One Step Forward…
“Jas,” Amethyst said, “you can’t work from home forever.”
He sat at his end-of-the-dining-room-table workstation, sipping from the coffee mug in one hand, clicking and scrolling with the mouse in the other. Today he wore a black sweatshirt that announced Bezos is my Dark Lord in menacing, crackly white letters with a red Eye of Sauron over the Amazon smile.
He lowered his coffee. “Only three days, and you’re already tired of me.”
“Trust me,” she said. “I’m not tired of you.”
Heaven save her, anything but.
“That’s very…” He let the pause draw out to suggestive proportions. “…promising.”
Rolling her eyes, she took eggs out of the fridge, cracked them into a bowl and whipped them. “What’s with the shirt? Please, please tell me Jeff Bezos isn’t another wizard.”
He got up and came into the kitchen. “Jeff Bezos isn’t a wizard. Unless he’s as far undercover as I am. I just admire his business acumen.”
She put a pan on the stove and chopped some green chile. “Lucky for him, he’s not a competitor.”
“True.” Jas came up behind her and slipped an arm around her waist. “Good morning, Amethyst.” He kissed her.
Amethyst, stirring the green chile into the eggs, let her spoon hang above the pan and leaned into the kiss. Jas’ other arm slid around her and the kiss became rather more than a morning greeting. Her own arms went around him and she melted into him.
His lips, warm and insistent, coaxed her mouth open. His tongue teased hers. She made a noise somewhere between a whimper and a sigh and ran her hands into his hair, still damp from the shower, pulling him down to her. Her nipples became two knots of excruciating sensation. His kiss became more eager, devouring, then he broke away and nibbled his way down her neck. She tipped back her head, eyes closed, breaths moving fast between her lips.
Why not? whispered into her mind. She wanted to, God knew. There were two perfectly good beds at the other end of the house. No reason not to, really. Was there?
There must’ve been, or they’d already be waking up in bed together. But she couldn’t think what it was. Some reason…important enough…
Jas brushed back her hair and nuzzled the angle between her neck and shoulder. The sensation made her shiver and tighten in anticipation.
No reason, no. Just excuses. Justifications. Nothing to stop her from doing what felt so natural.
She felt him fumbling beside her. The stove. She reached, fingers tangling with his, and turned off the burner.
She ached for him. She’d gone to sleep last night aching, woken up this morning aching. She had fantasies about this, for godsake, where they spent the long winter nights loving, exploring, where she found out what it was like when a wizard’s power was involved…
And then when her blood had cooled, she’d think, And what about afterwards? What happens then?
That was the real reason.
Jas’ hands slid up under her sweater, a warm glide over her ribs. She found her own hands under his sweatshirt, moving across the contours of his back, into the dip where his muscles met his spine.
“Nothing is impossible for us,” he breathed.
She panted. “Every day…together?”
“Mmm,” he purred. His fingers found her bra clasp, effortlessly unhooked it. One hand slipped around to caress her breast. “Yes.”
But for how long?
“Jas. I’m not…not…a fling.”
He drew back, his eyes darker than ever, glazed with desire. “What?”
She struggled up out of her own desire like warm, caressing quicksand. “I don’t— If you—”
His brows drew together. “You aren’t still afraid of me?”
She was conscious of the heat of his hands on her bare skin, his thumbs inches below her breasts.
Frustrated, angry tears suddenly pushed their way up. “I’m an idiot. I’m a jerk.”
She tried to extricate herself, but he held tighter.
“What’s wrong?” he said. “Why would you say that?”
“Because—” She would not cry. She wouldn’t. “Because you’ve been thoughtful, and kind, and caring, and I-I-I—” She took a breath, swallowed hard, pinched her eyes to seal in the tears. “And it’s still not right.”
His silence would’ve made her crumple, except for the way he still held her, his hands moving soothingly on her back. She opened her eyes to find him gazing seriously down at her.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I—I’m not—toying with you, I swear—”
He put his fingers over her lips. “No. I don’t think that.” He ran a hand through his hair. “But Amethyst, you’re confusing me. I don’t know what you want.”
