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Cowboy Accidentally

Hitched for Christmas

What happened to A.J. Pike at the Happily Ever After Dance...


Christmas Eve

A.J. Pike grimaced at the ridiculous costume laying across the bed in the guest room he’d been staying in for the last several days. He was supposed to be in Pinetop assisting on a case, not stuffing himself inside a rectangle-shaped playing card vest to attend a community dance. It wasn’t simply a Christmas dance, either. It was a Happily Ever After Dance with a Christmas twist, whatever that meant.

And I get to go as the Jack of Hearts. Lucky me!

Alone. Without a date. He’d recently retired from a career as a military policeman, and the number of times he’d moved and been deployed hadn’t made it easy to get out and socialize much. Not that he’d tried too hard. After becoming widowed seventeen years earlier, he’d pretty much turned into a hermit when it came to his personal life.

A rap of knuckles sounded on the other side of the door. “You in there?” It was Wes Wakefield, his closest friend. The guy who’d twisted his arm for many months to come experience the holidays in his postcard-sized hometown in the Arizona mountains — a town drenched in enough Christmas spirit to make a person gag.

“Yep, I’m in here.” A.J. curled his lip again at the Jack of Hearts vest. He wasn’t a hundred percent sure it would fit. He wasn’t exactly a small guy. Though he was of average height, he’d spent most of his thirty-nine years bulking up at the gym. There was nothing average about the size of his arms and chest.

“Are you ready?” Wes sounded impatient.

“Almost finished, Dad,” A.J. called back sarcastically as he tightened down the chest holster he was wearing beneath his shirt.

“How does the costume look?” Wes rattled the door handle to ante up the sense of urgency.

It was unlocked. A.J. smirked as he faced the door. “Why don’t you come in and see for yourself?”

The door pushed open, and Wes’s head popped through. His normally dark hair was hidden by a reddish-orange wig that bushed out from beneath an oversized top hat — one with a playing card tucked beneath a ribbon above the brim.

“Nice costume.” A.J. burst out laughing at how well Wes had nailed the Mad Hatter look. He was wearing a burgundy sports blazer over brown plaid pants, complete with a gold vest and a green bowtie.

“Can’t say the same for you.” Wes frowned at A.J. “I thought you said you were almost finished.”

“And now I am.” A.J. spread his hands. “How do I look in my retired soldier costume?”

Wes’s gaze swept A.J., who was still in his jogging pants and muscle shirt, before moving to the bed. “That’s not gonna fly if you expect to be working undercover this evening.”

A.J. carefully schooled his expression. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He hadn’t told Wes about his private agreement with the Pinetop PD to do a bit of contract work for them while he was in town.

“If you say so.” Wes’s look of amusement told A.J. that he wasn’t fooled one bit by his statement. It was way too bad about that gag clause. “You’re still gonna stick out like a sore thumb if you’re the only person in attendance not wearing a costume.” He dropped his head over the cell phone he had in his hand, texting someone.

Seconds later, A.J.’s cell phone buzzed with an incoming text. “Fine. I’ll just skip the dance then.” A.J. had no intention of skipping out on tonight, since he was on duty. He reached for his cell phone, assuming it was Wes sending him a pithy graphic of some sort.

It was from Sheriff Dean Skelton instead. Got an extra costume for you. Call me.

He waved his cell phone at Wes. “Did you put him up to this?”

Wes gave him an innocent look. “Did I put who up to what?

“You’re a barrel of laughs. Both of you.” Shaking his head, A.J. mashed the speed dial button he’d programmed for the sheriff and lifted his phone to his ear.

The sheriff was chuckling when he answered. “I can only imagine what you’re thinking, and I don’t like this anymore than you do. But we’ve gotta fit in tonight.”

“Listening,” A.J. grumbled, glaring at Wes who was now leaning against the door frame. He was pretending to fiddle with his cell phone, though they both knew he was eavesdropping.

“How do you feel about attending the dance tonight as the Big Bad Wolf?”

A.J. groaned instead of answering.

