Sometimes coming awake was a slow languid journey to awareness and other times, it was an adrenaline rushoverpowering and frightening. Thankfully, most days since leaving the army, Jim experienced a slow glide into awareness, his body running checks as it gradually came on-line, ready to start a new day.
But not this morning.
Every muscle in his body snapped to awareness, his senses attuned and on alert, all at once. The reason for this rude awakening became instantly apparent as he looked down at the compact body blanketing his own and memories of the previous twenty-four hours, especially last night, flooded back to him.
Blair lay sprawled over him, completely at home, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, his hair fanned out across Jim's chest, his full lips parted in soft, contented snores. Blair's arms and legs were splayed, tangled in Jim's, a warm and comforting weight. The afghan from the back of the couch covered them, and Jim vaguely recalled pulling it over them, the last thing he'd managed last night before following Blair into sleep.
It took an effort of will to even out his respiration, to command his heart to stop its wild, staccato pounding. But when he did have his body under control again and could risk it, he closed his eyes and allowed himself to really feel Blair's sweet weight on top of him. He breathed in deeply and listened carefully, cataloging and sorting the sensory data, letting it imprint itself on him, at the level of his cells, letting it seep into his bones and comfort him, a balm to his weary soul. He knew he could very easily grow used to this if he let himself, and that scared the shit out of him, for him and for Blair.
He silently cursed himself for his carelessness and stupidity. Blair was his damned responsibility, and it was a responsibility he couldn't afford to take lightly. He knew that, and yet last night...well, last night Blair had touched a place in his heart that he'd really believed was stony and unreachable. Blair had broken him open, seemingly effortlessly, as if by instinct, knowing just what to do and say to unleash him. Things between them had gone way too far, become way too personal. Last night, he'd wanted it all, every last touch, every further intimacy. But now, in the grey, unforgiving light of the Cascade morning, he saw how terribly wrong it had been to let his wants run away with his reason. He couldn't afford to become involved in such a deeply personal way with this young manat least, not until whoever was trying to kill him was brought to justice. Then, and only then, could he entertain allowing the kind of closeness that he craved so desperately.
"Come on, Sandburg," Jim called to him, more loudly than he probably should have. "Rise and shine. You've got a meeting today and shareholders to persuade. Time to make good on those ideas."
Blair jolted awake, spitting out a stray curl that had found its way into his mouth, his head jerking up in surprise. "Whaoh...geez, Jim...did you have to shout?" Blair groused, flopping back down onto his protector's chest, feigning casual, relaxed sleepy-headedness. But Jim could hear how his heart hammered in his chest, could smell the sudden flood of his anxiety, understood that his cool reaction this morning was alarming the young man.
But it couldn't be helped.
He gripped Blair's bare arms and shifted him off his body,
so that the young man stood naked in front of him, his morning
erection jutting out from his lightly furred body. A deep flush
crept along Blair's golden skin, and Jim couldn't help thinking
that he'd never seen anyone look so shy and so wanton at the same
time. He forced himself to shove down the emphatic surge of desire
and quickly scrambled up from the sofa, afghan firmly in hand,
desperate to escape Blair's close proximity.
"I'll fix us some eggs, Chief. You go get cleaned up and then I will," he said, wrapping the multi-colored blanket around his hips, with nervous, jerky movements, making a break for the kitchen.
He could feel Blair watching him, taking the measure of his discomfort, and then the young man followed him into the kitchen. He couldn't keep himself from jumping when Blair reached out and lightly touched his bare shoulder.
"Jim?" he said. "We gotta talk, man."
"No time, Chief. We need to get a move on."
"Don't do that."
"Pretend like last night never happened, not when your regret is so big and palpable it's like a presence in the room with us."
Jim sighed and turned to make a retort, some biting comment that would put an end to the discussion once and for all, but he stopped as soon as he saw Blair's face. The young man was doing his best to keep his expression neutral and stoic, but he didn't have the same experience Jim did with hiding his feelings. It was plain just how hurt he was.
"Shit," he said. "It's not that... I just made a mistake, okay, Chief? I let this situation get away from me, and that's not like me. I'm sorry. I've acted very irresponsibly with you, and that's really unforgivable. But I swear it won't happen again. I need to be completely focused on your safety, and from now on, I promise I will be."
He'd hoped to reassure Blair somehow with this little speech, but instead, the young man only appeared more distraught.
"How can you just turn off like that, man? Last night, you were begging for it, and today, you're all cold and distant, Mr. Business-as-Usual. Well, I don't change gears that fast. You can tell yourself that last night was a mistake all you want, but it wasn't. And I think we both know that."
"Maybe it wouldn't have been under different circumstances," he said. "But"
"Bullshit! Everything happens for a reason, Jim. I told you that yesterday when we were talking, and I'm sticking by it now. I know you're not so dense that you've missed the really, really significant thing that's happening between us. From the first moment at the airport, there were sparks, man. I'm talking supernova here. Worlds colliding, stars moving into alignment, some serious ass mojo. Hell, the earth practically shook beneath our feet. Don't even try to deny it. I saw that look you gave me when you turned around and realized I was the guy you were supposed to protect. I thought you'd gone into shock there for a minute. When has that ever happened to you before? I'm betting never. Because this kind of thing doesn't happen every day. It's like this huge gift the universe is offering up on a silver platter. We can't just ignore it."
"Blair, someone nearly killed you yesterday. They've tried before, and they'll try again. I can't afford to get caught up in thinking about how much I want you, how good your mouth felt on my dick, how much I'd like you to fuck me when I'm supposed to be watching out for you. Do you understand that? It only takes a minute. If I'm tuned out, planning when we can get naked again, it could get you dead. And more than anything I might want from you, I need you to be safe. I need to protect you. Okay?"
"See? That's exactly what I mean. Did you ever stop to wonder why you're so frantic about my welfare? I mean, I know it's your job and all, but do you get this worked up, this emotionally invested in looking out for your other clients? My guess is no, not to this extent. And that's because this isn't just a job. It's not just about sex. This could be something really special. This could be a long time thing."
"Not if you're dead," Jim said, his voice soft and a little choked.
Blair grabbed his arm. "That's not going to happen."
"That's right, Chief. It's not, because I'm not going to let it. So as long as the danger's out there, I've got to keep it professional and keep my mind on the job. No negotiation. That's the way it's got to be."
"What about...what happens after you catch whoever's doing this?"
"Blair, I can't"
"Just...keep an open mind about it, huh? Please? You don't have to make me any promises. Just give me a chance. Let me prove to you how good it can be between us."
A hundred and one reasons why it would never work flashed through Jim's head: all the differences between them, Jim's lousy track record with relationships and just about everything else, the freakish mess with his senses, the simple fact that Blair deserved so much better. But the look on Blair's face was pleading and earnest and way too vulnerable for Jim to risk hurting him with an outright rejection.
"Okay. An open mind. But after we catch whoever is responsible for these attempts on your life. Understood?"
Blair nodded wildly. "Sure, man, Thanks!" he said and launched himself at Jim, hugging him fiercely.
Blair was still naked, and Jim was nearly so. The feel of Blair's skin against his set off his senses like a fireworks display. He gently but firmly detached the young man and pushed him away.
"You need to..." he broke off and waved his hand at Blair, indicating his nudity, hoping Blair would understand that he really needed him to go get dressed before keeping things professional became inhumanly difficult.
Blair sighed. "Okay, man. We'll do it your way. For now. But once we figure out who's responsible and take care of them, we're gonna get naked and stay that way for a good, long time. There won't be any negotiation about that, either."
Blair turned and headed for the bathroom. Jim stared after him, not nearly the paragon of professional detachment he would have liked to be, appreciating, against his better judgment, the enticing motion of Blair's ass as he walked away.
He shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts of the jumbled erotic images assaulting him. He pressed his hard on against the cool wood of the cabinets, hoping it would subside, wondering how he was ever going to keep his mind off Blair's body long enough to focus on his safety.
You can start by concentrating on breakfast instead of visually molesting his ass.
Jim sighed. Resisting Blair was going to be a hell of a lot more difficult than he ever imagined. It might help if you were wearing something more than a blanket wrapped around your waist. He shook his head at himself and went upstairs to change into his robe. He threw the afghan into the laundry basket at the bottom of his closet. It had both his cum and Blair's on it, and somehow he doubted he'd ever be able to look at it again without getting hard.
He headed back downstairs to the kitchen and took the ingredients he needed for breakfast out of the refrigerator. He cracked the eggs into a bowl and whisked them with a little milk until they were light and foamy, ready for scrambling. He melted butter in a frying pan, tossed the bread into the toaster, started the eggs. He heard Blair leave the bathroom and go back to the spare room. It occurred to him that Blair had never even made it in there to sleep last night. Don't go there, Jimbo. He reprimanded himself. Don't even get in the same zip code with that thought.
Blair emerged from the spare room freshly dressed in a pair of tan slacks, a crisp white shirt, tweed jacket and tie. Jim was a little surprised by the transformation, but he supposed an anthropologist would make it a point to fit into his environment, to honor the local customs, whether it was in the Amazon or the corporate board room.
"What can I do to help with breakfast?" Blair asked.
"Uh, well, you can grab the jam out of the refrigerator for me."
"You want coffee?"
"That would be great."
Jim took a mug out of the cabinet and poured the coffee for him. "Milk? Sugar?"
"Nah, just black. If I could take it intravenously, I would."
A smile played on Blair's lips. "It was a big day yesterday."
The young man held up a hand in mock surrender. "I'm just saying it was hectic. You know, long flight, getting shot at, and well...meeting you. It exhausted me," he said, his expression innocent, but his voice really quite wicked.
"Blair, we said"
Blair crossed his arms over his chest. "But we never said I had to like it. And I never promised I'd make it easy for you to turn away from me. I want it to be as hard for you as it is for me."
"We talked about this. I thought you understood. I'm just trying to do what's best, to take care of you. I'm not turning away from you."
"I know that's what you said. But Jim," Blair said, moving closer to him, putting his hand on his arm. "We're meant to be together. We're a team. I feel it. The more connected we are the safer we'll be. I just know it."
Jim firmly pushed him away. "You know, Chief, I think you take all this 'meant to be' stuff a little too seriously sometimes. Look, we had an agreement, and I expect you to abide by it. Got it?"
Blair sighed and pushed out his lips in what looked suspiciously like a pout. But he said, "Yeah, Jim, I got it."
"Now go eat your breakfast before it gets cold," he said.
Blair rolled his eyes. "Yes, Dad."
"Don't get fresh with me, Junior."
"That's so not funny, man."
Blair sat down at the table and helped himself to a hearty portion of eggs and three pieces of toast. He buttered his bread and slathered on some raspberry jam. Jim watched him and tried not to think how attractive he found a man with a healthy appetite.
"I still haven't forgotten about that other thing, you know," Blair informed him matter-of-factly as he devoured his breakfast.
"What?" Jim asked blankly, falling back on the skills he'd learned in Covert Ops, feeling vaguely guilty for pulling that kind of crap with Blair.
Blair, however, could see through him far better than foreign operatives had ever been able to. "Don't bullshit me, man. You know exactly what I'm talking about. I want to hear everything that's been going on with your senses."
Blair threw his fork down. "If you're so concerned about looking out for me, then you can damned well be straight with me. Now, tell me how you could see and hear the shooter yesterday when he was clear across the street in another building. Tell me about these headaches you've been having. Tell me when all this started happening. Hell, tell me everything. I mean it. And don't think I won't know if you leave stuff out. I will."
"Blair, it's not..." he fumbled, trying to explain. "I just don't talk about this. Not with anyone."
Jim's jaw clenched.
Blair leaned forward. "So you did tell somebody sometime."
"A doctor back in the army, somebody I thought I could trust. That's how I ended up discharged. He found me medically unfit to serve. I suppose I should feel lucky it wasn't for mental instability. I know that's what he really thought."
"Oh, Jim. I'm sorry."
"Look, Chief, it's a chronic condition, but I deal with it. I swear I'm not crazy. And I promise it won't get in the way of my protecting you. If I thought it would, I'd turn the case over to someone else. I swear to God."
"I'm not worried about that, Jim. I feel safe with you. I have since I first got off the plane and you were waiting there for me. I have no doubt you'll take care of me. But I am worried about you. I saw what that headache did to you. I don't want you suffering."
"There's no help for it. Nobody knows what this thing is. When I first got out of the army, I thought maybe I could get treatment and then get my career back. I saw doctors, specialists. They tried stuff, gave me pills. One quack wanted to do electric shock therapy. It was all I could do not to deck the guy. Finally, I just had to accept that no one knows how to diagnose this...whatever it is, and no one can cure it."
"What if that's the problem? What if it's not supposed to be cured? Because it's not an illness or a condition, but a gift."
Jim grimaced. "I can promise you it's no gift, Chief."
"Because you don't know how to control it. Because people have made you feel like some kind of freak. But what if it's perfectly natural? What if it's the way you were meant to be? What if it's your legacy?"
"I'm sorry, Chief. You're losing me here."
"Sorry, man. That's my fault. I'm getting ahead of myself. I'll explain, but I need more information first. Are you experiencing loud noises that shouldn't be loud? Can you see and smell things other people can't? Taste buds off the chart?"
Jim nodded, beginning to feel a little encouraged despite himself. "Yeah, Chief, all of it. Have you seen it before?"
"No, but I've always hoped to. But I need to ask you one more thing to make sure you're the real deal. Is your tactile sense...are you, you know, extra touchy feely? I mean, last night, was it..."
Jim blushed, the second time he'd done that in less than twenty-four hours, since he'd known Blair.
"Did I hurt you?" Blair asked, looking stricken.
Jim shook his head. "You know you didn't. It was the only time...it never felt good like that before. I never enjoyed having the...whatever it is, like I did with you."
"God, I'm glad," Blair said, smiling, looking both relieved and pleased.
"So do you know what's wrong with me?"
"But the senses"
"Are just the way they're supposed to be. You're a Sentinel, man. A living, breathing, honest-to-God Sentinel. And that's just fantastic! I've been looking for you for...I can't even tell you how long. And here you are, finally."
"What are you talking about? What the hell is a Sentinel?" Jim asked, getting edgy, not sharing Blair's enthusiasm.
"Don't get uptight, man. Let me explain. In all tribal cultures, every village had what was called a Sentinel, a watchman who patrolled the borders, looked out for the enemy, tracked game. The tribe's very survival depended on them."
"What's this got to do with me?"
"Sentinels were chosen because they had a genetic advantage, a sensory awareness that far surpassed that of other humans. These latent abilities usually came out in response to some kind of traumatic isolation in the wilderness."
"I was stranded in Peru for eighteen months. The other members of my team...they didn't make it. It was just me and the local tribe. I organized them, tried to finish the mission. I spent long stretches of time alone in the jungle, patrolling and doing reconnaissance."
"That must be when your senses were first triggered."
"I suppose that's possible. I can't really know for sure. Everything about my time in Peru is pretty fuzzy. I barely remember anything."
"Well, it certainly sounds traumatic, and repression of memory is a natural defense against psychological trauma."
"So you're saying that because I was out there in the jungle I turned into this...what'd you call it again?"
