A Matter of Trust

by Radclyffe

Chapter One

"Sloan Security."

"I'm sitting in a two mile jam-up on 76. Is the client there yet?"

Jason glanced across the room at the glacially cool countenance of the 9AM appointment. "Uh huh."

What he should have said was Oh oh. His boss did not like surprises, and it was supposed to be his job to prevent that. He seemed to have dropped the ball.

"Damn," Sloan said with a sigh, slowing for yet another bottleneck on an expressway that hadn't been express for twenty years. "Not much I can do about it. Get him a donut or something." With that, she pushed 'off' on the cell phone, tossed it onto the front passenger seat of the Boxster next to a battered leather briefcase, and tried for an end run around the long line of nearly stopped traffic in front of her. Just what I get for not driving home last night.

But the dinner meeting had run late, and her companion had been charming, and the invitation to stay had been so eloquently phrased. With the project nearly completed, all systems up and operational, she saw no reason not to mix a little pleasure with her business. Not exactly routine, but hardly out of the ordinary either. And, she thought with a grin, she could hardly complain about the hospitality. Unfortunately, she hadn’t planned on an early morning meeting, expecting instead to drive home, shower and change before going in to her Center City office. Being her own boss had many advantages, not the least of which was setting her own hours. However, when she had checked her messages from Diane’s bedroom phone, Jason’s cheerful tenor informed her that he had scheduled an emergency meeting for her. After cursing colorfully under her breath for ten seconds, she had cleaned up in Diane’s spacious bathroom, pulled on a clean tee-shirt her hostess had provided her, and set out into rush hour traffic.

With a low growl and a quick turn of the wrist, she angled out and around a stalled SEPTA bus. She did not like being late. The client she was meeting had requested an urgent appointment, and even though it usually took Jason weeks to find time in her schedule for a new project, he had informed her that this one was an exception. He hadn't even had time to send a fax to her laptop with the usual summary he prepared for her before an interview.

"High profile corporation, big-time connections, and money is not an issue," was precisely how he had phrased it in his 'do not argue with me' voice. She trusted his judgment completely, which was why she let him manage everything about her business except the work she actually did. He handled the details behind the scenes and occasionally assisted her with larger projects on site. He was an able technician himself and they didn't need a large staff. She was the talent they brokered, and any additional help she needed they subcontracted out.

"You'll want this one," was what he had said.


Michael Lassiter looked up from the New York Times business section as the office door banged open and a black-haired woman in a casual leather blazer, snowy white tee shirt, and blue jeans hurried in, halting across the room from where she sat. Michael took stock. Well-built, five-ten, one forty or so – maybe a couple of years younger than her own thirty-three.

The slender blond man behind the wide walnut desk swiveled away from his monitor toward the commotion, a mixture of faint disapproval and reluctant fondness warring on his elegantly attractive face.

"Sorry," the woman called to him, turning in the middle of the room to face Michael. An instant's confusion skimmed over the surface of her sculpted features, then she stepped forward, her right hand extended. "Ms. Lassiter? Sorry to keep you waiting. I'm J.T. Sloan."

The unexpectedly low melodious voice, the piecing deep-violet eyes, the strong clear planes of her striking face startled Michael for a second. Just as quickly, she recovered. She stood, automatically smoothing the slight creases in her navy silk skirt. "No trouble, Ms. Sloan."

"Just 'Sloan'," Sloan replied with a devil-may-care grin, deep dimples and all, that had melted many a heart. It didn't seem to have much effect on Michael Lassiter, however. Her ice blue eyes and perfect features showed not the slightest hint of warming.

"Why don't we get comfortable in my office," Sloan said, pointing toward the double doors at the far side of the room. She looked at Jason, who was watching them with the attention of a Phillies fan at the World Series. "Coffee?" she queried, her tone suggesting it was not a request.

He sighed and rose to brew a fresh pot. How was he supposed to know that Michael wasn't a Michael? All he’d had time to do was check the corporate profiles. He hadn’t had time for the deep background searches he usually did.

In the next room, Sloan settled behind the antique oak desk that she had painstakingly moved from her parents' home ten years previously. It had gone first to her office in Washington D.C., then into storage while she dropped out of sight for several months, and finally to the loft space that served as the central office for her company in what was affectionately known as "Old City". Her client had chosen a leather swivel armchair facing Sloan's desk. Sloan glanced at the open file folder that Jason had placed on her desk earlier that morning. It contained the data intake sheet for new clients - basic information such as name, company address, reason for initial interview, and a box for notations at the bottom of the first page where any unusual or particularly salient information could be added. Sloan noted that the company name was Lassiter and Lassiter. In the notation box Jason had typed 'CEO, Michael Lassiter'. Nowhere on the page did Sloan see any indication that Michael Lassiter was a woman. Not that that fact mattered per se, but Sloan liked to have as much background as possible when she was interviewing a prospective client. Information was power, and she was the one deciding if the client was worthy of her attentions – not the other way around. Another advantage of working for herself. She could choose her projects, and answered to no one.

She glanced up to find herself being openly appraised by the woman in the impeccably tailored suit. Unconsciously, Sloan stared back. The double-breasted jacket was open to reveal a creamy silk shell that was fashionable without being flashy. She checked Michael Lassiter's hands, which were folded loosely in her lap. No wedding ring. In fact, no rings of any kind. What jewelry there was was understated and tastefully elegant. Small gold hoops in each earlobe reflected the highlights in her naturally golden, exquisitely styled collar-length hair, and gray pearls accentuated the smooth pale skin of her neck. Sloan's gaze moved upward until their eyes met. The look on Michael Lassiter's face suggested she was used to being studied.

"I'm sorry to keep you waiting," Sloan found herself repeating. She was used to corporate types, although usually they were men. Aggressive, arrogant, habitually engaged in one-upmanship. She wasn't easily impressed, and even less easily intimidated. She was neither at the moment, but neither was she completely comfortable. The woman was beautiful, like a precious objet d'art sequestered in a museum - separated from the observer by velvet ropes and bulletproof glass. Discreet but formal signs reading "Hands Off" posted nearby.

"That's quite all right. These things happen," Michael conceded with a small shrug.

But not to you, I'll bet.

To break the silence that felt strangely hypnotic, Sloan pulled a lined yellow legal tablet from a stack near her right hand and picked up her fountain pen. "Tell me what it is, precisely, that you need?"

Michael Lassiter smiled, a small tight smile that did not reach her eyes. "I believe that's what you'll need to tell me."

"Fair enough. Why don't you start with a little bit of background? This involves your company, I presume?"

For the first time, her client appeared uncomfortable. A brief flicker of something that might have been pain rose in her eyes, and then was quickly extinguished. Michael Lassiter straightened slightly, and met the questioning violet eyes squarely.