Wes’s grin was telling.

The sheriff guffawed. “It’s either that or an Abominable Snowman costume that’s so old and frayed it could pass for a snowdrift.”

A.J. gave the dumb playing card vest a dirty look. “Got someone trying to talk me into going as the Jack of Hearts.”

“No kidding? Guess that’ll do.” The sheriff’s voice was way too bland for him not to be in on the prank.

“Oh, great! Because I was really looking forward to squeezing into a card that represents love poems and passion.” A.J. couldn’t believe he was actually agreeing to it.

“Maybe I’ll come as the Big Bad Wolf myself.” The sheriff’s sigh told A.J. he truly hated the thought of spending the evening in a wolf costume.

“Sounds like a plan,” A.J. drawled. “Let’s all suffer together.” He met Wes’s gaze as he disconnected the line. “I owe you one, man. Be assured I’ll pay you back when you least expect it.”

“Are you talking about the room?” Wes straightened, grinning even more widely as he gazed around the festively decorated guest room. “I told my wife to ease up on the garlands and string lights, but…you know…it’s Pinetop.” He shrugged as if it was a blanket excuse that covered everything.

A.J. avoided looking at the red-and-white checkered curtains as he pointed at the door. “Don’t let it hit you in the rear on the way out.”

The curtains were a painful reminder of the young bride he’d lost to heart disease. Someone he’d never told Wes about. Someone who’d loved Christmas as much as every blasted citizen in Pinetop. He honestly couldn’t wait to get back to Phoenix — to the sparse apartment he lived in over A.J.’s Auto Body Shop. After his busiest days at work, the air smelled like axel grease by the time he fell into his bed.

Not pine needles. Not gingerbread. Not hot cocoa. Just good, clean grease.

* * *

Even though A.J. didn’t have a date to the dance, he didn’t have to walk into the dinner theater alone. He got to walk in with the Mad Hatter and his wife, Christie. She looked so stunning in her Queen of Hearts gown that A.J. had to revise his opinion about dressing in costumes for the evening. She’d gone all out with a tiara, petticoats, and a ruby ring that was so big that he doubted it was real.

Eh, what do I know? A.J. was no expert on gems. He was learning as fast as he could, though, in order to help the Pinetop Police Department track down an elusive gang of jewelry thieves. Tonight’s event had been tailored with specific input from the sheriff in the hopes of drawing the thieves out of the woodwork.

A.J.’s job this evening was to keep an eye on none other than one of Pinetop’s own deputies, a man by the name of Aaron Cannon. Though it was rumored that the sheriff had been keeping the guy close to him lately to mentor him as an understudy of sorts, the opposite was true. Sheriff Skelton had reason to suspect Deputy Cannon was in cahoots with the band of jewelry thieves.

A.J. scanned the room for the young deputy. He wasn’t hard to find, since the sheriff had texted A.J. a list of police department names and costumes. He smothered a chuckle at the assortment of raggedy, well-worn animal critter costumes the sheriff and his staff were wearing. Their flea market quality made Aaron Cannon’s Big Foot costume all the more sinister. He definitely looked the part of a villain this evening.

Once the target was located, A.J. relaxed. His only job was to keep the guy in his crosshairs for the evening and report back to the sheriff everything he said and did.

As he surveyed the room, he was surprised by how decked out the amphitheater was. Castellano’s was a far cry from what he’d been expecting. After hearing they hosted an indoor rodeo, he was expecting dust and straw. Instead, the room had been transformed into a winter wonderland, complete with a stage set up and decorated like a fairytale throne.

Christie gave a sudden trill of delighted laughter and moved away from Wes and A.J., calling over her shoulder, “Be right back!” She joined a huddle of women in costumes nearby, who immediately started hugging and snapping pictures of each other.

“You’re a very lucky man.” A.J. knew he wouldn’t have minded dressing up nearly as much this evening if he had someone as lovely as Christie at his side.

“No argument there.” Wes gave him a sideways glance. Then he abruptly angled his head toward the side of the room. “Hey, I know you’re on duty tonight, but can we talk real quick?”

