Chapter One

Sean Moore handed Jade Rivers her overnight bag. “Are you sure you don’t want me to go with you?” She didn’t like the idea of Jade traveling without her, especially hundreds of miles.

“I told you, I’ll be fine. The studio will have a car waiting for me, and they have their own security. I’ll be perfectly safe. Stop worrying so much or you’ll end up with an ulcer.”

Sean still felt uneasy, but Jade got to call the shots unless the circumstances were dire. “I spoke with the head of security yesterday. He assured me they could handle it.”

Jade rolled her eyes. “I would have thought by now you’d have loosened up.”

“Just doing my job.”

“I know, and I hope this is the last trip for a while,” Jade said. “I’d much rather be writing.”

“Have a safe trip.”

Sean sat in the idling silver Lexus and watched Jade enter the Washington Dulles Airport terminal before she pulled away from the curb and headed for the highway. This was one of the rare nights she was free, and her body thrummed with pent up energy. It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy what she did for a living. It had been pure luck when she’d come across the ad on the exclusive website for a bodyguard/assistant with experience. Jade had been impressed by her Secret Service training, and they’d hit it off right away. She’d fallen into an easy rhythm with Jade’s schedule, often spending an entire day running errands or escorting Jade to a charity event where organizers knew they could cash in on her notoriety. But as much as she enjoyed her job and all it entailed, she cherished the occasional break from the hectic schedule. Sean ate, slept, and breathed Jade Rivers, and that wasn’t good. That wasn’t good at all.

Sean pressed the accelerator and her pulse jumped. The car shot along the outside lane, and her hair blew as the cool spring air rushed in. The heat in her lower stomach intensified along with visions of her destination. She eased back slightly, mindful of traffic and the possibility of flashing lights behind her. The police would only slow her impending pleasure. She should have gone back and picked up her own car, but the delay would have made her late, and she needed the escape. Needed to let go. Needed to vanquish thoughts of Jade.

The isolated hotel on the outskirts of the next town was far away from the public eye. An immaculate and expensive place, the owners were well aware of their clientele, making it a haven for people just like her. People who had needs beyond the obligations of work or family. The staff didn’t ask questions or raise eyebrows. She appreciated their no-nonsense approach to their guests. After parking and turning off the engine, she took a breath, then another. Her pulse slowed, and her heart no longer hammered in her chest. Dropping her guard was difficult. It didn’t seem to be getting any easier the longer she was away from the agency. She sent off a quick text, glanced at the clock on her dash, and then nodded.I’m off duty.

The woman behind the concierge desk greeted her with a simple nod and pleasant smile before handing over a small envelope with a number written on the outside: 4102. She smiled. That particular room had been the scene of a very memorable evening, and she couldn’t help but hope for a repeat tonight. She pressed the up arrow and waited, combing her hair with her fingers. Her spine tingled in anticipation. Impatient, she glanced at the staircase a second before the doors slid open. Sean stepped inside and rolled her shoulders, willing the last vestiges of tension from them. How much longer she could continue with these superficial arrangements was anyone’s guess. For now, it was all she needed. She would take and give what she wanted to a willing partner. What more could I ask?She didn’t really want to know the answer.

There were only two doors on the fourth floor. The one she wanted was on the far left. The keycard snicked the lock and Sean pushed the door open, leaving her world, her life, and her responsibilities behind. Freedom.She didn’t want to think about what it had cost her. The feeling was one she still struggled with at times. Being married to the Secret Service took its toll. Sometimes her psyche suffered.

“Trace.” The woman wearing a black silk negligee walked toward her holding a tumbler containing two fingers of scotch, her usual greeting. “It’s good to see you,” she said as she reached for Sean’s jacket.

Sean never used her real name when she was here. She drank a healthy portion and leaned down, nipping at the woman’s full bottom lip. “Kyle, the pleasure is always mine.” She stared at the flash of expectation glazing Kyle’s green eyes. Tonight, Kyle would be whoever she wanted her to be. Tonight, Sean would take her, fill her, and make her beg for more. Tonight, she didn’t need to rein in her emotions, or remember her place, or keep her longings secret. For one night, all she had to do was live in the moment.

 

v

 

Jade settled into her seat and sighed. One more show. If it weren’t for her contract stipulating a certain amount of public appearances, she’d be at home writing. It was her passion and her only love. She had no desire to stop and planned to write for years to come. She was born to be an author. Her childhood home had been filled with books, and the older she got, the more she loved to read. Books had become her friends, helping her overcome the ridicule and teasing by her classmates. She’d been known as the geek of words because reading and writing were her favorite subjects when everyone else groaned about them. She had a lot of fond memories about writing, and it was something that had made her life a little more bearable. Of course, back then she didn’t know that writing was an art. Art was what hung on the wall or was scribbled on paper with crayons. Her fourth grade teacher had changed her mind. After reading her writing assignment out loud, Mrs. Barnes had graced her with a smile, and at the end of class she asked Jade to stay behind. Jade had been nervous she’d done something wrong. She slipped into the cherished memory as she stared out at the runway.

 

“Jade,” Mrs. Barnes began. “Do you like doing these assignments?” Mrs. Barnes held up the two pages of her story.

“You mean homework?” Jade asked. As much as she liked what she’d written, she didn’t like having to spend her afternoons doing them.

“Well, I’m not sure anyone likes homework.” 

“I mean writing stories like this one.”

Jade had thought it might be a trick question and studied her teacher’s face before answering. “Yes, ma’am.”

Mrs. Barnes gently patted her hand. “That’s good, because you have a real talent here. Have you ever thought about being a writer?”

 

A familiar voice brought her back to the present, and she turned to look at the person speaking.

“Ms. Rivers, can I get you anything before we take off?” The flight attendant bent over just enough to show Jade a little cleavage, giving her a hint of what else might be hidden beneath the loose blouse.

“No, thank you. Maybe later.” First class had plenty of benefits, and personal attention was definitely one of them. Jade wasn’t interested in the perks.

The attendant nodded before moving on to the next passenger.

Jade flew the same airline to most of her destinations and knew many of the staff by their first name. She also knew their jobs were anything but easy and made a point of not being demanding. Nothing pissed her off more than a well-known individual acting as though the world, and others in it, should be bowing at their feet.

