Mac Philips looked up from behind his seat at the main monitoring station as the door to Command Central opened at 0625. He tried to suppress a grin but failed as he recognized the tall, trim dark-haired woman who strode purposefully toward him. He stood and extended his hand with a smile.
"Welcome back, Commander," he said.
United States Secret Service Agent Cameron Roberts shook the hand of the boyishly handsome blond agent, smiling warmly. "It's good to be back, Mac."
She looked around the large open room that occupied the eighth floor of a brownstone apartment building overlooking Gramercy Park in Manhattan. It had been more than half a year since she had been in charge of the secret service security detail that worked out of this space. She had not expected to return, at least not in any official capacity. Heading this unit was not a posting that she had originally welcomed after having spent most of her career in the investigative division of the Secret Service, tracking counterfeit funds used in illegal drug transactions. She had worked closely with members of the DEA, ATF, and Treasury Department and, like most agents involved in fieldwork, she had considered the protective arm of the Secret Service a place for rookies. Guarding diplomats, foreign visitors, and members of political families did not interest her. Until now. Now it mattered a great deal.
"Has Egret arrived back in the States yet?" she asked. She shrugged her shoulders, trying to work out the stiffness left over from the flight up from Florida. She had been in Miami on assignment chasing a trail of treasury forgeries to a network of cocaine importers when the call had come reassigning her. It was completely unexpected, and the fact that she had been instructed to report immediately bothered her. No one had suggested that there was potential trouble on this end, but then that didn't mean anything. In the kind of bureaucracy that existed within the federal government, with multiple security agencies having overlapping spheres of interest and influence, there were never-ending turf struggles, and even those who 'needed to know' often didn't get critical information until it was too late to be useful. She had personal experience with that kind of foul-up.
She shook her head, dispelling the memories. She wouldn't let that happen here, not with something - someone - so important at stake. She would find out who, or what, was behind her transfer. But first things first. She was tired, but she had work to do before her first meeting with the woman she was charged with protecting. A woman who, she was quite sure, was not going to be pleased to see her.
She refocused on Mac. "I'll need to be briefed before I meet with her. I've been in the air most of the night and haven't been informed of her location."
"She's back in the nest," Mac affirmed, pointing toward the ceiling and the penthouse apartment above that comprised the top floor of the building. "They returned from the China visit late last night, and she didn't want to remain in Washington. They came up by car about 0300."
Cam smiled to herself. "I guess some things never change."
Mac shook his head. "Not that much."
He regarded her seriously for a moment and tried not to think about how close she had come to dying less than a year before. She looked fit and healthy now, but he knew that she had only been back on active duty for six weeks. As usual when on duty she wore an impeccably tailored, understatedly expensive suit and appeared capable, competent and cool - all the things he knew she was. He also knew from experience that you could never tell very much beyond that just by looking at her. She rarely revealed what she was feeling, but you could always count on her to tell you exactly what she was thinking. "The team will be very happy to have you back."
"What about you, Mac?" she said, leaning one hip against the edge of the desk, her dark gray eyes studying his. "I'm bumping you out of the Commander's seat."
He laughed, shook his head, and leaned back in the swivel chair, gesturing with one hand to the array of computer monitors, audiovisual equipment, and satellite feeds from the NYPD and New York Transit Authority on the long counter in front of him. "I'm an information man. This is what I want to be doing, and six months of doing your job proved it to me."
"Good," Cam said, "I'm glad you're okay with it, because no one is more important than the communications coordinator, and I need the best."
"Thanks," Mac said, pleased with her confidence in him. "You're doing me a big favor, Commander. I'm no good at the VIP stuff, and with this kind of detail, that's key."
Cameron didn't need him to tell her that handling high-profile personalities was a requirement of the work. It was one of the reasons she was good at this particular assignment, and it was also the reason it was going to be so difficult. Six weeks ago she had spent five nights with the woman she was now charged with guarding. If she had known then that she would be reassigned to this security detail, she might have made a different choice. Briefly, Blair Powell's face flickered into her mind and the instant surge of heat in her depths told her she was kidding herself. She had wanted her then, badly. Too much for procedure or protocol to have stopped her. She wasn't sure what she was going to do about those feelings now that circumstances had changed, but the one thing she did know was that she had a job to do.
Cam stood abruptly. "I'll see everyone at 0700 in the conference room. Bring what you have on her itinerary for the week, projected out-of-town events for the immediate future, all pertinent problematic field reports from the time I was gone, and anything else that you think needs my attention. I want to be brought up to speed by the time I meet with her this morning."
Mac nodded and watched her walk toward the small glass-enclosed cubicle in one corner that served as their conference center. He saw her looking casually left and right toward the work areas partitioned off in the open space by low dividers. He knew that she was assessing the monitoring equipment that the men and women assigned to her command utilized twenty-four hours a day to observe and protect the only child of the President of the United States.
At precisely 0700, Cam walked into the conference room carrying a cup of coffee. She set it down on the end of the rectangular table and looked over the faces turned towards her. They were all familiar. No one had transferred out during her absence, and she was glad of that because they were all good agents. She had seen to that when she had first taken command a year before by demanding that anyone not one hundred percent committed to the task of guarding the President's daughter transfer out. Those who chose to stay had proven themselves under fire.
"Well," she began, allowing a faint grin to pull at one corner of her mouth. "At least I won't have to learn any new names. And we can skip all the introductory bull and get down to business." She looked down the room to where Mac sat with a pile of memoranda in front of him, and said, "Mac?"
"Nothing new planned on the foreign front until the trip to Paris with the Vice President and his wife next month."
Cam nodded, settling into her chair with her PDA. "Right. We'll need advance information on motorcade routes, local hospitals, and transit lines for each day's events. That should all be in the data base. I assume they'll be staying at the Hotel Marigny, where state visitors always stay. That needs to be confirmed." She turned to the sandy-haired collegiate looking man on her left who happened to be fluent in nine languages, with a working command of seven others. "Are you still doing the advance work on the foreign travel, Riley?"
"Then you can contact the secretary at the Protocol department in Paris to review the scheduled functions. Charity dinners, museum outings - whatever they have planned." The French were notorious for changing itineraries at the last minute, and Paris was an international city where terrorism was a very real threat. "Keep after them. Make sure we're current by the time we're in the air. I don't want to be surprised."
Riley nodded and made notes while Cam signaled Mac to continue. He shuffled some printouts and said, "Domestically, there's the opening of the Rodman gallery in San Francisco in two weeks."
"Where's she staying?" Cam asked absently, her mind still on the Paris details.
"We don't know yet," Mac answered uncomfortably.
Cam looked up, her eyes narrowing. "You don't know? She must have reservations by now. Who's handling her itinerary?"
Mac blushed but kept his eyes on hers. He had forgotten how unforgiving she could be about any breach in protocol. He prepared to be dressed down. "She is."
"She is," Cam repeated in disgust, struggling with her temper. She knew damn well it wasn't Mac's fault. She stood, closing her electronic notebook. "Is there anything pressing that the team needs to discuss this morning, Mac?"
"No ma'am," he said briskly.
"Who's heading the day shift?" she asked.
"I am, ma'am," a petite, dark-haired woman in her late twenties answered.
Cam nodded. After one nearly career-ending lapse in judgment, Paula Stark had proven herself to be cool and levelheaded, an invaluable asset for a member of the shift that spent the most time in direct contact with Blair Powell, the First Daughter.
"Fine. Then go get your detail organized. Mac, if I might speak with you please."
Chairs scraped as agents hastened to get out of the conference room. They'd all seen Roberts take people apart if she felt they had been lax in guarding the President's daughter. No matter how difficult Blair Powell might make that job.
When they were alone, Cameron looked at Mac and raised an eyebrow. "Okay, Mac. You want to tell me what the hell is going on? First I get called back with no explanation and no notice. Then you suggest that Egret is bypassing normal security protocols. What else is going on that I don't know about? I can't work in the dark here."
He blew out air and shrugged. "I'd tell you if I could, Commander. I don't know why you've been recalled. No one reported any problems to me, either about my command, or anything else." He looked across the table into Cam's remote, dark eyes and chose his words carefully. He liked her, he respected her, he was happy to serve under her. But they weren't friends. They didn't share personal confidences. He didn't know, for sure, what her past with the First Daughter had been. "Ms. Powell is -" He shrugged again, looking exasperated, and continued, "Ms. Powell is difficult."
Cam almost smiled at that enormous understatement. She remained silent, watching him, waiting for the rest.
"She remains very reluctant to reveal her plans or destinations. She refuses to discuss personal - uh, relationships, so we have no intelligence regarding potential threats from that area. She slips our surveillance -" He halted at the soft curse from Cam, and then added quickly, "not very often, but it happens."
"You reported that?" Cam said wearily, rubbing her face briefly. God, Blair is stubborn, she thought. But she couldn't blame her, not really. Living under the constant scrutiny of strangers was wearing, even under ordinary circumstances. And Blair Powell's circumstances were far from ordinary.
Mac straightened. "No ma'am, I did not."
She stared at him hard. "Reasons?"
That kind of breakdown in security usually demanded a change of personnel and reassignment of the agents involved, often with demotions. But she knew Mac Phillips, and she knew he wouldn't circumvent regulations just to save his own skin.
He met her gaze directly, and his voice was steady and sure. "Because she works with us most of the time, and I made the command decision that she was safer with us than with replacements she might not trust. Even if there were some problems."
Cam nodded agreement. She had made similar choices where Blair was concerned herself. Had she been asked, she wouldn't have been able to defend herself, not according to regulations. But then you couldn't deal with Blair Powell by the book.
"I guess I'd better inform Egret that I'm here," Cam said, rising. She studied Mac briefly, wondering just how much he knew. "I'll review the plans for the remainder of the week with you later."
He stood. "Yes ma'am."
As he watched her walk out, he understood that the subject of his breach in protocol was closed. Whoever had made the call to bring Cameron Roberts back as commander of the First Daughter's security detail knew what they were doing. She understood what it took to guard Blair Powell. He wondered fleetingly what would happen upstairs when Egret learned of the change in command, and then decided there was some information he would rather not have. What you didn't know you couldn't testify about.
Blair Powell, in paint-spattered jeans and a tee-shirt with the sleeves and lower half carelessly ripped off, stared at a five foot square canvas, a paint brush in one hand. She walked slowly back and forth in front of the unfinished work, her mind as empty as she could make it. She let the color and the movement and the depth of the images take form without her conscious direction. Just as she reached to add a bit of red to one corner, her doorbell rang.
