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The X Ingredient

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 "Sex is two plus two making five, rather than four. Sex is the X ingredient that you can't define, and it's that X ingredient between two people that makes both a man and a woman good in bed. It's all relative. There are no rules." -Marty Feldman



[Premise: Miranda's assistants, once they have proven themselves worthy of trust, have a time-honored, very secret tradition of giving her oral sex whenever she asks for it. She does not, however, regard this as sex; neither do they. Therefore it is not intimacy, nor does it involve infidelity on either her part or theirs. It is part of their job, and one of the perks of hers. Nobody ever talks about it; nobody who has not been an assistant knows about it.

Andy, who has completed the Harry Potter task beautifully, is now considered trustworthy, and Emily is catching her up on her latest job. Miranda has quite been looking forward to this, to seeing if Andy can meet this challenge too, though she would never admit it (perhaps not even to herself).]


A Prologue, of Sorts

Andy listened in dumbstruck disbelief as Emily kept talking. "You start tomorrow. Pay attention. Don't write this down."

Andy opened her mouth to say Oh my God, or maybe What the fuck, but Emily kept going. "First: she doesn't want you to linger. This is not about sex, it's about keeping her happy, so make her go off quick, because you know she doesn't have much time on her schedule. Keep it to fifteen minutes or less, or she gets very annoyed. Let me impress this upon you, Andrea: this is not for your health. Your job--"

"Miranda's gay?" Andy gasped.

Emily skewered her with her gaze. "Miranda," she hissed, "is nothing of the kind. Miranda is married. You are nothing to her, do you understand, Andy? When you go into that office tomorrow, you are not a person. You are a tongue. That. Is. It."


"For Christ's sake, this is not hard to understand!" Emily hissed. "You go in, you give her an orgasm so she won't spend the day taking our heads off, and then you leave! You never mention it! You never speak of it! You never think about it!" Andy was going to have a really hard time with that last one. "Now, listen up, because this is about technique."

"This isn't happening," Andy said.

"If it doesn't, you're fired," Emily said, "and before you even think about a wrongful dismissal suit, she's got a dozen good reasons already, and her lawyers will eat you for lunch before you can get within ten feet of the press."

"What?! But--"

"You're going to focus on the clit, of course," Emily said, her voice as businesslike as if she was teaching Andy how to work the phones for the first time. "But don't jab it with your tongue. Make small little circles. She likes that." Andy opened and closed her mouth. "When she gets wet, go faster until she comes. That's about it. It's actually fairly simple."

Andy's cheeks felt like they were on fire. "How," she croaked, "how--I mean, I've never, with a wo--how do I know when--"

She had the sudden, horrible mental image of Miranda saying, "That's all," and waving Andy off while she put her pants back on.

Emily's cheeks turned a little pink, which was the first appropriate reaction she'd had so far, in Andy's opinion. "Well, she's very quiet, but she exhales through her nose," Emily said. "Like this," and then she gave a demonstration that Andy really could have done without. "And of course she, um, relaxes. That's when you leave. Right away."

"I, uh," Andy said. "Listen, Emily. I have a boyf...I mean, I...listen, Emily…"

"Well, aren't you special," Emily said. "Did you miss the part when I said this isn't about sex? That this is your job and you will bloody well do it? Now pay attention…"

[So Andy spends the rest of the day in a total daze. At some point, Miranda says something really snippy and horrible to her, though, and we all know how Andy responds to a challenge. Meek!Andy vanishes, and we get I'll-Show-YOU!Andy, of Harry Potter getting fame. So she goes home, and on the way, stops in a bookstore and buys a how-to guide on cunnilingus. And reads it on the subway. Then she picks out some techniques that look good, and makes Nate try them out on her that night. No, really.]

Andy had been wondering if Miranda would call her in. She'd been trying really hard not to think about it, so of course she couldn't think about anything else. But maybe Miranda wouldn't call her today. She'd had Emily yesterday, after all, and Andy couldn't picture Miranda being the kind of woman who had orgasms every day. She couldn't picture Miranda having orgasms at all.

But, around two-thirty, Miranda drawled, "Andrea," and Andy knew--just knew--that this was it.

Miranda wasn't in her transparent office, of course. She was in a little room off to the side, filled with back issues and files, that Andy, in the last twenty-four hours, had started to think of as the Sex Closet. Although this wasn't about sex, no sir. Andy tried not to roll her eyes.

The file room had a desk and a chair. Andy walked in, feeling like she was in a dream, and shut the door behind her while Miranda slipped off her black lace panties and laid them on the desk, and then sat down in the chair. Then, without another word to Andy, she picked up the newspaper on the desk, snapped it open, and began to read.

Andy's jaw dropped.

"Are you waiting for something?" Miranda asked from behind the newspaper, sounding annoyed as she flipped another page.

Right. Right. Okay. Andy's eyes narrowed. Yeah...okay, Miranda.

She dropped down to her knees. She was surprised at how nervous she...wasn't. But maybe it wasn't so surprising. This wasn't about getting coffee or an impossible manuscript, no matter what Miranda thought. This was about doing something to Miranda, and that made it different, and made the challenge more, well, challenging.

Emily had said, make it quick. Give her an orgasm and get out of there.

Fuck that. And fuck Emily, too.

Andy hadn't done all that reading for nothing. She slid her hands up the smooth insides of Miranda's thighs, pushing her skirt up around her waist, and spread Miranda's legs wider apart. She made herself look at what she'd uncovered. She'd never really looked at another woman's pussy before, except for the diagrams and photos in the book last night. It was kind of interesting. Sort of like...body origami, or something.

She didn't let herself think about anything else. She just summoned up the list she'd memorized last night, bent down, and applied her knowledge.

She didn't 'focus on the clit.' She started off by pushing the flat of her tongue between the lips. Miranda made a faintly surprised noise, but didn't stop her. Andy slid her hands up to the tops of Miranda's thighs, and rested them there, while she began to press her tongue against Miranda, all over Miranda, in slow and steady pulses.

The paper rattled.

Andy was intrigued, she realized, by the smell and the taste. Huh. She hadn't expected that. She tilted her head to the side, rubbed her nose in the small tuft of hair at the top. Then she began to lick her way around the clit, around the entrance beneath. Miranda stiffened beneath her; and then Andy heard her set the paper aside on the desk. Was Miranda going to stop her, scold her?

Miranda didn't. She just rested her hands on the arms of the chair. Encouraged, Andy slid her hands down between Miranda's thighs, and spread her wider, marveling the whole time at how not-freaked-out she was by the whole process. Even when she felt Miranda getting wet, even when her tongue slid over that moisture, it didn't bother her; she just thought, Hey, I'm doing something right.

Miranda shifted, pressing her hips up against Andy's mouth. Then she seemed to realize what she was doing, and stopped, gripping harder at the arms of the chair. Andy tried not to grin, and pulled back, blowing lightly on the flesh, to admire her handiwork so far: red, wet, swollen. The clitoris had started to slide under its protective little hood, which the book had said was a very good sign, and which Nate had subsequently confirmed.

Andy bent back down, and instead of moving to the clit, decided to focus on the lips again: she licked them, trying to devote equal time to each, alternately using the tip and the whole flat of her tongue. Miranda gasped. Oh. Good. Andy licked her way over to Miranda's entrance, and--mindful that the book had said a woman's nerves were most sensitive just around the entrance--pressed her tongue inside just a little bit, and flicked it in and out.

Miranda couldn't keep from arching her back, then, and she actually gave a gulping little moan. She'd started shaking all over. Andy looked up at her: Miranda was staring up at the ceiling, her face bright red, her eyes wide as if in disbelief.

Andy had never felt so powerful in her life. She couldn't believe Emily had described this as a duty like getting coffee.

She moved her tongue out, and moved up to take Miranda's clit in her mouth, to suck on it, gently at first, to test Miranda's response.

Miranda jerked against her tongue, and, as Andy watched, squeezed her eyes shut and stuffed her fist in her mouth to muffle a cry. Her thighs were quivering, as if with effort. Her juices were dripping down Andy's chin.

It would be lots of fun to prolong this, but it was time to end it now. Andy wasn't so much into torture, and Miranda looked like she was in pain, she needed it so badly. But Andy wasn't going to give her an orgasm. Andy wasn't going to give her a goddamned thing. Andy was going to make her come. There was a fucking difference.

Look at me, Andy thought fiercely. Emily had told her not to make eye contact; not to try to communicate with Miranda in any way; to remember that she was just a mouth, a tongue. Andy wasn't about to start following Emily's advice now. Look at me, you bitch, look at me--

Miranda looked down at her, her hand still in her mouth, breathing so fast she was practically panting. Her eyes widened at whatever she saw in Andy's face. Then Andy, never taking her eyes off Miranda, began licking her clit, hard and fast, no circles, thank you very much--

Miranda's head fell back, her eyes shut again, and she made a noise that, if not for her hand, would most certainly have been a shriek. Her clit throbbed against Andy's tongue; Andy felt another gush of moisture against her chin.

Jesus. She'd done it. She'd done it.

Miranda didn't so much 'relax' as collapse back against the chair, still panting and whimpering around her hand. Andy gently kissed the insides of her thighs, and pulled away. She was standing up when Miranda took her hand out of her mouth (it had teeth marks on it) and, without looking at Andy, said, "Get out."

Andy paused, midway through wiping her mouth with her hand. "Get out," Miranda repeated, her voice dropping into something that was very nearly a growl.

Andy got out.

She ignored Emily's curious gaze as she fled through Miranda's office, through the receiving area, and into the bathroom to wash her hands and face. She rinsed her mouth out twice.

She stared at herself in the mirror, not sure if she recognized the person who was looking back at her with triumphant, if slightly-stunned eyes. All of her friends said that her job was changing her. For the first time, she thought they might be right.

Andy tried to feel as if that was a bad thing. She couldn't manage it. She licked her lips.

[So, anyway, the next day Miranda calls Emily in. And about ten minutes later, Emily (who has been rather smug, thinking that obviously Andy couldn't satisfy Miranda like she can) comes out looking like she's about to cry, and Miranda spends the rest of the day in a really vile temper, because of course the workmanlike approach isn't doing it for her anymore. She does not want to admit this and does not call either Emily or Andy for days.

A few days later Miranda works late, and makes Andy stay too. They're the only people in the whole office. Andy knows exactly why she is there, but oddly enough, Miranda doesn't seem to know how to broach the subject. Andy, for her part, is surprised by how much she wants to do that again. She knows why Miranda hasn't called her back until now. It's not sex at all, for her; it's about how much she likes making Miranda lose control. She's been doing more reading.

Miranda keeps glancing at Andy . Andy catches her looking once, and, without a word, stands up and saunters over to her desk, and drops to her knees. She's figured everything out now.]

Miranda was trembling, and Andy had only just slid her panties off. Her cheeks were flushed. Her eyes were closed. Andy was willing to bet her monthly salary that she was already wet.

'Don't talk to Miranda,' Emily had said. 'You don't say anything.'

Whatever. Andy sat up on her knees, and leaned forward so that she was almost talking into Miranda's ear. "It's all right," she murmured, and slid one hand up between Miranda's legs, which slid wider apart. "I've got what you need."

"You..." Miranda's voice, normally cutter-sharp, was faint, and petered out after the one word.

"We've got time," Andy murmured into her ear, and felt Miranda quiver more with every word. "There's no hurry." She felt drunk with it, drunk with the way she could make Miranda feel. "So you just let me do it slow."

"No," Miranda said faintly, "I..."

"No?" Andy pressed a light, barely-there kiss beneath Miranda's ear. Miranda gasped, but didn't push her away. "You're not going to let me do it slow?" She slid her hand out from beneath Miranda's skirt. Miranda gasped again in protest, tilting her head to the side, giving Andy more access to her neck. Andy took advantage of it, just brushing her lips over the skin, scarcely touching down. "It'll be really good," she promised, tickling Miranda's ear with her breath.

"No," Miranda whimpered, but it didn't seem to be a protest--just the only word she could think of to say. 'Her mouth says no, but her body says yes.' Andy had never thought that was actually true, until now.

"Yes," Andy countered, kissing her neck again. Miranda moaned. "It'll feel so good," she murmured again. "I can make you come so hard."

Miranda grabbed the arms of her chair in a deathlike grip. "You," she panted, "I...I can't..." Her hips writhed, and she kept her eyes closed.

Andy realized what she couldn't say., again. "You're already there, aren't you?" she whispered, and moved to kiss the other side of Miranda's throat, again, barely touching her lips to the skin, knowing already that this drove Miranda insane. "You're already ready to..." She dropped her hand into Miranda's still-clothed lap, and pressed the heel of her palm against the juncture of her thighs.

Miranda wailed softly, not even trying to muffle it, as she grabbed Andy's hand with her own, and held it hard against her, writhing and grinding her hips against it, choking on her own breath as she came. Holy shit.

"There now," Andy whispered, watching her come down from it in fascination. "There now." This, doing this, was better than sex. It was better than drink or drugs or anything. "Now then." She tugged her hand free, slid Miranda's legs apart again, and kissed one of her knees. "Now we do it nice and slow."

Miranda opened her mouth to say something. Then, as Andy watched, she tilted her head back, her eyes closing in surrender, in defeat.

Andy smiled, and leaned in, and savored the sound of Miranda's helpless moan.

End Prologue

[switch to Miranda POV, at least a month later]

I can't believe I'm letting her do this.

I can't believe I am begging her to do this.

She's spooned up behind me on the floor, and she's hooked one of my legs back so that it can rest on her hip. I can only imagine what we look like--especially me, since she's still fully clothed, not even a hair out of place.

