Mac Philips looked up from behind his seat at the main monitoring station as the door to Command Central opened at 0625. He tried to suppress a grin but failed as he recognized the tall, trim dark-haired woman who strode purposefully toward him. He stood and extended his hand with a smile.
"Welcome back, Commander," he said.
United States Secret Service Agent Cameron Roberts shook the hand of the boyishly handsome blond agent, smiling warmly. "It's good to be back, Mac."
She looked around the large open room that occupied the eighth floor of a brownstone apartment building overlooking Gramercy Park in Manhattan. It had been more than half a year since she had been in charge of the secret service security detail that worked out of this space. She had not expected to return, at least not in any official capacity. Heading this unit was not a posting that she had originally welcomed after having spent most of her career in the investigative division of the Secret Service, tracking counterfeit funds used in illegal drug transactions. She had worked closely with members of the DEA, ATF, and Treasury Department and, like most agents involved in fieldwork, she had considered the protective arm of the Secret Service a place for rookies. Guarding diplomats, foreign visitors, and members of political families did not interest her. Until now. Now it mattered a great deal.
"Has Egret arrived back in the States yet?" she asked. She shrugged her shoulders, trying to work out the stiffness left over from the flight up from Florida. She had been in Miami on assignment chasing a trail of treasury forgeries to a network of cocaine importers when the call had come reassigning her. It was completely unexpected, and the fact that she had been instructed to report immediately bothered her. No one had suggested that there was potential trouble on this end, but then that didn't mean anything. In the kind of bureaucracy that existed within the federal government, with multiple security agencies having overlapping spheres of interest and influence, there were never-ending turf struggles, and even those who 'needed to know' often didn't get critical information until it was too late to be useful. She had personal experience with that kind of foul-up.
She shook her head, dispelling the memories. She wouldn't let that happen here, not with something - someone - so important at stake. She would find out who, or what, was behind her transfer. But first things first. She was tired, but she had work to do before her first meeting with the woman she was charged with protecting. A woman who, she was quite sure, was not going to be pleased to see her.
She refocused on Mac. "I'll need to be briefed before I meet with her. I've been in the air most of the night and haven't been informed of her location."
"She's back in the nest," Mac affirmed, pointing toward the ceiling and the penthouse apartment above that comprised the top floor of the building. "They returned from the China visit late last night, and she didn't want to remain in Washington. They came up by car about 0300."
Cam smiled to herself. "I guess some things never change."
Mac shook his head. "Not that much."
He regarded her seriously for a moment and tried not to think about how close she had come to dying less than a year before. She looked fit and healthy now, but he knew that she had only been back on active duty for six weeks. As usual when on duty she wore an impeccably tailored, understatedly expensive suit and appeared capable, competent and cool - all the things he knew she was. He also knew from experience that you could never tell very much beyond that just by looking at her. She rarely revealed what she was feeling, but you could always count on her to tell you exactly what she was thinking. "The team will be very happy to have you back."
"What about you, Mac?" she said, leaning one hip against the edge of the desk, her dark gray eyes studying his. "I'm bumping you out of the Commander's seat."
He laughed, shook his head, and leaned back in the swivel chair, gesturing with one hand to the array of computer monitors, audiovisual equipment, and satellite feeds from the NYPD and New York Transit Authority on the long counter in front of him. "I'm an information man. This is what I want to be doing, and six months of doing your job proved it to me."
"Good," Cam said, "I'm glad you're okay with it, because no one is more important than the communications coordinator, and I need the best."
"Thanks," Mac said, pleased with her confidence in him. "You're doing me a big favor, Commander. I'm no good at the VIP stuff, and with this kind of detail, that's key."
Cameron didn't need him to tell her that handling high-profile personalities was a requirement of the work. It was one of the reasons she was good at this particular assignment, and it was also the reason it was going to be so difficult. Six weeks ago she had spent five nights with the woman she was now charged with guarding. If she had known then that she would be reassigned to this security detail, she might have made a different choice. Briefly, Blair Powell's face flickered into her mind and the instant surge of heat in her depths told her she was kidding herself. She had wanted her then, badly. Too much for procedure or protocol to have stopped her. She wasn't sure what she was going to do about those feelings now that circumstances had changed, but the one thing she did know was that she had a job to do.