"Damn," she muttered, glancing at the clock at the far end of her loft. Just a little after 8AM. Much too early for Mac to be arriving for a briefing, but it couldn't be anyone else. She didn't get unexpected visitors. She set the brush aside and wiped her hands on a soft cloth. Pushing an errant strand of blond hair behind one ear, she crossed to the door. When she glanced through the peephole out of habit, she blinked in surprise and stopped with her hand on the doorknob. She looked again, and her heart raced with surprise. She pulled the door open, crying, "Cam!"
Blair was unable to hide her pleasure, an uncommon lapse in her usual reserve. She had learned not to allow her emotions to show, because her feelings were the only private things still left to her. Since she was twelve years old her father had been a public figure, and as a result, she had been as well. Strangers had photographed her, or written about her, or sought to be close to her, all because of who her father was. She had never been sure if someone cared for her, or for her reputation. Cameron had been different, and Blair had let her get close.
Cameron Roberts looked at Blair and felt her pulse quicken. She was every bit as beautiful as the last time Cam had seen her. Blond hair verging on gold, thick and wild with a hint of curl, fell around her face in an untamed mane. A deceptively lithe body hid well-toned muscles. Blazing blue eyes and a smile that could melt the polar ice caps made an already attractive face stunning. And underneath all that, seething sensuality coupled with an unbendable will. Astonishing.
Cam wanted to touch her, but couldn't. She didn't want to hurt her, and knew she was about to. Her face revealed little of her desire or her regret as she smiled softly and answered, "Hello, Blair."
Blair was too intent on how good it was to see her to notice the slight reservation in Cam's tone. She reached out, grabbed Cam's hand, and pulled her into the loft, slamming the door behind them. In the next instant she had her hands in Cam's hair, her lips on Cam's mouth, and her body pressed hard against Cam's, pinning her to the wall. When she'd temporarily satisfied her need to taste her, she pulled away a fraction and gasped, "God, I've missed you."
Cam made an enormous effort to get her body under control. The unexpected onslaught had gone straight to her head. And other places. Her stomach was knotted with need and her blood burned. She felt herself swell and grow heavy with arousal. She shook her head, trying to quiet her lust. "Blair-," she began. She had to tell her, and quickly, because she wasn't strong enough to resist. Didn't want to resist. "I-"
Blair threaded her arms around Cam's waist and leaned her hips into her. "When did you get back? I thought you were still on that case in Florida. Did it wrap up all ready?"
As she spoke, Blair started working on the buttons on Cam's shirt with one hand. She had been planning on spending the day painting, but that was before. Her fingers shook she was so hot for her. It had been six weeks since they had seen each other, and even then they'd had only a few days together. Five short days after almost a year of denying the attraction growing between them. A near tragedy had finally brought them together, and then Cam had left for Florida and Blair had accompanied her father to China. Nothing about the future had been settled, there hadn't been time, but none of that mattered at that moment.
"God, I want you," Blair whispered, almost groaning the words. No one, no one had ever done this to her before. Made her want so badly, or ache so deeply. More than sex, more than intimacy. An explosive combination of the two that scorched through her, leaving her always hungry.
"Blair," Cam gasped, grabbing for the hand on her shirt. "Wait."
"Too late," Blair laughed, throaty and low, shifting to straddle Cam's thigh. The added pressure between her legs made her gasp, her eyes closing momentarily with the rush of excitement. "Oh, god. Way too late, baby. I need your hands on me now. I'm so, so ready."
"I'm working, Blair," Cam said gently, hoping Blair couldn't feel the trembling in her thigh. She swallowed a moan as Blair thrust into her again. "We can't."
"You can be a few hours late for wherever you need to be. You're a regional director now," Blair muttered. She wasn't really listening to anything except the need singing through her pelvis.
Cam moved her fingers to Blair's wrist, circling it softly. "I'm working now, Blair. Here."
Something in Cam's tone finally penetrated Blair's awareness. There was a hint of sympathy in Cam's voice that shadowed the desire Blair felt simmering in Cam's body. With effort, Blair took one step away so that their bodies were no longer in contact. "What do you mean?" she asked, her voice unnaturally calm. She searched Cam's eyes for the answer, because Cam's eyes never lied. Not to her. What she saw there hurt. Hurt in a way she hadn't thought she could hurt again. "Damn you," she breathed, not knowing which of them she meant. "What have you done?"
"I've been reassigned, Blair. To you," Cam said, watching Blair back away from her, forced to let her go. Jesus, she had hoped it wouldn't be this hard. She just needed a little time to find out what was going on. Then she could make her understand. "Blair -"
"When?" Blair asked coldly, making herself move farther across the room. She needed space between them. She had to stop wanting her long enough to think.
"Yesterday," Cam answered.
"And you said yes?" Blair demanded. Did what we shared mean so little to you?
"Blair," Cam said quietly, "I received a directive from my superiors telling me that the President of the United States wished me to assume responsibility for his daughter's security. I could hardly say no."
"Of course you could have," Blair said bitterly, "if you'd wanted to. There are plenty of other people who could do this job. Mac is handling it just fine." Don't do this, please don't do this!
Cam wasn't sure how to explain that part of her didn't want anyone else to do the job. Couldn't explain that ever day that she was somewhere else, doing something else, she worried about Blair. She couldn't forget that there was an UNSUB, an 'unidentified subject', who had stalked Blair, photographed her, left messages for her, and ultimately, shot at her, and the Secret Service had failed to apprehend him. She wanted to be with her. She needed to be with her.
"It's not that simple," Cam began, knowing her words would not help.
Blair turned away, struggling to contain her disappointment and hurt. Clearly, whatever she thought had been developing between them was over. Cameron Roberts was not the kind of woman to compromise her professional ethics by carrying on a clandestine affair with someone she was supposed to be guarding. It would have been difficult for them to see each other under any circumstances, but now it would be impossible. Blair swallowed her pride and made one last attempt to undo what had already been done. A decision that had already been made without regard for her feelings, like so many others in her life.
"I could speak to my father," Blair said quietly, disguising the hope in her voice. "The security chief can name someone else to command the detail."
Cam struggled not to go to her. No matter how hard Blair tried to hide it, Cam could hear her sense of betrayal. She had never wanted to be the cause of that, but Blair's safety was more important than anything else. "There's a reason I've been recalled," Cam said quietly. "I don't know what it is, and neither does Mac. Until I find out, I'd prefer you not say anything."
Blair's face was a careful blank. "Well, that's it then, isn't it?"
"Yes," Cam said, unwilling to offer Blair further excuses that would only be insulting to both of them. For the time being, she didn't have any choice except to assume the responsibility that had been given to her. And in truth, she wouldn't want it any other way. Still, watching Blair's eyes turn cold rocked her. She couldn't think about losing her, not and still do what she needed to do. "I'm sorry."
"No need to be sorry, Commander," Blair said dismissively. "We both know how important your job is to you. Now, if you don't mind, I'm busy."
Cam worked to keep her voice neutral. "I understand. I'll need to discuss plans for the rest of the week with you."
Blair walked past her, careful not to touch her, and opened the door. "Then you can come back this afternoon for the scheduled briefing."
"As you wish," Cam said quietly, stepping out into the hall. When the door closed solidly behind her, the ensuing silence was lonelier than she could have imagined.
"Mac," Cam said into her transmitter as she keyed the penthouse elevator outside Blair's apartment.
"Go ahead, Commander," Mac replied as he automatically checked the monitor providing visual surveillance of the hallway in front of the elevator. His eyes switched to the adjoining screen showing the interior of the elevator as Cam stepped on.
"Sign me out to my apartment," she said tersely. "It's the same address as before. Someone pulled a few strings to get it back for me." She needed a shower, a change of clothes, and a few minutes to herself to erase the sound of Blair's disappointment and the image of the hurt in her eyes. She had to meet with her later in the day to confirm the agenda for the upcoming weeks, and she needed to be in control of herself when she did. The very first moment she had seen Blair Powell, just over a year ago, she been attracted to her. She had been able to ignore those feelings for months, but, as time passed, she had come to know her, and her desire turned to caring. Finally she had succumbed. She hadn't been able to withstand both the pull of her body and the demands of her heart, and she had touched her. Now, she would somehow have to learn to live with her need.
Mac studied her face in the monitor, and even with the mild distortion of the transmitted image he could make out the tense set of her jaw and the grim line of her mouth. Uh oh. Things had not gone well with Egret. He wasn't surprised. Cameron Roberts had been shot in the line of duty less than a year before, shot while guarding Blair Powell. Shot in place of Blair Powell when she had stepped in front of her and stopped a bullet from a sniper's rifle. Cameron didn't remember the nightmarish scene when she lay bleeding on the sidewalk and agents surrounded Blair, dragging her to cover. Mac remembered it very well. He remembered Blair screaming Cam's name as Cam went down. He remembered Blair sitting by Cam's bedside for over twenty-four hours while Cam's life hung in the balance. And he knew that Blair had requested that Cam be removed from her security detail once she had recovered. He couldn't imagine that Blair would be happy about this new arrangement.
"You're scheduled for a briefing with Egret at 1300 hours," he said while glancing over the day's events printed out on a clipboard by his right hand. When in doubt, revert to procedure.
"I've got that," she snapped as she walked quickly through the lobby, nodding curtly to the doorman as he hastened to hold the double glass doors for her. She stopped under the short green awning and surveyed the rooftops of the buildings across the park. It was the first time she had been back since the shooting. She stared at the sidewalk and recalled the fine red mist on her hands and the clear blue sky overhead. She shivered lightly, thinking that it might have been Blair that day, and not her. Then she shrugged the memory away and crossed the street toward her apartment on the other side of the square.
When she'd stripped off her jacket and eased out of her weapon harness, she walked to the windows overlooking Gramercy Park and stared across the treetops at the penthouse of Blair's building. She thought about her up there now, in that space that should have been a haven. The windows in Blair's loft that faced the street were bulletproof, the fire escape ended one level below her floor, and the skylights on the roof above were crisscrossed with woven titanium mesh that would require a blowtorch to cut. A posh fortress, but a subtle prison nonetheless. Cam couldn't blame Blair for hating it. She couldn't even blame Blair for being angry with her. She wished she could change it, but the facts of Blair's life were beyond anyone's control. She turned away from the image of Blair's smile and the memory of Blair in her arms. Wanting her would not help either of them now.
