Mac Philips looked up from behind his seat at the main monitoring station as the door to Command Central opened at 0625. He tried to suppress a grin but failed as he recognized the tall, trim dark-haired woman who strode purposefully toward him. He stood and extended his hand with a smile.
"Welcome back, Commander," he said.
United States Secret Service Agent Cameron Roberts shook the hand of the boyishly handsome blond agent, smiling warmly. "It's good to be back, Mac."
She looked around the large open room that occupied the eighth floor of a brownstone apartment building overlooking Gramercy Park in Manhattan. It had been more than half a year since she had been in charge of the secret service security detail that worked out of this space. She had not expected to return, at least not in any official capacity. Heading this unit was not a posting that she had originally welcomed after having spent most of her career in the investigative division of the Secret Service, tracking counterfeit funds used in illegal drug transactions. She had worked closely with members of the DEA, ATF, and Treasury Department and, like most agents involved in fieldwork, she had considered the protective arm of the Secret Service a place for rookies. Guarding diplomats, foreign visitors, and members of political families did not interest her. Until now. Now it mattered a great deal.
"Has Egret arrived back in the States yet?" she asked. She shrugged her shoulders, trying to work out the stiffness left over from the flight up from Florida. She had been in Miami on assignment chasing a trail of treasury forgeries to a network of cocaine importers when the call had come reassigning her. It was completely unexpected, and the fact that she had been instructed to report immediately bothered her. No one had suggested that there was potential trouble on this end, but then that didn't mean anything. In the kind of bureaucracy that existed within the federal government, with multiple security agencies having overlapping spheres of interest and influence, there were never-ending turf struggles, and even those who 'needed to know' often didn't get critical information until it was too late to be useful. She had personal experience with that kind of foul-up.
She shook her head, dispelling the memories. She wouldn't let that happen here, not with something - someone - so important at stake. She would find out who, or what, was behind her transfer. But first things first. She was tired, but she had work to do before her first meeting with the woman she was charged with protecting. A woman who, she was quite sure, was not going to be pleased to see her.
She refocused on Mac. "I'll need to be briefed before I meet with her. I've been in the air most of the night and haven't been informed of her location."
"She's back in the nest," Mac affirmed, pointing toward the ceiling and the penthouse apartment above that comprised the top floor of the building. "They returned from the China visit late last night, and she didn't want to remain in Washington. They came up by car about 0300."
Cam smiled to herself. "I guess some things never change."
Mac shook his head. "Not that much."
He regarded her seriously for a moment and tried not to think about how close she had come to dying less than a year before. She looked fit and healthy now, but he knew that she had only been back on active duty for six weeks. As usual when on duty she wore an impeccably tailored, understatedly expensive suit and appeared capable, competent and cool - all the things he knew she was. He also knew from experience that you could never tell very much beyond that just by looking at her. She rarely revealed what she was feeling, but you could always count on her to tell you exactly what she was thinking. "The team will be very happy to have you back."
"What about you, Mac?" she said, leaning one hip against the edge of the desk, her dark gray eyes studying his. "I'm bumping you out of the Commander's seat."
He laughed, shook his head, and leaned back in the swivel chair, gesturing with one hand to the array of computer monitors, audiovisual equipment, and satellite feeds from the NYPD and New York Transit Authority on the long counter in front of him. "I'm an information man. This is what I want to be doing, and six months of doing your job proved it to me."
"Good," Cam said, "I'm glad you're okay with it, because no one is more important than the communications coordinator, and I need the best."
"Thanks," Mac said, pleased with her confidence in him. "You're doing me a big favor, Commander. I'm no good at the VIP stuff, and with this kind of detail, that's key."
Cameron didn't need him to tell her that handling high-profile personalities was a requirement of the work. It was one of the reasons she was good at this particular assignment, and it was also the reason it was going to be so difficult. Six weeks ago she had spent five nights with the woman she was now charged with guarding. If she had known then that she would be reassigned to this security detail, she might have made a different choice. Briefly, Blair Powell's face flickered into her mind and the instant surge of heat in her depths told her she was kidding herself. She had wanted her then, badly. Too much for procedure or protocol to have stopped her. She wasn't sure what she was going to do about those feelings now that circumstances had changed, but the one thing she did know was that she had a job to do.
Cam stood abruptly. "I'll see everyone at 0700 in the conference room. Bring what you have on her itinerary for the week, projected out-of-town events for the immediate future, all pertinent problematic field reports from the time I was gone, and anything else that you think needs my attention. I want to be brought up to speed by the time I meet with her this morning."
Mac nodded and watched her walk toward the small glass-enclosed cubicle in one corner that served as their conference center. He saw her looking casually left and right toward the work areas partitioned off in the open space by low dividers. He knew that she was assessing the monitoring equipment that the men and women assigned to her command utilized twenty-four hours a day to observe and protect the only child of the President of the United States.
At precisely 0700, Cam walked into the conference room carrying a cup of coffee. She set it down on the end of the rectangular table and looked over the faces turned towards her. They were all familiar. No one had transferred out during her absence, and she was glad of that because they were all good agents. She had seen to that when she had first taken command a year before by demanding that anyone not one hundred percent committed to the task of guarding the President's daughter transfer out. Those who chose to stay had proven themselves under fire.
"Well," she began, allowing a faint grin to pull at one corner of her mouth. "At least I won't have to learn any new names. And we can skip all the introductory bull and get down to business." She looked down the room to where Mac sat with a pile of memoranda in front of him, and said, "Mac?"
"Nothing new planned on the foreign front until the trip to Paris with the Vice President and his wife next month."
Cam nodded, settling into her chair with her PDA. "Right. We'll need advance information on motorcade routes, local hospitals, and transit lines for each day's events. That should all be in the data base. I assume they'll be staying at the Hotel Marigny, where state visitors always stay. That needs to be confirmed." She turned to the sandy-haired collegiate looking man on her left who happened to be fluent in nine languages, with a working command of seven others. "Are you still doing the advance work on the foreign travel, Riley?"
"Then you can contact the secretary at the Protocol department in Paris to review the scheduled functions. Charity dinners, museum outings - whatever they have planned." The French were notorious for changing itineraries at the last minute, and Paris was an international city where terrorism was a very real threat. "Keep after them. Make sure we're current by the time we're in the air. I don't want to be surprised."
Riley nodded and made notes while Cam signaled Mac to continue. He shuffled some printouts and said, "Domestically, there's the opening of the Rodman gallery in San Francisco in two weeks."
"Where's she staying?" Cam asked absently, her mind still on the Paris details.
"We don't know yet," Mac answered uncomfortably.
Cam looked up, her eyes narrowing. "You don't know? She must have reservations by now. Who's handling her itinerary?"
Mac blushed but kept his eyes on hers. He had forgotten how unforgiving she could be about any breach in protocol. He prepared to be dressed down. "She is."
"She is," Cam repeated in disgust, struggling with her temper. She knew damn well it wasn't Mac's fault. She stood, closing her electronic notebook. "Is there anything pressing that the team needs to discuss this morning, Mac?"
"No ma'am," he said briskly.
"Who's heading the day shift?" she asked.
"I am, ma'am," a petite, dark-haired woman in her late twenties answered.
Cam nodded. After one nearly career-ending lapse in judgment, Paula Stark had proven herself to be cool and levelheaded, an invaluable asset for a member of the shift that spent the most time in direct contact with Blair Powell, the First Daughter.
"Fine. Then go get your detail organized. Mac, if I might speak with you please."
Chairs scraped as agents hastened to get out of the conference room. They'd all seen Roberts take people apart if she felt they had been lax in guarding the President's daughter. No matter how difficult Blair Powell might make that job.
When they were alone, Cameron looked at Mac and raised an eyebrow. "Okay, Mac. You want to tell me what the hell is going on? First I get called back with no explanation and no notice. Then you suggest that Egret is bypassing normal security protocols. What else is going on that I don't know about? I can't work in the dark here."
He blew out air and shrugged. "I'd tell you if I could, Commander. I don't know why you've been recalled. No one reported any problems to me, either about my command, or anything else." He looked across the table into Cam's remote, dark eyes and chose his words carefully. He liked her, he respected her, he was happy to serve under her. But they weren't friends. They didn't share personal confidences. He didn't know, for sure, what her past with the First Daughter had been. "Ms. Powell is -" He shrugged again, looking exasperated, and continued, "Ms. Powell is difficult."
Cam almost smiled at that enormous understatement. She remained silent, watching him, waiting for the rest.
"She remains very reluctant to reveal her plans or destinations. She refuses to discuss personal - uh, relationships, so we have no intelligence regarding potential threats from that area. She slips our surveillance -" He halted at the soft curse from Cam, and then added quickly, "not very often, but it happens."
"You reported that?" Cam said wearily, rubbing her face briefly. God, Blair is stubborn, she thought. But she couldn't blame her, not really. Living under the constant scrutiny of strangers was wearing, even under ordinary circumstances. And Blair Powell's circumstances were far from ordinary.
Mac straightened. "No ma'am, I did not."
She stared at him hard. "Reasons?"
That kind of breakdown in security usually demanded a change of personnel and reassignment of the agents involved, often with demotions. But she knew Mac Phillips, and she knew he wouldn't circumvent regulations just to save his own skin.
He met her gaze directly, and his voice was steady and sure. "Because she works with us most of the time, and I made the command decision that she was safer with us than with replacements she might not trust. Even if there were some problems."
Cam nodded agreement. She had made similar choices where Blair was concerned herself. Had she been asked, she wouldn't have been able to defend herself, not according to regulations. But then you couldn't deal with Blair Powell by the book.
"I guess I'd better inform Egret that I'm here," Cam said, rising. She studied Mac briefly, wondering just how much he knew. "I'll review the plans for the remainder of the week with you later."
He stood. "Yes ma'am."
As he watched her walk out, he understood that the subject of his breach in protocol was closed. Whoever had made the call to bring Cameron Roberts back as commander of the First Daughter's security detail knew what they were doing. She understood what it took to guard Blair Powell. He wondered fleetingly what would happen upstairs when Egret learned of the change in command, and then decided there was some information he would rather not have. What you didn't know you couldn't testify about.
Blair Powell, in paint-spattered jeans and a tee-shirt with the sleeves and lower half carelessly ripped off, stared at a five foot square canvas, a paint brush in one hand. She walked slowly back and forth in front of the unfinished work, her mind as empty as she could make it. She let the color and the movement and the depth of the images take form without her conscious direction. Just as she reached to add a bit of red to one corner, her doorbell rang.
"Damn," she muttered, glancing at the clock at the far end of her loft. Just a little after 8AM. Much too early for Mac to be arriving for a briefing, but it couldn't be anyone else. She didn't get unexpected visitors. She set the brush aside and wiped her hands on a soft cloth. Pushing an errant strand of blond hair behind one ear, she crossed to the door. When she glanced through the peephole out of habit, she blinked in surprise and stopped with her hand on the doorknob. She looked again, and her heart raced with surprise. She pulled the door open, crying, "Cam!"
Blair was unable to hide her pleasure, an uncommon lapse in her usual reserve. She had learned not to allow her emotions to show, because her feelings were the only private things still left to her. Since she was twelve years old her father had been a public figure, and as a result, she had been as well. Strangers had photographed her, or written about her, or sought to be close to her, all because of who her father was. She had never been sure if someone cared for her, or for her reputation. Cameron had been different, and Blair had let her get close.
Cameron Roberts looked at Blair and felt her pulse quicken. She was every bit as beautiful as the last time Cam had seen her. Blond hair verging on gold, thick and wild with a hint of curl, fell around her face in an untamed mane. A deceptively lithe body hid well-toned muscles. Blazing blue eyes and a smile that could melt the polar ice caps made an already attractive face stunning. And underneath all that, seething sensuality coupled with an unbendable will. Astonishing.
Cam wanted to touch her, but couldn't. She didn't want to hurt her, and knew she was about to. Her face revealed little of her desire or her regret as she smiled softly and answered, "Hello, Blair."
Blair was too intent on how good it was to see her to notice the slight reservation in Cam's tone. She reached out, grabbed Cam's hand, and pulled her into the loft, slamming the door behind them. In the next instant she had her hands in Cam's hair, her lips on Cam's mouth, and her body pressed hard against Cam's, pinning her to the wall. When she'd temporarily satisfied her need to taste her, she pulled away a fraction and gasped, "God, I've missed you."
Cam made an enormous effort to get her body under control. The unexpected onslaught had gone straight to her head. And other places. Her stomach was knotted with need and her blood burned. She felt herself swell and grow heavy with arousal. She shook her head, trying to quiet her lust. "Blair-," she began. She had to tell her, and quickly, because she wasn't strong enough to resist. Didn't want to resist. "I-"
Blair threaded her arms around Cam's waist and leaned her hips into her. "When did you get back? I thought you were still on that case in Florida. Did it wrap up all ready?"
As she spoke, Blair started working on the buttons on Cam's shirt with one hand. She had been planning on spending the day painting, but that was before. Her fingers shook she was so hot for her. It had been six weeks since they had seen each other, and even then they'd had only a few days together. Five short days after almost a year of denying the attraction growing between them. A near tragedy had finally brought them together, and then Cam had left for Florida and Blair had accompanied her father to China. Nothing about the future had been settled, there hadn't been time, but none of that mattered at that moment.
"God, I want you," Blair whispered, almost groaning the words. No one, no one had ever done this to her before. Made her want so badly, or ache so deeply. More than sex, more than intimacy. An explosive combination of the two that scorched through her, leaving her always hungry.
"Blair," Cam gasped, grabbing for the hand on her shirt. "Wait."
"Too late," Blair laughed, throaty and low, shifting to straddle Cam's thigh. The added pressure between her legs made her gasp, her eyes closing momentarily with the rush of excitement. "Oh, god. Way too late, baby. I need your hands on me now. I'm so, so ready."
"I'm working, Blair," Cam said gently, hoping Blair couldn't feel the trembling in her thigh. She swallowed a moan as Blair thrust into her again. "We can't."
"You can be a few hours late for wherever you need to be. You're a regional director now," Blair muttered. She wasn't really listening to anything except the need singing through her pelvis.
Cam moved her fingers to Blair's wrist, circling it softly. "I'm working now, Blair. Here."
Something in Cam's tone finally penetrated Blair's awareness. There was a hint of sympathy in Cam's voice that shadowed the desire Blair felt simmering in Cam's body. With effort, Blair took one step away so that their bodies were no longer in contact. "What do you mean?" she asked, her voice unnaturally calm. She searched Cam's eyes for the answer, because Cam's eyes never lied. Not to her. What she saw there hurt. Hurt in a way she hadn't thought she could hurt again. "Damn you," she breathed, not knowing which of them she meant. "What have you done?"
"I've been reassigned, Blair. To you," Cam said, watching Blair back away from her, forced to let her go. Jesus, she had hoped it wouldn't be this hard. She just needed a little time to find out what was going on. Then she could make her understand. "Blair -"
"When?" Blair asked coldly, making herself move farther across the room. She needed space between them. She had to stop wanting her long enough to think.
"Yesterday," Cam answered.
"And you said yes?" Blair demanded. Did what we shared mean so little to you?
"Blair," Cam said quietly, "I received a directive from my superiors telling me that the President of the United States wished me to assume responsibility for his daughter's security. I could hardly say no."
"Of course you could have," Blair said bitterly, "if you'd wanted to. There are plenty of other people who could do this job. Mac is handling it just fine." Don't do this, please don't do this!
Cam wasn't sure how to explain that part of her didn't want anyone else to do the job. Couldn't explain that ever day that she was somewhere else, doing something else, she worried about Blair. She couldn't forget that there was an UNSUB, an 'unidentified subject', who had stalked Blair, photographed her, left messages for her, and ultimately, shot at her, and the Secret Service had failed to apprehend him. She wanted to be with her. She needed to be with her.
"It's not that simple," Cam began, knowing her words would not help.
Blair turned away, struggling to contain her disappointment and hurt. Clearly, whatever she thought had been developing between them was over. Cameron Roberts was not the kind of woman to compromise her professional ethics by carrying on a clandestine affair with someone she was supposed to be guarding. It would have been difficult for them to see each other under any circumstances, but now it would be impossible. Blair swallowed her pride and made one last attempt to undo what had already been done. A decision that had already been made without regard for her feelings, like so many others in her life.
"I could speak to my father," Blair said quietly, disguising the hope in her voice. "The security chief can name someone else to command the detail."
Cam struggled not to go to her. No matter how hard Blair tried to hide it, Cam could hear her sense of betrayal. She had never wanted to be the cause of that, but Blair's safety was more important than anything else. "There's a reason I've been recalled," Cam said quietly. "I don't know what it is, and neither does Mac. Until I find out, I'd prefer you not say anything."
Blair's face was a careful blank. "Well, that's it then, isn't it?"
"Yes," Cam said, unwilling to offer Blair further excuses that would only be insulting to both of them. For the time being, she didn't have any choice except to assume the responsibility that had been given to her. And in truth, she wouldn't want it any other way. Still, watching Blair's eyes turn cold rocked her. She couldn't think about losing her, not and still do what she needed to do. "I'm sorry."
"No need to be sorry, Commander," Blair said dismissively. "We both know how important your job is to you. Now, if you don't mind, I'm busy."
Cam worked to keep her voice neutral. "I understand. I'll need to discuss plans for the rest of the week with you."
Blair walked past her, careful not to touch her, and opened the door. "Then you can come back this afternoon for the scheduled briefing."
"As you wish," Cam said quietly, stepping out into the hall. When the door closed solidly behind her, the ensuing silence was lonelier than she could have imagined.
"Mac," Cam said into her transmitter as she keyed the penthouse elevator outside Blair's apartment.
"Go ahead, Commander," Mac replied as he automatically checked the monitor providing visual surveillance of the hallway in front of the elevator. His eyes switched to the adjoining screen showing the interior of the elevator as Cam stepped on.
"Sign me out to my apartment," she said tersely. "It's the same address as before. Someone pulled a few strings to get it back for me." She needed a shower, a change of clothes, and a few minutes to herself to erase the sound of Blair's disappointment and the image of the hurt in her eyes. She had to meet with her later in the day to confirm the agenda for the upcoming weeks, and she needed to be in control of herself when she did. The very first moment she had seen Blair Powell, just over a year ago, she been attracted to her. She had been able to ignore those feelings for months, but, as time passed, she had come to know her, and her desire turned to caring. Finally she had succumbed. She hadn't been able to withstand both the pull of her body and the demands of her heart, and she had touched her. Now, she would somehow have to learn to live with her need.
Mac studied her face in the monitor, and even with the mild distortion of the transmitted image he could make out the tense set of her jaw and the grim line of her mouth. Uh oh. Things had not gone well with Egret. He wasn't surprised. Cameron Roberts had been shot in the line of duty less than a year before, shot while guarding Blair Powell. Shot in place of Blair Powell when she had stepped in front of her and stopped a bullet from a sniper's rifle. Cameron didn't remember the nightmarish scene when she lay bleeding on the sidewalk and agents surrounded Blair, dragging her to cover. Mac remembered it very well. He remembered Blair screaming Cam's name as Cam went down. He remembered Blair sitting by Cam's bedside for over twenty-four hours while Cam's life hung in the balance. And he knew that Blair had requested that Cam be removed from her security detail once she had recovered. He couldn't imagine that Blair would be happy about this new arrangement.
"You're scheduled for a briefing with Egret at 1300 hours," he said while glancing over the day's events printed out on a clipboard by his right hand. When in doubt, revert to procedure.
"I've got that," she snapped as she walked quickly through the lobby, nodding curtly to the doorman as he hastened to hold the double glass doors for her. She stopped under the short green awning and surveyed the rooftops of the buildings across the park. It was the first time she had been back since the shooting. She stared at the sidewalk and recalled the fine red mist on her hands and the clear blue sky overhead. She shivered lightly, thinking that it might have been Blair that day, and not her. Then she shrugged the memory away and crossed the street toward her apartment on the other side of the square.
When she'd stripped off her jacket and eased out of her weapon harness, she walked to the windows overlooking Gramercy Park and stared across the treetops at the penthouse of Blair's building. She thought about her up there now, in that space that should have been a haven. The windows in Blair's loft that faced the street were bulletproof, the fire escape ended one level below her floor, and the skylights on the roof above were crisscrossed with woven titanium mesh that would require a blowtorch to cut. A posh fortress, but a subtle prison nonetheless. Cam couldn't blame Blair for hating it. She couldn't even blame Blair for being angry with her. She wished she could change it, but the facts of Blair's life were beyond anyone's control. She turned away from the image of Blair's smile and the memory of Blair in her arms. Wanting her would not help either of them now.
After Cam left her loft, Blair waited motionless on the other side of the door, listening to the faraway hum of the elevator climbing to the penthouse to carry Cam downstairs. Long after she knew Cam was gone, she waited, foolishly hoping that she might return. By the time that she finally turned back into her empty apartment, she had managed to replace longing with anger, a familiar antidote to disappointment.
Then, she needed only to convince her body that she no longer cared. Cam's arrival that morning had been so unexpected she hadn't done anything except react. Few women had ever been able to excite her the way Cameron Roberts seemed able to do with little more than a smile, and it was one of the things that made her security chief so frightening. Blair made a point of keeping everyone at arm's distance, physically and emotionally, and she had failed miserably with Cam. Walking through the loft, she was still throbbing with the aftermath of unanswered arousal. She was so angry with herself for allowing this to happen that even her body's automatic response seemed like a betrayal.
"Shower," she muttered under her breath, shedding clothes as she crossed to the partitioned area in the corner that adjoined her sleeping alcove. She twisted the dial and stepped under the still-cold spray, gasping at first contact. Her nipples were still full and tender from the recent stimulation, and the wetness between her legs was not from the rivulets of water running down her body. She leaned against the far wall and let the warm cascade engulf her. She closed her eyes, and that was a mistake.
As soon as she surrendered to the soothing beat of the water on her skin, she saw Cam's face again. She felt Cam's body along the length of her own as they had pressed together against the door. She imagined Cam's hands on her, just as she had imagined them many times during the weeks they had been apart. Ordinarily such remembrances produced just a pleasant hum of pleasure, but she was already aroused, painfully so. The pinpricks of heat on her skin seemed to streak directly between her legs, and the tingling pressure building there warred with her self-control.
She would not think about her.
She grabbed soap and began to lather her neck and chest, smoothing her palms over her breasts and stomach. The sensation of her fingers passing over her nipples made her gasp. Without consciously meaning to, she caught one between her thumb and forefinger and squeezed, arching her back slightly into the warm spray as the sharp pinpoint of pleasure-pain seared down her spine. It was too good, too good not to lift her hands and cup both breasts, squeezing as she rhythmically twisted her erect nipples until all she could feel was a steady burning pleasure beneath her fingertips.
She pressed her shoulders harder against the rear shower wall as her legs began to tremble. She ached inside. Still massaging her breasts with one hand, she pressed the other to her stomach, running her fingers lightly over her skin, moving lower with each stroke. Her pulse beat between her legs like a second heart. She knew how hard she was, had felt the stiff swelling as she had straddled Cam's thigh. If she touched herself, she would never be able to stop. She had been ready the minute her lips had found Cam's mouth. She was always so damn ready for her. She imagined Cam's fingers where her own brushed through the hair at the base of her belly and her clitoris twitched.
"Ah god," she whispered, eyes still closed, shuddering at the memory. She needed to ease the pressure, couldn't think of anything else. Her fingers slid lower, one on either side of her distended clitoris. Her hips jerked as she squeezed lightly, and she had to brace herself with one arm against the wall to keep from falling.
Her mind was empty of everything except the exquisite sensation of her fingertips rubbing over her blood-engorged flesh. She was dimly conscious of her muscles quivering and the pounding pressure of her orgasm building. Faintly, she heard herself whimpering with each teasing stroke. Neck arched, she thrust her hips steadily back and forth as her hand move faster between her legs, setting her nerves on fire. When the inferno roared in her pelvis and scorched along her veins, she choked back a cry, her fingers squeezing down with each spasm, milking each pulsation to the very end.
When the contractions that ripped through her finally quieted, Blair leaned weakly forward into the spray, her arms outstretched, palms against the opposite wall, barely able to stand. Her body was satisfied, but she took no satisfaction from it.
"Damn you, Cameron," she whispered.
At 1255 Cam approached Blair's building. Two things occurred simultaneously. The earphone connected to her radio transmitter crackled to life and she saw Blair Powell flag down a Checker cab, slide into the rear seat, and disappear as the vehicle pulled away into traffic.
"Commander, please be advised that Egret is flying solo," Mac's voice informed her. "Unit one has been detached but does not have visual."
She turned abruptly, stepped into the street, and hailed one of the many taxis passing by, practically walking in front of it to get it to stop. As she pulled open the front door, she extended a hand displaying her open badge folder and said, "I need you to follow that cab up ahead."
The taxi driver stared at her. "You're kidding, right?"
Cam shook her head, her eyes following Blair's vehicle around the square. "I wish I were. You're going to lose them if you don't get going."
It was something about the utter stillness in her face and the unnatural calm in her voice that made him face forward, sit up straight, and, with his hands gripping the wheel tightly, execute a performance of New York City driving that would have won him a trophy at Daytona. He pulled to stop ten feet and twentyfive seconds behind the cab that had carried Blair to a small coffee shop deep in the heart of Greenwich Village.
"Thanks," Cam said, handing him a twenty as she stepped out.
He leaned across the seat to look up at her. She looked familiar and he thought he finally understood. "You're making a movie, right?"
She didn't answer. She was already halfway across the sidewalk. She entered the small storefront cafe and immediately saw Blair at a small table in the rear with another woman. Blair looked up, her eyes meeting Cam's, but she gave no sign of recognition. Cam threaded her way through the few tables to the counter and ordered a double espresso. While she waited, she glanced around the room, noting the location of exits and the general position of the few patrons, mostly twentysomethings reading newspapers.
She paid and picked up the small espresso cup, moving to the far corner of the room diagonal to where Blair was seated. She sat at a small circular table for two, her back to the wall. From there she could watch the front and rear doors as well as everyone in the room without infringing on Blair's conversation. She would have been happier to have a car out front in case they needed to leave quickly, and she hoped that Paula Stark and her partner would arrive momentarily. She had seen them getting into one of the unmarked vehicles in front of Blair's apartment building as she went by in the cab.
Fortunately, most civilians didn't recognize Blair when she went out dressed casually, with her hair down and wearing little or no makeup. Today, in jeans, a cotton V-neck sweater over her T-shirt, and scuffed boots she looked like most of the younger denizens of the neighborhood. The man-on-the-street usually recognized public figures only when they were attired formally and placed in the appropriate surroundings. That was the one thing that made Cam's job easier. Because Blair Powell certainly didn't.
"Commander," Paula Stark's voice asked in her ear.
"Yes," Cam murmured, tilting her head slightly as she listened to Stark relay her position. She gave Stark her exact location and informed her that she'd stay inside with Blair. "Just maintain in the vehicle outside."
"Roger that," Stark replied morosely, wondering just how pissed off her commander was going to be that they had let Blair Powell walk right out of the building unescorted. Blair hadn't done anything like that in so long that when she said she was going to the lobby to get her mail, they hadn't brought the car around front in the event that she pulled one of her old tricks. They lost two minutes mobilizing when they finally realized that Blair had exited the building and was hailing a cab. Stark sighed and settled back to watch the door to the café and the people going in and out.
Forty minutes later, the statuesque blond with Blair stood up and crossed the room to Cam's table. She leaned down and said in her low throaty voice, "How nice to see you again, Commander. Blair tells me that you're back in charge of her."
Cam shifted slightly so that she could keep Blair in her sightline. "I'm not sure I'd phrase it precisely that way, Ms. Bleeker," she said, a faint smile on her face, her eyes following Blair as she gathered her things.
"Actually, Blair didn't put it exactly that way either. It was quite a bit more colorful the way she described it," Diane Bleeker said provocatively. In fact, Diane had sensed that Blair was on the verge of tears through much of the conversation, although she wasn't certain if they were tears of anger or tears of pain. Even if she were right, she knew that Blair would never give into them, particularly when the woman at the heart of her distress was sitting fifteen feet away. No one who didn't know Blair very well would even have realized how distraught she was. Diane knew because she and Blair had been friends since they were teenagers together at prep school, and she knew because six weeks ago Blair had asked to use Diane's apartment while Diane was in Europe. It had been a long time since Blair had brought a lover to Diane's, because Blair rarely slept with anyone more than once and rarely planned for it in advance. You didn't need to plan an anonymous liaison with a woman you met by chance in a dark bar or at a high-society fundraiser. When Diane had asked her whom she was planning on seducing, Blair's silence had been telling. Whoever she was, she mattered, and Diane had a very good idea just who the woman might be.
During a brief moment of madness, Diane contemplated informing the strikingly handsome, dark haired security agent that she was making the biggest mistake of her life. If she chose to be Blair's protector rather than her lover, no matter how noble her motives, Blair would never forgive her. But Diane knew she wouldn't say anything, today or any other day, and she wasn't altogether proud of the reasons why. Despite her long friendship with Blair, they had always been attracted to the same women, and most of the time they had been good-natured about the competition because it was all in fun. The chase, the seduction, the consummation. This time it was different. For Blair to admit any feelings at all for a woman, it had to be serious. Even knowing that, Diane couldn't deny the quick surge of attraction she felt every time she saw Cameron Roberts.
"It was nice to see you again," Cam said, rising, but her attention was on Blair, who was walking toward the front door. "If you would excuse me," Cam said politely, as she stepped away to follow Blair.
Out on the street, Blair turned and watched Cam come through the door. At the same time, Paula Stark stepped out of the car which had been idling across the street from the cafe. Cam waved her back and walked over to Blair.
"It makes it difficult when we don't know where you're going," Cam said quietly, although she knew very well that Blair was aware of that.
Blair shrugged slightly. "Apparently the rules of this engagement can change at any time. Fair is fair." She wasn't able to keep the edge of bitterness from her voice.
Cam nodded and met Blair's heated gaze. "I know it must seem that way, and I'm sorry. For the time being, we're both going to have to live with it."
Blair shook her head and turned her back, moving quickly away down the sidewalk. Cam caught up with her and fell into step beside her, automatically placing herself between Blair and the street. She knew without looking that Stark and her partner would follow slowly behind them in the unmarked vehicle.
"There's no point in putting yourself in danger because you're angry with me, Blair," Cam persisted gently. "If you'll just let us do what we need to do, I'll intrude on your private life as little as possible."
Blair stopped abruptly, turning to face Cam, heedless of the people complaining as they had to suddenly step around them on the narrow sidewalk. In a low, seething tone, Blair said, "Has it occurred to you, Commander, that I wanted you to intrude on my private life? You. Not strangers twenty-four hours a day. Just you."
Cam ran a hand through her hair, struggling with both frustration and temper. She wanted to explain to Blair that she did care, and that she didn't plan for this to happen, and that it was torture to see her and not be able to touch her. "Blair-"
Someone jostled her shoulder passing by and she swore under her breath. This was no place to have this discussion. If she had only managed to keep her own emotions under control when she had first been assigned to Blair Powell's security detail, none of this would be happening now. She had allowed herself to give in first to physical attraction, and then to emotional attachment. Now she had entangled them both in a situation for which there were no rules and only potential disaster. She grimaced because she could see the pain in Blair's eyes, and she didn't have the luxury of explaining herself at the moment. Not here, not now. "Can we talk about this in a somewhat more secure location?"
Blair laughed, unable to help herself. If there was one thing she could count on with Cameron Roberts, it was that no matter what was happening, Cam would never let it interfere with her duty. And she hated being Cameron's duty.
Blair started walking again. "I don't think there's anything left to talk about. You made your decision. I don't intend to adjust my life to make yours easier. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to the gym and beat the crap out of someone."
"Ernie's?" Cam asked, remembering the third floor hole-in-the-wall establishment that Blair had somehow managed to frequent for six months before anyone in the security detail realized that she was there and not at her massage therapist's around the corner.
Blair wasn't in the mood for company. "Ernie's is the one place where I can go that no one knows me and no one cares where I come from or where I'll be going back to. The only thing they care about is what I do in the ring. I'd like to keep it that way."
Cam continued to keep step with her through the narrow streets of the Village as they headed north towards Chelsea. "Are you trying to say that no one has been inside with you?"
She couldn't believe that Mac had allowed Blair to work out alone without at least one agent in the gym with her. Essentially that left Blair unguarded, which was something that was never supposed to happen, even in the most secure circumstances. Exceptions occasionally occurred, but they were rare. Briefly, she thought of those nights she and Blair had spent at Diane Bleeker's apartment while Diane was in Europe. None of the agents had actually been in the apartment with Blair, but there had been a car outside in the street. If the agents in the car knew that Blair was not alone, no one had ever given any indication of that. Cam didn't like to place fellow agents in situations they might later have to lie about, but at the time, she hadn't been assigned to Blair's security detail. Their few hours together each evening were personal, personal and intimate and no one else's business. She wasn't hypocritical enough to deny, even to herself, that she and Blair had tried to keep their meetings a secret, but they had not purposely eluded the Secret Service agents assigned to protect Blair either.
The gym was an entirely different situation. Blair would be in unsecured surroundings with two dozen men who, even if they didn't recognize her, might present threats. If she were recognized, absolutely anything could happen, from simple harassment to abduction. Cam shook her head, knowing how Blair would react. "I don't know how you've managed to keep them away from here, and I'm not certain I want to know, but I can't let you go alone."
"I know that," Blair said, turning down the alley that led to the unmarked, unpainted door that was the street entrance to the gym on the upper floor. "Usually a car waits just at the end of the alley. I've been coming here for years. No one will bother me."
"I'm coming up with you," Cam said grimly. It was too late to change plans now, and since she was the only one immediately available, the responsibility fell to her.
Blair stopped with her hand on the door and looked at Cam, her face completely unreadable and her eyes flat and expressionless. "You can come up if you want, Commander. But I would prefer that you stay away from me."
With that, she opened the door and took the stairs two at a time, leaving Cam to follow.
Cam stood against one wall, her hands in the pockets of her blended silk trousers, watching two fighters prepare to spar in the ring opposite her. The top floor of the warehouse was dimly lit by rows of dirty windows well above head level and fluorescent lights dangling from heavy chains in the cavernous ceiling. The combination cast the entire space in a harsh flickering haze. There were sparring rings at each of three corners of the room. In the fourth corner, an area partitioned off by plywood and exposed two-by-fours served as the business office and makeshift locker rooms. When she had first entered, Cam had given the entire room a thorough examination, noting how many people were present, and where they were. Blair had gone immediately to the tiny women's dressing area, which was nothing more than a closet with a curtain strung across the door.
Cam did not follow her for several reasons. She wanted to give Blair as much privacy as possible, and following her into the dressing room would only call more attention to them both. Furthermore, she had been in that dressing room with Blair once, and she knew just how small it was, and she knew exactly how Blair looked when she stripped off her clothes to put on her work out gear. Cam did not want to be standing two feet away from her when Blair did that, because regardless of her intentions, Cam knew she would be tempted. It had been six weeks, and not a day, hell, barely an hour, had passed that she didn't think about Blair. What she couldn't tell Blair, and what she didn't want to think about herself, was how many times in those six weeks she had imagined how Blair's skin would feel under her fingertips.
So she stood in the shadows against the wall where she could see the entire room and still be as close to Blair as she could be without actually climbing into the ring with her.
Twenty feet away, Blair jogged lightly in place on the soiled canvas cover of the ten foot square ring while she waited for her opponent to adjust his gloves and get his mouthpiece between his teeth. She had been free-sparring for almost three months with some of the men in her weight class. There were no other women who frequented the gym with enough experience at kickboxing to spar with her. She'd been coming long enough that the men accepted her as a regular, and no one thought anything of working out with her. After the first few times that she had put one of them soundly on the mat with a round house kick or a strong right cross, they forget that she was a woman and fought her with no holds barred.
She watched the young guy opposite her approach, happy at the moment to see a little belligerence in his attitude. She needed an outlet for her physical frustration and her mental turmoil. Cam's abrupt return and the sudden change in their relationship had left her reeling. Nothing would test her or distract her as much as being in the ring with someone who could potentially hurt her. She would need to focus and she would need to burn. She knew that somewhere nearby Cam was watching. She didn't look for her; she didn't want to see her. But she felt her, and part of her wanted her there.
She hated the fact that she was comforted by knowing that Cam was near. Cam was so very good at making her feel cared for, even when it was part of her job. From the very beginning, Cam made her feel that she was what mattered and not the status reports or job performance evaluations that seemed to motivate so many of the dozens of agents who had guarded her throughout her childhood and into adulthood. God, she hated that she loved every single thing about Cameron Roberts. She lifted her gloved hands and tapped them against those of her opponent, eager for the first contact, wanting desperately to drive Cam's face from her mind.
She's even better than she used to be, Cam thought, as she watched Blair dance lightly across the canvas. Unlike most male kickboxers who relied primarily on their punches for knockouts, Blair had to depend more on her legs, which were, for most women, more powerful weapons than their hands. It also gave her the advantage of staying beyond the range of most other fighters' punches. It was very possible that with a well-placed kick Blair could render a man unconscious. On the other hand, she wouldn't be able to weather too many direct blows to the face from a man her size or one even smaller. As Cam watched, Blair effectively countered a volley of punches and pushed her opponent back with a nicely executed kick to his thigh.
As one part of her mind kept a constant vigil of the people nearby in her peripheral vision, Cam allowed herself the luxury of simply looking at Blair. Blair had pulled her hair back away from her face and gathered it at the nape of her neck, securing the few remaining wild curls with a rolled red bandanna tied around her forehead. She wore loose navy shorts and a cropped white tee-shirt that left her midriff bare. The small gold ring in her navel glinted against the sweat sheen on her skin. As Cam watched the muscles ripple in Blair's stomach, she stared at the ring and remembered how it felt as she rubbed her palm over it.
It was the first night they had stayed at Diane's apartment, and the memory was not diminished by the many times Cam had relived it. She had been there close to an hour, waiting for Blair. She'd tried to read a magazine she'd found next to the sofa, but found she couldn't concentrate. She was too anxious. She was worried about Blair, knowing that agents would be watching her and wondering what she was doing at Diane's. Blair didn't make a secret of her sexual preferences, but it was never wise to give anyone too much information of a private nature. And rumors of Blair trysting with a Secret Service agent would make for powerful discussion around the water cooler. Cam reminded herself that she knew these agents, and believed in her heart that she could trust them to be discreet, but the habits of a lifetime of guarding her privacy were hard to change. Despite her anxiety, she couldn't wait to see Blair again. After resisting her for so long, now all she could do was think about her. When she heard the key turn in the lock, she got to her feet and crossed the living room towards the tiny foyer just inside the front door. Blair stepped through, breathless and smiling.
"Hi," Blair had said, depositing a bag and a bottle of wine on the small table nearby. For just an instant, she looked shy.
Cam remembered thinking that she had never seen Blair look quite so young. "Hi," she had answered. And then she had kissed her. She had meant it only as a kiss of greeting, but they had parted nearly a day before, and they had only had a night together then. It had not been enough, and at the moment it felt like it would never be enough. One of them had groaned, and both of them had begun frantically undressing each other where they stood. Soon, they were pressed together half naked, unable to stop touching each other long enough to finish the job.
With their mouths hungrily trading kisses and small bites, Cam's hands had found Blair's breasts as Blair worked desperately to loosen the buttons on Cam's jeans. They had both been in danger of falling in their eagerness to consume one another.
Finally, Cam had wrenched her head back, gasping, and said, "Wait! There must be a bedroom here. I really need to do this lying down."
Blair's eyes had been wild with urgency, and she had simply grasped the waistband of Cam's jeans where she had managed to get the top button open and tugged. "Come on," she had ordered, her voice husky with want. "Guestroom. This way."
Cam had followed, slipping one hand around Blair's body from behind, smoothing her palm over the silky tautness of Blair's abdomen. The small gold ring had rubbed lightly against her skin, and she didn't think she'd ever felt anything quite so sexy. She had stopped Blair just outside the door to the bedroom, pressing her bare chest to Blair's back, bringing both hands from behind to cup Blair's breasts. She'd brought her lips close to Blair's ear as she'd moved her fingers to Blair's nipples. "Yesterday you made me beg."
Blair jerked in her arms, arching into Cam's hands as Cam continued the pressure on her nipples. "Do you have a point, Commander?" Blair had finally managed, reaching back with one hand and searching for the rest of the buttons on Cam's fly.
"Could be it's your turn," Cam whispered, biting lightly at the skin below Blair's earlobe. She was about to slide her palm down Blair's stomach when Blair succeeded in opening her jeans and slipping her hand down the front.
"God!" Cam gasped as Blair's fingers slid through the wet heat between her legs. Her knees threatened to buckle as Blair tugged at her. She wrapped her arms around Blair's body, pressing her face to Blair's neck, floating for a moment on a wave of pleasure. Then she'd stiffened as the persistent pull of Blair's fingers pushed her suddenly to the brink of orgasm.
"Uh uh. No," she murmured, stepping back unsteadily, her head buzzing with the thunder of blood, forcing Blair to move her hand. "Not so fast." She shook her head, clearing the mist of arousal from her brain. She took a deep breath, trying hard to ignore the throbbing that began in her belly and spread outward through her limbs.
Blair turned in her arms, pushing at her jeans, ready to take her on the spot, and Cam had kissed her again. Distracting her by pulling her lower lip between her teeth, biting her lightly, Cam backed her up step by step, into the bedroom. She kept her lips firmly on Blair's and grasped Blair's wrists with her hands, keeping them away from her. She'd never last if Blair touched her again. She was already twitching with the faint tremor of preorgasmic spasms. When they hit the bed and fell backwards together, Cam had rolled onto her, pinning Blair's hands above her head with both of hers.
"Not so fast," Cam whispered hoarsely again, just before she caught Blair's nipple in her teeth.
Blair had cried out in surprise and struggled to get her hands free, thrusting her hips against the thigh Cam had driven between her legs. "Let me touch you," she'd groaned in Cam's ear. "Let me do it fast this time."
"Soon," Cam had murmured against her breast. It had been so long since she'd touched a woman that way, and she'd wanted Blair so badly all those months she'd been in charge of her security detail. She'd denied it then, but she didn't have to now. "I want you so much."
Blair's hands had been in her hair when Cam had finally put her mouth on her. Blair's fingers had opened and closed erratically as Cam sucked and licked and tortured her with her tongue. When Blair had pleaded, Cam had slipped her fingers inside; and when she'd begged, Cam had moved her hand slowly deeper; and when she'd cried, Cam had let her come, stroking and thrusting and turning gently until every muscle had clenched and relaxed a dozen times over.
Then she'd laid her cheek against the inside of Blair's thigh, exhausted and content and without a single ounce of regret. But even then, as she listened to Blair's breathing finally quiet, some part of her knew it was borrowed pleasure, because happiness, most of all, came with a price.
Cam flinched as Blair hit the canvas hard, the memory of that night dissolving in the demands of the moment. Instinctively, she took one step forward and then forced herself to stop as she saw Blair get to her feet. She clenched her fists when Blair swayed unsteadily for an instant, but then Blair seemed to shrug off the effect of the left jab that had caught her in the face, signaling her partner to come ahead.
Cam watched her carefully for the rest of the bout, which mercifully lasted only another few minutes. She seemed all right as she regained her balance and moved quickly to counter punches, even managing a spectacular leg sweep that put her opponent flat on his back, winding him for a minute. Still, Cam was happy when Blair climbed out of the ring and disappeared into the back of the gym.
When Blair emerged in a dry tee-shirt, ready to leave, Cam joined her. "Nice fight," she said, relieved to see that Blair's eyes were clear and her gait steady.
Blair shrugged, smiling faintly. "I didn't exactly beat the crap out of him, though."
Cam smiled. "Close enough." Before she could stop herself, she raised her hand and brushed her thumb across a bruise beginning to form on Blair's cheek where his glove had landed. "Maybe you should wear a helmet next time, Ms. Powell," she said softly.
Blair's eyes widened at the gentle caress. The touch was so tender it reached deeper than desire. "I'll take that under advisement, Commander," she whispered, unable to take her eyes from Cam's penetrating gaze.
"Good," Cam said quietly. "Because I don't want anything to happen to you."
"Yes, I know," Blair responded. "That's your job."
But there was no resentment in her words, and as they left together, they were both strangely comforted by the first moments without anger they had shared all day.
At a little before seven that night, Cam stepped into Command Central and walked wearily toward her desk in one corner of the room. She had finally finished the briefing with Blair that had originally been scheduled for earlier that day. Blair had been cordial but cool as they reviewed her official activities for the next ten days. When Cam had asked her about any personal engagements, she had merely smiled thinly and said she had none. Cam admitted to herself that she had probably appeared more abrupt than she meant to be too. It was hard seeing Blair after a six-week absence with everything between them suddenly in chaos.
Sighing, she looked at a stack of memos that Mac had left for her along with a binder filled with field reports from the time that Mac had been in charge and she had been on medical leave. Just as she sat down and pulled the pile of papers toward her, Paula Stark stepped up to the side of her desk.
