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Spreading out the papers from the next file over her large desk, auburn-haired, blue eyed, American Secretary of State Elaine Barrish pursed her lips as she read over the next potential candidate. The middle-aged politician absolutely loathed doing interviews for her staff, but the only person she trusted with something this important was herself. She’d already interviewed five people and none had seemed to be the right fit. She didn’t have the luxury of time on her side. She needed to find someone that day. Looking up at the knock on her office door, Elaine stood gracefully and called for the person to enter as she smoothed down her skirt, stepping around her desk to greet the next person.

“Jonathan Alder, a pleasure to meet you,” Elaine offered her hand to the tall athletic blond man who’d stepped into the office at her private residence. Not a typical place for an interview but one could never be too careful.

Shaking the Presidential candidate’s hand, Jonathan gave a brief social smile and let it drop just as quickly. “Madame Secretary,” he said formally in his clear London accent. His blue-green eyes remained watchful, attentive, but gave nothing away. He carried himself like a man alert for danger yet comfortable in his own skin at the same time.

Nodding, Elaine moved back around her desk and motioned to one of the two chairs in front of her, “please, Mr. Alder, you can have a seat.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” the six foot, two inch man said. He sat in an alert manner, yet not at the edge of his seat nor with his back to a wall. He seemed cautious but not paranoid. Eyes meeting those of the woman interviewing him, he sat, attentive but not forthcoming.

Sitting in her chair, Elaine looked down at the file and said, “you worked in a security detail for a company called Riverhouse back in London. What were your duties?” She looked back up at Jonathan.

“Ma’am, would you mind if, before I answer that, I ask what precisely you wish to hire for?” Jonathan countered with a businesslike tone.

One brow lifting in surprise, Elaine frowned just slightly as she answered, “this is a personal security position for my son, Thomas.”

“Ah,” Jonathan seemed a bit more receptive, not precisely relaxing nor going as far as to smile, but seeming to unstiffen. “Please, Ma’am, if you would like to contact Mrs. Angela Burr, she can reference my work for Riverhouse. Or, Joel Steadman.” He met Elaine Barrish’s eyes, and pushed over a contact sheet for both the Agents he’d worked with.

“Joel Steadman?” Elaine took the paper and looked it over before lifting her eyes back up to meet Jonathan’s, “he’s a good agent.”

“A fine man,” Jonathan commented, sounding casual, yet something in his manner spoke of caution, even with her.

“Mr. Alder, I am going to be frank with you. I need this position filled yesterday,” Elaine looked back down at Jonathan’s file, reading over his accessible history with MI-6.

“I am willing to wait while you contact either one. The numbers I provided will alert them that you should be received posthaste, Ma’am.” Jonathan reassured her, though his tone never took on any infliction of emotion. He sounded crisp, businesslike.

“Yes, please wait in the hall, Mr. Alder,” Elaine asked.

Bowing his head, Jonathan obeyed instantly, getting up smoothly and leaving the office to wait in the hall. He stood there, not pacing, merely studying the art displayed on the wall, as if that was what he’d truly come to do: admire a landscape. When several minutes passed, he turned at the sound of the door opening.

“Mr. Alder,” Elaine called again.

“Madam Secretary,” Jonathan returned and strode in to resume his seat.

Sitting down as well, Elaine said, “well, it seems you are very qualified for the position.”

“Ma’am, you asked previously if I had any experience as a personal bodyguard. The answer would be, ‘no.’ However, I feel my references state that I am able to work in that field?” Jonathan met her eyes. “If that is required of me.”

“Yes, that is the position you are interviewing for,” Elaine nodded and said, “are you willing to work long hours, seven days a week, for however long is necessary, Mr. Alder?”

“The way I understand it, Ma’am, personal security details of a limited size have no time off. I am willing to meet that requirement.” Jonathan studied her with intelligent eyes, a haunted sadness lingering in the blue-green depths. “The position I filled for Riverhouse lasted several months without any time off, and I completed it to satisfaction.”

“Yes, Mrs. Burr told me as much. She spoke very highly of you. As did Mr. Steadman,” she looked down at the file again and then at her watch, “Mr. Alder,” Elaine lifted her eyes once more, “I am going to offer you the position. I need you to sign these,” she pulled out some papers and slid them across the desk to Jonathan, “if you agree to the terms we can proceed.”

