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Playing with Fire
Presidential Suite

Summary:  Chapter 2 in the Temptation series...
Jed has a past...can he let go of it? 
Spoilers:  through "Debate Camp"

Playing with Fire

"Mr. President...Mrs. Hartman is on the phone. Do you want to take the call?"

Jed's head snapped up and he almost dropped the pen he was holding.

Well, it was about time. Where had she been for the last three days?

He nodded. "Yeah, Charlie. Put her through."

Rachel Hartman. He tensed at just the sound of her name, remembering what had happened at the retreat. Trying to focus on debate preparations, he had found himself totally distracted by his desire for her, and totally desperate when he had found her missing.

It had never been like this before. Certainly, it seemed like he had known her all his life, but his feelings had never spun out of control like this. Even when they had met, in his first year at college, he had never had these types of urgent feelings for her. For a year, they had been friends, both trying to adjust to a new world away from home. She had missed the security of a loving home life, and he had just been searching, thinking that he would someday become a priest, but wondering if he had the faith to do so.

Rachel had been warm and funny and always available to sit and talk. But she also shared his capacity for quiet introspection, and she had helped him see that he could do anything he wanted, that his future would be better than his childhood. He had come to feel really close to her, and a flicker of romance had been born, tentative and gentle at first, but later leading to encounters that were totally inappropriate for a young man intent on entering the priesthood.

She had just laughed at him when he admitted that he felt guilty about some of the things they had done. She had told him he just needed to get it out of his system and that his faith wouldn't suffer.

And it hadn't. He had never seriously thought of altering his ambitions so that he could stay with her, even though he was more than half in love. And she hadn't asked him to.

Rachel had been warmth and light. Someone who helped him heal after a sad and bruising adolescence. It had taken fire and sparks to change his life completely. And one day Abbey had walked into his life, the very epitome of the Fourth of July, fireworks waiting to explode in his heart.

With Abbey in his world, everything had changed. He had married and moved on to a life he had never anticipated. Occasionally, he would hear something about Rachel...that she had gotten her doctorate in political science, that she had finally married, that she was working for the Democratic National Committee. Happy, secure, and successful in his own life, he was glad that she had found the same things.

With one of those odd quirks of fate that often spell disaster, the DNC had assigned Rachel to act as political analyst on his reelection campaign. He hadn't even known about it. She had worked with CJ and Bruno in the early months and didn't even attempt to contact him. But, on the last day of the National Convention, she had been there, standing and watching him from the green room door as he prepared to go on stage to give his speech accepting the party's presidential nomination.

He had been surprised at how glad he was to see her. The years melted away in an instant, and he remembered the Rachel of his youth, a woman who embodied warmth and light, who made him feel capable of anything. Her presence was a brief , and welcome, release from the chains of tension that had weighed him down for the last few months.

They hadn't seen each other very often since that day in July, but Jed soon realized that the feelings of his youth weren't completely dead. It certainly didn't help that he felt so conflicted about Abbey's recent actions. He knew that she really didn't want him to seek a second term, but he was tired of her pulling away and tired of the bickering between them. And he thought she was spending far too much time with Leo, but he didn't really find that threatening, just a bit disturbing.

He sighed. Rachel was warmth and light, a breath from his youth. On the other hand, it sometimes felt like Abbey's fire was smothering him.

He shook his head to clear it and realized his phone was buzzing.

He picked it up and spoke abruptly, demanding an answer. "What happened to you?"

The distinctly feminine voice on the other end of the line laughed softly. "Hi, Jed. Nice to talk to you, too. How are you?"

So she wanted to observe the niceties of conversation. He had more important things on his mind.

"Fine," he said. "What happened to you? Why didn't you come to the debate prep?"

There was silence for a brief moment, then, "Something came up at the last minute. I couldn't make it to the retreat. But I talked to CJ and Toby, and they both said you did just fine."

"I wanted to see you," Jed said softly. How could he tell her just how much he had wanted to see her? So much that he had dreamed about her, so vividly that he had felt her body shiver beneath his and her fingers caress his...

Rachel's voice broke into his thoughts. "I know, Jed. It just wasn't a good idea."

"Rachel..." He paused, unsure what to say next.