Once they reached cruising altitude, she opened her laptop, hoping to get a solid hour of writing in. She glanced at the small pop-up window on the screen and clicked to open it, smiling as she read it.

“Eat something.”

Sean.She sent a quick email thanking Sean for the reminder. She was the best part of Jade’s life—aside from her writing. Sean anticipated her needs long before she did. I should give her a raise. She’d been lucky to find her so soon after contacting the discreet employment agency at the recommendation of her publicist. At first she had scoffed at the idea of having a bodyguard, but the altercation she’d been involved in had gotten her attention. That, along with a series of articles citing recent attacks on LGBTQ advocates in the community, the last of which had resulted in death, had been the deciding factor. Her name’s addition to the New York Times Best Sellers list proved to be lucrative in many ways, including an extensive publishing contract. Unfortunately, that same attention had prompted the zealots to profess her as evil and a promoter of all things cursed, including lesbianism, but it had been her first mainstream panel discussion and she’d been riding a high, not focusing on who was in the crowd. Being in the limelight wasn’t all glamour and glitz. So much for liberal times.

It had been mere luck that she’d escaped with just a few bruises and a couple of stitches. After she’d interviewed several candidates for the position of driver and personal assistant along with being her bodyguard, she’d almost given up—until she’d met Sean…

 

“Your credentials are impressive,” Jade said.

“I’ve done my best in every assignment.” Sean was quiet for a short time. “Would you tell me what happened to prompt you to seek out a bodyguard?”

It was a fair question. One a good protection person would want to know. “I was going to an LGBTQ event. My first one since the series that got me into the mainstream public eye. It was also the time there were a number of anti-gay activists making their displeasure known. They showed up at the event with placards calling me names I prefer not to repeat, and one thing led to another. I happened to be in the front of my group. A woman started yelling and cursing. She ended up becoming aggressive, and someone pushed her. She thought it was me and started hitting me, first with her bible, then with her fists.”

She flipped through the pages one more time, though she didn’t need to. The memory of that day stuck with her. She knew she’d been lucky to escape with the few injuries she had. “This will be your first time in the private sector. Is that correct?” Jade wanted to see if Sean would give a reason for leaving the Secret Service. As far as she knew, it was a lucrative and well-respected job.

Sean straightened and took her time answering. “It is, but I have no doubt I can fill the requirements.”

Sean wasn’t going to be pushed into a proverbial corner, and Jade admired her even more. She hadn’t been very happy about being shoved in one herself, but after the attack, she didn’t have a strong argument against hiring someone. “I don’t doubt your abilities.” She tapped the papers in front of her. “I’m worried you’ll find the change of pace boring and move on to a job with the kind of rush you must be used to with the Secret Service. My life is rather sedate in comparison.”

Sean uncrossed her legs and leaned forward. “I assure you, sedate would be a welcomed change.”

 

Even though there’d been very little guarding, Sean proved to be the perfect solution. With her background, training, and attention to details, Sean missed nothing, which left Jade time to concentrate on writing and the demands her soar to fame required. She’d even gone as far as speaking with the detective who’d been assigned to her case when she returned home. There had been a new hate crime subdivision whose focus was interviewing LGBTQ-targeted victims, and even though Jade had felt comfortable talking to the detective, she wished Sean had been there. She could have used her solid, steady presence at the time. Sean was everything she’d hoped for—and more. She had no patience for the idiots driving in today’s traffic. So much so, she’d thought about selling her car at one point. She no longer worried about being in close quarters with the public and interacted with them on a regular basis.

Over the last year, Sean had taken on a multitude of other tasks she despised, like grocery shopping and making travel arrangements for them both, but not this time. Jade had insisted she could handle the trip to New York City alone. Sean deserved time to do whatever she wanted without having to cater to her every whim, although Jade had to admit that she rather liked the arrangement. Jade made light of the chance the plane would be sabotaged to take out a lesbian. Sean hadn’t shared her humor but acquiesced when Jade made it clear she wasn’t asking. She wondered what Sean would do with her time.

As far as Jade knew there’d never been an overnight guest at Sean’s apartment above the garage, and Jade had never seen her with a woman. Perhaps she’d been wrong in her assumption that Sean was a lesbian. If she wasn’t, Jade really needed to check her radar. It was way off the mark. It would be a shame to find out Sean’s androgynous beauty was going to waste. I could certainly figure out what to do with her.Jade had to admit she’d been drawn to Sean from the start. It wasn’t just her looks, though one could argue that was plenty enough reason. She was tall and lean with bright blue eyes and short black hair, and not the type of woman Jade was normally attracted to, but she felt an undeniable pull. Not to mention her impeccable manners and her fashion sense. She cared about how she presented herself, much in the same way Jade did, so she never worried about public perception. Jade had grown up to learn that appearance was often the litmus for people’s opinion of her. Sean’s role was clearly defined by everything she did. Sometimes Jade wished otherwise.

“If only,” she muttered.

Sean was too honorable to share Jade’s bed, and she understood why. Sean would never compromise her integrity.

Jade clicked on the file folder and read the last paragraph she’d edited. The character resembled Sean in some ways. Whether it had been on purpose or happened subconsciously, she couldn’t be sure. The character shared Sean’s clandestine personal life, and she couldn’t help thinking even Sean had to have physical release every now and again. Her gut twisted at the thought, and she wondered if she should change what she’d written.

Jade never left the question of her own sexuality to speculation. She was a lesbian who wrote lesbian fiction. Women sent her emails and letters all the time, praising her work. They admired the characters and the heat of their romances. Somewhere in the cyber world, some of those reviews had made it into mainstream publishing, and the heterosexual population had grabbed hold of her intrigue series, Flights of Fantasy. Now they were demanding the next one while the paper was still warm on her last release. The attention was flattering and the dream of every genre author. But at the same time, she wished she could take a break from the public eye. Sometimes she didn’t feel like playing nice, but she didn’t have much choice. Even though it hadn’t been directed at her, she’d had to deal with enough nasty public reaction with her father’s scandalous behavior. She wanted no part of that for herself.

