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Blue Velvet

Part B

Part 4


I wondered briefly if the baby I lost would have been a boy or a girl, and if he or she would have resembled me or my husband. But there was the crisis in Berlin to worry about, and I pushed it out of my mind.  

Neville had seen that the information was passed on to Bryan, who sent word that we were to return to the States, that the NOCs, the officers with non-official cover, would take it from there.  

We were in Neville's office, packing up the odds and ends we had accumulated in the past six and a half months, when Jefferson strode in.  

"Hello, little sister." He kissed my cheek. "Webb."  

"Sebring. I assume Bryan contacted you?"  

"Yeah. This is my sector now." Jefferson would make sure key people were in place in East Germany , and he would encourage equally key people to leave before it became impossible. "Word is a Wall will go up within the next two weeks."  

A junior officer tapped on the door. "Mr. Webb? The ambassador would like to have a word with you."  

Neville looked puzzled but shrugged. "I'll be right back."  

"No rush, Webb." My brother's expression was bland. I knew he was up to something.  

" Jefferson , you don't blame Neville for the miscarriage, I hope."  

He scowled at me. He had happened to be in Berlin at the time and managed to pay a flying visit. "He never once spoke of it. You could have bled to death on that bathroom floor."  

"You're exaggerating." The hospital hadn't even seen the necessity of keeping me more than a couple of days.  

He continued as if I hadn't spoken. "Doesn't the man even care?"  

"He cares."  

Neville had wakened me one night shortly after it happened, shaking so hard and holding me so tightly I could barely draw a breath. Hot tears scalded my neck and shoulder.  

I managed to turn into the arms that were wrapped around me. 'We can have another child, darling.'  

'Fuck another child, Porter. I could have lost you!'  

"He cares more than you can imagine, Jefferson . And if you ever say anything so horrible about him again, I'll smack you."  

He had the grace to look abashed. "It's your marriage, Porter."  

"Yes. Now I imagine the ambassador has no idea he's supposed to talk to my husband, so suppose you tell me why you wanted to speak to me without him being here."  

He pulled something out of his pocket. "Here, Porter." Three live violets, only slightly crushed, their light fragrance rising up to scent the close air of the small cubicle. "I was asked to give you these by a friend of a friend."  

//Modesty.// My lips formed the name, but I didn't speak it aloud. I met Jefferson 's eyes and extended my hand.  

He placed the violets on my palm, and I stroked the fragile petals.  

"Is she well?"  

"Yes." His mouth tightened. "He told me she had learned of your 'illness'. He said she wanted you to remember her promise to you. What promise, Porter?"  

"I fail to see that that's any of your business, Jefferson . What was between Modesty Blaise and me is strictly between Modesty Blaise and me."

"Look, little sister, this woman is dangerous. She and that maniac who calls himself her second-in-command are traveling in East Germany , trying to establish identities there."  

"For Sir Tarrant?"  

"Your guess is as good as mine." He took a turn around the cramped room, running his hand through his dark red hair. "Willie's using the name Sven Jorgensen. I've already told him that if 'Sven Jorgensen' crosses my path I'll have no qualms in shooting his dick off."  

" Jefferson ?" I rarely saw my brother so irritated. He was the lighthearted one who took nothing seriously.  

"Jesus, Porter, do you know what the Limey bastard had the gall to say? 'Then I guess I'll 'ave t' make sure I don't cross your path, luv.'"  


You know the Brits." He hunched a shoulder, refusing to meet my eyes. "They call everyone 'luv'."  

"Of course."  

"Besides, I've been more or less involved with someone else."  

"Of course. Jefferson , that innocent expression hasn't worked with me since I was twelve, and Mother told me that contrary to your assurances, I could not get pregnant simply by kissing a boy."  

His mouth curled in the scamp's grin that had women falling at his feet. And the occasional man. "It was worth a shot to keep you out of trouble. Boys were already giving you the eye."  

"And you never gave me credit for being able to take care of myself."  

"I just didn't want to see you getting hurt. I still don't."  

"And I love you for it, but Jefferson , I'm twenty-six. I hope you won't be offended by me saying this, but …"  

"I know, I know, you're a big girl now."  

Neville strode in, pausing to scowl at my brother. "I hope your conversation with my wife is finished, Sebring. And I hope you haven't upset her!"  


"Or it will give me great pleasure to punch you on the nose."  

"Yeah? Think you can take me, Webb?"  

I interrupted before things could deteriorate any further. "What did the ambassador have to say, darling?" Men.  

"He just gave me the usual malarkey about what a pleasure it had been working with me, to give his regards to your father, et cetera, et cetera. The man had no idea he'd be called upon to make a farewell speech; it was so obviously off-the-cuff." He glared at Jefferson . "If you tell me I'm paranoid, I will punch your nose."  

My brother looked down his nose at him, sneering.  

"That is not an attractive look for you," I told him, and he laughed reluctantly. "I'm a little hungry, Neville. Why don't you take me to lunch, darling? Jefferson , would you care to join us?"  

"No, thanks, little sister. I have some things to take care of. I'll see you before you leave."  

"Fine." I kissed him. "And remember to be in the States next June."  

"Next June? Oh. The wedding. Are you sure…?"  

"Sebring, your sister is married to me, and she's going to stay married to me. Live with it."  

I leaned against my husband, and my brother gave a rueful smile at that demonstration of solidarity.  

"I'll be there. I promise." He paused at the door. "You might want to put those violets in water."  


The package sitting on my desk had international postage on it. It was addressed to Porter Sebring. Carefully cushioned inside was a ceramic arrangement of violets. They appeared so genuine I could almost smell them.  

There was a pale lavender envelope in the center, and when I picked it up, I realized that was where the scent was coming from. I slid a thumbnail under the flap and withdrew a sheet of paper the same color as the envelope. The ink was a deeper purple, and the message was written in a meticulous, schoolgirl's hand.  

My dear Porter,  

Please accept the enclosed as a token of my best wishes on your upcoming marriage. I hope you find great happiness with Neville Webb. Due to certain commitments, I regret I cannot attend your wedding.  

Be happy, dear Porter, and remember, if you ever have need of me, Sir Gerald will know how to find me.

                                                                        Ever yours,


I folded the note and put it back in its envelope just as Tony sauntered into my office and propped a hip against my desk.  

"Pretty." He nodded toward the violets.  

"Yes. It's from Modesty Blaise." I put the arrangement back into the box and set it out of the way beneath my desk.  

"Interesting. I just received a message from Sir Gerald Tarrant, asking if I might pass it on to you."  

"Oh?" Cautiously. I had no doubt it would have been encoded, and I understood why he wouldn't get in touch with me directly; that would be by-passing the chain of command.  

"Two things. The Network has been disbanded, and Modesty Blaise has purchased a penthouse overlooking Hyde Park ."  


"That's just the first thing. The second is she married James Turner, a British national, in Beirut . She divorced Turner almost immediately. Miss Blaise is a British citizen now." He worried his lip for a moment. "I saw her name on the guest list."  

"She won't be attending." I gestured toward the envelope that was lying on my blotter. "Previous commitments."  

"Certainly. Well, that wasn't really what I came to speak to you about."  

I sat back in my chair, crossed my legs, and waited to hear what he had to say.  

"Porter, do you have to have those four weeks off?"  

This was an on-going discussion about my honeymoon.  

Neville and I hadn't decided when we would be remarried; Mother had done that, and she'd chosen the second week in June.  

" Bryan has given Neville the time."  

"You're already married," he grumbled, "I don't see why…"  

"You talk to Mother about it. I'm trying to stay out of this as much as I can."  

"But Porter, it's your wedding."  

