My expression hardened as I met Sara’s glare. Christy was watching us, but I didn’t really care. If she wanted to be nosy and judgmental, that was her problem.
Sara cleared her throat to get my attention. “You said you’d leave her alone. Asshole.”
“Can we do this some other time? Seriously. I’m okay with a shouting match,” I added sarcastically, “but I’d really like to get a good night’s sleep first.”
“You think this is funny?”
“No, I think it’s stupid, especially in public.”
“This is my life you’re messing with, you jackass.”
“Yeah? Well, it’s my life too! And you’re not making it any easier.”
Sara noticed the gawkers.
I only cared about one of them, and Christy’s expression was a mixture of disgust and disbelief. I couldn’t do anything about it, so I returned to the fight in front of me.
“Listen,” I said to Sara, “if you want to have an argument, let’s go somewhere semi-private. Then you can call me a lowlife scumbag all you want.”
“You are a lowlife scumbag!”
“Right. Whatever. How’s Presidential Grill?”
“I’ll take that as a yes,” I said sardonically. I stepped aside and gestured for her to lead the way.
Sara stalked out, and we walked to the Grill in silence. I bought her a Coke as a peace offering. She gave me an icy stare, but took it anyway. My favorite booth was empty, so we slid into it. Sara glared at me as she stabbed her straw through the Coke’s lid. I didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to realize what she wanted to do to me.
“Whatever,” I said. “Let’s get this over with.”
“You think you’re so smart, don’t you?”
“You know, if I really were smart, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now. I’d be on a beach somewhere drinking piña coladas with a beautiful girl. But instead, I get to drink Cokes with you, the spurned lesbian who’s out to get the man who done her wrong.”
“You think this is one big joke, don’t you?”
“No. The problem is, I don’t think it’s a joke. I think it’s my fucked-up life. Yours too. And guess what? Life sucks sometimes.” I massaged my temples and exhaled slowly.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” she said after a moment. “Start making sense.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Give it up, sweetheart.”
“I’m not your sweetheart!”
“I think we established that.”
She returned to her original rant: “Are you going to leave Daphne alone?”
“I wish I could,” I said, and meant it, “but it’s not that easy.”
“Like hell. Just do what you said and leave her alone. Any idiot can manage that. But nooooo, you’re some kind of super-idiot…”
I buried my head in my hands and tuned her out.
“Hey! Are you even listening to me?”
I shook my head. “Keep going, though. Don’t let me stop you.”
“Why? What’s the point? You’re just going to ignore me and do whatever you want. Just like a man!”
“In case you hadn’t noticed, I am a man.”
“Oh, I noticed all right! And so did Daphne. But she thinks you’re a good guy! Ha! You sure fooled her. But you’re just a douche-bag like all the rest. You don’t care about her! All you care about is…”
I tuned her out as she worked into another tirade. She was losing steam, though. I didn’t react like she expected, which seemed to throw her off.
“Are you listening?”
“Yeah, yeah,” I lied. “Con artist who thinks with his dick. Just like all the rest.” I flicked my fingers. “Keep going.”
“Well? Don’t you have anything to say for yourself?”
I finally raised my head. “What do you want me to say? That I’ll just walk away from her? That I don’t care?”
“You don’t care. Not like I do.”
“This isn’t some kind of contest,” I said, “where the winner gets the girl.”
“It’s not a contest. All I want is for you to stay away from my girlfriend.”
“I really wish it were that easy,” I said earnestly. Then a thought struck me and I snorted a laugh.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means I’ve done this before. More or less.”
“What? Stick your dick where it doesn’t belong?”
“No, not that.” I refused to rise to the bait. “A three-way relationship.”
“This isn’t a three-way, and it never will be!”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “Men are pigs, we think with our dicks, blah, blah, blah. You said that already.”
“So you were listening?”
“Against my will, I promise.” I held up a hand to cut her off. “I’m really not like that. I’m actually a pretty nice guy. And I care about Daphne. For real.”
“No wonder you don’t like men,” I muttered. “They can’t stand to be around you.” The shot struck home, and I immediately felt guilty. “Sorry. That was a cheap shot.”
“I’m sorry for that too.”
Her brow furrowed.
“I’m sorry you’re used to it,” I said.
“What do you know about it?”
“A little,” I said. I remembered Stacy and how she’d been when I first met her. “And I’m sorry men are jerks sometimes, me included.”
“I don’t need your sympathy.”
“Fair enough,” I said, “but that was an apology. On the part of men in general. I’m sorry we’re jerks.”
She stared at me. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
She obviously didn’t know what to make of me, so she fell back on routine. “Are you going to leave Daphne alone?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t. We’re…” I searched for the right word. “Drawn together.” I laughed at the pun.
“What’s so funny?”
“We’re drawn together…?”
She still didn’t get it.
“We met in drawing class?”
“Whatever. Are you going to leave her alone?”
The question hung between us.
“You want the truth?” I asked, and met her glare. “I doubt it. We have this… connection… and I can’t explain it. It’s not love, but it’s more than lust.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that Daphne and I are… connected.” I shrugged. “And you’re stuck in the middle. Or on one side. Daphne’s in the middle, but that’s just semantics. It still doesn’t tell us what we’re going to do.”
“You can fuck off and die.”
I gave her a level stare.
She actually managed to look sheepish, if only a bit. “So it was a long shot,” she said, but then had a sudden thought. “Hey, how come you’re not upset? Any other guy would’ve told me to fuck off or something.”
“First, I’m dead tired,” I said. “Second, I’m trying to work on my temper. Third—and I keep trying to tell you this—I’m not like other guys!” I shook my head in disbelief. “And I am not going to fuck off and die.”
“It would make things easier.”
I banged my head on the table. “Dear God, why do I deserve this?”
“You stuck your dick where it didn’t belong.”
“Please?” I begged the table. “Tell me when it’s over?”
“You did,” Sara said defensively.
I banged my head, and kept on banging it.
“Okay!” she said at last. “Stop.”
I ignored her.
“People are staring,” she whispered urgently. “Stop!”
She was frustrating enough to give Job a headache, so mine was completely understandable, although banging my head on the table didn’t help.
She finally reached out and stopped me. “All right,” she said. “We’ll talk about it.”
I closed my eyes and let out a sigh.
“I don’t want you to see her at all,” Sara said, “but I can’t stop her. So if you want to see her, we do it by my rules. And if you hurt her, I’ll cut your dick off and feed it to you.”
“You know,” I said, “this’d be a lot easier if you’d quit threatening me. You don’t scare me, you know.” I met her eyes to drive the point home. “You’re all bluster.”
“I am not!”
“Whatever. I’m still not scared. And I’m not put off by the bull dyke act either. I mean, I’m not even attracted to you.”
I answered with a shrug. “Seriously. You’re pretty, and you’ve got a great body, but I like women who actually enjoy… um… what I have to offer.”
“Oh? And what’s that?”
“A big dick,” I said bluntly. “And the skill to use it.”
“What do you care? You don’t like me anyway.”
“And I don’t like you near Daphne, either! You or your supposed horse cock.”
I sighed. “Look, we’ve been through this before and it hasn’t gotten us anywhere.” We stared at each other and I took her silence for agreement. “Now, why don’t we act like adults for a change? You know, no threats? Maybe deal with the real world instead of how we want things to be?”
She sat back and folded her arms under her breasts. The gesture pushed them up, and I automatically glanced at them. She smirked when I met her eyes again.
I shrugged, completely unabashed. “I told you, you’ve got a nice body. You know you do. And if you push ’em up, I’m gonna look.”
She taunted me with a raised eyebrow, so I gave her breasts a deliberate appraisal. They were round and firm, and filled out her sweater nicely. I wondered what she’d look like without her clothes, but she shattered the fantasy with a contemptuous laugh.
“Just like a man.”
I met her eyes and held them for a moment, but then had a sudden insight. “Why are you so scared of me?”
Her eyes flared before she could clamp down on her reaction.
“That’s it, isn’t it?” I said, thinking quickly. “You’re scared that I’ll actually take Daphne away. Lemme guess, I’m not the first guy she’s done this with. But the others were like Square-jaw. What’s his name? Tony? Yeah, I’ll bet the others were just like him.”
“You’re like him too.”
I ignored her and went on. “They chased after Daphne, but once they caught her, they treated her like dirt, didn’t they? So she eventually dumped them. Or, more likely, she made them dump her. She’s good at that.”
“Good at what?”
“Getting a guy to do what she wants. And she does it without seeming like she’s manipulating them.”
Sara’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Ha! You know that’s what she does.”
“So? You’re all the same anyway.”
