"I'm sitting in a two mile jam-up on 76. Is the client there yet?"
Jason glanced across the room at the glacially cool countenance of the 9AM appointment. "Uh huh."
What he should have said was Oh oh. His boss did not like surprises, and it was supposed to be his job to prevent that. He seemed to have dropped the ball.
"Damn," Sloan said with a sigh, slowing for yet another bottleneck on an expressway that hadn't been express for twenty years. "Not much I can do about it. Get him a donut or something." With that, she pushed 'off' on the cell phone, tossed it onto the front passenger seat of the Boxster next to a battered leather briefcase, and tried for an end run around the long line of nearly stopped traffic in front of her. Just what I get for not driving home last night.
But the dinner meeting had run late, and her companion had been charming, and the invitation to stay had been so eloquently phrased. With the project nearly completed, all systems up and operational, she saw no reason not to mix a little pleasure with her business. Not exactly routine, but hardly out of the ordinary either. And, she thought with a grin, she could hardly complain about the hospitality. Unfortunately, she hadnšt planned on an early morning meeting, expecting instead to drive home, shower and change before going in to her Center City office. Being her own boss had many advantages, not the least of which was setting her own hours. However, when she had checked her messages from Dianešs bedroom phone, Jasonšs cheerful tenor informed her that he had scheduled an emergency meeting for her. After cursing colorfully under her breath for ten seconds, she had cleaned up in Dianešs spacious bathroom, pulled on a clean tee-shirt her hostess had provided her, and set out into rush hour traffic.
With a low growl and a quick turn of the wrist, she angled out and around a stalled SEPTA bus. She did not like being late. The client she was meeting had requested an urgent appointment, and even though it usually took Jason weeks to find time in her schedule for a new project, he had informed her that this one was an exception. He hadn't even had time to send a fax to her laptop with the usual summary he prepared for her before an interview.
"High profile corporation, big-time connections, and money is not an issue," was precisely how he had phrased it in his 'do not argue with me' voice. She trusted his judgment completely, which was why she let him manage everything about her business except the work she actually did. He handled the details behind the scenes and occasionally assisted her with larger projects on site. He was an able technician himself and they didn't need a large staff. She was the talent they brokered, and any additional help she needed they subcontracted out.
"You'll want this one," was what he had said.
Michael Lassiter looked up from the New York Times business section as the office door banged open and a black-haired woman in a casual leather blazer, snowy white tee shirt, and blue jeans hurried in, halting across the room from where she sat. Michael took stock. Well-built, five-ten, one forty or so ¯ maybe a couple of years younger than her own thirty-three.
The slender blond man behind the wide walnut desk swiveled away from his monitor toward the commotion, a mixture of faint disapproval and reluctant fondness warring on his elegantly attractive face.
"Sorry," the woman called to him, turning in the middle of the room to face Michael. An instant's confusion skimmed over the surface of her sculpted features, then she stepped forward, her right hand extended. "Ms. Lassiter? Sorry to keep you waiting. I'm J.T. Sloan."
The unexpectedly low melodious voice, the piecing deep-violet eyes, the strong clear planes of her striking face startled Michael for a second. Just as quickly, she recovered. She stood, automatically smoothing the slight creases in her navy silk skirt. "No trouble, Ms. Sloan."
"Just 'Sloan'," Sloan replied with a devil-may-care grin, deep dimples and all, that had melted many a heart. It didn't seem to have much effect on Michael Lassiter, however. Her ice blue eyes and perfect features showed not the slightest hint of warming.
"Why don't we get comfortable in my office," Sloan said, pointing toward the double doors at the far side of the room. She looked at Jason, who was watching them with the attention of a Phillies fan at the World Series. "Coffee?" she queried, her tone suggesting it was not a request.
He sighed and rose to brew a fresh pot. How was he supposed to know that Michael wasn't a Michael? All hešd had time to do was check the corporate profiles. He hadnšt had time for the deep background searches he usually did.
In the next room, Sloan settled behind the antique oak desk that she had painstakingly moved from her parents' home ten years previously. It had gone first to her office in Washington D.C., then into storage while she dropped out of sight for several months, and finally to the loft space that served as the central office for her company in what was affectionately known as "Old City". Her client had chosen a leather swivel armchair facing Sloan's desk. Sloan glanced at the open file folder that Jason had placed on her desk earlier that morning. It contained the data intake sheet for new clients - basic information such as name, company address, reason for initial interview, and a box for notations at the bottom of the first page where any unusual or particularly salient information could be added. Sloan noted that the company name was Lassiter and Lassiter. In the notation box Jason had typed 'CEO, Michael Lassiter'. Nowhere on the page did Sloan see any indication that Michael Lassiter was a woman. Not that that fact mattered per se, but Sloan liked to have as much background as possible when she was interviewing a prospective client. Information was power, and she was the one deciding if the client was worthy of her attentions ¯ not the other way around. Another advantage of working for herself. She could choose her projects, and answered to no one.
She glanced up to find herself being openly appraised by the woman in the impeccably tailored suit. Unconsciously, Sloan stared back. The double-breasted jacket was open to reveal a creamy silk shell that was fashionable without being flashy. She checked Michael Lassiter's hands, which were folded loosely in her lap. No wedding ring. In fact, no rings of any kind. What jewelry there was was understated and tastefully elegant. Small gold hoops in each earlobe reflected the highlights in her naturally golden, exquisitely styled collar-length hair, and gray pearls accentuated the smooth pale skin of her neck. Sloan's gaze moved upward until their eyes met. The look on Michael Lassiter's face suggested she was used to being studied.
"I'm sorry to keep you waiting," Sloan found herself repeating. She was used to corporate types, although usually they were men. Aggressive, arrogant, habitually engaged in one-upmanship. She wasn't easily impressed, and even less easily intimidated. She was neither at the moment, but neither was she completely comfortable. The woman was beautiful, like a precious objet d'art sequestered in a museum - separated from the observer by velvet ropes and bulletproof glass. Discreet but formal signs reading "Hands Off" posted nearby.
"That's quite all right. These things happen," Michael conceded with a small shrug.
But not to you, I'll bet.
To break the silence that felt strangely hypnotic, Sloan pulled a lined yellow legal tablet from a stack near her right hand and picked up her fountain pen. "Tell me what it is, precisely, that you need?"
Michael Lassiter smiled, a small tight smile that did not reach her eyes. "I believe that's what you'll need to tell me."
"Fair enough. Why don't you start with a little bit of background? This involves your company, I presume?"
For the first time, her client appeared uncomfortable. A brief flicker of something that might have been pain rose in her eyes, and then was quickly extinguished. Michael Lassiter straightened slightly, and met the questioning violet eyes squarely.
"As you may know, my husband and I founded Lassiter Designs approximately six years ago. We've been fortunate in that what we conceived of as a pilot project interfaced rather well with the expansion of current technology. The company has - grown - shall we say, rapidly over the past three years. We now employ several hundred people and have satellite offices in New York, Chicago, and Washington."
And you're threatening to break into the Fortune 500 if you keep escalating at your present rate of growth. Some information Jason had thought to provide her, along with recent prospectuses and financial reports for the firm. Lassiter and Lassiter was a think tank. They conceived of the future and convinced others to finance and build it. The firmšs success depended on the accuracy and ingenuity of their designersš vision.
"Go on," Sloan prompted as she made a few supplementary notes.
"May I assume this meeting is confidential?" Michael asked.
Sloan raised her head slowly, noting for the first time the subtle signs of strain ¯ the too rigid posture, the slight clenching of a very lovely jaw, the faint lines of fatigue around her searching blue eyes. "I'm not an attorney, Ms. Lassiter, or a priest. But client confidentiality is my business. If at the end of our discussion, we decide our needs are not compatible, whatever you tell me now will be forgotten."
It was Michael's turn to scrutinize. She knew of Sloan by reputation, of course. Previous client reports of Sloan Security and endorsements from various official institutions had all been favorable. Michael studied the other woman, noting her imperturbable expression, her inquiring eyes. Sloan was known to be extremely efficient, resourceful, and highly capable. There were also those who suggested she was competitive and ruthless, and Michael had no doubt that Sloan was capable of providing the technical services she required. The question was whether she could be trusted with the confidences.
Personal information regarding the head of Sloan security was more difficult to ascertain. Sloan's past was a cipher, and even those who purported to know her well had no knowledge of her history prior to her first appearance in the city several years previously. Rumors abounded, with everything from speculation that she had been a CIA agent deep undercover to a criminal engaged in nefarious underworld dealings. At 29, she was young for her position, but reputed to be at the top of her field. And Michael had a feeling she would need one of the best.
The silence lengthened, both of them watching the other carefully. Violet and blue, fire and ice ¯ they each sought something in the otheršs gaze. Finally, Michael spoke. "This is not yet general knowledge, and will not be for some time to come. I'm in the process of leaving my husband and dissolving our partnership."
Sloan showed no reaction. She was not interested in the social or political ramifications of the news, although they were substantial. More importantly, the potential destabilization of a high-profile company such as Lassiter and Lassiter would have significant impact on a sizable chunk of the financial market. Stock values could fluctuate wildly if word of reorganization at such a high-level were to become common knowledge. If information such as this were made public before the company had been restructured, it could seriously impact on the future of both the institution and its stockholders. She wasn't surprised that Michael Lassiter was worried about a leak. What she had just been told did not require comment. The significance of the revelation spoke for itself. Nevertheless, Sloan had a feeling this was only part of the issue. Sloan merely nodded, her eyes steady on Michael Lassiter's face.
Michael smiled slightly, very aware that Sloan was waiting for her to reveal the real cause of her concern. She had a feeling that a less experienced person might have taken her explanation at face value. Certainly most men would have. But she sensed that Sloan intuited that there was something more. It occurred to her then that she would have to be careful, or she would have no secrets left.
"The reasons for confidentiality are obvious. However," she continued smoothly, "the reason that I need to engage your services is that I expect my husband will attempt to take control of the company, by any means available to him."
Sloan dropped her fountain pen on the legal pad and leaned back in her leather swivel chair. She steepled her fingers in front of her chest and thought for a moment. At length she said quietly, "Let me see if I understand this. You're presently CEO of one of the countries largest and most rapidly growing design technology firms. Your husband is ¯" she hesitated, thinking. "He is the chief operating officer if I recall." At Michael's affirming nod, Sloan continued, "You intend to divorce him and somehow expect to maintain control of the company. You need me to assure that your internal systems are secure and that your operations are tamper proof. And you expect me to do this without rousing suspicion while you plan this coup?"
Michael smiled thinly, her blue eyes troubled. "I'm not sure I'd call this a coup, Ms. Sloan," she said somewhat testily. "This company was my conception, and was primarily funded from my personal resources. I have always been much better at theory than management. The vision, I suppose, has been mine. My husband's natural talents have been in recruitment and systems organization. I can assure you I'm planning nothing illegal or even particularly underhanded. I intend to protect my company from assault, which is exactly what I anticipate will happen as soon as my lawyers contact my husband."
Sloan leaned forward, picking up the pen again. "What's the timetable?"
Michael shrugged. "I believe that may very well be up to you. I don't want to proceed until I'm certain that ongoing projects and the blueprints for future growth cannot be pirated. Until that time, I intend to continue with the status quo."
At that, Sloan looked up, studying the cool composed woman across from her. Despite the small signs of tension, she was remarkably controlled. What she had so calmly outlined amounted to nothing short of war within the arena of the financial world. It was the kind of confrontation that could lead to personal ruin, and had in many instances. The fact that she was married to the man she was about to engage in all out conflict did not appear to trouble her. Sloan wondered briefly if Michael Lassiter would also continue the personal relationship with her husband as if nothing were amiss as well. She quickly reminded herself that that was certainly none of her business. Nevertheless, it gave her pause to think of this woman compromising herself privately for the sake of eventual financial supremacy. It struck her as merely a form of prostitution, and somehow much too demeaning for this obviously accomplished woman. Sloan forced her mind back to the issues at hand, and her own interest in it.
"You'll need a cover story as to why I'm spending so much time in your corporate headquarters. I'll also need to visit each of your branch divisions; I'll have to meet with your present systems operators; and I'll need unrestricted access to all levels of program applications and data acquisition."
Michael Lassiter seemed to relax infinitesimally, a small sigh escaping her. "Am I to take it that you accept?"
Sloan shrugged. "We haven't talked about my contract conditions or fees yet."
Michael Lassiter stood, and stretched out a slim elegant hand. Sloan rose, taking it wordlessly. Michael said, "Those details are inconsequential to me. What I require is your discretion and your talent."
"Of that I can assure you," Sloan responded. The hand in hers was remarkably firm, and she felt a slight reluctance to relinquish it. When she did so, Michael Lassiter turned and left the room without another word.
Jason stood in the open doorway, leaning one slim hip against the door jam, his arms crossed over his chest. His tailored trousers, monochromatic shirt and tie, and glossy European loafers screamed aspiring businessman-on-the-rise. "And should I ask where you spent last evening?"
Sloan looked up from the report she was finishing. "No, I don't think so."
She rubbed her face with both hands, aware for the first time that she was tired. It wasnšt just the lack of sleep. If anything, sex usually relaxed her. Unfortunately, such pleasures often came at a price. Diane Carson had made it very clear that she wanted to see more of Sloan. That idea wasnšt an altogether unpleasant one by any means, but the intensity in Dianešs voice had worried her. She would have to be very certain that the ground rules were clear before things became unnecessarily complicated.
The tall, impeccably turned out young man tried unsuccessfully to hide a frown. "Did we at least get the new contract this morning?"
"Yes, we did," Sloan answered somewhat churlishly, and then immediately regretted it. She saw the hurt in his eyes. "Look," she sighed. "I'm sorry. I didn't get much sleep."
"And I suppose that's my fault?" He flopped down in the chair Michael Lassiter had occupied earlier that day. He decided from the homicidal look on her face to change the subject. "So tell me about the Ice Queen."
Sloan fixed him with a stare meant to do damage. When he squirmed a bit and mouthed a silent, "Please", hands clutched to his heart, she finally laughed.
"She's a client, Jason, not a date!"
"Oh please, like there's a big difference!" Jason retorted.
Sloan shook her head, still smiling. "So now and then I see one of the clients ¯ ah, socially, shall we say. Itšs never interfered with business. Besides, I can assure you that won't be happening with this one."
Jason wondered if he didn't detect a slight hint of regret in Sloan's voice, but he wisely chose not to comment upon it. Instead, he asked playfully, "And why exactly is that?"
"First and very foremost, she's straight," Sloan said with finality. Although she probably deserved her reputation as someone who never lacked for female companionship, and never made a long-term commitment, she did have some limits. Dating straight women was definitely one of them.
"Things can always change," Jason commented.
"Not this time."
It was clear to him that for the moment at least, the matter was closed. He also knew that if he continued to push the issue, Sloan was likely to lose her famous temper. He'd been on the other end of that enough times not to want to provoke her. Instead, he opted for a change of subject. "So, are you coming tomorrow night?"
"Of course I'm coming," she said emphatically. She loved to watch Jason perform, and still found it hard to believe that the sultry, sexy siren he became on stage was actually the man she had first spied years ago, buttoned-up and straight-laced in the esteemed Halls of Justice in DC. She often wondered which was the true personality, Jason or Jasmine. She like them both, and she had to admit to a slight bit of sexual provocation when Jasmine flirted with her. It was bad enough that Jason worked for her; the fact that he was straight made it even more confusing.
"Good," he said as he rose and carefully shook out the perfect creases in his trousers, "because Jasmine just bought a new dress." He winked at her and for a second, Jasmine flickered beneath the surface of his handsome male face. "And I just know you'll like it."
Sloan laughed again. "Why don't you go pretend to be my assistant for a while?"
He left without a word, and for a few moments she sat staring after him, thinking about her interview with Michael Lassiter. It wasn't the most difficult job she had ever undertaken. Now that all the major corporations and most small businesses were computer dependent, computer hacking and software piracy was becoming a daily occurrence. Most people who had systems installed knew almost nothing about them, and even those who did rarely took the time to ensure that they were totally tamper proof. Sloan had recognized the need for Internet security services well ahead of the pack. Now that the ease with which systems could be entered and altered was gaining publicity, computer security was a hot area. She had foreseen the need, and her previous experience made her perfect for the work.
What both intrigued and troubled her about this particular assignment was her employer. Michael Lassiter struck her as a woman who was completely capable of living with the consequences of her decisions. But once or twice, Sloan thought she saw a flicker of fear in the other woman's eyes. For no reason she cared to explore, that bothered her.
Michael swiveled her chair to look out the window of her twenty-first floor office. It was after seven on a Friday night, and just getting dark. Her Center City offices overlooked the river that separated Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Had she been looking, she would have been able to see for miles across the broad expanse of water as commuters crossed the bridges heading home. But her gaze was unfocused, and what she saw was only the ghost of an image in her mind.
Usually what floated there were visions of the future, the ideas she formulated for others to implement. What excited her were concepts, possibilities, the next steps forward in the evolution of human and technological interaction. How business could use the tremendous developments in electronics and informational systems to connect global communities as well as enhance day-to-day life. As the mechanics of the equipment became more and more sophisticated, the applications grew exponentially. She and her central core of designers theorized, and the talented crew of computer analysts, mechanical and electrical engineers, and economic strategists she and Jeremy had brought together forged those ideas into marketable form. Everything she had accomplished, and everything she hoped to accomplish, lay stored in the far from unassailable memory banks of the company's computer system.
She was not envisioning the future now, at least not the future she had imagined. Until recently she had had no reason to contemplate her own life, anticipating only the work that occupied her mind almost constantly and her efforts, along with Jeremyšs, to develop their shared dream. She had met Jeremy Lassiter almost fifteen years previously when she had been a precocious freshman at the Cambridge Institute of Design, and he had been a worldly graduate student at MIT. Barely 17, she had been socially inexperienced, despite her privileged upbringing, and intellectually too intimidating for most boys her age. But when they had met in a theoretical design class, Jeremy had appreciated her ideas and had been supportive and encouraging. Together they had spent hours talking, dreaming, and finally forging their shared vision into the formidable power it had become. Along the way, it seemed natural that they should wed. It had never occurred to her that their relationship lacked passion or romance. It was not something she was aware of needing. She probably would have ignored those moments when she felt a loneliness so acute it was physically painful, had she not finally become aware of Jeremy's affair with a young female designer in their firm. She was less hurt than baffled. Although she didn't consider herself particularly inventive or adventurous in the physical department, she wasn't aware of ever refusing Jeremy's advances either. Although it was a part of their relationship that left her strangely unmoved, she assumed it had been adequate. Clearly, however, Jeremy required something additional. She supposed that she could have simply ignored his affair, but, once she became aware of it, she rebelled at the idea of continuing a relationship so false. She also doubted that Jeremy would be content with their circumstance for long, and she felt quite certain that eventually Jeremy would seek greater control of the company. She intended to be prepared.
She leaned back in the contoured black leather chair, alone in the polished, elegant office that was so perfectly appointed it deserved a center spread in Architectural Digest. She was immune to the physical manifestations of her success after so many years. She didn't see the room; she didn't even see the spectacular sunset. What slowly came into focus just behind her nearly closed eyelids was J. T. Sloan's face. Strong, certain, a hint of aggression ¯ she inspired confidence. Michael sighed, and hoped her assessment of the woman she had hired the day before was correct. She was going to need help.
"I'm leaving ¯ the agenda for Monday's meeting just went to Development," a soft voice behind her announced, mercifully interrupting her introspections.
Michael swiveled away from the window to face the door. She smiled tiredly at the brunette in the doorway. "Yes, fine. Thank you."
Michael's private secretary studied her. "You look beat. Why don't you go home?"
"I will, soon," Michael lied, appreciating the concern in the other woman's voice. Why should I? Jeremy probably won't be there, and if he were, I wouldn't want to see him. It's easier to relax here.
Michael was suddenly more aware of being alone than ever before. It wasnšt because of the imminent loss of her marriage, but the absence of the intimacy that she and Jeremy had never truly shared. She forced a smile and waved goodnight, waiting only a moment before turning down the lights and closing her eyes in the welcoming darkness.
"Damn, I'm sorry!" Sloan exclaimed, watching Michael Lassiter blink in confusion. She automatically brushed the dimmer switch, muting the lights she had turned up full when she walked into the room. It was 9:00 at night, and she hadn't expected anyone to be around. Certainly not the CEO of the company, alone in a darkened room on a deserted floor. Sloan couldn't help but see that the fatigue hinted at the day before was more apparent now. Faint purplish shadows bruised the perfect skin under Michael's eyes, and there was a weariness in the way she pushed herself upright in her chair.
"It's okay," Michael assured her, rubbing her eyes and trying desperately to orient herself. She glanced out the window. Dark. Nighttime. She sat up straight, brushed her hair back with both hands. "What are you doing here?"
Sloan grinned her trademark, lopsided grin. "Working. You said I could do a quick systems review this afternoon when I called, remember?"
"I didn't realize you meant tonight," Michael said dryly, firmly in control again. "What are you doing in my office?"
Sloan leaned one jean-clad hip against the arm of an expensive leather couch and took inventory. A low glass coffee table occupied the space in front of the sofa with other butter-colored leather furniture flanking it. Directly across from the seating area Michael Lassiter sat behind a huge pedestal desk with what looked like digital displays, keyboards and flatscreen monitors of some kind built into its surface. The woman behind the desk looked sleek and stylish too in an ocean green silk pants suit and low-heeled pale leather shoes, her blond hair looking only modestly disarrayed from her recent finger combing. Her momentary disorientation when Sloan startled her awake was replaced with a calm expression now, but, for an instant, she had appeared vulnerable, and very young.
Sloan hastily averted her gaze, ignoring the slight pulse of attraction. The room was huge, windowed on three sides, with a small alcove kitchenette/bar arrangement to her left and an impressive workstation with several computers, video equipment, and drafting boards to the right beyond the seating area. Impressive. The corner office, indeed.
