Tag Archives: funny erotic fiction

Erotic Romantic Comedy on sale for $0.99 through 1/31

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.

Other Three of Us Part II

 

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.

We clink.

Chapter 1

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.

Chapter 2

“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.

“What?”

“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.”

“How come?”

“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 know!”

“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…”

“Seriously?”

“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.

Chapter 3

“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.”

“What??!!”

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.

Chapter 4

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.”

“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.”

“Right.”

“Okay, um – bye!”

“Bye, Lori!” Ted said, wrapping one of his long arms around me in a brief hug again. “Drive carefully.”

“You, too.”

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.

“…nice.”

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.

just-the-three-of-us-book-2

Erotic Romantic Comedy on sale for $0.99 through 1/17

The first 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 1/17. Find it exclusively for Kindle on Amazon (Universal Link). As always, the book is FREE with Kindle Unlimited.

Other Three of Us Part I

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.

We clink.

Chapter 1

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.

Chapter 2

“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.

“What?”

“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.”

“How come?”

“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 know!”

“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…”

“Seriously?”

“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.

Chapter 3

“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.”

“What??!!”

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.

Chapter 4

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.”

“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.”

“Right.”

“Okay, um – bye!”

“Bye, Lori!” Ted said, wrapping one of his long arms around me in a brief hug again. “Drive carefully.”

“You, too.”

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.

“…nice.”

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.

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Last Day to Get Just the Three of Us for $0.99

Today is the last day to get my funny sexy romance Just the Three of Us: An Erotic Romantic Comedy for the Commitment-Challenged for just $0.99 for Kindle. As always, the book is FREE with Kindle Unlimited and is also available in audiobook on both Amazon and ITunes.

 

Weekend Away: An Almost-Erotic, Almost-Love Story

I am pleased to announce the publication of my long short story Weekend Away: An Almost-Erotic, Almost-Love Story, now available in eBook exclusively on Amazon for only $0.99, or free with Kindle Unlimited.

“And then we were standing, rising up from the water, and as the droplets cascaded down my naked body I imagined myself as a mortal and less awe-inspiring version of Aphrodite, and Jesse as Poseidon, except with, um, only one prong in his trident.”

Cindy’s friend Jesse is great – especially when he gets out of her way after the “benefits” part of their evening is over. So when he proposes a weekend excursion at a nearby lake, she’s naturally suspicious – isn’t that the kind of thing “couples” do? Now she might never be able to get the smell of him off her…

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SALE! My Erotic Romantic Comedy Just the Three of Us is Just $0.99 through June 11th!

The eBook version of my funny, sexy romance Just the Three of Us: An Erotic Romantic Comedy for the Commitment-Challenged is on sale for just $0.99 through Thursday, June 11th (borrow FREE with Kindle Unlimited). I’ve been incredibly pleased by how the book has been received by readers so far – some of the reviews have been quite entertaining, too!

Five Stars   Not What I Expected… So Much Better

I wasn’t sure how much humor a book about a triad couple could elicit, but this one made me laugh out loud. From the start of the book when Kathy feel like a dirty old woman to the end where she finds her place in their world. There are laughs, tears and a few things that make you reference porn for logistics. All in all a well written book.

Five Stars   Hot, Sexy, and Well-Written

Love comes in many forms, and although this books interpretation of a loving relationship may not fit many people’s idea of a healthy family unit, the author just somehow makes it work for the two men and woman in this book. The writing is clear and concise and the growing attraction between the characters as they struggle to find their way in this unusual relationship is honest, real and oh so sexy. There is plenty of sizzling three way sex in this book, but laid over it all is the love and care that the characters feel for one another. This book is a romance with well developed characters and lots of sexy scenes rather than porn with a throw away stab at building a plot.

NO CLIFF HANGER!! This is a stand alone book with another related book due to publish this year, and I am looking forward to reading more from this author. This book was well worth my time and I will revisit the characters in my mind, like old friends, for a long time to come.

Just the Three of Us II

Just the Three of Us: An Erotic Romantic Comedy for the Commitment-Challenged

I’m excited to announce the publication of my new novel, a funny, sexy romance entitled Just the Three of Us: An Erotic Romantic Comedy for the Commitment-Challenged, now available in eBook exclusively on Amazon (FREE with Kindle Unlimited!). Here’s the blurb:

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?

With a Heat Level of 4+, dialogue that will make you laugh out loud, and a plot to tickle your most sentimental of spots, Just the Three of Us promises an entertaining read for fans of romance looking for a unique take on love and sexuality.

Want to read more? Here are the first few chapters:

Chapter 1

“Wow, you’re fast!” he said with admiration, gawking at me with wide eyes through a plastic face-shield thick with fog.

I turned to look behind me but I was the last player on the bench; this unfamiliar young man with the friendly face appeared to be talking to me.

“Uh, thank you,” I said, returning my eyes to the ice and uncomfortably shifting my grip on my stick.

“I mean it,” he assured me. “You are very fast, especially for, you know, a – Hey!”

The exclamation caught my attention more than the unfinished remark. I turned again and saw another young man sitting beside this one, elbow out as if he’d just used it to nudge his friend into silence.

“For a what?” I said shrewdly, watching in amusement as my neighbor struggled to solicit a polite response out of an apparently unresponsive brain. “For a woman? Or perhaps you meant for an older woman?” I concluded, putting extra emphasis on the “older.” At thirty-seven I was hardly ancient, but there was no doubt in my mind that these fellows were a good ten years my junior, a fact that gave me the indisputable right to tease them mercilessly.

His face, already beet-red from the exertion, flushed scarlet. “I wouldn’t say older!” he fibbed unconvincingly. “You’re what, like twenty-eight, twenty-nine?”

“Don’t mind my friend,” the other fellow said, leaning across him towards me and grinning. “He’s really a nice guy. Sometimes just a bit of a dumbass.”

“It was a compliment!” the nearer man stuttered before being abruptly rescued from his consternation by the return of the other left wing. He stumbled over the boards and onto the ice and his buddy slid over next to me.

“I’m Ted,” he said, extending his arm in my direction. “And that’s Sam.”

“Kathy,” I replied, bumping my glove against his by way of a handshake.

“I haven’t seen you here before,” he said. But before I could answer, I saw the one of the defensemen hurtling towards the boards and sprang to my feet to take his place. Ted followed hard on my heels to replace the other wing, who had just lurched, panting, over to the bench.

I hadn’t even noticed them before – possibly because I’d been too busy trying not to embarrass myself my first time on the ice in my latest new town. But now I couldn’t stop watching them skating around in front of me; two of my nameless, faceless teammates had turned into people. Of course, meeting people wasn’t always as great as it sounded, as I’d discovered in the course of my many travels. You don’t worry so much about making a good impression when you’re an unknown member of an anonymous crowd. I pondered that as I forced my legs to an inhuman effort in chasing down the next breakaway when it came. I didn’t want to lose my newly established reputation for speed, after all.

“Nice job,” Sam said when I flung my body back over the boards a minute later, fresh sweat trickling coolly down my spine.

“Thanks,” I gasped, plunking my butt down on the bench and taking a deep swig of my water. My partner for the day was still nowhere in sight and I wished he’d hurry up and finish dressing; it was exhausting playing with only three D.

The guy named Ted leaned over again. “So are you new here?” he said, picking up our conversation right where we’d left off. It’s customary for hockey players to chat in fragmented one-minute intervals.

“Just moved to town,” I nodded, starting to catch my breath. “I was in a women’s league the last place I lived, but there isn’t one in town here. Thought I’d give this group a try, if it’s not too tough.”

“You’re tough enough!” Sam exclaimed. “I’ve seen the way you skate.”

“Trust me, I have no skills,” I countered, pleased in spite of myself. I wasn’t being modest; I was a poor puck-handler and had no shot to speak of, and it had already become apparent that my rather abundant apportionment of feminine muscle wasn’t quite as useful among these men, most of whom were younger and a lot bigger than me. And apart from my speed, I had few real skills as a skater, and already I was struggling a lot harder to keep up than I had in my last league. Ever heard the expression “tripping-over-your-tongue-tired?” That was me.

“Pshaw!” he answered, dismissing my critical assessment with a wave of his glove. I turned to look more closely at my new acquaintance. Along with that broad, boyish face and welcoming eye went the kind of personality that could use an expression that went out with the previous century without an iota of shame.

“Pshaw?” Ted echoed, making a motion as if scratching his helmet with his padded glove.

“Pshaw!” Sam repeated, unabashed.

“Okay,” Ted said, clearing his throat audibly and leaning towards me again. “So where are you from?”

“Um, well… New England, originally. Most recently, California,” I answered. “Up north, near San Francisco.”

Sam laughed. “So what the hell are you doing here? Sick of the beautiful weather?”

“Something like that,” I chuckled back. I wasn’t about to try to tell my life story to two strangers in the ten seconds before I had to be on the ice again.

“Well, welcome to Minnesota, eh?” Ted replied in a heavy and decidedly phony accent. I looked askance at him. He had the agreeable look of a young man who hasn’t quite reached his prime; I guessed he would be downright handsome about five years down the line. Slimmer, more serious-looking than Sam, with dark hair and deep brown eyes and a neatly trimmed beard that ran the length of his chin.

“Yeah, you’re welcome, eh?” Sam agreed.

“We don’t actually talk like that,” Ted assured me. “It’s just an affectation put on for outsiders, so they’ll think they’re in Canada or something.”

“You’d better start working on yours, too,” Sam said seriously. “Here, I’ll teach you,” he began, but fortunately I was rescued from a lesson in Northern American linguistics by the return of the entire forward line, which sent my new acquaintances scurrying for their positions.

My defensive partner finally arrived, plopping his enormous body down next to mine and effectively cutting me off from further conversational efforts with Sam and Ted. I couldn’t decide whether or not I should be sorry about that. But as the game continued, I watched them weaving in tandem along the ice, passing the puck to one another seemingly without effort, to all appearances like two balls on the ends of the same chain. They must have been teammates for a long time, I thought; they made such a good wing pair. I wouldn’t have said that they were great athletes; I mean, they were both obviously competent, but not spectacular in any way. But there was something in the way they played together that made them better, much better than their skill levels alone would have suggested. Almost as if they knew each other so well that one was an extension of the other; two minds and bodies separated only by twenty feet of ice.

Following the closing handshakes, I was surprised to find them both skating beside me back to the bench.

“Okay, so we know you’re not a native, but do you drink beer?” Sam inquired, as if it were a beverage endemic only to Milwaukee and cities of similar latitude.

“Of course!” I answered. I was actually very fond of beer, although I’d found, as I often did, that the styles that were popular in Minnesota weren’t the same as those that dominated other markets.

“Good,” Ted replied. “We usually go out for a beer after the game, and we think you should come.”

I was taken aback. They seemed like nice enough fellows and all, but I really saw no point in going overboard with the acquaintance. Sure, I was a little lonely. It’s never easy being the new kid in town, no matter how old you are, and I hadn’t exactly been a ball of social fire in any of the many places I’d lived in the wandering course of my adult life. But really, what besides hockey could I, a relatively mature woman, possibly have in common with two twenty-something-year-olds? Boys, practically, to my mind.

I guess my lack of enthusiasm showed, because while I hesitated in answering I heard Sam saying, “I don’t think she likes us, Ted.”

“Well, you shouldn’t have made that comment about her skating like a, ‘you know,’ ” Ted replied, shaking his head dolefully.