“No, I’m different. That’s why you’re scared. You think I might actually keep Daphne.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I snorted, but then softened my expression. “Relax. I like Daphne. A lot. But I don’t love her, and I’m definitely not in love with her. She’s not in love with me, either.”
Sara almost wilted with relief, but then she caught herself.
“Don’t you get it?” I said to her. “She’s in love with you.” I paused and thought about it for a moment. “She’s truly bi, though. She needs a guy every once in a while, but not for emotional comfort. It’s purely physical.”
“That’s how it is with all of you.”
“That’s bullshit and you know it. I said I care about Daphne, and I meant it. I don’t want to see her get hurt, by me or you or anyone else.”
“Then leave her alone.”
I wanted to pull out my hair. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you! I can’t. She can’t.” I paused as I thought of something. “She’s done this before. I mean, you’re not shocked or anything. You’re just scared.”
“All right,” I conceded, “pissed off and scared.”
We stared at each other for a long moment, at an impasse.
“You’re totally wrong about everything,” she said at last.
I arched a skeptical eyebrow.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yeah, I do. More or less.” I tilted my head to the side and regarded her. “I haven’t figured out Daphne’s whole story—”
“Or yours,” I continued, “but at least I care enough to try. I mean, I could just fuck Daphne and treat her like a doormat. That’s what the other guys did, isn’t it? But I’m not like that. I care enough to be sitting here with you,” I said, “fighting about her.”
“If we were really fighting, you’d be bleeding.”
In a flash, I realized that it was her defense mechanism. Kendall had told me about them, and she should know. Her defense mechanism had been sex. Any time I wanted to talk about our relationship, she seduced me. It had worked, too. For a while, at least.
But I didn’t have a relationship with Sara, and I didn’t want to have sex with her. Well, I did—she was a woman, after all, and very pretty—but I knew it wouldn’t happen. Besides, Daphne was more than willing, and she actually enjoyed it.
“Seriously,” Sara said into the silence, “I’d kick your ass.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” I said simply. “If we ever get into a fight—again, I should say—you’re going to get hurt.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“Not really. I don’t like hurting people, especially women.”
“So you think I can’t fight because I’m a woman?”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath to center myself. She was doing it again, and I didn’t want to rise to her bait.
“I think,” I said slowly, “that fighting isn’t going to help us figure out how to deal with this three-way—”
“That again? You’re crazy if you think we’re going to—”
I laughed in surprise, which caught her off guard. “I was talking about our relationship,” I said patiently, “not sex.”
“We don’t have a relationship.”
“Yes, we do, whether you like it or not. We both care about Daphne, and she needs both of us. So you’d better wrap your pretty little head around the fact that you have to deal with me.”
Maybe for longer than either of us want, I thought grimly. Daphne might be pregnant, but I knew better than to bring it up with Sara. Besides, it wasn’t her problem. It was between Daphne and me, and we’d deal with it if it came up. I didn’t like the idea of an abortion, but it was better than the alternative. I’d marry Daphne if I had to, but—
I was thinking in circles, so I shook it off and focused on Sara.
“You can’t do it at our house,” she said all of a sudden.
“You can’t… fuck her… at our house.” She made it sound like a dirty word.
My eyebrows rose, but then I considered it. “Fair enough,” I said, which surprised her. “But you have to stop threatening me. This jealous lover thing gets old after a while.”
“Dealing with dickheads gets old after a while.”
I actually laughed, which startled her. “Touché,” I said. “But I’m serious about the threats. I’ll treat you like a grown-up if you do the same.”
“Even if you’re not?”
“Pretend that I am,” I said with a supreme act of will. “I won’t… have sex… with Daphne… at your house, if you won’t terrorize us when she’s with me.”
She bristled at my choice of words, but agreed with a curt nod. Then she countered, “You can’t take her out on dates anymore.”
“Whoa there, hold on. Daphne’s a grown-up. She can decide who she wants to go out with.”
“Okay, but she can’t spend the night with you.”
I closed my eyes and sighed. “You know, we can’t both be in control of Daphne. Hell, neither of us should control her.” My eyes snapped open at a sudden thought.
“That’s what she wants!” I thought back to all the times she’d had a real orgasm. I’d been in control every time—forcefully in control.
“I just figured something out.”
“Well,” she mocked, “aren’t you smart.”
“She wants someone to be in control,” I said, ignoring the barb. “Seriously, that’s what she wants. That’s why she’s attracted to guys like me.” I glanced at Sara. “And women like you, for that matter. We’re both control freaks. Even guys like Tony, right?”
Sara’s eyes narrowed.
“But guys like Tony are jerks. They treat Daphne like dirt the rest of the time.” My eyes narrowed as I looked at Sara in a new light. “But you and I are different. We give her what she wants, but we actually care about her.”
Sara looked more scared than ever, and I realized I was right.
“Relax,” I said flatly. “I’m not going to steal her away or anything. Besides, I told you, she loves you, not me.”
Sara gave me a wary look, as though I was finally getting through to her.
“We can work out the details,” I added, “or we can wing it for now. You can be top dog if it makes you feel better.”
“Are you calling me a bitch?”
“You are a bitch,” I snapped, “especially when you get all defensive.” She started to bristle, but I plowed over her objections. “I’ve seen glimpses of the real you, though. You’re actually pretty affectionate, and definitely protective. And I hate to admit it, but you seem like an okay person. You obviously don’t trust men, but I guess I can understand that.
I shrugged and continued: “I think you’re starting to realize that I’m different, and you’re smart enough to see things from Daphne’s perspective. You don’t like what you see, but you love her enough to let her do what she needs. And right now she needs a guy like me. You know it and I know it. Daphne certainly knows it, which is why we’re here in the first place.”
I gave her a shrewd stare. “Daphne could’ve just gone behind your back. You’d’ve never found out.”
Her expression was answer enough.
I nodded. “She manipulated things so you’d find out… so I’d meet you. Heck, she probably even set things up so you and I would talk tonight! Daphne’s a lot smarter than she lets on.” I gave Sara a level stare. “So are you, when you’re not acting like a raging bull dyke.”
Her eyes hardened, but she didn’t deny it.
“We’ll probably never be friends,” I said, “but that doesn’t mean we have to be enemies. I mean, we’re a lot alike.”
“We’re nothing alike!”
“You don’t think so? Then why did Daphne pick us?”
Her eyes narrowed as she appraised me. She was still wary, but I could see her guard begin to drop.
“If Daphne’s as sharp as I think she is, she knew we’d eventually work something out.”
“You think you’re so smart, don’t you?”
“I know I’m smart,” I said. “You are too, or you wouldn’t be here.” I sat back and contemplated her for a moment.
She sat back as well, and folded her arms. Her breasts pressed together and moved with her breathing.
“They’re very nice,” I said without taking my eyes from hers, “but I’m probably the first guy you’ve ever met who likes your brains more than your boobs.”
She snorted softly, but it sounded more like surprise than contempt.
“Seriously,” I said. “There are lots of nice tits in the world, and I’ve seen more than my fair share, but I haven’t met many women as smart as you.” Well, I had, but she didn’t need to know that.
“Yeah, right. So I’m supposed to believe that you actually respect me?”
“You can believe what you like,” I said, and let my words hang there for a moment, “but actions speak louder than words.”
She gave me a shrewd stare, but didn’t challenge me.
I didn’t know if she meant it as a peace offering or not, but I decided to take it that way. “So what do we do now?” I asked.
“You’re sure you won’t fuck off and die?”
I actually laughed. “No. Sorry.”
She shrugged. “Men never do what I want anyway.”
“And you wouldn’t know what to think if we did.”
“I don’t know what to think now,” she grumbled, but more to herself.
“Do you want to get something to eat?” I asked, and gestured toward the grill.
“We’re not friends.”
“But we’re not enemies either,” I said reasonably.
She gave me a long, level stare, but then looked away. “No, I guess not.”
I was exhausted by the time I got home, so I didn’t feel like doing homework. I felt like falling face-first into bed and staying there for a week, but I was too keyed up to do that either. So I decided to call Leah.
“Oh, my God,” she said, “I’m so glad you called. Are you coming home this weekend?”
“I’m pretty busy here. Why?”
“I need you.” She lowered her voice meaningfully. “You know… need you.”
I had wanted to talk to her about Sara, but my dick immediately had other ideas. Trip and Wren were at a concert, so I pulled the phone into my bedroom and shut the door.
“Why?” I asked. “I mean, what got you so worked up all of a sudden?” Despite my curiosity, I unfastened my pants and freed my growing erection.
“It’s not ‘all of a sudden.’ Kara and Victor left this morning, and I need some attention.”
