“C’mon. Think of the children.”
“This is a police station!”
“It’s a holiday party. There will be families. Just because—”
Jane rose to her feet, chair scraping along linoleum harsh enough to skin teeth, her glower dark enough to compel confessions. “Finish that sentence and Rudolph won’t be the only one with a shiny nose.” Powell’s silence soothed some of her ire. “Get one of the guys to do it.”
“I would, but they’ve all—”
“Got kids. Yeah, I know.” Jane waved him off and settled her grip along her belt. “Ask Frankie.”
“He’s bringin’ a girl. Look, we came to a consensus…”
She cocked a hip, hand tightening near her firearm, the bulge of muscle a comfort. “Oh, I see. Because I’m single, I’m the one who’s gotta put on a giant suit and sweat the entire night.”
Powell chuckled, a strained, sad excuse of a sound. “Don’t forget the beard!”
If looks could kill….
His throat bobbed, smile fading. “It’s for the kids, Jane.”
Now it was just pathetic. Jane rubbed a palm over her face. She couldn’t believe this.
“Don’t make me give the ‘no Santa’ speech to my five year old.”
“This is cruel and unusual punishment. I expect compensation for this. Holiday pay. And a half. Who even gets a woman to play Santa?”
“Don’t be sexist! You’ve got a low voice anyway. Kids won’t know the difference.” Jane fumed but Powell beamed, jumping in before she could start. “I knew we could count on you.” He stepped forward as though to hug her.
Jane pointed a finger and Powell halted. “Touch me,” she said, utilizing every menacing resonance of that low register he purported, “and I will shoot you.”
Powell held up his hands and turned away. “Whatever you say, Santa.” Jane bristled. As he retreated, murmurings of who shit in her cornflakes reached her ears.
“I heard that, Rudolph!”
She hurled a pen that hit with deadly accuracy.
Jane plopped the faux-velvet bag on the floor, empty boxes and fake toys settling with a clatter that drew stares and a few muffled laughs. Various gasps of Santa! echoed from the mingling crowd—most for the sake of kids, a few others for, well, Jane wasn’t going there.
Korsak rolled his lips, fighting a smile. “Gain a little weight there?” He sipped his eggnog, eyes twinkling.
Jane poked a finger to his chest, bending close so little ears wouldn’t overhear Santa issuing errant death threats. “Laugh and you’re done.” She stood back, straightening the lopsided beard and floofing the bothersome pompom from her face. “And you’re one to talk,” she added. “Why couldn’t you be Santa? Got the belly already.”
Frost covered his mouth with a fist but the snort gave away his mirth. Korsak shot him a look, but refused to be cowed.
“Aw, I’m just teasing,” Korsak said. He slapped a hand on her shoulder, upsetting the careful collaboration of padding and straps beneath the suit. “Where’s your Christmas spirit?”
“At home. With my Blue Moon and TV,” she grumbled. The stomach padding started to slip and she grabbed it before Santa had an Atkins diet makeover. It released a tantalizing waft of mothballs and dust that caught in her throat, asking for a cough. Nose wrinkling, she started to stuff the pads into place.
Frost tilted his head, brown eyes crinkling at the corners. “You look like you’re pregnant.”
“If I was I wouldn’t be in this situation.” She cinched the belt harder than necessary to underline her statement. What she wouldn’t give to skip the annual holiday party like last year and spend it in her apartment in sweats and a tank top watching baseball reruns. She eyed the fancy dresses, the trees and candles and lights and wreaths. Took a moment to soak in the festive atmosphere, the laughter and children. Warmth. All of it was too much. Too much too soon. Especially since—
Stop it. They don’t know. It’s not their fault.
Frost gave her a look. “Here.” He set to work rearranging. “You need a more even distribution.”
“Ouch!” Jane swatted his arm, more surly than ever. “Watch the hands.”
Frost chuckled, patting a lumpy section down. “Sorry, Santa.” His face lightened with mischief as he caught her gaze. “I promise I’ve been good.”
