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Chapter 1

                Jackson Crow had no idea why the house held such a fascination for him. History, yes. The very walls of the house were imbued with history.

 

                Thomas Jefferson had only been a guest here; while he had purchased the home and supervised the building of it, he had done so for a favorite niece. But there was a wonderful painting of him sitting in the parlor by the great hearth that now hung above it; it was a copy of the original, which was now in the National Gallery. A rocking chair—probably not the same one in which Jefferson had been seated—remained to the side of the great stone hearth where the painting hung above. The mantle, like so much else, had been adorned with holly and characters from a nativity scene on the one end, and cheerful little creatures from current animation studios as well. 

                The combo made it all the more charming. The house was to be loved for the past and the present. It appealed to the adult and to the child, and perhaps to the child that lay somewhere within everyone.  The house itself had been a tavern; there was a pocket door that stretched from front to back in the parlor, which had allowed the original family to close off a private area at most times—and expand the tavern when it was booming with trade. The colonnaded front door led into the public side of the parlor, while stairs to the left and rear led to private rooms upstairs. Now, the “private” area was split into a small parlor, a dining room, and a kitchen, though the old kitchen and smokehouses out back had been turned into “extra” rooms, both with desks and convertible sofas for friends or family who came to stay. 

                The house had been built of brick and wood, and the old wood had been lovingly tended. It was in amazing repair despite its age. 

                The Newton family—before heading off to Germany—had seen to it that a fully decorated Christmas tree had been left for them next to the counter that remained which was once the bar when the house had done double duty as a tavern.

                 Jackson stood just inside the doorway with Angela at his side, taking in the view at the entry. To the

right, the old bar and the chair where Jefferson had sat by the fire, to the left, the open plan of the parlor, dining room, and new kitchen. 

                He was startled when he felt Angela’s hands on his shoulders, swinging him around. There was amusement in her eyes—they were sky-blue and glittering. She stood about five-eight, slim, shapely, and athletic, but her sun-and-honey hair and those eyes made her appear to be very feminine and delicate—and far too many an opponent had underestimated her. She could compete on a shooting range with any man, and while an adversary might have size and muscle-power against her in a physical altercation, she had taken and excelled in many forms of marital arts. 

 

                It was always wrong to underestimate Angela. He never made that mistake. But she came up on her toes, kissing him. A light kiss, of course, they had just entered the house. But it wasn’t so light; it became deep and passionate until they both pulled away a little breathless. 

                “It’s ours, but the door is still open,” he murmured.

                “Mistletoe,” she said. 

                “Ah! Nice!” He looked down into her eyes and said softly, “Thank you.”

                “The kiss was that good?”

                He laughed softly. “All your kisses are that good. But thank you for indulging me in this. It’s an amazing gift. I can’t say it’s the best gift ever—that would be you.”

                “Hm,” she teased. “Yes, keep sucking up—I love it. But, in truth, my love, I have a better gift for you.”

                “Oh?”

                She shook her head. “You don’t get it until Christmas Eve. I’ll let you wake up and enjoy it on Christmas day, but you don’t get it yet.”

                “You’re a tease.”

                “Hey, you got one new toy already. Play with the house,” she told him sternly. “By the way—”

                “Yes?”

                “And,” she added, “you’re blocking the door.”

                He moved quickly, pulling her around to enjoy her first view of the house. She smiled and nodded. “It’s great. It’s beautiful, they put up a Christmas tree. I’m going to love it, I’m certain. But you can’t love it too much. I’m sorry, ninety-plus miles is just too much of a commute.”

                “No, but for now anyway, let’s explore, get our suitcases in . . . enjoy.”

                “What’s upstairs?” she asked. “We didn’t go up there for the wedding.”

                “Uh, the usual. Bedrooms.”

                “Ah.”

                “Four bedrooms upstairs and two old outbuildings have pull-out sofas. We can have lots of people out here.”

                She gave him a weak smile. He was sure she was thinking, If they’d come.

                “I’ll get the bags. Want to explore the kitchen? Hey, you know, it’s not that neither of us can’t, but we never cook anymore,” he called as he started out the front door. “We could cook. The kitchen is new and up to date. Austin and Julia did love the place, and they’re just the kind of people who keep things up.”  He headed out to the arced drive; the charming firepit was beneath a log enclosure with a semicircular bench beneath it, sweeping around the pit. No fire burned at this moment, but Jackson could imagine how nice it would be if there was a blaze going. 

                As he reached the car, he thought he heard a scurrying in the bushes that backed up behind the pit and to the other side of the house. 

