Prospect Park, the starting point for the race, was slightly more than half the size of Manhattan's eight hundred acre Central Park, but it nevertheless housed a wildlife center, a music pagoda, a lake, and many other opportunities for city dwellers to escape the urban stresses for a few hours. The area of Brooklyn around the park was a study in contrasts. The west side was bordered by Park Slope, a conclave of historic brownstones housing the wealthy and privileged. The eastern extent of the sprawling park abutted Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, areas that in recent years had become dangerous territory for tourists and inhabitants alike. At seven AM on a Sunday morning, there were usually a few early morning enthusiasts enjoying the opportunity to run or rollerblade in relative solitude. Such was not the case today.
Long Meadow, an open, rolling ninety acre section nearly a mile in length was already bustling with people. The Race for the Cure drew greater numbers of supporters than almost any similar event, because the disease itself affected so many. It was a media event as much as anything else, especially with Blair as the keynote speaker, and photographers and news vans were already present in abundant numbers.
Cam stood next to Blair by the side of the car, scanning the hundreds of participants gathering for the start of the run. "It's going to be very crowded along the entire route, especially when we get into Central Park. I'd appreciate it if you'd not lose us."
Blair met Cam's eyes, and for the first time in a long time, she couldn't read the expression in them. Even though they had been physically separated since Cam's return, she had at least had the comfort of seeing what was behind her professional façade when she looked into her dark eyes. This new barrier stung. "You're very good at your job, Commander. I'm sure you'll manage somehow."
Blair abruptly turned and walked off toward the area where the race organizers had set up information booths. Stark and Savard were approaching from the second vehicle, and Cam signaled the two women to accompany Blair while she radioed Mac for his position.
"Do you have the commanders of the other teams there?" she asked without preamble, watching Blair disappear into the crowd of men and women clustered around the long registration tables. It bothered her that Blair was out of her visual range, and it occurred to her that it might be less a security issue than the fact that she couldn't see who she was with. Terrific.
"I'll be right there," she snapped into her mike. Her lapse in concentration on the ride over had left her unsettled. So did the simmering remnants of desire. She ignored the physical annoyance with effort and checked Blair's position again.
Across the wide field, Blair stood talking to a number of people, Diane Bleeker among them. Cam resisted the urge to scan the faces nearby for the very handsome Doctor Coleman. She assured herself that Stark and Savard were well positioned, and walked over to join Mac and the other security chiefs.
It was hot and sunny and, surprisingly for August, without the heavy humidity that often blanketed the city in late summer. After greeting the appropriate people and allowing the media their few minutes of photo-ops, Blair found a quiet corner in the shade to stretch, preparing for the run. As she leaned over, legs braced, stretching her hamstrings, Diane's familiar voice remarked from beside her, "I see you've brought along a new addition. A very nice one, too."
Blair shifted to look up at Diane. She didn't have to ask whom she meant. She had seen her friend's face light up with an appreciative and frankly appraising expression when Savard had come into view a few minutes before. "That would be the FBI's contribution to my team."
Diane reclined on the grass next to Blair and began to lean forward, touching her toes effortlessly. "What's going on?" she asked casually, moving smoothly into a yoga pose.
Blair sat beside her, reaching for one ankle and crossing it over the opposite knee, rotating her torso as she said, "Nothing."
"Blair, friend - just how dumb do the you think I am?" Diane asked calmly, breathing deeply in the proscribed ujjay manner. "First Roberts makes a surprise appearance, and now you've got the FBI following you around. That means something."
Blair turned over and pushed off ten fast fingertip push-ups in perfect form. Returning to the sitting position, she said, "Just routine." Somehow talking about it made it much too real. She didn't want this in her life. Except for her first tentative discussions with her friend AJ at the Bureau, she hadn't told any of her acquaintances. She had intentionally avoided briefings with the FBI. The only thing she wanted to know from them was that they had caught him.
Diane folded both legs into a full lotus position and slipped one arm behind her back, twisting slowly in the opposite direction. "Believe it or not, I can keep a secret if I need to. Besides, my feelings will be hurt if I'm the last to find out and I miss all the fun."
Blair snorted in disgust. "Believe me, if you think this is a treat, you can take my place any day."
She rose quickly and began to alternately lift each leg to her chest in rapid succession. She looked across the gathering crowd and easily picked out Cam where she stood talking with several officious-looking individuals. There was nothing flashy or showy about her, but she stood out from the others. The air around her seemed charged. It was amazing - and frightening.
Diane studied Blair's face as she followed her gaze. "She's gotten to you, hasn't she?" Diane said softly.