"Tony, if it makes Mother happy to plan this for me, then I'm not going to get in her way."  

"Oh, all right," he groused. "Tell Webb we have the bachelor party scheduled for two weeks from Saturday."  

"Just make sure I get him back in one piece, please?" I saw the time. "I have to go."  

He glanced at his watch. "It's on the early side, don't you think?"  

"I'm supposed to meet Allison Carmichael for dinner. It's actually my bridal shower."  

"Excuse me? I thought that was supposed to be a surprise."  

"Tony, I break codes for a living. Learning when my shower is to be held is a snap in comparison."  

"What's the point if you aren't going to be surprised?"  

"Are you joking? When I walk into the private dining room of Ballantrae's and see all those balloons and flowers and that white lace umbrella over the wishing well, I am going to be the most surprised woman in the world!"  

"I don't understand women." He shook his head and turned to leave.  

"But if you did, think how boring your life would be."  

He hmphed and walked out.  


Mother got her big wedding, and as I had warned Neville it was a three-ring circus for the society set. However, the expression on his face as I walked down the aisle on Father's arm, in a dress that weighed as much as I did, made it worth while.  

True to his word, this time we honeymooned in Paris . While there, he took me to Jacques Ferber, the furriers who supplied Chanel, Lanvin, and Worth with their furs, and bought me the most beautiful lynx coat.  

When we returned four weeks later, we fell right back into the swing of things at work, but on the weekends we set about house-hunting. Neville's apartment was fine for a bachelor, or even a business couple, but it was too small for the family we intended to start one day.  

Just before my birthday, Neville and I found a beautiful old Tudor house in Great Falls , Virginia .  

"This is it, darling," he said tenderly, bringing my hand to his mouth and pressing a kiss to the platinum band on my ring finger. "This is the house where we'll raise our children, where we'll grow old together."  

"Neville, you do say the sweetest things." I leaned against him. "Do you think Jack and Jackie would like to come, once we're settled in?"  

"I'll ask." His arm was a pleasant weight over my shoulders.  

Between our work and getting everything exactly right, it took much longer than we had anticipated, and before they could pay us a visit, Dallas rolled around, and the entire country went into mourning.  


We learned I was pregnant almost two years to the day of our second wedding, and we spent that summer confronting the almost overwhelming task of finding a suitable name for our child.  

"In my family, the first born son is named after his father," I offered.  

Neville looked horrified. "I was saddled with this name because my father was an admirer of Neville Chamberlain. I won't do that to my own son."  

But he had no objection to his middle name, Clayton. Oddly enough, we didn't choose a girl's name.  

"You really should, Porter," Mother insisted. We were having dinner with my parents, and the topic of girls' names had come up.  

"Mrs. Sebring, if it's a girl, we'll just name her after the day of the week on which she's born." Neville gave Mother his most charming smile.  

"What a very clever idea!"  

Afterwards, driving home in his own Studebaker Golden Hawk, which he preferred to the Coupe de Ville supplied by the CIA, I murmured, "You certainly have the Sebring women wrapped around your finger. I've rarely seen Mother that mellow. If I'd suggested anything as outrageous as naming a child for a day of the week, she'd have sent me to my room."  

"Porter, you're the only Sebring woman I want wrapped around my finger, but I wouldn't mind sending you to your room."  

"Neville, I can't understand how you remained single for so long, but I'm very glad you did."  

He gave me a startled glance. "What… You… I don't… Would you mind explaining that?"  

I leaned over as close as I could, brushed my lips over his ear, and blew into it. "Once I saw you, Neville, I'd have shot whoever was in my way to get to you."  


"Yes, darling?"  

"When we get home, you are definitely being sent to your room."

"Yes, darling."  


We decided that because I'd be going back to work, we'd need a housekeeper/nanny, and set about the task of interviewing applicants for the position. They all had excellent references, but Neville did a background check on each of them that would have rivaled an applicant for a position at the White House.  

"This one, Porter. I think she'll be perfect."  

And so Alyona Markov came to be our housekeeper. With her she brought her younger brother, Gregor, an eighteen-year-old who came to worship my husband.  

In the early morning hours of February 12, 1965 , I woke Neville. "Darling, would you mind driving me to Baltimore General? I think it's time."  

Fathers weren't permitted in the delivery room, but somehow Neville charmed the doctor into allowing him to be present. He sat beside me, clutching my hand tightly, which succeeded in distracting me somewhat from the discomfort of my labor.  

And then there was an indignant squall.  

"Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Webb, you have a healthy baby boy."  

The nurses cleaned our son up, wrapped him in a soft, blue blanket, and handed him to Neville.  

He looked down at the infant in his arms with awe. And a single tear rolled down his cheek. "Our son!" he whispered. "Thank you, Porter."  

"You did well, Mrs. Webb. Now, let's get you to your room, shall we?"  

I was rolled down the corridor to the private room Neville had arranged for me to have. Once I had on one of my own nightgowns and was settled into the bed, they allowed Neville into the room.  

"Lovely flowers, darling," he murmured as he dropped down into the chair next to the bed and took my hand once more.  

On the bedside table was a basket of violets.  

"They are lovely, aren't they?" I closed my eyes and drifted off into sleep.  

Clayton was a good baby, and I was able to return to work at Arlington Hall, but I found that my heart was no longer in my work.  

It was the police action, the diplomat's term for war, in Viet Nam that did it for me, took all the fun and excitement out of intelligence. Neville watched me with sad eyes as I told him I was handing in my resignation, but he backed me up against my father and brothers, who couldn't see life beyond the job.  

Mother was there, surprisingly. "Enough, Anthony. You had no problem when she told you she wanted to join you and her brothers working for the government. Accept her decision now."  

My father immediately backed down.  

Tony scowled. "Porter, you can work from home if you'd like."  

"No." Neville answered for me, although I could have answered for myself. "She wants out of this."  

He was at a loss. "Can I at least call on you… " I shook my head. "What will you do with your time?"  

"Raise my son? Do charity work?"  

"Do you really think you could be satisfied with something so…"  

Mundane? "Mother has, for as long as I can remember."  

He bit off what he'd been about to say when he caught Mother's eye on him. She could be quite formidable.  

"I'll help you, Porter," she promised. "I can provide you with the contacts you'll need, and there are your sorority sisters as well. I'm so pleased you went to Wellesley . That will impress those Washington matrons!"  

"Thank you, Mother."  

And gradually it was forgotten that I had once broken Russian codes for Project Venona.  


1968 was the year of assassinations: Martin Luther King, Jr. Bobby Kennedy.  

It was the year Tricky Dick was elected to the presidency, and Neville shook his head. He worked for the country, not the man, however, and he continued doing his job.  

Clayton sat his first pony, a fat little Shetland he named Darling.  


1972 saw the start of the Watergate scandal. Neville knew, and it broke his heart.  

Clayton took home his first blue ribbon.  


1974, and Richard Nixon became the first US president to resign.  

Clayton and I watched as his grim-faced father reduced a target to tatters.  


1976 was the bicentennial of the United States . Two hundred years of freedom.  

Neville spent that Independence Day with us, and he marveled at what an accomplished horseman Clayton had become. "We'll see him in the Olympics yet, darling!"  


On New Year's Day, 1978 an Air India Boeing 747 exploded near Bombay , killing two hundred and thirteen.  

Neville was among them.  


"Nurse! NURSE!"  

//Neville? Darling, did we have our baby?//  

"Please, Mr. Webb, you'll disturb the other patients!"  

"Fu… I don't care about the other patients! My mother is crying! She never cries!"  


