Scipio S by Nick Scipio Book 4: Wren

Chapter 24

We relaxed in the clearing for another hour before we gathered our things and headed back. We were all in a good mood, so we chatted and joked until we reached the main camp.

About twenty people were enjoying the late afternoon sun by the lake, so we cleaned up our banter as we trooped past. A couple of women stared at us, but I didn’t think anything of it at the time. Then we received a few more stares on the road past the clubhouse.

The girls were talking about the metalwork outfits, so they didn’t notice. Trip did, though, and nudged me with a questioning look. I shrugged and then idly glanced at the girls. The answer hit me at once, and I wanted to kick myself for not noticing sooner.

Leah’s skin was dark brown except for the pale triangle that her bikini bottoms normally covered. And if I could see her ass, everyone in front could see her pussy. No wonder people had been staring! They were used to seeing young girls without pubic hair, but not grown women, even young ones.

We had probably caused a minor scandal, but I told myself that it was the Eighties. Besides, shaved pubic hair wasn’t any different than shaved legs or armpits, and even the most prudish women did that. Still, I didn’t want to cause trouble for Susan, so I casually unslung my backpack and rummaged until I found Leah’s bikini bottoms. They were wrapped in one of the towels, which explained why we’d missed them in the first place.

Leah turned to say something and caught sight of them. Her eyes widened with panic as she looked down and realized she was completely nude. She grabbed the bottoms and immediately stepped into them.

Wren tried to laugh it off. “Why bother?”

“It’s kind of a big deal,” I explained. “Not to us, but this is a family camp. People have been staring since we passed the lake.”

“So?” Wren pressed. “Isn’t it like a hard-on? I mean, people just ignore those, right?”

“Yes and no. Nudists are kinda touchy about sex. Some of them, at least.”

“That’s their problem.”

“Not really. I mean… you don’t get it.”

“Then you’re not explaining it right.”

I rolled my eyes in annoyance.

“Let’s just go to the cabin,” Trip said reasonably. “Lady Godiva has already ridden through town.”

Wren and I gave him a surprised look.

“What? What’s done is done,” he said. “Besides, someone has to be the practical one. You two would stand here and argue all day.”

“No we wouldn’t,” I said.

“Not all day,” Wren muttered.

We both knew that he was probably right, but neither of us wanted to give him the satisfaction.

He understood anyway. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

Wren and I shared a grin.

“You think this is funny?” Leah protested. “I just ruined my reputation!”

“Whoa, we don’t think it’s funny.”

“And you didn’t ruin your reputation,” Wren added.

“You don’t know people around here,” Leah said. “They’re super judgmental.”

“Okay,” I said, “maybe Wren’s right after all: that’s their problem. It’s your body. You can do what you want with it.” I shrugged. “I’ll talk to Susan in the morning, though. I’m sure she’ll have heard about it by then. She’ll know what to do.”

✧ ✧ ✧

We didn’t have to wait that long. About an hour later Susan stopped by the cabin and invited us to come down to the clubhouse for movie night. She didn’t say anything about Leah’s bottomless jaunt, but she was obviously up to something. I caught her eye and silently asked, but she gave me a little “not now” headshake.

“Do you think I’m in trouble?” Leah wondered after she’d gone.

“I doubt it,” I said. “Susan doesn’t beat around the bush.”

“Ha ha,” Leah said sarcastically.

I laughed. “I didn’t mean it that way, but yeah.”

After dinner we collectively gathered our courage and headed down the hill to the clubhouse. Leah wore her bikini bottoms, of course, but we were all thinking the same thing: what would people say when they saw her?

Visitors at the Pines fell into three general groups: the swingers like my family and friends; the people who knew about the swinging and simply ignored it; and the “normal” people who didn’t have a clue and were just there for the rustic setting. Most of the people who had seen Leah were in the last group, hence their surprise (and in some cases, shock and indignation).

We arrived at the clubhouse and discovered complete normality. No lynch mob. No witch-hunt. No uproar. I took a moment to register that no one was staring at us. Instead, people were talking in groups, playing games, or preparing movie snacks in the kitchen.

I scanned the room and spotted Susan. Then I did a double take to make sure it was her. Leah saw her at the same time, and her eyes widened too.

“What?” Wren said. She followed my gaze and then laughed.

“Is she…?” Trip asked.

“Uh-huh,” Leah and I said at the same time. We shared a nervous look.

“But I thought she… you know,” Trip said, with a vague gesture at his loins. “Like Leah.”

“She does,” I said.

“Then where are her bikini bottoms?”

Susan’s pale bottom stood out in a crowd of tanned cheeks.

All of a sudden Wren laughed. “Public Relations 101.”

The rest of us stared at her.

“Educate the marketplace and create a positive image. Brilliant.”

“I don’t get it,” Trip said.

“Neither do I,” I admitted.

“It’s simple,” Wren said. “Nudists are touchy about sex. Some of them, right?”

“Yeah.”

“So Leah probably caused a stir today, at least with the prudes. I’m sure they complained to Susan.”

“Probably,” I agreed. “Busybody stuff.”

“Exactly,” Wren continued. “Susan is showing the entire camp that not only will Leah not suffer any consequences, but that she approves. Susan, I mean. Who’s going to complain about her, much less to her face? So she’s educating people and creating a positive image by saying, ‘Look at me. See how I approve?’ She’s the main trendsetter here, and the only one who really matters.”

“But why?” I said.

Wren rolled her eyes. “Because she owns the place. What she says goes.”

“I understand that,” I said impatiently. “Why come to movie night without her bottoms? Why show everyone?”

PR 101 again,” Wren said. “Show, don’t tell. It’s like… the Pepsi Challenge. Pepsi can say it tastes better than Coke—”

“It doesn’t,” I said at once. Leah agreed.

I know that,” Wren said, annoyed. We were from Atlanta, after all, home of Coca-Cola. “But a lot of people are on the fence. Pepsi can say whatever they like, but if they show people that Pepsi tastes better…”

“Seeing is believing,” Trip said.

“Mmm-hmm. That’s why they have all those Pepsi Challenge commercials. Show, don’t tell.”

Susan must have sensed us talking about her, because she looked toward us. She smiled and beckoned us over. She was talking to a couple in their early thirties, “normal” camp visitors. The man was doing his best to keep his eyes above waist level, but he clearly wanted to get a better look at Susan’s pubic area. The woman was acutely aware of her husband’s interest, but I got the distinct impression that she wanted to look as well.

Susan made introductions and was her usual charming self, the consummate hostess. She was especially warm and friendly to Leah, which did a lot to quell Leah’s jitters. Then she excused herself and moved on to another group, also from the mundane end of the visitor spectrum.

We made small talk with the couple for a few minutes. They obviously knew about Leah’s bottomless trip through camp, but they didn’t say anything. After a few minutes they moved on to talk to another couple their age.

We headed toward the couches, where my mom and Leah’s parents were.

“Well,” Elizabeth said, “you caused quite a kerfuffle.”

Leah actually blushed.

“It was my fault,” I said. “I rolled her bikini in a towel and we didn’t notice until too late.”

“We figured it was something like that,” Chris said.

“You need to be more careful next time,” Elizabeth told Leah.

“It really wasn’t her fault,” I repeated. “It was mine.”

“It wasn’t anyone’s fault,” Chris said.

My mom agreed with a nod.

“Besides,” Chris continued, to his wife more than us, “Susan will smooth things over. She’s been looking for a reason to make some changes anyway. You said so yourself.”

