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Title: Be It Ever so Humble  

Author/pseudonym: Tinnean  

Fandom: JAG  

Pairing: Clark Palmer/Clayton Webb  

Rating: FRAO (Fan Rated Adult Only)  

Disclaimer: Not mine, they'd be so much happier if they were.  

Status: new/complete  

Date: 3/1/05  

Series/Sequel: This is number eleven in the Soundbyte series and  follows Goodbye to Love.

Summary: Clark spends an evening with Clay before Clay leaves on an assignment. While he's gone, and with Porter Webb's help, Clark finds a new home.  

Warnings: m/m  

Notes: This is AR in that it presupposes the DSD was never disbanded. Soundbytes are an off-shoot of the Mind Fuck universe. The stories are not necessarily in chronological order. Palmer's first meeting with Michael Samuelle is recounted in April in Paris . Thanks to Gail for the beta. This is for her birthday, 2/25. Happy Birthday, chere amie.


Be It Ever so Humble

Part 1


I knew I was being followed. I never would have gotten to my position of senior special agent in the DSD without being aware of something like that.

My hands were in my trouser pockets as I sauntered along. This normally would have been risky, but I was in DC. I also knew who was following me.  

If I hadn't, he wouldn't have lived long enough to take two steps after me.  

I could hear the footsteps behind me. Sloppy? No, that wasn't like him. He wanted me to know he was following me.  

There was a little bar just down the street, and I headed for it, whistling through my teeth.    

Ziggy Redman's used to be a topless joint, but it had been closed down one time too many. Now, instead of the tables the girls used to dance on, it boasted a jukebox that played blues, rock, and bluegrass, a TV usually tuned to ESPN, and a pool table in the rear, and while it catered mostly to a blue collar clientele, office workers would stop by for a drink after work. I wouldn't look out of place.  

I pushed open the door, stepped to the side, and observed the occupants in the dim light. For a Thursday evening, it was pretty crowded. The atmosphere was heavy with cigarette smoke. Didn't these guys pay any attention to the Surgeon General?  

The jukebox was silent and the pool table abandoned. Everyone was concentrating on the television, which was airing the last game of the American League playoffs.  

No one noticed me. The runner on second tried to steal third. He was tagged out, ending the inning, and there were concerted groans.  

I walked to the bar. The bartender was watching the game, but he was also keeping an eye on his patrons. He came to where I was standing.  

"What can I get you, Mac?" he asked.  

"What do you have on tap?"  

"Michelob, Coors, Killian's Irish Red, Bud Light."  

"Two Michelobs."  

"Got it. You want to run a tab?"  

"No. I'll pay as I go." I didn't expect to be in here that long. I reached for my wallet as he filled two mugs. The foam spilled over, he topped them off, then put them on the bar in front of me. I gave him a 5 and three singles. "Keep the change."  


I started toward an empty booth in a corner as the door opened. I looked over my shoulder, expecting to see the man who had been following me. Instead, a trio of young men swaggered in. They were wearing jeans, biker boots, and tee shirts that looked as if they'd been sprayed on.    

"Where're the dancers?" the first one yelled. "We wanna see tits!"  

"You ain't gonna see 'em here, Mac." The bartender stood there, relaxed. This must have happened more than once.  

"They told me Ziggy's is a titty bar!"  

"Not any more. It's a sports bar now."  

"Well, shit." Bigmouth looked at his friends, and they shrugged.  

"We're here anyway. Let's have a beer, Joe."  

"Okay, and then we'll go looking for a titty bar."  

"Let me see your licenses."  

"We're over 21!"  

"Sure you are. I'm still gonna card you."  

They dug in their pockets for their driver's licenses, and I lost interest in them.  

I went to the booth and took the seat that let me keep an eye on everyone in the place, and most especially the door.  

It opened, and I raised the beer to hide my smile. The man who entered moved to the side and studied the occupants of Ziggy's.  

He was five foot ten. His brown hair was a little unruly just then – had he been running his fingers through it? – and his eyes, although I couldn't see them from this distance, would be a hazel that could change to green when he wore the right shirt or tie.  

Clayton Webb, my lover.  

I'd had plenty of partners, male and female, and I'd never considered them lovers, but there was Webb, that CIA spook, worming his way into my life, becoming my lover, and it fucking surprised me.  

His gaze was cool and professional as he took in the patrons. I could see his eyebrow raise at the jerk at the bar who was still bitching about wanting to see tits.  

Clay spotted me, and the corner of his mouth curled into a grin. He crossed the floor and slid into the bench seat opposite me.  

I pushed a Michelob toward him.  

"Thanks." He tapped his mug against mine. "You knew it was me."  

I smiled and brought it to my mouth to take a swallow.  

"Damn it. No one's done that before, you know." His smile was rueful. "When did you spot me?"  

"When I got interested in that antique shop."  

He paused with the mug halfway to his mouth. "That was almost as soon as I started shadowing you. I thought you were looking at the selection of swords."  

I was. I'd noticed a cavalry sabre that had to be at least a hundred and fifty years old, and I would have gone in to examine it if I hadn't seen Webb's reflection in the window. When I realized it was Clay following me, I decided to indulge him. I'd stayed just within his line of sight, and when I got tired of the game, I'd walked into Ziggy Redman's.  

"So why were you playing Philip Marlowe, Clay? Aside from trying to get one up on me?"  

"I wasn't… Okay, maybe I was, a little."  

"That would have been something to brag about back at Langley ."  

"Ass. What's between us is between us. I just wanted to … Look, it was stupid, and I'm sorry, I won't do it again."  

"Now who's an ass? Listen, if you want to fool around, just tell me. I know some good games."  

"Oh, yeah?" Clay slid down onto his spine, his foot nudged mine under the table, then ran up the side of my leg.  

"Why don't you finish your beer, and I'll take you home and show you."  

"I can't stay late. I need to get home and pack. I'm flying out of Reagan in the morning "  

"So we won't be having dinner tomorrow? You could have left a message, y'know. You didn't have to follow me like that."  

"I wanted to see you."  

My cock twitched, and I dropped my voice. "Is that a euphemism for getting laid?"  

"Well, of course." He was laughing at me. Jesus, when he looked like that I wanted to bend him over the nearest flat surface and fuck his brains out. " Clark , don't make me question your … "  

I interrupted before he could impugn my intelligence. "How long can you stay?"  

"I'll have to leave by midnight ."  

I looked at my watch. "Then let's get going."  

Clay drained the last of his beer, leaving a foam mustache. He saw me watching his mouth, and his eyes grew hot. He ran his tongue over his upper lip and grinned when my breathing ratcheted up. Damn spook.  

"Come on, hot shot."  

We brought our empty mugs to the bar and started to walk out.  


The bar went silent except for a commercial on the television.  

I came to a dead stop and turned around. It was the bigmouth. I took a step toward him.  

Clay put his hand on my arm. "You don't want to start something."  

"I don't?"  

"Yeah, you don't, Ru Paul. Listen to your *girlfriend*."  