“How do you know I’m on duty?” A.J. followed him to a less populated corner where they could hear each other a little better above the music and hubbub of conversations around them. He was careful to keep Deputy Cannon in sight.

“Because you’re not the only one who misses law enforcement,” Wes sighed. “I, too, have been contracting my services to the local PD every chance I get.”

Ah. That explained a lot. “Are you on the clock tonight?”

“Nope. Christie made me promise to stay in my role as the Mad Hatter for the evening.” His smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Listen, uh…it’s a small town, where everyone knows everything about everybody. So naturally something in your background check trickled my way, and it’s been eating me alive ever since. I debated whether to say anything about it and decided that I should.”

A.J. tensed, already knowing what was coming. “Oh, yeah? What’s that?”

Wes looked troubled. “Why didn’t you tell me you were widowed?”

A.J. shrugged. “Didn’t want to talk about it.” His grief had become part of who he was. He’d never been all that interested in moving on from it.

“You want me to shut up, or can I keep going?”

A.J. shrugged again. “You can do whatever you want since you’re bigger than me.” It was a lame attempt at a joke.

Wes snorted. “I might have a few inches on you, but something tells me you could take me down if you wanted to. That’s why I try to stay on your good side.”

“Very funny.” A.J. couldn’t argue with that, though. He could bench press over three hundred pounds and probably single-handedly take down anyone in the room.

“I want to apologize for any and all jokes I’ve ever made about your singleness,” Wes continued in a contrite voice. “I had no idea you were—”

“I am aware.” A.J. lightly punched his shoulder to shut him up. “Who’s the woman Deputy Cannon is talking to?”

Big Foot had just swaggered up to a gorgeous blonde dressed as Rapunzel. Her hair fell below her waist. It was impossible to tell if it was real from this distance. No one had mentioned the deputy was married or dating anyone.

“His sister. Why?” Wes elbowed A.J. back a little harder than A.J. had punched him. “Is he your target this evening?”

A.J. didn’t answer. He was too busy watching the scoundrel lean in and sweep the woman into a bear hug that momentarily lifted her feet off the floor. She was a petite woman in a gown of deep rose trimmed with gold braiding. Red and white roses were woven through her hair.

Was she involved in her brother’s dirty side dealings? It would be a horrible shame if she was. There was an aura of innocence about her that didn’t correlate with that picture. Or did it? Was A.J. allowing the woman’s beauty to cloud his thinking?

He decided on the spot to find out. Lowering his voice, he intoned, “Gotta run. I’ll catch up with you and your queen later, gator.”

Wes’s chuckle followed him from the shadowy edge of the room back into the disco lights strobing across the dance floor. Though the dance hadn’t officially begun yet, a few couples were already swaying and jiving beneath the lights.

Fortunately, A.J. had a few dance moves under his belt, though it wasn’t easy dancing in a stiff playing card vest he barely stuffed into. It was so tight across his chest that he’d been forced to remove his holster and tuck a smaller handgun inside his left boot.

Improvise and adapt. It had been one of his unit’s favorite sayings during his Army days. As he danced closer to Rapunzel, a blast of trumpets sounded behind him, providing the perfect excuse he’d been looking for.

Pretending to jolt in alarm, he bumped hard enough into the shoulder of the lovely woman that she stumbled a little.

He swung in front of her, reaching for her elbows to steady her. “I’m so sorry!” He faked an apologetic chuckle. “Nearly got blasted to Kingdom Come with those trumpets.” He glanced over his shoulder and discovered the theater staff, which was dressed like ladies and gentlemen of the court, leading tonight’s duly elected king and queen to the stage.

“It’s okay. I jumped, too.” Rapunzel stepped closer to him to make room for the royal procession. “I’m Aurora Cannon, by the way.”

“Thought you were Rapunzel,” he joked.

She treated him to the full force of her laughing hazel eyes. They looked nearly green beneath the twinkling strands of Christmas lights overhead. “Only for this evening.”