"A Sentinel. And no, it didn't turn you into one. It just awakened what had always been part of you. It helped you become what you were intended to be. A protector, a guardian, a watchman. A Sentinel. God, I can't believe I'm sitting here across the table from you, the living embodiment of all my work. What a head rush! You can't imagine."
Jim pushed back from the table and began to pace. "I don't really understand what you're so excited about. From what you've said, I'm some kind of freakish anomaly, a throwback, a veritable caveman, for God's sake. I'm not especially pleased by that prospect, I've got to tell you."
Blair stood up and walked over to him, grabbing his arms, trying to calm him. "No, man. You're looking at it all wrong. It's an amazing human potential that I'd really begun to believe had been lost from the gene pool. But it hasn't. You exist. You're a miracle."
"I don't feel like much of a miracle, Chief. I'm confused and out of control and in pain a lot of the time."
"I know, I know, Jim."
"I really don't know how this could be of any benefit to anyone. It doesn't make me an effective protector. In fact, it's a distraction and a liability."
"Only because you haven't learned how to use it, because you've been on your own with it. Ancient Sentinels had a partner, a Guide, someone to watch their backs, to help them use their senses more effectively, to bring them out of it when they zoned."
"What's a zone?"
"Do you ever get so caught up in one of your senses that you get lost in it, go into a kind of trance, lose time?"
Jim nodded. "Yeah. That's happened," he said, trying to minimize how often, not wanting Blair to worry about his ability to keep him safe.
"That's a zone out. It's basically sensory overload that disrupts your ability to attend to other things. As long as you have someone to bring you out of it, it's pretty harmless. But obviously, it can be really dangerous if you don't have somebody looking out for you."
"And I'm guessing you believe that you're this person...what did you call it again? The Guide?"
Blair smiled. "Now you're getting the picture. Think about it, man. What are the odds? My grandfather leaves me his company, the last person who ever had any interest in it. I come back to Cascade to take it over. Someone's trying to kill me so I need somebody to protect me. And there you are, a living, breathing Sentinel, the key to all my research."
"You're reaching, Blair. I'm probably not even one of these...these Sentinels of yours. I'm just a washed up ex-army captain trying to keep a roof over his head and food on the table. I'm hardly this guardian figure you're describing."
"Don't do that, Jim. I hate it when you sell yourself short. Think about your career choices. You went into the army, to protect and serve your country. Now you're a security consultant, looking out for people in trouble."
"No. Think about your feelings towards me, how instantly protective you were. You risked your life to save mine back at the hotel."
"That's my job."
"No, it's your purpose. Even without any help or anyone to understand what you were going through, you've still instinctively acted out your protector role. You are a Sentinel, Jim. I'm the foremost expert there is on this subject. I've read every source, every obscure reference, and I'm telling you that this is what's going on with you."
"Then how do I get rid of it?"
"Ah, man, don't say that. It's not a disease or a curse. It's who you are."
"Well, it's not who I want to be."
"That's because it's been painful and upsetting up to this point. But I'm here now. I can help you. We can work on your senses, help you get a handle on them, learn to use them to their best advantage, to help people, to do good."
"I don't know what to think about all this, Chief."
"I know, Jim. It must sound wacky, and you have no real reason to trust me. But that's what I'm asking you to do. Please. I need you to stay open to the possibility, to have some faith, to let me help you."
There was a light and hopeful place in Jim that wanted nothing more than to believe that finally there was an answer, help for his condition, a way out of the blinding pain and confusion. But the old, entrenched wariness could not be overthrown simply because of a single conversation, no matter how much his instincts screamed at him to trust Blair.
"Tell me this," Blair said. "Do you think I have any ulterior motive here? Do you think I would ever hurt you or lie to you or take advantage of you?"
He shook his head, with confidence. "No, Chief. I know you wouldn't."
"Then take the leap, Jim. Put your faith in me. Trust me to do what's right by you, to help you gain control of your senses."
Jim only had to consider a moment. "Okay, Chief. I can do that."
"Great!" Blair said, his whole face lighting up. He threw himself into Jim's arms, hugged him and kissed his cheek.
It took Jim a moment to remember he wasn't supposed to let himself enjoy it. "Chief"
Blair pulled back. "Yeah, yeah, I know. Not until after we catch this guy or guys or whoever. So let's get started, man, let's figure out who's doing this and bring them down. I want to get on with my life, with us."
"Just remember. We keep it professional until then. You'll help me with the Sentinel thing, and I'll protect you. But that's it."
Blair sighed, but finally gave in. "Okay."
"Good. Now I'm going to go get ready, and then we'll check out the situation over at Sandburg Enterprises. Make sure the premises are secure for the shareholders meeting. I don't want any surprises."
Blair nodded, and Jim headed for the bathroom.
"Yeah, Chief," he said, turning back to the younger man.
"I'm going along with this keeping it impersonal thing because you're the security expert and I believe you when you say it's necessary. But I need you to understand what this whole Sentinel and Guide things means. It means we're partners, man, in every sense of the word. It's how it's supposed to be. It's how I want it to be. And if you're really honest with yourself, it's how you want it to be, too. So when this is all over, we're going to need to do some serious talking about what we are to each other and where we go from here. Because there will be an us. That's the one thing that will never be up for discussion. I just want to make sure we're clear on that."
Jim stared at Blair, standing there with such determination, speaking with such passion, and words deserted him in the face of such overwhelming conviction. The best he could manage was to nod, understanding somewhere in the depths of his being that this young man had already become his life.
Not since he'd walked out of his father's house when he was eighteen years old, turning his back on that world, had Jim seen so many people who were so unapologetically rich all gathered together in one place. He glanced over at Blair who was fidgeting nervously at his side, his eyes wide and innocently hopeful, and Jim felt a sudden warm rush of solicitude for him. For a crazy second, he honestly contemplated taking him by the arm and dragging him out of there, before the piranhas could sink their vicious teeth into him. Perhaps he might even have done it if Blair wouldn't have misinterpreted it as a lack of confidence in his abilities, rather than the simple recognition that rich people were all the same and never to be trusted. He knew, even if Blair didn't, that these investors would tear him to shreds at the slightest provocation, without a second thought or even a pang of conscience, without disturbing the smiles on their artificially prettified faces.
He watched Blair curiously scanning the room, taking it all in, his face open and friendly. He quickly realized that such a warning would do no good anyway, that it was pointless to try to rescue Blair. The man insisted on seeing the best in everyone. He, himself, had been the beneficiary of that optimistic good will ever since they met. Jim would never convince him that his open-heartedness was wasted on these people, that they were too greedy and mean-spirited to appreciate it.
The investors meeting was already their second stop of the morning. Before that, they had gone down to the police station as they'd promised Captain Banks, to give their official statement about yesterday's shooting. Jim had met Rafe and Brown, the detectives who would be heading up the security detail. Despite his initial territorial reaction about protecting Blair, he was actually grateful to have backup, and the two men struck him as competent and reliable. They, along with several uniformed officers under their command, accompanied them to the investor's meeting and were now strategically stationed around the large conference room. Jim and all the police officers wore headsets, so they could stay in constant radio contact.
"Let's do a quick sweep," Jim said into his microphone.
"North entrance clear," Rafe said.
"West quadrant clear," one of the uniformed officers said.
"East quadrant clear," said another.
"South entrance clear," a third reported.
"The exterior hallway is clear," Brown said.
"Okay, everyone, the meeting's going to start in a few minutes," Jim told them. "Hold those positions. I'm going to stick with Mr. Sandburg."
"Copy," Rafe answered.
"Everything looks good," Jim told Blair. "You don't have anything to worry about while you're up there. "
"Except for fainting or having a heart attack," Blair said, trying to make a joke of it, but only managing a half-hearted little laugh.
Jim squeezed his shoulder. "You're gonna be great."
