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Benson Security’s Secret Santa – the gifts

This story takes place before Rachel’s book, Rich. It also follows on from last month’s story, Benson Security’s Secret Santa. If you haven’t read that already, here’s the link.

On the day of Benson Security’s Christmas party, Elle stood in the middle of the basement workout room and surveyed her decorating efforts. Every surface and object was adorned with twinkling lights or blue and silver tinsel. She’d even wrapped some bling around the weapons stored neatly on the wall for combat practice and, in her opinion, the nunchucks looked way more appealing with a little sparkle. In fact, now that she thought about it, there was definitely a gap in the market for fun, colorful, and shiny weapons. She could start a business. All she needed was a bedazzling kit and a catchy name.

“Do you think we went a bit overboard?” Wearing a dress decorated with candy canes, Isobel McKay didn’t really look like she cared how over the top the decorations were. “Callum’s going to lose his mind when he sees this.”

“No offense, but your husband loses his mind no matter what we do. Even mutter the word ‘party’ within twenty feet of him, and he has a seizure.”

“True. But he’s getting better. All he needed was the love of a strong woman.”

“One with a whole lot of patience.”

“No kidding.” Isobel’s grin was infectious. “I think the tree needs more lights.”

Julia Barone, their office manager, finished up with the caterers and hurried over to them. “We should have had the party in the conference room like we usually do.”

Elle shared a sympathetic look with Isobel. They both knew how hard it was for Julia to change things up. She liked routine, schedules, and lots of Post-its stuck to large whiteboards.

“Don’t worry,” Isobel said. “Everything will be fine. We’ll have a lovely time, and then we’ll clean up. Nobody will die, and nothing will get blown up.” She held up her hand. “Fingers crossed.”

Julia didn’t appear comforted. Her eyes strayed to the life-sized fight dummy in the corner of the room. The padded figure now sported a Santa hat, a tinsel boa, and a Christmas T-shirt printed with a half-naked man holding a box in front of his privates. It said: Open my package first. “We might have gone too far this time.”

“What? With the leery dummy?” Elle had decorated it herself. “It’s funny because the dummy doesn’t have a package. If a guy was wearing that shirt, it’d be gross.”

Julia pointed at the massive disco ball Elle had suspended from the middle of the ceiling. “I suppose that’s a Christmas ball?”

“We grow them big around here,” Isobel said with faux innocence.

Julia blinked at her. “I’m missing something again, aren’t I?”

“Nothing important,” Elle assured her.

“It’s not too late to move to the conference room,” Julia said. “I’ll do all the work. You two don’t have to do anything. We can easily have the party the way we usually do.”

Over Elle’s dead body. “You mean where everybody just sits around the table in the conference room, nibbles cake, drinks a whisky or two, then leaves? Not on my watch. In this space, people can mingle, eat, chat, and dance. And we can play music as loud as we like down here without annoying the neighbors.”

“The conference room’s closer to the kitchen, though.”

“There’s a kitchen in the panic room, if we need it.” Elle pointed to the door opposite them.

Julia’s shoulders slumped. “When you offered to take over organizing the Christmas party, I was grateful. One less thing to think about. But now that you’ve turned it into a basement rave, I’m beginning to regret handing it over.”

“Don’t be such a worrywart. Everything will be fine. I’ve got it all under control.” Sure, she’d had to push, blackmail, threaten and cajole to get that control, but it had all come together in the end.

“At least let me bring in a couple of proper chairs?” Julia pleaded.

Elle surveyed the beanbags dotted around the edge of the room. “Nope. We’re going to relax even if it kills us.” She glanced at the clock high on the wall near the interrogation room. “Go close up the office and make sure everyone’s on their way downstairs. It’s time to get started!”

“And no running away,” Isobel added.

Julia let out a worried little whine.

As their dejected office manager made her way upstairs, Elle opened her Christmas music playlist, and The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” blasted out of the speakers. She then dragged the bag of gifts she’d collected from everyone in their team over to the weights bench, which was decked out as Santa’s throne. Perfect. Now all they needed was Santa.