"Excuse me, Commander," Stark said, her spine stiff and her tone formal. The only thin missing was a salute.
Cam looked up distractedly and said, "What is it, Stark? Problem?"
"No, ma'am," Stark said. "I wanted to apologize for the breakdown in security earlier this afternoon. I take full responsibility."
Cam leaned back in her chair, studying Paula Stark's serious countenance. Eight months ago, Stark had made what might have been the biggest mistake of her career. She had allowed Blair Powell to seduce her. That one night compromised her professionally and should have led to her transfer or even her dismissal from the service. But Stark had done something unusual. She had come to Cam immediately and she had accepted responsibility without excuse. She gave her word that it would never happen again, and as far as Cam knew, it hadn't. Cam didn't think about whether Stark still had feelings for Blair. That was none of her business. What had happened that morning, however, was very much her business.
"Stark, with this kind of detail, apologies are neither acceptable nor sufficient. You are in charge of the day shift and that means if something goes wrong, it's on you."
Stark's eyes widened slightly, but she merely said, "Yes, ma'am. I understand that."
Cam nodded. "I know that you do. I also know that Egret can be very difficult to predict. I told the team once before, and it bears repeating, that the safest course of action is to assume that she is an uncooperative subject. That means you have to plan for the unexpected movement. I'd say you got lazy today, and you got lucky. If I hadn't been walking across the street, you would have lost her."
"Yes, ma'am." Stark thought about that for a second, her stomach clenching. They had all been lulled into a false dense of security the past few months when it seemed as if Egret had been calming down. She hadn't eluded them for so long they forgot to be on guard. She remembered the sick feeling she'd had that morning when she'd watched on the monitor as Egret walked right past the front desk and out the door. What if the had lost her, and then what if something had happened?
Cam suppressed a smile. Stark looked like she was headed for the guillotine. Cam blew out her breath and said quietly, "Stark, you're a good agent. You're a valuable agent, because there are places that you can go with her that no one else can. Be careful, be vigilant, be alert. That's all."
She had already turned back to her paperwork as Stark replied, "Yes ma'am. Thank you very much."
An hour later she had looked through most of the documents and set aside the ones that needed more attention. She just couldn't read anymore. She'd left Florida the night before at midnight and had gotten no sleep for over 36 hours. Ordinarily, that wouldn't bother her nearly as much as it did currently, but the stress of seeing Blair again under such difficult circumstances had worn on her. She was tired, and she was lonely. She stood and stretched and headed for the door. She wanted a drink and to go to bed.
Just as she was about to step through the door, Hernandez, one of the agents assigned to the night shift, called out to her. "Phone call for you, Commander,"
She turned, suppressing a sigh, and picked up the nearest phone. "Roberts," she said sharply, no hint of fatigue in her voice.
"This is Carlisle," a familiar male voice said.
"Be in D.C. tomorrow for a briefing at 0800," her supervisor said. "We'll convene in the conference room at my office."
Cam was instantly alert, her exhaustion fleeing. This kind of request was unusual, and her suspicions were immediately aroused. Something serious was going on, and it must involve Blair if he was calling her to Washington. "I need to know if I should institute heightened security with Egret, sir."
There was a moment of silence that confirmed her suspicions. There was an information blackout and it involved Blair. Out of habit, she checked the monitors, which revealed closed-circuit video images of the entire building, every entrance, the parking garage, the elevators, the hallway outside of Blair's apartment. It was almost as if she expected to see someone attempting an assault.
"There's no need for any special action at your end. Just be at the meeting, Roberts," he said gruffly.
Then she was listening to a dial tone and cursing under her breath. This was one situation where she would know what was happening, because she could not afford not to.
At 0750 Cam walked down the deserted corridor outside Stuart Carlisle's office. Some of the rooms in the warren of offices that opened off the industrial-tiled hallway were already occupied, but many doors were still shut, awaiting secretaries and staff to arrive for the workday. She pushed open the door stenciled with the word 'Conference' and stepped into another of the generic rooms that seemed to comprise all government buildings. She nodded to the redhead, a woman she had never seen before, already seated at the table.
A long rectangular conference table crowded the center of the room, surrounded by a number of straight-backed chairs. A coffee caddie stood in one corner. She moved around the end of the table, helped herself to coffee, and settled into a chair opposite the woman who was reading a stack of papers she appeared to have taken from the open briefcase beside her. Neither of them acknowledged each other beyond their first neutral nod, assuming that eventually whoever would be running the meeting would make the appropriate introductions.
Over the course of the next ten minutes, the door opened three times, each time admitting a man dressed in the regulation garb of a government agent. Navy blue blazers, gray flannel trousers, white shirts and rep ties abounded in the Department of the Treasury building as well as the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and every other security agency on Capitol Hill. The last person to enter was Cam's direct supervisor, Stuart Carlisle. They had known each other for over a decade and were probably as close to friends as one could be in that kind of environment. Each understood that regardless of personal feelings, the system they served had the ultimate power, and, like all governments, was not immune to error. Error that sometimes destroyed careers and lives. They also both believed that however flawed, it was probably the best version currently available.
Carlisle nodded to her briefly and proceeded to the head of the table. From the end opposite him, a mid-forties, iron-gray haired man, thin and fit appearing, coolly appraised each individual in the room. Across from Cam, to the left of the redhead, a man about Cam's age with a faint five o'clock shadow who looked like he might have played football in college, sat staring at her, something hard in his gaze. Cam did not recognize any of the other people present, but she recognized the type. The woman, early thirties, short well-cut hair, understated make-up, conservative suit, had a look of self-contained confidence that suggested she didn't work for any of the men in the room. An independent consultant or perhaps a forensic analyst. She had apparently come to give an opinion, and she probably didn't care about inter-agency politics. The men were a different matter all together. The two men in addition to Carlisle were FBI, CIA, or both. They were unsmiling, faintly belligerent looking, and plainly annoyed -- probably because the meeting wasn't on their turf. That concerned Cam. Because if the meeting was here on her ground, it suggested that it had to do with Blair, and that worried her more than she cared to admit.
Carlisle, at precisely 0800, began to speak. "Let's get the introductions out of the way. Secret Service Agent Cameron Roberts, who commands Egret's security detail," he said, nodding at Cam, his eyes unreadable as they skimmed over hers. Indicating the gray-haired man at the far end of the table, he went on, "Robert Owens, National Security Agency. Special Agent Lindsey Ryan, from the behavioral science division of the FBI," signifying the redhead, "and," pointing to the man opposite Cam, "Patrick Doyle, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI task force investigating Lover Boy."
Cam stiffened but her expression remained carefully neutral. Lover Boy was the code name assigned to the man who had stalked Blair Powell the previous year, leaving her messages, photographing her, and presumably making an assassination attempt which had resulted in Cam being wounded. This was the first that she had heard of any ongoing task force. The fact that Mac had not mentioned it led her to believe he was unaware of it also. Which meant the investigation had been taken out of the hands of the Secret Service, leaving the people directly responsible for Blair's safety in the dark. She was furious, but she needed more information before she knew precisely where to direct her anger. So she listened, her fists clenched under the table, her jaws clamped tightly enough to make her teeth ache.
For a moment, the room was silent as they each took stock of one another. Then the NSA man cleared his throat and said in a hoarse voice, "I'll let Doyle bring you up to speed on recent domestic developments. You'll find a summary of current information and analyses in the binder." He began to pass prepared folders to each of them from a stack he had carried in with him. "From a national security standpoint, we're concerned about the President's upcoming summit meetings on the global warming agreement with the European council members next month. In addition, he'll be attending the World Trade Organization meeting in Quebec in just a few days. Any act of terrorism, including an attack on Egret, would obviously disrupt those plans."
"We don't have anything to indicate that Lover Boy is a member of any group, national or international, with a political agenda," Doyle said, his voice hard-edged with a hint of Midwestern accent. His tone and expression suggested that he wasn't overly interested in Owens's national security issues.
"Nothing in the psychological profile suggests that he is philosophically or politically motivated," Lindsey Ryan, the behavioral scientist, interjected. "'The message content - poetic verses, sexual ideation, the fixation on knowing where she is and what she's doing - these things indicate a distorted sense of reality. Nevertheless, his ability to make repeated contact with her, and effectively elude capture for a prolonged period of time, indicates an intelligent and highly organized personality. Nevertheless, all of his focus has been her. He's obsessed with her. This isn't about the President."
"We have to assume that anything directed at Egret, even remotely, is related to the President," Owens said testily, his remarks clearly directed at Doyle.
Cam, working hard to contain her temper, listened to the two men engage in verbal debate while ignoring the obvious importance of Ryan's assessment. It was clear to her that Blair was of much less concern to either man than establishing who had the greater stake in seeing the UNSUB captured.
"Exactly where do we stand on the degree of penetration as far as Egret is concerned?" Cam asked, barely managing to keep the wrath out of her voice. She needed to know how close this psychopath had managed to get to Blair this time.
Doyle, looking impatient, raised his voice a notch and continued as if no one else had said anything. "Until the last ten days, all contacts from Lover Boy have occurred via electronic transmission, specifically Internet messages, delivered directly to the subject's personal email accounts. Despite our attempts to trace the point of origin, we have been unable to verify a source. Changing Egret's accounts, rerouting through substations and aliases, and erecting electronic filters has all been ineffective. His messages to date have been," he hesitated a moment as if considering how to phrase his comments, then continued, "mostly of a sexually suggestive nature."
"Is he escalating?" Cam questioned, her breath constricting in her chest. This was why she had been recalled. And if the task force had been ongoing for months, something had changed recently. She tried not to think about the fact that Blair had almost slipped their surveillance yesterday.
Doyle shuffled a few papers, looking annoyed. "He was inactive for a period of time following the shooting last year. Of course every government agency including the Secret Service, FBI, and CIA were involved in the manhunt, and he didn't have much choice but to go under. He surfaced again three months ago."
"Three months," Cam repeated, her eyes boring into Doyle's. "Three months and you're just advising her security detail now?"
"I knew," Stuart Carlisle said, unable to completely conceal his discomfort. He wasn't about to explain that his decision to have the task force run out of New York, and by his people, had been overruled by the Security Chief. He was still bitter, but he had orders to follow too.
Cam turned to him, knowing better than to break rank in mixed company and question his judgment or his authority, but there was criticism in her eyes, and she knew Stuart saw it.
"The Secret Service isn't equipped to handle this kind of scenario," Doyle said dismissively.
"We're on scene," Cam retorted, "and we're the ones who know the day to day situation best. A threat like this demands we increase our readiness level." Everything about the way they guarded Blair needed to change. For god's sake, she'd been underprotected for months!
"We've had a presence," Doyle snapped. "We're more than capable of securing her."
"Not the way we can," Cam answered, still unable to believe that Stuart Carlisle had let this happen. But she couldn't back down, not when it was Blair's life at stake. "We need to take the lead in this investigation."
Doyle's color darkened as his lips curled slightly in derision. "You people knew about him in the beginning and your security was so ineffective it almost got Egret killed. I don't think you're up to it."
Cam's voice was cold, her words razor-edged. "By excluding the Secret Service from your intelligence, you put Egret at severe risk. Unacceptable risk. Untenable risk."
"Roberts," Carlisle warned from beside her. She had effectively accused the FBI task force leader of endangering the life of the President's daughter, which at the very least constituted dereliction of duty, and according to strict interpretation, could be considered an indictable offense.
She continued as if her supervisor hadn't said anything. "I want every piece of data, every transmission, every record, every projection and profile that you currently have. I want-"
"You'll get whatever I say -" Doyle began, leaning forward, the muscles in his formidable neck straining.
Cam stood quickly, placing her hands flat on the table, looking down at him. "Every single word, Doyle, or I'll personally file a report citing your negligence and hand carry it to the Oval Office."
Doyle came out of his chair faster than a man his size ought to be able to move. "You threaten me, Roberts, and I'll find the dirt you think you've been able to hide and I'll bury you in it."
Cam smiled faintly, her voice quiet but very clear. "You don't know me very well if you think that will frighten me."
Neither of them heard the door open behind them as they stared at each other, taking measure for the fight that was sure to come.
"From what I hear, you shouldn't even be on this detail," Doyle said derisively. "I'd like to know whose piss-poor excuse for a decision that was."
"I assume that would be mine," a deep male voice said calmly.
Cam straightened and turned toward the voice as the others hastened to stand for the President of the United States.
Eleven hours later she was back in NYC, having reviewed as much of the information regarding Lover Boy's recent activities as she could access through channels. She knew there was more, but it would take her a while to get at it. Now that she understood why she had been recalled from Florida, her work really began. But first there was personal business she needed to put to rest.
Cam stopped just inside the door and stared at Blair, who had clearly not been expecting her. She looked like she was dressed to go out, wearing a patterned silk blazer over a thin pale camisole and loose black trousers. Cam wondered fleetingly if she were meeting someone. She pushed that thought away, because she was in no position to change it.
"What is it?" Blair said, a quick surge of fear produced by the stony expression in Cam's eyes. "What's happened?"
"Why didn't you tell me?" Cam said, her voice low and deadly. She was struggling so hard to contain her anger she could barely get the words out.
"I'm not sure what you mean," she said, stalling, hoping that it wasn't what she thought. But she knew it was, it couldn't be anything else. She had hoped, with Cam out of NYC, away from her detail, she could keep it from her. Keep her out of it. Keep her safe.
"You let me make love to you, you let me that close, and you couldn't tell me that he was back?" Cam seethed, her apprehension for Blair's safety and her fury at being excluded both by Blair and the FBI nearly made her mad. "How in God's name could you do that? I thought -" she meant to say, I thought I meant more to you than that. I thought we had something.
She took a deep breath, closed her eyes for a second, and gathered her strength. This was not about her. Her relationship with Blair wasn't the issue anymore. She had to separate her personal feelings from what was happening now. The clear and present danger that Lover Boy presented to Blair was what mattered. Not how she felt, not her disappointment, nor her sense of betrayal. She concentrated on her duty, the one thing that always focused her, the one thing she always depended upon to drive the anger away.
She straightened with effort, working to hide her turmoil. She forced her fists to unclench and when she spoke her voice was cool, her command voice. Calm and steady, uninflected, impersonal, infinitely professional. "You should have reported it to Mac when it started again three months ago, Ms. Powell, and you should have told me yesterday. At your earliest convenience, I need to discuss the security protocols. In light of the new information, we have to assume a higher level of alertness. If you could check your schedule now please, I'd like to do this in the morning - as early as possible."
The silence deepened.
While Cam had been talking, Blair watched the flurry of emotions race across her face. She had seen her go from anger and frustration to this implacable façade that she recognized as the barrier Cam placed between her emotions and everything else in order to do her job. In the rational part of her mind, Blair understood that that was what made Cam so good at what she did, but it was not what she wanted between them. She did not want Cam to distance herself in order to care for her. She wasn't sure exactly what she wanted, but she was very certain it wasn't that. Her own frustration and fear surfaced, and she said caustically, "That's your solution to everything, isn't it, Cameron? Tighten the security, tighten the restraints around me. That's a simple answer, and easy for you. However, it doesn't work for me."
With effort, Cam said quietly, "This isn't something that's negotiable. This man is serious. He's persistent and clever and talented and he's fixated on you. By all rights, you should be secluded somewhere until he can be apprehended."
At that thought, every survival instinct Blair had emerged on a wave of irrational terror. She would not be made a captive. She had been imprisoned in one way or another her entire life. Nothing mattered more to her than her freedom, nothing except one thing. "I don't want you on this detail, Roberts. I can't work with you. I won't work with you. If you won't resign, I'll do what I have to do to get you pulled off."
"I spoke with your father this afternoon," Cam said darkly. "He seems to feel that I'm the best person for this job. So do I. This is one time your influence is not going to have any effect."
Blair stared at her, opened-mouthed in astonishment. When she could find her voice, she said incredulously, "You spoke with my father?"
Cam walked a few feet towards a nearby sofa and leaned against the back, trying to work out some of the tension in her body. She felt wound so tight she was afraid she'd lose control, and at this point, Blair's very future could depend upon what happened between them in the next few minutes. "It was unexpected. He showed up at the briefing about this - situation."
Thinking back, it had been a strange encounter.
The President had acted as if Doyle and Cam hadn't been about to fling themselves over the table at each other, merely motioning to the people gathered with one hand and saying, "Sit, please."
They had done so, and the NSA representative introduced the others and hastened to assure the President that everything possible was being done to protect his daughter. Andrew Powell said nothing, listening quietly and studying each face carefully. After a minute or two he said, "I'm sure that everything is being done appropriately. I'm on a tight schedule and I'd like to speak with Agent Roberts, if your meeting is concluded."
That was clearly a dismissal.
Lindsey Ryan stood immediately and began gathering her things, as did Stewart Carlisle. Doyle and Owens looked like they might object for a moment, and then with slightly disgruntled expressions, filed out of the room. When the door closed, for the first time in her life, Cam stood alone facing the President of the United States. Their eyes met and Cam asked, "What may I do for you, Mr. President?"
A very faint smile flickered across his handsome face. She saw Blair in him as his features briefly softened, and in that instant, her anger turned to hard resolve. She would not allow Blair to become a pawn in some ambitious bureaucrat's political game, nor would she see her become the object of a psychotic's obsession.
"It seems that I need to rely on you again, Agent Roberts, to look after my daughter. I'm sure the task force is doing everything they can, but I know my daughter, and she is not going to make this easy for anyone."
"Sir," Cam began, intending to defend Blair. Given the circumstances, her security team had had the least problems of any working with her.
He raised his hand as if he knew what she were going to say. He looked past her for a moment, as if seeing something she couldn't. "She didn't choose this life - I chose it for her. It's been hard for her. I know that. She's strong and she's stubborn and I wouldn't change anything about her. I'm counting on you to see that both her freedom and her safety continue."
"Yes sir, Mr. President," Cam said very quietly, her eyes never leaving his. "I'll do that, sir. You can depend on it."
He had nodded, thanked her, and left the room. Had she not had her own motives for needing to be involved, his unspoken command would have been enough. But she did have her own reasons. And they were very personal.
Cam looked at Blair and said softly, "I'm sorry, Blair. I'm staying."
I'm staying. The words screamed in Blair's head. Words she wanted to hear from her, but not this way. Not like this. Not because of this. She couldn't have this conversation any longer. She couldn't think about what it meant for either of them. I'm staying.
She grabbed her bag from a nearby table and snapped, "Well, I'm not. I'm going out."
Cam made no move to stop her. She would not be her jailor. But when she spoke, her voice held a question. "Blair?"
Something in the almost defeated tone of Cam's voice stopped her. It was a weariness she had rarely heard in her, even after she'd worked days on no sleep. Blair turned from the door, looking back at her where she still leaned against the back of the sofa. She had been almost too angry to see her clearly before, but now the shadows in Cam's face stood out in gaunt relief. It was her eyes, though, that gave her away. They were dull with fatigue, flickering with something close to despair. She hadn't looked like that even when she'd been in the hospital recovering from her wounds.
"What?" Blair asked, softer than she had meant, struggling with a nearly irresistible urge to go to her. It was so hard to hold onto her anger when she so wanted to hold her.
"Have you told them downstairs that you're going out?" Cam asked, pushing herself upright.
"No," Blair answered curtly, just as quickly irritated again as Cam resumed her official role.
"Is it a personal engagement?" Cam continued, keeping her voice carefully neutral. She had to ask in order to do her job, but she didn't need or want to know the details if Blair was seeing someone. "Will you need the car?" She searched her memory for the day's itinerary, which she had reviewed the night before. After the day she had just spent in Washington that seemed like a month ago to her now. And of course it was before she knew that Blair wasn't really safe anywhere. They would have to provide much closer coverage than they usually did even for non-official functions. "We didn't have you scheduled for anything tonight."
"It was a last minute thing," Blair informed her. She always hated discussing her private plans with her security people. It made her feel so exposed. This was worse. Reluctantly she added, "It's a party at Diane's."
Cam's expression didn't change, but she knew what Blair was saying. A party meant it was not 'official'. If it were a date, it was none of her business. "Can you give me a few minutes to get someone for you? Stark and Grant are both off-duty, and you'll want a woman."
Blair opened the door and stepped into the hallway. "Fielding and Foster can wait in the car outside Diane's apartment. They always have before."
Cam followed her out of the loft, already activating her radio. "Fielding, bring the car around, and find Ellen Grant or Stark for me. ASAP." She crossed to the elevator and said flatly, "I need someone inside."
"It's Diane's, for Christ's sake," Blair replied with irritation, punching the lobby button. "Do you think he's going to show up in drag?"
"I don't know what he's going to do!" Cam retorted in an uncharacteristically aggravated tone. "Until twelve hours ago, I didn't even know he was active."
Blair had no answer for that. She had ignored the first few messages she received by post, hoping they were just random crank mail, unrelated to what had happened before. She got them from time to time, usually from disgruntled individuals who didn't like her father's politics. Sometimes from overenthusiastic supporters. Occasionally from people obsessed with her, asking for photos or dates or even articles of clothing. But never anything quite like these messages. Intimate, suggestive, and most frighteningly, knowledgeable. When the email started, she had confided in her friend at the Bureau and that had been a mistake. Friendship has it limits, and her old school chum had decided that it was news she couldn't keep to herself.
"You didn't need to know. Doyle knew," Blair retorted as the elevator opened onto the lobby, still angry with AJ for reporting it.
Cam didn't bother to point out that she needed to know for any number of reasons, not all of them professional, because it was done. Blair had shut her out, and there was nothing to do now but regain control of the situation.
Blair walked toward the front door, acutely aware that Cam had moved slightly ahead of her to go through first. Unexpectedly she saw it all again in slow-motion replay - the bright sunlight, the screams of frantic men, the spreading blossom of rich red on Cam's chest as she dropped first to her knees, then collapsed to her back on the sidewalk. By then the other agents had pulled Blair inside, behind the glass doors, and she couldn't reach her. She couldn't hold her.
"Blair?" Cam asked, concerned by Blair's sudden pallor.
Blair jerked at the sound of Cam's voice and hurried to cross the sidewalk, the image of Cam's ashen face as she lay dying mercifully beginning to fade. Cam opened the car door and Blair brushed her fingers lightly over Cam's sleeve, reassured by the solid presence of her. She didn't trust herself to speak but just slid into the rear of the black sedan parked at the curb.
Diane Bleeker kissed Blair lightly on the cheek as she admitted her to a room already filled with people. The lights were conversationally dim, female servers in white shirts, black bow ties, and tailored black trousers moved carefully through the crowd with trays of hors d'oeuvres balanced in front of them. Soft music accompanied the murmur of voices.
"Your choice of escorts is improving," Diane remarked, a hint of surprise in her voice as she watched Cam move to one side of the spacious living room.
"I'm alone," Blair responded, slipping past her and heading for the bar that had been set up in one corner.
Diane threaded her way through the crowd in Blair's wake, reaching for a glass of white wine as Blair waited for the very attractive redheaded bartender in the tuxedo shirt and tight black leather pants to mix her a drink. "If you needed a date, I could have found you one. Marcie Coleman has been trying to get you to go out with her for weeks. You could do worse than a successful young surgeon, you know."
Blair took her drink, scarcely noticing the appraising glance that the bartender gave her along with the glass, and turned to look at the other women in the room. As always at Diane's gatherings, the women were a mix of aspiring artists, many of whom were Diane's clients, young professionals, or bar dykes from the Village who were there as escorts or just tagging along with someone they knew and hoping to get lucky. Diane always managed to provide something for everyone.
"I'm not interested in a date," Blair said acerbically, making an effort not to look in Cam's direction. She had years of practice at ignoring her security detail. Once she had gotten used to their ubiquitous presence, they had simply become background noise. When she was a preteen, it hadn't been as difficult, because her father had only been a governor then. Other than the fact that state troopers often drove her to school and parked nearby while she engaged in after-school activities, she had been able to pretend she was like everyone else. Unfortunately, at fifteen she learned that she wasn't. That was when she and her prep school roommate had made love for the first time, and Blair had learned that there are certain things best kept secret.
When her father became Vice President, and it was apparent that he would be the party's nominee for President after eight years, the security around her had intensified. She became very good at convincing herself that she wasn't being watched almost twenty-four hours a day, but there was nothing she could do to ignore Cameron Roberts's presence. She could feel her as strongly as if they stood touching.
Diane smiled knowingly. "I was trying to be polite when I said date. I'm sure the very charming Dr. Coleman would be just as happy to spend the night with you, if that's what you had in mind."
Blair turned and met Diane's eyes, replying caustically, "If and when I decide I want someone to fuck, I'm quite certain I can manage the arrangements on my own."
If Diane was taken aback by Blair's sharp retort, she didn't show it. She knew from long experience that the best way to get Blair to talk about anything substantial was to anger her. Blair had gotten much too proficient at disguising almost all of her emotions, but when she was angry, she forgot to hide them. Diane was one of the few people who could actually goad her into revealing herself, which was probably the reason they were still friends. "Well, if I had that criminally good-looking number watching me all night with that smoldering expression in her eyes, I probably wouldn't be looking for anyone else either."
Blair didn't have to look at Cam to know exactly what Diane referred to. Cam had a way of looking at her that made her feel as if she were the only woman in the room. She reminded herself that Cam was only doing her job, but no one else had ever looked at her in quite that way. Paula Stark, for all her competence, and despite the night they had shared together, never looked at her that way. Blair's hand trembled as she raised the martini glass to her lips. "Don't, Diane. Not tonight."
Diane relented. Blair's voice was raw, and her eyes were wounded. She touched Blair's hand fleetingly, and said quietly, "I don't care what you think is happening between you two, she cares. She can't hide it anymore than you can." She tossed her head in a practiced motion, her blond hair sweeping her shoulders, and began to move away. "You may not be in the mood for company tonight, but I am. It's time for me to prowl."
Blair watched Diane move sinuously off through the crowd and wondered how long it would take her to make her way around the room to Cam. And she wished to god she didn't care.
When the well-built brunette in the tee shirt, jeans and Nikes walked in the door at a little before one a.m., more than a few heads turned in appreciation. She looked like an ex-soccer player, which, among other things, she was. It had taken Ellen Grant a little over an hour from the time Ed Fielding tracked her down at her mother-in-law's in West Chester to make it to the party at Diane Bleeker's Upper East Side apartment. She had considered changing her clothes and then decided not to, figuring she'd probably fit in with at least some part of the gathering.
Cam sighed with uncharacteristic relief at the sight of her backup. It wasn't so much her bone-deep tiredness that was wearing at her, but the necessity of watching Blair dance with the same woman for the last half hour while trying to ignore the fact that the woman's hand rested very subtly on Blair's left breast.
"Sorry, Commander," Ellen Grant said quietly when they managed to work their way over to one another. "I was at my husband's birthday party."
"No apologies required, Grant. I regret the need to call you away from your family." Cam passed her hand across her eyes, rubbing them briefly, then smiled thinly. "I'm afraid I got caught short tonight. You're bailing me out."
Grant glanced at her in concern, catching the strain in her voice and wondering if she was all right. Cameron Roberts was a legend to every agent in the field because of what she had done that day in front of Blair Powell's apartment, but to her own team, she was a flesh-and-blood hero. "Not a problem. I can take over now, Commander."
"Yes," Cam said. "Thank you."
Instead of leaving, Cam walked through the room and out onto a small iron-railed balcony with a view of Central Park. She took a deep breath of the crisp night air and rested both hands on the railing, aware of the ache in her left side along the ten-inch scar between her fourth and fifth ribs. It didn't usually bother her, or at least most of the time she could ignore it.
"Off duty now, Commander?" Blair asked quietly from beside her. "You look like you could use some sleep."
Cam, still leaning forward, turned her head and glimpsed the quick flicker of moonlight playing over Blair's face. The sight caught at her heart. Surrendering for just an instant to the soft undercurrent of warmth in Blair's voice and the real concern in her gaze, Cam let herself relax.
"Yes," Cam answered eventually, "airplane seats are always a little short for me to sleep in very well. Grant's taking over now."
They both knew that wasn't strictly true. She was never off duty, through choice as well as convention.
Blair stood next to her at the rail, close enough to touch her, but being careful not to. She didn't trust herself enough to do that. She wasn't even sure why she had followed her outside. But the night was disappearing and they were here, almost alone. Tomorrow people would surround them again, and she had no idea when they would have even a few moments of privacy. She couldn't bear to see her go, not yet. "What's going to happen now?"
Cam watched the headlights far below trace patterns of lights through the treetops and considered the future. It never even occurred to her not to inform Blair of her plans, although some might consider that inappropriate. It was Blair's life that was affected, and she deserved to know. "We'll need to go to high alert status. I'll talk to Mac and Stark about that tomorrow. You'll need agents physically with you whenever possible, extra security at public functions, and less information about your travel plans made available to the press."
"Everything will be closing down around me, won't it?" Blair asked, sounding nearly as done-in as Cam appeared.
"These are the things that will impact you most directly, yes," Cam allowed. There was much more that needed to be done, and she hoped she could accomplish them without making Blair even unhappier. "I'm sorry."
Blair believed her. It had taken more than raw physical attraction to capture her heart. Cam, as no one before her, understood. Cam understood how she felt to be never alone, to be never free, to be never capable of spontaneous action. Cam understood even though she couldn't change it.
Blair did touch her then, a brief brush of her fingers over Cam's hand. "I know."
She caught her breath as Cam captured her fingers and caressed them gently. The light pressure of their palms sliding together was more achingly sweet than another woman's naked body pressing against her in the heat of lust. She stood there, buffeted by the chill night air, her head light with wanting her, and dared not move. Dared not break the fragile bond.
Finally Cam sighed and released her. She was so very tired and she couldn't trust herself with Blair so near. She had just needed to touch her so much. And now she needed to go.
What she had to say next came hard. It was hard for her to even think it, but she had to. Everything between them had changed drastically almost overnight. They'd spent five frantic days trying to assuage a yearlong thirst, and nothing had really been settled when they'd parted, except they both believed there'd be a next time. She thought then that they'd have time to tackle the issues of Blair's notoriety and her own professional ethics, but the reappearance of Lover Boy had changed all of that. Now whatever personal relationship they might have had was secondary. She knew Blair was hurt and angry, and she'd seen Blair in the arms of too many lovers not to know what she did when she was hurt. She said what she had to say. "If you don't plan on going home tonight, please tell Grant. Let them protect you."
Staring straight ahead so that she would not see the goodbye in Cam's eyes, Blair replied quietly, "As you wish, Commander."
And then she was alone, the wind whipping at her tears.
At precisely 0700 the next morning, Cam walked through the command center toward the conference room. "Stark, Mac-" she called as she passed each of them, "-with me. The rest of you will be briefed later."
She closed the door to the conference room after they followed her in and waited until they took seats. She was crisply attired in a steel-blue suit, a tailored white linen shirt, and imported black loafers that matched the belt at her waist. There were faint shadows under her eyes, but her gaze was clear and sharp and glinting with something hard. She remained standing, leaning forward slightly with her hands on the back of a chair. Had they been looking, they would have noticed that her knuckles were white where she gripped the leather. It was the only sign that she was distressed.
"This is what I know," she began, her tone and demeanor completely composed. "Approximately three months ago Lover Boy contacted Egret via the U.S. mail. His messages consisted of short rambling notes professing his undying love for her, his desire to make love to her - put quite a bit more crudely, and his intention to be alone with her so that he could convince her of his passion." At her first few words, Stark and Mac sat up straight, clearly shocked.
"Commander! This is the first-" Mac began, his face pale.
Cam held up her hand to silence him. "We'll get to that. Six weeks ago he began electronic contact, this time in addition to his verbal descriptions, he sent short video clips of explicit sexual activities he hoped they might share."
Stark couldn't contain her disbelief. "It's impossible. She would have told us. She's difficult, but she's not stupid. She would know that we had to be informed."
"The FBI knew. They formed a task force to monitor the situation," Cam began. At that announcement, Mac's mouth fell open. She continued, preferring to save the considerable explanations for later. "They've set up their own surveillance system with vehicles and agents tracking her whenever she's outside this building. They've attempted to set up alternate e-mail connections in the hopes of backtracking his messages to their source. So far, they've been unsuccessful."
She forced herself to let go of the chair back when her fingers began to cramp. Her voice still quiet, she said, "I was called back because ten days ago his messages changed. He's becoming more violent; he threatened her." She was surprised to feel her voice catch and hoped that Mac and Stark hadn't heard it. Quickly she continued, "The behavioral people at Quantico feel that he may be decompensating, either because he's been unsuccessful at gaining access to her or just because he's coming unglued. In any event, we must consider her at risk at any time."
"Oh my God," Mac breathed, "how could they have kept us out of the loop?"
Struggling now to contain her own anger, she answered, "They were investigating us." That wasn't strictly true. The FBI had been investigating everyone on the security team with the exception of Cam. She was exonerated by virtue of the fact that she had been an unintended victim of Lover Boy's presumed attack on Blair.
Mac stood up, too agitated to sit any longer. "That's insane. Some of us were with you when it happened. We couldn't have been the shooter!"
"I agree with you," Cam shrugged. "But I don't have to remind you how paranoid our brethren in the FBI can be. They were floating the theory that if it was one of you, it might have been a hired hitman who did the shooting. A stand-in to deflect suspicion from you."
"Oh, for Christ's sake," Stark muttered, rubbing the bridge of her nose as she frequently did when upset. "I don't believe I'm hearing this."
Cam almost smiled at that. Over the past year, Paula Stark had become the agent closest to Blair Powell. Cam could only imagine how furious she must be having her professional integrity maligned and her efficiency undercut by people who were supposedly on the same side. She also believed that Stark cared for Blair, and she didn't think it had anything to do with the night they had spent together. She didn't encourage any kind of personal attachment between her agents and those they guarded, but it privately comforted her. Blair deserved to be cared for.
"I'm sure members of the task force will be showing up soon to convince you that this is all quite real," Cam went on. "Our official policy is one of cooperation."
Mac and Stark looked at her expectantly, waiting for her real orders.
"We are the Secret Service. We are the people assigned to guard her. We are the people with her twenty-four hours a day. This is our ball, our game, our rules," she said decisively. "Stark, you will choose a replacement to lead the day shift. Until further notice, you are Egret's primary guard. If at all possible, when she's outside this building, you will be with her. That means physically within sight of her. You'll be working split shifts, so review her itinerary carefully."
It was a tough assignment, and Cam watched Stark closely as she spoke.
"Yes ma'am," Stark said immediately. "Understood."
"Mac, we need an agent, not just the video cameras, stationed in the lobby around the clock. The surveillance tapes need to be backed up every twelve, and I want them analyzed for repeat visitors, delivery people, public service crews - anyone who doesn't live or work here. Run the backgrounds again on everyone with access to floors above the lobby."
Mac and Stark were taking notes, but Cam had nothing written down. As she spoke, her gaze was distant, her mind clicking down the list of priorities as automatically as she dressed in the morning. She understood intuitively what few citizens of the United States did. The illusion that the President and those close to him were untouchable was part of the image of invincibility essential to a world power. Unlike the leaders of many nations, the President of the United States was incredibly accessible. He could go jogging through the streets of Washington D.C., he could stand on an open podium and give a speech, and he could ride a bicycle through the dunes on Martha's Vineyard with only a few Secret Service agents nearby. He was at risk in ways that few people ever considered, unless, like her, it was their job to do so.
In many ways, Blair's security was even more critical than his. The presidency was not a man, but an office. If the President were incapacitated, the line of succession was clear. But the President was susceptible to manipulation through his affections. It was the policy of the United States government not to negotiate with terrorists. But what if the hostage were the President's daughter?
For an instant, Cam remembered waking with Blair in Diane's apartment. Blair had still been asleep, naked and warm in her arms. All her fury and fierceness had quieted in slumber, and Cam shivered inwardly at the image of her vulnerability.
Not Blair. Not on her watch. Not ever.
She cleared her throat and picked up where she had left off with barely a moment's hesitation. "Her mail needs to be visually inspected before she picks it up. Any package, any delivery of any kind, requires verification of its point of origin before it goes to her, including ID checks for all delivery people. I'll arrange for a portable x-ray machine to be set up downstairs."
She took a breath and began to relax for the first time in days. It felt good to be in charge and comforting to know that the right people were providing Blair's safety.
"We'll go over the rest of the details with the team later today." She looked at Mac and asked the question she had avoided thinking about since she had awakened at five am after a few hours of restless sleep. "I'll need a special briefing this morning with Ms. Powell. Is she on-site?"
"No," Mac said carefully. "Grant checked in at 0600. She's requesting relief for continued surveillance at an off-site location."
She didn't come home. Cam had to work to ignore the swift surge of disappointment, but she said without inflection, "Right. See to it then. I'd like a full report ASAP."
After Mac and Stark left the room, she finally sat, resting her face in her hands, and tried to dispel the image of Blair in the arms of another woman.
Diane Bleeker eyed Blair speculatively across the small glass-topped table in her breakfast alcove. She watched her start on her second cup of coffee and decided it might be safe to try conversation.
"Are you going to tell me why Roberts is your head spooky again?" Diane asked offhandedly, reaching for a croissant and hoping that she would live to eat it.
Blair looked up from the cup she had been mindlessly staring into, searching Diane's face for some hint of the motive behind the question. She wasn't up to verbal sparring at the moment. She definitely wasn't up to hearing Diane talk about how much she'd like to get Cameron Roberts into bed. It had never been enjoyable, but now it actually hurt.
She didn't think Cam would be susceptible to Diane's brand of casual seduction, but she wasn't entirely certain. Diane was very beautiful, and Cam gave no hint of entertaining celibacy. All you had to do was look at her to sense her sexual energy. Blair recalled the rumor that her FBI contact had recounted to her about Cam's secret lover in DC. For all she knew, Cam might still be involved with someone there. She didn't want to think about that, not when she couldn't get the feel of Cam's hands out of her mind. But Diane merely regarded her solemnly, patiently, without the slightest hint of confrontation. Friends then, for the moment.
"Why?" Blair asked, trying not to snarl.
Not too bad, Diane thought. She didn't throw anything.
"Because I got the distinct impression that while I was in Europe you made good use of my apartment, and I presumed you were with her," Diane answered. She'd seen the way the two of them had looked at one another for weeks before the shooting - as if they were struggling not to jump on each other and start tearing off clothes. And she'd seen Blair frantic with worry those first few days after Cam was wounded, until it was clear that she would survive. Even while the Secret Service agent was recovering and they'd had no contact, Diane had seen the change in Blair. Her notoriously restless friend hadn't been out hunting for a one-night stand in months. Blair must have wanted to be with someone very badly if she'd arranged for them to spend more than a night together somewhere. Since she couldn't bring a woman to her own apartment, at Diane's they would have at least some privacy. "It was her you brought up here, wasn't it?"
Blair just nodded, seeming to have forgotten that she still held the coffee cup raised in front of her. Her mind balked at returning to those brief days and her wild hope of happiness. She wasn't sure she wanted to remember, not until she stopped aching every time she thought of her.
"Then we crossed in the air and by the time I got back from Europe, you were off to China. I never heard the juicy details." Diane spoke carefully. Blair's expression was haunted. "The next thing I know we're sitting in a café, Roberts is across the room watching you on full spooky status again, and you're a mess."
Blair's hands trembled slightly as she set the cup down. In the past three days she'd begun to wonder if she hadn't dreamed those five nights in June. Five nights, and then Cam had returned to Washington for her new posting as a regional director in the investigative division. They both expected it to be weeks before they saw one another again. Blair had the China trip with her father, and Cam would be in the field soon. She might have believed it a dream, she supposed, if her skin didn't still tingle with the memory of their last morning together.
When she awoke, she was alone. The shower was running in the adjoining bathroom. She turned on her side, toward the empty space beside her, imagining she could still feel the heat of her, still smell her - rich and dark and powerfully enticing. Her stomach tightened, and she lingered for a moment, eyes closed, remembering.
She was drifting, pleasantly aroused, replaying the feel of Cam's fingertips along her thigh when warm lips brushed over her ear.
"Are you awake?"
She smiled, stretching under the light sheet that was still twisted from their passion the night before. "Only in some places."
"I was going to get breakfast," Cam said, leaning closer to kiss the sensitive spot at the base of her neck. "There's a service elevator in the building, isn't there? No need to announce my presence to whoever's on shift now."
She turned over on her back -- struck as she always was when she saw her -- by a surge of pure physical longing. Her body was already tingling. She rose and grasped Cam's hair in one hand, tugging her down for a kiss. She had only meant to say hello, but she wasn't used to the feel of her lips yet, didn't think she'd ever get used to them. Firm and hot and wonderfully responsive. The first meeting of smooth warm flesh became a light bite and then a serious exploration as she sucked and licked and tasted her, afraid she might die if she couldn't have more.
"God," she gasped when she finally dropped back to the pillow, her fingers still wrapped in Cam's thick hair. "I'm hungry."
Cam was breathing hard and her charcoal eyes burned as she looked down at her, her fine mouth curling into a smile at one corner. She ran a finger between Blair's breasts and murmured, "Why don't I think it's bagels you're talking about?"
Blair arched under her touch, the muscles in her stomach twitching as Cam stroked slowly lower. "I can have bagels any day," she managed, her hips lifting of their own accord as heat burst between her legs like a bonfire that had smoldered for hours, then roared to life on a whisper of wind. She hadn't wanted anyone to touch her in so long, and now she couldn't stop wanting it. She couldn't think, was afraid to think. God she was losing her mind.
"You have far too many clothes on," she whispered, reaching for the buttons on Cam's shirt. She needed to distract her, because if Cam moved any lower and touched her just once, she would lose it. Her nerve endings were already screaming for satisfaction, and it would be over far too quickly. That was something else she was afraid to think about. She had absolutely no control over her body with her. She'd made love to countless strangers, but it had never touched her inside. She'd walked away barely aroused, but with Cam, one slow smile, one brief caress, and she was wet and ready.
"You're not helping," Blair half-moaned as Cam's hands slid upward from her belly, cupping her breasts, her gifted fingers rubbing over her nipples.
"Oh yes," Cam murmured, her voice heavy and smooth, "I am."
Blair lost patience and pulled the last button off Cam's shirt, then pushed it roughly down her arms. "Get your clothes off," she ordered, having trouble catching her breath. Her blood was boiling, and a terrible pressure pounded along her spine. She'd come without Cam touching her if she weren't careful. "Cam, please," she pleaded before she could stop herself.
Something in her voice must have penetrated Cam's awareness, because suddenly she stood and threw off the shirt, her hands fumbling with the buttons on her jeans. "Hold on to it," Cam urged, her breathing ragged, as she stepped out of her pants and reached over to fling the sheet off Blair's body in one motion. She moved over her, naked now, and slipped one long, lean thigh between Blair's legs, sighing as their flesh met. They were both so wet, and the moisture flowed along their skin, fusing them.
"You are so beautiful," Cam whispered, both hands framing Blair's face. Holding Blair's gaze, she began a steady rhythm with her hips, pressing into her, then away, then down again, harder, faster, each thrust working them both a little higher.
Blair bit her lip, struggled to ignore those first spasms deep inside. "You're making me crazy," she cried brokenly.
"I want to make you come," Cam groaned, her voice hoarse, her eyes dimming with desire. She shivered, made a choking sound, and her lids flickered closed for an instant. "Ah, god. If - I- can last."
Blair, arms tight around her, back arched, trembling on the brink of dissolving, stared up into those dark, wild eyes, so close now, and wanted to believe. "I lo-," she stopped, too many years of guarding her secrets and hiding her fears standing in the way of the words. She ran her hands along Cam's back, found her hips, pulled her closer. "Take me away," she whispered into Cam's neck.
And Cam did. Even as she lost the battle with her own raging senses, she brought one hand between them and grasped Blair's nipple, squeezing hard, timing it to the rhythm of her hips. Blair cried out as Cam jerked violently with the first rush of her own orgasm, and then they were shuddering in each other's arms, lost and, finally, found.
Blair stared at Diane as if she'd never seen her before, drained by the memories.
"Wherever you just went," Diane commented dryly, "I'd give a lot to visit."
Blair laughed, but there was pain in her eyes. She shook her head ruefully. "So would I."
"So what happened?" Diane asked. She tried to remember the last time she had seen Blair so hurt, and couldn't.
Blair pushed back in her chair, running both hands through her hair, sighing. "She needed to go back to DC, and I had to leave the country. We talked on the phone, planned to meet as soon as we could."
She stood, walked to the small window that looked down upon the street. The nondescript black sedan bristling with antennae on the rear trunk that screamed 'undercover car' was still parked opposite the entrance to Diane's building. She could make out a shadowy figure in the front seat. Probably Stark by now. She wondered where Cam was, if she had slept.
"We knew it would be hard, but I thought --," her voice trailed off as she recalled their last conversation before parting. I thought we agreed she couldn't be on my detail. I thought we were going to work out a way to see each other. I thought she cared.
"So, what happened?" Diane asked from behind her, persisting gently.