Focus. She poised her hands over the keyboard. With any luck, she could pound out a few pages on her current work in progress, bringing her closer to satisfying her eager readers with the next installment in the series. The familiar tingle along her spine was a harbinger of her creative juices clicking into place and the promise of a productive session. In her mind, she’d written the next scene over and over until she was satisfied. Now it was time to put it to paper. She smiled and settled into the comfortable space she visited when creating. The pages flashed before her, and she was pleased how the elements were coming together. When this bit of writing was out of the way, she could relax and concentrate on the promotional stuff ahead. For a moment, she wished she’d let Sean come, but she shook off the feeling. She was fine on her own.

 

Chapter Two

On the flight home, Jade read the last paragraph she’d typed for Beyond the Dare, pleased with the results. The TV interview had been fun. The host was well prepared, and the live audience had engaged with her. As usual, they’d asked questions about her process. She’d answered similar questions for months including the most common one, wanting to know where she got her ideas. Others were a bit more complicated.

“What led you to write in the first place?” one audience member asked.

“I sold my internet business and made enough of a profit that I could pursue my real passion—writing.”

“Where do you live?”

Jade wasn’t about to give out her address, but she was truthful. “I don’t like extravagance, so I bought five acres with a modest home and created the perfect space for my creativity to flow.”

It was all true, and she’d learned over time to open up about things that weren’t too personal in order to bond more with her readership.

There’d been excited shouts when the guests who had asked her questions received signed copies of Unspoken Desires, the first book in her Flights of Fantasy series. The small gesture was always appreciated, and it boosted her sales for a few weeks. Another reason her publicist/agent encouraged her to do so many events.

She hadn’t even noticed the seat next to her was empty, a rarity these days, until she was midway through the flight. It had been nice to have been spared entertaining another boring suit whose sole interest was hitting on her. She jotted a few notes in the small notebook she carried with her wherever she went. Some things still had to be done the old-fashioned way because it reminded 
her of the teenage hours she’d spent in her room writing, and she loved the way the clean paper was soon covered with her handwriting.

When the captain announced they would be landing soon, Jade saved her work, powered off, and stowed away her prized possession—the laptop she used to craft all her stories with love and passion. Sadly, it also served as a reminder of how little either existed in her real life. Maybe I should join a writers’ group.For as many times as she wished she had another person to discuss chapters with, there were an equal amount she yearned to be in the arms of a partner.

Melancholy washed over her. The reason she had so much to give in her novels was because there was no woman in her life on which to bestow those feelings. She hid details of her personal life from friends and family alike, though she sorely lacked the latter. A distant cousin here and an uncle she couldn’t identify with there. As for friends, they were more like acquaintances. If everyone knew how alone she really was, there would be questions she didn’t want to answer. Why are you alone? How can you write without experiencing? Why do you appear not to care about having different women on your arm whenever you go out?

The answer was simple. She’d chosen to pour her heart out in black and white, rather than red. Words were the color of passion for her. She’d never found a mate who matched her drive or aspiration to do great things with her life. At least, not one she’d had a chance with. Rachael had been the only one she’d thought it even possible. When she died, she’d stolen Jade’s desire for commitment. Sure, there were women who shared in her physical pleasures. Companions she called on for social gatherings. They were superficial relationships at best. I must be getting old.She was tiring of the game. Of constantly opening the front door only to be greeted by emptiness.

Jade gathered her things and exited the plane, hoping the car was waiting to take her back to her familiar, albeit lonely, haven. Her home in Bethesda was almost forty minutes from the airport, and she was never in the mood to make the drive herself. She walked out the baggage claim door to a welcoming smile.

She remembered the day Sean had taken up residence in the apartment. Her constant presence had become the one place she gravitated to when she needed grounding in the here and now, and although she’d initially refused the idea of a bodyguard, she was glad she’d conceded. She’d brought Sean to meet her publicist, Chad Farley, not long after, and Jade got the distinct impression Sean disliked him, though she never said anything. Perhaps it had been the unorganized mess of his office. Not at all the way Sean’s world worked. Everything was neat and organized, as she’d found out. Jade had brought an expensive bottle of wine to the apartment as a welcome and she’d been astonished Sean had everything unpacked within several hours of her arrival.

After hours of travel, Sean gave her a reason to smile. It was the only time she looked forward to the ride, and she felt her shoulders relax. She was home, and she was safe.

 

v

 

“Did you have a good flight?” Sean asked before taking Jade’s carry-on luggage and briefcase.

“The usual.” Jade settled in the back. “Did you enjoy your time off?”

Sean hesitated. She’d never told Jade how she spent her days off and had no intention to start now. “Yes, I did.” She pulled away from the curb before making eye contact in the rearview mirror, content Jade was again under her watch. The tension she’d tried to dispel with Kyle had served her body, but she hadn’t been able to quiet her unrest of not having Jade nearby, sure she was the only one able to protect her. “I saw your interview with Tanya Jones.”

“What did you think of it?”

“Quite interesting. You seemed to be at the top of your game, if I may say so. Tanya is an engaging host.” She maneuvered the car into the middle lane and set the cruise control.

Jade smiled. “Yes, I found her delightful. We had dinner together.”

Sean’s stomach muscles tightened. “She’s very beautiful.”

“I noticed. She’s also intelligent and curious about many things.”

Sean gripped the steering wheel tighter, wondering if Jade and Tanya had shared more than dinner. I can’t think about that. Just drive. She had to change the subject. “The audience appeared spellbound. Do you think most of them were lesbians?”

“I think more were straight women. Hopefully, their interest is piqued enough that they’ll buy my books and give glowing reviews.” Jade giggled. “The husbands are the ones in for a real shock when their vanilla wives suddenly demand more than the usual five minutes in search of the ultimate orgasm.”

“Yes, I imagine so.” Sean watched Jade swipe at her face. Fatigue showed on her usually placid features, and the fine lines rarely visible around her eyes and mouth were prominent. She seemed far more tired from the overnight trip than she should be. Something else was bothering Jade.

Their relationship was one of mutual respect, but there were times when the fine line between employer and employee was palpable. This felt like one of those instances and she didn’t question her, even though she’d like nothing more than to soothe the frown line from her forehead.

