Cameron told the cabbie to keep the change as he opened the door to find himself standing in front of the Colonel’s townhouse. He gave a small whistle of appreciation at what he saw. When Cameron had moved to the city, he had been fortunate enough to find a snug, one bed apartment to rent in a semi-respectable part of town. The Colonel’s red bricked house was almost palatial in comparison.
He did his best to ignore the sudden nervous flutter in his stomach as he made his way up the small set of stairs. The Colonel had invited him to the embassy party as a friendly gesture, nothing more. So why the hell is my heart going hammer and tong?
As he reached for the bell, the front door opened but instead of John, Cameron was greeted by a young woman. Maybe just out of her teenage years, she was a pretty sort, with a heart shaped face, high cheekbones and shoulder length chestnut hair. The girl regarded him with a mischievous grin. "Hi”, she said, her mouth quirking in amusement, "You must be my dad's date. No funny business, I want him back home by ten."
“I…” Cameron stumbled for the words as his cheeks flushed scarlet.
"Rachel." The girl turned to find her father coming down the stairs, an admonishing smile on his handsome features. "What have I told you about trying to scare the guests away?" John's daughter rolled her eyes and opened the door to let Cameron in, favouring him with a wink as he entered.
"Have fun tonight," Rachel said, pausing to give her father a kiss on the cheek as they passed each other on the stairs.
"Sorry about that," John apologised as he reached Cameron.
“It’s fine,” Cameron said, his heart beating faster as he took the older man in. He had never seen John in dress uniform but it was a sight worth waiting for. Like Cameron, the Colonel was dressed in a formal uniform of a midnight blue coat and low waist trousers, although John’s was tailored tighter against his muscular frame. A white shirt and black tie were worn under the coat, closed over by four gold buttons. In contrast to Cameron’s sparse tunic, John’s coat had an impressive number of service ribbons on display over the left breast while a gold braid looped around his right shoulder.
"I know what you’re thinking,” John said, his smile wide.
You really don’t, Cameron thought guiltily.
“Everyone at the ball will be wondering what a strapping young Corporal is doing accompanying an old man like me."
“I, uh, dunno about strapping,” Cameron replied lamely. He quickly gave John another once over as he desperately searched for something to say. Instead he found himself wondering if every article of clothing the Colonel owned was designed to hug his body so closely. Finally prying hungry eyes away from his form, Cameron got up the courage to lock his eyes onto John’s. “Um...your daughter has a great sense of humor.”
John chuckled at the mention of his daughter. "She's a troublemaker," he said fondly. "Always thinking of new and interesting ways to torture her poor old father."
Cameron pointed to the array of ribbons on the Colonel’s broad chest. “There must be a few stories there.”
"These?" he asked, glancing down. "Nothing special," he said with sincere modesty. "Most were just being in the right place at the right time or being luckier than some. The last few are because I'm stubborn and still refusing to retire." The sound of a car horn broke off any further attempt at conversation. John glanced at the gold watch on his left wrist. “Right on time.”
Cameron led the way to the cab and found it odd to be sitting next to the Colonel without a steering wheel in his hand. He risked a quick look at the bulge in the Colonel’s tight pants as he settled himself into the seat. "1146 Waldorn Avenue, please," John said as he closed the door."I take it you've never been to a function like this?" he asked as the car pulled away from the curb.
Cameron shook his head. “You’d be correct.” He wasn't uneasy but it seemed like John could sense the slightest bit of trepidation in him. He was usually confident in himself but the thought of attending an event with a whole lot of stuffed shirts was giving him some pause. Not to mention the older hunk sitting next to him practically bursting out of his uniform.
"Nothing to worry about,” the Colonel continued. “They're dry as hell and half the guests are pompous asses, just nod and enjoy the free champagne."
That got a laugh from Cameron. “I think I can manage that,” he said. The Colonel gave his shoulder a squeeze as they settled into a companionable silence for the short journey to the embassy.
When the cab pulled up outside the tall, ornate building, John opened the door and waited for Cameron to join him. "Well then,” the older man said, “Shall we?”
After a quick security check the pair were led into the ballroom. The Colonel took two champagne flutes from a passing waiter and handed one to Cameron. He took time to study the room before turning back to his ‘date’. "Not to stroke your ego but you're certainly turning some heads," John said, dropping his voice. The quick, sly glances from a number of the women, and some men, were not as inconspicuous as they might have hoped as they cast an appraising eye over the two soldiers.
“I think they’re looking at you, Colonel.”
John laughed easily. “Give yourself some credit Cameron. You’re a good looking guy.”
Cameron ignored the inevitable reddening of his cheeks. “Thank you,” he said, his heart soaring at the simple compliment. “I have to say you-”
“Colonel Haverson!" Cameron’s attempt at flattery was cut short as someone called John’s name. The Colonel turned and smiled as he realised who it was. "Miss Soldado," he greeted as the woman stepped between him and Cameron and planted a kiss on his cheek. Cameron took the chance to take a large gulp of champagne to help his suddenly dry throat.
