Her Christmas Protector
Book 1 in the Silver Valley PD Series
A Sinister Silent Night
Two female ministers have been shot in the heart of Silver Valley, Pennsylvania. Now Zora Krasny, navy veteran turned undercover operative, is posing as a new preacher. That means her life’s on the line, yet it’s the only way to smoke out a psychopath. But she’s not alone. She’s got the best of the Silver Valley P.D. at her side—Detective Bryce Campbell, the high school boyfriend Zora left behind when she joined the navy. Bryce must pose as her fiancé, so he can stay close and protect Zora. It’s a role they’re both finding way too easy to play. But with the killer’s imminent Christmas countdown, Zora and Bryce can’t afford any distractions.
Heat Level: Boat Rocker
Her Christmas Protector
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Her Christmas Protector
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“Why don’t we eat here, where it’s warmer? I can bring our food out on a tray.” Zora’s hands were on her hips as she stood in front of him. As if she was prepared to do battle.
At least she hadn’t refused to share her past with him outright, so perhaps he was making some headway with her.
“Fine with me.”
He watched her as she turned and went back into the kitchen where the microwave was beeping. She’d matured into a beautiful woman. No longer the gangly, geeky teen who he’d realized too late he cared for more than just a next-door neighbor. The blossoming figure he remembered from senior year had developed into the sexy figure Zora had now, whether in yoga pants or a hospital gown.
As he stood to join her and help carry their plates, a movement outside the picture window caught his attention. At the same moment, he received a text from the security detail.
We cleared her. A local florist. Delivery.
A florist? Maybe some belated get-well flowers for Zora. But who knew she’d been hurt except for SVPD and the Trail Hikers, and her parents?
“I’ll get it.” He opened the front door to a woman, bundled for the freezing weather and holding a long box with a huge purple bow on it.
“Bryce. Nice to see you. I have this address for a Reverend Colleen Hammermill, but I know Zora lives here. Skyline Drive and Cherry Creek, right?” Kayla looked warily at Bryce. He imagined being stopped by the officers farther down the driveway had thrown her off. While she didn’t look as angry with him as she’d been when they’d broken off their relationship six months ago, she wasn’t overly friendly, either.
“Colleen Hammermill?” That was Zora’s undercover name―how did flowers find their way here?
“Hi, Kayla! I’ll take them.” Zora had come up next to him and held her hands out for the box.
“Wait! Let me take that.” He gave Zora a look that he hoped reflected his concern.
“I know you’re not a minister.” Kayla’s comment implied that she knew a racier side of Zora.
Bryce ignored the jealousy that stirred.
Zora laughed and it sounded natural, although he heard a tiny catch in her breath. “Kayla and I know each other from yoga class,” she said. “How do you know each other?”
“We tried to date. It didn’t work out.” Was Kayla warning Zora? Damn it. “So you know this minister?”
“Yes, it’s my roommate from college. She’s staying with me for a few weeks, but she’s out at the moment. She’ll be excited to get these.”
“I have to say it was one of the more romantic orders I’ve filled since I opened the shop a month ago.” Why did Bryce think this was a dig at him, a snipe at how little he’d been available for her during their brief dating period?
“Oh?” Zora played it cool.
“Yes. A man called in the order this morning. It was on my answering machine, and he dropped an envelope off through the front mail slot. It was there when I arrived at the shop. He paid cash, leaving extra for what he said he hoped would be personalized service.”
“So that’s why you’re delivering. I didn’t think you usually did all of the driving yourself. Do you happen to remember his name?”
“No name. Just the request and cash for delivery. He left his own note. All I had to do was put the order together.”
“Well, thanks so much.”
“I’ll need your signature.” Kayla pulled her glove off with her teeth as she held out a phone with a signature program on the screen.
He waited until he was sure Zora was okay with the transaction. Like the pro she was, Zora handled the whole thing with aplomb.
“Thanks so much, Kayla.”
“Sure. And, Bryce, it was nice to see you again.” Kayla looked from him to Zora and back, her expression bemused. “I assume you’re here for work, right?”
“Actually, yes.” Kayla had seen the security detail and she thought Colleen Hammermill was staying here—which she was, in truth. Just not how Kayla thought.
Kayla shook her head. “You’ll never change, Bryce. See you!” She smiled at Zora before she turned and descended the porch steps.
Zora closed the door and looked at him, her eyes sparking with humor.
“Let me guess. You and Kayla have something going on, and you broke it off?”
