A Matter of Trust: Part 6

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 Sixteen

Michael listened to the phone ring, still silently debating the wisdom of her actions.


"It's Michael Lassiter," she said quietly.

Sloan sat up straight on the side of hotel room bed where she had been lying, trying rather unsuccessfully to read. She glanced at the digital bedside clock. 7:40 PM. "Michael! Is something wrong?"

"I'm sorry to bother you, but it seemed important," Michael said with uncharacteristic hesitancy. She had debated for hours with her anxiety rising before finally relenting and calling. Part of her reluctance was that she simply wanted to hear Sloan's voice. Even accepting that her concerns about Jeremy were reasonable, she warred with herself over contacting Sloan when she felt so emotionally unsteady. Her encounter with Jeremy had been frightening on several levels. His threats to sabotage her standing within the company were serious, and she knew that he was determined enough and ruthless enough to do that. Even more than that however had been his personal assault on her, and the life they had shared. She willingly admitted that she had not been emotionally cognizant of her own part in the decline of their relationship, and was only now realizing how isolated she had been within the sphere of her own life. But what hurt the most was the ease with which Jeremy had discounted everything about their life together. It had left her shaken and unsure of herself.

Nevertheless, she had waited to reach out to Sloan, first drafting several new proposals to present to the board if Jeremy forced a showdown before she could complete her current projects. She wanted to be certain that she demonstrated her ability to head the company on all fronts. She did not want to turn to Sloan simply as a remedy for her own fears and pain. When she felt she was more in control, she had called.

Michael took a deep breath, determined to steer their conversation onto a purely professional level. "I'm sorry to disturb you," she began again, "but I thought you should know of some developments here."

Sloan was very aware of the prolonged silence and could almost feel Michael's struggle. Her initial surprise at Michael's call, especially after what had happened between them, was quickly replaced by concern. Something was clearly very wrong. Immediately she thought of Jeremy, and her constant fear that he would do something rash tore at her. She forced herself to be calm. "Michael," she said gently, "I'm glad that you called. It's good to hear your voice. Just tell me what's happened. It's all right."

Michael relaxed, instantly reassured by the acceptance and comfort in Sloan's voice. "Jeremy was here late this afternoon. He apparently did not find my attorneys’ proposal to his liking. He made it clear that he would resort to almost any means, including undermining my position in the company and my credibility with the board, to preserve his position. I don't know precisely what he intends, but things seem to be escalating in that regard fairly quickly. I wasn’t certain if it would make any difference with what you need to do up there, but it seemed like I should let you know."

Michael's heart was pounding. The phone call seemed foolish to her now, when she had so little concrete to tell Sloan, but she remembered the cold fury in Jeremy's eyes and shivered. Her hand on the receiver was clenched so tightly her fingers were white.

Sloan listened mostly to the tenor and tone of Michael's words, recognized the fear, and knew that there was more than Michael was letting on. There was a faint tremor in Michael's voice, and her speech was stilted in the way of someone trying hard not to become too emotional.

As quietly as she could, although her pulse was racing, Sloan asked, "Are you all right?" All she really cared about was Michael's safety. The business aspects could wait.

"Yes, it was nasty but it was only words," Michael said swiftly. "Please, you needn't worry. I'm fine."

A hundred miles away, Sloan nodded, wishing desperately that she was there and could see Michael's face. She wanted to assess for herself just how "all right" Michael really was. Instead, she squeezed the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger, trying to focus on the issues at hand. And trying even harder to quell the rising surge of anxiety in her chest. She hated even thinking about Michael being frightened and upset, and when she considered what the scene with her husband must have been like, she nearly choked on her anger. It was her turn to take a deep breath and rein in her emotions. Finally, she said, "I've spent the afternoon with the computer people here, and we actually made a fair amount of progress. I don't think there any major problems at this end, and I expect to be finishing up within the next few days. There are always things that are going to need to be tweaked and modified, but I can do most of that by phone. I'll need to sit down with you to go over exactly how I want you to use the new encryption programs, but that can wait till the beginning of the week."

Michael sighed, feeling better already. "Thanks, Sloan. I probably didn't need to call and bother you, but I have two major deadlines coming up, and I need to make final proposals and presentations Monday and Tuesday. These will actually be the first main projects that I've handled with almost no input from Jeremy. He was traveling so much with other ventures that we simply worked around him. It's important that I finish this up without any difficulties. It will solidify my position not only as a theorist but as someone who can actually bring in the final product."

"I understand," Sloan said. "If there's anything I can do, even if it's just to talk, please call me. I'll probably be here through tomorrow afternoon, but Jason can always find me."

