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The Christmas Ball

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The Christmas Ball

J/7 – MirAndy Advent Calendar story 2020

By Gun Brooke

 

1

“Senator Hansen will attend?” Emily Charlton, the art director of Runway Magazine sat down next to Andy Sachs, first assistant of Miranda Priestly, the editor-in-chief, as fast as if someone yanked a rug from under her. “You’re not lying?”

“Why would I lie, Em?” Andy bit into her bread roll and checked her phone for the time. Ten minutes to down the corn chowder unless it rang. “The senator RSVPed and if Miranda had been a more expressive type, I think she would have whooped.”

“I think not. She has to be so pleased, though.” Emily regarded her own bowl where the chowder barely covered the bottom of it. “Have you chosen what to wear yet? It seems even more important now, if possible, since the senator will be there. Who’s her plus one? Do you know?”

Amused by how starstruck Emily sounded, Andy shook her head. “No, no information about that. Of course, her usual secret service people will be there, but they’re pretty good at blending in. So I’ve heard.” Andy ate some more and decided to bring a couple of bread rolls back to the desk. She had a feeling today was going to be brutal as the senator’s RSVPs weren’t the only ones dropping into her email. “As for what to wear—I haven’t had time to make a final choice. Miranda hasn’t asked about it, which makes me think my choice isn’t that important.”

Emily gasped and dropped her spoon into the barely-there chowder. “Haven’t I taught you better? You are Miranda’s wingman…woman…whatever. What you wear and how you conduct yourself, reflects on her. On the magazine. If you slouch around in something from Forever 21, you’ll lose your job and, more importantly, it’ll reflect badly on me.

Andy snorted. “God forbid. Of course, I’m going to wear something high-end and so on, but honestly, nobody will be looking at me. Miranda, and no doubt, Senator Hansen, will be at the center of everyone’s attention, not to mention the throngs of celebrities that are attending. Actors, models, politicians, media moguls, artists…the press will have enough to sell papers and get clicks, to keep them happy for weeks.”

“Please, let Serena and I help you pick something.” Emily’s frown showed she wasn’t mollified. “I know, I know. You’re good at looking professional on an everyday basis, but this is the Christmas Ball. Runway doesn’t do them more than once every five years as they’re a beast to organize.”

“Tell me about it,” Andy muttered. Miranda had her working sixteen-hour days, trying to stay on top of the ball and the current issue of the magazine simultaneously. “What I might need, more than a pretty dress, is some plastic surgery for the bags under my eyes at this point. Only a couple of weeks to go and if I keep up these hours, I might just sleep through the whole thing.”

Emily nodded, looking remarkably empathetic. “I know. I was part of the last Christmas ball as a second assistant, and it was quite ghastly.” She gave Andy a side glance. “You’re not buckling under the pressure, are you?”

“Not yet. Just a big hung up on not getting enough sleep.” Andy couldn’t tell Emily the truth. Being Miranda’s first assistance and the one who was supposed to be the spider in the center of the web and coordinating everything, was hard, but not impossible. The fact that she had to work even closer, literally, with Miranda than usual, was however proving almost impossible for her heart.

Going from awkward second assistant, who was hired by Miranda almost on a whim, to accomplished first assistant who ran the outer office like clockwork, was a great foundation for her future career. Falling head over heels in love with her female boss was an equally excellent foundation for searing heartache.

Andy’s phone gave the notification sound that always had her mentally stand at attention. Miranda needed her.

 

 

2

Senator Annika Hansen walked into her office where she was met by her chief of staff, Tom Paris. He was dressed smartly as always in a navy suit and light blue tie. She normally wore aqua, turquoise, or cerulean suits, but today, she had decided on a sharply cut dove-gray trouser suit over a crisp white shirt. She was going to hold a press conference later and the subject matter was equally severe. She was a rookie senator but by no means a newbie in politics. Her parents had worked from the grassroot level and up, and inspired their only child to follow in their footsteps. She had more ambition than they ever did—Annika’s parents had gladly remained at a very local level—and sometimes she felt they were torn between being proud of her achievements and wishing she hadn’t chosen this path.

“Senator,” Tom greeted her, handing over a folder. “Bella has been close to strangling me for making her man a desk today. She has had to fend off a very persistent woman from Runway Magazine at least five times. These are the photos she faxed over to you. Apparently, the Miranda Priestly has suggestions for what stylists and designers you may want to engage for the Christmas Ball.”

“You’re joking?” Annika ran a hand over her blond hair that she kept in an austere twist. “This woman doesn’t think I can judge for myself?”

“Um. I’m sure that’s not the case, but apparently, the economy and its fluctuations in the fashion industry…well, the way this first assistant put it to Bella, if you chose a domestic, new young designer, it would go a long way to energize the business.” Tom cast a nervous glance toward the five desks in the outer office. Bella was his wife, a woman with a mercurial, even volatile temper, but with a tactical brilliance that had helped Annika win the race a year ago.

“And what does Bella suggest?”

“At this point, she’s ready to do anything to not have Priestly’s assistance call back a second time.”

“Very well. I’ll call Miranda Priestly and get it over with. I’m starting to regret that I ever agreed to attend.” Annika rounded her desk and sat down in the leather chair. When Tom didn’t leave, she raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”

“Secret service has sent over a new agent to take over from Paul. I had Harry pen an entire half-hour for you to get to know them.” Tom looked at his watch. “They should be here in ten.”

“That’ll give me time to make that call first.” Annika nodded and pressed the intercom. “Get me Miranda Priestly, please.”

“Yes, senator.” Harry’s smart response telegraphed that it would only take a few seconds. It took three. “Miranda Priestly on line one, ma’am.”

Annika had tried to stop him from calling her ma’am, wishing to be on a much more casual basis with her staff, but so far, with Harry especially, it hadn’t worked.

“Miranda? This is Annika Hansen.” Speaking succinctly, Annika wanted the other woman to understand that this was not going to be a long debate. “I hear you have some fashion tips for me.”

A low chuckle on the other end was heard. “Good afternoon, Senator Hansen. And yes, I do, if I may be so bold. I don’t know how much my assistant conveyed—”

“I fully understand the importance of promoting domestic products, no matter which branch. I’d be happy to look over some suggestions, but I have a few stipulations.”

“Oh?” Miranda Priestly’s voice was low and she had a reputation for making members of the Elias-Clarke’s board of director weep if they dared to be stupid. Annika knew she had nothing to prove to Miranda, but she also didn’t want to waste time.

“I don’t want to do any endless fittings, or have anything made from scratch for me alone. If this is important enough, then put together, let’s say five outfits, and I’ll swing by your office next week to have a look. If I see something I like, I’ll try it on. Once.” Perhaps Miranda would balk at this, but Annika had no time to indulge in frivolous activities. This bordered on such.

“That can easily be arranged,” Miranda said, impressing Annika at how quickly she adapted. “I’ll have my assistant put it all together. When will you be in New York?”

“Monday through Wednesday next week. I have a few hours off on Tuesday.” Annika wasn’t about to haggle about dates and times.

“Understood. We’ll make that work. Thank you, Senator.”

“Thank you for understanding. Will you be there?” Annika found herself curious about the famous—and infamous—woman.

“Of course.”

Annika delivered the usual pleasantries as she ended the call. As soon as she did, Harry buzzed her. “Agent Janeway’s here to see you, Senator.”

“Ah, yes. Patterson’s replacement. Send her in, please.” Annika put the folder before her aside and closed her laptop. Some of her fellow senators played power-games by pretending to read something for a few minutes after a visitor entered their offices, but she wasn’t interested in such tricks. Annika had been subjected to this many times as a freshman congresswoman, and even when she met a few senior senators. She always saw through it, but it had also been intimidating as hell when she was new in D.C. Now, Annika laced her fingers on top of her desk and waited as Harry showed in the woman who would head up her security detail.

Agent Kathryn Janeway was more beautiful than in her picture in the dossier Annika had received. Dressed in the typical black suit and white shirt, she moved lithely as she approached Annika.

“Welcome, Agent Janeway,” Annika said calmly as she stood, extending her hand to greet the auburn-haired woman.

“Thank you, Senator.” Janeway took her hand and shook it firmly. It should have been business as usual, but Annika felt a jolt travel up her arm and quickly let go. She met Janeway’s even gaze, noting how her blue-gray eyes scanned her slowly. This sent a shiver through Annika and she squared her shoulders and motioned for one of the visitor’s chairs.

Knowing she had to mask her strange response, Annika frowned and leaned forward. “Please tell me you’re not going to be as much of a pain in the ass as the agent you’re replacing?”

 

 

3

Agent Kathryn Janeway regarded her new subject calmly. She was used to the politicians she was responsible for being less than thrilled to have people following their every move. This one, Senator Annika Hansen, had a reputation for being blunt, but she was also known for her matter-of-fact attitude and calm demeanor. Kathryn was a bit taken aback at Hansen’s first comment being so direct but knew not to let it show.

“I’m afraid that pain in the ass is my middle name at the agency,” Kathryn stated, allowing a smile to quickly form on her lips. “That said, if you hear me out, I’m sure we’ll work together just fine.”

“Hm. We’ll see. Not to infringe on any loyalty between colleagues, but Patterson took up too much of my time with endless briefings and dos and don’ts.” Hansen pressed her full, pink lips together. “I’m a busy woman. And a private one.”

Wincing at the thought of Patterson, full of his own importance and very fond of his own voice. No doubt the man had tested someone like Hansen’s patience. And if she knew Patterson right, he had also tried his charms on the stunningly beautiful, tall blond. Was this why he’d left her detail ahead of time? Kathryn wouldn’t put it past him. “I respect your need for privacy and how precious the time away from your official duties is, Senator. My job is to keep you safe, and also to keep myself and my agents as invisible as possible—when possible.

“I appreciate that. Patterson insisted on briefing me every morning and had the audacity to have opinions about matters that weren’t his, or anyone else’s, concern. What are your routines when it comes to the daily schedule?”

“No morning briefings. Once a week is enough unless you’re traveling. Now, for that to work, I’ll require you to be honest and transparent when it comes to last-minute, spontaneous things. It is important that I can do my job right, so you can do yours.”

Relaxing visibly, Hansen leaned back in her chair. “I should apologize. I sort of jumped the gun as soon as you came in, didn’t I? And I didn’t even ask if you wanted some coffee or something cold to drink?”

“Thank you, but I’m fine. I like the direct approach,” Kathryn said and felt herself soften some as well. “As for you being particular about how your security detail functions, that’s quite natural.”

Annika smiled and this nearly made Kathryn’s heart stop. If the woman was like a beautiful alabaster statue when serious, her entire being took on a sensual, hot expression when she smiled so brightly. Kathryn hoped her own reaction was temporary, a one-time-thing or this new assignment could become awkward.

“As Patterson left yesterday. Rather hastily, as a matter of fact…are you already on duty?” Hansen asked.

“I am. Most of today, Agent Cotay will head up the team, but from tomorrow, I’ll start working Patterson’s roster, with the difference that I’ll take on more shifts than he did.”

“You will?” Hansen blinked. “Patterson worked mostly in an overseeing capacity.”

“I’m sure he did.” Kathryn refrained from snickering. “I believe in the more hands-on approach.” Somehow, the saying made her wish she had expressed it differently, especially since the senator grew rigid again.

“I already have a meeting you can add to the schedule,” Hansen said quickly. “As you might know already, I’ll be in New York three days next week. On Tuesday, I’m going to the Elias-Clarke building for a meeting with Miranda Priestly.”

Kathryn kept her surprise to herself. “Very well. We’ll make sure that’ll be effortless for you, Senator.”

Annika sighed. “Effortless. Hm. I don’t think trying on a bunch of ball gowns can be described like that.” Her porcelain blue eyes narrowed. “I can only hope that the dresses aren’t too haute couture, but something a regular person can actually wear.”

Regular person? Was the senator blind when she looked in the mirror? She was easily the most beautiful woman Kathryn had ever seen, and if her own body kept tensing up like this, she might not survive seeing Annika Hansen in any sort of dress, haute couture or not.

 

4

“Miranda? Senator Hansen is here for the dresses,” Andrea said from the doorway leading to the outer office. Miranda glanced up and closed her laptop.

“Show her in.” Standing up, Miranda straightened her sleeves.

Instead of the statuesque senator, a shorter, more compact woman stepped inside and scanned the room before giving Miranda a quick, quite dismissive look. “I’m Agent Janeway, part of Senator Hansen’s security detail.”

“Welcome,” Miranda said stiffly. She was not unaccustomed to the use of any form of security. After her divorce from Stephen, she’d been forced to use some for herself and the twins when the paparazzi became impossible. She had even toyed with the idea of providing security for Andrea who was her constant shadow, but the appalled look on the young woman’s face had reluctantly changed her mind.

“You’re good to go, Senator,” Agent Janeway said after sticking her head out the door.

Senator Annika Hansen, who was still surfing a wave of eighty-eight percent approval rating among the Americans, strode into the office, impeccably dressed in a charcoal trouser suit over a coral blouse. Her shoulder length blond hair bounced and shone under the office lights. She wore understated makeup, except for the lipstick in the same shade as the blouse. Classy all around.

“Miranda. Good to meet you, finally,” Annika Hansen said and extended a hand.

“The pleasure is mine, Senator,” Miranda said and shook the proffered hand.

“Annika, please. I try to only use the title when it is absolutely called for.” Annika flashed a broad smile. “My agent here, though, is a stickler for protocol.”

“Who insists on remaining during this meeting,” Janeway said somberly. “Your people aren’t vetted enough for them to be alone with the senator, Mrs. Priestly.”

“I tried to explain that I might need to try something on, and I have to accept that my safety while doing so is Agent Janeway’s call.” Annika gave a one-shoulder shrug. “Where will this take place?” She looked around as if she expected the designers to come through the walls with the garments.

“Executive conference room. Andrea? Lead the way.” Miranda nodded at Andrea who stood ready with notepads, an iPad, and a fistful of pens.

“Absolutely. Follow me, please, Senator. Agent.” Andrea smiled and it dawned on Miranda that her assistant’s smile was even brighter than Annika’s. The fact that it was directed at their guests rather than Miranda, didn’t sit well with her. Annoyed at the stab of—what…jealousy?—Miranda slammed the reading glasses that she had kept in her left hand the entire time onto the desk and followed behind them. As she passed the New Girl who was manning the phones, she bared her teeth in a silent growl. As the girl jumped in her seat and clearly debated whether to hide under her desk, Miranda straightened her pose and let her four-inch heels take her down the familiar corridor to the executive conference room.

Her equilibrium lasted until she stepped over the threshold to the room and found Janeway pinning a thin, short man against the wall to her right.

