I have something special for the Bauer’s Bytes this week. I’m delighted to announce that I will be writing a holiday story this year, featuring Jack and Ethan and their first Christmas together in the White House. The story will be set right before the end of Enemies of the State, before Ethan returns to DC and says he’ll stay for good. Before he decides to become the First Gentleman of the United States.
Halfway through his exile in Iowa, Jack and Ethan’s first Christmas happens, and I’m happy to announce that you will get to enjoy their first Christmas together this December from Ninestar Press.
Here is a “sneak peek” of Jack and Ethan “Making it Work” in Iowa, and gearing up for their first holiday together…
Jack glanced up from his desk, his reading glasses perched on the tip of his nose. Folders were spread out before him, analyses of the Caliphate’s operations in Syria and Iraq and the strength of their forces in the Near East. Different projections of what the US military could do, both alone and with allies.
And, in one folder, an offer from Russian President Sergey Puchkov. A potential alliance rooted in a UN resolution. The United States and Russia, working together to fight the Caliphate. Could it be done?
Jack tossed his glasses on the desk and waved Pete Reyes, his press secretary, into the Oval Office. He stood, stretching his arms over his head and rolling his neck. His suit jacket was draped over the back of his office chair, his tie loosened, and his sleeves rolled up. “What’s up, Pete?” Jack rested one hip against his desk as he crossed his arms with a tired smile.
Pete grinned back, ambling to the center of the office. Dusk clung to DC beyond the Oval Office. Snowfall from an early storm blanketed the lawns, turning the world beyond into a winter wonderland. The snow seemed to encase the White House, an almost-shield from the real world. At least, Jack could pretend it was a shield.
“Just a few things before I head home, Mr. President.” He flipped open his padfolio, lips pursed. “I’ve been sent to ask you one last time if you are absolutely sure you don’t want to add some kind of LGBT or pride element to the National Christmas Tree. Or to the White House. Or to any of the holiday décor we’re about to throw on the walls.”
Exhaling, Jack tipped his head back and closed his eyes. Pete fell silent, waiting.
Unease rumbled in Jack’s gut. Coming out about him and Ethan had been the right thing to do. The honorable thing, for Ethan’s memory when he thought he was gone, and for everything they had become together. He wasn’t about to kick the memory of what they’d started, what they’d discovered, to the curb because it was politically expedient after Ethan’s supposed death. He had started a real relationship with Ethan, and he’d meant it when he said he didn’t care what the media thought, or the world thought. He just wanted to fall in love with Ethan.
The agony of losing Ethan rubbed against the fatalistic pessimism he’d wallowed in after Ethiopia. It hadn’t mattered that the country was in shock because of him. That Russia was distancing herself from their almost-alliance faster than the Iron Curtain had descended. That overnight, he’d gone from a promising potential to a late-night-comedy sketch.
And then Ethan had come back.
And the world started to turn again.
It was different, trying to love Ethan in the spotlight instead of in their secreted, protected world from before. The media glare had intensified a thousandfold. Ethan had been stalked around DC, and reporters had hovered at his condo before he transferred to Iowa. And then, when he did move, the media circus followed him. He lived in a small, secured apartment, set up specifically for government employees on long temporary duty, and the media lingered just beyond the gates. Camped outside the federal building in downtown Des Moines. Stalked him in the grocery stores. Trailed his car.
And everyone was trying to shove Jack into a place he didn’t belong.
He wasn’t stepping out of a closet. He wasn’t admitting that he’d always desired men, had kept something hidden his whole life. That wasn’t what he felt. And, he wasn’t trying to change the world. He just wanted to love Ethan, and no one seemed to accept that. Everyone wanted something from him, some kind of statement or stance or public commitment. Something that tried to politicize his personal life, and his love.
Hell, Jack didn’t even know what to call himself. The world had decided on “Gay President of the United States”, which wasn’t right, but Jack couldn’t get his brain started to figure out what was correct. He’d fallen for Ethan, so was he now open to falling for any man? That thought derailed quickly. He couldn’t think about any person other than Ethan, man or woman. He didn’t want to imagine the possibility that they wouldn’t work out.
But, maybe this was something new about himself. Something he hadn’t known he was, all these years. So, he tried to surreptitiously scope out some of the more attractive men working at the White House. The Marine Corps guards and the attachés in the Situation Room. One or two of the political directors. He let his eyes linger on their shoulders, on their waists, or their asses.
