LOVE AND MISTLETOE (BALLYBEG, #4)
Kissed by Christmas…
Policeman Brian Glenn wants a promotion. Studying for a degree in criminology is the first step. When a member of Ballybeg’s most notorious family struts into his forensic psychology class, his hopes for a peaceful semester vanish. Sharon MacCarthy is the last woman he should get involved with, however hot and bothered she makes him get under his police uniform. Can he survive the semester without succumbing to her charms?
…Loved by New Year.
Sharon’s had a rough few months. She knows her future job prospects depend on finally finishing her degree. When she’s paired with her secret crush for the semester project, she sees a chance for happiness. Can she persuade Brian that there’s more to her than sequins, high heels, and a rap sheet?
EXCERPT FROM LOVE AND MISTLETOE
Ballybeg, County Cork, Ireland
There were many places Garda Brian Glenn would rather spend his Saturday night. Dry places. Warm places. Places that didn’t stink of cow shite.
Wrinkling his nose, he hunched down behind a bush and squinted through his police-issue night-vision binoculars. “They’ve finished unloading the car.”
Sergeant Seán Mackey shifted on the grass beside him, the sudden snap of a twig serving as a timely reminder to keep the volume down. “Are you sure about this?” His breath floated through the damp night air in smokelike wisps. “Because if you’re not, we’re trespassing on private property. Not to mention freezing our balls off. Trust you to pick the first cold night in September to go on a flaming stakeout.”
Brian lowered his binoculars and grinned through the dark at his partner and superior officer. “Speak for yourself. I had the good sense to wear thermals. Seriously, man. My intel is solid. The MacCarthys are definitely up to their old tricks. I overheard Sharon discussing it with Naomi Bekele in the pub. Brazen as brass.”
The police sergeant grumbled and tugged his hat lower, presumably to shield his ears from the harsh wind. His perfectly flat ears… Seán was film-star handsome with a deep Dublin baritone that made the women of Ballybeg swoon—a far cry from Brian’s sing-song Donegal lilt and sticky-out ears. If his new partner weren’t a decent bloke and a fine cop, he’d have resented him.
“Come on, Seán. Sure what else would we be doing this evening? At least a stakeout is more exciting than breaking up a fight at MacCarthy’s pub.”
“Who are you trying to convince? Me or yourself?”
“This is the first interesting lead I’ve got on, well, anything in ages. Not much happens in Ballybeg.” And when it did, the local police weren’t left in charge for long. At the rate Brian’s career was going, he’d be stagnating in uniform until retirement. He needed something—anything—to impress the higher-ups.
“I realize Sharon hasn’t been the most law-abiding of citizens,” Seán said, “but I can’t see her manufacturing drugs in her own kitchen.”
“Why is it so hard to believe?” Brian forced himself to keep his irritation no louder than a whisper. “You haven’t been down here long enough to know the full story about that family. Apart from the father being a regular fixture at Cork Prison, one of the brothers was convicted of drug dealing a couple of years ago, and a second was done for possession.”
“Yeah…” The older man drew out the word, giving it a wealth of meaning, “but Sharon’s previous infractions include shoplifting, speeding, and drunk and disorderly behavior. And all her priors are at least a couple of years old.”
He stared at his partner, slack-jawed. “How the hell do you know all that?”
Seán gave a low chuckle. “The MacCarthy files were among the first to cross my desk when I started working at Ballybeg Garda Station. I’ve read everything we have on the entire clan, including the fact that Sharon has cleaned up her act since she started university.”
“Do you really think attending college has magically transformed her character?” Brian snorted in disgust. “Come off it, man. Think of all the students who are busted for dealing. Being clever enough to get into uni doesn’t mean you’re smart enough to stay on the right side of the law.”
“All right. Don’t get your thermals in a twist. We’ll check out whatever is going on in the house. I just hope we don’t end up making tits of ourselves in the process.”
“Apart from not landing face first in cow shite, my main concern is avoiding a close encounter with one of Colm MacCarthy’s hellhounds.”
“Jaysus. Don’t tell me he’s still involved with the dog fights?” Seán’s mouth curled in disgust. “I knew the judge should have given more than a fine the last time he was up in court. That man’s more of an animal than the ones he breeds.”
“Agreed. I’ve nothing concrete about Colm and the dogs, but I could have sworn I heard one bark earlier. Did you hear it?”
“Can’t say I did, but it’s hard to hear anything over this wind.”
Brian hunkered down in the shadows and peered through his binoculars. Shapes moved against lit windows, but he couldn’t identify who they were. “Vicious dog or no, we need to get closer to the house. I can’t see anything from this distance.”
“Me neither. Pity the station’s budget can’t cover more powerful binoculars.”
“The station’s budget doesn’t cover roof repairs, never mind binoculars,” Brian said dryly. “I can’t move in my office without tripping over a bucket. It’s been like that since I was first sent to Ballybeg. We’re always being promised more men, better equipment, and a new station building. It’ll never happen.”
Seán hung his binoculars around his neck and turned up the collar of his coat. “Come on, then. Let’s go.”
