A Matter of Trust: Part 8
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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Sloan found Jason in the communication center in very nearly the same place she had left him twenty-four hours previously. He did seem to have showered and changed his clothes and still managed to look fresh after what couldn't have been much sleep. She avoided contemplating where he had spent the night.
"Have we got it fixed?" she asked as she crossed the room and pulled a chair over next to him.
"As much as we possibly can, short of installing voice or fingerprint-recognition devices," he muttered without taking his eyes off the symbols on the screen.
Sloan looked at him with interest. "Do we have that?"
"No, but the Pentagon does," he answered with a grin.
Sloan grinned too. "We still have some friends in that neighborhood, don't we?"
Jason turned, giving her a stern look. "We do, and I think we should work on keeping them for a while. Trying to pirate national security level toys probably isn't the best way to do it - not until we really need them at least."
She sighed, nodding in agreement. "Probably a good point. I've told Michael she can go ahead and start working. She has to get into the system to finish what she needs before her deadline tomorrow."
"She should be all right. I'm just giving it a final run through. I think everything is as clean and tight as we can make it. I still have back checking on the virus origins to do, but that shouldn't interfere with what she's doing. I made copies of the code to analyze on the guinea pig machine back at the office."
"You'd better check in with her tomorrow and the next day to make sure she hasn't run into any difficulties. Let her know that you'll be available day or night if something comes up." Sloan wouldn't rest easy until Michael's deadlines had come and gone uneventfully. Although they didn't have any proof yet, and most likely never would, she felt pretty certain that Michael's husband had been behind the recent attempt to sabotage the system, and she was worried he might try again.
Jason shifted his concentration from the monitor, studying her curiously. "If there some reason you won't be calling her? That is your department, the troubleshooting. After this weekend, I'll be more than happy to get back to the office. I don't mind backing you up in an emergency, but the business end of things is easier on my social life."
Her expression was unreadable and her violet eyes so dark they approached black. "Just do it, please, Jason," she said in a tone of voice that brooked no argument. She wasn't sure what she was going to do, if anything, about Michael. She hadn't expected last night to ever happen, and she surely had not anticipated her reaction to it. She had learned to accept the comfort of another in her bed as a momentary surcease from loneliness and a temporary antidote to isolation, but she never again expected to be really touched by someone. That had been just fine, because she never again wanted to be vulnerable to the vagaries of another's affections. But Michael, Michael was different. She was so genuine and open and so totally without guile that Sloan found herself caring about her before she realized it was happening. Michael had reached in and touched her heart before she could stop her. And now the places Michael had touched ached for her. Sloan flinched without meaning to, and tried to put Michael from her mind. "I'll leave you to finish up."
Jason wanted to say more, but there was something about her expression that warned him off. Usually, he did not hesitate to take Sloan to task for what he considered her uncivilized behavior in personal relationships. As much as she knew about his past, he knew about hers. They had shared each other's betrayal as well as their nearly simultaneous professional discrediting. They almost never spoke of it, but he knew first hand how long the pain could linger. Whatever the situation with Michael, he had a feeling it was far more serious than Sloan wanted to admit. This time, he sensed her still unhealed wounds very near the surface. Her eyes were haunted with old hurts.
Until a short time ago he would have agreed with her reluctance to become seriously involved, to take that risk again. But meeting Sarah had changed everything about how he viewed matters of the heart. Sarah was teaching him that it was possible to be safe, even while exposing his deepest secrets. Even though he hadn't been ready last night for sex, and had worried that his reluctance would be seen as rejection, Sarah had understood even that. He had found a note that Sarah had left with his car keys on her way out of his apartment. She had written: "Ask Jasmine if she'll go out dancing with me Friday night."
It had taken Sarah and her singular sensitivity to lead him to the point of trust. It didn't seem so impossible to him now that someone could do the same for Sloan. In fact, having watched Michael and Sloan together over the past weeks, he had seen an entirely different Sloan when she was around Michael. There was a tenderness and vulnerability about her that he had never seen before. It was almost as if Michael, without even realizing it, had awakened those parts of Sloan that she had kept hidden from everyone, including herself.
Sloan turned at the door and looked back, a question on her face.
"Michael will wonder why you don't call," he said, unwilling to let her go without trying to change her mind. Loneliness was a heartless companion. He knew.
She stared at him, wondering if by some strange sixth sense, he knew just how significant that statement was. She wasnít thinking about business, but the night that she and Michael had shared as she answered quietly, "I know, Jason. But maybe it's the best thing."
When, after five minutes, Sarah had managed to land two respectable blows solidly on Sloan's jaw as well as executing a leg sweep that knocked her definitively on her ass, Sarah stepped back out of fighting range, dropped her hands and stared at her friend.
"Would you like to tell me where your mind is?"
Sloan shook her head, getting slowly to her feet. "It's nothing. Come on, let's spar."
It was Sarah's turn to shake her head no. "Sloan, you know how much I love an opportunity to beat up on you, but it's no fun when you're defenseless. What's wrong?"
Sloan's first impulse was to deny any problem. She didn't want to think about anything, let alone try to explain her state of mind to Sarah. Sarah was too damn perceptive and too damn persistent to let anything go. The moment Sarah noticed the slightest bit of inconsistency or evasiveness, she patiently worked away at it until the whole damn barricade fell, and every secret you ever had was laid bare for her inspection. Granted, she had always been kind and usually gave Sloan just the support she needed, but this was one time Sloan did not want to hear what Sarah had to say.
"If you don't want to spar, let's just lift for a while," Sloan grumbled, turning toward the door that led into the weight room. She was surprised when she felt Sarah's hand on her arm, restraining her gently. She sighed and looked over her shoulder at her friend. Sarah's eyes were affectionate and reassuring.
"Come on Sloan. I know damn well something's going on, and I'm pretty sure I know what it is. It's Wednesday night, and you haven't been into the office all week. Jason told me this morning that you've been AWOL since Sunday afternoon. Want to tell me what's going on?"
"Not especially. Do I have a choice?" Sloan said more sharply than she intended.
