to look forward through the windshield again, tipping back the wide-brimmed hat he wore.
Hands still on the steering wheel, she glanced around. No minor mayhem or rowdy revelers yet. But the temporary placard restricting the cross street to pedestrians had been torn down. A white paper corner still dangled from a strip of tape attached to the lamppost.
Paula sighed. The light was taking forever to change.
For something to do, she ran the pickup's plates, taking in the information on the laptop while they both waited. The vehicle was registered to Zachary Bennett, age twenty-nine, in a county that was mostly ranches. No surprise there.
He seemed to be a law-abiding type. Clean record. No moving violations, not even an unpaid parking ticket.
Paula tapped a key to see more. His driver's license photo was dynamite. Strong jaw, sexy mouth. She glanced at the official description. Brown hair, blue eyes. Six foot three.
Stop it, she told herself. The Colorado DMV wasn't operating a dating service, and she was on the job.
Paula looked up when the light turned green, startled to see the pickup turn suddenly and fast, a shade too close to the curb. Fortunately, no one was standing there. But sign or no sign, Zachary Bennett had just gone down a street that was now closed. She would have to tactfully inform him of that fact and ask him to turn around.
She waited to follow him until the pickup stopped at the end of the block and eased into a parking spot, the engine still running. Despite the cold, there were plenty of people on the sidewalk. Couples and families headed toward the parade area to stake out good spots well in advance.
Paula pulled up beside the truck, looking at Zachary Bennett by the faint glow of the smart-phone screen he was tapping. She rolled down the passenger side window of the cruiser and called to him. "Sir. Sir."
He didn't seem to hear, absorbed in whatever was on the screen.
In her side mirror, she spotted a boy of about ten being yanked along by a big, goofy dog on a taut leash just before they crossed the street in front of her. Paula decided against using the loudspeaker, not wanting to get the dog barking or startle the kid. When they had passed, she switched on her roof lights for a few seconds. The brilliant flashes got her a bewildered stare from the cowboy. Now she had his attention.
Zachary Bennett rolled down his window. He made no attempt to hide the smartphone, holding it in the hand resting on the steering wheel. Paula leaned over to talk to him again. "Sir, are you aware that—"
"I pulled over and parked," he interrupted her. "I don't text and drive. Never have, never will."
He really hadn't done anything wrong, but she was still inclined to show him who was boss. As a general rule, Paula liked to finish her sentences. "Glad to hear it. But that's not the issue." A few individuals glanced their way as she got out, walking around the cruiser to the pickup.
Paula was five-nine, but the height of the cab—and the man inside it—made her feel short. The winter Stetson, made of thick dark felt, framed a masculine face with strong cheekbones and intense blue eyes. The annoyed set of his jaw didn't keep her from thinking that he probably had a great smile. His face was lean and sun-weathered.
"So what did I do?"
She rested a gloved hand on her equipment belt. "You clipped the curb when you made that turn back there."
Technically, the huge tires had only kissed the concrete. But she could make the point that he had been going a little too fast if she wanted to.
He thought it over, staring down at her. "I don't think so." The reply was calm, almost cool. Zachary Bennett didn't seem like the type who'd argue with a cop, but she had a feeling he was stubborn. Cowboy attitude.
She cleared her throat. "I'm willing to let it go. But I do have to tell you that this street is temporarily closed off for the parade. Foot traffic only."
"Oh. Sorry." He stuck his head out of the window and looked back the way he'd come. "I didn't see a sign."
Paula acknowledged that with a nod. "There was a placard, but it was torn down. That's why I followed you. I'm not trying to give you a hard time or make a ticket quota."
"All right." He seemed okay with that, taking a moment to survey her from head to toe, but not in an obnoxious way.
There wasn't much to see, she thought. Dark uniform pants and a heavy jacket hid most of her slender body. Her long auburn hair was braided into a style that fit under her cap. Still, Paula was used to being flirted with.
