Join me at Bayou Book Junkie for my Enemy Within cover reveal!!
I share the (amazing) cover for Enemy Within and talk about my writing process for The Executive Office series. Enjoy!
Join me at Bayou Book Junkie for my Enemy Within cover reveal!!
I share the (amazing) cover for Enemy Within and talk about my writing process for The Executive Office series. Enjoy!
Hello everyone! Welcome to another week of Bauer’s Bytes!
This week’s prompt comes from Stephanie, who asked for Sergey’s POV of the events at Volga Air Base in Enemy of My Enemy. This Bauer’s Byte contains spoilers from Enemy of My Enemy. Enjoy!
Sergey clenched the old map in his hands until it shook. Fuel calculations, scratched in pencil—erased, redone, erased, and redone—scrawled over the map, over the twisting contour lines of the Ural Mountains. His eyes blurred, going cross as he stared at the numbers. His molars scraped together, slowly grinding.
“I found these.” Sasha dumped two satellite phones on the burned table they were using in the wreckage of the hangar at the Volga Air Base. Soot puffed around the phones, smearing on the yellow plastic cases.
Sergey glared at the phones and then rolled his gaze up to Sasha. He couldn’t speak.
“No radio. We cannot use the Russian frequencies. But we can use satellite phones.”
“Flying and talking?” Sergey arched an eyebrow as he snorted. “This sounds terrible. Sounds even worse than driving and talking!”
“For reporting back what I find,” Sasha ground out.
Sergey fingered the sat phone’s plastic casing. “You will be blown out of the sky as soon as you take off. Moroshkin will track your jet. You will be dead in minutes.” How could Sasha even imagine that this would ever work?
Reaching into his jacket, Sasha pulled free a tangle of wires and a round metal canister. He tossed it in front of Sergey. Sergey glowered at the device, the cannibalized GPS beacon. “How will you navigate?”
“The old-fashioned way. With maps and a compass. I know what I am doing. Despite your lack of confidence in me.” Sasha glowered down at him for a moment, and then walked away, out of the hangar.
No. No, he wasn’t going to let this happen. Sasha was lying, and he would find out why. He followed Sasha, his expression twisting, hardening as he gripped Sasha’s map and his fake fuel calculations in a tight fist.
Outside, Sasha stood with his hands on his hips, gazing up at the slate sky. He’d found an old flight suit in the base, drab green and oil-stained on the knees and thighs. He’d rolled down the top and tied the arms around his waist, leaving his pale skin exposed. Red splotches stretched across his heaving chest, remnants of their earlier exertions hauling the MiG out to the flight line.
Sergey’s gaze traced Sasha’s form, the line of his shoulders, the gray chain dropping to the center of his chest and his dangling dog tags. His hardened muscles, so much more prominent than Sergey’s lanky, thin frame. Sasha had the fine blond hair and sharp facial features of a Nordic-Russian. He’d always been striking, turning more than one head in the Kremlin.
No one had ever seen him in a flight suit, though.
Any other time, Sergey would have cracked a joke about how he was trying to look like an American Top Gun, or showing off for the birds, or striking a pose like the haute couture models in St. Petersburg. Sasha would blush and stammer and shake his head, ignoring Sergey like he ignored him every time he pointed out that someone in Moscow was looking at him the way a dog looked at a perfect piece of steak.
Weren’t they friends? Teasing and jokes, and then being by each other’s side, day in and day out for months. They needed each other, he thought. He’d patched Sasha up, stitched closed his wounds from Sochi after plying Sasha with enough vodka to sedate a Cossack. Sasha had slept with his head pillowed on his thigh that night, hiding in a warehouse with the first members of their insurgency before they fled to the forest. And Sasha had been there when he’d heard about Jack’s death, and it had felt like his heart had been ripped from his chest. He’d held him through it, through the worst of the pain.
Why was Sasha intent on this? On flying away? Why was he insisting that this was the only way?
His temper took control of his tongue, his petulant, snapping rage swimming to the top of the sea of his turbulent emotions. “I am not a fool! You think I have not figured it out?”
Sasha walked away from him and said nothing.
Sergey saw red, saw the world narrow, his focus laser-sighted on Sasha’s back, his clenched shoulders. “Sasha! I am speaking to you!” He stormed after Sasha, ducking beneath the MiG’s wing and stalking around the tail. “You think this is some kind of joke? You can fool everyone else, but you cannot fool me!”
