The second part of the sequel to my funny, sexy romance Just the Three of Us: An Erotic Romantic Comedy for the Commitment-Challenged will be on sale for only $0.99 through 1/31. Find it exclusively for Kindle on Amazon (Universal Link). As always, the book is FREE with Kindle Unlimited.
In Just the Three of Us: An Erotic Romantic Comedy for the Commitment-Challenged, we learned the story of Sam and Kathy and Ted, three good friends who become even better lovers. Now find out what happens to the author when her real-life inspirations read her book…
Want to read more? Here are the first several chapters:
Epilogue from Just the Three of Us
I close the lid of my laptop with a sigh and glance around my tiny apartment, illuminated solely by a single lamp and not much better-looking for the shade. With effort I rise and meander over to the greasy kitchenette, then pull a glass from the cabinet and pour myself a beer.
I hear a knock on the door. Surprised, I walk over to answer it. I don’t often have company. Especially so late.
“Hi, guys!” I exclaim with pleasure, embracing each of my friends in turn. “What are you doing this far downtown?”
“We brought you a beer,” Sam says, extending it towards me with a smile.
“Thanks!” I reply. “I just opened one.”
I select two more pint glasses and pour the rest of my bottle into them. Sam and Ted lean up against the counter, one on each side of me, sipping their beers.
“So, a funny thing happened to us today, Lori,” Sam begins mysteriously. “We went to the bookstore.”
“I’ve heard those places are riots,” I answer.
He smirks at me. “We were cruising the women’s section. Not looking for women,” he adds hastily.
“You know what a sucker Sam is for romance,” Ted explains.
“Right,” Sam agrees. “So we’re wandering through the romance aisle, and what do you think we find? A new novel by our personal friend, Lori Schafer.”
“ ‘Hmm,’ we said,” Ted continues. “ ‘That’s funny; Lori didn’t tell us she had a new book coming out.’ ”
“I didn’t?” I reply, warmth flowing into my cheeks. “How very strange. I guess I must have forgotten.”
“So Ted and I, we decide we’re going to buy a copy.”
“Two copies, even.”
“Because you know how much we like reading your books.”
“Uh-huh,” I say, downing my beer in one big gulp and cracking open the bottle they’ve brought as if it’s headache medicine and I’ve got a terrible migraine.
“So we go back to our apartment…” Ted continues.
“And we start reading…”
“And we can’t help but notice that there seems to be something awfully familiar about the characters in the book.”
“As if maybe they were based on people we knew.”
“Huh,” I say, the kindling in my cheeks catching fire. “I didn’t notice anything.”
I turn my back to them and set their glasses down on the counter so I can pour the new beer. They lean over me, watching, their chests pressing into my shoulders.
“Here you go!” I announce, abruptly forcing the half-pints into their hands and stepping away from them.
“Thanks,” they say. They move in closer, one on each side, and I shiver in spite of their warmth.
“See, the thing is, Lori,” Sam continues, turning sideways into me, “We were sort of wondering if there might be something a little autobiographical in that book of yours.”
“Oh, no!” I say, trembling harder. “It’s just a story, you know, entirely fictional. No reality in it at all.”
“You sure about that?” Ted says, stretching a long arm across my backside and drawing me towards him.
“Ungh,” I gulp.
“Because it would be kind of a shame,” Sam says, leaning in so close I can feel his breath on my neck, “To let an opportunity like that go to waste. If it happened to appear on your doorstep.”
“In the middle of the night, say. Over a beer.”
“Uh-huh,” I whisper. They inch in closer, their thighs pressing against mine. I stand paralyzed between them, wishing, hoping, wondering… This couldn’t really be happening, could it?
Abruptly, Sam breaks away. Ted looks at him with questions in his dark eyes.
He throws up his hands. “I can’t do it, Ted!”
“Why not?!” Ted cries, gesturing towards me.
I can’t speak. I droop down between them, hopelessly disappointed.
“Look at this dump!” Sam exclaims. “There isn’t even room enough for three on that bed!”
“Well, we’ll fix that!” Ted answers, hoisting my whole body up onto his shoulder and giving my ass a friendly pat. “You get the car, Sam!”
“Good idea, Ted. Don’t you worry, Lori,” Sam says to me kindly, patting my ass in turn before heading towards the stairs. “You’re coming home with us!”
“Just a second, guys!” I call out, giddy with anticipation. “Don’t you think we ought to have a toast?”
“Sure, a toast!” Ted says, turning us both around, marching back to the counter, and grabbing our glasses. Sam follows behind him in turn.
“To the three of us!” he cries, lifting his glass.
“To the three of us!” we answer, hoisting ours.
Those of you who read my original book Just the Three of Us will recall that I ended it with the preceding epilogue. Those of you who didn’t read it? Go back and read it. The rest of this will make a heck of a lot more sense if you do. No time right now? Oh, all right – read this pitch I wrote for it instead; it sums up the story reasonably well:
“Meet Kathy, a thirty-seven-year-old drifter who’s constantly on the move: to new towns, new jobs, and new relationships. Imagine her surprise when she’s befriended by lifelong friends Sam and Ted, attractive young men who, though ten years her junior, are far more settled than she thinks she’ll ever be. Cheer them on as their three-way friendship succumbs to passion, then passion to romance, and romance to… well, surely it couldn’t be love. Could it?”
Well (spoiler alert), naturally the story does end with those three crazy kids falling in love, and possibly even living happily-ever-after. Sweet fantasy, don’t you think? That’s what I thought. In fact, that’s why I added the epilogue. Because while I was very happy for my characters and the successful conclusion of their triangular romance, I was also a bit miffed when I read it. Sure, everything turned out great for Sam and Kathy and Ted. But what about that poor lonely writer, typing away in sexless solitude with nothing but her imagination to keep her tootsies toasty morning, noon and night? Surely she deserved some hardcore snuggling, too?
I know all about it. That writer is me. And I guess you could say that I wrote that book as a means of living out a deeply cherished – if absurdly impossible – fantasy. Those who can’t live, live vicariously.
You see, although the names are, of course, pseudonyms, there really are a Sam and Ted. They were young men of my acquaintance to whom I found myself inexplicably attracted. Not – as generally happens among the sane women of the world – as individual men, but together, as a pair. Like my character Kathy, I wasn’t interested in dating Sam or in dating Ted, which was too bad, because I might have been able to pull off one of those less dazzling arrangements. No, I wanted them together or not at all.
I guess the trouble started because, as anyone who has ever had a secret crush knows, when you feel that way about someone, deep down you want nothing more than for them to find out about it, particularly if it means they’re going to respond by sweeping you into their arms and smothering you with kisses. Or, if you’re like me, by pinning you to the wall and relieving you of your panties.
Of course, in real life that rarely happens. Usually if you’ve kept your crush a secret, there’s a darned good reason for it. Namely, that either you know the object of your affection doesn’t share your interest, or that he/she/they is/are unobtainable for whatever reason. In my case, both of these conditions applied, for although there were moments in which I thought I might have sparked a glimmer of interest in Sam or in Ted, I never deluded myself into imagining that either of them, like most practical men, would ever be amenable to a romantic ratio of greater than one to one. Consequently, not being as foolish back then as I evidently am today, I kept my deep, dark thoughts about Sam and Ted and what I wanted them to do to my deep, dark places all to myself. In the real world, I would never have breathed a word about the fantasies I had about them, not even to Julie, my very best friend. I didn’t flirt with them. I wasn’t overly affectionate. The only allusion I ever made to romance was to admonish them jokingly they were much too young even to speak to a middle-aged lady like me. Until I wrote that book, the chances of anyone finding out the extent of depravity to which I had mentally sunk were considerably lower than the odds of my suddenly becoming a pro tackle in the NFL. But I did write it. And worse, I ended it with an epilogue – an epilogue that almost reads like a confession.
I suppose it was a confession. Maybe there was some very tiny, very stupid corner of my heart – or one of my lustier places – that hoped that they would find out. That maybe they would even like the idea. That if the thought only turned them on a tenth as much as it did me, I might still get to live out that secret fantasy before I got to be too old to enjoy it. Or for them to enjoy me.
Foolish, I know. My mind certainly knew better, even if my heart – or those pesky dirty places – refused to believe it. No good could have come from them finding out how I felt. In fact, it was a disaster the size of a beehive hairdo when they did.
But it’s over now. Nothing can make it better, and nothing – I hope – can make it worse. I came out, as it were. With all of the horrific consequences that sometimes entails. And the way I figure it, I might as well tell the whole story. Here, now, while it’s fresh in my mind, before I start twisting and coloring it and turning it into a tall tale to share with the boys at the bar now that my boys have left me behind.
You see, my relationship with Sam and Ted wasn’t quite the way I portrayed it in fiction. If it had been, maybe I’d have had half a chance. But as it was, I was lucky to escape with some piddly portion of my dignity intact. And calling what I had left at the end “dignity” is really stretching the term.
“There she is!” Sam exclaimed, slapping his beer down on the picnic table and bouncing over to give me a hug. That’s how you know when a man really likes you – when he puts his beer down in order to hug you.
I hugged him back. Carefully. All shoulders and no pelvis. “Haven’t seen you since, what, New Year’s?” I said, struggling to keep the wistfulness out of my voice. It was already May.
“Hey, that’s right!” he agreed, withdrawing from my embrace. I felt my sides growing cool as his hands abandoned my body and I pouted inwardly. That was it – the only full-frontal contact I was going to get until it came time to say our goodbyes. “So how’ve you been?”
“Oh, fine, fine,” I answered, nodding absentmindedly like I always did when I had nothing to say, which was surprisingly often, considering that I made my living from words. “Where’s Ted?”
“Hey, Ted!” Sam called, winking a bright hazel eye at me. “Bring Lori a beer!”
I heard Ted’s deep voice rumbling from the direction of the tents.
“Get your own beer, dumbass!”
“Not for me, stupid! Lori’s here!”
I spotted Ted’s dark head popping out from behind a leafy oak tree and a hint of his dark eyes peering at me from behind his glasses. I waved and he waved back, smiling. “Why didn’t you say so?”
I heard the clinking of ice cubes and the soft phhht of a bottle being opened. And then there was Ted, striding deliberately towards me on his lanky legs as if delivering my beer were his sole purpose in life.
“How’ve you been, Lori?” he said, wrapping me up in one long arm while he cradled my beer in his other. “Haven’t see you since what, New Year’s?”