Last time I looked, I wasn't black, and I wasn't a drag queen. Clay's grip on my arm tightened.  

"Joe, leave them alone. They weren't doing anything." One of the young men he'd come in with tried to smooth things over. "I'm sorry," he apologized, giving Joe a poke. "He's had too much to drink."  

"Don't you fucking apologize for anything I do! These two are queer as green beer, and they don't belong in a bar like this. Even the little guy knows it! He's trying to get out without getting hurt." 

Clay, *little*? I choked back a laugh.  

"Let me handle this," he whispered, then raised his voice. "You misunderstood." He smiled, and I watched in admiration. He might have been CIA, but damn, he was good. "I'm trying to protect you. This man is a cleaner."  

"Yeah, so he's a janitor. So what?"  

I thought of my persona as Dwayne J. Lester, and this time the laugh escaped. 

"Jesus, Joe, that's a professional killer! Don't you watch those movies?"  

Clay opened his jacket, revealing the gun under his arm, took out the leather case that held his ID, flipped it open and closed so fast Joe Homophobe wasn't able to make out anything more than that it was official, and put it back into the inner pocket. He closed his suit jacket and arched an eyebrow. "Do you really want him to start something?"  

"No. Uh… no."  

I looked him up and down, and opened my jacket as if to scratch my ribs, and I revealed the gun I carried. I grinned as the color drained from his face, and he backed up a step.  

"Let's go, killer." Clay walked out without looking back. He didn't have to. I was there.  


I whistled up a cab that took us to where Clay's car was parked, and he drove to my apartment building. I knew it was empty. Matheson, the agent I was training, was out of town on an assignment, and the rentboy he lived with was visiting family in Tarpon Springs.  

As soon as the street door was closed behind us, I swung him around, shoved him against the door, and braced my arms on either side of his head. Clay's eyes were heavy-lidded, his lips were parted, and the tip of his tongue came out and touched his upper lip. I leaned into him.  

Clay was hard. So was I. He slid a leg between mine and raised it, and I rocked back and forth on it.  

"You like that, do you?" He wound his fingers in my hair, tipped my head to the side and ran his teeth over the tendon in my neck.  

"Fuck, baby. Don't mark me." But I angled my head, offering him more of my neck. I liked the feel of his teeth running along it.  

He licked the spot, then loosened my tie and began unbuttoning my shirt. "One day I want to take you away for a week."  

"Oh, yeah?" I… liked that idea. I wasn't paying attention, and I suddenly found myself up against the door.  

"Oh, yeah." He nipped my throat. "I'll mark you every single day, but where no one could see it. Only I would know you were mine."  

"Think you're so alpha?"  

He kissed the hinge of my jaw, then drew back and ran the fingertips of his right hand along the curve of my ear. "I'm willing to take turns."  

"I thought that was my line. C'mon. I want you in bed before it's time for you to leave."  

"Good idea."  


I'd fucked other men, but it had never been anything like this.  

We'd no sooner got into my apartment, and I'd locked the door, than Clay had shucked his suit jacket, unzipped his fly and shoved his trousers and shorts down his legs, and bent over the back of my couch.  

I did the same, rolled on a condom, and prepared him, taking my time. I stroked a finger across his hole and dipped in, pulled out, dipped in deeper.


"Yeah, baby?"  

"Jesus, you're driving me crazy! Fuck me, already!"  

"All you had to do was ask."  


I lubed the condom, lined the head of  my cock with his hole, and began a slow, steady push. The sounds Clay made …  

Having my cock in Clayton Webb's ass was the most unbelievable feeling. Hot, snug, the rippling of his inner muscles caressing my cock — I wondered for the first time what having him without a condom between us would feel like. The heat wouldn't be muted by the latex of the condom, I'd feel his prostate, and when we came, I'd coat his insides with thick ropes of semen.  

I wanted him naked. Very carefully I pulled out of him. A glance at the wall clock told me we had time.  

" Clark , what…" He straightened and looked at me, his eyes glazed with lust.  

"Bed, now."   

We stripped off our clothes. Well, *I* stripped off my clothes. Clay leaned against the couch, wrestling with his tie. It was getting him frustrated, so I got him undressed, down the short hallway, and onto my bed. And I wanted him so much the condom stayed in place the entire time.  

This time I had Clay on his back, his arms above his head, our fingers entwined. My cock was buried in him, surrounded by his heat, and I held myself still, getting so much pleasure out of being inside my lover.  

"Move, dammit!" His legs were sprawled wide, cradling mine, and he braced his feet and rocked up, taking me deeper into him. "Please!"  

I manacled his wrists with one hand and used the other to toy with his nipples, his sensitive nipples, then dipped my head to lick and nip them.  

Clay writhed and bucked under me, driven wild with passion. I began to move. He wrapped his legs around my hips and arched into my thrusts. And again those sounds…

Beads of sweat caught on his eyebrows, clung to his cheekbones. I leaned down and licked them off.  

" Clark ." His eyes were glittering.  

"I'm here, baby."  

He shuddered and gasped, and I chased the sound into his mouth with my tongue. He sucked on it voraciously. His legs tightened around me, and come splashed onto my torso, warm, wet streaks of it.  

"Not… not yet."  

His inner muscles clamped down on me, and I groaned and came. Clay held me and stroked the long muscles of my back, and finally I caught my breath.  

"Hey. Don't fall asleep." He pinched my hip. "I have to leave."  

"Fuck. Okay." I eased out of him and removed the condom. "Do you have time for a shower?"  

"No. If I get in the shower, you'll come in after me. Not that I have any objections, but I'll wind up missing my flight."  

"Okay, I'll get a washcloth and clean you up."  

Clay was lying on the bed with his eyes closed when I got back. He hummed as I wiped the cooling semen off his body.  

"Will you be okay to drive? I can drive you to Alexandria , then call a cab to get home."  

"I'm fine. I have to get dressed."  

I left the washcloth on the night table, took a pair of shorts from a drawer and pulled them on, and followed him out of the bedroom.  

"Can I get you something before you leave?" I picked up my clothes, handing him socks and shorts that had gotten mixed with mine.  

"You've given me what I want." Clay kissed me and went back to dressing. When he finished, he slid his arms into his suit jacket and walked to the door. I unlocked it for him, but he stood there. "I was thinking… I've got some time off coming to me. After the embassy ball, how would you feel about getting away for a week?"  

"You're serious?"  

" Clark , I'm always serious. What do you think?"  

"Were we going anywhere in particular?" He wanted to go away with me.  

"I thought Key West ? They have an easy attitude toward same-sex couples. No one would bother us."  

No one would bother us anyway. I grinned. "Yeah. I'd like that."  

"Good. I'll make the … Fuck. I'll be away."  

"I can make reservations. I know how to use a phone, you know."  

He teased my ear. "I never doubted that. Taylor House is good. Mother and I used to go there during winter recess. Mention my name."  

"Okay. Listen. Be careful, okay?" Where the fuck had that come from? "Uh… I don't want to have to come after you again."  

"Of course. Worry wart." He kissed me. "I'll call you when I get back."  