Cam stood abruptly. "I'll see everyone at 0700 in the conference room. Bring what you have on her itinerary for the week, projected out-of-town events for the immediate future, all pertinent problematic field reports from the time I was gone, and anything else that you think needs my attention. I want to be brought up to speed by the time I meet with her this morning."
Mac nodded and watched her walk toward the small glass-enclosed cubicle in one corner that served as their conference center. He saw her looking casually left and right toward the work areas partitioned off in the open space by low dividers. He knew that she was assessing the monitoring equipment that the men and women assigned to her command utilized twenty-four hours a day to observe and protect the only child of the President of the United States.
At precisely 0700, Cam walked into the conference room carrying a cup of coffee. She set it down on the end of the rectangular table and looked over the faces turned towards her. They were all familiar. No one had transferred out during her absence, and she was glad of that because they were all good agents. She had seen to that when she had first taken command a year before by demanding that anyone not one hundred percent committed to the task of guarding the President's daughter transfer out. Those who chose to stay had proven themselves under fire.
"Well," she began, allowing a faint grin to pull at one corner of her mouth. "At least I won't have to learn any new names. And we can skip all the introductory bull and get down to business." She looked down the room to where Mac sat with a pile of memoranda in front of him, and said, "Mac?"
"Nothing new planned on the foreign front until the trip to Paris with the Vice President and his wife next month."
Cam nodded, settling into her chair with her PDA. "Right. We'll need advance information on motorcade routes, local hospitals, and transit lines for each day's events. That should all be in the data base. I assume they'll be staying at the Hotel Marigny, where state visitors always stay. That needs to be confirmed." She turned to the sandy-haired collegiate looking man on her left who happened to be fluent in nine languages, with a working command of seven others. "Are you still doing the advance work on the foreign travel, Riley?"
"Then you can contact the secretary at the Protocol department in Paris to review the scheduled functions. Charity dinners, museum outings - whatever they have planned." The French were notorious for changing itineraries at the last minute, and Paris was an international city where terrorism was a very real threat. "Keep after them. Make sure we're current by the time we're in the air. I don't want to be surprised."
Riley nodded and made notes while Cam signaled Mac to continue. He shuffled some printouts and said, "Domestically, there's the opening of the Rodman gallery in San Francisco in two weeks."
"Where's she staying?" Cam asked absently, her mind still on the Paris details.
"We don't know yet," Mac answered uncomfortably.
Cam looked up, her eyes narrowing. "You don't know? She must have reservations by now. Who's handling her itinerary?"
Mac blushed but kept his eyes on hers. He had forgotten how unforgiving she could be about any breach in protocol. He prepared to be dressed down. "She is."
"She is," Cam repeated in disgust, struggling with her temper. She knew damn well it wasn't Mac's fault. She stood, closing her electronic notebook. "Is there anything pressing that the team needs to discuss this morning, Mac?"
"No ma'am," he said briskly.
"Who's heading the day shift?" she asked.
"I am, ma'am," a petite, dark-haired woman in her late twenties answered.
Cam nodded. After one nearly career-ending lapse in judgment, Paula Stark had proven herself to be cool and levelheaded, an invaluable asset for a member of the shift that spent the most time in direct contact with Blair Powell, the First Daughter.
"Fine. Then go get your detail organized. Mac, if I might speak with you please."
Chairs scraped as agents hastened to get out of the conference room. They'd all seen Roberts take people apart if she felt they had been lax in guarding the President's daughter. No matter how difficult Blair Powell might make that job.
When they were alone, Cameron looked at Mac and raised an eyebrow. "Okay, Mac. You want to tell me what the hell is going on? First I get called back with no explanation and no notice. Then you suggest that Egret is bypassing normal security protocols. What else is going on that I don't know about? I can't work in the dark here."
He blew out air and shrugged. "I'd tell you if I could, Commander. I don't know why you've been recalled. No one reported any problems to me, either about my command, or anything else." He looked across the table into Cam's remote, dark eyes and chose his words carefully. He liked her, he respected her, he was happy to serve under her. But they weren't friends. They didn't share personal confidences. He didn't know, for sure, what her past with the First Daughter had been. "Ms. Powell is -" He shrugged again, looking exasperated, and continued, "Ms. Powell is difficult."