Michael laughed, relieved, and she had to admit, simply happy to have talked with Sloan. "I expect to be spending most of this weekend right here in the office, and I doubt that I'll need to bother you again. It was good to hear your voice, though," she added. She hesitated, as if wanting to say more. Then, more softly, she said, "Goodnight, Sloan."

The words seemed too final, but Sloan cherished the warmth in her tone. "Goodnight, Michael," she whispered.


When the phone rang again, she was asleep. Sloan croaked hello and glanced once more at the clock. Just after midnight. She sat up, immediately alert, because a phone call at this hour could only be trouble.

"Sloan? It's Jason."

"What's going on Jason? What's the matter?" she said, trying hard to contain her anxiety. Something wasn't right, and she had a feeling it was Michael. Her heart was pounding faster just at the thought.

"Michael just called, and all hell is breaking loose in her office."

By now, Sloan was standing, flipping on lights and tossing her suitcase with one hand onto the bottom of her hotel bed. As she spoke, she pulled open drawers and dumped her clothing into the open bag. "Is she all right?"

For a moment, Jason didn't understand. Hadn't he just told her that there was a major problem? Then he realized she meant was Michael physically all right, and he hurried to answer, "She's fine. I mean, she's not fine, she's practically going out of her mind, but she's not hurt or anything."

"Jason, just tell me what the fuck is wrong, and stop beating around the bush," Sloan swore, tugging off the sweats she had been sleeping in and reaching for the jeans she had tossed over a chair earlier that evening. She cradled the phone between her shoulder and chin as she pulled up the jeans, forsaking underwear, and donned a clean white T-shirt. She slid sockless into her loafers and looked around the room for her leather jacket.

"Michael was apparently working late on some high-profile project of hers and suddenly everything started crashing. She was losing data, couldn't open programs, and finally her hard drive crashed totally."

Sloan stood still for a second, an uneasy feeling starting in her chest. "Did you try to talk her through it over the phone and get her back online?"

"It was just by luck that I happened to get her message," he said, clearly frustrated. "Since you were out of town, I had office calls forwarded to my home number and I checked my answering machine when I got back from a -- date. I called her right away but I can't seem to get things up and running again. I have a bad feeling about it."

Sloan slammed shut the suitcase, tucked her wallet into her right rear pocket and grabbed the plastic hotel room door key off the desk. She scanned quickly around the room for anything she might have left behind. "I've got the same bad feeling you do. I don't believe in coincidences. I'll need you there as soon as I get in. And Jason, pack a bag. I have a feeling it's going to be a very long weekend."



Chapter Seventeen


"Hi. I'm so sorry to have to drag you back like this," Michael began. She stood holding the door open, watching the other woman walk in. It was three o'clock in the morning, and she should have looked like hell, but JT Sloan was the best thing Michael had laid eyes on in days. Mixed with her intense relief was a pulse of something visceral that she couldn't quite describe. And it wasn't something she wanted to examine too closely at the moment.

"Forget it," Sloan said, shaking her head, a faint smile lifting her mouth at one corner. She dropped her briefcase on the leather sofa in Michael's office, and shrugged out of her leather jacket. She wasn't aware of Michael's appraising glance gliding over the tight T-shirt and then moving slowly down her jean-clad thighs. She looked automatically toward the computer workstation. "You're not troubling me. This is my job, and what you've been paying me to do. Obviously, I missed something and it's my responsibility to straighten things out." She glanced at her watch, and saw that it was 3:20 AM. "Where is Jason?"

Michael walked to the coffee machine and poured them each some. "He's down the hall in Mayfield's office checking something on the main system. He got here about an hour ago. The last time I saw him, he was mumbling colorfully under his breath."

Sloan appreciated Michael's attempt at levity. It was clear how stressed she was. The fine lines around her eyes seemed deeper, and there was a gaunt pallor to her face that signaled her fatigue. Michael had shed her suit jacket and was wearing only a light silk blouse tucked into her casual slacks. Despite her air of weariness, Sloan thought she was beautiful.

Michael turned with the coffee in her hands to find Sloan staring at her. For a second, she forgot about the disaster threatening her and saw only the appreciative glow in Sloan's violet eyes. She colored slightly, but smiled back. "I think you had better let him know you're here, because he looked about as frazzled as I feel."

Sloan took several steps forward to take the coffee mug from her, nodding. "I'll do that. Then I'm going to come back here and take a look at your machines. Until I see what is down, there's no way to analyze what's going on. Can you tell me exactly what happened?"