“Had. Emphasis on the past.”
“How long ago?”
“A while. It was brief. I’m sure you got her zinger—she was disappointed in my work hours and unavailability to date. She’s absolutely right. I wasn’t there for her, couldn’t be. My work can get pretty intense.”
“Like it is now.” Her expression softened and he groaned.
“Don’t psychoanalyze me, Zora. I’m a detective. Long hours are part of the deal. You’ve learned that firsthand since being with the Trail Hikers, right?”
“I guess so.” Her eyes shifted to the box he held.
“What should we do with it?”
“First, we’ll take it to your entryway out back. Then we go from there.”
She followed him as he carried the box out to her mudroom and set it down. Butternut’s claws clicked on the hardwood and then on the slate tiled entry floor.
“What do you think it is? We need to call in forensics, don’t we?” She held Butternut back, keeping her from getting too close to Bryce and the box.
“Yes, we’ll need a full team here. But they’ll have to come in waves, so that anyone watching won’t suspect what’s going on. So you met Kayla through yoga?” “Yeah, I met her at the local gym when I first moved back. She went to high school with us, a few years behind.”
“How well do you know her?”
“She’s not a criminal, Bryce! You dated her, for heaven’s sake.”
Anger blurred his focus. He faced her. “We don’t know who’s a criminal and who’s not in a situation like this, Zora. This package is from someone who thinks that you’re a minister, and that you live here. We can’t rule out anyone, even when we both know them.”
“They’re probably from the shooter, right?” Zora wasn’t backing down.
“And they only know me as a dark brunette with a much larger profile. I had an oversize sweatshirt on over my vest, remember? They don’t know me.”
She stood toe-to-toe with him and didn’t blink.
“Yes. You’re right.” He placed his hands in his front pockets before he could do something stupid. Like touch her.
“I’m sorry, Zora. We’re dealing with a lot of different threads here. You and I have to make sure we’re in sync and that our past doesn’t interfere with the operation. Even though I know you were in the Navy and have military experience I’m still not used to the idea of you being an undercover agent. And now that I know about the Trail Hikers—well, it’s been a long few days.”
Understanding was reflected in her eyes and he was transported back to long hours spent in either of their bedrooms, doors always left wide-open due to watchful parents, listening to the latest band one of them had discovered. Zora had listened to all his dreams about college, his future. And he’d done the same for her.
She’d never opened up completely, and he’d accepted it. He’d craved her friendship enough to overlook just about anything that bothered him about her.
“It has been a rather shocking reunion, hasn’t it?”
Her lips twitched as she spoke and he couldn’t help it. His laughter erupted in a burst of relief that she could joke under such dire threats.
“Your humor proves that you’re cut out for this kind of work, I’ll give you that. I don’t even want to comment on how easily you still read me.”
She nodded and looked him over in a way he’d never, back when they were in high school, imagined a woman could look at a man.
“You’ve grown into your job, too, Bryce, from the looks of it. For the record—I can’t read you like I used to. We’re different, we’re not kids. Now, are you going to stand around chatting or are you going to call in your forensics team?”
She didn’t want to talk about anything too personal, and he respected her focus on the job.
He scratched his chin.
“Let’s wait on that. First, the only person who handled this was Kayla—since we know her and she’s a legit florist, we know we’re not dealing with an explosive. And only her prints will be on this.”
“Except for the note the suspect left for her to include.”
He nodded. “Right. Let’s get gloves.” Zora disappeared and came back with two sets of purple gloves. Once indoctrinated to the Trail Hikers, each agent was issued a standard evidence-collecting kit. It was generic enough that it wouldn’t seem suspicious if found by normal civilians.
After they’d each put on latex gloves, he undid the ribbon and took the huge purple bow from the box.
Zora worked beside him, lifting the cover.
White tissue paper.
Under which were a dozen long-stemmed roses. Seemingly innocuous, except for the colors.
He heard her gasp.
“The colors—they’re the colors of Advent candles.”
“Purple, pink and white?”
She nudged him aside and pulled out a small white envelope that was tucked into the stems, whose thorns had been removed.
“Be careful with that.”
She had the temerity to glare at him.
“I got decent enough training from the Trail Hikers, don’t you think?”
He looked over her shoulder and forced himself to ignore her scent, the soft tumble of her red hair. Her gloved fingers quickly opened the note.
The envelope contained a single card with a Christmas emblem on the corner. It looked like something more personal than standard florist stock.