If this had been any other group of people, Elle would have trusted them to hand out their own gifts. But seeing as it was her less-than-enthusiastic team, she’d thought it better to ensure everyone brought a gift in plenty of time and for her to hold on to them in case they were mysteriously lost.

Dealing with the Benson Security team was like herding kittens.

No, not kittens.

Kittens were too cute and friendly. Baboons, maybe…

Anyway, she had the gifts. The guys had drawn straws to play Santa—which she suspected had been rigged. And she’d blackmailed the last holdout of their team, Violet Lee, with every cybersecurity threat she could think of to make her join the party. There’d been death in Violet’s eyes when she caved. It reminded Elle that whispered rumors circulated about a stream of bodies in the woman’s wake, all of which had died suspiciously and Violent Lee. There was a reason the Glaswegian wasn’t on the police force any longer.

“So.” Rachel’s voice came from behind Elle, making her jump. “This is what it looks like when an elf vomits.”

For once, Rachel had made a holiday concession in her outfit choice, teaming her usual black designer pantsuit with a red silk blouse. It was as Christmassy as Elle could hope for from her.

“Come in.” Elle beamed at her. “Help yourself to food and have a seat. We’re doing presents before the dancing.”

Rachel raised an eyebrow at the abundant buffet. “I thought I was going down into the basement. Turns out I was descending into the Third Circle of Hell.”

There was a deep laugh from higher up the stairs, out of Elle’s sight, telling her Harvard got the joke.

Ryan obviously didn’t because he called out, “What’s the Third Circle of Hell?”

“Gluttony,” Rachel said drolly as she stepped farther into the room.

“The food’s here already? Alright! Let’s party.” Ryan hurried down the stairs. “Yes! Mini sausage rolls.” He jumped the last few steps and headed for the buffet.

“Looks like we’ve lost Ryan,” Megan said with a shake of her head as she followed him into the room.

The tall blonde Scot had dressed for the event in a tight red dress, heels, and a reindeer antler headband.

“What are you supposed to be?” Elle asked.

“Rudolph’s nose.” Megan frowned at Elle. “An elf? Really? You couldn’t come up with something more original?”

Elle shimmied her shoulders, making the bells on her costume ring. “I’m not just any elf. I’m a glow-in-the-dark elf.” She lifted a remote and hit a button, plunging the room into darkness.

“Hey!” came the loud protests.

“I glow in the dark,” Elle called. And she did. It was awesome.

“Put the lights back on before somebody breaks their neck on the stairs,” Callum commanded through the darkness.

Elle put the lights on. “Would it kill any of you to show some Christmas spirit?”

“I’m pretty sure it’d take out Rachel,” Megan mused. “That kind of joy could make her turn nuclear. The blast would wipe us all out.”

“There’s glitter on my workout mat,” Callum barked at Elle. “Bloody hell, there’s tinsel on the knives. When I said we could have a party, I didn’t mean for you to destroy the place in the process. I meant a few drinks in the conference room before we all got shot of each other. What the hell are those? Beanbags? What are you? A hippy?”

“Callum?” Isobel trotted up to her husband’s side with a plate of food in her hand.

He glared down at his wife. “What?”

“Have a sausage roll,” she said and stuffed one in his mouth. “I think now would be a good time to tell you that, seeing as you love Christmas so much, I’ve invited my sisters and their families to spend it with us this year. We’re going to decorate the house together. Lots of decorations. And there will be carol singing. Oh, and I’ve got us all matching Christmas pajamas.” She smiled innocently as she batted her lashes at him. “This party’s looking pretty good now, isn’t it?”

For once, Callum didn’t seem to know what to say. Although his head turned red, and it looked like it might explode. He scowled at Isobel as he chomped on the sausage roll.

Isobel patted his arm. “One more outburst and I’m making you play Santa for the family.” She raised herself on tiptoe, kissed his cheek, and then went back to the buffet table.

