ADAM CHALLONER wasn’t a big fan of public speaking. He wasn’t phobic about it, exactly, but it sure wasn’t something he looked forward to. And now, with most of the continent huddled around their comms waiting to hear his words, with the room full of anxious partisans betting their lives on his ability to lead the way….
He looked across the desk, past the camera operators and the bright lights, past the holoprompter, the director, the crowd of familiar and unfamiliar faces, and he saw Remy. The man was standing just inside the doorway, off to the side, and he should have been unnoticeable. He was clearly trying to be unnoticeable, as if he was afraid someone was going to come along, realize that he shouldn’t be there, and kick him out. But there was no way, ever, that Adam would be able to overlook Remy. Adam smiled, and Remy actually turned and looked behind himself before tentatively returning the expression. Adam gestured with his hand. Come closer.
Remy frowned in disbelief, pointed his chin at the crowd of observers, and shook his head emphatically. Adam had seen Remy stride with total confidence through rooms full of VIPs while he was wearing nothing but body paint and a few strategically placed feathers, and he was being shy now? It made no sense. Adam caught himself. It almost certainly made sense, to Remy. Adam just needed to figure out what Remy was thinking, and then he could do something about it.
“We’re ready for you, Mr. Challoner,” the director’s assistant said with an encouraging, vaguely flirtatious smile.
Adam tried to drag his mind back to the business at hand. He couldn’t be thinking about Remy all the time, not with so many people depending on him. He forced himself to look at the holoprompter, read over the first few words, and then nodded to the director. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s go.”
“Quiet, please,” the assistant said, and the room fell into silence. The red lights flashed on the multiple cameras, letting Adam know that they were recording his three-dimensional image for future holo displays. But most of the people he was speaking to would be watching on flat-screened comms, and he directed his attention to them, through the main camera in front of him.
“Fellow citizens of North America,” he began, “I’m Acting President Adam Challoner. I apologize for the recent interruptions to your comm usage, and for any disruptions in your communities.” Adam had seen the tapes, had seen some of the events in person. Disruptions was a weak, empty word to describe the riots and chaos that had erupted all over the continent.
But the team had been unanimous and clear. He was a leader, not a news broadcaster; he was delivering a message, not a report. So he was talking about disruptions, not pandemonium. “And fellow citizens of the Earth, our neighbors and friends, I apologize to you, as well. Our reorganization has affected your trade, your travel plans, and maybe even your sense of security.” He paused, trying to remember what his advisors had told him about looking confident. “But I can assure you, it has all been worth it. At this point, former President Barrett has been formally removed from power, and the Congress and Senate have been temporarily dissolved. By removing the weak and corrupt, we have made room for the strong and honorable.” The words sounded good, Adam knew, but he wasn’t sure they felt quite right.
But he had no time to think about it right then. “More importantly,” he said in his most serious voice, “we have seized the financial and physical assets of all North Americans, and are in the process of redistributing them more fairly. Citizens will notice a credit of twenty dollars a day being deposited to their government accounts. For some of you, this is dramatically less than you’re used to living on; for the majority, it will be a significant improvement.”
Adam paused to let the truth of that statement sink in. Then he continued with a slight smile. “This is the amount that we are absolutely confident we can sustain, long-term. We certainly hope to be able to provide more, as property is redistributed, but for now, we’ve been sure to give you enough to survive on. Further, the accounts of all landlords, mortgage holders, and other creditors have been frozen, so you are only responsible for your daily expenses.” And now the part he didn’t want to say, but couldn’t find a way to avoid. “All real estate, all personal property valued at more than one thousand dollars, including all vehicles and aircraft, are now, temporarily, the property of the state. We will work to redistribute these items as quickly as we can, and we have already taken steps to establish a board to hear claims. In the meantime, though, these things are state property. Any theft, any looting, any vandalism or other deliberate damage, will be considered as a crime against the state, and violators will be subject to the full penalties allowed by law.” God, it felt wrong, threatening the people he was trying to protect. He looked at the holoprompter, and then looked away. It wasn’t the plan, but he needed to speak his own truth.
“We can’t have anarchy. There’s a government in place, and we’re working hard and fast to sort things out. You haven’t voted for me; you haven’t voted for any of us. But we are committed to holding elections as soon as we can. And it wasn’t like you’d voted for the previous government, either.” Well, that hadn’t really come out as well as he’d hoped. He tried to recover. “I know everyone feels unsettled, and I understand the temptation to take what you can, now, because you don’t know if you’ll ever have the chance again. But I’m asking you, as a fellow citizen, as someone who’s risking everything he has to make this work: please. Work with us. Be part of this. I know it’s hard to understand, hard to see the big picture, but I’ve got a pretty good view from where I’m standing, and trust me—it’s beautiful. And it will work.”
