Fresh from the shower, Cameron Roberts walked naked across the carpeted living room to the bar. The floor-to-ceiling windows in her top-floor apartment afforded an unencumbered view of the night skyline of Washington, D.C. The view was breathtaking. She poured an inch of single malt scotch into a heavy crystal rock glass and leaned against the bar that edged one side of the room, staring at the city lights mingling with the midnight stars. There had been a time when she'd thought this vision of piercing beauty had lost the power to move her. A time beyond loss when she had been convinced that nothing would ever stir her soul again. She had been wrong.
Drawing a gray silk robe from the back of a barstool, she slipped it on and then reached for the phone. Dialing a number from memory, she waited expectantly for the only voice she had wanted to hear all day.
Cam smiled. "How's San Francisco?"
A quick intake of breath, and then a throaty laugh. "How bad can it be? It's the city of beautiful men and handsome women. And it's August, so the sun shines more than it rains."
"Sounds pretty perfect."
"It is." Blair Powell sat down on the edge of the bed and glanced out the window of the guest room in a multilevel house tucked into a niche in the slope of Russian Hill. Visible over the tops of trees and rooftops, the expanse of San Francisco Bay reflected the colors of the setting sun. It was achingly beautiful and when she continued, her voice was husky with emotions still new enough to be frightening. "Almost."
"Almost?" Cam sipped her scotch, imagining deep blue eyes and wild golden curls. She edged a hip onto the arm of the leather sofa and watched the night.
"Mmm. I can't find a date to the reception at the art gallery."
"Ah...I can't help you there." Cam sighed. "I'm sorry."
"Really?" Blair asked teasingly, trying to hide her disappointment. They hadn't made any definite plans, but she'd hoped. "What's happening back there?"
"The usually bureaucratic maneuvering--too many opinions, too many Section Chiefs, too many people worried about their political careers." She drained the scotch and set the glass gently down on a carved stone coaster on the end table. Forcing a lighter note into her voice, she added, "Like I said, nothing out of the ordinary for the Hill."
"So it's likely to be a few more days?"
"I think so. Is everything all right there?"
"It's fine," Blair hastened to assure her.
"Who's at the house?" She'd reviewed the details with Mac between meetings in the early evening, but being separated from her team made her uneasy.
"Stark is in the bedroom across the hall, and Davis is downstairs playing cards with Marcea and an extraordinarily handsome man with a devastating Italian accent."
"That would be Giancarlo." Cam laughed, picturing her mother entertaining a houseful of artists, foreign visitors, and Secret Service agents. "Sounds like it's under control."
"Mac knows what he's doing, Cam. You don't need to worry."
"I'm not worried about a thing," Cam replied, glad that Blair couldn't see her face. The President's daughter seemed to be able to read the truth in her expression, when all anyone else ever saw was her neutral game face.
"You sound tired."
"I'm fine," Cam responded automatically. In truth, she still had a ferocious headache left over from the concussion she had sustained in an explosion two nights before, and she hadn't had much sleep since she'd left Blair Powell's bed the previous afternoon. Spending the entire day explaining how two Federal agents under her command had ended up in the intensive care unit hadn't helped the pounding.
U.S. Treasury Assistant Director Stewart Carlisle closed the door behind him and regarded the First Daughter's Secret Service security chief expressionlessly. "You okay?"
"Bumps and bruises. Nothing serious." Cam sat in the chair on the right side of the head of the table where she knew Carlisle, her immediate supervisor, would be seated during the upcoming debriefing. They were the only two people in the room, but that would change in fifteen minutes. Representatives from the FBI, the National Security Agency, and the President's personal security adviser would be arriving shortly to discuss the assassination attempt on the President's only child.
"If you're not, Roberts, tell me now."
"I'm fine, sir." He didn't need to know about the intermittent double vision or the persistent nausea or the dizziness.
He blew out a breath and took the chair at the end of the table. "Okay, run it down for me. How did things get so Goddamned fucked up?"
Cam rubbed the bridge of her nose and shook some of the tension out of her shoulders. "How do things ever get fucked up? The guy was good, a professional--he knew how to anticipate what we would do, where we would deploy. He got by us. He was always a little ahead of us the whole time. On top of that, interdepartmental intelligence broke down--nothing out of the ordinary there, either. Someone should have picked up on his identity months ago...before he ever got close. We were lucky to get away with only the casualties we sustained."
"I can't put that in a report to the Security Director," Carlisle snapped.
"You asked me what happened. That's what happened--we got our asses kicked."
Carlisle stared at the ceiling. "Give me an assessment of your team."
"High marks all around." Cam sat up straight, her eyes suddenly sharp and intense. "There are no fall guys on my detail. If somebody swings for this, it will be me."
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that."
"Cam?" Blair repeated, "You there?"
Cam jumped. "What? Yeah. I'm sorry."
"What aren't you telling me? Are you in trouble back there?" Blair stood up, reaching under the bed for her suitcase. Something was definitely wrong. "I can get the midnight flight back to DC --"
"No." Rising abruptly, Cam swayed with a sudden rush of lightheadedness and swore under her breath. She was forced to sit down before she could continue. "First of all, I shouldn't even be discussing this with you."
"Don't start quoting protocol to me now, Roberts." Blair dropped the suitcase, her heart sinking as she heard the distance creep into Cam's voice. Still, after all we've been through. God, why won't she let me help?
"Secondly," Cam continued, smiling faintly as she imagined the fire leaping in Blair's eyes, "this is not the sort of thing you can be involved in. You need to stay above this--"
"I'm sorry? Above what--life? Us?" The room suddenly felt cold, the sunset no longer seemed quite so welcoming. I thought we'd gotten past all this.
"You aren't supposed to know anything about the details of your security."
"Jesus, Cam. How can you say that now after all that's happened?" Blair crossed rapidly to the window, trying to imagine Cam in her apartment, needing more than her voice. I've never even been there. She knows everything about me, and I know practically nothing about her.
"You can't be seen as concerned about it...or about me," Cam said gently. "It will raise flags."
"I know the people lying in the intensive care unit. And in case you hadn't noticed, I have pretty strong feelings about you, too."
This is not going well. Not for the first time, Cam reminded herself why personal relationships between Secret Service agents and protectees were forbidden. It wasn't exactly illegal, but it was an unwritten law throughout the Agency. And blatantly violating it could get you posted to a backwater embassy pretty fast. She wasn't worried about her career, but she was worried about fallout tarnishing Blair and her father. Her headache suddenly ratcheted up a notch and she spoke sharply without thinking.
"This is Agency business, Blair. You're the President's daughter, for Christ's sake. It would be partisanship of the worst order for you to get involved. If it came out, it could damage him politically...even if catapulting your private life all over the front page didn't."
"I've been managing my private life and my father's career for a long time without your help."
The silence that followed on the line sounded ominous even to Cam, 3000 miles away. She took a deep breath, blinked back the pain, and regrouped. "I'm sorry. I only meant--"
"I understand what you meant, Commander." Blair's tone was icy. "I know very well who I am to the public and how to behave in the political arena. I was under the mistaken impression that we were discussing something private. Something between us."
"There's no need for you to explain. Is there anything else?"
"I should speak with Mac." Cam rubbed her eyes wearily.
"I suggest you try him at the hotel. I'm sure you have the number."
"Goodnight then, Commander," Blair said.
"Goodnight," Cam said softly, but she was listening to a dial tone. She set the receiver carefully in its cradle and leaned back on the sofa. Lifting a remote from the end table, she shut off the room lights and closed her eyes, knowing she wouldn't sleep.
Blair stripped off her sweatpants and reached for her jeans. She tucked in her T-shirt, closed the buttons on the fly, and pulled on her sneakers. Then she sorted through the clothes in the dresser until she found a favorite hooded black sweatshirt with NYU stenciled on the left chest and shrugged into it. As she crossed to the bedroom door, she checked to be sure she had her wallet in her back pocket. She opened the door and stepped out into the hall.
Paula Stark was leaning against the wall opposite. The two women stared at one another, the silence deepening as the seconds passed.
"I'm going for a walk," Blair said at last.
"I'll notify Mac," Stark said without a single inflection in her voice, lifting her wrist to speak into her radio mike. To her complete and utter shock, Blair Powell stopped her with a hand on her arm.
"Don't. I just want to walk. I'm not going anywhere."
"You can't go alone," Stark responded emphatically, forgetting to appear impassive. She was still working on that. "Besides, the Commander..."
"Isn't here, is she?" Blair retorted sharply.
"Well, it's not like she won't know...Hey!"
Blair turned and walked away, Stark close on her heels.
"Please...Ms. Powell, just let me call the cars."
"If you want to come along--fine. But just you." She started down the back stairs, and would be outside, free, in a few seconds.
Stark had no choice but to follow. She knew the President's daughter well enough by now to know that arguing would not work. She also knew that if provoked, Blair was perfectly capable of giving all of them the slip and disappearing. It had happened before, and that was a worse threat to her safety than going out with only one agent as protection. Oh man, Mac is going to kill me. Thank God the Commander is in DC.
It was just after 9:00 P.M., and the sky was clear, nearly cloudless except for wisps here and there that glowed silver with reflected light from the full moon. In a city famous for romance, on a night made for lovers, Blair was lonely.
Starting down the steep, twisting wooden stairs that led from the rear of Marcea Cassells' house to Lombard Street at a pace too fast for the terrain, especially in the near dark, she steadfastly ignored the ache. She hadn't been aware of loneliness for a very long time, and on the rare occasions when she had been, she'd known just what to do about it. A few hours lost in the arms of an attractive stranger, anonymous pleasures at no cost to anyone, had served her well until Cameron Roberts had come along less than a year before and changed everything.
"Like I ever asked her to."
"I'm sorry?" Stark asked, trying to stay within touching distance of the President's daughter without actually touching her.
They reached the street and began wending their way down the sharply curving road in the general direction of the Bay. When it became apparent that Stark wasn't going to do anything except dog her steps, Blair relaxed infinitesimally.
"What are you doing here any way? I though you were off for a while."
Stark blushed, overjoyed that her companion couldn't see it. The question caught her off guard...she hadn't realized that Blair Powell, code name Egret, gave any thought to the schedule of her security team. Although Stark was the lead agent in Egret's personal security detail, and spent hours with her every day under every imaginable circumstance, they had not had a personal conversation in months. Not since the night six months before when they'd spent a number of frantic hours together in bed. Well, I was pretty frantic. And come to think of it, we didn't do much talking even then.
"Couldn't stay away?" Blair probed. She still couldn't quite figure out why one human being was willing to risk their life for a person to whom they worked so hard to appear invisible. Although she knew all the agents on her detail by name, she knew very little about most of them personally. They rarely looked directly at her because they were too busy looking everywhere else. If she stripped naked in front of them, they wouldn't blink. She grinned to herself...well, Stark would. But that was because the agent hadn't mastered the game face yet. And besides, I wouldn't do it to her.
"After everyone left for the airport last night, I felt useless," Stark confessed, stepping slightly to the right of Blair so that she could get between her and the traffic side of the sidewalk.
"You need to get a life, Stark," Blair commented, not unkindly.
"After what happened, I justŠI don't know. I just wanted to be here."
Blair caught her breath, because she understood. All of them...the whole team...had been through hell together, and although they were strangers in many ways, they were also bonded by shared victory...and by shared loss. Despite understanding, she was amazed that Stark could admit it. "Don't you ever worry about saying things like that? It will ruin your macho image."
"Macho?" Stark laughed, and very unobtrusively stopped at the corner of Hyde and Beach, blocking Blair's body from the intersection while glancing up and down the street. Thankfully, it was a weeknight and not many tourists were about. As they crossed, heading steadily downhill toward the water, she added, "As long as the Commander trusts me, I'm not too worried about my image."
"It matters that much to you...what she thinks?"
"Of course," Stark replied, clearly surprised. "I mean...she's...well, she's what we all want to be."
"Be careful what you wish for." Blair's tone was sharp, but it wasn't anger. It was pain. Can't you see what it costs her?
Stark fell silent and Blair walked on rapidly, eventually turning left onto Jefferson until they reached the beach. She threaded her way with Stark by her side down stone stairs to the sand, and finally sat, knees drawn up, watching the moonlight play across the waves.
"How's Renee?" Blair finally asked, her voice low and pensive. She drew the fine white sand through her fingers, letting the grains fall in a steady stream by her side.
"She's okay," Stark replied hesitantly, still unsure how to talk to the woman she spent more time with than anyone else in her life. "She pretty much kicked me out this morning, which is why I decided to fly out here in the afternoon. Catch up to you all."
"Why did she chase you off? Were you hovering?"
"Uh...well, maybe. Some."
Stark shifted in the stiff vinyl-cushioned chair, peering at her watch in the semi-darkness. Ten after five. In the morning. She'd slept all the previous afternoon after the Commander had declared the entire first team off duty. As soon as she'd awakened, she'd come to the hospital, found Savard too sedated to talk, and had decided to sit for a while in case the FBI agent woke up. That had been at 8:00 p.m.
She stretched and leaned closer to the bed, peering at the injured woman. In the dim light from the hall, Renee's usually deep-coffee-toned skin seemed pale, almost lifeless...
Quickly, heart racing, Stark reached for the hand that lay on the covers, folding it in her own. It was warm. She closed her eyes, drawing a shaky breath, as she rubbed her cheek against the backs of the long, slender fingers.
"Hey," Renee said quietly, closing her hand weakly around Stark's.
Stark jumped. "Hey. You're awake."
"Kind of. Is there any water?"
"Yeah...right here. Wait a minute." Stark hurriedly poured tepid water from a green plastic pitcher into a Styrofoam cup and fumbled the paper off a straw. Carefully, she tilted the cup and placed the straw between the other woman's lips. "Here you go."
After a few swallows, Renee dropped her head back against the pillows. "Thanks."
"Should I call a nurse? Do you need something for theŠpain?"
"No...not yet. Talk to me a little."
Savard's voice was faint but her eyes seemed clear.
Stark's heart thudded with anxiety again, because she'd already told her the story the day before. That was probably normal. Right?
Patiently, she recounted the tale from the beginning, leaving out the parts about the blood. And how fucking scared she'd been, kneeling by Renee's side with her hands pressed to her shoulder and the blood that just kept coming.
"Huh?" she said too loudly, jumping again.
"Have you had any sleep?"
"No. I'm fine."
"Good." Savard closed her eyes.
After a few minutes of watching her breathe, Stark figured she had fallen asleep. Gently, she disentangled her fingers from Renee's laid the slumbering woman's hand down on the covers. When she looked up, Renee was watching her.
"Are you leaving?" Savard asked.
"Not if you don't want me to."
"I want you to."
"Oh." Stark looked away, swallowed.
"Look at me."
Slowly, Stark brought her gaze to Renee's. The room had lightened enough to see the brilliant blue of them and she couldn't help but smile.
Savard smiled back. "I'm going to get well...soon as I can."
"I know that," Stark said quickly.
"No...really. And you can't sit here worrying while I do."
"I'm not worr..."
"Go back to work if you don't want to take time off. Call me every day."
"Every day, huh?" Stark grinned. "Morning or night?"
"If you like."
Stark's voice was husky when she replied. "Oh, I like."
"Hovering. Yeah...pretty much," Stark finally admitted with a faint laugh. "Yep."
Blair turned her head in time to catch the smile that even the darkness couldn't hide. Ah ha. Our young Stark has a crush. I wonder...
The phone on Stark's belt trilled, breaking the silence, and they both jumped.
"Don't answer it," Blair said quickly.
Stark shook head, her hand already at her waist. "I have to."
When she heard the familiar deep voice, she was very glad she had.
"Is she with you?"
Stark leaped to her feet, her body rigid--nearly at attention as she pressed the phone to her ear. "Yes, ma'am. She is."
Stark heard a muffled curse. Protocol dictated that three agents be with Egret whenever she was outside the residence. Stark had known from the moment that they'd left the house that the President's daughter was seriously under-protected, and she also knew that it was her own fault for allowing it.
That's it. I'll be back doing site prep and background checks by morning.
The process of gathering the information necessary to organize and coordinate any public outing for a high-profile protectee was desk work, and the assignment a death sentence for most agents who coveted the excitement of field duty.
"Put her on, please."
Stark turned and extended the phone. Blair reached up from her seat on the sand and took it.
"You turned your cell off."
"I know." She turned slightly away from Stark, although she knew that the agent would do her best not to listen. It's not as if she doesn't suspect. Not as if they all don't wonder. But suspecting and knowing are not the same thing.
It was fully dark, the water black now beneath a blacker sky broken only by shafts of moonlight and pinpoints of stars. "I just brought it along it in case...just...in case." If there was trouble, I could call for help.
"Thank you for that."
"How did you know I was out here?"
Across the country, Cam shifted on the sofa, watching the lights of an airplane blink rhythmically as it banked over Washington D.C. on its approach to Reagan National Airport. "I didn't know where you were. I called the house and got Davis when you didn't answer your cell. She checked upstairs and discovered that both you and Stark were missing. You weren't in the bedroom."
Blair laughed. "You didn't really think --"
"It's not her fault."
There was no response, and Blair repeated, "Cam, it's not Stark's fault. I didn't give her any choice."
"No, you rarely do. However, that's no excuse."
Blair ran a hand through her hair and got to her feet. She moved ten feet away and glanced back over her shoulder. The Secret Service agent had moved to within three feet of her. Whispering stridently, she said to Stark, "Will you back off?"
"I can't do that, I'm sorry. There's just me here and I need to be close."
"I'm fine. Look around...we're alone. So go away."
Stark didn't budge.
"God, she's almost as stubborn as you are," Blair said into the phone again.
"She'd better be, if she's your only security."
"Why were you calling me?"
A second passed, then another.
"I couldn't sleep."
It was Blair's turn for silence. Suddenly, there was a fist in her throat, blocking her breath, stealing her words. Cam always did this to her--took her by surprise just when she thought she was too angry to be touched. Somehow, Cam reached past the hurt and the anger and found the places that mattered most. "The last time you couldn't sleep, you came to my bed."
"I would now, if I could." After a moment's hesitation, Cam asked, "Would I be welcome?"
"You need to ask?"
"You left the house in the middle of the night with no word to the team. Your phone's off. You're three thousand fucking miles away and I can't see your face. Yes. I need to ask."
"You make me so angry."
"I know. I don't mean to."
"You piss me off pretty well, too."
"Yeah." Blair's voice was softer now, wistful. Lowering her voice, she added, "I just wanted to get out. Nothing else."
"I'm sorry I upset you." A regretful sigh came through the line. "Will you go home now, please?"
"Well, I had planned on a ferry ride to Alcatraz--"
"Blair," Cam said threateningly. "My sense of humor is running rather thin right now."
"All right then, Stark and I will head for home."
"No. I'll call Mac and have him send a car."
"Cam, no one noticed us, and we're only ten blocks from the house. Please. We'll be fine."
"Only if Davis walks down to meet you."
"Put Stark back on the phone. Wait--" After a beat, she added, "Call me later when you get settled."
"Won't Stark do that?"
"It's not the same thing."
"I should hope not." Smiling, Blair held out the cell. "The Commander--for you."
Felicia Davis met them halfway to the house as they climbed back up Hyde Street to the top of Russian Hill. The tall, lithe, ebony-skinned woman nodded cordially and silently fell into step beside Stark, who moved slightly to her left so that the two Secret Service agents walked slightly behind and on either side of Blair Powell.
Almost oblivious to their presence, Blair replayed the conversation with Cam in her mind as she climbed. She couldn't shake the feeling that something wasn't right. Even though they'd known each other less than a year, and for a good part of that time, they had been estranged, she could sense the tension in Cam's voice, and it was more than fatigue.
They'd been lovers for the last two tumultuous months--following an even more harrowing four months during which Cam had been in the hospital and then on medical leave after being struck by a bullet meant for Blair--a bullet that had nearly killed her. A bullet which the Secret Service agent had intentionally blocked with her own body.
For the first time in her life, Blair had to face the stark truth that her life--by virtue of her father's position--was somehow valued more than that of another human being. It was a realization which she could not accept, and because of that, and the haunting image of what that reality had almost cost the woman she loved, it was increasingly difficult for her to allow anyone to place themselves between her and danger.
Intellectually, she understood the need. If she were kidnapped, it would bring unbearable pressure on her father to give in to threats and manipulation. Something that as a man, and as a father, she knew he would want to do. However, as the President of the United States, it was something he would never be able to do. For that reason, she also bore the responsibility of seeing that he was never placed in that position. The conflict for her was a lifelong struggle, because she had been in the public eye since the time her father was a governor, and during the eight years of his Vice Presidency when he was being very publicly groomed for the office of President. And now, she was having an affair with the chief of her personal security detail.
Life was a lot simpler a year ago.
"Do you need something, Ms. Powell?" Felicia Davis asked, inclining her head slightly at the sound of Blair's voice.
"No. I'm fine."
The three women walked on in silence. When they reached the house, entering this time through the front door, Marcea Cassells, Cameron Roberts' mother, was just bidding her other house guests good night. The dark-eyed, strikingly beautiful woman turned as the trio came through the door and smiled.
"I see you've found each other."
"Yes," Blair replied, smiling in return. In a casual, emerald green silk blouse and darker slacks, Marcea looked like a softer, only slightly older version of Cam. That alone would have drawn Blair's smile, but she liked and respected the other woman. An artist herself, Blair was still slightly in awe of the critically acclaimed painter.
"Can I get you anything?" Marcea asked. "A drink or something to eat?"
"If there's port--that would be great," Blair replied.
The two Secret Service agents declined. Davis crossed the living room and disappeared into the depths of the house to check the back entrance and the rear grounds. Stark followed, but stationed herself in the dining room which adjoined the living room through an archway. She took up a post from where she had a clear sight line to the front door, but a position that was far enough away to afford Blair and Marcea privacy.
"Did you speak with Cameron?" Marcea inquired while pouring the wine into two crystal glasses. She carried them to the sofa were Blair was seated, handed her one, and sank into one of the matching chairs that sat at right angles to the sofa.
The house itself was a contemporary multilevel structure with many skylights, small decks beyond sliding glass doors that extended from the hillside rooms, and a general sense of uncluttered expansiveness. The sharp, cool lines of the structure were softened by the warm, muted colors of the rugs and furnishings. It was an Architectural Digest home made for living in. Only one painting out of the many gracing the walls was Marcea's. Despite her international reputation, she had the same sense of intense privacy that her daughter displayed. "She called looking for you."
"I spoke with her briefly a few minutes ago."
"I suppose she thought I wouldn't notice, but she sounded...worried."
Blair hesitated. She wasn't accustomed to discussing personal matters with anyone--well, anyone other than Diane. Diane Bleeker was her business agent as well as her oldest friend, and although they had often shared a rivalry over the years for the same women, they understood each other. She thought that quality, more than anything else, was the most important thing a friend could offer.
Nevertheless, despite her short association with Marcea, they shared a critical experience, and one that had forged a deep bond. For nearly forty-eight hours after Cam had been shot, they'd waited together by her bedside. Forty-eight hours during which time they hadn't known whether she would live or die. They had stood silent witness to her struggle, and they had shared grief and uncertainty. They'd also shared something else, although they had not spoken of it. They both loved her.
Blair drew a deep breath, and smiled a bit wanly. "That's my fault, I think. I decided to go for a walk, and I'm afraid I didn't follow Roberts' rules of order."
"I can imagine those rules must get very tiresome."
Blair shrugged. "They do, but I suppose, too, I should be used to it by now."
"I doubt very much I could ever get used to it," Marcea stated emphatically. "I also have a feeling that Cam understands that." There was kindness in her tone, and sympathy that sounded genuine.
To her absolute horror, Blair felt her eyes well with tears. Abruptly, she rose and crossed to the front window, desperately trying to contain her sadness. "Cam understands," she said, her back to face Marcea. "I know she does. But she has a job to do, and I'm her job. That comes first."
"Yes. I know how seriously she takes that. I'm sure that's why she was given the job." Marcea's voice was calm and gentle. "Loving you must make it quite a challenge for you both."
Startled, Blair turned abruptly, meeting Marcea's eyes. "Has she said--"
"No," Marcea said with another smile. "But it's plain to see every time she looks at you. I'm not trying to excuse her, you know. She's like her father--completely devoted to her work, often to the exclusion of her own needs. But in her defense--"
"You don't need to defend her to me. I loŠ" She fell silent, shocked. She hadn't meant to say that--she'd never said that to anyone--about anyone...ever before. First, because there'd never been anyone about whom to say it. And even had there been, there was no one to whom she would've felt safe saying it. Not even to Diane--not because she didn't trust her friend with the knowledge, but because saying it would make it real. She'd have to acknowledge her own vulnerability. To say it would be to feel it, and that was terrifying.
The silence between them grew longer until Marcea spoke softly.
"I didn't intend to defend her. I'm sorry--it's the mother in me. I only meant to say that despite her single-mindedness, she cares."
"I know she does." Blair tilted the glass and swallowed the rest of the wine. She carried it to the sideboard and placed it carefully on the silver serving tray. I only wish I knew if it was me or the First Daughter who came first in her affections.
She turned and said tonelessly, "I need to call her. I promised I'd let her know when we got back."
"I hope I haven't offended you."
"No. You haven't."
Wordlessly, they nodded good night. As Blair passed Stark in the dining room, she informed her without turning in her direction, "I'm going to bed."
Start did not reply, because no reply was required. She'd already radioed Mac to inform him that Egret was secured for the night, and she had called Cameron Roberts in Washington DC to tell her the same thing.
Now, she herself could go to bed.
Blair showered quickly and got into bed, naked. She turned off the lights and punched in Cam's number by the faint glow from the LCD readout on her cell. The line was picked up after the first ring.
"How are you?"
"Tired, I think. Jet lag probably."
Neither of them mentioned that in the last two weeks there'd been an assassination attempt, a car bombing, and several explosions--all of the events involving Blair or a member of her security detail.
Blair shifted on her side so she could watch the moon as it moved slowly in and out behind the few scattered clouds in the sky. The house was very still and quiet--unlike the ever-present city noises she was used to hearing, even from her eighth floor penthouse on Gramercy Park in NYC. The view, too, was so different than New York, the sky somehow brighter and the stars more brilliant. It was beautiful, and she felt again the stab of loneliness. "What does it look like, out of your window?"
Cam was silent a moment as she focused on the night. "The sky is nearly cloudless, and very black. I can see the stars and a lot of planes taking off and landing. There's a glow off to the left that reaches into the lower layers of the clouds--that's the White House. It's always flooded with light. I'm surprised anyone can sleep--" She laughed shortly. "Well, you know that don't you?"
"It's not easy to sleep there," Blair said thoughtfully. "For any number of reasons. As you know, it's not my favorite place."
Cam chuckled. "I have noticed that."
"It's what, almost three there?"
"And what time do you bureaucrat types reconvene in the morning?"
"Seven." Cam tried to keep her weariness from showing in her voice. "I think the bureaucrats feel guilty about not really doing anything, so they work extra long hours to make up for it."
"I believe you have a point," Blair agreed, laughing. "You should go to sleep, Cam. You've got to be even more tired than I am."
"At least I don't have to contend with jet lag."
"No, but you haven't had much sleep in the last week and you're hurt."
There was silence and Blair could envision Cam trying to find a neutral comeback. That silence was more telling than anything else. "How bad is it?"
"I've got a knot on the back of my head that throbs at inopportune moments. Of course, it could be listening to Doyle for twelve hours--"
Cam heard the serious tone in Blair's voice and sighed. "I feel like a stream roller ran over me--coming and going. Twice."
"What else?" She'd seen the bruises the day before...God, was it just yesterday?...and although they looked painful, it would take more than that to make Cam complain.
"Nothing too bad...a bit of dizziness, a little blurry visi..."
"Jesus. You shouldn't be working...you should be in bed. Can't you postpone this goddamned briefing?"
"It's got to be done--and the sooner the better. Events tend to get skewed the longer we wait. People have selective memory loss, or fortuitous recollections that make them look good and everyone else look bad."
"You expect trouble, don't you?"
Again Cam hesitated, because she had spent more than a dozen years on the payroll of the US Treasury Department, and she wasn't used to discussing her work with anyone. Even when she and Janet had been together, they hadn't talked shop. And Janet had been a cop. If we'd talked a little more, maybe I would have known where she'd be that morning. Maybe I could have warned her off. Maybe she wouldn't be de...
"Sorry. I guess I am tired." She rubbed her eyes, pushed the memories aside. "We have one dead agent and two seriously wounded. You came very close to being a victim yourself. Any one of those events is a serious issue. All of them together...there has to be an accounting."
"But you're okay in all of this, right? My God, Cam...you almost died. If it hadn't been for you, who knows what would have happened to Grant and Savard."
"I'll be fine. Don't worry."
"Will you tell me what happens?" Blair knew that she was asking Cam to cross a line. But they'd crossed so many already, and if they were ever going to have anything together--
"I miss you." It took all Blair's willpower to say it, but it was such an overwhelming feeling that she had nowhere else to put it. She had to give it voice or choke on it.
"I'd give anything I have to be lying next to you right now," Cam said very quietly. "Anything."
"You know what makes me angry so about you, Roberts?"
"I can't stay angry at you very long."
Cam laughed. "I have to have something going for me, because I know that most of the chips don't fall on my side."
"You're wrong about that, Commander."
Blair's voice was very quiet, too, but Cam heard her clearly. "Things will get better once these debriefings are done."
"Will they?" Blair asked. "Washington politics never change. You know that, Cam. It's just more of the same in a different package."
"Things will get easier for you, at any rate. Now that he's been stopped--"
"You mean now that he's dead."
"Yes," Cam said softly. "Now that he's dead, your life will be a little bit easier."
"Do you have the final ID?"
Cam hesitated, but only for a second. "No, not yet. Everything is being handled out of Quantico, and you probably know how notoriously slowly those wheels turn."
"But there isn't any doubt, right?"
"There isn't any doubt we got the right man," Cam said with as much conviction as she could convey. "The ID remains open, but Savard took care of him."
Blair shifted uneasily under the covers, acutely aware of what Cam wasn't saying. The FBI task force had indeed gotten someone. That someone was presumably the man who had been stalking her, threatening her life, and endangering her entire team. She was too intelligent not to know that what Cam wasn't saying was that only time would tell if indeed the dead man was whom they'd been tracking.
"Are you going to make it for your mother's opening?" Blair asked, changing the subject intentionally. Neither of them could do anything to change the circumstances regarding Loverboy. There was no point in talking about it.
"I'm going to try," Cam replied. "I haven't made it to very many of them, and I know this one is particularly important. I'll do the best I can."
"Good. I know she wouldn't say it, but I can tell she likes it when you're there."
Cam sighed again and rubbed at the tension between her eyes. "I know."
"Go try to get some sleep."
"I will," Cam assured her, wondering if she could possibly, now, having heard the touch of forgiveness in Blair's voice.
"Call me tomorrow?" Blair asked.
"I will. As soon as I get a break. About the morning...Mac will be--"
"Cameron, Mac can handle things. I'm fine."
"Right." After a moment, Cam added softly, "Goodnight, Blair."
"Goodnight," she whispered.
Blair shut off her cell and laid it on the bedside table. She drew the covers up to her shoulders and continued to stare out the window.
Cam placed the receiver in the cradle, then stood and stretched. Her shoulders ached from the bruising she had sustained from being forcibly slammed to the ground by the concussive force of the explosion. She crossed the short distance to the window, drink in hand, and contemplated the skyline again.
Finally she drained the scotch and set it on the nearby bar. She needed to try to sleep. As she turned from the window, the phone rang.
Immediately, she grabbed it up.
"Roberts." She listened for a moment, then said, "No, that's fine. Send her up."
A minute later she opened her door to admit a tall, stately blond exquisitely attired in an expensive evening dress.
"Hello, Claire. Come in."
Cam opened her eyes in darkness, warm breath on the back of her neck. A woman pressed close--full breasts against her spine, an arm curving over the crest of her hip from behind, fingers moving softly over her skin. She started to turn onto her back, but the hand on her hip pressed forward, preventing her. A throaty voice spoke in her ear, familiar and commanding.
"No. Don't move. And keep your eyes closed."
Still on her side, Cam closed her eyes and obeyed. Every cell was acutely focused on the knowing touch tracing the hollow of her hip, the curve of her ribs, and the long plane of her abdomen. Light teasing strokes drew the breath from her lungs in sharp, nearly painful gasps as particularly sensitive spots were tormented, then abandoned.
Soon she was heavy and hard, and she tilted her hips back to allow the questing hand to journey lower, between her thighs. Fingers parted her, sought her heat, and brushed feathersoft over nerve endings already twitching with arousal. She heard herself groan, shuddering as the fist of release pounded between her legs, and knew that surcease from the exquisite torture was not far away.
"Do you plan on making me come?" Cam whispered, her voice catching as her breath stuttered over peaks of excitement.
The touch continued working her length, tugging at sensitive skin and tracing tender folds--drawing forth her desire on a flood of urgency.
"It's not...up to me anymore," Cam managed, legs taut as the explosion gathered force. "You're...in command."
A husky laugh and the pressure of a thumb added to circling fingertips. "I've always been in command. Isn't that how you've always wanted it?"
"You always...know...just how...to touch me," Cam murmured, her hips lifting as her thighs parted, inviting entrance.
"Turn over on your stomach," the honeyed voice ordered.
"I'm so close. Can't I co--"
"Just do it."
Trembling, Cam turned onto her stomach, cradling the pillow in her arms, eyes closed tightly as she fought for control. She moaned as a hand slipped between her legs and claimed her again, this time entering her while sliding simultaneously over her clitoris.
She was too far gone to contain the spiraling climax any longer--with another stroke or two, she would be gone.
"You're going to make me come," she warned, barely breathing now.
"I know. That's what you wanted, wasn't it?"
"Yes. Yes, it's what I wanted. God, yes... Clai..."
Cam shot straight up in bed, shocked into wakefulness by the imminent orgasm. Gasping, she threw back the covers and swung her legs over the side of the bed, bracing herself with a hand on either side of her body, clutching the mattress as she struggled with her reeling senses.
Legs shaking, stomach clenched in preparation for release, she rode the thin edge of orgasm, finally forcing down the swell of arousal. The red numerals of the bedside clock read 6:05. She'd been in bed an hour. She was quite alone.
Sweat drenched and breathing heavily, she stood on wooden legs and walked unsteadily to the bathroom. Viciously, she twisted the knobs on the shower, stepped in, and leaned her forehead against the cool tiles as water began to stream from the shower head.
"Jesus," she whispered again.
She couldn't remember anything like that ever happening before, and to have it happen now, after the unsettling visit the night before, numbed her brain. She trembled still with the unanswered demand pulsing in her depths, knowing that with the briefest touch, she could satisfy the physical need. Her body cried out for it, but her heart resisted.
Turning her face into the still cold water, she let it beat against her head and chest. Shivering, she placed her hands against the wall in front of her and lowered her head, soaking her hair and back. Finally, the churning pressure between her thighs began to abate and she flung her head back, rubbing her face with both hands.
She stood in the shower a long time--until her body was quiet and her head was clear, save for the distant echo of the ever-present headache. Thankfully, that was barely a distraction, because she would need all her mental facilities when she met with Carlisle and the others in less then an hour.
For the time being, she couldn't afford to think about what had just happened--or what had taken place the night before.
"Let's wrap this thing up," Stewart Carlisle said to the group convened around the conference table, coffee cups situated within easy reach. "The statements of the agents on scene all confirm the events as outlined in Agent Roberts' report. There's nothing new or contradictory in them."
The accumulated field reports generated by the FBI, Secret Service agents, and State Police teams present the night an unidentified subject...UNSUB...had lured a woman thought to be Blair Powell to a deserted location, had been gathered into a file two inches thick. A copy sat in front of each person along with an equally thick binder filled with preliminary forensic and laboratory results. They'd spent the better part of the day going through them. Carlisle gestured to them as he spoke.
"I think we can all agree that the causalities were acceptable given the level of threat to the protectee. Acceptable and unavoidable."
The phrase was understood by all present to mean that no one was to be held responsible for the chain of events leading to the near fatal injuries sustained by several agents.
"My department in conjunction with the New York bureau field office will follow-up on the final ID," he added, handily glossing over the FBI investigative oversights that had allowed the perpetrator to elude the task force for months. By cutting the other agency a break, he'd garner favors that he could call in when he needed leverage on something in the future. "SoŠ"
"There's the matter of the security breach in Central Park," Patrick Doyle interjected.
Warily, Carlisle regarded the blocky, thick-necked man who sat opposite him at the far end of the table. Hard blue eyes stared back from a broad, roughly handsome face. FBI Special Agent in Charge Patrick Doyle had headed up the task force formed to apprehend the man stalking the President's daughter after the first attempt on her life. Before Carlisle could respond, Cam spoke instead.
"That's a matter for the Secret Service to review, Doyle." She was stating the obvious, because everyone present knew that the Secret Service never discussed procedures and protocol with anyone outside the Agency. Of course, Doyle knows that, too. So what's his game?
"I should think that two nearly successful attempts on a high-level protectee's life would bring into question the adequacy of her security," Doyle said pointedly, his gaze still on Stewart Carlisle's face. "After all, any time she's at a public function, it's her security team that coordinates all the other forces, right? Police, Transit Authority, Tactical teams...the whole ball of wax. So, if someone gets through all that, who's to blame?"
"The Secret Service does not comment on procedure," Carlisle replied stiffly, but the gauntlet had been thrown. As the man directly overseeing the teams providing the First daughter's protection, he couldn't ignore the implied criticism or the not so subtle accusation that her security had been lacking.
"I agree with Agent Doyle, Assistant Director," Robert Owens, the National Security Agency deputy director said. "My department also needs an accounting of events."
"Fine. I'll send you a report," Carlisle snapped.
"Perhaps something a little more formal is called for," Owens replied, "such as an impartial inquiry."
Cam's hands, resting on her lap, tightened into fists. "An inquiry by whom?"
"Justice should appoint a panel," Owens answered with an alacrity that suggested he'd prepared the response.
"That kind of investigation will require exposing information essential to the First Daughter's security," Cam pointed out.
"Well, that remains to be seen, doesn't it?"
Cam waited for Carlisle to put an end to the discussion, and as the seconds passed with no response from him, her anger grew.
"I'll take it under advisement," Carlisle finally said. "Are we through here then, gentlemen?"
There was a general rumble of assent and the scraping of chairs as the group dispersed. Cam didn't look in Doyle's direction, because she was certain if she saw the smirk she knew would be there, she'd launch herself over the table at him. As soon as the last man filed out, she was on her feet.
"Jesus Christ, Stewart, are you going to let Doyle and Owens railroad you into an outside inquiry? What the hell kind of precedent does that set? We have our own internal review for this kind of occurrence."
"Nothing's been decided," he retorted, his temper frayed to breaking.
"How about you tell them to stick it up their bureaucratic asses?"
"Not very diplomatic."
"Fuck diplomacy. We're talking about compromising our working strategies." She tried to lower her voice, but she was too tired and too nauseous to control everything at once. "And that puts protectees at risk. I won't do it."
"You'll do whatever I need you to do, Agent," Carlisle said testily.
"Not if it means endangering Blair Powell."
"If you refuse to testify before a Justice board of inquiry, you'll be in contempt of a sanctioned federal investigative body. At the very least you'll lose your job...worst case scenario, you could be looking at jail time."