“Don’t start with me.” She rounded on Korsak. “Take one for the team my ass. You owe me for this. I’m not working any doubles for a month. A month, you hear me?”
“Santa?” The tremulous inquiry cut off any further protests. Frost stepped away and Jane looked down to see a little boy, probably close to three or four years old. He gazed up at her in wonder, eyes round, curly hair a bit lopsided and hands clenched into fists at his side.
Jane cleared her throat and plastered on a smile half-hidden by the fake beard. “Yeah, buddy. That’s me.”
They were right. Her voice was deep enough to pass. Damn them.
Round eyes grew rounder, a smile—minus a few teeth—shone through, and then an ear-piercing squeal rent the air. Jane winced. How could something so small make a such a loud sound?
He danced in place, legs clumsy and loud before his mother swooped down and snatched him up. “Let Santa get settled, honey. He’ll be by soon.”
The woman glanced at Jane as though to confirm and Jane nodded, resigned.
“But where’s the reindeer?” he asked over his mother’s shoulder, and Jane didn’t have the heart to deny that voice and those eyes.
“They had to stay at the North Pole. Busy time of year.”
Jane watched the two disappear into the crowd, sensed Frost step up to her right.
“It’s a good thing you’re doing,” Frost said, voice somber and sincere, the teasing gone. When he looked at her, something in his eyes, a gentle understanding, a compassion, pinged on Jane’s radar. Realization stiffened her spine. He knew. Or suspected.
It only made the ache in her heart worse.
“Tess would want you to enjoy it.”
Yes, he knew. It was partly a relief, to have another soul that understood, saw why she was so much more affected than others by the loss of an “acquaintance.” Jane scanned the crowd, eyes unseeing. Perhaps the only thing worse than losing a loved one—even a love that hadn’t yet had a chance to fully bloom—was not being able to share the grief with others. Secrets had the habit of becoming double-edged swords. And after everything that happened, the accident and the funeral all those months ago, coming out felt wrong, petty and unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Maybe one day, she’d find the right time. But for now, she had Frost beside her. It was enough.
“She’d want you to be happy.”
“I know.” Jane sighed, one great billow of air to whoosh out the storm brewing inside and maybe make room for a little of the warmth so abundant. Just a little. “Let’s do this.”
So it went. She wandered the crowd, finding children and adults alike. Chatting. Posing for pictures. Being merry. Around her coworkers, no less. She swore a few didn’t even recognize her. All the better. One kid named Harry tugged on her beard hard enough to rip the elastic so she had to MacGyver it with scotch tape and staples. Powell’s kid. She’d remember that the next time he took the last of the coffee without starting a new pot.
A figure in red drew her attention. She couldn’t pinpoint what exactly caught her eye. Maybe it was the reserved attire; the dress was an elegant, deep burgundy rather than a cheery crimson, tasteful and long. Maybe the open smile as she listened to Rick talk, or dark blonde hair, left free in waves about her shoulders. Maybe the young child that clung to the slit in the dress’s side, nervous and unsure in the new environment, and the mothering hand that never seemed to lose reassuring contact.
“Who is that?”
Frost—Santa’s self-assigned helper—turned his head and followed her gaze. “Oh, her? That’s the new ME, I think. Just signed on to replace Pike.”
As she watched, the woman laughed, the sound lost amidst the piped-in music and general murmurings, and Jane found herself wishing she were closer, to appreciate such beauty.
“Pike’s being replaced and nobody told me?” Jane finally tugged her eyes away. “It’s a Christmas miracle!”
“I hear she’s a little odd, but nice. Haven’t had a chance to interact with her yet.”
Jane made a noncommittal noise and resumed her duties. The night wore on and exhaustion crept into her bones, rounded her shoulders, and with lowered defenses it became harder to ignore the pesky memories prowling her thoughts, the almosts and what-ifs that now would never be.
Frost hovered close. “You okay?” Concern. Sympathy.
Irritation simmered through her veins, but it was sluggish.
She met Frost’s gaze. “Fine.” Curt. Succinct. “Go enjoy the party. What’s left of it.”