“Yes,” Elizabeth agreed tersely, “but it should have been her choice about when and how.”

“Every crisis is an opportunity,” Chris said. “Although this is hardly what I’d call a crisis.”

“What about the family that left?” Elizabeth shot back. “Would they call it a crisis?”

“They were pious prigs and you know it.”

“Hold on,” I said. “Someone left? As in, ‘left camp’?”

Leah seemed to wilt.

“Sort of,” Chris admitted.

My mom laughed. “More like, Susan gave them a refund and asked them to leave. Immediately. Good riddance, too.”

“Don’t worry about it, pumpkin,” Chris said to Leah. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“A few ruffled feathers is all,” my mom agreed.

Elizabeth pursed her lips and swallowed whatever she wanted to say. I suspected that she was arguing with Chris more than Leah. She seemed to realize that, and I watched her visibly adjust her attitude. She put a hand on his arm and looked at Leah.

“They’re right, sweetheart,” Elizabeth said to her daughter. “You’re almost an adult—”

I hid a smile at her deliberate use of “almost.”

“—and you didn’t mean to cause trouble.”

“On the contrary,” my mom said. “She’s given Susan the excuse she’s been looking for.” She turned to us. “She’s been, ahem, ‘chafing’ at having to wear bottoms in her own camp.”

I shot her a grin for the pun.

“I just wish it hadn’t been my daughter who gave her the excuse,” Elizabeth said.

Chris shrugged. “Had to be someone. Might as well be someone tough enough to endure the criticism and smart enough to counter it.” He nodded to Leah and then turned to his wife. “You didn’t raise a shrinking violet, dear.”

“No, I most certainly did not,” Elizabeth said, with more than a touch of rueful pride. She and Leah had had their own share of disagreements. She mustered a smile for her daughter. “Well done.”

Leah didn’t know how to react to the sudden approval.

I put an arm around her and gave her a reassuring squeeze.

“Well done, indeed,” my mom echoed. She patted the couch next to her. “Now, come tell me about Bob’s jewelry. He’s very talented, isn’t he?”

Leah still looked a bit stunned, but she sat down and let my mom draw her into conversation.

Susan continued to circulate and “educate,” until Bill the projectionist was ready to start the movie. He normally introduced the feature, but Susan walked to the front of the room and smiled as everyone took their seats. She could’ve been wearing an African tribal mask and no one would have noticed. Instead, every eye in the room was on her smooth pubic area.

She thanked us for coming and said a few more words, but her real purpose was to show that she was shaved. She didn’t say anything overt, but her message was clear: “I set the standard for acceptable.” I had to admire her confidence and eloquence. When she finished, she smiled at Leah as if to thank her for the opportunity.

Leah was beside herself.

I hugged her again. “Told you she’d know what to do.”

✧ ✧ ✧

The next morning Leah and I returned the wire outfits and nipple jewelry to Mr. Nelson. He asked about the photo session and managed it in a way that didn’t make him sound like a pervert. He told me about a discreet photo developer in town, and I promised I’d have prints made before we left camp on Sunday.

We were on our way to the lake to meet Trip and Wren when Susan found us near the clubhouse. She wasn’t wearing her bikini bottoms. I’d never been shy about looking, so I did. She caught me and gave a half-smile. Then she gestured to Leah.

“Not quite ready to… hmm, let the cat out of the bag, shall we say?”

“I didn’t know if I should,” Leah said. “I don’t want to cause any more trouble.”

“Nonsense. Do whatever you like. You’re a grown woman as far as I’m concerned, so it’s up to you. Most everyone knows by now, I’m sure, although I don’t think they’ll say anything. I nipped that in the bud last night.”

“Thank you.”

“My camp, my rules. And I don’t tolerate busybodies or self-righteous types. I’m too old and too outspoken for that nonsense.”

I laughed. “You’re not old.”

“I’m glad you think so, but you know I’m right.”

“Well, maybe about being outspoken. But you’re not old.”

She rolled her eyes and smiled at Leah. “Men. They’ll say anything if they think they’ll get lucky.”

I started to protest.

“You know I’m kidding,” Susan said. “I think we’re past that point in our relationship.”

“I dunno,” I argued. “You look pretty good without your bikini.”

Leah swatted me. “You really will say anything to get lucky.”

I held up my hands to ward off their teasing. “Okay, okay, you’re right!”

“Of course we are,” Susan said with a smile. “Now, the real reason I stopped you. Leah, dear, you had a phone call this morning.”

Her eyebrows shot up.

Susan unfolded a piece of note paper and read, “From Mark. He wants you to return his call at this number.” She handed the paper to Leah, who scanned it quickly.

“Mark called here?”

“Mmm hmm.” Susan was too polite to ask, but her curiosity was obvious.

“Her boyfriend,” I explained.

“I thought it was something like that.”

“Yeah. Leah can tell you more, but he and I have a lot in common, if you know what I mean.”

“Physically…?”

“Experience-wise,” I said, and gave her a significant look.

Leah missed the exchange. “He called here?” she repeated. “Did he sound upset?”

“Not at all,” Susan said. “More… excited.”

“I gave him your number,” Leah said absently, “but told him it was only for emergencies.”

“It didn’t sound like an emergency,” Susan assured her. “Or, if it is, it’s a good one. You can call him now if you like.”

“Meet you down at the lake,” I told Leah.

Susan and Leah turned and headed toward her house, which had one of the few telephones in camp.

Leah joined me by the lake about ten minutes later.

“Everything okay?” I asked.

“He wants me to go to a Shuttle launch with him.”

Trip and Wren sat up at that.

“The one with Sally Ride,” Leah explained. “It’s supposed to launch on Saturday, and Mark’s dad can get us in to see it.”

“Cool,” Trip said.

“Yeah, Sally Ride.”

Then it hit me. “Um… if the launch is Saturday…?”

“Do you mind?” Leah asked.

I did, but I couldn’t begrudge her the experience. Besides, Mark was her boyfriend, not me. “A little,” I said, “but not enough to be a jerk.”

“Thank you. I knew you’d understand.” She fretted. “But I have to decide right now and call him back. If Mom lets me go, I have to go back to Atlanta, pack a suitcase, and meet him in Orlando. Then we’ll drive over to Cape Canaveral.”

“I guess we’d better get a move on,” I said with as much enthusiasm as I could manage. “Especially if you need to get back to Atlanta today.”

“You really don’t mind?”

“Not at all,” I fibbed. “Now, talk to your parents. I’ll head up to Susan’s and call the airport. Back in a few.”

She nodded and looked for her parents to give them the news.

I returned before she finished talking to them. Things didn’t seem to be going well—Leah looked upset and defiant—so I decided to insert myself, if only to keep her from doing something she’d regret.

“But why not?” she said to her mother as I approached.

Elizabeth looked up and saw me. She bit back a heated reply. Judging by her expression, they’d been over the same ground several times already.

“I told you,” Elizabeth said to Leah, “you hardly know this boy, and you don’t know his father at all.”

Chris gave me a long-suffering look.

“Why don’t you go with her?” I suggested to Elizabeth.

Chris sat forward. Before his wife could object, he said, “Absolutely, dear. You can meet Mark and his father, you can keep an eye on Le—”

“I don’t need anyone to keep an eye on me!” Leah flashed. “Least of all her.”

I put a hand on her shoulder, but she pulled away angrily.