“I’m A.J. Pike.” It would’ve been polite for him to take a few steps back to give her more space, but he was enjoying her nearness way too much. Warning bells were going off in the back of his head about getting too close to a mark, but he ignored them.

“Funny,” she teased, lightly stabbing a finger against his chest. “I had you pegged for the Jack of Hearts.”

Man, but he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had this much fun! He cheered noisily as Flint and Lucy Carson passed by them, earning him an eye roll from Flint.

“Do you know them?” Aurora swiveled her head to get a better look at the reigning king and queen for the evening. The movement made her long hair swish against A.J.’s shoulder.

“Yep. Flint and Lucy Carson are new friends.” He’d met them when he’d first become involved with the case. He had no interest in dwelling on them at the moment, though.

Standing this close to Aurora, he found he was able to answer one of his most burning questions about her. Her blonde hair was as real as the rest of her. The scent of roses wafted from it, telling him that the blooms she’d woven into her hair were also real. 

“She looks amazing as Cinderella.” Aurora’s expression grew wistful.

“I’m more of a Rapunzel fan.” He winked at her, making her cheeks turn pink.

“Thanks.” She waved a hand at her hair like it was no big deal that it fell over halfway down her back toward the floor. “With hair like this, it’s not like I had many other options.”

“It’s beautiful.” Normally, he wasn’t one to flirt or dole out compliments. However, Aurora was so easy to be around that she pulled them right out of him.

“Thanks. It’s a lot of work, but my stepdad refused to let me cut it while growing up.” Her gaze grew sad and distant. “And now I’m just so used to having it around…”

A.J. instinctively knew that she’d lost her stepdad. “Can’t fault his taste.”

Her smile was a little glassy. “It’s nice of you to say that.”

He grunted. “Really, Aurora? When was the last time you looked into a mirror?” He was normally skilled at sizing up a person’s age, but hers was a little harder to guesstimate. She honestly could’ve been anywhere from twenty-five to thirty-five with her clear complexion, small amount of makeup, and only the mildest laugh lines at the edges of her eyes.

She blushed again. “It’s starting to feel like you’re flirting with me, Mr. Pike.”

He glanced pointedly down at her bare left hand. “Any reason why I shouldn’t?” He could think of several — the first one being that she was Deputy Cannon’s sister. It was too stinking bad that the first woman in years who’d caught his interest was related to a guy he was gunning to help put in jail.

She looked like she was struggling to find the right words. “We just met, A.J.”

“Something I’ll be hitting my knees and thanking the Lord for before rolling into bed tonight.” Again, he said exactly what he was thinking. Afterward, he wondered what had happened to his filter. 

Her expression softened with pleasure. “That’s seriously one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me.”

You must be surrounded by idiots. A.J. shot a dark look toward her brother, who was clapping frenziedly after the master of ceremonies introduced the king and queen — the same young couple whose lives the punk had been putting in danger with his duplicity. He’d been leaking information about the stolen diamonds that had been planted in the home of Lucy’s family. Information that the sheriff was reasonably sure had gotten back to the diamond thieves themselves. More than likely, it was information the thieves had paid Aaron Cannon for. That was the running theory, anyway.

A.J. ducked his head closer to Aurora’s to be heard over the clapping and cheering. “Any chance you’d be willing to join me at my table?” It was a long shot, but it was worth a try.

She glanced toward her brother, catching his eye and waving him in their direction.

As Aaron Cannon wove his way through the crowd to them, Aurora took a step away from A.J., prompting him to drop his hands from her arms.

Bummer. He immediately missed holding her.

The master of ceremonies announced that the newly crowned king and queen would lead the room in the first dance of the evening. As Flint escorted Lucy down the steps from the stage to the dance floor, Aurora hastily made the introductions.

“Aaron, this is A.J. Pike, friends of the king and queen.” There was a breathy note in her voice. “A.J., this is my brother, Deputy Aaron Cannon. He’s with the Pinetop Police Department,” she declared proudly.

For now. A.J. held out a hand to the alleged dirty deputy. “Nice to meet you.”