“Agent Janeway. This is one of the designers, Max Kovac.” Miranda spoke in her best dry, low tone. “Max. This is Agent Janeway of the Secret Service.”

“I—I have done nothing,” the young man blurted as he squirmed under Janeway’s grip. “I’m innocent!” His Polish accent became more pronounced.

“Then you shouldn’t have literally launched at the senator,” Janeway snarled and let him go.

“I just wanted to greet the woman…no, the queen,” Kovac said. “My dress will fit her perfectly.” He scanned Annika Hansen’s body. “Like, how you say, a glove.”

His words caused huffs, objections, and, snickers from the opposite end of the room where the other designers glared at him. Miranda could feel the animosity between them as they were all competing for exposure, not just in Runway Magazine, but in front of the elite designers that were also going to attend the Christmas Ball.

“Simmer down, everyone.” Andrea’s clear voice made everyone stop talking at once and Miranda blinked as she turned around to her assistant. “Max, return to your area of the room. You know you all took a number to decide who goes first. I believe Bonnie won. You’re second, followed by Faye and then Pierre.”

Shocked at these sudden leader skills, Miranda merely sat down at the head of the table, waiting while Bonnie sent the girl she’d chosen to model the dress forward. While she tried to focus on Annika’s response to the garments, Miranda’s mind replayed the assertive tone Andrea had just displayed and goosebumps erupted on her arms. She glanced at her assistant and met Andrea’s gaze for a brief moment. Before she realized it, Miranda had nodded toward Andrea—and smiled.

 

5

Andy nearly dropped her pen. Miranda had just nodded and smiled and that was unheard of. Wow. What happened just now? What could Andy possibly have done to earn what was considered a standing ovation from Miranda if she did that toward a designer showing off their collection?

Forcing herself to pay attention to the senator and the designers, Andy merely nodded back and tore her gaze from Miranda’s. She willed her hands not to shake but could do little about the tremors in her thighs. This would haunt her for days. No weeks.

Bonnie’s grey and silver dress was beautiful, but the haute couture elements that gave shoulders and hips a sharp angle made Andy think it might not be the classy senator’s first choice. Annika Hansen was slender, but also curvaceous, while Bonnie had used a model with androgynous traits to show it off.

Max’s red dress was stricter, with a square neckline, long narrow sleeves, and a slit that exposed the model’s leg to the hip. The senator could absolutely pull it off. Faye’s dress was the only one with a short skirt. Also form-fitted, the black dress looked innocent enough from the front, but when the model turned to walk back, Andy was surprised to see that it was very low cut, enough to show off charming dimples just above the model’s bottom.

Pierre’s dress was simply stunning, and a glance at the senator showed she was intrigued. Ice blue and form-fitted with chiffon on top of satin, it was skillfully draped, leaving the model’s right shoulder bare and accentuated her breasts and hips. This dress also had an impressive slit.

“Let me see the last one again,” Senator Hansen said.

The model walked down the room toward them again. As the senator held up her hand, the girl stopped in front of her and pivoted slowly.

“Yes. This one.”

“But, madame!” Max wailed from the other end of the room, making Janeway take a step forward.

“Hold on there,” the senator said and then turned to Janeway. “As you’re going to be the one on my detail by my side during this event, I think you should pick one of the other dresses.”

“Excuse me?” Janeway whipped her head toward Hansen and Andy could tell she was completely put on the spot.

“Excellent idea. You can’t very well show up in one of you the agency’s ill-fitted suits,” Miranda stated with her usual lack of diplomacy.

“I’m not a guest, I’ll be there doing my job,” Janeway said.

“And you’ll stick out like a sore thumb. If I’m wearing designer clothes, so can you. You’ll be more inconspicuous that way,” the senator said calmly.

Janeway looked back and forth between Miranda and Annika Hansen. “Something tells me that it’s in my best interest if I agree to this without too much fuss,” she said through her teeth.

The senator smiled brightly. “Thank you, Janeway. You’ll be fine.”

“Now, hold on. This might not work out, after all. How can any of these dresses possibly fit me? I’m not exactly the body type for them.” Janeway motioned toward the models. “These girls are six feet tall.”

“The red one would fit you very well with some minor adjustments,” Miranda said.

Max went from teary-eyed to beaming in two seconds. “Absolutely, Ms. Secret Agent. You’re the right kind of forceful for my dress.” He took a few steps toward Janeway, holding up his measuring tape, but stopped as she gave him what had to pass for a death stare.

“Don’t even think about it,” she growled quietly, making Max stop fast enough to stumble and hit a chair.

“This is excellent.” Miranda turned to Andy. “Make sure the fittings work around their schedule. And good job handling out diva over there.” She patted Andy’s arm and then seemed to forget to remove it.

Andy felt her face burn at the gentle touch. Sucking her lower lip in between her teeth, she could only nod as Miranda’s eyes held hers captive. Normally, a stare from Miranda would make Andy fidget and be sure she had screwed up, but this time…combined with the lingering touch, it was different. If it hadn’t been a completely crazy idea, she would have guessed that Miranda was just as stuck in the moment.

“I’m on it,” Andy managed to whisper.

“Good.” As if she suddenly realized that she was still touching Andy, Miranda yanked her hand back. “Well.” She stood and walked over to the senator and her secret service agent.

Andy remained in her chair for a few more moments, her eyes following Miranda as she walked away, something she often did. What was different this time, was how suddenly Miranda clasped her hands behind her back and fidgeted. That never happened.

 

6

Annika gripped the gloves she’d removed hard as she stepped out of the town car. She was eager to get up to her hotel suite and just be alone for a few moments. After the mini fashion show at Runway Magazine, which she admitted had been a quite all right experience, she had spent the entire afternoon in meetings. Now she strode across the lobby with two agents behind her and Janeway to her left. She tapped her foot impatiently while Janeway made sure the elevator was empty, even looking to its ceiling.

“Really? Up there?” Annika slapped her black leather gloves against her palm.

“Stranger things have happened,” Janeway answered laconically.

“Hm.” As the elevator reached her floor, Annika let the agents exit first and then made them half run as she used her long legs to reach the door to her suite. She waited with barely masked impatience as Janeway and one of the other agents swept the rooms.

“All clear, ma’am,” Janeway said. “One of us will be outside.”

“Of course. Thank you.” Annika stepped inside and closed the door behind her with a sigh of relief. She was meant to go over the outcome of today’s meetings with Tom and Harry but quickly sent off a text that she would be off the radar for an hour. During that time, she hoped for a bath and something to eat. She had declined going out to dinner, knowing this would drive Tom insane for what he’d see as a lost opportunity, but she was trying to get a grip of the headache that was stirring behind her eyes. Sitting at some fancy restaurant with a bunch of suits that would say and do just about anything for her to push for their agenda in the Senate, was not going to cure it. Nor was she prepared to do their bidding.

Tom’s text back breathed barely harnessed frustration and concern in equal parts. She ignored it and walked into the bathroom. Running the faucet, she set the Jacuzzi tub to the perfect temperature, close to volcanic, and pulled off her clothes. Her hands trembled and unlike her normally neat self, she let the garments fall to the floor.

Getting into the tub, she started a sequence of bubbles and moaned as the water engulfed her. She ran her hands up and down her arms and rolled her shoulders, trying to get the stiffness out. One more day of meetings and then back to D.C. She closed her eyes and let the aroma of the vanilla bath salts she’d added, relax her. Images of the dresses she had perused at Runway Magazine, and honestly, not the one for herself so much, but the one her reluctant secret service agent would be wearing, flickered through her mind. Annika could easily envision Janeway in the severely cut red dress. Not sure why this imagery had glued itself to her mind’s eye, but it had.

Yawning, Annika kept her eyes close, feeling the headache starting to mellow. She smiled as she sighed and let herself sink to her chin in the water. Normally, she only made time for quick, efficient showers, as her days were long, but this had been necessary. Having taken office as the junior senator for her state six months ago, she was starting to find her stride. Instead of being too humble about winning her election, she had hit the ground running and she knew of no other way to do the job than being hands-on. This took its toll, for sure. Tom always warned her about the risk of burning out, but Annika was confident that with time, she’d learn to manage her hours and remain committed to the constituents that had placed her in the senate.

Humming under her breath, Annika knew she had to get up soon, or she might get too drowsy. She promised herself another ten minutes and estimated she would have kicked the last remnants of the headache by then.

The next thing she knew, she heard voices calling out her name. Startled, Annika realized the water was cool and the Jacuzzi jets had stopped. She looked frantically around her, lost her footing against the sides of the tub, and went under for a few seconds. Coming up for air, she coughed against the water she had managed to inhale and couldn’t get another sound out.

It was at this exact moment Janeway flung the bathroom door open, her sidearm drawn.

 

7

Kathryn realized what had happened the second she came to a halt next to the tub.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but—”

Annika coughed and bent forward, clearly trying to expel water from her respiratory system. She clung to the edge of the tub as she wheezed between coughing fits.

“Here.” Harnessing her gun, she grabbed a towel, and not caring that it got wet, Kathryn wrapped it around Annika’s shoulders. Feeling how cool the water was, she realized the woman had fallen asleep in the tub. A quick look at wrinkled fingertips confirmed her suspicion. “Are you okay?”

“F-fine.” Annika coughed again and pulled the towel closer around her. “You…can…leave.”’

“I will, but not until I know you can actually breathe properly. Whatever scent you used in the water; it may have irritated your lungs.”

“Oh…please.” The scornful tone was there, but as Annika kept coughing, she clearly couldn’t make it scathing enough.

“Why not get out of the cold water?” Looking around, Kathryn’s gaze fell upon a white terrycloth robe. “Ah, better.”

Annika stood on wobbly legs but refused to take Kathryn’s proffered hands. Instead, she clung to the drenched towel until Kathryn had put the robe around her shoulders. Making a point to keep her eyes away from the pale beauty that was Annika Hansen, Kathryn stood ready to intervene if the senator looked unsteady, but she seemed to find her bearings quickly. Wrapping a towel around her head, she shot Kathryn a steely look via the mirror.

“Living room.” Annika tugged the belt hard around her waist and walked toward the door. Stopping to open it, she snapped her head back at Kathryn. “Are the rest of your entourage out there?”

“No. Just me.” Kathryn was grateful that she’d entered alone.

Annika strode out into the living room and padded over to the bar area. Pouring herself an orange juice, she sat down in the center of a couch. “Explain.”

“A mistake was made regarding the new duty roster. I take full responsibility. When I came to take over from the agent supposed to stand guard, nobody was outside your door. I knocked. Nobody came to the door. I called my agents and realized you’d been in here for two hours, without your security detail outside. As you hadn’t spoken about leaving the suite, I knew you must be in here and feared something might be wrong. I entered and found the suite empty. I knocked on the bathroom door and when there was no answer after my third attempt, I then heard a commotion—and entered a bit too dramatic and…I apologized if I scared you.” Kathryn stood, ready to be dressed down, for the mishap, and the invasion of privacy.

“I see.” Annika sipped her juice again. “Well, on the bright side, at least you were there if I had actually managed to drown myself.”

Kathryn felt her eyebrows go up. Humor instead of being chewed out? Well, now. “I would never let that happen, Senator.”

“Please. Can we agree that you call me Annika in private?” Rubbing her neck and wincing, Annika sighed.

“Absolutely. I’m Kathryn.” Another novelty. Never, in all her years in the secret service, had any of her subjects wanted to be on a first-name basis.

“Then tell your people that I’m fine and then pour yourself some juice or whatever you want, to drink, and take a seat.” Annika pointed at the armchair perpendicular to the couch. “I expect that I have some missed calls to attend to, but for now, I need to get rid of the stinging sensation in my throat and windpipe.”

“All right. Not to overstep, but have you eaten?”

Annika looked surprised. “No. I wanted a bath more than anything. I think I’ll order some corn chowder. Want anything?”

“I’ll have some too, thank you.” Kathryn engaged her radio and gave the all-clear message to her “entourage”. Unbuttoning her jacket, she fetched a bottle of Pellegrino and then sat down. “Falling asleep in a tub. I’ve done that and slipped under a few times too. It can be quite frightening.”

“Indeed, it can. Not to mention having a gun pointed at you only moments later.” Annika pursed her lips.

“I was not pointing at you.” Kathryn was appalled.

“I was joking.” Annika smiled now. “I do trust you to not have an itchy trigger finger, Kathryn. And don’t think I don’t realize that part of your job description is to potentially take a bullet for your subject. I’m not being flippant. Truly.” She leaned forward to put her glass on the coffee table. This made her robe part more over her full breasts and Kathryn kept her gaze on Annika’s beautiful, makeup-less face.

Calmly readjusting her robe, Annika tilted her head. “Thank you for being honest about the mishap regarding the duty roster. I have a strong feeling that the mistake was not really on your part, but as their boss, the buck stops with you.”

Kathryn wasn’t going to comment on this, but Annika’s words showed she was observant. Crossing her legs, Kathryn couldn’t take her eyes off the charismatic woman before her. Yes, it was part of the job description, the part about taking a bullet for your subject. When it came to Annika Hansen, it was starting to feel beyond a mere job, though. Keeping this woman safe could easily become far too personal.

 

8

Miranda looked in on her daughters, Caroline first, and then Cassidy, and marveled at how much they’d grown the last year since the divorce from Stephen, their stepfather, was finalized. Thirteen years old, they were now beyond precocious and always ready to express their opinions. Not wanting to break their spirit, like some of her peers seemed to think she ought to, especially when subjected to Cassidy’s wit and knowing looks, Miranda hoped they’d find a good balance between being socially smart and just as feisty. Caroline, the milder and somewhat withdrawn of the twins, was actually the most intelligent, while Cassidy could best be described as street smart, however, that had happened.

Checking the time, Miranda thought she would have time to get ready for bed before the new girl came to deliver the Book. She had recently been given the honor to gain access to Miranda’s home to bring her the dry-cleaning of the day, and also the mockup version of the current issue of Runway Magazine. Miranda was fairly certain the girl’s name was Tara, but as was her habit, she called this girl Emily until she knew she wouldn’t fire her.

Entering her ensuite she dropped her clothes into the hamper where her housekeeper would take them and hand them to their dry-cleaning service. She knew she lived a privileged life and knew if she hadn’t come from humble beginnings in one of the suburbs of London, she could well have raised intolerable trust fund brats like some of her peers. Very few people knew how much of life’s reality Miranda showed her girls. Well, except Andrea. Some of the ideas of how to show the twins how most people lived, had come from her first assistant. That was just one of the things where Andrea had had a remarkable influence on hers and the girls’ lives.