“No, hear me out,” Chris said. “Both of you.” He shot a warning glare. The scene would’ve been funny if it hadn’t been so tense. “Your mom has a point.” He held up a hand to forestall Leah’s reaction. “You haven’t been dating Mark that long. And we don’t know his father at all. Ah-ah! You know I’m right.”

Leah looked mutinous, but she fell silent.

Chris turned to Elizabeth. “Leah has a point too. This is the chance of a lifetime. Sally Ride will be the first American woman in space. The first, ever, in history. If you want your daughters to be strong, independent women, they couldn’t have a better role model.”

“She can be strong and independent and still obey her mother,” Elizabeth muttered.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Chris told her with a soft laugh. “You raised her to fight for what she wants. This is what you get.”

“But does she always have to fight with me?

Leah blinked in surprise at her mother’s cri de coeur.

“She wants different things than you did when you were her age,” Chris said gently.

Elizabeth looked just as mutinous as her daughter, and I had to stifle a laugh at how similar they were.

Chris put a hand on her knee. Then he did the same to Leah, connecting them through him. “Leah can go, but only if you join them.” He turned to Leah. “Do you think Mark’s dad can get an extra pass for the launch? If not, I may be able to pull some strings. We’ll have a crew there.”

Leah nodded.

“Okay,” Chris continued in a soothing voice. “Then I’ll fly you back to Atlanta this afternoon. We’ll spend the night at home, and you can leave for Orlando tomorrow. All right?”

Chris stood and pulled them with him. He kissed Elizabeth and murmured something too quiet to hear. He did the same to Leah and whispered, “Have fun, pumpkin. And be nice to your mom. She’s making a big concession here. Okay?”

Leah nodded and flung her arms around his neck.

✧ ✧ ✧

I was a bit surprised at how quickly things moved after that. Leah called Mark and returned with the news that Elizabeth was welcome to join them. In the meantime Chris had asked me to drive them to the airport. They packed their things, and we left about twenty minutes later.

At the airport I helped Chris with the flight plan. We were both familiar with the route and radio frequencies, but we still had to check the weather, NOTAMs, and the rest.

Leah balked at the “delay.”

“Flying isn’t like driving,” I told her. “You can’t just hop in a plane and take off.” I explained about the flight plan.

She settled down, but with poorly concealed impatience. I rolled my eyes and returned my attention to Chris and the aeronautical chart.

We finished a few minutes later and then went out to the plane. Chris and I did a walk-around and preflight. Then he checked the fuel while I helped Elizabeth and Leah stow their luggage. Finally, I pulled the chocks and made sure Chris could see that I was clear.

The propeller kicked over with a whine and a puff of exhaust smoke. It whined and puffed again before the engine roared to life. Leah waved as they taxied past, and I waited until they took off before I returned to the station wagon.

I sat in the empty car for a few moments before I realized why I felt so dejected. Leah was gone, and it reinforced that I wasn’t her number one priority. I wasn’t anyone’s priority, I realized. I brooded about it as I started the car and pulled out of the parking lot. I was so preoccupied that I drove halfway to camp before I remembered the undeveloped film.

I turned around and returned to town. After I dropped off the film, I wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone. I ate lunch by myself at a roadside barbecue joint. The food was good, and the melancholy twang of Country music suited my mood perfectly. I was still feeling sorry for myself, so I took my time on the drive back to camp.

Trip and Wren left me alone with my thoughts when I returned, although they made sure to find me before dinner. The evening’s movie was Trading Places, they said.

“You go,” I told them. “I’m not in the mood.”

“Dude,” Trip said, “you can’t miss it. It’s hilarious.”

“And exactly what you need,” Wren agreed. “We left you alone all afternoon.”

“Leave me alone tonight too.”

“Sorry,” she said, “that’s not how this works.”

“Then how does it work?”

Wren ignored my sarcasm and said cheerfully, “I fix an awesome dinner—beef stroganoff with a nice Rhone red, in case you’re interested—and then we all enjoy a movie. Your mom said we can bring wine coolers if we’re discreet. After that, we come back to the cabin, where Trip plays guitar for us and we drink some more.”

“Then we go to bed,” I said bitterly, “you together and me alone.”

“Is that what this is about?” Wren asked. “Sex?”

“No. But sort of, yes.”

“Oh, if that’s all it is, I can take care of it right now.”

“Uh…,” Trip said.

Wren rolled her eyes. “I’m kidding. Mostly.” She turned to me. “Seriously. Snap out of it. You can’t mope around the whole time. Yeah, Leah’s gone. Yeah, you’re on your own for the rest of the week. But you have friends here. And your mom, and Susan, and… well… a whole camp full of people.”

Trip nodded. “She’s right, man.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “I guess what really bothers me is how fast it all happened. I mean, one minute she’s here and the next she’s gone.”

“Yeah, that sucks,” Trip said.

“But you’ll survive,” Wren said. “Especially with us around!”

I rewarded her with a grim laugh. She was bound and determined to cheer me up, and she wasn’t the kind of person to be defeated by childish defiance. Since I knew she’d win in the end, I decided to give up as gracefully as I could.

“Thanks,” I said. “I appreciate it. It might not seem like it now, but I do.”

“I know,” she said, and put her arm around my shoulders. “That’s what friends are for.”

✧ ✧ ✧

I didn’t mope the next day, but I wasn’t in the greatest mood either. Wren and Trip did their best to cheer me up, but they couldn’t help but make me feel alone. Things were worse that night. Their bed squeaked, and the walls were thin enough that I could hear when they had sex. Wren had a libido like mine, and Trip was more than happy to rise to the occasion. I felt a depressing mixture of horny and lonely.

At least I had enough to keep me busy on Friday. I drove to town to pick up the prints and negatives from the photo shop. Unfortunately, my attitude nose-dived when I looked through them. Leah was even more beautiful than in my imagination, and the pictures of Wren reminded me that I couldn’t have her either. At least Mr. Nelson was happy, so I hung out for a while and let him talk about his jewelry-making hobby.

I rose early on Saturday morning, and a small group of us watched the Shuttle launch on a TV that Gunny had set up in the clubhouse. The Shuttle lifted off a few minutes after seven thirty, right on schedule. I looked for Leah whenever the camera panned the crowd, but never saw her.

I did mope around after that, until Mom interrupted and asked if I wanted to ride with her to the airport to pick up Dad. I’d been so wrapped up in my own problems that I didn’t even know he was coming. I felt guilty about it, but not enough to change my behavior.

Saturday night was more of the same at the cabin. Since I wasn’t drinking my fair share of alcohol, and Leah obviously wasn’t drinking hers, Trip and Wren felt the need to make up the difference. I went to bed early, in the hopes of falling asleep before they started having sex.

I wasn’t so lucky. Their sex wasn’t loud or athletic or anything, but it had a recognizable rhythm. The floorboards in the living room transmitted the sound directly to my room. I ended up jerking off twice before I wrapped the pillow around my head and shut out the sounds from the other room.

Trip and Wren were dutifully apologetic the next morning. They were monumentally hung over too, which made me feel a little better, but also childish for enjoying their suffering. At least they were too sick to try to cheer me up, so I spent a quiet morning by myself, reading and dozing by the lake.

Later we celebrated Father’s Day with a cookout at Susan’s house. It was subdued for the usual reasons—the Coulters and Erin were absent, and most of us who were there had to leave in a couple of hours—but also because none of us were drinking.

A couple of hours later, we packed our things and said goodbye. Mom drove us to the airport. She kissed Dad and me, and hugged Trip and Wren. I took off into the late afternoon sun and waggled the wings in farewell.