"I hope so," Blair said, nervously chewing his lower lip. "There's a lot riding on this, people's livelihoods, precious natural resources, the future of the company."
Jim smiled at him. "Don't you think you might be putting a little too much pressure on yourself, Chief?"
Blair sighed. "I know, I know, man. I get kind of overwrought sometimes. I know it doesn't help anything, but I can't"
"Well, if it isn't my dear cousin Blair," a woman's voice called out. "How've you been, cuz? Taking good care of yourself, I hope. We need our fearless leader in tip-top condition, you know."
Even if she hadn't called Blair her cousin, Jim would immediately have recognized the woman from his description of her. Marissa seemed to be about Blair's age, but without his sweet guilelessness. Instead, she was sleek and fashionable, her long blonde hair elegantly styled in a French twist, with curls framing her face to set off her blue eyes and high cheek bones to their best advantage. She wore a blue sweater, made of some soft looking material that molded to her figure in a strategic way that Jim realized was no accident. She was the kind of woman he recognized all too easily from his youth, when he'd moved in Cascade's social circlesall warm and disarming on the outside, made of something far harder and colder on the inside. He'd never liked women like that, not because of their hardness which he didn't begrudge them, but because of their constant and purposeful duplicity, always trying to seem like something they weren't to gain the upper hand.
"Marissa," Blair said, greeting his cousin, sounding more guarded than Jim had ever heard him.
"Elliot and Andrew were coming in just behind me. They should be here soon. We're all very eager to hear what you have to say, cuz."
"I'm sure you are," Blair said.
"Now, Blair, where are you manners? You haven't introduced me to your handsome friend here," Marissa chastised, clicking her tongue, turning to Jim with a warm spark of interest in her eyes.
"I'm Jim Ellison, ma'am, with Cascade Security. I'm in charge of Mr. Sandburg's protection," he said, offering his hand.
She shook it, her thumb caressing his knuckles, very lightly, just for a moment, a subtle tease. Jim smiled at her pleasantly, all the while thinking what a barracuda she must be.
"Mr. Ellison. It's so nice to meet you," she said and smiled luminously, with just enough of a practiced air that Jim could tell it was part of her repertoire, one of her many man-snares.
"Jim, please," he told her.
"And I do wish you'd call me Marissa."
"It would be an honor."
"Now, Jim, let me ask you. You don't really think my dear cousin is in any danger, do you? I mean, these little...incidents were upsetting, certainly, but I'm sure they were no more than accidents. I mean, who could possibly want to harm our darling Blair?"
"I couldn't say, Marissa. The police are investigating the accidents. I'm simply providing security."
"Ah, well, I thought I'd ask while I had the opportunity."
"I don't suppose you know anyone who might have a grudge against him?" Jim asked.
Marissa laughed. "Me? Not likely. I'm afraid Blair and I don't exactly run in the same circles."
"Well, if you happen to think of anything"
"You'll be the first to know, Jim," she promised. "Oh, here come Elliot and Andrew," she said and waved them over.
"Great," Blair muttered under his breath, too softly for anyone but a Sentinel to hear him.
The two Sandburg brothers bore a striking resemblance to one another, almost as if they were older and younger versions of the same person. Elliot looked exactly like what Blair had said he was, an amply paid corporate attorney with one of the slick, old money firms that had their mahogany paneled offices in the high rise buildings that dotted Cascade's skyline. He was impeccably dressed in a grey pinstripe suit that spoke of English tailoring. The younger Sandburg had the same prominent forehead and weak chin as his brother, but there was nothing even remotely serious about him. He had the carefree air of a play boy, a twenty year old trust fund baby living the high life. Neither one of the men seemed anything like Blair; they had none of his character. They didn't particularly remind him of their sister either; they had none of her grit.
"Marissa," Elliot said, kissing his sister on the cheek. "So good to see you."
"Elliot," she said and then turned to her other brother. "Andrew."
He also leaned forward and gave Marissa a quick peck on the cheek. The greetings among the siblings were stiff and perfunctory all the way around. They might disapprove of Blair, but they didn't seem particularly fond of one another either.
"Look who I ran into," Marissa said to her brothers. "Cousin Blair was just psyching himself up to address the troops."
Andrew laughed. "I hope you're prepared to be eaten alive, cuz. The least whiff of anything that might affect the stock price, and they'll tear your throat out."
"I'm afraid Andrew's right, Blair," Elliot agreed. "You really have no idea what you're getting yourself into, but it's not too late to let us advise you. We do have years of experience with the company which I really think you'd find useful. In fact, I'd be happy to handle the meeting for you today. I took the liberty of working up some notes, some ideas I had for the direction we could take in the next fiscal year, areas of profit that we haven't yet maximized. It would be no trouble for me to step in for you. I mean, we are family, after all. I'm only too glad to help out."
"That's such a heartwarming sentiment, Elliot," Blair said, not a little sarcastically. "And while I appreciate the offer, grandfather left controlling interest of the company to me. This is my responsibility, and I plan to see it through. Not to mention that I have my own ideas for the future of Sandburg Enterprises."
Andrew flushed angrily. "Grandfather left the company to you, because he completely lost whatever was left of his mind there at the end."
"Andrew!" Marissa reprimanded him.
"Oh, please. You know it's true. He talked endlessly about taking our profits and giving back to people who needed it. The man was delusional. Hell, he thought he was fucking Robin Hood."
"That's enough! You will not talk about Grandfather that way," Marissa insisted, sounding genuinely upset.
"I don't agree with Andrew's timing in bringing all this up again, but we all know that Grandfather was not the same man at the end of his life," Elliot said.
"He reconsidered some things," Marissa said, not yielding.
"Ris, his senility showed not just in the way he ran the company, but in many other ways, as well. I mean, he was always such an avid sportsman, a lifelong hunter, and suddenly he couldn't bear the thought of it anymore. He had the staff take down all his trophies. He got rid of his guns and wouldn't even eat meat or allow it to be served in his home," Elliot said.
"He said he regretted that he ever took a life," Marissa said.
"A lot of people get a broader sense of perspective at the end of their lives," Blair said.
"Yes, that's true," Marissa said.
"That may be, but Grandfather was a loon, plain and simple," Andrew said.
"He does seem to have lost touch with his reason in some regards," Elliot said.
"That's the understatement of the century. He left the company to Blair, for God's sake. If that's not proof positive of his insanity, I don't know what is."
"Well, unfortunately for you, Andrew, the probate court didn't share that opinion," Blair said, his voice cool and unruffled, even though Jim could hear his heart thundering in his chest.
"Why you" Andrew sputtered angrily.
Jim interrupted him, figuring Blair had probably endured enough of his family. "Mr. Sandburg, we really should really discuss a few last minute security issues. If you wouldn't mind?" he asked, putting a hand on Blair's shoulder.
"No, no. Of course not, Jim," he quickly agreed, and then said to his cousins, "If you'll excuse me."
"Good luck, Blair," Marissa said, without a lot of enthusiasm and then she turned to Jim. "I hope we can spend some time together later, get to know one another better," she said to him, her voice appreciably warmer.
"I'd enjoy that," Jim lied and steered Blair away from them.
He guided him to a quiet spot where hopefully Blair could have a moment of peace to collect his thoughts before his speech.
When they couldn't be overheard, Blair said, "Thanks for the save."
"So that's my family."
Jim shook his head. "And they're pretty much as you described them. Unfortunately."
"You didn't seem to mind Marissa so much," Blair said, and there was something in his voice that made Jim pause.
"What" he started to ask, but was interrupted by a group of suits descending on Blair.
"Sandburg! We've been looking all over for you," complained a fiftyish, ruddy complexioned man who stationed himself directly in their path, obviously with no intention of moving.