Cam almost smiled at that enormous understatement. She remained silent, watching him, waiting for the rest.
"She remains very reluctant to reveal her plans or destinations. She refuses to discuss personal - uh, relationships, so we have no intelligence regarding potential threats from that area. She slips our surveillance -" He halted at the soft curse from Cam, and then added quickly, "not very often, but it happens."
"You reported that?" Cam said wearily, rubbing her face briefly. God, Blair is stubborn, she thought. But she couldn't blame her, not really. Living under the constant scrutiny of strangers was wearing, even under ordinary circumstances. And Blair Powell's circumstances were far from ordinary.
Mac straightened. "No ma'am, I did not."
She stared at him hard. "Reasons?"
That kind of breakdown in security usually demanded a change of personnel and reassignment of the agents involved, often with demotions. But she knew Mac Phillips, and she knew he wouldn't circumvent regulations just to save his own skin.
He met her gaze directly, and his voice was steady and sure. "Because she works with us most of the time, and I made the command decision that she was safer with us than with replacements she might not trust. Even if there were some problems."
Cam nodded agreement. She had made similar choices where Blair was concerned herself. Had she been asked, she wouldn't have been able to defend herself, not according to regulations. But then you couldn't deal with Blair Powell by the book.
"I guess I'd better inform Egret that I'm here," Cam said, rising. She studied Mac briefly, wondering just how much he knew. "I'll review the plans for the remainder of the week with you later."
He stood. "Yes ma'am."
As he watched her walk out, he understood that the subject of his breach in protocol was closed. Whoever had made the call to bring Cameron Roberts back as commander of the First Daughter's security detail knew what they were doing. She understood what it took to guard Blair Powell. He wondered fleetingly what would happen upstairs when Egret learned of the change in command, and then decided there was some information he would rather not have. What you didn't know you couldn't testify about.
Blair Powell, in paint-spattered jeans and a tee-shirt with the sleeves and lower half carelessly ripped off, stared at a five foot square canvas, a paint brush in one hand. She walked slowly back and forth in front of the unfinished work, her mind as empty as she could make it. She let the color and the movement and the depth of the images take form without her conscious direction. Just as she reached to add a bit of red to one corner, her doorbell rang.
"Damn," she muttered, glancing at the clock at the far end of her loft. Just a little after 8AM. Much too early for Mac to be arriving for a briefing, but it couldn't be anyone else. She didn't get unexpected visitors. She set the brush aside and wiped her hands on a soft cloth. Pushing an errant strand of blond hair behind one ear, she crossed to the door. When she glanced through the peephole out of habit, she blinked in surprise and stopped with her hand on the doorknob. She looked again, and her heart raced with surprise. She pulled the door open, crying, "Cam!"
Blair was unable to hide her pleasure, an uncommon lapse in her usual reserve. She had learned not to allow her emotions to show, because her feelings were the only private things still left to her. Since she was twelve years old her father had been a public figure, and as a result, she had been as well. Strangers had photographed her, or written about her, or sought to be close to her, all because of who her father was. She had never been sure if someone cared for her, or for her reputation. Cameron had been different, and Blair had let her get close.
Cameron Roberts looked at Blair and felt her pulse quicken. She was every bit as beautiful as the last time Cam had seen her. Blond hair verging on gold, thick and wild with a hint of curl, fell around her face in an untamed mane. A deceptively lithe body hid well-toned muscles. Blazing blue eyes and a smile that could melt the polar ice caps made an already attractive face stunning. And underneath all that, seething sensuality coupled with an unbendable will. Astonishing.
Cam wanted to touch her, but couldn't. She didn't want to hurt her, and knew she was about to. Her face revealed little of her desire or her regret as she smiled softly and answered, "Hello, Blair."
Blair was too intent on how good it was to see her to notice the slight reservation in Cam's tone. She reached out, grabbed Cam's hand, and pulled her into the loft, slamming the door behind them. In the next instant she had her hands in Cam's hair, her lips on Cam's mouth, and her body pressed hard against Cam's, pinning her to the wall. When she'd temporarily satisfied her need to taste her, she pulled away a fraction and gasped, "God, I've missed you."