Warm, dry fingers encircled my wrist. "Her pulse is a little fast." Something cool was placed around my upper arm and pumped up, constricting the muscle. "Her blood pressure is normal. Please try not to worry, Mr. Webb. She's progressing exactly as she should."  

"I don't want her to be in pain!"  

"Of course not, but she still hasn't fully emerged from the effects of the anesthesia."  

The squeak of rubber soles signified the departure of the nurse. Another hand took mine, pressing it to a stubbled cheek that was damp. //Tears, Clayton? Oh, sweetheart, don't weep for me. //  

I sank back into the comforting cushion of unconsciousness.  


Arlington National Cemetery .  

It was a grey, dismal day, in spite of the fact that the sun was shining.  

Neville had served in Korea , that other war that wasn't classified a war, and was entitled to military honors.  

Clayton stood beside me, in the same black suit he had worn when we flew to India to claim his father's body. Behind us was family, and behind them, Neville's colleagues and friends.  

The honor guard raised their rifles and fired a salute, and a bugler played Taps. For just that second I wavered, and Clayton's hand found mine, gripping it tightly.  

We watched dry-eyed.  

The flag that draped my husband's coffin was removed, folded, folded, and folded again, and presented to me.  

After the funeral, Mother embraced me, and Father's hand rested on my shoulder. I held myself stiffly. If I allowed myself anything else, I knew I would break.  

"Do you want Clayton to come home with us, sweetheart?"  

"No!" My son's voice cracked, then firmed. "No."  

"No, Mother, thank you. We'll be fine together." We needed to be together.  

"Mrs. Webb, do you wish I come with you?" Alyona Markov stood beside her brother. Both of them looked as grief-stricken as I felt. I shook my head. "I will be with Gregor, then. Call if you have need of either of us."  

"Thank you." I tried to smile, but I knew it was a failure.  

Clayton and I were silent on the drive home in the limo supplied by the Company.  

At home I made tomato soup and toasted cheese sandwiches, which we didn't eat. We sat in Neville's study and looked through the photo albums, but didn't really see.  

Clayton fell asleep on the huge recliner that was his father's, and I removed his shoes and covered him with a soft throw.  

I was starting to get a headache. I pulled the pins from my hair, and it spilled around my shoulders.  

The doorbell rang. I padded to it in my stocking feet and peered through the peephole.  

I wasn't surprised to see the violets. I was surprised to see Modesty. I opened the door and let her in, then locked the door behind her.  


My lip quivered, and I firmed it. I took her hand and led her to the small parlor at the rear of the house.  

She held me while I wept, listened while I talked, and stayed with me until I slept.  

In the morning, she was gone.  


I raised my son. I hoped he would become a doctor or a teacher. Or even a lawyer.  

Clayton graduated from Harvard.  As he strode to the podium to accept his sheepskin, I turned to my brothers. Bryan and Jefferson had both managed to get some time off from the CIA to attend their nephew's graduation, and so the entire family was there.  

"Clayton has told me that he's decided to take a few years to see the world."  

"Yes, he mentioned something along those lines to us."  

"Bryan, Jefferson, if you're going to have him do some odd jobs for you, would you please see to it that he doesn't get killed?"  

"Yes, Porter. Not to say that's what we have in mind." 

"Of course not."  

When Clayton returned home, he followed in his father's and his uncles' footsteps, and joined the family business, the CIA.  

At the age of twenty-five, he was given access to the trust fund his father and I had set up for him shortly after his birth. I also saw to it that Neville's life insurance, which the Company had paid out to me, was available to him if he so desired.  

Clayton bought a townhouse in Alexandria ; it wasn't too terribly far from Great Falls , and we went riding together every Sunday whenever he was in the country.  

I worked for various charities. There were the very public ones on which I either chaired or sat, and the ones that were less publicized, the inner-city Family Planning clinic, the Salvation Army soup kitchen, the local Humane Society.  

And life went on.  

Alyona Markov retired, and her younger brother took her place in my household. Average height, with the square build of his Russian peasant forebears, Gregor Markov was my majordomo, my butler, my driver, my chef. What no one knew was that the former FBI agent was also my bodyguard.


Part 5


Matthew Robinson, a classmate of Clayton's from Phillips Exeter, had contacted me to do an interview about my son for the alumnus newsletter. His credentials withstood Markov's scrutiny, and I gave him permission to visit me at my home.  

The tall young man with the rather prominent ears held out his hand. "Matthew Robinson, Mrs. Webb," he introduced himself in a soft voice with a hint of New England in it. "Thank you for agreeing to see me, ma'am."  

I found him quite charming, and I allowed him to photograph a few pictures of a young Clayton. His interest in my son would have been flattering, even if it was simply for the newsletter, but I noticed how he regarded a picture of Clayton, and I wondered how close they had been at Exeter .  

I wondered if perhaps Matthew Robinson was interested in my son in more than a purely nostalgic way.  

After he left, I crossed to the mantle and looked at the picture of my husband, taken during the Cuban Missile Crisis, those thirteen days in October of 1962. The shadows of secrets lurked behind his hazel eyes. Clayton was the image of his father, down to those same shadows in his eyes.  

"Would it be so terrible, Neville, if our boy fell in love with another man?" I had told him of my relationship with Modesty Blaise, and he'd been intrigued but nonjudgmental.  

I could hear him as if he stood at my shoulder, murmuring in my ear. "As long as it doesn't cost him his life, darling."  

Clayton wasn't pleased when he learned of the interview with Matthew Robinson; he always had been very private. He was even less pleased when I took him to task over his reaction to my allowing an unknown quantity into my home. "He was your friend; he was clean. I'm not going to ask your permission before I have a conversation. Is that clear?"  

He agreed grudgingly.  

And then I received a terse phone call from him. "That wasn't Matthew Robinson, Mother. I'll be home in a little bit."  

"Very well, sweetheart. Why don't you stay for dinner? I'll have Markov make something Italian."  

He must have been calling from his Lexus, because not more than half an hour later he arrived on my doorstep. Markov ushered him into the back parlor, then stood beside the door with his arms folded, a grim expression on his face.  

"I didn't want to discuss this over an unsecured line, Mother." Clayton crossed the room and greeted me with a kiss to my cheek. He sat beside me on the loveseat and took my hands. "It wasn't Matt. I spoke to him, and he told me he'd love to do an article about me, but the editors had nothing in the works. It was Clark Palmer."  


"Special Agent Clark Palmer. He's with the DSD."  

The DSD was the organization that took on the jobs that none of the other organizations would handle.  

According to the Alphabet Directory, the covert listing of all the intelligence agencies in Washington , DC , there was no such entity as the Defense Security Division.  

Of course, we in the intelligence community knew differently.  

Matthew Robinson… Clark Palmer… had taken tea with me. He'd had the Earl Grey without cream. His face had become blank, and he'd placed the cup down on its saucer with a carefully restrained movement.  

It was mean-spirited, but I was pleased now that I hadn't offered to correct his misapprehension of how to drink Earl Grey.  

"He didn't ask about any current assignments, did he?"  

I shook my head. "He touched on Harvard a bit, and seemed intrigued by the B+ you got in English Literature your last year there, but mostly he seemed to want to know about the years before Exeter . Why would a DSD agent want such dated information about you, Clayton? I could understand an interest in your more recent activities, but really, why should he care that you would have ridden Jack Be Nimble if we had gone to the Olympics?"  

I could hear Markov's teeth grinding from across the room. "Does anyone know why Clark Palmer does what he does? He's a dangerous man, Porter. There's very little accessible information about him. What is on record is because a second party or possibly a third party fu… pardon me, made an error."  

"Lieutenant Commander Rabb has come up against him a time or two and swears Palmer is a sociopath." Clayton rose and paced the room. "He's competent, and he has nerves of steel. And he prefers to work alone."  