They crept through the field as silently as they could manage, the house and farm buildings looming closer with each step.
“Wait!” Seán grabbed Brian’s arm. “Do they have motion-detector lighting over the yard?”
He considered before answering. “I don’t think so. No lights came on while they were unloading the car. Either they’d deliberately switched them off, or they don’t exist.”
“All right. Go on.”
Moving stealthily, they covered the last few meters of the field and took up their position behind an ancient water trough.
Seán rubbed his hands together to keep them warm. “I’m frozen. I’d kill for a cup of coffee right now.”
“I’ve a thermos in my pack.” Brian slid his rucksack off his back and extracted a metal can. “It’s tea, not coffee.”
His partner gave an exaggerated shudder. “How did you make it through training college without having the shite beaten out of you? Everyone knows cops drink coffee.”
“Everyone knows cops drink bad coffee.” Brian unscrewed the top of his thermos and poured piping-hot tea into the lid. It burned his tongue when he took a sip, but he relished the warmth wending its way from his mouth to his stomach. He held the cup out to his partner. “Sure you won’t take a swig?”
Brian couldn’t see Seán’s face clearly in the dark, but he could sense the indecision flickering over his features. “Ah, go on, then. I’m desperate.” The other man had the cup halfway to his lips when a sharp bark hacked through the silence. The cup of the thermos shot out of his hand and ricocheted off the metal trough, knocking against a rusty bucket in the process. “Feck.” Seán cradled his hand. “I’m after scalding myself.”
“That was definitely a dog.” Brian craned his neck to see over the trough. Lights went on in the room nearest the back door. A human-shaped shadow flitted across the window. “Someone’s coming. Duck.”
Voices floated out the open door, the occasional word decipherable. Voices from a house that was likely to be a lot drier and warmer than Brian and Seán’s current location. The dog barked again followed by a high-pitched whine. Footsteps rang over the cobblestones, and light from a flashlight bobbed in a drunken dance. A woman wearing high heels. Sharon. Brian would bet his police badge he was right.
He pictured her in his mind: medium height, medium build, generous bust, and a high, tight arse that begged to be pinched. Jaysus. Where had that notion sprung from? He couldn’t stand Sharon MacCarthy. She unnerved him, seemed to take a devilish delight in taunting him at every opportunity. She was no beauty—not in the classical sense—but there was something about her that caused men to look twice. He crouched down and waited for her and the dog to go back inside.
Minutes dragged by. Finally, right at the point Brian was ready to scream from holding still for so long, a door creaked shut, and the clickety-clack of the heels moved back across the cobblestoned yard to the house.
When the lights in the room nearest the back door went out, his tense muscles slackened.
“Whatever eejit of a hound Colm’s got now is a useless guard dog,” Seán whispered. “Why didn’t it pick up our scent?”
Brian shrugged. “Dunno. No sense of smell? Maybe he got it cheap.”
“No sense of smell or not, it sounds vicious.” Seán shifted restlessly. “We’re going to have to try to get a look in the window. Without proof that they’re up to something they shouldn’t be, we’ve no business being here.”
“You go, and I’ll shadow you?”
Seán laughed, a low rumble. “Nice try. This stakeout was your idea. You get to do the honors.”
“You can leave the thermos with me.”
Brian tossed it to him with a wry smile. “Changed your mind about hating tea?”
“Nah. More like not changed my mind about being cold. At least the can will keep me warm.”
After giving the yard a quick scan to check for prowling animals and lurking humans, Brian emerged from behind the trough and half crept, half ran to take up his position beneath a windowsill. Cautiously, he unfurled enough to be able to peer in the glass. The sight that assaulted him was enough to give a man heart failure. A furry face was pressed to the window, lips drawn back to reveal sharp fangs.
Naomi’s expression was dubious. “I certainly hope so. This has wiped out the last of my savings.”
“It’ll be no problem, Nomes,” Sharon said cheerily. “Trust me.”
Rummaging through a cupboard, she located the kitchen scales behind a broken toaster and her brother’s bong. She stood and stretched her back like a cat. “Hey, if our bath product range takes off, we might persuade a couple of shops in town to stock them. I know Olivia sells stuff like that at the Cottage Café.”
“Don’t jump the gun.” Worry lines creased Naomi’s normally smooth forehead. “We haven’t made our first batch yet. It might be a disaster.”
“Such pessimism! Relax. It’ll all be grand. What you need is a large glass of vino before we get to work.” She wrenched open the fridge and assessed its contents. Beer, beer, and more beer. Sausages, bacon, and moldy cheese. She extracted a carton of milk and sniffed. Holy mother. When had it gone off? A shudder of revulsion ran through her body. Thank God she rarely ate at home. Standards in the MacCarthy household had never been high. Since Ma died, they’d plummeted to a record low.
Grabbing the lone bottle of wine and slamming the fridge door shut, she pivoted on her platform heels and almost tripped over a mobile bundle of fur. “Well, hey there, Wiggly Poo. Did you have a nice snooze?” She bent down to stroke the dog’s curly fur. He wagged his tail and gave her a generous lick. “Buttering me up, eh? At least one male in my life loves me enough to kiss me. What’s it you’re after? Food?”
