Miss Maria Reynolds was bored, and when she was bored, things tended to happen. Maybe it was her fault, maybe it wasn’t. Interesting(read: extreme)things happened around her. So boredom was a feeling to which she was unaccustomed.
She did what she usually did. She looked for a person.
Early in the day(early on the weekend)as it was, the light of her phone hurt her eyes. Maria flicked past her boyfriend’s number, ignoring the twitchy pang in her stomach. She had the right to not talk to him, she did. Besides, he wouldn’t be suspicious or angry for at least another day.
Her thumb landed on Eliza Schuyler.
Her fingers tingled. Her ex’s ex?
Before she knew what she was doing, Eliza was saying, “Elizabeth Schuyler here.”
The greeting of a proper lady from a time long past, spoken in a matching voice. Maria smiled. “Maria Reynolds. Lovely to make your acquaintance.”
There was a brief pause, then, “Maria?” Her tone wasn’t quite unpleasant, but it was definitely chilly. “What do you want?”
“Just wondering what you’re up to.” Maria rolled onto her back, staring up at her bedroom ceiling, waiting.
Sure enough, Eliza’s voice crackled across the line again. “I’m a little busy, actually.”
She knew Eliza couldn’t see a quirked eyebrow, but she did it anyway. It was a coin toss: summer plans or polite bullshit? She tested the waters. “Oh yeah? Anything interesting?”
“Summer job of sorts.” Eliza said. “Look, Maria, I don’t mean to be rude, but I need to go.”
Her voice was strained enough to be believable, and Maria wasn’t going to be pushy. Yet. “I was only wondering if we could maybe get coffee sometime? We have so much friction between us. I feel bad.”
Eliza hesitated, and Maria listened to her breathing, steady, cadenced. “Coffee.” She said finally. “I could do coffee.”
“Great. How’s this Saturday for you?”
“Um-fine, I think-Oh my God.” Eliza’s voice pitched upward suddenly. Maria flinched and pulled the phone away from her ear, wincing. Distant and tinny, she heard, “Okay, I really have to go. Goodbye, Maria.”
The breeze ruffling the umbrellas outside Starbucks felt good, even necessary, on Maria’s skin. Summer sun was welcome, especially when it allowed her to wear a sundress that made her breasts look, frankly, amazing. But it was a little on the nose today. On her nose, and in her eyes, and too hot on her bare shoulders.
The calm, air-conditioned interior was a welcome retreat. And there, waiting at a table, already with her drink, was Eliza. She glanced up and her dark eyes turned guarded. Her spine straightened and her chin lifted.
Maria sat, feeling a drop in her stomach. Eliza was so tense. She decided to start with something innocent. “It’s nice to see you.”
Fuck. Polite resistance like a beautiful, sculpted iron gate. “Well, you didn’t wait on me to get a drink,” She teased, “but aside from that.”
Eliza spared me a smile. Maria couldn’t help but wonder if her lips naturally had the same rosy shade as her cheeks. “The heat was getting to me.” She flicked some condensation off the iced coffee. She inhaled, looking up at Maria from under feathery lashes. “Maria, I’ll be honest-I’m not sure why you wanted to see me.”
Maria leaned forward, smiling her maneater smile, the kind that matched red lipstick and exactly the sort of dress she was wearing just now. “Female/female relationships are important, don’t you think? Important enough to supersede…” She paused delicately. “Past indiscretions.”
“You mean the fact that my boyfriend of two years cheated on me with you? That sort of indiscretion?”
“It takes two to tango, Eliza. You know the story.” Well, most of it, she thought. Not many people knew the real reason she had even gone to Alexander in the first place. But she wasn’t here to spill the gory details of her relationship with James for sympathy. She wasn’t that desperate. Yet.
Eliza’s eyes flashed, and she regretted the words. Why did she never know better? “If I didn’t know that, Alexander and I would still be together.”