She realized that Michael was waiting for an explanation. "Your computers. I can't very well look for break-ins if I don't look at yours. It's where the money is ¯ so to speak."
She grinned that damnable grin again, and Michael was irritated to find herself smiling back. "Of course." She rose to gather her papers into a small portfolio, adding, "You'll need the passwords."
"I have them."
Michael looked up sharply. "No one knows mine. Not even my secretary."
"How often do you change it?" Sloan asked mildly, crossing to the console.
Michael shrugged dismissively. "I have no idea. Whenever the system prompts me to."
Sloan settled into the molded leather chair, spent a few seconds with the keyboard and mouse, and the 19-inch flat screen monitor leapt to life. She continued routing through the files, muttering absently, "Information is almost never truly deleted, merely layered over. This is a little like archeology ¯ you just have to dig down to it."
"Wonderful," Michael commented acerbically. "I should at least be happy that Jeremy doesn't have much interest in the finer points of these things."
Sloan looked over her shoulder at the blond woman behind the desk, thinking once again how damned lovely she was, even with the lines of stress etched a little deeper around her eyes tonight. "He doesn't need to. He can hire someone."
"Yes. Like I did." Michael worked not to let her uneasiness show. She didn't like the idea of drawing battle lines with Jeremy, or of living in what could amount to an armed camp until their affairs could be disentangled, but she had to protect her business. It was all she had.
"What you should be pleased about is that you hired me first," Sloan joked. She frowned at something that appeared on the screen, clicked through a few items, then pushed back in the chair to look at Michael again. "Is this where you do most of your project design?"
"Here or my laptop at home. I just synchronize the files when I come in. The division heads get summaries of future lines of development, but no hard details. I work them out alone." Like I do almost everything, she thought, but saw no reason to add. She had been an insular child, an awkward teenager, and a reclusive student until Jeremy had taken the time to listen to her. Somewhere in the last fifteen years she had grown up, and out grown her simple need for validation. And when that had happened, they had little left to bind them. A shell of a marriage, and now not even that. She was suddenly aware of Sloan's deep voice. "What? I'm sorry, I was ¯ wandering."
"I was saying that what we need to do fairly quickly is get you a smart chip to lock down this part of your system down."
Michael raised an eyebrow. "Meaning?"
Sloan was staring at the monitor again, running through files. This was what she loved. The hunt ¯ the chase. The thrill of finding the hidden secrets. Some of her less kinder critics had said that was what she loved best about women, too. The hunt. Had she cared at all about public opinion, it might have bothered her.
"A personal identification chip. They're common in Europe," she continued absently, arranging a work strategy in her head. "People use them for almost everything, like we do credit cards. They carry bits of electronic information about the user, and in conjunction with a PIN can be used to secure transactions."
"I've heard of that," Michael said, watching Sloan work. "But what's that got to do with my computer?"
"A few companies are working on prototypes that incorporate smart card slots into their hardware so that a user can be positively identified, and anyone else is locked out."
"Prototypes? How can you get one?"
Sloan was silent as she searched around in her tool kit for a temporary fix. When she had the intrusion detection program loaded, she looked up. "I have my ways," she answered, an amused glint in her eyes.
"Legal, I presume?"
A grin now. "Oh, but of course."
Michael was fascinated. By the topic, by the woman. Both were mysteries to her, and she wanted to know more. "How did you get into this?"
Sloan shrugged. "The Internet is the new frontier, and we are woefully unprepared to confront it. It is fast becoming the foundation of communication, commerce, even culture. And it's wide open, lawless. There are no rules, no methods of enforcing any, and no means to detect or deter crime. I saw the possibilities, and I had the experience." She hesitated, aware that she was revealing things that she rarely discussed. Michael Lassiter was easy to talk to, and even easier on the eyes. Oh man. Not good, not good at all! She shut up and concentrated on the monitor.
Sloan stretched and looked at her watch, surprised to find that they had been sitting wordlessly together for over an hour, each working. She looked over at Michael, missing the pensive smile on Michael's face, unaware that Michael had been watching her for the better part of the last quarter hour.
"Done for the night?" Michael inquired.
"So, you're a cyber-cop?" Michael inquired, still curious, and genuinely interested.
Sloan laughed harshly, thinking of how she had once been called that by condescending colleagues, another lifetime ago. "Hardly. Internet security specialist is the latest jargon. Mostly, I guess, I'm just a technogeek, without the glasses and pocket-protector."
Whatever you call yourself, you're far from that, Michael thought. It had been a long time since she had lost herself in conversation with someone when it hadn't been focused on sales or development or some other aspect of her work. Perhaps as long ago as those early years with Jeremy, when they had stayed up half the night fantasizing about a world that was now coming to be. Had it been this easy then?
"Somehow I donšt see you in the nerd role," Michael laughed.
Sloan laughed with her. "You should have seen me when I was twelve."
"So this was what you always wanted to do?"
Sloanšs immediate impulse was to change the subject. Her past was not something she discussed with anyone, even her friends, and she didnšt have many of those. She looked into Michaelšs eyes, prepared for evasive maneuvers, and discovered something she hadnšt seen in a long time. Simple interest, unaccompanied by innuendo or pretense. Often when women inquired about her personal life, it was a prelude to seduction. Not unwelcome, by any means, but a circumstance she had learned to direct away from revelations that could put her at a disadvantage. From Michael, however, the questions seemed merely friendly, and Sloan dropped her guard. There was no need to protect herself from Michael Lassiter, because nothing was going to happen between them. There was no danger here.
"I was into computers before most of my peers, and it came easily to me. Pretty soon I was hacking into places I probably shouldnšt have been, but it got me turned on to the possibilities early on. One thing led to another."
"We have that in common," Michael noted.
Sloan regarded her with surprise. "What?"
"An early fascination with something other people donšt understand." Her face took on a distant expression, and she continued musingly, "It sets you apart. It can be hard."
Their eyes met, and Michael knew that there was more that Sloan wasnšt saying. She was very aware that Sloan appeared to be censoring her words. There was a harsh undertone in her deep voice that hinted at pain. Michael wondered if it was the same lonely isolation that she had experienced, before Jeremy. She caught herself, realizing that what she had believed was a partnership had very likely only been dependence. She thought of Jeremy now ¯ remote, calculating, a stranger.
Sloan saw the flicker of sorrow in Michaelšs expressive eyes. Impulsively, she asked, "Have you eaten?"
Michael stared for a second. She was surprised by the question, realizing she hadn't even been aware that she was hungry, and surprised that Sloan was inquiring. Sloan didn't seem the type for easy familiarity, any more than Michael was.
"No," Michael replied cautiously, wondering where the conversation was headed.
Sloan hesitated, uncertain why she was doing what she seemed to be doing. Maybe it was because they seemed to share some of the same disaffected past. She shrugged. She was just being friendly, right? "I'm about to catch a show in Old City. A friend is performing, and the food there is serviceable. Want to come along?"
Warning bells were going off, but when Michael thought of the long night ahead, this seemed like a harmless enough diversion. "Why not?"
Why not, indeed.
Michael almost backed out a dozen times. Unfortunately, she had agreed to let Sloan drive, which at the time seemed to make sense. She hadn't thought about the fact that she wouldn't be able to make a hasty retreat if the evening turned into a disaster. She sat in the front seat of the sports coupe, staring out the window at the busy city streets. It was close to 11p.m. on an unseasonably warm Friday night in April, and an unusual number of people were still walking about, taking advantage of the weather. She realized that she was rarely out at this time of night, unless it was to travel home from the office. Then her mind was usually still busy constructing answers to questions most people hadn't yet asked. That was one of her strengths, her ability to see both the problems and the solutions inherent in a project before they developed. She wished the ability extended to her private life as well.
Beside her, Sloan drove with quiet concentration. She was efficient, aggressive without being reckless, and intensely focused on maneuvering the compact sports car through the narrow crowded streets. Michael was surprised to find that she wasn't uncomfortable, even though she was doing something completely foreign to her. She rarely socialized outside the obligatory business meetings, and when she and Jeremy had been forced to entertain, she had done so reluctantly. She simply didn't feel comfortable making casual conversation with near strangers. When she tried to remember the last time she and Jeremy had been out alone together, she couldn't. How on earth she had ever allowed herself to be drawn into this strange outing escaped her.
"You needn't stay if it doesn't please you," Sloan said as if reading her mind.
Michael looked at her sharply, studying the angles of her face in the flickering light from overhead street lamps and passing cars that illuminated her features briefly before surrendering to darkness again. In those brief patches of light, Michael could make out the strong chin, sculpted cheekbones, and straight fine nose. She couldn't see the color of her eyes, but she didn't need to. That deep violet was something already etched in her memory. She reminded herself that she had spent the last few hours in this womanšs company, in far more than casual conversation. Contrary to being awkward, it had been amazingly easy.
"I'm accustomed to looking after myself, Ms. Sloan. Please don't worry about me."
"Just Sloan," Sloan repeated again. She glanced briefly at Michael, then returned her attention to the road. "I have absolutely no doubt that you are entirely capable of looking after yourself. I only meant that it might not be the kind of entertainment you're used to."
Michael had assumed it would be some kind of musical performance, probably a jazz band or piano bar. "What exactly does your friend do?"
Sloan grinned while maneuvering into a parking space on the street. She cut the engine and turned in her seat to face Michael. Carelessly, she draped her right arm over the back of the passenger seat. There wasn't a great deal of room in the interior of a two-seater Boxster, and her fingers glanced unintentionally over Michael's right shoulder. "It's a drag show."
Michael jumped slightly, more from the unexpected contact than the unanticipated answer. She swallowed, then answered steadily, "Of course, a drag show. Exactly what I was expecting."
Sloan laughed, appreciating her companion's aplomb. She released her seat belt and pushed open the driver's door. "Come on. I have a table reserved up front."
Michael waited on the sidewalk for Sloan to come around the car and join her. As she watched the unquestionably handsome woman approach, she wondered what in God's name she was doing.
Backstage in the dressing room shared by all the performers, Jasmine sat before a light-encircled mirror at a long table running along the entire length of one wall. She finished applying the last touches of mascara and reached for the lip-gloss to seal the dark crimson shade she had chosen. Carefully, she used a fine brush to shade the edges of her upper lip, and then checked to see that any hint of shadow along her jaw line had been obliterated with a light foundation. She looked up as the door to the dressing room opened, and one of the other performers entered. The statuesque brunette in the form fitting red dress eased into the adjoining chair and studied her reflection in the mirror. After assuring herself that everything was in order, she swiveled to face Jasmine.
"You should get a load of Sloan's date," she remarked too casually.
Jasmine turned, arching an eyebrow in surprise. "Oh really? Sloan never said anything about bringing someone."
"Well, she's at her usual table, and she's got a gorgeous blond with her."
"Blond, as in natural?" Jasmine repeated, feeling a faint stirring of anxiety. "As in perfect size 6? As in Ingrid Bergman elegant and Sharon Stone sexy? That type of blond?"
Crystal stood, smoothing out nonexistent wrinkles in her dress, looking into the mirror again as she made a subtle adjustment to the very expensive body-sculpting brassiere she wore and squeezing her lips together in a slight kissing motion. "That would be the one."
Jasmine closed her eyes briefly, then muttered, "Oh fuck."
"Problems with the randy boss again?"
Jasmine reached for the black sheath dress, lowered it over her head and smoothed it down her body, reminding herself that it was not her problem, and none of her business. "Sloan's okay," she remarked at length. "I just wish she'd settle down with someone."
She carefully fitted the expensive wig over the thin skullcap that contained her own blond hair. Better for business, better for my nerves, better for her. Especially for her.
Crystal laughed. "Sloan? Oh, I don't think so. Honey, that one is not the marrying kind."
Jasmine followed Crystal out of the small harshly lit dressing room toward the shadows at the edges of the curtained stage. She knew better, but it was not her story to tell.
Michael edged her chair closer to the small circular table, trying to avoid being jostled by the bustling wait people and harried latecomers, glancing surreptitiously around the room. It was crowded and noisy. The patrons displayed such a contagious exuberance that it made her smile. It was a party-like atmosphere and she felt herself relaxing despite the strangeness.
"Drink?" Sloan shouted, leaning near, steadying the teetering pedestal tabletop with one hand. She settled a plate of surprisingly good-looking sandwiches in the center of the tiny tabletop.
"Wine?" Michael shouted back. Whatever the capacity of the club, she was certain that they had exceeded it by a wide margin. If the fire marshal happened in, theyšd all be out in the street.
Sloan pulled a face. "I wouldn't chance it here. It's most likely something that comes with a screw cap in a gallon jug."
Sloan nodded. "Safer," she called as she moved off into the crowd.
Michael watched her wend her way effortlessly through the throng of shouting, jostling people. She moved gracefully, with a subtle air of confidence that suggested she was used to others stepping aside for her. Alone, without Sloan's charismatic presence to distract her, Michael had to wonder at herself. She didn't know this woman, had never been in any place remotely like this before, and worried that she would say something to embarrass herself. Despite her anxiety, she also felt a surge of excitement. She hadn't been away from the office for anything other than business trips in months. This was as far from her usual routines as she could get, and just the diversion she needed.
"Hi, I'm Sarah," a slender redhead in soft, tan chinos and a white cotton turtleneck announced as she pulled a chair over to the already crowded table. At the look of perplexity on Michael's face she added, "I'm a friend of Sloan's."
Michael held out her hand. "Michael Lassiter."
Sarah regarded her carefully for a moment, noting the perfectly styled hair, understated but flawless make-up, and the suit so expensively tailored that it looked casual. "If you're a drag queen, you're the best I've ever seen."
Michael stared, struggling for a reply that would be remotely appropriate.
"Ms. Lassiter is a business associate, Sarah," Sloan said smoothly as she wedged herself into the remaining chair at the cramped table, depositing Michael's drink and her own. Looking at Michael, she tried to hide her amusement. The beautiful face showed faint signs of numb shock. "Sarah is a doctor of oriental medicine, Michael."
That might explain the slight fragrance of spices that clung to her, and the quiet contained expression on her smooth, even features that Michael found oddly companionable. It didn't explain why she was there, or how she knew Sloan, but then why should anything about this experience make sense. "I see."
Sarah laughed, and laid her hand briefly on Michael's arm. "Sloan never has gotten over being cryptic, even when she doesn't have to be. We met ages ago when we both did a stint in Thailand. I ended up staying behind and studying there. We've just recently reconnected since I got back to the States."
Michael nodded, as if that cleared everything up. She saw the look of discomfort pass over Sloan's features, darkening her gaze for a moment. She didn't ask for clarification.
"Then she invited me to see Jasmine perform, and now I hate to miss one of her shows," Sarah continued as if oblivious to Sloan's glowering expression. "Have you ever seen her?"
"No," Michael answered, seeing no point in adding that she had never in her life seen so many women who might not be women, and how did one tell any way? Mercifully, the lights went down signaling the beginning of the show, sparing her from any further response.
And then she was too engrossed to talk.
Michael could scarcely remember two hours that she had ever enjoyed more. She wasn't certain what was more entertaining - the costumes, the music, or the genuinely talented performers. To her amazement, the voices of the half dozen or so female impersonators were marvelous. Throughout the show, she was aware of Sloan beside her, laughing softly at some joke, applauding enthusiastically for every performer, and bending close during breaks in the entertainment to fill her in on some of the background of the Cabaret. She disappeared once for a few moments and returned with a fresh drink for Michael, setting it before her with a warm smile. She was considerate, attentive, and altogether charming. Michael had never met anyone quite like her.
As the lights came up, Michael found herself pressed against Sloan at the tiny table. The noise level had not abated, and if anything the raucous crowd had become even more celebratory as the evening progressed. She and Sloan had to lean almost forehead-to-forehead to hear each other.
"Well, what did you think?" Sloan inquired, her eyes alight with pleasure.
"It was wonderful!" Michael replied enthusiastically. "In addition to how wonderful they sounded, they're so beautiful to look at. The costumes are gorgeous. They remind me of Birds of Paradise!"
Sloan laughed, and nodded. "I'll have to remember to tell Jasmine. She'll love that."
At the sound of Jasmine's name, Sarah leaned forward to join their conversation. "Jasmine has a wonderful singing voice, don't you think?" she declared, more a statement than a question.
As Michael nodded her assent, Sloan studied Sarah carefully, catching the tone of admiration in her voice. Sarahšs face was flushed with pleasure, her eyes bright with excitement, and she appeared altogether effervescent. Sloan had a feeling that she knew why. It had not escaped Sloan's notice that Sarah had been at every one of Jasminešs performances since Sloan first brought Sarah to the Cabaret. She also couldnšt help but notice the way Sarahšs eyes never left Jasmine, whether Jasmine was on stage or enjoying a drink at their table after the show. She knew for a fact that Jasmine never saw anyone socially outside of the club, and wondered if Sarah really appreciated Jasmine's story. She said nothing, for she made a point never to involve herself in the personal affairs of other people, particularly her friends. She simply said, "Jasminešs fantastic."
At that moment, the subject of their conversation appeared from the hallway behind the stage, threading her way carefully between the crowded and disorderly tables to where they sat. Sloan gallantly rose and offered her chair at the table. Jasmine thanked her with a quick kiss on the mouth. Sloan couldn't help but grin, rubbing off the faint smudge of lipstick with her finger.
"I'm so glad all of you stayed," Jasmine said, taking the offered seat. She crossed her legs, the hem of her dress riding up to expose trim smooth legs beneath sheer stockings. A stiletto-heeled red satin shoe dangled from her foot. "You all looked like you're having such fun, and I didn't want to miss a minute of it!"
"We were just saying how wonderful your performance was," Sarah remarked, her attention totally focused on Jasmine.
Sloan was certain she saw Jasmine blush, even in the dim light of the smoky room. Beside her, Michael echoed Sarah's praise. She was pleased that Michael had enjoyed the show. She was still surprised at herself for impetuously inviting her to come. It wasn't something she generally did - inviting near total strangers, particularly straight married strangers, out on the town with her. She just had the feeling, sitting in that cold glass-enclosed, high-rise office late on a Friday night, that Michael Lassiter was lonely. Why exactly she should care was another question altogether, and not something she wanted to look at too closely. The fact that she was very aware of Michael's arm against her own at the crowded table was also making her uncomfortable. She glanced at her watch, and saw that it was after 1 AM.
With something close to relief, Sloan said to Michael, "It's getting late. Would you like me to drive you back to your office, or may I take you home?" It wasn't until she had said it that she realized it might be misinterpreted as an invitation to something more personal. Hastily, she amended, "I mean - if you don't feel like driving, I could drop you anywhere you like."
Michael smiled faintly, pretending not to notice Sloan's discomfort. "Actually, I took the train in this morning. At this hour, I'm going to need a cab."
"Nonsense," Sloan said firmly. "I'll take you home. It's no trouble at all. Are you ready?"
Michael glanced over and saw Sarah and Jasmine engaged in animated discussion, Sarah's hand resting lightly on Jasmine's forearm. Most of the patrons had begun making their way toward the door, and with some regret she realized that the evening had come to an end. "Yes, of course," she said, quickly rising.
They called good night to Sarah and Jasmine, and got rather absent-minded waves as the two of them continued in intense conversation with scarcely a break. Sloan smiled at her two friends, and lightly took Michael's hand to lead her through the crowd.
"They seem to be very good friends," Michael remarked casually as she and Sloan stepped out onto the street. She was still holding Sloan's hand, and it was surprising strong, smooth and warm against her skin. It wasnšt at all unpleasant, that soft sure touch.
"They just met not long ago," Sloan informed her, "but they do seem to get along very well." She didnšt ordinarily discuss Jason and Jasminešs connection, and although she thought Michael might understand, she changed the subject. "I'm really glad that you enjoyed the show."
As she spoke, she released her grip on Michael's fingers, disengaged the alarm on the Porsche with her remote, and opened the passenger door for Michael.
"Oh, I did," Michael replied, settling into the front seat and strapping on her seat belt. She shifted in the seat so she could face Sloan as she drove. "Thank you for inviting me."
For a moment, Sloan was uncomfortable, very aware that Michael had just contracted for her to do a job, and that she didn't know her very well. Usually when she was alone with a woman she felt a little more certain of her moves. Tonight had been different. Michael Lassiter was not someone with whom you indulged in a casual dalliance. Sloan had a feeling that Michael wouldn't even know the rules. She glanced at Michael, surprised anew by her quiet elegance and composure. Grinning, she said, "Sorry if the evening took you a little by surprise."
"Not at all," Michael laughed. "Once I figured out that the most beautiful women were all men, and all the handsome ones were really women, I wasn't confused at all."
"Well that's the first time I ever heard it put quite that way, but it does seem to sum it up." She looked at Michael and said without thinking, "Except for you. You're very beautiful, and most definitely not a man."
Michael stared, her skin flushing hot at the compliment. If Jeremy had ever called her beautiful, he'd never said it in exactly that tone. There was something slightly sensuous in the way Sloan said it. Michael watched the moonlight flicker across the other woman's face and realized at that moment that handsome was exactly the right word for J. T. Sloan. She was not exactly masculine, but beautiful was not a strong enough word for her attractiveness. She was lean and muscled, with features too chiseled to be anything but androgynous. Michael realized she was staring, and forced her gaze away.
"Thank you," she said softly, not knowing what else to say.
The Porsche hurtled through the night, each of them very aware of the other, neither of them feeling the need to break the silence. When Sloan pulled into the circular drive in front of a large stone mansion in one of the older, wealthier sections of the city, Michael was strangely disappointed. She glanced up at the familiar edifice and realized how cold and impersonal it seemed. Lights were lit in strategic windows, turned on and off at irregular intervals by the electronic timer. This gave the semblance of an inhabited home, when in fact she and Jeremy were rarely there at the same time. Often, their separate business obligations took them in opposite directions across the country for strategy or marketing meetings. Days would pass when one or both of them were out of town, or they would simply be coming and going at different times. They rarely shared a bed, and she noted with relief that his Ferrari was not in the drive. For some reason, she did not want to lie down next to him that night.
