Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Calm After the Storm


By Tim Smith

Any good romance story involves a storm of emotions. Things are never sunshine, lollipops and roses between two people in a relationship, no matter how strong the attraction is. Something always comes up. It can be something minor, like food preferences or what to watch on TV. It can also be something bigger, like family acceptance issues or sexual preferences in the bedroom.
Many of the storms in my rom-coms usually occur when the couple has reached that point where they know they want to be together, but one of them holds back. It typically revolves around one of them having been burned before, and not willing to take the plunge into commitment. These things have a way of working themselves out in time for the happy-for-now ending.
Here’s an example from one of my romantic sex comedies, “The Sweet Distraction.” The male protagonist is a writer, hired by the woman’s Mafia Don father to write his memoir. There is a strong attraction and she thinks this is for real, but he’s the one resisting. He finally experiences his “Eureka!” moment and realizes he has to make amends for pushing her away. To wit:
George opened the door to Cookie’s bedroom then entered. She stood at the window, gazing into the courtyard. The early afternoon sun filtered in, outlining her shape with a soft glow, one that made her freshly washed hair take on a luster. “Hi,” he softly began.
She turned to look at him with slight surprise and offered a tentative smile. “Hi.”
“How’ve you been?”
She turned to look out the window. “Fine. Did you lose the dialing instructions for your phone?”
“No, I didn’t.” George took a few steps closer then rested his butt against the vanity table. “I wanted to apologize for not calling.”
“Thank you. You may go now.”
“Back to being a princess?”
She shrugged, her back still to him. “You have to go with whatever works.”
“Don’t you want to know why I stopped calling you?”
“I know why. You’re so damned arrogant you thought I couldn’t possibly fit into your little world. You assumed that I couldn’t adjust to your lifestyle and I wouldn’t be happy. You got what you wanted. You’ll have your best seller and the career you’ve always lusted after. You can go on being in charge of your fate.”
“Okay, maybe I am a little too independent for my own good sometimes. Maybe it gets in the way of my better judgment or makes me pass up good things when they’re staring me in the face. But I’m not arrogant enough to think I can live this way for the rest of my life.” He paused. “Cookie, what I am is honest enough to admit when I’m wrong. I loved being with you and I’ve missed you. It’s just that I began to feel like I was being crowded.”
She turned to look at him. George detected the sorrow in her eyes. “If I made you feel like that, I’m sorry. I’ve missed you, too. You’re the first man I’ve ever met who wanted me for who I am, and not because of who my father is. That meant something to me.”
George pushed himself to a standing position then placed his hands on her upper arms while peering into her eyes. “I still want you for who you are, if you’ll have me.”
Her face dimpled into a smile. “You mean that?”
“Yeah. Cookie, I don’t give a damn about this book, or the next one, or the one after that. They can all be best sellers but it won’t mean anything if you aren’t there to share it with me.”
“And I just want you to be happy without thinking you have to change yourself to suit me. I don’t care if you want to live in a cabana and roast hot dogs for supper, as long as you’re being what you want to be.”
“Does that mean I can keep my comfortable sofa and favorite chair?”
“Of course, but I’d really like to do something about those living room curtains.”
George paused. “I’ll think about it.”  

If you like that and want to read more, you can find “The Sweet Distraction” at the link below.

Friday, August 23, 2019

A Little Food Porn

I had actually planned for a little caffeine porn from the fourth novel in Grace Marshall’s Executive Decision series Interviewing Wade. I thought it would go well with my post of two weeks ago, Storm in a Green Tea Cup. I thought it might be fun to show that glorious caffeine addiction at its best, but then I came across this lovely bit of food porn between Wade Crittenden and Carla Flannery, and I couldn’t resist. It’s one of my favorite, and in my opinion, one of the hottest, scenes in the novel. Enjoy!







Interviewing Wade Blurb:
Intrepid reporter, Carla Flannery, wants to interview Wade Crittenden, the secretive creative genius behind Pneuma Inc. But when, against all odds, Wade actually agrees to the interview, Carla suspects ulterior motives.
Carla has made a lot of enemies in her work and when Wade discovers she’s being stalked, he agrees to the interview to keep her close and safe. As the situation turns deadly, lives and hearts are on the line, and the interview reveals far more about both than either ever expected.