“And if I was still interested in bringing his hurricanes of passion into my life, I would still be running after him, wouldn’t I?” Maria stopped to gauge Eliza’s reaction. Her lovely face was impassive, but her eyes said I’m listening. “But I’m not.” She tapped the cool wood in front of her, making her fingers known and available for touching.
Eliza’s eyes darted down, then up again to meet hers. “I suppose that’s true.”
Maria let her lips quirk up again. The crooked smile was a classic in any vixen’s book. “I never pass up the opportunity for a friendship.”
“Is that what this is?” Eliza asked, almost incredulous.
Maria tipped her head. “One of the things it could be.”
Eliza’s chin was still lifted, showcasing the long stretch of creamy skin between her throat and the draping neckline of her dress. It made Maria want her to ask what other things they could be.
But she didn’t. Eliza just shook her head, smiling begrudgingly, and said, “Friends.” And she reached across the table to take Maria’s hand. Her fingers were warm and felt graceful around Maria’s.
Before she could remember what she had planned to say, Eliza stood and discarded the remainder of her cold brew. “But I need to go.”
Maria arched an eyebrow, ignoring the hollowness replacing happiness inside her. “Will you always need to go?”
She shook her head, bouncing her long ponytail. “Not always. I’m a better friend than that.”
“More summer jobs?”
Eliza smiled the second genuine smile Maria had seen on her face. “My sisters, actually. I presume you know them. I promised them a day out today. Shopping, manicures, the whole bit.”
Of course she knew them. Angelica and Peggy Schuyler, Philip Schuyler’s eldest and youngest, queens of New York’s under-twenty-ones. It was a rare day they appeared without each other. Sometimes they even color-coded their H&M.
“Go bond.” Maria said, standing. “I’ll see you at the party next weekend.”
Eliza went to hold the door for her. Maria gave her a glowing look and brushed a hand over her extended arm, a silent thank-you.
She’d gotten ten minutes away in her car before she realized she hadn’t even gotten her dirty chai.
The paneled wall was cold against her back. Maria took deep, shuddering breaths and hoped no one would hear.
Some days, she hated James. Most days, lately. All the other days she fought to stop herself loving him.
She didn’t want to think about his voice cracking at her on a night when she should be happy. This wasn’t the John Hughes movie she wanted. She wasn’t a bouncy, happy, beautiful cheerleader. She was just a girl. And girls were powerless.
“Do you hear something?” a perky voice asked.
Not ten feet in front of her, the Schuyler sisters stood in a perfect half moon. They-people her age, their reality of clean clothes and summer parties-seemed so far away.
Peggy had spoken. She had one hand on Eliza’s shoulder. God, she looked so young. Maria hoped no one ever hurt her. She knew they would.
Eliza’s eyes tracked over the long hall of doorways and caught on her.
Oh, God, no.
But she was merciful. “No, nothing. Your ears must be ringing from this music, Peg.”
Angelica laughed a laugh that matched her name and patted her little sister on the back. “Let’s go get something to drink.”
Eliza nodded. “You go on ahead. I’ll catch up.”
Angelica gave her a funny look. “I hope Alexander isn’t waiting for you in that bedroom, sister.”
Eliza laughed. “He’s in the past. Go on.”
The second they’d walked off, Eliza made a beeline for her.
Maria fought the urge to run away. It wouldn’t help her now. A sweetheart like Eliza would follow her. Her best shot was to play it off sympathetic and hope Eliza remembered her as innocent and not pitiful.
“Maria?” Her voice was quiet and safe. A sob rose in Maria’s throat.
“I’m so sorry you had to see this.”
Eliza folded herself to the floor beside Maria. “What happened?”
“Some drama with James.” She wiped at her eyes and raised her head, stretching her neck, trying to evoke strong, suffering heroine, even if she was on the ground. “He was being an ass. I came up here for some alone time.”
Eliza stroked her hair. Her warm fingers brushed Maria’s neck, sending a shiver tiptoeing down her spine. “Can I help?”
She laughed. The sound came out choked and wet with tears. Goddamn it. She was losing all her carefully-crafted control. “You want to help me?”
Such a simple answer. And she meant it, didn’t she?