Sloan came around the front of the car and opened the passenger door. As Michael stepped out, Sloan said, "I was planning on spending some time in your offices tomorrow. Can you notify security in the morning and let them know to expect me?"
"You don't need to worry about that. I'll be there working. Just tell them to call up for verification when you come in."
Ignoring the slight surge of pleasure that statement provoked, Sloan simply nodded. "Good night then, Ms. Lassiter," she said softly, her deep voice oddly husky. She resisted the strong urge to brush her fingers across Michael's cheek.
Michael hesitated for moment, leaning forward almost imperceptibly, drawn by the quiet intensity of Sloan's tone. Finally, she simply smiled, and walked away. Sloan climbed back into the car, but she did not drive off until the massive front door had closed firmly behind Michael Lassiter's figure. Even then, the memory of that parting smile lingered in her mind.
At nine the next morning, Sloan walked down the brightly lit, cavernous central corridor of Michael's high-tech corporate complex. Small warrens of offices, conference rooms, and lounges branched off at irregular intervals. The hallway terminated on the east side of the building, with Michael's corner suite occupying a large part of that section. Sloan was surprised to see someone working in the outer office adjoining Michael's. A woman stood behind a large horseshoe-shaped reception desk sorting through a deep file cabinet, her back to Sloan.
"Excuse me," Sloan called, assuming that this was Michael's secretary. "Ms. Lassiter is expecting me."
The woman turned, glanced at Sloan, and then uttered a small cry of surprise. Her eyes widened, and a faint blush stole across her attractive features. "Oh my God. Sloan! What are you doing here?"
"Hello Angela," Sloan replied calmly, hiding her surprise with a cool expression. "I'm working. I'm surprised you didn't know that."
Sloan wasn't certain exactly how much Michael Lassiter had confided, and she certainly didn't want to give the impression that an explanation was in order. "I didn't realize that you work here."
Angela shrugged, a slightly bitter smile tugging at her lips. "Considering that I haven't talked to you in almost 2 1/2 years, I'm not surprised. Of course, you were never particularly interested in the details of my life. As I recall, your interests were somewhat more limited."
Sloan thought she probably deserved that, considering that she had rather abruptly ended her liaison with Angela Striker. They had dated a few times after meeting at some local political event. Angela, however, demanded a degree of exclusivity in her romantic partners that Sloan had found impossible to provide. She thought the better part of valor was to end the relationship quickly before both of them regretted it. Nevertheless, she said nothing now. She had learned over the years that attempting to defend her actions where bruised egos and dashed dreams were concerned was futile. It was simply easier to let them believe that she didn't care.
"So, is she ready for me?" Sloan questioned, indicating the closed door behind Angela.
A look of irritation flickered over Angela's face, and then she abruptly shrugged it off. "I don't know. Let me check with her and see."
A minute later Sloan stood once again across the wide expanse of luxurious office space from Michael Lassiter, who was looking casual that morning in beige slacks and a cashmere vee-neck pullover of darker brown. Sloan tried to ignore the obvious fact that Michael wasn't wearing anything of substance underneath the delicate sweater.
"Hi," she said.
Michael smiled in welcome, "Good morning."
Sloan deposited her briefcase next to the computer console, then glanced over her shoulder at Michael. "Have you been here long?"
She looked away uncomfortably. "A while. I had trouble sleeping."
"I'm sorry," Sloan said, meaning it. She had had a rather hard time getting to sleep herself the night before. She had found herself walking aimlessly through her loft apartment, the lights out, patches of moonlight the only illumination. She was strangely restless. She kept thinking about the evening, and the drive to Michael's. It had been a long time since she had spent so many hours with a woman when at least one of them hadn't been bent on seduction. But it hadn't been like that with Michael. There had been something in the air ¯ her skin had tingled with it, but it hadn't been sex. Not the simple phermonally-inspired attraction she was used to. It might have been something as simple as the fact that she liked Michael Lassiter. And she didn't like to think of this quietly self-contained woman alone in the night, awake and worried. She straightened her shoulders, and blew out a breath. "Well, let me get to work and maybe I can give you a little peace of mind about this stuff at least."
"There's fresh coffee," Michael offered.
"Thanks, I'll get some in a minute," Sloan mumbled distractedly, already seated at the central console, rapidly typing in commands.
Michael watched her for a moment, enjoying the look of utter concentration on her face. She was also thinking how relaxed and at home Sloan looked in her faded jeans and slightly frayed at the cuffs white button-down shirt. The battered brown boots looked lived-in and completed the picture of a woman who couldn't have cared less about making the usual professional statement. No power suits in appearance here. Michael wondered if Sloan had any idea what an appealing image her obvious confidence projected. After a moment, she got up and filled two ceramic mugs with coffee and carried one over to Sloan.
"Black okay?" she asked, setting the mug down near Sloan's right hand.
"Huh?" Sloan replied, not looking away from the monitor. Then the aroma of very good French Roast caught her attention and she glanced up at Michael. "You aren't supposed to be waiting on me," she admonished with a winning grin, "but thanks."
Michael smiled. "It's the least I can do to repay you for last night."
Sloan swiveled on the chair to face her, her violet eyes serious. "You don't need to thank me. I enjoyed every minute."
Michael blushed. She had no idea why that pleased her so much. "I'd better let you work," she said softly, turning away.
It was some minutes before Sloan could concentrate on the diagnostics she was running, and even then she was acutely aware of Michael across the room, sketching something out on her drafting table. That undercurrent in the air that made her skin tingle was back again. She diligently determined to ignore it.
"Well, well, well," Sloan remarked almost to herself after a few moments.
Michael looked up from her work, noting the slight frown on Sloan's face. "What is it?"
Sloan held up one hand, indicating for her to be patient while she perused several windows which she had open on the screen. "Last night before we left I added a second level intrusion blocker to the firewall you already had on your system, just to see if there was any activity. It looks like you've got people trying to slip in the back door."
Michael put down her pencil, turned on the high stool and regarded Sloan intently. "Is it something serious?" she asked after a moment.
Sloan shrugged. "Not necessarily. There are literally thousands of people around the world who are constantly attempting to hack into other people's systems, just for the fun of it. They run programs that try to find open networks, either private or corporate. When they do, a scout program is launched that basically opens files on the systems and allows the hacker to read through them. I assume that your entire system is networked, internally and between your other companies."
"Yes, at least most of the areas dealing with marketing and development are." Michael confirmed. "We have so many interdivisional conferences, as well as design overlaps between the various physical plants, that it seemed wiser that way. The financial and personnel divisions are only accessible here, at the corporate headquarters, but to be honest I never inquired as to exactly how they are secured."
"Never mind. I'll be looking at that." Sloan leaned back in her chair and rubbed her face with both hands. She needed another cup of coffee, but she was reluctant to ask for it. She had been a little surprised when Michael brought her the first one. She wasn't used to anyone looking after her in that way.
"The way youšve set things up is probably easier," she continued, "but it makes you more vulnerable as well. What about your home systems? How many people can access the company network from their private computers?"
Michael laughed at the absurdity of that thought. "Oh god, I don't know. Hundreds probably. At first we werenšt even networked, and then as our numbers grew, and we needed to be able to reach each other, we just hobbled things together. We never had anyone overhaul the entire network. Didnšt seem to need to." She slid off the stool and crossed to Sloan's working area, picking up her empty coffee cup. In the small alcove where the very expensive little French bistro coffeemaker was located, she poured them each another cup, then returned to stand by Sloan's left shoulder. She deposited the cup and stared at the screen. "Can you tell who it is?"
"Given enough time, probably," Sloan admitted. She reached for the coffee gratefully. "Thanks," she said quietly.
"I'm afraid if I make too obvious an attempt to lock others out of the system, particularly Jeremy, it will merely raise his suspicions," Michael mused. "I don't want to do anything until you have my critical data safe."
Sloan nodded, understanding that the urgency for security had to be balanced against the larger issue of Michael's personal situation. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to pry, but what do you think he's likely to do?"
Michael edged her hip onto the corner of the broad workstation that held the array of electronic equipment. She sighed, her blue eyes troubled. "I don't know."
Sloan looked up at her, confused. How could a woman not have some idea what her husband would do when she left him? Could it be possible that she knew so little of him, or he of her? Suddenly, she had a very uneasy feeling. "As he ever been--," she hesitated, then asked softly, "physical?"
For a moment, Michael looked uncertain, then she blushed faintly. "No, never. He has something of a temper, though generally when he's angry he simply becomes colder and more remote. I believe he thought that the worst thing he could do to me would be to abandon me, shut me out."
There was just a hint of pain and bewilderment in her voice, and Sloan had the feeling that Michael's husband had been correct. He had known exactly what to do to hurt her. For a moment, she despised him. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked that."
Michael placed her hand softly on Sloan's shoulder, saying, "It's all right. It doesn't matter to me anymore."
Sloan nodded, and turned back to the computer. She needed to concentrate on what she had been hired to do, and stop worrying about Michael Lassiter's personal life. It wasn't up to her to erase that shadow of unhappiness in Michael's eyes, or to ease the sadness that was so often present in her voice. "Let me work on this a while, and maybe I can give you some kind of answer to this problem at least."
Michael sat silently, aware that she had been dismissed. She was a little surprised that it hurt. When Sloan failed to look up again, she moved quietly away. They did not speak again except to say goodbye.
After Sloan left, Michael sorted file folders and disks with the work she intended to finish at home and put them into her briefcase. As she closed the office door behind her, she was surprised to find Angela still at her desk. "What are you still doing here?"
"Foster sent in the summary for the telecommunications project late yesterday afternoon. I knew that you'd want the portfolio to go out to marketing first thing on Monday, so I thought I'd get started. I'm collating the information now. It should be ready to print soon."
Michael smiled, shaking her head in fond admonishment. "You know I don't expect you to work on Saturday afternoons unless it's an absolute emergency." She glanced at her watch. "And it's officially afternoon now. I appreciate it, and you're right, I will need it on Monday. But it can wait until you come in Monday morning."
"I'm on my way," Angela said gratefully. She had a date that night and a million things to do before Karen picked her up. She tilted her head, and studied Michael carefully. Her boss looked weary, and strangely, sad. "Is everything all right?"
Michael stiffened slightly, never comfortable discussing herself. Even though Angela had been her personal secretary for three years, and knew her about as well as anyone, they were not friends. She trusted Angela, but she did not confide in her. "Yes, of course. I'm fine."
Angela accepted the automatic response, knowing there was no point in questioning Michael further. She deftly changed the subject, because she was curious about something else. "By the way, I've noticed you've got a new computer consultant. Is Mayfield leaving?"
Michael hesitated, wishing she could explain. She had confidence in Angela's discretion, but it didn't seem fair to burden her with knowledge that she would have to conceal. Angela rarely worked directly with Jeremy, but they certainly came into contact frequently enough that it could be uncomfortable for her.
"No, it's not about Mayfield," Michael said casually, referring to the systems administrator they employed to handle their ordinary computer issues. "Sloan is just doing some personal work for me."
Angela snorted slightly, "That's definitely Sloan's strength. Up close and personal kind of work."
Michael looked at her in slight confusion. "I beg your pardon?"
Angela only shook her head. Sometimes Michael could be so naive. "JT Sloan is a very smooth operator," she remarked, not bothering to hide her bitterness. "She tends to mix business with pleasure, if you know what I mean, and women are her specialty. Although I guess that's not likely to be an issue with you."
For some reason, Michael felt herself blushing. She knew Sloan was a lesbian, but she hadn't given it any thought the previous night. Perhaps she had been hasty in accepting Sloan's invitation to the Cabaret, although she seriously doubted that J.T. Sloan would take any notice of her in that way. It had seemed harmless enough, and had turned out to be one of the most enjoyable evenings she could remember in a long time.
"I hardly think that Ms. Sloan would have any interest in me in that regard," she said dismissively.
Angela stared at her, wondering if it was possible that Michael really did not know how attractive she was. In addition to being stunningly beautiful, she was intelligent, accomplished, and kind. A rare combination for a successful businessperson. Angela had struggled with her attraction to Michael for months. She knew it was an impossibility, not only because her charismatic employer was married, but because Michael Lassiter seemed to have no clue as to the possible interest that others might have in her. Angela had seen any number of men make fruitless attempts to entice Michael into an office dalliance, and several women too. Michael simply didn't recognize the overtures. She was always too occupied with whatever idea consumed her at the moment.
"With Sloan any woman is a possibility. Just don't take anything she says or does seriously, and you'll be fine," Angela advised, getting up to gather her things.
"Thanks," Michael said dryly. "I'll remember that."
Resolutely, she pushed the lingering sound of Sloan's voice from her mind, and dismissed the fleeting images of that remarkable profile outlined in moonlight from her consciousness. As she did so often, and so unconsciously after so many years, she turned her mind to her latest project. She was unaware that the hollow sounds of her footsteps echoing in the deserted hallway matched the ever-deepening emptiness in her life.
"I need you to dig out some background for me," Sloan said as she inched her way through the early afternoon traffic on the cross-town expressway.
"Oh yeah? Who are we investigating?" Jason asked on the other end of the phone.
"I want to know what you can find on Michael Lassiter, her family, and Jeremy Lassiter."
"Is there a problem with that assignment?" Jason inquired, obviously surprised by her request. It wasn't typical, particularly with their jobs in the private sector. And despite Sloan's reputation as a playgirl, it wasn't typical for her to date a client either, at least not before the account was completed. She had surprised him showing up at the Cabaret with Michael. Of course, there was always the chance he had been wrong about the way Sloan had looked at Michael Lassiter the night before, and she wasn't really taken with the new client after all.
"No problem. I just have the feeling that the time might come when I need to know everything there is to know about the Lassiters." She didn't see any point in explaining to Jason how uneasy she felt, since she couldn't explain it to herself. She just couldn't envision Jeremy Lassiter folding his tent and disappearing without a struggle. Information was often powerful ammunition in these kinds of skirmishes, and if she could lend Michael Lassiter a hand, she would. She told herself it was simply good business, nothing more. Certainly nothing personal.
"Where are you," Jason asked with a sigh.
"I'm on my way to the gym," she offered. "I just finished doing the initial scans of the Lassiter system."
"Sloan, love ¯ it's Saturday afternoon. I bet you have plans for the evening, don't you?'
Sloan frowned at the thought. She did, and for some reason, she wasn't particularly looking forward to it. "Dinner later with Diane Carson."
"Uh huh ¯ well, perhaps I have plans, too. And they didn't include spending the night rifling through someone else's virtual underwear drawer."
She laughed. "Fine. Monday morning will be time enough." She assumed the deep sigh from Jasonšs end indicated assent.
"What kind of background are we talking about? Am I going to need to call in favors?" he asked.
"I shouldn't think so. There's nothing to suggest classified information. I just want anything you can find on both the Lassiters, before and after their marriage, personal and professional."
Jason heard the undercurrent of concern in her voice, and suddenly serious, he asked again, "Are you sure there's no problem?"
"No," Sloan said tersely. She and Michael hadn't even talked much the last few hours that Sloan had been there. When she got ready to leave, she hadn't wanted to go. She couldn't explain that either. She had to force herself not to ask Michael about her plans for the weekend.
Impatiently, she brushed her hand through her hair, muttered at some fool who tried to cut her off, and continued, "I just want to know exactly what I'm dealing with here, Jason. Is that too much to ask?"
"Oh, absolutely not," Jason said theatrically, a hint of sarcasm in his voice. "I live to serve you, almighty one."
Sloan laughed despite her lingering uneasiness. "Just do it, Jason."
"Your wish is my command." After a second's hesitation, he continued, "By the way, Sarah called and asked that you call her."
"Oh?" Sloan queried. "Did she say what she needed?"
"No," Jason said somewhat distractedly. "We didn't talk long."
Sloan found it fascinating that Jasmine and Sarah apparently shared an easy friendship that had blossomed almost immediately and they never appeared to want for conversation. Jason, however, seemed awkward and unsure of himself on the occasions when Sarah had called or dropped by the office.
"Okay, fine, thanks. I'll call her when I get home from the gym."
"Try not to offend anyone or break any hearts for the rest of the weekend, okay?" he said semi-seriously.
"Yeah, right," she muttered, crossing three lanes of traffic to a cacophony of honking horns and angry gestures, exiting into downtown traffic. As if it were always up to her.
"You should have a spotter," the pleasant female voice announced calmly.
Sloan looked up through her braced arms and saw Sarah's face, bisected by the barbell, peering down at her with a faint smile.
"Yeah," she grunted, pushing up another rep. "So I've been told. How'd you find me?"
Sarah slipped two fingers under the bar, bracing her legs, and followed the rhythm of Sloan's arms up and down, ready to take more of the weight if Sloan began to tire. "I called the office again, and Jason told me. Say, if you really want a workout, we could spar."
Sloan blinked sweat from her eyes. She had been lifting ferociously for forty minutes, and her muscles were starting to hum. She still had the vague sense of disquiet that had plagued her since leaving Michael, and she welcomed the thought of a good bout. She lowered the weights to the upright cleats and wiped the back of her arm across her face. "I thought you were all pacifistic now that you're into eastern medicine and yoga and the like," she said teasingly.
Sarah's eyes sparkled with challenge. "I'd consider whipping your butt just another form of meditation, Sloan."
Sloan pushed up off the bench. "You're on, Sifu Martin," she said, employing the traditional term for a Kung Fu master.
Ten minutes later they faced each other in the adjoing studio, bowed respectfully to one another, then stepped into fighting positions. Sloan faced Sarah full on, her lightly wrapped hands held face high, elbows in, balancing lightly on the balls of her feet in the typical Muy Thai kickboxing stance. Sarah turned sideways, knees slightly bent, both hands extended slightly, ready to block Sloan's punch or pivot away from one of her roundhouse Thai kicks.
It brought back memories for Sloan of the hot humid jungles of Thailand, and the crowded noisy streets of Bangkok, and the young naīve agent she had been nearly a decade before. It had been her first overseas assignment after joining the Justice Department right out of college, and she had been intermittently home sick and excited. She and Sarah gravitated to one another because they were both Americans, and both female, and close in age. Sloan's area had been communications, at least that was her job description. In addition to developing networks for the government's allies in Southeast Asia, she was also covertly helping to electronically infiltrate government and corporate systems of interest to the United States throughout the region. She didn't think of herself as a spy, but looking back, there hadn't been any other word for it. Sarah Martin was a cultural liaison from the State Department. The two of them had become immediate friends and spent much of their free time together. They had ended up training in the same dojo, and the spiritual bonds they forged went deeper than blood. Despite their years of separation after Sloan had been forced to leave the service under a cloud of suspicion, their connection now seemed as strong as ever. There was no one she trusted as much as Sarah.
Sloan's temporary lapse into the past cost her a not so gentle strike on the side of her jaw and a resounding take down from Sarah's swift follow-up leg sweep. Fortunately, her reflexes were still sharp, and she managed to land without rapping the back of her head against the floor. She was up in an instant, shaking her head slightly and frowning at Sarah's delighted laughter.
"You're rusty, Sloan," Sarah taunted good-naturedly. "Getting soft with that desk job of yours."
"That was just luck," she snapped. She circled, keeping a wary eye on Sarah's lightning fast hands and feet, and after feinting a left hook, stepped in quickly to deliver a knee strike to Sarah's mid-section. The air wushed softly between Sarah's lips at impact. Sloan grinned in satisfaction.
They sparred continuously for 25 minutes until they were both dripping from the exertion and panting audibly. By mutual agreement, they stepped back, bowed to one another, and collapsed next to each other on the floor.
"God, I needed that," Sloan gasped when she could catch her breath.
Sarah, lying on her back, turned her head so she could study Sloan's face. "What's up?"
Sloan shrugged. She didn't want to try to explain it ¯ she didn't really want to know. "Just tense I guess. Too much time sitting at the computers like you said."
"Oh yeah, right. Remember whom you're talking to. I've seen you work around the clock and then some without even noticing."
"I was younger then," Sloan said with just a hint of bitterness.
Sarah knew how difficult the subject of Sloan's past was for her, even now, and did not pursue it. Instead, with uncharacteristic hesitancy, she said slowly, "I want to ask your advice about something."
Sloan shifted slightly so that she could meet Sarah's eyes. "What?"
Sarah blushed faintly, but she continued in a steady voice, "I want to ask Jason out."
For a second Sloan was at a loss for words. "I didn't realize you were interested in him," she finally managed. It wasn't totally unexpected, now that she thought of it. Sarah seemed to be calling or dropping by the office more often lately. And of course there were all the nights at the Cabaret when Jasmine was performing. Still, she was surprised.
"Why wouldn't I'd be? He's handsome and smart and he's got a great body," Sarah stated somewhat defensively.
Sloan didn't see any point in pretending that they didn't both know what the issue was. "What about Jasmine?"
Sarah grinned, her eyes sparkling. "I love Jasmine. But you know me, Sloan, I've never been into women that way."
Sloan had to laugh. There had been a time in those first few months in Thailand when she had tried very hard to get Sarah into her bed. They had everything going for them - common interests, similar jobs, and they were thousands of miles from everyone they knew. Finally, one night after too many beers, Sloan had boldly leaned across the tiny table in a dimly lit Bangkok bar and kissed Sarah soundly on the lips.
Sarah had kissed her back, quite thoroughly, and then settled back into her chair and studied Sloan gravely. Her exact words had been, "I've been wondering for months what it would be like to kiss you. You're a damn good kisser, Sloan. As much as I love you though, I'm just one of those girls that has a thing for those ridiculous male appendages. I hope you don't take it personally."
And Sloan hadn't.