But, when he thought about Ethan’s shoulders, and the flex of his muscles when he was working out, or the long lines of his thighs, or his round, strong ass and trim waist—
Well, he’d learned he couldn’t let his mind wander in Cabinet meetings any longer. There were only so many times he could ask someone to stay after for a sidebar conversation while he hunched forward and desperately tried to will his erection back down.
Was it just Ethan? Just their lives crashing into one another, and the forced isolation of the White House mixed with the intensity of presidential protection creating a perfect cauldron for their feelings to develop? Though, his sexual attraction to Ethan hadn’t developed until after Ethan had kissed him, and the possibility of something more had been planted in his brain. Was he sexually attracted to Ethan because he’d already fallen for him, their close friendship a bridge to his heart?
How did he simplify who he was to one word? Was it even possible?
What was true was this: he’d taken a risk, the biggest risk he’d ever taken in his life, and everything that came after had made him, on the one hand, the happiest he’d ever been, and on the other, the most frustrated and irate he’d ever been, too.
He was in love with Ethan. His best friend, and now his lover. That, at the end of the day, was true.
“Can’t we focus on something else?” Jack sighed, one hand scrubbing over his face. “Anything else? The country—the world— has been through a major shock. There are people we need to honor. Victims of the terrorists and of Madigan.” Jack shook his head. “Those are the real issues. It’s not all about me. It can’t be.” He snorted. “I’m not that interesting.”
Pete chewed on his lip, his eyebrows slowly rising as Jack spoke.
Jack exhaled hard. “All right,” he groaned. “Hit me.”
“You, and Mr. Reichenbach, are also a real issue. You’re the first out—”
“First out president, and you started a relationship while in the White House. It’s news. Everyone wants to know more.”
“Great. My first big achievement. Uniting the people in their fascination with my sex life.” Jack squeezed his eyes closed.
“You’re a lot of things to a lot of people. Crazy, deranged—” Pete grinned as Jack chuckled. “And inspirational,” he finished.
“Oh, don’t make me feel worse. Please.”
“You want your private life private. I get it. I’m just not sure that it’s realistic.” Pete’s gaze softened as he stared Jack down.
“It has to be,” Jack breathed. “Ethan’s suffering too much as it is. He’s not a part of this media circus like you and I are. His whole job was to stay out of the spotlight.”
“Speaking of him,” Pete started. “Des Moines news media picked him up at an arrest today. The Secret Service was catching some counterfeiters. They spotted him, chased his car down. National media is playing the clip over and over.”
Jack scrubbed his hands over his face. “He doesn’t deserve this. God…” He exhaled. “I just want to be with him, our way, in private, and dedicate everything else that I have and that I am to this office. Can’t that be enough?”
Pete sighed. “We can try, Mr. President.”
Jack chewed on his upper lip. “You once told me that I should minimize this. Toss it aside like it was meaningless. ‘Do a Clinton,’ you said. Now you think I’m inspirational?”
“I…didn’t know how much it meant to you. You and him, I mean.” Pete cleared his throat. “You weren’t saying much, at the time, and no one really knew anything. Jeff, uhh, seemed to know a bit.” Pete coughed quickly and talked fast, getting past Jeff Gottschalk’s name in a hurry as Jack glared. “But I didn’t know what Mr. Reichenbach meant to you until you told the world you guys were in love.” Pete shrugged, and his shoulders held by his ears. “But you did. You changed the world in forty-five seconds. And now we have to work with that.”
“Do you want to?”
Pete’s eyes went wide, and he stared back at him, blank. “Do I want to…”
“This isn’t what you signed up for,” Jack said softly. “You joined my team when I was in the Senate because you knew I was going to make a run for the White House. You wanted to be the press secretary, and you worked your ass off, Pete. You did.” Jack smiled, but looked down, one foot scuffing against the floor. “I think I broke a lot of people’s dreams when I said what I said. I put all of us in a whole new world. None of you asked for this. We’re on our heels now. Eight years has gone down to the next three.” He looked up, an apology in his eyes. “You wanted to announce peace in the Middle East, a renewed America, and a stronger world.” Jack shook his head. “Now you’re dodging questions about my sex life.”
