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Jack took a deep breath. He hated his job.
Well, not exactly his whole job, just the pomp and circumstance that came with it. Far away from the official engagements, he actually adored it. He did what he had always longed to do, ever since he was a child. He did what his father had always done, and as soon as he was in high school, he knew he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and become a diplomat. Thanks to the fact that he grew up all over the world, he spoke quite a few languages, and he was learning another one now that he was in a new country. All his life he had wanted this, and now he had it.
Only tonight was one of the nights when he hated what he did. Because he was helping his President host a banquet in honor of his visit, he was dressed to the nines in an Armani suit that was especially cut for him and a designer shirt underneath with gold cufflinks that Maria, his wife of more than fifteen years, was helping him fasten.
"Will you just ... hold still for one second?" She wasn't smiling when she asked. He figured she was as nervous as he was, if not more so. When it came to banquets, he was the host in name of the President, but all eyes were invariably pointed towards 'the wife' because it was understood she always made all the practical arrangements. He smiled as he realized how lucky he was to have her.
Maria was also the child of career diplomats with an upbringing similar to his own.
The reason why he had gotten his first ambassador posting before the age of forty was undoubtedly in large part thanks to the fact that she was an impeccable organizer. Tonight would be no different. She had arranged a banquet for 112dignitaries with a five course meal and speeches, and it would all flow together seamlessly, no doubt. He would get all the compliments tonight, not in the least about his wife's radiant beauty. And a beauty she was, her medium length blond hair pulled back and pinned up with the diamond hair pin he had bought her in Antwerp for the wedding anniversary they had just celebrated, her slim body and delicate breasts enrobed in an elegant burgundy red strapless dress that flowed over her body as if it was molded onto her and made her smooth lily-white skin stand out. As she reached up to brush some stray hairs off his shoulders, he rested his hands on her waist and leaned in to whisper in her ear. "You look absolutely eye-poppingly gorgeous tonight. You'll knock 'em dead out there." Maria just smiled her knowing smile. She was more than aware of the heads she would turn this evening.
One of the Secret Service men stuck his head inside the room. "Mr. Christensen, Ma'am, POTUS is ready to go inside."
They both knew the jargon. POTUS was the name used for the President of the United States. They would need to be by his side as he walked in.
While Maria straightened his tie one more time, he leaned in to give her a quick kiss on the mouth.
"Oh, Jack." She ran her finger over his lip to erase the tiniest red mark her lipstick had left. Jack could see the worry lines on her forehead.
"Just smile, Maire, you look much nicer when you smile."
This was their little ritual before these occasions; their own way of getting ready to face their guests. Maria loved it when Jack called her by her nickname, which was the Irish version of her Christian name. Her father had called her that and after his death, Jack had adopted the practice. It would inevitably make her relax, a shy but warm smile appearing on her face.
Jack took her hand as they headed towards the next room where they would join their President.
As Ambassador, Jack Christensen was the representative of his Head of State in the country he was assigned to. That didn't mean he always agreed with the man, it just meant he had to pretend he did. So he was not exactly a member of the current President's fan club. In fact, he had always been a fairly eloquent Democrat, so he was quite surprised when he was appointed to replace the Ambassador to Belgium who was retiring.
Even though a large part of his job was to translate his President's policies for that country, the assignment excited him. This was a small country indeed, but a well trusted one. Not to mention it was interesting diplomatically, since its capital housed not only the Headquarters of NATO, but also the seat of the European Commission, and was considered the de facto capital of the European Union. The north of Belgium also housed a major international seaport that was often used by the United States for military transport, making it an ally to be pampered.
On the other hand, Belgium was known to be a headstrong country that did not follow the pack blindly. On more than one occasion, the former Ambassador had needed to smooth out wrinkles in the transatlantic relationship, so Jack knew he had his work cut out for him.
Tonight had been his baptism of fire. He hadn't even had the occasion to officially present his credentials to King Albert II yet, as was the custom for new ambassadors, and now his President was visiting and he had a house full of government officials and Secret Service personnel.