"As you may know, my husband and I founded Lassiter Designs approximately six years ago. We've been fortunate in that what we conceived of as a pilot project interfaced rather well with the expansion of current technology. The company has - grown - shall we say, rapidly over the past three years. We now employ several hundred people and have satellite offices in New York, Chicago, and Washington."

And you're threatening to break into the Fortune 500 if you keep escalating at your present rate of growth. Some information Jason had thought to provide her, along with recent prospectuses and financial reports for the firm. Lassiter and Lassiter was a think tank. They conceived of the future and convinced others to finance and build it. The firm’s success depended on the accuracy and ingenuity of their designers’ vision.

"Go on," Sloan prompted as she made a few supplementary notes.

"May I assume this meeting is confidential?" Michael asked.

Sloan raised her head slowly, noting for the first time the subtle signs of strain – the too rigid posture, the slight clenching of a very lovely jaw, the faint lines of fatigue around her searching blue eyes. "I'm not an attorney, Ms. Lassiter, or a priest. But client confidentiality is my business. If at the end of our discussion, we decide our needs are not compatible, whatever you tell me now will be forgotten."

It was Michael's turn to scrutinize. She knew of Sloan by reputation, of course. Previous client reports of Sloan Security and endorsements from various official institutions had all been favorable. Michael studied the other woman, noting her imperturbable expression, her inquiring eyes. Sloan was known to be extremely efficient, resourceful, and highly capable. There were also those who suggested she was competitive and ruthless, and Michael had no doubt that Sloan was capable of providing the technical services she required. The question was whether she could be trusted with the confidences.

Personal information regarding the head of Sloan security was more difficult to ascertain. Sloan's past was a cipher, and even those who purported to know her well had no knowledge of her history prior to her first appearance in the city several years previously. Rumors abounded, with everything from speculation that she had been a CIA agent deep undercover to a criminal engaged in nefarious underworld dealings. At 29, she was young for her position, but reputed to be at the top of her field. And Michael had a feeling she would need one of the best.

The silence lengthened, both of them watching the other carefully. Violet and blue, fire and ice – they each sought something in the other’s gaze. Finally, Michael spoke. "This is not yet general knowledge, and will not be for some time to come. I'm in the process of leaving my husband and dissolving our partnership."

Sloan showed no reaction. She was not interested in the social or political ramifications of the news, although they were substantial. More importantly, the potential destabilization of a high-profile company such as Lassiter and Lassiter would have significant impact on a sizable chunk of the financial market. Stock values could fluctuate wildly if word of reorganization at such a high-level were to become common knowledge. If information such as this were made public before the company had been restructured, it could seriously impact on the future of both the institution and its stockholders. She wasn't surprised that Michael Lassiter was worried about a leak. What she had just been told did not require comment. The significance of the revelation spoke for itself. Nevertheless, Sloan had a feeling this was only part of the issue. Sloan merely nodded, her eyes steady on Michael Lassiter's face.

Michael smiled slightly, very aware that Sloan was waiting for her to reveal the real cause of her concern. She had a feeling that a less experienced person might have taken her explanation at face value. Certainly most men would have. But she sensed that Sloan intuited that there was something more. It occurred to her then that she would have to be careful, or she would have no secrets left.

"The reasons for confidentiality are obvious. However," she continued smoothly, "the reason that I need to engage your services is that I expect my husband will attempt to take control of the company, by any means available to him."

Sloan dropped her fountain pen on the legal pad and leaned back in her leather swivel chair. She steepled her fingers in front of her chest and thought for a moment. At length she said quietly, "Let me see if I understand this. You're presently CEO of one of the countries largest and most rapidly growing design technology firms. Your husband is –" she hesitated, thinking. "He is the chief operating officer if I recall." At Michael's affirming nod, Sloan continued, "You intend to divorce him and somehow expect to maintain control of the company. You need me to assure that your internal systems are secure and that your operations are tamper proof. And you expect me to do this without rousing suspicion while you plan this coup?"

Michael smiled thinly, her blue eyes troubled. "I'm not sure I'd call this a coup, Ms. Sloan," she said somewhat testily. "This company was my conception, and was primarily funded from my personal resources. I have always been much better at theory than management. The vision, I suppose, has been mine. My husband's natural talents have been in recruitment and systems organization. I can assure you I'm planning nothing illegal or even particularly underhanded. I intend to protect my company from assault, which is exactly what I anticipate will happen as soon as my lawyers contact my husband."

Sloan leaned forward, picking up the pen again. "What's the timetable?"

Michael shrugged. "I believe that may very well be up to you. I don't want to proceed until I'm certain that ongoing projects and the blueprints for future growth cannot be pirated. Until that time, I intend to continue with the status quo."

At that, Sloan looked up, studying the cool composed woman across from her. Despite the small signs of tension, she was remarkably controlled. What she had so calmly outlined amounted to nothing short of war within the arena of the financial world. It was the kind of confrontation that could lead to personal ruin, and had in many instances. The fact that she was married to the man she was about to engage in all out conflict did not appear to trouble her. Sloan wondered briefly if Michael Lassiter would also continue the personal relationship with her husband as if nothing were amiss as well. She quickly reminded herself that that was certainly none of her business. Nevertheless, it gave her pause to think of this woman compromising herself privately for the sake of eventual financial supremacy. It struck her as merely a form of prostitution, and somehow much too demeaning for this obviously accomplished woman. Sloan forced her mind back to the issues at hand, and her own interest in it.

"You'll need a cover story as to why I'm spending so much time in your corporate headquarters. I'll also need to visit each of your branch divisions; I'll have to meet with your present systems operators; and I'll need unrestricted access to all levels of program applications and data acquisition."

Michael Lassiter seemed to relax infinitesimally, a small sigh escaping her. "Am I to take it that you accept?"

Sloan shrugged. "We haven't talked about my contract conditions or fees yet."

Michael Lassiter stood, and stretched out a slim elegant hand. Sloan rose, taking it wordlessly. Michael said, "Those details are inconsequential to me. What I require is your discretion and your talent."

"Of that I can assure you," Sloan responded. The hand in hers was remarkably firm, and she felt a slight reluctance to relinquish it. When she did so, Michael Lassiter turned and left the room without another word.




Jason stood in the open doorway, leaning one slim hip against the door jam, his arms crossed over his chest. His tailored trousers, monochromatic shirt and tie, and glossy European loafers screamed aspiring businessman-on-the-rise. "And should I ask where you spent last evening?"

Sloan looked up from the report she was finishing. "No, I don't think so."

She rubbed her face with both hands, aware for the first time that she was tired. It wasn’t just the lack of sleep. If anything, sex usually relaxed her. Unfortunately, such pleasures often came at a price. Diane Carson had made it very clear that she wanted to see more of Sloan. That idea wasn’t an altogether unpleasant one by any means, but the intensity in Diane’s voice had worried her. She would have to be very certain that the ground rules were clear before things became unnecessarily complicated.