“Please just come have a beer with us!” Sam pleaded. “Otherwise Ted will never let me hear the end of it.”

“Unless you really don’t like us,” Ted said, narrowing his dark brows at me. I wasn’t short, especially with my skates on, but standing up he still towered a good six inches over me, and I might have been intimidated had he not had such an indisputably gentle face.

“We wouldn’t blame you much,” Sam chimed in. “We are kind of obnoxious.”

I looked from one to the other. There was something refreshingly youthful in their earnestness and a part of me was touched. It was sweet, really, the way they’d taken pity on me. After all, I probably seemed as old to them as they seemed young to me.

“It’s not that,” I answered finally, weighing my words carefully. “I was just surprised that you’re old enough to drink.”

“Oh-ho, she got you back, Sam!” Ted said with a laugh.

“Says you!” he shot back. “Ted’s just jealous because I’m more mature.”

“You’re only six months older than me!” Ted said. “And older does not mean more mature!”

That was certainly the truth. Here I was in my late thirties, with no husband or children and no particular desire for either yet. In a new city with a new job that I wasn’t even sure I was going to like because I still hadn’t decided what I wanted to be when I grew up. Plus I was living in a one-room apartment with cardboard-box furniture and a mattress on the floor. What did I know about mature? Maybe my mistake all along had been in trying to meet people my own age: settled, adult, grown-up people. I’d be right at home with these guys.

“Twenty-six is mature!” Sam retorted. “Isn’t it, Kathy?”

“Hmm, sorry, I can’t remember back that far,” I joked. “It’s been a long decade.”

We retreated to the locker room to undress. As usual I kept my head down so I could pretend not to notice those few bold fellows who stripped down to their bare asses before changing into clean clothes. Me, I never bothered. I was always way too sweaty after a game to even think about forcing fresh pants on over my sticky thighs. I did wonder, though, how the other players would react if one day I, too, decided to strip down naked and wander around the locker room with all my goods hanging out like it was no big deal.

That was one way to make an impression, I thought. I’d never been what you’d call beautiful, even when I was younger, but I wasn’t bad to look at, either, especially since hockey had sculpted my once-flabby form into a passably pleasing shape. I hoped that having a decent figure helped to distract the interested observer from my other physical flaws, which weren’t too tough to overlook if you didn’t look too closely. I had very plain brown hair that I wore cut to the shoulders, and kind of a square face that was rescued from dullness by deep dimples, rosy cheeks, and big green eyes that I simply adored. Most days I didn’t mind not being gorgeous. It was much easier to blend into the background when you were average-looking, and I’d spent most of my adulthood trying not to be noticed. And I could still clean up pretty cute when I wanted to, although I knew those days were rapidly drawing to an end. Hmm, I thought as I glanced around the room full of strangers and contemplated the cold and lonely bed waiting for me at my apartment. Maybe I should flaunt it while I still had it.

I hauled my gear out to my car and then, with some trepidation, headed upstairs to the sports pub. Sam and Ted were waiting for me in the doorway and that relieved me somewhat; I always felt hopelessly awkward walking into a place alone. I nonchalantly looked them over. Unlike me, who was twice my normal size with gear on, they didn’t look that different without it. Sam, I saw now, had golden blond hair that he wore in a buzz-cut all over his rather round head; it added to the general impression of constant cheerfulness that he radiated like sunbeams off of every edge of his person. He had a solid, stocky build and was several inches shorter than Ted. With his fair skin and bright smile, I’d describe him as cute more than handsome; he seemed to ooze a boyish sort of charm that made him appear pleasant and harmless. Ted, by contrast, had a darker, almost olive complexion, and seemed the quieter of the two; something in the set of his jaw suggested a level of reserve his friend seemed to lack. He had a narrow face that went well with his lean form, and seeing him in his street-clothes, I would have sworn he didn’t have an ounce of fat on him; only lithe, long muscles that ran like thick wires over his elongated limbs.

“Shall we?” Sam said, extending an arm as if to offer it to me with old-fashioned courtesy. When I hesitated, he seemed to think better of the idea and hurriedly retracted it. I pretended not to notice.

I followed them inside. A few of the other guys from the team were up there and nodded to Sam and Ted. Then I caught them looking bemusedly at me and I blushed. Self-consciously I raised my hands to my head and felt my hair all utterly disheveled into sweaty locks, as it always was after hockey. I’d never gotten in the habit of showering after a game, either. I figured since I was always going straight home afterwards, what was the point in enduring the fungus-ridden locker room shower?

This is why you don’t have a boyfriend, I thought as I plunked myself down at the small, circular table Sam selected while Ted went up to the bar to buy us a pitcher.

“So why did you move here, Kathy? Was it for work?” Sam asked as Ted poured our beers and I slipped him a five for my share. He pushed it back across the table with a pleading little wave of his hand. I shoved it back towards him with a bigger, more insistent wave. His eye caught mine and I watched it crinkle in amusement. Then he nodded and, conceding defeat, tucked the bill into his pocket. It was very rare that I lost the battle over going dutch with men. I hadn’t been independent all these years for nothing, after all.

“Was it for work?” Sam was repeating.

“Oh! Well, sort of,” I answered, jerking my attention back to the conversation at hand. “Not really.”

I took a sip of my beer while he stared at me as if expecting me to continue talking. Ted was peering at me keenly through narrow-rimmed glasses he had not been wearing during the game. I liked them. They did something for the shape of his face.

“No shutting her up, is there?” Sam said at last into the silence.

“So are you naturally not very talkative, or do you just have a lot to hide?” Ted inquired.

I chuckled. “A little from Column A…”

“Well, what do you do? For work, I mean?” Ted said.

“Oh,” I hedged. “This and that.”

They looked at one another.

“Wait right here,” Sam said. “I left my good dental extractor in the car and I think we’re gonna need the big one if we want to get any information out of this girl.” His voice was husky, and a little edgy, as if he spent a lot of time joking around; it rather pleasantly complemented Ted’s deep, gravelly rumble.

I laughed. “Really, there’s not much to tell. I have a Bachelor’s in Film Studies, which, as you might imagine, is pretty close to worthless.”

“Film Studies?” Ted interrupted. “That sounds interesting!”

“It was!” I answered enthusiastically. “Oh, I really enjoyed it. It’s not what people think, criticism and all that, it’s more like a sociological study, looking at the culture behind movies and so on. You do a lot of reading on the history of the time and write a lot of papers – it was really fun. Kind of useless in the real world, though. There wasn’t much I could do with it except get a doctorate and then teach, and I don’t really have the personality for that. It looks good on my resume, though; proves I was smart enough to finish college.”

“Why’d you choose it, then, if you didn’t want to make a career out of it?” Sam inquired curiously.

“I dunno,” I answered vaguely. “There wasn’t really anything else I wanted to do, I guess.”

“Huh,” Ted replied, resting his head on his hand as if seriously considering the meaning of what I had said.

I gave up attempting to describe what was obviously a foreign concept and hurried on with my speech. “Anyway,” I said, “I haven’t got what you’d call a career. I’ve done all kinds of work: office jobs, waitressing, copyediting… I was even an online retailer of out-of-print videos for a while. Right now I’m working as a bank teller.”

“Well, that’s cool!” Sam said without much enthusiasm.

I shrugged. “I like math,” I said. “It’s one of the better jobs I’ve had. I actually did it once before, back in New Jersey, but then I got promoted to New Accounts and I didn’t like it as much. Dealing with people… It can be really irritating, you know. And when I moved to North Carolina, I decided to try something else so I never advanced any further in banking.”

“Why did you move to North Carolina?” Ted inquired, his eyebrows raised as if he thought it a strange destination.

I shrugged again and let out an awkward laugh. “No real reason, I guess. Just felt like a change.”

“How many places have you lived exactly?” Sam asked, furrowing his brow. It forced his forehead into shallow, barely perceptible wrinkles that made mine look like the walls of the Grand Canyon but without all the pretty colors.

I smoothed my wet hair down over my forehead uneasily. “Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I guess on average I move every couple of years.”

“Every couple of years?” Sam replied, astonished, drawing back to peek underneath the table at my lower half. “No moss grows beneath your feet, I see.”

“I guess we shouldn’t get too attached, eh, Sam?” Ted said.

“Why so often?” Sam asked me.

“I can’t stand cleaning,” I said seriously. “It’s easier just to move when the apartment gets dirty.”

They frowned at me skeptically and took big swigs of their beer.

“Well, I think that’s great,” Ted said defensively. “You know that except when I was in college, Sam and I have only lived two places our whole lives?”

“Really?!” It was my turn to be shocked.

“Yup. We moved here from the country right after school and have been in the same apartment ever since.”

“Wow!” I said. “Don’t you get tired of being in the same place all the time?”

“Well, one day we’d like to move out to the suburbs. Have a place we can call our own.”

“I really want a house with space in the yard for a vegetable garden this big,” Sam said eagerly, spreading his arms wide to illustrate the size he had in mind. “And that’s not happening here in town.”

I guess they realized that I was starting to wonder, because all at once they said together, “No, we’re not gay.”

“And if we were, I still wouldn’t want to go out with him,” Ted said seriously, peering across the table at me. “He just isn’t my type.”

“Oh, you would, too!” Sam objected. “You’d be lucky to have me!”

“That’s not what your mom says!” Ted replied.

“It’s true,” Sam conceded, turning to me. “My mom’s been hoping for years to get Ted for a son-in-law, and since I’m an only child…”

I couldn’t tell if he was serious or not, so I tactfully decided not to comment. “So what do you guys do?” I asked, hurriedly changing the subject.

“I’m a carpenter,” Sam announced with pride. “A Lead Carpenter, in fact. Just got promoted last year.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Sort of like a foreman.”

“I know what that is!” I answered. “I was a foreman once.”

“Really?” They stared at me in disbelief.

“Yup. Up in Alaska when I was nineteen. I’d gone up to clean fish for the summer and was put in charge of the vacuum-packing machine. I had one person under me. I was so proud.” I clasped a hand to my chest to express the sweetness of the memory of being in charge.

“Who’d you get to go with you all the way up to Alaska?” Ted wanted to know.

“Oh, I went up alone,” I answered, thinking it a strange question. Why would I have brought anyone with me?

“All by yourself?” Sam squeaked, jumping a little in his chair as if something small and furry had just scurried underneath it.

“I don’t travel that well with others,” I confided. “Most people kind of drive me crazy after a while.”

“Huh,” Ted said again, scrutinizing me as if I were as mysterious as the Mona Lisa and only half as congenial.

That’s it, I thought. From now on I stay home in my apartment with the door locked and the windows bolted shut.

“So what do you do, Ted?” I said, taking one last desperate shot at trying to sound like a well-adjusted woman having a normal conversation with people she wanted to befriend.

He shrugged. “Something with computers,” he said. “You don’t want to hear about it. Boring.”

“Don’t you like it?”

“Yeah, I do,” he admitted. “It’s just not my dream job. But I’ve got student loans to pay off.”

“So what is your dream job?” I started to say, reaching for my glass and finding it empty. I always drank faster in the company of strangers.

“Hey, you want another?” Sam said, standing up to go and fetch a fresh pitcher.

“No, thanks, I really gotta run,” I said.

“Big date?” Ted said.

“Just me and my showerhead,” I chuckled. They frowned at me again in that half-serious manner and for a moment I felt like the young and immature one. “No, I just get really nervous about drinking and driving. I don’t like to have more than one if I have to drive afterwards. But I can’t stand sitting around with an empty beer, either.”