She studied the face of her boss, a man she thought she knew, and couldn't read what was behind his eyes. Then she decided she didn't really care.
"Fine. If you need to reach me, you know how to find me."
Blair clicked off the phone with a sigh.
Still no answer. Not at her apartment, not on her cell phone, not on her two-way pager.
She glanced at the bedside clock. 9:02 PM. It was midnight in D.C. Cam had said she would call during breaks in the meetings, but she hadn't. Even in Washington, bureaucrats didn't work this late on Friday night.
She'd spent a good part of her day with Marcea in her studio, a jutting extension of the top floor that was all windows and light. While Marcea packed up the few remaining canvasses for the show the next night, Blair sketched. It had been peaceful and companionable, although they rarely spoke as the hours passed.
Late in the day, Marcea stopped by her side and, gesturing to the sketchpad Blair had balanced on her knees, asked, "May I?"
Blushing faintly, Blair turned the sketch pad in her direction, amazed at her own shyness with the woman who had never been anything but gracious and kind. But her art was her soul, and the one place she had never needed to hide her feelings. She wondered what Marcea would see beneath the charcoal and paper.
"You have a very good memory," Marcea said with a smile, studying the images of herself and her daughter, their profiles interspersed, overlapped, and in some views, transforming one to the other. "You capture her perfectly."
"Do I," Blair said contemplatively.
Marcea's eyes were warm and caring as they rose to Blair's. "You do." Gesturing to the sketch, she asked, "Might I possibly keep this?"
Blair nodded. "I'd be honored."
"Thank you," Marcea murmured, lifting long delicate fingers to Blair's cheek.
Blair grew still, transfixed by the touch, feeling welcomed and fleetingly, as if she had come home.
Remembering the interlude now, thinking of how much Cam resembled her mother, only made Blair miss Cam more.
Pacing fretfully around the confines of her room, she worked hard not to imagine where Cam might be. Unwinding with a drink after two continuous days of meetings? In a bar? Over dinner? Alone?
In the two months they'd been lovers, Blair had barely had time to adjust to the fact that she had broken her own most fundamental rule--never to get emotionally involved with anyone she slept with. Never let anyone touch her...not physically, most of the time, and definitely not emotionally--ever. She'd tried hard to keep Cam outside the formidable defenses she'd erected over the years, and she'd failed.
Cam, she knew, had broken more than one of her own rules, too...at least professionally. The most significant one being never to become intimately involved with a protectee. Blair had a feeling that Cam had probably broken several of her personal rules as well, but they had not spoken of it. There were other things they had not spoken of--fidelity, exclusivity, the shape of their future. They were concepts which to Blair had seemed foreign only a few months before. Now, the ideas had moved beyond philosophy to take on far greater significance. When she thought of Cam with another woman, something between fury and despair welled within her.
"This is ridiculous," she muttered to herself. "I can't sit here any longer--I'm going stir crazy."
She stripped off her jeans and T-shirt and crossed to be adjoining bath. Quickly, mechanically, she showered and washed her hair. She left her hair loose, as she usually did when she was going out and didn't want to be recognized. Over the years, she had learned that subtle alterations in her physical appearance and dress made it almost impossible for a member of the general public to recognize her as the President's daughter. Associating her with the image they saw on television and in magazines, the average citizen expected to see a sophisticated, elegant woman in tasteful but expensive clothes, wearing just the right amount of makeup, and with her curling, shoulder length blond hair gathered at the base of her neck with a gold clasp. In leather pants, a body hugging sleeveless top, and her hair down and free, Blair bore almost no resemblance to the First Daughter.
When she finished dressing, she slipped a slim leather wallet with nothing other than her ID and cash into her back pocket and opened the door to her room. This time, the hallway was empty and she crossed quickly to the back stairs that led to the kitchen and the rear exit. To her surprise, the kitchen was empty, too. She knew that Davis was off duty that evening and Ed Hernandez was somewhere in the front of the house, probably in the living room. She didn't see Stark and was surprised, but grateful. She wasn't anxious to elude her and draw yet more negative attention to the agent.
Carefully sliding open the glass door, she stepped out onto the cedar-planked deck that was cantilevered over the slope of Russian Hill below. Moving quietly, she started down the first of many wooden staircases that cut back and forth across the lower portion of Marcea's property toward the street below. Halfway down, she stopped at the sound of a voice just below her.
Blair leaned over the railing and looked down into the shadows. Paula Stark looked back. "I'm going out for awhile."
"Then I guess I am, too."
"Why don't you continue your perimeter check and pretend you didn't see me?" Blair started down the stairs again.
Stark met her at the bottom and said, "We both know I can't. I don't even want to. It's my job to be with you tonight, especially if you're outside this building."
Blair regarded her steadily, surprised by the somber tone in her voice. She'd always known Stark was incredibly responsible and almost obsessively dedicated to her job, but tonight, there was something else in her voice. Maturity perhaps. For a moment there, she'd sounded like Cam. "Any room for negotiation?"
"No. I need to inform Mac that we're leaving home base. I'd like to be able to tell him where we're going."
"I don't know yet. I just want to get a drink and..."
"Please. You don't need to explain to me, Ms. Powell. It's only our destination I have any interest in. Would you object to taking the cars?"
"I'd rather walk." As they spoke, Blair moved off down the path that cut through the dense shrubbery toward the street and the sidewalk.
Stark fell in beside her and pulled her cell from her belt. She spoke softly as they walked, informing Mac that Egret was moving, destination undetermined. Mac, she knew, would detail Hernandez to the car and eventually, wherever she and Blair stopped, the other agent would eventually show up. In all likelihood, Mac would order one other agent to join Hernandez in the car for backup. It was somewhat unorthodox to have only one agent on foot, but typical of the way they were forced to deploy with the First Daughter. Egret didn't welcome their presence and rarely made it easy for them. However, the Commander had made it clear that despite Egret's objections, security would be provided. Stark had no intention of leaving her unguarded, no matter what she had to do.
"Let's take a streetcar," Blair said impulsively, heading to the corner just as a car trundled up the steep hill.
Hastening to follow, Stark grabbed onto the rail as Blair jumped up onto the step that ran on the outside of the car.
"Grab on," Blair called, extending her hand and laughing as Stark ran a few steps alongside and finally caught her hand.
"Thanks," Stark puffed as she pulled herself up. Wouldn't that have been just terrific if I'd lost her because I was too slow. I've got to start running. Pumping iron is just not enough.
Their hands touched as they both grasped the vertical pole for support. The streetcar lurched off and the two of them rocked back and forth, shoulder to shoulder, facing one another. It was the kind of thing that tourists always did, but Stark had never been a tourist in San Francisco before. It was the kind of thing that lovers did as well.
The experience was both exhilarating and slightly confusing. Blair Powell was a beautiful woman, and Stark remembered all too clearly what it felt like when the hand that was lightly brushing hers now had done more than that for the few hours they had spent together in a remote hotel room in the Rockies. Those hands had been accomplished and unexpectedly tender, and the memory echoed forcibly through her. Their faces were only inches apart, and in the flickering intermittent glow of the street lights, she could see Blair's slightly parted lips and her sensuous smile, and for a moment, desire twisted within her.
Quickly, Stark averted her gaze.
"You okay?" Blair asked, leaning back to let the wind course through her hair.
"Yeah, sure." Damn, when will I learn not to telegraph my every thought and feeling. Cripes, some Secret Service agent.
"Come on," Blair said a few moments later, leaping down before the car had even pulled to a stop. "This is Market Street, the end of the line. Let's walk for a while."
Stark glanced around and her stomach lurched. There were more street people than she had anticipated--a motley gathering of homeless and transients, many of whom were aggressively panhandling or standing around in groups of two or more. Definitely a security nightmare. She could only hope that no one recognized Blair.
"This is a bad idea, Ms. Powell. Let's wait for Hernandez and the Suburban. It'll only be a minute or two."
"Come on, Stark where's your sense of adventure?" Blair asked as she turned to her right and started walking southwest down Market...toward the Tenderloin and away from the relative safety of the more populated downtown area.
"I don't think I have a sense of adventure," Stark mumbled, hurrying to catch up. She lifted her wrist and radioed their location, grateful that Blair did not complain about that, at least. The Suburban, outfitted with everything they could possibly need, including automatic weapons, body armor and extensive medical equipment, would be in the vicinity in a minute or two. If they were going to walk, at least they'd have someone at their backs.
They trekked the length of Market Street to the corner of Castro. At nearly 11:00 p.m. on a Friday night, the heart of the Castro District was alive with activity. The sidewalks were wall-to-wall people--tourists and locals alike. Whereas once the area had been the exclusive domain of gay men, and somewhat clandestine, it was now much more upscale and civilized. Nevertheless, interspersed with the trendy restaurants and boutiques, the gay bars and sex clubs still flourished. For the next hour, Blair browsed the bookstores and bars with Stark shadowing her at a respectable distance. They didn't speak.
The first few bars they stopped in were relatively bright, airy places that catered to an upscale clientele. They stayed awhile in each, while Blair sipped a glass of wine or seltzer and pensively watched the couples or soon-to-be lovers dancing.
It seemed pretty uneventful and Stark began to relax. Big mistake.
Around midnight, Blair halted in front of a nondescript establishment that bore a simple hand-lettered, board sign--"Skins". From the look of the men and occasional woman entering, it was a leather bar.
Blair glanced at Stark. "You want to wait outside?"
"I'll come in, thanks," Stark replied, as if she had any particular choice in the matter.
As soon as they entered, Blair said, "See you in a bit." And promptly disappeared.
One look around the dark smoky club and Stark's stomach dropped. Visibility was zero, the music was loud, and sex was in the air. At the far end of the single square room, a small dance floor was crowded with bodies in various stages of undress writhing to a heavy metal beat. The unadorned bar along one wall was three-deep in people jostling to get their drinks. Stark judged that unless she stayed physically attached to Egret, she wouldn't be of much use as security. And staying attached to her was neither advisable nor possible. Deciding she had no good alternatives, Stark moved deeper into the room to look for a vantage point along the wall opposite the bar from where she could watch the entrance and still have some view into the darker recesses of the rear. It was the best she could manage. When she finally staked out a two foot square spot that would do, she radioed her location to Mac and the agents in the car. Mac's blistering response did not help her nerves.
Blair insinuated her way through the bodies and eventually reached the bar. A few minutes later, beer in hand, she made her way to a rear corner where she could get her back against the wall and have a view of the dance floor. The crowd was almost all male, most of the men shirtless in threadbare jeans or tight leather pants that displayed what they had come there to offer. Here and there she saw a woman, dressed in denim or leather, too, and usually wearing a tight tank top like her own that displayed toned muscles and untethered breasts. It was a bar like dozens of other bars that she had been in, heavy with the scent of booze and sex and something dangerous. It was no different than it had ever been, and yet it was completely different.
The first woman to approach her was a heavily muscled dark-skinned woman with close-cut hair and a row of silver studs in her left ear. Her sleeveless black T-shirt fit her so seamlessly that she might have been naked. Sweat glistened on the expanse of chest left bare by the deep V in the neck, and her skin-tight leather pants outlined every sinew in her powerful thighs.
Blair smiled and shook her head. "No, thanks."
Clearly surprised, the other woman cocked her head and ran her eyes slowly up and down Blair's body, lingering on her breasts before meeting her eyes again. "That's not the message you're sending."
"Sorry, not tonight."
"You just here to tease?"
Again Blair shook her head, still smiling. "No." She shrugged. "I'm just here to pass the time."
"Suit yourself, but you don't know what you're missing."
As the woman turned to walk away, Blair flashed on Cam's face. Oh yes, I do.
Over the next hour as she finished her beer and had another, she refused several more invitations to dance and, in one case, a less subtle offer to share a few moments of bodily contact in the alley behind the bar. She was watching a particularly handsome male couple dancing when she felt a hand close over her shoulder from behind. She didn't stiffen or react in any way, but she shifted her balance until she was centered and slowly set her bottle down on the ledge near her elbow. Turning her head only slightly, she said, "You need to move your hand or lose it. Right now."
A body pressed close against her in the crowd, a crotch moved against her ass, and fingers stroked down along her bare arm. Lips brushed her ear.
Just as she was preparing to grasp the intruding wrist and twist away, a voice murmured in her ear.
"I'd give anything I have to be--"
Blair spun around, her arms coming up and around Cam's shoulders as she pushed her lover against the wall and kissed her, all in one swift motion.
It didn't matter to her a bit that she'd been vacillating between worry and anger all night, wondering where Cam was, wondering why she hadn't called, wondering how she was ever going to be able to control the terrible ache she felt when they were apart. What mattered was that at the sound of Cam's voice and the touch of her hand, every single thing in her life made sense. Every cell came alive, every breath felt sharper, every thought clearer. Urgently, hungrily, she molded her body to Cam's, her blood running hot and fast just from the feel of her skin.
Finally, breathing heavily, Blair leaned back, her thighs and pelvis still glued to Cam's. The hard press of the agent's inside-pants holster registered against her leg and suddenly she was reminded of where they were and what she had just done. Breathlessly, she whispered, "Jesus, Cam--Stark is in here somewhere."
"No, she isn't. I sent her out when I came in. I assured her I'd be able to provide close protection."
Even in the hazy light, Blair saw Cam's electric grin. She saw something else as well. Cam looked gaunt, circles under her eyes marred her handsome face and the tightness in her jaw belied the strain that she couldn't hide.
"Cam, you look beat. Did you get any sleep at all?"
"I slept on the plane."
"How do you feel?"
"Rough," Can admitted, because she knew she wouldn't be able to hide it for long. She had slept on the flight, and that had helped. The headache persisted. The neurologist who'd seen her in the Emergency Room, the one who'd wanted to admit her after the explosion four nights before, had warned her that it might be with her for a while. It seemed a little better, though, and her stomach was more settled. "Nothing a few days away from DC won't cure."
"Why didn't you call me...tell me you were coming?"
"Sorry. I drove right to the airport from Treasury. I always have an emergency bag in my trunk, and I just grabbed that and caught the first plane out."
Blair knew that kind of behavior was unusual for Cam. "Was it that bad back there?"
"About like I expected."
Blair nodded, knowing there was more, but for the moment, all she really wanted to do was hold her. "Look, let's get out of here. We can..."
Suddenly she remembered the car somewhere outside filled with Secret Service agents. In the past if she'd wanted to be alone with a woman she'd met in a bar, she'd use the back door and disappear for a few hours. But this was different; this wasn't just any woman--this was the superior of the agents waiting outside. "Fuck, what can we do? I need to be alone with you. Just for a little while."
"Let's go to the beach."
Cam took her hand. "Trust me."
They caught a cab on the corner of Castro and Market, and while Blair directed the driver, Cam radioed instructions for the agents in the surveillance vehicle to follow them. When the cab pulled to the curb at the end of Polk across from the bay, they paid and climbed out.
"I'll just be a second," Cam said as she and Blair walked back toward the Suburban that sat idling behind their cab. When she leaned down to the open driver's side window of the Suburban, Hernandez looked up. "Two of you stay with the car...whoever's on swing shift is relieved."
"Keep your eye on foot traffic on the beach."
As she turned away, the rear door opened and John Fielding climbed out. She nodded to him. "Fielding."
"Commander," he rejoined before heading off to find his way back to the hotel.
Guided by starlight, she and Blair crossed the sidewalk and climbed down to the beach, then walked a hundred yards over the sandy soil toward the bay. As they drew close to the water's edge, Cam pointed toward a projecting outcropping of stone.
"This looks good."
Taking Blair's hand, she led her around the far side of the rocks and settled onto the hard-packed earth, pulling Blair down beside her. The surf was only a few yards away, tossing ghostly fingers of froth up onto the moonlit sand. The salt spray rapidly misted their skin, and in the middle of the night, the air was chilly, even in August.
"You cold?" Cam asked, her back against the stone. Their location was isolated from view of the car, and no one could approach them without being seen by the agents stationed on the road above. It was at once private and secure.
"No, not with you here." Blair settled against Cam's right side, her arm circling Cam's waist, her head nestled on Cam's shoulder. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you had practice at this kind of thing."
"Oh? What kind of thing would that be?"
"Eluding the Secret Service."
"Ah. I have been giving it some thought," Cam murmured, pressing her lips to Blair's temple. "I didn't sleep all the way here...the rest of the time I thought about you."
"They've got to be wondering," Blair said quietly, tugging Cam's shirttail free from the waistband of her trousers and slipping her hand beneath, resting her palm on the warm skin of her abdomen.
"I'm sure they are...but you needn't worry about it." As she followed wisps of clouds streaking across the face of the moon, she thought how much better it was to be watching the sky with Blair beside her. DC seemed a world away. Slowly, she stroked the length of Blair's bare arm, fingertips lightly tracing the firm muscles. "Blair, you're the President's daughter. That works for us as much as it works against us. The Secret Service has a long legacy of silence when it comes to protecting the privacy of the President and that extends to his family. My agents will not betray you."
"It's not me I care about." She traced a rib, smoothing her fingertips over the scar. It's you. It's my father.
"I know that. But I care about you." Cam tightened her hold on her, shifting on the sand until her chest and thighs were pressed to Blair's. "If and when you want to share your personal life with the world, it should be your choice. And it shouldn't be the fodder for anyone else's political agenda."
"My personal life has a lot to do with you," Blair whispered, just before her lips found Cam's and she lost her words in the warm welcome of Cam's mouth.
"Yeah," Cam agreed a lifetime later when she finally thought to breathe again. "But no one will care about me..."
"People in DC...at Treasury--could make it difficult for you."
People like Doyle, maybe. Cam shrugged and drew her finger along the edge of Blair's jaw. "I'm not worried about that."
"Then what are you worried about?" Blair asked suddenly, leaning back enough to study Cam's face. In the slanting shadows cast by starlight off the water, the sharp angles and planes were even more strikingly handsome. Her voice suddenly thick, she asked softly, "What happened in DC the last two days?"
Cam sighed. "You don't give up, do you?"
"If I did," Blair said as she moved her hand to the inside of Cam's thigh, stroking upward along the thin material of her trousers, "we wouldn't be here right now."
"True." Cam lifted her hips into Blair's palm as the teasing touch turned firmer, more insistent. "It was mostly routine, but with something this critical...with agents down and a high-profile target like..." She hesitated, realizing how clinical her words sounded. Blair's hand stopped moving, then drew away.
"Yes," Cam admitted with a sigh. "Like you. It has to be looked at carefully."
"So is it over? Are you okay?"
Cam hesitated. "I don't know yet." She found Blair's hand and placed it back on her thigh. "But when I do know, I'll tell you."
"Good," Blair murmured, leaning close again, finding the heat high between Cam's legs. Her breath caught at way her lover's body surged in answer to her touch. "I love the way you feel," she whispered. "I want to be all over you, inside you Ż I feel like I could swallow you whole."
As she spoke, her fingers found what she was seeking through the folds of material, and she squeezed Cam's clitoris lightly. "I could start with this."
Cam's body grew weak, and if she hadn't been sitting, she probably would have fallen down. "Ah, hell. We can't...here."
"Mmm, I know. But, God, I want to."
"Uh huh, that makes two of us," Cam muttered, wondering if she could possibly stay awake long enough, because it wouldn't take much. Her blood was raging but her mind was on the verge of shutting down. "Blair...I'm..."
"I'm beat...I don't think I can."
Blair sat up, instantly serious. "Let's go."
"I'm sorry, I--"
Blair laughed, insinuating a hand behind her head and leaning over to kiss her. No less passionately, but with a definite sense of finality. When she pulled back, she said, "Cam. You almost got blown up a few nights ago. You've been on your feet the better part of a week. You've got a concussion and God knows what else."
Getting to her knees, Blair pushed back her hair with both hands and took a deep breath of the cool night air. "Come along, Commander. I can wait."
Cam caught her hand and held on, preventing her from rising. "I'm not sure I can. I've missed you."
"Oh," Blair replied softly. "I've missed you, too."
She bent forward and kissed Cam, long and hard, then pushed quickly away and got to her feet. From a safe distance, she placed her hands on her hips and said mock-threateningly, "I've never been known for my patience. Now, move it."
Laughing, her heart lighter than she could ever remember, Cam got to her feet and followed the retreating form of the First Daughter into the shadows.
Within minutes, they were both seated in the rear seat of the Suburban. Stark rode in the front passenger seat while Hernandez drove. Cam leaned her head back against the seat and closed her eyes. The next thing she knew, Blair was gently shaking her shoulder.
"Commander, we're here."
Disoriented, Cam jerked awake and looked rapidly out her window, body tense and battle ready. As soon as she recognized the unique architecture and topography of her mother's street, she relaxed perceptibly. Clearing her throat, she said hoarsely, "Right."
Stark opened Blair's door and held it as Blair stepped out. Cam exited on the other side of the vehicle and walked around to meet her, by which time Fernandez had joined them as well. The four of them moved up the sidewalk to Marcea's front door in a formation so practiced it had become second nature. A dim light glowed through the windows of the first floor living room fronting the street, and Cam smiled to herself at the welcoming beacon. She'd rarely had time to visit her mother's home, but it was the only place on the planet where she ever felt truly at ease.
Stark unlocked the door and preceded the small group into the still house. As soon as the door closed behind them, she and Hernandez moved quietly away to perform their routine house check. Cam and Blair climbed the stairs leading from the far side of the living room to the second floor. They stopped in the hallway at the end farthest from Marcea's bedroom.
"I guess I won't be sleeping with you tonight," Blair said with resignation as she ran her fingers lightly down Cam's chest.
Cam caught her hand and their fingers immediately entwined. "I don't believe there's any law against you tucking me in."
"That could be a dangerous suggestion, Commander," Blair replied, her voice husky.
"I'll risk it."
Cam lead the way partway down the hall and opened the door to the second guest room. As Blair waited in the darkness just inside, Cam crossed to the bathroom, switched on the light, and pulled the door closed until only a thin shaft of light illuminated the bedroom. It was enough for them to navigate between the dresser, an upholstered chair next to a reading lamp, and the bed. With a sigh, she shrugged out of her jacket and tossed it over the back of the chair. She released the clasp on the right side of her shoulder harness and with a practiced motion slid it down her arms and off. By that time, Blair had crossed the space between them and stood a few inches in front of her.
"Let me do the rest."
"Now that's a dangerous suggestion," Cam murmured. She stood still as Blair's deft fingers unbuttoned her shirt and drew the narrow black belt from her trousers. Obediently, she lifted her arms as her lover stripped the shirt from her and dropped it onto the chair with her jacket. As she reached out, intending to place her arms around Blair's waist, Blair stepped back out of reach.
"Hey," Cam protested, surprised.
"Cam, don't," Blair said, her voice oddly still. "I'm not that strong."
"I mean it. You need to get some rest. And if you touch me, I'm going to forget that." She stepped forward again. "Now stand still."
With practiced efficiency, she unzipped Cam's pants and worked them down along with her briefs over her hips in one motion.
Cam kicked out of her loafers and stepped free of her clothing.
"Now what," Cam asked thickly, her heart thudding just from the unintentional flicker of Blair's fingers over her skin.
"Now, you get into bed," Blair replied, her voice just as thick.
Reluctantly, Cam complied and couldn't quite prevent her sigh of exhaustion as she stretched out under the sheet. Blair leaned down, kissed her chastely, and ran her fingers through Cam's thick dark hair. "I'll see you tomorrow."
As she turned to go, Cam's lids were already fluttering closed. Just as Blair reached for the door knob, she heard the deep voice float to her on the night air. "I love you."
"I love you," she whispered.
Then she let herself out and crossed the hall to her own bed, knowing it would be a long time before she slept.
At 9:20 the next morning, Cam rolled over and opened her eyes.
Sunlight streaked through the window on the left side of the room and for a moment, she lay still, listening for sound in the house. It was very quiet. She briefly considered crossing the hall to Blair's room and perhaps finding her there alone. Much of her fatigue had been assuaged by six hours of solid sleep. The headache was a very distant echo, and for the time being, of no consequence. What was much more disruptive was the persistent pulse of desire that had not abated during the night.
Great idea--sex in your mother's house with your team members outside the door. The thought of either one should cool your fire.
It didn't. Instead she recalled the way Blair had looked in the half light of the bar, sleek and taut and dangerous. Then in the moonlight on the beach, her face had softened, but the hunger still burned in her eyes. Cam remembered, too, how ready she had been to be devoured.
Time to douse the coals before I go up in flames.
Smiling to herself, she swung her legs over the side of the bed, stood, and stretched. Naked, she walked to the bathroom, turned on the shower, and waited for the water temperature to equilibrate. She showered and dressed with her usual efficiency, noting that she'd have to buy clothes before the gallery opening that evening. It was one thing to travel light, but she wasn't certain how long Blair planned to stay in San Francisco, and if it were any longer than another twenty-four hours, she'd run out of things to wear.
As it was, she pulled on chinos and a black polo shirt, which for her was unusually casual for a workday. Once again, she slid the slim body-contouring holster on the inside of the trousers and went downstairs to check in with her team.
The dining room and living room were empty, as was the kitchen. Fortunately, a carafe of coffee waited on the counter with a ceramic mug she recognized beside it. She'd made if for her father when she was ten.
A piece of paper extended from under it. Pulling it out, she read in her mother's distinctive hand, Cam. I'm in the studio. Come up when you're ready.
Cam poured coffee and found a banana in a basket next to the refrigerator. Carrying her coffee and fruit, she climbed the rear stairs to the third floor. She paused at the studio door, uncertain if her mother might be working.
"Cameron? Is that you?" came her mother's voice from the far end of the studio.
"Yep. Okay to come in?"
"Always." Marcea came forward with a fond smile on her face. She stopped before her daughter, who was an inch or two taller, and stood on her toes to kiss Cam's cheek. "It's good to see you."
"You, too," Cam said, looking around for safe place to rest her coffee mug.
Here," Marcea said, removing a cork coaster from underneath a pile of loose sketch sheets, pencils, and drawing pens. She placed it on a nearby stand. "How are you?"
"Fine," Cam responded, wondering just how much her mother knew about the recent events. The threats on Blair's life and the bloody resolution had been downplayed in the press, but Blair could have told her. She doubted, though, that Blair would have mentioned her own injuries to Marcea. Not after what had happened earlier that year. She rested a hip on the edge of a long counter that held an assortment of art supplies and peeled the banana. "It's been hectic. I'm a bit tired is all."
"Well, hopefully the opening tonight won't be taxing," Marcea said, pulling over a tall stool and sitting next to Cam.
"Where is everyone?" Cam asked.
"Blair went running, and Paula and Felicia went with her."
Can frowned momentarily, running through her mind the intelligence reports of the immediate area they'd hastily gathered before Blair's trip. Nothing to be worried about, but still-- "Is someone in the car, too?"
"I don't know. I take it her decision to go out was rather sudden."
"It would be," Cam said with a resigned shake of her head. "I'd better call Mac for a status report. Have you seen him today?"
"He was here very briefly and talked to Paula."
"All right. Thanks," she said, reaching for her coffee and starting to move away.
"Do you have to leave immediately? She's quite safe with Paula and Felicia, isn't she?"
Startled, Cam halted. Her mother had never really shown much interest in her work before and rarely talked to her about the details. But then of course, this wasn't about her work. This was about Blair. "Yes, she should be fine."
"Well then, stay and drink your coffee and I'll catch you up on all the latest gossip from the art scene and elsewhere."
For a second, Cam considered refusing. Then she reminded herself that until she officially relieved Mac as crew chief, he would be keeping a very close eye on what was happening with Blair. A few more minutes wouldn't matter, and she rarely got the opportunity to speak with her mother.
"All right. Let's start with the good stuff. What's happening with you and Giancarlo?" To her amazement, her mother blushed.
"Ah...let's say we are exploring possibilities."
"Well, that's an intriguing answer." Cam laughed. "Romantic possibilities?"
Cam's surprise was equaled only by her pleasure. Since her father had been killed nearly twenty years ago, she had not known her mother to have a serious or even casual relationship with any man.
"I like him," Cam announced, finishing her banana and placing the peel on a crumpled piece of paper near her coffee mug. "I think it's terrific, and I hope this exploration brings you happiness."
Marcea studied her daughter's face, taken aback by the calm certainty in her tone and expression. She was used to more emotional detachment in her driven offspring, and the insightful directness of her response was new. "Thank you. And in the same token, might I ask about you and Blair?"
Cam stiffened, denial rising automatically to her lips. Instead, to her amazement, she found herself saying, "We are exploring possibilities, too."
"I have the feeling your exploration is a little further along than mine and Giancarlo's--and I'm not talking about the bedroom."
"It's complicated," Cam responded, looking away.
"Cameron, my love, romance is always complicated." Marcea laughed and rested her palm on Cam's cheek. "She's very much in love with you, you know."
Cam swallowed, her voice suddenly deserting her. She reached for her mother's hand and held it lightly, staring at the strong tapering fingers that brought life to bare canvas and swatches of color. In a voice so low that Marcea had to lean forward to hear, Cam whispered, "God, I hope so."
She raised her eyes to her mother's, their grey depths nearly black with emotion. "I shouldn't even think about her, but I can't stop what I feel for her."
"Good. Because she doesn't want you to." Marcea leaned forward and kissed Cam on the forehead. "It will be all right. Just follow your heart."
"I'll try," Cam said softly.
She stayed a few more minutes while her mother brought her up to date on the latest news until finally, her need to check in with Mac became so urgent that she couldn't listen any longer. "I'm sorry. I need to get to work."
"Of course you do." Marcea laughed. "I'm surprised you managed to sit still this long. Go ahead."
"I'll see you tonight," Cam said as she hurried toward the hall.
Marcea listened to Cam's footsteps fade away and hoped that her daughter and Blair would find their way to happiness.
"Good morning, Commander." Mac's voice sounded cheerful and welcoming through the line. The blond-haired blue-eyed agent was ordinarily her communication coordinator, but when she was away he assumed the role of crew chief in her stead. He'd fulfilled that role during the months when she'd been recovering from the gunshot wound. "Welcome aboard."
"Thanks." Cam stood on the rear deck of her mother's home watching the white triangles of sails cut across the blue water of the Bay far below. "Feels good to be here."
"After New York? Yeah."
"Where are you?"
"I'm still at the command post in the Saint Francis. Since she's always moving, I figured I should be stationary. I've pretty much been coordinating from here," Mac replied, giving no indication of the fact that he'd been taking calls almost twenty four hours a day from the agents on shift who were guarding Blair Powell, appraising him of her whereabouts and providing status reports.
"Sounds right," Cam observed. "Where is she now?"
"At Gold's Gym on Market and Noe."
"Stark. It's quiet."
Cam wanted more details, but she had to admit she just wanted to know where Blair was, what she was doing. Her position gave her the power to know more about Blair's life than Blair might choose to share, and that was one of the dangers of crossing the line between protector and lover. Blair had never had a private life, not since she was twelve and her father had burst on the political scene as a very visible Governor and then later as Vice President. She was entitled to as much privacy as they could give her and still keep her safe. The fact that Cam was in love with her didn't change that.
"Okay," Cam said brusquely, annoyed that her mind was wandering. It never wandered when she worked, but just thinking about Blair... "Right. I'll take over--"
"Things are under control, Commander, if you want to take some down time. At least until the gallery opening tonight."
She was about to refuse when it occurred to her that she hadn't had an entire day off in weeks. "Thanks, Mac. We'll run through the assignments at 1700 hours.
As it turned out, Cam did not see Blair for the rest of the day. At 6:00 p.m., Cam waited in the living room of her mother's house to accompany the President's daughter to the opening of Marcea's latest show at the Rodman Gallery just off Union Square. She checked out the window to be certain that John Fielding had the Suburban idling at the curb in front of the house and that Felicia Davis rode in the shotgun seat beside him as planned. Turning at the sound of footsteps on the stairs from the second floor, Cam felt the breath stop in her chest.
Blair stood ten feet away at the bottom of the stairs, regarding her silently, a curious expression on her face.
Cam's heart started triple-timing as she took in the sleek black dress with its nearly imperceptible straps encircling each sculpted shoulder and the subtle cut that outlined her lithe form. A hint of diamond glinted in each ear and a delicate gold chain rested at the base of her neck. Her artist's hands were ringless, graceful and strong. Cam cleared her throat, realizing it had suddenly gotten dry.
"Good evening, Ms. Powell."
Blair smiled, aware that they were truly alone for the first time in four days. "Commander."
"The car's just outside."
"Are you to be my escort this evening?" Blair walked slowly toward her, her blue eyes dancing as they searched Cam's face.
The corner of Cam's mouth lifted in a grin. "Unless you have someone else than mind...in which case there could be a problem."
"No, no problem at all." Blair ran a single figure down the pearl studs on the pleated shirt that Cam wore beneath a fitted black tuxedo jacket. "How did you manage to get this into your emergency travel bag?"
"I didn't. I'm afraid my planning was really poor this week--I had to have an emergency fitting this afternoon." Cam shrugged. "Off the rack, but the best I could do."
"Believe me," Blair's murmured as her fingers found Cam's hand and she ran her thumb in small circles over the back of it. "Armani in any condition suits you."
Cam's tone was low and intimate. "You look beautiful."
"So do you."
"And you have an engagement." Cam straightened her shoulders and gestured to the door. "Shall we go?"
"Yes, of course." Blair's features transformed into the composed coolly, elegant lines that the world was accustomed to associating with the image of the President's daughter. As they stepped outside, she asked, "Are you coming inside the gallery with me?"
"Good. I don't want you to waste that suit waiting in the car."
"Is that the only reason?"
Cam laughed as she led the way down the sidewalk to the waiting vehicle and the two of them settled into the back where the seats had been rearranged to face one another. As Fielding pulled away, the First Daughter and her security chief held each other's eyes, bridging the distance between them with the intensity of a caress.
They were two blocks from the corner of Sutter and Mason when Cam's cell phone rang. She shifted on the seat and pulled it from her belt.
"Roberts." A crease developed between her brows as she frowned out the window, eyes scanning the street ahead. "How many? All right. Fine. Have Stark meet us curbside."
She terminated the call and gave Blair an apologetic smile. "That was Mac. There are reporters and photographers in front of the gallery. More than we anticipated. I don't know if it has anything to do with what happened in New York or not, but it's the only reasonable way into the gallery. I'm sorry...it's going to be hectic."
"That's all right." Blair's voice was remote and her expression unreadable. Usually, her public comings and goings were documented as a matter of course by the local news media, and often reporters then put out a story on the wire to be carried in the public interest section of the national newspapers. She was used to it.
As the Suburban slowed to a stop, Cam opened the door and, one leg extended on the sidewalk, partially blocked the interior of the vehicle as she rapidly scanned the dozen or so people gathered on the sidewalk in front of the gallery. Stark appeared out of the crowd and stepped up opposite her so that they flanked the open door as Blair emerged. In another second, Felicia Davis came around the front of the vehicle and moved behind the three of them as they started up the sidewalk.
A wiry, shaggy-haired man in rumpled slacks and an open collared shirt stepped in front of them and said, "Ms. Powell, do you know the identity of the man who tried to kill you in New York?"
He had a laminated card hanging around his neck on a lanyard, but the image and identifying logo was turned toward his chest. He could have been a reporter; he could have been a fan; he could have been an assassin.
"Step back, please," Cam said firmly, her left arm out palm first at chest level. She eased her right hand under her jacket to the gun she now carried in a shoulder holster snugged to her left side.
"Keep moving," she said quietly to Blair and Stark.
They were two feet away from him and she edged slightly to her left until she was in front of Blair, obscuring her from the man's view. "Please step back."
He began walking backwards up the walk toward the gallery, maintaining the distance between them as he asked again, "Is it true that you once had a sexual relationship with him?"
Cameras clicked, other people shouted questions as the crowd followed them, but Blair looked neither right nor left. The door to the gallery was ten feet away.
Cam raised her left wrist with the radio band attached, her right now closed on the grip of her automatic. "Mac...Hernandez, if he moves toward her, take him down. Prepare to extricate."
Stark now took two steps forward, getting slightly ahead of Blair and Cam while Davis remained in the rear, and reached for the door. "Step away," she said.
The stranger had no choice but to move aside as Stark gripped the doorknob and pulled. Still, he was half in front of the entrance and easily within touching distance of Blair.
"Ms. Powell--" he said one last time.
Cam shouldered his chest hard with her right elbow and side, pushing him off balance and out of the way as Blair walked between her and Stark into the gallery.
Once inside, they stopped to survey the room and get their bearings. Cam spoke once again into her radio.
"I want him ID'd--complete background check. Do not let him inside."
"I wish you wouldn't do that," Blair said in a low voice that only Cam could hear.
"What?" Cam asked absently as she nodded to Stark, who moved a few feet away to a spot where she had a better view of anyone approaching Blair through the crowd.
"Stand in front of me."
"It was nothing," Cam said dismissively, her attention fixed on the layout of the space and its inhabitants.
Frustrated, Blair shook her head slightly but before she could protest further, she recognized San Francisco's Mayor approaching with a welcoming smile. She held out her hand and murmured a few polite words as they greeted one another. For the next few minutes, she was occupied fulfilling the social obligations that accompanied her position. It was a function she had performed numerous times, and she did it without conscious thought. As she moved around the room, Cam and Davis moved with her, one on either side, keeping a distance of five feet between themselves and her. Not close enough to appear intrusive but near enough to physically shield her if need be. Stark had disappeared into the crowd to institute roving surveillance, observing the attendees to ensure that no one suspicious approached the President's daughter.
Eventually, Blair had attended to all of her political obligations and made her way through the people gathered in pairs and small groups to where Marcea stood, wine glass in hand, talking to Giancarlo and several well-wishers.
"Blair," Marcea said, leaning to kiss her cheek. "Thank you so much for coming."
Her eyes moved to her daughter's face but she did not greet her other than with a smile.
"It's my pleasure." Blair returned the kiss with a brush of her lips against Marcea's skin. "It's wonderful. Very impressive--congratulations."
"Believe me, I am anything but impressed." Marcea laughed and took Blair's hand. "Probably the reason I don't have very many shows is that I can't tolerate all the pomp. I'm glad you've come, though."
"So am I. I hope that I'll actually be able to look at your work now without needing to talk to yet another art critic."
"Please, escape while you can." Marcea squeezed her hand and turned with a smile to yet another patron, and Blair slipped away.
For the next few moments she moved slowly around the large room. The space was subdivided by white, half walls upon which Marcea's paintings had been hung and lit with overhead track lights. She was familiar with Marcea Cassells' work of course, as any serious artist was, but she had never had the opportunity to see so many in one place. She was aware of Cam just outside her field of vision, keeping pace with her as she walked from one canvas to the next. Eventually she lost herself in the color and form and captivating fluidity of Marcea's work and forgot everything except the beauty.
She jumped, startled, when a voice close by murmured, "There's a particularly interesting work just ahead."
Turning her head, she met Cam's eyes. "Oh?"
"Yes. It doesn't appear to be my mother's, though."
Blair followed the direction of Cam's gaze and saw her own charcoal sketch of the day before mounted on the wall. The simple card beside it read, Untitled, by Anonymous.
"Interesting," she remarked noncommittally.
"It's more than that. It's beautiful," Cam declared, her voice husky with emotion. "When did you do it?"
"How did you know?"
"Several reasons," Cam said quietly. "First, I recognized your style."
Blair waited, watching Cam's eyes darken, feeling their heat on her skin. Finally, she asked, "And?"
