THE LIBRARY was circular, and Jaxon was pacing its edge when he heard Buzz’s familiar voice. A moment later Buzz entered the room accompanied by a woman and two men in sober suits. Buzz wore a suit too, but his was crimson, with a canary silk shirt and matching yellow shoes. He performed quick introductions. The woman, thin and fiftyish, was Diana Chiu, and her body language suggested she was in charge. Clark Durant was a mousy-looking man, the type who seemed as if he’d been born with a calculator in his hand. And Reid Stanfill took Jaxon’s breath away. He was tall, rock solid, and square-jawed, with buzz-cut dark hair and amber eyes that laser-focused on Jaxon. Chiu and Durant smiled as they shook Jaxon’s hand, but Stanfill did not. And he didn’t try to prove his manliness by squeezing Jaxon’s hand to a pulp, maybe because he knew Jaxon needed that hand to play guitar.
Diggs wheeled in a cart bearing a sterling silver coffeepot and creamer, bone china cups and saucers, and a dizzying array of sweeteners. “Just text if you need anything, sir,” he said to Jaxon before gracefully retreating.
Stanfill snorted quietly—and didn’t look remotely ashamed when Jaxon shot him a glare.
Buzz led a round of small talk as he poured. Jaxon wasn’t at all surprised that Stanfill took his coffee black and without sugar. When the rest of them took their seats, Stanfill stood near the library doors like a sentinel, his huge paw dwarfing the china cup. Jaxon sat behind the large desk, which made him feel like a captain of industry instead of some guy who sang and played guitar.
“So,” he said loudly, interrupting a discussion of the weather, “what’s the gig?” If there was a gig. None of these people looked like promoters. To his surprise, Stanfill almost cracked a smile. He apparently approved of a direct approach. Bully for him.
It was Chiu who answered. “Mr. Powers, we’re—”
She nodded. “Jaxon, then. I work for the State Department. I have the opportunity to invite you—”
Jaxon set his cup down hard enough to splash coffee onto the desk. “Nope. No way am I going to let anyone trot me out to perform for the president like a trained monkey.” He crossed his arms for good measure.
“That’s not what we’re asking. The State Department has responsibility over foreign affairs.” She might have been trying to avoid condescension, but she didn’t quite manage it.
“Oh,” said Jaxon. Maybe he should have known that, but he’d spent most of his high school government class either stoned or composing songs in his head. Actually, that was how he’d spent pretty much all of his high school classes. “Sorry. Go ahead.”
She leaned forward in her seat. “Do you know much about Vasnytsia?”
“Um, it’s a country, right? Somewhere in the middle of all the -stan countries maybe?”
“A little west of there, but you’re close. It’s in Eastern Europe.”
“Okay.” Jaxon had performed many European concerts, but not there. At least he didn’t think so. On some of the tours, the countries had blended together, especially back when he spent a good chunk of his offstage time partying.
She turned to her smaller colleague. “Clark, could you give him a briefing?”
Clark must have been one of those grade-school kids who loved getting called on. Now he lifted his shoulders and straightened his tie. “During the time of the Soviet Union, Vasnytsia operated as an independent country. It wasn’t part of the USSR, but it was communist. It had a population of less than four million and, completely landlocked, its economy relied primarily on agriculture and some industry. It was run by a dictator who did an excellent job of playing off both the West and Moscow. He got arms and goods from both sides. Then the Iron Curtain fell, and—”
“Is there going to be a test?” Jaxon interrupted. “Should I be taking notes? Ooh! Can I earn extra credit?” Then he felt bad for his outburst because Durant looked so disappointed. Chiu remained expressionless—she was probably a great poker player—and Buzz rolled his eyes. Stanfill, though, lowered his brows and allowed his lip to curl slightly.
“May I continue?” Durant asked after a short pause.
“Yeah. Sorry. Go ahead.”
More tie straightening. “After the Iron Curtain fell, Vasnytsia’s ruler was worried that a similar democratic revolution would reach his country. He built up the military police and sealed off the borders, all while strictly controlling citizens’ access to the media. And he cracked down on dissent. We… can’t divulge the details”—he glanced at Chiu as if for permission—“but I can tell you that anyone who spoke out against the regime was dealt with harshly.”
Jaxon pushed his cup away. “That sounds lovely.”
“The dictator died a few years ago and was succeeded by his son, a man named Bogdan Talmirov. He styles himself a prime minister and claims to hold elections, but last time he won 98 percent of the vote.”
