Jason Barnes was a man who liked order. He clung to routine as much as the fourth-term sheriff of a sprawling, mostly rural county could without sacrificing his sanity. He was known for his adherence to the rulebook, well-documented schedules, and perfectly precise paperwork.
He was also known for his intense dislike of anything Christmas-related. It was a hatred not even his childhood friend Holly Jenkins dared question. There was no tree in the office breakroom. There were no strands of tinsel hung around the cubicle walls. No holiday music background music or greeting cards pinned to the bulletin board.
If he heard the grumblings about Sheriff Scrooge, he chose to ignore them. It was best for everyone.
What he couldn't ignore was the red-and-green wrapped box waiting for him on his desk upon his return from his afternoon meeting with the mayor of Yates County's largest city Freemont. There was no tag. He held it up to his ear, but couldn't detect the sound of ticking. When he questioned his secretary and the four deputies who'd been in the office working on paperwork, nobody claimed to have seen anything.
"Holly," he barked into the intercom.
"What?" the antiquated machine's static did nothing to disguise Holly's inattentiveness.
"Get up here. Bring your kit."
Something squeaked on Holly's end of the connection. "Why? Is there an emergency?"
A pause. "A real emergency or a Jase emergency?"
Jason's pencil snapped. There were times when having his best friend as the head of the county crime lab was a tremendous pain in his ass. "A real damn emergency, Holly."
"Okay, okay, geez. You don't have to bite my head off. I'll be up in five."
Five agonizingly long minutes later, a familiar grinning redhead appeared in his office doorway. The baggy Christmas sweater was one his grandmother had knitted for her the previous year. It was the ugliest thing Jason had ever seen, but he wisely kept his mouth shut. Insulting the sweater would incur the wrath of both the women in his life.
Holly hefted the pastel pink tackle box she used as a field kit onto the corner of Jason's desk. "Iris says you have a secret admirer."
"Iris should stop gossiping and start trying to explain how someone got into my office without her noticing." He sent a dark glare through the open doorway. "I also want to know why Harrison, Mendez, Franks, and Pierce didn't see anything either."
"I don't know about Mendez and Pierce, but Franks and Harrison ate lunch in my breakroom. Iris did, too."
Jason harrumphed. "There's hardly room for one person to stand with all that crap you've got down there. I swear those lights are the reason the electricity went out yesterday."
"They come because of Mom's Christmas cookies. She drops off a platter every other day. Didn't you notice that Wendt's uniform's gotten a little tight?"
Jason's mouth watered at the thought of Mama Jenkins' sugar cookies. She was the best baker in the county, or so the six blue ribbons proudly displayed in her kitchen claimed. "You didn't bring any cookies with you?"
Holly's eyebrows disappeared underneath her bangs. "Really? You said emergency, Jase. I wasn't going to stop and grab a cookie." She propped a hip on the side of the desk and nudged his knee with her toes. "So where's the emergency?"
Jason used his pen to move the wrapped box closer to Holly. "This is the emergency."
Holly blinked. She opened her mouth. Closed it. Blinked again. "It's a present."
"With no tag!"
"Anonymous presents aren't unheard of, Jase."
"They are when you're the sheriff."
Holly poked the box. "So what do you want me to do with this?"
"I can't open it. It's your present."
Jason considered her argument for a moment. He eyed the package. Inspiration struck like a lightning bolt. "Technically it doesn't have my name on it."
"It's on your desk," Holly ground out, exasperation wafting off her.
"But technically it could be anyone's present. Technically someone could have gotten confused and left it on the wrong desk. Technically we don't know who this package is meant for."
"Technically, I can kill you and no one would ever find the body."
It was a familiar threat. One she only used as a last resort. Jason flashed a grin, knowing he'd won. "Fingerprint it before you open it."
"Paranoia much, Jason?"
"Check the tape, too."
Holly's spine stiffened. She stood, crossed her arms over her chest. Her glare promised a long, lingering death. "Don't tell me how to do my job, Jason Thibodaux Barnes."
Lips pursed, she settled on the chair across from the desk. The click of the latches on the forensic kit was loud as a gunshot. She snapped on a pair of black latex gloves and pulled the present closer to her.
"If this explodes and kills me, I hope Shawn kicks your ass," she groused, referring to her football coach older brother.
"It's not a bomb."
"You'd better hope it's not."
