J ENNA WAS A real estate developer, or worked for one. Jen was a stay-at-home mom married to her high school boyfriend. They had two kids. Kris was about to graduate with her degree in architecture. Shed done most of the set design for the plays at school. Ashley was finishing up her student teaching; she was hoping to teach drama somewhere along with English classes. They talked about the time shed directed Pygmalion, which was the nonmusical version of My Fair Lady, and what an amazing job shed done. So glad you stayed in the business. J. J. was performing with a professional dance company in New York City. Lisa had come home to work in her dads law office as a paralegal. He was the local lawyer for the Summerlands. Its where Keith met her again. No one said it out loud, but it was strongly implied that her father wished fervently that hed sent his daughter on that European trip shed wanted instead of insisting she get a job right away.
They talked about plays theyd worked on, dreams theyd had, dreams theyd followed, dreams theyd lost. Only Jason, Ashley, and J. J. had stayed with the dance outside school all the way through collegethough Jen was taking an adult ballet class, trying to get back into shape after having two kids in less than three years. She wasnt out of shape, but the weight made her look older than the other women. Or maybe, just the lack of sleep of having two kids still in diapers. Itd age anybody.
Trish and I were the odd girls out. We had no old times to remember, so we drifted back to the edge of the group, finding a spot in the far conversational grouping. There was only a white sectional sofa with its back to the bedroom, because the dining table took up the room near the windows. We sat on the sofa, a discreet distance from each other, both of us a little uncomfortable. I never warmed up instantly to strangers, and I think Trish was waiting for me to be mad at Jason, or the other women.
They were on the sectional nearest the door with its back to the windows. There were chairs there, but none of the women were using them. They were all cuddled on the sectional, very Roman, as in ancient; very decadent, as in any century. The happy group was beginning to drink a little, except for Jason. He wouldnt drink for the same reason that most lycanthropes didnt drink. It lowered your inhibitions, and that meant it was harder to control the inner beast. No, drinking and drugs did not go with being a good little wereanimal.
Doesnt it bother you that Jason is flirting like that? Trish asked, sipping her drink.
I glanced over at the group on the couch. At the moment, Lisa was draped in his lap, almost prone, while he stroked her hair. Kris was behind him, cuddled so close she was in danger of spilling her drink over him and Lisa. Theyd all had their turns of hanging all over him.
I shrugged, and sipped my Coke. I never did drink, and almost for the same reason Jason couldnt drink, neither could I.
One, its Jason, he flirts like he breathes. Two, hes a stripper, which has sort of encouraged his natural tendencies in this area. Third, he wants them to see him as attractive. He wants to flirt with his old girlfriends.
Wow, Trish said, that is like way more secure than I would be right now.
I smiled, and tried to think if Id feel the same if it were Nathaniel, or Micah, or Jean-Claude. I really tried to think about it. Micah almost never flirted. But Nathaniel did for many of the same reasons that Jason did, and Jean-Claude flirted when he wished to, to perfection. Would I have been more jealous of them than I was being of Jason? Maybe. Probably. I just didnt know.
But it was more than the fact that Jason wasnt my main squeeze. My version of the ardeur gave me the ability to see peoples desires, sometimesif the ardeur was very active, or the peoples desires were that strong.
Jean-Claude had worked with me so that I could sense things with the ardeur but not have it rise for feeding. I was getting better. Tonight let me know how much better. I could feel that most of the women hanging all over him didnt mean it. They were flirting, but not with intent. The flirting and the physical contact was an end in itself for most of them. The exception was the bride-to-be.
Lisa was desperate. It was the only word I had for her energy. She was desparate to fuck someone. It didnt have to be Jason. Her need was the strongest of any over there, and it had an edge of panic to it.
I had not reached out with the ardeur on purpose, but the energies from the couch were strong enough that they leaked around me, like whiffs of perfume. The bodyguards were the biggest problem for sheer lust. Not all of them, and I tried not to pay attention to which ones were basically thinking thoughts that would have gotten them slapped if the women had known. I didnt read minds, especially of strangers, but I caught touches of their desires. Not feelings exactly, because the ardeur didnt work on emotions except those that had to do with desire, love, and the associated stuff.