Sasha kept going, one hand trailing over the MiG’s plating, tracing the lines of the wing, the smooth surface.
Growling, Sergey snapped. Why was Sasha doing this? After everything, why was he ignoring Sergey? Why was he determined to fly off and die? He slapped the side of the MiG, bellowing at the back of Sasha’s head. “You are not a man! Not a Russian! You are a coward!”
Sasha whirled, glaring at Sergey. Fury poured from his gaze, and his hands clenched to shaking fists. Even his shoulders shook, trembling. “I am not a coward!” he snarled
Sergey stepped back, retreating, for a moment, in the face of Sasha’s wrath. Paper crinkled in his fist. No, he wasn’t going to back down, not about this. He shoved Sasha’s folded flight map in his face. Sasha’s route, sketched out in pencil, and his fuel calculations, redone and redone until they were lies. “I know what you are doing,” Sergey hissed. “Even with this jet fully fueled, you only have enough to get there. You do not have enough fuel to get back!” Anguish laced his words, underpinned his voice.
Sasha’s expression melted, his twisted, frustrated fury falling to shock, and then what looked like despair. His jaw fell open as he stared at Sergey. A split second later, he turned away, back to the MiG, tracing both hands over the metal, the long line of the wing. “It does not matter. We need this,” he growled. “We need to know for sure what is happening. It would not matter if everyone knew or not. They would still ask me to fly this mission. This way, their conscience is clear.”
He shook his head. “Why are you so determined to do this?” Sergey ducked under the wing, popping up right in Sasha’s face. His rage was banking against the hurt that clawed out of his chest. Why, Sasha, why?
“Let my life mean something! I was thrown out of the Air Force in disgrace! Let this be my real legacy!”
“Your legacy is already great. Your life means everything! You are everything to our fight! Our troops look up to you. They love you! They need you! I cannot do this without you!” Sasha was already a hero, so many times over.
Sasha shook his head and headed for the nose of the jet.
“Sasha…” Sergey growled, chasing him. He reached for Sasha’s arm. “This is not good. Don’t do this,” he pleaded. “Please.”
“We need to know what is going on.” Sasha stared at his hand.
“Send someone else!” Sergey hissed. He swallowed hard. “Send anyone else. Not you.”
“Send another to their death?” Sasha shook his head. “No.”
There it was, Sasha confirming what he already knew: Sasha intended to die. Fury warred with desperation as his heart tried to claw out of his chest, tried to shove aside his ribs and physically grab Sasha, reach out and shake him until he saw reason. Sasha couldn’t leave. Sasha couldn’t die. What would he do without Sasha? Everything about his life had been reordered, remade by Sasha’s presence. Sasha had become his North Star, his compass rose. His advisor in all things, his confidante, his best friend. Watching Sasha make his plans to die was like a hot knife stabbing in his chest, over and over again.
“Damn it, Sasha!” Sergey squeezed down on his elbow, almost bruisingly tight. Damn it all, they didn’t need the intelligence that badly. They could find another way. Any other way.
Sasha shook Sergey’s hand off and grabbed his shoulders, shoving him against the cockpit ladder. “Damn you, Sergey,” he growled. “Damn you.”
Sergey hit the steel ladder hard. It clattered behind him, and his skull rocketed back, snapping against one of the rungs.
Swooping in, pressing his body against Sergey’s, Sasha captured his lips, moaning as he nibbled, as he sucked on Sergey’s mouth. He swiped his tongue over Sergey’s lower lip, drawing it into his mouth. Bit down, and when Sergey hissed, he snaked his tongue between Sergey’s shocked lips. Sasha moaned, almost too soft to hear.
Sergey’s thoughts collided, crashing into one another like head-on trains. He couldn’t think, couldn’t string two thoughts, two words together.
Sasha’s hands trailed down his body, over his long sleeved shirt covering his thin chest, his loose combat fatigues hanging on sharp hips, and back up, curling his hands around Sergey’s neck. “So beautiful,” Sasha murmured, kissing him again. “Sergey.”