"Gloria, please," she insisted, placing a familiar hand on John's arm. She was a handsome woman in her late thirties with sun-kissed olive skin, thick, dark hair that plunged past her shoulders and sharp emerald eyes. Her backless black dress was tight against her slim frame.
"Gloria,” John corrected himself, keeping his handsome smile in place. “It's good to see you again."
"I could say the same, John. Hearing that your name was on the guest list was more than enough to convince me to come tonight."
The Colonel laughed warmly as he nodded to Cameron. "This young man is my partner in crime for this evening. Cameron, meet Gloria Soldado. Gloria is a consultant between the our intelligence community and the Malkaran Goverment." Gloria turned to Cameron, her green eyes losing their warmth as she looked the younger man up and down. She nodded curtly but said nothing.
"John," Gloria said, turning on the charm again effortlessly, "You must promise me a dance tonight."
"I'm sure I can rise to that," John replied. "Excuse me for a moment," he said, noticing someone else waving to him from across the room.
Gloria watched the Colonel depart with clear appreciation of what she saw before she turned to Cameron . Her smile was still in place but it did not reach her eyes. "So," she said with obvious distaste. "Where did he drag you up from?"
Cameron just about managed to stop the snark before it left the tip of his tongue. He met Gloria with a measured gaze. “The motor pool,” he replied as if it were the most obvious answer ever.
Gloria's eyes narrowed. "Have a good night," she said icily before turning on her heel and leaving. Within seconds the friendly facade was back as she moved on to another pair of guests, greeting them warmly.
After a few minutes, John returned to Cameron having waited the polite amount of time before excusing himself from his other conversation. "Sorry about that," he said, lightly touching Cameron’s arm as he approached. "Gloria is a lovely woman. We've worked together before on a couple of sensitive matters but she can be a little....intense." The Colonel's dark eyes crinkled with amusement as he read Cameron’s expression "I hope you two played nice."
“Sweetness and nothing but,” Cameron lied.
The Colonel laughed before his expression turned serious. “Oh my god,” he said as he reached across and took Cameron’s hand in his. John was surprisingly gentle and the touch of the rough, callused skin against his own almost stopped Cameron’s heart. “What happened to you?”
Belatadley Cameron realised he was talking about the wound he had received two nights previous. Even his accelerated healing powers hadn’t been enough to close the wound the mugger’s knife had inflicted.
“Cooking accident,” Cameron replied quickly. He looked up to see the Colonel’s dark eyes focused on him, the concern clear. “The onion fought back,” he added weakly. John had been unconscious when the mugger and Cameron had fought but he had no clue if the Colonel had noticed the injury after he had come to.
Before anything more could be said, a hand clasped John on the shoulder. "Sorry to interrupt," Gloria said, her smile apologetic. "John, there's some delegates from the Malkaran embassy who would like to meet you. I want to wow them with the strapping man in uniform."
To his credit, John's smile didn't falter. He was a proud representative of the military and would act accordingly. "Of course," he replied. "I'll be over shortly.
"Wonderful. They're hiding in one of the side rooms. I'll wait for you outside."
Once Gloria turned to leave, the Colonel's broad shoulders sagged in a brief sigh. "Sorry about this," he said to Cameron before realising he was still holding onto the younger man’s hand. “I’ll be back shortly,” he said, letting go.
Cameron watched as the Colonel walked off, his eyes prying away once he was a considerable distance away. As if on cue a waiter balancing a silver platter whisked by and he skillfully snatched a flute and retreated to the nearest wall. She didn't even manage to move forward ten steps before she collided with someone.
"Thanks for doing this, John," Gloria said as the Colonel approached her.
"Think nothing of it," the Colonel responded, waving away any hint of apology for dragging him away to attend to some dignitaries.
Gloria offered a sweet smile before opening a door to one of the numerous side rooms while John dutifully followed. He caught the movement out of the corner of his eye as he stepped over the threshold. Before he could react, the door slammed shut and two men seized him by either arm. "What the hell-hmmmph! Mmmmppphh!! The Colonel's protests were immediately cut out by a hand clamping hard over his nose and mouth. "Mmpphhh!"
As John struggled against the two men, Gloria hurried to a nearby table, grabbing a large syringe and jabbing it into the his left arm. The Colonel's muffled protests turned to a low groan as the drug immediately took effect. His knees buckled as his eyes rolled upwards and the two men released him, letting the unconscious older man slump onto the carpeted floor.
Hiding behind the curtain, a fourth figure waited until the soldier was down before revealing himself. Addressed in identical attire to John, he walked up and stood over the unconscious man. Gloria couldn't help but admire the handiwork, the man was the absolute spit of the Colonel. "Hi," he said, with the same charming smile and deep voice she was used to. "I'm John Haverson."
"I'd say you are," Gloria replied appreciatively as she kneeled down next to the real Colonel. She reached for his limp left wrist and deftly removed his large gold watch, handing it over to the doppelganger. "Don't forget about his companion. The youngster in uniform." The doppelganger nodded as he clasped the timepiece onto his wrist.
Gloria watched as he headed for the door back into the ballroom. She sighed as she turned back to John, lying next to her. She ran a slow hand through his hair. "Sleep tight Colonel, there's nothing good to wake up to."