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A Misunderstanding

Chapter Text

Whatever Therese imagined or dreamed for this evening, whatever secret hope she entertained and then told herself to dismiss, what she did not expect was to walk into a room and find another woman kissing Carol Ross.

Honestly, how she ended up at this party in the first place is still a source of bafflement to her. It all started with a job, just a simple job, photographing for a furniture house’s spring catalogue. She answered the advertisement in the paper and when they heard that she worked for The Times, they hired her on the spot. Something to be said for the prestige of her day job—even if the pay is bad and the men constantly try to get her to go on dates with them.  

The shop was on 4th Avenue. Therese showed up on Saturday morning, and a man called Dennis Myers (the owner) gave her a tour of the floor, pointing out that all the new pieces had a special little tag on them, so she’d know what to shoot.

This was not the sort of work Therese usually enjoyed. She preferred photographing people, in all their messiness and beauty. She liked to imagine what their secret lives entailed, what their faces and outward appearance hid from the world. Perhaps she projected onto them, having, as she did, such a secret life. But in any case, when it came to the secret lives of furniture… Therese was initially flummoxed.

Except that once she had the lay of the project, each chair and table and sofa and bed frame unfurled for her a whole future of possibilities, if her pictures helped them sell. She imagined families for the furniture. Dogs jumping up on the settees. Children running around the dining room tables. Roommates watching TV on the couches and couples making love in the beds. She got so caught up in the work, in the stories, that she never saw her coming. Didn’t know anyone was behind her until—

“Excuse me.”

It startled her. Would have startled her, even if she had been paying attention. The voice was low and rich, a little husky. When Therese spun around she nearly choked.

“Oh, I’m sorry, did I startle you?” the woman asked.

She was arrestingly beautiful, like a starlet or a queen. Therese had always prided herself on the ability to school her expressions, to seem cool and calm even when she wasn’t—even when she saw a pretty woman. This time, however. Therese gaped, shook herself, babbled nervously, “Oh, no, no, I’m sorry, uh—can I help you?”

The woman gave her a smile that looked amused, maybe even charmed. Her smile was as gorgeous as the rest of her, wide and pearlescent and it made her eyes sparkle. Eyes that, Therese quickly perceived, were pale and hypnotizing.

The woman asked, “Would you like some tea? Coffee? Only I was about to get myself some from the breakroom and thought I’d ask. You’ve been working for two hours.”

It was such an unexpected gesture of kindness that first Therese didn’t know how to respond. And when she did respond, her own words baffled her— “Oh, no. Thank you.” 

“You’re sure?” the woman asked. “Not thirsty at all?”

In fact, Therese was thirsty. Thirstier now that that regal head was tilting quizzically sideways. And yet, inexplicably, she shook her head again. “Thank you, though. I’m quite all right.”

This time the woman’s smile was definitely amused. Her eyes seemed to bore right into her, as if in her crown of golden hair she was a queen observing the foolishness of a court jester. Therese had never seen such cheekbones. The woman wore a sophisticated gray pantsuit with expensive-looking jewelry, and Therese felt like a tiny, ugly mouse in her simple weekend dress.

“Well, all right, then,” the woman said. Her tone was dry, her smile was mischievous, and those eyes were diamond bright. “Let me know if you change your mind.”

The moment she walked away (she was tall, like a goddess, her gait elegant and fascinating), Therese changed her mind. Wanted to call out to her, to take back her ridiculous refusal. But it was too late. And the woman never came back. Therese dawdled through her final photographs, hoping to see her again, but in the end she finished the project without catching another glimpse of her. Dennis asked as she was packing up, “When will the prints be ready?”

“I can bring them on Monday,” Therese replied. “Is five o’clock too late?”

He said it wasn’t. Therese took one last surreptitious look around the furniture house, but the woman was no where to be seen. And when she came back on Monday, photographs and negatives in hand, the woman was still nowhere to be seen, and so Therese went back to her life, and thought of the woman as a mirage, a fantasy, something she had conjured out of daydream—

Watching Carol Ross kiss another woman is far from a dream.

Therese’s eyes go wide as dinner plates, her hand on the door knob clenching in startlement. She must make a sound, a gasp, perhaps, because Carol wrenches away from the woman in front of her (a tall woman, like Carol, who Therese noticed at the party earlier) and looks directly at Therese. Her look is sharp as glass, her eyes like gray flints, her mouth flushed from kissing.

“Excuse me,” says Therese, and spins around, hurrying back down the hall.

Her eyes feel hot. Her throat feels thick. She’s got no right to feel this way, because while she didn’t know what this night would hold, she should never have dared to hope it would end with Carol Ross kissing her.

After all, the phone call from Carol had been entirely professional. Two weeks after the job at the furniture store, she was at her desk at The Times when Lucy popped her head around a corner and told her, “Telephone for you, Terry. Some woman called Carol Ross? She says she works at Myers’ Furniture?”

Of course, Therese didn’t recognize the name, and assumed it was some secretary of Mr. Myers’, maybe with questions about the photographs. She went into the next room and picked up the receiver, saying, “Hello, this is Therese Belivet.”

The voice that answered was a smoky drawl, “Ms. Belivet, this is Carol Ross. We met briefly while you were taking photographs for the catalogue?”

Therese’s mouth went dry. She barely had the self-control to squeak out a stunned, “Oh, hello, Mrs. Ross.” And then, “Were the photographs all right?”

“Yes, they were excellent. Dennis is very pleased. So much so he’d like to hire you for something else. I’m hosting the company Christmas party this Friday night, and Dennis wants to offer the staff formal family portraits as a kind of gift. I have a lovely sitting room. We could set you up there. It’ll be about ten families. Are you free?”

She spoke briskly. Therese wondered if she was the secretary. That would explain her offering tea, wouldn’t it? And arranging this new job? Only she had seemed that morning, and seemed now, over the phone, far too magnificent to be any man’s secretary.

Therese had paused too long. Carol Ross said, “Ms. Belivet? Are you still there?”

“Yes, yes of course,” Therese stumbled. “Um, thank you very much. I can certainly take those portraits for you.”

A pause. The woman asked, “And you’ve done portraits before?” as if suddenly she were reconsidering the choice.

“Oh, yes,” Therese hastened to assure her, thinking that she had acted like a nincompoop and now Carol must think she was one. “I regularly do them as part of my work here at The Times. And I’ve had several private bookings, as well as one contract with a local elementary school—”

“Well, that’s that,” said the woman. “Sold. The party starts at 7:00 but I’d like you here at 6:00 to set up. Is that all right?”

“Yes, of course. Thank you, Mrs. Ross.”

“Please,” the woman said. “Call me Carol.”

Carol Carol Carol.

It was a name that rang in Therese’s ears, all the rest of the week. As pervasive as the memory of Carol’s face, of her statuesque build, of her relaxed but authoritative stride, as she’d walked away that morning in the store.

Therese was not new to the experience of noticing a beautiful woman. She often noticed them, on the streets of New York, or at the parties that Gen invited her to. Sometimes the women noticed her back. Sometimes there were discrete kisses in corners, and sometimes equally discrete nights. Sharing her bed. Sharing her body. Letting the pleasure and freedom of connection unfurl on a small twin mattress. Therese, who had never enjoyed sex with men, enjoyed sex with women very much. Perhaps it had never become something more—perhaps the women she met never woke in her the kind of deep, consuming passion that Gen described when she talked about her own affairs—but Therese wasn’t sure she wanted that. It sounded messy. A little dangerous, even. She had got a taste of it the first time she kissed Gen, the first time she slept with Gen: something new blooming inside her, intoxicating and terrifying and consumptive, like all she could think and breathe was the memory of the other woman’s touch, and those memories would eat her alive from the inside.

Thankfully, Gen helped her understand that she wasn’t in love with her, but simply overwhelmed by the discovery that she’d made about herself. They slept together a few more times, but in the end decided to be friends. It was better now, because Therese had overcome those feverish emotions that dominated her in the week after she and Gen met.

Overcome them, that is, until Carol Ross. Carol Ross, whom she has just seen kissing a woman.

Therese rushes into the sitting room to find the rest of the wait staff clearing away discarded glasses. The apartment has emptied out, all the guests gone home, and Therese’s camera is waiting for her in its case on the coffee table. She grabs it, swinging it over her shoulder. If Carol still wants to pay her after that incredible blunder, she can send it to her by mail. The thought of waiting any longer to speak with her is mortifying. Therese has just got the front door open when that voice calls out behind her—

“Ms. Belivet?”

Therese freezes, winces, considers running for it, and then finally turns to find Carol standing not four feet away. Her expression is intense, but her feelings are unreadable. Therese momentarily stops breathing, transported back to a moment not five hours ago, when she knocked on the door to the Madison Avenue apartment. It opened promptly, and Carol was there.

“Oh, it is you!” Carol said cheerfully. “Come in, come in!”  

Carol was wearing a very handsome dress, just a shade bluer than teal, and a triple layered necklace of delicate pearls, and other jewelry, equally striking. But it was her face that left Therese shivering inside, for Carol was even more beautiful than she remembered, her gray eyes magnetic and her lips parted in a wide smile. Her wave of blonde hair looked like gold. Therese followed her like an awestruck puppy, into the equally awe-inspiring interior of her large apartment. Now Therese knew for certain that she was not a secretary, because no secretary could afford such a space, high-ceiled and stylishly decorated, with even a baby grand piano in the corner by the fireplace. There was a Christmas tree, too, and Carol gestured at it.

“I thought you could take the portraits in here, what do you think?”

Therese looked around, trying for an air of professional assessment. The sitting room led into an equally large dining room, which adjoined the kitchen, and there was a hallway to the right that must be where the bedrooms were.

“Yes, this will be lovely,” Therese said. “Will your guests have enough room if I take up that much space?”

“Oh, they can spread out,” said Carol gaily. “I’m not formal. Also there’s a balcony off the dining room. People tend to smoke out there.”

Carol gestured, and Therese saw the double doors behind the mahogany dining table. Therese thought Carol must entertain quite a lot, or else have a large family—the apartment was huge!

Carol had gone to the end table next to the sofa and picked up a cigarette case. She took out a cigarette and lit it and dragged on the end, watching Therese closely.

“I read The Times this morning. I saw your byline on a couple of photographs, the ones of the parish nativity out in Brooklyn.”

“Oh,” Therese said, wide-eyed. 

“You’re very talented. I don’t often notice pictures in the paper but your shots of the children looking at the nativity were… affecting.”

“Thank you.”

“I think I told you there will be about ten families here tonight. About thirteen children and their parents. My co-worker Maude is bringing her cocker spaniel.” Carol grinned, and there was something so arresting about it, almost rakish, like she was telling a sly joke and inviting Therese into it. “I’m not one to police what makes a family,” she drawled.

Therese felt her cheeks pink, and didn’t know why.

“And your family?” Therese asks. “I assume I’ll be doing your portrait, as well?”

At this, Carol took another long drag of her cigarette. She regarded Therese in a pensive, slightly arrogant way, that made Therese suddenly nervous. Had she said something wrong? Had she—

“I’m divorced,” Carol said. “And my daughter is with her father this weekend.”

Therese’s eyes widened again. “Oh, I’m sorry, I—”

“Don’t be,” Carol interrupted, with a firmness that cut off the rest of Therese’s apology. “It happened two years ago. I’m quite better off on my own.”

Therese looked around again at the apartment, so large, so beautiful. To live here, all by oneself… It made her suddenly sad. She looked at Carol again and Carol’s eyes were still assessing. Smoke curled up from the cigarette. Therese was certain Carol had guessed her thoughts, and this embarrassed her—for who was she to dare think anything about Carol Ross was sad?

“Your home is lovely,” she said, to cover herself.

Finally, Carol smiled. “Yes, I like it. And what about you, Therese Belivet? Do you live alone?”  

The question took Therese off guard, made her pause and lock eyes with this woman, this stranger, who watched her back with an unreadable intensity. Just a few years ago, Therese would have thought nothing of this question. Would have seen it for what it probably was—friendly small talk. But since meeting Gen two years ago, since kissing Gen, since learning all in a flood of unanticipated revelation that there was a reason she did not like kissing Richard or Dannie or any other boy—since then, Therese had found herself inducted into a secret world. A world of women whose casual small talk was so often code. A world where looks, smiles, gestures, took on a meaning that the average person didn’t even realize existed.

Therese herself had learned, slowly and cautiously, to speak this secret code—and to recognize when it was being spoken to her. But as with all new languages, there would always be the risk of mistakes. Carol Ross, looking at her just so, eyes like glittering jewels, asking that question—Carol Ross might mean nothing by it at all. And yet, Therese thought—

“I do live alone,” said Therese, looking her straight in the eyes.

A lift of Carol’s eyebrow. “No boyfriend?” she asked.

And Therese said, heart in her throat, barely breathing, “No boyfriend.”

For a moment they were both still as statues, watching each other, and something flickered in Carol’s eyes, but before Therese could glean its meaning—someone came in from the kitchen. Waitstaff, with a question about the catering. Carol was whisked away. Therese, almost trembling, turned her focus on preparing for the night’s work.

And now, that work is over. And all Therese had wanted to do was find Carol, thank her for the job, settle the awkwardness of payment. Maybe talk a little more… Instead, she is standing in Carol’s doorway, and Carol is looking at her with a fierce expression.

The older woman glances toward the waitstaff, then looks at her again.

“I’m so sorry,” she says. “I forgot to pay you. Would you mind stepping into my office briefly?”

The look on Carol’s face is sharp, and urgent, and Therese realizes that she thinks Therese is going to refuse, maybe even make a scene. Therese gives a short nod, and then follows Carol out of the sitting room. In the hallway, Therese can’t help glancing down to the bedroom at the far end. There’s no sign of the other woman, who Therese distinctly remembers photographing with her husband and son. Carol takes her the opposite way, and directly into a small office. Carol shuts the door, and they are facing each other again.

“Ms. Belivet,” Carol says, “I’d like to… explain.”

Therese’s eyes widen. “Oh, Mrs. Ross, it—it’s not necessary—”

“No, no,” says Carol, a little sharply. “I think it is.” She passes a hand across her waist, a nervous gesture, and she breathes in through her nostrils, looking deeply unsettled. But when she speaks she still has that arrogance in her voice, “Please understand that my friend had a lot to drink tonight. She spilled something on her dress and we went into my room to clean her up. I was completely unprepared for her advance.”

Carol looks at her keenly. Therese says after a moment, “Oh.”

“Yes, and, to be honest, I don’t think she even knew what she was doing. She’s having trouble in her marriage, that sort of thing. I think she was just confused, or she would never have done that.”

“Oh,” says Therese again, and could kick herself for the asinine response. So she adds, “I’m—I’m sure it’s very difficult, struggling with one’s… husband.”

“Yes, and so I think it would be quite unfair if anyone—” a significant look, “—were to… misconstrue or judge or—”

Therese, realizing what Carol fears, hastens to reassure her, “Oh, Mrs. Ross, no, I—”

“It’s not Mrs.,” Carol snaps. “I’m a single woman. And as a single woman yourself I’m sure that you can appreciate that we are subject to certain scrutiny, and that a misunderstanding of this type could lead someone, an employer, for example, to—”

“I’m not a gossip,” Therese interrupts, as quickly and firmly as she can with Carol’s voice talking over her. And it works. Carol stops. Stares at her. Therese adds earnestly. “I’m not inclined to spread rumors about you, or—or any woman—who—”

She breaks off, noting the intensity of Carol’s look, the slightest narrowing of her eyes. Suspicion. Uncertainty. And then, slowly, cautious hope.

“Well,” Carol says, sounding wooden, her body ramrod straight. “Well, that is… that is good to hear, Ms. Belivet.”

Therese, relieved to see that shadow of panic retreat from Carol’s eyes, smiles tentatively. After a moment Carol smiles back, but it’s more like a grimace, awkward and uncomfortable. At least her posture has relaxed a little bit. Therese remembers speaking to her just an hour ago, when she seemed perfectly relaxed, happy and vibrant as they crossed paths in the kitchen. Carol was giving instructions to the waitstaff and Therese, who had come looking for some water, stopped short to watch her. She was mesmerizing, so tall, so elegant. She gestured in a lazy way as she explained things to the staff, and when they said they understood she smiled brightly and warmly, and Therese thought she would kill to have such a smile directed at her.

Which was when Carol turned to leave—and saw her. And suddenly Therese got her wish.

“Oh,” said Carol. “Ms. Belivet. Is everything all right?”

“Yes, thank you,” Therese smiled. She smiled much wider than the situation warranted. She felt a little light-headed, a little giddy, standing in the same room as this spectacular woman. “I just thought I’d find a glass of water.”

“Of course!” said Carol. “I should have brought you something! Would you like anything else? Let me make you a drink.”

“Oh, no,” Therese tried to say, “that’s not necessary, I—”

“Nonsense,” said Carol, and moved toward the bar that was set up on her counter. “You’re my guest.” Therese, who had thought herself no more than hired help, couldn’t restrain a delighted smile as Carol asked, “What would you like? Martini? Bourbon? Wine?”

“Um… wine, thank you. Anything red.”

Carol grinned. “Red it is,” and grabbed the bottle and a glass, and poured. She asked, “How are the pictures coming?”

Therese gave a pleased nod. “Very well. Everyone is relaxed and happy, and that makes it go better.”

A brilliant laugh from Carol. “Yes, they ought to be relaxed and happy. Dennis has just handed out the bonuses!”

Therese grinned back at her, accepting the glass of wine. She took a sip and it was dry and floral and Carol watched her drink, seemed almost to fix upon her drinking, til she seemed distant, distracted. Therese, suddenly self-conscious, asked, “So… what do you do, at Myers Furniture?”

Carol snapped out of whatever fugue had seized her, and her smile was dry like the wine. “I’m a buyer,” she said.

Therese didn’t know what this meant, but she smiled and asked, “Do you like it?”

A little chuckle. Carol said, “Yes, more even than I expected. And you? Do you like being a photographer.”

“All I ever wanted to be was a photographer,” Therese replied.

Carol looked at her keenly. “A newspaper photographer?”

This time Therese chuckled, and sipped her wine. She felt excited, in a way that would probably embarrass her in the morning. Excited because she had only come for a drink of water and now she was having this conversation with Carol, and Carol was interested in what she had to say, and Carol was intelligent and beautiful and she lit a spark in Therese that had never lit before.

“It pays the bills,” said Therese. “Sometimes it’s very interesting. The work I like best is more personal. I like taking pictures of people in everyday life. Taking walks and documenting the city. It makes New York feel real to me.”

Carol’s brows leapt up. “Does it not feel real to you, otherwise?”

Now Therese wondered if the wine and the excitement of Carol’s presence had made her say something reckless, had made her give away too much. She shifted her stance and said cautiously, “Oh, I—of course, yes, it does. Perhaps what I mean is that taking photographs helps me feel more that I am a part of the city. I tend to get distracted with my own thoughts. Photography has a… grounding effect. I feel closer to the things I photograph.”

Carol continued to look at her, thoughtful, assessing, and Therese felt in her bones that it was not just the casual look of a woman in conversation with another woman, but something deeper, something… inviting. In a fit of daring, Therese made her move:

“Will you let me photograph you, tonight?”

In the half beat of silence that followed, Therese lived whole lives of terror and hope and uncertainty, before Carol’s lips parted to speak, and then—

Dennis Myers bustled into the room. He needed Carol for something. He ushered her away, and there was hardly time for an exchanged look before Therese was alone in the kitchen. Alone, and flustered, and wondering—

Until now. Now, she is alone with Carol again, truly alone with her, and Carol is saying in that flat, hard voice she has used since they went into the office, “I have your check from Dennis right here.”

She picks it up off the desk, holding it out. Therese steps tentatively forward, accepting it, eyes averted. She feels nervous and ashamed in a way she can’t explain. Suddenly Carol is reaching for something else—her purse. She opens it and takes out her pocketbook.

“I appreciate your discretion, Ms. Belivet. I certainly would not want anyone to have the wrong idea about me. That kind of thing is so crass and unpleasant. Here you are.”

Therese looks up, and sees in shock that Carol is holding out three crisp twenty dollars bills. Revulsion shoots through Therese’s body. She steps back as if Carol had threatened to hit her, and Carol’s eyes widen in surprise.

“No—no thank you,” says Therese, acid in her voice. “I’m sure I don’t have the wrong idea about you, Ms. Ross. Thank you for the job. I’ll show myself out.”

She turns before Carol can argue, before Carol can heap more humiliation on her. Her eyes burn with tears as she hurries out of the apartment. Clearly she misunderstood everything. Everything. God, how could she have been so foolish, so oblivious? How could she have thought, even for a moment, that Carol was flirting, when clearly Carol found the very idea of two women together like that so repugnant? 

This time, Carol Ross did not try to stop her when she got to the front door. This time, she escaped with her camera in tow, and the hard sound of the door closing behind her was like an axe coming down, severing her from this latest, foolish whim.

Chapter Text

Carol stands in her office, unmoving, for almost a full minute. The image of Therese Belivet’s face is seared in her mind—writ with shock and humiliation and… and hurt. Carol remembers very clearly seeing her for the first time at the store. So thoughtful as she worked. Studious. Lovely. And when Carol went to introduce herself (a foolish whim) how startled she looked. But it was nothing like the startled expression she wore, when Carol held out the cash to her. No, in the shop, Therese had looked startled and amazed and enchanted. Enchanting, with her big green eyes and doll-like beauty. But just now, in this very office, she looked like a wounded bird.

Carol’s hand has dropped to her side, but she still holds the three bills, and when she finally looks at them she feels a wash of shame. It was an impulse, to offer her money. A way to thank her for her discretion. Only now does she realize what a complete an utter monster she’s been. How badly she’s insulted that girl.

“Where did she go?”

The voice in the doorway startles her. She looks up, and Jennifer is there, still slightly flushed from too much wine—but distinctly sobered by what has just happened.

Carol turns her back, puts the money into her pocket book, shoves her pocket book into her purse and leans her hands on the desk, fingers biting into the wood as anger surges through her.

“She left.”

A few seconds of silence. She hears the office door closed and then—

“Is she—will she—”

“She’s not going to tell anyone.”

A scoff, “How can you possibly know—”

“Because I know, Jennifer,” says Carol impatiently. “And even if she did tell someone, she never saw you. She saw me. I’m the only one in danger here.”

This time the silence goes on for so long that Carol thinks Jennifer may have left, but that hope is eradicated when she senses the woman moving up behind her—and then feels her hands on her shoulder blades.

Carol jerks, turning and stepping away, putting space between them.

“Carol—”

“I told you,” Carol interrupts coldly. “I told you when it happened that it would only happen once. I made you promise that you understood that.” 

Jennifer looks startled.  

“Carol, I—”

“It was a mistake.”

The silence between them goes up like a wall of ice. Carol forces herself to maintain eye contact with the woman across from her, determined to stand firm. Jennifer’s husband, Andrew, is an accountant at Myers Furniture. If he found out, it would be the end of Carol’s career. Getting involved with her was one of the most reckless things she has ever done. And for what? A single night in a crummy hotel in Queens? A night that gave her a little bit of relief, a momentary release, and has proved to be nothing but a headache, since?

Suddenly Jennifer’s eyebrows hike upwards. Her startled look transforms to something knowing and even slightly amused.

“A mistake?” she repeats. Her voice is low, with a hint of gravel. “You didn’t think it was a mistake when I had my head between your legs, did you, Carol?” She takes a step toward her. “You didn’t think it was a mistake when you slid your fingers inside me. Or have you already forgotten?”

Carol’s nostrils flare. She hasn’t forgotten, not even close. In the month since it happened, she’s wanted more than once to find a reason for it to happen again. Not because of Jennifer herself (who Carol regards as only passably interesting) but because of the way Jennifer felt. Her sounds and her skin and her body. Before her, Carol had not slept with anyone in over a year. She was lonely. She was weak. But she can’t be weak now.

“It doesn’t matter how I felt at the time. We agreed not to repeat it.”  

Jennifer steps closer, still. Carol’s heart rate picks up, and she doesn’t know if what she’s feeling is anxiety or desire. Jennifer is a lovely woman, tall and auburn-haired, her body beneath the green cocktail dress curvy and soft.

“I agree to all sorts of things before I orgasm,” she says slyly. “You can’t expect me to not take my chance when it comes.”

“Jennifer, if Andrew found out—”

“Andrew!?” she blurts a laugh. The look she turns on Carol is incredulous and pitying, and she laughs a second time. “Oh, Carol! Do you honestly not realize—Andrew is a total poof.”

Carol’s eyes widen. “What? He’s—”

“Did you really not know? I thought you had a sense for this kind of thing. You saw me clearly enough.”

“I—no, I didn’t. That was—that was spontaneous, it—”

A scoff, which makes Carol’s hackles rise. “Maybe for you,” says Jennifer coolly. “I had you in my sights from the beginning. As soon as you started working there, Andrew told me there was a new lesbian in the office.”

This time something cold and dreadful slides through Carol’s veins, a feeling of shock and terror and… humiliation. She is so careful. She is always so careful, and yet a man looked at her and knew it at once. Not only that, but—

“Andrew knows about us?” she asks.

Jennifer runs a casual hand through her hair, answering primly, “Of course. We tell each other everything, you know, it’s all very friendly between us. Why do you think he took the children home without me? We have an agreement. I get tonight and next weekend he can go to the baths.”

Carol can only stare at her. She tries to imagine a scenario in which she and Harge came to such an agreement, but it’s beyond comprehension. And even if it had been their agreement, would she have told him the women that she slept with? Women that he might have known?

“You—” Carol flounders for a moment, staring at Jennifer. “You should have told me. I—Jennifer, I work with him, why would you tell him without—”

“Carol, aren’t you listening to me? He’s one of us. There’s nothing to fear from Andrew. Why would he tell anyone about it when he knows I’ve got the goods on him?”

This sounds so pragmatic, so mercenary, that Carol feels a little ill. And the thought of going to work on Monday and seeing Andrew, talking to Andrew, knowing that Andrew—

“You should leave,” Carol says.

Jennifer gives her an exasperated look. “Honestly, Carol, why are you—”

“I meant what I said, the first time,” interrupts Carol harshly. “I said once, and I meant it. I wasn’t looking for an affair, or anything of the sort. I’m sorry, but I can’t afford it. There’s too much at stake for me.”

And too much risk, if Jennifer is as reckless and blasé as she seems. It must be convenient to have a husband who provides cover, but Carol has no such privilege, and Harge… well, he was livid when he found out about Abby. All these years later, she worries that if he ever got an inkling that she was with a woman again, he’d react as strongly as if they were still married. She may not depend on him financially, but where custody is concerned, he holds all the power. And she’s not about to risk that for a woman as inconsequential to her as Jennifer.

Jennifer, who seems to finally realize that she is serious, and who after a stunned moment—pouts.

“Fine,” she says peevishly. “I’m not about to beg you, anyway. I do think you’re being awfully paranoid about all of this, and we did have such a lovely time.”

“I’m sorry,” Carol replies. “I never had any intention of hurting you.”

Jennifer rolls her eyes. “Don’t be melodramatic. It was a bit of fun, wasn’t it? That’s all our sort can hope for, after all. A bit of fun, to tide us over.”

She says it cheerfully, but Carol does not mistake the undertone of bitterness in Jennifer’s voice—nor can she ignore the flare of bitterness she feels herself; bitterness, and despair, because while Carol may have had her share of dalliances, it’s not exactly in her nature to seek casual pleasure. She has always been rather too serious for that, even under the bright and charming veneer. So to have it put so boldly by Jennifer only reminds her: these kinds of entanglements will never offer more than momentary relief. Anything better is… impossible to imagine.

“Let me walk you downstairs,” says Carol. “Make sure you get into a cab.”

“I don’t need you to be a gentleman, Carol, I’m quite capable of hailing my own cab.”

The words are harsh but the tone is less so. In fact, now Jennifer gives her a look that is simultaneously fond, and regretful, and compassionate. She looks at Carol like this for so long that Carol begins to feel nervous and irritated.

“You poor thing,” Jennifer sighs. “Let me know if you change your mind. I’m not fussy.”

With that, Jennifer swoops in. Carol goes rigid, but in the end the other woman only kisses her cheek. Carol gets a whiff of her expensive perfume, floral and heady. But though it ought to make her think of their night together, she’s completely unprepared when it triggers a different memory altogether: the brief scent she caught, when she let Therese Belivet into her home. Something bright and fresh and with a hint of citrus…

<><><> 

It is the week before Christmas, and while the sales floor at Myers Furniture is open, much of the office staff have taken vacation days. To Carol’s immense relief, this includes Andrew. She spent Sunday in a state of perpetual dismay, imagining the moment when they would have to talk to each other again. Knowing that he knows. More than once she has considered resigning, seeking a different position. Staying now seems so dangerous. So unbearable. But to be unemployed, even briefly—she dreads to give Harge that kind of ammunition. He is always urging her that she doesn’t have to work at all, that it would be much better if she settled for the alimony and her own inheritance and help from him. Why must she work, on top of everything?

He doesn’t understand, he has never understood, that she wants it. It has kept her going, these past two years, on those weeks when Rindy is with Harge. The thought of returning to a life of social performances and leisure makes her feel ill. No, never again. The work gives her purpose. She’s done living a purposeless life.

Unbidden, her thoughts flash to Therese Belivet.

‘Do you like being a photographer?’

‘All I ever wanted to be was a photographer.’

Something warm goes through her at the memory, not just of the words but of the look on the young woman’s face. Those big, pensive eyes. That clever smile. The whole air of her, of someone who with a look could unveil every truth she saw—unveil it, and capture it forever with her camera. In her presence, Carol had felt distinctly seen, and this experience was both exhilarating, and terrifying.

In her few encounters with Therese, they have shared perhaps ten minutes of cumulative conversation, and yet Carol can’t stop thinking about her. The first time she saw her at the store, she was utterly mystified by her own reaction. At first she thought it was just surprise. She had assumed that Dennis hired a male photog, and yet here was this short, slim creature wandering amidst the furniture with her camera, like a fairy picking her way through a magic forest. And yet, surprise could not explain why Carol stopped and stared. She had come on to the sales floor to check the price of a recently delivered sofa set. She was busy. She had things to do. But she could not stop watching the girl—no, the woman. The strikingly lovely, enchantingly serious woman with her dark head and small hands and exquisite profile.

Asking her if she wanted tea was an impulse, and a reckless one at that, but secretly she was hoping that the photographer would open her mouth and say something rude or obnoxious or vapid, something that would break the spell of her loveliness. And indeed, no poetry issued from her lips when Carol interrupted her. Instead, something even more bewitching happened—stumbling words, a flush in those cheeks, eyes falling upon Carol with a kind of star struck amazement. Carol had been utterly charmed by her, by her awkwardness that could not conceal a sweet and unassuming nature. How much Carol wished that she had agreed to tea. Then Carol could have brought some out to her and they could have talked a minute. But instead, work called them both away, and by the time Carol had a reason to go out to the floor again, Therese Belivet was gone. Carol thought, Oh well. Sometimes a random encounter is sweet enough on its own. It can be just itself. Nothing to spoil it.

Now, as Carol sits down to her desk and reviews the little slips of paper waiting for her—messages to return and appointments to keep—she feels a deep sadness, a weariness and regret. Because in the end, something did spoil that perfect encounter. Carol spoiled it. Since Saturday night, she has wanted more than once to call up Abby and tell her what happened. But she has been too ashamed. Not only because she got herself entangled with Jennifer after Abby warned her not to, but also because she thinks Abby would not look kindly on the three twenty dollar bills she offered Therese Belivet.

Even now, she’s not sure why she did that. The young woman showed no hint of artifice, and her insistence that she was neither judgmental, nor a gossip, rang true. Carol, despite the panic thrumming through her at being caught, had felt innately that she could trust Therese’s word. And yet, the world being what it was, and trained as she was by the behaviors that were so commonplace in her circles, offering the staff a tip for their discretion felt natural.

And that was the problem. Because Therese was not ‘the staff.’ Yes, Dennis had hired her—yes, she was there to do a job, but she wasn’t some underling. And even if she was, did that give Carol any right to try to buy her off? Hadn’t Carol always hated the way that Harge treated employees, the way her father treated employees, the way her mother treated servants and staff? And yet here was Carol, doing the exact same thing to a woman who had shown her nothing but graciousness and warmth.

No, she can’t tell Abby. She can barely think of it herself with withering from shame.

“Good morning!”

Startled, Carol looks up from her desk to find Dennis standing in the doorway, beaming.

“Swell party, Carol. It really was a triumph. And you saved my bacon, let me tell you! If Mrs. Myers had to throw another party this year, I think she’d leave me!”

He boomed a laugh, and Carol returned it graciously, donning charm and social ease like a coat that fit perfectly, “Happy to help, Dennis. I think it went off well.”

“And what an idea, hiring the photographer!” Dennis added. “I haven’t heard the end of it from the families. Everyone is so excited to get their prints. Mrs. Marcs was just telling me how she hasn’t had professional pictures done since with the twins were in diapers. It was a splendid hit.”

“I’m glad, Dennis.”

“This is why I say we all need the benefit of a woman’s instincts,” he goes on. “I would never have come up with an idea like that. You’re invaluable, Carol! I assume you paid the girl?”

Carol clears her throat, nodding. “Yes, I saw her off at the end of the night.”

“When will the photos be ready?”

Carol freezes for half a beat, realizing she never had an opportunity to ask Therese. But she recovers smoothly, laughing, “Oh, with as fast as she worked on the catalogue, I think we can expect them in a day or two. If you want I’ll ask Ginger to call her up.”

“Excellent, excellent,” he nods approvingly. “Look up her address for me, will you, Carol? I want to send her a personal thank you. And maybe a coupon for the store. Who knows, she may need a love seat!”

He laughs again. Carol smiles, hoping it doesn’t look like a grimace. Ordinarily being asked to perform secretarial tasks only exasperates her; it’s an unavoidable consequence of being a working woman. But this particular request makes her quietly furious. Luckily Dennis says goodbye and strides off to his office, so he doesn’t see Carol’s gathering frown. Best get it over with.

She finds the phone book in Ginger’s desk, flipping forward to the B’s and searching with a finger pressed to the list of names. Her heart has started beating harder, and she doesn’t know why. Why should the prospect of seeing the woman’s name in print make her feel this deep thrumming of—

And then, there it is. Therese Belivet. The only Therese Belivet in the phone book. But when Carol sees her address, her heart only beats harder. She’s in Greenwich Village. Carol swallows. The last time she was in Greenwich Village was in July, with Abby. They went to a coffee shop to hear some poets read. Beatniks. The poetry breathed with something vibrant and almost violent, the rhythms hypnotic, the imagery and language jarring. The poets described a society built around constraint and consumerism and joyless repetition. They drove a spike through that society with calls for alcohol and drugs and freedom and sex, so much sex, sex between men and men, sex between women and women. Listening to the sometimes pornographic descriptions, Carol had felt a startling combination of unease, arousal, and exhilaration. She had looked around at the rest of the audience, at first to make sure that there was no one she recognized. But it was recognition that kept her looking. Not recognition of anyone she knew, but recognition of the clothes and manner of those around her. Abby had leaned into her, murmuring in amusement, “See something familiar?”

Carol had looked at her wide-eyed, whispering, “They’re all—”

Abby chuckled. The poet on the stage was describing her first time with a woman, rich metaphors and lyricism that made the audience snap appreciatively. Abby said, “Not all, no. But yes. You should come out here with me more often. It’s a good place to meet our kind of people.”

Now, staring at Therese Belivet’s address, Carol swallows down a dryness in her throat. In their brief conversation Saturday night, Carol had been certain she read… something in her. Something open. Something possible. The way she met Carol’s eyes so fearlessly. The way she responded when Carol asked if she had a boyfriend. Not a girlish giggle, not a ‘No, not right now! Soon, I hope!’ Rather, she said, ‘No,’ and in her ‘no’ there was a hint of brazenness, as if she were saying, ‘Not now, not ever.’ And then of course there was that excruciatingly exciting moment—

‘I feel closer to the things I photograph.’

‘Will you let me photograph you, tonight?’

Carol, adding this to the list of other clues (that starstruck look, for one) had thought—maybe?

But then Jennifer cornered her in the bedroom. And in a moment of weakness Carol let herself be kissed. When she heard the sound from the door she looked up to find Therese Belivet staring at her with a shocked expression. In that moment, Carol thought, I was wrong. If she understood, if she was like me, she would never respond to what she’s seen with such huge eyes, such wounded eyes, as if I have disappointed her with my depravity…

It was this reaction from Therese that made her go cold with fear. It was this reaction that made her rush to smooth things over, to beg for discretion and then, when begging wasn’t needed, offer the money anyway. Convinced as she was that seeing her kissing a woman had shocked the girl, Carol was totally unprepared for Therese’s reaction to the money. How… hurt she had looked. Hurt, and also—angry. Yes, with the passage of time Carol could look back on what had happened and recognize that it was anger in Therese Belivet’s eyes. Carol said—

‘I certainly would not want anyone to have the wrong idea about me.’

And Therese looked at her as if Carol had struck her. As if those words had been an insult, hurled at Therese’s feet…

Carol stares at the address. It’s possible that it means nothing about Therese herself, her interests, her… proclivities. Perhaps it merely explains why she showed no interest in exposing Carol for what she had seen. In the Village, Therese would at the very least be familiar with the existence of homosexuals, might even be friends with some of them. It didn’t mean…

In her periphery, she sees Ginger poking her head into Dennis’ office to say good morning. Carol writes down the address for Dennis, and then—in a sudden burst of daring, writes it down a second time.

“Hiya, Carol,” says Ginger brightly.

Carol smiles, palming the second little note and holding out the first. “Would you mind giving that to Dennis? It’s Therese Belivet’s address.”

“Oh, you mean the photographer from Saturday night?” asks Ginger, accepting the note. “She sure was swell. And gosh, she was awfully pretty. Never would have thought the newspapers would hire such a pretty girl. I suppose it’s all men over them. They must like it.”

Carol smiles flatly, imagining a pack of newspaper men leering at Therese, pawing at Therese, wanting Therese...

To Ginger she says, “Yes, she was very pretty. Thanks for your help.”

“Sure thing!”

Relieved to get away from the conversation, Carol moves swiftly toward her office—the little piece of paper clutched in one hand.

Chapter Text

Therese has just finished her dinner when there’s a knock on the door. It’s after eight o’clock and  she’s not expecting anyone. She doesn’t want anyone, either. It’s been a brutal day; all the pictures went wrong and her editor was in a foul mood about it. Therese really had thought her work at the local courthouse would come out well, but there ended up being hardly anything good. They had to settle for a shot that foregrounded the lawyers and not, as her editor had wanted, the recently arrested carjacker, walking up the court steps in handcuffs.

“If you can’t handle things at this level, I’ll have to put you back on the Lifestyle section,” her editor had said crossly.

By the time Therese got home, it was all she could do to hold herself together. One step over the threshold, and her tears started to pour—fat rolling tears of humiliation and disappointment and anger. It has taken her almost two years to work her way up to this assignment, and very likely she’s ruined her shot for good. Unlike a great many other men at the paper, her editor has never minded that she’s a woman, but that doesn’t mean he will give her anywhere near as many chances as a male photographer gets. And Therese has more than being a woman working against her. It already makes people leery that she never accepts dates from any of the men. Half of them probably suspect what she is. If she can’t distinguish herself as a member of the team, they’ll find a way to get rid of her.

Awash in these fears, she had gone for a shower, trying to believe that the whole day was just bad luck and a good cry would settle her. But later, as she went about making herself an egg and bacon sandwich for dinner, self-recriminations began to pile up. She has been distracted all week. Suffering from poor sleep and little appetite and a creeping malaise that she has not felt in a couple of years. A malaise with a very specific source.

Making the sandwich, she was angry at herself. Why should such a brief encounter with a single woman impact her like this? What was Carol, but some spoilt socialite with the same antiquated and judgmental views as every other woman of her station? That she was beautiful, and charming, and fascinating—these might all explain Therese’s initial intrigue. But given the woman’s true colors, they weren’t enough to justify a continuing preoccupation.

“You’re well shot of her,” Gen had said Monday night, as they chatted over drinks at one of their usual haunts. “She sounds like a prude and a snob. I mean, who the hell does she think she is, trying to buy you off like that?”

Therese readily agreed, taking confidence from Gen’s indignation. Until Gen told her, “You know what this means, don’t you?”

Therese had answered in confusion, “What?”

“It means it’s time to set you up with someone. I’ve got a couple of girls in mind.”

Therese had sighed, and let Gen describe her friends, and said half-heartedly that she would think about it. But the fact was that meeting Carol had depressed her terribly. Not just because she had been wrong about her, but because she could not stop thinking about her. Could not stop imagining a different scenario. One where she was the woman that kissed Carol.

She has imagined herself, watching Carol go down the hall, and following her. Finding her in the bedroom. Closing the door (locking it, in fact) and backing Carol into a corner. She has imagined the look of surprise, confusion, arousal—just before Therese would kiss her. She has imagined taking off her lovely dress and laying her down on the bed. Though Therese was a passive lover with Richard, she learned quickly that with women, she was not passive at all. She became hungry, insatiable, desiring. And oh, to bring that desire to Carol, to worship her body and see her melt into pleasure…

These images have been distracting her ever since Saturday night. Distracting and arousing and humiliating her. Apparently so much so that it impacted her work. Perhaps irreparably.

The knock on the door comes again. She has been smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer at her kitchen table, but now she puts the cigarette out with a sound of irritation, and gets up, storming toward the front door. It’s probably one of the neighbors, wanting to borrow something. She’ll get rid of them as quickly as possible—

The door swings open, and Therese nearly chokes on her own tongue. Stood before her, grasping her handbag and looking both terribly nervous and stunningly beautiful, is Carol Ross.

Therese stares at her, incapable of blinking let alone opening her mouth. Carol Ross is standing in her doorway. Carol Ross, of Madison Avenue, of regal apartments and string pearl necklaces and crisp twenty dollar bills—is in her hallway, this unremarkable hallway in this unremarkable building that Therese picked because it was in the center of the Village. Surrounded by everything that Therese has realized she wants and needs in her life. Everything that ought to make Carol Ross run for the hills in horror. And yet—

“Hello,” says Carol. She offers a nervous smile that turns almost instantly to a flinch of embarrassment. She twists at the handle of her handbag like she means to wrench it off. “May I, um—may I come in?”