Sarahšs voice brought Sloan back to the present. She seemed to be wandering into places she really didnšt want to go quite a bit lately. "Damn it, Sarah, I hate to get in the middle of these things. You're one of my oldest friends, and Jason not only works for me, I'm fond of the little shit."
"I know, that's why I wanted to talk to you."
Sloan sighed. "How long has it been since you were with someone?"
For a moment, pain shimmered in Sarah's green eyes. "Four years. He was an attaché in Bangkok. I thought we had something special. Turns out he didn't."
"I'm sorry," Sloan murmured. She knew Sarah didn't take relationships lightly, and she hated to think of her getting hurt. She also knew Jason had had more than his share of heartache because of the part of him that was Jasmine. Sometimes thinking about Jason and Jasmine made her head swim, and she was well used to it by now. She could only imagine what it would be like dating him.
"It's up to Jason to tell you how things are with him and Jasmine and everything. All I can tell you is that I don't believe he's ever dated a woman who knows about Jasmine. You might have your work cut out for you in that regard."
Sarah was quiet for a moment, remembering how much she enjoyed watching Jasmine perform the night before, and how part of her had been excited knowing that Jasmine was part of Jason. It wasn't something she needed to analyze in great depth. It simply was. "Hešs a transvestite. Itšs not just an act at the Cabaret for him, I know that. We all have diverse dimensions, sexually and psychologically, that we express in slightly different ways. There are parts of Jason that are best expressed through Jasmine. I donšt understand it completely, but it doesnšt seem to bother me." She sighed. "I just wanted to let you know before I did anything."
Sloan nodded, and sat up. She reached for a towel and tossed one to Sarah as well. She rubbed her face vigorously and then blotted some of the sweat from her hair. "I can't think of anyone I'd rather see with him," she finally said. She smiled. She meant it.
Sarah flashed her another grin. "Speaking of that sort of thing, what's the story with you and Michael?"
Sloan stopped what she was doing and froze. "There's absolutely nothing between Michael Lassiter and myself," she said stiffly.
"Okay," Sarah said softly. "My mistake then."
Sarah thought it prudent not to mention that both Michael Lassiter and Sloan had spent an enormous amount of time studying each other when they thought the other wasn't watching. It hadn't escaped her notice that Sloan had been particularly charming and touchingly attentive with Michael. It had also been obvious that Michael Lassiter, for all her excited interest in what was happening around her, sparkled every time Sloan leaned over to speak to her.
It was just after 6 AM, and Sloan didn't expect anyone to be in at Lassiter and Lassiter for several hours. She preferred to work before and after business hours when there were fewer interruptions, and more privacy. She had spent the better part of a week working on changes in the main system at Michaelšs firm, and had decided to take another look at Michael's personal computer. She turned from the console in surprise when the door opened behind her, her automatic smile of recognition turning swiftly to concern when she saw Michael. She rose quickly and took several steps forward, her heart pounding. Michael stepped into the room, then faltered to a stop when she realized she was not alone. She looked like she hadn't slept in days. She wore no makeup and her face was pale, the shadows under her eyes dark and hollow. From across the room Sloan could see the haunted expression on her face. She had clearly dressed hastily, her khaki suit too rumpled for her usual impeccable taste.
"I'm sorry, I didn't expect anyone," Michael said in a voice hoarse with fatigue. She smiled weakly, one hand reaching to the sofa back for support.
Sloan saw her shudder, and she had to force herself to move slowly. Every instinct demanded that she go to her, touch her, assure herself that Michael was not hurt. Her stomach churned in a liquid state of near panic. Her own voice was tight as she said, "Are you all right?"
Michael looked as if she had just emerged from a dream and was still uncertain if she were truly awake. She sat hesitantly on the leather sofa, her hands clasped in her lap, and stared around the room in confusion. Sloan went to her side and knelt on the carpet in front of her. Slowly, afraid that she would startle her, she took Michael's hand.
"Michael?" she said very gently. A muscle twitched in Sloanšs neck with the effort it took for her to be calm when her mind was screaming with anxiety. "Are you hurt? Can you tell me whatšs happened?"
Michael ran a faintly trembling hand through her hair and fixed on Sloan. Slowly, her blue eyes grew clearer, and she managed a small smile. "I'm so sorry. This isn't like me. I didn't get much sleep, and I can't quite seem to get my bearings this morning. I'm really fine. Thank you for your concern, but I'm quite all right."
It was a valiant lie, and Sloan respected her for it. But she couldn't accept it. There were too many possibilities coursing through her mind, not the least of which was that Michael's husband might have something to do with her current state. She forced herself not to imagine what might have happened, because the mere thought of anyone harming Michael was physically painful. "What happened last night?"
"I'm afraid I made your job a great deal more difficult," Michael said slowly. Her face became almost expressionless, and Sloan knew that she was drifting in some memory.
"Michael?" Sloan tried again, hoping to bring her back.
Abruptly, Michael stood and began to pace agitatedly in front of her desk. She glanced at Sloan, and then her eyes surveyed the room as if seeing it clearly for the first time. "He wants this, you see. I knew he would, but I didn't appreciate just how much. Not this space - I don't care about that. It's not this room, this building," she said vehemently. "It's not anything that you can touch. It's the ideas, the plans, the hopes and dreams I've spent my entire life putting into form. It's not me, or the money. He wants the things that I've created, the very best part of me. He doesn't care if I leave him, as long as he takes what's most important to me."
She stopped pacing as abruptly as she had begun, standing in the middle of the room, disoriented again. She began to tell the story, her voice a dull monotone, as if recounting someone else's experience. Sloan clenched her hands in her pockets, willing herself to silence, trying to ignore the almost irrational fury that pounded in her head. God, if he had touched her...
She had been asleep, Michael explained, when he returned the night before, close to midnight. She hadn't expected him, and was startled awake by a light in the hallway. The next instant, he was in the room, his presence seeming to dominate the space. As she recounted the tale, the memory was sharp and clear and razor-edged, each word etched in her mind. Suddenly, she was there again.
"Are you awake?" he asked.
"Yes," she said. "I thought you were still in L.A."
He dropped his raincoat over a chair and began to undress. "I finished up earlier than I expected, and Išm damned tired of hotel rooms. I want to sleep in my own bed."
As he approached, naked except for his briefs, she could see enough of his face in the dim light slanting into the room to read his expression. Her heart sank. She recognized his intent, although she hadn't seen that look in his eyes for months. It wasn't something she had given any thought to previously. It was simply part of their life, part of what had become the routine of their existence together. She rarely thought about it until it happened, and then gave little thought to it after. Perhaps it was because she had decided to leave him, but suddenly she knew with absolute certainty that she could not sleep with him. She slid from the opposite side of the bed, and reached for a robe from a nearby chair. He stared at her across the bed, clearly surprised.
"What are you doing?" he had asked.
"I'm going to sleep in the guest room."
"What?" he said in astonishment. She had never refused him before.
"I meant to tell you when you returned from this trip, because it wasn't something I wanted to do on the phone. I want a divorce."
He stared at her open-mouthed for what seemed like an interminable length of time, his expression frozen. Then his body went rigid, but whether it was anger or shock she could not tell. Eventually when he found his voice, it was even, controlled, and exceedingly cold.
"And is this something open to discussion, or is your decision final?"
"I'm certain," she said in a steady voice.
He nodded once, and walked across the room, slipped into his trousers, and pulled a shirt from the closet. She watched him, waiting for something to happen, realizing that she had no idea what he would do. How strange, to be witnessing the beginning of the end of their marriage, and to discover that her husband was a stranger. Why had she not known that before? How could she have been blind to what had been missing for a decade? They had been sexual, but never intimate. Why had it never mattered before this?
When he was finally dressed, he walked to the windows that overlooked the gardens in the rear of their estate. His profile in the moonlight was sharp and might have been carved from stone. His voice was as cold as winter. He proceeded to make it clear to her that she could divorce him if she desired, but he would fight for control of the company, despite the legal agreements they had made previously. Throughout his entire discourse, he barely raised his voice as he outlined with cold calculating precision exactly what he intended to do if she made any attempt to fight him.
She said almost nothing as he spoke, not surprised by what he said, but by the way he said it. He might have been talking to someone of so little consequence to him that he couldn't bother to be upset. It was almost as if she weren't human, and she realized that she probably hadn't been a person for him in a very long time. She was surprised that it didn't hurt, but it had been years since she had needed him or expected him to be more than a business associate.
Nevertheless, when he finished his ultimatum, she was shaken, not by what had transpired, but by the knowledge that she had spent 15 years of her life with someone whom she did not love, and who did not love her. What had begun as mutual need had slowly dwindled until they had little more than their name in common. She realized how truly alone she had been and wondered why she had never known.
Michael stopped speaking and stared at Sloan, her expression a mixture of anger and bewilderment. "He informed me he had no intention of leaving the house, and I knew I couldn't stay there another minute. He didn't bother to ask if there was someone else ¯ he must have known there wouldn't have been. He was kind enough to inform me that I had no worries about any of his activities. He had always been careful and had even been tested. For his own safety." She shook her head in disgust. "By the time I had packed and found a hotel, it was six in the morning. I couldn't think what else to do, so I came here." She laughed harshly. "This is the only thing I know how to do, I guess."
Michael walked around behind her desk and slumped into the chair. When she tilted her head back and closed her eyes, Sloan felt the desire to comfort her constrict her chest so tightly she couldn't breathe. She swallowed the urge to smooth the furrows from Michael's brow with a caress, steadfastly ignoring the buzzing deep in her belly. Uh uh. No way. Do not even think it.
"Let me make you some coffee," Sloan suggested when she could get the words out without tripping over her runaway hormones.
Michael shook her head impatiently, but she smiled gratefully when she said, "No. Go back to work, Sloan. I'm all right. I just feel like my entire life has been a charade and I never realized it." She rubbed her hands over her face. "God, I sound pathetic. I'm sorry."
Sloan gritted her teeth until her jaws ached, willing herself to stand still. She wanted so badly just to touch her hand.
That's what you need, but probably not what Michael needs.
Desperately, she sought the words that would help ease the terrible pain she saw in Michael's wounded eyes. "You're not pathetic, you're just hurt. That's human."
Michael stared at her, her expression softening. "It's not what you think, Sloan. I'm not mourning my lost marriage. I'm just so angry at the mess I've made of my life, and how foolish I was not to see it. What's wrong with me that I could spend all this time in some charade and not even know it?"
Sloan went to her, finally trusting that she had her own emotions under control. She grasped Michael's hands lightly, gazing intently into her face, praying that her words would somehow penetrate Michael's anguish and self-doubt.
"There's nothing wrong with you! You've accomplished remarkable things in your life, and you're not the first person to make a mistake about a relationship. It took a lot of guts to face him, and tell him, and to walk out of there. Don't beat yourself up like this," she said, her voice thick with feeling.
God, she's magnificent and she doesn't even know it!
Helpless to stop, Sloan lifted one hand and brushed strands of blond hair from Michael's cheek. Her hand was trembling; she wasn't certain why. She stroked a thumb across the bruised shadow on Michael's cheek, wishing she could soothe the pain from her soul.
"Don't be so hard on yourself," she whispered again.
Michael fell into Sloan's deep violet eyes, almost floating on the comforting sound of her words, not really hearing them, but sensing the caring behind them. She had no idea why it felt so good for this woman to touch her hand or stroke her cheek, but she felt soothed somewhere beyond words. "Thank you," she said softly.
They were so close, if Sloan dipped her head just a fraction, their lips would meet. She wanted to, more than she had wanted to kiss any woman in longer than she could remember. She wanted to so badly it was a pain in her chest, and a hunger that went deeper than anything she had ever thought to feel again. There was such innocence and tenderness in Michael's eyes that all she wanted was to cherish it. She stepped back abruptly, more frightened by her own feelings than she could stand. She dropped her hands to her sides, fists so tight her fingers cramped. Her throat was so thick she wasn't certain she could speak. She stumbled back another step on legs that shook, swallowed painfully, and finally managed, "You don't need to thank me. You're incredibly brave."
Then she grabbed her jacket, made an excuse about needing to check in with her office, and left hurriedly, leaving Michael to stare after her with an odd sense of loss.
When Sloan got to the gym, she wrapped her hands and pounded the heavy punching bag until she couldn't lift her arms, finally sagging to the floor, her arms around the gently swaying bag, her sweat-drenched face pressed to the rough canvas cover, holding onto it with all the desperation of a lover betrayed.
It was another week before they spoke again. Sloan was spending most of her time with Mayfield, the systems administrator, and Michael was in and out for meetings, planning conferences, or working in her office. They passed each other coming and going, and that was enough for Sloan to see that by midweek Michael appeared to be in control again. The shadows haunting her blue eyes had disappeared and her gaze was clear. Sloan could sense Michael's distraction, but the fragility of that morning after her encounter with Jeremy was gone. It was just as well that their separate endeavors prevented much interaction, because Sloan found it difficult to concentrate with Michael in the room. Usually when she was working at the computer, she wasn't aware of anyone or anything around her. Annoyingly, the few times they were together now she found herself listening to the small sounds Michael made while working, or turning her head to look at her as she bent over her drafting table, or watching her as she talked on the phone. This was no time to lose focus, not when she was reaching a critical point in the changeover from the old system to the newer, streamlined, more secure one she had devised.
It was close to 8 PM on a Wed night when Michael opened her office door and walked down the hall to the cubicle where Sloan was working. "Can I see you for a moment in my office please? Michael asked quietly.
It hadn't escaped Michaelšs notice that Sloan had been avoiding her, and she could only imagine it was because of the scene she had made in the office that morning after confronting Jeremy. Her loss of composure embarrassed her still. Nevertheless, she needed an update on Sloan's progress because the situation with Jeremy was rapidly approaching crisis proportions. It was hard for her to admit, but she missed her casual conversations with Sloan while they worked together. She missed Sloanšs quirky grin and quick humor, too.
Sloan looked up at the sound of Michael's voice, immediately struck once again by her timeless beauty. Her pulse sped up just a little and she felt that swift automatic tingle of arousal that was as involuntary as her heart beating. She quickly ignored it, nodding, "Yes, of course. I'll just be a minute."
"Good," Michael smiled, suddenly happier than she had been in days. "I ordered some Chinese, and I always get more than I can eat by myself."
Sloan walked into Michael's office a few minutes later, closed the door, and looked at her, one elegant dark eyebrow raised in question. She couldn't stop herself from grinning with pleasure. Michael looked stunning in a forest green suit that was tailored just enough to accentuate the curve of her hip and the long line of her slender thighs. Sloan knew she was staring and hoped her quick surge of pure lust wasn't obvious.
Michael stood in front of her desk, leaning one hip against the edge, her hands clasping the polished wood on either side of her. She smiled, a brilliant smile that sent the blood coursing hotly through Sloan's veins.
"How are we doing?" Michael asked, apparently oblivious to Sloan's reactions. She indicated cardboard cartons of food on the glass-topped table in front of the leather sofas along with wooden chopsticks in paper sleeves, a stack of paper plates, and napkins. "Help yourself. It's the maid's night off."
Sloan occupied herself with the food, grateful for something to take her mind off Michael Lassiter's body. "Pretty well, actually. Your systems administrator is a good man. It won't take too long for him to figure out I've installed a detection program that reports to an ICEcap server, though."
It was Michael's turn to lift an inquiring eyebrow, and Sloan laughed.
"It's a secondary security checkpoint that accumulates detection data from multiple networked computers, then analyzes and tracks intrusions. The problem with any detection system is that all Internet transmissions are not attacks. Some legitimate Internet applications communicate with your network in the same way that hackers do. The more external points of entry to the system you have, such as access from personal home computers or distant office sites, the more holes you have in the system. My job is to make the system as tight as possible and still allow those who need to get in to be able to. Mayfield is naturally curious as to some of the changes I've instituted, but I don't think he's particularly suspicious yet. Is he someone you can trust?
Michael shrugged. "I really have no idea. I'm sure that lines of allegiance will be drawn rather quickly when it becomes generally known that Jeremy and I are divorcing. I think most of the theoretical people will want to stay with me. As to management, it's hard to say. Probably the bottom line will be their perception of who will most successfully run the company. And that's where the problem will be. I expect the fact that I'm a woman may decide it for some of them. Right now, I'm hoping I can keep things quiet for a bit longer until my attorney can present Jeremy with a buy-out agreement. Maybe in the end money will sway him. We also have two big projects nearing completion ¯ one with the government and one in the private sector. If I can bring these in on time with no hitches, that will go a long way toward solidifying my position. I need to be able to show that I can lead the company, not just the design divisions."
Sloan nodded, thinking it a sound plan, if it was really money Jeremy Lassiter wanted to exact from his wife. She had no doubt that Michael could handle the business challenges to come. "I'm going to need to go to your New York office fairly soon. That seems to be the weakest link in the network. I'll need a few days up there to physically look at the system. I've got Jason backtracking IP addresses from the analysis engine I've loaded into your personal computer. Most of it will turn out to be nothing, but it's always worth checking."
Michael sighed, absently drawing a bit of hair off her cheek, tucking it behind her ear. Sloan watched the delicate movement of Michael's slim fingers as she lifted the golden strands, struck by the grace and elegance of the small gesture. She must have been staring, because Michael blushed slightly. Sloan quickly averted her eyes.
Christ, Sloan, get a grip. You can't keep looking at her like she's lunch!
"I'm going a little stir crazy in the hotel," Michael confessed. She had taken a suite of rooms at the Four Seasons when she moved out of her house. There wasn't much that she actually needed. She had her computer, so she could work, and she had taken most of her clothing with her that first night. Nevertheless, the evenings alone at the hotel were beginning to wear on her. It was surprising, really, because being alone was something she had gotten used to. It didn't ordinarily bother her. For some reason, she found herself restless and agitated. And aware for the first time of being lonely. She kept thinking back to the evening she had spent with Sloan and the others at the Cabaret. She had felt lighthearted and excited and somehow so free. She realized she missed that feeling.
Sloan said nothing, trying her best not to think about Michael Lassiter in any way at all except professionally. She definitely did not want to think about her in terms of dinner at the Monte Carlo restaurant, or a stroll along the riverfront in the moonlight, or perhaps a nightcap in Michaelšs hotel room. She absolutely did not want to think about leaning over and kissing her, which was exactly what she had been thinking for at least ten minutes. She leaned back on the sofa to break the spell. It didn't work.
"I was wondering if Jasmine is performing again Friday at the Cabaret?" Michael asked impulsively. It must have been just the memory of how happy she had been for those few hours, because it certainly couldn't have anything to do with the fact that Sloan had made her feel so special. Or how the brief touch of Sloan's long, lean fingers seemed to make her skin tingle.
"Actually she isn't," Sloan said gently, sensing how hard it had been for Michael to ask. The quick flash of disappointment on Michael's face caused her to lose what remained of her better judgment. "She and the troupe from the cabaret are performing at the annual AIDS benefit at the Franklin Center. Jason, Sarah and I will be going. Would you like to join us?"
"Oh, I couldn't. That's very kind of you, but I'm sure you've already made other arrangements," she said, thinking of the remark Angela had made about Sloan's popularity with women.
Sloan grinned somewhat sheepishly. She didn't think it would be prudent to tell Michael Lassiter that her date had dumped her after Sloan had informed her that she wasn't interested in a serious long-term relationship. The timing had been terrible, but Sloan had to find some way of explaining why she hadn't wanted to sleep with Diane the previous Saturday night. It was hard enough to come up with an explanation to herself. She wouldn't even consider that it might have something to do with the thoughts of Michael that had kept intruding all evening.
"Actually, I have an entire table reserved, and there's plenty of room. There would just be the four of us until Jason left for the performance."
Michael recalled the handsome young man she had met briefly that day in Sloan's office. "Jason would be- ?" Suddenly she remembered Jasmine's brilliant blue eyes and her elegant but strong features. The two images came together in her mind, and she gasped in surprise. "Oh my God, Jason and Jasmine -"
Sloan laughed. "Amazing, isn't it?"
"Incredible. However did you two meet?" she asked innocently.
It was there again, that quick flash of barely disguised pain. Then Sloan shrugged it off, and answered carefully, "We both worked in Washington in the early '90s. I happened to see Jasmine one night in a bar. She was really hot in black leather pants and a skimpy little top, and she was getting plenty of looks. I asked her to dance."
She was still a little embarrassed that Jasmine had turned her down flat when she suggested they go somewhere a little more private. Sloan could still remember how turned on she had been after only one dance with her. Sloan cleared her throat, and continued, "I thought it was odd that she didn't seem to be interested in any of the women who were clearly interested in her. A couple of days later, I passed this guy in the hall. He had the most beautiful eyes, and when he saw me he blushed. And I knew."
"What did you do?" Michael asked, reaching for one of the fortune cookies in the bottom of the paper bag. She was fascinated. The image of Sloan and Jasmine dancing was surprisingly exciting.
"My first reaction was to be pissed off," Sloan said immediately. "I actually wondered for a minute if he was some kind of undercover agent gathering dirt on government employees."
Michael was about to laugh, but one look at Sloan's face told her she was serious. "Does that sort of thing actually happen?"
"Not so much anymore, but it certainly has in the past. And Washington is a very paranoid place. But I had danced with him, and I knew he was the real thing. He was the best transvestite I had ever seen. Everything ¯ the way he moved, the way he spoke, hell, even the way he felt! Jasmine is as real as it gets. No agent would have been able to pull that off. I turned around, followed him down the hall, and pushed him into the men's room. Then I asked him what the fuck was going on."
She grinned a little ruefully at the memory, remembering how pale Jason had been, and how frantically he had looked around the restroom for someone to help him. He must have thought she was really going to hurt him. She remembered too the sinking feeling in her gut when she realized that that's exactly what he expected, for someone to hurt him. She had stepped back from him, put her hands in her pocket, and looked him up and down. He was wearing a Brooks Brothers suit, polished loafers, and a tie with a perfect Windsor knot. Then she had said, "I liked you a lot better in those leather pants."