Blair didn't turn, just kept looking off into the perfect spring morning, not seeing a thing. "The next time I saw her, she was at my door - and back on the job."
"Just like that?" Diane sounded incredulous. It didn't seem like Cam's style. She'd always impressed Diane with her regard for Blair's feelings, even when she was pissing Blair off by insisting that she follow orders. She must have known how devastated Blair would be to be left out of that kind of decision, something that affected her so personally. Blair's trust was so fragile, and Cameron Roberts simply didn't seem that cruel.
Blair finally left the window, stalked to the counter, grimaced when she found the coffee pot empty. "Yes. Just exactly like that."
Diane wanted to ask more, but the moment had passed. Blair's fury had returned, and in a way, Diane much preferred it to the pain. At least Blair had learned to survive with her rage. She wondered if Cameron Roberts had any idea how impossible Blair would be to control when she was not only angry, but wounded.
"Stark just radioed her position, Commander," Mac said when Cam walked over to the communications station at command central. "Egret is en route to the aerie."
"Good," Cam responded, glancing at her watch. "It's almost 1100 hours. I'll inform her of the security changes at my scheduled 1300 briefing with her. Would you confirm that meeting time with her upon arrival, please."
"Will do." He studied her as she stood glancing at the monitors, trying to read her mood. He couldn't miss the undercurrent of strain in her voice, but he supposed it could just be due to the sudden escalation of the situation with Lover Boy. Considering the recent revelations concerning the ongoing covert FBI task force, anyone else would have been raging about the outside interference and the infringement on their authority, but she looked just like she always did. Calm and controlled. Too calm, maybe. The kind of utter stillness you feel just before the bomb explodes.
"You can page me if you need me before then," she said, turning to leave. She needed to run off some tension. She had a splitting headache, which she attributed to her uneasy sleep. She didn't want to consider that the pounding ache behind her eyes might be due to the fact that she couldn't stop wondering if Blair had slept alone the night before.
As she turned to leave, Mac muttered, "Uh oh, this looks like trouble."
She turned back suddenly to the monitors, her heart racing. "What have we got?" She followed his eyes to the central screen that gave a view of the building's double entrance doors and the doorman's desk just to one side in the lobby. Taylor, on day shift, could be seen checking the identification of two individuals, one of whom she recognized immediately.
"Here come the cavalry," she complained under her breath. She rubbed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Contact Stark and tell her I want her up here ASAP. Then bring our visitors back to the conference room. Get someone to take over out here for you."
"Yes ma'am," Mac said as he watched the man and woman cross the lobby toward the elevators. He had an almost irresistible urge to stand outside the door of the command center and bare his teeth. The first major battle of the turf war was about to begin.
"This is Special Agent Renee Savard," Patrick Doyle said officiously, indicating the woman with him. "She'll be assigned as personal guard to Egret until further notice."
Cam sensed Stark stiffen next to her. She commended her restraint but expected no less of her. She regarded Doyle implacably, happy to see that he was beginning to perspire. Her voice was totally even as she responded, "I have a full complement of experienced agents, Agent Doyle. Agent Stark is currently functioning as Egret's primary guard. I don't need anyone else."
Mac kept his mouth shut, watching the volleys flow back and forth across the table between the two senior agents. It'd been like this for the last thirty minutes, ever since SAC Doyle had arrived to 'inform' the Commander about the reorganization of Egret's security detail. It was clear that Doyle didn't have carte blanche from the security chief in DC, or he just would've walked in and taken command. But he was trying to bully his way to the top anyway. The Commander had been cool and composed and unyielding as stone. She hadn't given one inch, and he thought Doyle was starting to crack from sheer frustration. The guy clearly wasn't used to playing hardball.
"Look, Roberts," Doyle grated, his fists clenched on the stack of folders in front of him, "I can't run the task force effectively without an inside agent."
"You've been running it for months without one," Cam observed mildly, "although, as you say, not particularly effectively." She was still incensed that he had had the arrogance to keep the Secret Service on the outside when Blair was in imminent danger. On the other hand, she needed his intelligence as much as he needed her access. Her game, her rules, however. "I'll be happy to have Agent Savard come on board as a liaison. She cannot, however, function as Egret's security. She's not trained for it, and I don't know her."
Across from her, Doyle flushed. Next to him, the striking coffee- skinned woman lifted piercing blue eyes to Cam's with a flicker of anger. Cam continued, unperturbed. "In return, I expect daily briefings pertaining to any new information you might have."
"Are you suggesting that an FBI agent can't be trusted to secure the President's daughter?" Doyle demanded angrily, half-rising from his seat.
Cam stood, gathering her papers. She glanced at Doyle casually. "I don't know how an FBI agent would react if Egret's life were at stake. I do know how every one of my people would respond. This isn't the time for on-the-job training."
"With respect, Commander," Renee Savard said forcefully, "I am fully prepared to assume responsibility for Egret's safety. I would like the opportunity to carry out my assignment."
Cam studied her, impressed by her composure when it was clear that she was insulted. Still, this wasn't about personal feelings. This was about the willingness of one person to die for another. Secret Service agents were carefully screened and extensively tested to determine their psychological willingness to sacrifice themselves for an individual, or in many cases, an ideology. For better or for worse, this was what it took to do the job they did. The FBI and the Secret Service were not interchangeable, and she would not relax her requirements now, when the possibility of sacrifice was more than probable.
"Your request is duly noted, Agent. However, Agent Stark is primary on Egret's detail. If she can find a way for you to assist her, that's fine. And that's the best I can do for you."
She turned around and walked out, leaving the two Secret Service agents and the two FBI agents measuring one another across the expanse of the conference table.
"I want a close-up look at your surveillance system and an overview of your tactical routines," Doyle finally demanded of Mac, trying to regain some semblance of dominance.
Mac stood politely, taking a page from his commander's book, and said, "I can show you the relay station and the closed-circuit monitors. Right this way." He ignored Doyle's hard stare and his obvious displeasure. He wasn't going to offer any information on their video camera placement, building motion sensors, advance site preparation protocols or anything else without the Commander's clearance.
Stark and Savard sat in silence for a moment. Start considered any number of options, including her preference, which was to stick Savard with Mac in the control room. She was still smarting from the fact that she had been the object of an internal FBI review and had actually been considered a suspect in the shooting that almost killed her commander. She was also struggling with her own guilt over the fact that she had allowed Egret to unwittingly place herself in danger by eluding their surveillance. She needed to make amends, if to no one other than herself, and she wasn't going to miss her opportunity to do that. She didn't want any interference from the FBI.
"I'm not trying to take your job," Savard said, surprising Stark with her bluntness. "I'm just trying to do mine."
Stark blushed, wishing that she were better at hiding her feelings. She envied the Commander her ability to keep all of her feelings inside, something she had not yet learned to do. She regarded the other woman steadily, thinking that she didn't quite fit the standard FBI mold. She wore the requisite navy blue jacket and slacks, with a tailored pale blue shirt and the hint of a bulge over her left hip where her weapon was holstered. Cross draw, Stark thought absently. She was fit looking and projected an air of confidence, but Stark would've expected that as well. What she hadn't expected was the challenge in her intense blue eyes that was surprisingly without malice. She also couldn't help noticing that Savard was beautiful, beautiful in the way that cover models were beautiful, with elegant cheekbones and an exotic expression that suggested the Islands lingered somewhere not far in her background. Stark tried not to think about that as she answered, "My job is to safeguard the President's daughter. I'm not sure what your job is supposed to be."
"My job is to apprehend Lover Boy. Since Egret is what we have in common, I suggest we try to work together."
"I already have a partner," Stark said, but her resistance was wavering. It was hard not to respond to Renee Savard's compelling directness. "But there's room for a third," she finally relented, "as long as you don't interfere with me doing my job."
Renee Savard studied her opposite number. She envied Paula Stark. It was clear that Stark's formidable commander respected her abilities and awarded her with the appropriate responsibility. She wished very much that she could expect the same from Patrick Doyle, but she certainly didn't count on it. She had to admit, she also liked the way the dark haired, feisty young agent tilted her chin in a faintly aggressive posture as she staked out her territory. Under other circumstances, she might have considered her cute.
"That seems fair to me," Savard said, standing and extending her hand across the table. "Looking forward to working with you, Agent Stark."
"Is Egret in the aerie?" Cam asked the agent who was simultaneously watching a bank of six monitors displaying strategic points throughout the apartment building and running a real-time video of the previous twelve hours that had been captured by the cameras mounted at each corner of the external perimeter. He was able to view foot and vehicular traffic directly in front of the building for any time and from almost any direction he chose.
Without taking his eyes off the screens, he answered, "No ma'am. She went upstairs briefly and then directly into the park."
Cam glanced at the far upper-right monitor that showed a panoramic view of Gramercy Park, the block-wide private park across the street from Blair's apartment building. It was surrounded by towering pre-war buildings and completely enclosed with a high wrought-iron fence. She couldn't actually make visual contact with Blair, the foliage was too dense to permit that. Nevertheless, she looked for her.
"That's where I'll be," she finally said.
"Roger that," he said, making a note on his handheld personal unit about something he had seen on the video that he wanted to review from a different angle.
Cam was very much aware that Patrick Doyle was still on site, but she had absolutely no intention of being his tour guide. She had work to do, and her most immediate duty was to inform Blair that she could expect several new faces in her security detail. Unfortunately, that was the least difficult of the topics they needed to discuss.
She let herself into the park by unlocking one of the gates that permitted access to those with clearance and a key. The park was nearly small enough to see across. At the midpoint, in front of a small fountain, she could make out John Fielding. He was standing, statue-like, to all appearances staring vacantly into space. She knew, however, that he held Egret within his sight line and was in all likelihood turning at regular intervals to keep the entire square under careful watch. There was no way for a Secret Service agent to be unseen, and under some circumstances invisibility wasn't even desirable. The visible presence of a bodyguard was often enough to deter people from casual approach. On the other hand, Blair, like most in her position, understandably did not want every moment of her personal life witnessed. Because of that, the Secret Service agents were trained to walk a fine line between doing their job and actually impairing the lifestyle of those they guarded.
As Cam walked forward, she nodded briefly in his direction and he acknowledged her with an almost imperceptible motion of his head. She continued past him along a small gravel path flanked at discrete intervals by iron and wood benches to one of the most secluded and idyllic corners of the park. A riot of shrubs and flowers grew everywhere, a natural barrier offering privacy. Enough sunlight filtered through the overhead branches to outline Blair in a pale flickering glow.
Cam slowed as she approached, telling herself that she did not want to startle her. Actually, she wanted a few extra seconds just to observe her unaware. Blair was bent over a sketchpad, her legs drawn up under her on the bench. Her hair was loose, a tawny riot of curls reaching almost down to her shoulders. Cam knew how those tresses felt, flowing silken over her hands as she kissed her.
She was wearing a sleeveless shirt that exposed her arms, muscled from hours in the gym and tanned from the sun. She was striking in any lighting, remarkable in any pose, but never as much as when she was lost in her work. That was perhaps the only time, except after making love, when Cam had ever seen her at peace.
"Ms. Powell," Cam said quietly.
Blair lifted her hair away from her face with one hand and looked at the taller woman standing nearby. The sunlight was behind her, casting Cam's face in shadows. "Good afternoon, Commander."
"Am I disturbing you?"
Blair gestured to the bench beside her. "No."
Cam sat down, barely suppressing a sigh as she leaned back, warmed by Blair's presence as much as the afternoon sun.
"You wanted to speak to me?" Blair asked, knowing that she sounded stiff and formal, but unable to help it. It was so hard to be near her and pretend that there was nothing between them. It was even harder when she could see how weary Cam was. She was still angry with her - angry and hurt - but when she looked at her, she wanted to pull her down against her shoulder and stroke her. She pushed the image away with irritation. If Cam had needed that, needed her at all, she would never have let this happen. Besides, it wasn't what she wanted to happen either - this almost paralyzing ache that never seemed to lessen unless Cam was near. She had never wanted that, not with anyone. Ever since they had slept together, ever since she had allowed herself to hope, being near her had become something very close to constant pain. "More good news?" she asked again sarcastically.
"The FBI made an official appearance this morning," Cam began, watching the light play through the leaves of the trees above them. Blair was inches away, but she felt as if their skin touched along the length of her body. She knew it was only visceral memory, but the sensation was so acute that her blood was racing. She wondered how long it would be before she could be close to her and not respond. She feared that it would be a very long time.
"I take it you're not pleased," Blair said, wondering at Cam's odd stillness.
"That, Ms. Powell, is considered classified information. According to any number of sections in the manual, personal observations on internal matters should not be shared, especially with civilians," Cam said lightly, a half smile on her face. Her eyes, however, were wintry as she thought of the weeks that Blair had been a potential target and none of them had known.
"Well, we both know how dear the manual is to you," Blair rejoined sharply.
Cam didn't bother to protest. How could she? She'd chosen duty over Blair's wishes. She had no defense. And ordinarily she would never discuss matters of protocol with someone she guarded. But she and Blair had gone so far beyond the limits of acceptable professional behavior, it was ridiculous to stand on ceremony now. It was enough that she did not touch her. That was a hardship she had created herself and would learn to bear. She would not place Blair at a disadvantage because she had overstepped her bounds. "I thought that you should know."
"At least one of them will be working with our detail in direct contact with you. I expect they'll add their own car as well."
"That's not too subtle, is it?" Blair asked pointedly. "It's going to send a message that I give a damn what he says."
"It's going to send a message that you are well-protected and not a ready target," Cam answered immediately.
Blair looked away, across the park, wishing that she could be sitting there with nothing more on her mind than the sexy sound of Cam's deep voice, enjoying the flutter of desire that just being near her always produced. She sighed. "I guess it really doesn't matter. One more here or there won't change anything."
"They've been on surveillance for the last several months, and in truth, I don't mind taking advantage of their information-gathering capabilities. They've got access to much larger databases than we do, and at this point, I'll take everything I can get."
Blair sketched aimlessly as they talked, trying to absorb the words without letting them penetrate to her core. She couldn't live in terror every day. "Is this serious, do you think?"
It was a question she had avoided asking for months. Cam was the only one that she dared ask, because in spite of everything, Cam was the only one she trusted to see her frightened.
Cam watched Blair's hands move gracefully, with absolute certainty, over the surface of the paper, wishing she could touch her, just enough to comfort her. Her hands trembled she wanted to so much. The feeling was so strong, she pressed her palms flat against her thighs to hold them there. "I don't know," she answered, her voice low. "I have to assume that it is."
Blair nodded, not speaking. There was nothing she could do about any of it - the crazy lunatic sending her messages, the FBI dogging her steps, Cameron determined to accept the assignment her father directed her to take. She was uncomfortable feeling that helpless, especially when she had struggled her entire life for some semblance of independence. For the moment, however, she couldn't see any other course of action. "All right. I can live with it, if you can."
Cam laughed sharply. There was a tinge of irony in her voice as she responded, "We have something in common there, Ms. Powell. Neither of us has a choice."
Cam looked down at the drawing, surprised to see her own face appearing. She studied the image, taken aback by the fierce, reserved expression. She wondered if that was all that Blair saw of her. She knew the answer as Blair's talented hands sketched her eyes and captured the shadows in her soul.
"Blair," Cam said softly.
Blair's hand faltered on the paper at the gentle intimacy in Cam's tone. It was the subtle changes in Cameron Roberts that never failed to tear at her heart. In one moment she was professional, aloof, as impersonal as any agent who had ever guarded her. And then she would say Blair's name with all the feeling that Blair could ever hope to hear from another human being. It was everything she wanted, and everything she feared. She didn't raise her eyes, but continued drawing the sharp features and the wild eyes, unable to look at the woman, knowing if she did she would touch her. "What?" She queried quietly.
Cam took a deep breath, wishing she had did not have to ask. "I'd like you to reconsider the race on Sunday. I'd like you not to go."
Blair stiffened, the pencil finally stilling. "I have to go. I'm the keynote speaker."
"Would you consider just arriving for the speech, but not racing?"
Blair put her sketchpad aside and turned on the bench until she was fully facing Cam. For the first time, she looked directly into her face, directly into her eyes. "It's more than political, this event. This is personal."
Cam nodded, understanding all too well. She knew why. Sunday was the annual Race for the Cure, a huge fundraiser for the treatment of breast cancer. Blair's mother had died of the disease when Blair was nine years old. She understood what it was to lose a parent. "I'm asking you, recommending it strongly to you, that you do not run in the race."
Blair knew that Cam could not order her not to race. "Why are you asking me this?"
Cam hesitated before answering. It was her job not only to guard Blair physically, but also to give her some semblance of normality, as ironic as that appeared on the surface of things. She didn't want to worry her unnecessarily. That's what she was getting paid to do - the worrying. She hedged her answer.
"I'm not sure I can run 15 miles." She didn't intend to tell her that it was a security nightmare. That even coordinating with New York City police and the transit police, and putting agents physically with Blair along the race route, it was about as unsecured a position as Blair could be in. Under any circumstances it would have been difficult. Now, with the threat that Lover Boy posed, it was nearly impossible. She supposed that she could go to the director of the Secret Service and request that he contact the President's security chief - try an end run around Blair. But she new damn well that if anyone ordered Blair not to participate in anything, let alone something as important to her as this, they could expect her to do exactly the opposite. And probably with no cooperation whatsoever. She said nothing, waiting for Blair to digest the request.
"I need to do this," Blair stated calmly. "I've seen you run, Commander. You can handle the distance quite well. I'll be fine." She couldn't stop herself from adding, "And I'll enjoy your company."
Cam was silent a moment, considering the options. This was the reason that personal relationships were discouraged. She couldn't think clearly because she cared about how Blair felt. She was afraid that she might care more about Blair's feelings than about her safety, and that kind of involvement was undermining her position and her authority and worst of all, it was impairing her judgment. She cursed softly under her breath. "I hope to hell that Stark can make it, too, because we're both going to need to go with you."
"Thank you," Blair said softly. She knew that Cam had relented against her better judgment. She touched her hand briefly, a fleeting gesture of appreciation. "It will be all right," she said, wishing somehow that were true.
Cam knew that she should go. Blair had sought privacy and peace in a quiet corner of this tiny sanctuary, and Cam had brought danger and uncertainty into it. For the first time that she could recall, she resented her job.
"I'm sorry I had to bring that up," Cam said, surprising them both. "I should leave you to your work."
"You don't have to be sorry," Blair responded softly. "And you don't need to leave."
Before Cam could respond, her earphone crackled to life. She turned her head slightly away, listening a moment. The expression on her face became grim, but her voice was completely uninflected as she said softly into the tiny microphone clipped to the collar of her blazer, "Send him in then."
She turned to Blair and informed her, "It seems that we have company."
Blair looked past Cam across the tiny park as a large man hurried towards them. "This would be the FBI, I presume," she noted tightly, a look of faint repugnance on her face.
Cam laughed in spite of herself. "Very observant, Ms. Powell. Perhaps you should consider a future career in intelligence."
Blair smiled faintly, but there was no laughter in her eyes. "Believe me, Commander, by this time I can recognize every branch of our esteemed intelligence agencies by the cut of an agent's suit and the arrogance in their walk. At least the Secret Service has always been polite."
"Ms. Powell," the burly man said imperiously, looking down at the two women on the bench, but pointedly ignoring Cam. "I'm Special Agent in Charge Patrick Doyle, Federal Bureau of Investigation. I wanted to meet you in person since I'll be spearheading your security detail until such time as we have apprehended the UNSUB."
Blair saw Cam go rigid beside her, and she said very coolly, "Mister Doyle, my security is a matter for Commander Roberts. If you have something to relay to me in that regard, I suggest you do it through her. One daily briefing is all I can tolerate." She gathered her sketchpad and drawing pencils and stood abruptly, forcing Doyle back a step. She glanced at Cam, whose expression was most likely unreadable to Doyle, but she saw the hint of laughter in her eyes. She smiled softly at her and turned to go. "I'll leave you two to sort out your territory."
Patrick Doyle turned on his heel and watched the President's daughter walk away. A muscle stood out in his jaw as he ground his teeth. When he faced Cam again, his fury was tinged with contempt. "She doesn't know what's good for her," he said condescendingly. "I suppose you think you do?"
Cam stood, and when she did she was nearly eye-to-eye with him. "I don't pretend to know what's good for Ms. Powell, but I can assure you of one thing. I know precisely what's good for her security. I can also advise you that if you have any suggestions or recommendations regarding that matter, you bring them to me. That's the chain of command, and I suggest you follow it."
He moved forward a step, trying unsuccessfully to force her back. Their chests were almost touching. "Listen here, Roberts," he growled, his face livid. "You get in my way on this thing and there just might be a little leak to the media about what you like to do in your off-hours, and who you like to do it with."
"We've been down this road before, Doyle," Cam responded, her eyes never leaving his. "You're wasting your time."
"Your director and the Security Chief might not think so if your activities happen to involve the President's daughter."
She smiled at him, a thin smile, cold and hard as granite. "Doyle, you really are a fool if you think you can take on Blair Powell. She'll have you for lunch."
She stepped lightly around him and walked out of the park the way she had come.
She glanced across the street, thinking that Blair was probably already back in her apartment. She contemplated going after her and then stopped abruptly when she realized why she wanted to. She missed her already.
Nine stories up, Blair leaned against the window frame, staring down at Cameron Roberts. Her security chief was standing just outside the gates of the park, her hands in her pockets, one shoulder leaning against the stone pillar that marked the entrance to the square. Patrick Doyle stormed through the gate and passed her without a word.
She looks so tired, Blair thought to herself. She could only imagine how difficult it must be for Cam dealing with the FBI presence. She'd been around politics all her life, and she knew that interagency power struggles were vicious and self-interest paramount. Often agents lost sight of their objective in their eagerness to advance their own positions. She had no doubt that Patrick Doyle cared less for her safety than for his own desire to be the one to apprehend Lover Boy. She wasn't foolish enough to think that she really mattered to him, and she didn't care. She knew - more importantly, she felt - that to Cameron, she did.
She'd felt that caring the first time Cameron walked into her loft and made it clear that she would do her job, but that she'd try to make it tolerable for Blair. She'd seen it manifest in horrific detail the day Cam had stepped in front of her and almost died from the bullet meant for her. She didn't want to see that again. She didn't want Cam standing in front of her for any reason, but certainly not for a reason that could cost Cam her life.
Why couldn't you just have told him no? she wondered for the hundredth time. She knew the answer. Cameron hadn't accepted this assignment just because the President of the United States had requested her. She'd taken the assignment because that was what she did. That was who she was. Some part of Blair could respect that. Some part of her could even understand it. But knowing it and understanding it did not change what she felt. She didn't want or need Cam's protection. She resented that she needed it from anyone, but at least she had made some form of peace with that.
What she wanted from Cameron was the one thing that she had given up hoping for, or had simply stopped looking for, in another human being. Cam touched her in some deep place that others never imagined existed, and that's what she so desperately needed. Cam didn't try to tell her to accept her circumstances or to be grateful for her privilege, as so many others before her had. She was equally oblivious to Blair's status, a welcome respite from the solicitous attentions of so many. Most importantly, Cam understood her anger and forgave her fury.
She watched Cam walk around the corner toward her own apartment building, and after a moment, she turned back to her empty loft. Seeing Cam, being as close to her as they had been just moments before, had left her restless and edgy with the low throb of desire. It always seemed to happen when they were anywhere near each other. She didn't want to feel it, and she didn't want to think about it. Her gaze fell on a large oil canvas, and she studied it critically from across the room. She didn't consider the details at first, but rather the gestalt, the sense of it. She felt it, rather than saw it. Slowly, after a minute or two, she focused her attention on the elements of the painting - on the colors and contrast and movement of the eye over the images. By the time she advanced from the window to stand in front of her work in progress, her mind was clear and briefly, her heart was free.
Cam decided it was much safer to run - safer than seeing Blair again so soon. It had been the same since the first time she'd met with her, this rebellion of her body in the face of good sense. She was aware of it now, a simmering tension that ran along the tendons and the muscles and the nerves in her legs and twisted inside like a starving beast. She knew what it was; she'd felt it for months before she had finally relented. Being with Blair hadn't blunted the urgency, touching her hadn't lessened the wanting, making love with her had not muted the desire. She could feel Blair's skin hot under her hands and the hard beat of her under her lips. She could taste her still.
There were ways to deal with the body's demands - safe, simple, unencumbered ways. Pleasant, mutually satisfying, emotionally secure ways. She was reminded of Claire's note, left for her to find after their last night together.
If ever you need - anything, call me. C.
Cam tossed her jacket on the bed, shrugged out of her shoulder harness and began unbuttoning her shirt. Yeah, right, she muttered, stripping down to her briefs and pulling shorts and t-shirt from a drawer. Simple.
She wasn't certain any longer that Claire's admittedly talented ministrations could assuage the hunger. Still, physical desire - that she could deal with, one way or the other. It was more than just the wanting, and that was the problem. It was the aching in her heart that tormented her. Blair didn't just arouse her, she awakened her. Every emotion she had so carefully stilled came roaring back to life when she thought of her. Blair's ferocious will stirred her even as Blair's tenderness, so invisible to others, comforted her. Blair made her nearly mad with frustration and soothed her with the barest of touches. Blair devastated her with a smile.
She hit the pavement running, desperate to stop thinking. She just needed a few weeks to assess the seriousness of the threat to Blair. Once she had access to all the available intelligence, she could turn over more of the day-to-day security to Mac. Maybe then she and Blair could talk, maybe then they could - What? What? Carry on an affair under Doyle's nose? Risk Blair's privacy and the President's public image with a backroom love affair that the media would make tabloid headlines with? Perfect.
She pounded steadily along the East River, although the scenery barely registered. She'd hurt her. Knowing she'd hurt her, seeing it in her eyes, was harder than anything she'd ever had to bear. Even harder than when Janet had died, because then, and for months after, she'd just been numb.
Mercifully numb. Frozen with the senselessness, the stupidity, the guilt. She should have known about the raid that morning. It was her job to know those things; it was her responsibility to know those things.
But she had not been part of the plan. Despite the fact that she and her team had been investigating the same splinter faction of cocaine dealers as the other agencies, the DEA had orchestrated the entire scenario that morning. The ATF and the Secret Service had only been informed at the last minute of the impending maneuver. By some all too common breakdown in the local-federal law enforcement communication lines, no one had realized until too late that the DC Metropolitan police had an undercover narcotics agent inside the warehouse where the exchange of very authentic counterfeit money for a huge cache of drugs was to take place. Janet had already been on site when the assault began. The sting operation had gone bad almost from the beginning. A lookout no one anticipated had seen the armored cars approaching and radioed the Colombians in the building where the buy was going down. The men inside had been heavily armed and prepared to defend themselves. Shots had begun as soon as the battering rams cracked the wide double doors. Janet had been directly in the line of fire. Cam had gone inside right behind the first wave of commandos. The air had been heavy with the smell of cordite and thick with the sound of screaming. Orders, curses, cries of agony. Janet had taken one of the first bullets and was down before Cam shouldered her way past the splintered remains of the reinforced doors. By the time she reached her, Janet was almost gone. Cam would never be certain how to interpret the look in her eyes those last few seconds. She couldn't help thinking that it was an accusation.
If it had been, she deserved it.
She ran into the park, sweat pouring from her face, oblivious to the cramps beginning in her thighs or the faint ache behind her eyes. She should have known. She should have protected her.
At 0700 Sunday morning, Cam waited in the lobby of Blair's apartment building along with Stark and Savard. She had sent Mac on ahead to supervise the last minute details in Prospect Park and to advise the commanders of the municipal security teams that she wanted to meet with them personally before the start of the race. The New York City Transit Police would have squadrons of officers in the subway system, the New York Police Department would provide security along the race route, and the mayor's detail would be on the speaker's platform where he, Blair, and others would speak at the completion of the race. It was standard operating procedure for the Secret Service to coordinate all the security forces whenever any member of the First Family or the Vice President's family was making a public appearance. She was running through the details in her mind when the elevator door opened and Blair walked out.
Blair was dressed for the run almost identically to Cam - a light nylon windbreaker over a T-shirt, running shorts and shoes. She had caught her hair back at the base of her neck as she usually did for public outings, substituting a length of dark ribbon for the customary gold clasp. Her light make-up was superfluous on a face made for the camera. Even her attitude was different - she walked quickly, purposefully, with barely a glance at her surroundings. She too had a job to accomplish, one she had been performing in her mother's absence for over fifteen years. She was the reigning queen of her father's dynasty and often accompanied him to State affairs or represented him when the social circumstances required it. Today she was appearing as the President's daughter, and although not a role that was always comfortable for her, it was one she knew well.
She hesitated briefly when she saw Cam. They smiled at each other, forgetting for a moment that there was anyone else in the room. It was one of those automatic responses that neither of them could prevent, that brief surge of pleasurable recognition that was beyond volition or better judgment.
In an instant, their smiles disappeared and they greeted one another formally.
"Good morning, Ms. Powell," Cam said as she turned and began walking beside her, Stark and Savard falling in on either side.
Blair nodded quickly and continued toward the front door without breaking stride again. Per routine, Stark held the door open and Cam went through just slightly ahead and to the right of Blair. Cam hesitated fleetingly at the sidewalk as she looked up and down the street and then across the park, just as she had the day the shot was fired. It was so subtle that no one except another agent would have noticed. No one else except Blair.
Blair was always acutely aware of the way Cam positioned herself between Blair and any potential threat, even when they just walked down the sidewalk together. In this particular location, she would never lose that instant of stomach-churning fear.
Cam sensed Blair stiffen beside her and murmured in a voice too low for anyone else to hear, "It's just procedure. Try to ignore it."
"I'd like to be able to," Blair said just as softly as they crossed the sidewalk toward the black limousine. It would be so much simpler if she could. "But I can't."
Cam stood by the door as Blair slid into the back seat, then followed her in while Stark and Savard proceeded to the car idling just in front of theirs.
As they pulled away, Blair said coolly, "I'll be meeting some people when we get there."
Cam regarded her carefully, slightly surprised that she was volunteering information, while at the same time mildly annoyed that she hadn't told them sooner. Blair wasn't required to tell them everything, of course, but it was always helpful to have as much advance data as possible. However, she was grateful for this small improvement in communication. "Will they be joining you for the run?" Cam asked.
Blair nodded, watching out the tinted windows of the limousine as the city slid by. "Yes. I've invited Diane and another friend."
Cam didn't ask for the details. She wondered, however, if she would be spending another day watching the admittedly attractive Dr. Coleman pursue Blair.
You put yourself in this position, and you knew what it would mean, she reminded herself. But she couldn't help but think that she hadn't come close to imagining how difficult it would be. She also hadn't expected it to be so complicated for the two of them to talk. The lack of privacy didn't help, but it was more than that. She had to admit that part of it was pride, and some of it was pain, and a great deal of it was a lifetime of defenses, on both sides, standing between them now.
Cam tried to put her personal feelings aside until the day's work was done. "Savard, Stark, and I will be with you along the route."
Blair turned her attention from the window to study Cam. It was a face she never seemed to tire of looking at. Seeing her made something inside her pulse, swift and sharp and hot -- it was part desire and part longing and, so unexpectedly, part tenderness. It defied explanation, but in spite of everything, she welcomed the sensation. "Special Agent Savard is quite the beauty," Blair observed dryly.
Cam raised an eyebrow but decided comment was probably not required. Renee Savard was indeed an attractive woman, now that she considered it. She hadn't thought about it earlier, in fact, she hadn't paid much attention to her other than to consider what to do with her. Savard was an agent under her command by circumstance, but under her command nonetheless, and that was the only way she thought of her. When she noted Savard's appearance at all, it was merely to reflect that despite her photographic beauty, almost anyone paled when compared to Blair. Blair's beauty was fired by her passion and her temper and her absolute unwillingness to yield. She was beautiful in a way so primal that being near her made Cam's skin burn.
"What?" Blair asked quietly.
Cam blinked, uncharacteristically startled. "I'm sorry?"
"You were smiling," Blair said, a slight edge to her voice. "Thinking of Savard, were you?"
"No. Actually," Cam said before she could stop herself, "I was thinking of you."
Across the narrow expanse of the limousine where they sat facing one another on opposite seats, their legs nearly touching, Blair's blue eyes darkened to indigo. "You should try doing that more often," she said, her tone throaty with invitation.
Cam met her gaze, captivated by the heat in her eyes. For a moment forgetting everything else, she said, her voice husky, "No, Ms. Powell, I shouldn't. It's distracting."
"Well, Commander," Blair said very slowly, very quietly, staring at the pulse that beat rapidly in Cam's neck, "I like you when you're distracted. In fact, I like you that way very much.""You're distracting me," Cam complained playfully as she tried to read the newspaper.
"I like you when you're distracted," Blair responded, running her hand over the soft cotton fabric of the sweatpants Cam wore. "In fact, I like distracting you."
They were lying together on the couch in the late afternoon sun in Diane's apartment. They had finally managed to shower and dress, which for the first eighteen hours they had been together they hadn't been able to accomplish. Every time they made it into the shower one or the other of them would start something and they'd end up back in bed. Starvation finally drove them to get up. Cam eventually made a trip to a nearby deli for sandwiches and newspapers and something to drink.
"What do you imagine they think I'm doing up here?" Blair mused, her fingers tracing the seam along the inside of Cam's thigh.
Cam sighed, most of her attention focused on the light pressure of Blair's fingers moving rhythmically up and down the same fine line, over and over again, creeping higher up the inside of her leg each time. She settled back against the cushions, her muscles twitching faintly at Blair's touch. "They're not supposed to think anything about it at all." Her voice caught softly as Blair stroked closer to the heat between her legs.
"Maybe they're not supposed to, but they are human, aren't they," Blair continued. She lifted the edge of Cam's shirt and circled her hand over Cam's stomach, absently drawing one finger up and down the center of Cam's body. "I've come so many times in the last twenty-four hours I didn't think anything could excite me," she said in wonder. "But, God, you do." She pressed her palm swiftly to the triangle between Cam's thighs, making her jump, then just as quickly moved it back to Cam's stomach. "So, you were saying about discretion?"
Cam's voice was low, heavy with the urgency of mounting desire as she answered," Their jobs depend upon it. But it's more than that..." She was aware of the fact that her breath was coming a little faster and that her sentences were a bit choppy. She knew she was wet again and hardening with the rush of blood and need. She took a breath and added, "Believe it or not, we understand that what we do is an infringement. The very least we can do is not speculate upon what we observe."
She looked down, watching Blair's fingers move under her T-shirt. She wondered at the ease with which Blair was able to ignite every nerve ending with a caress. She had absolutely nothing to say about it. It was as if her body succumbed to Blair's touch as a tree yielded to the wind, bending to her will. "Blair," she warned huskily, wondering if Blair had any idea what she was doing to her.
"You have the most amazing body," Blair observed casually, massaging her palm over Cam's rib cage, brushing fleetingly over her chest, smiling as Cam's nipples stiffened rapidly. Cam groaned and reached for her, and just as quickly, Blair leaned away.
"I think you should just read the newspaper and ignore me," Blair said with a perfectly serious expression.
Cam's eyes widened slightly, her hands rubbing lightly up and down Blair's arms. Her skin felt hot. "I don't think I could concentrate."
"Try," Blair suggested with a hint of command in her voice. "In fact, why don't you read the headlines out loud? A synopsis of today's current events would be good. Make yourself useful."
"Blair," Cam said, ominously now. "I've been trained to resist torture."
Blair burst out laughing and loosened the ties on Cam's sweatpants, slipping to the floor to kneel between Cam's legs. "Oh really? Well then, Commander, let's put that training to the test. Go ahead - read."
Cam reached for the New York Times and held the folded newspaper in her right hand. The pages fluttered as her fingers trembled. "Uh - let's see. Uh -dot com stocks rose finally --" She gasped when Blair pulled at the skin of her lower abdomen with her teeth. "God-"
"I'm listening," Blair murmured, eyes nearly closed. She licked the red spot she had just bitten and pushed the cotton fabric farther down Cam's thighs. She pressed her palms to the inside of Cam's legs, bringing her thumbs very close to the visibly swollen clitoris. Cam's hips arched and she groaned again.
"Not until I hear the sports scores," Blair whispered, leaning forward and kissing the soft skin at the top of Cam's thigh. "How about them Yankees?"
"Blair," Cam gasped, tossing the paper aside. "I can't -- read. I can't talk - I can barely breathe."
Blair brushed her thumb lightly over the tip of her clitoris.
Cam pushed back against the couch, her neck arched, her hands fisted by her sides. "I'm ready -- do that again - to divulge -- ah, yes - right there - State secrets." She found Blair's face with one hand, moved her fingers into her hair, pulled her closer. "Suck me," she gasped, her voice cracking with need.
Blair held off another second, but not without effort. She was shaking. "God," she whispered, "I want to taste you."
When Blair finally circled her with her lips, Cam jerked, her fingers convulsing in Blair's hair. She clamped her jaws down on a moan and tried to think of anything except the waves of pleasure coursing down her legs, up her spine, through her guts. She wanted it never to end. She pushed against Blair's mouth, dimly aware that she might bruise her, trying not to press too hard. But she couldn't stop, couldn't get enough air, couldn't hold it back. "Blair-" she cried, lifting off the couch as her legs stiffened, pounded by the fury of the orgasm whipping through her.
Before Cam regained her bearings, Blair was in her arms, straddling her thigh, rocking hard on her leg, her face pressed to Cam's neck.
"You make me burn," Blair moaned, clutching Cam as she climbed frantically to her peak. "You make me -ooh-"
Her words were lost in a strangled cry and all Cam could do was hold onto her, embracing her securely while she took her pleasure.
The limousine pulled to a stop on the edge of the green in Prospect Park. Cam shuddered faintly, her dark eyes liquid with unspoken emotion. She struggled to keep her voice steady as she said, "I'm not interested in being distracted."
"That's your problem, Commander," Blair said softly, seeing the arousal Cam couldn't successfully hide. "Not mine."
As she slid across the seat toward the door, she ran her hand down the length of Cam's thigh. She smiled to herself as Cam gasped sharply. "I told you once your body never lies."
Prospect Park, the starting point for the race, was slightly more than half the size of Manhattan's eight hundred acre Central Park, but it nevertheless housed a wildlife center, a music pagoda, a lake, and many other opportunities for city dwellers to escape the urban stresses for a few hours. The area of Brooklyn around the park was a study in contrasts. The west side was bordered by Park Slope, a conclave of historic brownstones housing the wealthy and privileged. The eastern extent of the sprawling park abutted Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, areas that in recent years had become dangerous territory for tourists and inhabitants alike. At seven AM on a Sunday morning, there were usually a few early morning enthusiasts enjoying the opportunity to run or rollerblade in relative solitude. Such was not the case today.
Long Meadow, an open, rolling ninety acre section nearly a mile in length was already bustling with people. The Race for the Cure drew greater numbers of supporters than almost any similar event, because the disease itself affected so many. It was a media event as much as anything else, especially with Blair as the keynote speaker, and photographers and news vans were already present in abundant numbers.
Cam stood next to Blair by the side of the car, scanning the hundreds of participants gathering for the start of the run. "It's going to be very crowded along the entire route, especially when we get into Central Park. I'd appreciate it if you'd not lose us."
Blair met Cam's eyes, and for the first time in a long time, she couldn't read the expression in them. Even though they had been physically separated since Cam's return, she had at least had the comfort of seeing what was behind her professional façade when she looked into her dark eyes. This new barrier stung. "You're very good at your job, Commander. I'm sure you'll manage somehow."
Blair abruptly turned and walked off toward the area where the race organizers had set up information booths. Stark and Savard were approaching from the second vehicle, and Cam signaled the two women to accompany Blair while she radioed Mac for his position.
"Do you have the commanders of the other teams there?" she asked without preamble, watching Blair disappear into the crowd of men and women clustered around the long registration tables. It bothered her that Blair was out of her visual range, and it occurred to her that it might be less a security issue than the fact that she couldn't see who she was with. Terrific.
"I'll be right there," she snapped into her mike. Her lapse in concentration on the ride over had left her unsettled. So did the simmering remnants of desire. She ignored the physical annoyance with effort and checked Blair's position again.
Across the wide field, Blair stood talking to a number of people, Diane Bleeker among them. Cam resisted the urge to scan the faces nearby for the very handsome Doctor Coleman. She assured herself that Stark and Savard were well positioned, and walked over to join Mac and the other security chiefs.
It was hot and sunny and, surprisingly for August, without the heavy humidity that often blanketed the city in late summer. After greeting the appropriate people and allowing the media their few minutes of photo-ops, Blair found a quiet corner in the shade to stretch, preparing for the run. As she leaned over, legs braced, stretching her hamstrings, Diane's familiar voice remarked from beside her, "I see you've brought along a new addition. A very nice one, too."
Blair shifted to look up at Diane. She didn't have to ask whom she meant. She had seen her friend's face light up with an appreciative and frankly appraising expression when Savard had come into view a few minutes before. "That would be the FBI's contribution to my team."
Diane reclined on the grass next to Blair and began to lean forward, touching her toes effortlessly. "What's going on?" she asked casually, moving smoothly into a yoga pose.
Blair sat beside her, reaching for one ankle and crossing it over the opposite knee, rotating her torso as she said, "Nothing."
"Blair, friend - just how dumb do the you think I am?" Diane asked calmly, breathing deeply in the proscribed ujjay manner. "First Roberts makes a surprise appearance, and now you've got the FBI following you around. That means something."
Blair turned over and pushed off ten fast fingertip push-ups in perfect form. Returning to the sitting position, she said, "Just routine." Somehow talking about it made it much too real. She didn't want this in her life. Except for her first tentative discussions with her friend AJ at the Bureau, she hadn't told any of her acquaintances. She had intentionally avoided briefings with the FBI. The only thing she wanted to know from them was that they had caught him.
Diane folded both legs into a full lotus position and slipped one arm behind her back, twisting slowly in the opposite direction. "Believe it or not, I can keep a secret if I need to. Besides, my feelings will be hurt if I'm the last to find out and I miss all the fun."
Blair snorted in disgust. "Believe me, if you think this is a treat, you can take my place any day."
She rose quickly and began to alternately lift each leg to her chest in rapid succession. She looked across the gathering crowd and easily picked out Cam where she stood talking with several officious-looking individuals. There was nothing flashy or showy about her, but she stood out from the others. The air around her seemed charged. It was amazing - and frightening.
Diane studied Blair's face as she followed her gaze. "She's gotten to you, hasn't she?" Diane said softly.
"Oh, yeah," Blair said without thinking. She looked away, shrugging. "She's back because my father wanted her here. I've been getting a little more fan mail than usual, and you know how seriously these people take those things. It's nothing, really."
Diane nodded, knowing there was more but willing to wait for the details. Eventually, she'd get the rest out of her. She rose to stand beside her, waving to a familiar figure drawing near. "Marcy's been asking about you."
Blair looked at her, an eyebrow raised in question. "Is that so?"
"Yes," Diane said, grabbing them each a water bottle from a nearby table. "She wants to know how available you might be."
"Then she should ask me herself," Blair said impatiently. "For God's sake, we're all adults."
"I think she wants to avoid being shot down. Your signals were a little mixed last weekend at my place," Diane pointed out dryly.
Seeing Marcy's friendly smile, Blair was a little embarrassed to realize she hadn't given the events at Diane's gathering any thought. She had been too rattled the last week by Cam's abrupt reappearance and the emotional chaos that followed to give anything, or anyone, else much thought. It hadn't occurred to her that Marcy Coleman might have other ideas, but, recalling what had happened, she supposed it should have.
It had all started after Cam left the party.
Blair watched Cam move through the crowd, murmur something briefly to Ellen Grant, and then walk out the door. She did not look back to where Blair still stood in the shadows on the balcony.
After a moment of foolishly hoping that her security chief might suddenly reappear, Blair rejoined the group in Diane's living room. Lights were turned down low, and couples were dancing. A daring few in secluded corners were carrying on more intimate exchanges.
Dr. Marcy Coleman, a willowy blond in her mid-thirties approached, a smile on her face and a question in her eyes. "I thought you might have left."
"No," Blair said, her mind still on the image of Cam standing outside, alone in the dark, the night wind ruffling her dark hair. Once she had been challenged by Cam's solitude; now she was wounded by it. The change was not a welcome one, and she brushed the reflection from her mind.
"Another dance?" Marcy's asked, lightly taking Blair's hand in hers.
Sure," Blair answered absently. At least it would distract her from the way her body still vibrated from the brief touch of Cam's fingers. So she thought.
She stepped into Marcy's arms, rested her cheek lightly against the other woman's shoulder, and closed her eyes. The music was something slow and sultry -- perfect music to get lost in. She wanted to be lost for a while. Not to think, not to struggle, not to mourn. To want nothing was to never be disappointed.
Marcy's body was sleek and sensuous, and she moved against Blair with practiced intimacy. It had been like this countless times before, with other bodies, other faces. Brief diversions, momentary escape. The act of pleasuring was satisfying in itself, but Blair was careful always to remain in control. Safe, simple, emotionally unencumbered. No promises - just pleasant, mutually satisfying biological proceedings.