With a sigh, Michael sat on one of the sofas and propped her stockinged feet up on the edge of the glass coffee table. She ran a hand through her hair, smoothing the golden strands back from her cheeks. Her voice was flat, nearly defeated, as she began to speak. "I was working with one of the graphics programs, finalizing some details for Tuesday's meeting. I had checked email from several of my techs earlier, too. I think that was still open. First the screen display changed, like pixels were dropping out, and the color faded. It corrected after I rebooted, but then the graphics program froze up -- that's not common, but it happens." She laughed humorlessly. "Usually when I'm in the middle of something crucial. I tried the usual things, but I couldn't get it up again. Then other files simply disappeared, and finally the hard drive crashed. When I had exhausted the few tricks I knew, and it became obvious something major had happened, I called your office and left a message."

"Why didn't you call me in New York?" Sloan asked gently.

Michael looked away. "Because you were in New York." She didn't add that she had already turned to Sloan once that day when she needed help, and she was afraid of what that meant. Because she knew, even if she didn't want to admit it to herself, that she thought of Sloan nearly all the time. Sometimes it was because she wanted to hear Sloan's voice, and sometimes it was because she needed advice, and sometimes it was simply because she couldn't forget the feel of Sloan's hands on her. She bit her lip and remained silent.

Sloan let it go. She could see how upset Michael was, and it was no time for interrogations. "Has anything seemed strange the last few weeks with your system?"

Michael gave it some thought and recounted a few things that in retrospect seemed odd. While she talked, Sloan took a seat on the couch adjoining Michael's and crossed one booted ankle over the opposite knee. She leaned forward intently as Michael spoke, quickly assessing, considering, and discarding possibilities Eventually, Michael halted, shrugging helplessly.

"I just don't know enough to tell the difference between the normal glitches and something really wrong!" She was exhausted, and worried, and emotionally stretched to breaking. She struggled to hold back tears.

"I'm not going to tell you not to worry," Sloan said quietly. "You're much too intelligent to believe that. I'm worried too, but these things are not unheard of and sometimes the solution can be relatively simple. The problem is going to be narrowing down exactly where the system has failed. Once we've identified the cause, hopefully we'll be able to resurrect and reconstruct your hard drive and your critical files. With any luck the encryption program we installed for your personal design portfolio will have protected the information. It may be there, and only temporarily inaccessible."

Michael didn't pretend to understand all of the details, but she took hope from the confidence and certainty in Sloan's voice. "I don't want to put any more pressure on you than there already is, but I have critical deadlines Monday and Tuesday. I might be able to postpone them for a short time, 12 to 24 hours maybe, but after that people are going to know there's a problem. If I miss these deadlines, I'm afraid Jeremy will attempt a major takeover, and I will very likely lose."

Sloan nodded grimly, her intense dislike of Jeremy escalating. The timing was too suspicious to think he didn't have something to do with what was happening. He couldn't have done more damage to Michael unless he had physically assaulted her. Unfortunately, proving computer sabotage was difficult, and at the moment she had little recourse but to attempt to identify and undo the damage.

"Michael, my business is deadlines. Jason and I are here until the problem is solved. I can't give you a time estimate, but if I need to, I'll call in some favors and bring in some techs to help us if we have to do major data retrieval or reprogram the BIOS chip. It will get done, I promise."

Michael leaned over and took Sloan's right hand with her left. She squeezed lightly, and when Sloan slipped her fingers between Michael's, it felt as right as anything she had ever experienced. She looked into Sloan's eyes and found the welcoming warmth she was coming to count on, and for the first time in days, she felt safe.

"I trust you, Sloan," Michael said quietly, and she knew there was more than just her career in Sloan's hands. She was slowly losing her heart to the dark-haired, violet-eyed woman with the tender touch.


Sloan found Jason in the network administrator's office, sitting in a swivel chair staring at a monitor, a legal pad next to his right hand covered in shorthand notes to himself.

"Do you think it's a virus?" she asked as soon as she walked in.

He looked up at her over his shoulder, his blue eyes dark with worry. "Don't you?"

Despite the fact that he had not even gotten the few hours sleep that she had managed before driving back from New York, he looked fresh and immaculately groomed as always. He wore casual pants and a polo shirt. The dark blue shirt was tight enough to show off his nicely muscled arms and shoulders. Sloan noted almost unconsciously how attractive he was before her mind returned once again to their problem.

She edged a hip up onto the corner of the long counter and nodded grimly. "That's what I'm afraid of. If it is, I'm willing to bet it's a polymorphic virus that's been hanging around for a while, slowly infiltrating everything on the network. What I'm really afraid of though is that it's some kind of stealth virus or Trojan that was dropped sometime earlier and remotely triggered recently. With the network running all the time and god knows how many people using it, it could be anywhere by now. We're going to have to look at all the backup copies, clean the system thoroughly, and hope there's no permanent damage to critical files."

He had already turned back to what he was doing, but his face was stony with anger. "I can tell you right now it's probably armored, because the TSR you loaded should have picked up most known and in-the-wild species. This has the feel of a malicious infection to me. If some bastard did this intentionally, I'm going to find out how."