Cam made an enormous effort to get her body under control. The unexpected onslaught had gone straight to her head. And other places. Her stomach was knotted with need and her blood burned. She felt herself swell and grow heavy with arousal. She shook her head, trying to quiet her lust. "Blair-," she began. She had to tell her, and quickly, because she wasn't strong enough to resist. Didn't want to resist. "I-"
Blair threaded her arms around Cam's waist and leaned her hips into her. "When did you get back? I thought you were still on that case in Florida. Did it wrap up all ready?"
As she spoke, Blair started working on the buttons on Cam's shirt with one hand. She had been planning on spending the day painting, but that was before. Her fingers shook she was so hot for her. It had been six weeks since they had seen each other, and even then they'd had only a few days together. Five short days after almost a year of denying the attraction growing between them. A near tragedy had finally brought them together, and then Cam had left for Florida and Blair had accompanied her father to China. Nothing about the future had been settled, there hadn't been time, but none of that mattered at that moment.
"God, I want you," Blair whispered, almost groaning the words. No one, no one had ever done this to her before. Made her want so badly, or ache so deeply. More than sex, more than intimacy. An explosive combination of the two that scorched through her, leaving her always hungry.
"Blair," Cam gasped, grabbing for the hand on her shirt. "Wait."
"Too late," Blair laughed, throaty and low, shifting to straddle Cam's thigh. The added pressure between her legs made her gasp, her eyes closing momentarily with the rush of excitement. "Oh, god. Way too late, baby. I need your hands on me now. I'm so, so ready."
"I'm working, Blair," Cam said gently, hoping Blair couldn't feel the trembling in her thigh. She swallowed a moan as Blair thrust into her again. "We can't."
"You can be a few hours late for wherever you need to be. You're a regional director now," Blair muttered. She wasn't really listening to anything except the need singing through her pelvis.
Cam moved her fingers to Blair's wrist, circling it softly. "I'm working now, Blair. Here."
Something in Cam's tone finally penetrated Blair's awareness. There was a hint of sympathy in Cam's voice that shadowed the desire Blair felt simmering in Cam's body. With effort, Blair took one step away so that their bodies were no longer in contact. "What do you mean?" she asked, her voice unnaturally calm. She searched Cam's eyes for the answer, because Cam's eyes never lied. Not to her. What she saw there hurt. Hurt in a way she hadn't thought she could hurt again. "Damn you," she breathed, not knowing which of them she meant. "What have you done?"
"I've been reassigned, Blair. To you," Cam said, watching Blair back away from her, forced to let her go. Jesus, she had hoped it wouldn't be this hard. She just needed a little time to find out what was going on. Then she could make her understand. "Blair -"
"When?" Blair asked coldly, making herself move farther across the room. She needed space between them. She had to stop wanting her long enough to think.
"Yesterday," Cam answered.
"And you said yes?" Blair demanded. Did what we shared mean so little to you?
"Blair," Cam said quietly, "I received a directive from my superiors telling me that the President of the United States wished me to assume responsibility for his daughter's security. I could hardly say no."
"Of course you could have," Blair said bitterly, "if you'd wanted to. There are plenty of other people who could do this job. Mac is handling it just fine." Don't do this, please don't do this!
Cam wasn't sure how to explain that part of her didn't want anyone else to do the job. Couldn't explain that ever day that she was somewhere else, doing something else, she worried about Blair. She couldn't forget that there was an UNSUB, an 'unidentified subject', who had stalked Blair, photographed her, left messages for her, and ultimately, shot at her, and the Secret Service had failed to apprehend him. She wanted to be with her. She needed to be with her.
"It's not that simple," Cam began, knowing her words would not help.
Blair turned away, struggling to contain her disappointment and hurt. Clearly, whatever she thought had been developing between them was over. Cameron Roberts was not the kind of woman to compromise her professional ethics by carrying on a clandestine affair with someone she was supposed to be guarding. It would have been difficult for them to see each other under any circumstances, but now it would be impossible. Blair swallowed her pride and made one last attempt to undo what had already been done. A decision that had already been made without regard for her feelings, like so many others in her life.
