Interlude: First Noel
Series: The Executive Office, Book 1.5
Author: Tal Bauer
Publisher: NineStar Press
Release Date: December 19. 2016
Heat Level: 3 - Some Sex
Genre: Romance, holiday, contemporary, demisexual, gayBefore Ethan returns to DC…
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Before he becomes Jack’s first gentleman…
Jack and Ethan share their first Christmas together.
Step back to Jack and Ethan’s first Christmas season and the tentative early months of their relationship under the world’s spotlight.
Three months into Ethan’s transfer-in-exile in Des Moines, Iowa, the pressures of dating Jack, the president of the United States, start to wear Ethan down. His weeks are measured by the days he works in Iowa, chasing counterfeiters and financial crimes, and the weekends he manages to steal with Jack back in DC. The media stalks his every move, he’s isolated by his coworkers, and loneliness hammers at his heart.
In DC, Jack tries to piece together a global alliance to take down the Caliphate, while the world seems focused on tearing apart his personal life. Hostility surrounds him from all corners of the globe, but a surprise offer from President Sergey Puchkov may pave the way for a tentative alliance…and perhaps the beginning of a friendship.
As Ethan finds himself in the middle of an investigation that rubs too deeply against his soul and Jack tries to balance leading the free world and keeping his and Ethan’s relationship going, the two men must face what their love has become…and where they are heading together.
Tal Bauer © 2016
All Rights Reserved
“Twenty-seven credit cards, thirty thousand in hundreds—all with the exact same serial number—a credit card reader and a laptop.” United States Secret Service Special Agent Blake Becker whistled, shaking his head, and glared at the two suspects in handcuffs sitting in the back of the Des Moines police cruiser. “We bagged another couple counterfeiters, huh?” He squinted at Ethan, snowflakes clinging to the ends of his eyelashes. Becker was twelve years younger than Ethan, and two years out of the training center at Rowley. He was an infant, compared to Ethan.
Ethan said nothing. Becker’s use of “we” was disingenuous. Ethan had put together the case after pulling files from three different states. He’d worked long, lonely hours in his cubicle, reading arrest records and statements until his eyeballs felt like they were bleeding. He’d tracked the washed bills, the counterfeit currency used in stores and banks across Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Built a timeline along one wall of his cube, tracking the rise of counterfeit bills in the tristate area. Connected the dots, leading them to bust this run down motel room and this raggedy team of counterfeiters.
And, when he’d presented his case to Shepherd, the Special Agent in Charge of the small Des Moines field office, Shepherd had assigned Blake Becker as the lead agent, over Ethan. Days later, after Becker filed the affidavit under his name, he and Ethan, along with the Des Moines police, broke down the door of the motel room their suspects were living in and arrested two men in their boxers and stained tank tops. One of the men had a mullet. The other had a greasy mustache and not much hair on the top of his head.
Two white news vans sloshed through the motel’s parking lot. Muddy snowmelt splattered the sides of the vans, arching away from salt-crusted tires. On top of both, satellite dishes and transmission poles collected fat snowflakes beneath the dreary sky. Red and blue police lights swirled, giving a splash of color to the monotonous Midwestern gloom.
Becker jerked his head toward the new arrivals. “Media is here. Shepherd wants you to book it. Doesn’t want you anywhere near the press.”
Nodding once, Ethan kept his head down and headed for his Secret Service car, a nondescript sedan issued to him by the Des Moines office. He tucked his face into his scarf and his hands in the pockets of his trench coat, not looking toward the news vans.
If there was one thing Shepherd hated more than Ethan, it was the media attention Ethan received. “Secret Service Seduction” “Who Really is the Boyfriend of the President of the United States.” “Boyfriend in Exile; Can Their Relationship Survive?” “What are the Presidential Boyfriend’s Duties?” “Secret Service Hiding One of Their Own?”
He slid into his car, slamming the door shut. Leaning back, he exhaled, watching for a moment as the news crews set up around the motel parking lot, peering at the Special Agents and police processing the scene.
Ethan grabbed a pair of sunglasses and a ball cap from the passenger seat before he started his car. The sunglasses turned the drab gray sky almost black, but he kept them on as he backed up, maneuvering out of the crowd of police vehicles.
One of the reporters spotted his car leaving. She waved to her cameraman and jogged across the snowmelt, her brown boots sticky with slush. He tried to speed up, but she made it to his driver’s side as he waited to turn onto the street.
“Mr. Reichenbach?” She knocked on the glass, and her cameramen scraped their news camera’s lens over his window. “Mr. Reichenbach, can you talk about your involvement with the Des Moines Secret Service? What are your official duties?”
His jaw clenched, and his fingers gripped the steering wheel. A few more seconds, a few passing cars, and he could peel out of there.
