Cross Country Christmas ~ Marriage & Mayhem! Book 3
Also can be read as a holiday standalone
The best gifts in life are surprises…
Surprise! Thanks to a blizzard named Blitzen, Christie McQuade can’t make it home for Christmas. Stranded in an airport, things look bleak…until she runs into delicious Deputy Damian Reade, who along with his four-year-old son, Eli, is likewise wondering how to salvage his holidays.
A ’57 Chevy Bel Air christened “Vixen” is their last hope. Christie’s not always the trusting type…but after a background check through her investigative brother clears Damian – and after all, how can a man who’s so patient and loving with his son be dangerous? – she joins them on a Cross Country Christmas adventure filled with fun and surprises…not the least of which is the powerful chemistry between Damian and Christie.
Chemistry is one thing. Heart-tugging is another. And damned if both father and son aren’t soon tugging on Christie’s previously-broken heart-strings.
A child’s unshakeable faith in Santa, his seemingly impossible Christmas wishes of the Jolly Old Man, and a whole lot of holiday magic may lead Damian and Christie to the biggest surprise of all…love.
Although the first two books in this series are Romantic Suspense, this special Christmas novel does not contain suspense. You do not need to read the first two books in order to fully enjoy this story, as it stands alone. However readers of LAWS OF ATTRACTION and BIG BAD WOLFE will love revisiting their favorite characters and celebrating with them during the holidays.
“Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals.”
The infamous line from “Home Alone” perfectly described Denver International Airport on December 19th. The place looked, smelled, and sounded as chaotic as a natural disaster refugee camp. Christie McQuade slammed the handle of her wheeled carry-on bag into its slot and planted her feet against the tsunami of cranky would-be travelers. One more freakin’ replay of Feliz Freakin’ Navidad—the most annoying Christmas carol ever—and she’d end up on the No Fly list for trashing the PA system.
Grinding her teeth, she scanned the interminable list of flight delays. The only Christmas spirit she possessed this year was the bottle of ChocoVine, the bottle of chocolate wine she’d consumed last night while not sleeping on the airport floor.
Smelling less than fresh herself, tired, hungry, and more than slightly hung-over was not how she’d planned on greeting her family. Not that she’d planned on greeting them at all. She’d let despair drag her down, thrown herself a big ole pity party and bah humbugged out on Christmas this year.
She swore beneath her breath and shoved an errant chestnut curl beneath the crocheted reindeer hat, complete
with horns and bulbous red nose, that her brother had sent as a cheer-up gift. She wanted to see his expression when she deplaned in Portland and he saw she was wearing it … and then had to walk through the entire airport beside her.
Face it, this fiasco is your own fault. If you hadn’t waited until the last minute to get off the pity pot, you’d be lounging on Big Brother’s comfy leather couch right now quaffing his 150 proof eggnog and munching Mama’s to-die-for gingerbread cookies.
Mama baked her special cookies only at Christmas and always left everyone craving more. Christie’s stomach growled furiously enough to be heard over the loudspeaker droning out another delayed flight number, followed by the frustrated throng’s groans and complaints.
A glance at the bank of windows revealed a maelstrom of whirling white. The blizzard, which the Weather Channel had nauseatingly christened “Blizten,” continued to ramp up in intensity. Although she’d paid the price of a new kidney for a last-minute ticket, making the family gathering on time was looking iffy. Another curse escaped. Might as well pawn the second kidney and grab breakfast at one of the teeming airport restaurants.
As Christie started to turn, strong arms wrapped around her from behind and a large, hard male form pressed against her back. “Hey there.” The deep, resonant timbre vibrated in her ear, shivering all the way down her spine. “Imagine meeting you here, of all places.”
The fragrance of cinnamon and cloves and warm, clean man enveloped her, and her body—which had been deprived of affection a whole lot longer than it had gingerbread—leapt instantly awake.
“I see you’ve been doing those righteous squats.” A firm squeeze of her butt jolted Christie. “Sweet cheeks, woman.”
