I woke up the next morning without my alarm clock, although I suffered a moment of disorientation as I stared up at the wall above me. A poster of a guy stared back. He was tan and fit, with dark hair and blue eyes and very white teeth. My eyes trailed lower and I stared at the bulge of his Speedos as something about the previous night nagged at me, something about the shape of his swimsuit.
I groaned when I remembered what it was—Christy’s panties—since I still didn’t have a clue what I was going to do with them. I couldn’t put them back in the drawer, and I definitely didn’t want to leave them as a surprise in the dirty clothes hamper. Christy had brothers, after all, and would probably recognize dried semen.
The only thing I could think of was to wash them and return them without her finding out, but that was easier said than done. Part of me hoped they might have disappeared during the night, taken by the Soiled Panties Fairy, but I wasn’t that lucky: they were still on the floor next to Wren’s bed. I stuffed them in the side pocket of my duffel bag as I pulled out my running clothes.
It was early enough that Ash and Zoë were still asleep. I emerged from the first bedroom, tiptoed down the hall, and quietly let myself out. Upstairs at my own apartment, I opened the door and set my duffel bag in the foyer without even stepping inside. Then I rode the elevator down and walked through the deserted lobby.
The morning air was so cold that it almost hurt to breathe, but it cleared away the cobwebs from the night before. I did my stretches and slowly worked the kinks out. Then I checked the time and began to run. I settled into a distance-eating pace and quickly lost myself in my thoughts.
As usual, I had a dozen questions and no real answers. My thoughts drifted from Daphne to Sara to Christy and then back to Daphne. I even thought about Jamie and his weird attitude toward me and nudity in general. I couldn’t figure him out, so I gave up trying and eventually focused on my design project. I still had a lot of work to do, and the end of the quarter was only two weeks away.
I felt immensely more relaxed by the time I looked at my watch and realized that I’d been running for more than an hour. I wasn’t going to win a marathon any time soon, but I’d covered at least eight miles. I waved to a few other early-bird runners as I turned and headed back to the apartment. The glow of the sun had just begun to fill the sky when I veered into the driveway and slowed to a walk to cool off.
Upstairs, I found Trip clad in pajama bottoms and slippers in the kitchen. Jeff had come home sometime during the night, and the two of them were crowding the Mister Coffee like supplicants at an altar. I grabbed the pitcher of orange juice from the fridge and poured a glass.
“Y’all should come running sometime,” I said between gulps. “It’s a better wake-up than that stuff.”
“Fuck that,” Jeff said without malice.
I arched an eyebrow at Trip.
The coffee maker gurgled and both of them lunged for the pot. Jeff grabbed it first and yanked it out of the way. He thrust his coffee cup under the stream. Trip cursed.
I laughed and got a surly look in reply. Once again, my runner’s high was at odds with his caffeine addiction, but our morning banter was more teasing than genuine ill-will. I chuckled and put the juice pitcher back in the fridge.
I almost ran over Christy as she walked into the kitchen. Her legs and feet were bare, and my wrestling T-shirt barely reached her thighs. My eyes moved upward, over the swell of her breasts, and I grinned at her expression. She kept one eye closed against the light, while the other gave me a squinty stare. Her hair was mussed, but she looked surprisingly good.
“Yes?” she said, as surly as the other two. Then she smelled the coffee. “Never mind.”
I turned and shamelessly watched as she opened a cabinet and stretched upward to reach a coffee cup. Her legs were toned and firm, and her tight ass filled her panties nicely. (They were white with little blue flowers.)
“Nice,” I said.
I couldn’t help myself: “I like your panties.”
The last weeks of the quarter passed in a blur of school work, junk food, and late nights. And in spite of the grueling schedule, I managed to keep up my workouts. I also made time to run in the morning, since it was the only time I could be alone with my thoughts.
When I wasn’t lifting weights to work off the junk food, I was at judo practice with Glen. I had a lot of stress to work out, and he was the perfect sparring partner. I didn’t really challenge him, but I could gauge my own progress by his level of surprise when I pulled off a new move or did something unexpected.
Because of my hectic schedule, I spent a lot less time with Daphne. I saw her in Siobhan’s class and we were always friendly, but things had changed between us. Maybe she wasn’t in the mood for sex with a guy anymore. Maybe Sara had bought a sex toy. Maybe our relationship had simply run its course. Whatever the reason, I still cared about her and felt the same from her, but we both knew we didn’t have a future as a couple. It was a refreshing change from the way my last two relationships had ended.
As a side benefit, Sara and I struck up an unlikely friendship. It began when she sent a note via Daphne and asked me to meet her one afternoon. I met her in one of the photo studios, where she showed off her portfolio project like an artist revealing a masterpiece. She had good reason to be proud, too. I knew she could handle a camera, but until then I had no idea what kind of talent she had.
Her pictures were captivating and complex and full of emotions. In addition to Daphne’s silhouette nudes and the loving pet scene, Sara showed me a series of Daphne in a loose cashmere sweater. The sweater had slipped off her shoulder and her blonde hair fell in a silken wave over her face, partially obscuring it. The play of light and shadows accentuated her physical beauty, but my eyes were drawn to her melancholy expression.
“Wow,” I said softly. The picture didn’t need any more words, and Sara could sense my admiration. After a long moment I asked, “What does your professor think?”
“She hasn’t seen it yet.”
I looked a question at her.
“I asked around about you,” she answered enigmatically.
“Everyone says you’re really good.”
I started to demur, but she cut me off.
“I didn’t believe them so I wanted to see for myself.” She paused to work up her nerve. “You… you have a clean style. I like that. I saw a couple of your drawings, even a watercolor that you did.”
My brow furrowed. “Which one?”
“It was modern, with a bunch of glass and a torchbearer statue. The statue… It was really good.”
I searched my memory for the building she was talking about and then laughed when I remembered.
“What’s so funny?”
“I’m glad you liked the building,” I said, “but the statue isn’t mine.”
“But it had your name on it…”
“Oh, the building is mine all right, but someone else drew the statue.”
“That was my favorite part! Who did it?”
“The little princess.”
Her eyes widened. “Christy? Christy Carmichael? You’re kidding!”
“I asked about her too. Did you know she actually apologized about the rumors?”
My eyebrows rose.
“Yeah, that’s how I felt. But she came right up and introduced herself. Said she was sorry for what she’d done and everything. Even asked me to forgive her.”
I didn’t think my eyebrows could go any higher, but they must have.
“Exactly,” Sara said. “Pretty ballsy, if you ask me.”
“I was… impressed. So that’s why I asked about her. People talk about her like she’s the second coming of Michelangelo. I didn’t believe it, but…”
“She’s really good,” I said, “although I think her style is more Bernini. Michelangelo’s a little… um…”
“I didn’t want to say it like that, but…”
“If the shoe fits,” Sara said with a shrug.
We fell silent and turned our attention to the picture of Daphne.
“You’re really good too, you know,” I said. “I didn’t want to admit it at first, ’cause I didn’t like you, but…”
“I know the feeling,” she said. “I still don’t like you or anything, but at least you’re not a total prick.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“And maybe you’re not a total bitch either.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” she said with a grin. Then, “Oh, shit! I almost forgot…”
“And ‘total prick’ reminded you? Great.”
She grinned, smug as much as wry. “I have something else to show you. It’s not part of my portfolio, but it’s been getting a lot of attention from… certain people… in the department.”
“I don’t know if I like the sound of that.”
She took out another art portfolio and unzipped it. She leafed through several black and white prints that I recognized from our solo session. Then she stepped back so I could get a good look at the picture on the open page.
I laughed. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Nope. I call it ‘The Root of All Evil.’”
“It’s me, all right,” I said. “Well, part of me.”
“What do you think about the title?” Her expression dared me to object.
“Believe it or not, that’s the best part.”
“Wha—? You don’t hate it?”
“No, it’s a great pun.”
“So you’re not offended?”
“It’s a picture of your dick! I called it ‘The Root of All Evil.’ Doesn’t that piss you off?”
“Why should it?” I said. “I mean, I know I’m not evil.”
“But… you’re a guy.”