✧ ✧ ✧

I woke up extra early on Monday morning and went for a run through my old neighborhood. I needed to work out the physical tension from the past few days, but I also wanted to clear my head and get ready for the work to come. Trip was awake when I returned. He was sitting at the kitchen table with coffee and the remains of a simple breakfast. I filched a piece of toast and headed for the shower.

We met Mike and Jim at the Colonial house at six thirty. They’d been in town a week already, and were settled in their small rental house. They’d also done the recruiting for the crews.

“Did you get the schedule and plans I sent you?” Trip asked.

Mike nodded and pulled out a folded and heavily dog-eared sheaf of papers. “I made some changes based on the crews. We brought a couple of guys with us, too: a good finish carpenter and a top-notch electrician. We got lucky here in Atlanta. Hired three brothers who used to work for a roofing company. And an old-timer with more drywall experience than all of us combined.”

“How’d you get him?” Trip asked.

“His last boss pissed him off. Screwed him on jobs, shorted his pay, crap like that.”

“Dumb.”

“No kidding,” Mike agreed. “Especially with a drywall guy.”

“Why?” I asked. “I mean, I understand why you treat guys right, but what’s so special about drywall?”

Mike rolled his eyes.

I clenched my jaw, but didn’t react otherwise.

“This is the problem with architects.” It was a put-down the way he said it. “You don’t know squat about how to build things.”

I waited for him to explain.

He waited for me to explode.

“I still have a lot to learn,” I said at last. “Enlighten me with your pearls of wisdom, O great builder.”

Jim used a calloused fist to cover a smile.

Mike shot him a dirty look.

Jim’s expression said, “You asked for it.”

“Okay,” Mike said, “since you put it so… eloquently… drywall is one of those things that can make or break a house. You can have shoddy framing, faulty wiring, and leaky plumbing, but that stuff is hidden. What do you see instead?”

“The drywall.”

“Right. So if the corners are uneven or the seams are bad, you notice right away. Also, a good drywall guy works about twice as fast as a general laborer, who’s still faster’n someone like you.”

I managed a tight smile.

“So you pay him twice as much,” Mike continued, “but he works four times as fast.”

“Exactly,” Trip said. “And a good drywall guy can fix a lot of problems.”

“Problems caused by architects,” Mike taunted.

“Got it,” I agreed, with a serious grip on my irritation. That annoyed him to no end, and Jim shot me a sly grin.

“Anyway,” Mike said to Trip, “as I was sayin’ about the schedule…”

The men on the crew started arriving a few minutes later, in twos and threes at first, but then in a rush a couple of minutes before seven o’clock. Mike introduced Trip and me, and I put on my best game face for his inevitable put-downs. Much to my surprise, he didn’t make a single snide comment. He told the men that Trip and I owned the houses, that we had “skin in the game.” He finished with the news that we were architecture students.

The men groaned predictably.

“Yeah, yeah,” Mike said, “I know what you’re thinkin’. But Trip’s been doin’ renovations for a while. My dad and I taught him everything he knows, so he’s good. Also, he signs the paychecks, so y’all had better look sharp.”

Nods all around.

“And Paul,” Mike continued, “worked with us last year. He learns quick and don’t make the same mistake twice. So teach him right. The world needs an architect who actually knows how to build something.”

“Amen to that,” said a man, and most of the rest agreed.

“And another thing…,” Mike said. “I guarantee he’ll work harder than anyone here, so you’d better hustle to keep up. Y’all really don’t wanna be shown up by a college kid and an architect to boot, do ya?”

The men laughed easily, and I could see why Mike was such a good boss. He put them at ease and challenged them at the same time. What I didn’t understand was why he built me up instead of tearing me down.

He spent another minute or two talking to the men before he took out his notes and read the names for each crew.

“What was that about?” I asked Mike after he dismissed the men. “I mean, you didn’t put me in my place.”

He gave me a funny look. “What kind of idiot builds a house of straw?”

✧ ✧ ✧

Jim and I put in a long day. We had to organize our crew, start them working, take delivery of a roll-off dumpster, and deal with problems as they came up. Demolition wasn’t difficult work, per se, but it was physical and demanding, so we were worn out by the time the men left for the day.

We met Trip and Mike at a local pizza place. Mike had found fewer problems than he expected at the Colonial house, but Trip had found more at the Tudor. Jim wobbled his hand to say that we’d found about what we expected. We discussed our plans over a pitcher of beer and then went our separate ways.

Back home, Trip and I cleaned up and then met Wren at her father’s restaurant. It was his upscale steakhouse. Wren was working, but she seated us at a table on the patio and sent out drinks and a couple of appetizers. Trip and I munched as we watched the well-dressed patrons come and go.

Wren must have told a couple of the waitresses that I was single, because several stopped by to chat after they delivered food or drinks to other tables. I was polite but noncommittal.

I grew bored after a couple of hours. Trip wanted to wait until Wren finished her shift, but I was ready to leave. We’d driven in my car, so I gave him the keys and stood to go.

“How much do I owe for the food and drinks?” I asked Wren.

“It’s comped. On the house.”

“Are you sure?”

She gave me an eye-roll and stood on tiptoe to kiss my cheek. “You mind if I hang out with you all after work?”

“No prob,” I said. “See you later.”

I walked home by way of a video arcade, where I spent a couple of bucks on Tron and a cool new game called Dragon’s Lair. When I returned home Dad had already left—he had a full schedule for June and an equally hectic July—so I had the place to myself. I read a little and watched mindless TV until Wren and Trip returned around ten o’clock.

They brought a friend with them, a cute girl from the restaurant. Wren was trying to set me up, but I really wasn’t in the mood for matchmaking. We drank a few wine coolers before I said goodnight and went to my room. I was so worn out from work that I fell asleep almost immediately.

I woke up early the next morning and went for a run. Wren’s car was still in the driveway, so I wasn’t surprised to find her and Trip eating breakfast when I returned.

“Sorry I bailed on you last night,” I said as I fixed my own breakfast. “I hope your friend got home okay.”

“Her sister picked her up,” Wren said. She paused and considered me for a moment. “She wasn’t right for you.”

“Especially since I’m not looking.”

“That’s why I’m doing it for you.”

“You really don’t have to.”

“No, but you’re not going to spend the rest of the summer alone. So it’s my job to find you a girlfriend. Well, more like a sex-friend. You don’t wanna date someone in the restaurant business.”

I laughed. “Present company excluded, of course.”

“Of course.” She smiled. “I’ll find someone for you, though.”

“Whatever,” I said, and headed to the bathroom to shower before work.

✧ ✧ ✧

Trip and I fell into a routine over the next few days. I rose early to go for a run. On my way out, I knocked on his door to make sure he was awake. Then I started the coffee machine to give him some extra incentive to get out of bed. I usually found him nursing a cup when I returned from my run.

After a shower and breakfast, Trip drove us to the houses, where he dropped me off at mine and then continued to his. Mike and Jim also drove together, and Mike dropped Jim at the rancher a little before seven o’clock.

We worked through the morning and ate lunch on site, like most of the men. We paid them by the hour, so they had incentive to work as much as they could. Jim watched everything, though, and knew exactly how long most tasks should take.

He and I “talked” quite a bit, using gestures and expressions. We worked well as a team, and I learned a lot. He also had a way of using step-by-step examples to teach me how to do things. I already knew the basics, but he taught me how to avoid common mistakes. He also showed me plenty of shortcuts and little time-saving tricks.