He picked the pages up and read through them, careful to note the wording and clauses. Finding the arrangements amenable, he pulled out his own pen and placed the papers back on the desk, signing and initialing where required. Looking up, Jonathan said, “when will I meet my new . . .” he paused as if searching for a word then selected, “companion?”

“He is due here in about ten minutes,” Elaine answered and then pulled out another file to hand over to Jonathan, “you see, why you were hired Mr. Adler, was that we have received a few death threats on Thomas’ life.”

Nodding, taking the dossier, Jonathan began skimming it. He commented, “as he has become more active in your political campaign, the threats have increased. Does he know of them?”

“I haven’t told him yet,” Elaine sighed and then lowered her voice to say, “my son has had a rough upbringing due to the life in the fishbowl as they call it. He is the first openly gay son of a President and that came with the baggage no fifteen year old should have born. He has had troubles with substance abuse in the past but has been clean for two years now.”

Lifting his eyes to meet Elaine’s Jonathan asked, “I am to protect his life from external threats. Does this also include preventing contact with substances?”

“I trust him not to use, but, yes, if he comes into contact with any drugs, you are to prevent him from using,” Elaine nodded.

“Ma’am, do you mind if I ask something?” Jonathan seemed genuinely curious, though not regretful of having already signed.

“No, I don’t mind,” Elaine made a gesture for Jonathan to continue.

The tall blond met her eyes, “why hire someone outside of your own Secret Service?”

Sighing, Elaine shook her head and answered, “I am not sure who to trust at this moment. That is why I am conducting this interview at my home.”

Leaning towards her a bit, Jonathan asked, “and my qualifications, while of limited duration, are what you wished for this protection detail? You are willing to trust a temporary field asset of MI-6 rather than your own country’s Secret Service? You feel this threat may be closer to the White House than it at first seems?”

The sound of the front door opening and closing, followed by a man calling, “Momma? Whatcha need?” came to them. Footsteps could be heard as the man walked around the home and then started heading in the direction of the office, “you workin’?”

Elaine let out a breath and met Jonathan’s eyes before giving him a single nod to answer his questions. She said, “it’s time for you to meet your charge, Mr. Adler.” She stood up and headed towards the door.

Jonathan stood and turned as he straightened his suit jacket, putting on a small social smile.

Opening the door, Elaine greeted her son with a hug, “Tommy, I have someone I want you to meet.” She let him go and gestured to Jonathan, “this is Jonathan Alder . . . your new security detail.”

Thomas ‘TJ’ Hammond blinked in shock as he looked between Elaine and Jonathan, his pale eyes wide and plush lips open slightly, dark brunet curls styled on top of his head. “Wait . . . security detail? Why?” THe man sported a tall, lean frame, somehow looking younger than his thirty-two years.

Jumping on that question, Jonathan smiled a bit wider and said, “your mother wanted someone free to attend any of your social engagements without being obvious, like the Secret Service inevitably are.” He held out a hand, “Jonathan Alder, Sir.”

Scrunching up his nose, TJ shook the offered hand and said, “please, no sir stuff. It’s TJ . . .” he dropped his hand and looked to his mother, “I don’t need a babysitter, Momma. I’m good. You know that.”

Elaine sighed and said, “don’t argue, Tommy. Mr. Alder has already been hired. Think of him as a new roommate that follows you everywhere.”

Watching the interplay between mother and son, Jonathan gave none of his personal thoughts away. He also didn’t interrupt, yet, though he took every nuance of the conversation in.

“But . . . wait - -” TJ frowned and looked at Jonathan and then Elaine once more, “roommate? He’s even sleeping at my place?”

“He’ll be completely professional. Now, Tommy, why don’t you show Mr. Alder around town. I have some matters to attend to,” Elaine looked over at Jonathan and held out her hand once more, “it was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Alder. Thank you.”

Jonathan nodded, and took her hand briefly, “Madam Secretary, an honor to make your acquaintance.” He turned toTJ and offered the same small social smile. “TJ, I look forward to working with you.”

As they were ushered out of the office, TJ looked up at Jonathan and asked, “how much is she paying you for this gig? Must be a lot for you to be willing to babysit a thirty-two year old.”

“Ah,” Jonathan’s smile grew a little, “I never asked.” He let the door shut softly behind them as Elaine realized that, indeed, Jonathan Alder had never once discussed his payment for protecting her son.

