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She is exquisitely beautiful.

I didn’t grasp the full extent of it, the first time I saw her—a pretty girl across a toy store, our eyes locked for a moment, before some customer drew her away. Later, when I asked her about the doll, I was distracted, frustrated with myself for waiting too long to Christmas shop. It was only after she convinced me to buy the train set, only after I had to ask her about payment and she jumped, flustered—that I really saw her. Her nervousness was what made me see her, made me smile, amused. I’d caught her tongue-tied. Caught her gazing at me with big, startled eyes. Now, she hopped to, and with her head down, scribbling onto her receipt pad, I had the freedom to look at her more carefully.

That was when I realized it. She wasn’t just a pretty girl. She was strikingly fine.

Now, I watch her play the piano. It’s a little halting—she’s no virtuoso, that’s certain. But there is something sweet and pleasing about it, her fingers plucking at the keys, her serious gaze upon her hands, her profile delicate and ethereal. She’s a quiet girl. Sensitive. Sparing with her smiles, but when she does smile it’s utterly charming. And when she doesn’t, she looks like this—serious, contemplative. Beautiful

When I looked at her in the toy shop, took in all the lovely details of her, I was the one who became flustered. A rare occurrence. My hand went to my neck in a gesture that Abby calls my ‘tell.’ But it had been so long since I’d met a woman who intrigued me, and even longer since I’d gone to bed with one. For a moment, just a moment, I imagined flicking the hat off her head. I imagined leaning slowly over the counter to cup her jaw, to watch those eyes widen in a combination of shock and desire. Yes, desire—the thought of it curled in my belly, so intoxicating. To kiss that full mouth. To hear that hitch of her breath. To taste her, if only for a moment—

Then she asked me to write my account details down, and my fantasy shattered. It took me a moment to gather myself, to stop staring, to focus. But even so, I couldn’t resist the temptation, when we parted ways, to look back at her. To compliment her hat. To flit my eyes over her. We would never meet again, of course. What harm would a little flirting do? Especially given she was unlikely to recognize it for flirting. Soon the afternoon and all its cares distracted me. It had been nothing but a fancy, after all. Easily forgotten.

As easily forgotten as my gloves, it seems. And how glad I am, that I forgot them. That the pretty girl with her distracting smile and talk of reading too much had me so preoccupied, I left behind the perfect lure. It couldn’t have gone better if I planned it.

And now, she’s in my house. She’s sitting at my piano. She’s telling me about taking an interest in humans (daring thing!) and then—

“How’s that going?” I laugh.

She looks right at me. “It’s going well, actually.”

And my stomach swoops.

Oh, God, it’s not usually like this! I’ve always been so careful, so restrained, even in my pursuits. Only two women ever made me lose my composure, and the first was my first (gorgeous Fernanda) and the second was Abby, whom I loved. Useless, to chide myself for losing control with them. They were special. Therese was… not meant to be special. A bit of fun. A sweet distraction. With the others, it had always been so easy. Once, and never again. Pleasure and release, the scratching of an itch that, no matter how I try, keeps rearing its needy head in my soul. But one night with a woman has always been enough to banish it for a while.

Until this girl. This strange, lovely, preoccupying girl.

I should never have invited her to the house. I knew as soon as our lunch was over that I could never settle for once with her—and that even if I could, it would be wrong. Besides Abby, my other lovers have been as disinterested in an emotional entanglement as I am. But Therese… to make love to her and then never see her again would hurt her terribly.

I could never.

It would be like plucking the petals off a rose just to crush them. It would be like pouring a fine glass of wine only to tip it over into the sink. I’m not that cruel.

If only I could be that cruel…

Look at her, playing the notes. Look at the tilt of her head, the hair under her headband half-obscuring her face. Look how serious she is, as she plays. The shape of her body in that simple dress, like a schoolgirl and a woman, both. The innocence of her, just waiting to be—

God. Fuck. Don’t you dare!

But God isn’t listening. And apparently neither are my legs, for in a moment I feel myself, rising to my feet. I’ve got a bit of string between my fingers and I twist it restlessly, moving toward her. She hasn’t noticed; she’s still playing. I watch her with a feeling like a predator, zeroing in, drawing close.

She’s not like the others, I warn myself. You can’t just take her and discard her.