After lunch we had a short all-hands meeting to check progress and assign the afternoon’s tasks. The men worked until five o’clock or later, depending on what needed doing. Jim and I stayed until six o’clock every day. Trip and Mike met us after they finished at their houses, and we shared a pitcher of beer while we talked about the day’s progress.

In the evening Trip and I went to the steakhouse to see Wren. I hung around for a while, but felt like a third wheel. I usually excused myself and left after dinner. I hung out at the arcade for a while and then went for an evening run. I tried to stay away long enough to give Trip and Wren some privacy when they came home after her shift ended.

On Friday night they went dancing. They tried to convince me to come along as a date for one of Wren’s friends, but I declined. Instead, I had a quiet evening at home and went to bed early to catch up on my sleep.

Wren’s car was still there when I went for my run the next morning. Fortunately, the guest bedroom was on the other side of the house from my bedroom, so I hadn’t heard a thing. She made breakfast and invited us to her house to hang out by the pool. I went along, if only to stop her from pestering me.

She had to work that evening, but she and Trip made plans to go to a club to see a band. They invited me again, but I demurred. Wren obviously wanted to wheedle until I gave in, but Trip shot her a warning look and shook his head. So I went home by myself, again.

We went to brunch together on Sunday morning. Afterward, Wren and Trip relaxed by the pool at her house, while I went off and did my own thing. I spent a couple of hours and nearly ten dollars at the arcade, but eventually grew tired of it. (Also, the local kids had discovered Dragon’s Lair. It constantly had a row of quarters lined up on the top panel. So I only played a couple of games the whole time I was there.)

That’s when I discovered Angelo’s Gym. It was on the second floor, over the bowling alley next to the arcade. I originally went in to ask about monthly rates, but it wasn’t the kind of gym I was expecting. It was a boxing gym, and I hung around to watch the fighters train. One of them asked if I wanted to give it a try, and I quickly found myself in borrowed trunks, gloves, and padded headgear.

I landed a couple of decent punches, but spent most of the time trying to dodge them. I wasn’t very successful, although my ego took the worst beating. In spite of that, I loved boxing from the moment I stepped into the ring. I loved the speed and power, and the raw, barely controlled aggression. I didn’t understand the tactics, but that was only a matter of practice.

Angelo paired me with a boxer who’d been training for several years. He was a black guy about my size, named Dwayne. He reminded me of Glen, except that he talked a bit more. He had Glen’s patience, though, and taught me the basics in a couple of hours. He wanted to be a professional fighter, so he trained five nights a week after work. His schedule sounded fine to me, especially if it kept me out of the house and gave Trip and Wren some time to themselves.

✧ ✧ ✧

Our routine continued until the end of June. We worked eleven or twelve hours a day on the houses and lived like bachelors the rest of the time.

I kept up my morning runs and trained at the gym in the evenings. Trip spent his with Wren at the restaurant. He usually took paperwork to do while she was busy with hostess duties. Running a business was a lot of work—bills, payrolls, schedules, inspections—but he actually enjoyed the paper chase. For me, the thrill was the houses themselves, and I felt a sense of pride that people would enjoy my work for years to come.

We hit our first major snag before the Fourth of July weekend. Our plumber discovered that the septic tank at the Tudor was cracked and leaking. He did a bit more digging and found that the drain field was also clogged. We needed to replace them both, he said. I silently cursed the previous owners, and wondered how anyone could let things go like they had.

Trip and Mike scrambled to rent a backhoe and ditch digger. They called or visited every equipment rental company around, but it was Friday before a holiday weekend. The companies that were open didn’t have what we needed, and the companies that did were already closed for the weekend.

“You know what this means,” Mike said.

I didn’t like the sound of that. “What?”

“What do you think, college boy?”

I cursed under my breath. I knew exactly what it meant. I simply didn’t want to face it. Trip and Wren and I had plans to spend the weekend at camp. We’d have to work instead, doing hard, physical labor. I cursed again.

Jim gave me a look that said, “My sentiments exactly.”

Trip and Mike started discussing the equipment problem again, arguing about where they might find something on short notice (local garden centers, a rival construction company, even the Georgia Department of Transportation).

Jim and I listened for a few minutes before we grew tired of their harebrained schemes. He picked up a shovel and studied it without enthusiasm. I picked up another.

“Damn,” I said for both of us.

We started digging. We cleared all the turf around the tank before Trip and Mike realized what we were doing. They came over and stood at the edge of the shallow trench. Jim tossed a shovelful of dirt on Mike’s shoes.

“What the hell?”

Jim straightened and leaned on his shovel. He looked at Mike, then at the hand tools lying nearby, and finally back at Mike. His message was clear, and I couldn’t help but laugh.

“Yeah, yeah, all right,” Mike said. “I get it. Get to work.”

The four of us dug in, and the pile of dirt began to grow, one shovelful at a time.

✧ ✧ ✧

We spent three days excavating the septic system by hand. Several men from the crew joined us. We had to pay them overtime for working on the weekend, but it was better than getting even further behind schedule.

Wren helped by running errands around the site, as well as feeding us and bringing plenty of water. The men quickly fell in love with her, even cranky Mike. He didn’t like losing his weekend any more than the rest of us, and he blamed himself for not spotting the problem sooner. Trip had a quiet word with him while they stood in the shade by the water cooler. I didn’t hear what they said, but could imagine the “shit happens” gist of it.

Early Monday afternoon we finished everything we could do without the new septic tank and the materials to rebuild the drain field. We were sweaty, dirty, and tired, but proud of what we’d accomplished in such a short time.

Wren found me as we were putting away our tools and cleaning up. “What do you think about taking everyone to Stone Mountain for the fireworks tonight? We can pack sandwiches and drinks, a couple of blankets, et cetera.”

“That sounds like a great idea.” I mentioned it to Trip, who floated the idea with Mike.

“Yeah,” he said wearily, “that’d be nice.”

The local guys thanked us, but wanted to go home to their families. The guys from Franklin didn’t have anything better to do, so they agreed. We all went our separate ways to shower and change clothes, and met back at the Tudor a couple of hours later.

Wren arrived with a cooler full of drinks and another with sandwiches, snacks, and even dessert (apple pie). She still had hopes of setting me up with someone, so she’d also invited a friend. The girl was a cute brunette, about my height, with a dancer’s build and long, tan legs.

We made small talk on the drive to Stone Mountain. The park was crowded, of course, but we managed to find a small open space at the very edge of the huge field. We spread our blankets and immediately passed around soft drinks (alcohol was against the rules on the lawn).

We talked and ate and relaxed until the fireworks started. The park also had a new laser light show. Trip put his arm around Wren, and her friend gave me a sidelong glance to see if I wanted to do the same. I pretended not to notice, so we watched the show in companionable silence.

Afterward we packed up and made our way back to the cars along with thousands of other people. We finally made it home well after midnight. I gave the brunette a friendly kiss on the cheek and told her I’d had fun.

“Maybe we can do it again sometime,” she said.

“Yeah, sure,” I said evasively. She was nice enough, but a little too wholesome for my taste.

She seemed disappointed, and I felt like a jerk for not being more interested, but I walked her to her car and waved as she drove into the night.

Wren confronted me when I returned. “She was totally into you,” she said. “What was wrong with her?”

“Look,” I said, “I really appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I don’t want a new relationship. They’re a lot of work. I have enough to worry about with the houses. Okay?”

