A Christmas Together

Safe Harbor, Book 2

Tara Quan

 

Prologue

Present Day

Humming White Christmas despite the sandy scape visible through her office’s floor-to-ceiling windows, Brennan Caruthers sliced an antique silver blade through smudged masking tape. Few activities beat opening boxes around the holiday season. An expatriate in the United Arab Emirates, she relied on online shopping for most American goodies. With no way to tell which spur-of-the-moment click had led to its appearance, she treated each battered cardboard box as a surprise gift. Shipping delays meant she often forgot placing the order to begin with, and occasional duplicates allowed for regular contributions to her best-friend’s charity du jour.

Despite the ever-present sun and occasional inconveniences, she loved her new life in this cosmopolitan Middle Eastern country. She couldn’t help but miss winter, though. Having spent most of her adult years on the U.S. East Coast, snow seemed an integral part of the holidays.

Not one to let nostalgia fester into melancholy, she reached for her smartphone and keyed in a quick reminder to reserve ski time at Dubai Mall. Though she loathed the sport, sipping hot cocoa in the desert city’s enclosed winter wonderland seemed the perfect cure.

Potential problem averted, she returned her attention to the package. Her smile widened as she unearthed a flat gold-lettered red box, this year’s addition to her growing White House Ornaments collection. She’d started it her freshmen year at Harvard Law, close to a decade ago. Her first ornament had been a gift from Zahra and Nulli—two Georgetown University exchange students who’d sublet the brownstone next to hers. About the same age, the three had become fast friends, a relationship that later led to Brennan’s initial move to Washington, D.C., and her subsequent one to Dubai two years ago.

Their first joint Christmas party was scheduled for the end of this week—a media circus in the making. The local press loved sneaking pictures of her, Nulli, and Zahra together. To be fair, they made an eye-catching trio of heiresses. Zahra’s jet-black hair and caramel skin contrasted with Nulli’s wine-red locks and porcelain complexion. Brennan rounded out the color combination with blonde shoulder-length tresses and a Vampiric visage, which, thanks to a slew of popular paranormal films, had recently come back into vogue.

And then there was the small matter of their families’ combined net worth numbering in the hundreds of millions. In this safe, uneventful town, even their quick jaunts to cafés and beach clubs ended up in Time Out magazine.

Tossing the ornament box in her purse, Brennan slid her bare feet into the Louboutin Vendomes she’d left under her desk. Buoyed by a sense of accomplishment, she marched out of her office at a brisk pace despite early indications of fatigue. At 5:00 a.m., the mid-sized security consultancy firm she co-owned bustled with activity. She’d spent the night and the wee hours of this morning ironing out a deal via video conference. Safe Harbor would soon be providing protection for a Kazakhstan-based gas company. As soon as she showered, changed, and chugged a few cups of tea, she’d come back to look over the final contract. Once they dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s, she’d reward herself with a two-hour foot massage.

Bidding a quick farewell to her two business partners, Jason Reynolds and Daniel Khan, she rode the shiny chrome elevator down to the Dubai World Trade Center’s posh marble lobby. Having called ahead, she was able to slide into her Porsche Carrera as soon as she exited through the rotating glass doors. Handing the valet a generous tip, she kicked off her high heels and slipped into comfy flip-flops. Truth be told, she preferred looking at designer footwear to wearing them, but she embraced the instruments of torture for the sake of appearances. In this country, wealth served as the key to more wealth, and she had no compunction against using her father’s fortune to her company’s advantage.

The four hundred horsepower engine purred as she took a sharp right onto the ramp leading to Sheikh Zayed road. November to February was the tiny window when it cooled enough for her to leave the convertible’s hardtop down. Once on the highway, she floored the accelerator.

The car rocketed forward, the speedometer reaching one hundred and sixty kilometers in under six seconds. Ever since she’d bought Bluebell, she had to factor speeding tickets into her annual expenses. To make life convenient for repeat offenders, the city used cameras to capture charges. Not only did the traffic police accept online payments, the collected fines went straight to charity. Getting to skirt traffic rules for a good cause numbered among the UAE’s many perks.