After her shower, Miranda blew-dried her hair, which, after twenty-five years of wearing it the same way, seemed to fall into place on its own. She went through her skincare routine with the same meticulousness as always. After all, her face was part of the brand. People associated her with fashion, beauty, and glamor. Her former husbands had sometimes needled her about how fancy clothes and expensive makeup saved her from losing face. To this day, she hated how the comments had stung at the time.

Walking downstairs to the den that sat just inside the kitchen, she pulled out her tablet and took a look at the competition. Vouge. Glamour. Marie-Claire. Harper’s Bazaar. Cosmo. Elle. She received complimentary digital copies every month. Some of the tabloid magazines offered the same, but she would not touch them. Not after what they’d written about her private life.

The front door down the hall opened and closed and a ghost-like automated voice stated that someone had entered her home. Just as quickly, the alarm code was punched in. Miranda straightened as the computerized voice said, “Andrea Sachs.”

Walking over to the doorway, she saw Andrea come out from the closet where she’d hung the dry-cleaning. The Book already sat on the dresser.

“I thought the new girl was delivering the Book.” Miranda hid a smile as Andrea jumped.

“Miranda! I didn’t see you.” Pressing her hand against her chest, her eyes were huge.

“So I gather.”

“Tara’s mother wasn’t feeling well. I told her to go over to check on her.” Andrea shrugged and walked toward Miranda. “Is there anything else I can do for you while I’m here?”

Miranda checked the time. Fairly early for the Book. 9 pm. “If you can spare a moment and help me peruse some of the competition’s covers for December.”

Flushing a beautiful pink, Andrea nodded. “I’d be happy to.”

Motioning for Andrea to follow her into the den, Miranda poured herself a glass of Chianti. “Can I offer you something?”

Andrea blinked. “What you’re having looks good.”

“It is.” Miranda poured another glass and carried both of them to the couch. Placing them on coasters, she sat down and patted the cushion next to her. “You can’t remain standing over there, you know. I promise I don’t bite.”

Andrea gasped and then slapped a hand over her mouth, clearing her voice. “Ah. Haha. Of course not.” She sat down, not looking entirely steady.

Miranda felt the sweet scent of Andrea’s perfume engulf her. “Well. Should we toast to something before we start? You choose something.”

 

9

Andy maneuvered the glass of red wine with great care. Miranda’s expensive rug and furniture would not fare well if she dropped it and made the entire area look like a murder scene. She even thought of gulping the wine down in one swoop, but considering she was going to have to make her way to the subway later, it was not advisable. She wasn’t used to alcohol, barely at all, these days. Who had time to go barhopping regularly when you worked at least twelve-hour days? And, on top of that, had to be available if Miranda required something, even on weekends?

“Andrea?”

Realizing Miranda was waiting for her to actually toast to something, Andy thought fast. “Um. Here’s to the Christmas ball.” She raised her glass awkwardly and held onto the foot as Miranda nudged it with hers.

“The ball.” Miranda smirked and then sipped her Chianti. “All right. Let’s start with Cosmo. What do you think?” Miranda took one of the magazines and slid closer to Andy. She placed half of it on her lap and the other half on Andy’s.

Miranda’s proximity and the fact that she needed to focus on the Cosmo cover, made Andy put her glass back on its coaster. She looked down at the cover and knew instantly that Miranda had to hate it. “Too soft…and yet, too busy. They missed the mark when it comes to the color of the fonts. It actually clashes with the model’s top. Uncomfortable for the eyes.”

“Hm. This one?” Miranda put one magazine after another on Andy’s lap, and after giving her opinion four times, Andy noticed that Miranda was studying her and her response, rather than the cover.

“What do you think?” Andy dared to ask. Generally, the unwritten rule was that you didn’t ask Miranda any questions, but that was not entirely true. Miranda just didn’t want you to ask things you could figure out yourself with a bit of effort.

“I think you’re right on the money, so far. Let’s skip these, they’re pretty much just bland. Now. Vogue.” The way Miranda dropped the magazine that was Runway’s biggest competition, on Andy’s lap, spoke volumes. Miranda and Anna Wintour had a cordial, even sometimes friendly, relationship, but when it came to the magazines…all bets were off.

Andy studied the cover carefully. Vogue rarely made mistakes. She really wanted to find something. If nothing else than to appease Miranda. And yet—she couldn’t. “I don’t see any glaring mistakes,” Andy confessed. “Apart from that not being one of my most favorite actors, then, they made a good cover.”

Miranda smiled. Taking Andy’s glass, she handed it to her. “Here. Have some more. You earned it. And I agree. Vouge did very well this month. Now, last month…” She shuddered. “Don’t get me started on that orange striped knitwear.”

Andy couldn’t help it, she laughed. Tossing her head back, she just couldn’t keep it inside. Eventually, she wiped at a few errant tears and drank from the wine. “I’m sorry,” she said, but still couldn’t wipe the smile from her face.

Miranda hadn’t laughed, but she was smiling. “Oh, don’t be. It is refreshing that you can be yourself around me when you’re off the clock.”

She was off the clock? Andy held her breath, her mind reeling. She was on Miranda’s couch, drinking wine, and Miranda considered her workday over? So, this was…a social thing? “I like when you let your sense of humor show,” Andy heard herself say.

Miranda had just placed the wine glass to her lips but now lowered it again. “You do, do you?” She tilted her head and gave Andy a look that resembled the one Miranda often gave her when she perused her outfit.

“Yes.” Not about to allow any awkwardness to destroy the moment, Andy willed herself to relax her shoulders. “You can be very funny.”

“I can be a lot of things,” Miranda said slowly and proved her point by being utterly shocking as she took Andy’s free hand. “And, I know for a fact, so can you.”

What Andy clearly couldn’t be, was a person who knew how to draw breath.

“Andrea?” Miranda frowned.

“Er…sure. Yes. I can.” The words sounded less than confident, but Andy’s fingers took on a life of their own and squeezed Miranda’s gently. More than that, her thumb caressed the back of Miranda’s hand—several times.

“Oh.” Miranda lowered her gaze to their joined hands. She lifted them slowly and tugged Andy closer. “This might be ill-advised. In fact, I know it is.” She pressed Andy’s palm to her cheek. “This could be trouble.”

Andy knew this too. For Miranda. For her. After returning the glass to the coffee table again, she closed her eyes hard, acutely aware of the velvety sensation of Miranda’s cheek against her hand. It was bad enough how something like this could impact her career, but it might just about destroy Andy’s heart if she allowed this…but how could she stop it? She opened her eyes. “I could never live with being a complication, or worse, for you,” Andy said quietly, but she didn’t pull her hand back.

“Andrea.” Miranda’s eyes had never been this dark. “I know the boundaries and have never crossed them before. One word from you, and I won’t and there’ll be no more mentioning of this again.” She swallowed hard.

Andy smiled wistfully. “We’d still know.”

“Yes.”

“I have known for some time.” Slowly pulling her hand free, Andy placed on Miranda trouser clad knee. “What I didn’t know, was…this.”  She motioned between them. “Whatever this is.”

“Paris.” Miranda spoke through clenched teeth and Andy tried to decipher if she looked angry or pained.

“Excuse me?” Andy squeezed Miranda’s knee.

Miranda repeated Andrea’s motion. “I have struggled with this. Since. Paris.”

 

10

The evening had turned out to be dangerously close to a yawn-fest. The extended dinner party with the mayor and other dignitaries had not provided many opportunities for the kind of productive networking Annika had hoped for. She was once again back in the town car and now heading for the airport. It would be nice to return to D.C. and get back to work. The fact that her desk was probably overflowing with documents didn’t deter her.

“We’ll be at the airport in ten minutes, Senator,” Kathryn said, looking up from her cell phone. “The VIP section is ready for you.”

“Thank you.” Annika rubbed her neck. Still in her evening wear, as she hadn’t wanted to waste time by returning to the hotel to change. She just wanted to get back. Noticing now that Kathryn sent her a quick look, Annika removed her hand from her neck, not wanting her discomfort to look obvious.

“Long day,” Kathryn said quietly. It was just the two of them in the backseat, but the driver was within earshot of a normal speaking volume.

“Yes.” Annika sighed. Falling asleep with her neck in an awkward position was not optimal either.

They reached the airport and was taken through the VIP section by a gushing host who clearly was an admirer. Annika tried to ignore the headache and smiled politely as the young man chatted about how he always meant to go into politics and that she was now his role model.

Eventually, Kathryn came to Annika’s rescue. She moved in between the exuberant host and warded off any further questions. Sighing, Annika lengthened her stride, wanting nothing more than to sit down, have a bottle of water and Extra Strength Tylenol. When she was taken down the gate to the plane, her four-inch heel got stuck in a small gap in between sections. Stumbling, her arms extended forward, Annika would have fallen if Kathryn and one of the other secret service agents hadn’t caught her. Kathryn wrapped an arm around Annika’s waist and held her upright.

“Senator?” The other agent bent and picked up her shoe. The heel was broken. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Annika muttered but had to lean against Kathryn, standing on one leg. “I’ll have to walk barefoot to the plane. Good thing I always keep flats in my carry-on luggage.”

“Perhaps I could carry the senator—” The VIP host stopped speaking when he met two pairs of narrowed eyes.

“Not a chance, pal,” the male agent on Annika’s other side said. “We don’t need any more assistance. Thank you for your help.”

“But…” The man blinked and looked like a scolded child as he turned and began walking up to the gate.

“Guess we didn’t make his day as much as he would have liked,” Kathryn said as she handed over the shoes to one of the assistants in their small entourage. “Are you all right to walk, though, Senator?”

“I am. Let’s go before someone with a cell phone comes up behind us.” Annika put her long legs to good use and soon they were shown to their seats by a flight attendant. She brought water for them all and assure them only three more people were going to join them in first class.

Annika popped her Tylenol and drank half the bottle of water before leaning back and closing her eyes. “It’ll be good to get home, even if I haven’t quite gotten as settled as I’d like to in my apartment.”

There was a brief pause before Kathryn answered. “Will you truly be all right? You’ve been through the wringer these last few days. I know it’s none of my business, but you’re quite pale.”

“The curse of a complexion like mine. I’m always pale. With this headache, I’m sure I’m ghostlike. No need to be diplomatic, Kathryn,” Annika said and had to smile.

“Now there’s a first. Diplomatic? Never too late perhaps.” Kathryn chuckled.

“You’re setting the bar high.” Annika opened her eyes and cautiously turned her head. “First you save me from drowning, well, sort of, and then from falling flat on my face wearing an evening gown.”

“All in a day’s work.” Kathryn’s normally even gaze seemed brighter. “And it is such a beautiful dress.”

Annika was certain there was something more in Kathryn’s tone when she spoke of the dress. Her eyes had scanned Annika’s face, rather than the dress. Or had she imagined it? Something stirred just below her ribs and made her stomach tremble. Dressed in a black suit, white shirt, and with all the agent paraphernalia; earpiece, weapon’s harness, sidearm, and, no doubt, a backup sidearm attached to her ankle, there was no reason for Kathryn to look so…approachable.

“I’m grateful, all the same,” Annika murmured huskily and sipped more of her water. “I’m going to close my eyes for a bit. Please wake me before we start descent.”

“Of course, Senator,” Kathryn said.

It didn’t take long for Annika to fade into sleep. Just as she did, she could have sworn that gentle hands tucked in a blanket around her.

 

11

Kathryn walked with Annika through her lobby after greeting the doorman on night duty. It was late, past midnight, and if Annika had been pale before, she was nearly transparent now.

“Ma’am?” One of Kathryn’s subordinates caught up with her.

“Yes, Lassiter?” Kathryn turned to the middle-aged man but kept an eye on Annika who stood by the elevator.

“There’s a problem. Three of the crew on the senator’s roster are down with food poisoning.” Lassiter looked somber. “There’s not enough for tonight’s rotation and I know Senator Hansen loathes when we have to bring in a replacement.”

“I do too. Loathe bringing in replacements. All right. I’ll stay. You and Nguyen have been working around the clock—”

“As have you, ma’am.” Lassiter remained where he was.

“I know, but I’m still new as the agent in charge and this will give me more time with the senator. As you said, she does loathe new people on her detail. This way, I’ll be old news before long.”

Lassiter nodded and gave her a crooked smile. “I hear you, ma’am. We’ll go up with you and sweep the place before we head home.”

“Good.”

Returning to Annika just as the elevator door pinged open, Kathryn waited until it closed before speaking. “I’ll be on night duty, Senator. I’m afraid that several on my team are indisposed.”

Annika’s eyes grew clear again after looking dazed and dull only a second ago. “What’s happened?”

“Food poisoning.” Kathryn hoped it was a mild case and that the agents would be back ASAP. They were stretched thin as they were.

Annika looked over at Lassiter. “Please give them my wish for a speedy recovery.”

“I will, Senator. Thank you.”

It took Lassiter and Nguyen less than two minutes to go through the two-bedroom apartment. Annika lived in an ultramodern apartment building that had all the amenities mankind could come up with. Her open-plan apartment boasted floor to ceiling windows, white walls, light grey to black furniture, a luxurious kitchen, and an even more stunning bathroom. A balcony stretched the entire length of the apartment, overlooking D.C. as it was located on the twenty-second floor. Outside, you could dine, use the Jacuzzi, or sunbathe, depending on the season.

Lassiter and Nguyen left and only then did Annika kick off her flats, drop her coat on the small seat in the hallway, and tear the hairpins that had kept her hair in a perfect twist. “Damn.” The word was both a moan and a sigh and did unexpected things to Kathryn’s midsection. “Believe it or not, I’m going to need a bath again, or I won’t be able to function tomorrow.” Annika shook her head and smiled wryly. “May I ask you a slightly awkward favor?”

Kathryn cleared her throat as sudden visions of Annika, naked, with water streaming down her body, flickered through her mind. “Of course,” she managed to say calmly.

“Can you sit in the bedroom and talk to me, so I don’t actually drown this time? I mean, I’d ask you to join me—oh, God, that came out wrong—I mean in the bathroom, but I wouldn’t want to make you uncomfortable.” Annika covered her eyes. “You can tell I’m exhausted. I don’t make sense even to myself.”

Kathryn had stopped breathing at Annika’s words. “I will gladly sit and make sure you don’t drown. And for the record, I don’t think you could make me feel awkward if you tried.” Hot. Bothered. Trembly. All of those and more, but awkward, no.

“That’s very nice of you to say…” Annika tapped her lips. “I have a better idea. You’ve had an equally long day. Why don’t you join me in the Jacuzzi on the balcony? It is entirely shielded from prying eyes. I made sure of that.”

Speechless for several moments, Kathryn thought of what to say. “I—eh—I don’t have a swimsuit packed. Obviously.” Now she did feel, if not awkward, then very hot.

“I have several. Swimsuits and bikinis, all black.” Annika tilted her head.