Sloan got up, and moved close enough to rest a hand lightly on his shoulder. "First things first, Jason. We need to get Michael back to work. She's got deadlines she needs to meet. Once we can do that safely, we can start backtracking and hopefully find out how this started."

"You got it," he said.

"And Jason," she added, "I appreciate your quick response time."

He turned again to stare at her, surprised. "This is war, Sloan. Someone has taken a shot at our client right in our faces. Besides, I really like Michael. She doesn't deserve this."

Sloan smiled just at the mention of Michael's name, but there was a dark fire simmering in her eyes. "No, she doesn't. Sorry about ruining your weekend, though."

Jason flushed, and looked at a point over her left shoulder. "Not as sorry as you're going to be when I have to break my date with Sarah," he said.

"Oh no," Sloan chided good-naturedly. "Don't get me in the middle of that one. Sarah likes nothing better than an excuse to beat up on me."

He grinned, but he looked uneasy. Finally he said quietly, "You've known her a long time, haven't you?"

Sloan was taken aback by his remark. Despite their long association, Jason almost never talked to her about personal matters other than to reprimand her for what he considered her loose lifestyle. If he was initiating a serious conversation, it must be very important to him. She glanced at her watch, aware of how much they had to do, but she could spare him a few minutes. She sat back down. "Yes, I've known her a very long time. I think she's the only person in my life, other than you, who I trust completely."

He looked at her quickly and this time he was the one who was surprised. Sloan had never said anything that revealing to him before. In fact, she never said much of anything to him. He had learned to trust her because she had always treated him with respect and honesty. With Sloan, her actions were sometimes more revealing than her words. "I've never met anyone like her," he said softly. "She doesn't seem the least bit put off by the fact that I'm a -- transvestite."

Sloan raised an eyebrow. "You know, Jason, I've never thought of you that way. I guess you are, technically, but Jasmine is more than just an invention of clothing and make-up. She's another dimension of you, and sometimes I even forget that she is you or you are her -- or something," she finished with a laugh. It was damn difficult to describe exactly how she perceived the two of them, but she was clear that there were two of them. It wasn't a case of multiple personality, because Jason was well aware of Jasmine, but Jasmine did certainly have an essence all her own.

He lifted a shoulder, grinning himself. "Don't you think I've tried to explain it to myself? The only time I've ever tried to explain it to anyone else, it was a disaster. But you know that," he added bitterly. "But with Sarah, I don't really need to explain it. She doesn't seem to need me to."

"So what's the problem?" Sloan queried.

"I'm afraid she'll change her mind when she gets to know me better."

"You mean you're afraid she'll change her mind if you let her see how much a part of you Jasmine really is?"

He nodded. "It's one thing to see Jasmine as a performer a couple of times a month. It would be a lot different if Sarah realized that Jasmine is always around, more or less."

Sloan thought about that for a few minutes, realizing that she had never thought about Jasmine anywhere other than at the Cabaret. She hadn't imagined that perhaps it was something Jason did even in private. It was personal, and not something she could ask him. "I think if you and Sarah become serious, you're going to have to let her see Jasmine in all those other situations. In fact, maybe it would be a good idea for Jasmine and Sarah to spend some time together outside of the Cabaret."

She thought she could actually see him turn pale. But when he looked at her, there was something like hope in his eyes.

"Do you think that could actually work?"

Sloan shrugged, standing. "I don't honestly know, but I trust Sarah to deal with whatever comes up. I think you can trust her, too."

She left him then, because she was anxious to get back to Michael. Even though the work ahead looked daunting, Sloan was grateful for the excuse to be there. She just wanted to be in the same room with her.



Chapter Eighteen

"You need to take a break," Michael said quietly. She came up behind the chair where Sloan sat working, glancing at the monitor and seeing nothing that made sense to her. Without thinking, she placed her hands gently on Sloan's shoulders, her thumbs resting against the back of Sloan's neck. Unconsciously, she softly kneaded the tense muscles under her fingers, enjoying the supple strength she found there.

Sloan leaned back with a groan, her head just touching Michael's abdomen. She closed her eyes, very aware of the heat of Michael's body so near. The touch of Michael’s hands was at once soothing and incredibly exciting. If she weren't careful, she'd have a hard time hiding her arousal. She knew her breathing had taken a quick leap into hyperdrive, and her hands trembled slightly where they lay on her thighs. She silently instructed herself to remember the job she needed to do, which helped, but her voice was husky as she murmured, "God, that feels criminally good. What time is it?"

"Just about noon. You haven't been out of that chair in almost nine hours." Michael looked down at Sloan's face, savoring the opportunity to study the other woman as she rested against her, eyes closed and unaware. God, her face is made for sculpting! Michael had an almost irresistible urge to run her fingers over the dark arch of her brow and along the strong angle of her jaw. Her fingers strayed to Sloan's neck, and she felt Sloan stiffen at the touch. Too much, she thought, you can't do this. She forced herself to step back, dropping her hands to her sides.