He felt strong enough to look back and find Remy. He was still in the shadows, but he was leaning forward, totally intent, and his energy and desperate belief beamed across the room straight into Adam’s soul. Adam nodded at the camera. “It will work,” he repeated, and now he smiled, for real. “It already is working. We have full control of the communication and economic infrastructure. We have full control of the military bases, and almost all military personnel. We are in the process of opening up diplomatic relations with foreign nations. We are the new government, and we will remain the government until we have things stabilized to the point that we are able to hold free, democratic, uncorrupted elections.”
He looked over at the director, who frowned back at him. Apparently he didn’t like Adam’s modifications of the carefully planned script. Adam ran over the main points in his mind; he was pretty sure he’d covered everything important. “These are exciting, frightening times. The light of freedom, after too long in the dark, can be blinding. Please, give yourselves time to see the truth, and to understand that by working together we can create a new, just society.”
And then, time for a little business. “We’ll be keeping this channel for official government communications. Please check here to see what’s open, what’s closed, and what’s expected of you as citizens. Please feel free to leave feedback. I give you my personal assurance that there will be no repercussions if you choose to criticize any aspect of what we’re doing.” He knew they wouldn’t believe him, but at least he’d made the effort. “And please enjoy the entertainment programming that we’re bringing back online as quickly as possible. Thank you for your time. Good night.”
He kept his sincere face on until the red lights blinked off, then collapsed back into his chair. Morgan Winters, a lawyer before the revolution and now one of the top strategists on the council, was the first to approach. “Went a bit off the script there,” Morgan said. His tone was carefully neutral, as was his smooth, handsome face.
“Yeah. I did.” Adam wasn’t sure he wanted to fight about this, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to apologize about it, either.
“That shouldn’t happen again,” Morgan said, and this time, his voice was stern. “You were chosen to represent a group of people, all of whom expect to have a voice in the decisions made by your office. We decided to go with that script, not with your off-the-cuff remarks.”
Adam was pretty sure Morgan was right, but his hackles still rose. “I’m the one talking. I didn’t change any information, or say anything that wasn’t supposed to be said. I just used my own words, to make it sound more natural, more like something I would say.”
“But you’re not speaking for yourself. You’re speaking for all of us.”
“You’re right.” Adam let Morgan celebrate his victory for a moment before saying, “I should have talked to you all about it beforehand. I should have told you I didn’t like the words, and given the team a chance to come up with something we could all agree on.” He tried his charming smile, the one that said he was harmless and possibly a little goofy. “I honestly didn’t plan to change the words. They just came out that way.” He stood up, then reached out and clapped Morgan on the shoulder. “We’re all figuring this out as we go, Morgan. I think we’re doing a good job, but you’re right, there’s room for improvement. I’ll work on it.”
And that was about as far as he was prepared to go. He was tired, and all he wanted was his bed, and Remy. But he had work to do: reports to receive, consultations to be part of, decisions to make. He hadn’t been lying when he’d told the world that things were going well, but he hadn’t really told them the whole truth, either. The situation was still fragile. The new government was far from stable, still feeling its way, and they couldn’t afford to take any chances.
So Adam had a lot of work to do before he could finally allow Remy to lure him off for a few hours of rest, a short, blissful visit that would leave Adam far more invigorated than simple sleep ever would. Not that sleep wouldn’t make up the lion’s share of their time together. Adam still refused to touch Remy sexually. He still insisted that he wouldn’t become just one more of the countless assholes who had used Remy’s body without paying any attention to Remy’s desires, or the lack thereof. But just sleep, with Remy, was more perfect and intimate than any sex Adam could recall.
He was head over heels, deeper in love than he had ever even dreamed of being; the timing was terrible, but he just couldn’t make himself care. He looked over toward Remy, still standing by the doorway, and they exchanged tired smiles. Remy peered around the room almost furtively, then made his way toward Adam. He was close enough to touch when an aide bustled up and edged in front of him.
“Excuse me, Mr. Challoner,” the young man said, “but there are visitors for you, downstairs. Two women.” He lifted a small holograph machine and held it in front of Adam, clicking a button to create a three-dimensional image of the women in question. “They claim to be your wife and daughter?”
Adam stared at the holo, then back at the aide. “They’re here?”
Adam wanted to roar in frustration. He had made sure his family was safely in Europe before all this began. But now, somehow, they were here. And Remy was hearing about them, like this.
“We’re separated,” Adam said quickly, but Remy’s expression didn’t change, and the aide’s just became confused.