Cam shrugged, at an unusual loss for words. "No one else could do that--no one knows me well enough."
"Sometimes," Blair replied quietly, "I'm not sure how well I really know you."
"What do you mean?"
"Like outside tonight...I thought we'd agreed you wouldn't be doing that again."
Cam looked genuinely confused. "I'm sorry?"
"Putting yourself between me and danger."
"He wasn't a threat...just a nuisance."
"And if he had been dangerous?"
Cam was silent a beat, because they both knew the answer. "I guess I don't always make it easy for you, do I?"
"No, you don't." Blair reached for her hand, then suddenly stopped, remembering where they were. "I suppose on occasion I'm guilty of that as well."
"Sometimes." A grin flickered across Cam's features and then quickly disappeared. "But I'm not complaining."
"Do you suppose there's any chance at all that we could disappear for a while?"
"Considering that we're surrounded by over a hundred people, including four of my agents? Not right at this moment," Cam replied with a regretful smile.
Blair sighed. "I was afraid you'd say that."
"I should let you go back to enjoying the paintings. I just wanted to...thank you." She gesture to the charcoal drawing. "I asked my mother about it, but she said it wasn't for sale."
"I know the artist. I'll see if there might be another in the series."
"I'd like that."
"You might have to sit for it."
"I could do that," Cam murmured as she stepped away. "Anytime you want."
When they eventually said goodnight to Marcea, she informed them that she planned to attend a late-night gathering at the Regency and would most likely not see them until the next day. Then she kissed Blair once again and thanked her for coming.
Blair and Cam, alone together in the rear of the Suburban, were silent on the short ride back to Russian Hill. As soon as Blair was safely inside, Cam posted Fielding to the Suburban for perimeter watch, relieved Davis for the night, and gave Stark the inside duty. The three agents offered polite goodnights to Blair and dispersed in various directions to carry out their assignments.
Cam and Blair were left facing one another in the living room.
"Fancy that. Except for the agent out front and the agent in the house, we're...alone at last." Blair's eyes were hot on Cam's as she spoke.
Cam nodded. "What are your plans?"
"You mean for the rest of this evening or for the next couple of days?"
"I'm afraid tonight is pretty well taken care of," Cam said with a regretful smile. "I'd like to bring the team up to speed on your itinerary now that we're all back in one place again."
"If I could, I'd stay here indefinitely." Blair settled on the arm of a chair, her bare arm draped along its back. "I really enjoy Marcea's company, and San Francisco agrees with me." She shrugged. "But I need to get back to New York. My work is there and we're leaving for Paris soon. There are things I need to take care of before we go."
"Is it all right with you if I book flights to New York tomorrow evening?"
"Fine. Just make sure you get a seat next to me."
"Understood," Cam said with a grin.
"How's your headache?"
"And the rest of it? The dizziness, the vision thing?"
Driven by the concern in Blair's eyes, Cam stepped up to her, placing her fingertips lightly on Blair's waist. "I'm fine. Really."
Blair tilted her head so she could study Cam's eyes, the one place where she could always see the truth. Right now, those dark eyes were slightly wild, ebony shadows swirling through their depths. She knew what those shadows meant. "Cam," she breathed as Cam's lips drew closer to her own.
At that moment, the sliding door to the kitchen opened with a thud, an unusually noisy entrance for the ordinarily stealthy Stark.
Cam sighed, her mouth a fraction from Blair's. "I believe that was an announcement."
"Yes," Blair said regretfully as Cam backed away. "I think I'll turn in, since it appears that sex on the sofa is out."
"Goodnight, Ms. Powell."
As Blair disappeared up the stairs to the second floor, Stark entered from the rear of the house.
"All clear, ma'am," she informed Cam as she walked directly to the television in an alcove on the opposite side of the living room and turned it on.
"Thank you," Cam said. "I'll be upstairs if there's a problem."
"Yes, ma'am. I don't expect to need to disturb you."
Cam paused halfway up the stairs and looked down at the back of the young agent's head. "I appreciate that."
When Cam reached the hallway on the second floor, she noticed a faint light filtering from beneath Blair's bedroom door. Silently, she stood before it, debating whether to enter. She knew it unlikely that anyone would notice, or if they did, would care. Regardless, it was not something that would ever be mentioned. Nevertheless, she turned away, more out of long habit rather than anything else. She wanted to be inside with Blair; she wanted to lie down beside her--she was weary from the past weeks of tension and struggle, and she was tired in body and spirit. She missed the comfort of Blair's arms.
Sighing deeply, she told herself that a few more days wouldn't matter. Once they were back in New York City, they could relax their vigilance somewhat. On home ground, Blair had a greater degree of freedom and would often spend hours or even days at a friend's apartment where she and Cam might be able to steal a few hours of privacy. It was far from ideal, but for a public figure such as Blair, it was the norm to have to manufacture privacy.
Resolutely, Cam opened the door to her own bedroom and slid her right hand along the wall toward the light switch.
"You might want to leave that off."
Cam dropped her hand and quietly pushed the door closed behind her, allowing her eyes to adjust to the dim light offered by the street lights and night sky outside the windows. "Do you trust me to do this by feel?"
"Well," Blair said musingly, stepping from the shadows into the slash of moonlight cutting across the center of the room, "it has been a while, but I imagine that given a little time, you could manage."
As Blair spoke, Cam quickly shed her jacket and shrugged out of her shoulder holster, placing each on the chair just inside the door. She walked the ten feet to Blair and stopped with a sliver of the night still between them.
"Not tired?" Cam asked, her deep voice a register lower than normal.
"I was afraid I wouldn't be able to get to sleep--and I only know one sure remedy for that." She hesitated, then added quietly, "I could go it alone--"
"Trying to make me jealous?" Cam interrupted softly.
"Me?" Blair laughed. "Hardly...and with you across the hall, there really is no other choice. At least...none that compares."
It was Cam's turn to laugh. Then carefully, she placed her fingertips on Blair's bare shoulders and turned the other woman so that she faced the window and night. Moving up close behind her so that her trousered pelvis just brushed Blair's rear, Cam loosed the clasp that held Blair's hair confined at the base of her neck. She ran her fingers through the thick curls, fanning the strands over Blair's shoulders, then caressed her palms over the slope of her shoulders and down her arms. "You look very beautiful tonight."
With a sigh, Blair leaned back into Cam's body, resting the back of her head against Cam's chest. Her voice throaty and just a bit ragged, she asked, "Have I ever mentioned how much I love it when you undress me?"
Cam placed her lips on the firm curve of muscle where Blair's neck met her shoulder, exploring for an inch or so with her mouth before pressing her teeth to the tight flesh. Then she bit slowly until she heard Blair's breath catch and a small moan escape her. Finally, she lifted her mouth away and answered. "I seem to remember something about that."
Cam drew her fingers back up the outside of Blair's bare arms and insinuated her palms under the thin spaghetti straps, lowering them smoothly halfway down Blair's arms. She stopped then, causing the fabric of the dress to draw tightly across Blair's breasts just above her nipples. With one hand, Cam reached around Blair's body from behind, spreading her fingers over Blair's chest, dipping into the cleft between her breasts. With the other, she slowly pulled the studs from her own shirt, letting the silver-encased pearls drop one by one to the hardwood floor.
Blair's body tightened each time the small clink broke the silence.
They leaned into one another, Blair's back pressed against the front of Cam's body, subtle curves fusing to long lean angles. Cam's white shirt was open, her chest naked against the flesh exposed by the nearly backless black dress.
"Four days is a long time," Cam murmured, her mouth brushing the curve of Blair's ear, her breath quickening as she felt her own nipples harden against Blair's soft skin. "It made it hard to work tonight...trying to ignore how much I wanted to touch you."
"Why, Commander," Blair whispered huskily. "I didn't think anything could distract you from your work."
"You do." Cam tore her shirt from her trousers and threw it behind her on the floor, then slid the zipper down the back of Blair's dress. With both hands, she lowered the sheer fabric over Blair's body, exposing her breasts to the moonlight, marveling at the way they glowed with the rush of blood and something altogether more elemental to the surface of the pale skin. In the next instant, she closed her fingers around one taut nipple, splaying her hand under the full curve of hot yielding flesh. "You always do."
As much as she had wanted to go slowly, Cam found it harder with each passing second. Blair's flesh was soft and smooth but the muscles beneath were tight, her body humming with tension. The quick rise and fall of her lover's breasts under her palms signaled her desire and Cam's body soared in response, her thighs trembling as she rocked against Blair's buttocks. When Blair returned the pressure with a thrust of her hips, Cam groaned.
"You know I like it fast the first time," Blair gasped, finally relinquishing her passivity and insinuating one hand into the nearly nonexistent space between them, then drawing it rapidly up the inside of Cam's leg to grasp her firmly through her trousers. "And I've had just about as much slow as I can stand. I haven't stopped wanting you since the bar last night...and if I get any more swollen there's going to be permanent damage."
Urgently, Cam grasped Blair's shoulders and pulled her around so they were face to face, forcing their naked chests to cleave as she kissed her. The kiss spoke of need and longing and raw hunger. As the seconds passed, the first rush of desperation smoothed into welcome and recognition, and when they finally parted, each of them breathing heavily, they were both smiling.
"Let's try something new. Let's see how we do with slow this time," Cam whispered.
"You're asking a lot," Blair said with a small shake of her head, her hands trailing over Cam's abdomen to the top of her trousers. Deftly, she unbuttoned the silk tuxedo pants and slid down the zipper. "But I'll try if you do."
And then she slipped her hand inside.
Cam flushed hot and her head reeled with sudden dizziness at the unexpected force of Blair's fingers gliding over her exposed and ready nerve endings. Her hands trembled on Blair's skin. "I can't if you do that."
Blair laughed and took her hand away, then laughed again at Cam's unintentional whimper. "Let's at least do this on the bed then. I don't have the strength to stand."
They drew apart only enough to strip free the rest of their clothing and then, as if fearful of being separated, hurriedly embraced, their limbs entwining as they rolled together on top of the sheets. Twisting her torso, Cam drew Blair beneath her, one leg between Blair's thighs as she claimed her mouth. When the heat of Blair's breath in her throat wasn't enough to assuage her need, Cam reared up on both arms and pushed downward on the bed, settling her chest between Blair's spread thighs. Instantly, her mouth closed over a nipple and she bit lightly, feeling Blair's fingers come into her hair. She found the other breast and cradled it in her hand, working the nipple between her fingers. She didn't stop until Blair was arched bow-tight beneath her, her breath coming in short gasps.
"Please," Blair whispered, framing Cam's face with trembling hands. Her eyes were cloudy as she tried to focus on her lover. "I need you so much."
Only then did Cam ease her way lower still, kissing her way down the center of Blair's abdomen, moving both palms to the inside of Blair's thighs. Blair was wet against her skin. Head pounding, so heady with lust she could barely hear, Cam rested her cheek against the soft down at the base of Blair's abdomen and gasped, "Slow enough?"
"Any slower... and I'll... go off without you."
Cam laughed shakily. "Oh, I don't think so."
Slowly, Cam drew her fingers through the thick heat between Blair's thighs, thumbing firmly against her clitoris as she passed, then dipped inside her for a fleeting moment. Withdrawing despite Blair's cry of protest, she grew still with her fingers spread over the hot, swollen flesh, feeling the blood pound wildly against her palm. "Don't. I want you to come in my mouth."
"Then kiss me," Blair begged, "and I will."
Very slowly, Cam lowered her head and drew her in, caressing her slowly and carefully with her lips. When Blair's thighs tensed suddenly, signaling she was close, Cam took her more deeply into her mouth, matching the rhythmic movements of her lips to the tempo of her fingers stroking within. The thrust of her tongue and fingers danced counterpoint to the blood pulsing and muscles spasming around her hand.
Blair's hand was fisted in Cam's hair, clenching spasmodically as small cries ripped from her throat. When she climaxed, Blair choked out Cam's name in surrender and benediction.
Eyes closed, not breathing, Cam fought back tears at the soaring wonder of being united with the only woman in her life that mattered. She had no idea how long she lay without moving before Blair finally spoke, breaking the silence.
"Are you asleep?"
Cam shook her head slightly, her lips moving faintly on Blair's still pulsing flesh. "No. I don't think so. Maybe...or I could just be dead and this is heaven."
"Feels...like heaven." Blair laughed unsteadily, flexing her cramped fingers and easing her stiff legs back and forth on the sheets. The titanic contractions at the peak of her orgasm had been nearly painful, and probably would have been if the pleasure hadn't been so acute. "Come up here...if you can. I want to touch you."
"I'm fine," Cam mumbled, her eyes still closed and her heart beating erratically in her chest.
"Come up here anyway."
Eventually, Cam managed to move the three feet before collapsing on the pillows next to Blair.
"Slow is okay, I guess," Blair observed drowsily as she shifted languorously into Cam's arms, resting her head on her lover's shoulder and a hand on her abdomen.
"Mmm. Not bad for starters."
Blair pressed her lips to Cam's neck and licked the salty sweat that filmed her skin. A pulse beat hard beneath her lips, and she inched her fingers lower, finding her way between Cam's thighs. Cam groaned as Blair fingered the hard prominence of her clitoris.
"Fine are you?" Blair chuckled faintly. "You are so out of touch sometimes, Commander."
"Well...there's fine--" Cam's pelvis arched as the pressure abruptly escalated beneath Blair's knowing touch. "And...then there's...fine."
"I don't think slow is a possibility here," Blair observed as Cam's stomach muscles contracted hard and her whole body shuddered. "Is it?"
"I'm losing it," Cam confessed desperately, already jerking with the first wave of spasms. "Oh god..."
"It's all right," Blair murmured, her lips pressed to the curve of her lover's ear. "I have you."
Quietly, Blair opened the door to the elevated rear deck and stepped out into the night. She had pulled on a loose pair of workout shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt and carried a can of soda in her hand. She stopped just outside the door when she realized that she was not alone.
Paula Stark spoke quickly into her cell phone. "Listen--you take it easy, understand? I'll call you soon. Yeah...all right. I remember. 'Night."
"Sorry," Blair said, crossing the fifteen foot deck to join the agent at the railing.
"No problem. I'm in between checkpoints and I was just--"
"Paula, for God's sake. Do you think I care if you make a telephone call?"
"Well, strictly speaking I'm--"
Blair snorted. "Strictly speaking, you should stand in the dark and do nothing for twelve hours?"
"Well," Stark rejoined seriously, "strictly speaking, it wouldn't be for twelve hours. I'm working the swing shift, so actually I've only been on duty for--"
"I get the picture, Secret Service Agent Stark."
Stark shut her mouth and peered at the President's daughter in the moonlight. She was smiling, and as it never failed to do, Stark's heart gave a slight stutter. This time, however, she recognized it for what it was. She liked the President's daughter. More than liked her.
She respected Blair Powell's official position, and she valued the work that Blair did in that capacity, representing the nation well whenever she stood in for her deceased mother as the President's closest female envoy in situations where that kind of position mattered. She appreciated her, too, as an individual who was talented in her own right and passionate about important causes, particularly the fight against the cancer that had claimed her mother's life.
And more than all of that, Stark admitted, Blair Powell was a beautiful, sexually compelling woman and she had a history with her. A very brief history, to be sure, but it was a part of her past that, on balance, she was not sorry to have experienced. So when she looked at the woman next to her all of those things affected her, even if they weren't supposed to.
Even if as a Secret Service agent she wasn't supposed to feel anything at all for the person she guarded, other than responsibility. Maybe she wasn't the best Secret Service Agent because of that, but she knew she probably wasn't going to be able to change. Maybe no one would really notice her failings. At least the Commander trusted her as Egret's primary protector, and that was really all that mattered.
Blair watched the moonlight flutter across Stark's features and watched, too, the kaleidoscope of emotions--not all of which she understood but some which she clearly recognized. Fondly, she smiled again. "So, checking in with Mac, were you?"
"Never mind, Stark," Blair said, taking pity on her. "I know it wasn't Mac, because I know your tone of voice when you talk to him. How is Renee anyhow?"
"She's good, I guess," Starks said glumly.
"You guess? What's wrong?"
"They're letting her out of the hospital in a day or so."
"That's wonderful," Blair exclaimed, leaning both elbows on the railing so that she and Stark both faced the bay far below. "That's a lot sooner than expected, isn't it?"
"Yeah, and that's the problem. She's already talking about when she'll be going back to work."
"Why am I my not surprised?"
"Never mind," Blair said with a sigh. "I can't imagine that she'll be able to go back to work right away, even if she wants to. Don't worry too much--she's going to need physical therapy, right?"
"Yeah, she is. Still, I'm sure she'll figure out a way to get a desk job even if she can't get back to field duty right away."
"You know, Stark," Blair said pointedly, "most of you on my team probably shouldn't even be working right now, so you might try to put yourself in Savard's position."
Genuinely perplexed, Stark turned her head to meet Blair's eyes. "What are you talking about? None of us were hurt."
"Jesus. Is it a requirement that all Secret Service agents be blockheads?"
Stark stiffened at Blair's criticism, ready to defend her colleagues, but before she could get a word out, Blair continued.
"We're not just talking about physical injury, although god knows, Cam should probably still be on sick leave."
"Is the Commander ill?" Stark asked with sudden, genuine concern.
"Nothing she would admit to, but the point is, she was hurt. And all of you lost a colleague and had two others injured. It could have been any one of you. That kind of thing hurts, too."
"It comes with the job, Ms. Powell," Stark said, suddenly somber and suddenly sounding years older.
"Yes," Blair replied, likewise subdued, with noticeable sympathy in her voice this time. "I guess it does."
Very briefly, in an unusual movement for her, Blair squeezed Stark's forearm, then brought her hand back to the railing in front of her. "At any rate, I don't imagine that Savard is going to be any different than the rest of you, but hopefully she'll be sensible enough not to push for anything too physical until she's ready."
"The one good thing is that she's going to be staying with her sister in New York City while she recovers," Stark explained, the enthusiasm back in her voice. "So if she does get an assignment, it will most likely be in the local field office, at least temporarily."
"Ah--so she'll be nearby then."
"Yeah. She will."
Blair couldn't miss the note of excitement in the young agent's voice, and she couldn't help feeling just a twinge of jealousy. Because Renee Savard and Paula Stark were free to explore whatever was happening between them and to do it with all the joy and anticipation of any two people who might be falling in love. It was something she had never had the opportunity to do.
Now she was in love--hopelessly, achingly, desperately in love--and she still found the joy tinged with sadness, and sometimes anger. It was 3:00 in the morning and she had just left her lover's arms because she could not awaken with her, even in one of the safest places in the world.
At 7:30 the next morning, Cam walked into the kitchen and headed directly for the coffeepot. She helped herself and carried the mug out onto the rear deck, taking advantage of the rare morning sunshine and unusually clear sky. Even in summer, fog was the norm on a San Francisco morning.
At the sound of the door sliding open, the woman standing at the rail turned in her direction.
"Good morning," Cam said. She leaned a shoulder against the open door frame and sipped her coffee, taking a moment to appreciate the sunlight on her lover's face.
"Good morning," Blair said quietly, leaning back with an arm outstretched on either side of her body, her hands curled over the top rail.
"Not yours," Blair rejoined with a smile.
Cam crossed the deck to join her, quickly surveying the densely shrubbed rear property down to the street, which was barely visible as it fell steeply away below them.
"Felicia is down there somewhere," Blair noted as she watched Cam do a perimeter scan. "It's her shift."
Cam merely nodded, watching until she saw the faint shadow of her agent move across her view. Satisfied, she turned to the woman beside her. "How are you?"
"Better than I was yesterday morning at this time," Blair answered, a husky tone in her voice. "I'm content...for the moment."
"And I'm sorry," Cam replied with a laugh. "I fell asleep--"
"Don't apologize. First of all you needed it," Blair admonished. "Second of all, it makes me feel like a stud."
"Huh...I'm wondering just how to take that. Does that mean that I'm not?"
Blair met her eyes, noting with relief that the shadows beneath them were rapidly fading and that the pain which Cam thought she couldn't see was gone as well. "Oh no, Commander. Your stud credentials are well intact."
"That's good to know," Cam said, grinning. She leaned on the rail and worked on her coffee, allowing her mind to drift in the postcard-perfect view. Eventually she asked, "Have you seen my wayward mother this morning?"
"I certainly wouldn't expect to--not this early. Not if I read the situation with Giancarlo correctly."
"I believe you did," Cam agreed with a fond smile. "If she's not back by this afternoon, I'll call her before we depart for the airport."
"I'll be sorry to leave here," Blair said quietly.
Cam moved her left hand along the rail until it covered Blair's right. Their shoulders were nearly touching, but only someone on the deck with them could have seen the movement. Automatically, their fingers entwined, thumbs brushing over the tops of each other's hand.
"Yes, so will I. I've been here before, but it takes being here with you to realize how beautiful it is. Being with you makes the entire world look different."
For a moment, Blair was speechless. It was one of those times when Cam took her completely by surprise, and it was just the way she had always imagined that being in love would feel. She had just never imagined she would feel it herself. "We don't have to leave that feeling here, do we?"
Cam met her gaze again, marveling at the myriad shades of blue that moved in the depths of her lover's eyes. "No. We don't. Let's make sure we don't."
At that moment, the cell on Cam's belt vibrated. Grimacing, she said, "Sorry," as she pulled it off and flipped it open. Turning slightly away, she answered, "Roberts."
Something about the way Cam's shoulders stiffened nearly imperceptibly caught Blair's attention. Ordinarily she barely noticed these frequent calls from an agent checking-in or an intelligence update being relayed to Cam, they were so much a part of her life. Now she found herself listening without really intending to.
"Where are you calling from?...You're sure?...When?...Are you allrig...No. Not for a day or so...Yes...Yes...I'll find you...Okay...Yes. Good."
"Problem?" Blair asked as Cam terminated the call. She was certain that Cam had been timing the conversation.
"No," Cam said automatically, her eyes cloudy, her voice distant as she moved back to the rail. She met Blair's eyes and saw the disbelief in them. She let out a long sigh as she raked a hand through her hair. "I'm not sure. Maybe."
"Is it something to do with the action in New York?"
"No. It's personal."
Blair tried to keep her face expressionless as the words registered. Personal. Personal as in personal call...as in something that is none of your business. As in...what...a lover? Why not--we never talked about being exclusive.
"Oh," Blair finally replied. "Sorry."
She started to turn away, gathering her coffee mug and the book she'd carried out onto the deck earlier, when Cam's hand on her arm stopped her.
"Blair...it's not what you're thinking."
"You have no idea what I'm thinking," Blair answered, her voice low-pitched and controlled. Too controlled. She kept her gaze averted because she didn't want Cam to see the hurt in them. Stupid. Jesus, Blair. Grow up!
"All right then," Cam allowed softly, her fingers still curled around Blair's forearm, "in case you might have gotten the idea that it was a ...romantic issue...it wasn't."
Blair's head came up and she was about to make a vehement denial when she saw Cam's face, and the angry retort died on her tongue. Secret Service Agent Cameron Roberts, twice commended for bravery by the President of the United States, stood looking at her with worry and uncertainty in her eyes. She looked vulnerable and defenseless and Blair wanted to hold her and never let go.
"You don't have to explain. It's none of my busi..."
"Yes. It is." Cam stepped closer, forgetting where they were or who might come out through the kitchen behind them. Urgently, she added, "There's no one else. No one..."
Blair placed her fingers lightly on Cam's lips. "Stop. It's okay."
Then she kissed her security chief, swiftly but with intent, and pulled away. "I'm going for a run. Come with me."
"All right," Cam said, following her into the house, hoping that Blair really did believe her, because the wounded look in Blair's blue eyes had made her own heart bleed.
After the run, Blair showered, dressed and spent a few hours shopping on Ghirardelli Square. Davis and Foster accompanied her while Cam met with Mac to review the flight arrangements and pilot dossiers for the evening's departure. She and Cam hadn't mentioned the morning's phone call again, and Blair didn't plan to. Cam had said it wasn't a lover, and even if it had been, the two of them certainly weren't at a point in their relationship where she could object--as much as she wanted to.
Later in the afternoon, she read a book out on the deck, napping on and off in a lounge chair. Marcea returned in time for a late lunch, for which, to Blair's delight, Cam unexpectedly joined them. The three of them talked of art, and of old friends of Marcea's whom Cam knew from childhood, and of Blair's plans for a new project. It was the kind of easy, casual conversation that friends and lovers might have and not something she was used to sharing. It was exhilarating and by the time they were ready to leave for the airport, Blair finally was able to put the disquieting effects of Cam's mysterious call out of her mind.
The chartered Gulfstream II turbojet seated sixteen when fully occupied and was large enough to allow the team to spread out slightly for the cross-continental flight. As was customary, the Secret Service agents boarded last and took the seats forward in the cabin, allowing Blair, already seated in a small separate area at the rear, some privacy.
Blair looked up from her book as the last passenger boarded and moved slowly down the aisle, stopping occasionally to murmur something to one of the agents along the way. She enjoyed watching the dark-haired, handsome woman approach...enjoyed the way her suit fit her so well it looked ordinary, when Blair knew it was custom cut and tailored, and she enjoyed the intense focus on her face as her grey eyes scanned every inch of the interior, and she especially enjoyed the flicker of a smile that softened the concentration on Cam's face when their eyes met.
The security chief settled beside her just as the aircraft began to taxi down the runway of the small airport just outside San Francisco. The seats were roomy in the luxury craft, but the length of their thighs touched and their shoulders pressed lightly together nevertheless.
"Good book?" Cam asked as she buckled in.
"Mmm," Blair nodded, closing it on one finger to mark her place. "Funny, sexy, and well put together."
"Sounds like a winning combination."
Blair brushed her fingers lightly over the top of the agent's hand where it rested on her trousered thigh. "I think so."
"Be good," Cam whispered, suppressing a grin. "I'm working."
"Oh, really?" Blair raised an eyebrow, then laughed. "All right...I'll give you a reprieve. But only for the rest of the flight. Then I intend to tease you as much as I like."
"I'll look forward to it."
Blair eased the seat back and rested her hand on Cam's forearm, below the sightline of the agents in the front of the plane if they happened to turn around.
"Any pressing plans for the rest of the week?" Cam inquired. "We haven't had an itinerary review since we've been here, and I want to get everyone back to routine. It's better after what happened."
"Nothing special," Blair replied. "Since were going to be traveling again soon, I want to work. I'm hoping to have a full show this fall, and as of right now, I don't have enough canvases completed to do that." She sighed. "There's always the chance that something will come through from the West Wing that I need to do...I haven't heard anything for a few days and that's never a good sign."
"I get a full briefing in the morning," Cam reminded her. "We can go over the week's itinerary after that."
"I'll be out of town for a day or so," Cam said quietly.
Blair stiffened, automatically withdrawing her hand from Cam's arm. "Oh?"
"If everything is quiet, I'll leave tomorrow night. Mac will have the detail."
Blair opened her book again. "I'm sure he can handle it."
Cam didn't reply, because she didn't have any explanation that she could share, and half-truths would only make things worse. They were both quiet on the rest of the flight...Blair reading and Cam sleeping on and off. Despite the silence, however, they leaned close together, their bodies still touching...their connection not completely broken.
The jet taxied to a stop on the runway at Teterboro airport in New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, and the team prepared to disembark. Cam walked to the front of the plane and stood at the top of the stairway that had been rolled across the tarmac to the open door. She pressed a finger to the receiver in her ear and listened to the report of a local agent in the first of two black Suburbans that approached along an access road toward the terminal. Satisfied, she turned to the agent behind her.
"Two minutes. Let's proceed inside."
Stark passed her and then Blair was beside her.
"Ready?" Cam asked her.
As soon as Blair stepped onto the tarmac with Cam and Stark flanking her, a horde of reporters, apparently having hidden around the corner of the building, appeared out of the darkness with video cameras and microphones at the ready. Harsh halogen lights flashed on, striking her in the face and blinding her. For a moment Blair was disoriented--and afraid.
"Ms. Powell, can you comment on the photograph in the New York Post?"
"Who was the person with you?"
"Where was it taken?"
"Can you confirm that you were with a lover?"
"Ms. Powell... Ms. Powell... Ms. Powell..."
Voices accosted her from every direction.
As soon as the barrage began, Cam and Stark quickly began shepherding her toward the small single story terminal while the other agents clambered down the stairs and converged on her as well. Mac double-timed to get in front of the group while Hernandez, along with Felicia Davis, closed in behind. The entire team formed a human wedge with Blair in the center, and the reporters scurried to get out of the way of the fast moving wall of bodies.
Nevertheless, their shouted questions followed them through the door and into the private VIP portion of the terminal.
"What are they talking about?" Blair whispered harshly to Cam as soon as the double doors closed behind them. She hated to be manhandled, even when it was for her own good, and in that moment, Cam was the nearest target for her anger. "Why didn't you know about them?"
"Whatever it is, it must have hit the wires after we were in the air," Cam muttered, lifting her wrist and barking questions into her microphone. After a moment of issuing instructions, she added, "Whoever is monitoring the news services in DC either didn't pick it up, or didn't think we needed to know about it."
Can was aggravated, because intelligence was critical for her to be able to anticipate and ward off problems. Had she known that a bevy of reporters would be waiting at the gate, she would have arranged for the transport to drive out onto the runway so that Blair would not have to walk to the terminal. "I'm sorry about this. I didn't have an advance team on the ground...I should have."
"No," Blair shook her head, already calmer now that the unexpected assault had stopped. "It's not your fault. Let's just collect our luggage and get out of here before they find their way in."
"Don't worry," Cam said forbiddingly, her temper close to boiling. It was not only her responsibility to project Blair physically, but also to see that she was not ambushed by intrusive media hounds. She would have been angry if any of her protectees had been left open to such an affront, but the fact that it was her lover who had been subjected to the intrusive onslaught made it even worse. "They won't bother you again."
At that moment, Mac approached, a folded newspaper under his arm and a grim look on his face.
"What have you got?" Cam asked sharply. To her surprise, Mac blushed.
"Uh..." He lifted the folded newspaper in his hand and glanced from Cam to Blair and then quickly away. "You might want to look at this in car."
"Let me see it," Blair said, extending her hand. "It's not going to get any better if I wait."
Wordlessly, he handed it to her. The Secret Service agents standing around averted their eyes but did not move from the protective circle they had formed, shielding her from the rest of the terminal.
Cam watched Blair's face as she opened the newspaper and quickly scanned the front page. She couldn't detect the slightest change in Blair's expression. When Blair silently folded the newspaper again and put it and the book she had been carrying under her arm, Cam said abruptly, "Okay, then. Let's get out of here."
Two of the men walked to be incoming baggage belt and collected everyone's bags, loading them quickly and efficiently onto a wheeled handcart. Within minutes, the team was once again ensconced in yet another pair of Suburbans and heading out of the airport toward the Lincoln Tunnel and Manhattan.
Stark and Davis were in the front while Blair and Cam occupied the rear. The agents who were off-duty had remained at the airport, making separate arrangements for cabs or family to pick them up there.
"Are you all right?" Cam asked. Blair had been silently staring out the window since they had gotten into the vehicle.
Turning to face her, Blair smiled, her face sad in the irregular illumination of passing headlights and flickering neon signs. "I've been waiting for this. I was just sitting here, trying to think how long I've been waiting."
Cam waited but when Blair said no more she simply took the newspaper that Blair passed to her across the space between their seats. She unfolded it and held it toward the window to catch enough light to read it. Prominently displayed below the fold were a picture and the caption, "President's Daughter and Secret Lover?"
In a hazy, night shot a woman who looked very much like Blair could be seen kissing someone, although the other individual's identity was difficult to determine because of the camera angle and the obvious distance from which it had been taken.
"Son of a bitch," Cam whispered. It was a photograph of the two of them on the beach in San Francisco, the first night that Cam had arrived from DC. She raised her eyes to Blair and said quietly, "I'm sorry."
"About what? The kiss or the photograph?"
"Definitely not the kiss."
Blair nodded once, sharply. "Good."
Cam struggled in the poor light to read the short paragraph underneath the picture. It didn't say much -- just the usual titillating inferences about Blair's alleged liaisons with movie stars, underworld kingpins or elected officials that were often linked to Blair in similar publications. Precisely because she was so private, and because the White House tried diligently to keep her out of the public eye unless it was a sanctioned official function, the press loved to conjecture about her love life. Except this time they were getting awfully close to the truth.
"I think it's interesting," Cam said after a minute, "that they don't name names and they don't specifically state that you are with a woman. Whoever took this photograph must know."
"I noticed that myself," Blair said darkly. "It's almost as if someone is teasing me--or taunting me. What do you make of it?"
"I don't have any idea." Cam shook her head, angry for Blair at the invasion of her privacy and furious at herself for being so careless that she let someone close enough to get the shot. "But what I want to know is where the hell he was and why my people didn't see him."
"Well, I have a feeling this is only the beginning." Blair laughed bitterly. "This is going to be embarrassing for my father, but the big question is, what is this going to do to you professionally if someone recognizes you?"
"I don't think that's the most important thing right now," Cam disagreed. "There's something off about this entire situation, because if this were just some reporter looking to make a story, my name would be in this article. The fact that you are kissing a woman would be the headline--above the fold."
"If it is, they've got more balls than brains. You don't blackmail the daughter of the President of the United States. Not like this--and, goddamn it--not on my watch."
"Well," Blair said resignedly, suddenly aware of a weariness that went deeper than flesh, "I'm sure we'll know soon enough."
Tiredly, she leaned her forehead against the glass, watching the night slide by. The stretch of highway outside the speeding vehicle was barren and seemed to echo the emptiness in her heart. Of course she had been foolish to think that she would be allowed to love anyone in peace, let alone someone like the woman seated across from her. She closed her eyes, knowing that she would sleep alone that night, and wanting more than anything else for that not to be true.
Cam watched Blair as wordless moments passed. It was the quiet that worried her. Anger she would have expected...even, considering the circumstances--embraced. Accusations of her own complicity in allowing the photo to be taken, however unfounded, would have been more welcome than the curtain of silence that fell heavily between them.
She tried to imagine how it must feel to have one's most personal experiences on display, not just once, but repeatedly. She couldn't, even though it was her picture in the newspaper as well. Even had her face been clear, and her name printed in bold letters beneath the image, it wouldn't have been the same thing for her as it was for Blair. She wasn't recognized the world over, nor was her family likely to be held up to scrutiny by self-appointed guardians of right and wrong whose true motivation was nothing loftier their own their political gain. She was guilty of nothing, but even if she were, her transgression would soon be forgotten.
That was not the case for Blair Powell or her father. The President was not immune to the effect of public opinion, just the opposite. Right or wrong had nothing to do with the fact that powerful groups jockeyed constantly for position and influence in the Washington political arena. Something as inflammatory as Andrew Powell's daughter's love affair--especially her lesbian love affair--would give his opponents one more piece of ammunition to threaten him with.
"Blair," Cam began gently, "is there anything I can do?"
Finally turning away from the window and the night and her own troubled thoughts, Blair straightened infinitesimally. When she spoke, her voice was stronger, carrying a hint of its old steel. "Yes. You can tell me right now if you're up for what's coming."
"What?" Cam exclaimed, too surprised by the question to even absorb it completely. When the reality of what Blair was asking finally hit her, she replied heatedly, "You can't really think that this would matter to me?"
"It's one thing to talk in the abstract about the possibility of exposure. It's quite another thing to be the center of a media circus. Believe me, I know."
Cam stared at her as she bit back another irate retort. Blair's voice had been calm, steady--her face expressionless. She looked the way she'd looked the first day Cam had met her--cool, controlled, untouchable. Cam remembered very well the angry, wounded woman Blair had been, and how in recent weeks that rage had burned less brightly and the wounds had seemed less raw. Until this.
Christ, she's scared.
That realization defused Cam's anger. Fear was not something she associated with the President's daughter, and perhaps for the first time, she understood the price of Blair's strength--the isolation and the impenetrable defenses and the expectation of loss.
Quickly, Cam shifted across the narrow space between them until she was sitting on the seat next to Blair. She found her hand in semi-darkness and whispered vehemently, "I intend to find out who is behind this. Once I do, I intend to kick their ass from one side of this continent to the other. I love you. Nothing and no one will ever change that."
Blair tightened her grip on Cam's hand and leaned into the reassuring solidity of her body. "You don't even know yet what kind of pressure there's going to be for us to stop seeing one another."
The words hit Cam in the center of her chest like a sledgehammer. Even being shot hadn't hurt as much. "No. Don't even think it, because it gives the possibility power. Please."
"When you were shot," Blair said as if reading her thoughts, "I felt parts of me dying with you." Her voice was hushed, as if she were speaking in a dream. "I had only just begun to let you in, and I was nearly lost already. Now, I don't think I could survi..."
"Blair. I love you. I am not going anywhere. I swear."
Blair searched her eyes and saw only truth. "It scares me how much I need you."
"Don't forget I need you, too." Cam lifted Blair's hand, brushed a kiss swiftly across the back of her knuckles. "More than you'll ever know."
"I'll try to remember that." Blair drew the first full breath she'd taken since the airport. "So--what do we do now, Commander?"
Cam laughed, but there was an edge to the laughter. "I'm a Secret Service agent. Do you think I can't track down the little bastard that gave that photo to the wire service?"
"Just be careful, Cam," Blair warned. "Someone doesn't need a gun to be dangerous. In the right hands, a camera can be lethal."
"Any coward who chooses this underhanded way of going after you is no threat to me. Don't worry."
"Why don't I feel reassured?"
"I'll be careful. But this is what I do."
"I suppose I have to accept the logic of that," Blair finally conceded. Again she sighed. "I'm surprised I haven't heard from the White House by now. The Chief of Staff must be having kittens all over the West Wing."
"I thought Lucinda Washburn was a personal friend of your family's," Cam said, referring to the woman who most people considered the most powerful woman in Washington. As the first female Chief of Staff, she held the President's ear and served as his most instrumental adviser. When Andrew Powell had run for the presidency, he had made it very clear that no decision would be made without her input. That had proved to be true over the first months of his tenure when economic crises at home and the reemergence of violent foreign unrest had placed his administration in the spotlight.
"Trust me," Blair said without any hint of animosity. "Lucy's number one goal from the day my father was sworn in has been to get him reelected. She's known him since they were in college, and I think she's been working to get him where he is today since then. She'd sacrifice almost anything or anyone to keep him in the White House for a second term."
"And you think that includes forcing you to...what?" Cam asked in frustration. "Give up our relationship?"
"I think Lucy considers relationships expendable if they stand in the way of a higher goal."
"What about your father? Does he feel the same way?"
"I don't know." Blair glanced out the window as they emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel into Manhattan, realizing that they were only moments from her building. "I don't know him well enough to guess. But I don't think it will be very long before we find out."
A few minutes later, the cars pulled up in front of Blair's apartment building, and the occupants of both vehicles began the familiar, choreographed routine of disembarking. Once through the doors and into the small but ornate lobby of the elegant building, Blair hesitated. The elevator was twenty feet away, and Stark had already walked over to it and keyed the single locked car which went to Blair's top floor apartment. Turning her back to the elevator and the agents waiting nearby, Blair faced Cam and said hurriedly in a voice too low for the others to hear, "Is there any way you can stay?"
Cam could only imagine what it cost Blair to ask that. Her eyes swept over the agents waiting to accompany Blair upstairs, several of whom would remain one floor below her apartment in the command center for the remainder of the night shift.