The tall, impeccably turned out young man tried unsuccessfully to hide a frown. "Did we at least get the new contract this morning?"

"Yes, we did," Sloan answered somewhat churlishly, and then immediately regretted it. She saw the hurt in his eyes. "Look," she sighed. "I'm sorry. I didn't get much sleep."

"And I suppose that's my fault?" He flopped down in the chair Michael Lassiter had occupied earlier that day. He decided from the homicidal look on her face to change the subject. "So tell me about the Ice Queen."

Sloan fixed him with a stare meant to do damage. When he squirmed a bit and mouthed a silent, "Please", hands clutched to his heart, she finally laughed.

"She's a client, Jason, not a date!"

"Oh please, like there's a big difference!" Jason retorted.

Sloan shook her head, still smiling. "So now and then I see one of the clients – ah, socially, shall we say. It’s never interfered with business. Besides, I can assure you that won't be happening with this one."

Jason wondered if he didn't detect a slight hint of regret in Sloan's voice, but he wisely chose not to comment upon it. Instead, he asked playfully, "And why exactly is that?"

"First and very foremost, she's straight," Sloan said with finality. Although she probably deserved her reputation as someone who never lacked for female companionship, and never made a long-term commitment, she did have some limits. Dating straight women was definitely one of them.

"Things can always change," Jason commented.

"Not this time."

It was clear to him that for the moment at least, the matter was closed. He also knew that if he continued to push the issue, Sloan was likely to lose her famous temper. He'd been on the other end of that enough times not to want to provoke her. Instead, he opted for a change of subject. "So, are you coming tomorrow night?"

"Of course I'm coming," she said emphatically. She loved to watch Jason perform, and still found it hard to believe that the sultry, sexy siren he became on stage was actually the man she had first spied years ago, buttoned-up and straight-laced in the esteemed Halls of Justice in DC. She often wondered which was the true personality, Jason or Jasmine. She like them both, and she had to admit to a slight bit of sexual provocation when Jasmine flirted with her. It was bad enough that Jason worked for her; the fact that he was straight made it even more confusing.

"Good," he said as he rose and carefully shook out the perfect creases in his trousers, "because Jasmine just bought a new dress." He winked at her and for a second, Jasmine flickered beneath the surface of his handsome male face. "And I just know you'll like it."

Sloan laughed again. "Why don't you go pretend to be my assistant for a while?"

He left without a word, and for a few moments she sat staring after him, thinking about her interview with Michael Lassiter. It wasn't the most difficult job she had ever undertaken. Now that all the major corporations and most small businesses were computer dependent, computer hacking and software piracy was becoming a daily occurrence. Most people who had systems installed knew almost nothing about them, and even those who did rarely took the time to ensure that they were totally tamper proof. Sloan had recognized the need for Internet security services well ahead of the pack. Now that the ease with which systems could be entered and altered was gaining publicity, computer security was a hot area. She had foreseen the need, and her previous experience made her perfect for the work.

What both intrigued and troubled her about this particular assignment was her employer. Michael Lassiter struck her as a woman who was completely capable of living with the consequences of her decisions. But once or twice, Sloan thought she saw a flicker of fear in the other woman's eyes. For no reason she cared to explore, that bothered her.



Chapter Two

Michael swiveled her chair to look out the window of her twenty-first floor office. It was after seven on a Friday night, and just getting dark. Her Center City offices overlooked the river that separated Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Had she been looking, she would have been able to see for miles across the broad expanse of water as commuters crossed the bridges heading home. But her gaze was unfocused, and what she saw was only the ghost of an image in her mind.

Usually what floated there were visions of the future, the ideas she formulated for others to implement. What excited her were concepts, possibilities, the next steps forward in the evolution of human and technological interaction. How business could use the tremendous developments in electronics and informational systems to connect global communities as well as enhance day-to-day life. As the mechanics of the equipment became more and more sophisticated, the applications grew exponentially. She and her central core of designers theorized, and the talented crew of computer analysts, mechanical and electrical engineers, and economic strategists she and Jeremy had brought together forged those ideas into marketable form. Everything she had accomplished, and everything she hoped to accomplish, lay stored in the far from unassailable memory banks of the company's computer system.

She was not envisioning the future now, at least not the future she had imagined. Until recently she had had no reason to contemplate her own life, anticipating only the work that occupied her mind almost constantly and her efforts, along with Jeremy’s, to develop their shared dream. She had met Jeremy Lassiter almost fifteen years previously when she had been a precocious freshman at the Cambridge Institute of Design, and he had been a worldly graduate student at MIT. Barely 17, she had been socially inexperienced, despite her privileged upbringing, and intellectually too intimidating for most boys her age. But when they had met in a theoretical design class, Jeremy had appreciated her ideas and had been supportive and encouraging. Together they had spent hours talking, dreaming, and finally forging their shared vision into the formidable power it had become. Along the way, it seemed natural that they should wed. It had never occurred to her that their relationship lacked passion or romance. It was not something she was aware of needing. She probably would have ignored those moments when she felt a loneliness so acute it was physically painful, had she not finally become aware of Jeremy's affair with a young female designer in their firm. She was less hurt than baffled. Although she didn't consider herself particularly inventive or adventurous in the physical department, she wasn't aware of ever refusing Jeremy's advances either. Although it was a part of their relationship that left her strangely unmoved, she assumed it had been adequate. Clearly, however, Jeremy required something additional. She supposed that she could have simply ignored his affair, but, once she became aware of it, she rebelled at the idea of continuing a relationship so false. She also doubted that Jeremy would be content with their circumstance for long, and she felt quite certain that eventually Jeremy would seek greater control of the company. She intended to be prepared.

She leaned back in the contoured black leather chair, alone in the polished, elegant office that was so perfectly appointed it deserved a center spread in Architectural Digest. She was immune to the physical manifestations of her success after so many years. She didn't see the room; she didn't even see the spectacular sunset. What slowly came into focus just behind her nearly closed eyelids was J. T. Sloan's face. Strong, certain, a hint of aggression – she inspired confidence. Michael sighed, and hoped her assessment of the woman she had hired the day before was correct. She was going to need help.

"I'm leaving – the agenda for Monday's meeting just went to Development," a soft voice behind her announced, mercifully interrupting her introspections.

Michael swiveled away from the window to face the door. She smiled tiredly at the brunette in the doorway. "Yes, fine. Thank you."

Michael's private secretary studied her. "You look beat. Why don't you go home?"

"I will, soon," Michael lied, appreciating the concern in the other woman's voice. Why should I? Jeremy probably won't be there, and if he were, I wouldn't want to see him. It's easier to relax here.