After Cam left her loft, Blair waited motionless on the other side of the door, listening to the faraway hum of the elevator climbing to the penthouse to carry Cam downstairs. Long after she knew Cam was gone, she waited, foolishly hoping that she might return. By the time that she finally turned back into her empty apartment, she had managed to replace longing with anger, a familiar antidote to disappointment.
Then, she needed only to convince her body that she no longer cared. Cam's arrival that morning had been so unexpected she hadn't done anything except react. Few women had ever been able to excite her the way Cameron Roberts seemed able to do with little more than a smile, and it was one of the things that made her security chief so frightening. Blair made a point of keeping everyone at arm's distance, physically and emotionally, and she had failed miserably with Cam. Walking through the loft, she was still throbbing with the aftermath of unanswered arousal. She was so angry with herself for allowing this to happen that even her body's automatic response seemed like a betrayal.
"Shower," she muttered under her breath, shedding clothes as she crossed to the partitioned area in the corner that adjoined her sleeping alcove. She twisted the dial and stepped under the still-cold spray, gasping at first contact. Her nipples were still full and tender from the recent stimulation, and the wetness between her legs was not from the rivulets of water running down her body. She leaned against the far wall and let the warm cascade engulf her. She closed her eyes, and that was a mistake.
As soon as she surrendered to the soothing beat of the water on her skin, she saw Cam's face again. She felt Cam's body along the length of her own as they had pressed together against the door. She imagined Cam's hands on her, just as she had imagined them many times during the weeks they had been apart. Ordinarily such remembrances produced just a pleasant hum of pleasure, but she was already aroused, painfully so. The pinpricks of heat on her skin seemed to streak directly between her legs, and the tingling pressure building there warred with her self-control.
She would not think about her.
She grabbed soap and began to lather her neck and chest, smoothing her palms over her breasts and stomach. The sensation of her fingers passing over her nipples made her gasp. Without consciously meaning to, she caught one between her thumb and forefinger and squeezed, arching her back slightly into the warm spray as the sharp pinpoint of pleasure-pain seared down her spine. It was too good, too good not to lift her hands and cup both breasts, squeezing as she rhythmically twisted her erect nipples until all she could feel was a steady burning pleasure beneath her fingertips.
She pressed her shoulders harder against the rear shower wall as her legs began to tremble. She ached inside. Still massaging her breasts with one hand, she pressed the other to her stomach, running her fingers lightly over her skin, moving lower with each stroke. Her pulse beat between her legs like a second heart. She knew how hard she was, had felt the stiff swelling as she had straddled Cam's thigh. If she touched herself, she would never be able to stop. She had been ready the minute her lips had found Cam's mouth. She was always so damn ready for her. She imagined Cam's fingers where her own brushed through the hair at the base of her belly and her clitoris twitched.
"Ah god," she whispered, eyes still closed, shuddering at the memory. She needed to ease the pressure, couldn't think of anything else. Her fingers slid lower, one on either side of her distended clitoris. Her hips jerked as she squeezed lightly, and she had to brace herself with one arm against the wall to keep from falling.
Her mind was empty of everything except the exquisite sensation of her fingertips rubbing over her blood-engorged flesh. She was dimly conscious of her muscles quivering and the pounding pressure of her orgasm building. Faintly, she heard herself whimpering with each teasing stroke. Neck arched, she thrust her hips steadily back and forth as her hand move faster between her legs, setting her nerves on fire. When the inferno roared in her pelvis and scorched along her veins, she choked back a cry, her fingers squeezing down with each spasm, milking each pulsation to the very end.
When the contractions that ripped through her finally quieted, Blair leaned weakly forward into the spray, her arms outstretched, palms against the opposite wall, barely able to stand. Her body was satisfied, but she took no satisfaction from it.
"Damn you, Cameron," she whispered.
At 1255 Cam approached Blair's building. Two things occurred simultaneously. The earphone connected to her radio transmitter crackled to life and she saw Blair Powell flag down a Checker cab, slide into the rear seat, and disappear as the vehicle pulled away into traffic.
"Commander, please be advised that Egret is flying solo," Mac's voice informed her. "Unit one has been detached but does not have visual."
She turned abruptly, stepped into the street, and hailed one of the many taxis passing by, practically walking in front of it to get it to stop. As she pulled open the front door, she extended a hand displaying her open badge folder and said, "I need you to follow that cab up ahead."
The taxi driver stared at her. "You're kidding, right?"
Cam shook her head, her eyes following Blair's vehicle around the square. "I wish I were. You're going to lose them if you don't get going."
It was something about the utter stillness in her face and the unnatural calm in her voice that made him face forward, sit up straight, and, with his hands gripping the wheel tightly, execute a performance of New York City driving that would have won him a trophy at Daytona. He pulled to stop ten feet and twentyfive seconds behind the cab that had carried Blair to a small coffee shop deep in the heart of Greenwich Village.
"Thanks," Cam said, handing him a twenty as she stepped out.
He leaned across the seat to look up at her. She looked familiar and he thought he finally understood. "You're making a movie, right?"
She didn't answer. She was already halfway across the sidewalk. She entered the small storefront cafe and immediately saw Blair at a small table in the rear with another woman. Blair looked up, her eyes meeting Cam's, but she gave no sign of recognition. Cam threaded her way through the few tables to the counter and ordered a double espresso. While she waited, she glanced around the room, noting the location of exits and the general position of the few patrons, mostly twentysomethings reading newspapers.
She paid and picked up the small espresso cup, moving to the far corner of the room diagonal to where Blair was seated. She sat at a small circular table for two, her back to the wall. From there she could watch the front and rear doors as well as everyone in the room without infringing on Blair's conversation. She would have been happier to have a car out front in case they needed to leave quickly, and she hoped that Paula Stark and her partner would arrive momentarily. She had seen them getting into one of the unmarked vehicles in front of Blair's apartment building as she went by in the cab.
Fortunately, most civilians didn't recognize Blair when she went out dressed casually, with her hair down and wearing little or no makeup. Today, in jeans, a cotton V-neck sweater over her T-shirt, and scuffed boots she looked like most of the younger denizens of the neighborhood. The man-on-the-street usually recognized public figures only when they were attired formally and placed in the appropriate surroundings. That was the one thing that made Cam's job easier. Because Blair Powell certainly didn't.
"Commander," Paula Stark's voice asked in her ear.
"Yes," Cam murmured, tilting her head slightly as she listened to Stark relay her position. She gave Stark her exact location and informed her that she'd stay inside with Blair. "Just maintain in the vehicle outside."
"Roger that," Stark replied morosely, wondering just how pissed off her commander was going to be that they had let Blair Powell walk right out of the building unescorted. Blair hadn't done anything like that in so long that when she said she was going to the lobby to get her mail, they hadn't brought the car around front in the event that she pulled one of her old tricks. They lost two minutes mobilizing when they finally realized that Blair had exited the building and was hailing a cab. Stark sighed and settled back to watch the door to the café and the people going in and out.
Forty minutes later, the statuesque blond with Blair stood up and crossed the room to Cam's table. She leaned down and said in her low throaty voice, "How nice to see you again, Commander. Blair tells me that you're back in charge of her."
Cam shifted slightly so that she could keep Blair in her sightline. "I'm not sure I'd phrase it precisely that way, Ms. Bleeker," she said, a faint smile on her face, her eyes following Blair as she gathered her things.
"Actually, Blair didn't put it exactly that way either. It was quite a bit more colorful the way she described it," Diane Bleeker said provocatively. In fact, Diane had sensed that Blair was on the verge of tears through much of the conversation, although she wasn't certain if they were tears of anger or tears of pain. Even if she were right, she knew that Blair would never give into them, particularly when the woman at the heart of her distress was sitting fifteen feet away. No one who didn't know Blair very well would even have realized how distraught she was. Diane knew because she and Blair had been friends since they were teenagers together at prep school, and she knew because six weeks ago Blair had asked to use Diane's apartment while Diane was in Europe. It had been a long time since Blair had brought a lover to Diane's, because Blair rarely slept with anyone more than once and rarely planned for it in advance. You didn't need to plan an anonymous liaison with a woman you met by chance in a dark bar or at a high-society fundraiser. When Diane had asked her whom she was planning on seducing, Blair's silence had been telling. Whoever she was, she mattered, and Diane had a very good idea just who the woman might be.
During a brief moment of madness, Diane contemplated informing the strikingly handsome, dark haired security agent that she was making the biggest mistake of her life. If she chose to be Blair's protector rather than her lover, no matter how noble her motives, Blair would never forgive her. But Diane knew she wouldn't say anything, today or any other day, and she wasn't altogether proud of the reasons why. Despite her long friendship with Blair, they had always been attracted to the same women, and most of the time they had been good-natured about the competition because it was all in fun. The chase, the seduction, the consummation. This time it was different. For Blair to admit any feelings at all for a woman, it had to be serious. Even knowing that, Diane couldn't deny the quick surge of attraction she felt every time she saw Cameron Roberts.
"It was nice to see you again," Cam said, rising, but her attention was on Blair, who was walking toward the front door. "If you would excuse me," Cam said politely, as she stepped away to follow Blair.
Out on the street, Blair turned and watched Cam come through the door. At the same time, Paula Stark stepped out of the car which had been idling across the street from the cafe. Cam waved her back and walked over to Blair.
"It makes it difficult when we don't know where you're going," Cam said quietly, although she knew very well that Blair was aware of that.
Blair shrugged slightly. "Apparently the rules of this engagement can change at any time. Fair is fair." She wasn't able to keep the edge of bitterness from her voice.
Cam nodded and met Blair's heated gaze. "I know it must seem that way, and I'm sorry. For the time being, we're both going to have to live with it."
Blair shook her head and turned her back, moving quickly away down the sidewalk. Cam caught up with her and fell into step beside her, automatically placing herself between Blair and the street. She knew without looking that Stark and her partner would follow slowly behind them in the unmarked vehicle.
"There's no point in putting yourself in danger because you're angry with me, Blair," Cam persisted gently. "If you'll just let us do what we need to do, I'll intrude on your private life as little as possible."
Blair stopped abruptly, turning to face Cam, heedless of the people complaining as they had to suddenly step around them on the narrow sidewalk. In a low, seething tone, Blair said, "Has it occurred to you, Commander, that I wanted you to intrude on my private life? You. Not strangers twenty-four hours a day. Just you."