"You always have a choice, but sometimes you're too pig-headed and stubborn to see it," Sarah retorted, a slight smile on her face.
Sloan sighed, crossed to the side of the room and flopped down on a pile of exercise mats that had been stacked along the wall. Sarah joined her and waited expectantly.
"It's nothing as dramatic as you're imagining," Sloan said at length. "We've been running at a fast pace all spring, and after this last project with Michael, I just wanted a little break." She was amazed that she could mention Michael's name without stumbling, because thinking about Michael made her pulse pound, and saying her name out loud brought a lump to her throat. She had in fact spent the better part of three days trying not to think about her. That had been largely unsuccessful, since there were only so many things she could find to occupy her mind, and even then her concentration was sketchy. At least a dozen times an hour she would find herself glancing at the clock, wondering if Michael were in a meeting, and how her project presentations were going, and whether or not Jeremy had appeared on the scene to cause more problems. At least twice an hour she would find herself with the phone in her hand, ready to call Jason for an update. Each time she had gently placed the phone back in its cradle, realizing that if she took one step in Michael's direction, she would not be able to stop. And she wasn't sure that was a good idea at all. The problem was, she wasn't sure of anything, and that was as confusing to her as anything else that had happened since meeting Michael. She ran her hands through her hair and closed her eyes.
"Uh huh," Sarah responded agreeably, choosing not to comment on Sloan's obvious distress. "A break. I could buy that if it were anyone but you. I can't remember the last time you voluntarily took a break. Does this have to do with Michael?"
Sloan sighed. "Most of it."
"Look Sloan, I'm not trying to pry into your personal life, it's just that I really care about you and Michael. You're one of my oldest friends, and I've loved you for a long time. I haven't known Michael very long at all, but it's easy to care about her. Sometimes when you become involved so quickly with someone, especially during a crisis, you get to know them better than people you've known for years. If it makes it any easier, I already know that you slept with her."
Sloan looked at her quickly. "Michael told you?"
"She didn't have to," Sarah said with a soft laugh. "It was pretty obvious that something major had happened to her, and I guessed. She has feelings for you, Sloan, and I have a suspicion that it's reciprocal."
"That's the problem," Sloan said. "She's not like the other women Iíve been with. She doesn't have any experience with this kind of thing, and I'm afraid --" her voice trailed off, as she tried to analyze what she had been avoiding for so long. What exactly am I afraid of?
Sarah nudged Sloan's leg with her foot affectionately. "I agree that she's inexperienced, Sloan, but I don't think she's naive. She's an extraordinarily intelligent and successful woman, and she has been remarkably calm during something that would throw most of us completely off balance. She has managed to deal with her husband's threats, and still do the work she's needed to, and handled all of her feelings for you, too. That's an amazing accomplishment, and I think you're doing her a disservice to think she doesn't know exactly what this means."
When her comments were met with silence, Sarah continued quietly, "Don't try to second guess her, Sloan. I can understand how hard it must be for you to trust her. I know how hard it's been for me, and I haven't experienced the kind of horrible betrayal that you did. But do you plan to spend the rest of your life having casual sex with women you don't really care about?"
Sloan eyed her angrily, her temper dangerously close to erupting. She was about to object to Sarah's rather harsh characterization when she realized that Sarah had only been stating the truth.
"Some people aren't meant for relationships," Sloan stated flatly. "I seem to be getting along fine the way things are."
Sarah nodded. "Maybe you're right, but I don't think so, Sloan. I know you, and I know how tender and caring you can be. If you weren't, I don't believe Michael would have fallen in love with you."
Sloan started as if struck. "Did she say that?"
Sarah stood, offering Sloan a hand up. "That's my reading of the situation, but you'll have to ask her. Jason has been on the phone with her several times the last couple of days, checking to make sure she wasn't having any problems. I invited her to go out with Jasmine and I on Friday night. I decided if I were ever going to get Jason to believe I was crazy about him, I'd have to prove it to Jasmine, too. We're all going dancing at Chances. You know where it is, and if you want to know the answer to that question, why not come by and ask her yourself."
Sloan followed her wordlessly into the weight room, thinking about the cost of dreams and the price of passion.
Sloan sat in her car across the street from Chances, watching Friday night revelers come and go. She had been debating going inside for at least twenty minutes. She knew what the problem was and wasn't particularly proud of herself. If she went inside, she would see Michael. She would have to speak with her, and there was no way that she could see her and talk to her without acknowledging what had happened between them. And once she did that, she would be forced to confront her own feelings. That was the wall that she had run into over and over again for the last six days. Every time she got close to admitting what she felt, something close to terror welled up inside her and threatened to choke her. She recognized it, even understood it, but could not seem to control it.
There was nothing about Michael that reminded her of Elise. True, they were both successful, highly intelligent, and forceful professionally, but there the similarity ended. Where Elise had been icily sophisticated and emotionally remote, Michael was immensely approachable and amazingly sensitive. She had captured Sloan's attention from the very first, and not long after, her mind and body as well.
Nevertheless, Sloan was afraid. She was afraid of caring, even though the ache of missing Michael these last few days was worse than any pain she could remember enduring, including the humiliating weekend of incarceration. Still, the rational parts of her mind could not carry her beyond the scars, and now she sat paralyzed. She wanted more than anything to see Michael, yet feared the instant when she looked across the room and knew with certainty that Michael held the keys to her happiness.
Ultimately, it was something Jason had said just that afternoon that decided her. He had casually mentioned that Sarah and Jasmine had a hot date that evening when Sloan had asked him to bring the semi-annual financial reports up to date for her review.
"Yes, I know," she had said. Trying to sound only moderately interested she then continued, "Isn't Michael supposed to be going with you?"
"Last I heard," he answered, maddeningly secretive. "And I hope I won't be doing anything remotely resembling work this weekend."
Sloan struggled not to ask for details. "How do you feel about Sarah and Jasmine going out?"
There had been silence for a few seconds, and then Jason's quiet voice replied, "A little scared. But too much of me wants this not to take a chance. Sarah is special, and I don't expect anyone like her to come along again. I can't afford not to trust her."
