Authors: Corrina Lawson
Tags: #Multicultural;law enforcement heroes;superhero romance;Christmas stories
Christmas can be murder on a relationship that's on the rocks.
The Phoenix Institute, Book 3.5
As Christmas approaches in crumbling Charlton City, Detective Aloysius James and his partner, Noir, are at a crossroads. Figuring out how to reconcile their careers with their relationship is harder than catching the bad guys.
Now that Noir has learned to control her invisibility and is making a name for herself among the city's artist collective, Al senses there's something she's keeping from him. And he doesn't know how long they can remain partners. Or even lovers.
Noir isn't sure how Al would take it if he knew how deeply he has touched her artistic soul, or how he could react if he saw the secret drawings that have helped heal the wounds of her past.
When a murder lands them on opposite sidesâAl ready to arrest a suspect Noir insists in innocentâthey're going to need to unwrap all the ghosts of their pasts to make this Christmas the first of many. Or it could be their last.
Warning: Contains explicit, desperate make-up sex. Also, pie.
Ghosts of Christmas Past
For Liv and Leigh, as the story would be poorer without them.
Al wiped away a tear caused by the onions he was chopping and dumped the pieces into the simmering pot on the stove. He shoved his hands in the sink to wash off the stink, and then stirred the chili to give him something to do as he watched Noir talk on the phone in the living room.
The conversation with her mother was not going well. Noir always paced in a perfect square when she was nervous. He suspected that square unconsciously matched the dimensions of the room where she'd been held captive for years.
He never, ever mentioned that to her.
Al tasted the chili and nearly spit the sauce back out. His attempt at cooking was going as badly as her phone call. Wrong amount of something. He couldn't seem to do this domestic thing right.
Such a simple idea. Live with Noir. Be with Noir. No, wait, Lucy. He needed to remember to call her
. Anyway, Lucy had wanted to stay in the city with him after recovering her memories and even after the reunion with her family.
Al wasn't going to argue with that, even as he wondered if he was being selfish. Lucy had been through hell, been medically tortured for almost six years, and still had holes in her memory. He knew the psych drill. She should have taken time to recover, not jump into a new relationship.
But she'd made it clear from the start that she wanted him. Perhaps a better man would have turned her away. He couldn't, especially not when her courage had shone through even before she regained her memories.
Her primary thought after escaping from her captors had been to save others from the same fate. He might be the cop but she was the hero.
But from the uncertainty in her voice right now, she was confused about the next steps in her life. At first, she'd just helped (quietly, off the books) with his cases. She'd liked being able to do some good after so much time as a victim, and he'd enjoyed having a partner he could fully trust for the first time.
But then she'd joined a local artists' group a couple of months ago. She spent a lot of time at their warehouse headquarters now.
He missed her.
Shove it, Al, he told himself.
Al cracked the small kitchen window over his sink to let in fresh air. As fresh as it could be anyway, given they lived right in the middle of downtown Charlton City, aka the Double C. He could hear car horns blare from here. So far, no sirens. Good, maybe he'd be able to salvage the chili before he went to the precinct.
Noir wandered into the kitchen and set the phone on the counter with a sigh.
He still stared in appreciation when she walked into a room. When they'd first met, she'd been wrapped in black to cover the fact she was
invisible. He'd liked her voice, smart and sarcastic, and, he admitted, the way the clothes hugged her body.
But seeing her actual face for the first time, that wavy brunette hair, the hazel eyes, the dimpled chin, and the smile she had just for him, that had been special.
Of course, he'd already been in love with her.
“They want me home for Christmas. Mom was mad that I didn't say yes right away.”
“Ah. That.” Her parents still saw her as their teenage runaway, not a grown woman. “See it from her side. This is the first Christmas since you've been found. They must be thrilled to be able to have a real holiday again.”
He liked the sound of that. But Christmas? “Is Christmas that close?”
“Two weeks. You haven't noticed all the stuff in the stores?”
“Uh, not really.” He stirred the chili some more.
“You don't really do Christmas, do you?”
“Not for a long time.” Christmas was another workday and an unpleasant one, as holiday stress got to everyone.
“We should get a tree, Al.”
“Sure, okay. That sounds good.” Christmas. Huh. That meant presents. He better get on that. He stirred the chili some more, not sure what to say next.
She wrapped her arms around him from behind. “You have to take a day off and relax sometime.”
“I thought we managed to relax damn well in bed last night.”
“I'm not talking about sex.”
Yeah, he knew that. He knew what she meant. Intimacy. He was about as good at that as he was at making chili. He had a lot in common with Noir. But Lucy? She was a nice white girl from the suburbs. He wasn't sure they had much in common.
“Dinner smells good,” she said.
“That's the only good thing about it.”
“It's nice of you to cook.”
“This is my uncle's chili recipe. He makes it for the guys in the firehouse. Maybe you can tell me what's missing.”
He offered her a taste on the edge of the wooden spoon. She tentatively flicked out her tongue over it and that gave him images not related to food at all. She wrinkled her nose. Yep, it was definitely awful.
“Needs more tomato,” she offered.
Unable to resist, he bent his neck and kissed her. All resistance melted as he pulled her close, the soft, honey scent of her filling his soul.
She drew back and put her head on his shoulder.
“Right, I should close the curtains,” he said.
She laughed, a sound of joy so pure it made his heart ache. “I could care less about who sees us.”
He brushed her hair back and kissed where her shoulder met her neck, caressing it with his tongue. She pulled away from him again. He got the right message this time.
