A Matter of Trust: Part 2
WARNING: The stories on this page are about the love between two women and may contain explicit love scenes. If you are not 21, or are offended by this type of love - do not go any further. By continuing you are consenting that you are of legal age to read further.
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Backstage in the dressing room shared by all the performers, Jasmine sat before a light-encircled mirror at a long table running along the entire length of one wall. She finished applying the last touches of mascara and reached for the lip-gloss to seal the dark crimson shade she had chosen. Carefully, she used a fine brush to shade the edges of her upper lip, and then checked to see that any hint of shadow along her jaw line had been obliterated with a light foundation. She looked up as the door to the dressing room opened, and one of the other performers entered. The statuesque brunette in the form fitting red dress eased into the adjoining chair and studied her reflection in the mirror. After assuring herself that everything was in order, she swiveled to face Jasmine.
"You should get a load of Sloan's date," she remarked too casually.
Jasmine turned, arching an eyebrow in surprise. "Oh really? Sloan never said anything about bringing someone."
"Well, she's at her usual table, and she's got a gorgeous blond with her."
"Blond, as in natural?" Jasmine repeated, feeling a faint stirring of anxiety. "As in perfect size 6? As in Ingrid Bergman elegant and Sharon Stone sexy? That type of blond?"
Crystal stood, smoothing out nonexistent wrinkles in her dress, looking into the mirror again as she made a subtle adjustment to the very expensive body-sculpting brassiere she wore and squeezing her lips together in a slight kissing motion. "That would be the one."
Jasmine closed her eyes briefly, then muttered, "Oh fuck."
"Problems with the randy boss again?"
Jasmine reached for the black sheath dress, lowered it over her head and smoothed it down her body, reminding herself that it was not her problem, and none of her business. "Sloan's okay," she remarked at length. "I just wish she'd settle down with someone."
She carefully fitted the expensive wig over the thin skullcap that contained her own blond hair. Better for business, better for my nerves, better for her. Especially for her.
Crystal laughed. "Sloan? Oh, I don't think so. Honey, that one is not the marrying kind."
Jasmine followed Crystal out of the small harshly lit dressing room toward the shadows at the edges of the curtained stage. She knew better, but it was not her story to tell.
Michael edged her chair closer to the small circular table, trying to avoid being jostled by the bustling wait people and harried latecomers, glancing surreptitiously around the room. It was crowded and noisy. The patrons displayed such a contagious exuberance that it made her smile. It was a party-like atmosphere and she felt herself relaxing despite the strangeness.
"Drink?" Sloan shouted, leaning near, steadying the teetering pedestal tabletop with one hand. She settled a plate of surprisingly good-looking sandwiches in the center of the tiny tabletop.
"Wine?" Michael shouted back. Whatever the capacity of the club, she was certain that they had exceeded it by a wide margin. If the fire marshal happened in, they’d all be out in the street.
Sloan pulled a face. "I wouldn't chance it here. It's most likely something that comes with a screw cap in a gallon jug."
Sloan nodded. "Safer," she called as she moved off into the crowd.
Michael watched her wend her way effortlessly through the throng of shouting, jostling people. She moved gracefully, with a subtle air of confidence that suggested she was used to others stepping aside for her. Alone, without Sloan's charismatic presence to distract her, Michael had to wonder at herself. She didn't know this woman, had never been in any place remotely like this before, and worried that she would say something to embarrass herself. Despite her anxiety, she also felt a surge of excitement. She hadn't been away from the office for anything other than business trips in months. This was as far from her usual routines as she could get, and just the diversion she needed.
"Hi, I'm Sarah," a slender redhead in soft, tan chinos and a white cotton turtleneck announced as she pulled a chair over to the already crowded table. At the look of perplexity on Michael's face she added, "I'm a friend of Sloan's."
Michael held out her hand. "Michael Lassiter."
Sarah regarded her carefully for a moment, noting the perfectly styled hair, understated but flawless make-up, and the suit so expensively tailored that it looked casual. "If you're a drag queen, you're the best I've ever seen."
Michael stared, struggling for a reply that would be remotely appropriate.
"Ms. Lassiter is a business associate, Sarah," Sloan said smoothly as she wedged herself into the remaining chair at the cramped table, depositing Michael's drink and her own. Looking at Michael, she tried to hide her amusement. The beautiful face showed faint signs of numb shock. "Sarah is a doctor of oriental medicine, Michael."
