Mistletoe and Mischief
Erica Marks had about three minutes to sweet-talk her way around the biggest roadblock to her Christmas plans—a
hard-headed, six-foot-two police barricade named Tyler Collins.
With a calculating glance, she studied the stubborn male as he plunked his
usual twenty-four-ounce French roast on the café counter. Extra cream, extra sugar, same as always. Based on his morning coffee routine, he should be sweeter by now. A whole lot sweeter. As far as she could tell, it didn’t seem to be working.
“It’s on the house, Chief.” She nudged the to-go cup toward him as he reached for his wallet. “You know that.”
“Tyler,” he corrected. “And you know I don’t feel comfortable not paying.”
Anyone else hearing the no-debate tone in the man’s voice would have backed down. Erica flattened her palms on the counter and leaned toward the impossible male, now eye level with her as he bent to tug open the flap on his cargo pocket and dig out his wallet.
“It’s Ian’s policy.” Her boss insisted on free coffee for any public service employee on duty. “Your job is to serve and protect. Ours is to provide liquid energy for those doing the serving and protecting.” She pulled back from the counter and flicked her fingers in a shooing motion at Maple Grove’s new chief of police.
From the narrowed gaze he directed her way, he didn’t appreciate the gesture.
“Come on,” she persisted, wondering how she expected sweet-talk to have an effect on someone a sugar overdose wouldn’t touch. “It’s our civic duty, all right?” And it made her feel a bit better about herself, considering his line of work and her own hang-ups. Besides, if she expected to pull off her plan at this late date, she needed every ounce of help, caffeinated or not.
Tyler didn’t look as tired as he did yesterday. Maybe he’d be in a better mood, too, and she could find a way to sneak in one last pitch for her benefit idea for the St. Charles Home. Help the kids. Help reestablish herself as a citizen in good standing after her recent run-in with the boys in blue . . . though Tyler knew nothing of that little incident, and she sure didn’t plan to bring it up.
Ignoring her protest, Tyler flipped open his wallet and slid out some bills. “I
appreciate the gesture, but it’s not necessary.”
Before he could hand over payment, Erica swiveled away from the register and grabbed the tray of her homemade double-fudge brownies layered with mint frosting. With a beveled spatula, she slid a brownie out of the pan and onto a tray, resisting the urge to swipe the gooey chunk that broke off one corner and pop it into her mouth.
“Seriously, Tyler. We go through this every single morning. You’re good.”
“Exactly. And every single morning I have to leave cash with Tim or stuff it in the tip jar. Which makes me wonder—” he crammed bills in a cow-shaped glass jar then reached for his drink— “when you’re going to realize you’re running a business. Not a charity.”
Speaking of charities . . . Seeing her moment of opportunity, Erica looked up from stacking the brownies and opened her mouth to make one last attempt to change his mind.
And forgot what she was about to say.
Tyler had been a regular at Penny U the last four weeks. She should be immune to the arresting power of those steady grey eyes by now. But in the early morning light, they appeared almost blue from beneath the bill of his navy Maple Grove PD ball cap. He had fascinating eyes, eyes that shifted and pulled someone into their depths without trying. Eyes too somber for a guy in his early thirties, even one in his line of work.
Caught in the mirror of his evaluating stare, Erica’s hand froze, leaving one square of chocolately goodness suspended mid-air on the spatula. Her pulse kicked up as if she’d downed a doubleshot of espresso.
“Watch it.” Tyler reached to rescue the brownie about to eat tile.
Erica righted the tilting spatula, spiraling away from him as she did so, and deposited the dessert safely on the tray. She turned at a slight angle to avoid his probing gaze and jabbed at another brownie. If she’d been checking the man out, it was only because she needed to size up her opposition. She had a mission and needed to gauge his mind frame if she wanted the best chance of winning him over. The town council meeting was tomorrow night. Her last chance.
