Trevor Royce firmly presses the button for the doorbell before he can give in to the urge to run back to his rental car. The thought of spending Thanksgiving with his older brother Tom's fiancée's family is enough to make him wish he were still deployed in the Middle East. It's not that he doesn't love his brother, he's just had a very trying couple of months. He'd prefer to spend the holiday unwinding before his big meeting on Monday not playing nice with Tom's future in-laws.
An attractive, willowy blonde answers the door. She wipes her damp palms on the front of her floral apron before grabbing Trevor by the arm and hauling him inside. Her smile is warm and unexpected, as is the kiss she presses to his cheek. "It's absolutely wonderful to finally meet you, Trevor. Thomas has told me so much about you that I feel as if I already know you! I'm thrilled you could make Thanksgiving."
Trevor flushes as she continues to gush and lead him towards the rear of the house. This has to be the fiancée. What was her name again? Karen? Carrie? "Thank you... Carolyn?"
She stops abruptly at the hesitation in his greeting and slaps herself on the forehead. "I'm sorry. Where are my manners? Hello, Trevor, I'm Carolyn Eldridge."
Trevor is rescued from another kiss by his brother's appearance. Tom's greeting is nearly as enthusiastic as Carolyn's. Despite the nine-year age difference, Tom and Trevor have always been close. E-mail and phone calls have kept that bond strong throughout Trevor's long deployments. The grin on Tom's face almost makes up for the awkwardness of having to dine with strangers.
All three spin around when the front door opens and slams shut. Instantly alert, Trevor listens to the rustle of clothing, stomp of heavy boots, and soft muttering. Carolyn and Tom do not seem to be disturbed by the entrance so Trevor forces himself to relax.
"Georgiana, is that you?"
Carolyn's call gets only a huff in response. Seconds later, a petite woman toting two overstuffed paper grocery sacks comes in to view. Her face is flushed, probably from a mixture of the cold and anger, and curly wisps of hair the color of cinnamon have escaped her ponytail. Mouth set in a firm frown, she thrusts both of the bags into Carolyn's arms.
"If you're out of anything else, that's just too damn bad because I am not going back to the store." The woman juts her chin out and plants her hands on her hips, daring Carolyn to think of another reason to send her back out.
Carolyn purses her lips and hands the bags off to a silent Tom. "We have company, Georgiana. This is Tom's brother Captain Trevor Royce. He's a Marine, remember?" Carolyn gives Georgiana a small shove in Trevor's direction. "Trevor, this is my younger sister Georgiana."
"I'm your only sister, Caro." Georgiana rolls her eyes at Trevor as if to say 'siblings!' She offers her hand for a shake. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Captain."
Trevor shakes her hand, pleased to find that she has a firm grip and that she did not insist on a hug or cheek kiss. He's never been fond of touchy-feely people. "Please, call me Trevor."
"Trevor it is, then." She pauses for a moment, holding on to his hand longer than necessary. "Georgiana, obviously, is proof that my mother hated me before I even came out of the womb. Giana or Gia work for me but never, under any circumstances, will I answer to Georgie."
Because he enjoys the feel of her smaller hand in his and wants to see if a blush will cover up the freckles dotting her nose, he turns up the charm. His smile is one that's worked dozens of times before. "Georgiana is a beautiful name."
The charm doesn't work. Georgiana's face turns a dark shade of red as she snatches her hand back. Whereas other women would giggle prettily, her frown deepens and green eyes narrow. "Only if you're into 19th century minor characters."
"Georgiana!" Carolyn steps in between Trevor and her sister. She fixes her sister with a stare that speaks volumes. Georgiana simply sticks her tongue out at Carolyn, takes the bags from Tom, and stomps off towards the kitchen.
"I'll go talk to her, Caro," Tom offers with a reassuring pat on Carolyn's shoulder.
Carolyn shakes her head. "No, no. I'll do it." She kisses Tom's cheek before smiling apologetically at Trevor. "I'm sorry for Georgiana. She been like this since she drove up yesterday. I think she's having problems at work. Not that she'd tell me, of course. She never…"
"It's okay," Trevor cuts in quickly. He's not offended by Georgiana's behavior. In fact, it's reassuring to see that his future in-laws aren't perfect. Perfection is suspicious. Trevor doesn't want to waste energy this weekend being suspicious.
"Caro! Your timer's fixing to go off!"