“And there’s the proof,” I said with a gesture, although I was mostly baiting her. I knew what she was getting at, but I still didn’t feel any sense of outrage at having my erection called the root of all evil. It wasn’t, and I knew it. It was willful, inappropriate, and often treacherous, but hardly evil. Besides, it was too simple-minded to be truly evil. That took real brains, and not the kind that I kept in my dick.
Sara huffed in exasperation. “I still don’t get you,” she said, and slapped her portfolio shut.
“Hey,” I teased, “I was still looking at that.”
“Go home and look at the real thing!”
“That’s not a bad idea,” I said, but I was already talking to her back. “Who should I fantasize about when I do?”
She flipped a bird and the door swung shut behind her.
I just laughed.
She wasn’t really upset, so I let her go without chasing her down to smooth things over. We were still playing games, but they didn’t have the underlying tension of before. I could live with that, and I suspected that she could too.
We turned in our projects for Joska’s class on the last day of design lab. We each had to do a short presentation, which included drawings and a full watercolor. Joska grilled each of us for a minute or two afterward. Some people genuinely deserved to be raked over the coals. I couldn’t imagine turning in drawings like theirs.
Mine were better than most, but they weren’t the best. Gracie’s were, of course, even though her watercolor wasn’t as good as mine. She had a better eye for detail, but I was more creative, hands-down. Still, neither of us escaped Joska’s criticism.
He asked about my design decisions, what styles had influenced me, how the plan fit the site, and several other things. He didn’t give me a chance to answer in detail, so I couldn’t defend myself. That was the point, evidently, because he did the same to everyone.
I walked out of lab feeling like I was going to earn a C in the class, followed by a mediocre career designing strip malls and tract housing in New Jersey. A bunch of others felt the same way, so we went to the Old College Inn to drown our sorrows. We stayed out too late and drank way, way too much.
Trip and I spent the next day nursing the mother of all hangovers. Wren planned to study with Christy, so they hadn’t gone out the night before. Wren didn’t have any pity for us, and Christy seemed even more distant than before. I didn’t have the slightest idea what I’d done, and I didn’t really care. Then again, maybe it wasn’t me at all. I wasn’t the center of the universe, I reminded myself.
At least Trip and I had time to talk, once we’d forced ourselves to drink enough water and go to the gym. I didn’t feel quite human after a workout and a hot shower, but I didn’t feel like death warmed over anymore. We went out for dinner at the Presidential Grill and brought it back to the apartment. It was nice to relax for a change, without all the distractions of the previous months.
“Hey, I’ve been thinking about this summer,” I said as we listened to his latest mix tape.
“What if we buy houses in Atlanta?”
He looked dubious, so I laid out my thinking. The housing market was much bigger in Atlanta, and it was growing faster than Franklin. We’d have a wider selection of houses, and we’d make more money when we sold them. We’d be able to live at my house for the summer, so it wouldn’t cost anything. Besides, we’d have the place practically to ourselves while my family was at camp. Little else would be different from the previous summer.
Trip was still skeptical. “What about Blackie and the crew?”
“We can hire a crew in Atlanta. They have them there too, you know.”
“Yeah, but we don’t know ’em. What if they can’t do the job?”
“Then it’s our fault for hiring the wrong guys.”
We went back and forth for twenty minutes, although I didn’t make any headway until I mentioned Wren.
“What about her?” Trip said suspiciously.
I wanted to roll my eyes at his insecurity—I wouldn’t go behind his back in a million years—but I stifled the urge. “Is she going to move to Franklin?” I said instead.
“No, she’ll be working.”
“Oh? Where?” I already knew the answer, but I wanted him to figure it out for himself.
“At one of her dad’s restaurants.”
“Atlanta, duh. Where—? Oh, I get it.”
I nodded. “Uh huh. If we’re working on houses in Franklin…”
He fell silent and thought for a moment. “You don’t play fair,” he said at last.
“I play to win.”
“I still think it’s a big risk with the crew.”
“It is,” I admitted, “but the reward is worth it. We could double our profits if I’m right about the housing market in Atlanta.”
“Or lose our shirts if you’re wrong.”
“Faint heart never won fair lady.”
He rewarded me with a rueful grin. “Another low blow.”
“Only slightly below the belt,” I said with a grin of my own. “Besides,” I added, “I’m trying to get you laid on a regular basis.”
“I can get laid on my own, thank you.”
“I know. But I don’t want to be around you if you’re not. I might start to look good.”
“You do have a nice ass,” he deadpanned.
“It’s one of my better features.”
“But you’re not my type,” he went on. “We’ve been over this. Remember?”
“I have a dick.”
“Yep,” he said. “Deal breaker.” He got a funny look and changed the subject. “What’s this I hear about a picture of your… schlong… making the rounds in the art department?”
I stalled for time and hoped my blush wasn’t too obvious. “What do you mean?”
“I overheard Wren and Christy. They said everyone’s talking about it.”
He nodded. “All the girls, and even some of the guys. So… what did you do?”
“Well, it’s a long story…”
He barked a laugh. “Not that long. I mean, you don’t have your own zip code.”
“No,” I admitted.
“Okay, so how did a picture of your johnson end up in circulation? And how come everyone seems to know it’s you? From what Wren said, it’s just a close-up of your… um... tool.”
I frowned. “Why are we talking in euphemisms? I mean, you’ve seen my dick. Heck, you even touched it. That threesome with Kendall was… pretty wild.”
“No kidding,” he said, although I had to stifle a laugh at his expression.
He seemed aroused by the memory of the threesome, but nagged by guilt because he thought it was somehow cheating on Wren.
“I don’t know how everybody knows,” I said, as much to let him off the hook as to return to his question. “Sara probably told someone. Or maybe someone from Siobhan’s class recognized me, although I doubt it. So it was probably Sara, ’cause I don’t think anyone could figure it out from such a… um… limited perspective.”
“Christy did,” he said. “She was the one who told Wren about it.”
I was confused for a moment, but then I remembered Christy’s special sketchbook.
“What’re you smiling at?” Trip asked.
“I don’t even know where to begin…” I said, and left it at that.
“Yeah, sure… whatever. So let’s talk about houses in Atlanta.”
“So you’ll do it? Awesome!”
Exam week was the usual whirlwind of frantic activity followed by hurry up and wait. Wren and Christy finished theirs on the second day, so they left campus before the rest of us, bound for Wren’s family condo in Florida. Jeff and Meredith finished on the same day and left to visit her family in Indiana. Freddie headed back to New York, and the rest of us split up without any long goodbyes.
Trip and I drove to Atlanta to look for houses. The basement rancher that I’d found the previous October was still available, and the owners had reduced the price. It was already at the top of my list of potential remodels. Besides, it was close to my neighborhood, so we wouldn’t have to trek halfway around the Perimeter to get to work each day.
We started looking for other houses in the same general neighborhood and found several likely candidates. Trip also had an idea about how we could hire a crew who could do the job to our standards.
“Why don’t we ask Mike Junior and Big Jim to come down here?” he said.
“Do you think they would?”
He nodded. “Junior was making noises about wanting his own crew. Blackie and Senior run things pretty well, and they aren’t going to retire any time soon. So if Junior wants to make the big bucks, he has to strike out on his own.”
“If we can talk him into coming down here with Jim, I’d feel a lot more comfortable about the crew. I mean, you and I sort of know what we’re doing, but those guys have a decade more experience than both of us put together.”
“Let me call him when we get home tonight and see what he says. I’m convinced about the housing market down here, but I’m still nervous about getting the right crew. I’ve made my reputation on quality, and I’m not going to sacrifice that just to make a little more money. You know?”
“Trip, this is a lot more money.”
“Would you really do a half-assed job just to make an extra buck or two?” He read me perfectly. “I didn’t think so.”
“Let’s head home now, then, so you can call Mike.”
Trip laughed and clapped me on the shoulder. “Let’s look at the rest of the houses on our list.”
“Why? Don’t you want to call him?”
“Of course I do, but he won’t be home till later. He has a job, remember? So let’s finish this neighborhood and then head over to the other one. Where is it… Jefferson Ferry?”
“Johnson Ferry,” I corrected, and put the Cruiser in gear.
Trip hung up and gave me a serious look. I’d heard his side of the conversation, but it had been pretty ambiguous, so my heart sank when his expression turned grim. He kept me on tenterhooks for a long moment before he cracked a smile.