“All right,” she said, but I knew that wasn’t the end of it.

✧ ✧ ✧

Early the next morning Trip and I heard a large truck come to a stop in front of my parents’ house. We were running late for work and already halfway out the door. I finished locking up while he jogged ahead to see what it was. He swore when he did.

“What?” I stepped around him. Then I saw for myself and felt a wave of disbelief and frustration. “No way!”

“Exactly,” he said. “Where were they when we needed them?”

For a long moment we simply stared at the dump truck and backhoe on its trailer. A smaller truck had also arrived, towing a trailer with a ditch digger. The two machines would have saved us days of backbreaking labor.

“And what are they doing here now?” I wondered aloud. Then it hit me: my parents’ hot tub!

“I completely forgot,” Trip said when I told him.

“Me too.”

“I’ve been totally wrapped up in the houses.”

“Not your fault. This is my project.” Then I realized what that entailed. “Crap. I need to get these guys started. Tell Jim I’ll be late. This shouldn’t take more than thirty minutes or so.”

“No problem. He’ll be fine with it.”

“Tell him I’m sorry.”

Trip shrugged. “Life in the fast lane.”

“No kidding.”

He climbed into his car and backed out of the driveway, while I walked down to meet the foreman of the excavation crew. I introduced myself and gave him a quick tour.

When Trip and I returned that evening, we found a hot-tub-sized hole in the yard, along with a trench leading around the corner of the house. We skirted the large pile of excavated dirt and surveyed the job.

“Looks good to me,” I said.

“It’s a hole.”

“Yeah, but it didn’t take ’em three days to dig.”

“Don’t remind me,” Trip groaned. “And by the way,” he added as we headed inside to shower, “d’you mind hanging around tonight? We need to talk to Wren about finding a place to live in Knoxville.”

I’d completely forgotten about that too.

✧ ✧ ✧

Wren had someone cover the hostess stand for an hour so we could discuss our options. She’d made a few preliminary calls, but most of the nicer apartments were already rented. Hadn’t I heard something like that?

“Don’t worry,” she assured us, “I’ll find something.”

She made calls over the next several days and told us about some of our options when we met for dinner on Friday.

“To be honest, none of them sound good,” she admitted. “Dumpy little apartments or places that are too far from campus. We could drive to class every day, but…” She shrugged, since none of us really wanted that. We’d grown spoiled by living on campus for the past two years, and we wanted the convenience.

“I’ll keep looking,” she added, although she didn’t sound optimistic.

✧ ✧ ✧

Work on the houses returned to normal after the snag with the Tudor’s septic system. We were still behind schedule, but at least we hadn’t found any other things we’d missed.

The work on the hot tub progressed too. Every couple of days another crew would show up. My parents had agreed to let the contractor build in stages and work around his bigger jobs. In return, he gave them a break on the price.

One day Trip and I returned to find the hole full of rebar in the shape of the tub. Another day we came home to a three-dimensional maze of PVC. The plumber had run the supply, return, and drain lines. A couple of days after that, we were leaving the house right as the crew arrived to shoot the gunite for the tub itself.

Wren also found a place for us to live, although she wouldn’t say more. Trip and I both pressed her, but she gave cryptic answers and told us to trust her.

In the evenings I kept up my training at Angelo’s. Boxing was physical and demanding, as much as anything I’d done in wrestling or judo. It also required just as much skill. I’d always thought of boxers as dumb brutes, simply punching bags with legs, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Now I understood why people called it the sweet science. I had enough experience to see how a fighter like Dwayne used planning and strategy to win a match. It was impressive, to say the least. I still didn’t have delusions of turning pro, but I enjoyed the challenge of learning a new fighting discipline.

I also kept up my runs in the morning, although I didn’t really need the exercise. Instead, I used the time to think about things that didn’t have to do with construction or boxing. I still felt lonely (especially whenever Trip and Wren were around), but it wasn’t about sex. I could’ve slept with one of Wren’s friends if I wanted a bit of meaningless fun.

In reality, I missed the companionship and intimacy of a relationship. I missed having someone to talk to. I also missed the physical contact, and not the kind of back-slapping and high fives that happened on the job site. That was just macho camaraderie.

I still didn’t know what I wanted from a girlfriend, but I thought about it a lot. I even started to wake up earlier so I could take longer runs. I covered the extra miles at a marathoner’s pace instead of my usual clip. And since my body was on autopilot, my mind was free to roam. Unfortunately, I usually returned home with mixed emotions and no real plan.

I spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself, too, although it wasn’t exactly brooding. It was more of a funk that lasted days instead of hours. I forgot about it sometimes when I was on the job site or in the ring, but it never quite left me, even when I was happiest.

Then something changed.

I didn’t have a clue when it actually happened, but one day I returned from my run and realized that I felt a sense of peace instead of my usual uncertainty. I still wanted a girlfriend, but another person couldn’t make me happy. Only I could do that. Another person might share my happiness, but she wouldn’t be the source.

I wondered if I’d ever felt happy on my own. Complete and self-contained? I doubted it, and that was a profound realization.

I thought about something my father had told me once, words from Hamlet, “to thine own self be true.” Then I remembered something Jim had taught me. He’d written the word “true” on a board as we installed a new door lintel. He’d held up a level and pointed as the bubble settled in the center. Then he set a framing square into the opening and confirmed the angle. His meaning was clear without words: “true” also meant level, aligned, balanced.

Shakespeare probably hadn’t meant it that way, but maybe he had. Sure, I had to be honest with myself, but I also had to be balanced. How many times had I beaten opponents in wrestling or judo because they’d been over-extended and vulnerable? Boxing was the same (no surprise), since most of a fighter’s power and speed depended on good balance.

From there I thought about other aspects of my life. Airplanes were stable when the forces were balanced on the center of gravity. Architecture was the same. Cantilevers worked because the anchor point offset the load of the protruding end. Arches and vaults transferred the force of thrust and balanced it with resistance. Steel-reinforced concrete used tension and compression to form a much stronger composite.

I suddenly looked at the world in a whole new way. Nothing survived for long without balance, some kind of center, and yours truly wasn’t the exception.

I eventually realized that I’d found my own center during my morning runs. To my amusement and mild irritation, no one else noticed. Trip was too busy with the day-to-day job of renovating the houses. Wren had her own job at the restaurant. Mike and I only spoke to each other for an hour a day. Jim and I spent the most time together, but we didn’t have deep philosophical discussions.

“Hey!”

I blinked and returned my attention to the real world. Dwayne was scowling at me.

“You wanna get your head in the ring?”

“Sorry,” I said, and set my stance like he’d taught me.

“Jab, cross. Jab, cross,” he said, and stepped behind the heavy bag. “Ready? Box!”

I laid into the bag.

He steadied it.

Balance achieved.

✧ ✧ ✧

Wren went to Knoxville for a couple of days and returned with good news.

“I found a house,” she said. “My dad’s going to buy it for us.”

Trip and I both blinked.

“Buy it?”

“For us?”

Wren rolled her eyes. “Isn’t that what I just said?”

Trip’s expression turned stormy. (We’d just had an inspection on the houses, so he wasn’t in the best mood.)

I cut in and asked Wren to explain.

“Okay, here’s the deal,” she began. “It’s a house in Fort Sanders, so it’s walking distance to campus. It’s a nice place, but the owner tried to turn it into apartments.”

“What do you mean ‘tried’?” Trip asked suspiciously.