"Call me when you get home."  

"Didn't I just say that?"  

"Tonight. When you get home tonight." He was more tired than I was used to seeing him.  

"What's wrong?"  

"Nothing. Humor me, okay?" I pulled him back for a last kiss, then watched as he went toward the stairs.  

Twenty minutes later he called, and after telling him to have a safe trip, I went to bed.


Part 2

I was in the middle of entering some data into my computer when my cell phone rang.  


"Hi. It's me." Clay. For the last week he'd been in the Far East on a job. Of course I'd found out. From the clarity of the call, he was back in town.  

"Hello, me." My cock was more interested than it had been in seven days. I shifted in my chair.  

"I'm just calling to make sure we're on for dinner tonight."  

"It's Friday, isn't it? I'll see you at Raphael's at eight. Want me to make the reservations?"  

"If you wouldn't mind? I've got a ton of paperwork to catch up on." He sounded tired, but I wasn't about to tell him how to do his job.  

"Sure thing."  

"Thanks. And speaking of reservations..."  

"I called Taylor House. We're booked for a week from Sunday. I also booked a flight out of Reagan down to Key West ."  

"You do good work, Palmer."  

"You're not just finding that out, are you?"  

He laughed.  

"Okay, I'll see you about 8 tonight?"  

"About 8, then. Bye, babe."  

"Bye." I ran my palm over the front of my trousers. "He's home!" I cleared my throat. "I mean, we're gonna get laid tonight!" I called Raphael's, made the reservations, and got back to work.  


Shortly before noon my office phone rang. "Palmer."  

"My office." It was The Boss.  

"I'm on my way, sir."  

Over a lunch of greens – Mr. Wallace had been instructed by his doctor that he needed more raw, leafy vegetables in his diet – we discussed Senator Franklin, who was working for us, and Senator Wexler, who was working against us.  

Finally, Mr. Wallace said, "The ball at the Bahsrani Embassy is a week from tomorrow. The Senator is guaranteed to be there."  

"I'll do my best to see he doesn't have a good time."  

"I knew I could depend on you, Clark." He poked at his salad, then sighed and pushed it aside. "Now why don't you go get yourself something more substantial to eat?"  

"Thank you, sir." I tossed the remains of my salad into the trash and went down to the cafeteria for a roast beef sandwich.  

It was about 1:30 when I returned to my office.  

My secretary handed me a stack of phone messages.  

"Thank you so much, Ms. Parker."  

"You're so welcome." She looked happy. The spook she'd been dating at the request of the DSD had been transferred to Turkmenistan , and she was at liberty to date whom she chose.  

I scowled at the post-its in my hand. "Hold my calls until I get this lot cleared up."  

"Yes, sir."  

It took less time than I'd anticipated. A certain tone in my voice must have convinced everyone who had wanted a call back that it wasn't really as necessary as they'd first thought.  

I was about to get back to work when my cell phone rang again.  


"Mister Palmer, this is Jacques, from Putting On the Ritz. The adjustments to your tuxedo have been completed."  

"That was fast." I needed a new tux for the Bahsrani Embassy ball. The exclusive men's shop was renowned for getting its patrons their tuxedoes in record time. Of course, they charged for it.  

"But of course!" He sounded affronted that I could doubt my tux would be ready on time. "I am calling to set up an appointment for you to make sure it fits perfectly," I had no doubt it would, "and pick it up."  

I checked my PDA. The evening was marked with a notation that simply read, dinner. I was surprised to see Saturday and Sunday x'd out, and I frowned at it. I didn't remember doing that – I must have been on automatic. Well, at least I hadn't done something nauseating like drawing hearts in them. I'd meet Clay at Raphael's, we would go back to his townhouse in Alexandria , and as soon as he had some rest, we'd fuck the whole weekend, to make up for the last seven days.  

"I have some free time Monday evening."  

"How would 7 suit?"  

"That should be fine."  

"We will see you then, sir."  

I made a note in my PDA, said goodbye, and hung up. Then I got back to work.  


I was about to save the last of the data I had entered when my cell phone rang again. I wasn't usually so popular.  


"Clark, it's Porter Webb." She knew I'd been involved with her son for some time, and she didn't seem to have a problem with it, in spite of the fact that not only were we two men, but he was CIA and I was DSD.  

"Good afternoon, Mrs. Webb. How are you?"  

"I'm well, thank you. And you?" She was too much of a lady to bring up the fact that the last time she had seen me was when we'd gone horseback riding, and I 'd wound up so sore I could barely sit. She'd given Clay Epsom salts, and he'd poured them into a hot tub. That had gone a long way to easing my aches.  

"Never better, ma'am."  

"I'm very glad to hear that." She laughed softly, and I couldn't prevent myself from grinning. Porter Webb was a classy lady, one with whom I didn't mind observing the conventions.  

"I'm assuming Clay gave you my number."  

"I have my own ways of learning things, Clark ."  

Of course. Porter Webb had once broken Russian codes for Project Venona.  

"Should I be alarmed?"  

"Not as long as you don't hurt my son."  

Webb was the only person I'd ever met who came close to being my equal. I wouldn't toss a … friendship like that away.  

"What can I do for you, Mrs. Webb?"    

"Clayton told me you're in the market for a new home."  

"That's right." I'd been thinking of a condominium this time. My last apartment had been blown up, and the management had given me thirty days to vacate. The rentboys who owned the building I'd previously lived in had told me my former apartment  was available, and so I'd salvaged what I could and moved back, a strictly temporary arrangement.  

The DSD agent I was training to replace me in the field was living in the apartment below. He'd seen Clay come home with me that Sunday a couple of weeks ago, and while he'd assured me he'd keep his mouth shut, I knew it could become dangerous.  

I didn't want another apartment, and as for buying a house, there was too much work entailed: the lawn would need mowing, the shrubs pruning, the roof maintained, and if we should get snow, the walks and driveway would need to be shoveled. It would be easier to buy a condo and let them worry about the general upkeep.  

I'd seen a shit load of condos, and I was starting to get impatient. I didn't need the same wide open floor plan as I had when I'd been in the field, but I did want my bedroom away from the other rooms. So far I hadn't found anything to my liking. Either the rooms were so small that even a family of midgets would be claustrophobic or the commute to DC was a bitch.  

The going rate for the condos I'd looked at was almost half a mil. I could have afforded that easily, shifting some funds from my offshore F.Y. account, but why pay for it in cash when with a mortgage I could write off the interest on my income tax?  

Of course I paid income tax. Not even the DSD would fuck with the IRS.  

"It has come to my knowledge," Mrs. Webb murmured, "that a condominium is available in Aspen Reach."  

"Aspen Reach?" I could never understand why builders would give their communities such cutesy names.  

"Yes, it's in Alexandria ."    

That sounded promising. After all, why spend the largest portion of the weekend driving to and from where Clay lived when  I could be spending it in his bed?  

"It's a small, gated community."  

"Just gates or a guard as well?"  