"I liked you a lot better in yours, too," he had responded softly. "And that wasn't me, actually, it was Jasmine. I didnšt mean to lead you on, you know. I thought a dance would be okay."
Sloan remembered how quietly he had said that, a slight wistful tone in his voice. She understood what he was trying to tell her. She had no idea why he trusted her, but he did. She glanced at Michael, and continued.
"He explained to me that he was straight, which is why he didnšt go dressed to a menšs bar. He wasn't interested in picking up men, and was afraid there'd be trouble if he refused. At least in a lesbian bar, Jasmine would fit in, and she could always say 'no' if someone came onto her."
"My God, how difficult that must be," Michael murmured. "It would be so much easier if he were gay."
Sloan was surprised at how easily Michael grasped Jason's dilemma. Jason could date straight women, but then how would he explain Jasmine? When dressed as Jasmine, expressing himself as Jasmine, he appeared physically female, but he did not want to attract men. He ran the risk that whoever might be attracted to him would be repulsed by his particular form of self-expression.
"He hasn't had an easy time," Sloan agreed. She didn't think it was her place to tell Michael that Sarah and Jason were going out on their first date that Friday night. She trusted Sarah to be able to handle the situation, but she wasn't at all certain that Jason could. He was too used to hiding, and too used to anticipating rejection. She wasn't certain he would be able to recognize true affection when he found it. "So, Sarah and Jason and Jasmine and I will all be there. Please, join us. I'd like that very much."
Michael nodded, realizing that she wanted to do that more than she had wanted anything in a very long time. She pulled the small slip of paper from the stale cookie and read,
"You will find happiness in the most unexpected place"
Then she smiled, and said, "Yes, so would I."
When Michael answered the knock on her hotel room door at exactly 8pm Friday night, she was momentarily speechless. Sloan stood before her, dashingly turned out in a finely tailored charcoal pin-striped, pale gray tuxedo, complete with a pleated white shirt, French cuffs, a navy cummerbund and white bowtie.
"You look... magnificent," Michael finished, laughing as Sloan responded with a small bow.
Sloan searched for words, mesmerized by the vision of Michael in a black silk dress that hugged her sleek figure, thin straps at the shoulders accentuating a tantalizing expanse of décolletage exposed by the low sweep of the clinging bodice. The soft swell of her breasts was just a promise beneath the exquisite material, but it was enough to send the blood rushing from her head to the depths of her belly. Her throat was suddenly dry. She was aware that she was staring as the silence between them lengthened, but she was having trouble catching her breath. Finally, she brought her gaze to Michael's, where blue and indigo fused, and they smiled into one another's eyes.
"You're beautiful," Sloan whispered, finding the words completely inadequate.
Michael colored slightly, inordinately pleased. Why did a compliment from Sloan make her heart beat faster?
"Thank you," Michael said, reaching for Sloan's hand and pulling her inside. "I'll just be a minute. I have to get my things."
Sloan stopped just inside the door, watching Michael move about the room, graceful and sure, as she seemed to be in everything she did. Sloan reminded herself that she was a friendly escort only, and that she had best keep her eyes above shoulder level for the rest of the evening. Her inability to control her autonomic nervous system around Michael Lassiter was becoming embarrassing, and more than a bit physically uncomfortable. Unfortunately, avoiding Michael's body wasn't enough to place her beyond danger, because just looking at Michael's face could devastate her. It went beyond her classic features and her flawless skin and her breathtakingly beautiful blue eyes; there was a tenderness in her gaze and a gentleness in her voice that laid soothing hands on Sloan's wounded places, tempting her to believe in miracles.
"Sloan?" Michael inquired lightly, surprised to see her still at the door and wondering at Sloan's hesitation to enter the room. It was so unusual for her to appear uncertain. "Do you need anything?"
Sloan shook her head, thinking, if you only knew. Quickly, to hide her agitation, she answered, "I'm sorry. No, nothing. I'm fine."
Michael wasn't sure she believed her, but she simply nodded, tossed a light jacket over her arm, and closed the door firmly behind them. She was going out with friends and she intended to have a wonderful time. As they walked to the elevator, she glanced sideways at Sloan, struck suddenly by her bold strong profile and panther-like fluidity. She thought again how attractive Sloan was in that dangerous sort of way that wild animals had. She had always been tempted to put her hands through the bars of the leopard's cage at the zoo just to feel those sleek, stalking muscles ripple under her fingers. It had always made her just a little breathless. Looking at Sloan was like that ¯ being with her was a little like that too. No one, male or female, had ever quite captivated her attention the way Sloan seemed able to do. Being with her, talking with her, simply sharing Chinese take out in a deserted office building seemed to produce a slight shimmer of excitement. When Sloan looked at her with that piercingly intent stare, Michael felt like she was the only thing that mattered to her.
MIchael caught her breath at that thought, realizing that she had unwittingly been thinking of the evening almost as a date. She laughed inwardly at her own foolishness. She had never been attracted to a woman before, and even if she were, Sloan had more than enough women to choose from without giving her a second thought. Silly.
"Michael?" Sloan asked, faint concern in her voice. "Are you all right?"
Michael returned from her unconscious reverie to find Sloan standing by the curb, holding the passenger side door of her Porsche open, a slightly bemused expression on her face.
"Yes, of course." She smiled and slid into the roadster, ignoring the slight tingle in her arm where Sloan's fingers brushed against her skin.
As they drove across town, Michael watched the city life through the window. Men and women in elegant evening wear hurried to the theatre, teenagers bedecked in all manner of piercings, tattoos and outrageous outfits crowded the sidewalks, and tourists watched the other passersby with curious fascination. Everywhere couples held hands, heads bent close, laughing and talking in that intimately exclusive manner that only lovers shared. Michael was suddenly envious of something she had never been aware of missing before - that unique connection to another human being that defies definition, but is so common to human understanding that poets and writers and composers have tried to capture it for centuries. She ached in some primal place that her rational mind, with the reminder of all her accomplishments, could not assuage.
"Are Sarah and Jason dating?" she asked abruptly, searching for something to take her mind from the emptiness she had no inkling how to fill.
Sloan was silent for a second, recalling Sarah's excitement when she informed Sloan that she had asked Jason to go with her to the benefit. She replayed the conversation in her mind, deciding how much to reveal in answer to Michael's question. Sarah had been standing next to her in the locker room before their workout, barely able to contain her enthusiasm as she told Sloan the story.
"He tried to tell me he couldn't because Jasmine was performing, but I knew damn well there were two hours during dinner and the speeches before the Cabaret routine. And then, there's the gala afterwards. I think he actually squirmed when I pointed that out to him." Sarah's eyes had twinkled with laughter at the memory.
"That would explain his twitchiness at the office all day," Sloan had remarked. "Every time I spoke to him, he jumped. I think he might even have spilled his coffee once. For Mr. Perfection, that's unusual."
Sarah's face had clouded, and Sloan was instantly sorry she had said anything.
"Why is he so nervous, Sloan? We get along so well, and he knows I know about Jasmine."
Sloan remembered trying to ignore the question, hoping Sarah would let it go. She busied herself pulling on her sweats and workout gloves, pretending not to notice the shadow of Sarah's figure standing motionless beside her. Damn, they were both her friends, and her loyalties were conflicted.
"I really like him, Sloan," Sarah had whispered softly. "It's the first time I've felt that way in so long."
Fuck. Sloan had straightened with a sigh and looked her old friend in the eye. "I told you once that he never dated anyone who knew about Jasmine. That's not exactly true. He dated a clerk in the Justice Department about the time I was -- leaving. It was serious. They were even talking marriage. He eventually told her about Jasmine, and she totally decompensated. She actually filed a complaint against him in some kind of weird sexual harassment twist, claiming that he had used his position as her superior to unfairly involve her in an unhealthy relationship."
"Jesus," Sarah had uttered in disbelief.
"Yeah. It was absurd, and really carried no merit, but it ruined him. I heard about it through the rumor mill, at least the part of it that wasn't busy talking about me. I looked him up, and we decided it was time for both of us to disappear. We cleared out and six months later started the business."
Sarah had nodded. "I always wondered how the two of you ended up here together. So much has happened while I was away." She didnšt need to add that Sloan had never volunteered the details, and probably never would.
Sloan had looked away, her eyes darkening for an instant. "There isn't much to tell."
Sarah knew that wasn't true, but she had let it go. Sloan would tell her the rest when she was ready, and if she didn't, it didn't matter. She didn't need to hear Sloan's side of things to know that the rumors she had heard as far away as Thailand were false. She didn't press, and Sloan had let the subject drop gratefully.
Sloan shook off the memories and looked over at Michael, who was patiently waiting for her to answer. She shrugged. "I'm not sure if they are or not. They're going out together tonight, and I know Sarah is interested in him. I have a feeling it will all come down to Jason's willingness to trust her."
Michael nodded thoughtfully. "Not always an easy thing to do for anyone, and it must be so much harder for him."
"Yes," Sloan agreed with a sigh, pulling to a stop before the broad entrance to the stately pavilion. She glanced at Michael, aware of the slight air of melancholy that clung to her. She reached for her hand impulsively, drawing Michael around in the small front seat to face her. They were only inches apart, and neither of them paid any attention to the young man in the short red jacket standing impatiently near Sloan's door, waiting to valet park her car.
Sloan looked into Michael's eyes, her voice deep and strong. "If there's something possible between them, Sarah will know what to do to help it grow. She's got a gift that way. Now, I am going to take you inside and let everyone wonder how I have somehow managed to get the most beautiful woman in the room to sit at my table."
Michael blushed, thinking that Sarah wasn't the only one with a gift for knowing just the right thing to say. Then her smile erupted like the sun after a long cold winter, warming Sloan to her core.
"Since I could say the same thing about you, I think we should go show off a bit," Michael said, squeezing Sloan's hand.
Sloan stared at her for a moment before bursting into pleased laughter. "Now there's an offer I can't refuse!"
As they walked up the broad expanse of marble staircase into the vaulted reception area, Michael slipped her arm through Sloan's, a gesture as unconscious and natural as anything she had ever done. If Michael felt Sloan's quick jerk of surprise or the slight trembling in the muscles under her fingers, she didn't show it.
When they arrived, the enormous ballroom was nearly full. Magnificent chandeliers, ablaze with candle-shaped bulbs, hung above the dozens of tables that fronted the stage. Men and women, elegantly turned out, wandered about, greeting friends or taking advantage of the opportunity to network. The evening was primarily a benefit for the myriad city agencies dealing with the multi-dimensional challenge of AIDS treatment, but it was also an important venue for the many factions seeking supporters in the political arena as well. There were a generous number of women in tuxedos as well as designer dresses. The men were mostly in tuxedos, although here and there representatives of the leather community strode about in full regalia, offering a striking counterpoint to the mainstream appearance of the majority. Were it not for the many women walking hand-in-hand, or the men with arms slung casually around their partner's waist, it might have passed for any fundraiser.
Jason and Sarah were already seated at the table Sloan had reserved near the front of the room. Jason, as always, looked GQ handsome in a black tuxedo. Sarah wore a simple dress in flattering tones of blue and green that accentuated her pale skin and emerald eyes. They both greeted Sloan and Michael with enthusiasm.
"God, this is wonderful," Sarah remarked. She looked around the room, continuing, "It's incredible to see so many people here in support."
She looked at both Sloan and Michael, thinking briefly what an amazingly attractive couple they were before reminding herself that they weren't a couple at all. But there was an easy connection between them that seemed apparent to her, although clearly not to them. Sloan watched Michael with obvious pleasure as Michael slipped into the seat beside Jason, and Michael looked over at Sloan with a soft smile that would have been seductive coming from anyone other than Michael. On her it merely seemed sweet, and lovely. Sarah was astonished to see Sloan blush. She thought that might be a first for her very imperturbable friend.
Sarah was aware of Jason fidgeting nearly imperceptibly next to her, and she said to him in a low voice, "Are you nervous about the performance?"
He laughed slightly, but his eyes were tense. "Not Jasmine's," he replied with a hint of sarcasm.
Sarah looked at him a moment, then touched his arm as she understood his meaning. "Jason, you needn't worry about anything with me. I may kiss on the first date, but that's as far as it goes."
Her soft smile did more to set his mind at ease than even her words, though those helped too. He thought she was quite the most attractive woman he had seen in forever, and he couldn't understand what was making him so nervous around her. She was smart and sexy and kind and he liked her laugh and the way she had of looking at him with a whimsical invitation in her eyes. And she knew about Jasmine. Then he realized that he wanted to kiss her, and that fact was more frightening than he could imagine. Could she really accept, or even understand, what a part of him Jasmine was?
He shied his gaze away from her warm welcoming eyes, glancing first at the mass of people milling about between the tables but seeing none of them before his attention finally focused on Sloan. He had always thought her compellingly good-looking, but tonight she looked exceptionally arresting. Her wavy black hair was sleekly brushed back from her temples, falling in casual layers to her collar, and a shock or two hung rakishly over her forehead. Her perfectly fitted tux accentuated her lean, taut body and he was reminded of the first time he had seen her. She had been leaning against the bar in a crowded club on Dupont Circle, cool and cocky and sexy as hell in tight leather pants and a white shirt that clung to her chest and was open tantalizingly low between small high breasts. Jasmine had looked particularly hot that night as well, and it hadn't taken long to catch Sloan's eye. Maybe he should have said no to her invitation to dance, but whatever part of him was Jasmine had wanted to know what it felt like to be held in her arms. Then they were dancing, and their bodies fit together like the intricate curves of two puzzle pieces, thigh between thigh, hip against hip. As they were nearly the same height, it was easy for Jasmine to dip her head and lean her cheek in the bend of Sloan's neck and shoulder. By the end of the dance they were both breathing hard and Sloan let her intentions be known. In a voice low and husky she had asked Jasmine to come home with her.
And the wonderful fantasy had shattered. Jasmine, despite her attraction, could not go home with her. Sloan was practically radiating sexual energy, but Jasmine had demurred, and Jason had never expected to see Sloan again. When they had met by chance while at work, he had initially been terrified by her anger. When she finally understood that he had not maliciously intended to deceive her, she had simply accepted that Jasmine somehow existed in her own right, a conscious but powerfully-defined part of his personality. It was the first time in his life that had ever happened. She had freed some part of him to hope that someone could actually know his secrets and accept him.
Now he sat across from her, admiring her still, knowing that the small spark of desire she still ignited was just one part of his attraction to her. She had saved his career, and his sanity, and perhaps his life that day she came looking for him in the Department of Justice and had offered him a way forward out of the lie. Joining her in business had been the best thing he had ever done.
He jumped slightly when Sloan leaned toward him and said softly, "So, how you holding up?"
"Fine," he responded, coloring quickly. Jesus, did everyone have to know what was going on? He noticed gratefully that Michael didn't seem to be watching him at all. She was clearly fascinated by the diverse and colorful crowd. Come to think of it, when she wasn't watching the throng, her attention was pretty much riveted on Sloan. Ohh god, she is way too naīve for the likes of Sloan!
He couldn't cope with all the conflicting emotions, and turning to Sarah, he said quietly, "Would you walk around with me for a few minutes before I need to go back stage?"
"Sure," she said with a quick smile.
He smiled back, inordinately relieved, and surprisingly pleased. Sarah seemed like the only solid ground in a very rapidly shifting landscape. Impulsively, he took her hand, and they slipped into the stream of people passing by.
Michael watched them go, then turned to Sloan. "Jason seems nervous. I'd think it was sweet if I didn't have a feeling that he was actually frightened. I feel for him."
Sloan studied her. She was coolly beautiful, and yet there was warmth in the depth of her eyes and the timbre of her voice. She was an amazing blend of contrasts. "You are very perceptive."
"Am I?" Michael asked with just the hint of a tease in her voice. "Am I correct then in surmising that you are a little nervous too?"
Sloan was taken aback by Michael's intuitiveness, and her frankness. She wasn't used to anyone being able to read her so well. It both pleased and worried her. To be known, to be understood, was a powerfully seductive emotion. It could make you careless, and it could make you vulnerable. That was a place she never wanted to be again. "Nervous? Perhaps," she allowed with a slight inclination of her head. "But I'm not afraid."
"I wouldn't imagine there is much that could make you nervous, and nothing that would frighten you," Michael remarked quite seriously.
Sloan's eyes darkened. "I am not invincible, or even particularly brave." She stared at Michael, forgetting her earlier vow not to look into her eyes. She forgot her intention to be cautious as well. "You are threatening, but in a most pleasant way," she murmured.
Michael leaned closer, so drawn by Sloan's intent gaze that she lost track of the activity and conversation around her. Everything receded from her view except a violet so deep it was a siren's song beckoning her to the cliffs. "Why?" she whispered.
"Your loveliness captures the imagination and your kindness soothes the soul," Sloan managed through a throat tight with sudden desire. Her head was spinning, her belly was churning, and she felt heat and want pool in her depths. She barely stifled a moan. Drawing a ragged breath, she whispered, "You are very beautiful, in so many ways."
Michael stepped closer to the edge, not even realizing the danger. "If I am, you're the first that's ever said so."
"Then you've been surrounded by fools," Sloan murmured, reaching a hand to trace the line of Michael's jaw. Her fingers trembled. Michael leaned forward to accept the caress, her lips parted slightly, her skin flushed. Her pupils were wide, dark, endless, beckoning Sloan to fall into them. Michael appeared so vulnerable in that instant that Sloan drew back with a nearly audible gasp. God almighty, what am I doing?
At that moment Sarah returned, sliding back into her seat as she announced, "Jasmine is getting dressed for the show. I wanted to stay and watch but she said 'no'."
She might have been invisible. Sarah stared from one to the other, suddenly aware of the unearthly stillness surrounding them. "You two okay?" she asked quietly.
Michael was the first to regain her composure. Her smile was just a bit shaky. "Yes, of course."
Somehow Sarah didn't believe that, but the expression on Sloan's face convinced her not to question the statement. She had never been one to taunt the animals.
Any lingering unease was dispelled as the three of them watched the show. Female impersonators were always popular, and the Cabaret troupe was exceptionally so. It was partly the elaborate costumes that ranged from outrageously flamboyant floor-length gowns with feathers and sequins and plunging necklines for some numbers to stylish evening dresses that would have befit any performer on a Las Vegas stage. In addition to the visual spectacle, the show tunes and popular songs were rendered with skill and consummate style. Some of the impersonators specialized in particular performers, such as Cher or Bette Midler or Celine Dion, much to the delight of the crowd. Jasmine, however, did not. She was not an impersonator in that sense. Her specialty was Billie Holiday-type torch songs, and she performed them straight ¯ no jokes, no exaggerated costumes, nothing but talent, a great voice, and very excellent legs. The audience loved her.
It was difficult for Michael to reconcile that these women were men. There was no awkwardness of motion in the clinging sheaths and high, thin heels, no hint of beard to mar the flawless make-up, and no subtle shifting to suggest that the full bodices were anything but real. Tonight she watched Jasmine with particular interest, searching for bits of Jason. The transformation was remarkable. It wasn't the outward things -- the different hair color or style, the feminine body, the expertly applied lipstick or eyeliner. It was the sultry way Jasmine walked, confident and more than a little seductive, and the throaty voice that whispered an invitation with a simple 'hello', and the look in her eyes that said she knew just how hot she was.
"God, she is sexy," Michael commented to no one in particular.
Sloan looked at her in surprise, and Sarah grinned.
"Yeah, and don't she just know it!" Sarah exclaimed with obvious pride.
"I seem to recall you weren't interested in women," Sloan grumbled good-naturedly.
Sarah arched an eyebrow and laughed. "Jealous are we?"
That comment got Michael's attention. She had just assumed that since Sarah was with Jason that she was straight. But she was with Sloan and that didn't mean she wasn't, did it? One thing she was quite sure of, however, was that she did not like the idea that Sloan might be attracted to Sarah. She couldn't say exactly why.
"No point in being jealous," Sloan continued. "Any way you look at it, I can't compete with Jasmine. I could never wear one of those dresses, I can't sing, and I'd kill myself in those shoes."
"Plus, there is the issue of Jason to consider," Sarah said, suddenly serious. "I love Jasmine's sense of humor and spirit and wild streak, but what intrigues me is knowing that Jason is there somewhere, too. I really wanted to watch him dress tonight, to see him become her."
"I don't imagine he's ever done that," Sloan remarked. "He's very private about it."
"It must be frightening for him to be so exposed," Michael agreed.
Sarah was silent for a moment, considering what they had said. "I hadn't thought that he would be threatened by me seeing," she said with a shake of her head. "Not very sensitive of me, I guess. I'm clearly not as tuned in to the subtleties of all of this as I thought."
"I'm certain that he just wants to be sure of your reaction first," Michael said gently, sensing Sarah's self-criticism. "If he cares about you, it must be terrifying not knowing if you can accept this part of him."
Sloan stared at Michael, wondering how she could grasp the heart of the issue so quickly. She watched as Michael leaned forward and took Sarah's hand, whispering gently, "Don't be discouraged. I'm sure he needs you to keep asking. Once he finally trusts you, he'll let you closer."
There was a tender warmth in Michael's gaze that softened her features and gave her an almost ethereal appearance. As quickly as she had been moved to desire a few moments earlier, Sloan was now touched by an emotion a great deal more dangerous. These glimpses of deep kindness and compassion captured Sloan's imagination and stirred her longing. Michael was beautiful in more than just body, however, and the depth of her gracious spirit warmed some long frozen place in Sloan's soul.
She looked away abruptly, wishing to break the spell. She could never remember being this affected by any other woman, and she was absolutely certain this would only lead to disaster. Michael Lassiter was a woman whose life was in turmoil, and she was not someone Sloan could simply take to bed and forget about the next day. Sloan reminded herself that since Michael showed no inclination toward that anyway, it was a moot point. Sloan grimaced in frustration and looked up with relief to see Jasmine approaching. She needed something to distract her from Michael's disconcerting nearness, and Jasmine filled the order nicely.