I answer my own accusation—Who says I want to discard her?

Who says you can afford to do anything else? Divorcee. Single mother. Do you have any idea what you’re doing?

I toss the bit of string aside, like it’s the last of my scruples. I press a hand under my own breasts, just briefly, to feel the intake of air and the hammer of my heart. And then I am behind her. Towering over her. Laying my hands upon those slim shoulders and gazing down on that dark head.

“That’s beautiful,” I say.

Her playing stutters, comes to a halt. I feel her tense under my hands. My heart leaps into my throat. Perhaps I have mistaken all her shy, enchanted looks. Perhaps I have seen only what I wanted to see in those watchful eyes, heard only what I wanted to hear in that low voice (your perfume. It’s nice…). Perhaps I have exposed myself, my interest, only to frighten and disgust her—

Except she doesn’t jerk away from me. And she doesn’t stay frozen. She leans subtly back, into the press of my hands. She turns her body, and looks up at me. Our eyes lock.

I can see that she is terrified. Terrified and confused and uncertain. But I can also see that her lips are parted. That her pupils are blown. That her cheeks are rosy with what cannot be humiliation or despair. That must be…

Arousal coils between my thighs, warm and tight. My breaths come slightly quicker, shallow, and yet I maintain my composure with the utmost discipline.

“Why have you stopped?” I ask, my voice low and rough. “It’s such a lovely song. Play it again.”

For a moment she still looks up at me. Her little throat bobs with a nervous swallow. Her tongue passes over her bottom lip, a quick flicker, that makes my nostrils flare. It takes everything in me not to seize her then and there. Instead, I watch, until at last she turns back to her playing. She plays even worse than before. My hands remain on her shoulders through the first few bars. The warning voice inside me fights a bloody campaign with my other self:

Act as cool as you like. You know you’re the one in danger here.

Neither of us is in danger. We’re safe, in my home. What safer place to show her what I feel?

You will shock her and alarm her. You will despoil her.

She’s not a fucking Homeric virgin. She’s a woman, and I think she may know more than she lets on.

You’ve always said, ‘once.’ Each time, you’ve said ‘once,’ and meant it, and that is how you survived.

Perhaps I’m done surviving. Perhaps ‘once’ isn’t worth it anymore.

With the fingers of my right hand, I twirl a bit of her hair. With the thumb of my left hand, I brush against the tender skin of her neck. She stumbles again, worse than before, making a sound of apology.

“I’m sorry, I—I’m not very good at it, I guess.”

Her voice is trembling a little, and yet her head cocks toward my sifting fingers, as if to say, Don’t stop, don’t stop.

I bend over her, so my lips are close to her ear.

“Nonsense, Dearest,” I murmur. “You simply have to practice.”

She makes another sound. This one is hard to interpret. Then—

“Do… do you play… piano?” she asks.

I slide my hand into her hair, gently massaging the back of her head. I nudge my forehead against the side of her face, and breathe her in.

“Sometimes,” I say, and nuzzle into the fall of her hair.

“Do you,” I hear her swallow. “Do you play… well?”

It’s all I can do to restrain a chuckle. Shy, skittish thing that she is, I would never want her to think I’m laughing at her. 

“When I play… I play very well.”

She releases a little sigh, and there’s an ache to it, that makes me ache. My skin feels hot and over sensitized. I want to drink her down like water in a drought.

And then she is twisting her head toward mine, her nose grazing my nose, our mouths so close I can almost taste her, and once once once—snarl my thoughts.

That is, until she pulls back enough to look into my eyes. And her own are pools of dark green desire and calm determination, and she asks in a whisper, “Would you teach me?”   

My mouth goes dry. I swallow to bring the moisture back. With a few words, she has dismantled me, made me utterly helpless—and utterly ashamed.

How could I dare? This perfect creature, this angel from another realm. How could I drag her into my life of uncertainty and acrimony and doubt? How could I expose her to this torturous desire when I cannot promise her more? How can I dare to think of lust when I know, I know in this moment—it will turn to love. I feel it in my bones. I will fall in love with this girl. I won’t be able to help it. And then what will I do?

Her brow furrows in concern.

“Carol?” she asks, softly. “What is it?”