Sloan rubbed both hands vigorously over her face, straightening up, ignoring the sudden disappointment at the loss of their connection. She was getting used to the steady throb of unanswered desire whenever Michael was around. At least now she had something to distract her.

"This is that critical time when everything is about to come together," said Sloan, weary but starting to feel the excitement that preceded a breakthrough. "It's not something you can get up and walk away from once you start tracking these things down. Another couple of hours and I think I'll have a real handle on it. Then I can take a break for a bit."

"What about something to eat?" Michael asked.

"Another cup of coffee would be good," Sloan confessed.

Michael frowned. She didn't know what she thought would happen when Sloan showed up in the middle of the night. She had been too glad to see her, and too worried about her work and her deadlines. Now she was starting to worry about her.

"Sloan," Michael began cautiously "if I miss the deadline, it's not the end of the world. I'll manage – "

Sloan swiveled around in the chair, staring up at her in astonishment. "Are you kidding? Another ten – twelve hours, and we'll have this system running better than ever. Once we flush the little bastard and start cleaning, I can finish the security changeovers, too."

Michael looked horrified. "Twelve hours!"

"She's good for a lot more than that," a voice announced from across the room.

Both women turned at the sound.

"Heck, I've seen her go for days on caffeine and junk food. This is a walk in the park," Sarah continued, grinning as she crossed the wide office, then stooping to kiss Sloan lightly on the mouth. "Hi, Michael," she added as she fondly stroked Sloan's arm.

"And you are here how?" Sloan inquired with a grin of her own.

"Jason called me. Told me that our much-anticipated dinner and dancing date was off because you were in the midst of a crisis. I didn't want to miss the fun."

"Some fun," Michael muttered, feeling as if she were slipping down the rabbit hole. These two actually seemed to find this all amusing.

"And," Sarah added, "I brought bagels and cream cheese and assorted sinful chocolate things that are guaranteed to keep you awake."

Sloan groaned again. "Bring them here. I have to get back to this."

Sarah noted the return of Michael's worried frown, and pulled her away by the arm. Michael gave the back of Sloan's head one more concerned glance, then followed Sarah to the sitting area where Sarah had deposited several bags on the coffee table.

Sarah leaned close. "Give her another hour or so, and then we'll gang up on her and make her stop for a nap. I just coerced Jason into stretching out on the couch in that lounge down the hall. He looked like his eyeballs were going to fall out. How about you? Get any sleep?"

As she talked she fixed a plate for Sloan.

"Some," Michael admitted. "I drifted off for a while in here on the sofa. I tried to work on some sketches earlier, but I couldn't concentrate. I feel so damn useless."

Sarah shrugged sympathetically. "I can imagine. But these two know what they're doing. They love this stuff. It'll be okay. Sloan's the best."

Michael watched Sarah as she carried the plate to Sloan, who acknowledged her with a mumble and then a blazing smile. The best? Michael thought. Yes, isn't she.

Sarah turned in time to catch the wistful expression on Michael's face as she stared at Sloan, and knew it for precisely what it was. She wondered if Sloan realized that Michael had fallen in love with her. And she wondered too if Sloan would have the good sense to accept it.


"I feel like such a traitor being outside while they're up there struggling," Michael said as she took a deep breath of the crisp, clean air. It was mid-afternoon in early May with the temperatures peaking in the '60s, and everywhere that unique bright spring sun suffused the day in warm welcome.

"Don't worry. If it weren't for times like this, the two of them would be bored to tears. I think both of them miss the fast pace and high tension dramas of Washington."

They were walking across town to Sarah's apartment in what was affectionately known as Society Hill. It was an area ten blocks square replete with brownstone townhouses and historic buildings along narrow streets, many of which still retained their original cobblestones. Sarah had kindly offered to let Michael shower and borrow some of her clothes, since Michael had not been out of her office for over twenty-four hours.

Michael wanted to ask about Sloan's past because she was very aware that neither Sloan nor Sarah ever did more than allude to it. She wanted to know who JT Sloan was. She sensed Sloan's kindness and loyalty and strength, and those were the things that attracted her, but she wondered what had shaped her silences and forged the fleeting whisper of pain in her eyes. Those were the things that made her want to hold her, and more. But she could not ask, understanding it was only Sloan's secret to share. "I'm sorry about disrupting your weekend plans," she said instead.

"Don't even give it a thought. With any luck, it won't be the last time something disrupts my plans with Jason. I only hope we get to that point someday."

Michael glanced at her in mild surprise. "You're really very serious about him are you?"