The visit would last three days, and Jack knew that with all the receptions and banquets it was going to be the longest three days of his life.
The banquet went by perfectly, even though the United Kingdom's Ambassador went home early with a bad case of the flu. At least that would be the official explanation. Just after the main course, Maria had noticed he was rather inebriated, and after she alerted Jack to this, he was discretely removed and sent home in his chauffeur driven car.
Since the President and First Lady were guests at the Embassy, Jack and Maria were required to stay in the private quarters of the Embassy instead of going to their home just outside the city.
"Tonight was perfect." Jack was in his pajama bottoms, leaning against the doorway watching Maria take off her make-up. He knew she would understand that as 'thank you for a great job'.
She rolled her eyes. "We came close to a small diplomatic incident, though. Luckily, our Brit didn't object too much to being sent home."
Jack moved behind her and rested his hands on her slender hips. "Judging from his reaction, his assistant wasn't surprised." He was watching her elegant figure in the large bathroom mirror.
As they had greeted their guests before the banquet he had seen quite a few men's eyes travel across his wife's body. Some of them had even looked at her lustfully, not bothering to hide it while he was talking to them. So why had she never conjured up those feelings in him? He loved her, of course. She was beautiful, that he could see too, but he had never felt the uncontrollable need to just have his way with her on the top of the table. Even in the beginning of their relationship, making love had been tender and caring, but rarely unashamedly passionate.
He kissed her neck tenderly. Luckily they were great friends. "It's going to be a long day tomorrow as well, starting bright and early with a private breakfast with our honored guests."
She turned around and brushed her finger along his jaw. "Yes, we'd better turn in."
The following evening there would be a reception where the Americans living in Belgium would not only get a chance to meet their President, but also their new Ambassador. Even though it was a much more relaxed affair compared to the banquet, Jack and Maria would have to make their rounds and shake a lot of hands, leaving very little chance to actually have a decent conversation with anyone.
Jack was talking to a Presbyterian minister and his wife who had lived in Belgium for more than twenty years. As always, he had one eye on the entrance where the guests where greeted by his Protocol Officer. Just as Jack politely declined the minister's dinner invitation, his eye was caught by a young man entering. He was tall, dressed all in black, and instead of a tie he had on a black silk cravat, wrapped loosely around his neck. His hair was long and wavy, and Jack realized that he was probably the only one in the entire room who could get away with that look and not seem underdressed for the occasion. On his arm was a beautiful, fresh looking young blond woman, who smiled nervously and clung to him like wrapping paper.
"Oh, but you and your lovely wife must come to our church, Mr. Christensen. Antwerp is just a forty-five minute drive, you know," he vaguely heard the older woman say.
As if emerging from a daze, he excused himself, "Mr. and Mrs.... Wallace, I'm sorry but I need to attend to a minor emergency." He quickly made his way through one of the side doors.
Just seconds later Maria entered as well. "I almost felt like I should come and rescue you."
"I saw your eyes glaze over. She is a little pushy, isn't she? Now let's go back in before our guests start to wonder why the new Ambassador and his wife disappeared together."
She smiled as she gently nudged Jack back into the room.
Both the President and the First Lady, closely watched by the Secret Service, worked the room like consummate professionals, trying to cover as much ground as possible in the shortest time. Jack and Maria were well experienced in doing the same, but as he emerged, Jack realized he was scanning the crowd for the dark haired young man. Even though the reception was at its height, he quickly found him and his twinkling companion, animatedly talking to the First Lady, who was clearly very taken by the confident young man. Jack could tell he was in no way fazed by the First Lady's notoriety and seemed totally at ease, something Jack had never achieved in all his years in the diplomatic corps. Just as he was ready to make his way over to him, sensing the First Lady was ready to move on, he was engaged by an older businessman, a newcomer to this country and clearly eager to meet his Ambassador. They exchanged courtesies, but Jack was relieved when another older couple joined in the conversation, giving him a chance to take his leave.