“Guess not,” I sighed, wishing for the tenth time that day that I was ten years younger. I found it incredibly frustrating that our entire acquaintance revolved around major holidays and the occasional beer festival. How was I supposed to get a good old-fashioned seduction going when I only saw them a few times a year?
He pulled away and grinned as he slapped my beer hard into my palm, as if I were running the next leg of an ale relay race and he was in charge of the hand-off. I took a small swig from the bottle and grinned back at him. It would have been impossible not to. I always had been a sucker for brunettes with glasses, and this one was definitely improving with age. For a moment I pretended to myself that I was, too. Then I remembered that we were standing outside in broad daylight and realized that that fantasy was even more unlikely than the usual ones I had about Sam and Ted.
“Just got a text from Julie,” he said, patting the pants pocket containing his phone. Its outline was clearly visible through the thin cloth of his khakis, and I squinted, wondering what else I might see if I tried. “Said she’s almost ready to leave.”
I refrained from making tsk-tsk noises, but I knew what we were all thinking – Julie’s devotion to the Boonville beer festival grew less every year. “That’s why we didn’t come up together this time. She figured she might have trouble escaping at a reasonable hour.”
I had become accustomed to the quirks in scheduling that went with having a best friend with a husband and child, but sometimes they still perturbed me. I knew that there were some disadvantages to being single and childless, but not having to ask permission before I went out was not one of them.
“She’s going to miss the start of the festival!” Sam gasped in dismay, running a hand over his buzz cut. It was a good two and a half hours from the San Francisco Bay Area up to Anderson Valley, the last thirty miles of which was along a sharply curved road that wound through one of the most rural parts of northern California.
“She’ll be all right,” I replied, dutifully defending my friend. “I’m sure she’ll get plenty of beer. Besides, at least she’s not having her first at ten o’clock in the morning!”
We all glanced guiltily down at our bottles. The festival was the one day a year in which I drank in the morning, and that first post-coffee beer always felt delightfully decadent. The last one felt decadent, too, but not so delightful.
“Well, she’ll know where to find us!” Ted gestured cheerfully towards our campsite, a nice quiet patch in the corner of the campground, shaded from the hot Anderson Valley sun by a stand of tall, leafy trees, the only downside of which was that they were loaded with creepy white caterpillars that liked to plummet abruptly into your food or your beer. Sam and Ted always came up the night before the festival to stake out a campsite; in the last few years, they’d managed to reserve us this very same spot. It had done much to improve my enjoyment of camping at Boonville, where I had frequently been awakened in the hours between midnight and dawn by teams of raucous revelers starting up an impromptu game of Ultimate Frisbee in the central field of the fairgrounds.
I raised my beer-free hand in a high-five. “Good job, guys!”
They both slapped my hand in turn. It stung quite delightfully, and I tried, without much success, to pretend that it was my ass.
“So, Lori…” Sam said, dropping his arm casually around my waist as he often did when we were standing next to one another. “How are the book sales coming?”
“Mmm,” I said, snuggling into his grasp and gazing hungrily at Ted, who stood right beside us, watching.
“Mmm, good, or mmm, bad?” Sam inquired, turning to look sideways at me. His face was about six inches from mine and for a minute I pretended that those “mmms” were yummy noises he was making at me. His mouth hung slightly open and I found myself licking my lips, wondering… what would he do if I kissed him?
Knuckles tapped my skull and I jumped.
“So you are in there!” Sam said, squeezing my side again and pulling my hip close to his. “I was beginning to think you’d gotten drunk off your first sip of beer.”
“I was, um, thinking about something else,” I stammered. “What was the question?”
“How – are – the – book – sales – coming?” Ted said, very slowly and distinctly, as if I were a little deaf or a lot daft.
I glared at him and he grinned wickedly back at me.
“What?” he smirked. “For once I wanted to tick you off before Sam did.”
“Impossible,” Sam responded. “I always piss her off first.”
“Not always,” I interjected. “Just, you know… most of the time.”
I smiled sideways at him. He grinned back, his short golden hair aglow in the sunlight.
“It’s only because I love you,” he answered, leaning up to peck me on the forehead.
My tummy squirmed like the Pillsbury Doughboy’s.
“And you love me too,” he asserted. “That’s why you get mad when I’m being an asshole.”
“She must love you an awful lot, then,” Ted interjected wryly.
“Of course she does!” Sam agreed, brushing off the insult and shifting his arm around my waist. “You love me, don’t you, Lori?”
I felt my heart skip a beat. My brain followed suit, and for a moment I couldn’t answer. Didn’t he know how distracting it was having him hold me like that? So casual, so meaningless… yet he was the only man I knew who did that to me. That had to mean something, right? Right??
“When you’re not ticking me off,” I replied at last, shrugging my shoulders.
“So not very often, then?”
Ted was grinning that wicked grin again and something about it made me feel funny inside, though I couldn’t have said why.
I reached out and shoved him softly on the chest, marveling, in spite of my annoyance, at the firmness of his pecs beneath my palm. “Often enough.”
The smile faded from his face, and I got that funny feeling again. I found myself overwhelmed by the urge to hug him, but of course I couldn’t. Sam was the casual touchy-feely guy; Ted was not. Not that he shrank from my touch, but he didn’t flirt the way Sam did. And now when I looked at him looking at us, I suddenly saw us as he must see us, standing there so close together, so crudely affectionate in our backhanded way. And, like a flicker of lightning on a far horizon, a wild and dangerous thought flashed across my brain for an instant before it vanished into the darkness – could he be jealous?
My arm had extended itself halfway to his body before I caught it and jerked it back to my side.
“Oh!” I heard myself exclaiming as Ted’s eyes flickered over the offending limb.
“Oh, indeed,” Ted murmured. But he was smiling again. “So, um… the sales?”
Oh, right. I had never answered the original question. “Oh, uh, good! Very good, actually,” I said, taking another swig of my beer and forcing my mind back to the conversation. “Better than I dared to hope.”
“Awesome!!” Sam said. He gave my side a little squeeze and I giggled, still staring at Ted. He was still smiling back at me with those deep brown eyes, and I felt my mind travelling to one of those places it was only supposed to go when I was alone. I squeezed Sam back, rather harder than necessary; I could feel my fingers digging into his ribs.
“Hey there!” he squealed, prompting Ted to jack up an eyebrow at him. “That tickles!”
I loosened my grip. Well, he’d started it.
“That’s great, Lori, really great,” Ted said sincerely, shifting his hips and leaning in towards us. “Have you been getting good reviews?”
He was standing just a foot in front of me and Sam, peering intently at me through his thin lenses. Yet something had changed in his face. That look that might have meant something had been replaced by a look that clearly meant nothing. Or had I been imagining it all along?
I sighed heavily. When was I going to accept the fact that my relationship with Sam and Ted was all in my head?
“Not so good, eh?”
Again I forced myself back to reality. Reluctantly I bent down to scratch my ankle, letting go of Sam in the process.
“Actually, they’ve been positive overall,” I said. The thought cheered me slightly. “Mostly fours and fives. Although I did get a one-star review that was pretty offensive,” I lamented.
“One star?” Sam exclaimed. “How come?”
I shrugged. “They said they thought I was a sick freak whose books should be destroyed in a public bonfire, and preferably me with them.”
“Ouch!” Ted said, shaking his head.
“That’s what I said.”
“Wait a minute,” Sam interjected. “I don’t get it. What’s your book about again?”
Ted and I exchanged a glance of mutual comprehension, and once again I was struck by the difference between my relationship with him and my relationship with Sam. It was true that Sam liked to flirt with me. It was probably even true that he had a bit of a crush on me. But on those rare occasions when we actually saw one another, sometimes I thought he was too busy flirting and casually feeling me up to listen to a word I said.
“It’s a threesome story,” I said curtly. “Very sexually graphic.”
“Oooh, kinky!” Sam said. He reached up and trailed his fingers delicately down the length of my spine. It was one of his more persistent and annoying habits, especially because it made my entire body erupt in goosebumps every time he did it.
“It’s pretty kinky,” I agreed. It seemed like a suitable description.
I looked over at him and was stunned to see that he was staring at my chest. My goosebumps instantly popped higher. That was a new one, I thought. Maybe we were finally getting somewhere here.
When you’re a no-longer-young woman, you respond quickly to opportunities like these. I squeezed my shoulders together and leaned forward a little. If he was searching for cleavage, that was the only way he was going to find it on me.
“There’s more to it than that, though, isn’t there, Lori?” Ted was saying.
“Well, it is a romance,” I said, turning swiftly to angle my almost-cleavage towards him. He was taller, I figured; he might have better luck spotting it. “I mean, it isn’t porn or anything.”
“It’s not?” Sam said, surprised. “So what’s the story about then? Two guys fighting over the same girl?”
I shifted uncomfortably and let my shoulders relax. They were both looking me in the eye again and I figured I might as well let my poor boobs pack it in for the day.
“Not exactly,” I answered. “Actually, not at all. It’s about a woman who falls in love with two men simultaneously.”
“So what, they agree to like, share her or something?” Sam said. He chortled and I caught myself blushing.
“No. No, it’s more like – the three of them become a couple,” I said.
Sam’s eyes got very wide. I glanced over at Ted. He appeared, as usual, unfazed.
“You mean, like, the guys start doing it, too? With –” His voice dropped to a whisper. “With butt sex and all that?”
I cleared my throat uncomfortably. Why was it so much easier to write about these things than to talk about them?
“No, no, the guys are friends. Like, old friends. They don’t do each other, only her. There is some butt sex, though…”
Sam’s mouth was hanging open. I grabbed hold of his beer, which was dangling from his fist, threatening to drop. I handed it to him, and he took a giant gulp of it. He looked appraisingly at me and then over at Ted, who was wearing the kind of half-smile that told me I was on my own.
“You should have had the guys doing each other, too,” Sam declared, pressing his fingers together in dirty demonstration. “That would have made more sense. If the three of them are going to be like, a couple, they should all do each other.”
“Um…” I answered. I didn’t know whether I should be insulted that he was picking on my plot, or amused by the fact that he thought my book would be improved by more “butt sex.”
Ted was running a hand over his short, well-trimmed beard, a sure sign that he was trying to hide a smile. And that he was about to make an observation that was extremely likely to embarrass us both.
“Well, maybe…” he said thoughtfully, “Maybe Lori felt more comfortable writing what she knows.”