“We’ll be home shortly. Why don’t you close your eyes and relax?”

Jade leaned back, and a wisp of brown hair fell across her cheek, marking her otherwise creamy complexion in shadow.

Sean imagined how soft her skin would feel beneath her fingertips. Jade’s full, often pouty lips drew upward, and Sean wondered what she was thinking as her features softened and the tightness around her eyes smoothed. Even though she couldn’t see their color now, Sean easily envisioned them. They were nearly the same as Kyle’s dark green ones. If she focused only on Kyle’s eyes when they were together, she could pretend they were Jade’s. This wasn’t the first time she’d wondered if it was the reason she favored Kyle’s company over others. But like all the other times, she locked those thoughts away and focused on of the road in front of her.

 

v

 

Jade opened her eyes to find Sean lightly grasping her hand.

“Let me help you out.”

She knew Sean cared about her well-being, yet somehow it always surprised her. “I must have nodded off. Sorry.”

“No need to be sorry about being tired.”

Sean gently guided her from the car and closed the door.

Jade held her hand before Sean could move away. “Sometimes I wonder why you’re so good to me.” A kaleidoscope of colors unleashed in Sean’s cerulean eyes before she glanced downward. She felt Sean sway, the movement against her hand gently pulling, and she could see the pulse beating fast in her neck. Jade wondered what she was feeling.

“I can’t help caring about you, especially the times you forget to do it.” Her gaze lingered on Jade’s lips, and when she looked up, Jade could see her desire for connection as clearly as if she’d written it on her skin. Her hand fell away and she stepped back, as if to put real distance between them. She grabbed Jade’s bag and took the steps two at a time to the front door.

Jade’s jumbled thoughts of Sean threatened her sanity, and she pushed them away as she watched Sean jog up the steps with her heavy bag as though it were nothing. Everything she did seemed effortless. There were times she’d had a chance to study Sean’s well-developed muscles and firmly defined body, times when Sean was taking care of things for Jade and didn’t know she was being watched. She was exactly the kind of woman Jade could fall for, if she was ever going to fall for someone again. She looked at her front door as she climbed the steps and could sense the specter of emptiness waiting for her.I’m being ridiculous. I have a great life.She stiffened her back and smiled at Sean, who waited for her. “Thank you. I know it’s just words, but I appreciate everything you do.”

Sean gave a small mock bow in acknowledgment and grinned. “Your words are your life. I cherish them all.” She stepped back outside onto the porch.

“Good night, Sean. Sleep well.” Jade closed the door after Sean turned and waved before running down the steps again. She faced the silence by pushing her suitcase along and began to strip the minute she hit her bedroom. Once she was naked, she stood in front of the bathroom mirror, studying her reflection. She had a couple of pounds to be shed. Jade slid her hand over her barely rounded belly. There was a time when she despised the slight outward curve. At forty-one, she found the feminine feature sexy and gravitated to women who weren’t self-conscious of their bodies, no matter what form they took. She looked over her shoulder to admire her ass. She’d always considered it her best physical feature, and the years hadn’t really changed that.

Her cell chirped, and she sighed. It was probably her publicist wanting to comment on the interview. He knew her every move. There were times she wished he’d get a life of his own. Jade hopped on her bed and swiped the screen.

“Hello.”

The heavy breathing from the other end annoyed her, and she was convinced it was one of her fellow writers playing with her. She tried to keep her tone even, but she was too tired to play along. “Who is this? Chad, is this you? Look, I know you think you’re funny, but I’m in no mood to—”

“No, it’s not Chad.” The female voice was eerily calm, but it had a cutting edge. “Who the fuck is Chad?” the woman asked before moaning in some weird parody of passion.

“If you don’t know then you have the wrong number.” Jade hung up, irked. This wasn’t the first time she’d received a wrong number call, but she found the childish game of crank calls tiresome. She tossed the phone aside. It rang again, and the screen displayed “unknown number.” She was unable to hide her anger this time. “Who is this?” Jade grabbed her robe. There was a distinct chill in the house she hadn’t noticed earlier.

“A fan.” The voice on the other end sounded like it was panting. “You make me want to come.”

Jade couldn’t help being amused. The moans quickened, and the woman’s breathing became labored. She was about to hang up when the caller’s question got her attention.

“Why do you do it?”

The voice was female, but she was speaking low, with a deep, raspy timbre. She tried to think of the women she knew who possessed the same type of voice.

She should hang up. It made no sense to play along, but she liked the attention, even when it went against her better judgment. When has that ever stopped me?“Do what?” Jade asked.

“Make women crave you.” A gasp was followed by the unmistakable sounds of the woman climaxing.

“I’m glad you enjoy the books. You should have a really good time with my next one.” She disconnected the call.

A disturbing tingle ran up her spine, and she wondered how the woman found her cell number. She’d taken the usual precautions and listed it under a false name, as Sean had instructed. It would be a pain in the ass if she had to have the number changed. 

She was about to step into the shower when she remembered she hadn’t set the alarm. She’d never been afraid in her house and she wasn’t about to start now, but that was no reason to throw caution to the wind. She shrugged into her robe again and padded on bare feet to the keypad just inside her bedroom. Relief washed over her when the readout changed to “entries secured.”

The sudden bout of nerves annoyed her. She was emotionally and physically drained. The phone calls topped off her already dour mood. Dinner with Tanya had left Jade with the distinct feeling Tanya wanted more than dinner, but she hadn’t been in the mood, and her lack of interest in the beautiful woman troubled her. She dropped her robe to the floor and stepped into the shower; the heat and steam enveloped her in ways she rarely allowed women to do. She preferred to take control in bed, but on rare occasions she would give it up for the right woman, which made her think of Sean.

Jade soaped her sponge and let the rough texture scrub the grime of travel from her sensitive skin and the emotional stickiness from her mind. As she moved it over her breasts her nipples came to life, and she teased them into hard points. The sponge forgotten, she raised her leg to the built-in seat and slid her fingers along the slick folds to her stiff clitoris, gasping at the level of her arousal. She braced her hand on the wall and turned her back to the spray. She stroked her engorged folds and circled her entrance, alternately squeezing and rubbing her hard knot. It didn’t take long for her to come. She rested her head against her arm and sobbed at the hollow loneliness that filled her.

