“Invite me round,” Carol said, rising from her seat with a tilt of the head and a little smirk that made Therese’s stomach flutter.
She watched Carol stroll back toward the Christmas tree and Rindy’s present on the floor. Therese didn’t know why she felt compelled to watch her hips sway, the movement rhythmic and sensual, the cut of her dress so… flattering. Therese was so distracted by it that she nearly jumped when, instead of kneeling down to finish with the present, Carol turned toward her again. Did Carol see her eyes leap up from where they’d been gazing? Therese blushed crimson, but Carol only said—
“Say, it’s Christmas! Would you like a rum punch?”
Therese had already had a glass of wine with dinner, red wine, the naughty kind, but she could not refuse Carol. She said, “Have you really got any?”
“Well, I’ve got rum, and I’ve got punch, so we ought to be able to figure something out!”
Therese giggled, and Carol grinned, and then Carol was striding toward the kitchen, and once again Therese felt powerless to do anything but watch her walk away. When the door swung shut after her, Therese shook herself, pressing the coolness of the back of her hand against her cheek. She was flushed, and more alcohol would not help. She turned back to the piano and muddled her way through a few more bars of Easy Living, but she played it even worse than before, because all she could think about was Carol’s hands alighting on her shoulders, of Carol’s fingers dragging across her back as she moved away. Carol had never touched her before. Just the thought of it made her a little dizzy.
She switched to another song, one she knew better: Silent Night. A few minutes later Carol came back in, carrying two tumblers of punch.
“Come and sit by the fire,” Carol said. “It’s such a Christmasy thing to do, don’t you think?”
Powerless to resist, Therese got up and watched as Carol lowered herself seamlessly onto the floor, legs tucked under her, still holding the drinks. Therese sat beside her and took one of the glasses and sipped it. It was good, and not too strong, which she found relieving. Carol raised her glass towards her, and the two glasses made a lovely clinking sound as they touched.
“Merry Christmas,” said Carol, smiling brightly.
“Merry Christmas,” Therese returned and took another drink just as Carol did.
“Hmm,” Carol assessed. “Not bad. You know I was just thinking—don’t all the young people go out to parties on weekends? What sort of party have you given up to spend you day in the country with me?”
Therese laughed. “No, I didn’t give up any party tonight. And besides, I’ve never liked parties very much.”
“Well, what will you do on Christmas, then?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Nothing, probably.”
Carol frowned. “Nothing?”
“Well… Richard wants me to come to his parents’ house, but I…” She trailed off, shrugging, eyes averted.
Carol said, “That’s very kind of him. Don’t you think you should be with people on Christmas? And if Richard’s family wants to see you, well—family, Christmas. It’s the right thing.”
Therese gazed into the fire. They were sitting close enough to it that it was warm, but not too hot. Yet she still felt a little flushed from before, and no, the rum wasn’t helping. But she took another sip because it tasted good and Carol had made it for her.
“Don’t you like his family?” Carol asked her, gently.
“Oh, yes. Of course, I mean… His mother is always very kind to me.”
Carol snorted, and Therese looked up at her in surprise. She grinned wryly. “That’s a boon, believe me. Harge’s mother has never liked anything so much as conveying her disapproval. I sometimes wonder if Harge and I would have been all right, if not for her.”
Therese frowned. “Really?”
Now it was Carol gazing into the fire, her expression distant, her thoughts clearly fading away into those places she sometimes went when they were together, those sad, distracted places. And then she said, “No. Not really.”
Therese watched her, wishing that she could follow Carol to wherever she had gone, and take her hand and coax her back and say, ‘It will all be all right.’ But how foolish she would sound, if she did that.
So she asked, “What will you do on Christmas?”
“Oh,” Carol said, blinking and looking at her again. “Oh, I’ll be here.” She smiled. “With Rindy. Harge is coming to get her in the afternoon but I’ll have her in the morning, which is the exciting part, anyway. Then Abby’s coming over and we’ll probably get drunk and burn a turkey!”
Therese laughed. Carol laughed, and the storm passed. They drank from their cups again and a warm, comfortable silence fell between them. Therese took a deep, happy breath.
Then Carol said, “You could always come here… for Christmas.”
A thousand butterflies erupted in Therese’s chest, a swell of happiness and excitement that only banked when she remembered—
“Oh, I—I wouldn’t want to intrude. On you and Abby, I mean.”
As soon as she said it, she felt she had touched something awkward, had made some implication that she didn’t mean to make, because Carol seemed almost to wince. But instead of denying or assenting she asked, “Then you’d rather go to Richard’s?”
Therese blinked, confused. Of course, she wouldn’t rather go to Richard’s! But all she could think to say was, “I… I don’t mind being alone on Christmas.”