She's up to three fingers, now, working and moving them gently, but relentlessly inside me. I'm reduced to muffling my noises in the crook of my own elbow. I've never been noisy before. Men used to complain about that--said they didn't get enough 'feedback,' they didn't know if they were pleasing me or not. It drives Stephen crazy.

But then Andrea kisses my neck, and whispers in my ear, "Get ready for another one," and I can't stop a whimper. What does she mean? Another finger, or another orgasm? I've already had two. But if she wants me to have another one, I will--I appear to have no control over my body, which does whatever Andrea Sachs wants it to do, up to and including coming until I wish I were dead.

We're lying on my coat, which we've spread out beneath us. Otherwise I'd stain the carpet. I am obscenely wet. I have been ever since I told her to stay late tonight; I couldn't look her in the eyes when she first touched me and discovered how ready I already was. And now, after the torment of her fingers and tongue, after two orgasms and possibly more on the way, I'm so slick that I feel almost no friction.

It turns out that she means another finger. A fourth one. Her fingers are slender, and she's got them all gathered to a point, but it's still a lot to take, no matter how wet I am. I stretch, I burn. I revel in it.

Andrea kisses my neck. "Is it good?" she coos. I know she'll have an angelic look on her face. I know it.

I don't know if she's wet. I don't know if she wants me. I don't touch her. I can't touch her. I'm not allowed to want to. That's not what this is about.

"Yes," I whisper. "'s good..."

"Is this what you need?" She kisses me again, and slides her fingers up and down, in and out.

"" I always say 'no.' I can't help it. I don't want to want this.

"No?" she asks, not remotely perturbed. "Then what do you need?" I know that tone of her voice. She is going to punish me. "Should I stop?"


"Should I take my hand out, and go home, and leave you here?" She licks behind my ear and draws her fingers out, leaving me empty and hollow. "Half naked and soaking wet and needing to come just one more time?"

"No!" I whimper. "No!" She licks the nape of my neck, and slides her fingers back in, hard.

I come. Again.

It's not wrenching--it's not one of those orgasms that nearly kills me--but it's not enough, either. I can't decide if I'm sobbing for breath, or in despair, because I know that I'm still not done, that I need more from her, that I am completely at her mercy and she knows it.

"Golly," she says, pulling her hand out again, "look at that." Knowing that it is a command, I look down, and see her hand resting between my legs, covered with viscous strings of moisture that are still attached to me. "I think we're ready now."

"Ready?" I manage. "For what?" What the hell is she going to do to me now? And why am I so certain that whatever it is, I will love it?

"All five fingers," she says casually. My brain blanks out for a moment. "You ever been fisted, Miranda?"

"No," I gasp, and I can't tell if I'm appalled or interested or what, even as I realize it doesn't matter because it's going to happen anyway. "What--do you know how to--?"

"I've been doing some reading," she says, in a confidential tone of voice.

"Oh, my God," I say, closing my eyes. But I don't forbid her. I don't tell her to stop, to go away, to leave me alone. I don't even tell her that I don't want it.

"You're wet enough," she murmurs, and I feel her fingers poised at my entrance once more. She slides them in slowly. She takes the utmost care. I wonder if I'm about to pant to death.

I feel all four of her fingers, and the point of her thumb. I arch my back, I hook my leg up higher, I cock my hips forward, anything to give her better access. She chuckles, and I can't stand the fact that this doesn't make me want to stop.

Then I feel her knuckles about to breach me. My breath hitches in my chest. "Try to relax," she instructs me. "Deep breaths. Here we go." At no point does she say that she will stop if she hurts me. At no point does she offer reassurances.

I have never wanted anyone as much as I want her.

I feel her knuckles pressing in. Now I know what all those orgasms were in aid of; this would be impossible if I weren't wet as a rainforest. Even so, there is an element of discomfort, of genuine pain.

"Please," I beg. I don't know what I'm begging for, but she always seems to figure it out and give it to me in spades. "Please."

Andrea doesn't answer my plea, this time. Instead she says, casually, "So...if you went home tonight and...let's say Stephen wants to sleep with you." I gasp. Oh. Not this. Not talking about my husband, my marriage. "And he puts his hand or his mouth or his dick down here because he wants you..." Like she doesn't. "And he sees how wide you are. Wide open like this." She kisses my neck again. I close my eyes. "What does he say? What do you tell him?"

It is impossible, disgusting, wrong that this should arouse me. "I don't," I gasp, "I don't know--I--"

Then her knuckles slide into me with a faint pop, and it stings, and I arch my back and hiss.

She kisses my hair this time, almost soothingly. "Good," she says, sounding very pleased--with me, with herself. "Good. Rest a minute." Another kiss, this time to the top of my ear. "How does it feel?"

Feel? It feels like I've got a fist stuffed up me, what else should it feel like? But to my surprise, I hear myself croaking, "Good."

And it is good, I realize. Her hand is warm and solid and there, resting inside me almost peacefully. I can feel the pulse of her wrist beating against me. I take in a deep breath, and then exhale, slowly.

"Yes," she says, sounding more pleased than ever. "You needed this, didn't you, Miranda?"

"Yes," I whisper. It's true. And I hadn't even known it.

"I'm going to move my hand now," she says, and begins, gently, to twist her wrist. I moan. I've never felt anything like it. It's not exactly pleasure, it's not what I feel when she licks and sucks and strokes. It's just, somehow, more.

Andrea doesn't make me come. That's not the point of this little exercise, it seems. The point is for me to writhe on her hand and feel so full and stretched and wonder why I still need more, wonder what I need.

Then she begins to speak again.

"You like what I do to you," she murmurs. "You like everything I do to you."

It's not a question. I know she wants a response anyway. "Yes," I whisper.

"Anywhere. Any time. You'll want it. I can make you feel so good, can't I?"

I turn my face into the carpet, as if I'm trying to muffle my reply when I whimper, "Yes..."

"Imagine," she whispers, and I stop breathing. Any time Andrea begins a sentence with the word 'Imagine,' I know that I will lose control of any faculties I yet possess. "Imagine what I could do," she says, and licks my neck, "if I had all of you." My eyes open wide. "If I had you naked. If I could touch you everywhere. If I could hold you down."

Oh, God. She knows.

She knows what I want. What I crave. She knows this isn't enough. She knows I need her hands, need her mouth, she knows I'll do anything, anything--

"Do you like having your breasts kissed?" she asks, her voice even, almost inquisitive. I cry out softly just from the suggestion. "I guess so, huh?"

"Oh," is all I can say, and it comes out as a sobbing moan.

"Have you ever been tied up?" Now she...oh God, she bites me, not enough to leave a mark, or a trace, but enough to make me cry out again. "Your husbands, did they ever tie you up and fuck you?"

"No," I pant. They've wanted to. Stephen has mentioned it several times. The thought revolts me. Me, tied up? Dominated? By him?

"Just curious," Andrea says, and twists her wrist again. "Question's purely academic." It is? I realize that, now that she has raised the issue, I would give away every pair of shoes I own if it meant she would tie me up.

Would she? Would she, if I asked her? I have never asked her for anything. I only take what she offers. I feel as if I lie in wait for whatever her clever hands and wicked mouth will do or say next. But perhaps…perhaps she would do this if I asked her to.

I will not. I will not.

"Do you want to be tied up, Miranda?" she asks.

"Yes," I wail, and come again, without another touch, without anything but the whisper of her voice and the curl of her fist inside me. And this isn't a little one. This is the kind of orgasm I feel in my toes, the kind that rattles me apart, breaks me to pieces that she never puts back together. She talks to me all the way through it, making it even worse, whispering, "Oh yeah? By me? Or by anybody? How bad do you want it, Miranda, how much will you beg…?"

I sometimes wonder if anybody has ever come to death. I wonder if I will be the first. My leg, hooked backwards over her hip, spasms painfully, cramps, an aching counterpoint to the glorious pulsing between my legs. I am grateful for this. It keeps me sane. It tells me I will live through this one more time.

It ends, finally. I relax, trembling all over. My throat hurts. I realize I have been…not screaming. I don't scream. I swallow hard and wish for water.

Andrea kisses my temple. "Relax, now," she whispers, and god damn her, she sounds as calm and cool as she did the moment she slid my underwear off. As calm as when she answers the phone. Then she carefully, very carefully, angles her hand and twists her wrist, drawing her fist out of me by degrees. Her knuckles pop out again. It's painful. I can't help it: I yelp.

"Mm," she says, somehow managing to make that sound remorseful, and nuzzles my temple again as she slowly draws the rest of her hand out. I feel the usual, humiliating gush of fluid following it. Another coat ruined, since there's no way I'm sending this to my dry cleaner. I should invest in some kind of cheap blanket. Or a tarpaulin.

Her lips brush over my cheek, and I shudder with a different kind of longing. "All done?" she asks.

I don't tell her that isn't up to me. I don't say that if she wanted to, she could keep me here all night, until Emily arrives in the morning to see my disgrace. Instead I just nod breathlessly.

"Is there anything else I can do for you?" she asks wickedly, just like she did when she delivered the Harry Potter manuscript. The moment I decided she was competent, worthy, discreet--the moment that started the avalanche I am currently buried beneath.

'Kiss me,' is something else I don't say. And definitely not, 'Please, please kiss me.'

"That's all," I whisper. She stands up without a word, and leaves, while I'm still lying on the floor, on my ruined coat, with my skirt and underwear thrown somewhere across the room. I hope she doesn't look back to see what she's wrought. I'm sure I look ridiculous. She picks up her own coat and bag and heads out of the office, down the hallway towards the bathroom. She will make a quick stop there to wash me off her hands before she goes home.

I sit up, slowly, painfully. I need to use the bathroom too, and it's going to hurt. And I need to wash myself, my sticky thighs, get rid of the evidence in case Stephen does, in fact, want me tonight. Not that this is likely. He finds me to be…unresponsive. I almost wish he did know the truth. Apparently he's just not enough woman for me. I do so wish I'd realized that before I married him.

Besides, recently he's begun to return home later than usual, and has trouble looking me in the eye. I would not be surprised if he's having an affair of his own.

I check that thought. I can't let myself go down that road. This is not an affair. This is…I don't even know what this is. An unqualified disaster, mainly. At least for me. I wonder what Andrea thinks of it. What she gets out of it, besides the satisfaction of bringing Miranda Priestly lower than low. Then again, that's probably enough.

I would take revenge, if I could. If I could, I would punish her for every moment of ecstatic humiliation she heaps upon me. But then she would stop. She'd stop. And nothing I could do, no punishment I could exact, would be satisfying enough to justify that. Oh God, within a week I'd be at her feet again. Maybe I should take some kind of antidepressant. I hear those kill the sex drive like nobody's business, and it's not as if Stephen would notice the difference anyway.

I wish I could make myself care that he's probably cheating on me.

I hear the sound of the elevator. Andrea's out of the bathroom and on her way home. My turn, then. I look at the clock. Eleven-thirty. The girls will long since be in bed. I've missed saying goodnight to them yet again because of this. I could lose my job, my marriage, my relationship with my girls, because of this. I've already lost my mind because of this. And I won't give this up until I am forced to. I won't give her up.

This must be what drug addicts feel like when their lives are torn apart by their need, their dependency, their weakness. Wishing it wasn't so, but not wishing for it hard enough.

Well, they can have their heroin, and good luck to them. As for me, I have given up the world for lust, and I count it well lost.

I have been waiting for this all day.

Stephen is at a conference in Philadelphia. Or with a lover in Philadelphia, I don't really care. The girls are at their father's. The house is mine. It will be for three whole nights.

I did not summon Andrea during the day. I did not tell her to stay late at work. I went home, as usual, and saw the girls off with a kiss and a smile. Now I wait in agony for her to deliver the book. And then for her to fuck me in my own house.

She won't say no. She can't. She is maddening, capricious, even occasionally cruel. But even she cannot be this cruel. Can she?

Ten-thirty. I hear the door opening. My heart stops, and then beats triple-time. I hear the footsteps in the hallway, the soft thump of the book being laid on the table.

I clear my throat and hope my voice does not fail me. "Andrea," I call, doing my best to sound disinterested, businesslike.

I hear footsteps trotting quickly towards the den, which is where my prowling has led me. Trotting very quickly. Is she eager to get here, to see me? That would be a change--what would it be like if she, too, wanted--

"I'm sorry, Miranda," a familiar voice says breathlessly. I look up to see Emily standing and wringing her hands in the doorway. I feel my eyes going very, very wide in disbelief. "Andrea said she and her boyfriend had plans tonight and I owed her a favor so--"

I feel it like a slap to the face. Or a blow to the head. Her boyfriend. She's out with her boyfriend.

I realize I am staring at Emily and, judging from the way her face is going green, my expression is probably murderous. I rally quickly. "Is there any reason you decided not to bring the book to me?" I ask. "Or did you just think I needed the exercise of walking to the hallway and back?"

She gasps and scurries out of the room, back to the hallway, no doubt cursing herself. I use the moment to take a deep breath. I rub my hands over my eyes, dig my fingers into my scalp, and try to think of some reason for why I would have summoned Andrea into my den.

Then I realize I don't have to. I'm slipping, if I think I have to offer excuses to my assistant. So when Emily totters back in with the book, I take it, and dismiss her from my presence with, "That's all." She leaves, backing her way out of the den, almost bowing as she goes.

I hear the front door close behind her, and throw the book across the room like a child having a tantrum. It makes me feel a little better, actually. I suppose I could have told Emily to stay for a few minutes, to take what relief I could from a substitute mouth. The thought almost makes me laugh.

Andrea knew. She's my assistant, she knows my schedule backwards and forwards, and she knew that Stephen and the girls would be gone tonight. And she didn't come. She didn't come to me. She's out--or, worse, staying in--with her boyfriend.