A fairly low, confident and very British voice made him turn around, and he found himself looking into the most beautiful chocolate brown eyes he had ever seen. There was a moment of awkward silence between them that seemed to last forever. Jack knew he had to respond, but his mind was an absolute blank.
"You Excellency, my name is Lucas Carlton, Assistant Information Management Officer for The Right Honourable Marcus Boyles, and this is my fiancée, Lucy Marsh." He indicated the young woman who disentangled her arm to shake his hand. "Nice to meet you, sir."
Glad for the forwardness of the young man, he first shook her hand, then his. Lucas's grip was firm and his hand soft and dry. The familiar protocol helped Jack recover somewhat. "Ah, yes, our esteemed U.K. Ambassador. How is he feeling today?" They exchanged knowing looks.
"Still a little uncomfortable, but nothing that can't be remedied," the young man responded with a conspiratorial smile.
Jack had a hard time breaking eye contact with Lucas, but it was only polite to address the young woman as well. "Miss Marsh, you are American, I believe?"
Lucy smiled at him, clearly ill at ease. "Yes, from Boston."
"And you decided only a Brit was good enough?" As soon as the words left his mouth, Jack wished he could take them back. That was awfully forward as a conversation starter.
Lucy smiled, a little unsure of how exactly she was to respond, but Lucas rescued her. "We met at Stanford, where I was studying International Relations. She made a foreigner feel very welcome." He smiled at her reassuringly.
"Was it you I spoke to last night?" Jack asked Lucas, relieving Lucy of being the center of attention.
Lucas raised his eyebrows. "Ah, yes, we were expecting a call, so I stayed to co-ordinate. His Excellency was ... 'ill' already when he was dropped off, but he was determined to attend. I could only hope that you or your wife would save him from embarrassment, as you so kindly did."
The understanding glances between Lucas and Jack were totally lost on Lucy, who clearly didn't have a clue that the U.K. ambassador was not really sick.
"Well, we won't keep you much longer, your Excellency. I simply wanted to introduce myself, since the U.S. and the U.K. have always been close allies, and I expect we will be meeting again very soon. My boss has informed me I will become his liaison officer with your Embassy since I have strong interests in that area anyway."
Jack expected Lucas to look at his girlfriend to acknowledge exactly where those interests were situated, but he did not, instead captivating Jack with his gaze for what seemed like forever.
Lucas finally nodded as he took a step back and guided Lucy further into the room.
Jack sighed, releasing a breath he'd apparently been holding. He then took a few deep breaths, trying to calm down his racing heart.
It wasn't until later that night, when he was alone in the bathroom of his private quarters in the Embassy, that he had a chance to think it over. What was it that made Lucas so special? Why had this young man awakened feelings he had buried long ago? He let his head fall into his hands and tried to ban the thoughts that kept creeping into his mind when he thought of the young Brit, of his chocolate brown eyes and his radiant smile, of his firm handshake that went straight to his groin.
He got up and threw some cold water on his face while he looked at himself in the mirror. Forget it Jack, he's got a girlfriend and you have a wife. You're both successful heterosexual men. It's pointless to let your pecker take over.
After drying his face, he walked into the dark bedroom, trying not to wake up Maria.
"You don't have to sneak around," he heard her say, just before he slid under the blankets. She wrapped herself around him as he lay down on his back and rested her head on his shoulder. "Well, you seem to be happy to see me."
One of Jack's functions was to coordinate his staff and make them work to their full potential so they could be of service to the Americans that lived in Belgium, but an Embassy was more than that. Jack and his staff were considered 'legitimate spies', since it was also their task to be informed of the policies and politics of their host country and be specifically alert to what that meant for America as a country and for the Americans living under their wing.
