|"Alice Ashley Marshall, don't you dare!"
Warned by Grace's ineffective scold, Caldwell caught Alice before she actually landed on him and tossed her on the couch next to him. He held her down with one hand while she giggled and tried half-heartedly to squirm away.
"You were supposed to be asleep," she complained, finally hauling herself upright in the far corner of the couch and crossing her arms over her chest with a huff.
"Security never rests." Marshall was sitting in the armchair cattycorner to the couch perusing a dossier full of paperwork.
"And neither does the president." Alice reached to snatch one of the pages Marshall was reading, and he slapped her hand without looking up. It didn't sound like he got her hard.
"Alice," Grace said from the table, where she was poring over a stack of paperwork herself, "stop harassing Ryan and your father. If you're bored, you might remember I've asked you three times today to straighten your room."
"Aw, Mom." Alice flounced off, pausing on the way to lean over Caldwell and blow in his ear, a sneak attack she was particularly fond of. He rubbed his ear against his shoulder and watched her go.
"You shouldn't let her pester you like that," Marshall said. He still hadn't looked up from the dossier he was reading with the dogged determination of the very tired.
"She's a good kid."
"Dennis the Menace was a good kid. Alice is--"
"Your daughter," Caldwell said. "Sir."
Marshall growled. He flipped closed the dossier, leaned his head back against the chair and closed his eyes. "You'll have to show me that move you used on her. She gets me like that far too often. And she's getting heavy," he added in aggrieved tones.
"If you like, sir."
"What I'd like, Caldwell, is for you to stop calling me 'sir.'" Marshall let out a long breath and scrubbed a hand over his face. "Failing that, I'd like to find at least a few minutes to get to the gym now and then."
Caldwell wouldn't have thought Marshall had the energy for it. Things requiring the attention of the president, and the president alone, had snowballed since the beginning of the new year and Marshall was barely keeping his head above water. Shepherd assured Caldwell that it was par for the course and that after four years Marshall certainly knew how to handle it, and Caldwell figured Shepherd knew what he was talking about. He only wished he didn't end every day just as exhausted as Marshall. He toyed briefly with the idea that Marshall was somehow drawing energy from him to keep going. It wasn't an unpleasant idea.
Better than the alternative.
Caldwell had lost weight in the hospital, and Jack Arthurs had whipped muscle onto him in its stead. He hadn't been in this good a shape since he was twenty. And he had never in his life been so tired. Either he just wasn't cut out for bodyguarding, or this schizophrenic dance he was engaged in was getting the better of him.
Big brother and good luck charm to Alice. The night after Thanksgiving had set the tone. If he and Marshall got back to the suite before Alice was in bed, Caldwell could be sure of finding his bathroom door open and Alice lingering as long as she could get away with to slip in a chat before bed.
Confidant and assistant to Grace. He'd helped her plan more than one of the elaborate affairs the First Lady was expected to preside over, the two of them passing guest lists and menus back and forth over the table while Marshall and Shepherd watched a ballgame or argued over some matter of state in front of the tv. And many a night he'd found himself sitting with her on the couch while her husband slept in the next room, quietly chatting or simply reading in companionable silence, unwilling to retire despite his fatigue. Not when he knew the dreams he'd have.
Friend to Shepherd, though not as good a friend lately as Caldwell would have liked -- he simply hadn't the time to spare. Nor could he leave Marshall alone just because he felt the growing need to hunker down in Shepherd's little sitting room and let the world go to hell while they chatted about something unimportant.
And to Marshall... what? Bodyguard. Constant companion. Wall against which ideas, speeches, complaints and abuse were bounced. Confidant of a sort, though James Marshall never talked as freely with Caldwell as Grace did. For pity's sake, he still called him by his last name more often than not.
Caldwell could handle all of that. A man of many faces, he could be all those things to these people and more. And he could also be Major Ryan Caldwell, the nobody Air Force officer who'd landed in the softest featherbed he could imagine. Who had his heart on the wrong side, a lot of scar tissue where it was supposed to be, and a hand that never felt the cold. Ryan Caldwell, who was in love with President James Marshall.
He could even be that last without cracking the facade. Loving Marshall would have been easy, if that were all it was. What he couldn't be was the man who desired James Marshall. That was another Ryan Caldwell, and that face never showed. Except in his dreams. On the bad nights, he dreamed about the plane and was grateful for his soundproofed room. On the worse ones, he dreamed of Marshall and was even more thankful for the soundproofing. Most nights were either bad or worse. Ever since their stay in Britain, an unbroken night's sleep was an unheard-of luxury, and Caldwell wondered how much longer he could keep this up without cracking.
"I'd like," Marshall was saying, "to practice with you, if you don't mind."
Caldwell shook himself. "Practice?"
"Karate or jujitsu or whatever the hell Jack's drummed into your head."
"More like no holds barred streetfighting with a little barroom brawl thrown in for good measure." Jack Arthurs believed in taking any measures necessary. He and his agents had taught Caldwell every low-down dirty trick in the book.
"Whatever. I want you to teach me. If it should ever again," he said, lowering his voice with a glance at Grace, "come down to just you and me, I don't want to let down my end."
"You held your own quite well on the plane," Caldwell protested, following Marshall's example and keeping his voice down.
Marshall grimaced. "Just barely. I was out of shape, out of practice, and goddamn lucky."
Caldwell wisely reserved judgment, saying simply, "Then I guess we'd better work on those first two, hadn't we, sir?" He didn't let himself think about spending more time alone with a casually- or even half-dressed Marshall. He certainly didn't let himself think about the opportunities this would give him to put his hands on the man.
Marshall had no idea.
He levered himself out of the chair and stretched achingly, unaware of the effect the unconscious display had on Caldwell. "I'm going to try to get some shut-eye." He headed for the bedroom, stopping to bend over Grace. Caldwell averted his eyes as they kissed. It wasn't jealousy. Not much anyway. She had the prior, in fact the only, claim on Marshall, and Caldwell liked her too much to resent that fact. But it hurt -- a little -- to see what he couldn't have. And it was foolish -- a lot -- to give his imagination any more fodder. He didn't need to know how Marshall kissed, and he certainly didn't need to be imagining how Marshall would taste.
Caldwell tried to focus on his book, but was forced after a few minutes to stop and rub his burning eyes. Fatigue, that was all. He wondered if he needed glasses. Grace wore reading glasses. Despite himself, he wondered if Marshall found glasses attractive--
"Hm?" He looked up as Grace settled onto the couch next to him.
"What were you thinking about?"
"Melanie Mitchell." Caldwell heard Grace's sudden intake of breath and regretted the unthinking impulse. It had not, he realized, been prompted by the best of motives. Directing her away from the real tenor of his thoughts could have been accomplished in less painful ways.
"Jim said you were friends," Grace said quietly. "He wasn't sure if you'd been...."
"Lovers?" he supplied. He deliberately turned toward her a little. He still couldn't quite bring himself to look directly at her, but at least his body language was less closed off. "We were. A long time ago."
"And then you became friends?"
"You're a special man, Ryan Caldwell." Grace brushed the tips of her fingers through the short hair at his temple. It was something he'd seen her do to her husband. "Not many men can go from lover to friend. Somehow, I'm not surprised that you managed it."
He had no response to that.
"Thank you. For not blaming my husband."
"He's no more at fault in Melanie's death than the vice president was responsible for Mr. Doherty's."
"He's still not convinced of that, I'm afraid."
"They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We all were. Those of us who got out were either brave or very lucky. I was lucky."
"I don't think you're going to find many people in agreement with you on that last." Grace cocked her head and focused those intense dark eyes on him, and he felt uncomfortably as if everything he was was laid bare before her. "Were you planning on staying up?" she asked finally, the slightest tinge of 'mother' in her tone.
"For a little while longer." He usually did, just to make certain that Marshall had, in fact, retired for the night and would not come lurching out in a bathrobe with some last minute thought on his mind. He was reasonably certain that he really was staying in case he was needed, and not for the chance of seeing Marshall half-dressed and muzzy with sleep.
"Ryan, don't you think--" She broke off, biting at her lower lip.
He raised a questioning brow, and she smiled a little and shook her head gently. He wondered what she'd been going to say.
He still had on the dress shirt he'd worn with his suit, the sleeves rolled back. When she put her hand on his arm, her fingers slipped under the fold of his sleeve to rest, cool and soft, near the crook of his elbow. He wondered if it was just chance or if Marshall had told her. "I just wanted to say thank you."
He narrowed his eyes and shook his head. "For what?"
"I suppose I could say all the trite things, but I won't. Thank you, Ryan, for always being what we need. My husband's right. You're a good man."
She kissed him on the cheek and left him there. The bedroom door closed firmly after her, and Caldwell couldn't even bring himself to be jealous.
He waited a few more minutes, then went next door and put too much weight on the machine. Forty-five minutes later, he was aching, dripping with sweat, and unable to lift his left arm more than halfway.
Alice was waiting for him in the bathroom, though it was well past her bedtime. Childishly cute in flannel pajamas, she kept him talking the better part of thirty minutes before making a face and telling him to shower; he stank.
There was nothing he wanted more. Caldwell stood in the
cool-tiled stall and let steaming water beat down on him, and wondered
if he was losing it.
It was the rap on his door that woke him, not the alarm that, he realized as he groggily lifted his head, had been screaming at him for some time.
"Five minutes, Major." Even muffled by the door, the voice was unmistakable, and unmistakably irritated.
"Shit!" Caldwell hit the ground running. He didn't need to see the clock to know he was in trouble.
The bathroom door was locked. A hell of a lot of trouble.
"Shit, shit, shit!" Caldwell knocked, a little too hard. "Alice! Alice, please, I'm already late--"
"Really late," she said over the sound of running water. The lock clicked. "You're always out before--" She broke off and stared at him, wide-eyed, and he realized he was wearing nothing but a pair of loose pajama bottoms.
Her eyes very round, she reached to touch the scars on his chest. He shivered at the light brush, caught her hand and held it away from his skin.
"Alice, please. Your father's going to kill me as it is."
She blinked. "I didn't know it was so...." Her fingers struggled to escape his hand. "You might have di--"
"Alice." Caldwell couldn't keep the note of pleading out of his voice.
She blinked again and finally seemed to see him and not the scars. Alice smiled, but it quivered a little at the corners. "Okay, but you're going to owe me big time."
She was gone before he could respond, pulling the door to her bedroom firmly shut behind her. He quickly locked it and dashed into the shower only long enough to scrub down the important bits. Somehow he managed not to cut himself shaving. It took entirely too long, and he wished he could skip it altogether -- his beard was so blond he'd sometimes gotten away without shaving in the past, but he wasn't the only one his appearance reflected on anymore. Then he unlocked Alice's door and dashed back into the bedroom to dress, barely remembering to swing his own bathroom door shut behind him.
Caldwell was wearing his comm unit and shoulder holster and shrugging into his jacket, a tie dangling from his hand, when he opened his door exactly seven minutes and twenty-three seconds after Marshall's call.
"--every damn second! The man's got to have some personal--"
Marshall made a curt gesture and Shepherd broke off. Caldwell hadn't seen the Chief of Staff so riled up since the plane. That particularly bitter curve of lips was horribly reminiscent of the way he'd looked when he admitted he was afraid he would be the next to die. Marshall's expression, too, was entirely too close to his look on Air Force One. His lips were pressed tightly together, his eyes smoldering.
Caldwell looked from one to the other as he slipped his tie around his neck and made a quick knot in it. A prickle danced up the back of his neck, warning him to keep his head down. "Morning, Mr. President. Shep," he said, as casually as possible and so innocently they might think he'd missed the undercurrents. "Sorry I overslept."
"Good morning, Ryan." Shepherd put a little too much emphasis on the pleasantry.
Marshall didn't bother with the civilities. He grabbed a stack of paperwork from the table and headed out the door. Caldwell followed, rotating his head and left arm in opposite directions until the tingling in his fingers receded. Somewhat to his surprise, Shepherd fell in beside him as Donato closed the door to the suite and brought up the rear.
Caldwell shot Shepherd a sideways glance, wondering if the Chief of Staff was going to let him know precisely what he'd done to ruffle all those feathers. Oversleeping certainly wasn't part of Caldwell's job description, but Marshall's irritation was all out of proportion to the offense. While it might be a political matter, Caldwell had the uncomfortable feeling that there was something intensely personal about it. He found Shepherd looking at him. The other man's eyes slid instantly away, leaving Caldwell no closer to understanding.
The one thing he did know was that Marshall was in a foul mood, and several hours of dismally dull meetings didn't improve it. Even lunch didn't help, though Caldwell had specifically sent word to the kitchen to serve roast beef sandwiches, Marshall's favorite. Marshall chewed his way through two as if they were cardboard, and went back to work.
For hours after lunch was over, Marshall's jaw continued grinding as though he had a tough piece of gristle caught between his teeth. From his expression, he didn't much like the taste of it. Caldwell only hoped Marshall would spit out whatever was bothering him before it choked him.
He was, nonetheless, unprepared when Marshall suddenly shoved his chair back and went to stand at the window, his hands clasped so tightly behind him that Caldwell could see the whiteness of his knuckles from his usual corner.
"Yes, sir." At the tone of Marshall's voice, Caldwell propelled himself out of his chair and went to stand before the desk, drawing himself instinctively to attention.
"I won't be needing your services tonight. If you have any personal business--"
Marshall turned around. His jaw was clenched so hard the muscles stood out in high relief. "The secret service can protect me. It's what they're paid for."
"It's what I'm paid for, too," Caldwell reminded him, fighting to keep his voice even. His heart was pounding so hard, he didn't see how Marshall could help but hear it. He waited through several heartbeats, but his voice still shook when he asked, "What have I done wrong?"
"Nothing!" Marshall looked startled.
"If you're firing me," Caldwell said doggedly, "I must have done something wrong."
"For god's sake, Caldwell! I'm not firing you. It's called a night off. Get out of the White House. Go to a movie. See a friend. Whatever."
Caldwell swallowed. His heart was no longer in his throat, but it still wasn't back where it belonged. "What if something happens while I'm away?"
Something in Marshall's eyes suggested that fear of that very thing was at least part of what had put him in such a foul mood. But if that was the case, why was he pushing the issue? "What could happen in the White House?"
"What could happen on Air Force One?"
"That was uncalled for," Marshall growled. He braced his hands on the desk and glared at Caldwell. "And in very poor taste."
"They're your own damned words!" Caldwell braced his own hands on the desk and glared right back. For several very long minutes, they stared at each other from opposite sides of the desk, almost breathing each other's air.
For an insane moment, Caldwell actually thought he was going to do it. Kiss Marshall. It would be so simple, just lean forward, just a little.... For an even crazier moment, he almost thought Marshall was going to kiss him.
It was Marshall who broke the stalemate. He subsided into his chair with a weary sigh. "You're a hard man to understand, Ryan Caldwell."
"You as well, sir." He was shaking.
"For the record, those were Shep's words."
Caldwell almost managed a smile. "Whatever, sir. You didn't seem to think they were in poor taste at the time."
"Perhaps not. It's been brought to my attention," Marshall said without looking at Caldwell, "that you haven't had any time off since you took the job." A rueful smile flickered across his lips. "The United States frowns on slave labor, Major Caldwell. You can't be expected to act as my bodyguard every waking moment."
That resonated entirely too strongly with what Caldwell had overheard Shepherd saying that morning, and he suddenly had an idea what was going on here.
"I'm sorry, Caldwell. Ryan." Marshall dragged his hand through his hair, leaving it looking decidedly un-presidential. "I didn't think of it when I convinced you to sign on, and I haven't thought about it since. No matter how..." He hesitated, drawing in a careful breath. "... safe your presence makes me feel, I can't expect you to be with me all the time." He drew a folder across the desk and opened it decisively. "Take the rest of the day and tomorrow as well. And we'll set up a schedule for the future."
Caldwell watched Marshall bend over the contents of the folder as if he'd put an end to the subject. Marshall's admission to feeling safer with Caldwell around had driven the breath from his lungs, and he thought carefully about what to say as he waited for it to return. Silence reigned in the Oval Office for several minutes.
"Shep brought this up, didn't he?" Caldwell asked finally.
"Yes," Marshall bit off without looking up. There was the source of the rest of his mood. Marshall didn't like being called to task. Shepherd had forced him to see an unpalatable truth, and the fact that it came from his best friend didn't make him like it any more.
Remind me to thank him. Caldwell almost said it before realizing it would be damned difficult to explain. Not the words, exactly, but the acerbic tone. Shepherd was only trying to help. Being a good friend. A better one than Caldwell had been.
It wasn't his fault that the last thing Caldwell wanted was a break. As he stood there, watching Marshall pretend to concentrate on his work, finding even the curve of the hand that held the paper arousing, it was borne in on Caldwell that perhaps he needed one.
"Perhaps he's right," he said finally. "Perhaps it would be good to have the occasional evening off. When you're going to be at home." Meaning in the family's suite. Caldwell made himself smile. "And I expect you'd like to spend some time with Grace and Alice without me dangling along, sir."
"Ryan." Marshall finally looked up. "This is not about me, or my family--"
"Perhaps it ought to be, sir," Caldwell said, interrupting the president again. He really was getting bold. Perhaps it was hearing his given name from this man. Twice now in one conversation.