Therese imagines herself drawing up in a posture of brutal indignation. She imagines slamming the door in her face, or telling her, “No,” and then slamming in the door in her face, or asking her, “Who do you think you are?” and slamming the door in her—

But instead what comes out is a flustered, “Why?”

The older woman’s eyes widen. “I—I—”

“How did you know where I live?”

“I looked you up,” says Carol. Then adds awkwardly, “In the phone book.”

They stare at each other silently for two seconds, three, Carol’s look so plaintive that Therese feels an unwelcome hit of pity. And though she’s sure that Gen would kick Carol out without a moment’s consideration, Therese hasn’t quite mastered that level of… of… whatever that is.

So, she steps aside, letting Carol into her apartment.

This time the smile from Carol is slightly hopeful. Weak, but hopeful. She comes inside and Therese closes the door and, not knowing what else to do, Therese walks back toward her kitchen. Carol follows her. Therese goes to the ice box instinctively, thinking she’ll offer her a drink, but then she remembers that she doesn’t owe this woman a drink and turns to look at her again. Carol is standing in the entryway to her kitchen. Her eyes wander across the space, lingering on some photographs on the wall, shifting next to some of Therese’s lingerie hanging from a line across the shuttered kitchen window. Therese flushes.

“I like your apartment,” says Carol, looking at her again.

Therese wonders if this is some kind of secret insult. What could Carol Ross possibly like about her apartment? She stares at Carol flatly. The silence gathers between them, tense, and Carol is still twisting at her handbag. Therese is half a breath from asking if she wants to set down her things, when—

“I came to apologize,” says Carol.

Therese’s nostrils flare, her eyes narrowing. “I thought we already discussed this. I’m not planning to spread rumors about you. There’s no reason for you to apo—”

“No, not about that,” interrupts Carol.

Therese looks at her blankly. If not about that, then about what? What could have brought her here? What does she want, if not further assurances that her standing as a moral and respectable heterosexual woman is intact?

Carol says, “I… I want to apologize for… for the things I said. And for offering—to—to pay you. I realize now it was… it was incredibly rude. I treated you like a valet. It was abominable and I’m sorry.”

Oh.

Therese isn’t sure how to respond. When she told Gen about what happened, Gen scowled and said, “That’s what they’re all like, you know—they think the rest of us are just their servants to be bought off.”

And Therese had agreed with her. But truth be told, the offer of money was not what wounded Therese most. Perhaps it should have been. Perhaps that would indicate she had more self-respect. Regardless, it’s what Carol said that still beats a tattoo in Therese’s thoughts:

‘That kind of thing is so crass and unpleasant.’

Which was the same as Carol saying, “You are crass and unpleasant. Your vile desires disgust me. I would rather die than be lumped in with women like you.”

Therese says woodenly, “I suppose you just wanted to be sure I wouldn’t spread lies about you.”

Carol looks at her unblinking for a moment. She looks like someone who is winding herself up to leap off a cliff, and then—

“I misjudged you,” Carol says. “I assumed that what you saw must have… disgusted you.”

Therese frowns warily. Something about Carol’s words, and the way that she says them, gives her pause. Is Carol suggesting that she behaved as she did, reacted as she did, because Therese seemed disgusted? Is she implying that her reaction would have been very different, if she thought that Therese was unperturbed by the sight of two women kissing each other?

Carefully, Therese asks, “Why would I be disgusted?”

It’s a risk, yes, a tremendous risk. But it’s also a test. If the fact that Therese isn’t disgusted offends Carol, it will prove once and for all that she is as appalled by women like that as society expects her to be.

Carol says in a slow and cautious voice, “Most people are.”

Something loosens in Therese’s chest, though her wariness remains intact. “Well,” she says after a moment. “I’m not most people.”

Carol’s throat moves in a nervous swallow. Her pale gray eyes lock with Therese’s eyes. Therese wonders if anything could break that stare, or cut the tension that lives and breathes between them.

“That’s why I’ve come to apologize,” says Carol at last. “I made assumptions, about what you would think, and I… believe I may have… insulted you, in the process.”

Once when Therese was at a bar, someone came in and hissed that the police were on their way, to break it up. Everyone had scattered, and Therese will never forget the terror that went through her as she and a couple of friends found a way out the back door. The terror of being found, of being caught, of being identified. Some of her male friends have told her about the police who visit the bars undercover, looking for men to entrap.

For one irrational moment, Therese wonders if this is also a trap. And then she sees how large Carol’s eyes are, and not just large, but damp, and her face is pale and she looks so fucking terrified—that all in an instant, Therese understands everything.

She lets out a breath, and with it goes the stiffness in her shoulders and the knot in her stomach. When she smiles at Carol, it’s still rather cautious, but also genuine.

Gently she asks, “Would you like a drink?”

<><><> 

They go up to the roof. It’s really far too cold for it, but the fresh air feels wonderful after their stand-off in the kitchen. Therese has made them hot toddies, which Carol accepted with a look of almost exhausted relief. Now, they stand only a few feet apart, drinking in silence as the noise of the city rumbles below, and the air frosts with their slow and even breaths.

“How long have you known?” asks Therese finally.

Carol gives her a startled look. For a second Therese thinks she’s going to pretend not to know what Therese means—a learned habit, no doubt. And who is Therese that she should reveal such a secret? Why unburden herself to some girl she’s just met?

But then the frozen look on her face relaxes. She looks down into her mug, cradled between two gloveless hands.

“Oh,” she says, and releases a slightly self-deprecating laugh. “I wonder, sometimes. When it first happened it took me all by surprise. Since then I’ve looked back on my youth and… certain things make a different kind of sense to me now. But if you’re asking when I knew for certain, then… I suppose…” she pauses, swallows. Therese wonders if she’s ever said it out loud. “Ten years?”

She chances a glance at Therese, and Therese nods. She thinks that will be it, the limit of Carol’s openness and vulnerability. But to her surprise—

“I was married when it happened,” says Carol. She drinks from her cup, and shrugs one of her shoulders. The bigness of her fur coat makes her look like a lioness, but the pained glimmer in her eyes makes her look like a girl. “Oddly enough, that was the worst part. Knowing that I had betrayed my husband—I’ve always felt awful about that. The other thing, though—that was wonderful.”

She chuckles and the way she says ‘wonderful’ is so rich and hypnotic and Therese thinks, Yes, I know what you mean. It is wonderful.

Then Carol is looking at her, asking, “And you, Therese Belivet?”

There’s something teasing in how she says it and Therese can’t prevent the smile that spreads across her face, that edges into a grin.

“Only two years,” she says.

Carol’s eyebrows lift. “How old are you?” she asks.

Therese, still grinning, says, “Twenty-two.”

Carol chuckles. “Incredible,” she says. “Can anyone still be only twenty-two?”

Therese scoffs a laugh, “You can’t be so much older than me.”

“Oh, I am, Darling. I am ancient compared to you.”

Therese goes on smiling, but inside a thrill has shot through her, at this casual endearment, this ‘darling’ that feels like an invitation to friendship and intimacy.

“Let me guess,” says Therese. “Thirty?”

“Ha! And are you really going to make me say it? You know it’s very rude to make women reveal their ages. All right, I can see you’re determined. I’m thirty-four.”

Thirty-four. It seems a lovely, grown-up age, a woman’s age. It does not seem old to Therese at all. Nonetheless there is a moment of silence as they look at each other, the differences in their age rustling between them like an animal in the tall grasses.

“May I ask you something?” asks Therese.

Carol looks momentarily guarded. She watches Therese and takes a sip of her drink and then gives the slightest nod, permission.

Therese asks, “That woman at the party—is she your lover?”

Carol grimaces. She says, “No. She’s the wife of a work associate. She and I—” Carol pauses, and glances away. She looks embarrassed, and Therese doesn’t know if she is embarrassed because she has feelings for the woman, unrequited feelings, or if it is something else. Then all at once she looks at Therese again and says, “I don’t have a lover.”

Therese swallows. Carol asks, “Do you?”

Therese shakes her head. Carol regards her pensively for a moment, and then smiles, “But you’ve been in love, haven’t you, Therese? I can see it in your eyes. You are the type of woman who falls in love.”

Is she? Is that what shows in her eyes? But Therese laughs and says, “I haven’t, actually. I’ve had a few lovers, but nothing that lasted. The closest I came to it was my first, but she and I are much better as friends.” Carol blurts a laugh and Therese, frowning, asks, “What?”

“Oh, just—the first woman I loved is also my best friend. Perhaps it’s a habit among our type?”

Therese, relieved that Carol isn’t laughing at her, lets out a breath and smiles. “Maybe. Gen—that’s my friend—she says talks about her first love like she was spawned by Satan.”

A brilliant laugh from Carol. “Yes, I suppose that’s a common story, too. Well, I’m glad that you have a friend. Someone to talk to about all of it. When it happened for me the first time… I had no one to talk to. It happened abroad, you see, and when I came back I didn’t tell anyone, not even Abby, who I didn’t realize at the time would have understood it all. I thought she would judge me, so I kept it to myself. It was a very lonely time.”

Therese considers this. She takes a sip of her hot toddy and blows on the surface, watching steam furl outward. She says at last, “I suppose that’s how you felt on Saturday. That I was going to judge you. It must have been lonely. I’m sorry for that.”

Carol doesn’t answer at first. Their eyes are locked again, and again, that feeling passes between them, something vivid, that could be good or bad. And Therese hopes it is good, hopes she hasn’t said something that was wrong or hurtful.

Carol says, “You’re very sensitive, aren’t you?”

Therese blushes. She wonders if Carol will press this point, but instead the older woman tosses her head and places the hot toddy on the ledge overlooking the street. She reaches into the pocket of her coat and withdraws a silver cigarette case and a lighter, taking one for herself and then offering—

“Would you like one?”

Therese accepts, stepping closer, and then closer still so that Carol can light her cigarette. The sensation of the other woman’s body so close to hers, bending over hers, impresses on Therese again how tall and magnificent Carol is. Her hair is tossed in the winter breeze, golden and shining. Though she was pale when she arrived, now there is a very attractive flush to her cheeks, no doubt a reaction to the cold and to the drink. When Therese looks up into her eyes, she is struck by the pale fire in them, and by the delicious shape of her mouth.

“You’re a very pretty girl, Ms. Belivet. I suppose, living here in Greenwich, you must meet lots of women who are interested in you.”

Therese swallows, holding the curious stare. She says, “I wouldn’t say… lots. Three or four.”

Carol smirks at her, asks, “Three? Or four? I’m sure you haven’t forgotten.”

Therese blushes, realizing that they are not just talking about admirers now, but lovers. There’s something naughty in Carol’s smile, naughty and inviting, and though Therese could never imagine a woman like her engaging in such a bawdy subject, she makes it impossible for Therese to keep the secret. Therese says, “Three.”

Carol’s naughty smile is amused, is practically a grin, now. Galvanized, Therese asks her, “What about you?”

It’s fair play, but Carol looks as surprised at having it put so boldly to her as Therese was. She gives a short laugh, color brightening her cheeks. “Oh,” she says. “More than three. Not much more, though. Six.”

Therese swallows, amazed. She asks, “Didn’t your husband ever find out?”

A droll look. “No, not until I told him.”

Therese’s eyes widen, “You told him? Why?”

“He asked about it, asked about Abby, and I told him the whole thing. He doesn’t know about the others.”

“Is that why you got divorced?”

“No. It’s got nothing to do with the divorce. Luckily. I think if I had been with someone at the time of the divorce he would have made much more trouble about it. As it is I think he is content to assume it was a fluke. He’s never liked Abby. If he found out about the others I think he might try to take my daughter from me.”

Therese’s stomach drops. She has never wanted children, herself, but she can imagine the powerlessness and fear of someone who knows that her child could be taken away so easily. No wonder Carol was so terrified, when Therese saw her kissing that woman. No wonder she offered money. Wouldn’t a mother do anything to keep her child with her?

“I’m sorry,” says Therese, not knowing what else to say.

Carol gives a little shake of the head, a little frown. “Don’t be. I’m perfectly all right.”

She takes a drag on her cigarette, eyes cutting away, and Therese feels instinctually that Carol is not perfectly all right. Therese wants to say something to comfort and reassure her, this woman she’s just met but who she feels drawn to by a gravitational force. But she can’t think what to say at all, so they are quiet, and they smoke their cigarettes. Somewhere in the street they hear a siren, and somewhere else a peal of laughter. After awhile Carol finishes her cigarette and drops it on the roof, grinding it out under an impressive heel. Then, she looks at Therese again.

“I think I’d better be going.”

Therese felt it coming, but still, the words charge her with despair. She manages to squash it down, to do no more than smile with understanding and put out her own cigarette. They walk down together, Therese leading the way back to her apartment. Carol comes inside with her and Therese puts their empty glasses in the sink. When she turns around, Carol is standing in the kitchen doorway again. She smiles in a shy and grateful way that Therese finds unspeakably beautiful.

“Thank you,” says Carol, “You’re a star to spend your evening chatting with me like this. And—and for accepting my apology. I really am so—”

“There’s nothing to forgive,” interrupts Therese. “I… I’m glad you stopped by.”

She almost says, “You’re always welcome,” or, “Come again any time,” or even, “Would you like to get coffee later this week?” But in the end, she fears how it will seem. Carol has made it quite clear what she stands to lose, from getting mixed up with a woman. Therese will respect that. Even if it kills her to let this chance go by.  

Carol looks at her thoughtfully for a moment, as if she, too, is thinking of saying something else. Then, with a nod, she turns to go.  

Chapter Text

It went well, Carol tells herself, as she walks toward the front door of Therese’s apartment, conscious of Therese following her. It went better than you could have expected. She was gracious and kind. You’ve made amends, so now you can go home and stop thinking about her.

And she tells herself, The pounding in your heart is just relief. Relief that this unpleasantness is over.

They reach the door, and Therese moves around her to reach for the doorknob. Their bodies brush, and Carol feels an electric charge at the point of contact, that spreads through her in a wave. She tells herself, There’s no harm in finding her attractive. It’s perfectly ordinary, to admire a beautiful girl. It’s not as if you’re going to do anything about it.

Because you are not going to do anything about it.

Therese opens the door, and then they stand before it, looking at each other. Therese smiles, but Carol thinks she can detect something nervous in her face, and a slight dusting of color on her cheeks.

“Do you have a car?” asks Therese. “Should I call you a cab?”

It’s so kind, so thoughtful, that Carol feels momentarily debilitated. She can’t speak because she is too distracted by the warmth and sweetness of how Therese looks at her. Wanting to help. When was the last time any woman, other than Abby, wanted to help her? To make sure she had what needed?

Recovering herself, she laughs shortly, “Oh, no, I’m fine. I have my own car. Thank you, though.”

Therese nods, still smiling. “I’m glad that you stopped by.”

Carol grins ruefully. “I’m glad you didn’t slam the door in my face.”

Therese giggles, actually fucking giggles, and it’s too much, too adorable. Carol has to get out of here. She holds out her hand and Therese takes it. They shake.

But they don’t let go. Therese’s fingers in hers are cool and soft. It’s unbearably pleasurable, to touch them, to feel the press of palm against palm, to feel a moment later Therese’s thumb, gliding across her thumb, an unmistakable caress. Carol stares down at their hands and she is certain that Therese is staring, too. Their hands are so different. Carol’s is large for a woman, fingers long, the nails expertly manicured. Therese’s hand is small, delicate, without polish. Carol notices the trimness of her nails and a bolt of hunger goes through her. She looks up, into Therese Belivet’s eyes. The green of them is like a forest after the rain.

“I suppose you take great care,” murmurs Therese, “to avoid… any kind of scandal.”

Carol blinks. “What do you mean?”

A little shrug. Their hands are still clasped. “That woman who kissed you—if she’s not your lover perhaps it upset you that she kissed you. Given everything with your daughter. Your ex-husband. You must have to be so careful.”

This insight makes Carol’s pulse leap, and she wonders if Therese can feel it, in the places where their fingers touch, where that thumb strokes tenderly, against her wrist.

Carol says, “I have always been discreet, yes. I have always been… careful.”

Therese nods. There’s something in her expression, something that Carol vaguely recognizes, but she doesn’t quite know where from. Until, that is, Therese swallows, her slim throat bobbing, her large eyes full of emotion. Then, Carol remembers. And she can’t help herself—

“Therese?” she murmurs, cautious. “When you… when you saw me kissing that woman, you… you looked so shocked.”

Therese only gazes at her, solemn and silent, clearly waiting for her to ask a question. Carol is embarrassed, a little flustered. It’s not her habit to expose herself in this way. So much easier, to move in for the kill, to grab a woman and kiss her and exchange as few words as possible. Therese is a quiet little thing. It ought to be just as easy, to let words go unsaid. So why does she feel compelled to…

“And you looked hurt,” she blurts. Therese’s hand in hers tightens, just the slightest bit, as if that word has cut through her. And her eyes are wide now, as they were in that doorway, when Carol broke away from Jennifer and looked up and saw this gorgeous creature staring at her. Now their eyes are locked. Their breathing is audible in the room. Carol whispers, “Why were you hurt?”

Therese swallows again. Her weight redistributes, a subtle shift that signals her nervousness. When Carol met her, she thought, What a shy girl. How young and innocent. How charmingly unpretentious.

But then Therese speaks, and there’s nothing innocent in her look, “I was jealous.”

Carol lets out an unsteady breath. She finds now that she can’t help glancing toward the younger woman’s lips, soft and inviting there in the pale light of the hallway.

“Jealous?” she repeats.

Their voices are soft. There’s no sign of anyone in the hallway. And yet Carol is distinctly aware of the open door, of their exposure, and this is reckless, so damned reckless.

“Of the woman,” Therese clarifies, as if it were necessary, as if Carol does not know exactly what she means. Carol doesn’t know what to say, but she feels she must say something, must make some gesture, some move, except— “I understand you better now,” Therese goes on. “I understand that… You have a lot to lose. I would never want to put you in a dangerous position, Carol. Whatever my feelings, I could never hurt you.”

Carol stares at her, stunned. Too stunned to answer. Suddenly, Therese lets go of her hand. It feels cataclysmic, like being severed from a lifeline. Therese glances away. There’s color high on her cheeks and she looks distressed but determined.

“I think we should be friends, Carol. If you want it. I think it’s best if we are… friends.”

Again, Carol can’t think what to say. She feels utterly undone by these words. She thinks of the other women she has been with, women who she has taken to bed. And it was always her who took them to bed, who made love to them, who controlled those encounters. It was always her who said, “We can only do this once. Do you understand?” And they always said, “Yes, of course, yes!” Already caught up. Already desperate for her touch. An invigorating experience, each time. A sensation of power mixed with lust.

Never once has a woman said to her, “I think it is best if we are friends.” 

“Therese,” Carol’s voice is a little rough. She longs for the pressure of Therese’s hand in hers.

“Would you like to be friends?” asks Therese.

It feels like a spear through the heart, but it is also so achingly sweet, so generous and kind, that Carol marvels she has lived this long in the world without knowing that such a woman exists.

But what can she say?

“Yes. I… yes, I would.”

Therese lets out a breath. Her smile is shy and pleased, but there is still that echo in her eyes, of the expression she wore at Carol’s house. That look of pain. Carol thinks she must be wearing such a look herself, right now.

“Perhaps you would like to get tea this week?” asks Therese, with a hopeful lift of her eyebrows.

Carol hesitates only long enough to mentally review her schedule. “Thursday evening?” she suggests. “At the Ritz?”

Therese nods. “Yes, I can do that. 5:30?”

“Yes.”

They stare at each other. Carol’s eyes flit toward the door. This time she is not thinking about who might be in the hallway, who might hear them. No, this time she is thinking how simple it would be, to close that door, with them inside. She returns her eyes to Therese. If she does not leave now, she never will.

“Good night, Therese,” she murmurs.

And Therese says, “Good night, Carol.”

And so, they part ways.

<><><> 

But it is not until Carol is standing on the first floor of Therese’s building that the full force of what happened, what almost happened, hits her. She knows now what she would have done. At the slightest encouragement from Therese, she would have done it. God what is wrong with her? She has only just disentangled herself from the incredible error in judgment that was Jennifer. What is she thinking, to come so close to making a similar error with this young woman, this girl she barely knows?

It was the nearness of her, Carol concludes. A beautiful girl, a willing girl, a girl like her—so close. And Carol is lonely. Yes, she knows it about herself. Lonely for company, but also lonely for touch. With Jennifer, she had at least the brief comfort of a woman’s body, that bulwark against loneliness. When presented with that chance again, a fugue came over her. That’s all it was. Weakness, and loneliness, and a lack of self-control. Thank God Therese was wiser than her.

Carol notices the payphone in the hallway, and with a sudden burst of inspiration, she walks over. Time to remind herself of what she has to lose, and what she gains when wiser heads prevail.

She dials Harge, but it’s Rindy’s babysitter, Dotty, who answers.

“Mr. Aird is out to dinner. Would you like to talk to Rindy?”

Carol barely manages not to sigh with relief. Not having to talk to Harge in order to access her daughter is a rare gift. A moment later, Rindy is on the phone.

“Mommy!”

“Hello, my Darling!” Carol says.

“Mommy, I ate all my broccoli!”

“Did you? What a good girl you are, and won’t you grow up strong?”

“Yes! Like Popeye!”

In the background Carol hears Dotty say, “That’s spinach, Rindy.”

But Carol tells her daughter in a conspiratorial tone, “Broccoli makes you strong as well, sweetheart.”

Rindy giggles, and Carol can imagine her proud smile, the way she bounces on her heels when she’s excited. Then—

“Mommy, when am I coming to your house again?”

“Tomorrow evening. Your daddy is going to bring you over after school, and once I’m home from work.”

“Daddy says you work too much.”

Carol grinds her jaw, but manages to say in a cheerful tone, “Oh, I don’t think so. I quite enjoy it. And what do we always say? When you are a grown up, you must find a way to do things you enjoy.”

“Yes,” Rindy agrees with a sage affect. “That’s why I’m going to have horses and take care of the baby horses and all the children will come to ride them.”

“Exactly.”

“Mommy, what do you think of Barbara?”

Dotty’s voice comes through again, saying warningly, “Rindy, you mustn’t gossip.”

A little annoyed at this, but also confused by the unfamiliar name, Carol asks, “Barbara? Who’s that, sweet pea?”

“Daddy is having dinner with her. He’s had dinner with her three times, I counted. He says she is ever so nice but I haven’t met her and so I wanted to know if you think she’s nice, too.”

For a moment Carol is dumbstruck, a host of new information overwhelming her. At last she recovers, saying smoothly, “You know, love, I haven’t met her either. But if Daddy says she is nice then I’m sure she is.”

“Is Daddy going to marry her?”

“Rindy Aird!” cries Dotty.

Carol flushes with anger, even as she feels a tightening in her chest, a kind of agony which is completely disproportionate to the matter at hand.

“Well, I don’t know, Darling. But I do think if your daddy marries someone he will tell you. And I wouldn’t worry very much about it if I were you.”

“Will you tell me if you get married?”

Tears spring to Carol’s eyes, hot and painful and it takes all her self-control not to let her voice crack, “I’m not going to get married again, love, but if I did, I would tell you.”

“Why won’t you get married again?”

Carol marshals her emotions, says, “I just don’t think there’s anyone I will want marry, Darling. But I don’t want you to worry about that, or about Daddy. Okay?”

After a moment’s silence, Rindy answers, quiet and pensive, “Okay, Mommy. But… you know… if you want to get married again, I think that’s okay, too.”

Carol barely has time to process the words before Dotty’s voice comes over the line, much closer than before, “Just about time for bed!”

She sounds like she’s about to pluck the phone from Rindy.

“No!” Rindy cries. “Five more minutes!”

“Rindy Aird, no arguing. Your mommy is very busy, I’m sure.”

“Let me talk to Dotty, sweet pea,” Carol says, brushing moisture out of the corner of her eye. “But remember—I love you, my special girl.” 

“I love you, too, Mommy!”

A moment later, Dotty is on the phone, “Ms. Ross, I—”

“I’ll thank you not to interrupt my conversations with my daughter,” says Carol acidly.

The girl sounds stricken, “Ms. Ross, I’m sorry, I just—”

“It is perfectly all right for Rindy to have questions. If her father is seeing someone, she should not be afraid to ask about it. It impacts her, doesn’t it? So from now on, I’ll thank you to not interfere.” Dotty is silent, clearly shocked. In a fit of rising temper, Carol snaps, “And by the way, spinach is not the only thing that makes a woman strong!”

And she hangs up.

She feels instantly, debilitatingly foolish. 

Damn it, Carol thinks, putting her earring back in a little more forcefully than she should. Damn it!

Barbara.

Of course. Of course there is some woman named Barbara. Probably other women, too. It’s not as if Carol didn’t know this would happen. It happened while they were married, too. Now that they are divorced, it was inevitable that he would find a new wife. After all, Harge is a handsome man, still young and very successful. He’s never been good at being alone, and the world hardly expects him to remain a bachelor. No doubt he’ll have his pick of young and beautiful women, eager to snatch him up. How well Carol remembers the murmurs of women at parties, initially praising Carol for her find, and later, marveling behind her back that she could be so foolish as to let a man like that go.

Barbara. Of course. Inevitable.

And the fact is, Carol has been rather looking forward to this. She has hoped that when Harge finally finds a new wife, he will stop looking at her with hurt, pining eyes. And a new age of freedom will begin. She has anticipated such a flood of relief, when this day came.

What she has not anticipated is the sudden wave of bitterness that goes through her. Of resentment. Because until now she has not really understood the truth: that nothing stands in the way of Harge finding happiness again. Happiness that he can show off and be congratulated on. When he remarries it will be a grand celebration. But Carol? Carol could never marry another man, not even a kind man. It would kill her to do that.

And since nothing short of her marriage to another man will appease the society in which she lives, Carol must accept that love, real, true, life-breathing love, is not hers to have. Instead she is relegated to this half-life of dark corners and secrets, of taking pleasure and intimacy when she can.

So why, why, why would she deny herself a chance, any chance, at that comfort?

Her eyes flash toward the stairway. She’s moving before she can doubt herself. Up, up those stairs, two flights and then a third, flying down the hallway to the door with nothing to advertise what a marvel lives behind it. She knocks, loudly. Ten, fifteen seconds pass. Her heart is in her throat, she’s breathing hard, she feels a little feverish and wild, and she knocks again, knocks until—

The door opens. Therese looks at her with a startled and concerned expression.

“Carol?”

“I never see a woman more than once,” she blurts.

Therese lifts her brows, and if Carol expected her to look scandalized or offended she gets an entirely different reaction. A flash of calculation. And then, a glitter purpose. The sight makes Carol’s mouth go dry. For a moment, they just stands there, staring. Carol thinks she can hear her own heartbeat. She thinks she can see Therese’s heartbeat, in her slender throat. Carol thinks, How can you repeat your mistakes with a relative stranger?

But—

A beautiful stranger. A stranger who feels already more familiar than Jennifer ever did. A stranger who with her quiet smile and watchful eyes conveys more care and tenderness than Jennifer ever did—

“Therese,” she whispers, and what she means is something else, something desperate, a plea. A plea that is both, ‘let me go’ and, ‘make me stay.’

“What about being friends?” asks Therese, and there is no accusation in the words; no condemnation. Only curiosity. It pulls confession from the pit of Carol’s stomach—

“I don’t think I can be friends with you.”

A moment’s pause, tense as the crest of a wave.

“No?” Therese asks. Her voice is soft, raspy, and it washes Carol in desire. She wants to hear that voice, rough with ecstasy. Wants to hear it break at the height of pleasure. Wants to hear the little whimpering helpless sighs of her release. But—

“I can’t promise you anything,” says Carol. Therese doesn’t answer, just looking at her, and after a moment Carol amends, “I can promise you tonight.” Their eyes are locked. Carol swallows, heart in her throat, so afraid that she will be denied. “If you want it,” she adds. “I can promise you tonight.”

A storm of thoughts and feelings gathers in Therese Belivet’s face, compelling but impossible to read, and Carol thinks, I’ve made a terrible mistake. She is going to slam the door in my face. She is going to—

“All right,” Therese whispers.

Excitement flares through Carol’s body, excitement and amazement and lust, and she lunges forward.

Chapter Text

Carol has barely come through the door before they are slamming it shut together, Carol’s free arm reaching around her waist and yanking her into her body. There is no preamble, none of the shy hesitance that might have occurred in a different situation. Therese has found herself in the presence of a goddess, and if she can only worship for one night, then she’s damned well going to do it well.

Their kiss is a tsunami of sensation, a demolition and baptism and a rebirth. Therese feels like a supplicant in the pool of Bethesda, and Carol is the angel pouring healing waters over her head, washing through her from the ends of her hair to the tips of her toes. Carol moans, and Therese moans, because she can feel the sound in her body, like an electric current. Its power jolts her forward—she pushes Carol back, back, into the wall, hearing the older woman’s little sound of surprise but sparing no time for it as she grasps Carol’s hair and starts devouring her mouth, sweet and full and hungry. Fingers reach for Therese’s blouse, yanking it from her skirt and Therese is not to be outdone. She slides her hands under Carol’s sweater, gratified by the instant shudder, by the gooseflesh that erupts under her touch. Carol’s skin, speaking of desire.

She is shorter than Carol, smaller than Carol; she knows it would take no effort at all for Carol to spin them around, to have Therese pushed up against the wall and gasping. But Therese has determination on her side. She pushes her hips into Carol’s pelvis, pinning her there as she goes in search of the blonde’s zipper. It’s there, on the side of her skirt. Therese yanks at it, presses closer, opens her mouth—and when Carol’s mouth opens in instinctive response, she slips her tongue inside.

They both groan. How is it possible not to, when this kind of kiss feels so good? Decadent and illicit. Therese thinks she can still taste the remnants of the hot toddy on Carol’s tongue, and she chases the flavor, pushing her hands under the loosened waistband of the skirt.

It drops at their feet. Therese isn’t done.

She finds the hem of Carol’s sweater and breaks their kiss to sweep it over her head—she sees the stunned arousal in Carol’s face, just before golden hair and fabric obscure the vision. But a moment later Carol has shaken her hair out of her face and put a hand on Therese’s jaw, dragging her forward again.

Therese lifts up onto her toes, wraps her arms around her bare shoulders, and mumbles into her mouth, “Come to bed with me.”

To her surprise, Carol hesitates. Their lips draw apart and Carol looked at her with wide eyes, something anxious lurking within the gray. Therese worries that she has moved too fast, been too aggressive. Perhaps Carol doesn’t like it when her partners take control—

But then, Carol cups her cheek, and there’s a slight tremble in her silky fingertips.

“You understand?” she asks softly. “You understand that it will only be once?”

Therese, realizing where Carol’s hesitance has come from, breathes in and lets it out. She would be lying if she said she only wanted once with Carol. But she would also be lying if she pretended not to know exactly what she was getting herself in to. And so, she nods. “I understand.”

Carol hesitates, as if questioning whether she can take Therese at her word. Then to Therese’s surprise she murmurs, “I’ve insulted you once. I don’t want to do it again.”

There is something so gentle and generous about this that Therese lifts up. She kisses her, under her chin, gratified by the little tremble that goes through Carol. Gratified by the soft hitch of breath, and by the excitement she can feel growing in Carol again.

“You’re not,” Therese murmurs, mouthing along her jawline, and down her neck. And then, as she thinks about it, she chuckles. “Believe me, I don’t feel insulted. I feel… deeply flattered.”

Carol whimpers, actually whimpers, a sound so exquisite that Therese slides her hands down to grasp her hips, fingers digging in as lust and need surges through her.

Please, Carol,” she moans against her throat. “Come to bed with me.”

This time, there is no hesitation. Carol kisses her, hard, and pushes off the wall. Therese’s blood sings with relief.

They move through the hall in stops and starts, constantly distracted. Apparently Carol is not content to be the only one half-naked, for she starts pulling at the buttons of Therese’s blouse. They careen into a wall, moaning frantically. Therese, impatient, reaches for the buttons at the top and with Carol working from the bottom they have it done in moments. But when Carol yanks the shirt down her arms, Therese’s wrists get caught at her sides. She strains, trying to get free.

Carol dives like a hawk, mouthing and kissing her collarbones, her throat, down her chest to the tops of her breasts. She lets go of the shirt to puts her hands under Therese’s brassiere, molding to what Therese knows is a very modest offering. But Carol growls with satisfaction, a sound that makes Therese shudder. She fights like hell with the sleeves of her shirt and when it’s finally off she grabs Carol’s hips, pushing them both away from the wall—and toward her bedroom again.

They get inside without falling over. It’s probably a near thing. Therese feels drunk on the warmth and closeness of Carol’s body, on the intensity of Carol’s kiss, which is unlike anything she has felt before. Gen was passionate, confident, but she moved slowly and carefully with Therese, aware that this was all new territory for her. As for the other two girls Therese has been with, they were shy and quiet things. Therese, too, is shy and quiet. But not in bed. She took control of those encounters as easily as she takes control of a camera, and yet even so she was inexperienced. There was plenty of fumbling and giggling and gentleness.

This is… not gentle. And the fumbling is of a completely different sort. Carol practically manhandles her toward her little twin mattress, with an authority and fervor that Therese has only experienced in her fantasies. And it awakes something fervid and authoritative in Therese.

Her knees hit the back of the bed. She pivots at the last moment, hands on Carol’s waist to turn her. Carol falls onto the mattress, onto her back, Therese on top of her. Honestly, she’s a little surprised that worked, and when she pulls back, sits up on Carol’s thighs—she can see from the older woman’s wide eyes that this turn has surprised her, too. Carol grabs at her hip bones, squeezing, and Therese can’t help herself. She shifts against Carol’s body, rotating her hips and grinding down.

“Oh, God,” Carol groans, head tipping back, pelvis tipping up.

“You’re so beautiful, Carol,” Therese gasps, wanting to tell her, needing to tell her. “You’re so beautiful.”

Carol reaches up for Therese’s brassiere, pushing at it restlessly. “Take this off,” she orders, and Therese obeys, whimpering when Carol’s hands return to her breasts. She cups them, using her palms to stroke the nipples in circles. She makes that electrifying growling sound she made before, as of an animal unleashed. Therese bends to her. Even a few moments away from her lips is too long. They meet eagerly, tongues dueling. It is the lewdest, most uninhibited kiss Therese has ever experienced, and already she feels light-headed and desperate. She is wet, maybe wetter than she has ever been. And she wants more.

Together they divest Carol of her own brassiere, leaving her in garter belt and stockings, like Therese. Carol’s breasts are full, round, her nipples a darker shade than Therese’s and already tight. Unable to resist, Therese bends to her, covering one with her mouth and licking her messily. Carol shudders, gripping at her hair. Therese likes the feel of it, the prick of nails, the sharp tug that compels her to start suckling. The taste of her skin is so heady and human, so incredible.

When Carol’s hands move back to her hips, Therese knows instinctively that she is preparing to flip them, to recover control. In a flash, Therese has her by the wrists, raising them and pushing them into the bed even as she lifts her head and pushes her mouth back into Carol’s, licking and stroking with her tongue. Carol makes a little wanting sound, body undulating and hands tightening under hers.

Therese pulls back just enough to see her eyes, to see the gray made into smoke.

“Spread your legs,” Therese whispers.

And starts sliding down her body.

It’s clear this wasn’t what Carol expected, clear in the way she whimpers and flexes, but she also obeys, thighs parting to make room for Therese’s knees, and then her hips, and then her belly. Therese lays down between her legs and mouths at her through the fabric of her panties.

“Jesus Christ,” Carol gasps.

Therese can’t help a chuckle. She pushes her tongue against the fabric, which is thin and damp already, and Carol keens. Therese, slightly irritated when she has to pause to release Carol’s garter snaps, sits up just long enough to help Carol lift her legs and pull her underwear off. The garter belt remains. Therese can work around it. She doesn’t have the patience to deal with stockings, and when she bends to her again, there is nothing between her and the wet swollen softness of Carol’s cunt.

It’s been awhile since Therese did this. Gen liked it, and so did the second girl, but the third was too shy. Therese hid her disappointment at the time, but only now that she is tracing her tongue through the weeping folds of Carol’s sex does she realize—she missed this. Doing it to Gen was all about discovery, the older girl coaching her with patience and experience: Less there, more here, a little faster, like that like that like that—! It was a learning experience, each time a lesson in decadence. Doing it to her second lover was more about showing off than anything, all Gen’s instructions put to clever use, a marathon of revelations.

But doing it to Carol is something completely different. Carol’s taste makes her own sex clench, flames licking through her as she licks Carol. Carol tastes… good. And not just in the way that women taste good (Gen had seemed prepared, at first, for Therese to balk at the taste—she hadn’t. She liked it instantly), but in a way that is somehow incongruously familiar. Carol tastes the way Carol smells, an olfactory alchemy that thrusts Therese back to the day they met, to the waft of her perfume and the curve of her smile. 

“Oh, God,” Carol groans, her spine arching off the bed as Therese tastes her. “Oh, you sweet girl, yes!”

Every sound she makes is like a bell in Therese’s body, ringing out with pleasure, a cacophony. She revels in Carol’s cries, her whimpering moans, her gasping breaths. She puts her hands on the backs of her thighs, pushing them back so that her legs are bent at the knee and she is wide open for her, helpless. A hand tangles in Therese’s hair, nails pricking her scalp and making Therese shudder with want as she seeks out the needy bud of Carol’s pleasure, and sucks. With her hands still bracing her thighs, Therese can feel the shivering as it begins, deep in the stretched muscles.

“Jesus Christ!” Carol gasps. Therese smirks against her, starts licking her faster, wants to go inside but doesn’t want to stop holding her like this. And then something changes in Carol’s body, the older woman’s chest beginning to heave with desperate breaths as she whispers, “Oh God, like that, don’t stop—oh God, that’s so good, don’t stop—don’t stop, please—please—!”

Her voice cuts off. She seizes, going still and silent everywhere except her trembling thighs, her pulsing sex, which Therese devours with brutal hunger. And then, with a last devastating flick, she tosses her over the edge into pleasure. And Carol’s pleasure is magnificent. Her thrashing, her moaning, her flowing wetness—Therese never wants it to end. She holds onto her as best she can, letting her legs drop but winding her arms around her thighs, pinning her with a hand across her lower belly as she keeps going. She does it for as long as she can, fierce at first and then slowly gentler, not wanting to hurt her, only wanting it to last. To feel as wonderful to Carol as it feels for her. Until—

“Therese!” Carol sobs, and grabs her hair again. But this time it’s to pull her back, to make it stop.

Therese obeys, lifting her mouth and watching Carol shudder through the aftershocks. Her body is damp, shining with moisture at her collarbones and throat. A flush has traveled the whole pale expanse of her heaving body, and her hair is fanned out in a tangle, strands half-obscuring her eyes. Therese, panting for breath and mouth covered in the slick of her, watches Carol slowly come down from the height. Never in her life has Therese seen beauty like this.

“Oh, Therese,” Carol says, panting, eyes squeezed shut, “Oh, Darling, oh God—”

Therese sits back, grinning. She didn’t expect Carol to be such a talker. She’s just about to tease her for it when, to her shock, she sees a tear squeeze out from one of Carol’s tightly closed eyes, leaking down the side of her face. Therese’s chest clenches, and in sudden worry she crawls forward.

“Carol?” she says. “Carol, are you all right?”

Half on top of her, half on her side, Therese smooths the hair off Carol’s face and cups her cheek, willing her to look at her. When those eyes finally open, another tear escapes. Horrified, Therese wipes it away.

“Did I hurt you?” she asks, heart in her throat.

To her surprise and confusion and tentative relief, Carol chuckles.

“Oh, no,” she says, voice deliciously rough. “No, Darling, you didn’t hurt me at all.”

Then she reaches for her, pulling Therese down into a kiss. And this is not the type of kiss one shares with a casual one-night lover. It’s tender and soft; it aches like a bruise. Carol slips her tongue gently forward, licking the curve of Therese’s parted lips; licking the taste of herself off Therese’s mouth, and Therese’s head spins at the slow eroticism of it. Her own desire is a pulse between her hips, heavy. When one of Carol’s hands starts sliding down, all promise, Therese’s first reaction is almost dizzy relief.

But then Carol sighs into her mouth—a sweet sigh, longing and vulnerable. And something about it, about the rawness of it and the beauty of it and the beauty of Carol herself, makes Therese realize: she can’t let Carol touch her. She can’t let Carol make love to her. Not if it will only be once. Because she knows that even once will decimate her, make her weak and helpless. Make her want. And to want so badly, and know that she can never have that want satiated again—it would torture her.

So much better, she decides, to keep giving.

Before Carol’s hand can wander any farther, Therese beats her to it, slipping her own hand between Carol’s loosely spread thighs. There’s a gasp. Carol’s eyes fly open, looking at her desperately. When Therese makes contact, she nearly swoons at the overflow of silky heat.

“Oh, Carol,” she moans, running her fingers up and down, swirling, circling, feeling her.

Carol makes a sound, a kind of, “Nnghh,” sound, half-choked and so undignified. It thrills Therese with pride and lust and she grins down at her.

“More?” she asks, adding focus to her touch, zeroing in on the tight, dripping entrance to Carol’s body.

Carol makes another of those sounds, nodding desperately, and Therese makes her own sound, almost a growl, pushing a finger inside. Carol’s inner walls clench down, and both Carol and Therese moan at the feeling.

Therese lifts up, throwing a leg over one of Carol’s to straddle her thigh, looming over her now. It gives her more control, more range of motion, and so long as she keeps her hips elevated enough to avoid any pressure on her own sex, there’s no danger of being distracted. Not only that, but now she is gazing straight down into Carol’s face, into eyes glazed with pleasure. Eyes that flutter shut as Therese starts to thrust a little deeper. Carol’s pelvis tilts toward her, and for a few moments they are both quiet but for their breathing, and the sounds between Carol’s legs.

“Is it enough?” Therese whispers finally.

Carol blinks her eyes open, looking at her with a naked adoration that takes Therese as much by surprise as the tears. Carol cups her face in both hands, pulling her down. Therese obeys, letting their lips touch. It’s soft at first, but slowly deepening.

“More,” Carol moans, into her open mouth. “More.”