Here Comes a Choo Choo
He offered no response to that, instead he got out of the Jeep, and she startled when he came around to open the door for her and undid her safety belt. She felt as though someone had pushed her pause button and all she could do was sit there, clinging to her stupid stick. Then he took her gently by her good arm and helped her out, mantling her protectively close to his shoulder as they nodded to the guards, then entered the passage that led down to the Dungeon. 

The dining area smelled of Chinese food. Lynn had spread the feast on the coffee table in front of the ratty sofa. For a moment, Carla stood staring at the food, feeling slightly nauseated. ‘I’m not hungry,’ she said. 
Come on, you need to eat. With your metabolism being what it is, you’ll have wasted completely away by morning if you don’t.’ 

He settled her onto the least lumpy part of the couch and sat down next to her. When she made no effort, he opened the waxed cardboard containers and surveyed their contents. Then he ladled up a spoonful of egg flower soup and surprised her by bringing it, with a steady hand, to her lips. ‘A little bit?’ he said. ‘You don’t want to hurt Lynn’s feelings, do you?’ 

She opened her mouth, and he carefully spooned it in and watched while she swallowed. ‘Since when have you cared about hurting anyone’s feelings?’ she said. The soup felt good against her throat, and it wasn’t so difficult to open her mouth when he spooned up the next bite. 

‘I don’t, really, and just for the record, Lynn doesn’t care about mine either, but I’m not above lying to get what I want.’ He ladled her up another spoonful, and this time she made an mmm sound as she swallowed. 

‘And are you getting what you want?’ 

‘You’re eating, aren’t you?’ He gave a little gasp of surprise when she took the spoon away from him, dipped up a nice plump bit of egg , and pointed the utensil in his direction. When he stared at her like she had two heads, she laughed softly. 

‘Come on, Crittenden, open up. Here comes the choo- choo.’ She wasn’t sure if he opened his mouth for the soup or because he was about to say something rude. Either way she took advantage and shoved the spoon home. He took the bite, holding her gaze as though he didn’t quite understand what kind of creature had assaulted him with a soup spoon, holding her gaze with absolutely no sexual innuendo, and yet her insides trembled and hollowed anyway. 

‘It’s good,’ he said, his cheeks turning a warm shade of pink as he took the spoon back and returned the favour. The next time he didn’t protest when it was his turn – even as she picked up a pair of chopsticks and brazenly served up a sloppy mouthful of Singapore noodles while he sat with his mouth slightly open, making her think of a hungry nestling waiting for a worm. The thought made her giggle, and he barely caught the end of an escaping noodle in time to slurp it off his chin and into his mouth. ‘You’re sloppy, Flannery,’ he said, licking his lips with two flicks of his tongue, an act which made her breath catch and her nipples ache. 

Dear Christ, he had absolutely no idea what he did to her. This time, as she waited open-mouthed for her bite of soup, his hand was far less steady and at least half of it ended up in her cleavage. She yelped. ‘You did that on purpose.’ 

‘Did not’ he said. Handing her a napkin and watching wide-eyed as she dabbed away chicken broth. 

‘Did so.’ 

‘Did not,’ he repeated. Then he filled the chopsticks dangerously full of noodles and brought them toward her mouth. ‘This –’ He tipped the whole bite slo-mo off the sticks and right down between her breasts, ‘– I did on purpose.’ 

The noodles were no hotter that a steamy bubble bath, but the act itself, coming from Wade Crittenden, was scalding hot. She barely had time to gasp before he set the chopsticks aside and efficiently undid the top three buttons her peaches and cream blouse. Then he began the slurp and nibble process of cleaning up with long strokes of his tongue up the sides of her breasts before he blazed a well-nibbled path into the valley where the lacy bronze bra cupped her breasts to form a perfect receptacle for the errant noodles. He nibbled skilfully into the depths and up the wet, rounded sides of each breast, slurping and nipping as he grazed. 

‘Holy fuck, Crittenden,’ she said, curling her fingers in his hair. ‘I think there’s room in there for a little Kung Pow chicken, maybe some fried rice.’ At some point, he’d managed to undo the rest of her buttons, probably when she was busy concentrating on his eating habits. 