I sit down, shaking. Am I really surprised? Well, maybe I'm surprised that she's with a man. She's so good at everything she does to me. A native talent? A quick study? Or just a bisexual with plenty of practice on both sides of the fence?

Does she make him feel like she makes me feel? Does she make him feel even better? No. Impossible. It is impossible that anyone could respond to her like I do. Impossible that she could make his body writhe, tremble, sing like she does mine. My body, my stupid, brainless, idiot body, was apparently designed expressly for her to fuck into oblivion. He cannot appreciate her like I do. He cannot need her like I do.

But she might need him.

That thought would kill me if I let it. The thought that someone else could make her writhe and tremble, make her body sing, yes, that thought could strike me dead if I dwelled on it long enough.

So I can't dwell. I don't dare dwell, not in this empty house. I can't sink that low. I can't be that pathetic. I get up, pick up the book, and sit down to work, relieved when the demands of the magazine draw me in once more, letting me forget everything else for a little while. This still works like it should, anyway.

For how much longer, I don't know.

The next day, I am remarkably ambivalent. I tell myself one moment that, when I see her, I will pretend Andrea does not exist; I will not even look at her. I tell myself the next moment that this would be like admitting weakness: showing her I can't even look her in the eye.

Then I arrive to see her sitting at her desk, and the question, as she put it herself, is academic. She's talking to someone on the phone, and although it's clearly business, she sounds very…chipper. Her eyes are sparkling. She's smiling widely. She had a good night, last night. Or, at the very least, she didn't spend it going over the book, taking a cold shower, and then staring up at the ceiling while trying to sleep. I can't help but look at her. She's practically glowing.

I hate her. I hate her for denying me, for flaunting her beauty in front of me, for reminding me, however subtly, that our arrangement is entirely one-sided, and, more than anything else, for using all of that to make me want her even more.

She appears not to notice my--notice that I'm out of sorts. Nobody else does, either. Granted, I am often out of sorts, but not because I am sexually frustrated past sanity. I am glad they can't tell the difference. And thankfully, blessedly, I am able to spend the day behaving much as I would on any other day, especially when I spend a few hours in the afternoon out of the office and away from her.

If she does not deliver the book tonight, I will kill her.

Once again, I do not summon her all day. Instead, at eight o'clock, I go home. I eat dinner, alone. I have a drink. I do not permit myself to have more than one. I probably do other things, but I can't remember them and they aren't important. I wait.

At ten-thirty, the door opens and closes. I do not call out, this time. Instead I walk, as quietly as I can, to the hallway.

Andrea has just set the book down and is turning to go.

She catches sight of me. Something on my face, in my eyes, makes her raise her eyebrows, lift her chin a little; but she appears only mildly interested, not worried, not afraid.

I say nothing. Instead I jerk my head towards the stairs and begin climbing them without a word. After a moment of agonizing silence, I hear her footsteps following my own.

Up and up and up. There are far too many stairs in this house. I should have an elevator installed, in case somebody breaks a leg.

We stop at the third floor, where the bedrooms are. She's still behind me. I lead her down the hallway and pause, briefly, in front of my room. Then, in a final spasm of conscience, I keep walking. As satisfying as it would be to have at least one really good orgasm in my marriage bed, I do have my limits. I lead her to one of the guestrooms.

Andrea follows me in. I turn on the lamp by the bed; I do not want full light. Then I turn to look at her. She stands by the open door, the look on her face calm, perhaps blandly curious. She shows absolutely no indication of throwing me onto the bed in a frenzy of passion, or indeed a frenzy of anything at all. I feel like an idiot. A desperate idiot.

Imagine what I could do if I had all of you. If I had you naked. If I could touch you everywhere.

I don't care about looking like an idiot. I do not give even half a damn. My hands reach, trembling, for the buttons of my blouse, and I undress while she watches me in silence. Of course, she makes no motion towards her own clothing. Would she undress, if I asked her to? If I asked to see her body? Or would that be crossing a line? Better not to risk it.

Finally, I am naked. Not even a necklace or a bracelet on me, and I look at her, willing her to do something, anything--

Then she steps forward, and sinks gracefully down to her knees before burying her head between my legs.

I nearly fall over. As usual, the sight of her kneeling before me is enough to drive me half-mad, and the first touch of her tongue is all it takes to complete the trip. She does not want me to touch her, so instead I put my hand against the wall for balance while her mouth twists me inside-out, just as it has ever since that first time.

Then, just as I am about to come, she stops.

I gasp. She pulls away, wipes her mouth, and says, "Lie down on the bed."

I sit down on the edge, but find myself remarkably hesitant about lying down all the way, spreading myself so naked before her when she's fully clothed. But Andrea does not give me time to be hesitant for long because then she straddles me and pushes me down against the mattress and oh my God, oh my God, she is kissing my throat, my shoulders, as languidly as if we had all night. I wonder if we do.

She puts her hand back down between my thighs, tickling gently, and then sliding a finger in. I arch into her touch with a moan; I am still close from earlier, so close, and her teasing little kisses have done nothing to help.

She moves up to bite my earlobe, and then whispers, "Don't come."

What? "I--" I begin, and then moan again when she rubs her thumb against my clit. "Oh!"

"Don't come," she repeats, almost gently. "If you come, I leave you here and go home." At the next movement of her thumb, I very nearly panic. I reach down and grab her wrist.

She pauses. "Don't," I gasp. "If you--I'll--"

"That's up to you, isn't it?" she says. "Those are the rules. As soon as you come, I leave."

"Then--then don't--" Don't fucking well do everything you can to MAKE me come, I try to say, but my mouth isn't working right, because all that comes out is, "Oh--please--"

"Now," she breathes, "hold on." And then she begins to kiss her way down my body, the touch of her lips electrifying me even more than her fingers, because it's new, her mouth on my skin, waking it up as she goes, bringing it to life. But she does not stop moving her hand, and before I know it, I am on the edge.

"Stop!" I beg, because I can't do otherwise. "Stop, stop!"

She pauses. "Stop?" she asks. "You want me to go?"

"No--I just, you can't--"

"If you tell me to stop, I'll go," she says calmly, her big brown eyes looking up at me, swallowing me whole. She licks my collarbone, before adding, "And if you come, I'll go. So. Like I said: hold on." She glances meaningfully up at the headboard, and she's got a point, and before I can think twice about it, my hands flail upwards until I grab hold of it. The stretch in my arms distracts me, a little.

Not enough. She bends to one of my breasts. 'Do you like having your breasts kissed?' she'd asked me, and since then, I have been able to think of precious little else. She takes her sweet time, nibbling all around my left breast, pausing for gentle licks and sucks, and I ache, I ache, why won't she--

She takes my nipple in her mouth without warning, and laves it with her tongue over and over. Oh, that wet heat, and she keeps moving her fingers and the rhythm is perfect, so perfect, I'm, I can't, I can't--

I turn my head and sink my teeth as hard as I can into my own arm. The pain, sharp and bright, works, and I realize I have actually drawn blood.

Andrea pauses. Her eyes go wide. For the first time, I have surprised her. She lets go of my breast long enough to say, "Wow."

"Don't," I gasp, and swallow until I can add, "stop."

But to my horror, she does, sitting up and pulling away. "I think I'll tone it down, if you're going to rip off your own skin," she says. "Sit up and face away from me." Knowing that it is useless to protest, that she really will leave if I push her, I obey. My arm aches. Perhaps, if it gets too intense again, I can focus on...

Andrea kisses the nape of my neck, just barely touching her mouth to my skin. She knows what that does to me. I whimper, I shiver, but at least, without her hand between my legs, I am not half a second away from orgasm. Two seconds, maybe, and that makes all the difference. Her hands slide around me while she kisses my neck, my shoulders, and she cups my breasts, taking my nipples between her thumbs and forefingers, and twisting them in time with her kisses.

Oh. This is...oh. So different, from what we usually do. It makes all the difference in the world to be naked, to feel her against my skin, to feel her touching me in places she has avoided until now. If I dare, I can almost fool myself into pretending we are making love. But she's clothed, and unmoved, and we're not.

Then she begins to kiss and lick her way right down my spine, and once again, I stop caring. I arch my back, and she slides her fingers away from my breasts, down my belly, into the V between my thighs while she licks and nibbles at the small of my back. All of a sudden, the orgasm is back, threatening me, lurking in the flashes of light behind my eyelids.

"Oh," I say, trying to give her some kind of signal, "I, I--"

"Lie down again," she whispers, and I do with terrifying eagerness, grabbing again at the headboard. And once more she bends to my breasts, with her fingers busy down below. "Don't bite yourself this time, okay?"

Oh God then what the hell am I supposed to--what do men do, when they're trying not to come? Sports scores, I've heard. I don't know anything about sports. Instead I try to remember the Galliano show in as much detail as I can, from start to finish, from the first model to the last, from ruffly bows to leather platform shoes. Every few seconds, I am forced to throw in a mental image of Nigel, naked.

It works. If I can call this 'working'--writhing in agony beneath her, panting and moaning and pleading without shame, losing all sense of time. I can't even open my eyes. I am all tension, my muscles locked in permanent quiver, and if I come, she'll stop, and this will be over, and I couldn't bear it--

Then she starts talking, and I know I am done for. I can never endure her voice for long--its low, unhurried, sometimes amused cadence. She bites her way ever so gently down my ribcage. "Poor Miranda," she says, and I can feel her smiling against me. "You want to come, don't you?"

"N-no," I say through my teeth, and it might even be true.

"You know it'll be good, don't you," she murmurs. "You know after waiting this long for it, it'll feel so good." I sob wordlessly. Is this why she didn't come to me last night? To make me wait? To make me desperate? "Beg me," she says.


"Beg me for what you want. Maybe I'll give it to you. Maybe I won't."

"Take off your clothes," I gasp, before my brain can catch up with my mouth and tell me what a terrible idea that is. Her mouth and fingers pause.

"No, Miranda," she says, "no, I won't do that." She nips the side of my breast, as if in punishment. "You don't get that from me." She moves her fingers again, and I feel the double spike of pain and pleasure. "Besides, that wasn't even begging," she adds, sounding playful now. "Tell me what you want, and beg for it."

Please get naked. Please don't go fuck your boyfriend tonight. Please never stop doing this to me. Please kiss me, oh please, do that. Do all that.

"Please let me come," I whisper, because I cannot endure this a moment longer.

"Really?" she seems surprised for the second time tonight. She nips at me again. "You sure? Say it again."

But only one word will come out. "Please," I say, moaning it like a mantra, "please, please, please--"

"All right, Miranda," she whispers, her voice dropping down until it is almost smoky, making me quake, "hold on for just one more second--"

That second feels like it lasts a year, and then I feel her mouth between my legs, lapping at my clitoris, sucking on it, while her hands reach up to cup and squeeze my breasts.

My body jerks so hard that I'm astonished I don't snap the headboard in two with my bare hands, and, I can't pretend otherwise this time, I hear my own voice screaming, echoing off the walls as I come. No. I won't survive this one. She's killing me with this one, it won't stop, I can't stop, I--

She stops licking and hums, fluttering her tongue against me, and my voice chokes and dies as the room goes gray. It only flickers for a second--nowhere near as long as when she had me with my head hanging down off the edge of the desk--but it terrifies me nevertheless to lose consciousness, even for the briefest time.

I'm hyperventilating. I might really pass out if I can't stop, if I can't calm down. But I can't. I can't stop panting, I can't stop shaking. She notices, and strokes my hip as she says, "Sssh. Take a deep breath. In: like that. Now out again. Slowly."

I try my best. She sits up, reaches out, and disengages my hands from the headboard. Once I relax my arms and legs, I feel better, although I am still trembling, still gulping for air. But the room's stopped spinning, at least.

"There, now," she whispers, and bends to kiss my cheek. "There, now."

And then I do it.

I grab the back of her head, I force her mouth down, and I kiss her, hard and ungracefully. I don't think about it, I certainly didn't plan it, and if she would only kiss me back then I'd--then I'd--I don't even know what I'd do, I'd do anything--

She grabs both my hands and pins them to the mattress, sitting up, turning her mouth away from mine. I cry out in protest, leaning up after her, trying desperately for more. She looks down at me, and her eyes aren't playful anymore. They are hard, flintlike, unyielding.

"No," she says quietly, and I really wonder for a second if I might cry.

Then, before my eyes, her expression softens a little. "Do you need that, Miranda?" she asks.

Hope flares inside me so brightly that it's almost painful, it almost burns. "Yes," I croak. "I...yes."

"Well, then." She throws her legs over my hips, straddles me, still pinning my hands to the mattress on either side of my head. "This is how we're going to do it." She bends, brushes her lips over my jaw and chin, and murmurs, "You lie still. You don't kiss me back. You just take it."

Like everything else. I have yet to get used to this feeling: knowing that she is not giving me enough, not nearly enough to sate my infinite craving, and knowing that I'll settle for it anyway. I have never, ever settled for anything.

But she kisses me, slowly, and I just have to lie there with my mouth slack and unmoving beneath her lips. I can't kiss back. I can't even tilt my head, guide her in any way. I had no idea this would be so difficult: feeling the damp pressure of her mouth, the utter softness of her lips, and being unable to respond.

She draws my lower lip into her mouth and sucks gently at it. When she releases it again I plead, so softly that my voice is scarcely audible, "Just once."

"Hmm?" She brushes her mouth over mine again.

'Hmm?' is better than 'No.' "Just once," I breathe again. "Only once..."

She pulls away, causing me to panic, but then she nods, her expression never changing. Then she lets go of my hands and bends down again.