My eyebrows shot up as I lay back on the bed. “Kara and Victor?”
She huffed. “They were here for a couple of days. He had an interview at Grady Memorial. It’s his residency or something. Mom is totally psyched about having them in town. She’s, like, whatever.”
“You still haven’t talked to her about the doctor thing, have you?”
“How do you do that?” she demanded.
“I know you,” I said simply. “And you’re going to have to talk to her sooner or later. You know that, right?”
“It doesn’t have to be sooner,” she said sullenly. “Now, can we get back to the other thing?”
“Maybe,” I said, “but you’ll have to get me back in the mood.” I glanced at my dick, which was doing its impression of a lovesick balloon animal.
“Mmm, how?” Leah purred, which blew a little life into my deflated cock.
“Tell me about Kara and Victor.”
“Hold on a sec.”
I heard her open a drawer and then the soft sound of buzzing. I frowned for a moment but then smiled when I recognized Pinky, her vibrator. The buzzing grew faint and then disappeared altogether.
“Oh,” she said with a soft breath. “That’s better. Now, where was I?”
“Kara and Victor…?”
“Oh yeah! So… last night Mom wanted to celebrate, and they all got pretty buzzed after dinner. Then she said she wanted to ‘play’ in the hot tub. Victor thought that was a great idea, needless to say. They didn’t exactly invite me,” she continued, “but they didn’t say I couldn’t come, so I tagged along. Anyway, we all got into the tub and Mom started flirting with Victor. You know how she gets when she’s drunk.”
I did, and all too well. She was a fun drunk, although she didn’t take no for an answer.
“I think Dad was a little pissed off,” Leah said, “’cause he just kept drinking. He gets like that sometimes. I think it’s ’cause Mom gets to play all the time, but he doesn’t. It’s his own fault,” she said, half-disgusted. “I mean, he won’t touch any of us girls, even though we all want him to.
“Anyway,” she went on, “Mom started going down on Victor, and since Dad has his stupid hang-up, the rest of us could only watch. But then Mom turned around so Victor could screw her from behind.”
This was the usual Coulter fare, but it was still hot.
“I thought she’d go down on Dad,” Leah continued, “but then she totally dropped a bombshell.”
“She started playing with Kara instead. And then she went down on her!”
My eyes popped open as the words registered. “But that’s totally—”
“Against the rules,” Leah finished. “That’s what I said.”
I hadn’t been there when the rules had changed, but I knew what had happened. The story I’d heard from Erin and Leah was that a New Year’s game had gotten a little out of hand. Gina and I had been with Kara and Victor at the neighbors’ chalet, but Erin and Leah had been right in the middle of it. Nothing serious had happened, but it had been enough to make our parents change the rules about kids swinging with them.
“Exactly,” Leah said, following my thoughts. “Dad was pretty blitzed, but he snapped out of it when Mom and Kara started kissing. He even worked up the guts to say something when Mom told Kara to sit on the side. Mom just acted like it was nothing. You know how she gets.”
“Anyway, when Dad objected, she said it was just oral, that Kara was a grown-up, et cetera. Victor and Kara were totally cool with it. I mean, all us girls have pretty much had crushes on Mom as much as Dad since we figured out what sex was all about. And I’m sure Kara told Victor about it, which was why he wasn’t shocked or anything.”
“Yeah, but what did your dad do?”
“He didn’t really have a chance. I mean, it happened in a heartbeat.”
“What did you do?”
Much to my surprise, she laughed. “I figured if we were throwing the rules out the window, I was gonna make it with Dad.”
My dick had gone half-flaccid as I listened to the unfolding drama, but it jerked erect at that.
“So I started playing with him. I think he let me ’cause he was angry at Mom. He was pretty drunk, too, although he sure got hard quick.”
“What happened then?”
She huffed in disgust. “Nothing. Dad’s conscience.”
“So he made you stop?”
“That’s too bad,” I said, and meant it. I’d had a similar experience, and I still regretted it sometimes. I regretted stopping, that is.
“That’s what I said,” she complained, but without any heat. “Anyway, Victor must’ve seen what was going on, so he asked Dad to take his place. Dad gave him a grateful look and started screwing Mom from behind.” She chuckled darkly. “You shoulda seen the look on his face. He totally wanted to punish her. I think he was turned on, too, watching her lick Kara.”
“I’ll bet,” I said, and went back to stroking as I imagined the scene.
“I went down on Victor and we fooled around for a while,” Leah went on, “but then things really heated up.”
“Seriously? What happened?”
“Well, like I said, Dad was pretty drunk, so it took him a while to come. He and Mom had moved to one of the lounge chairs and were doing it missionary. Kara was playing with Mom’s nipples and giving Dad these sultry looks. By then, Victor and I were done, so we were just watching. Anyway, Dad was pounding away when he suddenly went stiff and groaned. He usually pulls out and comes in her mouth, but I think he was still angry, so he came in her pussy instead.”
That didn’t sound so unusual. It didn’t sound particularly titillating, either.
“What happened next is the hot part,” Leah said, as if reading my mind. “He pulled out, and you’re not gonna believe what Kara did.”
“You’re kidding,” I said, as I imagined exactly what Kara had done.
“It was totally awesome,” Leah said. “She just climbed between Mom’s legs and started licking. Dad got hard again in two seconds flat, and Mom started sucking him like there was no tomorrow. Unfortunately, that’s when Victor joined in and started screwing Kara from behind.”
“Yep. High and dry.”
“More like empty and wet,” I quipped.
“Ha ha, very funny. This is serious!”
“I’ll bet it is,” I said, with a little less sarcasm.
“It is. I’m so horny I’m ready to explode. I should be spreading my legs for you right now, not this stupid vibrator.”
“Well, if I were there,” I said, “let me tell you what I’d be doing right now…”
I began stroking myself and settled in for some serious phone sex. She came pretty quickly, especially when I told her how I wanted to lay her face down on the bed and fuck her hard from behind. I came about a minute after she did, and we both fell silent in the long-distance afterglow.
“So,” I said at last, “did anyone say anything this morning?”
“Not a word. But Dad left for work before I got up for school.”
“Is that unusual?”
“Yeah, so he must’ve still been upset.”
“Maybe he was feeling guilty.”
“Why? Mom broke the rules.”
“Your dad kinda did too when he let you play with him. He takes that stuff seriously. My folks are the same way.”
“Your mom, maybe,” she said, “but not your dad.”
“What do you mean?”
“Ask Erin,” she said cryptically.
“Oh no you don’t! You’re not getting off the hook that easy. Tell.”
“I can’t,” she said. “It’s not my place. But I will say this, Erin’s not as sweet and innocent as you think she is.”
I didn’t think she was sweet and innocent at all. “Why? Did she and my dad do something?”
“Ask her,” was all she’d say, no matter how hard I pressed.
“Okay, fine,” I said at last, half disgusted.
“Hey, I keep your secrets too.”
“But I don’t have any secrets!” I realized what I’d said almost before I finished saying it. “Scratch that,” I said quickly. “I have lots of secrets.”
“Uh-huh,” she said knowingly. “I thought you’d see it my way.”
“Why can’t I ever be attracted to dumb girls?” I said. “You know: beautiful, great in bed, and willing to believe anything I say.” The description didn’t seem so funny when I realized that it fit Daphne to a tee.
“Sucks, doesn’t it,” Leah said.
“Yeah, it does,” I said, my mood subdued all of a sudden.
Leah didn’t pick up on it though. She already had her imagination going. “Speaking of sucking…,” she said, her voice low and suggestive.
I couldn’t help myself and laughed. “You’re insatiable. You know that, right?”
“But I need you. Seriously! I might just die if I don’t get some manly attention.” She was being funny about it, but she was entirely serious too. “When are you coming home? Tomorrow?”
“I can’t,” I said seriously, although I was tempted. “I have tons of stuff to do here. I’m way behind on this project, and it’s a pretty big deal.” I could hear Joska in my head, telling me I could do better. You think I don’t know that? I thought tartly. I just turned down a weekend of no-strings sex with a girl I really like.
“I could come there,” Leah suggested hopefully, “in more ways than one.”
“I wish you could, but I’d still be busy. And it’d really suck to know that you’re around—”
“Not just ‘around,’” she said. “I’d be in your bed, where I’m s’posed to be.”
“Okay, in my bed,” I conceded, “but you’d be alone. I’d be in the design lab. I’m serious about this project. It’s twenty-five percent of my grade.”
Leah whined a bit, but she understood. “Oh, all right,” she said at last. “I like Pinky better anyway.”
