A Matter of Trust: Part 5

by Radcliffe


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.

COPYRIGHT INFO: All stories are original works and are copyrighted by their respected authors. Please do not copy them, link to them or redistribute them without the author's permission.

Chapter Thirteen

Sloan attempted to hold Jasmine at a decorous distance, her right hand resting lightly at the base of Jasmine's back in the slight hollow just above her very nice little butt. With her other she enfolded Jasmine's hand, which was surprisingly just a bit smaller than her own, and held it lightly against her own chest. The floor was fairly crowded with couples of all gender and combinations, but even so, she didn't think the proximity of the other dancers quite warranted the closeness with which Jasmine moved against her.

"Jasmine," Sloan said softly.

Jasmine tilted her head back and smiled innocently. "Yes?"

"Are you trying to ruin my reputation?" Sloan said, maneuvering them confidently between the other couples nearby. She was an expert dancer, and used to leading. Jasmine, for her part, followed effortlessly, slowly moving her hips against Sloan's pelvis. A little closer than she needed to but just exactly where she wanted to be.

"Whatever do you mean? Ruin your reputation?" she laughed, settling herself more comfortably against the length of Sloan's lean body. She gyrated subtly, but enough to feel Sloan's muscles tighten. Her voice low, she continued, "I don't think you need me to do that."

Sloan was aware of the warmth of Jasmine's body pressed against her chest, her belly, and her thighs. She knew damn well what was underneath that sheer delicate silk of Jasmine dress, and that it wasn't exactly what fulfilled her fantasies, but that contradictory fact didn't quite penetrate through to her autonomic nervous system. The part of her that was physical, and sexual, and totally beyond her rational control, saw and felt a woman in her arms.

There wasn't a single thing about Jasmine that said male. She was soft in all the right places, smooth in just the right places, and curved in precisely the right places. Jasmine fit against Sloan completely naturally, and if that wasn't enough, she knew exactly how to move to inflame every sensitive spot on Sloan's body. Sloan knew damn well her heart was pounding hard enough for Jasmine to feel it, and there was a tremor starting in her legs.

"Damn it, Jasmine," Sloan said through gritted teeth. "This is no place for a display." She glanced over at the table where Michael and Sarah were watching them with faintly amused expressions and felt color rise to her face. She was oddly embarrassed, and hoped Michael didn't know why.

Finally Jasmine took pity on her, and moved away a fraction of an inch. She liked to play with Sloan, and usually Sloan didn't seem to mind, but tonight she sensed not only Sloan's faint desire, but her discomfort. As much as some part of her enjoyed the heady feeling of turning on the handsome and oh so unattainable dark-haired Romeo, she knew enough to stop before things got out of hand – for either of them. Sloan wasn't the only one whose heart was tripping a little faster, or whose belly fluttered with those first whispers of wanting. As much as the sensation was pleasurable, their friendship was more important. One night, one hour even, of mutual exploration, no matter how exciting that might be – and she had no doubt that a roll in the sack with Sloan would be wild beyond her dreams - wouldn't be worth the aftermath. They couldn't have a relationship, let alone a life together, and giving in to their physical attractions would destroy what they did have. Too much to lose, and glancing across the room to where the other women sat watching them, she realized there was another reason now, too. Sarah was smiling at her.

Then Sarah winked, and some long-guarded barrier in Jasmine's soul cracked just a bit. Sarah seemed to understand exactly who she needed to be, and how she needed to feel. No one had ever come close to understanding her before. It was so overwhelming that it frightened her to death. She was afraid that she would get used to how good it made her feel. And then she might begin to dream. Hope and dreams were the narcotics of a lonely heart, lulling one into believing happiness could actually be attained. The despair that followed when the empty promises were revealed was devastating.

As much as she ached to have Sarah know her, she rebelled at the thought of relinquishing her defenses. She had done that once, and her life had been destroyed. If she let another woman close, only to be deserted, her soul would crumble. Anger and fear warred with her desire to believe that Sarah could be different. The old hurts still festered, rejection and humiliation still burned, and she wanted to lash out. Sloan was in the path of her pain, and she said without thinking, "What's the matter, Sloan? Are you afraid that Michael will find out that you have no self-control? I would imagine she already knows that. You must have taken her to bed by now."