Blinking, TJ shook his head, “you didn’t even discuss getting paid? They must do things different in London, huh?” The brunet shot the blond man a crooked grin.

Chuckling, Jonathan said, “well, I saw I was being hired to perform a service and, knowing slavery is illegal in America, I figured I would be fairly recompensed. The amount I am paid will be adequate to the work I perform, I am sure.” He walked with TJ towards the front door. “When Madam Secretary informed me there were death threats on your life, I felt money was the least of the issues at hand.”

“What death threats?” TJ froze, looking up at the other man with wide eyes.

Jonathan met TJ’s eyes with a serious, almost troubled, expression. “You didn’t think I was hired to make sure you were tucked in by nine o’clock on a Friday night, did you? I understand you’ve been clean and sober for onto two years and so my duties lie in protecting you from potential stalkers while your mother continues her efforts in public service.”

Flushing a bit, TJ ran his fingers through his styled curls, “I just thought it was because the primaries are getting closer?”

“Yes, so hiring on extra staff is often procedure, I understand? I hadn’t realized that included hiring security for one’s family. I have much to learn of American politics. I hope, TJ,” Jonathan smiled slightly at him, “you’ll be patient with me?”

Letting out an indecent snort, TJ shook his head, “I’m still learning. You wanted a good teacher on politics . . . I’m the wrong twin. Doug’s better at all this. Momma just mostly sends me out to the occasional dinner with some donors or performing at charity concerts.” The smaller man reached out to open the front door, stepping out into the afternoon sun.

“Ah, well, I apologize in advance if I . . . cramp your style? That is the correct idiom?” Jonathan walked with TJ, rarely behind him, more like equals than an employee or protection detail.

Laughing, TJ pulled on a pair of sunglasses that had been hanging on the collar of his shirt. “Man, my style was cramped about two years ago,” he shot a grin up at the other man.

Nodding, Jonathan responded, “I’ve seen what such a style can do and empathize fully in your continuing efforts to remain sober, TJ. If you need any aid, a person to talk to during troubled times . . . a wingman? I wish to aid you. However, you mentioned playing for charities. I’m afraid I’m not familiar with which charities you support and what you play for them. An instrument, I presume?” He continued to stride beside TJ, smiling, his manner calm and attentive, yet something about him seemed alert to outside influences as well.

“Piano,” TJ answered easily, “and Momma picks out a few that will look good for the campaign. Last Friday I played for an LGBTQIA charity. That one was fun.” TJ chuckled softly.

“Ah, forgive me if I inadvertently sound offensive, an alternative lifestyles group?” Jonathan asked.

“LGBTQIA stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex, and A-sexual,” TJ recited, “this particular charity raises money for equal rights and whatnot.”

“The ultimate sexual revolution,” Jonathan smiled. “And were were told the ‘60’s and ‘70’s were the real decades of sexual freedom. Are you a member of the charity, or was it your mother’s idea since you identified as gay while a teenager?”

“Still am gay,” TJ stated with a smirk to the other man.

“Ah,” Jonathan nodded, “that came out wrong. I meant that you became certain of your sexuality and were not afraid to demand the world accept you, too?”

Shrugging one shoulder, TJ answered, “sure, that sounds straight out of the pamphlet.”

Frowning softly, Jonathan asked, “excuse me? Have I said something wrong? What pamphlet?”

Waving a hand in the air, TJ shook his head, “no biggie. Hey,” he pointed to an ice cream stand, “want something sweet? Or do bodyguards not enjoy ice cream on a hot day like this?”

Laughing suddenly, a flashback of a very hot Spanish day with a small boy eating pistachio ice cream came to Jonathan. “Oh, I adore ice cream, especially on a hot day. I’m not sure what bodyguards prefer since I’ve never been one before.”

Grinning, TJ turned towards the ice cream stand as he said, “never been one before? That means I’m your first? I will make sure you get the full experience then, Jonathan.”

Chuckling, Jonathan groaned playfully, “oh no, he’s going to attempt to test me by sneaking out of algebra class and meeting friends after midnight behind the chips shop.”

“Of course! What fun is being a bodyguard if you don’t get to chase anyone?” TJ snickered and then stepped up to the stand, tapping his plush lips as he looked down at the different choices.

Sensing his new charge liked play and teasing, Jonathan asked, lightly, “And you wish me to chase you, TJ?” he stepped up next to the other man, waiting for TJ to order first.