“And that’s how you do it,” Ryan said cheerfully.

“Bloody Christmas,” Callum muttered as he stalked away.

“Bah humbug to you too,” Elle called after him. She grabbed the Karaoke microphone wired to the sound system and addressed the room. “Please load up on food and get settled. It’s time for presents!”

“Is the mic really necessary?” Rachel asked.

“Yes.” Elle’s voice reverberated through the speakers. “I’m hoping there will be some singing later. Plus, it’s the only way to be heard over Ryan’s chewing.”

Ryan gave her a thumbs-up from his spot right beside the food. He showed no signs of leaving the buffet any time soon.

“Where’s my Santa?” Elle called, searching the room.

“Getting changed.” Noah was the only man in the group who’d made any effort to dress Christmassy.

“Nice sweatshirt,” Elle told him over the PA system.

“It’s got a hood.” With glee, Noah pulled the hood up. The front of the sweater had the body of a reindeer; the hood had the antlers. “I’ve got the nose too.” Noah stuck his hand into a pocket and pulled out a red nose. Once it was on, he held out his arms as though waiting for applause.

Dimitri shook his head. “I’m embarrassed to know you.”

“Hey,” Noah said. “My kids got me this.”

Joe clamped a hand on his childhood friend’s shoulder. “And that’s why we’re tolerating it—barely.”

“I think it’s perfect,” Julia said.

“I think my reindeer’s better,” Megan said.

Her husband, Dimitri, ran a hand over her hip. “Waaaaay better.”

“Somebody separate them before we need to hose them down,” Ryan called around a mouthful of food.

“Okay,” a deep voice boomed. “Santa is in the house.”

As one, the team turned toward the interrogation room, where Harvard stood in the doorway, wearing a Santa costume that strained at the shoulders and rode halfway up his shins.

“You look awesome.” Joe could barely talk through his laughter.

Noah pulled out his phone. “We need a photo for Beast. He’s gonna be mad he missed this.”

“Bring it on,” Harvard drawled. “My self-esteem is big enough to handle anything you throw at it.”

“Pity the costume isn’t big enough to handle the rest of you,” Dimitri called out, causing more laughter.

“You guys rigged the draw,” Harvard said. “You wanted the biggest guy in the room to wear the smallest costume. And since when is Santa black?”

“Santa’s a fictional character, dude,” Ryan said. “He can be any color we want him to be.”

“Who says you’re the biggest guy in the room?” Dimitri added. “Have we ever measured?”

“For the love of Prada.” Rachel rolled her eyes. “If you fetch a ruler and start dropping trou, I’m out of here.”

It was time for Elle to intervene. “Come on, Santa. Sit on your chair, and we can start handing out the presents.”

With a wry look at the other men in the group, Harvard sat, making the suit strain at the seams even further. Elle lowered the music volume, so Mariah could do her thing in the background.

“Here we go,” she called over the speakers. “Are we excited?”

There was silence. But from the looks on their faces, they were thrilled.

“Wait a sec.” Elle scanned the room again. “We’re missing Violet. I need to deal with this first.”

“Uh-oh,” Dimitri said. “Violet’s in trouble.”

Elle ignored the sniggers and grabbed her laptop from its bag on the interrogation room table. Once open, she brought up the app she used to trace GPS signals. There she was. “She’s in the building. Can someone go upstairs and get her?”

Looks were shared, none of them enthusiastic. In fact, if she were to translate them, they’d say, “hell no,” and “do I look crazy?”

Elle sighed. “Cowards. I’ll deal with this myself.”

“To be fair.” Noah gestured to her with his beer. “You haven’t seen what she can do to a man when she’s annoyed. It ain’t pretty.”

“Men…” Elle grumbled as she stalked over to the intercom and pressed the button. “Violet, get down to the basement right now. It’s party time.”

There was no reply.

“Maybe she left her phone on her desk before she escaped,” Ryan said. “That’s what I’d do.”