She jabbed her elbow backward at the same time she stomped her boot on the man’s instep, satisfied at the pained male “oof ” as her assailant lost his breath. “Get off me, creeper.”
“Oh, shit!” that velvet voice groaned as he abruptly let go.
She pivoted. The man straightened, and she looked up … way, way up … to meet stunned midnight eyes. And lost her own breath. Well over six feet of prime male, honed to buff perfection. Flawless skin the color of her favorite caramel latte, and a long thicket of lashes showcased those incredible eyes. His thick raven hair was buzz-cut and although his horrified expression was somber, glossy dark brows arched in a natural, playfully wicked slant. A strong, straight nose led to a deliciously sensual mouth with full, beautifully shaped lips.
A mouth made for a hundred different ways to get on Santa’s naughty list.
His black leather jacket strained against impossibly wide shoulders and powerful arms that ended in long-fingered hands. No wedding ring on his left hand, and no telltale mark where a wedding ring might’ve recently resided.
At his right, stood a miniature replica of himself, down to the leather jacket, green Henley shirt, jeans and black
boots … except adorable Mini-Me possessed a mop of inky curls. Mini-Me, who looked to be around four-ish, clutched a small, somewhat tattered package wrapped in red paper decorated with penguins wearing Santa hats, and adorned with creased red, white, and black ribbons.
“You said the S-word! ” Mini-Me admonished.
“Sure did,” the man rumbled. Mr. Yummy’s contrite gaze held Christie’s. “Sincere apologies. I’m not a perv, honest. I mistook you for a friend of mine.”
“Obviously.” Suppressing a grin, she arched a brow. “Friend with benefits?”
Gold highlights glinted in those espresso eyes. “Just a friend . She’s also traveling right now, and believe it or not, she has the same crazy hat. I gave it to her for Christmas.”
Her grin broke free. “You and my brother share a distinctive fashion sense.”
“You owe ten for the swear, Daddy,” Mini-Me stated. “Drop and gimme ten.”
“Right.” Delectable lips twitched. “Rules are rules.” He dropped to the floor. Curious onlookers parted to make way, surging around him and tossing out commentary while he pumped out ten effortless push-ups. The sight of his smoothly pistoning body—along with an inspiring view of a very fine ass—sent butterflies fluttering in her stomach.
Yowza. If Mr. Yummy wanted to stuff her stocking...
He gained his feet in a sinuous movement, wiped a hand on his jeans and offered it to her. “Damian Reade, attempting to get home to Seattle by Christmas.”
As Damian’s big, warm fingers enfolded hers, the butterflies morphed into 747’s and a full-body tingle glittered through her. She swallowed. “Christie McQuade. Hopin’ to reach Portland, at this rate, before New Year’s.”
His white, wicked smile knocked her for a loop faster than the bottle of ChocoVine. “But you’re not originally from
the Pacific Northwest. I hear … ” he cocked his head. “Texas?”
“Nailed it in one. My brother lives in Portland and the whole clan is congregating at his house this year.”
“Sounds like fun.” He released her, the warm fuzzies departing with his touch. “This is my son, Eli.”
Eli stuck out a tiny hand, clinging to the package with the other as tightly as if it were a life preserver. “Nice ta meetcha.”
“Very nice to meet you, too, Eli. That looks like a special present you have there.”
The child nodded solemnly. “Santa gived it to me. For my mommy.”
“Ah.” Ah, damn. Her spirits sank. No wedding ring didn’t always mean no wife. Not that she should care, because hey, this was a casual encounter, over in moments. But she had been ogling … and she didn’t poach.
Damian’s broad shoulders lifted in a puzzled shrug. “Eli brought that gift home after Santa visited his preschool. But his mom died four years ago, shortly after he was born.”
“I’m sorry.” And she was. Truly. But she was also relieved. How … bewildering.
“I asked Santa for a new mommy,” Eli said.
Damian frowned. “We’ve discussed this, little dude. Santa can’t give those sorts of presents.”