I swallow hard. I can feel the rabbiting of my pulse. I can feel invisible ropes, holding me back from the descent I so desperately want. A descent that will leave us both in ruins.

Something changes in her eyes: a flicker of understanding. Her blush deepens. Her body draws in with a deep breath. I am just about to wrench away—

She touches my face. Her fingers, soft as anything, test the shape of my jaw. She dares to bring her lips close to mine. She dares to brush her nose against my nose, a timid gesture, and also, so incredibly brave.

“Should I stop?” she whispers.

I swallow my heart. It keeps trying to escape. My voice is gravelly, “I should ask you that question.”

She frowns. She touches the apple of my cheek, her thumb like a kiss against my skin.

“Why?” she says.

I swallow, willing moisture back into my mouth.

“It’s… the right thing.”

Another frown. “Right for whom?”

Oh, God, I haven’t the strength—

“Do you understand what this is? Do you understand what I’m… offering?”

Have you offered it?” she counters.

My desire leaps like a dancer on a stage. My hand in her hair tightens fractionally.

“Should I offer it?” I ask her, and my voice has dipped, has become almost foreign, a growl of want.

“Yes,” she breathes. “Yes.”

But she is the one who brushes her lips against mine. An invitation. A dare. The warning voice inside me might as well be a candle flame, that gutters and winks out—for good. I press forward like a skipper into the waves, and her mouth melts against mine. Her mouth answers mine, soft and eager. I slide my hand down her back, to the dip beneath her spine. I wind my other arm around her waist, turning her toward me, and her hands find my hair.

“Carol,” she moans.

I draw her up, out of her seat—she comes willingly, the bench an awkward obstacle between us. She steps around it and pulls me toward her at the same time, the momentum bringing her body into full contact with mine. I sigh with relief, and she kisses me—deeper than before.

We stand there unmoving, quiet and urgent both, our kiss gathering heat. I ought to do something. Take her to the couch, at least. But I am frozen in her arms, incapable of anything but this kiss, that sears me to my toes, that makes me feel reckless and alive. She kisses with an easy grace, not the hapless girl I had imagined she might be. She kisses like she means it, like she knows what she wants, like she feels my want and can answer it, freely.

When we pull apart for air, we are gasping. Her lips are already swollen from our kisses, her eyes hooded and hungry. I kiss her again, and her lips part, and it’s unfathomable, that I would ignore such an offer. My tongue slips against hers, wetness like a spark. She pushes up onto her toes, arms wound around my neck, and it surges between us. Desperation and desire.

“Therese,” I gasp.

The chair, maybe? The rug? I picture her laid out by the fireplace, the light of the flames licking over her naked skin, and the image alone makes the throb between my legs deepen and spread. 

“Carol,” she whimpers. “Take me to bed.”

Of course! Of course, a bed. How could I consider anything else? A place to worship her in privacy and comfort. A place to show her what it means, this thing rushing us along—rushing me along. I pull her with me toward the stairs. How far away my bedroom seems! How difficult to get her there, when she keeps kissing me. So many stops and starts. Leaning her against the banister, tongue stroking along hers. Pushed into the wall, her slight and powerful body pinning me there as we groan. My bedroom is dark, but I guide us, till she is sitting on the mattress and I am coaxing her onto her back.

“Turn on the lights,” she says. “Oh, God—I want to see you!”

The flood of the bedside lamp swathes her in gold.

So unfortunate, these clothes we’re wearing. So many zippers and buttons. So much fabric, in the way. If I had only her nakedness to worry about it would all go much faster—but she is no blushing virgin, and she wants me naked, too. We undress in a fumble. I’ve never been so helpless. Each layer is like a villain thwarting my path. But I conquer them all, and my own clothes, too, and when I slide on top of her, bare skin molding together, the sound that breaks in her throat is no more dignified than the sound that breaks in mine.

What does it mean to call someone a vision? Does it only mean they are a sight of exquisite beauty? Or can it have that other meaning, that mysterious and supernatural meaning, of something witnessed in a trance, in a dream? She is that kind of vision for me. A portent of things to come. A miracle made flesh. All of her slim and pale and soft. Three moles across her ribs, like a holy asterism. Nipples pale pink and hard. I lean back to get a better look. I run my eyes all over her, and stroke a hand down the center of her body. I mark the path to her hips, to the dark tuft of hair and the lines of her thighs. I want to map her out like a star system, to taste every valley and rise.