It wasn’t appropriate. If something happened and Kathryn needed to take action, being in a tub with her subject was not the place for her. “I wish I could. I need to keep my head cool and my gun close, Annika. I can’t be responsible for you—”

Annika looked like she wanted to object, but then she squared her shoulders and gave a short sigh. “I know you’re right, but it would have been a good end of a pretty strenuous day.”

“I suppose so.” Kathryn wanted to sigh as well. Having hot jets massage her aching muscles would have been heaven. As it were, she had volunteered to spend the night awake in Annika’s living room. Oh, well.

“So, inside or outside, then, Kathryn?” Annika began walking to the bedroom.

“Excuse me?” Blinking, Kathryn tried to figure out what Annika meant.

“Inside or outside of the bathroom—chatting to help me not drown?” As if to emphasize her fatigue, Annika yawned behind her hand.

“I suppose, if it doesn’t bother you, inside is all right,” Kathryn heard herself say. She supposed it saved them from yelling.

Annika shot her a broad smile, which sent another violent tingle down Kathryn’s stomach and thighs. She stopped a groan from escaping her vocal cords just in time. This woman threatened to turn her world upside down and perhaps even become her undoing. And knowing this, it was mindboggling how easily Kathryn had agreed to spend time with the senator in her bathroom.

Unprofessional? Absolutely.

Dangerous? Potentially.

Irresistible? Oh, yes.

 

12

Miranda knew she had gone too far. She could tell from the way Andrea’s mouth fell open, that she had. Why had she disengaged the filter she had so firmly slammed into place when it came to private matters? Paris had been a disaster in so many ways. Stephen, her now former husband, had overnighted divorce papers. She herself had treated her oldest and dearest friend, Nigel Kipling, as a pawn while maneuvering her competition out of the picture when it came to Runway. Andrea had slept with Christian Thompson, the man who helped the woman who tried to steal Miranda’s job. Paris had been the catalyst, or the curveball, that changed everything.

“Miranda?” Andrea’s eyes had turned a dark cognac. “Paris?”

How was she going to get herself out of this? A steady, simmering panic was brewing in the lower part of Miranda’s stomach. “Yes. Paris.”

“I…I thought…” Looking down at where her hand was still on Miranda’s knee, Andrea gently pulled it back. Oh, God.

“I don’t mean to overshare and embarrass you.” Her back rigid enough to pulverize a the lightest tight, Miranda began to put more distance between them when Andrea continued.

“No. Wait. In Paris. And just afterward. I thought it was just me. I still think that. If I didn’t, I’d have to consider myself delusional, right?” White teeth sank into full lips as Andrea now plucked at the hem of her top.

Miranda tried to make sense of Andrea’s choppy sentences. “What do you mean, you thought it was just you—in, and after, Paris?” Miranda had to take a large sip of her wine.

“This.” Andrea briefly ran her hand along Miranda’s upper arm. “Since we’re being blunt, for me, it started before Paris. I just didn’t realize it all at once.”

The nerves in Miranda’s belly didn’t settle but changed reason. She waited for a few beats before she felt she could trust her voice again. “Am I to understand that you have harbored…an interest…for some time?”

Andrea nodded slowly.

Miranda cleared her throat, realizing this was when she needed to reciprocate. “I see. I hope you understand, despite my inadequacy in expressing myself, that I do as well.”

Andrea raised an unsteady hand and cupped Miranda’s cheek again, this time without coaxing. Miranda closed her eyes and inhaled more of Andrea’s soft, sweet scent. She couldn’t help it, but covered Andrea’s hand with hers and turned her head. Pressing her lips against Andrea’s palm, her eyes popped open when she heard a soft whimper.

“You’re killing me, Miranda,” Andrea whispered. “You’re so beautiful, but that’s just for starters. You’ve been on my mind forever, and in my fantasies even longer, I think. I can’t believe this is true…”

Not able to hold back any longer, Miranda slid closer and pulled Andrea into her arms. It was inadvisable, even wrong from a professional point of view, but it was impossible to resist. If only once, she had to know what it was like to hold this gorgeous, warm creature. And it turned out to be heaven. Andrea was curvy in all the right places. Her hair was like a curtain of silk and the way her arms immediately wrapped around Miranda, without a hint of hesitation, was the best of all.

“I know what you mean,” Miranda murmured against Andrea’s hair. “This is indeed killing me as well.”

“How?” Andrea asked, her voice unsteady.

“Sooner or later, I’m going to have to stop holding you like this, and I don’t…Damn it. I don’t want to.”

Pulling back just enough to meet Miranda’s gaze, Andrea was quiet for a moment. “So, what do we do now? Do we just let go and I go home, and we act like nothing happened tomorrow—”

“No.” Sliding the fingertips of her right hand down Andrea’s neck where her pulsations were clearly visible, Miranda shook her head. “We’re past that. Aren’t we? Unless you have regrets?” She held her breath.

“Not one.” Andrea shuddered. “That doesn’t mean I worry for your safety and reputation, and my own. Obviously, there are reasons for the rules when it comes to office…um…” Andrea blushed a deep crimson.

Grateful Andrea hadn’t said ‘office romances’ or anything as appalling, Miranda merely nodded. “I know.” She sat in silence with her arms still around Andrea, afraid of all the things that could go wrong but terrified of the risk of losing this minuscule chance. “There is always Human Resources,” Miranda said and waited for Andrea to object.

“You’d do that? You’d go together to HR and declare us as…dating?” Andrea held Miranda closer. “For me?”

“For you. For me.” Miranda was certain she was going to tumble off whatever edge she was teetering on.

“You. Me,” Andrea whispered. “That sounds almost like an us.”

 

13

Andy had to pull back. Not because she wanted, but because she was getting beyond overwhelmed. Miranda’s closeness, the feeling of their bodies aligning, almost mapping each other, made her dizzy. Leaning back, she reached for her glass as subterfuge. A stalling tactic that was perhaps a bit cowardly, but she needed to regroup in her mind. Her body, on the other hand, wanted to press Miranda into the cushions and devour her.

“This is sudden…or is it?” Andy flipped her hair back over her shoulders if nothing else than to keep her free hand occupied. “As you said—Paris.”

“It is sudden in the sense that we’ve both had no idea our feelings were reciprocated.” Miranda studied Andy intently. “I would argue I still don’t know how you feel, exactly.”

Gasping, Andy knew now that this was going far too fast. Was Miranda expecting her to confess to love, just like that? Or was she misunderstanding? “Even I’m not sure,” Andy said quietly.

Miranda’s frown deepened. “You have decided to not even consider this?” Her hands didn’t move, but the tension around her eyes was evident.

“No. No!” Andy put her glass down and waved her hands, not all that surprised that Miranda’s reaction made her put her own on the backburner. “That’s not what I’m saying.” Deciding that only honesty would work, no matter what their future held, Andy slid closer and took Miranda’s hands. “Please, understand. Before today, I had settled for looking at you, admiring you, dreaming of you, from afar. I never thought in a million years that you could be interested in someone like me. Someone not in your league. An employee. And…a woman.”

The frown didn’t erase from Miranda’s forehead, but the expression in her eyes softened. “I could say the same, Andrea.” She tugged at Andy’s hands, bringing them even closer. “How could I know that you, who are young, beautiful, vibrant, and yes, a woman, could see anything remotely attractive in someone like me? After all, I’m known as the Snow Queen, Devil in Prada, and Demon Lady, and those are just the more romantic monikers that feed some ridiculous mystery regarding my public persona. I’ve been addressed in much cruder ways.”

“The only way that affects me is if it hurts you.” Andy knew she had criticized Miranda many times in the beginning, but she was glad she never resorted to name-calling.

“It used to. I suppose it still can.” Miranda sat in silence for a moment, absentmindedly pushing Andy’s bangs from her forehead. “I know we are far from any dramatic declarations, Andrea. It’s not in my nature to be overly demonstrative—normally. With you, after the meeting with the senator today, I seem to be stepping out of my comfort zone.”

Andy had to laugh. “Now, that’s almost a compliment.”

Miranda rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean.” She tugged gently at Andy’s hair.

“I do.” Andy captured Miranda’s hand and brought it to her lips. She kissed the amazingly soft skin of Miranda’s knuckles.

“Andrea…” Miranda inhaled deeply. “If your intention was for us to keep our heads cool, doing that doesn’t help.” She closed her eyes.

Andy couldn’t let go. Not yet. She pressed her lips to the back of Miranda’s hand, turned it over, and found the blue veins at the inside of her wrist. She brushed her lips against it and whimpered as she felt Miranda's pulsations flutter. Not even thinking of cooling anything off, Andy let her mouth travel up along Miranda’s arm, mapping it with open-mouthed kisses, tasting the satiny skin.

“Dear God, Andrea.” Miranda moaned. She placed a bent index finger under her chin and tipped Andy’s head back. “You’re going to be the death of me. I know it.”

“Not my intention.” Andy looked up at Miranda who had now pushed her firmly against the backrest and hovered above her. Predatory and with eyes the color of azure, Miranda stared at Andy’s mouth. And then she kissed her.

Andy had thought kissing Miranda’s skin had been more than she could take, but to feel those lips that could be so scathing, against her own, was like nothing she had ever experienced. Softly, gently, but with undeniable passion, Miranda explored Andy’s lips, murmuring something inaudible. Parting her lips, Andy tried to capture the sound, as if that would make them more intelligible. When she felt the tip of Miranda’s tongue against hers, all such thoughts vanished, and all she could do was feel.

 

14

For Kathryn to sit with her back against Annika as if they were characters in a Victorian melodrama, seemed ridiculous. Annika wouldn’t have it. She climbed into the tub and then called Kathryn to come in. “Please. Just take a seat in the wicker chair.” Stifling a yawn, Annika leaned back. This tub was even bigger than the hotel and it would be easy to slip under if she did fall asleep.

Kathryn took the seat and crossed her legs after folding her hands on her lap. “Did you just move in here? I saw boxes in the guest bedroom.”

Annika shook her head. “No, you’d think so, right? This condo belongs to my family and before I took office, we shared it whenever we stayed in D.C. Now that I need a more permanent place to stay, my aunt, who runs the family business, insisted I’d make it my own. That was actually a year ago. She was quite sure I’d win the election.”

Kathryn tilted her head, relaxing against the wicker chair. “And you? Were you?”

Annika chuckled. “Are you kidding me? Not by a long shot. Don’t misunderstand. I think I stand for the best policy. I knew I had amazing grassroot support. But if I was sure…not at all. As my uncle would say, ‘it ain’t over until it’s over’.”

“True.” Kathryn unbuttoned her jacket and pulled it off. “I hope you don’t mind. It’s nice and toasty in here.”

“Not at all.” Annika stopped another laughter before it erupted. Again, was Kathryn kidding? Annika was curious what Kathryn’s strict suit hid. The woman was slender but strong and wiry, she already knew that. But the way the suit was cut gave absolutely nothing away. The white shirt, almost in the style of a man’s button-down shirt, wasn’t very forthcoming about Kathryn’s shape. It was somewhat singed in by the gun harness, suggesting average size breasts and a compact figure. Either way, shirt or jacket, Kathryn Janeway was sexy as hell.

“Yes?” Kathryn raised an eyebrow and Annika realized she’d been caught staring. No, caught sizing Kathryn up. Ogling.

“I’m sorry. I’m just curious about you too.” It wasn’t the whole truth, but it was part of it. Annika hoped Kathryn wasn’t thinking she was a complete creep. Annika had suggested a joint venture into the balcony Jacuzzi, after all.

“What would you like to know?” Kathryn asked, her voice even.

“Do you enjoy reading?” Annika guessed by the widening of Kathryn’s eyes that this was not what she had expected.

“Yes. Very much.” Kathryn placed her elbows on her knees and leaned closer to Annika. “You?”

“I love to read, but always feel guilty when I do. I feel I need to read work related stuff instead. I do take the time though. Which genres do you prefer? Favorite authors?” Annika slid to the side of the tub and hooked her arms around the edge, resting her chin on top of her laced fingers.

Kathryn listed several authors of different genres. A few of the names were new to Annika and she made a mental note of asking Kathryn to text her the names again. They kept talking about books, went on to movies and tv-shows, and from there to fashion since that had been the start of the day.

“I hope that one or two fittings will be enough,” Annika said. “The last one will have to be on the day of the ball. Good thing they can take care of us both at the same time. I have a lot on my plate before the holidays.”

“I understand that. And from a logistic point of view, such a large event as this ball will demand a lot of your security detail. We’ll be ready for it.” Kathryn’s eye shifted and seemed to linger on Annika’s naked shoulders. This made it hard to breathe evenly and Annika realized it was time to get up. Pushing away from the edge, she reached for the lever that let the water out, from sheer habit, and grabbed the handlebars. Only when water gushed off her breasts, which her last lover—oh, god, was that really eighteen months ago—had insisted on calling ‘ample’, did she remember she wasn’t alone.

To her credit, Kathryn didn’t move. She merely kept her eyes locked on her shiny black shoes while Annika stood and pulled a large bath towel off the heated rack. Wrapping it around her, she swore under her breath.

“Are you all right?” Kathryn asked.

“Clearly just set on proving myself to be a creep in your eyes.” Annika moaned.

Kathryn’s head snapped up, the low ponytail glimmering auburn in the light from the sconces. “Excuse me?”

“You’ve been subjected to my being naked twice in one day, and I suggested you’d join me in the Jacuzzi. I apologize.” Annika wrapped a hair towel around her damp head. “I’m not this clumsy or—”

“Annika. Stop.” Kathryn rose and walked up to her. “No need to explain. Everything’s fine.” She smiled crookedly. “If it’s any consolation, I actually debated taking you up on the Jacuzzi deal.”

Annika took a deep breath. “I won’t ask you how many times men, or women, have propositioned you. I just want you to be certain that not that type.”

“Oh, you can ask. It happened sometimes when I was a rookie agent. Men, mostly. Then I stood between a subject and a guy with a knife, and it was as if that made him, and people I protected after him, look at me differently. My getting older and more experienced helped too. It’s a dangerous trap to fall into.” The tone in Kathryn’s last sentence was oddly wistful.

“You need to remain sharp for both our sakes.” Annika nodded and pulled on a robe before she let the towel drop.

“Yes, it is true. I need to keep us alive. You, since you’re the subject, me, because I need to be alive to keep you safe.” Kathryn walked toward the door. “I’ll be on your couch tonight. I’m going to order some food. All right if I have the television on without sound.”

“Please. Have the sound on. And if you are very hungry, there are some really nice frozen dinners in the freezer. You are welcome to take anything you’d like from the kitchen.” Annika yawned. “I’m going to down a spinach smoothie and then off to bed.”