Honestly. Did she look like an idiot? “Which is exactly why I hid another tracker on her person this morning.” She pressed the button again. “I know exactly where you are. There’s no use ignoring me. You have ten seconds to get to the basement before I trigger Operation Violate.”

Megan waved to get Elle’s attention. “Operation Violate?”

“Should we ask?” Ryan said.

“Are we interested?” Rachel muttered as she stared at her phone screen.

Elle told them anyway. “She violates the Violet deal, and she suffers online violation.”

Her team stared at her.

“You have way too much time on your hands,” Dimitri said, looking worried. “You can’t just go around tagging whoever you feel like.”

That’s what they thought.

The door at the top of the stairs slammed open, and a very irritated woman stomped down the stairs. Barely topping five feet tall, Violet looked more like a teenager than an experienced cop. Her eyes narrowed as they focused in on Elle.

“You don’t want to make an enemy out of me,” she said in her broad Glaswegian accent.

Elle wasn’t impressed. “Get a grip. It’s a Christmas party. It isn’t like you’re being waterboarded.”

“I’d rather be waterboarded.”

“Amen,” Callum muttered from where he stood before turning to his wife, who was curled up in a beanbag beside him. “All of your sisters? Can we no’ at least have them visit one at a time?”

Isobel reached up and patted his thigh while continuing to work her way through a plate loaded with cake. “I’ll look after you,” she said.

Violet looked over at their boss. “Can she make me stay here?”

“If she can bloody well make me come to this party, she can make you come too,” Callum told her.

“Look.” Elle tried to sound reasonable, but people were beginning to get on her last nerve. “It’s a couple of hours out of your lives. Some time to get to know your teammates and to, hopefully, have a laugh. The sooner you comply, the sooner this will be over.”

“Yes,” Rachel added. “Then you can go back to your cave and resume hanging from the ceiling.”

Violet growled. It was low, and mean, and genuinely scary. Rachel looked up from her phone. A slow, calculating smile curved her lips as the two predators faced off against each other. Julia whimpered.

“Knock it off,” Joe snapped as he lifted Julia out of her beanbag, sat in it, and cuddled her on his lap. “Elle, get on with the presents.”

“It’s Christmas.” Elle took up her elf position beside Santa. “So could we all put aside our weird issues, prickly personalities, and bizarre needs for a few hours and try to remember that we actually care about each other?” She held up a hand when Rachel opened her mouth to reply. “That was rhetorical.” She grabbed a present from the bag and handed it to Harvard.

He looked at it like it might be a bomb. “How does this work? Do people have to sit on my knee to get the gift?”

“Hell no!” Callum barked.

“Just read the labels and hand them out.” Elle wondered if there were painkillers in the panic room. Because her head was beginning to pound.

“Okay.” Harvard read the tag on the brightly wrapped package. “This one’s from Rachel to Megan.”

Crap. Elle’s heart sank. Given the history between the two women and their unwillingness to ever admit they cared about each other, the present could be a time bomb. Literally.

For once, Rachel put her phone down and watched as Megan made her way to Santa Harvard.

“Is it ticking?” Megan asked, as if reading Elle’s mind.

Rachel’s smile wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Bond villain.

With obvious trepidation, Megan took the gift her frenemy had bought for her. Carefully, she undid the perfect wrapping. “You got the staff at Harrod’s to do this, didn’t you?”

“Why on earth would I wrap gifts when there are people who can do it for me?” Rachel sounded genuinely bewildered.

“Right. I forgot. You have servants for that.” Megan tossed the paper to the floor beside Harvard and held up a pale blue Christmas sweater.

It looked so soft that Elle wanted to rub her cheek against it. There were delicate white snowflakes scattered tastefully around the knit, and the color suited Megan’s complexion perfectly.

Megan held it up and burst out laughing before turning it for everyone to see. Written in the middle of the sweater, in typical Christmas script, was the word Ho.