A lot of guys thought female cops were fair game. She'd heard every dumb line there was. What color are your eyes, officer? Take off that hat and let me see. You're too pretty for law enforcement. And her personal favorite: Don't tell me you take this job seriously.
She did, though. Some people found that out the hard way.
Paula planted herself in her regulation-black shoes and stood tall. Close up, Zachary Bennett was too attractive for her peace of mind. Best to keep on doing the talking and not let him get started.
"You have to move your vehicle," Paula insisted. "No standing, no parking. Just go back. And be careful," she added. "It's a big night. I assume you're in town for the parade." She gestured toward the hurrying people.
"You're missing out. It's spectacular."
"So I hear," he said. "But I'm meeting a friend and I'm late."
Something told her the friend he was meeting was female. Instinct was a real bitch sometimes.
He smiled at her. "I hate to admit it but I'm lost. Maybe you can help."
Paula only nodded. The unexpected smile was a lot more effective than any line. Combined with the flash of humor in his blue eyes, it was downright unsettling.
He turned the smartphone toward her to show the map on the screen. "This damn thing keeps indicating a detour. The way it tells me to go will take me straight into the river—I'm sure of it. And it's way too cold for swimming."
Paula had to smile back. She glanced at the moving lines on the GPS map and up at him again. "Where exactly are you going?"
He told her, then added, "But I haven't been to Denver for a while. Maybe the app is right and I'm wrong."
"Actually, you are. That street's being repaired and there is a detour. Let me think for a sec. I'll try to keep you out of the river."
She gave him better directions, and he listened without asking for a repeat.
"Got it," he said when she'd finished. "Thanks, officer. I appreciate your assistance."
Paula had a feeling he'd find his way with no more trouble. Job done. And she'd satisfied her momentary curiosity about him.
"No problem. Enjoy your stay in Denver." She returned to the cruiser and got in, pulling ahead to let him turn around before she followed him back to the main street.
She turned left after he turned right. A marching band was coming her way, holding their instruments without playing them. The drum major turned and shouted an order that brought them to a bumping halt before he sorted them out into orderly ranks. He raised his baton and brought it down. In an instant, their uniforms brightened with tiny LEDs that shimmered in the night.
They fell into step and headed on.
Paula watched the illuminated band go down the closed street, marching to the tinkling melody of the xylophonist. The bare trees in the distance lit up with fairy lights as a brilliantly colored locomotive moved slowly into position behind other floats. She sighed. The magic was about to begin. Too bad she had no one to share it with.
Last time she'd been a spectator at the Parade of Lights, she'd been with her grandmother. Hildy Lewis had passed away two years ago and Paula never stopped missing her.
A call came over the radio. Drunk and disorderly at Colfax and Ninth. Available units, please report. Paula snapped out of it. She confirmed her location to the dispatcher and drove away.
* * *
She entered her apartment several hours later, slinging her wet jacket over a hook by the door. A light snow mixed with sleet had started toward the end of the parade, and Paula had been out in it.
Besides writing three summonses for petty mischief, she'd found the half-frozen drunk and arrested him for his own good. He was better off in a nice warm holding cell than out on the streets.
She made a cup of cocoa and traded her clunky shoes for shearling slippers, settling into a big pink armchair bequeathed to her by the former tenant. Paula groaned when her cell phone rang, debating whether to answer it.
She set down the cup and took the phone out of her shirt pocket, looking at the number. Edith Clayborne. Great old lady. Doing her best under difficult circumstances.
Paula had shown Edith the ropes the first time she'd come down to the station to pick up her teenaged grandson for a minor infraction. Brandon was a nice enough kid, but he was a handful and known to more than one officer. According to the social worker on the case, his parents' where-abouts were unknown, and Edith, a widow, was raising him alone.
The ringing stopped. Paula made a mental promise to check her voice mail in five minutes, just in case there was a genuine emergency. She'd given Edith her cell number for that reason. Paula had done youth outreach with at-risk teenagers like Brandon. She liked his grandmother and didn't want to see him end up in the overloaded juvenile justice system if she could help it.