Erica risked another assessment of Tyler, strictly tactical. An impressive man, and incredibly good-looking, which wasn’t fair since she didn’t go for a guy in uniform. But he looked rather approachable at the moment, for an emotionally detached sort of guy. Her gaze drifted to the cute little cleft in his chin her fingers itched to touch, maybe because it seemed to be the only dent in his hard shell.
Just because he wasn’t her type didn’t mean she couldn’t appreciate the authority and confidence he projected, the strength of his bearing whenever he walked into a room. Altogether he actually looked . . .
“. . . really good.”
The low register of his voice snapped Erica from her daydreaming stare. Her eyes went wide. “I’m sorry.” She gave a nervous glance around. “What’d you say?”
“Those brownies.” Tyler jutted his chin toward the tray. “Can I grab one for later?”
Oh. “Sure.” Erica pulled a piece of wax paper, snagged the biggest square and slid it into a white bag for him, telling herself to smarten up and focus. The man thought her addlebrained enough as it was. Today she needed to showcase her competency and professionalism. And her people skills. If she could answer the phone, juggle four espresso orders at once, and keep her boss, Ian Strobel, from ejecting annoying customers from the café—most of the time—she should be able to get one mule-headed male to agree to a simple but critical request.
Erica licked her lips and breathed in resolve. When Tyler reached for his wallet again to pay for the brownie, she held up a hand. “Okay, I’ll make a deal with you.”
At her sudden shift in tone, he narrowed his eyes as if already anticipating what she was about to say. The man had eerie powers of perception. Or perhaps it just felt that way to her, like he could read her with one piercing glance.
Then again, he might have an inkling of the request she had in mind because, well, she had asked him about this already. Twice. But the countdown was on. Eight weeks until December. She needed a quick way to his heart. Drawing a breath, she angled her head to look Tyler straight in the eye . . . and thought about his stomach.
“I’ll deliver free brownies to the station every day through Christmas.” Erica slid the bag holding his own decadent dessert across the counter toward him. “And coffee.” Ian would strangle her. Profits had taken a dive since Lovett’s Tea Shoppe had opened. It was a temporary setback that happened any time a new business opened, but Ian refused to believe it.
“Agree to let Maple Grove host a Christmas parade.” She leaned forward, fingertips holding the to-go bag. “Back me up when I present the proposal at the meeting.”
“Unh-uh.” With a brusque head shake, Tyler dropped some bills on the counter and snatched the bag from her.
“Please? Those kids don’t have much to begin with, and now that funding’s fallen short, they’ll have even less. They should at least get a decent Christmas. I need your support in front of the town council.” She scooted around the counter after him as he headed toward the door. Panicking, she reached to catch his arm, remembered he was in uniform and thought better of it. She lifted her palm in a pleading gesture instead. “Tyler, wait. Why won’t you do this?”
He stopped and stared out the floor-to-ceiling windows of the café, eyeing the traffic and the maple leaves twisting in the October wind. “It’s really not my thing, Erica. And it’s not a good time of year.” His face tightened with unreadable emotion. He shrugged and the look was gone. “Besides, from what I hear, Harborview puts on a good parade already.”
“Erica, we got any more pumpkin spice syrup?” Tim called to her from behind the counter, jerking her attention from Tyler.
She half-turned toward the prep area where her assistant manager was shouldering both his and her share of the work. “There’s more downstairs on the back wall. I’ll grab it in a sec.”
Erica faced Tyler again. “I know it’s not your thing. You said that when I asked the first time.” And the second. And now the third. She shoved her hands in her apron pocket, thinking about those kids and how tough Christmas could be when a family was fractured, when a wrecking ball slammed through a kid’s life, leaving nothing but anxiety and confusion. “But this is for a good cause. It would be good for the kids and good for the town.”
“Like a community service, huh? Is that what you’re saying?”
Did he know? Erica’s gaze whipped to Tyler, but his expression revealed nothing. Then again, he was a cop, so that wasn’t saying much. Cops had unreadable down pat.
“Kids should have a good Christmas,” she insisted. Couldn’t that be reason enough?