“Seemed redundant to repeat it.” Rachel shrugged.

“I know this is supposed to be an insult,” Megan said, “but I freaking love it. Thanks, Rachel.” There was a moment of awkward silence before Megan said, “Should we hug?”

The two women shuddered, and Megan returned to her beanbag, grinning at the sweater.

“Okay.” Elle breathed a sigh of relief and handed the second gift to Harvard. It was much smaller than the one Megan had received and obviously hadn’t been wrapped by a Harrods staff member.

“This one’s for Violet from Ryan,” he told everyone.

On hearing his name, Ryan dragged his attention away from the buffet table.

Reluctantly, Violet made her way across the room—as though heading to the gallows—to take the package from Harvard. “Thanks,” she said in a tone that implied the opposite.

“You need to open it,” Ryan called, and everyone else chimed in their encouragement.

Violet glanced at the weapons on the wall, and Elle was glad they’d been bedazzled; otherwise, the diminutive Scot might have been tempted to use them on her team.

She ripped off the paper, tossed it aside, and stared at the gift as though trying to figure out what it was.

“They’re earrings,” Ryan told her enthusiastically. “They light up and play music too.”

“You got me Christmas earrings?” Violet’s lip curled in distaste.

Something Ryan didn’t seem to notice because he carried on merrily: “Not just any Christmas earrings. That’s John McLane in Die Hard. He’s crawling through a vent. If you press the button, he says, ‘Merry Christmas, motherfu—’”

“Ryan!” Julia shouted.

“What?” Ryan looked confused.

But not as confused as Violet, who handled the earrings as if they were live snakes. “Thanks?” she said again before returning to her corner.

Unperturbed by her lack of enthusiasm, Ryan seemed pretty pleased with himself.

Harvard cleared his throat. “This is from Callum for Julia.”

“Oh crap,” Isobel muttered, turning to her husband. “I didn’t know you’d picked one of the women. Didn’t I say I’d help if you did?”

“I don’t need help. I can buy a present.” He seemed affronted.

“I have oven mitts that you gave me for Valentine’s that prove otherwise,” Isobel said.

“I’m sure it’s wonderful, no matter what it is,” Julia lied, demonstrating her atrocious acting skills. She took the gift from Harvard and carefully unwrapped it. Unlike the others, she didn’t toss the paper aside; instead, she handed it to Joe, who neatly folded it for her. “Whisky.” She blinked at the bottle. “How thoughtful.”

“You got Julia whisky?” Isobel groaned. “She doesn’t even drink.”

“Well, if she’s going tae start, that’s the one to do it with. It wisnae cheap.”

“Thank you.” Julia snuggled beside Joe.

“Don’t worry,” Joe told Callum. “I’ll make sure it doesn’t go to waste.”

Elle mentally groaned. This was going exactly as well as she’d been warned it would go. Still, her Christmas spirit held out hope that things would improve. Her Christmas spirit was resilient. Or stubborn. Whatever worked.

“This one’s from Violet to Isobel.” Harvard held up a precisely wrapped box.

“Gimme!” Isobel was out of her seat and running, making everyone laugh. She ripped off the paper, threw open the box, and whooped. “A gun!”

“Hell no!” Callum bellowed as he strode across the room. Before Isobel could stop him, he’d removed the box containing the handgun from her grip. He glared at Violet. “You thought it was a good idea to arm my wife?”

“This is a security company. I thought she might need a gun. We all have guns. What’s the big deal?”

“She’s right. I do need a gun.” Isobel tried to grab the package back, but Callum held it out of her reach. “I’d be awesome at shooting stuff. If things get hairy in reception, I can whip it out and sort the problem.”

Violet frowned at Isobel. “You can’t shoot people in reception.”

“See?” Callum demanded. “There are three people in this room who should never touch a gun—Isobel, Elle, and Megan. Unfortunately, I missed the boat with Megan and can’t stop her from being armed. I console myself with the knowledge that Dimitri has some sense and can prevent her from shooting whatever idiot pisses her off. But these two? We’d spend the rest of the century in court if they were armed.”

