Just in time for the holidays, take a seat by the fire with a mug of hot cocoa and read an excerpt from Camouflage Christmas. Will Brendan and Oliver find love under the mistletoe in the midst of a war zone?
He hated December.
No, technically that wasn’t true. He hated December 25th.
It wasn’t the rest of December’s fault that people started celebrating Christmas a full twenty-five days ahead of time. Or even longer than that.
And when you hated the holiday as much as he did, being surrounded by candy canes, mistletoe, Santa hats and blinking lights set his teeth on edge.
Especially when he couldn’t escape the close quarters he was in—Camp Qargha, located in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Captain Brendan Clarke blew out a long breath and took an even longer swallow of the amber liquid in the glass in his hand as another round of “Jingle Bells” started up across the makeshift pub inside the camp’s heavily fortified walls.
Brendan shook his head at the rousing rendition of the carol, being belted out by members of his 2 YORKS regiment. He understood why spirits were high among the men and women—in two days they were finally rotating back to England after a long, grueling deployment. They would all be home for Christmas with their families.
Brendan had neither.
And holidays always made that abundantly clear. Hence, why he wasn’t a fan.
As Brendan finished off his drink, the door to the pub opened, admitting both a tall, ginger-haired man and a frigid blast of winter air. Yes, it did snow in the desert, contrary to what most people thought. Brendan watched as the man brushed at the fat, white flakes on his shoulders, uncovering captain’s insignias identical to his own. The man unzipped his heavy, desert cammo jacket then paused, turning to look at the merry band of carolers. His pained expression matched that of Brendan’s and for a moment Brendan thought that he would turn around and leave. But then he caught sight of Brendan at the far end of the bar and began walking over.
Brendan was glad he decided to stay. If there was one person’s company he wanted tonight, it was that of his best mate, Captain Oliver Macintosh.
Oliver sat down heavily on the stool next to Brendan, resting his forearms on the bar, looking down, and Brendan took a moment to study his friend. Chalk and cheese were he and Oliver. Brendan was the wilder one of the two. Which Brendan knew came from his upbringing. Or lack thereof. He liked fast motorcycles, shots of whiskey, swore like a sailor, and when he was on leave he was always up for having a good time and his bed was rarely empty of another man’s company. On the job he wasn’t above bending or breaking the rules when it came to protecting the men and women under his command.
Oliver, though, he was more of the straight and narrow, by-the-book soldier. He spent a good amount of time pulling Brendan’s not-so-by-the-book ass out of the fire with their CO, Major Ambrose. It took time for Oliver to relax and let his guard down, seemingly always on duty. And that came from his own upbringing in a family with a long, stoic military history. And Oliver would rather have a pint than a shot and preferred to keep his language clean.
They were even opposite in their appearance. Brendan with his chestnut brown hair, matching eyes and golden skin tone and Oliver with his ginger hair, green eyes and fair complexion. Brendan had a large tattoo on his right side while Oliver preferred his body to be ink-free. Chalk and cheese.
They clashed from the get-go, two and a half years ago when Brendan transferred into the Yorkshire Regiment, 2nd Battalion. Their command styles, not to mention their personalities, were vastly different, and it became apparent rather quickly. Brendan’s mouth quirked when he thought of the private rows, the shouting matches the two would have, up in each other’s faces, amazed that it never came to blows between them.
But in the end, it worked, this unlikely pairing. Oliver reigned in Brendan when he was on the verge of going too far, and Brendan got Oliver to widen his narrow way of thinking, to take chances, risks, for the good of their missions. Their regiment was a force to be reckoned with now, under their combined leadership.
It was one small thing, though, that moved them from simply fellow officers to mates—sailboats. That’s all it took to break the ice between them—Oliver overhearing Brendan talking to Corporal Donnie Sutton about a sailing trip he’d taken on their last leave. Oliver shared his love of boating, too, having been taught by his father growing up. It was the common ground they needed, that they’d been looking for. It was the spark that started their friendship, their partnership, that was now a bond so strong Brendan would gladly give his life to save Oliver’s. And he knew without a doubt the same held true in reverse for Oliver. And they’d both come close over the years to giving that ultimate sacrifice to the other.
Oliver looked up then from his study of the bar’s rough plywood surface and turned tired eyes on Brendan. “Bren,” he nodded.
Brendan returned the nod. “Ollie.” He glanced away from his friend and signaled the bartender, Amir, one of the many locals that the base employed.
The dark-haired, dark-skinned man, several years younger than Brendan’s thirty-one years, walked toward he and Oliver with a broad smile.
“Couple beers, Amir.”
“Of course, Captain Clarke,” Amir answered, still smiling. He reached under the bar and produced two bottles, which he set in front of Brendan and Oliver. He caught Brendan’s eye, giving him a broad wink before taking Brendan’s empty glass and walking away.