“At least, no joke, thirty times a day. You should really see some of these questions.” Pete whistled, and his tone was serious, but he broke into a smile. He calmed a moment later, closing his padfolio and holding it over his chest. “Mr. President, I wanted to be part of a team that was going to change the world. I knew you were that man. That you would be that president to do the next great thing.” He shrugged again, his lips pressed together. “So it’s not the way I imagined. But I am a part of something amazing. Something that I am damn proud to represent.”
Jack smiled. “Thanks,” he breathed. “Thank you. I’m…really glad you’re here.”
Pete held out his hand, and Jack took it, gripping tight. A moment later, he and Pete pulled back at the same time, snapping and pointing at each other in unison. It had started as a joke, but they kept doing it along the campaign trail, all the way up to the day they moved into the White House. Now, almost a year later, their ritual made a comeback. Jack laughed.
“You should get going, Mr. President. It’s almost nine.” Pete winked.
Jack pushed himself off the desk, pulling out his phone to check the time. “That it is!” Grinning, he flipped closed his folders and grabbed his suit jacket. “I’ve got to get ready for my date.”
* * *
Ethan plopped down in front of his computer and logged into Skype, ten minutes early.
Butterflies tangled in his stomach, each and every time. Three months they’d been doing the same routine, and still, Ethan wondered when it would all start to fade. When Jack wouldn’t make the call. Or when he would realize that he really didn’t want to put up with all of the crap that loving Ethan brought with it.
His computer chimed. Jack calling in, and he was early.
His throat clenched as he ran his fingers through his hair and straightened in his seat. He’d obsessed over the height of the monitor for the first call, stacking it up on books until he thought it looked right, and he didn’t look too tired, or the angle didn’t highlight the gray poking through at his temples. God, he wasn’t used to being the young one.
He never knew what to wear. Jack saw him in a suit every day at the White House. Should he be casual? He didn’t want Jack to think he didn’t care enough to not look good for him. Shirtless? Was that too forward? Maybe not for another gay guy, but Jack wasn’t just anyone. He settled on a shirt that was a bit too tight, wiggling into it, and his boxers. Jack wouldn’t see below the waist. They didn’t do that. Jack was classy. And Ethan didn’t push his luck.
Clearing his throat, he clicked to answer, smiling nervously.
Jack’s brilliant grin filled his screen. He was sitting on his bed in the Residence, one leg tucked up to his chest, dressed down in his suit pants and his white T-shirt. He was tired, Ethan could tell. He had his reading glasses on, and the very beginnings of dark circles beneath his eyes.
Jack was gorgeous. He made Ethan’s heart skip faster, made his body burn. “Hey,” he breathed. And just like that, he was finally smiling, for real.
“Hey you.” Jack tugged his laptop closer; the screen wobbled and then resettled, Jack’s face closer to the camera. His eyes dropped, seeming to linger over Ethan’s chest and shoulders. “How was your day?” he asked, dragging his eyes back up.
“Did you get your warrant? Catch the bad guys you’ve been chasing?”
Ethan chuckled. He looked down, rolling a pen over his desk. “Yeah, the team got the warrant this morning. Busted in on the counterfeiters in the motel room they were living out of.” Frowning, he cleared his throat. “The, ah, media found me at the scene. I didn’t get out in time.” He snorted. “Des Moines Secret Service financial crimes investigations have never made the national news, until now.”
Silence. He looked up.
Jack was gazing at him, an apology in his eyes. “I saw the clip. I’m sorry, Ethan.”
“You don’t have anything to be sorry for.”
Jack sighed. “You don’t deserve to be hounded like that. I wish everyone would ignore us.”
Ethan looked away, for a moment.
“If we keep ignoring them, maybe they’ll give up?” Jack smiled hopefully.
“We can try.”
“Let’s be boring.” Jack winked. “Let’s be really, really boring.”
“You couldn’t be boring if you tried.” Ethan laughed. “It’s not in you.”
“I can do anything I set my mind to. I’m sure I could figure out how to be boring. I’ll just ask Senator Bryant.” He winked again. “Or Congressman Wills.”
Laughing again, Ethan felt some of the day’s tension uncoil from between his shoulders. “What about you? How was your day?”
Sighing, Jack scrubbed his hands over his face and through his hair. Dirty blonde and brunet strands stuck up at crazy angles. “Oh, just trying to figure out how to put together the right plans for the invasion. General Bradford and the Joint Chiefs were wargaming today, presenting me with… God, too many options.” He shook his head. “They have a model for every possible country joining us. Did you know that?”
“We like to be thorough when we’re presenting you with options.” It was Ethan’s turn to wink.