I laughed and we fell into a real conversation. Unfortunately, the timing was never right to get her opinion on the Daphne and Sara situation. So we talked about weighty things like who’d win a fight between Ronald Reagan and Leonid Brezhnev.
By the time we finally said goodbye and hung up, I felt better than I had all week. I was dead tired and mentally wrung out, but I smiled as I slid under the covers. In many ways, Leah was the most complicated girl I knew, but not when it came to the two of us. We had a friendly, easygoing relationship, and at the moment I needed that more than sex.
I spent most of Friday and the entire weekend in the design lab, just like I said I would. Most of the serious second-year students were there as well, toiling away like medieval monks hunched over illuminated manuscripts. We drank too much Coke, ate too much junk food, and left only to go to the bathroom. It wasn’t all work, though, and we occasionally found ourselves in small groups, stretching, talking, or simply staring at nothing for a while. But we all knew we had a deadline, so the groups eventually broke up and returned to work.
Gracie and I talked several times—we were sitting next to each other, after all—but were both a little guarded about sharing our secrets. I was jealous of how easily she came up with new things and avoided the clichés of traditional architecture. Guys like Trip or even Freddie DeFeo would be good architects, but they’d never be great. I admitted to myself that I had the potential for greatness, but I envied Gracie because she already had it.
Second best was a bitter pill to swallow, even if I admired Gracie for being more inspired and creative. For an instant I thought about tearing up my drawings and calling it quits. I’d never be as good as her, so why try?
The thing that stopped me was the thought of quitting, which was even more bitter than losing. I’d never be able to live with myself if I walked away from something just because it was hard. And I wasn’t about to throw a temper tantrum simply because someone was better than me.
So I bent over my sketchbook and leafed through my ideas, discarding most of them. If I wanted to rise to Gracie’s level, I needed to think of something brilliant. Unfortunately, “brilliant” usually meant a lot of hard work.
Then a thought struck me and I laughed darkly. “Screw you, Michelangelo.”
On Monday I decided to go to breakfast with my friends. For one thing, I missed seeing them, but for another, I wasn’t about to let a pint-sized princess ruin my life. So I got up early and went for my usual run. The air was brisk and clear, the sky the deep indigo of impending dawn. Few other people were on the streets, but I passed a couple of hardy souls bundled against the cold.
I was actually steaming by the time I sprinted the final hundred yards to the apartment building. And despite a weekend bent over a drawing board, I felt better than ever. I was looking forward to judo with Glen, so I could work out some of my frustrations. I was also looking forward to seeing Daphne, so I could work out some of my other frustrations.
The apartment was just stirring when I returned. In the kitchen Trip and Jeff were waiting for the coffee maker, and I stifled a laugh at their sleepy expressions. Runner’s high made me cheerful, almost giddy, and I knew they wouldn’t be in the mood yet. So I stripped off my sweaty clothes on the way to the shower and didn’t even pause before I stepped into the tub. I practically bounced out of the bathroom when I was done, and almost knocked Jeff over.
“Jesus,” he said as he sucked hot coffee from his wrist. “I am not ready for you, Hughes. Fucking early bird.”
“I love you too,” I said, and gave him a grin.
From the far end of the hall, Trip raised his coffee mug in salute.
“Freak of nature,” Jeff muttered.
“Yeah, I know,” I said, and grabbed my towel-covered crotch, “but the ladies seem to like it.”
Trip laughed at that, and I shot him a grin.
“That little thing?” Jeff mocked. “Gimme a break. You ever wanna measure, I got ten inches for ya.”
I snorted. “Sure, Jeff, whatever you say.”
His eyebrows rose at that, and he handed me his coffee mug. Then he unbelted his robe, untied his pajama pants, and casually pulled out his penis. I tried not to stare, but the thing was at least seven inches long, and it was still soft. I didn’t have any hang-ups about seeing other guys’ dicks, but I felt a wave of fascination that made me self-conscious. Jeff’s was at least as big as Dwight Delozier’s, and we called him “Donkey Dick.”
“You want me to get a ruler,” Jeff asked dryly, “or you gonna take my word for it?”
I swallowed hard.
“Jesus, Jeff,” Trip said from beside me, and I looked up, startled. “You register that thing as a deadly weapon?”
Jeff laughed and tucked his fire hose back in his pajamas. “No, but the Post Office just gave it its own zip code.”
Trip and I laughed, albeit a bit nervously.
“You think I’m kidding?”
Our laughs turned genuine as Jeff tried to keep a straight face.
He acted surly to keep from laughing. “Now gimme my fucking coffee,” he said, “and get the fuck away from me, you fucking perverts.”
“Anything you say, Mr. Zip Code,” Trip said with a laugh.
Jeff rolled his eyes, but cracked a grin as I handed him the coffee mug. He went into the bathroom and closed the door behind him.
Trip and I glanced at each other and shook our heads, as if we could clear the vision from our memory.
“Man,” Trip said, “and I thought yours was big.”
“It is,” I said without vanity, “but that…” I shook my head again. “That was just unnatural.”
Trip and I shook our heads again and headed back down the hall.
“Hey,” he said, “it’s good to have you back.” He took a sip of coffee to cover his embarrassment. “You know, not just back-back, but… back. As my best friend. I missed that when we were being jerks.”
“Yeah, I missed it too.” I smiled. “And it’s good to be back.”
Christy got up and left the breakfast table as soon as I sat down.
“What’s the matter with her?” Ash wondered.
“She’s not feeling well,” Wren lied quickly. Then she leaned in and mouthed “cramps.”
“Oh,” Ash said with a nod.
I felt a wave of frustration and disappointment, but then heaved a sigh. If Christy wanted to act like a spoiled little girl, I couldn’t stop her. Besides, I was sick and tired of dancing around her like she was a ticking time bomb.
Wren changed the subject. “So, how’s your project going, Paul?”
I told her, and the conversation quickly turned to other assignments and deadlines. I still felt a little guilty about Christy, but I was rapidly getting over it.
She wasn’t at breakfast the next morning either, and Wren had to make another excuse. I hated that she was stuck in the middle, especially since she’d been in the same position with Trip and me, but at least I wasn’t the problem this time. Well, I was, but indirectly. And I was trying to be mature for a change, instead of sulking like a five-year-old.
Wren and I talked about things as we walked to Siobhan’s class to model, but then I caught sight of Daphne and forgot about Christy altogether. Wren just rolled her eyes and told me she’d meet me inside.
“Hey,” I said to Daphne. I could still feel the spark between us, but she looked a little out of sorts. “Are you okay?”
She nodded and visibly changed her attitude.
“Of course,” she said, and lowered her eyes as she stepped closer.
I smelled her perfume and instantly felt my cock twitch. I pulled her against me and pressed the growing bulge of my erection against her, which made her eyes widen. Then I had an idea.
“Go to the bathroom and take off your bra,” I told her quietly. “When you come to class, I want to see your nipples poking through your sweater. Play with ’em to get ’em hard if you have to.”
Her nostrils flared at the order, and I could almost see her pulse race as she nodded.
“Good,” I said, and squeezed her ass. “Now get moving. You don’t have much time.”
She turned and hurried toward the blue door of the women’s room, and I paused to watch her ass in the tight Jordache jeans. Then I looked at my watch and almost knocked someone over as I turned toward Siobhan’s classroom.
Wren was just slipping into her robe when I burst into the little office. I gave her a quick wave and began taking off my clothes. I was just about to don my own robe when I had a sudden idea. I jerked open my backpack and grabbed a pen and notepad. I paused to think about the wording and then began writing. Wren tried to look over my shoulder, but I moved to block her.
Meet me in the empty classroom, I wrote. You know the one. Take off your sweater and wait on your knees.
I folded the note before Wren could get a good look.
“Sexy stuff, huh?” she teased.
She nodded at my erection and I felt my face flush with embarrassment.
“You should probably think about something else before you come out,” she said sarcastically, and draped my robe over my jutting manhood. It hung there for a second before it slid to the floor. My dick sprang up and then bounced gently, which sent a shiver up my spine.
Siobhan picked that moment to tap on the door, our signal to come out.
Wren’s smile turned artfully sweet. “See you soon.”
I muttered something uncharitable and closed my eyes as I tried to think about anything but what I’d written in the note. My usual nuns playing baseball did the trick—eventually. Five minutes later I wasn’t exactly soft, but I wasn’t standing at attention either, so I slipped out of the office and hoped no one would notice.
I stood for a moment and surveyed the classroom. I wanted to give the note to Daphne without everyone noticing. Fortunately, two students had my usual route blocked with their art boxes and a big portfolio case, so I walked around the edge of the circle and tried to look nonchalant as I turned to slide between Daphne and the girl at the next easel.