“A spinach smoothie.” Kathryn looked appalled. “Rather you than me. I will take you up on the frozen dinner though. Thank you.”

“The microwave is pretty intuitive.” Annika opened the fridge and pulled out a ready-made smoothie. Stopping in midmotion, she regarded Kathryn closely. “Thank you for being so understanding. I appreciate it.”

“Don’t mention it.” Kathryn placed the box from the freezer on the counter. “Trust me when I say I can spot the difference between a person who has an agenda—and one who doesn’t. You, Senator, are refreshingly guileless.”

Stunned at Kathryn’s words, Annika finally relaxed fully. She leaned her hip against the counter and drank from the smoothie. She was about to express her relief when Kathryn continued.

“I just wish you weren’t so beautiful.”

 

15

Kathryn knew she’d actually spoken out loud only when she saw Annika’s eyes grow wide. Wanting to swallow the words in retrospect, of course, she knew it was too late.

“I apologize.” Kathryn straightened where she stood. “That was not very professional, but…”

“Yes?” Annika swallowed visibly.

“Nonetheless true.” Kathryn knew she was proving her friends right when they claimed she never backed down from anything. Not even inappropriate, candid words to a woman who was naked only moments ago.

“You’re not just saying this to make me feel better? To even things out, in a manner of speaking?” Her eyes narrowing now, Annika folded her arms across her chest.

“No. If you could speak to some of my former subjects, they’d tell you that I’m annoyingly blunt for the most part. That said, I didn’t mean to actually voice my opinion out loud.”

“Oh.” Annika fiddled with the belt to her robe. “I do feel better though. It was a rather awkward feeling to think it was just me.”

Kathryn’s pulse hammered in her ears. She tugged the cardboard off the frozen dinner and perforated the plastic cover with a small knife from the rack on the counter. She placed it in the micro and then just stared at the controls. Normally she would have figured it out within seconds, but now she felt as if the microwave was a piece of alien technology.

“Allow me.” Annika suddenly stood right behind Kathryn and extended her arm, tapping at the touch panel. “My freezer thinks it’s solely responsible for maintaining permafrost, so I let it run for an additional thirty seconds.”

Kathryn turned to thank Annika, and preferably put some distance between them. Annika didn’t move. She merely stood there, looking at Kathryn as if she was waiting for something. Did she really expect Kathryn to elaborate on what Annika said earlier? The scent of Annika’s bath products wrapped around her like a soft cloud. It was the perfect scent. Soft, sweet, without being overpowering, and just enough for Kathryn to want to inhale it again and again.

Not sure how suddenly her right hand had moved without her expressed effort, Kathryn watched it cup Annika’s left elbow. Telling herself, she meant to guide Annika away from her in a polite way, she didn’t. Kathryn stood there, holding on to Annika gently, and unable to get her breathing under control.

“No,” Kathryn said, even huskier than normal. “Not just you. I’m not sure what’s going on, but I can safely say that I’ve never had this happen with a subject before.”

“Please tell me what is happening.” Annika took one step back and leaned against the kitchen island. Kathryn let go of her arm and remained by the micro.

“I don’t know!” Kathryn pulled at the hair tie that kept her hair in a ponytail, as it was pulling at her scalp. “I really don’t. I’m too old to be like a moony-eyed teenager who finds love at first sight as completely plausible.”

Again. Damn it, she spoke without any form of a filter for the second time in minutes. Kathryn groaned and sent a pleading glance to the ceiling.

“Love?” Annika whispered.

“Of course, not love. Infatuation. Obsession. Or even sexual attraction. Love is something else.” So she was told. Kathryn was ready to call in a replacement, just to get out of the condo, but there was no one to call and she wasn’t the backing down type, no matter what.

“Is that how you categorize what we’re experiencing? Obsession and sexual attraction?” Folding her arms again, only to let them fall to her sides right away, Annika sounded confused.

“What’s your take on it then?” Kathryn asked defensively.

“I’ve been accused of being a difficult person to get to know, not to mention, to get close to.” Gripping the kitchen island countertop on either side of her, Annika spoke slowly.  “Not sure if it is my blond hair, pale skin, in comparison to the fact that I have some curves, that make some people, mainly men, think I’m hot, and then quickly decide that I’m frozen. So, for you to diagnose us as obsessed, infatuated, and ready to jump each other—I don’t know what to think.” She rubbed her eyes and then pinched the bridge of her nose.

This settled something inside Kathryn. Annika was exhausted. She wasn’t feeling well, had battled headaches on and off during the day, and here they were trying to navigate some unexpected attraction that simply put, could wait.

“Annika,” Kathryn said and stepped closer. She took Annika by the arms and stroked up and down a few times. “You need to have your smoothie and go to bed. I’m not avoiding what we just talked about, I promise, but there’s a time and place for it—and this isn’t it. You’re getting paler again.”

Sighing, Annika dropped her head until she rested her forehead against Kathryn’s temple. “You’re right. I’m tired. I can’t seem to think straight.”

“Me either and I don’t have any excuse.”

“You’ve got to be tired too. And you still have to be up all night.” Annika protested weakly.

“I’ll be fine. Grab your smoothie and get ready for bed. If you want, I’ll check on you in a little bit.” Kathryn studied Annika’s expression carefully.

“Yes. At least make sure I haven’t fallen asleep while brushing my teeth.” Smiling faintly, Annika let her hand linger on Kathryn’s shoulder before she took her smoothie and walked back to her bedroom.

Kathryn took her frozen dinner from the microwaved and ate it straight from the plate it came in, sitting on one of the stools by the kitchen island. Locating the bin, she threw the empty plate away and poured herself a glass of water. She downed it, poured some more from the filtered tap, and placed it on the coffee table.

Walking toward the bedroom, she found Annika slumped against the pillows, her feet still on the floor. On her stomach sat an iPad that had gone back into sleep mode.

“Hey. Got to get you into bed properly,” Kathryn murmured to not startle Annika, but then realized she could have yelled and jumped up and down without the other woman noticing anything. Kathryn tugged at the covers to get them more out of the way and then place the tablet on the nightstand. Annika was still wearing her robe and it didn’t look like she had put on something to sleep in. The towel around her hair had slipped off and damp tresses framed her beautiful face.

“God damn it.” Groaning inwardly, Kathryn lifted Annika’s legs off the floor and onto the bed. Annika rolled onto her side, facing away from Kathryn, dislodging the belt to her robe. The robe slid half off her shoulder and completely off her hip. Kathryn instinctively closed her eyes but had to squint a little to get the covers up around Annika.

“Thanks.” Annika’s soft word made Kathryn clench her teeth. She made sure Annika was tucked in as the air conditioning made the room quite cool. As she pulled it up around Annika’s bare shoulder, her hand was caught by Annika’s and tugged in under her chin.

“You’re so warm,” Annika murmured.

“And your thermostat needs adjusting,” Kathryn said with gentle sarcasm. She had to sit on the side of the bed, just behind Annika, to not break her back. As soon as she did, Annika dozed off again.

Kathryn convinced herself that there was no harm done in sitting next to Annika for a few moments while she was settling into a deep sleep. The blond hair was surprisingly wavy when it was damp and had fallen across Annika’s face. With gentle fingers, Kathryn brushed it away from her forehead.

For the third time this evening, Kathryn acted against better judgment and because she couldn’t resist. Bending toward Annika, she pressed her lips gently to her cheekbone and then her temple. “Sleep tight.”

 

16

Hardly seeing Miranda for a week after sharing so much the day of Senator Hansen’s visit, Andy had all but persuaded it had been her imagination going crazy. Being in love with her supposedly straight boss for more than a year was enough to drive her insane, clearly. Fortunately, the days went by at lightning speed as Runway prepared the Christmas Ball. One week away from the event, Andy was so busy, she fully expected to meet herself in a doorway.

“I’m back, Andy,” Tara, the second assistant, said as she flew into the office and threw herself down at her desk. “Thanks for letting me go first.”

“Something looks good in the lunchroom today?” Andy said absentmindedly as she poked at the overworked copy-machine. She actually thought she smelled something burning inside.

“Didn’t look. I just have the lettuce.” Tara smiled sweetly.

Lettuce? Andy rolled her eyes. Not even a salad, but just the lettuce. Geez. “Better call maintenance on this one,” she said and indicated the copy-machine. “I have copied so much, I think it’s about to crash.”

“Yes, Andy.” Tara was on the phone in less than a second.

“Andrea.” Miranda’s voice made Andy swivel so fast, she had to hold onto the copy-machine. “Join me in the office. We have things to discuss.” She strode past the shocked Andy and gaping Tara, carrying a box.

“She wasn’t due back until three pm,” Tara whispered.

“I know,” Andy mouthed. Straightening her pencil skirt, she then ruffled her bangs into place. Snatching a pad and several pencils from her desk. Entering Miranda’s office, she stopped inside the door, suddenly uncertain.

“You won’t need that. Close the door. We’re having lunch.” Miranda pointed at the box on the desk. “The girls said you like Chinese.”

“I do.” Slowly putting down the pad and pencils, Andy closed the door to the outer office. The frosted glass hid them from the rest of the office. When she turned around, Miranda had unpacked the small white boxes and chopsticks.

“Pellegrino?” Miranda pointed to the small refrigerator in the corner.

“Got it.” Andy poured them both a glass of Miranda’s favorite mineral water and then sat down across the desk. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me. This is a working lunch,” Miranda said starkly. She opened a carton and expertly began using the chopsticks. “Are you all right?” she asked after a few bites.

Blinking at the unexpected question, as they hadn’t spoken about the evening at the townhouse in a week, Andy murmured, “I’m fine, thanks.”

“I regret I’ve been so busy,” Miranda said, her focus still on the food.

“Me too. I mean, we’ve both been crazy busy.” Was Miranda really sorry, or was she working her way toward saying that the kiss was a mistake? Andy tried not to draw any conclusion. If she knew one thing about her boss, jumping to conclusions was futile.

“We have. As you know I’m going to D.C. tomorrow. Serena was supposed to join me, but I’ve reconsidered. Change her ticket to one in your name. Max and his assistance are going to as well to deal with the senator’s and her agent’s first fitting. I have a function I can’t get out of.” Sounding frustrated, Miranda threw the chopsticks onto the desk.

“Of course,” Andy said noncommittally. “Am I to join you for this even or…”

“Yes. I had Emily find you a gown in the Closet. If it’s all right with you, I’d like you to come and stay at the townhouse tonight. That way we can get some uninterrupted work done tomorrow before we are rendezvous with Max. We’re using the company helicopter.”

Andy’s brain stalled. Literally came to a halt and refused to fire off any synapses, despite her best efforts. Eventually, she managed to clear her throat. “Spend the night?” Damn, did she have to sound so breathless?

“Yes.” Miranda still sounded exasperated, but Andy could tell how tense she was by the way she held her shoulders a few inches higher than usual.

“Perhaps we can talk some tonight then?” Andy asked carefully, finally feeling steady enough to attempt to eat. “Since it’s been a week.”

Miranda’s gaze snapped up and locked onto Andy’s. “Do I need to worry?” Her voice managed to sound icy and unsteady at the same time.

“Not at all. Never.” Andy wanted nothing more than to reach across the desk and take Miranda’s hand as she had a week ago. “I just…missed you.” Worried she might be pushing it, speaking to Miranda like that—especially at the office, Andy searched the blue eyes looking back at her for anger or withdrawal. She saw neither.

“As did I.” Miranda relaxed her shoulders. “The timing was not ideal. I kept thinking you must think the worst of me for ignoring you after last week.”

Andy swallowed the bite she just successfully plucked from her carton. “I did worry that you might have second thoughts.”

“I don’t.” Miranda smiled now, looking quite relieved herself. “And I admit that I came very close to calling you last night.”

“Why didn’t you? You can call me anytime you want.” Andy snorted. “Come to think of it, you already do call me at all hours.”

Miranda smirked, but then she surprised Andy by blushing a deep pink. “I decided that it wouldn’t be advisable to call you. In part, because it was rather late.” She pressed her lips together.

“And?”

“What do you mean, and?” Miranda picked up her chopsticks and elegantly pulled a shrimp from her box.

“You said ‘in part’.” Andy wanted to know what the reason for the blushing was.

“Oh. Right.” Sipping from the mineral water, Miranda clearly stalled. “I…I can’t speak about that here. Trust me.”

Now Andy was of course dying to know. “Tonight? Can you tell me tonight?”

Drawing a deep, shaking breath, Miranda seemed to hesitate but then nodded. “Very well. Tonight.”

 

17

After waving off the twins as they ran for the town car that would take them to their grandmother’s, Miranda showed Andrea to the guest room. Remaining in the doorway, she thought it felt oddly intrusive to step inside. This was of course ridiculous as it was her house—her home. “The bed is brand new,” she heard herself say and wanted to groan out loud. Why would she say something like that?

“I know. I ordered it for you, once you made up your mind.” Andrea glanced over her shoulder after placing the overnight bag on a chair.

“Of course.” Feeling even sillier, Miranda wanted to turn around and go hide with her laptop in her study but stayed since she couldn’t take her eyes off Andrea.

Andrea had changed clothes and now wore Dolce & Gabbana jeans and a loose black shirt over a tank top. The shirt billowed around her as she moved, caressing her beautiful body. This made Miranda think of something else. “Have you decided on a dress for the ball yet?”

Andrea blinked as the question probably came out of nowhere for her. “I have decided what to wear, yes.”

“Did anyone assist you?” Miranda asked, hoping Andrea wouldn’t be offended at the question.

“Actually, I lucked out. Nigel stopped by to collab with Emily on something and had a few moments to spare.” Andrea smiled broadly. “They’re so excited about their project and it’s very hush-hush. I mean, I’m sure you know all about it, but they wouldn’t even give me a hint.”

“Actually, I know very little.” Miranda had to laugh at Andrea’s dumbfounded expression. “I’m learning, little by little, to not micromanage everything. They’ll run their final product by me, naturally, but I feel I’d hinder their creative process if I meddled at this point.”

“That is awesome.” Andrea beamed now. “It’ll be amazing, no matter what it is.”

“How can you know that?” Interested in Andrea’s reply, Miranda walked into the guestroom and sat down on the bed.

Andrea joined her without hesitation. “Because you always pick the best people for every task. That’s one of your superpowers.”

Touched by the immediate response, Miranda let her gaze roam over Andrea’s face, down her body, and up again. “Thank you. That’s a charming way to put it.”

Andrea merely leaned in and brushed her lips across Miranda’s, as if they’d been kissing for months. “Just the way I see it.”

Miranda had to wait a few moments before she could force air past her vocal cords. “Even so.” Unable to resist, she ran her thumb along Andrea’s lower lip and was rewarded by a soft gasp. Only fair. The fact that Miranda knew it was too much, too soon, didn’t stop her from wanting to push Andrea down onto the bed and explore every square inch of her. Knowing that a mere touch affected Andrea too, put them on an even playing field, as it were.