"Oh, yeah," Blair said without thinking. She looked away, shrugging. "She's back because my father wanted her here. I've been getting a little more fan mail than usual, and you know how seriously these people take those things. It's nothing, really."
Diane nodded, knowing there was more but willing to wait for the details. Eventually, she'd get the rest out of her. She rose to stand beside her, waving to a familiar figure drawing near. "Marcy's been asking about you."
Blair looked at her, an eyebrow raised in question. "Is that so?"
"Yes," Diane said, grabbing them each a water bottle from a nearby table. "She wants to know how available you might be."
"Then she should ask me herself," Blair said impatiently. "For God's sake, we're all adults."
"I think she wants to avoid being shot down. Your signals were a little mixed last weekend at my place," Diane pointed out dryly.
Seeing Marcy's friendly smile, Blair was a little embarrassed to realize she hadn't given the events at Diane's gathering any thought. She had been too rattled the last week by Cam's abrupt reappearance and the emotional chaos that followed to give anything, or anyone, else much thought. It hadn't occurred to her that Marcy Coleman might have other ideas, but, recalling what had happened, she supposed it should have.
It had all started after Cam left the party.
Blair watched Cam move through the crowd, murmur something briefly to Ellen Grant, and then walk out the door. She did not look back to where Blair still stood in the shadows on the balcony.
After a moment of foolishly hoping that her security chief might suddenly reappear, Blair rejoined the group in Diane's living room. Lights were turned down low, and couples were dancing. A daring few in secluded corners were carrying on more intimate exchanges.
Dr. Marcy Coleman, a willowy blond in her mid-thirties approached, a smile on her face and a question in her eyes. "I thought you might have left."
"No," Blair said, her mind still on the image of Cam standing outside, alone in the dark, the night wind ruffling her dark hair. Once she had been challenged by Cam's solitude; now she was wounded by it. The change was not a welcome one, and she brushed the reflection from her mind.
"Another dance?" Marcy's asked, lightly taking Blair's hand in hers.
Sure," Blair answered absently. At least it would distract her from the way her body still vibrated from the brief touch of Cam's fingers. So she thought.
She stepped into Marcy's arms, rested her cheek lightly against the other woman's shoulder, and closed her eyes. The music was something slow and sultry -- perfect music to get lost in. She wanted to be lost for a while. Not to think, not to struggle, not to mourn. To want nothing was to never be disappointed.
Marcy's body was sleek and sensuous, and she moved against Blair with practiced intimacy. It had been like this countless times before, with other bodies, other faces. Brief diversions, momentary escape. The act of pleasuring was satisfying in itself, but Blair was careful always to remain in control. Safe, simple, emotionally unencumbered. No promises - just pleasant, mutually satisfying biological proceedings.
Marcy pulled her a little closer, rotating her hips slowly, insistently, against her own - a subtle shift of pressure that she almost didn't notice at first. And then something unexpected happened. Without realizing it, without consciously willing it, she was becoming aroused. A year ago, even six months ago, she would never have noticed the fire starting. And even if she had, she would have been able to ignore it. The excitement would have settled in the back of her mind like a pleasant afterthought, untended and unanswered. Now her nerve endings were raw and acutely sensitive.
She was afraid she knew why. Since Cam, something had changed. Something that she had been able to contain for many years had been unleashed. The practiced disconnection she had so carefully constructed between her emotions and her physical self had begun to dissolve with the first touch of Cam's hands.
She knew her breathing had increased, and she felt Marcy's heart beating rapidly against her own. When Marcy cupped her breast as she had done briefly once before that evening, she felt her nipple stiffen against Marcy's hand. She bit her lip to keep back a moan and tried to concentrate on something other than the liquid heat surging between her legs.
Marcy lowered her head, her lips brushing the outer edge of Blair's ear. "You are a great dancer," she said, her voice throaty and slightly breathless. As she spoke, she rubbed her palm very lightly over Blair's nipple.
Blair gasped as a ripple of excitement flickered through her, running down her spine and coiling in her stomach. It was so unusual that it took her completely by surprise, and before she was aware of it, she had parted her legs and pressed harder against Marcy's thigh. The pressure against her swelling clitoris was exquisite and for a moment, she couldn't think of anything at all.
"I'd like very much to be alone with you right now," Marcy continued, deftly directing them closer to the hallway that led back to the guest room in Diane's apartment. "I want to touch you so much it's driving me crazy."
Blair flashed on the last time she had been in that room, and almost instantly, Cam's face, intense and consuming, filled her mind. For a moment, it was Cam's hand on her breast, and Cam's leg between her thighs, and a spasm shuddered through her as her arousal escalated. She stumbled slightly, trembling.