I tapped Daphne’s leg with the note and she took it immediately. I strode to the dais and dropped my robe. Wren let her gaze fall to my semi-erect shaft. Then she met my eyes and raised an eyebrow, daring me to get hard again.
“You’re an evil, evil girl,” I whispered as I stepped beside her and took up my pose. Fortunately, we weren’t actually touching, so I could pretend to ignore her. More important, she couldn’t rub against me and get me worked up. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stop thinking about the note, so I closed my eyes and silently prayed for the nuns to go into extra innings.
Class took an eternity, and I had several close calls. Daphne and her nipples were unconsciously doing their best to make me lose control. I made the mistake of meeting her eyes once, and immediately felt my shaft jerk and twitch as it filled with blood. I looked away in time to see another girl turn beet red and cross her legs with a startled look.
I kept my eyes closed and thought about the nuns until Siobhan mercifully told us we were done. Then I gave Wren a withering look and followed her into the privacy of the small office.
“Don’t say a word,” I warned. “Not one word.”
She didn’t have to. Her smirk said it all, especially when my dick sprang erect at the thought of Daphne waiting topless in the empty classroom.
“Treacherous organ,” I muttered, and brusquely shoved it into my boxers.
“Poor thing,” Wren teased.
I glared and finished getting dressed, but she didn’t relent. Instead, she started laughing as I tried to hunch over so I could walk without anyone seeing the tent in my pants.
Fortunately, I didn’t have far to go. I raced into the empty classroom and locked the door behind me. Daphne was sitting at a desk, but she stood hastily. I took one look at her and felt my face shift into its badass expression.
“I told you to take off your sweater.”
“Take it off,” I ordered. “Now.”
Her bare breasts swung free as she hastily obeyed.
“And I told you to wait on your knees,” I said with another hard look. “Get over here. Now.”
She hurried toward me and sank to her knees without a word.
I pulled out my erection and she tried to swallow it, but I grabbed a handful of her hair. “Not so fast.”
She looked up at me, her brow creased with worry. “I’m sorry,” she blurted. “It won’t happen again.”
“It better not,” I said flatly. “Next time I tell you to do something, you do it. Are we clear?”
She tried to nod, but I was holding her hair too tight.
“Now, you need to be punished. Do you understand?” I loosened my grip so she could nod. “Good.” I wanted to let the moment drag out, if only to heighten her fear and arousal, but we didn’t have much time. So I made a quick decision and braced her head.
She jerked in surprise as I slapped her face with my cock. I let the meaty sound hang in the air, and her breath felt hot on my balls as she panted with desire. I swung my cock and slapped her again. She flinched but then closed her eyes as I rubbed her face with my shaft.
“I should come on your face and make you walk to class that way,” I threatened.
Her eyes popped open, but I couldn’t tell whether it was fear or desire, so I paused to let the tension build.
“No,” I said at last, “I think you need to swallow it. Open your mouth.”
She did, and I felt her breath through her nose as she wrapped her lips around my shaft.
I began fucking her face with short, hard jabs. She gagged a couple of times, but recovered quickly. I didn’t last more than a few minutes anyway, and grunted as I unloaded down her throat.
The door rattled behind us, and we heard someone fumbling for keys. Daphne leapt to her feet as I tucked my dick into my pants. It had gone a little soft, but was still hard enough that I had to bend it to get it into my underwear.
The door clattered opened to reveal the same professor as before. He caught sight of us and his face mottled. “You!”
“Sorry,” I said glibly, “the fuse was completely blown this time.”
The old professor sputtered, but I didn’t stop to listen. Instead, I grabbed Daphne’s hand and nearly knocked the poor guy over as I pulled her after me. Once again, we didn’t stop until we reached the atrium.
“We gotta stop using that room,” I panted. Then I pulled her toward me and kissed her hard. Her breasts flattened against my chest and she let out a little squeak of surprise. “I want to fuck you,” I said in a low voice, and looked around for someplace suitable.
I sighed. “Yeah, you’re probably right. Later. Meet me after practice tonight.”
“No, you don’t understand,” she said, and looked fearful. “I can’t.”
I felt my expression harden. “Excuse me?”
“Aunt Flo and Cousin Red.” Her eyes widened as she tried to will me to understand.
“Wha—?” I jerked in sudden understanding. “Oh.” Then another thought hit me, and my skin prickled with a wave of relief so intense that I felt my knees go weak.
“Are you okay?”
“What? Yeah, sure. I’m fine.” Better than fine, in fact. She’s not pregnant!
Daphne didn’t understand, so she shifted nervously. “I’ll suck your cock,” she whispered urgently. “Or you can do me in the butt.”
My dick recovered quicker than I did, so it answered for me. “All right.”
“Meet me after practice,” I said, “and you’ll find out.”
Christy returned to breakfast the next morning, but made a point of glaring at me. I tried to ignore her, but she wouldn’t let it go. So when we left the cafeteria and headed our separate ways to class, I snagged her backpack and turned her to face me.
“What the hell is your problem?” I demanded.
“Since you asked so politely, it’s you.”
“Gee, thanks. I never would’ve figured that out.”
“Then why’d you ask?”
“Because you’ve had a thing for me ever since we got back from Christmas. Okay, so I was a jerk. I’ll apologize again if it’ll—”
“Apologize? For being… a… a man?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“If you don’t know, then I’m not going to tell you.”
“So I’m supposed to be Carnac the Magnificent?”
She glared. “Like you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
“No, I don’t,” I snapped. “And I won’t know if you don’t tell me. I’m not a mind-reader.”
“I don’t see why I should explain. It’s not like I care.”
“Is this about Daphne?”
She feigned ignorance. “Who?”
“You know who.”
“Why should I care who you sleep with?” She tried to look unconcerned, but something in her voice gave her away.
“This is about her!”
“No it’s not! You can screw anything in a skirt for all I care, which is pretty much what you do anyway.”
“You heard me! You’re just…a slut in a man’s body!”
My face flushed with anger. “You’re just jealous ’cause I won’t sleep with you. But I don’t sleep with… boys.”
“You heard me,” I said derisively. Then I gave her a contemptuous once-over. “I might be interested if you had hips or a chest.”
“Interested?” she sputtered. “Inter—? I wouldn’t sleep with you if you were the last man on Earth.”
“Well that’s not gonna happen,” I shot back. “I only sleep with women I like. So you’re not even on the list!” I saw that I’d scored with that one, so I turned to walk away.
“I hate you!” she shouted after me, tears in her voice.
“Good! ’Cause the feeling’s mutual!”
That evening I lay on the judo mat and stared at the smooth curve of the roof until Glen loomed over me. He silently extended a hand.
He’d never said so, but I was pretty sure he enjoyed our sparring matches when I was worked up. Instead of making wild attacks, my emotions gave me strength and focus, and he had to work hard to beat me. On the other hand, we’d become good enough friends that he didn’t like it when I was upset.
“Have you tried being celibate?” he asked as he pulled me to my feet. He shrugged and added, “Desire is the root of suffering.”
I waited for him to go on, but he was better at waiting. “I don’t think that’d work,” I said at last. “Not for me, at least.”
He considered for a moment and then nodded.
Not for the first time, I marveled at how much he could say without a word.
He smiled as though he’d read my mind. Then he settled into a ready stance with a supremely calm expression. He looked like he could wait forever. He probably could, I reflected. He had incredible patience, which I envied.
But as much as I envied him, I wasn’t like him. I couldn’t be, which was one of the reasons we got along so well. Then a thought struck me, and I wondered if it was the same with T.J. Maybe Glen’s purpose in life was to moderate hotheads like us. He certainly had the temperament for it.
I dropped into my own stance and silently chuckled at my philosophical turn. “You know,” I said conversationally, “someday I’m going to wipe that serene expression off your face.”
“Probably,” he said, and then slowly cracked a smile. “But today isn’t that day.”
I flopped on my bed as the heat of the shower radiated from me in waves. I was tired from sparring with Glen, but it was a good tired. Besides, I had the priceless memory of the look on his face after I’d made him submit with a perfect waki gatame arm bar. I usually couldn’t catch him with a move like that, but I’d suckered him with a feint at an ankle pick. Granted, he’d won almost every other fall, but he had to work harder at it every time we trained together.
The memory of the match dimmed as I thought about Christy. I was still angry at her, but even that faded as I replayed the argument in my head. I’d been nasty. Worse, I’d meant to be—I’d wanted to hurt her like she’d hurt me.