Marshall didn't seem to notice. "This," he went on as if Caldwell hadn't spoken, "is about you. You can't be expected to be at my side every second. It's just not possible."
"I prefer being at your side, sir," Caldwell made bold to say. "However," he went on quickly, "perhaps when you're going to be at home, I might take the occasional evening off." The suite was the most secure place in the White House, perhaps in the whole country -- surely Marshall would be safe there for a few hours now and then. Caldwell ignored the chill he felt at the idea of leaving Marshall, even for a minute.
Marshall's lips compressed, this time not in anger, but as preliminary to a smile. "Perhaps you might." He held Caldwell's gaze for a long moment, then dropped his eyes back to his paperwork. "Now get the hell out of here. You've got the rest of the day off, and tomorrow too."
"And tomorrow too. There's nothing planned that will take me out of the White House. I'll be perfectly safe." Caldwell was certain that Marshall had not intended to allow him to see even that much of the effort he was making to convince himself. "Spend the time wherever you like; I'm not kicking you out of your room. But if I see you with either a gun or a comm unit at any time in the next day and a half, I assure you there will be hell to pay. Got it?"
Caldwell gave in with as much grace as he could manage. "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
"Don't thank me, just get out. And have fun, will you?" Marshall didn't look up from his paperwork, but Caldwell saw a smile lurking at the corners of the man's mouth.
"Yes, sir. I'll try, sir."
"Or failing that, at least get some new suits."
Caldwell looked down at himself in surprise. "Is there something wrong with my clothes?" He wasn't offended. Like the casual clothes he'd been given early in his stay in the White House, the suits had simply appeared. He found them in his closet one morning after his belongings arrived from storage and it became obvious that he only owned one civilian suit (dress blues weren't acceptably self-effacing for the president's bodyguard).
"No, except you look like Shep. Not surprising; he assumes everyone has the same taste in clothing he does." Marshall glanced up briefly, a smile turning up one corner of his mouth. "Not that there's anything wrong with his taste. It's just that I have this recurring nightmare that my bodyguard and my Chief of Staff are going to show up in the same suit one of these days."
Caldwell smiled back. "We can't have that, sir." Now he knew who to thank for the suits. And he had as good as a presidential order to get new ones.
Caldwell wandered the White House. He knew he should go down to the firing range. Or to the gym. There was never enough time and a man could never be too ready. Instead he wandered, eventually finding himself at Shepherd's apartment.
Shepherd himself was most likely in his office, or with Marshall. If the latter, Caldwell envied him. He used the key Shepherd had given him and went in.
The sitting room was as welcoming as he remembered it. How long since he'd last been here? Caldwell thought about that as he shrugged off his jacket and tossed it over the back of a chair. He yanked off his tie and dumped it, his holster and his comm unit on the end table, decided he didn't remember, and went to the little refrigerator for a beer.
He'd just opened his third when Shepherd came in.
"I hoped I might find you here," Shepherd said mildly as he closed the door. He pulled down the knot of his tie and unfastened the top button of his shirt.
"Security said you hadn't left the White House." Shepherd picked up Caldwell's suit coat, folded it properly, and laid it back over the chair. He looked at the two empties on the coffee table.
"He chased me out," Caldwell said, forgetting for a moment that Shepherd would already know.
"As if he could." Shepherd smiled quickly and turned away. "Let me get out of this monkey suit."
Caldwell watched him go and sat for several minutes on the couch, drinking beer before, not thinking much of anything, he stood and followed Shepherd. The bedroom door was mostly closed. Caldwell pushed it open with the hand that held the beer and braced his shoulder against the doorframe.
Shepherd was already wearing casual slacks. Bare-chested, he was hanging up his suit, whistling tunelessly and almost inaudibly. His back was straight, smooth and unmarked. It was only when he turned that the scars became visible. Shepherd saw Caldwell, and the whistling stopped. For a minute, they simply looked at each other.
Shepherd lifted a hand to the scarring on his torso. "Ugly, isn't it?"
"Not as ugly as mine."
Shepherd raised an eyebrow. In no particular hurry, he retrieved a shirt. "Cruising, Ryan?"
Caldwell's heart kicked into overdrive. "Sir? No, sir."
Shepherd's head emerged from the neck of the henley. "You know, it's funny," he said as he smoothed his disarrayed hair and tucked in the shirt. "Most people get less formal once they've got a couple beers in them."
"I suppose so, sir."
Shepherd snorted. "Your father wasn't by any chance one of those men who make their sons call them 'sir,' was he?"
Caldwell went back to the sitting room. Shepherd came out a few minutes later, got a beer from the fridge and sat on the other end of the couch. "Got some catching up to do," he said as he tossed the cap on the table with Caldwell's growing collection. "Had anything to eat?"
Ignoring the gun on his end table, Shepherd reached for the phone. "Yeah, some sandwiches, please. Turkey and swiss on rye and a grilled ham and cheddar on sourdough. Try to get it here hot, will you?" He put the phone down and turned while Caldwell was still blinking at hearing his sandwich preferences rattled off so easily. "Now--"
"Why'd you do it?" Caldwell asked without really intending to. He wondered if perhaps he ought to stop drinking. He knew he wasn't drunk, but that had come out awfully easily.
Shepherd pretended ignorance. "Do what?"
"He kicked me out, Shep!"
"He gave you a vacation, you idiot. You do remember vacations, don't you, Ryan? How about simple time off? Going home at the end of the day? Relaxing with a friend?"
"Is that what this is about?" Caldwell thumped the half-full bottle of beer down on the coffee table. "Are you jealous, Shep?"
Shepherd sighed, and rolled the chill bottle against his forehead. "Perhaps," he said finally. "Hell, Ryan, I have to pretend to covet Jim's television if I want to spend any time with you!"
Caldwell had already opened his mouth to respond when he finally processed what Shepherd was saying. "You wanted to see me?" Not Jim, not his best friend, who he never spent a moment with without Caldwell somewhere nearby?
"Who did you think, the Loch Ness monster?" Shepherd drank off half his beer. "Never mind that. Look, Ryan," he said in the tone of voice people use when they want their children to be reasonable, "you can't do this twenty-four hours a day. No one can. Hell, the secret service take shifts, doesn't that tell you anything?"
"I'm his bodyguard."
"The secret service are his bodyguard," Shepherd said grimly. "You're his security blanket. And you can't do that twenty-four/seven either." He finished his beer and went for another. "Take a break now and then, for god's sake, or you're going to go down harder than Air Force One."
Caldwell braced his elbows on his knees and buried his face in his hands. He heard Shepherd return to his seat. Finally, Caldwell sighed and rubbed his hands roughly over his face.
"All right," he said as he slumped back on the couch. "All right, you're right."
"Of course I'm right," Shepherd said, his smile showing he knew just how aggravating that arrogance was. "You've got the evening off, Ryan. So have some sandwiches and spend a few hours, will you?"
Caldwell dredged up a smile from somewhere. "Yes, sir."
The grilled ham and cheese got there still hot, the beer was cool and refreshing, and by the time the steward had removed the debris of their dinner, Caldwell had four empties in front of him and was feeling decidedly mellow.
He leaned his head back on the couch when Shepherd knocked him in the shoulder with another beer and blinked up at the man. "Are you trying to get me drunk?"
Shepherd smiled. "Nah. If I were doing that, I'd use scotch." He sat on the couch next to Caldwell.
"Hm." Caldwell rested the unopened bottle against his belly and closed his eyes, drifting. He opened them, more than a little disoriented, when Shepherd took the bottle from him and uncapped it.
"Still mad at me?" Shepherd asked quietly as he handed the beer back.
Caldwell lifted his head just far enough to drink. "Yeah."
"Have you actually looked at yourself in a mirror lately? Jesus, Ryan. The least Jim could have done is noticed he was running you into the ground."
"He's running himself into the ground," Caldwell defended mildly.
"Doesn't mean he has to take you with him."
"He's the president, for god's sake!"
Shepherd winced, and Caldwell realized he'd said the same thing, in almost exactly the same tone of voice, to a terrorist in the tailcone of Air Force One. "I don't care if he's Jesus fucking Christ! He has a responsibility toward you, Ryan, and that doesn't extend to watching you turn yourself into a ghost on his behalf."
Caldwell sighed. "Well, you certainly made your point. I've got the rest of the day off and tomorrow as well." Though what the hell he was going to do with himself, he didn't know. Go buy some suits, obviously, but other than that.... He wasn't sure he dared go back to the suite. Marshall hadn't turned him out of it, but Caldwell wasn't entirely sure he could be there and not be 'on the job.' "He really is going to be in the White House all day tomorrow, isn't he?"
"Yes, Ryan," Shepherd said with surprising gentleness. "He's got meetings without a break all day. If it helps, I promise I won't let him leave without you, all right?"
"All right." Caldwell lifted his beer.
"Is that an 'all right, sir' or an 'all right, Shep?'"
Caldwell rocked his head sideways and smiled at Shepherd. "All right, Shep."
Shepherd smiled back. He had an extraordinarily charming smile when he chose to use it. "All right, Ryan."
"Any idea what you're going to do tomorrow?"
Caldwell lifted his head off the arm of the couch with an effort. He was nearly horizontal, and it occurred to him rather fuzzily that perhaps he shouldn't be using Shepherd as a footrest, even if the other man was almost as close to horizontal as he was and taking up more than his share of the couch. He had the sneaking suspicion he'd had too many beers. Empty bottles ranged on the coffee table, too many of them for Caldwell to bother counting in his state. Some of them must have been Shepherd's. Though he was definitely toasted, Caldwell didn't feel drunk. Just so damned tired he could hardly move.
Caldwell blinked. "Buy suits," he managed, quite clearly, if a bit slowly.
Shepherd frowned. "What's the matter with the ones you've got?" He didn't sound drunk.
"Look like you," Caldwell murmured, closing his eyes again.
"Something wrong with that?"
"Nope. 'Sactly what he said. Nothing wrong with that."
"But...." Shepherd prompted.
"He's afraid we'll show up at the ball wearing the same dress." He smiled at Shepherd's laugh.
"Well, I suppose I can't blame him for that. Hey." He grabbed Caldwell's ankle and rocked it playfully. "Promise me you won't go buying something off the rack."
"Think I don't know how to buy a suit?"
"I know you don't. I've seen the one you had, remember?" Idly, he rocked Caldwell's leg again, his hand warm on Caldwell's ankle. "Let me guess. Your parents bought your Sunday suits while you were growing up. Then you went into the Air Force, where you could get by with your dress blues. And when you needed a suit for an occasion where dress blues wouldn't do, you went out to some damned department store or other and picked one out at random."
"Is it that bad?"
"Worse." But he seemed to be laughing. "Look, just go to the guy I use, will you?"
"Don't have time. Marshall will expect to see me in a new suit day after tomorrow."
"I doubt it. But it doesn't matter. Joe always has some ready-made suits he can alter. He's quick, too. If you say I sent you, he'll even charge you a reasonable price. Let me give you his address, okay?"
"Won't remember it," Caldwell warned indistinctly.
"That I'd believe."
There was a silence of some undetermined length, during which Caldwell would have fallen asleep, if his shoulder weren't aching so badly. He dug his fingers into it in a clumsy attempt to loosen the knots.
Caldwell was vaguely aware of movement nearby, and suddenly the fingers digging into his aching muscles were doing a much better job.
"Shep...." Embarrassingly, the man's name came out half-moan. What Shepherd was doing hurt. Badly. But....
"Hey, least I can do for the man who took a bullet for the president."
Caldwell opened his eyes and was oddly surprised at how close Shepherd was. "So did you."
"Here, take off your shirt." He tugged at Caldwell's collar. Caldwell obediently raised his arms, as much as the left one would go, and let Shepherd haul his shirt and undershirt over his head. "Lie down."
He subsided gently on the couch and buried his face in the soft cushion. "'M gonna fall asleep."
Caldwell returned to the previous subject. "Bravest thing I ever saw," he murmured.
Shepherd didn't touch Caldwell for a very long moment. When he did, his hands were cool. Caldwell flinched, and the hands lifted, but came back. Caldwell grunted, forcing himself not to move away from the firm pressure. Though Shepherd lightened up a little, he kept at the knots until they slowly began to loosen.
"So was what you did."
"All I did," Caldwell said as clearly as he could, "was get in the way." Why could he never convince anyone of that?
Shepherd was silent again, his hands, warmer now, taking Caldwell's shoulder apart bit by bit and putting it back together. It hurt like all bloody hell. "Jim says you were on the forward side of the door when Gibs shot that parajumper. Yelling at him to get the hell off the plane."
"Something like that." He remembered being more polite than that.
Shepherd lightened the pressure a little, his hands rubbing warmth into Caldwell's aching muscles. "And you still don't understand why no one believes you were just in the way?"
"It's because you had to move to get in the way, you idiot." Despite the words, Shepherd's voice was calm, his hands calmer. "Gibs shot you because you were between him and his target--"
"The door." The smile was audible in Shepherd's voice.
Caldwell felt like he was swimming through treacle. "I didn't plan it."
"No," Shepherd agreed. He switched to rubbing the long muscles of Caldwell's back. "I don't think you plan much of anything, Ryan. You go where you're told and do what you're told, and eventually you convince even yourself that that's all there is to you. But somewhere in here..." One hand settled for a moment, warm on the back of Caldwell's head. "...you know what you're going to do. And when the moment comes, you do it -- you get Jim going in the right direction to get off the plane, or you throw yourself at a man with a machine gun, or you step between Gibs and Jim. You didn't plan it, Ryan, but you sure as hell meant to do it." His hands lifted. "How's that?"
A little groggy, Ryan sat up, swaying, and gingerly rotated his arm. "Much better, thanks." He retrieved his shirt and undershirt from the floor and pulled them back on. "How did you know?"
Shepherd grinned and ruffled Caldwell's already-mussed hair. "Aside from the fact that you rub that shoulder whenever you think no one's looking?" He shoved empty bottles aside and sat on the coffee table. "I've been paying more attention than Jim. And unlike Jim, I know what to look for. I haven't seen you pick anything up with that hand for more than a week."
Caldwell flopped back against the couch and sighed. "I shouldn't have let it get that bad."
"No, you shouldn't." Shepherd retook his original seat on the other end of the couch, picked up a half-full bottle of beer that might originally have been Caldwell's, and drank deeply.
Caldwell blinked at him. "How come I'm drunk and you're not?"
"Because," Shepherd said with a slow smile, "I've had half as many beers and twice as much sleep."
"That might explain it."
The rest of the evening passed in a quiet fog of exhaustion. Though Caldwell wanted sleep, he wanted to spend time with Shepherd more -- or maybe he just knew that Shepherd wanted the time with him -- and he bulled on through, drinking beer, watching a movie and arguing desultorily over whether Harrison Ford was a better actor now than when he played Han Solo. Caldwell thought he was at the least better looking, but didn't dare say it in front of Shepherd.
At some much later point, Caldwell was vaguely aware of
someone lifting his feet onto the couch and tucking a blanket over him.
Grace had occasionally done that when he crashed in the living room. He
thought perhaps he thanked her, because cool fingers stroked his hair
back from his forehead and lingered there in a gentle touch.
Caldwell woke to the exceedingly odd sensation of a bird pecking gently at his shirt. The click-whir of the heater flipping on, however, put paid to any notion of being outside. Which left only one possibility. He only hoped they didn't already have his gun.
He gathered himself and grabbed suddenly. The person whose hands he caught let out a shriek so high-pitched it could be only.... "Alice," he scolded before he even opened his eyes, "what do you think you're doing?" He sat up, half his shirt buttons undone.
She had the grace to look abashed and the brass to complain, "I don't see why you have to wear an undershirt."
"To protect myself from nosy teenagers." He ran a hand through his hair and looked around, disoriented.
"I only wanted to look," Alice protested.
He'd known that what was begun in the bathroom the previous morning couldn't possibly be over. But he hadn't guessed she'd risk molesting him in Lloyd Shepherd's apartment. Caldwell sighed.
"Please, Ryan. I just--" She reached again for his shirt.
He snatched it against his body in self-defense. "Alice, I am not stripping myself half-naked for you in Shep's apartment. Or anywhere else," he added when she brightened. "The media would have a field day, your mother'd be mortified, and your father would revive execution by firing squad purely for my benefit."
"No, he wouldn't."
"Trust me, he would." Caldwell dragged a hand through his hair. "What are you doing here? Where's Shep?"
She perched on the arm of the couch and gave him one of the looks teenagers excel at. "Work, sleepyhead. It's after nine."
Caldwell blinked at the sunlight coming through the windows, threw himself to his feet, and began hurriedly trying to set his clothing to rights. "Shit! I'm late."
"No, you're not," Alice said serenely. "Dad said to remind you you're not to show your face in his office today."
Slowly, Caldwell sank back down on the couch. He'd forgotten, though waking on Shepherd's couch should certainly have acted as some kind of reminder. He bent more sedately to tie his shoes. "How did you know where to find me?"
"Dad said you spent the night here."
Caldwell froze. How did Marshall--? What had he--? Did he think--? Get a grip, Ryan. What the hell does he care where you sleep? He's the President of the United States and your employer, not a jealous lover, for Christ's sake! Slowly, he straightened up. "Oh, he did?" His voice sounded calm, at least.
She grinned at him and answered the question he deliberately hadn't asked. "The secret service knows everything, silly. When I asked Dad where you were, he said I ought to drop by and make sure Uncle Shep hadn't given you alcohol poisoning."