That might explain the slight fragrance of spices that clung to her, and the quiet contained expression on her smooth, even features that Michael found oddly companionable. It didn't explain why she was there, or how she knew Sloan, but then why should anything about this experience make sense. "I see."
Sarah laughed, and laid her hand briefly on Michael's arm. "Sloan never has gotten over being cryptic, even when she doesn't have to be. We met ages ago when we both did a stint in Thailand. I ended up staying behind and studying there. We've just recently reconnected since I got back to the States."
Michael nodded, as if that cleared everything up. She saw the look of discomfort pass over Sloan's features, darkening her gaze for a moment. She didn't ask for clarification.
"Then she invited me to see Jasmine perform, and now I hate to miss one of her shows," Sarah continued as if oblivious to Sloan's glowering expression. "Have you ever seen her?"
"No," Michael answered, seeing no point in adding that she had never in her life seen so many women who might not be women, and how did one tell any way? Mercifully, the lights went down signaling the beginning of the show, sparing her from any further response.
And then she was too engrossed to talk.
Michael could scarcely remember two hours that she had ever enjoyed more. She wasn't certain what was more entertaining - the costumes, the music, or the genuinely talented performers. To her amazement, the voices of the half dozen or so female impersonators were marvelous. Throughout the show, she was aware of Sloan beside her, laughing softly at some joke, applauding enthusiastically for every performer, and bending close during breaks in the entertainment to fill her in on some of the background of the Cabaret. She disappeared once for a few moments and returned with a fresh drink for Michael, setting it before her with a warm smile. She was considerate, attentive, and altogether charming. Michael had never met anyone quite like her.
As the lights came up, Michael found herself pressed against Sloan at the tiny table. The noise level had not abated, and if anything the raucous crowd had become even more celebratory as the evening progressed. She and Sloan had to lean almost forehead-to-forehead to hear each other.
"Well, what did you think?" Sloan inquired, her eyes alight with pleasure.
"It was wonderful!" Michael replied enthusiastically. "In addition to how wonderful they sounded, they're so beautiful to look at. The costumes are gorgeous. They remind me of Birds of Paradise!"
Sloan laughed, and nodded. "I'll have to remember to tell Jasmine. She'll love that."
At the sound of Jasmine's name, Sarah leaned forward to join their conversation. "Jasmine has a wonderful singing voice, don't you think?" she declared, more a statement than a question.
As Michael nodded her assent, Sloan studied Sarah carefully, catching the tone of admiration in her voice. Sarah’s face was flushed with pleasure, her eyes bright with excitement, and she appeared altogether effervescent. Sloan had a feeling that she knew why. It had not escaped Sloan's notice that Sarah had been at every one of Jasmine’s performances since Sloan first brought Sarah to the Cabaret. She also couldn’t help but notice the way Sarah’s eyes never left Jasmine, whether Jasmine was on stage or enjoying a drink at their table after the show. She knew for a fact that Jasmine never saw anyone socially outside of the club, and wondered if Sarah really appreciated Jasmine's story. She said nothing, for she made a point never to involve herself in the personal affairs of other people, particularly her friends. She simply said, "Jasmine’s fantastic."
At that moment, the subject of their conversation appeared from the hallway behind the stage, threading her way carefully between the crowded and disorderly tables to where they sat. Sloan gallantly rose and offered her chair at the table. Jasmine thanked her with a quick kiss on the mouth. Sloan couldn't help but grin, rubbing off the faint smudge of lipstick with her finger.
"I'm so glad all of you stayed," Jasmine said, taking the offered seat. She crossed her legs, the hem of her dress riding up to expose trim smooth legs beneath sheer stockings. A stiletto-heeled red satin shoe dangled from her foot. "You all looked like you're having such fun, and I didn't want to miss a minute of it!"
"We were just saying how wonderful your performance was," Sarah remarked, her attention totally focused on Jasmine.
Sloan was certain she saw Jasmine blush, even in the dim light of the smoky room. Beside her, Michael echoed Sarah's praise. She was pleased that Michael had enjoyed the show. She was still surprised at herself for impetuously inviting her to come. It wasn't something she generally did - inviting near total strangers, particularly straight married strangers, out on the town with her. She just had the feeling, sitting in that cold glass-enclosed, high-rise office late on a Friday night, that Michael Lassiter was lonely. Why exactly she should care was another question altogether, and not something she wanted to look at too closely. The fact that she was very aware of Michael's arm against her own at the crowded table was also making her uncomfortable. She glanced at her watch, and saw that it was after 1 AM.