Marianne, my metaphysical tutor, psychic, and witch, said that I was like an empath, someone who could read emotions, but only a very limited list of emotions. Fine with me; I had enough trouble with the short list. The long list that Marianne waded through was beyond me.
Strangely, the one person who wasnt projecting anything at me was Jason. He was like a blank. I might have risked sending the ardeur into his psyche on purpose, but I wasnt feeling confident enough to risk it. I might accidentally touch his inner beast, too, and that might bring on mine. That would be bad.
Jason caught my eye, and I toasted him with my Coke. He extracted himself from the other women and came to sit on the arm of my chair. He put his arm across my shoulders. You okay over here?
I put my arm around his waist because it seemed like the thing to do. He snuggled into the hug. You mean am I getting pissed that youve been flirting your ass off for the last hour and completely ignoring me?
He laughed, then kissed me on the cheek. Yes, thats what I mean.
I smiled up at him. Youve done about what I thought youd do, except for not checking on me sooner.
He let himself slip down into the chair so thaTHE just ended up on my lap. He took my Coke out of my hand with a practiced move of his hand. Probably something he did at the club to keep customers from spilling their drinks on him. He took a sip of the Coke without asking, and leaned in close enough to kiss me as he murmured, Im sorry.
I pushed him back enough to see his face clearly. I admit the flirting has been a little more than I thought it would be, but its okay. You flirt, you just do. It took me a long time to realize that flirting for you and Nathaniel, and even Jean-Claude, doesnt always mean a damn thing.
He nuzzled my cheek. But when you flirt, you mean it.
Most of the time, I said.
He nibbled his lips along the side of my neck. It made me shiver. Stop that, it tickles.
He did it some more, making me wiggle again. Its supposed to tickle.
I put a hand against his shoulder and pushed him away enough to look up in his face. Whatever he saw there didnt make him happy. I saw that in his own face.
Youre mad, he said, softly.
Trish said, My cue to leave. Have fun. She got up and walked away in her spike heels to join the other ladies.
I thought about what Jason had said, then shook my head. You know how you said that you hated being invisible to me as a guy, and loved me reacting to you now?
I think I just realized that you react to all women the way you react to me. You complain that youre not special enough to me in comparison to the other men in my life, but Jasonwhat do you do different with me that you dont do with other women?
He frowned, clearly puzzled.
I tried again. What did you do with Perdy that was different, special?
He frowned harder. She restricted the sex to a point that made it not fun anymore. Her idea of straight was too straight for me.
I nodded. But what I mean is, that you react, or interact, with all women the same. Watching you with them, I cant tell the difference between the early foreplay with them and what you do with me. Its not flattering to realize that you dont differentiate.
He sat in my lap, my Coke still in his hand, thinking at me. He was thinking so loud I could almost hear it. I actually watched the light dawn in his eyes.
Nathaniel acts differently around you than the women at the club. Jean-Claude, too. He seemed to think about it a little more, then nodded. Even some of the men who arent in love with you treat you differently. They want different things from you than from anyone else, like Requiem and Asher.
I nodded. Exactly.
He leaned in to whisper, I thought one of my charms was that I didnt want to be anything more than fuck buddies.
I had to smile. Elegantly put, Jason, but watching you with the women just now, I realized that I like to be special. I dont tolerate being part of a crowd. If you want to tell them that Im just a front to please your family, then do it, tell them the truth. They seem close enough friends. But if you are going to tell them that I am your girlfriend, a good enough girlfriend to bring home to the family, then you cant cuckold me with them.
He smiled. Cuckold?
I frowned at him. Pick a different word, but you know what I mean.
If it was Nathaniel, or Jean-Claude, you wouldnt have sat here for an hour and watched, would you?
They wouldnt have made me.
He set my Coke on the table the lamp was sitting on. It forced him to turn his body awkwardly, buTHE made it look vaguely promising, as if to say, Look how flexible I am. But I had Nathaniels flexibility to compare with, so I was less impressed than I might have been.
Jason turned back to me and gave me very serious eyes. Ive hurt your feelings.