The cry from the kitchen sends Carolyn dashing down the hallway. Tom smiles affectionately at his girlfriend's retreating form. Once they are alone in the hallway, Tom tosses an arm across Trevor's shoulders. "Glad you could make it, little brother."
"Me, too." He means it. He may not necessarily like the idea of spending the holiday with complete strangers, but he's missed his brother these past few months and is looking forward to spending some time with him. Besides, it beats a frozen dinner alone in front of the television.
"Carolyn's been working like the devil on this meal. She wants everything to be perfect. I told her you'd be just as happy with pizza and beer, but she's gone all out." Tom chuckles and walks with Trevor towards the rear of the house. "She made everything from scratch."
"Not everything, Tommy." Georgiana meets them in the dining room. She takes a sip from a half-full glass of red wine then sets it on the table. She fills two crystal glasses with wine and hands them out.
"That's right. Giana made dessert. Pumpkin cheesecake that's absolutely to die for." Tom licks his lips in anticipation.
"Trevor, I'm sorry about earlier. I was a bitch and you didn't deserve it." Georgiana apologizes without any hint of resentment or having been forced. "Blame it on having to face last-minute crowds at the grocery store."
Trevor brushes off her apology because it was unnecessary. He's the one who flirted so he's as much to blame as she is. The wine is excellent, even to a palate used to cheap beer and whiskey. He watches his brother and Georgiana discuss the upcoming Cowboys vs. Vikings football game pleased to note that she seems more relaxed than before. Whether it's a result of the wine or her sister's preoccupation in the kitchen, he can't be sure.
A shout from Carolyn has Tom rushing to the kitchen. Georgiana polishes off her wine, offers Trevor a refill, and then fills up her glass. "It's damn cold outside. I hate that about Connecticut. Would never live here, myself. Not that D.C.'s much better. Hell of a lot colder than where you've been, though, huh?"
Trevor goes on red alert. How could she possibly have known where he's spent the past twenty weeks? He hopes to hell she and Carolyn aren't using Tom to get close to him. Tom seems to have fallen head-over-heels for Carolyn. "Where I've been?"
"California? It's where you're based out of, right? I remember Tom mentioning it a couple of times." She innocently sips her wine but there's no missing the mischief dancing in her eyes. "Connecticut's definitely colder than California."
"California, yeah. Much warmer." He doesn't believe for once second that she meant California. It's too risky to call her out now, though, no matter how ballsy she's been. If by some miracle he's wrong, the fall out will be more than he's prepared to deal with. He'll just have to keep on his toes during his stay.
Tom and Carolyn emerge from the kitchen, arms laden with dishes. Georgiana jumps into action and helps Tom set the food on the table. Plates and silverware have already been arranged along with elegant cream place cards. To his delight, Trevor's been seated next to Tom and directly across from Georgiana.
Once the food is on the table, Tom says a quick prayer and then the food is passed around. Everything smells heavenly. Trevor considers the possibility of the food being poisoned but dismisses it. Too many people know of his plans to visit the Eldridge home. He's safe. For the moment.
After several minutes of quietly eating, Trevor poses his first question. "I know that Carolyn teaches high school English. Where do you work, Georgiana?" He sticks with her full first name simply to grate on her nerves.
Georgiana opens her mouth to respond but Carolyn jumps in before she can speak. "She works as a secretary for some corporate troubleshooter." Her voice drips with disdain. "Such a shame."
"Carolyn," Tom warns when he catches the murderous look on Georgiana's face.
"She skipped two grades in elementary school and graduated from GWU in three years. Dual major in Chemistry and Political Science. She picked up a couple of languages, too. I always thought she was headed for law school. Harvard offered her a full scholarship. But no, she ups and joins the NYPD crime lab. Quits after three years to be a secretary. A secretary of all things!"
"He gets it, Caro. I've wasted my life. We all get it." Georgiana's eyes are flashing but she doesn't throw the tantrum she so obviously wants to throw. "I wish you'd stop harping on the whole thing. It's not like I come crawling to you begging for money."
"No, but do you have to travel with him all the time? At least when you were in New York, I saw you once in a while. Now you're always out of the country." Carolyn huffs. Long, elegant fingers tear at the roll on her plate. Trevor notes the anxiety pouring off of her in waves but can't be certain if it's genuine or fake.
