Diane Bleeker eyed Blair speculatively across the small glass-topped table in her breakfast alcove. She watched her start on her second cup of coffee and decided it might be safe to try conversation.
"Are you going to tell me why Roberts is your head spooky again?" Diane asked offhandedly, reaching for a croissant and hoping that she would live to eat it.
Blair looked up from the cup she had been mindlessly staring into, searching Diane's face for some hint of the motive behind the question. She wasn't up to verbal sparring at the moment. She definitely wasn't up to hearing Diane talk about how much she'd like to get Cameron Roberts into bed. It had never been enjoyable, but now it actually hurt.
She didn't think Cam would be susceptible to Diane's brand of casual seduction, but she wasn't entirely certain. Diane was very beautiful, and Cam gave no hint of entertaining celibacy. All you had to do was look at her to sense her sexual energy. Blair recalled the rumor that her FBI contact had recounted to her about Cam's secret lover in DC. For all she knew, Cam might still be involved with someone there. She didn't want to think about that, not when she couldn't get the feel of Cam's hands out of her mind. But Diane merely regarded her solemnly, patiently, without the slightest hint of confrontation. Friends then, for the moment.
"Why?" Blair asked, trying not to snarl.
Not too bad, Diane thought. She didn't throw anything.
"Because I got the distinct impression that while I was in Europe you made good use of my apartment, and I presumed you were with her," Diane answered. She'd seen the way the two of them had looked at one another for weeks before the shooting - as if they were struggling not to jump on each other and start tearing off clothes. And she'd seen Blair frantic with worry those first few days after Cam was wounded, until it was clear that she would survive. Even while the Secret Service agent was recovering and they'd had no contact, Diane had seen the change in Blair. Her notoriously restless friend hadn't been out hunting for a one-night stand in months. Blair must have wanted to be with someone very badly if she'd arranged for them to spend more than a night together somewhere. Since she couldn't bring a woman to her own apartment, at Diane's they would have at least some privacy. "It was her you brought up here, wasn't it?"
Blair just nodded, seeming to have forgotten that she still held the coffee cup raised in front of her. Her mind balked at returning to those brief days and her wild hope of happiness. She wasn't sure she wanted to remember, not until she stopped aching every time she thought of her.
"Then we crossed in the air and by the time I got back from Europe, you were off to China. I never heard the juicy details." Diane spoke carefully. Blair's expression was haunted. "The next thing I know we're sitting in a café, Roberts is across the room watching you on full spooky status again, and you're a mess."
Blair's hands trembled slightly as she set the cup down. In the past three days she'd begun to wonder if she hadn't dreamed those five nights in June. Five nights, and then Cam had returned to Washington for her new posting as a regional director in the investigative division. They both expected it to be weeks before they saw one another again. Blair had the China trip with her father, and Cam would be in the field soon. She might have believed it a dream, she supposed, if her skin didn't still tingle with the memory of their last morning together.
When she awoke, she was alone. The shower was running in the adjoining bathroom. She turned on her side, toward the empty space beside her, imagining she could still feel the heat of her, still smell her - rich and dark and powerfully enticing. Her stomach tightened, and she lingered for a moment, eyes closed, remembering.
She was drifting, pleasantly aroused, replaying the feel of Cam's fingertips along her thigh when warm lips brushed over her ear.
"Are you awake?"
She smiled, stretching under the light sheet that was still twisted from their passion the night before. "Only in some places."
"I was going to get breakfast," Cam said, leaning closer to kiss the sensitive spot at the base of her neck. "There's a service elevator in the building, isn't there? No need to announce my presence to whoever's on shift now."
She turned over on her back -- struck as she always was when she saw her -- by a surge of pure physical longing. Her body was already tingling. She rose and grasped Cam's hair in one hand, tugging her down for a kiss. She had only meant to say hello, but she wasn't used to the feel of her lips yet, didn't think she'd ever get used to them. Firm and hot and wonderfully responsive. The first meeting of smooth warm flesh became a light bite and then a serious exploration as she sucked and licked and tasted her, afraid she might die if she couldn't have more.
"God," she gasped when she finally dropped back to the pillow, her fingers still wrapped in Cam's thick hair. "I'm hungry."
Cam was breathing hard and her charcoal eyes burned as she looked down at her, her fine mouth curling into a smile at one corner. She ran a finger between Blair's breasts and murmured, "Why don't I think it's bagels you're talking about?"
Blair arched under her touch, the muscles in her stomach twitching as Cam stroked slowly lower. "I can have bagels any day," she managed, her hips lifting of their own accord as heat burst between her legs like a bonfire that had smoldered for hours, then roared to life on a whisper of wind. She hadn't wanted anyone to touch her in so long, and now she couldn't stop wanting it. She couldn't think, was afraid to think. God she was losing her mind.
"You have far too many clothes on," she whispered, reaching for the buttons on Cam's shirt. She needed to distract her, because if Cam moved any lower and touched her just once, she would lose it. Her nerve endings were already screaming for satisfaction, and it would be over far too quickly. That was something else she was afraid to think about. She had absolutely no control over her body with her. She'd made love to countless strangers, but it had never touched her inside. She'd walked away barely aroused, but with Cam, one slow smile, one brief caress, and she was wet and ready.
"You're not helping," Blair half-moaned as Cam's hands slid upward from her belly, cupping her breasts, her gifted fingers rubbing over her nipples.
"Oh yes," Cam murmured, her voice heavy and smooth, "I am."
Blair lost patience and pulled the last button off Cam's shirt, then pushed it roughly down her arms. "Get your clothes off," she ordered, having trouble catching her breath. Her blood was boiling, and a terrible pressure pounded along her spine. She'd come without Cam touching her if she weren't careful. "Cam, please," she pleaded before she could stop herself.
Something in her voice must have penetrated Cam's awareness, because suddenly she stood and threw off the shirt, her hands fumbling with the buttons on her jeans. "Hold on to it," Cam urged, her breathing ragged, as she stepped out of her pants and reached over to fling the sheet off Blair's body in one motion. She moved over her, naked now, and slipped one long, lean thigh between Blair's legs, sighing as their flesh met. They were both so wet, and the moisture flowed along their skin, fusing them.
"You are so beautiful," Cam whispered, both hands framing Blair's face. Holding Blair's gaze, she began a steady rhythm with her hips, pressing into her, then away, then down again, harder, faster, each thrust working them both a little higher.
Blair bit her lip, struggled to ignore those first spasms deep inside. "You're making me crazy," she cried brokenly.
"I want to make you come," Cam groaned, her voice hoarse, her eyes dimming with desire. She shivered, made a choking sound, and her lids flickered closed for an instant. "Ah, god. If - I- can last."
Blair, arms tight around her, back arched, trembling on the brink of dissolving, stared up into those dark, wild eyes, so close now, and wanted to believe. "I lo-," she stopped, too many years of guarding her secrets and hiding her fears standing in the way of the words. She ran her hands along Cam's back, found her hips, pulled her closer. "Take me away," she whispered into Cam's neck.
And Cam did. Even as she lost the battle with her own raging senses, she brought one hand between them and grasped Blair's nipple, squeezing hard, timing it to the rhythm of her hips. Blair cried out as Cam jerked violently with the first rush of her own orgasm, and then they were shuddering in each other's arms, lost and, finally, found.
Blair stared at Diane as if she'd never seen her before, drained by the memories.
"Wherever you just went," Diane commented dryly, "I'd give a lot to visit."
Blair laughed, but there was pain in her eyes. She shook her head ruefully. "So would I."
"So what happened?" Diane asked. She tried to remember the last time she had seen Blair so hurt, and couldn't.
Blair pushed back in her chair, running both hands through her hair, sighing. "She needed to go back to DC, and I had to leave the country. We talked on the phone, planned to meet as soon as we could."
She stood, walked to the small window that looked down upon the street. The nondescript black sedan bristling with antennae on the rear trunk that screamed 'undercover car' was still parked opposite the entrance to Diane's building. She could make out a shadowy figure in the front seat. Probably Stark by now. She wondered where Cam was, if she had slept.
"We knew it would be hard, but I thought --," her voice trailed off as she recalled their last conversation before parting. I thought we agreed she couldn't be on my detail. I thought we were going to work out a way to see each other. I thought she cared.
"So, what happened?" Diane asked from behind her, persisting gently.
Blair didn't turn, just kept looking off into the perfect spring morning, not seeing a thing. "The next time I saw her, she was at my door - and back on the job."
"Just like that?" Diane sounded incredulous. It didn't seem like Cam's style. She'd always impressed Diane with her regard for Blair's feelings, even when she was pissing Blair off by insisting that she follow orders. She must have known how devastated Blair would be to be left out of that kind of decision, something that affected her so personally. Blair's trust was so fragile, and Cameron Roberts simply didn't seem that cruel.
Blair finally left the window, stalked to the counter, grimaced when she found the coffee pot empty. "Yes. Just exactly like that."
Diane wanted to ask more, but the moment had passed. Blair's fury had returned, and in a way, Diane much preferred it to the pain. At least Blair had learned to survive with her rage. She wondered if Cameron Roberts had any idea how impossible Blair would be to control when she was not only angry, but wounded.
"Stark just radioed her position, Commander," Mac said when Cam walked over to the communications station at command central. "Egret is en route to the aerie."
"Good," Cam responded, glancing at her watch. "It's almost 1100 hours. I'll inform her of the security changes at my scheduled 1300 briefing with her. Would you confirm that meeting time with her upon arrival, please."
"Will do." He studied her as she stood glancing at the monitors, trying to read her mood. He couldn't miss the undercurrent of strain in her voice, but he supposed it could just be due to the sudden escalation of the situation with Lover Boy. Considering the recent revelations concerning the ongoing covert FBI task force, anyone else would have been raging about the outside interference and the infringement on their authority, but she looked just like she always did. Calm and controlled. Too calm, maybe. The kind of utter stillness you feel just before the bomb explodes.
"You can page me if you need me before then," she said, turning to leave. She needed to run off some tension. She had a splitting headache, which she attributed to her uneasy sleep. She didn't want to consider that the pounding ache behind her eyes might be due to the fact that she couldn't stop wondering if Blair had slept alone the night before.
As she turned to leave, Mac muttered, "Uh oh, this looks like trouble."
She turned back suddenly to the monitors, her heart racing. "What have we got?" She followed his eyes to the central screen that gave a view of the building's double entrance doors and the doorman's desk just to one side in the lobby. Taylor, on day shift, could be seen checking the identification of two individuals, one of whom she recognized immediately.
"Here come the cavalry," she complained under her breath. She rubbed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Contact Stark and tell her I want her up here ASAP. Then bring our visitors back to the conference room. Get someone to take over out here for you."
"Yes ma'am," Mac said as he watched the man and woman cross the lobby toward the elevators. He had an almost irresistible urge to stand outside the door of the command center and bare his teeth. The first major battle of the turf war was about to begin.
"This is Special Agent Renee Savard," Patrick Doyle said officiously, indicating the woman with him. "She'll be assigned as personal guard to Egret until further notice."
Cam sensed Stark stiffen next to her. She commended her restraint but expected no less of her. She regarded Doyle implacably, happy to see that he was beginning to perspire. Her voice was totally even as she responded, "I have a full complement of experienced agents, Agent Doyle. Agent Stark is currently functioning as Egret's primary guard. I don't need anyone else."