"What do you need, Brett?" Blair asked, and Jim realized this must be Brett Carney, the company's president.
"It seems your secretary screwed up. We didn't get an advanced copy of your presentation," said another man, younger, dark hair slicked back, eyes hard and watchful, a total corporate shark.
He looked like a lawyer to Jim, and he guessed this was Ted Johnson, the chief legal counsel.
"Actually, Ted, I don't have a secretary here in Cascade yet. The staff in the London office was kind enough to help me put my report together. I asked them just to give me the copies, and I'd bring them with me. I want people to hear what I have to say first, then I'll hand out my recommendations afterwards."
"What the hell? Listen, Sandburg" Carney started to bluster.
"I think what Brett is trying to say, Blair, is that it's customary to share your ideas with top management before you address the investors, just as a courtesy, so we'll be prepared for any questions the shareholders may ask us. It helps us present a unified front and keeps us from contradicting one another, so we don't give the investors any erroneous ideas about dissension among the officers of the corporation," the third man explained.
He appeared to be the youngest of the group, blonde and attractive in a boyish way. The guy smiled attentively at Blair and stood closer to him than Jim cared for.
"Well, I guess I can understand why that's a good idea," Blair acknowledged. "I'm sorry, Jay, I didn't realize that's the way it's done."
"We can hardly blame you for that," Jay said, sympathetically. "You are new to this, after all."
Jay Etris was another of the people Blair had named as not being especially happy that he'd taken over the company. The man seemed to have radically changed his position, now friendly and helpful. Jim could not have trusted him less.
"Hey, guys, I really am sorry" Blair started to say.
But Jay waved off the apology. "It's really not that big a deal, Blair. If you can get us copies of the report now, we can quickly look them over and get up to speed before the question and answer period begins."
"Oh, yeah. Sure. I have them right here," Blair said.
He slipped his backpack off his shoulder and laid it down on a nearby table to rummage through it. He pulled out a pile of spiral-bound reports and handed one to each of the three men.
"That's great," Jay said. "We'll review this while we listen to your remarks, and if any of the investors aim questions at us, we should be ready. Brett, Ted, I think we have what we need, don't you?"
Brett Carney still did not look happy. "Yes, yes. But next time, I'd appreciate not having my balls on the line at the eleventh hour. Advanced notice, Sandburg. We're busy men."
"Sure, sure, no problem. Now I know."
Jay smiled at Blair. "Good luck, Blair. I look forward to hearing your vision for our future."
"Thanks, man," Blair said, his face lighting up, looking relieved that at least one person associated with Sandburg Enterprises didn't wish him abject failure.
Jim had to resist the urge to snort out loud. In his opinion, this Etris guy was trying way too hard to make points with the new boss. These corporate sycophants are all alike. He thought with disgust. He refused to examine how the man's youth, blonde good looks and obvious successall things that Blair might easily find attractive, all things that he didn't possessmight have biased his opinion.
The three executives headed off to peruse the report. It was time to begin, and Blair was abuzz with kinetic energy. He bounced on the balls of his feet, swung his arms back and forth, fiddled with his hair, tugged on the bottom of his jacket. His expression reminded Jim of somebody about to face the firing squad.
Jim took him by the shoulders, turned him around to face him and looked him straight in the eye. "You can do this," he told him. "You know you can. You truly believe that what you're proposing is right. I could tell that just from our brief conversation in the truck the other day. Show these people the same enthusiasm you showed me. Be as persuasive with them as you were with the Customs people at the airport. Shareholders can't be any more difficult to reason with than government workers."
Blair smiled and said, "Thanks, man. I needed that."
His eyes sparkled with a number of emotions. Jim couldn't quite sort them all out, but he thought he saw gratitude and relief, along with something more charged, something he didn't have the luxury to explore as long as the danger was still out there.
Jim smiled back at him. "No problem, Chief. Now go show 'em who's boss."
Blair grinned and nodded, then climbed the few steps to the raised dais. He settled his notes onto the lectern and took a moment to scan the crowd. Everyone settled into their seats, eager to hear what this young, unusual new CEO had to say for himself, although most of them were motivated more by morbid curiosity than any expectation that they might actually agree with him.
Jim took up a strategic position to one side of the dais, no more than a step or two away from Blair. From there, he would see any unusual activity and be able stop it before anything could happen to his young charge.
"Good morning, everyone, and thank you for coming," Blair began, sounding a little nervous. "As most of you know, I'm Blair Sandburg, and for better or worse, my grandfather has left me in charge of Sandburg Enterprises. I know that this is not what any of you were expecting. To be honest, it was not what I was expecting either. But for whatever reason, my grandfather believed I was the right person for the job, so I intend to honor that trust and do the best I can to make Sandburg Enterprises not only profitable, but a company we can all be proud of."
Jim could hear Andrew, who was sitting in the first row, whisper to Elliot, "He sounds like he's running for class president."
Elliot snickered. Jim glared at them both, and the younger Sandburg stared back with impudent bravado. But they did both fall silent.
By this point though, Blair had begun to hit his stride, and he didn't let their rudeness disrupt his presentation. "As Bob Dylan wrote: The times they are a-changin'. And Sandburg Enterprises must also change. We are facing an increasingly altered and even difficult business climate. In the past, we and other large U.S. corporations have depended upon encountering virtually no resistance from the South American governments in whose countries we mine ore, cut timber and drill for oil. But these nations are beginning to discover the cost for granting such blanket permission to exploit their natural resources.
"They have discovered that it impoverishes, not enriches them. They have seen how it devastates the land on which they and their children and all their future generations must live. They have figured out that they don't need us, that they can mine their own ore and cut their own timber and drill their own oil. And keep the money in their own countries where it will actually benefit their people.
"Regulations on U.S. and European companies are growing increasingly stringent. The severe financial strain caused by the instability of the South American stock markets has only made the situation worse, made these governments even more hesitant to deal with us. If we don't want to be locked out of doing business in these countries completely, then business as usual must become a thing of the past."
Marissa interrupted Blair to say, "While I feel for the people of South America as much as anyone else does, the function of a corporation, its only function, is to create a profit, Blair. Your warm and fuzzy approach may be politically correct, but does it make good business sense?"
Voices murmured in agreement all around the room.
"I'm glad you brought that up, Marissa," Blair said. "It provides a nice segue for my next point. Although decency and profitability may often be at odds with one another, this happens to be one case in which they are not. In the packet of materials I'll be handing out at the end of my presentation, you'll find in-depth analyses of the individual South American markets by top economic and political experts, along with forecasts about changes in business practice in the region, trends in governmental regulation and recommendations for successful adaptation. I won't go into all the details, since you can read it for yourself. But I will tell you that the overwhelming theme is the necessity for companies to stop trying to strong-arm these governments and to start being respectful, reliable partners. Sandburg Enterprises is in the perfect position to assume this role, ahead of our competition, to our obvious business advantage."
"Like what?" a voice in the crowd wanted to know.
"Yes, tell us more about the advantages," someone else prompted.
"Obviously, the biggest benefit is that we'll be able to continue our operations in South America, business which makes up a substantial part of our annual revenues. If we position ourselves well with the various governments, we may actually be able to expand our enterprises down there, as we pick up business lost by other companies that are behind the times in their thinking on environmental and socio-political matters."
"But how much is all this going to cost?" Elliot asked. "It sounds terribly expensive. And expanding our operations isn't going to make us more profitable if it means that our costs go through the roof."
"There will be additional costs," Blair answered truthfully. "Of course, there will be. I wouldn't stand up here and tell you otherwise. And you wouldn't believe me if I did."
A low rumble of laughter spread through the room, and Jim could see nodding heads. Apparently, the investors appreciated Blair's candor.