Sloan stared across street, knowing that Michael was special too, and believing in her heart that she would regret it for the rest of her life if she didn't take a chance. She couldn't afford not to.
As she stepped from the car, she heard someone call her name. She crossed the street looking up and down the crowded sidewalk, her gaze finally finding Diane Carson, who stood waiting for her beside the entrance to the club. Sloan made her way to her, nodding in greeting.
"Hello, Diane. How are you?"
Diane Carson smiled ever so slightly and shrugged. "Better than the last time we met. Still looking for Ms. Right, but I haven't made an ass of myself in at least a couple of weeks. I do owe you an apology."
Sloan shook her head. "No, you don't. I wasn't exactly innocent in the whole deal either. Sometimes it's easy to fool yourself into thinking you have no responsibility for the way other people feel, but I think that might just be a convenient excuse. I'm sorry for the way things turned out, too."
Diane studied her curiously, surprised by the contemplative tone in her voice. It would be much easier to forget JT Sloan if she weren't so attractive standing there in her black jeans and crisp white shirt, maddeningly sexy in her utter disregard for external trappings. "Sorry enough to give it another try?" Diane said lightly, but resting her hand on Sloan's forearm to convey she was still quite serious. "No strings attached this time. I promise."
"I don't think that would be a very good idea," Sloan said, knowing that she could never go back to a casual affair. No matter how hard she tried to set boundaries, people still got hurt, and some of that was her responsibility. Beyond that, she knew that after what she had experienced with Michael, nothing would ever reach the places in her that needed to be touched. Michael had awakened those needs, and after their night together, anything else would be an empty charade. She reached for the door, and said, "Can I buy you a drink for old time's sake, though?"
Diane smiled in gracious defeat and took her arm, saying, "I think one is about my limit these days. But thanks, I accept."
Across the room, Michael saw them come in. After a brief instant of pulse pounding excitement that accompanied her first look at Sloan in six days, her heart plummeted in disappointment. Sloan was with Diane Carson, and now she knew why Sloan hadn't called. The first few times the phone had rung after she and Sloan had been together, she answered with near breathless anticipation, her skin alive with the memory of Sloan's touch. As the days passed her excitement turned to confusion, and finally coalesced into a hard ache of rejection. She had tried to keep busy with meetings and the last-minute details of her projects, and for a while she had been able to relegate her disappointment to the back of her mind. As the week wore on, however, she thought more and more of Sloan. If that weren't bad enough, her entire body seemed to be reacting to their night together in a fashion completely foreign to her. It was as if some hunger, held at bay for years, had suddenly been awakened. Now she was besieged by an almost insatiable need to see Sloan, hear her voice, feel her touch. Michael had to restrain herself from picking up the phone and asking Sloan what the silence meant.
Michael looked at Sloan standing with Diane and reminded herself that she had practically begged Sloan for the one night they had shared. She had assured Sloan that she knew what she was doing, had promised that one night would be enough. God, how stupid she had been! That one night was like a single drop of rain in the desert. Sweet, sweet torture. And not nearly enough.
Michael turned away, unable to watch as the stately brunette pressed close to Sloan in the crowd at the bar, draping one hand casually around Sloan's waist as she reached for the drink the bartender offered.
Michael glanced anxiously over the crowded dance floor for Sarah. She needed to find her, tell her this was a mistake. She couldn't stay here, not with Sloan so near and her own emotions so out of control. It had seemed so harmless when Sarah suggested she go along Ė something to get her away from the office and out of her hotel room, Sarah had said. Sarah had even hinted that she would appreciate the company on her first 'date' with Jasmine. Michael hadn't considered that being surrounded by women holding other women, dancing with each other, sharing small caresses with each other, would be painful, but it was. Even seeing the first hesitant touches between Sarah and Jasmine had been bittersweet. She had been happy for them, and at the same time acutely aware of her own deep longing for Sloan. She might have managed to contain the pain if Sloan hadn't actually appeared. Now she was afraid her agony would turn to tears.
Across the room Sloan turned from the bar, beer in hand, and surveyed the dancers. She hadn't been out since first meeting Michael, and she suddenly realized how uninterested she was in the too familiar mating rituals being played out everywhere around her. What had once filled a need now seemed strangely devoid of meaning. She couldn't help thinking that her affairs had only been an excuse to avoid her own despair, to deny just how very much it had hurt. That was one of the things she loved about Michael, how she refused to run from disappointment, no matter how hard it was.
Jesus! What am I saying! She thought with a jolt. Love her?
"Did you say something?" Diane shouted above the din of voices and music.
Sloan jerked out of her reverie. "No. Nothing."
As the room came into focus again, she spied a familiar figure. Slender, long-legged, unashamedly seductive in short leather skirt and a black lycra top, Jasmine moved on the dance floor with the same sensuous grace that had first attracted Sloan's attention years before in a similar smoke-clouded club. She suddenly realized why Jasmine had been able to fool her so successfully the first time they met. When Jasmine wasn't performing, her appearance was subtly different. What makeup she wore was carefully applied to highlight her eyes and sculpted cheekbones and to accentuate her lips, but it was far from the stage makeup that she wore professionally. Out of costume in normal clothing, Jasmine appeared unquestionably female. Sloan watched with just a tinge of envy as Jasmine and Sarah danced. The beat was heavy and fast, a backdrop of pulsation to match the barely contained sexuality seething through the couples on the crowded floor. Jasmine and Sarah's eyes were locked as their bodies surged with a seductive rhythm echoing the evocative tempo. Sarah wore jeans and a tight cotton T-shirt, and anyone looking at them would've thought her to be the butch member of the pair. Sloan smiled faintly to herself, thinking how often perceptions could be wrong, thinking too that very often the truth could not be known, only experienced.
She began searching for Michael and saw her moving towards the door. Sloan couldn't tell from across the room, but it looked like she might have been crying. "Excuse me," she said abruptly and as she set her beer back on the bar. She pushed quickly into the crowd and made it to the exit only a few steps behind Michael.
