Authors: J.M. Madden
Tags: #Romance, #Military, #Christmas, #Xmas
She grinned even more and leaned up to give him a peck on the lips. “I love you too big guy. I’m going to go back in the office and work on payroll. Can you handle this for a while?”
He nodded and watched as she walked away.
“Hits you in the gut, doesn’t it?”
Zeke nodded before he turned to Chad and held out a hand. “Good to see you, buddy. W-what’s up?”
Chad settled onto a chair, chewing gum. “I made the call and had to do some fancy dancing, but Operation Wilde is a go.”
Zeke let out a whoop and slapped hands with his buddy, but he didn’t even care that most of the patrons in the bar looked his way. This was freaking awesome news. “Everything on this end is s-s-set, too. Food’s arranged and we’ll officially be closed that n-night.”
“I saw the sign on the door. Ember and her dad don’t mind having the party here?”
Zeke made a face. “Hell, no. Th-they’re e-ecstatic to do it. Everything will be ready.”
“Good. If you need help just let me know.”
Chad slipped off the chair. “I’m heading home. Lora made chili tonight in celebration of Mercy’s last day of school and I’m running late. See ya, Zeke.”
Zeke waved and greeted a customer, but his mind was still on the upcoming Christmas party. This was going to be something.
uncan huffed out
a breath and turned for the door. Everybody would be meeting at the Frog Dog in a couple hours and he needed to head home and get cleaned up. He’d been in the same clothes entirely too long.
Excitement sped his blood. The party had been in the planning stages for a couple months and he knew the guys were looking forward to blowing off some steam. They’d all been working harder than normal, trying to ease the ever-growing workload.
Max had integrated into the group as if he’d always been here. When Duncan had hired the former SEAL he hadn’t expected him to settle in as if they’d always been friends, but he had. And the man had done everything Duncan had assigned him. And more. He had quickly become invaluable.
Duncan hurried through his scalding hot shower, hoping it would ease some of the inflammation in his joints. He dreaded the long night ahead. If he sat as much as possible maybe he could last a little longer. Luckily Chad had volunteered to do most of the work.
When he pulled up to Frog Dog he allowed himself to park in the handicapped spot without guilt. There were enough spaces for everybody tonight. Glancing up through the windows of the heavy oak door he did a visual of the occupants in the room.
A Christmas tree glittered in the far corner of the bar and he could see brilliant lights on every available surface. Grif was holding Kendall in his arms, swaying to Christmas music Duncan could hear even outside. Their baby Jameson, swaddled in a blue blanket, seemed to be bundled between them as they danced. Flynn was on the opposite side of the room with his pregnant wife, Willow. Kendall and Willow could not be more different, light to dark, but they both carried their motherhood well. Kendall was tall and lean, model beautiful. Willow was more lush and seemed to be lovelier than the last time Duncan had seen her. Pregnancy agreed with her sturdy frame. Flynn stood attentively at her side, ready for any request, with Maya curled at his feet. Drew, Ember’s little boy, patted her on her side.
Zeke crossed his line of sight with a handful of beer bottles in his huge hand, giving them away. Roger and his new girlfriend sat at the bar talking to Shannon. Duncan couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Roger with such a happy expression on his lean face. Shannon smiled at something he said, but she looked pensive too.
Duncan realized he would be one of the only singles in the room that night. In the past year and a half a significant percentage of the Lost and Found Investigative Service had bitten the love bullet. He couldn’t be jealous though, because the men deserved every bit of happiness they’d ever been denied.
As he stepped into the cold night and walked toward the warmth of the building he forced his expression to lighten. Being happy for his people would be enough for him this year.
When he stepped into the bar conversation stopped, then immediately started up again with shouts of greeting. Duncan felt like Norm from
. Laughing, he moved through the ever-changing crowd of people, accepting gentle slaps on the back and holiday wishes. A beer was shoved into his hands and he accepted it gratefully. In the interest of partying he had forgone his usual painkiller cocktail for the night. Beer would have to do.