Michael was suddenly more aware of being alone than ever before. It wasn’t because of the imminent loss of her marriage, but the absence of the intimacy that she and Jeremy had never truly shared. She forced a smile and waved goodnight, waiting only a moment before turning down the lights and closing her eyes in the welcoming darkness.


"Damn, I'm sorry!" Sloan exclaimed, watching Michael Lassiter blink in confusion. She automatically brushed the dimmer switch, muting the lights she had turned up full when she walked into the room. It was 9:00 at night, and she hadn't expected anyone to be around. Certainly not the CEO of the company, alone in a darkened room on a deserted floor. Sloan couldn't help but see that the fatigue hinted at the day before was more apparent now. Faint purplish shadows bruised the perfect skin under Michael's eyes, and there was a weariness in the way she pushed herself upright in her chair.

"It's okay," Michael assured her, rubbing her eyes and trying desperately to orient herself. She glanced out the window. Dark. Nighttime. She sat up straight, brushed her hair back with both hands. "What are you doing here?"

Sloan grinned her trademark, lopsided grin. "Working. You said I could do a quick systems review this afternoon when I called, remember?"

"I didn't realize you meant tonight," Michael said dryly, firmly in control again. "What are you doing in my office?"

Sloan leaned one jean-clad hip against the arm of an expensive leather couch and took inventory. A low glass coffee table occupied the space in front of the sofa with other butter-colored leather furniture flanking it. Directly across from the seating area Michael Lassiter sat behind a huge pedestal desk with what looked like digital displays, keyboards and flatscreen monitors of some kind built into its surface. The woman behind the desk looked sleek and stylish too in an ocean green silk pants suit and low-heeled pale leather shoes, her blond hair looking only modestly disarrayed from her recent finger combing. Her momentary disorientation when Sloan startled her awake was replaced with a calm expression now, but, for an instant, she had appeared vulnerable, and very young.

Sloan hastily averted her gaze, ignoring the slight pulse of attraction. The room was huge, windowed on three sides, with a small alcove kitchenette/bar arrangement to her left and an impressive workstation with several computers, video equipment, and drafting boards to the right beyond the seating area. Impressive. The corner office, indeed.

She realized that Michael was waiting for an explanation. "Your computers. I can't very well look for break-ins if I don't look at yours. It's where the money is – so to speak."

She grinned that damnable grin again, and Michael was irritated to find herself smiling back. "Of course." She rose to gather her papers into a small portfolio, adding, "You'll need the passwords."

"I have them."

Michael looked up sharply. "No one knows mine. Not even my secretary."

"How often do you change it?" Sloan asked mildly, crossing to the console.

Michael shrugged dismissively. "I have no idea. Whenever the system prompts me to."

Sloan settled into the molded leather chair, spent a few seconds with the keyboard and mouse, and the 19-inch flat screen monitor leapt to life. She continued routing through the files, muttering absently, "Information is almost never truly deleted, merely layered over. This is a little like archeology – you just have to dig down to it."

"Wonderful," Michael commented acerbically. "I should at least be happy that Jeremy doesn't have much interest in the finer points of these things."

Sloan looked over her shoulder at the blond woman behind the desk, thinking once again how damned lovely she was, even with the lines of stress etched a little deeper around her eyes tonight. "He doesn't need to. He can hire someone."

"Yes. Like I did." Michael worked not to let her uneasiness show. She didn't like the idea of drawing battle lines with Jeremy, or of living in what could amount to an armed camp until their affairs could be disentangled, but she had to protect her business. It was all she had.

"What you should be pleased about is that you hired me first," Sloan joked. She frowned at something that appeared on the screen, clicked through a few items, then pushed back in the chair to look at Michael again. "Is this where you do most of your project design?"

"Here or my laptop at home. I just synchronize the files when I come in. The division heads get summaries of future lines of development, but no hard details. I work them out alone." Like I do almost everything, she thought, but saw no reason to add. She had been an insular child, an awkward teenager, and a reclusive student until Jeremy had taken the time to listen to her. Somewhere in the last fifteen years she had grown up, and out grown her simple need for validation. And when that had happened, they had little left to bind them. A shell of a marriage, and now not even that. She was suddenly aware of Sloan's deep voice. "What? I'm sorry, I was – wandering."

"I was saying that what we need to do fairly quickly is get you a smart chip to lock down this part of your system down."

Michael raised an eyebrow. "Meaning?"

Sloan was staring at the monitor again, running through files. This was what she loved. The hunt – the chase. The thrill of finding the hidden secrets. Some of her less kinder critics had said that was what she loved best about women, too. The hunt. Had she cared at all about public opinion, it might have bothered her.

"A personal identification chip. They're common in Europe," she continued absently, arranging a work strategy in her head. "People use them for almost everything, like we do credit cards. They carry bits of electronic information about the user, and in conjunction with a PIN can be used to secure transactions."

"I've heard of that," Michael said, watching Sloan work. "But what's that got to do with my computer?"

"A few companies are working on prototypes that incorporate smart card slots into their hardware so that a user can be positively identified, and anyone else is locked out."

"Prototypes? How can you get one?"

Sloan was silent as she searched around in her tool kit for a temporary fix. When she had the intrusion detection program loaded, she looked up. "I have my ways," she answered, an amused glint in her eyes.

"Legal, I presume?"

A grin now. "Oh, but of course."

Michael was fascinated. By the topic, by the woman. Both were mysteries to her, and she wanted to know more. "How did you get into this?"

Sloan shrugged. "The Internet is the new frontier, and we are woefully unprepared to confront it. It is fast becoming the foundation of communication, commerce, even culture. And it's wide open, lawless. There are no rules, no methods of enforcing any, and no means to detect or deter crime. I saw the possibilities, and I had the experience." She hesitated, aware that she was revealing things that she rarely discussed. Michael Lassiter was easy to talk to, and even easier on the eyes. Oh man. Not good, not good at all! She shut up and concentrated on the monitor.



Chapter Three

Sloan stretched and looked at her watch, surprised to find that they had been sitting wordlessly together for over an hour, each working. She looked over at Michael, missing the pensive smile on Michael's face, unaware that Michael had been watching her for the better part of the last quarter hour.

"Done for the night?" Michael inquired.

Sloan nodded.

"So, you're a cyber-cop?" Michael inquired, still curious, and genuinely interested.

Sloan laughed harshly, thinking of how she had once been called that by condescending colleagues, another lifetime ago. "Hardly. Internet security specialist is the latest jargon. Mostly, I guess, I'm just a technogeek, without the glasses and pocket-protector."

Whatever you call yourself, you're far from that, Michael thought. It had been a long time since she had lost herself in conversation with someone when it hadn't been focused on sales or development or some other aspect of her work. Perhaps as long ago as those early years with Jeremy, when they had stayed up half the night fantasizing about a world that was now coming to be. Had it been this easy then?

"Somehow I don’t see you in the nerd role," Michael laughed.

