Chapter Seven

After Sloan left, Michael sorted file folders and disks with the work she intended to finish at home and put them into her briefcase. As she closed the office door behind her, she was surprised to find Angela still at her desk. "What are you still doing here?"

"Foster sent in the summary for the telecommunications project late yesterday afternoon. I knew that you'd want the portfolio to go out to marketing first thing on Monday, so I thought I'd get started. I'm collating the information now. It should be ready to print soon."

Michael smiled, shaking her head in fond admonishment. "You know I don't expect you to work on Saturday afternoons unless it's an absolute emergency." She glanced at her watch. "And it's officially afternoon now. I appreciate it, and you're right, I will need it on Monday. But it can wait until you come in Monday morning."

"I'm on my way," Angela said gratefully. She had a date that night and a million things to do before Karen picked her up. She tilted her head, and studied Michael carefully. Her boss looked weary, and strangely, sad. "Is everything all right?"

Michael stiffened slightly, never comfortable discussing herself. Even though Angela had been her personal secretary for three years, and knew her about as well as anyone, they were not friends. She trusted Angela, but she did not confide in her. "Yes, of course. I'm fine."

Angela accepted the automatic response, knowing there was no point in questioning Michael further. She deftly changed the subject, because she was curious about something else. "By the way, I've noticed you've got a new computer consultant. Is Mayfield leaving?"

Michael hesitated, wishing she could explain. She had confidence in Angela's discretion, but it didn't seem fair to burden her with knowledge that she would have to conceal. Angela rarely worked directly with Jeremy, but they certainly came into contact frequently enough that it could be uncomfortable for her.

"No, it's not about Mayfield," Michael said casually, referring to the systems administrator they employed to handle their ordinary computer issues. "Sloan is just doing some personal work for me."

Angela snorted slightly, "That's definitely Sloan's strength. Up close and personal kind of work."

Michael looked at her in slight confusion. "I beg your pardon?"

Angela only shook her head. Sometimes Michael could be so naive. "JT Sloan is a very smooth operator," she remarked, not bothering to hide her bitterness. "She tends to mix business with pleasure, if you know what I mean, and women are her specialty. Although I guess that's not likely to be an issue with you."

For some reason, Michael felt herself blushing. She knew Sloan was a lesbian, but she hadn't given it any thought the previous night. Perhaps she had been hasty in accepting Sloan's invitation to the Cabaret, although she seriously doubted that J.T. Sloan would take any notice of her in that way. It had seemed harmless enough, and had turned out to be one of the most enjoyable evenings she could remember in a long time.

"I hardly think that Ms. Sloan would have any interest in me in that regard," she said dismissively.

Angela stared at her, wondering if it was possible that Michael really did not know how attractive she was. In addition to being stunningly beautiful, she was intelligent, accomplished, and kind. A rare combination for a successful businessperson. Angela had struggled with her attraction to Michael for months. She knew it was an impossibility, not only because her charismatic employer was married, but because Michael Lassiter seemed to have no clue as to the possible interest that others might have in her. Angela had seen any number of men make fruitless attempts to entice Michael into an office dalliance, and several women too. Michael simply didn't recognize the overtures. She was always too occupied with whatever idea consumed her at the moment.

"With Sloan any woman is a possibility. Just don't take anything she says or does seriously, and you'll be fine," Angela advised, getting up to gather her things.

"Thanks," Michael said dryly. "I'll remember that."

Resolutely, she pushed the lingering sound of Sloan's voice from her mind, and dismissed the fleeting images of that remarkable profile outlined in moonlight from her consciousness. As she did so often, and so unconsciously after so many years, she turned her mind to her latest project. She was unaware that the hollow sounds of her footsteps echoing in the deserted hallway matched the ever-deepening emptiness in her life.


"I need you to dig out some background for me," Sloan said as she inched her way through the early afternoon traffic on the cross-town expressway.

"Oh yeah? Who are we investigating?" Jason asked on the other end of the phone.

"I want to know what you can find on Michael Lassiter, her family, and Jeremy Lassiter."

"Is there a problem with that assignment?" Jason inquired, obviously surprised by her request. It wasn't typical, particularly with their jobs in the private sector. And despite Sloan's reputation as a playgirl, it wasn't typical for her to date a client either, at least not before the account was completed. She had surprised him showing up at the Cabaret with Michael. Of course, there was always the chance he had been wrong about the way Sloan had looked at Michael Lassiter the night before, and she wasn't really taken with the new client after all.

"No problem. I just have the feeling that the time might come when I need to know everything there is to know about the Lassiters." She didn't see any point in explaining to Jason how uneasy she felt, since she couldn't explain it to herself. She just couldn't envision Jeremy Lassiter folding his tent and disappearing without a struggle. Information was often powerful ammunition in these kinds of skirmishes, and if she could lend Michael Lassiter a hand, she would. She told herself it was simply good business, nothing more. Certainly nothing personal.

"Where are you," Jason asked with a sigh.

"I'm on my way to the gym," she offered. "I just finished doing the initial scans of the Lassiter system."

"Sloan, love – it's Saturday afternoon. I bet you have plans for the evening, don't you?'

Sloan frowned at the thought. She did, and for some reason, she wasn't particularly looking forward to it. "Dinner later with Diane Carson."

"Uh huh – well, perhaps I have plans, too. And they didn't include spending the night rifling through someone else's virtual underwear drawer."

She laughed. "Fine. Monday morning will be time enough." She assumed the deep sigh from Jason’s end indicated assent.

"What kind of background are we talking about? Am I going to need to call in favors?" he asked.

"I shouldn't think so. There's nothing to suggest classified information. I just want anything you can find on both the Lassiters, before and after their marriage, personal and professional."

Jason heard the undercurrent of concern in her voice, and suddenly serious, he asked again, "Are you sure there's no problem?"

"No," Sloan said tersely. She and Michael hadn't even talked much the last few hours that Sloan had been there. When she got ready to leave, she hadn't wanted to go. She couldn't explain that either. She had to force herself not to ask Michael about her plans for the weekend.

Impatiently, she brushed her hand through her hair, muttered at some fool who tried to cut her off, and continued, "I just want to know exactly what I'm dealing with here, Jason. Is that too much to ask?"

"Oh, absolutely not," Jason said theatrically, a hint of sarcasm in his voice. "I live to serve you, almighty one."

Sloan laughed despite her lingering uneasiness. "Just do it, Jason."

"Your wish is my command." After a second's hesitation, he continued, "By the way, Sarah called and asked that you call her."

"Oh?" Sloan queried. "Did she say what she needed?"

"No," Jason said somewhat distractedly. "We didn't talk long."

Sloan found it fascinating that Jasmine and Sarah apparently shared an easy friendship that had blossomed almost immediately and they never appeared to want for conversation. Jason, however, seemed awkward and unsure of himself on the occasions when Sarah had called or dropped by the office.

"Okay, fine, thanks. I'll call her when I get home from the gym."

"Try not to offend anyone or break any hearts for the rest of the weekend, okay?" he said semi-seriously.

"Yeah, right," she muttered, crossing three lanes of traffic to a cacophony of honking horns and angry gestures, exiting into downtown traffic. As if it were always up to her.


"You should have a spotter," the pleasant female voice announced calmly.

Sloan looked up through her braced arms and saw Sarah's face, bisected by the barbell, peering down at her with a faint smile.

"Yeah," she grunted, pushing up another rep. "So I've been told. How'd you find me?"

Sarah slipped two fingers under the bar, bracing her legs, and followed the rhythm of Sloan's arms up and down, ready to take more of the weight if Sloan began to tire. "I called the office again, and Jason told me. Say, if you really want a workout, we could spar."

Sloan blinked sweat from her eyes. She had been lifting ferociously for forty minutes, and her muscles were starting to hum. She still had the vague sense of disquiet that had plagued her since leaving Michael, and she welcomed the thought of a good bout. She lowered the weights to the upright cleats and wiped the back of her arm across her face. "I thought you were all pacifistic now that you're into eastern medicine and yoga and the like," she said teasingly.