Cam ran a hand through her hair, struggling with both frustration and temper. She wanted to explain to Blair that she did care, and that she didn't plan for this to happen, and that it was torture to see her and not be able to touch her. "Blair-"
Someone jostled her shoulder passing by and she swore under her breath. This was no place to have this discussion. If she had only managed to keep her own emotions under control when she had first been assigned to Blair Powell's security detail, none of this would be happening now. She had allowed herself to give in first to physical attraction, and then to emotional attachment. Now she had entangled them both in a situation for which there were no rules and only potential disaster. She grimaced because she could see the pain in Blair's eyes, and she didn't have the luxury of explaining herself at the moment. Not here, not now. "Can we talk about this in a somewhat more secure location?"
Blair laughed, unable to help herself. If there was one thing she could count on with Cameron Roberts, it was that no matter what was happening, Cam would never let it interfere with her duty. And she hated being Cameron's duty.
Blair started walking again. "I don't think there's anything left to talk about. You made your decision. I don't intend to adjust my life to make yours easier. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to the gym and beat the crap out of someone."
"Ernie's?" Cam asked, remembering the third floor hole-in-the-wall establishment that Blair had somehow managed to frequent for six months before anyone in the security detail realized that she was there and not at her massage therapist's around the corner.
Blair wasn't in the mood for company. "Ernie's is the one place where I can go that no one knows me and no one cares where I come from or where I'll be going back to. The only thing they care about is what I do in the ring. I'd like to keep it that way."
Cam continued to keep step with her through the narrow streets of the Village as they headed north towards Chelsea. "Are you trying to say that no one has been inside with you?"
She couldn't believe that Mac had allowed Blair to work out alone without at least one agent in the gym with her. Essentially that left Blair unguarded, which was something that was never supposed to happen, even in the most secure circumstances. Exceptions occasionally occurred, but they were rare. Briefly, she thought of those nights she and Blair had spent at Diane Bleeker's apartment while Diane was in Europe. None of the agents had actually been in the apartment with Blair, but there had been a car outside in the street. If the agents in the car knew that Blair was not alone, no one had ever given any indication of that. Cam didn't like to place fellow agents in situations they might later have to lie about, but at the time, she hadn't been assigned to Blair's security detail. Their few hours together each evening were personal, personal and intimate and no one else's business. She wasn't hypocritical enough to deny, even to herself, that she and Blair had tried to keep their meetings a secret, but they had not purposely eluded the Secret Service agents assigned to protect Blair either.
The gym was an entirely different situation. Blair would be in unsecured surroundings with two dozen men who, even if they didn't recognize her, might present threats. If she were recognized, absolutely anything could happen, from simple harassment to abduction. Cam shook her head, knowing how Blair would react. "I don't know how you've managed to keep them away from here, and I'm not certain I want to know, but I can't let you go alone."
"I know that," Blair said, turning down the alley that led to the unmarked, unpainted door that was the street entrance to the gym on the upper floor. "Usually a car waits just at the end of the alley. I've been coming here for years. No one will bother me."
"I'm coming up with you," Cam said grimly. It was too late to change plans now, and since she was the only one immediately available, the responsibility fell to her.
Blair stopped with her hand on the door and looked at Cam, her face completely unreadable and her eyes flat and expressionless. "You can come up if you want, Commander. But I would prefer that you stay away from me."
With that, she opened the door and took the stairs two at a time, leaving Cam to follow.
Cam stood against one wall, her hands in the pockets of her blended silk trousers, watching two fighters prepare to spar in the ring opposite her. The top floor of the warehouse was dimly lit by rows of dirty windows well above head level and fluorescent lights dangling from heavy chains in the cavernous ceiling. The combination cast the entire space in a harsh flickering haze. There were sparring rings at each of three corners of the room. In the fourth corner, an area partitioned off by plywood and exposed two-by-fours served as the business office and makeshift locker rooms. When she had first entered, Cam had given the entire room a thorough examination, noting how many people were present, and where they were. Blair had gone immediately to the tiny women's dressing area, which was nothing more than a closet with a curtain strung across the door.
Cam did not follow her for several reasons. She wanted to give Blair as much privacy as possible, and following her into the dressing room would only call more attention to them both. Furthermore, she had been in that dressing room with Blair once, and she knew just how small it was, and she knew exactly how Blair looked when she stripped off her clothes to put on her work out gear. Cam did not want to be standing two feet away from her when Blair did that, because regardless of her intentions, Cam knew she would be tempted. It had been six weeks, and not a day, hell, barely an hour, had passed that she didn't think about Blair. What she couldn't tell Blair, and what she didn't want to think about herself, was how many times in those six weeks she had imagined how Blair's skin would feel under her fingertips.
So she stood in the shadows against the wall where she could see the entire room and still be as close to Blair as she could be without actually climbing into the ring with her.
Twenty feet away, Blair jogged lightly in place on the soiled canvas cover of the ten foot square ring while she waited for her opponent to adjust his gloves and get his mouthpiece between his teeth. She had been free-sparring for almost three months with some of the men in her weight class. There were no other women who frequented the gym with enough experience at kickboxing to spar with her. She'd been coming long enough that the men accepted her as a regular, and no one thought anything of working out with her. After the first few times that she had put one of them soundly on the mat with a round house kick or a strong right cross, they forget that she was a woman and fought her with no holds barred.
She watched the young guy opposite her approach, happy at the moment to see a little belligerence in his attitude. She needed an outlet for her physical frustration and her mental turmoil. Cam's abrupt return and the sudden change in their relationship had left her reeling. Nothing would test her or distract her as much as being in the ring with someone who could potentially hurt her. She would need to focus and she would need to burn. She knew that somewhere nearby Cam was watching. She didn't look for her; she didn't want to see her. But she felt her, and part of her wanted her there.
She hated the fact that she was comforted by knowing that Cam was near. Cam was so very good at making her feel cared for, even when it was part of her job. From the very beginning, Cam made her feel that she was what mattered and not the status reports or job performance evaluations that seemed to motivate so many of the dozens of agents who had guarded her throughout her childhood and into adulthood. God, she hated that she loved every single thing about Cameron Roberts. She lifted her gloved hands and tapped them against those of her opponent, eager for the first contact, wanting desperately to drive Cam's face from her mind.
She's even better than she used to be, Cam thought, as she watched Blair dance lightly across the canvas. Unlike most male kickboxers who relied primarily on their punches for knockouts, Blair had to depend more on her legs, which were, for most women, more powerful weapons than their hands. It also gave her the advantage of staying beyond the range of most other fighters' punches. It was very possible that with a well-placed kick Blair could render a man unconscious. On the other hand, she wouldn't be able to weather too many direct blows to the face from a man her size or one even smaller. As Cam watched, Blair effectively countered a volley of punches and pushed her opponent back with a nicely executed kick to his thigh.
As one part of her mind kept a constant vigil of the people nearby in her peripheral vision, Cam allowed herself the luxury of simply looking at Blair. Blair had pulled her hair back away from her face and gathered it at the nape of her neck, securing the few remaining wild curls with a rolled red bandanna tied around her forehead. She wore loose navy shorts and a cropped white tee-shirt that left her midriff bare. The small gold ring in her navel glinted against the sweat sheen on her skin. As Cam watched the muscles ripple in Blair's stomach, she stared at the ring and remembered how it felt as she rubbed her palm over it.
It was the first night they had stayed at Diane's apartment, and the memory was not diminished by the many times Cam had relived it. She had been there close to an hour, waiting for Blair. She'd tried to read a magazine she'd found next to the sofa, but found she couldn't concentrate. She was too anxious. She was worried about Blair, knowing that agents would be watching her and wondering what she was doing at Diane's. Blair didn't make a secret of her sexual preferences, but it was never wise to give anyone too much information of a private nature. And rumors of Blair trysting with a Secret Service agent would make for powerful discussion around the water cooler. Cam reminded herself that she knew these agents, and believed in her heart that she could trust them to be discreet, but the habits of a lifetime of guarding her privacy were hard to change. Despite her anxiety, she couldn't wait to see Blair again. After resisting her for so long, now all she could do was think about her. When she heard the key turn in the lock, she got to her feet and crossed the living room towards the tiny foyer just inside the front door. Blair stepped through, breathless and smiling.
"Hi," Blair had said, depositing a bag and a bottle of wine on the small table nearby. For just an instant, she looked shy.
Cam remembered thinking that she had never seen Blair look quite so young. "Hi," she had answered. And then she had kissed her. She had meant it only as a kiss of greeting, but they had parted nearly a day before, and they had only had a night together then. It had not been enough, and at the moment it felt like it would never be enough. One of them had groaned, and both of them had begun frantically undressing each other where they stood. Soon, they were pressed together half naked, unable to stop touching each other long enough to finish the job.
With their mouths hungrily trading kisses and small bites, Cam's hands had found Blair's breasts as Blair worked desperately to loosen the buttons on Cam's jeans. They had both been in danger of falling in their eagerness to consume one another.
Finally, Cam had wrenched her head back, gasping, and said, "Wait! There must be a bedroom here. I really need to do this lying down."
Blair's eyes had been wild with urgency, and she had simply grasped the waistband of Cam's jeans where she had managed to get the top button open and tugged. "Come on," she had ordered, her voice husky with want. "Guestroom. This way."
Cam had followed, slipping one hand around Blair's body from behind, smoothing her palm over the silky tautness of Blair's abdomen. The small gold ring had rubbed lightly against her skin, and she didn't think she'd ever felt anything quite so sexy. She had stopped Blair just outside the door to the bedroom, pressing her bare chest to Blair's back, bringing both hands from behind to cup Blair's breasts. She'd brought her lips close to Blair's ear as she'd moved her fingers to Blair's nipples. "Yesterday you made me beg."
Blair jerked in her arms, arching into Cam's hands as Cam continued the pressure on her nipples. "Do you have a point, Commander?" Blair had finally managed, reaching back with one hand and searching for the rest of the buttons on Cam's fly.
"Could be it's your turn," Cam whispered, biting lightly at the skin below Blair's earlobe. She was about to slide her palm down Blair's stomach when Blair succeeded in opening her jeans and slipping her hand down the front.
"God!" Cam gasped as Blair's fingers slid through the wet heat between her legs. Her knees threatened to buckle as Blair tugged at her. She wrapped her arms around Blair's body, pressing her face to Blair's neck, floating for a moment on a wave of pleasure. Then she'd stiffened as the persistent pull of Blair's fingers pushed her suddenly to the brink of orgasm.