With Chanel sunglasses covering most of her face, she could enjoy the gorgeous sunrise silhouetting the Burj Khalifa as Micheal Buble’s recording of Let It Snow blasted over the car’s speakers. Twenty-seven hundred feet high and costing close to 1.6 billion dollars, the near-empty building was the world’s tallest manmade structure for the time being. While it almost bankrupted the city, the spire was a sight to behold, especially when bathed in the dawn’s muted orange glow.

At half past five, the roads stood empty. The city came to life much later in the day, the desert culture driving both expatriates and locals to stay up long past midnight. Even the most dedicated worker bees seldom reached their white-collar offices before ten. By that time, affluent Emiratis would be taking their first sip of Arabic coffee.

She turned off the highway and went down the ramp leading to Jumeira Beach. Uneven development was one of her few gripes with Dubai. Patches of unfinished construction dotted the congested downtown area, with unpaved, narrow roads running alongside six-lane highways. To reach the luxurious multimillion-dollar beachside development housing her penthouse condo, she had to pass dilapidated three-story buildings and urban decay. Designed for continued use after puncture rather than comfort, her run-flat tires did an awesome job transferring the impact of every bump and pothole straight to her glutes, which still suffered from the side effects of yesterday’s squats.

Glancing at her rearview mirror, she frowned. A black Jeep Wrangler with dark-tinted windows tailgated her. Within the next two seconds, the hairs on the back of her neck and forearms stood on end. Her gut churned. Clammy sweat coated her forehead and nape.

Her subconscious blaring sirens, she filled her lungs and focused on parsing her unease. Before her father diversified his holdings and embraced legitimate business practices, the type of deals he’d brokered had made security precautions an integral part of family life. She’d understood the concept of situational awareness by the age of ten and muddled through defensive driving classes long before she qualified for a license. She knew better than to ignore her instincts.

Everything about the car behind her felt off. The SUV of choice in the Emirates were white Toyota Land Cruisers. Tinting beyond thirty percent opacity was illegal for foreigners, and no Emirati would be caught dead in a four-year-old American-made vehicle.

As a test, she tapped the brakes. She drove on a two-lane street with no other cars in sight. But instead of overtaking, the SUV slowed.

Recalling the course she’d completed over a decade ago, she shifted her hands to the ten and two o’clock positions on the steering wheel. Willing her fingers to relax, she gently squeezed the accelerator to increase her pursuer’s following distance. In a race, the lumbering behemoth had no hope of catching up.

As her stomach began to settle, she spied two identical SUVs parked opposite each other on the curbside. When she approached, they turned onto the road, blocking their respective lanes. With less than ten feet between her and the makeshift barrier, she had no choice but to slam the brakes. Ignoring the pain where the seatbelt bit into her chest, she shifted into reverse and glanced up to check the mirror.

The car at her back pivoted and stopped in the middle of the street, barring her exit. A bead of sweat trickled down her spine as two black-garbed men wearing dark sunglasses emerged from one of the SUVs in front of her. They each held a pistol.

Whoever planned this attack must have watched too many bad action movies.

Cheesy or not, the setup proved damn affective. Some cop might be watching this unfold over a security camera feed, but the Dubai Police had a small force and relied heavily on electronic monitoring. Fast response times didn’t number among their claims to fame.

Twisting her neck around, she braced one hand on the passenger seat and kept the other on the steering wheel. Aiming for the rear axle of the car behind her, she floored the accelerator. The impact reverberated through her seat as the black SUV spun out of her way. Not confident enough to execute a J-turn, she ignored the roaring in her ears, and drove backward at maximum speed.

Never lifting her foot from the pedal, she maneuvered her car to and up the ramp. She could feel her heartbeat on her fingertips, and it took slight dizziness to remind her to fill her lungs. Once she hit the highway, she swung her head to face forward and shoved the transmission into drive. The small fleet of SUVs crowded her rearview mirror, but the clunky old Jeeps couldn’t match the Porsche’s superior horsepower. Zipping ahead at breakneck speed, she kept going until her pursuers became black dots in the reflected image.

As adrenaline receded, her mind snapped into focus. The attack didn’t read like a carjacking. She hadn’t any enemies that she knew of, and her estrangement from her father was well-known. Compared to most of this country’s residents, her net worth was chump change.

