MILITARY GRADE MISTLETOE
Copyright ©2017 by Julie Miller
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
Coming November 21st 2017
Merry Christmas from your Secret Santa.
Another cryptic message. Another disturbing gift.
Daisy locked her doors and shivered behind the wheel, waiting for the wipers and defroster to clear her windows. Allowing the engine time to warm up, she crossed her arms and leaned back against the headrest, closing her eyes. She took on a lot this time of year, and she was tired. The stress of dealing with her Secret Santa, and the mental battle not to compare his gifts to the terror campaign Brock had waged against her three years ago, were taking their toll, as well. It was a challenge to get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep when every sound in the old house woke her. She made up for the fatigue by stealing short naps when she could. Like right now. Just a few minutes to rest before…
Daisy’s eyes popped open as a sixth sense nudged her fully awake.
Someone was watching her.
She wiped the condensation off the inside of her window and peered out. Her gaze first went to Eddie’s car. But he was busy brushing the thin layer of snow off the windows and top. His back was to her until he tossed the scraper into the back and climbed in behind the wheel. Then he was on his cell phone, chattering away in an animated conversation as he backed out of his parking space.
She pulled her glasses away from her nose to let the foggy lenses clear before sliding them into place and scanning the rest of the staff parking lot. There were only four vehicles left. Coach Riley and the girls’ basketball coach had both parked near the gym entrance while they finished with practice. She recognized the truck and van driven by the school custodians, as well.
The uneasy sensation of being watched crept beneath the layers she wore, making her shiver as if a cold finger was running along her spine. But a check of her rearview mirror revealed no one. Not one visible soul. Certainly no one spying on her.
Unless that person was hidden.
Behind one of the Dumpsters. Or around the corner of the building. Or peering out from the shadows of a dark room in the nearly empty school.
“Really?” Daisy smacked the steering wheel and pulled on her seat belt, irritated with the way her tired mind could play tricks on her. Those stupid gifts had spooked her more than she’d realized. “You are perfectly safe,” she reminded herself, shifting the car into gear. Turning on her lights, she drove out of the parking lot. “The bad guys don’t get to win.” If she lived her life like a paranoid mouse, they would win. And she wasn’t about to let that happen. She turned on a radio station playing Christmas music 24/7 and belted out rock anthems and traditional carols all the way home.
Daisy was a little hoarse from the songfest by the time she pulled into the detached garage behind her home. She pushed the remote button, closing the door behind her before unlocking her car and climbing out. Night had fallen, so she flipped the switch to turn on the Christmas lights lining the garage roof and fence, knowing they’d cast enough light to illuminate her path across the sidewalk to the deck and backyard entrance to her home. She smiled when she opened the door and looked out into the fenced-in yard. Beyond the edges of the walkway and deck she’d cleared, the red, green, orange, blue and white lights reflected off the snow like the warm glow of a sunset.
After pulling her hood up over her ears, she shut the door behind her and locked it. The damp bite of wintry air chapped her cheeks and hurried her steps past the gate and up onto the deck where the motion sensor light over the back door popped on, turning a small circle of night into day.
“Daisy? Is that you?”
Startled by the voice in the night, Daisy spun around. Once she’d identified the disembodied voice, she drifted beyond the edge of the light to bring her neighbor to the north into focus. “Good evening, Jeremiah.” Although Jeremiah Finch’s balding head was little more than a balloon-shaped shadow above the hedge on his side of the fence, she recognized his little Chihuahua in a pink and black sweater underneath the hedge where the snow wasn’t as deep. As much as her neighbor loved his little princess, he liked to keep his yard in pristine condition, and would either immediately clean up after the dog, or hook her onto a leash and lead her to the bushes as he had tonight. “I see Suzy is bundled up against the cold. New sweater?”
“Knitted it myself. Are you coming down with a cold?” he asked, no doubt hearing the rasp in her voice.
“I’m fine. Just a little too much singing. And you?”
“I’m well. Suzy and I will be going in now. Good night.”
“Good night.” As formal and shallow as their conversations might be, Mr. Finch had proved himself to be a good neighbor. Besides maintaining a beautiful home, he didn’t mind picking up her mail and watching over her house when she had to leave town. And she often returned the favor.