“Santa said he would! He talked funny, though. He called me a wise boyo, and a fine wee lad. He had sparkly green eyes … and he said ‘aye’ a whole lot, which means yes! ”
Damian shook his head. “Apparently, the overreaching Santa was Irish.”
Christie smiled at Eli to disguise her relief. Okay, experiencing such strong feelings about a man she’d met mere minutes ago was super weird. She knelt down to the child’s level. “Santa speaks all languages fluently. But your dad is right,” she said gently. “Santa shouldn’t have promised something he can’t deliver.”
Eli shot her a fierce scowl. “He can too! Santa said to believe in magic, and I do! He gived me this present with penguins on it. Penguins are my favorite!”
Sighing, Damian glanced at the depressing list of delays. “Since it doesn’t look like we’re going anywhere anytime soon, how about if I buy you a coffee? To make up for … uh…”
She rose. “Feelin’ me up?” she said sotto voice.
Red streaked his cheeks and he cleared his throat. “Yeah. That friend is actually a colleague, and we razz each other to keep fit. We are just friends.”
Her stomach growled again, even louder, and Damian flashed her a mischievous grin. “Maybe coffee and breakfast?”
Eli bounced up and down. “Can I have pancakes, Daddy? Huh, can I?”
“If you eat some eggs, too.”
Eli’s short nose scrunched. “Do I gotta?”
“Yep.” Damian ruffled the child’s hair. “Need to balance out those carbs with protein. You don’t want to be the wimpy bro with flabby muscles, do you?”
“Noooo. But eggs is slimy.”
“Only over-easy. We’ll ask for scrambled.”
“Only if I gotta.”
Damian glanced around, quickly assessing their surroundings with the same alert wariness she’d seen in her brother and his best friend. He dodged a portly gray-haired woman in a purple jogging suit before she could mow him down. “Man, this crowd is insane.” Damian reached down and swung Eli up onto his shoulders, making the child giggle. “You be my point man, little dude.”
Christie extended the handle of her carry-on and wheeled it behind her as she hurried to keep up with Damian’s graceful stride. “Push-ups, point man, and ten-four. And first-rate situational awareness. Are you military or law enforcement?”
“Both. Enlisted in the Marines the day I graduated high school and did a six-year hitch. I’m a cop now … sheriff’s deputy in King County, Washington, drug enforcement division. I’ve applied for a K-9 partner and just waiting for the paperwork to go through. That friend I mistook you for trains ‘em.”
“My older brother Dallas was DEA. He went the private security route after he got married.”
Damian whistled. “DEA is some intense sh—uh—stuff.”
“Hence the transition to private security.”
Damian’s stride hitched. “Wait … Dallas McQuade from Portland … as in married to Mia McQuade?”
“You know Mia?”
His mouth slanted. “No, but her rep precedes her.”
“Clear to Seattle?”
“She and Dallas busted the infamous Montoya cartel. Mia McQuade has serious law enforcement groupies all over the country.”
“Daddy’s getting a giant police dog, and he’s gonna live with us,” Eli piped up. “But I like kitties, too. I asked Santa for a kitty. He said I could have one.”
A grimace creased Damian’s gorgeous face. “That’s a newsflash to me.”
“Whoopsie.” Eli clapped his hand over his mouth. “Santa said ‘sometimes the best gifts in life are surprises.’”
“I have a surprise for Santa,” Damian leaned in to mutter to Christie. She again inhaled a tantalizing whiff of his scrumptiously spicy scent, making her mouth water … and not for cookies. “When we get home, I’m finding out where the preschool rented that gas bag and I’m calling his employer.”
She pulled herself out of the fog of lust and back to the conversation. “I agree. He shouldn’t be falsely raising kids’ expectations. They’re in for a terrible letdown Christmas mornin’.”
Damian bypassed three crammed-to-the-hilt restaurants before he paused in front of a coffee kiosk with a fairly short line. “I had coffee here earlier this morning and it was real smooth. There’s a couple at a table in front who look like they’re about ready to bug out, and this place offers a few breakfast choices. At least we won’t have to wait three hours to eat. This work for you?”