With something close to relief, Sloan said to Michael, "It's getting late. Would you like me to drive you back to your office, or may I take you home?" It wasn't until she had said it that she realized it might be misinterpreted as an invitation to something more personal. Hastily, she amended, "I mean - if you don't feel like driving, I could drop you anywhere you like."
Michael smiled faintly, pretending not to notice Sloan's discomfort. "Actually, I took the train in this morning. At this hour, I'm going to need a cab."
"Nonsense," Sloan said firmly. "I'll take you home. It's no trouble at all. Are you ready?"
Michael glanced over and saw Sarah and Jasmine engaged in animated discussion, Sarah's hand resting lightly on Jasmine's forearm. Most of the patrons had begun making their way toward the door, and with some regret she realized that the evening had come to an end. "Yes, of course," she said, quickly rising.
They called good night to Sarah and Jasmine, and got rather absent-minded waves as the two of them continued in intense conversation with scarcely a break. Sloan smiled at her two friends, and lightly took Michael's hand to lead her through the crowd.
"They seem to be very good friends," Michael remarked casually as she and Sloan stepped out onto the street. She was still holding Sloan's hand, and it was surprising strong, smooth and warm against her skin. It wasn’t at all unpleasant, that soft sure touch.
"They just met not long ago," Sloan informed her, "but they do seem to get along very well." She didn’t ordinarily discuss Jason and Jasmine’s connection, and although she thought Michael might understand, she changed the subject. "I'm really glad that you enjoyed the show."
As she spoke, she released her grip on Michael's fingers, disengaged the alarm on the Porsche with her remote, and opened the passenger door for Michael.
"Oh, I did," Michael replied, settling into the front seat and strapping on her seat belt. She shifted in the seat so she could face Sloan as she drove. "Thank you for inviting me."
For a moment, Sloan was uncomfortable, very aware that Michael had just contracted for her to do a job, and that she didn't know her very well. Usually when she was alone with a woman she felt a little more certain of her moves. Tonight had been different. Michael Lassiter was not someone with whom you indulged in a casual dalliance. Sloan had a feeling that Michael wouldn't even know the rules. She glanced at Michael, surprised anew by her quiet elegance and composure. Grinning, she said, "Sorry if the evening took you a little by surprise."
"Not at all," Michael laughed. "Once I figured out that the most beautiful women were all men, and all the handsome ones were really women, I wasn't confused at all."
"Well that's the first time I ever heard it put quite that way, but it does seem to sum it up." She looked at Michael and said without thinking, "Except for you. You're very beautiful, and most definitely not a man."
Michael stared, her skin flushing hot at the compliment. If Jeremy had ever called her beautiful, he'd never said it in exactly that tone. There was something slightly sensuous in the way Sloan said it. Michael watched the moonlight flicker across the other woman's face and realized at that moment that handsome was exactly the right word for J. T. Sloan. She was not exactly masculine, but beautiful was not a strong enough word for her attractiveness. She was lean and muscled, with features too chiseled to be anything but androgynous. Michael realized she was staring, and forced her gaze away.
"Thank you," she said softly, not knowing what else to say.
The Porsche hurtled through the night, each of them very aware of the other, neither of them feeling the need to break the silence. When Sloan pulled into the circular drive in front of a large stone mansion in one of the older, wealthier sections of the city, Michael was strangely disappointed. She glanced up at the familiar edifice and realized how cold and impersonal it seemed. Lights were lit in strategic windows, turned on and off at irregular intervals by the electronic timer. This gave the semblance of an inhabited home, when in fact she and Jeremy were rarely there at the same time. Often, their separate business obligations took them in opposite directions across the country for strategy or marketing meetings. Days would pass when one or both of them were out of town, or they would simply be coming and going at different times. They rarely shared a bed, and she noted with relief that his Ferrari was not in the drive. For some reason, she did not want to lie down next to him that night.
Sloan came around the front of the car and opened the passenger door. As Michael stepped out, Sloan said, "I was planning on spending some time in your offices tomorrow. Can you notify security in the morning and let them know to expect me?"
"You don't need to worry about that. I'll be there working. Just tell them to call up for verification when you come in."
Ignoring the slight surge of pleasure that statement provoked, Sloan simply nodded. "Good night then, Ms. Lassiter," she said softly, her deep voice oddly husky. She resisted the strong urge to brush her fingers across Michael's cheek.