"Ah, the party is about to begin!" Jasmine declared as she rushed up breathlessly. She waved a hand in the direction of the stage, where a band was warming up and workers were clearing an area for dancing. She was still wearing the form-fitting red dress she had performed in, and she looked as elegant as any lady at the ball.
"Wonderful dress," Sarah said by way of greeting.
Jasmine slipped into the seat between Sloan and Sarah, and turned to Sarah with a smile that was just a tiny bit shy. "Thank you," she responded without a trace of her usual flirtatiousness. "I saw it in the window of a little boutique on my lunch hour one day, and I just knew it was meant for me."
Sarah wondered briefly who had purchased it, Jason or Jasmine, but decided that that was a question best asked when Jasmine felt a little more comfortable with her. "Well, you were right."
Jasmine smiled again, her cheeks flushing slightly, and turned to say her hellos to Michael and Sloan. The four of them chatted and commented on the who's who amongst the attendees for a few moments until the band began to play.
Then, Jasmine stood abruptly, grasping Sloan's hand. "Come on, baby, come dance with me."
For a moment, Sloan looked uncharacteristically disconcerted, then she shrugged helplessly and allowed Jasmine to pull her into the crowd on the dance floor. Michael and Sarah looked after them for second, then at each other and smiled.
"Poor Sloan," Sarah laughed. "Jasmine just loves to tease her. She's the only one I've ever known who could catch Sloan off-guard. If I didn't know better, I'd actually say Sloan was flustered!"
"I think that's because Sloan finds Jasmine attractive. I can certainly see why," Michael said with sudden insight, turning the idea over in her mind. She thought back to the story Sloan had told her about that first meeting with Jasmine, and realized that the two of them had a long and much more intimate relationship than she had ever realized. Sloan had admitted her attraction to Jasmine initially, but Michael assumed that once Sloan learned about Jason that the interest would be gone. Now, seeing Jasmine, she realized that wasn't necessarily true. Jasmine was seductive and charming and female to all appearances, so why wouldn't Sloan be affected by her attentions.
It was Sarah's turn to be surprised. "You're right. I'm amazed I didn't see it myself." She looked at Michael with new respect.
Michael smiled. "This is all so new to me, I have no preconceived notions of how it all works. Sloan is a lesbian, Jasmine is a sexy woman. Ergo ¯" She laughed, lifting her hands into the air in mock surrender.
"Does that bother you? Sloan's response to her, I mean?" Sarah asked, curious about exactly what was happening between Michael and Sloan.
Michael laughed a little self-consciously, wondering if Sarah was reading her mind. When she had watched Jasmine take Sloan's hand and so effortlessly lead her away, for one instant she had been jealous. Jasmine was very attractive, and the two of them looked good together. Even reminding herself that Jasmine wasn't, well, exactly all she seemed hadn't erased the slight twinge of envy when she had seen Jasmine step into Sloan's arms. She shook her head, very aware that Sarah was waiting for her response, and also aware that her thoughts were wandering down paths too fantastic to contemplate. "It's none of my business whom Sloan finds attractive," she said as lightly as she could. "Although I couldn't help but wonder if it bothers you that Jasmine and Sloan are, well, interested or -- whatever."
Sarah looked contemplative. "Actually, I think Jason has a little crush on Sloan, but has always known nothing could come of it. Him being a he and all. Jasmine on the other hand is free to flirt with Sloan outrageously, which she does at every opportunity." She grinned at the absurdity of the entire conversation, but continued on gamely. "That makes me a bit jealous, I guess. Since I, unlike Sloan, wouldn't mind taking Jason to bed at all."
"What about Jasmine? Would you take her to bed, too?" Michael asked before she realized she might be overstepping the limits of her brief acquaintance with the other woman. "I'm sorry ¯ that was awfully personal."
"No," Sarah said, with a shake of her head. "Don't worry. And don't think I haven't considered that very question. Women in general don't usually turn me on ¯ well, Sloan a bit, maybe ¯"
"God ¯ is there anyone she doesn't turn on?" Michael blurted, then immediately regretted it as she blushed furiously.
Sarah pretended not to notice her embarrassment, and continued, "But Sloan and I resolved that issue years ago. Then along comes Jason, whom I liked the minute I met, as well as thinking he had the nicest butt I'd seen on a guy in years." She grinned at the memory. She had stood in the office waiting room of Sloan Security nearly open-mouthed in amazement while Jason had lectured Sloan about being on time for the afternoon appointments, and threatening her with bodily harm if she dared put off her final report to Somebody, Somebody and Somebody that was due the next morning. She expected Sloan to annihilate him at the very least, but Sloan had merely growled something that sounded a lot like 'okay' and stomped out. Jason had winked at Sarah, his impossibly blue eyes sparkling with delight, and she had gotten warm and wet in places that didn't usually feel that way at one o'clock in the afternoon.
"Sarah?" Michael asked, confused by the slightly vacant look on Sarah's face and the long silence.
Sarah jumped, then smiled self-consciously. "Oh, sorry. Anyhow -- then I meet Jasmine at the club and thought she was funny and outrageous, and I liked her a lot, too. When I found out the connection, it was just so amazing. The more I saw of them, the more I thought of them as two people, but not totally separate. So when I think about Jasmine ¯" She hesitated, then put into words what she had been avoiding, even in her own mind. "When I think about undressing her, and finding Jason there somewhere, it makes me pretty hot."
Michael shook her head. "It certainly makes the usual arrangements seem pretty boring!"
Sarah looked at her for a second, then grinned as she realized that Michael understood exactly what she had been saying. "God, itšs nice to find someone who gets it! I've haven't known how to talk about it to anyone without having it sound too bizarre."
"One thing I've discovered in the last few weeks is that nothing that I thought I knew about life, or myself, is necessarily true," Michael said with a touch of regret. "Least of all what being with someone is all about. Or even the why and the how of it all."
"I think what they say about falling in love when you least expect it, and with the most unexpected person, just might be true," Sarah responded quietly. She had heard the edge of pain in Michael's voice.
"I think you're right about that," Michael said as she watched Sloan and Jasmine dancing. Funny, that they should look so good together when it was all illusion. She wondered at her own bewilderment and confusion. Was that what it had been with her and Jeremy? All just illusion?
Sloan attempted to hold Jasmine at a decorous distance, her right hand resting lightly at the base of Jasmine's back in the slight hollow just above her very nice little butt. With her other she enfolded Jasmine's hand, which was surprisingly just a bit smaller than her own, and held it lightly against her own chest. The floor was fairly crowded with couples of all gender and combinations, but even so, she didn't think the proximity of the other dancers quite warranted the closeness with which Jasmine moved against her.
"Jasmine," Sloan said softly.
Jasmine tilted her head back and smiled innocently. "Yes?"
"Are you trying to ruin my reputation?" Sloan said, maneuvering them confidently between the other couples nearby. She was an expert dancer, and used to leading. Jasmine, for her part, followed effortlessly, slowly moving her hips against Sloan's pelvis. A little closer than she needed to but just exactly where she wanted to be.
"Whatever do you mean? Ruin your reputation?" she laughed, settling herself more comfortably against the length of Sloan's lean body. She gyrated subtly, but enough to feel Sloan's muscles tighten. Her voice low, she continued, "I don't think you need me to do that."
Sloan was aware of the warmth of Jasmine's body pressed against her chest, her belly, and her thighs. She knew damn well what was underneath that sheer delicate silk of Jasmine dress, and that it wasn't exactly what fulfilled her fantasies, but that contradictory fact didn't quite penetrate through to her autonomic nervous system. The part of her that was physical, and sexual, and totally beyond her rational control, saw and felt a woman in her arms.
There wasn't a single thing about Jasmine that said male. She was soft in all the right places, smooth in just the right places, and curved in precisely the right places. Jasmine fit against Sloan completely naturally, and if that wasn't enough, she knew exactly how to move to inflame every sensitive spot on Sloan's body. Sloan knew damn well her heart was pounding hard enough for Jasmine to feel it, and there was a tremor starting in her legs.
"Damn it, Jasmine," Sloan said through gritted teeth. "This is no place for a display." She glanced over at the table where Michael and Sarah were watching them with faintly amused expressions and felt color rise to her face. She was oddly embarrassed, and hoped Michael didn't know why.
Finally Jasmine took pity on her, and moved away a fraction of an inch. She liked to play with Sloan, and usually Sloan didn't seem to mind, but tonight she sensed not only Sloan's faint desire, but her discomfort. As much as some part of her enjoyed the heady feeling of turning on the handsome and oh so unattainable dark-haired Romeo, she knew enough to stop before things got out of hand ¯ for either of them. Sloan wasn't the only one whose heart was tripping a little faster, or whose belly fluttered with those first whispers of wanting. As much as the sensation was pleasurable, their friendship was more important. One night, one hour even, of mutual exploration, no matter how exciting that might be ¯ and she had no doubt that a roll in the sack with Sloan would be wild beyond her dreams - wouldn't be worth the aftermath. They couldn't have a relationship, let alone a life together, and giving in to their physical attractions would destroy what they did have. Too much to lose, and glancing across the room to where the other women sat watching them, she realized there was another reason now, too. Sarah was smiling at her.
Then Sarah winked, and some long-guarded barrier in Jasmine's soul cracked just a bit. Sarah seemed to understand exactly who she needed to be, and how she needed to feel. No one had ever come close to understanding her before. It was so overwhelming that it frightened her to death. She was afraid that she would get used to how good it made her feel. And then she might begin to dream. Hope and dreams were the narcotics of a lonely heart, lulling one into believing happiness could actually be attained. The despair that followed when the empty promises were revealed was devastating.
As much as she ached to have Sarah know her, she rebelled at the thought of relinquishing her defenses. She had done that once, and her life had been destroyed. If she let another woman close, only to be deserted, her soul would crumble. Anger and fear warred with her desire to believe that Sarah could be different. The old hurts still festered, rejection and humiliation still burned, and she wanted to lash out. Sloan was in the path of her pain, and she said without thinking, "What's the matter, Sloan? Are you afraid that Michael will find out that you have no self-control? I would imagine she already knows that. You must have taken her to bed by now."
Sloan stiffened instantly, her jaw bunching with swift rage. "Michael has absolutely nothing to do with this, Jasmine. This is about you and me, and the fact that you seem to enjoy offering what you won't deliver."
Jasmine stepped completely out of the circle of Sloan's arms, her anger rapidly replaced by hurt. "I've never offered you anything, Sloan. You might find this hard to believe, but one night stands are your specialty, not mine."
Jasmine turned, head held high, and moved sensuously back through the crowd to the table. Sloan stared after her for second, cursing herself under her breath. It hadn't been Jasmine's fault; she knew damn well Jasmine was only playing. It wasn't the first time in their lives that had happened. She had over-reacted badly at the suggestion that she would take Michael to bed like - well, like some of her other dates. Casually, without any real thought to the consequences. It wasn't as if she ever made any promises, or even planned for it to happen. If, in the course of an evening, it seemed like she and whomever she happened to be with chose to continue their conversation in bed, what was the harm? They were adults, and no suggestion of anything long-term was ever implied. Why not share a little mutual pleasure?
Sloan looked at Michael, her face in profile as she leaned close to Sarah to share some thought, her hand resting easily on Sarah's arm. Sloan knew she could never take her to bed for a night. She swallowed and looked away, trying to dispel the lingering image of Michael's aching beauty. One night would never be enough, and that was exactly what the problem was. She hadn't wanted more than a night, or anything beyond that level of commitment, in many years. She certainly didn't want it now.
Damn. She took a deep breath and started toward the table to give Jasmine the apology she deserved. She was almost there when a voice at her elbow stopped her.
"Now I see why you couldn't bring me to this little affair," a tall attractive brunette said loudly enough to catch the attention of everyone at Sloan's table as well as those nearby.
"Hello, Diane," Sloan said calmly, her face revealing nothing. Diane Carson was the woman with whom she had planned to attend the benefit. She had broken the engagement when it became very apparent to her that Diane was beginning to think of them as a couple. They had last had dinner two weeks previously, and Sloan had just barely managed to extract herself from an awkward situation before both of them were embarrassed. Diane had assumed Sloan would be staying the night, an assumption that in retrospect Sloan could hardly blame her for. Diane was a very attractive, intelligent woman, and they got along well. They had also slept together just a week before.
But, at the end of the evening, Sloan realized she didn't want to stay the night, a fact that surprised even her. Diane, however, was under a different impression. As soon as they were inside her apartment, Diane had begun to kiss her passionately, her hands tugging at the belt on Sloan's trousers, her breasts crushed to Sloan's chest. Dianešs nipples were hard points rubbing against her shirt that drew fire to Sloan's skin. It felt good, there was no way Sloan could deny that, but even as her limbs grew heavy with lust, and her hands swept up Diane's sides to cup her breasts, her mind had protested.
"Wait," she had gasped, attempting to step away.
"Why," Diane had murmured, her fingers slipping under Sloan's waistband. Her voice was throaty with desire; her eyes dim with need. "Baby, you are so hot and I am so ready."
Sloan tried to ignore the throbbing just below Diane's fingertips. If she moved an inch, Diane would be stroking her, and no amount of good sense would make her stop then. She had grasped Diane's hand, stilling her explorations.
"I can't do this, I'm sorry."
The look on Diane's face had gone from brief disappointment and hurt to anger. She had stepped back so swiftly that Sloan had nearly stumbled.
"Get out," was all that Diane had managed. Sloan had been happy to oblige, because for an instant, she thought Diane was going to slap her. That was the last time they had spoken until just this moment.
Diane hadn't slapped her then, because she had been stone cold sober. She wasn't at the moment, however. "You bastard," she said quite clearly as her hand whipped across Sloan's cheek.
Sloan absorbed most of the blow with a turn of her head, but still it stung, and she tasted the salty tang of blood on the inside of her lip. She kept both hands firmly at her sides. She motioned 'no' to Sarah when she saw her about to rise out of the corner of her eye.
"Where is your table, Diane?" Sloan asked, aware that Diane was swaying and that her face was slack with too much alcohol.
"I came alone," Diane said sharply. "My date preferred to plow fresher fields for the evening." She looked in Michael's direction as she spoke.
Sloan stepped closer, slipping her hand under her elbow, steadying her. "Why don't you sit down for a minute."
Diane tried to fling off her hold, but only succeeded in nearly losing her balance. She ended up clutching at Sloan's shirtfront instead. Sloan realized that Diane was much more intoxicated than she had first thought, and that there was no way she could send her home alone in a cab.
Sloan guided an unresisting Diane closer to the table, and said quietly to Michael, "I'm sorry, but I need to take Ms. Carson home. Would you mind if Sarah drives you back to your hotel?"
Michael looked into Sloan's cool eyes and could read nothing. They might have been the eyes of a stranger. She answered quietly, "Of course not. Please go ahead."
Sloan nodded goodnight to the others, slipped her arm around Diane Carson's waist and turned to leave. Most of the eyes in the crowd followed their departure as voices speculated on the latest romantic escapades of the somewhat notorious JT Sloan.
Michael Lassiter watched them also. She didn't say a word, but she too wondered just what hold the lovely Ms Carson had on Sloan.
For a moment no one said anything, then Jasmine, in a rare show of restraint, said softly, "Well, Sloan handled that nicely."
Both Sarah and Michael looked at her questioningly.
"Diane Carson was about to fall down drunk and make a spectacle of herself. She would have been humiliated in front of some of the most influential people in the community, and I don't just mean the gay and lesbian community either. There are a lot of political movers and shakers here tonight. Sloan just saved her a lot of embarrassment."
"Who is she?" Michael asked before she could stop herself.
Sarah raised an inquiring eyebrow in Jasmine's direction. She had been wondering the same thing herself. She hadn't seen Sloan with a lover in a lot of years, but there hadn't been anything in Sloan's face that looked like love to her. "An ex?"
Jasmine shrugged delicately. "I suppose you could say that. Diane seems to think she is more of an ex than is probably warranted, but Sloan has that affect on her dates. One night and they want to marry her." She pushed back from the table and stood with a sigh. The festive atmosphere had definitely dissipated. "I think it's time for me to toddle off. I'll send Jason out in a while."
Sarah watched her go, then looked at Michael. "Are you all right?"
"Of course," Michael said a little too quickly. "Just curious."
"Mmm," Sarah agreed. "Sloan does have a tendency to make one wonder." She studied Michael quietly for a moment, then said seriously. "You know, Michael, Sloan is not nearly the lothario people would make her out to be. It's true that I haven't been close to her these last few years, but I knew her very well when she was younger, and people don't change all that much. She may avoid commitments, but she has a good reason for it."
Michael wondered what Sarah was trying to tell her, and why. What JT Sloan did with the women in her life was no concern of hers. Despite the fact that she enjoyed Sloan's company, and thought that the feeling was mutual, she was under no illusions that there was anything else possible between them. She had a company to save, and a marriage to dissolve. The last thing she needed was a sexual identity crisis and an involvement with a woman who obviously didn't care to be involved with anyone.
She sighed and began to gather her things. "I'm sure you're right. I'm going to get a cab. Say goodni"
Sarah grasped her wrist. "Absolutely not! We'll drive you. I'm sure Jason will be here soon."
"I don't think you need me along on your first date with him, Sarah!" Michael laughed. "I'll be fine."
"Really!" Sarah protested. "It's no trouble. And I have a feeling we'll be calling it an evening, too. Things went pretty well tonight, considering both of them were here. Jason and Jasmine, I mean. But I don't think I'm going to push my luck. Jason's clearly not ready for anything else ¯ and frankly, neither am I."
Michael stopped what she doing, her eyes concerned. "Are you okay?"
Sarah grinned a little shakily. "It's not as simple as I thought it would be. While I was watching Jasmine and Sloan dancing, I pretty much forgot about Jason. Jasmine is so real, you know? I'm not sure how I'd feel alone with her."
"My guess is you won't find that out until you've been with Jason first. That is probably the way he'll feel most comfortable," Michael commented thoughtfully. Watching Sloan and Jasmine together had fascinated her too, but her thoughts had all been of Sloan. How she held Jasmine, so sure, so certain. Their bodies had fit together so well, and for an instant she imagined herself in Sloan's arms. Instead of being strange, that notion seemed somehow completely natural.
She stood abruptly, dispelling the image. "Say good night for me, please. I really need to go."
And then she was gone, leaving Sarah to wonder about the odd expression on Michael's face. She had looked bewildered, and a little sad.
"Diane. Hey ¯ Diane," Sloan called softly, shaking the sleeping woman's shoulder lightly. "Time to wake up."
Diane Carson muttered, snuggled a little deeper into the warm leather seat, and tried to curl up on her side.
Sloan got out, walked around the front of the car and opened the passenger side door. She leaned down and slipped an arm behind Diane's back. The other she slid under the smaller woman's knees and swiveled her feet out onto the sidewalk. "Okay, here we go," Sloan said, pulling Diane upright into her arms. "A few steps, a few stairs, and then an elevator ¯ thank god. Piece of cake."
Diane managed to follow Sloan's lead, becoming more alert as she moved. "Where are we?" she asked groggily.
"Your place," Sloan informed her as she pushed the Up button on the elevator. She guided Diane into the elevator and removed her arm from around Diane's waist. When Diane promptly tilted left and looked about to fall, Sloan grabbed her and held on. She didn't try releasing her again until they were inside Diane's bedroom, where Sloan eased her down onto the side of the bed.
"You okay?" Sloan asked, stepping back a foot.
Diane pushed both hands through her hair, blinked up at Sloan and grimaced. "More or less. I really conked out in the car and I'm still fuzzy. What time is it?"
Sloan glanced at the bedside clock. "Just after midnight."
"Thanks for bringing me home," Diane said tiredly. She tried standing and wavered with a sudden surge of dizziness. "Shit."
Sloan reached for her automatically, and the next instant Diane was firmly in her arms, her hands on the back of Sloan's neck, and her lips searching for Sloan's. The kiss caught Sloan by surprise and by the time it registered, Diane's hand had dropped to her thigh and was moving dangerously close to her crotch.
"Mmph," Sloan muttered, pulling her head back and grabbing for Diane's wrist at the same time. "Cut it out."
Diane bit the side of Sloan's neck, harder than she might have if she had been totally aware of what she was doing. "You know damn well it feels good," she breathed against Sloan's neck, pushing her hand a little higher.
It did feel good, but that was hardly the point. She wasn't in the habit of having sex with intoxicated women even when she did want to sleep with them. And despite the fact that the insistently stroking fingers between her legs were doing an excellent job of making her throb, she did not want to sleep with Diane Carson.
"Okay. You're obviously capable of getting yourself to bed," Sloan gasped, pushing Diane gently but firmly back down on the bed. "I'm out of here." She turned on somewhat shaky legs and started for the bedroom door. Her body was in a state of rebellion that she valiantly ignored.
"You don't actually think that that blonde is going to give you what you need, do you?" Diane called angrily.
Sloan didn't reply. They both knew the answer to that question. She let herself quietly out of the apartment, rode the elevator down, and walked slowly across the street to her car. She slid behind the wheel, leaned back, and shut her eyes. When her head stopped pounding and the ache in her belly began to subside, she reached for her cellular phone.
Michael tied the pale gray robe around her waist as she hurried toward the door. She peered through the peephole, stared for a second, then pulled the door wide, a question in her eyes.
"I'm sorry it's so late," Sloan began, shrugging slightly as if she weren't certain herself why she was there. She wasn't, exactly. All she knew was that she couldn't go home without seeing her. "I called Sarah, and she said you hadn't left with them ¯"
"I took a cab," Michael interrupted.
Sloan sighed. "I'm sorry-"
"You said that," Michael said, a soft smile on her face. She reached out and tugged on Sloan's sleeve. "Come in out of the hall."