After he and Suzy had gone inside, Daisy slipped her key into the dead bolt lock.
One sharp, deep bark and the excited sound of yapping dogs told Daisy her furry family already knew she was home. She peeked through the sheers in the window beside the door and saw her beloved trio gathering in the mud room with tails wagging to welcome her before pushing open the door. “Yoo-hoo! Mama’s home.”
Muffy, her little tiger of a Shih Tzu led the charge out the door. A silver-and-white-haired boy cursed with a girl’s name by the elderly owner who had to surrender him when she moved into a nursing facility, Muffy often made up for the insult by being the toughest and loudest guard dog he could be, if not the most ferocious-looking. Patch, her deaf Jack Russell terrier mix, took his cues from the other dogs, and followed right behind the smaller dog, no doubt barking because Muffy was. Both stopped for a friendly greeting and some petting before dashing out into the snowy yard. Patch, especially, loved being outside, leaping from snow bank to snow bank and snuzzling through the drifts as though feeling the cold against his skin made him giddy.
Her senior dog, Caliban, hobbled out the door on three legs. Daisy got the feeling that when her biggest dog stopped for a scratch around the ears, the Belgian Malinois was humoring her rather than seeking her affection. Poor guy. He’d spent a career at KCPD before the cancerous tumor that had led to the amputation of his left front leg forced him into retirement, and then he hadn’t been able to live at his handler’s home because the K-9 officer’s child was allergic. Daisy reached inside the door to grab one of the rope toys that seemed to be the tan-and-black dog’s only joy and tossed it out into the snow. As she watched him trot down the two steps into the yard, Daisy’s heart squeezed in her chest. The experts who claimed that dogs didn’t feel emotions didn’t know Caliban. That dog was sad. He’d lost his job, lost his favorite person, lost his home and routine. When Pike Taylor had asked if she could take the dog for the last year or so he had left, Daisy had willingly opened up her home and her heart. Muffy and Patch had welcomed the older dog, although the two little spitfires made him cranky at times. Caliban had a good home here, but Daisy was still looking for the key to breaking through that reserve of his.
Smiling at the distinct personalities of each of her children, Daisy crossed to the railing to watch her three charges. Muffy was all business, inspecting the perimeter of the yard and trees along the back fence. Caliban was nosing around the gate and garage, avoiding the snow as much as possible. And Patch…
“Patch?” Daisy hiked her purse behind her hip and leaned over the railing. Where had he snuck off to? He wouldn’t answer her summons unless he was looking right at her or following one of the other dogs. “Where did you go?”
Daisy looked down to see the clear impression of man-sized boot prints in the snow. The security light created shadows through the deck railings that had obscured them earlier. But there they were, a messy set of prints circling around the deck to the gas and water meters on the back of the house. She spotted Patch, his muzzle and jowls white with a snowy beard, following the tracks past the meters to the dormant lilac bushes at the corner of the house.
That wasn’t right. Goose bumps pricked across Daisy’s skin. She crossed to the side railing and squinted into the darkness beyond her porch light. Between the blowing snow and the shadows, she couldn’t make out whether the tracks ended at the side of the house or if they continued into Mr. Finch’s yard next door. Or maybe they’d originated from there? Maybe Jeremiah had spotted something that concerned him in the backyard. Still, she couldn’t see the fastidious gentleman climbing over the chain-link fence when there was a perfectly good gate between the house and garage that granted easy access to the yard. It would be hard to tell exactly where the footprints led unless she went out in the knee-deep drifts to look with a flashlight. And as much as Daisy wanted answers, she wasn’t keen on being anywhere alone in the dark.
She swallowed hard, trying to come up with a logical explanation as to why someone would be wandering around her backyard. She’d had the same utility worker from the city for years. He knew his way around her backyard, and didn’t mind the dogs when they were out. Maybe he had a substitute walking his route, someone who didn’t know there was only one gate. Patch spent a lot of time snuffling around in each foot print until he lifted his leg and peed in one. Why were there so many tracks? Had more than one person been in the backyard?
