WHEN THE ALARM went off, Michael made a quick grab for it in an attempt to silence the insistent buzzing before it awakened Sloan.

"What time is it?" came a husky whisper from the darkness.


"Do you have a meeting this morning?" Sloan asked, clearing her throat and trying to dispel the cobwebs from her brain.

"Yes. Development and Marketing are meeting to discuss agendas.”

Sloan rolled over as Michael sat up in bed, appreciating the way the sheets cascaded down her lover’s body, leaving her breasts bare. Suddenly, she forgot the fact that she’d only had an hour and a half of sleep. They hadn’t been able to have dinner together the evening before, because by the time Michael had gotten back from a late business meeting, Sloan and Jason had been deep into another night on the job. Internet traffic was high between four and two a.m. when kids were home from school. That’s when adults looking for a contact would be trolling. With effort, she pushed aside those thoughts. Running a hand down Michael’s bare arm, she said, “I missed you last night.”

“Me, too.” Michael sighed. “I’d better go. I want to be there to referee. You know those two groups can never agree as to whose timetable should take priority. And of course both division directors are total hotheads, and usually one or the other or both of them threatens to quit after every meeting. I figured I'd save myself some time by being there to put out any fires."

"They'll play nice if you're there. And you could always threaten to can them before they have a chance to quit."

“Maybe.” Michael laughed and leaned down to kiss her. "Go back to sleep."

"Mmm. I will," Sloan murmured languorously, her arms encircling Michael's waist. Pulling the other woman down into her arms, she added, "In just a few minutes."

Surprised, Michael emitted a short peel of laughter that turned to a muffled moan as her body met Sloan's, and her skin began to hum with the familiar pulse of desire. Her body called the next shot, and before she knew it, she was straddling Sloan’s thigh and devouring her lover's mouth, suddenly ravenous for the taste of her. While she was lost in the kiss, Sloan lifted her hips, rolling Michael over, and then settled possessively upon her. The hum became a roar.

Unwillingly, Michael pulled her mouth away from the kiss, gasping, "No time."

"I'll be quick," Sloan growled, her lips against Michael’s neck, her hand brushing the length of Michael’s side to her hips.

"Liar. You're never quick." But she wasn't moving away.

Sloan pushed herself up and in one quick motion slid down the bed until her breasts nestled between Michael's thighs and her cheek was pressed to Michael's stomach. Nipping at the sensitive skin around Michael's navel, she trailed her fingers lightly up the inside of her lover's left thigh, dancing back and forth over the tender places between her legs.

"Tease me like that for very long and it will be quick," Michael warned, arching her hips under Sloan's clever fingers.

"I know."

Still, Sloan took her time, drawing her fingertips along the warm sensitive folds, dipping into welcoming heat, then pressing the length of Michael's clitoris only to move away quickly, eliciting sighs and faint cries from her lover. Only when Michael's long delicate fingers fluttered over her cheek in mute appeal did she lower her head and take her gently between her lips. At Michael's sharp cry, she pulled her in more deeply, her tongue stroking counterpoint to the pulse that hammered through swollen tissues. Careful not to increase the pressure enough to snap the threads of Michael's control, she kept her quivering on the edge for long moments. Only when Michael began to thrust erratically against her, impossibly hard now and clearly on the verge of exploding, did she relent and increase the rhythm of her strokes.

Instantly, she was rewarded by a rigid stillness in Michael's legs followed by a wrenching gasp, then a quiet sob of surrender. Sloan closed her eyes and savored every tremor that spiraled beneath her lips and moved outward through her lover's body. Then she lay quietly, one hand extended, her fingers intertwined with Michael's, completely satisfied.

Sloan was almost asleep again as Michael whispered in her ear, “I’ve set the alarm. Be careful today. I love you.”

Catherine turned off the alarm twenty minutes before it was set to ring. She’d been awake for a long time, listening to the silence in the still house punctuated occasionally by the distant sound of a car door opening, an engine starting, and someone leaving for an early day. And it had taken her a long time to fall asleep after Rebecca had left the night before, too. It was impossible not to wonder where she was going, who she would be talking to, and with whom she would be spending the last dark hours of the night. She had hoped that Rebecca would return when her work was done, to come quietly through the door to rest at her side. Once she had even awakened, her heart beating fast with anxious anticipation, only to realize it had been the wind blowing branches against her window that had called to her.

Wearily, she swung her legs from beneath the covers and stood, reaching for her robe as she straightened. She was tired, not from lack of sleep, although that had certainly been fitful, but from something deeper that tugged at her heart. As if standing at a distance, dispassionately watching a scene played out on stage, she studied the feeling, finally recognizing it as a combination of loneliness and fear. The loneliness did not surprise her. She missed Rebecca, which was only natural. The fear would take some time to understand, but part of it was simple enough. She was afraid because her love made her vulnerable--vulnerable not only to her own fate, but to Rebecca's now as well. Their paths had crossed, their lives had intersected, and now their futures were entwined. It was entirely possible that the road ahead would be paved with disappointment and sorrow. How many times she had counseled others that there were no guarantees in life, and that only by living it could we ever hope to be fulfilled. She smiled to herself as she made her way toward the shower, thinking how easy it was to give advice and how hard sometimes to heed it.