Then he slipped down both bra straps at once, running his hands up the outside curve of her breasts to lift them over the top of the cups just enough to nibble and lick her nipples, which she was pretty sure he didn’t get any noodles on, and even more sure that she didn’t care. She gasped and bucked against him as he nipped her hard with his front teeth and then sucked deeply enough to draw the judder of her pulse up through her breast and out onto the swirling tip of his tongue. She fell back against the arm of the sofa as though she had suddenly become boneless, and he eased her legs apart with the flat of one hand and began to stroke her through her trousers. ‘Perhaps the spring roooolls,’ she gasped and writhed beneath him. ‘I can think of a lovely place you can put one of those.’ Just then he slid up her body, eased his hips in between hers, and began to rock and shift. 

‘God, Crittenden!’ she cried out. ‘Forget the spring rolls! Just get you damn jeans off and free Simba. Dinner can wait. I 
can’t.’ 






Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Mind That Cried Storm, a post by @GiselleRenarde

Thunder and lightning woke me at five, this morning. Fireballs in the sky, crashes of sound and energy that reverberated through my bed. Storms are phenomenal, when they're happening outside your own mind.

Inside? That's another story.

I had a few bad months, mentally and emotionally. Well, more than a few bad months. But I had a few REALLY bad months. Depression and anxiety teamed up to poison my mind with all kinds of inaccurate thoughts. I kept imagining scenarios where everything went wrong, and reacting to them as though they were real. They weren't real. My mind created them out of nothing. My thoughts were not reality-based, and yet I responded to them as though they were.

One day I cried for 8 hours straight. I kind of reached my breaking point.

A friend of mine, who happens to be a doctor, recommended a workbook called Mind Over Mood to help me implement cognitive behavioural therapy techniques. It was exactly what I needed, because it teaches you to look at those thoughts, to examine them for accuracy, to determine whether real-life evidence supports them.

In most cases, for me, the anxiety thoughts had almost zero basis in reality.

While I was doing my worksheets, I didn't feel like they were helping me. I still felt anxious, I still felt insecure and unsettled. But the act of observing obviously changed me, over time, because these past few weeks should have been killer, and I've gotten through them with considerably more ease than anticipated.

I have my mother to thank, in large part. She doesn't know the meaning of the word "anxiety." Her philosophy is that she'll deal with stuff as it happens. No sense worrying about things that may never come to pass.

My mother's had a series of medical appointments throughout the spring and summer, culminating in a biopsy for which my siblings and I nervously awaited results. My mom wasn't nervous, though. "What's the point in being nervous? I'll just waste all this time when I could be doing other things. When I find out what's going on, then the doctors will tell us what to do."

We got the results last week. My mom has cancer. It always takes a while for these things to sink in, for me. I don't know whether I'm still in that numb stage, or whether Mind Over Mood truly did prepare me for this. Or maybe my mother prepared me by setting an example of not worrying. It isn't put on, with her. She is a truly happy-go-lucky person. She trusts her doctor. She trusts that the chemo and other therapies will do their job, and she'll be just fine by this time next year.

I hope she's right, but, more than that, I trust that she's right. Part of this is intuition. I woke up the morning of her appointment thinking, "It'll be cancer, but it'll be fine." It's just hard to trust intuition when its cousin, anxiety, has so often led me astray.

If you want more from me, consider following my music and anecdote site, A Friendly Musical Visit Every Day. I really do post there every day, and it pleases me so much to get visitors.

https://friendlymusicvisitor.blogspot.com/

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Thunder



by Dylan James (Cameron D. James)

It's by fortuitous chance that my newest queer young adult book is storm-themed and releases during the "storm" month here on The Grip!

Thunder

Blurb:
Grant Peters is sixteen and wants nothing more than to just compete in calf roping at rodeos and keep winning gold. But there are two obstacles in his path.

The first is Logan Summers, also sixteen, and also into calf roping. Logan is Grant’s only real competition and every time Logan wins, he gives Grant a smug little smirk that sets Grant’s blood boiling. Deep inside, though, Grant knows that his hostility toward Logan is about more than that smirk; it’s about feelings he’s not ready to acknowledge.

The second is Grant’s parents being close to selling the family ranch and moving to the city, away from rodeo, and away from his horse, Thunder.

So when Grant discovers evidence of a deadly cougar stalking the ranch, he decides to take it upon himself to hunt down what would undoubtedly kill the little business his family has left if word got out. Of course, as soon as he sets off into the woods, he runs into Logan, who is undertaking the same hunt to save his own family’s ranch.

Now, these two teenage rodeo nemeses have to overcome their hatred for each other and their uncertainty about themselves if they have any hope of coming together to save their families’ businesses.