“I wasn’t lying when I said I missed not being able to truly talk to you this last week,” Andrea said quietly. “And while I realize I risk sounding presumptuous, I need to ask when it’s all right for me to call or text you—I mean for personal reasons.”

Miranda’s knee jerk reaction was to respond as she had so many times to her former husbands and lovers. They had complained about her hours, her dedication, her priorities…well, complained about her in general, or so it felt after a while. Reeling herself in before she bit Andrea’s head off because she’d never forgive herself if she did, Miranda gave the question some thought. “You can text me whenever you want to. I’m usually done with the book at eleven pm, so between then and midnight, unless there is a true emergency.”

Andrea’s smile appeared again. “What constitutes a real emergency? Just so I know.”

“You better not injure yourself or become ill—but if you do, you call at any time. Night or day. Understood?”

“Yes. And likewise.”

Miranda nodded. “I will give you a number for the phone I use for the girls only.”

“Oh.” Andrea’s eyes grew wide and shinier. “Thank you.” She wrapped her arms around Miranda and pulled her close, burying her face into her hair.

Miranda wasn’t prepared and it took her a few seconds to reciprocate. Hugging Andrea, she closed her eyes and reveled in holding her. “You smell so good.”

“You too,” Andrea murmured. “And you feel amazing. I’m proving to possess more character than I ever gave myself credit for.”

“Really? How do you mean?” Miranda ran her right hand in circles against Andrea’s back. Hugging was lovely, but she needed to touch her. Just the back had to be innocent enough.

“I mean just like that. You’re touching me, and holding me, and I’m not jumping your bones.” Andrea moaned.

Miranda gripped Andrea harder. She was aware that the words were half said in jest, but they echoed her own thoughts earlier far too well. “I suppose we both can chalk this down to proof of character, then.”

“Oh, God.” The words coming from Andrea was more of a whimper, which made it impossible to not push things a little further.

Miranda pulled back enough to meet Andrea’s gaze. Normally a soft brown, Andrea’s irises were now a dark coffee with specs of amber, and her eyelids heavy. Pressing her lips to Andrea’s, Miranda slid her tongue along her luscious lower lip, which parted so willingly under hers. She could barely breathe for all the emotions that tumbled through her mind. Miranda explored Andrea’s mouth, tasted her relentlessly, and knew that nothing had ever felt like this. Andrea’s tongue was as eager as her own and the heat erupting in Miranda’s belly quickly spread to every part of her body. Slowly she ended the kiss, mainly because she needed to find her bearings and not fall off the edge of the bed.

Andrea cupped Miranda’s cheeks for a moment and then let go. She slid her hands down Miranda’s arms and ended up taking both hand hands in hers. This anchored Miranda like nothing ever had.

“I’m still trying to wrap my brain around this being real,” Andrea said. “We have a lot to talk about and I’m glad we at least did some talking before kissing.”

“Agreed.” Miranda tried to calm her body down. When had she felt even the slightest aroused last? She couldn’t remember. Using sex as a means to relax, or even sometimes as an outlet for frustration or anger, was not arousal. What she felt from merely being in Andrea’s presence, or being held by this woman, was unchartered territory. It was terrifying to think she could have lived her entire life and never known it could be like this. She would even go so far as to say it was ironic that she, who took pride in being methodical, calculating, and driven by ambition in most things that she did, could not stop thinking about everything even remotely associated with Andrea Sachs. Born with an analytical and creative mind, Miranda never left anything to chance, and yet here she was, handing her heart over to this girl, half her age.

When she analyzed it—and she wouldn’t be true to herself if she didn’t—there was only one logical conclusion.

 

18

Annika stood in the center of a bedroom in Miranda Priestly’s hotel suite while Pierre crawled around her and stuck needles into the dress. It was only marginally more bearable since Kathryn was subjected to the same treatment, but with the must more exhausting Max, who gave a jolly sort of holler now and then.

“Miss Secret Agent, I just wish you’d allow me to make the skirt a short one. It is a crime to not show off these well-toned calves if you ask me.”

“But I don’t ask you. If I see some scissors anywhere near the skirt, I’ll arrest you,” Kathryn snarled, making the man pale considerably. “And it’s Agent Janeway. Nothing else.”

“Aye, sir. Ma’am. Agent.” Trembling now, Max adjusted the hem and stuck more needles in.

“Please don’t scare him,” Annika said, snorting. “He doesn’t know you like I do, Agent Janeway.” Secretly, Annika agreed with Max’s assessment of Kathryn’s calves. They were toned in an incredibly attractive way.

“Hm.” Kathryn shot Annika a glance and it was obvious that she took in all of the dress. “You look almost done.”

“I hope so. I am due for a briefing in an hour.” Annika checked her watch.

“It will be done in time, right, Pierre?” Miranda Priestly said from where she sat by the window, her laptop on her knee. Next to her, Andrea Sachs, the calm and friendly assistant that was Miranda’s shadow, sat, also with a laptop.

“Yes, Miranda. Absolutely.” Pierre brought out a box that turned out to entail pearls and crystals. “I need to know what kind of jewelry you plan to use at the ball, Senator. I will do the embroidery at the neckline accordingly.”

Annika hadn’t even thought that far. She wasn’t much for jewelry. If she worse something, she preferred silver or platinum. Thinking of what was available in the jewelry box that could go with the dress, she drew a blank. “I honestly don’t know,” she said, frowning.

“As we thought, Andrea. Bring the senator the binder.” Miranda looked up from her laptop as Andrea brought a small, thick binder from the bag sitting next to her.

“Here, Senator, you can choose from any of these. They are all for rent from Cartier and Tiffany’s, courtesy of Runway Magazine.”

“This is an amazing service, Ms. Sachs,” Annika said politely, “but I’ll rent my own jewelry. I can however need some advice on which ones to pick to not clash with the style of the dress.”

“Of course. And please, call me Andy.” Turning to her box, Andrea held out the binder. “Miranda, may I suggest you pick some pieces for the senator to choose from?”

“You may.” Miranda smiled briefly at her assistant and for a fraction of a moment, Annika thought she saw Andy blush. “Let’s see,” Miranda continued, starting to browse. She glanced up and looked over at Kathryn. “How about you, Kathryn.”

“Pearl earrings that belonged to my grandmother. That’s it, thank you.”

Miranda nodded approvingly. “Understood.”

Annika tried to picture Kathryn in the amazing dress that Max had designed and with pearls in her ears. So classy—and so hot. She shifted as her stomach clenched. Telling herself to pull it together, or she might just blush too, she directed her gaze out the window.

The week after Kathryn stayed the night in her living room had been chaotic. Kathryn had been off for the first two days after her overtime, and then the ones with food poisoning had recovered. The rest of the days, Annika had only seen Kathryn from afar at the office. She had even taken the risk of asking for a duty roster for her security detail and trying to look entirely innocent about it. It was a relief that Kathryn was going to be with her for several days in a row. Especially today as they both were due for their fittings. Annika had taken the chance to invite Miranda and her assistant for dinner at her condo—and Kathryn would be there as well.

“Senator?” Miranda suddenly stood in front of Annika and held out the binder. “What do you think of these suggestions?”

“Oh. Right.” Feeling caught, Annika groaned inwardly as her cheeks actually did warm a bit. She took the binder and flipped to the pages marked with yellow post-it notes. One set of beads. One set of platinum set diamonds. One set of delicate silver chains. Was Miranda a mind reader? “How did you know I favor these metals?”

“I didn’t, but with your colors, it would be a crime to dress you in anything else.” Miranda merely stood before Annika, waiting.

“The last one. The silver chains.” Annika knew she was going to call…She gazed at the label under the photo…Cartier and ask to buy it, rather than rent it. “I’ll have my assistant take care of this if you give him the details.”

“I’ll make sure he has all the information.” Andy stood and fetched the binder. “It’s a beautiful choice.”

Annika looked over at Kathryn who seemed lost in thought. What had her so preoccupied? They hadn’t spoken about how Kathryn had tucked Annika into bed, again in an almost complete state of undress. What if she was thinking about how she could ask for a transfer? Annika swallowed and then flinched when Pierre suddenly stood.

“All done, Senator. Thank you for your patience,” he said and motioned for her to turn around. “I’ll remove the dress if it is all right. There are quite a few pins in the back, and we can’t risk you getting scratched.”

Annika thanked him and allowed him to skillfully whisk the dress off her. Andy stood ready with a robe, which Annika gratefully put on. “Thank you.”

Turning around to see how far Max had gotten with Kathryn’s dress, she completely lost her breath as Kathryn stepped out of the beautiful garment, only dressed in a bralette and cotton briefs. There had simply never been a sexier sight through the history of mankind.

 

19

Kathryn found herself helping in the kitchen and she wasn’t sure how that happened. Granted, she was only dicing cucumbers, but considering how she hated cooking, and how much she sucked at it, this was still mindboggling. Behind her, Annika was checking something in the oven.

“I thought you said you used a catering service.” Kathryn hoped she didn’t sound critical because she was merely surprised.

“I did. They brought the casserole that’s in the oven, the side dishes, and the starter dish. I figured we could manage the salad.” Annika joined Kathryn at the island.

“Of course—as long as it doesn’t entail something more complicated than this.” Kathryn motioned at the cucumbers with her knife.

“Hey, don’t wave that thing around.” Annika chuckled. “You’re dangerous.”

“Hm. Not as dangerous as you,” Kathryn muttered.

“I beg your pardon?” Annika shifted and leaned her hip against the counter. “I’m not the one wielding a weapon.”

“Depends on how you look at it.” Kathryn made the process short with cucumber number two. At least her hand-eye coordination was well trained, which made it less likely that she’d chop off one of her fingers. “Now, tell me. Are Miranda and Andy aware that you insist I join you three at dinner?”

Now Annika frowned. “You mean, did I specifically inform them about it, no, but it's my choice, and yours, naturally, to have whomever I want at my dinner table.”

“I’m in charge of your security detail. No matter how I feel about you, that’s my job.” Kathryn knew she might be angering Annika, but she felt oddly self-conscious about the situation.

“I know that. They know that. But even so, you are…wait…what?” Annika blinked. “No matter how you feel about me?” Her lips parted slightly, and the icy blue gaze turned darker.

Damn it. Kathryn had been so set on making her standpoint clear, she hadn’t filtered her words. She thought feverishly about how to backpedal, but then realized she was far beyond that…for the same reason. If she told Annika she didn’t feel anything about her, she’d be lying, and she refused to lie to this woman. “I’m attracted to you. I’m unable to stop thinking about you. And clearly, I can’t say no to you.” Kathryn tapped the tip of the blade against the cutting board.

Annika took the knife from Kathryn’s hand and placed it next to the third cucumber. “That about sums it up.” She cupped Kathryn’s cheeks. “May I kiss you?”

Now? Kathryn forgot to draw a new breath for several seconds. Then she nodded. “Yes.”

Lower her head, Annika pressed her full lips against Kathryn’s, sliding her tongue gently from one corner to the other. Kathryn wound her arms around Annika’s waist and pulled her closer. The heat from Annika’s body permeated Kathryn’s skin and she moaned against her lips. Annika nibbled lightly at Kathryn’s lower lip and after that, neither of them held back. Deepening the kiss, Kathryn moaned as Annika pushed her fingers into her hair.

“Oh, God…” Annika whispered as she let her mouth travel along Kathryn’s jawline and down her neck. “I knew it. I have no idea how I knew…but I did.”

Kathryn had to disagree. She’d had no idea kissing Annika would feel like this. She explored Annika’s mouth, tasted her until a strange sound disturbed them. Kathryn pulled back, gasping as she saw how tousled Annika looked and how her lipstick was now a beautiful mess.

“The doorman. I think our guests are early,” Annika said huskily. She walked over to a console on the wall and tapped the screen. “Hansen.”

“Ms. Priestly and Ms. Sachs to see you, Senator,” the doorman said smartly.

“Excellent. Send them up, please.” Annika turned back to Kathryn. “We have exactly two minutes to make ourselves presentable. A broad smile spread across her face. “This evening will be interesting, to say the least.” She motioned for Kathryn to join her in her ensuite. It brought back memories, but Kathryn tried to ignore the effect they had on her body and examined her reflection.

“How so?” Kathryn asked and began removing traces of Annika’s mauve lipstick from her own face.

“If I’m not entirely mistaken, Miranda has a hard time taking her eyes off Andy. I normally wouldn’t gossip about anything at all really, let alone someone else’s relationship, but as they’re our guests tonight and the situation is…if not the same, then similar…” She shrugged and met Kathryn’s eyes in the mirror.

“Oh, really? Huh. That might mean they’re as perceptive of us as you’ve been about them.”

“How is it you haven’t spotted the signs with them?” Annika brushed her hair and let it flow around her shoulders.

Kathryn nearly choked at the direct question since there was only one true answer. “It should be obvious,” she said lightly, but still with her eyes on Annika’s reflection. “Beyond the fact that it’s part of my job description, I’ve been far too busy looking at you.”

Annika dropped her brush in the sink. “Oh, my.” She took the lipstick and reapplied it, but not without effort as her hand trembled.

A buzzing sound from the hallway made Kathryn flinch. “Why don’t I let your…our guests, in, and you can finish what you’re doing?” Without waiting for a response, Kathryn walked behind Annika but came to a stop when the other woman gently caught her wrist. “Yes?”

“I just don’t want you to think I haven’t spent a lot of our time together looking at you, no matter what I’ve noticed or not.” She smiled, but her eyes were still dark blue.

Kathryn raised Annika’s hand and kissed the inside of her wrist before she walked toward the hallway to let their guests in. Their guests. How could it feel so natural to regard the situation like that?

 

20

Miranda dabbed her lips after finishing the main course, taking in the other three women around the table. Annika had set a beautiful table, but interestingly enough used the one in the breakfast nook. The round table boasted a white linen tablecloth, maroon napkins, and off white china. They drank their beverage of choice from delicate crystal glasses, which Miranda could tell made Andrea uncomfortable, judging how she held onto it with both hands when she put it back after sipping her red wine.

“This was delicious, Annika,” Andrea now said. She still stumbled slightly over Annika’s first name, but Miranda didn’t think the other two women noticed it.

“Thank you. My family has used this caterer for many years. A mother-daughter company that actually started with the grandmother. They are fantastic.”

“They are indeed,” Miranda agreed. “Family-owned businesses, when managed well, often give that extra that sets them above the rest.”

Kathryn stood and helped Annika clear the table.