Marcy pulled her a little closer, rotating her hips slowly, insistently, against her own - a subtle shift of pressure that she almost didn't notice at first. And then something unexpected happened. Without realizing it, without consciously willing it, she was becoming aroused. A year ago, even six months ago, she would never have noticed the fire starting. And even if she had, she would have been able to ignore it. The excitement would have settled in the back of her mind like a pleasant afterthought, untended and unanswered. Now her nerve endings were raw and acutely sensitive.
She was afraid she knew why. Since Cam, something had changed. Something that she had been able to contain for many years had been unleashed. The practiced disconnection she had so carefully constructed between her emotions and her physical self had begun to dissolve with the first touch of Cam's hands.
She knew her breathing had increased, and she felt Marcy's heart beating rapidly against her own. When Marcy cupped her breast as she had done briefly once before that evening, she felt her nipple stiffen against Marcy's hand. She bit her lip to keep back a moan and tried to concentrate on something other than the liquid heat surging between her legs.
Marcy lowered her head, her lips brushing the outer edge of Blair's ear. "You are a great dancer," she said, her voice throaty and slightly breathless. As she spoke, she rubbed her palm very lightly over Blair's nipple.
Blair gasped as a ripple of excitement flickered through her, running down her spine and coiling in her stomach. It was so unusual that it took her completely by surprise, and before she was aware of it, she had parted her legs and pressed harder against Marcy's thigh. The pressure against her swelling clitoris was exquisite and for a moment, she couldn't think of anything at all.
"I'd like very much to be alone with you right now," Marcy continued, deftly directing them closer to the hallway that led back to the guest room in Diane's apartment. "I want to touch you so much it's driving me crazy."
Blair flashed on the last time she had been in that room, and almost instantly, Cam's face, intense and consuming, filled her mind. For a moment, it was Cam's hand on her breast, and Cam's leg between her thighs, and a spasm shuddered through her as her arousal escalated. She stumbled slightly, trembling.
Marcy's arms closed around her. "I don't usually do this sort of thing in other people's houses," she said urgently, "but if I don't do something soon, I'm in danger of exploding."
By now they were in the hallway, alone, and Marcy had maneuvered her up against the wall. She had both hands under Blair's sweater, cupping her breasts, squeezing them as she worked Blair's nipples between her fingers.
Blair pressed her palms flat against the wall, her head tipped back, her eyes closed, struggling to stay upright, verging on orgasm. She wasn't thinking of the woman who touched her now, but of the woman who had done so much more than just touch her body.
"Blair," Marcy whispered.
"Marcy," Blair groaned, forcing her eyes open, backing away from the edge through sheer willpower. "We -- should -- stop."
Marcy's lips were on Blair's neck, biting her lightly as she pressed harder against her, one hand pushing under the waistband of Blair's pants. "Oh god, I don't want to."
She moved her hand to the triangle between Blair's thighs and squeezed rhythmically. "God, I know how close you are. I can feel it."
Blair pulled away as much as she could, struggling to contain the surging pressure building between her legs, knowing that in a second, she would lose the fight. Dimly she wondered why it mattered, and she did not want to know the answer. "Stop now, please."
Marcy lifted her hands to Blair's waist, holding her but not pushing her any further. She shuddered against Blair, gasping. "I'm sorry. I don't know what happened."
Blair laughed shakily. "Neither do I, but you don't need to apologize."
Marcy leaned back, her eyes still molten with desire, and smiled a little tremulously. "I don't think anyone has ever done that to me before."
Blair laughed, a little stronger this time. "You mean teased you quite so unmercifully? Maybe I should apologize."
Marcy shook her head vehemently, running one finger along the edge of Blair's jaw. "Oh no, don't even think of it. What I meant was, no one has ever made me so hot so fast. No one ever made me lose my mind like that."
Blair stepped sideways enough to put space between them. "I didn't mean to do that. It took me a little by surprise too."
Marcy brushed her shoulder length blond hair back with a still trembling hand. "I think we should go back into the other room. I seem to be dangerous out here."
Blair took her hand in a friendly but not intimate gesture, and laughed. "A very good idea, Dr. Coleman."
"I'd like that to happen again," Marcy said just before they rejoined the others. "Somewhere, some time, when we won't have to stop."
Blair did not look back, and she did not answer.
Blair watched Marcy approach and shrugged again. "I don't think I sent her any kind of message at all. Nothing happened."
"That's not the way she tells it," Diane said off-handedly. "To hear her, you are the answer to a woman's dreams. She appears to be in danger of spontaneous combustion just from being in the same room as you."
"I can't help that," Blair said in irritation. "I can't control what other people fantasize."
Diane nodded, following Blair through the crowd toward the start line. "I absolutely agree, Blair," Diane responded, her tone uncharacteristically serious. "I like her, though. I like you, too."
Blair looked at her directly, a challenge in her eyes. "You have a point here?"
"I thought I did," Diane said. "God knows, I'm the last one to give advice. Just be careful with her. Especially if you know there's no chance."
Blair looked back, and just beyond Marcy, saw Cam. The contrast was striking - one blond, the other dark, sunlight and midnight. Her heart hammering, she said, "I'm not sure of anything anymore."
Stark glanced over at Savard and grimaced. She hoped her lithe companion, running effortlessly beside her, could not see her struggling to catch her breath.
Running - I hate running. Stupid form of exercise. Terrible for your feet. Murder on your knees. Give me a bike, or better yet - rollerblades.
Savard cast her a sideways look and grinned, a surprisingly charming grin, then called, "Isn't this great?"
"Oh yeah, fabulous! Love it," Stark replied, hoping that she sounded appropriately excited. No way was she going to let the FBI agent think she couldn't keep up. She'd run on bare feet first. Just to prove it, she picked up her pace a little bit.
"Could be worse duty," Savard commented. Or worse company.
She was enjoying her posting with the Secret Service more than she had imagined. She missed the prevailing sense of urgency that permeated everything the FBI seemed to do, even if it was just a routine wire tap, but she couldn't deny that Roberts and her team ran a tight, organized operation. And she also had to admit that Paula Stark was an interesting combination of straight-arrow dedication and startling naiveté. She couldn't help but wonder if her refreshingly unsophisticated counterpart really had no clue as to how attractive she was or the fact that other people might think so. Savard reminded herself to stop watching Stark's butt and keep her eyes on the main target, who, come to think of it, had a very nice butt herself.
At that moment, Stark was doing the same thing, but without quite the same appreciation. The Commander and Egret were a few feet ahead of her and neither of them looked like they had even broken a sweat. In between ignoring the pain in her calves and attempting to look consumed with zeal for this madness, her primary responsibility for the day was crowd surveillance. Another nearly impossible chore, but a far more achievable goal than pretending enthusiasm for the next god knew how many miles.
The entire team had been provided with photos of the people expected to be in Blair's immediate vicinity during the run - primarily the race organizers, representatives of various cancer organizations, and political dignitaries from the city, state and national level. When she occasionally spotted someone she did not recognize, she radioed a verbal description to Mac in the communications van that was following behind the mass of runners, and more often than not, he made an immediate identification. If there was any question or concern, she could beam him an image from her handheld personal unit. He and several other agents conscripted from the local office for this particular event had been on site since daybreak, quietly photographing individuals as they arrived in the park. Then they ran all unknowns through computer links to the DMV, Armed Forces directory and the State Police files. She didn't know for sure, but she assumed that the FBI were doing the same thing from their own van as well. It would have been more efficient to combine their search capabilities, but the FBI hadn't offered access to their data banks. So much for interagency cooperation.
Not all of this was routine. The fact that Egret was now considered a high-risk subject dictated the extra precautions. Stark shifted the weight of her pistol in the quick release fanny pack she wore and said a small prayer of thanks as they crossed over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. She looked ahead, never so grateful in her life to see the Bowery.
Cam kept pace to Blair's right and just a half step behind her, a vantage point from which she could see anyone approaching from the right, left or rear. What she was watching now, however, was Marcy Coleman lean close to say something to Blair, her hand resting casually in the small of Blair's back. It might have been a friendly gesture, but Cam didn't think so. Not from the way the blond doctor had been looking at Blair for the last few miles.
Cam had seen Blair with other women before. Hell, she'd seen her have sex with other women. It had been different then. She hadn't particularly enjoyed watching Blair have casual sex with strangers, the biggest reason being that she had always thought Blair exceptional. She couldn't help thinking that Blair deserved something more than anonymous couplings. But it hadn't been her business then, and she had been able to put it out of her mind enough to work around it. The problem now was that she carried the imprint of Blair's skin burned into her nerve endings. She had surrendered to her and taken her and she knew the wonder of holding her when she was completely without her usual defenses. Now it was intolerable to see another woman touch her.
She looked away, scanning the nearby faces, forcing herself to review yet again the details of the rest of the day. She settled back into a comfortable rhythm, mentally and physically, as she took refuge in her responsibilities. They were approaching Fifth Avenue now, and before too long they would enter the south end of Central Park. Once there, security would be at its most difficult, and Blair would be at greatest risk. The park was always filled with people - runners, bladers, people pushing strollers, and tourists of all size and description. Students picnicked on the grass and lovers trysted amongst the outcroppings of rocks. The race ended in Sheep Meadow, a huge open field where a stage had been erected and equipped with sound and video for the closing activities. Blair, the Mayor, members of the American Cancer Society, and a few celebrities would be speaking from there.
It was an impossible area to isolate and contain. Blair would be exposed on the podium the entire time, particularly so when she gave the keynote address. The anticipated crowd would number in the thousands. The New York State Police would be providing the NYPD with additional troops for crowd control. That would leave the Mayor's security detail to concentrate on the area directly around the speaker's stands. Cam had met the Mayor's security chief and she was good. That was a plus. She intended to make full use of all of them.
Her mental planning was interrupted as Blair dropped back to run next to her.
"Are you enjoying yourself, Commander?" Blair asked. She was actually surprised to find that she was. She loved the exercise, but the event itself took a toll on her emotionally. It reminded her, even after all these years, of the horrible year when she was nine and everything in her life seemed to change overnight. She focused on Cam's face and let the memory slip away. "Beats sitting in front of the video monitors, wouldn't you say?"
"It's a beautiful day," Cam agreed, smiling when she looked at her because she couldn't help it. There was a faint sheen of sweat on Blair's face, and her T-shirt was damp between her shoulder blades. She looked healthy and strong and altogether beautiful. "Can't complain about a chance to spend a day like this outside."
"Un huh," Blair acknowledged with a slow smile, thinking that Cameron Roberts had to be the most naturally graceful, physically striking woman she had ever seen. And at the moment, there were shadows in her deep gray eyes. "Then why do I get the impression you'd rather be elsewhere?"
"I'd rather you be elsewhere," Cam responded immediately.
Blair shook her head, frowning slightly, but her eyes were dancing. "You are nothing, Commander Roberts, if not doggedly persistent."
Cam's eyes became even more serious as she answered, "I assume you want me to tell you the truth, Ms. Powell. Especially when it affects you."
Blair's chin came up and her voice was chilly. "I do, Commander. I just wish you'd tell me before you decide on something. Especially when it affects me."
Cam looked ahead, checking their position. Nothing out of the ordinary. Then, for a moment, she looked nowhere but at Blair. "I know. I'm sorry."
"Yes," Blair said dryly, taking no comfort from that admission. "You said that before."
"I'll need to review a few things with you once we arrive at the stage," Cam said steadily. She needed to keep them both focused on what was important for the moment. Later, later somehow, they would talk.
"I'll try to spare a minute or two," Blair answered.
Then she picked up her speed and rejoined Diane and Marcy Coleman.
The area around the viewing stands was controlled chaos, just as Cam had expected. Sound and video technicians were crawling over the surface of the stage, running last-minute cables and adjusting microphones. The Mayor was taking every occasion for photo ops, and there were more press people jockeying for a comment than Cam would have liked. All of the reporters were easily identifiable by their badges, but it was a simple matter to counterfeit those things.
"Let's go up the back way to the stage," Cam suggested as she and Blair approached. "There are too many people in front."
"I at least need to make an appearance here first," Blair said matter-of-factly. At Cam's frown, she added gently, "I am identified with this event. The American people know my life story, and the story of my mother's death. I'm here because I'm identified with this disease, and I need to be seen. It's expected."
"You'll be seen by millions of television viewers in about twenty minutes," Cam pointed out as she took Blair's arm lightly and started to move around to the side of the high temporary stage. "That will have to do."
"Cam," Blair said quietly.
Cam stopped in her tracks at the sound of her name spoken as only Blair could say it.
Blair touched Cam's arm briefly, continuing softly, "He doesn't want to hurt me. If he did, he wouldn't be sending me the messages he's been sending."
Cameron looked over the faces in the immediate vicinity, imprinting each on her mind. She saw Stark and Savard already posted at opposite corners of the stage and Mac in conversation with the Mayor's security chief. She was satisfied that all was as it should be.
Then she looked at Blair, and there were no barriers in her eyes this time. No professional distance, no orders or rules or protocol between them. "I don't know what he's going to do. I don't know when he's going to do it. I don't know nearly enough." She struggled not to touch her, and for the barest of instants, she brushed her fingertips over Blair's hand. "Blair, I just want you safe."
"Yes, I know," Blair responded, no anger or resentment in her voice. She could not argue with the honest caring in Cam's face. It wasn't how she wanted it - it was not what she wanted from her - but it was real nonetheless. "And you've done what needs to be done to ensure that. Now, I need to go and do this."
Cam nodded, knowing she would never be comfortable with it, but accepting that Blair would not let this threat interfere with her life or her responsibilities. "Let's go see the Mayor, then, Ms. Powell. You'll make the photographers a lot happier than he will."
Blair smiled. "Why, thank you, Commander."
When Blair stepped to the podium, Cam was positioned to the right rear, just a few feet behind her. Stark and Savard were at ground level directly in front of her, and several FBI agent's on loan from the New York office were interspersed in the crowd near the stage.
Mac, coordinating the various teams from the communication van, was linked by radio to Jeremy Finch, the driver of Blair's car; to Ellen Grant, in the second back-up vehicle; and to the Mayor's security chief as well as the NYPD crowd control captain. As it turned out, for that sort of affair, it was proceeding without a hitch. The audiovisual equipment actually functioned; the speakers were keeping to their preplanned schedule; and the hundreds of people scattered about in Sheep Meadow were surprisingly orderly.
Blair had exchanged her running gear for warm up pants and a dry T-shirt in one of the tents, as had Cam and the others, and she looked casually stylish as she faced the mass of onlookers. When she began to speak, the sound of cameras clicking fluttered through the crowd like something alive.
While part of Cam's attention was completely focused on crowd activity in the area within visual range of Blair, another part listened to her speak. She had a beautiful speaking voice, warm and strong and somehow soothing. Cam knew the story, of course. Everyone did. A man could not run for the presidency of the United States and have something as critical as his wife's valiant battle with breast cancer not be a prominent issue during the campaign. This personal tragedy was part of his image, part of his public face, no matter how private the pain. And because her father's life was open to intense scrutiny by virtue of his position, Blair's loss became public knowledge, too. Blair Powell had secrets she guarded, but this was not one of them. To fight this war, she had willingly exposed her deepest anguish. She spoke eloquently, urging lawmakers to allocate funds for treatment and diagnosis, exhorting women to practice vigilance and to be their own best advocates, and, above all, encouraging every person touched by the disease to never lose hope.
Cam thought she was magnificent.
When Blair finished, she turned away from the podium, and Cam stepped immediately to her side, careful not to touch her but walking close beside her toward the rear of the stage and the shelter of some overhead canvas tarps.
"Are you all right?" Cam asked quietly, because she had heard the tears beneath the noble words. Although she had rarely seen Blair shaken, she could sense her fragility now. There were some things that always hurt, no matter how many years had passed. "Can I get you anything? Some water? You were standing in the blazing sun up there for half an hour."
Blair glanced at her, aware of what Cam wasn't saying and grateful to her for not remarking on the fact that she was shaking. "So were you," she pointed out.
"Yes," Cam murmured, passing her a bottle of water, "but I had sunglasses on."
Blair laughed softly. "Well, that explains it. I'm all right, but I'd like to get out of here now."
"Of course." Cam spoke into her microphone quickly. "Egret is flying."
Blair smiled wearily. "Egret is actually dragging, but carry on, Commander."
"Destination?" Cam asked as they moved down the steps and across the field toward the waiting cars parked along the far edge of the grass. The meadow itself was large enough that the vehicles were actually quite a distance away on one of the main roads running north to south through the park. Cam wasn't happy about that, but it was the terrain she'd been given to deal with. Stark and Savard fell in behind them and Mac, upon hearing Cam's announcement, radioed the drivers to prepare for departure. "I'd like to inform the drivers where you need to go."
She asked as casually as she could, and hoped she sounded only professionally interested. She was acutely aware of the fact that Blair had spoken privately to both Diane and Marcy Coleman just before she had joined the other speakers on the stage. Cam assumed that she was making plans for the rest of the day. She had tried hard not to consider the particulars of those plans.
"Home," Blair responded. Diane had invited both her and Marcy over to her apartment for dinner and drinks, but she had decided to pass. It had been a long day and a longer week. She didn't have the energy for conversation or the desire to deal with Marcy's obvious interest. She might have to deal with it soon, but not when she knew her emotional armor would already be breached. She'd need a little time to garner her defenses again.
"That was quite a speech," Cam said as they walked. "They were right to have you give it."
Blair smiled, pleased despite her weariness. "Thank you."
Cam merely nodded, anxious to get Blair into the safety of the waiting car. They were thirty feet from the vehicles, Stark and Savard keeping pace to either side, when they heard someone call out, "Blair!"
Blair looked back over her shoulder, then stopped as Marcy Coleman hurried toward her. This could be awkward, she thought, very conscious of Cam beside her. She didn't want to have a personal conversation with Marcy in front of her. It shouldn't have mattered, and she was well used to ignoring her security guards, just as they were well schooled in appearing totally deaf and blind under such circumstances. She had no doubt that Cam would behave as if nothing were happening, but Blair would know she could hear. She wasn't sure what Marcy would say, or precisely how she herself would respond. She was certain that she didn't want to deal with a request for a date, no matter how delicately worded, in front of Cameron Roberts.
"Sorry," Marcy said, suddenly flustered as she looked at the cadre of Secret Service agents loosely ringing Blair. For the first time it was abundantly clear to her just who she had been trying to seduce. Jesus. "Diane told me you weren't coming by later, so I thought I should give you this."
She held out a white envelope, smiling uncertainly when Blair regarded her with a slightly confused expression on her face.
Cam listened with half an ear to the vehicles starting their engines behind them while thinking that the attractive doctor was making a very serious attempt to capture Blair's attention. She tried to tell herself that her annoyance was merely due to the hiccoughing coming from the motor of one of their cars. She'd have to speak to Mac about the maintenance schedule. She couldn't have Egret's vehicle breaking down.
Blair took the envelope and was about to tuck it into her fanny pack when Marcy added, "He said you'd want to look at it right away. That you'd know whom it was from."
Blair faltered, staring from Marcy to the envelope. "He?"
"Wait," Cam ordered sharply, about to reach for it when the significance of the engine's stuttering finally registered. She grabbed Blair, shouting, "Everybody down!" just as the air exploded with heat and thunder.
Blair was momentarily stunned by the noise and shaken by the force of being thrown to the ground. She heard Cam's voice, raw and urgent, as she was suddenly being dragged away by Stark and Savard.
Get her out Get her out GOGOGO!
Blair was too confused and shocked by the sight of the burning car to resist until she saw Cam running not in the direction the other agents were evacuating her, but in the opposite direction, directly toward the inferno.
"No!" Blair cried, struggling to escape the hands that restrained her as the second vehicle careened to a halt beside them and the doors flew open. As Stark pushed her into the back of the car, Blair had only a fleeting glimpse of Cam stepping intentionally into the blaze and reaching for what remained of the door on the flaming wreck.
The she could see nothing, and all she could hear was the wail of sirens and her own silent screams.
The next thing Blair was clearly aware of was the wild rocking of the car as it careened around curves on the narrow twisting road through the park. She could barely breathe because Stark was practically lying on top of her in an attempt to shield her from projectiles directed at the windows. Blair shifted on the seat, pushing Stark none too gently away. She sat up and stared at the two women with her.
"What's happening?" she said urgently.
No one answered her. Stark and Savard, their faces grim, each with a hand to their small earpieces, alternately listened to and then answered their respective colleagues. Stark was rapidly switching frequencies on her transmitter, issuing rapid-fire one-word responses. Blair assumed it was some kind of code concerning their evacuation route or destination, because she couldn't make any sense of it.
"Where is Cam?" Blair demanded, her voice louder, stronger now that she had caught her breath. "Agent Stark, are you talking to her? Is she all right?"
Something about her tone caught Savard's attention. She had been listening with only part of her mind, and when she registered the edge of fear in Blair's voice, she misinterpreted it. "Ms. Powell -- are you injured?"
Blair stared at her, trying to contain her panic and her escalating anger. This was an all too familiar nightmare - a deja vu so horrifyingly real she wanted to grab Savard and shake her. Everyone was focused on protecting her, as if her life were so much more important than everyone else's. It was insane.
She struggled for control amidst the disorientation of being whisked away to some unknown destination while the threat of danger enveloped her like an oppressive, invisible cloak. Even worse than the infuriating helplessness of having no control over her own safety was the terror of knowing that Cam might be hurt - might be seriously injured - and she was not there. Again.
Blair took a deep breath, knowing these women were only doing their jobs, and said again, "Is there any word from Cameron? Is she all right?"
"I don't have any information as to specifics," Stark said, her voice tight with stress but still polite. She hesitated, and against regulations, added, "Emergency medical services are on the scene. I have no word on the extent or nature of casualties."
Blair's stomach clenched, and she fought to quell her rising fear. She held Stark's gaze. "Can you tell me if she's hurt? Can you just tell me that?"
Stark shook her head, barely managing to say, "Ms. Powell, I can't. I don't know," before the pain struck. She gasped at the sudden rush of near-blinding pain in her head that was just now becoming noticeable.
For the first time since they had piled into the car, Savard actually looked at Stark, who was seated beside her, and her heart skipped a beat - which, at the rate it was already racing, was no small feat. Still she managed to state calmly, "You appear to be injured, Agent."
Through the haze of her own anxiety, Blair finally focused on Stark and saw that she was mopping up a steady stream of blood that ran down her face with a handkerchief. The three-inch gash in her forehead was bleeding copiously.
"She's right," Blair said. "You need a doctor. Tell whoever's driving this thing to go to a hospital."
"I'm fine," Stark said, although in truth she was having a little trouble clearing her vision. At this point they couldn't divert for any reason except a serious injury to Egret. In addition, she was the ranking agent present and she had much more pressing matters to attend to. She wondered where the Commander was, but she pushed that worry from her mind. She confirmed their position with Grant and radioed it to Mac, adding, "We are en route, on schedule, to checkpoint alpha. Please advise."
"Continue that location, black-out procedures in effect until further notice," Mac's voice confirmed. "Terminating transmission now."
Until such time as the scope of the assault could be determined, Stark knew it was standard operating procedure to assume that their radio transmissions were being monitored. That also meant that she, Ellen Grant, and Renee Savard, an unknown quantity in this situation, had full responsibility for Egret's safety until the Commander, or Mac, if the Commander were unavailable, contacted them on a preset frequency and sent a coded, predetermined, all-clear message.
"Your clothes are torn," Savard remarked to Blair, indicating a long rent in the thin material of her pant leg. "Are you otherwise uninjured?"
Blair nodded her head affirmatively. Her thigh burned with what felt like a scrape from her contact with the gravel on the path when Cam had thrown her down. She wasn't concerned about her aches and bruises, however. All she could think about was Cam racing toward the burning car.
Nearly sixty minutes later, they stopped. Blair had only a brief glimpse of a moderate-sized colonial structure artfully hidden from the neighboring houses by fences and hedgerows. She guessed they were in one of the affluent bedroom communities just north of the city limits where the homes had a small amount of land and an impressive amount of privacy that came with an enormous price tag.
Blair found herself in the living room of a surprisingly tasteful house that sat unoccupied for months or years at a time waiting for someone like her to need shelter. She had no idea how many such places there were scattered over the country and probably in other countries as well. She knew that anywhere her father traveled, anywhere she traveled, or, for that matter, anywhere any of the immediate members of the President's or Vice-President's family might be, contingencies were made to secure them in safe houses not only in the case of a threat to their personal safety but in the event of a national emergency. She had always thought that such precautions were unnecessary holdovers from the paranoid days of the Cold War, when everyone feared that a nuclear attack was imminent. She looked around the comfortable accommodations and grudgingly admitted to herself that in this instance maybe the paranoia had been a good idea.
"There is a bedroom down the hallway to your left with an adjoining bath," Paula Stark told her as she glanced at a floor plan on her handheld unit. "There should be clothes to fit you there as well."
Blair was about to object to being sent off when what she wanted was information, and then thought better of it. She was cold, chilled in a way she wasn't certain any amount of clothing could warm.
"Thank you, Agent Stark. You should see to that wound at some point. You're dripping again," Blair responded quietly.
"Yes ma'am, I'll do that at the first opportunity," Stark replied seriously, and Blair thought she saw a faint smile play across Savard's face. It occurred to her fleetingly that there was something tender in that smile.
"Good," Blair answered and went in search of something to exchange for her torn and dirty clothes.
When she returned from the bedroom in a pair of gray sweatpants and a long-sleeved, dark blue T-shirt, she found Ellen Grant in the kitchen, making coffee of all things. It seemed like such a mundane, commonplace thing to do that Blair was afraid she would burst out laughing at the absurdity of it. Even worse, she was afraid that if she began to laugh, she would begin to cry. And then she wasn't sure she would stop.
Ellen Grant was just setting cups down on the counter.
"Is there anything I can do?" Blair asked when she could trust herself not to come apart. The aroma of brewing coffee was surprisingly comforting, and she had a feeling she was going to need it. She doubted that she would be sleeping for some time to come.
Grant cast her a startled glance and then a faint smile. "I don't think so. There's some food in the freezer - pizza and the like. I'm afraid that will have to do for the time being. Coffee should be ready in just a second."
It was almost surreal, Blair thought, to be standing in some strange house, talking to a woman she had seen almost daily for the last year, and to realize that she had never had a conversation with her before. The Secret Service agents did their jobs so well, remaining always in the background, that most of the time Blair did not think of their personal lives. She studied the wedding ring on Ellen Grant's hand.
"Does he mind your job?" she asked. Under other circumstances she never would have asked. Somehow these extraordinary conditions created a familiarity that might otherwise have never existed.
As if what Blair had asked were the most natural of questions, Grant replied, "If he does, he's never said. He's a cop."
Blair nodded. "Does it bother you, what he does?"
Grant smiled, a distant smile, and her eyes were focused somewhere far away. "Yeah, sometimes."
"What does he say?"
"I've never mentioned it. It's what he does."
Blair sighed, and helped herself to coffee. "Someone should get Stark to a hospital."
"One of us will take care of that as soon as she's free to leave. In the mean time, I'll look at her. We've all had EMS training."
"I know," Blair said dryly, "the team is completely self-sufficient."
"To some extent, yes," Grant acknowledged, ignoring the edge of sarcasm in Blair's voice. "You'll be perfectly safe here with us."
"I don't doubt it," Blair said, meaning it. She wasn't in the least concerned for her own safety. It wasn't her safety that had ever been her concern.
"When it's possible, I like to talk to my father. He'll be worried."
At the mention of her father, Grant nearly came to attention. "Of course. I'll relay the information to Stark. She's acting chief until the Commander returns."
Blair stared at her, a quick stab of fear knifing through her chest. "Do you know where Cam is? Do you have any information?"
Grant looked uncomfortable. "Agent Stark is in command temporarily, Ms. Powell, and I'm sure she'll brief you soon."
Blair resisted the urge to push her for more. She recognized a stone wall when she saw one. She could hear Stark and Savard's murmured voices in the adjoing room, and she assumed they were still apprising whomever it was they needed to apprise of the situation. It was approaching two hours since they had left Central Park: two hours that felt like an eternity; two hours that felt like a nightmare from which she could not awake. She wasn't planning on waiting much longer for information.
"How's your headache?" Savard asked quietly.
Stark was leaning against the breakfast bar in the dining alcove, a radio transmitter in one hand and the telephone receiver in the other. She glanced across the room to where Savard sat at a small desk, her personal computer in her left hand.
"What headache?" Stark grunted, trying to carry on three conversations at once.
"The one you're pretending you don't have," Savard noted absently without looking up, punching information into her handheld.
"Feels like my eyeballs are going to fall out," Stark responded flatly.
"Thought so," Savard said off-handedly, making a note in her daily log. "You're going to need a CAT scan."
"Yeah, sure. Next month maybe." Stark was listening to Mac relay the status of the investigation in Central Park while juggling equipment and trying to jot notes. She'd gotten the all-clear call just a minute before. At least this location was felt to be secure and they could stay put for a while. She was glad because she thought she might vomit if she had to ride in the car again. She closed her radio transmission, simultaneously hung up the receiver, and crossed her arms over her chest, trying to stave off another wave of nausea. "Where's Doyle?"
Savard looked up in surprise, noting immediately that Stark's color was lousy. "Don't know. Haven't heard from him. I'm assuming he's going to want me to stay with the team, so all I'm trying to do is organize my field notes from today. We need to review the preliminary psych profile on this guy ASAP, too. I don't think anyone expected a bomb."
"That's an understatement, Agent Savard," Stark grumbled, her expression grim and beneath the anger in her tone, a hollow note of pain. "At least I hope no one did. Because if anybody had any idea of this and didn't tell us about it, there'll be hell to pay. We lost an agent today."
A sharp gasp from the doorway caused them both to turn quickly in that direction. Blair Powell, stood there, white as a sheet, and for a second, Stark thought she might fall.
"Are you all right, Ms. Powell?" Stark asked in genuine concern.
"Who?" Blair steadied herself with one hand on the back of a dining room chair and waited until she was quite sure her voice was steady. "You said you lost an agent," she heard herself say in a surprisingly calm voice that couldn't possibly be her own, because she was quite certain she was screaming. "Who?"
Stark looked uncomfortable and a little uncertain. "I'm sorry, that information - "
"Jeremy Finch," Renee Savard said immediately. She ignored the quick look of surprise and uncharacteristic anger from Stark, her gaze returning to Blair's face. "He was in the lead car."
"I'm sorry," Blair said softly. She recognized the quick rush of relief that accompanied the sound of his name, but she couldn't bring herself to feel guilty. This time it wasn't Cam. It wasn't Cam.
"There's no reason for you to be sorry," Stark said, gently now, too. "You are not responsible for what this maniac does. It has nothing to do with you."
Blair shook her head, appreciating Stark's kindness, but unable to accept it. "It does have something to do with me. Agent Finch was assigned to me. His job was to protect me."
"It's still doesn't mean that what happened to him was your fault," Stark persisted.
Blair smiled, a sad smile. "That's a very fine distinction you're making, Agent Stark."
"It's the fine distinctions that make all the difference," Savard responded in a firm but compassionate tone.
"I wish I could accept that," Blair said, almost to herself. She regarded them both and asked one last time, "Have you talked to Commander Roberts?"
"Not yet, ma'am," Stark answered, and Blair believed her.
"I'll be in the other room. Could you please let me know when you have more information?" She was more emotionally exhausted than physically tired. There was nothing she could do and she couldn't bear the conversation another moment. She knew that she wasn't a prisoner, but in many ways she felt like one. She didn't know where she was and she didn't know how long she would be there. She had no one to call, or at least no one she would be allowed to call. She assumed that her father had been informed that she was safe, and that his security chief and the director of the Secret Service and the FBI and all the other agencies entrusted with her protection would be doing whatever it was they did. She was the one player in all of this who apparently had no role to play. "And please advise me when I can call my father."
"Yes, ma'am," Stark said crisply.
When Blair left them, Stark looked at Savard in annoyance. "It's not exactly procedure to discuss classified information with her."
Savard regarded Stark thoughtfully, choosing her words carefully. She didn't know her all that well, and she knew the others on the team even less. "Can I speak to you off the record here?" she said, surprising Stark even more.
Stark glanced over her shoulder and saw that Grant was posted by the front entrance, and Blair was curled up on the couch staring blankly into space. They were alone. "I'm not going to report anything you say to me, Savard. I'm not the spy here."
Renee let that jibe go, appreciating that not only was Stark injured, she had lost a colleague. "I just meant that I have no desire to offend you by talking about your Commander."
As she expected, Stark's shoulders stiffened and the compact, dark-haired agent looked like she was ready to go to battle despite the fact that she seemed in danger of falling down at any second. It amazed Savard that every one of the Secret Service agents in Egret's detail was totally dedicated to their reserved, formidable Commander. She admired and respected the sentiment. "Blair Powell is in love with her."
Stark's mouth dropped open. It was some seconds before she managed to close it.
She still hadn't found her voice when Savard continued, "And I think the feeling is mutual."
Stark was silent, staring at the floor, trying to think, but her thoughts were racing in circles. She thought about the five days that Blair had spent in Diane Bleeker's apartment not quite two months before. She had been in the car that sat outside that apartment building for a large part of that week. She and everyone else knew that there was no way that Blair Powell was up there alone that entire time. They hadn't spoken of it, even amongst themselves, but she had wondered privately.
She was sitting there with a cold cup of coffee in her hand, staring up at the darkened windows in the oddly foreboding building, working hard not to wonder what was happening upstairs. She struggled not to replay the night she had ended up in Blair Powell's bed as a result of a very ill advised wave of pure, mindless lust. She had been so damn scared that night, and so damn naïve, and so damn crazy for her - and Blair had been kind, if not tender. She recalled, blushing in the dark and hoping that Fielding couldn't see it, that tenderness had not been high on her list of requirements at that point, not when she had been frantic to get Blair's hands on her burning skin. She had never done anything like that before, and she hoped to God she never did again. She hadn't expected it, hadn't even considered it, but then she rarely thought about things like that. She thought about passing her firearms recertification, or her next shift assignment, or what she would have done if she had been the one to look up and see the sun glint off a rifle barrel pointed at the President's daughter.
She sipped the acid dregs in the mushy paper cup and remembered what it felt like to be touched the way Blair Powell had touched her. Even though she managed to put the memory from her mind most of the time, every now and then she would look at the President's daughter and remember her kiss. Then her blood would race and she'd long to feel that way again.
Stark realized that her mind was wandering down very inappropriate avenues and, ignoring her pounding headache and the faint disconcerting stirrings elsewhere, considered the facts. She knew the Commander was in town during those five days, because she has seen her briefly in a bar with Blair Powell. The timing certainly fit. It was more than that, though. It was a hundred little things that she had noticed since then but never quite 'seen'. It was the way they looked at each other, and the way they walked together - not touching, but connected just the same. Neither of them had been obvious, but when she considered everything as a whole, she thought that Savard might be right.
"How can you say that after only a week of being around them?" Stark asked somewhat argumentatively. It bothered her that the FBI agent had seen something she hadn't.
Savard smiled. "I know what women look like when they're in love."
Stark blushed and immediately cursed herself mentally for the reaction. It wasn't quite the answer she'd expected, and she hated the fact that her heart began to race in a very unprofessional manner. She was in the middle of a crisis situation and had responsibility for Egret's security until such time as Mac or the Commander arrived on scene, and here she was discussing something very improper with an FBI agent who might be reporting every word back to her dickhead of a superior. To make matters even worse, she was having very unprofessional thoughts about her FBI counterpart.
"Well," she began, and then stuttered to a stop when she realized that Savard was softly laughing. "What?" she asked belligerently.
"I apologize if I've upset you," Savard said, the lilt in her voice playful.
"I'm not upset," Stark said, definitely defensive now. She squared her shoulders and reached for the telephone. "I'm just busy, that's all."
Savard simply smiled again and returned to her report. She had been right about Stark the first day she had met her. She was cute.
Hours had passed in silence, it seemed, with Stark or Savard or Grant standing guard duty at the door. Finally, Paula Stark stepped into the room and said quietly, "Ms. Powell, if you would pick up the phone on the table next to you please."
For a moment, Blair hesitated, staring at the phone with a mixture of apprehension and wonder. Such a simple thing - contact with the outside world. Exhilarating, and somehow frightening. Then she reached for it and said, "Yes?"
For a moment all she heard was strange static, and then a faintly metallic version of the only voice she wanted to hear.
"I'm sorry. I couldn't get away before and I just now found a scrambled line. I can only talk a minute. Are you all right?"
Suddenly, Blair didn't care where she was or how long she would have to be there. This was the one thing she needed. "I'm fine. Are you hurt?"
The answer came too quickly, and even with the electronic interference, Blair heard that tone in Cam's voice that she always got when she was being official and avoiding a question. If she hadn't been so relieved to hear from her, she would have been pissed. There would be time for that later. "Cam? What's happening?"
"I'm sorry. I can't talk now, but I'll be there as soon as I can."
Then there was only silence on the line. Nevertheless, for the first time since the explosion rocked her world, Blair was able to draw a full breath without feeling a hard ball of pain in her chest. Cam was safe - she was safe - and she had found the time in the midst of what must have been pandemonium to call her.
She replaced the receiver and looked across the room to where Stark stood next to the front door, glancing out the window. It was already close to ten p.m. "What are Mac and Cam doing back there?"
Stark turned from the window, satisfied that the two new FBI agents who had arrived an hour earlier were well positioned outside. She welcomed the additional surveillance assistance, because she and Savard and Grant were tired and stressed, and, even rotating shifts they couldn't adequately cover both the grounds and the interior. Even with the fibbies they were still under-manned, but that would get better once the Commander and the rest of the team arrived.
Blair watched her, waiting for an answer.
Stark's automatic response was a non-response, but when she looked into Blair's face, she caught an unguarded glimpse of her worry. Then she thought about what Savard had said about the Commander and her, and answered, "I imagine they're meeting with the ATF bomb unit, trying to get a profile on the bomb and the bomber. The first walk-through is always the most important. The Commander wouldn't leave that to anyone else."
Blair had an uneasy feeling she knew what that meant. "The walk-through?"
Stark hesitated. It wasn't exactly a pretty picture.
"The epicenter of the explosion was the lead vehicle," Savard said, walking in from the kitchen with yet more coffee. "Depending upon the nature of the accelerant, and the amount, and the exact placement of the device on the car, the blast radius could be anywhere from ten feet to a hundred yards. Anything and everything remaining in that area is potential evidence."
"Aren't there specialists to take care of that kind of thing?" Blair asked, her throat dry. 'Everything' included people too, she supposed.
Stark nodded. "Of course, from the ATF and the Bureau and most likely the NYPD and the State Police, too. It's probably a real jurisdictional snafu down there right now."
Savard snorted derisively. "That's putting it mildly." She was quite sure that's why she hadn't heard from her own chief. Doyle was undoubtedly trying to direct the activities by claiming that Federal interests had priority.
"So Cam isn't needed there, is she?" Blair persisted. God, why couldn't Cam just let someone else do this part? She couldn't imagine the horror of sifting through the debris that had claimed the life of someone she knew.
Stark stared at her, incredulous. "There's no way she's going to walk away until there's nothing else to find. Not when you were the target."
Stark was so certain, and there was an unmistakable edge of pride in her tone. Blair began to see why it was so hard for Cam to relinquish her position on the team. She was so clearly the leader.
"It could be a long time before they're done, then, couldn't it?"
Stark regarded her seriously for a moment, then smiled quickly. "If she said she'll be here, Ms. Powell, you can count on it."
She wasn't sleeping, just lying quietly in the dark. The soft tap on the door brought her upright, her heart pounding and her pulse racing. She glanced at the red digits on the bedside clock. Three twenty-two a.m.
"Yes," she called.
"Ms. Powell, it's-"
"Come in," she said urgently, fumbling on the bed for the terrycloth robe someone had considerately thought to stock in the bathroom. She was tightening the sashes on the garment when the door opened softly and then closed again. She hadn't turned on the bedside lamp yet, but the glow from the security lights cleverly hidden in the nearby trees was enough to illuminate Cam's unmistakable form.
"Are you hurt?" Blair asked immediately.
"No," Cam responded, her voice raspy.
They were six feet apart, each of them leaning forward slightly, and the silence hung heavily between them.
"Are you?" Cam whispered finally.
Cam took one step forward, hesitated, and then another. When she spoke, her tone held none of its usual reserve. Softly she asked, "Would you mind very much if I touched you - just to be sure?"
Something that had lain cold and frightened in Blair's heart began to warm. She trembled faintly with the kind of anticipation she barely remembered, from a time before she had learned to expect disappointment from a lover's promise. "No, I wouldn't mind that at all."
Blair took one step to meet her, and then Cam's arms closed very gently around her. Blair scarcely dared breathe, afraid that she might suddenly awaken and find it all a dream. Awaken and discover herself alone in the dark yet again, waiting for a woman to come and touch her. Waiting for a lover's touch to set her free. She held very still and willed the moment not to end.
Cam sighed, contenting herself with absorbing the warmth of Blair's body. As she held her, Blair's energy began to penetrate the numbness. She still hurt - everywhere. But being close to Blair - feeling her heart beat, listening to her quiet breathing, leaning on her strength - being with her, was soothing the edges of her pain.
Eventually Blair ran her hands up and down Cam's back slowly, tentatively, assuring herself that she was real. When she lifted her arms to encircle Cam's shoulders, pressing closer to her, Cam gasped sharply.
"You are hurt!" Blair exclaimed.
"It's nothing," Cam murmured, resting her cheek against Blair's hair and closing her eyes. God, it was so good just to be near her. She hadn't realized how tired she was. There'd been so much to do. They'd had to cordon off the park in the immediate vicinity of Sheep Meadow, an impossible task in itself, and then there was the evidence collection, and the interviews. And she'd had to call Jeremy Finch's sister in Omaha. And then report on a secure line to DC and brief the deputy Security advisor and her own chief, assuring them that there was no imminent threat to Blair. And then make decisions about where to move her, how deeply to seclude her. Goddamned Doyle arguing with her every step of the way. And every minute wondering if Blair was hurt, even though Stark had reported no injury. And worrying that Blair might still be in danger or simply just frightened, and alone. Twelve hours apart from her had felt like a year. She tightened her hold on Blair and gasped again at the sudden surge of pain down her arm.
"Tell me," Blair whispered.
"Just a few burns," Cam answered, nearly asleep on her feet. It really didn't hurt so very much just at that moment. She lifted her uninjured hand to stroke Blair's face. "You're sure you're all right?"
"I am now," Blair responded softly. She could feel Cam shaking, and as much as she didn't want to let her go, she knew she needed to. "Cam, you need to lie down."
"Let me just stand here a minute," Cam replied, her voice eerily flat and her words forced and slow. "I'll be fine if I just don't move for a minute. Doesn't really hurt if I don't move. Just a little tired is all."
"I know," Blair said. She began to move them both toward the bed, one careful step at a time. It worried her that Cam followed without protest. That wasn't like her. This wasn't just fatigue. "Cam?"
"Hmm?" Cam asked dimly, trying to remember what she needed to do next. "Stark. Stark's report. Need that."
"Did they give you anything, for the pain?"
Cam felt her legs hit something unyielding and she sat down. Bed. "No. I told them no. I have to talk - to - Mac."
"Are you in pain now?" Blair asked, guiding her back against the pillows.
"Not so much, really," Cam muttered. There was the strangest tingling in her right hand. Then, she was aware of Blair lifting her legs onto the mattress, removing her shoes. "I shouldn't be in here," she remarked suddenly, as if just realizing where she was.
"You're safe for the moment," Blair said gently, staring at the gauze bandage wrapped around Cam's hand and arm. She hadn't seen that before. She swallowed around the lump in her throat and stroked Cam's cheek lightly. "I don't think you're in any condition to break any rules tonight."
"This is definitely against regulations," Cam remarked drowsily, reaching for Blair's hand but only managing to brush her fingers over Blair's palm.
"Yes," Blair whispered, leaning down to kiss her very softly on the mouth. "I know that, Commander."
Then Blair pulled the covers over the sleeping woman, and quietly left the room.
Blair pulled the bedroom door closed behind her and came face-to-face with John Fielding, who was standing in the hallway three feet from the room. She looked at him questioningly, and he said quietly, "Mac would like to speak to the Commander."
"She's asleep. Not now."
If he was surprised by her response, he gave no sign of it. He merely nodded and walked to the far end of the hall, taking a position where he could see out the window as well as back along the hallway, past the closed door of Blair's room, and into the rest of the house.
In the living room Blair immediately noted an unfamiliar man standing next to the front door in the place generally occupied by Stark. Savard was on the couch, leaning back with her eyes closed. As Blair approached, Savard opened her eyes. She looked worn but her smile was still electric.