Maria shook her head. She didn’t deserve this girl. Maybe this had been one of her worse ideas. She leaned her head on Eliza’s shoulder anyway.
She forgot where she was until Eliza shivered. She sat up and ran her eyes over Eliza, taking note of her outfit for the first time. Bell-bottom jeans she managed to make look good, and a gauzy turquoise camisole.
“I should go find my sisters.” Eliza whispered. Her free hand rubbed in circles on Maria’s back. “Are you going to be okay?”
Maria nodded, sniffling. When Eliza stood, she followed. “Wait.”
Eliza stopped. She was still very close. The dim room created bands of shadow across her delicate features, but Maria could still see her mouth.
Maria caught her jaw and pulled Eliza’s lips to hers. It was quick, but the soft curves of Eliza’s lips would be branded in her memory for a long time. She didn’t bother to pull back when she whispered, “Thank you.” It brushed them together again.
But Eliza didn’t stay.
Maria stayed away from her for a while then. She didn’t know what to do with the memory, or how she’d come off. She just knew that when she thought about Eliza, it was unfamiliar, and unfamiliar was starting to feel better than what she had. It was starting to feel like something she didn’t have the heart to think about.
Hot day after hot day passed, muddled with confusion and affection and college planning, until Maria caved and went to the local grocery for ice cream.
She spotted Eliza by the milk. If she hadn’t known better, she would have called it loitering. She leaned(gracefully, girls like her did not slouch)against the refrigerators. Occasionally her eyes would track after a mother telling her child not to run off, a girl bouncing her head to the music pulsing through her headphones, a couple oblivious to the world. A small, unselfconscious smile pulled at her lips.
Then she twitched and looked up, and she met Maria’s eyes.
When her smile actually widened, Maria felt a little weak-kneed.
“What are you doing here?” Eliza asked.
“Trying to beat the heat.” She pointed down the aisle to rows of indulgence: mint chocolate chip, rainbow sherbet, pecan praline. “I see you had the same idea. Either that or you’re just really interested in what the population of New York has for dinner.” It was a weak joke, but you try wit when your resident spoiled sweet was inches away from you, wearing a slouchy sweater with hair falling in her eyes. Eliza dishevelled was entrancing.
She shook her head, making the loose locks dance around her eyes. “I’m people-watching.”
Maria raised her eyebrows. “Intriguing.”
Eliza laughed. “Don’t you ever wonder about the people you see on the streets?”
“Not usually. I’m a bit too busy thinking about myself.”
Eliza’s eyes went distant. “When I’m in public, I always wonder who these people are. What are their lives like? Why are they here?”
Maria pointed a look at a woman pulling TV dinners out of the freezer. She wondered if the woman would appreciate recommendations or not. She’d eaten a lot of rehydrated corn and meatloaf as a kid; she knew her shit. “I still think it’s dinner.”
She shook her head, grinning. “You’re impossible.”
Maria could only smile.
Her stomach flipped. In the middle of the freezer aisle wasn’t the most romantic location, but hey. Beggars couldn’t be choosers. Now that she had Eliza right here, might as well take a chance.“I never got to thank you.”
Eliza glanced up, open-faced. “What for?”
“The other night.”
Was it remnants of the heat, or was Eliza blushing? “I think you did. Thank me, that is.”
She was talking like a royal again. Was she nervous? Good nervous, like the monarch butterflies in the pit of Maria’s stomach now? She twined her fingers through Eliza’s. “Maybe I wanted to say it again.”
Maria slid her fingers higher, higher onto Eliza’s wrist. Her heartbeat fluttered under the thin skin there. When Maria moved closer, it tripped, and hers flew.
But then Eliza said, “This...this isn’t what I do. I’m not an affair to be had.”
Maria paused, her heart clenching in her chest. The thought slipped out before she could stop it. “You think I’m a whore.”
“No, no.” Eliza squeezed her hand. “That’s not my place to judge. But I…” She gestured between them. “I don’t know what to think of this.”