Why would any bad guys come after her?

Chapter 1

Six Years Ago

“Mind if I sit?”

Brennan looked over the top of her book to see denim-clad hips and a pair of large chocolate-colored hands. As she tilted her head up, her reading glasses framed a T-shirt-covered torso and toned forearms. She went on to catalogue a set of impressive pectoral muscles sandwiched between defined biceps.

Intrigued enough to continue her perusal, she craned her neck all the way back and heaved a disappointed sigh. A military-style haircut complimented the man’s bony face. Ebony sideburns stretched to his jawline, where it blended with the dark shadow covering his cheeks and chin. The combination would have made his appearance too rugged to fit traditional parameters of attractiveness, but long lashes and full lips tempered his apparent ferocity by an effective fraction.

Faced with a visage of startling symmetry, she could see how some women might consider Captain Karl Reed handsome in a rough and dangerous sort of way. But once someone landed on her naughty list, not even the most drool-inducing mug could return him to her good graces. As an analyst for the Agency, she didn’t hold Department of Defense Captain America types in particularly high esteem. When one had the gall to snore through a classified briefing she’d labored over for, well, at least a couple of hours, he earned a permanent spot on her bad side.

Nudging her glasses up the bridge of her nose, she glared into eyes so dark they appeared black under the clouded sunlight. She scanned the near-empty outdoor seating area of the popular cafe chain before reverting her gaze to the man in front of her. “Aren’t there plenty of other chairs?”

The corners of his lips lifted, his grin a heart-stopping flash of white teeth. “I like this one.”

Years of conflict-avoidance prompted her to remove her bare feet from the vacant seat. He pulled it back, folded onto the narrow chair, and stretched his legs out toward her. Noticing the not so subtle invasion of personal space, she shifted to the left to minimize contact with his long limbs. Of all the people she could run into on a lazy Saturday morning, why did it have to be him?

He slid his booted feet sideways so they once more hit the side of her calf before placing two steaming paper cups on the table. “It was buy-one-get-one-free, so I snagged you a cup.”

Straightening, she placed her book on the table. If he thought one hot beverage he hadn’t paid for and a panty-melting smile would buy her forgiveness, he should brace himself for disappointment. “I don’t work weekends, Captain Reed. If you have questions about my presentation, please set up an appointment through the proper channels.”

He lifted a single eyebrow. She’d always envied people who could pull off that facial expression. Whenever she attempted it, her entire forehead wrinkled and, no matter how hard she concentrated, both her brows quirked up. “No offense, but I’d pay you to never say the words terrorism financing and international law in the same sentence again. And drop the ‘Captain.’ I’m off-duty, and you’re a civilian.”

“Then why are you talking to me?”

He scratched the back of his head. “Isn’t it obvious?”

“No.” Try as she might, she couldn’t come up with a single reason why this exchange should take place.

“Erh…Well…Why don’t you drink your coffee before it gets cold?”

Distracted, she looked down at the cup. “What kind is it?”

“The regular kind.”

She looked askance at the dark brown liquid. “As in drip?”

He nodded.

“I’ve never had one of these here.” She sniffed the murky brown brew. “It’s not on the menu.”

He pointed at the sign behind them. “This place’s name has coffee in it.”

She wrinkled her nose at the stale odor rising with the steam. “And they serve lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, and,” she pointed at the empty plastic container on the table, “Frappuccinos.”

“I never understood the point of drinks that cost more than meals. Who’s dumb enough to buy them?”

She blinked. “Idiots like me, apparently.”

At least he had the decency to look sheepish. When she allowed the silence to stretch, he took a sip of his beverage—one long enough to make her suspect a delaying tactic. “Why don’t you give this regular cup of joe a try? You might like it.”

She placed her fingers on the upper rim of the piping hot container. “They have cardboard holders and lids for these, you know.”

He dismissed her suggestion with flick of his hand. “What’s the point in more waste if you’re not taking it to go?”

Holding her breath, she tasted the bitter liquid before plunking the cup down. “It’s disgusting.”

His eyes widened. He seemed to be thoroughly enjoying his own drink. “Will cream or sugar help?”