I can feel her eyes on me. I meet her gaze. She is flushed and breathing hard. She is trembling. If I hurt her I’ll never forgive myself.

“Have you done this before?” I ask.

She licks her lips. I want to eat her alive.

“Do you mean with a woman? Or do you mean sex?”

The words are so calm—so blunt. I find myself smiling ruefully at her.

“Either,” I hedge.

She hesitates, and then, “With Richard.” A pause. “Only Richard.”

Something crosses her face, then, the subtlest flinch, and I predict that this is no happy thought for her. I won’t press it, tonight. We need no more of him in our bed, and I know what I needed to know. Not a virgin. Not experienced, either. Does she even know how delicious it can be? I’m certain he never showed her, that boorish and possessive boy. But I certainly will.

And then she asks, “Have you?”

I freeze, meeting her eyes. I am beset with images of those other women, the passing fancy women, the women who meant nothing. To speak of them to Therese—would it cheapen me, in her eyes? Yet how can I lie to her?

I say simply, “Yes.”

But to my surprise, the expression on her face is one of relief. She reaches for me, pulling me down to her kiss. We moan together. No more words, for the moment. I want to speak a different language. To recite litanies against her skin. I drag my lips away from hers, only to lick and kiss her jaw, her throat, her breastbone. I slide my hips between her thighs and push into the molten heat of her; her whine of pleasure lifts a breast into my mouth. Ecstasy, to feel the areola crinkle tighter on my tongue, to toy with the hard tip of her and make her body tighten under me. Her fingers clench in my hair. There is no end to her little whimpering sighs.

She is not loud. Not yet. But there is such a fever in her body, as I move from one breast to the other, as I continue down her torso, to her trembling stomach. My breasts brush the tops of her thighs, then her knees. I massage her thighs with my fingers, coaxing them further apart, dragging my lips toward the source of all her pleasure.

She makes a sound, almost a sob. I glance up to see her pressing her fist against her mouth, eyes squeezed shut and face pressed to the side, all of her lit up with shivers. Is she frightened? Overwhelmed? Should I stop?

“Please,” she whimpers. “Carol… please.”

I nearly sob myself. I bend down between her thighs and taste her, dipping my tongue into the wet hotness at her core. She jerks, like electrocution. I put her legs over my shoulders, gripping them to hold her firm. I lick and lick and lick, delirious with pleasure, drunk on her taste. She tastes sweet and salty and wild. She feels delicious in my mouth, all softness here, swollen there, and hard where I lick her next, hard and throbbing, a pulse against my tongue. Her thighs twitch violently. I stroke and soothe them as I take her in my mouth, suckling. I am as gentle as I can stand.

Already she was wet, but this new attention makes her drip, arousal slicking my chin and no doubt leaking onto the bed. My hips churn, seeking friction. I feel bleary with lust, like all the universe has contracted to this single spot, and nothing exists beyond the circle we have made. I want to taste her for hours. I want to be inside her body. I want to feel the thunderclap of her release, and watch her dance in its grip.

I get my wish far sooner than I’m expecting.

She breathes in suddenly, sharp and startled, and then she is locking up, the muscles of her thighs clenching next to my ears, her fingers fisting the sheets by her hips. I hold her down, her crisis thrilling through me with excitement, which is nothing to how it thrills through her. She keens, trying to muffle it against the pillow, and if Rindy weren’t asleep down the hall I would wrench that pillow away and make her scream to the heavens.

“Oh,” she gasps, as my tongue prolongs her pleasure. “Oh, oh, oh!”

I soften my touch, slow the pattern of my strokes, following the signals of her body as she starts to come down. When I finally lift my mouth away, she collapses under me, weak and spent. Flushed and damp. Perfect, every inch of her.

She reaches for me, whispering my name. I flow up the length of her, prepared to take her in my arms—unprepared when she pulls me into another kiss. She licks her flavor in my mouth, shameless, and I groan, my own desire beating an urgent rhythm between my legs. Nevermind that, I scold myself. She is what matters. You can certainly manage without.