She’d had no way of knowing, but I still felt guilty for my week of insanity. I couldn’t even be sure how many women I’d slept with, much less any of their names. I wasn’t like that, I told myself. But Christy’s words had struck home, even if she hadn’t known the truth of them.
I rolled off the bed and tossed my towel in the corner as I pulled on a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt. I didn’t want to get upset again, and I didn’t want to sink into a funk, so I decided to call Leah. She was always good for a distraction, but it was more than that. She always accepted me for who I was, and I didn’t have to pretend with her. She knew my moods, but she loved me anyway.
“Hey, gorgeous,” I said when she answered the phone.
“Hey! How’re you?”
We fell into easy conversation, mostly about nothing. I wanted to tell her about the fight with Christy, but decided to keep it to myself. She still hadn’t forgiven Trip and Wren, and she lumped Christy in with them. I’d tried to tell her that it was more complicated than that, but Leah was a complete partisan. At least she was my partisan.
“So,” I asked as nonchalantly as I could, “what’re you doing for Valentine’s Day? Big plans?”
“No,” she said bitterly. “I was hoping this guy would ask me out, but he got back together with his old girlfriend.”
For a moment I thought she was talking about me, but then I relaxed.
“What’re you doing?” she asked.
“Nothing.” Part of me wanted to do something with Daphne, but we didn’t have that kind of relationship. We both knew it was only physical, and I sensed from her that she didn’t want to turn it into something it wasn’t. That was fine with me, because I felt the same. “Do you want to do something together?” I asked.
“You have anything in mind, or you just wanna wing it?”
“If I can find out where Tyler is going, can we go there and make him totally jealous?”
“Why don’t we just wing it,” I suggested with a laugh. Making another guy jealous wasn’t my style.
“You’re no fun.”
“I can be,” I teased, “with the right incentive. Speaking of which… do you mind if we do Valentine’s a day or two early? Maybe over the weekend?”
“Why? What day is it?”
“It’s on a Monday,” I said, looking the calendar above my desk. “I could fly in the Friday before, and we could spend the weekend together. Sound good?”
We made plans and talked a little longer, but we both had schoolwork to do, so we said goodbye and hung up.
Christy and I settled into a frosty relationship. She didn’t speak to me and I didn’t speak to her, and that seemed fine for both of us. Word had gotten around our little group about our blow-up, but I hadn’t told anyone, so I knew that Christy was trying to turn my friends against me.
Fortunately, she was disappointed. Wren and Trip walked a fine line in the middle and stayed friends with both of us. Ash clearly thought I was a jerk, but Zoë and Peter were still on the fence. Jeff and Meredith didn’t like Christy’s obvious attempt at manipulation, so they were solidly in my camp, along with Freddie.
In spite of all that, we somehow managed to keep things civil at breakfast. I even had the smug satisfaction of being on the moral high ground. She’d said plenty about what a jerk I was, but I’d kept my mouth shut about her. I hadn’t been defensive about it, but I hadn’t badmouthed her a bit. Our friends knew that her version of events had some major holes, so she looked childish and I came off looking like a grown-up. That frustrated her even more, and she eventually stopped trashing me behind my back.
Daphne and I didn’t get a chance to go out before the weekend, and we didn’t repeat our empty classroom hijinks, which was a good thing as far as I was concerned. I needed to get some control over my libido, especially where she was concerned, or sooner or later we’d get in trouble for real.
We didn’t talk about Valentine’s Day either, but I was pretty sure she had plans with Sara. I didn’t mention my plans, and she actually seemed relieved that I didn’t ask her to do anything. Our relationship wasn’t cooling off, but we’d passed the point of mindless lust.
So I packed an overnight bag and my design sketchbook and headed to the airport. Earl was walking out as I pulled in, so we talked about my instrument rating. He walked into the FBO with me and we scheduled a time for an FAA examiner to give me the written exam and a check ride.
By the time I taxied to the runway and took off, I was in a fantastic mood. I mostly concentrated on flying, but stray thoughts of Leah flitted through my imagination. By the time I landed at Dekalb Peachtree, my hard-on practically had a mind of its own.
Fortunately, Leah was in the same mood, so she didn’t object when I more or less pulled her head into my lap in the car. I returned the favor, of course, which led to round two in the back seat. Not surprisingly, the windows were completely fogged by the time we straightened our clothes and started the car.
I’d told my parents that I was coming to town, so we stopped by their house first. Mom gave me a curious smile when she smelled Leah on my face, and I managed to look abashed. Dad just chuckled and gave me a back-slapping hug. He knew what it was like to be nineteen and horny all the time. Mom did too, for that matter, but she probably thought we should have waited until we got to Leah’s house.
Erin hung out with us for a while, but she was waiting for a phone call from Sean, so Leah and I said goodbye and headed to her house. Both our families were going out to dinner the next night anyway, so it wasn’t a long goodbye.
Chris and Elizabeth were happy to see me, especially since I wasn’t hollow-eyed and hiding from my own conscience. Leah had the guest house all ready, complete with wine coolers in the fridge and a snack ready to go in the oven. While she heated the food, I unpacked my things in the bedroom and then built a fire in the living room.
“God, this is nice,” she said a little later. She snuggled closer and relaxed against me with a deep sigh.
I kissed the silky top of her head. “I could get used to this.”
We spent the rest of the evening on the couch, watching TV and enjoying each other’s company. After the first rush of lust in the car, we’d come to an unspoken decision to take our time and work up to round two (or three, or whatever it was at that point). So by the time we were ready for bed, I could almost see the sexual energy crackling between us.
In spite of that, we made love slowly, and came together in a quiet embrace that was somehow more satisfying than earlier. It was the same feeling of release, but different. When we finally separated and rolled apart, I felt an almost palpable change between us.
“Wow,” she said softly.
We lay in silence for several minutes before either of us spoke again.
“Do you ever think about me?” she asked.
“All the time.”
“No, I mean do you ever think about us? Like maybe we’re right for each other after all?”
I turned and propped my head on an elbow so I could see her face. “But I thought…” She knew what I thought, so I let my silence ask the question.
“Sometimes…,” she said at last, but then trailed a finger over the damp skin between her breasts. “Sometimes I think maybe you are boyfriend material.”
“But I usually do something to change your mind, right?”
“Just wait. I have faith in my cluelessness.” I could see that she was disappointed, so I turned serious. “Yeah,” I said soberly, “I’ve thought about it. You and me, I mean.”
“Do you think it could work?”
“Honestly? I don’t know. I know we love each other. And we’re definitely compatible in bed.”
She sighed and gave me a sated smile.
“We wouldn’t have to explain our lifestyle,” I added, but then we fell into a pensive silence.
“I’ve never been in love,” she said softly. Then she glanced at me. “You have. With Gina, right?”
“Yes,” I said slowly.
I thought about that one longer. I was still very angry with Kendall for all her lies and manipulation. “I thought I was,” I said, but then shrugged. “In hindsight, I think it was more lust than love. Kendall was— is complicated.”
“But you didn’t love her?”
“I don’t know what I felt,” I said earnestly. “Sometimes it felt like love, but now…?” I shrugged.
“But you were in love with Gina?”
“Are you still in love with her?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“I think so. It… it’s important.”
I paused to gather my thoughts. “It is,” I said at last. “And… I am.”
She closed her eyes and I saw a drop of moisture squeeze from the corner of one. She fluttered her eyelashes to clear them.
“I’m sorry,” I said softly, and she nodded. “I don’t think we’ll ever get back together,” I added, “but I don’t think you really fall out of love.”
We fell silent again.
“How did you know?” she asked.
“I don’t think I can explain it,” I said. “I just… knew.”
She nodded and then lapsed into thought. “I’ve never felt it,” she said at last.
I gathered her close and kissed her temple. “You will,” I whispered against her sweat-mussed hair. It was still silky soft, with just a hint of lavender from her shampoo.
“Sometimes I want to feel it with you,” she said, “but I don’t.” She turned slightly and looked at me. “Does that bother you?”
“A little,” I said honestly.
“But only a little?”
She gave a soft, rueful sigh. “We’re pretty messed up, aren’t we?”
She turned to look at me again.
“I think we love each other,” I said, “and we want it to be more, but we’re honest enough to admit that it isn’t.”
“But what if I never find anyone I feel that way about?”
“You will,” I said confidently.
“But what if I don’t? What if I turn… thirty… and still haven’t found anyone?”
“Then I’ll marry you.”
“You’ll probably be married already.”
“I won’t be.”
Her brow wrinkled with a frown.
“Seriously,” I said. “If you turn thirty without meeting Mister Right, then we’re obviously in Bizarro World.”
She blinked in confusion.