“Muffy? Caliban?” She put her chilled lips together and tried to whistle, but she doubted even a dog could hear the wimpy sound that came out.
Then she spotted Caliban’s white muzzle as he carried his toy back up the steps to dutifully sit beside her. “Good boy.” Had he sensed her fear? Did he just have impeccable timing? “Good, good boy.” Daisy scratched around his ears and rewarded him by pulling on one end of the rope and letting him enjoy a gentle game of tug of war. But the game ended quickly when Caliban released the toy and spun toward the back door. A split second later, Muffy zipped past her, barking like mad. That response could mean only one thing. They’d heard the doorbell at the front of the house. She had a visitor.
Although she was hardly prepped for company, she was more than ready to go inside. She caught Patch’s attention and gave the signal for him to come. He dashed through the doorway in front of her.
The doorbell chimed again while she bolted the back door. The dogs raced ahead of her, yapping and tracking snow across the long, narrow rug and refinished oak of her hallway floor. Patch leaped over the two plastic tubs of Christmas ornaments she’d stacked beside the stairs, waiting for the tree she planned to get this weekend. Daisy hurried after them, dumping her purse on the bottom step of the staircase leading up to the second floor, pulling off her hood and stuffing her gloves into her pockets.
She pushed her way through the semi-circle of barking dogs, put Caliban and Patch into a sit and picked up Muffy, her brave boy who had the most trouble following orders and greeting an unfamiliar visitor. If this was the potential tenant Pike Taylor had okayed for her, she wanted time to explain that her pack of dogs were looking for treats and tummy rubs, not the opportunity to take a bite out of a stranger. Daisy flipped on the Christmas lights over the front porch and made sure the dead bolt was engaged before peering through the window beside the door.
“Wow.” She mouthed the word, fogging up the glass.
The man standing on her front porch was hot, in a rugged sort of way. He stood six feet tall, give or take an inch. He wore a black stocking cap fitted tightly to his head and a beige coat that pulled at his broad shoulders and thick arms. With his hands down at the sides of his jeans and his legs braced apart, he stood there, unmoving. If it wasn’t for the puffs of his warm breath clouding around his gray eyes, she’d have thought him a statue, impervious to the cold. Daisy’s throat went dry at the inverse response of heat that could be nerves, or something decidedly more…aware…that he triggered inside her.
Not the fatherly figure she’d been hoping for. His face was a little too craggy to be handsome. The scars that peeked above the collar of his sweater and crept up his neck to the edge of his mouth and cheek to circle around most of his left eye, coupled with the stern set of his square jaw, added to his harsh look. She was certain Pike wouldn’t send her anyone she wouldn’t be safe with. Still, safe was a relative term. This guy didn’t project calm reassurance so much as he looked as though he could scare off anyone who glanced crosswise at him. Although he would fulfill the purpose of having a tenant, she wasn’t sure she’d be comfortable having a man like him in the house.
Still, if Pike said he was okay, she’d at least interview him.
She startled when his head suddenly tilted and his gaze shifted to her silhouette in the window. He’d caught her staring at him. He didn’t smile, didn’t wave an acknowledgement, didn’t react, period. He simply locked his gaze onto hers until she muttered, “My bad,” and hurried to atone for her rudeness. Muffy whined in her arms, and Daisy unbolted the door and opened it, leaving the steel-framed storm door secured between them.
The rush of heat she’d felt dissipated with the chill that seeped through the glass. “Hi. Are you here about the room to rent? I thought we weren’t meeting until after dinner.”
“Master Sergeant Harry Lockhart, ma’am,” he announced in a deep, clipped voice. “Are you Daisy Gunderson?”
Recognition and relief chased away her trepidation and she smiled. “Master Serg…? Harry? Pen pal Harry?” She plopped Muffy down between the other dogs, then unlatched the storm door and pushed it wide open. “Harry Lockhart! I’m so excited to finally meet you.” The dogs followed her out onto the brick porch and danced around their legs. Daisy threw her arms around Harry’s neck, pressed her body against his rock-hard chest and hugged him tight. “Welcome home!”