Excerpt:
My heart thundered loud in my chest and the sound of blood pumping filled my ears. Everything seemed so loud now. I tried to calm my breathing, which was now rapid and shallow, and did my best to get my nerves under control. I stared down the barrel, choosing to aim between the men. If Logan decided to shoot one, that was on him. Me? I’d hit the dirt at their feet, rip a hole in their tents, that kind of thing.
Logan slowly turned his head to look at me and I did the same to look at him. I was weirdly relieved to see sweat beading on his brow — it wasn’t hot enough for that kind of sweat, so it had to be nerves. It made me feel better to know that he wasn’t a cold-blooded killer or something. He looked back down the length of his rifle barrel and I did the same, aiming for a spot between the feet of two of them.
In my peripheral vision, I saw Logan’s finger move to the trigger and rest on it. I did the same. He opened his mouth, ready to shout something at them.
Then I heard the click of a safety being taken off — behind us — and felt the barrel of a gun pressed against the base of my skull.
“Drop it,” said a gruff voice that had somehow snuck up behind us, “or pretty boy here gets his brains blown out.”

Purchase Your Copy:

Monday, August 19, 2019

#StormInATeacup, #Onelumportwo,vicar by Ashe Barker


I live in Yorkshire, in the UK. For Yorkshire folk, tea is something akin to a religion. The elaborate tea ceremonies of the Japanese are as nothing compared to the rigmarole of preparing a decent cuppa in this part of the world.

The first dilemma – teabags or loose tea? The traditionalists favour loose, of course, which has the added bonus that you can read your fortune in the tea leaves left at the bottom of the cup. But tea-making with loose tea and fortune telling are both something of a dying art and by far the most popular choice is the humble teabag.

Simple, clean, accurately measured. You can’t go wrong.

Except, there is the next dilemma to overcome. Do you make it straight in the cup, or in a teapot to then pour out? Personally, I prefer the teapot approach, but I am in the minority in my house where the teapot is seen as just another thing to have to wash up.

Does the milk go in first, or the tea? Or even the sugar? What if you prefer your tea black?
Should it be strong, so strong the spoon almost stands up on its own? In God’s Own County of Yorkshire we call that builders’ tea. Or weak (known round here as witches piss) so that when you add a good drop of milk you get something the colour of chicken soup?

Then we come to the crockery itself, and for this there is a carefully choreographed code of etiquette depending on who is to drink the tea.

Posh visitors (i.e. The Queen, future in-laws, bank manager)

Best quality china with dainty handles, all cups and saucers must match, as well as sugar bowl with little knobbly lumps of white sugar and a milk jug; no chips or scratches.
Expensive chocolate biscuits or buttered scones
Not quite so posh but still need impressing (e.g. the vicar, the doctor, her from next door who you don’t know that well)
Good quality china, matching set, sugar bowl and jug. Granulated sugar permissible. Chocolate biscuits or scones
Casual acquaintances
Cups or mugs, still matching, sugar bowl and milk jug optional. Hobnobs (not the chocolate variety) no scones.
Ordinary friends and family
Mugs, not necessarily matching. Milk in bottle or carton. No sugar because it is bad for them.
Their choice of biscuits or scones
Folk you don’t want to encourage (inquisitive neighbours, insurance salemen)
Chipped cup or mug, milk in bottle, no sugar, plain digestives.
People you definitely don’t like (PPI salesmen, door-stepping religious evangelists, selected in laws.
Chipped mugs, preferably no handles. No biscuits. No milk or sugar.

So, there you have it, the noble and ancient art of tea snobbery.

One lump or two, vicar?


Saturday, August 17, 2019

More Victorian kink! #AnonymousSex #SecretDiary #Tea

Mirandas Masks Cover

For today’s promo post, I thought I’d continue the Victorian theme from my post earlier in the month by sharing a bit from Miranda’s Masks. Although technically contemporary erotica, this novel includes a parallel historical sub-plot detailed in the secret diary discovered by Miranda, the heroine, who happens to be writing a doctoral dissertation on Victorian erotica.

Here’s a kinky bit from that diary, for your reading pleasure!

Now is my degradation complete, my shame unfathomable. Now I know how deeply corrupt, how irredeemable, I truly am. I should be wearing coarse stuff, on my knees in the church, weeping and praying for forgiveness.