"I thought I had heard he was partnered once."  

"Early in his career, Markov. His partner was killed, and Palmer went after the men who were responsible. From what little filtered back, he put the fear of god into them, what was left of them. They won't touch a DSD agent."  

"As hesitant as I am to admit it, we may have need of an organization like the DSD."  

Clayton smiled tightly. "Unfortunately, you're correct, Mother. There are too many countries where life is held cheaply."  

"And the DSD can deal with them, because it holds life just as cheaply," Markov growled. "I don't like how he disabled the surveillance equipment."  

"Neither do I. I'll have John Callahan come take a look at your security and see about beefing it up. I don't think you've met him, Mother; he's the second assistant to the Chief of Internal Security. He owes me a few favors."  

"Thank you, sweetheart."  

"If Clark Palmer shows his puss around here again, I'll be ready for him!" Markov was taking this personally. He unbuttoned his jacket and fisted his hands on his hips.  

The movement revealed the .45 under his arm.  

Clayton's lips twitched, whether to restrain a grin or a grimace, I was uncertain. "Markov, I think you'll need a bigger gun."  


I met Clark Palmer again, although he insisted it was the first time, at a ball at the Bosnia & Herzegovina Embassy. I was quite prepared to slip a little something into his drink.  

Nothing lethal, of course. It would have simply left him uncomfortable.  

One thing stopped me, the way he watched my son when he thought himself unobserved. It was hungry. And baffled. And I was sure if he had been aware of how much his gaze revealed to me, he would have been … perturbed.  

A mother sees things that an uninvolved party would not.  

I also saw my son's reaction to this man, and I was unsure of how I felt about that. He actually flirted with Clark Palmer.  

Clayton had been too preoccupied with work and had not permitted himself any sort of social life in much longer than I cared to consider. Perhaps I would keep a discreet eye on things and let them progress at their own rate.  

I was about to approach my son, when I was hailed.  

"Porter Webb, as I live and breathe!" It was Senator Wexler.  

"Senator." I hoped the chill tone would clue him in that I wasn't interested in having a conversation with him, but no such luck. He reached for my hand and squeezed it, his grip just short of painful.  

"I am just so enchanted to see you here tonight! Are you… uh… here with someone?" He'd been trying to convince me that I hadn't experienced the ultimate thrill until I'd had an affair with him. I would rather have eaten dirt and died.   

I retrieved my hand. "Yes, my son accompanied me."  

His disgruntled scowl was quickly replaced with a patently false smile. "I declare, little lady, I find it amazing that you have a grown son. Neville must have snatched you right out of the cradle!"  

I detested the familiar way he spoke my husband's name, as if they had been the closest of friends. "I'm surprised to see you, Senator." His committee was tied up on the Hill; he should have been there as well.  

"Duty, fair lady. I hate these affairs. Always filled with foreigners." A young man approached. "Ah, Curtain. I'll have a Rob Roy. Porter, my dear, may I have my aide get you a drink?"  

"No, thank you. I don't see Mrs. Wexler." I used the excuse of searching for his wife to see if I could locate my son. Fortunately he was in the room; he picked up my signal for rescue, my left hand toying with the black pearl stud in my left ear, and joined us. "Senator Wexler, you know my son, Clayton, I believe? He's assistant to the undersecretary at State."  

"How do you do, Senator?"  

"Son. I was just telling Porter here that she doesn't look old enough to have a son working for the government."  

Clayton loathed being called 'son'. At that moment he was very much his father's son. No one would have known simply by looking at him how irritated he was.  

"She has kept herself well, hasn't she? Of course we need to make sure she doesn't overdo. She really isn't getting any younger." His irony went right over the officious man's head. "Mother, are you ready to leave? I need to make an early night of it."  

"Certainly, dear. You aren't getting any younger, either." And again it went right over the Senator's head. "Just let me visit the powder room." I made my escape, and while I had the opportunity, I placed a call to Markov's cell phone.  

His cell phone was programmed with Caller ID, as were all our phones. "Is something wrong, Mrs. Webb?" As usual, when there was a possibility of being overheard, he was the quintessential butler.  

"Beyond an attack of the 'Wexlers'?"  

"Ah." Markov had been with me when the Senator had tried his ham-handed attempt at seduction. "You'll need me to come pick you up?"  

"I'm sorry to bother you on your night off, but if you wouldn't mind?"  

"Not at all, ma'am. The Bosnian Embassy, correct? About twenty minutes?" Fortunately he had told me earlier he would be in the Capital. The drive from Great Falls would have left me at Senator Wexler's mercy.  

"Thank you." I shut off my phone and put it into my purse.  

Markov assumed Clayton was involved in State affairs and would not be at liberty to leave just yet. I bit back a chuckle. If he had known with whom Clayton was… involved, steam would have escaped his ears.  


"Allison! How nice to see you again! I didn't expect to run into you here at this time of year." We had been Alpha Kappa Alphas in college, and had stayed in touch over the years.  

" Palm Beach was just too crowded, darling. Too many people have learned of it!"  

I had long since stopped flinching at the term 'darling'. I murmured something she took as an agreement.  

She sat down beside me, and offered me an unfiltered cigarette. Regretfully I refused. Once the Surgeon General had come out with his warning against tobacco, both Neville and I had given up smoking, although I still missed it.  

We chatted for a few minutes, Allison bringing me up to date on her latest marriage. She blew a stream of smoke into the air.  

"This is number five, isn't it? How long will you keep doing this?"  

"Until I get it right?" She removed a flake of tobacco from her tongue. "I must be out of my mind, Porter! He's two years older than my youngest!"  

The attendant approached her. "Excuse me, ma'am, but smoking isn't permitted within the Embassy."  

Allison must have been feeling mellow. Instead of giving the woman a hard time, she stubbed out her cigarette.  

"You should find someone, Porter. Even if you don't want to remarry, have an affair! There is a life after Neville."  

I wasn't about to tell her that I had no intention of settling for less than what I'd had with my husband; I glanced at the clock on the wall. "Oh, dear, I have to be going. My ride will be here any minute. It was lovely seeing you again."  

"I'll give you a call later in the week, and we can make a date to meet for lunch."  

We kissed the air beside each other's cheeks and parted company.  

Clayton was still a captive audience to the Senator, but as I watched, Clark Palmer sauntered up to them, and within a matter of minutes had routed the man.  

"I can't say much for the company you're keeping, Clay. He's scum if ever there was one."  

"I must agree with you, Mr. Palmer." He had been unaware of my presence, and I was amused to see I had startled him.  

"You might have let me know she was there, Webb," he complained.  

Clayton concealed his own amusement.  

"Walk me to the cloak room, dear." I wanted to tell him to be careful. I wanted to tell him to throw caution to the winds. He helped me with the lynx that had been his father's gift to me, and I settled for saying, "Don't take life so seriously all the time, Clayton. None of us will be getting out of this alive."  

I left him in the lobby. A glance over my shoulder showed me he had been joined by the DSD agent.  


I was not the kind of mother who tied her son to her apron strings. He was thirty-seven years old and a Deputy Director of Counter-Intelligence.  

However, he did not call to cancel our Sunday riding date, and he did not show up to keep it. It was the height of poor taste, ranking with discussing his work with me at such a time, and it was something he never would have done.  

I was concerned, although not unduly so at this point, and Markov was aware.  

"Telephone, Mrs. Webb." He was looking irritated. I raised an eyebrow, and he covered the mouthpiece. "The ID is blocked, and she won't tell me who it is."  

I accepted the receiver from him. "You have one minute to explain your reason for calling."  