“Jane, if you ne—”
“I’m fine. I’ll probably head out soon, anyway.”
A sigh, but Frost complied. He knew when to give her space. She appreciated it more and more as the years passed, that silent understanding that surpassed the need for words. Maybe, she thought as she eased down into a seat, he deserved some bar bonding time. Another doll—no, action figure—to join that collection of his.
“Excuse me?” Soft and hesitant.
Jane glanced up to find hopeful eyes and a polite smile, which stretched toward something more genuine as Jane rose to her feet.
“Yes. Hi.” Jane cleared her throat, for the first time that night appreciative of the beard and mustache that hid her rising blush.
It was the new ME, hazel eyes open and bright. Small crinkles webbed at the corners when Jane returned her smile. Kindness and beauty did not often go hand in hand, but somehow this woman exuded both.
“Do you have time for one more?” She indicated the child Jane had noticed before, who, finding herself the center of attention, ducked behind her mother’s legs.
“Of course,” Jane said, crouching onto one knee to be more approachable. “Santa always has time for kids.” She lowered her voice, hoping to soothe the girl’s obvious unease. “What’s your name?”
A quick peek of umber eyes and round cheeks around her mother’s dress.
“This is Tabitha.” A gentle hand ran through mouse brown hair. “She’s shy.”
Jane loosened her posture, relaxing the tension from her shoulders. “Hi, Tabitha. Do you know who I am?”
A nod. Slight, but definitive. Well, that was something.
“Say hi to Santa, honey.” Jane heard the quiet strain that laced her tone, skirting the edge of a plea. A mother concerned about a child’s social acclimation. Couldn’t have that. Not every child liked Santa, after all.
Jane spotted a ball of fluff clutched beneath an elbow. “What’cha got there?”
Tabitha blinked, tucking the stuffed animal closer to her body. No dice.
“I’m sorry,” the mother began, but Jane raised a hand.
“No need to apologize.” Jane rocked back on her heels, imagined she looked rather ridiculous with the large stomach and red suit, but didn’t care. “The world can be a scary place. Especially when surrounded by strangers we don’t know anything about. Nothing wrong with self-preservation.” That hits a little close to home.
A head tilt and a knowing quirk of lips said the woman thought so as well. “You sound like you have one of your own.”
Jane rose to her feet. “Oh, no.” She pulled at the scratchy collar. “Just a nephew. And lots of second cousins. I’m Italian. Big families are a part of life.”
Jane chuckled at the notion, a throaty kind of sound, and something flickered in the woman’s eyes before she blinked and tugged Tabitha closer, gave her a shoulder squeeze of encouragement. A tension in the woman’s posture loosened a hair, as though only just now letting down her guard enough to relax. Her smiled bloomed, full and effervescent for the first time, and Jane’s breath caught.
Observant child she was, Tabitha noticed the shift. Perhaps not consciously, but a dart of the eyes up to check her mom’s smiling face, and little fists loosened their tight hold on silk. She looked to Jane with a searching expression, and in that moment, that singular glance, despite darker eyes and sharper features, the girl was the spitting image of her mother.
Children could be such strange and marvelous creatures.
The stuffed animal came out to play once more—this time far enough to discern its general shape.
“A turtle?” Jane asked, going on instinct and raising her eyebrows.
Cautious blinks and a wavering step forward later, and Tabitha held the toy out, as if to say, no, look.
The woman gasped, hand covering her mouth.
While Tabitha’s voice was soft, the tone was one of correction, and Jane couldn’t hold back her smile.
“Oh, right. Tortoise. What was I thinking?”
“It’s bass.” Her enunciation was remarkable. For a wild moment, Jane thought the girl was confusing her reptiles, before she realized Bass was a name.
“He’s sweet.” Most kids chose puppies or kitties, but hey, whatever floated her boat.
A heavy sniff drew Jane’s attention up, only to find the mother’s eyes glistening with unshed tears, mouth quivering as she kept emotion at bay. Hot panic swooped through Jane’s abdomen, swift and fierce. Jesus. Another sniffle. Oh God, don’t cry. What’d I do? Jane raised her hands, at a loss, but the woman spoke up before she could.