“It’s too much.” Jack pitched sideways on the bed, dragging his laptop with him. He propped himself up on his elbow, staring at the camera and Ethan. “I’m going to talk to President Puchkov about his offer. A combined Russian-American invasion force? And he wants us to take it to the UN together?” Jack shook his head. “I almost can’t believe it. He brought me a glass of champagne and a red folder with his proposal tucked in it at the G20’s closing reception. Said it was for me to read later and walked away. Classic Russian style.”
“Could it be a trap?” Ethan frowned. President Puchkov hadn’t been the most amazing world leader to Jack in his first year. Taunts before the UN summit in Prague, and then a tentative alliance ripped away after Jack’s revelation about their relationship.
“I don’t think so. I think it’s his attempt to rebuild what we were doing before. We haven’t really spoken much at all since—” Jack shrugged as Ethan squirmed. Jack never put words to describe what the press conference outing him and Jack was. “A joint deployment to combat the Caliphate, and under the auspices of the UN. That’s about as public an alliance and a commitment as you can get these days, in global politics.” He shrugged one shoulder. “Maybe it’s his way of reaching out.”
Ethan nodded, and he tried to push away his creeping worries as he and Jack kept chatting back and forth, moving from politics to White House gossip.
“Oh!” Jack waggled his eyebrows. “Jeannette, that blonde reporter from the Herald? She got engaged to Benjamin in the Domestic Policy section today. He did it in the briefing room.”
“Really?” Ethan grinned. “Poor Vinny.”
“Secret Service. Vinny Brewsky. Good guy from Brooklyn. He was dating her for a while. Man, he was gone for her. She dumped him, though. She had her gaze set higher than just the Secret Service.”
Jack pressed his hand to his chest, his eyes wide. He tsked three times as Ethan chuckled.
“I can’t wait until Friday.” Jack smiled, gazing at Ethan.
“You’ve got the tree lighting this Friday night, right?” The National Christmas Tree, on the Ellipse near the White House, was decorated every year in December, along with smaller trees for every state and territory. The president—and historically the first family—always lit the tree the first weekend in December. It was a fun event, and festive, and past presidents had really gotten into the evening. Ethan knew Jack would be just as enthralled, feeding off the energy of the crowd.
“Yeah.” Jack nodded. “I’ll be there when your plane lands. Scott said he’s sending another agent to pick you up, since he needs almost everyone for the tree lighting. But you’re not going to be forgotten.” Jack grinned. “He’ll bring you back here, and I’ll escape as soon as I can.”
“You should enjoy yourself. Have fun. It’s a great event.”
“I want to enjoy myself with you.” Jack’s eyes glittered. “I don’t want to miss a single moment that you’re here. And, do you really think I’ll be able to even string a sentence together at all, once I know you’re home?”
Ethan chuckled. There was no talk at all about him joining Jack at the tree lighting. They’d decided long ago that they would keep their relationship far, far away from the public eye. No comments. No media. No public appearances. Maybe it was hiding. But it was their plan.
“Day after tomorrow.” Jack kept grinning, kept staring at Ethan like Ethan was something special. “I need a time machine. Need to speed up time. Thursday is just a waste. Let’s skip it. Go straight to Friday.”
Laughing, Ethan agreed and then watched Jack try to smother a yawn. “It’s late,” he said softly. “You should go to bed.”
“I am in bed.”
“You should get some sleep.” A smile played over Ethan’s lips. “Presidents need their beauty rest.”
Jack ran a hand through his hair, striking a pose as he lay on his side. “I’m gorgeous.”
“Yes. You are.”
That made Jack pause. He bit his lip, a flush rising on his cheekbones, and his gaze turned heated. “Friday,” he breathed. One hand reached for the screen, a finger tracing over Ethan’s face on his laptop as he blew a kiss. “I love you, Ethan.”
He had to fight through his clenched throat to speak, practically grunting. “Love you too.”
“Sleep well.” Jack smiled. “Talk to you tomorrow.” His hand slowly drew back, hovering over the mousepad. Any moment, he’d end the call. Ethan stared at him, breathing fast through his mouth, trying to make the seconds stretch longer.
And then the screen went dark.
Ethan rested his head in his hands, breathing out slowly.
Day after tomorrow. And then he’d see Jack again.
Timestamp: Three months into Ethan’s exile in Iowa, and three months prior to the start of Enemy of My Enemy.