As with every new Ambassador, Jack had a lot to learn, and he knew by now that every country was different. His staff briefed him extensively about the communities and regions of this small country and the sensitivities that lay in the fact that not only the North and South spoke a different language, but that their culture was also quite disparate. Jack knew that speaking French would not be a problem for him, but when he was told in no uncertain terms and by his secretary, no less, that almost sixty percent of Belgians spoke Flemish, he asked her to arrange for him to learn the language. She was a no-nonsense Belgian woman in her early fifties, and the fact that he answered her rant with this request almost made her blush. Jack realized this had gained him her undying respect and he made a mental note never to assume everyone spoke French around there.
Home life had by now returned to normal and the Christensens were no longer required to live at the Embassy. A comfortable and spacious house was provided for them in Tervuren in the green belt around the capital. Maria was all too used to packing up, leaving, and settling down again in another part of the world without too much advanced notice and made it her personal goal to make each house still feel like home.
"You know Jack, we should ask that young Englishman with the American girlfriend to dinner one night." Maria was buttering a piece of toast in their kitchen.
Jack looked up from his newspaper. "Why?"
Maria gave him an 'I don't know how you've achieved what you have with that attitude' look. "He's charming! Even the First Lady couldn't stop talking about him after they met at the reception and they spoke for ... what? All of three minutes? I just figured he's an up and coming guy and his girlfriend could use a little help."
Jack raised his eyebrows.
"I mean she's a nice enough girl, but if she ever wants a chance at helping her future husband's career, she's going to need to be educated a bit. Did you know this is her first time outside of the States?" Maria was hugging a cup of coffee by now, settling down next to Jack, and stealing the New York Times from his stack of different newspapers.
"Well, he did tell me he was going to be the liaison officer to our Embassy, so maybe we should get better acquainted. Mind you, we will be talking shop all night, so it may get a bit boring for you girls," Jack answered without looking at his wife.
Maria rolled up her Times and playfully flogged him with it. "Well, I'm sure 'us girls' can retreat upstairs and paint our toenails while the men do business."
Jack looked up and realized he'd just offended his well-educated wife.
Later that morning, Jack's secretary stuck her head inside his office as he reviewed the new financial sanctions the Belgians had imposed an all non-EU imports.
"Mr. Christensen, security has Mr. Lucas Carlton downstairs. He's the liaison from the..."
"I know who he is, Mrs. Claessens, just send him on through and..." he called her back just before she left, "...arrange with security to let him through next time? He's C.D. like the rest of us, just U.K. instead of U.S."
She nodded as she closed the door again to relay her boss's request.
Just minutes later Lucas strolled confidently into Jack's office, a small folder under his arm, wearing virtually the same clothes as Jack had seen him in at the reception. The ever present smile on his face, he leaned over the impressive oak desk littered with papers to shake Jack's hand.
"Mr. Christensen, I'm glad..." Lucas stopped mid-sentence as Jack raised his hand.
"Please, call me Jack. If we are going to have to work together on everything that concerns both our countries, then you are going to drive me crazy with all that 'Mister'ing, so just ... Jack."
Lucas smiled broadly. "Okay, Jack. But it was still nice of you to see me without an appointment. I'm usually better at sticking to protocol, but I wanted some fresh air and these papers needed to be delivered, so..."
"So you walked from your Embassy to mine? With..." Jack quickly leafed through the folder, "...three pages on the U.K.'s view on the import sanctions?" He realized he was amused by this as he watched the young man loosen his scarf while not quite settling in one of the chairs across from him.
"It's only about a five minute walk and like I said, I needed the air. Taking a car would have been utterly useless." His voice trailed off as he admired the rather opulent decoration of the office.
"So how's old Boyles?" Jack asked, understanding that the young man wasn't going to indulge him with a straight answer.
Lucas was still looking around at the intricately carved borders near the ceiling, giving Jack the chance to stare at the young man. "He's had a bit of a ... relapse, so we're expecting that he'll go home to England for an extended ... rest, pretty soon."