"Just gates." That didn't sound promising. If security guards knew what they were doing, they made it difficult for any unwanted visitors to get in. "The residents can access the gate with a remote."  

That sounded even less promising. Anyone with the smarts could wire a remote and let themselves in. Even someone from the CIA could do it.  

"There are security cameras at the entrance. What was that, Clark ?"  

I coughed. "Nothing, ma'am." I had muttered that the idea of those security cameras made me feel all warm and safe.  

"Yes." There was laughter in that one word. I had a feeling she didn't believe me. "There are four three-story buildings. It also has a number of amenities – a jogging path, an Olympic-size pool, lighted tennis courts, a club house. From what I've been told, it's quite lovely, Clark ."  

"Been told by whom?" I didn't need a home that was lovely, I needed one that was functional.  

"Francesca Dashwood. She's the realtor. She's also the…" The pause was almost minute.

"… sister-in-law of a friend of mine. Allison and I were in the same sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha."  

"And you trust this woman enough that I won't be taken to the cleaners?"  

"No. I don't know her, Clark . Allison told me that Ms. Dashwood is offering the condominium. She asked if I'd send some business her way. I'd like to help Allison if I can. The price isn't unreasonable."  

Mrs. Webb was a good woman; nevertheless, I'd do a little investigating. That minute pause.    

"How much is it?"  

She named a figure, and she was right, for that type of community in Virginia , it wasn't at all unreasonable. In fact… 

"Y'know, Mrs. Webb, there's usually a reason if something sounds too good to be true."  

"One might say so. Apparently something the prospective buyers learned has made them unwilling to go ahead with the deal."  

"Do we know why?"  

"I'm sure Ms. Dashwood will be more than willing to tell us." There was cool certainty in her voice.  


"I'd like to see this condo myself. It has me intrigued."  

"Don't tell me. It just so happens that you're here in the Capital."  

"Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I am. I needed a final fitting for the gown I'll be wearing to the Bahsrani embassy ball," that was the ball I'd been … invited… to attend, "and I'm at Madame Rosa's, my dressmaker."  

"OK." I wasn't going to argue with her. "What can you tell me about the condo?"  

"It's a third floor corner unit, approximately two thousand square feet."  

"Nice size."  

"Yes. Two bedrooms, two and a half baths. The master bath has a Jacuzzi and a separate shower. Living room, formal dining room, and den. The kitchen has an island that's perfect for a prep area as well as a breakfast bar. There's a fireplace in the living room. Actually, it's two-sided. The other side is in the master suite." She paused a beat, then hit me with the clincher. "It's about a fifteen minute drive to Clayton's townhouse."  

"I have to admit you've got me interested."  

"I thought you might be."  

"Does it come with a garage, or just a parking space?"  

"Oh, there are garages. The parking spaces are for guests. If you're free, Ms. Dashwood has said she'll meet us outside the gates of Aspen Reach in three quarters of an hour. Markov is here as well, and he can drive us if you'd like."  

"I'd rather drive if you don't mind, Mrs. Webb. Does he have to come with us?"  

"Not at all." She was laughing. "But he's my ride home."  

"I can drive you to Great Falls ."  

" Clark , it's Friday."  

"What's your point?"  

"You have dinner with Clayton on Friday."  

I scowled at the phone, unsure whether I should knock Clay on his ass for telling his mother about that or jump his bones for being okay enough with us that he told his mother about that.  

"That's not a problem." I'd call him and reschedule.  

"Oh?" For one word, it packed a wallop of a chill.  

"Mrs. Webb, Clay would have my… he wouldn't be happy if I drove you back to DC and then made you drive all the way back home."  

"It's only a half hour drive."  

"Yeah, but you know, we're talking rush hour by the time we get done looking at this place. It'll be easier if I drive you home."  

"I'm not a wilting violet, I'll have you know."  

"No, ma'am. But if it comes to Clay being pissed at me or you being pissed at me, I'll have to go with you," I said apologetically.    

"I see. Very well. If you'd rather spend your time with me… I'll give you directions to my dressmaker."  

I let her, even though I knew it would only take a minute for me to pull them up on the computer. "I'll pick you up in twenty minutes, ma'am."  

"Very good, Clark . By the way?"  


"Please stop calling me ma'am."  

I laughed, and we hung up, and I called Clay. His voice mail picked up, and I left a brief message. "I can't make it tonight. Sorry."  

He'd know it was me.  


After the realtor got us past the gates, we followed her to the club house and parked beside her convertible.  She waited for us to approach her car, then slid out of the front seat.  

"Hello!" she cooed. She adjusted her shoulder bag, which was large enough to hold all the paraphernalia of her business, and extended her hand to me, completely ignoring Mrs. Webb. "I'm Francesca Dashwood. You must be Mr. Palmer."  

She was a tall, buxom brunette with eyes such an unbelievable blue that I knew they were contacts. The trouser suit she wore emphasized her tits and long legs. Of course the stiletto-heeled sandals on her long, thin feet helped. Streaked brown hair spilled down her back in waves, and she tossed her head, flipping a stray lock of hair over her shoulder. A large ruby wrapped in gold filigree dangled from the exposed ear.  

Mrs. Webb gave her a considering glance and made a soft, almost inaudible sound. In another woman, I would have called it a snort, but she was too elegant for anything like that.  

"I'm Porter Webb, Allison's friend." Her cell phone rang, and I recognized the tone as 'It Had to Be You'. Interesting. "Pardon me." She took it from her purse and studied the readout. Her mouth tightened. She turned off the ringer and put it back, and nodded, all trace of irritation wiped from her face. "You may proceed, Ms. Dashwood."  

"Yes. Right this way."  

She gave us a tour of its many amenities, pointing out  the sauna, locker rooms for both sexes, the banquet room with its adjacent gourmet kitchen, card room, billiard room, even a miniature theater for viewing movies.  

"And this is the exercise room."  

Weights, treadmills, stair-climbers, stationary bicycles, things I wouldn't have expected to see outside Gold's Gym.  

"It's impressive, isn't it?" she murmured. One wall was completely glass, giving a view of the pool. "If you'll come this way?" She led us down a spacious hallway. "As you can see, this room is for aerobics."  

What I could see were the community fees going sky high.  

"Suppose you show us the condominium?"  

"Certainly. That building is the gem of this community; there are only three units on each floor. I'll point out the garage that goes with the unit, and then I'll take you to see the condo. If you'll get into my car?"  


"Excuse me?"  

"I'll drive, or we can follow you."  

Most people would have missed the disgruntled twist to her lips.  

"Of course." Her smile was gracious. "Not a problem at all. If you'll follow me?"  

In a matter of minutes we were driving past the area where garages for each building were.  

"This isn't too convenient," I said to Mrs. Webb.  

"Keep that in mind, Clark ."  

"Yes, ma'am."  

All the streets were named after Aspens. Aspen Court , Aspen Circle, Aspen Drive, Aspen Way .  

We turned into Aspen Way and pulled up to the curb. When I got out, Francesca Dashwood was right there. She looped her arm through mine, flirting her lashes.  