“You’re being sexist,” Elle pointed out.

“Not sexist. If Ryan wasn’t well trained, I wouldn’t arm him either.”

“That’s fair,” Ryan said.

Callum turned to Megan. “And you’re due for some more training. Joe, can you sort that out?”

“Aye aye, boss.” Joe grinned at Megan.

“Why do I need more training?” Megan pouted. “I’m not a trainee anymore.”

“Because this has reminded me how bloody terrified I am whenever you’re near a gun.” Callum strode across to Violet, handed her the gun, and took the earrings. He gave them to Isobel. “Violet doesnae even have her ears pierced. Take these.”

“Hey! I got those for the scary chick,” Ryan protested.

Violet glared at him.

And he tried to backtrack. “I mean, the… No, I got nothing. You’re terrifying. But if you’re happy giving them away, far be it from me to stop you.”

Slowly, Violet turned from Ryan. “You can have the earrings,” she told Isobel. “But I was serious about shooting someone in reception. You can’t do that. There are too many witnesses. If the situation calls for violence, at least turn off the cameras and clear the room of any bystanders before you shoot.”

Callum’s head fell back, and he muttered something at the ceiling. Elle suspected he was praying.

“We’ll talk,” Isobel told Violet before returning to her beanbag.

Harvard elbowed Elle as the room settled back down. “Whose idea was this secret Santa thing?”

“Mine,” she replied woefully.

“Don’t worry, kid.” He beamed that dazzling white smile at her. “We all have to learn the hard way.”

With a groan, she pulled out the next present and handed it to him.

“This one’s for Joe from Noah,” he told their team.

Elle held her breath while it was unwrapped. It turned out to be a plushie doll with a printed image of a person on the front. A very familiar person: Joe’s best friend and former business partner, who was now based in Benson Security’s Scottish office.

“I know how much you miss Grunt.” Noah’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “Now you can take him everywhere with you. You can even play security together.”

“I only play security with Julia,” Joe drawled, making Julia blush.

Megan rushed over to get a better look at the doll. “This is brilliant. It’s the spitting image of my brother-in-law. You need to tell me where you got this. Do they make them in different sizes? I could get my sister a life-sized one to keep her company when Grunt’s away. She might not even notice the difference. The doll would talk about as much as her husband.” She poked the doll. “Pity it doesn’t have a squeaker that grunts when you press his belly.”

Isobel smacked her forehead. “It just hit me. Grunt is Groot! But instead of saying, ‘I am Groot’ in response to everything, he has several different grunts.”

Megan leaned over and patted Isobel’s head. “You are adorable.”

While they joked about the doll, Elle pulled out another package. Butterflies invaded her stomach because this one was from her. Mentally, she crossed her fingers, hoping her pick liked what she’d gotten them.

Harvard chuckled when he read the label. “It’s Callum’s turn. This is from our resident elf, Elle.”

She couldn’t help it. She was bouncing on the balls of her feet by the time Callum got to the present. Whether from nerves or excitement, she couldn’t tell. There was also no telling what Callum thought of her gift because his face was stone as he considered it after unwrapping it. All you could hear was Bing Crosby crooning in the background, and it felt like the whole room was holding its collective breath. Still, Callum said nothing.

“They’re prosthetic covers.” Elle felt the need to explain. “For days when you want to wear shorts, but you fancy jazzing up your prosthetic legs. I got you Celtic tattoos.”

Slowly, Callum lifted his head and looked her in the eye. For a second, his gaze softened before he nodded and headed back to his position beside Isobel. When his wife held up her hand for the gift, he readily gave it to her. There were tears in her eyes when she looked at Elle.

“This is fantastic,” she said. “The kids will love them too.”

Callum cleared his throat. “Might stop Sophie from drawing on my legs.”