With each candle lit, one less before Christmas
The last Sunday will have seen the fourth lit
And by the time white is lit, Christmas will be pure again.
“How many Sundays until Christmas?” he asked Zora as she walked out of the mudroom and into her kitchen. He followed and as she grabbed her calendar, he called his up on his cell.
“One. Because of way the days fall, we have four Sundays of Advent and then Christmas a few days later—all in December,” she murmured as she flipped the page into December. Apparently her schedule was as busy as his as she hadn’t touched the paper calendar since October. “The pink candle is for the third Sunday, which we’ve already had. The white is the one lit on Christmas. At least, that’s what I saw last year when I went with a friend to an ecumenical service. My parents celebrate their faith in the more traditionally Catholic way, but the symbolism’s all the same.”
The wheels in Bryce’s head were turning.
“He’s already killed two, and you would have been number three.”
“But I wasn’t—so there could be two more, including me, he wants dead. One for each remaining Sunday of Advent, and then Christmas. And like Claudia thought, he wants to have the last one be a big deal, very public.”
“Are you sure about the Advent colors?”
Patience battled with the exasperation in her eyes.
“We’ll double-check it, of course, but Anna and Adam raised me Catholic once they adopted me. A lot of Christian denominations use the Advent wreath and candles to signify the approach of Christmas—we always had an interdenominational Advent wreath and candles in the Navy chapels and on board ship. The pink candle is for the Sunday that’s halfway through Advent. The center candle, if there is one, is white and represents that Christ is born—Christmas.”
He stared at the roses. One had been left white, while the others had been hand-dipped into pink and purple dye of some sort. As if the killer had demanded delivery by a certain date and Kayla had to use whatever she had in stock.
“We need to get the note turned in for handwriting analysis after we check for prints. Although it’ll take too long to get the results on the handwriting. We need to get him now.”
“We’ll also analyze whatever note he left with Kayla, in the envelope with the cash.”
Zora shook her head.“No, she said he’d left a message on her shop answering machine.”
“Even better. Maybe we can get the call traced.”
“Yes, but, Bryce…we can’t wait on the results.”
“I mean, are you thinking what I am?”
“That the next, and last, Sunday of Advent is in six days? And Christmas is a few days later?”
They ate the reheated but now cold chicken dinner as they waited for the first officers from the SVPD forensics team to stop buy. While each police officer was trained in forensics, the precinct practiced the common protocol by having its own specialized team consisting of officers who received more in-depth training. They also maintained contact with regional criminal forensics labs that proved vital in time-sensitive cases.
“The FBI will want the information, too. They might get the evidence correlated more quickly.” She hated to mention the feds to Bryce as she knew it could be a point of contention with local LEA, but Bryce simply shrugged.
“I doubt it. I already emailed our Bureau contact after I called in to the precinct. They have the same access we do.”
“As does the Trail Hikers. Should we call Claudia?”
Again, he was ahead of her.
“Already did. I thought you’d have done it since you’ve been at it longer than me.”
“What, the Trail Hikers? Not by much. This is only my fifth or sixth op with them. The other missions involved more of an observational role.”
“Which this was supposed to be, more or less.”
“Except for playing cheese for the rat at the football game.”
“You handled yourself well. You looked every bit the part. I actually wanted to bow my head during your invocation.”
She laughed. “Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind if the counseling doesn’t work out.”
Her smile brightened her face and brought out the deep amber flecks in her pale green eyes. His fingers itched to run themselves through her hair, all wavy and wild around her face, neck and shoulders.
He sensed her mirth turning to something deeper. She looked away.
“You asked me about why I came to Silver Valley. The first time.” She closed her eyes briefly before bringing her gaze back to his.
“I was abused―you were correct. But it wasn’t a simple child abuse case, not that any are. I was an only child, with a single mother. I don’t know who my father was, or if my biological mother ever had other children after I left—there’s no way to know, not the way we were forced to live.”
Her eyes went to the window and she looked like she was watching an old film. A painful recollection of something she’d worked her entire life to forget.
“You were poor?”
She spoke as if in a trance. As if she hadn’t heard his question.
“My earliest memories are of my mother working as a waitress in a restaurant. I hung out in the back of the kitchen, where all the cooks and waitresses took turns holding me and playing with me. I think I was five or six—six, I must have been six, because it was first grade—when the man who’d change everything walked into the restaurant.”
