Asking for it, p.13
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       Asking for It, p.13

         Part #1 of Asking for It series by Lilah Pace
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  Mr. Hale’s adult children from his first marriage have thus far taken no legal role in the proceedings nor made public comment.

  Beneath the article are the usual comments by the dregs of society, complete with one person convinced the situation is Obama’s fault. This is of less interest to me than the photos tucked in beside the text. The first one shows Carter and Lorena Hale in happier days, the two of them standing together at some museum gala—him in a tux, her in a richly embroidered evening jacket, his arm around her shoulders and a glass of champagne in her hand.

  The second one includes Jonah.

  This shot isn’t posed. Jonah is walking out of the courthouse, resolutely not looking at the phalanx of reporters clustered around the steps. Next to him are two other people—a woman with long dark hair that I instantly recognize as his sister, and a man with fair hair and broad shoulders who looks nothing like Jonah, yet seems to be part of the family. To judge by the coats and scarves they all wear, this picture must have been taken not long after “the alleged February incident. ”

  Kip says, “You can’t tell me that’s not intriguing. ”

  “You can’t tell me it’s any of our business,” I say. Yet I’m already turning this sordid situation over in my head, spinning the facets as if Jonah’s psyche is a Rubik’s Cube I could solve.

  I’ve wondered what could have led to Jonah’s fantasy. He insists he would never, ever rape a woman for real, and I believe him. He’s been fiercely protective of me, and of all women. Yet still, he’s fixated on the idea of rape, forcing himself on a woman despite all her protests. I’ve watched his eyes darken as he tore off my clothes. I’ve seen him come inside me while he held me down.

  Maybe . . . maybe he grew up with a violent mother. My mom dropped the ball, and I know it, but she never hit me. I never thought she would, even for a second. How much worse would it have been if she’d waved a gun around and actually threatened to kill me? I can hardly imagine the terror, or the sorrow. After something like that, you’d feel as if there were no safe place in the world.

  So maybe, deep inside, Jonah has this anger at women. But instead of turning out to be a misogynistic shithead, he sublimated his rage into a fucked-up sexual fantasy. Made up for his powerlessness as a boy by imagining having total control over the object of his desire.

  Page 49

  “You’re interested,” Kip said. “Knew you would be. Why don’t I get us another round?” He’s on his feet walking toward the bar before I can even tell him no.

  As long as I’m already neck-deep in this, I might as well dive in. So I leaf through the other stories in Kip’s folder. However, relatively few of them are about Jonah’s immediate family, and those that are mostly date from before the legal battle about Mrs. Hale’s sanity, or control of the company, whichever is really in dispute. Instead I see glossy, society-magazine stuff about the Hales’ charitable giving, an Architectural Digest story about the renovation of Redgrave House, that kind of thing. One article mentions Jonah as a “track star,” which I wouldn’t have guessed. Runners always seem so skinny. Jonah’s body would better suit a swimmer or a diver—lean but powerful.

  The older articles focus on Redgrave House and what appear to be a centuries’ worth of screwed-up people who have lived inside it. Suicide pacts, sex scandals, an alleged haunting: You name it, it happened there. This is probably the most famous house in the world that no one would ever want to live in.

  Enough, I decide. This comes too close to prying for me to be comfortable with it. The CNN stuff, okay, whatever—but the rest of this is Google overkill gone bad. Jonah has respected my privacy, and I’m ashamed not to have respected his.

  Now I’d like to leave, never mind the second round, but Kip is by now deep in flirtation with the bartender. As I learn when my Corona is presented to me, this sexy bartender turns out to be named Ryan, and he’s the most interesting person Kip has met in forever so I have to stay to give Kip an excuse to hang around. I give Kip a look, but what the hell. I sigh, and drink my beer—slowly. Their mating dance continues for another half hour before Kip finally manages to get the guy’s digits.

  The way he carries on as we walk out onto the street, you’d think Kip had won the Olympic decathlon. “Come on, Ryan’s hot. Scorching. Radioactive. And now he’s in my phone. Normally it would take any amount of sexy groveling on Grindr to get that far. ”

  “Sure. Ryan’s gorgeous. ” Not my type, really—short, muscled, like lots of bodybuilders—but that hardly matters, since I’m not Ryan’s type either.