"I want to. You know that don't you?" Cam said, her voice a strained whisper.
Blair's eyes swiftly became unreadable. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked."
Abruptly, Blair turned and walked directly across the lobby and into the open elevator. Stark followed her in and the doors closed soundlessly behind them.
Turning to Davis and the others, Cam said bitingly, "I'll be on my pager."
"Roger," Felicia Davis replied, her expression carefully neutral.
Cam turned without another word, pushed through the double doors, and was quickly lost to the dark.
Cam hesitated briefly on the sidewalk. It was two o'clock in the morning. She glanced up and diagonally across the block-wide oasis of trees that comprised Gramercy Park to the building where she lived when in New York City on assignment. The prospect of pacing for several sleepless hours in her utilitarian apartment held little appeal. The prospect of tossing in her solitary bed trying to forget the way Blair had looked walking away from her held even less. Quickly, she walked to the southeast corner of the square and flagged a cab. She gave the cabbie an intersection in the East Village.
Traffic was light in the small hours of the morning in Manhattan, even though there was more activity there at any hour than in any other American city. When she paid the driver and stepped out, there were still people strolling on the sidewalks, and here and there music wafted from the open doors of taverns and all-night restaurants. It was a short walk to her destination, and less than a half an hour after leaving Blair's building, she was seated on a corner barstool in a small, neighborhood bar. The bartender, a hard-bodied, hard-eyed brunette came over almost immediately. The muscles in her well-developed shoulders and upper arms strained the fabric of the tight white T-shirt she wore tucked into faded blue jeans.
"How you doin'?"
"Fine," Cam said. "Glenlivet. Double--straight up."
A minute later, Cam was sipping the aged, single malt scotch and trying to make sense of the last few hours.
Hell, the last few days.
She turned the glass aimlessly on the bar top and tried to make sense of a puzzle from which too many pieces were missing. It had started with the debriefing in Washington and Stewart Carlisle's odd capitulation to Doyle's bullying threats of an investigation and had culminated with the night's oblique threat to Blair. And then, of course, there was Claire.
She sighed wearily. "Claire."
From beside her, a voice softly questioned, "Girlfriend?"
Cam jumped, startled, and that in itself spoke volumes about her muddled state of mind. Or perhaps just her persistent state of fatigue. She turned her eyes to the redhead who had slipped onto the barstool beside her without her even noticing. The woman looked to be in her early twenties, but might be a decade older. Her green eyes were wide and liquid with invitation, and her high, full breasts--shown off to their full advantage in a scoop-necked tank top that exposed plenty of cleavage in addition to the sharp prominences of her nipples--were ripe with promise.
"Has to be a woman to make you look that down," the woman remarked again.
"No." Cam shook her head. "Just thinking."
"If there's something--or someone--you'd like to forget for a few hours, I can think of a couple of interesting ways to help you out."
"No, thanks," Cam said, smiling slightly. "What I need is to think, not forget."
"It never pays to think alone," the redhead said, leaning closer, her fingers pressing lightly on the top of Cam's right hand.
"I'm not alone," Cam said softly.
The woman studied her silently for a moment, then nodded. "Then I'll let you get back to whatever is keeping you up tonight."
With that she moved away and Cam returned to studying her drink. The touch of the stranger's hand had made her think of Claire.
Claire. Is she a part of this?
Until a few days ago, she had thought that chapter of her life closed.
After she hung up the phone, Cam hurriedly crossed to the bedroom, stripped off the robe, and grabbed for the first thing that was handy. She was just buttoning the fly of her jeans when the doorbell rang. Quickly, she pulled on the T-shirt and opened the door.
"I'm sorry," the woman in the hallway began. "I know I shouldn't have come --"
"No. It's all right." Cam extended her hand, and Claire took it. "Come inside."
Claire was dressed as she often was--tasteful evening dress and matching heels, her blond hair in a French twist, her makeup flawless, and her jewelry expensive. She hesitated just inside the door, then dropped her purse onto the mail table in the small foyer. "You look tired. It's late, isn't it? God, I should go."
"Come into the living room. Can I get you a drink?"
"Wine, if you have it."
Several minutes later, Cam joined Claire on the sofa in front of the windows where less than thirty minutes before she had been sitting speaking to her lover. She forced the image of Blair from her mind and handed the glass of cabernet to the woman who had made love to her countless times. The lines of stress around Claire's eyes were obvious. "What is it?"
"I've been hearing things from my...colleagues...for the last several weeks. Someone has been asking questions."
Cam frowned. "Someone has been trying to get information out of the...escorts?"
Claire smiled, her blue eyes troubled. "First you must understand--with this establishment, confidentiality is absolutely the most critical service we provide. Every one of us is thoroughly screened...there are background checks to rival the federal government's, known associates are identified, resumes, transcripts--everything ever documented is reviewed. No one gives out information about a client. It just doesn't happen."
"But now you think someone's been talking?"
"I don't know." Claire shook her head. "All I know is that someone, or someones, have certainly been asking questions."
"And why are you telling me?"
"Because they're asking questions about the President."
Cam shrugged. "There have been rumors going around Washington since before he was elected that he uses a...service for his...social needs. That's not news."
"I know," Claire said. "But this is the first time any of us has been approached. For one thing, our names are carefully omitted from any transactions--even on paper. No one has access to our true identities, so it's almost impossible for us to be individually associated with any particular establishment or client. But more than one of us has been questioned about him."
Cam was quiet, considering the information. "Which means that someone may have identified your organization and gotten access to your files."
"Yes. And if that's the case, they might have access to much more than just the escort identities. They may have the client lists."
"Ah, I see." Cam rubbed her forehead with one hand, trying desperately to assuage the pounding headache that was making it difficult for her to think. "Are you here to warn me?"
"I know who you are."
"Meaning?" Cam asked quietly.
"Your picture has been on television."
"Yes," Cam acknowledged with a sigh. "I suppose you've known for a long time."
Claire rested her hand on Cam's thigh. It was the first time she had touched her in almost six months. "It's my business not to know who you are. My only responsibility is to know what you need."
The touch of Claire's hand stirred a visceral memory that was as automatic as the awakening of hunger stirred by a familiar smell. For months after Janet's death, Cam had wanted nothing more than the few hours of dreamless sleep that the satisfaction of Claire's caress had given her. Her body had grown used to the stroke of Claire's fingers. Cam's nerve endings remembered, too, and her breath quickened. Ignoring the sweet stab of unbidden desire, she asked, "Has anyone asked about me specifically?"
"Not that I know of, but I've only heard these rumors from a few people. There may be other things I don't know about yet."
"I'm not sure what I can do with this information, or what I can do about it," Cam said.
"I don't know that there's anything to do, especially if we're as compromised as it seems. But I don't want to see anyone hurt--especially not the President." She lifted her eyes to Cam's, resting her fingers lightly now against her cheek. Her lips were very close to Cam's when she whispered, "Or you."
Cam jerked, as if feeling the warmth of Claire's fingers again. That was a memory she could not afford to ponder. She rubbed her eyes, then quickly downed the rest of her scotch. Tomorrow, she would be with Claire. Then, perhaps, she would find some answers.
Blair turned over in bed and looked at the clock. The red numerals showed it to be shortly after 1:00 a.m. With a sigh, she threw back the light sheet and swung her legs to the floor. Naked, she walked through the moonlit loft and stopped in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the park below. From her vantage point she could see Cam's building, and she knew which were her windows. Her lover's apartment was dark. She knew she shouldn't wake her, because by now, she recognized the subtle signs of pain that Cam would never speak of. The faint deepening of the lines around her eyes and the slight, nearly imperceptible tightening of her shoulders as she shifted her position in a chair. What Cam needed now was to sleep and to heal.
Finally, Blair returned to her bed and sat on the edge, watching flickers of unearthly light dance across the hardwood floor, caught between reason and desire. A very long time ago, she had taught herself not to need the solace of a woman's body in the dark. She never spent the night with anyone she made love to; she never sought the sound of another's voice to console her pain or assuage her fears. She slept alone and she bore her uncertainty and disappointment and loneliness in silence.
Everything had changed when Cam had come into her life.
Almost against her will, she reached for the phone. A minute later, after listening to it ring unanswered, she laid the receiver carefully into its cradle. Then she stretched out on the bed, rolled onto her side, and closed her eyes. It was a long time before her breathing eased into the steady, quiet cadence of sleep.
Cam shook her head groggily as the alarm droned beside her. She wasn't certain how long it had been buzzing as she slowly emerged from a dreamless sleep to the insistent sound. Stifling another groan, she reached out with one arm and blindly swatted in the direction of the clock. Finally, she succeeded in silencing the din. After another minute, she forced herself upright and headed for the bathroom. With the shower set more to cold than warm, she stepped in and turned her face to the pinpricks of water. It was early, and she wondered if Blair was still asleep. In that one unguarded moment, loneliness crested on a swift stab of pain. Then, just as quickly, she forced it from her consciousness.
At precisely 0730, Cam walked into the conference room on the seventh floor of Blair's apartment building, the level directly below Blair's and entirely occupied by the Secret Service team. The major portion of the floor was a large open space subdivided by shoulder-high walls into workstations and monitoring areas. In the far corner past a warren of cramped desks was the glass enclosed area which served as the meeting room for Cam and her agents. At the moment, most of the team was present, since the night shift was present to report before going off-duty and the day shift had just arrived to take over the watch. Usually there were one or more swing agents available as well to cover unexpected events or supply double coverage on short notice if needed.
This was the first time the team had convened at Command Central since the night the operation to apprehend Loverboy had nearly ended in disaster. Ellen Grant's absence was conspicuous.
Almost everyone had coffee in some form in front of them, carryout cups from nearby delis a subtle indictment of the office brew that was often hours old. Cam strode to the head of the table and nodded to the men and women facing her. Without preamble, she began.
"I presume all of you have seen the newspaper article from last night. Obviously, we can anticipate increased media attention whenever Egret leaves the building. There's a camera crew on the northeast corner of the square right now."
That statement was met with several groans and a few unflattering comments as to the nature of the Fourth estate.
"That means we can also expect close approach from the press--singly and in groups. Be alert for press credentials and have a very low threshold for containing or diverting anyone who is without the appropriate identification or who encroaches on her personal perimeter. If at all possible, move her quickly from the vehicle to any public venue. We'll go to high security status today. We have no reason at this point to think they know about the gym or any of her private appointments. Nevertheless, don't make any assumptions."
Everyone nodded. Then Cam looked to Mac. "I'll be meeting with Egret per usual at 1100 hours. Hopefully, I'll be able to update the weekly schedule with her and pass along that information to you for a more concrete itinerary." Surveying the group again, she added, "Mac will have your schedule assignments then."
"What are we going to do about finding the slimeball who took that picture?" Paula Stark questioned. The righteous indignation in her voice was obvious.
Briefly, Cam wondered how many of her agents knew that she was the person depicted in the photograph kissing the President's daughter.
"For now, nothing," Cam responded bluntly. She almost smiled at the expressions of outrage on the faces of her agents. The fact that they were all ferociously dedicated to Blair pleased her. She raised a hand to stem the questions that were sure to be forthcoming. "I need to brief first with DC. I can tell you this--we're not going to take this lying down."
That statement prompted an assortment of good, for sure and damn rights.
"In addition to routine matters, we need to gear up for the trans-Atlantic trip. I want status reports on my desk by this afternoon as to who will be our liaison in Paris, the itinerary, the report from the security chief at the hotel, an update on all terrorist cells known to be operating in France, with particular emphasis on Paris and its environs, and dossiers on the French security members assigned to every function at which Egret will be present."
"We're on that, Commander," Mac assured her. "I'll collate the material we have for you this afternoon."
"Very good." Cam shrugged her shoulders to ease some of the stiffness in her neck and back. "Mac, I'd like to see you, please. The rest of you, carry on."
Once the room had cleared, Cam sat down across from her second in command and briefly rubbed her eyes. Then, she leaned forward and met his steady gaze. "I want to know where that photograph came from. Make some inquiries to the wire services, contact the managing editor of the Post, and dig around at the Intel Ops center in DC. Be discrete if you can, but pull rank if you have to."
Mac, a scrupulous detail man, was conspicuously not taking notes. What she was asking was outside the Agency chain of command, because strictly speaking, someone in DC should coordinate this kind of intelligence gathering with the FBI. But then, the Secret Service did not share intelligence with the FBI, nor ask them for any. "What do we know about specifics--time frame, location?"
For a moment, Cam was silent. Mac would have no reason to know the circumstances under which the image had been captured, and she could keep her part in it under wraps--at least for now. As a Secret Service agent, she was indoctrinated in the policy of silence. One did not discuss a protectee; one did not discuss Agency business with other departments; one did not discuss procedure. Solitary since childhood, circumspect with her own emotional pain--unable and unwilling to add to her mother's agony with her own seemingly inconsequential anguish after the death of her father, she had learned to keep her own counsel. The habits of a lifetime compounded by the requirements of her profession made it difficult for her to disclose anything to anyone, no matter how much she trusted"or loved--them. The silence in the room grew, a silence during which Mac sat quietly, simply waiting.
"The photograph was taken at approximately 0130 three nights ago on the waterfront in San Francisco."
One blond eyebrow raised, his only sign of surprise, whether at the information or the fact that she knew it, Cam couldn't tell.
"I never got a report that we'd lost her at anytime in San Francisco," he said.
"Then how did she manage to get away from us long enough for anyone to get that shot?"
His confusion was evident, and she made a decision that in all probability would alter the course of her career forever.
"She didn't leave our sight. The person in the photograph with her is me."
His reaction was not precisely what she had expected.
"Well then, where the fuck were the rest of our people? How in the hell did they let anyone get that close to her. Jesus, talk about a security failure."
Cam shrugged, a rueful grin on her face. "She and I were not directly in their sight line, although they should have had an excellent perimeter view. One thought I had"after the fact unfortunately--is that he was on one of the nearby piers with a night scope. He could have gotten fairly close to us but probably wouldn't have raised any particular suspicion from the team. They were most likely focusing on foot traffic on the beach."
"Commander, may I speak freely?" Mac asked softly.
"Go ahead, Mac."
He held her eyes as he said firmly, "I consider it my responsibility--the responsibility of the entire team--to protect her not just physically, but from this kind of invasion as well. I know it's not completely possible to deny the press access to her, but dammit, this is something personal. The public has no right to know this. I don't want it to happen again."
"I don't know that we can stop it, Mac," Cam replied. Frustrated, she strafed her hair with a hand. "I'm not even sure I know how to stop it. But someone released this photograph, and I want to know who they are and how they got it. I want to know--" she hesitated, because the next words came hard. Harder than almost anything she had ever said. "I need to know if it came from one of us."
His blue eyes grew dark with pain, but he answered crisply. "Yes, ma'am. If I may, I'd like to look into this personally."
"That might not be looked upon favorably by DC," she warned.
"It's possible I may go down for this, Mac. If I do, I want you in the clear. I need you to take my place. Blair needs you."
"I would not want to be in Egret's path if anyone tries that, Commander."
She smiled. "No, it wouldn't be pretty. Just the same, if it comes to that, I want you to disavow any prior knowledge. We never had this conversation."
"Thank you, Mac."
As Cam stood in the small carpeted foyer between the elevator and the broad oak door to Blair's apartment, she thought of the first time she had come there and how much had changed. She hadn't wanted the job, hadn't wanted a woman in her life, hadn't wanted to feel anything at all. Now all she cared about was on the other side of that door. She raised her hand to knock, but the door opened before her fist met wood.
"Good morning," Blair said.
She wore loose, white cotton drawstring pants and a matching ribbed tank top. Her hair was down and there was a dab of brilliant blue pigment just above her left breast.
"You've been working?" Cam asked. There were circles under her normally vibrant blue eyes, and Cam caught sight of something moving in their depths, something dark and wounded.
"Yes. What else? The antidote for every problem."
Cam stayed on the threshold, waiting to be invited in. "Did you sleep?"
"Some. Did you?"
Blair pulled the door open wide and gesture with a sweep of her hand. "Come in. This shouldn't take too long, because I don't have much in the way of plans for the rest of the week. Especially not now."
"Fine." Cam followed her in and trailed behind her to the breakfast bar, puzzling over Blair's odd detachment. It was rare for them to be anywhere alone that Blair did not touch her, however fleetingly. The absence of that small gesture echoed hollowly in her chest.
Blair set out two mugs and poured coffee. She passed one to Cam and leaned her elbows on the counter, one hip edged up on a stool. "Have you heard anything from Washington?"
Cam shook her head, settling on the neighboring stool to face her. "I plan to call Carlisle when we're done here. What about you?"
"Lucinda called just after nine. She was in a rush, because my father was on his way to an economic summit meeting and she was briefing him in the car at the same time as she was talking to me. I believe her precise words were, "Tell me it's someone you can bring home to dinner"."
"Huh," Cam snorted, wondering if she were. What would the President think? "Anything else?"
"Nope. She said she'd get back to me later. That could mean midnight."
"What are you going to tell her?"
"At the moment, I'm going to tell her it's nobody's business. Not even hers."
For the first time, Blair looked and sounded like herself. When she was angry, Cam was certain she was fine.
"I suppose at the moment, that makes sense," Cam said, nodding. She pushed the mug away and reached for Blair's hand, then stiffened when Blair eased back from the counter, just out of touching distance.
Silence fell and finally Cam asked quietly, "What's wrong?"
"Are we done here? I'm in the middle of something."
"No, we're not done. Not until you tell me what's happened between now and when we said goodnight eight hours ago." Cam slid off her seat and moved to Blair's side, lightly touching her bare arm with her fingertips. "Is it because I didn't come up with you last night?"
"No," Blair said abruptly, but she didn't move her arm away.
"I couldn't think what to do," Cam said as if she hadn't heard. "Sometimes, I can't seem to figure out who I am--whether I'm your lover or your security chief. When push comes to shove, I guess I'm more used to being your security chief. I'm sorry."
"Damn it, Cameron, that's not the problem." It almost hurt to hear Cam apologize for something Blair knew she couldn't help. "Can't you just finished this goddamned briefing and go do whatever the security chief part of you needs to do?"
Cam shook her head, smiling softly. "No. The security chief is finished. It's just your lover here now."
Blair drew a manila envelope from beneath the counter and handed it to Cam. "Then maybe you should tell me which one of you I ought to ask about this."
Perplexed, Cam studied the envelope which had Blair's name printed on it in black magic marker and no return address. No stamp either. "How did this arrive?"
For one heart-stopping moment, she thought she had been catapulted back in time and she was about to read yet another threatening message from Loverboy. Raising her eyes to Blair's, she asked quietly, "What is it?"
Carefully, Cam folded back the small gold clasps that held the flap closed and withdrew an eight by ten photograph. She stared at it, anger boiling in her chest. "Christ."
"The date stamp on the print is last night," Blair remarked with no inflection in her voice.
"I don't know what to do, Cam. I don't even know what this mea--"
"Blair, I don't know who she is."
Furious, Cam couldn't stop staring at the photograph of herself leaning toward a woman who appeared to be in whispering in her ear. The woman's hand was resting on hers. The shot was intimate, as if it had been taken during a private moment, an image stolen from a lover's tryst. It was the redhead from the evening before, and although only their faces were in focus, the grainy background was clearly the bar where she had gone for a drink.
"Last night after I left here, I went downtown--"
"You don't need to--"
"Yes, I goddamned well do need to. We need to get something straight," Cam replied heatedly. "I haven't been with anyone else since before I was shot. I haven't wanted to be. I don't want anyone but you and I have no intention of being with anyone else. Not now, not ever."
"I feel ridiculous putting you in a position where you need to say that," Blair said, her tone somewhere between embarrassed and confused.
"Because I've never wanted anyone to say what you just said before."
"If it makes you feel any better, I've never said it to anyone before," Cam answered gently as she moved closer and slipped both arms around Blair's waist. They were facing one another, thighs touching, leaning back in the circle of one another's arms to look into each other's eyes. "I don't know what the hell is going on. I don't know why someone is trying to drive a wedge between us--if that's even what this is about. I can't imagine that our relationship is a threat to anyone."
At that, Blair laughed out loud. "Uh--visited the Bible Belt recently?"
"This isn't their style--the photograph in the newspaper, maybe. But even that's a stretch. You're the President's daughter, for god's sake. Even the right wingers aren't crazy enough to sling mud at you."
"Maybe. I'm sure this is only the beginning."
"I'm sorry you have to deal with this." Cam kissed her forehead, the feel of Blair's body in her arms easing the tightness in her chest that the photo had evoked.
"So--who is the bitch?" Blair asked abruptly, but there was a light dancing in her eyes that hadn't been there before.
Cam laughed. "I have no idea. I couldn't sleep last night--that seems to be a common theme when I'm not with you."
"I don't know why that makes me happy, either, but it does."
"Hmm--I know what you do when you can't sleep, though," Blair remarked lightly, but her eyes were troubled again. Resting her cheek against Cam's shoulder, she kissed her neck above the collar of her pristine white shirt.
"Not to worry, remember?" Cam brushed a kiss into her hair, and continued, "At any rate, I was just sitting there, trying to get my thoughts in order, and she appeared out of nowhere. I wasn't really paying any attention and, I have to admit, I really don't know who else was in the bar with us. Obviously, someone was inside watching me and took the picture."
"Do you think she was trying to set you up for something?"
"I don't know. She could have been an innocent bystander and someone just took advantage of the moment. What is clear, though, is that I was tailed from here to the bar." She rested her chin on the top of Blair's head and sighed. "Some Secret Service Agent I've been this week. I let someone photograph you in a compromising position and now I've managed to get myself a tail that I didn't even see. Maybe it is time for me to retire."
"Bullshit." Blair tilted her head while tapping a finger against Cam's chest. "You haven't had enough rest in a week to account for one full night's sleep. On top of that, you've had a concussion, not to mention more stress than any one person should have to handle in a year, let alone a few weeks. If you've missed a few things, it's understandable. I still trust you with my life."
"The problem is, you are, and if I'm not up to the job--"
"Oh, for God's sake, Cameron, give yourself a break. When I require you to walk on water, I'll let you know."
For a moment, Cam simply stared at her, and then she laughed. "Yes ma'am."
"And whatever they were trying to do with us, it's had quite the opposite effect. All they've managed to do is piss me off," Blair added. "And not at you."
"Thank god for that. I don't think I could take it."
"On the other hand," Blair said as she cupped Cam's cheek in her hand, "if I see her anywhere near you, her life isn't worth a dime."
For an instant, Cam was worried, and then she recognized the lilt of humor in Blair's voice. It was something that had been lacking for too long, and hearing it made her heart lift. "Let's hope for her sake she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. For now, let's forget about her."
Blair insinuated the fingers of one hand through the thick, dark hair at the base of Cam's neck and pulled her head down. Just before she melded her lips to Cam's, she whispered throatily, "Yes. Let's do that."
As the kiss turned hungry, Blair's thighs began to tremble, and she edged her hips up onto the stool behind her, pulling Cam with her until her lover was pressed between the vee of her legs. Lifting both hands to Cam's shoulders, Blair pressed her breasts against Cam's chest, the thin cotton of her T-shirt doing little to blunt the effect of her nipples hardening from the heat of her lover's body alone. Moaning faintly far back in her throat, she kneaded both hands down Cam's back and then underneath her jacket, finally pulling the shirt free of her trousers until her palms found skin.
As their tongues met in a rush of possession, Cam eased her hands between their bodies and rubbed her thumbs over Blair's nipples, drawing a small cry from her. Pressing her pelvis hard into the space between Blair's thighs, Cam lifted both breasts in her hands while tugging sharply on Blair's nipples. She grunted softly as Blair thrust hard into her, her clitoris swelling instantly from the pressure.
"Oh, this is such a bad idea," Blair gasped, even as she began working at Cam's belt buckle.
"Why?" Cam's words were short and tight with challenge, her fingers still tormenting.
"Because," Blair replied before she bit her neck, "I know how you hate to be distracted when you're working."
By way of reply, Cam bunched the T-shirt in one fist and jerked it upward until Blair's breasts were exposed, the white fabric straining across the top of her chest, calling the blood to the surface and painting her breasts with the hot blush of arousal. Swiftly, she lowered her head and pulled one nipple into her mouth. Blair's neck arched as she closed her eyes and whimpered.
Moving from one breast to the other and then back again, Cam alternately sucked and bit until Blair's hands flew to her face and pushed her head away.
"You've got to stop. I'll go crazy if you keep doing that."
"I thought you already were crazyŠabout me." Cam's voice was thick, her eyes heavy-lidded with need. She kept one hand on Blair's breast as she yanked the drawstring loose on the soft cotton pants with the other. "Didn't you..." She worked her hand under the fabric. "...say that?"
"You know what I mean," Blair replied urgently, her lips swollen with kisses and lust. "You make me want to...Oh..." Shocked by the sudden touch of Cam's fingers on her tensely distended clitoris, she nearly came. She gripped Cam's arms hard enough to leave bruises and struggled to contain the swift surge of pleasure. "Jesus Christ."
"I love the way you feel," Cam grated, pushing deeper between Blair's thighs with the force of her whole body behind it. Blair's fingers dug into her flesh. Cam moved her hand from Blair's breast to behind her shoulders, then pulled her lover roughly against her, simultaneously stroking rapidly inside her. Blair clung to her, both arms now wrapped tightly around her neck--her face, damp with perspiration and the sweet sheen of sex--pressed to Cam's neck.
Cam breathed in Blair's ear, "I love to fuck you."
"Do it, just do it."
Before the words had completely left her throat, Blair bucked on Cam's hand, then grew rigid, crying out helplessly as wave upon wave of pleasure ripped through her.
When Blair finally quieted, sagging back on the stool, her back propped against the breakfast counter for support, Cam spread her arms on either side of her and leaned close, pressing her hips into the still tender places that made Blair gasp. With her lips brushing the outer edge of Blair's ear again, she growled, "I love you. Don't ever forget that."
Then, her legs still shaking from exertion and arousal, Cam stepped away, rapidly tucking in her shirt with trembling hands.
"What are you doing?" Blair asked, her voice thick with the lingering lassitude of satisfaction.
"I need to get out of here. I'm on duty, remember?"
"Are you out of your mind?" Blair laughed, her tone stronger this time. "Tell me you're not ready to come."
Cam grinned a little shakily. "What do you think?"
"Think? I know. Get over here and let me take care of you."
"I shouldn't. Really--I have things I have to do."
"Uh-huh." Indolently, Blair pulled her T-shirt the rest of the way off and ran one hand up her bare abdomen and over her breasts. "If you leave here the way you are now, everyone downstairs is going to know. You're shaking. You look like you're about to explode out of your skin."
As she talked, Blair absently brushed her fingers over one nipple, bringing it back to taut arousal. Cam couldn't take her eyes off those sensuous fingers. When Blair squeezed her own breast, her breath catching audibly as her hips lifted in invitation, Cam's head reeled.
"Fuck it." Pushing into the space between Blair's spread thighs, Cam rapidly unbuckled her belt and opened her trousers. Then, she grasped the counter on either side of Blair's body and leaned down to kiss her. Arms outstretched, locked in place, she waited for the touch that she knew would devastate her.
Smiling against Cam's mouth, Blair pushed past the zipper and under the last barrier of material, then slid her fingers along her rigid length and circled back up again, reveling in the swift jerk of Cam's hips into her palm. Cam's breath rasped in her ear, a choking desperate sound that might have been pain, but she knew it wasn't.
She could have teased her--she loved to tease her, but this time she knew neither of them could bear it. She worked her clitoris under her palm as she stroked back and forth through the hot swollen tissue, bringing Cam rapidly to the edge and then mercilessly driving her over. Cam shouted as she climaxed, shuddering in Blair's arms, the weight of her body collapsing into orgasm almost enough to make Blair come again, too. As if it were the first time, Blair held her and trembled"breathless with the wonder of loving her.
Ten minutes later, Cam stood at the door, brushing a strand of damp hair from Blair's cheek.
"I'll be back tomorrow. Noon at the latest. If there's any delay, I'll call you from DC."
"Okay." Blair regarded her seriously, her gaze probing Cam's face. "The photograph of you in the bar last night"does it have anything to do with the call in San Francisco?"
"I don't know," Cam said after a moment's hesitation. "there are too many things that don't make sense right now. I'm hoping I'll be able to find some answers in DC."
"Are you going to tell me?"
"Blair," if there were an...investigation into...irregularities, you could be called to testify. Anything you know about me--or information I've shared with you--would be fair game. I can't put you in that position."
"I'm your lover, Cam," Blair insisted quietly, realizing she had never before thought of herself that way in relationship to another person. It was so much more than physical, and the thought of being excluded from Cam's life bothered her. "I want to know what's happening to you."
Cam brushed her thumb across Blair's cheek and let her fingers trail over her neck to her shoulder. With her palm lightly stroking Blair's bare upper arm, she murmured, "I don't want to keep secrets from you, but there's more than just us involved."
"You can't forget who I am, can you?" Blair said, her tone more sorrowful than accusatory.
"You're a lot more to me than the First Daughter," Cam replied, her tone gentle. "When you're not angry with me, you remember that, right?"
"I'm not angry with you now. I just can't stand feeling like there's something standing between us, even though I know what you said makes sense. I hate that I'll miss you the minute you walk out the door, and I'll worry about what's happening to you, and I'll wonder about who you're with."
"Do you really hate those things?" Cam's eyes had gone gray black and they bore into Blair's.
"No," Blair whispered, resting her palm under Cam's jacket over the place where her heart beat beneath. "God, no."
"I promise I'll tell you as much as I can."
"All right. I don't like it, but I'll accept that for now."
Blair rubbed her hand lightly back and forth over Cam's chest. "You'll be careful, right?"
"Swear." Cam kissed her, gently this time, without the urgency of earlier passion but with the certainty of belonging. "Don't disappear on Mac if you go out, okay? Take someone with you, no matter where you're going."
Sighing, Blair nodded. "Only for you, Commander."
Lightly, Cam stroked her cheek. "I love you."
Then she opened the door and crossed the foyer to the elevator. Blair watched until the elevator doors closed behind her.
And then the longing, the other side of love, began.
Downstairs in Command Central, Cam found Mac in a cubbyhole in one corner of the main room, reviewing the pre-Paris intelligence reports. "Where's Stark?"
"In the gym, I think. She's got the swing shift today. I didn't have any intel that Egret would be flying. Do you need her now?"
"Not for Egret. She's settled in the nest." Cam pointed to the ceiling and Blair's apartment above. "But I want to talk to both of you. Let's go find her."
Five minutes later, they discovered Stark flat on her back on a weight bench, a barbell poised over her chest, counting reps out loud. She was alone in the twenty by thirty foot room outfitted with weights and aerobic equipment that the team used to keep in shape and work off excess adrenalin while waiting for Egret to leave the Aerie, as they referred to her top floor sanctuary.
"You should probably have a spotter," Mac remarked good-naturedly as he lifted the bar from her hands and settled it into the cleats. She sat up, reaching for a towel as she did so. Quickly, she wiped the sweat from her face and off her bare arms. In a sleeveless T-shirt and gym shorts, her body looked sturdy and muscular.
"Sorry," Stark said glancing from Mac to Cam. "I didn't think there was anything on for me. I'll just grab a fast shower and--"
"Relax, Stark," Cam said as she slipped off her suit jacket. The air-conditioning in the workout room left a little something to be desired, and it was humid the way all gyms seemed to be. "This is not about Egret's detail."
Clearly puzzled, Stark remained silent as Cam settled onto a bench facing her and Mac sat down by her side. Automatically, she moved over an inch to give him some room and herself space to maneuver. An agent never let their personal perimeter be encroached upon.
"I have to go to DC this afternoon," Cam said. "Mac, you'll have the watch."
"Okay. Do you need me to make flight arrangements?"
"No. I'll just catch a shuttle. I expect to be back tomorrow, butŠsomething may come up." She paused, then said briskly, "Something has come up."
She handed Mac the manila envelope. "Take a look at that. Handle it carefully--there probably aren't any prints, but we could get lucky."
Stark checked the envelope over Mac's shoulder. "No post marks."
"It came by courier this morning. Hand delivered."
Mac drew in a quick breath, no doubt having the same uncomfortable feelings of dŃjń vu she'd had at first seeing the black block letters spelling out Blair's name. "It went through to her?"
"Who was downstairs?" Stark asked, an edge to her voice.
"Taylor. He scanned it, then had it sent up to Egret. No reason not to."
Carefully, Mac pulled the photograph out by the corner and placed it atop the envelope in his lap. The two agents studied it for a minute without comment. Finally, Mac looked up at her. "Any message with it?"
"When was it taken," Stark asked, her tone guarded. She wasn't used to questioning her commander about anything, let alone something that was obviously personal.
"Last night about 3:00 a.m."
"Jesus," Mac exclaimed. "How""
"Someone must have tailed me downtown from here, because I never went home."
Neither of them asked how it was possible that she had been followed. Ordinarily, a Secret Service agent didn't worry about their own security. They were just anonymous faces on the fringes of the spotlight, nearly identical and interchangeable. And replaceable.
"What really worries me is that someone probably tailed us from Teterboro to here. Which means that we have a problem in terms of Egret's security."
"Do you think that she's a target of some kind?" Mac asked.
"Jesus, not again," Stark breathed, unaware that she had even spoken aloud.
"Probably not physically," Cam replied grimly. "But that remains to be seen. We must assume she is. Maybe this is the same photographer who took the photo in San Francisco."
Stark stared for a second, her thoughts practically written across her broad, smooth face. "On the beach""
"Yes," Cam said quietly.
"Oh, man, I'm sorry, Commander," she said miserably. "I had the beach in view the whole time, but he must have gotten by me."
"He got by us both, Stark. Forget it." Cam tried to shrug away the anger that rose every time she thought of someone watching her and Blair together during an innocent, intimate moment. When they'd both felt safe. Christ, is this how she feels all the time? No wonder she's angry. How in hell does she stand it?
"Commander?" Mac asked uncertainly.
Cam flinched imperceptibly, her gaze refocusing on her agents. "I'd like to know who's taking such an interest."
"You want me to run this through forensics?"
"Like I said"we could get lucky. Maybe he licked the envelope and we'll get a DNA sample."
"Or maybe she did," Stark interjected.
"I suppose that's possible," Cam allowed, keeping her tone carefully neutral.
Mac glanced again at the image, seeming to be searching for words. "Do youŠuhŠknow this woman?"
"No, I don't," Cam answered crisply. "Try calling Walker in the New York City lab to run the tests. He's good."
"Uh, excuse me, Commander," Stark said, "but maybe that's not such a good idea. Respectfully, ma'am."
Cam eyed her. "Go ahead."
"Well, this photograph isŠtelling."
"Interesting choice of words," Cam remarked dryly, hating the disclosure of something so private, even to those she trusted. The younger agent colored, and Cam regretted her brief loss of control. "Go ahead, Stark."
"I think we should handle this internally as far as possible."
"Are you up on your forensics?" Mac interjected. "Cause I sure can't walk this through a lab."
"No," Stark answered tentatively, seemingly feeling her way along a narrow ledge that threatened to crumble under her feet. "But I know someone we can trust who can do it. Renee Savard."
"She's FBI," Mac exclaimed. "Since when do we trust them?"
"She's a friend," Stark insisted, holding his gaze steadily. "I know she won't betray us. And she's been assigned to a desk at the New York City field office."
"Isn't she still in the hospital?" Cam asked.
"Until today. I'm going there in a few minutes to pick her up." For the first time, she appeared unsure. "To give her a ride homeŠyou know."
Cam suppressed a grin. "Understood. But she's got to be on medical leave for a while."
Stark laughed derisively. "Sure. For about a day. She'll go in the first chance she gets."
"Mac?" Cam asked.
He thought about the conversations he'd had in the past with the FBI agent. She had always dealt with them squarely, and she had been willing to give her life for Egret. Still, he had an inherent distrust of the FBI. "Yeah, I say we keep it in house. And Savard is almost one of us."
"Agreed." Cam stood. "Stark, mind if I tag along with you to the hospital on my way to the airport?"
"I'll be ready in five," the agent responded, jumping up and heading for the shower.
"Keep me informed of any developments on this end, Mac."
"Don't worry, Commander," he assured her rapidly. "We'll be fine here."
"Of course," she said with confidence. But leaving Blair was getting harder every day, and it had less and less to do with her assignment as the First Daughter's security chief.
"Is she okay?"
"Sure," Stark responded automatically, watching the door swing closed behind Cameron Roberts.
Renee Savard, seated on the side of her narrow hospital bed, raised an eyebrow. Her coffee-colored skin had regained its luster and her blue eyes were sharp and clear once again. If the bruise on her forehead or the healing gunshot wound in her shoulder were causing her any pain, she didn't show it. Even in a faded, shapeless hospital gown she was striking.
"She took quite a beating in the blast, you know," Stark acknowledged uneasily. "Why?"
"She looks tired, that's all. I'm guess I'm just not used to seeing her that way." Her blue eyes probed the face of the agent rocking faintly back and forth on her heels by the side of her bed, clearly uncomfortable discussing her chief. Renee noticed, too, the circles smudging the smooth clear skin under Paula's eyes, and she realized that all of them had taken a beating the last few weeks. Softly, she asked, "How about you? You okay?".
"That's good," Savard replied, not really believing her. "It took guts for Roberts to come here today and show me that photo."
"She doesn't back down from anything," Stark agreed.
"Still I am FBI. For all she knows I could send that straight to an Assistant Director and she'd have a jacket by sundown."
"Yeah"like we all don't anyhow," Stark said angrily. "You know Doyle investigated all of us when the task force was formed."
"That's just SOP," Savard pointed out gently. "But I know it sucked for all of you."
Stark's expression softened. "Sorry, I know it wasn't on you. Do you think you'll be able to help us out?"
"Shouldn't be a problem. I know a couple of people in the lab who will run things through for me with no questions asked. They're such total lab rats they probably don't even know who she is. I don't think they'll make the connection. It will buy her a little time, but sooner or later, you know something is going to come out."
Stark was silent, torn between her desire to share her concerns and her loyalty to her commander's privacy.
"I saw the photo in the newspaper last night," Savard remarked casually. "The one of Blair Powell and the mystery lover."
"Yeah," Stark said offhandedly. "The whole team seems to be a popular subject these days."
"That's Roberts with her, isn't it?"
Once again, Stark hesitated.
"Paula, anyone with eyes can see what's happening between those two. You know damn well I don't care. Why should I? It's their business."
"Yeah," Stark replied with a hint of bitterness. "It should be just their business--but considering it's the first daughter and all--and the commander being on the team--you know it's complicated."
"Complicated. Yes, I agree with that. But it's still nobody's business. It's for them to work out the complications."
"I hope they can," Stark said fervently. She'd been on Egret's team since day one, and for a few months before Ellen Grant had been assigned, she'd been the only woman. She'd watched Blair tear through one night stands and dangerous liaisons--until the Commander had come along. Now it was all different. Better.
Savard smiled, watching the concern darken Stark's eyes. "You're sweet, have I ever mentioned that?"
"Maybe," Stark said, grinning.
"They'll be okay."
"Sure, I know that." Stark straightened her shoulders. "I'm glad you didn't mind me suggesting that you help out. I didn't know that the Commander was going to brief you herself."