"You really didn't need to have someone with you, you know. I don't bite… much."  

I freed my arm and went around to the passenger side, opened the door, and handed Mrs. Webb out. I offered my arm to Mrs. Webb.  

"Thank you, Clark ."  

I could almost see the wheels turning as the other woman tried to figure out Mrs. Webb's relationship to me, and I couldn't resist the temptation to play the kept man. She was about to release my arm, and I put my hand over hers to keep it in place.  

"Oh, Hon …" I coughed as if to cover up my slip. "Mrs. Webb is a very good… friend. She always insists on coming along."  

"Yes, precious." She didn't miss a beat, picked up what I was doing right away. She patted the hand that covered hers. "I wouldn't want you to make a mistake. Goodness knows you cost me enough…" She coughed herself, as if she had made a slip. Damn, I wished I could have known her when she'd been younger. She must have been a pistol. And I'd have tried my damnedest to take her away from Neville Webb. "That is to say, you did want that monstrosity in… where was it?"  

"There were so many, and you didn't like any of them." I thrust my lip out and did my best to sound petulant, something I wasn't familiar with doing. "Not even the one with the mirror on the ceiling."  

Unseen by the realtor, Mrs. Webb pinched me.  

"I'm afraid there's nothing like that here in Aspen Reach. However, this condo is fully furnished, and you have the option of buying it that way, for only an additional $75,000." Ms. Dashwood led us into the lobby of the building.  

" Clark has his own furniture."  

A brief pause. "That's fine, then. However, if you should change your mind… Ah, here's the elevator."  

"I don't use elevators." Mrs. Webb looked around. "Where is the stairway?"  

"Oh, surely a woman your age…"  

Mrs. Webb simply raised an eyebrow, and the realtor shut up and backed up.  

I leaned down and whispered, "Are you sure you want to take the stairs?"  

"Are you doubting I can?"  

"No, ma'am." But I'd keep an eye on her, and the second she even looked like she was faltering, I was tossing her over my shoulder and carrying her the rest of the way.  

"Ms. Dashwood?"  

"Of course." She gave a saccharine smile. "Right this way. If you don't mind, I'll meet you on three."  

Y'know, " I muttered, "if there was a god, that elevator will get stuck between floors. For the whole weekend." I held open the door to the stairwell, and Mrs. Webb entered, stifling her laughter with an elegant hand.   

When we reached the third floor, Mrs. Webb was breathing only slightly heavier than I was.  

"You will not tell Clayton. Is that understood?"  

"Tell him what, ma'am?"  

She patted my arm, and we stepped out of the stairwell. The realtor was standing by the elevator. The minute she saw us approaching, she stopped tapping her toe and smiled. Mrs. Webb hugged my arm to her, and we walked down the corridor. The condo was at the far end.  

That was good. I didn't like the idea of an elevator being too close to where I lived.  

Ms. Dashwood unlocked the door and stepped aside to let us enter. My 'sugar momma' walked in, looking over the entryway thoughtfully.  

"After you, Ms. Dashwood." I gestured for her to enter before me.  

"Call me Francesca." She adjusted her shoulder bag.  

"Oh, I couldn't…"  


I surrendered gracefully. "Francesca."  

"There, you see? That wasn't so hard, was it? Now if you'll…"  

"Oh, no. Ladies before gentlemen. Francesca." I let my voice caress her name. "Please. Honey… Mrs. Webb likes me to be polite."   

She gave me a considering look from under her lashes, then fluttered them and followed Mrs. Webb, a saucy swing to her hips.  

I shut the door and threw the deadbolt from force of habit.  

"This closet is quite small." Mrs. Webb's tone of voice let it be known that no closet in her home would dare to be that small.  

The closet was to the immediate left as we walked in. It wouldn't need to be very big in order to hold a couple of overcoats and umbrellas, but I kept my mouth shut.  

"You'll find plenty of storage in this condominium. Now," briskly, "the powder room to the right, right off the entry way."  

I raised an eyebrow at the pale pink tiles and the wallpaper covered with tiny flowers the same color. "Kind of girly, don't you think?" I did like the pedestal sink, though. It reminded me of that hotel in Paris where I'd first taken Michael Samuelle, when I'd thought the Section One cold op was a hustler.  

"You can make any changes you desire. Consider it a canvas, if you will, and you color it with the pallet of your own personality." She began showing us through the unit. "To our left is the kitchen and formal dining room, and beyond that, the master suite. Now, as you can see, this particular condominium has a split floor plan. The master suite is separated from the guest suite by... " She waved her hand, indicating a very large living room. There was a fireplace against the inner wall. Drapes with a very busy pattern framed a deep bay window and French doors. A cushion covered by the same material was on the window seat. The opposite inner wall was formed by a pair of pocket doors.  

The room was cluttered with furniture, fussy chairs, a glass coffee table, the type of couch that had once been called a passion pit because the owner could easily host an orgy on it. Bric a brac was on every flat surface, nymphs and shepherdesses, flimsily-dressed women.  

"I'm surprised the owner is willing to part with these. They're Lladro." Mrs. Webb would be familiar with them.  

Like I knew Lladro from those figurines of big-eyed kids praying.  

Francesca gave a professional smile, but didn't respond to that. "Let me show you the guest wing first." I could see that phrase jacking up the price. "It's just down this corridor. It contains the second bedroom, which has a full bathroom of its own, although not as luxurious as the master bath, and a sitting area. This way, please."  

We trooped down the hallway past another set of pocket doors, and she threw open the door to the second bedroom with a flourish.  

"Isn't it delicious?"  

"It's very… pink." The walls and carpet were fuchsia, the window coverings, bedspread, and mass of pillows were a deep rose.  

"As I said," Francesca gave a condescending smile, "you can change whatever you like."  

Mrs. Webb walked into the room and stopped dead. "Oh, my. This carpeting is thick, isn't it?"  

I followed her, sinking into the plush depths, and realized what she meant.  

Francesca's voice lost some of its enthusiasm. "A little paint, new carpeting… I think I heard something about there being hardwood floors under this."  

"That would be … Clark , I think you'd like hardwood floors." Mrs. Webb crossed to a pair of accordion doors. "Ah. A nice-sized closet."  

I didn't particularly care. It wasn't likely I'd have guests, and if Clay came over, he'd spend the night in my room.  

She went to the window and drew back the curtain. "The view is… tolerable."  

"Mmm." I noticed another set of pocket doors, slid them back, and found myself in the den. Who would have thought there could be so many different shades of pink? The walls, the rug, even the shades, which were raised over two small windows, letting in the fading October sunlight.    

The furniture was spindly and an antiqued white. What a shocker.  

Someone had really had a thing for pocket doors. There were more, the set opening onto the hallway, and another which was locked. I unlocked them, and took a step into the living room.  

If I kept all the doors open, I would have a view of almost the entire condo. I returned to the bedroom.  

"Gee, I think a woman used to own this condo."  

"Why, yes. How clever of you to guess." Francesca didn't sound too happy about that.  