Sarah nodded. "I really am. It wasn't something I ever expected to happen again, but now that it has, it feels exactly right. We were going to spend the evening together, and I think we both sort of knew it would mean spending the night together. I have to say that if we don't do something pretty soon, I'm likely to implode."

"Well then, I'm doubly sorry," Michael said with a soft laugh. "I don't think I've ever really appreciated that sensation before."

Sarah looked up sharply. "Before?"

Michael colored, suddenly realizing what she had said. Her first instinct was to dismiss it as a meaningless comment, but in the next instant she appreciated that for perhaps the first time in her life she actually had someone she trusted enough to confide in.

"I've never felt that way about anyone, I mean -- the way you feel about Jason. The attraction, and the – wanting," she said finally, hoping her keen embarrassment wasn't obvious.

"Your husband?" Sarah asked gently.

Michael shook her head. "Jeremy was my friend first, and then he was my business partner, and somewhere along the way he became my husband. I didn't have any friends, really, because I was different than most of the people my age. It was a kind of salvation when he seemed to understand what was important to me and shared the things that I loved. But it wasn't a union of the senses; it was an intellectual connection. I was never really aware of -" she stopped, struggling for the words. "Sex."

"Sex," Sarah laughed. "If there is anything more irrational and less explainable than that, I can't imagine what it is. There are a lot of reasons to stay in love, but why we fall in love remains a mystery to me. The best we can hope for is that we fall in love with someone we can continue to love." For a moment, she remembered her last relationship, and she continued sadly, "And sometimes there's nothing we can do except fall and wait for the crash."

"Are you frightened?" Michael asked quietly, suddenly needing very much to know.

Sarah heard the apprehension beneath the question and impulsively took Michael's hand. "A little bit. I try not to think too much about what might happen. It's hard not to, but since we can never really predict, I'm trying to enjoy how alive I feel when I look at him, and how incredibly exciting it is to imagine being with him."

They had come to the stone stairs of the townhouse, and as if prearranged, they'd both sat on a step and leaned back, faces turned to the sky. It was one of those gifted moments when the world seemed to recede, street sounds and sights growing muted, and all that was real was the seductive soothing heat of the sunshine. It was a moment made for confession.

"I'm having a bit of a problem with Sloan," Michael stated, staring up at the soft white clouds in the blue, blue sky. "I can't stop thinking about her."

"Mmm, I noticed," Sarah said, tilting her head back to catch the slanting light against her neck. "I'd be willing to bet she's having a bit of a problem with you, too."

Michael's voice was rough with disappointment. "No, she isn't. She's not interested."

Sarah turned her head, wondering why Michael seemed so certain. "What happened?"

Michael blushed, but continued determinedly. "Last weekend, in my hotel room, we -- well I guess – " She shrugged helplessly, pushing her left hand through her already tousled blond hair. "It sounds like it should be so simple when I say it. She kissed me, but then she made it clear it had been a mistake."

"Ah," Sarah nodded, suddenly understanding. "Not surprising."

Michael turned to her, her eyes questioning. "I'm sorry?"

"Michael, there are things Sloan needs to tell you. Things you need to know to understand her better. She's my oldest friend, and I love her dearly. She's the strongest and most honest person I've ever met. But she's also the most stubborn and she’s been running from something for a long time, and until she stops, she's not going to be able to let anyone close."

Michael didn't understand exactly what Sarah was trying to tell her, but in some ways she thought she did. There had been times when she was with Sloan that she felt so connected, and then in the next instant Sloan would pull away. She didn't know why, but she wanted to.

"Does it bother you, that she's a woman?" Sarah asked quietly.

"I guess it's supposed to," Michael said thoughtfully. She couldn't prevent an image of Sloan from entering her mind. She saw her, in her faded blue jeans and scuffed brown boots and tight white T-shirt, and something turned over deep in her belly. "I think she's gorgeous. In fact," she said with a small tight laugh, very aware of exactly what that heavy pulsating sensation signaled, "if I don't stop thinking about her touching me, I'm going to implode."

Sarah burst out laughing, and after a few seconds, Michael joined her. They leaned close together, shoulders touching, each of them thinking how good it was to share the moment, and each of them hoping that dreams could come true.



Chapter Nineteen

When Michael returned to her office shortly after five o'clock, she discovered Sloan stretched out on her back on the sofa, eyes closed, a leg dangling part way over the edge, one hand resting on her thigh and the other open palm-up by her side. Michael knew she should simply turn away and let her rest, but she found she could not avert her gaze. It seemed as if every facet of Sloan's face and body were miraculous discoveries, precious details to savor again and again. She had never noticed before how sensuous the slight rise of a woman's breast beneath a cotton tee shirt could appear, nor how alluring faded denim might look stretched over a long, lean thigh, nor how the flat planes of the abdomen and gentle slope of hip begged for a hand to brush along them. She stepped closer, one hand lifting as if to stroke the sleeping woman, her breath suspended in anticipation. That was when she realized that she needed to escape, because any second she was going to do something very embarrassing.