Once outside on the sidewalk she looked hurriedly up and down the street, and saw her nearly half a block away. "Michael!" she shouted, starting to run. She caught up to her quickly and stopped her with a hand on her arm. "Michael," she said gently. Being so close to her brought an ache to her chest. God, she was beautiful!
Michael turned, quickly brushing the last of her tears from her cheeks. "Hi," she said softly.
"Hi," Sloan answered, her throat dry. She peered into Michael's face intently, noting the wounded expression Michael was struggling to hide. "What is it?" Sloan questioned quietly, slipping her fingers down Michael's arm and into her hand. Seeing Michael in pain tore holes in her heart.
"Nothing," Michael replied, smiling ruefully. "I just had a bad moment there. It's been a tough few weeks."
"It's been a tough few months," Sloan agreed, gazing deep into Michael's eyes. She didn't notice the people stepping around them as they stood in the center of the sidewalk, bathed in the streetlight's pale golden glow. "But it's been an amazing few weeks, too."
Michael had to fight to concentrate on Sloan's words. She was mesmerized by the feel of Sloan so near, and the faint tantalizing smell of her, and the heat that poured from Sloan's fingertips as they lightly brushed her own. Michael watched Sloan's lips move and imagined them on her skin. She remembered their kisses, and longed for more. "What do you mean?" she asked, surprised by how hard it was to speak.
Sloan knew Michael was waiting to hear her answer, and she knew why. Until now, Michael had taken all the chances Ė she had been willing to say what she felt, and what she wanted. Michael had risked rejection and she had defied convention. It was time for Sloan to match Michael's courage and take a risk for her.
"You happened to me," Sloan whispered, stepping closer, her lips a breath away. "You swept into my life and stole my heart."
"Sloan," Michael murmured, her voice hushed with desire. "Oh, Sloan."
Sloan did kiss her then, a long careful kiss, just their lips tenderly exploring, their bodies bending to one another but not quite touching. It was as if they both knew that any more contact and they would forget exactly where they were.
"Way to go," someone cheered as a small crowd of women shouldered past on their way to the club. Sloan finally broke the kiss, and Michael smiled up at her tremulously.
"We seem to be making a spectacle of ourselves," Michael remarked, but didn't make any move to step away.
"Mmm," Sloan agreed, thinking that she wanted to taste Michael's lips again. Had anything ever been so sweet?
"You might invite me back to see the view from your loft," Michael said, her fingers trailing along the edge of Sloan's jaw. Sloan shuddered lightly and Michael felt a lightning surge of desire. "Say yes. Hurry."
"Oh god, yes," Sloan grated, grasping Michael's hand and pulling her toward her car.
"Sarah will wonder where I am," Michael declared urgently, even as she kept pace with Sloan.
"Don't worry," Sloan replied, fumbling her keys out of her pocket. "She'll be too busy tonight to worry."
Michael didn't answer; she simply slid into the seat, slid her hand along Sloan's thigh, and leaned over to kiss her neck. "So will I."
Sloan turned to gaze at Michael, who stood just inside the doors of the loft. Michael looked uncertain, and terribly vulnerable. Sloan's heart ached to see it, and she wanted to go to her and kiss the fear from her eyes. "What is it?" Sloan asked her gently.
Michael searched Sloan's face. Seeing the kindness and tenderness, she remembered Sloan's gentle touch and found the courage to continue. "What does this mean? Our being here?" She hesitated, her voice catching on the words. "Because I don't think I'll be able to forget you after this."
Sloan stood very still, struggling for the strength to accept the truth. "It means we--" she stopped, aware of the lingering fears hammering at her. She turned her mind from the memories, clinging instead to the image of Michael in her arms. "It means I want you, Michael. It means I need you. It means I will do anything I possibly can never to hurt you." She swallowed, then took a step closer to the woman who had captured her heart. "It means I love you, more than you will ever know."
Michael smiled, a tremulous smile that reflected the tears in her eyes. She crossed the remaining space between them, reaching for Sloan, threading her arms around Sloan's waist and nestling her head against Sloan's shoulder. "How is it you always know what to say?"
Sloan's arms closed around her, one hand gently stroking her hair. She laughed a little unsteadily. "For some reason, being near you makes it easy to say the things I feel. Even when they scare me to death, I can't stop them from coming out." She kissed the top of Michael's head, then reached gently to lift Michael's chin in the palm of her hand, gazing deep into her clear blue eyes.
"I love you, Michael Lassiter. So very much."
Michael smiled again, a full smile now that illuminated her features with hope and happiness. She brushed her lips across Sloan's, and echoed softly, "I love you, JT Sloan. So very much."
Suddenly, there was no longer any need for words. Each could feel the truth in the other's embrace. Michael pressed close, caressing Sloan's shoulders, her chest, her back. Their lips met as Sloan drew Michael's blouse from beneath the waistband of her skirt, running her hands over the soft skin she bared. She kept her mouth on Michael's, her hands rising to Michael's breasts, freeing them, starved for the feel of her flesh. Michael eased back enough to get her hands between their bodies and pulled at the buttons of Sloan's fly. She stroked Sloan's abdomen, running her fingers along the edges of the quivering muscles, desperately pushing at Sloan's jeans, trying to touch more of her. They twisted together, thrashing on twin hooks of desire, their kisses voracious, their hands greedy - hot and hungry and wild.
Sloan pulled away first, gasping, her stomach knotted with need so heavy she could barely stand. They were nearly naked in the middle of her living room, clothes in various stages of disarray. Sloan's hands shook where they lay on Michael's desire-dampened skin. Michael's face was flushed, her blue eyes cloudy with lust, and she moaned when Sloan's lips left hers.
"No," Michael protested, reaching for her again.
"Michael," Sloan groaned as Michael's fingers slid down the front of her jeans. Her knees buckled and she almost fell. "Michael, wait! Bedroom, now, or we'll end up right here on the floor!"
Michael was on fire. The only thing she wanted was to feel her and taste her and consume her until the famine of a lifetime was satisfied, and then she wanted it again. "Hurry. I want you so much," she gasped.