“And I’m hoping to pitch the Town Council a holiday idea that would boost the local economy as well. But none of this has a dream of happening unless I have cooperation from the police department right up front.”
“Find someone else to help.”
“Oh, come on!” Erica tipped her face to the ceiling, closed her eyes and issued a low growl. “Like who?”
She looked up. Tyler had quick-stepped past her while her eyes were shut. See? There was a reason she had to keep her eyes on the guy, and it had nothing at all to do with aesthetics.
Erica hurried to catch up, then flanked him as he tracked his way toward the exit. “The council will want your approval for this, Tyler. You’re the police chief.”
“Interim police chief.”
Erica pursed her lips. “Same thing. This will have to go through you.”
“I probably won’t even be around in December.”
“Exactly.” Not likely. Hip surgery meant Chief Lesley would be out for months, not weeks, but Erica latched onto that lifeline anyway. “So it’s no skin off your back. All I need is a little input from you. This would be the first time trying to pull off something like this, and it means—”
“What it means—” he braked and spun, and she nearly crashed into his chest— “is the person heading it up would need to be a take-charge individual, someone who could make sure all the different participants toe the line.”
“Absolutely.” Erica bobbed her head in complete agreement. Finally they were getting somewhere. “I agree one hundred percent. If—”
“This kind of undertaking requires extensive direction and strong leadership.”
“I can handle it.”
He shook his head. “I don’t want to get stuck picking up all the pieces on this.”
“You won’t. Trust me. I am a very detail-oriented person. I’ll make sure—”
“Okay, look.” He held up a hand to stop her. “This isn’t just a fun little get-together or social outing. This kind of event requires massive organization. I’m concerned you’ll have people walking all over you. No offense, but you’re far too . . .” He tilted his head as if working his way down a mental list, searching for a polite synonym to swap for whatever word had first come into his head.
It took a while.
“You’re too nice.”
Only Tyler Collins would make it sound like a communicable disease.
“That’s not true.” Which was a lie. Sure, her soft touch had gotten her into trouble—way too often. But that was beside the point. She linked her arms over the bib of her apron, mustering up a good defense. “If you really thought that was the problem you would’ve said so sooner. I’m the manager here.” She waved her hand around the bustling café. “I run this place practically single-handedly.”
“Your dog won’t even listen to you.” Tyler drilled her with his gun-metal eyes. “If you can’t control a four-pound Chihuahua, how do you expect to get a ragtag group of volunteers to pay you any attention?”
How dare he? He was gauging her managerial skills on the behavior of her neurotic dog? And did he just call the townspeople ragtag?
“You can’t blame my dog for freaking out at you. Bandit gets nervous around loud sounds. Your truck is an ecological calamity on wheels. Does it even have a muffler?” Indignation heightening, she propped a hand on her hip. “There’s this little thing called pollution. Maybe you’ve heard of it?” She shook her head, disgusted with him. With everything at the moment. “Talk about complete lack of respect for the earth God created. Your truck probably only passed state inspection because you work for—”
“You want to talk about responsibility and respect?” Tyler’s eyes tapered to slits as he leaned toward her. “Train your dog. That little beast charged across your lawn and into mine in full attack mode the other day and ripped the air valve off the front tire of my truck.”
Erica schooled her face not to show he’d caught her unaware with that tidbit. That stupid dog she’d rescued from the garbage bins behind Penny U had a brain the size of a dehydrated split pea. Of all the things Bandit could select as a means of overcoming his little dog syndrome, he had to pick the cranky neighbor’s rusted-out Dodge Ram as his challenger.
“He’s a spoiled freak you don’t know how to control,” Tyler continued. “And you better not call the police station the next time you hear my truck—”
“I won’t.” Erica held up a refraining hand to stop his continuing rant. “But what was I supposed to think at eleven o’clock at night?”
“I’ve got a little issue with backfire, that’s all. I’m working on it.”