Sloan stiffened instantly, her jaw bunching with swift rage. "Michael has absolutely nothing to do with this, Jasmine. This is about you and me, and the fact that you seem to enjoy offering what you won't deliver."

Jasmine stepped completely out of the circle of Sloan's arms, her anger rapidly replaced by hurt. "I've never offered you anything, Sloan. You might find this hard to believe, but one night stands are your specialty, not mine."

Jasmine turned, head held high, and moved sensuously back through the crowd to the table. Sloan stared after her for second, cursing herself under her breath. It hadn't been Jasmine's fault; she knew damn well Jasmine was only playing. It wasn't the first time in their lives that had happened. She had over-reacted badly at the suggestion that she would take Michael to bed like - well, like some of her other dates. Casually, without any real thought to the consequences. It wasn't as if she ever made any promises, or even planned for it to happen. If, in the course of an evening, it seemed like she and whomever she happened to be with chose to continue their conversation in bed, what was the harm? They were adults, and no suggestion of anything long-term was ever implied. Why not share a little mutual pleasure?

Sloan looked at Michael, her face in profile as she leaned close to Sarah to share some thought, her hand resting easily on Sarah's arm. Sloan knew she could never take her to bed for a night. She swallowed and looked away, trying to dispel the lingering image of Michael's aching beauty. One night would never be enough, and that was exactly what the problem was. She hadn't wanted more than a night, or anything beyond that level of commitment, in many years. She certainly didn't want it now.

Damn. She took a deep breath and started toward the table to give Jasmine the apology she deserved. She was almost there when a voice at her elbow stopped her.

"Now I see why you couldn't bring me to this little affair," a tall attractive brunette said loudly enough to catch the attention of everyone at Sloan's table as well as those nearby.

"Hello, Diane," Sloan said calmly, her face revealing nothing. Diane Carson was the woman with whom she had planned to attend the benefit. She had broken the engagement when it became very apparent to her that Diane was beginning to think of them as a couple. They had last had dinner two weeks previously, and Sloan had just barely managed to extract herself from an awkward situation before both of them were embarrassed. Diane had assumed Sloan would be staying the night, an assumption that in retrospect Sloan could hardly blame her for. Diane was a very attractive, intelligent woman, and they got along well. They had also slept together just a week before.

But, at the end of the evening, Sloan realized she didn't want to stay the night, a fact that surprised even her. Diane, however, was under a different impression. As soon as they were inside her apartment, Diane had begun to kiss her passionately, her hands tugging at the belt on Sloan's trousers, her breasts crushed to Sloan's chest. Diane’s nipples were hard points rubbing against her shirt that drew fire to Sloan's skin. It felt good, there was no way Sloan could deny that, but even as her limbs grew heavy with lust, and her hands swept up Diane's sides to cup her breasts, her mind had protested.

"Wait," she had gasped, attempting to step away.

"Why," Diane had murmured, her fingers slipping under Sloan's waistband. Her voice was throaty with desire; her eyes dim with need. "Baby, you are so hot and I am so ready."

Sloan tried to ignore the throbbing just below Diane's fingertips. If she moved an inch, Diane would be stroking her, and no amount of good sense would make her stop then. She had grasped Diane's hand, stilling her explorations.

"I can't do this, I'm sorry."

The look on Diane's face had gone from brief disappointment and hurt to anger. She had stepped back so swiftly that Sloan had nearly stumbled.

"Get out," was all that Diane had managed. Sloan had been happy to oblige, because for an instant, she thought Diane was going to slap her. That was the last time they had spoken until just this moment.

Diane hadn't slapped her then, because she had been stone cold sober. She wasn't at the moment, however. "You bastard," she said quite clearly as her hand whipped across Sloan's cheek.

Sloan absorbed most of the blow with a turn of her head, but still it stung, and she tasted the salty tang of blood on the inside of her lip. She kept both hands firmly at her sides. She motioned 'no' to Sarah when she saw her about to rise out of the corner of her eye.

"Where is your table, Diane?" Sloan asked, aware that Diane was swaying and that her face was slack with too much alcohol.

