Nightmare in Crimson
by Patricia Rosemoor
It’s been a year since Pippa McNabb’s husband – a philandering executive who was dressed as Santa – was murdered. Now Pippa is co-owner of the Westbrook Department Store and trying to find her footing in management. But at a company charity event, the guest “Santa” is suddenly ill and lurches outside… only to be run over by eight (not-so-tiny) reindeer. Another Santa is dead. And once again, Pippa is the prime suspect!
But Pippa isn’t the only suspect. Sky Thornton is a naturalist who was responsible for the ruinous reindeer, and he’s also under suspicion. Sky is in Chicago for his own reasons, but finding himself increasingly attracted to Pippa – a potential murderess – was not part of the plan.
Pippa now has only three things on this year’s Christmas list: 1) Clear her name; 2) Resist the wicked chemistry with Sky; and 3) Avoid becoming the next Christmas kill!
Praise for Nightmare in Crimson:
“Fun, different, and filled with romance, suspense and Christmas
- Bestselling Author Ann Voss Peterson
© 2012 Patricia Rosemoor
“Something’s burning.” Connie Ortega, catering manager, poked her head out of the commercial-size refrigerator to singsong the warning.
“Oh, no, my appetizers!” Heart thumping, nose quivering at the unpalatable smell, Pippa McNabb left the silver tray she was filling with fresh shrimp on toast triangles and ran for the oven. She whipped open the massive door and released a thick black fog into her face.
“Yuck!” Coughing when she accidentally inhaled some smoke, Pippa waved her arms and backed up. “They’re ruined!”
Connie slammed the refrigerator door and gave her one of those soul-shrinking looks she was famous for. Considering Pippa had been working in the catering department for nearly three weeks now, she was getting used to Connie’s disapproval. Oh, well. She’d never professed more than a passing acquaintance with kitchen appliances. “Go ahead,” Pippa told the catering manager, who had merely returned to the kitchen to take another full cart down to the party. The rest of the staff were still on the first floor, working the Christmas fundraiser for the Coalition to Feed the Homeless, which would provide food for the entire holiday weekend. “I’ll just get another batch of empanadas out of the refrigerator and into the oven, and be down as soon as they’re baked.”
“You’re the boss.” Connie slipped something Pippa couldn’t see onto her cart and made for the service elevator.
Pippa pondered the irony of those words while trashing the blackened appetizers.
Indeed, she was the boss, by virtue of having inherited half of Westbrook Department Store from her late husband, Dutch Vanleer, who’d traded pro football for merchandising three years earlier. Not that she was exactly competent to be in charge of anything. She’d married Dutch straight out of college, and he’d never allowed her to work while he was alive. That’s why she’d left the running of the business to Dutch’s—and now her own—partner, her brother, Rand McNabb, while she tried to learn the store’s inner workings, one department at a time, switching to a new venue on the first of every month. So far, she’d finished stints in lingerie, women’s sportswear, shoes, small appliances, leather goods, china, men’s accessories, toys, books, and cosmetics.
None had proven to be a disaster until she’d switched to catering.
So what had she expected? Dutch had always disparaged her attempts at cooking and insisted on frequenting restaurants and relying on hired cooks or catering services for dinner parties. Quickly placing the half circles of dough filled with turkey in mole sauce on clean baking trays, Pippa tried to push the mostly unpleasant memories of her late husband from her mind, but the attempt was futile.
The holidays were here again, after all, and the first anniversary of Dutch’s death was right around the corner. He’d been unofficially playing Santa, intending to somehow seduce Shelby Corbin—now Shelby Corbin McNabb, her brother’s wife. Instead he’d been murdered, right here at Westbrook.
Despite the heat of the oven, a chill swept over Pippa as she slid in the last of the canapés. She shook away the feeling and went back to filling the silver tray, which she then set on the cart she’d take downstairs. No reason to worry. She’d already experienced one holiday nightmare in crimson.
Things could only look up.