“As long as I get a prescription strength dose of caffeine, I’m in.”
“You grab the table and Santa’s little elf and I will order. What are you hungry for?”
A super-sized helping of you.
Damien’s eyes crinkled at the corners as if he’d read her mind, and she yanked her attention to the menu board.
“Er … a ham and cheddar breakfast sandwich on multigrain bread and a triple-shot, extra-large, extra-hot caramel latte, please.”
His impish grin gleamed in her peripheral vision. “Like ‘em big, strong, and packing heat, do you?”
She’d stuck with lean, scholarly, and packin’ a briefcase, but was hijacked by a sudden hankering to try something new. Especially since playing it safe had failed miserably.
She caught his glance, held it. Fired a bold grin back at him. “Ten-four.”
His nostrils flared and golden flames leapt in his irises. High-voltage awareness arced between them, hot enough to steam the windows and melt the snowdrifts piling up outside. The pulse in his throat throbbed and his wide chest rose and fell, matching the jerky cadence of her own rapid breaths.
The world faded away, the crowd noise dwindling to a buzz, while they stood locked on each other like heat-seeking missiles … until Eli patted Damian on the head. “Pancakes, Daddy?”
“Right,” Damian replied huskily. He cleared his throat. “I don’t know if they have pancakes here, son. We’ll have
Christie stumbled toward the table. Hells bells. She’d never had such a wild reaction to a man. Not even when she’d been with her ex-husband. In fact, she’d never experienced anything even remotely close to the searing connection that whammied her whenever she looked at Damian.
Sure, she’d felt lust before. But her reaction to the big cop went far beyond mere lust.
Her body, heart, and soul recognized him on a primitive, instinctive level, and instantly responded.
Which was … nuts.
Christie claimed the table the moment the previous occupants rose. She hung her cobalt peacoat over her chair. Her jeans and red-and-white snowflake sweater were plenty warm. Removing the reindeer hat as well, she shook out her long fall of chestnut curls.
Erotic awareness again crackled over her, and she turned to see Damian drinking her in as thirstily as if he’d been stranded in the Sahara and she was a long, slow swallow of cool water.
She crammed the hat into her coat pocket. Whew. Yeah, she was beyond warm and rocketing toward scorched.
By the time Damian returned carrying a tray bearing drinks in paper cups and wrapped bundles of food, and still toting Eli on his shoulders, Christie had her libido mostly under control. But she was careful to avoid the powerful intensity of his gaze for very long. Instead, she watched Eli as his dad swung him down, deftly removed the child’s coat, and seated Eli beside him, across the table from her.
Damian shrugged out of his black leather jacket and draped it over the back of the chair. Hello. Deck my halls, baby! Her determination not to stare faltered at the sight of the emerald green Henley lovingly hugging granite pecs, a ridged eight-pack, and biceps big enough to bench-press Santa’s sleigh—loaded with presents.
His long legs wouldn’t fit beneath the dinky table, so he shoved his chair out. A crumpled photograph tumbled from his jacket pocket onto the floor.
Both Damian and Eli dove for it, but Eli snatched it up first. He spread it open on the tabletop, and Christie saw a picture of Damian with his arm around a diminutive, curvaceous blonde.
Eli made a disgusted face. “That’s Daffy,” he informed Christie.
“Daphne,” Damian corrected.
“Daffy is Daddy’s not-girlfriend-anymore. That’s okay, ‘cause I didn’t like her much anyhow. She always talked to me in a squeaky baby voice. I’m not a baby!” The child snorted. “We flied on a plane to visit Daffy’s mommy and daddy in Minny-sota and were ‘sposed to stay for Christmas, but her mommy and daddy were mean and didn’t like my daddy, so we had ta leave early. My daddy said it’s ‘cause he’s too tall, dark, and handsome.’”