They half stumbled across the floor, still embracing, shedding the rest of their clothes as they went. Reaching the edge of the bed, they tumbled onto the covers in a tangle of arms and legs. They couldn't seem to get close enough as limbs clasped and breasts cleaved and everywhere they licked and sucked and fought to join. Their groans echoed throughout the room until the air was thick with their passion.
"I can't stand it," Michael moaned, reaching between Sloan's thighs to find the heat and the wetness she craved, stroking through the swollen tissues, entering her deeply, than easing out to tantalize her with light touches and teasing caresses. Sloan tried to roll onto her, wanting her more than she wanted to be pleasured, but Michael stopped her, stronger than Sloan had imagined.
"No," Michael murmured, sliding inside again, reaching some place beyond the physical with her hands and her eyes and her pure selfless desire. "No, I want you. I want you. Trust me, please."
Sloan fell back, surrendering, giving her body and letting go, finally, of the pain. "Yes," she whispered, the word ending in a small choked cry. Michael's mouth was at her throat, biting lightly, then moving lower, over her breasts, down the center of her abdomen, pressing into the soft skin at the base of her belly. Sloan's hands found Michael's hair, then her cheek, as she lifted her hips in silent offering. She waited, the breath stilled in her chest, her blood poised to burn, for the touch that would set her free.
Michael paused, awestruck with wonder, as Sloan arched and grew taut, shudderingly close to exploding. She closed her eyes in gratitude and told Sloan with her mouth and her tongue and her arms wrapped tightly around Sloan's hips how very much she loved her. And when Sloan grew full and hard and the bands of her restraint broke with a deep groan, Michael continued to glory in her until all that existed in that room was the perfect harmony of their blood and their breath and the beat of their hearts.
Sloan awoke in darkness, streetlights casting pale flickering shadows over the bed. Michael's head lay on her shoulder, and the soft weight of Michael's breast filled her palm. Even in near blackness, Michael's hair shown golden against her luminescent skin, giving her the look of a sleeping angel. Sloan ran her fingers through the silken strands, thinking about miracles and second chances. She realized that even in the first blush of love with Elise she had never felt so connected, nor so damn lucky. Maybe it took losing to understand what it meant to win. She sighed without knowing it, pulling Michael closer.
Michael lay quietly, listening to the comforting, steady rhythm of Sloan's heart, basking in the tender attention of Sloan's caresses. The second time she heard Sloan sigh, she asked, "What's bothering you?"
"Did I wake you?" Sloan murmured, kissing the tip of her ear.
"No," Michael replied, snuggling a little closer, one hand resting lightly against Sloan's abdomen. She smiled when the muscles jumped at her touch. "And don't change the subject."
Sloan grinned to herself. "I was just thinking that I almost didn't let this happen. I was too stubborn to see that what I thought was love, years ago, never was at all."
Michael shifted until she lay on top of Sloan, raising up on her elbows and gazing into her face. "Don't. You were young and you were innocent, and there's no blame in that. We're here together now, and that's all that matters."
"I love you," Sloan whispered, liking the sound of it.
"That works out well then," Michael responded as she brought her lips close to Sloan's. "Because I love you, too."
It was slower this time, but no less powerful. When kisses weren't enough to quiet the fires, they shifted to face each other, trading languid strokes and teasing caresses as they stared into each other's eyes. When the matching pools of liquid desire deepened to overflowing, Michael arched her hips to take all of Sloan inside of her, murmuring, "Soon."
"Uh huh," Sloan groaned, as the pressure began to build and pound in the pit of her belly. She clenched her jaws and tried to hold on.
Michael began to tremble lightly, her eyelids fluttering closed for long seconds as her teeth caught at her lower lip, then her eyes opened wide as her hips jerked hard into Sloan's hand.
"Ohgod," she cried just before her head snapped back and her voice tripped over the sudden spasm that gripped her.
The sound of Michael's pleasure was all it took to carry Sloan beyond her limits, and she surrendered with a sharp cry as tongues of fire swept through her muscles and along her nerves to burn a white-hot path into her brain. She was beyond words, able only to emit a series of broken groans.
Michael eventually found her voice, and whispered, "I've never felt anything like that before."
Sloan brushed at the tears on her own cheeks, and replied, "Neither have I."
Michael sighed, and tucked her head under Sloan's chin, fitting herself into every curve of Sloan's body. "That's all right then, isn't it?"
"Oh yes," Sloan murmured on the edge of sleep. "Just right."
When they awoke again, still wrapped in one another's arms, it was fully light. Sloan smiled at Michael, a slow easy smile of undisguised satiation. "Good morning."
"Morning," Michael responded, amazed to find herself where she had scarcely dared dream she would ever be. Hearing the warmth in Sloan's greeting and feeling the heat of their bodies pressed close together, she realized it was better than any dream. "Is there any particular morning-after ritual I should know about?"
Sloan's contagious grin widened. "Well, let's see, there's the part where we shower together and take a little extra time to get reacquainted. And then there's the part where we fix breakfast and in between clearing up and reading the paper we come back here for a little more intimate activity, and then maybe, just maybe, sometime later we get dressed."
It was Michael's turn to grin. "Sounds lovely. However, I think we need to do the breakfast part before the shower and those other wonderful activities, because I'm starving."
"I think I can arrange that," Sloan said, kissing her lightly, enjoying waking up together for the first time and sharing the first hours of the day. It was a pleasure she had long forgotten.
Just as they were about to get up, the phone rang. Sloan stared at it, debating answering it. She couldn't think of anyone important enough to interrupt this moment for, but she didn't want it to ring again at a more indelicate time either. She reached for it, thinking Better now than later.
"Sloan," she said.
"Ah, Sloan," Sarah's familiar voice responded. "Am I interrupting anything?"
"Actually, yes," Sloan responded, pulling Michael close.
A soft laugh came to her through the line. Then Sarah said, "I thought I might be. I saw you come in last night, and the next thing I knew both Michael and you were missing. I hope that means something."