Instead, I sit here at my dressing table, compounding my sins by setting them down in writing. Sinning again, in fact, as I relive them, describe them, rolling the dark flavors around in my mind like sweetmeats on my tongue. In the mirror before me, I see my face is flushed, my eyes sparkle, the pulse is quick where the lace of my dressing gown reveals my throat. Oh, the shame makes me more beautiful, the shame and the tender pain of silk caressing my stripes.

I had completed a productive afternoon of errands and sent Pauline home with the packages, while I stopped at my favorite tea room on Newbury Street for some refreshment. My thoughts focused solely on domestic issues as I sipped my oolong. New shoes for Daniel, refitting the parlor drapes, the pearl earrings I had chosen for Margaret Booth’s daughter, to be married next month. The attractions of the flesh had never been further from my mind.

Something tickled the edge of my consciousness, distracting me from my mundane reverie. I looked up, slightly startled, and there he was, staring at me rudely from his table in the corner. When our eyes met, I felt that shock, familiar and yet always new. Recognition in the eyes of a stranger, secret knowledge. I might as well have been naked.

He was richly dressed in a fine costume of maroon wool, of the latest cut. A gold watch and chain were prominently displayed across his brocade waistcoat. Still, my immediate thought was that this was no gentleman. His complexion was swarthy and his features rather uneven. His brow bespoke intelligence, but his narrow lips had a cruel cast. His thick black hair, though well-groomed, was a bit too long to be proper.

A mental voice urged me to rise and leave the place, but I could not move. His gaze held me transfixed. Thus snakes are said to render their prey immobile and vulnerable. Before I could think or take action, he had approached my table, and was kissing my hand.

Madame,” he said, his voice deep and resonant, with the hint of a foreign accent. “Will you accompany me? I feel that we have some common interests to discuss.”

Sir, I do not know to what interests you refer,” I replied demurely, though of course I had some idea.

In response, he brought his walking stick up between my legs, raising my skirts almost to my knees.

I looked around in panic. All the other customers seemed to be occupied with their own conversations. “My dear, do not play the innocent with me. I know who you are. I know what you want.”

He let my petticoats drop back into place and offered me his arm. “Shall we?”

I fumbled in my purse for money to pay the tariff, but he waved it aside. “I have already settled that matter. Come, my coach is waiting.”

My escort’s carriage was in keeping with his clothing, richly ornamented and expensive. The driver gave me an odd look as we climbed in, simultaneously lustful and resentful. He wore lavish maroon livery, but he was unshaven and rough-looking. Like his master, he seemed to be acting a part.

I settled myself on the velvet upholstery, feeling more and more nervous. My companion leaned out the window, signaling the coachman to proceed. Then he reached into his coat pocket and retrieved a white silk handkerchief.

For reasons that I am sure you will understand, my dear, I must blindfold you. I cannot have my partners seeking me out after we have concluded our little diversions.” I did not resist as he bound the cool silk around my brow. I could sympathize with his concerns.

The coach galloped on for perhaps three-quarters of an hour. I tried to judge by sound where we were or at least what direction we had taken. Very soon, it seemed, we left the bustle of the city behind. We must have been in one of the fashionable suburbs, Brookline, or Newton. The warmth of the late afternoon sun, slanting in through the window, suggested we were travelling southwest.

My companion neither spoke nor touched me during the trip. However, I was acutely aware of his presence beside me, radiating a kind of magnetic attraction that made me perspire under my layers of clothing. I kept my hands tightly clasped in my lap, resisting the urge to touch him. Indeed, I had the sense that he was tempting me, testing me, with his physical closeness and psychic distance.

At last we slowed our pace and turned into a drive. I heard gravel crunching under the wheels. My companion removed the blindfold, and I saw that we had stopped before a gracious residence, surrounded by gardens. He handed me down from the carriage, and I naturally turned toward the main entrance, with its fanlight and leaded panes.

No,” he said sharply, reaching out to grab my hand. I looked at him, puzzled. He gave a little laugh. “No, I think it is the stables for you. Go on now, follow Montrose.”

The coachman leered at me. I was about to object, full of righteous disdain, when I realized several things. First, I was alone and unprotected here, in some unknown house, far from the help of any friend. Second, despite both fear and indignation, I was mightily aroused. The trip in the carriage had taken its toll on my senses. I desperately wanted to be touched by the mysterious, dark gentleman with the suspicious accent.

Still, I hesitated. My abductor frowned. “You do not want to cross me, Madame. Do you?”

I felt suddenly meek and pliant. “No, sir. Of course not.”