"Listen to me, Jed. We've gotten close in the last three months, maybe a little too close. I know something is wrong in your life." She paused and, when she resumed speaking, he heard the tiny crack in her voice. "I don't know what it is exactly and you don't have to tell me, but I can't be the quick fix to your problems."

"That's not what I want, Rachel."

"You may not realize it, Jed, but I think that's exactly what you want. Don't forget, I knew you a long time ago, and you were hurting then. For some reason, you're hurting now. I can recognize it."

Silence fell over the phone line, thick with unsaid thoughts and feelings. Jed wanted to tell her she was wrong, but he knew it would be a lie.

Finally, her voice came back to him again, very softly this time. "I would help you if I could. You must know that. But I can't, not this time." Her voice trembled ever so slightly as she continued, "It would destroy me, Jed. You must know that I still care for you, that I..."

Her voice slid away, but, in his mind, he could fill in the missing words.

I love you. Hadn't she already told him so? In his dream?

He swallowed hard, then spoke gruffly into the phone. "I know, Rachel." He paused and time stretched out endlessly as he tried to decide what to say next. He hadn't said it in his dream. Could he say it now?

Suddenly, he let the words out. "Me, too."

He didn't know if smiles could travel over telephone lines, but he could swear she was smiling now. As he was. It felt good to say it, because it was true. He had loved her over thirty years ago, when she had come to him as his first lover, shy and tentative. And he loved her now, because she cared enough to pull away and let him find the right path again. It was youth's soft and simple love, mellowed into the deep caring of adulthood, something to be treasured, but not acted upon.

It would have been so easy for him to cross the line. It would have been so easy to love her again.

But it wasn't going to happen. Actually, nothing at all had happened. Only that incredibly vivid dream, and that was his secret.

She was talking again, saying that someone else from the DNC would be assigned to his campaign for the remaining weeks. He heard himself agreeing.

There was an almost awkward pause before she said, "Take care, Jed. Good luck."

"You, too, Rachel," he said.

And then it was over. He put the phone down and leaned back in his chair, deep in thought.

She was completely right. He was hurting. It was a pain that had crept so slowly into his life, over such an extended period, that he hadn't even recognized how crushing it had become. There were so many things involved. He almost laughed at a memory from his dream--Rachel's analogy about the doors. But the concept had merit.

He could put the MS behind door number one. The resulting cover up went behind door number two. Abbey's suffering on his behalf must be behind door number three. What was behind door number four?

It never failed. The answer was always the same. Guilt.

He couldn't do anything about the MS or the cover up, but he could damn well attend to door number four. He was going to fix that right now. Imagery was a powerful tool and Stanley Keyworth had encouraged him to use it. He mentally went to the door and turned the handle. He opened it, saw the guilt behind it, and decided that it was unnecessary baggage. He mentally pushed the door wide and let the guilt escape.

Jed hadn't even realized that he had been holding his breath, but he came back to reality with a start and took a deep, cleansing breath. God, that felt good. Clean air in his lungs and the guilt floating away as he exhaled. Some of it would try to creep back into his life, but he would deal with that as it happened.

That left only Abbey to consider. They had slipped away from each other, driven apart by their hectic schedules and their conflicting outlooks.

She wanted him to remember that he had MS. He wanted to forget.

She wanted him to leave office after one term. He wanted to run again.

She wanted him to watch his diet, stop smoking, and exercise. He wanted to eat what he pleased, smoke when he dared, and sit on the couch.

She wanted to play it safe. He wanted to play with fire.

Jed nodded his head suddenly and grinned. That was it. That was it exactly.

He wanted to play with fire. And Abbey was certainly that, but he could handle the dangerous sparks and threat of spontaneous combustion. In fact, he had looked forward to it all of his married life.

It wasn't too late. He hadn't broken their vows, and he was sure she hadn't either, but he was going to ask her to stop flirting with Leo so much. She probably wouldn't, but he would ask, all the same.

Jed felt better than he had in months. He could almost feel happiness coming over him. Perhaps he had been temporarily insane, but he was ready to put that behind him now. He still had to settle things with Abbey, but he was optimistic. He loved her and he was more than willing to work on their problems.

Charlie tapped on the door and came in.

Jed looked up with a smile and asked, "What's next?"


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