Marcy's arms closed around her. "I don't usually do this sort of thing in other people's houses," she said urgently, "but if I don't do something soon, I'm in danger of exploding."
By now they were in the hallway, alone, and Marcy had maneuvered her up against the wall. She had both hands under Blair's sweater, cupping her breasts, squeezing them as she worked Blair's nipples between her fingers.
Blair pressed her palms flat against the wall, her head tipped back, her eyes closed, struggling to stay upright, verging on orgasm. She wasn't thinking of the woman who touched her now, but of the woman who had done so much more than just touch her body.
"Blair," Marcy whispered.
"Marcy," Blair groaned, forcing her eyes open, backing away from the edge through sheer willpower. "We -- should -- stop."
Marcy's lips were on Blair's neck, biting her lightly as she pressed harder against her, one hand pushing under the waistband of Blair's pants. "Oh god, I don't want to."
She moved her hand to the triangle between Blair's thighs and squeezed rhythmically. "God, I know how close you are. I can feel it."
Blair pulled away as much as she could, struggling to contain the surging pressure building between her legs, knowing that in a second, she would lose the fight. Dimly she wondered why it mattered, and she did not want to know the answer. "Stop now, please."
Marcy lifted her hands to Blair's waist, holding her but not pushing her any further. She shuddered against Blair, gasping. "I'm sorry. I don't know what happened."
Blair laughed shakily. "Neither do I, but you don't need to apologize."
Marcy leaned back, her eyes still molten with desire, and smiled a little tremulously. "I don't think anyone has ever done that to me before."
Blair laughed, a little stronger this time. "You mean teased you quite so unmercifully? Maybe I should apologize."
Marcy shook her head vehemently, running one finger along the edge of Blair's jaw. "Oh no, don't even think of it. What I meant was, no one has ever made me so hot so fast. No one ever made me lose my mind like that."
Blair stepped sideways enough to put space between them. "I didn't mean to do that. It took me a little by surprise too."
Marcy brushed her shoulder length blond hair back with a still trembling hand. "I think we should go back into the other room. I seem to be dangerous out here."
Blair took her hand in a friendly but not intimate gesture, and laughed. "A very good idea, Dr. Coleman."
"I'd like that to happen again," Marcy said just before they rejoined the others. "Somewhere, some time, when we won't have to stop."
Blair did not look back, and she did not answer.
Blair watched Marcy approach and shrugged again. "I don't think I sent her any kind of message at all. Nothing happened."
"That's not the way she tells it," Diane said off-handedly. "To hear her, you are the answer to a woman's dreams. She appears to be in danger of spontaneous combustion just from being in the same room as you."
"I can't help that," Blair said in irritation. "I can't control what other people fantasize."
Diane nodded, following Blair through the crowd toward the start line. "I absolutely agree, Blair," Diane responded, her tone uncharacteristically serious. "I like her, though. I like you, too."
Blair looked at her directly, a challenge in her eyes. "You have a point here?"
"I thought I did," Diane said. "God knows, I'm the last one to give advice. Just be careful with her. Especially if you know there's no chance."
Blair looked back, and just beyond Marcy, saw Cam. The contrast was striking - one blond, the other dark, sunlight and midnight. Her heart hammering, she said, "I'm not sure of anything anymore."
Stark glanced over at Savard and grimaced. She hoped her lithe companion, running effortlessly beside her, could not see her struggling to catch her breath.
Running - I hate running. Stupid form of exercise. Terrible for your feet. Murder on your knees. Give me a bike, or better yet - rollerblades.
Savard cast her a sideways look and grinned, a surprisingly charming grin, then called, "Isn't this great?"
"Oh yeah, fabulous! Love it," Stark replied, hoping that she sounded appropriately excited. No way was she going to let the FBI agent think she couldn't keep up. She'd run on bare feet first. Just to prove it, she picked up her pace a little bit.
"Could be worse duty," Savard commented. Or worse company.
She was enjoying her posting with the Secret Service more than she had imagined. She missed the prevailing sense of urgency that permeated everything the FBI seemed to do, even if it was just a routine wire tap, but she couldn't deny that Roberts and her team ran a tight, organized operation. And she also had to admit that Paula Stark was an interesting combination of straight-arrow dedication and startling naiveté. She couldn't help but wonder if her refreshingly unsophisticated counterpart really had no clue as to how attractive she was or the fact that other people might think so. Savard reminded herself to stop watching Stark's butt and keep her eyes on the main target, who, come to think of it, had a very nice butt herself.