Sam’s mouth fell open again as he turned to me and Ted. “Wait!” he said. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“Maybe,” Ted said innocently, his eyes searching the sky as he took a sip of his beer. I groaned.
“Really, Lori?” Sam said, his eyes agoggle and his cheeks tinged with pink. His voice dropped to a whisper again. “You haven’t really done that, have you? Two guys at once?”
I wish, I thought. At least these two particular guys.
“Uh, no, not to my recollection,” I answered. And at the rate I was going, I never would.
“Seems like you would remember something like that,” Ted said, a hint of that sly smile playing about his lips.
“Probably,” I conceded. I forced my eyes away from his and looked out over the festival campground, wishing it was dark already. My face was burning and I didn’t want them to think I was lying. Especially when I wasn’t.
“But you’ve thought about it, haven’t you,” Sam said shrewdly. It wasn’t a question, so I didn’t answer it. He edged closer to me, his big hazel eyes boring into my green ones so hard I nearly flinched under the force of them. I stared deliberately back at him. If I blinked right now, it could only mean certain death.
“HA! You’ve totally thought about it!” he shouted with glee. I tried to roll my eyes, but they were dry from staring and got stuck in my head. I shrugged instead.
“Don’t you think so, Ted?” he said.
“I suspect most women have thought about it at one time or another,” Ted answered reasonably.
“But Lori wrote a whole book about it!” Sam said, his eyes shining. “That must mean she’s really into it!”
Ted snorted. “No, it doesn’t! Just because you put something in a story, that doesn’t mean that’s how you feel. It’s called fiction for a reason.”
I could have kissed him right then. I would have, too, but Sam had planted himself directly in front of me and was leaning in close, studying my face. Then he opened his mouth to speak, and suddenly a chill travelled from my neck down my spine and then up to my brain again, where it clung like a cloud threatening to engulf me in a deluge of death-dealing hail.
Oh, God, I thought. Please don’t let him ask me…
“But if you were going to,” Sam was saying, “Who would you –?”
“Is that your phone, Sam?” Ted interrupted, rescuing me again. I definitely would have kissed him then, nosy Sam or no, but somehow I guessed that “Drenched in Cold Sweat” was not his favorite feminine fragrance.
“Your phone. I thought I heard it ringing.”
We all fell silent a moment. In the second that passed I wondered if Ted had indeed guessed what Sam was going to ask me. Had he intentionally come to my rescue? And if so, why? Was it possible that he knew how I felt?
Something swelled in my chest. What if….? What if…?
And then I heard Sam’s kooky metallic ringtone sounding quietly in the distance.
The something in my chest silently deflated like a worn Whoopee cushion. It was an honest interruption, after all.
“Excuse me,” Sam said, hurrying over to grab his cell phone.
“Probably Cindy,” Ted said. “You know how she expects Sam to jump when she calls.”
Oh, yeah. That’s the other wee little thing I forgot to mention. In my first book, Sam and Ted are both single, Ted being between girlfriends and Sam having recently ended a ten-year relationship. In real life, Ted was never single. Not that he was a player; he certainly wasn’t. He’d only had five girlfriends in the four years I had known him, but never seemed to be without one for more than a week. I didn’t have any idea how he managed his private life, but sometimes I wondered if he kept a waiting list or something. When one relationship ended, he merely cried out “Next!” and let the next one begin.
Sam, on the other hand, was still dating his high-school sweetheart. Really. I didn’t know how they had kept it together so long, especially without being married, but there they were, seeming as permanently attached as ever. I had met her a few times. She seemed nice enough, and I tried to be nice in return, even though I was hopelessly jealous of her. There she was, living in the same apartment with my two favorite men, and she was only sleeping with one of them. What the heck was she thinking?
Had I had any serious hopes for the three of us, I probably would have felt really bad about those other relationships. It’s amazing how horribly guilty you can feel for lusting after someone else’s man, even if you never do anything about it. Of course, it helped that I hardly ever had to see them – the women, I mean. For some reason they were rarely around on most of those occasions where I saw Sam and Ted. Some part of me always thought that was odd – perhaps even hopeful. Clearly there were aspects of their lives in which the ladies were reluctant to take part, and I couldn’t blame them. In my more optimistic moments, I even wondered whether I might turn that to my advantage. What would they say if I proposed a time-share?
“So where’s your girlfriend, Ted?” I said, pretending to glance hopefully around the crowded campsite.
“Eh, she didn’t want to come,” Ted said. “Doesn’t like camping.”
“A lot of women don’t,” I conceded.
“Yeah, but she doesn’t drink beer, either. I mean, would it kill her to have a beer once in a while?” He stopped and seemed to be reconsidering what he’d said. “Jenn’s a great girl,” he continued at last, more, I thought, to himself than to me.
Had we been better friends, I might have said something. “I’m sorry it isn’t working out” or “It doesn’t sound like she’s a good match for you.” But we weren’t close enough for that.
“Well, if you’re dating her, I’m sure she has many fine qualities,” I said instead. I was never one to badmouth the competition. Particularly when it was a competition I was guaranteed to lose.
“That she does,” he agreed. “How about you? You seeing anyone?”
“Not seriously,” I said. By which I meant not at all. In fact, I hadn’t had a date in over a year. If it weren’t for my books and busy fingers I’d have had no romance in my life at all.
He looked at me appraisingly, and I was overcome by a very peculiar sensation. You know that tingly feeling you get all over when a man you’re attracted to looks at you like he likes what he sees? Feels pretty good, right? Well, for a moment, that’s how I felt with Ted. I got goosebumps down my arms, shivers up my spine, and electric shocks all throughout numerous areas I’d prefer not to mention. In fact, I would have sworn that he was checking me out. Unfortunately, that delusion didn’t last very long.
“Good for you,” he said. “Most single women your age are desperate to find a husband and settle down. But there’s nothing wrong with playing the field.”
I was still trying to work out whether this was a compliment or an insult when Sam came hurrying back, his phone still clutched in his fist.
“Sorry about that,” he said. “The little woman, you know.”
The little woman?
“Isn’t she like, five-nine?” I said. I knew because I was of better-than-average height myself, and there weren’t many women I had to look up to when they weren’t wearing heels.
“Five-nine-and-a-half,” he confirmed. “That’s why we always see eye to eye.”
Ted laughed. “Except about unimportant things,” he said. “Like beer festivals.”
I turned to Sam, not even attempting to conceal my surprise.
“Does she have a problem with beer festivals?” I asked him.
“Well, um, no,” he fibbed, placing his hands on his cheeks in a vain attempt to cover up the color that flooded into them with the lie. “She just – she didn’t really want me to come up this year.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” The color had spread down to his neck, and I wondered why he was so desperate to conceal this particular truth. “She’s usually cool with the local festivals, but the overnight thing – I guess maybe she doesn’t like me being away so long.”
He gazed at me hopefully. I turned to Ted. He was staring at the ground, the expression on his face betraying nothing.
“Uh-huh,” I said, unconvinced.
“Yep,” Sam said cheerfully, evidently persuaded that I had bought his less-than-flimsy excuse for an explanation. “What can I say? My old lady misses me.”
“Your old lady?” Ted sneered. “You’re not even married! And who even uses that expression anymore?”
“My old man,” Sam answered without hesitation. “Speaking of which, Lori, did I tell you my folks are celebrating their fortieth wedding anniversary this year?”
“Wow!” I said, deciding to disregard the rather obvious change of subject. “That’s a rarity nowadays.”
“It is, it is,” he agreed. “But you know, they’re a special pair – never so much as looked at anyone else since the day they met.”
I’ll bet, I thought, glancing over at Ted. He was still gazing at the ground, biting his lip. Evidently I wasn’t the only cynic in the group.
“They’re planning this huge party. And speaking of parties, you know what else is this summer?” he hinted.
“Christmas?” I said innocently.
He rolled irritated eyes at me. “My birthday!” he answered proudly, poking me on the shoulder to emphasize the point.
“Oh, right!” I said. “Well, Happy Birthday!”
“Not just any birthday, either! My thirtieth!”
For several seconds I was stunned into silence. I don’t know why this continued to shock me. I knew very well how old they were – had known it ever since we’d met, when they were only twenty-six and I was… much older. But somehow it always horrified me to hear it referred to – as if it were a dark family secret that should never be spoken aloud.
“That’s great, Sam,” I congratulated him. “Now I’ll no longer have to be embarrassed being seen speaking to a youngster in public.”
He half-frowned at me and loosely wrapped an arm around my waist again.
“Don’t you just love her?” he said to Ted. “The way she talks to me? So sweet, so affectionate.”
He tapped me gently on the chin with his fist.
“Ow!” I said, reeling backward in pretend pain.
He let go, made a grumpy face and folded his arms over his chest.
“So do you want to hear about my party or not?”
“Your birthday party? Sure!”
I should probably mention here that I wasn’t harboring any illusions about being included in Sam’s special celebration. Sam liked me, and so did Ted, and there were certain occasions – such as Boonville – in which we were friends. Good friends. But the rest of the year they ran with their own crowd of much younger guys and their wives and girlfriends. It was a group to which I did not – and, because of the age difference, probably could not – ever belong. So however much I enjoyed my two young friends and they me, it was perfectly natural for me not to be invited to such an important event. And equally natural for Sam to be anxious to tell me about it.
“Yup,” he said. “We’re going to Vegas, baby!”
I let out an involuntary groan.
“What, you don’t like Las Vegas?” he said, his eyebrows skyrocketing up to his forehead, where they sat neatly like hedgerows atop his smooth skin.
“Oh, it’s not that,” I said, trying to think of a tactful way not to rain on the intended parade. “It’s just that by the time you get to be my age, you’ve already been to Las Vegas so many times that it’s lost most of its charm.”
There was certainly some truth in that. I’d been to Vegas at least a dozen times already myself, and except for the always stunning sight of the lights flashing along The Strip and the water show at The Bellagio, the novelty of gambling and shows had long ago been thrown off my personal entertainment stage like fluffy pink feather boas. And not being a native Californian, I had not been ingrained since birth with the notion that Las Vegas was the ultimate weekend vacation destination.
“Plus,” I continued, pleased in spite of myself with this opportunity to work in a bit of my own good news, “I have to go down there myself in a few months.”
“What for?” Ted said, grinning mischievously at me. “Not eloping, are you?”