Sarah's eyes sparkled with challenge. "I'd consider whipping your butt just another form of meditation, Sloan."

Sloan pushed up off the bench. "You're on, Sifu Martin," she said, employing the traditional term for a Kung Fu master.

Ten minutes later they faced each other in the adjoing studio, bowed respectfully to one another, then stepped into fighting positions. Sloan faced Sarah full on, her lightly wrapped hands held face high, elbows in, balancing lightly on the balls of her feet in the typical Muy Thai kickboxing stance. Sarah turned sideways, knees slightly bent, both hands extended slightly, ready to block Sloan's punch or pivot away from one of her roundhouse Thai kicks.

It brought back memories for Sloan of the hot humid jungles of Thailand, and the crowded noisy streets of Bangkok, and the young naïve agent she had been nearly a decade before. It had been her first overseas assignment after joining the Justice Department right out of college, and she had been intermittently home sick and excited. She and Sarah gravitated to one another because they were both Americans, and both female, and close in age. Sloan's area had been communications, at least that was her job description. In addition to developing networks for the government's allies in Southeast Asia, she was also covertly helping to electronically infiltrate government and corporate systems of interest to the United States throughout the region. She didn't think of herself as a spy, but looking back, there hadn't been any other word for it. Sarah Martin was a cultural liaison from the State Department. The two of them had become immediate friends and spent much of their free time together. They had ended up training in the same dojo, and the spiritual bonds they forged went deeper than blood. Despite their years of separation after Sloan had been forced to leave the service under a cloud of suspicion, their connection now seemed as strong as ever. There was no one she trusted as much as Sarah.

Sloan's temporary lapse into the past cost her a not so gentle strike on the side of her jaw and a resounding take down from Sarah's swift follow-up leg sweep. Fortunately, her reflexes were still sharp, and she managed to land without rapping the back of her head against the floor. She was up in an instant, shaking her head slightly and frowning at Sarah's delighted laughter.

"You're rusty, Sloan," Sarah taunted good-naturedly. "Getting soft with that desk job of yours."

"That was just luck," she snapped. She circled, keeping a wary eye on Sarah's lightning fast hands and feet, and after feinting a left hook, stepped in quickly to deliver a knee strike to Sarah's mid-section. The air wushed softly between Sarah's lips at impact. Sloan grinned in satisfaction.

They sparred continuously for 25 minutes until they were both dripping from the exertion and panting audibly. By mutual agreement, they stepped back, bowed to one another, and collapsed next to each other on the floor.

"God, I needed that," Sloan gasped when she could catch her breath.

Sarah, lying on her back, turned her head so she could study Sloan's face. "What's up?"

Sloan shrugged. She didn't want to try to explain it – she didn't really want to know. "Just tense I guess. Too much time sitting at the computers like you said."

"Oh yeah, right. Remember whom you're talking to. I've seen you work around the clock and then some without even noticing."

"I was younger then," Sloan said with just a hint of bitterness.

Sarah knew how difficult the subject of Sloan's past was for her, even now, and did not pursue it. Instead, with uncharacteristic hesitancy, she said slowly, "I want to ask your advice about something."

Sloan shifted slightly so that she could meet Sarah's eyes. "What?"

Sarah blushed faintly, but she continued in a steady voice, "I want to ask Jason out."

For a second Sloan was at a loss for words. "I didn't realize you were interested in him," she finally managed. It wasn't totally unexpected, now that she thought of it. Sarah seemed to be calling or dropping by the office more often lately. And of course there were all the nights at the Cabaret when Jasmine was performing. Still, she was surprised.

"Why wouldn't I'd be? He's handsome and smart and he's got a great body," Sarah stated somewhat defensively.

Sloan didn't see any point in pretending that they didn't both know what the issue was. "What about Jasmine?"

Sarah grinned, her eyes sparkling. "I love Jasmine. But you know me, Sloan, I've never been into women that way."

Sloan had to laugh. There had been a time in those first few months in Thailand when she had tried very hard to get Sarah into her bed. They had everything going for them - common interests, similar jobs, and they were thousands of miles from everyone they knew. Finally, one night after too many beers, Sloan had boldly leaned across the tiny table in a dimly lit Bangkok bar and kissed Sarah soundly on the lips.

Sarah had kissed her back, quite thoroughly, and then settled back into her chair and studied Sloan gravely. Her exact words had been, "I've been wondering for months what it would be like to kiss you. You're a damn good kisser, Sloan. As much as I love you though, I'm just one of those girls that has a thing for those ridiculous male appendages. I hope you don't take it personally."

And Sloan hadn't.


Sarah’s voice brought Sloan back to the present. She seemed to be wandering into places she really didn’t want to go quite a bit lately. "Damn it, Sarah, I hate to get in the middle of these things. You're one of my oldest friends, and Jason not only works for me, I'm fond of the little shit."

"I know, that's why I wanted to talk to you."

Sloan sighed. "How long has it been since you were with someone?"

For a moment, pain shimmered in Sarah's green eyes. "Four years. He was an attaché in Bangkok. I thought we had something special. Turns out he didn't."

"I'm sorry," Sloan murmured. She knew Sarah didn't take relationships lightly, and she hated to think of her getting hurt. She also knew Jason had had more than his share of heartache because of the part of him that was Jasmine. Sometimes thinking about Jason and Jasmine made her head swim, and she was well used to it by now. She could only imagine what it would be like dating him.

"It's up to Jason to tell you how things are with him and Jasmine and everything. All I can tell you is that I don't believe he's ever dated a woman who knows about Jasmine. You might have your work cut out for you in that regard."

Sarah was quiet for a moment, remembering how much she enjoyed watching Jasmine perform the night before, and how part of her had been excited knowing that Jasmine was part of Jason. It wasn't something she needed to analyze in great depth. It simply was. "He’s a transvestite. It’s not just an act at the Cabaret for him, I know that. We all have diverse dimensions, sexually and psychologically, that we express in slightly different ways. There are parts of Jason that are best expressed through Jasmine. I don’t understand it completely, but it doesn’t seem to bother me." She sighed. "I just wanted to let you know before I did anything."

Sloan nodded, and sat up. She reached for a towel and tossed one to Sarah as well. She rubbed her face vigorously and then blotted some of the sweat from her hair. "I can't think of anyone I'd rather see with him," she finally said. She smiled. She meant it.

Sarah flashed her another grin. "Speaking of that sort of thing, what's the story with you and Michael?"

Sloan stopped what she was doing and froze. "There's absolutely nothing between Michael Lassiter and myself," she said stiffly.

"Okay," Sarah said softly. "My mistake then."

Sarah thought it prudent not to mention that both Michael Lassiter and Sloan had spent an enormous amount of time studying each other when they thought the other wasn't watching. It hadn't escaped her notice that Sloan had been particularly charming and touchingly attentive with Michael. It had also been obvious that Michael Lassiter, for all her excited interest in what was happening around her, sparkled every time Sloan leaned over to speak to her.



Chapter Eight

It was just after 6 AM, and Sloan didn't expect anyone to be in at Lassiter and Lassiter for several hours. She preferred to work before and after business hours when there were fewer interruptions, and more privacy. She had spent the better part of a week working on changes in the main system at Michael’s firm, and had decided to take another look at Michael's personal computer. She turned from the console in surprise when the door opened behind her, her automatic smile of recognition turning swiftly to concern when she saw Michael. She rose quickly and took several steps forward, her heart pounding. Michael stepped into the room, then faltered to a stop when she realized she was not alone. She looked like she hadn't slept in days. She wore no makeup and her face was pale, the shadows under her eyes dark and hollow. From across the room Sloan could see the haunted expression on her face. She had clearly dressed hastily, her khaki suit too rumpled for her usual impeccable taste.

"I'm sorry, I didn't expect anyone," Michael said in a voice hoarse with fatigue. She smiled weakly, one hand reaching to the sofa back for support.