Savard reached out and took Stark's hand, running her thumb back and forth over the top of her hand as their fingers intertwined. "You did right. I'm glad you thought of me."
"I think about you all the time." Stark blushed, but her voice was firm and her eyes held Savard's steadily.
"Good. Now let's get me dressed so you can take me home," Savard said, reaching for the clothes on her bed. Carefully, she worked each leg into her pants and stood up by the side of the bed, frowning as she contemplated how to close buttons and zippers with only one functioning hand. Her left hand was held tightly across her chest in a sling. "Uh... I think I'm going to need some help here. Sorry."
"No problem," Stark said nonchalantly, stepping forward and sliding up the zipper on the FBI agent's pants, being careful not to touch the taut smooth skin of her abdomen as Renee held the hospital gown up with her good hand. Then she worked the button closed on the waistband and looked around for Renee's shirt.
Renee hooked a finger inside Stark's belt and tugged playfully. "This is where I should say something clever about how I wish you were undressing me."
Stark colored and lifted the dark blue polo shirt from the bottom of the bed. She held it in front of her and said, "Here. I guess we'll have to take the sling off to get this on." She frowned. "Is that okay? I don't want to hurt you."
"I can't raise my arm. I think we're going to have to use something with buttons," Savard observed. "Is there anything in the bag like that?"
Stark rapidly looked through the contents of the gym bag which Renee's sister had brought earlier that day. "No. Everything pulls on over your head."
"Well, I don't intend to leave here in this hospital gown--and I'm not staying one more minute longer than I have to." Savard was silent for a few seconds, and then she smiled, her eyes twinkling. "You're about my size. Give me your shirt."
"Well, it buttons, which is the primary thing. You can wear my polo shirt."
"There's a problem," Stark said, her face reddening again.
"Paula, I work mostly with men. I went through the FBI Academy with a class that was 90 percent male. A little sweat, especially yours, is not going to bother me."
"That's not the problem," Stark said stiffly. "I'm not...uh...wearing anything under it."
"Even better. A shirt and a bonus." Renee Savard laughed out loud at Stark's expression. "Take off the jacket and give me the damn shirt. I want to get out of here--and don't even think about asking me to close my eyes."
Stark shed her jacket and pulled her pale-blue button-down collared shirt from the waistband of her black trousers. Her gun was clipped on the right side of her pants and she steadied the holster with one hand while she worked the buttons free on the front of her shirt with the other.
"You want me to do that?" Savard asked innocently.
"You only have one hand remember?" Stark was smiling now. She liked the way Savard's eyes widened slightly as the material over her breasts parted with each button that she loosened.
"You'd be amazed what I can do with one hand." Renee's voice was lower, a bit husky. She reached out her hand, and Paula stepped back a foot.
"I've got it."
"Don't trust me?" Renee asked teasingly, her eyes on the muscled chest and small, firm breasts now nearly completely exposed.
"No," Stark said quietly. "Don't trust myself."
"I do," Renee whispered, moving closer and placing a kiss on her lips. She held it, savoring the soft full lower lip exploring hers and the barest press of breasts against her own. It was going to be very easy to get lost in Paula Stark's arms. Sighing with a mixture of pleasure and regret, she broke the kiss. "Time to go."
"I have to work tonight," Stark managed, her throat thick. She held out her shirt, unmindful of her nudity now. Her skin felt so hot all she wanted was the cool touch of Renee's fingers. "I'm sorry."
Savard shook her head and took the shirt. "Until when?"
"I'll nap." Savard tossed her the polo shirt. "You can return my shirt when you get off work."
Stark grinned. "Roger that."
Not long after Cam left, Blair set aside her palette and brushes and washed her hands in the work sink tucked into the corner of the loft that served as her studio. Then she lifted the nearby phone and punched in a familiar number. A moment later, a woman answered.
The whiskey tones were huskier than usual, and Blair smiled fondly. "Don't tell me you just woke you up? It is the middle of the day, you know?"
"Listen, love, some of us have to work at night."
Blair tossed back her head and laughed again. "Oh, please, Diane. I know the kind of work you do after midnight."
"How do you know that I wasn't busy selling one of your paintings?" Diane Bleeker, her business agent and oldest friend, inquired indignantly. "And how do you know that I was sleeping just now?"
"If you were slaving on my behalf, I appreciate it. If you weren't, I'd love to hear all the details."
"Where are you?" Diane asked, beginning to sound awake.
"Back in Manhattan."
"Is everything all right?"
The concern in her friend's voice was genuine. As many times over their fifteen year friendship that they'd disagreed over the direction of each other's relationships--or been at odds over the same woman, their deep-rooted affection for one another persisted.
"I'm fine," Blair hastened to assure her. "I wouldn't mind seeing you, though--if your associate from last evening isn't still there."
"Well," Diane said as if thinking it over. "Let's say by the time you get here, my calendar will be clear."
"Don't let me rush you."
"Oh my dear, never that. Some things should definitely be savored."
"Is an hour good enough?"
"Perfect. Now, let me get back to what I was about to do. I'll see you soon."
After hanging up, Blair stripped off her soiled clothes and headed toward the shower. On her way, she picked up the bedside phone and dialed another number. It was answered immediately.
"Yes, Ms. Powell?"
"I'm going out in an hour, Mac."
If he were surprised by the advance notice, which was a distinctly unusual phenomenon for the notoriously unpredictable First Daughter, his voice didn't reveal it. "Very well. I'll call for the car."
"That would be fine, thank you, Mac."
Fifty minutes later, dressed in jeans, a white, short-sleeved ribbed cotton top and running shoes, she keyed the penthouse elevator and rode down to the lobby. When the doors opened, Felicia Davis and a small, bespectacled agent, Vince Taylor, a relative newcomer to the team, were waiting for her. She assumed that one of the others was in the car which idled at the curb. It didn't really matter to her, because her mind was elsewhere. She had told Cam she had no intention of discussing their relationship with Lucinda Washburn, but she knew it was only a matter of time before she would need to. The only reason her proclivities had not become a matter of record much sooner was only because she'd never had a serious relationship. It was much easier to remain anonymous when one's love interests were anonymous as well. As she stepped from beneath the awning over the entrance to her building, reporters hurried down the sidewalk toward her, microphones extended and cameras at the ready. Clearly, her days of anonymity were numbered.
After the early morning briefing, her security team was prepared for exactly this occurrence and quickly surrounded her, escorting her rapidly to the Suburban, whose doors stood open to facilitate her entry. Once she was inside, the driver pulled quickly from the curb, and she was able to avoid making any kind of comment whatsoever in response to the shouted questions. Fortunately, New York City traffic prohibited easy pursuit, and by the time day reached Diane Bleeker's upper East side condo, they had left the press behind. Felicia Davis accompanied her to Diane's door and took up a post just outside after Diane answered Blair's knock.
"That's one I don't think I've seen before," Diane remarked after a quick glimpse of the tall ebony-skinned woman who somehow managed to look Paris runway elegant in the standard dark, two-piece suit. "She's absolutely gorgeous."
"Forget it. She's straight."
"And your point would be?" Diane tossed a grin over her shoulder as she led them through the apartment to a sitting area facing the balcony. Through the open French doors, the green expanse of Central Park was visible far below.
"Don't you have your hands full with your many other...ah...interests?" Blair teased.
"Well, variety is the spice of life and all that."
"You want something to drink? Beer or wine?"
Blair shook her head and settled into one corner of the broad beige sectional. She kicked off her shoes, propped her feet on a footstool, and dropped her head against the back of the sofa. "No, I'm fine. Thanks."
"Yeah, I can see that." Diane walked to a nearby serving cart and poured herself a glass of white wine, then returned and sat near Blair. Resting one hand on Blair's blue-jeaned leg, Diane said, "So. Tell me."
Blair raised an eyebrow. "What makes you think there's anything to tell?"
"Come on--save me the trouble of teasing it out of you." Suddenly, she held up a hand. "No wait--let me guess. Roberts has done something to annoy you again."
"Why do you say that?" Blair asked in honest curiosity.
"Because you always get those double frown lines between your brows when she's driving you crazy."
Blair shook her head and smiled. "No. She hasn't done anything. In fact she's--fabulous."
"Oh my God." Diane's voice registered true shock. "You can't be serious."
"What are you talking about?"
"Are you really, truly in love?"
For moment, Blair wavered. She had said the words to Cam, but only rarely. She'd told Marcea. Still, saying it, she was sure, would destroy the last barricade that stood between her heart and everything that had always threatened to hurt her. Maybe it had started with the loss of her mother, or maybe it had been the betrayal of her first love in prep school, or maybe it had been the long procession of women who had claimed to want her when it was only the spotlight that accompanied her father's name they wished to experience. She had managed to protect herself from the disappointment of a love lost by never allowing it in. Into the expectant silence, she loosed the fear and breathed the truth. "Yes. Utterly. Madly. "
Diane stared at her, her face blank and unreadable for what felt like an endless moment. Finally, she sipped her drink and said quietly, "I envy you. And I'm happy for you."
Almost shyly, Blair nudged Diane's leg with her toes. "Thanks."
"So, if it's not Roberts, what's the problem?"
"I guess you haven't seen a newspaper recently."
Diane laughed, a deep throated purr that at one time had been enough to make Blair want to throw her down on the bed and ravish her. But they had been teenagers then and they had not been lovers for many years. "There's a picture of me on the front page of the Post in a compromising position. You can't tell that it's Cameron, but eventually someone is going to put it together. I am, to put it bluntly, about to be outed."
"You've had a pretty good run, you know," Diane pointed out quietly.
"I know. I'm just not sure how to handle it. The White House needs to be prepared, because my father is going to catch the fallout."
"I've always thought that a preemptive strike was the best way to deal with things like this."
"You think I should make a statement?"
"Do you intend to keep on with her?"
Blair gasped, as if from a sudden pain. "God, I hope so."
"Well, that's the answered then, isn't it?" Diane shrugged. "If you aren't willing to give her up, then you're going to have to deal with the publicity that goes with the relationship. Better have it on your own terms than end up always needing to defend yourself."
Blair ran her hands through her hair, then sighed. "It would be so much easier if I didn't have to worry about the spin doctors in D.C. wanting to control what I say and when I say it and who I say it to."
"Screw them. You're an adult--do what you want to do."
"I have been, but I can't pretend that my father is not the President of the United States. He's got sort of an important job. I think I'm going to need to run this by some people in the West Wing before I shoot him in the foot."
"I suppose you're right. You want me to come with you?"
"Thanks, I really appreciate it. I'd better do this alone."
"So what do you plan to do?"
"I'm going to catch a plane to Washington."
She leaned over, kissed Diane on the cheek, and stood.
"Any chance you could lend me one of your spookies?" Diane asked as she rose and threaded her arm through Blair's.
"Anyone in particular?" Blair asked playfully as the two friends walked toward the door.
When Diane opened the door, Felicia Davis stepped away from the wall and glanced in at Blair.
"She would do nicely," Diane said sotto voce.
Felicia raised one elegant eyebrow. "Ready Ms. Powell?"
"As I'll ever be," Blair replied seriously.
At 1830 hours that evening, Cam sat in a deserted anteroom in front of a plain varnished door with a small sign bearing Stewart Carlisle's name. She settled in to wait, but just a few minutes passed when his administrative assistant appeared around the corner and said, "He's ready for you."
When she opened the door and stepped into the unadorned office that had little in the way of personalized touches other than a small framed photo on the wall of a very young Stewart Carlisle with John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his brother Robert, her immediate superior was making a notation on the bottom of a report.
"Grab a chair," he said without looking up.
She chose the right hand one of a pair of institutional fabric covered office chairs in front of his desk and crossed her right ankle over her knee, her hands resting loosely on the thin wooden armrests. When he finally closed the folder and pushed the pile of papers away with his right hand, looking up to meet her gaze, his face revealed nothing.
"What happened with that newspaper photograph?" he began without preamble. "That's just the kind of thing the White House likes to chew my ass over."
"I was going to ask you the same thing," she said calmly. "We should have had intelligence that the photo was going out over the wires and been prepared for the article in the Post. As it was, we walked into a hornet's nest of reporters at Teterboro when we arrived last night. We were lucky it didn't turn into a free for all. So where was the breakdown in the system?"
A muscle bunched in his jaw, but his voice, too, was even as he replied, "Since you were there when the picture was taken, I assumed you'd be able to tell me."
For a second, Cam thought he was referring to her presence on the beach with Blair, before she realized that he simply meant San Francisco. Oddly, it didn't bother her. There was not one moment in her relationship with Blair that she would deny to anyone. On the other hand, in a world rife with double dealings, political blackmail, and constant struggle for bureaucratic superiority, she had learned never to divulge information that could be used as a weapon against her or anyone she cared for.
"The photo was taken with a long-range telephoto lens, probably across the water from an adjacent pier. We had close physical surveillance in place, but no substantial perimeter. I had no reason to believe in that particular location it was required."
"The camera could just as well have been a long-range rifle equipped with a night scope," he pointed out as if discussing an inconsequential notation in the margin of a not particularly interesting article. "She could be dead instead of just caught in an embarrassing moment."
A pain like a shard of glass tore through her chest and it even hurt to take a breath, but outwardly her expression didn't change. "I've thought of that. Unless we keep her at highest priority twenty-four hours a day, we can't prevent it if someone decides to do it. Ordinarily, that kind of perimeter is not required for her, and I felt our security status at that time was adequate."
"It's going to be one more piece of ammunition against you."
"I received a call from Justice this morning. Apparently, a petition for a formal inquest into the outcome of the operation in New York has been lodged by the NSA chief and the Deputy Director of the Bureau."
"That's precedent setting, isn't it?"
He shrugged. "It was a joint operation, so the Bureau is within their rights to ask for it. Bottom-line though, it's the casualties that resulted that make it difficult to fight without looking like we have something to hide. There's not much I can do about it."
"All right. I understand."
"I'm not sure that you do. They want you relieved of duty until the inquiry is completed."
Gray eyes hardened, but she didn't move a muscle. "What did you say?"
For the first time that day, and for one of the very few times she could ever remember, he looked uncomfortable. "I told them no, but I don't know how long that will last."
"Since when do you let outside departments tell the Secret Service how to run its business?"
"Since the President was forced to accept an FBI Director who is just a little bit further right than Joe McCarthy. Damn it, Roberts, you know that ever since William Morrow was appointed that the FBI has been working nonstop to expand its investigative reach and confiscate as much power as possible from the other security divisions."
"And you think that the Bureau is behind this move to investigate me?"
"That's my best guess."
"Why? What difference does it make to them who's in charge of Blair Powell's security?"
For a moment, he didn't speak and she knew he was making a decision as to whether he could ultimately trust her or not. Bureaucratic politics superseded even friendship. Finally, he leaned back in his chair and grimaced.
"Think about it. In another six months, Andrew Powell will need to consolidate a reelection platform. He'll need money and backers and a very high popularity rating or he may not win a bid for reelection. His liberal left of center views haven't always gone over well--with either party. He's not a shoe-in to get the nod from his own party." He shrugged, as if that explained things, but went on to say, "In the days of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI had dossiers on every important political figure in the country, as well as leaders of industry, civil rights organizers, Hollywood stars--everyone with any conceivable connection to the men who held the reins of power--citizens and criminals alike. They used information as a weapon and bought and sold Presidents at will. Some suggested that if they couldn't buy them, they killed them. Or at least looked the other way while someone else did."
"But that was thirty, forty years ago," Cam protested.
"And you think that couldn't happen again? Look at the direction the Supreme Court has taken in the last twenty years--they don't even pretend to be non-partisan. Andrew Powell is a very liberal president, and there are a lot of people in Washington who aren't happy that he was elected. Right now, my best guess is that some powerful people who want him out are gathering as much ammunition from every quarter that they possibly can. Having an edge on the President's daughter, having some degree of control over the information flow to and from the quarter, might be parlayed into political leverage at some point."
"That seems like a stretch to me," Cam argued.
"Not if someone heading her task force reports directly to the FBI, and not to me."
Cam stiffened. "If I'm out, Mac Phillips would replace me, and I guarantee he's not a mole for anyone."
"It wouldn't necessarily be Mac Phillips who replaces you," Carlisle said slowly.
"But that would be up to you. You'll name my successor."
He stared at her silently. Her heart began to pound and her throat suddenly felt dry. "Is someone squeezing you on this? Stewart, if you're in trouble, I'll help if I can. But not at the expense of Blair Powell's safety."
Methodically, he straightened the file folders on his desk and when he looked up, his face was expressionless again. "For the time being, consider yourself notified of a formal inquest. You'll remain on duty until such time as the panel convenes and makes a determination as to whether suspension is recommended."
"She's due to go to Paris in less than a week. It's a high security agenda, and I intend to lead the team. If you try to take me off before that, you'll have to put me in jail to do it."
When he didn't answer, she got to her feet and walked to his desk, then leaned down with her palms flat on the surface. Her voice was low and strong. "Do whatever it is you have to do as far as I'm concerned, but don't put her at risk because of it."
"That will be all, Agent Roberts."
She continued to look at him for a long moment, then straightened. "Yes, sir."
When she reached the lobby, she signed the log and retrieved her cell phone. Once outside, she punched in a number and waited until a familiar accentless female voice answered. Then she repeated her anonymous account number and requested an appointment, again using only an identifying code.
"I'm sorry, that employee is not currently available. May I substitute someone with similar qualifications?"
"No, thank you. Please check your priority list and cross-reference this account number, please."
"Just one moment."
A minute later, the pleasant tones returned. "I'm so sorry to have inconvenienced you. For what time shall I record the appointment?"
"Just relay the request and note this is an open ended appointment for this evening."
"Certainly. If you would call the following number and note the appointment address."
Cam memorized the number, thanked her, and rang off. Briefly, she considered calling Blair, and then realized that there was nothing she could tell her that she wanted to say over the phone. She wasn't certain how much she really wanted to share with her in person"because she didn't know how to make Blair understand what she might need to do.
Blair nodded hello and a murmured brief "Good to see you" as she walked hurriedly through the corridors of the West Wing toward a large office that was about as close to the center of power as you could get without actually being in the Oval Office. She stopped by the desk of a pale, sandy-haired, intense looking young man and asked, "Is she in for me?"
In a flat Midwestern baritone, he replied "Let me check. She was on the phone with the Secretary of State."
In another minute, she was getting a quick hug and a peck on the cheek from a woman she had known since childhood and who still managed to instill in her a certain amount of awe and temerity the way no one else could.
"I figured I'd save you the quarter for the phone call," Blair said as she sat down on the leather sofa that bordered one wall in the office of the White House Chief of Staff.
Lucinda Washburn, a statuesque auburn-haired woman in her early fifties, was dressed in a navy dress accented by a minimum of tasteful gold jewelry. She leaned her hips against the front of the wide desk that was covered with thick binders, stacks of memos, and a computer and regarded Blair with an amused smile.
"Must be serious if it got you to the White House voluntarily."
"I guess that's for you to tell me."
Lucinda sighed and her eyes darkened. "Well, I think that depends."
Lucinda fixed Blair with a look that was known to make the Joint Chiefs sit up straight in their chairs. Blair didn't flinch. She knew Lucinda's stare and at least had learned not to let its effect show in her face.
"Let's cut to the chase, Blair. It depends on who was in the picture with you and whether it's something that's likely to come up again. Aaron Stern has already fielded questions at this morning's press briefing about the picture. The press and the public want to know why they haven't heard about this romance of yours before this. Everyone wants details."
Blair did her best not to bristle, but it took every ounce of her formidable will not to snap back that the public could go screw itself. Instead, she said, "I don't see why we need to give any explanation whatsoever. This will be yesterday's news by this time tomorrow."
"You may very well be right. On the other hand, there's nothing that the newshounds like better than something juicy involving the First Family to use as filler while waiting for the next meteorological catastrophe or military atrocity."
"Fine. Tell them it was a date and let it go at that."
"Oh, come now. A middle of the night assignation on a beach in a city half the mid-West thinks is the reincarnation of Sodom and Gomorrah? Don't pretend to be naive because I know better. Here in the White House our motto is to be prepared. I don't like to be blindsided by anything, but particularly not by something that reflects directly on the President's family."
Blair was silent, because she knew that already and that was part of the reason she had come to see Lucinda. Finally, she said, "What do you want?"
"If you're going to embark on a public relationship, then we need to be able to say something about it when asked, and you know damn well we will be asked. So, give me the details now."
"You can say that I'm seriously involved with another woman. I won't give you her name."
Lucinda's expression didn't change. Blair assumed that this news was probably not a surprise, because Lucinda was too astute not to have known before this. But there was a world of difference between assumption and knowledge.
"Well, that will take some handling," Lucinda answered in a controlled tone. "If you refuse to name her, it will only make people think you have something else to hide. You'll be hounded to death over it. Is there something I need to know about her--some scandal, some dark hidden past?"
"And I don't suppose you'd be willing to put this affair under wraps until after the President has the party endorsement for reelection?"
"That's more than a year away."
"Do you want to tell me that you think one year is too long for you to wait? Or is it her? If the woman has any substance--"
"You're stepping over the line, Luce."
Lucinda Washburn's dark eyes flashed with ire, but she held her breath for a long second, then exhaled slowly. "Blair, your father has only eight years--maximum--to hold the most powerful position in the world. He can accomplish amazing things for this country and for the future of the world during those eight years. Tell me you don't care about that. Tell me you're willing to risk that."
That had always been the issue, of course. Everyone in her father's inner circle, Lucinda included, had sacrificed their personal life to put him where he was. Some never had time for relationships, and those who did rarely kept them long. As his daughter, it wasn't as simple as balancing her father's political ambitions with her own need for an independent, honest life. It was the rightness of placing the personal above the greater good. Looking at it the way Lucinda had put it, her desire for personal happiness seemed selfish. "I've been quiet about my life for over ten years. I've avoided any kind of public statement or disclosure. I didn't mean for that photograph to be in the newspaper. I can't change who I am, even for my father's benefit."
"I'm not asking you to change. I am asking you not to advertise."
"I've tried the "Don't ask, Don't tell" approach to life. It's a lot like living in a prison."
For one brief instant, Blair saw sympathy in Lucinda's face. Then it was gone. "You're your father's daughter, Blair. You'll make the right decision."
They didn't embrace as they parted, and as Blair passed the closed door to the Oval Office and the pair of Secret service agents flanking it, she saw Cam's face and wondered if she had the strength to do the right thing.
Shortly before midnight, Cam opened the door to her apartment and ushered Claire inside. Claire was in street clothes with only the barest hint of makeup, and she seemed younger, more vulnerable. Nevertheless, in only a plain white blouse, dark slacks, and low heels, she was still beautiful.
"Are you all right?" Cam asked immediately as the two of them stood facing one another just inside the door.
"Yes, I'm fine," Claire assured her, although her voice rung hollowly.
"Did you notice anyone following you?"
Claire shook her head and smiled wanly. "No, I don't think so, but I'm not certain I'd notice if they did. Subterfuge is not something I ordinarily need to employ. The security built into our business is enough to insure everyone's safety."
"It probably doesn't matter at this point. Come sit down."
Claire laid her purse on the table just inside the door and walked across the living room to the sofa. Cam joined her, and without being asked, handed her a glass of wine.
"Thank you." She sipped the wine and said quietly, "I called you because there've been more questions. I'm apparently on the list now, too."
"Who approached you--a client?"
"Not the first time, no."
Cam didn't let her surprise show. She'd thought it might have been Doyle. Now she didn't know what to think.
"Someone you knew?"
"A new client. Apparently referred by an impeccable source, but I don't know who. I wouldn't."
"And she asked about me?"
"Not directly. Just vague questions about how many people from the Hill used the service. Wondering what kind of company she was in"nothing very specific, and if I hadn't known about the others being questioned, I might not have noticed." She drew a breath, as if steeling herself to continue. "Then a man asked about you."
"What exactly did he ask?" Cam inquired quietly.
"He didn't actually use your name. He showed me a photograph and asked me if I knew you."
"Was he a client, too?"
"He posed as one," Claire said with just a hint of distaste. "I could tell immediately that something was wrong, because he was uncomfortable."
Cam raised an eyebrow in question.
"The type of people I'm used to dealing with are not uncomfortable by our transactions."
"Of course." They were all civilized and business-like and emotionally remote. Like she had been--at first. When did that change? When we exchanged names?
"At any rate, he wasn't interested in anything physical. He was clearly stalling--trying to get me to talk about the business. When I didn't, he resorted to strong-arm tactics."
"Did he touch you?" Cam stiffened and loosely clasped her fingers over Claire's forearm.
"No, not like that," Claire quickly replied, covering Cam's hand with hers. "He mostly blustered and threatened and suggested that I could go to jail."
"That's what I asked him," Claire said with a dismissive shrug. "This is not some backroom operation with a shady client list. In every sense of the word, this is a high-powered business with even higher-powered clientele. Anyone who tried to expose some of our clients would probably end up in jail themselves."
"That's when he showed you the picture?"
She nodded. "Yes. I think at that point he realized he wasn't going to get anything from me and just decided to see how I would react."
"Claire," Cam said gently, placing her hands back on her own thighs. "I don't want you to protect me. You need to protect yourself, even if that means revealing your association with me."
Claire turned on the sofa until her knees were touching Cam's. She rested her hand on Cam's blue jean clad leg. The touch was intimate but not seductive. "I wouldn't do that."
"No matter what happens in the future--if for some reason you have to testify to anything, don't perjure yourself on my account. There's nothing illegal about what we've done. No one can prove the financial transaction, and even if they could, it's debatable whether any crime was involved."
"You're right about that. It would be virtually impossible to trace the business' income to any particular person."
"What are you going to do?"
Claire smiled sadly. "I'm going to retire."
They were both silent, because they both knew what that meant. In all likelihood, they would never see one another again.
"Are you leaving DC?" Cam asked softly.
"I don't know yet. Probably."
"This whole thing may blow over. I have a feeling it's just a fishing expedition--probably a small group of people trying to dig up any kind of inflammatory information on anyone they possibly can. There may be no point or direction to this investigation at all." She rubbed her eyes and grimaced. "Still, I think it's best if you get out since they've clearly identified you as part of the organization."
"I have a feeling there's going to be an imminent restructuring of the business. Probably a complete turnover of the escorts, too. At this point, everyone is suspect."
"If you need anything," Cam said, "anytime--you know how to find me."
"Thank you. Part of the reason I was in this business is that it's been very lucrative. You needn't worry about anything like that."
"I just meant--"
Claire placed her fingers gently against Cam's mouth. "I know what you meant."
They were both very still, Claire's fingers motionless against Cam's face. Finally she moved her hand to Cam's neck and held her gaze steadily. In a low voice, her body trembling, she asked, "Is there someone?"
Cam raised her hand and drew Claire's fingers to her lips again, then kissed them softly before letting them go. "Yes."
"I thought there must be. These last few months--you've been gone."
The sound of the doorbell interrupted her sentence and Cam murmured, "I'm sorry. Excuse me."
Surprised that the doorman had not phoned to announce a visitor, she quickly crossed to the door and glanced through the peephole. Too stunned even to curse, she opened the door to Blair Powell.
"What are you doing in DC?" Cam asked incredulously.
"Sorry to show up unannounced," Blair replied lightly. Hands in the pockets of her jeans, her face was alight with a smile of pleasure she couldn't hide. When Cam didn't answer, her smile faded. Then, aware of the consternation on Cam's face she asked, "What's wrong?"
Cam stepped into the hall and glanced up and down, pulling the door nearly closed behind her. "Where's the team?"
"My primary detail is at a hotel. The White House detail thinks I'm asleep."
"Goddamn it, Blair, I thought we were passed this by now."
"Listen, Cameron," Blair said sharply, confused by Cam's anger even though she had expected her to be annoyed. "I wanted to see you. No, I needed to see you."
Cam closed her eyes and sighed. When she spoke, her voice was soft, the edge gone. "I'm sorry. I just can't seem to impress upon you that you can't be running around the city by yourself."
"I wasn't running around. I took a cab." She brushed her hand over Cam's chest and bumped Cam's leg playfully with her hip. "So can I come in?"
"I'm sorry. No."
Blair stared at her, bewildered. "Why not? Don't tell me that you're going to get all huffy about the fact that the team doesn't know where I am. If it will make you happier, I'll use my cell phone to call the White House detail commander. I've done it before."
"It's not that." She hesitated, searching for the right words, and then realized that there weren't any. "There's someone here."
"Someone--" Blair stared at her, searching Cam's eyes and finding nothing but sorrow. "Are you finished or is she staying the night for round two?"
"Of course not. Damn it, Blair--"
"My mistake--I should have called."
Before Cam could protest, Blair turned on her heel, rapidly crossed the hallway, and pushed through the fire door to the stairwell. The last thing Cam heard were her boot heels echoing hollowly on the stairs.
Blair was leaning against a lamp post in a faint circle of light on the corner in front of Cam's apartment building when a woman came through the front door ten minutes later. She didn't need to be told who the blond was--she just knew. As if by design, the woman turned in her direction and their eyes met. Blair pushed away from the pole and started up the sidewalk as the other woman walked towards her. They met on the edge of the flickering shadows cast by the streetlight.
"I'd introduce myself," the woman said in a smooth, rich alto, "but that might not be a very good idea."
"No," Blair agreed. "Cameron would only remind us that what we don't know, we can't testify to."
"Your idea to leave or hers?" Blair asked conversationally.
"Hers. Did you doubt it?"
Blair shrugged. "Now and then."
"You don't have to."
"I might believe that in a decade or two."
The blond smiled wistfully. "I should go"she's pretty worried about you."
"I seem to have that effect on her."
"Apparently much more than that. You're very lucky."
"I could say the same thing about you," Blair said without rancor. "She's come to you for comfort, hasn't she?"
"No--only to forget. You have her heart." The blond extended her hand. "Goodnight then. I don't believe I'll be seeing you again."
And then she was gone.
When the elevator doors opened on Cam's floor, Blair found herself face to face with a very harried-looking Secret Service agent.
"Where are you going?" Blair asked, one arm holding the doors open as the bell sounded behind her in the car. Cam wore only threadbare jeans, a plain cotton shirt and loafers without socks. She didn't even appear to have her gun.
"To look for you."
"What made you think I didn't go straight back to the White House?" Blair asked as she stepped out of the elevator and the doors closed behind her, leaving them in the sudden hush of the deserted hallway.
"I knew you wouldn't go there."
Blair leaned one shoulder against the wall and studied Cam's face. Only the lingering hurt of imagining Cam in the arms of the alluring blond kept her from reaching out and stroking away the pain that was etched in her face. "Where did you think I'd go?"
Cam shrugged. "A club."
"And someone else's bed?"
Cam flinched as if struck. "Blair, please --"
Blair took Cam's hand and pulled her across the hall toward the apartment door. "We can't do this out here."
Wordlessly, Cam fitted her key to the lock, unable to stop the faint trembling in her hands. She'd been more than frightened when Blair had disappeared down the stairwell. She'd been terrified that Blair would rush headlong into the night, driven by pain and anger and betrayal into the solace of someone else's arms. She'd seen her do it before, and it had been agony to watch even the first time"before she'd loved her. Now, it would kill her.
Finally, she was able to get the door open and the two of them stepped inside. The room glowed faintly with moonlight and a sliver of illumination that slanted into the room from beyond a partially closed door on the other side of the apartment.
"She's very beautiful, isn't she," Blair said abruptly, stopping just inside the entrance to the large living room.
"Do you love her?"
"No," Cam exclaimed hoarsely, struggling not to touch her. The hard ring of Blair's voice, like steel striking stone, warned her to keep her distance. "Let me expl--"
"You've slept with her though, haven't you?"
"No! Not for a long time. Will you--"
"Did she make you co""
"Christ, Blair. Stop it."
"It makes me crazy to think about it," Blair whispered, her voice breaking.
It was the anguish in her voice more than the cold anger that cracked Cam's resolve. She caught her around the waist and pulled her hard against her chest. With her face buried in Blair's hair, she murmured, "I know. God, I know."
Blair's arms came around her shoulders, and her cheek, wet with tears she hadn't known she'd shed, brushed against Cam's.
"Oh Jesus, don't cry," Cam begged, nearly choking on her own desperate need to comfort her. "It's not what you think. I swear to God."
"Don't talk anymore," Blair pleaded, her fingers digging into Cam's arms. "Just please...make it stop hurting."
"I will," Cam pledged fervently. "I promise, I will."
Then Cam found Blair's hand and led her through the apartment to her bedroom. By the side of the bed, she tenderly kissed first her eyes, then the corner of her mouth, then the smooth skin of her neck. Lightly, she stroked her fingers along her jaw, over her shoulders, her thumbs brushing the swell of her breasts across the rise of her nipples.
Blair caught her lower lip between her teeth and swallowed a small cry. Lids fluttering, eyes unfocused, she rested her hands on Cam's shoulders for support as her lover slowly undressed her.
When Cam unzipped Blair's jeans and slipped her hands underneath the bottom of her T-shirt, smoothing her palms across her stomach, Blair's muscles flickered under her touch, and for an instant, Cam was afraid she would forget herself. Slowly, she drew the shirt over Blair's head and dropped it to the floor. Then, deliberately, she knelt, feeling Blair's hands move from her shoulders and into her hair. Gently, she hooked her fingers over the waistband of Blair's jeans and worked them down over her hips, lowering them until Blair could kick off her boots and step free of her pants. Then Blair stood naked, exposed and vulnerable, as Cam rested her cheek against the hollow at the base of Blair's abdomen. She wrapped her arms around Blair's hips, and, eyes closed, listened to the rush of blood through the arteries and veins just beneath the delicate skin where body joined thigh, her own heart quickening to echo the racing pulse. With one hand, she stroked the soft skin on the inside of Blair's leg, moving upward, gently teasing her thighs apart, circling a fingertip through the wet heat until Blair swayed in her arms, her breath a tumble of small moans. Finally, she shifted until she could press her mouth to the center of Blair's passion, finding her clitoris hard and full with need.
"Cam," Blair whispered, her neck arched, the muscles of her jaw tight as her thighs trembled in expectation.
Parting her lips, Cam enclosed her, sucking lightly.
"Oh," Blair breathed, her hands fisting in Cam's hair. "Don't. Not like this--I'll come right away."
Cam heard the edge of urgency in her voice and pulled her mouth away, rising rapidly and gathering her close once again. With her lips against Blair's ear, she rasped, "I love you so damn much."
"Take off your clothes. I need to have you--everywhere."
Cam stepped away while Blair stretched out on top of her bed. Feverishly, eyes glued to Blair's body, Cam stripped off her shirt and jeans, pulling her loafers off with her clothes. Then she lowered herself on top of Blair, fitting one leg between Blair's thighs, their breasts just touching as she supported herself on her elbows, her palms framing Blair's head. She rocked slowly into the space between Blair's legs, feeling the prominence of her clitoris against her thigh, the slick sheen of need along her skin. Their faces were only inches apart, but she did not kiss her yet.
Staring into Blair's eyes, her dark gaze holding Blair captive, Cam said fiercely, "Being with you makes me forget ever touching another woman. Being with you makes me forget that anyone else ever touched me. Being with you is what keeps me alive."
Blair's body tightened with the force of Cam's voice as much as the press of her flesh, and, as if she had been stroked in some essential place, the words tore through her, obliterating a lifetime of loss. She arched beneath Cam's weight, a cry wrenched from her lips. Then, arms wrapped tightly around her lover, she came.
"God, you're beautiful," Cam gasped as Blair jerked beneath her.
When Blair quieted, Cam collapsed onto the bed beside her and pulled her into her arms. She pressed a kiss into her hair and whispered again, "I love you."
Blair pressed her face to the hollow between Cam's neck and shoulder and breathed in her scent, wanting nothing more than to be surrounded by her, immersed in her, lost to her. After what might have been a moment, or an hour, she murmured, "I wanted you from the minute you walked into my apartment that first day, all spit and polish and businesslike. At first I wanted you because I wanted to control you and not have it be the other way around. Then I wanted you because every time I saw you, you made me ache. Now I want you because the thought of being without you terrifies me."
"Didn't you forget the part about me being such a stud?" Cam said quietly, tightening her grip on the woman in her arms.
"Oh that." Blair laughed shakily, and kissed Cam's neck. "Yeah, that too."
"I know I don't have words to tell you what you mean to me," Cam continued, her voice choked with feeling. "I don't think anything will ever make you understand except the days turning into weeks and then into months and finally into years--and I'll still be here, loving you."
Blair stroked her hand across Cam's shoulder and down her chest, lingering on her breasts before drawing her fingertips down the center of her abdomen. Cam tensed under her touch, her breath catching.
"There something about touching you that makes me feel like I'm god," Blair said softly into the darkness.
"The thought of anyone else--"
"Don't think it. It won't happen."
As if suddenly revitalized, Blair shifted on the bed and straddled Cam's hips. She leaned down with one hand on either side of Cam's shoulders, her breasts inches from Cam's face, her eyes bright with purpose. "I have this thing about what is mine. I don't like to share."
"Neither do I."
"Good," Blair murmured just before she claimed Cam's mouth, the kiss hard and possessive.
The kiss lasted a long time. It was more than a kiss, it was an assertion of belonging and owning and joining. Cam opened herself to the depth of Blair's desire, letting her have whatever she demanded, giving her willingly all that she needed, reveling in the surrender that felt like nothing but freedom.
When Blair pushed down on the bed and placed her hands between Cam's thighs, Cam arched her back and lifted her hips, offering all that she had. When Blair thrust inside her, fast and hard, a light burst behind her eyes, and her fists closed emptily on the air. The power of it struck deep in her bones, and her blood soared beyond her control. Thighs trembling, breath caught between heartbeats, she came soundlessly, unable even to cry out, suspended for an eternity between heaven and earth. Finally, she lay gasping, sweat-soaked and trembling with Blair sagged against her, weakly moaning her name.
Somewhere between love and desire, they slept.
Shortly after dawn, Blair was awakened by a faint stirring beside her. She opened her eyes to find Cam seated on the side of the bed, naked. Reaching out one hand, she stroked the length of her spine and asked, "What's the matter?"
"Nothing," Cam said quickly. Turning in the gray light, she smiled down at her, brushed a lock of hair from Blair's cheek, then leaned to kiss her softly.
"Couldn't sleep?" Blair asked once Cam straightened again. "I must be slipping."
Cam laughed faintly. "Oh no--believe me, you're not. I was just a little restless. I guess I'm used to being up and working by now."
"Lie down," Blair said, taking her lover's hand and drawing her down beside her. When Cam stretched out on her back, Blair raised on one elbow and searched her face. "You want to tell me who she is?"
"Can't or won't?" Surprisingly, her tone held neither anger nor accusation, only the question.
"I don't know precisely who she is. I never have."
"And if you did?"
"Even if I knew her name, I probably wouldn't tell you," Cam confessed.
"To protect her?"
"Partly," Cam replied carefully, watching Blair's face. "But mostly to protect you."
"I heard a rumor that you were paying for sex. Is that true?"
If Cam was surprised by the bluntness of the question, she didn't show it. Her dark eyes held Blair's steadily as she said, "Yes."
"Why?" Blair ran her hand down the center of Cam's abdomen, tracing the muscles etched below the skin, her eyes following the path of sinew and bones down the length of her thighs. The sight never failed to make her think of a form sculpted by an artist. "God only knows, you don't need to."
"It was simpler."
Blair raised an eyebrow. "Simpler?"