"Oh, my Clark is a very clever boy." I thought Mrs. Webb was laying it on a bit thick. "Is this the sitting area?"  


Pink. Why wasn't I surprised? It contained an overstuffed easy chair and ottoman, an artificial fireplace, a floor lamp, and a small bookcase.  

"Nice use of space," Mrs. Webb remarked. "I assume the fireplace is included?"  

"I think the… owners can be persuaded to include it. Now, the guest bathroom is right this way. Shall we?"  

Part 3


The guest bathroom was across the hall. Single vanity, marble top and chrome fixtures, a toilet, and a tub and shower with a glassed-in enclosure.  

"It's a little small, don't you think, Clark ?"  

I shrugged. I wouldn't be using it. She frowned at me, and I realized she was setting up a bargaining chip.  

"You're right, Hon. Mrs. Webb. What, no bidet?"  

"That's in the master bath." Francesca was at my shoulder, and I turned and raised my eyebrow. She gave an arch smile and nodded to another accordion door. "See! There's a linen closet in here also."  

Be still my heart.  

"Well, I imagine it can hold the sheets and towels for the bedroom and bath." Mrs. Webb seemed dubious. "Although a comforter or duvet…"  

"As I've said, there's plenty of storage. You needn't worry about that." She stepped back into the hallway. "I'll bet you didn't notice this door! It gives you access to the roof. All third floor owners have this. Some of them have set up quite lovely conversation areas on the roof."  

I tried the doorknob, but it wouldn't open. "Do you have the key for this? I'd like to see the roof." The lock seemed sturdy, but if I'd been alone, I'd have had it unlocked in a matter of seconds.  

"I'm sorry, I wasn't given the key to that door. The condominium association will turn that over to you after you've bought it. Let me show you the rest of the condo."  

Well, if I decided to buy this place, I'd change all the locks anyway. *If* I decided to buy this place. I'd check out the roof before I agreed to anything.  

"If you'll follow me, please?"  

We followed her back to the living room.  

"This is a very nice fireplace. The mantle and surround are Carrara marble. And you can go onto the terrace through these French doors."  

I was glancing at Mrs. Webb. She gave a tiny shake of her head. "It's not a very good view," I murmured grudgingly.  

"Oh, that's just a little… The other has this charming window seat," she hurried to it, "which opens to provide storage! Let's look at the rest of the rooms before you make any decisions. Here's the kitchen."  

"Big." Mrs. Webb was willing to give it that, but reluctantly.  

"There's plenty of storage. As I said." Her smile this time seemed a little strained, and I turned to make sure she didn't see the expression on my face. I wished I'd had Porter Webb with me the other times I'd gone house hunting. I'd never had so much fun. "The cabinets are natural maple, crafted in Canada , and the hardware is brushed nickel. The stainless steel appliances are new, they've all been replaced within the last month. The countertops are granite, the flooring is River Stone tile. As you can see, the island has a cook-top. Here's the walk-in pantry."  

"The breakfast nook is a nice touch, and you have a window? Odd. I would have thought this wall didn't have the exposure… " Mrs. Webb pulled back a set of sheer curtains.  

"It's a mural." Francesca's words were short.  

"Cows? A cow pasture? No, I know," I raised a hand to cut off her words, "I can change it. What's this?"  

"The utility room is through there. The washer is front-loading, and the dryer has a cabinet for delicates to hang dry."  

"Oh." *Delicates*? I had to stifle a laugh at the image of Clay in pretty pink unmentionables. "Okay, that's good. I guess."  

"Pay no attention to Clark . He's used to sending his laundry out."  

"Uh… Yes. Of course. Well, let's move on, shall we?" She gestured to a broad, arched doorway and we followed her through it.  

"Ah. The formal dining room." Mrs. Webb's expression was bland.  

Francesca hurried on. "This table can open up to seat twelve comfortably. The area rug is quite unusual, don't you think?"  

"It's not pink." I exchanged glances with Mrs. Webb. I'd never seen such an ugly rug. She turned away, hiding a smile.  

"The buffet and hutch, the china cabinet."  

Did I look like the kind of man who had a china cabinet?    

"Maybe we ought to…"  

"And you haven't seen the master suite. I've saved the best for last! It's right this way!" She was starting to sound desperate.  

Back through the kitchen, and this time to the left, and in spite of myself, I let out a low whistle. The master bedroom had to be about five hundred square feet.  

Theo, the former rentboy who lived downstairs from my present apartment, had insisted on going furniture shopping with me. That had been after my apartment had been blown up. It had taken a while, and he had no idea how close I'd come to shooting him, but we'd finally found furniture we could both agree on. I hadn't been certain if the bedroom set I'd bought would fit in a new bedroom – it didn't in my present apartment, and I'd had to put pieces in storage – but it would actually be lonely in this room.  

Oddly enough, there was no wall-to-wall carpeting. The wood floor looked a little dull, but I had no doubt it could be buffed to a high gloss and made to look awesome.  

Another set of French doors, these covered with plantation shutters – pink, and I flinched – opened onto the terrace, which was large enough to hold a barbecue as well as a table and chairs, a coffee table and chaise, and the view… I frowned. I didn't golf, and I didn't much care to look out onto a water hazard.  

Even so, this couldn't be why the condo was going so cheaply.  

I turned from the view. At the other end of the bedroom was a single pocket door. I slid it back to find a long corridor. There was carpet here. To the left was a walk-in closet that was large enough to house a small third world country. I could picture Clay's suits hanging in it beside mine. There were built-in shelves and a slide-out shoe rack that would hold at least a couple of dozen pairs of shoes. And past that was the bathroom, which was everything Porter Webb had told me and more — a double vanity topped with pink marble, vessel sinks, also pink marble, and gold-plated fixtures, a shower with multiple heads, and a Jacuzzi that was large enough to hold two men in sensual comfort, even if one of them was 6'3". Behind a smoky glass-block wall was the toilet. And the bidet.  

"The towel bars are also warming bars."  


Mrs. Webb pinched me again, and the smile I gave her was an apologetic twist of my lips.  

"So. Would you like to make an offer, Clark ?"  

"I'd like to discuss this with him for a moment, if you don't mind, Francesca?"  

I could see she didn't care for Mrs. Webb's using her name, but she gave a gracious nod and left us in the bathroom.  

"Do you really want this condo, Clark ?"  

"Yeah. And the way you were picking at everything, I think I should be able to get it for even less than what they're asking. Look, can you distract her for about ten minutes? I want to see what's up on the roof."  

"Of course. I'll insist I want to examine the dining room again."  

"Thanks. You're a honey."  

" I. Beg. Your. Pardon?"  

But I could see she wasn't offended.  

We walked back into the empty bedroom, and I came to an abrupt standstill.  

" Clark ?"  

"Mrs. Webb, the other bedroom had carpeting, and the bed was made, almost like a… a showplace."  

"I see what you mean. There's no carpeting in this room, but there is in the hall leading to the bathroom; there's nothing on the bed, no sheets, no pillows or shams, no bedspread."  