“Nothing can salvage that…” Although this would be the ideal place to end their conversation, what little manners she’d been indoctrinated with forced her to add, “But thank you for thinking of me.”

She waited for him to leave, but he just sat there and stared. Her cheeks burned. A nebulous warmth filled her stomach. Squirming, she tried to get a handle on her elevated heart rate. Recognizing physical manifestations of attraction, she shifted discovering the purpose for his visit to the top of her priorities list. “Are you here for a reason?”

Crossing his arms, he leaned back. “I kinda hoped you’d figure this out already. I’m hitting on you.”

“Very funny.”

“You think I’m joking?” His forehead wrinkled. “Who jokes about something like this?”

“Some sort of dare, then?”

He scoffed, “No dare would make me trek out to the ‘burbs on one of my few days off.”

She drummed her fingers on the table. “Northern Virginia is hardly a suburb. What’s your angle, Captain…err…Mr. Reed?”

“My name is Karl.” He closed his hand over hers. His palm was callused, his fingers rough against her softer skin. All of a sudden, her throat seemed so parched that swallowing required conscious thought. She wasn’t the type of woman who received overt sexual advances. An IQ high enough to keep her several years ahead of her age group in school, relatively plain looks, and social awkwardness combined to make an effective man-repellant.

“Captain—”

“Karl.”

“Fine, Karl it is. You’re seriously hitting on me?”

He nodded, crinkles bracketing his eyes. “Seriously. By the way, Brennan is a mouthful, so I’m calling you Bree.”

Startled by his declaration, she forgot to protest being nicknamed after a type of cheese. “Like, in a romantic way…”

“Is there a platonic way of hitting on someone?”

“I guess not.” This new development, combined with his inexplicable presence, warranted further investigation. “When did you decide to hit on me? Before or after you showed up?”

Once again, he lifted a single eyebrow. “Are you accusing me of stalking?”

She could spot a prevarication from a mile away. “Are you denying it?”

“Why bother?” He shrugged. “I looked up your address. This place being on the bottom floor of your apartment building saved me the awkwardness of banging on your door.”

“At 8:00 a.m.,” she added

“Good thing you’re a morning person.”

“Do I want to know where you looked up my address?” Since she had a high enough security clearance to guess what Special Forces unit he belonged to, his ability to locate her didn’t come as a surprise.

He lifted one hand, palm facing forward. “I’ll have to plead the Fifth.”

She probed at the flaw in his entire assertion. “If you’re that attracted to me, shouldn’t you have asked me out when we met?”

“I was too sleepy to think straight.”

She had to give him props for honesty.

“By the time the gears in my brain started churning, you’d marched of in a huff and didn’t hear me running down the hall shouting your name.”

His accusing glare prickled enough for her to liberate her hand from his grasp, but she couldn’t help but feel flattered by the image. No one had ever run after her for any reason. “You could have called…What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

He grabbed her purse and rifled through it. A second later, he held up her smartphone. “Aha! I knew it wasn’t charged. How could I be so sure, you might ask?”

She feigned a cough. “I’m guessing you did call?”

“A couple dozen times. Why buy an overpriced fancy-schmancy gadget and not turn it on?”

At the time of purchase, she’d had every intention of using the damn thing to its fullest potential. But forgetfulness had a way of turning battery-reliant electronic devices into paperweights. Since she preferred to dwell on personal faults as little as possible, she changed the subject. “If you found me so interesting, why did you sleep through my briefing?”

“I didn’t get a good look at you until you woke me up, and your PowerPoint slides had itty bitty little bullet points with numbers in them. I came off a seventeen hour flight, so sue me.” Pausing, he squinted at her. “Wait, no, you’re a lawyer—stop and rewind. How about I buy you a drink to make up for my bad behavior? Actually,” he pointed at the two empty coffee cups, “I already did.”

“I thought you said the second cup was free?”

“Okay, then let me grab you an actual drink. One with alcohol in it.”

She made a show of glancing at her wristwatch. “It’s eight-fifteen in the morning.”

“Spoilsport. How about I buy you one of those fancy latte things that cost an arm and a leg. Which one do you want?”

