A ringing phone at two in the morning never brought good news. That’s why Shelby Hayes rolled over, burrowed deeper into her comforter, and decided not to answer. It was the early hours of Christmas Day, and she’d just gotten home from a double shift as a dispatcher at the police station. She’d worked Debbie Sue’s shift so she could be home with her grown children and grandchildren who’d come from three states away to visit for the holidays.
With Shelby’s banger headache, she couldn’t deal with any more emergencies—personal or work-related. She could barely keep her eyes from crossing and the contents of her stomach down. Yes, the “Grinch Migraine” had come to wrap its vice-like claws around her head and steal what little Christmas joy she had.
Soon after her cell stopped ringing, it began again. She was about to pull the quilt over her head when she heard someone yelling. Her heart tattooed a rapid beat against her chest. Who was in her little cottage?
“Answer your damn phone!”
This had to be a nightmare. Shelby fumbled for her cell and swiped the screen. “What?” She tried reading the caller ID with blurry eyes, blinked, and reached for her glasses.
“I’m stuck in your chimney.” The man gave an embarrassed laugh. “Could you come, grab my boots, and pull me down?”
“My…my chimney? Who are you?” She slid open the drawer of her nightstand and pulled out her .32 revolver. A woman living alone could never be too careful. Besides, Cole Danfield, one of the handsomest police detectives God had put on this earth, had given her lessons on how to handle and fire the pistol at the shooting range. She’d become quite the shooter.
“I don’t suppose you’d believe me if I said I was Santa Claus.”
Shelby shoved the covers off and jammed her feet into her furry puppy bedroom slippers. “Do I sound like an idiot? And speaking of sounds, the next one you’re about to hear is me shooting a hole in your backside. Then, I’m hanging up and calling the police.” She ended the call and shoved her arms into her old pink terrycloth robe, slipping the phone into a pocket.
She took long, deep breaths to calm her rapid breathing as she slowly turned the doorknob leading to the hallway. Seeing no shadows in the darkness, she began the slow journey to her living room, the revolver gripped in her shaking hand. After all, this “being stuck in her chimney story” could just be a ruse.
She made a stop at the linen closet, quietly opened the door, and removed the flashlight. The house seemed empty. No unfamiliar noises. Maybe it was all a joke. Someone with too much eggnog making random calls, thinking he was funny. Perhaps the strong medicine she’d taken for her headache made her imagine she heard a voice in her living room. Sometimes it made her imagine her doorbell rang, and she’d rushed to answer it only to find no one there.
Still, she shuffled to the brick fireplace, removed the fire screen, and aimed the flashlight’s beam up her chimney only to see two boots dangling. One pivot had her back flush against the bricks and her hand coiled tighter around the gun. Holy cow! There really is a guy up there.
She tossed the flashlight on her recliner, turned on a lamp, and with both hands wrapped around the revolver peered up her chimney again. Why would the robber use this way to enter her house? Why not pry open one of her doors? Boy, the criminals get dumber every year.
“What did you plan on doing by breaking into my home through the chimney? Why not use forced entry on one of my doors or break a window like any self-respecting criminal?”
“Because I’m not a criminal! The voice sputtered as if it had a mouth full of cotton. “Shelby, it’s me, Cole.”
“Cole? My Cole?” The heat of a blush slapped her cheeks. She’d crushed on this police detective for over a year. He’d treated her like a friend, but nothing more. So her dreams of romance had died a slow, painful death while flirtatious Darla seemed to command the majority of his attention. Why would he be here? “I don’t believe it. Let me see.”
Shelby picked her flashlight off the chair and aimed the beam up the chimney. “No, you’re not Cole. You don’t have his buns. And if anyone would recognize Detective Cole Danfield’s behind, it would be me.” She turned off the flashlight and flung it onto the recliner again. “I’m asking you one more time. Who are you and why are you stuck in my chimney?”
“It’s a Christmas Eve tradition I do. I go to my parents and stuff their stockings. Then I go to my sister’s and leave presents for her and the kids. Angela doesn’t have a fireplace. She leaves her front door key under the mat so I can unlock the door and walk in. The kids are always peeking around the corner, and mayhem breaks out. They know it’s me and they beat the crap out of their Uncle Cole while he empties his bag of presents. This year they talked me into watching ‘Christmas Vacation’ and gorging on cookies.”
Shelby knew Cole had a sister named Angela. He kept a picture of her and her three kids on his desk. All this sounded like something he would do. Under his tough macho veneer, he had a soft heart for those he cared about.
“Okay. So that still doesn’t explain why you’re stuck in my chimney.”
“Are you or aren’t you going to help me down?” He was using his officer voice now.
Well, she knew how to toss down some attitude, too. “I’m going to make a pot of coffee. Obviously, it’s going to take you awhile to come up with a likely excuse as to how you got yourself into this hell of a mess.” She stepped back.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake! A guy can never catch a break with you, can he? I’ve been trying to be extra nice and all you do is blush or sidestep away. I have a stocking full of gifts for you. I was going to hang it on your mantle, then unlock one of your doors, and sneak out.”
Someone had been sending her cards at every holiday for the last few months and hanging a bag of expensive chocolates or pastries on her doorknob. All were signed with “Your Secret Admirer.” There was a beautiful Christmas arrangement on her doorstep last week. Could he be her Secret Admirer? This handsome man she’d drooled over for ages? She’d never ask him face to face, but face to boots, she could handle.
She rushed the couple steps to the fireplace, mentally forming her question. Her one puppy slipper got tangled on the edge of the brick of the hearth. She fell into the firebox, and her gun went off.