 

Chapter Three

Sean drove the car into the garage, and the door slowly hid her from the outside world. With her head in her hands, she contemplated her situation. She’d fought the urge to outright run after Jade said good night. She had a job to do and she would recommit herself to honor the agreement they’d made. More than once, she’d failed to keep the people she loved safe. She couldn’t let Jade fall to her carelessness because she was distracted.

The past was unchangeable, and she needed to let it go, along with the guilt that had followed her into the agency. She wasn’t Secret Service anymore. The future wasn’t written in stone. It was time she admitted her internal turmoil had to be remedied.

Sean got out of the car, then checked the alarm for the main house, remembering the robust discussions it had taken to convince Jade it wouldn’t do her any good if she didn’t use it. Stubborn.Her relief was palpable to see it was armed. Content Jade was safe, she climbed the stairs to her apartment. As much as she sometimes wished to be closer to Jade, she was grateful tonight for the distance. The constant push-pull between duty and unprofessional feelings was exhausting.

 

v

 

Jade pushed away from the desk and gazed out the window, unsure what was causing the restless feeling plaguing her, and tried to stretch the tightness from her shoulders. The day was clear and bright, full of the promise of things to come. Late May in the city meant warm days and clear, cool nights. Humidity wouldn’t settle in until later, maybe not until early July, if the residents were lucky. The cherry blossoms had come and gone, leaving their sweet scent to linger behind on the breeze. Most of the flowers around her neighborhood were in bloom, well ahead of the flowering season in northern states, like New York. Maybe she should plan a trip and take Sean with her this time. She put on a brave front when she had to, but in truth she liked knowing Sean was nearby.

Time to get away from looming deadlines. She dropped into her chair and stared at the blinking cursor. She couldn’t find the words to fill the page. She needed a distraction. Preferably female. Her calendar was empty for the next two weekends, a rare occurrence and one she should take advantage of. Her phone contacts held at least a dozen names of women who wouldn’t mind spending time with her. But picking one would be difficult. She needed someone who would stimulate her mind as well as her body, and they were few and far between. She closed her eyes and mentally flipped through the list of intimates before stopping on one. Madeline Cousins. She’d managed to catch her attention when so few did. An up-and-coming politician, her campaign run for mayor had included a fundraiser for a local LGBTQ shelter and Jade happened to be in the area. At the time, popular opinion pegged her as a strong advocate and a member of the same community, so she’d attended. The time they’d spent together later had made her damn glad she’d decided to attend, and for much better reasons.

Yes, Madeline would be a wonderful choice and a great distraction. Jade scrolled through her contacts till she found her number. After three rings, the smooth voice came through the phone.

“Jade. It’s been ages.”

She couldn’t help smiling at the idea of spending time in the familiar company of her friend, and relief washed over her. “I’m hoping to change that, Governor Cousins.”

 

v

Sean pressed the earbud when she saw Jade’s number on her screen. “Did you forget to put something on the list?” She pushed her cart down the produce aisle.

“Not this time. I need to know if you’re free the weekend of the thirtieth.”

Sean switched screens and scrolled through her calendar. “Yes. In town or out?” Sean chose the freshest items from the display bins.

“In. I was hoping you could cart my old ass and a guest around to see some of the sights.”

Sean’s gut tightened and she pushed down the jealousy that surged inside. Jade didn’t belong to her, and she certainly didn’t need Sean’s permission to have overnight guests. The nights Jade’s bedroom light stayed on long after her usual retiring time were the same nights Sean lay awake staring at the ceiling, wishing she was the one in Jade’s embrace. She forced her voice to remain casual. “Anyone I know?”

“I don’t think so, but you may know of her. Madeline Cousins is the governor of Massachusetts. We met a number of years ago.”

The governor. It was a good reminder of just how out of her league Jade was. She glanced at the butcher behind the counter before pointing to the Cornish game hens and holding up two fingers. “I’ll book out the dates and take you wherever you’d like to go.”

“Great! If there’s something you think an out-of-towner must see, let me know.”

Jade’s enthusiasm for spending time with another woman made Sean’s throat tighten. She swallowed around the knot. “Sure. I’ll be back soon.” She pressed the end button and stared at the blank screen.

“Would you like anything else?” The butcher held out the wrapped hens and smiled at her.

I’d like Jade.Sean took the package. “Not today. Thanks.” She had all she could deal with for the moment, and she needed to get her head in the right place before returning home.

She got in the car and turned the key. Once she was on the road again, her mind wandered. Maybe she should seriously consider if it was time for another job. One where she wouldn’t be in a constant tug-of-war with her emotions. Yeah, right.She would never leave unless Jade asked her to. The journey home had been on autopilot, and by the time she arrived at the main house, her predicament wasn’t any clearer. Thankfully though, the angst had receded, and she was back in control. The same control she fought to maintain on a daily basis, and one she’d keep fighting for to keep Jade safe.

She carried Jade’s groceries up the steps and keyed the lock. The door swung in and she nudged it closed with her hip. Jade reached for a bag, then headed toward the kitchen. Sean made sure to keep her eyes off Jade’s rather perfect ass.

“How much do you think I’m going to eat?” Jade piled items on the counter.

“You know as well as I do you’d forget to eat if I didn’t remind you.” She scowled. “There’s enough for breakfast and dinner for the week. You’re on your own for lunch.”

Jade bent over to stow the veggies and fruit in the refrigerator. This time Sean couldn’t help but admire her firm looking ass pressing against the thin material of her pants.

“I’ve got a tentative schedule for Madeline’s visit. I’ll go get it,” Jade said as she put the juice and creamer on the top shelf. “She’s going to confirm her flight info in the next couple of days.”

Sean’s back stiffened. So much for feeling in control. She didn’t really want to hear about Jade’s houseguest. Let it go. There were times she lost the battle against imagining just what Jade was up to in the early hours of the morning with some new woman. At least Sean had the pleasure of Jade’s company every day. She should be grateful. Jade returned and handed her a sheet of paper with a list of attractions in DC. The Smithsonian, the White House, the WW II Memorial.