"Uh uh. No," she murmured, stepping back unsteadily, her head buzzing with the thunder of blood, forcing Blair to move her hand. "Not so fast." She shook her head, clearing the mist of arousal from her brain. She took a deep breath, trying hard to ignore the throbbing that began in her belly and spread outward through her limbs.
Blair turned in her arms, pushing at her jeans, ready to take her on the spot, and Cam had kissed her again. Distracting her by pulling her lower lip between her teeth, biting her lightly, Cam backed her up step by step, into the bedroom. She kept her lips firmly on Blair's and grasped Blair's wrists with her hands, keeping them away from her. She'd never last if Blair touched her again. She was already twitching with the faint tremor of preorgasmic spasms. When they hit the bed and fell backwards together, Cam had rolled onto her, pinning Blair's hands above her head with both of hers.
"Not so fast," Cam whispered hoarsely again, just before she caught Blair's nipple in her teeth.
Blair had cried out in surprise and struggled to get her hands free, thrusting her hips against the thigh Cam had driven between her legs. "Let me touch you," she'd groaned in Cam's ear. "Let me do it fast this time."
"Soon," Cam had murmured against her breast. It had been so long since she'd touched a woman that way, and she'd wanted Blair so badly all those months she'd been in charge of her security detail. She'd denied it then, but she didn't have to now. "I want you so much."
Blair's hands had been in her hair when Cam had finally put her mouth on her. Blair's fingers had opened and closed erratically as Cam sucked and licked and tortured her with her tongue. When Blair had pleaded, Cam had slipped her fingers inside; and when she'd begged, Cam had moved her hand slowly deeper; and when she'd cried, Cam had let her come, stroking and thrusting and turning gently until every muscle had clenched and relaxed a dozen times over.
Then she'd laid her cheek against the inside of Blair's thigh, exhausted and content and without a single ounce of regret. But even then, as she listened to Blair's breathing finally quiet, some part of her knew it was borrowed pleasure, because happiness, most of all, came with a price.
Cam flinched as Blair hit the canvas hard, the memory of that night dissolving in the demands of the moment. Instinctively, she took one step forward and then forced herself to stop as she saw Blair get to her feet. She clenched her fists when Blair swayed unsteadily for an instant, but then Blair seemed to shrug off the effect of the left jab that had caught her in the face, signaling her partner to come ahead.
Cam watched her carefully for the rest of the bout, which mercifully lasted only another few minutes. She seemed all right as she regained her balance and moved quickly to counter punches, even managing a spectacular leg sweep that put her opponent flat on his back, winding him for a minute. Still, Cam was happy when Blair climbed out of the ring and disappeared into the back of the gym.
When Blair emerged in a dry tee-shirt, ready to leave, Cam joined her. "Nice fight," she said, relieved to see that Blair's eyes were clear and her gait steady.
Blair shrugged, smiling faintly. "I didn't exactly beat the crap out of him, though."
Cam smiled. "Close enough." Before she could stop herself, she raised her hand and brushed her thumb across a bruise beginning to form on Blair's cheek where his glove had landed. "Maybe you should wear a helmet next time, Ms. Powell," she said softly.
Blair's eyes widened at the gentle caress. The touch was so tender it reached deeper than desire. "I'll take that under advisement, Commander," she whispered, unable to take her eyes from Cam's penetrating gaze.
"Good," Cam said quietly. "Because I don't want anything to happen to you."
"Yes, I know," Blair responded. "That's your job."
But there was no resentment in her words, and as they left together, they were both strangely comforted by the first moments without anger they had shared all day.
At a little before seven that night, Cam stepped into Command Central and walked wearily toward her desk in one corner of the room. She had finally finished the briefing with Blair that had originally been scheduled for earlier that day. Blair had been cordial but cool as they reviewed her official activities for the next ten days. When Cam had asked her about any personal engagements, she had merely smiled thinly and said she had none. Cam admitted to herself that she had probably appeared more abrupt than she meant to be too. It was hard seeing Blair after a six-week absence with everything between them suddenly in chaos.
Sighing, she looked at a stack of memos that Mac had left for her along with a binder filled with field reports from the time that Mac had been in charge and she had been on medical leave. Just as she sat down and pulled the pile of papers toward her, Paula Stark stepped up to the side of her desk.
"Excuse me, Commander," Stark said, her spine stiff and her tone formal. The only thin missing was a salute.
Cam looked up distractedly and said, "What is it, Stark? Problem?"
"No, ma'am," Stark said. "I wanted to apologize for the breakdown in security earlier this afternoon. I take full responsibility."
Cam leaned back in her chair, studying Paula Stark's serious countenance. Eight months ago, Stark had made what might have been the biggest mistake of her career. She had allowed Blair Powell to seduce her. That one night compromised her professionally and should have led to her transfer or even her dismissal from the service. But Stark had done something unusual. She had come to Cam immediately and she had accepted responsibility without excuse. She gave her word that it would never happen again, and as far as Cam knew, it hadn't. Cam didn't think about whether Stark still had feelings for Blair. That was none of her business. What had happened that morning, however, was very much her business.
"Stark, with this kind of detail, apologies are neither acceptable nor sufficient. You are in charge of the day shift and that means if something goes wrong, it's on you."
Stark's eyes widened slightly, but she merely said, "Yes, ma'am. I understand that."
Cam nodded. "I know that you do. I also know that Egret can be very difficult to predict. I told the team once before, and it bears repeating, that the safest course of action is to assume that she is an uncooperative subject. That means you have to plan for the unexpected movement. I'd say you got lazy today, and you got lucky. If I hadn't been walking across the street, you would have lost her."
"Yes, ma'am." Stark thought about that for a second, her stomach clenching. They had all been lulled into a false dense of security the past few months when it seemed as if Egret had been calming down. She hadn't eluded them for so long they forgot to be on guard. She remembered the sick feeling she'd had that morning when she'd watched on the monitor as Egret walked right past the front desk and out the door. What if the had lost her, and then what if something had happened?
Cam suppressed a smile. Stark looked like she was headed for the guillotine. Cam blew out her breath and said quietly, "Stark, you're a good agent. You're a valuable agent, because there are places that you can go with her that no one else can. Be careful, be vigilant, be alert. That's all."
She had already turned back to her paperwork as Stark replied, "Yes ma'am. Thank you very much."
An hour later she had looked through most of the documents and set aside the ones that needed more attention. She just couldn't read anymore. She'd left Florida the night before at midnight and had gotten no sleep for over 36 hours. Ordinarily, that wouldn't bother her nearly as much as it did currently, but the stress of seeing Blair again under such difficult circumstances had worn on her. She was tired, and she was lonely. She stood and stretched and headed for the door. She wanted a drink and to go to bed.
Just as she was about to step through the door, Hernandez, one of the agents assigned to the night shift, called out to her. "Phone call for you, Commander,"
She turned, suppressing a sigh, and picked up the nearest phone. "Roberts," she said sharply, no hint of fatigue in her voice.
"This is Carlisle," a familiar male voice said.
"Be in D.C. tomorrow for a briefing at 0800," her supervisor said. "We'll convene in the conference room at my office."
Cam was instantly alert, her exhaustion fleeing. This kind of request was unusual, and her suspicions were immediately aroused. Something serious was going on, and it must involve Blair if he was calling her to Washington. "I need to know if I should institute heightened security with Egret, sir."
There was a moment of silence that confirmed her suspicions. There was an information blackout and it involved Blair. Out of habit, she checked the monitors, which revealed closed-circuit video images of the entire building, every entrance, the parking garage, the elevators, the hallway outside of Blair's apartment. It was almost as if she expected to see someone attempting an assault.
"There's no need for any special action at your end. Just be at the meeting, Roberts," he said gruffly.
Then she was listening to a dial tone and cursing under her breath. This was one situation where she would know what was happening, because she could not afford not to.
At 0750 Cam walked down the deserted corridor outside Stuart Carlisle's office. Some of the rooms in the warren of offices that opened off the industrial-tiled hallway were already occupied, but many doors were still shut, awaiting secretaries and staff to arrive for the workday. She pushed open the door stenciled with the word 'Conference' and stepped into another of the generic rooms that seemed to comprise all government buildings. She nodded to the redhead, a woman she had never seen before, already seated at the table.
A long rectangular conference table crowded the center of the room, surrounded by a number of straight-backed chairs. A coffee caddie stood in one corner. She moved around the end of the table, helped herself to coffee, and settled into a chair opposite the woman who was reading a stack of papers she appeared to have taken from the open briefcase beside her. Neither of them acknowledged each other beyond their first neutral nod, assuming that eventually whoever would be running the meeting would make the appropriate introductions.
Over the course of the next ten minutes, the door opened three times, each time admitting a man dressed in the regulation garb of a government agent. Navy blue blazers, gray flannel trousers, white shirts and rep ties abounded in the Department of the Treasury building as well as the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and every other security agency on Capitol Hill. The last person to enter was Cam's direct supervisor, Stuart Carlisle. They had known each other for over a decade and were probably as close to friends as one could be in that kind of environment. Each understood that regardless of personal feelings, the system they served had the ultimate power, and, like all governments, was not immune to error. Error that sometimes destroyed careers and lives. They also both believed that however flawed, it was probably the best version currently available.
Carlisle nodded to her briefly and proceeded to the head of the table. From the end opposite him, a mid-forties, iron-gray haired man, thin and fit appearing, coolly appraised each individual in the room. Across from Cam, to the left of the redhead, a man about Cam's age with a faint five o'clock shadow who looked like he might have played football in college, sat staring at her, something hard in his gaze. Cam did not recognize any of the other people present, but she recognized the type. The woman, early thirties, short well-cut hair, understated make-up, conservative suit, had a look of self-contained confidence that suggested she didn't work for any of the men in the room. An independent consultant or perhaps a forensic analyst. She had apparently come to give an opinion, and she probably didn't care about inter-agency politics. The men were a different matter all together. The two men in addition to Carlisle were FBI, CIA, or both. They were unsmiling, faintly belligerent looking, and plainly annoyed -- probably because the meeting wasn't on their turf. That concerned Cam. Because if the meeting was here on her ground, it suggested that it had to do with Blair, and that worried her more than she cared to admit.