“Well, her first contractor screwed her. He underestimated the cost and kept coming back for more money. She fired him and found another contractor. But by then she couldn’t afford her original plans, so she had to settle for just making the house livable.”

“Okay,” Trip said, “so it’s some kind of Franken-house? Half house, half apartment building?”

“No! It’s a great house. It’s perfect for us, even though it’s sort of apartments, sort of not.”

Trip started to say something prickly.

“Just tell us what it’s like,” I told Wren. “Describe it. Okay?”

“It’s one of those big old houses with decorative woodwork, pastel pink with white accents.”

“Victorian,” I said.

Wren nodded. “Yeah, that’s it. I knew you’d know! It has this half-octagon room in front.”

“That was popular with Victorian designers,” I explained.

“Mmm hmm, and a living room, of course,” she added. “It used to have a formal dining room, but they turned that into an apartment, with its own bathroom and everything.”

“What about a kitchen?” I asked.

“Well, duh.”

“No, I mean does the apartment have one?”

“Oh, I see,” she said. “No, just the main kitchen for the whole house.”

“What about the other rooms on the main floor?”

“There’s a pantry off the kitchen. Also a kind of sun porch at the back. There’s another room downstairs too, right off the octagon room. It has a little half-bath. I think it used to be some kind of office.”

“Probably a doctor’s office,” I said. “From the sound of it, the octagonal room would’ve been his waiting room.”

She snapped her fingers. “I bet you’re right! There’s a foyer with double doors into the living room, and you can see where there used to be another door that leads to the waiting room.”

“Does the octagon room open into the living room now? Probably with French doors?”

“How’d you know?”

“It’s what I do,” I said with a smile. “Is that it for the main floor?”

“Uh-huh. It’s simpler upstairs. A big master bedroom over the octagon room, two smaller bedrooms, a linen closet, and a bathroom.”

“Only the one bathroom on the second floor?”

She shook her head. “The master bedroom has one too.”

“Got it. And the third floor?”

“How’d you—? Never mind. I get it. This is your thing.”

“Right.”

“Two small bedrooms,” she said, “with a bathroom in between.”

“Probably a nanny’s room. And maybe the cook/housekeeper.”

She nodded again, excited that I understood.

“So how is it ‘sort of apartments, but sort of not’?”

“They started to put a kitchen in the master bedroom. It has cupboards, a sink, and one of those big plugs for a stove.”

I nodded.

“And all the bedroom doors have deadbolts and stuff. Oh, the bedrooms have weird closets, too.”

“That makes sense,” I said. “The closets, I mean.”

“Why?”

“Most pre-war houses didn’t have built-in closets. People used armoires or chifforobes instead.”

“Chifforobes?”

“It’s a kind of moveable closet,” I said. “But what about the ones in the house?”

“Yeah, sorry. So the closets aren’t in the wall like you’re used to. They stick out, like they were added later.”

I nodded. “Anything else? How about the laundry room?”

“Oh, that’s off the back porch. It’s a separate little room.”

“It sounds like a nice house.”

“Which brings us back to my question,” Trip said. “Your dad’s going to buy it? Why not us?”

She shot him a surprised look. “You and me?”

He blushed and stammered.

“He means him and me,” I said with a chuckle.

Wren’s face fell.

“Oh, please,” I said. “Of course he’s going to marry you—”

Trip gulped. “I am?”

“You’re an idiot if you don’t,” I said. “She’s the best thing that ever happened to you, and you know it. Besides, I’ll kill you if you break her heart.”

He laughed.

“You think I’m kidding?”

“Um… no.”

“Good,” I said, and turned to Wren. “You surprised him is all. Give him time to get used to the idea, okay?”

She nodded.

“Anyway,” I continued, “he’s right. Why’s your father going to buy it instead of Trip and me?”

“Well, that’s the thing,” Wren said with a pained expression. “Sayuri won’t sell to college students.”

“Sayuri?”

“The owner.”

“Why does he care who he sells to? I mean, money is money.”

“Well, she lives next door,” Wren corrected, “and doesn’t want college students for neighbors.”

“Makes sense. But we’re not your average party-animal college students.’”

“I told her that, but she was adamant.”

“Okay, so how’d you convince her otherwise?”

“I called in reinforcements.”

“Who?”

“Christy.” Wren leaned forward, back in her element. “See, Sayuri is Japanese. Her husband was in the Air Force. That’s how she met him and ended up here. Her family kind of disowned her when she married an American. She’s been pretty lonely since he died, especially since they never had kids. But she perked up when I told her that one of the people who’d be living in the house speaks Japanese.”

“Did you mention that Christy is American?” Trip asked.

“I left that part out,” Wren admitted. “A little white lie.”

“A little blonde-haired, blue-eyed white lie,” I said with a laugh. “But go on.”

“Thank you. Anyway, I tracked down Christy and gave her a call. She’s actually in Japan at the moment, which was even better. She and Sayuri talked forever. In Japanese. It was like two long-lost friends.”

“That must’ve cost a fortune,” Trip said.

Wren looked heavenward. “My dad almost killed me when I told him.”

“Anything for his little princess.”

“This ‘little princess’ just found us a place to live and convinced the owner to sell.”

He held up his hands in mock surrender.

“That’s better,” she grumbled.

I suppressed a smile and gestured for her to continue.

“Right,” she said. “So, Christy convinced Sayuri that we’re okay people. I told her that my father would buy the house instead of us, but she still wasn’t convinced. That’s where you guys come in.”

“Oh?” Trip and I said at the same time.

Wren nodded. “Yeah. So, the reason Sayuri is selling the house in the first place is that she needs the money. She spent all her savings on the first contractor. She owns two other houses that she wants to turn into apartments. That’s her retirement plan, more or less.”

“And you volunteered us to do the work?” Trip said, with a bit too much sarcasm.

Wren glared. “Of course not, dear. I’m not an idiot. I know how busy you’ll be with school.”

“Oh,” he said contritely. “What, then?”

“I told her all about you and said that you’d keep an eye on her contractor and make sure he isn’t doing what the first one did.”

“In other words,” I said, “we’ll be her ace in the hole.” I looked at Trip. “Sounds fine to me.”

“Yeah, me too,” he agreed with a nod. Then he laughed. “Have you actually told your dad that he’s going to buy a house in Knoxville?”

“It was his idea.”

“And he knows that a bunch of us are going to live there? Including me?”

She rolled her eyes. “He knows we’re sleeping together.”

“Yeah, but knowing it and facilitating it are two different things. I mean, you’re his only daughter, his princess.”

“Will you quit calling me that!”

“Why? That’s what he calls you.”

“And you’re not him! I’m his princess. I’m your… something else.” She fell silent with a blush. “Besides,” she added, in a calmer tone, “he really likes you. He says you keep me out of trouble.”

“Boy,” I told Trip, “you sure fooled him.”

He snorted. “I doubt it.”

“That’s right,” Wren said loftily. “He’s a very smart man. And the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

“You got that right,” I said, and we all shared a grin. “So,” I continued after a moment, “tell me more about the house…”

✧ ✧ ✧

After Wren set things in motion in Knoxville, she redoubled her efforts to get me laid. She started by rearranging her work schedule to have Friday and Saturday nights off. I didn’t go to the gym on those evenings, since I wanted the time to myself. I usually spent a quiet night at home, although I didn’t mind Wren’s change of plans. I liked spending time with her and Trip. But then the doorbell rang, and I realized that she’d invited a friend to hang out with us. I should’ve known.