He couldn’t move. He must have hit his head harder than he thought. Reality had turned, twisting around on him into some crazed, wild delusion. This was where he woke up. This was where he woke up, face down on the soot-covered table. Where it was all a nightmare and Sasha wasn’t planning on flying off to his death. Maybe he’d wake up back at the bunker, before Sasha even came up with his wild plan. Anything. Anything to make this moment not real.
He stared at Sasha, frozen, his mouth open in shock, as Sasha slowly pulled back.
Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.
Dread roared into Sasha’s gaze, a flood of it, a tsunami that made the blue of his eyes crack, shatter like broken ice.
He wasn’t waking up.
Sasha had kissed him.
Sergey stared. “You—” he tried.
Sasha stepped back, pulling away and dropping his hands, freeing Sergey. “It is nothing,” he snapped. “Do not worry yourself.” He looked away, his face back to its usual hard expression, shuttered and closed, an impenetrable iron curtain over his soul. As if the last ten seconds hadn’t actually happened.
Sergey said nothing. Did nothing. He still couldn’t think. Couldn’t process the new world where Sasha had pressed a kiss to his lips, had murmured that he was beautiful. Of all the possibilities, all the occurrences that could happen in the world, that had never, ever, occurred to him. Someone like Sasha… and someone like him…
Never. He’d never thought it before.
“Final preflight brief in thirty minutes.” Nodding once, Sasha strode back for the hangar, leaving Sergey frozen at the base of the MiG’s ladder.
His spine creaked as he turned his head and followed Sasha’s movements. He left? After that?
What had happened? Why had he kissed him, only to walk away like nothing had happened?
Maybe nothing had happened.
It had been a good way to shut him up. He still held Sasha’s crumpled flight map in his hands, the pencil marks smeared by his sweaty palms.
Every memory of the two of them together, from the first night he met Sasha—wide-eyed, bruised, and aching in his soul—to the evenings they spent with Ilya—laughing like children as they poked fun at each other—to the dirty bunker in the forest with their sleeping bags laying side by side. Sasha always slept facing him. Every time he woke, Sasha would always be on his side, facing him, as if he’d fallen asleep watching over Sergey.
The thought of Sasha caring for him was laughable. Dark Russian humor at its finest. There was nothing he could offer Sasha. A million-other people were more attractive, younger, more like Sasha. There was no world, no reality, where Sasha would ever feel for him. Ever desire him.
If Sasha felt anything for him, then why hadn’t he said so? Why would Sasha keep that from him? After everything, did he really think Sergey would react badly? Turn away in disgust?
It was nothing. It had to be nothing.
If it were something, would Sasha have walked away?
Sergey sank down, squatting in front of the ladder as he buried his head in his hands. Nothing had changed, and everything had changed.
Sasha was still leaving. Still flying to his death. And there was nothing he could do to stop him.
* * *
“My flight will take me through the Urals and north by northeast to the Kara Sea. I will stay beneath the radar deck, and out of sight of the air defenses. The peaks of the Urals will cover my flight from the North Fleet, based here, in the Barents Sea and around Murmansk.”
Sasha ran through his brief with military precision. He’d tightened himself, locking down even the slight and fractional slips of emotion that Sergey had always found. Always loved to tease him about. Sidelong looks. Barely-there grins. Glances between the two of them that spoke volumes. In a moment, he always used to be able to tell what Sasha thought, just based on the looks they shared. No more. “Much of the North Fleet went to Moroshkin,” Sergey grumbled.
“They are likely scattered, what with the invasion over the pole into Canada and whatever they are doing in the Arctic ice.” Sasha fingered the map, tracing the target zone he’d circled in red. To the west, the long, fingerlike Severny Island stretched into the Arctic. He tapped the ice-covered island. “This is my western boundary. I will fly over Novaya Zemlya—” He pointed to the archipelago of scattered ice islands in the Russian arctic. “—and into the Kara Sea. After, I will call my report in on the sat phone.”
Sergey clenched Sasha’s paired sat phone in one hand. He glowered over the table, ignoring Jack’s questioning looks.
“I will begin my return flight then.”
Sergey said nothing. He turned his head, staring at Sasha’s jet. Why was he the only one wanting Sasha to live? Why was everyone else supporting this damned mission?
Why wouldn’t Sasha look him in the eyes anymore?
“They’re going to fight back when they see you overflying.” Scott stood at Ethan’s side, wearing Sasha’s radio and carrying his old rifle. Sergey wanted to vomit whenever he saw him.