“Good Lord, let’s hope not,” I answered, fighting the urge to cross myself even though I was not a Catholic. “No, actually, I’ve been nominated for an award.”
“Really?” It was Ted’s turn to send his eyebrows shooting up to his hairline. “What kind of award?”
“It’s a ‘Bony,’ ” I answered proudly, tears coming into my eyes as I recalled the letter the committee had sent me, which now stood in a gilt-edged frame on my nightstand, where it greeted me like sunshine each and every splendid spring morning.
“A what?” they said together.
“A ‘Bony’ award,” I repeated. “For erotic romantic writing.”
“What – what kind of award do they give for that?” Sam inquired.
“Oh, it’s a miniature statue, shaped like, you know…” I trailed off and let my hands do the talking.
“Looks like kind of a big one,” Ted said, chuckling.
Sam shook his head as if clearing it of cobwebs. “Hey!” he exclaimed. “That’s awesome!” Ted nodded.
“I mean, this must be quite an honor!”
“It is, oh, it is! I couldn’t be more thrilled.”
“So how does this work? Do you get nominated in like a specific category, or what?” Ted inquired.
“Debut novel,” I answered, nodding happily. “I don’t have my hopes up, though. I’ve looked at some of the other work, and the competition’s pretty stiff.”
“Stiff,” Sam giggled.
“Shall we wait until after you turn thirty to resume this conversation?” I suggested.
“No, no, I’d rather you give it to me now,” he said, poorly stifling a grin.
I ignored him.
“Anyway, it really is an honor, and even if I don’t win, the exposure has already been great for my career.”
“We know how you love exposing yourself,” Sam snickered.
“And if I do win, imagine what that will do to book sales – I don’t want to jinx it, but it could even end up a bestseller in some categories!”
“It would be nice to get it up there,” Sam agreed, nodding.
“I hope you’ll let us know,” Ted said seriously, frowning at Sam, “If you win or not.”
“Hey, yeah!” Sam said. “Or, wait, will it be on TV?”
“Oh, yes!” I said. “Not network TV, of course, but it will be on cable. It’s a pretty big production. It’s not just for books, you know, they also give out awards for movies and erotic art – the whole shebang.”
“She-bang? I like the sound of that!” Sam chimed in.
Ted glared at him. “When is it?” he said. “We’re definitely going to want to watch it!”
A wave of happiness surged through my body. They wanted to watch my awards show! Real confirmation that they would be thinking of me when I wasn’t around.
“Let me see,” I replied, pulling out my phone and pretending to consult my calendar as if I hadn’t memorized the date and time the second I opened the nomination letter – and that I knew how to use the calendar feature on my phone.
“The first Sunday in August,” I confirmed.
“Aw, bummer!” Sam yelled. “That’s the same weekend we’ll be gone!”
“I thought your birthday was in June,” I said, dredging up some vague recollection of the last time we’d had this discussion.
“It is, but we had to postpone it because of my parents’ anniversary.” He appeared thoughtful for a moment, then jumped up, excited. “Wait a minute, you know what this means?”
Ted nodded. “The three of us will all be in Vegas on the same weekend.”
“Huh,” I said as the world faded to black all around me. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a switch clicked on my own personal movie projector, and it began replaying a well-worn recording of a fantasy film I had watched and re-watched many, many times in my internal theater. The scenes flipped by: a weekend away… the stunning coincidence of running into the objects of my affection in a chance out-of-town encounter… crisp, clean hotel sheets just begging to be rumpled. And presiding over all, the comforting and provocative knowledge that we would be far away from anyone who might object to our oh-so-sinful Sin City indulgence. The credits began to roll and I scanned them eagerly, searching for the names of the players. There we were, the three of us, filmed live on location in beautiful, wonderful, magical Las Vegas. It was a Hollywood dream come true!
The credits didn’t stop there, however. They kept rolling and rolling, and as I stared, bewildered, at the long list of names, I suddenly remembered; it wouldn’t only be me and Sam and Ted, but me and Sam and Ted and a host of their friends. Plus their girlfriends. Maybe even their parents. And I didn’t even have a date for the ceremony.
I summoned what was left of my rationality and decided to throw some cool logic on my libido. This rarely worked, but I always kept trying.
“Quite the coincidence,” I agreed. “But of course it’s not as if we’ll be seeing each other. I mean, you’ll be busy with your friends, and besides, Vegas is huge, right?”
“True,” Sam conceded. He stuck his hand deep in his pocket and I tried to convince myself that it was a nonverbal reaction to his overwhelming emotional disappointment. But then he pulled out a bottle opener and walked over to the cooler for a new beer, and that illusion, like all the others, evaporated like foam at the head of a glass.
“What about Sunday?” Ted suggested.
“What about Sunday?” Sam called back, ice cubes clinking against the bottle clasped in his fingers.
“The ceremony is Sunday night,” Ted pointed out. “Everyone else is going home Sunday morning. Sam and I are staying over an extra day.”
“Hey, that’s right!” Sam shouted, returning with a fresh bottle and offering me a sip before taking one himself. “We could totally hang out on Sunday. In fact – ooh, wait a minute – where is the ceremony?”
I told them.
“Perfect!! That’s the hotel with that great bar – you know, the one with the tall towers of IPA? I’ll bet they’ll put the show on for us – and you can meet us afterwards for a beer!”
“Well, that’s – that’s very nice, Sam,” I said, and meant it. “But you know how long these awards ceremonies last. Mine will be one of the earlier awards, but all the movie awards will come after. You’re not going to want to sit through all that, no matter how good the beer is.”
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right,” he agreed. “I mean, what thirty-year-old man would hang around a bar all night in Las Vegas hoping for a glimpse of some porn stars? ‘Specially if he knows one of them.”
He gave me a big exaggerated wink and I was amused in spite of myself.
“I am hardly a porn star,” I objected, once again nervously wondering what the heck I was going to wear to this shindig that wouldn’t shame me beside the sexier competition. Somehow my usual writer’s outfit of sweats and a sports bra didn’t seem appropriate. “Although I suppose it’s possible I might meet a few there… I dunno. What do you think of this plan, Ted?”
“I like it,” he responded at once. “Seriously, we’re not going to have anything better to do that night than nurse our hangovers and start working on new ones. Besides, we’ll have a good time bragging about how we know you.”
There are rare moments in life in which everything seems to come together, almost as if, after years of ruthlessly ripping off your nickels and quarters, some divine gumball-maker has finally rewarded your persistence in feeding the machine by releasing for you a veritable avalanche of sweet, chewy treats – which I know is not a very polite way to refer to Sam and Ted. But before my tongue had even wrapped itself around the words it now seemed destined to speak, I knew that this was one of those moments.
“I don’t suppose…” I hesitated, certain that this was too good to be true, “I don’t suppose you guys would like to come with me…?”
Sam’s face fell slack and his jaw opened. Then there was a thud followed by the hiss of liquid and carbonation escaping from a fallen beer bottle. Quickly Ted stooped to pick it up.
“Seriously?” Sam said, evidently unaware that he’d lost what was ordinarily his most prized possession. “You mean, like, to the ceremony?”
I nodded, my ears ringing with my own words. “ ‘Up to three guests,’ the invitation says. I guess that’s for folks who want to invite their parents as well as their spouses, although I can’t imagine…”
“Absolutely! I was hoping to take Julie, but her sister’s wedding is that weekend.”
“You know what this means, Ted?” Sam said, turning towards his friend. “We’re gonna be on TV!”
“That’s right!” Ted confirmed. “They always do those shots of the nominees before the announcement. And if you win…”
“Oh my God!” Sam shouted, jumping up and down as if he’d just won the grand prize himself. “That would be so awesome! Wait, we’d better start practicing. C’mere, Ted!” He extended one of his thick, powerful arms and dragged Ted forcibly over to his other side, no mean feat for a man Ted’s size. “Now you take her hand, here, just like that, and then kinda bow your head, like you’re deep in thought.”
Ted turned and shot me one of his half-smiles.
“Just play along,” I whispered.
He took my hand and held it. It felt warm, but moist. At least I wasn’t the only one who was sweating.
“And then when they announce her name, we jump up and hug her, like this!”
He demonstrated. I was glad we were practicing. The smack of his jaw against my cheekbone was not the way I had always imagined our faces coming together.
“Whoops, sorry, Lori. See, this is why we need to practice.”
“Okay, so what do we do if she loses?” Ted inquired reasonably.
“Ted!” Sam cried in protest. “Don’t even talk like that! Remember: good thoughts, positive energy.”
“O – kay,” Ted answered, clearly failing to share Sam’s eternal optimism. “Um… well, what would you tell the friends of the people who don’t win to do?”
“Easy. You squeeze the hand, pat the arm, but don’t make a big deal out of it. The main thing is to get it done quickly because you have to have your hands free for applauding the winner – otherwise you all look like dicks.”
I gawked at him, amazed at the amount of thought he’d put into this. “You’re really… You’re really quite the expert on awards shows, aren’t you?”
“Listen, baby, I work in advertising. I know all about putting on proper appearances.”
There’s another fact that I failed to mention. Sam was not a carpenter, as I claimed in my first book. Actually, he was a high-level advertising executive. Evidently he was rather adept at persuading people to buy his special line of bull – as I darned well knew.
“Baby?” I said, scratching my head.
“At least he didn’t call you his old lady,” Ted consoled me.
“True… but baby?”
“All right, all right, sweetheart,” Sam said pointedly, nudging me in the ribs with his elbow. “But seriously, I am really looking forward to this.”
“Actually, you’re helping me out – you both are. Now I don’t have to worry about scrounging up a date who doesn’t mind travelling with me.”
“I know, but it’s going to be great; I know it is. This is the icing on the cake of my whole birthday weekend – thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet!” I warned. “I’m not sure there will be beer there.”
“Not to worry,” Ted rumbled. “I’ve got deep pockets.”
“That makes you the best date ever!” I exclaimed without thinking.
“You’d better believe it, sweetheart,” Sam replied, winking at me.
I glanced over at Ted. He smiled at me, and my heart nearly exploded. We were going to Vegas. The three of us. Together.
Without even trying, I had just landed my very first date with Sam and Ted.
“I am so, so sorry I can’t go with you!” Julie was screeching. Her arm was wrapped around my neck in a strangling chokehold. Now there was a girl who got touchy-feely when she was drunk – and who never seemed to know her own strength.
