Excerpt: Happy Ever After in Christmas


Deputy Jill Flaherty sat at her desk wrapping her brother's birthday present for his surprise party that night. The yellow helium balloons she'd ordered were currently bouncing in front of her face. She lifted her hand to bat them away, ripping the paper off the present in the process. A present that she'd been painstakingly wrapping for the last ten minutes. Frustrated, she swore under her breath while shaking her fingers to free them of the tape and brightly colored tissue paper.

"You're stuck," Suze announced in an authoritative voice from behind her computer.

"Thank you for that insightful observation," Jill grumbled at the forty-something woman sitting at the dispatcher's desk across the room as she bent her head to pull the tape off her fingers with her teeth.

Suze leaned around her computer and grinned. "I didn't mean literally. I mean you're stuck, stuck. That's why you've been so bitchy lately. You have the pre-30 birthday blues."

"It's my fingers that are stuck, not me. And I'm not. . . " Jill sighed. "Okay, so maybe I have been a little bitchy. But it's because of all the overtime I've been putting in the past couple of weeks. I'm tired."

She ignored the reference to her thirtieth birthday. She wouldn't admit to Suze that she was partially right. Like an ominous black cloud, the big three-o loomed large in Jill's mind. It always had. Her mother had died two days before her thirtieth. Preparations for Jack's thirty-seventh birthday had served to remind Jill that her thirtieth was only five months away.

"Because you don't have a life."

Jill lifted a hand still covered in tape and paper in an are-you-kidding-me gesture. "I do so. I have--"

"Yeah, yeah, I know. You have friends and family and a job you love. Still doesn't mean you have a life. You put yours on hold when Jack was MIA. I had a front row seat so I know what I'm talking about." Suze held up her hand when Jill opened her mouth to defend herself. "I get it. We all knew how hard it was for you dealing with Jack being missing while working two jobs and taking care of Grace and little Jack. It's why I cut you some slack. But here we are two years later, and you still haven't pressed the restart button."

"I have a life," Jill reiterated without elaborating. Suze had stolen her ammunition. If having friends, family, and a job she loved didn't count, Jill didn't know what else to say.

As another balloon danced in front on her face, she thought back to Jack's birthday two years earlier. The Penalty Box, the local sports bar, had been decorated with a hundred yellow balloons that warm night in May. Half the residents of the small town of Christmas, Colorado had shown up to share their memories of Jack and pray for his safe return. By then it had been seventeen months since his Black Hawk had been shot down over the mountains of Afghanistan.

In all that time they hadn't received a single word as to whether he was alive or dead, not even a ransom demand. They'd had nothing to hold onto but hope and faith. At least Jill had been holding on. Right after they'd sung "Happy Birthday" in honor of her brother, she'd found out she was the only one who was.

Still tough to think about, Jill thought as she rubbed the phantom pain in her chest. The memory of the raw, ugly emotions that had cut through her that night. Anger and hurt that his wife Grace planned to move on with her life. The searing burn of jealousy and betrayal that she'd planned to move on with Sawyer Anderson, Jack's best friend and the man Jill'd had a crush on since she was ten, and had fallen in love with when he'd kissed her at her brother's wedding. Not that Grace and Sawyer had ever come out and admitted their intentions or feelings, but Jill had recognized the signs.

And then, within seconds of discovering Grace's betrayal, one of the worst moments in Jill's life had turned into the best. Breaking news had flashed across the television screen behind the bar that Jack and his crew had been found alive.

A chair scraped noisily on the tile floor and drew Jill back from that night. Suze moved the bouquet of balloons and took a seat across from her. "Okay, so tell me, when was the last time you hid the salami?" she asked.

Jill frowned. "What . . ."

Suze rolled her brown eyes as she peeled the last of the tape and tissue paper from Jill's fingers. "Bumped uglies. . . Did the horizontal mumbo?"

"I have no idea what you're--"

"Oh for godsakes, when was the last time you got laid?"

Since the answer didn't immediately pop into her head, Jill hedged, "What does that have to do with anything?"

"And there's your problem. You can't remember, can you?" Suze said as she rolled the paper and tape into a ball.

"Yes, I can. Seven months ago," she said, taking a guess. Then realizing the number of months might unwittingly validate Suze's no-life pronouncement, Jill added, "Before you say anything, I've been busy."

Suze pursed her lips and tossed the ball into the garbage can. "Don't buy two-sided tape again. And it was eight months ago with that accountant from Logan County."

"Really? Huh. I could have sworn . . . " She took in the I-told-you-so look on Suze's lightly freckled face. "Oh, come on, that doesn't mean anything."

"Yeah, it does. It says it all. You have unmemorable sex with unmemorable men. And do you know why you do?"

"No, but I'm sure you're going to enlighten me," Jill said, carefully working the rest of the paper off Jack's present with a pair of scissors.

"Fear," Suze said, taking the scissors from Jill's hand and looking her in the eyes. "You're afraid to get your heart broken. That's why you spend your time fantasizing about the man and life you want and not doing anything about it."

"I do not fantasize about Sawyer," Jill blurted without thinking. She caught the triumphant look in Suze's eyes and quickly added, "Or any other man in town."

"Umhm," Suze said as she opened the gift box, carefully removing the framed photos from inside. It was a collage of Jill's favorite pictures of Grace and Jack with Jill's nephew. "You want this, don't you? The house, the baby, the man of your dreams, the whole enchilada. I want that for you too, girlfriend. "

Jill looked away from the photos and shrugged, turning to pull another roll of gift-wrap from the bag at her feet. "I guess. Someday," she said in an offhand manner, unwilling to admit how much she did. But Suze knew her too well to be fooled. She needed a distraction. "What about you? You won't be able to use the boys as an excuse for much longer. They'll be heading off to college in a couple years."