Sloan saw her shudder, and she had to force herself to move slowly. Every instinct demanded that she go to her, touch her, assure herself that Michael was not hurt. Her stomach churned in a liquid state of near panic. Her own voice was tight as she said, "Are you all right?"

Michael looked as if she had just emerged from a dream and was still uncertain if she were truly awake. She sat hesitantly on the leather sofa, her hands clasped in her lap, and stared around the room in confusion. Sloan went to her side and knelt on the carpet in front of her. Slowly, afraid that she would startle her, she took Michael's hand.

"Michael?" she said very gently. A muscle twitched in Sloan’s neck with the effort it took for her to be calm when her mind was screaming with anxiety. "Are you hurt? Can you tell me what’s happened?"

Michael ran a faintly trembling hand through her hair and fixed on Sloan. Slowly, her blue eyes grew clearer, and she managed a small smile. "I'm so sorry. This isn't like me. I didn't get much sleep, and I can't quite seem to get my bearings this morning. I'm really fine. Thank you for your concern, but I'm quite all right."

It was a valiant lie, and Sloan respected her for it. But she couldn't accept it. There were too many possibilities coursing through her mind, not the least of which was that Michael's husband might have something to do with her current state. She forced herself not to imagine what might have happened, because the mere thought of anyone harming Michael was physically painful. "What happened last night?"

"I'm afraid I made your job a great deal more difficult," Michael said slowly. Her face became almost expressionless, and Sloan knew that she was drifting in some memory.

"Michael?" Sloan tried again, hoping to bring her back.

Abruptly, Michael stood and began to pace agitatedly in front of her desk. She glanced at Sloan, and then her eyes surveyed the room as if seeing it clearly for the first time. "He wants this, you see. I knew he would, but I didn't appreciate just how much. Not this space - I don't care about that. It's not this room, this building," she said vehemently. "It's not anything that you can touch. It's the ideas, the plans, the hopes and dreams I've spent my entire life putting into form. It's not me, or the money. He wants the things that I've created, the very best part of me. He doesn't care if I leave him, as long as he takes what's most important to me."

She stopped pacing as abruptly as she had begun, standing in the middle of the room, disoriented again. She began to tell the story, her voice a dull monotone, as if recounting someone else's experience. Sloan clenched her hands in her pockets, willing herself to silence, trying to ignore the almost irrational fury that pounded in her head. God, if he had touched her...

She had been asleep, Michael explained, when he returned the night before, close to midnight. She hadn't expected him, and was startled awake by a light in the hallway. The next instant, he was in the room, his presence seeming to dominate the space. As she recounted the tale, the memory was sharp and clear and razor-edged, each word etched in her mind. Suddenly, she was there again.

"Are you awake?" he asked.

"Yes," she said. "I thought you were still in L.A."

He dropped his raincoat over a chair and began to undress. "I finished up earlier than I expected, and I’m damned tired of hotel rooms. I want to sleep in my own bed."

As he approached, naked except for his briefs, she could see enough of his face in the dim light slanting into the room to read his expression. Her heart sank. She recognized his intent, although she hadn't seen that look in his eyes for months. It wasn't something she had given any thought to previously. It was simply part of their life, part of what had become the routine of their existence together. She rarely thought about it until it happened, and then gave little thought to it after. Perhaps it was because she had decided to leave him, but suddenly she knew with absolute certainty that she could not sleep with him. She slid from the opposite side of the bed, and reached for a robe from a nearby chair. He stared at her across the bed, clearly surprised.

"What are you doing?" he had asked.

"I'm going to sleep in the guest room."

"What?" he said in astonishment. She had never refused him before.

"I meant to tell you when you returned from this trip, because it wasn't something I wanted to do on the phone. I want a divorce."

He stared at her open-mouthed for what seemed like an interminable length of time, his expression frozen. Then his body went rigid, but whether it was anger or shock she could not tell. Eventually when he found his voice, it was even, controlled, and exceedingly cold.

"And is this something open to discussion, or is your decision final?"

"I'm certain," she said in a steady voice.

He nodded once, and walked across the room, slipped into his trousers, and pulled a shirt from the closet. She watched him, waiting for something to happen, realizing that she had no idea what he would do. How strange, to be witnessing the beginning of the end of their marriage, and to discover that her husband was a stranger. Why had she not known that before? How could she have been blind to what had been missing for a decade? They had been sexual, but never intimate. Why had it never mattered before this?

When he was finally dressed, he walked to the windows that overlooked the gardens in the rear of their estate. His profile in the moonlight was sharp and might have been carved from stone. His voice was as cold as winter. He proceeded to make it clear to her that she could divorce him if she desired, but he would fight for control of the company, despite the legal agreements they had made previously. Throughout his entire discourse, he barely raised his voice as he outlined with cold calculating precision exactly what he intended to do if she made any attempt to fight him.

She said almost nothing as he spoke, not surprised by what he said, but by the way he said it. He might have been talking to someone of so little consequence to him that he couldn't bother to be upset. It was almost as if she weren't human, and she realized that she probably hadn't been a person for him in a very long time. She was surprised that it didn't hurt, but it had been years since she had needed him or expected him to be more than a business associate.

Nevertheless, when he finished his ultimatum, she was shaken, not by what had transpired, but by the knowledge that she had spent 15 years of her life with someone whom she did not love, and who did not love her. What had begun as mutual need had slowly dwindled until they had little more than their name in common. She realized how truly alone she had been and wondered why she had never known.

Michael stopped speaking and stared at Sloan, her expression a mixture of anger and bewilderment. "He informed me he had no intention of leaving the house, and I knew I couldn't stay there another minute. He didn't bother to ask if there was someone else – he must have known there wouldn't have been. He was kind enough to inform me that I had no worries about any of his activities. He had always been careful and had even been tested. For his own safety." She shook her head in disgust. "By the time I had packed and found a hotel, it was six in the morning. I couldn't think what else to do, so I came here." She laughed harshly. "This is the only thing I know how to do, I guess."

Michael walked around behind her desk and slumped into the chair. When she tilted her head back and closed her eyes, Sloan felt the desire to comfort her constrict her chest so tightly she couldn't breathe. She swallowed the urge to smooth the furrows from Michael's brow with a caress, steadfastly ignoring the buzzing deep in her belly. Uh uh. No way. Do not even think it.

"Let me make you some coffee," Sloan suggested when she could get the words out without tripping over her runaway hormones.

Michael shook her head impatiently, but she smiled gratefully when she said, "No. Go back to work, Sloan. I'm all right. I just feel like my entire life has been a charade and I never realized it." She rubbed her hands over her face. "God, I sound pathetic. I'm sorry."

Sloan gritted her teeth until her jaws ached, willing herself to stand still. She wanted so badly just to touch her hand.

That's what you need, but probably not what Michael needs.

Desperately, she sought the words that would help ease the terrible pain she saw in Michael's wounded eyes. "You're not pathetic, you're just hurt. That's human."

Michael stared at her, her expression softening. "It's not what you think, Sloan. I'm not mourning my lost marriage. I'm just so angry at the mess I've made of my life, and how foolish I was not to see it. What's wrong with me that I could spend all this time in some charade and not even know it?"

Sloan went to her, finally trusting that she had her own emotions under control. She grasped Michael's hands lightly, gazing intently into her face, praying that her words would somehow penetrate Michael's anguish and self-doubt.

"There's nothing wrong with you! You've accomplished remarkable things in your life, and you're not the first person to make a mistake about a relationship. It took a lot of guts to face him, and tell him, and to walk out of there. Don't beat yourself up like this," she said, her voice thick with feeling.

God, she's magnificent and she doesn't even know it!

Helpless to stop, Sloan lifted one hand and brushed strands of blond hair from Michael's cheek. Her hand was trembling; she wasn't certain why. She stroked a thumb across the bruised shadow on Michael's cheek, wishing she could soothe the pain from her soul.