“And you are?” The deputy’s voice held a taunting note as he glanced between the two of them.

“The owner of an auto body shop in Phoenix,” A.J. supplied, not yet ready to divulge his military police background.

“Not from around here, eh?” The deputy sounded dismissive.

“Nah. Just visiting friends for the holidays.” A.J. returned his gaze to Aurora, angling his head toward his table on the other side of the room. “The Wakefields. Not sure if you know them?”

Deputy Cannon’s gaze sharpened. “I do.” His voice grew chilly.

I bet. “We have a couple of holes at our table,” A.J. offered, changing the subject. “Would you and your sister care to join us?”

“Can’t. I’m on duty.” Aaron Cannon’s voice was sharp. “Thanks for the offer, though. My sister is also visiting from out of town. She’d probably appreciate sitting by someone she knows.” He turned his baleful gaze on A.J. “I’ll stop by as often as I can to visit with you, sis.”

Perfect. A.J. gave himself a mental high-five. It would all but guarantee he’d be able to keep the guy in sight. The music transitioned to something slower, and the dance floor was soon filled with swaying couples.

A.J. held out a hand to Aurora. To his enormous gratification, she placed her hand shyly in his. He twirled her closer.

Her brother made a face at them and backed away. “Have fun, kids.”

I intend to. After balking at the idea of attending the dance in the first place, A.J. couldn’t believe how incredible his evening was turning out to be. He drew Aurora into his arms and began to sway back and forth with her. Best private investigation gig ever!

Something prompted him to come clean about the biggest item he’d been withholding from her. “The auto body shop is my second career. I’m actually a retired soldier. Did a full twenty years in the Army.”

She smiled warmly. “Thank you for your service.”

“Welcome.” He twirled her again. “Lost my wife to heart disease during my first deployment.” He’d never forgiven himself for not being at her side when it happened. Or when she’d passed. It was a regret he’d carry to his grave.

She twirled back in his direction. “I’m sorry for your loss, soldier.” Though her words were light, pain lanced through her gaze, telling him she was no stranger to loss herself.

“What about you?” He started swaying with her again.

She gave him a mysterious smile. “What about me, soldier?”

“Everything.” He tugged her closer. “I want to know everything there is to know about you.” Warning bells went off in his head again at the realization that he was no longer playing a part. Yeah, whatever she told him had the potential to help with the case, but he truly wanted to know all about her. Just because.

“I make perfume for a living.” She cocked her head at him. “I own and operate a boutique in Dallas.”

An entrepreneur like him. He liked that they had that in common. “Guess that’s why you smell so good.”

She smiled. “I studied in France and learned from the best. It was the most amazing experience!”

He grunted at the irony of a war-hardened soldier meeting someone as classy as her. “Hope you don’t have a problem with the scent of car grease.” Talk about how opposites attract! The two of them were as different as night and day.

She blinked shyly at him. “Why would that be a problem?”

“Because you’re about to start dating a mechanic.” He wasn’t normally this bold with the ladies, but she brought out a different side of him.

“You don’t even know if I’m single yet,” she reminded.

“If you weren’t, my gut says you wouldn’t allow me to keep flirting with you,” he retorted, scanning her lovely features. “You’re too decent of a person for that.”

The music transitioned again, this time to a piece the master of ceremonies said was from the regency period. His theater staff lined up to give a demonstration of something called a quadrille.

A.J. raised his eyebrows at his lovely dance partner. “Coffee break?” He had zero interest in parading around the floor like some peacock from the early 1800s.

She made a face at him. “But I’m wearing the perfect gown for the quadrille!”

He reluctantly faced the dance floor again with her. “It’s probably going to be the first time in history that a man with a buzz cut in a Jack of Hearts costume danced the quadrille.” He pictured platoons of regency dancers rolling over in their graves.

She laid a hand on his arm, snickering. “Would you really do that for me?”

He glanced down at her hand, liking how it looked resting on his arm. “Do what?” He subtly flexed his arm a little for her benefit.