As relieved laughter rippled around the room, a warmth spread throughout Elle’s chest. Callum, the man who’d worried so much about what people would think of his prosthetic legs, liked her gift.

“Stop it,” Ryan wailed from the back of the room. “I’m not crying, you’re crying.”

That made everyone laugh harder, and the moment passed.

“Next up,” Harvard said. “Me. And it’s from Dimitri.” He unwrapped it and barked out a laugh before holding it up for everyone to see. It was a book entitled: How to Succeed at Dating.

“Thought you needed some help,” Dimitri said.

Harvard glanced at Rachel, who was watching everyone with the same expression scientists wore when monitoring an experiment. “Thanks. I think it’s fairly clear that I need all the help I can get.”

Rachel cocked an eyebrow in challenge, and a stare-off ensued between her and Harvard. Elle broke it with another gift.

“Julia’s present for Ryan,” Harvard said.

“At last.” Ryan made his way to the middle of the room. “I thought I’d been overlooked.”

“How could we forget you?” Elle said as he reached for the package.

Harvard held it away from him. “Not so fast. Before you open it, I’d like to ask the room a question. Everybody, what do you think Julia bought for Ryan?”

As one, they chorused, “Food.”

“Funny.” Ryan grabbed his present.

It wasn’t food. To Ryan’s delight, it was a green, printed T-shirt that read: Trust Me, You Won’t Like Me When I’m Hangry.

As the women in the room whooped and the men groaned, Ryan stripped and pulled on his new shirt. It fit perfectly.

“I don’t understand how he can eat like that and still have abs,” Isobel whined. “It isn’t fair.”

“Well.” Dimitri’s voice held a note of authority. “If you were to scan his head, you’d find the only thing keeping his brainpower going is a tiny man cycling hard on a bike. Takes a lot of fuel to keep that cyclist in action.”

“So funny.” Ryan smacked Dimitri on the back of his head as he passed. “So, so funny.”

“Dimitri,” Harvard said. “Stop winding Ryan up and come get your present. It’s from Joe.”

Dimitri examined the thin, flat package. “What could it be?” He arched a brow at Joe. “This better not be a target. I keep telling you I don’t need to practice. I only missed that one time because the gun was faulty.”

“Yeah, right,” Joe drawled.

Dimitri unwrapped the gift and held it up for everyone to see, a wry smile on his face. It was a plaque, one you hung from a door handle, and it read: Don’t Come Knocking If the Closet’s Rocking.

There was a raucous round of applause.

“Really,” Joe said once things had quietened down, “it’s a gift for everyone. Next time you and Megan get amorous in the office, remember the sign.”

“No more opening doors then having to bleach your eyeballs,” Ryan said.

“Don’t listen to them,” Megan told her husband. “They’re only jealous.”

“No,” Noah said. “We’re really not. Mainly we’re disturbed.”

“How about you just stop having sex in the office?” Callum growled.

“I will if you will,” Megan said sweetly.

Callum’s gaze shot to his wife, his cheeks turning red.

Isobel shrugged, suddenly a whole lot more interested in her wine than anything else. “Women talk,” she mumbled.

“Moving on,” Elle called over the uproar. She handed Harvard the second last gift.

He didn’t read the tag. Instead, he gave Rachel such a molten look that the room’s temperature shot right up. “This one is from me to you.”

“Wow, is it suddenly hot in here?” Isobel asked as she fanned herself.

“I’ll turn down the heating.” Julia jumped to her feet, completely missing the subtext. Joe smiled after her with such love in his eyes that it made Elle long for the same.

Slowly, deliberately, even somewhat regally, Rachel walked toward Harvard and took the envelope from his outstretched hand. Their fingers brushed, and for a second, Elle thought she saw actual sparks.

Eyes still on Harvard, Rachel opened the envelope. It contained an embossed piece of quality stock paper. As she read it, her eyebrow arched. “L’Enclume? This has two Michelin stars.”

“Three now.” Harvard’s gaze didn’t leave her face.

“This is an open reservation, signed by the chef Rogan himself.”