Mac kept his mouth shut, watching the volleys flow back and forth across the table between the two senior agents. It'd been like this for the last thirty minutes, ever since SAC Doyle had arrived to 'inform' the Commander about the reorganization of Egret's security detail. It was clear that Doyle didn't have carte blanche from the security chief in DC, or he just would've walked in and taken command. But he was trying to bully his way to the top anyway. The Commander had been cool and composed and unyielding as stone. She hadn't given one inch, and he thought Doyle was starting to crack from sheer frustration. The guy clearly wasn't used to playing hardball.
"Look, Roberts," Doyle grated, his fists clenched on the stack of folders in front of him, "I can't run the task force effectively without an inside agent."
"You've been running it for months without one," Cam observed mildly, "although, as you say, not particularly effectively." She was still incensed that he had had the arrogance to keep the Secret Service on the outside when Blair was in imminent danger. On the other hand, she needed his intelligence as much as he needed her access. Her game, her rules, however. "I'll be happy to have Agent Savard come on board as a liaison. She cannot, however, function as Egret's security. She's not trained for it, and I don't know her."
Across from her, Doyle flushed. Next to him, the striking coffee- skinned woman lifted piercing blue eyes to Cam's with a flicker of anger. Cam continued, unperturbed. "In return, I expect daily briefings pertaining to any new information you might have."
"Are you suggesting that an FBI agent can't be trusted to secure the President's daughter?" Doyle demanded angrily, half-rising from his seat.
Cam stood, gathering her papers. She glanced at Doyle casually. "I don't know how an FBI agent would react if Egret's life were at stake. I do know how every one of my people would respond. This isn't the time for on-the-job training."
"With respect, Commander," Renee Savard said forcefully, "I am fully prepared to assume responsibility for Egret's safety. I would like the opportunity to carry out my assignment."
Cam studied her, impressed by her composure when it was clear that she was insulted. Still, this wasn't about personal feelings. This was about the willingness of one person to die for another. Secret Service agents were carefully screened and extensively tested to determine their psychological willingness to sacrifice themselves for an individual, or in many cases, an ideology. For better or for worse, this was what it took to do the job they did. The FBI and the Secret Service were not interchangeable, and she would not relax her requirements now, when the possibility of sacrifice was more than probable.
"Your request is duly noted, Agent. However, Agent Stark is primary on Egret's detail. If she can find a way for you to assist her, that's fine. And that's the best I can do for you."
She turned around and walked out, leaving the two Secret Service agents and the two FBI agents measuring one another across the expanse of the conference table.
"I want a close-up look at your surveillance system and an overview of your tactical routines," Doyle finally demanded of Mac, trying to regain some semblance of dominance.
Mac stood politely, taking a page from his commander's book, and said, "I can show you the relay station and the closed-circuit monitors. Right this way." He ignored Doyle's hard stare and his obvious displeasure. He wasn't going to offer any information on their video camera placement, building motion sensors, advance site preparation protocols or anything else without the Commander's clearance.
Stark and Savard sat in silence for a moment. Start considered any number of options, including her preference, which was to stick Savard with Mac in the control room. She was still smarting from the fact that she had been the object of an internal FBI review and had actually been considered a suspect in the shooting that almost killed her commander. She was also struggling with her own guilt over the fact that she had allowed Egret to unwittingly place herself in danger by eluding their surveillance. She needed to make amends, if to no one other than herself, and she wasn't going to miss her opportunity to do that. She didn't want any interference from the FBI.
"I'm not trying to take your job," Savard said, surprising Stark with her bluntness. "I'm just trying to do mine."
Stark blushed, wishing that she were better at hiding her feelings. She envied the Commander her ability to keep all of her feelings inside, something she had not yet learned to do. She regarded the other woman steadily, thinking that she didn't quite fit the standard FBI mold. She wore the requisite navy blue jacket and slacks, with a tailored pale blue shirt and the hint of a bulge over her left hip where her weapon was holstered. Cross draw, Stark thought absently. She was fit looking and projected an air of confidence, but Stark would've expected that as well. What she hadn't expected was the challenge in her intense blue eyes that was surprisingly without malice. She also couldn't help noticing that Savard was beautiful, beautiful in the way that cover models were beautiful, with elegant cheekbones and an exotic expression that suggested the Islands lingered somewhere not far in her background. Stark tried not to think about that as she answered, "My job is to safeguard the President's daughter. I'm not sure what your job is supposed to be."
"My job is to apprehend Lover Boy. Since Egret is what we have in common, I suggest we try to work together."
"I already have a partner," Stark said, but her resistance was wavering. It was hard not to respond to Renee Savard's compelling directness. "But there's room for a third," she finally relented, "as long as you don't interfere with me doing my job."
Renee Savard studied her opposite number. She envied Paula Stark. It was clear that Stark's formidable commander respected her abilities and awarded her with the appropriate responsibility. She wished very much that she could expect the same from Patrick Doyle, but she certainly didn't count on it. She had to admit, she also liked the way the dark haired, feisty young agent tilted her chin in a faintly aggressive posture as she staked out her territory. Under other circumstances, she might have considered her cute.
"That seems fair to me," Savard said, standing and extending her hand across the table. "Looking forward to working with you, Agent Stark."
"Is Egret in the aerie?" Cam asked the agent who was simultaneously watching a bank of six monitors displaying strategic points throughout the apartment building and running a real-time video of the previous twelve hours that had been captured by the cameras mounted at each corner of the external perimeter. He was able to view foot and vehicular traffic directly in front of the building for any time and from almost any direction he chose.
Without taking his eyes off the screens, he answered, "No ma'am. She went upstairs briefly and then directly into the park."
Cam glanced at the far upper-right monitor that showed a panoramic view of Gramercy Park, the block-wide private park across the street from Blair's apartment building. It was surrounded by towering pre-war buildings and completely enclosed with a high wrought-iron fence. She couldn't actually make visual contact with Blair, the foliage was too dense to permit that. Nevertheless, she looked for her.
"That's where I'll be," she finally said.
"Roger that," he said, making a note on his handheld personal unit about something he had seen on the video that he wanted to review from a different angle.
Cam was very much aware that Patrick Doyle was still on site, but she had absolutely no intention of being his tour guide. She had work to do, and her most immediate duty was to inform Blair that she could expect several new faces in her security detail. Unfortunately, that was the least difficult of the topics they needed to discuss.
She let herself into the park by unlocking one of the gates that permitted access to those with clearance and a key. The park was nearly small enough to see across. At the midpoint, in front of a small fountain, she could make out John Fielding. He was standing, statue-like, to all appearances staring vacantly into space. She knew, however, that he held Egret within his sight line and was in all likelihood turning at regular intervals to keep the entire square under careful watch. There was no way for a Secret Service agent to be unseen, and under some circumstances invisibility wasn't even desirable. The visible presence of a bodyguard was often enough to deter people from casual approach. On the other hand, Blair, like most in her position, understandably did not want every moment of her personal life witnessed. Because of that, the Secret Service agents were trained to walk a fine line between doing their job and actually impairing the lifestyle of those they guarded.
As Cam walked forward, she nodded briefly in his direction and he acknowledged her with an almost imperceptible motion of his head. She continued past him along a small gravel path flanked at discrete intervals by iron and wood benches to one of the most secluded and idyllic corners of the park. A riot of shrubs and flowers grew everywhere, a natural barrier offering privacy. Enough sunlight filtered through the overhead branches to outline Blair in a pale flickering glow.
Cam slowed as she approached, telling herself that she did not want to startle her. Actually, she wanted a few extra seconds just to observe her unaware. Blair was bent over a sketchpad, her legs drawn up under her on the bench. Her hair was loose, a tawny riot of curls reaching almost down to her shoulders. Cam knew how those tresses felt, flowing silken over her hands as she kissed her.
She was wearing a sleeveless shirt that exposed her arms, muscled from hours in the gym and tanned from the sun. She was striking in any lighting, remarkable in any pose, but never as much as when she was lost in her work. That was perhaps the only time, except after making love, when Cam had ever seen her at peace.
"Ms. Powell," Cam said quietly.
Blair lifted her hair away from her face with one hand and looked at the taller woman standing nearby. The sunlight was behind her, casting Cam's face in shadows. "Good afternoon, Commander."
"Am I disturbing you?"
Blair gestured to the bench beside her. "No."
Cam sat down, barely suppressing a sigh as she leaned back, warmed by Blair's presence as much as the afternoon sun.
"You wanted to speak to me?" Blair asked, knowing that she sounded stiff and formal, but unable to help it. It was so hard to be near her and pretend that there was nothing between them. It was even harder when she could see how weary Cam was. She was still angry with her - angry and hurt - but when she looked at her, she wanted to pull her down against her shoulder and stroke her. She pushed the image away with irritation. If Cam had needed that, needed her at all, she would never have let this happen. Besides, it wasn't what she wanted to happen either - this almost paralyzing ache that never seemed to lessen unless Cam was near. She had never wanted that, not with anyone. Ever since they had slept together, ever since she had allowed herself to hope, being near her had become something very close to constant pain. "More good news?" she asked again sarcastically.
"The FBI made an official appearance this morning," Cam began, watching the light play through the leaves of the trees above them. Blair was inches away, but she felt as if their skin touched along the length of her body. She knew it was only visceral memory, but the sensation was so acute that her blood was racing. She wondered how long it would be before she could be close to her and not respond. She feared that it would be a very long time.
"I take it you're not pleased," Blair said, wondering at Cam's odd stillness.
"That, Ms. Powell, is considered classified information. According to any number of sections in the manual, personal observations on internal matters should not be shared, especially with civilians," Cam said lightly, a half smile on her face. Her eyes, however, were wintry as she thought of the weeks that Blair had been a potential target and none of them had known.
"Well, we both know how dear the manual is to you," Blair rejoined sharply.
Cam didn't bother to protest. How could she? She'd chosen duty over Blair's wishes. She had no defense. And ordinarily she would never discuss matters of protocol with someone she guarded. But she and Blair had gone so far beyond the limits of acceptable professional behavior, it was ridiculous to stand on ceremony now. It was enough that she did not touch her. That was a hardship she had created herself and would learn to bear. She would not place Blair at a disadvantage because she had overstepped her bounds. "I thought that you should know."
"At least one of them will be working with our detail in direct contact with you. I expect they'll add their own car as well."
"That's not too subtle, is it?" Blair asked pointedly. "It's going to send a message that I give a damn what he says."
"It's going to send a message that you are well-protected and not a ready target," Cam answered immediately.
Blair looked away, across the park, wishing that she could be sitting there with nothing more on her mind than the sexy sound of Cam's deep voice, enjoying the flutter of desire that just being near her always produced. She sighed. "I guess it really doesn't matter. One more here or there won't change anything."
"They've been on surveillance for the last several months, and in truth, I don't mind taking advantage of their information-gathering capabilities. They've got access to much larger databases than we do, and at this point, I'll take everything I can get."
Blair sketched aimlessly as they talked, trying to absorb the words without letting them penetrate to her core. She couldn't live in terror every day. "Is this serious, do you think?"
It was a question she had avoided asking for months. Cam was the only one that she dared ask, because in spite of everything, Cam was the only one she trusted to see her frightened.