I try not to go mad with greed. I slide my fingers into her hair, clasp the back of her head, and revel in the kiss. I can't get enough. She licks into my mouth, strokes my tongue, my palate, and I move my mouth against hers, keeping my eyes closed so I can better focus on how it feels, every moment of it. My head feels like it's on fire. It was worth the wait, this kiss, oh, there is nothing in the world like her mouth--

Then, after practically no time at all, she stops. "I have to go now," she says quietly.

"No," I moan against her mouth, hardly understanding the words coming out of my own. "No, can stay, you can..."

She sits up and regards me. "I have to get back to Nate," she says bluntly, and slides off the bed without another word. As if on cue, I feel like I've been doused with a bucket of cold water.

"Nate," I repeat softly.

"That's my boyfriend's name," she says, looking me dead in the eye as she smooths down her hair. "I love him. A lot."

It wasn't enough to pour that cold water on me; she had to punch me, too. "Oh," I say.

"Yeah," she says. "And this...this is my job." I cannot speak. "Good night, Miranda."

And then she is gone.

I do not move from the bed until I hear the front door close downstairs. Then I sit up slowly, feeling the ache in my arm for the first time. Oh…damn. There will be a mark. How on earth am I going to explain that to Stephen?

I'll just have to think of something. In the meantime, I need a shower. And out of all the things I need, this is the most easily obtained.

I rise from the bed on unsteady legs and, without bothering to dress, pick up my clothes from the floor and leave the guestroom. A quick look back reveals that, for once, the only mess left behind is a wrinkled coverlet. Easily dealt with. Much more easily than anything else in this fiasco. Later. Tomorrow.

Tonight, a cold shower is not an option. I need all the comfort I can get. I throw my clothes on my bed--our bed, Stephen's and mine--and head for the ensuite bathroom. Within moments I am standing beneath a pounding hot spray, wishing like anything that I could stop wishing, stop wanting, stop thinking. I can't.

'I love him. A lot.'

There is no earthly reason why this should upset me so much. Whatever is going on between Andrea Sachs and me is not about love. I know love, and, in the rare instances when it has come my way--my husbands, my children, my friends--I have cherished it for as long as it lasted.

But love has never been my main motivation. It's never given me the kick, the thrill that working has; the heady feeling of rising to the top and staying there, meeting all the challenges that come my way. Love is something for the spaces in between the rest of my life. I would be the poorer without it, certainly; I would not cease to function. I would not cease to recognize myself.

So this thing with Andrea clearly has nothing to do with love.

I lean forward until my forehead presses against the relative coolness of the shower tile, as I feel the spray of the shower massaging my back, soothing my body even as my mind whirls at a thousand miles an hour. I can't stop remembering what she said, about how this is only a job, for her; I can't stop thinking about how she won't take off her clothes, she won't kiss me except as some kind of special treat or favor, and even then I have to beg for it, I have to beg. I have to beg for her boyfriend's leavings.

I grit my teeth as I think about them, together. Will she fuck him--will she let him fuck her--tonight? What must that be like for him? To strip her out of all those designer clothes, kiss her until her perfect makeup smears, part her legs and go inside, pound at her until he can feel that he is actually a part of her--what would that be like?

This can't be me. It feels like I'm living somebody else's life now. A stranger's life. When I try to drag my mind towards the things I know, towards the shore I can see in the distance, when I try to care about everything I should care about--Runway, my girls, Stephen--all of that feels unreal. Standing here in the shower, naked and pathetic, thinking about a girl half my age: this is my reality now.

It'll pass. It'll wear off eventually. Nothing this intense can last for long. I know this. I've built my career on fads, on passing fancies, even on momentary obsessions. If there is one thing I understand, it is impermanence. I just have to wait this out. I just have to ride it through and see it to the end. It will end.

And then, when I am myself again, when I have my mind back, I'll make her pay. And pay. And pay.

Personally, I've never thought that revenge was a dish best served cold. I like it piping hot, delivered at the moment of insult, so that there is no possible doubt as to who has emerged victorious, and why. But in this I have no choice. I have to wait until I have cooled down at last. Otherwise I am sure to lose, to fail. That possibility is unacceptable to me.

With a surge of rage, I turn off the hot water, and stand unflinchingly beneath the spray as it turns icy. It seems fitting.

The next day, I make a resolution.

I will not summon her at the office. Nor will I call her upstairs in my home, even though the twins return tomorrow and I will lose any more opportunities to do so. I will not touch her. After yet another sleepless night, I must accept that the cooling-down period I long for isn't going to come on its own. I have to take that step. I have to go cold turkey. Even if the very thought of that, of going for one whole day--let alone the rest of my life--without Andrea's hands and mouth is almost enough to make me want to jump off the top of the Elias-Clarke building.

Almost enough. I have to stop this while I'm still at 'almost.'

I could always fire her, of course. Get her out of my sight forever. But that, too, would be a kind of failure. That would be acknowledging that I am not strong enough to do something I have set out to do. I'm not going down that road. Instead, I am ending our arrangement, and everything will go back to normal. If I want relief, I can always call Emily--but no. No, that practice is over and done with now. I know I will never meet another Andrea, that nobody else can do to me what she does; still, better to learn to live without. Better not to take chances.

Besides, once I have conquered this, I'm going to need Andrea around. I'll need to see her face while I ruin her as she nearly ruined me.

Did she think she would win?

I wish I could say that I spend the day in a state of cool collectedness. I wish I could say that I don't even deign to give Andrea Sachs a passing glance. Instead, I find myself as jumpy as a nervous cat, trying to keep at least ten feet of distance between us at all times. If she is surprised at my behavior, she makes no sign of it; her demeanor is as professional as it always is, with no hint of our secret lurking in her eyes. She's always been good at that. It has frustrated and thrilled me to no end.

The day goes by. At about four in the afternoon, I am on my third latte and thinking that I am really doing quite well, considering. I can be proud of myself. I'll get through today. And I'll get through tomorrow as well. I'll take it one day at a time, until I'm back to normal and can relax.

I look up from the latte towards her desk. I see her sucking absentmindedly on her pencil's pink eraser tip while she looks at her day planner. I remember her mouth on my nipples and spill my coffee everywhere.

There is a downside to demanding that your coffee always be scalding hot. That downside is that when the coffee spills on you, you get scalded. I jump back from my desk with a bonafide yowl as hot coffee soaks through my Missoni blouse, burning my skin beneath.

Andrea looks up. So does Emily and, in fact, everybody else within a ten-yard radius of me. Two seconds later, they all have the sense to look away and pretend that they saw nothing. Except, of course, for Andrea. I feel her eyes on me as I stalk out of my office. "Get me a blouse," I snap at Emily in passing, while I head for the bathroom to dab cool water on my skin.

There are two bathrooms on this floor: a large one with gleaming silver stalls, and a small one with a single toilet and sink. Nobody uses the second one but me. Ever. Except, of course, for when Andrea feels the need to wash me off her hands.

I yank off the blouse. One of my favorites. My bra is stained as well, but I didn't quite feel up to asking Emily to bring me one of those, too. There is really only so much I can be expected to take. So long as she doesn't bring me something white or transparent, I should be all right until I go home. And even Emily should have the brains to realize--

The door opens without a knock and somebody enters. Somebody who is not Emily.

"Brought you these," Andrea says, and kicks the door shut behind her, tossing me the turquoise blouse she holds in one hand, and then reaching around and locking the door.

I catch the blouse reflexively. A lacy black bra dangles from the fingertips of her other hand, and she extends that to me as well.

"Did you hurt yourself?" she asks, her voice full of gentle, genuine concern.

I drop the blouse and step forward, my resolutions already turned to dust. She smiles, hangs the bra on the doorknob, and reaches out to press me against the wall. "Let's have a look," she says, and glances down at my reddened skin, though I do not think I can entirely blame the color on the coffee anymore. She tsks. "Miranda," she murmurs, and reaches out to touch my collarbone. I wince in spite of myself. "You've damaged one of my favorite things," she says.

My brain, already half-paralyzed, completely stalls on that. Really? Her favorite--?

But she doesn't follow up, and instead leans in to whisper in my ear, "But you're not hurt down here, are you?"

Then she unbuckles my belt, unzips my pants, and slides her hand inside. The friction of her hand, the pleasure of it, sizzles up and down my spine right next to the pain of my boiled skin. "Nobody saw me come in," she whispers, "but they're still out there. We have to be quick." She moves her knuckles against the satin of my panties, and I gasp. "And…we have to be quiet."

I'll be anything. I'll do anything. How could I ever have thought that I could give this up?

Then she moves her hand out of my pants, and takes both my hands in her own, pinning them up against the wall. Before I can protest, she leans in and presses her forehead against my own--and wedges her thigh between my legs.

"Now," she breathes, her breath tickling my lips, "go."

I go. I can't stop myself. I grind and rub against her thigh, knowing that my underwear is the only thing preventing her Escada jeans from getting as ruined as my blouse. And though I know we cannot dally, I am still disappointed at how quickly I throb and shake against her. It feels incredible. It is not enough.

I realize, when I am finished, that I am probably hurting her hands from squeezing them so hard. At least I kept quiet, although it was a near thing.

"You okay?" she whispers, her mouth so very close to my own. What would she do if I stole another kiss? She took pity on me last night. Will she do so again?

She steps away and says, softly, "No. Not now."

She knows what I was thinking. I burn with humiliation, even more so as I zip up my pants, which is surely one of the least dignified gestures in the entire human repertoire. She bends down and picks up the blue blouse.

"Picked it out myself," she whispers, and hands it to me. "It'll look good on you." Then she opens the door of the bathroom, pokes her head out to make sure everything's clear, and vanishes as quickly as she came in.

I stare at the blouse, and then at the bra still dangling from the doorknob. Both are exquisite. I don them with shaking fingers and, with some regret, toss my old blouse into the trash. It's too ruined even to give away.

As I return to my desk, her parting words suddenly ring in my ears: 'No. Not now.'

Not now.

Meaning…not yet?

I briefly consider stopping to pound my head against the nearest wall, but people are watching.

Tonight I refuse to hover, to lurk around the front door until she comes in. Instead I leave a note on the table where she leaves the book: Upstairs -MP

Ten o'clock comes and goes, and then ten-thirty. I am about to go out of my mind when, at five past eleven, the front door finally opens and closes. Her steps are slow, shuffling. It's late, and she's probably exhausted. That's all right. I'm sure I have enough nervous energy for both of us.

I hear her reach the table, and pause. She's just discovered my note. Then I hear a faint sigh, and her steps turn and trudge up the stairs.

I wait in the guestroom, sitting on the bed, still fully dressed, still wearing the blouse she selected for me today. She was right--it does look good on me.

Andrea's steps pad down the hallway, and then she's standing in the doorway of the room, looking tired, but not annoyed or unhappy. She even manages a bland smile as she offers me the book. I rise, take it, and toss it backwards on the bed before stepping forward.

"Twice today?" she asks, her voice low, as she tilts her head to the side. Her bland smile turns into something more dangerous, and my stomach swoops at the sight of it--though whether in anticipation or dread, I don't know.

I don't respond. "Twice today," she repeats, looking thoughtful. "And last night you got naked and I kissed you. I think I'm spoiling you, Miranda." She draws up to me, and now her eyes are lidded, dark with promise. The only problem is, I have no idea what she's promising. She reaches out and touches my cheek. I hold my breath.

"I don't want you to have too much," she says, sounding almost…flirtatious. "I don't want you to get bored. Are you getting bored yet?" She rubs her thumb over my lips, which are slightly parted, and speechless. "No. But you're hoping you will soon. Right?"

"Don't tell me what I'm thinking," I rasp.

"Okay," she says affably. "But anyway…the point is, I'm not going to let you come tonight. I'm not going to touch you any more tonight."

At her words, I feel something in the pit of my stomach that is very much like…grief. Then she says, "But I'll give you two things." She gives me a long, penetrating look. "Two kisses. If you want them."

I inhale sharply, before I can restrain myself. "Only two," she says. "And nothing else. No sex, no coming, none of that. Just two kisses." She steps in closer, and once again, I can feel her breath on my mouth. "I mean…if you want them," she repeats, her lips almost brushing my own with each word.

Want them? Have I ever wanted anything else in my entire life? I can't remember right now. Before I can reply, before I can lean in to take the offered gift, she puts her fingers up between our mouths. Then she puts both her hands on my shoulders, smiles at me, and says, "Sit down."

I sit on the bed. She straddles me. And then she winds her arms around my neck, bends down, and I'm grabbing at her back as we kiss.

Yes. We kiss. She allows it. She allows me. Her mouth is warm and soft. She tastes like coffee. I am more grateful than I can say that I spilled my own coffee this afternoon.

It occurs to me that she said she'd give me two kisses. Those were the only guidelines. She said no sex, no coming, but other than that…she laid down no rules. So--so I can--

I hold on to her shoulders as I recline back against the bed. She does not resist, probably because she has no idea that I'm planning to roll us both over and pin her beneath me, which I do. She gives an 'oop!' of surprise when I look down at her.

But she's neither intimidated nor afraid. "One more," she says quietly.

I will not waste it. I bend down to her and kiss her as if I will never have another chance, because for all I know, I won't. I rule this kiss, and for one single instant, I am in charge of what we do together. That knowledge races through me like Greek fire.

But a kiss can't last forever, no matter how hard I try. Eventually my jaw hurts, and she's starting to make I-need-to-breathe noises. I suck on her lip for one last moment, and then pull away, panting. My head spins and swims. I can't believe that I have to end it here. I can't believe that I am expected to let her go.

Andrea smiles up at me, her lips shiny and red. "You know how to kiss, I'll give you that," she says. "Huh. Wouldn't have expected it." I glare at her, and she dares to laugh softly. She reaches up to touch my mouth, a look of pleased surprise on her face. It takes considerable effort for me not to kiss her fingertips. Then, to my utter astonishment, she says, "I hope you don't hate me too much."