I wanted to punch him. “So they’ll do it?” I blurted instead.
“He said he’d think about it. He wants to come down and look at the houses on our short list.”
“But he’s interested?”
“Between you and me, I think he’s ready to jump at the idea, but he doesn’t want to tip his hand. He knows I’ll offer him less if I think it’s something he wants to do anyway.”
“Maybe,” Trip said. “I like those guys, but they’re smart enough to know that this is business. So he’s playing it cool. Still, he knows that I want him here, and that the houses are bigger projects. More money for us means more money for him. It’s a win-win situation. We just have to ease into it so everyone thinks they’re getting the best deal. My dad once told me that the best partnerships are the ones where each side thinks they’re getting away with murder.
“So I— sorry, we want to get Junior and Jim and a crew at the right price,” he continued. “They want to get paid a lot more for working on a bigger project. So it’s a balancing act. Besides, I suspect that he’ll end up staying here after we’re done. From what I’ve seen over the last few days, there’s a lot of work here for a guy like him, especially as more people move to the area.”
“So I’ll sweeten the deal by offering to pay his and Jim’s living expenses…”
My eyes widened.
“...unless they decide to stay here and keep working after the summer.”
My surprise turned into admiration that bordered on awe. Trip was already thinking two moves ahead, if not more. Sure, I had come up with the idea of Atlanta in the first place, but he was finding ways to make it work for us.
(I didn’t realize it at the time, but our partnership was founded on that: I came up with good ideas and Trip figured out how to make them happen. I thought I was getting the better end of the deal, because I never could have managed some of the projects that Trip has pulled off. Likewise, Trip thought he was getting the best deal, because I give up my best ideas and let him make them his own. So his father was right after all, which is why Trip and I are still together and have the reputation we do. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)
“Hey, guys,” Erin said as she walked into the kitchen, “what’s going on?”
Leah came in behind her. She gave me a kiss on the cheek and I put my arm around her waist.
“Do you want to tell them,” Trip asked, “or can I?”
“Hey, if this works, you get all the credit,” I said. “So go ahead and tell them.”
He grinned and described our plans.
“Wow, that’s awesome,” Erin said. “Let’s celebrate!”
“I don’t know…,” Trip said. “I have to get up early and drive to Florida tomorrow.”
“Aw, come on,” she wheedled. “It’ll be fun.” She could be very convincing when she wanted. Big blue eyes and a girlish pout are a killer combination.
“What do you think?” he asked me.
I looked at Leah.
She still didn’t like Trip very much, but she was sanguine about it. “If you want.”
“Sounds like fun,” I said.
“You won’t be sorry,” Erin told Trip. Then she looked at Leah. “Oh, my God, I know exactly what I’m going to wear. You know that little blue dress I bought before Christmas?”
Leah’s eyes widened. “The one your dad said you couldn’t wear in public?”
“He was only kidding,” Erin said as they disappeared down the hall.
Trip and I shared a look, and I had to laugh at his expression.
“Don’t worry about Erin,” I said. “She doesn’t bite. Besides, she has a boyfriend, and she knows you have a girlfriend, so it’s just casual.”
“Yeah, sure,” he said. “No problem. It’s casual.”
Leah went home and returned a little later with a dress bag and small makeup case. Then she and Erin disappeared into the bathroom to get ready. Trip and I took turns in the guest bathroom and then donned slacks and button-down shirts. We talked about the houses as we waited for the girls.
The basement rancher was at the top of his short list too, as well as a Tudor from the same neighborhood. The two houses were less than a half-mile apart, which would make it easier to manage the renovations. We also added a Prairie style house in a nearby neighborhood and two others within a mile. We were still discussing a sixth when the girls emerged from the bathroom.
I blinked and felt a very unbrotherly reaction when I saw Erin in her dress. I also understood why Dad didn’t want her to wear it in public. It was a cornflower blue that matched her eyes, and its deep-cut halter covered her breasts but left the rest of her exposed from the waist up. When she turned to model it, the sides of her breasts flashed under the halter. The hem of the skirt was cut on a bias, and the high side soared past mid-thigh. Its only concession to modesty was that the fabric wasn’t transparent.
Leah’s little black dress was the complete opposite, although just as revealing. Where Erin’s was loose and draped, Leah’s sheathed her from neck to thigh like a second skin, accentuating her trim figure and firm breasts. The material was sparkly and sheer, and I could easily make out her areolae. I couldn’t see a shadow of pubic hair because she shaved it, but I didn’t see the outline of panties either. I felt a moment of vertigo when I remembered her as a coltish girl and compared her to the young woman in front of me now.
Both girls looked like walking invitations to mischief, and they knew it. Trip glanced at me uncertainly, so I gave him a smile full of confidence before I turned my attention to Leah. She posed and gave me a chance to appreciate the full effect.
“We’re underdressed,” I said to Trip.
“Give us a minute,” I said to the girls.
We returned in sport coats and dress shirts. Mom came out of the kitchen to say goodbye, but her eyes widened when she saw Erin.
“Is that the dress—?”
“God, Mom!” Erin said. “It’s perfectly decent. Everything’s covered.”
“It’s okay,” I said, to Erin as much as Mom. “We’re just going out to dinner. We won’t let anything happen to her.”
“I don’t need you to protect me either,” Erin snapped. She returned her defiant glare to Mom.
If anything, our mother knew when to choose her battles, and this wasn’t a hill worth dying on. Still, she didn’t want to give in without saying something.
“I don’t know…” she hedged.
“It’s okay, Mrs. Hughes,” Trip said. “We won’t be out late. I have to leave tomorrow morning, so I need a good night’s sleep.”
“It’s not you I’m worried about,” Mom said.
“And you shouldn’t worry about me, either,” Erin said. “I’m practically a grown-up, and I can take care of myself.”
“Seventeen is not the same as an adult,” Mom shot back, but then decided that she didn’t want to have an argument in front of an audience. She looked at me instead. “Don’t drink and drive. Okay?”
“Gee, thanks,” Erin mocked under her breath. “You’re not Nancy Reagan.”
“I won’t, Mom,” I said, a little louder than I needed to. Then I put my hand on the small of Leah’s back and gently turned her toward the door. “We won’t stay out too late either.”
“Like hell we won’t,” Erin muttered.
Mom heard but pretended not to. “You kids have fun,” she said instead, and winced at her choice of words. We weren’t “kids” anymore and she knew it.
I helped Leah into her coat and then hustled her toward the door. Erin didn’t have a choice but to follow. Trip trailed after her and offered to hold her coat while she put it on.
“Jeez, Er,” I said outside, “what’s got into you? Mom’s just being… Mom.”
“Let’s go,” she said tersely. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Leah and I exchanged a look, but she didn’t come to my defense. She probably agreed with Erin, after all. She and her own mother had a tumultuous relationship as well.
“Where do y’all want to eat?” I asked to smooth things over.
“Who said anything about eating?” Erin said. “We want to drink and party.”
I looked to Trip for help, but Erin was already one step ahead of me.
“I know!” she said, to him more than me. “Let’s go dancing. There’s this new club with a rad DJ. The music is totally awesome.”
Trip’s resistance collapsed like a house of straw. “Awesome!”
I just laughed and helped Leah into the Cruiser. “Whatever,” I said, and jogged round to the driver’s side. Once there, I grinned sidelong at Trip. He was a strong-willed and decisive guy, except when it came to women, where he was a complete pushover. I wondered if he realized that Wren was going to call the shots in their relationship. Probably not, poor sap.
The club was everything that Erin had promised, and we had a great time. The girls got a little drunk, but Trip and I mostly sipped our drinks. Our last hangover was too recent, and he really did have to wake up early to drive to Florida. Still, we both had a decent buzz by the time we paid the check and left.
“Are you good to drive?” Trip asked on the way out.
“Yep.” I did a little counting trick with my fingers to prove it.
I helped Leah into her coat, but she shivered as we stepped into the parking lot. I pulled her close and slipped my hands around her waist. We’d been teasing and flirting all night, and she was as eager as I was. I bent and kissed her.
“I can’t wait to feel you inside me,” she whispered when we broke the kiss.
“Mmm hmm,” I agreed quietly.