Caldwell breathed a little easier. "Well, you can tell him I'm fine." He'd lucked out -- didn't even have a hangover.
"He knows that. He's in a meeting with Uncle Shep right now." She popped off the end of the couch and walked around it, running her fingers over the back.
Caldwell finished with his shoes and stood. He cast a weather eye at Alice and decided he could risk tucking in his shirt.
She stopped by the end table. "What's this?"
His heart pounding, Caldwell started for her before he saw that all she had in her hand was a business card. He let out a breath and reminded himself that she'd spent several years around men carrying guns and had far too recent and far too personal experience with what they could do to be cavalier about them. He picked up his jacket from the chair next to her and shrugged into it, as if that had been his intention all along, before reaching for the gun.
Alice ignored him. "Signor Viletti," she read, "Gentlemen's clothing."
Shepherd must have left the card for him. A not-so-gentle hint. "Need to get some new suits," Caldwell muttered as he took the card from Alice. He scooped up the rest of his belongings from the end table as well, stuffing his tie and comm unit into his jacket pocket.
"Great!" She fairly bounced to the door. "We can go together."
Caldwell stopped dead. "Go where?"
"Shopping." Alice turned back from the door, her eyes bright with excitement. "You can get some suits and I can--"
"Come on, Ryan, please? Dad's birthday's in two weeks and I haven't got anything for him yet."
"Mom's too busy. Besides, for once I'd like to just go out and act like a regular person."
"You can't do that, Alice," he said regretfully. "You know you can't."
"But if you go with me, we'd only need to take one secret service agent. Maybe two," she amended when she saw his expression.
"Maybe more." Caldwell sighed and ran his fingers through his hair again. This was not, he was certain, what Marshall had in mind when he gave Caldwell the day off.
"Please, Ryan? It'll be fun."
It just might at that. "All right, but we're clearing it with Jack Arthurs first, and at the first sign of trouble, we're coming home, no arguments."
"No arguments," she agreed too easily and opened the door. Caldwell nodded to the young secret service agent who waited outside. What was his name... Paul? "Don't worry," Alice assured Caldwell as the three of them headed for the First Family's suite, "if I do my hair differently, no one even notices me. Unless they notice the secret service guys."
"Then we'll have to make sure the secret service aren't very noticeable," Caldwell said, smiling at her enthusiasm. He cast a quick glance at Paul, who rolled his eyes, but didn't look either surprised or put out.
"Good. Then you should dress casual," she ordered, "and don't shave."
"Don't shave?" He held the door to the suite for her and followed her in, knowing already that Grace was inside, though he didn't see Mrs. Marshall in the family room. One of her secret service team was outside the door.
"Nope." Alice brushed his cheek teasingly. "You look kinda cute scruffy. And nothing like a secret service agent."
"Well, we can't have that," he murmured as he watched the whirlwind vanish into her room.
Caldwell picked up the phone in the living room and dialed Jack Arthurs. It looked like he'd be wearing his gun and comm unit today after all. He only hoped Marshall would understand.
He'd dived into the bathroom for a quick wash and brush, changed into clean clothes, and was pulling a sweater over his head when Grace knocked and came in.
"My daughter tells me you're taking her shopping."
"That appears to be the idea." He shrugged into his holster, seating it firmly under his left arm.
"You know you don't have to--"
Caldwell stopped her with a quick smile. "I want to. I'm looking forward to it, actually." Oddly enough, it wasn't a lie.
"Well, if you're sure. I don't think," she said as Caldwell pulled on a light jacket to hide the shoulder holster, "this is quite what Jim had in mind."
"Let's not tell him about it until later."
She smiled, and startled him by leaning in suddenly to kiss him on the cheek. When she drew back, she looked bemused, and he wasn't sure quite why until he lifted a hand to his bristly cheek. Alice came in just then.
"Oh good, you didn't shave. Come on." She grabbed his hand and headed for the door. "Bye, Mom!"
"Jack's arranged for three men," Caldwell told Grace over his shoulder as Alice dragged him through the living room. "She'll be perfectly safe."
"I'm not worried, Ryan," Grace assured him, amusement coloring
her calm voice as she watched her daughter haul him out the door.
"She'll be with you."
Alice may only have been twelve, but she was damned heavy. Her weight made his shoulder ache fiercely, and he smiled grimly to himself at the realization that he'd undone all Shepherd's good work. He shifted her weight in his arms and nodded his thanks when Paul lunged past him to open the door.
"Caldwell! What the--"
"She's just asleep," Caldwell hastened to assure Marshall, who'd leapt to his feet when he saw his daughter carried in.
"She's twelve, Ryan," Grace said, hastening to open Alice's bedroom door for him, "not two. She can walk."
"Have you ever tried to wake her out of a sound sleep?" Caldwell put his burden gently on the bed and stepped back to give Grace room, unconsciously rubbing his sore shoulder before realizing Marshall had followed.
"She must have run you ragged." Grace smiled at him.
"Hey," Marshall said from the doorway, "who's the one still on his feet?"
"Just barely," Caldwell admitted. He stood, irresolute, in the middle of the room, knowing he should leave Grace to get Alice tucked into bed, but not quite ready to brave the lion blocking the doorway. In the end, it was simple. Grace slipped off Alice's shoes and jacket and pulled the covers over her, and while she was bending to tuck her daughter in, Marshall came past Caldwell to kiss her goodnight.
Caldwell beat a retreat to the living room. Paul was coming out of his bedroom, having just finished carrying out the orders Alice gave him before she crashed. Several bags were now secreted under Caldwell's bed where, even if Marshall was on the sort of present-hunt described so comically by his daughter, he'd never think to look. Paul gave Caldwell a wink and headed out, holding the door for an agent carrying several garment bags.
"Just leave them there," Marshall said from behind Caldwell, startling him. The agent did as he was bid, draping the garment bags over the back of a chair, and slipped quietly out.
Caldwell wanted nothing more than to vanish into his room and crash himself. But he rather doubted he'd get out of this without explanation, so he settled for collapsing in an armchair, exhausted. For the first time in a very long time, he'd enjoyed getting that way.
"I told you not to wear that damned comm unit today." Marshall seemed to be coming straight at Caldwell, but veered off at the last minute to the glassy island of alcohol on the sideboard.
"I didn't, sir." Caldwell stripped off his light jacket to prove it. He also wiggled out of his shoulder holster and sweater -- it was warm in the suite and he'd worked up a sweat carrying Alice. It was a relief to get out of them.
"And what would you have done if someone tried to hurt my daughter?" Marshall's voice was low, the warning growl of the lion.
"Jim," Grace scolded gently as she came to sit on the couch cattycorner to Caldwell's chair.
"Taken care of it myself if I could and called for help if I couldn't." Caldwell fished in the pocket of the discarded jacket and handed the two-way radio to Grace. It looked like a cell phone, but fed directly into the secret service communications system.
Marshall came over, a drink in each hand, and bent over the back of the couch to see the unit. "Interesting." He handed one glass to Grace and the other to Caldwell.
Tired as he was, even one drink would send Caldwell straight to sleep. He took the scotch without a word and simply held it while Marshall went back for his own drink.
"And your gun?" Marshall asked.
"Still carrying that," Caldwell admitted.
"When I told you to take a day off, Major," Marshall said, coming around to stand between the couch and the dark television, "I didn't intend for you to spend it babysitting my daughter."
Caldwell allowed a tired smile. "I didn't mind."
Marshall looked at him for a long minute, and finally took a sip of his drink. Caldwell let out a careful breath. "So what do we have here?" Marshall asked, turning to the garment bags. He didn't wait for an answer, but started shelling out the new suits.
Signor Viletti had the look of a Mob enforcer, and the manner of... well, a tailor. Shepherd's name had flung the doors open wide, and in minutes Viletti was assuring Caldwell there'd be no trouble with any alterations and he could pick up his suits that very evening. Shepherd, Caldwell suspected, had been on the phone early that morning.
He spent the better part of an hour modeling suits for Alice and Viletti. Eventually, they agreed on several, and Caldwell stood very still while Viletti marked them up for alterations. His opinion didn't seem to be much in demand, but since neither of them appeared inclined to dress him outlandishly, he didn't mind.
Viletti had shown no curiosity whatsoever about the mismatched pair who'd invaded his shop (Paul and the rest of the security team having remained discreetly outside) aside from a murmured question early on, to which Caldwell had distinctly heard Alice respond, "My mother's boyfriend."
He frowned at her while Viletti disappeared into the back, and she shrugged gaily. "Would you rather I said my father's boyfriend?"
Struck dumb, Caldwell retreated gladly to the dressing room at Viletti's call and tried desperately not to think of what she'd said. Just a teenager's joke.
Caldwell put his untouched glass on the end table, settled deeper in his chair, and watched silently. Beside him, Grace tucked her feet comfortably under her and sipped her drink. She touched his arm lightly.
"Thanks for taking Alice out. She gets impatient with all the security measures."
"Heard you halved the normal arrangement: two cars and three agents," Marshall said from where he was arranging suits over the back of the other armchair and half the couch.
"Four, sir. Counting me."
Grace bestowed a fond mother's smile on Caldwell. "I'm sure she enjoyed herself."
"So did I," he admitted.
"Nice," Marshall decreed, standing back with his hands on his hips to look at the line-up. "Much better. You, not Shep."
"Actually, more your daughter than me."
Marshall shot him a quick glance that was just this side of a smile. "Now this one," he said a moment later, indicating a gunmetal gray suit matched with a deep burgundy shirt and a tie almost the same color as the suit but for its silver sheen, "might just be a problem." He flicked Caldwell that look again. It was almost flirtatious.
Caldwell swallowed and reminded himself that wishful thinking did not make things true.
"Can't have you upstaging the president, Caldwell."
"That's what I said."
"For Christ's sake, Alice, secret service agents are supposed to blend in, not stand out like, like..."
"Like a rose among daisies?"
"Thank you very much."
"You're welcome. And you're still getting it." She hopped off the chair she'd spent the better part of an hour perched in and took a slow tour around him while Signor Viletti bustled off to take care of an importunate customer. "Come on, Ryan, live a little. You're not going to be in Dad's shadow forever, you know."
He knew. He wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of his life as Marshall's shadow, but Marshall was only going to be president a little less than four more years and he wouldn't need Caldwell when it was over.
Alice twitched at the gunmetal lapel and unnecessarily straightened the silvery tie. "You want to look good for Dad, don't you?"
But Viletti was back and Caldwell watched Alice retreat to her seat, his heart once more pounding. God! She was going to kill him with this and she didn't even know it. Just another tease. She had no idea how close to home she struck.
Marshall's smile caught somewhere deep in Caldwell's chest. "Didn't work, did it?"
"I believe her exact words were 'you owe it to yourself to get this one.'"
Grace laughed. "Sounds like our daughter all right. Alice has no knack for diplomacy."
Marshall grinned. "Her father's daughter."
"Hardly," Grace said dryly, with a sidelong look at Caldwell.
Caldwell nodded his agreement, knowing they'd misinterpret it. Alice was her father's daughter all right. She could be diplomatic when it suited her, but when she wanted something, she would get it, whatever it took.
"Make you a deal, Ryan."
"Hm?" He was sitting in the back seat of the heavily-armored sedan, Alice leaning against him, her arm snugged through his.
"I'll tell you what to get Dad for his birthday if you'll help me pick out a present for him."
He looked down at the top of her head. Her hair, done up in a coil of braids, was tucked under a ball cap and, so far, she'd been right -- no one gave her a second glance. "If you know what to get him for his birthday, what do you need me for?"
"I know what you should get him, silly. That's easy. But I want to get him something special -- new cologne and a tie tack or cufflinks or, I don't know, maybe a ring? Something he'll really like, and not just 'cause his daughter got it for him."
"A grown up gift," Caldwell murmured.
She tipped her head back to grin at him. "Exactly! You help me pick it out, and I'll tell you what you should get him. You do want to get him something, don't you?"
He hadn't even known Marshall had a birthday coming up. "Yeah."
She settled back against him with an air of contentment he didn't think could be laid entirely at the door of finagling his help in gift-buying. In fact, he had the uncomfortable feeling that she'd gotten him exactly where she wanted him.
Picking out a present for Marshall. Cologne. A ring. No. Cufflinks would be better. Marshall had only ever worn his wedding ring and presidents didn't suddenly start wearing new rings while in office; it raised too many awkward questions. Even if it came from his....
Daughter. Who'd just arranged for Caldwell to do the choosing of the sort of gifts a lover would pick out. Cologne.... A ring....
She wasn't teasing, and he was in one hell of a lot of trouble.
Caldwell reached for his glass and drank more of the contents than he ought.
Marshall moved all the suits to the back of the couch, seated himself in the armchair, and took up his scotch again. "With my daughter along, I'm sure you didn't spend all day buying suits."
"No, sir." Caldwell slid a bit more comfortably down in his chair, resting the glass against his chest. He wished he dared rub his shoulder, but after what Shepherd had said, he resolutely kept his hand off it. "There was the mall...."
"Oh dear," Grace said.
Marshall groaned. "All teenagers are morbidly attracted to malls, Caldwell. That doesn't mean you have to humor them."
"I didn't mind, sir."
The mall was neither the first stop nor the last. Paul driving, the other secret service vehicle following, they were in and out of a dozen stores. The secret service agents took it for granted that Alice was responsible for their itinerary. Caldwell wondered how well they'd take it if they knew he was the culprit.
The cologne had been fairly easy -- subtle and spicy with a hint of musk. He only hoped that Grace would like it as well as he did. As for the cufflinks -- and that did seem the safest jewelry to steer Alice towards -- that wasn't going so well. He couldn't find anything that was really appropriate and Alice wasn't helping. Either she was being deliberately difficult or she had the worst taste he'd ever seen, even for a teenager.
"How about these?"
"Good lord!" Caldwell blinked at the cufflinks she indicated through the glass case -- they were about as subtle as watermelons. "No."
"These," Caldwell said suddenly. Finally, the perfect pair. He closed his eyes and saw them in a snowy white cuff, peeking out from under the sleeve of a dark blue suit as Marshall adjusted his cuffs. Marshall's eyes were dark with approval, and something else.
"Are you sure?" Alice's voice broke the fantasy.
The proprietor, made aware by some sixth shopkeeper's instinct that an actual sale was in the offing, came over to open the case for them. "A lovely set," she started, then beat a hasty retreat when both Alice and Caldwell glared at her.
"But they're so plain." Alice turned the pewter and silver cufflinks to the light.
"Not plain," Caldwell corrected. "Elegant." He watched her frown at them. "Trust me."
"I'm sure." He watched her buy them, turning aside his offer of assistance with a comment about ridiculous allowances, and was struck by the slyness of this presidential offspring. She made no bones about using him to buy her father the perfect birthday present. She was also, and she clearly knew she was, giving Caldwell a once in a lifetime chance to choose a very personal gift for the man he loved.
Who would ever have guessed that Alice Marshall was a hopeless romantic?
"You worry too much, Ryan!" The bag with its expensive contents dangling from one hand, Alice popped up on her toes to kiss him on the cheek. "Everything'll work out okay. You'll see."
A kind-hearted hopeless romantic.
Caldwell raised his glass to his lips and was startled to find himself draining it. He didn't remember swallowing two fingers of scotch. Carefully, he set the empty glass on the end table.
"Didn't mind? The mall, with a teenager!" Marshall grimaced. "I think I'd better talk to Jack about redoing your psych profile. Is there a history of insanity in your family, Caldwell?"
Caldwell smiled wearily. "Not that I'm aware of."
Their secret service escort wandered idly through midday shoppers, spread out and making no contact with Caldwell and Alice, but never more than a minute's dash away. Caldwell tried not to notice them. Alice ignored them entirely, bopping her way into and out of stores, dragging Caldwell along.
She was actually quite good to him and didn't expect him to spend hours of sheer boredom waiting for her to finish looking through racks of clothing too small for a doll. In fact, she only subjected him to one such store.
As a consequence, he was feeling generous when she insisted on oohing and aahing her way through a jewelry store containing merchandise marked primarily by its total lack of elegance. And when he realized she was lingering over one necklace in particular, he bought it for her.
"God, Uncle Ryan," she breathed, emphasizing the 'uncle' for the benefit of the girl behind the counter, who was little more than a teenager herself. "It's great. Are you sure?"
In answer, he unhooked the clasp and fastened the necklace around her graceful neck. When he turned back from signing the credit slip, Alice was admiring her new choker in the mirror on the counter, running her fingers over the tan braided cording. "What is that, by the way?" he asked, lightly touching the cord to show he meant it and not the silver dragon pendant dangling in the hollow of her throat.
"Oh," the salesgirl chirped, "that's made from hemp. You know, marijuana."
Alice began to giggle.
He took her arm and guided her out of the store, muttering, "Your father's going to kill me."
She slipped her hand in his and laughed all the harder.
"Did you spend all day inside?"
Caldwell smiled. He felt like a babysitter being quizzed on his charge's behavior. Or the boyfriend, getting a grilling about the date. He knew he only felt the latter because he was keeping things from them.
"Are you sure?" Caldwell looked at the racks of baseball gloves.
"I'm sure. His was on the plane." Her eyes darkened at the reminder and she squeezed his hand a little tighter. "Get two," she added when he went to find a salesclerk. "And a ball."