Suze arched an eyebrow while sliding the framed photos back into the box. "You wanna play it that way, fine. Here's what we'll do." She taped the box shut, then leaned across the desk to grab two pieces of paper out of the printer. She handed one to Jill.

"What's this for?"

"We're making our life-goal lists. Or in your case, get-a-life list." She took the gift wrap from Jill. "I'll take care of this while you write down yours. I have to think about mine for a bit seeing as how I already have the kids and house."

"Don't be smug," Jill said, looking at the paper like it was bomb about to detonate and she didn't have the code. Maybe because there was a part of her that knew Suze was right. If Jill wrote down what she really wanted, she'd actually have to do something about it. Sometimes living in a fantasy world was easier. You didn't have to deal with rejection, the hurt and disappointment.

By the time Suze had wrapped the present, Jill had one item on her list. It was the only one she felt comfortable enough to write down.

"I knew you wanted to be sheriff," Suze said with a self-satisfied smile, then grimaced. "Make sure you don't show anyone your list. No one's supposed to know Gage isn't running for another term. He'll figure out I accidently overheard his conversation." Suze put her hand over Jill's to stop her from ripping up the sheet of paper. "Don't. You have to write them down. There's a higher percentage that they'll happen if you do."

"Yeah? Where did you read that, Facebook?" Jill asked her friend and co-worker who spent more time on social media than anyone she knew.

"Oprah. Now come on. No more stalling. Stop editing yourself and just write it down."

Jill bent over the paper, shielding it with her arm, and wrote down the rest.

"You have to let me see," Suze complained, but before she could take the list from Jill, the phone rang. "Sherriff's department, how can I . . . Oh, hi, Boss. What's up? Jill? Yeah, of course she's here. Where else would she be?"

Jill scowled at her and took the phone, rolling her eyes when Suze pressed the speaker button. "Hey Gage, what's up?"

"I need a favor. The senior's hockey league are playing the last game of the season today, and I need you to take my place."

"Ha! Good one. Now, what are you really calling about?"

"I'm serious. We've got two guys down, including me. You know how competitive Ethan is. If we lose the game, he's gonna blame me, and I'll never hear the end of it. Brad already agreed to fill in for one of the other guys."

Brad was a recent hire. Young, smart, and ambitious, Jill had no doubt when word got out Gage wasn't seeking reelection, he'd throw his hat in the ring. Since the guy was also handsome and charming, he could pose a serious threat. Which was probably why Suze was widening her eyes at Jill and nodding like a bobble-head doll. But there was no way Jill was volunteering to play. "I'd like to help you out, but I promised to decorate the Penalty Box for Jack's--"

"Don't worry about it, girlfriend. I'll go over after my shift and decorate," Suze said, stabbing the first line on Jill's list.

"Wow, thanks, Suze," Jill said through clenched teeth. "But I'm sure you have more important things to do. Besides, you'd be better off getting someone who actually knew how to play the game, Gage."

"Come on, you practically lived at the arena and spent more than half your life around Sawyer. You know hockey. "

She'd lived at the arena because she had a crush on Sawyer, not because she loved hockey. Though she kinda did now. "Yes, I know how the game is played, but I don't play the game. You need to find someone who does." And they better be good, because former NHL superstar Sawyer Anderson was on the opposing team. So was Jill's brother.

"He's found someone. You. Don't worry, Gage. She'll be there."

Jill stared at Suze.

"Great. Thanks, Jill. I owe you." Gage said.

"Dammit Suze, why did you do that?" Jill demanded as soon as her boss hung up.

"Did you not just hear Gage say he owed you? You've had five complaints filed against you this month alone. You need-- "

"Four. Mrs. Burnett was exaggerating. The tree branch was a hazard, and I didn't cut her phone line. I tripped over the wire and it came out of the wall." Which was one of the reasons Jill was feeling a little stressed and overworked these days. Since most of her complaints had come from the seniors in town, Gage had volunteered Jill to work twenty hours a week at the nursing home in hopes she'd learn a kinder and gentler approach.

"Regardless, it's in your file until she withdraws the complaint. But you're missing the point. Brad's a suck up, and he hasn't been written up. You need to do some sucking up of your own. The only way you'll be elected sheriff is if you have Gage's full support."

"Well, he's not going to feel very supportive if I lose the game for them. Suze, the only hockey I've ever played is street hockey with Sawyer and Jack when I was nine."

"You'll be fine. You're as athletic and as competitive as Brad. You'll get the hang of it in no time." She wiggled Jill's list out from under her arm. "And this is a great opportunity for you to prove to Sawyer that you're perfect for him."

Jill grabbed the paper from Suze and folded it in half. "I didn't write, prove to Sawyer I'm perfect for him on my list. I wrote, ask him out." Saying it out loud caused a nervous jitter in Jill's stomach. But the more time she'd spent on the list, the more obvious it became that she really had put her life on hold. And clearly, with the approach of the big three-o, she wasn't getting any younger.

"Maybe you should have, because you are. He just doesn't know it yet. And you know why he doesn't, Jill?"

"No, but I'm sure you're going to tell me," she said under her breath.

"He doesn't because you're so busy working, the only time he sees you is in uniform or at Grace and Jack's. You need to show him another side of you. Not the cop or his best friend's baby sister."