It’s the most wonderful time of the year in Gresham, where the newly restored Lonesome Pine Ballroom is finally ready to host its first event, the Gingerbread Ball. The event, put on by the Gresham Ladies Society, is a chance for adults to leave the children with babysitters and spend the evening in formal wear and celebrating the reason for the season—the Christmas Campaign for Coats, which makes sure all the children in Shawano County are warm for the winter.
Things turn icy when Lena Andrews, the village’s Christmas princess, is found dead following the ball in her bed. Sleeping next to her is Joshua Callahan, a detective with the sheriff’s department and nemesis to Zachary Gagewood, the local bookstore owner and resident sleuth.
Zachary decides to put past slights aside in order to find the real killer. The prospects of Joshua’s innocence grow dim when a second woman he’d been intimate with, a former beauty queen, also turns up dead. With the help of an old friend, can Zachary be Joshua’s personal Santa Claus and give him the greatest gift of all—his freedom?
Zachary could feel the drops of precipitation on his face as he jogged past Village Park. It felt so weird being in the first part of December and dealing with rain instead of snow. Still, it was nice that the weather hadn’t completely dropped below freezing, as it allowed Zachary to continue jogging from the farmhouse to the village and back again, a seven-mile round trip. When spring had sprung, he’d noticed a little pudge and vowed to keep the sag at bay. He tried jogging a mile, then two, then three and so on until he could make it to town and back. He knew he’d have to figure out an alternative to keep in shape once it got too cold to be outdoors, but for now, things were good.
Normally, the park would be Zachary’s turning point, but he decided to go another half-mile to The Literary Barn and just pop in to say hi to his assistant, Alexander. Zachary wasn’t due to work until noon, but he figured things would be quiet.READ MORE
The look on Alexander’s face when he walked through the front door indicated he should have run back home. It was not a welcoming expression. Instead, it was telling Zachary, “It’s a trap!”
“What’s up?” Zachary whispered as he huddled by the counter.
“Our favorite detective is here.”
Zachary did a double take. “Josh? The man who usually tries to avoid Gresham is here? In my bookstore? In any bookstore?” He shook his head in disbelief. “Wow. Maybe Lena Andrews is more of a positive influence on him than I originally thought.”
Alexander’s eyes widened. “You mean Lena’s actually letting that bastard pork her?” He shivered. “Oh, well. I guess we all have one freaky aspect.”
Zachary glanced over and saw Joshua near the magazine rack. “Did he say why he was here?”
“He’s here to see you. I told him you weren’t due in until noon, but he said he’d wait.”
Zachary heard one voice in his head telling him he should slip out before the demented detective made eye contact, but he knew from experience that Joshua was stubborn enough to wait for the next two-and-a-half hours until Zachary started his shift. “Okay, I guess I’ll get this over with. Maybe I’ll get lucky and he just wants to sell me tickets to some sheriff’s department golf outing.” He looked at Alexander’s hairy eyeball and said, “Maybe not.”
Joshua locked eyes on Zachary and walked over. After scanning him over, Joshua remarked, “Is this something new you’re wearing to work?”
“You’re funny, Josh. What brings you here?”
“I’d like to talk with you—alone.”
Zachary indicated the far end of the store, near the new presentation area. He walked down the aisle with Joshua close on his heels. Zachary started to turn around and say, “So what do you…” but got no further as Joshua shoved him hard against the bookshelf. It shook, and several books fell to the floor.
Pinning Zachary’s left shoulder, Joshua growled, “I’m only going to say this once, Zach! I don’t want you anywhere near me or my girlfriend. I made it clear earlier this year that you crossed a line, and I didn’t want you involved with me or my work. Lena is part of my life, which means you will not interact with her. Got it?”
Setting his jaw, Zachary bumped Joshua’s hand from his shoulder. “Well, you’re going to have to shove me a lot harder than that if you want to scare me, you son of a bitch! You’ve got nerve coming here and telling me what I can do and who I can associate with in my own community.”
“Zach, if I have to knock you on your ass to get your cooperation, I’ll do it.”
“You’re welcome to try.”
Zachary could tell from the look in Joshua’s eye that he was going to move in again. Sure enough, Joshua swung, but wound up connecting with the bookshelf when Zachary ducked. Cursing up a storm, Joshua cradled his hand. Zachary knew Joshua wasn’t finished yet, but he wasn’t about to give his childhood friend another chance to strike. With a quick leg sweep, Zachary knocked Joshua off balance and watched the detective crash to the floor, but not before knocking a couple of chairs over.
“Ow!” Joshua’s groaning sounded like some high school quarterback getting sacked by the opposing team—everyone on the opposing team.
Zachary could hear thunderous footsteps from the front of the shop coming closer. Newell came down the aisle, with Alexander close behind. Newell looked ready for a fight, but his angry expression turned to confusion when he looked down and saw Joshua flat on the floor.
“Wow. Guess you don’t need saving after all,” Newell said as his fists uncurled.
Zachary wiped some sweat from his brow. “No, but if this numb-nuts tries to get another punch in, you might have to hold me back so I don’t annihilate him.” He walked over to Joshua and grabbed his hand to hoist him up.
Joshua looked dazed as he struggled to get to his feet. “Where the hell did you learn to…”
“Get out!” Zachary’s teeth were clenched. “I won’t report this to your lieutenant, but if you set foot in here again, my employees have standing orders to call the sheriff’s department and have you arrested for trespassing. Keep in mind I’ve got two witnesses to back me up, and all you’ve got is that badge.”
Joshua paused like he was pondering what his next move would be, but Newell was in his face in the next instant.
“I believe the owner of this establishment told you to get your sorry ass out of here. The only thing you need to consider is whether you’re leaving under your own power or not.”
The look in Joshua’s eyes portrayed defeat, and he walked slowly to the front door. Once Zachary heard the bell jingle, he heaved a sigh of relief.
“Are you all right?” Newell asked. “Did he hurt you?”
Zachary rubbed his shoulder. “Nothing some bag balm won’t cure.”COLLAPSE