“You’re confused!” she said with a bitter laugh. At least he knew what he wanted.
“Should I go back home?” he said. “Would that be better?”
“It’s not you.”
“Amethyst—” He gusted a sigh. “Making you unhappy is the last thing I want. But you have to help me here. Tell me what I should do. Because right now, I want to take you back into that bedroom and show you that whatever it is you’re afraid of, you don’t have to be.”
She gave a shaky laugh. “I can’t say I’d fight you all that much.”
Tension went out of him. “I’m glad to hear that.”
“But— I think—” She rested her forehead on his shoulder so she didn’t have to look at him. “What I’m afraid of…I’m not ready to find out.”
He was silent a long moment, probably puzzling. “You can’t tell me?”
She laughed again, sheer tension. “Oh god, Jas. Do you really want to see me humiliate myself?”
“No.” He held her away suddenly, sliding his hand into her hair, his thumb lifting her chin. “I never want to see you humiliated.”
She swallowed again. “I know that. I’m just stupid. But—” She struggled to explain. “It’s too important. To me. It’s something…something I have to make sure I get right. Do you understand?”
Hell, she wasn’t sure she did.
“I understand you’re still worried about something. And despite what you say, it’s something to do with me.”
“Yes,” he interrupted. “I will find out, Amethyst. It’s up to you how long that takes.”
Amazing how gently he could say something that should sound threatening.
“Yeah, well, maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m just really hung up.”
“The evidence suggests you’re anything but hung up.”
“Maybe I got over it,” she grumbled.
“And maybe you’re changing the subject.”
“Maybe I am.” She abruptly became conscious of the state of her clothes, her sweater bunched up, her bra hanging down. “I’d better, um, put myself back together.”
Jas gazed at her distantly, like a coyote deciding whether or not to pounce on that succulent rabbit.
At last, he stepped back, his hands falling away. “Today might be a good day for me to check in at the office.”
It felt like her feet went out from under her on slick ice, knowing how much it would hurt when she hit the ground.
“Oh,” she said. “Okay.” She swallowed hard, willed her voice to be steady. “You’ll stay for breakfast, won’t you?”
“Amethyst—” he began, then let out a breath. “Yes. Of course I’ll stay for breakfast.” He waved in the direction of the bedroom. “Go ahead. I’ll watch the eggs.”
She slunk off to make herself decent.
* * *
Breakfast was full of awkward silences and stilted conversation.
Amethyst made sure she had somewhere else to be when Jas left. When she came back in through the garage, the dining room table was back in its pre-workstation condition, Jas’ conscripted end bare.
Her stomach fell. She put her purse in its usual spot on the dining room chair, absently greeted a wagging, happy Caramela and let her out to go pee. At last, Amethyst ventured back to peek into the hall bath and the guest bedroom, her heart beating far harder than it should.
The bathroom was tidy, but Jas’ travel kit sat on the countertop. In the bedroom, the bed was made. There was no sign of his duffle, but a slip of paper lay on the dresser. A note? Her stomach dropped even further, her heart beat even harder.
She crossed to the dresser and unfolded the paper, a receipt from someplace called Darien’s. Chris Rivera, it read in unfamiliar handwriting, along with a phone number. Wondering irrelevantly if the name belonged to a male Chris or a female Chris, she re-folded the slip and put it back exactly at it had been.
Her curiosity suddenly and unaccountably snuffed out, she left the room.
She wanted to curse herself, but didn’t have the energy. Would it have been better to just go to bed with him? Heaven knew they both wanted to. And she didn’t think Jas would do something to her once he had her in such a terribly defenseless position—nothing like that damned binding, anyway.
But she couldn’t escape the gut-sure feeling that once she did cross that line with him, she would inescapably, irreversibly become vulnerable to him. And what then? While she stood there—or lay there, as the case may be—totally smitten, would he gloat over his conquest? She cringed at the idea. Or maybe he’d plot. Or maybe he’d…he’d—
Amethyst stopped short in the middle of the living room, staring out the window at the view of the yard and street outside, bits of trash impaled on the many-jointed cholla cactus across the street. Sweet Mary in Heaven. When had she started worrying about how their relationship might progress?