"I could speak to my father," Blair said quietly, disguising the hope in her voice. "The security chief can name someone else to command the detail."
Cam struggled not to go to her. No matter how hard Blair tried to hide it, Cam could hear her sense of betrayal. She had never wanted to be the cause of that, but Blair's safety was more important than anything else. "There's a reason I've been recalled," Cam said quietly. "I don't know what it is, and neither does Mac. Until I find out, I'd prefer you not say anything."
Blair's face was a careful blank. "Well, that's it then, isn't it?"
"Yes," Cam said, unwilling to offer Blair further excuses that would only be insulting to both of them. For the time being, she didn't have any choice except to assume the responsibility that had been given to her. And in truth, she wouldn't want it any other way. Still, watching Blair's eyes turn cold rocked her. She couldn't think about losing her, not and still do what she needed to do. "I'm sorry."
"No need to be sorry, Commander," Blair said dismissively. "We both know how important your job is to you. Now, if you don't mind, I'm busy."
Cam worked to keep her voice neutral. "I understand. I'll need to discuss plans for the rest of the week with you."
Blair walked past her, careful not to touch her, and opened the door. "Then you can come back this afternoon for the scheduled briefing."
"As you wish," Cam said quietly, stepping out into the hall. When the door closed solidly behind her, the ensuing silence was lonelier than she could have imagined.
"Mac," Cam said into her transmitter as she keyed the penthouse elevator outside Blair's apartment.
"Go ahead, Commander," Mac replied as he automatically checked the monitor providing visual surveillance of the hallway in front of the elevator. His eyes switched to the adjoining screen showing the interior of the elevator as Cam stepped on.
"Sign me out to my apartment," she said tersely. "It's the same address as before. Someone pulled a few strings to get it back for me." She needed a shower, a change of clothes, and a few minutes to herself to erase the sound of Blair's disappointment and the image of the hurt in her eyes. She had to meet with her later in the day to confirm the agenda for the upcoming weeks, and she needed to be in control of herself when she did. The very first moment she had seen Blair Powell, just over a year ago, she been attracted to her. She had been able to ignore those feelings for months, but, as time passed, she had come to know her, and her desire turned to caring. Finally she had succumbed. She hadn't been able to withstand both the pull of her body and the demands of her heart, and she had touched her. Now, she would somehow have to learn to live with her need.
Mac studied her face in the monitor, and even with the mild distortion of the transmitted image he could make out the tense set of her jaw and the grim line of her mouth. Uh oh. Things had not gone well with Egret. He wasn't surprised. Cameron Roberts had been shot in the line of duty less than a year before, shot while guarding Blair Powell. Shot in place of Blair Powell when she had stepped in front of her and stopped a bullet from a sniper's rifle. Cameron didn't remember the nightmarish scene when she lay bleeding on the sidewalk and agents surrounded Blair, dragging her to cover. Mac remembered it very well. He remembered Blair screaming Cam's name as Cam went down. He remembered Blair sitting by Cam's bedside for over twenty-four hours while Cam's life hung in the balance. And he knew that Blair had requested that Cam be removed from her security detail once she had recovered. He couldn't imagine that Blair would be happy about this new arrangement.
"You're scheduled for a briefing with Egret at 1300 hours," he said while glancing over the day's events printed out on a clipboard by his right hand. When in doubt, revert to procedure.
"I've got that," she snapped as she walked quickly through the lobby, nodding curtly to the doorman as he hastened to hold the double glass doors for her. She stopped under the short green awning and surveyed the rooftops of the buildings across the park. It was the first time she had been back since the shooting. She stared at the sidewalk and recalled the fine red mist on her hands and the clear blue sky overhead. She shivered lightly, thinking that it might have been Blair that day, and not her. Then she shrugged the memory away and crossed the street toward her apartment on the other side of the square.