"Oh yes, it definitely means something," Sloan murmured, her eyes on Michael's lips. They were full, slightly swollen from the kisses the previous night, and the sight of those lips reminded her of how they felt on her skin. Sloan's heart stuttered in her chest. She glanced away because she didn't trust herself to form words while looking at Michael.
"My, my," Sarah continued with her teasing. "People will talk!"
"Jasmine was looking quite stunning last evening," Sloan managed, ignoring the taunt and giving Sarah some of her own medicine. She was willing to bet that she and Michael werenít the only ones to raise eyebrows the night before.
It was Sarah's turn for silence. Then, her voice husky, she responded, "Yes, she was quite amazing. Beautiful, every step of the way."
In her mind, Sarah was replaying those first moments alone with Jasmine as they faced one another in the quiet of her bedroom. The hesitancy, the shy press of clad bodies as they kissed, both of them shaking. She wasn't sure which of them had been more nervous. Jasmine removed the short black wig and Sarah ran her hands through the slightly shorter golden hair beneath, amazed at the subtle shift from wholly feminine to androgynous that simple act produced. When she had reached under Jasmine's tight black top to release her bra, she thought for an instant that Jasmine would stop her, a swift tightening of muscle and sharp intake of breath warning of Jasmine's fear.
"It's all right," Sarah had whispered, running her tongue lightly up Jasmine's neck as she lifted the top and undergarment off together. In the faint glow of the bedside light, the exposed chest showed smooth and hairless, shimmering with a light sheen of sweat as androgyny transformed into maleness. As she ran her fingers over the clearly defined muscles, Jason quivered.
Sarah had scarcely noticed gentle hands removing her own blouse until their skin met and their bodies pressed urgently together. She glanced to the side and saw their reflection in the mirror, both of them nude from the waist up, naked breasts to bare chest, one in jeans, the other in skirt and stockings, images not only reversed but completely exchanged. She watched the reflection as she lifted the leather skirt, slid one hand beneath and found the sheer thong, clasping the fullness there, feeling her knees weaken even as Jason groaned and pressed himself into her hand.
When they lay together, Sarah felt Jason strong and deep within her even as she gazed up into Jasmine's tender eyes. She had welcomed them both with her passion.
"Jason was quite outstanding, too," Sarah murmured as she shook off the last of the memories.
Sloan heard the caring and wonder in Sarah's voice and her heart lifted with happiness for them both. "I'm glad, Sarah. Really. Jason is special, and so are you."
"Thanks Sloan. You're a friend."
"Listen, friend," Sloan said good-naturedly, smiling at Michael. "I've got business to attend to."
"That's okay. I just called to satisfy my curiosity," Sarah said with another laugh. "Tell her I said hello."
Sloan kissed Michael quickly again, then replied, "I'll do that."
She put down the phone, kissed Michael one more time and slipped from the bed. "Sarah says Ďhelloí. You need to put some clothes on because I donít trust myself around open flames if youíre naked."
Michael merely grinned and padded toward the bathroom, a satisfied look on her face. Sloan found sweat pants and a t-shirt for Michael and pulled on sweats of her own. They took turns in the bathroom, then met in the kitchen to peruse the contents of the refrigerator together.
"Omelets?" Sloan inquired, reminded as she surveyed the paucity of food that she hadn't had a woman overnight in her apartment for a very long time. Her nights of carefully controlled intimacy had never been this simple, nor so intensely personal. She couldn't imagine now how those sterile encounters had sustained her for so long. Michael had reminded her what it meant to hunger, and to be filled.
Michael wrapped her arms around Sloan's waist from behind and stood on tiptoe to kiss the smooth skin on the back of her neck, then peered around her to look at the selection. "Mmm, omelets sound perfect. Is that orange juice I see?"
Sloan shivered at the light caress and tried to ignore the quick twist of want in her belly. She gathered things from the refrigerator and stacked them on a nearby counter. "Yep. And I believe there's some blue cheese and mushrooms, too."
Somehow they managed to construct breakfast and still remain within touching distance of one another the entire time. As if by unspoken agreement they sat side-by-side at the breakfast bar with the Sunday paper Sloan had retrieved from outside the door spread between them. Sloan held her coffee cup in her left hand while her right rested lightly on Michael's thigh. Michael's left hand covered Sloan's as she turned the pages of the paper with the other. It occurred to Michael that she had never been so comfortable with anyone in her life. How something so simple could feel so exciting, and so very right, was quite beyond her experience. Even as she sat in contented silence, she was very conscious of her heart pounding and the faint echoes of desire still whispering in her depths. Finally, she admitted that she was not concentrating on anything she was reading. All she was aware of was Sloan. The heat from Sloan's body and her faint distinct sweet scent reverberated in some primal place within her that responded out of instinct rather than thought.
"Sloan?" Michael said softly.
"Yes?" Sloan said quietly, aware that the slight pressure of Michael's hand on hers was adding to the increasingly distracting pressure between her legs.
"Is it at all normal for me to want to make love to you twentyfour hours a day?"
Sloan swung toward her on the stool and raised one hand to lightly stroke her cheek. "Oh, I hope so," she whispered, her throat already tight with renewed urgency, "because I feel the same way."
Michael placed her hands on Sloan's waist as she leaned forward, laughing. She kissed her, nibbling gently on her lower lip for a second, then slid down off the high breakfast seat. She moved closer, straddling Sloan's thigh, slipping her hands under Sloan's tee shirt to caress her back and then lightly stroke her belly. Sloan nearly groaned with the pleasure of it.
"Well then," Michael murmured, tugging her by the hand toward the bedroom, "I'm all for doing what comes naturally."
The next morning, Sloan walked into the reception area and was greeted by Jason, who had a very knowing smirk on his face. She stopped just inside the door and looked at him with raised brows and a wry grin.
"So?" she asked defensively.
"How was your weekend?" he asked sweetly.
She eyed him steadily, then answered smartly, "Probably a lot like yours. Spectacular."
He blushed, and had the good grace to look mildly embarrassed. "My weekend was most satisfactory. Thank you."