Sky Thornton searched in vain for a woman with bright red hair among the holiday crowd. Standing out in the crisp snowy night, ignoring the soft snorts and restless clopping behind him, he stared through one of Westbrook’s State Street windows. Inside, Chicago’s royalty was gathering to spread their largesse among the needy…as well as to be seen and photographed for tomorrow’s society pages. No homeless among them spoiling the festivities, that was for damn sure.
He’d met a few of the partygoers since getting back in town. But most were strangers…only one of whom interested him. He’d seen her photograph enough times to recognize her.
So where was she?
His gaze traveled along a line of women in sequins and spangles, feathers and fur. Plenty of blondes and brunettes, but no redheads.
The costumed medieval carolers stationed on the corner behind him struck up a Christmas tune.
“Hark, the herald angels sing…”
In the store, the crowd blocking a rear elevator parted. Tuxes straightened and spangles rippled as people moved out of the way. With a wry snort, Sky reminded himself to be prepared to be impressed by whatever caused such a stir.
He damn well was awed.
The redhead he’d been looking for was pushing a catering cart toward a linen-covered table near the window. What was she doing working?
No glitz for her. Well, maybe a touch. A gold lame ribbon and bead-trimmed collar topped a full-sleeved winter white blouse and calf-length forest green skirt. Above the collar sat a mass of bright red curls. She’d attempted to hold them back from her face with a ribbon as green as her vivid eyes, but ringlets strayed beguilingly to rest against her milky complexion. One smooth cheek was marred by a dark streak as if she’d swiped at it with a sooty hand. Her face was heart-shaped, her mouth bowed, her chin slightly dimpled.
He recognized her…and yet he didn’t.
She was softer-looking than the photographs had indicated. Sweeter. Dare he say more innocent? She could be a Christmas angel come to life. And he didn’t like his instant and involuntary reaction to that thought.
Sky did not want to like her—liking her would make his mission too tough.
“Hey, mister, you gonna give rides or what?”
Startled out of his private reverie, he turned to face a lanky street urchin in tattered clothing who glared at him in challenge. The youth’s voice was barely in the process of changing, but he looked wizened, far older than his years. Poverty did that all too easily. Behind him, crossing kitty-corner from the outdoor ice-skating arena, were two younger kids—a boy and a girl, both too thin and both of whom appeared afraid to expect anything out of life other than another kick in the butt.
“Forget it!” the older one said when Sky didn’t immediately answer. “He only gives rides to them that’s got some mean green in their pockets.”
Expression disgusted, the boy spun and quickly moved—until Sky’s hand caught his upper arm, stopping him cold. “I don’t like anyone putting words in my mouth.”
“Yeah?” The young face turned, half hopeful, half suspicious. “You got better ones?”
Sky let go and indicated the waiting sleigh. “Get in. I don’t have all night.” The party guests would be lining up in a matter of minutes, wanting rides.
As the three youths screeched in glee and made a dash for the sleigh. Sky glanced over his shoulder and, for an instant, was entranced despite himself.
The redhead was there at the window, her eyes raised to the gently falling snow, a golden glow of candles and store lights behind her, haloing her copper hair and making her appear even more ethereal. Then her gaze lowered…to him. She blinked in surprise. Her mouth trembled into an unwary smile, and she lifted a hand in tentative greeting.
Sky’s heart lurched before he cursed himself and turned away, blocking out the image of her, and the sound of the heavenly chorus on the corner.
“Peace on earth, goodwill to men!”
He’d learned the hard way that people rarely had goodwill for one another unless it suited their purposes. He doubted Pippa McNabb would prove an exception.
Pippa released the breath she’d been holding as the driver jogged over to his sleigh. He moved like an athlete, as if running in the cold and snow was second nature to him. He looked like a powerful man, tall and broad-shouldered beneath the brightly patterned wool jacket. The spill of hair from under his snow-dusted woodsman’s hat was inky black. There’d been something electric in the way he’d looked at her, though his response hadn’t exactly been positive. He’d seemed…confused…almost as if he thought he should disapprove of her. Which, of course, was ridiculous, since they were complete strangers.