Therese adds another finger, reveling in the tightness as she starts to stroke a little harder, a little deeper. Carol’s hands slide from her face to her shoulders, clenching as her head pushes back into the pillow. The hands keep sliding, off her shoulders and onto her back, then down her waist, before coming to land on Therese’s ass. Therese whimpers at the sensation, and Carol looks at her keenly. Then, before Therese can prepare or avoid it, Carol uses her grip on Therese’s ass to push her down, in the same moment that Carol lifts her thigh, and sweet pressure blazes outward from Therese’s sex.

“Fuck,” Therese hisses.

Carol’s eyes spark with delight. Carol’s hands start to coax her into a rhythm, rubbing herself against Carol’s thigh. But Therese has not forgotten her purpose. With a low growl she surges forward, planting her free arm beside Carol’s head and taking Carol’s mouth in a hungry kiss, all while she thrusts her fingers into her.

Carol gasps sharply, hips rocking toward her, thigh rocking against her. They move together, a feral urgency seizing control of them, bodies rutting and animalistic. An ache of release has started to gather between Therese’s legs, and even though she has only ever achieved orgasm through a far more localized attention, she can feel herself getting close. She can feel herself… wanting. Wanting Carol inside her, wanting Carol’s mouth between her legs, wanting Carol’s body to cover hers as she flies apart but no no no it will only be once and if it’s only going to be once then God damn it she’ll make sure Carol never forgets.

She slides her tongue into Carol’s mouth; slides a third finger into Carol’s body, swallowing her cry as she rotates her wrist and crooks her fingers and presses the heel of her palm into the hot hard point of pleasure that makes Carol thrash. She puts aside all thoughts of her own need, thrusting deeper, harder. She can feel the clenching of Carol around her, knows it won’t be long, it won’t be long, it won’t—

Carol’s thigh shifts, tilts slightly sharper, and with a choking sound of surprise, Therese erupts. Her back bows, her hips thrust down. Pleasure roars through her body, an avalanche of sensation. She buries her face in Carol’s throat and sobs. Somehow, her hand keeps moving, spasmodic, inelegant, but hardly moments pass before Carol breathes in sharply, jerks hard, once, and starts rippling around her. Therese, barely coming down from her own release, rubs firmly, wanting to make it last for her. Carol’s cry pitches higher at this, and with their bodies so close they create a bubble of heat and sweat and skin pressed to skin and pleasure, so much pleasure, so much beauty, more than Therese has ever experience before. More than she can fathom. And once—God, how will she ever survive once? But she pushes the thought aside and fucks into Carol with all the passion that she feels, and sets her gasping mouth against a smooth and heaving shoulder, and bites.

Chapter Text

Carol bites the olive off the end of her toothpick, chewing pensively as she gazes out over the crowd in the bar. It’s a smoky little place, not particularly well lit. One might think that the various people in suits are men, but they aren’t. This establishment has a very particular clientele, which is why Carol has refused to come here for so long. Abby first invited her shortly after the divorce, perhaps knowing as she did so that Carol would demur. Since then, there have been other invitations. But Carol, haunted by stories of police raids and men on the hunt for violence, never had the courage.

Now, she watches as Abby chats up the bartender. She went to get them another round ten minutes ago, but has been delayed by what appears to be a very engrossing conversation. Carol smiles with amusement. Abby has always been so good at this. Abby can chat up anyone. Show her a bar and a pretty woman and Abby will unfurl an easy charm that has people eating out of her hand.

Carol frowns. She supposes people say the same thing about her. Always the perfect socialite, gay and charming and well turned out. And yet when she imagines herself in social settings, she pictures someone guarded, never at ease, for whom the proper performance of sociability is just that: a performance. How many times, in her life, has she felt truly and utterly free?

Not for the first time in the past month, her thoughts flit to the night she spent with Therese Belivet. It’s been almost five weeks. Christmas and New Year’s, all come and gone, and now they are on the cusp of February. It’s already turning out to be a bitterly cold winter, and in cold winters what could be better than to curl up in a warm bed with one’s lover, and hibernate til Spring?

But Carol doesn’t have a lover. She made quite sure of that.

That night, they fell asleep, a tangle of sweaty limbs in Therese’s twin bed, the exhaustion of their pleasure dragging them into unconsciousness so fast that neither had a chance to stop it from happening. Carol slept long, and hard, as she never does, and woke to sunlight coming in through the window, and a little piece of paper folded on the pillow next to her head:

Carol,

I’m sorry I didn’t wake you, but you seemed to be sleeping so peacefully. It would be cruel to interrupt that.

I have a breakfast date with an old friend. Please help yourself to coffee or the shower or anything you need. 

Thank you for last night. You were beautiful.

T

Carol had read the note several times. Her feelings were… complicated, not least because she was still waking up and she was naked and a little cold and her mouth tasted terrible. She thought at first what she felt was annoyance, irritation, that Therese would leave her here with an unspoken but implicit ‘See yourself out.’ It made the whole thing feel rather crass, which Carol was not used to.

Then she thought that what she felt was relief, because Therese had so effortlessly spared them any awkwardness. How well Carol remembers similar ‘mornings after’ with Jennifer and a couple of the other women; she had had to worm her way out of their arms, out of their beds and homes. She had felt them watching her with borderline mournful eyes as she dressed; sensed them debating whether or not they could ask to see her again. It took all her verbal agility to avoid those conversations. By slipping away as she had, Therese signaled that she would not put Carol through this; she would not go back on her promise of ‘once.’

And then finally Carol realized that what she really felt after reading that note: disappointment. 

“Here we are,” says Abby, returning to the booth at last, two martinis in hand and a wide smile on her face.

Carol, pulling away from her thoughts of Therese, gives Abby a smirk. She says, “I think I may need to complain to management. That was a very inefficient bartender.”

“Oh, hush,” says Abby. “You’re not as clever as you think.”

“Has it been your plan all along to bring me here and then abandon me for prurient delights?”

“I’ll remind you that I didn’t even know you were coming until two hours ago.”

Carol laughs, accepting the martini. They clink glasses and drink. It goes down bright and refreshing.

“Not bad,” says Carol. “And what is your charming bartender’s name?”

Something lights up in Abby’s eyes, slightly bashful but mostly pleased. She says, “Lou.”

Carol snorts a laugh. “Of course.”

“Don’t be rude. Some of us like a little masculinity in our women.”

“I don’t judge you in the slightest,” Carol says. “But I for one have had enough masculinity to last ten lifetimes. I’m sticking to the feminine, from here on out.”

Like Therese… That skin like silk, that mouth like a ripe fruit, that smell that wafted off her, of arousal and damp skin and her own distinct perfume…

“Well?” asks Abby. Carol blinks and look at her again. Abby lifts her chin toward the room, smirking over the rim of her martini. “What do you think?”  

Carol looks at the bar again, taking in the women. Most are white. A few are black. They range in age from young to old. Some are beautiful and some are not; some look happy and some do not. On the juke box, Ma Rainey sings the blues.

“It’s odd,” Carol murmurs. “I always thought if I came here it would only make me uncomfortable and angry.”

“And it doesn’t?” Abby asks. She sounds hopeful.

Carol’s chuckle is slightly grim. “No, I suppose it doesn’t make me uncomfortable. Uneasy, a little. And curious, of course.”

A little knot of women by the juke box laugh at something, and one of them, in trousers and shirtsleeves and suspenders, grabs a girl in a dress and starts to dance with her. They’re smiling brilliantly at each other, as if nothing in the world can hurt them.

“Why angry?” Aby inquires.

Carol drags her eyes away from the dancing lovers. When she looks at Abby, she sniffs. “Because of the risk, of course. It’s always made me angry, the thought of you coming to these places. Putting yourself in harm’s way. Hell, it makes me angry at all the women here. Risking your lives, your reputations, for a drink and a flirt in some seedy little bar. I assumed seeing it all in action would just make me angrier.”

Carol pauses. Abby, her voice droll but hard-edged, asks, “And now? Have you deigned to forgive us our mediocrity and squalor?”

Carol smiles, a weak smile. She deserved that. Looking at Abby again, she tries to put her apology into her eyes, and after a moment it must work, because Abby’s tight jaw softens, and she looks mollified.

“It’s easier for cowards to tell themselves they are superior,” Carol says.

Abby frowns. “You’re not a coward, Carol.”

“Aren’t I?”

“No. You’ve done the best you can. This sort of place… it’s not for everyone. And may I remind you that I never had a husband or children holding me back. Who knows what I would do, in your position?”

Carol says nothing. She’s thinking of two mornings ago, when Harge came to pick up Rindy and take her to school. As he got out of the car he had smiled at Carol, and though it still held the note of pain it always holds in her presence, there was nothing acidic in his look. He seemed even a little friendly.

“Hello, Carol,” he said. “How are you?”

“Oh,” Carol had smiled uncertainly. “Just fine. How are you? How’s Barbara?”

She could have kicked herself for asking, certain as she was that it would make awkwardness erupt between them. And, yes, Harge did flinch a little, but then that friendly look came back into his face.

“She’s very well. She’s coming for dinner tomorrow night. She adores Rindy.”

Carol had smiled, a tight smile, imagining this Barbara with her daughter, smiling and laughing and plotting, no doubt, her eventual takeover.

“Perhaps you…” Harge hesitated, looked unsure. He said, “Perhaps you’d like to meet her?”

This had been a shock to Carol, and she’s certain she did not hide it. As far as she knew Harge had been seeing Barbara for just under two months. They weren’t nineteen-year-olds, who fell in love and got married right away. Harge was too responsible and busy for something like that. And yet now he wanted to introduce this woman to the mother of his child. What could that possibly mean, except that it was serious? More serious than Carol had realized.

“Perhaps someday,” Carol said, polite but vague.

Harge had accepted this more or less gracefully, but then in an inexplicable move he’d asked, “And you, Carol? Are you seeing anyone?”

Carol’s thoughts had flown to Therese. Her face had drained of color. She told him sharply, “No, Harge. I’m not seeing anyone.”

He blinked, apparently surprised by her intensity. Of course he would be surprised. Of course he would not understand, as she understood, that while his romantic choices had nothing to lose from her scrutiny, the opposite was not true. Her choices would always be subject to Harge’s approval or disapproval, and Harge would always have the power to make something of that disapproval. Because all a man had to do was call up his lawyer and demand custody of his child—his possession. His property.

“Oh,” said Harge, with an awkward laugh. “All right. Well, we’d better get going, huh, Sunshine?”

Rindy, who had been packing small snowballs in her gloved hands, leapt up from her crouch and ran to Carol, hugging her around the waist. She’d gotten taller in the past couple of years, baby fat slowly but surely melting away to leave a wiry and fine-featured girl. Carol kissed her forehead and told her to be good, and watched the car as it drove away, Rindy waving from the back seat.

Now, in this secret little bar, Abby says, “I am glad you decided to come, though. The stories that go around are meant to scare us away. It’s not all police raids and bashings, you know.”

You were caught in a police raid,” Carol reminds her.

“I got out in time,” Abby replies. “Most of us did, that night. This place hasn’t had a raid in nine months. The owner has mob connections, so the police stay away. There are probably bribes involved.”

“That makes me feel much better,” says Carol flatly. 

“I didn’t make myself a criminal,” Abby retorts, fire in her eyes. “If McCarthy is determined to call me a deviant then a little deviancy is no skin off my nose.”

Slowly, Carol grins. It’s as if Abby’s fearlessness has spread across the table, infusing her. She lift her glass to her friend, a salute, a gesture of respect, and Abby grins back, tipping her own glass. They drink together. For all her uncertainty, Carol is glad that she came.

“Now,” says Abby, and takes out her cigarettes, her grin turning sly. “I’ve got my handsome bartender. What about you? See anyone you like?”

Carol laughs, accepting a cigarette and a light. She hasn’t left the booth all evening, and from that particular vantage she has noticed more than one woman looking in her direction. Carol has never been immune to appreciative looks, and as a young woman she quite enjoyed the attention of men who asked her on dates and asked her to dance, and brought her drinks. She had liked Harge, and Harge’s attention, Harge’s admiration. Now, she finds herself in an environment similar and dissimilar from those youthful soirees as it is possible to be. And she knows that with a look, an incline of the head, she could invite any of these admiring women to come and woo her. She could even leave the booth, and try to do some wooing of her own. That, after all, has always been her bailiwick—seduction, authority, control…

Not with Therese, her thoughts murmur silkily. With Therese, you were quite… out of control.

“What’s that look?” asks Abby. Carol startles, and Abby narrows her eyes. “What are you thinking, right now?”

Carol drags on her cigarette, waving Abby aside. “Nothing, nothing, just… how little energy I have, for this sort of game.”

Abby gives her a pensive frown, slightly sad. Then, she leans a little closer, saying quietly, “You don’t have to be alone, Carol. You can ask for more in life than these brief affairs. God, at the very least you can do better than Jennifer.”

Carol smiles ruefully. Her plan to keep that indiscretion from Abby hadn’t lasted, and, as she expected, Abby has not let her live it down.

Carol gives a little shrug, saying, “It’s not worth the risk.”

Abby sits back, looking exasperated. “All that means is that you haven’t met anyone worth taking a risk for.”

Carol has not told Abby about Therese. Somehow that particular dalliance has remained a secret, Carol’s alone, like some precious hoarded diamond, whose light she wants all to herself. And perhaps she hasn’t wanted to tell Abby, because even after all these years, there are wounds between them, healed over but scarred. And it doesn’t escape Carol that when Abby says she hasn’t met anyone worth more, she is including herself in that statement. Carol worries sometimes how Abby would take it, if she did meet someone…

But then, in the silence of their separate pondering, Carol becomes aware of someone standing beside the booth. She looks up to find a beautiful blonde looking at Abby, blue eyes all sparkle, lips curved in a sinful smile.

“Hello,” the woman says.

“Oh, hello,” says Abby, grinning. “Come to make trouble?”

The woman laughs, looking at Carol, “And you must be?”

“Carol Ross,” Carol says, and shakes the woman’s hand. “You’re Lou, I take it?”

“I am. Hope you won’t be offended if I steal your friend away?”

From the corner of her eye, Carol can see Abby blush, but she keeps her eyes trained on Lou, smirking. “Well, that depends. Will you get her home safely?” 

Lou grins, a Cheshire cat grin. She says, “I will… if that’s what Abby wants.”

Carol looks at Abby. “Now you’re in trouble.”

Lou chuckles. Abby, still blushing a little, says, “I thought you didn’t get off for an hour.”

“I pulled some strings. It’s slow tonight.”

Abby looks nervously at Carol, and Carol says, “Go on, go on. I’m just going to finish my drink and head home.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course.”

Beaming, Abby gathers her things. Lou and Carol say their goodbyes and, taking in the other blonde’s effortless charisma, the cool gait with which she leads Abby from the table, hand on the small of her back, Carol feels a swell of pride in her friend. Thinks, Well done, Abby, and hopes that it ends well. For a moment, Carol watches the closed door they went through, before sighing.

The bar is quiet, like Lou said, but there are still plenty of women milling about, and Carol becomes aware of at least two of them watching her. Now that Abby is gone, they might gather their courage and approach her. Something she has no interest in them doing. She’s just about to stub out her cigarette and swallow the last of her drink, when the bar door opens again—

And Therese Belivet walks in.

Carol’s body goes still as stone, but her heart starts to rabbit inside her. Even in the smoky light, there’s no mistaking that slim-figured girl, nor the dimpled smile that Therese turns on her companion, a brunette with great legs and vibrant red lipstick. Carol’s eyes zero in, hawkish.

Therese doesn’t see her.

They go to the bar, taking up stools and signaling the bartender. The brunette offers Therese a cigarette, and Therese takes it. They start smoking, talking, laughing, and soon there are two drinks in front of them. They’re clearly quite familiar with each other, but they don’t touch. Bars like this are the only public place they could touch each other, if they are lovers. So maybe they aren’t lovers? The thought gives Carol an unexpected and irrational shot of hope.

But then Therese says something and the brunette laughs, head tossed back, hand reaching out to squeeze Therese’s knee. Carol’s vision goes red for a moment.

Stop it, she chides herself. What the hell is wrong with you? Just stop it.

But she can’t. She can’t stop staring, wondering, wishing. She digs out a new cigarette and lights it, smoking restively as she observes the ongoing conversation. The brunette’s hand doesn’t stay long on Therese’s knee, but at one point Therese touches the bracelet on the brunette’s wrist, admiring, and there’s such intimacy between them. They must be lovers.

And why not? Carol’s thoughts demand angrily. She is a gorgeous woman. She’s kind and braver by far than you. She’s an excellent lover. Just because you were too much a fool to snatch her up doesn’t mean no one else will. It’s been five weeks. A lot can happen in five weeks. Including someone seducing Therese Belivet.

That word, seduction. Carol thinks of their night together. Thinks of everything she had planned, how much she had wanted to seduce Therese, to devour Therese, to give Therese pleasure over and over. And in the end all the tables were turned, and she was the one on her back, gasping and sobbing with need. A need she had only glimpsed in herself, these past few years. A need sparked by Fernanda and nurtured by Abby and then squashed, all in a fury. Squashed, as she tried to make it work with Harge. Got pregnant. Had Rindy, loved Rindy, loved Harge—but not enough, never enough. Their dissolution was a slow sad death, their divorce a slow sad thing, and through it all Carol had her little affairs that woke that spark of need in her, but it was always contained, never permitted to burn out of control. She couldn’t afford that kind of conflagration.

But then Therese came along, and lit her whole being on fire.

She stares at her, drinks her in, agitated to realize that she is in fact just as beautiful Carol remembers. She has tried a couple of times to tell herself that she was looking at that night through rose-colored glasses. That if she saw her again, she would see just an ordinary pretty girl. How wrong she was. Therese, wearing a slim cut blue dress, with cap sleeves, and her arms bare, her calves exposed beneath the skirt. Her collarbones are exposed, too, and her long neck, beautifully proportioned. Her smile shows off deep, arresting dimples, and her hair is tucked behind a tiny, distracting ear. There’s something so… perfect, about her. Young and sweet and alive.

Carol’s eyes shoot toward the other brunette, hawkish in her assessment. Full-lipped; bright-eyed and grinning. A bit of the vamp, maybe? There’s definitely something coquettish in the way she watches Therese. She’s quite pretty, though not like Therese. Does Therese think her date is pretty? Does Therese think that her date is prettier than…

Stop it stop it stop it.

Now the vamp seems to be telling some kind of story, a serious one. Therese listens closely, curiously, with many little sounds and gestures. Totally engaged. Carol remembers the way that Therese listened, as she told her about her about her own life, about Rindy and Harge and her six lovers. Therese’s attention had been genuine and earnest. She had seemed to care so much, about Carol’s loves and Carol’s suffering. She had asked questions and shared her own thoughts and it was all so authentic, so guileless. And so much like the way she looks at this brunette.

This is absurd, Carol thinks angrily. You knew from the minute you met her that Therese is a sweet girl, a warm friend. Of course it was not something she reserved for you alone. And that she gives it to someone else does not take away from how she gave it to you.

Yet Carol does feel bereft. Worse than that, she is terribly disappointed in herself. She wants to go up to the brunette and advise her, ‘Be smarter than me. If you’ve got her attention, hang on to it. She is something different. Don’t waste such a treasure on ‘once.’’

You should get out of here, Carol thinks. Just pick up your purse and go, before she notices you. There could be nothing more awkward in the world, than to run in to an old lover while out on a date with a new one.

But as Carol dithers, she realizes that the brunette has finally cottoned on to her staring. Panic surges through her, at the little sidelong glance and curious smile. Then the brunette is obviously saying something to Therese and Therese is frowning and turning to look, and Damnit! damnit! damnit! thinks Carol—right before gray eyes lock with green.

Chapter Text

“Someone’s looking at you,” says Gen.

Therese, who has just taken a sip of her wine, frowns in confusion. “What?”

“There’s a very gorgeous blonde in that booth in the back corner. She’s been watching you for at least the last five minutes.”

Therese hesitates. This sort of thing happens sometimes. After all, so many of the women who come to these bars are looking for love, and Therese has learned over the past couple of years that she is pretty enough to attract interest. Still, it’s usually an unreciprocated interest, and Therese always feels shy when people look at her. But Gen’s mention of a gorgeous blonde peaks her curiosity, and so, she turns, looking toward the back booth.

There, lounging indolently with a cigarette in hand, hair tossed back and eyes on fire, is Carol Ross.

Therese almost squeaks in surprise. No sooner has her gaze locked with Carol’s then she is breaking it to turn back to Gen, to say in a whisper, “Oh, God, that’s her.”

“Her?” repeats Gen. “Do you know her? If so, please introduce us. She is absolutely—”

“Gen, that’s her.”

Who?”

Carol!”

Gen’s eyebrows shoot to the top of her hairline, before she shamelessly looks toward Carol again, not even pretending to conceal her interest.

“Stop that!” Therese cries.

“You stop it. She’s seen you and you’ve seen her; there’s no use pretending otherwise.”

“You’ll make her uncomfortable.”

“That woman looks like a damned goddess; I doubt very much I can make her uncomfortable.”

But Therese knows that isn’t true. She’s seen Carol in the throes of anxiety and uncertainty. She knows that Carol fears to be recognized for what she is. Which begs the question of what in the hell she’s doing at this bar!

“Aren’t you at least going to acknowledge her?” asks Gen.

“What?”

“Buy her a drink? Wave hello?”

“No, no—she wouldn’t want me to.”

Gen looks downright offended. “Reading between the lines of your very modest retelling, I have gathered that you gave that woman the night of her life last month. So why in the world wouldn’t she want you to acknowledge her?”

Because she said once. Once once once.

But Gen’s words send memory searing through her, all the images that keep returning to her in her waking and dreaming moments. The sounds and tastes and smells of that night, and the beauty of Carol, for which she was and remains unprepared.

Therese can’t help herself. She turns to look again, and again, Carol is staring straight at her. This time, though, there’s the slightest smile on the older woman’s face, visible even at this distance. The amusement in that curled lip is devastatingly erotic, as is the way Carol lifts her martini glass, tipping it toward Therese in acknowledgment.

“Well,” Gen says, gathering her hand bag. “That’s my cue.” 

Therese, noticing, goes wide-eyed and panicked.

“What? What are you doing? You can’t leave!”

“I’m not, honey,” Gen says, even as she stands up from the stool and grabs her glass of wine. “But Paige and Donna are over by the juke box and I want to at least say hi. And now you have no excuse not to talk to Carol.”

“Gen, I can’t,” Therese insists. “I told you what she said. She doesn’t want to see me again, she—”

“Therese,” Gen interrupts in her firmest, most no-nonsense tone, “you may think the fact you haven’t mentioned her name in a month means you’ve got me fooled, but I can see right through that nonsense. Whatever she said, she’s here now. And I for one don’t believe in coincidences.”

“Gen, I—”

“If it all goes wrong, I’ll be right over there,” Gen says, and starts to point, but the minute she does, her eyes widen. “Jesus, she doesn’t waste any time. Gotta run!”

And Gen darts away. Therese turns with her, meaning to protest, but the sight of Carol chokes the words out of her. For that tall and statuesque creature has performed some kind of magic, transporting herself from the booth in the back—to right beside Therese’s stool. And the smile on her face has not faded, but become a sultry and inviting thing.

“Well, hello,” Carol says.

Therese swallows hard. “I—hello.”

“I would never dream of interrupting, but it seemed like your date was about to abandon you.”

Therese’s eyes widen. “My—date? No, oh, no, that—” She laughs nervously; Carol’s look sharpens. “That was Gen, my friend. I—told you about her.”

A half beat, and then realization. “I see,” says Carol, drawing out both words like pieces of taffy. “Then I suppose I’m not interrupting?”

“No, not at all. Would you—like to sit down?”

Carol holds her stare for another second. Two. Until Therese thinks her heart is going to start hammering right out of her chest—and then she is slipping effortlessly onto the stool Gen vacated, her body facing Therese. She’s dressed in a way that Therese hasn’t seen before—flannel trousers and a checkered hacking jacket, threaded with jewel tones. It is somehow both masculine and feminine, and it makes Therese’s mouth water. Their knees almost touch. Carol takes out her silver cigarette case, drawing one for herself and then holding it open for Therese.

“Cigarette?” she asks.

Therese accepts it, and Carol lights both their cigarettes and takes a long, pensive drag. Therese thinks of the night she went to Carol’s Christmas party, and how talkative and confident and cheerful Carol was. And she thinks about the night that Carol came to her apartment, a totally different Carol, all nervousness and moments of quiet stammering. Tonight, Therese is presented with another Carol. Quiet, watchful, aloof but almost… amused? Is that the look in Carol’s eyes as she observes Therese? Maybe it’s… curiosity? Desire? Something completely different?

Whatever it is, it makes Therese feel fluttery and anxious and warm, because Carol’s look is molten, her eyes like gray stars and her red lips parting to exhale ribbons of smoke. How well Therese remembers Carol exhaling in her bed. Breaths punched out of her by every thrust of Therese’s fingers—

“I’m surprised to see you here,” Therese admits, desperate to have something to say.

Carol making a ‘hmming’ sound. “Yes, I can imagine. I’ve never been before. My friend Abby brought me, but she had a date and left me to myself. I was just about to leave when I saw you.”

Therese swallows hard. Carol was about to leave, but she saw Therese. Carol stayed, because she saw Therese. And now Carol is sitting with her, looking at her like that.

“How do you like it?” Therese asks, going for light, trying to smile.

Carol glances around at the room, her own smile dry and feline. “I’m a creature of habit, and it’s not my usual scene,” she admits. Then her eyes are on Therese again. “But the view has certainly improved in the past few minutes.” 

Therese’s stomach swoops. It takes all the learned confidence of two years in this scene to not flush red or show how startled and embarrassed and—and pleased she is, by the words. Instead she takes a drag and chuckles, trying for cool.

“I know what you mean.”

Carol’s smile edges into a grin, coy, and somehow mysterious. After their night together, Carol should not be mysterious. Therese has seen all her secrets laid bare, hasn’t she? And yet—

“So,” Carol asks. “Do you come here often?”

Amused, Therese takes a drag on her cigarette. “Periodically. Always with friends. You’re brave to have sat at the booth alone.”

Carol’s eyebrows lift. “Really?”

“Yes,” Therese shrugs. “A place like this. A woman alone doesn’t stay alone very long. She’s sure to be approached by would-be suitors.”

The answering glitter in Carol’s eyes, the smirk, are devastatingly attractive.

“I see. And, case in point—you were barely alone two seconds before being set upon.”

Heat prickles Therese’s skin. She asks, “Is that what you’re doing? Setting upon me?”

“Well, I have to protect you from the locals,” says Carol airily. She sips her drinks and sets the glass back down. She puts an elbow on the bar and leans subtly closer, looking into Therese’s eyes. For a moment they are silent, staring at each other. Then, voice performatively casual, Carol asks, “Are you seeing anyone?”

Therese stares back at her for several moments, and then smiles. “No.”

One of those blonde eyebrows twitches, sparking a similar twitch between Therese’s legs. Marshaling her courage, Therese asks, “Are you?”

A scoff. “No.”

Therese wonders why she scoffs, why she behaves as if the very idea is ridiculous. When so many women would throw themselves at Carol, given the chance. And yet Therese can’t deny she is… very pleased by the answer.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” she lies.

“Are you?”

“No.”

Carol’s grin is lazy and seductive and it makes Therese want to tackle her against the bar.

But then Carol says, “In the interest of honesty, I suppose I should say that I’m rather cross with you.”

Surprised, Therese asks, “Cross?”

“You can’t deny you’ve been rude.”

Her heart thumps , eyes widening in confusion. Carol is smirking at her, that cool smirk, those eyes glittering, and she says, “Our goodbye, Dearest. Or, lack thereof, I should say. Very rude, to leave a woman without even a kiss.”

So much for learning how to navigate the lesbian bar scene with poise. Try as she might, Therese cannot prevent the color that rises in her cheeks. Not just at being reminded, but at the exquisite reality she finds herself in: Carol, flirting. With her. But Therese is no blushing virgin and she refuses to be dismantled.

She gives Carol a shrewd look. She drawls, “That’s odd. I remember quite a lot of kisses.”

Carol’s teeth flash; her eyes crinkle. She uncrosses and re-crosses her legs the other way, foot skimming Therese’s calf.

“True,” she murmurs. “But your bed was very lonely come morning.”

Therese, legs also crossed, rotates her knees a fraction closer to Carol. She takes a drag on her cigarette, tipping her head back to blow the smoke in the air even as she is careful not to break eye contact.

“Well,” she says, “I can offer a perfectly logical explanation.”

“Please.”

Excitement ripples through Therese, excitement and determination. Carol’s flirting has turned out to be as delicious as Carol in the throes of passion. Therese leans in, lowers her voice, murmuring, “You were very clear that what we shared would only happen once. If we had woken together, and I had stayed in bed with you, I could never have kept my promise. And I’m a woman of my word.”

Carol’s lips part, pupils dilating. Therese nearly preens with pride at this reaction, but apparently Carol is not ready to raise the white flag.

“That’s just it, Ms. Belivet,” she says coolly. “You did not keep your promise.”

Therese gives her a droll look. “I think I’d remember.”

Carol chuckles. It’s such a low, sinful sound; it makes Therese vibrate. She can feel herself, the warm ache gathering between her legs, already damp.

“You promised me once,” Carol says. “And while you were very generous when it came time to give, you were far less so when it came time to… take.”

Therese can’t help it. She blushes scarlet. Restlessly she uncrosses her legs. She reaches for her glass of wine and takes a swallow, aware even as she does it that alcohol is not likely to help her with this conversation. She sets the glass down and clears her throat and forces herself to make eye contact with Carol, who is watching her avidly.

“I don’t recall being dissatisfied,” Therese whispers.

No, in fact, she remembers a torrent of pleasure that made her rock and writhe and gasp in almost uncontrollable—

“But I was,” Carol whispers back.

All banter, flirting, humor, vanishes between them, replaced by something far more intense, something that lives and breathes between their locked eyes, between their bodies leaning close. When Carol places a hand onto Therese’s knee (the hand nearest the bar—the one others can’t see), it feels as overwhelming as the first time she saw Carol at the furniture store. But when that hand slides around, cupping the back of her knee, teasing the back of her thigh, Therese is hit with a wave of erotic sensation that makes her breathe in sharply. Goosebumps erupt beneath Carol’s touch, and Carol must feel it, she must.

This is why Therese wouldn’t let Carol touch her that night. Because even this comparatively innocent contact is too much. She feels weak and hungry and unscrupulous.

A moment later and Carol is shifting her own legs, creating more of a barrier between Therese’s body and the room. Protecting her from view. No sooner has she done this, then she uses one finger to trace a taut muscle in Therese’s thigh. Therese barely keeps from whimpering. Even so, she lets out a trembling sigh.

“Carol,” she says, but forgets what she was going to say, utterly transfixed by the way Carol’s lips dart to her mouth.

“I’ve thought about you,” Carol murmurs.

Oh God. Oh God.

Carol meets her eyes again. “Have you thought about me?”

Therese shivers, swallows, says, “Of course I have.” Then, she slips her own hand down, touching the hand that holds the back of her knee. She presses into Carol’s fingers, to stop their teasing strokes. She says, “But you told me what you wanted. You made me promise that I understood. I don’t want you to do something that you don’t really want to do. Not if you’ll regret it.”  

Carol looks at her silently for several moments, but with such an intense focus that Therese feels pinned. She can hardly breathe for waiting to see what that look means. Lust is burning through her now, making her flushed and fluttery. She wants to move her hand, to stop stopping Carol’s fingers; to encourage them, instead. To slide them up her thigh, under her dress. To show them the limit of her stockings, and the clasps of her garter belt. Right here in this bar, she wants to part her legs and give herself to Carol, let Carol’s touch consume and devour her, in the way she couldn’t bear to do, when Carol spent the night. But whatever impulse for self-preservation drove her that night, it is disintegrating now. Floating away like chaff. She needs so many things. But not if it will cost Carol too much.

“You’re a very strange girl,” Carol murmurs finally.

Therese frowns, unsure what this means, unsure if she should be hurt.

“Is it strange to want to respect your wishes?” she asks, challenging.

“In my experience, yes,” Carol admits.

That makes Therese so sad, makes her arousal momentarily bank as she considers all the disrespect Carol must have endured.

But then Carol’s hand tightens, squeezing the back of her knee and inching up to grip the back of her thigh, and she looks at Therese with an expression that is almost savage.

“Perhaps you’re right,” she says. “Perhaps I’m being foolish and reckless, breaking my own rule. Perhaps I shouldn’t have even come here tonight. But I did come here. And so did you… Therese,” she draws out the name in a slow, plaintive tone that feels like music trailing over skin. “Therese… let me be foolish.”  

<><><> 

They take a cab back to Therese’s apartment. It’s a quiet drive, each looking out separate windows, knowing better than to touch each other. When they get out of the cab and step onto the sidewalk outside Therese’s building, they keep a good two feet of space between them. Even in Greenwich Village, it’s suicide to flaunt yourself on the street, to show the world what you desire. And right now Therese feels like she is made of desire, made of want, and if she so much as looks at Carol she won’t be able to hide it. So she doesn’t look at Carol. She leads the way up the stairs, Carol’s presence suffusing the air. As Therese breathes, she imagines that she is breathing Carol, that Carol is one with the oxygen and even with the staircase railing. When Therese slides her hand up that railing, she is sliding her hand up Carol. The thought makes her belly flip, and she is suddenly desperate to get inside her apartment. Her steps quicken.

But when they reach Therese’s door, and she takes out her key, all her excitement has a deleterious effect. Her hands are shaking and the keyhole won’t cooperate and she can’t seem to—

Suddenly, Carol’s body is against her back. One of Carol’s hands is on top of hers. The other cups her hip. Therese freezes, breathing in sharply. There’s no one in the hall, but this is… so risky. Riskier still, when Carol bends close, nuzzling at Therese’s ear, murmuring, “Let me.”

Feeling weak-limbed and helpless, Therese lets Carol take the key from her. She watches Carol slot it easily into the keyhole, and turn the knob. The door slips open. Therese, anxious to get them out of the hall before she loses control, steps over the threshold—Carol right behind her.

“Can I make you some tea?” Therese asks over her shoulder, meaning to head toward the kitchen. “Or—or—take your coat—” 

Carol snags her wrist, whipping her back around and pushing her into the wall.

Therese makes one sharp sound, of pure need and pure relief.

“C’mere,” Carol growls, and then she is tipping Therese’s head back, and kissing her, hard.

Therese moans into her mouth. Her moan makes Carol moan, makes Carol push her harder into the wall, devouring her with a kind of fury. Therese has no strength to resist her, this time. When Carol starts yanking her sweater down her arms, she lets her, helpless in her hands. The sweater lands at their feet, soon followed by Carol’s jacket. Carol runs her hands down Therese’s body, clearly searching, over her shoulders and breasts and waist, down to her legs. Pushes up under her hem; scrapes her nails against Therese’s thighs, swallowing her sound of pleasure and licking into her mouth.  

Therese thinks she might die from this.

Carol’s hands keep moving, keep searching. When she finds the zipper in the side of the dress, Carol lowers it quickly, snagging it more than once in her haste. Therese doesn’t care. A moment later, Carol is yanking the dress over her head. Therese finds herself reduced to her underwear, and her shivering is not from cold. She loops her arms around Carol’s neck, needing her closer, needing her body. She doesn’t care that Carol is still clothed. She can deal with that later. Right now she just—needs to kiss her.

It’s as good as she remembers. No, better. Because there’s familiarity added to newness, this time. She remembers the fullness of Carol’s lips, the warmth inside her mouth, the flicker of her tongue. She remembers the way Carol tastes. The way Carol feels. And she remembers her own feverish reaction to Carol’s touch, which so overwhelmed her the first time that she felt there was no option other than to deny it to herself. Better to never have it at all, than to only have it once, and always long to have it again. 

Yet here is Carol. In her apartment. Guiding her toward her bedroom. Both of them panting and grappling and kissing in a fury of need. This time, Therese will not be able to deny.

And this time, Therese will not be in control.

Carol, taller, stronger, uses both to her advantage, practically muscling Therese onto her bed, falling on top of her, hand caught in her hair as she kisses her. The rough treatment is unlike anything Therese has experienced before. It excites her. Consumes her. She wants more.

“Take this off,” she gasps, plucking at the sleeves of Carol’s sweater, reaching down for the buttons of her trousers. “Please, let me feel you.”

Carol answers by grabbing her wrists and holding them down.

“Be still,” she orders, and starts mouthing her way down Therese’s neck, to her chest, to her bra. She rubs her face against the swell of one breast, then opens her mouth and sucks at her through the satin cup.

Therese shudders. Carol keeps holding her down, fingers circling her wrists as she starts to lick and suck the hardness of Therese’s nipple through the thinness of the fabric. The sensation creates a heavy throb between Therese’s legs, as if there is a string connecting her nipples to her sex. In aching desperation Therese wraps her thighs over Carol’s hips, needing to be closer to her, needing to lift her hips toward the warm pressure of Carol’s pelvis. Almost instantly, Carol pushes her own hips down, pinning her. Carol lifts away from Therese’s breast, moves up so that she is just inches from Therese’s mouth. Her smirk is devilish.

“I said, be still.”

“Please,” Therese gasps. She raises her head, meaning to kiss Carol, but Carol denies her, pulling back at the last moment, her smirk becoming a grin. “Please,” Therese says again.

“Ah-ah-ah,” Carol reproves. “I think I’ve been rather clear.” Therese whines, hips churning pointlessly, and Carol chuckles, bending down to murmur into her ear, “You’re trembling.”

“I—I want you.”

Carol groans. Carol bites the lobe of her ear; scrapes her teeth down her throat, sucks on her shoulder before lifting up again to ask, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Therese tries to kiss her again. Again, Carol pulls back, chiding her, “You have to tell me.”

Therese’s head is spinning. She feels incoherent, overwhelmed. Her body is burning and the clothes she’s still wearing feel like an affront. But not nearly as affronting as Carol’s clothes, which keep her from what she wants.

“I want you,” she says again.

Carol chuckles, a devious sound, and bends to her, flicking her tongue against the dip of Therese’s throat. That flash of wetness makes Therese whimper, hungry for more.

“Listen to me, Darling,” Carol says. “When I think of what you did to me—when I think of how beautifully you touched me, right here, in this bed—” She moans, the sound traveling down into Therese’s sex, which pulses and throbs, her wetness smearing her inner thighs. “God—it devastates me. It makes me ache with wanting you.”

Carol takes her mouth, kisses her deep and filthy, like no kiss Therese has ever felt. She whines and kisses back, reveling in the wet slide of Carol’s tongue, in the pressure of Carol’s hands, which lift her own hands and replant them next to her head. This time their fingers weave together, palms pressing each to each.

Carol moans into her kiss, and if she seemed cool and amused before, now the frenzy she described is clear in her, in her desperate kissing, in her urgent whisper, “You were so selfless, so giving. But I want to give now, Dearest. I’ll give you anything. Anything you want. If you ask for it.”

Another Therese would have been undone by this wicked offer. Another Therese would have been too shy, too uncertain, would have shrunk from being asked to articulate what she wants. But that other Therese is not pinned beneath Carol’s body, damp with sweat and arousal, arching and moaning and wanting. Carol’s tongue flicks against her tongue, a darting sensation that cannot fail to consume Therese with thoughts of that tongue… somewhere else.

“Your mouth,” she gasps, flushed red but too far gone to be ashamed. “I want your mouth. Carol please, please, please—give me your mouth.”

Carol’s answering grin is feral, and with a flash of her storm cloud eyes, she starts crawling down the bed.

Chapter Text

Carol has no patience for slow, for gentle, for taking her time. All the uncertainty and nervousness she felt when she first saw Therese in the bar has vanished under the crush of her desire. She’s going to devour this girl whole. The sight of Therese spread out on the bed makes her think of offerings to the gods, and Carol will be a benevolent goddess. Benevolent, and consuming. She tears her lover’s stockings, too incensed to worry about garter snaps, telling herself she’ll buy Therese a new pair. She yanks her panties down her trim and trembling thighs, and runs her hands all over her, reveling in her softness, her hipbones, her heaving rib cage. All of her so perfect it’s maddening. Carol wants more.

She pushes her hands under the cups of Therese’s bra, massages her small breasts, teasing the nipples to hardness. All the while mouthing at her skin, nibbling and sucking everywhere as she descends her gorgeous body.

Which is when a problem occurs.

Therese’s bed is small, and while she remembers them sharing it very easily when Carol was on her back and Therese’s smaller body was curled over her, with their positions reversed, Carol feels she doesn’t have the room she needs to move. She pauses, annoyed, thinking. Therese, eyes big and glassy, looks about to ask her what’s wrong, when—

Carol sits back. She loops an arm around Therese’s waist, shifting her down the bed—before climbing off the bed herself, and sinking to her knees.

Yes, yes, yes, a perfect form of worship.

Therese’s eyes widen, and Carol yanks her forward, sitting her up at the foot of the bed. At least the carpet isn’t too bad on Carol’s knees; the fact that she is still wearing her trousers helps. As for Therese, her legs are deliciously bared, and without further preamble, Carol coaxes them to hook over her shoulders. Now, surrounded by her softness and scent, all she can do is breathe her in.

“Oh, Therese,” she moans. “You smell divine.”

Therese plants one hand on the bed behind her, using the other to unclip her bra and slip it off her shoulders, just before she reaches for Carol’s hair. Her tight, flushed nipples are a vision, and Carol bites her inner thigh, jealous to touch every inch of her. Therese’s fingers clench in her hair, thigh flexing into the bite, and her whimpering sound is one of pleasure and desperate need. Carol wants more of that sound—and she gets it. The first taste wrings a sob from Therese’s throat, animal and desperate. Her fingers bite into Carol’s scalp, an exquisite pain. Carol licks through her, moaning at the flavor of her arousal. She’s dripping and swollen, her little clit a hard bead that Carol strokes with her tongue. Therese’s hips cant forward, her thighs twitch and Carol grins, dipping down to lick at her entrance. She’s so soft, so warm, so wet, and Carol can’t get enough of her.

It was torture not getting to do this the first time. Glorious, to rock her thigh against Therese and watch her come like that—but torture, to not take a more active role in her pleasure. She hasn’t been able to stop thinking about it. For weeks. And now, on her knees, arms wrapped around her thighs, mouth pressed into her sex, Carol takes full advantage.

