Cassandra lifted her hands to claw at the neck band that topped the Santa costume. Headless stopped her with a hand on her wrist in mid-air. For a moment they braced against each other, but the restrained steel in his grip told her he was only playing. All the martial arts training and degrees of black-belt would mean nothing if her arm were snapped like a toothpick.
She backed off, rubbing her wrist, and watched for a break in his concentration. "Why did you call me 'Speedy'?"
"Not here. " His voice had changed. The sexy Russian accent was gone, replaced by classic American. The cadence transitioned in that flash from lazily inquisitive to impatient and angry—furious.
The tone itself was different but familiar, and her mind raced to identify it. Sounds and vague memories rose like inky shadows she could sense but not see. "Who are you?"
"Quiet. I need to think."
She heard him then—the boy she'd dreamed about, cried over and prayed for. In the end she'd mourned him for what he'd done to himself and his family. Then she'd hated him for what he'd done to her, to their puppy love.
"Jacob? Is that you?"
He simply shook his head—neck...the top of his costume—and sighed.
"Take off the top of that thing. Let me see your face." Anger clogged her throat, made her voice hoarse.
"Forget Jacob." The man who, as a boy, had been her first crush, her first kiss, spoke with a hollowness in his tone. Like maybe he regretted the choices he'd made more than a dozen years earlier.
Her heart breaking, she started talking fast to alert her partner. "Oh right, you're Raven now."
"Shut up, Speedy."
He'd dubbed her Speedy as kids, after the cartoon mouse they used to watch. How many Saturday mornings had they spent sprawled in front of the TV in her living room, or his? It's where he'd first kissed her one morning when their parents had deemed them old enough, responsible enough, to be left alone.They were 14.
He'd stuffed two sticks of Spearmint gum in his mouth—apparently his teenage idea of an aphrodisiac—and had been smacking away when something made her laugh. He'd said her name, softly. She'd looked up, and before she knew what was happening, his minty breath was in her face and his lips were on hers. It was over before she knew what was happening.
Her heart had tumbled all the way that morning and had never recovered.
Remembering, Cassandra touched her fingers to her lips and blinked back a sudden rush of tears. "Or what? Or you'll do what, Jacob? Sic your goons on me? Kill me? Pump me full of drugs like you did to yourself?"
His hand jerked out, like a rattlesnake, and gripped her around the arm again, but there was nothing velvety or silky about his touch this time. "Stop talking, now, or I'll muzzle you. I can with little effort. And trust me, I will. And whoever is listening on the other side of your wire, stay the hell back if you don't want to see your partner in pieces before the end of this night."
"Why? What's happening tonight, Raven? Or hey, can I just call you Rave? I mean, we do have a history."
His hand clamped over her mouth, cutting off her speech. Raven—the man she'd never again think of as Jacob—said, "You're coming with me. Now."
"Like hell." Bucking, she jerked her head forward and connected with something solid inside the suit.
"Oomph." Raven's neck bent and he put a hand to mid-chest—probably where his head was—losing his grip on her. Again she slammed her head forward, this time putting all the pain of her discovery into it. Again she connected, then gritted her teeth to make the world stop spinning.
"Son of a ..." Continuing his curse, he let her slide until her feet touched the ground.
Finally free, she ducked under his arm, then aimed the spike of her heel toward his groin.
Raven leaped back. His hands flashing, he caught her ankle, twisted and yanked. She landed with a crack that knocked the breath from her lungs and the transmitter from her ear.
Seeing it, Raven stomped, and slivers of shattered electronics skidded across the floor.
"Crap." Cassandra put a hand to her head and tried to gather the strength to stand, to fight, to stop this bastard who'd fallen back into her life, making her want to scream, or cry.
She eased her eyes open to see him squatting in front of her. He offered a hand. When she spat at it, he stilled and, after a moment, wiped his palm against the red velvet pants.
"I swear to God, Speedy," he said, sounding strained, "if you don't stop, things will get messy. "
"Since when did you care about messy?"
In seconds, he had her down on her back, straddling her waist with his knees while he held her hands to the sides of her head. The top of his costume, the neck, was poised directly over her face, and she peered closely, still trying to figure out which part of his chest concealed the eye ports. Unbidden, laughter bubbled up her chest and out.
"Dammit, Speedy. Shut up."
"I can't help it. You know I laugh when I'm nervous."
Whatever he planned to say was cut off when the door to the office slammed open and Abominable marched in.
