DISCLAIMER: Women's Murder Club and its characters are the property of James Patterson, 20th Century Fox Television and ABC. No infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
By Misty Flores
Juggling a miniature Christmas tree, three packaged presents, and a plate of (badly)baked Christmas cookies, Cindy Thomas ignored the bewildered glances of San Francisco's finest morgue technicians to aim a sunny smile toward the three women standing over a dead body.
Her purse fell from her shoulder to her elbow, throwing her balance, and Cindy scratched her cheek on the needles of the little tree as she tried to right herself. "Ow."
"Tell me she didn't bring food into the morgue." That had to be Jill.
"Food and a tree," she heard a no-nonsense Claire twitter. "She's a regular St. Nick."
Strong, slender fingers grabbed hold of her forearm, and eyes moving from a familiar leather jacket up to disgruntled chocolate orbs, Cindy flashed her most innocent smile.
"Presents?" Lindsay Boxer asked, in a tone that suggested that Cindy may as well have kicked a puppy.
"What?" Cindy straightened herself, flushing as she righted herself, and Lindsay's hand moved down. "Just because we're working on Christmas Eve doesn't mean we can't ... be... festive about it."
"Oh, I feel festive," Claire drawled, right before she pulled what appeared to be a stomach from the body and plopped it on the scale with a sickening squelch.
At the noise, Jill jumped, eyes shutting tightly, palor turning greener as a result. "Yeah, it's a regular Dicken's Christmas Carol in here."
"Well, we've certainly got our personal set of Scrooges," Cindy grumbled, holding tightly to her cookies and presents and tree. Sighing, she arched her neck up to glance at her own personal Superwoman. "Something tells me you're not going to land on my side in all this."
"Presents?" was all Lindsay repeated, fingers picking through the packages in Cindy's arms. "No one said anything to her about the presents?!" she barked, throwing a panicked glance to Jill.
Despite the sickly pale expression on Jill's face, a regular occurrence around the dead bodies, the suddenly single ADA managed an amused smile from behind the cloth pressed to her face. "Lindsay doesn't like presents," she announced to Cindy.
"What?! Who doesn't like presents!?"
"It kicks in her Catholic guilt," Claire explained more thoroughly, diving right back into Mr. Joe Somebody's open chest cavity. "And she has to reciprocate. Nice tree, by the way. That for me?"
"I meant to tell you," Jill continued, the color returning to her face now that she had Cindy's awkward situation to focus on. "But then... the dead guy happened."
"I'm so not surprised," Cindy remarked, and received a deadly Lindsay glare and a shove against her shoulder as a result. "So what - our club is a group of Scrooges? I'm friends with a bunch of Scrooges?!"
"Hey! I am not a Scrooge!" Hands on her hip, Lindsay turned on her booted heel. "I'll have you know, Martha has a stocking."
"Your dog has a stocking?" Claire inquired.
"Oh, good," Cindy chirped. "Because I got her something, I couldn't carry it though-"
"You got my DOG a present?!" Lindsay looked affronted at the very idea.
"Oh relax," Cindy grumbled. "It's not a doggie Santa Suit or anything inhumane. It's just a huge bone. With a bow on it."
"Aww." Jill grinned cheekily.
"Oh, shut up," Lindsay barked, and turned back to the body. "You don't have a cat or anything I have to worry about, do you?"
"Only if you feel like getting Ruby my goldfish some frozen brine shrimp," Cindy grinned, meeting Lindsay's eyes for half a second before placing her pile of items on a nearby chair. "Where do you want the tree, Claire?"
"Right in my office next to the big paper mache ashtray." Claire paused, momentarily distracted by the thought of the orange monstrosity. "I think I might have a talk with that teacher about going a little more contemporary with these home ec projects. Why couldn't they have stuck with the usual clothespin angel?"
"An angel made from clothespins?"
"Hey, I watch Martha Stewart," Claire shot back at Jill.
"So is it an affront to the dead guy if I pass these out now?" Cindy asked, motioning to her packaged items.
"Yes," Lindsay sniffed, and Cindy rolled her eyes, secure in her own warm Christmas cheer to ignore the decidedly frosty wind being sent from the Inspector's direction. "There is a murder."
"Oh there's always a murder," Jill dismissed her. "Wha'd you get me? Not that I'm encouraging this whole 'Charlie Brown Meaning-of-Christmas' thing. I just like free stuff."
"Merry Christmas," Cindy responded dryly, smiling in spite of herself as she handed Jill her package, which her friend took with greedily excited hands.
"Thank you very much."
"Next to the tree, baby. Got my hands full at the moment."
Darting a glance to the small intestine Claire was digging out, Cindy nodded. "Got it." Obediently heading to the office, she placed the package next to the tree. "I got something for your kids and for Ed," she continued. "Can I just drop those off later?"