“I hear that,” Sam said.

“Well, will we see you next week?” Ted said, standing up by way of farewell. I wasn’t sure if he meant at the game or afterwards, so I played it safe.

“I think so,” I said vaguely.

“Come again when you can stay longer!” Sam called as I made my way to the door. I turned to wave at them and thought that I would never see those two outside of hockey again.

But I was wrong. I didn’t see how anyone who’d had to endure twenty minutes of my dull and dreary conversation could be inclined to sample more of it, but they didn’t seem bored with me at all. Indeed, had I not been an on-the-spot witness to my poor social performance, I would have sworn that they actually liked me. It seemed impossible, but the following week they cornered me again, and the week after that, and before I knew it, meeting those two for a beer after the game had become a routine that I looked forward to as much as the game itself. They had such easy-going personalities that, somewhere between the post-game drinks and the bits of chatter on the bench, even I began to relax around them. In a weird way, I thought the age difference also helped. I mean, I knew it wasn’t the biggest spread ever, but between that and the fact that I only ever saw the two of them together, I was fairly confident that this wasn’t some elaborate pickup scheme, and that took most of the pressure off me. Of course, if they’d ever been tempted to think along those lines, they would have stopped once they’d gotten to know me.

“So why did you leave California, anyway?” Sam still wanted to know during about the sixth week of our acquaintance.

“It’s complicated,” I muttered.

“Complicated how?” Ted prodded.

“Oh…” I said reluctantly, trying to remember that these were my only friends. “I was seeing this guy, and he wanted me to move in with him. I thought that was crazy, because we’d only been going together six months, but he kept trying to convince me, and I don’t know… I couldn’t decide. And I’d been sorta looking around for a new job and then this position came up, so, well, I figured that made the decision for me.”

They both gawked at me as if I was speaking a little-known dialect of ancient Swahili.

“Um, couldn’t you get a job as a bank teller anywhere?” Ted said.

“I suppose… Yeah, I guess I could.”

“And how did you happen to even be looking for a job in Minnesota, anyway?”

“Well, I wasn’t, really. I just put some feelers out… I mean, I don’t really care where I live.”

“I have a question,” Sam announced. “Most women your – I mean, most women would be delighted if a man they were seeing wanted to move in with her. Aren’t you starting to worry… I mean, don’t you want to get married?”

“Not really,” I said. “I mean, I’m not planning on having any children, so I don’t really see any point in it.”

“You don’t want kids?” Ted said, surprised. I could swear there was a bit of a crack in his usual calm, and Sam appeared downright shocked, his jaw hanging open like I’d just announced I was next in line to be the Queen of England.

“Kids are a lifetime commitment,” I said seriously. “It’s not like a marriage; there’s no walking away from that.”

“Well,” Sam said, at last recovering his ability to speak, “I think we finally understand why Kathy prefers to hang out with us after hockey.”

“Don’t worry, Kathy,” Ted said. “I promise we won’t be pressuring you to move in with us or anything.”

“Phew!” I said, wiping a warm hand across my still-sweaty brow. “I was worried there for a second.”

“But we do want something from you,” Sam said enigmatically as he stood up to hug me goodbye. “Something that will require a serious commitment on your part.”

“If it involves planning a bank heist, I’m not interested,” I replied.

He glared back at me. “One of these days we’re going to come pick you up so you can come out with us for some real beers and you won’t have to drive. There’s this great place near our apartment and we usually go there on Fridays.”

“Where do you live anyway, Kathy?” Ted inquired. I guess it had never come up before. I told them.

“Do you know where Delaney’s is?” Sam said excitedly.

“Sure,” I said, surprised to realize that I actually recognized a landmark. Although I’d been in town nearly three months by then, I still didn’t know my way around very well, probably because I never went anywhere but work or home or the ice rink. “It’s like a mile down the street from my place.”

“We live just a few blocks from there!” he exclaimed.

“Well, whaddya know?” I marveled. “We’re practically neighbors.”

“Now you have no excuses,” Ted threatened ominously, lowering his glasses down to the bridge of his nose and peering forbiddingly down at me. I cowered in mock intimidation.

“You will come for a beer with us,” Sam said, waving his fingers at my face as if attempting to perform some sort of supernatural mind-meld. “Next Friday. Deal?”

“Deal,” I agreed. It was nice having something to look forward to on a Friday night for a change.

But of course one Friday led to another, and before I knew it, that, too, was a standing engagement. Just three friends meeting for beers; nothing unusual about that. Except for the fact that social-moth me was one of them. But I admit it; I fell in with those two as splendidly as feathers fill out a peacock and without all the fuss. I had a great time hanging out with them, a great time. They were so full of youth and vitality; everything was exciting to them, from a new ale on the beer list to an old-fashioned roadster driving by; even my dull, repetitive work stories seemed to interest them. And they had stories, too, endless, joyous reams of them, as if everything that had ever happened in their short, unchanging lives was novel and fascinating and worthy of telling. And there was something in the banter between them that I enjoyed listening to and watching; it was the kind of relationship the guys I had known growing up had had with their close friends and I found it amusing and comforting somehow.

And it wasn’t long before I could say, with undeniable honesty, that “my boys,” as I liked to call them secretly in my mind, had become my closest friends; probably the best friends I’d had in a very long time. Soon we weren’t just meeting for beers on Friday nights; sometimes it was dinner on Saturday or a movie on Sunday, and then the following summer, when we’d known each other about six months, one day it happened, the unthinkable.

“We wanted to ask you something,” Ted said, one dark eye on me, the other monitoring the level of head in his glass. “Something important,” he added mysteriously.

“Oh?” I answered, raising my eyebrows in dubious disbelief.

“We’re serious!” Sam declared. “This could mean a big step forward in our relationship!” He winked coyly at Ted.

I looked at them appraisingly. “Your mom is right; you would make a pretty cute couple,” I observed.

“Kathy!” Sam objected. “I meant our relationship,” he clarified, spreading his arms as if to encompass the three of us.

“Huh,” I answered, narrowing my eyes at them in mock suspicion. “What exactly did you have in mind?”

“See, you’re totally giving her the wrong impression,” Ted said.

“What? No – no, I’m not!” Sam added hastily. “I didn’t mean – I didn’t mean that!”

“Don’t be scared,” Ted said reassuringly to me. “He’s basically harmless. Just kind of an idiot.”

“Not that you aren’t… I mean… not that we wouldn’t be lucky to…well, you know…” Sam continued, his neck reddening.

“How deep do you think he’ll get into that hole before he shuts up?” I inquired of Ted.

“But we would never… You’re our friend!” Sam spluttered, flecking both Ted and I with a spray of saliva.

“Pretty deep, I think,” Ted said disgustedly, wiping his cheek with his napkin. “Are you going to ask her or what?”

“Well, I’m not sure I want to, now!”

“Of course you do! You haven’t stopped talking about it all week!”

“But that was before…”

“ ‘We should ask Kathy,’ ” Ted quoted. “ ‘Don’t you think we should ask her? It would be fun, right?’ ”

For one crazy, wild moment I wondered if they actually were referring to the thought that had inevitably crossed my mind in the midst of this roundabout conversation. You know what thought I mean.

“Nah,” I said to myself, shaking my head. “It couldn’t be.”

“Just ask her!” Ted prompted.

“Oh, all right,” Sam said as his face gradually faded from maroon to pink. “Kathy,” he began momentously, turning to face me with a pronounced aura of solemnity. “Kathy… we’d like you to go away with us for the weekend.”

I hesitated a long moment before answering. They sat across from me, watching me intently, evidently anxious for my response.

“Do you really think we’re ready for that?” I said quietly at last. “I mean, first it’s weekends away, then suddenly we’re shacking up together. Before you know it, we’re starring in our own reality TV show.”

Sam began humming the Three’s Company theme.

Ted flicked a coaster at him; sent it bouncing hard off his wrist and onto the floor. “It’s just a camping trip,” he explained. “We go once or twice a year with some of the guys from Sam’s work.”

“There’ll be beer there,” Sam said hopefully. “Lots of beer!” he wheedled, nudging Ted with his elbow as if to emphasize the point.

“Hmmm…” I pretended to think. “Bunch of drunk people I don’t even know? Doesn’t sound like my cup of tea.” They stared at me uncomprehendingly. “Pint of beer,” I said, translating my metaphor into language they could understand.

“They’re good guys,” Ted assured me. “Not at all creepy.”

“Plus we’ll be there to protect you,” Sam added, flexing his big bicep at me as if I should be reassured by its length and depth.

“Not that you’ll need it,” Ted chipped in hastily.

“You won’t be the only girl,” Sam asserted. “There are always at least a few at the campground.”

“A very few,” Ted said under his breath.

“But see, we know you can hold your beer. That’s why you should come.”

I mulled it over. “When and where is this camping trip?” I asked.

They told me. It was in two weeks, at a lake a couple of hours north of us.

“We guarantee you’ll have a good time,” Sam promised.

“What do I get if I don’t?” I wondered.

“You get to smack Sam upside the head,” Ted answered, demonstrating with a light whack against his friend’s skull.

“I can do that anyway,” I argued, responding in kind and causing Sam to exclaim “Hey!” and withdraw, sulking, to the corner of the table with his glass.

“We’ll buy you a beer,” Ted offered. “No, two beers,” he said, emphasizing the “two.”

“Way to sweeten the deal, Ted,” Sam replied, rolling his eyes.

“Well,” I sighed, “I suppose it would be kind of a long weekend, me here at home all by myself while the two of you are away.”

“Aw!” Sam exclaimed. “You’d miss us!”

“Hmph!” I snorted contemptuously.

But I would, I realized to my unending chagrin as I listened to them regaling me with tales from prior camping trips. Although I’d begun to have dates here and there, the majority of my social life really revolved around these two young men, and sometimes I even got the feeling that a huge part of their lives revolved around me, too. Why didn’t they ever seem to go out with women their own age? I almost began to wonder if they saw me as a girlfriend-substitute of some sort. Without the sex, of course.

I was still thinking about that when we met up at the pub the following week. That and the disastrous first date I’d had myself the previous evening.

“Loser,” Ted was saying, shaking his head disappointedly as I described the miserable lack of chemistry between me and my co-worker’s cousin, a deep, thoughtful man whom she had assured me would appeal to my sensitive side.

“I’m just not sure I have a sensitive side,” I said uncomfortably, recollecting the unfortunate fellow’s unfortunate monologue on the nature of romantic love. “Isn’t love mostly about screwing, anyway?”

“Kathy, please!!” Sam objected. “My virgin ears!”

“Your ears are virgins?” Ted said quizzically. “That’s a relief.”

“Plus he was just no fun,” I went on, ignoring them. “Talk about stodgy… it was like being out with somebody’s invalid great-great-grandfather, only the conversation wasn’t as lively.”

“We’ve spoiled you,” Sam said. “It’s hard for you to hang out with anyone else now that you’ve experienced our awesomeness.”

“Do you guys ever date?” I said suddenly.

It got so quiet that a feather falling off of a pigeon’s butt would have broken the silence.

“Oh sure,” Sam said hurriedly into the void. “We go cruising for chicks all the time. Ted’s a great wing man.”

“I thought you were the wing man,” Ted replied.

“No, you’re the wing man. And the straight man. I’m what you would call the main man.”

“That explains all the empty space in your little black book.”

“Hey, I get around!” Sam exclaimed. “You’re just never around to see the bevy of beauties I’m always bringing home.”