“Dance the quadrille?” She snickered again.

“If you insist.” Man! He could listen to the sound of her laughter all evening long. It was a joyful sound. The sound of a woman who’d lived, loved, lost, and managed to keep laughing in spite of it.

“Relax, soldier. I’m not going to make you dance the quadrille with me.” She gently squeezed his arm. “Since you were willing to go through with it, though, you must really like me, A.J. Pike.”

His gaze returned to hers. “I most definitely do, Girl I Just Met.” It felt like they’d known each other for longer than a few minutes.

“Girl? You must be nearsighted,” she sighed. “I’m thirty-four.”

You’re kidding! She didn’t look a day older than twenty-five. “Nothing wrong with my vision, beautiful.” He lightly bumped their hands together, wrapping his pinky finger around her pinky finger. “According to my ophthalmologist, I see twenty-twenty.”

“Then, yes. I’ll take you up on your offer to join you for coffee.” All it took was a gentle tug on his pinky to get him moving toward the table he was sharing with the Wakefields. He did a quick check on her brother to ensure he was still standing on the sidelines of the dance floor with his fellow deputies. He was.

Aurora must have caught him glancing away from her. “Somebody else catch your eye, soldier?”

“Nope.” He twisted his pinky out of her grasp so he could thread their fingers together. “After seventeen years of not dating, my interest has been fully captured by a certain fairytale princess with extra long hair.”

She looked aghast as they arrived at his table. “Seventeen years? Is that when…?” Her voice dwindled uncertainly.

“When I lost my wife? Yes.” He wasn’t sure why he was telling her all of this so soon after meeting her. The upside was that it didn’t seem to be scaring her away.

“Seventeen years is a long time to go without dating,” she murmured softly.

“Yeah, I’m way out of practice.” A.J.’s gaze briefly dropped to her mouth, hoping she wouldn’t be too disappointed with their first kiss.

A crash of lightning sounded overhead, shaking the building with its rumble.

Aurora shivered and stepped closer to him. “Sounds like we have a storm brewing outside.”

Her nearness was causing a whole different kind of storm inside him. Before he could think of a clever or playful response, the lights in the building flickered ominously, cause a collective gasp from the crowd gathered there. Then the lights went out altogether, plunging the dinner theater into darkness.

A.J.’s first concern should’ve been about keeping tabs on Deputy Aaron Cannon. Instead, all he could think about was the man’s sister as she threw her arms around his neck and pressed closer to him.

While everyone around them was babbling and scrambling to turn on their flashlight apps, she stood on her tiptoes to murmur in his ear. “Now’s as good a time as any to get you back into practice, soldier.”

He didn’t require any more encouragement. Wrapping his arms around her, he nuzzled his way to her lips, bumping noses in the process.

She gave a breathless laugh that he silenced by sealing his mouth over hers. The thought briefly crossed his mind that the darkness around them could be more than a power outage. It could’ve been a deliberate sabotage at the fuse box or the transformer outside. There was even the outside chance that Aurora was in on her brother’s shenanigans and was purposely distracting him from his job. Aaron Cannon could right this second be committing another crime.

For once in his career, though, A.J. didn’t care. As Aurora’s lips moved beneath his, he put his heart ahead of his work and took what she was offering. Years of pain and anguish slipped away as they clung to each other, giving and taking and giving some more.

I could love her if I let myself. There was only one problem with falling for a woman like Aurora Cannon. If A.J. did his job right, her brother was going to be led away in handcuffs soon. And she would eventually find out that the man she was currently kissing had a hand in his downfall.

When that day came, would she be able to love him back? Was it a risk he was even willing to take?​


Find out in Cowboy Brand of Justice, book#1, Bridles and Bribery

A bizarre series of crimes opens a unique job opportunity in Texas for a seasoned military policeman-turned-auto-mechanic like A.J. Pike

Will his budding romance with Aurora survive the hundreds of miles suddenly thrust between them?

Coming soon to eBook, paperback, and Kindle Unlimited on Amazon.

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