Cam watched Blair's hands move gracefully, with absolute certainty, over the surface of the paper, wishing she could touch her, just enough to comfort her. Her hands trembled she wanted to so much. The feeling was so strong, she pressed her palms flat against her thighs to hold them there. "I don't know," she answered, her voice low. "I have to assume that it is."
Blair nodded, not speaking. There was nothing she could do about any of it - the crazy lunatic sending her messages, the FBI dogging her steps, Cameron determined to accept the assignment her father directed her to take. She was uncomfortable feeling that helpless, especially when she had struggled her entire life for some semblance of independence. For the moment, however, she couldn't see any other course of action. "All right. I can live with it, if you can."
Cam laughed sharply. There was a tinge of irony in her voice as she responded, "We have something in common there, Ms. Powell. Neither of us has a choice."
Cam looked down at the drawing, surprised to see her own face appearing. She studied the image, taken aback by the fierce, reserved expression. She wondered if that was all that Blair saw of her. She knew the answer as Blair's talented hands sketched her eyes and captured the shadows in her soul.
"Blair," Cam said softly.
Blair's hand faltered on the paper at the gentle intimacy in Cam's tone. It was the subtle changes in Cameron Roberts that never failed to tear at her heart. In one moment she was professional, aloof, as impersonal as any agent who had ever guarded her. And then she would say Blair's name with all the feeling that Blair could ever hope to hear from another human being. It was everything she wanted, and everything she feared. She didn't raise her eyes, but continued drawing the sharp features and the wild eyes, unable to look at the woman, knowing if she did she would touch her. "What?" She queried quietly.
Cam took a deep breath, wishing she had did not have to ask. "I'd like you to reconsider the race on Sunday. I'd like you not to go."
Blair stiffened, the pencil finally stilling. "I have to go. I'm the keynote speaker."
"Would you consider just arriving for the speech, but not racing?"
Blair put her sketchpad aside and turned on the bench until she was fully facing Cam. For the first time, she looked directly into her face, directly into her eyes. "It's more than political, this event. This is personal."
Cam nodded, understanding all too well. She knew why. Sunday was the annual Race for the Cure, a huge fundraiser for the treatment of breast cancer. Blair's mother had died of the disease when Blair was nine years old. She understood what it was to lose a parent. "I'm asking you, recommending it strongly to you, that you do not run in the race."
Blair knew that Cam could not order her not to race. "Why are you asking me this?"
Cam hesitated before answering. It was her job not only to guard Blair physically, but also to give her some semblance of normality, as ironic as that appeared on the surface of things. She didn't want to worry her unnecessarily. That's what she was getting paid to do - the worrying. She hedged her answer.
"I'm not sure I can run 15 miles." She didn't intend to tell her that it was a security nightmare. That even coordinating with New York City police and the transit police, and putting agents physically with Blair along the race route, it was about as unsecured a position as Blair could be in. Under any circumstances it would have been difficult. Now, with the threat that Lover Boy posed, it was nearly impossible. She supposed that she could go to the director of the Secret Service and request that he contact the President's security chief - try an end run around Blair. But she new damn well that if anyone ordered Blair not to participate in anything, let alone something as important to her as this, they could expect her to do exactly the opposite. And probably with no cooperation whatsoever. She said nothing, waiting for Blair to digest the request.
"I need to do this," Blair stated calmly. "I've seen you run, Commander. You can handle the distance quite well. I'll be fine." She couldn't stop herself from adding, "And I'll enjoy your company."
Cam was silent a moment, considering the options. This was the reason that personal relationships were discouraged. She couldn't think clearly because she cared about how Blair felt. She was afraid that she might care more about Blair's feelings than about her safety, and that kind of involvement was undermining her position and her authority and worst of all, it was impairing her judgment. She cursed softly under her breath. "I hope to hell that Stark can make it, too, because we're both going to need to go with you."
"Thank you," Blair said softly. She knew that Cam had relented against her better judgment. She touched her hand briefly, a fleeting gesture of appreciation. "It will be all right," she said, wishing somehow that were true.
Cam knew that she should go. Blair had sought privacy and peace in a quiet corner of this tiny sanctuary, and Cam had brought danger and uncertainty into it. For the first time that she could recall, she resented her job.
"I'm sorry I had to bring that up," Cam said, surprising them both. "I should leave you to your work."
"You don't have to be sorry," Blair responded softly. "And you don't need to leave."
Before Cam could respond, her earphone crackled to life. She turned her head slightly away, listening a moment. The expression on her face became grim, but her voice was completely uninflected as she said softly into the tiny microphone clipped to the collar of her blazer, "Send him in then."
She turned to Blair and informed her, "It seems that we have company."
Blair looked past Cam across the tiny park as a large man hurried towards them. "This would be the FBI, I presume," she noted tightly, a look of faint repugnance on her face.
Cam laughed in spite of herself. "Very observant, Ms. Powell. Perhaps you should consider a future career in intelligence."
Blair smiled faintly, but there was no laughter in her eyes. "Believe me, Commander, by this time I can recognize every branch of our esteemed intelligence agencies by the cut of an agent's suit and the arrogance in their walk. At least the Secret Service has always been polite."
"Ms. Powell," the burly man said imperiously, looking down at the two women on the bench, but pointedly ignoring Cam. "I'm Special Agent in Charge Patrick Doyle, Federal Bureau of Investigation. I wanted to meet you in person since I'll be spearheading your security detail until such time as we have apprehended the UNSUB."
Blair saw Cam go rigid beside her, and she said very coolly, "Mister Doyle, my security is a matter for Commander Roberts. If you have something to relay to me in that regard, I suggest you do it through her. One daily briefing is all I can tolerate." She gathered her sketchpad and drawing pencils and stood abruptly, forcing Doyle back a step. She glanced at Cam, whose expression was most likely unreadable to Doyle, but she saw the hint of laughter in her eyes. She smiled softly at her and turned to go. "I'll leave you two to sort out your territory."
Patrick Doyle turned on his heel and watched the President's daughter walk away. A muscle stood out in his jaw as he ground his teeth. When he faced Cam again, his fury was tinged with contempt. "She doesn't know what's good for her," he said condescendingly. "I suppose you think you do?"
Cam stood, and when she did she was nearly eye-to-eye with him. "I don't pretend to know what's good for Ms. Powell, but I can assure you of one thing. I know precisely what's good for her security. I can also advise you that if you have any suggestions or recommendations regarding that matter, you bring them to me. That's the chain of command, and I suggest you follow it."
He moved forward a step, trying unsuccessfully to force her back. Their chests were almost touching. "Listen here, Roberts," he growled, his face livid. "You get in my way on this thing and there just might be a little leak to the media about what you like to do in your off-hours, and who you like to do it with."
"We've been down this road before, Doyle," Cam responded, her eyes never leaving his. "You're wasting your time."
"Your director and the Security Chief might not think so if your activities happen to involve the President's daughter."
She smiled at him, a thin smile, cold and hard as granite. "Doyle, you really are a fool if you think you can take on Blair Powell. She'll have you for lunch."
She stepped lightly around him and walked out of the park the way she had come.
She glanced across the street, thinking that Blair was probably already back in her apartment. She contemplated going after her and then stopped abruptly when she realized why she wanted to. She missed her already.
Nine stories up, Blair leaned against the window frame, staring down at Cameron Roberts. Her security chief was standing just outside the gates of the park, her hands in her pockets, one shoulder leaning against the stone pillar that marked the entrance to the square. Patrick Doyle stormed through the gate and passed her without a word.
She looks so tired, Blair thought to herself. She could only imagine how difficult it must be for Cam dealing with the FBI presence. She'd been around politics all her life, and she knew that interagency power struggles were vicious and self-interest paramount. Often agents lost sight of their objective in their eagerness to advance their own positions. She had no doubt that Patrick Doyle cared less for her safety than for his own desire to be the one to apprehend Lover Boy. She wasn't foolish enough to think that she really mattered to him, and she didn't care. She knew - more importantly, she felt - that to Cameron, she did.
She'd felt that caring the first time Cameron walked into her loft and made it clear that she would do her job, but that she'd try to make it tolerable for Blair. She'd seen it manifest in horrific detail the day Cam had stepped in front of her and almost died from the bullet meant for her. She didn't want to see that again. She didn't want Cam standing in front of her for any reason, but certainly not for a reason that could cost Cam her life.
Why couldn't you just have told him no? she wondered for the hundredth time. She knew the answer. Cameron hadn't accepted this assignment just because the President of the United States had requested her. She'd taken the assignment because that was what she did. That was who she was. Some part of Blair could respect that. Some part of her could even understand it. But knowing it and understanding it did not change what she felt. She didn't want or need Cam's protection. She resented that she needed it from anyone, but at least she had made some form of peace with that.
What she wanted from Cameron was the one thing that she had given up hoping for, or had simply stopped looking for, in another human being. Cam touched her in some deep place that others never imagined existed, and that's what she so desperately needed. Cam didn't try to tell her to accept her circumstances or to be grateful for her privilege, as so many others before her had. She was equally oblivious to Blair's status, a welcome respite from the solicitous attentions of so many. Most importantly, Cam understood her anger and forgave her fury.
She watched Cam walk around the corner toward her own apartment building, and after a moment, she turned back to her empty loft. Seeing Cam, being as close to her as they had been just moments before, had left her restless and edgy with the low throb of desire. It always seemed to happen when they were anywhere near each other. She didn't want to feel it, and she didn't want to think about it. Her gaze fell on a large oil canvas, and she studied it critically from across the room. She didn't consider the details at first, but rather the gestalt, the sense of it. She felt it, rather than saw it. Slowly, after a minute or two, she focused her attention on the elements of the painting - on the colors and contrast and movement of the eye over the images. By the time she advanced from the window to stand in front of her work in progress, her mind was clear and briefly, her heart was free.
Cam decided it was much safer to run - safer than seeing Blair again so soon. It had been the same since the first time she'd met with her, this rebellion of her body in the face of good sense. She was aware of it now, a simmering tension that ran along the tendons and the muscles and the nerves in her legs and twisted inside like a starving beast. She knew what it was; she'd felt it for months before she had finally relented. Being with Blair hadn't blunted the urgency, touching her hadn't lessened the wanting, making love with her had not muted the desire. She could feel Blair's skin hot under her hands and the hard beat of her under her lips. She could taste her still.
There were ways to deal with the body's demands - safe, simple, unencumbered ways. Pleasant, mutually satisfying, emotionally secure ways. She was reminded of Claire's note, left for her to find after their last night together.
If ever you need - anything, call me. C.
Cam tossed her jacket on the bed, shrugged out of her shoulder harness and began unbuttoning her shirt. Yeah, right, she muttered, stripping down to her briefs and pulling shorts and t-shirt from a drawer. Simple.
She wasn't certain any longer that Claire's admittedly talented ministrations could assuage the hunger. Still, physical desire - that she could deal with, one way or the other. It was more than just the wanting, and that was the problem. It was the aching in her heart that tormented her. Blair didn't just arouse her, she awakened her. Every emotion she had so carefully stilled came roaring back to life when she thought of her. Blair's ferocious will stirred her even as Blair's tenderness, so invisible to others, comforted her. Blair made her nearly mad with frustration and soothed her with the barest of touches. Blair devastated her with a smile.