“She hasn’t spoken since we moved. I was so afraid…” She shook her head, thumbs rubbing beneath her eyelids with a wet laugh. “Sorry. It’s just such a relief.”
Realization dawned—bringing a new appreciation for the mother’s earlier distress—and with it a whirl of competing emotions: curiosity, sympathy, sorrow, but most prominent a warmth that started small and spread through her chest, light and fulfilling. A desire to help and comfort like she hadn’t felt before. It was such a…a happy feeling.
“No problem,” Jane said, a bit lost and overwhelmed herself. Crying women were not her forte.
Tabitha eyed her suit from head to toe, giving particular scrutiny to the fake beard and mustache. “Are you really Santa Claus?”
Jane knelt once more, trying to formulate a response. A glance to the mother provided no help—she had a hand clutched to her chest. “Ah, yeah. The real deal. Anything you want for Christmas?”
Tabitha approached and poked at her gloves, then scratched a nail along the faux-velvet of her arm. Again the perusal of her face—this time less cautious and more discerning.
“Your eyebrows are black.”
“That’s what happens when you get old,” she replied, not missing a beat. “Not everything goes white at the same time.”
That earned her a dubious frown.
“Where are your wrinkles?”
Jane sank into a dramatic whisper, as though it were a secret. “I have a really good moisturizing regimen.”
That seemed to clear up any further doubts. Tabitha’s face smoothed, frown replaced with a cautious smile—so hopeful and innocent.
Oh God. Jane’s heart clenched, the ache sharp and sweet.
“Mom uses lots of creams,” Tabitha admitted with a nod.
“Good for her. Maybe she’ll have skin as good as mine when she’s my age.” Jane cleared her throat and shifted her weight off her bad knee, acutely aware of the woman listening to their conversation. “So. Any requests? Christmas is just a few days away.”
Tabitha glanced up at her mother, who nodded in encouragement.
To Jane’s surprised, Tabitha leaned forward and wrapped her in a hug, small arms around her neck in a tight squeeze. Caught off guard, Jane floundered for a moment before tentatively wrapping an arm around the girl’s waist.
Tabitha took a deep breath, lungs inflating beneath Jane’s snug grip.
“I want Mom to be happy.”
The whisper, soft and simple, broke something inside. Left a fissure that ached and pulsed and asked for tears, but Jane blinked them away. Throat tight, she swallowed, and swallowed again to clear the lump away.
She pulled back and met Tabitha’s eyes, putting every ounce of conviction into the connection.
“I’ll do everything in my power.” Her voice said trust me. Said I know and you’re safe and I promise.
Tabitha’s smile stretched, a secret just between them, and Jane lost her mental footing. Just like her mother.
Jane rose to her feet, the mother’s expression effusive and grateful and those eyes. Her knees faltered. Humility was not a foreign concept to Jane, but this level of appreciation was a novel experience. Left her winded and unsure.
“Thank you.” The earnestness made Jane bashful, and she glanced down at Tabitha.
“She’s special. Take care of her.”
The mother closed her eyes in a slow blink and nodded, at a loss for words.
“Mom.” The muttered word and a tugging at the woman’s dress drew their attention. Tabitha pointed towards the entrance doors, where a young woman clad in coat, boots, and beanie waved half-heartedly.
The disruption jolted Jane into the present. Jovial laughter, music, and murmurings filtered into her awareness once more. The clink of flutes and shuffle of idle shoes now seemed loud and invasive.
The woman turned to Jane, apology in her eyes, and her heart sank in resignation. “I’m sorry. That’s the sitter.” She took a half step back and paused, body language the definition of torn. “We’ve got to go.”
“Of course.” Jane nodded, tossed the pompom from her eyes, and offered a smile, this one more formal. “Have a good evening. You too, Tabitha.”
The woman looked like she wanted to say more, but the persistent tugging of her child eventually persuaded her to turn.
“Bye Tabitha,” Jane murmured, watching them leave.