Brendan chuckled at Amir’s not-so subtle advance. One of many the younger man had directed at him. He hadn’t taken Amir up on his invitation. Yet. Reaching for his bottle, he turned toward Oliver to find his mate staring at him, mouth compressed, his gaze flicking between Amir and Brendan. His expression once again showed his disapproval at Brendan’s infamous bed-hopping. Oliver preferred monogamy. Though as far as Brendan knew, Oliver hadn’t been serious about anyone in the last year or so. And if truth be told, Brendan was at the point where he’d rather have one serious partner, too. One person in particular. And at times he thought that person wanted a relationship as well. But then they’d pull away, and the mixed signals would send Brendan looking for other companionship. At least for a night.
Brendan returned his focus to Oliver, now drinking with purpose, whose pain was much sharper than his own. Brendan’s was old, but Oliver’s was still fresh. Though in the end, they were both without family now. Cancer took Oliver’s mother and a heart attack took his father many years ago. And he’d come to terms with that long ago. What he was still struggling with was the unexpected, tragic deaths of his younger sister, Claire, his brother-in-law Paul and his three-year-old nephew, Charlie. Seven months ago, catastrophic engine failure due to a bird strike brought down experienced pilot Paul’s private plane. With a horrific accident, Oliver had lost his entire family. This would be the first Christmas without them. Oliver put on a brave face in front of the regiment, but Brendan knew him well enough to know how much he was hurting. He would gladly do anything he could to take away Oliver’s pain, but since that was impossible he would instead stand by his side in support, as he had done at the funeral. Refusing to let his mate go through it alone. And when Oliver finally broke down, the first time Brendan had ever seen him cry, Brendan was there to hold him as he wept, his own tears mixing with his partner’s.
At the other end of the pub, the singers switched to “Frosty the Snowman” and Oliver called for another beer and two shots of whiskey.
Fuck, he hated Christmas.
As Brendan pounded back the shot, out of the corner of his eye he saw one of the singers move away from the group and approach he and Oliver. A moment later, Sergeant Gillian Rothchild was standing behind the two of them, her long, blonde hair tucked up underneath a Santa hat. In her hands she held two cups of eggnog, which was no doubt spiked, that she offered to he and Oliver with a small smile and an understanding expression. While Brendan had only known Gillian for the past two and a half years, she and Oliver had a long history, coming up through the ranks together since basic training. She was well aware of how this holiday was affecting her mate. And while his childhood wasn’t a topic Brendan cared to discuss, only having recently opened up to Oliver about it, Gillian had discerned enough to know this wasn’t a pleasant time of the year for him, either.
Brendan and Oliver swiveled on their stools and took the offered drinks. Oliver raised his glass, his smile subdued. “Cheers, Gilly,” he said in his North Yorkshire accent, in contrast to Brendan’s own London drawl.
Gillian grinned as Brendan took a sip, his eyes widening. “Bloody hell,” he coughed. Spiked wasn’t the word for it. Was there an entire blasted bottle of rum in there?
“Bit of a kick, eh, Cap?” she chuckled.
Brendan cleared his throat, the corner of his mouth turning up in amusement. “I’m guessing Emma had something to do with the…potency?” he asked. Damn, but Emma Fitzgerald could out drink any man in the unit.
Gillian laughed. “Good guess, Cap.” She hooked her thumb over her shoulder. “Either of you fancy a round of snooker? Jensen’s running off at the mouth again about his ‘skill’.” She rolled her eyes. “Thought one of you could put him in his place,” she smiled encouragingly.
Brendan was appreciative of her attempt to draw he and Oliver out of their melancholy. It was uncharacteristic of them both to not interact with their unit. They preferred to be thought of as just one of the men instead of a stand-offish commanding officer barking out orders. Friendships created unit cohesiveness. But tonight he and Oliver were only fit company for each other.
Oliver flicked a glance at Brendan, then back to Gillian. “Pass tonight, Gilly,” he replied
Gillian nodded, concern in her blue eyes as she turned to go. “Have a good night then. See you both tomorrow morning.”
Oliver opened his mouth to say something to Brendan, but was interrupted when the pub door banged open and in flooded a boisterous, laughing group of US Army soldiers, also high on the Christmas spirit. With Camp Qargha under joint British and American military control, they interacted often with the Yanks, with friendly rivalries springing up between them on the firing range or the sports fields. Brendan noticed it was Lieutenant Ellison’s squad. He was a good bloke and normally he and Oliver would be throwing back a few beers with him, but not tonight.
Brendan knocked against Oliver’s shoulder as he set his glass down. “Wanna get the hell out of here?”
Oliver swallowed down the last of his potent eggnog. “Thought you’d never ask, mate.”
They stood in unison and Brendan shrugged back into his heavy jacket, identical to Oliver’s, as Oliver zipped his back up. Brendan reached into his pocket and withdrew his matching beret, settling it on his head as he and Oliver made their way through the crowd to the door, both of them pulling on their gloves. Ellison slapped Brendan on his back as he went past and Brendan bumped fists with the lieutenant, exchanging smiles before following Oliver outside.