She hit the pavement running, desperate to stop thinking. She just needed a few weeks to assess the seriousness of the threat to Blair. Once she had access to all the available intelligence, she could turn over more of the day-to-day security to Mac. Maybe then she and Blair could talk, maybe then they could - What? What? Carry on an affair under Doyle's nose? Risk Blair's privacy and the President's public image with a backroom love affair that the media would make tabloid headlines with? Perfect.
She pounded steadily along the East River, although the scenery barely registered. She'd hurt her. Knowing she'd hurt her, seeing it in her eyes, was harder than anything she'd ever had to bear. Even harder than when Janet had died, because then, and for months after, she'd just been numb.
Mercifully numb. Frozen with the senselessness, the stupidity, the guilt. She should have known about the raid that morning. It was her job to know those things; it was her responsibility to know those things.
But she had not been part of the plan. Despite the fact that she and her team had been investigating the same splinter faction of cocaine dealers as the other agencies, the DEA had orchestrated the entire scenario that morning. The ATF and the Secret Service had only been informed at the last minute of the impending maneuver. By some all too common breakdown in the local-federal law enforcement communication lines, no one had realized until too late that the DC Metropolitan police had an undercover narcotics agent inside the warehouse where the exchange of very authentic counterfeit money for a huge cache of drugs was to take place. Janet had already been on site when the assault began. The sting operation had gone bad almost from the beginning. A lookout no one anticipated had seen the armored cars approaching and radioed the Colombians in the building where the buy was going down. The men inside had been heavily armed and prepared to defend themselves. Shots had begun as soon as the battering rams cracked the wide double doors. Janet had been directly in the line of fire. Cam had gone inside right behind the first wave of commandos. The air had been heavy with the smell of cordite and thick with the sound of screaming. Orders, curses, cries of agony. Janet had taken one of the first bullets and was down before Cam shouldered her way past the splintered remains of the reinforced doors. By the time she reached her, Janet was almost gone. Cam would never be certain how to interpret the look in her eyes those last few seconds. She couldn't help thinking that it was an accusation.
If it had been, she deserved it.
She ran into the park, sweat pouring from her face, oblivious to the cramps beginning in her thighs or the faint ache behind her eyes. She should have known. She should have protected her.
At 0700 Sunday morning, Cam waited in the lobby of Blair's apartment building along with Stark and Savard. She had sent Mac on ahead to supervise the last minute details in Prospect Park and to advise the commanders of the municipal security teams that she wanted to meet with them personally before the start of the race. The New York City Transit Police would have squadrons of officers in the subway system, the New York Police Department would provide security along the race route, and the mayor's detail would be on the speaker's platform where he, Blair, and others would speak at the completion of the race. It was standard operating procedure for the Secret Service to coordinate all the security forces whenever any member of the First Family or the Vice President's family was making a public appearance. She was running through the details in her mind when the elevator door opened and Blair walked out.
Blair was dressed for the run almost identically to Cam - a light nylon windbreaker over a T-shirt, running shorts and shoes. She had caught her hair back at the base of her neck as she usually did for public outings, substituting a length of dark ribbon for the customary gold clasp. Her light make-up was superfluous on a face made for the camera. Even her attitude was different - she walked quickly, purposefully, with barely a glance at her surroundings. She too had a job to accomplish, one she had been performing in her mother's absence for over fifteen years. She was the reigning queen of her father's dynasty and often accompanied him to State affairs or represented him when the social circumstances required it. Today she was appearing as the President's daughter, and although not a role that was always comfortable for her, it was one she knew well.
She hesitated briefly when she saw Cam. They smiled at each other, forgetting for a moment that there was anyone else in the room. It was one of those automatic responses that neither of them could prevent, that brief surge of pleasurable recognition that was beyond volition or better judgment.
In an instant, their smiles disappeared and they greeted one another formally.
"Good morning, Ms. Powell," Cam said as she turned and began walking beside her, Stark and Savard falling in on either side.
Blair nodded quickly and continued toward the front door without breaking stride again. Per routine, Stark held the door open and Cam went through just slightly ahead and to the right of Blair. Cam hesitated fleetingly at the sidewalk as she looked up and down the street and then across the park, just as she had the day the shot was fired. It was so subtle that no one except another agent would have noticed. No one else except Blair.
Blair was always acutely aware of the way Cam positioned herself between Blair and any potential threat, even when they just walked down the sidewalk together. In this particular location, she would never lose that instant of stomach-churning fear.
Cam sensed Blair stiffen beside her and murmured in a voice too low for anyone else to hear, "It's just procedure. Try to ignore it."
"I'd like to be able to," Blair said just as softly as they crossed the sidewalk toward the black limousine. It would be so much simpler if she could. "But I can't."
Cam stood by the door as Blair slid into the back seat, then followed her in while Stark and Savard proceeded to the car idling just in front of theirs.
As they pulled away, Blair said coolly, "I'll be meeting some people when we get there."
Cam regarded her carefully, slightly surprised that she was volunteering information, while at the same time mildly annoyed that she hadn't told them sooner. Blair wasn't required to tell them everything, of course, but it was always helpful to have as much advance data as possible. However, she was grateful for this small improvement in communication. "Will they be joining you for the run?" Cam asked.
Blair nodded, watching out the tinted windows of the limousine as the city slid by. "Yes. I've invited Diane and another friend."
Cam didn't ask for the details. She wondered, however, if she would be spending another day watching the admittedly attractive Dr. Coleman pursue Blair.
You put yourself in this position, and you knew what it would mean, she reminded herself. But she couldn't help but think that she hadn't come close to imagining how difficult it would be. She also hadn't expected it to be so complicated for the two of them to talk. The lack of privacy didn't help, but it was more than that. She had to admit that part of it was pride, and some of it was pain, and a great deal of it was a lifetime of defenses, on both sides, standing between them now.
Cam tried to put her personal feelings aside until the day's work was done. "Savard, Stark, and I will be with you along the route."
Blair turned her attention from the window to study Cam. It was a face she never seemed to tire of looking at. Seeing her made something inside her pulse, swift and sharp and hot -- it was part desire and part longing and, so unexpectedly, part tenderness. It defied explanation, but in spite of everything, she welcomed the sensation. "Special Agent Savard is quite the beauty," Blair observed dryly.
Cam raised an eyebrow but decided comment was probably not required. Renee Savard was indeed an attractive woman, now that she considered it. She hadn't thought about it earlier, in fact, she hadn't paid much attention to her other than to consider what to do with her. Savard was an agent under her command by circumstance, but under her command nonetheless, and that was the only way she thought of her. When she noted Savard's appearance at all, it was merely to reflect that despite her photographic beauty, almost anyone paled when compared to Blair. Blair's beauty was fired by her passion and her temper and her absolute unwillingness to yield. She was beautiful in a way so primal that being near her made Cam's skin burn.
"What?" Blair asked quietly.
Cam blinked, uncharacteristically startled. "I'm sorry?"
"You were smiling," Blair said, a slight edge to her voice. "Thinking of Savard, were you?"
"No. Actually," Cam said before she could stop herself, "I was thinking of you."
Across the narrow expanse of the limousine where they sat facing one another on opposite seats, their legs nearly touching, Blair's blue eyes darkened to indigo. "You should try doing that more often," she said, her tone throaty with invitation.
Cam met her gaze, captivated by the heat in her eyes. For a moment forgetting everything else, she said, her voice husky, "No, Ms. Powell, I shouldn't. It's distracting."
"Well, Commander," Blair said very slowly, very quietly, staring at the pulse that beat rapidly in Cam's neck, "I like you when you're distracted. In fact, I like you that way very much."
"You're distracting me," Cam complained playfully as she tried to read the newspaper.
"I like you when you're distracted," Blair responded, running her hand over the soft cotton fabric of the sweatpants Cam wore. "In fact, I like distracting you."
They were lying together on the couch in the late afternoon sun in Diane's apartment. They had finally managed to shower and dress, which for the first eighteen hours they had been together they hadn't been able to accomplish. Every time they made it into the shower one or the other of them would start something and they'd end up back in bed. Starvation finally drove them to get up. Cam eventually made a trip to a nearby deli for sandwiches and newspapers and something to drink.
"What do you imagine they think I'm doing up here?" Blair mused, her fingers tracing the seam along the inside of Cam's thigh.
Cam sighed, most of her attention focused on the light pressure of Blair's fingers moving rhythmically up and down the same fine line, over and over again, creeping higher up the inside of her leg each time. She settled back against the cushions, her muscles twitching faintly at Blair's touch. "They're not supposed to think anything about it at all." Her voice caught softly as Blair stroked closer to the heat between her legs.
"Maybe they're not supposed to, but they are human, aren't they," Blair continued. She lifted the edge of Cam's shirt and circled her hand over Cam's stomach, absently drawing one finger up and down the center of Cam's body. "I've come so many times in the last twenty-four hours I didn't think anything could excite me," she said in wonder. "But, God, you do." She pressed her palm swiftly to the triangle between Cam's thighs, making her jump, then just as quickly moved it back to Cam's stomach. "So, you were saying about discretion?"
Cam's voice was low, heavy with the urgency of mounting desire as she answered," Their jobs depend upon it. But it's more than that..." She was aware of the fact that her breath was coming a little faster and that her sentences were a bit choppy. She knew she was wet again and hardening with the rush of blood and need. She took a breath and added, "Believe it or not, we understand that what we do is an infringement. The very least we can do is not speculate upon what we observe."
She looked down, watching Blair's fingers move under her T-shirt. She wondered at the ease with which Blair was able to ignite every nerve ending with a caress. She had absolutely nothing to say about it. It was as if her body succumbed to Blair's touch as a tree yielded to the wind, bending to her will. "Blair," she warned huskily, wondering if Blair had any idea what she was doing to her.
"You have the most amazing body," Blair observed casually, massaging her palm over Cam's rib cage, brushing fleetingly over her chest, smiling as Cam's nipples stiffened rapidly. Cam groaned and reached for her, and just as quickly, Blair leaned away.
"I think you should just read the newspaper and ignore me," Blair said with a perfectly serious expression.
Cam's eyes widened slightly, her hands rubbing lightly up and down Blair's arms. Her skin felt hot. "I don't think I could concentrate."
"Try," Blair suggested with a hint of command in her voice. "In fact, why don't you read the headlines out loud? A synopsis of today's current events would be good. Make yourself useful."
"Blair," Cam said, ominously now. "I've been trained to resist torture."
Blair burst out laughing and loosened the ties on Cam's sweatpants, slipping to the floor to kneel between Cam's legs. "Oh really? Well then, Commander, let's put that training to the test. Go ahead - read."
Cam reached for the New York Times and held the folded newspaper in her right hand. The pages fluttered as her fingers trembled. "Uh - let's see. Uh -dot com stocks rose finally --" She gasped when Blair pulled at the skin of her lower abdomen with her teeth. "God-"
"I'm listening," Blair murmured, eyes nearly closed. She licked the red spot she had just bitten and pushed the cotton fabric farther down Cam's thighs. She pressed her palms to the inside of Cam's legs, bringing her thumbs very close to the visibly swollen clitoris. Cam's hips arched and she groaned again.
"Not until I hear the sports scores," Blair whispered, leaning forward and kissing the soft skin at the top of Cam's thigh. "How about them Yankees?"
"Blair," Cam gasped, tossing the paper aside. "I can't -- read. I can't talk - I can barely breathe."
Blair brushed her thumb lightly over the tip of her clitoris.