"Don't be so hard on yourself," she whispered again.

Michael fell into Sloan's deep violet eyes, almost floating on the comforting sound of her words, not really hearing them, but sensing the caring behind them. She had no idea why it felt so good for this woman to touch her hand or stroke her cheek, but she felt soothed somewhere beyond words. "Thank you," she said softly.

They were so close, if Sloan dipped her head just a fraction, their lips would meet. She wanted to, more than she had wanted to kiss any woman in longer than she could remember. She wanted to so badly it was a pain in her chest, and a hunger that went deeper than anything she had ever thought to feel again. There was such innocence and tenderness in Michael's eyes that all she wanted was to cherish it. She stepped back abruptly, more frightened by her own feelings than she could stand. She dropped her hands to her sides, fists so tight her fingers cramped. Her throat was so thick she wasn't certain she could speak. She stumbled back another step on legs that shook, swallowed painfully, and finally managed, "You don't need to thank me. You're incredibly brave."

Then she grabbed her jacket, made an excuse about needing to check in with her office, and left hurriedly, leaving Michael to stare after her with an odd sense of loss.

When Sloan got to the gym, she wrapped her hands and pounded the heavy punching bag until she couldn't lift her arms, finally sagging to the floor, her arms around the gently swaying bag, her sweat-drenched face pressed to the rough canvas cover, holding onto it with all the desperation of a lover betrayed.



Chapter Nine

It was another week before they spoke again. Sloan was spending most of her time with Mayfield, the systems administrator, and Michael was in and out for meetings, planning conferences, or working in her office. They passed each other coming and going, and that was enough for Sloan to see that by midweek Michael appeared to be in control again. The shadows haunting her blue eyes had disappeared and her gaze was clear. Sloan could sense Michael's distraction, but the fragility of that morning after her encounter with Jeremy was gone. It was just as well that their separate endeavors prevented much interaction, because Sloan found it difficult to concentrate with Michael in the room. Usually when she was working at the computer, she wasn't aware of anyone or anything around her. Annoyingly, the few times they were together now she found herself listening to the small sounds Michael made while working, or turning her head to look at her as she bent over her drafting table, or watching her as she talked on the phone. This was no time to lose focus, not when she was reaching a critical point in the changeover from the old system to the newer, streamlined, more secure one she had devised.

It was close to 8 PM on a Wed night when Michael opened her office door and walked down the hall to the cubicle where Sloan was working. "Can I see you for a moment in my office please? Michael asked quietly.

It hadn't escaped Michael’s notice that Sloan had been avoiding her, and she could only imagine it was because of the scene she had made in the office that morning after confronting Jeremy. Her loss of composure embarrassed her still. Nevertheless, she needed an update on Sloan's progress because the situation with Jeremy was rapidly approaching crisis proportions. It was hard for her to admit, but she missed her casual conversations with Sloan while they worked together. She missed Sloan’s quirky grin and quick humor, too.

Sloan looked up at the sound of Michael's voice, immediately struck once again by her timeless beauty. Her pulse sped up just a little and she felt that swift automatic tingle of arousal that was as involuntary as her heart beating. She quickly ignored it, nodding, "Yes, of course. I'll just be a minute."

"Good," Michael smiled, suddenly happier than she had been in days. "I ordered some Chinese, and I always get more than I can eat by myself."

Sloan walked into Michael's office a few minutes later, closed the door, and looked at her, one elegant dark eyebrow raised in question. She couldn't stop herself from grinning with pleasure. Michael looked stunning in a forest green suit that was tailored just enough to accentuate the curve of her hip and the long line of her slender thighs. Sloan knew she was staring and hoped her quick surge of pure lust wasn't obvious.

Michael stood in front of her desk, leaning one hip against the edge, her hands clasping the polished wood on either side of her. She smiled, a brilliant smile that sent the blood coursing hotly through Sloan's veins.

"How are we doing?" Michael asked, apparently oblivious to Sloan's reactions. She indicated cardboard cartons of food on the glass-topped table in front of the leather sofas along with wooden chopsticks in paper sleeves, a stack of paper plates, and napkins. "Help yourself. It's the maid's night off."

Sloan occupied herself with the food, grateful for something to take her mind off Michael Lassiter's body. "Pretty well, actually. Your systems administrator is a good man. It won't take too long for him to figure out I've installed a detection program that reports to an ICEcap server, though."

It was Michael's turn to lift an inquiring eyebrow, and Sloan laughed.

"It's a secondary security checkpoint that accumulates detection data from multiple networked computers, then analyzes and tracks intrusions. The problem with any detection system is that all Internet transmissions are not attacks. Some legitimate Internet applications communicate with your network in the same way that hackers do. The more external points of entry to the system you have, such as access from personal home computers or distant office sites, the more holes you have in the system. My job is to make the system as tight as possible and still allow those who need to get in to be able to. Mayfield is naturally curious as to some of the changes I've instituted, but I don't think he's particularly suspicious yet. Is he someone you can trust?

Michael shrugged. "I really have no idea. I'm sure that lines of allegiance will be drawn rather quickly when it becomes generally known that Jeremy and I are divorcing. I think most of the theoretical people will want to stay with me. As to management, it's hard to say. Probably the bottom line will be their perception of who will most successfully run the company. And that's where the problem will be. I expect the fact that I'm a woman may decide it for some of them. Right now, I'm hoping I can keep things quiet for a bit longer until my attorney can present Jeremy with a buy-out agreement. Maybe in the end money will sway him. We also have two big projects nearing completion – one with the government and one in the private sector. If I can bring these in on time with no hitches, that will go a long way toward solidifying my position. I need to be able to show that I can lead the company, not just the design divisions."

Sloan nodded, thinking it a sound plan, if it was really money Jeremy Lassiter wanted to exact from his wife. She had no doubt that Michael could handle the business challenges to come. "I'm going to need to go to your New York office fairly soon. That seems to be the weakest link in the network. I'll need a few days up there to physically look at the system. I've got Jason backtracking IP addresses from the analysis engine I've loaded into your personal computer. Most of it will turn out to be nothing, but it's always worth checking."

Michael sighed, absently drawing a bit of hair off her cheek, tucking it behind her ear. Sloan watched the delicate movement of Michael's slim fingers as she lifted the golden strands, struck by the grace and elegance of the small gesture. She must have been staring, because Michael blushed slightly. Sloan quickly averted her eyes.

Christ, Sloan, get a grip. You can't keep looking at her like she's lunch!

"I'm going a little stir crazy in the hotel," Michael confessed. She had taken a suite of rooms at the Four Seasons when she moved out of her house. There wasn't much that she actually needed. She had her computer, so she could work, and she had taken most of her clothing with her that first night. Nevertheless, the evenings alone at the hotel were beginning to wear on her. It was surprising, really, because being alone was something she had gotten used to. It didn't ordinarily bother her. For some reason, she found herself restless and agitated. And aware for the first time of being lonely. She kept thinking back to the evening she had spent with Sloan and the others at the Cabaret. She had felt lighthearted and excited and somehow so free. She realized she missed that feeling.

Sloan said nothing, trying her best not to think about Michael Lassiter in any way at all except professionally. She definitely did not want to think about her in terms of dinner at the Monte Carlo restaurant, or a stroll along the riverfront in the moonlight, or perhaps a nightcap in Michael’s hotel room. She absolutely did not want to think about leaning over and kissing her, which was exactly what she had been thinking for at least ten minutes. She leaned back on the sofa to break the spell. It didn't work.

"I was wondering if Jasmine is performing again Friday at the Cabaret?" Michael asked impulsively. It must have been just the memory of how happy she had been for those few hours, because it certainly couldn't have anything to do with the fact that Sloan had made her feel so special. Or how the brief touch of Sloan's long, lean fingers seemed to make her skin tingle.

"Actually she isn't," Sloan said gently, sensing how hard it had been for Michael to ask. The quick flash of disappointment on Michael's face caused her to lose what remained of her better judgment. "She and the troupe from the cabaret are performing at the annual AIDS benefit at the Franklin Center. Jason, Sarah and I will be going. Would you like to join us?"