Carlisle, at precisely 0800, began to speak. "Let's get the introductions out of the way. Secret Service Agent Cameron Roberts, who commands Egret's security detail," he said, nodding at Cam, his eyes unreadable as they skimmed over hers. Indicating the gray-haired man at the far end of the table, he went on, "Robert Owens, National Security Agency. Special Agent Lindsey Ryan, from the behavioral science division of the FBI," signifying the redhead, "and," pointing to the man opposite Cam, "Patrick Doyle, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI task force investigating Lover Boy."
Cam stiffened but her expression remained carefully neutral. Lover Boy was the code name assigned to the man who had stalked Blair Powell the previous year, leaving her messages, photographing her, and presumably making an assassination attempt which had resulted in Cam being wounded. This was the first that she had heard of any ongoing task force. The fact that Mac had not mentioned it led her to believe he was unaware of it also. Which meant the investigation had been taken out of the hands of the Secret Service, leaving the people directly responsible for Blair's safety in the dark. She was furious, but she needed more information before she knew precisely where to direct her anger. So she listened, her fists clenched under the table, her jaws clamped tightly enough to make her teeth ache.
For a moment, the room was silent as they each took stock of one another. Then the NSA man cleared his throat and said in a hoarse voice, "I'll let Doyle bring you up to speed on recent domestic developments. You'll find a summary of current information and analyses in the binder." He began to pass prepared folders to each of them from a stack he had carried in with him. "From a national security standpoint, we're concerned about the President's upcoming summit meetings on the global warming agreement with the European council members next month. In addition, he'll be attending the World Trade Organization meeting in Quebec in just a few days. Any act of terrorism, including an attack on Egret, would obviously disrupt those plans."
"We don't have anything to indicate that Lover Boy is a member of any group, national or international, with a political agenda," Doyle said, his voice hard-edged with a hint of Midwestern accent. His tone and expression suggested that he wasn't overly interested in Owens's national security issues.
"Nothing in the psychological profile suggests that he is philosophically or politically motivated," Lindsey Ryan, the behavioral scientist, interjected. "'The message content - poetic verses, sexual ideation, the fixation on knowing where she is and what she's doing - these things indicate a distorted sense of reality. Nevertheless, his ability to make repeated contact with her, and effectively elude capture for a prolonged period of time, indicates an intelligent and highly organized personality. Nevertheless, all of his focus has been her. He's obsessed with her. This isn't about the President."
"We have to assume that anything directed at Egret, even remotely, is related to the President," Owens said testily, his remarks clearly directed at Doyle.
Cam, working hard to contain her temper, listened to the two men engage in verbal debate while ignoring the obvious importance of Ryan's assessment. It was clear to her that Blair was of much less concern to either man than establishing who had the greater stake in seeing the UNSUB captured.
"Exactly where do we stand on the degree of penetration as far as Egret is concerned?" Cam asked, barely managing to keep the wrath out of her voice. She needed to know how close this psychopath had managed to get to Blair this time.
Doyle, looking impatient, raised his voice a notch and continued as if no one else had said anything. "Until the last ten days, all contacts from Lover Boy have occurred via electronic transmission, specifically Internet messages, delivered directly to the subject's personal email accounts. Despite our attempts to trace the point of origin, we have been unable to verify a source. Changing Egret's accounts, rerouting through substations and aliases, and erecting electronic filters has all been ineffective. His messages to date have been," he hesitated a moment as if considering how to phrase his comments, then continued, "mostly of a sexually suggestive nature."
"Is he escalating?" Cam questioned, her breath constricting in her chest. This was why she had been recalled. And if the task force had been ongoing for months, something had changed recently. She tried not to think about the fact that Blair had almost slipped their surveillance yesterday.
Doyle shuffled a few papers, looking annoyed. "He was inactive for a period of time following the shooting last year. Of course every government agency including the Secret Service, FBI, and CIA were involved in the manhunt, and he didn't have much choice but to go under. He surfaced again three months ago."
"Three months," Cam repeated, her eyes boring into Doyle's. "Three months and you're just advising her security detail now?"
"I knew," Stuart Carlisle said, unable to completely conceal his discomfort. He wasn't about to explain that his decision to have the task force run out of New York, and by his people, had been overruled by the Security Chief. He was still bitter, but he had orders to follow too.
Cam turned to him, knowing better than to break rank in mixed company and question his judgment or his authority, but there was criticism in her eyes, and she knew Stuart saw it.
"The Secret Service isn't equipped to handle this kind of scenario," Doyle said dismissively.
"We're on scene," Cam retorted, "and we're the ones who know the day to day situation best. A threat like this demands we increase our readiness level." Everything about the way they guarded Blair needed to change. For god's sake, she'd been underprotected for months!
"We've had a presence," Doyle snapped. "We're more than capable of securing her."
"Not the way we can," Cam answered, still unable to believe that Stuart Carlisle had let this happen. But she couldn't back down, not when it was Blair's life at stake. "We need to take the lead in this investigation."
Doyle's color darkened as his lips curled slightly in derision. "You people knew about him in the beginning and your security was so ineffective it almost got Egret killed. I don't think you're up to it."
Cam's voice was cold, her words razor-edged. "By excluding the Secret Service from your intelligence, you put Egret at severe risk. Unacceptable risk. Untenable risk."
"Roberts," Carlisle warned from beside her. She had effectively accused the FBI task force leader of endangering the life of the President's daughter, which at the very least constituted dereliction of duty, and according to strict interpretation, could be considered an indictable offense.
She continued as if her supervisor hadn't said anything. "I want every piece of data, every transmission, every record, every projection and profile that you currently have. I want-"
"You'll get whatever I say -" Doyle began, leaning forward, the muscles in his formidable neck straining.
Cam stood quickly, placing her hands flat on the table, looking down at him. "Every single word, Doyle, or I'll personally file a report citing your negligence and hand carry it to the Oval Office."
Doyle came out of his chair faster than a man his size ought to be able to move. "You threaten me, Roberts, and I'll find the dirt you think you've been able to hide and I'll bury you in it."
Cam smiled faintly, her voice quiet but very clear. "You don't know me very well if you think that will frighten me."
Neither of them heard the door open behind them as they stared at each other, taking measure for the fight that was sure to come.
"From what I hear, you shouldn't even be on this detail," Doyle said derisively. "I'd like to know whose piss-poor excuse for a decision that was."
"I assume that would be mine," a deep male voice said calmly.
Cam straightened and turned toward the voice as the others hastened to stand for the President of the United States.
Eleven hours later she was back in NYC, having reviewed as much of the information regarding Lover Boy's recent activities as she could access through channels. She knew there was more, but it would take her a while to get at it. Now that she understood why she had been recalled from Florida, her work really began. But first there was personal business she needed to put to rest.
Cam stopped just inside the door and stared at Blair, who had clearly not been expecting her. She looked like she was dressed to go out, wearing a patterned silk blazer over a thin pale camisole and loose black trousers. Cam wondered fleetingly if she were meeting someone. She pushed that thought away, because she was in no position to change it.
"What is it?" Blair said, a quick surge of fear produced by the stony expression in Cam's eyes. "What's happened?"
"Why didn't you tell me?" Cam said, her voice low and deadly. She was struggling so hard to contain her anger she could barely get the words out.
"I'm not sure what you mean," she said, stalling, hoping that it wasn't what she thought. But she knew it was, it couldn't be anything else. She had hoped, with Cam out of NYC, away from her detail, she could keep it from her. Keep her out of it. Keep her safe.
"You let me make love to you, you let me that close, and you couldn't tell me that he was back?" Cam seethed, her apprehension for Blair's safety and her fury at being excluded both by Blair and the FBI nearly made her mad. "How in God's name could you do that? I thought -" she meant to say, I thought I meant more to you than that. I thought we had something.
She took a deep breath, closed her eyes for a second, and gathered her strength. This was not about her. Her relationship with Blair wasn't the issue anymore. She had to separate her personal feelings from what was happening now. The clear and present danger that Lover Boy presented to Blair was what mattered. Not how she felt, not her disappointment, nor her sense of betrayal. She concentrated on her duty, the one thing that always focused her, the one thing she always depended upon to drive the anger away.
She straightened with effort, working to hide her turmoil. She forced her fists to unclench and when she spoke her voice was cool, her command voice. Calm and steady, uninflected, impersonal, infinitely professional. "You should have reported it to Mac when it started again three months ago, Ms. Powell, and you should have told me yesterday. At your earliest convenience, I need to discuss the security protocols. In light of the new information, we have to assume a higher level of alertness. If you could check your schedule now please, I'd like to do this in the morning - as early as possible."
The silence deepened.
While Cam had been talking, Blair watched the flurry of emotions race across her face. She had seen her go from anger and frustration to this implacable façade that she recognized as the barrier Cam placed between her emotions and everything else in order to do her job. In the rational part of her mind, Blair understood that that was what made Cam so good at what she did, but it was not what she wanted between them. She did not want Cam to distance herself in order to care for her. She wasn't sure exactly what she wanted, but she was very certain it wasn't that. Her own frustration and fear surfaced, and she said caustically, "That's your solution to everything, isn't it, Cameron? Tighten the security, tighten the restraints around me. That's a simple answer, and easy for you. However, it doesn't work for me."
With effort, Cam said quietly, "This isn't something that's negotiable. This man is serious. He's persistent and clever and talented and he's fixated on you. By all rights, you should be secluded somewhere until he can be apprehended."
At that thought, every survival instinct Blair had emerged on a wave of irrational terror. She would not be made a captive. She had been imprisoned in one way or another her entire life. Nothing mattered more to her than her freedom, nothing except one thing. "I don't want you on this detail, Roberts. I can't work with you. I won't work with you. If you won't resign, I'll do what I have to do to get you pulled off."
"I spoke with your father this afternoon," Cam said darkly. "He seems to feel that I'm the best person for this job. So do I. This is one time your influence is not going to have any effect."
Blair stared at her, opened-mouthed in astonishment. When she could find her voice, she said incredulously, "You spoke with my father?"
Cam walked a few feet towards a nearby sofa and leaned against the back, trying to work out some of the tension in her body. She felt wound so tight she was afraid she'd lose control, and at this point, Blair's very future could depend upon what happened between them in the next few minutes. "It was unexpected. He showed up at the briefing about this - situation."
Thinking back, it had been a strange encounter.
The President had acted as if Doyle and Cam hadn't been about to fling themselves over the table at each other, merely motioning to the people gathered with one hand and saying, "Sit, please."
They had done so, and the NSA representative introduced the others and hastened to assure the President that everything possible was being done to protect his daughter. Andrew Powell said nothing, listening quietly and studying each face carefully. After a minute or two he said, "I'm sure that everything is being done appropriately. I'm on a tight schedule and I'd like to speak with Agent Roberts, if your meeting is concluded."