Rebecca parked illegally in a bus stop and left her flashers on. She jogged up the block, glancing at her watch and searching for Catherine's car. She didn't see it, but Catherine had returned late the previous night and she probably hadn't been able to find a place on this block. Her breath was a little tight and she was aware of a faint stabbing pain deep in her chest that pulsed with each footfall. Chalking it up to scar tissue that hadn't yet matured, she ignored it. Nevertheless, as she pressed Catherine's doorbell, she had to work to suppress the sound of her own breath wheezing in and out. What she didn't need was to give Catherine something else to worry about. After a minute, she pressed the doorbell again, but she knew that she had missed her. When they'd parted the previous evening, they had been careful with one another, trying not to ignite the fires of anger that still smoldered dangerously. She hadn't thought to ask Catherine what her morning schedule was. Turning away, she walked more slowly now down the marble stairs to the sidewalk and toward her car. There was a place inside of her that still hurt, and it had nothing to do with her injuries. It was just the part of her that always felt empty when they were apart, and now she knew it was going to ache all day. Cursing softly, she slid into her Vette, gunned the ignition, and roared away into the morning.

Her temper hadn't improved any by the time she reached the station house, and it wasn't soothed by the thought of her 7:30 appointment. Rand Whitaker opened the door to his office precisely on time.

"Come on in, Sergeant," he said with a welcoming smile.

Rebecca followed him, carrying a cardboard cup of coffee she had picked up from the vending room on her way to his office. She settled into the straight-backed chair and balanced the cup on her knee.

"So you've been back on the job a few days now, isn't that right?" he asked, jotting the date and time on a yellow legal pad as he sipped from his own mug of coffee.

"Not precisely," Rebecca corrected in an even tone. The one place you didn't want to appear disgruntled was in this room. "My normal assignment is working active special crimes cases--detective work. For the time being, I've been assigned as an intermediary between the Police Department and a government agency that's running a multijurisdictional task force."

"That sounds like a desk job."

"More or less," she conceded, not seeing the necessity of offering anything further. The less he knew, the less he could report to someone else.

"You okay with that?"

"It's not what I'm trained to do, and it wouldn't be my choice of assignments. I'm assuming it will be temporary and as soon as you sign off on my evaluation, I expect my captain to pull me off it and put me back on regular duty." Hopefully, he'd get the hint and do what everyone knew he was going to do anyhow, which was certify her fit for duty. Christ, I'm the one who got shot. You'd think that would earn me some slack.

He eased back in his chair, nodding as if he agreed with what she was thinking. "I'm curious, Sergeant. Why didn't you wait for backup that night with Blake? Wouldn't that have been standard operating procedure?"

"As I told you before, I felt that the hostage was in imminent danger and that any delay would put her at risk."

"Your partner stated in his report that she had not been harmed up to that point. What made you think the situation was so serious?"

"Detective Watts stated in his report that Dr. Rawlings had apparently not been sexually assaulted up to that point, but he confirmed that she was physically restrained and in immediate peril." Jesus, doesn't he know that I would have read Watts' report by now? He is clearly not a detective.

"The reason I'm asking is that if someone were to look at this from the outside, your actions could be construed as taking the law into your own hands. You not only saved the hostage, you executed the perpetrator."

Rebecca almost smiled. Now he was trying to provoke her into saying more than she intended to reveal. Another interrogation technique that he wasn't employing very well. "Dr. Whitaker, I did not execute the suspect. I used appropriate force to subdue a violent criminal who gave every indication that he was about to inflict severe bodily harm on a civilian and who gave verbal confirmation that he intended to kill her as well as me."

"Let's cut to the chase, Detective Sergeant."

"That would be nice."

"Given the same situation, would you do the same thing again?"

"Yes," Rebecca answered without hesitation. Her eyes met his, and whatever he saw in her steel gaze made him blink.

"Would you risk your life for any hostage, or only one you were personally involved with?" he asked softly.

She leaned forward, never taking her eyes from his, and her voice was flint. "Meaning what?"

"You knew the hostage personally, didn't you?"

"I met her during the course of the investigation, yes."

He gave no sign that she hadn't precisely answered his question, but merely continued. "Did the fact that you...knew her...influence your reaction to the situation?"

"No." She didn't see any need to tell him that she'd been almost out of her mind with fear and anger only a short time before she'd finally found Blake and Catherine. Because her mind had been crystal clear when she'd stepped into the room with them. She'd been in perfect control.

"So," he said with soft finality. "What you're saying is that you would risk your, forfeit your life...for anyone in the same situation."

"I'm a cop, Whitaker," Rebecca remarked sharply, finally allowing her impatience to show. "In case you haven't noticed, that's what we do. I'm not a loose cannon; I'm not a danger to society. I'm not a risk to anyone."

"Except yourself."

Standing, she asked quietly, "Are we done here?"

"For today, yes. I'd like to see you one more time, which is my standard operating procedure." As she turned to leave, he added, "You might consider, Sergeant, that you would be much more effective if you valued yourself as much as those you were sworn to protect."

She didn't answer, but closed the door gently behind her.