Before she could move, Sloan's eyes opened, caught hers, and held. Shimmering violet embers merged into swirling blue flames, bringing Sloan to a sitting position as Michael leaned down, a force beyond volition or even thought drawing them near. Before their lips could meet, somewhere in the deep reaches of Michael's consciousness, she heard Sloan's quick intake of breath, almost a moan. At the same time she remembered Sloan's words from only a week ago, We'll both regret this tomorrow.

"Sloan", Michael whispered, her voice so thick with need she did not recognize herself, "please tell me that it's all right to kiss you, please. I don't think I can stop."

Sloan blinked, appeared to come fully awake, and collapsed back into the cushions. "Fuck, Michael, I don't know."

They stared at one another, breathing hard, skin flushed, bodies shuddering with strain. The air between them hummed with tension.

Michael closed her eyes, hands clenched at her side. She couldn't look at her, not without touching her. She was stunned and a little frightened by what she had almost done. She knew she had never wanted anyone so much - so badly, in fact, that she scarcely knew what she was doing. This was not her, and yet she had never felt more alive. She sat down on the corner of the adjoining chair, letting her hands fall into her lap. "Well, it seems like we've been here before," she said, her voice quivering. "This time, it was clearly I who was responsible. I'm sorry."

Maybe it was the forlorn regret in Michael's voice, or perhaps it was only because Sloan had wanted her since the first time she saw her, but Sloan's resistance finally crumbled. She moved swiftly, knelt before Michael, and kissed her. Firmly, surely, thoroughly. She kissed her the way she had wanted to kiss her for far too many days, the way she had dreamed of kissing her for countless nights, the way she had always known it should be. She thrilled to the soft brush of Michael's lips against hers, shivering when Michael's tongue searched gently for her own. She kept her hands securely pressed to the chair on either side of Michael, knowing that if she moved them to Michael's body, she would be lost. Already her heart was pounding and her head was light. There was a roaring in her ears that threatened to drown all reason. Every fiber of her being wanted to feel Michael's skin under her fingers, to delight in Michael's body yielding to her hands, to exult in Michael's cries rising to her touch.

Her fingers cramped from holding them tightly closed. She would not do that now, not here, not like this. A kiss was just a kiss and she just needed this one simple kiss, just this one kiss to assuage the fire of longing that had been consuming her whole. She ignored the demanding ache that tightened like a fist in her gut, so heavy she could barely breathe. When she could no longer bear the tender sweetness of Michael's mouth, nor contain the searing pressure that streamed down her thighs, spiraled into her spine, and hammered into her belly, she drew away.

"Well," Michael breathed, her eyes hazy, "that was nice."

"Yeah," Sloan grinned shakily. She too was having trouble focusing.

Neither of them moved, lest the spell be broken. Sloan leaned forward, still on her knees, her outstretched arms braced on either side of Michael’s body. Michael slowly brought her fingers to Sloan's wrist, and Sloan turned her hand until they touched. The light pressure of Michael's fingertips circling in her palm was enough to make Sloan's stomach clench. When Michael caressed her arm, then her neck and shoulder, finally bringing her palm against Sloan's chest, Sloan gritted her teeth to hold back a moan. She feared she might orgasm without even being touched.

Michael was oblivious to Sloan's plight. She was mesmerized by the feel of Sloan's muscles under her hand, and the soft promise of breast just beyond. Her thumb brushed unintentionally against Sloan's painfully taut nipple.

Sloan groaned. A pulse beat between her legs -- once, twice. She was losing it.

"Michael," she exclaimed, "Stop!"

Michael froze. Oh god, not again.

Had she been more certain of the signs, and less hurt by the recent rejection, Michael would have done what her instincts were crying out for her to do. She would have taken Sloan's face in both hands and kissed her with all the abandon of fifteen lonely years; she would have driven a possessive hand down that long flat abdomen with all the ferocity of a hunter claiming its prey; and she would have answered the simmering want between Sloan's thighs until she satisfied both their hungers. Even as she forced herself to be still, she could see the liquid need in Sloan's eyes. She could almost taste her desire.

"My god, what is it?" Michael cried. "Sloan! Tell me!"

"Please," Sloan whispered urgently, "I can't take it. You're killing me. Just -- give me a second." When she could control her unsteady legs, she forced herself to stand, took a step away, jammed her hands into her pockets to hide their trembling. "Sorry. I – sorry."

"Are you always this hard to seduce?" Michael said softly. Her own hands were shaking.