John sat at one of the tables, brooding. Duncan slid into the padded bench seat and stretched out his legs. They clinked bottles and raised them in a toast.
“To soft chairs and cold beer,” Duncan said, raising the bottle.
John grinned and his dark eyes lit with laughter. “And to compliant women.”
Duncan barked out a laugh and turned his head to make sure Shannon wasn’t within hearing distance. “Are you trying to land in the doghouse?”
John shook his head and grinned, eyes searching out his girlfriend. “Nah, I’m good. I can do no wrong tonight.”
Cocking a brow, Duncan waited for an explanation.
“I bought her a puppy.”
The satisfied look on John’s face told Duncan that there might be issues later, if what was going on was what he
was going on. “Are you sure that’s a good idea, Palmer?”
Tipping the bottle back, his partner swallowed heavily. “I damn well hope so.” He winked at Duncan. “It’ll work out. Don’t worry.”
Chad pulled up a spare chair and swung it around backwards. “What are you two old men laughing about?”
“Palmer’s demise at the hands of an angry woman.”
Laughing heartily, Chad clinked bottles with Duncan. “I’ll have my camera ready.”
Palmer shook his head. “You don’t give me any credit.”
Chad and Duncan laughed again. “Well,” Duncan reminded him softly, “wasn’t it you who got her a set of tires for her birthday a couple months ago?”
Palmer’s ears reddened just a bit. “Hey, she appreciated those tires I will have you know.”
But they all laughed.
Duncan looked around. “Where is Mercy?”
Chad’s mouth quirked. “Well, she’s kind of avoiding me right now.” He motioned with his chin toward the far corner where the women had begun to congregate with the kids. “I’m missing some big sign I guess, because I can’t figure out what she’s mad at me about. I’m hoping she’ll tell Santa.”
His blue eyes twinkled with humor.
Duncan shook his head slowly back and forth. “You both are walking the fine line with women. I’m glad I don’t have to deal with all that drama.”
Inside he cringed at the lie.
Chad and John were sharing an odd look.
“What?” he asked.
Both men shook their heads and lifted their beer bottles. Duncan felt like they had just had a silent conversation over his head and he wasn’t sure he liked being left out of the loop.
Ember gave a sharp whistle to get the group’s attention and he pivoted around. Her father Hank stood at her side, smiling out at all of the people. A lot had changed with the older man. He looked healthier and more at ease than the last time Duncan had seen him. This time last year Ember had had him arrested for domestic violence and he had been forced to get treatment for his PTSD issues. Hank held Drew’s hand, the little boy clutching a green Hulk toy under his arm.
Zeke stood off to the side, his harsh mouth smiling as he watched the woman he loved.
“We wanted to thank everyone for joining us tonight. We’ve been planning this party for about a month now and all of my wait staff and managers have done a phenomenal job. Please thank Deena and Katy the next time you see them in the bar.”
Ember leaned into her father. “Dad has also worked really hard to get Frog Dog ready. Most of the food he has prepared himself. With a little help from the sous chef, of course.”
Drew nodded his head proudly, sending appreciative chuckles around the room.
“Now, I hear Santa is coming.” Drew’s little mouth fell open and Duncan saw Mercy’s head peek out of the group of women in the corner. Ember looked around theatrically. “Maybe we have a few kids that would like to take a picture with Santa and tell him what you’re hoping for this year.”
That was Chad’s cue to slip out of the booth and go get changed in the back office.
“And finally, to all you guys. We appreciate your service to our country and your loyalty. I loved having you come into the bar when you were just customers, but now that you’re family I appreciate you all the more. You’ve become some of the best friends I could ever imagine having.” Her dark gaze settled in on Zeke. “Zeke, you have become the other half of me. I can’t imagine going back to my life before you were in it. I love you so much.”