“I am expecting a few moments of confusion. After that, yes. They will open fire. Our training makes us fight each other. Air Force against Navy, Army against Army. I am used to their tactics. I know what to do.”
It was too much, dissecting the hows and whens of Sasha’s imminent death. He stormed out of the hangar. Maybe if he threw himself in front of Sasha’s jet. Would Sasha drive over him, launch over his body to finish this desperate mission of his? There had to be another way. Any other way, other than this.
The feel of Sasha’s lips on his ghosted over his skin, a memory he couldn’t shake.
Across the tarmac, Sasha slipped into his G-suit and shook Jack and Ethan’s hands. Scott nodded his goodbyes, and then Sergey saw him twist around, as if looking for someone.
Sergey turned away. He couldn’t look at Sasha, not as he climbed into his jet. Damn it, this wasn’t right. Maybe Sasha would find everything they needed to know about what Madigan was doing, and maybe he’d pinpoint Madigan’s location. Maybe they could use that intel to mount an offense, finally take the bastard out. But it wasn’t worth the cost. Wasn’t worth his life.
Sasha’s jet engines whined to life, and then he started the slow crawl down the tarmac, heading for the runway. Spray paint Sergey had placed himself warned Sasha away from cracks and potholes. He should have left a few unmarked. Small ones, just enough to disable the jet, make it so he couldn’t take off.
Save the world, or save Sasha?
He was a selfish old bastard, when it came down to it.
When Sasha passed Sergey, he glanced out the cockpit window.
One last look.
Their eyes met. Devastation slammed into Sergey’s chest as rage twisted through him. Anguish slid down his bones, hollowed out his soul. Why are you leaving me? I don’t want to do this without you!
Slowly, Sergey lifted one hand in a sharp salute. You’ve always been a hero.
Sasha saluted in return, staring at Sergey until he nearly passed him. You’ve become so much to me. I can’t imagine my life without you. Don’t, please, don’t take off.
At the last moment, Sasha dropped the salute, pressing his gloved hand to the canopy, reaching for Sergey. Damn it, Sasha! I—
A sob tore from his throat. He wanted to reach back, wanted to chase Sasha’s jet, run screaming down the runway as Sasha’s afterburners kicked in and he roared away, rocketing into the gloom.
Come back come back come back—
He stared after Sasha’s jet, at the afterburners and their heat haze, until they faded to twinkling stars in the distance, and then disappeared.
Why did you kiss me?
Why did you leave?
Timestamp: Sergey’s POV of the events of Volga Air Base, at the end of EOME.
Something special for everyone this week! A sneak peek at Adam and Faisal’s first meeting, years ago. What brought the two into contact? How could two so very different men from very different worlds come together? Who reached out first? Who made the first move? Step back in time to Adam’s early days as a young Marine Corps officer…
Why hadn’t he gone the traditional route?
Everyone said, back at Officer Candidate School, that he shouldn’t talk to those creeps from the Defense Intelligence Agency. They talked a good game, but all they did was sell empty promises and broken careers. Anyone who knew what they were doing would tell the DIA recruiters to fuck off.
Well. First, it had been a simple conversation over coffee. Then lunch off base. Dinner in DC. Meeting the head of the Clandestine Program. He was smart enough to know when he was being wooed.
Going from being smoked at OCS, having to do pushups until his arms gave out, run until he puked, stay up for three days straight on a training exercise, to being told how valuable, intelligent, and unique he was by the DIA recruiter was an almost intoxicating pull. Like a seduction, he followed the recruiters exactly where they wanted him to go.
You speak Arabic? Multiple dialects? We have so much need for you. You’ll be perfect. Rocket through our agency. Make a real difference in the world.
Eighteen months later, he was sweating his balls off in divided Iraq, tired of smelling shit and chicken guts in the sewers, tired all the God damn time, and frustrated up to his eyeballs. All his days were spent chasing leads, chasing sources, chasing people who would rather see him fail than share the slightest bit of helpful intelligence. Iraq was a nation divided on fault lines. He could cross a street and go from a war zone to a suburb. Gangs of Caliphate members roamed, striking like fundamentalist ninjas. The people he needed to get intelligence from distrusted him on sight. One of the oppressors, a spy for pick-your-own-bogeyman, someone too dangerous to associate with for fear of reprisal by the Other.