I manage to stop the damning words which leap to my lips only with a herculean effort. Instead I manage a tight, pinched smile, which she may interpret as she likes. Her own smile turns a little sad, and my heart contracts painfully at the sight of it.

Then she slides one hand up to cup the back of my head. "How about you spoil me for a minute?" she says. "C'mere." Her smile turns mischievous, wicked, and I wonder if she smiles at the boyfriend that way, even as I bend down and kiss her again, hardly daring to breathe the whole time in case this is just a dream.

She is pliant. Receptive, even. She even sighs once, against my mouth, sounding contented. And any need I have ever felt at her hands, any madness of desire, feels thin and insubstantial next to my need and desire to, to--

I can't live like this. I can't live without this. I pull away from her mouth and begin kissing at her jaw, her throat, without her permission. She stiffens beneath me, inhales in a way that I just know is disapproving, and I moan against her skin, "Oh please. Just once." I mean it. I can learn to live with 'once.' I can't live with 'never.'

Andrea is no longer relaxed beneath me. She is stiff with tension, and she keeps her head turned to the side as she says flatly, "Once what?"

Hopelessly, helplessly, I nuzzle at her throat. It's as soft as I ever dreamed. "Let--" I swallow hard and say it. "Please let me have you." She hisses, and I kiss my way across her throat, to her other jawbone, drowning in the way she feels. Oh God, her skin--her smell-- "Only once," I repeat, hoping she will listen, and understand.

"Once, huh," she says, and pushes at my shoulders, pushing me away as she sits up and adjusts her collar while I look at her in dismay. "Like the kiss." She sighs and shakes her head. "Damn it. This is my fault. I'm sorry."

"Your f--"

"I shouldn't have let it go this far." She gives me a sidelong glance, and then slides off the bed, rising to her feet. If I didn't feel paralyzed with horror at whatever's happening, I might grab her, stop her. But I can't. "Um," she says. "I think we should probably go back to the way it was before."

The way what? I shake my head, looking at her in confusion. She shrugs. "You know," she says. "What I was supposed to do all along. You call me to that room when you want me, I, um, do what I'm supposed to do, and then we're done. You know. Dial it back a notch."

"Dial it…" my voice trails off.

"Yeah." She straightens her collar again and gives me a direct look. "Unless you want to call it off entirely. I'd understand that too." Her eyes are open, honest, unafraid--and accepting. If I punish her now, fire her, run her out of town on a rail, if I do anything like that, she'll take it, and in no way will it harm her self-respect. She's untouchable. Inviolate. Pure.

"No," I croak, and then clear my throat. "We'll…dial it back a notch."

Then I watch carefully for her reaction. She looks unmistakeably relieved. Is that because I'm not firing her? Or throwing myself at her feet? Or is it because she, too, does not want our arrangement to end completely?

I don't know. But I suspect that in the next few days, I will devote entirely too much energy to finding out.

As it happens, she has very interesting ideas about what it means to 'dial it back a notch.'

For once, when I summon her into the closet--for the first time in a long time, since recently we have waited until after hours--I am not solely motivated by lust, but also by curiosity. What does she think will happen? Am I supposed to pick up my newspaper again and feign disinterest while she goes to work between my thighs?

Andrea closes the door behind her. I have already removed my shoes and underwear and am seated in the chair. She kneels before me. "Hook your leg over the chair arm," she says, and I do, spreading myself wide before her gaze. Her eyes gleam avidly.

Then she surprises me, yet again. "What'd you do when I left you last night, Miranda?" she murmurs. "Were you frustrated?"

I snarl. Oh, she's enjoying this, all right. "Just get to it," I hiss.

"No, I don't think so," Andrea says, raising her eyebrows and looking up at my face. "Tell me. I want to know--did you touch yourself?"

I blink, and I feel my face going cherry-red. How strange, that this should embarrass me, after all we've done. I shake my head 'no,' wordlessly.

She rubs her hands consideringly over my thighs. "Do you ever masturbate, Miranda?"

I gulp. "Not…often," I say. Not in years, actually. I never found it to be a particularly satisfactory exercise, especially when I had assistants on hand, so to speak.

"You should," she says. "It's fun. Do it now."

"What?" But of course I heard her perfectly well.

"It's okay," she says soothingly. "It's not hard. I want to watch you." Her eyes gleam again. "Just follow the leader."

"Follow th--"

She reaches up and takes hold of my hands, which have clenched into immobility. "Sssh," she murmurs. "Here." She places my hands on my thighs, and gives them a brief squeeze before letting go. "Don't rush. Close your eyes. Relax." I swallow hard. "Close your eyes," she repeats, her voice low and hypnotic. I obey. "Now just rub your thighs. That's all--just rub. Gently."

I do. The skin of my thighs is surprisingly sensitive. Or is that just because I am splayed before her like this? Apparently, my worst fears are coming true: she doesn't even have to touch me to turn me on more than anybody I've ever met.

"Feel good?" she asks. I nod. "Okay. Now move one hand in and touch yourself. Not your clit. Don't go inside. Just stroke everywhere else, with just the tips of your fingers." My breath hitches as I obey. It feels…good. Some places feel better than others. I gasp softly when my fingers find one such spot.

"You like it there," she murmurs, sounding pleased. "You always go crazy when I lick you there." I arch my back into my own touch, thinking of what it feels like when she licks me there, over and over. She makes a satisfied 'mmm' sound. "You're already getting wet," she says. It's true. I am. "Dip your fingers in it. Spread it around. And don't touch your clit."

I sigh through my nose, clenching my jaw as I do as I'm told. It feels…amazing. But not enough. I realize I want to rub my clitoris just the way I like best. I want to come.

"Not yet," she says, and rests her head against the inside of my knee while she watches me. Her voice is soft and…fond. "Don't be greedy, Miranda. Just wait." She inhales deeply. "I like the way you smell. Always have."

Really? I make a noise that sounds like, "Ummm."

"I like the way you taste, too," she says. "Do you know what you taste like?" I know where this is going, and open my eyes. "Yeah," she says. "Lick your fingers." I don't particularly want to. I don't think I'd like-- "Lick them," she repeats, sounding very firm on the subject, and before I realize what I'm doing, I'm gingerly licking my own juices from my fingertips. It's…not bad. A little salty. Do all women taste like this? Does she? I would give quite a lot to find out.

"Now," she says, sounding pleased, "you can go inside yourself. Use two fingers. At once."

I realize this is a reward, but it's still surprisingly awkward, from this angle. I have to cant my hips forward, and then my fingers are sliding in. I sigh. She makes a happy sound, and that makes me feel even better. She is pleased. She's enjoying this too. Oddly enough, this is the most mutual thing we have ever done.

"Pull them almost all the way out," she instructs. "Just stroke right around the inside." Oh. That feels--I arch into my hand again. My clitoris aches. If I could just reach up with my thumb…

"No," she says sharply. "Now, take your other hand. Stroke it up your body. Touch your breasts." By this point, I'm not even thinking, I'm just doing what she says, whatever she says, because I know, I know how good it will feel. "Yeah, like that," she says. "Too bad you're wearing your bra, huh?" Yes, too bad--I would like to touch-- "Now move both your hands. Slowly."

I do, squeezing and rubbing at my right breast in time with the slide of my fingers in and out of my body. I've started breathing through my nose now, as I try not to make a sound. "Is it good?" she asks. I nod. "Do you need to come?" Oh God yes. "You can go faster. But don't touch--" My clit. I know, for heaven's sake--

"You look incredible," she whispers. "I could watch you all day." I grit my teeth and whimper through my nose. Maybe she can watch, but I can't do this all day, I can't endure… "Okay," she whispers. "Okay. You're beautiful, Miranda. Come now."

I let go of my breast, reach down, and rub hard against my clitoris with my other index finger, writhing against both my hands, and it's as easy as that, as simple as that--I come for her. Not because of her, not for my own release or relief, but for her, on display for her, because she likes watching me, because I want her to want to watch me. I only wish I dared to make noise; it is suffocating not to be able to cry out as I would like.

Please, I think as I finish, as I relax back against the chair, please say that was…please say I was…

"Fantastic," she purrs, and kisses my knee. Then her voice turns playful as she says, "Hey, give me some of that." She touches my wrist, and together we slide my fingers out of me so that she can lick them. She grins up at me and her eyes gleam with delight.

To my surprise, I do not feel dissatisfied. I usually do, no matter how physically sated I am; there is always something missing, something left undone. But she smiles at me now, with genuine pleasure, as if the secret we share isn't sordid, is instead something…fun. And instead of feeling empty, I feel warm.

I rub my thumb over her lips again, and then chuck her chin with my sticky fingers. She laughs softly, and rises to her feet. "I've got to go finish logging all that Zac Posen stuff."

'Stuff.' I feel too good even to glare. Instead I wave my hand and make sure I've got my underwear on by the time she slips out the door.

So we've dialed it back a notch. Interesting. I am not nearly as disappointed as I thought I would be. She continues to surprise me--to fascinate me. And, as always, to elude me.

And yet, for the first time, I find myself wondering if I can catch her.

"How was Philadelphia?"

Stephen smiles awkwardly at me over dinner. The girls keep eating, thankfully oblivious to the currents in the air. "Same old, same old," he replies. "Full of old-fashioned American liberty. And kind of smelly."

Against my will, I smile. That was what drew me to him in the first place: he could always make me smile. Sometimes, even laugh. I wonder if he's making some other woman smile now.

Juana brings out the dessert, which Stephen and the girls devour, and I skip as a matter of course. Stephen reaches out and playfully nudges Caroline. She grins at him around her food and nudges back. One of their favorite games. I clear my throat before it can degenerate to the point where they're throwing their bread at each other, and they give me sly smiles. Cassidy giggles.

"I brought you girls something," Stephen says. Their faces light up. "Not telling you what. You'll have to wait until after dinner." They are practically wriggling in anticipation.

Guilt chokes me. I am putting this at risk. For my own selfish reasons, for my own gratification, I risk taking those happy smiles from the faces of my girls. I catch myself hoping fervently, suddenly, that Stephen is having an affair; that, if our marriage does dissolve, it won't be entirely my fault.

And once again, I vow that it's over, this thing with Andrea. Not because I want revenge, not because of the toll it takes on me, personally, but because of the potential catastrophic damage to my family. I manage my own smile for Stephen and the girls, and sip my coffee.

"What the hell's that thing on your arm?"

Stephen's question almost makes me jump. He's caught me in the middle of changing for bed. But I have a lot of practice at hiding my reactions; I look at him with raised eyebrows, follow his gaze, and casually glance down at the bite mark on my arm. "Oh, that," I say, as if it's a matter of no importance at all. "The most bizarre thing--I had some kind of dream, and I woke myself up by biting my own arm." I roll my eyes. "The most confusing moment of my life. I thought at first some kind of animal had gotten into our bedroom."

"That's…odd," Stephen says cautiously, but not doubtfully. He is willing to believe me. Of course, why wouldn't he? I might be cold, I might be unresponsive, but I am honest. I have never lied to him. Before. "Looks like you really tore a chunk out."

"Apparently so." I examine the bite. "It's fading. It hurt, I don't mind telling you."

"I bet," Stephen says. He steps closer, traces the bite mark with his fingertip. I look up into his face. He wears a hesitant expression that gives way to a little smile, and then he bends down to kiss me.

This is wrong.

It's wrong. It's all wrong. I feel the sudden impulse to push him away. But I don't. I can't. Instead, after a moment in which I fight the urge to stiffen all over, I slide my arms around his neck and kiss him back.

He bends down and kisses my throat. "How about you let me bite you this time?" he asks. I manage a laugh, hoping he puts its breathless quality down to excitement instead of dread.

We haven't had sex in nearly two months. Since before the…thing with Andrea. The contrast between Stephen's touch and Andrea's shocks me. His hands are large and warm, almost rough as he handles me, presses me down on the bed, pulls off his sweater. He's tall and rangy and hairy and flat-chested and rough-skinned and has stubble and oh my God, I don't want him at all, but I don't know what else to do.

I'm giving her up, I remind myself hysterically, forcing myself not to flinch when he bends down to me and slides his hands inside my bathrobe. I am naked beneath. Maybe this won't take long. He seems to be in a hurry.

Stephen bites my shoulder. Hard. I yelp, and he gives me a little kiss that is not quite apologetic. I wonder if perhaps he does want to hurt me; if he will cloak that urge beneath gestures of love and hope I don't notice.

I need to pull this off, somehow. I try to remember how I respond to Andrea: the noises I make, the way I move my body. I ought to be able to fake passion more convincingly than ever. But I can't seem to do it. My body feels entirely frozen, clenched up in something very like horror. He kisses my neck, my shoulders; he touches my breasts; he squeezes one buttock and kisses my mouth. I feel nothing but loathing, but a yearning for this to be over with as soon as possible.

Finally he slides his fingers up the insides of my thighs to find that I am still bone-dry, and makes a frustrated sound. I squeeze my eyes shut, hold on tight, and pretend as hard as I can that I am back in the guestroom with Andrea, that her tongue is at work on me, or her fingers. I try to remember the way she smells, and the soft press of her body against mine, the way she is never rough with me--because she doesn't have to be, because she can make me her slave with the lightest touch.

It works, at least enough to ease the way for Stephen, who is apparently in no mood to linger tonight, thank God. I let him in, I even manage a moan, although the word 'rutting' is all I can think of. We are both silent, we don't make eye contact.

This. This is what my life will be like, without her. This is the closest thing to intimacy I will endure, the closest thing to passion I will experience. Meanwhile, she's got a boyfriend whom she loves a lot, and who can make her glow.