"Couldn't sleep?" Savard asked, surprised to see her. It hadn't escaped her notice that when Cameron Roberts walked through the door the first person she asked for was Blair Powell. After issuing a few curt orders, Roberts had disappeared down the hallway to Blair's room. Savard didn't know exactly what she thought might happen next, but she hadn't expected to see Blair again so soon. "Anything I can get you?"
Ignoring the question, Blair said quietly, "You should go to bed, Agent Savard. Even the FBI can't require that you work twenty-four hour shifts."
"I was just thinking about that," Savard admitted with a faint smile. "I thought I'd wait until Grant came back from the hospital. She took Stark to be checked out about half an hour ago. I just wanted to -- hear how she was."
"How did she seem?" Blair heard the edge of worry in Savard's voice.
Renee laughed. "Cranky. Fussing about leaving her post. She wouldn't have gone if the Commander hadn't ordered her to either be examined or be relieved." She smiled, a smile soft with feeling. "Stark's a regular Boy Scout."
Blair recognized the undercurrent of affection in her voice. Interesting. "Where's Mac?"
Savard indicated the room opposite them. "The dining room is apparently our new command center. I think he's waiting for the Commander in there."
"Then he'll have to wait," Blair said flatly. "She's exhausted."
Savard studied her, curious. There was a surprisingly proprietary tone in her voice. The two women's eyes met in a moment of silent understanding.
"Right, then." Savard moved as if to get up. "I'll go tell him."
Blair stopped her with a raised hand. "Never mind. I'll tell him myself."
Mac looked up from the notebook computer he was using as Blair Powell walked into the room. He was relieved to see that other than a weariness she couldn't quite disguise she looked thankfully uninjured. He couldn't even think about what might have happened if she had been fifteen feet closer to the vehicle when it exploded. He started to stand, and Blair said quickly, "For god's sake, Mac, sit down. "
"How are you, Ms. Powell?" he asked politely.
Blair laughed grimly. "I have no idea how to answer that question, Mac," she said with utter honesty. "Other than the fact that I feel like I've been dropped into the middle of some awful B-movie, I'm basically fine."
He smiled sympathetically. "It's been a hell of a day. And tomorrow will be hectic, too." He moved some file folders off the chair next to him. "You're welcome to sit down. The Commander will want to fill you in herself, I'm sure."
"In the morning, Mac," Blair said quietly.
He stared, surprised and clearly confused. "I'm sorry?"
"Have you looked at her, Mac?" Blair asked, unable to keep the irritation from her voice. What was wrong with these people? "She's falling down on her feet, and she's hurt. She's asleep right now and no one is going to wake her up."
This time, Mac's incredulous expression was followed very quickly by an unmistakable look of respect. He nodded. "Of course. There's nothing that won't keep a few hours."
"She couldn't tell me very much," Blair sighed, finally sitting down on the straight-backed dining room chair across from Mac. "Just how badly is she hurt?"
Mac looked away, uncomfortable talking about something that he knew Cam wouldn't want discussed. Her. He'd rather Blair asked him to reveal top secrets.
For a few seconds, Blair thought he wouldn't answer. "Mac?"
Then he met her gaze and responded quietly, "As far as I can gather, she has some moderately severe burns on her right arm, shoulder, and neck. A State Trooper who was near the blast site grabbed her and dragged her away from the car before she could be more seriously injured."
He wasn't about to tell her how damn scared he'd been watching helplessly from the van. First he had seen Jeremy's car burst into flames and people being thrown to the ground for fifty feet around. When he had looked to the spot where he had last seen Blair's group approaching, all he could see was a cloud of smoke. For a minute he had been paralyzed with the fear that they were all dead. Fortunately, Grant was cool in a crisis and she had already started the backup car and was racing toward Egret's last known location.
Almost the instant the air had begun to clear, he had seen the Commander running straight into the raging inferno as if she didn't even notice the fire. Then Stark's voice had clamored in his ear that Egret was secure and while he was frantically trying to clear the lines of communication and direct the evacuation, he had seen a burly State Trooper dive into the flames and tackle Cameron Roberts. While Grant sped from the scene, the trooper had dragged the Commander away from the car. Mac had an eerie sensation that if that officer hadn't grabbed her, she might not have moved.
He took a steadying breath, banishing that disquieting image, and said, "It took me the better part of two hours to get her to let the EMTs near her. But they checked her out and cleared her. They said she'll be okay."
"Was anyone other than Agent Finch seriously injured?" Blair asked quietly. "I had a friend with me. Dr. Coleman?"
"I don't have the figures yet," Mac said solemnly. "There were a number of bystanders with bumps and bruises and assorted fractures, but as far as I know, Jeremy was the only casualty."
Blair heard the slight waver in his voice and realized that Mac had lost a friend as well as a colleague that day. "I'm so sorry."
Mac nodded mutely. There really wasn't anything to say, especially to Blair Powell. He supposed he shouldn't even be briefing her, but over the six months that he had served as the head of her security team, he had gotten to know her better then he might have otherwise. He didn't presume to think that they were friends, but he understood her isolation a little bit better now. It wasn't right to keep her in the dark, especially when the events so clearly involved her.
"You should get some rest, Ms. Powell," he said. "It's relatively quiet now, but I doubt that it will be tomorrow when the FBI shows up in force."
Blair realized she was exhausted. She had been running on pure adrenaline for hours, and now that Cam had arrived and she had finally seen her, she could allow her fatigue to surface. What she really wanted to do was go back to her room and stretch out on the bed next to Cam. She supposed that wasn't a very good idea, considering that the house was filled with Secret Service agents, not to mention the FBI. If she returned to her bedroom, they were not likely to be able to ignore the fact that she was sleeping with Cameron Roberts. She almost smiled at the sheer absurdity of the situation.
"I'd say that's good advice, Mac, and you should probably take it as well."
"I think I will," he said with a smile. As Blair rose, he added, "This is a very large house, and other than this room, the living room, and the kitchen, all the other rooms are bedrooms."
She studied him thoughtfully, but she couldn't read anything in his clear blue eyes. "Thank you, Mac. I think I'll go find an empty one."
He watched her leave the room, thinking once more how glad he was that he did not carry the ultimate responsibility for safeguarding her life.
At just past seven the next morning, Blair walked into the small galley-style kitchen. Cam was in the process of pouring a cup of coffee, juggling the pot somewhat awkwardly with her left hand. She was wearing blue jeans that were an inch too long, a loose fitting pale blue button-down collar shirt that looked suspiciously like police issue, and running shoes. The shoes, at least, were hers. Remarkably, when she glanced at Blair and smiled, her eyes looked clear and rested.
"How in the hell do you do that," Blair grumbled, stumbling in the direction of the coffee cup Cam held out to her.
The corner of Cam's mouth lifted again in an irritatingly knowing grin. "Do what?"
"Look so damn good after no sleep?"
Cam thought Blair looked just fine in her gray sweatpants and navy blue T-shirt, although both were a little too large for her. She was happy to see that Blair's primary mood appeared to be grumpy, rather than frightened. She knew from experience that the fear must be there somewhere, and that eventually it would surface, but for now, they could let it rest. "I don't need very much sleep."
Ignoring her, Blair leaned against the counter and gratefully sipped the steaming brew. After the first few scalding swallows she asked, "What happened to your own clothes?"
Cam hesitated for a second, then said lightly, "I had to throw them out. I borrowed these from the trunk of an NYPD patrol car. The officer assured me they were clean."
Blair didn't smile; she was staring at the white gauze wrapped around the palm of Cam's right hand and disappearing under the unbuttoned sleeve of her blue shirt. Cam seemed fine now, but Blair remembered her exhaustion and pain of just a few hours before. "How bad is that?"
Cam shrugged and started to speak, but Blair interrupted impatiently. "And don't say 'it's nothing' one more time or I swear to God I'll forget that you're sore and take you down right here." As she spoke, she lifted a hand and turned back the unbuttoned collar of Cam's shirt, drawing a sharp breath when she saw the angry swatch of blistered skin that extended along the lower side of Cam's neck onto her shoulder. "Jesus, Cam."
Cam set her coffee down and met Blair's eyes. "It's been looked at," she assured her quietly. "It's just superficial - nothing too serious. It should be a lot better in a few days."
"What were you thinking?" Blair demanded. She was rapidly accumulating memories of Cam in danger, or hurt, or literally dying, and the images didn't get any easier to take with reviewing. Her fear fueled her anger, and she added sharply, "Damn it, don't you care if you get hurt? Don't you think I care?"
Cam looked away. It had happened so quickly, and then, after, there had been so much to do - so many things to check and organize and confirm. She had put it from her mind. "I wasn't thinking," she said softly.
Blair stared at her, surprised. "You're always thinking. What happened this time?"
"I - " Cam stopped, suddenly uncomfortable. Doyle was likely to show up at any minute, and she needed to brief the team and discuss strategy before that. "We should talk about this some other time."
"There will never be 'some other time'," Blair said flatly. "Or a better time. Not for us, Cam. What happened?"
"It was the engine stuttering that reminded me," Cam murmured.
An uneasy feeling fluttered through Blair's chest. Cam looked pale. Blair stepped a little closer, resting her fingers lightly on the top of Cam's hand where it lay along the edge of the counter. "Go ahead. It's okay."
Cam drew her mind from the past and focused on Blair's face, smiling gratefully, her eyes clearing. Blair's touch steadied her, anchored her in the present. "I was late for school and my father said I could ride with him. He went out ahead of me to tell the driver about the change in plans. When I came down the steps I could hear the car engine coughing like it was going to stall." She hesitated, running a hand quickly over her face. She was sweating, the cold sweat of fear and dark memories.
Blair forced herself to breathe, but it was difficult around the choking dread as she began to understand what Cam was saying. They had never talked about it. They had had so little time to talk at all. Not about what mattered, she realized. "You were right there?"
Cam nodded. "About twenty feet away, I guess, when the bomb exploded. It knocked me down." She was clutching the counter and made a conscious effort to relax her grip, to keep her voice even. "When I got up the flames were so high, and it was so hot - and I, I couldn't get close." She looked at Blair, her eyes shadowed with old misery. "I was too scared."
"Cam," Blair whispered, lifting her hand to caress her cheek. "Even if you could have - you know -"
"I know," Cam said. "But I should have tried."
"You were a child then," Blair argued gently. "And yesterday you weren't, and you still couldn't have saved either of them."
Cam closed her eyes briefly and nodded. "I know."
Blair shook her head in frustration and sympathy, hearing the guilt still heavy in Cam's voice. Knowing and believing were two very different things. She was torn between wanting to shake her and wanting desperately to hold her. "Do you have any idea how crazy you make me when you do things like you did yesterday?"
"Some," Cam admitted softly, turning her palm so that their fingers met briefly.
"That's progress, I suppose," Blair sighed.
"I don't want you to worry about me," Cam began before Blair cut her off.
"Please! Don't push your luck, Roberts," Blair snapped. She withdrew her hand and pointed to Cam's arm. "What about changing the bandages?"
"I'll have Stark or Savard give me a hand," Cam said with a shrug. "I was just about to go shower. I still smell like smoke."
"The hell you will," Blair said sharply. "I might just trust Stark, but I have no intention of letting Renee Savard put her hands on you for any reason, under any circumstances."
"I can assure you, Ms. Powell, you have no need to worry," Cam said, her voice dark and intimate. Don't you know that?
Somehow as they had talked, they had moved slowly closer, until now Blair's hand rested on Cam's hip, and Cam's fingers brushed softly up and down Blair's arm. There was space between them, but those few inches shimmered with heat.
"Thank you for coming to my room last night," Blair said quietly, her lips inches from Cam's. "I don't think I could have stood waiting much longer."
"I'm sorry it took me so long," Cam answered, her eyes unable to leave Blair's. She shuddered faintly as Blair moved near enough for their thighs to touch. "I didn't mean to hurt you, Blair," Cam said, her voice heavy and thick. "I never meant that. I don't know any other way to do this."
"You really piss me off, Commander," Blair murmured, moving her hand upward to rest her palm against Cam's chest. "And I'm not saying I like any of this, and I don't intend to change my mind any time soon. But still -- " She slipped her hand under the collar and caressed the uninjured side of Cam's neck. "You make me crazy."
Cam answered the call in Blair's deep blue eyes and lowered her head to kiss her.
"Good morning, Commander, Ms. Powell," Renee Savard said smoothly as she walked through the door and headed directly toward the coffee machine. She'd always thought that the best way to handle an awkward moment was to move through it. And since her presence would have been obvious in another second, retreat was not possible.
Cam straightened and stepped back from Blair. "Agent Savard," she said easily.
Blair watched Cam's transition, more in fascination than anger. A second before, Cam's body had been about to meld with hers. She had felt the heat and the urgency rippling under her fingers. Now, Cam stood coolly, not a hint of disturbance or discomfort on her face. Blair had no doubt that Renee Savard suspected what had been about to happen between them, but suspecting and observing were two different things. Somehow, she did not think it would matter to Savard, but she had to admit that if it had been Patrick Doyle who had walked through that doorway, it would have been difficult for both Cam and herself. It was an acknowledgment she had been forced to make many times in her life. She had been forced to be cautious, and sometimes she had been forced to hide. She hated it; she had never accepted it; but there had been more than her personal integrity at stake. She had long recognized that she would need a very good reason to fight. Watching Cam slip effortlessly into her professional persona, she thought that perhaps she might finally have found that reason.
"We'll be briefing at 0900, Agent Savard," Cam said calmly as Savard started out of the kitchen with a cup of coffee. Her voice was steady, but her autonomic nervous system was still responding to Blair's hands on her. She felt her own hands trembling and buried them in the pockets of her jeans.
"Yes, ma'am," Savard replied, looking back from the doorway. The Commander met her gaze directly, her gray eyes completely unreadable. It wasn't that hard to read Blair Powell's expression, however. She was still looking at Cameron Roberts like she wanted to swallow her whole. Savard figured if she hadn't walked in at such an indelicate moment, Blair might have been better able to hide her feelings. She usually was.
"Anything you need from me in advance, Commander?" Savard asked, withdrawing onto safer ground. She didn't imagine privacy was something either of these women had very much of, and it wasn't her job to infringe on what little they had.
"I don't suppose you have a report from the FBI field team on when I'll have their videotapes from the park, do you?"
For a moment, Savard looked away, embarrassed. She didn't want to admit that she was out of the loop, and had been ever since she had told Doyle that she would be happy to work on the inside with Egret's security detail, but that she wouldn't pass him information outside of channels. He'd been angry, but he couldn't order her to do it. It was a messy situation, but she was still FBI, and she'd keep their dirty laundry private. She simply shook her head. "I've had no updates since arriving here, Commander."
Cam nodded, having expected nothing different. She knew Doyle would keep his intelligence reports from her as long as he could. "That's all then."
Savard left without another word, and Cam turned to Blair, a rueful smile on her face. Blair's eyes were still deep with desire and it took all of Cam's willpower not to touch her again. "I had better get to work. We should have some food supplies within the hour, and your clothes will be coming later today. I sent Grant back to the city this morning. I thought she would know what you needed."
"What about Stark?" Blair asked, unsuccessfully trying to ignore the lingering ache of arousal deep within her. Much more of this torture and she was going to lose her mind. "Is she all right?"
"She was cleared for duty, but I suspect she's downplaying her symptoms," Cam said quietly, watching Blair's fingers caress the side of her coffee mug. She has such sensitive fingers. She always manages to find just the right spot, and then she strokes it so --. Cam swallowed, pulled her eyes away, and added, "Since we won't be traveling for a few days, she may be okay."
Blair tore her gaze from Cam's mouth, which she had just been imagining on her skin, and asked sharply, "You expect this to be an extended stay then?"
Cam moved, leaning against the opposite counter, needing the distance from Blair in the narrow space so that she could concentrate. She was having trouble thinking about anything at the moment except the way Blair touched her when she was hungry. "I don't know yet. At the very least, another day. I'm hoping to have preliminary reports from the ATF bomb center in a few hours. I expect that the FBI profiler and the ATF Commander will be here sometime later today for a briefing. All the videotapes from our cameras and the FBI teams, if they cooperate, will be arriving here along with our computer equipment this afternoon."
"Why can't I go home?" Blair asked softly, thinking that there she would at least be able to touch her, just touch her, without someone walking in on them.
Cam heard her unhappiness and wanted to hold her. Just long enough to comfort. "Your apartment building is being checked this morning, just to be certain we don't have any breach in security there."
Blair listened, trying to absorb the magnitude of the investigation, realizing that this was not something that was going to disappear overnight. It was like a huge machine, already set in place and running, and there would be no stopping it. She was at the center of the hurricane, and all she could hope was that the eye of the storm would be large enough to allow her to breathe - and to steal a few moments with Cam.
"Tonight then?" Blair asked hopefully.
Cam shook her head. "We don't know enough yet. We assume that the car bomb was some kind of message from Loverboy, but it could just as easily be a terrorist attempt on your life or a warning to the government from some extremist group that wants recognition. It could be the first of a series of bombings that don't involve you personally at all. You're safe here, and until we gather intelligence from the CIA and the anti-terrorist divisions of the NSA and FBI, and get an analysis of the bomb and a few hundred other bits of information, you can't go home. For the next few days, I'm using this as our command center. I'd like you to remain here for at least that long."
Cam waited, knowing that what she was saying was probably more threatening to Blair than the physical attack on her life. This kind of focus would mean an even greater assault on her privacy and a more pervasive objectification of her life. There would be very little time, and almost no place, for her to live normally in the midst of such scrutiny.
"Do I have a choice?" Blair asked angrily, imagining being surrounded by strangers twenty-four hours a day. Not just in the background anymore, but literally in the same room with her.
"We could have a helicopter take you back to the White House where the White House guard would be responsible for your security."
Cam held her breath, knowing that in theory Blair should be perfectly safe inside the White House. Except that she knew damn well that Blair wouldn't stay inside the White House, and there was no one there that she trusted to guard her. And she'd go crazy if she thought that Blair was likely to slip away from her security detail and inadvertently place herself in danger. And she didn't think she could stand being separated from her now.
"Why can't you come back with me to DC?" Blair asked, risking disappointment, but needing so desperately just to be with her.
"I need to stay here, Blair," Cam added quietly, hating to say the words that she knew would hurt her. "At least until I'm sure that I'm getting all the information that I need. It's going to make a difference in the future. Sooner or later you'll be visible again." She didn't add that Blair would be vulnerable again then, too.
"Well," Blair commented dully, struggling to hide the ache of rejection, "better the enemy you know. I'll stay."
"Thank you," Cam said softly. "A few days, and I'll try to get you home again."
Blair looked at Cam, anger warring with desire. "I hope so, because I'm not sure how long I can stand this."
Cam couldn't bear seeing the pain in her eyes. She couldn't bear being the cause of it one more time. "Blair," she whispered, her voice husky with the need to soothe her, "I'd give anything in my power to make this different for you. I can't."
Blair stared at her, uncertain whether she wanted to scream or cry. "God, Cameron. You don't get it at all, do you?" She took one step closer, clenching her fists to keep her hands off her. She wanted her so much! "I don't want you to fix it. I want you to touch me."
Cam didn't have the strength to look into Blair's eyes and lie to her. She couldn't say no to her, because she couldn't tell her she didn't want her. Not again. She wavered slightly on her feet as she lost the battle with sense and reason.
"Come with me," Cam said hoarsely.
Blair hesitated for half a second, staring after Cam as she turned abruptly and walked away. Then she hastened to follow, catching up to her at the beginning of the hallway that led to the rear of the house where most of the bedrooms were situated.
"Fielding is down there," Blair said in an urgent whisper.
"I know that," Cam said curtly. "I posted him there last night."
She reached Blair's bedroom door and opened it, stepping to one side so Blair could enter, then followed her through and closed the door. When Blair turned, confusion in her eyes and a question on her lips, Cam reached out with her left hand and gathered the fabric of Blair's oversized T-shirt in her fist, pulling Blair roughly to her. She lowered her head and captured Blair's mouth, swallowing Blair's gasp of surprise with a kiss. She kept her hand twisted in the material, forcing Blair against her as she slowly walked them across the bedroom toward the open bathroom door.
Blair had no choice but to hold on. She raised one arm and wrapped it around Cam's uninjured shoulder, threading her fingers through the hair at Cam's neck. John Fielding, and the fact that the house was filled with federal agents and other assorted individuals, were completely forgotten. At that moment, she couldn't have cared less. All she was aware of was the heat pouring from Cameron's body and the demanding press of Cam's mouth on hers. Cam's kiss was anything but gentle, but even in her haste, Cam was careful not to hurt her.
They were five feet from the adjoining room when Cam relinquished Blair's mouth and moved her lips to Blair's neck, biting her hard enough to draw a startled cry.
"God, Cam," Blair exclaimed, struggling to keep her voice low. "If you leave a mark everyone out there will know."
"Shut up," Cam replied, quickly releasing the shirt and in the same motion, driving her hand beneath it until she found Blair's breast.
When Cam's fingers closed firmly on the taut nipple, Blair's legs began to quiver so unexpectedly that she stumbled. She pressed her face to Cam's shoulder, eyes squeezed tightly closed, struggling desperately to contain a moan. They were still staggering towards the bathroom, and she reached between them, trying to work the buttons open on Cam's jeans. Her hands shook so much she couldn't manage.
"I'm going crazy," Blair gasped against Cam's neck. "I'm so hot I can't stand it."
Cam pushed her up against the wall beside the open bathroom door. She dragged down the loose cotton sweatpants that were the last tangible barrier between them. As she bared Blair's thighs, she looked into her eyes and said, "I know."
Then, still staring into Blair's eyes, she slipped her hand between Blair's legs, gliding smoothly through the wet heat, entering her in one fluid motion. She held her breath, watching Blair's pupils dilate and her lids flutter nearly closed.
Blair caught her lower lip between her teeth, arching her hips with the sudden pleasure as Cam filled her. Her head thudded against the wall and her entire body shook. "More," she managed to gasp.
Cam straddled Blair's thigh, pressing herself, swollen and hard, against Blair's leg. She withdrew her fingers, added another, and entered her again, deeper this time. Their lips were a fraction of an inch apart, their gazes locked.
Blair spasmed repeatedly around Cam's fingers, clutching desperately at Cam's hips, trying to stay upright. "I'm coming," she whispered brokenly.
Cam leaned her forehead against Blair's, stroking almost completely out and then moving into her again, pushing deeper still with each thrust. "I know," she murmured. "I know."
Blair clung to her, shuddering as wave upon wave of sensation flooded her body. She buried her face against Cam's shoulder, trying to contain her cries, whimpering softly as the last contractions fluttered through her belly. "Don't let go," she gasped finally.
Cam was still inside her, and they were pressed tightly together, using the wall as support. Her breath heaved through her chest as she hovered on the brink of orgasm. "You -- neither."
Blair managed a tremulous laugh and finally succeeded in getting her fingers to work. She pulled open Cam's fly and pushed her hand inside Cam's jeans. Immediately, Cam jerked into her palm. "Oh God," Blair whispered. "You're so wet."
"Uh huh," Cam grunted, pressing harder against Blair's fingers. She couldn't think, couldn't see; all she knew was the ferocious pressure pounding between her legs and the desperate need to release it.
Blair felt Cam shiver and knew she was on the edge. Another time, she might have teased her, but it had been too long for both of them, and she wanted her to come. She wanted to feel her lose control and she wanted to hold her, and she wanted to have her, completely, for just a few moments. She worked her hand deeper inside Cam's jeans until she could cup all of her in her palm. Then, she brought her thumb slowly and deliberately along the length of Cam's clitoris, massaging her rhythmically.
Cam braced herself with both hands against the wall, her body bowed, her head down, gasping. Her thighs trembled as the blood seemed to halt in her veins and every muscle clenched. The next knowing stroke of Blair's fingers sparked the explosion, and her breath burst out on a low tortured groan. Dimly, she heard Blair moan softly, almost in exultation, but all she could do was struggle to stand as her bones melted before the onslaught of sensation.
"Oh, yeah," Cam finally murmured, sagging against Blair. Her head was still pounding.
Blair laughed faintly as the last ripples of Cam's orgasm pulsed against her fingers. She ran her free hand up and down Cam's back, soothing her. She didn't think anything had ever satisfied her as much as having Cameron in her arms, trembling and so unguarded.
"I wish I'd known sooner that all I had to do was ask," Blair remarked breathlessly.
Cam sighed and straightened up, leaning back to look into Blair's face. Their legs were still pressed together and just the sensation of Blair's skin against her own was exciting her again. She grinned, but her eyes were very serious. "You don't need to ask. I can't even be near you without wanting you."
Blair was aware of Cam's hips rocking persistently against her own, and she realized they weren't done yet. She started opening the buttons on Cam's borrowed shirt, asking quietly, "Is that a problem for you, Commander?"
Cam hooked her fingers under the edge of Blair's T-shirt and lifted it upward, pulling it off over her head. She tossed it somewhere behind them and brought both hands down to cup Blair's breasts. "Not at the moment," she muttered distractedly, her eyes fixed on the tight, pink nipples under her thumbs.
"Cam," Blair said urgently. "You're bleeding."
For the first time, Cam was aware of a burning discomfort along her right palm. The gauze wrapped around her hand was bright red with blood. "It's nothing," she said, dismissing it, as she lowered her lips toward Blair's breasts.
Blair caught Cam's chin with her fingers, halting her motion. "We need to look at it - now."
"Blair," Cam warned, her eyes dangerously dark, her expression impatient with need. "Later."
Blair pivoted slightly and slipped out from between Cam and the wall, grasping Cam's good hand in hers. She dragged Cam through the doorway into the bathroom.
"I want to look at this."
They faced each other in the small space, Blair completely nude, Cam naked from the waist up with her jeans open. Both of them were flushed and breathing heavily. The air around them shimmered with urgency as they stared at one another wordlessly.
Then Cam advanced on Blair, her expression determined. "I'm not waiting."
Blair sidestepped quickly and yanked the knobs on the shower to full on. She turned back just as Cam reached her. She hooked her thumbs over the waistband of Cam's jeans and pushed down. "Get out of these."
Cam stepped free of her jeans as Blair backed into the shower. Cam followed, her eyes riveted on Blair's. She reached for her, and Blair gently captured her injured hand between her own.
"Let me unwrap this," Blair said quietly as they stood together in the streaming water.
Momentarily defeated, Cam held out her right arm so that Blair could remove the bandages. She set her teeth as the water hit the cracked and crusted patches. The skin was blistered and raw and still oozed blood slowly.
"How does it feel?" Blair asked, hoping that her voice was steady. The burns looked terrible, and even though she knew they weren't serious, for one horrifying moment she imagined what might have happened if someone hadn't been nearby to drag Cam away from Jeremy Finch's car.
Cam turned slightly so that Blair could not see the injury. With her other hand she caressed the side of Blair's face and said softly, "It doesn't hurt."
"Why don't I believe you?" Blair murmured, wrapping one arm around Cam's waist.
"Because," Cam whispered softly, her lips moving gently against Blair's ear, "you don't trust the Secret Service, Ms. Powell."
Blair tipped her head back, offering Cam her neck. "That's because you keep secrets, Commander."
As Cam worked her way along Blair's jaw and down the column of her throat, Blair found Cam's uninjured hand and brought it to her breast. She gasped faintly at the swift sharp pressure of Cam's fingers on her nipple. She was still aroused and her clitoris twitched rapidly at the renewed stimulation.
Slowly, Cam knelt.
As Cam leaned forward to taste her, Blair braced herself with one hand against Cam's shoulder. Dimly, Cam heard her moan as she moved her mouth over her. Blair was still swollen and firm and as Cam drew her between her lips, she knew it would not be long. She tried to make it last, sucking gently, careful not to work her too quickly or too hard, but it didn't matter. Blair was too sensitive and too close and almost immediately, she began to come. With the first pulse of release, Cam pressed harder, pushing Blair rapidly to another peak. She would have kept going if Blair hadn't fisted a hand in her hair and pulled her head away.
"Stop," Blair gasped hoarsely. "I can't."
Blair laughed, pulling Cam up next to her. She leaned into her, and wrapped her arms around Cam's waist. "You're right. I probably could, if I had a little more time and I didn't think that John Fielding was going to burst in here at any second to find out why I'm screaming."
"No one will come in," Cam said firmly. "They'll assume we're having a private briefing. It's perfectly normal under the circumstances."
Blair kissed the pulse at the base of Cam's neck. She wanted her again. She wanted to lie down with her and touch every part of her and taste her again and again. "There's nothing normal about any of these circumstances, Cameron. If letting you go now means that I'll be able to have you again, I'd rather stop."
Cam closed her eyes and held her tightly. "Will you believe me if I tell you there will be another time?"
"I'll try, because I have to believe it," Blair whispered.
"Your hair is wet," Blair commented as she watched Cam gathering her scattered clothing. She leaned against the bathroom door, wearing the terrycloth robe that she had donned the previous evening when Cam had appeared at her door. "If you leave my room and go to a briefing like that, you might as well wear a sign saying 'I slept with the First Daughter'."
Cam grinned as she buttoned the borrowed shirt. "It'll dry while I put on my own clothes. I've got a suitcase in the other room that Mac brought." She pulled on the jeans and smiled faintly. "Somehow I fell asleep last night before I got around to changing."
"That's because you were out on your feet," Blair remarked with a combination of irritation and concern. "Will you get someone to take care of those burns?"
Cam nodded. "I'll ask Stark. The EMTs left something for me to put on it." She crossed to her, and put her hands lightly on Blair's waist. "I'll take care of it, I promise."
"You'd better," Blair said, her voice husky. As much as she hated to, she added, "You should go, Cam."
Cam sighed, reluctant to leave her. "I'm going to be tied up all day with the briefings. Stark will see to anything that you need."
Blair smiled wryly. "As long as she doesn't make me play pinochle with her. That's where I draw the line."
"Understood," Cam said, lightly pressing her lips to Blair's forehead. She didn't dare do more, because she was afraid if she felt the softness of Blair's lips, she might not be able to stop with one kiss. For some reason, she couldn't seem to control herself the way she was used to. She couldn't seem to stop wanting her.
Finally, Cam stepped away and crossed to the door. She looked back, her hand on the doorknob, and said quietly, "By the way, Dr. Coleman is fine. She was shaken up a bit by the blast, and I think she might have ended up on the bottom of the pile when we all hit the ground, but she's all right."
Blair studied her silently for a moment, looking for some sign that there was a hidden message in Cam's words. She should have known there wouldn't be. Cameron Roberts did not play games. "Thank you. I was worried."
Cam nodded, and opened the door. "I thought you might be."
"Cam?" Blair said quickly.
Cam looked at her questioningly.
"You do know there's no one, don't you?"
"I'd hoped," Cam replied softly, and then she was gone.
Two hours later, Blair stood in the doorway of the makeshift command center and surveyed the people grouped around the long dining room table in the center of the room. Cam, attired now in a dark gray suit and silver silk shirt, sat at one end of the table while Patrick Doyle occupied the seat opposite her at the far end. Mac was to Cam's left and Stark, a bandage on her forehead and a very impressive bruise on the side of her face, was beside him. Across from them were a man and woman Blair did not recognize. Savard looked mildly uncomfortable situated between Stark and Doyle.
Patrick Doyle looked up and frowned. "Can I do something for you, Ms. Powell?" he said tersely.
Blair studied him silently for a moment, then walked around the table and pulled out a chair next to Cam. "I'd like to get some idea of what's happening," she said quietly.
Doyle cleared his throat and rearranged some of the papers in front of him. When he looked up at her, his gaze was wintry. "We've just started, and I think at this point anything I could tell you would be premature. I'll advise you of anything you need to know at a later date."
Silently, Blair turned to Cam. No one could keep her out of the briefing, although it wasn't routine for her to sit in on one. It was obvious that Patrick Doyle did not want her there, but it wasn't his opinion she cared about.
"We're just getting started," Cam said. She didn't even look in Doyle's direction, but instead, pointed to the redhead next to Blair. "Ms. Powell, this is Special Agent Lindsey Ryan, a profiler from the behavioral science division at Quantico. I've asked her here to give us an idea of what to expect from Loverboy in the future."
"I think we should discuss the crime scene evidence and find out what we have from the bomb," Doyle immediately countered. "We need is hard data, not theory."
Cam did stare the length of the table at him then, but responded evenly, "Everything is important. My primary objective is to anticipate the potential threat to Ms. Powell, and to that end, I'd like to have as much information about the perpetrator as we can get. However," she said, indicating the handsome, dark-skinned man next to Ryan, "Captain Lane is our liaison from the ATF bomb division and he'll fill us in shortly."
Doyle's color rose, and although it appeared that he wanted to object, it was difficult to argue that Blair's safety was not the main concern. It was also clear that he was irate at having been subtly outmaneuvered. He merely closed his jaws tightly and nodded once, curtly.
"If you would go ahead, please, Agent Ryan," Cam said quietly.
Lindsey Ryan sat forward slightly and began, "After the incident yesterday, I reviewed all the information available on the UNSUB beginning with the first contact. My specific intention was to track his behavior, looking for any kind of cyclical or repetitive pattern. I was hoping that I might identify some kind of trigger that could help us predict what he would do next. What we see," she continued, her voice low and steady, "is a fairly erratic temporal pattern marked by predictable sequential events. Namely, he attempts seduction, and when that is unsuccessful, he follows with aggressive retribution when his overtures are rejected."
"Does this explain why someone who is presumably obsessed with Ms. Powell would also want to harm her?" Mac asked, frown lines deepening between his brows.
Ryan nodded. "Initially, he left a written message delivered to Ms. Powell's door, suggesting that he was the most worthy recipient of her attentions. He also indicated underlying anger by suggesting that she was misguided in placing her affections with people who were 'unworthy'. In essence, he was offering himself as a suitor. Clearly, when this approach failed, his anger escalated and he made his first attempt on Ms. Powell's life. This is not inconsistent with his obsessive attraction, in that very often a rejected suitor resorts to aggression. It's the old case of 'If I can't have you, no one else can either'."
"Does the fact that he's changed his methods signify anything? First a sniper attack, and now a bomb?" Cam asked quietly. She did not look at Blair, but she was acutely aware of her arm resting only an inch from hers on the tabletop. It was difficult knowing that Blair was hearing herself being discussed by relative strangers. She wished she could spare her that. She knew, however, that that was neither feasible nor desirable. Blair had a right to know about the threat that involved her, and keeping her in the dark would only result in losing her cooperation. And if Blair didn't cooperate with them, she would be in even greater danger.
"I don't think so," Ryan said with certainty. "I don't think that he is attached to any particular form of violent expression, as some psychopaths appear to be. I think it's more likely that he chose a more dramatic method of expressing his displeasure because his tolerance for failure is decreasing. Nothing else he's tried has worked, so he's going to be sure that she takes him seriously now."
A hard fist of anxiety clenched in Cam's chest. "So are you saying we can expect an escalation in the violence?"
Ryan shrugged. "This latest action is a statement. He's reminding us that he has power, and that he's in control, and that he should not be ignored. Frankly, I'm surprised he hasn't made some attempt at personal contact before this."
"He has," Blair said quietly.
Cam stared at her, a muscle in her jaw clenching. It took all her effort not to raise her voice. "Has he approached you in some way?"
Blair hesitated briefly, then met Cam's penetrating gaze steadily. "Not exactly. He sent a message saying he wanted me to meet him."
Doyle rose halfway from his seat, barking out, "When did this happen? Why weren't we made aware of it? If this is some kind of attempt by the Secret Service to cut us out of the loop, I'll-"
"I didn't tell anyone," Blair interrupted him by saying.
He was left momentarily speechless as he slowly sat back into his seat.
"Why not?" Cam questioned softly.
"I didn't realize at the time that it was significant," Blair answered, her eyes shadowed with worry. "He'd been sending messages regularly, mostly e-mails and the - videos. You know that - I reported that. I thought it was just more of the same."
Cam's stomach turned as she recalled the explicit images that Blair had received, and the graphic messages describing in excruciating detail what this nameless, faceless man fantasized about her. "What was it this time?"
"It was just another message," Blair said, her voice trembling slightly. "At least that's what I thought. I just logged on and it came up on the screen. He said- he said he'd been waiting for me, and he couldn't wait any longer for me to make up my mind. He said he would have to do it for me."
Stark looked at Doyle accusingly. "I thought you had someone monitoring her servers? How did this message get through and we didn't know?"
"You're out of line, Agent," Doyle growled.
"She has a point. An important one," Cam stated. "Why didn't any of us know this?"
Savard looked the length of the table at Blair and asked, "When was this?"
"Ten days ago," Blair said quietly. She looked at Cam. "The day you came back."
Blair didn't need to say anything. Cam realized that part of the reason Blair hadn't informed anyone about the message was because she hadn't been thinking about the threat to her life. Her attention had been focused on Cam's sudden reassignment to the security detail.
Savard continued, "It could have been a virus implanted previously and activated by something as simple as a piece of code buried in an innocuous e-mail advertisement. Even though Ms. Powell's system has been swept, it doesn't mean he hasn't infiltrated something else more recently."
Blair looked at Lindsey Ryan, her face pale. "Did he kill Jeremy Finch because I ignored him? Is it my fault?"
"No," Cam said quickly.
"Commander Roberts is right," Ryan interjected. "You're not responsible for Agent Finch's death. The only one responsible for that is the individual who placed and triggered the bomb. There is no way you could've satisfied his demands, because he is not even aware of what actually drives him. Regardless of what you do or do not do, he will never be content."
Doyle took that moment to add contemptuously, "You are certainly not to blame. No one would have been able to plant a bomb if security measures had been adequate."
His criticism was clearly directed at Cam, but it was Mac who responded. "You son of a bitch," Mac exploded, rising from his chair.
"Mac," Cam said firmly, her voice carrying a clear command.
Mac remained half-standing, his hands braced on the table, his expression murderous as he glared at Doyle.
"Let's take a break," Cam said calmly, pushing back her chair. She stood but didn't move until everyone but she and Doyle had left the room.
"If you have something to say to me, Agent Doyle, say it now," she said, facing him squarely.
He shrugged, his expression smug. "You lost a man, Roberts, not me. I have no idea why you're still in command, but I wouldn't get too comfortable if I were you."
Cam waited until he had walked out before she sank slowly into her seat. She would have argued if he hadn't been right.
"Cam?" Blair said from the door of the dining room. "You don't believe that, do you?"
Cam had been staring blankly down at the table, and at the sound of Blair's voice, she straightened quickly, forcing a smile. "Eavesdropping on Federal business, Ms. Powell?"
Blair shook her head, refusing to be distracted by Cam's admittedly charming smile. Cam's automatic attempt to hide her feelings didn't mask the pain in her eyes. "I heard what Doyle just said, Cam," she said softly, crossing to stand beside the table. "He's wrong to blame you."
Cam sighed wearily. "No, he isn't. A man died under my command, Blair. That's my responsibility."
Blair's first instinct was to argue, because she couldn't bear to hear the anguish in Cam's voice. She understood Cam's feelings of accountability, even though rationally no one could be expected to anticipate every eventuality. It wouldn't matter to Cam, Blair knew. Not only was Cam trained to assume the blame, Blair knew that she was just made that way. It was one of the reasons she admired her, and, she admitted reluctantly to herself, it was also one of the reasons she loved her. Unfortunately, it was also one of the things that was keeping them apart.
"I talked to my father last night before you got here," Blair said quietly. She pulled out a chair and sat down on Cam's left, extending her hand on the tabletop until her fingers just touched the back of Cam's wrist. It wasn't enough, but it was all she could have at the moment. "He told me that he had every confidence in you, and that I should listen to you."
Cam couldn't help but grin. "Why do I think you ignored that last part?"
"Well," Blair laughed softly, "I don't always do everything he tells me." She stroked her fingers lightly over the top of Cam's hand and continued, "But I do agree with him that you are doing everything that can be done. And I'm so sorry for what happened to Agent Finch."
"So am I," Cam said softly, remembering the terrible silence on the end of the line when she informed Jeremy's family that he had been killed. Their stoic response and gracious thanks to her for calling them personally made it all the harder to bear. But that wasn't the worst of it. She looked at Blair, and there was naked torment in her eyes. "You could've been in that car, Blair. Another thirty seconds, and it would have been you."
"I wasn't," Blair whispered urgently, her fingers closing on Cam's arm. "Don't torture yourself."
"I don't know what I would have done," Cam whispered, trying hard not to think about the possibility.
"Don't do this," Blair insisted. "I'm all right, and as long as you're safe, I will be."
Cam smiled, Blair's presence, as always, banishing the nightmare images from her mind. "We seem to be the same situation then, Ms. Powell. Because as long as you're safe, I'm all right, too."
"Finally, we agree on something, Commander," Blair said softly.
For a moment, they simply rested with one another, their hands very lightly touching, but their connection much deeper than physical. Finally, Cam said reluctantly, "I need to finish up the briefing. Do you want to stay?"
"Will you fill me in later?" Blair asked.
"In that case, I think I've had enough of people and procedures for a while. Is there any rule against me going outside?"
"Not as long as you don't mind company," Cam said quietly. "And I'd prefer if you stayed on the grounds, at least for this afternoon."
"You know, I don't even know where we are."
"I'm sorry, I never thought to tell you," Cam apologized. "Croton-on Hudson," she added, naming a small, scenic community on the Hudson River.
Blair pushed her chair back and rose reluctantly. "I'll see you later, then, Commander."
Cam stood and watched her disappear into the other room, then squared her shoulders and followed her. Mac was waiting just outside the door. "Let's get this done, Mac," she said to him. "Bring everyone back in."
"Doyle is trying to make trouble for you," Mac seethed.
"Let him try," Cam said quietly. "We need to focus on Egret's safety, and I think he's got information we need. Let's use him."
Mac looked in the direction that Blair had gone, then asked in a low voice, "Are you going to tell her about the photograph?"
"Yes. She needs to know." She answered him because she liked and respected him. She didn't ask him if he approved, because she didn't require his approval. She also had a feeling that he did not agree, but then the decision wasn't up to him.
It was close to sundown when Cam finally finished the briefing and went to find Blair. She found her sitting on the side of a small dock on the edge of the river that ran along the rear of the property. Ellen Grant watched from under a small clump of trees twenty yards away. Otherwise, they were alone.
"Hello," Cam said as she eased down beside her.
Blair smiled softly. "Long meeting, Commander."
Cam sighed in frustration. "Not much yet. A lot of conflicting theories about the bomb, but not much hard data. It appears to have been a high order explosive, probably RDX, the current material of choice. Captain Lane says that the limited range of the blast indicates a small charge that could have been detonated with something as innocuous looking as a radio pager. We have no idea how or when it was placed, but the vehicle was serviced three days ago. Doyle has a team at the shop now - interviewing employees, tracking parts that might have been used - looking for anything. Something."
"But surely someone was watching the car while it was worked on?" Blair asked.
"Yes," Cam confirmed, "but Lane said it wouldn't take more than a second to slip something under the carriage with a magnet or even quickbond of some kind. It could have happened while the car was following us along the race route. Jeremy would have had to make multiple stops with people all around."
Blair shivered, but could find no words to express her horror.
"There's something else," Cam said quietly, handing her the small white rectangle she had been carrying in her pocket for hours.
"I don't understand," Blair said, staring at the photograph. It was an image of herself standing on the platform in Sheep Meadow, with Cam visible just behind her, clearly taken the previous day during her speech. Her eyes were riveted on the circled "x" inked in red over her chest. "If he targeted me while I was on the stage, why --?"
"Turn it over," Cam said gently.
Blair did, and read in chillingly familiar block print on the back, IT COULD HAVE BEEN YOU. She caught her breath, and her hand trembled. "This is what was in the envelope that Marcy was trying to give me, isn't it?
"Yes," Cam responded. "Agent Ryan believes that you were never the intended target yesterday. He didn't mean to kill you at all. He simply wanted to send you the message that he could have if he'd wanted to."
Blair stared at Cam, a horrible realization dawning upon her. "And the rifle shot outside my building? Was I the target then - or was it you all the time?"
Cam looked uncomfortable, but she wouldn't lie to her. "That's unclear. It's impossible to reconstruct the scene exactly, because we don't have adequate video documentation. I didn't realize there even was a reconstruction until this afternoon. The FBI had confiscated all of the tapes and none of us had ever seen them. You can't tell from the camera angle the precise sequence of events when the shot was fired. Even with digital remastering and time sequencing, it's unclear whether the trajectory line was toward you or me, because we were so close together, and there aren't good sightlines on the video. I just can't say for sure."
"Are you telling me you spent all afternoon watching a videotape of yourself being shot?" Blair asked incredulously.
"Well, not all afternoon," Cam said, trying to defuse the anger she heard brewing in Blair's voice. It hadn't been that difficult after she had seen it the first time and recognized how quickly everyone had responded, and how well protected Blair had actually been. It relieved a great deal of her anxiety about Blair's vulnerability.
Blair stood quickly, wrapping her arms around herself. Although the night air was still hot and humid, she was chilled. She tried but could not comprehend what it would take to sit there and watch something like that.
Cam stood and went to her side. "Blair, it's all right."