The cold winter night air was a bit of a shock to the system after the relative warmth of the bar, and Brendan’s breath exhaled in front of him in white puffs. He let Oliver lead the way, the snow falling around them, Brendan’s combat boots crunching on the frozen dirt beneath them as they walked. Not surprisingly, Oliver led them a short distance away to their bunk. As officers, they were afforded a semi-private, two-man bunk, situated away from the enlisted personnel’s much larger barracks.
They walked in silence, passing only Corporal Garett Higgins who was hurrying in the direction of the pub, saluting them both as he went by. When they arrived at their bunk, Oliver paused, and instead of climbing the two stairs and going inside, he instead turned and leaned back against the wooden structure, tipping his head up toward the sky.
Without hesitation, despite the temperature, Brendan moved beside his mate and leaned back as well. The cold hardly mattered when Oliver was hurting. They stood side by side, looking up at the stars as snowflakes drifted downward. It was a rare moment of quiet on the always active base, everyone not on patrol inside and keeping warm. The air of peace almost made Brendan forget there was a war on the other side of the walls surrounding them.
Oliver shifted, their shoulders and arms now touching and Brendan leaned ever so slightly into the contact, soaking in Oliver’s warmth, his presence. He released a slow breath and let his eyes nearly close. That person who he could do, would do, monogamy for? Was standing right beside him.
He’d been attracted to Oliver from the first time he laid eyes on him. Even though at the time all they did was butt heads and shout. But Brendan loved Oliver’s passion. There was a fire in Oliver that matched his own. And the attraction, the flame, continued to grow as their friendship did. But so did Brendan’s confusion. He knew Oliver felt the pull, an invisible electric current that arced between them. So many times Oliver sent out signals that he was ready to take that next step, to make them true partners in every sense of the word, only to back off for reasons Brendan still didn’t understand. He should have given up, moved on, but he couldn’t. Because he knew Oliver would be worth waiting for.
Oliver looked down from his contemplation of the winter sky, glancing over to Brendan. “Don’t suppose there’s a chance of us not rotating home, eh?” he asked softly.
Brendan turned his head toward Oliver. He understood his reluctance to return to Yorkshire, the first time since the funeral, to have to face the reality that his family would not be there.
Brendan swallowed hard. “Afraid not. But,” he put on a smile, trying to lighten the mood. “I could always ask Ambrose if he’d let us parachute out over Italy. I hear it’s nice this time of year. Bet they’ve got a boat we could rent for a spin around the Mediterranean.”
His joke succeeded in pulling a small chuckle out of Oliver. “I could do with a proper sail,” he nodded.
Brendan thought of Oliver’s Christmas gift, tucked away behind his bunk so his partner wouldn’t stumble across it. Now would be the perfect time to give it to him. But then Oliver’s green eyes clouded over and the opportunity was lost.
Oliver hung his head, bending forward slightly. “God, I miss them,” he whispered brokenly.
Brendan’s heart clenched at Oliver’s grief and he slid a comforting arm across his partner’s shoulders. “I know,” he answered quietly. “I’m so sorry, Ollie…”
Oliver blew out a shaky breath and straightened up, but Brendan kept his arm across Oliver’s shoulders, staying close, giving him strength.
“I thought I’d be dealing better with this by now,” Oliver said.
Brendan shook his head. “There’s no timeline on grief.”
Oliver nodded slowly, his voice low, heartfelt. “Thank you, Bren. For understanding. For being here for me…” he trailed off, his gaze gone soft.
The winter night was suddenly charged with emotion as Brendan whispered his reply. “Always…”
Then Brendan’s heart stuttered, his breath catching as Oliver leaned toward him, that electrical current flowing between them once again, pulling them closer, heat building, their eyes drifting closed…
Only to open wide a split second later at the sound of voices and loud laughter abruptly breaking the quiet moment. Startled, Brendan looked toward the direction of the noise, spying a group leaving the pub. Amir was among them and just happened to glance his way. He paused when he saw Brendan, a hopeful smile on his face.
Before Brendan could shake his head and decline the offer, Oliver took a quick step away from him, breaking their contact, Brendan’s arm falling from Oliver’s shoulders. Brendan looked from Amir back to Oliver, whose expression was now shuttered, distant. And…disappointed?
Wait. Did Oliver think that he and Amir…?
Oliver cleared his throat. “You should go,” he said tightly, resignation coloring his words.
Brendan shook his head, taking a step forward, reaching out his hand. “No. Ollie, wait–”
But Oliver was gone, the door closing firmly behind him.
Brendan ran a hand down his face and sagged against the building, banging back his head in frustration.
What the hell just happened?
In war-torn Afghanistan, all Captain Oliver Macintosh and Captain Brendan Clarke want for Christmas is each other. But will either of them have the courage to take the first step before it’s too late and they run out of second chances?