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Tempted

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You gasp when the cold shower hits. The icy water cuts the fog in your mind, leaving only the wondering question behind. How did you end up here?

Like snowflakes and slow poison, it soaked into your skin when you weren't looking.

A thoughtless smile, a brazen laugh. A steadying touch, a shiver down the spine.

If it had to happen, you ask, did it have to be the ancient male cliche of a corn-fed, wholesome, practically catholic schoolgirl? You laugh shakily. Let it never be said that Miranda Priestly could never laugh at herself.

The water cascades down. You close your eyes in relief. It is gone now. You are free, for tonight.

"I'm sorry," she says three days later.

You don't look up from the laptop screen, and your lip curls in disgust. She simply turns and leaves. Perhaps she isn't as wholesome as you thought. She's learning these games too quickly.

That night, Stephen crawls beneath the covers and kisses you awake. You kiss him back gently. Are all husbands half-sons, half-brothers, half-lovers?

This won't do.

You rein in your thoughts. You are kissing these lips, this eyebrow, this scar on the forehead that he got from that idiotic kitchen accident when the girls were four. Caution. It comes easily to you.

You climb on top and slide him into you. He cups your chin. You smile into his eyes -- how did you never notice those flecks of brown before? -- but as you start moving, your eyes lower to his neck, chest, arms. You've always found it the tiniest bit absurd, to gaze meaningfully into your partner's eyes while fucking. Because that was what it was -- fucking -- only a hair's breadth away from ludicrous, disastrous laughter.

Later, he kisses your shoulder tenderly, sleep in his eyes. You smile. His hand moves, up, down, dips. It happens because it is dark, because you are both tired from the day, because your body is waking up. Fleetingly, for a second only, you pretend that the hands belong to someone else. Currents flood you. You shudder against them. Was it guilt or was it desire? You can no longer tell the difference. Everything is the same inside your head. It is all mixed up. Black eyes and brown. Porcelain and tan. Smooth and stubbled.

His fingers search and you hold them still. You flatten your breathing and whisper: "Not today, darling. Go to sleep. I love you."

Something twinges in you at his visible relief. Not tonight, you pray. You only want to go to sleep tonight. Not solve puzzles and find answers. Or questions. You hold your mind in your hands, fearful that it will leak into places you don't want to visit.

He wraps away the condom and falls asleep in minutes.

You don't take the shower. The questions and answers, you can block out. You cannot block out the hunger. You let it stay and keep you company tonight. It is almost impersonal. He would not protest if he knew. Or so you tell yourself.

"Look, Miranda, I said I'm sorry, okay?" she says the next monday. For the life of you, you cannot remember her precise offense. It is midnight. There is no one else in the office. You should've left two hours ago.

She is still standing, so you peer at her from above your glasses. It throws her off, as you intended. She fumbles her way into something inarticulate.

"I'm sorry, but uh-- I don't honestly believe I deserve this--"

"Deserve?"

"Yes. I want to do a good job as your assistant. If you can tell me how I can fix this problem, I'll do it."

"Remove yourself from my office," you say. "That's all."

"I heard Rowling is writing a new book," she says. "You want a copy, maybe? Kiss and make up?"

She quails under your frown.

"One more cheek like that and you're out. Permanently. Do you understand?"

Her face falls. Thank god. The claws still function.

"Yeah. Sorry," she says. "Can I go home now?"

It hits you then, the reason why you stayed late tonight. Now that you know, you can't wait to leave. You can't wait to distance yourself from your guilt.

"Yes."

"Are you leaving too? I mean, I only ask because of the coat and I can tell Roy--"

"No," you say. There's the elevator. And then if Roy is delayed by a minute, she would hang around with you, chattering and offering this or that. Her hand or her heart, it doesn't seem to matter to her in her youthful generosity. Lately she seems to think that you need a protector, not an assistant. "Get out."

She gathers her things and heads to the elevator. You wait ten minutes and pick up your purse. Your steps halt on the way. Only a glance, you tell yourself. A glance on the desk, and you will be on your way. It can harm no one.

As it happens, it does harm someone.

You've seen the picture before, but not at this distance. You take in the boyfriend's face. You wonder idly where he works. Does he stay up until midnight for her? Questions buried in the dead of the night come alive. Is he half a son too? What do they talk about? You smile. He probably knows a few things about you. Is she already home, with him? Your smile falters.

There is little else in the way of personal touch. You still linger. You run a finger along the edge of the desk.

The elevator dings.

You jerk back as if burned.

"Oh, sorry," she says, as if she is the one in the wrong place. "Forgot something." She takes the subway card stuck under the monitor and slips it into her purse.

"I was getting my coat," you say unnecessarily. Stupid.