Yes, but more than that I came here under cover for you, in a role that is not comfortable for me, and you just made all your old friends think that I would allow any boyfriend of mine to ignore me for an hour as he was pawed by old lovers. I wouldnt. The only thing that kept me in the chair was that I couldnt decide what to do. If we are just good friends and nothing more, then have at it, Jason. But if Im still supposed to be this serious girlfriend, you cant do shit like this.
Even if its only pretend that youre my serious girlfriend? he asked.
I nodded. Tell them the truth, and crawl all over them, have at it. But if you dont tell them the truth, then you cannot humiliate me like this, not if you want to maintain that I am in any way a serious girlfriend to you.
I watched him think some more. He opened his mouth, closed it, and glanced at the crowd of people behind us, all trying to pretend they werent there. He got off my lap and took my hand with him, drawing me to my feet.
He led me toward the bedroom. Rowe and Shadwell peeled away from the section of the wall they were holding up and tried to follow. Jason stopped them at the opening. No, and Im going to move the screen so we have some privacy.
Our orders, began Shadwell.
Im wearing more weapons than you are, Shadwell. I think well be all right.
He and Rowe exchanged glances, and then finally Shadwell nodded. If youre in there too long Im coming in, no matter what kind of sounds I hear. Just so youll know.
I think we can behave ourselves, I said.
Jason pulled me into the room and let go of my hand to move the metal screen over so it hid us from view, if we were on the bed. It was the best we could do without a door. Jason sat on the end of the bed and held his hand out to me.
I went to him, let him pull me to sit on the edge of the bed with him. Im sorry, he said.
Me, too, but you need to decide.
If I tell them the truth, what will you do?
What I want to do is go home, but I wont leave until I know what has the bodyguards all freaked. I think theres been some kind of threat against Keith Summerland, and Id never forgive myself if you got hurt by mistake.
His hand came up and cupped the side of my face, ever so gently. You care for me, and I return the favor by making you feel bad about yourself. Im sorry, Anita, really, I wasnt thinking.
Oh, you were thinking, just with the little head instead of the big one. As much as I enjoy both, I like you to make decisions with the top end.
He gave a small laugh, and moved our faces so he could kiss me. The kiss started to get out of hand, but I drew back, so that it didnt; drew back enough to look him in the eyes, his hand still against my face.
That look, he said, I know that look, that look of iron resolve. I dont know what it means in this instant, but it makes me a little nervous.
I smiled. Iron resolve, huh. Its just this, Jason: I dont share. Unfair or not, if you want to break our cover story, then you are free to try to sleep with whoever you want. Youre a big boy, but dont come dragging yourself from some strangers bed into mine.
You have to feed the ardeur at least one more time before we can go home, he said.
I nodded. Ill figure something out. Jean-Claude can help me feed from a distance, maybe. Ive been catching little bits of emotion from the women and the bodyguards and it hasnt raised the ardeur. Im getting more control.
You havent perfected the technique, Anita. Not of feeding from a distance, or control.
Its time we did. Maybe it will all work out for the best. If I could feed the ardeur through Jean-Claude, then I could take more out-of-town jobs without having to bring along lunch.
He grinned at me. Lunch, huh?
I nodded, and smiled at him in spite of myself. I was never sure why he could make me smile when I wanted to strangle him, buTHE could. It was one of the reasons we were still friends.
What am I going to do with you? I asked.
He spilled himself back against the bed, giving me that lecherous grin. I can think of something.
I stared down at him framed against the bedspread. I knew that I could have touched him and done nearly anything I wanted. Hed let me. The knowledge made things low in my body react, butI was beginning to realize that maybe that was true of most of the women in this room tonight. Somehow that took some of the shine off it for me. I bet you can, but if its one of the blondes youre wanting tonight, you need to fess up to them.
The last time I had sex with any of them was high school, Anita. It was fun, and a few times were very fun, but I have no idea how good they are at anything. The only person whod do nonstandard for sure would be J. J., and that would be complicated. I mean, recapturing the glory days usually goes badly.
I nodded. Yep.
But youd let me go out there and confess and flirt with intent.
I smiled. Flirt with intent, I was thinking exactly that earlier, but yeah, tell them the truth and you can have all the intent you want.
But if I dont tell them, then I have to behave myself better?