“Hey,” Erin said, “I have a great idea. Let’s go skinny dipping.”
“Isn’t it a bit cold?” Trip said.
“The pool is heated,” Leah said. “And so is the hot tub.”
“Yeah, awesome!” Erin said.
“I don’t know…,” Trip said.
“C’mon,” Erin said, “you’ll enjoy it. You’ve been to camp before. You’re practically a nudist.” She let her coat fall open suggestively. “Besides, don’t you want to see us naked?”
That was exactly what he wanted, and exactly what he was afraid of.
I started to come to his rescue, but Leah stopped me with a gentle touch. “Please,” she said.
“We’ll be on our best behavior,” Erin said to Trip. “We swear. You can look, but no touching.”
“You can touch me,” Leah whispered in my ear.
“I still don’t know…,” Trip said.
“Oh, please,” Erin begged. “It’ll be just like the club, except without clothes. I promise you won’t regret it.”
He wrestled with his conscience and lost in record time.
The Coulter house was dark and quiet when we arrived, so we came in through the back gate and avoided the house altogether. Leah turned on the pumps and lights, and made sure the thermostat was turned up on the hot tub so it would be ready for later. Then she and Erin shed their coats. Trip and I took off ours as the girls kicked off their heels.
Erin simply unclasped the halter on her dress and let it fall around her waist. Then she pushed it over her hips and posed for us to admire. She seemed a little curvier than I remembered, and her breasts were fuller. Her bush was trimmed into a neat little wedge, but otherwise she looked exactly like a younger version of Mom.
Leah did a little dance in order to coax her dress over her hips before she tugged it higher. Then she wriggled and managed to free her breasts. She got tangled up in the sleeves, so I suppressed a chuckle and stepped forward to help.
“There,” I said, and smiled down at her. Her nipples tightened into little brown points in the cold air, so I tweaked one and bent to give her a kiss.
Water splashed behind us as Erin and Trip jumped into the pool.
“You’re overdressed,” Leah said to me. Then she flashed a grin and shoved me back. “Last one in is a rotten egg!” She leapt away before I could catch her, and followed the other two into the water.
I took my time getting undressed, and folded my clothes neatly at the end of a chaise. Erin and Trip were splashing in the deep end, so I walked into the pool via the steps. Leah came to meet me and floated into my arms. Her hair was shiny and slick with water, and it shone with a blue-black nimbus in the light from the deep end.
“Hi, sexy,” I said softly. Then I kissed her. It had been entirely too long since I’d had sex with an actual woman, so my dick reacted predictably.
Leah stroked it and her dark eyes glittered. “You sure do know how to treat a girl.”
We kissed again and then swam to meet the others in the deep end. Erin had her arms around Trip’s neck, and she wrapped her legs around him as we approached. He didn’t know how to react, so he didn’t do anything. Even Leah realized his predicament. She asked Erin if she wanted to help get some wine.
“Sure,” Erin said. Then she gave Trip a suggestive look. “Don’t go anywhere.”
The girls climbed the ladder and I took a moment to admire their water-slick bodies. Trip did the same. It was hard not to, especially for a guy who didn’t have a lot of experience being a nudist.
“Are you okay?” I asked as soon as the girls were out of earshot.
“Yeah, I’m cool,” he said. “It’s just casual.”
He sounded like he was trying to convince himself more than me, so I let it drop.
The girls returned a few minutes later with a big bottle of white wine and four acrylic wine glasses. Trip did the honors as the girls slipped into the warm water. We hung out and talked in the shallow end for a while, sitting on the steps to keep out of the cold air as much as possible.
Leah seemed relaxed and mellow as she leaned against me, but Erin was in full-on flirt mode. She laughed at all of Trip’s jokes, no matter how lame, and she couldn’t keep her hands off him. She didn’t grope or anything, but she touched him every chance she got.
Trip was a little uncomfortable, but seemed to lose his reserve with every sip of wine. I wanted to ask Erin what she thought she was doing, but didn’t want to make a scene. So I suggested we move to the hot tub and held her back as the others climbed out of the pool.
I pitched my voice low, but I didn’t hold back. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“What do you mean? Let go of me.”
“Not until you tell me what’s going on. Why are you flirting with Trip?”
“I’m not flirting. I’m just being friendly.”
“Like hell,” I said. “You know he has a girlfriend. And you have a boyfriend.”
Erin scoffed. “Sean? He’s a loser.”
That was news to me, and my expression said so.
“Besides,” she added defensively, “it’s not like he’s here or anything.”
“Who cares if he’s here?” I said. “You can’t have a relationship with someone only when you’re with them!”
“I don’t see how it’s any of your business—”
“It’s my business because Trip’s my friend and you’re my sister.”
Her eyes flashed. “You’re not my father.”
“No, I’m your big brother. And if you want to fool around with someone, be my guest. But don’t do it behind your boyfriend’s back, and don’t do it with a guy who has a girlfriend. Two wrongs don’t make a right!”
“So? I’m going to dump Sean anyway.”
“But you haven’t yet,” I said, and she didn’t deny it. “So you’re still in a relationship, whether you like it or not.”
“You can’t tell me what to do!”
Trip called from the hot tub, “Are y’all coming?”
“Yeah, be right there,” I called back.
“It’s none of your business,” Erin whispered tersely. “I’m a grown-up and I can do what I want.”
“Besides, I’m not going to sleep with him or anything. I just want to have some fun. Is there anything wrong with that, Mother?”
“There is if your boyfriend—”
“Current boyfriend,” I argued.
“Fine,” I conceded, “it’s wrong if Sean doesn’t know about it. And what about Wren, Trip’s girlfriend? Have you thought about her?”
“God, Paul, when did you become such a hypocrite?” she accused in a low voice. “I mean, you can screw anything that moves, but I have to be some kind of virgin?”
“That’s not what I’m saying. If you’re in a relationship, you need to have some respect for that.”
“Respect for Sean? That insecure little wimp? Ha!”
“Okay, then have some respect for Trip’s relationship.”
“I don’t see her here either.”
I rolled my eyes. Erin could argue two sides of the same issue and win both arguments. “Whatever,” I said, exasperated. “Do what you’re going to do. I can’t stop you. But what would Dad say?”
That got through to her. “Jeez, Paul, you’re such a dweeb sometimes. I’m just having fun. I’m a grown woman and practically single.”
“‘Practically’ is the key word here.”
“You’re one to talk! I know all about you and the Raefords while you were still going with Kendall.” She had me there and she knew it, so she turned victory into a peace offering. “Look, I’m not going to do anything with Trip. I just want to flirt and have a little fun. Okay?”
“And I’ll break up with Sean the next time I talk to him. You’re right, it’s not fair to him.”
I nodded in acquiescence if not agreement.
“And I won’t do anything with Trip,” she added. “I swear. I know he has a girlfriend, and I don’t want to break them up or anything. I’m just having fun. Okay?”
“Yeah, okay,” I said at last.
“But thanks for looking out for me,” she said, and seemed to mean it. “I appreciate it, even if I don’t seem like it sometimes.”
“Everything okay over there?” Leah asked from the hot tub.
“Everything’s fine,” I said. “She just lost her contact.” I leaned close so only Erin would hear: “With reality.” I wasn’t sure if I was kidding or not.
“Wait…,” Leah called back, “she doesn’t wear contacts.”
“Yeah,” I said as we crossed the cold concrete, “I guess that explains why we never found it.”
Erin grinned and hugged my arm.
I was acutely aware of her breasts and how soft they were. I also noticed with an inward groan that my hand was tantalizingly close to her pussy.
“Thanks,” she said and released me.
We joined the others in the hot tub and Trip refilled our wine glasses. Erin sat beside him, close but not touching, and Leah floated into my lap as I settled on the seat. I wrapped my free arm around her and caressed her breast.
The conversation resumed like nothing had happened, and we quickly moved past the awkward moment. As the wine started to hit me, I began teasing Leah under cover of the bubbles. She spread her legs, so I took the hint and slipped a finger between her smooth labia. My erection pressed against her ass, but she was content to lean against me and let me play.
We were already buzzed from the club, so we finished the wine pretty quickly. Erin had shifted from sitting to kneeling, which put her closer to Trip and raised her breasts above the water. He was getting an eyeful and seemed to be enjoying the view. I barely noticed because Leah and I had escalated our underwater teasing. I was ready to explode, and I wasn’t going to be satisfied with a handjob.