  Kip pouts. “Why aren’t you celebrating my moment of glory?”

  And there’s the opening I was looking for. “Because I try not to meddle in my friends’ love lives. Unlike some people. ”

  “I wasn’t meddling. Simply making sure you were informed. ”

  “How did you even know about—that I’d gone out with Jonah Marks? Whatever your barista source saw, it wasn’t even about that, so . . . ”

  “I have other connections, as you should know. ” Kip’s omniscience is one of the great campus mysteries. “In this case, one of the earth science grad students mentioned that she’d seen the two of you standing rather close at Carmen’s last wingding. ”

  Somebody witnessed my kiss with Jonah after all. “Kip—”

  “No denials, Vivienne, please. They’re so tiresome. Just tell me why you’re trying to defrost that particular block of ice. ”

  Ice? Maybe on the surface. Underneath, Jonah is pure fire. Not that I’m ever going to explain to Kip. “It’s not serious, okay? Can you leave it at that? With Shay and I being so close, and Jonah sort of being one of her bosses—we’d rather not advertise it. Could be awkward, you know?”

  He doesn’t entirely believe me, I can tell, but he doesn’t ask any more questions. “Fine, fine. This fling of yours with Jonah Marks will be but one of the many secrets I keep. At least you’ve finally discovered the joys of casual sex. ”

  I shrug noncommittally. Jonah and I aren’t in a relationship—but I wouldn’t call our arrangement casual. “Why did you go digging up all this stuff anyway? Just for the sake of gossip?” Kip’s all-encompassing curiosity has led him to snoop where he shouldn’t, but never before did I feel like he was being judgmental about someone. Yet he seems wary of my connection to Jonah.

  “Because,” Kip says, “Jonah Marks is a cold man. And a hard man. He doesn’t make friends easily, if at all. Not exactly the right type for you. ”

  “Since when do you know what my ‘type’ is or isn’t?” I ask.

  “All I know is that you need someone who can be gentle with you. ” He sighs. “Because you have serious problems with conflict. ”

  “No, I don’t—”

  Page 50

  “Liar!” Kip looks triumphant. “You can’t bear it whenever people argue in department meetings; it’s like you want to slither under the table. You’re no pushover, but when you have to stand up for yourself? You always do it via e-mail if you can. Rarely on the phone, and never in person. When Professor Prasanna starts shouting about whatever’s ticked her off recently, you flinch. You physically flinch as if you thought a five-foot-tall woman in her sixties was going to hurt you. ”

  . . . I hadn’t realized I did all that, but it’s true. Kip sees even more than I thought he did.

  He continues speaking, his tone gentler. “Geordie Hilton might be a lush, but at least he was always kind. You’re someone who needs kindness, I think. And I don’t know that Jonah Marks is the man to give it to you. ”

  What I need from Jonah has nothing to do with kindness. The only cruelty he shows me is the type I desire.

  I simply repeat, “It’s not serious. ”

  “Fine, fine. ”

  Downtown Austin is quieter than usual tonight. Maybe it’s the first chilly evening driving people indoors, to dig through the back of their closets for sweaters and jackets. Or maybe there’s a more excit
ing place to be just a few blocks away. Whatever it is, Kip and I have this stretch of the street to ourselves, our footsteps echoing slightly from the tall buildings surrounding us. The setting sun paints the mud-colored capitol building a soft russet.

  “Hey,” I say softly. “I don’t need you looking out for me—but I still appreciate the thought. ”

  “I always think of you, Vivienne. Except when I’m thinking about my new future husband, Ryan. ”

  Laughing, I get him to talk more about the many glories of Ryan. Inside, though, I’m deeply and unexpectedly touched. Kip can be a world-class meddler and gossip—but in the end, all he wants is to take care of his friends. To find us a bit of kindness in this world.

  Sixteen

  The next day, the suspense begins.

  I sleep well, knowing Jonah won’t come to my house—but from the moment I get in my car the next morning, every moment is charged.

  Will he be waiting in the backseat? In the stairwell of the art department? Or maybe he’ll be standing in the hallway leading to the restroom at my favorite restaurant. Jonah could find me at any time, in any way.