Ember left her father to go to Zeke and tipped her head up for his kiss. The big man shook his head though, denying her, and produced a square, brilliantly wrapped red and silver package from behind his broad back. Ember cocked her head, smiling quizzically, and reached for it.
Duncan watched, breath held like everyone else in the room as she ripped off the ribbon and tore open the package. She paused when she pulled out the tissue. Carefully she drew out the glittering figurine of an elephant. It was only about five inches tall, but it was covered in Swarovski crystals from the tip of its trunk to the end of the tail.
Ember gasped and tears filled her eyes. “Oh Zeke,” she sighed.
Eyes glowing, he winked at her but pointed out a seam on the figurine’s midline, where the glittering enameled red blanket covered the animal’s back. Ember pulled at the blanket with a fingernail and it popped up, revealing a hidden compartment. She stared inside for a long moment before giving a cry and launching herself into Zeke’s waiting arms.
Duncan had already seen the ring. Actually, he’d gone with Zeke to pick it out. For some reason the younger man thought that he, with a broken engagement behind him, would have decent input. But apparently the ring pleased Ember. He watched as she drew it from the little box and handed it to Zeke. With no further prompting the big man dropped to a knee.
“Will you marry me, Ember Norton?”
Not one single stutter in Zeke’s deep voice, though it may have quivered just a bit.
Ember sobbed as she held a quaking hand out for him to slip the glittering ring on. “Happily. I love you so much.”
Pulling her into his arms Zeke stood, pressing kisses all over her face.
Even Duncan got a little choked up. After all the trial’s Zeke had had he deserved to find his happy ever after. Looking to his left he tried to read John’s glowering face, but the other man was looking at Shannon who stood wiping away happy tears with the other women across the room. As if feeling John looking at her she searched him out. At first she smiled, brows raised, but when John didn’t react to her expression she looked away. Now Duncan knew the tears were for a different reason.
“You’re a damned idiot, Palmer.”
John tossed him a fierce look. “Shut the fuck up, Wilde.”
For the first time in years, maybe ever, he was disappointed in John Palmer. The man had the mind of a genius, was supportive of his men, always gave his all to the company. But he’d just shot Shannon down in front of anyone watching. Hopefully the tableau of Zeke and Ember had kept most everyone’s attention.
Duncan wanted to cross the room and give Shannon a hug but he worried that that would only draw attention to her. When she excused herself and headed down the hallway to the restroom, Duncan pushed out of the booth and followed her.
She hadn’t even gotten to the restroom door. Shannon leaned against the wall, weeping quietly. Her head jerked up at the sound of his cane behind her, but she didn’t go anywhere.
Duncan held out an arm and she turned into him, sobs choking her.
If he could heal her broken heart he would absolutely do it. Long ago Shannon had gone beyond employee to true friend. “He’s a damn ass, Shannon. You know that. For some reason he’s being a bigger ass than normal about this.” She choked out a laugh. “But you know he loves you.”
The sobs had eased and she nodded her head. “I know. It’s just hard. I don’t know what I need to do to get him to believe in us.”
Duncan shook his head. “As hard as it sounds, I think you may need to say something to him about it. You’ve been together for more than a year now, but you’re not happy.”
She nodded, took a deep breath and stepped back. “I know. I’ve tried to give him a couple of hints but he’s not picking them up.”
Snorting, Duncan quirked a brow at her. “Unless you’ve hit him in the head with a two by four he’s not going to. This is former Gunnery Sergeant John Palmer we’re talking about. The epitome of stubborn and set in his ways.”
Laughing, Shannon nodded her head. “You are very right. And I know that. It just almost feels like begging to me if I tell him I want to get married. I need him to have that want himself, without me kicking him along to do it. It’s like Christmas. I know he’s sitting out there glowering, thinking this is a ridiculous holiday and wishing he were home tinkering. When we have kids I don’t want to have to explain to them why their dad is such a grouch.”