Chapter 1

“Jesus is the reason for the season.” The D.J. from Love 101 FM’s smooth voice crooned from the stereo speakers on the table next to her. Brooke Jordan flipped the power button to off before he could say another word. Even though Jesus was the reason for the season, her Christmas was going to be stank with a capital S. There was no getting around that fact.

Brooke pushed the plantation shutters on the windows open to let in the sounds of the reggae influenced Christmas music rising up from below. She couldn’t believe she was spending Christmas week in Montego Bay, Jamaica. It would have been perfect if she wanted to be here, but she didn’t. She wasn’t on vacation. This wasn’t a pleasure trip. Brooke had drawn the short straw in a staff meeting, so she was stuck working. Stank, she thought, stank on steroids.

She leaned against the windowsill, closed her eyes and inhaled a long, intoxicating breath of ocean air. Every aspect of the island was paradise: the weather, the ocean views and the food. There was no doubt about it. But no place was really paradise when you wanted to be somewhere else. Brooke opened her eyes and squinted to see a couple further down the beach. They lay in the sand, making out or maybe even making love. Honeymooners, she knew. She’d seen them arrive a few days ago. Brooke watched as they arrived and others left. She remembered how it was for her when she had honeymooned on an island. She’d been in love like that. She had made love on the beach and then less than two years later, she was signing divorce papers. She tried not to hold it against the entire Caribbean, but there were too many reminders of her loss. She wanted to go home. Today!

Brooke’s cell phone vibrated in her pocket and then she heard a chirp. She recognized the familiar beeping ringtone she’d assigned to her parents. She answered. “Hello. You’re early.” Brooke noted it was seven a.m., which meant it was six o’clock in Charlotte.

“I wanted to get you before you left for work.”

Resting an arm on the windowsill, she said, “You made me nervous for a moment. I thought there might have been some kind of emergency.”

“There is an emergency,” Evelyn Jordan replied. “My daughter isn’t going to be home for Christmas Eve dinner.”

Brooke sighed. No one was more disappointed than she that on the only holiday her family emphatically made sure not to miss being together, she was four hours by plane away. There was just no way to get to Charlotte, actually have dinner with the family, and get back to the island on the same day. She had to work on Christmas Day.

“I’ll be home for New Year’s Eve,” Brooke offered, knowing it was no consolation prize for the annual dinner with her grandmother, parents, six siblings, in-laws and nieces and nephews. She would be the only one missing this year. Her brother, Gage, had returned from a tour in Afghanistan and would be with the family for the first time in two years. Her heart ached and she knew it wasn’t just about the family dinner. She’d been away from her family and friends for far too long. With the ridiculous hours she had to put in on the project, she hadn’t had much time to even socialize and meet other people. Not that she probably would have taken the time to do that either. Brooke was on the verge of sliding into a state of depression and she knew it.

“Is the company sponsoring a dinner for the staff?”

Brooke moved through the large living room of the corporate apartment and entered the kitchen to start the coffeemaker.

“No. Everyone is gone. I mean the people who are still here live on the island. The ex-pats are home. There are two analysts and me. We don’t need more. We babysit the system.”

“Well, maybe you can make dinner. You could invite the analysts. Is one of them nice looking?”

Brooke shook her head. Not more matchmaking. “Mother.” Using “mother” was a sign that she was getting annoyed.

“I’m sorry. I was wondering if a change in environment might…” her mother stopped herself. “Never mind that. You could invite them anyway. People get lonely during the holidays.”

Brooke didn’t respond. People get lonely at Christmas. Forget people. She was lonely. Last year, she was married. Now, she was divorced. Last year, she was with her family. This year, she would be alone. Last year, she was pregnant. This year, she had no child. She didn’t care about what other people needed. She had needs of her own.

“Sweetheart, don’t they kind of work for you?” her mother’s voice broke through her thoughts.

“Not technically. I’m the team leader. It’s not the same as being the boss.” Brooke fought to keep a sigh inside. She had explained the nature of her work to her mother several times, but for some reason the details weren’t processing. “Anyway, we can’t eat together. First off, one has a girlfriend he’s spending time with and the other guy is, I don’t know, anti-social. I hardly know him. Secondly, if I’m home, they’re managing the system. We have to be there for the eighteen hours of the day that we’re up.”

“It seems such a waste not to be able to entertain. You have that big place and the kitchen is lovely.”