Cam pushed back against the couch, her neck arched, her hands fisted by her sides. "I'm ready -- do that again - to divulge -- ah, yes - right there - State secrets." She found Blair's face with one hand, moved her fingers into her hair, pulled her closer. "Suck me," she gasped, her voice cracking with need.
Blair held off another second, but not without effort. She was shaking. "God," she whispered, "I want to taste you."
When Blair finally circled her with her lips, Cam jerked, her fingers convulsing in Blair's hair. She clamped her jaws down on a moan and tried to think of anything except the waves of pleasure coursing down her legs, up her spine, through her guts. She wanted it never to end. She pushed against Blair's mouth, dimly aware that she might bruise her, trying not to press too hard. But she couldn't stop, couldn't get enough air, couldn't hold it back. "Blair-" she cried, lifting off the couch as her legs stiffened, pounded by the fury of the orgasm whipping through her.
Before Cam regained her bearings, Blair was in her arms, straddling her thigh, rocking hard on her leg, her face pressed to Cam's neck.
"You make me burn," Blair moaned, clutching Cam as she climbed frantically to her peak. "You make me -ooh-"
Her words were lost in a strangled cry and all Cam could do was hold onto her, embracing her securely while she took her pleasure.
The limousine pulled to a stop on the edge of the green in Prospect Park. Cam shuddered faintly, her dark eyes liquid with unspoken emotion. She struggled to keep her voice steady as she said, "I'm not interested in being distracted."
"That's your problem, Commander," Blair said softly, seeing the arousal Cam couldn't successfully hide. "Not mine."
As she slid across the seat toward the door, she ran her hand down the length of Cam's thigh. She smiled to herself as Cam gasped sharply. "I told you once your body never lies."
Prospect Park, the starting point for the race, was slightly more than half the size of Manhattan's eight hundred acre Central Park, but it nevertheless housed a wildlife center, a music pagoda, a lake, and many other opportunities for city dwellers to escape the urban stresses for a few hours. The area of Brooklyn around the park was a study in contrasts. The west side was bordered by Park Slope, a conclave of historic brownstones housing the wealthy and privileged. The eastern extent of the sprawling park abutted Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, areas that in recent years had become dangerous territory for tourists and inhabitants alike. At seven AM on a Sunday morning, there were usually a few early morning enthusiasts enjoying the opportunity to run or rollerblade in relative solitude. Such was not the case today.
Long Meadow, an open, rolling ninety acre section nearly a mile in length was already bustling with people. The Race for the Cure drew greater numbers of supporters than almost any similar event, because the disease itself affected so many. It was a media event as much as anything else, especially with Blair as the keynote speaker, and photographers and news vans were already present in abundant numbers.
Cam stood next to Blair by the side of the car, scanning the hundreds of participants gathering for the start of the run. "It's going to be very crowded along the entire route, especially when we get into Central Park. I'd appreciate it if you'd not lose us."
Blair met Cam's eyes, and for the first time in a long time, she couldn't read the expression in them. Even though they had been physically separated since Cam's return, she had at least had the comfort of seeing what was behind her professional façade when she looked into her dark eyes. This new barrier stung. "You're very good at your job, Commander. I'm sure you'll manage somehow."
Blair abruptly turned and walked off toward the area where the race organizers had set up information booths. Stark and Savard were approaching from the second vehicle, and Cam signaled the two women to accompany Blair while she radioed Mac for his position.
"Do you have the commanders of the other teams there?" she asked without preamble, watching Blair disappear into the crowd of men and women clustered around the long registration tables. It bothered her that Blair was out of her visual range, and it occurred to her that it might be less a security issue than the fact that she couldn't see who she was with. Terrific.
"I'll be right there," she snapped into her mike. Her lapse in concentration on the ride over had left her unsettled. So did the simmering remnants of desire. She ignored the physical annoyance with effort and checked Blair's position again.
Across the wide field, Blair stood talking to a number of people, Diane Bleeker among them. Cam resisted the urge to scan the faces nearby for the very handsome Doctor Coleman. She assured herself that Stark and Savard were well positioned, and walked over to join Mac and the other security chiefs.
It was hot and sunny and, surprisingly for August, without the heavy humidity that often blanketed the city in late summer. After greeting the appropriate people and allowing the media their few minutes of photo-ops, Blair found a quiet corner in the shade to stretch, preparing for the run. As she leaned over, legs braced, stretching her hamstrings, Diane's familiar voice remarked from beside her, "I see you've brought along a new addition. A very nice one, too."
Blair shifted to look up at Diane. She didn't have to ask whom she meant. She had seen her friend's face light up with an appreciative and frankly appraising expression when Savard had come into view a few minutes before. "That would be the FBI's contribution to my team."
Diane reclined on the grass next to Blair and began to lean forward, touching her toes effortlessly. "What's going on?" she asked casually, moving smoothly into a yoga pose.
Blair sat beside her, reaching for one ankle and crossing it over the opposite knee, rotating her torso as she said, "Nothing."
"Blair, friend - just how dumb do the you think I am?" Diane asked calmly, breathing deeply in the proscribed ujjay manner. "First Roberts makes a surprise appearance, and now you've got the FBI following you around. That means something."
Blair turned over and pushed off ten fast fingertip push-ups in perfect form. Returning to the sitting position, she said, "Just routine." Somehow talking about it made it much too real. She didn't want this in her life. Except for her first tentative discussions with her friend AJ at the Bureau, she hadn't told any of her acquaintances. She had intentionally avoided briefings with the FBI. The only thing she wanted to know from them was that they had caught him.
Diane folded both legs into a full lotus position and slipped one arm behind her back, twisting slowly in the opposite direction. "Believe it or not, I can keep a secret if I need to. Besides, my feelings will be hurt if I'm the last to find out and I miss all the fun."
Blair snorted in disgust. "Believe me, if you think this is a treat, you can take my place any day."
She rose quickly and began to alternately lift each leg to her chest in rapid succession. She looked across the gathering crowd and easily picked out Cam where she stood talking with several officious-looking individuals. There was nothing flashy or showy about her, but she stood out from the others. The air around her seemed charged. It was amazing - and frightening.
Diane studied Blair's face as she followed her gaze. "She's gotten to you, hasn't she?" Diane said softly.
"Oh, yeah," Blair said without thinking. She looked away, shrugging. "She's back because my father wanted her here. I've been getting a little more fan mail than usual, and you know how seriously these people take those things. It's nothing, really."
Diane nodded, knowing there was more but willing to wait for the details. Eventually, she'd get the rest out of her. She rose to stand beside her, waving to a familiar figure drawing near. "Marcy's been asking about you."
Blair looked at her, an eyebrow raised in question. "Is that so?"
"Yes," Diane said, grabbing them each a water bottle from a nearby table. "She wants to know how available you might be."
"Then she should ask me herself," Blair said impatiently. "For God's sake, we're all adults."
"I think she wants to avoid being shot down. Your signals were a little mixed last weekend at my place," Diane pointed out dryly.
Seeing Marcy's friendly smile, Blair was a little embarrassed to realize she hadn't given the events at Diane's gathering any thought. She had been too rattled the last week by Cam's abrupt reappearance and the emotional chaos that followed to give anything, or anyone, else much thought. It hadn't occurred to her that Marcy Coleman might have other ideas, but, recalling what had happened, she supposed it should have.
It had all started after Cam left the party.
Blair watched Cam move through the crowd, murmur something briefly to Ellen Grant, and then walk out the door. She did not look back to where Blair still stood in the shadows on the balcony.
After a moment of foolishly hoping that her security chief might suddenly reappear, Blair rejoined the group in Diane's living room. Lights were turned down low, and couples were dancing. A daring few in secluded corners were carrying on more intimate exchanges.
Dr. Marcy Coleman, a willowy blond in her mid-thirties approached, a smile on her face and a question in her eyes. "I thought you might have left."
"No," Blair said, her mind still on the image of Cam standing outside, alone in the dark, the night wind ruffling her dark hair. Once she had been challenged by Cam's solitude; now she was wounded by it. The change was not a welcome one, and she brushed the reflection from her mind.
"Another dance?" Marcy's asked, lightly taking Blair's hand in hers.
Sure," Blair answered absently. At least it would distract her from the way her body still vibrated from the brief touch of Cam's fingers. So she thought.
She stepped into Marcy's arms, rested her cheek lightly against the other woman's shoulder, and closed her eyes. The music was something slow and sultry -- perfect music to get lost in. She wanted to be lost for a while. Not to think, not to struggle, not to mourn. To want nothing was to never be disappointed.
Marcy's body was sleek and sensuous, and she moved against Blair with practiced intimacy. It had been like this countless times before, with other bodies, other faces. Brief diversions, momentary escape. The act of pleasuring was satisfying in itself, but Blair was careful always to remain in control. Safe, simple, emotionally unencumbered. No promises - just pleasant, mutually satisfying biological proceedings.
Marcy pulled her a little closer, rotating her hips slowly, insistently, against her own - a subtle shift of pressure that she almost didn't notice at first. And then something unexpected happened. Without realizing it, without consciously willing it, she was becoming aroused. A year ago, even six months ago, she would never have noticed the fire starting. And even if she had, she would have been able to ignore it. The excitement would have settled in the back of her mind like a pleasant afterthought, untended and unanswered. Now her nerve endings were raw and acutely sensitive.
She was afraid she knew why. Since Cam, something had changed. Something that she had been able to contain for many years had been unleashed. The practiced disconnection she had so carefully constructed between her emotions and her physical self had begun to dissolve with the first touch of Cam's hands.
She knew her breathing had increased, and she felt Marcy's heart beating rapidly against her own. When Marcy cupped her breast as she had done briefly once before that evening, she felt her nipple stiffen against Marcy's hand. She bit her lip to keep back a moan and tried to concentrate on something other than the liquid heat surging between her legs.
Marcy lowered her head, her lips brushing the outer edge of Blair's ear. "You are a great dancer," she said, her voice throaty and slightly breathless. As she spoke, she rubbed her palm very lightly over Blair's nipple.
Blair gasped as a ripple of excitement flickered through her, running down her spine and coiling in her stomach. It was so unusual that it took her completely by surprise, and before she was aware of it, she had parted her legs and pressed harder against Marcy's thigh. The pressure against her swelling clitoris was exquisite and for a moment, she couldn't think of anything at all.
"I'd like very much to be alone with you right now," Marcy continued, deftly directing them closer to the hallway that led back to the guest room in Diane's apartment. "I want to touch you so much it's driving me crazy."
Blair flashed on the last time she had been in that room, and almost instantly, Cam's face, intense and consuming, filled her mind. For a moment, it was Cam's hand on her breast, and Cam's leg between her thighs, and a spasm shuddered through her as her arousal escalated. She stumbled slightly, trembling.
Marcy's arms closed around her. "I don't usually do this sort of thing in other people's houses," she said urgently, "but if I don't do something soon, I'm in danger of exploding."
By now they were in the hallway, alone, and Marcy had maneuvered her up against the wall. She had both hands under Blair's sweater, cupping her breasts, squeezing them as she worked Blair's nipples between her fingers.
Blair pressed her palms flat against the wall, her head tipped back, her eyes closed, struggling to stay upright, verging on orgasm. She wasn't thinking of the woman who touched her now, but of the woman who had done so much more than just touch her body.
"Blair," Marcy whispered.
