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  For Nicky

  whose glorious smile will defeat

  every Evil Nemesis


  Thank you to

  Jennifer Enderlin,

  who asked me to write a Christmas

  romance novella

  and then didn’t blink when the guns and

  the gin showed up;

  Meg Ruley,

  who turned the birthday paper into

  Christmas paper;

  the Cherries

  who read the first scene and made

  pointed suggestions;

  and Bob Mayer,

  who said, “You know, toys are

  made in China…”

  Chapter 1

  Trudy Maxwell pushed her way through the crowded old toy store, fed up with Christmas shopping, Christmas carols, Christmas in general, and toy stores in particular. Especially this toy store. For the worst one in town, it had an awful lot of people in it. Probably only on Christmas Eve, she thought, and stopped a harried-looking teenager wearing an apron and a name tag, accidentally smacking him with her lone shopping bag as she caught his arm. “Oh. Sorry. Listen, I need a Major MacGuffin.”

  The kid pulled his arm away. “You and everybody else, lady.”

  “Just tell me where they are,” Trudy said, not caring she was being dissed by somebody who probably couldn’t drive yet. Anything to get a homicidal doll that spit toxic waste.

  “When we had them, they were in the back, row four, to the right. But those things have been gone since before Thanksgiving.” The kid shrugged. “You shoulda tried eBay.”

  “And I would have, if I hadn’t just found out I needed it today,” Trudy said with savage cheerfulness. “So, row four, to the right? Thank you.”

  She threaded her way through the crowd, heading for the back of the store. Above her, Madonna cooed “Santa Baby,” the ancient store speakers making the carol to sex and greed sound a little tinny. Whatever had happened to “The Little Drummer Boy”? That had been annoying, too, but in a traditional way, like fruitcake. She’d be happy to hear a “rum-pa-pum-pum” again, anything that didn’t make Christmas sound like it was about getting stuff.

  Especially since she was desperate to get some stuff.

  The crowd thinned out as she got to the back of the store. Halfway down the last section of the fourth row, she found the dusty, splintered wood shelf marked with a card that said: Major MacGuffin, the Tough One Two. It was, of course, empty.

  “Damn,” she said, and turned to look at the shelf next to it, hoping a careless stock boy might have—

  Six feet two of broad-shouldered, dark-haired grave disappointment stood there, looking as startled as she was, and her treacherous heart lurched sideways at the sight.

  “Uh, merry Christmas, Trudy,” Nolan Mitchell said, clearly wishing he were somewhere else.

  Yes, this makes my evening, she thought, and turned away.


  “I don’t talk to strangers,” Trudy said over her shoulder, and tried to ignore her pounding heart to concentrate on the lack of MacGuffins in front of her. She’d been polite and well behaved with Nolan Mitchell for three dates and he’d still dumped her, so the hell with him.

  “Look, I’m sorry I didn’t call—”

  “I really don’t care,” Trudy said, keeping her back to him. “In October, I cared. In November, I decided you were a thoughtless, inconsiderate loser. And in December, I forgot all about you.”

  Madonna sang, “Been an awful good girl,” and Trudy thought, Like I had a choice. The least he could have done was seduce her before he abandoned her.

  “It’s not like I seduced and abandoned you,” he said, and when she turned and glared at him, he added, “Okay, wrong thing to say. I really am sorry I didn’t call. Work got crazy—”

  “You’re a literature professor,” Trudy said. “Chinese literature. How can that get craz—” She shook her head. “Never mind. You didn’t like me, you didn’t call, I don’t care.” She turned back to the shelf, concentrating on not concentrating on Nolan. So it was empty. That didn’t necessarily mean there were no MacGuffins. Maybe—

  “Okay, I’m the rat here,” Nolan said, with the gravelly good humor in his voice that had made her weaken and agree to go out the fourth time he’d asked her even though he was a lit professor, even though she’d known better.

  The silence stretched out and he added, “It was rude and inconsiderate of me.”

  She thought, So he has a nice voice, so he’s sorry, big deal, and tried hard to ignore him, and then he said, “Come on. It’s Christmas. Peace on earth. Goodwill to men. I’m a man.”

  You certainly are, her id said.

  We’ve been through this, she told her baser self. He’s no good. We don’t like him. He’s bad for us.

  “Okay, so you’ve forgotten I exist. That means we can start over.” He came around her and stuck his hand out. “Hi. I’m Nolan Mitchell and I—”

  “No,” Trudy said, annoyed with herself for wanting to take his hand. “We can’t start over. You were a grave disappointment. Grave disappointments do not get do-overs.”

  She turned away again and put her mind back on the MacGuffin. Okay, this was the worst toy store in the city, so the inventory control had to be lousy. If somebody had shoved a box to one side …

  She dropped her shopping bag and began to methodically take down the faded boxes of toys to the right of the empty MacGuffin shelf. They were ancient but evidently not valuable Star Wars figures, a blast from her past. There was a little Han Solo in Nolan, she thought. Maybe that was why she’d fallen for him. It wasn’t him at all, it was George Lucas and that damn light saber. She put Nolan out of her mind and kept taking down boxes until she reached the last layer. None of them were MacGuffins.

  “Trudy, look, I—”

  “Go away; I have problems.”

  “You have Star Wars problems?”

  “No. I have Major MacGuffin problems. If you know where to get one, I will talk to you. Otherwise, leave.”

  “I can’t.” Nolan smiled at her sheepishly. “I’m looking for a MacGuffin, too.”

  “I figured you more for the Barbie type.” Trudy started to stack the boxes back on the shelf again.

  “No, no, I’m a collector.” Nolan picked up a box and put it back for her, and she thought about telling him to go away again, but she really didn’t want to put all the boxes back by herself. “It’s important to get the toys mint in the box.” He held up a box with a crumpled corner. “See, this is no good.”

  “Thank you for sharing.” Trudy put another box back. When he continued to help, she decided he could put them back by himself and moved to the dusty boxes to the left of the empty MacGuffin shelf. Action figures from The Fantastic Four. The store really did have an inventory problem; those were completely out-of-date. Well, if there wasn’t a Mac to the right, there would be one to the left. Life could not be so cruel as to