She turned and headed toward her office, commenting as she went, "Well then, I'm sure you're more than fit for duty. Perhaps I can have that six-month fiscal report sometime in the next century then?"
She closed her door before she could hear his scathing response. She spent the next several hours sorting through files, reviewing accounts, and contemplating the order in which she wanted to deal with the most recent requests for her services. Her phone rang as she was studying a rather unusual demand for a security check at a local police station. It wasn't the kind of work that was usually sent out to non-municipal agencies. She wondered if someone suspected internal tampering. For a moment she thought of the last time she had become embroiled in the politics of governmental intrigues, and what it had cost her. She was surprised to find that the memory didn't hurt quite as much as it once had. Her mind still on that realization, she grabbed the receiver and said perfunctorily, "Sloan."
"Sloan, it's Michael."
Sloan closed the files quickly and sat up straight, catching the edge of fear in Michael's voice. "What is it?"
Michael drew a breath, and explained, "I just received notification that the board is convening in three days to review this year's financial statistics and to ostensibly vote on next year's proposals. I'm pretty sure this is due to Jeremy's instigation, because we always take care of these things closer to the end of the year. There's not much I can do about it, I guess. I should have expected something like this, but I had hoped to have a little more time. The presentation last week went well, and if I could just delay this board meeting, I think I would have a better chance of convincing them of my competency." She sighed. "Of course, Jeremy knows this, too, which is why heís making his move now."
Sloan cursed powerfully under her breath, but her voice was calm as she responded, "From what you've told me, your accounts are in good order and like you said, you've done well with the recent projects. Even if Jeremy pushes things towards a showdown with the board, you should be fine."
"I know that, and I think I actually believe it. Just the same, I wish I knew exactly what he had planned."
"Maybe we can find out," Sloan murmured almost to herself.
"I don't want you to compromise yourself because of my troubles," Michael said firmly. "But I am grateful for the offer."
"Don't worry, I'll stay far away from anything that might turn into a problem," Sloan said, her mind already considering possible avenues of inquiry. "I'm sorry about this, Michael. I think what your attorneys have offered him is more than fair. Some of this is probably just his way of reacting to the fact that you are leaving him."
Michael shrugged. "That may be, but it's something I should have done a long time ago." She fell silent as she thought of the weekend she had just spent with Sloan. She recalled a vivid image of Sloan leaning across the front seat of her car earlier that morning to stroke Michael's cheek for an instant before Michael got out to go to work. There had been a look in Sloan's eyes that made Michael feel like she was something precious, and it was a feeling she hoped she would never lose. "I love you."
Sloan smiled, the husky tone of Michael's voice instantly arousing her. "I love you, too."
"Is there a chance I might take you out to dinner tonight? I have a feeling that being with you is just what I need to take my mind off my troubles."
"More than a chance. You can count on it," Sloan said with certainty. "Try not to worry too much about this. You still have a few more days until the board meeting."
"I'll try," Michael answered. Since Sloan was practically all she could think about, that might not be too hard. "I'll see you tonight then."
"I'll be waiting for you," Sloan said.
As soon as she hung up, Sloan buzzed Jason, stating without preamble, "It's time to get everything we possibly can on Jeremy Lassiter. He's out to wage war on Michael, and if there's anything we can offer her as leverage, we need it now."
"I've got some things working," Jason said. He didn't think Sloan needed to know exactly how much time he had spent perusing the files of Lassiter and Lassiter while repairing the damage from the virus. Nor how easy it had been to backtrack into Jeremy's personal logs.
"Make it fast, because Michael doesn't have a lot of time."
"Don't worry. I'm on it."
"Good," she said, setting the phone down. She stared at her desk, trying to quiet the surge of rage she felt for Jeremy Lassiter.
"I don't really care, you know," Michael said as she ran her fingertips slowly along the edge of Sloan's rib cage. They were tangled together, partially covered by a sheet, still languorous in the aftermath of their lovemaking. Their half-eaten dinner lay forgotten in the living room of Sloan's loft.
Sloan stretched and settled her arm more comfortably around Michael's shoulders, holding her possessively close. "You don't really care about what?"
"Whatever Jeremy is planning," Michael murmured. She was much more interested in the way Sloan's breasts rose and fell gently with each breath, and with the faint flush of Sloan's skin that lingered after her passion was spent, and with the faint echo of desire that still tingled in her own limbs. "Nothing is as important as this."
Sloan kissed the top of her head, and said with a mixture of contentment and worry, "I understand. You matter more to me than anything else, too. But this is your work, Michael. This is a huge part of your life. There's no way we're going to let him take that away from you."
Michael pushed up on one arm and shifted until she was lying on top of Sloan's body. Sloan's legs parted automatically to accept Michael's thigh between them. Their breasts fit together effortlessly. Michael rested on her elbows, her hands framing Sloan's face.
"If it were impossible to ever leave this room, I wouldn't be sorry," Michael whispered adamantly.
Sloan had no doubt that she meant it, because a part of her longed for exactly that. To be only with Michael and to know nothing else. But tomorrow would come and eventually they would need to face the world.
"Youíll work this out," Sloan said softly, forgetting her resolve to be rational as she ran her hands lightly down Michael's smooth back to the round firm swell of her buttocks. Sloan felt herself grow heavy and damp with desire, groaning softly with the exquisite pressure.
Michael grinned, all thoughts of Jeremy and business forgotten. Nothing stirred her quite like watching Sloan succumb to desire. It was a heady sensation knowing she could steal Sloan's control in these private moments. She thought pleasing Sloan was even more satisfying than being pleasured by her, and that was more satisfying that anything she had ever known.
"Yes," Michael whispered, lowering her head to Sloan's nipple as her fingers pressed between them, seeking the tantalizing welcome of Sloan's body. She closed her eyes, murmuring, "Yes, we will," as she gave herself over to passion.
Jeremy strode angrily towards Angela's desk, demanding harshly, "What's so important it couldn't wait two days? I don't appreciate being ordered to report to my wife's office like I was an office boy."