Sloan laughed with her. "You should have seen me when I was twelve."

"So this was what you always wanted to do?"

Sloan’s immediate impulse was to change the subject. Her past was not something she discussed with anyone, even her friends, and she didn’t have many of those. She looked into Michael’s eyes, prepared for evasive maneuvers, and discovered something she hadn’t seen in a long time. Simple interest, unaccompanied by innuendo or pretense. Often when women inquired about her personal life, it was a prelude to seduction. Not unwelcome, by any means, but a circumstance she had learned to direct away from revelations that could put her at a disadvantage. From Michael, however, the questions seemed merely friendly, and Sloan dropped her guard. There was no need to protect herself from Michael Lassiter, because nothing was going to happen between them. There was no danger here.

"I was into computers before most of my peers, and it came easily to me. Pretty soon I was hacking into places I probably shouldn’t have been, but it got me turned on to the possibilities early on. One thing led to another."

"We have that in common," Michael noted.

Sloan regarded her with surprise. "What?"

"An early fascination with something other people don’t understand." Her face took on a distant expression, and she continued musingly, "It sets you apart. It can be hard."


Their eyes met, and Michael knew that there was more that Sloan wasn’t saying. She was very aware that Sloan appeared to be censoring her words. There was a harsh undertone in her deep voice that hinted at pain. Michael wondered if it was the same lonely isolation that she had experienced, before Jeremy. She caught herself, realizing that what she had believed was a partnership had very likely only been dependence. She thought of Jeremy now – remote, calculating, a stranger.

Sloan saw the flicker of sorrow in Michael’s expressive eyes. Impulsively, she asked, "Have you eaten?"

Michael stared for a second. She was surprised by the question, realizing she hadn't even been aware that she was hungry, and surprised that Sloan was inquiring. Sloan didn't seem the type for easy familiarity, any more than Michael was.

"No," Michael replied cautiously, wondering where the conversation was headed.

Sloan hesitated, uncertain why she was doing what she seemed to be doing. Maybe it was because they seemed to share some of the same disaffected past. She shrugged. She was just being friendly, right? "I'm about to catch a show in Old City. A friend is performing, and the food there is serviceable. Want to come along?"

Warning bells were going off, but when Michael thought of the long night ahead, this seemed like a harmless enough diversion. "Why not?"

Why not, indeed.


Michael almost backed out a dozen times. Unfortunately, she had agreed to let Sloan drive, which at the time seemed to make sense. She hadn't thought about the fact that she wouldn't be able to make a hasty retreat if the evening turned into a disaster. She sat in the front seat of the sports coupe, staring out the window at the busy city streets. It was close to 11p.m. on an unseasonably warm Friday night in April, and an unusual number of people were still walking about, taking advantage of the weather. She realized that she was rarely out at this time of night, unless it was to travel home from the office. Then her mind was usually still busy constructing answers to questions most people hadn't yet asked. That was one of her strengths, her ability to see both the problems and the solutions inherent in a project before they developed. She wished the ability extended to her private life as well.

Beside her, Sloan drove with quiet concentration. She was efficient, aggressive without being reckless, and intensely focused on maneuvering the compact sports car through the narrow crowded streets. Michael was surprised to find that she wasn't uncomfortable, even though she was doing something completely foreign to her. She rarely socialized outside the obligatory business meetings, and when she and Jeremy had been forced to entertain, she had done so reluctantly. She simply didn't feel comfortable making casual conversation with near strangers. When she tried to remember the last time she and Jeremy had been out alone together, she couldn't. How on earth she had ever allowed herself to be drawn into this strange outing escaped her.

"You needn't stay if it doesn't please you," Sloan said as if reading her mind.

Michael looked at her sharply, studying the angles of her face in the flickering light from overhead street lamps and passing cars that illuminated her features briefly before surrendering to darkness again. In those brief patches of light, Michael could make out the strong chin, sculpted cheekbones, and straight fine nose. She couldn't see the color of her eyes, but she didn't need to. That deep violet was something already etched in her memory. She reminded herself that she had spent the last few hours in this woman’s company, in far more than casual conversation. Contrary to being awkward, it had been amazingly easy.

"I'm accustomed to looking after myself, Ms. Sloan. Please don't worry about me."

"Just Sloan," Sloan repeated again. She glanced briefly at Michael, then returned her attention to the road. "I have absolutely no doubt that you are entirely capable of looking after yourself. I only meant that it might not be the kind of entertainment you're used to."

Michael had assumed it would be some kind of musical performance, probably a jazz band or piano bar. "What exactly does your friend do?"

Sloan grinned while maneuvering into a parking space on the street. She cut the engine and turned in her seat to face Michael. Carelessly, she draped her right arm over the back of the passenger seat. There wasn't a great deal of room in the interior of a two-seater Boxster, and her fingers glanced unintentionally over Michael's right shoulder. "It's a drag show."

Michael jumped slightly, more from the unexpected contact than the unanticipated answer. She swallowed, then answered steadily, "Of course, a drag show. Exactly what I was expecting."

Sloan laughed, appreciating her companion's aplomb. She released her seat belt and pushed open the driver's door. "Come on. I have a table reserved up front."

Michael waited on the sidewalk for Sloan to come around the car and join her. As she watched the unquestionably handsome woman approach, she wondered what in God's name she was doing.



Chapter Four

Backstage in the dressing room shared by all the performers, Jasmine sat before a light-encircled mirror at a long table running along the entire length of one wall. She finished applying the last touches of mascara and reached for the lip-gloss to seal the dark crimson shade she had chosen. Carefully, she used a fine brush to shade the edges of her upper lip, and then checked to see that any hint of shadow along her jaw line had been obliterated with a light foundation. She looked up as the door to the dressing room opened, and one of the other performers entered. The statuesque brunette in the form fitting red dress eased into the adjoining chair and studied her reflection in the mirror. After assuring herself that everything was in order, she swiveled to face Jasmine.

"You should get a load of Sloan's date," she remarked too casually.

Jasmine turned, arching an eyebrow in surprise. "Oh really? Sloan never said anything about bringing someone."

"Well, she's at her usual table, and she's got a gorgeous blond with her."

"Blond, as in natural?" Jasmine repeated, feeling a faint stirring of anxiety. "As in perfect size 6? As in Ingrid Bergman elegant and Sharon Stone sexy? That type of blond?"

Crystal stood, smoothing out nonexistent wrinkles in her dress, looking into the mirror again as she made a subtle adjustment to the very expensive body-sculpting brassiere she wore and squeezing her lips together in a slight kissing motion. "That would be the one."

Jasmine closed her eyes briefly, then muttered, "Oh fuck."

"Problems with the randy boss again?"

Jasmine reached for the black sheath dress, lowered it over her head and smoothed it down her body, reminding herself that it was not her problem, and none of her business. "Sloan's okay," she remarked at length. "I just wish she'd settle down with someone."