“But we live in the same apartment,” Ted countered.

“So you two don’t date much either, I take it?” I interjected.

There was another long, silent pause. “It’s been a while,” Ted admitted. “My last relationship experience… didn’t end so well.”

“You were too good for her,” Sam snarled defensively. Ted shrugged. “You were. She was nothing but a… but a hoochie-mama!”

“A hoochie-mama?” Ted repeated, frowning. “What century are you living in, Sam?”

“I am living in a century in which girls like that stay away from my friends,” he huffed.

“Sam’s last girlfriend wasn’t exactly a shining example of womanhood, either,” Ted confided to me.

“She sure wasn’t,” Sam agreed. “Good-looking but cold, real cold at the core. Our kitchen table treats me with more affection than she ever did. She didn’t even blink when I finally broke up with her.”

“Ten years later,” Ted muttered.

“You were together ten years?” I said, astounded.

“That’s not so long,” Sam said, shrugging as if all men in their twenties had had relationships that had lasted a decade.

“It is to me,” I insisted. “I’ve never had a relationship that lasted more than a year.”

“That’s funny,” Ted said. “I’ve never had one that lasted less than a year.”

“Huh,” I said wonderingly. “You guys are all like, good at commitment and stuff.” It certainly wasn’t one of my particular skills, and not one I was sure I was all that interested in honing, either.

“Especially Sam,” Ted answered. “He’s a one-woman man.”

I shuttled my eyes back and forth between the two of them. Ted was gazing at Sam, who stared unabashedly back at him and then glanced back at me.

“That’s right,” he said vehemently, coloring only slightly, as if uncertain whether to be proud or defensive in light of this unexpected revelation. “I’ve only been with one woman. We were high school sweethearts, you know.”

“When did you break up?” I inquired, thinking that he seemed awfully uninterested in dating for a twenty-six-year-old man who’d only had one girlfriend.

“I dunno…eight or nine months ago,” Sam replied.

“Not long before we met you,” Ted clarified.

“And you haven’t found anyone new, I take it?” I said.

“Nah… nah,” he said. “Girls my age, you know, they’re just so immature. They don’t even want to think about settling down yet.”

I stared at him for a moment in stunned disbelief. That settled it; I simply didn’t understand the younger generation.

“How about you, Ted?” I continued at last.

He shrugged. “Haven’t met anyone who interests me lately.”

“Sorry, guys,” I said. “I don’t really have any girlfriends I can set you up with.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ted replied. “We’re in no hurry.”

“Someone’s bound to come along someday,” Sam agreed.

“Well,” I said seriously. “At least we have each other.”

“See, you’re totally sensitive,” Sam said, grinning. “From time to time.”

“And on that charming observation…” Ted intervened, “Let’s have a toast. Here’s to the three of us.”

“To the three of us,” Sam and I agreed.

We clinked.

Chapter 2

As it turned out, the camping trip actually was a pretty good time. It was a lazy weekend spent lounging on the beach and paddling around the lake and sitting about the campfire while the men cooked and I took charge of handing out beers. It was, in fact, a good group of guys, as I should have known it would be. I really appreciated the fact that no one treated me any differently because I was a girl, if you know what I mean. I understand that men are just trying to be polite when they do things like apologize for farting or swearing in front of you, but I think it’s silly. Really, we women aren’t that delicate, and you’d have to come up with some amazingly rancid gas or creative cursing to offend me in a noteworthy fashion. And I know they mean well when they offer to help you carry your luggage or your groceries, but personally, I don’t like it much; it’s as if they think I can’t take care of my own crap. I, who had moved single-handedly in and out of more apartments in fifteen years than most people occupy in a lifetime. If I can manhandle a mattress in and out of the back of my pickup with my own two hands, then surely I ought to be allowed to carry a case of beer out to the car. But these guys seemed perfectly at ease with cursing freely and letting me haul coolers full of beer and ice into the shade to my heart’s content. And nobody gawked or laid it on thick with cheesy compliments, either, as men sometimes seem to feel the need to do with women, even ones they aren’t trying to get into bed. Nobody except for Sam, that is.

“You really look lovely today, Kathy,” he said sincerely when I emerged from my tent in a simple sundress, looking, perhaps, more feminine than I usually did when I was bundled up in my bulky winter jacket or my enormous chest pads.

“Uh, thank you,” I answered, startled but not displeased by the compliment.

“Hey, Ted,” he called over his shoulder, “Doesn’t Kathy look nice today?”

Ted let go of the bundle of firewood he’d been rearranging and stood up to glance at me.

“You look very nice,” he replied, then bent again to his chore.

“What does Ted know?” Sam said in exasperation. “Trust me, you look good.”

Just as I was about to make a smart remark asking whether he was flirting with me, he got up to join his friends in a game of washoes and didn’t mention it again. But for the rest of the summer I did notice that he looked at me a little differently when I was more scantily clad in a skirt or a dress, and maybe I was a little surprised to realize that he was aware that besides being a friend, I was also a woman, and a not unattractive one, at that. Not that I thought anything of it, of course. You don’t suddenly become immune to the charms of the opposite sex just because the charmer happens to be your pal, after all. But that doesn’t mean you plan on making anything of it, either. I guess mostly it struck me as odd because of the age difference. Friends or not, I wouldn’t have expected even cursory admiration from a man who was so much younger than me. I did find it reassuring, though, particularly considering that I wasn’t exactly burning up the romantic scene. Maybe I even found it so reassuring that I started putting a little extra effort into dressing things up a bit. I frequently found myself choosing skirts that were cut an inch or two shorter and tops an inch or two lower when I went out with them. I couldn’t help myself; it was flattering to watch Sam’s eyes tripping delicately over my body in that appraising way before settling themselves again firmly on my face, as if he’d snapped himself out of a pleasant but fleeting daydream.

But if Sam could be beguiled by thighs and cleavage, Ted appeared as immune to such shallow physical qualities as ever; never once did I catch him glancing at my bared flesh the way Sam did, not at mine, nor, as far as I could determine, at anyone else’s.

“Oooh, look at her, Ted,” I’d say, pointing out a particularly fine specimen perched on the nearest barstool, her shapely figure encased in a dress that emphasized each one of her well-rounded curves.

“Eh,” he’d shrug. “She’s trying too hard. I mean, really, does anyone need that much makeup?”

And I’d brush my hand against my own perpetually unpainted face and wonder if he’d given me a backhanded compliment after all.

But these changes in our friendship were subtle, at best. The overriding difference was really the comfort level we began to develop with one another, which expressed itself in a myriad of ways. The way we lounged together on their sofa, watching a movie, Sam with his arm extended around me while I crooked my elbow through Ted’s. The stories I relayed to them of my unending dating woes while they clucked sympathetically and threatened any man who treated me shabbily. The way we crammed all together at our bar around a table built for two, our knees and elbows overlapping one another’s like spokes on a bicycle wheel. The tales they told, of their families and their childhoods; their lost loves and faded dreams. Although I was sure there were secrets they didn’t share with me, I would have been hard-pressed to guess what they were. Indeed, as time went on, I began to feel almost as if the lifelong friendship they’d had with one other had itself expanded to include me; as if they’d allowed me into their own cozy circle and made me a part of the bond that was Sam and Ted.

So early that fall, when the next camping trip rolled around, they didn’t even have to ask me if I wanted to go.

“You’re free that weekend, aren’t you?” Sam inquired anxiously, consulting the calendar on his phone.

“For you guys?” I said with affection. “Of course.”

“Good,” he answered. “It wouldn’t be the same without you. Right, Ted?”

“Right,” Ted agreed.

They were right. It wouldn’t have been the same without me. And after it was over, none of us would ever be the same, either.

Chapter 3

“Ew!!” I howled, crossing to my tent and finding, by the faint firelight and strong stench, that someone else’s vomit was spewed all over the front flap. “Who puked on my tent?” I yelled to the campground at large and got no answer. Admittedly, I wasn’t too surprised. The puker was probably passed out already and was unlikely to ‘fess up even if he wasn’t.

“What’s the matter, Kathy?” Sam said, unzipping the flap of the tent he shared with Ted and poking his head out in alarm.

“Somebody barfed all over my tent!” I grumbled. He slipped on a pair of flip-flops and stumbled out to investigate.

“Aw, man, they got you good!” he said, laughing.

“I’m so glad you’re amused,” I answered icily. “Perhaps you’d like to sleep in the puke house?”

“Noooo, no thank you! But hey, you know, since you’re hard up and all, you can come and sleep with us if you want. Wait, I totally didn’t mean it like that!” I’d shot him my frostiest stare. Although I wasn’t quite what you’d call hard up yet, I hadn’t had any masculine companionship of the naked kind in over a year, and I was really starting to feel the pinch of not being pinched. Secretly I liked to blame Sam and Ted. They made lousy wing men for a single girl.

“Seriously, I’m sure Ted won’t mind if you stay with us. We’ve got plenty of room. You’d better watch out for Ted, though; sleeping outdoors makes him frisky. Man, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve woken up to find him crawling into my sleeping bag looking for a little action.”

“Don’t you know that mesh isn’t soundproof, dumbass?” I heard Ted call out, perfectly audible from within their tent.

“Don’t worry about him,” Sam assured me. “He gets cranky when I’ve been away too long.”

“Kathy, why don’t you come and sleep with me and put Sam in the puke-tent where he belongs?”

“Oh-ho, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” he yelled to Ted before turning back to me. “He’s trying to get you alone, I see. Just because you’re prettier and a little more feminine than I am. I’m heartbroken, I tell you.” He wiped a phony tear from dry eyes and looked coyly at me from underneath his long eyelashes.

“Shut up, sweetie,” I said. “Can we please just get to bed before I have to pee again?”

“Oh, sure. Just be careful where you let it go. I mean, me, I’m broadminded, but I don’t know if Ted’s gonna be cool with the whole golden shower thing.”

I shoved him unapologetically in the direction of their tent and followed the noise of his yelping to my new lodgings for the night.

“So, now, Kathy,” Sam said once we’d ducked inside the darkened canvas, “Not to put any pressure on you or anything, but which one of us would you rather sleep next to?”

“I dunno,” I replied. “Which one of you is the bedwetter?”

“Funny, funny, ha ha ha. That would be Ted, of course, so I guess that means you’re sleeping next to me.”

“I don’t think so,” Ted snorted from the corner, where we could see the dim outline of his slim form. “Because then I’d have to sleep right next to you, too, and that ain’t happening. Besides, Kathy’s the girl, so she should sleep in the middle.”

“Ted!” Sam exclaimed in mock horror, positioning himself in front of me like a shield; a knight in shining armor preparing to duel in defense of a hapless maiden. “Are you planning on attacking our sweet, innocent Kathy with vile intentions?”

“No,” Ted answered evenly while I snorted my disbelief. “But I’m going to attack you if you don’t shut up.” He had sat up and was unzipping their sleeping bags. “I only meant that since we’re going to have to share our sleeping bags, she should be in the middle so she won’t get cold.”

“Thanks, Ted,” I replied. I slipped off my shoes and shorts, unhooked my bra, and climbed in awkwardly next to him in the darkness, trying to ignore the body heat I felt emanating from his side of the bed and being careful not to let our limbs touch. Whatever levels of intimacy we had achieved in recent months, getting into bed together was not among them. I heard the jingling of keys and zippers and knew that Sam was getting undressed, too.