Carol blew a breath out through her nostrils. She said, “Well, I mind. I don’t like it. Of course, you must go and see Richard’s family if you like but… otherwise… I hope you’ll consider coming here.”
She sounded almost agitated, and was not looking at Therese, her gray eyes locked on the half-drunk tumbler of punch in her hand. One bright coral nail tapped against the glass. Therese could not see why she was so bothered about it, but if there was some way to reassure her then—
Therese reached suddenly forward, putting her hand on Carol’s to still the tapping finger. Instantly, their eyes met again, and Therese wondered if maybe they were sitting too close to the fire, because a wave of heat went through her. And Carol’s eyes were so pale but so vibrant, and they seemed to look right into her and pin her in place.
Yet somehow, she managed to get out the words she’d meant to say, “I—Carol, of course I’d like to come here. I’d rather that than anything.”
Carol’s lips parted. Then she smiled, and it was soft, and achingly beautiful.
“You would?” she asked.
“So long as it… doesn’t bore you. To spend so much time with—”
“It doesn’t bore me,” Carol interrupted. “You don’t bore me. You think I go Christmas tree shopping with everyone?”
Therese laughed a little. She shrugged. Somehow, her hand was still on top of Carol’s, and Carol’s fingers were warm and soft under hers. She said, “I—I don’t know, do I? I don’t suppose we know each other all that well.”
Carol’s eyes seemed to sharpen; a new tension entered her body, and Therese felt the same tension in her own. Carol moved her hand away from Therese’s, but only so that she could put down the glass of rum on the hearth of the fireplace. When she turned back to Therese again, her body shifted, and though it was just a little bit of movement, it brought them closer together. Close enough that she caught the intoxicating scent of Carol’s perfume.
Carol said softly, “Well, I… hope we can rectify that.”
Therese, who was still holding her own cup of punch, felt a sudden trembling in her fingers. She took a swift drink, and then she leaned away to put down the glass, and she leaned back, and shifted closer, her heart rabbiting inside her. She was now so close to Carol, but she was shy, and kept her eyes down, her hair slipping to curtain around her eyes. A moment later she nearly gasped, for Carol’s fingers were touching the ends of her hair, pushing one side of it back, behind her ear, and when Therese lifted her eyes again there was hardly a hands breadth between them. Carol was looking at her hair, and looking at her face, and looking at her mouth.
“My strange girl,” she murmured, low, with an aching affection that made Therese shiver.
She chuckled nervously, said, “You keep calling me—”
Carol’s kiss erased all language. The gentle press of her lips was like a dream. Therese’s eyes fluttered closed, and a small eternity passed in the tentative pressure. The chasteness of it took Therese’s breath away, and when her breath returned it was in a soft, trembling sigh. Their lips parted. Therese’s eyes opened to find Carol looking at her closely.
“Carol,” Therese whispered. She could see the question in Carol’s eyes, and what she wanted to say was, ‘Yes,’ and what she wanted to say was, ‘More.’ But what she said instead was, “I—I—”
Carol sat back, looking suddenly flustered. “Therese, I’m… I’m sorry. I—don’t know—I shouldn’t have—”
There was something in Carol’s body that made Therese think she was about to stand up, walk away, and in a panic, Therese grabbed her hand. Carol’s voice cut off. They looked down together at their hands, which slowly wove into one, fingers laced.
“Please,” Therese whispered, with all the courage she could muster. “Please, don’t… be sorry.”
A beat of silence. Then, “You’re not upset?” asked Carol cautiously.
Therese shook her head, and gripped Carol’s fingers tighter. She didn’t know what to say, what she wanted to say, and so it surprised her almost when she whispered, voice trembling, “I… don’t want to spend Christmas with Richard.”
She heard Carol’s swallow, and almost shuddered with relief when Carol leaned close again. She felt the fan of Carol’s golden curls, brushing her cheek, and when she lifted her head again Carol was there. The next kiss was just as gentle, but not so tentative. She felt a stronger pressure in Carol’s mouth, which was soft and warm and so much better than any other mouth that Therese had kissed. Slowly, carefully, their lips moved. Still chaste. A brush. A nudge. A sigh passed between them.
“I wouldn’t want to… to upset you,” Carol said.
Therese shook her head, and somehow this meant their kiss deepened. Carol’s lips parted, just a little, taking the bow of Therese’s bottom lip between them, and this was the most delicious thing that Therese had ever felt, in her entire life. She parted her own lips, kissing Carol back. She tasted Carol, a hint of rum and sweetness and warmth.
Carol said, into their kiss, “I thought, perhaps—you didn’t like it… when I touched you at the piano.”