Something caught my eye in a corner, and I went to examine it. "The previous owner must have been seriously unhappy with the carpeting." Cotton candy pink didn't do anything for me, but I wouldn't have ripped it out so carelessly that tufts were left where the floor met the wall.  

I raised the mattress up enough so that I could see under it, then let it down gently.  

"There's nothing there, but I wonder. If I spritz the headboard with luminol, will it turn blue?"  

"You think someone was killed here, Clark ?"  

"Yeah. And now I really want to see what's up on the roof." I toed off my shoes and picked them up.  

"Give me a second. I'll keep her distracted." She walked out of the bedroom. "Oh, Francesca? I'd really like to see the dining room again. I think I might have a sideboard that will be…" Her voice faded, and I ran to the other end of the house.  

I took a slim leather case from the inner pocket of my suit jacket, selected a slender pick, and got the door to the roof open. I made my way cautiously up the stairs. Fortunately, none of them creaked.  

The door at the top was also locked, and I made a note to be certain the condo association turned over two keys to me. I picked the second lock and opened the door. There was a possibility I could be seen if I stepped out onto the roof, and I decided I'd be better off studying the flat expanse from this point.  

The air was turning cool, and there was a slight breeze. The breeze caused the remains of yellow crime scene tape to snap.  

Interesting. And no doubt the reason why this particular condominium was having a hard time being sold. It seemed a little investigating was called for. I took my PDA from another pocket and powered it up. Within minutes I had the information I needed.  

Delilah Carson, what they used to call a party girl, had been killed, viciously and thoroughly. The cops blamed her boyfriend, Danny Coe, who had taken a header off the roof. Groundskeepers had found him, his brains splattered on the concrete below.  

I went back down, locking the doors behind me, put the pick away and my shoes back on, and strolled down the hallway, whistling through my teeth.  

" Clark . Precious, we're in the dining room."  

They were sitting at the table, papers spread out. I leaned down and brushed my lips over her cheek. "Thanks, Honey."  

"Have you decided to make an offer?" Francesca was looking tense.  

"Yeah." I told her how much, and she turned pale.  

"They'll never accept that!"  

"You mean the executors of Delilah Carson's estate? We'll never know unless you present it to them. If they drag their feet… Well, I don't think they will, because as soon as prospective buyers learned that the previous owner was eviscerated in her bedroom, they backed out on the deal." I scrawled my name at the bottom of each page. "Here's my business card. Call me. Hon… Mrs. Webb? Shall we be going?"  

"Of course, precious." She took my arm, and we each gave Francesca a smile goodbye.  



"Excuse me?" I put on the blinker, looked over my shoulder, and accelerated and merged into the flow of traffic on Interstate 495. As soon as I could, I got into the middle lane and set the cruise control for a speed that corresponded with the cars around me. It happened to be five miles over the speed limit.  

" Clark , you called me 'Honey'!" She was laughing softly.  

"Well," I gave a slight grin myself, "I thought it was the kind of pet name a guy would call the woman who was keeping him. I hope you didn't mind pretending to be my sugar momma."  

"Not at all, Clark . I haven't had such fun… " She laughed again.  

"If this falls through, I hope you'll go house hunting with me again."  

"It had better not fall through. Much as I like Allison, I won't deal with that woman again."  

"Mrs. Webb, what was it about La Dashwood that drew your attention when we met her outside the club house?"  

"I should have realized you'd catch that. Her earrings, Clark . Those rubies were given to Allison by her first husband. Quite garish. He asked for them back when the marriage collapsed, but after twenty-five years, she refused to return them. She told me she'd earned them, that after all the aggravation he put her through with one midlife crisis after another, she'd be damned if she'd let him give those rubies to his… child bride."  

I had a feeling those weren't the words Mrs. Webb's friend had used to describe the young woman who had snared her husband.  

"Could they be fakes?"  

"Hmmm. I hadn't thought of that. I suppose it's possible, but they looked real to me."  

"So why would she give them to her present husband's sister?"  

"I don't know, Clark . But I intend to find out."  

"If I can be of any help… " My cell phone rang. "Excuse me." I took my eyes from the road long enough to check the read out. The number was unfamiliar, but the name under it wasn't. "Hello, Francesca. What news?"  

"You don't believe in the pleasantries, do you?"  

Not with her. "I was under the impression this was a business call."  

"It is. They've accepted your offer." She sounded less than pleased. Four per cent of what her clients were going to get wasn't a patch on the four per cent she'd have collected if I'd agreed to the original price that had been quoted to Mrs. Webb.  

"I'm glad to hear that. When and where do they want to get together to finalize this?"

She named the day and time, later in the week, and the location, which was in Alexandria . "You should have ownership then. Congratulations on becoming a new homeowner."  

"Thanks. It's been… " There was a click in my ear as she disconnected. "… a pleasure." I laughed softly, pressed end, and dropped my phone onto the seat beside me. "I don't think she's too happy with me."  

"I can see how heartbroken that makes you."  

"Yeah. Congratulate me, Mrs. Webb. It's mine."  

"Congratulations, Clark . I'm so pleased for you. When do you close?"  

I told her. "But it will need a lot of work."  

"To make it less pink?" She chuckled. It was a warm sound.  

"Yes. I get a toothache just looking at the walls and carpeting. I don't think I can count on moving in until the middle of November at the least."  

"Tell me what you plan to do with it."  

"The walls need repainting. I know someone who'll get a kick out of looking through paint chips. The carpeting will have to go. If the rest of the floors are hard wood, I'll have them buffed."  

"If they're not?"  

"I'll have them put in. And maybe an area rug in front of the fireplace." I smiled to myself. That rug would be for the times when I wouldn't be able to wait to get that sexy spook into my bedroom.  

"That sounds like a nice idea." Clay's mother fortunately had no notion of where my mind had gone. "What else?"  

I began ticking off the pieces of furniture I had, and the ones I'd had to put in storage.  

Time passed quickly, and even with traffic it wasn't more than half an hour later when I pulled up in front of her Tudor-style house. It was lit up, and a male figure stood by the front door.  

"Didn't Markov trust me to get you home in one piece?"  

"That isn't Markov, Clark." She unbuckled her seatbelt.  

"It isn't?" I looked closer. I was surprised to see Clay. Wasn't he supposed to be at State?  

"Turn off the engine. You're staying for dinner."  

"I am?" But I was talking to thin air. She'd already let herself out of the car and was walking toward her son, who crossed the lawn with lithe strides to meet her. He bent to kiss her cheek.  

I switched off the ignition and got out of the car.  

"You're looking tired, sweetheart." Her palm rested on his cheek.  

"I'm very glad it's Friday, Mother. It's been a long week." He covered her hand with his own, then turned his head to place a kiss on her palm. "I was at State today. You know how that can be. On top of that, the Lexus needed to go in for its 3,000 mile tune-up. It's a good thing your message let me know that Markov was in town. I called him and got a lift."  