“I’d come home after school to the restaurant, where I could do my homework or just play at an empty table until my mother got off her shift. We’d go home and she’d heat up food from the restaurant. Once in a while we went to the grocery store and got fresh food for dinner, but not often.”
“The day he came to the restaurant I knew something was going to happen. Something big. Mom acted all excited and when she got off her shift she walked us to the drugstore where she got a new lipstick.” Zora paused and smiled as tears filled her eyes. “She’d never spent a dime on herself before. She said things were starting to look up for us. She bought me a coloring book and crayons.”
“My next memory is of moving out of the apartment, putting everything I owned into a little duffel bag that one of her customers had given me.”
“Didn’t you have other family or friends in the area?”
“No. My mother didn’t socialize, and she relied heavily on her faith. But it was her faith—we didn’t go to church, not like I did with Anna and Adam.”
“It must have been lonely.”
“I didn’t know any better. I had the restaurant staff―they were wonderful to me. And I loved school, always did.” She looked at him. “You know that much about me, Bryce. I never missed a day of high school except for when I had strep throat our junior year.”
He remembered. He’d brought a huge pile of books home to her, and collected her assignments from all of the teachers. They’d shared most of the same instructors as they were both in the highest academic classes—honors and Advanced Placement.
“My mother said we were moving to a bigger, nicer place. With a playground and a new school and television. She wasn’t lying—we did move to a huge place. A compound. It was the home of the True Believers.”
“You’ve heard of them, then? Did you ever suspect I’d been part of them?”
“I know of them now, because we studied their takedown ad nauseam in my Criminal Justice classes. Each course had its own way of looking at it, from profiling religious zealots to group think and mob mentality. Stockholm syndrome plays into it, too, which we studied in Criminal Psychology.”
“Yes. Well, I was the one who got out and reported them. I was only eleven, almost twelve. You met me just a few months after I’d testified.”
He fought like hell to keep his hands on the table, to appear comfortable, to not allow her to see how much this shook him.
“I knew I’d be getting my first period soon. That’s when you became a ‘waiting maiden’ for the leader.”
Again, she looked surprised that he knew. She had no idea what surprise was—he was rooted to the spot, realizing that his best childhood friend had been a survivor of that horrible place.
“I couldn’t take it.”
“How did you get away? Didn’t you have to go to homeschool there, too?”
She nodded. “At first, it wasn’t set up for all of that. They allowed us to go to public school, so I kept going to my elementary school through second grade. My teacher, Mrs. Powers, pulled me aside one day and asked me how I was doing. She told me that if I ever needed anything all I had to do was ask her.”
“Do you think she knew?”
“She knew something. You probably read that a lot of local townspeople had been sucked into the cult. Wise preyed on single mothers especially, and men who were in bad straits. Most often he’d bail them out of jail, pay for attorney fees, to make them beholden to him. The women, he’d seduce.”
“But you didn’t get help until years later.”
“No. I was still so young. At first, it seemed okay. We lived in our own little flat on the second floor of the building where they had worship services. My mother was so nice to me then, and she was always there when I came home from school. But then they started homeschooling, and just like that, I never saw my friends from school again.”
She stood up, reaching for his plate. He grasped her hands.
“No, Zora. Sit and talk. I’m listening. I’ll clean this up later.” The forensics team would arrive in the next thirty minutes and he didn’t want her to leave anything out.
He needed to know it all.
She sat back down and put her arm on the table, leaning over it.
“If you studied it, you know the rest. I managed to get away from my mother on one of our rare trips to the store, for fabric. I approached the police guard at the front of the store and told them I had to talk to the police. That my mother was hurting me. I was dressed in that god-awful plain long dress that they required, with my hair long and pinned up. We weren’t allowed to wash it for weeks on end, and my mother dyed my hair black as she said the red brought out the devil’s ways.” He saw a shudder rack her slender frame. Not thinking, he was up and around the table in a second. He pulled her out of her chair and hugged her to him.
“You don’t have to talk anymore, Zora.”
She stiffened but quickly softened and leaned into his arms.
“I’m sorry to be so needy, Bryce. First I get shot and now we have to work together. You don’t have to listen to this. You know enough.”
“I want to know it all, Zora. If you’ll tell me. But only on your terms.” He kept her snuggled next to him, massaging her stiff muscles under her sweater. They’d been so young when they’d become friends. There’s no way he would have understood her ordeal then. He wondered if she’d ever even understood it herself. Probably not. Some things took adult wisdom to appreciate. Especially the more painful events. If he could make time go backward and steal her from the horror she’d lived through, he would.