"Marcy," Blair groaned, forcing her eyes open, backing away from the edge through sheer willpower. "We -- should -- stop."
Marcy's lips were on Blair's neck, biting her lightly as she pressed harder against her, one hand pushing under the waistband of Blair's pants. "Oh god, I don't want to."
She moved her hand to the triangle between Blair's thighs and squeezed rhythmically. "God, I know how close you are. I can feel it."
Blair pulled away as much as she could, struggling to contain the surging pressure building between her legs, knowing that in a second, she would lose the fight. Dimly she wondered why it mattered, and she did not want to know the answer. "Stop now, please."
Marcy lifted her hands to Blair's waist, holding her but not pushing her any further. She shuddered against Blair, gasping. "I'm sorry. I don't know what happened."
Blair laughed shakily. "Neither do I, but you don't need to apologize."
Marcy leaned back, her eyes still molten with desire, and smiled a little tremulously. "I don't think anyone has ever done that to me before."
Blair laughed, a little stronger this time. "You mean teased you quite so unmercifully? Maybe I should apologize."
Marcy shook her head vehemently, running one finger along the edge of Blair's jaw. "Oh no, don't even think of it. What I meant was, no one has ever made me so hot so fast. No one ever made me lose my mind like that."
Blair stepped sideways enough to put space between them. "I didn't mean to do that. It took me a little by surprise too."
Marcy brushed her shoulder length blond hair back with a still trembling hand. "I think we should go back into the other room. I seem to be dangerous out here."
Blair took her hand in a friendly but not intimate gesture, and laughed. "A very good idea, Dr. Coleman."
"I'd like that to happen again," Marcy said just before they rejoined the others. "Somewhere, some time, when we won't have to stop."
Blair did not look back, and she did not answer.
Blair watched Marcy approach and shrugged again. "I don't think I sent her any kind of message at all. Nothing happened."
"That's not the way she tells it," Diane said off-handedly. "To hear her, you are the answer to a woman's dreams. She appears to be in danger of spontaneous combustion just from being in the same room as you."
"I can't help that," Blair said in irritation. "I can't control what other people fantasize."
Diane nodded, following Blair through the crowd toward the start line. "I absolutely agree, Blair," Diane responded, her tone uncharacteristically serious. "I like her, though. I like you, too."
Blair looked at her directly, a challenge in her eyes. "You have a point here?"
"I thought I did," Diane said. "God knows, I'm the last one to give advice. Just be careful with her. Especially if you know there's no chance."
Blair looked back, and just beyond Marcy, saw Cam. The contrast was striking - one blond, the other dark, sunlight and midnight. Her heart hammering, she said, "I'm not sure of anything anymore."
Stark glanced over at Savard and grimaced. She hoped her lithe companion, running effortlessly beside her, could not see her struggling to catch her breath.
Running - I hate running. Stupid form of exercise. Terrible for your feet. Murder on your knees. Give me a bike, or better yet - rollerblades.
Savard cast her a sideways look and grinned, a surprisingly charming grin, then called, "Isn't this great?"
"Oh yeah, fabulous! Love it," Stark replied, hoping that she sounded appropriately excited. No way was she going to let the FBI agent think she couldn't keep up. She'd run on bare feet first. Just to prove it, she picked up her pace a little bit.
"Could be worse duty," Savard commented. Or worse company.
She was enjoying her posting with the Secret Service more than she had imagined. She missed the prevailing sense of urgency that permeated everything the FBI seemed to do, even if it was just a routine wire tap, but she couldn't deny that Roberts and her team ran a tight, organized operation. And she also had to admit that Paula Stark was an interesting combination of straight-arrow dedication and startling naiveté. She couldn't help but wonder if her refreshingly unsophisticated counterpart really had no clue as to how attractive she was or the fact that other people might think so. Savard reminded herself to stop watching Stark's butt and keep her eyes on the main target, who, come to think of it, had a very nice butt herself.
At that moment, Stark was doing the same thing, but without quite the same appreciation. The Commander and Egret were a few feet ahead of her and neither of them looked like they had even broken a sweat. In between ignoring the pain in her calves and attempting to look consumed with zeal for this madness, her primary responsibility for the day was crowd surveillance. Another nearly impossible chore, but a far more achievable goal than pretending enthusiasm for the next god knew how many miles.
The entire team had been provided with photos of the people expected to be in Blair's immediate vicinity during the run - primarily the race organizers, representatives of various cancer organizations, and political dignitaries from the city, state and national level. When she occasionally spotted someone she did not recognize, she radioed a verbal description to Mac in the communications van that was following behind the mass of runners, and more often than not, he made an immediate identification. If there was any question or concern, she could beam him an image from her handheld personal unit. He and several other agents conscripted from the local office for this particular event had been on site since daybreak, quietly photographing individuals as they arrived in the park. Then they ran all unknowns through computer links to the DMV, Armed Forces directory and the State Police files. She didn't know for sure, but she assumed that the FBI were doing the same thing from their own van as well. It would have been more efficient to combine their search capabilities, but the FBI hadn't offered access to their data banks. So much for interagency cooperation.
Not all of this was routine. The fact that Egret was now considered a high-risk subject dictated the extra precautions. Stark shifted the weight of her pistol in the quick release fanny pack she wore and said a small prayer of thanks as they crossed over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. She looked ahead, never so grateful in her life to see the Bowery.
Cam kept pace to Blair's right and just a half step behind her, a vantage point from which she could see anyone approaching from the right, left or rear. What she was watching now, however, was Marcy Coleman lean close to say something to Blair, her hand resting casually in the small of Blair's back. It might have been a friendly gesture, but Cam didn't think so. Not from the way the blond doctor had been looking at Blair for the last few miles.
Cam had seen Blair with other women before. Hell, she'd seen her have sex with other women. It had been different then. She hadn't particularly enjoyed watching Blair have casual sex with strangers, the biggest reason being that she had always thought Blair exceptional. She couldn't help thinking that Blair deserved something more than anonymous couplings. But it hadn't been her business then, and she had been able to put it out of her mind enough to work around it. The problem now was that she carried the imprint of Blair's skin burned into her nerve endings. She had surrendered to her and taken her and she knew the wonder of holding her when she was completely without her usual defenses. Now it was intolerable to see another woman touch her.
She looked away, scanning the nearby faces, forcing herself to review yet again the details of the rest of the day. She settled back into a comfortable rhythm, mentally and physically, as she took refuge in her responsibilities. They were approaching Fifth Avenue now, and before too long they would enter the south end of Central Park. Once there, security would be at its most difficult, and Blair would be at greatest risk. The park was always filled with people - runners, bladers, people pushing strollers, and tourists of all size and description. Students picnicked on the grass and lovers trysted amongst the outcroppings of rocks. The race ended in Sheep Meadow, a huge open field where a stage had been erected and equipped with sound and video for the closing activities. Blair, the Mayor, members of the American Cancer Society, and a few celebrities would be speaking from there.
It was an impossible area to isolate and contain. Blair would be exposed on the podium the entire time, particularly so when she gave the keynote address. The anticipated crowd would number in the thousands. The New York State Police would be providing the NYPD with additional troops for crowd control. That would leave the Mayor's security detail to concentrate on the area directly around the speaker's stands. Cam had met the Mayor's security chief and she was good. That was a plus. She intended to make full use of all of them.
Her mental planning was interrupted as Blair dropped back to run next to her.
"Are you enjoying yourself, Commander?" Blair asked. She was actually surprised to find that she was. She loved the exercise, but the event itself took a toll on her emotionally. It reminded her, even after all these years, of the horrible year when she was nine and everything in her life seemed to change overnight. She focused on Cam's face and let the memory slip away. "Beats sitting in front of the video monitors, wouldn't you say?"
"It's a beautiful day," Cam agreed, smiling when she looked at her because she couldn't help it. There was a faint sheen of sweat on Blair's face, and her T-shirt was damp between her shoulder blades. She looked healthy and strong and altogether beautiful. "Can't complain about a chance to spend a day like this outside."
"Un huh," Blair acknowledged with a slow smile, thinking that Cameron Roberts had to be the most naturally graceful, physically striking woman she had ever seen. And at the moment, there were shadows in her deep gray eyes. "Then why do I get the impression you'd rather be elsewhere?"
"I'd rather you be elsewhere," Cam responded immediately.
Blair shook her head, frowning slightly, but her eyes were dancing. "You are nothing, Commander Roberts, if not doggedly persistent."
Cam's eyes became even more serious as she answered, "I assume you want me to tell you the truth, Ms. Powell. Especially when it affects you."
Blair's chin came up and her voice was chilly. "I do, Commander. I just wish you'd tell me before you decide on something. Especially when it affects me."
Cam looked ahead, checking their position. Nothing out of the ordinary. Then, for a moment, she looked nowhere but at Blair. "I know. I'm sorry."
"Yes," Blair said dryly, taking no comfort from that admission. "You said that before."
"I'll need to review a few things with you once we arrive at the stage," Cam said steadily. She needed to keep them both focused on what was important for the moment. Later, later somehow, they would talk.
"I'll try to spare a minute or two," Blair answered.
Then she picked up her speed and rejoined Diane and Marcy Coleman.
The area around the viewing stands was controlled chaos, just as Cam had expected. Sound and video technicians were crawling over the surface of the stage, running last-minute cables and adjusting microphones. The Mayor was taking every occasion for photo ops, and there were more press people jockeying for a comment than Cam would have liked. All of the reporters were easily identifiable by their badges, but it was a simple matter to counterfeit those things.
"Let's go up the back way to the stage," Cam suggested as she and Blair approached. "There are too many people in front."
"I at least need to make an appearance here first," Blair said matter-of-factly. At Cam's frown, she added gently, "I am identified with this event. The American people know my life story, and the story of my mother's death. I'm here because I'm identified with this disease, and I need to be seen. It's expected."
"You'll be seen by millions of television viewers in about twenty minutes," Cam pointed out as she took Blair's arm lightly and started to move around to the side of the high temporary stage. "That will have to do."
"Cam," Blair said quietly.
Cam stopped in her tracks at the sound of her name spoken as only Blair could say it.
Blair touched Cam's arm briefly, continuing softly, "He doesn't want to hurt me. If he did, he wouldn't be sending me the messages he's been sending."
Cameron looked over the faces in the immediate vicinity, imprinting each on her mind. She saw Stark and Savard already posted at opposite corners of the stage and Mac in conversation with the Mayor's security chief. She was satisfied that all was as it should be.
Then she looked at Blair, and there were no barriers in her eyes this time. No professional distance, no orders or rules or protocol between them. "I don't know what he's going to do. I don't know when he's going to do it. I don't know nearly enough." She struggled not to touch her, and for the barest of instants, she brushed her fingertips over Blair's hand. "Blair, I just want you safe."
"Yes, I know," Blair responded, no anger or resentment in her voice. She could not argue with the honest caring in Cam's face. It wasn't how she wanted it - it was not what she wanted from her - but it was real nonetheless. "And you've done what needs to be done to ensure that. Now, I need to go and do this."
Cam nodded, knowing she would never be comfortable with it, but accepting that Blair would not let this threat interfere with her life or her responsibilities. "Let's go see the Mayor, then, Ms. Powell. You'll make the photographers a lot happier than he will."
Blair smiled. "Why, thank you, Commander."