"Shit." Raven spoke quietly but with a hint of desperation in his tone. He swung his leg over her body and pushed to a standing position as if he were balancing on a tight wire. Then he moved several inches to his left, blocking Cassandra's view. She scrambled to her feet, then dusted off the candy-cane fabric while Raven tried to make nice with the woman, who probably didn't know what the hell he was.
"This is not what you think," he said, the Russian accent back in full force.
Abominable stood there, arms crossed and foot tapping in the classic stance of a scorned lover. She drew off the giant paw-glove from her right hand, then pulled the head off, revealing a stunningly beautiful face—huge brown eyes and long, curling lashes. Lips of cherry red that made even Cassandra want to sample them. Flawless skin in soft gold. All framed by tumbles of rich chestnut hair that she scooped from her face with fingers tipped in half-inch-long red. Like the claws of a predatory bird, following a kill.
She was gorgeous, and barely over five feet, presuming she wasn't wearing heels inside the snowman costume. Next to her, Cassandra felt like a clumsy, clodding giant.
This woman might look like a brunette version of Barbie, but she was no innocent. She'd been talking drugs with Raven earlier. She could be one of the distributors he'd been lining up.
Shaking the image free, Cassandra stepped forward, wishing she'd had room to stash her credentials in this outfit.
"Miss, he's right. This isn't what you think."
"Quiet!" Jacob—Raven—shouted, then silenced her further with a chopping motion of his hand.
The woman gave a sensual chuckle, her smile forcing a tiny dimple in the center of her cheek. "You should pay attention, whore, and keep your pretty mouth closed."
Apparently Cassie's mouth didn't take orders because it dropped open and hung there for a second before she had the presence of mind to at least put it to use. "You really don't want to talk to me like that."
Raven whirled and grabbed her arm, again squeezing the fleshy part above her elbow until she bit her lip to keep from yowling. "I will tell you one more time. Keep quiet."
"Don't bother," the woman said. "It's too late." She stepped forward, her face a mask of boredom as she held Cassandra's gaze, then drew her arm back.
Cassandra should have read the intent, should have reacted, but shock held her motionless when Abominable whipped a hand across her face.
Her head jerked to the right and pain exploded along her cheekbone and jaw line. Blinking rapidly to keep the welling tears from falling, she yanked her arm free. "Look. I don't know who the hell you are, but you've just assaulted a federal officer. And my backup is right outside. You have the right to remain silent—"
The woman snorted. "You mean the little man in the minivan who's been out there all day?" She waved a hand, dismissively. "He has been neutralized."
"'Neutralized'? What do you mean?" Cassandra darted a glance to Raven who was standing there like a storefront dummy. "You killed him?"
"That will depend on your willingness to cooperate," he answered.
The woman butted in. "And do not expect any of your fellow guests to stumble upon us either," she said. "They will not come looking. They're enjoying the samples too much." She patted the Santa head glued to Raven's side.
"You have drugs in that thing?!"
Raven laughed. "A Santa sack would be too obvious, don't you think?"
Cassandra's stomach was really churning now, and not just from lack of food. She was unarmed, her partner neutralized—whatever that meant—and she was standing here with two people who had just admitted to passing out enough narcotics to keep the area's elite sky high for the foreseeable future. Something had to change.
"Look," she said to the woman, "You have things twisted. I don't care if you are the lover of this piece of garbage here," she said, jerking a thumb in Raven's direction.
"His lover?!" The woman let out a lusty howl of a laugh. "He's not my type." With that she skimmed appraising eyes along Cassandra's length, a smile curving the right side of her mouth. Then she nodded toward Raven. "Go ahead. Tell her who you are. Or better yet, tell her who I am."
Cassandra's insides froze when Raven drew off the top of the costume to reveal his head. Same golden-brown hair cut ruthlessly short to tame the riot of curls that, if left growing, framed his face like an angel. Without meeting her eyes, he unbuttoned the Santa jacket. Inside he wore two shoulder holsters, each loaded with a weapon. He slipped one from the holster with a slow draw, maybe so she could get a good look. It was long-barreled and nasty looking. An AR-15—one of the preferred weapons in the drug trade. Once it was in his hand, his shoulders relaxed.
Then his eyes met hers, and despite the insolence in his expression, she saw Jacob, her old friend, in the depths of that lake-blue gaze. Still, he spoke with the fake accent. "I have the great pleasure to introduce the president and CEO of the newly formed Chesapeake International Import/Export." His eyes hardened. "You perhaps know her as Raven."
"She's Raven? Then who—"
Jacob held up his free hand, silencing her. "I am director of security."
"Fancy title," the woman—Raven—said. "He's my chief enforcer. And he is exceptionally good at his job."
Please return tomorrow for Part Three of "Santa Suit Hijinks."