Looking over, TJ leaned in closer to whisper in Jonathan’s ear, “only if you promise to catch me . . .” The brunet pulled away and looked down at the choices once more.

Blinking, the smile stayed on his face though Jonathan’s mind went thousands of miles and several years back to a hot desert night behind a generator tent, fumbling in a passionate embrace with a fellow soldier on patrol. He blinked and shook himself, forcing his eyes to search the menu, though Jonathan didn’t see a single word.

“What’s your favorite flavor?” TJ asked, looking up at his new bodyguard and seeing the miles away look. “Hey, earth to Jonathan?”

Blinking, Jonathan looked at TJ a moment before seeming to see him again. “Ah, sorry, I missed what you said?”

Snickering, TJ repeated, “what’s your favorite flavor? I can’t choose. There’s too much that looks good.”

“Ah,” Jonathan looked up to quickly study the menu before nodding and answering, “I like almost any flavor. I’ve never tried chocolate maple before. I think I’d like to. Would you recommend it?”

“Never had it either,” TJ answered and then looked at the cashier, “can we have two chocolate maple cones, please?” The brunet pulled out his wallet from his back pocket and pulled out the needed amount, giving the cashier and scooper a generous tip.

Jonathan didn’t insist on covering his own cost; he merely smiled lightly, eyes haunted. Accepting his cone with a polite, “thank you,” the tall blond turned from the stand and took his first bite of the ice cream. Eyes widening, he said, “that is, uh . . . very sweet.”

Licking his ice cream, not biting into it, TJ hummed happily at the taste, “yeah . . .” He looked over, licking at his sweet treat as he did so, “what? Not a sweet kinda guy?”

Jonathan let his eyes trail back to TJ. “I’ve never really been called sweet, no.”

“Oh, I doubt that,” TJ chuckled softly, “did you want another flavor? He had pistachio? That one isn’t very sweet.” He licked at his ice cream, his pink tongue darting out as he met Jonathan’s eyes. He may not entirely approve of having a security detail, but TJ wouldn’t lie to himself and say that Jonathan wasn’t a good looking man; TJ was only human, after all.

Blinking, Jonathan caught himself before he could wonder about Daniel Roper. He shook his head, "no, this is fine. It was a shock only. I've often heard maple is a sweet taste, but I hadn't realized how sweet before." Offering a smile to TJ, Jonathan asked, “so which parts of the town are you dutifully supposed to show me and, more importantly, will your mother quiz me to find out if we really went?”

“She will most definitely ask about the elephants at the Smithsonian's National Zoo but,” TJ shrugged and licked his ice cream again, “gonna be crowded because it’s summer. Lots of tourists. Probably not the best place to go. I was just gonna get some groceries and then head back to my apartment . . . I have AC, so it’ll be nice and cool?”

Studying TJ for a moment, expression unreadable, Jonathan finally said, “that sounds good. I’m not fond of zoos in the heat.”

“Especially here in DC, the humidity will kill you,” TJ nodded, tossing another grin at the other man.

“I doubt this city is as humid as Spain,” Jonathan said, sounding slightly amused, smiling a bit. “Have you traveled much, TJ?” He began walking towards a store he could see within a block.

“Oh, yeah, I’ve traveled . . . kinda comes with the territory, ya know?” TJ answered, “how about you? Obviously you’ve come from somewhere in Europe. And I’m guessing you’ve been to Spain or something.”

“Born in London, been all over, really. Did you want my resume?” Jonathan’s tone sounded teasing.

“Nah, I prefer to find out all about you the old fashion way,” TJ said smoothly.

“Ah,” the blond man nodded and said, “Spain, Morocco, Switzerland, Egypt, Beirut, Istanbul, Iraq . . . half a dozen other locations for pleasure.”

“Iraq? You served?” TJ asked, pulling off his sunglasses and hooking them on the collar of his shirt as they approached the store.

“Two tours,” Jonathan sighed. He glanced at his companion then ahead at the store.

Quickly glancing up at Jonathan before grabbing a basket, TJ nodded and said, “well, thank you for your service.”

A puzzled look crossed Jonathan’s face and he glanced at TJ again. “I served on behalf of the United Kingdom, TJ, not America.”

“So, that means I can’t thank you for serving in a military? Do people in London not thank you?” TJ asked, tilting his head slightly.