"I came alone," Diane said sharply. "My date preferred to plow fresher fields for the evening." She looked in Michael's direction as she spoke.

Sloan stepped closer, slipping her hand under her elbow, steadying her. "Why don't you sit down for a minute."

Diane tried to fling off her hold, but only succeeded in nearly losing her balance. She ended up clutching at Sloan's shirtfront instead. Sloan realized that Diane was much more intoxicated than she had first thought, and that there was no way she could send her home alone in a cab.

Sloan guided an unresisting Diane closer to the table, and said quietly to Michael, "I'm sorry, but I need to take Ms. Carson home. Would you mind if Sarah drives you back to your hotel?"

Michael looked into Sloan's cool eyes and could read nothing. They might have been the eyes of a stranger. She answered quietly, "Of course not. Please go ahead."

Sloan nodded goodnight to the others, slipped her arm around Diane Carson's waist and turned to leave. Most of the eyes in the crowd followed their departure as voices speculated on the latest romantic escapades of the somewhat notorious JT Sloan.

Michael Lassiter watched them also. She didn't say a word, but she too wondered just what hold the lovely Ms Carson had on Sloan.



Chapter Fourteen

For a moment no one said anything, then Jasmine, in a rare show of restraint, said softly, "Well, Sloan handled that nicely."

Both Sarah and Michael looked at her questioningly.

"Diane Carson was about to fall down drunk and make a spectacle of herself. She would have been humiliated in front of some of the most influential people in the community, and I don't just mean the gay and lesbian community either. There are a lot of political movers and shakers here tonight. Sloan just saved her a lot of embarrassment."

"Who is she?" Michael asked before she could stop herself.

Sarah raised an inquiring eyebrow in Jasmine's direction. She had been wondering the same thing herself. She hadn't seen Sloan with a lover in a lot of years, but there hadn't been anything in Sloan's face that looked like love to her. "An ex?"

Jasmine shrugged delicately. "I suppose you could say that. Diane seems to think she is more of an ex than is probably warranted, but Sloan has that affect on her dates. One night and they want to marry her." She pushed back from the table and stood with a sigh. The festive atmosphere had definitely dissipated. "I think it's time for me to toddle off. I'll send Jason out in a while."

Sarah watched her go, then looked at Michael. "Are you all right?"

"Of course," Michael said a little too quickly. "Just curious."

"Mmm," Sarah agreed. "Sloan does have a tendency to make one wonder." She studied Michael quietly for a moment, then said seriously. "You know, Michael, Sloan is not nearly the lothario people would make her out to be. It's true that I haven't been close to her these last few years, but I knew her very well when she was younger, and people don't change all that much. She may avoid commitments, but she has a good reason for it."

Michael wondered what Sarah was trying to tell her, and why. What JT Sloan did with the women in her life was no concern of hers. Despite the fact that she enjoyed Sloan's company, and thought that the feeling was mutual, she was under no illusions that there was anything else possible between them. She had a company to save, and a marriage to dissolve. The last thing she needed was a sexual identity crisis and an involvement with a woman who obviously didn't care to be involved with anyone.

She sighed and began to gather her things. "I'm sure you're right. I'm going to get a cab. Say goodni—"

Sarah grasped her wrist. "Absolutely not! We'll drive you. I'm sure Jason will be here soon."

"I don't think you need me along on your first date with him, Sarah!" Michael laughed. "I'll be fine."

"Really!" Sarah protested. "It's no trouble. And I have a feeling we'll be calling it an evening, too. Things went pretty well tonight, considering both of them were here. Jason and Jasmine, I mean. But I don't think I'm going to push my luck. Jason's clearly not ready for anything else – and frankly, neither am I."

Michael stopped what she doing, her eyes concerned. "Are you okay?"

Sarah grinned a little shakily. "It's not as simple as I thought it would be. While I was watching Jasmine and Sloan dancing, I pretty much forgot about Jason. Jasmine is so real, you know? I'm not sure how I'd feel alone with her."