Then do my bidding. To the stables.” He lifted his stick and gave me a solid whack on the buttocks. My bustle absorbed most of the force, but the act was so surprising, I could only stare. He raised the stick again. “Now!”

I needed no more persuasion. I followed the surly driver across the gravel to the barn. He slid the door open, and my nostrils twitched at the rich blend of smells: leather, hay, manure. The interior was dim; the only window was a grimy square of glass high up on the wall. Several fine horses glanced at me as I stumbled across the threshold, but they soon lost interest.

I stood in the middle of the room, my boots buried to the ankles in the straw, at a complete loss. Montrose lit a kerosene lantern, adding to the pungent combination of smells. His master sauntered into the building and looked me over. My confusion must have been apparent, for he smiled, came over and cupped my chin in his hand.

Now, little angel, it is time for you to prove yourself. Do you want to please me?”

I nodded, spellbound by his dark gaze.

I can see your soul, little one. It is dark. You need discipline, punishment. You need a strong hand, like mine.”

I need a strong cock, my mind screamed, but outwardly I remained silent and demure.

Remove your clothing,” he said. I was about to resist, on principle, but his eyes cowed me. “Do it yourself, or if you prefer, I will have Montrose do it for you.”

My skin crawled at the thought of that degenerate touching me. As quickly and gracefully as I could, I shed my overskirt, bustle, underskirt, petticoats, and waist. Now I wore only my drawers, stockings, corset and chemise. I went to undo the corset, but no matter how I tried, I could not reach the lacings.

Please, Sir,” I said, turning my back to him, embarrassed and excited. “I cannot manage my stays by myself. Would you assist me?”

With pleasure,” he said. Finally, his hands were on me, surprisingly competent as they released the cords and loosened the confining garment. Please, I thought, let him touch my breasts, and he did, reaching around to cup them in his palms. Only for a moment, though, then he turned me around to face him.

You are very lovely, Madame. You would tempt the devil. Off with the chemise and the drawers. Montrose, bring the bonds.”

Buy Links









Thursday, August 15, 2019

Revelations

by Jean Roberta

The following scene in my story “The Feast of the Epiphany” is definitely stormy, but it includes glasses of wine and bowls of soup rather than cups of tea.



This story first appeared in Coming Together: Into the Light, a more-or-less erotic anthology of stories about surprises and discoveries. The "Coming Together" anthologies are sold to raise money for good causes.

Consider the context: I suspect that most people have taken part in a meal at which someone makes a unexpected announcement to a group of relatives or friends. The scene in which a young-adult son or daughter “comes out” to the rest of the family has almost become a movie cliché, but the revelation of a secret can be more complicated than it is usually shown.

In my story, Joanne (the narrator) is divorced from Peter, and she has a crush on Wendy, who seems like a more experienced dyke. Joanne has agreed to go out for supper with Wendy and her friends Mark and Roland, who seem to be a gay couple. All four friends, who would all say they are “not religious,” are ironically celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany, one of the oldest Christian holidays, when the wise men supposedly arrived at Bethlehem in January to see the baby Jesus. (This is also called Twelfth Night.) An epiphany is a revelation, and all sorts of secrets are revealed over supper, including the waiter’s interest in the proceedings, and his role as a referee.

This story is from my newest collection, Spring Fever and Other Sapphic Encounters (Renaissance Publishing, 2019).

We sit across from each other at a corner table while the waiter makes a show of lighting a candle which must then be covered by its little shade. He seems to be going out of his way to be gracious –- because he needs good tips to pay his post-holiday bills? Because he wants us to know that he is willing to serve two women who look like a couple? Because he knows we are waiting for two men who are entitled to good service?
The waiter offers to take our coats, and we hand them to him. He goes away, leaving us to enjoy the warmth and the dim light.

Wendy leans forward. “Joanne -–“

A gust of cool air brings Mark and Roland toward us, led by the waiter. Roland’s dark hair and sideburns are literally frosted, and Mark looks like a skinny homeless puppy, teeth chattering from the cold. “It’s damn cold,” says Mark as though we don’t know this. “We had to park halfway down the block.”

They settle into their seats, rubbing their hands. Roland looks around the restaurant, then lets his gaze caress my hair (medium-short, streaked-blonde) and linger on my necklace (a pearl pendant from before Peter) and the neckline of my dress. He smiles.