Since sexy in-shape good-looking confident men didn’t grow on trees, she was tempted.

He lifted her purse and dangled it in the air. “Don’t make me take this hostage.”

Talk about impatient. She leaned into the backrest. “I’d love a grande half-caff non-fat sugar-free peppermint mocha with extra whipped cream.”

His jaw dropped. The victory lasted all of five seconds.

“The whipped cream makes the whole non-fat sugar-free thing pointless, but it’s your arteries.” He curled onto his feet. “Do I even want to ask what a peppermint mocha is?’

He sounded so put out she had to grin. “It’s a Christmastime special. They list the ingredients on the chalkboard by the cash register.”

“Isn’t it still November?”

She fluttered her lashes, only realizing afterward the gesture might be construed as flirting. “As far as stores are concerned, the holiday season starts the day after Thanksgiving.”

He shuddered. “There are certain things I don’t miss when I’m deployed—consumerism sure as hell tops the list.”

*

Everything had gone much better than expected. Having lived long enough to hit the big three-O, Captain Karl Reed was well aware he didn’t have the best effect on women. They liked him fine as long as he kept talking to a minimum. Too many sentences in a row, and things went downhill. Something about the way his mind worked didn’t jive with most members of the opposite sex, and he’d never cared enough about any particular female to hold his tongue. Luckily, Washington, D.C.’s bar scene provided ample opportunity for brief commitment-free hookups.

With Brennan, he didn’t need to think through every word before saying it. It could have something to do with her being as socially awkward as he—in a different way, perhaps, but at an equal level, or so he’d like to think. He’d showed up in her yuppie neighborhood half-believing he’d take one look at the chick and have the warped rose-colored glasses shatter. His obsession made no sense, and part of him had chalked it up to post-deployment euphoria. Blonde hair aside, the woman was a stereotypical geek. With thick spectacles, messy chin-length tresses, and ill-fitting clothes, she had no business causing him sexual frustration.

His first impression of her hadn’t been positive. He’d arrived late for a useless classified briefing to find a bony silhouette next to a projected screen. Gesturing widely, her arms and hair flying in odd directions, she struck him as a math-and-law-obsessed Energizer Bunny, a combination he hadn’t thought possible. But after listening to her blabber for close to an hour, he’d lost the fight to stay awake. He woke to the feel of a small finger jabbing his shoulder. Once cleared, his vision had been filled with golden hair, creamy skin, and deep green eyes.

Turned down in an adorable pout, those full luscious lips had triggered the urge to bite and taste. But by the time his brain had kicked into gear, she’d stomped off. According to his fellow unit mates, his snores had interrupted her speech to a comical degree.

Dismissing the odd attraction as a side effect of prolonged separation from Western civilization, he self-prescribed the cure of a night on the town. But for the first time in his adult life, he’d reacted to Dupont Circle’s frenzied clubbing scene with ambivalence. Sexual frustration convinced him to find out the woman’s address, and curiosity prompted him to pursue his investigation several steps further.

Returning to her table with the promised drink, he paused to savor the view. Watching her lap at the frothy whipped cream, he couldn’t decide what astounded him more—her attractiveness, or how well she’d managed to hide it. A thick unflattering hoodie and baggy jeans made her petite body resemble a rumpled tree trunk. Closer inspection brought attention to her unblemished baby-like skin, silky hair, and what might be subtle curves. A pointed nose, sharp chin, and gold-fringed eyes should have given her the appearance an oversized elf, but a lush mouth and slanting cheekbones added much-appreciated sexiness.

She cleared her throat. “I’m sure you have better things to do than watch me drink coffee.”

“Not really.” Especially since it gave him all sorts of ideas about what kissing her might feel like.

“Don’t you want your own drink?”

“I’ve already had two.”

They stared at each other. He’d never learned how to make small talk and doubted he’d gain the ability within the next few minutes. Glancing at her book, he suggested, “Why don’t you finish your novel? I’ll sit right here and watch you. You won’t even notice me.” Okay, even he realized the proposal came out creepy.

She seemed oblivious. “You’re kind of big and looming.”