Maria caught her shoulders. “Then just think.” If she stepped much closer, they’d be kissing. If she reached down, she could pull Eliza against her.
“I will.” She said softly. “But I don’t know if I can be enough for you.”
After Eliza left, Maria slouched there until her thighs froze.
The call came about five minutes after Maria had started making plans to go get very drunk. She picked up the phone without checking the ID, a mistake, in retrospect. “Maria.”
“I’m sorry to bother you.” Eliza’s voice crackled across the phone lines. A bolt of nerves shot through her. “I would call Angelica, but she’s out with Alexander. I just...needed to speak to someone sane.”
“I don’t know why you called here.” Maria managed.
Eliza laughed, high and stressed. “The summer job’s getting me down.”
Maria made a running leap to get herself onto her high bed. She bounced onto her back and asked, “What is it that you do?”
“Babysitting.” Eliza sighed. “I love kids, but...they’re in high spirits tonight.”
“You do?” Maria thought perhaps she should be insulted by the tone of surprise.
“Yeah. I take care of my niece a lot. For a while, so much it was almost like having a daughter.” She sat straight up. “Do you want me to come over and help?”
She could hear the blush in Eliza’s voice. “You don’t have to do that.”
“It’s no trouble. What’s the address?”
Eliza hesitated, then, “1782 Maple. We’re in apartment C5.”
“I’ll be there.” Maria said, smiling. She threw on a jacket, then stopped, regarded herself in the mirror and shucked it off. If she was going to go help out with kids, it might be a good idea to wear something that wasn’t the shortest dress she owned.
A half hour later, she was riding the elevator up in jeans and a soft red tank top. She stopped herself checking her lipstick three times.
Eliza answered the door with a curly-haired child by her side and a bun that was transforming itself into bangs. She saw Maria, and her face lit up. “You’re here.”
A warm glow started in Maria’s center. “I’m here.”
“I wasn’t sure you were serious.” She stood aside. “Come in.”
Maria followed her into the living room of a clean, glossy apartment. It spoke a sort of upper-middle-class affluence. Everything was nice without being gaudy, which meant it cost more than anything trashy would have.
Eliza gestured to the boy. “This is Philip. And-” A thin wail started up from down a dark hall. “That’s Jamie.”
Maria nodded and extended a hand to Philip. “I’ll look after him for a minute. Go take care of Jamie.”
Eliza didn’t protest. She disappeared down the hall.
A small hand tapped Maria’s wrist. “Are you Maria?”
She turned back to Philip. “Yeah, why?”
“Sometimes Eliza talks about you.” Philip paused, deep thoughts happening in his warm eyes. “Are you her girlfriend?”
Maria started. Maybe sitting down was a good idea? It seemed like one. She sank into the plush white couch in the center of the room. “I don’t know.”
“She won’t tell me.” Philip pouted. It came very easily to his face.
Maria shifted. She wished she knew any more than he did. A soft, melodic song drifted down the hall, and she looked up. The bedroom door was still closed, but the voice was definitely coming from there. Eliza.
She sang like an angel.
“Miss Eliza has a pretty voice, doesn’t she?”
Maria snapped back to Philip. “Yes, yes, she does. Very pretty…” She cleared her throat. “Can you sing, Philip?”
He shook his head, sending a mop of puppyish brown curls bouncing. “No. But I can rap!” He brightened. “Eliza says I’m a poet. Do you want to hear?”
Maria couldn’t stop herself smiling. “Sure. Read me some poetry.”
By the time Jamie quieted and Eliza emerged, Philip had rapped about every subject a nine-year-old could. He was actually pretty good. Maria clapped every time he finished, and his smile grew bigger and bigger.
After finishing off an epic about every influential person in his life, Philip hopped onto the couch beside her.
He was so friendly and talkative. Maybe he could give her an inside look at what Eliza really thought of her.
No. She wasn’t plying an elementary-schooler for relationship advice.
“Philip, what did you mean Eliza talks about me?”