"Oh, I couldn't. That's very kind of you, but I'm sure you've already made other arrangements," she said, thinking of the remark Angela had made about Sloan's popularity with women.

Sloan grinned somewhat sheepishly. She didn't think it would be prudent to tell Michael Lassiter that her date had dumped her after Sloan had informed her that she wasn't interested in a serious long-term relationship. The timing had been terrible, but Sloan had to find some way of explaining why she hadn't wanted to sleep with Diane the previous Saturday night. It was hard enough to come up with an explanation to herself. She wouldn't even consider that it might have something to do with the thoughts of Michael that had kept intruding all evening.

"Actually, I have an entire table reserved, and there's plenty of room. There would just be the four of us until Jason left for the performance."

Michael recalled the handsome young man she had met briefly that day in Sloan's office. "Jason would be- ?" Suddenly she remembered Jasmine's brilliant blue eyes and her elegant but strong features. The two images came together in her mind, and she gasped in surprise. "Oh my God, Jason and Jasmine -"

Sloan laughed. "Amazing, isn't it?"

"Incredible. However did you two meet?" she asked innocently.

It was there again, that quick flash of barely disguised pain. Then Sloan shrugged it off, and answered carefully, "We both worked in Washington in the early '90s. I happened to see Jasmine one night in a bar. She was really hot in black leather pants and a skimpy little top, and she was getting plenty of looks. I asked her to dance."

She was still a little embarrassed that Jasmine had turned her down flat when she suggested they go somewhere a little more private. Sloan could still remember how turned on she had been after only one dance with her. Sloan cleared her throat, and continued, "I thought it was odd that she didn't seem to be interested in any of the women who were clearly interested in her. A couple of days later, I passed this guy in the hall. He had the most beautiful eyes, and when he saw me he blushed. And I knew."

"What did you do?" Michael asked, reaching for one of the fortune cookies in the bottom of the paper bag. She was fascinated. The image of Sloan and Jasmine dancing was surprisingly exciting.

"My first reaction was to be pissed off," Sloan said immediately. "I actually wondered for a minute if he was some kind of undercover agent gathering dirt on government employees."

Michael was about to laugh, but one look at Sloan's face told her she was serious. "Does that sort of thing actually happen?"

"Not so much anymore, but it certainly has in the past. And Washington is a very paranoid place. But I had danced with him, and I knew he was the real thing. He was the best transvestite I had ever seen. Everything – the way he moved, the way he spoke, hell, even the way he felt! Jasmine is as real as it gets. No agent would have been able to pull that off. I turned around, followed him down the hall, and pushed him into the men's room. Then I asked him what the fuck was going on."

She grinned a little ruefully at the memory, remembering how pale Jason had been, and how frantically he had looked around the restroom for someone to help him. He must have thought she was really going to hurt him. She remembered too the sinking feeling in her gut when she realized that that's exactly what he expected, for someone to hurt him. She had stepped back from him, put her hands in her pocket, and looked him up and down. He was wearing a Brooks Brothers suit, polished loafers, and a tie with a perfect Windsor knot. Then she had said, "I liked you a lot better in those leather pants."

"I liked you a lot better in yours, too," he had responded softly. "And that wasn't me, actually, it was Jasmine. I didn’t mean to lead you on, you know. I thought a dance would be okay."

Sloan remembered how quietly he had said that, a slight wistful tone in his voice. She understood what he was trying to tell her. She had no idea why he trusted her, but he did. She glanced at Michael, and continued.

"He explained to me that he was straight, which is why he didn’t go dressed to a men’s bar. He wasn't interested in picking up men, and was afraid there'd be trouble if he refused. At least in a lesbian bar, Jasmine would fit in, and she could always say 'no' if someone came onto her."

"My God, how difficult that must be," Michael murmured. "It would be so much easier if he were gay."

Sloan was surprised at how easily Michael grasped Jason's dilemma. Jason could date straight women, but then how would he explain Jasmine? When dressed as Jasmine, expressing himself as Jasmine, he appeared physically female, but he did not want to attract men. He ran the risk that whoever might be attracted to him would be repulsed by his particular form of self-expression.

"He hasn't had an easy time," Sloan agreed. She didn't think it was her place to tell Michael that Sarah and Jason were going out on their first date that Friday night. She trusted Sarah to be able to handle the situation, but she wasn't at all certain that Jason could. He was too used to hiding, and too used to anticipating rejection. She wasn't certain he would be able to recognize true affection when he found it. "So, Sarah and Jason and Jasmine and I will all be there. Please, join us. I'd like that very much."

Michael nodded, realizing that she wanted to do that more than she had wanted anything in a very long time. She pulled the small slip of paper from the stale cookie and read,

"You will find happiness in the most unexpected place"

Then she smiled, and said, "Yes, so would I."



Chapter Ten

When Michael answered the knock on her hotel room door at exactly 8pm Friday night, she was momentarily speechless. Sloan stood before her, dashingly turned out in a finely tailored charcoal pin-striped, pale gray tuxedo, complete with a pleated white shirt, French cuffs, a navy cummerbund and white bowtie.

"You look... magnificent," Michael finished, laughing as Sloan responded with a small bow.

Sloan searched for words, mesmerized by the vision of Michael in a black silk dress that hugged her sleek figure, thin straps at the shoulders accentuating a tantalizing expanse of décolletage exposed by the low sweep of the clinging bodice. The soft swell of her breasts was just a promise beneath the exquisite material, but it was enough to send the blood rushing from her head to the depths of her belly. Her throat was suddenly dry. She was aware that she was staring as the silence between them lengthened, but she was having trouble catching her breath. Finally, she brought her gaze to Michael's, where blue and indigo fused, and they smiled into one another's eyes.

"You're beautiful," Sloan whispered, finding the words completely inadequate.

Michael colored slightly, inordinately pleased. Why did a compliment from Sloan make her heart beat faster?

"Thank you," Michael said, reaching for Sloan's hand and pulling her inside. "I'll just be a minute. I have to get my things."

Sloan stopped just inside the door, watching Michael move about the room, graceful and sure, as she seemed to be in everything she did. Sloan reminded herself that she was a friendly escort only, and that she had best keep her eyes above shoulder level for the rest of the evening. Her inability to control her autonomic nervous system around Michael Lassiter was becoming embarrassing, and more than a bit physically uncomfortable. Unfortunately, avoiding Michael's body wasn't enough to place her beyond danger, because just looking at Michael's face could devastate her. It went beyond her classic features and her flawless skin and her breathtakingly beautiful blue eyes; there was a tenderness in her gaze and a gentleness in her voice that laid soothing hands on Sloan's wounded places, tempting her to believe in miracles.

"Sloan?" Michael inquired lightly, surprised to see her still at the door and wondering at Sloan's hesitation to enter the room. It was so unusual for her to appear uncertain. "Do you need anything?"

Sloan shook her head, thinking, if you only knew. Quickly, to hide her agitation, she answered, "I'm sorry. No, nothing. I'm fine."

Michael wasn't sure she believed her, but she simply nodded, tossed a light jacket over her arm, and closed the door firmly behind them. She was going out with friends and she intended to have a wonderful time. As they walked to the elevator, she glanced sideways at Sloan, struck suddenly by her bold strong profile and panther-like fluidity. She thought again how attractive Sloan was in that dangerous sort of way that wild animals had. She had always been tempted to put her hands through the bars of the leopard's cage at the zoo just to feel those sleek, stalking muscles ripple under her fingers. It had always made her just a little breathless. Looking at Sloan was like that – being with her was a little like that too. No one, male or female, had ever quite captivated her attention the way Sloan seemed able to do. Being with her, talking with her, simply sharing Chinese take out in a deserted office building seemed to produce a slight shimmer of excitement. When Sloan looked at her with that piercingly intent stare, Michael felt like she was the only thing that mattered to her.