“Sometimes. It depends on the person, really.” Jonathan took a basket and began walking beside TJ down the first aisle. “I appreciate your gratitude, however.”

TJ nodded, tossing another smile up at Jonathan, “you’re welcome.” He grabbed something off the shelf and put it in his basket before asking, “so, anything you want for dinner . . . wait - -” TJ blinked and then looked at Jonathan again, “where are your things? If you’re staying at my place . . . you’re gonna need your things . . .”

“I didn’t bring them from my apartment when interviewing for the position,” Jonathan answered, simply. He picked up a few items, leaning towards a pasta style dish it seemed, and placed them in his basket.

“We’ll need to swing by your place then,” TJ said, “unless you don’t want me seeing your place?”

“I believe I have to let my apartment go since I will be staying with you for the foreseeable future. You may come watch me pack and arrange my belongings if you wish. I would appreciate the company.” Jonathan made it sound like he wanted TJ there for companionship rather than because he’d been hired to watch him non-stop. He offered a small, friendly smile.

“We can drop off the groceries at the apartment and then go over to your place?” TJ suggested, moving down the next aisle and grabbing a few things. “My apartment is only a block down the street.”

Nodding, Jonathan added to his own basket, “that would be fine. We can catch a cab from your apartment I believe? I live in Annapolis.”

“Ah, so not walking distance,” TJ nodded, “how long have you been in DC for?”

Chuckling, Jonathan said, “I’ve lived in America for about two years and been in this city for about five hours.”

“And what made you move?” TJ questioned, taking Jonathan through the aisles and picking up items here and there . . . nothing for a full meal; it seemed he just picked up random things.

“My employment was terminated and I felt a new life was in order,” Jonathan answered. “America seemed a good location as I have a friend in New York City. However,” he turned his head to look at TJ, “things seemed to have . . . mellowed between us and I moved down here perhaps five months ago.” Jonathan's basket seemed a bit more organized, though it wasn’t clear just what meal or how many he planned.

“Friend as in old lover, perhaps?” TJ winked at his new bodyguard as they turned down the fresh produce aisle.

“Yes,” Jonathan answered directly. “We were but no longer. Jed has moved on to a fresh relationship and a new marriage.”

“Oh,” TJ nodded, trying to get a read on Jonathan. He couldn’t tell if Jonathan even liked men in a romantic way . . . Jed sounded like a male name but nowadays he could never be completely sure. He didn’t even know why he was flirting, trying to get something out of his new bodyguard. Jonathan was hired by his mother . . . probably wanted nothing more than a professional relationship. TJ picked up some strawberries and a few apples before looking down at his basket and seeming to realize he had nothing to actually make a meal. Not feeling like perusing the aisles again, he just shrugged it off and figured he could make something out of what he had at home. “Need anything else?” TJ asked, turning his eyes back on Jonathan.

Glancing over his basket of items, Jonathan shook his head. “Nothing else for this trip, TJ. And you?”

“Don’t think so,” TJ answered and then started walking towards the cashier to get checked out, Jonathan at his side. This time he only paid for his own basket, letting Jonathan pay for the things he’d picked out.

Once they had their bags of groceries, Jonathan smiled slightly at TJ, a social smile once more. “So, TJ, which way to my new home?”

Barking out a laugh, TJ nodded and gestured in the right direction before starting to walk. “Luckily, I got the apartment with two rooms! Or else you would be forced to share a bed with me and I’m a notorious sleep-cuddler,” he winked at Jonathan again.

“I, too, cuddle in my sleep,” Jonathan remarked calmly, not seeming offended or upset by TJ’s continued flirtation. “When I have someone in bed, of course. Other than that, I tend to toss and turn and have nightmares if alone.”

Blinking, TJ looked up at Jonathan and frowned slightly, “nightmares? Have you tried a dreamcatcher?” The brunet looked completely serious, not at all teasing the other man. “Used to get them real bad when I was a kid and then my Nana got me one. Not so bad now.”

“A dreamcatcher?” Jonathan looked thoughtful, “I’ve never heard of one before. Is it some kind of electronic delta wave stimulation device?”

Looking stunned, TJ shook his head, “no, they are something Native Americans made . . .” He looked up at his apartment building and said, “here, I’ll show you.”

Smiling at TJ, Jonathan said, “well, as this is my first trip to America and I haven’t met any of the aboriginal people that I am aware of, that might be why I missed out on their dreamcatcher technology.” He followed TJ up the steps.