It’s clear that Therese is too far gone for teasing, for foreplay. Carol spends a few minutes figuring out what she likes, what she needs, and then she sets aggressively to her task. She finds that Therese likes constant pressure on her clit, to be rubbed and sucked in unrelenting pulses, to be swallowed whole. Most of Carol’s experience is with women who needed a little more delicacy, who were nervous about their own responsiveness or who couldn’t relax for this kind of attention at all. Therese, it’s quickly obvious, has no qualms about the pleasure Carol wants to give her. Something Carol should have anticipated when Therese had no qualms about giving that same pleasure to Carol.

Thinking of this makes Carol throb, her clit pulsing with sympathetic pleasure every time she finds a particularly sensitive spot on Therese. Therese is not as loud as Carol was (memories of her own loudness made Carol blush in the days afterwards) but she is not quiet. She is all sighs and whimpering moans and sharp little gasps of surprise and need, each sound lighting a fire in Carol. Soon, Carol doesn’t know which of them is wetter, just that Therese’s sex is running with need, her thighs shivering and twitching. The thought of how silky she must be inside makes Carol squeeze her legs together. It’s a mystery that needs solving.

She lifts her head to the sight of Therese, both hands flat on the bed now, spine bowed and head tossed back. The loss of Carol’s mouth makes her eyes blink fuzzily open, makes her look at Carol again.

“Wha—”

“I want to be inside you,” Carol says. Adding, “Can I?”

Therese’s eyes blaze. No need to worry that the bold question would embarrass her. She starts nodding frantically, hips lifting. “Yes. Oh God, Carol, please, yes!”

Grinning, Carol shifts Therese’s legs off her shoulders, bracing them instead on the edge of the bed, thighs spread apart. The view is fantastic. She’s flushed and wet, and when Carol slips her fingers between her swollen lips, Therese starts panting like a woman who has run a mile. Her pelvis thrusts forward, trying to deepen the touch. Carol grabs her hips, holding her steady.

“Be still,” she croons again.

Therese’s strength gives out; she collapses onto her back, covering her face with one of her arms, groaning. Carol watches her, watches as she touches her, gentle nudging and strokes, testing her response. She sees Therese open her mouth against her own arm, biting down, desperate, and with a growl of lust Carol slips two fingers into her sex. Therese grabs the sheets beneath her, eyes squeezed shut and neck long as she gasps. Inside, she is taut and warm and delicious, sucking on Carol’s fingers, dripping into her hand.

“Is that good?” Carol asks.

“Yes—yes—”

Carol tries different things, different speeds and pressures and angles, watching Therese with razor focus the entire time. When she thrusts deep, crooking her fingers in a steady rhythm against the front of Therese’s cunt, her young lover makes a choking sound. There it is. That’s what she likes. That’s what makes her bite her own arm again, a vision of debauchery. But Carol doesn’t know if this will be enough for her, and so she asks—

“What else do you need?”

To her delight, Therese isn’t coy.

“Taste me,” she gasps, “Please, Carol, put your mouth on me again—” 

The sight and sound of her like this, so wanton, so shameless, has Carol growling with satisfaction. She bends over her. She doesn’t tease. She flicks her tongue rapidly against her, then pulls her clit into her mouth, creating a warm tight suction that has Therese’s body locking up in bliss. She comes so suddenly, with such a violence, that Carol is almost disappointed. She never wanted it to end—she wanted to keep licking her and fucking her for hours. But now that it is happening, she’s not about to fall down on the job. She keeps her fingers deep inside, strokes steadily, deliberately, just as her mouth is deliberate. The sound Therese makes sends shivers flooding down her back. The younger woman’s body ripples and pulses and her voice goes hoarse as she says Carol’s name, over and over and over. Carol moans against her, and that makes her spasm, sharply whining—

And then, she goes limp.

Therese in the aftermath of pleasure is a vision, exquisitely carnal. She makes little hitched gasping sounds as her chest heaves, her legs slipping off their perch to dangle over the edge of her bed. She’s trembling. She lifts her arms weakly, reaching down to weave her hands in Carol’s hair as Carol nuzzles her way up her thighs, to her belly, to her sternum, crawling over her and swallowing her sigh in a deep and hungry kiss. Carol glories in the grip of Therese’s thighs, cinching to her waist. She revels in the strength of Therese’s hands, holding her close as they kiss. She swallows every gasping breath and moan for the decadence that it is.

They don’t speak. Minutes pass, their kisses slow like molasses as Therese recovers from her pleasure. Even after she has stopped shivering, her body is slick with sweat, and Carol finds herself licking a slow stripe up her neck, just to taste the salt of her. Therese mewls. She weaves a hand in Carol’s hair, pulling her head back so they can look at each other again. Therese is flushed, and smiling. She’s so beautiful it takes Carol’s breath away.

“Hi,” Therese murmurs.

Carol almost blushes. “Hi,” she says. She lifts her hips, lifts her body off of Therese, shifting on to her side so she can run a hand down Therese, throat to sternum to belly to thighs. She looks at everything she’s touching, every smooth inch of Therese’s nakedness.

Then, all of the sudden, Therese is rolling over on top of Carol, sitting up and straddling her thighs. Surprised, pleased, Carol cups the soft small weight of her breasts, the nipples hard and crinkled against her palms. Therese sighs, her head tipping back, and Carol gazes up at her in wonder. For how young she is, there’s no shyness in how she moves her body, how she shows herself to Carol, and Carol finds it electrifyingly sexy.

“God,” Carol moans, looking at the lines and planes of her. “I never looked like that.”

Therese’s head tips back down, her eyes opening, hooded. She smiles, and the smile is beautiful and a little naughty.

“You mean this statuesque body of yours never resembled a street urchin?”

Carol’s eyes widen, startled, but the mischief in Therese’s eyes makes her blurt a laugh.

“You do not resemble a street urchin!” she cries.

Therese is laughing, too, tongue poking between her teeth for a minute. “I do!” she insists. “Look how skinny I am!”

“Gorgeous,” Carol corrects her, sternly. She sits up, bringing their bodies together, their lips within an inch of each other. But she can still see Therese’s troublemaking smile. “You are absolutely gorgeous, Therese.”

“You…” Therese drawls, “are still clothed. Why are you still clothed, Carol?”

Carol smirks, “Well, technically, we’ve all kept our promises. I got what I came for, didn’t I?”

Therese’s answer is a furrowed brow, a pouting lower lip. She combs her fingers through Carol’s hair, pushing it back from her face. She says, “I see… so you’d just like to leave now, is that it?”

Carol answers by slipping a hand down to cup Therese’s bottom; to hitch her closer. It occurs to her that Therese’s wetness has probably stained her clothes. A problem to be dealt with—later.

“Well,” she says. “It seems to me I can’t leave, can I? You’ve got me pinned.”

Therese’s pout morphs back into that enchantingly coy grin.

“Good point.”

“And the fact is…” Carol trails her finger tips up Therese’s spine; watches her pupils dilate. Goosebumps ripple down her arms. “I’m not sure I’ve gotten you out of my system yet.”

As if you could ever, Carol’s thoughts retort. She pushes those aside. Therese chuckles.

“You’re welcome to try your hand at getting tired of me,” says the younger woman. “I’m not sure I’d ever be able to do the same.”

She’s flirting, of course, but something about it—it makes Carol melt inside, go all gooey and helpless. She clucks her tongue, trying to mask the almost devastating emotion that surges through her. Desire, yes, but also—adoration. Longing. Need.

Carol dips her head, kissing Therese’s bared throat. She uses both hands to scrape her nails down Therese’s back, incensed by the sharp little gasp she gets in return. When Carol starts sucking on her shoulder, Therese gasps again, clutching at Carol’s hair as her thighs tense and her hips lift, starting to rock against her. 

“Well then,” Carol murmurs, pulling back just to admire the red mark she has left behind, to conclude magnanimously that Therese will be able to hide it under her clothes. “I suppose we should just see about that…”

<><><> 

Later, much later, Carol walks out of the bathroom, fully dressed but with a damp spot on her trousers, the consequence of trying to clean them with a hand towel. She huffs at herself (it’s so crass, so unseemly, so—satisfying), but when she walks back into the bedroom, Therese, still lying naked with the sheets half-covering her, smirks. Carol gives her a mock look of reprimand.

“What are you so pleased about?”

Therese shrugs one creamy shoulder. “You know, you could have spared yourself this indignity if you had just taken your clothes off in the beginning, like I asked you to.”

Carols scoffs. “There was no time for that.”

Therese’s smirk edges into a full blown grin. Carol reaches for her discarded shoes, and sits on the side of the bed to put them back on. She can feel Therese’s warmth, and the temptation to crawl back on top of her is almost debilitating. But it’s late. So late. Five orgasms between them late. If she doesn’t leave they may end up killing each other with sex.

“So,” Therese murmurs, running a finger down Carol’s arm. “Did it work?”

Carol, finishing with the shoes, turns to look at her. Her hair is mussed, her brilliant green eyes full of vibrancy. There are love bites on her shoulders and the tops of her breasts, and even twenty minutes later, she still wears the blushing glow of her most recent climax.

“Did what work?” Carol asks.

Therese pokes her tongue between her teeth. Her dimples pop adorably.

“Did you get it out of you system?” she asks.

Carol smiles slowly at her. She knows she ought to respond with some naughty flirt, but Therese looks so lovely. Carol knows there is an incriminating degree of fondness in the smile she gives her. Because she is fond of Therese. More than fond. She likes her very much, and not just because it’s the best sex she’s ever had. She feels warm and comfortable with Therese, as she has only ever felt with Abby. A realization that reminds her: Therese is also the only other woman who she’s gone to bed with more than once. It’s a flagrant rejection of her own rule. She ought to feel cross with herself, frustrated by her own weak-willed character. But she just… can’t.

Still, Carol doesn’t have the courage to lay herself completely bare.

“Is it out of your system?” she asks.

Therese’s smile softens; now it holds the note of sweetness, of gentleness, that makes Carol’s stomach flip.

“I told you,” Therese murmurs, “I could never get you out of my system.”

Carol can’t think what to say; she just gazes at her, overwhelmed with the desire to kiss her. Then, after a moment Therese clears her throat. She props herself up on one elbow, giving Carol a serious look.

“But…” she says, slowly, thoughtfully. “I know that this doesn’t change anything. The last thing I want is for you to regret—”

“I don’t regret this,” Carol interrupts. Therese gives her a keen look. Carol reaches forward to brush away a piece of her hair. It’s not actually in her eyes. Carol just wants to touch her. “I… wanted this. Frankly I’m certain I’ll want it again.” Her fingertips pause against Therese’s jawline; she is captivated by the perfect smoothness of her skin, the delicacy of her bone structure. For a moment she gets lost in it—then comes back with a snap, dropping her hand, glancing away. “But I don’t think it would be fair… to you. To continue, I mean.”

Therese says nothing for a moment, just watching Carol as Carol looks down at the bedspread.

“Why?” asks Therese at last.

Carol dares to lift her eyes, and finds the younger woman regarding her patiently. She sighs, explains, “You deserve a real lover, Therese. Someone who can commit themselves to you. Give you time and attention and… love.” Carol’s voice cracks on the word. “Things I can’t give. Not with my life as it is.”

A slow, pensive nod, Therese’s eyes cutting away to gaze across the room as she considers.

“Well,” she says after a moment. “I suppose you are probably right. And if a woman were to come along who wanted that with me, and whom I wanted that with, then I would be very foolish not to take my chance.” Then, she looks at Carol again. “But, in the meantime…”

Carol’s mouth goes dry, pulse fluttering as she gathers Therese’s meaning.

Therese adds, “There’s no harm in seeing each other from time to time, is there?”

Oh, God, no. No harm at all. If I can keep myself away from you for more than twenty-four hours, that is.

“You would want that?” Carol asks softly.

Therese gives her a look, then sits up fully, the front of her body molding against the side of Carol’s. She kisses Carol’s shoulder, tilts her chin up and kisses Carol’s neck, and her jaw, and ends with a slow nip to her earlobe that makes Carol flush with heat and turn toward her mouth like a flower toward the sun. They kiss, slow and hungry.

“I want to see you again,” Therese murmurs. Then, after a beat, “If you do, that is…”

Carol swallows, then leans in for another deep kiss, far more tender than she’s prepared to explain.

“I do.”

Chapter Text

Therese hears the phone ringing as soon as she opens her apartment door. This is one of the perks of her new place in the Village—a private phone. Though she’s not sure who would be calling, and hopes it isn’t one of her friends wanting to get a drink. Therese is tired. It’s seven o’clock and she hasn’t eaten yet. Dannie has been pestering her to come out with him and Phil but she was hoping to avoid it. She considers just ignoring the phone, but it’s shrill cry is persistent, so she sets down her things and goes to the kitchen, grabbing it.

“Hello?”

There’s a half beat of silence

“Hello, Therese.”

Carol’s voice, that warm, smoky voice, runs down Therese’s spine like a smooth shot of whiskey, leaving heat in its wake.

“Oh,” she says. “Hello.”

Carol laughs. It shouldn’t be legal for a woman to sound like that when she laughs, so sinful, so provocative. Therese thought she remembered what Carol’s voice sounds like, what Carol’s voice does to her, but it still hits with a brute force, making her knees weak.

“How are you?” Carol asks.

“I—I’m all right. How are you? How have you been?”

Thirteen days since they last saw each other. Since they last spoke. Since they last touched.

Carol says, “Oh, busy I’m afraid. Work has been murder, and I’ve had Rindy since Saturday. Harge just came to pick her up.”

Therese’s pulse starts galloping, but she doesn’t want to behave like a lust-driven monster, so she says, “It must be difficult, when she’s not with you.”

Carol pauses, and for a terrified moment Therese wonders if she shouldn’t have said this, shouldn’t have gestured at something so personal.

“Yes,” murmurs Carol. “It… well, it’s never easy. And Rindy doesn’t like it.”

She pauses. Therese says nothing, hoping foolishly that Carol will say more, confide in her, but then the older woman chuckles again. “That said,” she continues, voice a croon. “There are certain advantages to having a weekend with no… maternal obligations.”

Therese smiles slowly, hope gathering inside her. She can’t resist a coy turn. “Oh?”

“Yes, well—I suppose you’re quite used to having your freedom on the weekends. I did wonder if you would even be at home. There must be friends you want to see. Parties. All the revelry of youth.”

Carol’s tone is humorous, grandiose, and Therese snorts a laugh. “Yes, of course,” she plays along. “All the finest people in the world are waiting on my leisure. I suppose I’ll have to make the rounds of six dinner parties tonight, at least.”

“A popular girl.”

“Yes, obviously. And hotly anticipated at every club in town.”

Carol’s chuckle makes Therese think of Carol’s tongue, licking across her skin, slow and rough and hungry.   

“Well, in that case,” she says, “I don’t suppose you’ve got any room left on your dance card for me?”

A thrill of anticipation ricochets through Therese’s body.

“What did you have in mind?” she asks. As if Carol could suggest anything, and she wouldn’t leap at the chance.

“Well… I’ve just come in to a very fine bottle of brandy, and I wondered if you might like to try it with me.”

This time Therese can’t smother a grin of pleasure and excitement, before drolly pronouncing, “I think I can fit you in.”

<><><> 

They lie in a heap, breathing hard and slick with sweat, Therese sprawled across Carol’s torso and their legs tangled together. They had tried, when Carol arrived at the apartment, to exercise a modicum of control, to not attack each other like animals. Therese brought glasses out to the coffee table and Carol poured them each a measure of brandy. They sipped it together, eyeing each other as they exchanged pleasantries. The first drink went down easy. The second was poured. All very dignified. All very responsible. Until, that is, Carol made some droll comment, and lifted her hand to rub the back of her neck, and with her head tilted so and her lips curled with a smirk, she was so gorgeously inviting that Therese could not help herself. She slid across the couch, slid against Carol’s body, and, well—

At least the couch is comfortable. And big enough for Carol’s long frame, which is warm and panting beneath Therese, her nakedness on full display under the lamplight. Therese, face pressed up under her chin, breathes in the smell of her, sweat and salt and perfume. Therese is feeling rather pleased with herself. Once again, she’s had Carol first, had her spread out and gasping, had her naked and helpless with Therese’s fingers rubbing between her legs and Therese’s mouth on her nipples. A thousand times richer and more intoxicating than the brandy.

“Jesus,” Carol groans, when a minute or so has passed and she seems to be getting her voice back. “You’re so young. How are you so good at this?”

Therese huffs a low, pleased laugh. It has not escaped her that Carol’s voice is hoarse. She sounds utterly debauched. She looked utterly debauched, as Therese made love to her.

“I think you bring it out in me.”

This time Carol laughs. “That’s rather modest.” 

“Not at all.” Therese lifts up so she can smile down into Carol’s eyes. “I think you underestimate how dismantling you are. That I can keep up is certainly a testament to my stamina.”

Carol throws back her head with a peal of laughter. “Dismantling. Really?”

“Oh, yes.” Therese kisses her bared throat. Kisses her behind her ear. Kisses her jawline and, when Carol lowers her head again, nips at her bottom lip. Delighting in the little growly sound it earns her. “Dismantling. Transporting. Incredible.”

Carol slides a hand behind her neck and pulls her forward. Therese melts into her kiss, deep and slow and dirty, their tongues slipping against each other. Planting her hands on either side of Carol’s shoulders, Therese shifts her legs, straddling her thighs and deepening the kiss. The feel of Carol’s hands, dragging up and down her spine, makes her helpless with her own unsated desire. But she’s not ready to have that desire sated yet. She wants more of Carol. Can hardly think for how much she wants it. She breaks their kiss to start mouthing down Carol’s throat again, nibbling at her breast bone, running her tongue between her breasts, determined to chart a course all the way to—

The sound of Carol’s stomach growling makes her freeze for half a beat. Carol tightens under her, and Therese looks quickly up to see a startled look on the older woman’s face. She looks so wide-eyed, so embarrassed, that Therese grins.

“Why, hello there,” she drawls. Carol starts blushing, which only pleases Therese more, drawing a laugh from her. “I see not all your appetites are satisfied.”  

Carol puts a hand over her face as if to hide her blush. She peeks at Therese between her fingers, then hides again. Therese starts laughing in earnest.

“I haven’t eaten since lunch,” Carol says indignantly.

“Why didn’t you say so?” Therese demands. “I could have made you something!”

Carol emerges from her hiding place, but only to put her hands on Therese’s hips. She sits up, fast, pulling Therese close. With a startled yip, Therese wraps her arms around her neck, fighting to keep her balance. And to keep her heartrate under control, because Carol’s lips are an inch from hers and Carol’s eyes are catlike and fiery.

“I was rather distracted,” she purrs.

“Hmm,” Therese grins. “I see. And can you focus long enough for me to feed you?”

“Darling, nonsense, you don’t have to—”

“I want to!” Therese insists. She winds her fingers in the silk of Carol’s hair, and brushes teasingly against the bow of her bottom lip. “It’s in my best interests, after all. I can’t have you fainting away. Not when I’m not done with you yet.”

Carol makes a throaty sound. “Well,” she murmurs. “In that case…”

Five minutes later, Carol is wrapped in Therese’s bathrobe, and Therese is wearing an oversized men’s dress shirt, tails brushing the tops of her thighs and sleeves pushed up over her elbows. Having grown a little peckish herself, Therese sets to making them each a turkey sandwich, keenly aware of Carol watching her from her position at the kitchen table. Therese is totally naked under the shirt, and it feels illicit, naughty. When the sandwiches are plated she carries them over to the kitchen table and sits down across from Carol, the chair cold under her bare ass. She crosses her legs and smiles. Carol smiles, as well—but there is something ravenous in her eyes, and it’s not for the sandwich.

Blushing, Therese breaks eye contact, tucking into her sandwich and relieved when, after a moment, Carol does the same. They eat in a companionable silence for a couple of minutes, the food hearty and satisfying. They’ve traded in the brandy for two bottles of ice cold beer, a perfect refreshment after their exertions. Though Therese did so enjoy the taste of brandy in Carol’s mouth…

She’s just taken another swig from her bottle when Carol says, “So… you never answered my question.”

Therese frowns. “Question?”

Carol’s eyes crinkle; her lips curve mischievously, and then Therese feels it—Carol’s bare foot, stroking up her calf. Why such an innocuous gesture is so erotic, she isn’t sure, but it makes her pulse leap and her mouth go dry. 

Carol says, “I asked… how are you so good at this?”

Therese’s eyes widen. Carol smirks. “So few lovers. So few years. Are you just a sexual prodigy, Ms. Belivet?”

A blush travels up Therese’s chest and throat into her cheeks. Carol thinks she is a good lover. This might be accomplishment enough to die happy. She takes another drink of her beer, struggling for composure.

“I told you,” she says. “You bring it out in me.”

Carol clucks. “I don’t think I’ve brought that out of anyone before, Dearest. You’re sure you have so little experience?”

For some reason, this rankles her. Is Carol suggesting that she lied about how many lovers she’s had? Why would she lie about something like that?

“I’m sure I’d know, if there were others.”

“Presumably,” says Carol. “I’m simply marveling that a woman of your particular talents hasn’t been snatched up already.”

Therese swallows. This time the heat that goes through her is not arousal. She shifts her leg away from Carol’s stroking foot, and stands up, carrying her plate to the sink. Needing the space. God, what’s happening? Why is she suddenly so… unhappy? Carol is only flirting with her. Praising her, really. Implying, even, that she is the best lover Carol has ever had. It ought to be enough to make her swoon with pleasure. But instead she feels restless and irritated. How can Carol be so amazed that no one has ‘snatched’ Therese up? Carol herself certainly hasn’t.

That’s not fair, Therese tells herself. Carol has been honest with you from the beginning. She’s been clear about what she wants and what she can’t give. It’s not personal. And you said you would respect it.

Therese forces herself to breathe out the worst of her unhappiness. When she turns around, Carol is watching her cautiously; clearly she picked up on Therese’s changed mood. Therese offers her a faintly chastising look.

“I think being snatched up, in this context, requires a certain willingness on the part of the snatchee,” says Therese. Carol’s tense expression melts into a burgeoning smile of amusement. Therese continues, “I’m afraid I’ve never met anyone who I was willing to let snatch me up.”

She walks back toward the table, meaning to retake her seat, but Carol reaches out, snagging her wrist. Carol pushes her own chair out and pulls Therese to her, to stand between her knees. The sudden proximity makes Therese’ breath hitch. Carol gazes up at her, warmth in her eyes. Carol puts her hands on Therese’s bare legs, cupping the backs of her knees and squeezing.

“I see,” she murmurs, and slides her hands a little higher. She leans forward, nuzzling at Therese’s sternum through the half-buttoned dress shirt. “And what about men?”

This time, Therese snorts a laugh. Carol pulls back to look up at her. “What about men?” Therese repeats flatly.

“Well… I can’t help wondering where this shirt came from, for one.”

Therese chuckles. “It belonged to a boyfriend, someone I went out with a few years ago. I always liked it, so when I broke things off with him I kept it.”

Carol’s hands keep gently stroking the backs of her thighs, and Therese can feel the goosebumps responding to her touch.

“Why did you break things off?” Carol asks.

“Because I didn’t love him. He wanted to marry me. He kept asking me to come to Paris with him, and get married, and I didn’t want it. Then one night I met Gen at a party and went home with her. After that I ended it with him.” Carol continues to gaze at her, curious, wanting more, and almost without thinking Therese obliges. “He wasn’t a bad person. He was always kind to me. He adored me. I felt rather guilty about it in the beginning, but I was seeing Gen at the time, and she made me realize…”

Therese trails off, blushing. Carol’s hands on her thighs pause their stroking to squeeze, a prompting gesture.

“Realize?” she repeats.

“Well, just that… sleeping with Richard was awful. I thought it was my fault, because I didn’t know what I was doing. But Gen showed me that it was not supposed to be like that. That it wasn’t my fault, and that I could actually like it. Love it, in fact.”

Carol’s face, tipped toward hers and smiling, is too beautiful to resist. Therese starts combing her fingers through the hair at her temples; toying with one of her earlobes; running a thumb down her jawline.

“Well,” Carol says, “I’m very glad to hear that the awful sex with Richard didn’t disincline you toward the act itself. Reaper of those benefits that I am.”

Therese giggles. Carol draws her closer. Carol’s hands have slid up, just below her bottom, and Therese feels banked arousal crackling to life again.

“But I’m sorry to hear it was bad in the first place,” Carol adds. “It’s unfortunate, when men don’t know what they’re doing.”

Therese considers this. Intellectually she knows that there are men who are good lovers. But she hasn’t wanted to have sex with any man, certainly not since those terrible few times with Richard. She wonders, though—

“Was it all right for you? Sex with men?”

The minute Therese has said it, she worries about offending Carol, but the older woman snorts. “Oh, dear, what a question… You know I’ve only slept with two men. One was a boyfriend I had in college, before Harge. And the second was Harge. It wasn’t bad, with either of them. Harge and I…for a while it was good.”

Therese frowns. She keeps combing her fingers through Carol’s hair.

“Then, why did you—”

“Because it simply wasn’t enough, Darling. I thought that if I could enjoy sex with him then it meant I didn’t need sex with women, and all our incompatibilities would smooth over if I could just stop wanting that. But then Abby and I…” She pauses. She leans forward, rubbing her face against Therese’s breastbone with a gentleness, and tenderness, that makes Therese ache. “Well, I realized that it wasn’t just sex I wanted from women. And I realized that I could never be what Harge kept wanting me to become. That I could never be truly happy with him, or him with me. He realized, too, but he fought it harder. He really did love me. But, I don’t know… perhaps I’m not capable of that kind of love. Long term, anyway.”

Then Carol is quiet, still nosing against Therese’s body, and Therese feels a deep sadness. She thinks of Abby, this woman who it’s clear Carol loved, however briefly. Thinking of Carol’s other lovers doesn’t bother Therese, doesn’t make her jealous. But Abby is different, and Therese is ashamed of that. Ashamed to resent a woman she doesn’t know. Especially since Carol isn’t in Abby’s kitchen right now, is she?

“I’m sorry,” Carol murmurs, pulling back to smile up at Therese. It doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “I’m being maudlin. It’s unforgiveable. Especially with a creature as gorgeous as you in front of me.”

Therese, sad again to think of Carol hiding from her, cups her jaw. Her voice is low and tender, “You don’t have to pretend with me, Carol. Haven’t we already decided to be completely honest with each other?”

Honest about what this is. And what it isn’t. Honest about their desire. And what they can’t give. Yes, perhaps this is the benefit of an arrangement like theirs, so different from an actual love affair. Neither of them has to pretend anything.

Right?

Carol looks into her eyes with an intense expression that Therese can’t entirely interpret. Carol’s hands smooth their way under the tails of the dress shirt, up Therese’s hips to her waist. She drags a palm over Therese’s taut belly, and uses her other hand to start pulling at the buttons on the bottom of the shirt, slipping each from it eyelet. It is abruptly clear that their conversation is over, but Therese is too aroused to care. Carol moves slowly, eyes never leaving Therese’s eyes. In moments, she has all the buttons undone, and the shirt gapes open, revealing a strip of skin from Therese’s throat down to her pubic hair.

Therese breathes heavily, unsteadily. When Carol abruptly stands, her breathing sharpens. Carol looms over her, hands on her hips under the shirt, thumbs stroking. She is gazing down at Therese’s body, contemplative.

“You’re exquisite, Therese,” she murmurs. She finds the sides of the shirt and pushes them back, over Therese’s shoulders, exposing her breasts. “You’re like a miracle.”

She drags the shirt down Therese’s arms. She pushes aside the plate on the table, with its nearly finished turkey sandwich, and guides Therese to sit on the edge. Now she is the one, standing between Therese’s spread legs, hands massaging her bare thighs as she peruses Therese’s body. The bathrobe she wears is only loosely knotted, the top gaping open to reveal her chest and a shadow of cleavage. Therese feels her own nipples tighten in response to the slow caressing of Carol’s hands, to the thumbs that nudge at them idly. Therese whimpers. Carol’s eyes shoot to hers, taking in her response with fiery interest.

“Do you like this?” Carol murmurs, voice a silky promise, thumbs still carefully working her. She bends and takes a nipple into her mouth, gentle but firm.

“Yes,” Therese gasps. “Yes, I—fuck.”

Carol chuckles throatily against her breast, releasing her to chide, “Such language. Whatever am I to do with you, Ms. Belivet?”

Therese arches toward her, wanting to feel her mouth again, wanting to be closer.

“Anything,” she says. “You can do anything you want, Carol, please—”

“Anything?” Carol hums, hand sliding up Therese’s thigh, closer and closer. “What an offer.”

Before Therese can think of a response, Carol’s thumb is dipping between her legs, gathering wetness that she smears across Therese’s clit. Therese jolts, hands grabbing at Carol’s shoulders as that thumb begins to toy with her, gentle but firm, wet and electric.

“Do you know,” says Carol pensively, “I’m not used to waiting for my turn.” Her thumb rubs a little harder. Therese makes a choking sound, legs jerking and then wrapping around Carol’s waist. “Usually, when I go to bed with a woman, I don’t just let her have her way with me. Not until I’ve fully sated myself with her pleasure. But you… You’re rather devious, aren’t you?”

“C-carol—oh, God.”

“And look at the consequences?” Carol adds, conversational, thumb unrelentingly slick and firm. “You’re in an absolute state, and all because you wouldn’t let me touch you on the couch. You’ve no one to blame for this but yourself.”

Therese whines. She’s dripping wet, desperate for more. Carol is right. All the unsatisfied arousal she experienced on the couch is heaped on top of fresh desire, and it’s more than she can handle. She’s never been so sensitive before, so responsive. Her hands on Carol’s shoulders tighten; her thighs around Carol’s waist clench. She barely has the strength to open her eyes and when she does, the look on Carol’s face nearly tosses her over the edge. Ravenous. Therese thinks she may be about to fly apart; she needs something, to hold her down.

“Please,” she gasps, “Carol, I need—I need—”

“What, Angel?” Carol murmurs. “What do you need?”

In this context, the unexpected pet name is filthy, naughty, overwhelming—but there’s also a thread of genuine tenderness in it. And that is overwhelming, too. Therese starts gasping for breath.

“Inside!” she begs. “Please, please, touch me inside, please, I need it, please—”

Her voices breaks off in a cry when Carol abruptly presses two fingers into her sex, all smooth and hot and hard. Therese flails, hands landing behind her on the table, seeking purchase. Her head tips back, eyes squeezed shut, and she starts rocking her hips into Carol’s touch.

“There’s a good girl,” Carol says. “Look at you. Shall I keep going?”

“God, yes, yes, yes—”

“So tight inside,” Carol marvels. “So wet for me. Christ, you feel amazing.”

Somehow Carol has managed to keep her thumb on Therese’s clit, and though her strokes are far less precise and elegant now, the combination of that pressure, and the thrusting inside, is devastating. Carol’s free arm loops around Therese’s waist, just before Carol bends to her, sucking a nipple between those full lips. The sensation of her tongue, dragging lewd circles around the pebbled tip of her breast, makes Therese’s elbows wobble. She nearly collapses. Thank God for Carol’s circling arm, that holds her up, holds her close, makes her feel—everything.

“I’m close,” Therese whispers, “Carol, I’m so close.”

Carol growls, still licking and sucking at her nipple, letting it go with a wet pop only to dive at the other one. The sensation pulls at a deep and echoing pleasure, in the center of Therese’s being. Pulls and pulls, like a lasso dragging the ocean to the shore. How can Carol command something so vast? How can something so powerful exist in Therese’s body, which is trembling violently now, trembling, and pulsing, and close, so close, Jesus fuck!

She comes in a sweeping rush. She sobs, thrashing. The press of Carol’s fingers inside are like the palpitations of her heart, making her blood flow hot, making pleasure beat through her in unyielding waves. It’s so intense and it’s so good, an endless ebb and flow, a release that sings through her. Growing dizzy, she lifts her head, swaying toward Carol. The move dislodges Carol from her breast, forcing her to lean back, and in relief Therese buries her face in the crook of Carol’s neck, wrapping her arms around her as she shakes apart.

Unlike Carol, Therese is not one to cry out in the midst of orgasm. When it’s good she can control herself enough to stick to whimpers and sighs. When it’s really good, incredibly good, she’s too overcome to make noise, voice choking off in her ecstasy.

But this—this has her babbling, incoherent words of praise and need and gratitude, squeaked out between the hard clenches of her cunt, her thighs, her belly, her arms. When after what feels like eons the sharp crashing wave dissipates into the laziness of the surf, she can only pant for breath, mouth wet where it presses into Carol’s neck. She feels weak and spent, and all she wants is Carol. 

Carol, who is murmuring and cooing and holding her fingers still, using her other hand to gently massage one of Therese’s trembling thighs.

“That’s right, Angel,” she soothes her. “Yes, just like that. God, you’re perfect.”

Therese flushes anew; feels herself ripple around Carol’s fingers. Overwhelmed, even embarrassed by her own responsiveness, she feels like she should make some excuse, some explanation, mumbling drunkenly, “Carol, I—I just, I’m—”

“Hush,” Carol’s voice is throaty and gentle. “I’ve got you. Relax. I’ve got you.” 

Therese releases a shuddering sigh; the words are like magic, and her tension releases like a valve. She feels herself, soft and pliant in Carol’s arm. When the fingers inside her carefully withdraw, a little echo of pleasure makes her tighten for an instant, before she relaxes again, comforted by Carol’s arms around her. Not for the first time it occurs to Therese that the way they touch each other, in these moments, holds a softness and sweetness uncharacteristic of some casual affair. But Therese pushes the thought away. It will only cause her heartache.

Eventually, Carol’s hands reach for the discarded dress shirt, guiding Therese to put her arms through the sleeves again. When it’s in place, she carefully rebuttons it, and fixes the collar and smooths the tails. Therese, a little dazed, watches her do this without helping. When Carol is done, she rests her hands on Therese’s hips, and leans in to kiss her.

What might have been a simple peck turns slow and deep and familiar. It’s a kiss that isn’t going anywhere, that holds no promise of an escalation, but which is mind-meltingly good any way. Therese is fast becoming addicted to the taste of Carol’s mouth, the slide of her tongue, the plushness of her lips…

Who is she kidding? She was addicted from the beginning.

In time, Carol breaks the kiss, breaks it slowly, nudging her nose against Therese’s before she pulls back altogether. They look at each other for a moment, quiet and warm.

Carol murmurs, “I should probably get going.”

Rebellion flames in Therese’s body. She wants to tell her, ‘No,’ she wants to tell her, ‘Stay. Stay the night.’ And from the look in Carol’s eyes she half wonders if Carol wants to be told this, too. But she can’t be sure. And she did make promises.

“All right,” she answers, soft, reluctant.

Carol looks at her for a beat of silence. “It’s just that it’s… it’s quite late.”

Therese hasn’t asked her to justify herself, and so the fact that she does it anyway makes her hope that she was right. Carol doesn’t want to go. Therese glances toward the clock and indeed, it’s after ten. They both have work in the morning. And if Carol doesn’t leave she knows they’ll be up for hours. Therese thinks she could spend all night devouring and being devoured by her. But it would be irresponsible. And contrary, somehow, to their agreement. Spending the night is something a boyfriend or girlfriend does. And they are… not that.

“All right,” Therese repeats.

Carol, hands still resting on Therese’s hips, smooths them up her waist, her sides. She pulls them back. She steps back, looking slightly flustered, looking regretful. Therese’s breaths are shallow, but she fights like hell not to show her disappointment.

“In that case,” Carol says, and flashes her a little smirk. “I suppose I’d better get dressed.”

Therese smiles back, though there’s a tightness in her chest. She knows they are both pretending that it costs them nothing, this stepping apart, this saying good night. And she knows they both know it’s a farce.

Chapter Text

“So, when are you going to start being honest with me?”

Carol looks up from the vase of flowers that she is arranging, surprised. A camellia in one hand and garden scissors in the other, she stares down the dining table to where Abby sits, folding napkins. Not looking at her.  

“What do you mean?” Carol asks.

A little smirk twists the corner of Abby’s mouth. They’ve been working in companionable silence for almost half an hour, preparing the dining room for tonight’s dinner party. Carol doesn’t know where this accusation has come from.

“Well,” Abby draws the word out. “I suppose I mean that I know you’re keeping something from me and I’d like to know when you plan to come clean.”  

“I’m not—”

“Carol,” Abby pauses her folding to look at her at last, to give her a droll look. “Honestly. Are you really going to do this?”

Bristling, Carol retorts, “I don’t know what you’re accusing me of, Abby, I—”

“This is the first time I’ve seen you in two weeks,” Abby interrupts. “You’ve canceled plans three times in the past month. You’re distracted and flustered. And you’ve got a hickey.”

Carol goes pale. She slaps a hand to her neck in horror. “What? Where!?”

She’s just about to sprint for the bathroom when Abby releases a cackle. “Ha! I knew it. You are seeing someone.”

“I—what!?”

“There’s no hickey,” Abby says. “I just wanted to catch you out.”

Carol’s pallor is instantly replaced by a flush of embarrassment and anger, “Abigail Gerhard—”

“Oh, don’t play the disapproving mother with me, Carol Ross,” Abby scoffs. “You’re the one keeping secrets from your oldest and dearest friend.”

“Abby—”

“At first I thought you had started going to bars and were having some kind of delayed adolescent awakening. But you’re a bit of a show-off so I figured you’d tell me if you were sleeping with lots of women. Then I thought maybe you were still seeing Jennifer, and didn’t want me to know. So I considered murdering you. But then I saw Jennifer in The Bag with some woman on Thursday, so I guessed it wasn’t that. Which means it’s someone else.”

In the face of Carol’s wide-eyed silence, Abby is still smirking.

“So go on,” she says. “Spill.”  

Carol’s mouth opens and closes. She is so completely unprepared for this line of inquiry, for Abby’s investigative acumen, that for a moment she is frozen. Has she really canceled on Abby three times? Surely not—

But as she casts back in her memory she realizes that it’s true. Over the past month, she’s been incredibly busy with the store, working long hours and often bringing paperwork home. On the days that she has Rindy, she feels the need to make up for that busyness, to shower her daughter with attention and time. It’s lovely. But it also means that on the nights when Rindy is with Harge, on the nights when Carol doesn’t have to bring work home, all she can think about is seeing Therese. The desire for Therese, and for the very specific stress relief that Therese offers. In the past month she’s seen her once or twice a week. Often at the cost of previous plans with Abby.

Because in Therese’s small, cozy apartment, she finds exactly what she needs: respite and release. Their passionate encounters dismantle all her inhibitions, make her melt into pleasure like butter left in the sun. They’ve probably had sex on every surface of the apartment, and against some walls, too. What Therese sparks in her… it’s transcendent. Therese’s merest smile, most innocent caress, briefest glance, makes her ravenous. And, based on Therese’s responses to her, she suspects the feeling is mutual. It’s the best sex that Carol has ever had.

But…

“I’m not seeing someone,” Carol finally admits. “I’m… sleeping with someone.”

Abby’s expression changes infinitesimally, becoming… curious.

“Oh?” she asks.

Carol clears her throat, refocusing on the vase of flowers in front of her, situating the camellia amidst its neighbors.

“Yes, I… Well, it started out as a one-time thing. But then I ran into her again, the night you and I went to that bar. And we sort of, well… fell into it again. It’s an entirely casual arrangement.”

A beat of silence. Abby says, “I see.”

Carol gives her a look. “What?”

“Nothing.”

Sighing, Carol fusses with the flowers. “Clearly not.”

“What’s her name?”

Surprised, Carol looks at Abby again. Abby’s expression is calm, but also shrewd. For a moment Carol considers not answering. As if Therese’s name is something too special to share. But why would she have such a ridiculous impulse over a woman she is merely sleeping with?

“Therese,” Carol answers. “Her name is Therese.”

“And you like her enough to break your rule, I see.”

Carol’s nostrils flare. “I like her very much, in fact. She understands my situation. She doesn’t make me feel guilty for it. She doesn’t ask me for more.”

“And the sex?”

Trust Abby to zero in on the prurient element, thinks Carol in amusement.

“The sex is good,” she says.

A lifted brow. “Just good?”

Carol scoffs. “All right, fine. The sex is incredible. Why do you think I keep going back?”

A cackle from Abby, but Carol doesn’t miss the fact that there is still something measured in the way that she is looking at her.

Sure enough, her friend asks after a moment, voice slightly flat, “But that’s all it is?”

Carol blows out a breath through her nostrils, feeling suddenly exasperated and a little vulnerable. She fusses restlessly with the flowers and then pushes the vase away, looking Abby in the eye.

“Yes. Does that surprise you?”

Abby regards her for a few moments, and then shrugs. “Yes, a little.”

“Why?”

Carol doesn’t like the idea that Abby might be judging her. Abby has stopped folding the napkins and now crosses her arms on the table, looking at her shrewdly.

“Because,” Abby says slowly, “I was always under the impression that you limited yourself to one-time encounters because it was the easiest way to prevent any feelings from getting involved. And as sad as it made me for you, I supposed that was the best choice, given your priorities. Frankly, I can’t picture you spending so much time with a woman you don’t care about.”

Carol flinches. “I do care about her.”

“But what do you even know about her?”

“A great deal,” says Carol defensively. “She’s a photographer at The Times, a brilliant photographer. Her eye for… well, she’s brilliant. And witty. I wasn’t expecting that, but she’s quite witty, quite funny. Very intelligent, too. About a great number of things. She’s warm, she’s kind. She’s young but—well, she has a way about her. A kind of old soul, you might call it. We get on very well, very easily. I enjoy her company.” 

Carol stops for a moment, thoughts drifting away on memories of their last night together. Therese telling her a story about a burglar who got trapped in the doggie door. Carol collapsed on her side in hilarity…

“Yes, I suppose you do care about her,” says Abby.

There’s something low and solemn and pensive about it, that makes Carol feel caught. She bristles, hesitates, and finally retorts, “Yes. I’m simply not prepared to make any kind of commitment to her.”

The look Abby gives her is droll.

“And you think that will work?”

“What do you mean?”

“You think you can keep going to bed with this woman, and not fall in love with her?”