“When I ask her about her friends.” He nudged her arm and she lifted it so he could lean on her. He was warm and heavy, reminding her tired body of how late it was. “It’s weird. She always gets this look on her face, and most of the time she won’t tell me very much-”
The bedroom door clicked quietly closed and Eliza appeared. Her bun had come completely down, framing her face in soft, straight curtains. She sank into the armchair opposite them.
“Did you get Jamie to sleep?” Philip asked.
Eliza nodded. Her eyes fell on the boy curled into Maria’s side and she smiled. “Are you comfy?”
Philip nodded, curls whispering against Maria’s arm. “Kind of sleepy.” A yawn interrupted the sentence.
“Why don’t you go get ready for bed, then?” Eliza suggested. “It’s so late; your parents will have my head if you don’t get some rest.”
“Okay.” He popped up and gave Eliza a kiss on the cheek. “Good night.” After a moment of deliberation, he turned to Maria and said, “It was nice to meet you, Miss Maria. Thanks for helping.”
The warmth in her chest expanded. “It was my pleasure, Philip. Sweet dreams.”
He bounced down the hall and Eliza raised an eyebrow. “I had no idea you liked kids so much.”
Maria shrugged and smirked. “What can I say? I’m a mysterious woman.”
Eliza laughed. Was it her imagination or was that laugh a bit breathless? “You’re not wrong about that.”
They sat in silence for a moment like that, facing each other. Maria was terribly aware of the largeness of the room and the smallness of the space between them. Would it be wrong to make a move on this girl now, again? She didn’t think she had the energy to resist.
Maria patted the cushions next to her. “There’s a whole couch over here. I’m sure it’s more welcoming than that wingback.”
Maria’s heart stumbled.
She actually listened.
Eliza sank into the cushions, close enough that Maria could smell soap and sweat and a faint, rosy perfume. “It is pretty nice.”
Maria’s cheeks felt hot as hell. Her blood was pounding in her veins. She was so close, so close to what she wanted, so close to Eliza. She reached out with one hand and brushed Eliza’s cheek.
Her eyes widened. But she didn’t move back. She held Maria’s gaze and smiled.
That was irresistible.
Maria’s mouth was on hers before she knew what she was doing. She couldn’t bring herself to regret it when Eliza gasped into her mouth and pulled her closer.
“When did you change your mind?” Maria whispered around kisses. She didn’t want to leave Eliza’s lips for longer than a second at a time.
“I don’t know. I don’t know.” Eliza pulled back and Maria dug her nails into the couch to stop herself from pulling Eliza to her again. “Maybe seeing you with Philip?” She smiled awkwardly. “It made me think. About you. And how maybe...maybe I should give you a better chance.”
Maria’s heart fluttered in her throat. Staring up at Eliza, framed as she was by the light, was like looking into the sun. So she stopped looking.
Eliza agreed. Those long, graceful fingers tangled into Maria’s curls, pulling just enough to tell her more, more, kiss me more, and Maria was so happy to. She stroked the hard line of Eliza’s jaw, savored the bow of her upper lip. I could drown in this, Maria thought, drown breathing her in and be happy.
She grasped Eliza’s hips, feeling the skin, bone, and muscle through the cottony fabric of her dress. She tugged until Eliza got the message. Her knees bracketing Maria’s waist felt safer than sleep.
Her hands hit the warm skin of Eliza’s legs and she thanked whatever gods existed that Eliza was wearing a dress. Such a thin barrier between them. She slid it up, needing to feel the warm press of Eliza’s inner thighs, feel for the slickness there-
Maria pulled back enough to see her face. “What?”
“We cannot have sex here!” She glanced down the hall. “There are kids like ten feet away!”
“So?” Maria shook her head and leaned in, grinning. “They don't have to know.”
Eliza was laughing, burying her head in the crook of Maria’s neck.
“Miss Eliza?” Philip called from down the hall.
And like a gymnast, Eliza was rolling off her and back onto the couch. “Yes?”
“Can I get a drink?”
“May I get a drink?”
Eliza nodded, utterly composed. “You may.” She smoothed her dress back into place as Philip crossed into the living room.