Leah rested her head on my shoulder and whispered in my ear, “I wanna taste you so bad.”
That was all the suggestion I needed. I pulled my finger from her molten pussy and stood up with her still in my arms.
“Who wants more wine?” I said, and reached for my towel.
“I’ll go with you,” Leah said on cue.
We made a beeline for the house and didn’t even bother drying off. I simply closed the door behind us and led her toward the kitchen. Once there I spread my towel on the slate floor to give her some padding. She sank to her knees and immediately began kissing the length of my shaft.
It felt so good that I didn’t want to rush her, but I could already feel the orgasm boiling behind my balls. I held the back of her head and shoved my dick into her mouth. She mumbled something in surprise, but then began sucking. I didn’t last more than a minute or two before I felt the rush of semen.
I pulled back and began stroking my cock. She gazed up at me and opened her mouth to receive. The first spurt flew wide and arced along her cheek, but the next hit her tongue dead-center. She groaned and wrapped her lips around my glans. I continued pumping, and she moaned softly as each spurt hit the back of her throat. She swallowed and then sucked the remaining come from my shaft.
I was still hard and barely sated, so I picked her up and set her on the kitchen table. She lay back and spread her legs. I stepped between them and rubbed my cock against her smooth pussy. She was already wet, but I teased her anyway, circling my glans over her clit and then down the furrow of her labia.
“God, stop playing,” she whispered urgently. “Put it in.”
I eased into her and held her waist to keep her from sliding away as I began thrusting. Her firm breasts bounced each time I slammed into her, and I watched them in fascination for a moment. Then I let my gaze wander down her taut stomach to her pussy. Her outer lips parted around my girth, while her dark inner lips gripped my shaft every time I pulled back for another thrust.
We were both getting close when the light suddenly snapped on. I missed my thrust and my dick slipped free. Part of me wanted to put it back and keep fucking, but curiosity got the better of me and I looked at the doorway.
Elizabeth blinked, as surprised as we were. She recovered quickly, though. “Oh, hello. Sorry to intrude. I didn’t realize you’d come indoors.”
She was wearing a sheer white peignoir that did little to hide her lush figure and ample breasts. They were darker and heavier than Leah’s, but capped with the same chocolate-colored nipples. Her eyes lingered on my hard-on, wet and shiny with her daughter’s juices. Then she gazed down at Leah and smiled fondly.
“My beautiful girl,” she said.
I thought it was an odd thing to say, but then she did something even stranger. She bent and kissed Leah. It started as a chaste mother-daughter peck on the cheek, but then the older woman moaned and things heated up quickly. I blinked when Elizabeth squeezed her daughter’s breast and circled the nipple.
Leah reacted like a jolt of current had passed through her, but Elizabeth pulled back before she could do anything else.
“I envy you,” Elizabeth said to her. “You’re a beautiful young woman with a brilliant career ahead of you. And you have a wonderful man to provide all the come a woman needs.”
I blinked in confusion, but then realized that Elizabeth must have tasted the semen that had missed Leah’s mouth when I’d come earlier. It was like a drug to her, because she seemed to lose her judgment when she tasted it.
Leah stared at her, completely taken aback.
Elizabeth went a step further and pulled Leah to her feet. Then she gently pushed her to her knees in front of me.
“There you are,” she said in her soft British lilt. “Now you can suck him off like a proper young lady.”
With that, she gave me a kiss on the cheek, smiled, and patted my shoulder. She left without another word, and even turned off the light as she passed the switch.
Leah and I were still in shock, so neither of us reacted for several seconds. Then Leah boiled to her feet and started after her mother.
“Who does she think she is?” she sputtered.
I caught her arm to keep her from doing something she’d regret.
“Let go of me!”
“Oh no,” I said gently, and pulled her back from the doorway.
She struggled for a moment before she realized that I wasn’t going to let go. “Who does she think she is?” she said again. “‘Brilliant career,’” she mocked. “That’s her fantasy, not mine!”
“I know,” I soothed, but she was just getting started.
She raised her voice and half-shouted after her mother, “I will have a brilliant career, but not as a doctor, you overbearing—”
“Whoa there, missy.”
She rounded on me. “And you…,” she spat. “She thinks you’re nothing more than a walking semen factory. That doesn’t make you angry?”
“I’m pretty laid back these days,” I said, and realized that it was true. “You should try it some time.”
“Laid back?” she raged. “Laid back? You want me to be laid back, when she—?”
I kissed her to ward off another tirade. I tasted the semen that Elizabeth had tasted earlier, and it gave me an idea. I ran a finger along Leah’s cheek and collected the errant come. It was mostly dried, but I got enough for what I wanted. Leah had just opened her mouth for another rant when I touched my finger to her lips. She started to object, but then tasted the semen. Her lips closed around my finger instinctively.
“That’s why your mom got worked up,” I explained. “She must have tasted it when she kissed you. You know how she is.”
Leah wanted to continue the argument, but gave up with an angry huff.
I was still in the mood to finish what we’d started—well, part of me was—but Leah was clearly out of the mood. So I kissed her again, with more affection than lust. “Come on,” I said. “Let’s get the wine and head back to the hot tub. You’re not going to solve anything by having a fight with your mom.”
She glared but didn’t argue. So we picked up our towels, grabbed another bottle of wine, and returned to the others.
Trip and Erin moved apart as though we’d caught them in the middle of something. Erin’s smile was smug until she saw Leah’s expression. “What’s the matter?”
“Long story,” I said. “Some other time.”
I opened the bottle and poured, but Leah’s foul mood put a damper on the rest of the evening. So we finished the wine, turned off the lights and pumps, and returned to our clothes.
“Do you want to come home with me?” I asked Leah. I didn’t really think I’d get laid, but I still wanted to spend time with her.
She looked at me like I was an idiot for even asking, so I rewarded her with a goofy smile.
We gathered up the rest of our things and were about to leave when I said, “Shouldn’t you leave a note for your mom, to tell her where you are?”
“Screw her,” Leah said with enough venom to raise everyone’s eyebrows. “Let her wonder.”
“Are you sure?”
Erin caught my eye and shook her head to keep me from pushing it.
“Okay,” I said. “No problem. I’m sure she’ll figure it out.”
Later that night Leah was still fuming in bed. She hadn’t been able to sleep, and she’d kept me awake with her angry thrashing. When she realized that I was awake too, she started venting about her mother. I let her go on for a few minutes, offering one-word answers and general sympathy, but it was the same argument they’d been having for months. I put a stop to it by rolling on top of her.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she objected.
“Listen,” I said reasonably, “telling me all this stuff is like preaching to the choir. I can’t do anything about it, and I already agree with you. The only person who can fix things is you. You need to talk to her and tell her how you feel.”
“Yeah, like she’d listen.”
“Well, she can’t listen now,” I said, “because she’s not here. I am, though, and I can do something she can’t.”
Leah mocked, “Oh? And what’s that?”
“Fuck you senseless,” I said. “Then I’ll probably fuck you again for good measure. If you’re lucky, I’ll let you blow me in the morning.”
She started to say something, but I cut her off by kissing her, hard.
“Better,” I said. “Now close your mouth and open your legs.”
She didn’t do either, but she didn’t object as I spread her thighs with my knee. She felt my erection a moment later as it bumped against her pussy. She was closed and dry, but warmed up quickly when I began kissing her neck. I slid into her a few minutes later, and she dug her fingernails into my back.
We had hard, angry sex. She had a lot of pent-up aggression, which found its release under my pounding. She came in a rush and bit my shoulder to keep from crying out. I emptied my balls into her a moment later and we collapsed in a sweaty tangle.
Once wasn’t enough for her either, and she sucked my cock until I was hard enough to mount. Then she climbed on and rode me like Annie Oakley. She worked herself into a frenzy before she suddenly dismounted and grabbed my cock hard enough to make me yelp.
“Come in my mouth,” she demanded, “you walking semen factory.”
I blinked in surprise and then winced as she began stroking. I had to do something quickly if I wanted to save my prized possession, so I took over and wrapped my fist around my shaft.