Carol’s irritation skyrockets. She turns her back on Abby, walking into the kitchen to retrieve her cigarettes. She returns to the dining room, lighting one of them, stalling for time. She wants to tell Abby that these concerns are unfounded. That what she’s found with Therese is warmth and generosity and sexual release. Nothing more. She wants to say that her desire for Therese is purely a physical desire. That when she thinks about her during the week, when she calls her, when she kisses her, she is content.

But…

She hasn’t spent the night since that first night, and the second and third time she was strict with herself. Got dressed when they were finished. Left. But since then… How many times has orgasm segued into a totally different intimacy? Into conversation. Into laughter. Into murmuring confessions that Therese takes as gently and gratefully as she takes pleasure?

And each time Carol has thought, This is risky. This is so risky. But she can’t seem to stop herself.

To Abby, she offers a dismissive gesture, and hides behind a plume of cigarette smoke. “I don’t imagine we’ll see each other long enough for that. One of these days someone else is going to snatch her up and I suppose our arrangement will end. In the meantime, it’s what it is. And I’m perfectly content.”

As if the mere thought of someone else snatching Therese isn’t enough to make her—

“Well, then,” says Abby, brisk, but also a little cold. “Glad to see you’ve got it all in hand. Are you going to invite her to Lou’s party?”

Carol furrows her brow. “What? No. Why would I?”

Abby shrugs. “We deviants have to stick together. It might benefit her to meet some other women.”

So that she can get snatched up even sooner? No thank you.

“I don’t think she needs our help with her social calendar.”

“Suit yourself. Consider her invited either way. I wouldn’t mind meeting the girl who got Carol Ross to break her rule.”

Carol bristles, not entirely sure why, and thank God that just then the doorbell rings. That’ll be Lou, back from an alcohol run. In relief Carol watches Abby go to let her in. She’s never been in such dire need of a reprieve.

<><><> 

The rest of Abby’s guests arrive at eight. Maurice and his lover Henry. Joyce and her newest conquest, Claire. A couple of single men and women who Carol doesn’t know as well. They’re a party of seven, altogether, and Carol is grateful not to be the only one without a date. The meal is a great success and everyone is in a fine mood. Afterwards, they retire to Abby’s living room for drinks and music and more conversation—

And Carol is distracted, through all of it. Distracted, and restless.

At one point she goes in search of the washroom, and stands for over a minute looking at herself. She looks at her neck, thinking of Abby’s lie about a hickey. Of course, Therese would never be careless enough to leave marks that anyone else could see. But Carol, breathing gone slightly unsteady, untucks her sweater from her skirt. Blushing scarlet, she lifts it up, over her breasts, high enough to push the cup of her bra aside and—there. On the top curve of her breast. A small, dark bruise. Faded over the past two days but nonetheless entirely recognizable to her. Therese’s mouth, biting down and sucking hard. Carol, bowing toward the delicious sting. Therese’s fingers, pushing between her legs, melting her from the inside and out, as they panted and sweated and moaned…

And afterwards, both of them sated and sleepy on Therese’s bed. Therese asking, where did she get that little Oregon-shaped medallion on her key chain? Carol, saying that she grew up on the west coast, and bought the keychain when she visited just before Rindy was born. Therese, snuggling into her side, body cooling, asked Carol to tell her about it. And Carol did. Told her about the rolling green of Oregon, the mountainous coasts of Washington, the wildness of the country and the romance of the sea. Therese made little murmuring sounds that showed she was not falling asleep, that she was listening, that she was interested. Carol must have lain there for half an hour, talking about it.

Now, she runs a thumb over the bruise on her breast, and though it’s not tender any more she still feels a rush of erotic memory, and quickly, readjusts and smooths her clothes. Leaving the bathroom, she’s just about to head back to Abby’s guests—but her path leads her past the telephone on the hallway sideboard. She stops. She stares at it for several moments. In the living room, she hears Lou’s rich laughter and Maurice’s answering chuckle, and she thinks of both of them, cozied up to their lovers. Content.

Carol dials the number.

It rings several times. Could Therese have gone to sleep? It’s nearly ten, and she does have work tomorrow…

“Hello?”

The sound of her voice, sweet and sleep rough, makes Carol’s heart erupt with palpitations.

“Hello, Therese,” she murmurs.

“Carol?” Therese asks, sounding a little fuzzy and confused.

“Darling, did I wake you? I’m terribly sorry, I—”

“No, no, it’s all right,” Therese hastens to assure her. “I had a bear of a day and fell asleep on my couch. I didn’t even realize it! You’ve saved me having a sore back in the morning.”

Carol smiles, feeling a rush of fondness.

“Well,” she says, “can’t have that.”

“Hmm,” Therese agrees, with a hint of humor. “And what are you up to tonight, Ms. Ross? Besides interrupting my beauty sleep?”

Carol chuckles, aware even as she does it that she has no explanation for calling. That she called because she wants to hear her voice. That she called because the memories of their most recent night together are swimming through her, slow and sweet and overwhelming.

She must pause too long, because Therese asks lowly, “Did you want to come over?”

The sound of her voice, the gravel in it, the invitation and promise—it makes Carol tingle with arousal. But of course—

“I can’t,” she admits regretfully. “I’m… I’m at Abby’s house.”

“Oh,” says Therese. The warm flirtation vanishes from her voice, replaced by something… what is it? Surprised? Uncomfortable?  

“It’s a dinner party,” Carol hastens to add. “Just, you know, some friends. But I’m afraid I can’t get away.”

“Oh,” says Therese, but this time there’s a hint of relieved laughter in it. Carol realizes all at once—Therese thought she was alone with Abby. Of course, Carol is often alone with Abby. But Therese thought, Therese feared—

“Well…” says the young woman briskly. “Are you having a good time?”

I wish you were here, Carol thinks.

“Yes, it’s lovely. Good people. You’d like them.”

Therese pauses, then says in that low voice, “Well… perhaps I’ll meet them some day.”

Invite her to the party! Carol’s furious thoughts demand. Invite her!

But Therese goes on too quickly, asking, “Can I see you this weekend?”

Carol swallows. “I’ve got Rindy, through Monday. What about afterwards?”

Therese hesitates, “I was supposed to meet Gen for drinks.”

Even knowing that Gen and Therese are not an item, the mention of Therese’s first lover has an unwelcome effect on her. “Oh, well—”

“I’ll reschedule,” Therese offers.

“No, Dearest, you don’t have to—”

“They weren’t firm plans. It’s no trouble. Anyway,” she pauses. Her voice drops. “I want to see you.”

Color warms Carol’s cheeks. She glances toward the living room, just to make sure no one is coming. She angles her body a little; cups the receiver close to her face and murmurs, “Do you?”

“Yes.”

Therese is so plain-spoken, so unapologetic. So brave in her desires and in verbalizing her desires. Then, speaking even lower than before, “I want to kiss you.”

Heat washes through Carol’s body.

“I want to taste you,” Therese whispers.

Carol presses a hand to her face. “Jesus, Therese—”

“Don’t you want me to?”

“I—of course—yes—”

“I keep thinking about what you look like. When I’m inside you. When you come.”

A deep pulsing ache starts between Carol’s legs; sweat breaks out on her skin and without even thinking she says, “I could still come over. Tonight.”

Therese’s answering chuckle is devastating.

“You can’t. You’re with your friends.”

“I could—”

“Besides, it’s late. I’ve got to go to bed.” A beat of silence. “But think of me.”

“Therese—”

“Think of me tonight. When you go home. When you’re in bed. Think of me touching you. Tasting you. And come see me on Monday.”

Carol can hardly breathe. How is it possible? How does this young, small, sweet girl have the power in their private moments to dismantle her completely? Til Carol thinks she would do almost anything, anything, to feel her skin.

More laughter in the living room. Someone says, “Where has Carol gone?”

In a panic that she’ll be discovered, Carol swallows hard. She whispers urgently into the phone. “I’ve got to go, Dearest.”

“Will you think of me?” Therese demands.

“Yes. Yes.”

“All right. Good night, Carol.”

Therese doesn’t wait for her to reply before hanging up. Which is just as well, as Carol can hardly think how she’ll ever make language again.

Chapter Text

Therese knows as soon as she answers the door that something is wrong. Carol has a slightly glassy look in her eyes, and she’s paler than Therese has ever seen. Not the natural creamy paleness of her fair skin, but something gray and worrying.

“Carol,” she says in concern. “I—what’s happened?”

Carol gives her a wan smile, stepping gingerly over the threshold, wincing. “It’s all right, Dearest.”

Therese ushers her inside, saying worriedly, “Are you hurt? Are you sick?”

“Just a bit of a headache. It came on rather suddenly. Do you mind if I use your washroom?”

“Not at all. I’ll make you some tea.”

Carol, though she is obviously in pain, smiles again, and retreats to the washroom with purse in hand. She’s gone for a few minutes, and when she emerges she looks no better, still pale and exhausted. Therese, standing at the kettle, looks at her sympathetically. “The tea will be just a moment. You’re sure it’s only a headache?”

She’s surprised when Carol responds with a faint blush. She strokes an anxious hand across her lower abdomen, and then pushes back her hair, clearly embarrassed.

“Actually, dear, I think I’d better be going. I don’t think I’m very fit company tonight.”

Therese frowns, trying to hide her disappointment. Certain that she’s failing.

“Oh.”

Carol, still looking embarrassed, rubs the back of her own neck. She seems to be about to say something, but reconsiders. She blushes again.

“I so wanted to see you tonight. I’ve been looking forward to it for days, but… Well, I’m—I don’t think it would be prudent. Things being as they are. Right now.”

For a moment Therese has no idea what she’s talking about. Things being as they are? Has Therese done something to offend her, distress her? But then she sees the way that Carol averts her eyes. She notices the hand Carol still cradles against her abdomen, and she pictures Carol carrying her purse into the washroom, something she’s never done before. All at once, a light bulb goes off. 

“Carol,” she says gently. “You don’t have to leave for that.”

Carol’s eyes widen; she looks slightly scandalized. Therese is aware that most women don’t ever talk about this, not even with their friends, not even with their mothers. At the girl’s home, the nuns provided them with sanitary belts and uncomfortable wool pads, and no explanation. But, with so many girls living in close quarters, there was a level of openness that didn’t exist in most homes. Therese still grew up surrounded by the implication that this thing her body did was crass and shameful, but the lesson never stuck in her the way it had in other girls. Perhaps because, fundamentally, Therese is a practical woman, and this is a practical part of being a woman, and there’s no use getting upset about it.

Still, she can see how embarrassed Carol is, and so she tells her, “I just mean, why don’t you rest for a little bit? I have some pain pills that help me sometimes.”

“I couldn’t intrude.”

“You’re not intruding,” Therese retorts. “You clearly don’t feel well, and you’re my guest.”

Carol says nothing for several seconds, looking at Therese with a pensive frown that, even pale as she is, makes her look adorably solemn. But the fact that she has not rejected Therese outright, the fact that she is still standing here, gives Therese hope that she does not want to leave at all.

“What do you normally do, when it comes on?” asks Therese.

Carol sighs. “If I have the leisure, hot water bottle, or maybe a bath, but—”

“Let me draw you a bath.”

Carol’s eyes widen.

“Please, Carol. It’s no trouble.”

And then, because Carol is not immediately saying no, and because Therese feels an almost desperate desire to help, she heads toward the bathroom. Inside, she’s relieved to remember that she cleaned her tub just this past weekend. No doubt Carol has a much nicer tub in her own apartment, but Therese hopes this will do, nonetheless. She starts to run the water, and rummages under the sink for a wash cloth and a new bar of soap, jasmine-scented. When she turns back toward the bath, she realizes that Carol is standing in the doorway, arms nervously crossed.

“You really don’t have to do this.”

And yet she does not say it as if she is going to refuse. So Therese runs her fingers through the waters, testing them. “Do you like it very hot?” she asks.

A beat of silence, of calculation, before Carol admits, “Not scalding, but yes.”

Victory.  

Therese runs her hand through the water again, and then when the bath is on its way to being full, she stands, facing Carol again. The older woman is eyeing her with an expression of shy uncertainty, but there’s something warm in her look, too. She looks slightly… moved.

“Why don’t you get undressed?” Therese suggests. “I’m going to get your tea, as well. Are you hungry?”

“I’m not sure I can eat.”

Therese knows that feeling, and nods. “Well, perhaps we’ll just have some soup afterwards. Go on. I’ll be back with your tea in a minute.”

Therese slips past her, and is just about to leave, when Carol speaks again, “Therese?”

Therese looks at her, wondering what she’ll say. She looks torn, embarrassed, but then— “Have you got any bubble bath?”

<><><> 

About ten minutes later, Therese knocks tentatively on the door. There is a pause, and then Carol says, “Come in.”

Therese, carrying the cup of tea, cracks the door open and peeks inside. The vision that greets her is more incredible than she prepared for. The bathtub is piled high with mounds of bubbles emitting a sweet, floral perfume. Within their cover, Carol lies, her head leaned back against the wall and her arms resting on the tub’s sides. The heat of the water has given her a rosy glow, eliminating her pallor. She has tied her hair back yet little tendrils lie plastered against her forehead and neck. Her eyes have softened, as has her whole body. She looks relaxed and… sated. Inconveniently similar to how she looks after orgasm. Therese hopes Carol will think her own blush is due to the heavy fog of heat in the bathroom.

“I’ve brought you some tea,” she says.

Carol rolls her neck, answers lowly, “You’re spoiling me.”

Therese hands her the cup of tea and smiles. “Perhaps you deserve it.”

She turns to go, but Carol catches her by the wrist. Startled she looks at her again, and Carol’s eyes are soft and entreating.

“Stay,” she says.

Therese regards her for a beat of silence, then she nods and, lowering the lid on the toilet, sits down. Carol sips her tea, watching Therese over the rim of the cup as she does, and says, “Tell me about your weekend.”

Therese chuckles. She’s not sure why. She feels a little nervous. It’s one thing to engage in sleepy conversation while they’re naked in bed. This seems different. Though Carol looks as relaxed right now as she does after making love, they don’t have the excuse of sex bringing them together. And Therese, fully clothed, feels an imbalance of power. Though not, surprisingly, in the direction one might assume.

“I went to Governor’s Island,” Therese says.

Carol’s brows lift in surprise. “Really? Why?”

“As part of a story we’re doing on military aviation. They say there’s going to be a monument placed there later this year, as a tribute to the island’s role in early aviation. I spent some time photographing the air fields and the planes.”

Carol frowns. “Then you worked all weekend?”

Therese smiles dryly. “I’m trying to ingratiate myself with my boss. I flubbed an assignment a few weeks back, and he’s been hesitant to put me on anything other than lifestyle, since. I’ve got to show him that I’ll go the extra mile.”

Carol’s answering smirk is rueful. She takes another drink of tea and then lifts enough to lean over the tub and set her cup down on the floor. Therese sees the top of her breasts lift from the blanket of bubbles, foam sluicing off her creamy shoulders. Her collarbones and throat gleam with wetness, and Therese thinks of biting her, licking her there.

Carol lays her head back against the tub, sighing. “It is a rotten farce, isn’t it?” she muses. “All the rigmarole they put us through, just because we are women. I’m the only female buyer at Myer’s Furniture. Dennis was desperate to hire me two years ago, and in the first year I outsold all the male buyers, but he still wouldn’t give me any of the major accounts until about, oh, nine months ago. And of course the male buyers—half of them see me as their secretary.”

Therese chuckles. She leans forward, one elbow on her knee and face cradled in her palm. “Yes, there’s a lot of that at The Times. They expect the women to do all the typing, to fetch the coffee, to handle the lunch orders. Most of the men aren’t so bad, but they do look down on us. Not to mention, everyone finds me a little odd. The men and the women.” 

Carol smiles at her, and there’s something tender and commiserating about it. She asks, “Do you think they suspect?”

Therese considers for a moment, answering, “No, actually. Every time we get a new single man in the office, I get an invitation to dinner. And the women are always teasing me that I have a secret boyfriend. I think they see me as shy and withdrawn and perhaps a little dull. Which means all I can do is prove my work is better than theirs.”

This time Carol’s lips pull back in a pleased grin. “And I’m sure it is, Darling.”

They look at each other in silence for a moment. Then Therese asks, “What about you? Do you think they suspect about you?”

Carol’s grin melts into a bit of a grimace. She sighs and tips her head back again, closing her eyes. The curve of her neck is exquisite.

“I recently learned that one of my co-workers in the accounting apartment is gay, and pinned me for a lesbian the minute we met. Perhaps it was only his awareness of those circles that led him to recognize… whatever he did in me. But I haven’t been able to stop worrying, since, that I am transparent somehow. I have the benefit of having been married, of having a child, and I think it’s more acceptable for a divorced woman to eschew romance than it is for a man. If a man gets divorced, one assumes he will be married again in no time. If a woman gets divorced, she must be damaged goods, unfit for any other man. Strange as it seems, that particular prejudice is to my benefit.” Carol pauses, eyes still closed, breathing slowly in through her nostrils, and then letting it out between full, parted lips. “I do worry about it, though. Once I heard another of the buyers say that I was mannish. Dennis put him in his place right away. Still… yes. I do worry that some of them suspect.”

Therese gazes at Carol, taking full advantage of the older woman’s closed eyes. For all the melancholy of her words, her face looks deeply peaceful, as if the warm water and the haziness of the room are a kind of magic that keeps darker anxieties at bay. Therese wishes suddenly that she had her camera. To take Carol’s photograph right now—to capture her in this moment of decadent repose—makes Therese feel fluttery and longing.

Suddenly Carol murmurs, “I suppose I’m a coward, aren’t I?”

Therese’s eyes widen, then her brow furrows in distress. “What? Carol, why would you say such a thing?”

Carol opens her eyes, pinning Therese with a stare that is solemn and calm.

“Haven’t you thought it about me, Dearest?” she asks. “My… rules. My refusal to pursue anything more than occasional pleasure. My fear of discovery supplanting all other concerns.”

“None of that makes you a coward, Carol,” says Therese, a little fiercely, eyes blazing. “All it means is that the world is a rotten, unjust place, and that we have to live in it.”

Carol looks at her without answering. Therese’s gaze flits away from her, until after a moment she is staring off into nothing, lost in memory.

“Sometimes I think about the women at the bars, the butch women, you know? In their men’s suits and their hair cut short. They go about the world utterly indifferent to what it thinks of them. I’ll see them, with bruises on their faces, or bragging to their friends about a recent arrest. Bragging so they don’t have to show how scared they were, and so their friends won’t be scared for them. There’s something… ferocious, about those women. I could never do what they do. Does that make me a coward? I don’t know. But I’m not the one who tries to hurt people just for being who they are. And neither are you, Carol.”

Therese looks at Carol again. To her startlement, Carol’s eyes are big and wet. It may just be the steam in the room, but Therese is almost positive that her lover is on the verge of tears. And yet there’s a tiny smile on Carol’s face, a smile of aching tenderness and gratitude. And after a moment Carol holds out a hand to her. Therese accepts it. Their fingers weave together.

“My angel,” Carol murmurs. “Thank you.”    

Therese blushes a little, shy in the face of Carol’s gratitude. Carol’s warmth beams on her like the sun, so much more than friendship, so much more complicated than desire. It is too much, too intense, too close to the thing that Therese keeps telling herself she doesn’t need from Carol. The thing she has promised not to need. So, desperate to change to the subject, to shift them away from this particular form of intimacy, Therese gives Carol a sly look. She lets go of her hand, and stands up—and starts taking off her clothes.

Carol’s eyes go wide.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

“I’m cold,” Therese lies. “I want to get in with you.”

“Oh, Darling, no,” Carol says nervously. “You shouldn’t. I—”

“It’s perfectly all right,” Therese answers, skirt and blouse dropping around her ankles. Carol’s eyes glom onto her body, and Therese doesn’t restrain her amused smirk. “I’ll get behind you,” she offers.

“Therse, I’m not—” Carol’s throat bobs at the sight of undergarments dropping to the floor. “I’m not… clean.”

She’s blushing scarlet. Therese replies. “Yes, you are.”

And then, fully naked, she gazes at Carol for a long moment, brow lifted. Carol gazes right back at her, lips parted, an expression on her face that marries uncertainty and tentative desire. Therese waits, patient. If Carol really doesn’t want this, if it will really make her so uncomfortable, Therese is determined not to fuss about it. She’ll go into her room, change into her pajamas, read a book. But she hopes… she hopes—

Carol sits forward in the bath.

Smiling, Therese slips in behind her. She can feel the tension, the nervousness, in Carol’s body, and Therese feels a little nervous herself, but she’s determined to project the calm that Carol so obviously needs. She lowers herself carefully behind her, legs slipping around her, bracketing her hips. Carol is soft and slippery, and at Therese’s urging she leans back, against Therese’s chest. Therese nuzzles into her hair, making a low sound of approval. With both of them in the tub, the water climbs to the very rim, and the bubbles make mountains around them. Carol has lifted one of her long legs out of the water, letting it stretch out on the rim of the tub. Her other leg is bent. She’s too tall for this, and yet as Therese wraps an arm around her belly, under the breasts, she relaxes completely into her.

“This all right?” Therese murmurs.

Carol sighs deeply. “It is… You feel good.”

Therese runs an arm down Carol’s arm, reaching her hand and tangling their fingers together. “So do you.”

“You really don’t mind it?”

“No. Why would I?”

“I—I suppose—”

“It’s just your body, Carol,” Therese reminds her. Then, feeling bold, “And I love everything about your body.” 

Carol chuckles, a rich and galvanizing sound. “Is that right?”

“Mmhmm,” Therese nods against her neck. Kisses her behind the ear. “How could I not?”

“Oh, hush.”

“Have you seen yourself, Carol?” Therese retorts. She reaches to place her hand on one of Carol’s knees, dragging her fingers up again, nails pricking at her thigh, and then grasping her hip. “Have you seen how beautiful you are?”

She teases her fingers over the tender flesh just above Carol’s pubic hair. Her other arm is still wrapped higher, across Carol’s torso; now she adjusts, letting one hand cup the firm weight of Carol’s breast. Carol breathes in sharply. Therese teases a thumb against her nipple, and revels in the answering arch of her back.

“Therese,” Carol rumbles.

“Have you ever really looked at yourself?” Therese asks, punctuating her question with a tender nip at Carol’s earlobe. “The lines of your thighs. The smoothness of your belly. Your breasts and your nipples. Have you ever looked at yourself, between your legs.”

Carol tenses. She sounds shocked. “Of course not.”

“Why not?” Therese counters. “You’re beautiful there, too.”

“Therese—”

“You’re so beautiful, everywhere, Carol,” Therese whispers, caught up and carried away with her own confessions, with the power of her own feelings as she continues toying with Carol’s breast. As she starts to toy, very carefully, with the top of Carol’s mons. And all the while Carol is breathing harder. Carol’s knuckles are whitening where she grips the edge of the tub. Carol’s body has begun to shift, restless. But not away from Therese—rather, toward her, into her touch, into her body. Therese tells her. “Every time I touch you, I’m amazed by it. By how good you feel. By how beautiful you are. I fantasize about it, about touching you. I touch myself, and think of touching you.”

Carol whimpers. Her spine bows, pushing her breast into Therese’s hand. Therese barely grazes a fingertip over Carol’s nipple, knowing they might be sore. Carol whimpers again.

“You—you touch yourself? And think of me?” the older woman asks. She’s panting now. Shivering.

“Oh, yes,” Therese assures her, and combs the fingers of her other hand down into Carol’s pubic hair. She tugs gently. Carol goes still at her proximity, and Therese murmurs, “Can I?”

“I—I—Darling, you shouldn’t. I’m—”

“It’ll help,” Therese tells her.

Carol hesitates. Asks in confusion, “What?”

“It’ll help. The pleasure. Gen taught me.”

“She did?” Does Therese imagine it, or is there a hint of jealousy in Carol’s voice?

“Well, she didn’t teach me personally. She told me, though. And then I tried it and she was right. It did help.”

Therese gently squeezes her breast; strokes closer to her center. Carol, sounding breathless but also regretful, says, “Darling, you—your touch is wonderful, believe me. But I don’t think I’d like it. Harge and I had sex once, when I didn’t realize it had started, and it was—it was quite painful. And so messy. He was very put out, at the end of it.”

“I won’t go inside,” Therese hastens to explain. Privately she is thinking of Carol’s husband, fucking Carol to the end of his own pleasure, unaware he was hurting her, and then shaming her for the blood. It makes Therese furious, makes her want to punch Harge in the mouth. Makes her want to cradle Carol close and never let anyone hurt her. Gently she says, “I don’t like penetration, either, when it’s happening. But the other thing is quite… nice.”

Then, moving slowly and carefully, prepared to stop the moment Carol shows even an inkling of reluctance, Therese slides two fingers down, resting them just above Carol’s clitoris. She rubs gently. Carol gasps, hisses, arching.

“Oh, God.”

“Is this all right?” Therese asks.

“Mmmm,” Carol groans.

Then suddenly she is twisting her neck around, reaching back with one hand to grasp Therese’s hair, and a moment later they are kissing. Deep, open-mouthed, lewd kisses, tongues stroking hungrily. It’s wet and humid, just like the bath, and Therese feels her own skin growing hyper-sensitive. She slides her fingers down, beginning to rub Carol is smooth circles. She glories in Carol’s sharp little gasp, puffs of air traded back and forth in their kiss. Underwater, Carol feels hot and hard and swollen, and her hips rise toward Therese’s touch.

Their lips part. Carol makes a sharp and desperate sound, her hand clenching tight in Therese’s hair as her other hand white-knuckles the bath’s edge. Therese gazes down the length of her, noticing that quite a lot of the bubbles have dissipated. Now she can see shadows of Carol’s body in the water; she can see Carol’s leg flexing on its perch. Therese doesn’t want to overwhelm her, but she doesn’t want to tease, either, so she makes her fingers gentle but firm, finding a rhythm and sticking to it.

“That’s it,” Therese coos. “God, Carol, you feel incredible.”  

Carol, head still twisted around, mouths at Therese’s jawline, pushes her face into Therese’s face, and then reaches for her kiss again. They have only slept together a handful of times, and yet the way they kiss holds a familiarity and intimacy and passion that Therese imagines belonging to only the most seasoned of lovers. It’s a thought that makes her flutter, makes her want. Her own sex feels heavy and hot, grinding into the pressure of Carol’s sacrum. But this isn’t about her. This is about Carol, and how beautiful Carol is, and how needy she is, and how much she deserves. So Therese marshals her own desire, putting all her focus in the fingers between Carol’s legs. With her other hand, she gently strokes her nipples, wandering between one and the other while Carol moans into her mouth.

In amusement Therese thinks how admirable it is, that Carol manages to kiss her for as long as she does. But the kiss grows sloppier and sloppier, her body grows tenser and tenser. The sounds she makes become sharp and helpless.

“Therese,” Carol gasps. “Oh, fuck—”

And Therese can feel her thighs starting to quiver, can feel her breaths growing more shallow, can feel the telling spasm in her belly just before—

“Come for me,” Therese whispers.

Carol sobs—Carol shouts. Carol’s head flings back, cushioned by Therese’s shoulders as she arches up into pleasure. Therese holds onto her as best she can, wrapping an arm across her breasts and keeping up the steady pressure between her legs. Water sloshes around them, spilling over the rim of the tub, and Carol’s blissful sounds fill the bathroom. How desperately Therese wishes she could go inside her, and feel the rhythmic clenching of her cunt as she erupts. But it is miracle enough that Therese was able to coax her to accept pleasure right now, and she won’t do anything to spoil that.

It feels like ages before Carol really comes down from her high, panting for breath and whimpering. Even after her body relaxes fully into Therese’s, she is still breathing hard. She pushes her head back, arching her neck so she can rub her face against Therese’s face, and there’s something so sweet and almost childlike about it, that Therese chuckles.

“Was that good?” she asks.

Carol giggles, actually giggles, all girlish delight and blissful relaxation.

“Oh, Darling,” she says. “That was exquisite.”

<><><> 

Later, they are curled up in bed, in each other’s arms, quiet and resting with the blanket gathered at their waists. Therese’s body is still cooling down. She didn’t expect any reciprocity tonight, given how ill Carol looked when she arrived, but the painkilling effects of the orgasm apparently did wonders. After they climbed out of the tub, they dried each other’s bodies, slowly, tenderly, kissing the whole time. It had all felt so decadent, and when at last Therese offered Carol a fresh cotton pad for her sanitary belt, Carol had only blushed a little. Therese, not wanting to embarrass her, left her in the bathroom and headed for her own bedroom, meaning to get dressed.

But not even a minute later, Carol was behind her. Carol’s hands were on her hips. Sliding up her ribs. Cupping her breasts. Carol had put on her panties again, but she was naked otherwise, and Therese was still naked. Moments later Therese found herself straddling Carol on the bed, their passion resurging like a storm…

“What time is it?” Carol mumbles now, sounding half asleep.

One of her hands is stroking gently up and down Therese’s back, and Therese feels drunk on relaxation. It takes her a minute to lift her head and squint at the clock on the bedside table, before plopping down again.

“Almost 9:00,” she says, and snuggles deeper into Carol’s arms, hoping as she does that it will be enough to stop Carol from leaving.

But—

“I should probably go.”

Therese doesn’t answer. Nor does it escape her that there’s a distinct lack of conviction in Carol’s pronouncement; not to mention the older woman makes no effort to get up. For a little while, neither of them speaks. Carol’s fingers are still tracing the line of Therese’s spine.

Finally, feigning off-handedness, Therese murmurs, “You’re welcome to stay.”

Carol makes a grumbly sound. “I haven’t got a change of clothes.”

And they both work in the morning.

“You could borrow something,” Therese answers.

Carol snorts a laugh that is simultaneously undignified and sexy as hell. “You’re half my size, Darling.”

“That is an exaggeration.”

“Even so.”

“Yes… I suppose.”

Again, they subside into silence, though Therese feels much more awake than she did. Awake, because she knows that Carol is going to leave. And every time Carol leaves she regrets it a little, imagines them falling asleep together, waking up together—but she never fusses much. Their agreement has worked well, so far.

This time, though… Something is different, this time, and Therese rues the thought of Carol leaving her.

And yet, just a few minutes later, she feels Carol disentangling from her arms. Therese has to fight every impulse to grab her tighter, to resist. Soon Carol is standing before the bed, running her hands through her messy hair, the unkempt waves of gold catching the light from the hallway. God, she’s gorgeous. She smiles at Therese. Is Therese imagining the regretful tinge to that smile? As if she doesn’t want to leave, either?

Without thinking, Therese asks, “When can I see you again?”

The minute the words escape, she regrets them. Regrets them even more, when Carol seems to flinch, averting her eyes, uncomfortable. Of course she is. Therese sounds too eager, too wanting. She sounds like a lover who has the right to expect more. But Therese has no right to expect more.

“Oh,” says Carol vaguely. “This weekend, perhaps?”

But her eyes are still averted. Therese swallows hard, answers feebly, “All right,” and wants to kick herself for the heat suddenly burning in her eyes, for the plummeting in her stomach, for her own monumental foolishness…

She watches Carol get dressed. It does not escape her that Carol’s body is tenser than it was before. That Carol isn’t looking at her. That Carol is probably thinking, right now, She wants too much from me. I should have stuck to once.

Damn it, Therese thinks angrily, staring up at the ceiling. Fuck.

Then Carol has finished dressing, and Carol is bending to her, a quick peck on the lips, their eyes locked for an instant—but something has changed.

“I’ll call you,” Carol promises.

And then she leaves.

Chapter Text

Lou Miller’s apartment isn’t even an apartment. It’s an abandoned church, gutted of pews but retaining a wide stage, renovated with an open floor kitchen, a bar, and a staircase that leads to a loft of five bedrooms that used to be some kind of storage or office space. It’s gigantic, the ceiling some thirty feet high, the exterior all brickwork and one clock tower. The first time Carol stepped inside, she was stunned by the elegant grandiosity. Delighted by the story behind it all. Apparently, it belonged to Lou’s father, a Methodist minister who drank his ministry into the ground. She inherited it with his death, and runs it now as a boarding house, renting out the main floor for parties. It’s known in Bushwick as The Church.

And it is currently teeming with gays and lesbians.

If anything can lift Carol out of her foul mood, surely it’s this magnificent, defiant building. Music plays gaily on a juke box, and drinks are pouring freely, and if nothing else, she has never seen Abby as happy as she looks right now, arm around Lou’s waist as they chat and laugh with some of the other guests. People are dancing. Lovers are holding each other, kissing and petting. It is an altogether more raucous event than the private dinner party Abby threw two weeks ago, but while even recently Carol would have responded to this with skepticism and nerves, now she can look at it all for the beautiful gift that it is.

Yes, Carol ought to be happy. Carol ought to dance; there are plenty of people who would dance with her. Pretty women and good-natured men—like Maurice, currently cradling Henry in his arms. The sight makes a pang go through her, terrible for its transparency.

This is why Carol is in such a foul mood. Because she knows exactly where her foul mood comes from.

It’s nearly two weeks since she last saw Therese. Spoke to Therese. Two weeks since the bathtub, that unfathomably exquisite place where Therese held her and touched her and soothed all her shame away. Two weeks since Therese asked, ‘When can I see you again?’ and Carol in a flash of panic was cagey, vague, distant. Two weeks since they said goodbye.

She was afraid. Afraid of how much she wanted, in that moment. Afraid of how welcoming Therese’s bed looked. Afraid of how easily she might have stayed the night, broken another rule, broken everything…

But damn it, Carol deserves better than this, doesn’t she? It’s not as though she disappeared. She called Therese three days later. And four days later. She called her again three days after that. In these past two weeks, she has called Therese five times, and even sent her a telegram asking when she should call, and neither has Therese answered the phone, nor answered her telegram. No, it is Therese who has disappeared, without a word of explanation.

Carol isn’t naïve. She saw Therese’s flinching response to her coldness; saw how guarded her eyes were, when they kissed goodbye that night. She knows that Therese noticed her behavior. But shouldn’t her subsequent calls have made up for how awkwardly she behaved? Shouldn’t they have signaled to Therese that everything was fine, and she wanted to see her again, too? Why would Therese ignore her like this?

All of it has left her in the worst temper. Even Abby has grown impatient with her this week.

“Why don’t you just go round to her place?” her friend demanded, two nights ago.

Since Carol had not said anything about her failures to reach Therese, this suggestion took her totally off guard.

“What?”

“Therese,” Abby said. “It’s clear something has happened between the two of you. Just go over and talk to her. Sort it out. You’ve been such a miserable so-and-so this week. You’d better not sulk like this at Lou’s party!”

Well, she’s certainly losing that challenge. And now Abby is having such a good time, that Carol is loath to spoil it with her own somber mood. Better to nurse her drink in private than to—

“Say, gorgeous.”

The voice startles her. The owner of the voice, more so. Carol finds herself looking at a woman with close-cropped hair, dressed in a men’s suit well-tailored to her lean frame. She’s a young woman, maybe twenty or twenty-two, and she has a boyish smile and a lovely face. She says cheerfully, “Seems a crime, you sitting over here all by yourself. What’s a fella gotta do to get a dance?”

Ordinarily this flirtatiousness, not to mention the woman’s male affect, would put Carol off. But she has tried recently to challenge her own ingrained prejudices, and anyway, there’s something sweet and friendly about the girl, and funny, too. Carol flashes her own smile, answering coyly, “Well, first order of business is to not be a fella.”

The girl smacks her own forehead, theatrical. “Damn! And here I am in my Sunday clothes. Let you in on a secret?”

She takes a dramatic step closer. She’s actually taller than Carol, and she bends a little, murmuring, “I’m not really a fella.”

Carol snorts a laugh. The girl beams with pride, revealing a pair of deep-set dimples. The sight of them transforms Carol’s mirth to sorrow. She realizes that this woman, dressed as she is, tall as she is, still bears a passing resemblance to Therese. Sparkling eyes and delicate facial structure and lips full enough to bite. But Carol does not want to bite this woman’s lips. There’s only one person she wants to—

“I’m Paige,” says the would-be-suitor. “Whaddaya say? Can I take you for a spin around the room?”

Carol swallows, drinking from her brandy to save time, and then offering Paige an apologetic smile.

“I’m awfully sorry. I don’t mean to dance tonight.”

Paige frowns, but not a frown of someone offended or put out. Rather, it’s a frown of genuine concern. “Say, are you all right? I thought maybe you were just lonely over here. Don’t tell me some girl’s gone and broken your heart. Cuz I won’t stand for that.”

Carol blinks at her, startled, even baffled. When did young people become so bold?

“You’re very kind,” Carol says, a bit stilted. “No one has broken my heart. I’m simply bad company tonight.”

And I think I’ve scared Therese away, thinks Carol. And I think I want more than anything for that not to be true. Jesus, what have I done? There’s a reason I always stuck to once.

“Well,” says Paige, slightly doubtful. “If you decide you want to have company after all, some friends and I have commandeered that corner of the stage.” She points back the way she came. “We’re a bunch of young hooligans, but you’re welcome to join us.”

Dapper Paige is so charming and good-natured that Carol humors her by looking toward her group of friends. About five people in their early twenties, half dressed like men, the other half in party dresses. Carol has nearly finished her cursory review when, at the last minute, her gaze snags on one of the women. It takes her a moment to recognize who it is, but—

“Is that Genevieve Cantrell?” she asks Paige.

Paige’s eyebrows shoot to her hairline. “Wow, you know Gen? Small world!”

“No, no,” Carol hastens to say, already wanting to kick herself for asking, for revealing any kind of reaction to the presence of Therese’s friend. “No, I—I don’t know her. I haven’t even met her, honestly, she’s just—she’s the friend of a friend of mine. And—”

Stop rambling you infernal—

“—And I didn’t know she’d be here. So I don’t know if my friend—well—if she’s here, too.”

Damnit damnit damnit.

“Who’s your friend?” asks Paige.

Don’t. Answer.

“Therese Belivet?”

Instantly Paige’s lips split with her grin. “Oh, Terry? Yeah, she’s coming a little later, I think! Say, this is swell. Terry is just the sweetest girl but we had to beg and plead with her to come out. She said she’d hardly know anyone. But now, since you’re here!”

Fuck.

“Oh,” Carol croaks. “I—of course. Yes.”

Paige must read something uncertain in her response, because she gives her a pensive look, and then, “Listen, I can see you want to be left alone. Just remember what I said. You’re welcome to join us any time. I’m sure I’ll see you when Therese turns up.” Her smile is so sweet, she’s so pretty, that Carol half-regrets her disinterest in all things masculine. And then—“Seeya, Carol!”

With that, Paige is strolling away, hands in her pockets, cutting a handsome figure, and Carol thinks, Perhaps there’s something to say for masculinity, after all. 

And isn’t that just the reason why Carol has always limited herself to singular affairs? If she were still keeping to that rule, she could follow after Paige. Toy with that necktie. See what she tastes like. It would be simple and fun and a little naughty, even. Just the sort of thing you’re supposed to do at parties like this.

But Carol can’t fathom pursuing the charming Paige, because Carol’s mind is full to overflowing with Therese Belivet. Who is apparently coming to this damn party.

Carol finds Abby and Lou, who have relocated to the bar. Lou takes one look at Carol and reaches for a dark bottle.

“Looks like you need another drink.”

Carol smiles gratefully, pushing her empty tumbler forward. As Lou portions out more brandy, Carol gnaws on her bottom lip, before finally asking, “Did you invite someone named Therese Belivet to this party?”

Abby, who has been smiling adoringly at Lou in her bartender mode, looks sharply at Carol, eyes widening. For her part, Lou frowns.

“Hmm. Is she here? Can you point her out to me?”

“No, she’s not here. Her friend says she’s coming, though.”

“Who’s her friend?”

Carol nods toward the stage. “That girl there, in the brown suit. Paige.”

Lou grins. “Oh, Paige. Yeah, she’s a good egg. We outran the cops together once.”

Carol’s eyes widen. Abby laughs outright at her expression. Lou says, “She and a bunch of her friends were at the bar last weekend. I invited them all. It’s possible your friend Therese was there.”

Carol imagines Therese at the bar, far from the ringing telephone in her apartment. The thought fills her with a very unattractive jealousy.

“I told you, you should have invited her yourself,” Abby reproves.

Carol scowls at her, taking her drink from Lou and downing half of it. Lou chuckles. “So what gives? Is Therese a sweetheart of yours?”

“Yes—”

“—No.”

Abby and Carol glare at each other, and Lou cackles with mirth. “Someone needs to get their story straight.”

“We’re not a couple,” says Carol, irritably. “We simply… sleep together. Sometimes. It’s casual.”

Lou whistles, blue eyes sparkling, teeth bright as she grins. “Didn’t think you had it in you, Ross.”

“That’s because she doesn’t,” Abby declares, opening her cigarette case and offering them around.

“You’re so irritating,” Carol mutters, but she takes a cigarette.

“My blunt honesty is one of my most admirable qualities,” Abby replies.

Carol rolls her eyes, looks vaguely toward the doorway into The Church, and freezes. A woman has come inside. But the woman is not Therese.

“Shit,” Carol snaps, whipping around again. She leans her elbows on the bar and rubs her forehead frantically. “Shit, shit, shit.”

“What is it?” Abby asks. “Is she—” then Abby breaks off. She must have looked toward the door, too, because after a beat she drawls, “Shit.”

“What have I missed?” Lou asks.

“Do you know every lesbian in New York, Lou?”

“What?”

Carol, face still buried in her hand, just shakes her head mournfully. After a moment Abby says, voice low, “That man and woman who just came in? They’re a marriage of convenience. And the woman once found it convenient to go to bed with Carol.”

“Shut up, Abby.”

“Huh,” says Lou. “I don’t know them. Carol, you attract far more excitement than I would have expected for a woman who doesn’t date.”

Carol feels nauseous. She emerges from her hands to look at Abby in desperation. “Please tell me I hallucinated Andrew. Please tell me my co-worker hasn’t shown up to this sapphic extravaganza.”

“Friends of Dorothy welcome,” Lou shrugs. “And I’m sorry to break it to you, but they’re headed this way.” 

Shit.”

“Should we make a run for it?” asks Abby.

“Too late,” Lou says.

And it’s true. Carol can feel Jennifer behind her, just before the woman says in her low flirty voice, “Carol Ross, as I live and breathe.”