I nodded. Im afraid so. I feel sort of guilty asking that of you, but I cant bear it. I cant let them think that any man I might marry would be allowed to diss me this badly. I added, It sets a bad example to the other women, Jason. I mean, if even one woman seems to put up with shit like this, then it makes the other women more likely to put up with it for real. I just cant endorse it.
He clasped his hands across his stomach, looking serious. Only Jason could manage to look this serious and winsome on a bed at the same time. It was a gift.
I guess I understand that.
They think Im like almost your fiance and they are all over you like white on rice, right in front of me. Jason, that is lack of respect, from you and them.
He sighed, very heavy. Youre right, youre right.
Tell them the truth, and you can go back to what you were doing with them.
He sat up slowly like it was some sort of stomach exercise, making the T-shirt demonstrate just how tight it was. I love that, he said.
I blinked and looked from his stomach to his face. What? I asked.
That you watch me like that, that you notice me. I dont want to go back to being invisible to you, Anita.
I shrugged. I dont think youll ever be invisible to me, Jason.
But if I hurt your feelings this badly, reject you, then youll make sure you never act on it again.
You cant reject me if were just fuck buddies.
Thats what I thought, but I realize that were more than fuck buddies. A fuck buddy does not call in to work at a moments notice and say Ive got to fly out of town with a friend. A fuck buddy doesnt drop everything to come play some stupid charade. Someone who is just a fuck buddy doesnt come hold your hand when you see your father in the hospital and smell death on him. Fuck buddies are just about sex, Anita. Im the closest thing youll probably ever have to one, but the idea of a fuck buddy is that they are casual. Once I asked you to fly out here with me, that wasnt a casual request. I could only have asked that of someone who was my very close friend. He leaned in toward me, as if for a kiss.
I drew back a little. Kissing wont answer my question, Jason. Do we walk out of here as a couple, or just friends? I need to know what role Im playing for you here.
How about both? Ill tell them the truth, but I wont sleep around on you while were down here. That way, if any of what they seem to feel for me is real, it leaves it open for them to hunt me up afterward. But if its just old times and wedding nerves, then no harm done.
Actually, the ardeur sort of checked them out. For most of them the flirting is an end in itself. Most of them seem pretty levelheaded. Lisa would fuck you in a heartbeat, but her desire has an edge of panic to it.
Shes about to marry someone. I think shes scared.
I nodded. I can understand that, but Ive always thought if you were that nervous about the wedding, then youre marrying the wrong person.
He smiled. You would think that, but then you are one of the least commitment-phobic people I know.
I stared down at him. I know some people who might argue that with you.
He grinned. They think because you havent chosen one man above all the others that you dont know how to commit, when actually, I think your problem is that you commit too easily, and once you commit to someone you stick.
One woman cannot be committed to this many men.
Maybe, but you treat your lovers better than a lot of women treat their boyfriends.
Sorry to hear that, I said.
He looked wistful for a moment. I shielded as hard as I could so I didnt hit the radar for either the ardeur or your beasts.
I smiled. You did an excellent job; you were a blank.
He smiled again. Good, Im really wishing we hadnt come at all. For me, its great, but not for you. I didnt think it through. Its a bachelorette party; there is going to be a lot of sexual tension tonight. Its going to really challenge your ardeur.
Hard to have a quickie with Shadwell and Rowe in the room, I said.
Whats with them not leaving us alone?
I told you, I dont know yet, but Ill find out.
He sighed. I think Ill tell the girls, but only them. Well pretend for everyone else but my friends.
Friends you havent seen since college may not be as good a friend as you remember.
I know, but when Irvings article comes out tomorrow, our cover is blown anyway.
True. So tell them the truth, but keep your options open?
He nodded, and then a smile began to creep around the edges. Though with J. J. we could do both. Had my first mnage trois with her and a friend.
I shook my head. A mnage trois in high school?
No, I came back for winter break from college and so did J. J.
Trust you to have the two-girl fantasy come true before you were legal to drink.
He grinned full-out. Ive always been precocious.
Ill just bet you have.
He stood up and offered me his hand. Ill try to be as good a friend to you as you are to me, Anita.
I took his hand. Deal.
I tried to make it a handshake, buTHE raised my hand to his lips and kissed me. I guess either way, we had our compromise. Now we just had to see how the blondes in the next room took the news.