"Two? One for you?"
"No. Both big enough to fit you." She rolled her eyes at his hesitation. "Trust me."
"No, we spent a couple of hours in a park."
Caldwell rocked his head gently against the chair cushions. "Paul was driving, and I didn't think to ask." He caught something in Marshall's expression and hastened to say, "No one recognized Alice. And there weren't many people in the park."
"I know you took good care of my daughter, Caldwell." Marshall's tone was so utterly confident it was terrifying.
It was a beautiful day. Not quite cold and sporting a bright, cheery sun that took off the chill without making Caldwell regret his jacket. A good thing, too, as he couldn't take that off without revealing the shoulder holster, and Alice wasn't about to cut him any slack on that account.
Paul and the other secret service agents ranged around the park, trying to look inconspicuous and mostly succeeding, while Alice and Caldwell played catch.
"I don't think it's considered proper to play with someone's present before you give it to them."
Alice didn't pause a moment in pulling on the glove. It was too large for her, but not by much, the length of her fingers making up for the narrowness of her palm. "Baseball gloves," she decreed, "are not supposed to be shiny and new-looking. They're supposed to be broken in and comfortable."
She wapped Caldwell in the chest with the one he'd bought for Marshall and glared at him until he put it on. Impatient, she picked up the ball and rolled it in her glove while she waited.
"We used to play catch in the park all the time before Dad was elected. He usually doesn't have time now." But Alice didn't look put out -- more resigned, really. She smiled suddenly. "But he makes sure we always have two gloves and a ball with us, just in case."
"Even on the plane?" Caldwell thumped his fist into the glove he was wearing to indicate he was ready. Alice lobbed the ball at him across the short distance that separated them.
"Especially on the plane. Sometimes it's the only place he has time."
Caldwell smiled, the thought of Marshall and his daughter playing catch on Air Force One charming. He tossed the ball gently back to her. "Why didn't you have me get one your size?"
She didn't throw the ball so gently this time, and he had to stretch to catch it. "Because I can use this one. And anyway, now he can play catch with you when I'm not there."
"Please tell me she at least allowed you to eat."
Grace grinned when Caldwell groaned. "Half a dozen places in the mall. And we had dinner at Dave and Buster's."
"Sorry for staring, honey, but anyone ever tell you you look like Alice, the president's daughter?"
Alice smiled at the waitress. "All the time." She took Caldwell's hand. "Right, Dad?"
There wasn't any time for bemusement. "Absolutely, honey," he said, an endearment he'd heard Marshall use. He turned an unassuming smile on the waitress. "Takes after her mother."
"Well, I'll just get this order in." The waitress flipped her pad closed and walked away.
"So tell me," Caldwell asked casually, "how many different relationships am I going to have with you by the end of the day?"
"You could be my boyfriend--"
"I could be arrested."
"Dave and Buster's." Grace's brows drew together. "Isn't that the adult arcade?"
"Like Chuck E. Cheese for grownups," Caldwell repeated Alice's description.
"Oh lord." Marshall went to pour himself another drink, picking up Caldwell's glass on his way. "She didn't let you stick to just eating, did she?"
"Hm, no," Caldwell said, his eyelids at half-mast. He really ought not drink any more scotch. He was half-asleep as it was; he didn't need to get drunk too. However, at least then he wouldn't have to watch Marshall move around the room, enthralled by the smooth powerful way he had of using his body. Why couldn't the man just sit down, for god's sake? Caldwell stirred himself to accuse, "You taught her to play pool."
"Beat you, did she?"
"Three games out of five." Alice would make a very effective pool shark; they were in the middle of the third game before Caldwell realized he was being taken.
"Oh?" Marshall stepped over Caldwell's extended legs and sat on the end of the coffee table, one foot on either side of Caldwell's crossed ankles. He handed over the refilled glass. "You've been holding out on me, Major. I didn't know you could play."
"I didn't know it was a prerequisite for the job, sir." Caldwell set the glass on the end table, trying not to notice how close Marshall was.
"Looks like you've found someone new to beat at pool," Grace said. "Or maybe be beaten by. If he can take Alice...." She curled her legs more comfortably under her and leaned into the corner of the couch, smiling at Caldwell. He smiled sleepily back, and was relaxed enough not to notice when he tipped his head to the right and began rubbing his shoulder. "But I'll bet," Grace went on, "you didn't stop at pool."
"Of course not." Caldwell reached for the scotch, which he balanced on his stomach. It gave him something to look at other than Marshall.
"Come on, you'll like it!"
"Like I liked that last one with the walking dead?"
"Hey! Shooting zombies is a great American pastime, like turkey on Thanksgiving."
"And the founding fathers just forgot to mention it?"
"Of course. Come on!" She tugged on the hand she'd been holding off and on all day. Even in that, though she was pretending to be nothing but a teen on a rampage, she was still the president's daughter. Though she knew he couldn't feel much with the left hand, it was that hand she held, leaving his right free to go for his gun if it became necessary.
Caldwell let her drag him to the arcade game, well aware of the secret service agents ranged around the room. It was crowded, and they blended in rather well, but he knew where they all were and that every damn one of them was grinning like a loon. The last thing he wanted to do was make a fool of himself in front of this lot -- the story of their outing would be all over the secret service by the end of the week as it was -- but there was clearly no getting out of this.
The damned game consisted of two platforms surrounded by grab bars and two video monitors. Music pulsed out of it at an alarming volume, which only increased when Alice jumped up on the thing and hauled Caldwell up after her. She got the thing going and left him unable to think about anything but the game. The pads under his feet lit up, and the monitor showed him where to step in time with the music. It was like playing Simon and hopscotch at the same time. It was, he had to admit, rather fun. It was also the most grueling workout he'd ever had, even under Jack Arthurs' tender hand.
As Caldwell described the thing to the Marshalls, the mere iteration brought back every ache and pain and all his exhaustion. It had been a very long day.
He sipped at his scotch while Grace and the president winced and laughed at his narrative, and settled into his chair, perhaps to stay. He could very easily fall asleep right there, if only his shoulder ached a bit less. He grimaced, unthinking, and dug his fingers in harder.
A minute later, for the second time in two days, someone else's fingers took over. Strong fingers. Warm, even through his shirt. So very warm. Caldwell flinched despite himself.
Marshall's touch lightened, which was worse. Caldwell's entire body tensed instinctively against the gentle stroking. "Easy," Marshall said, his voice bedroom soft, and though there was coaxing in the words, there was also command. "Let me."
"Relax, Major Caldwell." Definitely command this time. Caldwell tried to comply, but he was so aware of Marshall, of his hands and the heat of his body, and worse yet of Grace perched nearby, watching, that his skin prickled with it. "I can see," Marshall said as he slipped his hands under Caldwell's collar, "that I'm going to have to take better care of you."
Caldwell breathed carefully, Marshall's fingers burning his skin. God! He'd been half-naked under Shepherd's hands and hadn't felt this exposed. Or this aroused. Marshall's fingers pushed a little further under Caldwell's shirt with each firm stroke and every touch went straight to Caldwell's cock.
Caldwell squeezed his eyes shut, feeling the flush rise in his cheeks and cursing his fair complexion. God, please! Not in front of Grace! He fumbled the glass of scotch to his mouth and drained it. The alcohol slid smoothly down without even a burn, and he knew he was in trouble. One full night's sleep in who knew how long was not enough, and the alcohol was too much.
"Easy," Marshall said again. The chair creaked, and Caldwell groggily wrestled open his eyes to see Marshall's knee braced on the arm of the chair. A broad hand spread itself where his left shoulder met his neck, the fingers shifting a bit, stroking the short hair at his nape. Marshall applied pressure, and Caldwell found himself leaning sideways into the president's body, Marshall's hands pressing harder, deeper.
"Sir," Caldwell mumbled, "you shouldn't."
"And you shouldn't call me sir."
Only he never called Caldwell 'Ryan.' Almost never. And Caldwell couldn't call Marshall 'Jim' if he was only ever addressed by his last name. It was a very effective way of putting distance between them. Caldwell wondered if Marshall even knew why he did it.
Marshall's fingers worked him mercilessly, and Caldwell bit his tongue to restrain a groan that would sound too much like pleasure.
His head was against Marshall's belly. Soft, but not too soft. A man in excellent shape for his age. He smelled pleasant: a hint of aftershave, a hint of cologne, a hint of sweat. His strong hands manipulated Caldwell's shoulder, rubbing heat and ease into it, and all Caldwell could think to do was lean against him and let it happen. He was fuzzily grateful to realize that exhaustion and alcohol had effectively removed any chance of arousal. They were well on their way to removing any chance of continued consciousness.
Jim, honey, you can't go on like this.
What do you expect me to do?
"Come on," someone said through the darkness, and Caldwell was propped on his feet and steered to the softest of beds.
After fifteen years of marriage, you're going to tell me you don't know what to do?
Dammit, it's not that simple!
Someone got him out of his clothes and under the covers, and at one point he was certain there were two sets of hands that eased him into bed, and two pairs of lips that kissed him as he drifted. One on the forehead. One, briefly, on the lips.
But when he woke, he knew that to be as much a fiction of his dreaming mind as the cool fingers that had brushed back his hair while he slept on Shepherd's couch.
|"I hate those things." Marshall settled into his seat and yanked
off his bowtie as Caldwell and Anthony joined him in the car. Anthony
settled onto the rear seat with the president while Caldwell sat in the
center of the seat opposite, his back to the bulletproof window that
was currently closed between the passenger and driver compartments.
"They do serve a purpose, sir," Caldwell said as the limo pulled away from the curb in front of the hotel, taking its place in the caravan of limos, police cars and other secret service vehicles heading back for the White House.
"Yeah. An outlet for bad food and worse speeches."
"You were the only one who spoke, sir."
Marshall smiled that self-deprecating smile and turned to look out the window. Anthony winked at Caldwell, who shrugged with his eyebrows. They were used to Marshall's irritation with these fundraising dinners.
Caldwell allowed himself to watch Marshall for a moment, taking advantage of the man's distraction to take in the familiar face, lined with more laughter than anger, dark hair scattering itself rebelliously over his brow. For the millionth time, he contemplated which was the worse position to take when he accompanied Marshall -- across from him, where he could look and might just be caught staring, or beside him, where he could feel the warmth of Marshall's body. Smell the faint musk of the cologne he himself had picked out for the man.
Caldwell released a soundless sigh and turned to look out the nearest window. The limo slowed and stopped. A light? They usually had them timed so as to avoid unnecessary stops, but perhaps an emergency vehicle needed the right-of-way -- even the president's cortege stopped for ambulances. He began to turn when the barrier between them and the driver slid down with a muted electronic whir. By then it was too late.
The shot was deafening. Anthony flopped back in his seat, a red plume sprouting from his neck.
Caldwell was already moving. He grabbed Marshall's collar and hauled the president across to the seat directly behind the driver. At the same time, he grabbed the driver's wrist with his other hand and slammed it against the side of the window. The driver hissed explosively, but didn't release the gun.
Caldwell got his left hand through the opening and shoved at the man's face as he grappled for the gun. The window too small to get both his head and upper body through, he attacked blind, further hampered by his inability to feel what he was grabbing. A string of harsh curses suggested he was having some impact. But the driver maintained his grip on the gun with the strength of fanaticism, still trying to bring it back across Caldwell's body to bear on the place Marshall had been.
Caldwell's numb hand closed on something. He dug in his nails. The man's screech was almost as deafening as the second explosion.
Something hot burrowed into Caldwell's side. He gritted his teeth and tightened his grip on the driver's wrist until he could feel the bones grate. The man clawed at Caldwell's left hand, struggling wildly, as Caldwell force their joined hands around, shoving the gun back through the window.
A swarm of bees invaded his torso through the numbing ache of his side. He could feel them zipping down his legs and up his arms, trying to force their way into his head. He knew that when they succeeded he'd black out. He tightened his grip and shoved, his finger slipping into the trigger guard atop the driver's and bearing down. For the third time, an explosion blasted through the limo. The hand that held the gun and the fingers clawing at Caldwell fell limp.
Slowly, Caldwell became aware of hands tugging at his shoulders. Of a warm solid body behind him. Of a voice, buzzing in his ears. At first, he could barely hear it over the swarm of bees rampaging through his body. Then, with shocking suddenness, it cut through.
The buzzing in his chest fell silent, leaving only an unsettling hum that vibrated through every limb.
"He's dead, Ryan. Let go. He's dead."
Mindlessly, he obeyed, releasing the things he held. He wasn't sure that his left hand had obeyed until he saw it come back through the window, bloody but empty. Once the movement away from the window started, he couldn't stop it. The body at his back cushioned him before he could fall and the arms that enclosed him were strong.
But the hands shook. They passed over and around his body, running under his jacket, and they shook. He knew, from somewhere, that they shouldn't. When they passed over the wet pulpy agony that was his side, he sucked in a sudden breath and surfaced.
"Jim? Sir, are you hit?" Turning, trying to see.
"No." Marshall shifted him onto the forward seat, delving inside his tuxedo jacket for a handkerchief, which he pushed hard against Caldwell's side.
Caldwell bit his tongue to stifle his cry. When the initial flare of pain subsided, he found his voice. "Anthony."
"He's dead." Marshall moved in close to brace Caldwell when he swayed. He kept the handkerchief pushed up against Caldwell's side and wrapped his other arm around Caldwell to steady him.
Caldwell wanted nothing more than to relax into the man's arms. He closed his eyes, steeled himself, and forced down the rising buzz of pain. "We have to--"
A pounding on the window interrupted him. Dimly from outside, voices could be heard, an angry confused riot of them. "Sir!" a closer voice shouted, concurrent with a recommencing of the pounding. "Sir! Are you all right?"
"No," Marshall said when Caldwell reached for the window controls.
The ear bud of Caldwell's comm unit had become dislodged in the struggle and was dangling from his collar. Before he could recover it, Marshall had it, and was leaning his head close to Caldwell's to seat it in his own ear.
"Give me your hand, Ryan." He took Caldwell's right hand and brought the wrist close to his mouth. For half a second, Caldwell's dazed mind anticipated a kiss, before it connected that it was the microphone Marshall wanted. "This is Marshall." The noise level outside dropped immediately. "Anthony is dead and Caldwell injured. Someone get in this damn thing and drive to the nearest hospital. Now."
Not bothering to wait for a response -- and who would argue with that tone of voice? -- he released Caldwell's hand and reached for the control switch for the interior window. Before someone had even fumbled at the driver's door, the bulletproof glass rose once more into place and Marshall toggled the switch to lock it.
"Sir, you can't--"
"Hush." Marshall shifted the wad of blood-soaked linen away from Caldwell's wound. He swore and dug inside Caldwell's jacket for his handkerchief. After pressing it against Caldwell's side along with the other, he brought Caldwell's wrist to his mouth again. "If we're not at a hospital inside five minutes, I swear I'll fire every damn one of you." As he spoke, his hand bore down harder on the wound and Caldwell hissed through his teeth. Marshall's arm automatically flexed in response, bringing Caldwell closer against him. "I'm aware of that," he snapped in response to something over the comm unit. "Get me Jack Arthurs on this thing and get the damned car moving. Now."
In very short order, the limo was moving through traffic, the sway of the vehicle rocking Caldwell into Marshall. He couldn't seem to maintain his balance, and Marshall wasn't helping matters with the tightness of his embrace.
"Sir, you have to-- Sir, you need to release me. Jim."
Marshall took in a long breath, his chest rising and falling against Caldwell. Slowly, his grip relaxed. Caldwell turned in the loose embrace, dislodging the comm unit, and began to run his hands over Marshall, delving under his jacket to skim the body-warmed shirt.
"What are you--"
"Checking for injury," Caldwell said, without looking into Marshall's eyes.
"I told you I wasn't hit."
"Reagan didn't know he was shot until the doctors told him." Caldwell continued his search, trying not to notice the liberal smears of red on the president's tuxedo.
"Only one of us is wounded," Marshall said, holding up the wad of bloody handkerchiefs. He shrugged off Caldwell's hands and pushed the linen once more against the hole in Caldwell's side. Despite himself, Caldwell groaned.
"Easy," Marshall murmured. "We'll be there soon." He maneuvered Caldwell around until he was leaning against Marshall's chest, and retrieved the comm unit, screwing it into his own ear. Silently, Caldwell shifted his right arm up until Marshall could take the wrist and bring the microphone to his lips again in a bizarre parody of an embrace. "This is Marshall. Where the hell is Jack Arthurs?" A pause. "About time, Jack. Get everyone else off this line." Another, longer, pause before Marshall went on. "I want a secret service detail to meet us at the hospital. How should I know which hospital?" he snapped. "Ask your agents. Yes, I'm aware I'm surrounded by secret service agents. Didn't stop the limo driver from taking a shot at me and damn near killing Caldwell." He paused, and Caldwell could guess what kind of response Arthurs made. Whatever his exact words, Marshall didn't bother to respond to them. "Now listen carefully, Jack. I don't want any of my usual agents. Pull me a detail from anywhere else -- Grace's team, Alice's, Kath's. Agents who don't work together and have never been on my detail. And get them now."
It was clear what he was doing. It was very unlikely such a disparate and quickly assembled team could harbor another traitor. Caldwell thought he could hear Arthurs' squawk even through the earbud.