When she'd stripped off her jacket and eased out of her weapon harness, she walked to the windows overlooking Gramercy Park and stared across the treetops at the penthouse of Blair's building. She thought about her up there now, in that space that should have been a haven. The windows in Blair's loft that faced the street were bulletproof, the fire escape ended one level below her floor, and the skylights on the roof above were crisscrossed with woven titanium mesh that would require a blowtorch to cut. A posh fortress, but a subtle prison nonetheless. Cam couldn't blame Blair for hating it. She couldn't even blame Blair for being angry with her. She wished she could change it, but the facts of Blair's life were beyond anyone's control. She turned away from the image of Blair's smile and the memory of Blair in her arms. Wanting her would not help either of them now.
After Cam left her loft, Blair waited motionless on the other side of the door, listening to the faraway hum of the elevator climbing to the penthouse to carry Cam downstairs. Long after she knew Cam was gone, she waited, foolishly hoping that she might return. By the time that she finally turned back into her empty apartment, she had managed to replace longing with anger, a familiar antidote to disappointment.
Then, she needed only to convince her body that she no longer cared. Cam's arrival that morning had been so unexpected she hadn't done anything except react. Few women had ever been able to excite her the way Cameron Roberts seemed able to do with little more than a smile, and it was one of the things that made her security chief so frightening. Blair made a point of keeping everyone at arm's distance, physically and emotionally, and she had failed miserably with Cam. Walking through the loft, she was still throbbing with the aftermath of unanswered arousal. She was so angry with herself for allowing this to happen that even her body's automatic response seemed like a betrayal.
"Shower," she muttered under her breath, shedding clothes as she crossed to the partitioned area in the corner that adjoined her sleeping alcove. She twisted the dial and stepped under the still-cold spray, gasping at first contact. Her nipples were still full and tender from the recent stimulation, and the wetness between her legs was not from the rivulets of water running down her body. She leaned against the far wall and let the warm cascade engulf her. She closed her eyes, and that was a mistake.
As soon as she surrendered to the soothing beat of the water on her skin, she saw Cam's face again. She felt Cam's body along the length of her own as they had pressed together against the door. She imagined Cam's hands on her, just as she had imagined them many times during the weeks they had been apart. Ordinarily such remembrances produced just a pleasant hum of pleasure, but she was already aroused, painfully so. The pinpricks of heat on her skin seemed to streak directly between her legs, and the tingling pressure building there warred with her self-control.
She would not think about her.
She grabbed soap and began to lather her neck and chest, smoothing her palms over her breasts and stomach. The sensation of her fingers passing over her nipples made her gasp. Without consciously meaning to, she caught one between her thumb and forefinger and squeezed, arching her back slightly into the warm spray as the sharp pinpoint of pleasure-pain seared down her spine. It was too good, too good not to lift her hands and cup both breasts, squeezing as she rhythmically twisted her erect nipples until all she could feel was a steady burning pleasure beneath her fingertips.
She pressed her shoulders harder against the rear shower wall as her legs began to tremble. She ached inside. Still massaging her breasts with one hand, she pressed the other to her stomach, running her fingers lightly over her skin, moving lower with each stroke. Her pulse beat between her legs like a second heart. She knew how hard she was, had felt the stiff swelling as she had straddled Cam's thigh. If she touched herself, she would never be able to stop. She had been ready the minute her lips had found Cam's mouth. She was always so damn ready for her. She imagined Cam's fingers where her own brushed through the hair at the base of her belly and her clitoris twitched.
"Ah god," she whispered, eyes still closed, shuddering at the memory. She needed to ease the pressure, couldn't think of anything else. Her fingers slid lower, one on either side of her distended clitoris. Her hips jerked as she squeezed lightly, and she had to brace herself with one arm against the wall to keep from falling.
Her mind was empty of everything except the exquisite sensation of her fingertips rubbing over her blood-engorged flesh. She was dimly conscious of her muscles quivering and the pounding pressure of her orgasm building. Faintly, she heard herself whimpering with each teasing stroke. Neck arched, she thrust her hips steadily back and forth as her hand move faster between her legs, setting her nerves on fire. When the inferno roared in her pelvis and scorched along her veins, she choked back a cry, her fingers squeezing down with each spasm, milking each pulsation to the very end.
When the contractions that ripped through her finally quieted, Blair leaned weakly forward into the spray, her arms outstretched, palms against the opposite wall, barely able to stand. Her body was satisfied, but she took no satisfaction from it.
"Damn you, Cameron," she whispered.
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