MIchael caught her breath at that thought, realizing that she had unwittingly been thinking of the evening almost as a date. She laughed inwardly at her own foolishness. She had never been attracted to a woman before, and even if she were, Sloan had more than enough women to choose from without giving her a second thought. Silly.

"Michael?" Sloan asked, faint concern in her voice. "Are you all right?"

Michael returned from her unconscious reverie to find Sloan standing by the curb, holding the passenger side door of her Porsche open, a slightly bemused expression on her face.

"Yes, of course." She smiled and slid into the roadster, ignoring the slight tingle in her arm where Sloan's fingers brushed against her skin.

As they drove across town, Michael watched the city life through the window. Men and women in elegant evening wear hurried to the theatre, teenagers bedecked in all manner of piercings, tattoos and outrageous outfits crowded the sidewalks, and tourists watched the other passersby with curious fascination. Everywhere couples held hands, heads bent close, laughing and talking in that intimately exclusive manner that only lovers shared. Michael was suddenly envious of something she had never been aware of missing before - that unique connection to another human being that defies definition, but is so common to human understanding that poets and writers and composers have tried to capture it for centuries. She ached in some primal place that her rational mind, with the reminder of all her accomplishments, could not assuage.

"Are Sarah and Jason dating?" she asked abruptly, searching for something to take her mind from the emptiness she had no inkling how to fill.

Sloan was silent for a second, recalling Sarah's excitement when she informed Sloan that she had asked Jason to go with her to the benefit. She replayed the conversation in her mind, deciding how much to reveal in answer to Michael's question. Sarah had been standing next to her in the locker room before their workout, barely able to contain her enthusiasm as she told Sloan the story.

"He tried to tell me he couldn't because Jasmine was performing, but I knew damn well there were two hours during dinner and the speeches before the Cabaret routine. And then, there's the gala afterwards. I think he actually squirmed when I pointed that out to him." Sarah's eyes had twinkled with laughter at the memory.

"That would explain his twitchiness at the office all day," Sloan had remarked. "Every time I spoke to him, he jumped. I think he might even have spilled his coffee once. For Mr. Perfection, that's unusual."

Sarah's face had clouded, and Sloan was instantly sorry she had said anything.

"Why is he so nervous, Sloan? We get along so well, and he knows I know about Jasmine."

Sloan remembered trying to ignore the question, hoping Sarah would let it go. She busied herself pulling on her sweats and workout gloves, pretending not to notice the shadow of Sarah's figure standing motionless beside her. Damn, they were both her friends, and her loyalties were conflicted.

"I really like him, Sloan," Sarah had whispered softly. "It's the first time I've felt that way in so long."

Fuck. Sloan had straightened with a sigh and looked her old friend in the eye. "I told you once that he never dated anyone who knew about Jasmine. That's not exactly true. He dated a clerk in the Justice Department about the time I was -- leaving. It was serious. They were even talking marriage. He eventually told her about Jasmine, and she totally decompensated. She actually filed a complaint against him in some kind of weird sexual harassment twist, claiming that he had used his position as her superior to unfairly involve her in an unhealthy relationship."

"Jesus," Sarah had uttered in disbelief.

"Yeah. It was absurd, and really carried no merit, but it ruined him. I heard about it through the rumor mill, at least the part of it that wasn't busy talking about me. I looked him up, and we decided it was time for both of us to disappear. We cleared out and six months later started the business."

Sarah had nodded. "I always wondered how the two of you ended up here together. So much has happened while I was away." She didn’t need to add that Sloan had never volunteered the details, and probably never would.

Sloan had looked away, her eyes darkening for an instant. "There isn't much to tell."

Sarah knew that wasn't true, but she had let it go. Sloan would tell her the rest when she was ready, and if she didn't, it didn't matter. She didn't need to hear Sloan's side of things to know that the rumors she had heard as far away as Thailand were false. She didn't press, and Sloan had let the subject drop gratefully.

Sloan shook off the memories and looked over at Michael, who was patiently waiting for her to answer. She shrugged. "I'm not sure if they are or not. They're going out together tonight, and I know Sarah is interested in him. I have a feeling it will all come down to Jason's willingness to trust her."

Michael nodded thoughtfully. "Not always an easy thing to do for anyone, and it must be so much harder for him."

"Yes," Sloan agreed with a sigh, pulling to a stop before the broad entrance to the stately pavilion. She glanced at Michael, aware of the slight air of melancholy that clung to her. She reached for her hand impulsively, drawing Michael around in the small front seat to face her. They were only inches apart, and neither of them paid any attention to the young man in the short red jacket standing impatiently near Sloan's door, waiting to valet park her car.

Sloan looked into Michael's eyes, her voice deep and strong. "If there's something possible between them, Sarah will know what to do to help it grow. She's got a gift that way. Now, I am going to take you inside and let everyone wonder how I have somehow managed to get the most beautiful woman in the room to sit at my table."

Michael blushed, thinking that Sarah wasn't the only one with a gift for knowing just the right thing to say. Then her smile erupted like the sun after a long cold winter, warming Sloan to her core.

"Since I could say the same thing about you, I think we should go show off a bit," Michael said, squeezing Sloan's hand.

Sloan stared at her for a moment before bursting into pleased laughter. "Now there's an offer I can't refuse!"

As they walked up the broad expanse of marble staircase into the vaulted reception area, Michael slipped her arm through Sloan's, a gesture as unconscious and natural as anything she had ever done. If Michael felt Sloan's quick jerk of surprise or the slight trembling in the muscles under her fingers, she didn't show it.



Chapter Eleven

When they arrived, the enormous ballroom was nearly full. Magnificent chandeliers, ablaze with candle-shaped bulbs, hung above the dozens of tables that fronted the stage. Men and women, elegantly turned out, wandered about, greeting friends or taking advantage of the opportunity to network. The evening was primarily a benefit for the myriad city agencies dealing with the multi-dimensional challenge of AIDS treatment, but it was also an important venue for the many factions seeking supporters in the political arena as well. There were a generous number of women in tuxedos as well as designer dresses. The men were mostly in tuxedos, although here and there representatives of the leather community strode about in full regalia, offering a striking counterpoint to the mainstream appearance of the majority. Were it not for the many women walking hand-in-hand, or the men with arms slung casually around their partner's waist, it might have passed for any fundraiser.

Jason and Sarah were already seated at the table Sloan had reserved near the front of the room. Jason, as always, looked GQ handsome in a black tuxedo. Sarah wore a simple dress in flattering tones of blue and green that accentuated her pale skin and emerald eyes. They both greeted Sloan and Michael with enthusiasm.

"God, this is wonderful," Sarah remarked. She looked around the room, continuing, "It's incredible to see so many people here in support."

She looked at both Sloan and Michael, thinking briefly what an amazingly attractive couple they were before reminding herself that they weren't a couple at all. But there was an easy connection between them that seemed apparent to her, although clearly not to them. Sloan watched Michael with obvious pleasure as Michael slipped into the seat beside Jason, and Michael looked over at Sloan with a soft smile that would have been seductive coming from anyone other than Michael. On her it merely seemed sweet, and lovely. Sarah was astonished to see Sloan blush. She thought that might be a first for her very imperturbable friend.

Sarah was aware of Jason fidgeting nearly imperceptibly next to her, and she said to him in a low voice, "Are you nervous about the performance?"

He laughed slightly, but his eyes were tense. "Not Jasmine's," he replied with a hint of sarcasm.

Sarah looked at him a moment, then touched his arm as she understood his meaning. "Jason, you needn't worry about anything with me. I may kiss on the first date, but that's as far as it goes."

Her soft smile did more to set his mind at ease than even her words, though those helped too. He thought she was quite the most attractive woman he had seen in forever, and he couldn't understand what was making him so nervous around her. She was smart and sexy and kind and he liked her laugh and the way she had of looking at him with a whimsical invitation in her eyes. And she knew about Jasmine. Then he realized that he wanted to kiss her, and that fact was more frightening than he could imagine. Could she really accept, or even understand, what a part of him Jasmine was?