“Play with yourself while I jerk off,” I told her, and she immediately thrust a hand between her legs.
She sucked my balls as she played with herself. She was a little rougher than I liked, but I focused on what I was doing and quickly reached the point of no return.
“Get ready,” I warned, and she rose on an elbow so she could wrap her lips around my cock.
She sighed when the first spurt coated her tongue, and I felt her tense with the first twinges of her own climax. She kept rubbing her clit and held my sperm in her mouth when I finished spurting.
She came a moment later. Her mouth was full, so her scream wasn’t a full-throated cry, but it was still loud enough. She spent several moments breathing through her nose before she swallowed my come and released my semi-hard cock. She was so exhausted that she didn’t even lick up the dribble that leaked onto my thigh.
“Good?” I asked when I caught my own breath.
“Very.” She mustered the energy to crawl up beside me.
I wrapped my arm around her.
“Thanks,” she said after a while. “I needed that.”
We lay in silence for a few minutes until she relaxed with a sleepy sigh. I kissed the top of her head and rubbed her back until she fell asleep for good. Then I pulled the covers over us and began to get settled myself. My mind was still going, but I had enough post-orgasm endorphins in my blood that it didn’t matter. I was asleep in minutes, if that.
I woke up several hours later, well before dawn, and went for a run to ward off a niggling hangover. My route took me past the basement rancher and then the Tudor. The rancher had been empty for months, so no one was tending the yard. It would definitely need some attention come spring. The pool and landscaping in the backyard would also need some work if we wanted to turn it into a selling point.
The Tudor’s owners were still living there, but they didn’t have the time or inclination to keep the place up, which was why it was on our list in the first place. The façade alone needed a lot of work, and I could only imagine what the inside looked like. We’d see as soon as we got the realtors involved, but that was still a ways off.
In spite of the two eyesore houses, the rest of the neighborhood was as picturesque as we could want, with large, well-manicured lawns and big old houses. The biggest and nicest were along a tree-lined boulevard that meandered through the center of the neighborhood. The rancher and Tudor were on side streets, but they still stuck out like sore thumbs among the houses that surrounded them.
I let my mind wander as I jogged through the early morning twilight and half-listened to the sounds of the world waking up around me. A circuit of the neighborhood finally took me back to the rancher after about an hour. I stopped and took another tour around the outside of the house, and peeked in where I could. I memorized what I saw of the layout and then continued on my way, just another early-morning jogger in a sleepy suburban neighborhood.
Trip was awake and finished in the bathroom by the time I returned. No one else was up, so I started a pot of coffee and poured myself a glass of orange juice. Trip followed his nose into the kitchen about ten minutes later. He took one look at the coffee maker and sighed like a man with a reason to live after all. I chuckled and finished my juice.
“Let me jump in the shower while you’re packing your things,” I said, “then I’ll see you off.”
He nodded over the rim of his coffee mug and took another sip.
We chatted about the houses before he left, but he was eager to get on the road. He probably couldn’t wait to see Wren, especially after the night before. I smiled to myself and wished him a safe trip. Then he climbed into his big Impala, waved once, and drove off.
Leah was still warm in bed when I returned, but she was beginning to stir. I slipped out of my clothes and climbed under the covers with her. I kissed my way down her body and spread her legs as I settled between them. I woke her up by licking and sucking until she came with a pillow-muffled scream.
Cool, fresh air filled my lungs as I emerged from under the covers. I rested my hips against hers while she caught her breath. Then she reached between us and set my erection at her opening. She closed her eyes as I pushed into her. She was a little sore from the night before, so we made love slowly, tenderly. Toward the end she wrapped her legs around me and urged me to come inside her.
A little while later I whipped up a breakfast fit for a king, as long as he was from a very small country. Leah didn’t seem to mind cereal, toast, and orange juice, and we ate sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed without a stitch of clothing or an ounce of self-consciousness.
“So,” she said when she finished the last of her cereal milk, “did Gina tell you she’s coming home for a couple of days next week?”
I still felt a thrill of desire at the mention of Gina’s name, but managed to hide it. I also stopped myself before I answered without thinking. “She’s coming home?” I said instead. “Oh. Okay.”
“She didn’t tell you?”
“I haven’t talked to her in…” I shrugged and hoped it didn’t look phony. “I dunno, a couple of months? Before Christmas, I guess.” Time to sound nonchalant: “Why?”
“Oh, no reason,” Leah lied. “I just thought you might want to see her is all.”
I pretended to think about it before I nodded. “Yeah, it’d be nice to see her, but I guess we’ve both moved on. You know?”
Leah set her empty bowl aside and gave me a kiss. Then she reached for my flaccid penis and crawled forward. I barely had time to put my own bowl on the tray before she drove me onto my back. I grinned as her silky black hair tickled my cheeks.
“You’re totally lying,” she said, although she didn’t sound upset. “I saw how you reacted when I said her name.”
I started to deny it, but something told me to shut up and let her finish.
“You still tried to hide it,” she said, “which means a lot.”
“I can’t help the way I feel about Gina,” I said. “Just like I can’t help the way I feel about you. It’s different, but…”
“Just as hard,” she finished with a grin, and she wasn’t talking about emotions.
I lifted my head and gazed between us as she steadied my erection with one hand.
“But Gina,” she said with a soft moan as she impaled herself, “isn’t in bed with you.”
“You didn’t wake her up by going down on her…”
“And she isn’t going to swallow your come after she rides you to another orgasm.”
“Definitely not,” I agreed.
Leah and I spent the rest of the weekend together. Erin joined us for part of it, after a long and emotional phone call with Sean. She’d broken up with him in the end, but she was more upset than she wanted to admit. So we took her to the mall and did our best to distract her. She wouldn’t get over him as soon as she wanted, but she’d survive.
Unfortunately, Leah had to go to school on Monday. Her spring break didn’t start for another week, so I was left mostly to my own devices. I used the time to catch up on my workouts and begin sketching ideas for the houses. I was eager to get started, because I’d already decided that we wanted the rancher and Tudor.
Trip wouldn’t be hard to convince, especially since they were at the top of his short list too. We still had to get them for the right price, but that was his department. Mine was the designs themselves, and I already had more ideas than time to sketch.
Leah and I spent the night together before I had to drive back to Knoxville. As a testament to the odd nature of our relationship, we spent less time having sex and more time talking about some guy she liked. He sounded like a typical jock, good-looking and popular. Leah herself was popular enough, but she wasn’t part of his exalted crowd.
Part of me wanted to tease her for having a crush on the star football player, but another part understood her girlish excitement. So I was more than happy to listen while she gushed about him. And in between her starry-eyed fantasies, she did to me what she wanted to do to him. He’d be a lucky guy if he ever started dating her.
I packed my things and left the next morning. Erin and Leah were already at school, so I said goodbye to Mom and Dad (who was home for six days in between trips). Then I loaded my clean laundry in the Cruiser and headed out.
Registration for spring quarter went smoothly, much to my relief. The registrar had my schedule correct, the bursar had the right fees, and my scholarship check was waiting at Financial Aid. Mrs. Halberstam even recognized me and came over to make sure everything was in order. I thanked her and went on my way, tuition in hand.
With everything going so well, I shouldn’t have been surprised when things changed. Professor Joska found me in the A&A building while I was talking with some friends.
“Ah, Mr. Hughes,” he said. “I’m glad I found you.”
My friends deserted me, the rats.
Joska barely noticed. “Did you have a good spring break?”
“Yes, sir, thank you. How was yours?”
“Very busy, very busy,” he said. “I was preparing something special for the fifth-year classes.”
I nodded as though I didn’t pity those poor schmucks. I’d be one of them eventually, but not for a while, thank God.
“Which brings me to the purpose of this conversation,” Joska continued. “I just spoke to Miss Fisher, and she agreed to participate.”
I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. “Participate in what?”
“A special project, of course,” he said. “I would like you and she to work together on an analysis of one of the major design movements in Twentieth Century architecture.”
You’re kidding, right? “For extra credit?” I asked hopefully.
“For extra knowledge,” he countered, “which is far more valuable.”
“Of course,” I answered through a fake smile. In my copious spare time? Yeah, right.
“Excellent. I felt certain that you’d want to participate.”