"It was easy to schedule; there were no complications; there were no repercussions."
"A simple business arrangement, huh?"
"Something like that."
Blair leaned forward and kissed her, a long slow sensuous kiss that held both reminders of passions past and promises of future pleasures. When she drew back, the corner of her full mouth lifted in a satisfied smile. "Cameron, cut the secret agent stuff. Why did you do it?"
For one of the few times Blair could ever remember, Cam averted her gaze. Silently, she waited for Cam to make a decision, one that she knew was more about them and their future than anything that had happened in the past. At length, Cam looked at her and answered.
"The day my lover Janet was killed, we'd made love in the morning. But we'd had angry words, too, and we parted angry. I hadn't known the details of a dangerous assignment she was involved in until, as it turned out, it was too late. We kept secrets from each other as a matter of routine. We were both used to living that way. It was comfortable, and I don't think either of us wanted to risk too much. After I watched her die, I couldn't bring myself to make to love anyone else."
"Because you still loved her?" Blair was pleased that her voice did not waver on the words.
"No." Cam blew out a breath. "Because I felt guilty for not having loved her more. I keep thinking maybe I could have changed the way it turned it out if I had."
"I'm sorry," Blair whispered.
"It's over," Cam said quietly. She smoothed her palm over Blair's thigh. "But thanks."
"The woman last night--she's in love with you, you know."
"No," Cam said quickly, her voice adamant. "It wasn't like that."
Blair ran her fingertips along Cam's jaw to the corner of her mouth. "Not for you maybe. Maybe."
"We never shared anything like this, Blair," Cam insisted.
"I'm glad," Blair said honestly. "It makes me wild to think of you making love with her. I can't even contemplate you sharing this with her."
Cam brushed her fingers through the hair at the base of Blair's neck, her thumb moving over the skin behind her ear, a caress at once tender and possessive. "I've never shared anything like this with anyone before."
"I love you, Cam."
"I like the way that sounds."
"Yeah, me, too."
Blair settled down on the bed and rested her head on Cam's shoulder, her hand lying on the arch of Cam's hip, her fingers slowly moving back and forth. As calmly as she could, she asked, "So why was she here last night."
"It's not something you should know about. For security reasons."
"Fuck security. Just tell me."
"Someone is investigating the organization she works for," Cam disclosed reluctantly. "My name has come up. She wanted to warn me."
"Jesus." Blair pushed away and sat up in bed, brushing her hair back from her face with both hands, suddenly intense and focused. "Who?"
"I don't know. My guess is it's probably an FBI sting operation. I suppose it could be a RICO investigation out of Justice, but I've never heard that this organization has any mob connections. It's hard to know, but everything I was able to find out about them suggested they didn't."
"Can they hurt you with this?"
Cam was silent.
"Damn it, Cameron. Tell me."
"In all likelihood, I would lose my security clearance. If that happens, I'll never do this kind of work again."
"Under any other circumstances, the thought of that would make me happy," Blair said sharply. "But not like this. No one is going to do this to you. What else?"
"I don't know for sure. Apparently there've been questions about your father, too. I have to think that was just a fishing expedition, and even if it were fact, I'm not sure what they could do with the knowledge."
"What are you going to do?"
"I don't know yet. If I could find out who was behind it, especially if it were unsanctioned by any official division, I might be able to turn it around on them."
"I know someone I might be able to get information from," Blair said absently, thinking about AJ. AJ had given her Cam's home address after much coercion, but just the same, she had gotten the information.
Cam shot straight up in bed "No. You cannot come anywhere near this. I've jeopardized you just by telling you what I have. Don't you realize that under oath you'd have to reveal what I told you"and that by knowing, you're complicit in the crime? You have to let this go, Blair. I never would have told you any of this if we weren't lovers."
"You can't expect me to stand by and watch someone try to ruin you."
"This may not even be about me. I may just be a sideline to whoever is behind this. Until they make their next move, we don't know what this means."
"Oh, come on," Blair said deprecatingly. "They're sending me pictures of you in bars with women. Who else are they going to send the pictures to, my father's Security Director?"
"Just promise me you'll stay out of it, and I promise I'll tell you whatever I discover. Please."
"I'm not going to promise anything right now, because I don't want to lie to you."
"Goddamn it, Blair--"
"You'd do the same in my position."
For a moment, they stared at one another in tense silence until finally Cam nodded once, still muttering under her breath.
"Is there anything else you haven't told me?" Blair asked, her expression resolute.
"One thing," Cam finally admitted.
Blair's heart skipped a beat. "What?"
Cam sighed. "There's going to be a formal inquiry into the operation in New York City."
"My actions are being reviewed." She hesitated, then added reluctantly, "They may ask for my suspension until it's finished."
"When did you learn this?" Blair's voice was steel again.
"I met with Stewart Carlisle last night and he confirmed it."
"Confirmed it? So you knew there was a possibility of this before?"
"It was just a possibility," Cam said uneasily.
"It came up during the debriefings last week, didn't it?" Blair said, her anger escalating. "That's why you left here so suddenly in the middle of the night, and why you haven't been sleeping, and why you look like hell half the time. And you didn't tell me."
"There wasn't anything to tell," Cam insisted. "It hadn't been decided then."
"And while I was relaxing in San Francisco--reading, shopping, talking with your mother-- you knew that this could happen. But you didn't think it was important enough to tell me. Goddamn it, how are we going to have a relationship if this is the way you behave with me."
Cam stared at her, speechless. "I thought we already had a relationship."
"That's not what I mean, and you know it. I love you. It's not just about sex and it's not just about attraction. It's about needing to be with you. It's about needing to be in your life. What's so hard to understand about that?" She threw back the sheets and started to get out of bed. Cam stopped her with a hand on her forearm.
"I'm sorry. I've never done this with anyone. It's a habit--it's what I'm used to. That can change."
"I'm sorry for asking," Blair said, her voice pitched low, her eyes averted.
"No," Cam said forcefully. "Don't apologize for asking me for what you need, especially when it's the right thing for both of us. That's part of this love deal, too, right?"
Blair glanced at her, but said nothing. Cam slid her arm around Blair's waist, pulling her back down on the bed. "From the beginning I've needed you to help me see what I needed. You never let up"you never gave up. I hope you never do."
Blair smiled at that and curled against the welcoming warmth and strength of her body, murmuring, "You're going to drive me crazy."
"Yeah, but I love you like crazy."
"I suppose there is that."
"Before you fall asleep, you need to make a call," Cam said drowsily.
"To who?" Blair mumbled.
"The White House detail commander. When you're not there in the morning, they're going to start a manhunt."
Blair sighed and rolled over, reaching for her cell phone on the bedside table. "I'll call one of my friends on the inside. That should take care of it."
"Good," Cam replied. "Because I have plans for you in the morning."
Just after 8:00 a.m., they stepped into the shower together and kissed while the water cascaded over them. Then, they began taking turns soaping each other's body until Cam wordlessly placed the bar on the small shelf behind her, took Blair's shoulders in both hands, and pressed her against the tiled back wall of the shower. With her mouth covering Blair's, she slid her fingers, wet with water and Blair's arousal between Blair's thighs, moving slowly, pushing ever deeper, until she felt the walls of Blair's soul fall before her touch. She held her lover upright with the sheer strength of her arm pinioning her to the wall and the pressure of her hips against Blair's. As she moved within her, drawing her ever closer to a precipice from which there was no return, she felt Blair begin to orgasm against her body, around her hand, and she smiled.
"What was that all about?" Blair gasped a moment later, her eyes still dazed.
"Just this thing I have about what's mine," Cam murmured.
"You made your point quite effectively," Blair commented, slipping her palm to the back of Cam's neck and drawing her close.
"Problem with that?" Cam asked from a breath away.
"Not a one." And then she kissed her.
A few minutes later as Blair toweled her hair, admiring Cam's ass in the mirror, her cell phone rang on the counter nearby. She reached for it and listened for a few seconds. "All right."
Naked, Cam turned and raised an inquiring eyebrow when she saw the expression on Blair's face. "What?"
"You might want to find your jeans," Blair said in an oddly disembodied voice. "My father is on his way upstairs."
The two of them scrambled for their clothes and had barely finished zipping and buttoning when a sharp rap sounded on the door. Cam crossed the living room, peered through the peephole, and pulled open the door.
"Good morning, Mr. President."
"You can wait outside, Tom," Andrew Powell said to the clean-shaven, slender African-American man who stood just behind his right shoulder.
"That would not be advisable, sir," the agent replied in a deep rumbling baritone.
Cam glanced right and then left, noting the positions of the other three agents stationed at intervals in the hallway outside her apartment door. She knew that there are would be at least one agent in each stairwell at the end of the hallway, one in the lobby by the elevator, and several outside in the vehicles. She also knew it was SOP for the president never to be alone with anyone other than immediate family. It was an immutable rule.
"I believe that Secret Service Agent Roberts and my daughter can be trusted," the president said as Cam stepped back to admit him.
As the president passed her, she looked into the angry countenance of the primary agent assigned to protect the most powerful man on the planet, but there was nothing to say. She closed the door and turned around in time to see Blair briefly hug her father before moving away to face him with a question in her eyes.
"What's going on?" Blair asked.
"I'll just wait in the other room," Cam said quietly, turning to walk to the small second bedroom on the opposite side of the living room which served as her study and home office. It occurred to her that both she and Blair looked like they had just stepped from the shower, which of course, they had. Their hair was wet, Blair was without makeup, and both of them were wearing last night's discarded clothing. She glanced surreptitiously around the room, hoping that they hadn't left a trail of garments behind.
Jesus, what an impression we must be making.
"I think you should stay, Agent Roberts," Andrew Powell said in a smooth, well modulated tone that didn't sound like the order it was. His expression was mild as he regarded first her and then his daughter, but his deep-blue eyes were laser-sharp.
He was wearing a navy blue suit, white shirt, and striped tie. He looked collegiate and fit, with a natural tan that was present year-round. She could see Blair in his blue eyes, his physical presence, and his intensity. Irrationally, she liked him just because of that.
"Can I get you anything, Mr. President?" Cam asked, not entirely certain what the hell to do with him in her apartment. "Coffee, maybe?"
"Fine." He looked from one to the other of them and smiled faintly. "I'd wager that you two are ready for some."
"It'll take a minute," Cam said, trying desperately not to blush.
"Come sit down," Blair said quietly and indicated the sofa and nearby matching chairs grouped in front of the windows. When they were seated, her on the sofa, him on the chair across from her, she asked once again, "What are you doing here?"
"I thought we should talk," her father said, glancing up as Cam joined them.
"About Lucinda Washburn's visit to my office this morning at 6 a.m."
"Oh," Blair commented. "Well--"
"First of all, it's not my business. If it weren't for the... unusual circumstances we find ourselves in, I wouldn't even bring it up."
"Well, if it weren't for our circumstances, neither would Lucinda in all likelihood," Blair commented dryly.
"It a family matter, and Lucinda should have talked to me before bringing it up with you."
"She was doing her job," Blair pointed out without animosity. "I understand that."
Cam wasn't entirely certain what to do, but she decided that since she had been invited, she would sit where she belonged, next to Blair. Blair glanced at her quickly, almost apologetically, and then regarded her father again.
"There was a picture of me in an...intimate moment in the newspaper," Blair said matter-of-factly. "I'm sorry. It wasn't intended."
"There's no way to avoid publicity." The president shrugged, apparently unconcerned.
"I'm sorry that you had to."
She was silent, and Cam saw her hands tremble where they rested on her thighs.
"At any rate," the president continued, "I saw it. It seemed innocent enough to me."
"It wasn't a very good image," Blair said flatly. "Next time it might be."
"Lucinda says it's a woman with you."
"And you've tried to keep that a secret, too?"
"It seemed the wisest thing to do."
He sighed. "If I had more time, I'd probably be able to do this a little more diplomatically, but I don't. I'm sorry."
"You don't need to be." Blair's voice was uninflected, her face impossible to read. "Fire away."
He regarded Blair intently, as if trying to see beneath the cool veneer to the fire below. "Is it serious"this relationship?"
Cam cleared her throat. "Sir--"
"Yes," Blair interrupted. "Very."
"Good. I'm glad to hear it. When were you going to tell me?"
"Uh--" Cam began.
"Eventually," Blair said hurriedly. "It's complicated. I""
Cam blew out a breath and leaned forward, meeting the commander-in-chief's gaze steadily. "That would be me in the photo, sir."
"I see." He looked thoughtful for a moment and, then nodded, once. "That further complicates the situation, doesn't it?"
"Dad," Blair said suddenly. "I'd like to keep Cam's name out of things, if I--"
"That's not necessary," Cam interjected swiftly. "I have nothing to hide, sir, nor do I have any regrets."
"The point is," Blair said with a hint of exasperation, "this could be misconstrued, considering her official relationship to me. I don't want there to be any repercussions--"
"I take full responsibility--"
The president laughed. "I can see that Lucinda has absently no idea just how complicated this is."
The three of them stared at one another and then all of them began to laugh, the tension in the room noticeably ebbing. To Cam's surprise, Blair reached over and took her hand.
"Lucinda is concerned about backlash and the potential damage to your re-election campaign," Blair said.
"Yes, I know. She outlined that for me this morning. In detail."
"She has a point," Blair said, her voice subdued. Without realizing it, she closed her fingers tightly around Cam's.
"It's a very difficult thing to gauge," the president said contemplatively. "There are only so many factors we can control--or spin--at one time. I'm sure that someone on my staff will be doing some kind of poll within the next day or so, carefully disguised so that no one will realize they're really talking about us. Then someone else will draw up a list of possible voter responses, and the director of communications will draft a speech, all of which means absolutely nothing in the final analysis."
"There's going to be considerable criticism because it will look like we were trying to hide our relationship," Cam said carefully. "We're likely to anger people on both sides of the fence."
"Well, I'm not certain that Lucinda's suggestion that you put your relationship on hold for more than a year until the nomination is secured is particularly practical or even useful."
Cam stiffened and had to struggle not to look at Blair. Blair hadn't mentioned that request.
"I'm not going to do that," Blair said, her voice calm.
"I'm not asking you to," her father said. "That's why I'm here. Mostly, I wanted to tell you to do whatever you chose in terms of discussing or not discussing your private life with the press. Whatever the consequences, we'll deal with it."
He glanced at his watch, then at Cam. "I have a few minutes, Agent Roberts. Any chance for that coffee now?"
"Right away, sir. And by the way," she said, extending her hand as she stood, "it's Cam."
Smiling, the president shook her hand. "Andrew."
Fifteen minutes later, after coffee and a conversation that centered on Blair's plans for a gallery showing in the fall, Blair and Cam walked the president to the door. When it closed behind him, they stood staring at one another, both slightly stunned.
"He gets to the point, doesn't he?" Cam remarked.
"He surprised me," Blair admitted, walking to the sofa and resting her hips against the arm, her face contemplative. "He's never asked me anything that personal before."
"Maybe he was waiting for you to bring it up."
"He seemed...okay, don't you think?"
Cam thought about the conversation, although it was hard to be objective when the President of the United States was inquiring about your love life. "Yeah. He seemed...fine." She ran a hand through her hair and grinned at Blair. "Jesus."
"How do you think he knew I was here?"
"Most likely someone on the White House security detail told him. If they really didn't have a very good idea of where you were, they'd have called Mac and he would have called me." That had happened before, but she saw no reason to remind Blair that she had very little true freedom despite appearances.
Blair made a disgusted sound.
"He's the president," Cam pointed out reasonably. "If there's something he wants to know, it's pretty unlikely that he wouldn't be able to find out."
Cam crossed to Blair, took her hand, and drew her around to the front of the sofa, then tugged her down beside her. With Blair's fingers laced in hers, Cam asked quietly, "Why didn't you tell me that Lucinda Washburn doesn't want you to see me anymore?"
"If you'll recall," Blair said pointedly, "we were discussing other matters last evening. And then we weren't discussing anything at all."
Ignoring the evasive answer, Cam persisted. "There was time this morning when we were talking about my problems."
Blair said nothing, and for the briefest moment, she looked away.
"It's not just my problems and my life that we have to share," Cam said gently. "This isn't something you can face by yourself. It involves both of us."
Suddenly, Blair stood and walked to the opposite side of the room. Then she turned, facing Cam across the distance. "I wasn't sure what you would say. I was... afraid that you would agree with her. That you would..."
As Blair's voice trailed off, Cam got to her feet. "You were afraid that I would disappear, weren't you?"
Blair nodded solemnly, the pain swimming in her eyes.
Quickly, Cam crossed the space to her and placed both hands on her shoulders. Then, she found Blair's eyes and held her gaze. "And you're right--a few months ago, that's probably exactly what I would have considered. I don't know that I would've been able to do it--I've never been able to stay away from you." She skimmed her fingers along Blair's rigid jaw. "Never been able to stop wanting you. But I might have wanted to try."
Blair's eyes darkened, the blue shading nearly to black. Cam felt Blair stiffen under her hand, sensed her desire to run. Holding onto her, she repeated, "A few months ago...maybe. Not now."
"I don't know how I would stand it." Blair's voice wavered and she clamped down hard on the old pain. The old pain"not Cam's doing, but so hard to remember that.
"No--neither do I."
Blair wrapped her arms around Cam's waist and stepped into her embrace, the fear that had coiled around her heart since the moment her father had walked into the room loosening its hold. She pressed her lips to Cam's neck, then leaned back to look at her, her voice stronger, the anguish extinguished by the solid reassurance of Cam's body, the certainty of her words.
"That doesn't mean we've heard the end of this," Blair noted. "Just because my father believes that nothing can damage his reputation or hurt his political chances, that doesn't necessarily mean it's true. He is an excellent leader, but sometimes he refuses to believe he's not invincible. He forgets to watch his back."
"I have a feeling that's what Lucinda Washburn is for," Cam commented dryly. And she had a feeling Washburn wouldn't give up easily.
"Most definitely. I'm sure we'll be hearing from her again."
Cam drew Blair closer and rested her cheek against her lover's. Softly, she murmured, "Let's deal with that when we have to. For the time being, we'll carry on."
"I love you," Blair whispered.
"I love you." Then Cam sighed, kissed Blair's temple, and stepped back. "We need to call the team and make plans to go back to New York, unless you're staying down here?"
"Not for a moment longer than I have to," Blair said adamantly. "Although if we could stay right here..."
"We could," Cam countered, "but we'd still need to call the team."
"I know," Blair said with a sigh, taking her first real opportunity to survey Cam's apartment in daylight. As she slowly turned, admiring the clean, modern style, her eyes stopped on something familiar on the far wall and she gasped involuntarily.
Cam followed her gaze and grinned.
"When did you get those?" Blair asked, clearly astonished.
"At the gallery opening last winter."
"Did you know?"
Cam regarded the series of charcoal nudes, finding them just as beautiful as she had the first time she'd seen them. "Yes, I knew they were yours, even though you didn't sign them with your own name."
"How?" Blair's voice was hushed.
"I'd seen the work in your loft the first time I came for a briefing. Your style is very distinctive."
Blair stared at her. "Why did you buy them?"
"Because they're very good." After a beat, she added, "And because you did them."
Their eyes caught and held, a flame jumping between them.
"We don't have to call the team right away, do we?" Blair asked, her voice husky as he moved toward her lover.
Cam swallowed, watching the color rise in Blair's throat, tightening inside. Thickly, she replied, "I think we might have a little bit of time."
"Do you know what I'd really like to do?"
"What?" Cam asked, looking up from where she sat on the side of the bed pulling on her socks and loafers. The whimsical note in Blair's voice made her smile, and she regarded her appreciatively. A faint blush still colored her lover's skin from their recent lovemaking and the memory of it twisted through her, making her unexpectedly catch her breath as if struck.
"I'd like to order a pizza, get two or three videos, and spend the day on the sofa watching bad science fiction movies with you."
Cam stopped what she was doing, her smile turning to an expression of sad understanding. Softly, she said, "I know. I'm sorry that we can't. If I were anyone else--"
"No," Blair said adamantly, crossing quickly to her and stopping between Cam's parted thighs, then brushing her fingers through Cam's hair. Looking down, her mouth still bruised with their kisses, she said again, "No. If I were anyone else we might be able to do that. Even if you weren't my security chief, it would still be very difficult for us to do something that simple. Your position may complicate things for us, but it didn't create my problems."
Resting her forehead against Blair's midsection, her arms lightly clasping her lover's waist, Cam murmured, "It won't always be this way."
Finally, Cam looked up, her dark eyes swirling with emotion. "I'd do anything to be able to take you out for a late lunch and then stroll around Dupont circle holding your hand, just letting whatever happens, happen. I'd give you that if I could."
"I believe you." Blair knelt, nestling her body between Cam's legs, her eyes meeting her lover's. "And that's what makes it bearable not being able to do that. Sometimes knowing you understand is the only thing that makes it bearable."
"Christ, I love you," Cam breathed, her fingers lightly tracing Blair's face. Then, Cam kissed her forehead and finally, because she had to, she glanced at her watch. "The team should be downstairs by now. Are you ready?"
Blair lingered for just a moment, her hands slowly caressing Cam's shoulders and chest, unwilling to let her go because she didn't know how long it would be before she could touch her this way again. Then with a sigh, she pushed herself upright, straightened her shoulders, and said firmly, "Yes. I'm ready."
They didn't stop to kiss at the door of Cam's apartment, because their goodbyes had already been said, but instead, they walked directly to the elevator, waited for the doors to open, and then rode down to the lobby in silence. They stood close together, their arms lightly touching.
As they crossed the brightly lit room toward the front doors, beyond which Cam could see the Suburban idling with several agents inside and Stark waiting by the rear door, the building's security guard called out, "Excuse me. There's a package for you, Ms. Roberts."
At her look of surprise, he added, "The courier said not to call up, but that I should give it to you when you came downstairs."
"Courier?" Instinctively, Cam glanced around the lobby, one hand unbuttoning her blazer for access to her weapon. Other than the security guard, she and Blair were alone. Nevertheless, she spoke quickly into her wrist microphone. "Mac, secure the street. Stark--inside."
Outside, the Suburban's doors flew open and agents piled out, weapons drawn. Cam positioned her body between Blair and the glass front doors, one hand cupped lightly under Blair's right elbow, blocking a direct sightline from the outside to the president's daughter while waiting for Stark to enter the building and take her place.
"What is it?" Blair asked urgently.
"Probably nothing," Cam said in a low voice. "But it's unusual for anything to be delivered to me here. No one should have this address except for Treasury, and they don't leave anything without an ID and a signature."
Stark approached at a near run and Cam instructed, "Escort Ms. Powell to the vehicles and evacuate to fifteen hundred yards. Do it now."
Then she looked at the guard and said, "Step away from the desk."
Her tone left no room for question and to his credit, he didn't. He simply slid off his stool and moved hurriedly around the front of the waist-high partition which enclosed the building's closed-circuit security monitors.
"Cam?" Blair protested, her voice rife with alarm as Stark began to direct her to the door.
"Evacuate her, Stark," Cam ordered without turning back, walking around the partition and studying the package sitting on the shelf. It was an oversized manila envelope, the kind that had been delivered to Blair's apartment the day before. Without touching it, she leaned closer and studied the hand printed address written in bold magic marker. There was no return address. Outside the vehicles screamed away from the curb.
She had no reason to suspect that it was incendiary or explosive, especially since it had already been handled with no particular regard for caution by the security guard. She lifted it by the corner. It was light, and she suspected that it held photographs or documents of some kind.
"Should I call for a bomb squad?" the guard asked, his voice high with tension.
"No. Thanks. I've got it."
Clearly stunned by the rapid evacuation of the remarkably familiar-appearing blond and just as taken aback by 17 B's commanding attitude, he merely nodded and said, "Yes, ma'am."
She flashed him a wave as she walked out the door. Once outside, she began walking north and radioed Mac a location to pick her up. A few minutes later, the lead Suburban, Stark at the wheel, appeared and pulled up beside her.
Once settled in the back with Blair across from her, she leaned forward and said through the privacy partition, "All clear for the airport, Stark. Nice execution, by the way."
When she turned back, she was nearly pinned to seat by the fire shooting from Blair's blue eyes.
"Was that really necessary?" Blair demanded.
"I could hardly let you stand there if there was any possibility that someone had delivered a volatile package," Cam said reasonably.
"Oh, but it's okay if you get blown into a few million pieces?" Blair asked, biting off each word as she fisted her hands by her sides to stop the trembling.
"There was very little chance of that, considering that the guard had already handled it--unless someone was watching for me to pick it up and triggered the device with a remote detonator. It was very unlikely that it could be harmful."
"But you were careful enough to get me out of the building."
Of course," Cam said with a hint of genuine confusion in her voice. "Even the slightest risk to you is unacceptable."
"You don't have any idea what this does to me, do you?" Blair said incredulously.
"It was just routine, Blair," Cam began. "I--"
"Do you have any idea how I felt watching you get hit that day?" Blair said in a low, tormented voice as if Cam hadn't spoken. Almost as if Cam was no longer there. "Do you know what that did to me to see you lying on the sidewalk, blood pouring from your chest, knowing you were dying? Knowing I couldn't touch you--couldn't stop it? That I was losing you, too?"
Cam's face drained of color. Her voice was hoarse as she whispered, "Yes. I know."
Stunned by the transformation in her usually imperturbable lover, Blair suddenly realized what she had said, and she knew, too, that Cam had experienced almost the same thing the day her lover had died. "Jesus, Cameron, I'm sorry. I didn't think."
Cam held up her hand. "No. It's all right." She cleared her throat, chased the demons away. "I never realized...I'm sorry. I would never want you to go through that again."
"I can't seem to get used to you putting me first," Blair said, leaning forward, her fingers touching Cam's hand. "Not just physically--all of it. It will take a little practice."
"I don't put you first just because of the job, Blair," Cam said emphatically. "I do it because I love you, and I know that if the situation called for it, you'd do the same."
Blair nodded, knowing Cam was right. It wasn't so much about who protected whom, but much more about the urgency they both felt to keep the other safe. She would die before she let anyone harm Cam.
"Just don't get hurt, OK?" Blair said, her voice breaking.
"I won't. I promise."
As the vehicles turned off the road into the airport, they smiled at each other, peace following in the wake of trust.
Once on the plane, after everyone was situated, Blair asked Cam, "Are you going to open that envelope?"
Cam regarded the still unopened package and shook her head. "Not yet. There may be some kind of forensic evidence on the contents. I'd like to open it somewhere where it can be examined properly."
"Do you know of someone you can trust to do that for you?"
"Maybe. Savard has been helping out." At Blair's raised eyebrow, she clarified, "Stark's suggestion. And a good one. I'll call her when we get to New York City."
"I want to be there."
Cam's first reaction was to say no, and then she realized that she couldn't. It was likely that whatever was inside had something to do with her or Blair or both of them, and she had promised Blair that she would not shut her out. She didn't like it, because her instinct was to keep Blair far away from anything that might potentially endanger her--emotionally or physically. But they had gone too far for that now. "All right."
Pleased, Blair rested her fingers on Cam's thigh. "Thank you."
It was early evening by the time they landed in New York and made the trek into Manhattan to Blair's apartment. As they disembarked in front of the building, Cam said to Stark, "Would you mind staying a few moments, Agent?"
Stark, who was technically off-shift, and who had already worked twenty-four hours overtime with the unexpected trip to DC, and who had missed her date with Savard in the bargain, said immediately, "No problem. I'll be in the command center."
The agents sorted themselves out, some proceeding upstairs with Stark for the evening shift and others signing out for the night. Alone, Cam and Blair took the keyed elevator to Blair's apartment.
Once inside, Cam said, "I need to give Mac a call and see if he's turned up anything."
Blair dropped her overnight bag inside the door. "Are you hungry? I can fix us something."
Cam shed her jacket but kept her shoulder harness on over her blended-silk dress shirt. "That would be great. I'll give you a hand in a minute."
Smiling, Blair shook her head. "Just do what you need to do."
Cam settled into one of the fabric sling chairs which, along with the sofa, defined the loft's central living area and picked up the phone. She dialed and after a minute said, "It's Roberts. Where are you?...turn up anything...do you have the tapes?... okay, fine. Call me when you get in."
Sighing, she replaced the receiver and came around the breakfast bar into the kitchen where Blair was slicing mushrooms on a cutting board. A pot of water boiled on the cook top to her right.
"Can I do something?"
"Plates. What did he say?" Blair asked as she rinsed several tomatoes under the faucet and then cubed them.
"The security guard didn't have much more to offer than what he'd already told me. The package was dropped off at 7:52 this morning."
"Huh--just before my father arrived. Does that mean anything?"
"I don't know. I doubt it."
"What did he say about the courier?"
"He doesn't remember anything in particular except that it was a woman--Caucasian, medium height, twenty-five, maybe thirty. Mac has the tapes and is bringing them back here. We'll compare them to the surveillance tapes we have from downstairs when the first envelope was delivered here yesterday."
"A woman delivered it?" Blair inquired in surprise. "Both times?"
"Apparently." Cam shrugged. "That probably doesn't mean anything either. Half the couriers are women these days. Besides, it's doubtful that whoever is behind this would deliver it in person. But we have to check it out."
"I suppose you're right," Blair said contemplatively as she placed a handful of pasta in the boiling water.
"What?" Cam asked, noting Blair's expression.
"It's probably nothing."
"What is it? At this point, we can't afford to overlook anything."
"I thought it was really funny when I called my friend AJ to get your home address last night. She was very reluctant to give it to me."
"AJ? Who's she?"
"An FBI agent stationed at Bureau headquarters in DC. She's an information specialist."
"And she's been feeding you classified information?" Cam exclaimed incredulously. "Holy Christ. She could lose her job for that--or worse."
"She's discreet, and I don't ask her for much. We're old friends from prep school."
"I never realized you had such a network of insiders," Cam said appreciatively. That explains a lot about how she's been able to keep such a low profile about her private life all these years. She's had help keeping the information under wraps.
It was Blair's turn to shrug. Then she grinned sheepishly. "I've had a long time to acquire them."
"So," Cam continued, "you think your friend has something to do with this? How well do you know her?"
Blair smiled enigmatically.
"Ah ha," Cam said, arching an eyebrow. "Recently?"
There was just a touch of heat in her voice.
Blair laughed. "Not what you're thinking, surprisingly enough. I covered for her a few times when she was out all night on a date, back when the schools actually tried to keep track of such things. She's the daughter of a Senator-one who gave my father a run for his money in the primaries, actually. We have a lot in common."
"And you trust her?"
"Enough to tell her about this?"
Blair hesitated as she dished out pasta and sautúed vegetables. "Yesterday morning I would have said yes. Last night she sounded...odd. Like she wanted to say something, but didn't."
"Or couldn't," Cam countered.
They carried the plates to the breakfast bar and sat side by side.
"What do you mean?"
"Did you talk to her at work?"
"Yes. But I was circumspect. I didn't use your name."
"Still," Cam said around bites, "she has to know everything going in and out of there is taped. And besides, maybe she's more loyal to the Bureau than to you, especially if she thinks I'm dirty. Remember, she doesn't know me at all."
"I hadn't considered that," Blair said softly. The thought of anyone, but especially a friend, thinking that about Cam bothered her. She was at once angry and saddened. Unconsciously, she dropped her hand onto Cam's thigh, stroking her softly. "Do you think I should try talking to her?"
"Not yet. Maybe we'll know more after we see what's in the newest delivery," Cam mused, covering Blair's hand with hers. "As soon as we're done, I'm going to find out if Savard is available to walk us through the lab."
"Cam, it's almost 8:00. Do you really think she'll be able to do anything tonight?"
"The Bureau's open twenty-four hours a day. We can always ask."
Twenty minutes later, Cam, perched on a stool at the breakfast bar, used the nearby wall phone to call down to the command center and asked for Stark.
"I'd like to arrange a meeting with Special Agent Savard this evening. I'd like you to come along."
"Sure. Absolutely," Stark said, then added hastily, "yes, ma'am."
"Would you happen to have the number where she's staying?"
"Uh--right here, yes," Stark, who had just finished talking to Renee moments before, responded. "Would you like me to call, or..."
"Best let me do that. But thanks."
Stark gave her the number and Cam jotted it down. "Fine. Would you get one of the vehicles and wait for us downstairs, please."
Us, Stark thought. Huh.
After Cam hung up from, Blair asked, "Are you sure we should involve them?"
"No, not really." Cam swiveled around on the stool until her back was to the counter and regarded Blair, who stood a few feet in front of her. Tiredly, Cam rubbed her eyes. The headache was back. "But unfortunately, we need to do some digging and some legwork, and I don't see that we have much choice. Hopefully, if things go bad, I can keep them out of it."
"Go bad?" Blair worked to keep her voice casual.
"If I'm wrong, and I really am the primary target of whoever is digging around in D.C., then something may break--or leak--pretty soon. If I go down in a big way, I don't want anyone else going with me."
"That's not going to happen," Blair said emphatically, eyes blazing.
"We have to be prepared for that event. And if it happens, you're going to need to get distance, too."
Softly, Cam said, "It will have to be done. I would want it that way even if you weren't the first daughter. If this turns out to be some junior reporter's bid for fame, and it becomes an exposition piece on degeneracy in the nation's capitol or security breaches within the Secret Service or God knows what else--the story will be huge. If that happens, the spin will all be bad, and your name and your father's name can't be linked to it." Before Blair could object, Cam added, "You know I'm right."
"Define what you mean by distance, Cameron," Blair said steadily, the edge in her voice so sharp it would have cut glass. "A week, a month--six goddamned years?"
"Please, Blair," Cam said wearily. "Do you honestly think I'd want that? You can't think it would be easy for me, can you?"
There was no fire in her voice, only a deep sadness. It was one of the few times Blair had ever seen Cam show even the slightest hint of defeat. It was so unusual, it shocked her free of her anger. Suddenly, she saw with brutal clarity that Cam was facing the potential destruction of her career as well as the threat to their relationship. Immediately, she went to her and slipped her arms around Cam's shoulders, pressing Cam's cheek against her breasts. To her surprise, Cam's arms came around her waist and tightened. Blair could feel her trembling.
Tenderly, she kissed the top of Cam's head. "It's going to be okay. We'll figure out what this is all about and we'll find out who's behind it and we'll put an end to it. Whatever happens, there's no way you're getting rid of me."
"I'd die for you without even thinking about it," Cam murmured hoarsely. "But I can't imagine living without you. Not now."
Listening to Cam's words, Blair pulled her lover closer still, a strange peace suffusing her.
"You don't have to worry, because you won't have to."
Forty-five minutes later, Stark, Cam, and Blair stood outside the rear entrance of a nondescript six-story stone building in midtown Manhattan. Precisely at the designated time, Savard keyed the security lock and opened the door.
"Commander," she said when she saw Cam, her eyes moving over Stark's face with a faint smile, then stopping in surprise when they met Blair's. "Good evening, Ms. Powell."
"Hi," Blair replied. "How are you feeling, Renee?"
"Okay. I'll be better when I can get out of this damn thing," Savard said, indicating the sling tethering her left arm to her chest. "Come inside. The security cameras are timed back here. We've got a few minutes."
Savard led them through a warren of beige hallways that were indistinguishable from one another. All the office doors were closed and the harsh fluorescent lights spaced at intervals overhead cast everything in the same impersonal institutional glare. Opening the door to a stairwell, she said, "The lab's on the third floor. There's a video camera in the main elevators, and I thought we might as well walk."
"Good idea," Cam replied. It was doubtful that anyone would actually go through the routine surveillance tapes in the absence of any reason to do so, but the less time their little group was recorded, the better.
The three of them climbed single file and then walked silently through yet another corridor to the last door on the right. Savard pushed it open and they stepped into a large open space divided into work stations by laboratory benches and tables containing high tech analytical equipment.
Since most of the technicians who worked in the lab were regular eight-to-fivers, the vast area was empty save for a lone white-coated figure hunched over a lab bench at the far end of the room. As the group approached him, Savard called out, "Hey, Sammy."
A pale, bespectacled young man with a thatch of red hair badly in need of a cut and a mildly befuddled expression on his face, glanced in their direction. Then, as if suddenly remembering an appointment, he smiled broadly. "Hey, Renee. You got something for me?"
"Yep." Savard pointed to the manila envelope in Cam's hand. "I need you to take a look at whatever's inside. I don't need to tell you the routine. Anything you can give us will be helpful."
His hands were covered in thin latex gloves, which he stripped off and replaced with a new pair from a cardboard box by his right elbow. Despite the fact that he must have realized that dozens of people had already handled the envelope, he took it from Cam with stainless steel tongs and laid it on a nearby glass surface. With a magnifying glass, he bent down to examine the surface, pausing for a few seconds over the hand-printed address.
Mumbling to himself, he remarked, "Standard magic marker, no postmark, nothing distinctive about the packaging."
He straightened and picked up the envelope. "Give me a few minutes and I'll see what I can turn up. I'll scan it for hand-writing analysis if you need that done later."
"Okay, great. We'll be in the conference room," Savard said, indicating a door in the far corner of the room.
"Uh-huh," he said distractedly, his mind clearly somewhere else already.
The four of them settled into chairs around the small table in the unadorned windowless room in the rear of the forensic analysis lab. The silence as they regarded one another speculatively was broken when Blair said, "How do you know he's not going to make a record of all of this?"
Her tone held no censure, merely curiosity.
"I've known him since we were cadets," Savard replied. "He's a genius with anything that's quantifiable, but he's a lousy marksman and not particularly agile in the physical department either. Somehow, we ended up being workout partners and I spent a lot of extra time helping him prepare for the things that didn't come easily. We're friends, and he's loyal."
"What about the content? It could be-sensitive," Cam pointed out.
"He doesn't care what's in there; he only cares what's on it. Fingerprints, fiber, bodily fluids. That's what makes an impression on him. If it's a photograph like the first one you gave me yesterday, he won't even notice the subject matter."
"Did he find anything on that one?" Cam inquired, this being the first opportunity she'd had to ask.
Savard should her head. "No, that's why I didn't bother calling you when I found out the results. You'd already left for DC at that point, and I figured it could wait. It was a copy, probably scanned, of the original--computer generated. It wasn't made from the negative."
"Which means," Cam mused, "that it may have been made by someone who didn't have physical access to the original file."
"Or by someone who was pressed for time," Stark noted. "If you're looking through material that you don't have clearance for, you don't bother doing anything except making quick copies."
"Are you saying we weren't really supposed to get it?" Blair queried.
"Maybe we've been looking at this the wrong way," Cam theorized. "Maybe these packages aren't threats, but warnings."
"Warnings? You mean someone is trying to tell us that we're being...looked at?"
Cam nodded. "Maybe these are friendly messages."
"Why don't I feel reassured?" Blair said sarcastically.
"You have a point," Cam agreed with a sigh. "Maybe once we see what's in this one, it will make a little more sense."
Thirty minutes later, Sammy returned. He handed Savard the envelope, the contents presumably inside.
"I didn't bother with everything this time. The preliminary run through shows exactly what the other one did--nothing. Whoever sent it knew what they were doing. There are no prints; nothing distinguishing about the paper--standard commercial brand; it's printed on an inkjet printer. Computer-generated. Just like the other one."
"Can you narrow down the printer?" Stark asked.