Jack chuckled. He had met the U.K. Ambassador only once and they had taken an instant dislike to one another. The man was notoriously inept at keeping his alcohol consumption to an acceptable level and always managed to insult a few people before he needed to be escorted out. Not Jack's favorite kind of diplomat.
"Can I get you anything to drink? Since you walked ... I thought you might be thirsty," Jack asked a little hesitantly and not quite at ease.
Lucas jumped up. "Why don't I get us something? Tea, coffee, water?"
"Lucas, sit down, you're my guest here, Mrs. Claessens will get us something."
The young man turned around. "What's her first name?"
"Your secretary," Lucas answered, stating the obvious.
"Oh, ehm ... Gurdy or something. Something I can't quite pronounce, it seems." Jack watched the young man chuckle and walk out the door like he owned the place. As he looked down at his papers again he realized he couldn't focus. He decided that working with this bubbly Englishman was going to prove more difficult than he thought, because looking at him sitting across from his desk made him think of lots of things, none of them even remotely connected with work, and those thoughts made him uneasy. So he started clearing up, putting papers in neat little stacks, trying to keep his mind on placing them in the correct order and...
"It's Gertje." Lucas pronounced it carefully, Jack hearing at least three sounds that were unfamiliar to him, "but she says it's okay for her to be called Mrs. Claessens. That way you don't make a fool of yourself, and it shows a healthy respect."
Jack hadn't even heard him enter the room again.
"I can't believe she said that," Jack rebutted with a smile, trying to hide his unease behind a little humor.
Lucas set the two cups down on the table and raised his hands in surrender. "I don't know you well enough to lie to you yet, besides, what do I gain? She's a feisty lady, and she told me you want to take Flemish lessons, so I told her I'd take you where I go for Dutch class. Then she kissed me and I always want to be at least on a first name basis with the people I kiss."
"You were gone ... two, three minutes? And you talked about all that?" Jack was quite amazed.
Lucas nodded as he sat down and took a sip of his cup of tea. "Oh, and she's a cat person."
Jack chuckled. "No, I'm sorry I don't believe you."
"Seriously," Lucas answered, clearly not easily put off. "You should get your own coffee more often. There's a picture of her and two tabbies in the little nook where the coffee maker is and her paperweight is a Siamese." He pointed his cup at Jack. "Now drink your coffee, because she doesn't seem to me like the kind of woman who would like her boss to waste a perfectly good cup of coffee."
Jack couldn't help but smile as he reached over his desk for the steaming cup, sat down again, purposely not looking up at Lucas, and took a sip. "I suppose she told you how I like my coffee too?"
Lucas shook his head as he swallowed some clearly still hot tea. "No, she actually poured it for me. Wouldn't let me do it. She's very protective of you, you know. Says you're the best boss she's had so far."
"Smart woman," Jack murmured as he thought how totally irresistible Lucas was. They continued to drink their beverages, making small talk about the importance of learning the local language as part of their job, and Jack relaxed as he enjoyed the effortless conversation.
"Well, I better leave," Lucas stated suddenly, as he got up. "They may start wondering where I am pretty soon, and since I haven't told them I'm liaising with my American Ambassador ... Well, they're clueless ... in more ways than one."
After Lucas was gone, Jack let himself sit back in his chair, still a little dazed by the whirlwind visit. My American Ambassador. He shrugged. MY American Ambassador? You're going nuts, Christensen. And reading things into someone's words that aren't there. It's just a manner of speech. Still he felt like he had just been made a pass at, like the beautiful Brit had just laid himself wide open to him. Take me, I'm yours.
Jack shook his head. You're married and he's almost married. Get your mind out of your pants. Oh God, and he had to invite him over for dinner.
"Mrs. Claessens? Can you get Lucas Carlton on the phone for me, please? U.K. Emba ... Yes, I know he just left. No rush, just sometime today please?" He put down the phone and glanced at the clock. Mrs. Claessens was right. There was no way Lucas could have made it back to his desk yet. The young man was surely getting to him.