“It’s fine, Julie!” I gasped, lifting her arm with mine and ducking out from under her grasp. “It’s no big deal.”
The festival had been over for nearly an hour. As I had predicted, Julie was compensating for her tardiness by drinking much more vigorously than she usually did.
“But I wanted to go with you!” she yelled, slapping me on the chest so hard I nearly fell over sideways. Two huge guys in black leather kilts who were passing stopped to point and stare at her. To be fair, though, Julie’s good looks always attracted attention, even when she wasn’t making a spectacle of herself.
“Now who’s going to take you to the ceremony, huh?” she babbled. “Who?”
I glanced over at Sam and Ted, who were battling it out over a game of washoes with our nearest neighbors.
“Don’t worry about it, really. In fact… I’ve got a date. Two, actually,” I confessed.
Julie’s mouth dropped open and she gasped in uncontrollable amazement. “Really? Who with?”
She didn’t need to look quite so surprised.
My eyes darted across the campsite. “Two young men of our mutual acquaintance.”
She let out a squeal of laughter and took a big and totally unnecessary gulp of her beer.
“You’re kidding! Is my cousin one of them, by chance?”
She squinted through the campfire at Ted, who caught her eye and waved. She waved back enthusiastically with the hand holding her beer, sloshing it all over me.
“Hey, watch it!” Julie wasn’t ordinarily what I’d call a hard drinker, but she was certainly tying one on tonight.
“Whoops! Sorry, Lori,” she laughed, not sounding sorry at all.
I wiped down my wet thigh and patted her arm with my cold, wet hand.
“Hey!” she cried as her arm erupted in goose pimples. She giggled again, tossing her long blonde hair over her shoulder with a twist of her neck. I stared at her smooth, gorgeous locks with admiration and envy. How I wished I could do that.
“Anyway, yeah. I asked Sam and Ted to take me, and they said yes.”
Even I heard the hint of pride in my voice as I said it. I looked over at them and caught Sam looking right back at me. Unabashed, he raised his glass in an unspoken toast. I air-clinked mine back.
“A date with both Sam and Ted, huh?” she said, winking at me. “Lori, I had no idea you were so kinky. Oh, wait, yes, I did.”
I rolled my eyes at her. Julie may have been my best friend in the world, but there were certain secrets I would never have shared even with her. Lately she had, however, taken to making these not-so-coy insinuations about my sex life. I knew I should never have let her read my book!
“It isn’t like that, silly. Turns out they’re both going to be in Vegas that weekend, anyway.”
“Oh, right! Sam’s birthday. Good timing!”
“Hey, wait a minute,” I said, screwing up my face in thought. “That means Ted’s bailing on your sister’s wedding!”
“Well, it is her third wedding, you know. And besides, they’re not that close.”
“Everyone in your family is close!”
Julie’s was the tightest family I’d ever seen, and also the biggest. On every occasion of any significance, a humongous horde of countless cousins and aunts and uncles galore descended upon Julie’s parents’ home in the valley, a two-acre ranch complete with stable and guest house. On holidays their place looked like the state fair.
“It only seems that way because there are so many of us! But believe me, we have our share of drama.”
I knew all about that. As large as Julie’s family was, it was made even larger by the fact that many of her relations had been married and divorced more than one time – which meant that an abundance of step-relations had also been brought into the fold. But not even divorce and separation could make a Thompson stop being a Thompson. Even the exes would show at family reunions, their children by their new spouses in tow. Evidently there was no escaping the clan.
“Oh? Is there drama between your sister and Ted?” I inquired casually, trying to sound nonchalant and not at all as though I were desperately hungry for news about Ted.
“No! Well, maybe a little. Oh, no, wait, you’re gonna love this.” She sniggered and slapped me hard on the forearm, leaving a welt the size and shape of Rhode Island imprinted in pink on my flesh. “One night, like, about six years ago after a party, they… well, they kinda made out for a minute.”
I didn’t know whether to be impressed or horrified. Maybe I was not the kinkiest member of this three-way after all.
“Only for a minute! Besides, it isn’t like… I mean, we’re barely related.”
“You’re cousins!” I pointed out.
“Second cousins!” she reminded me. “Totally legal in this state.”
“Okay, so what happened?” I asked, sneaking a peek at Ted from behind my glass. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard this story before. Finally, I had some real dirt on Ted!
“Nothing! She had just gotten her first divorce, she was upset and crying, and I guess it just happened.”
“Huh.” I could picture Ted as the kind of guy who would make out with a woman to console her when she was upset. I wondered if it had worked. More importantly, I wondered whether it would work for me.
Julie threw her arm sideways in an extravagant gesture, spilling more of her beer, thankfully onto the ground this time. “But there was really nothing between them, so it got awkward afterwards. She was afraid he wanted more, and he was afraid that she did.” She shrugged. “Or I think that’s what he thought, anyway. He didn’t exactly confide in me.”
She sounded bitter, but I doubted that she had reason to be. I had a hard time envisioning Ted confiding in anyone about something like that, let alone the sister of the second cousin with whom he’d gotten momentarily frisky. “So what happened then?”
“Nothing! She started seeing Dave not long after that and she and Ted have avoided each other ever since.” She sipped her beer thoughtfully. “She still thinks she broke his heart. Whether it’s true? I have no idea.”
Once again I peeked surreptitiously around the edge of my glass at Ted, leaning relaxed over the game board and tossing his washers, cackling over something Sam was saying. It was hard to imagine him heartbroken, but what did I know? I barely knew the guy.
“So, they don’t get along now?” That had to make it awkward at family reunions.
“Oh, no, they get along fine, they just don’t… they don’t go out of their way to see each other. Not like he and I do.”
Suddenly a loud cheer rose from the group gathered around the game, and I saw Sam and Ted clinking glasses and knew that they must have won.
“I’ll be right back,” I said to Julie, patting her thigh.
“I’ll be waiting,” she sang out, winking at me again. She was also an indiscriminate flirt when she was drunk, as the sound of her hand smacking my ass reminded me as I stood up.
I shook my head and turned to wink back at her. My seat had already been taken by one of the two fellows in kilts I had seen earlier.
I eased my way casually across the lawn, ostensibly towards the bowl of cheesy puffs that stood on a picnic table that was crowded with snacks. I was peering down into the tub, trying to decide whether to eat one or not when Ted appeared by my side and dug his own hand into the bowl.
“Jalapeno flavored,” he said. “You won’t like them.”
“How do you know I won’t like them?” I demanded, bristling. “What, you just assume that because I’m a girl and a New Englander that I can’t tolerate heat?”
He chuckled and popped the offending puff into his mouth. “No, I assume that because that’s what you told me when we had this discussion last year. Which is why I brought you these.”
He reached into a bin beneath the table and came out with a bag of the plain cheddar variety.
“Puffy, not crunchy,” he said, ripping the bag open with an ear-splitting pop and handing it to me. “Because you don’t like the crunchy kind either.”
“You remember how I take my cheese puffs?” I said, taking two and popping them into my mouth at the same time. The rich artificial cheese flavor melted deliciously onto my tongue, and I hoped it would stay there and not clog my arteries. “That’s so sweet!”
“I even know why you always eat them two at a time,” he bragged.
Squinting, I cocked my head at him. Surely I had never shared that particular tidbit.
“So that you have one for each cheek.”
He surprised me then by poking me gently on the nose with a long finger. It was such an unusually intimate gesture that for a moment I forgot to chew and just stood there, my cheeks full of puff while he smiled at me and the world stood still.
“Am I right?” he demanded, breaking the spell.
“That you are,” I admitted. “So…” I said, seizing the opportunity to do a little digging. “I guess you’re not going to Marie’s wedding, huh?”
“Nope.” He reached for another handful of puffs and began eating them with admirably dogged determination.
“Won’t that get you in trouble with the family?”
He waved orange fingers at me. “Nah. If I had to attend every family function, I’d have to take most of the summer off work.”
“Yeah, but…” How was I going to get him to tell me the story without sounding nosy – or worse, jealous? “Marie’s Julie’s sister… and you and Julie are close… plus she’s local… Aren’t you under an obligation?”
Ted stared suspiciously at me and then glanced over at Julie, now wedged between both of the large kilted men with her phone held at arm’s length before her, shrieking, “There’s me with my husband again! And me with my daughter! Isn’t she beautiful?!”
“Julie talks a lot when she’s drunk, huh?” he observed.
“She may have mentioned something,” I admitted.
He sighed deeply. “Marie seems to have deluded herself into thinking I’m ‘into’ her. She always looks at me like – like she pities me or something. It’s very irritating.”
“Are you?” I asked, giving up on not sounding nosy and only trying not to sound jealous. “Into her?”
“NO!” he exploded. “I never was! It just – happened. I mean, haven’t you ever made out with someone without being into them?”
That was practically the story of my life.
“I’ve had my share of – casual encounters,” I agreed. More than my share, really, but he didn’t need to know that.
“Well, then you should understand,” he said pointedly, setting his jaw as if the subject were closed.
So it turned out we did have something in common after all, I mused. Something sexual, no less. I knew it! I thought with some satisfaction. That Ted, he seemed so polite and reserved, but it was true, what I’d suspected all along – he had a dirty streak. Okay, maybe a brief bit of necking with a second cousin you weren’t very close to wasn’t quite on a level with plunging into bed with two much younger men and letting them plunge you. But it did bode better for my chances than Sam’s strict one-woman policy.
“You guys talking about Marie?” Sam interrupted, appearing suddenly at my shoulder and scooping a handful of puffs out of my bag. “I mean, Ted’s long-lost love?”
Ted bit down fiercely on a cheese puff, snapping it in half and sending a fine spray of orange powder into the air.
“The way you’re always talking about her, I thought she was YOUR long-lost love!”
“She was… until she made out with you!” Sam quipped.
Ted turned a cold shoulder to him. “Excuse me, Lori. I have to go check on the tri-tip.”
He strode purposefully towards the barbecue and lifted its lid. A cloud of smoke and steam came pouring out in a cloud, hiding his face. An amazing aroma engulfed our campsite, causing many of our neighboring campers to sit up on their hind legs, whining, sniffing and begging. There were definite advantages to having a camping buddy who was a professional chef.
“You got a thing for Marie, too?” I inquired, finally accepting the fact that I was both nosy and jealous.
“She’s got nothing on you, love,” he said, tossing his arm around my shoulder and coating my sweatshirt with bright orange stripes. “Whoops, let me get that.”