“Sounds like a popular guy.”
“Unlikely,” Durant said. “He continues to forbid access to the internet and to anything but state-run or state-approved media. He almost never allows citizens to leave, and very few foreigners are allowed in. The ones he does let in are shadowed constantly by government-supplied guides. He’s still punitive against any opposition. And he’s probably still stockpiling weapons, only now it’s Russia he’s playing off against the West.”
Durant stopped speaking, as if he were waiting for Jaxon’s questions. Jaxon looked at Stanfill and was gratified to discover the big man looked as impatient as Jaxon felt. God, the man was hot. He probably spent a lot of time in the gym. And despite his broad shoulders and slim waist, his suit fit perfectly. Custom tailored. Not designer threads like Jaxon wore, and certainly not flashy like Buzz’s outfits, but good quality. Too bad he was wearing a suit jacket, because those trousers probably caressed a solid ass like—
“Jaxon?” That was Chiu, her tone crisp.
“Look, I appreciate the lesson in history or geography or whatever, but what does any of this have to do with me?”
She smiled. “It turns out that Prime Minister Talmirov is a fan of yours.”
“I thought outside stuff wasn’t allowed in his country.”
“Not for ordinary people. Talmirov can access whatever he likes.”
“Of course he can. Fine. I’ll send him an autograph.” Although Jaxon was being flippant, he was somewhat disturbed to learn a tyrant loved his music. Not that Jaxon had any control over that. Hell, he had millions of fans; some of them were undoubtedly scumbags. Jaxon’s songs didn’t encourage scumbaggery, though. They were almost all about the usual things—love and sex. Mostly sex.
Chiu set her empty cup and saucer on the little table nearby. “Talmirov has requested you to perform two special concerts in the capital, Starograd. It’s a unique opportunity—the first time he’s invited anyone from outside the country.”
“Right.” Jaxon tipped his head back to stare at the library’s domed ceiling, which featured a mural of constellations. That was a pretty cool idea. Next time he bought a place, he’d have a ceiling mural put in the bedroom. Maybe with little twinkly lights for the stars. After a moment, he turned back to Chiu. “You’re gonna have to send my regrets. I’m not touring right now.”
“The compensation will be substantial.”
“Do I look like I need more money? Go talk to your pals at the IRS. They’ll tell you my income is comfy as is.”
For the first time, her composure slipped. Only for a moment, though. “Then do it for your country. You have the opportunity to make a real contribution.”
“By singing a couple of songs?”
Apparently it was time for Durant—Mr. Exposition himself—to chime in. “Our relationship with Vasnytsia is strained at best. And that’s problematic, because while the country is small, it enjoys a strategic location. If they turn away from us entirely, they’ll give Russia a better chance to, well, disrupt things. As in Crimea. But if we can strengthen our ties with Vasnytsia, our position vis-à-vis Russia will be improved.”
The guy used vis-à-vis in a sentence. Wow.
Jaxon tried to formulate a way to refuse without sounding like an asswipe. But then Stanfill took a step nearer and spoke for the first time since they’d been introduced. “Four million people live in Vasnytsia. If this goes well, you’ll be helping to improve their lives.”
“And making the world safer for Truth, Justice, and the American Way?”
Stanfill didn’t crack a smile. “Something like that.”
“Just by singing a few tunes? C’mon. Even I’m not bigheaded enough to think my music’s that special.”
“It’s not the music itself. It’s you acting as our country’s representative. If we reach out to Talmirov like this—if you reach out—he may come to see us all in a better light. He might turn to us more than he does to Moscow.”
“That sounds pretty lame.”
Stanfill shrugged his broad shoulders. “It’s a small step. Sometimes big changes have to start small.”
Jaxon’s chair scraped on the tile as he pushed back. He turned away from his visitors and faced a library shelf, running his fingers over the spines of the books. The volumes varied in topic and looked as if they were well read. He wondered who chose them. Diggs maybe? Or did a hotel functionary just scoop them up at random from used-book stores and library sales?
Nobody interrupted him. Maybe he should have felt powerful, making all these people wait. But all he felt was exhausted. He suddenly yearned for a tiny cabin with a big bed and no cell service. He’d sit on the balcony and play acoustic music for the birds and the deer.
“I’ll do it,” he said quietly.
When he turned around and saw the relief on Stanfill’s face, he was at least a little glad for his decision.