Sloan followed, then stood in the elegant, impersonal hotel suite, looking around like she had no idea where she was. She pushed a hand through her hair, leaving the dark waves tousled. "Hell, I don't even know why I came." She looked at Michael, who was watching her with quiet patience. "Are you angry?"
Michael was surprised by the question. Should she be? Did she even have any right to be? She turned and walked toward the sofa, one of two that faced a large glass coffee table centered on a plush oriental rug, while she considered the question. She sat at one end, drawing her legs up under her, pulling the hem of the robe down to mid-calf, and motioned for Sloan to join her.
Sloan slumped into the deep cushions, leaned her head against the back, and turned to face Michael. She hadn't known she was going to ask that, but now the answer seemed to matter a great deal.
"No," Michael replied at length, choosing her words carefully as she sorted through the odd assortment of emotions the night had inspired. "I was disappointed at first. I was enjoying the evening so much, and I missed you when you left."
As she spoke the words, she realized how true they were. When Sloan had walked away, the enchanted became ordinary again. The sparkling lights lost their shimmer and the hint of magic in the air grew faint. She laughed shakily at her foolishness. "That wasn't your fault."
Sloan disagreed. "It was my fault, but I needed to take her home. She was a little too impaired to maneuver safely."
"Really?" Michael said dryly, arching a brow. "She couldn't have been too impaired. She managed to bite your neck."
Sloan sat bolt upright, a hand to her neck where she felt a slight sting. "Christ." She looked at Michael, whose face was absolutely expressionless. "Would you believe there is a totally innocent explanation?"
"No explanation is required," Michael said, standing and smoothing the robe about her hips. She fidgeted with the sash for a moment, then looked into Sloan's eyes, who had also stood. Michael thought she looked impossibly attractive standing there, waiting for Michael to damn her, or absolve her. Michael shook her head in frustration. "And no apology is necessary either. I got home fine. I wasn't your date, or your responsibility. Please don't worry about it."
It was suddenly very important to Sloan that Michael understand nothing had happened between her and Diane. She took a step nearer, her voice dark and intense. "I know I don't have to explain. I want to." She rested her hands on Michael's arms, bending just a bit to catch her glance, very aware of the slight tremor in Michael's body. Michael's blue eyes answered hers with a faint expression of uncertainty, and something that might have been desire.
"Oh, hell," Sloan muttered, leaning closer still, her vision tunneling down to pale skin and full moist lips. Those lips parted in surprise, or was it welcome, and then Sloan was kissing her. It was amazing how something so familiar could be so new. Michael's lips were without a doubt the softest she had ever touched, and the warmest, and the sweetest, and ¯ Ohjesusgod
Sloan was lost, senses on overload. She could smell her, fresh from a shower and misted with spring promises. Michael's body, covered only by the technicality of the supple thin silk, was molten under Sloan's hands, flowing hot to her touch. Somebody groaned. Sloan thought dimly it might have been herself. There were fingers in her hair, pulling lightly, sending showers of current directly between her legs. She wavered a bit on her feet, and edged Michael back toward the sofa.
And then what? an irritated voice said from somewhere deep, deep in her unconsciousness. You gonna lay her down on the couch in some hotel room and lift her skirt? Nice, Sloan. Very nice.
Sloan raised her lips from Michael's, a task so difficult it left her weak. Michael's eyes were nearly closed, her mouth swollen with kisses, her breasts rising and falling rapidly against Sloan's chest. Their legs were entwined, and Sloan felt the heat against her thigh. She felt the material of her trousers chaffing against her own damp crotch. Her palms smoothed rhythmically over the round fullness of Michael's buttocks, aching to pull her hard against her leg. She was fully aroused and pulsating painfully and ready to burst and she ¯ could ¯ not - do ¯ this.
"Michael," Sloan gasped, willing her fingers not to stray inside the partially opened robe. The crescent of exposed breast nearly shredded the last remnants of her control.
"Shhh," Michael crooned, leaning into Sloan until there was nothing between them but old fears and secret desires. She wanted Sloan to kiss her again. What a remarkable, glorious kiss that had been. It was the only time in her life when she had been totally without thought. She had known absolutely nothing but the incredible freedom and utter certainty of being in Sloan's embrace. It was a place she never wanted to leave. "Just do that again," she whispered.
Sloan continued to hold her, but she did not lower her head for the kiss. She looked at Michael, saw her undisguised hunger, and understood in that instant how completely without pretense or guile Michael was. If innocence existed anywhere, it was in Michael's simple request. She didn't deserve that trust, didn't even want it.
"We'll both regret this in the morning," Sloan said as lightly as she could manage through a throat tight with need. She sensed Michael stiffen in her arms.
"Do you think so?" Michael asked softly, a cold ache beginning in her chest. "Would you?"
Sloan took a step back, released her hold on the other woman. Steeled herself. "Yes, and so would you when you had a chance to think about it. I apologize for putting you in an awkward position. I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking."
Michael laughed thinly. "Well, I know I certainly wasn't. I should thank you for maintaining some sense." She pulled her robe tightly around herself, shivering suddenly. "Will you excuse me? It's late and I'm more than a little embarrassed."
Sloan wanted to comfort her so badly. She had hurt her, but it was a small hurt compared to the disaster it might have been. She forced her hands into her pockets, afraid she would touch her again otherwise. "I'll let myself out. I'm sorry, Michael."
Michael watched her cross the room, watched the door close soundlessly behind her. She listened for her footsteps in the hall, but heard only silence. The room was very still as she moved about turning off the lights. In the darkness she made her way to the bedroom, where once under the covers, alone, she allowed herself to cry.
The phone rang in Michael's office at 6:45 Monday morning. She glanced at it distractedly, a prospectus in one hand, barely taking her eyes off the columns of figures. Ordinarily, she wouldn't have answered her own phone, but it was too early for Angela to be in.
"Lassiter," she said abruptly.
"Michael, it's Sloan," the now familiar smoky voice announced.
Michael drew a sharp breath, laid down the folder, and stared across the room at her office door as if expecting it to open and Sloan to step through. Her heart quickened with anticipation even as she chided herself for the reaction. It had been nearly thirty-six hours since Sloan had walked out of her hotel room, and Michael had spent most of that time trying to avoid thinking about what had happened between them. Usually, her work was something that could distract her from everything else in her life. She had only to pick up a sketchpad, or doodle on the corner of an envelope, or lean back with her eyes closed and she would be instantly absorbed in constructing something or other out of her imagination. That was the beauty of design -- it could result in a tangible product or merely a concept that someone else brought to fruition. Michael's mind was fluid, yet enormously disciplined. She lived by her thoughts, and they had always been her greatest panacea for worry, uncertainty, and fear.
It hadn't worked the past weekend. Her thoughts were elusive, streaking through her mind like fast-forward images on an old time movie reel. She wasn't able to concentrate, and she wasn't able to stop thinking about the way Sloan's lips had felt against hers. It was true that she had very little experience with anyone other than Jeremy, but she certainly had not been isolated from the realities of physical relationships. What she had experienced with Sloan went far beyond anything she had previously known or even imagined. That such a simple kiss could set every cell in her body tingling defied her understanding. She had no frame of reference for the way she felt in Sloan's embrace, recalling that slight inner trembling that seemed to magnify as it approached the surface of her skin until she feared she might literally shake apart with the excitement of it. Being in Sloan's arms was like watching the sun break through the clouds after a week of gray skies and cold rain. With that first brief flash of golden heat you knew suddenly what it was to be alive, and knew too that until that moment, you had merely existed. She thought she understood the difference now, and dared not contemplate if that sensation was only borne on this woman's kiss.
"Michael?" Sloan said into the silence.
"Yes," Michaels said more sharply than she intended. "I'm sorry, I was working."
"Then I'm sorry to disturb you," Sloan said somewhat stiffly. "I actually intended just to leave a message. I didn't expect you to be there." She hadn't wanted to speak with her, let alone see her, which was why she had taken the rather cowardly route of leaving a message. She didn't trust herself not to betray how affected she had been by her slip the other night. She hadn't lost control of herself like that in years, and it shook her. She cleared her throat which had suddenly grown tight, and continued, "I wanted to let you know that I've decided to drive up to the New York City office to look over things up there. I think we've got the network in fair shape here and you should be secure within reason. I can't do much more to tighten things up until I check out the other facilities. Then I should be able to make the changeovers fairly quickly if I don't run into any surprises."
Michael was silent. She hadn't really listened after Sloan announced that she was leaving for New York. There was nothing she could say, short of asking Sloan if she were going because of what had happened between them. That certainly didn't seem like a very appropriate question. Sloan had made it quite clear that their very brief interlude had been a mistake, and that she had no desire for it to happen again. If Sloan wanted distance between them, it was certainly understandable. Michael saw no point in further embarrassing herself or pursuing what could only make them both more uncomfortable.
"That sounds very reasonable. I'll call up there around nine and let them know you're coming. Shall I have Angela make hotel reservations for you somewhere nearby?"
"No, thanks," Sloan added. "Jason will take care of that for me. An introduction to your administrative manager will be helpful, just don't tell them too much about what I'll be doing. I would rather inform people on a need to know basis, especially given the possibility that some of them may end up being loyal to Jeremy if a split should come about."
"You're right, of course," Michaels said, ignoring the slight twist of anxiety that the mention of Jeremy's name caused. "I'm not actually personally familiar with many of the people there, other than in the design arm. They were pretty much hand picked by me. Nevertheless, it's probably prudent to keep a low profile. Will you call me to keep me informed?"
"Absolutely. In the meantime, if you have any problems or need anything, just call Jason."
There was silence on the line as both of them listened for the other's breathing, as if loath to break the connection and not knowing what else to say. Eventually they murmured light meaningless goodbyes and hung up. Michael went back to work, desperately hoping to occupy her wandering mind, silently hoping that Sloanšs image would not continue to intrude on her thoughts.
Across town Sloan set about packing the single suitcase for her trip. She looked around the loft, finding the solitude that usually gave her such comfort, now merely lonely. The sound of Michaelšs voice had stirred her anew, and her body sang with desire. The kiss they had shared was a tangible memory on her lips, and her palms ached with the imprint of Michaelšs body pressed to their surface. She was hungry for more of her, and she feared it was for much more than her body. If it had been only that, she might not have hesitated. Michael was an adult, after all, and more than capable of making a decision about whom she might sleep with. It was not her unrelenting desire for Michael that troubled Sloan so much, it was her deep longing to lie down beside her and simply rest. She was weary, and the promise of succor was far too dangerous.
She finished packing a light bag, locked the heavy metal clasp on the sliding double doors to the loft, and prayed for a clear highway all the way to New York. Maybe a fast drive would erase the images of Michaelšs softly welcoming smile from her mind. She would just have to live with the constant pulse of need in her belly. That was uncomfortable, but not nearly as frightening.
Eventually Michael was able to work, and forgot about Sloan's voice, and the electricity of her touch, and her hauntingly attractive profile. She was startled as the intercom on her desk crackled once, and a voice filled the room.
"Michael, I'm sorry---"
The sentence was lost in a commotion as the office door banged open and Jeremy strode in with Angela close behind him. Michael swiveled on her high drafting stool and stared, a pencil still held in her left hand.
"I'm sorry, he didn't give me a chance to call you," Angela stated, clearly distraught.
"That's all right, Angela," Michael said calmly. "Just close the door and hold my calls."
Angela looked uneasily from Jeremy's stony countenance to Michael's perfectly smooth, expressionless face, and slowly backed out the door. She didn't like it, but she had no choice. She briefly wondered if she should call security. There had been something about the look in Jeremy Lassiter's eyes that frightened her. Were it not for the possibility of embarrassing Michael, she would have.
Michael remained seated, silent. Jeremy strode forward another few steps, his hands clenched at his side. A muscle bunched along the edge of his jaw. When he spoke his voice was tight with the effort to control his anger.
"I met with my attorneys this morning, and reviewed your 'offer'," he said harshly. The way he said 'offer' suggested that she had highly insulted him. "I assume that was some kind of joke."
Michael stepped down from the stool and stood by the side of her drafting table, one hand resting along the edge of the slanted drawing surface. Her face remained still, although there was a very fine tremor in her hand. "Actually, Jeremy, I spent a great deal of time reviewing the situation with my attorneys and several business consultants. The package we offered you contained a generous buy out as well as stock options. It will provide you ongoing security as long as the company continues to thrive, in addition to the moneys up front."
Her attorneys had assured her that the stock options were a reasonable method for providing long-term recompense for Jeremy's loss of potential income from the company. They had actually argued that the cash package was too generous, but she had insisted, hoping to present him with something that he would accept. Nevertheless, she certainly wasn't surprised he didn't. It wasn't like Jeremy to agree to something that he had not orchestrated himself. Her attorneys had warned her that he was likely to reject her initial overtures, and that negotiations could drag on a while. Nevertheless, she had no intention of engaging him in a personal dialogue over the details. That was why she had legal counsel.
He grimaced, moving closer still. "On the surface, your proposal may appear generous to others, but I know damn well that the potential of this company resides in future design plans and those will be your exclusive property under the current stipulations of your plan."
She shrugged slightly, and said quietly, "The design plans have always been mine, Jeremy. You know that."
"Yes, but I have been the one to promote them."
She nodded again, wondering at his point. "Of course I know that, and my attorneys have taken that into account."
"I'm not going to let you do this," he said, his voice low and hard. He stretched an arm out on either side of her, gripping the metal lip that rimmed the desktop, trapping her. The front of his body pressed close, almost touching her. His physical size alone was intimidating enough, but it was more the barely contained rage in his face that made her flinch. He threw each word at her like a weapon. "Without me, you never would have been able to accomplish what you have. You were a naive, unsophisticated emotional misfit when we met. You had no idea how to get along in the world, let alone make a success of business. If I hadn't pampered your sensitivities and supported your fragile ego, none of this would have been possible."
She was shocked at the depth of his rancor, and stunned at his clear and open disdain of her. She was momentarily speechless. He continued as if he expected her to accept his criticism without response.
"I can accept that you want to divorce me, and believe me it will not present any hardship to me. Our marriage was convenient from a professional point of view, but it certainly wasn't anything exceptional in the physical department. I'm well aware that you were simply going through the motions in bed, and if you had been the slightest bit physically challenging or even interesting, I might not have looked elsewhere for my needs."
She was numb, his verbal assault merely reinforcing what she had gradually come to realize over the past weeks. She did not know this man, although she had lived with him for over a decade. If she did not know him, she did not know herself, and that was much more frightening than anything that he could say to her now. Her nerves were exposed - raw, and yet the pain was familiar. She had been living with it for weeks.
"I regret this is happening this way," she said softly, "because I know I had a part in getting us here. I'm sorry for the things that were lacking between us --"
He made an impatient gesture, as if that were of little consequence to him. "I'm warning you, Michael, I expect to maintain a significant voting interest in the company. And there are plenty of people who would support me in replacing you as CEO. I'm not leaving, and if you think I am, I will lobby the board for a vote of no confidence and it will be you who will be looking for a new position. Remember, your position is only as sound as your ability to deliver a product, and the bottom line is what determines success or failure."
He walked toward the door, and as he reached for the handle, he turned and looked at her with dark fury in his eyes. "You may have the vision, Michael, but you don't have the skill to do anything with it. You never have. You're one-dimensional and about as human as a computer. If you were more of a woman, none of this would have happened."
He had regained enough control of himself that when he left he was able to close the door without slamming it. Nevertheless, Michael was aware of his anger still swirling around her with almost malevolent force. She took his threats seriously, because she knew that Jeremy never said anything he didn't intend to do. She wasn't sure exactly how he meant to attack her, but she knew with certainty that an attack was coming. She was vulnerable now, she knew that, because if he forced the Board of Directors to chose between them, it was very possible that she would lose. It was true that the company was founded on her ingenuity and intellect, not to mention her funds, but that was something that might be seen as replaceable. If anything occurred to even suggest that she could not carry the company forward, she would surely lose her bargaining power.
She moved carefully across the room, trying to ignore the quivering in her stomach and the shaking in her limbs. She settled behind her desk and rested her face in her hands. She tried desperately to think of what her next move might be, and wished that there were someone in whom she could confide. Immediately she thought of Sloan. How strange, to find herself at this point in her life with no one that she trusted more than a woman she had met only a few short weeks before. Somehow, that connection, however brief in time, had touched her more deeply than anything in her years with Jeremy. She tried to convince herself that it was only Sloan's reassurance she wanted, and not her touch, as she stared at the telephone.
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 attorneysš 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 wasnšt 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."
"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.
"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 Michaelšs 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 shešs 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.
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 Michaelšs 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.
Sloan emerged from her bedroom barefoot, her hair wet from the shower, in a clean shirt and jeans. Michael was just opening the pizza, which she had placed on the table in the seating area. She looked up with a smile.
"You're just in time."
"God, that smells great," Sloan exclaimed, flopping down gratefully on one end of a large leather sectional facing the windows. "I didn't realize before how hungry I was."
Michael handed her a plate, sat beside her, and they both attacked the food with enthusiasm. Michael had poured a glass of wine for each of them, and neither of them spoke until the box was nearly empty.
"That was terrific," Sloan said eventually as she leaned back contentedly.
"I know I promised you dinner, and I didn't have pizza in mind," Michael said with a laugh. "But I'm hardly dressed for anything elegant tonight," she finished, indicating her borrowed clothing.
"I think you look incredible," Sloan said appreciatively. Though Sarah's jeans and blouse were slightly big on Michael's taller more slender form, she nevertheless looked casually lovely. "Besides, the company more than makes up for the decor."
Michael blushed and looked away. After a moment she said softly, "Are you always this charming with every woman?"
Sloan stared at her in astonishment. "Oh, Michael! Don't you know that you are very beautiful and so incredibly sexy that it's heartstopping?"
Michael looked at her steadily, then said, "Then what is it? Is there something here I'm missing? Something I'm supposed to do or say?"
"It's not you," Sloan said vehemently.
Michael's disbelief and lingering hurt shadowed her blue eyes, but she said nothing.
"I'm sorry," Sloan said bitterly. "It's never been because of you."
She got up abruptly and went to the windows, her back to the room and Michael. Though she gazed out, she was not seeing the waterfront, or the lights flickering like stars fallen to earth; she was remembering the sounds and sights of the nation's capital. It seemed like only yesterday, the pain was still so fresh. Finally she turned, leaning against the window casement, and began to speak.
"When my tour in Thailand was over, I came back to Washington and was assigned to the Justice Department. I had a lot more experience than most of the other people working in computer crimes at that time. They moved me up fairly quickly even though I was young, and pretty soon I was heading a new unit that was similar to an Internal Affairs Division in a police department. I was testing our own internal security measures, looking for leaks. I answered directly to a member of the Justice Department - a special prosecutor assigned to deal with computer crimes. That included prosecuting members of government agencies as well. It was publicly very low profile, because obviously evidence of security leaks within the government does not produce confidence in the administration. By the same token, any government employee found to be responsible for, or even remotely connected to, breaches in security was dealt with swiftly. Since it was a fairly new area of investigation and prosecution, there tended to be a lot of overreaction when it came to dealing with individuals suspected of a crime. The prosecutors often brought charges first and got the details later."
Sloan returned to the sitting area and poured herself more wine. With effort, she controlled her agitation enough to sit down on a portion of the sectional adjoining Michael's. For a moment, she stared into the wine, aimlessly turning the glass between her long fingers. God, she hadn't thought about it, not consciously, in so long! But it was still so raw her mind reeled from the memories.
"And then I fell in love with the Special Prosecutor," she continued, her voice harsh with anger. "She was twelve years older than me, and a career government attorney. I think she had already set her sights on the Attorney General's position. She was very paranoid about anyone discovering our relationship, although I'm not convinced it would have made a difference. Nevertheless, I was young enough, and naive enough, to accept her disavowal of me whenever it suited her. I believed her when she said she loved me. "
She drained her glass, and set it carefully on the glass-topped coffee table next to the pizza box. She searched Michael's face for a reaction. What she found was the compassionate warmth that always welcomed her and reached some deep place in her that longed to be comforted.
"I wasn't completely inexperienced. I'd had affairs, but nothing really serious, and I was still foolish enough to believe in the power of love. I would have done anything she wanted. She actually pretended in public to have a long-standing relationship with a male attorney and she attended official functions with him now and then. She said she never slept with him, but I guess I'll never know. At the time, I trusted her."
She smiled bitterly, casting Michael an apologetic glance. "I'm sorry. This sounds like every other relationship-gone-bad story I've ever heard. I didn't mean to subject you to this."
"No," Michael said quickly and firmly. "I want to know. Please."
Sloan nodded and steeled herself for the rest of it. "We'd been together almost two years, and for the last six months of that I had been spearheading an investigation of a division of the National Security Agency attached to the Joint Chiefs. There was a lot of highly sensitive information lying around, so to speak, as well as a 'locked room' with classified military armament codes, all stored on a number of hard drives. My people didn't actually have access to those areas, but we were trying to determine precisely who did. To make a long story short, an independent internal audit came up two hard drives short, and when the information leaked to the press, someone needed to take the fall. My lover knew that I had no direct or even indirect responsibility for that particular area, but my name was the most identifiable. She cut a deal with someone, probably a senator on one of the powerful subcommittees who promised to advance her career in exchange for avoiding public embarrassment of the NSA, and she offered them me as part of the bargain."
Sloan shrugged. "End of story. I trusted her; she wanted a career perk more."
Michael studied her thoughtfully. She could hear the pain and betrayal in Sloan's voice, and her heart ached for her. But there was something else she saw in her eyes, something that went far beyond the pain of an imperfect love. There was something bitter and hard in their depths.
"Tell me the rest," Michael said gently.