"I don't want any arguments, Jack. I want it done. Lead the team yourself. And check with my current detail for an e.t.a. I'll leave the limo when we get to the hospital whether you're there or not." He pulled the comm unit from his ear before Arthurs could answer. But then, they both knew perfectly well what the response would be.
"You can't do that, Jim," Caldwell said as the limo skidded around another corner.
"Jesus, Ryan," Marshall said, gingerly touching Caldwell's numb fingers, "what the hell did he do to your hand?"
Caldwell didn't allow himself to be sidetracked. He'd already seen the torn skin, and realized the blood wasn't all the driver's. "You can't leave the limo without security."
"I will not sit in this damned tank and wait for a so-called security team while you bleed to death, Ryan."
Caldwell tipped his head back far enough to see Marshall's face. He looked away quickly, not sure which was more unsettling, Marshall's grim expression, or how very close he was to the man's face, his tempting mobile lips. "And if the driver's not the only one in on this?"
"There are too many witnesses in the emergency bay of a hospital. No one will try anything."
"Right. That's why you're having Jack Arthurs pull you a new team."
"That's for when we leave, Ryan." Marshall shifted and firmed up the pressure on Caldwell's side. The wadding made a squishing sound and Caldwell could feel the president's fingers slip in his blood. The pain was spreading in lapping waves out from the bloody epicenter, drowning the buzz in a creeping drowsiness. "Jesus," Marshall hissed. "This isn't supposed to be possible. Arthurs assured me everyone was checked and triple checked."
Caldwell closed his eyes. "We don't know there's another traitor in the secret service," he said wearily. "I didn't get a look at the driver, but he was swearing in something that sounded like Russian."
"A dialect," Marshall confirmed.
"So he's not the usual guy."
"Whoever he was," Marshall said, giving Caldwell a little shake and hoisting him higher on his chest, as if he knew how close Caldwell was to drifting away on a sea of blood, "someone gave him clearance."
They sat in silence as the limo sped through the night, police sirens blaring. Caldwell stirred himself when they began to slow.
"Help me get my gun," he directed, as if he weren't talking to the president of the United States.
He managed to drag his arm across his body to dip under his jacket, but the angle was inconvenient for getting his gun out of the holster. Then Marshall's hand was there, helping. "What do you intend to do with this?"
"I intend to hold onto it," Caldwell said. Marshall put the gun in his hand and wrapped his fingers around it, and from somewhere Caldwell found the strength to hold on. He kept his arm curled across his body so the gun remained hidden by his jacket. "Get Anthony's gun." There was no time now to think about the dead man in any terms other than what use could be made of him. Later, it would hurt dreadfully. Anthony had been the nearest thing to a friend Caldwell had in the secret service.
Marshall braced Caldwell against the seat and silently removed Anthony's gun from his holster. He hesitated a moment longer over the body, and Caldwell couldn't see what he was doing, but when Marshall returned, Anthony's staring eyes had been closed.
Marshall didn't ask what Caldwell had in mind. They slipped easily into the rapport they'd had on the plane, and they both knew what they had to do. Jack Arthurs could not possibly assemble a team in time to meet them at the hospital, and there was no knowing how many, if any, of Marshall's current team were planning murder. The emergency entrance of the hospital might be busy enough to put most assassins off, but there was still a risk. Caldwell was damned if he'd meet it empty-handed. Marshall slipped his arm around Caldwell again, the hand holding the gun hidden under Caldwell's jacket. The gun pressed against Caldwell's bloody side, sharp-edged and painful.
"Ever seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?" Marshall asked suddenly.
Caldwell turned to look at him, too tired and in too much pain for Marshall's closeness to have more than a passing effect. "You've got a sick sense of humor, you know that?"
Marshall smiled. "And you've finally forgotten to call me sir."
The limo stopped. Marshall hit the control to lower the driver's side window a quarter-inch, just far enough to hear the tell-tale bustle of a hospital's emergency entrance. He shifted them both closer to the door, lifting Caldwell's left arm over his shoulders without knowing how the damaged muscles screamed at the strain. "Ready?"
Caldwell gritted his teeth and nodded.
They left the limo.
"Holy shit!" someone said as they burst through the emergency room doors. Caldwell wasn't sure if it was one of the secret service team, or a stunned EMT. He was too busy trying to keep his feet under him to notice or care.
Once Marshall started moving, he moved fast. Caldwell had a kaleidoscopic impression of lights and sirens and shocked faces against a background of night. Then they were inside, and Marshall was still bulling forward, the hard pain of the gun biting into Caldwell's side and the tearing agony in his shoulder keeping him moving. Banished to some corner of his mind were the desperate flashes of memory -- his body torn apart, muscles and tendons grinding and tearing as they fought to drag the full weight of a man back from the void. Only now, it was Marshall who stood on solid ground and hauled Caldwell back from the edge.
They came in through the ambulance bay, so there were no waiting patients or frantic families. Just a smattering of green scrubs and startled faces as Marshall's secret service detail poured through the automatic doors behind them.
"Where?" Marshall barked, and a nurse, her eyes wide and round, raced ahead of them to throw open the curtains around a trauma station. "No. Somewhere more secure." Marshall growled at her uncomprehending look. "Somewhere with doors, dammit!"
Caldwell didn't know if she recognized who Marshall was or if the hard authority in his voice struck a nerve, but she didn't even put up a token argument. A few minutes later, they were alone in a glass-walled room, the nurse dashing off to find 'your best doctor, and I mean the best, not the one with the most seniority.'
Marshall lowered Caldwell onto the gurney. Bracing himself with the hand that held the gun, Caldwell struggled to remain upright and conceal the rending pain in his left shoulder. He wasn't even sure at first he could get it to his side, but gravity helped with that, and the arm hung limply.
"Jesus, Ryan!" Marshall shoved Anthony's gun in his jacket pocket and put his hands on Caldwell's shoulder, rubbing carefully.
"It's okay. It's okay." Caldwell flinched away from Marshall's necessary, painful touch. He could move the arm now, a little, and that was all he cared about. He'd deal with the fall-out from abused tendons later.
"Sir." A heavy-set mustached man hovered at the door, a member of Marshall's security detail whose name Caldwell couldn't dredge up just then.
"Out," Marshall said, his hand falling into his coat pocket. A perfectly natural movement, if you didn't know there was a gun in it. "Let in nurses, doctors, and Jack Arthurs when he gets here. Everyone else, including you, stays outside."
"Yes, sir." The man backed out the door, his expression completely devoid of emotion, and took up a position outside. Through the window by the door, Caldwell saw several of the man's fellow agents join him. He knew Marshall's orders had been passed on by the change in their expressions. They weren't happy about it, but they stayed out.
"Lie down, Ryan."
"Sorry, sir," Caldwell said, not sure if it was pain or loss of blood that made him breathless, "think I'll sit up for a while." If there was a threat here, he couldn't very well face it lying down. And he was very much afraid that if he made it down, he wouldn't be getting up again.
Marshall looked like he wanted to argue, but instead he helped Caldwell scoot back on the gurney until he could lean against the wall, the gun held loosely in his lap. They'd just completed the maneuver when the nurse returned, doggedly following a man in blue scrubs. From their expressions, they now knew who they had in their emergency room.
"President Marshall," the doctor said, confirming it. A fair-haired fellow not above average height, he seemed torn between deference and his own sense of authority. "If I may, sir." He advanced on Marshall without waiting for a response.
Marshall brushed off the fellow's hands. "He's the injured one," he said, flinging a hand out toward Caldwell. "Take care of him."
"In a minute, sir. If you'd just let me check, sir, we can--"
"For god's sake! The blood's his. Do you understand? It's his blood, not mine."
"Yes, sir. I'm sure you think so. But, sir, Reagan--"
"I know about that," Marshall snapped. "I also know I'm not injured."
"Sir," Caldwell said softly. Marshall turned to look at him. Caldwell cleared his throat, readying his arguments, but Marshall smiled at him suddenly, that irresistible half-quirk of the lips.
"All right," Marshall said quietly. "Let's get this over with, so you can focus on your real patient." He shrugged out of his blood-spattered tuxedo jacket, looking steadily at Caldwell as he did so. The gun in his pocket made a dull thudding noise when he dropped the jacket on the hard plastic chair. Caldwell squared his shoulders against the wall as best he could and took a tighter grip on his gun.
"Very good, sir. There's a free room next door--"
"No. Here or not at all." Marshall's snowy white shirt-front was a liberal brick red. Was all that blood really Caldwell's? Marshall impatiently yanked open the ruined shirt, buttons pinging softly to the floor. "See. No holes."
"Yes, sir." The doctor nonetheless stripped the shirt the rest of the way off Marshall and gave him a thorough going-over. Marshall was fidgeting by the time the man was satisfied, and Caldwell, with the part of his mind still operational, wished he had this much leeway to look and touch. He fought to remain upright, dark glimmers gathering at the edges of his vision.
"Major!" Familiar hands caught him and guided him down to a flat surface. Caldwell opened his eyes to find Marshall's face close above him. He was sorry to see 'Ryan' vanish again, but there were times the way Marshall said 'major,' it almost sounded like his name.
"Sorry, sir, I--" He tried to sit up, but found himself quite unable to lift his shoulders. After a moment, he realized Marshall was pinning them to the gurney. "Let me up, sir."
Marshall shook his head, a tiny smile quirking in his otherwise grim expression. "Not a chance, Major. It's your turn now." Warm fingers covered Caldwell's, still closed tightly around the gun. "Give me that now. Jack's here; you don't need it anymore."
"Yes, sir." Caldwell let it go. "You checked out okay, sir?"
Marshall smiled at him again, a small gentle smile. "You know I did. You checked me out yourself."
"Yes, sir, but--" He was aware of a bustle close at hand, and a silence, but didn't care about either.
"I'm fine, Ryan."
The sudden return of his given name disoriented Caldwell. With an effort, he ignored it. "Good," he breathed. "Then you can go home." He saw Marshall's gathering frown, and hurried to outpace it. "It would be safer, sir. This place isn't anywhere near secure. With Arthurs here, you don't need me. Go home."
"You're wrong about that, Ryan." Marshall was leaning so close over Caldwell, it would have been a simple thing to kiss him. Caldwell realized suddenly that the room was empty but for the two of them and Marshall was still bare-chested. He sucked in a breath redolent of blood and James Marshall and came close to panicking. "Easy, Ryan." Marshall's warm hand cupped the side of Caldwell's face. "They've gone to get a portable x-ray. As soon as they're sure you don't still have a bullet in you, they'll stitch you up and send you home. I'm staying until they've cleared you to leave and that's final."
"That's final, Ryan." Marshall's hand moved on Caldwell's cheek in something that felt remarkably like a caress. He patted Caldwell gently and withdrew. "So say 'yes, sir' and accept it."
"Yes, sir," Caldwell murmured, already missing Marshall's closeness.
"Come on, Major, let's get you into the car."
Caldwell was hoisted out of the wheelchair by Marshall and Arthurs, who walked him the few steps to a limousine. The inside was blessedly clear of blood and corpses, and he collapsed on the rear seat with a relieved sigh as Marshall climbed in after him.
"Shouldn't've let 'em gimme that shot." Caldwell had argued against the painkiller, but Marshall overruled him.
"I wasn't aware you were a masochist, Ryan," Marshall said as the limo pulled away from the curb with only the two of them in the back. "Twenty-three stitches and a cracked rib are nothing to make light of."
"Sir, your secret service--" He had trouble getting his tongue around those two words in succession.
"Jack's up front with Paul -- you remember the head of my daughter's security detail? That'll be enough to get us back to the White House."
Caldwell closed his eyes, imagining the argument Marshall must have had with Arthurs over that one, and started to topple over. Strong hands caught him and eased him against a warm, pliable surface.
"Easy, Ryan. Just let those drugs kick in. No point in fighting it." Marshall's voice was awfully close. Caldwell fought his eyes open and realized he was leaning against the president's chest, his head tucked comfortably against Marshall's shoulder. He didn't have the strength to pull away, though he knew vaguely that he should.
He drifted for a time, breathing in Marshall's scent. It was pleasant, even mixed with blood and antiseptic and whatever harsh detergent had been used on the scrubs the nurse had given him to replace his blood-soaked shirt. Caldwell let himself dream, let the warmth of Marshall's body be all for him, the phantom weight on his back be Marshall's arms, wrapped protectively around him.
"Stupid," someone said, and Caldwell couldn't agree more. When would he learn not to want what he couldn't have?
"Almost lost you." Was that Marshall's voice, murmuring soft in Caldwell's ears, rumbling through the chest he lay against? Whoever it was was right. Caldwell had been lucky. If the bullet hadn't ricocheted off a rib, the wound, dangerous for most, would have been fatal for him. The physical anomaly that had saved his life on Air Force One had come damn close to killing him tonight.
"Should never have asked this of you." Warm fingers stroked Caldwell's hair. "Shep was right. I don't have any right to put you in the line of fire. Not if I can't bear the consequences. I can't have you as my bodyguard, not like this--"
Caldwell rocked his head back on Marshall's shoulder and tried to bring the man's face into focus. "No," he said, surprised at the softness of his voice. "Don't. Don't do that to me."
"'If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant.'" Floating on a cloud of drugs, he wasn't sure he'd said it aloud until Marshall responded.
"That's from the play you were teaching Alice."
"Hm," Caldwell agreed. Though the man's face was still indistinct, he'd succeeded in bringing Marshall enough into focus to know he smiled.
Then his arms tightened on the bandages that swathed Caldwell's torso. And he bent his head. And kissed him.
Warm. Soft. Gentle. Demanding. Caldwell forgot himself and responded, drifting in a sweet haze, surrendering everything he was and everything he could be without a thought.
Marshall tasted good.
He knew he made it most of the way through the White House under his own power, or at least on his own two feet. By the same token, he knew he wasn't walking when he entered the suite, because his face was tucked into the curve of Marshall's neck. And while Caldwell could do a lot of things, he knew he couldn't walk like that.
Caldwell wanted to open his eyes, reassure Grace that he was okay. She didn't deserve to have him barge into her home covered in blood. But he couldn't seem to move.
"Shush," rumbled through the warm chest that braced Caldwell. He thought perhaps Marshall was carrying him. "Get the door, honey."
Motion that paused, restarted, stopped. A soft, cool surface, and the loss of contact. That last was nearly enough to bring Caldwell around, but before he fought his way out of the cobwebs, there were hands on him again.
They were enough to keep him quiet even when a loud crack broke the silence -- a door flung violently against the wall. Not his bedroom door, he knew vaguely. That creaked awfully. "Ryan!"
"Softly, Alice. He keeps fighting the painkillers." Marshall's voice, very soft. "He only just went under again a few minutes ago, and I'd like him to stay that way."
Caldwell stirred, rising almost to the surface. He'd never heard Alice sound like that, even on the plane.
"It's going to be okay, honey. He's going to be okay."
Marshall's voice was deep and soothing, and so reassuring that Caldwell finally let go and let himself drift off. They were home. Marshall was safe now.
The hands that handled him so gently soothed him down deeper and deeper, until he could no longer hear their voices murmuring directions and reassurance and comfort to each other and to him.
|He lay looking at the ceiling for a very long time after he woke.
Waking was like rising slowly through cotton batting. Whatever they'd given him at the hospital must have been strong, because he was still fuzzy around the edges what must be nearly twelve hours later. It was too bright outside his window to be early morning.
He lay still, warm and safe in a cocoon of blankets, and didn't try to move. Not just yet. He was aware of pain kept in abeyance, and knew he'd have to deal with it soon enough.
In the meantime, he lay staring at the ceiling, wondering how far his drugged mind had betrayed him. He knew he'd said something to Marshall that he should not have. What he wasn't sure of was whether he'd dreamed that kiss. He didn't dare lick his lips. He barely even swallowed, afraid to find no taste of Marshall in his mouth.
He didn't drop his eyes from their scrutiny of the ceiling when the door creaked open. It might be Marshall. If it was.... He didn't want to know yet whether he ought to be mortified or tasting the other man's kiss.
"The press is already full of the news that Jim fought off another attempt on his life."
Caldwell smiled. "Good morning, Shep."
Make that sixteen hours. Whatever they'd given him was damned strong. He wondered if he could blame his lapse on the drugs. He wondered if Marshall would buy it. And if he wanted him to.
"I'd have come by sooner, but Jim's been on the warpath ever since he got you back." Lloyd Shepherd walked to the bedside and settled on the edge without asking leave and so lightly Caldwell barely felt the dip of the mattress. "How do you feel?"
"About how you'd expect." There was a glass of water on the bedside table, and he reached for it without thinking. The lightly bandaged hand that hove into view wasn't particularly startling, though he couldn't feel either the gouges that made the bandages necessary or the gauze itself. The sharp pang from his shoulder, however, was a different matter.
"Here." Shepherd held the glass for him and put it back on the table when he'd drunk his fill. Then the other man hitched himself closer and began rubbing Caldwell's shoulder, his probing fingers gentle until they got Caldwell's limits. "Had to call a midnight press conference," he said as he worked at the strained muscles, "to put paid to the rumors that Jim was on the point of death. Don't think they believed me until he walked out in front of the cameras."
"He must have loved that," Caldwell murmured, his eyes closed. He knew just how much Marshall liked press conferences. For such a good president, Marshall certainly hated most of the things that went with the job. Perhaps that was part of the reason he was such a good president.