The labradoodle darted to his bowl and waited, panting and tongue lolling in expectation. Sharon plonked the wine on the counter and rooted through her bag for the tin of dog food that her boss, Bridie Byrne, had given her earlier in the day. She emptied it into the bowl, and the dog consumed the foul-smelling substance with gusto.
Naomi switched the oven on to preheat for the bath bombs. “How long are you dog-sitting?”“Just for this evening. Bridie’s minding him while Fiona and Gavin are off on a romantic weekend, but she didn’t want to leave him alone in her house while she was out at bingo. He’s a little on the wild side and has a penchant for ornaments.”
Naomi laughed. “Sounds like you and he are a matched pair.”
“Get away with you.” Sharon uncorked the wine and poured two generous glasses. “I’ve cleaned up my act since Ma got sick. I promised her I’d get my psychology degree, and get it I will.” She scrunched up her nose. “Concentrating on my studies would be a whole lot easier if I didn’t have to live with Da. The second I can afford a place of my own, I’m out of this dump.”
Naomi raised her glass. “Then let’s hope the bath product plan bears fruit.”
“Sláinte.” They clinked glasses, and Sharon took a sip of wine, relishing the tart taste on her tongue.
A crash outside in the farmyard made her choke midswig.
“What was that?” she spluttered. She raced to the kitchen window and yanked back the frayed net curtains. Through the dark mist, she could perceive only the pitch black of the night.
Naomi moved to her side, craning to see. “Did one of the cows get out, do you think?”
“Dunno.” Sharon was already moving toward the mudroom and the door to the yard. She snagged her jacket from its peg and grabbed her scarf.
“Are you sure you want to go out there alone?” Naomi pulled her cardigan tight around her thin body. “It’s creepy when it’s this dark.”
“I’ll be grand. It’s probably just one of the animals. Besides,” she said with a grin, “I don’t see you offering to join me.”
Her friend shuddered. “I don’t like the dark at the best of times. Out on a farm with wild animals roaming? Nuh-uh.”
Sharon laughed. “Domesticated animals, you eejit. You’d swear we had lions prowling the property.”
“All the same, I’m staying put.”
“Suit yourself.” Grabbing a flashlight, Sharon ventured out into the dark.
Rain fell in heavy sheets, forcing her to yank up her hood. Up until a couple of months ago, they’d had floodlights that came on when they sensed movement. When they broke, Da hadn’t bothered to fix them, insisting a flashlight would suffice and was a hell of a lot cheaper. Sharon shivered in the damp chill air, cursing herself for not wearing a heavier coat.
She whirled round to see Wiggly Poo slip out the door and dance at her feet. “Daft dog.” She petted him and buried her nose in his curly fur. He was a crap guard dog, but she was glad to have his company. Despite her bravado, the dark farmyard was kind of creepy. She shivered beneath her thin jacket. The weird sensation of being watched sent prickles down her spine. If only Da would fix the damn floodlights.
Picking her way carefully over the cobblestones, she headed toward the cowshed. All quiet, save for the odd moo. It was a similar story in the sheep’s enclosure and in the henhouse. The familiar sounds and smells were bittersweet. When she was little, they’d had a farm full of animals. Now they were down to six cows, eight sheep, and four hens. Times had changed on the MacCarthy farm, and not for the better.
She closed the door of the henhouse. Whatever had caused the crash wasn’t apparent out here. “Come on, Wiggly Poo. Let’s get back inside before we’re soaked through.”
Back in the kitchen, Naomi had started weighing and mixing the ingredients to make bath salts. “No luck?” she asked, raising an eyebrow when Sharon and Wiggly Poo returned from their outside adventure, wet and bedraggled.
“I don’t know what caused the noise. The animals all seem fine.” She leaned over her friend’s shoulder and sniffed the air. “Divine. What scent combo are you making?”
“Lemongrass and lavender. We can add a little purple food dye to give it an appealing color.”
“Sounds good. I’ll get started on the bath bombs.”
“Woof!” Wiggly Poo was on the alert, racing to the window and jumping up to press his paws against the glass. “Woof!”
“What’s up with him?” Naomi asked. “I didn’t hear anything.”
Sharon’s shoulders slumped. “Feck. I hope it’s not Da. He said he wouldn’t be home until late tonight.”
The labradoodle was growling now, the menacing sound mitigated by his cute and fluffy appearance.
Naomi’s dark eyes widened. “Do you think there’s a pervert out there? I told you I thought someone was watching us when we were unloading the car.”
“A wanker? He’d need to be seriously desperate to venture out on a night like this.” Wiggly Poo was growling at the window. “Oh, for feck’s sake.” Sharon marched to the window and threw it open.
A pale face loomed before her, light blue eyes darting from side to side, panicked. “You were right, Nomes. It is a pervert.” Sharon crossed her arms over her bosom and grinned. “Hello, Garda Glenn.”