Damian’s jaw hardened and Christie’s fingers tightened on her cup. She knew exactly which adjective in that list
Damian’s smile was tight as he confiscated the photo, re-crumpled it, then two-pointed it into a nearby garbage can. “Turns out Daphne neglected to give her parents vital intel. Some people think tall and short should never mix.”
Anger blazed up her neck to her face. “Some people are ignorant ass-wipes.”
Eli pointed at her. “You said the A-word! Ten push-ups for you, Miss Christie!”
“Eli.” Damian shook his head. “Miss Christie doesn’t have to—”
“Rules are rules,” she said. She managed to shoehorn into a narrow empty space on the floor to do her ten. Albeit not as quickly or smoothly as Damian.
Ignoring bemused stares and snarky comments from other diners, she scrambled to her feet, and collided with Damian’s hot, admiring glance. And oops, yeah, she’d just given him a panoramic view of her ass. She lifted a shoulder. “Not as awesome as yours, I’m afraid.”
“Matter of opinion. From where I’m sitting, everything looks mighty tasty.” His sensual grin made her belly rollercoaster. “Sweet cheeks.”
Blitzed by a full-on body flush, Christie not-so-deftly veered off the innuendo highway by digging in her purse for antiseptic wipes. She cleaned her hands. “Airport floors … nasty. And it is the cold and flu season.”
Damian nodded. “Got an extra?”
“Of course.” She passed him another one, and he wiped Eli’s hands before wiping his own.
She glanced at the mystery bundles on the tray, then at Eli. “Did you get your pancakes?”
“Nope. But I gots sausage pigs in biscuit blankets. They’re almost as good, huh?”
“‘Specially dunked in catchup . Do you like catchup? ”
“I love ketchup.”
“Knock-knock,” she said.
Eli giggled. “Who’s there?”
“Hurry and ketchup to me and I’ll tell you.”
As Eli erupted in a fit of merriment, Damian gave her an amused thumbs-up. Eli sobered and fixed her with an earnest look. “You sure gots pretty blue eyes, Miss Christie. They’re nice and smiley.”
Damian’s smoky eyes snared hers, and she couldn’t look away. “And as deep, and clear, and compelling as the Pacific Ocean,” he murmured.
She inhaled sharply and returned her attention to Eli. “Thank you, kind sir. Your eyes are quite handsome yourself, as is your smile.”
“I look ‘zactly like my daddy. Ever-body says so.”
“Yes, you do.” Christie didn’t dare risk another peek at Damian. She concentrated on unwrapping her breakfast sandwich. “You’re both extraordinarily attractive gentlemen.”
“Ladies always like him. They go like this … ” Eli batted his lashes at her, stuck out his chest, and gave her a goofy, besotted smirk.
Damian choked on a drink of coffee—pumpkin spice by the scent wafting from the rim—which explained why he smelled so delicious. Probably.
She smothered a smile. “I bet they do.”
“You didn’t go like that when you saw him.”
She snickered. Damned close enough . “I would hope not.”
“Do you gots a husband?”
“Nope.” Not anymore.
“Do you gots any kids?”
Her hands faltered with the wrapping as she blinked away a sudden sting of sorrow. “No.”
“Eli,” Damian interjected. “That question is too personal.”
“Oh. Sorry, Miss Christie, I didn’t mean to be snoopy. I just wanted to know is all.”
Damian indicated Eli’s food and plastic cup of orange juice. “Cut the chatter now, little dude, and chow down your breakfast.”
“‘Kay.” The child turned his focus to his meal and dug in with single-minded determination.
“Sorry,” Damian said softly over the little boy’s head. The perceptive cop enveloped her fingers with his much bigger ones and offered a gentle squeeze of comfort. “‘Wee wise boyo’ is a bit precocious. And a whole lot curious.”
Christie chewed and swallowed a bite of ham and cheese that dragged in her throat. And swallowed her spiraling emotions with it. Her solo self-indulgent dance was over, to the tune of suck-it-up and move on. “No problem, I’m used to kids. I have six nieces and one four-month-old ‘honorary niece,’ another ‘honorary nephew,’ plus a brand-spankin’ new nephew. The new babies are why the entire McQuade brigade traveled to Portland this year.”