Michael hesitated for moment, leaning forward almost imperceptibly, drawn by the quiet intensity of Sloan's tone. Finally, she simply smiled, and walked away. Sloan climbed back into the car, but she did not drive off until the massive front door had closed firmly behind Michael Lassiter's figure. Even then, the memory of that parting smile lingered in her mind.
At nine the next morning, Sloan walked down the brightly lit, cavernous central corridor of Michael's high-tech corporate complex. Small warrens of offices, conference rooms, and lounges branched off at irregular intervals. The hallway terminated on the east side of the building, with Michael's corner suite occupying a large part of that section. Sloan was surprised to see someone working in the outer office adjoining Michael's. A woman stood behind a large horseshoe-shaped reception desk sorting through a deep file cabinet, her back to Sloan.
"Excuse me," Sloan called, assuming that this was Michael's secretary. "Ms. Lassiter is expecting me."
The woman turned, glanced at Sloan, and then uttered a small cry of surprise. Her eyes widened, and a faint blush stole across her attractive features. "Oh my God. Sloan! What are you doing here?"
"Hello Angela," Sloan replied calmly, hiding her surprise with a cool expression. "I'm working. I'm surprised you didn't know that."
Sloan wasn't certain exactly how much Michael Lassiter had confided, and she certainly didn't want to give the impression that an explanation was in order. "I didn't realize that you work here."
Angela shrugged, a slightly bitter smile tugging at her lips. "Considering that I haven't talked to you in almost 2 1/2 years, I'm not surprised. Of course, you were never particularly interested in the details of my life. As I recall, your interests were somewhat more limited."
Sloan thought she probably deserved that, considering that she had rather abruptly ended her liaison with Angela Striker. They had dated a few times after meeting at some local political event. Angela, however, demanded a degree of exclusivity in her romantic partners that Sloan had found impossible to provide. She thought the better part of valor was to end the relationship quickly before both of them regretted it. Nevertheless, she said nothing now. She had learned over the years that attempting to defend her actions where bruised egos and dashed dreams were concerned was futile. It was simply easier to let them believe that she didn't care.
"So, is she ready for me?" Sloan questioned, indicating the closed door behind Angela.
A look of irritation flickered over Angela's face, and then she abruptly shrugged it off. "I don't know. Let me check with her and see."
A minute later Sloan stood once again across the wide expanse of luxurious office space from Michael Lassiter, who was looking casual that morning in beige slacks and a cashmere vee-neck pullover of darker brown. Sloan tried to ignore the obvious fact that Michael wasn't wearing anything of substance underneath the delicate sweater.
"Hi," she said.
Michael smiled in welcome, "Good morning."
Sloan deposited her briefcase next to the computer console, then glanced over her shoulder at Michael. "Have you been here long?"
She looked away uncomfortably. "A while. I had trouble sleeping."
"I'm sorry," Sloan said, meaning it. She had had a rather hard time getting to sleep herself the night before. She had found herself walking aimlessly through her loft apartment, the lights out, patches of moonlight the only illumination. She was strangely restless. She kept thinking about the evening, and the drive to Michael's. It had been a long time since she had spent so many hours with a woman when at least one of them hadn't been bent on seduction. But it hadn't been like that with Michael. There had been something in the air – her skin had tingled with it, but it hadn't been sex. Not the simple phermonally-inspired attraction she was used to. It might have been something as simple as the fact that she liked Michael Lassiter. And she didn't like to think of this quietly self-contained woman alone in the night, awake and worried. She straightened her shoulders, and blew out a breath. "Well, let me get to work and maybe I can give you a little peace of mind about this stuff at least."
"There's fresh coffee," Michael offered.
"Thanks, I'll get some in a minute," Sloan mumbled distractedly, already seated at the central console, rapidly typing in commands.
Michael watched her for a moment, enjoying the look of utter concentration on her face. She was also thinking how relaxed and at home Sloan looked in her faded jeans and slightly frayed at the cuffs white button-down shirt. The battered brown boots looked lived-in and completed the picture of a woman who couldn't have cared less about making the usual professional statement. No power suits in appearance here. Michael wondered if Sloan had any idea what an appealing image her obvious confidence projected. After a moment, she got up and filled two ceramic mugs with coffee and carried one over to Sloan.
"Black okay?" she asked, setting the mug down near Sloan's right hand.
"Huh?" Sloan replied, not looking away from the monitor. Then the aroma of very good French Roast caught her attention and she glanced up at Michael. "You aren't supposed to be waiting on me," she admonished with a winning grin, "but thanks."