Without thinking, Therese answered, “I didn’t like it when you stopped.” Carol made a soft sound, wanting, and in a surge of her own want Therese said, “Carol… don’t stop.”
Carol moved closer still. Carol’s arm wound around her waist and pulled her in, and when Therese gasped from the sensation of their bodies meeting, Carol kissed her deeply. Carol’s tongue slipped into her mouth, against her tongue, coaxing. When Richard kissed her like this, Therese always felt as if she was being invaded; she became passive, motionless, let Richard do what he liked. But this—this was a welcome invasion, and Therese was not passive. She reached for Carol’s face, cradled it in her hands, and kissed her for all she was worth.
Carol lowered her onto the rug. It was the easiest thing in the world, to let herself collapse, to pull Carol down to her. Carol lay alongside her, leaned over her, and they kissed with a new intensity, a mounting need. Carol’s hand was on her hip and sliding down her thigh. The hem of Therese’s skirt felt so far away, and she’d never wished so much in her life that she was naked. Just the thought of it, of her bare skin sliding against Carol’s, made her whimper into her mouth. At that sound, Carol’s hand tightened on her thigh, then slid down to her knee. Too many clothes.
“Carol,” Therese mumbled, still trying to kiss her, still wanting more.
“Hmm?” Carol asked, almost distracted, as if all she could focus on was the pleasure of their kissing.
“Can we—” Therese swallowed, gasped. Carol’s hand was cupping the back of her thigh, just above her knee, and the pressure was making her hot and shivery all over. “Can we—go to—to your bed?”
At that, Carol whimpered, and somehow pulled her even tighter, and kissed her even deeper, until they were both gasping and moaning and devouring each other—
Until suddenly, Carol stilled. She stilled, and then groaned, and it was not the same sound of arousal but of sudden, crushing frustration. She had broken their kiss and pressed her forehead into Therese’s shoulder. Therese was confused. She felt a vibrating tension in Carol’s body, felt a need that seemed to echo her own, and yet the kissing and touching had stopped as definitively as a trainset that has its switch flipped.
“What is it?” Therese asked timidly. Nervous. Had she done something wrong? What would make Carol suddenly—
And then all at once, she knew.
“Rindy,” she said.
Carol groaned again, said, “Darling I’m so, so sorry. I—she gets nightmares and… most nights she ends up climbing into bed with me. I didn’t think this would happen, I—”
“Carol,” Therese interrupted, and though she was gentle she was firm, and the firmness seemed to surprise Carol, who finally lifted her head from Therese’s shoulder. They gazed at each other, and she was so beautiful. For a moment all Therese could do was stare at her. Her flushed cheeks. Her red and swollen lips. Her gray eyes turned glassy and hooded, but also, deeply regretful. Therese touched her jawbone with soft fingertips. Touched the curve of her brow. Carol breathed in and let it out, shakily, her eyes slipping closed. Therese touched her cheekbone and her temple, learning her by touch, until at last she lifted up and kissed her, gently, by her ear, and murmured, “It’s all right.”
Carol groaned again, muttered, “It certainly is not.”
And Therese laughed, soft and happy and so overwhelmed with joy, because Carol wanted her, and she wanted Carol, and even if it couldn’t be tonight then certainly it would be soon. And that knowledge, of soon, made her feel relaxed and content and like she could fall asleep in Carol’s arms right here, by the fire. But that would be a mistake.
Therese nuzzled against Carol’s face, her jaw, her neck, and heard Carol purring with pleasure. Therese said softly, “I should go home.”
Carol answered by cupping her jaw and kissing her again, sliding into her mouth and stroking her tongue with hers, languid, deep, and Therese could do nothing but kiss her back. Wrap her arms around her and whimper and sigh as they kissed. It went on for long minutes, neither banking, nor escalating, both of them breathing shallowly as they ran their hands across each other and kissed and moaned in a kind of dreamy ecstasy.
Therese knew that when their kissing ended, Carol would make little grumbling sounds of discontent. She knew that nonetheless Carol would sit up, and Therese would sit up, and they would stand. Carol would call a taxi, because she couldn’t take her to the train with Rindy in the house, and they would wait in the foyer for it to come. And they would touch each other, tentatively, shyly. And Carol would say, “Can I see you again? What about tomorrow?” and Therese would say, “Yes. Come to my apartment. I’ll show you my photographs.” And then they would hear the taxi pulling up in the drive, the rustle of gravel, the headlights spanning the windows. Therese wouldn’t want to risk it honking and waking Rindy, so she would reach for the door, and at the last moment Carol would grab her and kiss her, one more time, a promise, a promise of more—
All of this would happen in a few minutes. But for now, Therese lay in Carol’s arms and kissed her, the fire warm at her back, and Carol’s body warm against hers, and both of them dreaming of ‘soon.’