  Sometimes I try to figure what he has in mind. If he’s not following me, and not coming to my house, then how will this happen? I can’t imagine what Jonah’s planning.

  Of course, that’s the whole point. I won’t know what Jonah’s going to do to me until he does it.

  Sometimes my curiosity piques as I’m sitting at my computer keyboard. It would be so easy to search for Carter Hale Jonah Marks Chicago. If I did, yet more chapters of Jonah’s complicated personal history would unfold for me.

  Then we wouldn’t be strangers. We promised to stay strangers. So I don’t look.

  •   •   •

  “Are you sure this dress looks okay?” Carmen says for about the fourth time since we left her place.

  “You look great. Red is your color. Come on. ” I take her hand and tug her into the benefit.

  The enormous theater has been decorated for the event in the spare-yet-elegant manner of most charity functions: Large plants in every corner, donated by a local nursery. Strands of lights hanging from the ceiling in graceful arcs. Bars in each corner, staffed by the usual grad students in white shirts and black vests. (If I hadn’t won a scholarship, I might be one of them. ) A lectern and microphone wait for various speeches, standing on the stage in front of the red velvet curtains.

  We ran late because Carmen was still neck-deep in math when I came to pick her up, so the gala is already in full swing. Geordie must have been waiting for us the entire time, because he immediately waves and heads in our direction, weaving through the elegantly dressed crowd.

  Tonight’s cocktail reception benefits the public-interest law center Geordie sometimes volunteers with. Austin residents wear casual clothes almost all the time—but give us a chance to dress up, and we’ll take it. Carmen’s red satin sheath shows off her curves to perfection and fits perfectly with the tone of the party: cocktail dresses for the women, tailored suits for the men.

  Me, I’m slightly overdressed. But I come from New Orleans, which means I usually wind up attending a Mardi Gras ball or two in the spring, which means I’m one of the few women who genuinely needs to own a full-length evening gown. This one is simple—emerald-green silk, spaghetti straps, skimming my body to the waist, then widening into a soft, flowing skirt. I adore this dress, and putting it on only twice a year always seems like a waste. Tonight seemed like a great excuse to wear it. However, I’ve already received a few glares from women who seem to think I was trying to show them up. Whatever.

  Page 51

  “There you are!” Geordie holds a plastic glass of something amber in one hand but uses the other arm to hug me and Carmen in turn. His breath smells slightly boozy as his lips brush against my cheek. “Been wondering when the two most beautiful women in Austin would arrive. ”

  Carmen laughs. “Let me know when they get here. ” Geordie shakes his head at her in disbelief, as if wondering how she could deny how gorgeous she is. I’ve got to hand it to the guy; he’s a world-class flirt.

  “So what do we do?” I say. “Walk around, talk about how great it is when lawyers do pro bono work, drink the free wine?” After you pay fifty bucks for a benefit ticket, they don’t bother with a cash bar.

  “That’s pretty much the idea,” Geordie says. “Mingle. Network. Definitely don’t neglect the free wine. And check out the silent auction! Your print’s the prize attraction, Vivienne. ”

  I doubt this. As proud as I am of the etching with the dove, most bidders will be more excited by luxury spa packages, gift certificates to high-end stores, box seats for football games, the usual swag. Still, it’s nice of Geordie to say.

  The free wine turns out to taste like it should be free, so I don’t bother after the first couple swallows. Instead I talk with a few of Geordie’s law school friends and browse through the various artworks and gift certificates laid out for the silent auction. My print is prominently displayed—Thanks, Geordie—and for a moment I try to see it as someone would for the first time. Would they pay attention to the stark lines or the soft curves? The shadows or the light? You’d have to stand very close to notice that the ink I used isn’t black, but a midnight blue.

  I try not to be overly pleased with myself when I see that my print has already received a few bids. But I don’t let myself look at the clipboard in front of the art too closely, because there’s nothing like seeing someone bid five dollars for your work to drag you down. Better to enjoy the party. A smooth-jazz band plays at the far end of the room, so the murmuring of the crowd flows around the soft strains of piano and bass.