"Mrs. Webb, this is Director Watts' office." The head of the CIA? He'd been a desk jockey, and when he'd been promoted to that position, the officers who had been in the field hadn't been overjoyed. As far as I was concerned, the jury was still out on that. "The Director was… er… wondering if you could spare the time to see him?"  

"When?" I was certain she had amended his words to be more conciliatory.  

"Er… 10?"  

I glanced at my watch. It was almost 9. If Markov drove the speed limit, it would take us at least two hours to make the drive. Watts was hoping we would rush, and I would arrive there flustered. "This is rather short notice."  

"Mrs. Webb…" The poor girl sounded miserable.  

"Perhaps you can put him on, and he can explain to me personally what the urgency is."  

"Oh, no, Mrs. Webb, he's extremely busy! He said I was to tell you… to insist that you…"  

"I see. Well, I'm so sorry. I don't believe I'll be able to see the Director at all today. Good-day, young lady." I hung up and stared at Markov.  

"Your brother would never have treated one of his officers that way." His expression was stony. Bryan had been over-looked in favor of that pompous know-it-all. "Or one of his officer's wives."  

"No. So we'll just have to show the Director how it was done in the old days."  

The phone rang, and Markov's eyes glowed. "Webb residence. Good morning, Director. One moment, please. I'll see if Mrs. Webb is available."  

I could hear the raised voice over the phone. "She'd better damn well be available! This concerns her son!"  

Markov's lips tightened in a thin line, and I took the receiver.  

"What is this concerning my son, Director?"  

"I can't speak over an unsecured line, that's why I wanted you to come to Langley ."  

"And summoned me like … You could have done me the courtesy of calling yourself. Contrary to what you might believe, I do understand chain of command and how things need to be done. I'll try to get there by 11."  

"Porter, I'll…"  

I hung up. He had nothing further to say that I wished to hear. "I hate when he calls me by name. Markov, bring the Towncar around, would you, please? I should be ready in a quarter hour."  

"Mrs. Webb, you know I can get you there in under two hours."  

"And you will. But he won't be expecting us."  


The Director was holding a cup of coffee when I bypassed his secretary and walked into his office. He got to his feet jerkily, and drops splattered over his tie. "Porter. You're early! That's to say…  It's so nice to see you again. Would you care for coffee? Or tea?"  

"No. Thank you." There was no need for me to be rude.  

"I wasn't expecting you so… "  

"Markov had to break a number of speed limits. I would have fully expected the Company to pay any tickets he might have incurred."  

"I'm just sorry to bring you out here under these circumstances." Director Watts gave a weak smile.  

"Suppose you tell me exactly what the circumstances are, Director?"  

He cleared his throat and smoothed his hair. "A number of our younger officers are missing. We believe they were kidnapped by a rogue organization called Prinzip. In a joint undertaking with JAG, Clayton Webb went to Paris in search of them."  

"Might I ask how JAG became involved in this?"  

"One of Admiral Chegwidden's people is also missing, and he asked Webb to find him."  

I didn't like to throw my weight around, but, "Perhaps I need to have a word with AJ."  

The Director wiped his brow. "Webb was supposed to be in touch with David Cooper, his contact here at Langley . Cooper has informed me that he hasn't heard from him in ten days."  

"I believe I'll have that cup of tea now." I accepted the cup from his secretary, who had been hovering, and took a sip. "You're telling me that Clayton was kidnapped while on assignment in Paris ."  

"I didn't say that. We… er… we really don't know what's happened to him."  

"I see. But he's been out of touch for ten days. Suppose you tell me what the Company is doing to find my son."  

He began to speak, mentioning the French, the British, the Israelis who had also lost operatives, but after a few minutes I tuned him out. What he was saying, or more to the point, not saying, was that the CIA was going to do nothing. I rose to my feet, put the cup carefully on his desk. The temptation to hurl its contents at the Director was almost too great. I walked out of his office.  

"Porter!" He caught up with me near the Wall of Honor. "You're being unreasonable!"  

"I refuse to stand for this, Director. Neville Webb is a star on this wall. I will not see my son there as well." My hand curled into a fist. If he said I was acting like a woman, I would forget I was a lady and punch him.  

"I'm very sorry, Porter. At this point our hands are tied. There's nothing I can do…"  

"My son is the best you have, Director. If you will do nothing to find him, then I shall!" I turned on my heel and walked away from him.  

Markov strode out beside me. "Mrs. Webb…"  

"Wait until we get in the car." Once the Towncar was back on the road, I picked up the car phone and dialed. "Ludo, it's Porter. Is Jefferson there?" I waited the few seconds it took for my brother to come on the line.  

"Porter, how are you?"  

"I've been better, Jefferson . I need a favor."  

Although he had been retired from a desk job at the Company for almost ten years, he still kept in touch with former field officers. He listened intently as I repeated what Director Watts had told me.  

" Watts is an idiot. This wouldn't have happened if Bryan hadn't …"  

That was still a shock. Out of a clear blue sky, he had left the CIA, moved out to the West Coast, and became technical adviser to a weekly show on cable TV called 'CIA'.  

"All right, listen, I know of a good man, Benjamin Monroe. He was Black Ops before he came to the Company. He's a free lance now. I'll see if he's available. Where are you right now, Porter?"  

"In the car. Markov?" He told me the mile marker, and I passed the information to my brother.  

"Okay, tell Markov not to speed. I should have this firmed up by the time you get home. He'll find Clay for you, Porter, I promise."  

I met with Benjamin Monroe. He seemed like a good man, although I was not overjoyed to hear it would take at least a week for him to locate my son. "I'm going with you."  

"Ma'am, that isn't necessary."  

"Do you want a demonstration of my ability to shoot a gun?"  

"No, ma'am. Sebring told me how good you are. I'll get in touch with some people I know, and get back to you."  

"ASAP, Mr. Monroe."  

"Yes, ma'am."  

The final arrangements were being made when Clark Palmer contacted me. I agreed to see him, and once again he came into my home.  

"Your son is missing. You're planning on traveling to Europe to find him."  

"Why am I not surprised you're aware of my plans?"  

"I'm the best, Mrs. Webb."  

He promised me he would find Clayton and bring him home.  

Odd, but I trusted him to do as he vowed. I contacted Monroe and told him I wanted him to sit tight, that I'd let him know within the next few days if the trip to Europe was going to be necessary.  

Within twenty-four hours I received a phone call from Clayton, assuring me he was well. Within forty-eight hours, my son was back in the United States .  

Clark Palmer was correct. He was the best.  


The phone rang twice before it was picked up. "Webb." That was my son. Clayton went from sound asleep to wide awake in two seconds flat. His father would have been so proud. I was so proud.  

"Good morning, Clayton."  

"Mother. Is something wrong?"  

"No, sweetheart. I just wanted to make sure you were bringing Clark with you later this morning."  

He had found excuses not to join us, some quite valid; however, this man was involved with my son, and I intended to get to know him better. He was not backing out of it today.  

"Yes, Mother."  

"And you're both coming home with me for a late lunch afterwards."  

"Oh… er… Mother, I'm not sure…"  

"Let me speak with Clark ." I had no doubt he had spent the night at my son's townhouse, nor that my son would turn the phone over to his lover.  

"Mrs. Webb?" There was caution in the his voice.  

"I apologize for calling so early, Clark , however I wanted to be sure you were joining us for lunch after our ride."  

"Uh… Mrs. Webb, I don't think that would be a good idea. I'll take my own car, and Clay can drive you home. There really isn't any need for you to have me over for lunch…"  

" Clark , are you insulting my hospitality?"  

"No, ma'am! Of course not! I…"  

"Good. I'll see you both at eleven. Give Clayton a kiss for me. Good-bye, Clark ."  