I moan again, this time in pure distress, and hope that Stephen mistakes it for something else. Apparently he does. His thrusts get faster, he begins to grunt, and I know that he is close. Good. I rock my hips in the rhythm that gets him off the fastest, I squeeze him, and he comes, shaking in my arms before going limp and heavy, and rolling off me, to the side. He slides out of me and rolls over again, on his back.

I want a shower.

"I guess it's too much to ask that you pretend to enjoy yourself," Stephen says flatly.

I try not to gulp. Apparently I am not very good at doing exactly that. "Why, no," I say falteringly. "Darling, I--what makes you think--of course I did."

He turns to glare at me, his face shiny with sweat, his eyes bright and hard with resentment. "Great," he says. "Let's go again. Right now."


He rolls over again and pins me under him. "No, no, come on," he says. "You didn't come, did you? You can't tell me you don't want me to keep going until you're happy. Of course, before that happens I could die of old age--"

"Stephen!" I push him off me, and sit up, tugging my bathrobe around myself. I feel sick, not least because he's right, and he knows it. "What's gotten into you?"

"Oh, I don't know," he says, his voice getting loud. I give the door a worried glance, hoping against hope that he will not wake up the girls downstairs. "Maybe I just thought it'd be nice not to feel like I'm torturing my wife every time I touch her. Or to pretend I'm in some kind of workable marriage."

"Workab--" I reach out and grab his arm. He shrugs me off. "Stephen, no," I say, trying not to panic. "You're overreacting. For heaven's sake, just because of the past half-hour you want to--"

"You think this is just about tonight?"

"--dismiss our marriage? Calm down and think about what you're saying--"

"You think this is just about tonight?" he demands again. "Come off it, Miranda. You were probably thinking about Runway the whole time, weren't you?"

"No," I say, and it's true. I don't think he'd like the truth much better, however.

"Okay, fine," he says. "Maybe it's the party this weekend, then. Or a gala or a fundraiser or your latest pair of shoes, maybe that's what got you hot and bothered for a whole ten seconds so I could--"

"It's not my fault you're not good at it!"


I said it. There it is, out in the open. I can't take it back, now can I?

We stare at each other across the length of the bed, panting and glaring, and I--am sure--looking like we want to kill each other.

"Well," he says, his voice a snarl. "So that's your problem. How long have you been faking it?"

I close my eyes. For a moment, I even want to tell him that it's not really his fault: he's just not Andrea. He can't help that. "No," I say quietly. "I'm…I'm sorry. I didn't mean--"

"Yes, you did," Stephen says, and stomps over to the closet, where he yanks out his own dressing gown. "I'm sleeping in the guestroom. Enjoy your privacy."

I only narrowly avoid bursting into laughter. Stephen is finally going to sleep in a bed where I most definitely didn't fake it. At least I changed the sheets.

But this is no laughing matter. Instead I say, pleadingly, "Stephen, we're both tired. You've had a long trip--and I've--" Done many things I shouldn't. "Just come to bed and we can talk about this in the morning," I finish. "Please."

"Yeah," Stephen says, jamming his arms into his bathrobe sleeves, "except in the morning you're off and running at six a.m., and so am I, and the only time I even see your face is over dinner when we try not to talk about how much we don't want to fuck each other."

His voice is too loud. "Stephen!" I hiss, darting another glance at the door. "For God's sake, the children--"

"They're not my children," he says.

I freeze in place, my mouth falling open. Regret flashes across his face for a moment, but he makes no effort to take back his words. Instead, he says, "Good night," and leaves the room without another word.

I sit down on the edge of the mattress, my knees knocking together. "Oh, God," I say to nobody in particular.

Once, I would have immediately buried myself in work, would have driven everything else out of my mind. But that won't be enough now. Now, I want her to be here. Right now. I want Andrea with me now, I want her touch to wash the last thirty minutes from my skin, to help me forget about everything else but the way she can make me feel.

Then, as if my wishing has made it so, I hear the front door opening downstairs. My eyes fly wildly to the clock. It's eleven. She's delivering the book. She is here, in my house, and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it tonight. So close, and yet so far. I do laugh, then, because I can't think what else to do.

After an interminably long time, the front door closes again. I pull my robe tightly around myself and go downstairs to fetch the book. On the way, I can't help ruminating about my marriage, and how long it's been breaking apart.

It's very strange, but in all the time that my assistants have serviced me, I never really considered that I was being unfaithful. I never really let myself think about it at all--that another woman's tongue could almost always make me come, when Stephen often couldn't. And it didn't matter very much. A momentary release of tension, a quick spasm of something that wasn't even pleasure so much as it was relief. Like a visit to the chiropractor. I never even looked at their faces. It meant nothing at all to me, and if I had stopped the practice before Andrea came along, I certainly could have learned to live without it.

All that changed in the moment when that lovely, whip-smart, defiant girl knelt before me, behind my newspaper, and pressed her mouth to me like it wasn't a duty, like she loved it, and turned me into someone else. I remember that moment, feeling as if my body had suddenly been hijacked and was acting entirely without my permission. It was terrifying--and that alone, that terror, that sheer novelty, thrilled me. I heard myself making noises, I felt my hips twisting and writhing, I felt my heart beating as if it was in my ears instead of my chest. She wasn't following the script. She wasn't hesitant, either.

I remember looking down at her, and seeing her staring right back up at me, into my eyes, without fear. It was all over, then. She had set out to beat me, and she did, and I've been begging for further and more debasing defeats ever since.

What would she say if she'd walked in on this fight, tonight? Maybe she'd pity me. Maybe she'd use it against me. Maybe she wouldn't care at all; maybe she'd forget all about it by the time she walked out the door.

The book's lying on the table. I pick it up, and then I hear the turn of the key in the front door once more, hear the outer door opening. I blink in surprise, and glance down at my bathrobe. It's late, and I'm certainly in no condition to receive visitors. Then my brain catches up with me and reminds me that visitors don't have keys to my home, so it has to be--

Andrea opens the inner door and staggers inside, carrying a particularly heavy load of dry cleaning. She stops in surprise when she sees me standing there, book in hand.

"Oh," she says around the bag, which she's clutching tightly to her. She glances at the book. "Um…sorry…I needed both hands for the…" She nods her head at the hall closet. "Uh. 'Scuse me?" I stand aside wordlessly and watch as she manhandles the bag into place in the closet.

She turns back to me, self-consciously brushing down her clothes, looking far more like the awkward girl who applied for the job than the succubus of recent weeks. My heart races nevertheless; I feel a tug of longing that stops up my throat. She clears her own throat. "Is there anything else I can do?"

I smile bitterly and shake my head. She turns to go, but pauses, her eyes going wide as they catch sight of my shoulder. I realize that my robe has slipped open just enough for her to see the bite mark that Stephen left. I immediately cover it up again, and open my mouth to say, 'That's all,' but the words won't come.

Andrea looks at my face, then. I wonder what I look like. I probably don't want to know.

"Are you okay?" she asks, her voice low.

I did not expect that: not genuine concern. It melts me, makes my yearning even greater than before. It is more dangerous than anything else that has happened yet.

"Go home," I say.

She opens her mouth to speak again.

"To Nate," I add.

Her mouth snaps shut, and her cheeks flush. She gives me a sharp nod, turns on her heel, and walks away. And that should be it, that should be all, but for some reason I hear myself making a noise. I don't even know what kind of noise it is, something that sounds kind of like "nnnh," but whatever it is, it causes her to whirl around and look at my face again. Then she seizes hold of my hand and drags me into the foyer, into a corner, out of sight of the door and the hallway. I drop the book.

She kisses me. Without being asked, without offering it as a reward. She presses me into the corner and kisses me. I grab her and kiss her back; my heart cracks open in my chest in a hot, fierce surge of something that is not quite joy, but is close enough.

This is right. Stephen was wrong, and this is right.

For the second time tonight, I feel a hand stealing beneath my robe, touching me. Her clever, nimble fingers find the remains of sex between my legs, and I shudder in a combination of regret and excitement. But she says nothing; she merely slides one finger inside, and gently, steadily rubs her thumb against my clitoris until I come, whimpering into her mouth at the sudden, exquisite release of tension. It takes practically no time at all.

Andrea slides her hand out. I wonder if she will lick her fingers clean, but instead she wipes them off on the inside of my bathrobe. "Don't want to taste him," she murmurs, and kisses me again. I swallow and try to catch my breath and wonder what this means--she kissed me of her own volition, touched me, doesn't want the taste of my husband.

She pats my hip, gives me a tight smile, and leaves without another word. I am still too overwhelmed to speak, and can only watch mutely as the door closes behind her. Then, after a moment, I take a deep, shuddering breath, bend down, and pick up the book.

I check myself in the hall mirror, and pat down my hair, straighten my robe. I'm still too red in the face. Not that it matters--the girls are in bed, and Stephen will remain in high dudgeon all night long, no doubt refusing to come out of the guestroom. I wonder how long it will be before we can only talk to each other through our lawyers.

Yet, now I am happy. More than that: I glow.

And this is when I realize that this thing with Andrea Sachs might, perhaps, have something to do with love.

Unfortunately, that is only the first of a series of very distressing revelations. The second occurs to me when I'm lying awake at about one in the morning, and after that, I abandon all hope of getting any sleep at all. When I return to the office the next day, surviving on coffee, I send Andrea out on a series of errands immediately because I cannot afford to let her distract me while I puzzle this one out.

I have never particularly enjoyed sex. Oh, I never hated it. It hasn't always revolted me, as it did with Stephen last night, but I had never been with a partner who truly excited me, until Andrea. And I have never, until Andrea, had a partner who could reliably make me come, unless you counted my assistants.

Who were all women.

I have loved fashion ever since I was a child. More than that, I loved fashion magazines. I loved their grace, elegance, and attention to beauty. Feminine beauty. I spent hours poring over those magazines: looking hungrily at the sleek bodies of the women inside, adorned with beautiful, expensive clothes and jewels, posing in exotic locations I yearned to visit. And I have spent my entire adult life surrounding myself with these women, dressing them up and playing with them like dolls, telling them exactly how I wanted them to appear, even to the shapes and curves of their bodies. Revelling in the cut of their clothes, the style of their hair, the scent of their perfumes.

This is not to say that I cannot appreciate masculine beauty. Of course I do. George, my first husband, was and still is a very handsome man. My friends--such as they were--told me how lucky I was, how they envied me, and I believed them. But as fond as I was of him, at least back then, as handsome as he was, he never interested me, he never fascinated me like the models and the actresses I worked with. I never felt the urge to possess George, or Greg, or Stephen. There is nothing more I would like on this Earth than to possess Andrea. 'Let me have you,' indeed.

I look down at the advertisement for Tommy Hilfiger that's laid out on my desk. A woman leans back against a man on the roof of a car, out in the middle of a desert. I briefly study the ad, and then close my eyes. Her body is long and lean and tanned; her hair is dirty blonde; she's wearing a bandanna and a loose white blouse. I couldn't say what the man looked like if somebody held a gun to my head.

Dear God. I'm a lesbian. I'm fifty years old, and I've just now figured out that I'm gay. The realization provokes any number of feelings in me: mortification, that I've been so slow on the uptake; a sense of relief, that something's fallen into place at last; and finally, a real kind of fury, because even if I've figured this out I still don't want to be a lesbian. I want to be happily married to my husband. This is extraordinarily inconvenient. How dare the universe do this to me?

More than that, I've seen lesbians. Oftentimes, they've been denouncing me personally, accusing me of distorting images of womanhood, of making women lose weight and shrink until they're about to disappear. Of hating women. I've seen them on television, and in magazines and newspapers, and sometimes picketing across the street from Elias-Clarke until Irv found some way to get rid of them. They're ridiculous. More often than not they were overweight, and had horrible haircuts, and the ugliest shoes I've ever seen, and apparently had never heard of either makeup or supportive undergarments. They carried signs and placards with words like "womyn" on them. They'd rather burn me in effigy than have me as one of their number. I'd prefer that, too. And I certainly don't want to have sex with any of them.

I wonder if there is some kind of underground movement for fashionable lesbians. I wonder if Nigel could tell me. I wonder if I am going out of my mind.

What would my children say, if they knew? Would they be ashamed of me? This is Manhattan, of course, not Mississippi, and they attend a very progressive school. Some of their friends have gay parents. They wouldn't have too much to endure in the way of teasing or mockery. I hope. But what would they think of me? They're ten years old. They can't possibly be expected to understand. Also…isn't homosexuality genetic? What if they're gay, too? They're identical, which I think means they have identical DNA, so it's possible they both could be, and dear God if I don't get some sleep soon I really will end up in a padded room.

What suddenly seems distressingly clear is that I really must divorce Stephen. He's already declared that he doesn't consider himself a father to the girls, so that's my last concern out the window. If he doesn't love them, if he doesn't care for them, then better to cut him loose sooner rather than later, to let him go before they can grow even more attached to him than they already are.

Moreover, it's not fair to him, to try to tie him to me under false pretenses. I wonder what I can say. Perhaps, "Darling, when I say it's not you, it's me, I really do mean it." Or will I need to say anything at all? It's possible he'll jump at the chance to be free, without even asking questions.

Nevertheless, I won't do that right now. I need to step back, to calm down, to be rational. I can't make any decisions in the heat of the moment. That's not what I do, that's not who I am, and that, at least, will not change. I should give this a few days, not least because I'll want to consult my attorney in the interim. Something tells me that this might well go beyond 'irreconcilable differences.' And I have no desire for this to find its way to the press. Oh, they'd eat that up, wouldn't they, the New York vultures? Soon enough, everything would be made known--possibly even the arrangement with my assistants, and that would ruin me forever. Miranda Priestly, taking advantage of hapless young girls. The Predator Editor. Wonderful.