“Here, take my pillow,” he whispered as he lay down at the far edge of our shared blankets, shoving it towards me like a pushy waiter with a tray of cocktail weenies at a wedding.

“I’m fine without one,” I fibbed.

“Just take it,” he whispered urgently. “It’s too firm for me anyways; I was just going to put my head on my jacket,” he lied in return.

“Well, all right,” I said. “Thanks, Sam,”

“You’re welcome,” he said earnestly. He could be almost charming when he wasn’t trying to be funny. “Good night, Kathy,” he said, reaching out to pat my elbow in a friendly fashion before rolling onto his side away from me. “Good night, Ted.”

“ ’Night, Sam,” Ted replied. “Good night, Kathy,” he said, a bit more softly, before also rolling over onto his side away from me.

I don’t know how long that sleeping arrangement lasted, because thanks to all of the sun and beer I slept straight through the long, cool night. But when I woke up in the morning, I found that I had wrapped my arm tight around Sam, Ted had circled his tight around me, and we were nestled all together as cozy as three silver spoons in a velvet-lined drawer. Even then, I might have escaped without the idea insinuating itself into my mind except that I couldn’t help but notice that Ted was holding me in a most peculiar and unexpected fashion. Just beneath the tiny beer belly that was so determinedly beginning to take hold around my waistline, his arm was stretched out, so close to my crotch that the edge of his hand brushed up against the pubic hairs that were peeking over the top of my underwear, which had become slightly disarranged while I slept. I didn’t mean to do it, but I couldn’t help myself; instinctively I shifted upward and that hand slipped down just barely onto my mound. That urge I knew so well bubbled up unbidden within me, as exciting as a geyser of newly tapped oil and half as controllable.

For a long time afterwards I wondered what it was that made me respond the way I did. Another woman would have withdrawn from the embrace of a friend, or would have shunned all together the touch of one man while another lay beside her. Even a rather kinky female inclined to give in to such a filthy temptation would at least have rolled away from the one into the arms of the other; could have derived her satisfaction from the naughtiness of clandestine cuddling and fondling alone. But neither of these very logical courses of action even occurred to me as I lay there squeezed between them. Instead I pulled Sam closer; pressed my breasts into his back and felt them swell in response as he stirred. And then I felt Ted’s fingers twitch where they rested so near to the most enjoyable parts of my body and right then I was inexplicably overwhelmed with the desire to fuck them both back into unconsciousness.

And then Ted woke up, realized with a start where his hand lay and jerked it away, mumbling something apologetic and incomprehensible, while Sam jumped out from underneath my arm, hopped into his shorts and dashed out the door of the tent like the bed was on fire. And me? I just lay there quietly turned away from Ted while we both pretended to sleep until Sam returned, looking much more at ease and not in the least aware of how close he had come to enjoying a costarring role in the wild and wicked feminine fantasy in which I had nearly indulged. But he didn’t come back to our nice warm bed, and when Ted rose soon after, they both politely left me alone to dress in private.

“Oh, hush,” I whispered to my whining breasts as I nuzzled them, lonely and naked, back into their wiry cage. “Stop even thinking about it!”

But of course I didn’t stop thinking about it.

We rode home in peace, though, and it was obvious from their usual free and easygoing manner that the moment I had so fiercely experienced hadn’t happened for them; had probably never even entered into the most recessed parts of their subconscious minds. I was relieved. It was bad enough that I had thought it, but if they had known about it… I could only envision disaster.

Over the months that followed, I made a studied effort not to alter my behavior towards them, and this was made easier by the fact that their conduct towards me hadn’t changed in the slightest. We continued to go out for beers together on Friday nights. We saw each other at hockey and hung out afterwards. We went for hikes and kicked around the dead leaves until the autumn ended, and then built mini-forts and threw snowballs at each other all through the winter. But I was conscious now, when we were cuddled up together on the couch or at the bar, of something more than a close but benign friendship, of the masculinity that now seemed to emanate from each of them like a radiant force pulling me towards them. Now I couldn’t help but notice, when I peeked out of the corner of my eye at them undressing after a game, how well-built they were; Sam’s big arms and broad chest, Ted’s lanky sensuousness. And suddenly I didn’t see them as merely boys anymore, much too young for a woman my age; they were men, two very appealing, very attractive men that I would have had a very hard time resisting, if only they’d been inclined to give me cause to attempt to resist them.

Routinely I promised myself not to think about it. And in their carefree innocence, I doubt that they ever even came close to suspecting. If once or twice one of them caught my eye trained upon areas of their bodies where I should not have been looking, they probably chalked that up merely to lack of attention on my part to where I was blankly staring. If my hugs were longer, more frequent, and more fully-frontal, they no doubt attributed that more to my ongoing singledom, my lack of romantic masculine companionship than to any unsavory desires cropping up in my straight-laced mind. I shelved away that hunger I so often felt now, the desirous greed kept so carefully in check in their presence, leaking out only in dark, devious daydreams that I pretended belonged to someone else. I could never let on, I knew. It would ruin everything. What would they think of me, if they knew what I was thinking? Likely they’d be thoroughly disgusted; maybe even repulsed to the point of forsaking me entirely. There was simply no way. It was certainly possible that the idea of being with me in that way had crossed one or both of their minds at some point in time. Maybe it wasn’t even so far-fetched to think that one of them might be willing to risk our friendship in order to turn it into something more. They might consider a Kathy and Sam or a Kathy and Ted if that was what I wanted. But I had no interest in either of those combinations. I simply couldn’t separate them in my mind; couldn’t see myself with one without the other close by. It had to be Kathy and Sam and Ted, or nothing at all. And the idea of that, I knew, would never, ever fly.

But time flew, and before I’d even finished dusting the snowflakes off my heavy winter jacket, spring had come, and with it the dreaded annual ritual that these days usually left me as desolate and cold as a midwinter dawn: my birthday. Not only was I rapidly heading towards the downhill side of the getting older coaster, it had been years since I’d had anyone with whom I even wanted to celebrate such questionable milestones. In consequence, as with most other holidays, I’d made a practice of ignoring the event entirely, and I’d gotten pretty darn good at it, too. As it happened, that year it fell on a Friday night. Since I was happy to let this particular occasion slip by unnoticed, I didn’t mention it to the guys, but arrived at their place as usual for our Friday night beers, only a little less cheerful than usual.

You can therefore imagine my very great surprise when they both sprang to the door, grinning like two mad Christmas elves, holding a vast bouquet of brightly colored balloons and a highly mysterious cylindrical package wrapped in tissue paper and tied with curled ribbons all around it.

“Happy Birthday!” they cried, releasing the balloons and permitting them to drift joyfully to the ceiling as if they’d been imprisoned far too long.

“How did you know?” I inquired, gently shaking the cold, damp present as if trying to guess what it could possibly be.

“Ted remembered,” Sam burst out proudly, as if he himself were somehow responsible for his friend’s recollection. “You told us last year when we all went out for my birthday, remember?”

“Not really,” I admitted. Sam’s last birthday was the first time I’d had a hangover in years. I didn’t feel too bad about it, though. As I recalled, he hadn’t gotten up at all the next day.

“We know you don’t like to make a fuss,” Ted assured me. “But we wanted to get you a little present. Something we hope you’ll want to share with both of us.”

I felt that intoxicating burbling in my loins again and for one crazy moment I almost dared to hope that my birthday wish was going to be granted after all.

“Open it,” Ted said, grinning and nodding towards the cool package that was warming in my fevered hands. I managed it with only a bit of shaking.

“Why, it’s a beer!” I exclaimed, poorly feigning surprise. “But what a beer!” I added, examining the bottle. It was an oak-aged Imperial Stout from a prestigious craft brewery. This was a rare and ridiculously expensive beer.

“Thanks, guys!” I said enthusiastically, internally rebuffing my surging hormones into silence while I pecked each of them on the cheek in turn. “What do you say we crack this puppy open right now?”

It was as delicious as anyone could have hoped and strong, very strong, and when we finally lumbered out into the street towards the bar, I didn’t feel the slightest compunction about positioning myself cozily between my friends and locking my arms about their waists.

“You guys are the best,” I said, drawing them towards me.

“Eh, we kinda like you, too,” Ted conceded, eyeing me affectionately and squeezing me back ever so slightly.

“Not me!” Sam interjected. “I just put up with you for Ted’s sake.”

“Good. I only put up with you for Ted’s sake, too,” I shot back, sticking my tongue out at him.

“Oh, I’m hurt!” he cried, half-pulling away and forcing me to draw him in tighter, my breast pressing against his ribs like a cheerful ambassador from the pools of my passion.

“You know I was joking, right, Kathy? I really do like you,” he added anxiously a moment later, peering at me with concern.

“I know,” I said. “Being a jerk is part of your charm.”

“Did you hear that, Ted? Kathy says I’m charming.”

“Sure she did,” Ted answered skeptically. “Dumbass.”

“Speaking of asses,” Sam said to me, seemingly apropos of nothing. “You’re what, thirty-nine now?”

“Don’t remind me,” I grunted.

And with that he drew back his hand and slapped my butt hard with the flat of his palm.

“There’s one!” he cried.

My internal simmer rapidly threatened to boil over and for a moment I couldn’t even walk; I stood stock-still in the middle of the sidewalk while they halted beside me, staring at me curiously. And then Ted drew back his hand and whack! my other cheek was stinging delightfully in turn.

“There’s two!” he shouted.

“Stop that!” I muttered unconvincingly, wondering whether they could see me blushing beneath the streetlights.

“Huh,” Sam said, grabbing my hand and dragging me back along the sidewalk. “You know what I think, Ted?”

“Um, that Kathy likes being spanked?” he replied without hesitation.

“You picked up on that, too, huh?”

And before I could even mount a half-hearted protest, they had both slapped me again hard, smack in the middle of my ass.

“Does that count as one or two?” Ted inquired.

“Two, I think,” Sam answered cheerfully. “Only thirty-five to go!”

“Plus one to grow on,” Ted reminded him, pulling back for another strike.

“Catch me if you can!” I cried, wiggling out of their grasp and bolting down the street towards the bar while they chased me with threatening palms.

It may have been the best night I’d ever spent with them. We joked and talked and laughed and sat close together at the bar, each of them angling to get another crack at my butt every time I shifted in my seat or got up to go to the bathroom. And I don’t know whether it was the stout that did it or the three beers that followed, but by the time we tumbled in a pile out onto the sidewalk I was definitely feeling tipsier than usual and said so.

“You’re just punch-drunk from all the spanking,” Sam replied, landing another solid one on my buttocks while my back was turned.

“That was what, nineteen?” Ted said, winding up for another pitch. “We’d better get busy; there’s a long way to go.”

“Did I say I was turning thirty-nine?” I said playfully, edging away from them. “I meant forty-nine.”

Again we ran most of the way home until at last, landing on their doorstep, they cornered me; set me face-first against the wall and gave it to me good while I screamed and laughed.

“Twenty-eight! Twenty-nine!”

They eased up for a second and I broke free; scrambled out from between them and ran shrieking through the apartment.

“Look out!” Sam cried as I tore off my jacket and hurled it behind me like a wild animal net.

“Booby trap!” Ted yelled, tripping over the hard, flat shoes I’d smoothly slipped out of and left in my wake.

When I reached Ted’s bedroom at the end of the hall, I was forced to a halt. I’d only been in here once before, when he’d wanted to show me the oil paintings that hung on his wall, and I felt vaguely as if I’d entered some very private space and wondered whether I really ought to be there. But I was cornered now, and I had no choice but to duck behind the king-sized bed and stand there waiting while they prowled menacingly around the perimeter.