  When I wash my hands in the restroom, a woman stands in front of the mirror, reapplying deep red lipstick. The red brightens her smile as she sees me. “I’ve been meaning to tell you all night,” she says. “That’s a fabulous dress. ”

  “Thanks. So is yours. ” The white sequins are dazzling against her dark brown skin, and the high hem reveals her long, gorgeous legs. “And God, I wish I could carry off that haircut. You look amazing. ”

  She laughs. Her natural curls are cut close to her scalp, making her come across as both feminine and bold. “Give short hair a try sometime. You might like it. ”

  If I were ever going to be tempted by a pixie cut, it wouldn’t be tonight. My hair is behaving for once, pinned into a messy updo with some rhinestone clips. I tuck one stray curl back into place, then head back out through the long hallway that leads to the front of the theater. Maybe I’ll bid on that quilt I saw—

  “Hey,” says this guy whose name I can’t quite recall. He’s one of Geordie’s friends . . . Albert? Alphonse? Fortunately, he isn’t trying to start a hallway chat. “Your friend was looking for you—they told me to tell you to meet up backstage. ”

  He must mean Carmen. “Oh, okay. Thanks. ”

  What could have come up? If Carmen needs a private moment in the middle of a big bash, she must be upset about something. I can’t imagine what, though. Surely this isn’t about Shay’s baby shower.

  A side door seems likely to lead backstage. I go through it and see that I’m right—a few steps lead up to the wooden stage, where a couple of rehearsal items lie abandoned: a metal chair, a table, some water bottles people forgot to recycle. But I don’t see Carmen.

  I go up the steps, wondering if she’s on the far side of the stage—

  —and a hand closes over my elbow, hard.

  In the first moment of shock, I try to pull away, staggering on my high heels. Then I realize who has me.

  Jonah’s other hand closes around my mouth. He pulls me close, his gray eyes staring into mine, as he whispers, “Don’t scream. ”

  The growl of his voice makes me shudder—deep and commanding. Even if I didn’t know I could stop this in an instant, I might be too astonished and intimidated to cry for help. His grasp tightens—and all that does is get me
hotter. He’s brought me back to the line between fear and arousal.

  And Jonah’s going to hold me there as long as he wants.

  Page 52

  He pulls me toward the back of the stage, farther away from the hallway, from anyone who might see or stop him. We’re far behind the red curtain. Beyond the velvet, the muffled sounds of the reception swirl, laughter and music; here, there’s no one but me and Jonah.

  Nothing but the way he spins me around and shoves me against the back wall.

  Jonah stands behind me now, both hands clutching my arms as he whispers into my ear, “You don’t move. You don’t talk. Do you hear me?”

  “Yes—”

  He presses his entire body against my back as he brings one hand up to cup my face. His fingers press against my cheeks. “No, no, no. Get it wrong again and you’ll be sorry. You don’t move. You don’t talk. I don’t want to hear a single sound from you. Do you understand?” I manage to nod, and Jonah laughs softly. “There we go. ”

  When he releases me, I remain motionless against the wall. The plaster feels cool against my shaking hands and my flushed cheek. Jonah makes a small sound of satisfaction at my obedience.

  His hands slide outward along my shoulder blades, curving down and around just enough for his fingers to brush the sides of my breasts. But when he realizes I’m wearing a strapless bra, he loses interest. Instead he traces my sides, the indentation at my waist, the swell of my hips. His fingertip teases the faint ridge of my panties, tugging it down slightly even through the thin fabric of my dress. Then he begins drawing up the long skirt of the dress, slowly, the rustle of silk the only sound besides our breathing.

  As my legs and ass are exposed, I feel the sleek fabric of Jonah’s trousers against my skin. He reaches around to slip his fingers down the front of my underwear, scissoring them just over my clit.

  Pleasure arcs through me, and I gasp. Jonah shoves me against the wall again, and now I can feel the long pressure of his cock against my ass, straining through the smooth wool of his suit. He whispers, “You like this, don’t you? I knew you’d like it. I could tell. Because beneath your fancy dress you’re nothing but a whore. ” His fingers resume their massage, slow firm circles that spiral upward inside me until I’m dizzy. “I’m going to prove what a whore you are. ”

 
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