That was clearly a dismissal.
Lindsey Ryan stood immediately and began gathering her things, as did Stewart Carlisle. Doyle and Owens looked like they might object for a moment, and then with slightly disgruntled expressions, filed out of the room. When the door closed, for the first time in her life, Cam stood alone facing the President of the United States. Their eyes met and Cam asked, "What may I do for you, Mr. President?"
A very faint smile flickered across his handsome face. She saw Blair in him as his features briefly softened, and in that instant, her anger turned to hard resolve. She would not allow Blair to become a pawn in some ambitious bureaucrat's political game, nor would she see her become the object of a psychotic's obsession.
"It seems that I need to rely on you again, Agent Roberts, to look after my daughter. I'm sure the task force is doing everything they can, but I know my daughter, and she is not going to make this easy for anyone."
"Sir," Cam began, intending to defend Blair. Given the circumstances, her security team had had the least problems of any working with her.
He raised his hand as if he knew what she were going to say. He looked past her for a moment, as if seeing something she couldn't. "She didn't choose this life - I chose it for her. It's been hard for her. I know that. She's strong and she's stubborn and I wouldn't change anything about her. I'm counting on you to see that both her freedom and her safety continue."
"Yes sir, Mr. President," Cam said very quietly, her eyes never leaving his. "I'll do that, sir. You can depend on it."
He had nodded, thanked her, and left the room. Had she not had her own motives for needing to be involved, his unspoken command would have been enough. But she did have her own reasons. And they were very personal.
Cam looked at Blair and said softly, "I'm sorry, Blair. I'm staying."
I'm staying. The words screamed in Blair's head. Words she wanted to hear from her, but not this way. Not like this. Not because of this. She couldn't have this conversation any longer. She couldn't think about what it meant for either of them. I'm staying.
She grabbed her bag from a nearby table and snapped, "Well, I'm not. I'm going out."
Cam made no move to stop her. She would not be her jailor. But when she spoke, her voice held a question. "Blair?"
Something in the almost defeated tone of Cam's voice stopped her. It was a weariness she had rarely heard in her, even after she'd worked days on no sleep. Blair turned from the door, looking back at her where she still leaned against the back of the sofa. She had been almost too angry to see her clearly before, but now the shadows in Cam's face stood out in gaunt relief. It was her eyes, though, that gave her away. They were dull with fatigue, flickering with something close to despair. She hadn't looked like that even when she'd been in the hospital recovering from her wounds.
"What?" Blair asked, softer than she had meant, struggling with a nearly irresistible urge to go to her. It was so hard to hold onto her anger when she so wanted to hold her.
"Have you told them downstairs that you're going out?" Cam asked, pushing herself upright.
"No," Blair answered curtly, just as quickly irritated again as Cam resumed her official role.
"Is it a personal engagement?" Cam continued, keeping her voice carefully neutral. She had to ask in order to do her job, but she didn't need or want to know the details if Blair was seeing someone. "Will you need the car?" She searched her memory for the day's itinerary, which she had reviewed the night before. After the day she had just spent in Washington that seemed like a month ago to her now. And of course it was before she knew that Blair wasn't really safe anywhere. They would have to provide much closer coverage than they usually did even for non-official functions. "We didn't have you scheduled for anything tonight."
"It was a last minute thing," Blair informed her. She always hated discussing her private plans with her security people. It made her feel so exposed. This was worse. Reluctantly she added, "It's a party at Diane's."
Cam's expression didn't change, but she knew what Blair was saying. A party meant it was not 'official'. If it were a date, it was none of her business. "Can you give me a few minutes to get someone for you? Stark and Grant are both off-duty, and you'll want a woman."
Blair opened the door and stepped into the hallway. "Fielding and Foster can wait in the car outside Diane's apartment. They always have before."
Cam followed her out of the loft, already activating her radio. "Fielding, bring the car around, and find Ellen Grant or Stark for me. ASAP." She crossed to the elevator and said flatly, "I need someone inside."
"It's Diane's, for Christ's sake," Blair replied with irritation, punching the lobby button. "Do you think he's going to show up in drag?"
"I don't know what he's going to do!" Cam retorted in an uncharacteristically aggravated tone. "Until twelve hours ago, I didn't even know he was active."
Blair had no answer for that. She had ignored the first few messages she received by post, hoping they were just random crank mail, unrelated to what had happened before. She got them from time to time, usually from disgruntled individuals who didn't like her father's politics. Sometimes from overenthusiastic supporters. Occasionally from people obsessed with her, asking for photos or dates or even articles of clothing. But never anything quite like these messages. Intimate, suggestive, and most frighteningly, knowledgeable. When the email started, she had confided in her friend at the Bureau and that had been a mistake. Friendship has it limits, and her old school chum had decided that it was news she couldn't keep to herself.
"You didn't need to know. Doyle knew," Blair retorted as the elevator opened onto the lobby, still angry with AJ for reporting it.
Cam didn't bother to point out that she needed to know for any number of reasons, not all of them professional, because it was done. Blair had shut her out, and there was nothing to do now but regain control of the situation.
Blair walked toward the front door, acutely aware that Cam had moved slightly ahead of her to go through first. Unexpectedly she saw it all again in slow-motion replay - the bright sunlight, the screams of frantic men, the spreading blossom of rich red on Cam's chest as she dropped first to her knees, then collapsed to her back on the sidewalk. By then the other agents had pulled Blair inside, behind the glass doors, and she couldn't reach her. She couldn't hold her.
"Blair?" Cam asked, concerned by Blair's sudden pallor.
Blair jerked at the sound of Cam's voice and hurried to cross the sidewalk, the image of Cam's ashen face as she lay dying mercifully beginning to fade. Cam opened the car door and Blair brushed her fingers lightly over Cam's sleeve, reassured by the solid presence of her. She didn't trust herself to speak but just slid into the rear of the black sedan parked at the curb.
Diane Bleeker kissed Blair lightly on the cheek as she admitted her to a room already filled with people. The lights were conversationally dim, female servers in white shirts, black bow ties, and tailored black trousers moved carefully through the crowd with trays of hors d'oeuvres balanced in front of them. Soft music accompanied the murmur of voices.
"Your choice of escorts is improving," Diane remarked, a hint of surprise in her voice as she watched Cam move to one side of the spacious living room.
"I'm alone," Blair responded, slipping past her and heading for the bar that had been set up in one corner.
Diane threaded her way through the crowd in Blair's wake, reaching for a glass of white wine as Blair waited for the very attractive redheaded bartender in the tuxedo shirt and tight black leather pants to mix her a drink. "If you needed a date, I could have found you one. Marcie Coleman has been trying to get you to go out with her for weeks. You could do worse than a successful young surgeon, you know."
Blair took her drink, scarcely noticing the appraising glance that the bartender gave her along with the glass, and turned to look at the other women in the room. As always at Diane's gatherings, the women were a mix of aspiring artists, many of whom were Diane's clients, young professionals, or bar dykes from the Village who were there as escorts or just tagging along with someone they knew and hoping to get lucky. Diane always managed to provide something for everyone.
"I'm not interested in a date," Blair said acerbically, making an effort not to look in Cam's direction. She had years of practice at ignoring her security detail. Once she had gotten used to their ubiquitous presence, they had simply become background noise. When she was a preteen, it hadn't been as difficult, because her father had only been a governor then. Other than the fact that state troopers often drove her to school and parked nearby while she engaged in after-school activities, she had been able to pretend she was like everyone else. Unfortunately, at fifteen she learned that she wasn't. That was when she and her prep school roommate had made love for the first time, and Blair had learned that there are certain things best kept secret.
When her father became Vice President, and it was apparent that he would be the party's nominee for President after eight years, the security around her had intensified. She became very good at convincing herself that she wasn't being watched almost twenty-four hours a day, but there was nothing she could do to ignore Cameron Roberts's presence. She could feel her as strongly as if they stood touching.
Diane smiled knowingly. "I was trying to be polite when I said date. I'm sure the very charming Dr. Coleman would be just as happy to spend the night with you, if that's what you had in mind."
Blair turned and met Diane's eyes, replying caustically, "If and when I decide I want someone to fuck, I'm quite certain I can manage the arrangements on my own."
If Diane was taken aback by Blair's sharp retort, she didn't show it. She knew from long experience that the best way to get Blair to talk about anything substantial was to anger her. Blair had gotten much too proficient at disguising almost all of her emotions, but when she was angry, she forgot to hide them. Diane was one of the few people who could actually goad her into revealing herself, which was probably the reason they were still friends. "Well, if I had that criminally good-looking number watching me all night with that smoldering expression in her eyes, I probably wouldn't be looking for anyone else either."
Blair didn't have to look at Cam to know exactly what Diane referred to. Cam had a way of looking at her that made her feel as if she were the only woman in the room. She reminded herself that Cam was only doing her job, but no one else had ever looked at her in quite that way. Paula Stark, for all her competence, and despite the night they had shared together, never looked at her that way. Blair's hand trembled as she raised the martini glass to her lips. "Don't, Diane. Not tonight."
Diane relented. Blair's voice was raw, and her eyes were wounded. She touched Blair's hand fleetingly, and said quietly, "I don't care what you think is happening between you two, she cares. She can't hide it anymore than you can." She tossed her head in a practiced motion, her blond hair sweeping her shoulders, and began to move away. "You may not be in the mood for company tonight, but I am. It's time for me to prowl."
Blair watched Diane move sinuously off through the crowd and wondered how long it would take her to make her way around the room to Cam. And she wished to god she didn't care.
When the well-built brunette in the tee shirt, jeans and Nikes walked in the door at a little before one a.m., more than a few heads turned in appreciation. She looked like an ex-soccer player, which, among other things, she was. It had taken Ellen Grant a little over an hour from the time Ed Fielding tracked her down at her mother-in-law's in West Chester to make it to the party at Diane Bleeker's Upper East Side apartment. She had considered changing her clothes and then decided not to, figuring she'd probably fit in with at least some part of the gathering.
Cam sighed with uncharacteristic relief at the sight of her backup. It wasn't so much her bone-deep tiredness that was wearing at her, but the necessity of watching Blair dance with the same woman for the last half hour while trying to ignore the fact that the woman's hand rested very subtly on Blair's left breast.
"Sorry, Commander," Ellen Grant said quietly when they managed to work their way over to one another. "I was at my husband's birthday party."