"No, it isn't," Blair snapped, unable to contain the storm of emotions buffeting her. "It most certainly is not all right. It's bad enough knowing that you might have been killed trying to protect me. It's worse thinking that you might have been killed just to get my attention."
She turned so suddenly in Cam's direction that their bodies touched briefly. Cam took a half step back, uncharacteristically startled, as Blair's fiery gaze locked onto hers.
"Now do you understand why I don't want you on my detail?" Blair demanded. "Can't you understand that I don't want to lose you?"
"Blair," Cam said, desperately wanting to reassure her. "We'll get him. I promise. We have thousands of feet of video from the park, and hundreds of still shots. We have Marcy Coleman's description of the person who handed her the envelope. Lindsey Ryan's profile is running through every database in the country right now. The ATF bomb squad is constructing a profile from the bomb remnants. Every hour that passes we have a better idea of how to find him."
"And until you do, you're in danger," Blair argued, her chest tight with panic. "You or Stark or Mac or Savard or someone whose name I don't even know might die."
Cam took her hand, uncaring that Grant would see them. "Every single one of us is well-trained and we're all aware of the danger. Nothing is going to happen."
"You can't know that."
"You're right, I can't," Cam said, her voice rising with a combination of frustration and sympathy. "But I don't intend to walk away. I know how to do this job, and I have more reason than anyone else to do it right." She clasped Blair's other hand and stared intently into her troubled blue eyes. "Damn it, Blair, I love you."
"If you did, Cameron, you'd leave me alone," Blair protested, pulling her hands free of Cam's grip. Then she turned and climbed hurriedly up the slope past Grant and disappeared into the house, leaving Cam staring after her.
When Cam walked back into the house it was just after eight p.m., and Patrick Doyle was piling folders into a large battered briefcase, obviously preparing to leave. He glanced at her as she entered the living room.
"My team says that Egret's building is secure. I told her she could go home any time she's ready," he said casually.
"What part of the fact that you don't have any say in her security don't you understand, Doyle?" Cam said, for the first time not bothering to hide her irritation. She'd had a hell of an afternoon, and her recent exchange with Blair had left her nerves raw. "You don't have a say in where she goes or when she goes or how she gets there. You don't have anything at all to do with her movement or her security."
"Just trying to help you out," Doyle replied smoothly, feigning surprise. "Since you're down a man, I thought I'd give you a hand with her."
She moved a step closer to him, a dangerous glint in her dark eyes. "I don't need your help with her, Doyle. All I need is for you to keep me apprised of any intelligence regarding Loverboy. That's it. That's all. Is that too much for you to comprehend?"
Mac walked into the room just in time to hear Cam's last remark, and the edge in her voice surprised him. He had never seen her give even the slightest hint of losing control. Anyone who didn't know her probably wouldn't notice anything amiss now, but he saw that her hands were clenched tightly by her sides and there was something just a little dangerous in her eyes. Savard must have thought the same thing because she was watching both Doyle and the Commander carefully as she stepped cautiously nearer.
Doyle closed the clasp on his briefcase and reached for his suit jacket, which he had left lying over the back of a nearby chair. Almost as an afterthought, he added, "Everyone wants us to catch this guy." He paused and grinned at Cam, a taunting grin completely without humor. "But you know, it's hard to catch fish if they don't bite, and they almost never bite if there's nothing on the hook."
Cam moved so swiftly that Mac and Savard were completely taken off guard. She had her hands on Doyle's shirtfront before he had a chance to stop her. In the next instant, she had shoved him up against the wall, her fists twisted in the fabric of his shirt, pulling the collar tight across his throat. His usual ruddy complexion rapidly turned crimson.
When she spoke, her tone was low and lethal, but everyone in the room could hear her. "Blair Powell is not bait. She is not part of this, and she never will be. Don't suggest it; don't even think it. You don't go near her without clearance from me. You don't talk to her; you don't brief her; you don't so much as look at her."
Doyle's face was purple and he was gasping for air, but he outweighed Cam by seventy pounds, and he was a trained agent. He chopped down on her right forearm with both of his fists, and even if she hadn't been injured, he probably would have broken her grip. Her face went white as pain exploded through her arm, and she let go of him as she reflexively took a step backwards.
Doyle grabbed for her, but Savard caught his right arm and Mac stepped in front of Cam, effectively separating the two.
"You're out of control, Roberts," Doyle wheezed. "And we both know why, don't we?"
Cam tried to step around Mac to get at Doyle again, but she was having trouble staying on her feet. A wave of nausea followed fast behind the burning pain that streaked up her arm. She marshaled every ounce of strength she had and said very clearly, "Remember what I said. Stay away from her."
"Commander," Mac said calmly, "you appear to be bleeding. You should sit down."
"Come on, sir," Savard said quietly, wedging herself in front of Doyle and widening the distance between the two senior agents. "Everybody's on edge. Let's all cool off."
Doyle looked at her as if just now realizing that she was in the room. "Just remember whose side you're on, Agent Savard," he warned as he finally picked up his briefcase and headed toward the door. He glared at Cam, unconsciously rubbing his neck where the collar of his shirt had left a raw spot. "Your reputation won't protect you forever, Roberts. Heroes are quickly forgotten."
Cam didn't answer. She was having trouble getting enough air.
"Savard," Mac said urgently, his voice a harsh whisper. "Can you please get the Commander out of here and see to her arm?"
Savard glanced once more in her superior's direction, assuring herself that he really was leaving, and then turned toward the Secret Service agents. She gasped before she could stop herself when she saw the widening stain on Cameron Roberts' jacket. A rivulet of blood ran from under the end of her sleeve onto her hand and was in danger of dripping onto the floor.
"Right," she said, stepping quickly to Cam's side and putting one arm around her waist. "Come with me, Commander."
"I need to speak with Ms. Powell," Cam said, attempting to pull away. Her head was spinning and there were spots flickering across her visual field, but she could still think. And all she could think was that Doyle wanted to put Blair out there so Loverboy could have another try at her. She'd kill him for this. Her voice was oddly flat as she said, "She can't leave yet. I need Taylor's report. I want to see the FBI -- "
She stopped, dizzy and in real danger of vomiting. Savard tightened her grip as Cam swayed, and sent Mac a warning look.
"I'll see to that, Commander," Mac responded immediately. "Go on, Savard," he urged. He was afraid that Cam was about to pass out. He hated to see her in pain, and he knew that she'd be furious if any of the other agents saw her when she was physically compromised like this.
To his great relief, Cam let Savard lead her away. That crisis averted, he steeled himself for a meeting with Egret. Hopefully, she would not ask why he was briefing her instead of the Commander. He had never been very good at subterfuge.
Blair knocked softly, but she didn't wait for an answer. She pushed open the door to the bathroom in Cam's room and stepped into the small space. She'd heard the raised voices from behind the closed door of her room where she had been pacing and trying to calm down. Cam's revelation that Loverboy had been intentionally targeting her security detail had shaken her badly. It was more frightening than the threat to her own life. She felt responsible, and guilty, and trapped by circumstances and she wanted to pound something. It didn't help her mood in the least that all she could think of was Cameron Roberts declaring irritably that she loved her. Because those few words had rocked her more than anything else that had happened, and that really scared her. Just when she thought she'd go stir crazy, Mac had come in, looking vaguely uneasy and asking her to please postpone any plans she might have for leaving until the Commander could speak with her. But he wouldn't tell her why Cam was unavailable, so she had come to see for herself.
Savard was kneeling on the floor in front of Cam, who was seated on the closed toilet, her shirt off and her head back, eyes closed. Her face was beaded with sweat and her skin looked gray in the harsh fluorescent light.
Blair's stomach tightened. God, she hated this. "What happened?" she asked sharply, moving around Savard to see what the FBI agent was doing. "Mac said she was indisposed."
Indisposed. That was a pretty word for this horror.
Savard held a gauze pad over a long, gaping laceration in Cam's forearm that was steadily oozing dark blood. The surrounding burn was blistered and weeping and her entire arm was swollen to twice its normal size. "She tore open a bit of the burn here. The bleeding's almost stopped."
Blair didn't need to see the discarded pile of soaked sponges to tell the wound had bled heavily. All she had to do was look at Cam. "She needs a hospital."
Cam opened her eyes and after a moment was able to focus on Blair's worried face. "I'm all right. Savard has it."
"Renee, either put her in a car and drive her, or I'll do it myself." Blair's hands were shaking and she knew her voice wasn't quite steady.
"Blair," Cam said softly, "if I check into a hospital I'm likely to be relieved, at least temporarily."
"I don't care," Blair stated more firmly as the initial shock of seeing Cam's injury began to wear off. "Mac is here. He can take care of things." She edged closer to Cam, stroking her fingers over Cam's forehead, brushing a damp lock of hair away from her eyes. "You're cold," she murmured, struggling with the fist of anxiety in her gut.
She looked around for something to cover her with, and finally focused on the fact that Cam was wearing only a thin sleeveless silk T-shirt. Her dress shirt was lying on the floor, rumpled and bloodstained. Blair's eyes narrowed as she regarded Savard leaning between Cam's outstretched legs, but she decided she probably didn't have to kill her just then.
"There's a blanket at the foot of the bed," Savard remarked without looking up, as she started to apply a topical antibiotic burn ointment to Cam's arm.
Blair was gone for a few seconds and when she returned, Cam was sitting up a little straighter, obviously working hard to hide her discomfort.
"That's not going to work, Roberts," Blair commented darkly, covering Cam's upper body with the blanket. "You still need to go to a hospital."
"Ma'am," Savard said quietly, efficiently wrapping a soft gauze bandage from Cam's palm to her biceps, "I'm certified as a physician's assistant as well as an EMT. They're not going to do anything for her at a hospital that I haven't already done."
Blair turned to her, an angry retort on her lips, but Renee Savard met her eyes calmly, a soothing certainty in her gaze.
"You're sure?" Blair asked quietly. She had moved back to Cam's side and without realizing it had rested her hand on the back of Cam's neck. She ran her fingers gently through the dark strands of hair, caressing her softly.
"Yes, ma'am, I am."
If Savard noticed Blair's actions, she gave no sign of it.
"I just need to lie down for an hour or so," Cam insisted, feeling better now that the pain was starting to abate.
Blair removed her hand and took a step away. "Will you see that she does, please," she asked Savard, her tone dull with resignation. She wanted to stay with her, and knew that she couldn't. Not here, not under these circumstances. It was agony to leave her.
Savard's voice was gentle with sympathy when she answered, "I will, Ms. Powell. You needn't worry."
Blair studied Renee Savard closely for a moment, then looked at Cam. "For once, Commander, let someone take care of you."
Mac was on the sofa, looking exhausted, when Savard returned to the room. He asked quietly, "Is she okay?"
Savard sank down on the couch next to him and blew out a deep breath. "She's got to be hurting like hell, but it's nothing that won't heal."
They regarded one another cautiously, each trying to judge the other's frame of mind. They were on opposite teams, in a manner of speaking, and had only been working together a few days. A few days that felt like a century.
Finally, Mac said, "Do you have any idea what that was all about?"
Savard chose her words carefully, aware of the fact that she was only on temporary loan to the Secret Service, and that ultimately she would have to survive within the hierarchy of the FBI. On the other hand, she would never defend someone like Patrick Doyle, even if it did mean risking her career. "Special Agent in Charge Doyle does not confide in me, Agent Phillips," she said quietly.
"However," Savard continued, "speaking only as an observer, I would say the man has a hard-on for her."
Mac blinked, then grinned broadly. "Well then, he's going to wait a long time for a little relief."
"I'd say that's the truth," Savard said, grinning back. Then, she added seriously, "I don't know what's going on with him. At first I thought it was just bureau politics. But it seems like it's more than that, and I don't know him well enough to speculate."
Mac propped his feet up on the coffee table, suddenly aware of how very tired he was. "It's bad enough that we have to worry about Egret. Now we have to worry about Doyle and the Commander."
"I don't really think you have to worry about your commander, Mac," Savard responded. "She's a little torn up at the moment, but once she has her feet back under her, I'm sure she can handle him. She didn't get as far as she has by being pushed around by men who resented her position or her competence. I think we should all concentrate on catching Loverboy and let the Commander handle Doyle herself."
Mac sighed in agreement. "Sounds like a plan to me."
"Have you seen Stark?" Savard asked casually.
"The last time I saw her she was talking to Lindsey Ryan in the kitchen.
Savard raised an eyebrow and stood. "Was she now?"
Mac watched her walk away and wondered why he felt like he never really knew what was going on around him.
It was sometime after one a.m. when Cam stepped into the darkened hallway. She closed her door quietly behind her and turned, meeting the eyes of Renee Savard, who stood watch next to the window nearby. The hallway was in shadow, but there was enough light coming from the lamps in the living room to illuminate their faces. They studied one another silently. Then, very deliberately, Savard turned her back to Cam and looked out the window into the night. Cam crossed the few feet to the opposite side of the hall and opened the door to Blair Powell's bedroom.
She waited just inside the room for her eyes to adjust.
"Is this an official visit, Commander?" Blair said quietly from the darkness.
"Then I'll leave the lights off."
Cam made her way to the side of the bed and eased down on the edge, reaching for Blair's hand with her uninjured one. "I'm sorry about earlier. I didn't mean to worry you quite so badly."
"How do you feel?"
"Better." She hesitated a beat, and then added, because she knew she had to tell her, "The damn thing hurts like hell, but I'm not dizzy and my stomach has settled. I'm okay."
"Did you come here to give me a personal medical report?" Blair asked sharply. Relieved of her worry, she remembered how angry she was. She sat up against the pillows, acutely aware of the fact that she was naked under the light sheet. "Because if that's why you're here, you can consider your duty done."
Cam was wearing only a thin sleeveless T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants. Blair had opened the windows, and the August air hung hot around them.
"No," Cam said softly, circling her thumb in the palm of Blair's hand. "I came because I couldn't sleep."
Blair's pulse began to hammer, but she steadfastly ignored it. This was one time she was not going to let her body rule her better judgment. "This isn't going to work, Cam," she said quietly.
A cold hand closed around Cam's heart, making it hard for her to breathe, but she answered calmly, "Why not?"
"You know why not. We've been all through this before. Because I can't stand caring about you and knowing that you might be hurt because of me. I can't do it. I don't want to risk feeling anything for you."
"If we were crossing the street," Cam said as if Blair had not just driven a knife into her depths, "and a car were about to hit me, would you push me out of the way even though you might be hurt yourself?"
"Yes," Blair said softly, "but the odds of that happening are almost zero."
"I know," Cam said, moving her hand to Blair's shoulder, running her fingertips lightly along the ridge of Blair's collarbone. "And the odds of me dying to save you are just as slim. We've just had a run of lousy luck."
Blair laughed harshly, trapping Cam's hand in hers to stop the undeniable excitement that the mere brush of her fingertips started inside. "Well, I'm not trusting anything to luck. Either you resign from my detail, or I don't want anything to do with you beyond our daily briefings."
Cam leaned forward and brushed her lips over the tip of Blair's shoulder. "No," she said very softly.
Blair ignored the swift stab of desire that raced through her. "I'm sorry?" she managed, her voice cold.
"No," Cam repeated, moving her mouth a fraction of an inch closer to the base of Blair's neck. She was leaning over her now, her breasts brushing lightly against Blair's bare arm. She felt her nipples stiffen beneath her T-shirt and knew that Blair could feel them too.
"It's not about sex," Blair said harshly, all too aware of the fire burning hotter every second. She was shaking lightly, her skin alive to Cam's touch.
Cam took Blair's hand and pressed it to her chest. Her heart pounded against Blair's palm.
"Neither is this," Cam whispered. "I've tried so hard not to want you. I've tried so hard not to need you. I can't help it. I can't stop it. We didn't choose this, either of us. I can't walk away from it. I can't walk away from loving you, and I can't walk away from doing what I know how to do to keep you safe. Please don't ask me to."
Blair turned her face away, struggling to resist the pull of Cam's words and the sweet seduction of her touch. "I don't want you to love me," she protested, her voice breaking.
Cam pressed her lips to the hollow of Blair's throat. "Yes," she said very softly as she reached under the sheet and gently cupped Blair's breast, "you do."
Blair moaned and arched her back, unable to control the surge of desire. "Damn you, Cameron." But the fine edge of longing was clear in her voice.
"Blair," Cam murmured, nudging the sheet aside. She moved her lips over Blair's chest, found her nipple, and pulled it carefully between her lips. She sucked it slowly as it grew hard and tight, then bit lightly, making Blair groan. She was hard too, and wet, and a pulse pounded demandingly between her thighs. She sat back, gasping with sudden urgency. "Help me get my clothes off."
Blair forced herself to focus through a haze of arousal and saw Cam struggling to pull the T-shirt off one-handed. "Here," she said quickly, sitting forward. "Let me do that."
She carefully worked the fabric down over the bandage on Cam's arm, then directed Cam to stand up, reaching for the ties on the sweatpants. When Cam kicked free of her clothes, Blair caught her uninjured hand and pulled Cam down beside her on the bed. She ran her hand along the length of Cam's body, over her abdomen, down her thigh and back up the inside of her leg.
Cam lifted her hips, breathing rapidly. "You're distracting me again."
Blair ran her fingertips through the thick wet heat between Cam's legs, her breath catching in her throat as her own body clenched in response. "I like distracting you," she murmured.
Cam made an effort to move on top of her and gasped sharply as she pushed up on her injured arm.
"What is it?" Blair asked quickly.
"Just my arm," Cam replied, attempting to direct Blair back onto the pillows with her other hand.
"Lie back, Cam," Blair said firmly. As she spoke, she took Cam's shoulders gently and pushed her down. "Let me."
Cam did not protest. She was still tingling from Blair's brief caress, and she was more than ready for more. "I actually enjoy being distracted," she admitted softly.
Blair laughed quietly and fit herself between Cam's legs, stopping briefly to press her cheek to Cam's breast and brush her lips over her nipple before kissing her way slowly down Cam's abdomen.
Cam closed her eyes with a sigh, a long, low sigh of surrender.
She lifted her hips as Blair's palms pressed against her thighs, opening her; and she arched her back, her muscles tightening, as Blair's lips closed on her; and she caught back a groan, trembling, as Blair's tongue tormented her. Blair's tender, knowing touch banished the pain and the fatigue and the worry.
"You are so good," Cam whispered faintly, her fingers trailing through Blair's hair. She was very close and desperate not to come. "So good."
Blair answered by massaging the spot that made Cam's muscles quiver and quickened her pace, drawing a sharp gasp from Cam. She felt Cam twitch under her tongue and knew she was there. Blair slipped an arm around her and pulled her close, knowing as she took her with her mouth and her hands and her heart, the simple truth of it.
There was no stopping, no turning back, for either of them. Not now. Not the next day. Not ever.
It was almost dawn when Cam left Blair's room. Savard, who had not yet been replaced by someone from the day shift, looked toward Cam as she stepped into the hallway.
Cam walked over to her and stood by her side. Their eyes met as she asked, "Anything to report, Agent Savard?"
"No, ma'am. It was a very quiet night."
"Nothing out of the ordinary then?" Cam asked again. She had a feeling that if Renee Savard had a problem, she'd deal with it out in the open, face to face, and not in some report sent to DC in a sealed folder. And if Renee Savard had a problem with her, Cam wanted it out in the open. There was too much work to be done in the next few weeks that required her full attention, and she couldn't be worried about looking over her shoulder. Loverboy was not going to de-escalate. Not now. And all of them needed to be sharp and focused if they were going to stop him without losing another of their number. "Nothing you wish to discuss?"
"No problems that I am aware of," Savard affirmed. "No activity whatsoever, Commander."
Cam nodded and added, "Very well then. We'll brief at 0700, if you could inform your relief, please."
"Yes ma'am," Savard said and returned her gaze to the window. If someone was going to make trouble about Cameron Roberts and Blair Powell caring for one another, it wasn't going to be her.
Shortly after eight AM, Blair was seated at a small patio table on the rear deck of the house. She had pulled on jeans and a v-neck shirt and was starting on her second cup of coffee. Stark had come out a few moments earlier and had walked down onto the lawn to take up her post there. She was leaning against the corner of the deck, apparently surveying the expanse of lawn and the river beyond.
Blair glanced up as the sliding glass doors opened and Cameron walked out. It was the first time she had seen her since they had parted in the dim pre-dawn light. Blair smiled, enjoying the look of her in her fresh white shirt and tailored trousers. Cam looked rested and pain free, although Blair knew that she hadn't had much sleep. She also noticed the clean bandage on her hand and wondered fleetingly who had done that for her. It might have bothered her more if Cam hadn't been looking at her with such intensity that her skin tingled.
"Good morning, Commander," she called softly, her eyes warm with welcome.
Cam's smile was equally intimate as she approached, a cup of coffee in her left hand. She sat down across from her and said quietly, "Ms. Powell."
The words were as smooth as a caress, and Blair was instantly reminded of the last time they had touched, only hours before. It had been Cam's lips against her neck that had been smooth then, their arms around one another as they stood together by the door.
"I have to go," Cam whispered, her hands running lightly up and down Blair's back. She had pulled on her T-shirt and sweats. Blair was still naked. "I need to get back to work."
"I'm sorry," Cam whispered.
"Don't be," Blair murmured, her arms around Cam's waist, her lips against her neck. She kissed her softly, then a little harder as the stirring began again in the pit of her stomach.
"No fair," Cam whispered.
"I know." Blair pulled away reluctantly, sighing softly. "Go on. Go before I don't let you go."
"Blair, I lo-"
Blair stopped her, gentle fingers against her lips. Cam looked at her, puzzled.
"Don't make any promises, Commander," Blair murmured. "Just tell me you will come back."
"Yes," Cam had whispered, just as she kissed her.
"I'm sorry?" Blair said, realizing that Cam had been speaking to her.
Cam watched Blair's eyes swim into focus, just as they did after they made love and she slowly returned to herself. It was the sexiest thing she had ever seen and she had to concentrate on her words to remember what she had been saying. "The FBI and my team have each independently cleared your building for reoccupancy.
Blair nodded. "I'd like to go home then."
"What do you think?"
Cam shrugged and admitted reluctantly, "I think another day won't matter. I trust my team, and I don't believe that the situation will be any different unless we remain here indefinitely."
Blair smiled, remembering the last two days and the few moments she had been able to have alone with Cam. "There is something to be said for being locked up here with you."
Cam's eyes darkened and her grin was slow and easy. "There is indeed."
Blair's heart rate doubled just in response to the husky familiarity in Cam's voice. Unfortunately, the rest of her responded too, and as much as she enjoyed the sensation, she was all too aware that it might be some time before she could satisfy the pressure beginning to build inside.
She flushed as she watched Cam's gaze fall to her breasts. The width of the table separated them, but she felt the glance as if Cam's hands were on her. Her nipples stiffened under the thin cotton. "Don't do that," she said very quietly, her voice oddly breathy.
"What would that be, Ms. Powell?" Cam murmured, her fingers trembling with the desire to skim along the surface of the soft skin visible at the neck of Blair's shirt. I'm in big trouble.
"Don't look at me like that in public," Blair rejoined softly, "because in case you haven't noticed, self-control has never been my strong suit."
Cam lifted eyes hazy with longing to Blair's. The wanting was a hard ache in her gut. Her chest tight, she whispered, "Then I promise not to tease you - in public."
Blair shivered lightly, like an animal run too hard in the hot sun, and nodded, her voice gone, her blood burning. She had never expected this helplessness in the face of desire. If this was what loving Cameron would mean, she wasn't sure she would survive it.
"I must go," Cam said gently, because leaving her was the last thing she wanted at that moment.
"All right. For now," Blair murmured, following her with her eyes as she walked to the edge of the deck.
Cam stepped down beside Stark and said, "Tell the team we'll be leaving for the Aerie at 1300 hours."
Paula Stark, who appeared to be engrossed in the feeding habits of two fat robins on the lush green lawn, answered, "Yes, ma'am."
Stark heard the patio door open and close and glanced over her shoulder to ascertain that Blair Powell was still within visual range. Seeing that she was, she returned her gaze to the perimeter and her mind to the previous evening. She had been standing almost in this exact spot a little after sundown, when the patio door had slid open then and Renee Savard had walked down the stairs to her side.
"Everything quiet?" Savard asked, leaning one shoulder against the deck support.
"Very," Stark answered, glad for the company. There was nothing quite so long or quite so lonely as the night shift.
"Agent Ryan leave yet?" Savard questioned casually.
"About an hour ago. She left some files for the Commander to review, but she said that she can do more from Quantico where she has better access to the databanks."
"She seems to know what she's doing," Savard appraised honestly.
Stark shifted her weight and automatically slid her hands into her pockets in an unconscious gesture similar to Cameron Roberts. "She's very sharp. I'm glad that the Commander brought her up here today, because now I don't feel like I'm chasing some phantom. At least I have a picture of him in my mind."
Savard nodded in agreement. "Well, I'd certainly rather work with her than some of the hotheads from violent crimes we usually get stuck with on something like this."
Stark laughed in agreement. "Boys with guns."
"Actually, I've always been partial to girls with guns," Savard said with a soft smile.
Stark was grateful for the darkness, because her blush would have been impossible to hide. Suddenly, the night seemed much warmer, and she was acutely aware of the way Renee Savard's voice sounded in the night. Low and smooth and - sexy. She swallowed and managed to answer steadily, "So am I."
"Well, that's nice to know," Savard responded. "When things quiet down a little on this detail, we should see what else we might have in common."
"Uh - that would be a--good," Stark said, cursing herself for sounding like a dolt.
Savard smiled at her. "I don't think that Secret Service agents are supposed to be quite so sweet, Agent Stark. But on you it's very nice."
Stark was trying to think of a clever response when Savard brushed her fingers over the back of her hand and walked away.
Stark jumped and turned quickly toward Blair, who was leaning on the railing looking down at her, a quizzical expression on her face.
"Ma'am?" Stark blushed again. Damn it.
"Would you let the Commander know that I'm ready to go home as soon as she gives the word?"
"Yes, ma'am. I will," Stark assured her, all business once more. According to what Lindsey Ryan had told them the day before, once they left the relative sanctuary of this house, any of them were targets.
Mac held out the phone, a puzzled expression on his face, and said, "Commander? Egret wishes to speak to you."
Cam was bent over one of the nearby desks, replaying a segment of videotape taken in Central Park during Blair's speech. She was specifically studying the crowd in the general vicinity of Marcy Coleman, searching for a slim, 25 to 30-year-old white male, approximately five ten, a hundred and fifty pounds. That was the description Dr. Coleman had given them of the man who had handed her the envelope for Blair Powell.
"I'll take it over here," Cam said immediately, surprised and concerned. Blair rarely contacted her for anything official.
She reached for the receiver, the only indication of her disquiet a faint line between her brows. "Yes?"
"Cameron, can you come up here please?"
There was hollowness in her tone that set Cam's heart racing with anxiety. "Right away. Are you -"
"I'm all right," Blair said hurriedly, but there was a faint tremor in her voice.
"I'm on my way," Cam said, dropping the receiver into the cradle. She headed swiftly toward the door, instructing Mac as she walked, "I want a voice check with all agents. Verify that all agents are at their posts and that they have nothing out of the ordinary to report."
Mac straightened and immediately turned to the monitors, simultaneously activating his transmitter. "Yes, ma'am," he said sharply.
Cam didn't hear his reply because she was already through the door and in the hallway, keying the elevator to Blair's penthouse. Thirty seconds later she was at Blair's door. When the door swung open, Blair was standing just inside, waiting, her face pale. Cam took Blair's shoulders in both her hands and looked intently into her face. "What is it?"
Blair managed a smile, but the smile was faint and her blue eyes were deeply troubled. She extended a white envelope toward Cam. "This came in the mail."
Cam took it and studied the front. Blair's name and address were affixed with a common bulk-mailing label. It looked perfectly ordinary. The return address was for a well-known charity organization.
"I thought it was about a fundraiser," Blair said quietly.
Cam looked inside and the muscles in her stomach tightened. "Have you touched it?"
Blair nodded. "Yes, I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking-"
Cam shook her head. "It doesn't matter. He's never left prints before. Still, we have to go through the motions."
She looked around for something with which to tease out the white rectangle. Blair handed her a large paper clip and she hooked it over the corner of the photograph and slid it out.
Cam silently regarded the image of Diane Bleeker standing in front of her Upper East Side apartment building with a sense of fury and dread. There was a familiar red circle with an x through it drawn centered over her chest. Cam turned over the Polaroid and saw another mailing label affixed to the back. Typed on it were the words: Meet me or she's next
Cam placed the photograph back into the envelope and slipped it into her inside jacket pocket. Then she walked directly to the wallphone in Blair's kitchen and rapidly punched in a series of numbers.
"Give me SAC Doyle immediately, please. This is Commander Cameron Roberts, Secret Service." She looked at Blair as she waited, smiling faintly as if to say it would be all right. Then, she said brusquely into the receiver, "Doyle, this is Roberts. I need you to send a team to Diane Bleeker's apartment at 88th and 5th Avenue ASAP. She's his next possible target. I'll fill you in at Command Central."
Blair said quietly when Cam hung up, "Thank you. I know you probably didn't enjoy making that call."
Cam shrugged dismissively. "The problems between Doyle and me don't matter. Diane does."
"Something has to be done, Cam," Blair said urgently, pacing in agitation. "I can't stand this any longer."
"Blair," Cam began gently, walking back to her, her face filled with concern. "I know how hard this must be for you."
Blair shook her head impatiently. She didn't want sympathy - she wasn't the one being shot at or blown up. "I don't care what it takes, Cam. I don't care what I need to do. I need this to be over."
Cam put her arms around her, pulling her close and holding her tightly. "Soon. I promise. It will be over soon."
Blair did not resist the embrace, but she said stubbornly, her body stiff with fear and frustration, "I'm okay."
"I know you are," Cam murmured, resting her cheek against Blair's hair. "This is for me."
Blair relented, because she needed the comfort of her. She slipped her arms under Cam's jacket, sliding her hands up her back, pressing her face to Cam's shoulder. Her hands met the leather harness of Cam's shoulder holster, and she shuddered briefly. There had been too much loss and it was draining her spirit.
Cam ran her hand lightly up and down Blair's back, caressing her softly. "The FBI are on their way to Diane's now. She'll be safe."
"Who will be next?" Blair said, her voice muffled against Cam's body. "Will it be one of you? Will it be Marcy Coleman - or some poor random person who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? I can't just stand by and watch it happen. I've got to do something."
Cam's stomach knotted, but she smoothed her hand gently over Blair's hair and pressed her lips to her forehead. "It isn't going to be anyone. We'll stop him. I need you to trust me, Blair."
Blair said nothing, and Cam's heart pounded with sudden alarm. "Blair, please promise me that you won't do anything without discussing it with me. I need you to do that. Please."
Blair leaned back in the circle of Cam's arms and studied her face. There was something close to panic in Cam's eyes. Blair had never seen her look that way before. "Cam-" she whispered, slipping her hand to the back of her neck, stroking her. "Hey."
"I can't lose you," Cam rasped, her throat tight with the anguish, the edges of her mind still raw with old memories.
Her haunted expression tore at Blair's heart. She sighed, and ran her fingers lightly over Cam's cheek. She could no more hurt her than she could stop loving her. "I promise. Just do something, please."
Cam kissed her, a kiss of thanks and tender possession. When she lifted her lips away, she whispered, "I will."
Cameron walked into the conference room at Command Central and nodded to Patrick Doyle. As had become the custom, the FBI were lined up on one side of the table, and her team on the other. She and Doyle faced off once again from opposite ends.
"We have to assume an action from Loverboy is imminent," Doyle said immediately, his preemptive attempt to take charge glaringly obvious.
Unperturbed by his attitude, Cam nodded her agreement as she sat down. She'd played these interagency power games before. "What's the status at Diane Bleeker's apartment building?"
"Our team and the bomb squad are there now," Doyle informed her. "She's been moved temporarily to a secure location."
Cam's face showed no sign of it, but she relaxed as some of her inner tension dissipated. One disaster averted. "I talked to Lindsey Ryan at Quantico and brought her up to date," Cam began. "She believes that this is a real threat, and if he can't access his primary target - Egret, or his designated substitute - Diane Bleeker, then he may choose someone else out of frustration or anger."
She looked around the table, and she knew that she didn't need to repeat what Lindsey Ryan had already told them. Any of them could be next. "Egret will remain sequestered here for the immediate future. She's agreed to postpone her plans for San Francisco, but we only have a two and a half week window until Paris. Then she is going to have to travel, and she'll be visible again."
Vulnerable is what she meant.
Doyle waved a hand in dismissal. "It's unreasonable to keep her out of sight indefinitely," he said, carefully avoiding the suggestion that Blair's visibility was one sure way to draw out their UNSUB. Unconsciously he rubbed the fading abrasion on his neck. "On the other hand, offering Loverboy a meet is the best way to get him out in the open."
Cam saw both Mac and Stark stiffen, and she knew one or both of them was about to vehemently protest. She raised her left hand an inch off the table and both of them settled back in their chairs, their faces set and angry. Cam stared at Patrick Doyle and said very evenly, her voice completely controlled, "Special Agent in Charge Doyle, I am certain that you are not suggesting that we use the President's daughter as bait for a proven psychopathic killer."
Doyle's jaw bunched, and he answered stiffly, "Of course not."
"Then we needn't pursue that line of thought any further," Cam responded, struggling to control her anger. "Egret continues to receive regular email from him. He is using hacked IP numbers and routing messages through random computers so he is still not traceable. As was previously decided, there has been no attempt to block his messages, because it's our only means of judging his state of mind and potentially predicting his moves."
"Well, that's been a royal failure," Doyle remarked harshly.
Cam ignored him and continued. "Agent Ryan suggests that we communicate with him via email, as Egret, in an attempt to get more information about his plans. This seems logical. An agent with computer and electronics expertise will be joining my team later today. She can begin the exchange after Loverboy's next contact."
There was an uncomfortable silence as everyone realized that this new agent would be a replacement for Jeremy Finch.
Doyle broke the silence as he said with a smug smile. "I talked with the Director on the way here. He agrees with me that we need to be more proactive if we're going to resolve this situation."
Cam didn't move an inch although every muscle became rigid. "Meaning?"
"We're planning on initiating contact, just as you suggested, Roberts," Doyle stated with an unmistakable note of condescension. "But we're not interested in dialoguing. We're going to set up a meet."
"A decoy operation?" Mac exclaimed in surprise. "This guy is a bomber. You can't send someone in undercover when she might be walking into a bomb."
"We assessed the risk to be acceptable," Doyle said brusquely. Straightening a pile of folders in front of him, he added, "We expect it will take several days to put things in place. We're bringing in our own person to establish electronic contact with him."
"It's a risky operation, Doyle," Cam said quietly. "There are other avenues we can pursue first."
"We've all waited long enough," Doyle said. He looked pointedly at Cam, his expression accusatory. "Too long."
Cam knew that she had very little to say about an FBI operation. It wasn't what she would've done, but her primary concern was Blair's security, and she admitted to herself reluctantly that the FBI were well within their rights to attempt apprehension their own way.
She pushed back her chair, having registered her dissent. That was all she could do. "I'd appreciate it if you kept us informed of the timetable. In the meantime, I'm going to have my team continue analyzing the videos and photos from the park."
This time, Doyle couldn't hide his triumphant grin.
"No problem there, Roberts. You'll be informed since we're going to be using one of your agents to work the decoy."
Cam placed both hands flat on the table and leaned forward, her body coiled with tension as if she might spring from her chair. Her voice was low, dangerously low, when she said, "No, Doyle, you are not. My agents are Secret Service agents. They are not decoys for the FBI."
Doyle shrugged. "It's already been cleared. We need someone with firsthand knowledge of Egret in case we get into a situation where a verbal exchange with the UNSUB is necessary. I can't brief a new agent on the kinds of things he might ask. The decoy needs to be one of yours."
For a minute, Cam couldn't think through her fury. Doyle had gone behind her back and essentially conscripted one of her agents for a potentially lethal mission. She stood, struggling to maintain her composure. None of them had had much sleep in the last seventy-two hours, and she was riding the thin edge of control. She had lost one man already. She was not going to lose another. "This is not going to happen, Doyle."
"It's not up to you," Doyle said, rising also. "It's been approved and your agent has already accepted the assignment."
Cam glanced quickly at Stark, who shook her head almost imperceptibly. Clearly, she knew nothing of Doyle's plan.
"This meeting is over," Cam snapped as she turned and walked out the door. Another second and she would have had her hands on his throat again.
Cam stalked through the command room, barking, "Grant! With me."
Ellen Grant jumped to her feet and hurried to follow her tall commander as she pushed through the door into the outer hallway. The elevator ride down to the lobby was chillingly silent. As they approached the double glass doors, Grant said quietly, "Commander, I-"
"In a minute, Grant," Cam said sharply, working hard to quell her desire to punch Patrick Doyle in the face. Ellen Grant was her agent -- hers to command, hers to protect. He had come between her and someone she was responsible for, and that was a serious miscalculation on his part. She could tolerate his personal affronts, but she would not tolerate anyone interfering with what was hers.
Grant set her jaw and prepared herself for an upbraiding. It would be hard to take coming from Roberts, because she respected her.
They crossed the street and Cam unlocked the ornate park gates, stepping through with Grant on her heels. Once they were inside, Cam slowed so that Grant could walk by her side. Cam looked at her and said, "Do you want to tell me what happened between you and SAC Doyle?"
Grant stared straight ahead, her tone subdued as she replied, "He contacted me this morning while you were on the phone with Washington. He told me he would need me for an undercover operation to apprehend Loverboy." She swallowed, recalling the strange conversation. "I told him he should speak with you, but he informed me the decision had already been made in Washington. He said that he needed my answer then."
She looked into Cam's face, her tone unapologetic. "I told him yes."
They had reached a secluded corner of the park, not far from where Cam had sat with Blair only days before. They stood under the shade of a weeping willow, Cam with her hands balled into fists in the pockets of her trousers, Grant unconsciously at attention.
"I'm not going to let you do this, Grant," Cam said quietly, although her voice vibrated with tension. "You're a Secret Service agent, not FBI. This is an undercover decoy operation, and you're not trained for it."
Grant straightened even further, a set look of determination on her face. "Commander, I respectfully disagree. I was a cop before I joined the Service. I can do this."
Cam smiled slightly, expecting nothing less from the spit and polish Grant. She was a solid agent in every respect, and Cam did not doubt her abilities. Nevertheless, she was not going to lose another agent, not in an operation that spelled disaster from the onset. There were too many people involved and not enough coordination. Janet had been a trained undercover detective, and she had died in an operation just like this. Cam wasn't going to lose anyone else.
"Agent Grant, I have never doubted your abilities. I value your contribution to this team, and I trust Egret to your care. This is something altogether different, and it's not going to happen."
Grant met Cam's eyes and she spoke her mind. "Commander, you may not have anything to say about this. I'm not certain that anyone can override SAC Doyle at this point. If I'm needed, and if I'm ordered, I'll do it. And do it willingly. Jeremy Finch is dead. You were almost killed." She hesitated for moment, and then said quietly, "The next time, Commander, he may be too angry to settle for a substitute. The next time it might be Egret. Commander, I want this assignment."
Cam looked past Grant's shoulder up to the penthouse of Blair's apartment building. They couldn't keep her up there forever. She doubted they could even keep her up there for a few days, nor did she really want to.
Blair was suffering - from the guilt of others dying in her place and from the conflict of being at once exposed to countless strangers - and confined by them. It was a conflict that was suffocating her and one that would eventually destroy her strength. Cam could not bear to see that. She brought her eyes back to Ellen Grant's steady blue ones.
"If it comes to that, Grant, I want you to know that I'll be right behind you. You're not going into this alone."
Grant smiled softly. "Thank you, Commander. That makes me feel better."
Finally, Cam smiled, too. "And Ellen - thank you."
When they turned and walked side by side from the park, the silence between them was one of unspoken communion.
Blair answered the door at the first knock. "Is Diane all right?" she inquired urgently as Cam stepped into the loft.
Cam nodded and went directly to the phone. She disconnected the jack and inserted a small rectangular box between the wall and Blair's phone. An LCD readout blinked on the face of the metal device, showing a series of rapidly cycling ten digit numbers. She depressed the receiver once to engage the scrambler, then handed the telephone to Blair. "Why don't you call her yourself? 212-555-1950."
Blair raised an eyebrow and pushed the numbers. A few seconds later she said, "I'd like to speak to Diane please..." She whispered a 'thank you' to Cam as she waited, then the first real smile in a long time lit her face. "Hey. How are you doing?"
Blair leaned against the breakfast counter that divided her kitchen from her work area and reached for Cam's hand as she spoke. "I don't think it's a good idea to try to seduce the FBI, Diane," she said dryly, a wry smile on her face. She tugged Cam closer, and Cam slipped behind her to sit on one of the high stools lined up along the center island in the kitchen.
Blair backed between Cam's legs, saying, "Yes, I know. They do seem to be criminally attractive, but I still think it might provoke an incident if you dragged one into the bedroom."
As she talked, she ran her fingers up and down Cam's arm. Cam shifted, spreading her legs so that she could pull Blair against her chest, slipping both arms loosely around Blair's waist from behind, cradling her softly in her arms. She rested her chin against the top of Blair's head. She sighed, too quietly for Blair to hear.
"I can't tell you very much. I don't know very much," Blair offered, placing her palm on the inside of Cam's thigh. Almost unconsciously, she trailed her fingers along the inside seam of Cam's trousers, listening to Diane tell her about the less than four star accommodations she was being subjected to. Hearing Diane's voice helped ease the ball of tension that had filled her chest all morning. But even in her relief, she was much more aware of the slight increase in Cam's breathing and the fine tension rippling through the muscles under her hand.
"She's here with me now... Yes, Diane," Blair said in mock exasperation. "I'm listening to her." She laughed, and added, "I said I was listening - I didn't necessarily say I was following orders. I don't believe domestication is an immediate threat."
As Blair spoke, Cam fingered open the top two buttons of her blouse and slipped her hand inside. Blair gave a slight start of surprise and automatically pressed her hips back into Cam's crotch.
"I'm sorry about this," Blair said quietly, trying valiantly to ignore the brush of Cam's hands over her nipples. "I trust Cam, and she'll get you out of there as soon as it's possible."
Blair reached behind her and found the button on Cam's fly. A second later she had it open and was tugging at the zipper. "I'll call again," she said, then listened briefly. "Yes. I'll be careful, I promise."
Before she said goodbye, her hand was inside Cam's trousers. She set down the phone and leaned her head back against Cam's shoulder -extending her neck, offering her flesh. Cam's lips were on her immediately, hot and hungry. Blair rubbed her fingers over Cam's briefs, smiling to herself as she found the heat she expected.
"Thank you for that," Blair said throatily, arching her back, pressing her breasts up into Cam's palms.
"What?" Cam asked dimly. She was focused on the way Blair's breasts filled her hands and the insistent pounding pressure between her legs building rapidly under Blair's fingertips.
"Letting me call her," Blair murmured, her eyes closed. She moved her hand back up to Cam's belly, aware of the faint growl of frustration from her lover. She smiled to herself, enjoying the power. She smoothed her palm over Cam's firm stomach and then pushed her hand under the waistband of her underwear, back down between her legs. She slipped a finger on either side of the firm prominence of Cam's clitoris, squeezing her slowly. Cam jerked against her, groaning softly.
Then Cam's lips were against her ear, her breath ragged, as she whispered, "Do that a little harder and you'll make me come."
"I intend to," Blair answered, a hungry edge to her voice. She moved her hand away and turned in Cam's arms until she faced her, still between her legs, her breasts exposed through her open blouse. She rubbed her hard nipples over Cam's shirt front, gasping softly at the fine ripple of excitement that ran straight down to her own clitoris.
"Put your fingers back on me," Cam pleaded, her eyes hazy with need.
"Not here. Not just yet," Blair whispered, stepping away. She caught Cam's uninjured hand in hers and pulled her upright. "I want you slow."
"I don't have much time," Cam protested hoarsely, following her nevertheless.
Blair glanced back, an enigmatic smile on her face. "You have enough time, Commander. The only advantage to our situation is that no one is going to question your presence up here."
Blair drew her around the corner of the partition into her sleeping alcove, then turned and reached for the buttons on Cam's shirt. "I've never made love with a woman in my own bed. Couldn't find one to pass the security inspection." She stopped long enough to kiss her, a deep languid kiss. She was having trouble keeping her hands from shaking she wanted her so badly, but she continued evenly, "Apparently, you're the one. Stand still."
Methodically, she opened each button as Cam submitted quietly to the slow torture, her hands clenched at her sides, shuddering with arousal. Blair stripped the shirt off and laid it carefully over a chair, mentioning almost as an afterthought, "It wouldn't do to get this too wrinkled."
When Blair began to pull off Cam's trousers, Cam's restraint wavered and she hurriedly pushed them off herself. In a minute she was naked. She reached for Blair, who stepped back quickly with a small shake of her head. Blair's eyes were laser bright and focused intently on Cam's body.