"You wouldn't believe how fast I had to talk to convince him not to disabuse them of the idea that he'd held off the gunman himself. He was all set to praise you to the skies."
Caldwell opened his eyes and found Shepherd smiling at him.
"I believe this is the point," Shepherd said, "where you have me thrown out of your room for gypping you out of the Congressional Medal of Honor."
"It would be that point," Caldwell agreed, his lips twitching, "if I ever wanted the damned thing." He closed his eyes again. "Better they should think he took care of it himself. Maybe these bastards will get the idea he's too formidable to even take a shot at."
"We can certainly hope so." Shepherd's hands lightened up, leaving Caldwell's shoulder aching, but much improved. The man's fingers drifted down the fall of scars until they met the bandages swathing Caldwell's bare chest. Then sideways and lower still before his palm stilled, warm and unmoving. Caldwell opened his eyes, but Shepherd's were on the hand pressed against the beating of Caldwell's heart. "You damn near bought it this time," Shepherd murmured.
"Shep." When there was no response, Caldwell licked his lips and tried again. "Lloyd."
Shepherd's head jerked up, his eyes meeting Caldwell's briefly.
"Is something wrong?"
Shepherd ran a hand through his short hair. "I suppose that depends."
"On your reaction to this." His lips were warm and dry and Caldwell was too startled to react at first. Then he relaxed and let Shepherd kiss him, and even kissed him back. But when Shepherd pulled away, the curve of his mouth was bitter. "You're a kind man, Ryan. Too kind." He started to get up.
Caldwell stopped him, deliberately reaching across with his right hand, though it provoked a sharp pang from his injured side. He needed to feel the hand he grabbed. He needed Shepherd to know that he could. "Shep, I didn't--"
"It's okay, Ryan." Shepherd gave Caldwell's hand a squeeze. "I know you're in love with Jim. I've known it since the plane. I figured I could wait until you accepted it was hopeless. Only.... Last night, I learned I couldn't afford to wait." He brought their clasped hands to rest on Caldwell's chest. His smile was less bitter, but no less sad. "And now.... It's not hopeless, is it?"
Caldwell was having trouble breathing. "Shep. Lloyd, you--"
Shepherd shook his head gently. "Shep, please. My friends call me Shep. Don't worry, Ryan. You should know I'd never tell anyone. Besides," he said with a painful laugh, "the only one who really matters already knows, doesn't he?" He carefully disengaged his hand and looked away. "I waited too long. He made his move."
"I... don't know," Caldwell managed, knowing he did not dare anything but complete honesty here, or risk crumbling something beyond value. He could see the cracks, and cursed himself for being so blind. Shepherd was a friend, perhaps his best friend. Had he ever really seen him? How could he have and not seen this?
A short bark of a laugh escaped Shepherd's lips. "Trust me, you'd know if he had. And if he hasn't, he will, now that he knows you love him." For a moment, even the sadness fled and Shepherd looked amused and perhaps a bit proud. "He's been on an unholy tear since last night. The White House didn't even see this kind of rampage after the hijacking."
"Dammit, Shep," Caldwell burst out suddenly, despite himself, "he's married."
"You don't know either of them very well if you think that means anything in this instance." Shepherd stood, inadvertently jarring the bed.
The pain caught in Caldwell's throat and drove out his response. He reached for Shepherd's hand again, and the other man allowed himself to be captured, but Caldwell didn't have any illusions it was anything more than that. He swallowed down the pain and found words from somewhere. "Shep. Your friendship with Jim--"
"I'd rather hear about my friendship with you," Shepherd interrupted, his smile closer to a grimace. "If I still have one."
Caldwell laced his fingers with Shepherd's and simply held tight until the other man met his eyes. "I had hoped that went without saying." He watched Shepherd release a shaky breath and wished he could stop there. "Your friendship with Jim is too important to let a nobody Air Force officer come between you."
Shepherd laughed again, and it was painful to hear. "Some nobody." His free hand touched Caldwell's face. Caldwell held very still as cool fingers skated over his brow and brushed back his hair. They shook when Shepherd drew back. His gentle smile brought Caldwell's heart into his throat. "Ryan Caldwell, Air Force major. Presidential bodyguard. Self-effacing, self-sacrificing pain in the ass."
Caldwell closed his eyes. His side ached abominably and his heart worse. He felt Shepherd's fingers slipping from his own and tightened his grip. "However this works out," he asked hoarsely, with no idea if it was a moot point or a foregone conclusion, "can you accept it?" He forced his eyes open. The least he owed Shepherd was to meet his eyes at this moment.
Shepherd was silent, his face downturned. He looked up eventually, gave Caldwell's hand a squeeze and let it go. "Don't worry, Ryan. I can accept it." He stood looking down at Caldwell for an endless moment and finally sighed. "Just don't ask me to be happy about it. Okay?"
"Okay," Caldwell managed faintly, relief and sorrow stripping him of any remaining defenses against the pain.
"And take these, will you?" Shepherd shoved a couple of pills closer to the edge of the bedside table. "Gray is not a good look for you."
He left then, ambling across the thick carpet with his shoulders slumped and his hands shoved deep into his pockets. He turned back at the door. "I never did thank you for getting me off that plane."
"No matter how great Jim's determination, do you think the parajumpers would have taken me before him if I hadn't been wearing a harness? Would Gibs have got me into one if you hadn't been so insistent?"
Shepherd didn't let Caldwell finish. His hand on the doorknob, he said, "Don't let him steamroll you."
Caldwell took the pills and let them drift him away into a gray twilight. He took them not to escape the pain, but simply to escape. While he slept, he didn't have to think about Shepherd, or Alice, or Grace. Or Marshall.
He was vaguely aware of his door creaking open a few times as someone checked on him. And at one point, someone stroked his cheek so tenderly his eyes burned with unshed tears. The fingers were cool, but not large enough to be Shepherd's.
Eventually, of course, it had to end. His body called a halt to his dreamless escape sometime around dusk. He woke to a graying room and a full bladder. Slowly, he worked his way out of the bed, finding it less difficult than he'd expected.
As he stood, swaying, by the bureau, he realized the only things he had on were boxers and bandages, and hoped Marshall had at least shooed Alice from the room before stripping him that far. That Grace had almost certainly seen him like this was, somehow, more acceptable.
Moving carefully against his head's alarming tendency to float away from his feet, Caldwell gathered up a few things and got himself into the bathroom without incident. He managed to take care of nature's call and stuff himself into a t-shirt and sweat pants with a minimum of fuss and rest breaks. He even brushed his teeth free of a day's worth of scum, though he was leaning heavily against the counter by the time he was finished. A thin film of dried blood crusted most of his right side, but he didn't have the energy to bother with it. Nor did he dare a glance in the mirror.
He was halfway through the slow journey back to the bed when Marshall came in like a whirlwind.
"Jesus, Ryan, you could at least ask for help when you need it." Lesson learned last night, he took Caldwell's right elbow and slipped an arm around his back to help support him to the bed.
"Didn't need it," Caldwell said, barely coherent with the heat and scent of Marshall's body flooding over him. He pulled carefully free when they got to the bed and slipped gingerly under the covers, pushing a pillow up against the headboard to lean against. His side protested the position, but not strenuously enough that he felt he had to give in. He didn't want to lie down; he felt vulnerable enough as it was.
Marshall sat on the edge of the bed, his hip abutting Caldwell's. Though his weight was probably not much greater than Shepherd's, Caldwell was infinitely more aware of it. "I find that hard to believe when you look like a drowner going down for the third time."
"I'm just a little shaky."
"Probably hunger." He glanced briefly away, then said suddenly, "I'd have dropped by sooner, but--"
"I know," Caldwell quickly interrupted the words that were far too much like Shepherd's. "Busy day."
"That's not the half of it. Besides, when Shep came back from visiting you and said you looked tired, I thought I'd better let you sleep."
Good old Shepherd, looking out for Caldwell's best interests. And fully aware of what they were, too. God, what had Caldwell done?
"I meant to come by earlier in the day," Marshall went on, "but Shep beat me to it. Should have known he would. He's rather fond of you, you know?" He paused, and Caldwell knew a response was expected.
"I know," he said simply. The words hurt his throat.
"You've gotten to be good friends, haven't you?" Marshall didn't pause this time. "I swear I've seen more of my Chief of Staff since you started living here than at any time since we were in college. Every time I turn around, he's camped on my couch."
And Caldwell had thought Shepherd's almost constant presence was merely status quo in the man's friendship with Marshall. How very much he'd missed.
"And you've been spending your days off with him, haven't you?"
"Yes," Caldwell said, his throat closing before he could get out the 'sir.' He'd spent all his free time in Shepherd's apartment, enjoying the man's undemanding company, drinking his beer, taking the warmth and the friendship, the touches and casually offered massages as nothing more than friendship. Giving nothing back to Shepherd but impossible dreams.
What a damn fool he'd been! To miss it then, to reject it now. Marshall was the president, and a happily married man with a teenage daughter. What the hell would he want with a half-crippled Air Force officer well past the age of anything resembling beauty? Hell, Caldwell hadn't been a looker even when he was younger -- he had the sort of face people put down as friendly, or just plain non-threatening, and left at that. And Jack Arthurs' attempts aside, his body was nothing to write home about either, even if you overlooked the scars, which was hard to do.
Marshall smiled suddenly. "He talked me out of giving you a medal, you know. The press thinks I took out that assassin single-handed. Your president lied to the media, Major Caldwell. He took credit for brave and valiant actions not his own. What do you think of him now?"
"I think he's a very smart man. With a very smart advisor."
Marshall laughed, and Caldwell remembered all over again why he loved him and how very impossible it was. Since he'd come in, Marshall had been no more than friendly. There was nothing in his demeanor to suggest he remembered the words they'd exchanged, let alone the kiss. Perhaps Caldwell had dreamed it after all.
Impossible dreams. Why the hell did Caldwell persist in this criminal foolishness? Desperately wanting a man he couldn't have, and wouldn't want to have if it meant hurting Grace and Alice.
And in the process, hurting Shepherd. Perhaps he should have done more than let Shepherd kiss him. Perhaps he should have given what the other man offered a chance. True, Shepherd had implied that Marshall could, and did, return Caldwell's interest. But Shepherd could be wrong, even about a man he'd known for twenty years. Caldwell was chasing a phantom and he knew it.
To all appearances, Shepherd loved Caldwell. Love did not come around so frequently to a man like Caldwell that he could afford to turn it down. And, though he hadn't thought about it before, Caldwell knew he could find the other man's rugged less-than-handsome looks charming, given the chance. If he'd had any sense, he'd have taken Shepherd up on his offer.
"If you say so," Marshall was saying. "My 'smart advisor' is even now hunkered down with Jack Arthurs, trying to work out how this happened. He's been up since some godawful hour last night, but he refused even a direct order to get some rest. I have a feeling he's going to keep plugging away until he gets some answers."
Of that, Caldwell had no doubt. Some men invariably turned to work as an antidote for a broken heart. He hoped it would at least distract Shepherd for a while. That it might be long enough.
Because he knew, when he wasn't trying to talk himself out of his infatuation with Marshall, that it would have been wrong to string Shepherd along any further than he already unwittingly had. Whether Marshall loved him or not, Caldwell could not help where his heart led him. Shepherd deserved better than second place.
"You okay, Ryan?" Marshall asked suddenly. "You're awfully quiet." He cocked his head and studied Caldwell's face so intently it took a significant effort not to look away. Without warning, Marshall smiled. "You certainly look better than you did last night." His hand darted out so quickly Caldwell didn't have a chance to flinch before Marshall ruffled his hair.
"That's good, sir," Caldwell managed, torn between regret and relief. This was not the touch of a lover. Not the touch of the man who'd kissed Caldwell last night. He'd imagined it. Obviously-- He took in a sharp breath when Marshall's carelessly affectionate touch turned into something quite different as the other man smoothed Caldwell's hair back, warm fingers brushing his scalp.
"You know my name, don't you Ryan?" Marshall said with a quiet intensity that only bolstered the arousal zinging from the slow stroke of his fingers through every nerve in Caldwell's body.
"Yes, sir," Caldwell whispered.
"You remember it?" He leaned closer, until Caldwell could feel warm breath on his face.
"Think you could use it?" Marshall's lips were almost touching Caldwell's.
"Yes, sir. Jim."
"Good." He breathed the word against Caldwell's lips and sealed them with his own.
The kiss was tender, delicate, and still every determined, demanding inch Marshall. He braced himself on the mattress, and Caldwell wrapped his bandaged hand around Marshall's forearm, hoping to anchor himself as well. He'd never felt more at sea. Last night, the drugs had kept him safe against the velvet-black abyss the touch of Marshall's mouth opened inside him. Just now, he had no defense, no hope but to hold tight to the man whose kiss set him adrift. His right hand came up of its own accord and dove into Marshall's soft hair for the first time. It might have been just a few seconds, or much longer, before Marshall broke off. He rested his forehead against Caldwell's.
"See, there are rewards for calling me by my name."
"I thought I dreamed this," Caldwell admitted hoarsely before drawing Marshall down into another kiss. Their lips met, parted, met again.
Caldwell was drowning in Marshall, in his warmth and scent and taste. When the other man's tongue probed delicately for entrance, Caldwell gave it to him, groaning helplessly when Marshall took full advantage of his surrender. Finally, he found some semblance of sanity, ran his left hand up to Marshall's shoulder, and pushed him slowly away.
Marshall gave before Caldwell's determination, but only so far, stopping when they were still breathing each other's breath. He said nothing, but the eyes that Caldwell dared meet for only a moment demanded an explanation.
Caldwell breathed deeply, swallowed, and said far too unsteadily, "You're married, Mr. President."
"Oh?" Marshall sat up fully, depriving Caldwell of his warmth, though his expression was more amused than irritated. "I'd forgotten. Remind me, what does she look like? Tall, isn't she? Brown hair and-- Aha!" He turned quickly and caught Grace about the waist.
Some secret service agent Caldwell was; he hadn't even guessed they weren't alone. A dull flush spilled sickly heat through him as he wondered how long she'd been there.
"Jim!" she protested, half-laughing. "You'll spill the soup."
Marshall let her go long enough to set the tray she was carrying on the bedside table, then wrapped his arm around her waist and drew her to him so she perched on one strong thigh. He kissed her and settled his chin on her shoulder, turning a playful look on Caldwell. "Would this be the wife you were worried about?"
Caldwell's eyes dropped to their interlaced fingers. Two gold bands reflected the soft light. "I expect so, sir."
Marshall's hand touched Caldwell's blanket-shrouded knee, and it took a genuine effort not to move. Whether the movement would have been into the touch or away, Caldwell didn't know. He couldn't even, in the confused morass of emotion, decide if he was ashamed or insanely jealous.
"Jim," Grace said softly. Other words that Caldwell didn't hear must have followed, because Marshall made an agreeable sound in his throat, and his weight lifted suddenly from the bed.
"Well. I suppose I'd better keep our daughter company, so she doesn't come barging in here and interrupt Ryan's dinner."
Caldwell heard the door open a moment later and close again softly. He cursed himself for being so caught up in Marshall that he hadn't heard the creak when Grace came in. He knew she hadn't left. Her faintly floral scent clung to the air. Caldwell kept his eyes on his hands, the right picking idly at the bandages on the left. He was startled when his vision was cut off by a tray bearing a bowl of soup, a plate of crackers, and a glass of milk.
"Careful," Grace said as she settled the tray over his lap. "It's still hot. Or at least, it was when I brought it in here." She took her husband's place on the bed and sat with her hands folded in her lap. "Go on, eat. You haven't had anything since yesterday afternoon. I know you didn't eat at the fundraising dinner."
Slowly, Caldwell picked up the spoon, dipped it in the bowl, and raised it to his mouth. It was good. Hot, salty, chicken and something noodlish -- wasn't that what you always fed invalids?
Even men conniving to seduce your husband?
"You've been up since I checked on you last," Grace said as Caldwell doggedly lifted a second spoonful to his mouth. "You look better. And you brushed your teeth."
He dared to shoot her a quizzical look, but returned quickly to the soup. He wouldn't blame her if it was poisoned. She'd be justified. Only she didn't look angry. But then, Grace was a politician's wife. She could look any way she pleased.
He thought there was a smile in her voice when she said, "Jim tasted like toothpaste."
The spoon clattered onto the tray. "Jesus," Caldwell hissed, slapping a hand down on it.
"Easy, Ryan." She put her hand over his. "Look at me, please. Ryan."
He did. No, she didn't look angry. Especially when she smiled. "Grace, I--"
She didn't let him even get the apology started. "I told Jim he was being foolish about this. He was afraid to make a move. Thought you'd belt him or something." She shrugged, a smile curving her lips. "I knew you wouldn't. I knew you were in love with him."
Caldwell took in a breath and let it out audibly. He was preparing another attempt at an apology, or a curt disavowal that would probably be completely unbelievable at this point. Instead, what came out was, "How--"
Her smile was almost pitying. "Women are sharper about these things, I think. Though I have a feeling Shep suspects."
Caldwell nodded slowly. Why Shepherd knew was not his secret to tell. He slid his hand out from under hers and reached with leaden fingers to take up the spoon again. As he swallowed another mouthful of tasteless broth, he was calculating how long it would take him to pack his belongings and make himself scarce. Whatever Marshall felt for him, Caldwell knew the man adored his wife. Caldwell would not be the man who broke up this family.