“Anytime you want to go, you’ll find a table waiting.”

Rachel considered him. “I’m curious. How did you swing an open reservation in a restaurant booked years in advance?”

“Let’s just say the chef owes me a favor.”

If the two of them were aware that there was a roomful of people hanging on every word of their conversation, neither showed it. They were lost in their own tiny world, playing a game where only they knew the rules. It was mesmerizing.

“The reservation is for two,” Rachel said. “Presumptuous?”

Harvard wasn’t fazed. “You could take someone else, but where’s the fun in that?”

Rachel didn’t say another word, just held his gaze until she turned and glided back to her seat. Which, Elle noticed, wasn’t a beanbag. Where the heck had that chair come from?

The air was thick with speculation and anticipation when Julia stepped back into the room. “I’ve turned the heating down,” she said before sitting beside Joe.

And just like that, whatever strange tension was between Rachel and Harvard popped like a bubble.

“Last one is for me.” Elle waved an oddly shaped package in the air. “And it has to be from Megan.”

“You’re welcome,” Megan said with a little bow.

Elle wasn’t paying any attention to her; she was too busy trying to open the gift. “I need scissors. Did you use a whole roll of tape on this?”

“I’ll get them.” Julia headed to the panic room and returned with a pair.

“Thanks.” Elle carefully cut off the wrapping paper and discovered a plain brown cardboard box. She removed the lid and found a ziplock bag with a paper cup inside. A used paper cup.

What the…?

As realization dawned, Elle was vaguely aware of Isobel berating Megan. “That’s the worst present ever. If it was supposed to be funny, it isn’t.”

“Wait,” Megan said.

Elle felt a tingling in her fingers and toes as her breath caught in her chest. Her gaze flew to meet Megan’s. “Fingerprints and DNA?”

“Yup.” Megan looked particularly pleased with herself. “Don’t ask how I got it.”

“Does he know you have it?” Elle’s mouth was suddenly dry.


“Are you nuts?” Ryan shouted. “We just got her weaned off searching for the spy, and you go and start her back up again? He told her not to hunt for him. He was very firm about it.”

“I thought you had David’s DNA already,” Joe said.

“I don’t think it was his.” She grinned at Megan, aware it might look a tad maniacal. “But this definitely is?”

“Oh yeah.” Megan nodded.

“Okay.” Elle drew back her shoulders. “Party’s over. Thanks for coming.” She headed for the stairs. There was work to do. She had a very sexy spy to trace.

“Not so fast.” Violet moved to block her path and was quickly joined by just about everyone else. “You forced us to come to this party and to exchange gifts. We’re here. Which means you’re staying until it’s over.”

“You’re free to go. It’s over.” Elle looked around at her wickedly amused team.

“I don’t think so.” Callum’s eyes sparkled—a look that was unusual on him. “You blackmailed, harassed and threatened us all into socializing. We’ve only just started, and it wouldn’t be right to do it without you.”

“You hate parties,” Elle protested.

His smile was pure evil delight. “This one is growing on me. Come on, Elle, there’s dancing and drinking and food aplenty.” He snatched the plastic bag with the cup from her hand and passed it to Joe. “Lock this in the safe. Elle won’t be needing it right now.”

“But I don’t want to dance,” Elle wailed.

“Welcome to the club,” Callum said as he led her to the dance floor.

“This isn’t fair,” Elle complained to everyone around her.

They weren’t listening. They were too busy laughing and taking turns blocking her exit.

“If I apologize for forcing you all to be here, can I leave?” she asked them.

“No,” they chorused.

As “Last Christmas” started to play, someone turned up the music.

“I hate Christmas,” Elle muttered.

“Liar,” Callum said as he spun her toward Ryan.

“Don’t worry, Ellie,” Ryan said. “The sooner you comply, the sooner it will be over.”

“You’re the worst best friend on the planet,” she told him.

“Merry Christmas to you too,” he said as he held her tight.

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