                The nearest neighbors were about a mile, give or take, to either side of the house. The rear of the house backed up to a forested region. Hilly, beautiful. They’d see deer out in the snow here, he was certain. And he’d received warnings there could be bears in the area; he shouldn’t pick fights with them. 

                  Of course, the last thing he’d thought of was trying to pick a fight with a bear. But bears weren’t something you dealt with often in big-city apartment living. 

                At the trunk of the car he found himself pausing, looking back at the house. He wasn’t sure what it was that had entranced him so much as a kid, and of course, he’d barely been there an hour or so while his parents looked it over. 

                Then he’d been with Adam Harrison, seen the brochure, heard about the family’s move to Germany, and the fact the house was for sale. He couldn’t say he’d known he had to come; he had just felt the tug of the fascination the house held for him. Last year at the wedding brought those feelings back.

                Thomas Jefferson!

                He’d always admired the man, as a president, as a founding father. Yes, the man had owned slaves, but he’d also been the one to lead the effort to criminalize the international slave trade which was passed by congress in 1807. So, he hadn’t been a totally modern man; he’d worried about his darker brother, wanting emancipation that would allow for education and a move into the general population. He worried that slaves—with nowhere to go—would suffer more if they were left to the elements with nothing. He was, for the time and circumstances into which he was born, aware of human suffering. Then again, he owned several plantations. He did, however, put forth ideas and plans for a day when slaves would be free, paid workers rather than property, and free to leave a plantation if they chose to do so. 

                He was suspected, too, of having had a long-term affair with Sally Hemings, after the death of his wife, Martha. Sally was of mixed race and a slave. If he remembered right, DNA testing had proven her children had also been his children—and their children’s children and their children went on to see a day when abolition was fully achieved—if not exactly in the way Jefferson had imagined.

                 Politics—a crazy game. A game he never wanted to play.  But he sure loved the history of certain politicians, men who saw beyond the general social sentiment of the day and did so with passion and purpose. And the man had written the Declaration of Independence. And to Jackson, it was simply a beautifully drafted document. 

                Something scurried in the brush again. 

                Jackson looked to the bushes and trees; there didn’t appear to be anything there. Of course, as he knew and had been duly warned, there were far more creatures out here in the rich forested area between the cities of the Virginia coast and the mountains and valley that made up her western side. 

                Someone who had . . . stayed behind after death? After all, the house dated back well over two hundred years. The passage of time was always filled with history that contained both the good—and the bad.   He had an odd feeling, though. He didn’t think the scurrying noise was being caused by a curious ghost—or a curious raccoon. 

                His Glock was holstered at his back waistband—as always. Angela was armed as well—as always. Their line of work was known to draw out a few of the crazies. 

                He headed toward the house with their bags. As he did, he realized he’d been obsessed with coming here—when he hadn’t tuned out the thoughts as he’d been working. 

                He wasn’t particularly happy with himself. 

                He didn’t know what Angela wanted for Christmas. Smiling, he was well aware she just wasn’t a “material girl.” She loved what they did for a living—working with the Krewe of Hunters. But that, of course, focused on the very bad. There was tremendous satisfaction when the right agents handled the right case—or stumbled on to it—and lives were saved, justice achieved, and some of their—well, different—victims and witnesses found a way to move on to what he believed had to be a world of peace where pain no longer existed. 

                But . . . 

She was here. With him. And he knew some of their friends would be coming on Christmas day. In fact, the McFadden brothers and their wives would then stay for the night. Special Agents McFadden, McFadden, and McFadden were Virginians. They were excited about returning to the house. 

                Still . . . 

                Angela was the most amazing wife. Co-worker. Lover. Friend.

                And he wasn’t the most amazing husband, co-worker, lover, or friend. He didn’t even know what his wife wanted—really wanted—for Christmas.

                Determined to find out, he lifted the bags and returned to the house.

                                                                                                             *

                “Angela?”

                Jackson was in the hallway. She had been in the upstairs hallway, choosing a room. 

                They were all enchanting. But she had found one she liked the best. It was the front bedroom on the left side of the house and looked out over the front yard, the fire pit and the charming little enclave that halfway circled it, and the road that stretched out to the house from the main highway.

                The fireplace had been well-crafted just over the one downstairs, the one chimney serving both. A handmade rug lay before the fireplace and the marble mantle above had been decorated for Christmas as well. There was a little tree on one side, and a gentle angel, arms and wings opened wide in a welcoming stance, on the other. A crocheted runner ran between them, topped again with bits of holly. Two chairs sat before the fireplace, not rocking chairs, but big, plush chairs in a dark crimson upholstery that sat angled toward the fire and each other. 

                She loved the little area. Just the fire and a place for two. 

                “Angela?” Jackson called again. 

                “In here.”