“So what are you lovely ladies drinking?” asks Mark. We all agree to share two bottles of wine, one red, one white.
The waiter returns. Wendy and Mark order the steak and seafood. I’m not sure I can eat all of it, but I am feeling greedy and decide that I can justify the cost to myself if one-third of my meal becomes tomorrow’s lunch. Roland orders a steak by itself.

The waiter is not yet out of earshot when Wendy announces her agenda. “Let’s tell each other what we all did for the holidays.”

Mark grins. “How we kept warm. Man, this is a great season for hooking up.” I look at Roland. I’ve never been told that they have an open relationship. Maybe they haven’t opened that can of worms yet.

Roland looks at Mark, and takes a contemptuous swig from his glass of ice water. “If you don’t care who you hook up with.” The ice clinks as the glass is placed firmly back on the table.

Mark fidgets. “Hey Ro, we agreed to have a good time tonight. No flaming at this table. Not that kind, anyway.”

Wendy leans over and pats Mark on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, baby, I have a thick skin. Roland, we’re all adults here.”

I hate this conversation. Everyone here seems to know something I don’t. I try to keep my face neutral and gaze at the wall beyond Wendy’s head.

She reaches across the table and grabs one of my hands, forcing me to look at her. “Joanne, Mark and I had a thing. It started out as a good friendship, and we didn’t think it would go any further. Well, I didn’t. One time he came over and it got so late that I just invited him to spend the night. My place is closer to his work anyway. It’s really no big deal. We talked about it after he met you” -– she nodded at Roland -– “and I said I would butt out to keep things simple. Obviously, we’re still friends. That’s not going to change.”

“So he can hop into bed with you and your girlfriend and get you pregnant, is that it?” Roland is openly showing his teeth. His hair is free of frost, and now he seems to be steaming. “That’s what all the dykes are doing these days, isn’t it?”

I am really afraid that in an instant, someone’s fist will plow someone else’s mouth. I don’t know who is more likely to strike first, Wendy or Roland. I feel unreasonably responsible for this mess.

“You need to apologize to Joanne,” says Wendy. “She has nothing to do with this.” But I have a stake in the outcome.
Mark is standing up, holding Roland by the shoulder. “What are you doing, man? You knew about her before.”

The waiter appears with the wine, and everyone freezes but me. “Who wants to taste this?” he asks, looking around with raised eyebrows.

“I will.” The resident connoisseur, that’s me. The waiter pours a small amount of wine into my glass with exaggerated concern. The look of it reminds me of fresh blood. I take a sip, nod and say, “Robust and fruity. Very good.” This means go away, and the waiter takes the hint.

“Okay, chill out.” It’s not clear to me if Roland is speaking to the other two or to himself. “I’m not an asshole. I just want to know what the hell is going on. If you’re both straight, you need to stop playing games.” He is looking at Mark.

“Dude, we talked about this.” Mark reaches across the table, and Roland pushes him away.

Wendy is staring hard into Roland’s eyes. “Hey. Roland. Get a grip. You can’t tell me what I am and what I’m not.”

“I think I should just go,” I say quietly, almost hoping no one will hear me or notice my absence.

“Don’t go, Joanne. Please stay. We need to talk.” The look in Wendy’s eyes could melt a stone.

As if to coax me further, the waiter approaches with bowls of soup. Its warm, rich smell reaches us first.

Mark’s expressive face can’t seem to hide anything he feels or thinks. Now he looks upset, and he can’t stop watching Roland. His shaggy hair hangs over his ears in an artless way.

Mark looks feminine to me. Why would Wendy be sexually attracted to him? Because he has the qualities that attract her. They play video games together, and they understand each other. As long as I can keep my own feelings out of the way, it’s not complicated.

Soup is a consolation. The earthy taste of spiced carrots is satisfying, but my stomach isn’t ready for it. I alternate between sips of soup and gulps of wine.

“Is this about sexual identity, Roland? Do you think we all need to be labelled?” Wendy is demanding a logical answer from a man who is choked with emotion. He seems as unable to admit his real fears as any of the heterosexual men I’ve known. Roland is vibrating with the effort not to jump up and lash out.

I feel a surge of compassion for the man who wants to know what the hell is what. Of course he wants a secure relationship, and he wants to avoid being humiliated or left behind. He wants a lifelong, unbreakable promise from his partner, as Peter did. Men like this can’t really get what they feel entitled to, but I can understand why they want it.
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