I hung up the receiver, biting my lips to keep from laughing. The sputtering on the end of the line had been worth every moment of indecision that had led up to that phone call.  

Markov stood in the doorway glowering at me. "Porter, I really don't think this is a good idea. Palmer is too much of a loose cannon." He had never forgiven the man for somehow managing to wipe out two separate surveillance tapes, even after he had patted him down for any untoward devices the second time.  

"He saved my son."  

"Yes, but he's dangerous. Have you seen the look in his eyes?"  

"He saved my son."  

"All right, Porter. But you'll forgive me if I keep a gun handy?"  

"If it will make you feel more comfortable."  

"The only thing that will make me more comfortable is shooting him between the eyes."  


Clark Palmer rode a horse the way I imagined he did most things: competently.  

Davy, the groom who took care of our horses, led a sleepy-eyed blue roan out of the stable and handed the reins to Clark . "This is Blue, sir."  

Clark studied the animal for a moment, then brought his mouth close to the horse's ear. Clayton had mounted his gelding and was distracted by Testament's playful reaction to a butterfly, so he did not hear the other man's words. But I did.  

"You make me look bad in front of Clay," he whispered in the horse's ear, "and I'll make you sorry you'd ever been born. I carry a gun y'know, and I have no problems using it."  

"Did you say something, Clark ?"  

"Just sweet talking this horse. I have a way with animals."  

Clay nodded and began walking Testament in a tight circle, and Clark turned back to his mount. "Do we have an understanding, Blue?"  

The horse shook his head and snorted, and Clark looked at his sleeve with a pained expression.  

I smiled. "Take that as a yes, Clark . Here. Give him this." I leaned toward him and handed him a carrot. "Make sure you keep your palm flat or he'll take a finger."  

"How did I let Clay talk me into this?" He brushed his hand off on his thigh, then set the toe of his riding boot into the stirrup and swung his leg over the horse's back.  

My son smiled at him. "Blue is good-natured, Clark . Just don't kick him. I told Davy to make sure Testament and Pyrrhic Victory had the fidgets shaken out of them, so this will be an easy ride today."  

"Don't hold back on my account, Webb."  

"Oh? I didn't know you could ride, Clark ."  

He hunched a shoulder. "I've seen The Black Stallion."  

Clayton burst into laughter.  

Clark Palmer made my son laugh. I looked away and blinked rapidly. Clayton hadn't laughed like that in a very long time.


Part 6


Another embassy ball, this one hosted by a tiny Middle Eastern country that hadn't even been on the map six months prior.  

I made the rounds of the room, chatting with friends and acquaintances. There was one woman I would have preferred to avoid, but Webbs knew how to do their duty.  

" Elizabeth !" I greeted Senator Wexler's wife. We were almost the same age, but she intended to battle the passage of time to a standstill. Her blonde hair, the product of a very expensive salon, was drawn away from her face, revealing her latest nip/tuck work. Her gown would have been more suitable on a woman several decades her junior. She was on several of the same charities as I. "We missed you at the last meeting."  

"Porter! Darling." I flinched. "I, er… I couldn't make it. I was…Something else came up." Her smile was artificial, and her eyes veered off mine.  

I raised an eyebrow, but her gaze was fixed on something beyond my shoulder.  

"Perhaps you could let one of us know, next time?" If she were no longer interested in working with us, there were other political wives who were.  

She brought her hand to her throat, fiddling with the diamond slide that hung there and inadvertently drawing attention to the bruise that was barely visible under a layer of 'Cover-up'. "I see someone I need to speak with. Please excuse me."  

I watched thoughtfully as Elizabeth Wexler made her way across the room. She joined a young man I had seen at various functions with Senator Wexler.  

"Something bothering you, Mother?" Clayton arrived with the flute of champagne that I'd requested.  

"I don't know."  

"I recognize that look! You've got the bit between your teeth, the bull by the horns, and you're going to worry it until you're satisfied with the results."  

"That's certainly mixing your metaphors, Clayton."  

He laughed. "Let me know if you need my help, Mother."  

"Hmmm. Do you know that young man with Elizabeth Wexler?"  

"Who? Oh, that's Peter Lapin. He's the Senator's new aide."  

"Oh, yes, I'd heard his previous aide passed away rather suddenly. Something to do with a severe asthmatic attack, I believe. Clayton, is it my imagination, or does Elizabeth seem… taken with him?"  

"She's certainly giving that impression. You have an amazing sense about things like that."  

"You flatter me, sweetheart."  

"Merely the truth, Mother." He smiled. "That gown is lovely, by the way."  

"Thank you. Your father always did like this shade of sea-foam green. I must say you and Clark both look distinguished tonight. There's just something about a man in a tuxedo."  

"I learned my fashion sense from my mother."  

"Scamp. Don't let your uncles hear that!" We both chuckled. "I haven't seen Clark for a while. He didn't seem too thrilled to be here tonight."  

"He's around somewhere." His smile was wry, but there was a touch of fondness in it. "He doesn't enjoy having to 'schmooze', Mother."  

"I imagine he would be much happier canceling some of these people."  

He paused in the act of raising his own champagne flute to his mouth. "He said that very thing to me as we walked in."  

"From what I've been able to learn, he's better suited to the field."  

Clayton shrugged. "DSD policy is all field agents are retired when they reach the age of thirty-five."  

" Clark is younger than you?" Odd, I'd had the impression he was older.  

My son opened his mouth, but I never knew what he would have said.  

"Porter! My dear! How lovely to see you again!" Senator Wexler.  

"Senator." I must have done something evil in a past life to be so hounded by the man. He would not accept that I was completely indifferent to him.  

"It must be fate, dear lady!" It wasn't fate, it was bad, bad luck. "We're constantly running into each other!" He made it a point to see that we ran into each other. He studiously ignored my son, as if pretending he weren't there would make it so.  

Clayton had no intention of humoring the man. "Good evening, Senator."  

"Webb. Didn't see you there. Heh, heh, heh. How are you, my boy? Your little escapade in Paris left no ill effects, I trust?"  

"I'm quite well, Senator. And how is Mrs. Wexler?"  

"She's around here some place." He waved his hand in a vague gesture. "There are so many lovely ladies here tonight, Webb. Why don't you try and find one? I'll be more than happy to keep your mother company."  

Clayton grinned at him. In that moment he looked so much like his father that my heart stuttered. "I wouldn't dream of it, Senator."  

"Excuse me, Senator?" His aide was at his side. "The ball is about to start."  

The Senator's eyes lit up. "Porter?" He extended his hand.  

"Sir." His aide looked annoyed. "Mrs. Wexler is waiting for you to dance with her."  

The Senator took my hand before I realized what he intended, and pressed a sloppy kiss to my palm. "We'll talk more later, dear lady. When we'll be undisturbed."  

The two men walked off.  

"I don't appreciate being threatened like that."  

Clayton didn't smile, as I'd hoped he would. He took a napkin from a passing waiter and offered it to me. I scrubbed the moisture from my palm, then looked around for somewhere to dispose of it.  

"Lapin almost appeared to be angry with the Senator. Interesting." He took the napkin and stuffed it in his pocket. "I'll get rid of this later. I can understand why any man in his right mind would want to spend time with you, Mother, but he's married, and if he keeps this up, he's going to cause talk."  

"He's just not taking 'no' for an answer. Perhaps I should simply introduce him to my right knee."  

Clayton chuckled and set our glasses aside. "They're playing a rhumba, Mother. Shall we?"  

I put the Senator out of my mind.  


"Clayton, have you been running interference?"  

"Why would you think that, Mother?"  