Michael smiled. "It's the least I can do to repay you for last night."
Sloan swiveled on the chair to face her, her violet eyes serious. "You don't need to thank me. I enjoyed every minute."
Michael blushed. She had no idea why that pleased her so much. "I'd better let you work," she said softly, turning away.
It was some minutes before Sloan could concentrate on the diagnostics she was running, and even then she was acutely aware of Michael across the room, sketching something out on her drafting table. That undercurrent in the air that made her skin tingle was back again. She diligently determined to ignore it.
"Well, well, well," Sloan remarked almost to herself after a few moments.
Michael looked up from her work, noting the slight frown on Sloan's face. "What is it?"
Sloan held up one hand, indicating for her to be patient while she perused several windows which she had open on the screen. "Last night before we left I added a second level intrusion blocker to the firewall you already had on your system, just to see if there was any activity. It looks like you've got people trying to slip in the back door."
Michael put down her pencil, turned on the high stool and regarded Sloan intently. "Is it something serious?" she asked after a moment.
Sloan shrugged. "Not necessarily. There are literally thousands of people around the world who are constantly attempting to hack into other people's systems, just for the fun of it. They run programs that try to find open networks, either private or corporate. When they do, a scout program is launched that basically opens files on the systems and allows the hacker to read through them. I assume that your entire system is networked, internally and between your other companies."
"Yes, at least most of the areas dealing with marketing and development are." Michael confirmed. "We have so many interdivisional conferences, as well as design overlaps between the various physical plants, that it seemed wiser that way. The financial and personnel divisions are only accessible here, at the corporate headquarters, but to be honest I never inquired as to exactly how they are secured."
"Never mind. I'll be looking at that." Sloan leaned back in her chair and rubbed her face with both hands. She needed another cup of coffee, but she was reluctant to ask for it. She had been a little surprised when Michael brought her the first one. She wasn't used to anyone looking after her in that way.
"The way you’ve set things up is probably easier," she continued, "but it makes you more vulnerable as well. What about your home systems? How many people can access the company network from their private computers?"
Michael laughed at the absurdity of that thought. "Oh god, I don't know. Hundreds probably. At first we weren’t even networked, and then as our numbers grew, and we needed to be able to reach each other, we just hobbled things together. We never had anyone overhaul the entire network. Didn’t seem to need to." She slid off the stool and crossed to Sloan's working area, picking up her empty coffee cup. In the small alcove where the very expensive little French bistro coffeemaker was located, she poured them each another cup, then returned to stand by Sloan's left shoulder. She deposited the cup and stared at the screen. "Can you tell who it is?"
"Given enough time, probably," Sloan admitted. She reached for the coffee gratefully. "Thanks," she said quietly.
"I'm afraid if I make too obvious an attempt to lock others out of the system, particularly Jeremy, it will merely raise his suspicions," Michael mused. "I don't want to do anything until you have my critical data safe."
Sloan nodded, understanding that the urgency for security had to be balanced against the larger issue of Michael's personal situation. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to pry, but what do you think he's likely to do?"
Michael edged her hip onto the corner of the broad workstation that held the array of electronic equipment. She sighed, her blue eyes troubled. "I don't know."
Sloan looked up at her, confused. How could a woman not have some idea what her husband would do when she left him? Could it be possible that she knew so little of him, or he of her? Suddenly, she had a very uneasy feeling. "As he ever been--," she hesitated, then asked softly, "physical?"
For a moment, Michael looked uncertain, then she blushed faintly. "No, never. He has something of a temper, though generally when he's angry he simply becomes colder and more remote. I believe he thought that the worst thing he could do to me would be to abandon me, shut me out."
There was just a hint of pain and bewilderment in her voice, and Sloan had the feeling that Michael's husband had been correct. He had known exactly what to do to hurt her. For a moment, she despised him. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked that."
Michael placed her hand softly on Sloan's shoulder, saying, "It's all right. It doesn't matter to me anymore."
Sloan nodded, and turned back to the computer. She needed to concentrate on what she had been hired to do, and stop worrying about Michael Lassiter's personal life. It wasn't up to her to erase that shadow of unhappiness in Michael's eyes, or to ease the sadness that was so often present in her voice. "Let me work on this a while, and maybe I can give you some kind of answer to this problem at least."
Michael sat silently, aware that she had been dismissed. She was a little surprised that it hurt. When Sloan failed to look up again, she moved quietly away. They did not speak again except to say goodbye.