When she draws back, the look in her eyes in spellbinding. She looks like someone who has just discovered color, who stands in a flood of reds and yellows and greens, and can hardly bear her own amazement. She looks a little stunned, a little gleeful, and so arrestingly lovely, like a creature from fairy land. But the way she touches me—my cheeks, my chin, my lips—it’s like I am the fairy, the magical creature who has entranced her.

My stomach flips. I have been the object of admiring gazes before. Harge often looked at me as if he could hardly believe I was real. But with these looks there always came something wary and suspicious, as if I were a problem to be rooted out and solved, an enigma of torturous desire. Not a person. Not real.

Therese looks at me like I am real.

I swallow hard. I ask her breathlessly, “Are you all right?”

She blushes. It’s the most charming thing. She looks down toward the place where I put my mouth, and says, “I never felt anything like that before.”  

Does she mean the way I made love to her? Does she mean the crest of pleasure itself? Or does she mean something different, deeper, more dangerous to us both?

“You were perfect,” I tell her, nudging her nose with mine. “Exquisite.”

She kisses me again, and I am just about to roll off of her, gather her close and soothe her into sleep, when—

“I want to touch you, too.”

Oh. Jesus. Christ.

If I was wet before, suddenly I am drenched. My thighs quiver just at the possibility of relief. It’s been months. Months since I’ve had anything close to what I really want, really need. The softness of a woman. The kiss and smell and touch of a woman. The hunger and familiarity and comfort of a woman. How many times in the past year have I thought to myself, if only I could have someone. Just once. It would be enough.

Oh, Therese, Therese, I was so wrong. I was so wrong about you, about once. Never enough.

She puts her hands on my shoulders and gives a gentle push. For a second I think she’s trying to shove me off of her, escape my arms, run away—but no. Her eyes are smiling. I’m helpless before her, rolling onto my back as easily as one tips over a chess piece. Check mate indeed. She reverses our positions with the confidence of a seasoned lover, laying herself across me like a blanket. Fingers grasping my hair as we kiss. I glory in this new opportunity to touch. My hands roam all over her nakedness, tracing her spine, massaging her shoulders, squeezing her buttocks.

“Carol,” she moans.

She starts to move. Slow, and cautious, looking into my eyes as if to see whether I’ll stop her. I should stop her. God, if there’s any chance of my recovering, of maintaining my self-imposed rule, of sparing my heart its inevitable fall—I have to stop her. But she bows her head to kiss my chest, to drag her lips across my breast, and I can’t, I can’t. How much can a woman take? How much can the world ask a woman to take?

She kisses my nipple, a soft, tender kiss, and when my back arches she takes it for the invitation that it is—covering me with her mouth, licking and then, at my sharp cry, sucking. I tremble, fingers grasping at her. She moves to the other breast, gives it the same torturous attention, slow. Every pull of her mouth echoes between my legs, which shift restlessly beneath her. I am flooding with arousal, with heat, with need, my inner thighs already slick just from giving her pleasure. When she starts to inch further down the bed, tasting my sternum and my ribs and my belly, I know what she means to do. I make a helpless sound, spreading my legs for her.

“Therese,” I whimper, hands in her hair as she nuzzles against my inner thigh. “Oh, God—I—are you—are you sure?”

“Yes,” she says, her voice throaty with what is either excitement, or nerves. Perhaps it’s both, and I should tell her it’s all right. Tell her she doesn’t have to. Not if it’s too much. Not if she— “Please, Carol. Tell me if it’s good? I—I want it to be good.”

Then her tongue dips between my legs, slow, tentative. I shudder and gasp. She tries again, careful and exploratory, tasting my wetness, licking and then suckling at my labia, before she ventures down to the hot and weeping heart of my sex. My entrance flutters with the flutter of her tongue, and my fingers grab at the sheets to keep from wrenching her hair out. She moans against me, the vibration excruciatingly pleasurable. My clit throbs, hungry for her attention. So many women don’t even know what the clitoris is, the attention from their husbands and boyfriends so likely to overlook it.

She takes a long, leisurely lick; asks me, “Is it good?”

“Yes, yes, but—” I swallow hard. “Go—go higher.” I use two fingers to spread myself open for her. “Do you see it, Darling?”