To be safe, Jason wheeled his chair backwards until he hit the wall. He couldn't hear what Holly muttered under his breath, which was probably for the best. She'd learned to curse from his ex-sailor father.
The fingerprint dust Holly used was one she made herself. Once a month, she and Jason had a dust-making party in return for her baking him a pineapple upside-down cake. With a practiced hand, she delicately brushed the dust along every inch of wrapping paper. There were no fingerprints to lift. Next, she carefully peeled off four strips of clear tape. There were no fingerprints on the tape, either.
"Sorry, bud," Holly said, "it's a bust."
"Open the box."
"Seriously? You're going to make me open this? Even though it could blow up in my face."
"I hate you."
Holly folded back the wrapping paper, exposing a brown Amazon box. The shipping label had been removed. She dusted the box, but wasn't surprised when there was a big fat nada. She stared at Jason, utility knife poised over the box's tape, waiting for him to let her off the hook. He merely nodded. She bared her teeth. The bastard smiled.
She sliced through the tape. Held her breath as she opened the flaps. Nothing exploded in her face. She extracted a pair of high-end noise-canceling headphones. A Christmas-tree shaped tag dangled from one of the earpieces. "'Silent Night,'" she read. "Cute."
Jason rolled his office chair forward. He snatched the headphones out of Holly's grasp. "You did this."
"No. You're getting a gift card to Greg's Hardware Store and socks. The same as you get every year. I refuse to waste my gift-giving awesomeness on a Grinch like you." She tossed her gloves in his trash can and returned everything to her kit. "They could be from anyone. You haven't exactly made a secret of your problems with Mrs. Vasquez's new puppy."
"Someone gave me headphones."
"So it would seem, brain trust."
"But they didn't put their name on the gift."
"You're a moron. I wish I was recording this conversation so I could play it during your next election campaign."
"Why would they send an anonymous gift?
Holly slammed her kit closed. "I am seriously going to come across the desk and strangle you with my scarf."
Jason slipped the earpieces over his ears. Sweet silence. He could see Holly's mouth moving but couldn't hear what she was saying. Bliss. Unfortunately, the headphones hadn't come with an eye mask so he wasn't spared her expressive and creative hand gestures.
It wasn't until she stood up with kit in hand that he removed the headphones. "Wait, Holl, wait."
"What's for dinner tonight?"
A low growl followed Holly out of the office. Jason shrugged, tilted his chair back. Winding his best friend up was fun, though it likely meant he'd get the blandest dinner ever. No problem. He had a freezer full of frozen meals for just such occasions.
He started mentally composing a list of possible suspects. Holly's name, of course, topped the list. She had the forensic knowledge to keep from leaving a trace of evidence. There wasn't a person in his office who wasn't wrapped around her little finger. She had heard most of his complaints about Mrs. Vasquez's yappy puppy. Since she lived on the other side of him, there were times she'd heard the damn dog, too.
There was also Carrie Thompson who ran the diner. She'd been flirting with him for months, though he'd yet to take her up on the blatant invitation in her eyes. Rebecca O'Roarke couldn't be dismissed. The pretty librarian had been sending not-so-subtle hints ever since her divorce had been finalized. Since she was Iris's sister, she had an in at the office. Yancy Bates had a habit of dropping off casseroles and pies. She was as good a candidate as any.
He would have to keep an eye on each woman. Subtly interrogate them. If he could make hardened criminals crack, he could handle a few local husband hunters. Holly would be the hardest one to break, but he knew all her soft, squishy parts. Plus, he had a bottle of her favorite red wine in his pantry.
His office door swung fully open as if blown in by a hurricane-force wind. Holly, face perfectly neutral but eyes sparkling with anger, stomped up to Jason's desk. She tossed a frosted sugar cookie Santa Claus on his desk.
Jason gingerly picked up the cookie. Santa's head had been sliced off and a yellow star had been drawn on the chest with icing. "I take it you want me to apologize for something."
Her face brightened so that it matched her sweater. "Yes. Yes, I want you to apologize for breathing."
"Easy, killer," Jason laughed. He would never tell her, but she reminded him of a hissing kitten whenever she was pissed at him. He flashed the panty-melting smile that had saved his skin a hundred times. "Truce."
Holly was immune to his charm. She crossed her arms over her chest. The temperature in the room dropped a few degrees. "Not a chance."
"C'mon, Holly. I'm heading up to Glenna's," he said, referring to the only gourmet coffee shop in town. If charm failed, bribery was certain to pick up the slack. "I'll pick you up something."