“I’m leaving openings in case you have suggestions. I also need to make dinner reservations, but I’m not sure where.”

“What about Cedar? You enjoyed it the last time you were there.”

“That’s a great choice.” Jade’s eyes sparkled with obvious excitement. Small lines appeared at the corners. “I can always count on you for an answer.”

Sean swallowed and met Jade’s gaze. She hid her disappointment at Jade’s enthusiasm behind a small smile. “Glad I can be of service.” She placed the last can in the pantry and folded the reusable bags. “If you don’t need anything else, I’ll get my stuff before it melts.”

Jade caught Sean’s forearm. “You should do yours first. I do know how to put away groceries. I’m not totally helpless. You don’t have to do everything, you know.”

The words stung. She didn’t think Jade meant to hurt her feelings, but with her heart playing with her mind, she felt a bit raw, and Jade’s teasing rubbed against the grain. “It’s what you pay me for,” she said, regretting how brusque the response sounded. Jade held on as she tried to move away.

“Hey.” Jade’s voice was soft, like a feather’s caress against her chaffed skin. “What’s going on?”

Her gaze met Jade’s and she fell into the shimmering pools of green. What could she say? I don’t want you to be with other women, even though I’m not interested in a relationship with anyone.Instead she shrugged. “I didn’t sleep well last night.” The words were lame, and she winced at the feeble excuse.

Jade’s eyes narrowed. “Okay. I don’t have anything going on for the next few days. Why don’t you take a little vacation? Spend some time away. You deserve it.”

The last thing Sean wanted to do was be away from Jade, but if it would help break the unintentional spell Jade had on her, maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea. “Maybe you’re right. I’ll let you know.”

Jade let go. Her smile looked forced. “Good.”

Sean didn’t move. She stared at the curves of Jade’s retreating figure.

Jade glanced back at her, clearly puzzled. “Sean?”

Startled out of her daze, she looked up. “Huh?”

“Your groceries?”

“Right. See you later.”

Sean shoved the piece of paper with the governor’s schedule into her pocket. What the fuck.She tossed the empty bags into the trunk and grabbed the two remaining before slamming it closed with a resounding thud. She hoped Jade had bought her excuse for her dismal mood. Something had to give, or at the very least she had to find an outlet for her emotions in a more constructive way. Distraction could be deadly.

 

v

 

Jade worried there was something wrong. Sean never appeared distracted, and even confessing she hadn’t slept well was uncharacteristic. Though they spent a fair amount of time together, she didn’t know her all that well, and the knowledge was sobering. She considered Sean a friend, but perhaps that wasn’t true. Maybe she’d entertained fantasies about her because she was very different from the femmes Jade gravitated toward. If they weren’t friends, and theirs was purely the typical employer/employee relationship, it would help to explain why she didn’t know her on a more personal level. What did that say about what kind of a friend Jade was?

The dark shadows under Sean’s eyes confirmed there was more going on than she was willing to say. She hoped whatever was bothering her was temporary. She depended on Sean’s rock-solid presence when her world seemed in chaos.

While the Keurig brewed her afternoon fix, Jade thought about Madeline. She closed her eyes and memories of their prior time together flooded in. Madeline’s forceful demeanor in politics didn’t carry over in the bedroom. She’d been more than willing to let Jade take control of their sex play. She’d worked Madeline into a near frenzy, teasing her mercilessly until she begged for release, one Jade had taken immense pleasure in giving. She let the memory tickle her senses and awaken her body. Just the impetus she needed to get back to her novel. Mug in hand, she strode down the hall to her office, already writing the scene in her head.

 

v

 

Sean had a clear view of Jade leaning on the counter with her eyes closed; a soft, sexy smile played on her lips. Too soon, Jade moved away, taking her beauty with her and leaving Sean bereft of her company, even if it was from afar.

“Christ, Moore,” she mumbled. “Get your shit together.”

Maybe Jade was right. Maybe she needed distance from her for a while. The encounter with Kyle had been a nice distraction, but temporary. It’s time to have some real fun. The same promise Sean made for every activity she engaged in as an attempt to stop thinking of Jade. If Jade were interested, she’d be invited to share Jade’s bed. She shook her head. She knew better.

While her computer booted up, she thought about less frustrating topics. Her world was orderly, calculated, and precise. She planned ahead, weighed contingencies, and mapped out her moves, doing what she did best—forward thinking.

She opened the contacts in her email. She’d lost touch with most everyone, and given Jade’s crazy schedule, she hadn’t had time for socializing. She scrolled through the names. There were few she wanted to spend time with. Then a name jumped out at her. Dan Quinten had been her senior partner when she’d been sent into the field for her first assignment. They’d quickly formed a bond, and she’d found his open, forthright nature refreshing among the group in her division. He rarely smiled, but she didn’t miss the emotions he masked. Dan had a great sense of humor, too. She could use some levity.

She quickly drafted an email asking if he was in the DC area and if he had a day or two for an old friend. While her departure from the agency had caused many of her fellow agents to distance themselves, Dan hadn’t been one. He kept in touch with her via phone calls, texts, and the occasional email. He never broke protocol, obviously. He was too much of a professional to drop intel. Instead, he spoke in generalities she was capable of deciphering, and they took care in their responses, knowing once in the Secret Service, you never really dropped off the radar. She had no desire to know what was going on in the clandestine world of high-profile politics, or with who, but inside she was still an agent. Most likely she always would be. Sometimes the rush of a possible threat was the thing she missed most.

Sean stood. With nothing more to do but wait for a response, she still had hours ahead of her to fill. It had been ages since she’d gone for a long run and the weather was perfect. She striped off her clothes, laying them neatly across the bed, and put on black compression shorts, a sports bra, and a dry fit yellow tank top. Sean strapped her cell phone to her arm, then plugged in her earbuds and keyed up a favorite play list. At the bottom of the stairs, she stretched major muscle groups and tested her shoes. The anticipation of getting out of the apartment and emptying her mind as she made her legs propel her forward was just what she needed. Still, it took every ounce of willpower to keep from glancing at the house before she took off down the long driveway.