One man, of course, I might have held off. But with two there was no chance.

Finally tiring of toying with me, they sprung, one on each side, throwing me laughing onto the bed. Undaunted by my half-hearted struggles, Sam sat down on the edge of the mattress and together they forced me upside-down onto his lap, my skirt riding up to my thighs and allowing a cool breeze to flush against my burning cheeks.

They took turns while I whimpered and groaned, naughtily shifting my hips so that my skirt rode up higher, exposing the lace panties already damp with my dew.

“Forty-nine, and fifty!” Sam said, releasing me at last. But I simply lay there in blissful abandon, my face pressed against his thigh, not looking at either of them except in my mind.

“Look, we wore her out!” he observed, noting my lassitude.

“You know I’m really only thirty-nine, right?’

“Guess we’ll have to start over!” Ted threatened, leaning over me with palm extended.

“No!” I yelled, grabbing his hand and yanking him down onto the bed beside us. He went over laughing, and then I pushed hard against Sam and he went over, too, with me lying between them while we all panted from the exertion.

“That wore me out, too!” Sam said, lying down on his back, closing his eyes and turning his face towards me and Ted, who now lay on his side behind me.

Subtly I scooted my backside closer to Ted. I could feel his fingertips on my back and I reached around and grabbed his hand and drew his arm snugly around me, letting his hand fall either accidentally or subconsciously onto my right-hand breast.

Being too thoughtful to point out my little mishap, he didn’t jerk his hand away, but rather tightened it into a fist that hovered just above the flesh of my breast. I inhaled deeply and felt his knuckles tickling my nipple.

“Comfortable?” he murmured.

“Mm-hmm,” I sighed, trying and failing to keep the longing out of my tone.

Suddenly Sam’s eyes popped wide open and then bulged as he saw us lying there so close together. “Hey, how come Ted gets to feel you up and I don’t?” he teased.

“I’m not feeling her up!” Ted protested. But he didn’t move that errant hand as I wiggled my chest more thoroughly into it.

I looked at Sam and patted the bed right beside me, indicating that he should come closer. “Are you sure you two wouldn’t rather be alone?” he teased again. I didn’t answer but patted the sheet again, more vigorously this time. He grinned and scootched over half a foot.

“Closer,” I said, patting an area an inch in front of my thigh. He laughed and pulled in, so close to me that the hair on his legs tickled mine. He lifted his hand to my hip and dabbed at it with playful fingers.

“Close enough?” he inquired.

“Almost,” I agreed. And then I took hold of his hand and planted it firmly upon my left breast.

“Whoa!” they said together. For a moment nobody moved.

Then Ted muttered into my ear, “Um, Kathy? Are you drunk?” In the excitement he’d forgotten to keep that fist going and now his palm lay flat upon my breast, which was silently begging to be clutched.

I couldn’t help myself. I tilted my body and snuggled further into the hands that were touching me from before and behind.

“I don’t think so,” I answered tentatively, uncertain which answer was most likely to get me the action I so desperately wanted. Neither man had let go of the breast I’d given him and they both seemed to be poised there, waiting uncertainly to see what would happen next.

I looked at Sam, whose eyes were just inches from mine. His hand twitched on my tit and involuntarily my hips jerked in response, pressing against the delicious warmth of the thighs on my thighs, the belly and back on my belly and back.

“Aw, shit,” he said softly.

I felt my hindside grow cool as Ted retreated behind me, but he only withdrew far enough to push me gently onto my back, where I lay snugly between them while they gazed down at me with a mix of wonder and apprehension. Their arms were still criss-crossed over my chest and I felt trapped like a full-grown butterfly in a silk cocoon, waiting to flutter beautifully into life.

I inhaled audibly and heard them breathe deeply in turn. They gazed intently at one another, as if talking without speaking, and then nodded in unison, as if they’d come to some unspoken mutual agreement. I waited.

As one man they released their hands from my breasts and began unhooking the buttons of my blouse, one starting from the top, and the other from the bottom. With bated breath I watched as they gently pulled the cloth aside, leaving me nearly bare in a hot pink brassiere that nearly matched the color rising in their cheeks. Slowly they unhooked the front clasp, and pulled the bra aside, releasing me into the wild. I moaned gratefully. For a long moment they gazed down at my naked breasts, not moving, not speaking. Then they both smiled broadly, bent their heads to my breasts, and took them into their mouths as if they’d been expecting this all along.

It was ecstasy; every bit as glorious as I’d dreamed it would be, and I watched with ardor the tongues on my tits while unseen hands crept further down my trembling torso, my shivering hips, and my shaking thighs. They sucked harder and I groaned and wiggled my hips in response as I felt a different man’s fingers grasping at each edge of my panties, tugging them softly, surely away from my body while they both looked up at me with warm, tender eyes.

Eagerly I lifted my rear and my undies broke free. And all at once, I was exposed to them, these, my two closest friends, and as they smiled up at me I was no longer afraid of what this might do to our friendship, no longer worried about their disgust over my unusual desire. I let my legs fall open wider and smiled as they bent to glance down at it, my most private of parts, one of the very few sides of me they had never yet seen. And gently the fingers of two hands crept across my hips and thighs; met in the middle at the juncture of my holiest crevice, and again, as if by that unspoken mutual agreement, silently parted. They bent to my breasts with renewed vigor, and I cried out in my joy and desire and pulled them even more tightly to me. And then I felt them at last, the hands exploring my underside, the fingers slipping into my hole and stroking my clitoris and I couldn’t help it; abruptly I burst into a frenzied, frantic, flailing finish while they hung on by their teeth to my still-swollen breasts and gazed up at me with a hint of amusement filling their eyes.

Slowly they withdrew; let go of my breasts and leaned back on their elbows while I waited, flushed and panting with pleasure and wondering what to do next. Ted looked over at Sam, and Sam looked over at Ted, and they nodded at one another again in silent understanding. Then Sam sat up, awkwardly shimmied my panties back up over my body, stripped down to his boxers, and again lay down beside me, blinking bemusedly at me with his long eyelashes while his hand travelled over the sheet still warm and wet with my sweat. Ted got up to turn off the light, slipped off his pants and then climbed back into bed, nuzzling my ear with his nose and saying “Good night,” as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened here, and within minutes they were both fast asleep. I might have lain awake myself, and pondered what was to become of the three of us now, but I was so damned satisfied that I had no energy left for thinking, and merely lay peaceably between them, enjoying the feel of their hot breath on my skin until I too, fell serenely into sleep.

***

The eBook of Just the Three of Us is now available exclusively on Amazon at only $3.99 – borrow FREE with Kindle Unlimited! Paperback now available in both standard and LARGE PRINT sizes on Amazon (Universal Link), Barnes and Noble, and other online retailers. The audiobook, narrated by Lana Long, is also available on Amazon and other audio book retailers.

Just the Three of Us II

My Life with Michael: A Novel of Sex, Beer and Middle Age (Chapter 1)

This is the first chapter from my just-published novel My Life with Michael: A Novel of Sex, Beer, and Middle Age, now available in paperback and eBook at online retailers worldwide. The first chapter contains suggestive language but no explicit sexual scenarios.

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My Life with Michael: A Novel of Sex, Beer, and Middle Age is an erotic fantasy for anyone who has ever wanted to have their beer and drink it, too. Surprisingly sweet, the story follows the course of an adulterous affair between two ordinary people confronting the changes that aging brings to the experience of love and sexuality. With humor and honesty, my novel explores the pleasures and pitfalls of the adulterous relationship: the crudity of the courtship, the raw sexuality that ultimately lapses into monotony, and, inevitably, the bittersweet farewell.

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Chapter 1

I was thirty-nine years old when I first met Michael. At the time, I was happily cohabitating with my boyfriend of the past four years. Oh, we had our problems, of course, but not many, and for the most part, we were well contented with each other. We had no intention of ever getting married, and neither of us wanted children, so you might say that we were as committed as we were going to get. Nonetheless, by this time I was fairly convinced that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him, and I’m comfortable saying that he felt the same way about me.

Everyone said we were a terrific couple. They were right. We were both very busy with work and our own projects, so we didn’t always spend a lot of time together, but we really enjoyed each other’s company when we did. I couldn’t have counted the number of late nights we stayed up just talking, or the number of groggy mornings I spent wishing that we didn’t always seem to find so many new things to talk about. He was an excellent companion, definitely not someone you’d get sick of in a hurry, and even though we never travelled or really did anything more exciting than sharing a beer at a local pub, I loved being with him. And I had definitely reached a stage in my life in which I was more interested in companionship than sex. Not that sex was a problem – in fact, he was a swell fucker – but I could safely envision still wanting to be with him even if that changed. Although I’d never been in a relationship that had lasted this long before, I assumed that eventually bedtime would become routine and monotonous, just as asking and hearing about the other person’s day must ultimately lose its power to enchant.

But as I’d moved through my late thirties, I’d stopped worrying so much about whether our sex life would remain novel and exciting because, frankly, my own drive seemed to be diminishing slightly with each passing year. I still needed frequent fucking, but the strength of my desire for it had lessened, and I didn’t always want to make a big production out of it, if you know what I mean. It was similar to the way I felt about breakfast. When I was single, I rarely bothered eating breakfast. Now I cooked breakfast for us every day, and I usually made a bigger fuss over it than was strictly necessary, because I figured if I was going to go to the trouble of fixing food, I might as well make something I really wanted to eat. Yet some days, preparing a three-course meal and washing pots and pans seemed like more hassle than it was worth, when boring old cold cereal would fill us up equally as well as eggs and potatoes. And sometimes I’d even forget for a little while how much more satisfying it was to have a big fancy morning meal until something or someone prompted me into that recollection and I’d remember how awesome bacon made the house smell or how much I enjoyed the confluence of flavors in Eggs Benedict. I only hoped that the day would never come in which I decided to skip breakfast entirely because I’d rather stay in bed and sleep late.

But if that day was lumbering on some far-distant horizon, it hadn’t arrived yet, and in the meantime, there was Tom, and that guy wasn’t only sexy, he was gorgeous. He wasn’t the chiseled, clothes-model type, nor the handsome, dreamy sort, either; he was more like that cute boy who lived next door when you were a teenager who you secretly hoped was watching when you undressed in front of the window, but who you knew never would because he wasn’t that kind. He had a real, down-home boyish kind of charm that was practically irresistible, and I never could understand why he wasn’t constantly crawling with women, although I suspected it had something to do with the jealous old lady on his arm. Even had he not been beautiful, I would have found him appealing because he was exactly my type, and I mean, exactly, as in, if I were describing my ideal man he would have fit the bill without having to shift a molecule. He had slightly wavy brown hair that he wore a little long, warm brown eyes, and a modest beard and mustache that he never quite managed to keep trimmed. I loved the soft scruffy bristles he grew between shaves, and never tired of rubbing his cheeks. He wore glasses. I’ve yet to meet the man who was not more attractive to me with glasses than without them. He had a great build, too. A couple of inches shy of six feet, just the right height for smooching, and muscular; once when I’d sprained my ankle out on the front sidewalk, he’d carried me in his arms up the stairs and into the house as if I were a child. Yet he was soft in the belly, which is where I like men to be soft. He had a wonderful deep voice, and a great hearty laugh, and huge smile lines radiating outward from his eyes in a purely adorable and not an old, wrinkled kind of way. Nothing about him struck you as old. There was not one gray hair in that man’s head, and I should know; I searched frequently and enviously through every lock and never found one. He was only three years younger than me, but could and did pass for much less. I never told him this, but I harbored a secret fear that one day we’d be out together and someone would mistake me for his mother!