Annika peered over her shoulder. “Can I get anyone something else to drink or do you want to keep working on what you have?” She spoke casually and Miranda could see how this ability to be relaxed among people had spoken to her constituents. Annika had a way of looking at you with those cool-toned blue eyes as if you were the only important person there and then. It was quite obvious that Annika and Kathryn shared an attraction—so how the hell did Kathryn survive being on the receiving end of Annika’s singular focus, with the heat of attraction added to it? When Andrea looked at Miranda that certain way, she could hardly breathe, let alone think.

“Miranda?” Annika raised her eyebrows.

“Excuse me. I would love some coffee please.”

“Latte? Cappuccino? Macchiato? Or just black?” Annika smiled. “I have this brilliant machine that I don’t use often enough as I’m a tea-person in the evenings.”

Returning the smile, Miranda was pleased. “A latte. Very hot. I think I need to forego the double espresso, though, as it’s late in the day.”

“Coming up. Andy?” Annika shifted her gaze.

“I’m enjoying my wine, thank you.” Andrea cautiously sipped from her glass.

“And you, Kathryn?” Annika joined Kathryn by the kitchen island and placed a hand at the small of her back.

“I’ll have what Miranda’s having, thank you. Let me help you though.”

As the two of them busied themselves by the machine, Miranda stealthily studied Andrea who seemed lost in thought as she looked out at the window at the amazing view over D.C. She was dressed in a dark chocolate-colored dress with three-quarter sleeves. The skirt ended just above her knees, which meant quite a few inches of her thighs were exposed when she sat down. Miranda could tell Andrea was wearing silk stockings, which made her fingers itch.

“Miranda?” Andrea said quietly and only then did Miranda realize that she had been caught staring. “Everything okay?”

“You are beautiful.” Miranda spoke in a low voice, not because she feared being overheard, but because it was a very private thing to say.

“Oh. Thank you.” Andrea’s eyelids lowered themselves and hid her expression for a few moments, but then she met Miranda’s gaze again. “You are being bold.”

“Am I?” Miranda placed a hand on Andrea’s closest knee, shielded by the tablecloth.

Andrea jumped, but her facial expression remained the same. “What are you doing?” she mouthed.

“Like you said. Being bold.” Miranda moved her fingers and ended up on the inside of Andrea’s knee. She caressed the silk, warmed by Andrea’s skin, in small circles.

“Did I say bold? I meant brazen.” Andrea smiled now. She shifted slightly and placed her hand on Miranda’s.

Certain Andrea was going to push her hand away, Miranda tensed, but instead, Andrea kept the hand on placed while mimicking the caresses on the back of it. It was Miranda’s turn to flinch.

A latte was placed in front of Miranda together with a bowl of homemade ice cream and warm raspberry sauce. “I hope you’ll enjoy this. It’s a childhood favorite,” Annika said.

Kathryn placed Andrea’s bowl in front of her and Miranda slowly withdrew her hand, hoping it wasn’t too obvious. When Annika and Kathryn had sat down again, Miranda carefully studied Kathryn’s expression but was relieved to see that she was more focused on Annika.

Miranda snickered inwardly. They were clearly all in the same boat here. She was enthralled by Andrea, mesmerized…infatuated…in love. The way Kathryn regarded Annika, was like looking into a mirror. Granted, the age difference between Kathryn and Annika was not as big as between her and Andrea, but there were several similarities.

Miranda scooped up some of the ice cream and raspberry sauce. The mix between creamy and acerbic hit her palate and she was transported in time back to her own childhood. Remembering the rare occasions when her mother could afford desserts for her three children, the luxury of having ice cream—and certainly not this luxurious type—she closed her eyes briefly.

Andrea’s hand on her knee made her snap her eyes open again and find Andrea’s gaze. There was a question hidden in the depth of the amber eyes, but also a calm reassurance in Andrea’s expression as she caressed Miranda. As they returned to speaking amicably with Annika and Kathryn, and getting to know the two charismatic women more, all Miranda could think about was going back to the hotel suite and finally be alone with Andrea.

 

21

The hotel suite was lit by mood lights that cast a soft glow upon Miranda where she stood by the window, dressed in the same grey robe Andy had seen her wear more than a year ago. It had to be a major favorite since Miranda was offered so many free garments over a year, her wardrobe was never the same from one season to the next.

“You're staring,” Miranda said quietly and there was no criticism or annoyance in her voice.

Andy had also removed her makeup and taken a quick shower, but in her case, she wore the hotel’s white terrycloth robe over her tank top and sleep shorts. Walking up to Miranda, Andy looked out the window. “It’s pretty with all the lights.”

“It is.”

The silence stretched and Andy wracked her brain to think of something to say. “It was lovely at Annika’s today. I really like her and Kathryn.” She glanced over at Miranda who seemed lost in thought. At first, she didn’t think Miranda would comment on her words, but after a few seconds, she nodded slowly.

“I enjoyed their company even if I was distracted.” Miranda raised her hand and rubbed her neck. “It’s been a long day.”

“Distracted? Something I can help you with?” Andy tried to figure out what could be amiss. Miranda had looked at ease, except for when she’d caressed Andy’s knee—oh.

“I think I actually heard your penny drop.” Miranda smiled, her eyes still focused on the view.

“I was the distraction?” Stepping in behind Miranda, Andy placed her hands on Miranda’s shoulders, gently letting her fingertips create a pattern against the silk.

“Yes.” A catch in Miranda’s voice showed she was not unaffected.

“Well, that worked both ways,” Andy said. She ran her fingers against the bare skin on the back of Miranda’s neck. “All I normally have to do is look at you—and then you touched my knee. Caressed it nearly in plain view.”

“What can I say,” Miranda said and leaned her head back against Andy’s shoulder. “You’re irresistible. I should be commended on having been able to keep my hands to myself for this long.”

“Same.” Andy chuckled. She turned Miranda around and pulled her close. “Just to be sure, though, are you truly ready to get a little closer. I mean physically?”

“I can’t wait to get closer in whatever capacity you’ll allow me. Caution to the wind and all that.”

“I’m not sure being cautious is that important any longer. I mean, weren’t we talking about Human Resources?” Hoping she hadn’t overstepped, Andy slid her hands up and down Miranda’s back, only now realizing that she wore no top under the thin robe. Andy’s hands automatically clutched at the fabric.

“As soon as possible, if that’s all right with you, darling.” Miranda pulled back and met Andy’s gaze. “I don’t want there to be any misunderstandings. In the long run, you’ll have to transfer to another department or another magazine. Or follow your dream about becoming a journalist. For now, it’ll be enough for us to get to HR, but it’s a temporary measure. You will have enough references from different people you’ve worked with to land any job you want. All because of your work ethic and skills, I assure you.”

This made Andy relax. The less Miranda got involved with her references, the better. There was always a risk that evil, jealous tongues would spread false rumors, but as long as they themselves knew what was right, so be it. When Miranda put things like she just did, it gave Andy hope for the future. “Thank you. I’m glad you see it that way too.”

Miranda pulled her fingers through Andy’s hair. “Don’t get me wrong. I understand that not rushing things has its advantage, but…” Leaning her forehead against Andy’s temple, she breathed in deeply. “It’s not easy to remember why when you’re this close…and smell so good.”

Andy moaned and turned her head and pressed her lips to Miranda’s hairline. The trademark bangs, now slightly limper after Miranda’s shower, tickled her cheek. Not able to hold back, Andy tipped Miranda’s head back just enough to reach her lips. Stopping just a breath from them, she said, “Please?”

Miranda pressed her lips against Andy’s, her fingers entering Andy’s hair. Tilting her head, she found the perfect angle for them to deepen the kiss. Andy whimpered as Miranda’s tongue found hers. This was still so new and unfathomable, she trembled as Miranda untied the terrycloth robe and pushed it off her shoulders.

“I have to see more, feel more, of you,” Miranda whispered against Andy’s mouth. “Your skin is like velvet.”

“Oh, God.” Andy felt her knees give in and pulled Miranda with her farther into the room. “Can we sit down? Lie down?”

“Clever idea,” Miranda said breathlessly.

“I promise nothing will happen that we’re not ready for,” Andy said between kisses. “I just feel like I’m about to fall over.”

“I’ll be damned if I want to be with you on a hotel room floor.” Miranda huffed, but the way she eagerly pulled Andy with her to her bedroom, belied her acerbic tone.

Andy dropped her robe unceremoniously on the floor and stood there in her favorite, if a bit worn and torn, sleep wear. The shorts had once been plaid but were now so washed out, it was hard to detect the pattern.

“How the hell can this…” Miranda motioned at Andy, “…be so damn sexy?”

“Are you talking about me or my clothes?” Andy smiled, her eyes taking in every inch of Miranda’s being. She had to be half-naked at least under the robe. Andy could see the outline of erect nipples poke at the fabric. Stepping closer, she kissed Miranda gently. “Now, Miranda…what will I find if I do what you did and push your robe off?”

 

23

Annika put the last in the dishwasher while Kathryn wiped the counter. Turning around, she smiled. “Thank you. I swear I didn’t ask you to join me in hosting this dinner to take advantage of you.

Kathryn responded by blushing faintly. “Be careful how you put your words, Annika,” she murmured while she washed her hands.

“Are we to play the double-entendre game this evening?” Leaning her hip against the counter, as was her habit, Annika studied Kathryn. She moved with such ease and energy. Like she had true power built-in every joint. She could easily picture Kathryn in a training session for hand-to-hand combat. The real thing…she’d rather not picture at all.

“Oh, I suppose we could play in all sorts of ways,” Kathryn said, perhaps having no clue just what a retaliation those worlds were, as Annika felt her own cheeks warm.

“Agent Tully is placed in the guestroom, well tucked away,” Annika said slowly. “Unlike you, that night we came home from New York, who insisted on being awake in the living room, he seems quite happy with that arrangement.”

“He is, only because I told him if he fell asleep and couldn’t be by your side within seconds, I’d have his badge.” Kathryn smiled ferally. “After the holidays, I’m sure this level of security can be dialed down unless someone has tried something.”

Annika sighed inwardly. The two bills that were meant to be signed before Christmas was the reason for the increased threat against her and why she had to have a secret service presence in her home. “You threatened him?” Annika sauntered the few steps over to Kathryn.

“I did not. Well, no in so many words. Hm. I guess so. Oh, well.” Kathryn shrugged.

Annika cupped Kathryn’s cheek. “So, it’s just us now.”

“Yes.”

Brushing her thumb over Kathryn’s lips, Annika flinched as she felt the gentle touch of the tip of Kathryn’s tongue against her skin. Unable to resist, she covered Kathryn’s mouth with hers as she pulled her into her arms.

“Mm.” Kathryn melted against Annika, there was no other word for it. She wound her arms around Annika’s neck and pressed against her, making it possible for Annika to feel every curve of her body. The kisses were the best ones yet. Deep, long, and slow. Annika moaned into Kathryn’s mouth, unable not to, wanting to feel more of her. As she pulled away, only a fraction of an inch, she managed to get a whisper out. “Bedroom?”

“Yes.”

Annika didn’t wait for Kathryn to possibly elaborate, but kissed her again and then extended one arm, feeling her way along the walls as she walked backward to the bedroom, still kissing.

In the bedroom, Annika had set the mood lights to a cozy peach and pink glow. Enough to see each other properly, but not stark. Had she planned for taking Kathryn to bed? No. Hoped for it? Oh, yes.

By the foot of the bed, Kathryn surprised Annika, who had it in her mind that she really was the instigator, by unbuttoning her shirt. “You’re so beautiful,” she murmured against Annika’s lips. “Please, tell me this is all right.”

“Beyond all right.” Annika pulled the open shirt off herself and made the process short with Kathryn’s buttons. “I want…no, I need to see all of you. Feel all of you.”

“And I you.” Stepping back, Kathryn undid Annika’s slacks. They fell off her hips and pooled around her now shoeless feet. Annika unbuttoned Kathryn’s pants and then gently pulled the zipper down, making Kathryn groan, which made her chuckle.

“You are tormenting me,” Kathryn murmured as she clung to Annika’s upper arms.

“But you’re stunning like this…half-dressed.” Annika regarded Kathryn where she stood in her white lace bra, matching panties, and her black slacks low on her hips. Letting go of the pants, Annika saw them fall to the floor like her own just had. They stepped out of their garments at the same time. Annika wore sheer over-knee stockings while Kathryn wore regular socks.

“Sit down…please…” Annika gently pushed Kathryn onto the foot of the bed. She knelt in front of her and pulled the black socks off. It charmed her to see that Kathryn red painted toenails. Annika kissed her way up until Kathryn had to part her legs for them to get closer. Without the slightest awkwardness, they scooted up on the bed until they were comfortable against the pillows, face to face. “Want to take my stockings off?” Annika asked.

Kathryn shook her head. “Are you kidding? Those have to be the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen. Quite likely because you’re wearing them.

“May I take off your bra?” Annika searched Kathryn’s glance for the smallest sign of reluctance, but there was only a warm glow combined with a heat that simmered, barely contained.

“Yes.”

So, she did.

***

Kathryn felt her bra being loosened but was more focused on the fact that Annika wasn’t wearing a bra. Instead, she wore a chemise made of silk, which only gently hugged her full breasts. She absentmindedly moved her arms to rid herself of her bra, but then kept one hand hovering above Annika’s right breast.

“Touch me,” Annika whispered.

“This is lovely,” Kathryn said and slid her fingertips over the silk, “but it has to go.”

Annika moved so fast, Kathryn barely saw how she managed to pull the chemise off in one swoop. Instead, Kathryn’s hands and mouth fell upon the gorgeous breasts now naked before her. She simply couldn’t get enough. The skin under her mouth was puckered in the center and velvety everywhere else. Under her, Annika moaned and arched her back.

“Kathryn, yes, just like that. No, more. Don’t stop.” The words, spoken with such abandon and in Annika’s amazing alto voice, made everything inside Kathryn clench and ache. Using her lips, her tongue, she couldn’t get enough of how Annika tasted, and it was as if Kathryn had been starving for a long time. Now she feasted on Annika and listened just as voraciously to the tone of her voice, the words that came over those half-open lips, and knew she would never get enough of this…of her.

“My turn or I’ll combust,” Annika gasped the words out as she rolled them. Suddenly Kathryn was on her back and her legs wrapped around Annika who was leaning on her elbows. “You’re gorgeous.” Annika kissed a slow, burning path down Kathryn’s neck, stopped sometimes to pay special attention to certain areas. Pulse points, indentations, collarbones, sternum, and…oh, god, Kathryn’s nipples ached under Annika’s lips and teeth, she had to clasp a hand over her own mouth to not scream out loud.

“Annika,” Kathryn whispered huskily. “Please.”