"That's why we have to make sure to capitalize on the huge public relations value of this initiative. In your packets, you'll find summaries of focus group results that indicate consumers value the kind of corporate responsibility I'm advocating and that they are far more likely to give their business to companies that demonstrate it. Not only do we have the opportunity to expand our operations on the production side, but also to increase our market share significantly. The final appendix of the report shows long-term financial projections that put us way ahead of the competition at the end of five years. This really is one of those rare win-win situations in which the right thing is also the expedient thing. We can do business in a more ethical way and also be substantially more profitable. Now, if there are any questions, I'll be happy to try to answer them."
Blair surveyed the room for hands, and he looked so perfectly at ease that if Jim hadn't known better he would have believed he'd been preparing for this moment all his life. He was amazed by the authority with which the young man had spoken, his effortless use of business jargon, the complexity and thoroughness of his plans. But then Blair was a scholar. He must have studied this subject as carefully as he would a topic in anthropology.
An older woman dressed in a jaunty pink suit and hat stood and said, "I have a question, but it's for Mr. Carney. No slight intended to Mr. Sandburg, but I'm curious what the top management thinks of the plan."
Blair stepped to the side, and Carney mounted the platform to speak into the microphone. "While I think it would be premature to settle on any specific details of how to carry out this paradigm shift, I would say that from the materials I was able to review it does seem to be a sound strategy. In fact, I'm a little amazed that Mr. Sandburg was able to get to this information before our corporate research department."
"I have personal knowledge of South America," Blair explained. "I knew the right people to ask."
Brett Carney actually looked impressed. "So to answer your question, Mrs. Harrison," the president continued. "We're on board with the strategy. We'd like to do some additional research and then work with Mr. Sandburg to develop an action plan that will effectively implement it."
Carney looked to Blair, and he nodded, agreeing. The president relinquished the microphone and returned to his seat. Blair opened the floor to more questions, and Jim couldn't help smiling as he watched him handle them all deftly, not only beginning to win over the crowd, but actually to excite them about the company's future prospects.
Not long after the question and answer session began, Captain Banks slipped into the room and headed in his direction.
"Mr. Ellison," the captain said, extending his hand.
"Jim," he corrected and shook the man's hand.
"Simon," he said. "So how are things going, Jim? I had the mayor on the phone this morning, anxious to make sure nothing happens to Mr. Sandburg. I had to promise him I'd come down and check it out myself."
"Everything's going smoothly so far. No problems. You have a good team."
"Thank you. And yes, they are. Very good," Simon said and then turned his attention to Blair up at the podium. "The kid really knows how to handle himself. I wouldn't have guessed he'd make such a convincing CEO."
"That's pretty much what everybody in this room thought until Blair proved them wrong."
"You sound proud of him," Simon noted.
Jim knew that Simon wondered about his relationship with Blair. He decided to ignore the question he heard in the man's tone.
Simon tactfully changed the subject. "I went back over to the hotel this morning. Forensics was there last night after you left. But they didn't really find anything more than we did. Although I did get the ballistics report back this morning, and it was definitely a teflon-tipped bullet. We were also able to locate where the shooter was positioned. It was in an empty office in that high rise across the street."
"Did you find anything there?"
"I'm afraid not. Whoever it is knew what he was doing. It's pretty certain we're dealing with a professional here."
Jim shook his head. "That's what I was afraid of."
"Yeah. That's not good news for any of us. And to make it worse..." Simon hesitated.
"What?" Jim demanded. "I'm responsible for his safety. If there's something I should know, you have to tell me."
The indecision in Simon's face finally resolved itself. "The choice of weapon and ammunition suggests that the assassin is Klaus Zoeller."
Jim's heart froze with fear for Blair. "Oh, shit! Please tell me you don't mean the Ice Man, that Klaus Zoeller."
"So you've heard of him? I figured you might have in your line of work. And yes, I'm afraid it is that Klaus Zoeller, the one and only."
"I know. That was my first thought too. Are you going to tell him?"
Jim considered it and then shook his head. "No. It won't help anything. He's cooperating with me. I don't see the point in completely terrifying him. He already knows this is serious."
Simon nodded. "I can see your point," he said. "You know, there was something else I wanted to talk to you about."
"I had a chance to take a look at just how far it was from where the shooter was located to where Mr. Sandburg was standing. Once again, I was really amazed that you were able to get to him in time."
"Sometimes you just get lucky, I guess."
"Yeah. I suppose your instincts paid off, like you said yesterday. Of course, the problem with that story is that nobody's instincts are that good. It was just too far away. You know the first rule of police workthe obvious explanation is usually the right one. In this case, the obvious explanation would be that you were in on it. You pushed him out of the way because you changed your mind, or you saved him as part of a more elaborate setup."
Jim colored with outrage. "I wouldn't do that."
Simon watched Blair for a moment and then turned back to Jim, scrutinizing him. "No, I don't think you would, particularly not to Mr. Sandburg. I have the feeling this is one of those odd cases where it's the really unlikely explanation that's the truth."
Jim could feel the weight of the man's curiosity, but he made no answer, determined to protect his secret.
"Okay, so you're not going to let me in on how you did it. I suppose you learned to keep things to yourself back when you were in Covert Ops. I'll just have to keep trying to figure it out for myself then."
"You checked me out," Jim said.
Simon nodded. "The mayor has taken a personal interest in this. I had to know in whose hands I was leaving Mr. Sandburg's safety. Anyway, if everything's fine here, then I need to be going. Oh, I almost forgot. Would you give this to him?" Simon asked, taking out a pink slip of paper from his pocket and handing it to him. "It's a phone message. The hotel turned it over to us during our investigation. But it doesn't seem to have any bearing on the case."
"Sure," Jim said. "I'll make sure he gets it."
"Thanks. Take good care of him."
"That's my plan."
"I'll check in with you later just to see how things are going."
Jim nodded, and Simon headed for the exit, after checking in with his men. Jim tried not to seethe over the idea that Simon or anyone could think he'd sell out a client, especially someone like Blair. He had to force himself to refocus and keep his attention where it belonged, on the man he was guarding.
Eventually, Blair signaled that he needed a break, his voice beginning to sound scratchy, and the meeting adjourned for lunch. The young man bounded down from the dais and rejoined Jim.
"Was that Captain Banks I saw?" he asked.
"Yeah, he just wanted to check up on things. The mayor was concerned about your safety."
Blair rolled his eyes. "Three months ago, he could have run over me with his car, and his only concern would have been whether I was going to sue."
"You're a big shot now, Chief."
Blair snorted derisively.
"Anyway," Jim said. "Captain Banks brought you this phone message. It must have come in for you after we left last night. They gave it to him, but he doesn't need it for the investigation."
Blair took the pink slip of paper and read it. "Ah, shit! It's from the professor I was supposed to deliver the artifacts to. In all the excitement yesterday, I completely forgot about that. Maybe we can drop by the U. and take care of it tonight?"
"Sure, Blair, anything you need, let me know. I just don't want you going anywhere alone. Simon also wanted me to tell you how well he thought you handled the questions. And he was right. You were great up there. If I owned shares in this company, I'd be thrilled to have you in charge."
Blair smiled so broadly, so sweetly, with such obvious pleasure that it made Jim want to pay him a hundred more compliments.
"You really think so?" Blair asked.
"Absolutely," Jim said, throwing an arm around his shoulder, giving him a little half hug. He figured it almost qualified as a professional thing to do, since he was trying to encourage Blair about the job he was doing.
"Could we get some lunch?" Blair asked. "I'm a little wiped out from all the grilling."
"Sure. I think they're serving sandwiches and salads and stuff."
"Would it be okay if we took off for a while and had lunch somewhere else? I really need to get away for a little bit."