He shied his gaze away from her warm welcoming eyes, glancing first at the mass of people milling about between the tables but seeing none of them before his attention finally focused on Sloan. He had always thought her compellingly good-looking, but tonight she looked exceptionally arresting. Her wavy black hair was sleekly brushed back from her temples, falling in casual layers to her collar, and a shock or two hung rakishly over her forehead. Her perfectly fitted tux accentuated her lean, taut body and he was reminded of the first time he had seen her. She had been leaning against the bar in a crowded club on Dupont Circle, cool and cocky and sexy as hell in tight leather pants and a white shirt that clung to her chest and was open tantalizingly low between small high breasts. Jasmine had looked particularly hot that night as well, and it hadn't taken long to catch Sloan's eye. Maybe he should have said no to her invitation to dance, but whatever part of him was Jasmine had wanted to know what it felt like to be held in her arms. Then they were dancing, and their bodies fit together like the intricate curves of two puzzle pieces, thigh between thigh, hip against hip. As they were nearly the same height, it was easy for Jasmine to dip her head and lean her cheek in the bend of Sloan's neck and shoulder. By the end of the dance they were both breathing hard and Sloan let her intentions be known. In a voice low and husky she had asked Jasmine to come home with her.

And the wonderful fantasy had shattered. Jasmine, despite her attraction, could not go home with her. Sloan was practically radiating sexual energy, but Jasmine had demurred, and Jason had never expected to see Sloan again. When they had met by chance while at work, he had initially been terrified by her anger. When she finally understood that he had not maliciously intended to deceive her, she had simply accepted that Jasmine somehow existed in her own right, a conscious but powerfully-defined part of his personality. It was the first time in his life that had ever happened. She had freed some part of him to hope that someone could actually know his secrets and accept him.

Now he sat across from her, admiring her still, knowing that the small spark of desire she still ignited was just one part of his attraction to her. She had saved his career, and his sanity, and perhaps his life that day she came looking for him in the Department of Justice and had offered him a way forward out of the lie. Joining her in business had been the best thing he had ever done.

He jumped slightly when Sloan leaned toward him and said softly, "So, how you holding up?"

"Fine," he responded, coloring quickly. Jesus, did everyone have to know what was going on? He noticed gratefully that Michael didn't seem to be watching him at all. She was clearly fascinated by the diverse and colorful crowd. Come to think of it, when she wasn't watching the throng, her attention was pretty much riveted on Sloan. Ohh god, she is way too naïve for the likes of Sloan!

He couldn't cope with all the conflicting emotions, and turning to Sarah, he said quietly, "Would you walk around with me for a few minutes before I need to go back stage?"

"Sure," she said with a quick smile.

He smiled back, inordinately relieved, and surprisingly pleased. Sarah seemed like the only solid ground in a very rapidly shifting landscape. Impulsively, he took her hand, and they slipped into the stream of people passing by.

Michael watched them go, then turned to Sloan. "Jason seems nervous. I'd think it was sweet if I didn't have a feeling that he was actually frightened. I feel for him."

Sloan studied her. She was coolly beautiful, and yet there was warmth in the depth of her eyes and the timbre of her voice. She was an amazing blend of contrasts. "You are very perceptive."

"Am I?" Michael asked with just the hint of a tease in her voice. "Am I correct then in surmising that you are a little nervous too?"

Sloan was taken aback by Michael's intuitiveness, and her frankness. She wasn't used to anyone being able to read her so well. It both pleased and worried her. To be known, to be understood, was a powerfully seductive emotion. It could make you careless, and it could make you vulnerable. That was a place she never wanted to be again. "Nervous? Perhaps," she allowed with a slight inclination of her head. "But I'm not afraid."

"I wouldn't imagine there is much that could make you nervous, and nothing that would frighten you," Michael remarked quite seriously.

Sloan's eyes darkened. "I am not invincible, or even particularly brave." She stared at Michael, forgetting her earlier vow not to look into her eyes. She forgot her intention to be cautious as well. "You are threatening, but in a most pleasant way," she murmured.

Michael leaned closer, so drawn by Sloan's intent gaze that she lost track of the activity and conversation around her. Everything receded from her view except a violet so deep it was a siren's song beckoning her to the cliffs. "Why?" she whispered.

"Your loveliness captures the imagination and your kindness soothes the soul," Sloan managed through a throat tight with sudden desire. Her head was spinning, her belly was churning, and she felt heat and want pool in her depths. She barely stifled a moan. Drawing a ragged breath, she whispered, "You are very beautiful, in so many ways."

Michael stepped closer to the edge, not even realizing the danger. "If I am, you're the first that's ever said so."

"Then you've been surrounded by fools," Sloan murmured, reaching a hand to trace the line of Michael's jaw. Her fingers trembled. Michael leaned forward to accept the caress, her lips parted slightly, her skin flushed. Her pupils were wide, dark, endless, beckoning Sloan to fall into them. Michael appeared so vulnerable in that instant that Sloan drew back with a nearly audible gasp. God almighty, what am I doing?

At that moment Sarah returned, sliding back into her seat as she announced, "Jasmine is getting dressed for the show. I wanted to stay and watch but she said 'no'."

She might have been invisible. Sarah stared from one to the other, suddenly aware of the unearthly stillness surrounding them. "You two okay?" she asked quietly.

Michael was the first to regain her composure. Her smile was just a bit shaky. "Yes, of course."

Somehow Sarah didn't believe that, but the expression on Sloan's face convinced her not to question the statement. She had never been one to taunt the animals.



Chapter Twelve

Any lingering unease was dispelled as the three of them watched the show. Female impersonators were always popular, and the Cabaret troupe was exceptionally so. It was partly the elaborate costumes that ranged from outrageously flamboyant floor-length gowns with feathers and sequins and plunging necklines for some numbers to stylish evening dresses that would have befit any performer on a Las Vegas stage. In addition to the visual spectacle, the show tunes and popular songs were rendered with skill and consummate style. Some of the impersonators specialized in particular performers, such as Cher or Bette Midler or Celine Dion, much to the delight of the crowd. Jasmine, however, did not. She was not an impersonator in that sense. Her specialty was Billie Holiday-type torch songs, and she performed them straight – no jokes, no exaggerated costumes, nothing but talent, a great voice, and very excellent legs. The audience loved her.

It was difficult for Michael to reconcile that these women were men. There was no awkwardness of motion in the clinging sheaths and high, thin heels, no hint of beard to mar the flawless make-up, and no subtle shifting to suggest that the full bodices were anything but real. Tonight she watched Jasmine with particular interest, searching for bits of Jason. The transformation was remarkable. It wasn't the outward things -- the different hair color or style, the feminine body, the expertly applied lipstick or eyeliner. It was the sultry way Jasmine walked, confident and more than a little seductive, and the throaty voice that whispered an invitation with a simple 'hello', and the look in her eyes that said she knew just how hot she was.

"God, she is sexy," Michael commented to no one in particular.

Sloan looked at her in surprise, and Sarah grinned.

"Yeah, and don't she just know it!" Sarah exclaimed with obvious pride.

"I seem to recall you weren't interested in women," Sloan grumbled good-naturedly.

Sarah arched an eyebrow and laughed. "Jealous are we?"

That comment got Michael's attention. She had just assumed that since Sarah was with Jason that she was straight. But she was with Sloan and that didn't mean she wasn't, did it? One thing she was quite sure of, however, was that she did not like the idea that Sloan might be attracted to Sarah. She couldn't say exactly why.

"No point in being jealous," Sloan continued. "Any way you look at it, I can't compete with Jasmine. I could never wear one of those dresses, I can't sing, and I'd kill myself in those shoes."

"Plus, there is the issue of Jason to consider," Sarah said, suddenly serious. "I love Jasmine's sense of humor and spirit and wild streak, but what intrigues me is knowing that Jason is there somewhere, too. I really wanted to watch him dress tonight, to see him become her."