The best information he got was from kids. The younger the better, but too young, and they thought it was a game.
His patience was not long enough to play ‘guess the intel’ with a five-year-old standing ankle-deep in shit and trash on the side of her mud-road.
What did you see? What men came by? Did they dress like this? Did you hear them talking about anything? Did the mention places? Buildings? Markets? Have you seen any weapons? How many?
A month ago, a seven-year-old contact of his bragged about hearing their neighbors talking about the market off of Falestin Street. Two days later, security forces stopped a car bomber heading for the center of the market.
He got an ‘atta boy back slap via text and a reminder that his expense justification report was due.
Two thousand dollars on sweets and candy, payment to his sources. A comic book or five. Crayons. Tools of liberation, surely.
He was a regular James Bond.
Fuck it all. He needed a break. His career was spiraling, sinking into the desert like a lost city, about to covered by endless piles of sand. Great wins did not come from the mouths of children. He wouldn’t be stopping the next big terrorist with lollipops. Wouldn’t be changing the world. He wanted to save lives, make a real difference. Change the course of everything. Put an end to the endless circle of death and slaughter. Lofty goals. The goals of a young man.
Two years in, and he was already turning dejected. A dead-end life and a dead-end career would do that, though.
Adam leaned his head back on the silk sofa and exhaled. Music wailed around him, drums and tambourines and a pounding rhythm that offset the scratchy minor chords the Arabs loved so much. At first, the music had been like nails scratching down his bones, or a rake scraping over concrete. Now, he thought in the minor key, and American rap seemed too slow.
Vibrant silk and cotton twirled in the breeze, strung between poles in loops and swirls. Torches as tall as a man leaned out of brass holders staked in the ground. Lanterns sat at angles on mounds of sand, their candles flickering within punched bronze cylinders and orbs of colored glass. Bonfires burned along the mile, the riverfront promenade where Ramadan Iftar celebrations abounded, lasting through the night.
Long tables stretched along the riverfront, low on the sand and scrub grass. Everyone sat on cushions, with piles and piles of food stacked on the table beside pitchers of juice in every color of the rainbow. Men and women had already broken their fast, taking bites of dates and sipping yogurt as they cheered and clapped. The more devout rose to pray after their first three dates.
Food and drinks flowed. Roasted chicken on red rice with a shaved boiled egg, slivered almonds, and raisins. Lamb stew and kubbat halab, rice dough stuffed with goat and chicken. Diamond flatbreads, sammoun, and sweet juice to drink: tamarind sherbert, apricot, mango, grape, and sweetened yogurt. Baklava and zlabya, desserts that made the molars ached.
As everyone broke their fast and celebrated, the din and rise of conversation flowed over the party. People came and went, rising from the tables to wander along the riverfront, or sit on the sofas and chaises spread outside. Ramadan was the biggest party of the Islamic year. Everyone wanted to be together, connected with joy, celebrating with fires lit in their hearts. You could feel it, the pulse in the air, the thrum of happiness, of gratitude, and, for the moment, peace. Simple pleasures—connection, family, friends, safety—and delight. Gratitude. Calls of praise to Allah rose, louder and more heartfelt as the celebrations wore on. Smiles grew. Laughter bloomed. Dancing began. Men and men and women and women dancing, simple movements that spun each other in circles at arms lengths.
Adam had never felt more alone.
Ramadan was a prickly time to work intelligence. Some fighters called a cease fire for the holy month. Others, struck like lightning by the intensity of their beliefs, lashed out with vicious force, devastating celebrations like this one.
Why was he even there? He wasn’t a Muslim. There was no intel that something was going to happen, that night or on the riverfront. There was absolutely zero reason for him to have joined in this celebration, plopping onto a couch someone dragged to the park and watching everyone else experience their joy.
Children ran by him, waving candles and singing loudly, off key. An Arabic rhythm, a Ramadan version of trick or treating. One little boy, maybe six, waved to him with sticky fingers.
He tried to smile. Waved a few fingers back. That kid could be a spy for him in another neighborhood. In a different part of the city, or the country. If he were wearing torn clothes and mismatched shoes, instead of pleated pants and a pressed sweater.
His thoughts turned on him, growing barbs and biting his soul.
He needed to leave. Now.