“It sounded exactly like gunshots.” At least what gunshots sounded like on TV, which is the closest she’d ever gotten to the real thing. “Okay, look. I didn’t know about the air valve. I thought he was just peeing on your front tire.”
As Tyler stared at her, his jaw unhinged a fraction. When she offered no further explanation, he shook his head, an incredulous look on his face. “Oh. Sure. All right. Because that would be okay.”
Erica breathed a steadying breath. Great job turning the heart of Scrooge. He’s like putty in your hands now.
“Erica?” Tim’s frazzled voice floated to her. “I need that pumpkin spice. And TJ’s here for his interview.”
She looked past Tyler’s shoulder and saw the teen boy from the group home in a button down shirt and neatly pressed pants, hands fisted in his pockets, head low as if prepared for rejection. Erica glanced at the clock. Fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. Maybe the kid really was serious about turning his life around.
“Be right there,” she called to Tim then turned back to Tyler. “I’ll pay to have the valve thingy replaced. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” Maybe an apology would get things moving in a more positive direction, because the conversation had headed so far south it passed penguins and crashed into the Pole. “So . . . will you reconsider this parade? Your involvement will be minimal. I promise.”
“Really.” He spoke without inflection, making the word somewhere between a question and a challenge, heavy on the challenge. “You have no idea how this works, do you?”
She wasn’t glaring. Glaring wouldn’t get him to help. She was meeting his gaze directly and with confidence.
“Because I do happen to know how it works,” Tyler continued. “I’ve engineered parades for cities much bigger than this, so I know what it takes. This is a major undertaking that involves a number of procedural considerations. Substantial pre-planning. Coordination with multiple departments. A massive effort the day of the event. Parking, road blocks, traffic control, the parade route, staffing. Everything.”
“Which is part of your job, you know. You may not like it, but you have a certain commitment to the community while you’re here—” When he moved past her she had to sidestep to get out of his way and backed into the pastry display case. As he continued his trek to the exit, she lifted her arms and dropped them to her sides with a loud sigh. “Why are you being so difficult about this?”
Tyler grabbed the brass handle and pulled the door open with a harsh jangle of bells, not answering her.
Before he could step through the door, she called out, “It’s for the kids, Tyler Collins.” She pulled the same tone she used on her boss, Ian, when he started getting riled at customers. “And it’s Christmas.”
Tyler drove the door closed with his boot, swung around and took four long strides toward her, the forcefulness of his steps making her straighten. She backed up, but she was already against the pastry case, so she had nowhere to go. He planted himself in front of her, making her feel even more puny than her five-two frame, and studied her.
It was eerie how still the man could be. Even just standing there, he made no small fidgety motions—Erica didn’t see his eyes blink, his chest rise or fall. His fingers didn’t twitch. She was looking at Mr. Zen, the new non-action figure. Well, minus the tranquility aspect. Because, really, should Mr. Zen look like he could slay you fifteen different ways with a mint toothpick?
Erica swallowed, wishing she’d worn her chunky-soled shoes instead of her flats so he didn’t dwarf her quite so much. And wishing she could take back whatever she’d said that put that sudden hollowness in his eyes.
He still hadn’t responded. Just stood there staring at her, all intimidating, which made her squirrelly and when she got squirrelly the words came. “You know,” she said, lowering her voice but keeping it firm, “it doesn’t hurt to get in the spirit a little.”
Tyler bent even closer, holding her gaze. He drew near enough for her to see the faintest beginnings of stubble on his jaw. Erica’s breath snagged, and she was grateful for the pastry case behind her, propping her up.
“Sometimes,” he spoke against her ear, his warm breath sending unwelcome tingles scattering from the nape of her neck, “it does.”
He pulled back, not meeting her gaze this time, and strode out the front door, dragging the spirit of Christmas behind him in handcuffs.
Erica exhaled, sagging against the display case. Tyler Collins or no Tyler Collins, she’d get the council’s approval. She had to.
If she didn’t, the spirit of Christmas might not be the only thing in police custody.