Angela had to work to hide her smile. It wasn't often that she saw Jeremy Lassiter out of control. She reached to her console to inform Michael that Jeremy had arrived, but he continued past her muttering, "Don't bother to announce me. I don't intend to wait."
He pushed open the door and marched across the plush carpet with his gaze fixed firmly forward to where Michael sat behind her desk. A few steps into the room, he stopped hesitantly and glanced from Michael's face to that of the woman leaning casually against the corner of Michael's desk. He tried to regain his composure by seizing the offense.
"What's going on? You wanted to see me, and I assumed it was a private matter." He nodded his head perfunctorily in Sloan's direction. "Who's this?"
Michael rose and came around to the front of her desk, standing a few feet from Sloan. She looked at Jeremy and saw the anger and near loathing in his face, and wondered how she had ever felt safe with him. She pushed those thoughts away, needing all of her concentration for what was to come. "This is J. T. Sloan, the head of a security company I asked to review our system. It seems that we not only had some areas of vulnerability that left us open to outside tampering, but it appears that we had an internal problem as well."
Jeremy looked confused. "That's why you called me here? For some computer glitch?"
"Not exactly, Mr. Lassiter," Sloan stated calmly. She had her hands in her pockets because she didn't want him to see that they were balled into fists. She knew she had to stay focused, but it was difficult knowing that this man had been intimate with Michael for so many years and had clearly never understood how lucky he had been. She wanted to punch him, but she knew that she could only beat him on his own ground. She continued, her voice steady, "It seems that a substantial rerouting of funds has occurred somewhere between the initial accounting process and the final year end statements in all of the last three fiscal years. With a corporation this size, of course, it's often difficult to track all of the expenditures, reimbursements, and advances that may be authorized for various divisions."
Jeremy's eyes narrowed slightly, but his face remained expressionless. "It seems to me that's what the business office is for. I'm sure they can straighten out any confusion in that regard." He made a show of checking his watch. "I have meetings scheduled all day. I have proposals to review before our board meeting," he said pointedly to Michael.
When he turned as if to leave, Michael responded, "I think you might find Sloan's report of more interest then anything you are preparing for our board meeting." She left the statement hanging in the air unqualified, and knew as he stopped, turning slowly back to them, that everything Sloan had presented to her early that morning was true. There was a wary look on his face and something close to panic in his eyes. How she could have been so wrong about him she would never understand. She could only believe that over the years they had both changed, and that this was not the man she had once thought she loved. None of those feelings showed in her face as she met his gaze coldly, waiting for Sloan to speak. "Iíll let Sloan outline the details."
"I have documentation of your offshore accounts, Mr. Lassiter," Sloan said matter-of-factly, indicating a large stack of folders on the desk by her right hand. "I also have copies of bank statements indicating deposit patterns that correlate with irregularities in the financial cash flow of Lassiter and Lassiter. Granted, in and of themselves, such small discrepancies in the corporate financial structure are relatively common and would probably not have been noticed. But given the consistency of the cash diversions and the substantial amounts in your private accounts, the evidence is quite clear." She didnít have to spell out the fact that he had been siphoning profits into carefully concealed accounts for months.
"That's ridiculous," Jeremy barked defensively. "There's no way you could have legally accessed any of that information. This is nothing but technological blackmail."
"On the contrary," Sloan said smoothly. "Part of the contract agreement for my company to review your internal systems grants access to all information contained within that system. That's a simple basic requirement for the work that I need to do. All of the information I have gathered was obtained during the process of legitimately contracted work." She realized she was stretching the truth somewhat. Jason had used Lassiter and Lassiterís corporate system to access nonbusiness related information via avenues of inquiry that were perhaps marginal under the details of their contractual agreement, but the fact remained that she had the information and would use it in whatever way necessary.
Michael spoke before Jeremy could make further protest. "I don't care about the money, Jeremy. The losses impact only me personally, since all our shareholder obligations have been met. I have no interest in airing our private differences in public nor prosecuting you for embezzlement of profits that I gladly would have shared with you had you asked. On the other hand, considering what you have already gained from the corporation through these means, I don't see any obligation to continue a financial association in the future. I have instructed my attorneys to withdraw all future monetary compensation to you once the partnership is dissolved. Given the information that I have regarding your activities, I would consider it more than fair."
His jaw muscles tightened and bunched as he struggled to contain his wrath. He looked from one to the other, and knew with certainty that he had no bargaining power with them. It was a simple decision to make. He could not afford to expose his clandestine financial dealings, even though he could probably argue that they were not illegal since the funds were the joint property of his wife and himself. Nevertheless, his reputation would be irrevocably damaged and he would never be able to engage in business activities with other investors. Now was the time to accept this small defeat in order to preserve his future opportunities.
"Have your attorneys contact my attorneys," he said stiffly.
"And you'll rescind your request to convene the board and you'll table whatever agenda items you had planned on raising?" Michael said quietly.
Yes," he said curtly.
"Iíll expect the signed papers from my attorneys by the end of the day, Jeremy," she added softly.
"Youíll have them," he barked as he flung open the office door.
Michael watched him leave, feeling a chapter of her life closing as the door shut resoundingly behind him. She turned to look at the woman who would occupy the center of her life to come, smiling softly. "Thank you."
Sloan shook her head, stepping close and resting her hands gently on Michael's waist. "There's no need to thank me. I love you, and if there is something you need, I want to be able to help." She laughed. "We both owe Jason a night on the town though. I think he was up all night following Jeremy's trail through a maze of corporations, sub-corporations, and other umbrella companies that Jeremy used to cover his financial tracks."
Michael nodded, raising her arms to Sloan's shoulders and pressing against her. She kissed her neck and leaned back so their eyes met. "Absolutely. We'll take Jason and Sarah out to dinner one night very soon. Not for a few days however. I intend to keep you busy with personal matters for the next few nights."
Sloan chuckled, and kissed Michaelís mouth hard enough to make Michael gasp with sudden pleasure. When she drew away, Sloan asked teasingly, "Is that right?"
"That's very right," Michael whispered. "You can trust me on that."
Sloan knew that she could, which was all the promise she would ever need.
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