Maria eyed her, and Eliza’s lips twitched. The water ran in the kitchen, drowning out their giggles.
Maria’s ceiling never looked so good. Everything was perfect in the dim, cotton-candy light filtering through her curtains. Everything was dyed rosy-her slippery sheets, the dark floors, Eliza’s skin as she came up from under the blankets, licking her lips.
“Is that how you say thank you?” Maria asked. Her voice was hoarse, and she liked it. She liked it a lot.
“It’s a way.” Eliza said. Somehow she managed to be prim, even naked, propped up on a pillow. “How about you, pillow princess?”
Maria raised an eyebrow, smirking. She knew her lips looked good, curled like that, and she already loved to watch Eliza eye them. “This started because I thanked you. But if you need me over there, I might be able to drag myself up…”
Eliza laughed. Her laughter flowed like water between the sheets, Maria had found. Her whole person relaxed to let it out. “Do what you want.”
Maria slid closer, tangling their legs so she could lie to look up at Eliza.
Eliza brushed stray curls off her forehead. “What are you thinking?”
Maria sighed, and decided to burn her tongue and tell the truth. “About James.”
Eliza smiled. “That’s not what you want to hear after sex.”
Maria shook her head, hoping the motion would hide her lower lip trembling.
Eliza caught her chin, and her eyes widened. “Maria.”
That broke the dam. She rolled into Eliza’s soft left side and stopped trying.
“He’s going to be so angry when he hears about this.” She heard herself saying. “He hates when I go to other people for-for anything, really. But especially this.”
Eliza was stroking her head again. The rhythm told her how to breathe again. “I can help.”
Maria sniffed and raised her head. “Help me what?”
“Help you break up with him.” Eliza watched her, gauging, and said gently, “You need to get away from him.”
The words made her chest feel like it was caving in. “I know.” Maria’s lungs couldn’t seem to pull in air. “He’s going to be so angry.” She said again. She scrambled to a sitting position. The sheets fell away from her, and the cold hit all over. Her skin hurt already. Eliza’s hand on her back was a distant sensation, like light from the end of a tunnel.
“Hey. Hey. Can you look at me?”
Maria’s head pulsed with dry pain. She tried and failed to unclench her jaw as she looked up. The open look in Eliza’s eyes almost broke her heart.
Eliza cupped her face. “Maria. You don’t have to do this instantly. You just...need out. You need to get away from somebody who does that to you.”
“I just-I don’t think you understand.” Maria’s voice shook. “With him, I’m helpless.”
“You shouldn’t be.” Eliza’s voice was soft, but the words were like ice. “Not like that.”
“It’s so much easier to just give him what he wants.” She whispered.
“But is it what you want?”
Maria tried to answer, but her mouth didn’t seem to work. She didn’t know how to answer, how to tell Eliza that, when it came to James, what she wanted wasn’t a factor. So what she said was, “I want you.”
Eliza’s face softened. “I noticed.” Her voice was a bit hoarse too.
Maria sniffled and managed a watery smile. She took in the sight beside her again: Eliza, sitting up, miles of curves bare in the rosy light. Her hair fell around her shoulders, messy like nothing else could make it. She looked like a queen.
“I’m sorry.” Maria said.
“For bringing my shit into this.” She gestured around her. “This should be untouched. He doesn’t have a place here.”
“We agree on that, at least.” Eliza swept her fingers across Maria’s thigh, and she thought, there’s nothing attached to that. It isn’t a request. She’s just letting me know she’s here.
“Maybe I should let well enough alone for a while.” Maria suggested to nobody in particular. “Boys aren’t worth the trouble.”
“I have yet to meet one.”
Maria stretched, feeling a single gaze on her as she pulled on the muscles in her arms and let the cold air peak her breasts. “Thank you.” She said, for the millionth time.
To her surprise, Eliza smirked. A devil’s expression on an angel’s face. “Forget about James. Thank me.”
Maria let herself be pulled down into the bed and didn’t think. It was the best morning she could ever remember having.