"Of course," she heard in response. Heading back, she managed to catch a sweet smile from her friend engaged in entrails. "And you can pick up what we've got for you."
Black hair swung over a thin shoulder as Lindsay did a double take. "You got her a present?"
"I'm a mother," Claire said smoothly. "I got my postman a present."
"Oh, right. Swing by my office on the way out. I have something for you." Glancing quickly at Lindsay, Jill quickly amended, "NOT for Christmas. Just ... because."
"Oh, God - YOU got her a present?!"
"Of course I did." Jill was currently concentrating on unwrapping her gift. "It's Christmas. I'm not a heathen."
Throwing her hands up in surrender, Lindsay Boxer looked adorably near a conniption. "Well, that's great. That's just great."
"Not the cookies!" Cindy barked, just as Lindsay had reached for the cellophane wrapped package. "Those are for Jacobi," she explained, and heard a snicker from Jill as a result.
Lindsay's look could have wilted flowers. "You got my PARTNER a gift?"
"What? I know him. Sorta."
"Ohmygod-" Jill interrupted the moment with a squeal. "Tell me this is not a Juicy Couture Luxe Starter Charm Bracelet."
"Merry Christmas," Cindy said again, "I saw you eyeing it when we passed Bloomingdales that one day-" Suddenly, she was overwhelmed with blonde hair and pale skin and sinful smelling perfume. "Mmmmbfd."
Jill placed a pronounced smack of lips against her cheek. "Forget every mean thing I've ever said to or about you. You're a doll."
"You've said mean things about me?" Cindy asked suspiciously.
"Well, that was before," she said dismissively.
"Before I was in the club?"
"It's not a club!"
"So, let me get this straight." Coming forward, Lindsay appeared to be having a hard time dealing with the present state of events. "You got me a present. You got my dog a present. You got my partner a present." An expressive brow narrowed dangerously. "Did you get Tom cookies?"
Feeling the urge to shrink into Jill's shoulder, Cindy managed weakly, "I dropped them off before I came down here."
Thankfully, Cindy was saved from any further tirades when the cellphone at Lindsay's hip buzzed. Reaching down to pick it up in one smooth move, Lindsay stared at the screen and then started for the door. "Tom's asking to see me. We'll discuss ...." her hand moved erratically around the room of Christmas cheer. "-this when I get back."
Watching the Inspector go, Cindy felt absurdly small. "Geez. I didn't even give her her gift yet."
Jill wrapped an arm around her and squeezed. "Don't worry Tiny Tim, she'll come around."
"And loaded with presents," Claire twittered, offering a supportive smile. "Be ready for a hell of a lot of overcompensation."
Ruby, Cindy's goldfish, was on an automatic feeder. Cindy's job kept her out of her tiny apartment, and to depend on her for sustenance would have been foolish. The little feeder cranked out the appropriately sized flakes of food two times a day, and the only thing Cindy had to worry about was checking the batteries and replacing the water once a week.
It felt a little more impersonal, but when it came to matters of health, Cindy was practical. Her little fishie would die of starvation if she relied on regular feedings from her.
Still, Cindy liked to think Ruby was glad to see her when she got home, flipping her tail and puffing out her cheeks. It was nice to feel like there was someone to come home to.
It was a waste to have a tree, especially if she wasn't ever home and no one ever really saw it but her, but Christmas was her indulgence. The little 5 foot noble fir was carefully decorated with a matching red and white ornamental color scheme and twinkling lights, and because Cindy really could be a kid at heart, candy canes, one of which she picked off every day and ate.
This Christmas Eve, Cindy had made her mandatory appearance at the Christmas party, standing awkwardly around at the hotel with Register employees she hardly knew, and departed early to meet a source on a tip-off Lindsay had left on her voicemail.
She had come up with nothing more of a nugget of information, but Cindy had worked wonders with nuggets, and tonight, she had given up the idea of stopping by the three Christmas parties she had been invited to (one of which was by Gary, an awesome drag queen who had promised a cabaret and a live band) in favor of doing what she could to make that nugget grow.
Pouring a glass of red wine, Cindy turned on her staple of Christmas mixes. Fiona Apple crooned The Christmas Song at her, and settling on her floor, Cindy pulled open her laptop, pulled down the cellophane of her daily candy cane, and prepared to work.
The buzz of her ringer made her frown, and getting up reluctantly, Cindy fished into her purse for the appropriate cash and tip to pay Jose the Chinese food guy.
Swinging open the door, she was, however, treated to the sight of a gorgeous woman in a leather jacket, with a wild look in her usually rich dark eyes.
"I don't know what to get you."
Pushing past her, Lindsay stalked into her room, hands on her hips and swaggering back and forth like a really hot female John Wayne.