“It’s not technology,” TJ answered with a small laugh as he lead Jonathan up three flights of stairs and then stopped at a door to unlock it. Opening the door, he stepped inside and then turned to hold it open for Jonathan, “welcome to your new home?”

The apartment wasn’t large; in fact, it was rather small and it seemed even smaller since there was a large piano taking up half of the living room space. A couch, coffee table and flat screen TV took up the rest of the space. The small kitchen, open to the living room through a breakfast bar, had top of the line, stainless steel appliances. The apartment felt crowded but in a homely kind of way. TJ set down his bag of groceries on the breakfast bar and then began telling Jonathan how to find everything as he emptied his bags.

After putting the groceries away, TJ lead Jonathan down a short hall with three doors, “this one is the bathroom, I’ll make sure to clear some space for you . . .” the slim man opened another door revealing a room done in greys and soft blues, “this one is my room,” and then finally he opened the door right across from them to show Jonathan his own, “and this one will be yours.” The bedroom looked like a typical guest room, no real personality added to it, just simple decor, the bed done with soft green and beige sheets. “Feel free to do whatever you want with it,” TJ shrugged.

Walking into the room, Jonathan looked around and nodded, his look serious and calm. “Very nice. Thank you, TJ.”

“You’re welcome,” TJ smiled and then turned to walk into his own room. He headed towards the bed and pulled something off the wall right above his bed. Walking over, TJ showed Jonathan the dreamcatcher: a wooden circle with beautifully woven strings in the center and leather tassels hanging down with some feathers and beads. “A dreamcatcher. Here, hang it over your bed. It catches the bad dreams.”

“And what of you? Will you have bad dreams now you’re giving me your dreamcatcher?” Jonathan accepted the wooden hoop with vibrant green, blue, purple, and black dyed feathers and wooden beads.

Waving his hand in the air, TJ shook his head, “I’ll be fine. Sounds like you need it more than I do. Unless you wanna cuddle to keep the nightmares away instead?” TJ smirked at the other man, never taking his eyes off his new bodyguard.

Jonathan hesitated, as if considering the options, before saying, almost on a sigh, “I suppose that wouldn’t be very professional of me.”

TJ shrugged and let out a sigh, “professional is so boring . . .” the brunet turned, saying, “we should get going if we wanna beat the five o’clock traffic.”

Nodding, Jonathan walked over to his window and placed the dreamcatcher on the latch, using the cord. The sunrays caught the beads and feathers and traced along the webbed center. Turning back to TJ, Jonathan said, “right, time to retrieve my belongings and let go my lease.”

TJ nodded and ordered an Uber to pick them up. Luckily, the driver didn’t take long to get there and within five minutes they got in the back of the car and the driver started in the direction of Jonathan’s home. Looking over at the other man, TJ asked, “so, you’re going to be my shadow? I’m afraid I’m terribly boring now.”

“I can handle boring,” Jonathan smiled at TJ a bit. “I used to be a night manager at a remote hotel in Switzerland. One can hardly get more boring than that.”

“Man, so,” TJ leaned back in his seat and grinned at Jonathan, “you served in the military. You worked as a night manager. And now you’re the personal bodyguard of TJ Hammond. What don’t you do?”

“Well,” Jonathan chuckled softly, “I don’t practice medicine, though I’ve been taught emergency response tactics.”

“What jobs have you done?” TJ asked, seeming relaxed and happy.

Jonathan seemed as relaxed as he seemed to get: poised on his cab seat, alert, eyes watchful. “Soldier, Night Manager, Errand Boy, Drug Dealer, Sous Chef, International Agricultural Business Dealer.” He shrugged, looking nonchalant.

“Wait - - back it up a bit,” TJ frowned softly, sitting up in his seat a bit more, “drug dealer?”

“Ah, yes . . .” Jonathan cleared his throat and looked a bit sheepish, “well, the shipping portion, yes, but that ended when I had to murder one of my runners.” He waited, looking perfectly serious, though the subject sounded more and more like a joke. “Your mother checked my references.”

Snorting softly, TJ shook his head, “well, then you’re definitely not a drug dealer. She wouldn’t want me anywhere near you.”

“Well, not currently a dealer, no,” Jonathan agreed. “And your mother informed me that she trusted you to stay sober.” He shrugged.