“Want” is probably too strong a word, I thought sarcastically. “Be forced at grade-point” is more like it. But I smiled like I agreed.
“I hope you’ll pardon my assumption, but I asked Miss Fisher to contact you this evening to discuss the movement upon which you want to focus.”
“Thank you, sir,” I lied. “It sounds like fun.”
“Very well, then,” he said. “I’ll see you in class on Monday. Good day.”
I said goodbye and mentally canceled my weekend plans. I’d had a vague idea of flying home to see Gina—with the excuse that I was meeting Mike Junior and Big Jim to show them the houses—but that definitely wasn’t going to happen.
“Oh well,” I said to myself. “Probably for the best. Leah and I get along so much better when I’m not putting the moves on her sister.”
Two girls nearby turned and scowled.
And I wondered why I didn’t have a girlfriend?
Gracie was excited about the project. She already had a dozen ideas and seemed to be working up to more. I wasn’t sure there even were a dozen major architectural movements during the Twentieth Century, but I didn’t want to dampen her enthusiasm, especially so early in the quarter.
We spent part of Saturday afternoon in her dorm room, a single in Strong Hall. The building was old and quaint, and supposedly haunted by the ghost of Sophie Strong herself. I wasn’t sure about the ghost, but Gracie’s room had its own tiny bathroom, so that was nice.
Haunted buildings aside, I definitely got a weird vibe from Gracie herself. We were the top students in the second year, so we should’ve been arch-rivals, but she didn’t see it that way. Of course, her vision of our relationship didn’t quite match mine. She saw us as a team with her in charge, where I would complement her talents and defer to her wishes. I was too polite to tell her what I thought about that idea. I wasn’t going to play second fiddle to anyone, no matter how talented they were. No matter how attractive, either.
We argued back and forth about which movements we wanted to analyze. I liked the International style and wanted to focus on Charles and Ray Eames. My second choice was the Bauhaus movement, which combined design and fine arts. Gracie couldn’t have been more opposite. She liked mid-century Brutalism and slab-sided Postmodern abominations.
As far as I was concerned, the beauty of architecture was its ability to combine form and function into a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. It should be pleasing to the eye at the same time that it served its intended purpose. Moreover, I wanted people to look at my designs and see a reflection of beauty in the world around them.
For Gracie, architecture was about making a statement. It was about rejecting the past and creating a “new aesthetic that embodies change.” (Yes, she actually said that. I almost gagged.) She wanted people to look at her designs and ask questions about what it meant to be part of modern society and why they should reject the status quo.
In short, Gracie wanted to change the world, and architecture was the message.
I just wanted to make beautiful things, and architecture was the medium.
“Okay,” I said at last, “we’re at an impasse. I say we go to the library and start looking for research material. We don’t have to decide which style right now. Heck, the quarter hasn’t even officially started yet.”
“But if you’d just look at things from—”
I held up a hand to cut her off. “Library,” I said tersely. “Now.” I began to gather my things. I was going with or without her.
She decided on “with,” so she slid into her shoes and picked up her book bag. “I still say—”
“Save it.” I was done arguing, but she hadn’t gotten the message yet.
She tried one more time as we walked across campus, although she finally got a clue when I commented on the weather.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the architecture section of the library, poring over design books and magazines. I was mostly quiet throughout, although Gracie tried to change my mind a couple of times. She never came right out and restarted the argument, but everything she showed me had an underlying theme: do things her way.
We didn’t decide anything that day, although we both learned a lot about the past eighty years of architecture. That was probably what Professor Joska intended in the first place. I didn’t have good things to say about his ideas either.
My courses were the usual mix of architecture and required electives, but I was also taking a fun class, Asian Art. That was Glen’s influence. He was a quiet man by nature, although I had learned how to draw him out by asking about the Japanese warrior philosophy. I wanted to learn more, but UT didn’t offer classes in bushido, so the art class was the closest thing that also satisfied an architecture elective.
I had three classes with Gracie, as well as several other friends from the design track, but Trip and I only had Joska’s class together. He was trying to get a business minor, so he spent most of the morning taking classes that’d bore me to tears.
In addition to everything else, Wren and I had signed up to model for Siobhan three times a week after lunch, and again on Tuesdays and Thursdays before lunch. So I’d be busy every day until two o’clock, except on Wednesdays, when I had Joska’s design lab until five. I had some free time in the afternoons, but I knew I’d fill it with homework, studying, and regular trips to the gym.
During the day I spent most of my time in the A&A building. That gave me lots of time to work on design projects. I also saw the same group of people, so I eventually ran into Daphne and Sara. I gave Daphne a friendly kiss on the cheek and had an awkward moment with Sara before she decided that I was worthy of a hug after all. Neither of us missed Daphne’s smile and laughing gray eyes.
“Whatever,” Sara said.
“How’d you do on your portfolio review?” I asked to break the ice.
Sara actually blushed.
“Um… yeah,” she said. “About that picture.”
“The one of your… um…”
“Cock,” Daphne supplied with a barely concealed grin.
Sara glared. “Yeah, that one.”
“What about it?” I asked.
“My professor thought it was really good. She liked the whole series.”
Daphne’s eyes sparkled with mischief again. “She liked your cock.”
“Can we change the subject?” Sara asked tersely.
“Fine by me,” I said, “but you’re the one who brought it up.” If Daphne was going to tease her girlfriend, I wouldn’t abandon her when she needed me most. Besides, I was enjoying myself at Sara’s expense.
“Anyway,” she continued doggedly, “she wants to know if you’d be interested in modeling for her sometime.”
“She wants to see your cock,” Daphne added with another grin.
“Okay,” Sara snapped, “enough about his cock!”
Several passers-by overheard and looked at us in shock. Daphne and I just laughed, but Sara seemed even more embarrassed. “I hope you two are having fun,” she growled. Then she suppressed her pique and glared at me for good measure. “This is all your fault.”
“Anyway,” she went on, as if no one were staring at us, “she wants you to stop by her office if you’re interested.”
Daphne added, “So she can see your cock.”
“Will you quit already?” Sara said in exasperation. “My grade depends on keeping this woman happy. All right?”
“Sorry,” Daphne said, although her eyes said otherwise.
“Yeah, I’ll behave too,” I added.
“I’m starting to really dislike you,” Sara said to me.
I didn’t even try to hide my amusement. “I can tell.”
“Fine. Whatever. I gave you the message. Now fuck off.”
“Ah,” I said, “that’s the Sara I know and love.”
She looked like she wanted to hit me. Instead, she turned on her heel and stalked toward the door.
“Call me sometime,” I called after her. “We’ll do lunch. You can see my—”
She glared over her shoulder and dared me to say it.
Daphne blew me a quick kiss and hurried after her.
I just chuckled.
I was still smiling when I noticed Christy watching from the stairs. She gave me a look of studied indifference and continued on her way.
Wren and I decided to eat lunch together before Siobhan’s class. Trip still wasn’t entirely comfortable with us modeling together, but he had grown a bit more secure in their relationship. He also seemed to understand, finally, that he couldn’t tell Wren what to do. She was as strong-willed as anyone I knew, me included, which probably explained why I liked her so much.
“Hey,” she said after she finished her sandwich, “I know this is kind of last-minute, but I want to plan a surprise party for Trip’s birthday.”
“Last-minute?” I almost choked. “His birthday is tomorrow. The only way it could be more last-minute is if you do it at the last minute… literally. Are you serious?”
“Yeah. And I was hoping you’d help.”
“Of course I’ll help,” I said. “He’s my best friend. What do you have in mind?”
“Something big and kinda wild,” she said. “Maybe you could ask Luke to fix some of his gumbo. I’ll buy the groceries and all.”
“I’ll pay for half,” I said.
“You don’t have to do that.”
“No problem,” I said. I still had quite a bit left over from the houses the year before, even with the majority set aside to reinvest for the next summer. “Do you wanna buy booze or make it BYOB?”
“I want to take care of everything, but that’ll get expensive.” She looked thoughtful. “I know! We can set out a tip jar for contributions.” She began ticking off a mental list: “Wine coolers, beer, liquor, and mixers, of course. We’ll also need some kind of snacks to keep people from getting too drunk, and a cake for dessert.”