Sloan jerked in surprise, staring at her. After a moment's deliberation, she continued. "They came to my office at Justice in the middle of the day and took me away in handcuffs. News of the impending arrest had been leaked to the press. They were waiting when the police brought me out of the building. Cameras, news teams, people surrounding me, shouting at me. I had no idea what was happening." She grimaced briefly at the memory. "She let them do that to me, when an internal review board should have handled it before charges were even delineated. It was Friday afternoon, and I couldn't get an arraignment until Monday morning. I spent the weekend in a city lock up. I was the next best thing to having a cop in jail. It was a very unpleasant weekend."
Michael struggled not to let her horror show. She swallowed painfully, nearly choking on her anguish. "Did they hurt you?"
"No," Sloan said quickly. "Not that way. Oh, they pushed me around a little bit, but nothing serious. It was more the humiliation of being strip searched and treated like an animal. You lose your sense of humanity pretty quickly in there. The justice system is not kind to the accused."
"I'm so sorry," Michael whispered.
Sloan saw no reason to tell her of the deep sense of loss and self-doubt she had suffered when she realized the woman she loved, who she trusted with all her soul, had abandoned her in such a heartless way. Worse perhaps, she had lost faith in her own judgment along with her dignity during those seventy-two interminable hours. She had been partly responsible for what had happened every time she let her lover deny her in public and lie to her in private. She was ashamed, and now, she didn't even trust herself.
"By Monday morning my attorney had talked to the Justice Department, and it was clear that there was no evidence to indict me. They apologized, expunged the record, and offered me a transfer. I didn't resign until a few weeks later, just after I heard what had happened to Jason with the sexual harassment suit. We both left, and six months later we started the business here."
"And there's been no one serious since her?"
Sloan shook her head. "No." She couldn't imagine being that vulnerable to anyone again. With love came too much potential for pain, and she could not pay that price again.
Michael was silent, wondering if Sloan loved this woman still. That would explain her affairs, and her unwillingness to make a commitment. She did not ask. She was afraid of how she would feel if Sloan admitted it were true.
Sloan finally broke the silence. "Would you like me to take you back to your hotel?"
"No," Michael said very quietly. "I would like you to take me into the bedroom."
"Michael," Sloan began, "I don't thi."
"Wait, Sloan," Michael interrupted. "I don't need you to explain or make promises or reassure me. I know what I'm saying. I've been going out of my mind today. I just need to feel you. Tonight, right now. Tomorrow is another lifetime away. Please."
As she spoke, Michael moved the few feet to stand in front of Sloan. Sloan rose, putting her hands on Michael's waist. She held Michael tenderly, aware of the fine trembling in Michael's slender body as she rested her head against Sloan's shoulder with a soft sigh. Sloan pressed her face gently to Michael's hair, breathing in that faint spring scent she remembered from the night in Michael's hotel.
"God, I want you," Sloan whispered hoarsely. "I want you."
Michael turned her cheek, pressing her lips to Sloan's neck. "Yes."
Sloan took Michael's hand and led her gently into the bedroom. Moonlight streamed through the windows, illuminating them in a soft pale glow. They stood by the bed, faces highlighted in the silvery luster, the air around them as still and filled with promise as a bird about to take flight. Sloan's eyes never left Michael's as she slowly reached out, carefully working each button free on Michael's blouse. Her hands were shaking, and as she drew the material open, she heard Michael catch her breath sharply.
"Are you afraid?" Sloan whispered, knowing how new this was for Michael. For her, too, but in a different way. She dared not consider all the ways being with Michael was special.
Michael smiled. "No," she answered immediately. "Are you?"
The corner of Sloan's mouth lifted in a faint echo of her usual grin. "Terrified."
Michael pressed her palm lightly to Sloan's face, her fingers playing softly down her cheek. "Please don't stop."
Sloan could never remember wanting anyone so badly. It was a desire so intense she was nearly paralyzed, afraid to go too quickly, afraid her passion would explode, afraid of frightening Michael, afraid of losing her chance to savor each precious second. These were moments she wanted to burn indelibly into her memory, knowing they might very well be the most exquisite of her life. She contented herself with watching Michael's eyes deepen with desire as she lightly traced her fingers along the faint ridge of Michael's collarbone, dipping into the small hollow above, then running her fingertips down the soft slope of her chest. Michael's small sounds of pleasure and the fine tremor flickering through her muscles fired Sloan's blood. Sloan could hear the rasping sounds of her own ragged breathing loud in the hushed space.
"You have wonderful hands," Michael murmured, feeling as if her bones were melting with each gentle caress. She laid her hand on Sloan's waist, content to let Sloan undress her. They stood only inches apart, both of them resisting the urge to press closer. Time hung suspended - each second might have been an hour, filled to overflowing with wonder. Each sensation was miraculous, unique and singular, and yet as familiar as coming home. Michael had never been so aroused, nor so certain of anything in her life.
"You are so beautiful," Sloan responded, her voice unsteady. She was trembling with the effort to contain herself, her vision narrowed until all she knew was Michael's eyes and Michael's mouth. She was no longer conscious of anything beyond the heat in her belly and the pounding in her head and the ache in her chest. Still she moved carefully, sliding her hands under the edges of Michael's blouse, lifting the cloth as if unveiling a priceless treasure, pushing the material down Michael's arms and letting it drop to the floor. Only then did she lower her gaze.
"Oh god," Sloan groaned, the muscles in her abdomen clenching. If there had ever been anything to equal what she saw now, she could not remember. A light sheen of perspiration covered Michael's skin, accentuating its pale perfection, highlighting her full breasts and taut nipples in shimmering starlight. "Perfect," she breathed, still not touching her.
Michael reached for Sloan's hands, drawing them to her. "I'm aching for you," she responded urgently. She swayed slightly as Sloan's fingers closed around her breasts, lifting them and capturing her nipples, squeezing lightly. Michael moaned, and her eyelids fluttered closed.
"Michael," Sloan gasped, thirsting for Michael's passion, "let me see your eyes."
With effort, Michael opened her eyes, and looked into Sloan's face. Sloan wore a look of fearful intensity, as if her entire being were focused on Michael. Michael had never been the object of such desire before. "You make me weak I want you so much," Michael said brokenly, cascades of need rippling through her.
Sloan stepped closer, still fully clothed. With one hand she reached between them and opened Michael's jeans. She pushed them down and supported Michael with an arm around her while she stepped out of them. Pressing tightly to her, Michael's breasts swollen against her chest, Sloan stroked Michael's back and buttocks and the outsides of her thighs, all the while kissing her lips, the underside of her jaw, the base of her throat. She wanted to devour her, to satisfy her consuming hunger with the sight and sound and feel of her.
"I'm going to fall," Michael said desperately. She had both hands on Sloan's shoulders, but even with that she was shaking too much to stand. A fearful pressure was building between her legs, a pleasure so intense she doubted she could contain it for long. "I need to lie down, and I need you to touch me."
Ever so gently, Sloan nuzzled her face between Michael's breasts, closing her eyes, breathing her in. Then she turned her cheek, running her tongue over Michael's tightened nipple. Michael uttered a strangled cry and jerked in Sloan's arms. Sloan cupped Michael's hips firmly, guiding their bodies together in a slow circular dance.
"I want to go slowly," Sloan whispered. "I need to go slowly. I want this night to last a lifetime."
"I don't think I can stand it," Michael countered. Her head was spinning, and every drop of blood in her body seemed to be pulsating between her legs. She had never felt such urgency, had never sensed such longing, had never needed another's touch so badly. "I'm going to come apart if you don't do something soon."
Sloan laughed, a wild victorious laugh, and moved Michael effortlessly to the bed. She urged her down on the edge and knelt before her. She cupped Michael's breasts, raised them for her lips, and drank of her - sucking and biting, one to the other, back and forth, guided only by Michael's sharp cries of pleasure. Michael's hands were in her hair, rocking Sloan's face into the hot yielding flesh.
"Sloan, Sloan, Sloan," she intoned, her neck arched, head flung back, hips thrusting forward against Sloan's body. She tugged at Sloan's shirt, crazed for the feel of her skin. She gasped at the first unfamiliar yet oh so familiar softness of smooth skin over tight muscles, awed by the tender strength under her fingers. Dimly, she heard Sloan groan.
Sloan stood, pushed Michael back onto the bed and lay beside her, leaning on one elbow so that she could look down the length of Michael's body. She ran her hands and then her tongue over the curves and prominences and flesh and muscle and bone of her. It was a landscape as known to her as her own body, and yet a world so new she felt the wonder of first discovery all over again. She could not get enough of her, and might have been happy simply to caress her if it hadn't been for Michael's escalating whimpers accompanying each stroke of her fingers. Michael's excitement nearly drove reason from her mind. Then Michael's fingers were on Sloan's fly, pulling at the buttons, searching for her clit through the wear-softened material, and her own need twitched relentlessly closer to explosion.
"Careful," Sloan said through gritted teeth, pulling her hips back. "Not yet."
Michael grasped Sloan's hand, her pupils so large her eyes seemed to be dark lakes of molten fire. She drew Sloan's fingers down to the place she most desperately needed her, crying out at the first light contact. "yesohyes"
Sloan convulsed with a chest-grating groan, the sweet wet warmth of Michael's welcome so intense her heart nearly stopped. That simple sign of Michael's need was more precious than anything she had ever known. All Sloan felt was the desire to please her, and in an instant the flame in her stilled to pure crimson embers, all the more hot for its containment. With gentle fingers she parted swollen tissues, stroking along, beside, and under the pulsating prominence, but never quite touching the heart of the fire.
"Inside, please inside," Michael begged, her fingers boring into Sloan's shoulders as every muscle strained toward the release of the terrible sweet tension.
Sloan lowered her forehead to Michael's, her eyes closed, gasping. She drew Michael close to her chest with one arm behind her back, and eased into her. She withdrew almost completely only to return another finger and another until she filled her. Then she remained motionless, and let Michael lead them to the summit.
Michael sought Sloan's mouth, alternately kissing and sucking at her lower lip. Her hips rocked in time to the surge of her blood and the hum in her nerves and the coiling ache in her belly, and she rode Sloan's fingers in a steadily faster rhythm. Sloan's arm ached with the effort of holding back her own overpowering urge to thrust into her, but she ignored the pain of her rigid muscles and clenched her jaws against the thundering pressure deep in her belly. This was for Michael, and she would follow her wherever she needed to go.
"almostalmost," Michael whimpered frantically, her movements erratic, shorter and harder, her hips thrusting wildly. "Need --yourfingers -- on me."
"Soonsoonlove," Sloan murmured, sensing Michael's muscles tightening for the last final surge, and as she waited for the peak, she circled the flat of her hand over Michael's clit. When she felt Michael's breath stop and her body poise on that timeless edge of abandon, she stroked the shaft once, twice and drove her over.
Michael cried out and gripped Sloan so hard that there would be bruises in the morning. The force of the contractions drew her body bowstring tight and she arched in Sloan's arms, shuddering.
"Ohgod, Michael," Sloan moaned, completely lost. Too beautiful, you are too exquisitely beautiful to bear.
Michael was beyond words, floating somewhere, deaf and blind, reduced to only quivering flesh and spasming muscle. How long she hung suspended on that crest of sensation escaped her, but eventually she was aware of her body again. She could feel the air moving in her lungs and her heart pounding in her chest and her blood coursing in her skin. She felt more alive than she had ever been, and more supremely content than she ever thought possible. She released her hold on Sloan's shoulders and collapsed back against the pillows. With effort she opened her eyes, and found Sloan's face. Sloan's look was one of tenderness, wonder, and something else. Something feral seethed in her hazy eyes and flickered just beneath the surface of her fierce expression.
"You are exquisite," Sloan declared, her voice hoarse and choked.
Michael heard the hunger in her voice and felt Sloan shudder violently against her. She sensed Sloan's need, and suddenly Michael wanted her more than she had wanted anything in her life.
"Take off your clothes! Quickly," Michael gasped, frantically tugging at the buttons on Sloan's jeans.
Michael's unexpected and undeniable lust drove Sloan to abandon her formidable control. She was suddenly burning and tore off her shirt, raising her hips as Michael pulled at her constraining jeans.
"Tell me what to do," Michael cried urgently. "Tell me what you need!" Her hands were running over Sloan's back, her chest, her abdomen, trying to feel all of her at once.
"Just touch me," Sloan groaned. "I'll come. God, I'm close!"
Michael's fingers found her clit, sliding under and over and back again and Sloan was gone, beyond reason or control. "So-so closesoclosesolongso - oh jesusgodMichaelMichael --"
Michael struggled to hold Sloan as she bucked and gasped, helpless, and so beautiful. Michael thought she had known power in the competitive world of business, but that had been nothing to compare to this. This, this was power so sweet her throat closed around tears of gratitude and wonder. "Sloan," she whispered, almost a prayer. "Oh, Sloan."
Sloan sighed as the first spasms quieted, resting her head on Michael's shoulder. "God," she mumbled, "that was so good."
"Uh huh," Michael laughed softly, stroking Sloan's sweat soaked hair off her face. "You okay?"
"Mmm," Sloan responded, trying valiantly to rouse herself. It wouldn't do to fall asleep on her. Very déclassé. She pushed up on an elbow and smiled a bit dazedly at Michael. "Beyond, okay. Excellent. You?"
Michael's smile sparkled all the way to her eyes. "I have never been better in my life."
"I'm glad," Sloan whispered, kissing her lightly. "Are you tired?"
"I could sleep," Michael admitted, suddenly aware that it was late. She did not know what the morning would bring. All she knew was that she did not want the night to end. "But I don't want to."
Sloan grinned, slow, easy and just a bit dangerously, and kissed her again. "Good."
At 10:45 AM the next morning, Michael turned from her drawing board as a soft knock at the door interrupted her. "Come in," she called.
The door swung open and Sarah peeked around the corner. "Hey," she called, a wide smile on her face. "Are you holding up okay?"
Michael leaned back from the table and sighed. "Seem to be. I have a million things to do before tomorrow's meeting, but everything is working at the moment." She watched as Sarah crossed the room and sat down on one of the sofas.
"Thank god," Sarah said. "I just talked to Jason, and he said it's looking good. Sometimes these things can take forever to get straightened out. This time you were lucky."
"I know," Michael agreed, moving over to join Sarah. "And I know how much I owe Jason and Sloan. They've been incredible."
"No, they're just doing the job they love to do. You shouldn't feel like you put them out, because you merely provided them with an interesting game to play. I'm amazed that either of them stopped long enough to sleep last night." She didn't add that she had noticed both Michael and Sloan were absent at the same time, nor did she volunteer that Jason had spent a good part of the evening with her.
"Have you seen Sloan this morning?" Michael asked, trying to sound nonchalant. Unfortunately her heart was pounding just from saying her name. They had parted only a short time before, but it seemed to Michael it had been days.
"She's in the communications center with Jason, supervising the final system checks and satisfying herself that everything is running okay. Did you need her?" Sarah asked innocently.
Michael almost laughed out loud at the question, thinking, Need her? Oh yes, that seems to be the word for it all right!
She couldn't stop herself from thinking that only a few hours before she had awakened from a light doze, startled in the first moments of awareness to feel Sloan beside her. Then in the next instant she knew where she was and remembered every second of the incredible night in Technicolor detail. An avalanche of desire coursed through her on the coattails of memory, and she was immediately completely aroused. It was such a foreign sensation, she didn't know what to do. When she opened her eyes she found Sloan lying quietly beside her, gazing at her with a look that melted Michael's heart. She could recall every word they had said and every emotion she had experienced as if it had been etched on her skin and burned into her soul.
"I'm sorry, I fell asleep," she whispered.
Sloan smiled, a tender gentle smile. "I think that's supposed to happen when you've been awake all night, especially when you've been awake all night making love."
Michael blushed, partly because it was all so new to her, and partly because she wanted to do it all again - immediately. She asked quietly, "Did you sleep?"
Sloan shook her head. "No, I didn't want to miss a moment with you."
"I can't decide if your words or your touch are more beautiful," Michael whispered, leaning close to find Sloan's lips with her own. Her physical arousal had seemed so powerful just a moment ago, but the feelings Sloan's tenderness evoked were even more compelling. Michael's kiss was part wonder, part gratitude, and part simple appreciation for the affectionate attention and careful way Sloan had loved her over the past hours. She couldn't imagine a more sensitive lover, or a more thoughtful one.
"Thank you so much for last night," Michael murmured, unconsciously pressing closer until her breasts nestled against Sloan's, and her thigh rested on Sloan's leg.
Sloan stopped kissing her long enough to respond, "Michael, please don't thank me. This night has been special to me, and you have been wonderful."
Michael thought only to continue kissing her, but as the kiss deepened and they sought each other with their lips and their tongues and their hands, Sloan rolled on top of her, straddling Michael's hips, rising up on her elbows to look into Michael's face. Sloan's voice was raspy with urgency as she said, "Michael, I want you again, so much. I can't seem to get enough."
Michael knew only that she wanted her close, and guided by instinct, she reached for Sloan's hips, pulling her down hard onto her own tensed thigh, watching in wonder as Sloan arched her back and groaned. Michael pressed upward, thrilling to the sensation of Sloan thrusting back, and the rhythm began as naturally as breathing. Michael kept one hand on Sloan's hips as she explored Sloan's breasts with the other, cupping each one, losing herself in the soft flesh and firm muscles, glorying in the heat of her.
Sloan's movements became erratic, harder, just a bit frantic, and she braced herself on her arms to look into Michael's eyes. Her voice was tight as if she were straining to form each word. It was an image of such intensity, and such intimacy, that Michael ached.
"Michael," Sloan managed, her face intent, her eyes cloudy with urgency, "I'm going to come."
Michael's heart surged with something as close to ecstasy as she had ever known. She gripped Sloan's hips tighter, and she pushed into Sloan's hard hot wetness. She shouted, triumphant. "Yes! Yesyesyes!"
Sloan's lids fluttered closed and she groaned, her arms stiff and her legs tight around Michael's thigh. She held herself upright through sheer strength as her body rippled with tension and then convulsed, wrenching one sharp cry from her.
Michael forgot to breathe for long minutes as she gazed in absolute wonder at Sloan's face. She was dimly aware of her own passion surging through her belly and her legs, but nothing she was feeling could equal what she saw.
At last, Sloan dropped her head, her arms finally relaxing, and she lowered herself to lie on Michael's body, trembling, heartbreakingly helpless. Michael held her, stroked her damp hair and her neck and her back, suddenly experiencing a fierce protectiveness she had never before imagined. She understood in that moment what it meant to want someone more than life. She understood in that moment what it meant to need someone in the deepest reaches of her being.
Need her? The words echoed in her mind. Oh yes, I need her.
Michael jumped, and suddenly was aware of her surroundings again. Sarah was looking at her with an expression of perplexity and mild concern.
"Are you okay?" Sarah asked gently.
Michael laughed shakily, running a hand through her hair. "God, I have no idea. I have only the faintest idea of who I am or what I'm doing these days."
Sarah studied her, thinking that she looked tired but somehow she didn't think Michael's distraction and disorientation were due to fatigue. This was something else, something powerfully emotional. And then she remembered the question she had asked just before Michael drifted away. Sloan.
"It's Sloan, isn't it?"
"Yes, it's Sloan, and me. It's me, too."
"What's happened now?" Sarah asked, immediately protective, thinking that if Sloan had done something to hurt Michael's feelings, she would have to kill her. Michael was too kind and too innocent for Sloan to treat her in the casual way she did most women. Not that she believed for a minute that Sloan was cold-hearted or indifferent about her romantic partners, but she knew that Sloan studiously avoided any real emotional attachments, and Michael deserved much more than that.
"She hasn't done anything," Michael said quickly, recognizing the edge of concern in Sarah's voice. "It's just that so many things have changed so quickly lately."
"You slept with her, didn't you?" Sarah said, suddenly realizing that Michael was manifesting all the signs of a woman totally lost in love.
Michael colored, but nodded affirmatively.
Sarah groaned faintly "Oh god, I guess I don't have to ask you how it was."
Michael laughed and blushed even deeper. "No, there wouldn't be any point to it. I don't even have the words to describe it."
Great," Sarah said with resignation. "Things are even worse than I thought."
"Sarah," Michaels said, suddenly serious. "Sloan was not responsible. In fact, I think if I hadn't literally chased her down, she would have done anything to avoid sleeping with me. I just wanted her so much."
Sarah didn't think Michael understood how significant her words were. If Sloan had been avoiding a sexual relationship with Michael, it could only be because Sloan had real feelings for her. Sarah had no idea how Sloan was going to react to a woman who she cared about, but she had a feeling that it wasn't going to be simple.
"Are you okay with that?" Sarah asked. "Sleeping with her, I mean?"
"Am I okay with that?" Michaels said, her voice pensive. "I'm as okay as I can be I guess. I had an incredible experience with her. I've felt things I've never felt in my life. I canšt stop thinking about her, I can't stop wanting to be with her again. I have no idea what this means for me or what it means to her."
"I'm certainly the last one to give advice," Sarah said quietly, thinking that she had been the one surprised when Jason had whispered not yet last night when she had reached for him. "I know in her heart Sloan is a good and honorable person. I love her, and I would trust her with my life. Be patient with her, Michael. This might be hard for her, too."
Michael remembered the look on Sloan's face when they had parted that morning, standing once again in Michael's office. For a moment, she thought Sloan had been about to say something, and the look on her face had been one of longing and desire. Instead, Sloan had reached out and stroked Michael's cheek, leaning finally to kiss her lips in a soft caress. Only then did she whisper, "No matter what happens, last night will always be precious to me."
Michael had merely nodded, afraid that what Sloan had really meant was good-bye.
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 wasnšt 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 Išve 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 ¯ 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 ¯ 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 werenšt 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 helloš. You need to put some clothes on because I donšt trust myself around open flames if youšre 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 hešs 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.
"Youšll 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. "Išll 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 didnšt 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 Lassiteršs 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.
"Išll expect the signed papers from my attorneys by the end of the day, Jeremy," she added softly.
"Youšll 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 Michaelšs 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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