Here’s a sneak peek at my upcoming Soldiering On Christmas Novella – Christmas Tango. I hope you enjoy it!
Duncan tugged at the unfamiliar noose around his throat—also known as a bow tie. He was trussed up in a penguin suit, suffocating in the restrictive clothing.
The grand ballroom was stifling, though whether that was reality, or a hallucination brought on by lack of breath, Duncan couldn’t be sure. All he knew was that he didn’t belong in this place.
The room was fancier than any he could remember being in. The roof above them was at least three stories up, and made entirely of glass. Balconies stretched across the upper portions, giving a perfect view of the mingling crowd. Instrumental Christmas music drifted from hidden speakers, and sconces dotted the walls, simulating flickering candlelight like a ballroom of old. Wreaths and bells hung the walls, adding a festive cheer to the dull proceedings.
A sharp elbow jabbed his side. “Smile,” Mandy hissed. Her fingers tightened on his arm, pressing her point.
Duncan plastered on a smile, but even he could tell it probably looked more like a grimace. Mandy rolled her eyes at him, but he just shrugged, unrepentant. He hadn’t wanted to come. She should be thankful that she got that much. Pretending to enjoy the stuffy occasion was one step beyond.
Mandy Lennox, bane of his existence and his business partner—in that order—had, in her infinite wisdom, forced him to come to this Christmas fundraising auction. Despite his stark refusal to accompany her, he had still somehow found himself in a custom-made tuxedo, escorting Mandy around a room full of rich people. She claimed it would be a good networking opportunity, wanting to find wealthy clients for their joint business.
Soldiering On was his pride and joy. He’d started the security company—with Mandy’s help—over a year ago to give veterans injured in the line of duty an opportunity to continue using their skills after being discharged. But the best part of the job was that they could help people that needed it—people that needed protection, or expertise. Duncan and his team were doing something that mattered.
He could admit to a need for at least a few well-paying clients like Mandy wanted, but it wasn’t his priority. The people that needed their help were. But it was Mandy’s mission in life to find high-paying clients for Soldiering On, and the only thing she seemed to care about. As long as it didn’t interfere in his life, he didn’t mind what she did. But playing nice with a bunch of wealthy people hadn’t been on Duncan’s agenda.
At least Mandy looked stunning in a thin sheath dress the colour of midnight. Her creamy shoulders were left temptingly bare, and her blonde hair was twisted up into a complicated knot. He had never felt their stark differences more keenly than he did in that moment. She was sleek, breathtakingly elegant, and clearly belonged in this crowd in a way he never would, despite his expensive tuxedo. He was a rough soldier with a bad leg and barely a dime to his name.
A man with teeth like a lighthouse beacon moved into Duncan’s field of vision, grinning unnaturally wide. Duncan blinked, bringing his thoughts away from his business partner and onto the intruder.
“Mandy,” he said, eyeing Duncan’s companion with an unsubtle appreciation. “How lovely to see you again.”
Since no one looked his way, Duncan felt safe rolling his eyes.
“Charles,” Mandy purred. “You’ve done a lovely job with the decorations. So festive. It seems like the evening will be a real success.”
She bent forward to kiss the man’s cheek, oozing charm.
Charles lapped it up. “Thank you. I hope you’ll stay for the after-party.” He winked—actually winked!—at her.
Mandy wasn’t fooled. Duncan was sure he was the only one that noticed the imperceptible tightening around her eyes that showed her displeasure. But her smiled stayed in place.
“That will depend on what my date wants to do, since he’s my ride. This is Duncan.” She nudged Duncan, who obediently stuck out his hand.
Charles’ gaze shifted to Duncan for the first time. The disinterested look told Duncan that Charles had already forgotten his name. “Hey, pal. Welcome to the party.”
They shook hands and let go before it was polite.
“Well, I better do the rounds,” Charles told them. He disappeared into the crowd, which consisted mostly of men and women between the ages of 60 and 103 from the looks of things.
Duncan felt old most days, now that he was pushing forty and had retired from the military. But this lacklustre crowd made him feel positively sprightly.
“Your date?” he asked slyly.
Mandy rolled her eyes. “I had to put him off somehow. He’s obscenely wealthy, so I like to keep him onside. But he’s persistent.”
“Well, I’m happy to run point between you and any men tonight. They really should learn to take a hint.”
The fact that Charles had completely ignored Duncan and the proprietary hand Mandy had on his arm irked him. Why would it be so out of the question that they were an item? Or had Charles just not cared either way?