“I’d hope so,” TJ commented softly. “You were joking right? You’re very hard to read.”

“Joking? Maybe a little,” Jonathan smiled, “but I find the truth mixed into the cover story helps to throw people off the scent as it were. Which part sounded false? I really must work on my delivery.”

“The fact that you just admitted to murder?” TJ pointed out, watching Jonathan closely.

“Ah,” Jonathan’s eyes remained serious as he said, “I was not a drug dealer nor did I murder my alleged runner, you are correct. That was part of my cover story for the Riverhouse assignment. But I was a soldier, TJ. I have killed men in the name of justice. Some might even consider what I’ve done outright murder.”

“Right . . .” TJ drawled slowly, frowning a bit. “And what do you think?”

“What do I think? I think any time I took a life, whether in the military or not, was murder. However, sometimes it was quite justified and others merely necessary.” Jonathan didn’t look regretful, merely conversational.

When the Uber car pulled up in front of the address TJ had given him, the brunet blinked when he saw a few large, black SUVs parked in front. “Uh . . . were you expecting someone?”

Glancing out the window, Jonathan frowned and said, “not today. Stay in the vehicle, TJ. I’ll see what they’re after.” He looked at the driver, “I’ll pay for you to wait, and if something dangerous happens, drive him back to the place you picked us up and he will make sure you are paid double the fare.” Jonathan stepped out of the car and headed towards the second SUV, not the lead, knowing the front one was security only.

A dark-skinned man stepped out of the vehicle, tall and well built. “Jonathan,” Joel Steadman nodded at the blond. “Got you protecting a former first son, huh?” He offered a hand.

“Joel,” Jonathan offered his hand. “Business, I see,” he commented without even pointing out the array of security vehicles. “I’ve been hired as a security detail.” Jonathan didn’t explain who he protected.

“It’s actually your boy we need to talk to. I figured you two would be showing up here to collect your things. Madam Secretary said you’d be staying with him.”

Jonathan checked over the SUVs and asked, casually, “are Americans always so ostentatious or merely paranoid?” He turned and pulled money from his wallet to pay the driver. “Come, TJ, the guest is yours, not mine. You can converse inside while I pack.”

Surprised, TJ slipped out of the vehicle and looked up at Joel. Once inside the apartment, only Joel following the pair up, the CIA agent shook TJ’s hand, “Mr. Hammond. I am Joel Steadman with the CIA.”

“CIA?” TJ frowned, looking over at Jonathan and then back at Joel, “is this about the threats? Because up until about two hours ago . . . I didn’t know they existed.”

“You told him?” Joel asked, his eyes moving to look at Jonathan.

With a shrug, Jonathan began pulling his clothing from the bureau and tucking them carefully into a suitcase. “A man has a right to know when his life is in danger. If he knows, he won’t resist security suggestions as much as if he thought I was overprotective.” He sounded so calm and neutral, it was almost hard to believe there had been any death threats to begin with.

Sighing, Joel shook his head and said, “no, Mr. Hammond, this isn’t about the threats . . . though we are looking into them. This is about how you can help us.” Joel gave Jonathan a significant look before meeting TJ’s eyes again.

“Me? What can I do to help the CIA?” TJ balked, eyes widening in shock.

“You know of Fred Collier’s couples only parties, yes?” Joel asked.

“Yeah, he has them every month or so. Never been to one though,” TJ answered with a shrug, “so can’t really give you much.”

“We know, Mr. Hammond,” Joel nodded and continued, “we’re hoping that you will go to this month’s party. We believe there might be some drug and arms deals going on at these parties.” Joel looked at Jonathan again.

Stiffening, Jonathan turned and eyed Joel with a frown, his look haunted. “TJ is a single man without even a date, and Collier’s parties are family affairs. Even engaged couples aren’t permitted. The requirement is marriage or parental bond.”

“Which is why TJ is going to elope,” Joel said and then looked to the slim man again, “that is if you agree to help us.”

“Why me though? Don’t you guys have agents for this type of thing?” TJ asked, frowning.

“No one would expect you to be there for any other reason than to have fun, Mr. Hammond,” Joel pointed out. “You’re well known in DC.”