He grabbed a napkin and began brushing me off with it. I stood silently, enjoying the pressure of his fingers against my body and wishing he’d managed to soil me a bit lower.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” he said, almost as if he had read my mind. “Next time I’ll aim for the breasts!”
I opened my mouth to reply, but then I heard Ted yelling “Dinner’s on!” and instead I followed meekly behind him and took my place in line to get a cut of Ted’s delicious roast meat.
The sun had barely risen when a buzzing noise awakened me from Julie’s side of our tent.
Mark, I thought, grinding my teeth. No one else would call this early.
I heard her fumbling for the phone. I wished I had gotten there first so that I could have thrown it in the general direction of the portable toilets.
“Hello?” she mumbled.
On the other end of the line, I could hear her husband and six-year-old daughter, both of them shrieking for Mommy to come home.
Okay, I’m exaggerating. Mark was not the type to shriek – he was more the type to decide to go for a long walk in the middle of an argument and then pretend nothing had happened when he returned. But I did think he was a bit liberal with these passive-aggressive behaviors intended to keep Julie in line.
“I know you miss me,” she was cooing. “I miss you, too!”
Most people thought they had a terrific relationship because they were so open and affectionate with one another. Julie did, too. I seemed to be the only one who viewed Mark’s attachment to his wife as clingy rather than doting. Oh, he was far too liberated a modern man to tell her she couldn’t do something – like, say, attend an overnight beer festival once a year. But I had noticed that every year she came up later and went home earlier, almost as if someone were trying to minimize her time away from her family.
“Yes, I’ll be home soon. Before lunch? Definitely!”
I tried not to be too judgmental. Julie had a kid now, after all, and I had no experience with that. Perhaps it had nothing to do with Mark; perhaps it was normal for married women and mothers to want to spend every second with their husband and child. Or perhaps I simply didn’t get the concept of being in a relationship where you actually wanted the other person around all the time. But although I tried to be civil to Mark, I didn’t quite trust him. Take this morning, for example. Mark knew very well that Julie liked to sleep in – did he really have to call her at six a.m.? Maybe she thought it was sweet – I thought it was selfish.
“Love you, too. Bye!”
She made smoochy noises and I tried not to wretch. Fortunately I did not have a hangover, or I might have done it. I was an old hand at beer festivals by now; I hadn’t gotten sick at one in ages. It was all a matter of finding the right balance of food and beverage, and I’d finally found it – which may have been why I went home five pounds heavier after every such weekend.
“Lori? Are you awake?” Julie whispered.
“Do I have any choice?” I grumbled. Although I was usually up by daylight anyway, I was still irritated. From what I could gather from Mark’s attitude towards me and little hints that Julie had dropped, he wasn’t overly fond of me, either. It wouldn’t have surprised me at all if he had called so early just to annoy me.
“They miss me!” Julie sighed with pleasure, sitting up to run a brush through her already soft, luxurious hair.
“Do you really think that’s healthy, Julie?” I said, sitting up, too. “I mean, you haven’t even been gone twenty-four hours – maybe Mark and Sarah need to learn to get by on their own.”
“They get by!” she answered, tugging the brush through a tangle to emphasize the point. “They don’t NEED me – they just like having me around. And anyway, what’s wrong with being needed? Believe me, it is the most wonderful feeling in the world. You should try it sometime,” she hinted.
“No, thanks,” I answered tersely. “I don’t think I’m prepared to be an Earth to someone else’s Sun.”
“Well, maybe if you were, then you wouldn’t have to be going to your awards show with Sam and Ted.”
She pointed the hairbrush at me and I frowned at her. I had never been great at taking Julie’s advice when it came to men. I simply wasn’t capable of choosing a pair of jeans based on how they made my ass look, or spending half the day at a salon getting my hair and nails done, or, egad, playing hard to get when I could be playing “Come get me.” On principle I felt obliged to scorn the use of such feminine wiles, at which point she was always quick to suggest that that might be why I didn’t have a boyfriend. I had to admit she might have something there.
“Well, maybe I would rather go out with Sam and Ted than…” Than what? I wondered. Was there anything I would rather do than go out with them? “Than be with a man who expected me to be with him 24/7.”
She smiled benignly at me. “One day, Lori, one day you’ll find it, and then you’ll see. You’ll see how truly wonderful married life can be.”
“Yeah, well, don’t hold your breath. Speaking of which, I can no longer hold my pee, so if you’ll excuse me…”
By the time I returned from the Port-A-John, Sam and Ted were awake, too, cleaning up the remnants of the previous night’s feast. They both had that sleepy, tousled look – yes, even Sam with his short, short hair – and I smiled inside, as I did every year when I saw them first thing the morning after the festival. It was the next best thing to waking up with them, one on each side.
“What are you so cheerful about?” Sam grumbled, simultaneously rubbing his belly and head.
“Nothing!” I answered airily. “Just in my usual fabulous, post-beer-festival mood!”
“You and Julie,” he groaned. “Always waking up fresh as daisies while I feel more like a lawnmower hit me. It’s disgusting.”
“That’s because we don’t stay up until two a.m., wandering around camp finding new people to drink with,” I reminded him. “One day, you, too, will benefit from our years of experience.”
Julie, as always, had crashed early, around ten, and for once I had crashed with her. As a result, I was feeling downright refreshed for a change. Part of me regretted not going out cruising with Sam and Ted. But the truth was, I was never sure whether I was invited.
“Ungh,” Ted grunted, tossing a used napkin into the trash. I decided to take that for agreement.
“Coffee’s on,” he added, pointing towards the camp stove on which the kettle was cheerfully steaming.
“Thanks,” I said, grabbing my thermos from the cab of my truck and helping myself to a cup. I had to hand it to Sam and Ted – they sure knew how to camp in style.
“You staying for breakfast?” Ted asked, slouching over to the grill and firing it up.
One of the nice things about camping with Ted was that although he was a chef by trade, he never seemed to tire of cooking for all of us laypeople. Often I had witnessed him folding up our camp leftovers in aluminum foil – not inside a traditional swan, but into his own trademark silver beer can.
I glanced over at our tent and saw that it was swaying erratically. Julie was packing up already.
“I don’t think so,” I answered, feeling suddenly bashful. I didn’t know what it was, but there was something about the idea of hanging around with them in the morning after Julie had gone that I found unsettling. Maybe it was because I had no breakfast beer to keep me distracted. “I’ve got lots to do when I get home.”
Well that, at least, wasn’t a lie.
I meandered over to our tent and poked my head inside.
“The guys are cooking breakfast, Julie,” I said. “You want any?”
“Nah, I wanna get going. Mind helping me with the tent?”
“That’s what I’m here for.”
We packed up the tent and our foam pads and sleeping bags and I loaded up the back of my pickup, stacking each item carefully in its usual place. I had a locking shell over my truck bed, which I used for storage of rarely used items that didn’t need to be kept inside my apartment, which, at times, seemed not much bigger than my pickup. Miraculously, nothing had ever been stolen. It was almost as if the local thieves simply weren’t interested in my stash of brown paper bags and collection of vintage 1980s audiocassette tapes.
The packing done, I began wandering around the campground, gathering trash and collecting the empty beer bottles for recycling while Julie headed up to the bathroom for her morning ablutions. She returned just as Ted was pulling the sausage off of the grill.
“That smells good!” she exclaimed, inhaling deeply. Ted lopped off a slice and handed it to her. She munched it thoughtfully. “You made this yourself, huh?”
He nodded, obviously pleased.
“I can tell by the combination of spices,” she explained to me. “Take a piece.”
Ted chopped off another hunk and handed it to me. I popped it into my mouth and felt my tongue waving goodbye to the people of earth and greeting the angels of heaven.
“Oh, my God,” I said. “This is the best sausage I’ve ever eaten.”
“Ya hear that, Ted?” Sam said, winking crudely at me. “Lori likes eating your sausage.”
Evidently he had recovered from his hangover already.
“Can you blame her?” Ted replied with uncharacteristic vulgarity. “It is unbelievably delicious!”
I felt my face turning the same color as the sausage, but I managed a reply anyway. “Extra juicy, too!”
“On that note,” Julie said, wiping her hands on her thigh as Sam and Ted cracked up laughing. “I’m outta here.”
She went around hugging us one by one. Sam squinted and shaded his eyes when she approached him; her golden hair was blinding in the bright morning sunlight.
“Call me,” she said when she got to me. “I wanna hear how your big date goes.”
She glanced sideways at Sam and Ted and shot me a very obvious wink. I stared steadfastly back at her, determined not to respond. She laughed and smacked my ass once again before vanishing inside her car and down the dirt road of the campground.
“What date is this?” Sam inquired, grinning at me.
“Nothing. Just a joke.” I topped off my coffee and placed the thermos in the big holder in the cab of my truck. It sat, warm and inviting, to the right of my gear shift. “I guess I’m out of here, too.”
I hugged them each in turn, rather longer than I had hugged them hello. It was always that way. Somehow our intimacy seemed to increase after these beer festival weekends. Of course, at the next one, we were always back to square one.
“Wait, wait, wait!” Sam exclaimed. “I almost forgot!”
He dashed over to their tent and emerged with a big professional-grade camera – not the cheap digital kind the rest of us used, but the equipment of a real photographer.
“Aw, Sam, do we have to?” I groaned.
“Come on, Lori, you know the rule! Excuse me!”
Two very large men in jeans, T-shirts, and flip-flops were passing our camp. They suspiciously resembled the two kilted fellows from the previous night, only without the distinction that formal wear confers.
“Would you take our picture?”
“Sure thing, bud.”
I squeezed between them, forcing a smile while I braced myself for the inevitable disaster. Why, oh why, did every visit with Sam and Ted have to end with this horrible pictorial reminder?
Sam was examining the shot in the viewscreen. “Not too bad this year, eh, Lori?”
I looked at the photo. There was Sam, looking radiant and boyishly charming as ever. There was Ted, leaning over me so that his handsome face was almost pressed against my cheek. They both had their arms wrapped tight around me.
Unfortunately, though, I didn’t seem to be enjoying it. I had one eye half-open, I was smiling on only one side of my mouth, and a small but discernible booger had implanted itself in the opening of my left nostril. Self-consciously I wiped it away.
“That’s probably the best one yet,” I agreed.
“We’ll take a better one when we see you in August,” Sam consoled me. “Right, Ted?”