"Of course, Blair. It's probably a good idea to kick back after all the pressure this morning. Where would you like to"
"Well, cuz, when I'm wrong, I say so," Marissa said, interrupting them. "I have to admit that your plan seems much better thought out than I ever would have predicted. I guess I just expected you to be as flaky as your moth Well, anyway, your presentation was very thorough."
"So will you support the strategy?" Blair asked.
"I can't say just yet. I need to review the materials and give it some thought. But I am seriously considering it, and that's far more than I would have said this morning."
"Well, I suppose that's progress then."
Elliot had been standing a little apart from them, listening in, and he interjected, "I still have a lot of questions."
"Lay them on me, man," Blair said, his voice confident, even commanding, in answer to Elliot's challenging tone. "That's what I'm here for."
Andrew joined them as well, and he snorted disdainfully. "Oh, please. Like it really matters what we think or want. Blair's got controlling interest here, El. He can just cram this shit down our throats whether we like or not, no matter what the vote says."
"I have no intention of doing that, Andrew," Blair assured him.
"Yes, that is right," Blair said, punctuating his words, making it clear he wasn't going to take any shit. "Being a dictator is not my style. And while it's technically correct that I can do whatever I think is best, the practical truth is that I need investor support to make this or any strategy work. I need your support. I really hope you'll take a look at the proposal and consider it objectively. It does have merit. I guarantee that."
"Because we all know how concerned you are about the company," Andrew answered snidely, before turning his back and walking away.
"Don't mind him," Marissa said, waving her hand dismissively. "He can be a little hot-headed sometimes. He'll get over it."
"I'm going to review your report, Blair," Elliot told him. "And after lunch, I'm going to take you up on that offer to answer the questions I have."
"I look forward to it," Blair said, not backing down even a little.
Jim couldn't help feeling a warm glow of pride. The more he saw of this man the more amazed he was by him.
Marissa moved closer to Jim and linked her arm through his. "Now, Jim, why don't we spend a little time together and get to know one another better, the way we promised we would this morning?"
She practically fluttered her eyelashes at him, and Jim struggled to hide his amusement. He had to admit that Blair's cousin knew how to work it. She was looking at him as if he were the most fascinating person in the room, as if he were the only man in the world. He bet that ploy worked really well on straight men. And on men who weren't already hung up on somebody else. But then he had to chastize himself for letting that last thought slip in.
"There's nothing I'd enjoy more," he said, favoring her with one of his best smiles, pouring on the charm. He still felt that Marissa was his best shot at learning who in the Sandburg family might be trying to get rid of Blair, and he allowed her to lead him off to a quieter spot where they could speak more freely.
It was perhaps ten minutes into their conversation when he realized that Marissa didn't, in fact, know anything about the attempts on Blair's life. Every time he steered the conversation in that direction, she reacted with impatience and disappointment, but no anxiety, no alarm. He sighed heavily, not very pleased that he'd given up ten minutes of Blair's company for his cousin's self-involved prattle, only to realize it had been nothing more than a wild goose chase all along.
That's when it occurred to him that he'd promised to take Blair out to lunch, and he gave that as an excuse, making it sound like a professional obligation rather than the honest pleasure it was, successfully detaching himself from Marissa's clutches. But when he looked around for Blair, he couldn't find him. Jim scanned the room frantically, but there was no sign of him. He had never felt such sick terror in his life. For a moment, the shock of it knocked his senses off line, made him forget that he was a Sentinel or whatever Blair called it, that he could use his enhanced perception to track the young man. He was about to put out the alert to Brown, Rafe and the rest of the cops, when his senses somehow kicked back in and he heard it, like some kind of distant homing beacon.
It was Blair's heart beat, excited and elevated. In a sick flash, Jim feared the worse, that Zoeller had him.
He ran flat out in the direction of the sound, down several floors and along a darkened corridor that led to the executive offices. During the week, he was sure this area was bustling with activity, but now, on Saturday, it was silent and empty, the perfect place for a hit. He could hear Blair's pulse clearly and tracked it to one of the big corner offices. He pulled his gun and assessed the situation through the small sliver of space where the door stood ajar. What he saw made him freeze in his tracks.
Blair was looking through a telescope at the city scape and the Cascade mountains beyond. Jay Etris hovered behind him, leaning over his shoulder, guiding the lens. His mouth nearly brushed Blair's hair as he whispered huskily into his ear. And Blair's letting him. Hell, he's encouraging it. A white hot flash of rage shot through Jim. He charged into the room. Both men whirled around when he came crashing through the door.
"Jim? What" Blair started to ask.
But Jim ignored him, grabbed Etris by the arm and threw him up against the wall.
"Hey! What do you think you're" the outraged man started to ask.
"Shut up!" Jim ordered.
He quickly patted the guy down. He didn't find a gun or anything else suspicious, which was certainly a relief. When he finished, he released him.
"Are you quite through?" Etris asked, his face dark red with embarrassment and fury.
"Jay, I'm really sorry" Blair started to say.
But Jim wasn't remotely apologetic. He got in the man's face. "I'm in charge of Mr. Sandburg's safety. Bringing him to a part of the building that hasn't been cleared by his security team without informing us put him in very real danger. I won't tolerate that."
"Hey, I was just showing him the sights. Blair, could you please call off your neanderthal?"
"Jim! That's enough."
"Yes, it is," Jim agreed. "If you don't mind, I have some things to go over with my client. I'm sure you have business elsewhere."
"What?" Etris sputtered. "How dare you..."
"Jay, if you don't mind, I really do need to have a word with Jim," Blair said, a little pleadingly, trying to mollify him.
"Well," the other man said, giving in hesitantly. "If you're sure, Blair."
"Yeah, man. I'll catch up with you later. I just need a few minutes here."
Etris smiled, in a way that Jim didn't appreciate. "I'm going to hold you to that. See you in a bit."
When the man had gone, Jim shut the door and turned to Blair. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
"Me? What the hell is wrong with you?" Blair demanded.
"You want to know what's wrong with me? I'll tell you. I take my eyes off you for a minute and poof! You disappear. Do you have any idea what went through my head when I realized you were gone? And then I find you all the way over here in a deserted section of the building without a security escort with someone you yourself named as a potential suspect. Are you trying to get yourself killed? You're just lucky I showed up when I did."
Blair rolled his eyes. "Oh, yeah, Jim. I'm so fortunate. You really saved the day. Thanks to you, I'm not getting my cock sucked by an attractive Executive Vice President, because that's exactly where this was headed when you so rudely interrupted. Thanks man. I have so much to be grateful for."
Jim's face flushed red and hot. "Don't you think that
might be a little too close to sexual harassment, Chief?"
And then Blair turned red. "Not if he was offering, man."
"Oh, I see. Your first day on the job, and you're already taking advantage of the perks. I underestimated you, Sandburg. You fit into corporate America perfectly."
"That's it! I don't have to take this shit from you," Blair said and pushed past him, out the door and down the hall.
Jim took off after him, grabbed him by the arm and whirled him around. "We're not finished here."
"Like fucking hell we're not."
"We're going to go over safety procedures until you get it through you thick skull that this is serious," he said, shaking Blair, harder than he intended, both angry and scared, not a good combination for him.
"I'm surprised you even have time to spare for me. What? Are you just pissed off that I pulled you away from Marissa, that you didn't get to have a little quicky in one of the conference rooms? Don't worry, man. I'm sure you can make a plan to meet her later and fuck to your heart's content."
"Shut up! You have no idea what you're talking about."
"Do too. And make me."
It was a petulant challenge, like something between school kids, but it pushed Jim over the edge anyway. Seeing Blair with Jay Etris, the way he'd let the man practically inhale him, hadn't exactly left Jim at his level best. He hooked his hand beneath Blair's elbow, dragged him into a nearby office and slammed the door behind them.