“I get that. I’m kinda losing my own jolly about now. I can’t imagine flying with an infant during the holidays.”
She withdrew her hand from his on the pretense of needing it to drink her latte. “Do you have family living near you
“My parents are both gone. It’s just me and my older sister Lena and her husband.”
“Lena is such a pretty name. Was she named after Lena Horne, by any chance?”
Surprise flitted across his sculpted features, then he smiled. “Yeah.”
“Her version of ‘Stormy Weather’ is unparalleled. In honor of ‘Blitzen,’ they should be playing her over the PA instead of nine-thousand repetitions of ‘Feliz Navidad.’”
He scowled. “The most aggravating Christmas carol ever.”
“I’d be toast without Lena. She and her husband have two daughters, and Sis operates a daycare center. They’ve helped immeasurably with Eli. I’ve tried to keep my shifts as consistent as possible, but since your brother was DEA, you know how whacked a cop’s schedule can be.”
“I surely do.”
He gulped coffee, supple muscles in his throat rippling as he swallowed. “You have a hellacious tribe of nieces and nephews. Any other siblings besides Dallas?”
“I consider my brother’s best friend and his wife honorary siblings, thus the honorary niece and nephew.”
“That would be Zane Wolfe and his wife, Jillian.”
“You’ve heard of Zane as well?”
“Are you kidding me? I never missed a game when he and Dallas played college football. And Zane was all over the news after the Montoya bust, too. He’s out of the FBI, working with the locals in the juvie division, and coaching peewee league now, right?”
“Yes, and deliriously happy.” She finished the last of her sandwich and neatly folded the wrapper before setting it
on the tray. “I also have a twin sister named Victoria, who goes by Torie—she and her hubby are the parents of the six girls.”
“Brave of them.”
“Or demented, depending on your point of view. Two sets of twins … the last set were a surprise.”
“Twin sister? So you have a gorgeous doppelganger.” Playful brows waggled. “Sorta boggles the mind.”
He thinks I’m gorgeous? If she got any warmer, she’d have to jettison her sweater. “Torie and I are fraternal twins, not identical. Hate to pull the plug on your fantasy, but we don’t look exactly alike.”
“Whoa.” He held up his hands. “I’m a one-woman man.”
“You wouldn’t be the first guy to fantasize about seducing twin sisters,” she said darkly.
He frowned. “You’re extraordinary and unique, Christie McQuade. No crazy fantasies happening here.” His sensual mouth softened and his midnight gaze caressed her face. “Not about twins, anyway.”
All the oxygen evaporated from the atmosphere.
An unholy squawk from the PA system saved her from struggling to form a coherent reply. “Attention, all travelers,”
a tinny male voice demanded. “All travelers, your attention, please.”
“Ruh, roh,” Damian muttered.
The announcer cleared his throat, then continued. “The National Weather Service has confirmed the polar vortex
that is causing current flight delays is stalled over the Midwest for the next 36 to 48 hours. Hurricane-force winds and snow accumulations of 6 to 10 feet are expected in the Plains States, grounding all incoming aircraft from the East and diverting other flights to Southern airports … which are severely overtaxed and backed up. We regret to inform you that no incoming aircraft means we don’t have enough outgoing planes to send you on to your destinations. All flights are cancelled, indeterminately. Here in Denver, ‘Blitzen’ has knocked out power to hundreds of homes and businesses in the surrounding area, including a large number of hotels. Local agencies will be delivering sandwiches, water, cots, and blankets for your comfort. Thank you for your cooperation.” The PA clicked off.
Damian looked at Christie. She stared back, her expression reflecting the horror on his face.
Christmas spent trapped in Denver International with thousands of distraught strangers. Waiting in endless lines for food, water, and to use the bathroom. Nights of sleeping on cots. Days of cold sandwiches. No showers.
While trying to keep a bored four-year-old from going bonkers.
They blinked, then spoke in perfect unison.