“I know.” Annika sucked one of the nipples into her mouth and worked it over with her tongue, moaning around it as she did. This sent tremors through Kathryn who wrapped her legs harder around Annika.

“You’re going to make me…ah!” Kathryn felt some small pre-orgasmic flutters erupt between her legs.

Annika slid to the side, pushing her hand down between Kathryn’s legs, cupping her. “So hot. I love how you feel.”

Kathryn arched, moaning far too loud. Pushing her panties off, she didn’t care where they went, just that Annika’s hand was back, caressing her, going inside her. Wound so tightly, she thought she was going to actually explode, Kathryn tugged at Annika’s lace panties and managed to get them down enough to push two fingers in between the slick thighs. Annika whimpered and pressed her face against Kathryn’s neck.

It was all it took. Annika’s breath against her skin, her fingers buried deep inside, and Kathryn’s own fingers against Annika’s swollen folds. Kathryn came in long, close-to-painful waves, sobbing Annika’s name. Somewhere she felt Annika press harder against her own fingers and moved them in the same rhythm, wanting nothing but pleasure for the amazing creature in her arms.

Jerking, Annika drenched Kathryn’s fingers, and this made Kathryn go tense again when another, smaller, orgasm began between her legs and permeated her entire body. She closed her eyes and rode the waves with Annika.

Slowly, they shifted until they had sorted out whose limb belonged to whom and gotten rid of the last pieces of Annika’s underwear. Tugging a sheet over them, Kathryn pulled Annika onto her shoulder and kissed the top of her head. “Oh, my.”

Annika tipped her head back. “Actually, that sums it up. Oh, my, indeed.” She kissed Kathryn’s chin and then buried her face against her neck again. “I both knew and wasn’t sure it would be like this,” she murmured.

Surprised, Kathryn squeezed Annika gently. “Same here. I knew making love with you would be different, but of course, I wasn’t sure it’d be the same for you.”

“But it was.”

“It was.” Kathryn knew she would turn to Annika again and again in the night because she needed to explore more, feel more, and most of all, give more. She just needed to rest a little first. Just a few minutes.

 

24

Miranda couldn’t speak. Not even if her life depended on it. She trembled as Andrea gently pushed the robe just past her shoulders, watching as her eyes grew wider. What was Andrea thinking? Miranda was past any age-gap misgivings or potential insecurities, but the fact that she’d never been with a female lover—not properly—made her nervous. “Andrea?” Damn, even her voice shook. The voice she had cultivated during decades, was not the one belonging to the Snow Queen. This voice, truer than in a long time, belonged to Miranda, the woman.

“Like satin in moonlight.” Andrea bent and pressed her lips to Miranda’s left shoulder. “Oh.”

“Nothing but me,” Miranda whispered.

“What?” Looking dazed, Andrea straightened at met her gaze.

“You asked what you would find if you did what I did and push your robe off. My answer is, nothing but me.” Miranda managed to smile, despite her onset of nerves.

“Jesus.” Andrea undid the belt of Miranda’s robe but stopped in mid-motion. “Have you any idea how many of my heated daydreams this robe has starred in?”

“Excuse me?” Miranda spoke absentmindedly, but then her curiosity won. “What do you mean?”

“Paris. You in this robe…and later, you in this robe in my dreams.”

“I believe you said daydreams.” Slowly helping to open the robe, Miranda sucked in her lower lip to not whimper out loud at how Andrea blushed.

“I might tell you about them, someday.” Andrea gave that last little tug that made the robe run like water down Miranda’s body and leave her naked. “Damn.” The reverent tone to such a profane word made Miranda reach for the hem of Andrea’s deplorable tank top. She pushed it up and off in one movement, aided by a very willing Andrea. Pushing her hands into Andrea’s sleep shorts, she shoved them over her hips and soon they were both naked.

“Does this…us…is it like you hoped?” Miranda had to ask, and she prayed it was.

“No. Better. I have a great imagination, but this is better.” Andrea took Miranda’s hand and led her closer to the bed. “I need to do something that was part of those daydreams. May I?”

“Yes.” It was easy to promise since she trusted this woman with her life.

“But I haven’t told you what it is.” Andrea helped Miranda settle against the pillows. The room was warm, but goosebumps erupted everywhere, and Miranda’s nipples puckered to hard pebbles at the sight of Andrea joining her.

“I know.”

“So, you’ll just let me? Just like that?” Andrea kissed a warm trail from one collarbone to the other.

“Mm-hm.” Miranda’s voice was failing, but Andrea obviously caught the affirmative in her tone as she began mapping Miranda’s body one kiss at a time. Normally an impatient woman, Miranda found herself almost in a Zen-like erotic haze, feeling every single touch to her very core. When Andrea slowly circled in on her lower abdomen, Miranda spread her legs to make room for her.

“Yes, like that,” Andrea murmured. Propping herself up on her elbows, she aligned her body with Miranda’s, fusing them. “You are amazing.”

“I am? Oh, Andrea. You’re the amazing one. I want you in every way it is possible to want another person.” Miranda rolled them on their sides. “And you’ve made me wait long enough now…I’m not going to be able to take my time with you like you did with me, not this time around. I need you to go inside me. May I do the same? Are you aroused enough for that?”

Andrea’s blinked. “Oh, God…” She raised her leg and hooked it over Miranda’s hips. “I’m beyond ready.” She slipped a hand down between them and pushed it in between Miranda’s legs. “This? Like this?”

“Ah!” Miranda fumbled some but didn’t care if Andrea noticed, as long as she could touch her. Andrea hadn’t exaggerated. She was drenched and swollen, and just as ready. The folds separated under her fingers and she did her best to keep the same rhythm as Andrea.

They were face to face on the pillows, kissing, but mainly looking at each other as they tried to take their time. Miranda knew she wasn’t going to last long when Andrea entered her with two fingers. She barely had time to do the same before flickering lights erupted on the inside of her eyelids. Andrea cried out and then pressed her lips against Miranda’s neck, her body undulating in wave after wave. Miranda’s stomach clenched, then her thighs, and she came hard. Andrea had slipped her free arm under her neck and held her tight, pressing breathless kisses against her temple. Whimpering, Miranda couldn’t remember ever feeling like this. She didn’t want to let go of Andrea—ever. She wanted them to hold on, no matter that they were both sweaty and tousled. Before Andrea—unheard of.

“Miranda,” Andrea whispered. She gently pulled her hand free and hugged Miranda tight. “I could never have imagined anything like this. Not in a million years.”

“Neither could I. And just so you know, since we’re being honest, you weren’t the only one daydreaming. And still…” Miranda kissed Andrea softly. “You’re right. How could either of us have known?”

Andrea settled in and Miranda was enamored with how obvious it was that this young woman wanted to be there with her.

“I’m not about to let you go. I hope you realize that, darling.” Miranda tugged the covers up over them. She swallowed. “I couldn’t bear it.”

Andrea pushed her fingers into Miranda’s hair and kissed her back. “Neither could I. So…human resources when we get back to Runway?”

Miranda relaxed fully and smiled. “That’s right. And not a minute too soon.” Switching off the bedside lamp, Miranda closed her eyes, content to listen to Andrea’s breathing—for now. She knew it wouldn’t take long for her to want Andrea again, but she had one thing now that she hadn’t trusted in before. Time. Time to learn everything about this woman, and time to let Andrea see the real her.

Once they’d been to HR, the first thing she would do was to ask Andrea not to attend the Christmas Ball as her assistant—but as her date.

 

25

Miranda paced back and forth between the front door and the stairs, waiting impatiently for Andrea. She knew she was ridiculously early. And she was nervous about what kind of dress Andrea had chosen. Yes, she’d had help, both from Emily and Nigel, who would also attend the ball, but Miranda wanted desperately Andrea to have the perfect dress.

Stopping in her tracks, she groaned. She was doing it again. It truly didn’t matter what Andrea was wearing. No matter what, Andrea would be the most beautiful, loving woman in the room. If any of New York’s elite had a problem with that, they could just fuck off.

“Are you all right? I heard you groan.” Andrea’s voice from the stairs made Miranda swivel. And stare. And blink away tears. Why had she even bothered to worry for a second?

“I’m fine,” she whispered. “Oh, God, darling. You’re absolutely breathtaking.”

Andrea came to a halt just by the last step. “And you’re stunning.”

Andrea wore a dark red, faux silk, floral brocade, dress with a sweetheart neckline. The bodice hugged her beautiful form and billowed out in an abundance of fabric from her hip down. A glance at her feet made Miranda smile. Pumps in the same fabric. Even Andrea’s lipstick matched. No jewelry, but a black, narrow clutch, a few nuances darker than the dress, and a black chiffon wrap, completed the look.

Miranda knew Nigel had thought of what she herself was wearing, to not make them look as if they were deliberately matching, but not clashing either. Her own navy lace dress with a tall slit also cut to show off a good deal of her shoulders, flattered Miranda’s slighter frame. Black pumps, a pearl embroidered clutch, and large platinum hoops in her earlobes perfected the look.

“I have a confession,” Andrea said, sliding her hand down the length of Miranda’s left arm. “I’m nervous.”

“Because you’re going as my date?”

“No, and yes, in a way. I wouldn’t want to say or do anything that reflects badly on you.” Andrea took Miranda’s hand. “The idea of going to such a major event as your date, when we’ve just started…”

“But have we though? Just started?” Miranda raised Andrea’s hand to her lips and kissed it. “We both said it. Ever since Paris and even before then.”

“True.” Andrea closed her eyes and when she opened them again, she smiled. “As for how that feels, it’s pretty damn awesome. And the fact that Caroline and Cassidy seemed to have a bet going on about us, makes it easier as well. Who knew they were that perceptive?”

Miranda agreed. Her girls had high-fived each other and made some horribly annoying noise that Miranda had overlooked as it was such a relief. Only when money changed hands between her twins, as it turned out that Caroline had won a bet about something happening before the Christmas ball, rather than after.

“Yes, who knew?” Miranda took her silk wrap and let Andrea place it around her shoulders. “Our car is here. We better leave as traffic is bound to be awful.”

Andrea swallowed but nodded. “I’m ready.”

***

Kathryn stepped out of the limousine and was met with an onslaught of camera flashes. She wanted to roll her eyes at them, as she was not a celebrity and they had to be curious as to who else might be in the car. She turned around and extended her hand to Annika, and now the noise became ear-deafening as the statuesque blond woman rose like an ice goddess from the dark depth of the vehicle. Silver sandals on lethally high heels, and a silver-white wrap, which moved in the wind, made Kathryn feel torn between thinking this fairytale beauty was way out of her league, and how glad she was that the red carpet under infrared heaters was only steps away. Her own dress covered more, but it was winter after all.

As they made their way to the awning covering the red carpet, Kathryn heard more camera action behind them. Turning around, she saw it was Miranda and Andrea. She nudged Annika’s elbow. “Our friends are behind us. Should we wait for them, or is that a faux pas at these events?”

“I don’t care. Let’s say hello at least and let Miranda decide.” Annika smiled as she turned with Kathryn to watch Miranda and Andy approach. And they did so, hand in hand.

“Wow.” Kathryn blinked. “They’ve stepped it up a notch.”

“So have we. We just haven’t told anyone yet.” Annika winked at Kathryn who didn’t know how to interpret her words. “What would you say if I took your hand?”

“That I asked for a transfer just in time.” Kathryn held her breath as she regarded Annika. “Are you sure?”

“I am. What do you say?”

Kathryn didn’t wait but took Annika’s hand as their friends caught up with them. Somewhere, Kathryn noticed how more camera flashes went off, as they greeted Andy and Miranda with air kisses.

“I see we’re not the only ones,” Andy said, looking quite relieved. “You look amazing, both of you.”

“As do you,” Annika said. “We were wondering if you two would like to walk the red carpet together. Or if that’s a no-no.”

Miranda huffed. “Even if it were, I wouldn’t let that stop me. I think we’ll have a wonderful time tonight and I for one plan to dance with my girlfriend the first chance I get.”

Andy stared and then blushed a lovely pink that made Kathryn realize just how big a coincidence their respective relationships were. She held on tight to Annika’s hand as the four of them walked along the red carpet, stopped every few yards, smiled toward the members of the press, but as if understood, didn’t allow for any questions.

***

Andy swayed in Miranda’s arms, having given up trying to keep track of who might be staring. Everyone was and she didn’t care.

“As fun as this is,” Miranda murmured in her ear, “I can’t wait to come home and help you out of that dress.”

“Wh-what?” Unprepared, Andy was afraid she was going to accidentally step on Miranda’s toes. “I can’t believe you just said that in public!” She snorted.

“It’s the truth.”

And it was, for her too. Andy was enjoying herself. It had been interesting to see how taken aback Emily had been, and Nigel hadn’t. The latter had merely smiled and given an enthusiastic thumb’s up.

“Miranda, there’s something I have to say that can’t wait,” Andy heard herself say, not sure why it was so important to do it right this minute.

“Oh?” Frowning slightly, Miranda tipped her head back to look into her eyes. “Something wrong?”

“Not in the least. The opposite.” Andy’s chest felt so warm and overflowing, and the way Miranda held her, made her feel precious. “I meant to tell you tonight when we got back to the townhouse—”

“Home.” Miranda held her closer.

“H-home.” Andy gasped. “But I can’t wait.” She drew a deep breath. “I love you, Miranda, so very much.”

Miranda stopped dancing. She seemed oblivious to the other couples moving around them as she opened and closed her mouth twice before she managed to speak. “I love you. More than I’ll ever be able to tell you—but I will do my best to show it.”

And then, right there, dead center on the vast ballroom floor, Miranda kissed her.

***

Over by one of the columns, Annika stood half behind Kathryn with her arms loosely around her waist. “I think they told each other,” she said in a low voice.

“Told each other what—oh…!” Kathryn was holding onto Annika’s arms and now Annika felt her grip grow firmer. “And there they go.”

Miranda had just pulled Andrea closer and kissed her, which made a collective hum go through the ballroom.

“I’m glad you told me this morning,” Kathryn said. “I most likely would have fainted on the spot in a public setting.”

“Hardly,” Annika said and chuckled. “You might faint when I share what I heard through the grapevine regarding your transfer, though.” She smiled down at Kathryn as she pivoted in her arms.

“What do you mean? Are they denying it? They can’t. It would be unethical—”

“They’re not denying it.”

“How can you have heard before I did—and so soon?” Kathryn frowned.

“I have my sources.” Smiling broadly, Annika bent and kissed Kathryn lightly. “I even know the address of your next subject.”

“Now, this is unfair. Who is it? And if they’re trying to screw me over…because I requested D.C. so I can be near you, or I’ll quit.”

Annika couldn’t keep Kathryn guessing. She smiled broadly but got ready to steady her lover. “You may recognize it. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”

***

END