"No, you can't touch me," Blair said thickly. "I don't want to be distracted either."
Blair drew Cam to the bed and urged her down on top of the covers. Then, watching Cam watch her, she slowly removed her own clothing. As she slid the sheer silk off her shoulders, she drew her fingers down her breasts, lingering on her nipples, tugging them lightly until the exquisite sensation became too much to bear. As she continued down to stroke her abdomen, teasing ever lower towards the curls at the base of her belly, she kept her eyes on Cam's. Cam's eyes were dark and hot and her hands twitched where they lay on the covers. Cam's reaction heightened her arousal as much as her own caresses.
"I want to do that," Cam said urgently, watching as Blair's fingers slipped between her thighs. When Blair made a small whimpering sound, Cam was afraid that she might come herself. Hoarsely she gasped, "Blair, please."
Blair shuddered and pulled her hand away, knowing she was too close and not wanting it yet. Nevertheless, she needed contact, something to relieve the throbbing ache between her legs. Hurriedly, she moved onto the bed and straddled Cam's thigh, moaning softly as her swollen flash rubbed against Cam's warm skin. She leaned forward, bracing herself on one arm, and brought the other between Cam's thighs. She entered her smoothly, all in one motion, knowing that Cam was ready for her.
Cam's throat closed around a cry and she thrust her hips upward to meet Blair's thrust. The suddenness of it took her unaware, and a rolling wave of sensation followed fast upon the initial pleasure. Her eyes opened wide and she stared at Blair, stunned and already lost.
"Close," she gasped.
Blair was holding back her own orgasm with every ounce of her strength, but the feel of Cam contracting around her fingers and the tingling in her clitoris as she thrust herself along Cam's leg was too much for her to contain. She bore down, and as she felt herself begin to crest, she pressed her thumb hard along the length of Cam's clitoris.
Cam jolted off the bed with the first pounding spasm and wrapped her arms around Blair. They pressed their bodies together, groaning softly in unison as they joined in surrender.
As the contractions subsided, Blair curled up by Cam's side, her fingers still inside her. Cam's arm came lazily around her shoulder and they lay together, breathing hard and drifting somewhere just behind the boundaries of reality.
Eventually, Cam whispered, "If we keep this up, it's all going to come out."
Blair pressed closer, moving her hand upward across Cam's stomach. She rested her fingers on Cam's breast, not in passion now but in contented possession. "Yes, I know."
"It will be complicated."
Blair pressed her lips to Cam's shoulder, kissing her lightly. "Yes, I know."
"We'll deal with it, somehow," Cam sighed, her lips soft on Blair's temple.
Blair closed her eyes, stealing a brief moment of peace, as she whispered, "Yes, I believe we will."
"Anything new?" Cam asked, standing behind the two people seated in front of an array of computers, voice analyzers, video monitors and other electronic tracking devices. Both swiveled in their chairs and looked up at her. Both of them looked weary but there was also an unmistakable sense of exhilaration about them, as if they were enjoying themselves immensely. The ebony skinned woman, whose bearing was nothing short of regal, spoke first, her voice modulated by a slight accent that belied her European schooling.
"We've replied only twice since first contact twelve hours ago, Commander," Felicia Davis told her. "As discussed, I've made no attempt to engage him in any way other than a few verbal probes - who are you, what do you want, why are you contacting me. Things Egret would already have said, but the kind of thing someone might ask when they were getting tired of the attention. I've tried to attach a tracking packet to my responses, but he's using some kind of anonymizer program that is preventing me from inserting any kind of bug into his machine."
"If you could, could we locate him?" Cam asked her newest team member.
The woman who looked like she might have come directly from a Paris fashion runway shrugged, a small frown line darting quickly between her arched brows. "Theoretically, yes. With what I've been able to gather from the FBI's attempts to do the same thing, he's very well hidden. My guess is even if we get a fix on his machine, it will show up somewhere in Rumania or the like. He's rerouting his messages through a gateway, probably several. It's still worth trying though."
"This could go on for quite some time," Cam observed. "The two of you are going to need a break."
Mac protested, "We're fine, Commander."
Cam appreciated that Mac was reluctant to relinquish his seat as the communications coordinator in the unfolding operation that the FBI had cleverly named Love Bug because he was concerned that his position would be usurped. It had taken a call to Stewart Carlisle along with a threat to go over his head to the Director before Cam could get Mac and her new computer expert, Felicia Davis, online with Loverboy to begin with. She had argued that her team could more easily and efficiently provide the kinds of information that an online encounter would require. Carlisle had agreed with her and had pulled a few strings of his own. So, despite Doyle's objections, Cam at least had her people in on the ground floor of the operation. Nevertheless, the FBI were hovering, and Cam had a feeling they were just waiting for the slightest excuse to take over. She couldn't afford to have her agents burning out in the first few days of what might be a protracted campaign.
"Remember, Lindsey Ryan told us that Loverboy is very astute, and in all likelihood he's been studying Egret for years. Granted, there isn't all that much information of personal nature available on her in the public domain, but he'll still be suspicious if 'she' begins to behave out of character. She would be very reluctant to have any kind of dialogue with him, and any abrupt change in that pattern is going to tip him off."
Felicia nodded in agreement. "Understood, Commander, and we have been watching both the length of the exchange and the exact nature of our responses very carefully. Nevertheless, I don't want to miss an incoming."
"Agent Ryan should be here within the next hour and I would like to conference as soon as she arrives," Cam said flatly. "After that, you're both off for six hours. And I mean 'out of here' off."
They barely acknowledged her order before they turned back, heads close together, to a stack of printouts, intent on reviewing all of the previous communications from their intended contact. She knew she was going to have to force them out of the command room later.
"I'll be upstairs in the Aerie," Cam said as she passed the agent who was monitoring the building surveillance cameras. None of them had strayed far from Command Central for the last eighteen hours. Once they had decided to go forward with the FBI's plan to lure Loverboy into a public confrontation, she had put them all on twelve hour shifts, but she noticed that no one was actually gone for more than a few hours at a time. Everyone had a personal stake in catching the man who had cost them all a friend and colleague.
She glanced at her watch. It was ten-thirty in the morning, and it had been twenty-four hours since she had last seen Blair. She had been at the command center most of the previous afternoon, enduring another meeting with Doyle while they hammered out their respective roles in the upcoming endeavor. She had been forced to accept that the decision regarding Ellen Grant's participation was out of her hands. She had let it go, choosing instead to focus her energy on assuring Grant's safety. If she needed to be on site twenty-four hours a day monitoring events to do that, then she that's where she planned to be.
It had been close to three AM the previous morning when she had finally headed across the square to her apartment. She had stopped at the corner and glanced up at Blair's window. A faint glow illuminated the double panes of glass. She had wondered if Blair were working, and had wished for a moment that she were sitting nearby, quietly watching, as she used to watch her mother work when she was young. It was the kind of memory that brought a longing for something she hadn't known she missed and couldn't afford to consider now. She had shrugged it away and continued up to her small, impersonal apartment for a few hours of sleep before the battle truly began.
Blair stood before the canvas, a fine sable brush in one hand, lost in the sensation of color and contour, not thinking of anything at all. It took her a few seconds to recognize the sound at her door as knocking. She put the brush down and glanced once more at the painting, knowing that when she returned, she would have it. She turned and crossed the polished wood floor, glancing at the clock, surprised to find that she had been working for several hours. She hadn't thought she would be able to. She hadn't thought that she would be able to do anything at all except wonder what was happening downstairs. That and think about what she intended to do about being crazy in love with her security chief.
She glanced through the peephole out of habit and, as it always did whenever she saw her, her heart rate seemed to triple. She pulled the door open and leaned against the doorframe, regarding the tall, dark-haired woman in the immaculately tailored suit.
"You're early for the briefing, Commander," she commented, blocking the doorway. "We aren't scheduled until three."
Cam nodded gravely. "I'm aware of that, Ms. Powell. However, I have some pressing matters to discuss with you."
"Oh?" Blair said with a shrug, stepping back from the door and closing it slowly. When Cam turned, Blair had silently moved very close to her.
"And what matters would those be?" Blair asked, sliding her fingers under the edge of Cam's jacket, her voice a husky murmur.
Cam very slowly put her hands on Blair's waist and drew her near. Captivated by the variations of blue in her eyes, she answered deliberately, "Personal matters."
Then she lowered her head and kissed her. It was a long, slow, thorough kiss that spoke of longing and desire and something else. Something beyond words, at once tender and heavy with need. When Cam lifted her mouth from Blair's, they stood silently, arms around one another, just feeling.
Finally, Blair stepped back, a crooked smile on her lips. "I'm glad you had them turn off the surveillance cameras in here."
Cam grinned. "So am I - although this wasn't what I had in mind at the time."
"Can you talk about what's happening with - all of it?"
Cam laughed, trying to ignore the insistent throbbing deep in her gut. "Well, my attention is on something different at the moment. I'd better have some coffee if you want me to think."
Blair took her arm and started to pull her towards the kitchen. Then she hesitated, turned, and grasped Cam's face with both hands. She pulled her head down and kissed her, hard and fierce. When she pulled away her knees felt weak and Cam looked slightly stunned.
"Well," Blair gasped softly, running her hands over Cam's chest. "Now I guess I'd better have some of that coffee, too."
A few moments later they sat facing one another at the counter, their hands lightly touching.
"What's going on?" Blair asked quietly.
Cam told her about Doyle and Grant and the operation underway.
Blair watched Cam's face while she talked, listening for the things she wasn't saying. She had spent her life listening to her father and his associates discuss everything from foreign policy to armed intervention, and she knew something about strategy. She also recognized when some things were being glossed over or omitted altogether.
"You can't intend for Grant to take him on herself?" Blair said when Cam finished outlining the basics of the plan.
Cam shook her head. "No. Once we establish rapport and convince him that he really is speaking to you, we hope he'll reveal something to help us trace him. Some reference to location, some historical fact -- something to give us a fix on his physical location."
"And if that doesn't work?" Blair asked quietly.
"Then we'll set up a meet under the pretext that you don't want anyone else endangered, and lay a trap for him that way."
"He might just lay a trap for -- me," Blair stated. And he lays his with bombs.
"He might," Cam allowed. "But we'll have dozens of agents securing the area, and if he's anywhere near the meet site, which Ryan assures us he will be, we'll have him."
"What about Grant?"
Cam's stomach tightened but her voice was sure. Uncertainty could not be entertained once an operation was underway. "She'll be wired and armored and hopefully she won't get close enough to be in any real danger. We just need her to leave here as you, in case he's watching the building, and to be visible approaching the meet location."
Blair was silent for a moment, then she asked, "Who's going with her as back up?"
"Savard," Cam said. She met Blair's eyes and added softly, "and me."
Blair stood abruptly and walked to the far side of the loft, her back to the room, looking out the tall windows toward the park. Cam sat for a moment, her good sense warring with an uncomfortable need to make Blair understand. She stared across the room at Blair's rigid back, telling herself that she should simply go back to work and do what needed to be done. But if she did, she knew that she would only be bringing part of herself to the job. The other part would be wondering about Blair, and that fact aggravated her almost as much as the cold silence in the room.
"Blair," Cam said quietly, crossing to stand behind her. She did not touch her, because the anger was nearly a palpable barrier between them.
Blair held up a hand, not turning, her voice harsh and clipped. "Don't, Cam. Do not tell me it's safe or any other such fairy tale about the brilliant planning of our security agencies. I know the track records."
Cam did touch her then, because she had to. She was finding that distance between them was harder and harder to bear. She didn't want to think about what that might mean, particularly not now. She rested her hands very lightly on Blair's waist, stepping near but not trying to hold her. "Everyone agrees that the risk is low."
Blair made a faint choking sound that might have been a laugh, or a sob. She turned abruptly to face her, pushing Cam's hands away. "Just when did you start thinking that I was stupid, Cam? Before or after we fucked?"
"Goddamn it, Blair," Cam growled, trying hard to hold onto her temper, "I know damn well you aren't stupid. The risks are low."
"I suppose you think that it wouldn't occur to me that Jeremy Finch is dead and you were almost killed once already? Or do you think I've simply lost my mind?"
"If anyone has lost their mind, it's me," Cam snapped, her dark eyes flashing with fury. "And it wasn't when we fucked. It happened the first time I walked into this room and you had the arrogance to come on to me like I was some rookie you could lead around by my proverbial dick."
"Well, that didn't work very well, did it?" Blair seethed, looking pointedly at Cam's crotch and then back to her face. "And it has nothing to do with the particulars of your anatomy."
"Actually, it must have worked," Cam said with irritation, running a hand through her hair, tousling the dark locks into the disheveled look that Blair found so sexy, "because I haven't been able to make a single decision since that morning without worrying about you."
Blair stared at her, remembering their first meeting and her surprise at discovering that her new security chief not only wasn't intimidated by her but actually seemed intent on working with her. "I never asked you to worry about me," she remarked, the sharp edges of her rage softening as she looked at her.
"I know that," Cam said, her voice intense, "but I do." She waited a beat, and then said even more quietly, "I didn't want you to care."
"I know that," Blair whispered, and added even more softly, "but I do."
They both moved at once, closing the distance, slipping into one another's arms.
"I'll be careful"
Cam kissed Blair's temple, murmuring, "I'll wear a vest, and I'll have Savard. She's good. We'll have plenty of backup nearby, too."
Blair pressed her lips to Cam's neck, feeling her blood pulse through the arteries just under the skin. So fragile. She took a deep breath, forcing the fear away, burying it deep inside.
"She'd better be as good as she looks," Blair threatened, "or I'll be forced to hurt her."
Cam leaned over an array of printouts on the table in the glass-walled conference room, talking to Patrick Doyle and working hard to ignore her intense dislike for the man.
Just get the job done and make sure Grant is well protected in the process. That's all that matters, she reminded herself.
When Doyle failed to respond to one of her questions, she glanced up from the transcript of the last communication with Loverboy and caught the FBI agent staring past her out into the main area of the command center. The look on his face was a startling mixture of displeasure and something that looked very much like lust. She turned and followed his gaze and when she saw that he was looking at Blair, her simmering anger flared hotly into fury. The way he stared at her was almost an invasion.
"Do you have a problem of some kind, Doyle?" she demanded.
"You don't seem to have much control over her, Roberts," Doyle said derisively. "She shouldn't be down here."
"It's not my job to 'control' her," Cam said as evenly as she could. "And there is absolutely no reason that she shouldn't go anywhere she likes."
He turned and studied her as if she were some strange life form. "Civilians complicate matters, Roberts. Especially civilians with opinions - and friends in high places."
"I'm not concerned about anything that Ms. Powell might have to say to anyone about anything," Cam remarked. She folded up her notebook and turned to leave.
"You might change your mind before this is all over," he called after her.
She closed the door without looking back. She threaded her way through the desks and the mountains of monitoring equipment that seemed to grow in number and complexity every day. Their working space had been adequate for routine day to day matters, but now that Doyle's team had practically moved on site, and Lindsey Ryan was staying to monitor the Internet communications with their UNSUB, and the ATF bomb squad was coming and going with information about the latest analysis on the bomb fragments from the park, the room was crowded with people and makeshift workstations.
Nevertheless, the communications station at the far end of the room remained somewhat insulated from the rest of the activity. Everyone knew that Felicia Davis should not be distracted. Mac was with her most of the time, primarily to retrieve any data that she might need to respond to Loverboy. At the moment, Blair was leaning down over Felicia Davis, speaking to her with a serious expression on her face.
It was the second full day of the operation, and there had only been sparse e-mail exchange between Felicia Davis, posing as Blair, and Loverboy. A temporal analysis of his previous communications revealed that he sent a message nearly every day. Frequently it was only a few words or a single line. Lindsey Ryan hypothesized that he not only needed to satisfy his own compulsion to communicate with Blair, but he wanted to prove that he could reach her. His skills extended beyond bomb making and marksmanship, and, despite all attempts to thwart him with shields and aliases and rerouting her mail servers, it never took him long to track her down.
Blair tolerated his messages because she refused to give up her own access to the Internet, and in an oddly understandable way, she had not want to be cut off from him either. She would not live in a cocoon as if nothing were happening. She wanted to 'hear' his voice if he was threatening her.
As Cam drew near, she heard Blair say, "I'm the best one to do this."
Immediately, Cam's stomach began churning uneasily, because she had a feeling she knew what Blair was talking about. She had defended Blair's presence in the command center to Doyle, and in fact she believed precisely what she had said. Nevertheless, she had hoped that Blair would stay away, if only because the tension and uncertainty was wearing for all of them, and she wished to spare her that. But in her heart, she had expected something like this.
Blair straightened and nodded to Cam, her face revealing none of the quick pleasure she took in seeing her. "Good morning, Commander."
"Ms. Powell," Cam said warmly, stopping behind the chairs occupied by Mac and Felicia Davis. "Is there some way I can be of service?"
Blair struggled not to smile, but she knew Cam could see the laughter in her eyes. She resisted the urge to make a clever comeback, only because she didn't trust her voice not to give her away. Being around Cam never failed to arouse her, and she knew it would show in the timbre of her voice. It was bad enough she could feel the liquid heat beginning between her legs. "It occurred to me this morning, Commander, that I should be the one emailing Loverboy. There's no reason to use a go-between in this exchange."
Cam hesitated for a moment, needing the time to formulate an answer that would be both honest and convincing. She wouldn't lie to her, not only because she had never been able to, but because she could not bring herself to even try. On the other hand, the thought of Blair being involved so intimately with this man, even when there was no chance of physical connection between them, made her almost physically ill. "The reason we're using an agent is because our people know how to manipulate the conversation to get the information we need. Plus, Agent Davis is aware of the things we need to know to secure the meeting site."
Blair listened, watching Cam's face carefully. Her security chief was very good at keeping her emotions completely compartmentalized. Her lover, however, was not. There was a flicker of worry in Cam's eyes - worry for her - and Blair saw it. She smiled softly, and nodded patiently in agreement. "That makes perfect sense, Commander. However, I don't propose to start emailing him from my apartment. I would do everything right here with Mac and Agent Davis by my side. They could certainly coach me in any procedural things I might need to say much more easily than Agent Davis could pretend to be me. It seems to me there's far less likelihood that he would become suspicious if it actually were me."
Cam glanced at Mac, who raised an eyebrow slightly and nodded even more imperceptibly.
"You've caught me somewhat unprepared, Ms. Powell," Cam said quietly, and this time Blair could read nothing in her eyes. "I need to discuss this with Agent Ryan and some others."
"I understand that. Would you let me know what you think once you've done that?"
"Certainly," Cam said.
Blair watched her walk away and wondered just how angry she really was.
"You outflanked me down there," Cam said when she stepped into the loft.
Blair leaned against the arm of her leather sofa, regarding Cam carefully. Cam hadn't moved once the door was closed, and her hands were in her pockets. She definitely had her game face on.
"You know," Blair said quietly. "I haven't touched you in almost a day. I don't think I have the energy to fight."
Cam sighed and took her hands from her pockets. She shrugged out of her blazer and released the buckle on her shoulder harness, easing it off her still sore right shoulder and placing it with her jacket. As she walked the few steps toward Blair, she pulled her shirt from beneath the waistband of her trousers. She didn't stop moving when she reached Blair, but put one thigh between Blair's legs and a hand behind her back and tumbled her over the arm of the plush leather sofa onto the seat. Cam ended up on top of her, and pushed herself up with her good arm so she could see Blair's face. Her voice was slow and deep when she said, "You can touch me now."
Blair slid both hands under the tail of Cam's shirt and raked her nails up Cam's sides, drawing a swift gasp from her. When she found her breasts, she caressed them softly, then tightened her fingers on Cam's small, hard nipples. Cam closed her eyes and groaned. Blair kept up the rhythm, squeeze and release, squeeze and release, until Cam was stiff with the pleasure-pain of it and trembling.
Their legs were entwined, and Blair felt Cam's heat against her thigh even as she felt her own arousal soaking into her jeans. When Cam lowered her head and caught the tender skin at the base of her neck between her teeth, Blair cried out once, sharply, and then managed to speak. "Bedroom. Bed. I need you naked on me."
Cam could hear her, but the words weren't registering as she thrust her hips faster into Blair's. After they had been apart it was always like this. She couldn't control the rocketing surge of excitement that brought her too high too fast, until she was teetering on the brink and ready to go off in seconds. She was ready now, she could feel it curling in the base of her spine, tingling down her legs, cramping in her muscles. Oh yeah, she was going off soon.
Blair pushed Cam's hips away, breaking their contact, dragging Cam back from the edge. Cam gasped, lowering her forehead to Blair's chest, shuddering uncontrollably. "I'm sorry," she groaned. "I can't hold it back."
Blair eased away from her, one hand caressing the damp strands of hair at the back of her neck. "Yes, you can," she crooned softly. "Remember, you're a Secret Service agent."
Cam laughed shakily and sat up, her hands falling open by her sides, her shirt open, her body on fire and glistening with sweat. "I'm afraid I'm compromised."
"Just the way I like you." Blair held out her hand, her color high and her eyes blazing. "Let's go do that some more."
By the time they reached the bedroom, Cam had regained a slim thread of control and managed to undress and lie down next to her.
"Let me just touch you for a minute," Cam said, her voice still unsteady. "I don't trust myself just yet and I don't want to come right away."
"It's a tough order to follow, but I'll try," Blair said with a smile.
Cam started at her shoulders and ran her hands down Blair's body, watching in wonder as the fine muscles shimmered under her fingertips and the blood rose to warm the skin beneath her hands. Blair's breath came fast, and every now and then a small sound of pleasure escaped her. When Cam trailed her fingers lightly up the inside of Blair's thigh, Blair arched her hips and the fingers she had laced through Cam's hair trembled with urgency.
"You have the sweetest touch," Blair whispered, her voice choked with need.
Cam was barely breathing. Every time they were together like this the pleasure was so intense, she felt like she was bleeding. She had never felt so vulnerable nor so helpless nor so blessed. It was almost more than she could tolerate. She slid one finger between Blair's legs, tracing the delicate folds and swollen ridges. Blair's pulse raced against her fingertips, and when she brushed lightly along the underside of her clitoris, Blair jerked in her arms. Cam circled her harder and put her mouth to Blair's, wanting her breath, wanting her blood, wanting all of her.
Blair wrapped her arms around Cam's shoulders, pressing her breasts to Cam's chest, clinging to her, desperate for the sweet release. She rocked her hips faster against Cam's hand, knowing she would come any second.
Cam felt Blair's heart hammer against her own and sensed the rising tension in her body. When she knew Blair was there, she lifted her lips from Blair's and said softly against her ear, "Touch me now."
Ready to explode, Blair reached for her blindly, and when she found her - hard and swollen and so ready - she couldn't stop her own momentum. Even as it began, wrenching through her, forcing her almost double with the clench of muscles deep inside, she pressed her fingers along Cam's length the way she knew Cam needed it. Cam jerked and groaned and came with her.
Then they held one another and rested.
Cam slept, her head on Blair's chest. Blair ran her fingers absently through Cam's hair, marveling at the sensation of being able to hold her. One floor below them a dramatic tableau played out, but here, for the moment, all that mattered to her was the woman in her arms. It was unnerving, and more than a little terrifying.
She had spent most of her life surrounded by people, alone. She had learned to ignore the isolation and had discovered in her solitude the creative insight that inspired her art. Her work centered and defined her, and she would not change that. But each time she opened herself a little more to Cameron, she discovered another place in herself, another dimension of emotion. What frightened her most was knowing that without Cam, those places would ache - empty and waiting - a deadly wound she would never be able to heal. She shivered and held Cam closer.
"Are you cold?" Cam murmured.
"No," Blair said, her voice still unsteady. Loving was a dangerous thing, the cost so high, and she struggled not to flee.
Cam moved her hand from Blair's thigh, where it had lain since she had fallen asleep, and brought it to Blair's breast, softly caressing the firm warm flesh. She moved her head an inch and lightly kissed the tight pink nipple. "What is it then?"
"Nothing," Blair said quietly.
Cam nuzzled her face against the side of Blair's neck and whispered, "Blair." She kissed the curve of her jaw. "I love you."
Blair caught her breath, trapped between need and a lifetime of denying it. "Cam," she breathed, amazed and still uncertain.
Cam pushed herself up on one elbow, gently tracing her fingers over Blair's face and down her neck, finding in her unguarded gaze what Blair could not put into words. "It's all right," she murmured.
"So you say," Blair whispered, wishing she could just keep her there, where it was safe.
"I should go," Cam said reluctantly, moving away a little because the heat of Blair's skin was arousing her again. She kissed the tip of Blair's chin, and then her mouth. "I'll be back."
"Good," Blair said softly, raising her head to claim Cam's mouth one last time.
A few moments later, Blair sat curled up on the sofa in nothing but an oversized T-shirt, watching Cam pull her clothes into order and strap on her weapon.
"Are you very angry about this morning?"
Cam stopped what she was doing and looked at Blair, who still wore a slightly bruised and hazy expression from their recent lovemaking. She wanted nothing in that moment as much as she wanted to touch her again. "Probably," she said evenly, reaching for her jacket.
"I thought you might be," Blair said dryly.
Fully clothed, Cam regarded Blair steadily. "Then why did you do it?"
"Because I thought it was the right thing to do."
Cam blew out a breath and looked past Blair toward the wide, tall windows and the golden afternoon sun visible beyond. She forced herself to ignore her concerns and consider the facts. She tried not to think about Blair talking to him. She tried not to think about the fact that this nameless, faceless man wanted her, that he lay awake at night thinking about touching her, that during the day he set traps to destroy her. She finally looked back to Blair, who had been watching her silently and waiting. "You were right."
She turned and started for the door and Blair rose quickly, following her. She reached her just as Cam grasped the doorknob, stopping her by threading her arms around Cam's waist from behind. She laid her cheek against Cam's back. "I'll be down in a little while."
"Yes," Cam said.
"It wasn't my intention to make your angry," Blair said softly.
Cam turned and gently lifted Blair's face in both hands. She looked into her deep blue eyes and smiled faintly. "I know it wasn't, but I have a feeling that you would have done it no matter what."
Blair asked, her voice completely serious, "Is that a problem then?"
"Only when I'm not thinking with my head," Cam murmured, feeling herself fall into those eyes.
Blair smiled, smoothing her hand down Cam's chest and hooking her fingers under the waistband of her trousers. She tugged lightly and replied, "Well then, hopefully we can count on that kind of problem fairly often."
"Apparently that would be the case," Cam said, resisting the urge to slip her hands under Blair's T-shirt. If she did that, she wouldn't stop until she had her again, right there on the spot. She kissed her once, hard and sure, and then pulled away. As she stepped through the door, she said briskly, "I'll see you shortly then, Ms. Powell."
"Certainly, Commander," Blair called after her, lingering just a moment to watch her walk down the hall. Then she closed the door and went to prepare herself.
Blair sat at the long console table in loose cotton pants and an open-collared, pale blue linen shirt, flanked by Mac and Felicia Davis. Partially full styrofoam cups of coffee, long cold, sat interspersed with keyboards, headsets, and monitors. She stretched and sighed.
"Tired?" a familiar deep voice asked from behind her.
So quickly she might have imagined it if her skin hadn't begun to tingle, Blair felt the fleeting brush of fingers across her arm. She slowly turned her chair and glanced up at Cam. She smiled softly. "A little."
"Why don't all of you take a break," Cam said to the three of them. "I'll have one of the FBI people watch the incomings for a few hours."
"What did Agent Ryan say our approach should be?" Blair asked, ignoring the suggestion to leave. She, Mac and Felicia Davis had been alternating breaks and she was fine. "We should have contact any time. It's been almost twenty-four hours."
"She said it was time to push," Cam reported almost reluctantly. What the profiler had in fact said was that they were running out of time. Ryan anticipated that he would make another strike imminently. His pattern suggested an extremely low tolerance level that was rapidly deteriorating. Since Blair had not been outside the building in over seventy-two hours, he was completely cut off from her. If Blair didn't engage him verbally, he was very likely to take action and Lindsey admitted that she had no idea what form that attack might take.
Cam studied Blair, acutely aware of the faint circles under her eyes and the weary set to her shoulders. She wanted to tell her to go upstairs and get some sleep. She wanted to tell her to stay away from all of this. She wanted to tell her that this was her job and she would damn well handle it. What she said was, "Lindsey said it's up to you. She said follow your instincts."
Blair straightened, staring at the monitor as if she could will a message to appear. "Well then, let's get down and dirty."
Three hours later, it began.
A001@worldnet.com: I've missed you. Are you hiding?
NYC1112@freemail.com: I got your message. Let's talk.
The four people watching the monitor held their collective breath. It was the first time that Egret had suggested a real time chat. If it spooked him and he terminated all email contact, they might lose their only route of communication at a time when information was critical.
"Come on you prick, bite," Mac murmured. He rocked in his seat, his body so tense he vibrated. God, he wanted this guy.
Cam looked at Blair, who sat with her hands poised on the keyboard, focused and intent. Cam clenched her fists and shoved her hands into her pockets, torn between wanting him to answer and wishing he would disappear into the amorphous world of cyberspace.
Felicia Davis calmly readied the back-up drives and prepared yet another worm to launch. "One of these times I'll get you," she said under her breath. He was out there, not so very far away, she could feel him on the line. Her fingers raced on the keys with the speed and sixth sense of an expert cracker.
Blair waited. She knew what none of the others understood. This was about her - it had always been about her. She was the woman the cameras captured and the newspapers wrote about, just as she was the woman who painted late into the still night, and the woman who trembled helplessly in Cameron Roberts' arms. He simply wanted the woman that the world had made its own.
She breathed out slowly as the lines appeared.
A001@worldnet.com: Go to www.privatetalk.com, the game room.
NYC1112@freemail.com: How will I find you?
A001@worldnet.com: Don't worry. I'll find you.
Blair didn't hesitate. She typed quickly, I'll be waiting.
Lindsey Ryan sat alone in the conference room, a can of soda by her right hand, and stacks of papers and folders scattered around her. She was leaning her head in her left palm, staring at a computer printout. She jumped at the sound of the deep quiet voice from behind her.
"What do you think?"
Lindsey looked up as Cam approached, noticing the very fine lines of stress around her eyes. Other than that small sign, she didn't appear to have a concern in the world. Except that Lindsey knew that she hadn't slept more than an hour or two in the last three days, unless she did it with her eyes open. She was rarely out of the command center.
"I think he's crazy as a loon."
Cam smiled grimly. "Will he show?"
Ryan sighed, and looked back at the critical portion of the transcript for the hundredth time.
A001@worldnet.com: Why won't you believe me?
NYC1112@freemail.com:: About what?
A001@worldnet.com: That I worship you. You're all I care about.
NYC1112@freemail.com:: Maybe because you're killing people and threatening my friends.
A001@worldnet.com: You don't leave me any choice. You ignore me.
NYC1112@freemail.com:: I'm not ignoring you now.
A001@worldnet.com: This isn't enough.
NYC1112@freemail.com:: What do you want?
A001@worldnet.com: I want to see you. I want to make you understand.
NYC1112@freemail.com:: Do you really love me?
A001@worldnet.com: I live for you.
NYC1112@freemail.com:: If I come, will you stop the killing?
NYC1112@freemail.com:: Do you promise?
A001@worldnet.com: I have been patient long enough. You know what I'll do if you deny me.
Lindsey pointed to the last line. "Here's the problem part. Until this point, he's negotiating. But the minute Egret questions him, which, by the way, I'm glad she did - it's in character for her - he reverts to threats."
Cam's stomach clenched. "Is he threatening her?"
Lindsey hesitated. "Probably. Yes - I think yes. He's had his fill of substitutes, I think. He wants her and no one else. If he can't have her now, I'd say that she'll become his target, and he won't stop until you catch him."
Cam pulled out the chair next to her and sat, rubbing her eyes. "What does that mean for the operation? Will he show?"
"He's highly intelligent, so he must suspect a trap. On the other hand, he's arrogant and believes that he can't be caught. It depends on the balance between his ability to think rationally and his need to see her - to touch her - in the flesh. By now he must be wild for her. So - maybe."
"I need better than 'maybe', Ryan," Cam said quietly. "I've got an agent going into that meet alone. And I've got Egret locked up in here and I can't keep her here forever." She repeated, "Will he be there?"
Lindsey considered the image of the man she had formed in her mind after spending dozens of hours reading his messages to Blair Powell. He was completely and totally obsessed with her, and he spent every second of every day thinking about her. He fantasized about her returning his affections, about her fulfilling his needs; he had built an elaborate delusional system with her as his psychosexual center; he had resorted to violence to make her recognize his desires.
"He'll be there."
Cam stood, satisfied. They had less than a day to prepare, and even though Doyle was coordinating the teams, she was reviewing everything herself. Ellen Grant was going in with every bit of protection Cam could give her.
"Why is he doing this?" Cam asked finally. "He must know we'll be all over that place."
Lindsey shrugged. "Ms. Powell assured him that she would not reveal their plans. He needs to believe that, because he needs to believe that she desires him, the way he desires her. The rational part of him will be suspicious, but the psychotic part desperately needs to believe that she is coming to him out of mutual love and desire."
"What if he discovers that she betrayed him?"
Lindsey Ryan said quietly, "Then he'll kill her, or anyone we send in her place."
Stark found her in the workout room down the hall from the command center. She was wearing black lycra shorts and a sports bra and she was punching hell out of a heavy hanging bag. The sweat on her skin made its coffee color shine like bronze and Stark felt her mouth go dry watching her. She'd looked like a gazelle running that day in the park - Jesus, was it only six days ago? - but now, with her muscles tensing under her smooth skin and the swift, even recoil of her limbs as she danced around the swinging bag, she looked more like a leopard running its prey to ground.
Savard looked over and saw her standing there, an expression on her face that would have surely made her blush if she'd seen herself. She smiled as she thundered one last right hook into the leather. Then she wiped her forearm across her face, shook most of the sweat from her hair, and walked over to her.
Stark shook her head. "Still a green light for tonight."
"Good," Savard grunted, working at the laces on her right glove with her teeth. "It's time to put this bastard away."
"Here, let me get that," Stark said, reaching for the ties on the heavy boxing glove. Her hands were shaking. God.
Savard stepped back a pace and looked at her. "You okay?" she said, her voice surprisingly soft. The bruises had faded from around Stark's eyes, but the stitches were still there, a neat row of tiny black ants marching across her smooth pale forehead. "Does your head still hurt?" she asked even more gently.
"No," Stark said, not looking up, her head bent as she worked at the stubborn knot in the laces. "It's fine."
Savard raised the glove until it rested under Paula Stark's chin and then gently pushed, forcing her head up, forcing Stark to look at her. "Do you want to tell me what's wrong?"
Stark stood very still, struggling to express emotions she scarcely understood herself. "It's going to get hectic later. I'll be in one of the back-up cars. I probably won't see you alone again before you go."
Stark swallowed. "I just wanted to remind you that we -- that later -- when you get back"
"We have a date. I won't forget," Renee said tenderly. She leaned forward and kissed her very lightly on the mouth. "You're brave, you know." She wasn't talking about the job.
"Not so very," Stark whispered, trembling in a place she had never trembled before.
"I'll see you when it's over," Savard murmured, then stepped around her and disappeared.
Stark closed her eyes, feeling the kiss still soft upon her lips. Please just come back.
Cam stood to the rear of the room, listening while Doyle outlined the operation assignments to the FBI, ATF, SWAT and bomb squads. The State Police would be assisting with road blocks once the assault and capture teams were in place, and their captain was there, too.
Eight hours to go.
She was there because she wanted to know where everyone else would be if things started to go bad. Grant would not be caught in anybody's crossfire, because Cam intended to be right on her heels. She had been involved in the planning from the minute Loverboy took the bait and gave Blair the location - an abandoned amusement park. Doyle couldn't keep her out since he was using her agent.
Cam looked at Grant now, and motioned with her head to the hallway outside.
"You okay?" Cam asked.
Grant nodded. "Fine."
"Savard will wire you before you armor up," Cam reminded her. "I want to hear your voice every step. Everything you hear, everything you see, everything you think you see - I want to know about it."
"You key on my voice. You do not engage, you do not intercept, unless you hear it from me."
Grant looked at her, a question in her eyes. SAC Doyle was supposed to be relaying her orders from a surveillance post on top of a warehouse five hundred yards from the contact point.
"I'll be on the ground with Savard, closer to you than anyone else," Cam said. "I'll hear the directives at the same time you do. And I'll have a better read on the situation than he will. You go when I confirm, understood?"
"Yes, ma'am, I understand," Grant said. "Thank you." She hesitated a second, then added quietly, "Commander, my husband's on patrol tonight. I'll leave his number-"
Cam interrupted firmly. "The only person calling your husband tonight, Agent Grant, will be you when this action is over. Are we clear on that?"
Grant smiled gratefully. "Yes, ma'am. Quite clear."
"Good, then go get some rest."
Cam watched her walk away and checked her watch. Then she went in search of Savard.
Savard was laying out body armor and sorting rounds of ammunition in the small weapons room next to the main command center when Cam found her.
"Everything in order?"
Savard glanced up at her and nodded. "Yes ma'am. Locked and loaded."
"Good," Cam replied, leaning against the doorway, her arms folded over her chest. "About tonight," she began.
"Yes?" Savard replied, studying her, noting the hard stillness in her eyes. There was a finality there that told her whatever was coming was not going to be negotiable.
"Ellen Grant is mine," Cam said quietly. "No one is going to order her into danger except me."
Savard thought about that. She could go to Doyle now and tell him that there was a conflict in command, because she knew that he expected to control Grant's movements. Roberts was giving her a choice. Which meant that she was also giving her the responsibility, and the accountability. Once they reached the rendezvous, there would just be the four of them. Grant, Roberts, her and - Loverboy. It came down to who she wanted to make the final call, and whose judgment she wanted to rely on in the heat of the moment.
"You'll be the senior agent in the field, Commander," she said quite clearly. "I have no problem with you making the call."
Cam nodded and straightened up. She still needed to go over the com links with Mac, and then review the construction plans they had received from the city planning office for the amusement park. She needed-
"Commander?" Savard said, breaking into her thoughts.
"Yes?" Cam asked.
"You'll need to be fresh, too, and you haven't had much sleep the last couple of days."
Cam raised an eyebrow, surprised by her frankness.
"There's still a few hours before we have to gear up," Savard remarked.
"I'll take that under advisement," Cam said. "Thank you, Agent."
Savard took one step forward, reached to touch her, then stopped. "We're all trained for this. It must be very difficult for someone who isn't - the uncertainty of it all." She hesitated, then added, "She'll need to hear that you'll be back."
Cam stared at her, expressionless for what seemed like an interminable length of time, before a grin lifted one corner of her mouth. "They certainly are not making FBI agents the way they used to."
Savard grinned back. "No, ma'am, they're not."
For the third time in as many days, Cam stood at Blair's door, knowing that when she crossed the threshold, her life would change. Each time she stepped outside of her comfortable world of regulations and routine to enter the uncertain arena of her relationship with Blair, she came away more deeply bound to her. It wasn't easy, but she couldn't deny that she wanted it. More than that, she couldn't deny that she needed it.
Blair opened the door and said softly, "Hi."
"Hi," Cam said, not yet moving to enter. Blair looked tired and that was unusual for her. There were smudges of fatigue under her eyes and the smile she offered Cam was tinged with sadness. Cam reached out and ran her fingertips over Blair's cheek. "Have you slept?"
Blair shook her head. "I meant to, but I couldn't stop thinking."
"You should try," Cam said gently. "It's going to be a long night."
"I know," Blair answered softly. She wanted to reach out to her, to pull her inside. But she also knew that she wanted to keep her inside, away from the night, away from the danger, and that wasn't her choice to make. It hurt to think that Cam would not choose safety over responsibility, even for her. So she stood waiting, wondering what it was that Cam really wanted. Finally she said, "I wasn't sure you would come."
Cam lifted her fingers briefly to Blair's face again. "I'm sorry you didn't know that," she murmured. "I'm sorry for the pain of all of this."
"No," Blair said quickly. "That's not your doing. It never has been."
"I could have done things differently," Cam said softly. "Between us."
Blair smiled at that, a faint fond smile. "Could you have?"
Cam shook her head. "No. But I wish that I could have, so as not to hurt you."
"That just might be enough," Blair admitted, because she couldn't imagine which part of Cam could be changed without destroying some essential element of her. She feared that to change her would be to lose her.
"Blair," Cam said urgently, "I want you to know"
Blair stopped her with her fingers on her lips. "Will you come in now?"
Cam kissed her fingertips. "Yes."
"Can you stay?" she asked again.
"For a little while."
"That won't always be enough," Blair warned, but there was no anger in her voice.
"I understand," Cam replied, stepping across the threshold. "But I won't always be leaving."
Then Cam was inside, and Blair closed the door, and they were alone. Blair raised her arms to Cam's shoulders and moved up against her, resting her face on Cam's shoulder. She sighed, and as she couldn't seem to do before, she let go of everything in her mind and floated in the certainty of Cam's embrace.
"Let's go to bed," Blair finally murmured. "I need to hold you."
"Yes," Cam answered quietly, her lips moving gently on Blair's ear. "I need to tell you things."
And then they were naked in one another's arms, face to face, covered only by a light cotton sheet. Slowly, they kissed, each exploring the other anew with gentle strokes and tender caresses. They didn't hurry, but touched with absolute certainty, as if there had been no beginning and there would be no ending. Slowly, they stirred one another until they trembled together, breathless and poised on the precipice, ready to fall.
Blair brought one leg over Cam's hips, opening herself, as she stared into Cam's eyes. "Come inside," she whispered.
Cam slid her hand between their bodies, her fingers parting the swollen flesh, gliding over Blair's clitoris, making her gasp and quiver. "In a minute," she whispered back.
Their eyes locked as Cam held her tightly, drawing her fingers lightly back and forth over the exposed, exquisitely sensitive tip. Blair's fingers dug into her arm, and Cam murmured, "There's no hurry. Let me have you."
Blair was barely breathing, her muscles clenched and begging for release, every cell focused on the overpowering pleasure rippling under Cam's fingertips. "Oh please," Blair moaned at last. "Let me come."
Cam pressed harder, circling faster, each knowing stroke bringing her slowly but steadily to orgasm. She watched Blair's blue eyes darken to purple and lose focus.
"I love you," Cam whispered as Blair threw her head back and cried out sharply, pushing down hard against Cam's hand. Cam entered her then, prolonging the spasms with each thrust of her arm until Blair grew quiet and sagged against her.
"You wreck me," Blair gasped finally.
Cam wrapped her arms around her tightly. "I meant to."
"Just give me a minute to catch my breath," Blair murmured, pressing her lips to Cam's shoulder, wondering if she would ever recover, not from the pleasure, but from the agony of loving her so much.
"I'm okay," Cam answered, kissing Blair's temple gently.
"Bullshit," Blair laughed softly. "I can feel you on my leg, and you're a long ways from being okay."
To prove her point, Blair pressed her thigh hard between Cam's legs, and Cam groaned at the rapid surge of blood into her clitoris. "No fair," she gasped.
"Yes, fair," Blair said firmly, pushing Cam onto her back and rolling on top of her. "I told you I just needed a minute."
Cam looked up at her and grinned. "That's probably all I'll need, too."
"Oh no, Commander," Blair said softly. "I want much more than that from you."
And then Blair took her slowly, with her mouth and her hands and her tender caresses, drawing the fire from her blood and the heat from her bones, igniting her nerves and scorching her senses, until all Cam knew was Blair and all she could do was cry out her name.
They slept for an hour and awakened together, just on the other side of darkness. They lay side by side, hands clasped, their fingers entwined.
"What happens now?" Blair asked in the stillness.
Cam spoke quietly, her voice steady and calm. "At twenty-one hundred hours, Savard and I will leave for the rendezvous site. Thirty minutes later, Grant will walk out the front entrance and flag down a cab. Stark and Fielding will be in that cab. We're assuming that Loverboy may be watching here to assure himself that you are really going to meet him, and that you're coming alone as you said that you would. It's possible that he has someone else watching the building for him and relaying a message. Either way, it will look like you have once again slipped by us and are on your way to him."
"So how will he get to the meeting site on time, if he's here when Grant leaves?"
"Lindsey Ryan speculates that he chose this site some time ago, and I agree. He was prepared when you agreed to meet him. He named that place and time almost immediately. It may have just been his fantasy that you would someday come to him, but Lindsey thinks he's actually been there, and may have already 'readied' it for you."
Blair shivered at the thought of someone creating these elaborate fantasies with her as the star. It made her feel as if someone had been touching her while she slept.
Cam slipped her arm around her shoulder and drew her near. "Blair, you don't need to hear all of this."
"No," Blair said quickly, her voice strong and determined. "I want to know. All of it."
Cam continued. "He'll either follow Grant to the site or use an alternate route to arrive before her. Since he's familiar with the area, we assume that he'll have planned a way into the arcade without detection. We'll already be in place when she arrives."
"But she's not really going to meet him, is she?" Blair asked worriedly.