When Blair stepped to the podium, Cam was positioned to the right rear, just a few feet behind her. Stark and Savard were at ground level directly in front of her, and several FBI agent's on loan from the New York office were interspersed in the crowd near the stage.
Mac, coordinating the various teams from the communication van, was linked by radio to Jeremy Finch, the driver of Blair's car; to Ellen Grant, in the second back-up vehicle; and to the Mayor's security chief as well as the NYPD crowd control captain. As it turned out, for that sort of affair, it was proceeding without a hitch. The audiovisual equipment actually functioned; the speakers were keeping to their preplanned schedule; and the hundreds of people scattered about in Sheep Meadow were surprisingly orderly.
Blair had exchanged her running gear for warm up pants and a dry T-shirt in one of the tents, as had Cam and the others, and she looked casually stylish as she faced the mass of onlookers. When she began to speak, the sound of cameras clicking fluttered through the crowd like something alive.
While part of Cam's attention was completely focused on crowd activity in the area within visual range of Blair, another part listened to her speak. She had a beautiful speaking voice, warm and strong and somehow soothing. Cam knew the story, of course. Everyone did. A man could not run for the presidency of the United States and have something as critical as his wife's valiant battle with breast cancer not be a prominent issue during the campaign. This personal tragedy was part of his image, part of his public face, no matter how private the pain. And because her father's life was open to intense scrutiny by virtue of his position, Blair's loss became public knowledge, too. Blair Powell had secrets she guarded, but this was not one of them. To fight this war, she had willingly exposed her deepest anguish. She spoke eloquently, urging lawmakers to allocate funds for treatment and diagnosis, exhorting women to practice vigilance and to be their own best advocates, and, above all, encouraging every person touched by the disease to never lose hope.
Cam thought she was magnificent.
When Blair finished, she turned away from the podium, and Cam stepped immediately to her side, careful not to touch her but walking close beside her toward the rear of the stage and the shelter of some overhead canvas tarps.
"Are you all right?" Cam asked quietly, because she had heard the tears beneath the noble words. Although she had rarely seen Blair shaken, she could sense her fragility now. There were some things that always hurt, no matter how many years had passed. "Can I get you anything? Some water? You were standing in the blazing sun up there for half an hour."
Blair glanced at her, aware of what Cam wasn't saying and grateful to her for not remarking on the fact that she was shaking. "So were you," she pointed out.
"Yes," Cam murmured, passing her a bottle of water, "but I had sunglasses on."
Blair laughed softly. "Well, that explains it. I'm all right, but I'd like to get out of here now."
"Of course." Cam spoke into her microphone quickly. "Egret is flying."
Blair smiled wearily. "Egret is actually dragging, but carry on, Commander."
"Destination?" Cam asked as they moved down the steps and across the field toward the waiting cars parked along the far edge of the grass. The meadow itself was large enough that the vehicles were actually quite a distance away on one of the main roads running north to south through the park. Cam wasn't happy about that, but it was the terrain she'd been given to deal with. Stark and Savard fell in behind them and Mac, upon hearing Cam's announcement, radioed the drivers to prepare for departure. "I'd like to inform the drivers where you need to go."
She asked as casually as she could, and hoped she sounded only professionally interested. She was acutely aware of the fact that Blair had spoken privately to both Diane and Marcy Coleman just before she had joined the other speakers on the stage. Cam assumed that she was making plans for the rest of the day. She had tried hard not to consider the particulars of those plans.
"Home," Blair responded. Diane had invited both her and Marcy over to her apartment for dinner and drinks, but she had decided to pass. It had been a long day and a longer week. She didn't have the energy for conversation or the desire to deal with Marcy's obvious interest. She might have to deal with it soon, but not when she knew her emotional armor would already be breached. She'd need a little time to garner her defenses again.
"That was quite a speech," Cam said as they walked. "They were right to have you give it."
Blair smiled, pleased despite her weariness. "Thank you."
Cam merely nodded, anxious to get Blair into the safety of the waiting car. They were thirty feet from the vehicles, Stark and Savard keeping pace to either side, when they heard someone call out, "Blair!"
Blair looked back over her shoulder, then stopped as Marcy Coleman hurried toward her. This could be awkward, she thought, very conscious of Cam beside her. She didn't want to have a personal conversation with Marcy in front of her. It shouldn't have mattered, and she was well used to ignoring her security guards, just as they were well schooled in appearing totally deaf and blind under such circumstances. She had no doubt that Cam would behave as if nothing were happening, but Blair would know she could hear. She wasn't sure what Marcy would say, or precisely how she herself would respond. She was certain that she didn't want to deal with a request for a date, no matter how delicately worded, in front of Cameron Roberts.
"Sorry," Marcy said, suddenly flustered as she looked at the cadre of Secret Service agents loosely ringing Blair. For the first time it was abundantly clear to her just who she had been trying to seduce. Jesus. "Diane told me you weren't coming by later, so I thought I should give you this."
She held out a white envelope, smiling uncertainly when Blair regarded her with a slightly confused expression on her face.
Cam listened with half an ear to the vehicles starting their engines behind them while thinking that the attractive doctor was making a very serious attempt to capture Blair's attention. She tried to tell herself that her annoyance was merely due to the hiccoughing coming from the motor of one of their cars. She'd have to speak to Mac about the maintenance schedule. She couldn't have Egret's vehicle breaking down.
Blair took the envelope and was about to tuck it into her fanny pack when Marcy added, "He said you'd want to look at it right away. That you'd know whom it was from."
Blair faltered, staring from Marcy to the envelope. "He?"
"Wait," Cam ordered sharply, about to reach for it when the significance of the engine's stuttering finally registered. She grabbed Blair, shouting, "Everybody down!" just as the air exploded with heat and thunder.
Blair was momentarily stunned by the noise and shaken by the force of being thrown to the ground. She heard Cam's voice, raw and urgent, as she was suddenly being dragged away by Stark and Savard.
Get her out Get her out GOGOGO!
Blair was too confused and shocked by the sight of the burning car to resist until she saw Cam running not in the direction the other agents were evacuating her, but in the opposite direction, directly toward the inferno.
"No!" Blair cried, struggling to escape the hands that restrained her as the second vehicle careened to a halt beside them and the doors flew open. As Stark pushed her into the back of the car, Blair had only a fleeting glimpse of Cam stepping intentionally into the blaze and reaching for what remained of the door on the flaming wreck.
The she could see nothing, and all she could hear was the wail of sirens and her own silent screams.
The next thing Blair was clearly aware of was the wild rocking of the car as it careened around curves on the narrow twisting road through the park. She could barely breathe because Stark was practically lying on top of her in an attempt to shield her from projectiles directed at the windows. Blair shifted on the seat, pushing Stark none too gently away. She sat up and stared at the two women with her.
"What's happening?" she said urgently.
No one answered her. Stark and Savard, their faces grim, each with a hand to their small earpieces, alternately listened to and then answered their respective colleagues. Stark was rapidly switching frequencies on her transmitter, issuing rapid-fire one-word responses. Blair assumed it was some kind of code concerning their evacuation route or destination, because she couldn't make any sense of it.
"Where is Cam?" Blair demanded, her voice louder, stronger now that she had caught her breath. "Agent Stark, are you talking to her? Is she all right?"
Something about her tone caught Savard's attention. She had been listening with only part of her mind, and when she registered the edge of fear in Blair's voice, she misinterpreted it. "Ms. Powell -- are you injured?"
Blair stared at her, trying to contain her panic and her escalating anger. This was an all too familiar nightmare - a deja vu so horrifyingly real she wanted to grab Savard and shake her. Everyone was focused on protecting her, as if her life were so much more important than everyone else's. It was insane.
She struggled for control amidst the disorientation of being whisked away to some unknown destination while the threat of danger enveloped her like an oppressive, invisible cloak. Even worse than the infuriating helplessness of having no control over her own safety was the terror of knowing that Cam might be hurt - might be seriously injured - and she was not there. Again.
Blair took a deep breath, knowing these women were only doing their jobs, and said again, "Is there any word from Cameron? Is she all right?"
"I don't have any information as to specifics," Stark said, her voice tight with stress but still polite. She hesitated, and against regulations, added, "Emergency medical services are on the scene. I have no word on the extent or nature of casualties."
Blair's stomach clenched, and she fought to quell her rising fear. She held Stark's gaze. "Can you tell me if she's hurt? Can you just tell me that?"
Stark shook her head, barely managing to say, "Ms. Powell, I can't. I don't know," before the pain struck. She gasped at the sudden rush of near-blinding pain in her head that was just now becoming noticeable.
For the first time since they had piled into the car, Savard actually looked at Stark, who was seated beside her, and her heart skipped a beat - which, at the rate it was already racing, was no small feat. Still she managed to state calmly, "You appear to be injured, Agent."
Through the haze of her own anxiety, Blair finally focused on Stark and saw that she was mopping up a steady stream of blood that ran down her face with a handkerchief. The three-inch gash in her forehead was bleeding copiously.
"She's right," Blair said. "You need a doctor. Tell whoever's driving this thing to go to a hospital."
"I'm fine," Stark said, although in truth she was having a little trouble clearing her vision. At this point they couldn't divert for any reason except a serious injury to Egret. In addition, she was the ranking agent present and she had much more pressing matters to attend to. She wondered where the Commander was, but she pushed that worry from her mind. She confirmed their position with Grant and radioed it to Mac, adding, "We are en route, on schedule, to checkpoint alpha. Please advise."
"Continue that location, black-out procedures in effect until further notice," Mac's voice confirmed. "Terminating transmission now."
Until such time as the scope of the assault could be determined, Stark knew it was standard operating procedure to assume that their radio transmissions were being monitored. That also meant that she, Ellen Grant, and Renee Savard, an unknown quantity in this situation, had full responsibility for Egret's safety until the Commander, or Mac, if the Commander were unavailable, contacted them on a preset frequency and sent a coded, predetermined, all-clear message.
"Your clothes are torn," Savard remarked to Blair, indicating a long rent in the thin material of her pant leg. "Are you otherwise uninjured?"
Blair nodded her head affirmatively. Her thigh burned with what felt like a scrape from her contact with the gravel on the path when Cam had thrown her down. She wasn't concerned about her aches and bruises, however. All she could think about was Cam racing toward the burning car.
Nearly sixty minutes later, they stopped. Blair had only a brief glimpse of a moderate-sized colonial structure artfully hidden from the neighboring houses by fences and hedgerows. She guessed they were in one of the affluent bedroom communities just north of the city limits where the homes had a small amount of land and an impressive amount of privacy that came with an enormous price tag.
Blair found herself in the living room of a surprisingly tasteful house that sat unoccupied for months or years at a time waiting for someone like her to need shelter. She had no idea how many such places there were scattered over the country and probably in other countries as well. She knew that anywhere her father traveled, anywhere she traveled, or, for that matter, anywhere any of the immediate members of the President's or Vice-President's family might be, contingencies were made to secure them in safe houses not only in the case of a threat to their personal safety but in the event of a national emergency. She had always thought that such precautions were unnecessary holdovers from the paranoid days of the Cold War, when everyone feared that a nuclear attack was imminent. She looked around the comfortable accommodations and grudgingly admitted to herself that in this instance maybe the paranoia had been a good idea.
"There is a bedroom down the hallway to your left with an adjoining bath," Paula Stark told her as she glanced at a floor plan on her handheld unit. "There should be clothes to fit you there as well."