She sipped her cocoa, warming her hands around the smooth cup. It was good to be home.
The phone rang again. She checked the number. Edith wasn't giving up. This time Paula answered it.
"Hi, honey," a raspy voice said cheerfully. "Hope I didn't catch you at a bad time."
"Hey, Edith. No, you didn't."
"Just thought I'd call."
Paula relaxed somewhat. It wasn't an emergency. But it was an interruption.
"Were you at the parade?" Edith asked.
"Yes. I just got home. Did you see it?"
"On TV. The floats are always so pretty." Edith paused. "I wanted to ask you about something—not Brandon. He's been behaving himself."
"Good. Keep him busy and keep him out of trouble."
"My thoughts exactly. That's why I got him to volunteer with me at the Christmas House."
Paula had seen a flyer for it in the station break room. A fine old mansion had been rescued from foreclosure and turned into a holiday attraction to benefit Denver-area charitable programs. Each room was a different theme. Candy-cane sculptures, elves, decorated trees, toy displays, the whole nine yards.
She set her cup aside. "When does it open?"
"We were shooting for the first of December."
"That's tomorrow," Paula said.
"The building and fire inspectors just certified the house today, so we can open just as soon as we get approval from our insurers. But there's a catch."
"We have to have a security person on the premises."
"That could be expensive."
Edith sighed. "Well, the agent said we could use qualified volunteers if necessary."
Paula knew exactly where this conversation was going. She let Edith do the talking.
"All is not lost," the older woman said with dramatic emphasis. She did have a flair for it.
"I know some nice retired men," Edith continued.
"They work security for clothing and shoe stores, and all we would need is two to cover the mornings and afternoons."
Grandpa guards. They didn't scare anyone, but the Christmas House didn't need scary staff.
"The problem is that no one is available in the evenings," Edith fretted. "And the plan was to stay open late on Fridays and Saturdays to attract as many visitors as possible."
"So do you think ..."
Edith also was a master of the dramatic pause. Paula waited.
"Are you working nights?"
"Not next week."
"Is it possible ..."
"Yes," Paula answered, laughing. "I could help you guys out for a few days. After that, I'm not sure. We don't get to pick and choose our holiday shifts-the sergeant does."
Edith heard only the positive part of the reply. She crowed with delight. "You're a doll! Wait until I tell the board! A real policewoman!"
"A moonlighting policewoman," Paula reminded her. "No uniform and no gun. And you have to keep looking for my replacement."
"Of course, of course," Edith said hurriedly. "Can you stop by the Christmas House tomorrow? You might have to pick your way through the ladders and sawdust, though."
"I don't care about stuff like that." Paula thought for a moment. As far as she knew, she would be working a day shift tomorrow. "I can come around six. How's that?"
"I'll be there with bells on. Can't wait to show you around and introduce you to everybody. Paula, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I can't believe you said yes."
Paula didn't quite believe it either. When Edith finally stopped talking and said good-bye, Paula got up to put her cup in the sink, peeking into the fridge on her way back into the living room. The white-wire shelves held a burger bag that had to have turned into a science experiment by now and two containers of plain yogurt.
She was too tired to order takeout and not inclined to cook for just herself. Around the holidays, living alone was no fun.
Paula drove her own car into the lot next to the Christmas House at ten to six, finding a slot among the many vehicles already parked. She took a few minutes to collect her thoughts, tired after a long day. Frazzled shoppers and oblivious drivers flooded downtown Denver. She'd dealt with everything from fender benders to arguments over parking spaces.
The tall windows of the mansion glowed with warm light on the first floor. Paula frowned as she peered through the wavy old glass. It didn't look like sawdust and ladders to her—it looked like a fancy reception in full swing. She'd thrown on old jeans and a ratty sweater after a quick stop at her apartment. That and her dusty sneakers would have to do. She was here.
Excerpted from Merry Christmas, Cowboy by JANET DAILEY. Copyright © 201 Janet Dailey. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.