Andrea returns from her latest errand at eight-thirty at night, looking exhausted and harassed. Still, of course she doesn't complain, and I am pleased to see that she's obviously made a quick stop in the washroom to make herself presentable before returning to the office proper with her packages. The exercise and fluster have turned her cheeks red and her eyes bright; in spite of her rest stop, she's still breathing quickly. And again, I feel that helpless clench at my own insides, the clench that takes revenge for every person I've ever exploited or hurt by clawing at me in return.

Emily has gone home, so there's nobody to man the phones. I don't care. "Come with me," I tell Andrea, and she follows me out to the lobby, to the elevators. If she is surprised that I allow her inside with me, she makes no sign. I press the button for the ground floor.

Then, when we've gone down two floors, I pull the emergency lever, and the car jerks to a stop. A bell rings out. Andrea looks at me with wide, interested eyes. I wonder what I am up to, what I'm going to say now. I don't have much in the way of a plan. I only know that I haven't been alone with her all day long, and after today, of all days, I need--I need--

I take a deep breath. "It's like this," I tell her, and then press her back against the elevator wall and kiss her, just like she did to me last night, in the foyer of my house. And again there is that marvelous feeling of rightness, in the face of everything else that is wrong.

Andrea allows me. She rests her hands against my shoulders and kisses me back, gently, patiently, preventing me from going as wild as I would like. For all that I'm the one who's got her against an elevator wall, she's still in charge. As she should be. God knows I am in no shape to run things right now. She has to carry us both through the next few minutes.

She does. She wraps her arms around my neck and pulls me close for a kiss that I feel all the way down to my toes. And then she kisses me again, and again, and I don't care if we don't have sex in the elevator because I could do this forever.

But then the elevator jerks and jolts, and we stagger apart. Maintenance has 'fixed' it and we are back on our way back to the ground floor, where we have absolutely no reason to be. Ten floors left to go until we reach bottom; we adjust our clothes, she pats down my hair, I fish a tissue out of my bag and blot the smeared lipstick at the corner of her mouth.

"Lipstick lesbians," she mutters.

My brain screeches to a halt on that word. "What?" I gasp. Is she saying she's--

"Nothing," she replies. "Just a phrase I heard somewhere. You haven't?" I shake my head mutely. "Are you okay?" she asks me, just like she did last night.

"I--" I am honest. "I have no idea."

She reaches up and brushes her fingers over my shoulder, where she knows Stephen's bite mark hides beneath my sleeve. "Does it hurt?"

"A little," I say, remembering the way it stung in the shower this morning. It didn't hurt as badly as the bite I gave myself, though.

She chews her lip. She very badly wants to say something. We only have two floors to go. "Well, out with it," I snap.

"Do you, um, love him?" she asks.

I blink. We stare at each other mutely until we reach the ground floor, and the elevator dings. Just before the metal doors slide open, I hear myself say, "No."

It's easy to make my confusion look like irritation as we exit the elevator. A man from Maintenance comes hurrying forward, apologizing profusely to me for the delay, saying he has no idea what went wrong, the sensors are saying that somebody pulled the emergency lever but obviously that's not correct. "Obviously not," I say briskly, and keep walking towards the revolving doors. Andrea follows.

We step out into the cool night air. It's a nice evening. Many streets away, my girls will be finishing their supper. Stephen is supposed to be home with them, though heaven only knows if he is or not.

"Where are we going?" she asks.

"I don't know," I say. "Just walk." Of course, we're not exactly wearing walking shoes, but New York is a city of pedestrians and we will make do.

Thus begins what is probably the strangest evening of my life. We, Andrea and I, we…just walk. For the first ten minutes, we say nothing. I take a few phone calls, she sends text messages to various people who still need to be on the hop.

I hang up on the last caller, and glance over at her. She's put her phone away too, and is looking around, taking in the sights. Still a tourist, after all these months. "And you?" I say. "You are in love with--what is his name?"

"Nate," she says, but to my frustration, she does not elaborate. She probably senses that elaboration would be unwise; if I knew who he was, I'd…well, I'd know who he was, and could do whatever I liked with that knowledge. "And yes, I am. I mean, I think so. I guess."

Hope hits my brain like a rush of alcohol. "You 'guess'?" I ask archly, hoping she can't see it.

Andrea shrugs. "Well…yeah," she says. "We've been together since sophomore year."

"Is he a journalist, too?" Wouldn't that be convenient? It wouldn't be hard to find out--

"No. He cooks. He's a chef." I frown. Well, that's still not an insurmountable problem. I have a great deal of influence with many restaurants. I am certain that if I can only find out his name, I can…I can do something that I probably should not do, and that certainly would not endear me to her. I'll call that Plan B.

"He doesn't like my job," she says suddenly. I glance over, surprised by the bitterness in her voice. "He thinks I work too much. He thinks it's changing me."

"It is," I say. "Get used to it." She looks dismayed, and I stop in the street, forcing grumbling New Yorkers to part around us.

"You're going to change, and nobody is going to like it," I say flatly. "It doesn't matter. Get over it. Tell him to get over it."

"What if he can't?" she whispers, looking more childlike than ever.

Oh, how I hope he doesn't. "Cut him loose," I say. "You don't need him." She opens her mouth to protest, and I cut her off, saying, "Love and need are not the same." I say this with the conviction that comes with everything I've learned in the past few weeks.

She wraps her arms around herself. She's wearing a jacket, but it's still chilly. We get moving again. When she speaks again, she sounds miserable. "He's applied to work at some fancy restaurant in Boston," she says. "He thinks I don't know about it. I saw an email on his laptop. He didn't even tell me."

Smiling, I tell myself, is not appropriate. To stave it off, I purse my lips and say, "Hmm." Then a dreadful thought occurs to me. "Would you follow him to Boston?"

Andrea laughs bitterly. "And do what? I doubt I could find a job there, either. Unless you wrote me a recommendation." She gives me a sidelong glance.

"Are you serious?" I ask. Though I might write one for her boyfriend.

She sighs. "I guess not." Then she shrugs again. "I don't want to move to Boston anyway. I've been there. I don't like it. I like New York. Can we get a cup of coffee or something? I'm freezing."

Because this is Manhattan, there is a coffee shop no further than two doors down. It's not a Starbucks, but she isn't particular, and I'm not likely to see anybody familiar in here. She gets her coffee to go, but glances longingly at a table in the corner. I sigh, and nod, and find myself sitting in the back of the shop, which is warm and smells overwhelmingly of coffee grounds. Tedious smooth jazz is piped in through some speakers. Andrea eventually stops shivering. "I thought you went to school in Chicago," I say. "Aren't you used to a little cold?"

"Yeah, and I grew up in Ohio," she says. "Doesn't matter. I hate the cold. That's something I don't like about New York, either. Plus traffic." She turns her cup in her hands, looking down into the coffee. "So," she says hesitantly, "what are you going to do about Stephen?"

She can cut to the heart of the matter, can't she? Perhaps she wouldn't be a total loss as a reporter after all. If only she can summon that bedroom confidence to work in the rest of her life. "Nothing yet," I say. True enough. "And you? What are you going to do about Nate?"

"Nothing yet," she says, "I guess."

The whole conversation is absurd. It's the closest to 'girl talk' I've ever come, and it's not girl talk at all. It feels very much as if we are negotiating the terms of some settlement, without admitting that there's anything to settle in the first place.

She looks at me directly, then, and I feel electrified, because that confidence is back in her eyes now. "So," she says consideringly. "You want to 'have' me."

I try very, very hard not to clench my hands together, or otherwise betray the surge of need she has just evoked in me. We are in public. "You know the answer to that," I say. This is different, too; talking about sex when we're not in the middle of doing it, or about to do it, or just finished doing it. "And you want to dial it back a notch."

"I don't…" She closes her eyes and sighs. "I don't want you to look like you did last night. I don't want to see that again."

I raise my eyebrows. "I doubt very much I will be having sex with Stephen again any time soon," I say.

"No," she says, opening her eyes again. "I mean--I can't explain it. Just the look on your face when I turned to go. I don't want to see that again." She turns her coffee cup around and around in her hands. "God. I don't know what I'm talking about. I don't know what I mean. Don't listen to me."

I cannot speak.

She swallows hard and looks up at me. "I like what we do," she says. "I'd like--I mean, I think I'd like to let you…" Her voice trails off, and then she adds, "Do you know how?"

My face feels scalded with both hope and shame. "No," I croak, and clear my throat. Well, what can she expect? I just figured out that I was gay this morning.

"That's okay," she says generously, and adds, "I didn't either. I read a book."

I gape at her. "A book? What do you mean, you read a book? You'd never--"

She blushes. It is immensely appealing. Her voice goes very low as she says, "Well, uh…I uh, you won't like this, but I read a book about how to go down on a woman and I had Nate try out the suggestions on me--" I make a strangled sound. "--and I just used the ones on you that I liked the most. It wasn't as tough as I thought it would be. We, um." She swallows hard and turns even redder. "I mean, we, we seem to go well together. Chemistry and all. Don't you think?"

I'm still stuck on Point One. "A book," I say faintly. "Do you still have it?"

"Yeah," she says. "I bought it. Um…do you want to borrow it?"

"…No," I say, after a moment's consideration. She nods. We spend the next two minutes not looking at each other.

"It's okay if it's not good," she blurts. I look at her in astonishment. "I mean--a lot of times it isn't, the first time with somebody--it's not like we have to get it perfect. Right?"

I squeeze my eyes shut. "We should get back to the office," I say, and try not to think about how her words might have implied that I'd get more than one chance at this. Then I glance at my watch. Almost nine-thirty. "No. You should. I need to go home."

"Oh," she says, her voice low again. "So, you don't want to…tonight…" She winces. "I freaked you out, didn't I?"

I don't want to? Oh, but I do. 'Want' doesn't even come close. Just not in the office after hours. Maybe it doesn't have to be perfect, maybe it doesn't even have to be good, but it will be in a bed. I glance around; nobody is watching us. I reach out and gently brush her ankle with the toe of my shoe. She looks up at me in surprise, and blushes, obviously reading my thoughts in my eyes.

"Andrea," I say, "at the first feasible opportunity, I am going to fuck you into next week."

Her jaw drops. I realize I have never cursed in front of her; I rarely curse at all. I give her my sweetest smile, and delight flashes unmistakably in her eyes. I realize then that, even if it's bad, it will be good.

Her smile is both sly and shy. "Do you want me to call your car and tell Roy to get you here?" she asks. "Or do you want to walk back?"

"Walk," I say, and gesture at the coffee. "I noticed you put half-and-half in that. You need the exercise."

She blinks at me. "I can't tell if you're kidding or not," she says slowly.

"Few people can," I say, and then I pay for her coffee.

When I return home, the girls are asleep. Stephen is reading in the den. We do not speak to each other.

It is strange to look at him and think, 'I will never sleep with this man again'--or perhaps any other man, while I'm at it. I make a mental note to contact my attorney in the morning.

Tonight, missing her, I consider touching myself. It doesn't seem half so fun without her watching me, and I discard the idea in frustration.

And then, the next day, opportunity knocks. Or rather, rings.

Andrea and I are in my car, on our way to Christian Louboutin, when Emily calls me. "I'm so sorry, Miranda," she says, already groveling, "but I've just been in touch with Nelson at Christian Lou's and he said to tell you that Patrice called in sick this afternoon with, I don't know, strep throat or something, so she needs to cancel the meet--"

"Fine," I say, and snap the phone shut without another word, my mind and heart already racing. This meeting was supposed to last from two until three-thirty. An hour and a half. Not long enough for what I want, but then again, perhaps my eyes are bigger than my…well.

The car stops at the curb. I take a deep breath and tell my driver, as he expects, "Three-thirty. Sharp."

"Yes, ma'am," he replies, as I shut the door behind me. Andrea nips over to the curb, and he pulls away.

Andrea heads for the door, but I stop her with a quick hand on her elbow. "We're not going in," I say.

"Um…okay," she says, sounding puzzled.

"That was Emily on the phone," I say quietly. "She just told me that the meeting has been canceled." Andrea blinks and frowns, and then her eyes go wide with understanding. I clear my throat. "So…we have time. If you--"

She is already looking around, brow furrowed again in concentration. "Not much time," she says. "Are there any hotels around here that wouldn't recognize you?"

Something inside me collapses with relief. She will indulge me. More than that--she might even want this, too. For herself. I cast my own gaze around. I have never yet been so frustrated by the lack of budget lodging within one hundred feet of my person. How the hell am I supposed to know where the cheap hotels are?

Andrea purses her lips, and then, to my surprise, whisks off her expensive necklace with the Chanel logo all over it. "Would you please hold this for me? I've got an idea." I take the necklace in speechless surprise. "Wait right here," she says, and hurries a few doors down, into a corner market run by an older Korean man. She emerges just a few minutes later, smiling triumphantly. "The Manhatten Broadway Hotel," she says, and takes her necklace back. "Thanks. This way."

"What did you say?" I ask, following her. "Why did you give me your necklace?"

"Oh, I put on the old dumb-hick-tourist routine," she says. "You know. 'My aunt and I are looking for a cheap place to stay, the airline lost our luggage, and somehow we ended up here'…"

"Your aunt?" I splutter.

She glances at me. "Calling you my mother would have been a lot creepier. Anyway, I didn't think wearing a Chanel necklace would convince him that I was in desperate need of help."

I admire her in spite of myself. She will do quite well in my world, whether on her own or…by my side. Then I check that thought quickly. It does not do to leap ahead. I must live for the moment, by the moment.