"My guess is you won't find that out until you've been with Jason first. That is probably the way he'll feel most comfortable," Michael commented thoughtfully. Watching Sloan and Jasmine together had fascinated her too, but her thoughts had all been of Sloan. How she held Jasmine, so sure, so certain. Their bodies had fit together so well, and for an instant she imagined herself in Sloan's arms. Instead of being strange, that notion seemed somehow completely natural.

She stood abruptly, dispelling the image. "Say good night for me, please. I really need to go."

And then she was gone, leaving Sarah to wonder about the odd expression on Michael's face. She had looked bewildered, and a little sad.


"Diane. Hey – Diane," Sloan called softly, shaking the sleeping woman's shoulder lightly. "Time to wake up."

Diane Carson muttered, snuggled a little deeper into the warm leather seat, and tried to curl up on her side.

Sloan got out, walked around the front of the car and opened the passenger side door. She leaned down and slipped an arm behind Diane's back. The other she slid under the smaller woman's knees and swiveled her feet out onto the sidewalk. "Okay, here we go," Sloan said, pulling Diane upright into her arms. "A few steps, a few stairs, and then an elevator – thank god. Piece of cake."

Diane managed to follow Sloan's lead, becoming more alert as she moved. "Where are we?" she asked groggily.

"Your place," Sloan informed her as she pushed the Up button on the elevator. She guided Diane into the elevator and removed her arm from around Diane's waist. When Diane promptly tilted left and looked about to fall, Sloan grabbed her and held on. She didn't try releasing her again until they were inside Diane's bedroom, where Sloan eased her down onto the side of the bed.

"You okay?" Sloan asked, stepping back a foot.

Diane pushed both hands through her hair, blinked up at Sloan and grimaced. "More or less. I really conked out in the car and I'm still fuzzy. What time is it?"

Sloan glanced at the bedside clock. "Just after midnight."

"Thanks for bringing me home," Diane said tiredly. She tried standing and wavered with a sudden surge of dizziness. "Shit."

Sloan reached for her automatically, and the next instant Diane was firmly in her arms, her hands on the back of Sloan's neck, and her lips searching for Sloan's. The kiss caught Sloan by surprise and by the time it registered, Diane's hand had dropped to her thigh and was moving dangerously close to her crotch.

"Mmph," Sloan muttered, pulling her head back and grabbing for Diane's wrist at the same time. "Cut it out."

Diane bit the side of Sloan's neck, harder than she might have if she had been totally aware of what she was doing. "You know damn well it feels good," she breathed against Sloan's neck, pushing her hand a little higher.

It did feel good, but that was hardly the point. She wasn't in the habit of having sex with intoxicated women even when she did want to sleep with them. And despite the fact that the insistently stroking fingers between her legs were doing an excellent job of making her throb, she did not want to sleep with Diane Carson.

"Okay. You're obviously capable of getting yourself to bed," Sloan gasped, pushing Diane gently but firmly back down on the bed. "I'm out of here." She turned on somewhat shaky legs and started for the bedroom door. Her body was in a state of rebellion that she valiantly ignored.

"You don't actually think that that blonde is going to give you what you need, do you?" Diane called angrily.

Sloan didn't reply. They both knew the answer to that question. She let herself quietly out of the apartment, rode the elevator down, and walked slowly across the street to her car. She slid behind the wheel, leaned back, and shut her eyes. When her head stopped pounding and the ache in her belly began to subside, she reached for her cellular phone.


Michael tied the pale gray robe around her waist as she hurried toward the door. She peered through the peephole, stared for a second, then pulled the door wide, a question in her eyes.

"I'm sorry it's so late," Sloan began, shrugging slightly as if she weren't certain herself why she was there. She wasn't, exactly. All she knew was that she couldn't go home without seeing her. "I called Sarah, and she said you hadn't left with them –"

"I took a cab," Michael interrupted.

Sloan sighed. "I'm sorry-"

"You said that," Michael said, a soft smile on her face. She reached out and tugged on Sloan's sleeve. "Come in out of the hall."

Sloan followed, then stood in the elegant, impersonal hotel suite, looking around like she had no idea where she was. She pushed a hand through her hair, leaving the dark waves tousled. "Hell, I don't even know why I came." She looked at Michael, who was watching her with quiet patience. "Are you angry?"