Carol grits her teeth, then marshals all her skills, wiping acrimony from her face and replacing it with a bright smile as she turns to face Jennifer and Andrew. Andrew’s smile is warm and friendly; Jennifer’s calculating.

“Why hello,” Carol says. “What a lovely surprise.”

“Carol, you look gorgeous,” Andrew beams. “I love your dress. Is it Dior?”

“Ha!” laughs Jennifer. “Trust Andy to recognize Dior.”

Carol ignores this (and the vaguely disparaging lilt to Jennifer’s voice), answering, “Good eye, Andrew. And you’re both looking lovely tonight as well. You remember my friend, Abby Gerhard? And this is Lou Miller.”

“Nice to meet you,” says Lou.

“Oh, God!” cries Jennifer, sidling right up to the bar and looking at Lou with wide eyes. “What accent is that?”

Lou smirks, answering coolly, “I’m from Sidney.”

“Australia!? That’s so charming!”

“Now, Jennifer, she’s not an alien!” says Andrew good-naturedly.

“Andy, go dance,” Jennifer retorts, never taking her eyes off Lou, whom she entreats. “Tell me all about Australia, Dear. Are there many aboriginals?”

Lou’s eyebrows shoot up, and suddenly Abby is weaving an arm through hers, “Speaking of dancing,” she says. “I’m owed a turn, I think!”

She pulls Lou away from the bar, and Carol would be furious about finding herself abandoned, except she can hardly blame her friend for wanting to get as far away from Jennifer as possible. Lou goes with her, but not without an apologetic grimace for Carol.

Now, standing beside Jennifer and wondering whatever she was thinking to have slept with her in the first place, Carol barely manages to maintain her tight smile. Jennifer is smiling, too, catlike and amused. There’s no disappointment in her, at having Lou whisked away. In fact, noting her nearness, the cock of her hip, the look in her eye, Carol can’t help wondering if Jennifer flirted with Lou for her benefit.

“Such a pity,” Jennifer says. “I suppose you and I can make conversation, Carol. That is if you wouldn’t rather skip the talking this time, as well.”

Carol has always prided herself on her ability to tolerate awkward social interactions. Before this moment, the only people who ever made her lose her composure in a public setting were Harge’s parents, and even that was nothing to the scarlet blush she feels racing up her throat and into her cheeks. Her body tightens in shock and embarrassment, transported back to the night with Jennifer. Jennifer, who talked too much. Even while she was being kissed. It was so irritating that Carol had hushed her, said, “No more words, Darling,” and proceeded to do her very best to make a wordless conversation.

Now, having it thrown in her face again feels like a slap. Perhaps Jennifer means it to be flirtatious. Perhaps Jennifer wants to seduce her again. But all Carol can think is that Andrew is standing right beside them, and must be able to guess what Jennifer means. It is one of the most mortifying moments of Carol’s life.

That is, until—

“Good evening,” says a sweet, soft voice.

Carol’s head whips past Jennifer, her heart almost seizing in her chest at this new shock. Therese has appeared out of nowhere. For a moment all Carol can do is blink at her, her mortification taking on a new facet, of dread. Oh God, oh God, of all the people to end up gathered in one place!

But her horror is made more complicated by the fact that seeing Therese simultaneously lights her up inside.

And how could it not? Therese is wearing a pale green button down shirt, rolled up to three quarter sleeves, and a pair of gray gabardine trousers cinched high on the waist. Therese with her slim frame wears them well, and whereas a similar suit brought out the masculinity in Paige, Therese brings out the femininity in the suit. The trousers accentuate her hips and waist, and the color of the shirt brings out her eyes like refracting crystal. She looks so damned pretty that for a moment Carol doesn’t know what to say to her.

Predictably, Jennifer pounces.

“Why, hello,” she says, grinning in a lupine way. “Aren’t you that little photographer who came to Carol’s Christmas party months ago?”

Carol’s heart sinks.

Therese, who had not even looked at Jennifer until this moment, now frowns. Carol watches realization strike, the clever girl extrapolating the only explanation for Jennifer’s statement. After all, how many women at that party would also come to The Church? When her cheeks pink, Carol remembers the sight of her across the bedroom, when Therese saw her kissing Jennifer. The startled and embarrassed look on her face now is a mirror image of that night.

“Um, yes,” says Therese haltingly. And then, because she is a polite young woman, she holds out her hand. “I’m Therese.”

“Therese,” says Jennifer, taking her hand as she draws the name out in a slow purr. “It’s lovely.”

Therese extricates her hand, glances at Carol, says to Jennifer, “And your name?”

“Jennifer.”

“Nice to meet you, Jennifer.”

Therese turns to Andrew, holding out a hand. He shakes, too, and might be about to introduce himself, but Jennifer says, “This is Andy, my husband. Andy, you remember Therese. I hung the pictures in the foyer.”

“Of course, of course,” Andrew smiles. “Just a swell job. My mother had copies made.”

Therese smiles back, looking slightly more at ease. Carol, desperate for something to do, asks, “Would you like a drink, Therese?”

Therese’s eyes land on her again. Twelve days. Twelve days since they looked into each other’s eyes…

“Sure,” Therese murmurs. “Wine?”

Carol, moving around to the other side of the bar, finds a bottle of white uncorked, and a glass. She pours for Therese, and though Jennifer and Andrew are still standing there, she dares to ask, “How are you?”

Therese smiles a little, accepting the glass. “I’m well, thank you. I’ve been out of town for a few days.”

Carol’s heart clamors.

“Really?” she asks, trying for nonchalant.

“Yes, I just got back today. My mail had piled up.”

Her mail. The telegram!

“I hope it wasn’t just bills and advertisements!” chortles Jennifer.

Carol would like to murder her.

Therese, embarrassed, shakes her head and sips from her glass. “No, not all.”

Carol doesn’t know what to say, so she says nothing. Jennifer forgoes words for once, focused on glancing between Carol and Therese. And Therese, ignoring Jennifer completely, meets Carol’s eyes. Quiet and thoughtful.

“Well,” Andrew says. Everyone has clearly forgotten him. “I’m going to head out on that dance floor. But I’d love a whiskey before I go. Pass me that bottle, Carol.”

Carol hastens to offer him a tumbler and the whiskey bottle. He pours himself a healthy measure, and lifts the glass to them all right before downing it in one swallow. Jennifer makes a low, exasperated sound. Andrew beams at Carol and Therese.

“Have fun, ladies,” he says, and strolls off toward a crowd of handsome men.

Therese says, “My friends are waiting for me. I’ve got to go say hello.”

“Of course!” says Jennifer, as if there was any way that Therese was talking to her. “Don’t keep them waiting.”

Therese ignores her, eyes on Carol, “Have a good night,” she murmurs.

And something about how she says it… something low and knowing in her voice. Is it challenge or promise that Carol reads in her eyes? Is she staking a claim on Carol’s ‘good night’—or dismissing Carol altogether?

God damn it this is all so much more difficult than it should be. And Carol is so much less poised than she is used to. And perhaps that’s why she can’t think of anything to do, to say, that can stop Therese from turning and walking off toward her friends.

Chapter Text

Therese is standing in a circle of four or five other girls, listening to Paige regale them with reports of some recent fisticuffs, when she feels someone sidle up beside her.

“So,” drawls a low and humorous voice. “You know Carol.”

Startled, Therese twists her head to find the woman, Jennifer, standing next to her. Towering over her, in fact; she’s as a tall as Carol, but the effect on Therese is very different. Therese shifts a half step back, under the pretense of being ablet to face her fully, but in reality she doesn’t like the woman standing so close to her. There’s something predatory about it.

“Yes,” she says, taking a sip of her wine, which Paige got for her when she admitted being too nervous to go back to the bar and, by extension, Carol. “I met her while I was doing a catalogue shoot for her company.”

“Of course,” Jennifer smiles. “Your work must have been very impressive for them to hire you back for that Christmas party.”

Therese returns her smile, tightly. She feels anxious now, and on guard, and also a little embarrassed to realize that she finds Jennifer incredibly beautiful. She is as tall as Carol, and even more curvaceous, her hair long and auburn and her eyes a sparkling blue. The way she smiles at Therese is smooth and inviting, and Therese begins to wonder if this is some kind of come on, when—

“I wasn’t referring to work, though,” says Jennifer coyly. “I meant that you… know… Carol.”

It’s not an ambiguous statement. Therese, to her mortification, blushes. She hides it in her glass of wine, but doesn’t think that works, based on the brightening of Jennifer’s smile.

“Oh,” Therese stumbles for a moment, desperate for solid ground. “Well.”

Jennifer touches her wrist, an exaggerated gesture of appeasement, and laughs, “Oh, kitten, don’t be embarrassed. In circles like ours, it’s inevitable that we would all have tried each other out.”

This time Therese chuckles, though it’s not the friendliest sound. Jennifer goes on, “And anyway, Carol being… Carol—it’s not like I can blame you for taking your chance. Let me guess: one night of bliss, and then she turned cold on you?”

Therese feels such a surge of vindictive pleasure in that moment, it takes all her self-control not to smirk at Jennifer, who is watching her avidly. Luckily, the question is crass, and Therese has plenty of excuse not to answer. Still, the older woman seems to read something in her reaction, because—

“Take some advice, honey,” Jennifer says. “I saw the way you were looking at her. And I saw the way she was looking at you. Like maybe she was ready to break her own rule, hmm? Don’t worry—I’m not jealous. I don’t begrudge her at all, in fact. Why, look at you! You look like a perfect little lady, don’t you? I imagine she likes that. But just because she goes to bed with you again doesn’t mean she’s fundamentally any different, sweetheart. Carol is a woman who makes women fall in love with her. I’d hate to see you get snared in that kind of inevitable heartbreak, just for the promise of one more night with her.”

Therese says nothing at first, gaze locked with the sapphire brilliance of Jennifer’s cleverly assessing eyes. Then, in as mellow a tone as she can muster, she remarks, “It seems to me perhaps you’re the one who’d like another night with Carol.”

If Therese hoped to fluster her with this claim, she fails utterly. Jennifer throws back her head, laughing gaily. “Well, of course I would! She’s absolutely exquisite. So… aggressive, when she knows what wants. Or when she’s getting what she wants. I do like that in a woman.”

Therese’s jaw tightens; her stomach flips, and not pleasantly. Until this moment she has had only the memory of Carol kissing Jennifer to haunt her thoughts. Now, all unwelcome and all-consuming, there come images of the two of them in bed together. Jennifer touching Carol, all over her body. Jennifer fucking Carol, making Carol moan and writhe and cry out—all the things that Therese does to Carol, cheapened by the knowledge that Jennifer has done them, too.

And Therese knows it’s not fair. In fact, it’s distinctly unfair, to judge her own experiences with Carol based on the fact Carol has slept with other women. It’s a side of Therese that she has never seen in herself before, and she doesn’t like it. But she also can’t escape the fact that she hates the very idea of anyone else touching Carol.

“Perhaps we’re going about this the wrong way,” muses Jennifer, bringing Therese sharply back to her presence.

“The wrong way?” repeats Therese, convinced she is not going to like this.

“Well, Carol likes variety, does she not? Novelty. It’s what has her hopping from bed to bed. Suppose we offered her something…” and Jennifer shifts subtly closer, staring into Therese’s eyes, “novel…”

It takes Therese half a beat to understand what Jennifer means, and when she does understand she fights like hell not to reveal how scandalous the idea is to her. She knows, of course, that people do that sort of thing. Paige has done it, and so have a couple of Therese’s gay friends. Is it more common, for their sort of people to do this? And could Therese ever, ever participate in that kind of lovemaking? Every experience doubled, every touch infused with the electrifying question of “who?”

Perhaps, under the right circumstances… with the right women… but—

Therese manages a caustic laugh. She drinks from her wine, answering, “I don’t think Carol would be very good at sharing, do you?”

Jennifer laughs, the first truly genuine laugh of the night, looking amused and impressed and she says, “You’re probably right.”

Then, suddenly, she is even closer, hovering over Therese, murmuring into her hair, “Perhaps we should leave her out, this time.”

Therese leans back enough that she can meet Jennifer’s eyes. They are very close to each other, now—within a couple of inches. And all around there are couples dancing, and the jukebox plays a sweet, sexy song, and if a woman was ever inviting another woman to bed, Jennifer is doing that, now. Therese tries to imagine herself a few weeks ago, a year ago, two years ago. How would she have responded to this kind of offer? Even Gen wasn’t so bold when she invited Therese to an after party and then, her own apartment. Even Carol, saying, “I can promise you tonight,” was not as shameless as this woman’s seductive perusal and parted lips and twinkling eyes.

To find herself in such an orbit. It’s a heady thing. And Carol was very clear what she and Therese are, and what they aren’t. So what’s to stop Therese from accepting this woman’s offer? It might even be fun, to turn the tables on her, to show Jennifer what seduction really looks like.

The problem, of course, is obvious…

And it’s thinking of that problem that makes Therese’s eyes dart away from Jennifer’s, dart out onto the open floor of The Church, as if sensing what’s out there. Who’s out there. As if drawn by magnets, Therese’s gaze redirects and lands with the precision of an arrow. Lands directly on Carol Ross.

The older woman is watching from across the floor. Watching with a look on her face that Therese has never seen before. A look both cold and flushed, both flat and furious. Carol’s lips are pressed in a thin line. Her pale eyes are narrowed. Her jaw is set. She stares at Therese and the vitriol in it is almost debilitating.

Therese’s first impulse is humiliation, shame, to have been caught like this. Caught by Carol, with Carol’s former lover practically draped over her, and Therese doing nothing to step away. Yes, what can she feel, except shame? But then she sees the little flare of Carol’s nostrils, watches dumbstruck as Carol releases a little contemptuous laugh—and breaks eye contact. Starts walking away, walking toward the stairs, back turned to Therese as if forever.

Something about this, about the dismissal in this, the coldness of this, blasts apart all Therese’s embarrassment. What right has Carol, to look at her like that? What right has Carol, to judge her for chatting to another woman? It’s cruel, and it’s unfair, and its—

“What do you say, kitten?” murmurs Jennifer. “Want to go somewhere?”

Therese had almost forgotten she was there. Now, looking up at her with a startled little blink, she steps deliberately back. “I’m sorry,” says Therese. “I don’t think so.”

In answer, Jennifer frowns, a pouty frown, but not of someone who is truly disappointed. Rather of someone who was playing a meaningless game, and will get past it in a moment or two. Yes, Therese understands, this is all a game to Jennifer. Probably for Carol’s benefit. Therese is just a pawn, and the realization of this makes her anger billow outward. Just a pawn, bandied between two rich older women. Just a toy.

She looks sharply toward the stairs again, to find that Carol has made her way to the loft, and now stands at the railing staring down at her. Her eyes are fierce, even at the distance. She holds Therese’s stare for two, three seconds, and then, turning on her heel, marches into the room behind her.

Her meaning is quite obvious.

Perhaps if Therese were not so angry, she would have enough self-respect to refuse to follow. Perhaps she would recognize that Carol’s behavior is mean and undeserved and the best way to respond is to not respond at all. To deny Carol her response.

But Therese is angry. Therese is suddenly furious. And in that fury, color rising in her face and sweat breaking out on her lower back, she feels powerless not to vent that anger. She doesn’t even say goodbye to Jennifer. She heads for the stairs. She doesn’t see or hear anything around her, only those stairs, and the door Carol disappeared through. 

On the landing, she heads for that door. She doesn’t bother knocking, simply wrenches it open and steps inside, letting it swing shut after her. Carol stands just a few feet away, clearly waiting. Therese, not wanting to give her the satisfaction of her complete attention, looks around at the room. It’s a bedroom, the vibrant colors making Therese think it must belong to Lou. There’s a tiny bathroom attached, and there are clothes hung on every surface, including a brilliant blue velvet blazer on the door behind her. Lou’s style, Lou’s things. Therese has a momentary thought that it is probably very bad manners to have this argument in Lou’s bedroom. But then she looks at Carol again. The way their eyes lock, like a key slotting into a keyhole, makes Therese’s heart start thumping.

She’s not prepared for Carol’s opening volley.

“I’ve been calling you for two weeks,” says the blonde, accusation clear in her voice.

Therese blinks, frowns, answers impatiently, “I told you before. I was out of town. I only got your telegram last—”

“You don’t think you could have told me that?” Carol interrupts caustically. “You don’t think you could have let me know that you would be out of town? I thought you were ignoring my calls. What else could I think?”

Therese hesitates. The last time she saw her, Carol was avoiding eye contact like it might burn, and making only the vaguest references to them seeing each other again. Therese had been halfway convinced, when Carol left, that that was the end. Going out of town for work had been a relief, a way to take her mind off the fear that she had somehow ruined what was between them. In her optimistic moments, she thought that if Carol did call her again, it would probably be a week at least. As it had been other times. This reaction, it… baffles her.

“I wasn’t aware you cared what I do when we’re not together,” Therese says. Carol flinches. Her flinch lends power to Therese’s anger, and Therese adds with more acid in her voice, “Or were you under some impression that I just sit around the apartment waiting for you to call me?”

Carol scoffs. “That’s not what I mean and you know it. I simply thought we were friends enough that—”

“You said you couldn’t be my friend,” interrupts Therese, her voice calm and cold. Carol blinks at her rapidly. “You said you wanted one night with me, and I gave it to you. Then you said you wanted more nights, and I gave you those, too. But you never said that we were friends. So why should you expect me to behave like we’re friends?”

Even as Therese says it, she knows it’s not true, not fair, not right. Whatever she and Carol are, friendship has always been a part of it, from the day they spoke on the roof. But right now, she can’t admit that. And right now, she especially can’t let Carol see that she knows it. She’s not sure why, but she can’t. It’s too vulnerable, too dangerous.

When Carol overcomes her shock to level Therese with her own cool disdain, Therese is glad she held her ground.

“I see,” says Carol. “In that case, I suppose it’s none of my business what you do in your off hours. But I do wonder if you could at least have the decency not to flaunt your escapades in front of me.”

Therese goes a little shrill, “My escapades?”

“Yes, it seems Jennifer is very taken with you.”

Therese blurts a laugh, caustic.

“Jennifer would cut off her right arm to go to bed with you again. She regards me as nothing but her pawn. I could have been an insect and she would have batted me around the same way.”

Carol’s brow lifts imperiously. “How uncomfortable for you.”

The carelessness of the response feels like a blow. Therese’s body goes hot and tight and oversensitive, a gamut of unpleasant emotions running through it—offense at the way Carol is looking at her; anger that Carol ever slept with Jennifer; disgust that Jennifer tried to use her to make Carol jealous. And hanging over all those feelings is the most unattractive of all, the most embarrassing.

Jealousy.

Because Carol is hers. Hers. And Carol doesn’t get to accuse Therese of flirting with other women when Carol is the one who still won’t admit what they both know. She's hers.

“Do you think this is what I want?” Therese demands, her voice low and acidic. “To see your women all over the place.”

Carol’s brows shoot up.

“My women?”

“Jennifer,” Therese snaps—then adds, “Abby.”

Carol pales with anger, snaps back, “Do you think I like to see it? You think I like to see women fawning over you? That girl Paige? And—and Gen—”

“Paige is a friend. Gen is a friend!”

“Well, speaking of cutting off arms—”

“You don’t get to do this!” says Therese furiously, stepping closer. “You don’t get to have it both ways. You said you wanted this,” she gestures between their vibrating bodies, “and only this. You said I deserved to have a real lover. How dare you get angry at me just because you think other women want me. Why should you care if other women want me when you don’t—”

“Because I hate it!” Carol shouts.

The silence after that hits like a truck. They both blink, startled, amazed. Therese opens her mouth to answer but nothing comes out. Her heart beats a violent tattoo, and Carol’s bobbing throat pricks her with desire. She wants to bite her there. To lick and suck and consume her, and she shouldn’t, she shouldn’t want that, not right now, not when—

“I hate it,” Carol says again.

But this time it’s a whisper. Full of feelings so complex that Therese can’t parse them. Can’t parse her own feelings, either. Only knows that she hates it, too. Jennifer, leering at Carol. Carol, thinking Therese would want Jennifer. Or Paige. Or Gen. She hates it. Hates it.

“Why?” Therese asks, her voice croaking, need naked in her voice, probably naked on her face as well.

Carol’s face is naked, too.

“Because I—” she tries. Swallows again. God damn it her neck is gorgeous, God damn it! She says, “Because I—I don’t want you to go to bed with other women.”

Unsaid, but screaming between them: I only want you to go to bed with me.

“You—you—” Therese stutters. “You—can’t—you—”

Carol pauses, half a beat of stillness, and then, she lunges at her. Eats up the space between them so fast, Therese doesn’t even have a chance to process it. Doesn’t have a chance to process anything, except the sudden fury of Carol’s kiss.

It’s not like their first kiss. As desperate as that was, as passionate as it was, as deeply as desire ran between them—this is different. This is…  violent. Not hateful, because it could never be hateful between them, no matter how angry they are. But violent the way summer storms are violent. Flooding the world with hot rain and flashes of lightning and thunder, and in the sudden humidity of that storm, Therese can do nothing except kiss her back.

They grab at each other. Carol’s hands in her hair and Therese’s hands fisting in the fabric of Carol’s dress. She feels herself, wrestled back against the door, both of them moaning as she thumps into it. Lou’s blazer a thin cushion for her head, which she tips back, practically swallowing Carol’s tongue in her urgency for more.

Lou’s blazer.

With a jolt Therese remembers where they are. She yanks away from Carol’s kiss, electrified by the answering whimper of objection, but—

“Carol, we can’t! Not here. Please—”

Carol looks at her with momentarily confused and dazed eyes. When she realizes what Therese means, she looks around the room. It’s calculating, and Carol is still touching her, one hand in her hair, one pressed between her shoulder blades. Therese sees Carol notice the adjoining bathroom. A moment later, their eyes lock again, a question in Carol’s quirked eyebrow. Oh God, it’s not right, it’s not—

But Therese nods.

Carol practically carries her across the bedroom, yanks her inside the bathroom, slams the door shut after them and pushes her into the sink.

“Let me,” Carol gasps, kissing her again, hard. “Just let me—let me touch you.”

Therese whines her agreement, pulling Carol’s hips into hers, feeling the heat of her through fabric. She wants to take her clothes off. She wants to push her into the shower and hold her against the tiled wall, too cold for their hot skin, and make her—

But then Carol’s hands start scrabbling at the button fly of Therese’s trousers. In moments, the trousers are sagging open, and without even waiting to finish pulling them down, Carol slips a hand inside, cupping her through her underwear. They both whimper, a sound of need, and relief, kiss breaking long enough to stare into each other’s eyes. Therese has been so angry, so angry and incensed and aroused. She has wanted nothing, until this moment, but to assert her possession of Carol. Strip her naked and make her scream. But Carol’s fingers flex against the sodden crotch of her panties, and the need that goes through Therese is more intense than anything she’s ever felt.

“Inside,” she chokes out. “Carol, please, go inside—”

Carol’s face goes savage, vindicated. She grabs Therese around the waist and with the other hand still inside her pants, whips her around, pushing her into the bathroom door. A hanging towel collapses in a heap. Carol kicks it away, pushes in close, pushes her fingers under Therese’s underwear, and with their mouths molded together, she slides two of her fingers through the wetness of Therese’s sex, and then into her cunt.

Therese convulses, whining in relief. She breaks their kiss to push her head back against the door. Carol dives for her throat, licking and biting as she starts to fuck her. Deep, focused thrusts, fingers massaging the front of her cunt, and it’s good, it’s so good, it—

“I want you,” Carol growls against her. “I want you.”

Therese, thrusting her hips into Carol’s hand, wonders deliriously what this means. I want you like this? I want you all the time? I want more?

But this is not the time to ask, because Carol has hooked a hand under one of her thighs, lifting it to open her up for deeper thrusts. Therese makes a choking sound, thigh trembling just before she finds purchase—setting her foot against the lip of the bathroom sink. Bracing herself. Yes, yes, that’s perfect. Gives her something to push against. Gives her leverage to thrust back. She’s still wearing her pants and Carol is still wearing her dress and they’re both sweating and gasping and moaning. It’s wrong, to do this here, so wrong and inconsiderate and risky, incredibly risky. But if Carol stops, she’ll die.

“Fuck me,” Therese gasps. “Please—please—fuck me—”

Carol makes another of those snarling sounds, one arm looping under her ass to hold her up as she starts fucking into her harder, faster. Therese chokes off a wail, burying her face against Carol’s chest and sobbing. There’s a tight burn in her thigh and a throbbing in her sex and her skin is damp and oversensitive, almost like a fever, but it’s good good good. And Carol feels so big right now, tall and broad, towering over her, covering her, and that’s good, too. Because that’s what Therese really wants. To be covered by Carol, subsumed and consumed, to be one body with four arms and legs, with two beating hearts, with two mouths, passionately wrestling. For Carol has nudged her head against Therese’s head, coaxing her out of hiding to take her in a new kiss, sweet and wet and heavenly. The pulse between Therese’s legs grows frantic. She can feel herself tightening, can feel herself so slick and shivery, needing more.

Somehow, she forces a hand between their bodies, works around the tightness of Carol’s hips and the shape of Carol’s hand, and finds her own clit, circling fast. The minute she makes contact, a gasp escapes her, breaking their kiss.

“That’s it,” Carol growls, eyes lit up and starving. “That’s it, don’t stop. God, you feel amazing.”

“Carol,” Therese gasps, arching her hips forward, circling her fingers tighter and more precise. “Carol, God, please—”

“Keep going,” Carol goads her. “I want to watch you. I want to feel you. Want to feel it happen.”

“I’m—I’m—” Therese sobs for breath. “I’m c-c-close.”

Carol grins, feral, and kisses her again. And it’s so fast. It’s happening so fast, faster than she’s used to. Faster than she would have expected, in a position like this. So little precision in her own circling fingers, and so much intensity in Carol’s hand. It ought to be too much, too soon, the kind of fucking that overwhelms and makes it impossible to come. Except—except—

“Oh, Jesus,” she gasps, feeling a deep echoing pleasure start to pulse inside. She rubs herself harder, desperate. Carol sets her teeth against Therese’s shoulder, gnawing at her through the fabric. The pressure and pain in that spot coils the pleasure and need in her cunt, until all of the sudden, it jackknifes through her.

She cries out, sharp and choked and louder than usual, her eyes rolling back as the waves roll through, devastating in their intensity. She’s too stunned to keep moving her fingers, but the locked pressure combines with the driving of Carol’s hand to trap her in the violence of her climax. To make it all pound through her, the summer storm become a hurricane. She can feel her own wetness, blooming from her cunt and dripping down Carol’s hand, a slick and sticky mess of released desire. Hoarse blissful cries pour out of her.

And Carol is making sounds, too. That is somehow the best part. Carol is groaning and whimpering and gasping in her ear, as if this is her pleasure, too. As if Therese’s orgasm has unleashed a sympathetic orgasm in her, and it’s so—so erotic. So overwhelming. So beautiful.

“Carol,” Therese gasps. Her thigh still braced on the sink is trembling violently now. All of her is trembling, including her voice that says, “Carol, God, Carol—”

Carol finally starts to slow her thrusting fingers, whispering in her ear, “So good, Therese, so perfect,” in a rotating chant of amazement that makes Therese blush with pleasure and elation. Gingerly, Therese lifts her foot away from the sink, but when she tries to stand under her own power, she goes watery. She grabs at Carol’s shoulders, needing help. She’s entirely unprepared when Carol slips her fingers loose, and then slips down to the floor, pulling Therese with her—until Therese finds herself cradled in Carol’s lap, a rag doll of sated pleasure.

The sensation of it, of being held like this, is almost as intense as the orgasm itself. Because after the violence of what they’ve shared, Carol’s arms hold her tenderly. And Carol is kissing her, all over her face and neck and shoulders. Carol whispers to her, whispers her name and tells her she’s beautiful, perfect, so good. The sweetness of it makes tears gather in Therese’s eyes, passion giving way to vulnerability. To need of a different sort. She pushes her face against Carol’s neck, wrapping her own arms around her and hugging her close. Carol doesn’t falter, just cradles her and soothes her, hands squeezing and stroking. Therese feels a tear slip down her cheek, and worries for a moment that Carol will feel the wetness of it, but Carol just whispers to her, “Shhh, Darling, shhh. I’ve got you.”

For a moment Therese thinks she might burst into sobs. It’s so much. It’s too much. After the loneliness of the past two weeks and the awkwardness of their reunion, and Jennifer’s predatory fixation and Carol’s angry glare across The Church—she feels wrung out and fluttery. And somehow, she still wants more.

It takes a few minutes for her to get herself under control. A sweaty heap in Carol’s arms, the worst of her trembling passes in the cocoon of Carol’s whispering reassurance. Then at last they are both quiet, breathing evenly, damp in more ways than one but heedless of it. Because the bliss of being held this way, of holding each other this way, outshines any discomfort. 

Still, Therese is totally unprepared when Carol tells her, “Come home with me.”

It takes her a moment to understand what Carol means. She thinks she is asking to go back to Therese’s apartment. But the wording is off. And when it finally clicks, Therese pulls back to look at her. Carol’s eyes are deep gray pools of desire, of gentleness—and of uncertainty.

“Home?” Therese repeats, her voice a little raw.

Carol swallows and nods. She looks terrified that Therese will say no. Doesn’t she understand yet? Therese doesn’t want to say no. Not to this. But—

“Are you sure?” Therese asks. “We can go to my place.”

Carol shakes her head, “Mine is closer.”

By a mile, maybe. That can’t be the real reason.

“And I—” Carol continues, pauses, swallows again. “I want you… in my bed.” 

Chapter Text

The drive to Carol’s apartment is quiet, tense. Carol can sense the uncertainty rolling off of Therese, and feels powerless to make it dissipate. She is almost as unsure of what she is doing as Therese seems to be. Carol has taken lovers in her own home before, but rarely. And Therese, never at all. It certainly muddies the already unclear waters between them.

But there is a saving grace for Carol: uncertain though she may feel about what she’s doing, she has absolutely no doubt that it’s what she wants. That Therese is what she wants.

Does Therese feel the same way? And if not, whose fault is that but Carol’s? 

Needing to do something, offer something, Carol slips her hand across the seat of the car. Therese’s hands are folded in her lap, and when Carol lays a hand on top of them, she jolts, startled, looking at Carol with wide eyes. Navigating through the city streets, it is as safe as possible for them to touch like this, and so Carol is brave. She weaves her fingers through one of Therese’s hands, squeezing gently. There is a moment of paralyzing stillness, before Therese squeezes back. And doesn’t let go.

At her apartment building, Carol leaves her car with the valet, and together she and Therese walk into the large foyer and toward the elevator bank. The operator takes them to the sixth floor, and all the while they are silent, tense, more so as they move down the hallway to Carol’s door. Weeks, since they were here together. Carol trembles a little, taking out her keys, unlocking the door, letting them into the dark apartment. She switches on the light and then strides across the living room toward another lamp by the couch. When she turns around, Therese is still stood in the doorway, wide-eyed.

“Therese?”

Therese stares at her, not immediately answering. In that tiny bathroom at The Church, there was no hesitation in Therese’s body, no doubt about what she wanted and needed, and giving to her felt like an act of destiny. How could she not? But now there is some barrier between them, and it makes Carol wretched.

Therese finally speaks. “I’m not… sure what I’m doing here.”

Stomach plummeting, Carol swallows down her panic, answering, “I invited you.” As if this was Therese’s real question. She swallows again and adds, “I want you here.”

Therese’s green eyes flash, her body tightening. For a moment she seems to stand on the precipice of a decision that will change both their lives. Then, she takes another step inside, and closes the door. Carol release a shuddering breath, and walks back to her. When they are stood right in front of each other, Therese looks at her with curious eyes.

“Why?” she asks.

Carol hesitates. She hadn’t thought through to this part. She wanted to bring Therese to her home, to her bed, to make love to her here, and let those actions be her strongest statement. It didn’t occur to her that she might have to explain herself with words, as well. And it’s what Therese deserves, of course it is—but it is also terrifies Carol, who wipes nervous hands down the front of her dress. Therese just watches her, patient, immovable. Waiting.

“I—” Carol clears her throat, ashamed of herself but knowing she must be honest. Now, finally, she must be honest. “I was… I was afraid, that you might… want Jennifer. Or Paige.”

Therese gives her a look, both exasperated and gentle. She says, “I wouldn’t have gone to bed with either of them, Carol. Paige is a friend of mine and Jennifer,” she makes a face. “Well, Jennifer is vile.”

Carol can’t help snorting a laugh at this, and Therese’s lips edge toward a grin. Encouraged, Carol steps a little closer. She puts both her hands on Therese’s arms, trailing them slowly down to her elbows, her wrists, her fingers…

“I didn’t like… not being able to reach you, this week. I thought you were angry with me. I thought I had ruined everything.”

Therese sighs, but thank God there’s compassion in it. She says, “I thought I had asked you for too much. That night. I thought you were pulling away.”

My fault, Carol thinks, for reacting as I did. For flinching away from you. I was too vulnerable. I felt too much. You cared for me and gave to me and took my body at its most vulnerable, and it made me feel so good. And so afraid.

“I can’t pull away, Therese,” she whispers. The younger woman’s eyes widen, but it’s not discomfort or distaste—it’s hope. Carol, still holding her hands, draws them up, pulling them against her own chest. “You’re under my skin. You’re in my thoughts… all the time. When I’m with you. When I’m not with you. I think of you constantly.”

Therse considers this, still with that very serious, wide-eyed expression. After a moment she glances to their clasped hands. She licks her lips, saying carefully, “Carol… I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you I was going out of town. I suppose now I was… afraid. That you wouldn’t call. I wanted to run away, so I wouldn’t have to know that you didn’t call. But,” she sighs, finally looking at Carol again, “I don’t want you to do something, say something, because of what I did. Not if you’ll regret it.”

Carol licks her lips, trying to think what the right thing is to say, but in the end all she can come up with is, “What is it you think I’ll regret?”

A frown. Therese looks embarrassed, and then shy. She breaks eye contact again, staring at the floor. Their hands are still interlocked, but Carol can feel the hesitance in her, the drawing back.

“You have your rules for a reason, Carol. Don’t put them aside just because you… just because you were feeling jealous.”

Jealous. Carol ponders the word. Of course, yes, she was jealous. But is that why she brought Therese back to her apartment? Is it some misguided effort at asserting ownership? Of saying that Therese is hers and no one, no Jennifers or Gens or Paiges, can so much as touch her? How cruel of her, if that were true.

But it isn’t true.

Slowly, carefully, she bends closer. She watches Therese, watches her for the slightest indication of resistance or displeasure. Therese’s eyes flit to her mouth, and she does not flinch away. After what seems a very long time, Carol dares to press her lips against Therese’s lips. A soft, chaste kiss. Therese sighs quietly, a sound of relief and welcome. Carol presses a little firmer, but does not deepen the kiss. Keeps it gentle and unassuming. When she does finally pull back, it’s with a little brush of her nose against Therese’s nose.

Still leaning close to her, she whispers, “I have no right to ask you to be mine. But I promise, Therese, that if I did, it wouldn’t be just to keep anyone else from having you.”

Therese looks at her shrewdly.

If?” she asks.

Carol swallows. Now she brings Therese’s hands to her lips, kissing each of them with reverence. “I’ve been so… myopic, Therese. So naïve. Please forgive me.”

“What are you saying?”

Therese is clearly not content with anything less than the full truth, and Carol, terrified as she is, feels a surge of pride in her. Good, she thinks. Don’t you settle for anything, you darling girl.

“I’m saying that I want you. Not once. Not now and then. All the time. I want you to be with me. No more half-measures.”

Therese looks a little stunned, as if she didn’t think Carol would actually admit it—or as if she didn’t think it was what Carol actually wanted. She stares at her, and the longer she stares the more Carol is convinced: Therese doesn’t share her feelings. Why would she? Perhaps their arrangement has worked perfectly well for her, so far. An occasional lover. No expectations. No demands on her time or her heart. Maybe a young professional woman like Therese wants nothing more than that, and now here is Carol, scuppering the whole thing with her greed and her need and her lo—

“Carol,” Therese looks totally perplexed, and, to Carol’s shame, a little skeptical. “I—really?”

Carol, now more certain than ever that she will be rejected, forces herself to be brave.

“Yes, Darling. Really. If you want it. If you want me.”

At that, Therese’s eyes soften, her whole face softens. This time, she is the one who takes Carol’s hands and brings them to her own lips, kissing the knuckles of each, murmuring, “Oh, Carol. Honestly.” Then she laughs, and when she looks into Carol’s eyes, her own are laughing, bright and happy. “How could you ever doubt it? Of course I want you.”

Carol’s mouth drops open. She never knew that the heart skipping a beat was more than romantic metaphor—not until she feels her own heart clench, hitch, and redouble in a surge of pounding excitement and disbelief and joy. Slowly, her own smile spreads across her face, answering Therese, and her eyes burn with gathering tears of relieved happiness.

“You do?”

Therese laughs again. Therese reaches for her face, pulling her down to her, nodding eagerly, “Yes, I do—of course I do.”

And then, Therese is kissing her.

Carol thought she had already experienced the best kisses of her life—Therese’s kisses, deep and passionate and overwhelming, lewd and hungry and wet, as they stumbled through her apartment, yanking at clothes, swallowing sounds.

But this… this—

Is so tender. So deep and easy, the smooth press of lips, the gentle flicker of tongues, the warmth of Therese’s body as Carol pulls her into her arms, a hand on the small of her back, the other across her shoulders, and Therese’s arms looped around her neck as she arches up on tiptoes to reach. And the need Carol feels for her in this moment is not frantic and wild, but deep as ocean currents. Carol steps out of her shoes, plants her feet squarely on the ground, and slips both arms under Therese’s bottom, lifting her. The girl makes a startled sound, followed by a low, pleased chuckle.

“Oh, my,” she says, and wraps her legs around Carol’s hips. “I didn’t know you were that strong.”

Carol grins at her, already walking them toward her bedroom. “I have a few talents,” she says.

Therese bends to her, kissing her cheek and brow and neck and ear, all while Carol carries them, a bit ungainly, down the hallway.

“Just a few?” Therese asks, cheeky.

Carol hitches her higher in her arms, making her squeak and laugh, and then they are in the bedroom, then they are by the bed, and Carol is lowering her onto it, following her down and sliding on top of her, wanting to cover her, to touch her everywhere at once. Here, on this big queen mattress, she finally has the room to move that she has always wanted.

Therese, too, seems to note the difference, for she grins, and teases, “What a lap of luxury.”

Carol begins slowly undoing the buttons on Therese’s shirt, careful not to rush.

“Don’t mistake me,” she says, “your apartment has a special place in my heart. But tonight I just—” she trails off, something coming over her, a sensation of wanting and needing that makes her stare down at Therese with solemn eyes. “Tonight I want to take my time with you. Please, Darling—can I take my time with you?”

Therese’s little smirk fades away, but there is no less tenderness in her eyes as she gazes up at Carol, meeting her seriousness with a look of joy and acceptance.

“Yes, Carol,” she whispers. “Please.”

So, Carol does.

She undresses her slowly, one button at a time. She kisses every inch of skin she exposes, first Therese’s belly button, then a trail up the center of her stomach, then the little bow in the center of her brassiere, then her chest, and throat. When she has pulled the shirt off Therese’s slim shoulders, she keeps kissing her: her ribs, her collarbones, her biceps, the crooks of her elbows. She thinks of their frantic, wild coupling in the bathroom, and tries to make this the opposite of that, treating every part with reverence.

She takes off her bra, and spends long minutes on her breasts, massaging and stroking, licking and sucking, til her nipples are so hard and swollen that the slightest graze of teeth makes Therese convulse. Her young lover is sweating, mewling, shifting restlessly under her mouth, hands clenching in Carol’s hair as Carol finally relents, reaching for the button on Therese’s slacks.

“Oh, Carol,” Therese shivers, head tossed back.

She’s damp and flushed, a sheen of moisture in the notch of her throat and the dips of her collarbones and across her brow. Delighted, Carol starts to pull her slacks down her legs, mouth following close behind. Her slender legs with their defined muscle receive all Carol’s attention, hands massaging her tight calves as she nibbles and licks her inner thighs. She can smell her. A rich, heady smell.

“How is it possible?” Carol murmurs, almost to herself.

“Wh-what?” Therese asks.

Carol looks up the length of her body, locking eyes with her as she reaches for her underwear.

“You,” Carol says. “How are you possible?”

Therese’s eyes widen. She blushes. Carol starts pulling down the last of her clothes, the little pair of panties soon discarded, Therese’s legs spreading open for Carol’s hands.

“You’re so incredibly beautiful, Therese,” Carol tells her, shameless as she gazes at the pink, wet flower of her sex, lips swollen and clit distended, arousal smearing her inner thighs. “How did I go so long, not knowing you existed?”

Therese’s hips start churning restlessly, hips lifting toward their admirer. She whines Carol’s name, desperate. Carol throws her a quick, apologetic smile.

“I know, Sweetheart,” she says, and finally dips her fingers between Therese’s legs.

Only an hour ago she had three fingers inside her, fucking her deep and ferocious, their bodies tangled as they gasped and growled and rutted against each other. And it was incredible, transcendent; Carol will never be ashamed of it. But nor will she ever find a holier moment than this one, as she slips her fingers back inside Therese, bends to her sex, and begins to taste.

Therese keens, hands grappling at the bed beneath them, hips jerking. Carol slings her free arm across her lower belly, holding her down so she can have her in earnest, long, slow passes of her tongue, up from where her fingers are buried to the slippery point of her clit. She tastes incredible, both salty and sweet. She feels so good around her fingers, clenching and muscular, hot inside and hot outside, responding to every little movement with helpless twitches and sounds.

And Carol thought she already knew what it was to be completely besotted with a woman’s body, to want a woman with a kind of mad ferocity. This is different. Because now she is not telling herself, Once. Now she is not telling herself, This. Now she is telling herself, This, and everything else. Everything she can give me. Everything she’s willing to take. Everything she deserves and everything I can be worthy to deserve.

It seems no time at all before Therese’s shivering, arching body takes on a new focus. Her hips starts driving in precise movements. Her hands reach for Carol’s hair, subtly directing the movement of her head, her mouth. She’s getting close. Part of Carol wants to tease her, to draw it out, to make it last. Then she remembers: when Therese has come, she can simply make love to her again. She can make love to her all night. Because no one is leaving this bed, no, not for a long, long time. And with that completely blissful thought, Carol redoubles her efforts. There’s no need to tease. Only to give.