 

Chapter Four

Dan grasped Sean’s hand and pulled her in for a hug. “It’s good to see you. How have you been?”

“Good.” Sean blew out a breath at Dan’s raised eyebrow. He’d always been able to read her moods, and time hadn’t diminished his ability. “Okay. Not so great.” She was sure her smile appeared as phony as it felt.

“Woman trouble.” Dan took a long drink of his beer and leaned on the table across from her.

“Nice to see you haven’t lost your touch.” Sean swirled the amber liquid, letting the clink of ice break the silence between them before inhaling the smoky scent and sipping. The heat coursed through every vein, scorching a path. She’d had a conversation in her head before Dan had arrived. A clear direction on which to lead him to what had motivated her to call in the first place. They were all poor excuses, and now he stared at her, waiting—like he had all those years ago—for her to explain her rationale for handling a situation, wanting to know what made her tick.

“I wish it was just that.” She finished off her drink while Dan ordered another round. “When I was at the agency, my purpose was clear.”

“It’s not anymore?”

How could she explain being caught between duty and honor, and her own feelings? It wasn’t the first time she’d been there. He was very familiar with what happened with Lane. “It’s complicated.”

“Only if you make it that way.”

Danalways had an answer, but she wasn’t sure this was the one she wanted.

“So, who is it?” Dan stared at her with an intensity she remembered from those first months under his watchful eye.

She glanced at the ceiling. Maybe this hadn’t been such a great idea after all. Now that she was faced with revealing her feelings, she was having second thoughts.

“Come on, Moore. You didn’t contact me just because you missed my handsome face.”

She let out a hearty laugh. It was the first time she’d laughed in a while, and it felt good. The tension in her gut loosened a bit and she sat back. “Okay, okay. It’s Jade Rivers. My employer.”

Dan let out a low whistle. “Your charge? Geez, Sean. How did you get sucked into that situation?”

“I know. You’re right. I never should have let it happen. I should have been able to avoid it.”

Dan finished his beer and signaled the bartender for another. “Does she know?”

“No,” Sean said. She heard the panic in her voice and shook her head. “And I have no intention of telling her.” She’d played scenario after scenario in her head. None of them had a favorable outcome. The waitress placed fresh drinks on the table, and she downed the remainder of her tumbler.

“You’re not going to have a choice.”

“Why?”

Dan shrugged and tilted his beer at her. “You’re too honorable to keep it a secret.” He gestured to her face. “I imagine that’s the reason for the dark circles and the tremor.”

She glanced down at her hand on the table, knowing he was right. To a common spectator, it wouldn’t be visible, but nothing escaped his trained eye. Her gut churned. This was the real reason she’d sought him out. She needed validation that her emotions had progressed to the point she could no longer control them. And it had to end.

“I’m not going down that road. Not again. I’ll do everything I can to avoid it.” She shared a grin. “I was hoping I could count on you to help with a distraction.”

“You do realize I’m too old to do time. Right?”

“I’d make a great cell mate.” Sean poked his chest, and he let out a roar of laughter. She missed their time together. She needed to see him more often.

“You were always trouble.”

Sean couldn’t help thinking back to the day she’d decided her dream job had turned into a nightmare and she wanted out. Dan had stood by her decision, even though he hoped she’d reconsider. He reached for her wrist.

“Hey. I’m sorry, kid. I didn’t mean to stir up the ghosts.” Concern etched lines in his forehead and he frowned.

She chewed her bottom lip. “It’s okay. It happened. My choice. All of it.” She threw back the smoky alcohol. She was starting to get a pleasant buzz.

“If you could do it over, would you change anything?” Dan asked.

Her eyes closed and the details of the night she’d made her decision to leave came rushing back. She could still feel the gunshot slamming into her, hear the screams. The disbelief she’d felt. She’d wanted to take the shooter down, and ever since then she’d questioned the reason for her hesitation, vowing to never second-guess her instincts again. She shivered and shook the memory away.

Sean finally opened her eyes and stared at Dan. “Not a thing. Except making sure the bastard went down. One way or another.” She meant it. Once she’d made her decision to leave, the choice had felt right. Maybe because she was paying homage to her parents’ values of never selling herself short. If she’d stayed, that’s exactly what she would have been doing, and she refused to live her life in the shadow of corruption.

What was she doing now? Had she taken what she thought was an ideal position, only to find her judgment in error? Again? No. She’d taken the job for the right reasons—to protect Jade from unseen threats, and because she needed somewhere soft to land after finding out the agency wasn’t going to be her lifelong career after all. And she was quite capable of performing her duty, even under the most trying circumstances. What the future held, and what she might want if the day came when Jade no longer needed a bodyguard…that wasn’t something she was ready to think about.

“I thought you’d feel that way.” Dan finished his drink and signaled for still more. “If it’s any consolation, I share your thinking.” He clapped his hands together and leaned in. “So what kind of fun time do you have in mind?”

Sean smiled, putting the ghosts back into the part of her soul where no one could see. “Well, I was thinking…”

 

v

 

“How were your days off?” Jade asked. She glanced at Sean across the short span between them as they sat on the deck. The space was one of her favorites when they were together, and often the place they shared glimpses of their past. Perhaps because of its seclusion, it seemed like they both felt safe to let their guards down.

Sean’s mouth twitched, and her eyes sparkled. “It was a nice break.”

“You’re entitled.” Sipping her wine, she couldn’t help wondering if the weekend had included a woman. Or two. She pretended she didn’t care, acting relaxed when she was anything but. Curiosity, along with a little jealousy, almost led her to ask for details. Whatever Sean did is none of my business.The dark circles beneath Sean’s eyes had faded, and the haunted look in them had disappeared. She dismissed the subject as if she didn’t care. “Madeline sent her flight information. She’s looking forward to getting away from politics for a few days.”

“I can understand where she’s coming from.” Sean’s face clouded over.

“Something on your mind?” she asked.

“Nothing I can’t handle. I’ll review the itinerary and her flights tomorrow and let you know if I see any conflicts.” Sean finished her wine and poured more in both glasses.