Brooke did a visual sweep of the space. Her mother was right. She was in a two-bedroom apartment that actually slept six adults comfortably. The kitchen was fully equipped with every modern convenience a person could use. The community had three swimming pools, a hot tub, sauna, a fitness center and it had the added bonus of being directly on the beach with gulf views from nearly every window she’d seen. The company had spared no expense and Brooke was glad. The hotel she had lived in for the first few weeks had gotten old fast.

“I’m not interested in cooking for myself. Freeze a plate for me. I’ll eat it when I get home. There are more than enough restaurants for me to stop in at. You know I love the local food.”

Her mother conceded. “Okay, sweetie, I know you have to get to the office, so I’ll let you go. What time will you be home this evening?”

“Same as always. Around eight.”

“You’ve been working too hard.”

“I make good money and I like my job. I can Skype with you guys during dinner. It’ll be like I’m there.”

Brooke heard the smile in her mother’s voice. “It will. I’ll take that. Your grandmother reminded me that I need not complain. I have living children. That’s a blessing.”

She smiled at her grandmother’s wisdom and the not so subtle message behind it. “Stop complaining when you’re blessed.” That’s what she always said when Brooke moaned about something.

The coffee maker beeped and she received a text message from her driver that he was outside. “Gotta go. Love you, Mama and tell Daddy I love him too.”

“Oh, Brooke, there’s one more thing.”

She knew it. Her mother never called this early in the morning unless something was up. “Sam called.”

Brooke rolled her eyes.

“I didn’t want to bring it up. It’s not the first time.” Her mother paused. “I thought you should know.”

Brooke swallowed her contempt and tried to keep her voice even. “Thanks, Mama. I received an email. I’ll go ahead and see what it says.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” her mother said. “Have a good day, baby.”

Brooke forced a smile into her voice. “I will.”

They ended the call. She’d lied to her mother. Brooke had already deleted the email without opening it, and she’d deleted the others that came before that one. She pushed thoughts of Sam Riley from her mind the same way she pushed the delete button. She was not going to let rancid memories ruin her day.

She poured her coffee, popped the lid on her travel mug, grabbed her bags and left the apartment.

“Good mornin’, Ms. Brooke.” Desmond, the company’s full-time driver, opened the door to the company van and helped her into the back row.

“You’re cheery this morning,” Brooke replied, getting settled into her seat.

He closed the door and went around to the front and climbed inside. “It’s almost Christmas,” Desmond shrieked happily. “Can you believe it’ll be here in less than two days?”

Brooke took a long sip of her coffee and bit her lip after she felt the sting of the burn. It was still too hot. “I’ve never been away from home for Christmas, so it doesn’t really feel like it to me.”

Desmond shrugged like her woes meant nothing. “Christmas is wherever you are. You get a tree and play some Christmas music and make a little holiday for yourself.”

Brooke chuckled. “A tree?”

“They have plenty in the market. If you want, I can pick one out and set it up for you when you come home this evening. It’s no trouble.”

Brooke smiled. Desmond very respectful and professional, but he had been trying to get in her apartment for some reason or another ever since she arrived on the island.

“There’s a nice tree in the lobby and another out on the beach. We have one at work that I can enjoy too. It’s not a big deal.” She pressed her coffee cup against her lips and her lie and looked out the window for the remainder of the drive from her apartment to the office building. The trip was less than three miles, but it took thirty minutes because Montego Bay’s traffic was gridlocked. Just like it was at home in Charlotte. Where there was work, there was congestion. She surmised you couldn’t escape it.

They turned off of Sunset Boulevard onto Southern Cross Boulevard. Desmond pulled in front of the tall, 55,000 square foot complex that was the home for Global Computer Systems. GCS provides business process outsourcing and information technology solutions for commercial and government clients. Brooke’s position as business analyst was to maintain the servers that processed electronic benefit card transactions for a government nutrition program. The client’s customers had access to the benefits on their cards 24 hours a day, so the system had to be online 24-7 or it was a customer service nightmare. They’d had those nightmares in the past. In order to ensure that the company didn’t lose the government contract, GCS went through a massive technological upgrade in all the offices where they outsourced, which included this location.

Desmond opened the door on her side. Brooke stepped out and reached in for her bags.

“Would you like me to come get you for lunch?”

“No, thanks. I’ll get something up the street,” she replied, referring to the multitude of area restaurants she had to choose from.

“You text me if you change your mind about that tree.”

She smiled. “Not likely. Even if I were inclined, I don’t have time.”

“You do keep long hours, but at least you have some more help today.”

Brooke wasn’t sure what he meant by that. She tilted her head forward. “More help?”

“I picked a gentleman up at the airport last night.”

