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 just╔I 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 the╔pain?"
"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 lo╔" 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. "So╔"
"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 ° 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.
Go To: Love and Honor Part Two
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