Holding her close would have to be enough.
Zora didn’t know the last time a man’s touch felt so good, so right. If she tried hard enough she might remember one or two of the men she’d dated over the years with a special fondness, but none had had a clue about her past, her tortured childhood.
Bryce hadn’t known all of it, either, but he’d known her.
They’d only been children and he’d accepted her for who she was in the moment, not caring about where she came from. She’d never felt shame with Bryce.
“You are too nice to me, Bryce. Remember how angry you were with me when I canceled our prom date?”
“I’ll never forget it. I still went, you know.”
“With Jennifer Eastman.” Jennifer had been the most popular cheerleader, a bright girl who went on to become a local news station anchor. Zora had envied Jennifer’s easygoing way with boys and especially with Bryce.
His chuckle vibrated through his chest and she relished the feeling as her cheek pressed against him.
“I lucked out. No one had asked her because they all assumed she had a date. I didn’t know you cared.”
“Of course I cared, as much as a seventeen-year-old can. That’s why I let you go, Bryce.”
He leaned back, still holding her shoulders. It forced her eyes to his.
She shrugged out of his reach, unable to maintain eye contact.
“It was a teenage crush, Bryce. I figured out I cared for you more than as a friend, but it was the wrong time—I was hoping to get the appointment to the academy within a few weeks’ time. I had to focus.”
“Did it ever occur to you that you could have talked it out with me?”
She shook her head. “No, not then. I was very driven, in case you don’t remember.”
“Okay, well, maybe I still am. A bit. But I’m not living out of fear any longer. I’m living the life I choose to live.”
“Like becoming a willing target for a psychopath who doesn’t think women should be ministers?”
“No different from what you do every day.”
“True.” He considered her and she found she didn’t want to squirm anymore. Instead, she wanted to keep looking in his eyes, where she swore she saw the promise of something she’d never truly had in her life.
Freedom from the past.
“Besides, it’s a nice change from what can sometimes be a slow pace, don’t you think?”
He shook his head.
“Since I’ve been with the police department I don’t see Silver Valley as a sleepy town anymore. With two interstate highways cutting through town, plus the Pennsylvania Turnpike, we never know who’s going to take the Silver Valley exit and wreak havoc.”
“It’s true. Drugs have torn up this place just as much as they have the big cities. Most of my counseling clients are fighting their own addictions or suffering from the effects of others’ addictions. Prescription painkillers and tranquilizers.”
“It’s not the Silver Valley you and I knew fifteen years ago, that’s for sure. But we’re still damn lucky—save for the occasional case like this one.”
“Yes. I thought my time with the Trail Hikers would be minimal. I expected to travel to other cities as needed. It never occurred to me that we’d have a crazy killer in Silver Valley.”
“You get that he’s aiming at you, don’t you, Zora?”
“Of course I do. Why do you ask?”
He stepped closer. One more step and she’d be back in his arms again.
“We’re going for broke here. And I’m not going to let you get hurt if I can at all help it.”
“Bryce, you’re not my protector. We’re partners in this.”
“Partners have each other’s backs.”
“I have yours, too, if that’s what you’re asking.” Did he think she was only out for herself? Then again, why wouldn’t he? She’d dropped their friendship too readily all those years ago.
“I’m worried about the tension between us. As much as it will let us play a convincing engaged couple, it could cloud matters when bullets start to fly. And they will, Zora. This killer won’t go down without doing everything he can to take you out and to get his sick message across.”
“I can handle something as basic as sexual tension, Bryce.”
He stepped closer. Toe-to-toe, his eyes sparkled with emotion she didn’t want to trust. To believe.
“Can we?” His gaze moved to her lips, giving her time and room to take a step back, lean away, hell, duck and run if she so chose.
She met him halfway.
His lips were firm and warm, as she’d expected. What she didn’t expect was his hesitation, the pause he allowed even as her lips moved over his.
She pulled back. “Obviously, we can.”
His expression gave her a split-second warning before his arms were around her and he drew her body close to his, initiating a kiss that let her know he’d exercised the utmost in self-control until now.
He took charge of the kiss, demanding the most basic and immediate of responses from her. Zora stopped trying to conjure up the images of Bryce as a teen, the boy she’d thought she’d loved.
The man kissing her bore no resemblance to that carefree friend. This was the kiss a man gave a woman he wanted to take to bed.