Somewhat surprised she hadn’t yet gathered her things in preparation for a swift escape, his mouth opened, and even dumber words tumbled out. “I’m trained to be silent and stealthy. I could walk up to you and snap your neck, and you’d never see it coming.”

He waited for the woman to jump up and run in the opposite direction, something that often happened long before he’d put this many feet in his mouth.

“I doubt it. I have an odd reaction when you stare at me.” Gesturing at her forehead, she continued. “You know the pressure between your eyes when there’s something pointy in front of your face? Well, I get it at the back of my neck when you’re around. Weird, right? Any way…” She placed her elbows on the table and leaned forward. “I thought you embedded Air Force guys are sent over to call in drone strikes. The kung fu stuff is left to the Navy and Marines.”

A sense of absolute certainty hit him like a blow to the gut. If he didn’t go after this girl with everything he had, he’d be the biggest idiot of the Twenty-First Century.

She waved her palm in and out of his line of vision. “Hey. You okay? Did I say something classified by accident?”

She might have, but it wasn’t why he’d lost the ability to form sentences. “No. Yes. I’m not sure. You spooks are more anal about these things anyway. Not that I’m calling you anal…” He came close to clamping his hand over his mouth to stop the verbal diarrhea. “And no, I got recruited into the unit out of the Academy, probably because I grew up speaking Arabic. So I…err…do some of the kung fu stuff, too.”

She placed her chin in the cradle of her hands. “CIA people are kind of anal, myself included. So are your parents Syrian? I’m guessing from your skin tone, and the way your name is spelled.”

He’d known he had the hots of this woman. What he hadn’t expected was he’d like her. “Nah. My deadbeat all-American Dad gave me the super dark tan. Mom’s Lebanese, and she’s as fair as they come.”

She pointed her nose at her half-filled coffee cup. “Do you want to try some?”

He tasted the saccharine concoction and winced. The drink was more artificial sweetener and milk than it was coffee. “Wow. This is really awesome.”

“The drink?”

Choking, he slid the container back to her side of the table. “No. Dating someone who knows what I do for a living.”

“This isn’t a date.”

“Sure it is.” He nodded for emphasis. “We’re in a public place at a table with two seats. I paid for your coffee.”

She narrowed her eyes. “If this is a date, what’s your next play?”

He hadn’t thought this through beyond “Hello,” which he’d forgotten to say. “Can I take you to,” he looked down at his watch, “breakfast?”

Her head tilted ever so slightly to the side. Her cheeks dimpled. “Where?”

He tried to recall his walk from the Metro station. “The burger joint down the street?” he hazarded, his fingers crossed the place had opened in the past twenty minutes.

“I don’t have a whole lot of experience, but I think you might be pretty bad at the whole hitting on women thing.”

“You figured this out now?” Having not engaged in many lengthy conversations with the opposite sex, he’d never crashed and burned on the verbal front with this much flair, or enjoyed female company more.

When she leaned forward, he mirrored her position. “I’m a picky eater,” she informed him in a stage whisper. “You need to come up with a better idea.”

“You must have made plans to do something before I showed up,” he murmured back. “What was it?”

She shook her head. “That won’t work. I was about to go to the farmer’s market to grab some groceries.”

He jumped up. “It totally works.”

“You want to shop for groceries with me?”

“I haven’t bought fresh food in ages. It’ll be fun.”

She swept him from head to toe with her gaze. “It’s a long walk. Aren’t you freezing in a T-shirt?”

“It’s a balmy forty degrees.” He pointed at the knee-length wool coat she’d draped over the back of her chair. “If you’re wearing this today, what happens when it starts snowing?”

“I hibernate.” She stood, reminding him of their difference in height. Without the high-heels she’d worn a few days ago, the top of her head didn’t even reach the center of his chest. “Are you sure you want to come? Shopping for organic locally-sourced veggies doesn’t seem like your thing.”

He grabbed her coat and held it up. “You’re cooking this stuff afterward, right?”

Turning, she slid her dainty little hands into the armholes. “Of course.”

When she swiveled around, he attempted what in his head approximated a charming grin, but chances were high he’d bared his teeth like a crocodile. “Am I invited?”

“To my apartment?”

He managed to keep the smile on his face. “I’ll be on my best behavior.”