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.
Go To Love and Honor: Part Three
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