At that moment, Stark was doing the same thing, but without quite the same appreciation. The Commander and Egret were a few feet ahead of her and neither of them looked like they had even broken a sweat. In between ignoring the pain in her calves and attempting to look consumed with zeal for this madness, her primary responsibility for the day was crowd surveillance. Another nearly impossible chore, but a far more achievable goal than pretending enthusiasm for the next god knew how many miles.
The entire team had been provided with photos of the people expected to be in Blair's immediate vicinity during the run - primarily the race organizers, representatives of various cancer organizations, and political dignitaries from the city, state and national level. When she occasionally spotted someone she did not recognize, she radioed a verbal description to Mac in the communications van that was following behind the mass of runners, and more often than not, he made an immediate identification. If there was any question or concern, she could beam him an image from her handheld personal unit. He and several other agents conscripted from the local office for this particular event had been on site since daybreak, quietly photographing individuals as they arrived in the park. Then they ran all unknowns through computer links to the DMV, Armed Forces directory and the State Police files. She didn't know for sure, but she assumed that the FBI were doing the same thing from their own van as well. It would have been more efficient to combine their search capabilities, but the FBI hadn't offered access to their data banks. So much for interagency cooperation.
Not all of this was routine. The fact that Egret was now considered a high-risk subject dictated the extra precautions. Stark shifted the weight of her pistol in the quick release fanny pack she wore and said a small prayer of thanks as they crossed over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. She looked ahead, never so grateful in her life to see the Bowery.
Cam kept pace to Blair's right and just a half step behind her, a vantage point from which she could see anyone approaching from the right, left or rear. What she was watching now, however, was Marcy Coleman lean close to say something to Blair, her hand resting casually in the small of Blair's back. It might have been a friendly gesture, but Cam didn't think so. Not from the way the blond doctor had been looking at Blair for the last few miles.
Cam had seen Blair with other women before. Hell, she'd seen her have sex with other women. It had been different then. She hadn't particularly enjoyed watching Blair have casual sex with strangers, the biggest reason being that she had always thought Blair exceptional. She couldn't help thinking that Blair deserved something more than anonymous couplings. But it hadn't been her business then, and she had been able to put it out of her mind enough to work around it. The problem now was that she carried the imprint of Blair's skin burned into her nerve endings. She had surrendered to her and taken her and she knew the wonder of holding her when she was completely without her usual defenses. Now it was intolerable to see another woman touch her.
She looked away, scanning the nearby faces, forcing herself to review yet again the details of the rest of the day. She settled back into a comfortable rhythm, mentally and physically, as she took refuge in her responsibilities. They were approaching Fifth Avenue now, and before too long they would enter the south end of Central Park. Once there, security would be at its most difficult, and Blair would be at greatest risk. The park was always filled with people - runners, bladers, people pushing strollers, and tourists of all size and description. Students picnicked on the grass and lovers trysted amongst the outcroppings of rocks. The race ended in Sheep Meadow, a huge open field where a stage had been erected and equipped with sound and video for the closing activities. Blair, the Mayor, members of the American Cancer Society, and a few celebrities would be speaking from there.
It was an impossible area to isolate and contain. Blair would be exposed on the podium the entire time, particularly so when she gave the keynote address. The anticipated crowd would number in the thousands. The New York State Police would be providing the NYPD with additional troops for crowd control. That would leave the Mayor's security detail to concentrate on the area directly around the speaker's stands. Cam had met the Mayor's security chief and she was good. That was a plus. She intended to make full use of all of them.
Her mental planning was interrupted as Blair dropped back to run next to her.
"Are you enjoying yourself, Commander?" Blair asked. She was actually surprised to find that she was. She loved the exercise, but the event itself took a toll on her emotionally. It reminded her, even after all these years, of the horrible year when she was nine and everything in her life seemed to change overnight. She focused on Cam's face and let the memory slip away. "Beats sitting in front of the video monitors, wouldn't you say?"
"It's a beautiful day," Cam agreed, smiling when she looked at her because she couldn't help it. There was a faint sheen of sweat on Blair's face, and her T-shirt was damp between her shoulder blades. She looked healthy and strong and altogether beautiful. "Can't complain about a chance to spend a day like this outside."
"Un huh," Blair acknowledged with a slow smile, thinking that Cameron Roberts had to be the most naturally graceful, physically striking woman she had ever seen. And at the moment, there were shadows in her deep gray eyes. "Then why do I get the impression you'd rather be elsewhere?"