Within moments, we are approaching a building that, while not luxurious, doesn't seem exactly shabby. I can probably stand to get naked inside. Andrea turns to me and says, seriously, "Just in case, you can let me check in; then I can call you and you can come straight up to the room."

I blink. "Have you done this before, or something?"

She grins, and I find it so appealing that I could press her against the nearest wall right here in the street. "No, but I watch TV," she says, and darts inside the hotel, leaving me at a loss outside. How long will it take her to secure a room? I don't want to stand outside cooling my heels; they might not know me at this hotel, but odds are, if I remain on this street long enough, in the heart of the fashion district, someone will pick me out of a crowd with no difficulty at all. I choose a nearby, trashy-looking souvenir store, and spend the next few minutes browsing frosted shot glasses with "I Luv NY" printed on them.

After what seems like forever, my phone rings. "Room 540," she chirps. "Top floor, end of the hall."

No noisy footsteps above us, no loud neighbors to one side. Clever girl. The words 'I'm coming' almost escape my mouth, before I catch and exchange them for, "I'm on my way." I leave the store thinking that yes, at the moment, I rather do love New York. I can afford to be charitable, given that I am not stopped on the way inside by any photographers or acquaintances, well-meaning or otherwise. There is always the chance, of course, that some paparazzi man is lurking behind the nearest garbage can with a camera, waiting to snap grainy shots of me going in and out; that possibility never goes away.

Right now, I do not care. Lobby. Do not make eye contact. Elevator. Ride up alone. Fifth floor. Try not to choke on own heartbeat. Room 540. Knock on the door.

She opens it. She smiles at me, as if we have just accomplished something marvelous, and tugs me inside before shutting the door, pressing me against it, and kissing me, giggling in childish delight. This is an adventure for her. She is getting away with something naughty.

I suppose I am, too. But then I feel the wet press of her tongue against my mouth and I forget about everything else, like I always do. I haven't kissed her enough for this not to feel fresh, new, eminently desirable. Not yet. Perhaps…by the end of this afternoon. An hour and a half. Ninety minutes. Closer to eighty minutes, now. I want to savor every second even as I realize we have no time to lose.

Then she places her hands on my shoulders and steps back from me. She's blushing and trembling, and for the first time, she looks uncertain. My heart stops. Is she getting cold feet? Now?

But then she slips her blouse up, over her head, and lets it fall to the floor behind her. I am left gaping at her lace-covered breasts, her shoulders, her belly. Her skin is startlingly pale, though splotched red with embarrassment. She clears her throat. "You, um," she said, "you wanted to see me."

My mouth is dry as a desert. I still manage to say, "Yes," from where I am leaning against the door. Then I add, quickly, "Please."

"All right," she says, and takes off her bra. I've seen women in all stages of undress, of course, in my work. I always thought I'd looked at them with a clinical eye, although now I doubt myself. But this: there is nothing clinical about this. She's half-naked and already I cannot wait. I step forward, pull her to me, kiss her again, and this time she is warmer and closer against me than ever before. She shivers and sighs, cards her fingers through my hair.

I cannot breathe, I cannot think. For only the second time, I kiss her throat, and this time I am not denied. Indeed, she arches against me with another sigh, and I do my best to go slowly, to keep my kisses light and teasing, when all I want to do is take, take, take--

"You want to have me," she purrs in my ear, and if I thought my head was spinning before, it is a cyclone now. Her embarrassment has apparently vanished, and she is once again the only person who seems to be able to tap into my desires, to expose my id, effortlessly. "You can, now." She kisses me right below my ear. "What do you want to do to me, Miranda?"

"Everything," I gasp, because there is no other answer, even if I don't know what 'everything' can possibly entail.

She shivers again. "Well, then," she says, and slips her hands between us to start unbuttoning my blouse. "We'd better get started."

It's the best idea she's ever had, I'm sure, and we are both naked very quickly. She's seen me before, of course, and for her part, she has no more time to get embarrassed about nudity, because I am on her the moment her underwear gets tossed to the floor.

I have, I admit, been entertaining thoughts about whether or not I am really gay, about whether or not I might just be mistaken. My doubts vanish the instant I cup her breasts in my hands and hear the little 'mmm' she gives in appreciation. I kiss her, again and again, with an eagerness that would shame me if I didn't know that sometimes you have to store up supplies in case of famine. She nips my bottom lip, and grins against my mouth as she tugs on my shoulders, pulling us both down on top of the bed's coverlet.

Then her bare body is pressed against mine, our arms sliding around each other, my legs rubbing against her legs, and all I can do is wonder why I haven't been having sex with women since puberty. Maybe then this wouldn't overwhelm me so much; maybe then the mere press of her breasts against mine, both painful and exciting, wouldn't make it impossible for me to think.

Then again, maybe not. I try to gather myself, to take advantage of the fact that now I can touch her for the first time.

I can't wait. She never does, why should I? I wriggle away from her just far enough so that I can get my hand between us, part her thighs, find the wetness between them. And she is wet. Concrete proof of her arousal destroys the few remaining brain cells I have left; she does want this. She does want me. I wonder if she's gotten aroused during our previous encounters--I hope she has--I can't afford to take the time to ask.

Andrea murmurs against my mouth, slides her hands up and down my back, and parts her legs wider. I realize that I don't exactly know what to do. Maybe I should have borrowed that book after all. But oh God, her flesh is hot and slick and silky soft against my fingertips, and I just have to close my eyes and revel in the feel of her, all of her, for a moment. Somebody moans and I realize that, for once, it isn't me.

"Yes," she breathes against my cheek, "like that--here--"

Then her hand is between my legs. We're touching each other at the same time, she is deliberately mimicking my rhythm, my movements, and it is the most erotic thing that has ever happened to me. I try to concentrate. This is my time, this is my turn. But I can't, because her fingers are as wicked as ever, and I soon feel my own fingers beginning to fumble as she sets my synapses alight one by one. I cannot fight her. I'll never win. And soon enough, I accept defeat as I let her go, and arch back against the bed with a desperate little cry while she makes me come.

Not enough. Not nearly enough. I lie still and try to marshal my resources while she nibbles at the side of my neck, purring smugly. "Was it good?" she whispers.

"Yes," I rasp. She knows that it was. She always knows. "Come here." We kiss again, and I risk a precious couple of minutes in order to touch her, to caress and fondle in any way I like, while she moves against me in appreciation.

Before I can think better of it, before I can get cold feet of my own, I lick and kiss my way down her body. She figures out quickly what I'm up to, and holds her breath in anticipation. Then she says: "Remember--doesn't have to be perfect--"

What a ringing vote of confidence. I give her my most withering glare, and get a sheepish look from her in return before I bend down and…have my turn.

I've never liked giving blowjobs. This is different. Like everything else we have done, it feels messy and confusing and sloppy and perfect. Before I know it, I'm going down on her because I want to, because I want the taste and feel of her, and I don't care what she thinks about it one way or the other.

Oddly enough, this appears to be the correct approach. She grabs my head, babbles under her breath, surges up against my mouth, and then oh--

She did it. I did it. I made her come. Of course, I have a long way to go before we're even, and I might never catch up, but it's a start. My head bubbles and buzzes as if I've just had too much champagne. Fitting, since I want to celebrate.

I kiss the crease of her leg. She twitches and makes an 'ooh' noise. I realize that my face is wet from my chin to my eyebrows. Hah. Now, at long last, it is my turn to smirk and say, "Was it good?"

"Huh," she says, staring up at the ceiling. "I guess so." Then, before I can decide whether to kill her or myself, she raises her head and gives me a bleary, but ebullient smile. "You kidding? That was great." She strokes my hair. "C'mere. Please?"

I c'mere. "Not perfect, then?" I mutter against her lips, still feeling peevish.

"I wouldn't know," she says, her voice still a little breathless. "I was too busy coming to take notes." She slides her legs up around my waist, and my mind blanks out again while we kiss. We are sticky and sweaty now, and, as she traces my spine with her fingertips, I do not care. It's about time I'm not the only one who's a mess.

Now that we've both come, things don't seem as insanely urgent, and yet neither of us seems to want to stop. We don't speak, but the silence does not feel awkward. Nor does it feel particularly loaded or meaningful. There's just nothing to talk about that could possibly be more important than taking one of her nipples between my teeth and finding out that makes her pant and moan. The words she says are concise and to the point: "Oh…good…yes…please." I savor them. She has always been able to undo me with her voice; I wish I knew the words that could do the same to her, but for now, this will have to do.

And it works. I undo her; she trembles and moans beneath my mouth and hands. She was right. We do have wonderful chemistry. She is more than willing to move my fingers where she wants them most, to whisper commands in my ears that, as always, I am happy to obey--and for once, they are for her pleasure, not mine. As it happens, there is a real difference between 'Hook your leg over my shoulder so I can make you come,' and 'Use your thumb right there so you can make me come, oh God yes!'

As always, she returns the favor. She gives it her all, she intoxicates me. I've never had such a good time in my life.

"Oh my God," she says eventually, her voice faint, "you're pretty good at this." I kiss her in reply. Her lipstick is smeared all over her mouth and cheeks, and her smudgeproof mascara is more smudge than proof. Her hair sticks to her sweaty forehead. Marvelous. I kiss her again, and murmur contentedly when she slides her arms around my neck.

A thought occurs to me. "What time is it?" I ask as I nuzzle her shoulder.

"Hmm," she says. "I don't know…it's probably…shit!"

She scrambles out from under me so quickly that she nearly knocks me aside. In confusion, I glance at the alarm clock by the bed. It reads 3:45. My driver was supposed to pick us both up fifteen minutes ago.

"Shit, shit, shit," Andrea chants, grabbing articles of clothing apparently at random, and trying to put them all on at once. I sit and watch her in bemusement. It's like a circus performance. She gives me a panicked glance and says, "Miranda, come on!"

I raise my eyebrows, and rise from the bed, strolling leisurely (and nakedly) over to my Tods bag, where I fish out my phone. Then I speed-dial my driver and, when he picks up, tell him, "The meeting is running long. I'm setting them straight about a few things. I'll be finished by four-thirty."

"Yes, ma--" he says before I hang up. I turn to regard Andrea with a smirk.

She stares at me, frozen with one foot in the air as she tries to wedge it into a slingback pump. I'm not sure why, since she doesn't have her underwear on yet. Her hair is sticking up off every side of her head, and the Chanel necklace dangles from the fingertips of her other hand. Before I know it, I am laughing, and it feels nearly as good as sex. She scowls, and blushes, and I laugh harder. This: this is my tormenter.

I get myself under control, and clear my throat before I take the necklace from her and drop it back down on the floor. She puts her other foot back on the floor, looking extremely sheepish, and I cup her face in my hands. "Lesson one," I say. "I am not accountable to my driver."

"Or anyone," she grouses.

"Mostly," I agree, and kiss her.

She shivers, and murmurs between kisses: "Won't they…wonder where we…are…at the office?"

"Probably," I say, and bend to her throat. "Do you think they will ask me?"

"They'll ask me," Andrea says, but she slides her hands up and down my back.

"You'll think of something," I say. "You're much smarter than you look."

She pulls back and glares at me. I merely smile back politely. "You're kind of sassy when you're pleased with yourself, aren't you?" she says, and then, without warning, slides her fingers between my legs once more.

I would like to say that doesn't work so well on me as it used to. Sadly, it only works better, and soon enough I am leaned up against the nearest wall, writhing on her fingers while she chuckles and licks beneath my ear. I cannot bring myself to mind.

When my head stops spinning, it's four o'clock. We have a half-hour to make ourselves presentable and get down to Christian Louboutin--better make it twenty minutes, in case my driver arrives early. He shouldn't--he knows he'll never find a parking space--but better safe than sorry.

"Shower together?" Andrea suggests.

Brilliant: then we can be another hour late. "I'll be out in five minutes," I say, and head in alone, ignoring her pout. I actually manage it in four. After years of looking perfect every day, I have the practice down to a fine art, and by the time she finishes her own shower I am already fully dressed and reapplying my makeup.

She dresses and fluffs her hair so that it looks presentable, if not actually good. While she's painting her lips again, I say, "I'm going downstairs. I would appreciate it if you would pay the bill." I open my wallet and give her a hundred-dollar-bill. "This better cover it."

"Oh, I put it on Runway's expense account," she says breezily. When I stare at her in speechless horror, she grins. "Kidding." Of course. She would be a joker. I drop the bill on the bed. "Oh," she says, "hey," and then she stands up, looking a little apprehensive as she smooths down her skirt. "Are we, um…do you want to do this again sometime?"

I blink and hope against hope that this isn't just the post-orgasm haze talking. I consider and discard a thousand different flip responses before I say, simply, "Yes."

"Oh." She nods, and clears her throat. "S-so, I guess this would be an…we're having an affair or something." Then she squeezes her eyes shut, as if she just realized how juvenile that sounded.

Juvenile, but true. When she opens her eyes again, I nod. She runs a hand through her hair, messing it up again, before she says, "I guess I hope Nate really does get that job in Boston." She laughs bitterly.

Not the best time to bring up the boyfriend, but since I agree with her, I let it slide. "Well, maybe I can help with that," I say. She blinks at me. "Meet me at the front door." And then I leave the room, still tingling pleasantly from our encounter.

An affair. I suppose the thought should make me feel guilty. Instead, all I can think is that it's delightfully…mutual-sounding. I turn off the part of my mind that insists it can never mean anything, it can never go anywhere, it can never have any lasting consequences that aren't negative ones. I do not want to think about that right now. Right now, what I want is to have a great deal of sex with Andrea at every available opportunity, and make her tremble and moan, and not think about anything else.

I am fifty years old. I have just realized I'm gay. I'm leaving my husband. And it's about time I had a little fun.