Watching the kids pile into the sleigh broadened her smile and made her think kindly of the man, anyway. He could just as easily have threatened to get a security guard as give the scruffy trio a ride. As the driver slid into his seat at the front of the sleigh and gathered the reins, Pippa forced her attention back to the festivities inside the store.
The medieval quartet started another cheerful Christmas melody. Standing nearby, Frank Hatcher, Westbrook’s data processing manager, was checking his watch. A nervous little man, he always seemed to be concerned with the time.
“Ho! Ho! Ho! Mer-r-r-ry Christmas!” boomed a deep voice. Standing next to the giant Christmas tree that rose nearly six stories up the atrium, Santa was handing out small tokens of the holiday—beautifully wrapped commemorative ornaments—to the charity benefit’s attendees. Tall, stocky, silver-haired, and in his mid-fifties, Lamont Birch made the perfect Santa Claus. Westbrook’s vice president of legal affairs also happened to be legal counsel for the Coalition to Feed the Homeless. Holding the fundraiser in the prestigious department store had been Lamont’s suggestion.
“Lamont, a word, please!” his wife, Acacia, demanded. A stunning woman well past forty, she looked a decade younger despite the silver streak in her dark brown hair. Dressed in an elegant beaded red gown, she was supervising every detail as if the party were under her command rather than Gwen Walsh, the coalition’s director, as the official hostess.
And when, her expression grim, she bent over to whisper something in her husband’s ear, Pippa wondered what the problem might be. Above the fake white mustache and beard, Lamont’s face darkened. Pippa drew closer but couldn’t hear his muffled response.
Spine stiff, Acacia suddenly stalked off.
Before Pippa could decide whether or not to follow the woman and ask if there was anything she could do to help, Mayor Darby Keegan arrived with his entourage, including his blond, blue-eyed, and very beautiful aide, Valerie Quinlan. Keegan was a celebrity spokesperson for the coalition. But, knowing the society lawyer and blue-collar mayor were sworn enemies—a matter of “have” versus “have-not” where class was concerned, according to Lamont—Pippa froze in her tracks. Surely the two men would make an effort to get along this one evening for propriety’s sake.
But Mayor Keegan had been drinking. The glass in his hand was almost empty, and his bloated face was florid all the way up to his receding hairline. He looked revved up for a fight. “Hey, Santa, what ya got for me?” Keegan demanded. His manner was normally loud and officious, but tonight his words were slurred.
Heads turned. Conversations stopped. Mouths gaped. Pippa grimaced.
“Why do you need Santa Claus to give you anything when you take whatever you want?” Lamont muttered under his breath. Aloud, he said, “A souvenir of the evening for the gentleman,” and held out an ornament.
Ignoring the offering, Keegan finished his drink. “Whose idea was it to make you Santa-for-a-day, anyhow, you shyster?”
Pippa tried to think of a way to cool this confrontation down, but Lamont quickly responded in kind. “Shyster? Me?” The lawyer laughed. “I’d be careful about slinging mud, if I were you, you money-hungry bureaucrat. One of these days your tactics will boomerang and you’ll end up with mud in your face, as well you should.”
Shock waves spread through the room. The two men were the focus of every eye and ear. Panicked that they might end up trading punches, Pippa acted on instinct. She grabbed a tray of appetizers and forced her way through the crowd toward the men.
“You got some problem with me, spit it out!” Mayor Keegan demanded.
“Mayor Keegan, please,” Valerie Quinlan whispered from behind him.
“Oh, I shall,” Lamont promised over her plea, his Santa hat quivering with his anger. “Though, tonight’s not the right time.”
Lamont glanced beyond Mayor Keegan, his gaze stopping on the official’s aide. Appearing horrified—by the proceedings or by Lamont’s scrutiny?—the blonde took a step back right into the two aldermen behind her. The lawyer glared at his opponent.
“No, I want to savor the details a while longer, Keegan. Besides, we have more important affairs to attend to tonight. My accusations can wait until it’s time to declare our candidacies for mayor—”
“Our? You think you got a shot goin’ up against me?”
Pippa was now close enough to see the smirk curling Lamont Birch’s lips below his beard when he countered with, “I think anyone with even a smattering of class would have a shot.”