"I've looked everywhere! I spent half an hour in the stupid mall parking lot trying to find parking, and finally just gave up and took the handicapped spot - which I got a ticket for-, and I got into a fight with a little old lady because apparently she saw the stupid red sweater first - I walked the whole damn mall and I couldn't find anything."
"But here." Lindsay shoved a cold package into her hands.
Pulling out the packet from the PETCO bag, Cindy gave her a wide-eyed boggled stare. "You... you got me brine shrimp."
Blinking, Lindsay motioned at Ruby in her bowl. "You know. For... the fish."
"I was kidding."
Pulling a strand of black hair out of her face, Lindsay looked near panic. "Oh, God - don't say that. That was the only damned thing I knew for sure you'd like."
"No, no! I do! Ruby... loves brine shrimp!" Hugging the frozen bricks of shrimp to her chest, Cindy nodded as sincerely as she could. "Thank you."
It was a small comfort that Lindsay at least looked relieved.
"You know..." Cindy began, as carefully as she could. "I wasn't expecting... anything. That's not what Christmas is about."
"Oh, whatever, Linus." Sinking into the couch, Lindsay wrung her hands together. "You knew exactly what to get Jill to get her to squeal. And Claire says she's been looking for that... pashmina thing forever."
"It's hard to match her checkered dress," Cindy offered diplomatically.
"Yes! And you knew that!" Lindsay's hand motioned wildly. "You knew that! How the hell did you even know that Jacobi's favorite cookie was white chocolate macadamia nut?"
"Nice try," Lindsay growled, and then buried her hair in her hands. "I didn't need another leather jacket."
"Oh you do," Cindy said solemnly, coming forward to settle gingerly down beside her. Leaning forward, she whispered conspiringly, "Yours is starting to smell."
"Like a bad combination of Thai and Chinese food," Lindsay grumbled, nodding her assent, and threw another look in her direction. "And you knew that! I walked a whole damned mall and you know what I learned?"
"Don't get into fights with little old ladies over sweaters?"
"I don't know a thing about you."
The way Lindsay said it, so pathetically and mournfully, dark eyes blazing sharply into her own, made her suddenly breathless. Opening her mouth to speak, Cindy found herself suddenly light-headed, and it made her terminally stupid. "Oh," was all she managed.
"I don't know if you even like chocolate. I don't know if you needed a new sweater or even what your size is. I don't know what kind of clothes you like to buy or if you like silver or gold jewelry-"
"Silver," Cindy interrupted quickly. "For future reference."
A small smile pulled onto Lindsay's tight mouth. "I don't even know what kind of music you like." The Chipmunks' 'Christmas Don't Be Late' chirped at them from the stereo, and Lindsay frowned. "And now I kinda wish I still didn't."
Flushing with appropriate embarrassment, Cindy shrugged good-naturedly. "Well..." she began, licking her lips as she remembered the questions. "I do like chocolate, but I prefer dark chocolate - dark chocolate covered strawberries are like sex to me." Averting her eyes at the mention of the physical activity, she felt her cheeks burn. "Um... I'm good with sweaters at the moment, but I'll never say no to a cute pair of boots. And as far as music is concerned, I usually only worry about a decent beat, and a really good set of lyrics." Alvin's name was screeched from the radio, and she flinched slightly. "Present evidence not withstanding."
Lindsay's smile grew, and Cindy found herself smiling back, bumping knees with the gorgeous Inspector. "But I never expected you to worry about that. You usually only have one thing on your mind. And it's kind of important." Lindsay's gaze settled on the computer. "It's kind of hard to feel affronted in the face of solving a murder."
Thin lips pressed together, and dark strands fell forward as Lindsay's fingers knitted together, between her knees. "I want to fix that," she said, in a raspy voice. "We've been friends for a while now and... I think it's important... that we know things."
"What kind of things?"
"Like... I don't even know if you're dating anyone."
"Oh." Shrinking back from a gorgeous face and politely curious eyes, Cindy felt the heat return to her cheeks full-force. "Not... presently, no."
Dashboard Confessional's 'The Only Gift That I Need' began with a strum of guitar, and the soft sound helped ease Cindy's embarrassment.
"Well, are you interested in anyone?"
Laughing awkwardly, Cindy shifted on the couch. "You know, usually I'm the one asking the questions."
"What?" Lindsay asked, grin widening. "You can dish it out but you can't take it?"
"I find no shame in that."
"So you're not going to tell me."
Whining slightly, Cindy bit her lip. "There's nothing to tell."
"You're a horrible liar."
"I'm a great liar!" she retorted. "My job requires meticulously awesome lying."
"You can't lie to save your life."
"To you," she argued, nodding miserably. "Because you give me the gorgeous dark-eyed steely stare and ..."
