MERRIED—AN UNSTOPPABLE CHRISTMAS
One week before Christmas
“When I said ‘everyone,’ Casper, I meant everyone. That includes you.”
“C’mon, Rile. You know I don’t do shit like this.”
“Here is what I know, my friend. You haven’t celebrated Christmas since Beau died.”
He was right, and I wasn’t about to start now. Four years ago, on the second day of December, I received the news every family member who has someone serving in the armed forces, an intelligence agency, or other types of law enforcement dreads.
While the CIA agents hadn’t shown up at my house, when the man in charge of the mission I’d been assigned to called me into his office and there were two other men I didn’t recognize already there, I knew. Beau had been killed in the line of duty.
I’d immediately asked to be relieved from duty and returned to the home Beau and I had shared in Florida since before we were married. Every year since, I’d managed to avoid Christmas parties, Christmas cards, Christmas everything.
“You’re asking too much of me, Rile. If my refusal to attend means the Invincibles don’t want me on their team anymore, I’ll understand.”
“There’s more at stake, Calla. A new team has formed. It’s headed by Fury Storm and Vex Dunning. At a meeting last week, the two gave us a list of those to whom they’d like to extend partnerships. Your name appeared first.”
“Tell them to send me a proposal, and I’ll look it over, but I’m not coming to a fucking Christmas celebration to talk business or for any other reason. Nothing is going to make me change my mind.”
“I’m sorry to hear you say those words. I pray something, or someone, will convince you to reconsider.”
After ending the call, I went out to the backyard and sat on a chaise next to the swimming pool. While it rarely got above eighty in December on Di Lido Isle near Miami Beach, today was one of the rare times it got to almost ninety.
Our house, which we’d inherited from Beau’s parents, was too big just for me, but I’d never leave it. The pool was one of the first things we’d replaced once we were able to afford to. After that, we remodeled the kitchen and transformed it into something sleek and modern. Then the bedrooms and bathrooms.
After Beau died, I’d briefly considered selling the place, but quickly changed my mind. While our time living here together had been too short, the memories we made were the best of my life.
I closed my eyes and raised my face to the warmth of the sun, remembering the last time we were here. Four years ago. Thanksgiving. We’d made a feast big enough to serve a dozen people for just the two of us because, as far as Beau was concerned, there was nothing better than Thanksgiving leftovers.
It was warm that week too, not that normal temperatures would’ve stopped us from swimming in the pool, lying in the sun, or making love on the outdoor bed.
“Dammit,” I muttered when my cell rang. If it was Rile again, I’d let it go to voicemail. Instead, it was someone else I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk to—Spider.
I let it ring one shy of it going to voicemail before hitting the accept button. “Hi,” I answered.
“Casper. How’s it goin’?”
I smiled, shook my head, and looked up at the sky. “Good, Spider. How are you?”
“I’m in your neighborhood. Thought I’d see if you wanted to meet for dinner.”
I bolted upright. My neighborhood? I lived on a guarded-gate private island. “Where exactly?”
“Actually, not quite your neighborhood. I’m at my parents’ place in Palm Beach.”
I rested against the chaise, breathed a sigh of relief, and laughed. “Yeah, not quite, given you’re at least two hours from here.”
“The invitation still stands.”
Spider was a nice enough guy, and we’d become friends while working a serial killer investigation in the Adirondack State Park. I had no doubt those we worked with believed it was more than friendship. However, I didn’t care what they thought. I never paid much attention to anyone’s opinions about me. Especially after Beau died.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said, jarring myself back to Spider’s call.
“There’s something I want to run by you.”
“It’s better if I tell you in person.”
“What’s the short version?”
“There isn’t a short version. Come on, just have dinner with me. It’s something that will benefit both of us.”
I sighed. “When?
I didn’t have much food in the house, so I might as well let the man buy me dinner. “Where?”
“I’ll pick you up.”
This house was my sanctuary. The place I came to, to get away from the rest of the world. I never invited anyone here. “The island is gated. It’ll be easier if I meet you somewhere.”