Taking a breath, Adam pulled himself up, moving like a doll with broken limbs. He was tired, so fucking tired. Tired of it all. He just—
A man, standing by the river, caught his gaze.
A circle of lanterns rested by his feet, tilted panes of red, yellow, and green glass throwing a rainbow glow over his burnished skin. Dark hair, cut neat. A slim figure, but tall. Designer jeans, the kind that came from Dubai or Damman or Bahrain. A button down, light and fitted to his frame. Honey eyes that stared right back at Adam. A gentle smile curved the man’s lips, and a flicker from one of the candles below spread blue light over his cheek. The angle of his jaw could cut diamonds. The sun could set beneath the arch of his cheek.
Adam’s breath faltered. His jaw dropped, just a bit, as he stared.
A couple twirled between them, a man holding a woman’s hands gently as he spun her toward the river. A tambourine rattled as the drums beat on. Adam blinked. He clamped his mouth shut.
The man was gone.
Good. He couldn’t do that here. Couldn’t do any of it. Couldn’t even look at men. Couldn’t think about what he wanted, what he yearned for. Not just because of where he was; strictly speaking, it wasn’t illegal in the Marines any longer, but openly parading your personal life—any personal life—was suicide. The Marines issued your life. It did not come with any desire for another person, male or female. Putting anything else before the Corps was the first death kneel.
But, lusting after an Arab, inside Iraq? He’d only be more stupid if he tried to pick up a Saudi. Religious police were unforgiving, and especially intolerant of his tastes.
Time to go. His thoughts were jumbled, mixed up as a curl of desire bloomed in his belly. Fuck, he hadn’t been turned on in months. Had it almost been a year, even? Porn had lost its charm long ago. His hands weren’t interested, and he wasn’t interested in his hands, either. Had it gotten so bad that one smile, one striking man by candlelight, was all it took?
He scrubbed his hands over his face. This had been a bad idea, the whole thing, and now he was paying for it. He stood—
Behind him, a gentle, warm voice chuckled and spoke again. “I hope I’m not interrupting. I saw you, just now, and I wanted to come over here and say hello.”
Adam turned, slowly, like a screw fighting its last spin. The man, the man in the candlelight, stood behind him. Torchlight and lamps from the tables, from the riverwalk, from the streetlights, lit him perfectly. God, he was even more breathtaking that before.
His brain spun on opposite tracks. One side, cataloging his accent, his diction. The man spoke carefully with a slight British accent. UK educated, which meant money. His jeans weren’t cheap. His coloring wasn’t quite Iraqi. Somewhere further south. Gulf countries. And, he had the confidence to seek Adam out, approach him. Why?
The other side of Adam’s brain dribbled out his ears. His jaw fell open again. Cardamom and coriander filled his nose, followed by cinnamon and orange, a hint of peach. Honey. He breathed in, trying to drag the scent closer. His heart hammered in time with the drums, a fast, crazed beat that never stopped.
“Hi,” he finally grunted. “Um—“
“Faisal.” Smiling again, Faisal held out his hand.
“Adam.” Shit. Greeting anyone in the Arab world was a trigonometry problem. Would this be a handshake, like America? His whiteness put others off, often excluded him from the cultural greetings that surrounded him. Would Faisal pull him close for a kiss on the cheek? How many kisses? They’d just met, surely it was going to be a hand hold.
Adam took Faisal’s hand, squeezing and starting to shake. Faisal drew him close, smiling. He pressed their cheeks together and kissed the air beside Adam’s ear twice, pulled back, and did the same to his other cheek.
Two kisses. Alright. Basic Arab greetings 101. Faisal was being polite.
Faisal pulled him back, pressing a third kiss to his cheek. This time, he turned in, ghosting his lips over Adam’s sideburn, his cheekbone. “Marhaban,” he breathed.
That was definitely not a normal hello. Adam’s breath quickened, and he tried to catch Faisal’s gaze as Faisal pulled back. Why—What— He swallowed hard.
Faisal smiled. “May I join you?”
Thoughts of leaving vanished. He sat back down. “Sure.”
What the hell was he doing? Run! Get away! You have no idea who he is or what he wants. It could be a trap!
Faisal leaned back, reclining on the couch with effortless ease and style. Adam rubbed his palms together. Sweat made them sticky.