"I'd rather you be elsewhere," Cam responded immediately.
Blair shook her head, frowning slightly, but her eyes were dancing. "You are nothing, Commander Roberts, if not doggedly persistent."
Cam's eyes became even more serious as she answered, "I assume you want me to tell you the truth, Ms. Powell. Especially when it affects you."
Blair's chin came up and her voice was chilly. "I do, Commander. I just wish you'd tell me before you decide on something. Especially when it affects me."
Cam looked ahead, checking their position. Nothing out of the ordinary. Then, for a moment, she looked nowhere but at Blair. "I know. I'm sorry."
"Yes," Blair said dryly, taking no comfort from that admission. "You said that before."
"I'll need to review a few things with you once we arrive at the stage," Cam said steadily. She needed to keep them both focused on what was important for the moment. Later, later somehow, they would talk.
"I'll try to spare a minute or two," Blair answered.
Then she picked up her speed and rejoined Diane and Marcy Coleman.
The area around the viewing stands was controlled chaos, just as Cam had expected. Sound and video technicians were crawling over the surface of the stage, running last-minute cables and adjusting microphones. The Mayor was taking every occasion for photo ops, and there were more press people jockeying for a comment than Cam would have liked. All of the reporters were easily identifiable by their badges, but it was a simple matter to counterfeit those things.
"Let's go up the back way to the stage," Cam suggested as she and Blair approached. "There are too many people in front."
"I at least need to make an appearance here first," Blair said matter-of-factly. At Cam's frown, she added gently, "I am identified with this event. The American people know my life story, and the story of my mother's death. I'm here because I'm identified with this disease, and I need to be seen. It's expected."
"You'll be seen by millions of television viewers in about twenty minutes," Cam pointed out as she took Blair's arm lightly and started to move around to the side of the high temporary stage. "That will have to do."
"Cam," Blair said quietly.
Cam stopped in her tracks at the sound of her name spoken as only Blair could say it.
Blair touched Cam's arm briefly, continuing softly, "He doesn't want to hurt me. If he did, he wouldn't be sending me the messages he's been sending."
Cameron looked over the faces in the immediate vicinity, imprinting each on her mind. She saw Stark and Savard already posted at opposite corners of the stage and Mac in conversation with the Mayor's security chief. She was satisfied that all was as it should be.
Then she looked at Blair, and there were no barriers in her eyes this time. No professional distance, no orders or rules or protocol between them. "I don't know what he's going to do. I don't know when he's going to do it. I don't know nearly enough." She struggled not to touch her, and for the barest of instants, she brushed her fingertips over Blair's hand. "Blair, I just want you safe."
"Yes, I know," Blair responded, no anger or resentment in her voice. She could not argue with the honest caring in Cam's face. It wasn't how she wanted it - it was not what she wanted from her - but it was real nonetheless. "And you've done what needs to be done to ensure that. Now, I need to go and do this."
Cam nodded, knowing she would never be comfortable with it, but accepting that Blair would not let this threat interfere with her life or her responsibilities. "Let's go see the Mayor, then, Ms. Powell. You'll make the photographers a lot happier than he will."
Blair smiled. "Why, thank you, Commander."
When Blair stepped to the podium, Cam was positioned to the right rear, just a few feet behind her. Stark and Savard were at ground level directly in front of her, and several FBI agent's on loan from the New York office were interspersed in the crowd near the stage.
Mac, coordinating the various teams from the communication van, was linked by radio to Jeremy Finch, the driver of Blair's car; to Ellen Grant, in the second back-up vehicle; and to the Mayor's security chief as well as the NYPD crowd control captain. As it turned out, for that sort of affair, it was proceeding without a hitch. The audiovisual equipment actually functioned; the speakers were keeping to their preplanned schedule; and the hundreds of people scattered about in Sheep Meadow were surprisingly orderly.
Blair had exchanged her running gear for warm up pants and a dry T-shirt in one of the tents, as had Cam and the others, and she looked casually stylish as she faced the mass of onlookers. When she began to speak, the sound of cameras clicking fluttered through the crowd like something alive.
While part of Cam's attention was completely focused on crowd activity in the area within visual range of Blair, another part listened to her speak. She had a beautiful speaking voice, warm and strong and somehow soothing. Cam knew the story, of course. Everyone did. A man could not run for the presidency of the United States and have something as critical as his wife's valiant battle with breast cancer not be a prominent issue during the campaign. This personal tragedy was part of his image, part of his public face, no matter how private the pain. And because her father's life was open to intense scrutiny by virtue of his position, Blair's loss became public knowledge, too. Blair Powell had secrets she guarded, but this was not one of them. To fight this war, she had willingly exposed her deepest anguish. She spoke eloquently, urging lawmakers to allocate funds for treatment and diagnosis, exhorting women to practice vigilance and to be their own best advocates, and, above all, encouraging every person touched by the disease to never lose hope.