“I’ll pick you up at seven. Wear something dressy.”
“I don’t do dressy.”
“C’mon, Casper. Play along. If you don’t have anything in your closet you would define as dressy, you have three hours to go out and get something.”
Play along? What the hell did that mean? And three hours? Did he know nothing about Miami Beach traffic? Or women?
“See you at seven.”
“Wait. No.” Three chimes indicated the call had ended. Whether he’d heard me respond or not didn’t matter. Spider would show up here anyway.
When the sun went behind a cloud, I went inside to look for something to wear. I was here so infrequently I couldn’t remember what was in my closet.
“Slinky black dress, another slinky black dress. Those won’t work. Way too sexy,” I said out loud as I thumbed through the hangers. The next one was a maxi dress with long sleeves and a high collar. Since it was also black, it could qualify as “dressy.” At least dressy enough.
I rummaged through my shoes, finding a pair of heels all the way in the corner. I hadn’t worn heels since Beau died, mainly because I never did anything other than work and my job didn’t call for stilettos. The other reason I didn’t was my height. At five feet eleven, an extra two inches meant I was taller than most men. How did I know? I’d looked it up once. Only fourteen percent of men were six feet or over.
Beau had been six-three. While I didn’t know exactly how tall Spider was, he was close to my husband’s height. Not that it mattered in this instance. It wasn’t like this was a date. Spider said he had something he wanted to run by me and that it would benefit us both. It had to be work-related.
At seven on the dot, the house phone rang. Given no one had the number besides the gatehouse, I knew they were calling to announce Spider’s arrival. I still hadn’t decided how to handle him showing up here but was leaning toward waiting outside so I didn’t have to invite him in.
I grabbed my clutch and rushed to the door, reaching it at the same time I heard a knock.
“Hi,” I said, stunned when he stepped forward to kiss my cheek. “Um, do you want to come in?” Wait, hadn’t I just decided not to invite him inside?
He looked at his watch. “We have to leave now if we’re going to make our reservation.”
“Excuse me.” He took a step back so I could close and lock the door.
After I had, he led me to a red vintage Alfa Romeo Spider. I grinned. “Apropos.”
His cheeks turned almost the same color as the car, and he rolled his eyes before opening the passenger door. “My dad’s idea of the perfect sixteenth birthday present.”
“It suits you.”
He chuckled. “Yeah? I always feel like Magilla Gorilla when I drive it with the top down.”
“A cartoon from before you and I were even born. My grandfather showed me a photo of the character driving a convertible once and told me I looked just like it. After that, I couldn’t get the image out of my head.”
He shut my door and walked around to the other side of the car.
“Where are we going?” I asked when he got in and started the engine.
“It’s a surprise.”
“I don’t like surprises, Spider.”
He backed out of the driveway and drove in the direction of the gate. “Trust me.”
Trust was an issue for me. The only man—only person—I’d truly ever put my unfailing faith in was Beau. After he was killed, from all accounts by friendly fire, any belief I had in anyone protecting me, putting my best interest ahead of theirs, ended.
I suppose I had a modicum of confidence in the leaders of the two private security and intelligence firms I contracted for, but the idea that I was expendable—like my husband had been—never left the back of my mind.
“Raspoutine,” Spider said, looking over at me while we waited for the exit gate to open.
“Wow,” I responded, raising a brow. The first restaurant by the same name had opened in Paris in the mid-sixties, but that location was more of a nightclub than a restaurant. Beau took me there once. I still had no idea how he’d secured a reservation since it was the kind of place celebrities, dignitaries, and other billionaire types frequented.
I’d never been to the Miami Beach iteration, known as much for its dinner club as for the party scene it transitioned into at the stroke of midnight.
While I was a third-generation American, my family on my father’s side was Russian—a fact Spider would’ve discovered on the dossier I had no doubt the FBI had provided him. How he knew I was a sucker for smoked fish, salmon roe, homemade blinis, and pavlova, was a mystery. And maybe he didn’t.