"I don't imagine he's ever done that," Sloan remarked. "He's very private about it."

"It must be frightening for him to be so exposed," Michael agreed.

Sarah was silent for a moment, considering what they had said. "I hadn't thought that he would be threatened by me seeing," she said with a shake of her head. "Not very sensitive of me, I guess. I'm clearly not as tuned in to the subtleties of all of this as I thought."

"I'm certain that he just wants to be sure of your reaction first," Michael said gently, sensing Sarah's self-criticism. "If he cares about you, it must be terrifying not knowing if you can accept this part of him."

Sloan stared at Michael, wondering how she could grasp the heart of the issue so quickly. She watched as Michael leaned forward and took Sarah's hand, whispering gently, "Don't be discouraged. I'm sure he needs you to keep asking. Once he finally trusts you, he'll let you closer."

There was a tender warmth in Michael's gaze that softened her features and gave her an almost ethereal appearance. As quickly as she had been moved to desire a few moments earlier, Sloan was now touched by an emotion a great deal more dangerous. These glimpses of deep kindness and compassion captured Sloan's imagination and stirred her longing. Michael was beautiful in more than just body, however, and the depth of her gracious spirit warmed some long frozen place in Sloan's soul.

She looked away abruptly, wishing to break the spell. She could never remember being this affected by any other woman, and she was absolutely certain this would only lead to disaster. Michael Lassiter was a woman whose life was in turmoil, and she was not someone Sloan could simply take to bed and forget about the next day. Sloan reminded herself that since Michael showed no inclination toward that anyway, it was a moot point. Sloan grimaced in frustration and looked up with relief to see Jasmine approaching. She needed something to distract her from Michael's disconcerting nearness, and Jasmine filled the order nicely.

"Ah, the party is about to begin!" Jasmine declared as she rushed up breathlessly. She waved a hand in the direction of the stage, where a band was warming up and workers were clearing an area for dancing. She was still wearing the form-fitting red dress she had performed in, and she looked as elegant as any lady at the ball.

"Wonderful dress," Sarah said by way of greeting.

Jasmine slipped into the seat between Sloan and Sarah, and turned to Sarah with a smile that was just a tiny bit shy. "Thank you," she responded without a trace of her usual flirtatiousness. "I saw it in the window of a little boutique on my lunch hour one day, and I just knew it was meant for me."

Sarah wondered briefly who had purchased it, Jason or Jasmine, but decided that that was a question best asked when Jasmine felt a little more comfortable with her. "Well, you were right."

Jasmine smiled again, her cheeks flushing slightly, and turned to say her hellos to Michael and Sloan. The four of them chatted and commented on the who's who amongst the attendees for a few moments until the band began to play.

Then, Jasmine stood abruptly, grasping Sloan's hand. "Come on, baby, come dance with me."

For a moment, Sloan looked uncharacteristically disconcerted, then she shrugged helplessly and allowed Jasmine to pull her into the crowd on the dance floor. Michael and Sarah looked after them for second, then at each other and smiled.

"Poor Sloan," Sarah laughed. "Jasmine just loves to tease her. She's the only one I've ever known who could catch Sloan off-guard. If I didn't know better, I'd actually say Sloan was flustered!"

"I think that's because Sloan finds Jasmine attractive. I can certainly see why," Michael said with sudden insight, turning the idea over in her mind. She thought back to the story Sloan had told her about that first meeting with Jasmine, and realized that the two of them had a long and much more intimate relationship than she had ever realized. Sloan had admitted her attraction to Jasmine initially, but Michael assumed that once Sloan learned about Jason that the interest would be gone. Now, seeing Jasmine, she realized that wasn't necessarily true. Jasmine was seductive and charming and female to all appearances, so why wouldn't Sloan be affected by her attentions.

It was Sarah's turn to be surprised. "You're right. I'm amazed I didn't see it myself." She looked at Michael with new respect.

Michael smiled. "This is all so new to me, I have no preconceived notions of how it all works. Sloan is a lesbian, Jasmine is a sexy woman. Ergo –" She laughed, lifting her hands into the air in mock surrender.

"Does that bother you? Sloan's response to her, I mean?" Sarah asked, curious about exactly what was happening between Michael and Sloan.

Michael laughed a little self-consciously, wondering if Sarah was reading her mind. When she had watched Jasmine take Sloan's hand and so effortlessly lead her away, for one instant she had been jealous. Jasmine was very attractive, and the two of them looked good together. Even reminding herself that Jasmine wasn't, well, exactly all she seemed hadn't erased the slight twinge of envy when she had seen Jasmine step into Sloan's arms. She shook her head, very aware that Sarah was waiting for her response, and also aware that her thoughts were wandering down paths too fantastic to contemplate. "It's none of my business whom Sloan finds attractive," she said as lightly as she could. "Although I couldn't help but wonder if it bothers you that Jasmine and Sloan are, well, interested or -- whatever."

Sarah looked contemplative. "Actually, I think Jason has a little crush on Sloan, but has always known nothing could come of it. Him being a he and all. Jasmine on the other hand is free to flirt with Sloan outrageously, which she does at every opportunity." She grinned at the absurdity of the entire conversation, but continued on gamely. "That makes me a bit jealous, I guess. Since I, unlike Sloan, wouldn't mind taking Jason to bed at all."

"What about Jasmine? Would you take her to bed, too?" Michael asked before she realized she might be overstepping the limits of her brief acquaintance with the other woman. "I'm sorry – that was awfully personal."

"No," Sarah said, with a shake of her head. "Don't worry. And don't think I haven't considered that very question. Women in general don't usually turn me on – well, Sloan a bit, maybe –"

"God – is there anyone she doesn't turn on?" Michael blurted, then immediately regretted it as she blushed furiously.

Sarah pretended not to notice her embarrassment, and continued, "But Sloan and I resolved that issue years ago. Then along comes Jason, whom I liked the minute I met, as well as thinking he had the nicest butt I'd seen on a guy in years." She grinned at the memory. She had stood in the office waiting room of Sloan Security nearly open-mouthed in amazement while Jason had lectured Sloan about being on time for the afternoon appointments, and threatening her with bodily harm if she dared put off her final report to Somebody, Somebody and Somebody that was due the next morning. She expected Sloan to annihilate him at the very least, but Sloan had merely growled something that sounded a lot like 'okay' and stomped out. Jason had winked at Sarah, his impossibly blue eyes sparkling with delight, and she had gotten warm and wet in places that didn't usually feel that way at one o'clock in the afternoon.

"Sarah?" Michael asked, confused by the slightly vacant look on Sarah's face and the long silence.

Sarah jumped, then smiled self-consciously. "Oh, sorry. Anyhow -- then I meet Jasmine at the club and thought she was funny and outrageous, and I liked her a lot, too. When I found out the connection, it was just so amazing. The more I saw of them, the more I thought of them as two people, but not totally separate. So when I think about Jasmine –" She hesitated, then put into words what she had been avoiding, even in her own mind. "When I think about undressing her, and finding Jason there somewhere, it makes me pretty hot."

Michael shook her head. "It certainly makes the usual arrangements seem pretty boring!"

Sarah looked at her for a second, then grinned as she realized that Michael understood exactly what she had been saying. "God, it’s nice to find someone who gets it! I've haven't known how to talk about it to anyone without having it sound too bizarre."

"One thing I've discovered in the last few weeks is that nothing that I thought I knew about life, or myself, is necessarily true," Michael said with a touch of regret. "Least of all what being with someone is all about. Or even the why and the how of it all."

"I think what they say about falling in love when you least expect it, and with the most unexpected person, just might be true," Sarah responded quietly. She had heard the edge of pain in Michael's voice.

"I think you're right about that," Michael said as she watched Sloan and Jasmine dancing. Funny, that they should look so good together when it was all illusion. She wondered at her own bewilderment and confusion. Was that what it had been with her and Jeremy? All just illusion?



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