She chuckles, the throaty sound of it startling me, so lacking in any naivete. She darts her tongue against me, a lash of sensation on the straining nerves that makes me shout.

“Oh, yes,” she says. “Yes, I see it.”

Then all her attention is focused there. She places one hand above my mons, as if to hold me down, and with her other hand she massages my trembling thigh, and she licks me where I am sensitive and aching and desperate.

“Therese!” I gasp. “Oh God, Jesus—fuck.”

She chuckles again, and this time the vibration is devastating. My hips jerk, shunting toward her mouth and the pleasure she gives. She is still cautious, still searching. She lacks the confidence of experience but she gives me all the fervor of newly sparked desire. I feel untethered, body shivering and awash in heat. I can barely breathe for the intensity of how she feels, and how I feel—

“Tell me?” she asks.

“It’s—it’s—g-g-good—”

So good so good so good—

The first pulsing signals start deep in my cunt, sharp in the nerves where her mouth is so diligently working. I feel something almost like panic, realizing how close it is, how close I am. Orgasm, for me, has never been certain. Coming with Harge required time and concentration. Often enough I had to let him take his pleasure and offer lies about my own. Lies he never questioned. Some of my female lovers were similarly appeased, to my shame. Fernanda and Abby—they succeeded as no one else ever had, but I have always attributed this to their patience and determination and polished skills.

Therese, a naïf in the woods, an innocent of this until tonight, has no polish, has no learned skills. And yet under her tender and determined and fearless attentions, I feel my climax rushing toward me faster than it ever has before. What starts as a spark catches in the kindling of my desire for her and my memories of her frenzied peak. The flames burn outward, and that tiny spark becomes an explosion of fiery release. I cry out, muffling the sounds against my own hand as my sex pulses with exquisite contractions. My thighs shake so hard, I know they’ll be sore in the morning, and oh—I am certain I’ll revel in that reminder. Just as I am reveling in this, this devastating, vision-blurring pleasure.

“Oh, Carol,” she moans, when I have finally started to come down and she has lifted her mouth away. My eyes are closed, hand still half-covering my face, and yet I can feel her watching me, can sense the awe and exhilaration in her as she surveys her handiwork. “Carol,” she says again.

I finally dare to look at her. The elation in her eyes, the sheen of wetness on her mouth, the color in her cheeks and the disarray of her hair—it makes me clench all over again.

“You are magnificent,” she whispers, full of awe, voice a tantalizing rasp.

I reach for her. She comes eagerly, lying atop my body and putting her hands in my hair as I draw her lips to mine. The taste of myself in her hot and swollen mouth is overwhelmingly good, and the feel of her naked breasts pushing into mine brings a combination of comfort and thrill. I don’t think I’ve ever made love to a woman who felt this perfect in my arms, never been so soothed and excited by the experience of running my hands across her naked back. It is divine. It is addictive.

“Darling,” I whisper, a little surprised by my own breathlessness, and by the scratchiness of my voice.

She draws back, looking into my eyes, her smile beatific. I want to tell her something that will encapsulate all I feel. I want to communicate to her how beautiful she is, how alluring, how different. I want to say the thing that will make her promise not to leave me, not ever, come what may. In the end, I have no capacity for speeches or vows. Only gratitude.

“Thank you,” I tell her. Her eyes widen, surprised. I say it again, and kiss her, “Thank you,” and kiss her again, “Thank you thank you thank you—”

—until she is laughing into my kiss, and kissing me back, deep and fearless. And that is when I realize: she has no fear. No shame about what we’ve done. No dread of its consequence, nor hesitance about what it means. Is this the mysterious and arresting thing in her that has lured me to this fate? I, who fear so much, who am always afraid—of what I’ve done, of what I want, of what I’ll lose? And here she is, like a magical tincture on my tongue, eradicating fear with the power of her courage.

No, I will not settle for once.

I kiss her harder, and then her moaning takes on the sweet and needy timbre of renewed desire. She straddles my hips, sitting up only to sweep her hair out of her eyes, to grab my arms and pull me up, so our chests press together. Her authority electrifies me. Her kiss even more so.

“Again,” she gasps into my mouth, her hands already on the move, her flushed skin dragging my own lust back to the surface. “Again.”

Yes yes yes… Again.