“Have an hors d’oeuvre!” Pippa commanded, and with an unusual display of authority for her, shoved the tray between the two men before they could get physical. “Both of you! They’re small. Take two.”
She glared from one to the other, silently demanding that they behave themselves.
“Don’t mind if I do.” Mayor Keegan was known for being two-fisted, whether he was running a campaign or eating, as his portly middle revealed. He proved it now, swaying as he scooped up a half-dozen delicacies in each hand. His famous “sincere” smile puffed out his full cheeks.
And the crowd released its collective breath. Party-goers turned away from the scene around the Christmas tree. Conversations gradually started up again. And Pippa heaved a sigh of relief.
Then she noticed Lamont was still glaring at the mayor.
“Santa, try some of my appetizers.” She leaned over and surreptitiously pushed the silver tray into his stomach padding until she was certain that she had his full attention. “Have one of each. I insist.”
Grumbling under his breath, Lamont did as she commanded, snatching several appetizers without really paying attention to what he was doing. “Merry Christmas to all,” he grumbled under his breath, “and to all a good night. Except for him, of course.”
But Mayor Keegan had already lumbered away and was lost in the swarm of people.
“Enjoy,” Pippa said, moving on.
Gwen Walsh, director of the Coalition to Feed the Homeless, stood frozen nearby, her white face in contrast with her black hair and black velvet gown, her gray eyes as cold as slate.
“Gwen, are you all right?” Pippa asked.
Gwen’s odd expression indicated she hadn’t realized she was the focus of anyone’s attention. “I hope this ruckus won’t affect contributions.” She fussed with her French roll. “People are funny about needing to have faith in those who run organizations like the coalition.”
While Pippa was distracted by a small group of people who wanted hors d’oeuvres, Gwen disappeared in the crowd. Pippa placed the empty silver server on a linen-covered counter.
Hearing her oldest brother’s voice behind her, she spun around as his wife, Shelby, added, “Good as any I’ve seen on a football field.” Rand and Dutch had played for the Chicago Bears before retiring to buy Westbrook.
“Where have you two been?” Pippa asked, glad for the company.
The soft look that passed between the two told her all she needed to know. Shelby’s black hair was mussed, and there was a trace of her vivid red lipstick clinging to Rand’s auburn mustache. No doubt they’d found some mistletoe. And who could blame them? They were still newlyweds, after all, having only been married for little more than six months.
Pippa rolled her eyes. “Never mind.”
“We arrived in the midst of the fireworks,” Rand admitted, jerking a thumb at Lamont’s retreating back. “And couldn’t get through the crowd. Sorry I was too far away to help.”
“At least the situation was resolved,” Shelby said, her hazel eyes bright. “I’m proud of you, Pippa. And no matter what you say, I think you’re ready to handle anything Westbrook can dish out.”
Heat rose along Pippa’s neck. She admired Shelby greatly, and equated that sort of compliment from her to getting a gold star. Too bad she didn’t have the same confidence in herself that her sister-in-law did.
“Nothing surprises me where Darby Keegan is concerned,” Rand was saying, “but this fundraiser is Lamont’s baby. What could he have been thinking of, baiting the mayor tonight?”
“I don’t know, but something unusual is going on,” Pippa told him. “It’s like he was waiting for the mayor to show up so he could sock it to him.” The same chill that had swept through her in the catering kitchen returned.
“I’ll see to it that nothing like that happens again,” her brother promised.
“No more disappearing acts,” Shelby added with a sigh.
“I’ll make it up to you later, sweetheart.”
“I’ll see that you do.” Shelby’s lips bowed and her cheeks dimpled. “So let’s mingle.”
“See you later, sis.”
Pippa watched them take over the room. Both had a natural charisma that was hard to deny. Drawing in a deep breath, she tried to get her bearings, to figure out what to do next, now that she’d completed her catering duties. There would be cleanup later, of course. Meanwhile, she was starting to feel weird—and not because of the argument. The Christmas music seemed louder, the smell of pine stronger, the tiny Italian lights strung throughout the spacious area brighter.