Tom, ever the peacemaker, tries to get things back on an even keel. "The turkey's perfect, Carolyn. Potatoes and asparagus turned out wonderful, as well."
The food is excellent, no denying that. Now that they have gone off the topic of Georgiana's employment, they stick to safer subjects such as the recent cold snap, the upcoming football game, and the Christmas holidays. Trevor's not sure he likes the last topic. He doesn't know exactly where he'll be during Christmas and it's a conversation he'd like to have alone with his brother.
He is just vague enough to keep from making any promises when Tom asks him about spending Christmas with the Eldridge sisters. He does, however, promise to make the obligatory phone call to Iola Royce, their mother. Suffering from Alzheimer's, Iola has since forgotten nearly everything about her two children and late husband. Trevor stopped in to see her before driving up for Thanksgiving. Seeing his mother so frail and confused nearly broke his heart.
Once the main meal is finished, Trevor quickly volunteers to help Georgiana clear the table. Alone in the kitchen, he dumps the dishes on a tiled island then corners her between the sink and the stove. Trevor uses his height and weight advantage to try and intimidate Georgiana into making a confession about her earlier comment.
"I'm afraid you're too early for Christmas and, even if you did have your holidays right, Carolyn rarely hangs mistletoe in the kitchen." That impish light is back in Georgiana's eyes. She doesn't appear to be the least bit intimidated.
"What you said earlier, you weren't talking about California, were you? What do you know?"
Georgiana's smile is innocuous. "I know that you're based out of California but you've been deployed for the past five months. I know that Tom has been worried sick about you because you couldn't tell him where you were. I know that you're a very good Marine and that you're on the short list for promotion." Her smile grows wider as she leans forward so that her lips just graze the shell of Trevor's ear. "I also know that if you don't step back, I'm going to use that carving knife in a way I'm sure Cuisinart never intended."
Trevor steps away because he hears Tom and Carolyn at the door, not, he tells himself, because of Georgiana's inventive threat. No more is said between Georgiana and Trevor for the rest of the day. Tom and Georgiana watch their football game while Trevor watches Georgiana and Carolyn flips through bridal magazines. If Tom or Carolyn pick up on any tension between their siblings, they don't say a word.
During half-time, Georgiana's cell phone goes off. It's a loud chime with a tune that is familiar but Trevor can't quite place it. She checks the display before rushing outside. Trevor excuses himself to the bathroom, making a detour to pass by the front entrance on his way. Georgiana's bright pink parka is still hanging over a hook. Whatever the phone call is, it's so important that it's got her standing outside in just a sweater in twenty-degree weather.
It could be a call from a secret boyfriend, but that doesn't sit right with Trevor. There was worry in her eyes rather than delight. Not a lover then. Work related? What kind of corporate troubleshooter calls his secretary on a holiday? What kind of phone call between employer and employee can't be had in front of family?
The mystery that surrounds Georgiana Eldridge has definitely pricked Trevor's interest. He makes a few mental notes to use his connections with the CIA and NSA to dig up any information they have on her and Carolyn. It's about time he calls in a few of the markers he's been stockpiling. If doing so will keep Tom happy and safe, he won't consider it a waste. It's just too bad that he didn't think of it earlier.
By the time Georgiana returns, the game has restarted. Carolyn sends her sister a questioning look. Georgiana chuckles and shrugs her shoulders. "We've got a big meeting on Monday and the boss man wanted to go over his notes. His in-laws are visiting and he's using work as an excuse to avoid them. Problem was he'd forgotten where he'd put the notes."
Carolyn and Tom take the story at face value. Trevor does not. If that makes him a suspicious bastard then so be it. It's how he makes his living. After the game, he announces that he's heading back to his D.C. hotel. Carolyn and Tom protest and insist that there's enough room in the house. He stands firm in his decision and endures another round of cheek kisses and one-armed hugs.
Georgiana offers to walk him to his car. This time she makes certain to grab her parka. The pink brings out the hint of color in her cheeks and the red highlights in her hair. Standing in the driveway, with snow-covered trees in the background, she looks more like a college kid than a threat to national security.
"I suppose I may see you at Christmas." Trevor doesn't know what else to say. He refuses to make any more threats or assumptions until he gets info back from his contacts. He's already said more than he should.
Georgiana winks, steps back and snaps off a smart salute. "Looking forward to seeing you soon, Captain Royce."