"No apologies required, Grant. I regret the need to call you away from your family." Cam passed her hand across her eyes, rubbing them briefly, then smiled thinly. "I'm afraid I got caught short tonight. You're bailing me out."
Grant glanced at her in concern, catching the strain in her voice and wondering if she was all right. Cameron Roberts was a legend to every agent in the field because of what she had done that day in front of Blair Powell's apartment, but to her own team, she was a flesh-and-blood hero. "Not a problem. I can take over now, Commander."
"Yes," Cam said. "Thank you."
Instead of leaving, Cam walked through the room and out onto a small iron-railed balcony with a view of Central Park. She took a deep breath of the crisp night air and rested both hands on the railing, aware of the ache in her left side along the ten-inch scar between her fourth and fifth ribs. It didn't usually bother her, or at least most of the time she could ignore it.
"Off duty now, Commander?" Blair asked quietly from beside her. "You look like you could use some sleep."
Cam, still leaning forward, turned her head and glimpsed the quick flicker of moonlight playing over Blair's face. The sight caught at her heart. Surrendering for just an instant to the soft undercurrent of warmth in Blair's voice and the real concern in her gaze, Cam let herself relax.
"Yes," Cam answered eventually, "airplane seats are always a little short for me to sleep in very well. Grant's taking over now."
They both knew that wasn't strictly true. She was never off duty, through choice as well as convention.
Blair stood next to her at the rail, close enough to touch her, but being careful not to. She didn't trust herself enough to do that. She wasn't even sure why she had followed her outside. But the night was disappearing and they were here, almost alone. Tomorrow people would surround them again, and she had no idea when they would have even a few moments of privacy. She couldn't bear to see her go, not yet. "What's going to happen now?"
Cam watched the headlights far below trace patterns of lights through the treetops and considered the future. It never even occurred to her not to inform Blair of her plans, although some might consider that inappropriate. It was Blair's life that was affected, and she deserved to know. "We'll need to go to high alert status. I'll talk to Mac and Stark about that tomorrow. You'll need agents physically with you whenever possible, extra security at public functions, and less information about your travel plans made available to the press."
"Everything will be closing down around me, won't it?" Blair asked, sounding nearly as done-in as Cam appeared.
"These are the things that will impact you most directly, yes," Cam allowed. There was much more that needed to be done, and she hoped she could accomplish them without making Blair even unhappier. "I'm sorry."
Blair believed her. It had taken more than raw physical attraction to capture her heart. Cam, as no one before her, understood. Cam understood how she felt to be never alone, to be never free, to be never capable of spontaneous action. Cam understood even though she couldn't change it.
Blair did touch her then, a brief brush of her fingers over Cam's hand. "I know."
She caught her breath as Cam captured her fingers and caressed them gently. The light pressure of their palms sliding together was more achingly sweet than another woman's naked body pressing against her in the heat of lust. She stood there, buffeted by the chill night air, her head light with wanting her, and dared not move. Dared not break the fragile bond.
Finally Cam sighed and released her. She was so very tired and she couldn't trust herself with Blair so near. She had just needed to touch her so much. And now she needed to go.
What she had to say next came hard. It was hard for her to even think it, but she had to. Everything between them had changed drastically almost overnight. They'd spent five frantic days trying to assuage a yearlong thirst, and nothing had really been settled when they'd parted, except they both believed there'd be a next time. She thought then that they'd have time to tackle the issues of Blair's notoriety and her own professional ethics, but the reappearance of Lover Boy had changed all of that. Now whatever personal relationship they might have had was secondary. She knew Blair was hurt and angry, and she'd seen Blair in the arms of too many lovers not to know what she did when she was hurt. She said what she had to say. "If you don't plan on going home tonight, please tell Grant. Let them protect you."
Staring straight ahead so that she would not see the goodbye in Cam's eyes, Blair replied quietly, "As you wish, Commander."
And then she was alone, the wind whipping at her tears.
At precisely 0700 the next morning, Cam walked through the command center toward the conference room. "Stark, Mac-" she called as she passed each of them, "-with me. The rest of you will be briefed later."
She closed the door to the conference room after they followed her in and waited until they took seats. She was crisply attired in a steel-blue suit, a tailored white linen shirt, and imported black loafers that matched the belt at her waist. There were faint shadows under her eyes, but her gaze was clear and sharp and glinting with something hard. She remained standing, leaning forward slightly with her hands on the back of a chair. Had they been looking, they would have noticed that her knuckles were white where she gripped the leather. It was the only sign that she was distressed.
"This is what I know," she began, her tone and demeanor completely composed. "Approximately three months ago Lover Boy contacted Egret via the U.S. mail. His messages consisted of short rambling notes professing his undying love for her, his desire to make love to her - put quite a bit more crudely, and his intention to be alone with her so that he could convince her of his passion." At her first few words, Stark and Mac sat up straight, clearly shocked.
"Commander! This is the first-" Mac began, his face pale.
Cam held up her hand to silence him. "We'll get to that. Six weeks ago he began electronic contact, this time in addition to his verbal descriptions, he sent short video clips of explicit sexual activities he hoped they might share."
Stark couldn't contain her disbelief. "It's impossible. She would have told us. She's difficult, but she's not stupid. She would know that we had to be informed."
"The FBI knew. They formed a task force to monitor the situation," Cam began. At that announcement, Mac's mouth fell open. She continued, preferring to save the considerable explanations for later. "They've set up their own surveillance system with vehicles and agents tracking her whenever she's outside this building. They've attempted to set up alternate e-mail connections in the hopes of backtracking his messages to their source. So far, they've been unsuccessful."
She forced herself to let go of the chair back when her fingers began to cramp. Her voice still quiet, she said, "I was called back because ten days ago his messages changed. He's becoming more violent; he threatened her." She was surprised to feel her voice catch and hoped that Mac and Stark hadn't heard it. Quickly she continued, "The behavioral people at Quantico feel that he may be decompensating, either because he's been unsuccessful at gaining access to her or just because he's coming unglued. In any event, we must consider her at risk at any time."
"Oh my God," Mac breathed, "how could they have kept us out of the loop?"
Struggling now to contain her own anger, she answered, "They were investigating us." That wasn't strictly true. The FBI had been investigating everyone on the security team with the exception of Cam. She was exonerated by virtue of the fact that she had been an unintended victim of Lover Boy's presumed attack on Blair.
Mac stood up, too agitated to sit any longer. "That's insane. Some of us were with you when it happened. We couldn't have been the shooter!"
"I agree with you," Cam shrugged. "But I don't have to remind you how paranoid our brethren in the FBI can be. They were floating the theory that if it was one of you, it might have been a hired hitman who did the shooting. A stand-in to deflect suspicion from you."
"Oh, for Christ's sake," Stark muttered, rubbing the bridge of her nose as she frequently did when upset. "I don't believe I'm hearing this."
Cam almost smiled at that. Over the past year, Paula Stark had become the agent closest to Blair Powell. Cam could only imagine how furious she must be having her professional integrity maligned and her efficiency undercut by people who were supposedly on the same side. She also believed that Stark cared for Blair, and she didn't think it had anything to do with the night they had spent together. She didn't encourage any kind of personal attachment between her agents and those they guarded, but it privately comforted her. Blair deserved to be cared for.
"I'm sure members of the task force will be showing up soon to convince you that this is all quite real," Cam went on. "Our official policy is one of cooperation."
Mac and Stark looked at her expectantly, waiting for her real orders.
"We are the Secret Service. We are the people assigned to guard her. We are the people with her twenty-four hours a day. This is our ball, our game, our rules," she said decisively. "Stark, you will choose a replacement to lead the day shift. Until further notice, you are Egret's primary guard. If at all possible, when she's outside this building, you will be with her. That means physically within sight of her. You'll be working split shifts, so review her itinerary carefully."
It was a tough assignment, and Cam watched Stark closely as she spoke.
"Yes ma'am," Stark said immediately. "Understood."
"Mac, we need an agent, not just the video cameras, stationed in the lobby around the clock. The surveillance tapes need to be backed up every twelve, and I want them analyzed for repeat visitors, delivery people, public service crews - anyone who doesn't live or work here. Run the backgrounds again on everyone with access to floors above the lobby."
Mac and Stark were taking notes, but Cam had nothing written down. As she spoke, her gaze was distant, her mind clicking down the list of priorities as automatically as she dressed in the morning. She understood intuitively what few citizens of the United States did. The illusion that the President and those close to him were untouchable was part of the image of invincibility essential to a world power. Unlike the leaders of many nations, the President of the United States was incredibly accessible. He could go jogging through the streets of Washington D.C., he could stand on an open podium and give a speech, and he could ride a bicycle through the dunes on Martha's Vineyard with only a few Secret Service agents nearby. He was at risk in ways that few people ever considered, unless, like her, it was their job to do so.
In many ways, Blair's security was even more critical than his. The presidency was not a man, but an office. If the President were incapacitated, the line of succession was clear. But the President was susceptible to manipulation through his affections. It was the policy of the United States government not to negotiate with terrorists. But what if the hostage were the President's daughter?
For an instant, Cam remembered waking with Blair in Diane's apartment. Blair had still been asleep, naked and warm in her arms. All her fury and fierceness had quieted in slumber, and Cam shivered inwardly at the image of her vulnerability.
Not Blair. Not on her watch. Not ever.
She cleared her throat and picked up where she had left off with barely a moment's hesitation. "Her mail needs to be visually inspected before she picks it up. Any package, any delivery of any kind, requires verification of its point of origin before it goes to her, including ID checks for all delivery people. I'll arrange for a portable x-ray machine to be set up downstairs."
She took a breath and began to relax for the first time in days. It felt good to be in charge and comforting to know that the right people were providing Blair's safety.
"We'll go over the rest of the details with the team later today." She looked at Mac and asked the question she had avoided thinking about since she had awakened at five am after a few hours of restless sleep. "I'll need a special briefing this morning with Ms. Powell. Is she on-site?"
"No," Mac said carefully. "Grant checked in at 0600. She's requesting relief for continued surveillance at an off-site location."
She didn't come home. Cam had to work to ignore the swift surge of disappointment, but she said without inflection, "Right. See to it then. I'd like a full report ASAP."
After Mac and Stark left the room, she finally sat, resting her face in her hands, and tried to dispel the image of Blair in the arms of another woman.
Go to: Honor Bound, Part 2
Return to The Bard's Corner