"Mrs. Webb!" Markov stood at the top of the steps, his hands on his hips. He was backlit by the light above the door, and I couldn't see his expression, but his tone of voice told me he'd been ready to call out the Marines. Did he think she'd been in danger of being kidnapped?  

"I'm coming, Markov." She squeezed her son's hand and turned to go into the house.  

I sauntered up to Clay. "Webb. I wasn't expecting to see you here."  

"Mother's message also let me know she was going house-hunting with you. What did you think of Aspen Reach?"  

I fell into step with him, and we walked toward his mother's house. "The community is okay."  

"Only okay?" I grinned at him. "What about the condo?"  

"Barring any unforeseen difficulties – and I don't think there will be any, they're getting desperate to unload it – it's mine."  

Mrs. Webb paused and glanced over her shoulder. "Goodness knows Francesca worked hard enough to sell it. And that isn't all she was selling."  


I was a couple of steps past him when I realized he wasn't beside me. I turned to face him. "Clay?"  

"Should I be jealous?" He brushed that lock of hair off his forehead. He didn't wait for an answer, just pushed past me and strode up the steps.  

"She isn't my type, Webb." I followed him into the house and shut and locked the door. "Unless she's hiding them behind blue contacts, she doesn't have hazel eyes."  

"And you mean to say that if she did, you'd find her… interesting?"  

"Clay, what…" Everything had been going well. Didn't he … like me any more?  

"Well, if you want to fuck her, don't let me stop you, Palmer." He shrugged and started to turn away from me, and I grabbed his arm.  

"Are you kidding? You think I'd do something like that to you?"  

"Why not? You're…" Abruptly I realized that Porter Webb was right, he looked dead beat.  

A quick glance around showed me we were alone, and I shut him up with my mouth. I expected him to struggle or at least to stiffen in my embrace, but instead he gave a sigh and relaxed into me.  

"Webb, what the fuck is up?"  

"I just needed to know… I'm sorry. It's been a bitch of a day, ending an all-time bitch of a week."  

"You're gonna," scare me, "do that one time too often, and then…"  

"You're going to leave me?"  

"No. CIA idiot. I'm gonna knock you on your ass."  

"You've already knocked me on my ass."  

"I have?"  

"Didn't you know?" He kissed me. "I'm disappointed in you," he murmured against my lips.  

"Damned spook. Come on. Markov will think I'm molesting you."  

"Speaking of which…"  

"Molesting you?"  

"Smart ass." His hand curved over my butt and squeezed. "No. Markov. He drove me here. I don't have my car, and I'm going to need a ride home."  

"No problem. I'll drive you back to your townhouse."  

"I knew I could count on you."  

"Want to stop and check out my place on the way back?"  

He looked puzzled for a moment, and that brought home more than anything how tired he was. "Oh, your condo?"  

My condo. I liked the sound of that. "Yeah."  

"Mother said something about it being in a gated community."  

I showed him the remote that operated the gate into Aspen Reach, then replaced it in my pocket. I'd picked the realtor's shoulder bag when she'd been busy showing his mother and me around the condo, but he didn't need to know that.  

"But you don't have the keys yet." He lowered his voice. "Right. What am I talking about? You were able to get into my townhouse. That condo should be a cinch."  

It was nice to have my abilities appreciated. I grinned but didn't say anything.  

"When you look like that… god, I want to kiss you again!"  

"I thought you were tired."  

"Clayton!" Mrs. Webb called from the dining room. " Clark ! Dinner is getting cold!"  

"Jesus, we were making out in my mother's front entry! We're coming, Mother." He cut his eyes toward mine as I opened my mouth to say something heavy with innuendo. "No snide remarks, Palmer." He stroked the curve of my ear, dropped his hand to my shoulder, and urged me toward the first floor john so we could wash our hands.  

"I left a message on your voice mail."  

"I was at a meeting. Mother's message also mentioned that since you insisted on driving her home from Aspen Reach, she was going to insist you stay for dinner, and if I wanted to keep our usual Friday arrangement, I should hop to it and call Markov."  

"Very clever woman."  

"Yes, she is." His pride in her was obvious.  

We went into the dining room and waited for Mrs. Webb to be seated before sitting down ourselves. Markov had already placed dinner on the table. He took a seat opposite me and curled his lip.  

"Shrimp scampi. I hope you don't mind garlic, Palmer."  

"Nope." Had he done that on purpose, so my lover would be reluctant to kiss me? "Keeps the vampires away."  

"Pass the scampi, please, Clark ." Clay smiled at me. He would be having it too.  

I sent Markov an insouciant smile, and he scowled.  


Dinner was finished. After giving me a hard look, Markov had gone into the kitchen to load the dishwasher, then had taken his cup of coffee and retreated to his suite upstairs somewhere.  

We sat in the small parlor at the back of the house, listening to a Cole Porter CD and finishing our coffee.  

"I had the opportunity to meet him once, you know. He was very charming."  

"You've known some very interesting people, if you don't mind my saying so, ma'am."  

"Yes, I was quite fortunate." She started to say something else, then looked at her son. He was sitting beside me, his legs stretched out and his head resting on the back of the loveseat. "Sweetheart, you look so tired."  

"I'll be fine, Mother. I just need a solid night's sleep."  

"In that case I think you've had enough coffee, Clay." I took his cup and stood up. "Mrs. Webb, can I bring your cup to the kitchen?"  

"Thank you, Clark ."  

"Pushy so-and-so," Clay muttered as I walked out of the room, and I grinned. He couldn't call me worse in front of his mother. I returned in time to hear him say, "I left word at both State and Langley that short of a national emergency, I wasn't to be called this weekend." He yawned. "Sorry."  

"Perhaps we should call off our Sunday ride." His mother sent a glance my way, and I gave a minute nod.  

"I'm not an invalid, Mother." He was starting to sound petulant, a sure sign he was more exhausted then he wanted to let on.  

"C'mon, tough guy. I'll drive you home."  My home. I was going to keep him in my apartment, and I'd turn off his cell phone so that even in the event of a national emergency, he wouldn't be disturbed.  

Mrs. Webb walked us to the front door and out to the steps. She kissed her son's cheek, and to my surprise, she kissed mine as well.  

"Drive carefully, Clark ."  

"Yes, ma'am. Always do."  

She stood at the door, watching until we gave a final wave and drove off.  


I drove straight to my apartment in DC, skipping the visit to Aspen Reach. I got him stripped and into bed.  

"I'm sorry, babe." Clay yawned so hugely my jaws ached in sympathy.  

"It's okay." I drew the covers around him. "What's the point in showing you where I'll fuck your brains out if you aren't awake enough to appreciate it? Go to sleep."  

He mumbled something, and then a soft snore whispered past his lips.  

Clay was a few years younger than I. The dossier I kept on him had nothing about his inability to bounce back from an assignment.  

I should have killed the bastard who ran Prinzip harder. If he hadn't had Clay kidnapped…  

I stripped, shut the light, and got into bed with him. He rolled over into my arms, mumbled a few words, and sighed, a warm gust of air over my collarbone.  

"Yeah, this is nice," I whispered in his ear. "Night, Clay."