Not that I was so bad to look at either. I’d always been cute more than pretty, and that doesn’t come off so well when you get older, but I didn’t think I’d gotten a bad deal all around. I had fair skin that was just beginning to get blotchy, unimpressive brown hair that I wore short and plain because it looked even worse long and styled, and rather lovely green eyes that were becoming less lovely as the skin around them sagged and puckered. My mother had been the same way. She used to forewarn me that one day I’d be sorry my face was shaped like hers; that I would grow to despise those pouches and dark circles, and boy, was she right. I wasn’t sure whether I should be grateful or regretful that I had no daughter to inherit this precious family trait.

I was surprisingly satisfied with my body, however. I’d always liked my height; at five foot six, I was neither too short nor too tall, and I had a large frame that could carry quite a few extra pounds with some success. Although I’d never been particularly heavy, I’d always had to monitor my weight closely to keep it under control, and when I’d moved in with Tom, the additional meals and sharp increase in beer intake rapidly robbed me of dominion over it. I put on twenty pounds in two months, so fast that I didn’t even have time to shop for fat clothes. It took almost two years, but somehow through rigorous exercise and severe alcohol restrictions, I lost the twenty pounds I’d gained and another twenty besides, and for the first time in my life I could actually be described as thin. People did, in fact, refer to me that way, usually with unmistakable envy. But naturally I never understood that, because I still couldn’t see anything but the bulges. I’d be willing to bet you could walk up to the skinniest woman in any room and ask her how she felt about her figure, and she’d find an inch to pinch somewhere and tell you she wished she was ten pounds lighter. Anyway, the one saving grace of my aging body was that I finally had a rather nice figure, except for my thighs and butt, which were both disproportionately large, and my breasts, which were decidedly not. That last was the one thing I missed about my old body. Although I wasn’t well-endowed even at my heaviest, I’d at least had respectable boobs. Now, even on my considerably smaller frame, they seemed depressingly tiny. Of course, I wasn’t sure how much of that was because they had shrunk, and how much because they were simply spreading out over a larger area. In fact, I grew less annoyed by my wee breasts as I approached middle age and gravity began exacting its vengeance on me for defying it by spending so much time upright. I took some small comfort in the assurance that my boobs could never possibly reach my waist, no matter how hard they tried.

Michael, on the other hand, was not at all the kind of guy I would ordinarily have perceived as attractive. In fact, he was almost the opposite of everything I find physically appealing in a man. He had coppery-red hair, which I have never particularly cared for, pale, almost icy blue eyes, and a foot-long beard that I always thought was just ridiculous. This narrowly pointed monstrosity grew almost down to his chest, like a goatee run hideously amuck; a chin-decoration that would have sent even its four-legged namesake scurrying for shame into solitary abandon, but which Michael seemed to wear with pride, stroking it often as if for ideas or luck. I’ve never understood that about brewers; they all seem to be walking around with piles of crazy facial hair. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the faces surrounding you the next time you’re at a beer festival and you’ll see what I mean. I’ve often wondered if they incorporate that into some bizarre secret handshake or something. Anyway, he certainly was not a man I would have spotted from across a room and thought, Oh, I want a piece of that! Up close he did have a pretty nice body, though, rather to my taste. Not quite as tall as Tom, and definitely a little rounder. I can still picture that growing beer belly stretching out his T-shirt, and my eyes helplessly watching my own hands reaching out to rub it, without even asking my brain for permission.

But nothing could have been further from my mind than the idea of changing partners on that first unexpected evening when Michael came do-si-do-ing into my life.

“You gotta come see this, Tom!” A largish, nondescript fellow in a navy brewer’s shirt was tugging impatiently on my boyfriend’s arm. I’d never been able to keep track of all of Tom’s many friends, but I was pretty sure he was one of them.

Tom looked at me inquiringly. I shrugged. “I’ll be right back,” he promised, pecking my cheek and following his buddy down a long steel staircase into the hidden depths of the brewery. I stood awkwardly holding my taster cup, trying to pretend that I was perfectly at home in a room full of strangers and desperately seeking anyone with whom I could fake making intelligent or even somewhat lame conversation.

I should have just tagged along like I usually do, I thought irritably as the seconds stretched into minutes, clutching at my beer as though it were a crutch, and leaning as awkwardly against the wall as if I really had broken something. You weren’t invited, I reminded myself, wishing that I could remember Tom’s friend’s name so I could curse it properly.

I’m sure old what’s-his-face didn’t mean it personally, I admonished myself, returning to the tasting-room bar to top off my glass, my last sample having mysteriously evaporated more rapidly than usual. He was only an assistant brewer, and evidently a new one at that; probably didn’t want to be seen traipsing through the private rooms with an entourage. And you couldn’t blame Tom for wanting to go and see whatever the secret treasure was, either. Beer is a big deal where we live, and Tom was unquestionably even more passionate about it than most; he’d often expressed curiosity about what went on behind the scenes.

But, but being a wise and understanding man, he’d never deserted me like this before, and as the minutes passed and people continued to stroll by me, half-smiling in alcohol’s comfortable glow, I became more anxious to find someone, anyone to talk to; something to look at besides the tiny cylindrical glass I kept emptying for lack of anything else to do.

And that was when I spotted him. Also alone; also staring at his beer as if debating whether to strike up a conversation with it before someone came along and rudely interrupted. Although I was never very good with faces, I was fairly certain I’d seen this guy around. In addition to being regulars on what you might call the “festival circuit,” Tom and I often also made the rounds of the local breweries, most of which, like this one, had tasting rooms where you could sample the new varieties as well as the old favorites. Likely he was a regular, too. It wasn’t much of an opening, but I snatched at it like a hound-dog after supper’s last bone.

I marched. I was never very subtle. Walked right over and stood close beside him until he turned to look at me, perhaps slightly surprised to find a not-unattractive if no-longer-young woman at his elbow, sipping a beer and not offering the slightest pretense of nonchalance.

“I think I’ve seen you around,” I said bluntly.

“I think I’ve seen you around, too,” he answered, his lips twitching slightly as if uncertain whether they ought to surrender to a smile.

Now if you’re a young person, you may be astonished by the boldness of my approach, because if a young woman walked randomly up to some male stranger and struck up a conversation, he’d likely interpret that as a signal, one utterly inappropriate for someone who is happily attached. But when you get to be thirty-nine, you don’t worry about that anymore. One, because you’re no longer hot and you can’t make the assumption that almost any man you meet is going to want to sleep with you if you merely look at him cross-eyed. And two, because if he’s roughly your age, as this man was, then both you and he know that at least one of you is bound to be married. In other words, it suddenly becomes possible to be friendly to a member of the opposite sex without it being misconstrued as meaning anything more than that, which is certainly not the case among younger people. It’s the one teeny consolation you get for no longer being perceived as a sex object.

“How’s your beer?” I inquired, infusing the question with as much sincerity of interest as I could muster. It was one of the few phrases in my very limited array of conversation-sparking techniques that was guaranteed to generate an enthusiastic response among members of the beer crowd, and I wasn’t too proud to latch onto it if it kept me from having to talk.

I can’t transcribe the answer he gave me, but it sounded very technical; too technical for someone who was not a devotee to attempt to understand. I listened closely to the lecture on fermentation temperatures, but gave up trying when he reached the part about the fruity esters.

“Uh-huh,” I answered, nodding my head as if I’d written the book on fruity esters and looking around to see if there was another novice I could talk to instead.

“How’s yours?” he asked, nudging my attention back to him.

“Yummy!” I said with conviction. “Must be them fruity whatchamacallits.”

He laughed good-naturedly. “That’s a stout.”

“For your information, Mister whatever-your-name is,” I replied with assumed haughtiness, “It’s a blend. Unlike you obvious laypersons, we true connoisseurs aren’t afraid to mix!”

He laughed again, his eye-wrinkles crinkling in a manner that reminded me of my own.

“Actually, esters or no esters, I really like the beers here,” I confided, deciding to give Mr. Expert another chance. At least he had a sense of humor; was less of a beer snob than some others I had met.

“So what’s your favorite?” he replied, warming to a subject that was clearly close to his heart.

I told him, and then noticed that I’d polished off my two ounces of beer again. It sure went fast in those tiny cups.

“Your beer’s empty,” he said, frowning as if I’d been downgraded to critical condition while the doctor was out taking a smoke break. “Here, I’ll get you a new one.”

Had I still been a young woman, naturally I would have interpreted this gracious act of kindness as an attempt on the part of this man I’d just met to get me drunk in the hopes of having his filthy bar-guy way with me. But being closer to the mature side of life, it was only my innate sense of feminist independence that was offended.

“I’ll get it,” I objected as he magically transferred my taster cup from my hand to his in one deft, seamless motion, as if he’d had a lot of experience with manipulating glassware. But then I saw that he had ducked the line and was stepping behind the bar to fill my glass with my designated favorite.

“Thanks,” I said, clinking my cup against his and taking a small sip. “Do you work here or are you just really obnoxious?’

“Guilty on both counts,” he answered, grinning. “Actually, that’s my beer you’re drinking. All of us worked on it together, course,” he clarified. “But it was basically my recipe.”

“Nice job!” I said, taking another sip and scrutinizing my new acquaintance with greater respect.

“Glad you think so. My wife says it had better be good for all the extra hours I put into making it.”

“Married, huh?” Told ya. “Any kids?” I inquired politely.

“Three.”

“Holy cow!” I was always a little stunned to learn of the existence of other people’s offspring, especially when it came to people my own age. In my mind, I still thought of grownups as creatures from my parents’ generation.

He chuckled, evidently unoffended by my consternation. “You?”

“Nope, no children. That I know of,” I qualified. He tilted an eyebrow at me and I knew my little joke had fallen flat. No one understood my sense of humor, I fretted with a sigh. “Uh, no husband, either,” I hurriedly continued, by way of dispelling the awkwardness.

“That you know of?” he smirked.

“Right,” I agreed. “Although I did go to Vegas last year, so I suppose it’s possible. Of course, my boyfriend probably would have noticed if I had married a lion-tamer or something while we were down there. Seems like he would have mentioned it.”

“Probably just being polite,” he contended. “Doesn’t want to embarrass you over not remembering. Besides,” he continued, leaning in closer and whispering conspiratorially, “It’s not wise to mess with the wife of a lion-tamer. They’re very ferocious in defending their territory.”

“And how exactly did you become such an expert on lion-tamers?” I queried bemusedly.

“Family tradition,” he shot back without hesitation. “My father was terribly disappointed that I was unable to carry on our generations-old trade.”

“Just couldn’t keep the lions tame, huh?”

“On the contrary. I made them too tame. The audience got bored watching them just sitting and purring; rolling over with their legs in the air until I rubbed their bellies. One even insisted on brushing his teeth – and flossing – before I put my head in his mouth!”

“Thank you, thank you,” he said, bowing as I dissolved into a fit of giggles. “May I refill your beer, Miss…?”

“Kate,” I answered. “Yes, please, Mr…?

“Michael.”

“Ah! One of my favorite names,” I said, oddly pleased with the moniker although for some unfathomable reason it didn’t quite seem to fit the man.

“Really?” he inquired curiously, cupping my empty glass in his palm. “How come?”

