Sleet hit Chicago like an icy whip early this afternoon, the Christmas gift that just kept giving. I love snowy Christmases, but getting pelted in the face with icy needles was sheer misery, reminding me of my current relationship with my live-in love, Jake DeAtley.
Putting him out of mind so that I could concentrate on the job, I carefully negotiated the ice-laden pavement and took a quick look at the Uniforms in charge of crowd control, the EMT guy at the body and the gathering spectator herd outside the yellow tape taking their damn selfies with the dead guy behind them.
“Nice one for the holidays.” Detective Mike Norelli shook his grizzled head. “Great last minute Christmas cards.” He glanced back at me. “C’mon, Caldwell, let’s get this over with. I actually got a hot date tonight.”
“Right,” I muttered, wondering what kind of a woman would go for the sarcastic cop. “I should rush to the scene and kill myself, too.”
Norelli snorted as he ducked under the Crime Scene tape. “That’s what you get for wearing killer boots.”
I wasn’t a fashionista like my twin sister Silke, but I had my moments. These knee length suede boots with high heels I’d seen in Westbrook’s windows had done me in. Or would do me in, I thought as I slid toward the dead man in the middle of the street. I regained control just in time to prevent myself from tripping over him.
“There’s the reason he’s dead,” Norelli groused, pointing to the tree on his other side. “Too into the Christmas spirit to get out of the way of traffic.”
“Nobody’s ever accused you of having too much spirit.”
But some kind of spirit was making my hackles rise. A faint whisper in my mind froze me where I stood. This psychic thing had started between Silke and me when we were little kids and had grown into our being able to talk to each other without actually speaking. Now Jake and I could read each other’s minds, as well. Too bad I couldn’t change when it came to Christmas. Whatever was going on here at the scene hit me in the gut. I took a good look through the gathered crowd but saw no one in tears or appearing distraught. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was on the edge, no matter how much I wanted to believe otherwise. I recognized woo-woo the instant it hit me.
“So did someone really run him down on purpose?” I asked the EMT, who was kneeling by the body.
“Don’t know for sure.” He got to his feet. He pointed to a small knot of teenagers behind him. “Those girls witnessed it. At least one of them picked up footage on her phone.”
“I’ll go talk to them,” Norelli grunted.
He left me staring down at the poor middle-aged dead guy spread out next to a gorgeous pine tree unlike any I’d ever seen before. There was something magical about it, because just looking at it warmed me inside. I steeled myself against showing any emotion, though, because there was nothing positive about his death. I didn’t want anyone to think I didn’t have the proper respect. Poor guy probably had been bringing the Christmas tree home for his wife and kids. Oh, Lord, I hoped I wasn’t the one who’d have to share the bad news with his family. Worst part of the job.
“The county medical examiner’s van is on his way to take him to the morgue,” the EMT told me. “Ah, crud, I forgot to call Streets and Sanitation to remove the tree.”
They would not only remove the beautiful Christmas tree, they would destroy it, run it through their grinder to make mulch. Something kept me from wanting that to happen, at least not while it was still alive. The van to take the body away was already pulling up to the crime scene.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “You take care of the victim. I’ll take care of the tree.”
And then I would have to deal with Jake when I brought it home.
“I thought we agreed on no Christmas tree,” Jake said the moment he laid eyes on it.
He wore nothing but an angry expression, the black diamond in his right ear and a towel low around his hips. I swallowed hard and tried not to admire what I couldn’t have. Not an early riser unless a little something erotic was involved—and there had been none of that in my reality since I’d insisted on decorating my half of the apartment for the holiday—he’d been dead asleep when I’d left for work that morning. Not literally dead, despite the vampire blood he’d inherited from his mother.
Sarge and Cadet were already circling the tree, no doubt wondering how long it would be before they could climb it.
“No!” I said a little too harshly. Sarge fell back on his haunches, his expression hurt and disbelieving, and scaredy cat Cadet ran behind the couch.
“I’m waiting for your supposed explanation.”
“I caught another woo-woo case. Really bad vibes.”
Jake rolled his eyes. “That’s your explanation for bringing home a Christmas tree against your sworn promise?”
“I’m telling you, there was something weird going on. I felt it right away.” Of course that’s not why I’d saved the tree from the chipper. “All right, then if you don’t believe me, don’t think of it as a Christmas tree. Think of it as a beautiful mountain pine that didn’t deserve to be destroyed while it was still alive. It’s just here temporarily to make the apartment smell nice.”
“Right. Justify it all, why don’t you?”
“I didn’t do this to hurt you, Jake. I won’t even decorate it. I promise.”
His dark gaze cut through the room, half of which was already decorated with boughs of holly and strings of lights and candles everywhere. I’d set out bowls of ornaments, most of which I’d bought one at a time, each with special meaning for me. Plus there were those from Silke’s and my childhood. “Santa” (Dad) had always brought a few for each of us along with our other presents.
“By the way,” Jake added, “that ‘not a Christmas tree’ is on my side of the room.”
The barren side.
Grunting, I tried lifting the tree to appease him, but I swore it had gotten heavier every time I moved it. Or maybe I just needed the meal I’d never gotten around to eating. “I suppose you wouldn’t consider helping me.”
In answer, he crossed his arms over his bared chest and raised one dark eyebrow.
My heart fluttering despite the tension between us, I did the best I could, dragging it, inching it along, finally leaning it against the wall next to the couch. At least I didn’t have to go down to the storage area and find the stand. I’d brought it up with the rest of my decorations, also with no help from Jake. How the heck was I supposed to lift such a heavy tree into the stand myself?
Jake and I stared at each other for a moment, and I swore I read regret in his expression before he turned away.
“I’ll be in the shower,” he growled as he made for the bathroom.
Normally, that would have included an invitation to join him.
What exactly did he regret? For disappointing me? Or because he couldn’t shake the memories of a horrific childhood when none of his Christmases had been anything to celebrate?
The mother who’d loved him as best she could had been pregnant with Jake when she’d been turned by a vampire against her will. Amazing that he’d turned out pretty normal other than having tremendous speed, strength and hearing. And an appetite for very rare, very bloody beef—couldn’t forget that one. From what he’d told me, he’d been as normal a kid as was possible, but his mother’s uncontrollable urge to feed on human blood came even before his needs at times. Definitely before Christmas. So after he’d spent holiday after holiday alone, no one to take him to Christmas services at midnight, no one to read him a Christmas story or to sing a Christmas carol with him, he’d given up celebrating, both religious and secular.
But now that we had found each other, had fallen in love, had bought a condo and moved in together, I’d convinced myself he would be open to something with such meaning for me. Until our Dad had died on the job, he’d made every Christmas special for Silke and me. I honored his memory every holiday. I’d told Jake that. I’d hoped that he would at least try to celebrate with me.
I’d been wrong.
And too stubborn to let it go.
So I’d come up with a compromise. “My half” of every room in our new condo would be decorated as I wanted. Same with “his half.” I’d thought that maybe, just maybe, he would loosen up a bit. Instead, while he’d agreed I could hang my lights and set out my candles and ornaments on my side, the biting part of the bargain was that there was to be no Christmas tree. I had reluctantly agreed.
Saddened, I ran a hand along a branch of pine needles and it struck me again even harder.
I stood there for a moment staring at the branches, trying to discern exactly what was going on. The depth of feeling didn’t let up until I let go. And then I realized I hadn’t gotten the woo-woo from someone in the crowd earlier.
I’d gotten it from the tree itself.
Love, Christmas Box Collection