Blair was about to object to being sent off when what she wanted was information, and then thought better of it. She was cold, chilled in a way she wasn't certain any amount of clothing could warm.
"Thank you, Agent Stark. You should see to that wound at some point. You're dripping again," Blair responded quietly.
"Yes ma'am, I'll do that at the first opportunity," Stark replied seriously, and Blair thought she saw a faint smile play across Savard's face. It occurred to her fleetingly that there was something tender in that smile.
"Good," Blair answered and went in search of something to exchange for her torn and dirty clothes.
When she returned from the bedroom in a pair of gray sweatpants and a long-sleeved, dark blue T-shirt, she found Ellen Grant in the kitchen, making coffee of all things. It seemed like such a mundane, commonplace thing to do that Blair was afraid she would burst out laughing at the absurdity of it. Even worse, she was afraid that if she began to laugh, she would begin to cry. And then she wasn't sure she would stop.
Ellen Grant was just setting cups down on the counter.
"Is there anything I can do?" Blair asked when she could trust herself not to come apart. The aroma of brewing coffee was surprisingly comforting, and she had a feeling she was going to need it. She doubted that she would be sleeping for some time to come.
Grant cast her a startled glance and then a faint smile. "I don't think so. There's some food in the freezer - pizza and the like. I'm afraid that will have to do for the time being. Coffee should be ready in just a second."
It was almost surreal, Blair thought, to be standing in some strange house, talking to a woman she had seen almost daily for the last year, and to realize that she had never had a conversation with her before. The Secret Service agents did their jobs so well, remaining always in the background, that most of the time Blair did not think of their personal lives. She studied the wedding ring on Ellen Grant's hand.
"Does he mind your job?" she asked. Under other circumstances she never would have asked. Somehow these extraordinary conditions created a familiarity that might otherwise have never existed.
As if what Blair had asked were the most natural of questions, Grant replied, "If he does, he's never said. He's a cop."
Blair nodded. "Does it bother you, what he does?"
Grant smiled, a distant smile, and her eyes were focused somewhere far away. "Yeah, sometimes."
"What does he say?"
"I've never mentioned it. It's what he does."
Blair sighed, and helped herself to coffee. "Someone should get Stark to a hospital."
"One of us will take care of that as soon as she's free to leave. In the mean time, I'll look at her. We've all had EMS training."
"I know," Blair said dryly, "the team is completely self-sufficient."
"To some extent, yes," Grant acknowledged, ignoring the edge of sarcasm in Blair's voice. "You'll be perfectly safe here with us."
"I don't doubt it," Blair said, meaning it. She wasn't in the least concerned for her own safety. It wasn't her safety that had ever been her concern.
"When it's possible, I like to talk to my father. He'll be worried."
At the mention of her father, Grant nearly came to attention. "Of course. I'll relay the information to Stark. She's acting chief until the Commander returns."
Blair stared at her, a quick stab of fear knifing through her chest. "Do you know where Cam is? Do you have any information?"
Grant looked uncomfortable. "Agent Stark is in command temporarily, Ms. Powell, and I'm sure she'll brief you soon."
Blair resisted the urge to push her for more. She recognized a stone wall when she saw one. She could hear Stark and Savard's murmured voices in the adjoing room, and she assumed they were still apprising whomever it was they needed to apprise of the situation. It was approaching two hours since they had left Central Park: two hours that felt like an eternity; two hours that felt like a nightmare from which she could not awake. She wasn't planning on waiting much longer for information.
"How's your headache?" Savard asked quietly.
Stark was leaning against the breakfast bar in the dining alcove, a radio transmitter in one hand and the telephone receiver in the other. She glanced across the room to where Savard sat at a small desk, her personal computer in her left hand.
"What headache?" Stark grunted, trying to carry on three conversations at once.
"The one you're pretending you don't have," Savard noted absently without looking up, punching information into her handheld.
"Feels like my eyeballs are going to fall out," Stark responded flatly.
"Thought so," Savard said off-handedly, making a note in her daily log. "You're going to need a CAT scan."
"Yeah, sure. Next month maybe." Stark was listening to Mac relay the status of the investigation in Central Park while juggling equipment and trying to jot notes. She'd gotten the all-clear call just a minute before. At least this location was felt to be secure and they could stay put for a while. She was glad because she thought she might vomit if she had to ride in the car again. She closed her radio transmission, simultaneously hung up the receiver, and crossed her arms over her chest, trying to stave off another wave of nausea. "Where's Doyle?"
Savard looked up in surprise, noting immediately that Stark's color was lousy. "Don't know. Haven't heard from him. I'm assuming he's going to want me to stay with the team, so all I'm trying to do is organize my field notes from today. We need to review the preliminary psych profile on this guy ASAP, too. I don't think anyone expected a bomb."
"That's an understatement, Agent Savard," Stark grumbled, her expression grim and beneath the anger in her tone, a hollow note of pain. "At least I hope no one did. Because if anybody had any idea of this and didn't tell us about it, there'll be hell to pay. We lost an agent today."
A sharp gasp from the doorway caused them both to turn quickly in that direction. Blair Powell, stood there, white as a sheet, and for a second, Stark thought she might fall.
"Are you all right, Ms. Powell?" Stark asked in genuine concern.
"Who?" Blair steadied herself with one hand on the back of a dining room chair and waited until she was quite sure her voice was steady. "You said you lost an agent," she heard herself say in a surprisingly calm voice that couldn't possibly be her own, because she was quite certain she was screaming. "Who?"
Stark looked uncomfortable and a little uncertain. "I'm sorry, that information - "
"Jeremy Finch," Renee Savard said immediately. She ignored the quick look of surprise and uncharacteristic anger from Stark, her gaze returning to Blair's face. "He was in the lead car."
"I'm sorry," Blair said softly. She recognized the quick rush of relief that accompanied the sound of his name, but she couldn't bring herself to feel guilty. This time it wasn't Cam. It wasn't Cam.
"There's no reason for you to be sorry," Stark said, gently now, too. "You are not responsible for what this maniac does. It has nothing to do with you."
Blair shook her head, appreciating Stark's kindness, but unable to accept it. "It does have something to do with me. Agent Finch was assigned to me. His job was to protect me."
"It's still doesn't mean that what happened to him was your fault," Stark persisted.
Blair smiled, a sad smile. "That's a very fine distinction you're making, Agent Stark."
"It's the fine distinctions that make all the difference," Savard responded in a firm but compassionate tone.
"I wish I could accept that," Blair said, almost to herself. She regarded them both and asked one last time, "Have you talked to Commander Roberts?"
"Not yet, ma'am," Stark answered, and Blair believed her.
"I'll be in the other room. Could you please let me know when you have more information?" She was more emotionally exhausted than physically tired. There was nothing she could do and she couldn't bear the conversation another moment. She knew that she wasn't a prisoner, but in many ways she felt like one. She didn't know where she was and she didn't know how long she would be there. She had no one to call, or at least no one she would be allowed to call. She assumed that her father had been informed that she was safe, and that his security chief and the director of the Secret Service and the FBI and all the other agencies entrusted with her protection would be doing whatever it was they did. She was the one player in all of this who apparently had no role to play. "And please advise me when I can call my father."
"Yes, ma'am," Stark said crisply.
When Blair left them, Stark looked at Savard in annoyance. "It's not exactly procedure to discuss classified information with her."
Savard regarded Stark thoughtfully, choosing her words carefully. She didn't know her all that well, and she knew the others on the team even less. "Can I speak to you off the record here?" she said, surprising Stark even more.
Stark glanced over her shoulder and saw that Grant was posted by the front entrance, and Blair was curled up on the couch staring blankly into space. They were alone. "I'm not going to report anything you say to me, Savard. I'm not the spy here."
Renee let that jibe go, appreciating that not only was Stark injured, she had lost a colleague. "I just meant that I have no desire to offend you by talking about your Commander."
As she expected, Stark's shoulders stiffened and the compact, dark-haired agent looked like she was ready to go to battle despite the fact that she seemed in danger of falling down at any second. It amazed Savard that every one of the Secret Service agents in Egret's detail was totally dedicated to their reserved, formidable Commander. She admired and respected the sentiment. "Blair Powell is in love with her."
Stark's mouth dropped open. It was some seconds before she managed to close it.
She still hadn't found her voice when Savard continued, "And I think the feeling is mutual."
Stark was silent, staring at the floor, trying to think, but her thoughts were racing in circles. She thought about the five days that Blair had spent in Diane Bleeker's apartment not quite two months before. She had been in the car that sat outside that apartment building for a large part of that week. She and everyone else knew that there was no way that Blair Powell was up there alone that entire time. They hadn't spoken of it, even amongst themselves, but she had wondered privately.
She was sitting there with a cold cup of coffee in her hand, staring up at the darkened windows in the oddly foreboding building, working hard not to wonder what was happening upstairs. She struggled not to replay the night she had ended up in Blair Powell's bed as a result of a very ill advised wave of pure, mindless lust. She had been so damn scared that night, and so damn naïve, and so damn crazy for her - and Blair had been kind, if not tender. She recalled, blushing in the dark and hoping that Fielding couldn't see it, that tenderness had not been high on her list of requirements at that point, not when she had been frantic to get Blair's hands on her burning skin. She had never done anything like that before, and she hoped to God she never did again. She hadn't expected it, hadn't even considered it, but then she rarely thought about things like that. She thought about passing her firearms recertification, or her next shift assignment, or what she would have done if she had been the one to look up and see the sun glint off a rifle barrel pointed at the President's daughter.
She sipped the acid dregs in the mushy paper cup and remembered what it felt like to be touched the way Blair Powell had touched her. Even though she managed to put the memory from her mind most of the time, every now and then she would look at the President's daughter and remember her kiss. Then her blood would race and she'd long to feel that way again.
Stark realized that her mind was wandering down very inappropriate avenues and, ignoring her pounding headache and the faint disconcerting stirrings elsewhere, considered the facts. She knew the Commander was in town during those five days, because she has seen her briefly in a bar with Blair Powell. The timing certainly fit. It was more than that, though. It was a hundred little things that she had noticed since then but never quite 'seen'. It was the way they looked at each other, and the way they walked together - not touching, but connected just the same. Neither of them had been obvious, but when she considered everything as a whole, she thought that Savard might be right.
"How can you say that after only a week of being around them?" Stark asked somewhat argumentatively. It bothered her that the FBI agent had seen something she hadn't.
Savard smiled. "I know what women look like when they're in love."
Stark blushed and immediately cursed herself mentally for the reaction. It wasn't quite the answer she'd expected, and she hated the fact that her heart began to race in a very unprofessional manner. She was in the middle of a crisis situation and had responsibility for Egret's security until such time as Mac or the Commander arrived on scene, and here she was discussing something very improper with an FBI agent who might be reporting every word back to her dickhead of a superior. To make matters even worse, she was having very unprofessional thoughts about her FBI counterpart.
"Well," she began, and then stuttered to a stop when she realized that Savard was softly laughing. "What?" she asked belligerently.
"I apologize if I've upset you," Savard said, the lilt in her voice playful.
"I'm not upset," Stark said, definitely defensive now. She squared her shoulders and reached for the telephone. "I'm just busy, that's all."
Savard simply smiled again and returned to her report. She had been right about Stark the first day she had met her. She was cute.
Go to: Honor Bound, Part 3
Return to The Bard's Corner