Michael was surprised by the question. Should she be? Did she even have any right to be? She turned and walked toward the sofa, one of two that faced a large glass coffee table centered on a plush oriental rug, while she considered the question. She sat at one end, drawing her legs up under her, pulling the hem of the robe down to mid-calf, and motioned for Sloan to join her.

Sloan slumped into the deep cushions, leaned her head against the back, and turned to face Michael. She hadn't known she was going to ask that, but now the answer seemed to matter a great deal.

"No," Michael replied at length, choosing her words carefully as she sorted through the odd assortment of emotions the night had inspired. "I was disappointed at first. I was enjoying the evening so much, and I missed you when you left."

As she spoke the words, she realized how true they were. When Sloan had walked away, the enchanted became ordinary again. The sparkling lights lost their shimmer and the hint of magic in the air grew faint. She laughed shakily at her foolishness. "That wasn't your fault."

Sloan disagreed. "It was my fault, but I needed to take her home. She was a little too impaired to maneuver safely."

"Really?" Michael said dryly, arching a brow. "She couldn't have been too impaired. She managed to bite your neck."

Sloan sat bolt upright, a hand to her neck where she felt a slight sting. "Christ." She looked at Michael, whose face was absolutely expressionless. "Would you believe there is a totally innocent explanation?"

"No explanation is required," Michael said, standing and smoothing the robe about her hips. She fidgeted with the sash for a moment, then looked into Sloan's eyes, who had also stood. Michael thought she looked impossibly attractive standing there, waiting for Michael to damn her, or absolve her. Michael shook her head in frustration. "And no apology is necessary either. I got home fine. I wasn't your date, or your responsibility. Please don't worry about it."

It was suddenly very important to Sloan that Michael understand nothing had happened between her and Diane. She took a step nearer, her voice dark and intense. "I know I don't have to explain. I want to." She rested her hands on Michael's arms, bending just a bit to catch her glance, very aware of the slight tremor in Michael's body. Michael's blue eyes answered hers with a faint expression of uncertainty, and something that might have been desire.

"Oh, hell," Sloan muttered, leaning closer still, her vision tunneling down to pale skin and full moist lips. Those lips parted in surprise, or was it welcome, and then Sloan was kissing her. It was amazing how something so familiar could be so new. Michael's lips were without a doubt the softest she had ever touched, and the warmest, and the sweetest, and – Ohjesusgod

Sloan was lost, senses on overload. She could smell her, fresh from a shower and misted with spring promises. Michael's body, covered only by the technicality of the supple thin silk, was molten under Sloan's hands, flowing hot to her touch. Somebody groaned. Sloan thought dimly it might have been herself. There were fingers in her hair, pulling lightly, sending showers of current directly between her legs. She wavered a bit on her feet, and edged Michael back toward the sofa.

And then what? an irritated voice said from somewhere deep, deep in her unconsciousness. You gonna lay her down on the couch in some hotel room and lift her skirt? Nice, Sloan. Very nice.

Sloan raised her lips from Michael's, a task so difficult it left her weak. Michael's eyes were nearly closed, her mouth swollen with kisses, her breasts rising and falling rapidly against Sloan's chest. Their legs were entwined, and Sloan felt the heat against her thigh. She felt the material of her trousers chaffing against her own damp crotch. Her palms smoothed rhythmically over the round fullness of Michael's buttocks, aching to pull her hard against her leg. She was fully aroused and pulsating painfully and ready to burst and she – could – not - do – this.

"Michael," Sloan gasped, willing her fingers not to stray inside the partially opened robe. The crescent of exposed breast nearly shredded the last remnants of her control.

"Shhh," Michael crooned, leaning into Sloan until there was nothing between them but old fears and secret desires. She wanted Sloan to kiss her again. What a remarkable, glorious kiss that had been. It was the only time in her life when she had been totally without thought. She had known absolutely nothing but the incredible freedom and utter certainty of being in Sloan's embrace. It was a place she never wanted to leave. "Just do that again," she whispered.

Sloan continued to hold her, but she did not lower her head for the kiss. She looked at Michael, saw her undisguised hunger, and understood in that instant how completely without pretense or guile Michael was. If innocence existed anywhere, it was in Michael's simple request. She didn't deserve that trust, didn't even want it.