“Look,” I said to her, “you’re smart, sexy, beautiful, and you’re like the Mind Bender in bed.” I paused to let her chuckle at the roller coaster comment, but then continued. “If you haven’t found Mister Right by the time you’re thirty, then it’s obvious we’re living in some messed up world where all the good guys are idiots. If that’s the case, it means I’ll never find a good woman to put up with my shit either.”
She laughed in spite of herself.
“So I’ll marry you.”
“Do you think I’ll still be pretty? When I’m thirty, I mean.”
“I think you’ll be beautiful,” I said. “And I think you’ll be like Six Flags Over Leah in bed.”
“So you think I’m an amusement park? Is that it?”
“Yeah, pretty much,” I said, and raised myself above her. “To prove it, I’ll give you all my E Tickets for another ride.”
“Six Flags doesn’t have E Tickets,” she teased, although she spread her legs for me.
“Who cares? When we’re married, I won’t need tickets. I can ride any time I want.”
“Can too,” I said, and nudged her pussy with my growing hard-on.
“Can not,” she whispered, but wrapped her legs around me and put her hands on my arms.
“Can too,” I said, and sank into her. I hit bottom and she arched beneath me.
“No fair,” she gasped.
“That’s the thing about me,” I teased. “I don’t fight fair. I fight to win.”
“All right,” she said at last, “you win! Now shut up and screw me.”
For a change, Leah and I didn’t spend most of the day in bed. Instead, we spent time like a regular couple—shopping, at a movie, and then with our families at Mom’s favorite restaurant to celebrate her birthday. She didn’t want to make a big deal about it, but the restaurant staff brought out dessert and sang “Happy Birthday,” and Dad gave her a beautiful necklace and bracelet made of turquoise and moonstone (Erin’s and my birthstones).
Dinner was fun, but it wasn’t the same as when I was younger. At first I thought it was because Mom and Dad had changed, but then I realized that I was the one who was different. My parents weren’t omniscient anymore, and they definitely weren’t paragons. Neither were the Coulters. They were just regular people.
I could live with that, but I felt a twinge of sadness when I realized that they seemed older and more serious than when I was fifteen. For that matter, I was older and more serious, and now I understood the comments about jobs and stress and everything else that life threw at them.
Leah didn’t really Get It, but she sensed my mood and toned down her enthusiasm for everything grown-up. Even Erin was subdued, although she at least had a reason (she’d had an argument with Sean the night before). Back at the Coulters’ guest house, Leah and I undressed and climbed into bed. She snuggled close and idly toyed with my flaccid cock.
“In the mood for an E Ticket ride?”
“Yes and no,” I said frankly. “If you’re in the mood, I definitely am. But if you’re not…” I left the question hanging, and she thought about it for a moment.
“I am, but I’m not,” she said, which seemed to puzzle her.
“We don’t have to do anything.”
“But aren’t guys always horny?” she said, only half teasing.
I shrugged. “We are, usually. But you’re one of the few girls I like for more than just sex.” I listened to what I’d just said and wanted to kick myself. “Um, that came out wrong. What I meant to say was, you’re more than just a pretty face.” I groaned aloud. “Hold on a sec,” I said. “I’ll get this right.”
I paused to think of how to say what I was thinking, in a way that didn’t make me sound like a chauvinistic jerk.
“What I meant was, I really like you, and I enjoy spending time with you, even if we’re just doing regular stuff, like today. I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not. And I’m happy that a girl like you will even give me the time of day, much less go to bed with me. So even if we’re not in the mood, I still feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world as long as you’re with me.”
“And then you go and say something like that,” she said through tears.
For a moment I thought that I’d screwed up royally.
She must have felt my confusion, because she hugged me tight and kissed my chest. “God, you’re such a goof,” she said at last, “but I guess I’ll keep you.”
“You will?” I said, and grimaced at how surprised I sounded.
“Of course,” she said softly. “You may be a goof, but you’re my goof now.”
I spent most of Valentine’s Day in class or the design lab. Part of me felt a little depressed that I didn’t have a real girlfriend, but part of me was relieved that I didn’t have to deal with Kendall and her bullshit or Gina and her sorority friends. I felt a pang of guilt that I didn’t feel that way about Leah, but I knew that she felt the same. Still, she was more than just a friend, so I went back to the apartment to give her a call after judo practice.
We talked for more than an hour, about everyday stuff, but I could tell that she was relieved that I’d called. I guess she thought I might’ve been trying to placate her with my speech from two nights before. She knew me well enough to tell when I was blowing smoke and when I was serious, so she probably just needed a little reassuring.
When we hung up, I decided to go for a run to get my thoughts in order. A niggling voice in the back of my head kept telling me that I should be happy with Leah, that she might be The One. My dick was telling me the same thing, of course, but it didn’t get a vote. Well, it did, but the big head had a veto.
Unfortunately, the big head knew that Leah and I were just friends—friends with benefits, but just friends. So I took another lap around campus and thought about my future. It obviously wasn’t with Leah. It wasn’t with Daphne, either, even if Sara hadn’t been involved. It wasn’t with Kendall, and it looked like Gina was out of the picture as well (at least for the time being).
I was just beginning to think that I might end up with Leah after all when I ran into someone. I’d been in my own little world and hadn’t been paying attention—no surprise there.
“Sorry,” I said as I steadied the girl and then picked up her bag.
“It’s all right,” she said, but then got a good look at me. “Paul?”
“Gracie? What’re you doing over here?” We were all the way on the other side of campus, across the Strip from the main body of buildings.
“I live in Strong,” she said, and pointed to the eclectic little dorm.
“Oh, cool. You headed there now?”
She shook her head. “I just had dinner, so now I’m headed back to the design lab.”
“That’s where I’m headed as soon as I get back to my apartment.” I plucked at my sweaty clothes. “I need to shower first.”
She looked like she wanted to say something, but then thought better of it.
I gave her a moment to see if she’d work up the courage, but she didn’t. “Cool,” I said to break the silence. “Then I guess I’ll see you there.”
She nodded and hurried off.
I waited until she was out of earshot before I laughed, more at myself than anything. For a moment I’d thought she was going to ask me back to her dorm to shower there.
Me and my imagination, I said to myself as I jogged toward the pedestrian bridge. Not every woman in the world wants to sleep with me.
Breakfast the next morning began like it usually did. The entire gang was there, with conversations going in small groups until Ash lobbed a grenade.
“Oh, you’re not going to believe what I heard.”
“What?” Zoë asked.
Ash had everyone’s attention, so she milked the pause. “Well, I heard there are a couple of strippers here.”
“What, at the table?” Freddie joked.
“No, at UT.”
Something about her tone bothered me. “So?” I said. “There are probably more than a couple.”
Christy’s expression changed, and I suddenly had the feeling that I’d been set up.
“Maybe,” Ash said, “but these aren’t just any girls. They’re in the art department.”
At that point I knew I’d been set up, but I still didn’t know how.
“Who?” Wren asked.
Trip, Jeff, and Peter—the guys with girlfriends—knew enough to keep their mouths shut, but Freddie looked interested.
“Oh my gosh,” Christy said, and turned to Ash, right on cue, “I heard the same thing.”
“I’m not surprised,” Ash said to her, as though they were comparing notes for the first time. “But wait, there’s more.”
“More?” Christy tried to sound artless, but she wasn’t a good liar.
“Who?” Wren repeated.
“You’re not going to believe it,” Ash said to Christy, “but I heard they were prostitutes too.”
Christy pretended to look shocked. The other girls at the table looked shocked for real.
“Oh, gimme a break,” I snapped. “Just spit it out. Who?”
Ash feigned a look of surprise that barely covered her malice. “But Paul, I thought you knew.”
“Knew w—?” And then it dawned on me.
Ash pounced before I could say anything. “Your girlfriend,” she said. “What’s her name? Daffy something?”
I clenched my jaw and willed myself not to call Ash the first thing that popped into my head. It was a word that my mother definitely wouldn’t approve of. “Daphne,” I said instead.
“Is that the girl Paul’s dating?” Christy asked with saccharine innocence.
“Uh-huh,” Ash said. “But I thought she only liked girls. I mean, you know her roommate is a dyke, right?”
Christy feigned surprise. “Really?”
I wanted to throw her hypocrisy back in her face, but clenched my jaw instead.
“It’s true,” Ash said. “I even know her. She’s a photography major.”
“I had no idea,” Christy said.
“Yep,” Ash said. “She’s a total dyke. But her girlfriend is dating Paul. At least, that’s— Oh my! I just thought of something.” She turned to me. “You’re not paying her, are you Paul?”
“Ash!” Wren hissed.