He glanced at her, then at Blair, who sat beside her. Quickly, he averted his gaze. If he recognized her, he gave no sign of it, but he kept his eyes fixed on Savard, the person he was clearly most comfortable addressing. "I analyzed the pixel register on the first print. It's an Epson high-end printer. We've got one down the hall. Standard government issue, as well as the one used by most desktop publishers or almost any other business doing high quality photo reproductions."
"If you had a sample from the precise printer, could you match them?" Cam persisted.
"Possible. I'm not sure it would hold up in court, though."
"It doesn't have to," she said flatly.
Since it was evident that they weren't going to get any more information, Savard held out her hand. "Thanks, Sammy."
"No problem," he said, blushing as he shook her hand. "Anytime."
Without looking at them, he sketched a small wave in the air, turned, and hurried back to his bench.
"Well," Blair said on a long exhalation. "I guess we can see what it is now."
"Let's get out of here first," Cam suggested. "Before we wear out our welcome."
Cautiously, Savard offered, "I've got my sister's apartment to myself. She's working tonight. We could do it there...unless you're headed back to command central?"
"No," Cam said. "I'd like you and Stark to see this. Your sister's apartment sounds fine."
The four of them had barely settled into the Suburban with Stark behind the wheel, when Cam's cell phone rang.
She listened for a moment, then handed the phone to Savard. "It's Mac. Can you give him directions to your sister's? He's got some information for us and I want him to be there when we take a look at our latest present."
Nodding, Savard quickly gave Mac the information.
Fifteen minutes later, they were settling into the small but comfortable living room of an apartment in Chelsea. The furnishings were worn but had once been expensive, and the space beneath the windows and most other available niches were filled with plants of all description, adding a sense of warm welcome that was distinctly different than the impersonal apartments and hotel rooms most of them were used to spending their time in.
Cam noted with satisfaction a work area in a small alcove adjoining the living room that contained a desk, high end video equipment, and a state of the art computer system.
"You think we can use that to look at the tapes Mac has?" she asked, indicating the electronic array with a tilt of her head.
"Sure," Savard said, "as long as it's your paycheck guaranteeing against any damage."
Cam smiled. "I'll put it in writing."
Rene walked through to a tiny kitchen and called over her shoulder, "What does everyone want to drink?"
As they were chorusing their answers, the buzzer rang and Stark crossed to the door and pushed the intercom. "Hello?"
"Three C," Stark reminded him as she held down the button, releasing the security lock on the front door.
A moment later, she opened the door for Mac and, after greetings all around, they found seats on the sofa facing the small coffee table and a grouping of nearby chairs.
"I guess I'll go first," Cam said grimly from where she sat on the sofa next to Blair.
Savard had cleared a space in the center of the coffee table and as everyone leaned nearer, she reached into the manila envelope. There were two glossy sheets which Cam separated and placed on the table for all to see. Everyone shifted so they could look at the images from the proper perspective.
The first required little in the way of comment. Both had again been taken from a distance, but the first, shot in broad daylight, was of good quality and both her face and Blair's were clearly recognizable. So was the fact that their hands were linked as they leaned into one another in what could only be interpreted as an intimate moment.
"How the hell--" Stark exploded.
"That's the deck at the rear of my mother's house," Cam said, for Savard's elucidation. "The rest of you recognize the location, I presume. It was taken at approximately 0800 hours the last day of Ms. Powell's stay in San Francisco."
"I wonder where they were?" Blair murmured, a cold chill making her shiver. It wasn't so much that someone had been watching; it wasn't even that she and Cam had been captured in a private moment--a moment that she remembered very well.
"I'll be sorry to leave here," Blair said quietly.
Cam moved her left hand along the rail until it covered Blair's right. Their shoulders were nearly touching, but only someone on the deck with them could have seen the movement. Automatically, their fingers entwined, thumbs brushing over the tops of each other's hand.
"Yes, so will I. I've been here before, but it takes being here with you to make me realize how beautiful it is. Being with you makes the entire world look different."
For a moment, Blair was speechless. It was one of those times when Cam took her completely by surprise, and it was just the way she had always imagined that being in love would feel. She had just never imagined she would ever feel it herself. "We don't have to leave that feeling here, do we?"
Cam met her gaze again, marveling at the myriad shades of blue that moved in the depths of her lover's eyes. "No. We don't. Let's make sure we don't."
It was a moment that she would never want to forget. What bothered her was that someone else has been silent witness to something that was beautiful and now they were trying to turn into something ugly.
"Anywhere," Cam side flatly. "A nearby rooftop, an apartment on an adjoining street, up a goddamned tree--anywhere with the sightline. If I'd known then what we know now, I would have paid more attention to that avenue of access to you. I didn't anticipate a photographer stalking us." Unconsciously, she rubbed her temple, annoyed at the pain which was surging again.
Blair regarded her with concern. When this is over, Cam is taking a vacation.
"What about the other one?" Savard asked quietly. "Do you know her?"
Savard's eyes were on Blair, who was staring at the photo. It was grainy, and of poorer quality than the one taken in San Francisco, but the faces of the two women who stood in the circle of light cast by a street lamp in front of Cam's apartment building in Washington, D.C. were quite clear.
"No, not precisely," Blair said evenly.
No one spoke, nor asked for further explanation. Despite the unusual circumstances, their training ruled. Federal agents did not question the private life of the first daughter.
"I think Ms. Powell and I need to speak alone for a few minutes," Cam said into the silence.
As everyone began to rise, Blair said, "No, stay." Glancing at Cam, she smiled wryly. "They're all in it now, and I have nothing to hide."
Cam sighed and studied the faces of the three agents sitting shoulder to shoulder across from her.
"I don't know where all this is going. Maybe nowhere." She lifted the photos and let them fall back to the table. "Maybe straight to the AP hotline and the front page of every newspaper in the country."
She had everyone's attention.
"I know this woman," Cam said, pointing to Claire in the photograph. "She's an escort with a highly exclusive service in D.C. She and Ms. Powell have no relationship whatsoever."
"That might be difficult to disprove after this," Stark pointed out in as non-accusatory a tone as she could manage.
Blair laughed shortly. "I'm certain that's precisely what this is meant to imply."
"Well," Cam said bitterly. "It seems that someone is tightening the noose. First we have a leak to the press about Blair's secret relationship. Then, obviously, we have documentation of the two of us together in a position that would be hard to explain away." She glanced quickly at Blair. "Even if we wanted to. And now," she finished, pointing to the photo of Blair and Claire, "we have the connection between myself, Ms. Powell, and an escort service. All highly inflammatory business in DC."
"I'm sorry," Stark said ingenuously. "What link is there between you and the escort?"
"I know this woman in the photograph because I've been involved with her, professionally."
"Oh." Stark blushed but held Cam's gaze. "Can anyone prove that?"
Shrugging, Cam replied, "I have no idea."
"Well," Mac said briskly. "That's one of the things we're going to have to find out. And from the looks of things, pretty quickly."
"I agree," Savard said firmly. "We need to devise strategy, divide up the work, and narrow down the suspects in short order--before this whole thing spins out of control."
"Suspects?" Blair said in surprise.
"Yes," Cam said, looking at Savard. She and the FBI agent were the only two people in the room with true investigative experience. Stark and Mac had both been part of the protective arm of the Secret Service their entire careers. "Who stands to gain by this?"
"Well, as you mentioned before," Blair mused. "Any reporter who uncovers an elite escort service in Washington D.C. that caters to government employees and visiting dignitaries would certainly garner quite a reputation. It's a career maker and reason enough."
"That's true," Mac said. "Except it seems unlikely that a reporter would also be interested in impugning your reputation. That would only piss off the White House. So why release the photo of you and the Commander to the newspaper before the story breaks? In fact, why involve you at all?"
"Point taken," Blair agreed.
"What about Patrick Doyle?" Stark offered, carefully not looking at Renee Savard. "He hasn't been happy since the Commander upstaged him in the capture of Loverboy--"
"Before that, really," Mac interjected. "He's always had it in for her."
Stark nodded eagerly. "If he's behind it, that would explain a photograph of the Commander with the woman in the bar. She could have been an FBI agent or just a decoy he set up. We all know the FBI has been known to shadow public figures to gather information on them."
"I don't disagree with any of that," Savard said calmly. "But this looks like a much bigger operation than one man could possibly orchestrate. Especially if you're talking about infiltrating and exposing a very well-shielded escort service that's obviously been operating undetected for a long time. That takes undercover agents and people with computer expertise who can access IRS records, phone records, trace calls--the whole nine yards. Doyle couldn't do that on his own."
"Besides," Blair pointed out, "none of this explains why we are getting these cryptic messages. If they were threats, why hasn't something been demanded? Why hasn't someone asked for money or threatened to go public if Cam doesn't resign or put pressure on me to intervene with my father about some upcoming vote?"
"Maybe," Cam muttered, "maybe it's a little of all of the above."
Four sets of eyes stared at her questioningly.
Cam thought aloud. "Maybe there is a political and a personal agenda at work here. Maybe the FBI or a Justice division or both is gathering information for some future political purpose. Maybe Doyle is part of it or knows someone who is. If he's privy to what's going on, he may have discovered my involvement with the escort service by chance. Maybe he's taking advantage of that knowledge."
"How?" Mac asked warily.
Cam met his eyes. "Stewart Carlisle informed me yesterday that Justice has initiated an independent investigation into what happened in New York. They're looking at me, specifically. I could be suspended at any time."
Mac and Stark exploded together with a series of expletives and outraged remonstrations. At length, Cam held up her hand to still them.
"For some reason, Carlisle hasn't put up much of a roadblock, which I find unusual. All I can figure is if there is a large-scale operation in place to exert influence using blackmail tactics, maybe he's in a crunch, too."
"Can something like that really be happening?" Blair asked incredulously. "We're not talking about the Hoover administration here."
"It didn't all stop in the mid-70s when Hoover was forced to retire," Savard said regretfully. "It's just gotten more subterranean. It's been rumored for some time that the new Director--whose appointment your father opposed, I might add--has been pushing Justice hard for permission to use surveillance in the private sector, including electronic wiretaps and computer investigation into corporate and private accounts, ostensibly under the guise of national security."
"All right," Blair interjected. "So if there is some covert group of high-level intelligence agents, or politicians, or both gathering information, what would be the reason?"
"Almost anything," Cam said grimly. "Anything from controlling promotions within various departments to influencing who will be the next party nomination for president. That's what's so dangerous about these operations. Information gathered today might be used a decade from now to force someone's vote in a critical Congressional decision or be used to place a candidate sympathetic to law enforcement in a newly created cabinet position. When, where, and how intelligence is used can't always be projected--which makes it impossible to neutralize. That's also what makes it so potent a weapon."
"For the time being," Savard said emphatically, "we need to concentrate on discovering as much as possible about who's behind this." She stared at the opposite wall for a second and then began ticking off points on one hand. "Mac--you've already been looking into the reporter who provided the first photograph to the Associated Press, right?"
He nodded. "I should have a name by morning."
"Good. What we need is to work backwards from there. The reporter needs to be interviewed and if they won't provide a source, we need to dig deep into his or her background. There has to be a connection to someone in D.C. Whoever leaked the photograph almost certainly used someone they knew and trusted."
"Fine. I've got that," Mac said. "I've also got the video tapes of the couriers who delivered the packages. I'll run their scanned images through the DMV, NCIC, and Armed Forces data banks. If I can ID them, I'll interview them."
"Try for a match with the registered courier services in New York and D.C., too," Cam added. "They have to be bonded, so they'll have photos. I doubt our Deep Throat used a service, but you never know."
"Two--Stark and I will run background checks on everyone associated with you, Commander," Savard said evenly. "We'll need a list of friends, lovers, professional associates--anyone who could be remotely connected."
At Cam's raised eyebrows, Savard continued, "We have to assume that if there is a personal agenda in addition to a political one, you are the epicenter."
"All right, Savard. You'll get the list."
"We'll need the name of the woman in the photograph, too," Stark said evenly.
Cam shook her head. "I don't know it."
Everyone, including Blair, looked at her in surprise.
"The service was highly discreet and took extensive precautions to provide anonymity to both clients and personnel."
"I suppose if we have to, we could run this photo through the national databanks, too," Stark offered.
"She's not involved," Cam said with certainty. "And I'd like to keep her out of it if at all possible."
"Understood," Savard said briskly. "On the other hand, it might become necessary."
"If it does," Cam said thoughtfully, "there's a wine glass in my dishwasher in D.C. that will have her fingerprints on it."
Cam glanced sideways at Blair, concerned about her response to that fact, but Blair just smiled faintly and shook her head. Cam grinned fleetingly, then turned her attention back to Savard.
"Well then," Savard said with satisfaction. "If we need it, we'll go get it. For now, I'll settle for the numbers you used to contact her, and how you identified yourself."
"Done." Cam hesitated. "There's one other thing that needs to be done. We need to run background checks on everyone in Ms. Powell's security detail. There may be an association with a political figure or a previous intelligence assignment that ties in with this."
"It can't be one of us," Mac exclaimed. "What would be the point? The Secret Service exists to protect the lives, and by extension, the reputations of public figures--not destroy them."
Cam shrugged. "Maybe one of us is doing double duty and working for the FBI or a Justice department probe."
"That would be unbelievable," Stark said vehemently.
"People are known to do many things for career advancement," Cam pointed out. "It has to be done, but it's not fair to put you two on that. I'll do it myself."
Both Mac and Stark nodded glumly.
"The last thing we need is a computer cracker," Savard said. "We need to get into the FBI and Justice files. And we'll need to break the escort ring, too."
Everyone in the room looked at each other.
"Well, none of us qualifies," Cam remarked.
"Felicia does," Mac said quietly.
"No way," Cam said stridently. "I've already involved too many people. Plus, she's new to the group and we don't know her well enough yet."
"I know her," Mack said firmly. "I'll vouch for her, Commander."
Cam studied him seriously for a moment, then shook her head again. "I just can't do it, Mac. I've already endangered all of you by involving you in this operation. I can't bring in anyone else, because I can't offer any kind of protection."
"What if she volunteers?" Mac persisted.
"Besides," Stark pointed out reasonably. "If somebody brings you down, it's going to taint all of us--and we'll all be out of a job anyhow."
"I have to agree with both of them, Commander," Savard said. "If we can't get into the files, we're never going to get a complete picture of how deep this goes and who might be behind it. If we don't use our own internal resources, we'll have to go out on a limb and involve an outsider. That's even more dangerous than using someone we've only known for a short time." She paused, then added more softly, "I don't think anyone here doubts that Felicia can be trusted."
Cam rubbed her face with both hands. "It sounds like I'm out-voted, then."
Blair moved a little closer to Cam on the sofa and rested her hand on Cam's knee. "You don't have to worry, Commander. It won't happen very often."
Everyone laughed, and for the first time in more than a week, Cam's headache completely vanished.
"Well," Cam said, surveying her friends and colleagues. "It looks like we've got our work cut out for us. We're running against the clock, only I don't know how much time we have-not much, I'm sure. What we do know is that Ms. Powell is due to go abroad in a little over three days. I don't want this to follow her to Paris."
"Felicia may be the key," Mac said. "The files are the only thing that will give us hard evidence--unless we can find a primary witness."
"Maybe Deep Throat?" Blair asked hopefully.
"Possible," Stark commented. "Except he--or she--clearly doesn't want to be found. If they're friendly, and I tend to agree that's the most likely scenario, for some reason they're afraid to approach you directly. It's not going to be easy to draw them out."
"I'll brief Davis personally in the morning," Cam said, unable to hide her bone-deep weariness. "But, I'm going to urge her not to do this. She's at the most risk. If she can crack their computers, someone on the other end can no doubt can track her back here."
"I don't think so, Commander," Mac said with certainty and an unexpected note of pride. "She was assigned to go after Loverboy because she's one of the best computer hackers in the world. I have a feeling she knows how to cover her tracks when she's breaking in someone's back door."
"Let's hope so," Cam rejoined, still unhappy about involving yet another agent. "We'll see after I've talked with her."
"I'm going to see her tonight," Mac offered quickly. "With your permission, Commander, I can brief her. It will save time."
"Whoa, Mac," Savard jibed, her blue eyes twinkling. "Fast worker."
He blushed, but his grin was pleased. "Not that fast--she said no the first six times I asked her out." He cleared his throat, suddenly serious. "Commander?"
Cam glanced at the faces of those around her and knew the decision had already been made. Sighing, she shrugged. "Go ahead, Mac. Bring her up to date on everything we've got so far."
Mac gathered his briefcase and placed the envelope with the photographs inside along with the surveillance tapes. "I'll speak with you in the morning then, Commander."
"Let's plan on a noon meeting for updates all around." She glanced at Blair. "Is it all right if we meet in the Aerie?"
"Of course," Blair said.
"Let's everyone try to get some down time then," Cam suggested as she waved good night to Mac. Turning to Blair's primary guard, she asked, "Ready to go, Stark?"
Stark hesitated, glancing quickly at Savard. Before she could speak, Blair interrupted.
"I thought I'd spend the evening at Diane's, Cam. You can take me there, can't you?"
"Of course. Stark, you're officially off duty now anyhow. I'll call the command center and have someone meet us downstairs and escort Ms. Powell to her destination."
"Don't bother, Commander," Stark said without a second's hesitation. "I can accompany her."
Cam sensed rather than saw Savard stiffen, and the fog cleared enough from her exhausted brain to register Blair's small sigh of disapproval, too.
"That's all right, Agent," Cam said, already pulling the cell phone from her belt. "Take what's rest of the night off. My orders."
After Cam arranged for the night detail to meet them with the second vehicle downstairs, they said goodnight to Stark and Savard and left.
"I can't believe you just volunteered to work another night. What is that-three in a row?" Savard asked with a threatening tone in her voice. "Getting stood up two nights straight would seriously bruise my ego."
"Well, it's kind of a tricky situation since the Commander and Egret are trying not to be too obvious about spending time alone together," Stark began seriously. "It's easier if I --"
"Paula, shut up."
Then Savard effectively implemented the order by pressing her mouth to Stark's. Surprise turned to a soft moan as Savard's tongue moved gently over Stark's. When the kiss ended, Stark drew a shaky breath.
"That was awfully nice," she said, her breath catching a little on the words.
Savard rested her palm against Stark's cheek, gently brushing the dark hair back from her temple with her fingertips. "Yes, it was. And there's a lot more where that came from."
"There's no quota or anything is there?" Stark inquired as she intertwined her fingers with Savard's.
"None at all." Savard's voice was husky and low. "In fact, I believe there's an endless supply."
"I want to make love with you so much," Stark confessed, her body vibrating with urgency. "I've wanted to for what feels like forever."
The simplicity of her statement struck Savard harder than a blow. Sharply, she drew in a breath, her blood suddenly racing. "I can't wait."
Stark stepped close and slipped one arm around her waist. Just before she kissed her, she whispered, "Then let's not."
Cam leaned forward to relay instructions to Foster, who was at the wheel, then settled back in the rear of the Suburban with a sigh. Rubbing her temple absently, she said, "I ought to be able to run the first level background checks tonight."
"Cam," Blair said sharply, "you're about ready to fall down. You need some sleep."
"I'm okay." Cam smiled and consciously straightened her shoulders, shaking her head to clear her mind. "I can nap between--"
"I want you to stay at Diane's with me tonight." Blair's voice was calm and quiet, but there was a finality in the way she spoke that suggested she was not going to yield.
Cam was silent, considering her choices. It wouldn't be the first time that she and Blair had spent hours, even entire nights, together at some place other than Blair's apartment. Their being alone didn't necessarily imply that they were involved personally--and at this point, it seemed moot what anyone thought about their relationship. In truth, she was too tired to make a good decision, and she wanted to be with Blair. "All right."
"Good." Cam's easy assent only confirmed Blair's suspicions that her lover was teetering on the brink of exhaustion. She had expected more of a fight, but she was happy to have avoided it. She too was emotionally and physically drained, and all she really wanted to do was see that Cam got some rest.
Fifteen minutes later, she and Cam stood outside Diane Bleecker's apartment door. When it opened, Diane lazily raised one eyebrow as she leaned against the doorjamb in a burgundy dressing down, looking like a siren from a 1940's movie. "Good evening."
"Hi," Blair said, taking Cam's hand as she leaned forward to kiss Diane on the cheek. "You have houseguests for the night."
"Goodie. I love a pajama party," Diane said as she stepped aside to allow them entrance, her sharp eyes taking in the Secret Service agent's pale complexion and slightly unsteady step.
"No," Blair threw back over her shoulder, leading Cam determinedly across the living room. "We're going directly to bed."
"Well, you're certainly no fun," Diane said with an exaggerated frown. Her tone was gentle, however, when she added, "Do you need anything?"
"No, we're all right. We just needed to escape for awhile."
Diane settled on the sofa as her friend and her lover disappeared around the corner in the direction of the guest room.
What you both need is a few weeks alone together--away from the news people and the White House both.
She sighed as she picked up a magazine, knowing her wish was unlikely to come true.
"I should shower," Cam said as she eased out of her jacket and started to shrug the leather weapon harness off her shoulders.
"You're fine," Blair countered as she moved to her side and lifted the holster free, then placed it over a nearby chair. The guest room was large enough for a queen sized bed, a small dressing table with mirrors, several chairs and an adjoining bathroom. The single window was open and the curtains moved desultorily in the weak summer breeze. "Just come to bed."
Stubbornly, Cam shook her head. "It's been a long day, and I don't want to lie naked next to you until I've had a shower."
"Well, I definitely want you naked," Blair conceded. Reaching for Cam's hand once again, she turned toward the bathroom and said, "Come on then, Commander."
A few minutes later they stood together beneath the warm spray, almost too tired to talk. Cam leaned forward with both palms against the wall in front of her while the water hit her head and neck. She almost groaned aloud as Blair began to soap her shoulders and back.
"God, that feels criminally good."
"Turn around," Blair said softly. When Cam complied, Blair smoothed her hands, soft with suds, over Cam's chest and abdomen.
"Starting to feel human?" Blair questioned softly, sensing Cam relaxing beneath her touch. At another time, the sight of Cam nude with her head thrown back, eyes closed, vulnerable in a way that she seemed with no one else, would have made Blair surge with desire. Tonight, being able to take care of her was satisfying in a way she had barely imagined. The responsibility of loving her was wonderful and terrifying at the same time. Suddenly, she slid her arms around Cam's waist and pressed against her, the white froth on Cam's body coating her own.
"What's this?" Cam murmured, feeling Blair tremble.
"Nothing. I just love you."
Cam smiled and rested her cheek against Blair's. "It feels good when you do."
"Yes," Blair whispered almost to herself.
Five minutes later they crawled between crisp clean sheets and embraced, face to face. Cam kissed the tip of Blair's nose and sighed.
"For the record, I want to make love," Cam murmured.
"But?" Blair asked teasingly, settling her head on Cam's shoulder as she stroked her chest, finally gently cradling a breast in one palm.
"I'm too damned tired."
"Well," Blair said as her lids began to close. "There's always tomorrow."
The last thing Cam did before she surrendered to sleep was to hope that would always be true.
"Good morning," Diane said, surprise apparent in her tone as Cam walked into the kitchen a little after 7:00 the next morning. "I didn't expect to see you up so early. In fact, I expected you to sleep for a week."
"I smelled the coffee." Cam grinned, nodding toward the coffee maker on the counter.
"Ah," Diane said with a smile, lifting her own cup to her lips. She was in the burgundy dressing gown again, but this time she was obviously nude beneath it. The plunging neckline bared a nearly lethal expanse of creamy skin between her full breasts, and the curve of her hip and thigh was tantalizingly outlined in shimmering silk.
Cam averted her gaze and asked, "Do you mind if I take some to Blair?"
"Not at all. In fact, I'd prefer it."
Cam raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"
Diane smiled fondly. "She's beastly in the morning before coffee, or haven't you noticed?"
"I can't say as I have," Cam replied mildly as she moved to the counter and took down two cups from a glass-enclosed shelf above the sink.
"Very diplomatic, Commander," Diane said, her voice a low purr. "One could take that to mean that you've never seen her first thing in the morning, or that you've never found her to be cranky at that hour."
Cam turned, leaning her hip against the counter and regarded Diane solemnly. "I've seen her first thing in the morning, just not often."
"Something tells me that's going to change."
"I hope so."
Cam poured coffee, feeling Diane watching her. "Thanks," she said when she'd finished. "For the coffee, and for putting us up last night."
"She's my best friend, and I love her."
"I know, and I'm glad." Briefly Cam wondered if those two things were related or if they were, in fact, separate statements. She had never asked Blair if she and Diane had been lovers, and she never would. It didn't matter because it didn't affect what was between her and Blair now. "She needs friends like you."
"Apparently what she needs most of all, Commander," Diane said emphatically, "is you."
"It's Cam. And if it makes you worry any less, I love her, too."
Diane smiled, and this time the smile was sensuous. Her voice dropped a register as she remarked throatily, "She's very fortunate."
"No. I am."
"Are things going to work out with this latest press brouhaha?" Diane asked suddenly.
Cam was used to keeping her reactions to herself, but the question surprised her. "You know about that?"
"Some. Blair told me about the photograph in the newspaper and the fact that she expects more publicity."
"I doubt that our relationship will remain a secret much longer."
"If I may be so bold... are you ready for that?"
"More than ready."
Diane saluted her with the coffee cup. "As I said, she's very lucky."
At that moment Blair shuffled into the kitchen, dressed only in a long T-shirt that came to mid thigh. She glanced from her lover to her best friend. "Who's lucky? Is that coffee?"
Cam laughed and held out the cup. "Here you go."
Blair frowned when she realized that Cam was barefoot in old clothes that Blair kept at Diane's for emergencies--tight threadbare jeans that didn't button at the top and a shirt that was missing buttons in decidedly dangerous places considering Diane's proximity. Crossing quickly to Cam's side, she took the cup and wrapped her free arm around her lover's waist. "What are you two talking about...or shouldn't I ask?"
Cam kissed her temple lightly and murmured, "Newspaper photographs."
Blair grimaced. "Oh, that. What else."
"Don't worry, love," Diane said lightly. "Once they've had their week of fun with you, they'll move on to something else. In six months, no one will care."
"In six months, my father is going to be in the middle of his reelection campaign. Someone is going to care."
"He can handle it," Cam said with certainty.
"I hope so," Blair said, almost to herself.
Five hours later, Cam, in a two piece charcoal suit and monochrome linen shirt, accompanied by Stark, Savard, Mac, and Felicia, knocked on Blair's door.
"Hi," Blair said when she stepped aside to admit them. For an instant, seeing Cam in her professional mode, she remembered how her lover had looked that morning, disheveled and still sleep-tossed, and she wanted to kiss her. Just because.
Hi," Cam murmured as she passed, the fingers of her right hand brushing the length of Blair's bare forearm.
"There's coffee in the kitchen if anyone wants some," Blair called. "Just help yourself.
A few minutes later, everyone had settled in a loose circle around the low wide coffee table in the sitting area just to the right of the door. Cam sat on the couch next to Blair with Mac on her left. Felicia was next to him in one of the sling back chairs while Stark and Savard occupied a small loveseat on the other side of the table.
"I ran preliminaries on our team this morning," Cam said. "As we all expected, it was fairly nonproductive. I did turn up one interesting fact, however."
Beside her, she felt Mac stiffen and saw Stark's eyes widen with surprise, or alarm. Savard watched her intently. The only person in the room who seemed completely relaxed was Felicia Davis.
"It seems that Fielding was assigned as the FBI liaison in DC three years ago. The Bureau field agent he worked with was Special Agent Patrick Doyle.
"Jesus," Stark exclaimed. "He never said anything about knowing Doyle."
"Yes, but that doesn't mean anything," Mac hastened to add. "It's not like they were old friends or anything. Considering what an asshole Doyle turned out to be, he probably wanted to downplay any relationship they might have had."
Reluctantly, Stark pointed out, "Fielding was with us in San Francisco. And he'd just gone off duty the night that Ms. Pow-Blair and the commander were photographed on the beach. He could have tipped someone to their location."
"Yes," Mac agreed grudgingly, "but there are plenty of other explanations for that photograph. The Bureau has agents there, and they'd most likely take pictures of anyone with no questions asked if a DC SAC ordered them to."
"At this point," Cam interjected before Mac and Stark ended up at odds, "I consider this only a coincidental association. It could be only a paper link--Fielding might never even have interfaced with Doyle in person. But it bears follow-up. Right now, we can't discount any potential connections." She had known her agents wouldn't like one of their own being looked at, and she didn't blame them. She would have been unhappy if they'd reacted otherwise. But it had to be done. "Savard? Can you run with it?"
"Good. How about you two--any progress with my background check?" Cam asked, looking steadily at Stark and Savard.
Savard cleared her throat. "So far, Commander, you're in the clear. We looked at...ah...family members and the list of intimate contacts you provided."
To her credit, Savard neither blushed nor looked away. Then she added, "Other than your association with the escort service in DC, we don't see anything that could potentially be an avenue for blackmail or future coercion."
"For now, we'll accept that as a dead end," Cam responded evenly. "If something turns up that does lead back to me, we'll look further."
Turning to her communications director, Cam asked, "Mac?"
He grimaced, his frustration evident. "I'd hoped to have more. I finally backtracked the photograph in the Post of you and Blair through the AP's source files and came up with the name of a freelance reporter. Eric Mitchell out a Chicago."
"Name mean anything to anyone?" Cam asked of the room in general. Everyone shook their heads in the negative. She nodded. "Go ahead Mac."
He ran a hand through his blond hair and blew out of breath. "I wish I could. I talked to him an hour ago, and he's uncrackable. I don't think he'd give up a source if President Powell flew out there and confronted him in the news room. The only thing he would tell me is that it came to him via an anonymous email."
"I'm looking at that, Commander," Davis said quietly. "Newspapers aren't particularly difficult to hack."
Cam raised an eyebrow but made no comment. "You think there's any value in bracing him in person, Mac?"
Mac shook his head. "Believe me, Commander, I would fly out there this afternoon if I thought it would do any good. He's not going to give us anything."
"All right," Cam said with a sigh. "Anything in his background?"
"Nothing much, but I haven't looked too hard yet. I just came up with his name right before this meeting."
"Dig. There's got to be a reason that the source contacted him specifically. Find it."
Finally, Cam looked to Felicia. "Any progress?"
Crossing one elegant calf over the other, Felicia Davis leaned forward, her hands loosely clasped in her lap. She was a stunning combination of composure and intensity. "I've just started, but I can tell you this--there is a concentrated exchange of e-mail and attached files going back and forth between a limited number of Bureau addresses and some offices on the Hill."
"Specifics?" Cam asked, her eyes glinting. This is what we need.
"Not yet. Ordinarily, I wouldn't even find this kind of traffic unusual, but every single message is encrypted and the source files are limited. It will take me a while to pinpoint the origination, but eventually, I ought to be able to give you not only the who, but the what."
"Excellent. While you're at it," Cam instructed, "see if you can trace those same e-mail addresses or copies of the messages to anyone in Justice or Treasury."
"That means a lot of transmissions to sort out, Commander," Felicia pointed out. "It's the most common pathway for legitimate intra- and interagency business these days."
"I know that. What we need," Cam said in frustration, "is to find out who is coordinating this operation. That someone must have all the information. We need a name." She stood, and the others followed. "I'll be in Command Central all day. If anyone gets anything, advise me immediately. I need you all to remain available to meet here at any time in case something breaks."
Everyone murmured their assent as they gathered papers and moved toward the door. When Blair closed the door behind the small group of supporters, she turned to Cam and said, "What do you think?"
Cam leaned against the back of the sofa, her arms crossed loosely over her chest. "I think Davis is onto something. There has to be a tie-in to the Hill, because I can't see the Bureau in this all alone even if it does have Hoover-esque overtones." She rubbed both hands briskly over her face and sighed.
"What is it?"
"I've had three calls from Carlisle since 8:00 a.m."
Blair's chest tightened. "What did he want?"
"I don't know," Cam replied grimly. "I haven't answered."
"What do you think he wants?"
"To advise me of my suspension."
She started toward the phone. "I'm calling Lucinda."
"Blair, no," Cam said softly. "This isn't your fight."
Blair stopped dead and stared stonily at Cam. "I beg your pardon?"
"This is internal-something between Carlisle and me and whoever might be squeezing him on this." Cam held out her hands. "Come here."
After a second's hesitation, Blair crossed the room and stepped into the space between Cam's legs, loosely wrapping her arms around her lover's shoulders, one hand going to the back of Cam's neck. She stroked her gently. "Don't shut me out."
"I won't," Cam promised, encircling her waist. "But let's wait to pull out the big guns."
Blair laughed. "Lucinda would love to know you called her that."
"Speaking of the formidable Chief of Staff," Cam said, "what have you decided about making a statement to the press-about us?"
"I believe I'm at the point that if asked, I will acknowledge."
"Good," Cam murmured as she kissed Blair's forehead. "I think that's a very good idea."
Blair studied Cam's eyes, looking for any sign of worry. "Are you sure you're okay with that if I do? You're going to get most of the heat initially. Someone is bound to raise the issue that you took advantage of your position or that your effectiveness has been compromised."
Cam brushed her thumb against the corner of Blair's mouth, smiling when Blair quickly turned her head and kissed it. "I'm fine with it. I love you."
The words never failed to pierce her to the core, and, smiling, Blair pressed closer, her lips finding Cam's neck before she rested her cheek on Cam's shoulder. "Well, I can testify to the fact that your effectiveness has not been diminished in the least."
"Good to know," Cam murmured.
Closing her eyes, Blair breathed her lover's scent and felt her heartbeat strong beneath her palm. Feeling inexplicably at peace, she whispered, "I love you, too, Commander."
As the afternoon dragged by, Blair tried to occupy her mind with work. Usually, once she began applying paint to canvas, her focus was so intense that everything else would disappear from her consciousness. Unfortunately, it wasn't working this time. Frustrated, she set her palette and brushes aside and pushed both hands through her hair, glancing at the clock for the fifth time in as many minutes.
As she crossed the loft with the intent of calling the command center to ask Cam for an update, a knock sounded on her door. She detoured in that direction and sighed with relief when she saw her lover's face through the peephole.
"God, I've been going crazy up here," she said as soon as she had the door open. She grasped Cam's hand and pulled her inside, then kissed her swiftly on the mouth. "Tell me you've got something."
Cam shook her head, shedding her jacket to the back of a nearby chair and shrugging out of her shoulder holster. "Not yet, but Davis is hopeful that it won't be too long. I've got to believe we'll turn up something soon."
We have to, because the clock is ticking faster than I thought.
"Maybe this really will be over soon," Blair said wearily. "At least we haven't gotten any more envelopes with surveillance photographs of us inside."
"No, and I don't think we will either," Cam said, moving to the sofa and leaning back with a sigh as she relaxed into the cushions. She'd been hunched over a computer in the command center for hours.
"Why not?" Blair asked as she joined her.
"Because I think our theory that these came from a friendly source is correct," Cam said as she took Blair's hand, intertwining their fingers and resting them on her thigh. "I think they were meant to warn us-or at least you--of the scope of the investigation and perhaps to give a hint of the intent. The first photograph was of you and I together, letting you know that our relationship wasn't a secret. But it wasn't as damaging as it might have been, because it wasn't clear that you were with a woman, and I wasn't identifiable. Plus, there's been no follow-up to that. A reporter wouldn't be likely to sit on that kind of juicy tidbit for long."
"I agree," Blair mused. "In fact this reporter in Chicago, Eric Mitchell, is probably dying for a follow-up. Obviously he hasn't gotten anything further or he would have run with it."
"Exactly." Cam rubbed her thumb over the top of Blair's hand as she spoke. "Then we have a photograph of me in a bar with a woman in a compromising position. As a result, we know that there's an active covert investigation of me. And it points to the kind of surveillance that only professionals can carry out-a link to the Bureau or Justice."
"And finally," Blair said emphatically, "there's a picture of the woman you'd been having a clandestine affair with."
"Hardly an affair," Cam objected hastily.
Blair raised an eyebrow. "Cameron, let's not split hairs."
"Regardless of what you call it," Blair continued unperturbed, "the third photograph warned us that the escort service was under investigation, suggesting that the operation extended to personal lives-possibly not just yours, but other influential people as well."
"Including the president," Cam added. "I'd say that someone managed to draw us a pretty clear picture of what was going on without actually naming names-or risking exposure themselves."
"I suppose," Blair said softly, "they might have thought it would scare me enough to stop seeing you."
"Thereby giving you credible distance and keeping you clear of any scandal." Cam's stomach tightened. "Everything points to a DC insider."
"Right-Deep Throat," Blair said with a sigh. "I suppose it would seem like a favor to anyone who doesn't know how serious I am about you already."
"Does anyone know?"
Blair shook her head. "Only Diane. And your mother."
Cam stared at her for a second, then grinned for the first time in what felt like days. "I think we can rule them out. What about your friends-your contacts? You seem to have a pretty well-positioned circle of insiders at that White House and other handy places."
"Believe me, I've thought of that. I can think of one or two who might stumble onto something like this, but I can't imagine why they wouldn't just pick up the phone and call me."
Cam sighed. "I agree-that makes no sense."
Blair drew her legs up under her and curled up against Cam's side, threading her free arm around her waist. "Well, I'm grateful to whoever did it, but there's nothing that could keep me away from you."
Yes, there is.
When Cam didn't reply, Blair sat up and regarded her with concern. "Cam? What is it?"
"As of 0900 tomorrow morning, I'll no longer be your security chief. Mac will be interiř"
"No," Blair cried, getting hastily to her feet, her eyes slightly wild. "No. That's not how this is going to go. No."
Startled, Cam stood, reaching for her hands. "Blair ř"
"Don't," Blair said sharply, stepping back, avoiding Cam's touch. "I know what will happen. They'll replace you, and I'll never see you again."
"No, that's not true," Cam exclaimed, stepping slowly toward her lover.
Blair looked like she was ready to bolt. Cam couldn't remember ever seeing her so frantic, even when Loverboy had been stalking her. This wasn't just about them; this was something else, an old terror of loss and abandonment come back to haunt her. Heart aching, Cam said again softly, "I won't disappear. I promised I wouldn't."
Blair's eyes stung, and a cold hard fear blossomed in her chest. "What if you can't help it."
"I can help it," Cam said with certainty. "Even if I'm not on your detail, I'll still see you. No one's going to stop me-stop us."
"What if-" Blair blinked as Cam's arms came around her, and she shuddered as she let herself be held. Cam was warm, her body solid, her hands tender. The past slipped away and the world righted itself. She took a deep breath. "Sorry. I panicked. I-"
"It's okay." Cam kissed her, and briefly, they found strength in the certainty of their love.
When Blair eased out of the embrace, her eyes were hot, but this time with fury. "God damn it, Cameron--I'm not letting this happen to you; I'm not letting someone tear us apart; I'm not letting Capitol Hill run my life any longer." She started across the loft toward her sleeping alcove.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm going to Washington."
"We don't know enough ř"
"Then I'll find out," Blair seethed.
Cam swore as her cell phone rang. Snatching it off her belt, she snapped, "Roberts."
Her face grew still, her eyes fiercely intent as she listened. "Come upstairs, and bring what you have."
As she closed the phone, she met Blair's questioning gaze. "Stark says they have something."
"Okay, let's hear it," Cam said, looking from Stark to Savard. Both of them were unusually subdued, and she had a distinct sensation that Stark was trying not fidget. "Agent Stark?"
