THE SCENERY STAYED all mountains and hills and green with more evergreens than we have at home until we turned off the Highway and onto Charlotte Street.

Then we were in small-town America. No building too tall, nothing too built up, a lot of houses and small businesses among the trees.

The limo had dark glass so no one could see in, but we could see out just fine. One of the interesting things you find out if you ride in limos. Jason was more interested in the scenery now. I guess he was just a city boy at heart.

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Theres the dance studio, he said in an excited voice. There was a sign with a silhouette of a ballet dancer outside one of the larger homes. Two little girls in leotards were being led inside by a laughing woman.

I wish we could stop. Id like to see my old teachers again.

If it had been our limo, or rather Jean-Claudes, I would have said stop, but we were borrowing. It would be the height of rudeness to ask.

We can come back, I said.

He nodded and pointed at a small mom-and-pop grocery sitting just doors down from the studio. I would have thought Sigliers would have gone out of business. I got my first cigarettes there.

You dont smoke, I said.

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He turned and gave me a grin that filled his eyes with laughter. I dont smoke, but everybody tries them at least once.

Something on my face must have shown, because he scooted closer to me. You never tried to smoke, not once?

I shrugged, and moved a little in my seat to try to keep the gun in a comfortable spot. I was beginning to remember why I seldom wore a gun there. It made sitting down harder. I had a couple of cousins who were bad influences.

So you did smoke.

I tried cigarettes, not the same thing as smoking.

So you werent completely pure when Jean-Claude met you?

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I frowned at him. Id tried cigarettes, Jason; that didnt really prepare me for Jean-Claude.

Jason was suddenly solemn again. No, I guess it didnt. Its hard for me to believe that youd only had sex with one other guy before Jean-Claude.

Why? I asked, not sure I really wanted to know the answer.

I told you, I slept with just about anyone who would have me. I cant imagine turning down all the guys who must have asked.

Trust me, Jason, there werent that many.

He looked at me like I was joking. Come on, Anita, I have eyes. You are sooo hot.

I squirmed in my seat, which ground the gun into my back, which made me cranky, and the conversation had already made me cranky.

I wont debate that with you. You know that sometimes I can see it, and sometimes I cant. There were guys attracted to the packaging, but they didnt want what was inside.

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I dont understand, he said.

I had at least three guys in college say something along the lines of, If only your inside matched your outside. Or one of my favorite first dates, who told me I was perfect until I opened my mouth.

Jason stared at me. I know youre serious, but damn, how stupid were these guys?

I smiled and patted his hand on the seat. Thats sweet, but Ive always spoken my mind. Ive always been independent. That is not the trait that draws men to pretty, petite, delicate-looking women. They want to protect and coddle, and do stupid shit like that.

You intimidated them, he said.

I nodded. I know that now.

I like strong women, he said.

I smiled at him. Ive noticed.

He flashed me the real version of the smile that parted women from their money at the club. If they thought the fake version was something, they should have had the full weight of the real deal. It was enough to turn a girls head. Or make them blush, damn it.

Youre blushing, he damn near chortled. He bounced in the seat. I love that you do that.

I covered my face with my hands. I dont.

His hands on my wrists were the first clue I had thaTHE was so close beside me again. I let him draw my hands away so he could look into my eyes.

I love that Im one of the men you react to, Anita. I was like invisible to you. I mean, Im not in Jean-Claudes league, but there are women who would do a lot to be with me, and have, he said, with a look to the side that tried for humble and almost made it.

Ive seen the fans at the club, and the women going in and out of the Circus.

He took my hands in both of his and rested his chin on our joined hands. He wasnt exactly looking at me. More at the memory in his head.

But you never saw me like that. I was a responsibility first. Someone else you felt you needed to keep safe, and then I was your friend. He looked at me with that mischievous grin. Youd seen me buck naked and you didnt react to my body. That was a real ego bruiser, let me tell you.

I blushed again and looked away from his face. You were my friend, Jason, you dont look at friends that way.

You dont, but I did. I thought I wasnt up to your standards.

The homes are really nice here, I said. They were. The more narrow road was surrounded by lovely, older, expensive homes.

Youre changing the subject, Jason said.

Trying to, yes.

I dont want to change the subject.

I pulled at my hands. This conversation was too intimate for me. Id forgotten one thing Jason did that made me the most uncomfortable. He had a penchant for in-depth soul-searching talks. When I needed one, it was great, if sometimes painful. But I could not spend the next two days being analyzed; it would drive me mad. I kept staring out at the beautiful houses nestled into their green yards and trees. It was still pretty, but no amount of pretty was going to make up for being analyzed for days.

He kissed my hands gently, then let me pull away. You know that wasnt it, Jason.

I know you were trying to hold on to what virtue you felt you had left.

I nodded, still not looking at him. Can I ask you a favor, Jason?

Sure.

Im not up to you analyzing me on this trip, okay?

I wasnt

I held up a hand. Just dont poke at my wounds too hard. Im supposed to be here to support you; if you make me face my demons too head-on, I wont be as good for you here. Do you understand? I looked at him at the last.

He was solemn again, buTHE nodded. I have trouble when I realize something about someone, some secret thing I didnt know before. I want to know why, or what the other person was thinking, feeling. His face went from solemn to pained. Ive always been that way.

Something about the way he said it made me wonder what truth hed pushed for as a child thaTHE hadnt wanted to know. If our roles had been reversed he would have asked me, but it was me, and I was already out of my depth.

Alone with Jason for a few days, Id thought the sex and his problems with his family would be the awkward bits. What I was realizing now, far too late, was that Jason himself was the danger. It was too intimate, this visit. I had trouble keeping my emotional boundaries up once sex was involved. What the hell had I been thinking?

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