Cam thought she was magnificent.
When Blair finished, she turned away from the podium, and Cam stepped immediately to her side, careful not to touch her but walking close beside her toward the rear of the stage and the shelter of some overhead canvas tarps.
"Are you all right?" Cam asked quietly, because she had heard the tears beneath the noble words. Although she had rarely seen Blair shaken, she could sense her fragility now. There were some things that always hurt, no matter how many years had passed. "Can I get you anything? Some water? You were standing in the blazing sun up there for half an hour."
Blair glanced at her, aware of what Cam wasn't saying and grateful to her for not remarking on the fact that she was shaking. "So were you," she pointed out.
"Yes," Cam murmured, passing her a bottle of water, "but I had sunglasses on."
Blair laughed softly. "Well, that explains it. I'm all right, but I'd like to get out of here now."
"Of course." Cam spoke into her microphone quickly. "Egret is flying."
Blair smiled wearily. "Egret is actually dragging, but carry on, Commander."
"Destination?" Cam asked as they moved down the steps and across the field toward the waiting cars parked along the far edge of the grass. The meadow itself was large enough that the vehicles were actually quite a distance away on one of the main roads running north to south through the park. Cam wasn't happy about that, but it was the terrain she'd been given to deal with. Stark and Savard fell in behind them and Mac, upon hearing Cam's announcement, radioed the drivers to prepare for departure. "I'd like to inform the drivers where you need to go."
She asked as casually as she could, and hoped she sounded only professionally interested. She was acutely aware of the fact that Blair had spoken privately to both Diane and Marcy Coleman just before she had joined the other speakers on the stage. Cam assumed that she was making plans for the rest of the day. She had tried hard not to consider the particulars of those plans.
"Home," Blair responded. Diane had invited both her and Marcy over to her apartment for dinner and drinks, but she had decided to pass. It had been a long day and a longer week. She didn't have the energy for conversation or the desire to deal with Marcy's obvious interest. She might have to deal with it soon, but not when she knew her emotional armor would already be breached. She'd need a little time to garner her defenses again.
"That was quite a speech," Cam said as they walked. "They were right to have you give it."
Blair smiled, pleased despite her weariness. "Thank you."
Cam merely nodded, anxious to get Blair into the safety of the waiting car. They were thirty feet from the vehicles, Stark and Savard keeping pace to either side, when they heard someone call out, "Blair!"
Blair looked back over her shoulder, then stopped as Marcy Coleman hurried toward her. This could be awkward, she thought, very conscious of Cam beside her. She didn't want to have a personal conversation with Marcy in front of her. It shouldn't have mattered, and she was well used to ignoring her security guards, just as they were well schooled in appearing totally deaf and blind under such circumstances. She had no doubt that Cam would behave as if nothing were happening, but Blair would know she could hear. She wasn't sure what Marcy would say, or precisely how she herself would respond. She was certain that she didn't want to deal with a request for a date, no matter how delicately worded, in front of Cameron Roberts.
"Sorry," Marcy said, suddenly flustered as she looked at the cadre of Secret Service agents loosely ringing Blair. For the first time it was abundantly clear to her just who she had been trying to seduce. Jesus. "Diane told me you weren't coming by later, so I thought I should give you this."
She held out a white envelope, smiling uncertainly when Blair regarded her with a slightly confused expression on her face.
Cam listened with half an ear to the vehicles starting their engines behind them while thinking that the attractive doctor was making a very serious attempt to capture Blair's attention. She tried to tell herself that her annoyance was merely due to the hiccoughing coming from the motor of one of their cars. She'd have to speak to Mac about the maintenance schedule. She couldn't have Egret's vehicle breaking down.
Blair took the envelope and was about to tuck it into her fanny pack when Marcy added, "He said you'd want to look at it right away. That you'd know whom it was from."
Blair faltered, staring from Marcy to the envelope. "He?"
"Wait," Cam ordered sharply, about to reach for it when the significance of the engine's stuttering finally registered. She grabbed Blair, shouting, "Everybody down!" just as the air exploded with heat and thunder.
Blair was momentarily stunned by the noise and shaken by the force of being thrown to the ground. She heard Cam's voice, raw and urgent, as she was suddenly being dragged away by Stark and Savard.
Get her out Get her out GOGOGO!