Jade closed her eyes and turned her face to the fading sunlight. It would soon sink below the hills facing the back of her house, bathing the cloud-streaked sky in vivid orange and red. The silence was broken when she heard the sliding glass door snick open.

“Are you leaving before sunset?”

“You looked so peaceful. I thought you’d like to be alone.” Sean hesitated by the door, looking almost embarrassed at being caught leaving.

Jade got up and closed the distance between them. “I spend hours alone in front of a screen that’s blank except for the words I put there. When have I ever asked to be alone?” Jade couldn’t help the irritation in her voice. Sean was acting out of character. She was always so self-assured and always aware of Jade’s moods. But lately she seemed preoccupied. Realization hit Jade square in the chest, and she was taken aback. Perhaps Sean’s recent outings weren’t all errand based. Maybe she’d found a companion. One who made her reconsider her current employment. A woman who wasn’t thrilled that Sean was, part and parcel, obligated to the demands of a tenacious lesbian author with an erratic and demanding schedule. What if she leaves?

Sean’s face softened. “Jade, I didn’t mean to insult you. Most of the time your schedule is crazy, and I just thought…” Sean took her hand and led her to the railing. “Let’s not miss this.” She pointed to the horizon where the smallest arc of the sun was beginning the light show.

Her hand rested next to Sean’s on the railing, their bodies close. The sky turned fiery shades, bathing the landscape in its glow. She inhaled the scent of flowers and freshly mowed grass left over from this morning’s visit by the gardener. She and Sean waited until the light dimmed and the colors faded. She couldn’t resist taking Sean’s hand and squeezing it.

Sean refilled their glasses. “Tell me why you don’t have someone to share nights like this with. Other than your bodyguard, that is.” She raised her hand before Jade could answer. “If that’s not too personal.”

The question was sobering and led to the real reason she’d asked for Sean’s company. Maybe getting to know Sean better meant opening up herself. “I don’t mind. There was someone, once, but it’s been years since I lived with a woman. I’m not sure if I ever will again.” Jade swallowed around the hard lump in her throat. She usually avoided talking about Rachael. She still missed her.

“I’m sorry. I’ve obviously upset you. I didn’t mean to pry.” Sean’s concern was obvious as was the light touch on Jade’s hand.

“It’s okay. Really. It’s just been a while since I’ve told anyone about Rachael.” Jade fought back the tears that threatened to fall. “In fact, I’m not sure if anyone’s heard the whole story.”

“Do you want to tell me?” Sean waited, the wine in front of them forgotten.

“Rachael was my first love. I met her in college during my second year. She was a transfer and ended up in my dorm. She was beautiful.” Jade looked into the blue depths of Sean’s eyes. “I found out what love at first sight meant when I met her,” she whispered. “We did everything together and became lovers about six months later. After graduation, we found a place of our own and settled into the perfect life. We were both busy with our jobs. I started writing code for my father’s business, and we formed a corporation. Rachael got a job doing layouts for an advertising company. We had our whole life ahead of us.” She was quiet while flashes of Rachael played in her mind. “I had these grandiose plans of romancing her until the day I died. That’s how much I loved her. I tried to make every day special and give her a reason to come home to me every night. Two years later, she didn’t come home at all.” A tear slid down Jade’s cheek, and she didn’t bother to wipe it away.

Sean sat very still while she listened, and Jade appreciated that she was giving her the time to tell the story her own way.

“There was a car accident. The police told me she died instantly, but who knows for sure. I cried for months because I wasn’t there for her when she needed me most. I hadn’t told her I loved her.”

Sean leaned closer. “I’m so sorry, Jade. I’m sure she knew you did.” Sean handed over her napkin. “I never would have asked if I’d had any idea—”

“No, no. It’s good to remember her. Rachael is the reason I write. After years of floundering, being so lost I could hardly make it through a day, I decided I could keep her close by living out the dreams I had made for us through written pages.” She used the napkin to wipe away her tears. “Of course, over the years, they’ve evolved into more fantasy than reality, but there’s still a thread of my original motivation in each one.” Jade looked up. “Guess you never thought you’d hear a sob story from the illustrious Jade Rivers, huh?” Jade swiped at her face one last time and stood, wanting to shake away the old, familiar melancholy.

“I don’t think it’s a sob story at all. I think it’s beautiful. I know what it’s like to love someone that much and have them ripped from your life.” She put her arm around Jade’s shoulders and gave her a sideways hug. “Thank you for sharing a very important part of your life. I’ve often wondered how your writing career started.”

“Thanks for listening to my ramblings.” Jade missed the comfort of Sean’s arm around her the moment it was gone. She pulled her sweater tighter.

The intimacy of the moment was heavy in the silence surrounding them.

Finally, Sean cleared her throat and nodded. “I should go.”

Jade didn’t want to be alone with the ghosts of her memories. “Yes. I suppose it’s getting late. Good night.”

“Thank you.” Sean’s gaze was fixed on the glass in her hand. “For tonight. And the chat.”

“Thank you for sharing another beautiful evening.”

A flash of sadness crossed Sean’s face before settling into the neutral expression Jade had grown used to.

Sean took her goblet with her and disappeared into the house. Alone with her thoughts, Jade decided to be happy for her. It would do Sean a world of good to find love, and she had no intention of standing in her way, even if it meant sacrificing some of the time and attention Sean gave her. The thought left an ache she didn’t want to analyze. Madeline’s visit couldn’t come soon enough. The interruption in her routine would keep her from wondering who Sean was with, and from worrying about the possibility of losing her altogether.

Jade reached for her glass and nearly dropped it when the birds in the nearby trees screeched and flew off in a flurry. She went to the railing, trying to see what had startled them, but there was nothing but dark shadows in the gathering dusk. An eerie feeling of being watched chased her inside. Her hand trembled as she pressed the alarm button, then pulled the blinds across the door. Safe inside, she remembered the strange phone call from a few weeks ago. She’d thought about telling Sean, but figured it had been harmless, and there hadn’t been any more. Now she wasn’t so sure. Maybe she’d mention it after Madeline’s visit. She didn’t want Sean overreacting and making them prisoners in her own home. She already felt shackled to her computer at times, and it was beginning to take the joy out of writing.