“How does it feel to be separated from the president? Are you and President Spiers still together? It’s been a while since you were both seen togeth―”
Finally, a break in the traffic. Ethan wanted to slam down on the accelerator, spin his wheels and spray the reporter with mud and snow. But he couldn’t. Everything―every single thing―he did was a reflection on Jack. A reflection on the president of the United States.
He revved his engine once, a warning, and then rolled forward. The camera squealed across his window, and the reporter pounded on the glass, repeating her questions, almost shouting.
And then, he was out of the parking lot, back on the main road. He floored it, speeding off as the news camera tracked him. A few blocks away, he ditched the sunglasses, throwing them into the passenger seat with a snarl.
Three months in exile. Three months of living in Des Moines, Iowa—away from Washington DC, his friends, and the love of his life: Jack Spiers, the president of the United States.
His head hit the sedan’s headrest again, and his fingers kneaded the steering wheel. Three months of counting the days―and sometimes the hours―until he could see Jack again. He lived for Friday evening through Sunday night, when he flew to DC, and the forty-eight hours at least, it was just him and Jack. If he squinted while he was there, it was almost like it had been before everything came out, when they were hiding what they’d become together, and when Ethan had been his Secret Service lead.
Day in and day out, they’d been at each other’s side. Inseparable…and sharing a scandalous secret.
But every weekend ended, and Sunday night came, and with it, another flight back to Des Moines.
Ethan glared at the clock in his dash. It was too early to go back to his apartment and do anything but bang around the empty walls and sulk, and too late to go back to work and expect to get anything done. Still, he turned for the office, heading back downtown. At the least, he could work out in the private gym for the agents assigned to the Federal Building. FBI, DEA, ATF, Secret Service, and Customs all shared one building.
And all the agents seemed to share the same wide-eyed, horrified distance from Ethan. He moved like a pariah, as though he’d been branded with a scarlet letter and anyone who came near him would suffer the same catastrophic fall from grace he had.
From the most prestigious posting in the Secret Service―protecting the president of the United States―to puzzling through counterfeiting investigations out of a tiny field office in the Midwest. And giving those investigations up to another agent, a junior agent, and running from the media.
He waited at the stoplight downtown, just before the turn into the Federal Building’s garage, listening to his wipers scrape snow off the window. The red traffic light blurred through the slush on his glass, tinting the inside of his sedan a dark crimson. Christmas lights stretched overhead, arching over the streets and between the buildings. Evergreen garlands clung to the streetlights, and LED wreaths hung at every intersection. Over the weekend, Christmas had descended, just days after Thanksgiving.
If he knew then what he knew now, would he do it all again? Make the same choices? Take the same risks? Kiss Jack―the president, his sworn duty, his job―and throw caution to the wind, going against his very bones, his dedication to his career and the Secret Service?
The wipers slid against the glass again, squeaking, and the light turned green. His tires slipped on the snow, skidding out briefly, but he slogged across the intersection and turned into the underground parking garage.
Of course he would. Those forty-eight hours each week with Jack made everything else worth it. Made bearable the isolation, the intrusive media, the sidelong glares and bitten off conversations that abruptly stopped in his presence.
How his toes would curl as they kissed. Jack’s smile, and the way his eyes lit up for Ethan alone. How Jack had looked at him when he burst into the Oval Office, gunfire cracking the air, taking out Jeff Gottschalk and Black Fox’s operatives. Like Ethan was his whole world, the sun rising in the sky just for him.
Ethan had never loved anyone like he loved Jack. And he’d never been loved by anyone the way Jack loved him. It was still new, just six months old, but that love had remade Ethan’s entire world. So far, he’d put up with anything. Everything. As long as Jack kept looking at him like that. Kept loving him like that.
But, it had been over two weeks since he’d last been with Jack. ‘Every weekend’ had turned into something else. Loneliness scratched at the base of his heart, and whispers of fear snaked down his bones.
Ethan wound through the underground garage and pulled into his assigned space, in the corner beneath the leaking air compressor and next to the dumpster that always smelled like stale piss.
Shepherd’s car was still in his space. Great. He’d probably already seen the news footage of him, playing over and over on the local stations before being picked up by the national news for prime-time replay. He’d be pissed. More than pissed.
Sighing, Ethan badged into the building and onto the elevator, punching the button for the Secret Service’s floor. When the elevator spat him out, he gave Agent Gibson a tight smile as he passed him.
Gibson didn’t smile back.
Ethan badged into the backdoor of the office, heading for his cube and his gym bag. On the way, he passed Shepherd’s open office door.
The TV hanging on the wall in his office was on, images of Ethan driving out of the motel parking lot playing on repeat as the news anchor droned on about how evasive he’d been, how he hadn’t answered any questions. About what his presence at the crime scene might mean. And, of course, wondering why he hadn’t been seen with the president, or in DC, in weeks. They were America’s most scandalous couple, perhaps the world’s. The question had been blaring from every radio, every gossip magazine, every late night talk show host, almost from the moment they’d been photographed kissing on the North Lawn. Were they still together?