She carefully fitted the expensive wig over the thin skullcap that contained her own blond hair. Better for business, better for my nerves, better for her. Especially for her.

Crystal laughed. "Sloan? Oh, I don't think so. Honey, that one is not the marrying kind."

Jasmine followed Crystal out of the small harshly lit dressing room toward the shadows at the edges of the curtained stage. She knew better, but it was not her story to tell.


Michael edged her chair closer to the small circular table, trying to avoid being jostled by the bustling wait people and harried latecomers, glancing surreptitiously around the room. It was crowded and noisy. The patrons displayed such a contagious exuberance that it made her smile. It was a party-like atmosphere and she felt herself relaxing despite the strangeness.

"Drink?" Sloan shouted, leaning near, steadying the teetering pedestal tabletop with one hand. She settled a plate of surprisingly good-looking sandwiches in the center of the tiny tabletop.

"Wine?" Michael shouted back. Whatever the capacity of the club, she was certain that they had exceeded it by a wide margin. If the fire marshal happened in, they’d all be out in the street.

Sloan pulled a face. "I wouldn't chance it here. It's most likely something that comes with a screw cap in a gallon jug."

"Vodka tonic?"

Sloan nodded. "Safer," she called as she moved off into the crowd.

Michael watched her wend her way effortlessly through the throng of shouting, jostling people. She moved gracefully, with a subtle air of confidence that suggested she was used to others stepping aside for her. Alone, without Sloan's charismatic presence to distract her, Michael had to wonder at herself. She didn't know this woman, had never been in any place remotely like this before, and worried that she would say something to embarrass herself. Despite her anxiety, she also felt a surge of excitement. She hadn't been away from the office for anything other than business trips in months. This was as far from her usual routines as she could get, and just the diversion she needed.

"Hi, I'm Sarah," a slender redhead in soft, tan chinos and a white cotton turtleneck announced as she pulled a chair over to the already crowded table. At the look of perplexity on Michael's face she added, "I'm a friend of Sloan's."

Michael held out her hand. "Michael Lassiter."

Sarah regarded her carefully for a moment, noting the perfectly styled hair, understated but flawless make-up, and the suit so expensively tailored that it looked casual. "If you're a drag queen, you're the best I've ever seen."

Michael stared, struggling for a reply that would be remotely appropriate.

"Ms. Lassiter is a business associate, Sarah," Sloan said smoothly as she wedged herself into the remaining chair at the cramped table, depositing Michael's drink and her own. Looking at Michael, she tried to hide her amusement. The beautiful face showed faint signs of numb shock. "Sarah is a doctor of oriental medicine, Michael."

That might explain the slight fragrance of spices that clung to her, and the quiet contained expression on her smooth, even features that Michael found oddly companionable. It didn't explain why she was there, or how she knew Sloan, but then why should anything about this experience make sense. "I see."

Sarah laughed, and laid her hand briefly on Michael's arm. "Sloan never has gotten over being cryptic, even when she doesn't have to be. We met ages ago when we both did a stint in Thailand. I ended up staying behind and studying there. We've just recently reconnected since I got back to the States."

Michael nodded, as if that cleared everything up. She saw the look of discomfort pass over Sloan's features, darkening her gaze for a moment. She didn't ask for clarification.

"Then she invited me to see Jasmine perform, and now I hate to miss one of her shows," Sarah continued as if oblivious to Sloan's glowering expression. "Have you ever seen her?"

"No," Michael answered, seeing no point in adding that she had never in her life seen so many women who might not be women, and how did one tell any way? Mercifully, the lights went down signaling the beginning of the show, sparing her from any further response.

And then she was too engrossed to talk.



Chapter Five

Michael could scarcely remember two hours that she had ever enjoyed more. She wasn't certain what was more entertaining - the costumes, the music, or the genuinely talented performers. To her amazement, the voices of the half dozen or so female impersonators were marvelous. Throughout the show, she was aware of Sloan beside her, laughing softly at some joke, applauding enthusiastically for every performer, and bending close during breaks in the entertainment to fill her in on some of the background of the Cabaret. She disappeared once for a few moments and returned with a fresh drink for Michael, setting it before her with a warm smile. She was considerate, attentive, and altogether charming. Michael had never met anyone quite like her.

As the lights came up, Michael found herself pressed against Sloan at the tiny table. The noise level had not abated, and if anything the raucous crowd had become even more celebratory as the evening progressed. She and Sloan had to lean almost forehead-to-forehead to hear each other.

"Well, what did you think?" Sloan inquired, her eyes alight with pleasure.

"It was wonderful!" Michael replied enthusiastically. "In addition to how wonderful they sounded, they're so beautiful to look at. The costumes are gorgeous. They remind me of Birds of Paradise!"

Sloan laughed, and nodded. "I'll have to remember to tell Jasmine. She'll love that."

At the sound of Jasmine's name, Sarah leaned forward to join their conversation. "Jasmine has a wonderful singing voice, don't you think?" she declared, more a statement than a question.

As Michael nodded her assent, Sloan studied Sarah carefully, catching the tone of admiration in her voice. Sarah’s face was flushed with pleasure, her eyes bright with excitement, and she appeared altogether effervescent. Sloan had a feeling that she knew why. It had not escaped Sloan's notice that Sarah had been at every one of Jasmine’s performances since Sloan first brought Sarah to the Cabaret. She also couldn’t help but notice the way Sarah’s eyes never left Jasmine, whether Jasmine was on stage or enjoying a drink at their table after the show. She knew for a fact that Jasmine never saw anyone socially outside of the club, and wondered if Sarah really appreciated Jasmine's story. She said nothing, for she made a point never to involve herself in the personal affairs of other people, particularly her friends. She simply said, "Jasmine’s fantastic."

At that moment, the subject of their conversation appeared from the hallway behind the stage, threading her way carefully between the crowded and disorderly tables to where they sat. Sloan gallantly rose and offered her chair at the table. Jasmine thanked her with a quick kiss on the mouth. Sloan couldn't help but grin, rubbing off the faint smudge of lipstick with her finger.

"I'm so glad all of you stayed," Jasmine said, taking the offered seat. She crossed her legs, the hem of her dress riding up to expose trim smooth legs beneath sheer stockings. A stiletto-heeled red satin shoe dangled from her foot. "You all looked like you're having such fun, and I didn't want to miss a minute of it!"

"We were just saying how wonderful your performance was," Sarah remarked, her attention totally focused on Jasmine.