“You don’t know anyone here, do you?” Faisal kept smiling at him, a soft curve of his lips that teased Adam’s blood.
He flushed and grinned, spreading his hands. “You caught me.”
Faisal captured one of his hands before he brought it back to his lap. He laced their fingers together and rested their joined hands between them on the couch. “Now you know me.”
Oh, shit, he shouldn’t be rocketing off from a simple touch. Faisal was only doing what was normal. Holding hands, a sign of friendship in the Middle East, especially among men. Nothing more. Don’t stroke the back of his hand with your thumb. Don’t!
He felt his palm slick with cold sweat. Faisal would feel that. God, what an idiot he was. “Shukraan.”
“What are you doing in Iraq?” Faisal seemed content to sit back and hold his hand, chat the night away. And why not? It was Ramadan, the time of connection.
“I’m a reporter.” His lie tumbled from his lips, his cover story. “Following the country’s continued civil war, the fight against the Caliphate.” He shrugged. “Same stuff, different decade.”
Faisal nodded. “Wouldn’t it be nice if this could be every night here?” He gestured to the celebrations. The people, the happiness, the peace.
“It would.” Adam bit his lip. “In shaa Allah, it will someday.”
Faisal’s eyes brightened. “You are Muslim?”
“Respectful, then.” Faisal’s smile turned, from polite to something else. Something that slithered down Adam’s belly and sent jolts through his legs. “Something unusual in western men.”
“You spend a lot of time with western men?” Jesus, someone should ban him from talking. He clamped his lips shut and looked away. “Sorry, that was rude.”
“I do not,” Faisal said, ignoring his apology. “Most want nothing to do with me. And thus, I want nothing to do with them.”
Faisal’s eyes locked onto his. Something simmered in the amber depths, something he didn’t want to stare too hard at.
Slowly, Faisal’s thumb stroked over the back of his hand. “Has anyone shown you around the city? The best place to have a coffee? Eat halawat sha’riyya? Watch the sunrise?”
He couldn’t speak. He shook his head.
“Would you like to watch the sunrise with me?” Faisal’s head tilted, a coy little grin on his lips.
“Would we stay here?” His voice had dropped, low and gravely. He squeezed Faisal’s hand. Was this for real? Was Faisal actually picking him up? Or was he reading too much into Arab friendliness and congeniality? Was he only seeing what he wanted to see?
Or, worse. Was this a trap? Iraq wasn’t Saudi, but there were still gangs of religious police. Caliphate infiltrators that loved to ‘expose’ hedonism and infidel corruption as proof that they were essential, a needed force for their firebrand, medieval Islam.
The smart thing to do would be to walk away. Politely thank him for the conversation and beg off, back to his apartment and go to sleep. He’d jerk off for sure to this tonight, and probably for the next month or four, remembering Faisal’s smile, his eyes, the warmth of his skin.
“We could stay, if you want.” Faisal’s thumb brushed his hand again. “I would prefer to show you something other than this river, though. But only if you would like.”
Jesus. He flushed all over, heat racing through him from head to toe. No mistaking what it was now. A blatant invitation. But was it honest? Was it true? Was he about to be the star of his very own YouTube video and end up a sad, tragic headline, the American who couldn’t control his lust? Couldn’t keep it in his pants?
He wanted it to be true. God, he did. What would Faisal be like? Would he smile that way throughout the night? Keep it light and fun, playful even? He seemed the type. But, there were depths there, in his eyes, in the way he held Adam’s hand. Pursued Adam. How long had it been since someone had wanted him, picked him out of a crowd and wanted to fuck him? Take him home?
He stared into Faisal’s eyes. His confusion, his lust, his uncertainty had to be plain as day. What he wanted, he shouldn’t, couldn’t have.
“Come with me, Adam,” Faisal breathed. His eyes burned, searing Adam’s skin as they raked over his body, from his feet to the tips of his hair and back to his lips, his eyes. “Keep me company all night long. Tell me stories about you. I will show you the sunrise in the morning.”
How the hell was he going to walk out of here with a half-hard cock? Don’t be an idiot, Adam! This could ruin the rest of your life!
He squirmed. Licked his lips. Looked away.
And then looked back, deep into Faisal’s eyes. He squeezed his hand. “Okay.”
Timestamp: Adam and Faisal’s first meeting, three years prior to Enemies of the State.