"No," Cam said with certainty. "Doyle's team will have infrared heat seeking scopes that will pinpoint the location of any living thing bigger than a dumpster rat within a hundred yards of the meet site. They'll hone in on him and take him out. Grant's only role is to leave here as you and get out of the cab at the entrance to the amusement park. She's not going to actually enter the arcade."
"And you and Savard?" Blair asked quietly, her heart pounding.
Cam leaned up on elbow so that she could look into Blair's eyes. The room lights were off, but the streetlights outside the loft windows were enough for them to see each other. "We'll be there for ground support only, to assure that Grant is covered if any action takes place near her and to get her to the back up car which will be nearby. Escort duty only."
"Is that all of it, Cam?"
Cam held her gaze. "That's the plan, Blair. I won't tell you that unexpected things don't happen, but there will be a hundred agents right behind us and about that many State Police watching the perimeter. It's as solid as these things get."
Blair ran her hand through Cam's hair, then tightened her fingers in the thick strands, pulling Cam's head down close to her face. "I can't take anyone else leaving me."
"I won't," Cam vowed. "I swear."
"Well, that's reassuring," Blair whispered, "because I know your word is good."
Then, in the last moment left to them, they made their promises - simply and surely - with a kiss.
At twenty minutes to midnight, Blair walked into the command center. She halted just inside the door, momentarily disoriented. The room was brightly lit yet eerily deserted. Monitors flickered with images that no one watched. Chairs stood askew in front of desks littered with coffee cups and food wrappers, as if abandoned in haste. Here and there a jacket or sweater lay forsaken on a counter. The atmosphere of control she was accustomed to had been replaced by a lingering sense of chaos that made her heart beat uneasily.
"Ms. Powell?" Lindsey Ryan said quietly as she approached with a cup of coffee in her hand.
Startled, Blair jumped. She turned toward the voice and smiled ruefully. "I couldn't wait upstairs."
Lindsey nodded sympathetically. "Would you like some coffee?"
Blair raised an eyebrow, struggling to get a grip on her nerves. "I don't suppose you know who made it, do you? I've had the coffee some of these people make, and it's an adventure I'm not up to at the moment."
"Actually, I just made it myself," Lindsey said with a laugh. "Mac and Felicia are both glued to the communication consoles, and they probably need it by now."
"I can imagine, " Blair murmured, thinking of the twenty-four restless, anxious hours she had spent with them waiting for Loverboy to contact her. She stepped further into the room and looked toward the far end where the communication equipment covered the entire wall and every surface within reach of the swivel chairs where Mac and Felicia Davis still sat. She was certain that they hadn't moved in days.
"I'll take your word that it's safe then," Blair said, indicating the coffee.
The two women walked back to the small alcove where the coffee machines and refrigerator were housed. Blair poured coffee, then raised the Styrofoam cup to her lips and sipped cautiously. Ryan was right, it wasn't bad. She settled her hips against the edge of the counter and regarded the redhead silently for a moment. Finally she asked, "Is there any word?"
Lindsey shook her head. "Not yet. Mac has a direct line to Commander Roberts, but all we know is that she and Savard are on site." She hesitated, then added carefully, "Ms. Powell, we can only get a small piece of the picture from here, and sometimes an incomplete picture is worse that no picture at all."
"You expect trouble?" Blair said worriedly, recognizing Ryan's delicate attempt to tell her to leave. She hadn't come down earlier because she didn't want to distract Cam right before the operation began. Instead, she had forced herself to sit in her kitchen and wait. She had watched the clock approach eleven, imagining Cam putting on her protective gear and strapping on her weapons. As every minute passed, her anxiety had grown. She had wanted so badly to see Cam again before she left. Just to say -- just to say what she hadn't said before. I love you.
Her throat dry, Blair asked again, "Is something wrong?"
"No," Lindsey said quickly. "But I've watched too many of these things not to know that sometimes what I thought was happening wasn't really what happened at all. It can be nerve-wracking when you're helpless to do anything."
Blair laughed entirely without humor. "Agent Ryan, I doubt very much that anything will happen that I haven't already imagined. Believe me, knowing has got to be better than what I'm thinking. I won't get in anyone's way."
Ryan touched her arm briefly, a sympathetic gesture of understanding. "Come with me. We can wait this one out together."
From her position atop an abandoned crane platform, Cam had a clear view of the entrance to the amusement park as well as the parking lot directly in front of the arched entryway. There were no functioning lights in the immediate vicinity, but the highway itself was not too far away and there was enough illumination from passing cars and the bright summer moon for her to see without night vision goggles. She could discern the outline of a few buildings - windows shattered and doors hanging from deteriorating hinges - surrounded by the skeletal remains of broken down amusement park rides. In the blue glow of moonlight it looked like a graveyard of prehistoric creatures.
Savard was on the ground directly below her, in shadows. Cam had reluctantly agreed with Doyle that Savard should take the point position. Cam was scanning multiple radio frequencies, but all she heard was the occasional query from Doyle confirming the position and readiness of the intercept teams. It was possible that their exchanges could be monitored, but she doubted that Loverboy had had time to lock onto their communication frequencies yet, even if he was in the area already. She checked her watch once again. Forty minutes had passed since Grant left Blair's building. She should be arriving any second.
Ellen Grant looked out the window into the deserted parking lot as the cab slowed to a halt. Reaching for the door handle, she took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. "Thanks for the ride, guys."
She could not see Stark, who was slouched down so that she would not be visible through the windows to anyone watching their arrival, but her voice was unmistakable. "Any time. Just holler, Cinderella, and we'll bring your coach."
"Roger that," Grant said as she stepped out into the night.
The cab pulled away and Grant looked around, trying to get her bearings. Thirty feet to her left was the gateway to the amusement park but beyond that was only blackness. There was some construction equipment in the parking lot itself, but otherwise no sign of anyone.
A soft voice murmured in her ear, "We have you, Grant."
Her anxiety disappeared at the sound of Roberts' steady voice. "I copy."
"Proceed through the gates," Doyle's voice ordered. "You are clear to approach the rendezvous point."
Roberts' voice repeated the order, "Proceed through the gates only. Hold inside and give us a visual."
Grant spoke softly as she walked forward. "I can see into the arcade now," she informed them as she pushed wide the tall iron gates and stepped through. "There are pieces of equipment all over the place, most of them large enough to hide someone." She looked across the grounds for the building that Loverboy had designated as the place where they would meet. The refreshment stand sign hung askew over the boarded up door. "No sign of activity."
"We have no hit on the thermal sensors. There is no evidence of occupation," Cam advised her. "Advance slowly but do not - I repeat - do not enter the building."
Looking right and left, Grant moved forward, trying to ignore the cold stream of sweat that ran down between her shoulder blades underneath the heavy vest and pooled at the base of her spine. She was very aware of the fact that her head was unprotected, and that the body armor she wore could be pierced by ammunition available to anyone over the internet. She had to trust that Doyle and his technicians had done a thorough sweep of the surrounding buildings and grounds, because she was a sitting duck. She pushed the thought from her mind and concentrated on the still, quiet night around her.
If it weren't for Cameron Roberts' voice in her ear, she might have thought she had awakened from a dream in an uninhabited world. She couldn't remember ever having felt so alone.
"Anything?" Doyle barked at one of the men next to him who was searching the field below with night vision glasses and thermal sensing equipment. They had set up on top of a warehouse just beyond the amusement park. From there Doyle could direct all the action.
"Nothing except the decoy," one grunted as he slowly panned the area. "Not even a stray cat."
"Somebody should radio the State boys and tell them that their perimeter is too close," someone else remarked. "I can see movement and we've got State Troopers almost on top of our people."
Doyle laughed derisively. "They're just looking for a little piece of the glory. It must get pretty boring riding around in those bubble cars stopping speeders all day."
The men laughed.
"Well," Doyle remarked in disgust. "I guess we're going to have to sweeten the pot if this boy is going to stick his head out of whatever hole he's hiding in."
He checked his watch and then keyed his transmitter to Grant's frequency. "Five minutes, Grant. If he's still a no show by then I want you to find a way into that building. If he's around, he might be waiting for you to commit yourself."
Cam heard Doyle's order and the hair on the back of her neck stood up. Something wasn't right. Lindsey Ryan had been certain that Loverboy would be here, because otherwise there was no point to any of this. If he didn't want to establish physical contact with Blair, then this was all a ploy to get her out into the open where he could make an attempt on her life. The refreshment stand was the obvious place for him to have set a trap. If he wanted to kill her, that would be where he would do it. Either way, he would want to be able to watch. He was here and they were missing him. And Ellen Grant was already too exposed.
"Doyle," Cam said, transmitting on his private frequency. "If we don't have a position on him, you can't send Grant inside alone. We can't cover her from here, and the place could be rigged."
"He didn't bring her all the way out here just to kill her," Doyle said, making no attempt to hide his scorn. "He'll show once he's certain that she's really going to go through with it. I'm not debating this, Roberts. She goes in."
She heard the click in her ear and knew that he had switched off. He was doing what he had wanted to do since the beginning. He was baiting the trap, and he was using her people to do it.
"Grant," Cam ordered sharply, "proceed on my signal only. Do you copy? Grant? Grant!"
Blair stared at the blank computer screen, her mind miles away. She tried to imagine what it was like for Ellen Grant, walking alone into the darkness to face someone she knew had already killed with impunity. Despite her concern for Grant, in her heart, Blair hoped that Loverboy was waiting. She hoped that tonight would be the end of this nightmare.
She thought about Cam, watching Grant and trying to protect her. If anything happened to someone else Cam was responsible for, Cam would never forgive herself. It would tear another hole in the fabric of her being and kill another piece of her heart. Blair did not want that to happen, and most of her reasons were selfish. She was afraid that eventually, Cam would close off those parts of herself that bled for the wounds of others. And if that happened, Blair would lose the part of Cam that she needed the most. No one had ever been able to reach through the bars of her invisible prison to touch her the way that Cameron Roberts had. No one else had ever really seen her, not the way Cam did. She needed that, because without it, she was so hopelessly alone.
She did not know how long the words had been there before she noticed them. She gasped and pushed her chair back as if to escape from the reality of what she was seeing. "Oh my god."
Instantly, Mac, Felicia Davis, and Lindsey Ryan turned toward her in concern.
"What is it?" Mac asked urgently.
Blair's voice shook as she responded, "I'm not sure. Look at what just came up on the screen."
The other three crowded behind her, peering over her shoulder to see the message.
Egret. Are you there?
"Is it him?" Blair asked breathlessly. "Could it be a timed message he sent earlier?"
Mac looked at Lindsey Ryan, whose face was a study in concentration. She was furiously assessing everything she knew about him, mentally forming and discarding theories, trying to read his distorted mind.
"Maybe a stand-in?" Mac asked. "Someone helping him?"
"No, it's him," Ryan said softly. "He'd never let anyone share in this."
"What should I do?" Blair questioned.
"If she answers, he'll know she isn't in the amusement park," Mac warned.
Lindsey stared at the question on the monitor, considering their options and trying to predict the consequences. It was almost impossible for a rational mind to predict the irrational mind of someone like Loverboy. On the other hand, she, more than anyone else, had been trained to do just that, and her opinion was the best information they had to rely on.
"Lindsey?" Mac asked quietly. "I've got to advise the Commander. It's your call."
She looked calmly at Blair. "Answer it."
Hands trembling, Blair typed, Yes
I always knew you wouldn't come
"Ask him where he is," Lindsey instructed, her eyes riveted to the screen.
I'm watching them look for me
"Jesus Christ," Mac cursed. Immediately, he switched to Cam's frequency. "We have communication from the subject," he said sharply. "You are compromised. I repeat - you are compromised."
Cam didn't hesitate. "Grant, evacuate now. Repeat, evacuate now."
On Stark's frequency, she ordered, "Institute retrieval. Retrieve your package now."
Switching yet again, she said, "Doyle. We've been made. He has visual. We are evacuating."
No one answered. She frantically opened all frequencies. Nothing.
She stepped to the edge of the platform and dropped to the ground. She landed a few feet from Savard. "Anything?"
Savard shook her head, her expression grim. "Commander, I don't see her. I'm getting no response on any channel. Com links are all down."
"God damn it - he's jamming us," Cam snapped angrily. "Let's go get her."
For an instant their eyes met and then they turned, shoulder to shoulder, and raced through the gates of the decaying amusement park into the darkness beyond. As they passed under the archway, Cam tried once more to reach Grant or Doyle. Her transmissions were met with silence. She looked ahead but all she could see was the blue black of the night sky broken by the silhouettes of the detritus of the abandoned park.
"Savard," Cam whispered as they rushed forward. "Swing right and cover our flank. If he's here, he's going to go after one of us. Let's not give him too many targets in one place."
Immediately, Savard melted away into the darkness.
The refreshment stand was fifty yards in front of her. She would be there in less than 60 seconds. 60 seconds.
Jesus, where is Grant?
Cam looked to the high ground, which is where she would have positioned herself if she had wanted to command the battle. In this situation the best vantage point was on top of a building, but the ones still standing in the arcade were in clear view of Doyle's men on the warehouse and they hadn't seen him. Still, out of habit, she scanned the structures with a sightline to the refreshment stand. Nothing.
Where the fuck is he?
She was almost there. The night had grown eerily still, yet she couldn't hear anything except her own heart pounding in her throat. She ran, her skin prickling with apprehension. She thought she saw a figure moving in the shadows by the side of the building. She raised her gun, slowing minutely, struggling to see through the shifting shadows.
There! Coming closer.
She sighted, her finger depressing the trigger just short of the firing pressure, when another movement far off to her right caught her eye. She jerked her head around in time to see the top car on the Ferris wheel swinging lazily, seemingly suspended in mid-air with only shafts of moonlight to hold it aloft.
"Savard," she called into the dark, not bothering to lower her voice. She was fully exposed and, at this range, defenseless. If he was going to fire at her there was nothing she could do. At least she could make sure he didn't get away. "He's on the Ferris wheel. Go!"
Just then, Grant appeared out of the shadows in front of the refreshment stand, calling, "All clear here, Commander."
Cam's shout to take cover was lost to the night as the building disintegrated in a flash of orange heat and flying debris.
Savard was hit from behind by a rushing tornado of hot air that momentarily lifted her off the ground. She tucked her head and dove into a forward shoulder roll, letting the momentum of the blast carry her back onto her feet. Her gun was out and in her hand and, miraculously, she had managed to hold on to it. She refused to think about what had just happened. She couldn't think about Grant and Roberts now. She had only one thought.
As she approached the Ferris wheel, she saw a thin shadow nimbly descending the exterior frame. She was a hundred yards away, and at that range - in the dark - she wasn't certain she would be able to hit him. If he made it to the ground, he would quickly disappear amidst the jungle of twisted metal and tumbled-down structures. She tried again to notify Doyle and the SWAT team of her location, but there was no response. Communications were still blacked out.
As she closed the distance, she got a clearer view of the figure that had just reached the ground, and for a split second, she hesitated. He was wearing a uniform. Could he be an advance lookout Doyle hadn't briefed them about? Or one of their own people who had just wandered too far into the perimeter?
She realized her mistake when he turned and fired, and that second of uncertainty cost her. By the time she registered the muzzle flash, she'd been hit and was already falling, a hot flash of pain spearing her left shoulder.
God it was much worse than she ever imagined.
The force spun her around and knocked her flat on her back. For a second she couldn't breathe at all. When she got her air back, she had to swallow a scream. Then she blanked her mind of everything except the image of him turning and firing. At her.
The pain receded behind her next reaction - anger. She was furious at him for shooting her, and even more furious at herself for letting him take her by surprise. She rolled to her side and got her feet under her. In the next second she was moving again. Her left arm hung uselessly, but her gun hand still worked. She could see his back as he agilely vaulted a turnstile that had once been part of an admission booth. In another instant, he'd be gone. Her vision was starting to blur and she was running out of time. Her arm was soaked with blood; she could feel it streaming off her fingers onto the ground. She drew down and fired.
The second blast was even larger than the first. And this time, the shockwave catapulted her into oblivion.
Mac tried furiously to re-establish contact, but no one was answering him. "Commander? Stark?"
Blair continued to type queries to Loverboy, but there were no further responses.
"What's happening?" she asked urgently. The three agents looked grim, and the eerie quiet that hung in the air made Blair's blood run cold. She struggled for composure and lost. "What the hell is going on?"
"All our communication lines are down," Mac said grimly. "Loverboy was probably transmitting from a wireless connection at the rendezvous site. He's there, and he knows that you're not."
Blair got to her feet, her entire body trembling. "Someone better find out right now what's happening out there, or I'm going myself."
"Ms. Powell," Lindsey Ryan said quietly, putting her hand on Blair's arm very gently, almost as if she were afraid of startling her, "we'll get word here faster than anywhere else. Give Mac a minute."
Mac switched to the speakers and attempted to boost the signals. "Stark, come in please. Do you copy? Stark, goddamn it! Do you hear me?"
A garbled, fitful transmission crackled through. At first, all Blair could make out were fragments of words but what she could hear was enough to take her legs out from under her. She reached blindly for a chair and sat heavily.
" explosion shots fired agents down"
"Who?" Blair asked faintly, her eyes moving from one agents' face to the other, trying desperately to read their expressions. "Mac, ask her who."
"Can you clarify?" Mac asked woodenly, forcing down the quick surge of panic Stark's message produced. He clenched his fists and concentrated, straining for her words.
More static, then..."Evacuating injuredwill advise."
Then there was only silence, a silence so final that the three of them - impotent witnesses to a nightmare - stood numbly, not looking at one another. Blair closed her eyes and wondered how it was that she could still feel her heart beating, because something inside of her was dying.
The icy stillness was shattered by the ringing of the landline. They all stared at it for a second, and then Mac snatched it up, listening intently. Blair watched him anxiously, hoping for some sign that her fears were unfounded, but the grim set of his jaw never changed. He replaced the receiver and stood up.
"That was Fielding. Ambulances are en route with the injured to the trauma unit at Beth Israel."
"Who?" Blair asked quietly, prepared, she thought, to hear him say the words. She must be ready, because she was so cold inside. Frozen. "Please -- who?"
"No ID yet," he answered, looking around for his blazer, "but Stark went with one of the ambulances, so I assume some of them are our people." He pulled his jacket on as he turned toward the door. "I'll call you as soon as I have any information, Ms. Powell."
Blair moved quickly, blocking his way, an incredulous look on her face. "You can't be serious. I'm going with you."
Mac stopped short and, although it took effort, said as calmly as he could manage, "I'm afraid you can't do that, Ms. Powell. I don't have a full complement of agents available now, and I don't even know the status of the rest of the team. I can't provide security. I can't"
"Mac," Blair said tightly, wondering how it was that she hadn't begun screaming, "either you take me or I get a cab. But there's no way I'm not going."
"He's right, Ms. Powell," Felicia Davis said quietly. "We're short-handed, and we don't even know if the UNSUB has been apprehended. It's not safe. The Commander will have Mac's - uh - head if he takes you out there. It's going to be chaos."
Blair almost smiled, imagining Cam's expression, and thinking that Davis was probably right - she'd be seriously annoyed. And then she realized she might never see Cam again, might never touch her again, and the cold dark place where she locked away her fears began to bleed. When she spoke, she couldn't quite hide the pain. "I'll make sure Commander Roberts knows it was my doing."
Perhaps it was the way her voice broke when she said Cam's name, but Lindsey Ryan spoke up, her voice not only calming, but comforting. "Agent Phillips, there are three of us here. We certainly should be adequate security for Ms. Powell's transport to the hospital. Once there, I assume there will be other members of your team available to assist."
Blair shot her a grateful look.
Mac relented, because he couldn't physically restrain the First Daughter, and it was plain to him that she was going one way or the other. "All right then, let's do it."
At first all she could see through the car window as they approached the hospital were emergency vehicles parked haphazardly in the small lot in front of the entrance. Light bars atop ambulances and police cars sent intersecting beams of red and blue strobing wildly into the night sky, reflecting eerily off the double glass doors of the trauma bay. Hospital personnel and law enforcement officers of all description rushed everywhere. She searched the crowd of State Police, plain-clothes federal agents and SWAT team members in full riot gear, but the one unmistakable form she sought was absent.
God damn it Cam, don't you dare do this. Don't you leave me now.
Blair realized that she wasn't breathing. She also realized that there would be reporters there by now. And photographers. By the time Felicia Davis held the door open for her and she stepped from the car, she had composed herself.
Mac took her right arm and began to draw her through the crowd. Lindsey Ryan was just behind her left shoulder and Felicia Davis cleared the way in front. When they reached the sliding glass doors that marked the trauma entrance, a large harried-looking hospital security guard blocked their way.
"Sorry. You can't go back there."
Mac extended his right hand with his badge, but the guard's attention had focused on Blair. His eyes widened slightly, and he said in a slightly awed tone, "Miss Powell! I - uh - I didn't recognize you - sorry - uh - just one minute. I'll get a detachment to escort you."
"No," Mac said sharply. "That's not necessary." The last thing he wanted was a bunch of star struck guards trying to be helpful and making his job more difficult. "We just need to get back to the triage area. Can you direct us?
The security officer looked like he was about to protest, but he must have seen something in Mac's face that made him change his mind. "Straight on through, past the automatic doors at the end of the hall," he responded crisply. "It's a mess back there, though."
Once inside the main admitting region, the noise level dropped, but there were still scores of people clogging the hallway and emergency carts and equipment everywhere. Blair stared at the floor, and realized that the congealing trails of crimson were blood.
"Oh god," she whispered faintly.
Lindsey looked at her in concern. "Why don't we find someplace less public to wait while Mac finds the others?"
"Let's go back to the treatment area and I'll see what I can find out," Mac agreed. He was feeling a little overwhelmed himself. He and Ellen Grant had worked together for several years, even before Egret's detail, and they were friends. He liked Renee Savard. And the Commander - how he felt about her was too complicated to explain. He just knew he didn't want to think about her going down again. When they stepped through the solid gray doors bearing the sign, "Trauma Admitting - Authorized Personnel Only", he was relieved to see a familiar figure in the doorway of one of the treatment cubicles.
"Stark!" he called.
Stark stared at them, looking slightly dazed. There was blood on her shirt and hands, and a darkening smear along the angle of her jaw. Before she could respond, she was forced to step aside as a transport team came out of the room behind her, pushing a stretcher bearing a portable respirator, bags of intravenous fluid and blood, and a cardiac defibrillator. Barely recognizable in the midst of the equipment lay Renee Savard.
Blair caught only a brief glance of Savard's pale, unresponsive face as the medical team rushed her down the hall toward the elevators. Stark started after the stretcher, but a nurse gently took her arm and murmured something to her. A moment later the elevator doors slid closed and Savard was gone. Stark's shoulders slumped and she leaned heavily against the wall. When Mac began to move toward her, Blair stopped him.
"Just a minute, Mac. Let me talk to her."
He nodded. "I'll go find someone who can tell me what's going on."
Blair stepped forward and put both hands on Stark's shoulders. She looked intently into her face. "Paula," she said gently, "are you hurt? You're covered in blood."
"It's hers," Stark said, her voice choked and low. Her gaze met Blair's, a world of agony swimming below the surface of her dark eyes. "There was so much of it. I tried - the best I could. It wouldn't seem to stop."
"Where is Cam, Paula?" Blair asked, trying hard to keep calm. Let her be here. Just let her be all right. "Agent Stark?"
Stark was clearly in shock, but if someone didn't tell her something soon, Blair was afraid that she might start running up and down the halls screaming out Cam's name. She was about to come apart and she was scared to death that she would never get the pieces together again. "Stark," she whispered desperately, "please."
"I think-I think," Paula Stark began, then lost her thread. She was having trouble thinking about anything except how pale Renee had looked and how much blood there had been on the ground and on her clothes and how cold she felt when Stark had put her arms around her and held her until the evac team arrived. She hesitated and swallowed and tried to get control of her racing heart and her shaking legs. Finally, she cleared her throat and forced herself to straighten up. "I didn't see Grant or the Commander, but to the best of my knowledge they were transported here, too. Grant went to the OR right away, I think. I'm not sure about the Commander."
Blair closed her eyes. She must be alive. They wouldn't bring her here if she weren't. Would they?
"Thank you," Blair said quietly after a moment. She looked over her shoulder and motioned to the two agents behind her. "Agent Davis, would you please take Agent Stark somewhere where she can lie down for a few minutes?"
"I'll do that," Lindsey Ryan said quickly. She thought it best that a Secret Service Agent stay with the President's daughter until they had some idea of what had happened. As Lindsey put her arm around the unresisting dark-haired agent, Mac returned.
"All I can find out is that Savard is listed as critical with a gunshot wound to the shoulder. Hit just where her vest stopped. Goddamned lucky shot," he added bitterly. "Grant has a skull fracture and a collapsed lung. The commander is -" He stopped and Blair's heart stopped, too.
Don't say it, Mac. Don't say it. Don't sa-
Then from behind them came one word. "Blair."
Blair spun around, her heart leaping. Cam stood just a few feet away. She didn't think about anything - not the federal agents, not the reporters, not the public - she just reached for her.
Cam opened her arms and pulled Blair close, holding her tightly. Blair was trembling. She lowered her head, brushing her lips against her ear, and said quietly, "I'm all right. Do you hear me? I'm all right."
Blair nodded, not trusting herself to speak. She pressed her lips to Cam's shoulder, wanting her mouth, but knowing she couldn't. Not right there, not with everyone right there. She hadn't lost that much of her mind, and the solid reassurance of Cam's body instantly calmed her. Blair stepped away, although letting Cam go was the hardest thing she had ever done in her life. Her entire body ached for the feel of her lover in her arms. Blair's hands shook she wanted to touch her so badly, just to be sure that she was still there. Just to be sure that she hadn't lost her.
"Are you hurt?" Blair's eyes darted over her, trying to reassure herself that Cam was in one piece. Blair's gaze narrowed as she studied her. Cam's face was white and her usually sharp, clear eyes were dull. She had shed her jacket and protective vest and her shirt was soaked with sweat and grime and patches of something that looked a lot like blood. A hot flash of anger flared in Blair's depths. Not with the woman, not even with the job, but with the relentless maniac that had tried to take Cam from her. She wanted to kill him herself. "Cam? Are you hurt?"
Cam was careful not to shake her head, because she was dizzy and the ringing in her ears affected her balance and she was afraid too much motion would make her vomit. "Not much. Scrapes and bruises. A bump on the head. I won't be hearing the high notes for a while."
Blair was instantly suspicious. "Just what exactly happened to you?"
Cam got that evasive look she thought Blair didn't recognize, and before she could answer, Blair added, "And if you don't tell me the whole thing right now, I'll find the doctors and ask myself."
"A minor concussion," Cam admitted with a sigh. She ran her fingers lightly down Blair's arm. "Nothing time won't take care of."
"And they released you?" Blair persisted.
"Well, not exactly," Cam confessed. She didn't blame Blair for being angry with her. She was only grateful that Blair hadn't been there to witness the doctors trying to convince her to be admitted overnight for observation. Now that would have been messy. "I'm kind of on my own recognizance at the moment."
"Damn it, Cam," Blair seethed, keeping her voice low, aware that there were others nearby. "Don't do this to me."
"I have things I need to take care of," Cam continued urgently, taking her hand. "I have two people upstairs in the operating room, Blair. I have families to contact, supervisors to inform. I have my agents to see to. I have to be here."
As much as she didn't want to, Blair let go of Cam's hand. She took a deep breath and counted to ten. "Will you promise me that if you start to feel ill you'll let the doctors look at you? Promise me that."
"I will," Cam said, her expression grateful. "I swear, Blair."
Blair nodded, relenting because that was the best she could get at the moment. And she knew that Cam would not lie to her. "And the minute that you hear about them you'll get some rest?"
"Agreed," Cam said with a faint smile. "Will you let Mac take you home?"
"I'd like to stay until there's some word."
Cam heard the true caring in her voice. She looked around, relieved to see her team nearby. "Of course. I'll have Fielding find a room where you can wait. I'll tell you the second I hear."
"Thank you," Blair said softly. "Take good care of yourself, Commander."
"I will," Cam murmured, losing herself for just an instant in her eyes. "I'm glad that you're here, you know."
"That's a good thing," Blair whispered, "because nothing could have kept me away."
Nine hours later, Cam walked into the command center and regarded the remains of her team. Most of them had never gone home but instead had voluntarily taken turns rotating between there and the hospital. As she expected, Stark was among them. The young agent appeared pale and shaky and she had that haunted look in her eyes that Cam knew would linger a long time.
"The conference room," she said as she walked through.
A few minutes later, she stood at the head of the table, as she had so many times before, and looked at each of them in turn. Finally, she said quietly, "We got him. Nice job, everybody."
Then she opened the cover of a thick file folder and tossed it into the center of the table, a color photograph of a male in uniform clipped to the first page. "State Trooper James Raymond Harker. Ten years ago he was detached to Governor Powell's security detail."
For a moment there was stunned silence, then Stark muttered vehemently, "Bastard."
"I can't believe it," Mac said, obviously distressed. He glanced at the picture then passed the file to the person next to him. "Why weren't we onto this? Background checks should have turned up something."
"This information stays in this room," Cam said quietly. She had to work at keeping her own anger in check as she continued, "Apparently, the FBI task force ran background checks soon after Egret alerted them that she was receiving email from Loverboy. They cleared everyone who had ever had anything to do with her security."
Mac interrupted with a derisive laugh. "Sure - they checked all of us out."
Cam nodded grimly. "Unfortunately, there appears to have been a breakdown in their internal communications, and the security officers assigned to Egret when her father was the governor were never checked. Harker, AKA Loverboy, was one of them."
Fielding raised his head sharply. "Does that mean this nutcase was shadowing her for over 10 years?"
"Lindsey Ryan says it's possible," Cam said, struggling to keep the loathing from her voice. The fact that he would have killed Blair was only part of what made it so abhorrent. Cam was sickened by the very idea that this psychopath had probably watched Blair from the time she was teenager. Worst of all, she knew Blair would never be completely free from idle curiosity and might someday become the object of someone else's obsession. She shoved the thought away. She had to get through this, and then maybe she could lie down and the pounding in her head would stop. "Whatever happened, the FBI will clean up their own mess."
"Yeah, right," Mac snarled. "Except we've had to pay the price for their foul up. First you, then Jeremy, and now Grant."
"Update on the injured," Cam continued, ignoring Mac's remark although privately she agreed with him. From what she had heard from Stewart Carlisle, SAC Doyle was getting all the credit for the takedown. She didn't begrudge the FBI that, because Savard had been the one to stop him. This was not about who got the glory, but about the fact that Blair was no longer in danger, at least for the moment. For that, she would always be grateful to Renee Savard. The fact that Doyle had nearly gotten Ellen Grant killed was another issue, and she would not soon forget that.
Her mind was wandering. She took a deep breath, trying to clear her head. "Grant is awake and says for none of you to touch her desk. Said she'll know if there's a pencil missing." Cam smiled faintly. "She'll be discharged in five to six days and back on duty in six weeks if the next CAT scan is clear. "
She glanced at Stark once, quickly, and then continued quietly, "Renee Savard is still unconscious in the intensive care unit, but the surgeons are optimistic. She lost a lot of blood, but apparently no critical structures in her shoulder were involved. In the absence of any unforeseen complications, they're predicting a full recovery."
She looked at the people gathered around the table and said, "We owe her. She stepped up for us and even after she was hit, she managed to get this guy. No one is exactly sure yet what happened, but he was probably carrying another explosive device that he either hadn't had time to dispose of or that he was planning on planting somewhere else. The ATF commander tells me that the shockwaves from a bullet impacting anywhere near a high-order explosive can trigger it. She hit him, and his own bomb took him out. We're waiting for forensics to give us the final ID, but Harker was missing after the action and everything else fits. When we ran our own background check, it turns out that he had applied to the Secret Service before he joined the troopers and had been denied for psychological reasons. I guess the state system never turned up that information with a computer check of his application. Not surprising, since none of our systems are interfaced."
Now came the hard part. "I looked at the tapes from the explosion in Central Park. Harker was the trooper standing next to Jeremy's car. He probably placed the device right there."
The silence was heavy with sorrow and fury.
"He's also the one who pulled me away from the car that day. I don't know why."
Lindsey had told her that it might be something as simple as the fact that Harker didn't want anything or anyone to alter his plan - that he needed to be the one to determine who should live, and who should die - and when.
Mac slid Harker's file back to her, and Cam closed it with a sense of finality. "Egret is due to leave for San Francisco in a little over a week. She's staying with Diane Bleeker for a few days until some of the publicity dies down. I'll review her plans with you when I know them. Mac, would you set up the shifts please."
"Right," he said quietly.
She knew they needed to mourn Jeremy's loss. She also knew what else they needed. "I want everyone except the current shift to go home and get some rest. If there's news from the hospital, I'll see that you're notified. I need you all back here by tomorrow, and I need you to be sharp. We still have a job to do."
As the others in the room stood to leave, she added, "Stark, a moment please."
Cam waited until the room had cleared, and then she closed the door. Turning to Stark, she said, "Take a couple days leave time, Stark. You look like hell."
"I'm fine, Commander," Stark replied quickly, stiffening as her eyes flashed with anger. "I'll be ready to take the evening shift."
Cam smiled faintly and rested a hip against the corner of the table. She looked away for a second, and when she returned her gaze to Stark, she let the sadness show. "What happened out there is hard for everyone, Stark. Having friends and colleagues in danger, seeing them injured - it affects us all." She paused, not needing the memory to feel the terrible sense of helplessness, the horrible hopelessness. She'd never forget it. "It's much harder when it's someone you care about. I know."
Stark stared at her in surprise. Maybe it was the sympathy in Cam's voice or the shared sorrow that finally undid her, but she sat quickly and covered her face with her hands, hiding the tears that she couldn't hold back any longer. It took her a few minutes to get hold of herself, and then she sank back in the chair and said, "I'm sorry. I think I'm just tired. I know she's going to be all right, but I can't stop thinking about the way she looked lying on that stretcher."
"Savard is tough, and she's going to be fine."
"She sure kicked some ass, didn't she?" Stark said with a grin, her spirits bolstered by the certainty in Cam's voice.
"That she did," Cam agreed.
Stark rose wearily and said, "Thank you, Commander. I think I will request a few days personal time, just so I can - you know - visit the hospital and stuff."
Cam smiled. "A very good idea, Agent."
Cam waited until the room had cleared, and then she made her way slowly downstairs. She flagged down a cab and gave him the Upper East Side address. She was asleep before he pulled away from the curb.
"Well," Diane Bleeker said as she stood in the open doorway, "I've waited a long time to see you at my door, Commander."
Cam grinned tiredly. "Sorry."
"Don't be," Diane said with a laugh. "Some things are definitely worth waiting for."
Cam glanced at several suitcases standing by the door. "Going somewhere?"
"Just a three-day weekend," Diane said nonchalantly. Then she raised an eyebrow, a speculative look on her face. "A spur of the moment kind of thing."
"Thank you." Cam knew that Diane was leaving to give her and Blair a little time alone. "I appreciate it."
Diane ran her fingers lightly down Cam's arm, lingering just a moment on her hand. "Oh, believe me, Commander, anything I can do to help."
"You might want to take your hands off her, Diane," Blair said softly from behind them. "I'm terribly short of patience at the moment."
Diane turned to smile at her old friend. "When did you lose your sense of humor, Blair?"
Blair looked past Diane to Cam, who still stood waiting at the door, rumpled and pale and just about the best looking thing she had ever seen. She ached to get her hands on her, her arms around her, her skin on her skin. Blair's voice was low, throaty with emotion, when she murmured, "I think it was along about the second time my stalker tried to kill her."
Diane stepped aside, because she had watched Blair pace and worry and stare out the window for the last few hours, restlessly waiting. She could never remember seeing her so undone, and so clearly suffering. "Well then, since that's the way it is, I'll make myself scarce."
Blair touched Diane's shoulder briefly in thanks as her friend grasped her suitcases and left, but her eyes never moved from Cam's face. When they were alone, she came slowly forward and took Cam's hand. "Come with me."
Cam was too tired to question or protest. The dizziness had abated, but the headache persisted and probably would for days. Mostly, she was weary. There had been too much violence and injury and loss, and she was worn down by it, body and soul. All she really wanted was to lie down next to Blair and close her eyes.
Blair led her through the apartment and into the bathroom, closing the door. She turned and began unbuttoning Cam's shirt. Cam lifted her hands to help, but Blair brushed her fingers away gently. "No. Let me."
Tenderly, Blair undressed her, being careful to ease the clothing off the patches of bruises and abrasions covering her back. She tried not to think of what had put them there, but she couldn't help imagining Cam flung to the ground, rocks and debris raining down on her during the blast.
"It isn't as bad..." Cam began, sensing her hesitate, but Blair stopped her.
"Yes, I know. It isn't as bad as it looks." She put it from her mind for the moment. When she had Cam naked, she took off her own clothes. She started the water in the shower and drew Cam in with her.
"Oh God," Cam groaned softly. "That feels so good."
"Mmm," Blair responded, finally beginning to relax herself. She reached for the soap and worked the lather over Cam's body.
"And that feels even better," Cam whispered, her eyes closing. She was nearly asleep standing up. The hot steam and Blair's soft hands lulled her into a state of near torpor. By the time Blair was finished washing Cam's hair, she wasn't sure she would be able to remain standing.
"I'm not going to be much good for anything in another minute," Cam murmured, her speech slurred with fatigue.
Blair wrapped her in a large towel and brushed the damp hair back from her forehand. She kissed her gently on the mouth. "Believe me, Commander, you are good for a great many things, which I'm sure you'll remember after a little sleep. If not," she added as she led the way to the bedroom, "I'll be sure to remind you."
Renee Savard opened her eyes and tried to focus on the figure leaning over her. Finally, she said, "Hi."
Stark smiled. "Hi yourself."
Savard carefully took stock, assuring herself that she could feel the bed covers touching each foot and each hand. Then she wiggled her fingers and toes, finally sighing with relief. "Apparently everything is working, yeah?"
"The doctors say you'll be fine," Stark said, a small catch in her voice.
"You want to give me a rundown of what 'fine' means?" Savard said quietly.
"I guess the doctors should probably do that," Stark hedged.
"Paula," Savard said, and this time her voice trembled. "I'd prefer hearing it from you."
"Hey," Stark said gently, reaching for her hand, cradling her fingers between her own palms. "You're okay, Renee, really. You took a bullet in the left shoulder. They said it pretty much severed the major vein from your arm. But the nerves are okay -- they think you'll have a little weakness for a few months. You bled like hell though, and they gave you transfusions for that. You've been out of it for a day and a half because of all the anesthesia and the shock. But, you're going to be fine, Renee."
Savard closed her eyes for a few seconds, and when she opened them, her smile was stronger. "That doesn't sound too bad. A little rehab and I should be back in the field, right?"
"Don't see why not," Stark said positively, although at the moment she didn't want to think about that. She still couldn't shake the feeling of terror she'd had when she'd found her on the ground, lying so still, covered in blood.
"Did I get him?" Savard asked.
This time, Stark's smile was brilliant and her eyes flickered with something hard and edgy. "Oh yeah, you got him. You got him in about a million pieces. He took a little unexpected ride on his own rocket fuel. Straight to hell, I hope." She forced back the rage. Later. There would be time to let it out later. "You're a hero, Renee. You deserve all the credit you get."
Savard shook her head. "I don't think so, Paula. Roberts was all over it out there. If it hadn't been for her..." She broke off abruptly and her eyes widened, more fear-filled than when she had first awakened and realized that she was in a hospital bed. "Oh God! Is she all right? Ellen Grant? What about Grant? There was an explosion..."
"They're both okay," Stark said quickly. "Grant will be in here a while but the Commander has already been released."
Rene closed her eyes for a few seconds. "Thank God," she murmured. God, is it finally over then? She was beginning to remember -- running through the dark, the flash of the explosion, the tearing pain in her shoulder.
Stark frowned when she realized that Savard was trembling. "I should go. You need to rest."
Savard opened her eyes again. Softly, she said, "You look like you could use some, too."
"Yeah, maybe," Stark said with a sheepish grin. She was actually about to fall down she was so tired. But she couldn't leave just yet. "So...uh...Savard -- just in case you have any memory problems, you know -- from this little...uh, episode...I...uh...wanted to remind you that we -- you know -- have a date. Right?"
Renee Savard smiled, and this time her eyes sparkled with their old vitality. "You don't need to worry, Agent Stark. It would take more than a bullet to make me forget that."
When Cam awoke, she was naked in bed and Blair was beside her. For a few moments, she lay quietly, simply luxuriating in the feel of Blair's arm possessively draped across her body. She liked the weight of it, the quiet reminder that she belonged there--with her.
"He's really dead, isn't he?" Blair said into the still darkness, part statement, part question.
"Yes," Cam said, reaching for Blair's hand, interlacing her fingers with Blair's and squeezing gently. "We don't have a positive ID, but I expect that we will when the forensics people are finished."
"Who was he?"
Cam hesitated for a second, and then said quietly, "He was a State Trooper assigned to your security detail about ten years ago - when your father was still governor."
Blair rolled onto her side and pressed tightly against Cam's body, nestling her face against her shoulder. After a moment, she said, "I don't remember him. I don't remember any of them."
"There's no reason that you should," Cam said gently. She brushed her fingers lightly over the curve of Blair's breast, and Blair shivered in her arms. "We're not supposed to be memorable. We're supposed to do our job and keep out of your life."
There was an edge of bitterness in her voice that she couldn't quite hide. Harker had tarnished so many things she valued. Dishonoring his oath was the least of his sins. It enraged her every time she thought of him watching Blair with his fevered distorted longings, all the time that he had been entrusted with her care.
"I seem to have quite a few pleasant memories of you though, Commander," Blair whispered softly, rubbing her palm lightly over Cam's chest, chasing away her demons.
Cam's swift intake of breath followed fast on the surge of excitement that rippled through her. She shifted so they were face to face and she kissed her way along the edge of Blair's jaw to the corner of her mouth. "Let's make a few more."
Blair pushed Cam down and moved on top of her, straddling her hips. "Let's."
"I love the way you look when you're on top of me," Cam murmured, reaching for her breasts.
Blair leaned forward, catching her lower lip between her teeth as Cam's knowing fingers closed on her nipples. She rocked, slow easy strokes, teasing herself as well as her lover as her wetness coated Cam's stomach. When the pressure began to peak and the tingling started on the insides of her thighs, she dropped her head and closed her eyes, bracing herself with her hands against the mattress on either side of Cam's shoulders. Her breath came in uneven sobs as she gave herself to the escalating urgency between her legs, pressing harder, faster. Soon, it would be impossible to stop.
She forced her eyes open and struggled to focus on Cam's face. "Should I wait?" she gasped.
"No," Cam rasped, barely able to force the words out her chest felt so tight. "You're so beautiful when you come."
Cam brought one hand down between them and slipped her fingers between Blair's legs, cupping her as she thrust.
"Oh Cam," Blair moaned, riding hard on Cam's hand. She jerked once and then she was gone. As the spasms continued to bombard her, she collapsed against Cam's chest, groaning softly.
"Sorry," Blair finally murmured. "I seem to be afflicted with terminal lust."
"Nice," Cam remarked, running her hands up and down her back. "Have I mentioned lately that I find you terminally sexy?"
Blair laughed, leaning up on one elbow and shaking the hair back from her face. "You think we're safe together?"
Cam stroked her face, then raised her head and kissed her gently. "Oh yes. Quite safe."
"Are we free now?" Blair asked, suddenly serious.
But they both knew that wasn't quite true.
"I'd prefer that you not scare the hell out of me again for a while," Blair said, pressing her lips to Cam's bare shoulder, tasting the light tang of salt and feeling her desire rise again.
Cam brushed a kiss into her hair. "I have no intention of scaring you again at any time. I know it's hard to believe at the moment, but these situations are extremely rare. I hope you'll be able to believe that someday."
"You're not resigning, are you?"
"I don't want to," Cam said quietly. She tightened her grip and held Blair closer when she felt her stiffen. "It's what I do, Blair, and it feels right to me. It lets me be with you more than I would be able to under any other circumstances. I don't want to see you for a night every couple of months. Not for the next seven years."
Blair tried hard to put her fear aside and to listen to what Cam was telling her. She couldn't deny the reality of the situation, because if Cam were not part of her security detail, it would be very hard for them to be together. It would still be hard for them to have a personal life, but that was not a new challenge for her. She had been working outside the system in that regard all her life. She sighed.
"I don't know if it will work, but I'm willing to try."
"If it doesn't work," Cam assured her, "I'll do whatever I have to do. Blair, I love you."
Blair moved on top of her and looked intently into her face. "We'll both do whatever we need to do, Cam. Because I love you, too."
"Is that so?" Cam murmured, catching Blair's fingers and pressing a kiss to her palm. Then, she moved Blair's hand down her body. "Perhaps you could repeat that."
Blair laughed, watching Cam's eyes as she touched her. "As you wish, Commander."
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