"Every time Senator Wexler starts to approach me, you seem to pop up like a jack-in-the-box, coming between us."  

He smiled into the bubbles of his champagne but didn't confirm or deny. "Have you seen Clark, Mother? I have a club soda for him."  

"Not in the last few minutes. He's not drinking champagne?"  

"Oh… no." Clayton blushed. "He's … allergic."  

"I've never heard of anyone having an allergic reaction to champagne. That's too bad. This is a very fine vintage."  

"It is that. Oh…" He bit off what he was about to say. "Looks like Senator Wexler has decided he wants the next dance. I'll hold him off for you, if you'd like to make an escape?"  

"Thank you, sweetheart. I don't know why the man persists in believing if he just pushes hard enough I'll have an affair with him." I turned and walked into a solid chest. "Oh!"  

"Sorry." Clark was staring blandly over my head at the Senator, who had come to an abrupt halt a few yards from us. One foot was still in the air, and his mouth was working although no sound emerged. "The music is about to start again. May I have this dance, Mrs. Webb?"  

"Thank you, Clark ."  

"Clay, take my glass." It was a champagne flute. My son looked at it, then frowned at Clark . Clark raised an eyebrow, and a slow, intimate smile lit his face. "I've only had a sip." He offered me his arm in an old world gesture. "Clay, why don't you let the good Senator know your mother has a dance partner?"  

The expression on my son's face was entirely too pleased. I had no doubt that by the time he confronted the Senator, it would have been wiped smooth.  

I took Clark 's arm and let him lead me onto the dance floor. "I was under the impression that you were allergic to champagne."  

He was coolly studying the couples who were on the floor. "Allergic? To champagne? Not a chance! Who told you that?"  


Clark looked interested. "He said that, did he?" A hand rested on my waist, and he took my right hand in his left. I could see he wasn't going to answer me, and I wondered what kind of reaction Clark Palmer did have to a glass of champagne.  

The orchestra leader raised his baton, and the woman seated behind the grand piano struck the beginning notes of "It Had To Be You." Clark held himself still through the verse, and I could feel the power contained in him. Then he led me into the first steps of the fox-trot.  

"You dance very well."  

"Thank you." Clark Palmer gave nothing away, not even the fact that he might have been pleased by my compliment.  

I tipped my head back and closed my eyes. "This was our song, you know, Neville's and mine. It was being played that first night we met."  

"It's a pretty song."  

"Yes, it is."  

He began to hum quietly under his breath, and I wondered if that was an excuse to keep from talking to me. Abruptly he said, "You never looked for anyone after your husband was killed in that explosion."  


"Even though he was dead, you remained faithful to him. Why?"  

I opened my eyes and looked at him. He seemed genuinely puzzled.  

I didn't ask how he knew that there had been no one since Neville. "Sebrings love once, Clark . Hopefully it's the right person, and we have a lifetime together."  

"And if it isn't?"  

"We go on. We survive."  

"My old lady couldn't remain faithful for more than a day, if that long."  

"Are you saying you believe the ability to be faithful is in the genes?"  

"I don't know."  

"Clayton is as much a Sebring as he is a Webb. If you hurt him he'll grieve. I, on the other hand, will go after you and shoot you down like a dog."  

"Yes, ma'am."  

"Didn't I ask you not to call me that?"  

He grinned, and he suddenly looked so much younger. "Yes, mm… Mrs. Webb."  

Clayton came up behind him and tapped his shoulder. "Cutting in. And I want to dance with my mother, Clark, not with you!"  

"I'm devastated." He laughed softly. "Mrs. Webb, it was my pleasure."  

"I enjoyed it myself, Clark."  

Clayton's eyes were happy as he took my hand and easily picked up the rhythm of the dance.  

I was growing to like Clark Palmer.  


Clayton offered his arm and we walked down to the lobby to wait for Markov to bring the Towncar around.    

"You look a little tired, Mother."  

I smothered a yawn. "Watching you play cat and mouse all evening with Senator Wexler was more exhausting than dodging the man myself."  

"Where did Mrs. Wexler disappear to? Ill with another migraine?"  

"If I were married to Richard Wexler, I'd suffer from migraines." I sighed. "No, she spent most of the night with his aide, dancing or… " I shrugged. "Peter Lapin. What were his parents thinking?"  

Clayton gave a startled choke of laughter.  

Markov strode through the doors, damp and irritated. "Freaking towel-heads! All that oil money, and you'd think their parking lots would be in better shape."  

"Markov, how politically incorrect of you!" Clark smirked at my butler cum bodyguard. The two men did not get along at all.  

"Yes, well, we've got two flats. I've already called AAA, but they're tied up for hours. And it's starting to rain." He held up the umbrella in his hand.  

Clayton fished his car keys and the valet parking chit from his pocket. "Here, Markov. Take the Lexus. I'll find my own way home."  

"I've got my car, Clay, and I'm going your way. I can give you a lift."  

"I was hoping you'd offer," Clayton said, his voice barely above a whisper, but Clark heard him, as did I.  

"I thought you might," he murmured.  

I looked from Clark Palmer to my son and smiled. "Have a nice evening, sweetheart, Clark. Markov?"  

The doorman held the door for us, and we went out into the wet night. A parking attendant ran up and took the key, and we waited under the canopy while the car was brought around.    

I shivered. Indian Summer had come to an abrupt end.  

Markov opened the rear door, and I slid into the pale gold Lexus. Most vehicles driven by Federal officers were black or dark blue. Trust Clayton to find such an unusual color.  

It still had that brand new car smell.  

I settled into the seat and buckled up.  

Markov tipped the attendant, climbed into the front seat, and snapped on his own seatbelt. He switched on the windshield wipers, then steered the car out of the Embassy's drive and down the road that led to the Beltway.  

"Interesting evening, Porter."  

"Yes. I think having Clark Palmer in his life is making Clayton happy."  

"Are you sure this isn't a mistake, trusting Palmer of all people?"  

"Didn't we have this conversation once before?"  

"Yes, but he's Palmer!"  

"Gregor, he got Clayton out of the hands of those maniacs."  

"Clayton would have gotten himself out of that mess," he assured me staunchly.  

"Do you really believe that, my friend?"  

"Porter, what I believe is that leopards don't change their spots."  

"I think this is one of those things we'll have to take on faith."  

He growled and turned the car onto the Beltway. "Did you remember to tell Clayton about that meeting with Jefferson this Sunday?"  

"No, he was busy trying to keep some distance between me and that wretched Senator Wexler, and I forgot all about it. I wonder why Jefferson wants a family gathering?"  

"All this hush-hush stuff. You'd think he was still a spook! Here." He handed the car phone to me over his shoulder. It began to rain harder, and he increased the wipers' speed.  

"Thank you, Gregor," I said meekly, hiding a smile, and dialed Clayton's cell phone number.  

He picked it up on the first ring. "Hello, Mother. What's up?"  

Of course, Clayton knew it was me. All our phones were equipped with Caller ID. "I'm just calling to tell you your Uncle Jefferson wants everyone to meet at the Manor for lunch on Sunday. He has something of grave importance to tell us," I intoned in a fair imitation of my brother's voice.  

"Oh?" I could hear the smile over the phone. "Now, I wonder what it could be."  

"That's exactly what… Just a second! Clayton Webb, are you insinuating that you know what it is?"  

"Now, Mother…"  

From the front seat, I heard Markov spit out a curse.  

I covered the mouthpiece of the phone. "Markov?"  

"The bastard has his brights on."  He adjusted the rearview mirror and glared at it. "Damn halogens are hitting me right in the eye." He turned his attention back to the rain-slicked on-ramp to the 395. "I'm on top of it, Porter."  