"My god, Michael, you could seduce me with a smile! In fact, you did seduce me with a smile, that very first day in the office. I've done nothing except think about you since then!"

"Then what?" Michael persisted, confused and hurt.

Michael's pain was palpable, and Sloan hated knowing that she was to blame. She spoke without thinking. "Christ, I practically came just from you kissing me!"

Secretly pleased, Michael nevertheless responded just as heatedly. "Is that supposed to make me feel better?"

"Yes! No -- oh, hell, I don't know!" Sloan grimaced in frustration, sweeping her arm in a circle to indicate the rest of the room, "I'm supposed to be working here, not bedding you!"

Michael ignored the edge of anger in Sloan's voice. Whatever the cause, she knew that she wasn't the target. "But that's not it, is it?"

Sloan was silent. She needed to clear her head, make some sense of what was happening. She needed to tell her. Jesus, tell her what? That I'm scared to death?

"Just give me a few more hours to get on top of this, and then we'll take a walk, talk," Sloan finally said. Something, anything, as long you don't touch me again right now.

"Deal," Michael nodded wearily, still reeling from the staggering realization of how much she wanted her. She had never dreamed it possible. She longed to say, as long as you don't go away, but she didn't dare. She didn't have the right. She would simply have to trust Sloan to come back to her.

"I'm going to find Jason and see how he's doing with the data retrieval. I might be awhile," Sloan said hesitantly. She didn't want to leave her.

"I understand," Michael said reasonably, though she was loathe to let her out of her sight.

When Sloan returned just a few moments later, Michael looked up from her desk in surprise. "Did you find him?"

"No," Sloan said with an odd expression. "Not exactly."

Sloan was still trying to dispel the image of Sarah and Jason entwined on the sofa in the lounge, very unaware of her presence. She was well beyond the point in her life when any form of sexuality could disturb her, but there had been no doubt that Sarah's hand was on Jason's fly, and that at any moment her hand would be inside his pants. While Sloan applauded their spontaneity, she had no desire to witness this degree of intimacy between her friends. She had hastily retreated.

"He was - ah - involved."

Michael gaped at her in astonishment, taking her meaning from her tone. "My god, what is it tonight? Something in the office air?"

"Apparently," Sloan said ruefully. "Carpe diem," she said to herself. She glanced at the computer. Yeah, right.


Close to ten o'clock, Sloan announced, "I think that might have it." She leaned back in her chair, stretching her cramped shoulders and back. "With any luck, you should be able to start work again tomorrow morning. There are still a few things Jason will probably need to finish."

"At this point," Michael said from across the room, "I don't care if the whole goddamned system goes up in smoke. You need to take a break. Now."

Sloan nodded her agreement. She was tired, but exhilarated as well.

"Let me take you to dinner," Michael said, sensing an opening. She had respected Sloan's wishes to let her work, but she hadn't forgotten what had happened earlier. Her body still throbbed. "You've earned it."

"I need to take a shower and change clothes," Sloan amended. "Do you mind stopping at my place first?"

"Anything," Michael said. "As long as it's away from here."

They drove across town in Sloan's car in companionable silence. Michael was surprised to discover that Sloan owned a building in a section of the city previously dominated by factories that had recently become the focus of highly publicized renovations into trendy restaurants and much sought-after loft apartments. Sloan's was on a small side street that retained much of its historic charm, with the original cobblestone streets, horse hitches, and hand-laid brick sidewalks still in evidence. A garage opened on the first floor with a rear staircase and an old freight elevator that gave access to the upper floors. Sloan's loft was on the top floor, and when she slid the double doors open and motioned Michael inside, Michael gasped in delighted pleasure.

"God, this is great," she exclaimed. The huge space was high ceilinged and completely open, different functional areas simply delineated by the strategic placement of furniture and scattered area rugs. Across the room, floor-to-ceiling windows afforded a sweeping panoramic view of the waterfront and their sister city across the river. The flickering lights of sailboats and cabin cruisers glittered on the glass-like surface of the water.

"Thanks," Sloan said. "I need to get a shower and change. There's beer, wine, and sparkling water in the kitchen. Just help yourself."

"Sloan," Michael called impulsively. "How about if we order pizza and stay here? The view is so beautiful, and I'm not sure I want to face the crowds."

Michael looked so young, and so lovely standing there, that Sloan felt her throat tighten. Just that quickly, she was awash with desire again. She swallowed, backing up a few steps. "Sure. There are menus in the kitchen by the phone. Anything you like is fine with me."

Sloan practically fled around the partition that separated her bedroom and bathroom from the common space in the rest of the loft. Michael stared after her, wondering what had prompted that quick flash of fear in her expressive eyes. Whatever the cause, she was determined not to leave until she discovered the answer.


 Part 7

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