“Okay,” the young man said uncertainly. “Would you like to see them, or…?”
Adam fought to make sense of it. “Did they say why they’re here?”
“No, sir, they didn’t seem to think they had to.”
Of course they wouldn’t. “Shit. Yeah, okay, can you show them into my office?”
“Of course, sir,” the aide said, and he headed for the door.
“Remy,” Adam started, and then he had no idea what to say next.
“Family complications,” Remy said easily. “You haven’t eaten yet. Should I ask the kitchen to send in dinner for three?”
“For four, if you’d like to join us,” Adam said. He was a coward for making an invitation he knew Remy wouldn’t accept. But this whole thing was a surreal nightmare; he was making dining arrangements while his wife and daughter had wandered into a war zone.
But Remy seemed to be taking it all in stride. “I’m sure you’ll have a better visit with just family. I’ll speak to the kitchen. Any dietary restrictions?”
“Kara—my daughter—she’s vegetarian.” Was he really having this conversation? “But you don’t have to do that, Remy. You’re not a waiter….”
“I’m happy to help,” Remy said graciously.
Damn. Adam was still getting to know Remy, but he felt like he’d come a long way. He’d thought he was starting to understand him, and believed that he was able to see through the calm, controlled mask that Remy wore so often. But in this case, he honestly couldn’t tell whether the man was upset or not. It seemed likely, but there was no sign of it. “If you don’t mind,” Adam said lamely. “I guess I do need to eat.”
“Of course,” Remy said, but when he smiled, it didn’t reach his eyes. He gave a slight nod of his head, almost a bow, and backed up two steps before turning to go. A perfect servant, deferential and always ready to help. A perfect whore, not expecting to be part of Adam’s life just because he shared Adam’s bed. Adam wanted to go after him, to grab his arm and pull him into a quiet alcove. Then, Adam could explain about the wife and daughter he’d never mentioned and tell Remy how important he was—but Remy was already gone, and Adam had other challenges. He needed things to slow down, and stop happening all at once. He wondered how long he could spend on a desert island with just Remy before he started wanting a change. He bet it would be a long, long time.
But this wasn’t a desert island, and there were a lot of people other than Remy who needed Adam’s time. Starting with his estranged wife and nineteen-year-old daughter. What the hell were they doing there? Adam needed to get this sorted out, and then he needed to get Antonia and Kara back to Europe, and out of harm’s way. That was his first priority; sorting things out with Remy could wait.
“YOU look tired, darling.” Antonia’s Italian accent was as subtle and musical as it had always been, but Adam’s blood no longer surged toward her when he heard it.
“I’m in the middle of a revolution, Antonia. What the hell are you two doing here? How did you even get into the country?”
“Daddy,” Kara said, her voice gentle as she stepped toward him and worked into his embrace. “It’s good to see you.”
Adam let himself savor a quick, sincere hug before he stepped back and held her at arm’s length with a gentle shake. “But what the hell are you doing here? This is dangerous, Kara.”
“We’re here to help,” Kara said. Her hair was as dark as both of her parents’, her skin as pale, but her eyes were her own, moss green and sad-looking whenever she wasn’t smiling. Fortunately, she smiled most of the time. “You should have told us what you were involved in. We could have helped sooner!”
“Damn it, Kara, this isn’t a game. It’s not a fun story to tell your friends at school!” But Kara wasn’t the one Adam was really angry at, and he turned to Antonia. “What the hell are you doing, bringing her here? You’re supposed to be taking care of her, not dragging her into war zones.” He didn’t want to frighten his daughter, but he was pretty damn sure he wanted to scare his wife. “If this doesn’t work, we’re facing execution. We’ll be lucky if we die quickly, because if they take us alive, we’ll be tortured to death. Do you honestly not understand that?”
“Yes, Adam, I understand.” As always, Antonia got colder as Adam got hotter. “And I tried to persuade your nineteen-year-old daughter, who is able to make her own travel arrangements, not to come. But she was stubborn, as I’m sure you understand. She insisted on being here, and I came along to try to keep her safe.”
“To keep her safe? What the hell are you going to do, Toni? How are you going to protect her here?”
“Any way I can, Adam. Just as I know you will.” Antonia’s quiet dignity made Adam feel like a child having a tantrum.
So he turned away from her. He looked at his beautiful, impulsive daughter and said, “You can’t be here. I don’t know how you traveled with the airports closed, but however you managed it, you can manage it in reverse. It’s not safe here.” He saw her chin rising, the gesture of stubborn defiance she’d been perfecting since she was a toddler, and he took a quick step forward and caught both of her hands in his. “Things are going well, Kara. We have a chance of actually pulling this off. A good chance. But everything’s in a careful balance, and I don’t want to upset that. I don’t want to be distracted, worrying about you and your mother, when I should be spending all my attention on this.”