"Yeah, one sec," she says and rushes to the closet.

You grab the coat from her and head to the elevator, shrugging in, buttoning up. She follows. You press the button without looking, and stop breathing when she touches your sleeve.

"It's beautiful," she says, her eyes on the scarlet fur. "It's awful, killing animals for this, but, my god, it's gorgeous." Her eyes come up to yours. "Especially on-- on this coat."

You breathe.

"On you," she says, testing.

The elevator doors open. She enters next to you. A glare will shrivel her up, but it's only an elevator, and it's only once, for tonight. She stands close to you. You jab at the floor button, and resolve to fire her tomorrow.

"Can I touch it once more?"

She doesn't wait for your permission, and runs her thumb from elbow to wrist.

"Andrea," you warn. Andrea. It is like a song.

She is standing too close.

"Is that why you don't let people ride in elevators with you? Because they want to touch?"

She crossed the line of appropriateness long ago. You can fire her with impunity now.

But you can't breathe. She is too close. You move away, and her hand falls back.

The lights flash through the floors. Five more floors. What if it stops now? Elevators do stop, after all. They're not infalliable. Like you.

What would happen if this one failed tonight? You might both fall to a death of steel and concrete. Or it might hang suspended for all eternity-- he will never see her again, let alone laugh, touch-- You're going mad.

"I'm handing in my two week notice tomorrow," she says.

The doors slide open.

"Why," you say.

Neither of you move. The doors start to close. She presses a button.

"Say stop now," she says, advancing.

"Andrea," you say again. It was supposed to be a threat, but how does one make a threat out of a name like that?

She towers over you tonight in her Louboutin python slingbacks. You back away to a corner. Her hands are on either side of you, on the railings.

"Say stop now," she whispers.

You close your eyes. A treacherous word falls from your mouth. "Cameras."

"Oh." She retreats, but the damage is done. The wall is broken. You remember, as if from another life, your fury when your first husband divulged his infidelity. You did not know, then, that this was how it was done. How foolish you were.

The doors slide open. She walks purposefully into your office, as if she owns it. You hear the bathroom door shut. You follow.

You don't know who initiates it, but the kiss, when it comes, is a shuddering gasp of oxygen. 'Yes yes, thank god,' is all you can think. She moves you backwards until you collide gently against the wall. She breaks the kiss and leans into your ear. Her breath tickles you.

"I'm sorry," she whispers and kisses. You stop the moan, but not the shiver. The four layers of clothing between her skin and yours do nothing to stop the straining urgency in your muscles and tendons, in your very bones.

"Oh Miranda," she sighs. She laughs. She trembles. She moves away.

Bereft, you open your eyes. She slides on top of the counter.

Three feet away.

"If you want it, come and take it," she says. "Whatever you want. There's nothing - do you understand? - there's nothing I won't give you."

You cling to the wall as if it's your protection against her.

"Miranda?" she prompts gently.

"I'm married," you say, ineptly. And in love with my husband.

"And you're--" you try again. An employee. Too dangerous. Too young. Too female.

Too lovely.

Isn't this exactly how men fall upon the swords of professional suicides?

But you can't walk away. Not yet. Not while she remains here. Even if you don't touch, she is here, you are both here, breathing the same air-- She gives up and comes to you. You tense.

"Let me get your coat," she says, as if you are both on the right side of this bathroom door. She removes the coat carefully, as if it is something precious, and drops it on the counter.

Three layers. You can't stop counting. Two children. Three husbands. Three layers. One Andrea. You are going mad again.

She takes your hand. You flinch.

"Ssh," she says. "Just this. Nothing else."

Her thumb moves on you. Palm, wrist, elbow.

"Goosebumps," she says wonderingly.

She lifts your hand and her mouth traces the path. You pull her close.

"If you left now, if you went home now," she says against your shoulder, "would it be okay? Or would this count?"

Her lips move to your neck, you feel her tongue. You gasp at the flimsiest promise of her teeth.

"I have an idea," she says, pulling back. Your skin burns where her mouth was. It spreads and spreads until you burn everywhere. "I haven't thought over it, but-- god, Miranda, I was speaking the truth. There's nothing I won't do for this. He-- Stephen-- might be interested in-- you know-- oh my god, it's not too much to pay, really, and you won't have to be guilty."

You stare at her in shock.

"Uh-- Okay." She takes a deep breath. "This is the thing. Kill me if you like. I might even sleep with him if you're around. Please, before you cut my head off, think. He might be okay with it--" She trails off.

Something twists painfully inside you. Share Andrea? With Stephen?

"Get out," you manage to say.

She sighs. You wait until the door shuts, until you hear her heels click away and slide to the floor, your head in your hands.