“Right,” I agreed. He said that every time he took my picture. He hadn’t been right yet.
“So we’ll see you then?” Sam let his fingers trail down my back one last time, I guess for good measure. I shivered, wishing there was a bit more to measure.
“Yeah – yeah, I’ll see you then.”
“We should probably check in before then,” he continued.
“Um, yeah, okay. You have my number.”
“Okay, um – bye!”
“Bye, Lori!” Ted said, wrapping one of his long arms around me in a brief hug again. “Drive carefully.”
I hurried to my truck and stepped inside, wanting to get out of there before I ruined the moment. It was already beginning to get warm, so I rolled down the window as I started the engine, and I waved one last time as I was driving away.
“We’ll call you!” I heard Sam shouting.
I waved at him out the window, thinking, Yeah, right, sure you will.
And as I rumbled down the highway, working my way back to the Bay while my friends were devouring their breakfast and undoubtedly forgetting all about me, my senses began to reclaim my Sam-and-Ted-addled brain, dragging my hopeless fantasies through the muck, where they belonged. This big dream that I’d had of a big night out with my fantasy lovers would all turn out to be rather ordinary, I began to suspect. They’d go along to the ceremony, which would be long and boring and full of speeches and not at all glamorous – especially when I lost. By the time it was over, all three of us would be bored out of our minds and too sick of each other even to go over to the bar for a nightcap. We’d close out the night with me listening to them making smoochy noises over their cell phones to their adoring and adorable girlfriends while I debated whether I ought to find a man who was even older and more desperate than I was to spend the night with me so I wouldn’t have to cry myself sadly to sleep. Except I’d be too depressed even to do that, so I’d go sit by myself at a slot machine in the corner of some dirty casino and gamble my money away on one of those newfangled penny slots, nine cents at a time.
It was only one night, after all. It was stupid of me to think that one night could possibly change everything between us, that it could make them say goodbye to the women they loved and respected to run off with some old lady pervert who only wanted their bodies and the occasional bout of snuggling in front of the TV. Indeed, it was stupid of me even to think that it would change our unexceptional friendship, because how could it? It was only one night.
You can therefore imagine my shock when I discovered that it did change the friendship, and almost immediately. Before this, our communications had been limited to twice-annual text messages saying generic things like, “When are you getting up to Boonville this year?” But not two days had passed before I got the first call from Sam, wanting to know if there would be a guest list or if they needed tickets. And that was only the first of many such calls. At least once a week I had a conversation with one or the other of them regarding the plan.
“We should be wearing tuxes to this, right, Lori? Because Ted doesn’t have one, and he says he can wear a dark suit instead, but I don’t think that’s fancy enough. You wanna tell him to stop being a dumbass and rent one?”
“Sam wants to hire a limo to take us to the ceremony. I said that was stupid because you’re staying in the hotel where it’s at, but he wants to make a big impression. Should I tell him he’s being a dumbass, or do you want to?”
“I know we don’t need a limo for transportation! But we’re going to look like idiots just ‘walking up’ to the red carpet… What are you talking about? Of course there’ll be a red carpet! There’s always a red carpet.”
“Yeah – so, um, are you free this Sunday? Sam wants to do a dry run of our walk down the aisle. The carpet, whatever. He wants to be sure we – how did he put it – can be ‘graceful’ walking together arm in arm.”
“Now, I’m not saying you’re not beautiful, Lori, but let’s face it – you are no good at having your picture taken. You always look like you’re grimacing instead of smiling, and it’s really obvious that it makes you uncomfortable. No, no, no big thing, just a quick session down at my studio. Of course it’s no trouble – you know how I love taking pictures! Yeah, okay, fine, if it will help you relax, you can have beer…”
“Do you want me to come and pick you up at the airport? I know it’s not necessary, but it’ll save you the cab fare, and besides, I thought you might appreciate seeing a friendly face before the big day. Not that you’d ever be nervous or anything. Nah, Sam’s folks are taking the girls to the airport, they won’t need me… Cool. I’ll come get you at nine, then.”
All of this preparation did little to ease my fears about attending the ceremony. I was an author, and a barely known one at that. I was not a performer, and I simply hadn’t considered all the details that went into making this kind of appearance. In my mind, I’d merely been grateful to have someone to go with me. It had sounded so peaceful, the idea of sitting between Sam and Ted, the two of them acting like shields to protect me from having to make dull conversation with my nearest neighbors. I had never for an instant thought it possible that a camera crew might bother turning to point at little ol’ me when they were gorgeous porn stars forming a sea of eye-candy out to the farthest horizons. Now all I could imagine was that long walk up to the door of the hall with hundreds of people watching, a thousand eyes examining my hair and my dress and the two men on my arm.
You see, it had finally occurred to me that it might seem a bit odd, my attending the ceremony with both Sam and Ted. I had pictured us sneaking quietly in through the back door, anonymous bit players in the grand theatrical production that was the Bonies. Now I wondered – what if someone did notice us strolling up to the entrance? Would they ask me about Sam and Ted? What would I tell them if they did?
I tried to push those perturbing thoughts out of my mind, but as the day drew near and our half-assed preparations finally began to draw to a close, the reality of it began to force its way out of my subconscious and into the forefront of my fears.
Because what if someone did, in fact, make the connection between Sam and Ted and the two lovable characters in my novel? Only someone who knew them very well indeed would notice the resemblance – only they, I thought, would be likely to see it. But now I was the author of a relatively popular threesome story who was arriving at an awards ceremony with two much younger men on her arm – it was a conclusion that anyone might draw. It would be like seeing Terry Towers out at a restaurant with her stepbrother, having a candlelight dinner. It would simply be too tempting not to assume.
My apprehensions were made worse when, just days before the ceremony, I received one final phone call from Sam.
“Say, where can I get a copy of this book of yours, anyways? I was going to borrow Ted’s, but he doesn’t seem to have one, either, and I want to be prepared in case the reporters want to ask my opinion. Can you imagine that, me giving an opinion on a romance novel? Jeepers!”
Jeepers, indeed. My mouth suddenly went as icy and dry as dry ice. He wanted to read my book. I slumped down onto my mattress and felt my back and my brain going numb. With all of the possibilities that had ever run through my mind in regards to Sam and Ted, this had never been one of them. Even with all of the awards ceremony hype, neither one of them had ever expressed the slightest interest in reading my book. It was a romance novel, for heaven’s sake. It had never even occurred to me that they might want to read it.
“Hello? Lori, you still there?” I heard rattling and deduced that Sam was shaking his phone.
“It’s, um, really unlikely that reporters will be interested in me,” I said hurriedly into the void. “I wouldn’t worry too much about answering questions.”
“Well, you never know. Besides, maybe I want to read your award-winning porn!”
“It isn’t porn, and it isn’t award-winning, either. And honestly, I doubt that you would enjoy it.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Just doesn’t seem like – your type of novel. I mean, you don’t even read novels, do you?”
I knew for a fact that neither one of them was a big reader. The one time I had been by their apartment, their bookshelves had been filled with pint glasses and beer bottles.
“Well, I want to read yours,” he insisted. There was a long pause in which I heard him breathing on the other end of the line – or maybe those were my own desperate pants echoing back at me. And then he said warily, “Or do you not want me to read it?”
I felt my body flood with relief. Of course, that was it. I simply had to say I didn’t want him to read it and everything would be fine.
“Well, I –”
“Come on, Lori, there’s no need to be embarrassed. I promise not to judge you based on your dirty book, okay?”
“We’ll see about that,” I groaned.
He laughed. “Really, it’s no big deal. I mean, what’s a little explicit sex between friends?”
I could see that I would need a new tactic.
“I don’t know where you’re even going to get a copy before you fly out,” I hedged. “The local stores are all sold out, and it’s too late to order the paperback online.”
“You must have some copies, don’t you?”
Only about two hundred, I thought grimly, involuntarily glancing over at the stack of boxes that I was currently using as a table in the far corner. I had recently scheduled a number of local book signings and had requested a bunch of copies in bulk.
“No, I don’t think I do,” I lied, glad that Sam couldn’t see my cheeks changing color.
Sam snorted, skepticism oozing out of his nostrils. “You don’t have a single copy of your book on hand?”
“No, I –”
“Hey, Ted, Lori says she doesn’t have any copies of her book on hand!” I heard Sam call.
This was getting better with each passing second. Now Ted would be in on this conversation, too?
“She’s lying,” I heard Ted call back faintly. “She must not want you to read it.”
Darn that Ted and his perceptiveness.
“Please, Lori. I’ve seen how organized you are. I’ll bet you have boxes and boxes of books.”
Darn that Sam, too.
“Fine,” I snapped. “I guess I can let you have a proof copy – I think I’ve got one lying around.”
“Make it two,” he said sweetly. “One for Ted, too. I don’t want to have to share in case he gunks up the pages with his – enthusiasm.”
“I heard that!” Ted called.
I made one last-ditch effort.
“Oh, but I don’t know how I’m going to get it to you, Sam. I’ve got a frightful amount of, um, packing to do before the ceremony, and aren’t you flying out tomorrow afternoon?”
“No problem; we’ll come by. See you in twenty.”
He hung up and I shrieked and dropped my own phone. Twenty minutes! That was barely enough time to brush my teeth and hair and change out of my sweats, let alone dig the galleys out of my tiny packed closet.
I was running into the bathroom when my phone chirped again. It was Sam.
“I forgot; I need your address.”
Of course. They had never been to my place before. Apart from the pizza delivery guy, no one besides Julie had been to my apartment, and she avoided it like it was a den of iniquity and possibly plague.
My voice shaking, I rattled off the address. Maybe, just maybe when he heard where I lived, he’d change his mind. After all, he would not be the first person to decide not to come see me when he learned that he’d need a tank and an armed guard to survive a trip through my neighborhood.
“Okay,” he said after the briefest of pauses. “I know where that is. See you in twenty-five, then.”
Once again the phone went dead. At least I’d gotten an extra five minutes.
It was precisely twenty-eight minutes later when I heard two sets of footsteps thundering up the stairs, and I smiled in spite of myself. I had had that kind of energy once, that youthful exuberance. Or were the local thugs chasing them? They could sniff out nonresidents like dogs could smell other dog’s butts.
Tossing my hairbrush aside, I grabbed the books, ran to the door and began undoing the deadbolt and chains. I was just throwing open the door when they appeared on my floor, both of them breathless. Young or not, those stairs were steep coming up the four flights.