Then, delightfully, Therese starts to babble.

“Oh, God—Oh, God, Carol. Carol that’s—that’s so good. Oh, your fingers, your fingers are so good. Don’t—don’t stop doing that, oh, please, don’t stop. Yes, like—like that. Your—your mouth—just like that… like that…” Then her voice pitches up, squeaking out desperately, “Like that! Like that! Oh, Carol—Carol—fuck!”

She comes like a storm, wetness dripping down Carol’s fingers into the creases of her palm. She comes with a shout, that turns to a sob, that turns to helpless whimpering moans as she shudders. She comes for what seems like whole minutes of ecstasy, her sleek body a ceaseless undulation as pleasure tears through her, and all Carol can do is hold on, hold her down, keep thrusting into her tight and rippling cunt. Eventually she lifts her head, not wanting to overstimulate her with her mouth, and she gentles the movement of her fingers, but doesn’t stop completely.

It’s brilliant foresight. Because within a few minutes of coming down from her first orgasm, Therese starts shivering toward her second.

“Oh, God, Carol, come here!” she gasps.

Instantly, Carol flows up the bed. She keeps her finger buried inside, but uses her free arm to wrap under Therese’s shoulders, holding her close as she takes her in a bruising kiss. She hasn’t even thought to wipe her mouth, but Therese’s hungry moan tells her it doesn’t matter. When Therese licks inside her mouth, like she’s chasing the flavor of herself, Carol thinks she might die from her own arousal.

“Don’t stop,” Therese gasps through their kissing, her body lifting into Carol’s thrusts. “Don’t stop, please, don’t stop.”

“I won’t stop, Angel,” Carol tells her, voice fierce, “I won’t. I’ll give you whatever you want. You’re mine, Darling. You’re mine. And I’m yours.”

<><><> 

Carol wakes to dappled sunlight on the bedspread, and to a small, warm weight in her arms.

She blinks, momentarily disoriented, wondering if Rindy has crawled into bed with her again. But this shape is bigger than Rindy, and this shape is—naked.

Memory comes back in a flood of pleasure and satisfaction. Therese. Beautiful, exquisite Therese, who didn’t even punish her for her abominable behavior at the party. Who came back to her apartment and into her bedroom and into her bed. And who is still here, now.

She’s sleeping. Carol, laid on her side with Therese tucked against her, uses one arm to scoot her just a little closer, nuzzling against the fall of dark hair under her lips. They’ve been asleep for a while, but the room still smells of sex, smells of them. Of hours spent on this marvelous queen-sized mattress, bodies sweating and straining, mouths rarely breaking contact with each other’s skin. Carol is deliciously sore, and there are love bites on her chest and her inner thighs, that she watched Therese bestow in a delirium of pleasure, and which she sought to return—all over Therese’s ribs and breasts and hipbones.

They were insatiable. Equals in their insatiability. Carol had wanted her, needed her, so desperately, and to discover that that want and need were returned had been almost more than she could take. She doesn’t know how many times she came, or how many times she made Therese come, only that it was sheer exhaustion that finally defeated them. And now here they are, a heap of limbs, and Therese is snoring softly. The sleep of the dead.

A ringing telephone makes Carol jerk. Therese mumbles her displeasure, trying to snuggle in. But the ring wasn’t a hallucination and its angry trill sounds again from the bedside.

“I’m sorry, Darling,” Carol coos, and disentangles herself from reluctant arms, rolling toward the phone. She sits on the side of the bed, conscious of her nakedness, and grabs the receiver. “Hello?”

“Hello, Carol?”

It’s Harge. Carol’s first reaction is panic, a learned response. But then she remembers that Harge isn’t here, no one is here except Therese, and Therese is dead to the world, snoring again. Carol lets out her breath.

“Harge,” she says. “How are you? Is Rindy all right?”

“Good, good, no, she’s fine. She’s just gone out with Barbara to buy sandwiches for lunch. There’s some deli around here that Barbara loves.”

Carol grinds her teeth.

“I see.”

“That’s actually what I was calling about,” Harge goes on.

“A deli?” asks Carol, voice flat.

Harge chuckles. He sounds very robust, this morning, which Carol finds irritating.

“No, no, not that. Barbara. She’s wondering if we can go to dinner this Friday. She’s dying to meet you and, well—I think you’d like her, Carol. You have a lot in common.”

Carol thinks vindictively, Does she fuck women?

But answers—

“Oh, well—I had planned to see a play that night—”

“An early dinner, then,” says Harge. For once he doesn’t sound demanding, just hopeful. “6:00? That’ll give you plenty of time for your play, surely.”

Carol hesitates. The fact is she has avoided meeting Barbara pretty successfully until now, and has no desire to change that. But then Harge says in a low voice, “Please, Carol. I think… I do think it’s important that you meet her.”

Carol’s mouth goes dry. There’s no mistaking what he means. And right now Barbara is out with Rindy. With Carol’s daughter. How long before this woman thinks of Rindy as her own daughter? Yes, Carol will have to go to dinner. If for no other reason than to handle the unpleasant business of asserting her claim. Harge can marry this Barbara and give her as many children as she wants—but not Rindy.

“All right,” she says on a sigh, rubbing her forehead. “Friday, then.”

Harge’s voice is almost comically relieved. “Thank you,” he says.

Carol can’t remember the last time he thanked her for anything.

“I’ve got to run,” Carol tells him.

“Oh course, of course. I’ll have Rindy over tomorrow evening. 6:00 o’clock?”

“That’s fine.”

Carol hangs up. Then she just sits there, on the side of the bed, rubbing her forehead and thinking. When a hand touches the small of her back, she jumps a little—then remembers. Looking over her shoulder, she sees Therese has woken up, and is looking at her tentatively, as if she’s not certain her touch is wanted. Carol hates that.  

“Are you all right?” Therese asks, also tentative. Her voice is scratchy from sleep, her hair in disarray, her eye makeup smudged. She looks incredible.

Carol smiles at her, but for once she doesn’t try to make her smile a mask, doesn’t try to hide what she’s feeling.  

“That was Harge,” she explains. Therese leverages herself up on one elbow, head balanced in an open palm as she listens. “I think he’s planning to get remarried. He wants me to meet the future stepmother.”

Carol’s tone is droll, and grim. Therese, still with that hand on the small of Carol’s back, strokes gently. Carol lets out a sigh and turns her body back around, climbing in beside Therese. Facing each other again, they lie in silence for several moments, just looking at each other.

“What are you afraid of?” Therese asks.

A deep breath. Carol lets it out. She says, “Harge loves Rindy, and he’s always been rather… weak when it comes to love. I think if the new woman convinced him that Rindy was better off with them full time, he’d cave. There’s only so much I can do to prove that I deserve joint custody. And at the end of the day, he’s her father. He can have whatever he wants, if he wants it. The courts will always come down on his side.”

Another long silence between them. Then, quietly, Therese tells her, “I understand, you know.” Carol frowns in confusion. “I understand, why you’ve chosen not to pursue any kind of relationship. With me or anyone. I can see how dangerous it is to you, how easily you might be exposed. Last night… you said a lot of things. If you can’t stand by them now, in the light of day, I just want you to know that I—”

Carol doesn’t let her finish. She loops an arm around Therese’s small, naked body, and pulls her in. She kisses her. Therese’s lips are a little chapped. Their kiss is slightly sour with sleep. Carol wouldn’t trade it for anything, and when she finally pulls back, Therese looks a little dazed.

“What I said last night didn’t set with the moon,” Carol says. “I want you just as much in the light of day as I did in the darkness. I want you just the same as I have since we met. I’m done pretending otherwise.”

Therese’s cheeks color with pleasure, but she still looks nervous. “Are you sure? What about—”

“We have to be careful,” Carol concedes. “Harge can’t know. But… I want an understanding, between us.”

Therese tips her head to one side. She lifts a hand and strokes the line of Carol’s jaw, with such tenderness that goosebumps slide down Carol’s back. “What understanding is that?” murmurs Therese, just a hint of a tease in her voice.

Carol smiles, pleased. “Well, that you’ll come here as often as I go to yours. That you’ll spend the night, and so will I. That you… won’t sleep with anyone else.”

Therese gives her a fond look. “Carol, I haven’t even looked at anyone else, not since I met you. But, for the record, I’d like that particular understanding to go both ways.”

Carol grins. It makes her so happy to hear this, her face hurts. “Of course.”

“And I—” Therese pauses, looks down. There’s something shy in her now, but after a moment she marshals her courage. “I want Abby to know.” Surprised, Carol frowns, and Therese goes on, “I’ll tell my friends, too. The ones who it’s safe to tell.” She looks up at Carol again, her eyes fierce. “All right?”

Suddenly, Carol understands: Therese doesn’t want them to hide. At least not when they don’t have to. She wants them to be a couple, visible to those who they can trust with the information. And she’s afraid that Carol will balk.

But Carol doesn’t balk. She leans in, kissing her gently again.

“Of course I’ll tell Abby, Dearest,” she says. “I’ll tell her that… you’re my girl. And I’m yours.  Right?”

The term makes Therese light up. She nods, and kisses Carol again. They kiss for long minutes, and soon their passion is rising again, their hands hungry, their sounds hungrier.

Again?” Therese asks, sounding both surprised and delighted.

“Mmmm,” Carol nods into their kiss. “If you think you can keep up.”

“Oh, I can keep up,” says Therese, competitive.

“Well, then. Do your worst.”

Chapter Text

“So,” says Gen. “This means what, exactly?”

Therese smiles dryly at her friend. They’re sitting in a café, having coffee and sandwiches on Therese’s lunch break, and Gen has a look on her face of someone trying very hard to show no emotion.

“I suppose it means that she’s my steady.”

Gen blurts a giggle, and Therese can hardly blame her. This is the sort of phrase that teenagers use, and yet is there a better word? Carol is more than her sometimes lover, now. And Carol was the one who had said it first: you’re my girl. 

“Well, gosh, Therese,” says Gen, grinning widely now. “I suppose congratulations are in order.”

“Oh, stop.”

“No, it needs to be said. That woman has a bit of a reputation, you know. They said no one could tame her. And along comes you.”

Therese scowls, though she is not really unhappy. Still, she tells Gen, “Don’t remind me. It was bad enough knowing she had other women while we were just… whatever we were. Now, I find myself feeling terribly jealous at times. I hate that anyone else has touched her. Kissed her. I don’t know what I’ll do if we ever run into Jennifer again.”

“Yuck,” says Gen, making a face. She takes a drink of coffee, then smirks over the rim. “Enough of that, then. Tell me what happened at the party.”

Therese gives her a blank look. Best to play dumb, she supposes. But—

“That face won’t work with me,” Gen says archly. “I saw you go upstairs with her. And then I saw you come back down, and the two of you disappeared fast as anything. Clearly something happened. You looked a bit… frazzled, afterwards.”

Therese blushes scarlet. She doesn’t care what Gen does, she’s not going to tell her what happened in Lou’s bathroom. She can barely think of it herself without turning hot and quivery. Nothing like that had ever happened to her before. And yet she now looks on it as secondary to their time in Carol’s apartment. Even in the beginning, when Therese met Carol and wanted Carol, part of her could never have imagined the two of them in that grand apartment, tangled together like interweaving vines…

“I won’t kiss and tell,” says Therese primly. “But let’s just say Carol was… very good at persuading me to leave with her.”

Gen bounces her knees gleefully, and Therese grins her own gleeful grin. She can’t remember the last time she felt this happy, this energized, this hopeful. It’s only Monday, and already Carol has called her and asked to see her again. That’s quicker than it ever was before. Besides which, Carol isn’t just coming over to her apartment tonight, nor asking Therese over to hers. No, Carol wants to take her to dinner.

Which reminds her.

“Have you ever eaten at the Ritz?”

“A couple of times.”

“I’m meeting Carol there for dinner.”

“Swank!”

“Am I dressed all right for it?”

Gen leans back, taking in Therese’s suit jacket and skirt with a critical eye.

“You look great. Perfect for the Ritz.”

But Therese frets, “I thought maybe I had better go home and change first. We’re not meeting until 7. I have time for it.”

“Do what you like, honey, but remember all she’ll be thinking about is how to get you out of your clothes. It doesn’t really matter what you wear beforehand.”

Therese kicks Gen lightly under the table. Gen cackles, taking a sip of her coffee and asking, “So when are you going to bring her around to meet the gang?”

Therese hesitates. The ‘gang’ Gen refers to is the group of them who tend to frequent the same bars; Paige and Claire and Jodie, and a couple others who come and go. Therese adores them all, but she has an image of Carol socializing with that group of young women, and she feels suddenly uncertain. Carol is older than them. She’s sophisticated. Comes from money. Would she even want to spend time with Therese’s friends? After all, when she and Therese first knew each other, she tried to buy Therese off with a couple of twenty dollar bills. Jodie is a secretary and Paige works a kitchen and Claire is one of the bartenders at The Bag. What if Carol looks down on them? What would Therese do?

“Say, what’s the matter?” asks Gen worriedly. “It’s all right if it’s too soon. Brand new, in fact. I only mention it because Paige talked to her at Lou’s party and said she was really nice.”

Therese feels an almost devastating wash of relief.

“She was?”

Gen’s eyebrows shoot up, “Why wouldn’t she be? Paige is the sweetest thing.”

“No, no, I know. I just meant… Carol is, you know—from a different class than we are. I guess I was a little worried… that...”

She trails off. Gen says nothing at first, but she’s looking at her in a way that Therese thinks means she has had the same thought herself. After all, when Gen learned how Carol treated her at the Christmas party, she was livid. Accused Carol of being a rich snob, and told Therese she was well shot of her. Can that vitriol and suspicion have really faded away, just because Therese has been sleeping with her? More than once Therese has suspected that Gen views the relationship as unequal, or thought Carol was only using Therese for sex. And now—does she feel differently?

Gen says, “Well, I always say you can tell a woman’s character by how she reacts to you making a pass at her. And Paige chatted her up pretty sweet on Saturday, and says she was a real lady about it.”

Therese’s eyes widen. “Paige chatted her up?” 

“Yeah. Unsuccessfully, of course.”

Therese scowls anyway. Just the thought of anyone flirting with Carol but her is nauseating. Gen laughs. “Don’t be like that. Paige chats up everyone. Anyway, the point is that if she thought she was too good for our sort, Paige didn’t get the slightest sign of it. Not that I think you should let your guard down, of course. Unless you’re hoping to ride those coattails to Madison Avenue.”

Gen’s words are said flippantly, but there’s an undercurrent to them, a bite, that startles Therese. She looks at her friend in surprise and concern, made worse when Gen avoids eye contact, focused on her sandwich. Gen, a secretary by day and amateur actress by night, knows how to hide things she doesn’t want you to see; which means that she wants Therese to see this.

“Gen,” says Therese gently. “Please… tell me you don’t think that’s what I’m doing.”

Gen sighs. Perhaps if Therese had responded angrily, her friend would have held on to this cold front, but Therese’s softness has a warming effect. Gen looks at her again, seeming cowed, “Honey, of course I don’t. Just… I want you to be careful. And I don’t want to lose you. I’ve seen this sort of thing happen before. When someone like us takes up with someone like her, it’s not long before she’s living a completely different life. A life with no room for her friends.”

“Well,” says Therese firmly. “It won’t be like that for me. I’m not going anywhere.”

“All right,” Gen looks a little doubtful, but not like she wants to argue the point. She nods and repeats. “All right. So… let’s talk more about this date of yours, and what you’ll be wearing.”

Therese, relieved to be moving on, says brightly. “Yes, I was just thinking—what about that red skirt with the—”

“Actually, that’s not what I meant,” says Gen primly, lifting her coffee cup to her lips. Therese looks at her in confusion, and Gen’s eyes glitter, lips curving in amusement, “I was talking about whatever you’re going to wear… underneath.”

<><><> 

Carol is waiting for her at the Ritz, a sunny smile and the loveliest maroon dress with a scoop neck collar. Her throat, even ten feet away, looks delicious. Therese is very careful not to blush, and joins her at the table in the center of the dining room. They’re in full view of the rest of the diners, but the distance between tables is discrete enough to give them a modicum of privacy. Therese sits, smiling.

“Why hello,” says Carol.

Therese’s smile edges into a bashful grin as she adjusts her seat. “Hello.”

“And how are you?”

“I’m very well, thank you.”

“I don’t think I’ve seen that dress before,” Carol observes, eyes sliding down Therese’s body, taking in the blue dress with a covetous smirk before meeting her eyes again. “You look very fine.”

Once again Therese has to concentrate on not blushing. She’s a little unmoored. Carol has always had a profound effect on her, but over the past few weeks she’s always been able to hold her own against the charms of the older woman. Perhaps it was their pretense of a casual affair. Acting unaffected was just part of acting like someone who wasn’t helplessly invested. Now that the act has dropped, she feels incapable of hiding her feelings. It seems… dangerous.

She answers, “So do you. That dress is very lovely on you.”

“This old thing?” drawls Carol, and turns a sudden, beaming smile on their waiter.

“Good evening, ladies. Here are your menus. May I start you off with something to drink?”

“I’ll have a dry martini, with an olive,” says Carol.

The waiter looks at Therese expectantly. “I’d like a glass of claret.”

“Very good, miss. I’ll leave you to peruse our menu. Tonight’s special is a lobster thermidor with greens. We also have a very nice filet mignon that would pair nicely with your wine, miss. Please let me know if you have any questions.”

He drifts away. Therese looks at the menu, taking note of the prices with some astonishment. One meal here would mean going hungry the rest of the week. Therese gnaws on her bottom lip, considering if it would be rude to just order the soup, when Carol says her name. She looks up, and realizes that her anxiety must be on her face. Carol looks at her in a gentle way that makes her heart flutter.

“I thought perhaps you’d let me treat you, tonight,” Carol says.

Therese flushes, both moved and embarrassed. “You don’t have to do that,” she says.

Carol regards her for a long moment, gray eyes avid, lips pursed. After a moment she asks, “If a man invited you to dinner, he would pay, wouldn’t he?”

Therese hesitates. Richard never took her to places as fine as this, but—

“Yes, I suppose.”

“Well, then. I asked you to dinner. As my date. Let’s observe the social niceties and have no more fuss about it.”

Therese considers this, not sure if she feels relieved or only more unnerved. It’s a strange sensation. But though Carol is affecting a light and cheerful tone, there’s something soulful in her eyes, and Therese realizes all at once how important this is, to Carol. Not wanting to be mulish, she finally smiles—and makes sure to thread it with flirtation.

“I’m not sure the time we’ve spent together has ever had much to do with social niceties.”

Carol pinks, but maintains her composure, retorting, “But it’s a new day, Darling. Now I’m not content to only have you in the dark. I want you in the light, as well.”

This time it’s Therese who blushes, startled and pleased. “All right,” she says finally. “Since you’re so persuasive.”

Carol’s twinkling eyes are the same as a released breath, tension bleeding out of both of them.

After that, it all goes rather beautifully. Carol orders the lobster and Therese the steak, and the claret is delicious, warming Therese’s blood and loosening her nerves. They talk of their days, the work they do and the men they work for, exchanging little Barbaras that have them both grinning. Therese, though she does not want to talk about Jennifer, bucks up the courage to ask if there has been any awkwardness with Andrew since Lou’s party. Carol grins.

“No, thank God. I do think when it comes to that marital unit, I got involved with the wrong one. Andrew is a saint and a dear, and very discreet, it turns out. Too bad he’s not a woman.”

But she says it with a teasing lilt, eyes flicking up and down Therese’s body again, and Therese knows: Carol wouldn’t care if Andrew was a woman, or if any other woman walked into her orbit right now. Carol has eyes only for her. It is intoxicating to be at the center of that regard. Intoxicating, and reciprocated.

“What about you?” Carol asks. “Any awkwardness since the party?”

Skating around it though they are, they both know their tryst at the Church was risky and ill-mannered, and that they’re lucky no one caught them. But Therese feels not an ounce of regret, and she knows Carol doesn’t either.

“None at all,” says Therese. Then, reconsidering, “Well, my friend Gen wants to meet you.”

Carol has just lit a cigarette. She drags on the tip and blows the smoke coolly over their heads, eyes never leaving Therese. “Does she, now?”

“Yes, she wants you to meet the whole gang, in fact. Though I think you already know Paige.”

Carol grins. “What a lovely gent she was. I didn’t know you were friends.”

“Yes, not close, but—”

“But you’re still close, with Gen?”

There’s no misunderstanding the undercurrent of Carol’s question.

Therese says, “Yes. Just as you’re close with Abby, right?”

Therese hadn’t planned for their first date to consist of subtly interrogating each other over exes, but she must admit there’s something arousing in the glitter of Carol’s eyes, in the idea that Carol is jealous of Gen. And there is nothing more arousing to her than the idea that, whatever Carol’s past affairs, she is hers now.

“Abby is my best friend,” says Carol easily. And then, voice dropping lower. “We were lovers, but only for a few months. Sweet months. But I couldn’t sustain it. I was still married and wanted to try to make things work with Harge, so I ended it.” She pauses, considering, and her voice holds a hint of melancholy. “Abby says it’s no one’s fault. But it was certainly mine, if anyone’s.”

Therese considers this, bucks up her courage, and asks, “Why didn’t you try again? After things ended with Harge?”

Carol gives her a startled look, as if it never occurred to her that Therese would ask such a thing. Then, looking slightly embarrassed, she says, “Because I didn’t love her. Not that way. And it seemed too big a risk to take for someone I didn’t love.”

Therese’s stomach knots; her heart starts pounding. She thinks, You’re taking that risk now. Does that mean—

But Carol goes on, suddenly brisk, “Anyway, she’s far better off with Lou. I can’t imagine a sweeter pairing, though they are so different. And what about Gen? Is she seeing anyone?”

The speed of the subject change leaves Therese a little disoriented, as does that calculating look in Carol’s eye. She shakes her head. “Not at the moment, no.”

“She’s very pretty,” Carol observes. “Very au courant. I wonder that no one has snatched her up.”

Therese can’t help smirking at this. “That’s a bit of the pot calling the kettle black,” she remarks.

Carol huffs, but in amusement. She says, “What makes you think no one has tried to snatch me up?”

“Nothing makes me think that,” Therese replies. “After all, I’ve been trying to snatch you up since I met you.”

A soft laugh. “Your persistence appears to have paid off.”

Therese lifts her wine, swallowing the last mouthful, eyes never leaving Carol’s. “I hope so.”

They look at each other in silence for a long moment, both smiling faintly, Carol’s eyes twinkling. When Carol’s foot grazes her calf under the table, it’s quick. Anyone who saw it from the outside would mistake it for an accident. But Therese feels the pressure all the way through her body.

“I want to take you home,” Therese tells her.

Carol averts her eyes, but she has gone a little pink, and it’s so enchanting, so youthful, that Therese has to fight not to grin with wolfish satisfaction.

“We haven’t even had dessert yet, Darling.”

“I’m happy to manage that part of the evening.”

Carol blushes brighter, looks up at her again, eyes smoky with arousal—but then she appears to see something behind Therese, and her expression flattens.

“Oh, no.”

Therese frowns. “What is it?”

Carol shakes her head, and then all at once her face has transformed. Become a bright smile and she is talking past Therese, saying, “Jeanette!”

Therese turns to find a middle-aged couple approaching them. The wife is beaming; the husband looks pinched and irritable. Carol half-rises from her chair and she and the woman, Jeanette, embrace, air kissing.

“Carol, how good to see you!” cries Jeanette, and when Carol has sat again she turns to Therese. “Hello!”

“Therese, let me introduce Jeanette and Cy Harrison,” Carol explains, still wearing that bright expression, that wide smile, that Therese knows inherently to be false. “Cy, Jeanette, this is Therese Belivet, a dear friend of mine.”

Jeanette is quick to hold out a hand, to shake and say warmly, “So nice to meet you, Therese.”

Cy Harrison’s greeting is surly; he looks Therese over like he’s assessing her social class. He probably is. Therese holds his stare and then smiles at Jeanette again, “Nice to meet you, as well.”

“Cy is an old work acquaintance of Harge’s,” Carol explains.

Ah.

“Not anymore, though,” says Jeanette cheerfully. “Cy is a consultant for the ABA now. And what do you do, Therese?”

“I’m a photographer, at The Times.”

“The Times, how exciting! Cy and I read The Times every morning, don’t we, Cy?”

“Half of it’s drivel,” Cy replies. His assessing look has moved from Therese to Carol. He says, “Harge and I still play golf at the club, of course.”

There’s a beat of silence. Carol’s smile never falters, and Jeanette finally trills with laughter. Therese can’t tell if Cy’s words are a threat or not, or what the threat would be.

“And how is that short game of yours, Cy?” Carol asks easily. “Still clobbering Harge, I’m sure? He never had the patience for golf.”

“He’s a fine player,” says Cy. “A fine man.”

“Yes, agreed. But where are my manners? Would you like to sit?”

Therese’s stomach plummets, but while Jeanette looks ready to pull up a chair, Cy Harrison gruffly responds, “Oh, no. We won’t interrupt your dinner.”

Jeanette, though disappointed, puts on a pleasant face. She says, “Carol, let’s have coffee, soon. I’m dying to hear all about Rindy.”

Carol gives Jeanette a look of genuine warmth, smiling and saying, “Yes, of course. I’ll call you.”

“And so nice to meet you, Ms. Belivet!” Jeanette insists, grasping Therese’s hand again.

There’s not a hint of artifice in her. Mr. Harrison, on the other hand, doesn’t even acknowledge Therese, reserving his goodbye for Carol, to whom he says, “Good night, Ms. Ross.”

The name feels like an indictment. He leads his wife away, into another corner of the Ritz. Out of sight. As soon as they are gone, Carol’s smile vanishes. She looks suddenly pale and angry.

“Does he—” Therese hesitates, unnerved by Carol’s faraway expression, “Does he… know?” 

Carol snaps back into the present, shaking her head grimly. “No. Harge would have been too humiliated to tell anyone. That little performance was more about signaling whose side he’s on, and what kind of woman he thinks I am. He’ll be sure to tell Harge he saw me.”

Therese swallows, unnerved. She asks, “Will Harge suspect?”  

Carol considers this for long moments of tense silence, finally answering, “He might. Most likely he won’t. He knows I have many friends. I’m sure it’s fine. Harrison probably won’t even remember you; he’ll be focused on the indecency of a divorced woman out in the world without a chaperone.”

Therese glances the way that the Harrisons went, muttering, “What a boor.”

Carol chuckles, though it sounds a little strained. “Yes, he always was, in fact. Which is unfortunate as Jeanette is so lovely. Let’s not talk about them anymore, Dearest. I don’t want to ruin our evening.”

“Nothing is ruined.”

“No?”

“No,” and Therese smiles at her, gently, to tell her it’s true. Carol still looks a bit uncertain, so Therese says teasingly, “At least it wasn’t one of your admirers, come to flirt with you in front of me.”

At that, Carol laughs, her worst tension bleeding away. Her smile is dazzling as she asks, “Oh? And what would you have done?”

“Been very gruff and threatening, I’m sure,” Therese jokes.

Carol laughs again, but then some of the seriousness returns to her expression. “Are you very possessive?” she asks.

When it comes to you? Yes! But Therese answers, “I’m not sure. Are you?” 

“Oh, certainly,” Carol affirms. “Women with children are always possessive creatures. We want what is ours because nothing is ours. And I suppose, with Abby, I hated to think of anyone else wanting her. That was possessiveness. Then of course I didn’t like it when Jennifer spoke to you. But oh, Therese, can we try not to be possessive of each other?”

Therese’s eyebrows lift. “Of course. But why?” 

“Oh, just,” Carol makes a gesture, dismissive but a little agitated. “Harge was always so possessive. So… controlling. I’d hate to think I could be like that with someone else. Treating a person as if I owned them. I don’t want to own you, Dearest, do you understand?”

Therese gives her a gentle look. “I don’t want to own you, either.”

They look at each other for long moments, and Therese can see that the stress of encountering the Harrisons has not left her, and that talking of this, of Harge, of controlling relationships, has made her antsy. Yet her next question breathes with a different tension altogether, “What do you want, Therese?”

Therese has never been more certain of what a woman wants to hear.

“Right now?” she asks. “You.”

Carol swallows, unblinking. She puts out her cigarette and toys rather anxiously at the band of her wristwatch, asking, “Where?”

Therese considers. Thinks of that big bed on Madison Avenue, and of the courage Carol has shown in letting her into her home. But tonight…

“My apartment,” she says. “Now. If you’re free, that is.”

Carol chuckles, lifts a hand, signaling the waiter. “Oh, Darling,” she says. “I am completely free.”

Chapter Text

Therese is restless, when they get back to her apartment. Carol can’t help but wonder at it. She was quiet in the car, quiet and a little distracted, and Carol worries that she’s done something. Cy’s unpleasantness aside, their dinner was lovely, even lovelier than Carol hoped. She was a little afraid that there would be awkwardness between them, that the easy conversation they’ve always found together was a consequence of post-coital relaxation, and might not repeat itself without sex. But she was wrong. Talking with Therese, being with Therese—it was still perfectly easy.

So why does Therese seem distant now? They reach her apartment, walking up the stairs together in silence. Once inside, Therese takes off her shoes and hangs up her coat, and so does Carol. Carol watches her young lover walk into the kitchen, and follows her cautiously. Therese takes a bottle of brandy out of the cupboard, and two glasses, and pours them each a measure.

“Carol,” she says, sounding deeply contemplative as she hands over one of the glasses.

Carol accepts it, sips. “Yes, Darling?”

A pause, then, “Is it always wrong, do you think, to be possessive?”

This was… not what Carol expected. In surprise, she frowns, watching Therese take a drink of her own brandy, wincing a little as she always does when she drinks hard liquor. It’s adorable.

“Always? I don’t know. What do you mean?”

“Just that,” Therese pauses, looking as if she doesn’t know how to say it. She’s blushing a little, and that surprises Carol, too. What has her so unsettled? Therese finally goes on, “Well, I would never want to control you, Carol. Never. And I would never want you to think that I see you as some… possession, something to be hoarded and treated like a—like a trophy. Richard did that sometimes, when we were together, and I hated it. Hated to think that he was telling all his friends I belonged to him. I won’t do that to you.”

Carol pauses. “All right.”

“But there are times,” Therese’s eyes suddenly flash to hers, and the emotion and intensity of them makes Carol’s breath catch, “when I do feel possessive of you, Carol. And there are times when I want to possess you.”

Carol swallows. Arousal is beginning to spread its warm fingers through her.

“I feel the same way.”

Therese’s eyes glitter. “You do?”

Carol breathes in slowly, and lets it out. “Oh, yes.”

They gaze at each other for several long moments, and then Therese is reaching for Carol’s brandy, and placing both their tumblers on the counter. She comes back with hands outstretched, wrapping them around Carol’s waist. Carol goes gladly, shivering as Therese noses up under her jaw.

“The first time I saw you,” Therese murmurs, “… I wanted you so much.”

Carol sighs, a blissful sound, arching her neck to give her young lover more room.

“I thought about all kinds of ways that I wanted you.” Therese squeezes her waist. Kisses her behind her ear. “Carol, can we try something different tonight? Something I’ve wanted?”

Carol does not hesitate. “Yes.”

Therese leads her into her bedroom. She moves slowly, quietly, but with a banked intensity in every gesture. She takes off Carol’s clothes slowly, and when she is naked she coaxes her to lay down on the bed. Carol obeys, and watches hungrily as Therese begins to take off her own clothes, until she is naked as well. God, she’s beautiful. Then Therese goes to her closet, rummaging in the back of it. When she emerges, she holds something in her hand. The sight makes Carol’s mouth go dry.

“Have you ever?” asks Therese gently.

Carol sucks her bottom lip into her mouth, then releases it with a pop, nodding.

Therese’s voice is velvet, dragging across her skin, pulling her nipples into aching points— “Do you like it?”

Carol nods again, eyes glommed on to the two articles, the harness, and the toy; the suppleness of the former, the curve and girth of the latter. Then a thought occurs to her. She meets Therese’s eyes.

“Which one of us… did you want to…?”

At that Therese smiles, and there is something so cool and sinful in the curve of that delicious mouth that Carol barely refrains from whimpering.

“I should think that would be obvious,” Therese says. “I’m feeling possessive, remember?”

This time Carol does whimper, just a tiny catch in the back of her throat. She watches, overcome, as Therese proceeds to pull the straps of the toy up her slim legs, tightening them on her hips, movements practiced in a way that makes Carol both ravenous, and slightly jealous. Who has she done this with? Who has taught her how to do this? Next, Therese fits the dildo into place, running a hand down the length of it in a way that is almost cruelly provocative. She approaches, slow and focused, eyes never leaving Carol, who is so aroused she feels faint.

“There’s something in the bedside table,” Therese tells her.

Sensing the order, Carol leans over to open the drawer. She finds what she’s looking for quickly, a little jar of lubricant, that they have used once or twice in their most robust escapades. Carol unscrews the bottle just as Therese climbs onto the bed, straddling her thighs. The look of question she offers Therese is met by a little nod toward the shaft between her legs, and with galloping excitement Carol dips her fingers into the jar. Running the slick lubricant between three fingers, she proceeds to slather it upon the toy, gathering it into her fist and pumping up, down, twice.

On the downstroke, Therese makes a little noise, and Carol realizes that her movements are pushing the base of the toy into Therese’s mons, against her clit. Their eyes lock. Carol strokes again. And again. And again. Therese’s hips start shifting restlessly. Her eyes grow glassy, full of arousal as she twitches toward the pressure Carol gives her.

“Fuck,” Carol whispers.

With Harge, sex was always so rudimentary. She rarely touched him except to guide him inside her. With her high school boyfriend, it was all awkward fumbling in the back seat of a car. Carol wouldn’t say she ever learned how to give a proper hand job. Yet now, Therese looming over her, Therese’s breasts tight and pink, her eyes like emeralds fiercely glinting, she wants nothing more than to give the best hand job any woman has ever given in her life.

It seems to work. Therese is panting. Carol can hardly contain herself.

“Angel,” she groans. “You’re incredible.”

This time her downstroke comes with a tight grind, wanting to give more friction. Therese gasps, hand dropping down to Carol’s wrist, to stop her. Carol frowns, displeased.

“Let me,” she begs. “Darling, let me—”

“No,” Therese shakes her head, guiding Carol’s hand away from the toy. “No, you’re too good at that. I’m trying to focus.”

“But Dearest—”

“Don’t you want me to fuck you, Carol?”  

Carol’s jaw drops. Heat blazes outward from her pelvis, unfurling down her thighs and up into her breasts, like vines of pleasure. She grabs Therese’s hips, squeezing, careless of the stickiness of her hand. Soon they’ll be sticky everywhere, slick with sweat and cum, and Carol can’t wait.

Therese climbs off her thighs, coaxing them apart so she can kneel between them. She’s a woman with a plan, and Carol barely has time to process this before Therese is grabbing her by the hips, coaxing them up so that her body rests on the tops of Therese’s thighs, a sharp angle. Then Therese fits the head of the dildo against her opening, and starts to slide into her.

Carol keens, head tipping back, eyes slamming shut. Fuck it feels so good. Therese’s pace is slow, but inexorable, and within moments she is buried to the hilt. This position has Carol’s lower back lifted off the bed, and, needing leverage, Carol plants her feet either side of Therese’s bent knees, pushing her hips forward. Exquisite pressure spears through her. She grabs at the blanket beneath them. She makes a whiny, wanton sound, too overcome to be ashamed, and forces her eyes open. Therese is staring down at her with a look that is best described as feral. She grabs Carol’s thighs, and starts stroking into her.

This position, this angle—it’s not what Carol is used to. Not what she did with Harge. Not what she’s done with women. It has the overwhelming effect of making Therese seem huge above her, huge and powerful, her small body in complete control, yanking Carol forward by her hips, bottoming out on every thrust. 

“God, Carol,” Therese groans. “You’re so gorgeous. Touch your breasts. Please? Touch them.”

Carol is helpless to refuse. Not since her first female lover has Carol experienced the heady relief and joy of submission, of letting her body be moved and taken and held. Not even Abby could command her like this. And that it should be Therese, sweet and pretty as a doll, quiet and lovely as a lamb, who makes her react with such devastating helplessness—how is it possible? But it is, and without hesitation Carol reaches for her own breasts, plucking at her nipples as she keep her hips elevated. Every slide of the toy makes her weak with pleasure; every punching thrust and dragging withdrawal makes her feel almost woozy. It’s rough, and hard, and somehow, incongruously, gentle. Therese moves her with aggression, but Therese’s touch is tender.

Because Therese would never hurt her. Carol knows it with certainty. Her body is safe, with Therese. She is safe, with Therese.

The realization, little surprise though it should be, makes something deep and sensitive open up in Carol’s body. The toy is moving at a perfect angle, grazing the front wall of her cunt with every stroke, and that pressure, combined with her emotional reaction, makes her start trembling.

“Oh, Angel,” she gasps, “Oh—oh—”

“Are you close?” Therese asks.

Carol gasps, shudders, says, “Yes—yes—”

To her utter shock, Therese stops.

In dismay, Carol looks up at her, eyes wide, beseeching. “What—why—”

“Not yet,” Therese tells her, her own breaths ragged, her eyes so dark they’re practically black. “I’m not ready for you to come yet.”

She pulls out. The loss of the toy is devastating, but Carol’s whine of objection receives a playful pinch to the hip. “No sulking,” Therese laughs. “Here, lie on your side.”

Helpless, Carol obeys. Therese spoons her, biting her between her shoulder blades as she lifts one of Carol’s thighs, giving herself room to—

“Fuck—fuck!” Carol sobs, pushing her face into the mattress as the toy thrusts into her again. A new position. A new angle. A new—new everything! “Darling,” she gasps. “Oh—oh, God!”

“Do you like it?”

“Yes, God, yes!”

Therese is not thrusting in the long strokes she used before, but twitching her hips into Carol’s body, sharp little nudges of the toy in Carol’s sex. It’s exquisite. Devastating. So good it burns through her. She doesn’t think she can come, not in this position, but it doesn’t matter because it just… feels… so… good!

“Where did you—” she chokes on a cry. “God, where did you learn this?”

Therese’s chuckle is devious. “Do you really want to know?”

“I—I—”

“From a book.”

“A—a book?”

“A very dirty book.”

“Oh, God, you naughty thing.”

Therese laughs again, an arm slipping forward over Carol belly, using it to pull her back into her thrusts. Carol, her body hot and damp, her limbs trembling, admits, “I thought—I thought, maybe, with a woman—”

“Not like this,” Therese is quick to reassure her, and it is a reassurance. It fills Carol with joy, deepened when her beautiful lover adds, “It’s only been you, like this.”

Carol whimpers, “Darling… darling…”

“Can you come?”

“I—I don’t know. I—God, it’s so good, but—”

Therese’s hand slides down, forcing its way between Carol’s clenched thighs, landing on her clit. There’s no room for delicacy or finesse. Therese rubs her, firm and unrelenting. Carol jerks. She wasn’t expecting it. Wasn’t expecting how it would feel, this firm pressure complementing the little twitching thrusts inside her. Her lover’s stamina is breathtaking. Whole minutes get eaten up in the push and pull, the thrust and grind, til she feels delirious, dripping sweat and wanting so badly to come. So badly. She just—she can’t quite—

“Here,” Therese says, moving her own hand to reach for Carol’s, to replace it between Carol’s thighs. “Touch yourself.”

Carol makes a sound, half desperate, half hesitant.

“Go on,” Therese goads her. “Show me what you need.”

Carol isn’t used to this. At least, not to doing it with someone else. But she’s so far gone, so needy and so tightly wound. The first graze of her own fingertips makes her clench and shudder, the toy inside feeling impossibly deep, impossibly big. But she needs—

“Wait,” her voice is breathless to her own ears, breathless and ragged, and she would be embarrassed except— “Can we—I want to—”

She doesn’t know how to say it, so instead she moves. It’s torture to pull herself off the toy, but a brief torture, as she rolls the opposite way and then coaxes Therese onto her back, rising up over her. Therese’s eyes widen in amazement, in understanding, just before she grabs her hips and helps her to straddle her. Therese guides the toy back inside. It goes so deep. It’s so hard.

“Need to see you,” Carol pants. “Need to look at you.”

“Yes.” Now Therese is the one who sounds overcome, her chest heaving with excited breaths, her fingers digging into Carol’s hips. “Yes.”

As soon as Carol starts to move, lifting up and sinking down again, she knows that it won’t take long. Oh God, it won’t take long at all. Not when Therese is lifting up into her, setting a pace even from below that keeps their power dynamic firmly in check. Therese slides her hands up, cupping Carol’s breasts, squeezing and plucking as she murmurs her name. Carol puts her fingers back between her legs, finding the hard and swollen point of her clitoris and touching herself exactly how she likes. Exactly how she would if she were alone. Only she’s not alone. She’s with Therese, and Jesus, but Therese is gorgeous. Gorgeous and commanding and transcendent. More than Carol ever could have hoped.

“Is that good?” Therese asks her, catching her nipples between her fingers, squeezing insistently. Carol can only nod. “Is it what you need?” Another nod, slightly more desperate. “Do you understand now, Carol? Why I get possessive? Why I want you all to myself? No one in the world is as perfect as you.”

Carol shuts her eyes, head rolling back, fingers rolling tighter against her clit. “Oh, Therese—”

“I dreamed of this. Of being with you. Being inside you. And now I am. You’re my girl.” Carol nods desperately. Therese orders her, “Say it.”

Carol squeaks, her pleasure skyrocketing, “I’m—I’m your girl.”

“Yes. And I’m yours. Come for me, Carol. Let me see you come.”

Therese’s command hits her with a brutal accuracy. She rubs harder, rises and sinks faster, meets the punishing lift of Therese’s hips, and all at once she’s crying out. A shockwave goes through her cunt. She freezes, thighs locking in place as she starts to pulse. It’s so intense. It’s so sweet, like a thousand brandies, a thousand sunrises, a thousand lazy stretches in the morning light. It’s beyond simile or metaphor. It’s just… good. It’s so good, and Carol realizes in a daze that she is telling Therese as much, that she is babbling her pleasure, her gratitude, her need. And Therse is answering— “Yes, that’s it, don’t stop” and Carol is obeying, is moving again, is thrusting hard into Therese’s thrusts, into her own hand, until with a shout she comes again, right on the tail end of the first release.