“No idea,” I shrugged. “Maybe because I’ve never known anyone irritating by that name.”

“There’s still time!” he reassured me seriously, vanishing again behind the bar and reemerging a moment later with two beers and an amiable smile.

And we were off. It turned out we actually had quite a few things in common, me and this heretofore unknown brewer-man. He was three years older than me and, like me, had attended a private university and started down the path to becoming an engineer before shifting into an entirely different career. He’d also moved around quite a bit like I had, and it was refreshing to have a conversation with someone who hadn’t been born in the area and lived there his whole life, like practically everyone else I knew. Maybe it was only because we did have so many things in common, but I found him easy to talk to; not once did I sense my brain struggling to come up with what I was going to say next, as it normally spent so much of its time doing in social situations. Anyway, we chatted about this and that and I don’t remember what all for probably a whole hour before Tom finally reappeared.

“I am so sorry!” he declared penitently, bursting free of the milling crowd and landing with an audible plop at my feet. “Dave gave me the whole tour; he wouldn’t stop showing me… Hey, aren’t you a brewer here?” he exclaimed, suddenly noticing my companion.

I introduced them.

“Really nice to meet you,” Tom said, in that friendly but not phony way he had with new acquaintances. “I wish I’d brought that beer with me,” he added wistfully. “I’m a homebrewer,” he explained in response to Michael’s questioning look. “A new one; this is only my second batch. You could probably tell me what’s wrong with it.”

It was too bad, really; the first batch had turned out amazing, I thought, but the second had a powerful off-flavor and an odd smell, like rotting rubber. Tom had blanched when he’d tasted it and was dispirited and heartbroken for about five minutes, which was about as long as he was ever dispirited or heartbroken.

“This is great!” he’d declared at last. “I’m only going to get better if things go wrong, right?”

Sometimes I envied his optimism and even keel. In my universe both good things and bad happened randomly and without warning, and I was rarely able to maintain the smooth, unruffled calm that he so effortlessly achieved.

“Be happy to,” Michael said encouragingly. “Bring it by some time. I got started as a homebrewer myself. Sometimes the troubleshooting is tough.”

“Thanks!” Tom answered. “I’ll do that. But we should probably get going,” he said, turning back to me. “I quit a while ago but I shouldn’t drink anymore if I’m going to drive.”

“Yeah, sure,” I said. Tom always drove when we went out, so I never argued when he wanted to leave. He was good at knowing when to quit. Driving after drinking made me very nervous, even if I’d only had one beer; I always worried that maybe I was too tipsy to know I was tipsy.

“Well, it was nice talking to you,” Michael said, extending a firm hand for me to shake.

“Yeah, you, too,” I answered, clasping the proffered handhold gratefully in farewell and following Tom to the door without looking back.

“I didn’t know you knew that guy,” Tom remarked as we were climbing into the car.

“I don’t,” I answered. “I just needed someone to talk to. He looked vaguely familiar, so I went over to him.”

He smiled apologetically. “I really am sorry. I know you’re not comfortable being alone in that kind of situation.”

“Actually, it was fine. Really!” I assured him in answer to his skeptical glance. “Believe it or not, I had a good time.”

I think Tom was as startled as I was to hear me say that, me not being a big fan of chit-chat under the best of circumstances, let alone when I’ve been abandoned in an unfamiliar setting and have no place else to go. In fact, had this happened ten years earlier, when I’d still been painfully shy and reserved, rather than only somewhat so, I probably would have fled the building and started skating the miles across the slippery, icy sidewalks back to our house rather than endure the agony of random discourse with a real live human being. But nowadays my sense of self-consciousness outweighed my shyness; I hated being stared at more than I dreaded making small talk, and trust me, people do stare when you’re standing all by yourself in a crowd. Whether it’s out of pity or scorn doesn’t matter; no one wants to be the subject of either.

“You’re sure you’re not mad at me?” Tom asked as he hopped energetically into bed. He scootched over to my side, wrapped his arm around my shoulder, and pressed his chest close against mine, a very effective method of attracting my attention as well as my forgiveness.

“You’re lucky I had what’s-his-name to keep me amused,” I answered with mock severity. “And to get me beer!”

“I bring you beer all the time!” he objected, withdrawing slightly from my embrace to look me defiantly in the eye.

“I know you do, sweetie,” I conceded, drawing him towards me again. “That’s what I keep you for,” I joked, planting a hoppy kiss on those warm, soft lips and following it up with more until he took the hint and undressed me.

And I didn’t give Michael another thought until the end of April when we ran into one another at the Spring Festival, one of the major events that all of the beer fanatics attended, and my personal favorite. Joyously is not a word I would typically use to describe how I anticipated most of the days of my life, but for that festival, it fits. I looked forward to it for weeks in advance. It was held at this large pub downtown, and although it was tricky, it was possible to get there and back via public transit so that neither Tom nor I had to worry about driving, which was both nice and necessary. Maybe other people were able to attend that festival and drive safely home afterwards, but we were not they. Actually, I always thought that anyone who could wasn’t doing the festival right. There were so many delicious beers to taste that we usually found ourselves hanging on until the bitter end, cleaning up the dregs even as the servers were threatening to wheel the last kegs away, which was probably a little silly because after the first ten or twenty samples, they all began to taste alike anyway. But it was always a great time, and I liked the pub itself, too; it had a neat design. An enormous shiny wooden bar had been constructed in a rectangle around the center of the main room. Inside the bar, well protected from inebriated patrons, a mass of bartenders resolutely guarded the dozens of kegs they routinely kept on tap, as well as the hundreds of glasses they kept in stock in valiant defense against continual breakage. Apart from the scores of swiveling barstools, numerous small tables were scattered about where you could sit and listen to the local bands that would play on the raised stage opposite the front door. On festival days they lined the walls with kegs, too, so that it was wall-to-wall beer and people for hours on end, but no brawls ever broke out, the participants were always friendly and polite, and by the end of the day even the servers were loaded, but no one, including the bar owners, ever seemed to care. To me it was the grandest event of the whole year, and from the crowd that always turned out for it, it was apparent that I wasn’t the only one who thought so.

“Well, hello there!”

I turned. Michael was standing by my elbow, smiling sideways at me and holding out a hand for Tom to shake.

“Nice to see you, Michael!” I said, reeling him into half a hug and smiling back.

“Oh, yeah, I’m really glad you’re here!” Tom said eagerly. “See, I’ve been having this problem with my mash…”

I nodded politely as they launched into their long-awaited discussion of homebrewing techniques. I people-watched while I pretended to listen – I had rapidly grown accustomed to ignoring a lot of beer talk – and every so often I slipped away to fetch a new taster and pretended to listen some more while I sampled it.

“Would you excuse me a minute?” Tom said abruptly, handing me his taster cup. “I gotta visit the Port-A-John.”

“Oh, okay,” I said. I had that uncomfortable feeling in my gut again, the one I always got when I was left alone to chat it up with someone I didn’t know very well.

“I’ll be right back,” he promised, hurrying towards the exit.

It’s only for a few minutes, I thought to myself, glancing out the window at the long bathroom line. Besides, you got along fine the last time, didn’t you?

I sighed a little as I watched him go. And then I turned to Michael, feeling squeamish and wondering what to say next.

“So what’s your favorite so far?” he said. Was he ever at a loss for words? “I’ve been so busy chatting I haven’t gotten many samples in.”

“Well, let’s fix that right this minute!” I replied, steering him by the elbow towards the nearest keg, relieved to have something to do.

In no time we were talking and laughing like old friends, and when Tom reappeared, he found us standing side by side with our arms around each other like it was the most natural thing in the world. I am not generally flirtatious, and rarely am I physically affectionate with anyone who is not my boyfriend – in fact, I think it’s rude to fondle someone other than the someone you’re attached to – but although Tom eyed me a little peculiarly, he didn’t comment.

We were ready to leave not long after that, and in a kinder world that might have been the end of it. Except that as we neared the exit, we heard a voice calling out, “Is that you, Tom?”

“Oh, hi!” he shouted back, waving at an older woman sitting on a bench by the door. “That’s a friend of my mom’s,” he said to me, his eyes glassy. “I’ll just go say hello.”

Well, I simply could not face having a mom-friend conversation after what seemed like fifty beers even if it was actually only forty, so I went back inside and found Michael again. He was chatting animatedly with someone else, but I unabashedly poked him on the shoulder, past the point of caring whether it was rude to interrupt.

“I thought you were leaving,” he said, shooting me half a smile that might have meant anything.

“Not until you hug me goodbye again,” I said, throwing my arms wide.

I didn’t mean anything by it – at least, I don’t think I did – but I guess it was a pretty transparent move because he looked at me kindly, and then put his arms around me and squeezed me so tightly I shook.

“Hey, you’re a beautiful girl,” he said, pushing me gently away. “But…” And at that moment, Tom came back and found me so I never got to hear what the “but” was. But as I pulled away from him our eyes met for a second, and maybe I was just loaded, but it felt as if we shared a flash of, I don’t know what you’d call it. Mutual understanding? Well, maybe understanding isn’t the right word, but there was a connection and I felt it even if I couldn’t define it. The image that sprang to my mind was that of a circuit being closed. There’s a snap of wires and suddenly you have electricity where there was none before. It was so well-defined that it was almost physical. It was a look that bound me somehow.

But in the morning I woke uneasy, and as the day wore on and my hangover wore off, I conceded that it wasn’t only the excess of alcohol that was upsetting my stomach. I kept mulling over what had happened, and by early afternoon I was thoroughly disgusted with myself. It was that last comment he’d made that disturbed me most.

“You’re a beautiful girl, but…”

Who could have guessed that an unfinished remark could be so devastating? It so clearly implied that he thought I was coming on to him, which I really wasn’t. Okay, maybe it was conceivable that there was a fleeting attraction there, but it wasn’t as if I intended for anything to come of it. I was a good woman, a fine woman, trustworthy and loyal, and he was merely some dude I’d met once or twice. I loved my Tom, and that made me invulnerable to such frivolous temptations, I was sure. But now I worried, too, with cause, that I had been disrespectful of Tom. I certainly didn’t want his countless friends and acquaintances thinking that his girlfriend went around flirting and making moves on other men. I sure as hell would have been pissed off had it been him instead of me. Plus, this guy was married, for God’s sake, and married men had always been strictly taboo in my reckoning. The end result was, that although technically I hadn’t done anything wrong, the more critically I examined my behavior, the more like a lowlife I felt.

Of course, although I couldn’t admit it to myself at the time, I might not have felt quite so rotten about it were it not for the implied rejection. Whether he’d misjudged me or not, I’d still had to swallow his polite, No, thank you, which was a little insulting, even if it was the proper response for a dedicated husband and father of three. Of course, it wasn’t logically possible for him to reject me if I wasn’t after him, was it? So said the irrational part of my brain, pretending to act rationally and doing a poor job of it. But there may have been a tiny bit of hurt mixed in with my guilt. Maybe it even intensified it slightly. I was almost old, after all. I had no business expecting anybody to give me a second glance, which was all the more reason why I should be thankful that I already had a great boyfriend who still thought I was sexy. So on top of misbehaving, I’d probably made a complete fool of myself flirting with someone who couldn’t possibly conceive of little ol’ me as an object of desire anyway. By the end of the day, I was so unhappy and ashamed that I resolved to apologize for my behavior and keep a polite distance in future. But there was something about Michael that somehow always managed to unravel my most earnest resolve.

***

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