"Double peppermint mocha. Extra whip cream. Sprinkles."
He gagged. "How about I just buy a bottle of Hershey's syrup and pour it down your throat. You can have a candy cane chaser."
"I want a pumpkin scone, too."
Jason snapped his mouth shut. Any further hassling would result in a larger coffee shop order. "Yes ma'am. I'll bring it down to the lab."
"Thank you." She pivoted on her heel, let out a small, pained gasp, and pressed her hands to her left side. She sucked in a bracing breath and doubled over.
Jason was out of his chair faster than one of his deputies zeroing in on a Christmas cookie. One hand settled at the small of her back while the other covered the hands on her side. "Are you okay?"
"Just a twinge," she managed through clenched teeth. Her face was white with pain.
Jason guided her to the plaid sofa in the corner of his office. It was a relic from his college days, but it was comfortable and folded out into a bed. There were weeks he spent more nights in the office than at home. Once Holly was seated, he brushed her hands aside and lifted the hem of her ugly sweater. Two pink, puckered marks marred the smooth skin of her abdomen. He traced a finger over the fresh scars.
"From the accident, still? It's been four months, honey. If you have pain we need to call Doctor Montoya."
She let out a strangled moan. "I wish you'd stop calling it that. It's not like the jackass accidentally shot me. Twice."
"Debatable about the first one. Quitman certainly looked surprised. Second one was definitely deliberate," Jason countered. "Of course, given the way you were hollering and fussing, I was tempted to shoot you, too. It certainly did shut you up."
Though he teased her about the accident, it was the worst day of his life. Late at night, when sleep remained elusive, he replayed the scene in his head. He heard the crack of the gunshot. Saw Holly jerk backwards. Saw the red stain spread across her blue t-shirt and the shock in her eyes. Felt his limbs frozen and his heart thundering. Most of the time he could move past the nightmares, but sometimes he snuck into her house and sat by her bed until the sun rose. She never complained about his stalker tendencies; she just made him an omelet and a cup of strong coffee.
"I have an appointment with Doc tomorrow afternoon," she said, pulling him out of his thoughts.
"I'll drive you."
"Mom's taking me. You have a meeting with Judge Emmett."
"I can reschedule."
"Not necessary. I'll give you a full rundown afterwards. Cross my heart." She didn't add the 'hope to die'. It was too soon. It might always be too soon.
Jason rose, ignored the creak of his knees. "Want to stay here while I run to Glenna's?"
"Nah. I have four tests running downstairs. Fred and the GC/MS are still quarreling." She held up her hands. Jason gently pulled her to her feet. "We might need to pick up Chinese on the way home, though."
"Not a problem." Before she could pull away, Jason folded his arms across her back and snuggled her against his chest. She smelled like gingerbread and pine. He pressed a kiss to the top of her head and then lowered his head so that his lips brushed her ear. "Thank you for the headphones."
She leaned back to slap his shoulder. "I told you they weren't from me. You're getting the same thing you get every year. You're just going to have to question your harem."
"I will." He kissed her head again before releasing her. "I'll have Pierce walk you down."
"You can't do that."
"Wanna bet?" He'd carry her downstairs if he had to. She'd undoubtedly cause a scene and give him more than a couple of bruises, but he'd do anything in his power to keep her from injuring herself further. He remembered what it had been like when she'd torn her ACL in high school. A six-week healing period had turned into three months because of her stubbornness.
"Fine." Holly rolled her eyes, but there was a small smile on her face. "But bring me a slice of cranberry cake, too."
"Whatever you say, hon."
Jason leaned out of the office and signaled Deputy Ethan Pierce. The tall, lanky man ambled toward the office. Jason could trust Pierce with Holly. Pierce had grown up in Yates County and had a massive crush on Holly's younger sister Misty.
"What's up, boss?"
"Go with Holly down to the lab. Her side's paining her."
Pierce sketched a quick bow before crooking his elbow. "Milady."
Holly's laughter warmed Jason's stomach. He couldn't help but smile. It was an automatic reaction. His best friend's happiness was contagious.
"You are such a dork, Pierce. No wonder Misty keeps you jumping through hoops."
Jason watched them slowly walk to the staircase. It figured that his pig-headed friend would refuse to take the elevator. It wasn't until she was halfway across the office that he realized someone was whistling Silent Night.
Oh yeah. She was definitely on the top of his suspect list.