He heard Grace sigh. "Men. I should have known you'd be difficult when you were so damned determined not to let Jim see how you felt." Slender fingers took his chin and forced it up until he was looking into her eyes. "Do you love my husband, Ryan?"
"Grace, please." He gently pushed her hand away.
"I already know the answer. I just want to hear you say it. Do you love James Marshall?"
He closed his eyes. "Yes, god help me." His throat was very tight. "I love him."
"Good." She was smiling triumphantly when his eyes flew open. "Then stop being so goddamn noble and do something about it."
He sat there, frozen in stone, and gaped at her. After a minute, she took the spoon from his hand and dipped it in the bowl. He opened his mouth automatically when she brought the spoon to it, then blinked as chicken soup filled his mouth and retrieved the utensil from her. Mechanically, he began to feed himself.
She sat back and watched him, her head cocked to one side, hands folded once more in her lap. "Poor Ryan. We're a little too much for you sometimes. Is it really so hard to understand?"
He nodded once, carefully, half afraid that any movement but the ones she'd prescribed -- the steady transference of soup from the bowl to his mouth -- might wake him from the dream.
"I know my husband, Ryan. I know without any doubt whatsoever that he loves me." She smiled. "And I know his heart is big enough to hold both of us. I can share him. Can you?"
Caldwell cleared his rusty throat. "Yes."
"So where's the problem?" Grace snitched a cracker from the tray. "Drink your milk."
He was so close to laughter he almost choked on it. The mouse was going to get more than a cookie after all.
Caldwell couldn't sleep.
Hardly surprising, given that he'd slept away most of the day. Absolutely to be expected, given some of the revelations of the day.
He sat up in his bed long after everyone else had gone to sleep, and pretended to read. He couldn't say for certain, actually, that he was the only one awake -- the soundproofing did an excellent job of obscuring any noises -- but there was a stillness that was as good as silence in its implications.
His book failed to hold his interest. He knew he'd been very interested in it when he first picked it up, but now he couldn't keep his mind on it for more than five minutes at a time.
They'd left him alone after dinner. Marshall and Grace and even Alice. He knew they were giving him time. Time to think, time to come to terms with all this.
He wasn't sure he appreciated it. Wasn't at all sure that he wouldn't have preferred an immediate leap into action... of whatever sort.
Caldwell sat in be, looking at his book by the warm glow of the bedside lamp, and tried both to think and not think at the same time. He wasn't at all surprised when the bathroom door swung silently open.
He set his book aside and beckoned Alice in. She was dressed in sweats and a flannel shirt he vaguely remembered having owned once. Her eyes were so wide and round that she looked as if she ought to be clutching a teddy bear and lisping a request for a story.
When she said his name again without moving from the doorway, he said, "Alice, honey, come here," as naturally as breathing. A moment later, he had an armful of distressed twelve year old and a greater appreciation for whoever prescribed the painkiller Grace had given him before leaving with the dinner tray. It wasn't, thankfully, as strong as the one he'd taken earlier in the day, but enough to dull the pain in his side, even at this rough handling.
"Hush," he whispered as he smoothed her hair. "Take it easy, kiddo, everything's all right." But he didn't try to shake her out of her tears. They'd run their course eventually, and he had a feeling she'd been holding them in. "Better?" he asked when her crying finally tapered off.
She rubbed her face against his t-shirt in the negative, and he settled his arms more comfortably around her.
"Any particular reason?"
Alice pressed her face harder against his chest, and her arms tightened almost to the point of paining his cracked rib even through the deadening effect of the painkiller. "You almost-- You almost--"
"Died?" he finished when she seemed unable to. There was a distinct snuffle in the vicinity of his collarbone. "Anyone tell you why I didn't die?" She didn't answer. "Because the bullet ricocheted off a rib."
"Oh!" Alice sat up as if she'd been burned, lifting her hands off his chest with guilty alacrity. "I'm so sorry, I--"
"Alice." He waited until she fell silent. "I was almost killed. I was also very lucky." She sniffed, looking at him uncertainly, as if she knew there was a lesson here, but couldn't see what it was. "Fortes fortuna juvat. It's Latin: fortune favors the brave. Now I'm not saying I'm brave--"
"You are." She sniffed. "Almost as brave as Dad."
He smiled, knowing against what a high standard he was being measured. "What I mean is that we, all of us, just keep going forward, doing what we have to do. And if you keep your eyes on that goal--"
"On what you have to do."
"Yes. And if you do everything you possibly can to achieve that goal...."
"Then luck will favor you," she finished for him.
He smiled. "Yes. And," he said, sobering, believing that she could handle it now, "if it hadn't -- if I'd been killed -- I would have considered my life well lost if it saved your father's."
Alice blinked, and looked away, and sniffed. And Caldwell knew that she wanted very much to say that she wouldn't have been okay with it, only she couldn't balance that against the other side of the equation. Her father was too important to her, and Caldwell, no matter how much she cared for him, came in second. As he should.
Still, it was a hard equation to master, realizing you could still be happy if someone you loved died. You could even be relieved, as long as the better-loved lived. She was old enough to realize the dichotomy and young enough to feel guilty about it.
She sniffed again, and when he reached to wipe her cheek, grabbed his hand and held it there, the bandages soaking up her tears. "I would rather," she said with solemnity at odds with her age, "neither of you died."
"So would I," Caldwell admitted, returning her watery smile.
They sat there for a time, his hand clasped between hers. She looked at her fingers fussing with the bandages, rather than at him, for so long that he was afraid she'd seen him kissing Marshall earlier. For all her earlier ease with his infatuation, he knew perfectly well that accepting a hopeless crush was a far different thing from accepting a love that looked well on its way to coming to fruition.
He was a heartbeat away from promising her that he'd never do anything to hurt her mother when she said, a trace of tears still in her voice, "Can I stay with you for a while?"
In answer, he shifted over so she could climb up on the bed next to him and scooted down a little so she could lay her head on his chest. She curled into the curve of his left arm, her head coming to rest naturally on the scarred place his heart ought to have been, and he put his hand on her back where he could feel the rise and fall of her breathing even if he couldn't feel the warmth of her body.
"Ryan?" she said in a very small voice.
"I'm kinda glad you don't have a family."
"If you did, we couldn't have you all to ourselves."
At a loss for words, he tightened his embrace in response.
After a while, her breathing slowed into sleep, and Caldwell flipped a corner of the counterpane over her so she wouldn't get cold. Moving carefully so as not to wake her, he reached for his book. This time, Alice's head warm and heavy on his chest, he managed to concentrate for almost ten minutes at a time.
By the time Marshall came in, Alice had shifted in her sleep
until her upper body was sprawled across Caldwell, her head far enough
over that, through her slumber, she could hear the beating of his
"Well," Marshall said. He wore only pajama bottoms and a robe that gaped to show his bare chest. "I rather expected to find you awake, but...."
Caldwell set his book aside for the second time that night. He almost launched into an explanation -- there couldn't be many things more taboo than having your soon-to-be lover find you in bed with his daughter. But there was a twinkle in Marshall's eye and the hint of a smile about his lips, and Caldwell decided no explanation was necessary.
"We did tell her not to bother you," Marshall said softly as he approached. "Not that we expected it to do much good." He smiled. "My mistake was in thinking she went to sleep."
"She has," Caldwell murmured, though from previous experience nothing short of a sonic boom would wake Alice once she was in dreamland.
Marshall took the final step to stand at Caldwell's bedside. Caldwell had imagined this moment for a long time, and had dared to do so in some detail this evening. None of his imaginings had involved the president's daughter sleeping peacefully on his chest.
"Here, let me take her." Marshall waited for Caldwell to flip the counterpane off Alice before burrowing his arms under her sleeping body to lift her up. His hands inevitably brushed Caldwell through the blanket, but Caldwell was careful not to move until after Alice was safely in her father's arms. "Back in a minute," Marshall whispered as he disappeared into the bathroom.
As good as his word, he reappeared a minute later, giving the door a push to swing it shut behind him. Caldwell had heard the click of the lock on Alice's bathroom door, and while that would keep Alice from walking in on anything....
"She probably won't wake until morning," Marshall said as he came across to the bed.
"The bathroom's not wholly soundproofed," Caldwell warned him. The arousal Alice's presence had kept in abeyance hit him full force now that he was alone with Marshall.
"I'll bear that in mind," Marshall said, sitting on the edge of the bed. "God knows what Alice would make of it."
"She might surprise you."
Marshall frowned. "You've talked with her about us?"
"No," Caldwell said quickly. "No, but I have reason to believe she...." He glanced away, daunted by Marshall's intense stare. "She knows I love you."
When he looked back, a broad grin had spread itself over Marshall's face. "You do, do you?" he murmured, leaning in to steal a kiss. Or two.
"You knew that."
"Uh-hm. Nice to hear." His kisses increased in frequency and depth, and Caldwell had his fingers firmly buried in Marshall's hair when he suddenly pulled back, a different sort of grin on his face. "It was you! You're the one who picked out the cologne and cufflinks."
"Hell, Ryan, if Alice had chosen them, I'd be wearing blinking LEDs in my cuffs and smelling like a French brothel. I love her dearly, but she is, after all, a teenager."
Somehow, Caldwell had no doubt that Marshall would indeed wear Alice's gifts, no matter how hideous. He lost the thought in a moment, ensnared in Marshall's smile. He looked so very pleased to realize that the cologne he wore every day, the cufflinks he wore to every major event, had been chosen by Caldwell that it was beyond flattering. The warmth in Caldwell's chest went straight to his groin.
"She may be a teenager," Marshall said after a moment, "but she does have some good ideas." He was already beginning to lean in. "May I?"
All Caldwell could manage was a nod. And then Marshall's head rested, warm and perfect, on his chest, and his left hand came up to stroke Marshall's cheek, fingers seeking instinctively for the soft hair he could not feel. Marshall lay there for some time, listening to Caldwell's heart, and despite the heat it spilled into his body, Caldwell was content to let him. It was less like a prelude to lovemaking than the sated comfort of the night that followed, all the more precious for the fact that Caldwell was rarely likely to experience the latter with a man who had, at least for appearances' sake, to return to his own bed at some point in the night. Finally, Marshall turned his head and pressed a kiss to Caldwell's inner wrist, just above the bandages.
Despite himself, Caldwell made a disappointed noise. All he'd felt of the kiss was the faintest of pressures. Marshall made a sound in his throat that shook what little composure Caldwell still retained, took Caldwell's wrist in his hand, and pressed a second kiss to the tender crook of his elbow.
Marshall's head came up at the noise Caldwell made then. The third kiss was on Caldwell's lips, and both his hands lifted to hold Marshall's head in place. The heat of Marshall's body spilled out of his robe like a breath of fire, and Caldwell slid his right hand inside Marshall's collar to touch for the first time the heavy muscle of the shoulder, cup the tender curve of his neck.
He thrust his tongue into Marshall's mouth, and groaned aloud at the heat, the taste. Marshall gasped and broke the kiss. He leaned his forehead against Caldwell's and panted until he found the breath to speak.
"You've talked to my wife."
"No more qualms?"
"Just one. How long are you going to make me wait?"
"Your side...." Marshall put a hand gingerly over Caldwell's wound. It felt like a burning brand even through the bandages. Caldwell took a deep breath, expanding his rib cage against the broad palm, loving the heat that seeped into him.
"Lovely things, pain killers," he murmured. The devil in him, he waited until Marshall's lips were on his to add, "Grace gave me two."
Marshall smiled against Caldwell's lips. "Smart woman."
"She knows her man," Caldwell said, entranced by the silky feel of Marshall's lips just barely touching his while he spoke.
"Hm. Do I get to know mine?"
"Oh yes," Caldwell whispered. "Yes, please."
He lost track of the time they spent kissing: lips and tongues and teeth and warm panting breath. Marshall was very good at it, and what was more, he knew it. And more than that, so now did Caldwell.
Marshall's weight pressed him into the mattress, drowning him in heat and Marshall's heady scent. Caldwell's ribs gave a pang, but he didn't care. He wrapped his arms around Marshall and held all the tighter, and let his tongue fence with Marshall's, sometimes dominating and diving into the other man's mouth, sometimes surrendering to invasion.
Marshall's hands burrowed under Caldwell. One palm slipped under his shirt and slid up to flatten between his shoulderblades, the touch hot and strong and perfect, lifting him into Marshall's kisses. Caldwell couldn't help the yearning noise that escaped his throat when Marshall drew away, leaving only that heated hand touching his body.
"May I remove your shirt?" Marshall whispered, his breath coming as fast as Caldwell's.
In answer, Caldwell reached between them to grab the bottom hem of his t-shirt and haul it up, Marshall helping him pull it the rest of the way off. The fabric struck the floor with a soft thump and Caldwell looked up at Marshall with a feeling halfway between anticipation and fear as the other man lowered himself back down.
Burning lips met his, broke away, brushed over a day's beard stubble, and burrowed into the hollow of his throat. Caldwell arched, pushing his aching cock against Marshall's weight, and thought he could very well come just like this. Even with both of them still half-dressed, the blanket and counterpane between them.
He shoved at Marshall's robe. Unable to reach the tie, barely aware he needed to, he pushed the robe open. The incredible heat of Marshall's body spilled into Caldwell. He slid both hands under the thick fabric, wrapping his arms around Marshall's chest, bringing the man down against him, hoping and fearing incineration.
Marshall's lips touched Caldwell's shoulder, his chest, and then he was sitting up again, the dark gleam in his eyes reassuring, but no explanation. "Shh," Marshall said, and Caldwell only then realized he'd whimpered helplessly at losing this warmth. Marshall's fingers brushed, almost too light to be felt, along the top edge of the bandages over Caldwell's heart, passing just under a nipple without quite touching it. The small nub drew up tight with arousal anyway. A small moan escaped Caldwell, and Marshall's eyes got even darker. "Keep that thought. I'll be right back."
And he left Caldwell, passing into the living room before he could gather himself to argue. Marshall was back within a few moments, the door clicking shut decisively behind him, and took what he'd retrieved into the bathroom. Caldwell heard water running, and a splashing noise, and then Marshall came back. He closed the bathroom door behind him with a distinct click, and stood a moment by it, a steaming bowl in his hands, before coming back to the bed.
Caldwell watched him, achingly aware of the way Marshall's body moved, of the bulge in his robe that telegraphed the hard length Caldwell had felt when they were pressed so closely together. He stretched a hand toward Marshall, wanting only to feel that again.
Marshall shoved Caldwell's book aside and set the bowl he carried on the stand by the bed so he could take Caldwell's hand. He allowed himself to be drawn down on the bed, but kept a small distance between them, leaning in to kiss Caldwell briefly.
"What is it?" Caldwell whispered, deathly afraid that Marshall had rethought this.
Marshall smiled, and kissed him again, a quick and determined pressure. "I'm not fond of the taste of blood." He retrieved a washcloth from the steaming bowl and wrung out the excess water. Then he lifted Caldwell's right hand and gently applied the cloth to it, washing each finger with exacting attention to detail.
Caldwell squirmed, torn between arousal and embarrassment. "I can--"
"You can allow me, Ryan," Marshall said, in a tone very near presidential. When he'd swabbed Caldwell's hand -- which did not need it, as he'd washed as far up his forearms as he could in the sink earlier -- he brought Caldwell's damp hand to his mouth and kissed each finger, his tongue licking out to tease between them.
Ignoring Caldwell's gasp, he dipped the cloth again and moved on to Caldwell's wrist. "Shepherd said you still had bruises here a month later," Marshall said as he wrapped the warm washcloth and his warmer hand around Caldwell's wrist, then ran slowly up to his elbow.
"Yes," Caldwell whispered.
"You left your mark on me too, you know." Marshall touched Caldwell's wrist lightly with his free hand, the feel of his fingers shockingly intense after the slight roughness of the cloth. "And not just on my body." He bent to kiss Caldwell's wrist. "I'm not a playboy. If this were just about sex, I wouldn't do it. I'd never hurt my family."
"I'd never ask you to."
"I know." He kissed Caldwell's wrist, and his palm, and the crook of his elbow. Then he stood and pulled roughly on the tie to his robe, yanking it off and shedding the heavy garment.
Marshall sat back on the bed, picked up the washcloth, and wrapped his fingers around Caldwell's wrist again, as matter-of-factly as if he were not nearly naked, his erection pushing demandingly against the thin silk of his pajamas. He swiped the damp cloth up Caldwell's arm, letting his fingers trail it a little, so they made parallel strips of heat up the tender underside.
Caldwell laid his head on the pillow and watched Marshall through half-lidded eyes as he tenderly bathed him. Chest, sparsely furred and smooth muscled; shoulders, broader than they looked, broad enough to carry the weight of the world; stomach, flat and quivering a bit with excitement as Marshall realized he was being surveyed; nipples, flat and crinkled, just begging for a touch.
Marshall had Caldwell's right hand trapped in the loose circle of his fingers as the cloth made its way up the outside of his upper arm and across the top of his shoulder. Caldwell stretched out his left hand to rest light fingers on the peak of Marshall's shoulder, to trail slowly downwards with just the fingertips, riding out an involuntary shudder, to stroke and tease and torment nipples that grew increasingly less flat and less crinkled. He couldn't feel even the heat of the skin he touched, but he didn't let it stop him. This was for Marshall, and the man's reaction was reward enough.
