Callie Rayburn was cute when she scowled. Hell, she was cute anytime with her soft, shoulder-length brown curls and snapping green eyes. She’d grown up to be quite a looker. He could barely see a hint of Susie’s gangly, gawky fourteen-year-old sister in the furious woman before him.
Tom glanced at his watch. He was due at his mom’s house for supper after she got off work. He hadn’t expected to be stuck at the station. Why did Callie Rayburn have to go and get herself arrested on Christmas Eve?
Grabbing the back of a heavy oak side chair, he dragged it across the speckled green linoleum floor to the cell and sat facing her with his forearms resting on his knees. “Let’s start at the beginning.”
She crossed her arms. “Let’s start by you letting me out of this cell.”
“Sorry, can’t do that.”
With a huff of frustration, she sank down on the gray metal cot and sent him an imploring look. “Can’t you let me out on bail or something?”
“I don’t set bail. That’s Judge Cameron’s bailiwick, and he’s playing the lead wise man in the Christmas pageant at Springside Baptist Church this evening. I’m not about to risk divine retribution by interrupting the performance.”
She lifted her chin. “I’m sure my parents will be home soon, and we can clear this whole thing up.”
He sat back and regarded her. “You don’t know, do you?”
“Your parents left yesterday afternoon for a Christmas cruise to Mexico with your sister and her family.”
Her mouth sagged open, and her shoulders slumped as the fight drained from her body. Tears welled in her lovely green eyes, drowning the fire that had burned just a moment earlier. “H-how could they?” She blinked and two fat tears rolled down her cheeks.
Her pain hit him like a fist to the solar plexus. It had been much easier to see her locked in a jail cell when she’d been all prickly and defiant. Now he felt like he’d kicked a kitten. He softened his voice. “Callie, why are you here? Your mom said you weren’t coming home this year, that you couldn’t get away from work.”
“I wasn’t going to.” Her voice caught, and she cleared her throat.
“So what happened?”
She turned away and dabbed her tears with the back of her hand. “My plans changed.”
“In what way?”
“It’s none of your business.” She sniffed loudly. “You need to keep tissues in these cells.”
“Callie, look at me and tell me what happened. Maybe I can help.”
She snapped around, eyes blazing again through her tears. “I got fired, all right? There’s not much you can do about that.”
Fired? The last he’d heard her career in St. Louis was on the fast track. According to her mom, Callie was slated to become the youngest vice president in the history of her firm. When she snuffled again, he grabbed a box of tissues off a nearby desk and poked them through the bars.
She blew her nose then wiped it. “Thanks.”
“Why don’t you tell me about it?”
“It was last night, at the office Christmas party.”
“You got fired at a Christmas party?” It took a pretty cold-hearted bastard to fire someone at a Christmas party.
She blew her nose again and glared at him. “Do you want to hear this or not?”
“Sorry, go on.”
She hiccupped and blotted the corners of her eyes. “By the time the party started, Mr. Van Pelt Junior had already warmed up pretty well with the bottle of vodka he keeps in his lower left desk drawer. After a rousing speech about what a good year we’d had, he called us into his office one by one to hand out the Christmas bonuses.”
“And you didn’t get a bonus?”
A bitter laugh broke from her lips. “Oh, he had a special bonus in mind for me. The problem was, I wasn’t interested.”
Slow-burning rage consumed the remnants of his guilt. “Did he put his hands on you?”
His hands balled into fists. The bastard. He flexed his hands to relax his fists and drew a deep breath. “And…?”
She glanced down at the floor, apparently fascinated by the random black dots on the linoleum tiles. “I discouraged him.”
“The whole story, Callie.”
Her chin came up, and her rueful gaze caught his. “All right. I may have discouraged him with a brass lamp…over the head.”
“Hmph. He deserved that and worse.”
“I’m not sure the police would have seen it that way. Junior told me to get out or he would call the cops. At the time I considered myself lucky not to be arrested.” She gave him a tight half-smile. “Little did I know that pleasure was yet to come.”
“It really hasn’t been your day, has it?”
“Oh, it gets worse.”
Assaulted, fired, and arrested—all in less than twenty-four hours. How much worse could it get?
“I was shaking so hard I barely made it back to my apartment, and when I got there I found an eviction notice taped to my door. Apparently the owner sold the building, and the new owner plans to turn it into condos.”
“You could buy one of the condos.”
She looked at him as if he’d sprouted horns. “With what? I just lost my job. I couldn’t even afford the rent.”
“What are you going to do?”
She shrugged. “Beats me. I loaded everything I could fit into a U-Haul and drove here, hoping to find comfort in the bosom of my family. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a U-Haul on Christmas Eve?”
Tom pushed to his feet and reached for his keys, his decision made. “I don’t think it will jeopardize the safety of the good citizens of Hawthorne Springs to let you out until you can appear before Judge Cameron on the twenty-sixth.”
She popped up. “I’m glad you finally see reason.”
“Don’t get so excited. I’m going out on a limb and remanding you into my custody.”
Her brows drew together, and her eyes narrowed. “What exactly does that mean?”He sighed and thrust the key into the lock. “It means I’m taking you with me.”