Of course, the questions had gotten louder these past few weeks.
Shepherd’s glare fixed on Ethan. Shepherd pursed his lips as he perched on the edge of his desk, arms crossed over his slight pudge, a beer gut in the making. His tie was undone, the first few buttons loose.
Ethan grabbed his gym bag, slung it over his shoulder, and trudged to Shepherd’s door. “Sir, I left as soon as they arrived. She chased me down. I wasn’t trying to get in front of the cameras.”
Shepherd pinched the bridge of his nose. “What did I do to deserve you?”
Ethan stayed silent.
“Thanks to this―” Shepherd gestured to the TV. “—the US Attorney is going to have to answer a million questions about you from the whatever defense these guys cobble together. What you were doing there. Why you were involved.”
“I put the case together―”
“And then it was given to Becker. All of it. The entire thing. Your fingerprints were stripped from it.” Shepherd sighed again. “I don’t want some criminal defense attorney trying to drag the president into one of our cases. Asking about what kind of special favors you get, or what the president is interested in, or how you don’t play by the rules. We have to prove everything you do is one hundred and ten percent above board.”
“Everything I’ve done here has been completely legal―”
“It’s what you did before you got here.” Shepherd fixed Ethan with another hard glare. “It’s your character. The kinds of rules you break. A good defense attorney would rip you to shreds on the stand.”
Ethan’s chest felt like it caved in. “I have never compromised an investigation for any reason.”
“No.” Shepherd snorted. “You just compromised the president.”
“Get out of here.” Shepherd waved Ethan away, dismissing him as he stood. “I don’t know what’s going on with you and the president, and I don’t want to know.” His hand cut through the air, before Ethan spoke. He jerked his chin to the TV, and the reporter musing about Ethan and Jack’s relationship being on the rocks, or worse. “But you’ve gotten grumpier these past few weeks. And that’s saying something.” Shepherd squinted at him. “Go do something about that. If the media is going to hound you everywhere, you don’t want them thinking you’re a half breath away from snapping. Don’t add fuel to the fire.”
Clearing his throat, Ethan nodded once while Shepherd shuffled papers on his desk, dropping a stack of manila folders into his drawer. “Sir, I have a question for you.”
Shepherd arched his eyebrows and grunted.
“I submitted my vacation request for the holidays, but you haven’t approved it yet. Is there a problem?” Ethan had lost vacation time in his demotion, and had used up what he did have flying back and forth to DC. He was scrapping the last days he had to put together a trip back east over Christmas. It wasn’t as long as he wanted, but it was what he had.
Shepherd barked out a harsh laugh, slamming a stack of papers down on his desk. “Why do you do this?”
“Why do you pretend like you follow the rules? Like they even matter to you? You can break every rule we have and nothing will happen to you.”
“That’s not who I am,” Ethan growled. “I don’t act that way.”
“That’s exactly who you are. And exactly how you acted.”
Ethan’s frown deepened, turning to a scowl. “Sir, I don’t get any special treatment―”
“Of course you do!” Shepherd cried. His hands rose, and then he was shouting, pointing at Ethan as his face turned red. “Why do you even bother coming in? Why do you put up the pretense of being an agent? You’d make it easier for everyone if you just stopped pretending!”
“I’m not pretending!” Ethan roared. “I’m doing my job!”
Shepherd laughed, long and loud. “You stopped doing your job the moment you compromised yourself and the president!”
“I am still an agent―” Ethan seethed.
“You’re a Goddamn pain in my ass.” Shepherd cut him off. “And I have no clue why you’re still an agent. You shouldn’t be. You should have been forced to turn in your badge and your gun and got kicked out of the Service.”
Ethan’s jaw snapped shut, his teeth clicking together.
“Let me be perfectly clear. I don’t give a shit what you do. Come to work. Don’t come to work. Go on vacation for the entire month of December. Run away with the president and get drunk on some beach. I don’t give a shit. Just stop wasting my time, okay?”
Ethan nodded once. “Sir.”
“Get out of my office.”
His hand clenched around the strap of his duffel, and his teeth ground together, but he strode out of Shepherd’s office with his chin held high. Rage roared through him, deep in his veins.
There had better not be anyone in the gym downstairs. He had to get this out, pound it out into a punching bag until his knuckles split and he vomited in the corner. He had to get this out, because in three hours, Jack was going to call him on his computer, and he couldn’t face Jack like this. Not about to fly apart, quaking with too much fury and raw shame. It hurt, God, it hurt. But Jack couldn’t see that. He couldn’t ever see it.
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