"We'll both regret this in the morning," Sloan said as lightly as she could manage through a throat tight with need. She sensed Michael stiffen in her arms.

"Do you think so?" Michael asked softly, a cold ache beginning in her chest. "Would you?"

Sloan took a step back, released her hold on the other woman. Steeled herself. "Yes, and so would you when you had a chance to think about it. I apologize for putting you in an awkward position. I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking."

Michael laughed thinly. "Well, I know I certainly wasn't. I should thank you for maintaining some sense." She pulled her robe tightly around herself, shivering suddenly. "Will you excuse me? It's late and I'm more than a little embarrassed."

Sloan wanted to comfort her so badly. She had hurt her, but it was a small hurt compared to the disaster it might have been. She forced her hands into her pockets, afraid she would touch her again otherwise. "I'll let myself out. I'm sorry, Michael."

Michael watched her cross the room, watched the door close soundlessly behind her. She listened for her footsteps in the hall, but heard only silence. The room was very still as she moved about turning off the lights. In the darkness she made her way to the bedroom, where once under the covers, alone, she allowed herself to cry.



Chapter Fifteen

The phone rang in Michael's office at 6:45 Monday morning. She glanced at it distractedly, a prospectus in one hand, barely taking her eyes off the columns of figures. Ordinarily, she wouldn't have answered her own phone, but it was too early for Angela to be in.

"Lassiter," she said abruptly.

"Michael, it's Sloan," the now familiar smoky voice announced.

Michael drew a sharp breath, laid down the folder, and stared across the room at her office door as if expecting it to open and Sloan to step through. Her heart quickened with anticipation even as she chided herself for the reaction. It had been nearly thirty-six hours since Sloan had walked out of her hotel room, and Michael had spent most of that time trying to avoid thinking about what had happened between them. Usually, her work was something that could distract her from everything else in her life. She had only to pick up a sketchpad, or doodle on the corner of an envelope, or lean back with her eyes closed and she would be instantly absorbed in constructing something or other out of her imagination. That was the beauty of design -- it could result in a tangible product or merely a concept that someone else brought to fruition. Michael's mind was fluid, yet enormously disciplined. She lived by her thoughts, and they had always been her greatest panacea for worry, uncertainty, and fear.

It hadn't worked the past weekend. Her thoughts were elusive, streaking through her mind like fast-forward images on an old time movie reel. She wasn't able to concentrate, and she wasn't able to stop thinking about the way Sloan's lips had felt against hers. It was true that she had very little experience with anyone other than Jeremy, but she certainly had not been isolated from the realities of physical relationships. What she had experienced with Sloan went far beyond anything she had previously known or even imagined. That such a simple kiss could set every cell in her body tingling defied her understanding. She had no frame of reference for the way she felt in Sloan's embrace, recalling that slight inner trembling that seemed to magnify as it approached the surface of her skin until she feared she might literally shake apart with the excitement of it. Being in Sloan's arms was like watching the sun break through the clouds after a week of gray skies and cold rain. With that first brief flash of golden heat you knew suddenly what it was to be alive, and knew too that until that moment, you had merely existed. She thought she understood the difference now, and dared not contemplate if that sensation was only borne on this woman's kiss.

"Michael?" Sloan said into the silence.

"Yes," Michaels said more sharply than she intended. "I'm sorry, I was working."

"Then I'm sorry to disturb you," Sloan said somewhat stiffly. "I actually intended just to leave a message. I didn't expect you to be there." She hadn't wanted to speak with her, let alone see her, which was why she had taken the rather cowardly route of leaving a message. She didn't trust herself not to betray how affected she had been by her slip the other night. She hadn't lost control of herself like that in years, and it shook her. She cleared her throat which had suddenly grown tight, and continued, "I wanted to let you know that I've decided to drive up to the New York City office to look over things up there. I think we've got the network in fair shape here and you should be secure within reason. I can't do much more to tighten things up until I check out the other facilities. Then I should be able to make the changeovers fairly quickly if I don't run into any surprises."