“And Collier is involved in the American Presidential race, is he not?” Jonathan asked, zipping his suitcase closed. “So, an assignment to take down yet another warmonger dealing in biological and neurological agents or simple firearms and artillery?” He sounded interested, if not excited. “By drugs do you mean street or pharmaceutical, or do you mean war agents against the Geneva Convention?” He met Joel’s eyes, “and is Angela involved again?”

“Street drugs from what we heard and there is evidence of both neurological agents as well as simple firearms and artillery,” Joel answered, meeting Jonathan’s eyes, “Angela has been informed, yes.”

“And what would you require of TJ, Joel? He’s hardly a soldier or trained operative. He’s a young man trying to make his way in a world which hasn’t treated him with the respect it should have.”

“He can get us in. We’ll put him with an agent as his husband,” Joel assured Jonathan, “Mr. Hammond will be safe. I would be willing to let you in, Jonathan. You did well before.”

“It begins with information then turns into a dangerous lifestyle with a very dangerous cat,” Jonathan frowned. This time he did sound disapproving. “However, it’s up to TJ if he wants to play spy. I’m merely his bodyguard.”

“Look, I’m not sure I can do this . . .” TJ worried at his bottom lip, looking between the two men, feeling like he missed something. “I’m not a spy or whatever it is you want me to be.”

“And there you have it, Joel. Not every man wishes to play Double-Oh-Seven.” Jonathan shrugged and grabbed his suitcase, apparently the only thing he owned in the place despite having lived there for a few months. He tended to travel light since the military; his books were in storage until he felt he could settle once more.

“Jonathan . . .” Joel softened his tone, eyes sympathetic suddenly, “Jed is dead.”

Eyes widening, pain searing through their blue-green depths, Jonathan staggered and caught the edge of the bed to sink down. “What? How? When?”

“Last night. She was murdered,” Joel sighed and shook his head.

“And . . . her son?” Jonathan whispered, fighting the desire to break down.

Joel met Jonathan’s eyes and just shook his head.

“You wouldn’t be mentioning this unless you feel Jed and her son were murdered by someone who might be at those parties.” Jonathan met Joel’s eyes. His tone had hardened slightly, his eyes narrowed in determination.

“You know who I think will be at those parties,” Joel answered, “or at least someone connected to him. We haven’t seen him since Cairo, Jonathan.”

In a bitter tone, Jonathan said, “I thought when he’d been arrested, that would be the last we’d hear of him. He killed Sophia, too, your original contact.”

“I know. That is why I am here, Jonathan. No one knows him better than you, and now,” Joel gestured to TJ, “we have an in.”

“And he’s already refused,” Jonathan shook his head. “I know what that crazy bastard is capable of. I barely made it out alive and in one piece. If any of his people are in on Collier’s business, we’re all in danger. Especially anyone who opposes him.”

“I didn’t refuse,” TJ piped in suddenly, looking from man to man.

Jonathan looked at TJ, his expression suddenly neutral once more, eyes unreadable. Slowly, he said, “you realize this could mean your life, even if the man’s not connected to Sophia’s murderer? Spy games are not child’s play, TJ. People get killed, for justice or out of necessity.”

Rolling his eyes, TJ let out a huff, “I know that. I’m not twelve. Look,” the brunet shook his head, “if this guy is as bad as you say . . . and he already killed people . . . I should help. I can get you in.”

Straightening, Jonathan looked directly at Joel. “If TJ’s in, then I insist on being his cover parter. I know how he works and can help TJ.”

Nodding, Joel said, “I’ll get you two on the invite list.”

“Joel, we need an elopement for Collier to investigate. There’s no time to build a cover like you did for me in Dover,” Jonathan insisted, calmly. “We need a place that does elopements. Should we fly to that city in the desert? Las Vegas, I believe it’s called? We can return tonight later or tomorrow morning, and if people ask, I can tell them I didn’t want TJ too tempted off the wagon so we came home to celebrate our honeymoon?”

“That could work actually,” Joel nodded, sounding pleased, “book the next flight to Vegas and get married you two. Come back tomorrow afternoon. The party is the day after tomorrow at the Washington DC Botanical Garden. I’ll get you an invite.” Joel already had his phone out and was dialing a number.

“Good. I’ll book the flight and arrange for rings and a honeymoon suite.” Jonathan also took out his own cell phone, beginning to dial.

TJ blinked, watching the two men hurry about on their cell phones. “And I’ll just . . . wait here, then,” he sank on the edge of the bed, wondering just what in the hell he’d gotten himself into.