"And what?" Lindsay asked, brow rising into her forehead. "You melt?"
Glancing away, heartbeat now puttering quickly, Cindy sputtered, "Sort of. I ordered Chinese. Do you want Chinese? I ordered way too much and I never finish it, but I seem to always want everything and then when I'm hungry an hour later-"
"I'm good," Lindsay answered dryly, not moving from her place on the couch, voice dark and raspy and hella-sexy. "Thanks."
It was as if Cindy was trapped in a tractor beam. Lindsay's gaze burned into hers, and helpless against the lingering, searching glance, she was frozen in her place, drinking in the sight of the beautiful Inspector who so often invaded every sort of fantasy she ever had.
Without a word, or warning, Lindsay leaned forward. Fingers slid behind Cindy's head, and Cindy's heart jackknifed into her throat when Lindsay's head tilted and a thin nose bumped against hers before her mouth was engulfed in a rich, soft kiss.
An embarrassing whine escaped from the back of Cindy's throat, and she heard a dark chuckle in return, before she was kissed again. Lindsay was apparently in no hurry. Her mouth opened and her tongue swept in possessively, overtaking Cindy in wet embrace that made her shiver when her lips were released.
Panting, shivering, and suddenly frightened, Cindy looked into the face settled so closely to hers. "Please don't say this is some twisted form of reciprocation. Because I got that jacket on sale."
Lindsay's smile was absolutely beautiful, and against her will, Cindy keened into the feel of Lindsay's fingers massaging gently at her neck. "To be perfectly honest," her friend whispered. "I have absolutely no idea what the hell this is. I'm flying a little blind here."
"So you're two seconds away from a panic attack?"
"Maybe a little longer than that."
Cindy grinned despite herself. "So I've got some time to return the favor?"
"I thought we agreed reciprocation was evil."
"You got me brine shrimp," Cindy whispered, leaning forward again. "I'm good."
She buried Lindsay's resulting laugh with a well placed, confident kiss.
Claire's house was always homey. Christmas, however, seemed to bring out the best aspects. The fireplace crackled, the tree sparkled, and the presents lay open and wrapping paper littered every corner of the room.
Lindsay appeared genuinely out of sorts, nursing a drink in the corner with Jill, who seemed to take a little too much pleasure in watching how her new bracelet sparkled in the firelight.
Cindy, in the middle of constructing a gingerbread house from the kit she had brought Nate, in an embarrassingly festive sweater given to her by Claire that matched Claire's childrens', threw the occasional glance their way, and got a few secret smiles in response.
Setting a plate of cookies on the table, Claire watched their progress with an amused smile. "So, was I right?"
In the middle of helping Nate attach a gumdrop to the roof thatched with royal icing, Cindy offered a confused frown. "About what?"
"Was there overcompensation?"
"Nah," Cindy said, smiling good-naturedly. "I was able to communicate to Lindsay that Christmas is not about trying one-up each other with awesome gifts."
"So that's why she's so grumpy," Claire mused, offering her friend an appraising glance. "She failed at reciprocation and her Catholic guilt is eating her."
"Nah, she just didn't get much sleep," Cindy said without thinking, and then immediately dropped the gumdrop, earning a yelp from Nate as a result. "Umm... Not that I would know. At all."
Claire's dark eyes met hers knowingly. "Mmmhmm."
"You better let me do it," Nate grumbled and like that, Cindy was dismissed from gingerbread house making.
"So, is this an awesome Christmas, or what?" Jill asked, nursing her mug of EggNog and shivering as they came forward to join Cindy and Claire. "My boyfriend's dumped me, I'm living on my friend's couch. God there's so much to look forward to this New Year!"
"Oh yeah," Lindsay agreed, eyes meeting Cindy's for a brief second before glancing away. "My Newlywed Ex-husband is still my boss, and the Kiss-Me-Not killer has me on his speed-dial."
"I don't know," Claire mused, glancing toward her husband, currently engrossed with firing away at bad guys with Derek's brand new Wii Zapper. "Things aren't all bad."
"At the risk of sounding too Tiny Tim-ish," Cindy said, reaching for a mug of hot cocoa. "I say there is always a silver lining. To quote my Grandma-"
"Oh, God, no more quoting your Grandma," Jill groaned, but clinked her mug anyway. "Isn't my sparkly bracelet pretty?"
"Gorgeous," Lindsay said flatly, humoring her best friend. "But I do have to agree. Things are definitely looking up."
The warm feeling in Cindy's stomach at the smile directed privately to her was better than a truckload of brine shrimp.
"A toast," she said, breathless and raspy. "Merry Christmas, and a happy New Year. And to many more."
"Hear hear, Tiny Tim," Jill remarked, holding up her EggNog.
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