And the memories of a Christmas past began flooding through her.
Crimson memories. Of being informed that her husband was dead. Of weeping over Dutch’s coffin. Of being a suspect in his murder.
Murder and Christmas. The two didn’t go together—or shouldn’t, anyway.
Pippa scanned the room. Felt distanced from it. Felt chills shoot through her for a third time. She hoped she wasn’t coming down with the flu. ‘Twas the season.
Maybe she’d feel better if she retreated awhile. She could give herself a break. Just a few minutes off to herself wouldn’t hurt anything, Pippa decided. She’d be back before anyone missed her.
As she slipped through the crowd, images began to glaze over and sounds became muffled, giving the event a soothing unreality. The party was receding, the holiday becoming more removed. Good. She convinced herself she was starting to feel better already. A walk in the alley by the loading dock would do wonders.
On the way, she passed a secluded recess of the room where Santa stood arguing in a low voice—the recipient of his bad humor hidden by a support pillar. She turned her head away, determined not to interfere this time. Maybe Santa had cornered the mayor again. Or perhaps his wife had cornered him—Acacia hadn’t been too happy with Lamont earlier. Whoever it was, Pippa didn’t want to know. Didn’t want to involve herself again.
So, she sneaked away, out of sight, ignoring the sound of a scuffle and the clatter of change hitting the floor and rolling away.
A few minutes alone was all she wanted. What could that possibly hurt?
Lamont’s stomach hurt, but worse, he was having trouble breathing ever since walking away from that infuriating conversation. Too much stress taking its toll, he thought in irritation. He was probably developing ulcers. And he really should have his blood pressure checked. Last thing he needed was a damn heart attack.
“Lamont, you’re not looking so good,” Rand commented, his amber gaze sharp.
“I’m not feeling too hot,” Lamont admitted, turning bleary eyes toward the State Street exit. He didn’t want to get in a discussion about what was upsetting him. “Probably something I ate. Rich food doesn’t always agree with me anymore. Not that I’m getting old.”
“I can find you an antacid,” Shelby offered.
“No. Thanks, but no. Getting some fresh air will do.”
With that, Lamont lurched off, his gait unsteady as invisible hands began squeezing not only his windpipe, but his lungs, as well. He shoved at the revolving door and practically flew through it to the snow-covered sidewalk, where a crowd of people stood in what seemed to be a line, despite a rapidly descending curtain of snow. He almost ran into one of them—a small man dressed like one of Santa’s elves.
Who the hell was he? Lamont didn’t remember anyone telling him to expect an assistant. He pulled his beard down, opened his mouth—and gasped for air. His throat was closing rapidly. Suddenly panicked, realizing that he was in real trouble, he shoved through the crowd. He needed to find a clear space where he could breathe properly.
“Pardon me, but the end of the line is that way,” an elderly woman huffed at him.
“Give Santa a break,” her youthful companion suggested. “After all, that’s his sleigh and team we’re getting a ride with.”
Though his vision was blurring, Lamont could see the harnessed pairs of reindeer trotting through the thick veil of snow. He realized he was poised directly on the curb. Gasping, he waved his arms to signal the driver. He had to get to a hospital, and fast, and the animals looked like a racing team. But he didn’t think the driver saw him. The team didn’t slow down.
Lamont put a hand to his throat and tried to yell. Suddenly, a solid blow behind his knee sent him teetering forward toward the icy street. People behind him screamed in warning. A few plucked at his Santa suit to no avail. He felt the material rip. Sensed himself start to crash downward. Felt the bite of the hard, ice-covered pavement.
And then he heard the pounding of hooves.
Even as he spun awkwardly toward the sound and tried to rise, he was kicked in the chest and fell onto his back. Pain struck him again and again—the moving, shifting weight knocking the last of the precious oxygen from his abused lungs.
As the very life force drained out of him, Lamont couldn’t help but recognize the irony of Santa Claus being run over by eight tiny reindeer.
In his head whirled the phrase: Merry Christmas to all…and to all a good night!