He also realised something else. “Am I the only Black guy in the room?” he asked Mandy under his breath, bending down to her so that his words couldn’t be overheard.
Mandy huffed. “I admit the crowd is rather monochrome tonight.”
“Why am I even here?” he asked her. He obviously didn’t fit in, and not because he had inherited his father’s dark skin. These people were born into money. He was career military, like his father before him. He didn’t have centuries of wealth and power behind him.
Mandy narrowed her eyes at him. “If I have to suffer through this evening, then so do you.”
Duncan blinked. “What are you talking about? You love this stuff.”
“It’s a necessary evil. I see the benefits, and they outweigh the inconvenience to myself.”
Duncan never knew quite what to expect from Mandy.
“You’re a constant surprise,” he told her.
“I do actually like the dancing, when they have it,” she admitted with a shrug. “But the rest I could take or leave.”
Duncan’s mood soured even more. Of course she liked dancing. One thing he could no longer do now that his leg was so badly banged up from the war.
Not having noticed his reaction, Mandy scanned the room, her gaze landing somewhere behind him. Her expression lit up.
“The food’s out,” she said and dragged him in the direction of a white table-clothed sideboard loaded with dishes covered with silver lids. The only other person that seemed to have clocked to the food was a man in a suit a few levels below what most of the other guests were wearing.
Duncan smiled briefly, glad he wasn’t the only one completely out of place at a ritzy event.
The guy frowned when he saw Duncan eyeing him and backed off. Duncan sighed. He didn’t mean to glare. It was just his face, and size. But he tended to make people nervous.
“I should check in with the office,” Duncan murmured as Mandy loaded up a plate full of tiny, complicated-looking pieces of food.
Mandy glared as she munched on something that resembled a mushroom with leaves on it. She swallowed. “It’s nine o’clock at night. No one is there.”
Duncan took a breath, but she interrupted him before he could get a word out. “I know that Blake is on call, but don’t bother him. He’ll let you know if he needs you.”
“Why are you so concerned that I not call him?”
She smiled sweetly. “Sierra has something special planned for tonight. You don’t want to interrupt.”
Duncan shuddered. That was more than he’d wanted to know. Still, he pulled out his phone—just to check the time—and saw that the battery was dead.
“Bloody hell,” he muttered.
“I told you,” Mandy said, peering at his screen upside down. “You need to get a portable charger. Or a better phone.”
It was a familiar argument. “It’s fine, I just forgot to charge it.”
She rolled her eyes. “You’re such a technophobe.”
“It’s functional,” he told her. “It does what I need it do.”
She gave him an unimpressed look. He didn’t see much point in explaining to her that the simpler the device, the better it usually was. Blake, Sam, and Paul were the ones that liked the newer, fancier equipment. Duncan was old school.
“Whatever,” he said, in lieu of what he really wanted to respond. “I’m going to hit the head. I’ll be back.”
He needed to cool off, get some fresh air. He couldn’t even take off the bow tie for a spell, because there was no way he’d get it back on.
He wished he had a weapon. At least then he’d feel like himself. But with the cut of the custom-made suit Mandy insisted he get—at her expense—it would’ve been far too obvious.
He pushed his way through the double doors at the back of the ballroom and into a carpeted service corridor. The kitchen lay at the far end, but no aromas of cooking emanated from that direction. Evidently the food was catered from an outside source. A number of doors and corridors came off the one he was standing in, and a staircase on each wall led to the upper levels. Based on the building’s size from the outside—of which the ballroom the auction was in barely took up half—there must be a whole warren of rooms that were not for the party guests. Perhaps he should go up and see if he could find the way to those balconies; get a better lay of the land.
But first, more pressing matters. The bathroom was bigger than his entire apartment, and far fancier. Duncan’s foul mood grew worse as he took care of his business. He had to get out of this place; find an excuse and escape the rest of the evening. Who cared if the expensive ticket Mandy had bought for him was wasted before they even got to the main event of the evening? It wasn’t like he could buy anything at the auction, which would start any moment.
He finished washing his hands and reached for the paper towels. Maybe if he—
His thoughts were interrupted by the lights shutting off. The room was in total darkness, without even a window to filter in some moonlight. Must be a blackout.
Duncan’s hand was on the door handle, ready to return to Mandy to see if she was okay.
That’s when he heard the gunfire, followed by screams of terror.