Jane took a deep breath, held it, and released it in one long, slow exhale. Well. Gathering her sack of “presents,” she found a vacated chair and sank into it, needing time to process. Time to sort and categorize the whirlwind of unnamed emotions swirling in her gut. That was… She shook her head. She didn’t know what that was.
Frost waved her over from the left corner of the room, but Jane raised a hand to decline. She felt like being alone right now.
The woman, the new ME—Jane realized she’d never caught her name. Shame. But the woman wasn’t what she expected when she pictured a replacement for Pike. And her daughter…
I want Mom to be happy.
One thing was certain: Jane had a promise to keep, and now she just had to figure out how.
Rapid footfalls drew her gaze up, and Jane startled at the now familiar approaching face.
“I just have a second,” she said, straightening the olive green beanie on her head. “Tabitha’s with Sharon, but I couldn’t just leave without…”
Jane rose from her seat. “Ma’am—”
“Maura,” she corrected, hands falling to her sides with a released breath, like finally saying it was a relief. “My name is Maura.”
“Maura.” Jane let the name linger on her tongue. “You don’t have to thank me again. I was just doing my job.”
Maura’s smile said otherwise. “She hasn’t been adjusting well. Ever since her father passed—”
“I’m sorry,” Jane murmured.
Maura nodded and took the sympathy in stride. Like it was routine, the act-and-react needed to keep the conversation moving. “—And now with the move… I’ve been worried. But then she talks to you, and it’s so wonderful.” She let out a sigh, and Jane didn’t know what she was expected to say, so she said nothing. Lost, unsure.
Maura tilted her head. “What did she ask for?”
Her heart panged and she searched for a suitable evasion. “Santa can’t reveal secrets.”
Maura stepped closer with intent. “Yes, he can.”
Oh. The pronoun was jarring, and Jane realized her voice was a little too good of a disguise. Her heart sank, realizing what Maura thought, what Maura might want, but not…not with her.
“Ah…” Jane scratched under the beard, wiped at an irritating trickle of sweat. “Listen, Maura…”
A frown furrowed between smooth brows, and Jane wanted nothing more than to soothe it. But it wasn’t her place. And it certainly wouldn’t be what Maura wanted.
“I’m not—” She hesitated. There were so many directions she could take that sentence.
Maura closed the distance between them and raised her hands to the fake beard, eyes asking permission.
Swallowing, Jane dipped her head in a nod.
The reveal was slow. The itchy drag of whiskers across her lips and chin, the stretch of elastic at her ears. Then it was just Jane, bare and open for inspection. She attempted a smile.
Not what you were expecting, huh?
If Maura was surprised, she didn’t show it. Neither did she try to widen the distance between them. Instead, hazel eyes perused her face, softening when they encountered a sharp jawline, high cheekbones, and, at last, the quirk of a self-conscious smile.
“Allow me to thank you properly, Officer…” she trailed off, expectant.
“Detective,” Jane supplied, more aware than ever of the rasp of her voice. “Rizzoli. Jane Rizzoli.”
“Jane.” Maura said it quiet, soft, and…something else. Something Jane didn’t know how to interpret.
“Do you like coffee, Jane?”
Jane blinked, taken aback. “I—yeah. Yes. Don’t think there’s a detective who doesn’t.” She let out a nervous chuckle and watched hazel eyes crinkle into a smile.
Maura released the beard, and it settled beneath her jaw, forgotten.
“Monday is my first day. I could swing by around eight.”
“Oka—” It took a moment for the insinuation to sink in. When it did, her organs lurched into chaos, face on fire. “Oh. What—I mean, I couldn’t—”
“Let me thank you. Please?” A hand on her forearm, gentle but firm. Beseeching. “Just a coffee. To start.”
Jane thought of promises and tears. Of past heartache and new potential. For once, maybe it wasn’t a bad thing to allow oneself to want, to try again. Jane ducked her head, blinked at clunky boots and fur-lined coats, and strengthened her resolve as she met soft hazel eyes.
“Whatever makes you happy.”