                “I don’t think this was the master bedroom,” he began as he walked in, toting their bags. Then he

paused and said, “Hey, the way they left this for us is amazing. Well, they left it all set up for Christmas and guests. Adam hired a crew to come in and launder linens and drapes, clean it to the very last T. But I’m right— they left it charming and amazing.”

                “They did leave it charming and amazing. And Adam Harrison always knows how to add the perfect touch for little gifts, big gifts, and life. It is all charming and amazing. And I especially love this room.”

                “Not the master, but yeah. I got it. Yes, this is it, right, this is us—our bedroom.”

                “If you agree. We always discuss decisions, right? Well, you did want my approval. I’m not sure how much we discussed coming here.”

                He looked so crestfallen that she laughed softly and hurried to him. “It’s okay.”

                “I really thought you would love it.”

                “I do.”

                He still seemed very serious. 

                “What?” she asked. 

                “What do you want for Christmas?” he asked her. 

                “Nothing. I have everything I want.”

                “Ah, come on. That’s a cliché.”

                “Oh, I’m a cliché, am I?” Angela demanded, trying not to grin.

 

                “Not you—that pat answer.”

                “But I’m serious. There really isn’t anything. I go to work every day doing something I consider important—and I make a living at it—we make a living at it. I live with you—wait, yeah, I’m married to you— and you’re . . .”

                 “Perfect?” he asked. 

                 “Oh, lord, no!” she returned, grinning. “But far better than perfect. You’re imperfect, but you love me

and others for being not perfect. And most important, you love me for who I am and respect all that means so much in life to me, too.” 

               He was silent, staring back at her, and then he gently touched a stray lock of her hair, gently smoothing it back. 

 “I am a lucky man,” he said. 

                “Yeah, you are,” she teased. He grinned and kissed her lightly on the lips and started to move away. He returned quickly and drew her back into his arms. “This is our room, right?”

                 “Right.”

                “Well then . . .” 

                He kissed her again and this time his kiss was deep and passionate. She quickly discovered why he wanted to make sure they had chosen this room.  Their Glocks were put aside—carefully, and then, here, there, and everywhere, between kisses and touches, clothes began flying. It was the holiday season; they were together and alone in a new and incredible place they just might soon call their own. 

                 The handsome quilt went flying from the bed along with the soft comforter beneath it. They fell together, disentangling themselves from the last vestiges of clothing. Breathless words were whispered between them.

                “So beautiful, Angela.”

                “There . . . yes, a kiss there.”

                “And that touch . . . oh, I . . .”

                “I love you.”

                “I love you . . .”

                 Time waned on, and at last, replete, spent, and musing she did have it all—she loved Jackson with

everything within her, and that kind of love really was the best Christmas present ever—she lay in his arms with other thoughts coming to her mind. 

                A bit late. 

                “You did lock the door?” Angela asked. 

                “Seriously?” he whispered against her throat. “I’m the field director for a renowned unit of the FBI, and you want to know if I locked the door?”

                “Yes, seriously,” she said, curling against his naked chest and feeling the beat of his heart.

                “I think so,” he said. 

                “What?” she pushed up against him. 

                “Yes, I locked the door,” he said, grinning.

 

                “And we’re alone,” she murmured happily, “in this magical, incredible place?” 

                He didn’t reply. He was still, and she realized he was staring at the ceiling, thoughtful, frowning.  “No one else has the keys to the house,” he said. “Locks re-keyed—per the owner and Adam. And I came in and locked the door. I lock the door automatically.”

                “What’s wrong?” Angela asked. 

                “I don’t know,” he murmured, but he leapt up and quickly began dressing; she did the same. 

                “Peeping Tom ghosts?”

                He glanced her way, buttoning buttons. “Every old house in the world has a ghost story—except this one. No one died here violently. The past owners had incredibly long lives. The family is even buried at the charming little church with the amazing choir I told you about.”

                “So, what’s wrong?” she demanded, belting her jeans and sliding her holster and Glock into place at the small of her back.

                 He looked at her and shook his head. “Raccoons?” he asked. “I don’t know. I saw something. I heard

something, and it was nothing, and now . . .”

                “Now?”

                “It’s bugging the hell out of me.”

                He headed out of the room and she hurried after him. “Hey! Wait for me. If we’re battling killer raccoons for Christmas, I have to know what we’re up against.”  She thought she heard him laughing as she followed him.  

                She wasn’t sure. 

                And she was a little bit worried. 

                 Jackson was solid, determined, logical, able to respond in a second, judicial, fair, just . . . able to weigh so very much in his mind.

                But he felt he’d been called here.

                She ran after him quickly.

                Along with his other accomplishments, he could just about move with the speed of light.

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