Brooke wasn’t aware of anyone else joining them. She wondered who had been given the daunting task of showing up the day before Christmas Eve. She knew she was being replaced in a few days so she could go home for a week, possibly for good. But she’d assumed the coworker that was replacing her wouldn’t arrive until after Christmas. She also knew it was a woman, not a man.

She was way too curious to wait to find out who the mystery person was. She took a few steps toward Desmond and asked, “Do you remember his name?”

“I don’t. I was told to meet him and hold up the company card,” Desmond said. “It was late and he had to take a connection in from Kingston, so he was tired. He fell asleep in the car on the way from the airport.”

Brooke nodded. If he’d flown to Kingston, he hadn’t come from the Charlotte office.

Desmond continued. “He was here before, I think. But he either walked to work or rented a car. I didn’t drive him.”

Brooke shrugged. “I guess I’ll find out today.”

“In a few minutes,” Desmond added. “He asked for an even earlier call than you, so he’s already here.”

Brooke nodded again. “Thanks for the heads up. I’ll see you later.”

Desmond smiled. As was his habit, he climbed in and waited for her to clear the entrance of the building. As she was coming in, Brooke caught sight of a woman that she’d seen many times in the square near the restaurants and shopping areas. She appeared to be homeless on most days, choosing to sit on the ground or lie on the waist high concrete walls that enclosed the main walking areas. Two of the security guards had her, one under each arm and were escorting her out of the building.

One of them tipped his hat and the other greeted her, “Good morning, Ms. Jordan. I already turned the key in the elevator, so you can go right up.”

“What’s going on?” Brooke felt sorry for the woman. She looked like they were manhandling her a bit.

“She knows there’s no trespassing,” the other guard replied.

“Wait.” Brooke stopped in front of them. She reached into her handbag and took out some Jamaican dollars she’d had converted from U.S. currency. It was more than enough to feed the woman for several days.

“Ma’am, no need,” the guard stated.

“I know you’re doing your job, but please turn her loose,” Brooke insisted. They did as they were instructed. Brooke took the woman’s hand and pressed the money into it. “Get something to eat okay.”

The woman looked down at the bills and cackled. “I thank you, Ms. Brooke, but I’m not hungry.”

Brooke was taken back. Her first name. “How do you know---?”

“I heard the people you work with call you that,” she said. “You’ve got a good heart. God is going to bless you with love.”

Brooke opened her mouth to speak, but then closed it when she realized she didn’t really have anything to say. Brooke was a bit uncomfortable with the lady’s words, especially since she was a stranger that appeared to need someone to speak into her own disheveled life. But she wasn’t going to assume that God wasn’t using her. What was that scripture her grandmother quoted about “entertaining angels unaware”? So even though she’d simply wanted to make sure the woman ate and wasn’t thrown out like trash by the security guards, Brooke paused to consider the stranger’s words.

“Any idea where I’m going to find this love?” Brooke fought to hide the hint of sarcasm that threatened to coat her tone.

“You’ve already found it,” the woman replied. “Just give a little and life will give back.”

Brooke had no idea what she could be talking about. Other than giving out of her wallet as she just had, there wasn’t any other opportunity for her to share with anyone. Brooke nodded her understanding and watched the woman push through the revolving door and exit onto the street.

One of the guards escorted her to the waiting elevator and continued to hold the doors open while she stepped in.

“She’s a crazy lady. Been cuckoo since I was a kid. Keep your money the next time.”

Brooke supposed the guards were right. They would certainly know better than she. But her grandmother had taught her that if we have the time of day for a dog, we have it for each other. Besides, the money was nothing. She made plenty.

The elevator doors closed. She pushed the button for the fourth floor of the building where the offices for I.T. were housed. The main server was on the basement level. The three intervening floors comprised a call center. Those spaces were empty today, because it was Sunday. Very few call center staff worked on Sunday and those that did were in the United States offices.

Brooke heard her cell phone beep. She reached into her purse to remove it and felt a sharp bump against the bottom of the elevator car right before it paused. The elevator seemed to reboot and start again. She made a mental note to tell security to contact building maintenance and a second note to remind herself to use the other elevator until they fixed the problem. She looked down at her phone, opened the text message and read the words:

Aren’t you usually at your desk by now?

Her heart started racing. She cleared the screen and dropped the phone back into her purse. The elevator doors opened. The late night arrival Desmond had spoken of…

“Good morning, Brooke. I’ve missed you.”

Brooke let out a long breath. Christmas just got upgraded to ratchet.

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