“Still stuck on the phone call?” Family. Always a mood killer. But working through this was part of her recovery. Listen and support. He knew that part of the psych drill too.
“I don't seem to know what to do with them lately, even though I've visited at least twice a month sinceâ¦”
He stroked her back. She never liked finishing that sentence. “Since you regained most of your memories of being Lucy, you mean.”
She entwined their hands. Restoring all those lost memories had required the help of a trained telepath. They were damn lucky to have found one in Beth Nakamora.
The bonus to remembering everything, including all those horrible things in her captivity, had been learning how to switch her invisibility on and off. Noir claimed dealing with that pain all over again had been worth learning the control.
He wondered. But he didn't push.
Listen and support.
That had been the mantra Beth gave to him as Noir's boyfriend.
“We're throwing a huge holiday party at the artists' collective. I want to be there. And I want to stay here in the Double C and spend Christmas with you.”
For that statement alone, he'd give her the world. Yet what if his world was too small for her? All he had was this small apartment and a job that never gave him much time for a private life. She had the talent to go places, and she had so much time to make up.
He caressed her neck with his thumb. “I love you.”
God, I love you, Noir.
But Lucy might well decide that while he was part of her present, he wasn't her future. He had to face the possibility that their relationship was simply a step in Lucy's recovery.
“Yes, we'll get a tree, but whether it's your parents' house or the artists' party, I can't go with you. I'll be on duty.”
She pushed his hand away. “You could take time off if you wanted. I'm not sure you do.”
“What? That's crazy.”
“Is it? I mean, you want the sexâ
want the sexâbut you don't seem to want much else out of this. Okay, sometimes you want help with a case.”
Crap, this was going to be a mess now, wasn't it? He turned off the stove. The chili was beyond saving, anyway.
“I have changed my life for you.”
“Have you really?”
“Just take a look around.”
Noir walked out of the kitchen and flopped down on the couch in their living area. Since she moved in, he'd tried to make it more homey and less like the residence of a neglectful and careless tenant. A shrink would conclude he really lived at work, and they'd be right.
Still, he'd bought curtains, added a new television and set aside a corner of the room, right near the window, as Noir's makeshift studio where she could draw to her heart's content.
The couch, though, he'd held on to that and the matching chair, despite the fact they were threadbare. He'd made love to Noir first in that chair. Sentimental idiot, he decided. Damn straight.
“You know what my job means to me. I also thought maybe you needed some space,” he said.
“To sort out stuff. Beth said you'd recover bit by bit.” He followed her out to the living room and picked up her sketchbook to see her latest work. “And time for this, I suppose. What have you been working on?”
She snatched the sketchbook from him and tucked it possessively under her arm.
“I thought you wanted me to be interested in your work.”
“I do but the sketches in there aren't done.”
“Ah.” He sat down in his favorite chair. “I just don't know what you want me to say or do here.”
“Say you want to spend Christmas with me, even if you can't.”
“Noir, I want to spend every second of every day with you.”
No answering smile. Oh hell.
“You just called me Noir. Not Lucy.”
“Habit?” Great, he'd walked into a brand-new minefield.
“I don'tâ¦I don't know.”
He took her hands. “What do you want?”
She shook her head. “Iâ¦I'm not sure. I love working with you. But I love what I'm doing with my art too. It's what I've wanted all my life.”
“That's great. But you say I'm not here often enough. Sometimes you're there late and not around here either.”
“I know. But, Al, I worked your cases with you as Noir. You haven't made any effort to see what's important to me as Lucy. When's the last time you took a day off?”
“I had a couple of weeks off when my arm was broken.”
“You took two days for that and went back to work at the precinct on the third day.”
“Oh. Right. I forgot.”
“Can you remember your last real day off?”
He shook his head. “That's bad, right?”
“It's kinda heroic, in a way. I know that if you don't go in, things fall apart. The Double C needs its Captain Fixit.”
She finally smiled. He'd grown used to the Fixit nickname, but only after she'd started using it.
“But it's like you don't know what to do when it's just us.”
I know exactly what to do with you, he thought, and it involved whipped cream and nakedness. He decided that wasn't helpful. “Like I said, I thought you needed quiet space to sort out stuff.”
“Space and keeping me at a distance aren't the same thing.”
“I guess not.” Every time he tried a life outside work, it went south. He was
at being Fixit. At home? Failed chili.
Noir stood and walked over to the window to watch the snow falling. Snow. Damn. It always covered outdoor crime scenes. Made investigations even more difficult. It covered problems too, like the broken sidewalks and the garbage strewn in the abandoned lots.
Like his and Noir's sex life covered over their issues.
“What about your life? What happens when you finally settle on a plan?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You're talented enough to go to that fancy art school that your parents offered to pay for. You're talented enough to go look for paying artist work. Instead, you hang around at that transient-artist place. Where do you go after that? What's next?”
“I'm doing work I love.”
“But how long will you be there? You can't tell me you're one hundred percent sure that place is where you want to be for the rest of your life.”
She threw her hands in the air. “Who the hell is sure what they want to do for the rest of their life?”
“I am.” He stuffed his hands into his pockets.
The phone rang.
“I have to get this.”
She turned her back to him. “Yeah, you do. Because that's the one big commitment you're willing to make. You're such a dumbass, Al.”
Yeah, maybe so. He picked up the phone. “Captain James.”
“Got a murder, Captain.”