All his carefully reasoned determination to keep it professional fell by the wayside. Everything between them was completely personal and always would be; he'd been a fool not to see that before. He pulled Blair roughly against him and kissed him, forcing his lips apart, practically consuming him. If Blair had struggled, Jim wasn't sure he would have let him go, but Blair wasn't fighting. At least, he wasn't trying to pull away. He was kissing back frantically, biting Jim's lips, shoving his tongue as far as he could down Jim's throat, half out of anger and half out of desire.
Jim finally broke the kiss. "I don't want his hands on you. I don't want anyone else's hands on you ever again," he said, sounding like a possessive lunatic, even to himself.
Blair flushed angrily. "That's just rich, man, when you've spent all day trying to get your hands down my cousin's skirt. And for your information, I'll do whatever I damned well pleased, with anybody I choose."
Jim growled in the back of his throat. "Like hell you will."
He spun Blair around and pushed him against the wall. He quickly undid the young man's belt, unzipped his jeans and yanked them down, along with his boxers. He kicked at Blair's feet to get him to spread his legs and opened his own fly, taking out his already hard cock.
Again, he wasn't sure what he would have done if Blair had resisted. He couldn't bear the thought that he would have forced him, but as lost as he was in the desperate fog of need and anger, he couldn't be sure.
Fortunately, Blair only encouraged him, saying, "Yeah, Jim. Do it. Come on. You know you want my ass. Take it. Show me you want me."
Jim sucked on his fingers, wetting them. Then he parted Blair's cheeks, and shoved two fingers into his hot, sweet body, giving him exactly what he asked for. Blair hissed through his teeth, and Jim almost pulled back, afraid for a moment that he'd been too rough, that he'd hurt him.
But then Blair said, "Oh, God, yeah. There. There, Jim. Touch me there."
He moved his fingers, stroking the spot inside his lover's body that drove him so wild. Blair sucked in his breath and trembled all over.
"Please, Jim. Do me. Do me now."
Jim withdrew his fingers and looked around the room for something he could use for lubrication. Luckily, there was a bottle of hand lotion sitting conveniently on the desk. He pumped a good amount into his palm and liberally coated his cock. He braced Blair's hips and entered him in a single stroke.
"Oh, God, yeah. Fuck me, Jim. Show me who's boss. Give it to me, man."
It was the most amazing thing he'd ever experienced to be inside Blair, and it wasn't simply a matter of how hot and tight Blair's ass felt surrounding his cock. He could sense Blair's heart pounding, the blood rushing through his veins, all the other rhythms and motions of his body, as if they were one being, sharing one life force. Jim moved inside him in long, deliberate strokes, angling for the sweet spot, urged on by every one of Blair's little whimpered cries of pleasure.
Blair pushed back against Jim's cock and begged, "Fuck me. Yeah, Jim, yeah. Fuck me hard."
He reached around Blair's body and began to fist his cock, working him vigorously. He knew he couldn't last much longer, and he wanted Blair to come with him. He pressed his chest to Blair's back and nuzzled his neck. He could feel the pulse fluttering in the large artery beneath his lips.
Blair arched his neck and invited him. "Show me who I belong to," he said, his voice slurred and feverish.
Jim moved his hair out of the way and pulled his shirt back, choosing a place the collar would hide, so Blair wouldn't have to explain getting a hickey while in the middle of conducting a business meeting. He bit down hard on the sweet, tender skin at the base of his throat, jerking Blair's cock more urgently. Blair came in his hand with a half-strangled scream. It was the most heavenly sensation he could ever have imagined, the way that sweet, clenching muscle felt around his cock, how it pulled the orgasm right out of him. He came in waves, filling his lover with his hot seed. When it was over, he sank heavily against Blair's back, which was rising and falling with his lover's breathless panting. Blair rested his forehead against the wall, and the small muscles in his hands jerked with the last spasms of his pleasure.
"God, you make me crazy," Jim whispered against the back of his neck.
When he could find the strength, he took his weight off Blair and gently withdrew from his body. He grabbed some tissues from the box sitting on the desk, glad they'd happened upon a woman's office for their indiscretion. He cleaned himself, Blair and the wall. They both reassembled their clothing.
"Look, Chief, I'm really sor" he started to say.
Blair smiled. "You know how you weren't allowed to apologize for saving my life? Well, I don't think you're allowed to be sorry for giving me the orgasm of a lifetime either."
"I'm clean. I just want you to know that. I get tested, and it's always been negative. Plus, it's really been a while since... You're the first in a long time."
"I'm clean too, man. My mom started giving me the speech about condoms when I was in grade school. I've always been completely careful. At least up until now."
"I didn't hurt you, did I?"
"Nah. You've just given me something to remember when I sit down today."
"I am sorry I lost control like that. I don't know what the hell's wrong with me. But we can't keep doing this, Chief."
Blair looked at him speculatively. "I don't really think that's an option, man. Do you? I mean, how long did the impersonal thing last? Half a day?"
"You never give up, do you, Chief?"
"Not when it's something important. I already told you that."
Jim sighed. "Let's at least try to keep it zipped up until the meeting's over."
"Fine by me, man. I'm not the one who dragged me in here and fucked my brains out."
Jim began to get exasperated. "I wouldn't have if you hadn't been letting that Etris guy paw all over you."
Blair crossed his arms over his chest. "And I would never even have given him the time of day if you hadn't been drooling all over my cousin. Look, man, can we argue about this later? We should really go back to the meeting. They're probably looking for us."
Blair turned and started for the door, but Jim caught his arm and pulled him back. He kissed him soundly.
"Chief, I was only playing up to Marissa, because she seemed like the best bet for getting information out of your family. For the record, you're the only Sandburg I have any interest in. The only thing I wanted from your cousin was help figuring out who's trying to hurt you."
Blair blinked in surprise. "But it really seemed like..."
"I may not be completely free to act on my feelings for you while I'm responsible for your safety, but that doesn't mean I don't, in fact, have feelings for you. I would never purposefully hurt you, and I certainly wouldn't take up with someone who goes out of her way to be unkind to you."
"Thanks, Jim," Blair said, in a small voice, sounding surprised and young and way too vulnerable. Jim had to wonder how badly hurt Blair had been in the past. He knew it couldn't have been easy growing up in a family like that, with people who treated him so callously, who made it plain they considered him an outsider.
Jim kissed him again. "So, Chief, you ready to go back out there and face the barracudas again?"
Blair smiled. "As ready as I'll ever be."
He took Blair by the hand and led him out of the office.
"Jim?" Blair said.
"I knew Jay was only playing up to the boss, that it didn't have anything to do with me as a person. I just went along with it because I wanted you to be as jealous as I was."
"Well, Chief, congratulations. Your plan was a complete success."
They both laughed, and Jim couldn't help noticing that Blair seemed pleased with his victory.
"Hey, man, how'd you find me anyway?" Blair thought to ask.
"I tracked your heart beat."
Blair stared at him, stunned. "That's amazing! So how far away were you when you first heard it? And how did you know it was my heart beat? And"
"Yeah, yeah, okay. Later. But this is another one of those things I'm not going to forget. I want to hear all about it, every detail, man. It's just so cool, Jim. I can't even begin to tell you how exciting this is. It's like a researcher's dream come true."
Jim shook his head and wondered if Blair's intense need to know and understand ever took a break. He thought it probably didn't, and he should just make his peace with being questioned within an inch of his life as long as the young man was with him. Normally, he guarded his privacy tenaciously, but in this case, a little self-disclosure seemed a small price to pay for this man's company, to have such an amazing person in his life.
He walked Blair back to the board room and hoped people wouldn't wonder why the two of them practically reeked of rose scented hand lotion.