Michael was silent. She hadn't really listened after Sloan announced that she was leaving for New York. There was nothing she could say, short of asking Sloan if she were going because of what had happened between them. That certainly didn't seem like a very appropriate question. Sloan had made it quite clear that their very brief interlude had been a mistake, and that she had no desire for it to happen again. If Sloan wanted distance between them, it was certainly understandable. Michael saw no point in further embarrassing herself or pursuing what could only make them both more uncomfortable.

"That sounds very reasonable. I'll call up there around nine and let them know you're coming. Shall I have Angela make hotel reservations for you somewhere nearby?"

"No, thanks," Sloan added. "Jason will take care of that for me. An introduction to your administrative manager will be helpful, just don't tell them too much about what I'll be doing. I would rather inform people on a need to know basis, especially given the possibility that some of them may end up being loyal to Jeremy if a split should come about."

"You're right, of course," Michaels said, ignoring the slight twist of anxiety that the mention of Jeremy's name caused. "I'm not actually personally familiar with many of the people there, other than in the design arm. They were pretty much hand picked by me. Nevertheless, it's probably prudent to keep a low profile. Will you call me to keep me informed?"

"Absolutely. In the meantime, if you have any problems or need anything, just call Jason."

There was silence on the line as both of them listened for the other's breathing, as if loath to break the connection and not knowing what else to say. Eventually they murmured light meaningless goodbyes and hung up. Michael went back to work, desperately hoping to occupy her wandering mind, silently hoping that Sloan’s image would not continue to intrude on her thoughts.

Across town Sloan set about packing the single suitcase for her trip. She looked around the loft, finding the solitude that usually gave her such comfort, now merely lonely. The sound of Michael’s voice had stirred her anew, and her body sang with desire. The kiss they had shared was a tangible memory on her lips, and her palms ached with the imprint of Michael’s body pressed to their surface. She was hungry for more of her, and she feared it was for much more than her body. If it had been only that, she might not have hesitated. Michael was an adult, after all, and more than capable of making a decision about whom she might sleep with. It was not her unrelenting desire for Michael that troubled Sloan so much, it was her deep longing to lie down beside her and simply rest. She was weary, and the promise of succor was far too dangerous.

She finished packing a light bag, locked the heavy metal clasp on the sliding double doors to the loft, and prayed for a clear highway all the way to New York. Maybe a fast drive would erase the images of Michael’s softly welcoming smile from her mind. She would just have to live with the constant pulse of need in her belly. That was uncomfortable, but not nearly as frightening.


Eventually Michael was able to work, and forgot about Sloan's voice, and the electricity of her touch, and her hauntingly attractive profile. She was startled as the intercom on her desk crackled once, and a voice filled the room.

"Michael, I'm sorry---"

The sentence was lost in a commotion as the office door banged open and Jeremy strode in with Angela close behind him. Michael swiveled on her high drafting stool and stared, a pencil still held in her left hand.

"I'm sorry, he didn't give me a chance to call you," Angela stated, clearly distraught.

"That's all right, Angela," Michael said calmly. "Just close the door and hold my calls."

Angela looked uneasily from Jeremy's stony countenance to Michael's perfectly smooth, expressionless face, and slowly backed out the door. She didn't like it, but she had no choice. She briefly wondered if she should call security. There had been something about the look in Jeremy Lassiter's eyes that frightened her. Were it not for the possibility of embarrassing Michael, she would have.

Michael remained seated, silent. Jeremy strode forward another few steps, his hands clenched at his side. A muscle bunched along the edge of his jaw. When he spoke his voice was tight with the effort to control his anger.

"I met with my attorneys this morning, and reviewed your 'offer'," he said harshly. The way he said 'offer' suggested that she had highly insulted him. "I assume that was some kind of joke."

Michael stepped down from the stool and stood by the side of her drafting table, one hand resting along the edge of the slanted drawing surface. Her face remained still, although there was a very fine tremor in her hand. "Actually, Jeremy, I spent a great deal of time reviewing the situation with my attorneys and several business consultants. The package we offered you contained a generous buy out as well as stock options. It will provide you ongoing security as long as the company continues to thrive, in addition to the moneys up front."