Trip shot me a nervous look, and I could see him tense to grab me if I made a lunge across the table. The other couples just looked uncomfortable. Only Freddie didn’t know what was going on.
“You mean she’s a pro?” he said to me. “How come you didn’t tell me?”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath to center myself. I wanted to hit Ash so hard that her grandchildren would feel it, but I had never hit a woman in anger, and I wasn’t going to start with her, no matter how much she deserved it.
“She’s not ‘a pro,’” I said to Freddie, as calmly as I could. Then I looked at Ash, who flashed a smug smile of triumph. “And she’s not a stripper either.”
“That’s not what I heard. I h—”
“I don’t care what you heard! She’s not a stripper.”
“But she takes her clothes off in front of other people. If that doesn’t make her a stripper, I don’t know what does!”
“I take my clothes off in front of other people,” I said, “and I’m not a stripper.”
“But they do it for money.” She crossed her arms like she’d just scored the winning point, but looked a little uncertain when I laughed.
“I guess that makes them smarter than me.”
“Like that’s news,” Ash mocked. “But they do a lot more than just take their clothes off.”
“And you know this… how?”
“Everyone knows it,” she said, “the whole art department.”
“And if the whole art department said you were a prostitute, would it be true just ’cause”—I mocked her delivery—“‘everyone knows it’?”
She flushed with anger and dropped the veneer of gossip. “You’re just sore ’cause your girlfriend Daffy is a rug-munching whore!”
I slammed my palms on the table with a sound like a rifle shot. Conversation stopped all around us. I locked eyes with Ash, and she flinched at what she saw there.
“Yes, that’s right,” I said to her, low and full of malice. “You just realized that I’m dangerous. Physically dangerous. And this isn’t some game of schoolgirl gossip.”
“Hey,” Trip said nervously, “there’s no need for threats. Ash knows you’d never hurt her.”
“Let’s see what Ash thinks,” I said without releasing her from my gaze. I arched an eyebrow. “Well?”
She swallowed hard, but didn’t say anything.
I held her eyes a moment longer to make sure she knew that she was playing with fire. Then I rounded on Christy and the heat in my gaze turned arctic.
“And you,” I said, full of disgust. “I didn’t think you’d stoop this low.” She paled but didn’t back down, so I turned analytical. “But let’s look at it. Do you think you hurt my reputation with this bullshit, this pack of lies?” I fell silent and let the implication sink in.
“No,” I said contemptuously. “You just destroyed two girls who have nothing to do with you. And all for what? Just to get back at me?” I snorted. “That’s the most despicable thing I’ve ever heard.”
Ash recovered some of her vitriol. “What do you care about them? They’re just—”
“They’re my friends,” I snapped, “and that’s more than I can say about you.”
Christy started to say something, but I stood and cut her off.
“I don’t want to sit at the same table with you two,” I said. Then I looked around the dining hall. “As a matter of fact, I don’t even want to be in the same building.”
I turned and walked off. I tossed my tray onto the conveyor belt and left without a backward glance.
It was still too early to go to class, so I stomped to the A&A building. I wanted to get some work done on my project, but I knew I was too upset to focus. Still, I needed to do something. As I climbed the stairs to the design lab, I overheard snatches of conversation about strippers. With a dark curse, I realized that Ash and Christy must have started their whispering campaign the day before.
By the time I left the lab to go to Siobhan’s studio, two guys had asked me about the rumors. Daphne wasn’t in class, so I couldn’t ask her about it, which was probably just as well. So I fumed all through modeling, and shrugged off Wren when she tried to defuse my simmering fury.
My mood took a turn for the worse after class, because the walkways and atrium were abuzz with self-righteous talk about strippers, prostitutes, and worse. I made up my mind to do something about it and had just turned to leave when I caught sight of Ash smirking at me. Christy at least had the decency to look uncertain, although she was just as guilty in my book. I wanted to throttle them both, but kept a firm grip on my temper instead.
“Leaving so soon?” Ash mocked. “Going to pay your girlfriend for another ‘date’?”
I ignored her and focused on Christy. “If you ever pull a stunt like this again, I’ll tell everyone that you’re a lesbian.”
She paled when she saw that I wasn’t bluffing.
I glared for a moment longer and then skewered Ash with a hard look. “And you… I’ll tell everyone that you’re fucking one of your professors. A married one.”
Ash’s defiance crumbled and her eyes went wide in disbelief. Her expression flashed to fear before she regained control, and I smirked in triumph. The threat had been a guess, albeit an educated one, but had clearly struck home.
“Exactly,” I said. “Then we’ll see what the rumor mill does to your reputations, not to mention your professor friend and his marriage.”
As if to emphasize my point, a group of girls passed us, and their gossip hung in the air even after they headed up the stairs.
“You two disgust me,” I told Ash and Christy. “I half-expected this from you,” I said to Ash, who simply glared back. “But you…,” I said to Christy. “I never thought you’d sink this low.” I shook my head. “I can’t believe I ever liked you.”
I turned and stalked out of the building. The morning air was cold enough to brace me out of my growing funk. I wanted to go somewhere and brood while I plotted how to get revenge on the two girls, but some part of me knew it wouldn’t help. The angry, self-righteous part tried to ignore the rational part, but I wouldn’t go through with my threats. I wouldn’t sink to their level, no matter how tempting it was.
So I walked back to my apartment and called Daphne. No one picked up, and they didn’t have an answering machine, so I hung up after a dozen rings. What would I have said to her, anyway? Um, hi, I heard a nasty rumor about you…? I heaved a dark sigh as I imagined the rest of that conversation.
I briefly flirted with the idea of pulling a stunt that would eclipse the stripper rumor, but everything I thought of was ridiculous, illegal, or both. In the end I put on my running clothes and left the apartment. I thought about jogging by Daphne’s house to check on her, but nixed that idea too. If Sara had heard, and she probably had, I was the last person she’d want to see.
Instead I took a couple of laps around campus and then turned onto frat row to see if Glen wanted to spar. I was past the point of raw fury, but still wanted to lose myself in a workout. Unfortunately, he wasn’t there, so I jogged to the Bubble and joined the back of an aerobics class. It was mostly full of cute girls in leotards and leggings, but I hardly noticed.
The sky was dark by the time I returned to the apartment. I was tired and wrung out, and simply wanted to shower and then crash. Trip must’ve heard my key in the lock, because he met me at the door. He put a hand up to stop me and I pulled back in surprise.
“What?” I asked, afraid that he and I might get into it again. That was the last thing I needed.
“Are you cool?”
“No,” I said, a little piqued. “I’m hot and sweaty and tired.” I stopped myself, barely, from adding something snide.
“Yeah, but are you cool?” he asked again. “I mean, are you still upset?”
“Of course I’m upset. Daphne and Sara are my friends. And those two little—”
He stopped me before I could say anything about Ash and Christy. Then he nodded toward the living room. I heard a muffled sob and gave him a puzzled look. He relaxed when he saw that I wasn’t going to explode.
“It’s Christy,” he said softly. “She’s been here all afternoon. We thought you might’ve…” He shrugged uncomfortably.
“Run off again?” I asked sardonically.
He had the good grace to look embarrassed. “I wouldn’t’ve put it that way, but… yeah.”
“Well, I didn’t. So…,” I lifted my chin toward the living room, “what does she want?”
Trip started to say something, but stopped when Christy stepped into view behind him. Her eyes and nose were red from crying, and she looked wretched. Wren stood behind her and silently pleaded for me to listen instead of getting upset. I shifted my gaze back to Christy, but my eyes were hard.
“I… I don’t know what to say,” she said.
“And I don’t know if I care.” I immediately felt guilty, but didn’t take it back.
Christy dropped her eyes and Wren glared at me in reproach.
Oh, all right! I told her silently.
She stepped forward and put her arm around her friend’s shoulders. “Just tell him what you told us.”
Christy sniffled and nodded.
I felt sorry for her, but was still too angry to let her off the hook.
Wren squeezed her shoulder and leaned close to whisper some encouragement. Christy nodded and picked at a rumpled tissue, but still didn’t speak.
“Why don’t we sit down,” Wren suggested, “so this doesn’t feel like some kind of trial.”
I arched an eyebrow at Trip, who nodded in reluctant agreement.
The girls turned and disappeared into the living room, and Trip leaned close.
“She’s pretty upset, man.”
“She should be,” I hissed back. “What she did was despicable!”
He rocked back and held up his hands. “Hey, I’m on your side here. But Christy wouldn’t leave until she talked to you.”
I let out my breath and nodded. “Yeah, all right.” I glanced toward the living room. “Let’s get this over with.”