She collapses forward, practically shoving her face into Therese’s neck in her need for closeness, for comfort. She is utterly and completely spent.

Therese soothes her, running hands up and down her spine in slow strokes, murmuring to her how beautiful and perfect she is, and Carol didn’t know—she didn’t know she needed that kind of reassurance. Harge often told her she was beautiful, but it always seemed to be about his pride; she was the most beautiful woman at the party, the most beautiful wife in the office, the most beautiful woman in the room. It was never about her. It was about the service she provided him, in being beautiful.

But this? Therese’s fingers in her hair? Therese’s hand on her lower back? Therese’s whisper in her ear? This is entirely about Carol, and to be beautiful in this way, to be seen as innately beautiful and precious and perfect… well. It makes something new gather in Carol’s chest, something she has felt inklings of before, but never come so close to recognizing. Articulating. Now, the realization of what it is makes her stomach flip.

Therese asks, “Are you all right?” and Carol realizes that she hasn’t said anything for minutes, has just been breathing and feeling. “It wasn’t too much, was it?”

“Oh, Darling,” Carol’s laugh is low and drunken. Whatever she is realizing, however it may wake a curl of anxiety in her, the aftereffects of her release are too potent to be spoiled by a little bit of fear. She sits up, looking down at Therese and beaming. “It was perfect,” she says.

Therese’s dimples appear like magic. Her hands land on Carol’s waist, squeezing. A naughty eyebrow hikes high.

“Want to go again?”

Carol blurts a laugh, but then lowers her head to take Therese in a deep, consuming kiss. After a few moments she pulls back, saying in a voice still gravelly with pleasure, “I have a better idea.” Therese raises an inquiring eyebrow, and Carol whispers in her ear, “How about we trade places?”

Chapter Text

She calls Carol on a Thursday evening, just after getting home from work. Her palms are sweating, and her stomach roils nervously. This is the first time in their entire relationship that Therese has called Carol.

Lou’s party was over two weeks ago, and in the interim they have seen each other almost every third day, whenever Carol doesn’t have Rindy. It’s been bliss. Lunch and dinner dates. Movies at the local theater. Nights in one or the other’s bed, sharing that passion that has been theirs from the beginning, deep as ocean currents, intoxicating as wine.

And yet, in all of that, Therese has never called her. Has never needed to. Carol always does it first, or they make plans while they’re saying goodbye. It’s not as though Carol has time to chat while she has Rindy. It’s not as though Therese is so addicted to her already that she would drop everything to stay on the phone with her for hours…

Therese shakes herself. She dials the number, and holds the phone to her ear, swallowing.

It rings several times, and then—

“Hello?”

Carol sounds a little breathless, a little distracted. She sounds like a mother who is trying to hold down the house. Therese feels a wave of guilt. She shouldn’t have called. Shouldn’t have bothered her. It—

“Hello?” Carol repeats.

“I—uh—hi—”

Instantly, Carol’s tone relaxes, becomes low and pleased. “Well, hello.”

Therese blushes, pushing her bangs out of her face as if Carol is there to see how unkempt she looks in this moment. Mindlessly she repeats, “Hi.”

Carol’s chuckle is low and silky. “How are you?”

“I’m—I’m fine. I’m good.”

Actually, she’s not. It was another wretched day at the office. Her most recent project went off perfectly, and one of her photos was on the front page, a striking image of Mayor Wagner leaving city hall after debate over a new ordinance. She was certain that this would be her ticket to newer, better assignments. But her boss gave her Lifestyle again. Tomorrow she has to go to a country club in Jersey to photograph the rich wives of local business tycoons. It will be tedious and difficult (such women are always difficult, when it comes to having their pictures taken) and it will further cement everyone’s opinion that this is the only work she’s fit to do.

After such a disappointment, all she has wanted is to see Carol, talk to Carol, touch Carol. It surprises her a little, the intensity of her longing, of the ache in her chest that is her loneliness for her lover. At first she had pushed it aside, treated it as a sign of foolishness, a wish for something she couldn’t have. Then she remembered, all in a rush: Carol is her girl. Carol said so. They aren’t just engaging in secretive trysts anymore. They are together. Which means that Therese has as much right as anyone to call her lover and see—

“I was—” she stumbles, “I was, um, just wondering. That is—are you terribly busy?”

There’s a beat of silence, telling, and terrible. Therese rushes to backtrack. “I’m sorry. Nevermind. It was—it was just a thought, I’m sure you—”

“Therese,” Carol interrupts, firm, but with a little laugh. “Darling, please. Don’t apologize. I’m so glad you called.”

Therese lets out her breath, daring to smile. “You are?”

“Of course I am. And I’d love to see you, it’s just—well, I’ve had an impromptu houseguest. Harge brought her over half an hour ago.”

Rindy. It’s not Carol’s night, so this must have been very impromptu indeed. Therese wrestles her disappointment, trying to be happy that Carol gets extra time with her daughter, even if it means—

“Oh… Well, that’s all right, Carol, I understand…”

She trails off. Carol asks, with concern in her voice, “Darling, are you all right? You sound very tired.”

To Therese’s mortification, tears prick her eyes. She had so wanted to see Carol tonight. Had needed it in a way. But she tries not to show this, saying flippantly, “Oh, yes, I’m fine. Long day, that’s all.”

But Carol sees right through it. “Was your boss awful to you again?”

She sounds stern and angry, like she’s debating some kind of retaliation. Therese’s eyes burn hotter. “Just the same guff,” she says, trying to underplay it.

For a moment neither of them says anything. And then—

“Why don’t you come over?” Carol asks.

Therese’s jaw actually drops, right there in her living room. For a moment she can’t think what to say. Then, stumbling again— “I should—I—what?”

“Yes, come for dinner,” Carol insists.

Therese hesitates again. This is something they have not discussed explicitly, but which she had assumed was understood between them—that Therese and Rindy’s paths would not cross. Too risky. Too reckless. Especially if she is only offering it because she is worried about Therese.

“I—it’s all right, Carol. I’m perfectly all right. I’ll just have dinner and go to bed. I’m so exhausted—”

“But I want you to come,” Carol replies, as easily as if this isn’t a tremendous step to be taking.

And yet, Therese is too weak to keep saying no.  

“Are you sure?” she asks, tentative and doubtful.  

Carol’s voice becomes a low and soothing lilt, “Darling, of course I’m sure. We will have to behave a little differently than we’re used to, of course, but—well, Rindy has met my friends before. I want her to know who you are, even if she can’t know what you are, to me. It’s not everything I want but… it’s a compromise worth making, don’t you think?”

Therese’s heart melts, even as her nerves continue to flutter. Then, finally, she answers, “Yes, I… I suppose it is.”

And in the end, how could Therese possibly say no to her?

<><><> 

Rindy turns out to be an angelic miniature of her mother, but with blue eyes instead of gray. She is six-years-old, a proper little lady, all bouncing golden curls and mischievous smile. She takes to Therese right away.

“I want my hair cut like Therese’s,” she declares at dinner, the three of them sat around the table.

“She does have lovely hair, doesn’t she?” Carol remarks, her gorgeous mouth smiling in a way that makes Therese feel fluttery. “But I think you may be a bit young for that style.”

“I’m not Mommy, I am perfectly old enough.”

“Are you indeed?”

“And I like your dress, too, Therese. I like green.”

“Thank you,” Therese smiles, glancing at Carol again. Carol responds with a little wink, her eyes twinkling with amusement and pride. It takes all Therese’s concentration not to blush. To Rindy she asks, “Have you got a green dress?”

Rindy looks quizzically at her mother, and Carol nods, “You have, sweetpea, remember? The one with the little white muff that you wore at Christmas time.”

“Oh,” says Rindy, though she doesn’t seem particularly impressed. She pushes food around on her plate for a moment, thinking, before she asks, “Therese, have you got a husband?”

Therese very carefully swallows her mouthful. “I—no.”

Rindy takes this magnanimously, but then—

“Have you got a boyfriend?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Rindy, it’s not polite to ask such questions,” Carol reproves.

She looks a little flushed around the collar. Therese knows this is serious, but she can’t help her amusement. She folds her hands on the table and leans conspiratorially toward Rindy. “Well,” she says. “I suppose I just don’t like any of the boys like that.”  

This clearly makes no sense to Rindy, who replies, “When I have a boyfriend, he’ll be ever-so-handsome, and have dark hair and a red cape, just like the prince in Snow White. Or a yellow jacket, like the prince in Cinderella. And I will wear blue, because the blonde princess must always wear blue, and I’ve got blonde hair, like Mommy.”

“You have indeed,” Therese nods. She herself never had much interest in the princes in storybooks, but of course little girls like Rindy must play princess all the time. Therese chances a look at Carol, who is watching her daughter with a vaguely melancholy look. Therese tries to change the subject. “And what would you like to be when you grow up, Rindy?”

“I’m going to get married and be a mommy, like Mommy,” Rindy declares, with a determined bite of her chicken.

Therese has to fight not to wince. Carol’s melancholy look does not dissipate.

“So I suppose you’ll work for a furniture shop as well,” Therese asks. Rindy stops, looking at her curiously. Therese goes on. “After all, fine ladies like you may have husbands and children, but there’s plenty else to do in the world. Why, I am very sure your mommy loves her work at the furniture store.”

Rindy looks at Carol, who is smiling and nodding, that sadness still tinging her eyes.

“Do you like it very much, Mommy?”

“I do, yes.”

“But Daddy says you only do it to be stubborn.”

Tension alights at the table. Therese wants to kick herself. It seems everything she does or says only makes this moment worse. She shouldn’t have come. She should never have—

“Well,” says Carol. “Daddy doesn’t know as much about it as he thinks he does. He doesn’t understand that I enjoy what I do. Lots of women have jobs and enjoy it. Therese has a job, did you know that?”

Rindy’s head whips toward Therese this time. “You do?”

Therese can’t help grinning. “I do.”

“What’s your job?”

“I take pictures for the newspaper.”

Rindy’s eyes bug out. “Really!?”

This time Therese and Carol both laugh, Therese nodding as she assures her. “Yes. I took a picture a week ago, and today it was on the front page of the paper.”

“Was it, Dearest?” asks Carol in surprise. “I haven’t even seen the paper today.”

Smiling, Therese nods. “Yes, that one I told you about—of the Mayor leaving City Hall.”

“You know the Mayor!?” cries Rindy.

“No! No, I don’t, I just took his picture.” 

“But if you have photos and they go in the newspaper doesn’t that make you famous!?”

It’s just the theory of a child, but it makes Therese blush anyhow, and laugh. “No, I’m not famous at all, not in the least.”

Suddenly Carol says, “But she will be, sweetheart. Someday Therese’s photographs will be seen all over the world. Then you and I will be able to say that we knew her before she was famous, and had her to dinner to eat chicken and broccoli. Isn’t that just the most delightful thing?”

Therese is blushing in earnest now. It has never really occurred to her that Carol thinks her work is that good. Of course she may just be saying it to entertain her daughter, and yet suddenly Therese realizes that she always has photographs hanging in her apartment. Of course Carol has seen them. Maybe even studied them. Maybe she really does think that Therese is good enough to create something memorable. Maybe Therese’s boss, that irritating man, is wrong about her, and she will end up publishing the most beautiful photographs, that show the world what’s in her heart…

“Mommy,” says Rindy, looking very pensive again, as if she has just come to a realization. “I think maybe I should be a photographer.”

Carol smiles. “You certainly can be, if you want, Darling.”

“Hold that thought,” says Therese, and gets up from the table. She goes to the living room and retrieves her bag, with the camera inside it. Rindy’s eyes bug out, and Therese grins. “Would you like me to show you how it works?”

A besotted nod of excitement. Carol says, “Oh, Therese, but her hands are dirty!”

“It’s all right,” Therese replies, looking at Rindy. “We’ll just look and not touch, right?”

Another nod, eyes still big and hopeful. So Therese, aware of Carol watching them avidly, proceeds to show Rindy all the parts of the camera, and how everything works—the little wheel and the shutter and lens. For a six-year-old, Rindy is deeply focused. Therese proceeds to take her picture three, four times, and she preens the whole time, grinning and posing like a starlet.

“What about Mommy?” Rindy asks. “Have you got any pictures of Mommy?”

Therese hesitates, cheeks coloring, and says with her eyes on the camera. “I do have one, yes.”

She immediately senses Carol’s surprise. The older woman says incredulously, “You do? How?”

Therese chances a look at her, shrugs, and sees the moment realization hits. Carol’s eyes blaze, clearly imagining Therese taking her picture in the night, while she slept. For a split second Therese fears she will view this as some invasion of privacy, but she feels Carol’s foot under the table, nudging her ankle, a teasing caress. Therese’s heart clenches.

“I want to see the picture!” cries Rindy.

The two older women break their heated stare, and Therese says with forced airiness, “Oh—I haven’t got it on me, honey. But how about this? Let’s take a picture of mommy right now.”

“Yeah!”

“Oh God, don’t!” Carol laughs helplessly. “I look a fright!”

“You do not,” Therese retorts. Because Carol never looks a fright. She always look wonderful.

Thankfully, Carol doesn’t resist any further. She submits to Therese’s camera, as well as Rindy’s instructions on how she should pose, and that is how Therese finally gets what she has wanted for so long: a picture of Carol gazing right at her. In that way that only Carol does.

<><><> 

Later, after Rindy has gone to bed, Therese finds herself in Carol’s kitchen, pressed up against the closed door. It’s as close to privacy as they can dare, and they do dare it, hands all over each other as they kiss. When Carol starts nibbling on her collarbones, Therese’s body lifts up into the pressure, and she has to constrain a squeak of arousal.

“Oh, Angel,” Carol moans against her, “I haven’t been able to think of anything but you all day.”

Therese whimpers softly, arching her neck toward that delectable mouth. “Really?” she asks.

A low chuckle. “Of course, really. You’re terribly distracting. A liability.”

Therese smiles, closing her eyes, letting the bliss of Carol’s mouth and hands and nearness wash over her. “I’m very sorry.”

Carol’s arms loop around her lower back, pulling her closer and slipping a thigh between her legs. The pressure is warm and tight and galvanizing. Therese sighs wistfully. Going home is going to be torture. More and more, any time she parts ways with Carol is a kind of torture.

“You called me tonight,” Carol observes, mouth sliding across to her other collarbone. Therese twists against the door, nodding her concession. “You’ve never called me before.”

“I—I know.”

“You sounded nervous.”

Carol pulls down on one side of Therese’s dress, exposing the ball of her shoulder. She sucks on it, hard, and drags her tongue back toward Therese’s throat. There is something ravenous about her, like she is determined to taste every inch of skin.

Therese, feeling a little light-headed, admits, “I—I was.”

“Why?” Carol murmurs.

“Just—just because I—because I didn’t know—if you would be—busy.”

One of Carol’s hands reaches down, grabbing Therese’s ass and pulling her sharply against her thigh. Therese shoves her face into Carol’s shoulder, muffling a helpless sound. When she has enough control to pull back, Carol is looking right at her. The older woman’s gray eyes are stormy with lust, and with something else, something more.

“Darling,” she croons. “Haven’t you figured it out yet?”

Therese swallows, confused. “Figured—figured out what?”

Carol kisses her softly, tenderly, eyes open. She whispers in her mouth, “That I always want you to call me.” 

Overcome, Therese takes her face in her hands, deepening their kiss, frenzied with desire. They’ve fucked in a bathroom. Surely they can fuck against a kitchen door?

But it’s a bad idea. Such a bad idea, and after several minutes of grinding and panting and kissing, when Carol reaches for the hem of Therese’s dress, Therese puts a hand on her wrist, stopping her. They stare at each other for a while, a silent argument. The pleading in Carol’s eyes is almost enough to destroy Therese utterly, but she holds her ground. Carol would never forgive herself if Rindy found out somehow. Not when the talkative child would almost certainly say something incriminating to Harge.

Finally, slowly, Carol’s hand pulls back. She looks very unhappy about it, but also, vaguely relieved. As if Therese has pulled them back from a dangerous precipice. She presses her forehead to Therese’s, nodding.

“You’re right,” she whispers. “God, I hate it, but… you’re right.”

“When can I see you again?” Therese asks. That old question. But now it is completely different, because she doesn’t have to be afraid that it will be unwelcome.

“Harge picks her up in the morning,” Carol says. “Come tomorrow night. Can you?”

“Yes.”

Carol looks happy and relieved, and kisses her again. They start to get carried away, but this time it’s Carol who finally yanks back, sighing restlessly. “You’d better go. I can’t be held responsible for my actions otherwise.”

Therese grins, delighted by the idea that she can affect Carol so much. Then she says, “Thank you for inviting me. Rindy is adorable.”

Carol’s face softens with joy. “She was enamored of you, Darling. Not that I can blame her.”

“Well, it was mutual,” Therese says. “It seems that all the Ross women are enamoring.”

A blurted laugh. “Leave my mother out of that equation, and maybe I’ll let you get away with it.”

Therese giggles. “All right. You and Rindy are enamoring. How’s that?”

“Acceptable.”

This time their kiss is light, fond, tender. Therese thinks of those beautiful words that keep running through her: My girl my girl my girl.

She nudges her nose against Carol’s, murmuring regretfully, “I should go.”

Carol sighs into their kiss, arms still wrapped around her waist. “All right. But you’ll come here tomorrow?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll miss you, Angel.”

Therese’s heart flutters. She never could have imagined that Carol would be so open with her about her feelings. It’s like they have broken a surface of ice, and now everything is clear sky and sunlight.

“I’ll miss you, too.”

Chapter Text

Barbara is with Harge, when he comes to get Rindy the next morning. It’s only their second time meeting each other. The long-avoided but inevitable dinner was three weeks ago, and though Carol found Barbara to be a kind and charming woman, the sight of her on the doorstep is still unnerving.

“Oh!” Carol says, surprised. “Good morning.”

“Yes, good morning!” grins Harge.

“Hello, Carol,” says Barbara, with an equally wide smile.

It doesn’t escape Carol how bright and happy Barbara looks. It’s the look of a woman who has spent the night with the man she loves. Carol doesn’t remember nights with Harge ever making her glow like this, but she’s hardly going to turn up her nose at the evidence of his sex life. She doesn’t particularly like to think about it, but she doesn’t begrudge him, either, and from the look on Barbara’s face, it’s all going rather well for both of them.

Carol half-expected their dinner date to be a formal announcement of Harge and Barbara’s engagement. It wasn’t, and there’s still no ring on her finger. No, it turned out the dinner had really been Barbara’s idea, born of her desire for them all to get along, and to be friendly. Carol could tell that Harge was as bemused by the whole thing as she was, but still. It was a kind gesture. And it went off well, all things considered. Of course, if Barbara knew that she and Harge had divorced over Carol’s sapphic proclivities—

Suddenly Rindy comes bounding in from the hall.

“Daddy!” she cries, and flings herself into Harge’s arms.

She’ll be too big for it, soon, but for now Carol allows herself to take pleasure in the sight of her ex-husband, warmly embracing their daughter. Say this for Harge—he’s always been a loving father.

Rindy tells him, “We had French toast for breakfast!”

“You did?” says Harge, grinning. “Are you just the luckiest girl?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you and Mommy have a good night?”

Carol sees it coming from a mile away, but there’s no stopping it, no stopping her happy, gregarious daughter from saying, “Yeah! Mommy’s friend Therese came over and showed me how to take pictures with a real camera and now I am going to be a photographer and work at The Times just like her! And she had a pretty green dress, Barbara—just like that one you have!”

“You don’t say?” says Barbara, eyes widening in theatrical amazement. “Well, your new friend Therese sounds like the loveliest person, doesn’t she?”

“Therese,” says Harge musingly, and Carol’s heart thumps. “I’ve never heard you mention a Therese before, Carol.”

The only way to survive this kind of moment is not to show fear. Airily she tells him, “Yes, she’s a new friend. She’s a very accomplished photographer.”

Harge makes a pensive sound and, never breaking eye contact, “I suppose you met her through Abby?”

His meaning could not be more clear. His mood, however is… less readable. There’s no overt anger or suspicion in his look, and yet he’s not blinking. Two years ago, the suspicion that she was having a love affair with a woman would have woken his most vile jealousies. Would have driven him to do—God, she knows not what. Now, however, the infinitesimal narrowing of his eyes could mean almost anything.

Carol answers in the same airy tone, “No, not at all. She was doing the catalogue for the furniture store at Christmas. We hit it off.”

“Artists are such fascinating people,” says Barbara. Carol is primed to read sarcasm in the remark, some subtle hint about class, but Barbara’s smile is genuine. She says, “I never know how they do what they do! I can’t draw or write or anything. I don’t even play an instrument!”

She laughs, self-deprecating in a way that even Carol has to admit is charming rather than obnoxious. And in that moment Carol owes her a debt of gratitude, for she has distracted Harge. He smiles at her adoringly, says, “Oh, don’t talk of yourself that way, Dear, you know you ride a  horse better than anyone I’ve met! And that’s an art form, let me tell you.”

So, he’s had her to his parents’ house in the country. That’s where the horses are. Definitely a ring in this woman’s future.

But what matters is that the questions about Therese have ceased, and in the next couple minutes they make perfectly harmless small talk, Rindy chattering through most of it and keeping the adults firmly occupied as she does. Ten minutes after that, and they’re out the door. Carol stands for a while afterwards, wondering if Harge was distracted enough that he’ll let the matter of Therese go. Or whether his suspicions will fester.

Carol knew when she invited Therese over that she was making a gamble. She could hear the uncertainty in her young lover’s voice. Perhaps it was premature, even foolish. But knowing that Therese had wanted to see her brought Carol such a deep pleasure that her higher reason took a momentary back seat for the sake of following a whim…

Anyway, there is no point in trying to hide Therese from Harge. Not forever, anyway. Having that name in his catalogue of Carol’s friends might even be the best thing. The longer it was a secret, the more likely the secret would carry teeth when he did find out. This way perhaps the name will drift into the background for him, become just another of the inconsequential details of Carol’s life.

She dresses, and gets ready for work.

It’s while she’s reading some correspondence from a potential client that she gets a telephone call from Therese.

“Darling,” she murmurs, eyeing the open door to her office. She rises, phone still at her ear, and works her way around the chord to reach the door and shut it, before returning to her desk, much more relaxed. “How are you?”

Therese asks, “Is it all right I called?”

“Of course, Dearest, I gave you the number, didn’t I?”

“I don’t want anyone at your work to be suspicious.”

“If anyone asks I’ll say we’re checking your rates for the next photoshoot. Now stop worrying. What is it? Are you all right? Can I still see you tonight?”

“Yes, yes of course—only.”

“Yes?”

“Well… Gen has been badgering me to meet up with her and the other girls at the bar. I’ve been putting her off for two weeks, and now she says she won’t take no for an answer anymore.”

Carol feels a burgeoning disappointment, a lick of jealousy, until—

“So I was wondering if you’d like to meet me there?”

Carol blinks, surprised. “Meet you? You mean, with all your friends?”

A moment’s hesitation. “Yes.”

“But you wouldn’t rather be with them on your own? I don’t want to take you away from them, Darling.”

Actually, that’s exactly what she wants to do. But she’s not going to say it. They agreed not to be possessive of each other (at least outside the bedroom). Carol is determined to keep her promise.

Therese’s chuckle is warm. “I know. But I really do want to see you tonight. And this way I can have my cake and eat it, too. We only need to go for an hour or so. Can you?”

Normally Therese is overly solicitous when it comes to asking for anything—the fact that she asks for this so directly and without caveats is a clear sign that it matters to her. Even if Carol were inclined to say no, she couldn’t possibly, when Therese asks like this.

“I’ll meet you at 8:00.”

<><><> 

Carol is late. She scolds herself for it, but it can’t be helped. She spent an inordinate amount of time agonizing over what to wear, dreading the judgement of Therese’s friends. The last time she and Therese were at a bar together, she’d opted for trousers and jacket, a masculine look that gave her confidence as she ventured into the realm of lesbian hang-outs. Tonight she settles on a bright red three-quarter sleeves sweater, and a slim-fitting brown skirt that she hopes accentuates her hips. Therese has told her before that she’s crazy about her hips, and Carol rather wants to make Therese a little crazy tonight.

When she reaches the bar, Therese is already there with a gaggle of other girls, including Gen and the charming Paige. Therese has clearly been watching the door, and so she sees Carol at once, her face transforming with a smile. She comes to meet Carol, helping her shrug out of her fur coat.

“Hello, Darling,” Carol greets her, proffering a quick kiss to the cheek that has the benefit of letting her breathe in Therese’s intoxicating scent. “I’m so sorry I’m late.”

“It’s fine,” Therese replies. She looks very happy, very young. She looks like a girl who’s sweetheart has just arrived, and that makes Carol’s stomach flutter. Then Therese is nodding toward her friends, and her dimples pop as she tells her, “Come on. You don’t have to be nervous. Let me introduce you.”

Of course Therese would pick up on her nerves. At thirty-four, Carol knows intellectually that she is far from old. And yet, by the strictures of her culture, she is ancient. Therese and her young friends—they are the generation of note now, they are the young and free and beautiful, and what if they look at her and think Therese is wasting her life away on a dinosaur? Won’t every line and wrinkle be measured against the comparative perfection of Therese’s face? Will they pair this with the knowledge of Carol’s child and Carol’s divorce and start plotting to separate Therese from her right away?

To be separated from Therese, to lose Therese—it’s a thought that has already grown unthinkable to her, almost panic-inducing. Which is itself panic-inducing. When did she became so enamored of this girl, so drawn to her company, so attached to her smile and voice? It’s a thousand leagues beyond what she anticipated when she offered, ‘once.’ It’s exhilarating, and terrifying.

In this state of mind, she finds herself delivered to the group of girls. Every one of them smiles at her, and every one of them gets a name. Luckily Carol already knows two of them, so it’s just the second and third girl she has to remember: Jodie, a beautiful black woman in a white suit, and Claire—who looks to be the youngest and most innocent of the group.

“The famous Carol!” says Gen, grinning. “You know, you’ve lost me a bet. I never thought Therese would get you to come and fraternize with a pack of troublemakers like us!”

“Speak for yourself,” crows Paige. “I’m a perfect gentleman. Tell them, Carol.”

“Oh—uh—yes!” Carol says, grinning slyly. “You took rejection very amiably.”

Jodie hoots at that. Claire giggles. Gen slaps Paige on the back and Paige takes her ribbing with a bashful grin. Therese, shifting subtly closer to Carol, slips an arm around her waist. Carol is so startled by it that she nearly jumps. Therese says, “Just so long as there’s no repeat performance, right, Paige?”

Paige rolls her eyes. “Aw, c’mon, Belivet. You know I never stand between a woman and her girl.”

Therese looks moderately appeased, though the hand around Carol’s waist squeezes. As unprepared as she was to be touched in this public way, Carol is secretly delighted. For all their promises about eschewing possessive behavior, there is something about that circling arm that she finds incredibly alluring. She looks down at her young lover, proffering the subtlest wink. Therese’s answering smile, shy but pleased, makes her giddy.

Then Claire asks, “Carol, is it true you work at the furniture store on 4th Avenue? They’ve got the most incredible window displays. I want that green armchair so very much.”

“Oh,” says Carol. “Well, come around some time. I’m sure I could get you a discount.”

Claire beams. Jodie asks, “Is it true you’ve got your own office? Lord, what I wouldn’t give some days for a little privacy at work!”

“I had to fight for it, believe me,” Carol says.

“She’s the most successful buyer in the company,” Therese explains, radiating pride. “They had to give it to her!”

“You know men don’t have to do anything,” Jodie retorts, and gives Carol and approving nod. “Good for you, girl.”

“I want to hear more about these discounts,” says Gen, playfully smirking. “Therese, you never told us there’d be perks to dating an older woman.”

Carol almost flinches at the word older, but there’s no malice in Gen’s remark, and when Therese makes some half-exasperated talk about not liking her for the discounts, Gen throws Carol a saucy grin, like they are teasing Therese together. Then all at once Carol knows: these women accepted her before she even arrived, and they won’t try to drive a wedge. Their friendliness and warmth is genuine. All at once, Carol’s confidence comes back, and she answers Gen’s grin with her own, charmed to realize that the young woman reminds her a bit of Abby.

Suddenly Therese squeezes her hip. “I’m going to the bar. Would you like something?”

“Oh!” Carol smiles. “Yes, thank you, Darling, just a—”

“Dry martini with an olive?” Therese asks, and wrinkles her nose playfully. “I’ll be right back.”

Off she goes, leaving Carol in the company of her friends, all of whom now boast conspiratorial smiles.

“All right, then,” says Gen brightly. “Your time has come.”

Carol frowns. “I’m sorry?”  

“Don’t worry,” says Jodie. “She does this to all the girlfriends.”

“Does what?” Carol asks.

“It’s time for a good old-fashioned interrogation,” Gen says, looking both totally relaxed and unassailably authoritative. Before Carol can prepare for what this means, she crosses her arms in a pantomime of sternness and demands, “So. What are your intentions with Therese?”

Carol’s eyes go wide. Perhaps her assumption of safety was premature.

“I told you not to do it this time,” Paige says. “Carol’s not some silly kid like the others.”

Carol gloms on to that. “What others? Other girlfriends?”

“Of course,” says Claire. “Gen interrogates all our girlfriends.” Then, eyes widening, she reassures her, “But don’t worry, Carol—Therese has never brought anyone around before. We thought maybe she’d never get a girlfriend! You’re the first woman who has gotten through her shell.”  

“Yeah,” crows Paige, “and that includes Gen!”

Gen shoves her. Jodie and Paige cackle with merriment. Then Paige tells Carol, “Look, ignore Gen, all right? She was the one who started bringing Terry around a couple of years ago. She’s always been protective of her.”

“She was the sweetest little naïf I’d ever seen,” Gen says fondly. “Had no idea what was happening to her, but boy was she determined to find out. Anyway, if you’d known her back then you’d be protective, too! Old habits die hard.”

“That girl doesn’t need anybody’s protection,” Jodie says in a chastising tone. “She takes care of herself just fine. And you know she’ll punch you if she hears you’re harassing her girl.”

“Oh, Therese wouldn’t even know how to throw a punch,” Gen retorts. “And anyway, it’s our right as her friends. I mean, God, we’re practically her family. Shouldn’t we get to ask whether Carol is really serious about her?”

The three start heckling Gen to lay off, just as Carol blurts—

“I am.”

That stops them short. They look at her with instant, razor focus. They’re a little terrifying. But Carol has no intention of failing this test.

“I’m serious about her,” she says. She glances toward the bar, where Therese is paying for their drinks. “Truth be told, I’m crazy about her.”

Jodie presses a hand to her heart, clearly moved; Paige grins and Claire smiles in a soulful way, like she is imagining a world where someone says that about her. Then Gen gives a thoughtful nod. She says, “You know, Therese was so convinced from the beginning that you were too posh for her. But she would tell me things, and I had a feeling, you know? I just had a feeling about you. Not that I wasn’t skeptical, at first.”

This makes Carol instantly uncertain. “Skeptical?”

“Play nice,” Jodie warns Gen.

Gen says, “Just… I didn’t want her getting her heart broken. She’s so… good, you know? So much kinder and sweeter than most of the girls who come around here. Don’t look at me like that, Paige, you know it’s true. This place is a den of vipers sometimes! But Therese was always the nicest girl here, and I didn’t want her to get hurt. But she’d say things, you know, like trying to convince herself not to get her hopes up, and that’s how I knew. I knew it was serious.”

Carol still isn’t entirely sure about the subtext of Gen’s commentary. She wonders, What did Therese say? and Why did Gen think I would hurt her? and What made her realize it was serious? – but she’s not quite confident enough to ask these questions aloud. 

And anyway—

“You knew what was serious?” asks Therese, having come upon them again, martini and glass of wine in hand. The girls all look suddenly wide-eyed, caught in the act. Therese suggests, “You knew I was serious when I warned you not to bother Carol?”

Her tone is light, but her look is steel. She hands Carol her martini and Carol takes a quick gulp. Gen is waving a hand dismissively, saying, “No, no, I knew the two of you were serious. You’d go on and on about how you weren’t good enough for her and I knew that if she was spending that much time with you, she must feel the complete opposite.”

Carol’s eyes widen. Before she can stop herself she asks, “You thought you weren’t good enough for me?”

The look Therese throws at Gen is murderous; Paige snorts a laugh into her drink; Gen looks legitimately baffled to be at the center of a misunderstanding.

“There she goes, sticking her foot in it!” says Paige.

“Now hold on,” Gen retorts.

They start playfully bickering. In the shelter of their distraction, Carol slips her arm around Therese this time. Therese looks up at her, eyes warm but also guarded. Embarrassed, maybe? Carol has never been one to show affection in front of others, but now she bends low, just to kiss Therese’s temple, and murmur against her ear, “Too good for me, Angel. Too good by half.”

A little shiver goes through Therese, who pulls back from her kiss looking just a little flushed. She takes a drink of wine, and interrupts Gen and Paige to say, “There’s a pool table free. Let’s go grab it.”

Whatever awkwardness had reared its head, it melts away as they commandeer the table. Gen insists that Carol play the first round with her, which Carol allows. She plays poorly, but the other girls are a raucous audience, and it’s surprisingly fun, even when she loses. There’s such familiarity and camaraderie and warmth among them all, and they welcome Carol into it without any fuss. They’re not the usual sort she would spend time with. So young, so silly and carefree. So disinterested in the performances of wealth and stature that one sees at a country club. It’s refreshing, and with Therese there, laughing along and throwing in her own wit, Carol can’t stop smiling. 

“Have I embarrassed you in front of your friends?” Carol asks her with a grin, handing her queue over in mock regret.

Therese, accepting the queue, just laughs. “I don’t imagine you spend much time in pool halls.”

Carol quirks an eyebrow, “Oh no?”

“Such a bawdy game,” Therese teases. “Not nearly sophisticated enough for a woman like you.”

“Really, now?” Carol flits her eyes up and down her lover’s slim frame. “And you, darling? Are you an expert in the art of… bawdy games?”

Therese snorts a laugh, though she does look a little pink in the ears. “Well,” she says, and chalks her queue for a moment, before finally looking up at Carol through her lashes. “Let’s find out, shall we?”

“Stop stalling, Belivet!” Gen crows. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”

Therese gives Carol one last look, something sweet and sexy all at once, something electric, before she turns to join her friend at the table. And that is when the fun really starts. For it turns out that Therese is very good at pool.

Carol could never have anticipated it—nor what her own reaction would be, to the sight of her lover thoroughly trouncing Gen. It is a… surprisingly erotic experience. Gen doesn’t stand a chance. Neither does Paige, who plays next. Therese takes her to the cleaners. Afterwards, she does the same to Claire (though she’s very nice about it), and next she and Jodie go head to head. Jodie gives her a run for her money, but Therese beats her, too, in just a couple of turns. The girls are all in uproar, and Therese just smirks through it all.

That smirk makes Carol rabid. She watches each game unfold like a starving person, feels her own blood warm and spread through her belly and thighs. She can’t quite place what it is about how Therese is playing that affects her so. Every time her lover throws her a little look, a little smile, she wants to tackle her against the table. There’s something familiar about this. An hour later, Therese is boastfully chalking her queue, when it hits her—

This delicious confidence—this physical dexterity and smooth command of the pool table—this is so very similar to how Therese behaves when they are making love. The warmth between Carol’s legs turns into a blaze. Her mouth goes dry. Rarely in her life has she felt such a sudden and overpowering surge of lust.

When Jodie has slunk off in a mock-temper, Therese swallows the last of her second glass of wine. Her dimples have been on full display for ages. She tells the group, “You’re all lucky I’m not a betting woman.”

It’s as close as Carol has ever seen her to downright arrogance. Carol wants to spread her out on that table and put her in her place.

“You haven’t played Carol!” Claire points out.

Therese looks at Carol with lifted eyebrow, swagger lurking behind her typically reserved exterior. “That’s true.”

“Come on, Carol!” Gen crows. “If nothing else, you have to share in all our humiliation.”

Carol looks at Therese, who returns that look with unmistakable challenge. Carol rises to that challenge in an instant.

“Humiliation,” she drawls, gracefully accepting the queue that Jodie hands to her. “Well. We’ll just have to see.”

Therese is already wracking the balls, but Carol doesn’t mistake the color in her cheeks, the way she gnaws at her bottom lip. It strikes her suddenly that Therese has been showing off—showing off for her. And that the game has been as arousing to her, for that reason, as it has been for Carol.

With this delightful knowledge in pocket, Carol takes up position at the opposite side of the table, watching as Therese lifts the triangle, studiously eyeing her work before she gives a little satisfied nod. And meets Carol’s eyes.

“Care to go first?” she asks, consummately polite. 

Carol brandishes her queue and bends over the table. Her body is long enough, she doesn’t have to bend far, but she doesn’t miss the sudden dilation of Therese’s pupils. Smirking, she breaks the triangle, watching in satisfaction as two striped balls glide into the two far pockets. She raises her eyes to Therese, and murmurs, “Stripes.”

She glides around the table, setting up her next shot. Therese holds sentry just a few feet away, but Carol feigns ignoring her. She sinks another ball into the left side pocket, and flicks a cocky glance at her lover. Therese’s eyes have narrowed. When Carol sinks another ball in a corner pocket, Therese huffs.

“Were you hustling us earlier?” she demands.

“Not at all, Dearest, I just played badly that first game.” She eyes her next move, getting into position—which happens to be right next to Therese. With the benefit of this closeness, and the other girls congregated on the opposite side of the table, she asks lowly, “Are you a sore loser, Therese?”

She bends to line up her shot. Therese says nothing at first, and Carol pulls back her queue. 

“I’ll show you sore later,” Therese murmurs.  

Carol flubs the shot utterly. She rises to her full height, glaring and indignant, but Therese doesn’t even look at her, smirk devilish as she strolls to the other side of the table, clearly plotting her move.

Paige whistles. “Uh-oh, Carol. Looks like the shark is in the water.”

Carol sniffs, dragging a hand through her hair and shaking the blonde tresses out as if the whole thing doesn’t matter in the least.

“I don’t know about shark,” she says off-handedly. “More like a minnow.”

Therese huffs a laugh, seemingly in spite of herself, while the others fall into fits, hooting and hollering. But it all turns to dramatic moans as Therese sinks her first shot, effortlessly. And then her second. Now standing across the table from Carol, she queues up for the third move, locks eyes with her, and shoots. The ball sails easily into the corner pocket by Carol’s hip. Therese stands up straight, eyebrow twitching a challenge, and Carol’s body feels like it’s shimmering. Fuck. She might not last to the end of their game.

“What a little big shot you are,” she muses, voice a low timber that she knows Therese will recognize from the bedroom.

Therese shrugs in a pantomime of modesty. “Perhaps you’re just not used to someone who can play at your level.”

Carol’s chuckle is low and full of promise. 

“Watch out, Terry!” Paige warns. “Don’t want to poke the bear.”

“If I’m just a minnow than she’s just a cub,” Therese replies primly.

“I think you’re both lions,” Jodie laughs. 

Therese sinks two more balls before a particularly difficult angle does her in, and with a pout she cedes the table to Carol—though not without gliding a hand across Carol’s lower back as she passes. Shivers race down Carol’s thighs. It’s blatantly unfair.

But Carol is not about to throw up the white flag.

She ignores Therese with an effort, putting all her focus onto the game. She sinks two balls. On the third, Therese casually takes up residence in front of the pocket she’s aiming at, pelvis strategically positioned to be right in her line of sight. Carol raises her eyes, and the gaze that meets her is smoldering. Those vibrant green eyes. Those barely parted lips. God, she’s fucking gorgeous. Why are they bothering with this game? Why hasn’t she taken her home yet?

It’s this question that makes her miss her shot, probably by accident, possibly in the hopes that Therese will win the game and give them an excuse to go home. But while Therese sinks the rest of the solid balls, she misses sinking the eight ball by a hair.

Gen crows, “Good God! The suspense!”

Claire says, “I feel like marriages have ended over things like this!”

Jodie snorts. “Yeah. And babies have been conceived.”

Carol glides past Therese, remarking quietly as she goes, “I’m going to devour you.”

And reveling in the way Therese tightens and squeaks.

Carol has a particularly difficult shot for her final ball, but she concentrates, breathing in, breathing out. The queue darts through her fingers, and the ball drops into its pocket with a satisfying clatter. The girls all cheer. Now there are just two balls on the table, two players eyeing each other with hunger and determination.

But it seems the hunger has a deleterious effect to their playing, because Carol misses her shot. She comforts herself that Therese will end the game for them, but Therese looks at her right before she aims, eyes zeroing in on her mouth. Unconsciously, Carol licks her lips, and Therese looks suddenly flustered. She misses her shot, too, looking very put out about it (and not just because she hasn’t won the game yet). It’s Carol’s turn again.

Only when Carol surveys the table, she realizes in a surge of annoyance that she’ll never pocket the eight ball on this round. How long will they have to play this fucking game?

Her eyes flick to Therese’s dilated eyes, and lock—a silent conversation.

Carol lines up, feigns aiming for the eight ball—and neatly sinks the white. No sound was ever so relieving. Instantly she’s straightening up again, brisk and pleased.

“Oh dear,” she says. “I appear to have lost.”

Paige frowns, “Actually, that’s just a foul—”

“Nope,” declares Therese. “Carol lost.” She looks down at her watch. “Oh, and is that the time? It’s so late, girls, I think we’ve got to be going.”

Carol has already picked up their handbags. She breezes over to their slightly befuddled audience, offering hugs and air kisses that are quick but sincere.

“This was lovely,” she insists, smile broad, thoughts distracted. “I do hope we’ll do it again.”

“Sure,” says Gen, all knowing smirk. “I suppose you two had better get some sleep. Long week, right?”

“Ghastly,” Therese nods, and gives Gen a hug. “Thanks for inviting us!”

Carol has to stop herself from grabbing Therese’s waist and rushing her toward the door. But even so, they move quickly to leave, Carol shrugging on her coat and Therese already wrapped in her own. As they’re breaking away, breathing hard, desperate to be gone, Carol doesn’t mistake Jodie’s amused and vindicated chuckle.

“What’d I tell you? Babies.”