She plunked down on one end of the sofa and dropped her head in her hands. “I’m doomed. So doomed.”
Caramela put her big, blocky head on Amethyst’s knee. Amethyst dropped her hands and petted her.
“What do you think I should do?” Amethyst asked.
Caramela just looked up at her out of ale-colored eyes and wagged her tail.
“Go for a walk? You’re probably right. Get outside, get some exercise, clear my head.”
It might not solve Amethyst’s dilemma, but it certainly made Caramela happy. She spun in tight little circles of excitement until they were out the door.
It was one of those winter days that tasted a little like spring…except without the wind. Though colder than it’d be in March or April, the calm, clear air made it more pleasant.
She’d just stepped onto to the sidewalk when Heather’s Mini Cooper swung into the driveway. Amethyst stopped, raised a hand in greeting and gritted her teeth. She needed to have a talk with Heather.
Heather bounced out of the Mini dressed in an electric blue collarless blazer, black flounce-hem pencil skirt and blue pumps, just as traffic-stopping in business wear as everything else.
“Amethyst! You’re just who I wanted to see. I have to talk to you about Dougal.”
“About that,” Amethyst said, stuffing her hands, including the one holding Caramela’s leash, in her jacket pockets. “I owe you an apology.”
Heather stopped short, her blue eyes widening. “Whatever for?”
“For foisting him off on you. I shouldn’t’ve done that.”
Heather blinked in astonishment, then laughed. “Oh, Amethyst, honey. I’m ever so glad you did! He’s…he’s…” Her gaze went far-off and dreamy. “He’s not like any man I’ve ever known.”
“That, I believe,” Amethyst muttered.
“He knows just how to make a girl feel special. The way he treats me…” She closed her eyes and her enviable bosom rose. “Oh, my lord! If only you knew.”
Amethyst knew. Oh, yes, she did.
She shifted her weight. “Well, I feel responsible. I mean, to be honest, he kinda seems like a player to me. I hate the thought that he might hurt you.”
A rare serious look replaced Heather’s raptures. “Dougal told me a few days ago you said the same thing to him.”
“He did?” Heat ran into Amethyst’s face. “I…ah…”
Heather touched her arm. “It was the nicest thing I’ve ever heard. No one’s ever worried about me like that. Oh, they’ll shake their heads and say, ‘Too bad, you know how men are, but you know you can always get another one, sugar.’ Like I don’t even have a heart that can break like any other girl’s.”
I am such a bitch, Amethyst thought. “But Dougal—”
“Oh, I know he’s, well, retro sometimes. But that can be nice, too.”
“And of course I can see he has a roving eye. But so do I. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating a fine specimen of the opposite sex.” She gave Amethyst a quick hug. “Don’t worry, honey. I’m not seeing picket fences yet.” Her eyes sparkled. “Now your Jas, I think he might be seeing picket fences.”
The ground went out from under Amethyst for the second time that morning. “What?”
Oh, come on, Amethyst, she told herself. How many times has the man asked you to marry him?
“Don’t think I don’t see the way he looks at you.” Heather dimpled. “It’s like I’m not even there. I can’t say the same for many men.”
Damned if Heather wasn’t right. Jas had turned his back on her come-on, but Amethyst had just assumed that was for her own benefit.
“Um, well…” she said.
“I’ll tell you, you’d better hang on to that one,” Heather said. “Take it from me. There aren’t many true blue ones out there.”
‘True blue’? Jas Harker? It boggled the mind.
She gave Amethyst a quick pat on the arm. “I’m so glad we got the chance to talk. Maybe sometime we can get together—all four of us.”
Now there was a truly terrifying thought.
“Sure.” Amethyst put on a smile and said before Heather could start making concrete plans, “I can tell you’re in a hurry, so I’ll see you later.”
Heather gave a little cheery little wave that reminded her of Balgaire’s in Jas’ scrying and tippety-tapped to her front door in her electric blue pumps.
Caramela looked up at Amethyst, a curious wrinkle on her forehead. Giving her a reassuring pat, Amethyst made herself walk on, more confused than ever.