Blair was too confused and shocked by the sight of the burning car to resist until she saw Cam running not in the direction the other agents were evacuating her, but in the opposite direction, directly toward the inferno.
"No!" Blair cried, struggling to escape the hands that restrained her as the second vehicle careened to a halt beside them and the doors flew open. As Stark pushed her into the back of the car, Blair had only a fleeting glimpse of Cam stepping intentionally into the blaze and reaching for what remained of the door on the flaming wreck.
The she could see nothing, and all she could hear was the wail of sirens and her own silent screams.
The next thing Blair was clearly aware of was the wild rocking of the car as it careened around curves on the narrow twisting road through the park. She could barely breathe because Stark was practically lying on top of her in an attempt to shield her from projectiles directed at the windows. Blair shifted on the seat, pushing Stark none too gently away. She sat up and stared at the two women with her.
"What's happening?" she said urgently.
No one answered her. Stark and Savard, their faces grim, each with a hand to their small earpieces, alternately listened to and then answered their respective colleagues. Stark was rapidly switching frequencies on her transmitter, issuing rapid-fire one-word responses. Blair assumed it was some kind of code concerning their evacuation route or destination, because she couldn't make any sense of it.
"Where is Cam?" Blair demanded, her voice louder, stronger now that she had caught her breath. "Agent Stark, are you talking to her? Is she all right?"
Something about her tone caught Savard's attention. She had been listening with only part of her mind, and when she registered the edge of fear in Blair's voice, she misinterpreted it. "Ms. Powell -- are you injured?"
Blair stared at her, trying to contain her panic and her escalating anger. This was an all too familiar nightmare - a deja vu so horrifyingly real she wanted to grab Savard and shake her. Everyone was focused on protecting her, as if her life were so much more important than everyone else's. It was insane.
She struggled for control amidst the disorientation of being whisked away to some unknown destination while the threat of danger enveloped her like an oppressive, invisible cloak. Even worse than the infuriating helplessness of having no control over her own safety was the terror of knowing that Cam might be hurt - might be seriously injured - and she was not there. Again.
Blair took a deep breath, knowing these women were only doing their jobs, and said again, "Is there any word from Cameron? Is she all right?"
"I don't have any information as to specifics," Stark said, her voice tight with stress but still polite. She hesitated, and against regulations, added, "Emergency medical services are on the scene. I have no word on the extent or nature of casualties."
Blair's stomach clenched, and she fought to quell her rising fear. She held Stark's gaze. "Can you tell me if she's hurt? Can you just tell me that?"
Stark shook her head, barely managing to say, "Ms. Powell, I can't. I don't know," before the pain struck. She gasped at the sudden rush of near-blinding pain in her head that was just now becoming noticeable.
For the first time since they had piled into the car, Savard actually looked at Stark, who was seated beside her, and her heart skipped a beat - which, at the rate it was already racing, was no small feat. Still she managed to state calmly, "You appear to be injured, Agent."
Through the haze of her own anxiety, Blair finally focused on Stark and saw that she was mopping up a steady stream of blood that ran down her face with a handkerchief. The three-inch gash in her forehead was bleeding copiously.
"She's right," Blair said. "You need a doctor. Tell whoever's driving this thing to go to a hospital."
"I'm fine," Stark said, although in truth she was having a little trouble clearing her vision. At this point they couldn't divert for any reason except a serious injury to Egret. In addition, she was the ranking agent present and she had much more pressing matters to attend to. She wondered where the Commander was, but she pushed that worry from her mind. She confirmed their position with Grant and radioed it to Mac, adding, "We are en route, on schedule, to checkpoint alpha. Please advise."
"Continue that location, black-out procedures in effect until further notice," Mac's voice confirmed. "Terminating transmission now."
Until such time as the scope of the assault could be determined, Stark knew it was standard operating procedure to assume that their radio transmissions were being monitored. That also meant that she, Ellen Grant, and Renee Savard, an unknown quantity in this situation, had full responsibility for Egret's safety until the Commander, or Mac, if the Commander were unavailable, contacted them on a preset frequency and sent a coded, predetermined, all-clear message.
"Your clothes are torn," Savard remarked to Blair, indicating a long rent in the thin material of her pant leg. "Are you otherwise uninjured?"
Blair nodded her head affirmatively. Her thigh burned with what felt like a scrape from her contact with the gravel on the path when Cam had thrown her down. She wasn't concerned about her aches and bruises, however. All she could think about was Cam racing toward the burning car.