Her attorneys had assured her that the stock options were a reasonable method for providing long-term recompense for Jeremy's loss of potential income from the company. They had actually argued that the cash package was too generous, but she had insisted, hoping to present him with something that he would accept. Nevertheless, she certainly wasn't surprised he didn't. It wasn't like Jeremy to agree to something that he had not orchestrated himself. Her attorneys had warned her that he was likely to reject her initial overtures, and that negotiations could drag on a while. Nevertheless, she had no intention of engaging him in a personal dialogue over the details. That was why she had legal counsel.

He grimaced, moving closer still. "On the surface, your proposal may appear generous to others, but I know damn well that the potential of this company resides in future design plans and those will be your exclusive property under the current stipulations of your plan."

She shrugged slightly, and said quietly, "The design plans have always been mine, Jeremy. You know that."

"Yes, but I have been the one to promote them."

She nodded again, wondering at his point. "Of course I know that, and my attorneys have taken that into account."

"I'm not going to let you do this," he said, his voice low and hard. He stretched an arm out on either side of her, gripping the metal lip that rimmed the desktop, trapping her. The front of his body pressed close, almost touching her. His physical size alone was intimidating enough, but it was more the barely contained rage in his face that made her flinch. He threw each word at her like a weapon. "Without me, you never would have been able to accomplish what you have. You were a naive, unsophisticated emotional misfit when we met. You had no idea how to get along in the world, let alone make a success of business. If I hadn't pampered your sensitivities and supported your fragile ego, none of this would have been possible."

She was shocked at the depth of his rancor, and stunned at his clear and open disdain of her. She was momentarily speechless. He continued as if he expected her to accept his criticism without response.

"I can accept that you want to divorce me, and believe me it will not present any hardship to me. Our marriage was convenient from a professional point of view, but it certainly wasn't anything exceptional in the physical department. I'm well aware that you were simply going through the motions in bed, and if you had been the slightest bit physically challenging or even interesting, I might not have looked elsewhere for my needs."

She was numb, his verbal assault merely reinforcing what she had gradually come to realize over the past weeks. She did not know this man, although she had lived with him for over a decade. If she did not know him, she did not know herself, and that was much more frightening than anything that he could say to her now. Her nerves were exposed - raw, and yet the pain was familiar. She had been living with it for weeks.

"I regret this is happening this way," she said softly, "because I know I had a part in getting us here. I'm sorry for the things that were lacking between us --"

He made an impatient gesture, as if that were of little consequence to him. "I'm warning you, Michael, I expect to maintain a significant voting interest in the company. And there are plenty of people who would support me in replacing you as CEO. I'm not leaving, and if you think I am, I will lobby the board for a vote of no confidence and it will be you who will be looking for a new position. Remember, your position is only as sound as your ability to deliver a product, and the bottom line is what determines success or failure."

He walked toward the door, and as he reached for the handle, he turned and looked at her with dark fury in his eyes. "You may have the vision, Michael, but you don't have the skill to do anything with it. You never have. You're one-dimensional and about as human as a computer. If you were more of a woman, none of this would have happened."

He had regained enough control of himself that when he left he was able to close the door without slamming it. Nevertheless, Michael was aware of his anger still swirling around her with almost malevolent force. She took his threats seriously, because she knew that Jeremy never said anything he didn't intend to do. She wasn't sure exactly how he meant to attack her, but she knew with certainty that an attack was coming. She was vulnerable now, she knew that, because if he forced the Board of Directors to chose between them, it was very possible that she would lose. It was true that the company was founded on her ingenuity and intellect, not to mention her funds, but that was something that might be seen as replaceable. If anything occurred to even suggest that she could not carry the company forward, she would surely lose her bargaining power.

She moved carefully across the room, trying to ignore the quivering in her stomach and the shaking in her limbs. She settled behind her desk and rested her face in her hands. She tried desperately to think of what her next move might be, and wished that there were someone in whom she could confide. Immediately she thought of Sloan. How strange, to find herself at this point in her life with no one that she trusted more than a woman she had met only a few short weeks before. Somehow, that connection, however brief in time, had touched her more deeply than anything in her years with Jeremy. She tried to convince herself that it was only Sloan's reassurance she wanted, and not her touch, as she stared at the telephone.


 Part 6

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