"All right. You were saying, you scamp?"  

"I was saying I have no idea, truly I don't…"  

The Lexus suddenly seemed to shiver and jerk forward. Split seconds later came the delayed shriek of metal on metal.  

"What's that asshole…" Markov's voice was harsh. He never used language like that in my presence, priding himself on his restraint.  

The Lexus swerved to the left, into the merging traffic, and I bit back a gasp.  


Markov wrestled with the steering wheel, trying and succeeding in bringing it under control, narrowly avoiding a collision.  

I let out a sigh of relief. "Clayton…"  

And then whoever was tailgating my son's car slammed into the rear bumper, sending it fishtailing across three lanes of traffic into the median. Somehow Markov, swearing steadily, kept us upright.  

Horns blared, brakes screeched, cars narrowly avoided hitting us.  

"Mother! What's wrong?"  

We were broadsided, it was inevitable, and the Lexus flipped, bounced, and flipped again…  


I hurt all over. My head ached, my hip throbbed, each inhalation burned, and my abdomen felt as if I had been stitched together by Dr. Frankenstein.  

I opened my eyes enough to see my son sitting at my bedside.  

"Mother." His smile was lopsided. "You're back with us."  

"Where else would I be, sweetheart?" Was that raspy voice mine? I raised my hand to touch his cheek.  

"For a while there, I thought…" His voice cracked, and he covered his eyes with his hand.  


He bent over me, careful of the tubes, and I stroked his hair and back. His shoulders shook beneath my touch.  

There was a sound at the doorway, but when I looked, no one was there. Then I heard, "Nurse, have you seen Clay Webb anywhere? Oh, he's in this room? Thanks."  

Clayton straightened and surreptitiously scrubbed his cheeks dry.  

"Webb." Clark Palmer stood in the doorway. "How is she?"  

"Conscious." Clayton turned to face the other man. He cleared his throat. "Where have you been, Clark ?"  

He grinned at my son, crossed the room, and leaned against the side of my bed. "You've got a couple shiners, Mrs. Webb. Real beauts."  

"I imagine I look like a raccoon. What happened?"  

"What do you remember?"  

I swallowed a smile. "It always drove your father crazy when I did that, Clayton, answered a question with a question. It's generally a Sebring trait, you know." I took a couple of shallow breaths. "Before we go into what I remember, how is Markov?"  

"Better than you, Mrs. Webb. He's got a broken clavicle from the airbag, and his ankle is kind of banged up, but otherwise he's in fairly decent shape. Now that you're with us again, I imagine he'll be coming to see for himself how you are."  

"How badly am I injured?"  

"Concussion, bruised ribs, burn from the seatbelt. Fractured hip they've repaired with a pin. You're going to need a doctor's note when you fly, Mrs. Webb, or the metal detectors will nab you. Oh, and they had to yank your spleen."  

" Clark , she's my mother." My son sounded almost petulant. If it wouldn't have hurt so badly, I'd have laughed. He'd never had to learn to share me.  

"Fine, Webb. You go ahead and tell her."  

Clayton scowled at him. "Never mind. Would you like some water, Mother?"  


He put the straw to my lips, and I was able to take a few sips before I grew too tired.  

"Can you tell us what you remember now?"  

"A car hit us. Markov did his best to … But the car just kept hitting us, and then oncoming traffic did the rest."  

"It wasn't an accident, a car hydroplaning on a wet road. It was too deliberate."  

I had come to suspect that.  

"What did you find out, Clark ?" Clayton's voice was flat.  

I could see Clark 's face. It didn't darken; it didn't really change expression, but suddenly it felt as if the temperature in the room had dropped significantly.  

"That bi… that woman Wexler was married to was pissed that he was paying more attention to your mother than to her. She even started an affair with his aide in hopes Wexler would see it as a wake-up call. The other night …"  

"The other night?"  

Clayton took my hand. "It's been a couple of nights since… since you were brought here, Mother."  

I drew in as deep a breath as I could. "Go on, please, Clark ."  

"The other night was the last straw. She was the one who slashed the tires on your Towncar, swore it was spite, nothing more. She didn't know Clay would offer you his car, or that his car would be shoved across…" He bit back the words. "She told the police about it while the paramedics were trying to get her patched up. Ever see what a smooth, hard piece of wood shaped like an elongated dumb-bell can do to a woman's face, Clay?"  

"A kongo?" I was the one who pressed for verification.  

"You're familiar with it, Mrs. Webb?"  

"That was the weapon of choice of someone with whom I was very close."  

"Yeah? You know some pretty interesting people, Mrs. Webb.  Mrs. Wexler is going to need serious plastic surgery." He placed something in my hand. "I was asked to give you this."  

I knew without looking what they were. Violets. "Thank you, Clark ."  

"I'll be damned if I know how a woman got there before I did," he groused under his breath, unaware he spoke aloud.  

" Clark .  Where does Wexler stand in all this?"  

"It was Wexler's aide driving the car. He lived long enough to talk. He said the Senator wasn't happy that you kept getting in his way, Clay. He saw it as a son's jealousy at the probability of having his father replaced by someone else."  


"I don't want to be crude about it, but he never doubted he could get in your bed, Mrs. Webb."  

"All he had to do was get me out of the way."  

"Yeah. You were the target, Clay." There was ice in Palmer's voice.  

"Where is the Senator?" My son's voice was as cold as his lover's.  

"Cops brought him in to identify his aide's body. He professed profound shock when he was told that Lapin had been behind the wheel of the car that drove yours off the road. Said he was devastated to hear you'd been injured, baby." Clark studied his fingernails, apparently unaware of the term by which he'd addressed my son. "He fell apart when he learned that you had been in the car, Mrs. Webb. He started to swear that Lapin had acted completely on his own, but clammed up before he could incriminate himself. Cops had to let him go."  

"Will it be possible to keep Wexler's name out of this?"  

"Mrs. Webb, you can't be willing to let the man get away with this?"  

Clayton was smiling.  

"What am I missing?" Clark did not sound happy to be in the dark.  

"My uncles are retired CIA, Clark. If they find out that Wexler was personally behind the accident that left my mother in a hospital bed, they'll go after him themselves."  

Palmer grinned, and Clayton's brows snapped together in a frown.  

"I won't be able to press criminal charges against Richard Wexler, that would be less than useless, but I fully intend to press civil charges against him. I don't want you involved."  

"Aw, baby. Here I thought I was almost family."  

" Clark ." My son's tone was impatient. "You like my mother. Wexler was the base cause of her injuries. Nothing less than his death will suit you."  

"Are you calling me uncivilized, Clay? I'm hurt."  

"And I'm tired," I interjected querulously. I never complained. I regretted this would worry him, but I needed to get him out of the room. "And I hurt."  

"Mother! What can I do?"  

"Would you mind asking the nurse for some pain medication, Clayton?" I made my voice helpless.  

" Clark , behave." The order was offhand, as if he had no real expectation of being obeyed. His gaze was pinned on my face. "Mother, I'll be right back."  

"Of course, sweetheart." I waited until he was out of the room, then propped myself up on the arm that had no tubes in it. "I wanted to talk to you alone, Clark."  

"Mrs. Webb, you aren't going to get on my case about not doing anything, are you?"  

"No, Clark." I could see that startled him. "We both know you aren't going to pay any heed to Clayton in this matter. Just see you don't get caught."  

He looked unbelievably dangerous. "No, ma'am."  

I relaxed back onto the bed. Clark Palmer would do what needed to be done, Clayton would be uninvolved, and Clark wouldn't get caught.  

I closed my eyes, smiling, and waited for my son to return with the nurse.




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