“I can help. I speak six languages—that could be useful. Mom can help even more—you know that. She’s got her PhD in economics, Daddy. You need an economist.”
“This movement wasn’t something we put together in a basement somewhere, you know. I came late to the party but people have been planning this for years. Smart people.” People who would have been better leaders than Adam, probably, but who, for one reason or another, hadn’t been suitable. “We have economists. We have translators.” He wanted to keep going, wanted to point out that they had security guards and military police who would be happy to politely but firmly escort unwanted visitors out of the country. But everything would be much easier if he could persuade Kara to leave of her own accord.
The comm by the door buzzed. Too early for dinner, surely; Remy was good at making things happen, but he’d barely have had time to get to the kitchen. “Enter,” Adam said, and the door slid open to reveal Morgan’s smiling face.
“I heard we have some guests of honor,” Morgan said with a charming half bow. “Mrs. Challoner? Ms. Challoner? I’m Morgan Winters, Chief Political Officer of the Provisional Government. It’s a pleasure to meet you both.”
He extended his hand as he crossed the room, and Antonia took it. “Dr. Antonia De Luca,” she corrected. “In Europe, we don’t view women as possessions of men.” But her smile was smooth and easy, and she brought Kara forward for a handshake without hesitation. “But we gave Kara her father’s surname. The hyphenate was a little much.”
Morgan barely slowed down. “Of course. My apologies. With so many similarities between our nations, I forget the little differences.” His smile was still just as charming as Antonia’s. “Not that I think our naming conventions necessarily mean that North Americans ‘view women as possessions of men’.”
“Of course not. The naming is just one indicator.” Antonia rested her hand almost possessively on Adam’s arm and tilted her head in his direction. “I certainly hope that one of the first goals of your new government will involve addressing the status of women in this country.”
“It’s on the list, Toni,” Adam said. He’d heard Antonia’s lectures on the topic many times before and absolutely believed she was right, but things weren’t as simple in reality as they were in theoretical conversations. Adam needed to get back in control of this conversation. “Morgan, I’m glad you’re here. I’m hoping that Antonia and Kara will be joining me for dinner, and then I’m hoping we’ll be arranging safe travel for them back to Europe. Can you look into that for me?”
“Leaving so soon?” Morgan’s disappointment seemed genuine, if a little overdone. “That’s truly unfortunate. The family image, the stability it conveys… that could be truly beneficial for us. Right now, the people want to trust you, but they don’t feel that they know you. A First Lady and a presidential family would go a long way toward humanizing your persona.”
“?Humanizing my persona’?” Adam didn’t like the sound of that. “Interesting idea, but my wife has a doctorate in economics and my daughter speaks six languages. I’m sure they aren’t interested in being used as mere symbols, feminine window dressing for a male display.” He refused to let himself look at Toni, as tempted as he was.
“But things here are in a careful balance, and you don’t want to upset it,” Kara said quickly. “You want to make sure people trust you, so you can keep doing all your important work.” She smiled. “We can talk about that over dinner, but I think Mom and I could definitely contribute. You don’t need a translator or an economist, but apparently you need a family.” She held her arms out as if presenting herself for admiration. “Ta-da! Here we are!”
“No,” Adam said. He couldn’t even begin to count the ways that this was a terrible idea. “No,” he said again.
“Will you join us for dinner, Mr. Winters?” Kara asked with a charming smile. “I’d really like to hear more of your ideas.”
“Well, I don’t want to intrude on a family reunion. But I do have some suggestions on how we can make this work for us.”
“You won’t be intruding at all,” Kara assured him, and she linked her arm through his before looking at her father. “You can make arrangements, right? There’s room for one more?”
It was absurd. Adam thought he had a chance of controlling a whole damned country? He couldn’t even make his own family do the smart thing. “For dinner, fine. But you can’t stay here, Kara. It’s not safe.”
“Let’s discuss it over dinner,” she said. Her smile was confident.
Damn it. He’d spent his whole life protecting her from cruelty and teaching her that anything was possible. Now, she was loose in a world that was full of evil and impossibilities, and she was too naïve to understand it. He wanted to preserve her innocence, but not at the expense of her safety. He looked over at Toni, who looked warily back at him, then nodded. Truce. They were both parents, and they’d both do whatever they could to protect their daughter. Adam thought of the reports that were starting to be uncovered, the true depths of the sadistic horrors perpetrated during the previous regime, and his stomach tightened as he thought of any of that getting anywhere close to his baby girl. Innocence be damned; he’d do whatever it took to get her out of the country.