Sloan was certain she saw Jasmine blush, even in the dim light of the smoky room. Beside her, Michael echoed Sarah's praise. She was pleased that Michael had enjoyed the show. She was still surprised at herself for impetuously inviting her to come. It wasn't something she generally did - inviting near total strangers, particularly straight married strangers, out on the town with her. She just had the feeling, sitting in that cold glass-enclosed, high-rise office late on a Friday night, that Michael Lassiter was lonely. Why exactly she should care was another question altogether, and not something she wanted to look at too closely. The fact that she was very aware of Michael's arm against her own at the crowded table was also making her uncomfortable. She glanced at her watch, and saw that it was after 1 AM.

With something close to relief, Sloan said to Michael, "It's getting late. Would you like me to drive you back to your office, or may I take you home?" It wasn't until she had said it that she realized it might be misinterpreted as an invitation to something more personal. Hastily, she amended, "I mean - if you don't feel like driving, I could drop you anywhere you like."

Michael smiled faintly, pretending not to notice Sloan's discomfort. "Actually, I took the train in this morning. At this hour, I'm going to need a cab."

"Nonsense," Sloan said firmly. "I'll take you home. It's no trouble at all. Are you ready?"

Michael glanced over and saw Sarah and Jasmine engaged in animated discussion, Sarah's hand resting lightly on Jasmine's forearm. Most of the patrons had begun making their way toward the door, and with some regret she realized that the evening had come to an end. "Yes, of course," she said, quickly rising.

They called good night to Sarah and Jasmine, and got rather absent-minded waves as the two of them continued in intense conversation with scarcely a break. Sloan smiled at her two friends, and lightly took Michael's hand to lead her through the crowd.

"They seem to be very good friends," Michael remarked casually as she and Sloan stepped out onto the street. She was still holding Sloan's hand, and it was surprising strong, smooth and warm against her skin. It wasn’t at all unpleasant, that soft sure touch.

"They just met not long ago," Sloan informed her, "but they do seem to get along very well." She didn’t ordinarily discuss Jason and Jasmine’s connection, and although she thought Michael might understand, she changed the subject. "I'm really glad that you enjoyed the show."

As she spoke, she released her grip on Michael's fingers, disengaged the alarm on the Porsche with her remote, and opened the passenger door for Michael.

"Oh, I did," Michael replied, settling into the front seat and strapping on her seat belt. She shifted in the seat so she could face Sloan as she drove. "Thank you for inviting me."

For a moment, Sloan was uncomfortable, very aware that Michael had just contracted for her to do a job, and that she didn't know her very well. Usually when she was alone with a woman she felt a little more certain of her moves. Tonight had been different. Michael Lassiter was not someone with whom you indulged in a casual dalliance. Sloan had a feeling that Michael wouldn't even know the rules. She glanced at Michael, surprised anew by her quiet elegance and composure. Grinning, she said, "Sorry if the evening took you a little by surprise."

"Not at all," Michael laughed. "Once I figured out that the most beautiful women were all men, and all the handsome ones were really women, I wasn't confused at all."

"Well that's the first time I ever heard it put quite that way, but it does seem to sum it up." She looked at Michael and said without thinking, "Except for you. You're very beautiful, and most definitely not a man."

Michael stared, her skin flushing hot at the compliment. If Jeremy had ever called her beautiful, he'd never said it in exactly that tone. There was something slightly sensuous in the way Sloan said it. Michael watched the moonlight flicker across the other woman's face and realized at that moment that handsome was exactly the right word for J. T. Sloan. She was not exactly masculine, but beautiful was not a strong enough word for her attractiveness. She was lean and muscled, with features too chiseled to be anything but androgynous. Michael realized she was staring, and forced her gaze away.

"Thank you," she said softly, not knowing what else to say.

The Porsche hurtled through the night, each of them very aware of the other, neither of them feeling the need to break the silence. When Sloan pulled into the circular drive in front of a large stone mansion in one of the older, wealthier sections of the city, Michael was strangely disappointed. She glanced up at the familiar edifice and realized how cold and impersonal it seemed. Lights were lit in strategic windows, turned on and off at irregular intervals by the electronic timer. This gave the semblance of an inhabited home, when in fact she and Jeremy were rarely there at the same time. Often, their separate business obligations took them in opposite directions across the country for strategy or marketing meetings. Days would pass when one or both of them were out of town, or they would simply be coming and going at different times. They rarely shared a bed, and she noted with relief that his Ferrari was not in the drive. For some reason, she did not want to lie down next to him that night.

Sloan came around the front of the car and opened the passenger door. As Michael stepped out, Sloan said, "I was planning on spending some time in your offices tomorrow. Can you notify security in the morning and let them know to expect me?"

"You don't need to worry about that. I'll be there working. Just tell them to call up for verification when you come in."

Ignoring the slight surge of pleasure that statement provoked, Sloan simply nodded. "Good night then, Ms. Lassiter," she said softly, her deep voice oddly husky. She resisted the strong urge to brush her fingers across Michael's cheek.

Michael hesitated for moment, leaning forward almost imperceptibly, drawn by the quiet intensity of Sloan's tone. Finally, she simply smiled, and walked away. Sloan climbed back into the car, but she did not drive off until the massive front door had closed firmly behind Michael Lassiter's figure. Even then, the memory of that parting smile lingered in her mind.



Chapter Six

At nine the next morning, Sloan walked down the brightly lit, cavernous central corridor of Michael's high-tech corporate complex. Small warrens of offices, conference rooms, and lounges branched off at irregular intervals. The hallway terminated on the east side of the building, with Michael's corner suite occupying a large part of that section. Sloan was surprised to see someone working in the outer office adjoining Michael's. A woman stood behind a large horseshoe-shaped reception desk sorting through a deep file cabinet, her back to Sloan.

"Excuse me," Sloan called, assuming that this was Michael's secretary. "Ms. Lassiter is expecting me."

The woman turned, glanced at Sloan, and then uttered a small cry of surprise. Her eyes widened, and a faint blush stole across her attractive features. "Oh my God. Sloan! What are you doing here?"

"Hello Angela," Sloan replied calmly, hiding her surprise with a cool expression. "I'm working. I'm surprised you didn't know that."

Sloan wasn't certain exactly how much Michael Lassiter had confided, and she certainly didn't want to give the impression that an explanation was in order. "I didn't realize that you work here."

Angela shrugged, a slightly bitter smile tugging at her lips. "Considering that I haven't talked to you in almost 2 1/2 years, I'm not surprised. Of course, you were never particularly interested in the details of my life. As I recall, your interests were somewhat more limited."

Sloan thought she probably deserved that, considering that she had rather abruptly ended her liaison with Angela Striker. They had dated a few times after meeting at some local political event. Angela, however, demanded a degree of exclusivity in her romantic partners that Sloan had found impossible to provide. She thought the better part of valor was to end the relationship quickly before both of them regretted it. Nevertheless, she said nothing now. She had learned over the years that attempting to defend her actions where bruised egos and dashed dreams were concerned was futile. It was simply easier to let them believe that she didn't care.

"So, is she ready for me?" Sloan questioned, indicating the closed door behind Angela.