I chuckled at her thoroughness. Then again, her father was a successful restaurateur for a reason, and the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
“I was also thinking we could decorate the apartment,” she said, and we began planning in earnest.
I went to judo practice after design lab on Wednesday. I was tired after spending all day in class, but also tense and full of energy, so I wanted to burn off some aggression on the mat. Wednesdays were perfect for that, because practice ended with open sparring. Any judoka could challenge another within the same general weight class.
I always challenged fighters of a lower kyu, which meant they were more advanced than me. I tried to choose opponents who were good enough to be a serious challenge, but not so good that I didn’t have a chance of winning. I lost more than I won, but I rarely made the same mistake twice, and I’d been working my way through the ranks ever since my first challenge.
Some guys enjoyed the chance to spar with me, because they knew I wanted to improve, but others were annoyed that I challenged outside my kyu. I didn’t really care what the latter group thought, or why they didn’t like me. The only way to improve was to set goals higher than I could achieve at the moment. It was an extension of Michelangelo’s philosophy, and I tried to live by it.
I was feeling ornery that night—Joska had gotten under my skin during lab—so I challenged one of the complainers, a guy named Kyle. He was good but a bit of a slacker, and I thought I could beat him. He rolled his eyes like he wanted to blow me off, but that would’ve been worse than fighting and losing. So he rose from the circle and met me in the center of the mat.
The others cheered us on and shouted suggestions as we circled and sized each other up. He looked like he wasn’t taking me seriously, so I let him get ahead of me as we turned. Then I feigned a stutter-step and dropped my left arm.
He only saw the opening I’d given him, so he lunged and grabbed the shoulder of my gi. He didn’t see how it would leave him vulnerable, or what I could do when he overextended. He found out when I turned his momentum into a sumi gaeshi reversal and scored an ippon, an instant win.
I started to return to the center of the mat, but Kyle shot to his feet and swung a fist that nearly connected with my ear. One of the sensei was acting as referee, and he caught Kyle in an arm bar.
“Ma-te!” the sensei barked. He made sure Kyle had his temper under control before he released him and said to the group, “He who can suppress a moment’s anger may prevent many days’ sorrow.” Then he looked at Kyle and added privately, “To lose is to learn. Remember that.”
“Yes, sensei,” Kyle said, although it was grudging.
We bowed to each other, but his expression said that things weren’t over between us. He was a Pike, I remembered too late, from the same fraternity as Rod Fortner. I normally tried to steer clear of trouble with Greeks—Glen was a KA, and two of my roommates were in fraternities—but I decided that I wouldn’t steer clear of this particular asshole. I wouldn’t go looking for trouble, but I’d return it with interest if it found me.
The matches resumed after that, and Glen stood up to challenge one of the first dan guys, a black belt. The other fighter was a football player and one of the few black guys in the club. He was also one of the judoka who welcomed a challenge. He met Glen in the center of the mat, where they bowed and took their stances.
I knew that Glen was good, but I rarely got to see him at the top of his game. Despite being a big guy, he was agile and extremely strong. His opponent was just as muscular, and at least an inch taller than Glen’s 6’4”. He looked like an African god, but he hadn’t risen to first dan on size and strength alone.
The two fighters put on an amazing performance. Neither could get an advantage on the other, and they used moves that I didn’t even know the names for. The match lasted nearly fifteen minutes, until the referee called time.
Both judoka bent over in exhaustion as the referee consulted with the other sensei who’d been scoring the match. They awarded the victory to the black belt by a single point. The winner bowed to Glen and then pulled him into a hug.
The rest of us mobbed them at that point, and the practice broke up on a high note. I noticed Kyle hanging back with a small group of malcontents, but I didn’t think anything of it at the time.
Trip had class on Thursday afternoon, so Wren and I grabbed Christy and Luke and headed to the grocery store. We loaded an entire cart with food for the party. My jaw dropped at the bill, but Wren didn’t bat an eye as she wrote a check to pay for it all. Then we drove to the liquor store, where Luke and Christy went a little nuts. Luke and I had to make four trips to the Cruiser to load it all. Wren paid for everything with surprising equanimity, while I cringed at what my half would come to.
It was for a good cause, though. Trip was my best friend, and if I couldn’t spend money on my friends, what good was it anyway? Luke and Christy had fun too, especially since they got to shop for all the stuff and didn’t have to pay for it.
Luke told Boudreaux and Thibodeaux jokes on the way back to campus, and I laughed so hard I could barely see straight to drive. Even Christy had loosened up since the first part of the trip. We pulled into the driveway at the apartment building when Wren looked at her watch.
“Oh, crap!” she said. “I need to run. Trip is supposed to be at my place in twenty-five minutes, and I still need to shower and do my hair.”
“I’ll help,” Christy volunteered.
“Luke and I will take care of this stuff,” I said. “You get ready. Go.”
“Are you sure?”
“Duh,” I said. “Go!”
She gave me a grateful kiss before she looked over her seat at Christy. “Do you think we can do it?”
Christy nodded. “Piece of cake!”
The girls grinned and then ran inside. Luke went to find a luggage cart while I took a blanket from the back of the car and covered the cases of alcohol (UT was officially a dry campus). As I waited for him to return, I thought about what Christy had said. My father said the same thing, and I’d learned the expression from him.
“Mais,” Luke said as he arrived with the cart and interrupted my woolgathering, “we gonna have us a good ol’ time!”
I laughed and agreed.
“Say,” he asked as we loaded the cart, “you know if Christy is seein’ anyone?”
“You don’ have eyes? Sha! She’s cute as a button.”
“I don’t think she’s your type.”
“She’s female, ain’t she?”
“She’s definitely female,” I said, “but I think she is seeing someone.”
“You sho’? She don’ ack like it.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I think she is. He’s in California.” Christy could take care of herself, but for some reason I didn’t like the idea of Luke chasing her. He never had a serious girlfriend and rarely slept with any of them more than twice. Women were disposable as far as he was concerned, and I had a visceral reaction to that kind of attitude.
“Shame,” he said, and I thought that was the end of it.
We wheeled the heavily-laden cart toward the door. Trip and Wren planned to spend the night at her place, but we couldn’t keep him away from ours the entire time until the party. He was supposed to change clothes at Wren’s apartment, but if he came upstairs and found the groceries, we’d explain that they were Luke’s for a frat party. The liquor and decorations were easier. We simply stashed them in Luke and Jeff’s room and closed the door.
Luke returned the luggage cart while I parked my car in the non-commuter garage. I ran into Trip and Wren as I returned.
“You look sharp, dude,” I said.
My jaw dropped when I took a good look at Wren. Christy had teased her hair out with enough hairspray to defy a tornado, and she wore a gray dress and diamond drop necklace that drew my gaze to her cleavage. I reluctantly pulled my eyes away and took a step back to appreciate the full effect. She looked like the cover of Playboy.
“Wow,” I said at last, “you look awesome.”
“Thanks,” she said. Then she grinned sidelong at Trip. “And thanks for letting Christy spend the night at your place.”
He blushed at the allusion, which was what she’d wanted.
“Any time,” I said. “I told her she could crash in Trip’s bed, but she said she’d rather sleep on the couch.”
“She probably figures you’ll have company,” Wren said.
I barked a laugh. “Not likely. Anyway, you kids have fun.” I blinked at the déjà vu moment, but waved as they headed to his car.
Upstairs in our apartment Christy and Luke were already putting away the groceries. He was flirting with her, and she didn’t seem to mind. It bugged me, though, especially since I’d told him that she had a boyfriend. It was a lie, but he didn’t know that.
He did what he normally did, though, which was think with his dick. I wasn’t in the mood to analyze the irony of that thought, so I told him, “Don’t worry about this stuff, dude. We’ll take care of it. I’m sure you have a date or something.”
“Nope,” he said. “I’m all yours tonight.”
Super, I thought.
“Why don’t you mix us some drinks,” Christy suggested.
“Aw, sha,” he said, “I thought you’d never ask.”
I hid my irritation and decided to put on some music. Someone knocked on the door before I reached the stereo, so I turned and went to answer it. I must have looked annoyed, because the girl outside jumped when I yanked the door open.
Then I got a good look at her and my annoyance turned to surprise.
“Oh, hi,” I said. “What’re you doing here?”