The friend was a brunette with a bubbly personality and a cute little gap between her front teeth. She was definitely interested in me, but I was the perfect gentleman. We had a good time and talked till almost midnight. When Wren started dropping hints that it was getting late, I offered to walk the friend to her car. She seemed disappointed that I didn’t ask for a date. Instead, I gave her a polite goodnight kiss and sent her on her way.

Wren was annoyed but undeterred, and invited a different friend the following night. She was a tall, athletic blonde, who was smart, attractive, and interesting. Then I made the mistake of making her laugh. I was so startled that I almost punched her out of reflex. She sounded like a scalded donkey with a megaphone.

“Yeah,” Wren said after she left, “I forgot about the laugh.”

Trip grinned. “I thought Paul was going to hit her.”

“I almost did!” I shuddered at the memory. “But listen,” I said to Wren, “I really appreciate that you want me to be happy, but I’m pretty happy by myself right now.”

“Nonsense,” she said. “You spend too much time alone, or with other guys. You need someone female in your life.”

“Not if she laughs like that,” Trip said.

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Wren said, “but I’m not giving up.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to,” I said, half amused, half resigned.

The next week she changed tactics. Friday’s friend was another blonde, this one petite and funny. She also spent the night. Not with me, but with Trip and Wren. Her car was still there when I left for my run, and I surprised her coming out of the guest bedroom when I returned. She gave me an embarrassed smile and darted around me. I didn’t want to make her feel more self-conscious than she already did, so I let her leave in peace.

The friend on Saturday was a stunning brunette named Colleen. She wore a tight T-shirt with a scoop neck, which showed off her deep, soft cleavage. She wasn’t the least bit petite, but she was definitely slim for a girl with a chest like hers. I’d seen some magnificent breasts in my life, but hers took the prize. They were large, round, and firm, and seemed to defy gravity.

I tore my eyes away long enough to open a couple of wine coolers and motion for her to join the others at the kitchen table. She casually kicked off her sandals and stretched her firm, tan legs. I sat down, and she swung her feet into my lap. Then she gently nudged my dick, on purpose.

“So,” she said conversationally, “Wren says you’re a swinger. What’s that like?”

I blinked and gave a semi-evasive answer.

“Cool. So you must’ve had sex with a lot of women. I bet you’re really good.”

“No complaints.”

She smirked and devoured me with her eyes. “I’ll bet.”

We talked for a couple of hours and finished several four-packs of coolers. Colleen dropped plenty of hints that she wanted to sleep with me, but I kept my cool. I was definitely attracted to her, physically, but I’d only just met her. I really didn’t want to start a relationship, especially so late in the summer, much less with someone who lived in Atlanta. I eventually said that I was tired and asked if she wanted me to walk her to her car.

“I think I’ll hang around for a while,” she said. “If it’s okay with Wren.”

“Yeah, definitely.”

I said goodnight and went to bed, alone. I also decided to lock my bedroom door. I didn’t want to wake up with a strange girl in my bed, no matter how nice her chest was.

The next morning I went for my run and wasn’t surprised to see Colleen’s car still in the driveway. I tried to be quiet when I returned, but she must have heard me. She slipped out of the guest bedroom and gently pulled the door closed behind her.

I took one look at her and felt my jaw drop. She wore a pair of panties and nothing else. Her breasts looked even better in the flesh. They were full and round, with big, soft nipples that tapered to points.

“They’re real, too,” she said. “Here, feel.”

“Um… thanks, but… I’d better not.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “I know you want to.”

“Of course. But I don’t wanna give you the wrong idea.”

Colleen chuckled, low and throaty and inviting. “You sure? Trip didn’t seem to mind.”

“He doesn’t have my willpower.”

She moistened her lips and gazed at my crotch.

My dick stirred beneath the thin fabric of my running shorts.

“How’s your willpower now?”

“Holding out.”

“That’s too bad. I could use a good hosing. Trip only did Wren last night. So I’m a little…” She made a moue. “Frustrated.”

“Sorry to hear,” I said, “but I’m saving myself for marriage.”

She laughed and didn’t seem offended by the obvious lie. “All right. But let me know if you change your mind. Wren has my number.”

“Thanks. Will do.” I left the kitchen without a backward glance and headed to the bathroom. I locked that door too, just in case. Then I took a long, cold shower. Part of me couldn’t believe that I’d just turned down sex, especially with someone as hot as Colleen. But another part was proud, because I hadn’t let the little head run the show.

I hid in my bedroom for a while, but quickly grew bored and restless. The kitchen was empty when I peeked, but I heard three voices in the guest bedroom. I decided to give them some privacy, so I drove to the rancher, where I fixed little things that had been bothering me for a while.

Colleen’s car was gone when I returned several hours later. Trip and Wren had showered and dressed, and were eating a late lunch at the kitchen table. Wren looked smug. Trip seemed more relaxed than I’d seen him in a while, but also a little stunned.

“Colleen likes you,” Wren said to me.

“Yeah, she’s nice.”

“She said you’re a challenge.”

“I’m really not.”

Wren huffed. “What’s the matter with you? I’ve set you up with everyone I know! What? Aren’t my friends good enough for you?”

“No, they’re great,” I said. “Well, except the one with the laugh.”

Trip chuckled. “That was pretty bad.”

Wren shot him a glare. “This is between me and Paul. Stay out of it.”

“No.”

She did a double take. “Excuse me?”

“I said, ‘no,’” Trip repeated. “I won’t stay out of it. It’s not between you and Paul. It’s between all of us. And if you want to… you know…,” he added, “then you’d better stop treating me like a doormat, or just an object for your pleasure.”

Her eyes flashed.

“Be careful what you say next,” Trip said evenly. “You can’t take it back.”

“Oh, really?”

“Uh-huh. And remember, just because I do what you want doesn’t mean I do what you say.”

She closed her mouth.

“We’re in this together,” he said. “Fifty-fifty. That was the agreement when I said I’d consider… it.”

Wren still wasn’t ready to let it go. She tried to stare him down.

He didn’t flinch. He could be easygoing and laid-back when he wanted to, or an absolute hard-ass when the situation called for it, like now.

The tension thickened between them. Then it broke with an almost audible sigh.

Wren lowered her eyes and looked contrite. “You’re right,” she said softly. “I’m sorry.”

I gaped. I’d never seen her back down so quickly or completely. She’d certainly never done it with me.

Trip touched her hand. “You have good intentions,” he said, “but you can’t steamroll people just because you think you know what’s best for them. In other words, stop throwing women at Paul.” He paused for effect. “On the other hand… throwing them at me is starting to work.”

Her eyes rose in surprise. “Really? You mean…?”

“Yeah.” He sounded a bit surprised. “Last night was fun. And this morning… well… yeah.”

“You really mean it?”

“I do. But I’m serious about the matchmaking. Paul doesn’t want a girlfriend, and it’s not your job to make him.”

She nodded again.

“Keep it up with me, though. What did you say about Susan? The PR 101 thing?”

She frowned in thought. “Educate the marketplace and create a positive image?”

“Yeah, that’s it. Keep, ahem, ‘educating the marketplace.’ And definitely create positive images like Colleen.” He goggled at the memory. “Do that again and you definitely have a shot at convincing me.”

“Gee, ‘a shot.’”

“Okay,” Trip amended, “a really good shot.”

“For real? Everything?”

“If you play your cards right.”

✧ ✧ ✧

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