With a groan, Marshall bent and kissed Caldwell's lips, his tongue thrusting deep and hard until Caldwell was moaning, a strangled despairing sound. Marshall pulled back again with a grunt of effort, and laced his fingers with Caldwell's as he doggedly rubbed the washcloth across his upper chest.
"After we got you settled last night," Marshall said conversationally, as if he were not hoarse and breathless, "Grace got me into the shower and helped me wash your blood off." He made a second pass over Caldwell's chest, his thumb slipping its cloth confines to brush over a nipple. Marshall smiled at Caldwell's gasp and continued in the same matter-of-fact tone, "I'm afraid I wasn't very gentle with her."
The image of Marshall pinning his wife to the shower wall, burying himself in her, battering her with all his fear, and aggression, and frustration, and desire for Caldwell, should have been, at the least, a bit distasteful. Instead.... Caldwell moaned and saw Marshall's eyes darken even as his lips quirked.
"Like that, do you?" he murmured.
"I'd rather have you do that to me," Caldwell admitted raggedly.
Marshall's eyes darkened further. "Soon."
"God, Jim, don't--"
"Soon." He wet the cloth again. "Shift over a little." Marshall knelt in the space Caldwell made for him, and sliding his right arm under Caldwell's shoulder and neck, brought him onto his side, half-curled in the shelter of Marshall's body. Caldwell groaned and buried his face against Marshall's salty-hot skin. He let Marshall lift his right arm and arrange it on his shoulder, giving Marshall free access to his torso. The tender throbbing between his legs was insistent. So was Marshall.
He washed Caldwell's back above the bandages, as Caldwell breathed in the scent of the man's skin, pressed his lips against its hot velvet, tried out his teeth, gently, on the thin skin covering Marshall's ribcage. Marshall's breath came faster against him, but still the man continued his self-imposed task. The washcloth dropped to below the bandages, swabbing over Caldwell's hip, then lower, pushing aside the waistband of his sweats, just touching the curve of his buttocks before moving, so very slowly, around toward the front.
Caldwell hitched himself higher against Marshall's body and set his mouth to learning every inch he could reach. He tasted of salt and desire, and the nipple Caldwell found grew taut in his mouth, as did the curve of Marshall's body against him.
"Ryan." It came grinding out of Marshall's throat, and Caldwell pulled himself up by Marshall's shoulder, ignoring the pain in his side, to take the man's mouth with all the desperate desire he'd restrained for so long.
He felt movement, heard the washcloth plop damply on the floor, and then Marshall was rolling him to the mattress, his weight bearing Caldwell down. His chest pressed most of the breath out of Caldwell as his mouth delved for the rest. His thigh pushed between Caldwell's legs and bore down hard, but not hard enough. Caldwell's arms strained around Marshall, pulling him in tighter, losing his breath and himself and not caring in the least, if only the hot throb of his cock was assuaged.
When Marshall tried to draw away from him this time, he tightened his grip and growled deep in his throat. He breathed in short sharp gusts, desire filling his chest with a thick throbbing pain. He nipped sharply at Marshall's throat and felt a quiver pass through the other man.
He closed his mouth over the juncture between Marshall's neck and shoulder and sucked, tasting salt, tasting Marshall. Leaving his mark.
Marshall groaned his name.
A kick released one leg from the blankets. He hitched it up over Marshall's hip, moaning as it brought Marshall's weight more solidly onto his desperate cock. He tightened his grip and arched, and if there was a sharp pain in his side, it was well and truly outdone by the pleasure.
Teeth took his throat, bracketing his windpipe, and Caldwell stilled instinctively. For a moment, they remained unmoving. Finally, a hot tongue laved his throat, and Marshall lifted up enough to look down into Caldwell's eyes.
"Easy, Ryan." He dropped a kiss on Caldwell's temple. One on the corner of his eye. "Let me." Marshall's lips traversed Caldwell's cheek, smearing the wetness there. "I won't leave you wanting, I promise." The other cheek. His lips, where he left a taste of salt that was not sweat. "You're hurting yourself," Marshall whispered against Caldwell's throat, "and I won't have that."
Caldwell clung to him when he pushed himself up on his arms. "Please, Jim...."
"Shh. Easy." Marshall bent his head and kissed Caldwell, deep and gentle and not in the least lessening his arousal, and yet calming. "Let me do it my way."
Caldwell swallowed and whispered, "Yes, sir."
Marshall's eyes went completely black. "God," he breathed, and came back down for another kiss, more desperate than any yet. Finally, he dragged himself away, growling, "Don't do that to me. Not right now." He sat up, turning his face briefly away, just the one hand still touching Caldwell. It played across Caldwell's belly just above the waistband of his sweats, almost as if Marshall were unaware of it. Then Marshall turned his head and the look in his eyes drove every vestige of thought from Caldwell's mind. "When you're healed...." Marshall said, and took a kiss that promised fulfillment of every submissive fantasy a man could have. Distracted by the realization he even had such fantasies, Caldwell arched violently when Marshall's fist closed around him, the touch shockingly sweet, even through his sweats.
Caldwell's groan became a word. "Jim...."
"Shh," Marshall murmured. "Lie still. Let me."
When Marshall released him, Caldwell whimpered.
Marshall stood and threw aside the blankets. His hands descended on Caldwell's waist. "Lift up," he commanded in that quiet, masterful voice, and Caldwell complied. Marshall's hands slid down Caldwell's hips, stripping his pants away, baring him with their burning stroke. And he lay naked before Marshall.
Marshall stood by the bed for what seemed an endless time, simply looking. Caldwell forgot that he was scarred, that he was past middle-age and nothing to write home about. His skin burned under Marshall's approving eyes; he shifted with restless arousal, aching, arching, spreading his legs. His right hand found his belly and ran lightly down it to encircle his aching cock.
Marshall's hand closed on his wrist. "No." He ignored Caldwell's groan, bending so far to kiss Caldwell's palm and close his fingers around it that his breath fanned tormentingly over the weeping head of Caldwell's cock.
"Jesus," Caldwell burst out involuntarily. "Jesus, Jim. Please."
"Sit up," Marshall ordered quietly. His hot palm curled around the back of Caldwell's neck to help, the other hand aiding, obstructing, touching, teasing. When Marshall slipped into the bed, sliding between Caldwell and the pillows propped against the headboard, Caldwell turned his face helplessly into the warm curve of Marshall's neck. "Shh. Lean back."
Marshall's silk-clad legs were cool and slick, warm and provocative, bracketing Caldwell's hips. As he settled, relaxing against the other man's chest, the hot iron bar of Marshall's silk-covered erection pushed into the small of his back. Marshall wrapped both arms around Caldwell and settled him closer, bracing him, cradling him in the cage of his arms, his thighs. Caldwell felt protected, cherished, exposed....
And then Marshall's hands were on him, stroking over his chest, his arms, his belly, his inner thighs, which fell open in encouragement. Every inch of Caldwell's body was sensitized, every touch striking straight to his cock. He was trapped, ruled by the hot throbbing at his groin and the thick burning bar at his back. He reached for his cock but Marshall caught his hand again, giving the fingers a sharp nip that sent a tingle through the damaged nerves, and drew Caldwell's arm above his head. Caldwell shivered at the biting kiss Marshall gave the crook of his elbow as he curved the numb fingers around the back of his neck.
"Hold on," Marshall murmured in Caldwell's ear, and Caldwell made his fingers curve around the warm skin they couldn't feel, knowing Marshall would tell him if he held too tight.
He tilted his head back against Marshall's shoulder, questing for the sweet, hot mouth. Marshall's hand cradled the side of his face, fingers curling around the jut of Caldwell's jaw to guide him back into a kiss. Marshall's tongue thrust deep, taking Caldwell as surely as if it were his cock thrusting into Caldwell's body, at the same moment his fist closed over Caldwell's cock.
And Caldwell was caught. Pinned like a butterfly. Shuddering between two inexorable poles, between mouth and hand, Marshall's cock pushing insistently against his lower back.
He knew he made sounds, noises desperate and helpless and embarrassing. Marshall swallowed every one. His hand slid, perfectly tight, perfectly rough, using only the slick juices of Caldwell's desire to smooth the way. Caldwell tried to arch, tried to move with the thrust of Marshall's hand, and found he could not. Stretched taunt on a rack of pleasure, he could only quiver, and shudder, and moan.
And in the end, explode.
Marshall stroked him through the extremity of pleasure, squeezing tighter and tighter as Caldwell spasmed, somehow knowing exactly what he needed. And when Caldwell was done, Marshall milked out the last shuddering drops of pleasure with fingers exquisitely tight.
Only then, when breathing had become impossible, did Marshall's mouth released Caldwell's. He was back as soon as Caldwell had dragged in a ragged breath, his tongue pushing between Caldwell's teeth to explore lazily.
Just as lazily, Marshall's fingers paddled in the come spilled across Caldwell's belly, drawing slow sated designs in sharp counterpoint to the hot hardness that jutted impatiently into his back. Caldwell drew in a slow breath through his nose and sucked languidly on Marshall's tongue. Suddenly, it stiffened and thrust deep, and Marshall's fingers, slick with Caldwell's come, plunged into his body.
Caldwell tore away from Marshall's mouth, a groan rising in his throat. Marshall's fingers pushed harder, stroking inexorably deeper. Caldwell could feel himself, stretched and throbbing around them. He knew his body wasn't ready for that yet. He didn't care. "Do it," he rasped. "God, Jim. Do it."
Marshall shuddered under him, then released a long breath, slipping his fingers slowly from Caldwell's body. On the instant of their loss, Caldwell missed them. If that was a small taste of what it would be like to have this man in his body, he wasn't sure he could wait.
"Soon," Marshall murmured, his breath heating Caldwell's ear. He wrapped both arms around Caldwell's chest and rocked him minutely side to side. "When you're healed."
"I want you inside me," Caldwell whispered, and felt Marshall's hips jerk against him.
"Soon," Marshall murmured again, his voice unsteady.
Caldwell turned in Marshall's embrace, shoving against the arms that fought any movement. He kissed Marshall, the man's hot cock throbbing against his belly, a quick hard kiss that thrust his tongue deep, as deep as Marshall had taken him. Before Marshall's arms could tighten around him again, he pushed himself down in the bed to press his heated cheek against the thick bulge in Marshall's pajama bottoms. Marshall groaned brokenly, his hands finding Caldwell's head, as he mouthed him through the fabric. He could taste Marshall's desire, salt and sweet and desperate, through the thin layer of silk, feel the thick column of his cock. He ran his lips along the length, feeling it throb against him, and suddenly could wait no more than Marshall.
Marshall's fingers tightened in his hair as Caldwell tore the pants down and filled his mouth with hot, hard flesh. Before he could do anything, before he could remember he didn't know what to do, Marshall thrust, nearly choking him, and came with a shout. Startled, Caldwell swallowed, not sure he liked the consistency, knowing he loved the taste, and the idea of it. That this pleasure, spilling down his throat with whimpers and groans and tiny abortive thrusts, was all for him.
Marshall relaxed finally under him, the boneless collapse of satiation. Caldwell kept the man's cock in his mouth, trying to memorize the heat and salt and taste of it before it softened, loving the weight of it on his tongue. Experimentally, he sucked gently. It gave a small throb and Marshall's groan rumbled through his chest.
The fingers in Caldwell's hair tightened and tugged, and he crawled up to collapse on Marshall's chest. When the other man's breath finally evened out, he tugged again, and Caldwell shifted a bit higher, and gratefully accepted Marshall's kiss.
"Jesus, Ryan," Marshall said finally. His hands never ceased their movement, running restlessly up and down Caldwell's body. "If it's this good when I'm still half-dressed...." He chuckled against Caldwell. One hand dropped a bit lower to curve possessively around a buttock, his fingers dipping into the crack.
Caldwell's hips gave an instinctive roll and he groaned almost incoherently against Marshall's throat. "Don't tease unless you're prepared to do something about it," he gathered himself to say around hot desire at the thought of Marshall thrusting into his body.
"Hell," Marshall chuckled, though Caldwell noticed he sounded breathless, "neither of us is up to it right now. Still," he mused softly, his blunt strong fingers playing tormentingly against Caldwell's opening, "when we are up to it, there's no denying... you might very well kill me."
Caldwell hitched his knee a little higher around Marshall's waist, opening himself to the probing fingers. He was learning a lot about himself tonight, not least the fact that he apparently wasn't beyond masochism. Marshall wasn't the only one who might end up dead by sexual incineration. "Then I wouldn't be a very good bodyguard, would I, sir?"
|"The computer's clean." Shepherd slumped into the chair
cattycorner to the couch where Marshall sat, Alice leaning against him
as he read paperwork and she studied a history text. "It's taken a
dozen technicians working round the clock for the last month, but we're
certain now that it's clean."
"Good work," Marshall said, and waved away Shepherd's attempts to give all the credit to the computer technicians. He was as aware as Caldwell that Shepherd had spent more time fixing the security breaches in the month since the assassination attempt than he'd spent in eating, sleeping, or any other activity.
The sight of the man's haggard face invariably sent a stab of guilt through Caldwell. He tried as much as possible to stay out of Shepherd's way, to avoid letting the other man see just how happy he was. Salt in the wound, and sadness in Shepherd's warm brown eyes.
Caldwell stayed at the table, where he was working on banquet preparations with Grace. He'd met Shepherd's eyes when he came in, and returned the other man's nod, and tried not to miss his friend. He reminded himself of the greed inherent in wanting this family and this lover and this man as a friend.
"How'd that man get access to the computer in the first place?" Alice asked. "Was there another traitor?"
Marshall absently kissed her hair and went back to the paperwork he was reading. He and Caldwell and Grace had already been over this with Shepherd.
Shepherd leaned back in the chair, stretching his legs out before him in a way that telegraphed how much his back ached. He laced his fingers over his belly and smiled at Alice. "No. When Gibs gave the terrorists the security access to the computer that they used to get Korshunov on Air Force One, they also snuck in security clearance for the man who attacked your father. We didn't find it when we swept the computer before because it was lurking in the background where no one could see it until the moment it was activated."
"And you got rid of everything like that?"
"I guarantee it."
Alice nodded. "Good." She went back to her book.
Shepherd smiled tiredly and pushed himself out of the chair. "I'll be off, then."
"Shep." Marshall looked up from his file. "There's a game on Friday night. Watch it with me." Though it was phrased as a command, the tone of his voice made it quite clear that Shepherd had veto power.
Shepherd's eyes sought out Caldwell, who met them levelly, hoping somehow Shepherd would see how much he wanted him to say yes. After a moment, the corners of Shepherd's mouth quirked and he nodded. "All right. But only if I can steal Ryan on his next day off."
"That," Marshall said, going back to his paperwork, "is up to Ryan."
For another moment, Caldwell's eyes met Shepherd's. Are you sure? I don't want to hurt you. And the answer in the steady brown gaze. I said I didn't want to lose my friend.
Caldwell smiled. "Sunday." He watched the door close behind Shepherd, then turned back to Grace, a slip of paper in his hand. "We can't seat the French ambassador beside Senator Harper; they don't get along."
"That's an understatement," she agreed, taking the paper from him. "In another century, there'd have been no keeping them from a duel."
ÒPity,Ó Marshall said without looking up, Òmight be the best thing for them.Ó
There was a period of near-silence, kept religiously by the two on the couch, broken regularly by Caldwell and Grace's quiet exchanges. Working out the necessary seating chart for a banquet was a mind-bending puzzle Caldwell found he rather enjoyed, as long as he got to work with Grace on it. She had a knack for these things that few could match, even her own aides. Both heard Alice's quiet "Dad?"
"How come you never kiss Ryan in front of me?"
Silence dropped like a blanket. Caldwell froze, a slip of paper between his fingers, and stared at Grace, breath caught in his lungs. She stared back, just as startled.
After a minute, Marshall cleared his throat. "I suppose," he said, and Caldwell took in a painful breath. He's really going to answer this. "Because I don't want to risk upsetting you."
She made a disgusted sound. "Oh please."
Caldwell's heart started beating again. Grace smiled and rolled her eyes, her expression saying "teenagers!" better than words. Caldwell couldn't resist smiling back, feeling a kinship with this woman that he knew he couldn't possibly explain and no one would ever understand. It wasn't just that they shared a lover.
Marshall's laugh was rich and deep. "Well then." He turned toward Caldwell. "Major, get the hell over here."
Caldwell grinned. "Yes, sir."
He came around the back of the couch, and when he got close enough, Marshall grabbed the tie he'd loosened but not removed and pulled his head down, stopping with barely an inch between them.
"Now," Marshall said in his most presidential voice. "Kiss me."
"My pleasure, sir." And he did until Alice was giggling, and Grace grumbling she'd never get the banquet arrangements done if her husband insisted on stealing away her assistant.
When Marshall drew back, his eyes were dark. He stroked a finger down Caldwell's cheek. It seemed to Caldwell that there were words on his lips that he would not say in front of his daughter. Words he'd never said in the bedroom either, but Caldwell knew them nonetheless.
Marshall frowned playfully at his giggling daughter and his grumbling wife. "What did I do to deserve you lot?"
Caldwell crossed his arms on the back of the couch and smiled down at his lover. "Give a mouse a cookie...."
Marshall roared with laughter.