Nearly sixty minutes later, they stopped. Blair had only a brief glimpse of a moderate-sized colonial structure artfully hidden from the neighboring houses by fences and hedgerows. She guessed they were in one of the affluent bedroom communities just north of the city limits where the homes had a small amount of land and an impressive amount of privacy that came with an enormous price tag.
Blair found herself in the living room of a surprisingly tasteful house that sat unoccupied for months or years at a time waiting for someone like her to need shelter. She had no idea how many such places there were scattered over the country and probably in other countries as well. She knew that anywhere her father traveled, anywhere she traveled, or, for that matter, anywhere any of the immediate members of the President's or Vice-President's family might be, contingencies were made to secure them in safe houses not only in the case of a threat to their personal safety but in the event of a national emergency. She had always thought that such precautions were unnecessary holdovers from the paranoid days of the Cold War, when everyone feared that a nuclear attack was imminent. She looked around the comfortable accommodations and grudgingly admitted to herself that in this instance maybe the paranoia had been a good idea.
"There is a bedroom down the hallway to your left with an adjoining bath," Paula Stark told her as she glanced at a floor plan on her handheld unit. "There should be clothes to fit you there as well."
Blair was about to object to being sent off when what she wanted was information, and then thought better of it. She was cold, chilled in a way she wasn't certain any amount of clothing could warm.
"Thank you, Agent Stark. You should see to that wound at some point. You're dripping again," Blair responded quietly.
"Yes ma'am, I'll do that at the first opportunity," Stark replied seriously, and Blair thought she saw a faint smile play across Savard's face. It occurred to her fleetingly that there was something tender in that smile.
"Good," Blair answered and went in search of something to exchange for her torn and dirty clothes.
When she returned from the bedroom in a pair of gray sweatpants and a long-sleeved, dark blue T-shirt, she found Ellen Grant in the kitchen, making coffee of all things. It seemed like such a mundane, commonplace thing to do that Blair was afraid she would burst out laughing at the absurdity of it. Even worse, she was afraid that if she began to laugh, she would begin to cry. And then she wasn't sure she would stop.
Ellen Grant was just setting cups down on the counter.
"Is there anything I can do?" Blair asked when she could trust herself not to come apart. The aroma of brewing coffee was surprisingly comforting, and she had a feeling she was going to need it. She doubted that she would be sleeping for some time to come.
Grant cast her a startled glance and then a faint smile. "I don't think so. There's some food in the freezer - pizza and the like. I'm afraid that will have to do for the time being. Coffee should be ready in just a second."
It was almost surreal, Blair thought, to be standing in some strange house, talking to a woman she had seen almost daily for the last year, and to realize that she had never had a conversation with her before. The Secret Service agents did their jobs so well, remaining always in the background, that most of the time Blair did not think of their personal lives. She studied the wedding ring on Ellen Grant's hand.
"Does he mind your job?" she asked. Under other circumstances she never would have asked. Somehow these extraordinary conditions created a familiarity that might otherwise have never existed.
As if what Blair had asked were the most natural of questions, Grant replied, "If he does, he's never said. He's a cop."
Blair nodded. "Does it bother you, what he does?"
Grant smiled, a distant smile, and her eyes were focused somewhere far away. "Yeah, sometimes."
"What does he say?"
"I've never mentioned it. It's what he does."
Blair sighed, and helped herself to coffee. "Someone should get Stark to a hospital."
"One of us will take care of that as soon as she's free to leave. In the mean time, I'll look at her. We've all had EMS training."
"I know," Blair said dryly, "the team is completely self-sufficient."
"To some extent, yes," Grant acknowledged, ignoring the edge of sarcasm in Blair's voice. "You'll be perfectly safe here with us."
"I don't doubt it," Blair said, meaning it. She wasn't in the least concerned for her own safety. It wasn't her safety that had ever been her concern.
"When it's possible, I like to talk to my father. He'll be worried."
At the mention of her father, Grant nearly came to attention. "Of course. I'll relay the information to Stark. She's acting chief until the Commander returns."
Blair stared at her, a quick stab of fear knifing through her chest. "Do you know where Cam is? Do you have any information?"
Grant looked uncomfortable. "Agent Stark is in command temporarily, Ms. Powell, and I'm sure she'll brief you soon."
Blair resisted the urge to push her for more. She recognized a stone wall when she saw one. She could hear Stark and Savard's murmured voices in the adjoing room, and she assumed they were still apprising whomever it was they needed to apprise of the situation. It was approaching two hours since they had left Central Park: two hours that felt like an eternity; two hours that felt like a nightmare from which she could not awake. She wasn't planning on waiting much longer for information.
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