“Have you been before?” I asked as he navigated his way seemingly without a map, more impressive because he knew to stay off the main drag, which would turn the ten-minute drive into an hour.
“I haven’t, but I’ve always wanted to.”
When he pulled up to the entrance, two valets approached the car. “I’ll escort the lady,” I heard him say to the man who opened the driver’s door. Mine remained locked, to the apparent chagrin of the second guy.
“Welcome, Mr. Vaughn,” the Russian-accented maître d’ said when we walked through the door the second valet held open for us. “Please follow me. Your table is ready.”
“I thought you said you’ve never been here before.”
As with my comment about his car, Spider flushed. “I haven’t.”
I waited until we were seated and he’d accepted our host’s offer of two shots from the bottle submerged in ice he’d set on the table, before I mentioned it. “You seem embarrassed.”
“My mother and father are regulars.”
“I asked my dad to secure the reservation.”
“Again, why does that embarrass you?”
He sighed, rested his arms on the table, and leaned toward me. “I try not to take advantage of my parents’ largesse.”
“Poor little rich boy?” I’d meant to tease him, but it fell flat. “Sorry,” I mumbled.
“It’s okay. It’s just…I caught a lot of slack for it when I first joined the bureau. As if I wouldn’t take my job seriously since my parents were wealthy. So, yeah, poor little rich boy.”
The size of my bank account bothered me more than embarrassed me. The CIA had, for all intents and purposes, bought my silence after the circumstances of Beau’s death were uncovered by the Invincibles, the team whose Christmas party I was refusing to attend. The current director of the agency, Kellen “Money” McTiernan, had arranged for the “settlement,” not just for me but for all the families who’d lost loved ones during the years the intelligence community was rife with corruption and abuse of power.
Rounding out my net worth was the value of the house Beau had first inherited, then left to me. When his family had bought the land and built it, they probably paid under ten grand for it. Now it was worth upwards of five million, according to the most recent appraisal.
Conversation, or lack of it, had been easy between Spider and me since we first met, and tonight was no different. We quietly sipped our vodka—rather than downing it like a shot, as was Russian tradition—each taking in the opulence of our surroundings. The dimly lit main room was almost one color. The bar and windows were backlit in red. The chairs, table clothes, even the candles were the same color. The only things that differed were the carpeting, which was floral-patterned red and ivory, and the gold chandeliers with warm-white bulbs hanging above the tables. It was hard to imagine that in a few short hours, the space would be transformed from a restaurant to a dance club.
I couldn’t explain my willingness to accept my friendship with Spider when my modus operandi was to push people away. Maybe it was because he never asked much of me besides company. Maybe it was because he sensed, like I had, that neither of us quite fit in with the team of agents with whom we’d worked our last mission.
Fitting in had never been easy for me, even before Beau’s death. He’d asked me once what the hardest emotion for me to convey was. Like had been my answer.
With his sole exception, and now Spider’s to a certain but different extent, I didn’t let people in. I didn’t desire friendships, either with people I worked with or outside of my job. I was perfectly happy being a loner. The only loneliness I did feel was for my dead husband.
I looked over and realized Spider was studying me. Too intently for my comfort.
“You look beautiful tonight, Casper.”
I felt my own cheeks flush and lowered my gaze. I wanted to punch his arm and tell him to knock it off, like I would’ve in seventh grade. Instead, I thanked him.
“You look nice too, Spider.”
I’d definitely noticed how attractive he was the first time we met. Besides his height, he was as buff as any of the other agents I’d worked with during my time with the CIA and subsequently. While he looked nothing like Beau, there was something about his eyes—their warmth, I suppose—and the way his blond hair always looked like he’d just gotten out of bed that appealed to me on the same visceral level as my husband’s appearance.
“I wish I knew what you were thinking,” he said like he had so many times before. Most of the time, I had a snappy—or bitchy, as some considered it—comeback for him. Not this time.
“I’m wondering why you invited me to dinner.”
“As I said, there’s something I want to run by you.”