I managed to position myself in the doorway by the time they arrived, panting, on the spot where my doormat would have been if I had had one. “Now I know why you’re in such good shape,” Sam wheezed, his eyes zigzagging pleasantly all over my body. “You carry your groceries – and beer – up all those steps?”
“Every week,” I confirmed. “You should have seen me moving in all by myself.”
It was one of my points of pride, I confess – the fact that I could move all my own stuff, without any help. It was one of the main reasons I drove a pickup. Of course, it was made easier by the fact that, apart from my mattress, I had no formal furniture.
“So, here you go,” I said, shoving the books at them. My fear of them reading my book had been summarily replaced by my more immediate fear of them seeing my apartment.
Ted leaned his long body against the lintel, looking bemused, while Sam peered over my shoulder into the prison cell the Craigslist ad had termed a small studio.
“Aren’t you going to invite us in?” he said, blinking wide eyes at me.
“Place is a mess,” I improvised. “And I was about to go to sleep,” I added. It couldn’t hurt to have a backup excuse.
Ted lifted his wrist and pointed silently at his wristwatch, pursing his lips. It was a quarter to nine.
“I don’t have any beer!” I cried, panicking.
“Wow, you’re a lousy liar,” Sam remarked, shaking his head.
“Any other excuse we might have believed, but no beer?” Ted added. “Come on, Lori, we know you better than that.”
Sam cocked his head and shot me his warmest smile. Not the one that made my blood steam and simmer, but the one that filled my heart with rays of bright and bold sunshine. Boy, was I a sucker for that smile.
“Come on,” he wheedled. “We want to see where you live. We don’t care if it’s a mess.”
“It’s only fair,” Ted reminded me. “You’ve seen our place, right?”
“Only once! And it’s so…”
I trailed off. What was the word I was looking for? Oh, yeah.
Suddenly Sam’s hand shot towards my shoulder. Before I knew what was happening, he had dug his knuckles into my armpit.
I screeched and squirmed away from him. He took the opportunity to push past me, while Ted ducked his head and followed along behind him.
“Thanks for inviting us in,” he said, drawing a brown paper bag from behind his back and handing it to me. “We brought you a beer, of course – just in case.”
He, too, flashed me a smile, and I groaned somewhere inside. How many times had I fantasized about them being in my apartment? But unlike many of my other fantasies, it was not one I wanted to make real.
I turned dejectedly and tiptoed into the kitchenette, hoping, perhaps, that if I was quiet, they would forget I was there. I tossed the books onto the short stretch of counter and opened the brown paper package, not even noticing, for once, what kind of beer it was – I just wanted it opened. I pulled two pint glasses and a coffee mug out of the two-shelf cupboard, filling the mug and then dividing the remainder between the two glasses. Only after I had taken a big swig from the coffee cup did I dare to look up.
Sam and Ted were standing in my living room/bedroom, one on each side of my queen-sized mattress, which lay flat on the floor without a box spring beneath it. Sam was poking his head into the bathroom, which was practically at the foot of the bed. I hoped he wouldn’t turn on the light and see the cracked tiles and the perma-stained toilet. Ted was casually turning his head in a circle, examining the ragged and mismatched wallpaper, the bare yellow shades that covered my windows. He seemed to be seeking another room door. I fervently hoped that he’d find one.
Most of the time I was able to forget the fact that I was a middle-aged pauper. Most of the time I pretended that I had no money because at an age where everyone else I knew had long ago worked their way up to management, I had abandoned my last comparatively lucrative career and chosen the life of an author. For the most part, I felt okay when I looked at my life. But it was hard to watch other, more financially successful people looking at it when I knew they had to be thinking, This is it, huh? That’s all you’ve got?
I took three steps and handed Ted the two glasses. He barely had to lean over to pass one across the mattress to Sam.
“This is cozy!” Sam said, taking a sip of his beer.
“If by cozy you mean tiny and dumpy, then yes, it is cozy,” I agreed.
“You’ve made the most of limited space,” Ted observed kindly. He had walked over to the cardboard box I used as a nightstand and was peeking underneath the decorative throw I had strewn on top of it. “What’s in here?”
“My winter clothes.”
I saw his eyes travel across the room to the four-foot-long freestanding closet, on top of which I had stacked my six pairs of shoes. His eyes roamed over my body, taking in my tank top and shorts as if suddenly registering why I had such a limited wardrobe.
“It’s funny,” Sam was saying. He had plunked himself down at the edge of my mattress and was sitting with his knees bent up to his chest, running his fingers over the worn but still soft velour of my comforter. “If I lived in a place this – cozy – I think I would have opted for a smaller mattress, to save space.” He grinned at me wickedly. “Unless, of course, I expected to have lots of company at night.”
“I have my share!” I grumbled defensively. Sure, I thought. If zero can be called a share.
“Oh, really?” he remarked shrewdly. “From the way you didn’t want to let us in, I thought maybe you didn’t like to have company.”
“I don’t mind company,” I retorted. “But this place is only rated for two people.”
“Guess that means you’ll have to leave, Sam!” Ted said, squatting down onto the bed himself.
“No way!” Sam replied. “I was just getting comfortable!”
He lay down on top of the comforter and rolled onto his side, resting his head on his elbow and beaming up at me. A peculiar tightness that I hoped was a heart attack began in my chest.
“Hey, this is comfortable!” he said, patting the blanket beside him. “You know, I think I like it better without a box spring. Check it out, Ted.”
“I think maybe Lori would prefer that we don’t lay down on her bed, don’t you?”
“I don’t mind,” I said quickly. No, I didn’t mind at all, I thought as Ted lowered his lanky form down onto my mattress.
“You know what, this is actually pretty cool,” Sam said, gazing around the small room and nodding to himself. “You get to spend the whole day in bed….”
“Everything’s within arm’s reach…”
“And there’s hardly any cleaning. I could totally see living in a place like this.”
I was glad he had said it. Because now that I had seen the two of them sprawled out on my very own bed, I didn’t think I would be willing to move ever again.
“Plenty of room here,” Sam remarked. “Look, there’s even room for one more.”
He winked and patted the empty space between him and Ted, and I nearly fainted. How many times had I dreamed of having them both in my bed, how many times had I pictured this very image, and here they both were, seemingly willing volunteers in my dirty experiment. All I had to do was lie down between them and draw them both to me. I could almost feel their warm flesh pressing into my sides, their breath on my neck, the feel of their lips tasting mine for the first time. I heard a moan escaping my lips and I threw my hand up over my mouth to muffle it.
“Nice work, Sam,” Ted said sarcastically. “You’ve finally succeeded in making her sick.”
“I was just joking!” Sam answered, sitting up hurriedly and kicking his feet off the edge of the mattress. “You know that, don’t you, Lori?”
I couldn’t bring myself to speak. I nodded instead.
He shot me a worried look and took the last sip of his beer. “Well, we’d better get going. You have those books for us?”
Shaking, I fumbled my way back into the kitchen and picked my books up off the counter, my eyes filling with the three brightly colored balloons that stood for Sam and Kathy and Ted. Or maybe for Sam and me and Ted.
I never would have dreamed that it could be true, but after what Sam had said… Was he really only joking? Of course he was. But sometimes jokes like that had some not-so-well-hidden meanings.
Was it possible that they were thinking the same thing that I was? All of the time we’d spent together the last few months, the chats, the meetings, the laughs we had shared, none of it intimate, but all of it nice. Sweet. Friendly. But it was a comparatively small leap from friendly to freaky. Had they been thinking of making it, too?
It couldn’t be, I told myself, clutching the books harder as an imaginary light bulb began flashing like a warning signal in the depths of my brain. But if it is, these will give me the answer.
I turned back to the room, where Sam and Ted were kneeling over my mattress and smoothing the wrinkles out of my comforter, and thought how strangely fortunate it was that they had come by. Because for the first time, I wanted them to read my book. Really wanted them to. Because they would read it and then I would know, based on their behavior, whether they had seen themselves in it and how they had reacted to the suggestion the story implied. Their reaction would tell me what I wanted to know without my having to ask it – because otherwise I would never in a half-dozen lifetimes have the nerve to ask it.
My hands were sweating all over the glossy book covers and I hastily wiped them off on my shorts. Then I dumped the books in the brown paper bag and crossed the room with it, hurrying in case I misplaced my nerve.
“Here ya go,” I grunted, thrusting the bag at Ted, who was closest.
“Thanks,” he said. “So we’ll see you Sunday, then?”
The words rang in my ears like church bells on Christmas. I would see them on Sunday. On Sunday we would be having our very first date – and who knew now what might come after?
I swallowed and gazed into those deep brown eyes. In just a few days I might be lying beside them, drinking them in, watching them close as I bent towards his mouth…
“Yes, Sunday,” I said, licking my lips. And I reached out and hugged him, far longer than usual, feeling my heart thrill in response when he didn’t withdraw. And then Sam had crossed the room, and I threw my arms around him, too, holding and holding his body so close I could feel his heart pounding. And when I finally pulled away and saw them both standing there, their eager young faces smiling brightly at me, I suddenly knew – this would be the greatest weekend of my entire life. Of anyone’s life.
“Have a nice party, Sam,” I said softly, gently touching his arm. “You, too, Ted.” And I touched him, too.
And then I turned away and skipped to the door, flinging it open rather harder than usual because in my haste I had forgotten to lock it. They both smiled at me as they exited into the hall, and their steps were subdued as they descended the stairs. I stood in my doorway and listened until I heard the front door click shut, and then I went inside my apartment and sat down on my bed with my beer. I ran my fingers over the warm spots on the comforter where their bodies had lain, and I shivered, wondering what might have happened had I lay down between them.
Soon enough, I would know, I thought as I wrapped that velvety comforter around me, looking around at my tiny apartment with new fondness. They hadn’t thought it was crappy. They hadn’t even complained about where I lived. They might even be willing to come here to see me. In fact, they had already done it. Even without the promise of nookie.
I bunched up my extra pillows and the comforter on each side of me and lay back, glowing all over at the thought that just four days from now, those pillows and blankets might be my boys. And when I woke up, I was still smiling.
Both Part I and Part II of The Other Three of Us are now available exclusively on Amazon; the ebooks are normally $3.99 to buy, or read for FREE with Kindle Unlimited. If you would like to read a free preview of the original self-contained novel Just the Three of Us, you can find it here.