A look of irritation flickered over Angela's face, and then she abruptly shrugged it off. "I don't know. Let me check with her and see."

A minute later Sloan stood once again across the wide expanse of luxurious office space from Michael Lassiter, who was looking casual that morning in beige slacks and a cashmere vee-neck pullover of darker brown. Sloan tried to ignore the obvious fact that Michael wasn't wearing anything of substance underneath the delicate sweater.

"Hi," she said.

Michael smiled in welcome, "Good morning."

Sloan deposited her briefcase next to the computer console, then glanced over her shoulder at Michael. "Have you been here long?"

She looked away uncomfortably. "A while. I had trouble sleeping."

"I'm sorry," Sloan said, meaning it. She had had a rather hard time getting to sleep herself the night before. She had found herself walking aimlessly through her loft apartment, the lights out, patches of moonlight the only illumination. She was strangely restless. She kept thinking about the evening, and the drive to Michael's. It had been a long time since she had spent so many hours with a woman when at least one of them hadn't been bent on seduction. But it hadn't been like that with Michael. There had been something in the air – her skin had tingled with it, but it hadn't been sex. Not the simple phermonally-inspired attraction she was used to. It might have been something as simple as the fact that she liked Michael Lassiter. And she didn't like to think of this quietly self-contained woman alone in the night, awake and worried. She straightened her shoulders, and blew out a breath. "Well, let me get to work and maybe I can give you a little peace of mind about this stuff at least."

"There's fresh coffee," Michael offered.

"Thanks, I'll get some in a minute," Sloan mumbled distractedly, already seated at the central console, rapidly typing in commands.

Michael watched her for a moment, enjoying the look of utter concentration on her face. She was also thinking how relaxed and at home Sloan looked in her faded jeans and slightly frayed at the cuffs white button-down shirt. The battered brown boots looked lived-in and completed the picture of a woman who couldn't have cared less about making the usual professional statement. No power suits in appearance here. Michael wondered if Sloan had any idea what an appealing image her obvious confidence projected. After a moment, she got up and filled two ceramic mugs with coffee and carried one over to Sloan.

"Black okay?" she asked, setting the mug down near Sloan's right hand.

"Huh?" Sloan replied, not looking away from the monitor. Then the aroma of very good French Roast caught her attention and she glanced up at Michael. "You aren't supposed to be waiting on me," she admonished with a winning grin, "but thanks."

Michael smiled. "It's the least I can do to repay you for last night."

Sloan swiveled on the chair to face her, her violet eyes serious. "You don't need to thank me. I enjoyed every minute."

Michael blushed. She had no idea why that pleased her so much. "I'd better let you work," she said softly, turning away.

It was some minutes before Sloan could concentrate on the diagnostics she was running, and even then she was acutely aware of Michael across the room, sketching something out on her drafting table. That undercurrent in the air that made her skin tingle was back again. She diligently determined to ignore it.

"Well, well, well," Sloan remarked almost to herself after a few moments.

Michael looked up from her work, noting the slight frown on Sloan's face. "What is it?"

Sloan held up one hand, indicating for her to be patient while she perused several windows which she had open on the screen. "Last night before we left I added a second level intrusion blocker to the firewall you already had on your system, just to see if there was any activity. It looks like you've got people trying to slip in the back door."

Michael put down her pencil, turned on the high stool and regarded Sloan intently. "Is it something serious?" she asked after a moment.

Sloan shrugged. "Not necessarily. There are literally thousands of people around the world who are constantly attempting to hack into other people's systems, just for the fun of it. They run programs that try to find open networks, either private or corporate. When they do, a scout program is launched that basically opens files on the systems and allows the hacker to read through them. I assume that your entire system is networked, internally and between your other companies."

"Yes, at least most of the areas dealing with marketing and development are." Michael confirmed. "We have so many interdivisional conferences, as well as design overlaps between the various physical plants, that it seemed wiser that way. The financial and personnel divisions are only accessible here, at the corporate headquarters, but to be honest I never inquired as to exactly how they are secured."

"Never mind. I'll be looking at that." Sloan leaned back in her chair and rubbed her face with both hands. She needed another cup of coffee, but she was reluctant to ask for it. She had been a little surprised when Michael brought her the first one. She wasn't used to anyone looking after her in that way.

"The way you’ve set things up is probably easier," she continued, "but it makes you more vulnerable as well. What about your home systems? How many people can access the company network from their private computers?"

Michael laughed at the absurdity of that thought. "Oh god, I don't know. Hundreds probably. At first we weren’t even networked, and then as our numbers grew, and we needed to be able to reach each other, we just hobbled things together. We never had anyone overhaul the entire network. Didn’t seem to need to." She slid off the stool and crossed to Sloan's working area, picking up her empty coffee cup. In the small alcove where the very expensive little French bistro coffeemaker was located, she poured them each another cup, then returned to stand by Sloan's left shoulder. She deposited the cup and stared at the screen. "Can you tell who it is?"

"Given enough time, probably," Sloan admitted. She reached for the coffee gratefully. "Thanks," she said quietly.

"I'm afraid if I make too obvious an attempt to lock others out of the system, particularly Jeremy, it will merely raise his suspicions," Michael mused. "I don't want to do anything until you have my critical data safe."

Sloan nodded, understanding that the urgency for security had to be balanced against the larger issue of Michael's personal situation. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to pry, but what do you think he's likely to do?"

Michael edged her hip onto the corner of the broad workstation that held the array of electronic equipment. She sighed, her blue eyes troubled. "I don't know."

Sloan looked up at her, confused. How could a woman not have some idea what her husband would do when she left him? Could it be possible that she knew so little of him, or he of her? Suddenly, she had a very uneasy feeling. "As he ever been--," she hesitated, then asked softly, "physical?"

For a moment, Michael looked uncertain, then she blushed faintly. "No, never. He has something of a temper, though generally when he's angry he simply becomes colder and more remote. I believe he thought that the worst thing he could do to me would be to abandon me, shut me out."

There was just a hint of pain and bewilderment in her voice, and Sloan had the feeling that Michael's husband had been correct. He had known exactly what to do to hurt her. For a moment, she despised him. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked that."

Michael placed her hand softly on Sloan's shoulder, saying, "It's all right. It doesn't matter to me anymore."

Sloan nodded, and turned back to the computer. She needed to concentrate on what she had been hired to do, and stop worrying about Michael Lassiter's personal life. It wasn't up to her to erase that shadow of unhappiness in Michael's eyes, or to ease the sadness that was so often present in her voice. "Let me work on this a while, and maybe I can give you some kind of answer to this problem at least."

Michael sat silently, aware that she had been dismissed. She was a little surprised that it hurt. When Sloan failed to look up again, she moved quietly away. They did not speak again except to say goodbye.




Return to The Bard's Corner