"We've been running everyone we could think of who had any connection to you, Commander, past or present, testing the theory that the exposure of your involvement with the...escort service might be a payback of some kind." Stark took a breath, seemed to be gathering herself. "You know, a grudge kind of thing--someone passed over for promotion, someone who resents a woman heading the security team, someone who might be jealous of--"
"I think we all follow your reasoning, Stark," Cam said dryly.
"Right. Well, naturally, we dug deeper on a few people and--"
"Spit it out," Cam said brusquely. Her nerves were starting to fray, and she was working hard not to show it. Despite what she'd told Blair earlier, she knew that once a formal investigation was launched into her actions in the Loverboy operation, she wouldn't be able to see Blair. At least not until she was cleared--if she was cleared. The thought of being separated from Blair made her ache and knowing that Blair would feel deserted tore at her. "We don't have time for the long version."
She was surprised to feel Blair's hand move over to rest lightly on her knee. Drawing a breath, settling herself, she said, "Sorry. Continue."
Stark sat up straighter and reported smartly, "It came to our attention that Detective Sergeant Janet Aronson was married at one time."
"Yes, I know that," Cam agreed, her eyes never leaving Stark's. "It was well before I knew her, and she'd been divorced a number of years by the time she and I were involved. It wasn't something we spent any time talking about."
"Yes, ma'am, I understand. She was married to--"
"Another cop. I know all this," Cam said impatiently, but she was beginning to feel a tightening in her chest--a foreboding, as if there was something she should know, but didn't. Something she had missed. God, there were so many things she had done wrong with Janet.
Blair's fingers tightened briefly on Cam's leg and then stroked softly in a small circle. The touch brought her back to the present, and she slid her own fingers fleetingly over her lover's. "I'm sorry. I...just go ahead."
"She wasn't married to another cop, Commander, she was married to a federal agent. Patrick Doyle."
"Jesus." Cam stood abruptly and walked to the far side of the room. Her back to the group, she looked out over Gramercy Park, remembering Janet's face, and the look in her eyes the day she'd died. Without turning, she said, her voice rough with memory, "Maybe she said law enforcement and I just assumed it was another cop. I never asked... t didn't seem important, but..."
Nothing personal seemed important between us. We shared a bed and not much more. God, she deserved better.
From across the room, Blair watched Cam's back stiffen and her hands clench at her sides. She wanted to go to her, to put her arms around her and rest her cheek against her back. To hold her until the memories faded and the pain diminished. She couldn't, not because the people in the room were not her friends, but because this was the pain that Cam guarded and was not ready to share. Eventually, Blair hoped she would, and when she did--Blair would find a way to help her forgive herself.
After a minute, Cam returned to her seat. Her face was expressionless, her voice steady, when she said, "Well, if Doyle had been keeping any kind of track of her, he might have known about us. It's hard to keep anything secret in a cop shop. I'm sure he has friends with the DC police."
"That would certainly explain why he's always had it in for you," Mac noted.
"He wouldn't be alone," she said quietly. "A lot of people thought I should have been able to prevent what happened to her."
"It explains why if he came across something incidental about you in an investigative file, he might try to use it against you," Savard pointed out, her tone calm and matter-of-fact. She'd seen the pain flicker through Cameron Roberts' eyes, and she'd almost felt Blair Powell's desperate desire to comfort her. She felt for both women, imaging how it would feel to have her own deepest secrets laid bare like this.
"Yes," Cam sighed, reaching for Blair's hand without realizing it. "I suppose it explains the photograph of me and the redhead in the bar--and possibly the one of Blair and me as well. If he's trying to sabotage my career, he's made a good start."
Mac swore and Cam gave him a quick smile. "It doesn't explain the photograph of Blair and Cl...my previous companion, however."
"It does if he was going to hold it over your head," Stark asserted indignantly. "If he threatened to implicate Blair in something illegal or even just...unsavory, he'd have a pretty good screw in you."
"I suppose you're right." Cam rubbed her face with her free hand, the other lightly linked with Blair's on the sofa between them. "Anything else?"
Stark and Savard shook their heads.
"Felicia's still working-she says she's getting closer," Mac offered desperately. When Cam had told him about the call from Carlisle and her imminent suspension, he'd wanted to punch something. "I've got some stuff on the reporter. Nothing much there, though."
"Can you guys give us a while, and then we'll regroup and see where we are?" Blair asked quietly. "I'll call you when we're ready."
"It's okay," Cam murmured as her agents hastened to leave.
"No, it's not," Blair answered just as softly. "But it will be."
When the door closed behind the team members, Cam, still seated on the couch, dropped her head into her hands, her elbows braced on her knees.
"Ah, fuck," she said wearily. "Christ, I'm sorry."
Blair went to her side, sat close, and rested her left hand lightly on the small of Cam's back. The shirt was soaked with sweat even though the loft was cool. The anguish in Cam's voice was so rare, and so raw, she felt the edges of her own soul bleed.
"Cam," she said quietly, her fingers making small light circles over the tense muscles. "What are you sorry for?"
Without lifting her head, without turning toward her lover's soothing voice, Cam replied dully, "I'm sorry my past is causing trouble for you now. I had no idea... I can't believe Doyle and Janet... Jesus Christ."
"It's not your fault that Doyle is doing this, Cam," Blair said reasonably.
"If I'd been there for her, she might be alive," Cam said sharply, finally straightening, her anger whipping through her frame, making her tremble. "If I'd asked her about her assignment, cared about what she was doing...if I'd done more than drop around when I needed...oh fuck, you don't need to hear this."
Cam got abruptly to her feet, desperately trying to regain control. She was tired, and the goddamn headache was back, and she was having trouble pushing the memories back where they belonged, behind the door that she kept locked and barricaded.
Blair reached for her lover's hand and said firmly, "Sit back down, Cameron."
For a second, Cam resisted, and then almost against her will, she did. Turning, she met Blair's eyes, her own clouded with regret. "I've made so many mistakes. With Janet, with you. It's bad enough that I got involved with you while I was on the detail. I never thought anyone would find out about the escort service, and before, when it was just me at risk, I didn't care. Now, I've pulled you into this and I'm sorry."
Blair's gaze never wavered. "I know you're tired, because I am, too. I have a feeling your concussion was a lot worse than we thought, because I can tell the pain is back now. I know you're worried about me. I know what it will mean to you if there's an inquiry and your competence is questioned. I know all those things, Cam." Blair paused a beat and then said in a strong, resolute voice, "But if you ever apologize to me again for loving me, I'm going to tell you to leave...and not come back."
Cam's eyes widened and she jerked, feeling the invisible blow as surely as a fist. After a full minute she breathed, "Blair," and lifted her fingers to stroke the rigid line of Blair's tense jaw. "I'm not sorry for loving you. Loving you is the best thing I've ever done in my life. I'm only sorry that my loving you has brought you pain."
"It hasn't--not once," Blair said softly, lifting her hand and closing her fingers over Cam's. "You're not to blame for Janet's death, and you're not at fault for being unable to prevent it. You're not always responsible, Cam, for what happens to other people. I know that's what makes you who you are, and I love you for it. But sometimes you have to let it go. If you don't, it's going to destroy you...or us."
"Ah, god." Cam's intake of breath was sharp. "I'd do anything not to lose you."
"Well, good." Blair drew her first full breath in many minutes, then smiled a bit tremulously. "Because I need you so very much."
Leaning forward, Cam kissed her mouth, gently at first and then with increasing urgency, a kiss heavy with possession and need. Blair's hands came to Cam's chest, then moved upward inside the collar of her shirt, to the back of her neck, insinuating her fingers into the thick dark hair, pulling her head closer, hungry for her. Minutes later when they pulled away from each other, both of them gasping, Blair moaned, "God, you make me ache inside."
The feel of her, the want in her voice, the urgency in her words made Cam's head swim. All she could see was her; all she could think of was the heat of her flesh and the sound of her cries and the beating of her heart beneath her own fingers and tongue. "I want you now. Right now."
"I know...I can feel it. I can see it your eyes. I love the way you want me."
When Cam lifted shaking hands to Blair's shirt, Blair stopped her, resting her fingers around Cam's wrists. "We've got a lot to do before tomorrow morning," she managed through a throat thick with need.
"I'll be able to think better if all my blood isn't pooling between my legs," Cam insisted, sliding her palms under the material over the bare breasts beneath. Blair's sigh of pleasure was all the permission she needed to continue. Shifting, she pressed Blair back against the pillows on the sofa and fitted herself between Blair's legs. They were both still dressed, but Cam had bared Blair's breasts and abdomen. Rocking her hips into space between her lover's thighs, Cam braced herself on her extended arms and lowered her head to work her lips and tongue over Blair's nipples and the sides of her breast and down the center of her belly. By the time she reached her navel and tugged at the small gold ring with her teeth, Blair was moaning, her head rocking from side to side. Sitting back on her knees, Cam freed the buttons on Blair's jeans and worked the zipper down, switching her hands to the waistband as Blair lifted her hips to help push them off.
Once the jeans were below Blair's knees, Cam ran her fingers up the inside of Blair's legs, teasing them apart, making room for her mouth.
Blair was ready, the way Cam knew she would be. Already swollen, pulsating, heavy and dark with urgency and blood, Cam inhaled her arousal and felt the answering beat between her own thighs.
"Ah, god...when I touch you, I can feel it inside like you're touching me back. I could come from making you come."
"Try," Blair whispered hoarsely.
Cam laughed and lowered her head. She didn't rush; she didn't tease; she took her steadily and certainly and unerringly. She knew when to tug and when to suck and when to slowly work her tongue around the pounding, quivering nerve center, following the rise of Blair's hips, riding the crescendo of her cries.
Together, their blood soared and when their passion surged, it flowed as one, anointing them both.
Cam turned on her side, her cheek resting on Blair's lower abdomen. Sighing, she murmured drowsily, "Why is that I can't remember what I was so worried about ten minutes ago?"
Blair threaded her fingers through Cam's hair and drew the damp strands over her palm. "Sex does that. It melts your synapses, at least it does when we do it."
"Well, I'd better get my brain reconnected." Cam pushed herself upright, her hand trailing lightly up and down Blair's bare thigh. "I need to review the Paris itinerary with Mac tonight and be sure everything is in place since I won't be go--"
"If you don't go, I don't go," Blair said with absolute finality.
Cam turned your head and studied her lover, who still reclined among the displaced cushions, her clothes disheveled, her color still high with their lingering passion. She was beautiful and strong and everything that mattered in Cam's life.
"You have to go."
"No, I don't. It's a public relations trip and there are plenty of other people my father or rather, Lucinda, can tap to make nice to the French President and whoever else needs to be stroked. It doesn't have to be me, and it's not going to be me-not unless you go as my security chief."
Cam raised an eyebrow. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't you nearly freeze me out a month ago after I took the reassignment as your security chief?"
"That was different," Blair said calmly. "That was your choice, and you made it without my input. You were wrong."
Momentarily, Cam was silent, and then she said, "You're right. You were right then, too. I'm sorry."
Blair found Cam's hand and squeezed it. "I know. And it's over. This is something entirely different. You are being targeted, and by someone who has a personal agenda. If not Doyle directly, then someone who Doyle or one of his friends is twisting too. It's wrong, and I won't let that happen. I won't be a willing party to this kind of political terrorism."
"Have I mentioned lately that I love you?" Cam asked, her throat tight again, not with want this time but with gratitude and wonder.
"You mentioned it. In fact, you just showed me."
"I don't know at this point that there's anything we can do to stop my suspension."
"Does this new information about Doyle help at all?"
Cam shook her head. "It explains some things, but I don't think it gives us any particular ammunition. Now I know why Doyle has always had it in for me, and in all likelihood he's the one who ordered the surveillance of you and me in San Francisco. That's got Bureau written all over it. I doubt that he's the only one behind the investigation into the escort service, though. And if we're going to fight back, we need to know the power behind the entire operation."
"I want to come with you tomorrow when you go to Treasu--"
She was interrupted by the ringing of the phone.
Leaning on her side, she fumbled with one hand on the end table until she found the receiver. "Blair Powell," she said abruptly. After a second, she continued, "Yes... no, it's fine...come up now."
She set down the phone and sat up on the sofa, rapidly buttoning her shirt. Reaching for her jeans, she said, "Time to get yourself together, Commander. The troops are returning."
"Felicia has something," Mac said before the door had closed behind him and Felicia.
Felicia, who managed to retain her composed, elegant appearance despite having worked more than 15 hours, smiled back at his obvious excitement. "I've narrowed down the origin of the emails," she explained as she and Mac walked to the sofas and the four of them sat down, Mac and Felicia facing Cam and Blair across the coffee table.
"Where?" Cam asked, trying to ignore the first flutter of hope in her chest.
"I've got bundled transmissions from the Bureau director, the deputy attorney general's office in Justice, and two Senate committees."
"Which committees?" Blair asked sharply.
"Intelligence and Arms."
"Specifics?" Cam probed.
"Unfortunately, no," Felicia replied. "I can't narrow down individuals because I've essentially got to search every file."
"How long?" Cam inquired, her face grim.
"I don't know. I could get lucky and hit right away, or it could take... days."
It's over. Cam straightened, tapping her palms on her thighs briskly. "Well, that's it then. I'd say you've done about all you can do. I appreciate your efforts."
Glancing at Mac, studiously avoiding Blair's piercing gaze, she said, "I'll need to review the details of the transition with you, Mac, before you take over."
"Commander," he protested.
"It's got to be done, Mac." She glanced at her watch. It was 11:15 p.m. "We're out of time."
"What about Stark and Savard?" Blair interrupted. "Have they turned up anything else in the background checks?"
"No, and neither have I." Mac shook his head dispiritedly. "They've pretty much cleared Fielding, which we expected. I ran down everything I could think of on the reporter in Chicago. I can't find a link."
"There must be something there, Mac," Blair insisted. "What about his friends or associates?"
"It would take too long to run that kind of search, and I calculated the yield would be too low." He slipped his PDA from his shirt pocket and tapped through several items. "The guy's clean. Married, couple of little kids. Freelances out of Chicago."
"What about his wife?" Cam asked. "Anything there?"
Mack shook his head, reading from the screen. "Not that I can see. They were married four years ago. Wife Patricia, maiden name Carpenter, educated--"
"Patty Carpenter? College at Amherst?"
Mac's head snapped up. "That's right."
"God," Blair breathed. It was her turn to stand and pace. She walked from the group to the windows, needing a semblance of space and air. Even the huge loft seemed suddenly too small. As she considered the new information, she ran her fingers over the double-paned bullet proof glass. She was beginning to see how all of this had come about, but what to do about it wasn't as simple as she had imagined it would be. Knowing did not make the solution all that easy. She jumped, startled, when Cam came to her side.
"What is it?"
"I know her. And I think I know how her husband came to have that photograph of us."
"But?" Cam asked gently, sensing Blair's struggle.
Blair took a deep breath and turned to search Cam's eyes. They were tender, patient, giving her time to decide. And in the deep, uncompromising love she found there, she found her answers.
"But nothing, really. Your reputation, your career, is at risk here. Our relationship is at least in danger of being interrupted by negative publicity and pressure from any number of quarters. I can't let that happen."
"It's a friend, isn't it?"
"Yes," Blair sighed, resting her palm on Cam's chest, her fingers gently stroking, "it's a friend. And you're my lover."
"Blair, we can find a way through this. I don't want you to betray--"
"Cameron," Blair said with a fond shake of her head. "When are you going to learn that you are the one thing that matters more to me than anything in this world?"
Without waiting for Cam's answer, she walked back to Felicia and Mac, who were pointedly not looking in their direction.
"Mac, try cross-referencing those two committees with the name Gerald Wallace."
Mac's eyebrows flew up, and even Felicia's normally calm countenance registered surprise. "Senator Wallace?"
"Yes," Blair said.
"With a name to follow," Felicia commented as she stood, smoothing the lines of her skirt over long slender thighs, "I might have something for you within a few hours."
"Senator Wallace," Mac repeated. "There's been a low level hum for months that he'll challenge your father for the nomination. Jesus Christ, this is going to get ugly."
Cam moved to Blair's side, and rested her fingers lightly on the back of Blair's hand. "Let's try to see that it doesn't. Keep this totally under wraps. Advise Stark and Savard, but nothing gets written down. Reset the hard drives, and only one hardcopy to me along with all the disks," she advised.
"I can guarantee our security here," Felicia said without hesitation.
"Good. I'll be here when you have something."
The two agents nodded and departed. Cam turned to Blair and said, "Can you tell me now what's going on?"
Blair sat heavily on the sofa, extending one hand for Cam to join her. When they were both settled, facing one another, Blair said quietly, "Gerald Wallace is AJ's father."
"Ah--and how did you make the connection?"
"Patty and AJ were roommates at Amherst. That's why she used Patty's husband--because he would hold off on a follow-up story if AJ asked him to, whereas any other reporter would have kept digging."
"It fits," Cam mused. "That explains why the media interest in you has been pretty low-key, too, despite that one photo in the Star. There hasn't been anything else to chase." She grimaced. "Of course, they'll still want their story."
"That explains why AJ didn't call me, too. She warned me in the only way she could without betraying her father. I doubt that she ever thought we would figure it out and uncover his involvement."
"Christ, if Justice and the Bureau and Wallace have been colluding to covertly investigate political figures on the Hill, including the president, it's going to be a scandal of major proportions."
"And if it comes out that AJ was the leak, she's going to lose her job." Blair tightened her grip on Cam's hand. "I don't want that to happen, Cam. She was trying to help me. I can imagine how hard it must've been for her to send me information when it endangered her father's career. I can't turn around and destroy her's."
"It might be better if we just did nothing," Cam said resignedly. "I can weather a Justice inquiry."
"Not if the cards are stacked against you," Blair protested. "You know and I know and everyone involved knows that your actions were perfectly appropriate during the entire Loverboy operation. But if Doyle has enough pull to get you investigated, who knows what the outcome might be? We can't chance that."
"But if it means we can avoid creating a public scandal that might extend even further than we imagine, I'll chance it." Cam ran the hand that was not clasping Blair's over her face. "I have a responsibility to the Agency, to the system, and I don't want to put it on public trial for my own personal benefit. I'm willing to risk the inquiry."
"Well, I'm not," Blair said softly, lifting her free hand to run it through Cam's hair. "Not when it's you. Besides, it's not just a Justice inquiry. God knows what they're going to do with the information about you and the escort service, or how they might try to link me to it."
"If I can get hard facts, I'll go to Carlisle before Justice convenes tomorrow," Cam said, thinking aloud. "It's possible with that kind of ammunition he can stop the inquiry before it becomes a matter of record. I'm not sure yet what we can do about the rest of it."
"I might have some ideas," Blair said.
"I don't suppose there's any chance that I can talk you into staying out of this, is there?"
Blair smiled softly and kissed her. When she drew back, she said, "Not a chance in hell."
Blair's bed faced the floor-to-ceiling windows, and from the top floor, all Cam could see was the moon and the shadows of buildings across the square. Blair was curled around her, her head on Cam's shoulder, one arm and leg thrown over Cam's body. Resting her cheek against the silken softness of Blair's hair, Cam breathed her scent and softly stroked the curve of her hip and listened to her even breathing as she slept.
They'd made love quickly, not because of time, but because of need. Their kisses had been ferocious, their hands greedy, their bodies aflame. When they'd climaxed, it has been as much with hunger as release.
Lying there with her, realizing it was one of the very few times they had ever spent even part of the night together, Cam struggled with the anguish of knowing that it might be a long time before she would hold her again. Despite the hope that her colleagues and friends would find some concrete evidence that she could use as a bargaining chip with Carlisle, she despaired that she would be able to change what had already been set in motion. Thinking about Doyle and his deeply harbored animosity over a relationship that was long dead and his jealousy over a woman who had left him long before she died as well, Cam struggled to keep the regrets and remorse over Janet's death buried. She knew Blair was right--that it wasn't her fault or even her responsibility--but she couldn't stop remembering the disappointment that had flickered in Janet's eyes just before the life left them. Now she might lose another woman, a woman whom she knew she couldn't live without, and she felt the dams crack.
Blair stirred and whispered, "What's wrong?"
"I'm sorry, I...didn't mean to wake you," Cam managed, wondering why her throat felt so tight.
Blair ran her fingers over Cam's face and drew a sharp breath. Her hand came away wet with tears. Stunned, heart aching, she pushed herself up in bed and gathered Cam into her arms. "It's all right," she murmured, holding her tightly, rocking her without even thinking about it. "Tell me?"
When Cam tried to answer, her voice broke on a sob. For so many months before Blair had come into her life, she had kept the pain at bay by immersing herself in work and unemotional sex. Now, when she had finally found happiness, the peace was threatened by forces she did not know how to fight. She was breaking, and she didn't know how to stop it. Desperate, she clung to Blair and fought for breath.
For the first time in her life, Blair understood that the essence of love was the solace that one gave in the dark of the night when the terror and uncertainty and ghosts of old heartache were the strongest. Holding her lover in a grip so firm it might have been painful if it hadn't been so essential, she whispered fiercely, "I love you, baby. I love you."
Eventually, Cam's head cleared and the fist that had squeezed the air from her lungs and threatened to stop the blood in her veins relinquished its hold, and she pushed away onto her back, gasping. "God, I'm...sorry. I have no idea what happened."
"Are you all right?" Blair murmured, her own breath tight in her chest. Blindly, she found Cam's hand and squeezed.
"Yes. Just a nightmare--the kind you have when you're awake."
"I've had them," Blair said quietly. "You make them stop."
"So do you." Cam turned on her side and brushed her fingers over Blair's face, stroking her neck and shoulders. "Thank you."
When they kissed, it was with thanks as well as desire. Cam shifted until her thigh nestled between Blair's legs and groaned faintly as Blair pressed into her. "I need you, Blair."
As she leaned down to kiss her again, the phone rang. Cam pulled away, cursing.
"Easy, lover." Blair patted Cam's cheek and laughed a little unsteadily. "Ordinarily I'd ignore it, but I think we'd better answer that."
"I take a rain check then," Cam whispered and kissed her quickly.
"You bet you will."
Reluctantly, Cam moved away and Blair reached for the phone.
"Blair Powell...give us 10 minutes."
Suddenly wide awake, she hung up and pushed back the sheets.
"Time for a shower, Commander. Felicia says she has what we need."
Lucinda Washburn looked up from the stack of papers and studied Blair unblinkingly. "How many people know about this?"
Across from her, Blair, dressed in jeans and the light cotton sweater she had traveled in, said, "Five federal agents."
"Jesus," Lucinda muttered. "That's a security nightmare."
"No, it isn't," Blair assured her. "No one is going to say anything to anyone."
"You trust them all?"
Blair laughed at the irony, thinking of all they'd been through together. "With my life."
"As I understand it," Lucinda began, rifling through the pages, "one of the senior senators has been gathering intelligence on private citizens and politicians, including the President of the United States, ostensibly to plan campaign strategy and possibly influence lobbyists, voters, and party officials--using federal agents and resources. Is that what you're telling me?"
"Pretty much." Blair shrugged. "I don't really know what his intentions were, but the transmissions we intercepted clearly indicate unofficial surveillance being carried out by some members of the FBI, with that information being routed to Senator Wallace and at least one person at Justice."
"And who tipped you to this?"
"Anonymous." She would not reveal AJ's role. She wasn't even certain that her old friend hadn't been an active part of the operation, and if she had been, Blair had no desire to see AJ's career torpedoed. "When the photo of Cam and me leaked to the press, we started digging, and this is what we found."
"Pretty lucky," Lucinda observed wryly, her voice making it clear that she knew there was more to it than Blair was revealing. "As it stands, the use of wire-taps and electronic surveillance in the investigation of private citizens who are not suspected of anything violates any number of federal laws, not to mention the campaign irregularities if Wallace tries to capitalize on any of this."
"That's why I brought it to you," Blair said quietly. "If it doesn't involve Dad now, it might next year. And there are plenty of other names in that file who are on his reelection team or who are big supporters."
"That's not all," Lucinda said, something close to distaste in her voice, as she slid one of the pages from the pile and held it up. "Here we have a list of clients of an escort service. This looks suspiciously like the basis for blackmail, and that's getting a little far afield from campaign violations."
"We don't know that anyone has actually been blackmailed. Coerced might be a better word."
"That's a fine distinction," Lucinda pointed out.
"I know--but if we...uh, you...put an end to this now, it won't ever reach that point."
"The only good thing," Lucinda remarked dryly, "is that they weren't particularly selective in their surveillance. We've got one federal judge, two Congressmen, and a cabinet member--and they all cross party lines. That will give me leverage on both sides of the fence."
Lucinda pushed the papers away, watching Blair carefully as she spoke. "This is serious, but it can all be handled without going public--and I think that's for the best."
"I don't have any desire to air Washington's soiled linens on prime time TV," Blair said sharply.
"But you brought this to me for a reason." She held up a hand when Blair started to explain. "Oh, I know--you're concerned about your father's political future. I believe you. So am I. What else do you want?"
"I want the Justice investigation into my security chief called off. It never should have gotten as far as it has, but someone is pushing buttons in Treasury or Justice-or both, and I know at least one of those people is involved in this undercover operation."
Lucinda's eyes flicked to the stack of documents. "Your chief's name is on the escort list."
Blair never blinked. "I know that. It has nothing to do with her job performance, and it has nothing to do with our relationship. The Justice inquest was instigated by someone with a personal ax to grind with her. I want it to stop."
Leaning back in her chair, Lucinda gazed at some point across the room, clearly mentally sorting options. "You know," she said contemplatively, "most people believe that the currency of government is the almighty dollar, but it isn't. It's favors. I hold IOUs on a lot of people. I don't mind using some of them to clear this up, because it's going to save me a lot of trouble down the road to shut this down right now."
The anxiety that had churned in Blair's stomach since she had called Lucinda from the plane on the way to DC to ask for an emergency early morning briefing began to abate. "It will have to be soon in order to help Cam."
"Oh, it will be," Lucinda said. "But I'll expect something in return."
Blair's eyes narrowed. "And what would that be?"
"That you keep a lid on your relationship with Agent Roberts--at least until after the nominations. No statements, no public acknowledgements, and no more public displays of affection."
Blair should her head. "No. You said it yourself--if I hadn't brought this information to you, you might have found yourself in a very difficult nomination race against Wallace next year. I'd say we're even."
"You should consider politics."
"Not in this lifetime. I'll tell you what, though," Blair conceded. "I promise if I make any public statement about my personal life I'll give you fair warning so Aaron will be prepared to handle the press corps."
"It sounds like you're already planning something. I'd like the details now."
"Actually, that's something I'd rather discuss with my father."
Blair rose and walked toward the door. As she reached for the handle, she turned back and said, "Thanks for the help."
"Don't mention it," Lucinda called dryly as the door slowly closed behind the president's daughter.
When Cam opened the door, Blair's heart lurched with worry. Her lover was still in the same jeans and polo shirt that she'd worn on the plane.
"I thought you had an appointment at Justice?" Blair said as she entered, her fingers curling around Cam's bare forearm. "Why aren't you dressed? It's almost nine."
"It seems I don't have anywhere to be this morning after all," Cam replied.
"Cam, if they've suspended you alre--"
Cam grinned and shook her head. "Quite the opposite. Carlisle's secretary called me at 8:03 to advise me that the scheduled meeting with him had been canceled--and that he also had instructed her to inform me that the matter of Loverboy was closed."
Blair slipped her arms around Cam's waist and sighed with relief. "Thank God."
"What exactly did you do?" Cam inquired in astonishment.
"Not much," Blair replied. "Lucinda and I traded favors."
"Thank you for that--for everything."
"It feels good to be able to do something for you," Blair murmured, running her hand across Cam's chest, seeing the scars again in her mind's eye. Every time they made love, she saw them--felt them with her fingers and her lips. Remembered the moment the bullet struck. She shook her head, letting the memory go, savoring her lover's solid embrace. "You don't need to thank me."
"I still do, though," Cam whispered as she kissed her.
"Yes, well," Blair managed when she caught her breath, "Lucinda will be sure to remind me when she needs something done on short notice, I'm sure."
"She's a very fast worker," Cam noted admiringly. "Whatever strings she pulled, it didn't take long."
"Lucinda Washburn probably has more power than anyone in this country, next to my father. If she wants something done, it gets done."
"You have some very interesting contacts," Cam observed, her grin widening. "You're a very good woman to know."
"You think so, Commander?" Blair said as she ran her hands lightly up and down Cam's back. "Impressed?"
Cam nuzzled Blair's neck, kissing the tender skin beneath her earlobe which Cam knew was a trigger point for her sensitive lover. "Uh huh. Very impressed."
With her lips very close to Cam's ear, Blair whispered throatily, "Then you'll probably be especially excited to know that we have an appointment with the President of the United States in an hour."
Cam stiffened, then straightened suddenly. "Excuse me?"
"He's got a busy day, so we've been sandwiched in between the morning briefing with the national security agency and a meeting with a representative from the People's Republic of China."
"Christ, I've got to change my clothes!"
"You look fine. It's a family visit, Cam, not a briefing."
"That may be," Cam replied, turning toward the bedroom. "But I'm not going to pay a visit to the president in blue jeans."
"You're going to have to get over that eventually. I expect you'll be seeing quite a lot of him in the future. You know-birthdays, holidays-that sort of thing."
"That's going to take some getting used to," Cam called back over her shoulder and disappeared around the corner.
Blair smiled and followed after her.
Better get started then, lover.
Andrew Powell looked up as Blair and Cam walked into the Oval Office. He set aside the report which he had been reading and gestured to the small seating area across from his desk. "Sit down. Coffee?"
"No, thank you, sir," Cam said crisply.
"I'll take some," Blair replied. She moved to the far side of the room where a small service set of cups and utensils were arranged with a coffee urn. "Dad?"
When he shook his head, she poured herself a cup and returned to sit next to Cam on the sofa, facing her father in his customary wingback chair. "I'm sorry to spring this on you so suddenly."
"It's all right. Is there a problem?"
"Not exactly," Blair said, unconsciously resting her hand on Cam's knee. "There's something I wanted to tell you before you heard about it anywhere else."
He nodded and waited.
"I've decided to make a public statement about my relationship with Cam."
His expression didn't change as he looked from his daughter to her lover. "All right."
"Lucinda is going to be unhappy about that," Blair pointed out.
"She'll deal with it." His smile was fond but his tone was flat, uncompromising. "Is there any reason that you've chosen this time, if I might ask? Has something else happened?"
Blair shrugged. She had no intention of telling him of recent developments. That was Lucinda's call. "Sooner or later the press is going to get the story. I don't want to worry every day about hiding our relationship. I'd prefer to bring it out into the open now, rather than have someone else sensationalize it." She glanced at Cam. "And we both thought the timing would be better now instead of next year when you're in the midst of your reelection campaign."
"I appreciate that, but as I said, it's not of particular concern to me. On the other hand, if you want to control the issue, I suggest you fire the first volley."
Cam nodded, and Blair replied, "That was our thought, too."
Blair took a deep breath and carefully avoided Cam's eyes. "There's one other thing. There's the problem of Cam continuing as my security chief once it becomes public knowledge that we're lovers."
Cam tried to hide her surprise. Blair had not mentioned she was going to bring this up with her father.
It's her father. And her show.
The president shifted his attention from his daughter and fixed it on Cam. "Does your relationship with my daughter affect the way you do your job?"
"Yes sir, it does," Cam said evenly as she returned his gaze steadily.
His eyebrow quirked but he gave no other sign of surprise. "How?"
"Ordinarily, sir, the only concern of the Secret Service is to ensure the physical safety of the protectee. I find that occasionally my judgment is affected by my concern for Blair's...happiness."
A fleeting smile twitched at the corner up his mouth. "Does this endanger her?"
Cam blew out a breath and considered the very issue that had concerned her since she first realized that she was falling in love with Blair Powell. "I don't think so, sir. It does provoke me to bend the rules on occasion, but in terms of her physical safety, my reactions are instinctual."
"And I'd be happier if they were a little less instinctual," Blair said darkly. "I was hoping you'd tell her she had to resign, Dad."
"I gathered that somehow." She had rarely asked him for anything. He thought about the intense wash of fear that had flooded through him the day he had been informed that shots had been fired at his only child. He had been grateful to the core that a Secret Service agent had taken the bullet meant for her. On the other hand, he could only imagine how his daughter must feel having someone she loved nearly die in her place. Carefully, he said, "Agent Roberts, if you were no longer providing security for my daughter, would your reactions be any different if she were endangered?"
"No, sir," Cam responded instantly. "Whether I am officially assigned to her or not, I'm still going to read the terrain with an eye toward her security. That's instinctual, too. If someone threatens her, I'll respond in the same way."
The President glanced at Blair, sensing that this was not an answer which would please her. "Well, it seems to me, Blair, that if she's going to behave the same way whether she's officially assigned to you or not, we might as well let her do her job."
And I'll feel a hell of a lot better.
"I can't argue the point with both of you," Blair replied resignedly. She glanced from her lover to her father. "I certainly hope this isn't a harbinger of future alliances, because if you two gang up on me like this very often, I'm going to be seriously pissed."
"I wouldn't dream of it," the president said gravely, and both Cam and Blair laughed.
When her father leaned to kiss Blair's cheek at the door of the Oval Office, he whispered, "Good luck."
As they moved through the hallways of the White House, Cam murmured, "That was a very tricky maneuver back there, Ms. Powell--hoping that your father would fire me."
Blair grinned. "It was a long shot, but I figured if he told you to resign, you wouldn't resist." She hesitated. "Are you angry?"
Cam laughed. "No. I know you had to try. Are you going to be able to live with it?"
"I'll have to."
Suddenly serious, Cam said, "Because if you aren't, I'll--"
"He's right. You're right. I surrender," Blair said with only a mild hint of annoyance. "You're going to do the same thing whether you're my security chief or not. At least if you are in charge of my team, once in a while we'll be able to pretend we have a normal life."
Cam relaxed. "That sounds very good to me."
"Well, we have one more thing to do, and then I suggest we take advantage of your day off."
"What are your plans?"
"I'm going to call Eric Mitchell and arrange an exclusive interview. I think he'll be willing to handle it tastefully. Are you ready for it?"
Cam reached down and briefly squeezed Blair's hand. "Any time you say."
On their third night in Paris, they stood close together in a minuscule park on the island in the center of the Seine, the silhouette of Notre Dame looming upward in the night sky behind them. Their hands were linked where they rested on the top of the wrought iron railing while the river flowed slowly a few feet below. Thirty feet behind them in the shadow of the trees, a Secret Service agent stood guard.
The night was close around them, and the darkness offered its silent shield. They were about as alone as it was possible for them to be.
"What are you thinking about?" Cam asked quietly, marveling at the beauty of Blair's profile in the moonlight.
Cam grimaced. "How unfortunate. Why?"
"Because it pisses me off that nothing's going to happen to him despite all the trouble that he caused you. I want him to suffer, somehow."
"Actually, something has happened to him," Cam reported. "I noticed in the briefings today that there's been a change of command at the Bureau office in DC. Patrick Doyle is no longer the Special Agent in Charge. He's been posted to a field office in Waukegan."
"Where is that?"
"Good," Blair said vehemently. "I hope he rots there."
Cam thought of her brief encounter with Doyle the morning after she and Blair had given the interview to Eric Mitchell acknowledging their relationship. She'd gone to see Carlisle, because she'd needed to know where things stood between them. He was still her superior, and she still took orders from him. His only remark had been, "The president has complete confidence in you, and that's good enough for the Director. Just try to keep your picture off the front page, if you can."
When she'd left the office after assuring him that she had every intention of doing just that, Doyle was walking toward her. They had approached each other from opposite ends of the hallway, their eyes riveted on one another, their bodies tensed and ready for a fight.
As he drew near, Doyle hissed through clenched teeth, "You got lucky this time, Roberts, but I'd watch my back if I were you. You won't be able to hide behind Blair Powell forever."
It grated on her to even hear him say Blair's name, but she just smiled. "You still trying to scare me, Doyle? I thought by now even you'd be smart enough to figure out that doesn't work."
He lifted a fist and rocked forward on the balls of his feet, his jaw muscles bulging, but he stopped before he touched her. She remained motionless, her hands open and loose by her sides. She would love to jam her fist in his throat, but she wouldn't give him the satisfaction of goading her into it.
"You weren't good enough for her, Roberts." His face was flushed, his eyes hot with hatred. "She deserved better than you."
Cam's face never changed, but her eyes hardened. When she spoke, her voice was level and edged with flint. "You know, Doyle, that may be. But I know Janet was too good for you, and so did she."
And then she stepped around him and walked away, leaving him staring speechless at her back.
Sighing, Cam reached for Blair's hand and drew it to her lips. Softly, she kissed her palm. "I'd say Doyle has paid a high price for revenge."
"I don't think so," Blair grumbled, but the night was gorgeous and so was her lover and she couldn't hold onto the anger any longer. Moving closer, she rested her head against Cam's shoulder. "I love you."
"I love to hear you say that," Cam murmured. She kissed Blair's temple, then laughed softly. "Do you think the ambassador will be terminally insulted that you stole away early from his gala?"
"I doubt that he even noticed. I'm sure he was too busy glad-handing to care what I was doing."
"Well, the ambassador might not have noticed you, but the ambassador's wife certainly did," Cam observed archly.
Blair chuckled and slid her arm underneath Cam's dinner jacket and encircled her waist. "I can't imagine what you mean, Commander."
"I mean that if she had looked at you much longer with that exceptionally eager expression in her eyes, I was going to have to create an international incident."
"You can't seriously be jealous?" Blair laughed out loud.
"Oh no?" Cam turned and rested one hip against the railing, pulling Blair into her arms. Bending close, her mouth against Blair's ear, she murmured, "You are a very beautiful woman, Ms. Powell. And in this dress, I might add, a spectacularly sexy one. She wasn't the only one watching you tonight."
"The only person's attention I'm interested in is yours," Blair said huskily, linking her hands behind Cam's neck. They fit together seamlessly, and she felt the heat of Cam's body through the sheer material of her dress. "And at the moment, I'd like quite a bit more of your attention."
"Unfortunately, you're going to have to wait," Cam whispered, but her own voice shook with a swift surge of desire. "I don't think even Stark could pretend to ignore us if I did what I'm thinking of doing right here."
Blair pulled her close and kissed her, a fierce, demanding kiss that deepened as their bodies molded to one another. When she drew back, she gasped, "Patience is not my long suit."
Cam brushed her thumb along the line of Blair's jaw. "I like you hungry."
"I'm hungry now."
Blair slid her hand down Cam's chest, over her abdomen, and pressed her fingers fleetingly between her lover's thighs, smiling to herself when Cam stiffened and bite back a groan.
"Let's walk for awhile," Cam whispered, her blood racing. "Then we'll stop at the first little hotel we find and get a room for the night."
"What about Stark and Fielding?" Blair asked, inclining her head toward the darkness behind them.
"Once we're settled, I'll tell them to take the rest of the night off." Cam laughed. "I seem to recall that Renee Savard took a week's vacation and just happened to decide to spend it in Paris. I doubt very much that Stark will complain about working a few hours less tonight."
"You know," Blair mused, linking her fingers once again with her lover. "There are some real advantages to your position, Commander."
As they began to walk beneath the stars in the city made for lovers, Cam replied softly, "I love my work."
Blair laughed, embracing the woman--and the love--that had taught her that freedom is a thing of the heart.
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