Asking for it, p.2
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       Asking for It, p.2

         Part #1 of Asking for It series by Lilah Pace
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  Am I overthinking this? Maybe. With a sigh, I let it go—or try to.

  •   •   •

  After my hour with Doreen is up, I take my Civic to the shop, buy a new tire, and drive to the north side of town, up to a small town house with empty packing boxes stacked by the curb.

  “Anybody home?” I call as I walk up the path to the front steps. “Because I feel the need to unpack something today. ”

  Carmen appears at the screen door, a red bandana around her black hair and a broad smile on her face. She wears a T-shirt dress and rubber gloves; obviously I’m not the only one who wants to help out. “Are you a glutton for punishment?”

  “No more than you are. Besides,” I say, gesturing to my cutoff shorts and heather gray T-shirt, “I’m dressed to work. ”

  Page 5

  “Then get in here and work, girl. ”

  As I walk in, I see Carmen’s younger brother Arturo with a hammer in one hand. “Vivienne! I can’t believe we didn’t scare you off for good on moving day. ”

  I give him a hug. “Not yet, anyway. ”

  Carmen and I were randomly assigned as roommates freshman year, because I didn’t have any friends attending UT Austin, and because her best friend from high school changed her college choice at the last minute. We were wary of each other at the start, because two people more different would be hard to find. I’m from New Orleans, from what my mother likes to call “old money” even though not much of the money is left anymore. Carmen is from a small town not far from San Antonio, the daughter of immigrants who worked their way out of poverty. I’m slightly taller than average, slender, and, as Carmen has told me many times, the whitest white girl in the world. She’s short, curvy, and proud of her Mexican heritage. My hair is honey-brown with just enough wave to defy any style I attempt, and my eyes are an uncertain shade of hazel, like they can’t decide whether to be brown or green or gold. Carmen’s hair is a deep, shining, perfectly straight blue-black that I covet nearly as much as her dark brown eyes. I love literature and history, and I littered our dorm room with paperbacks. She loves mathematics, the harder and more abstract the better, and loathes clutter. We hardly dared talk to each other for the first few weeks—but somehow by Christmas break we’d become best friends.

  When her younger sibling, Arturo, followed her to UT Austin two years later, I adopted him too. We took him to parties, made sure he studied for finals, even got him a fake ID. By now he’s the little brother I’ve never had.

  So I understood how protective Carmen felt when Arturo got involved with his first serious girlfriend. I just can’t share her dismay about how it’s turning out.

  “Hey, Vivienne. ” Shay waddles down the stairs, her hands on the small of her back. Her Australian accent makes my name sound like Viv-yin. “Want a Coke?”

  “Maybe in a minute, once I’m hot and sweaty,” I say. “Then I’ll be craving one. ”

  Shay laughs. “Just get them out of the fridge! I swear, the cans are taunting me. ”

  Shay’s doctor told her caffeine was a bad idea during her pregnancy.

  Yeah, Arturo and Shay are young to become parents—only twenty-two years old, still undergraduates. But it’s as though they glow every time they look at each other. I don’t think they got engaged because she got pregnant; I assumed a wedding was inevitable from the first time I saw them together. Sometimes you just know. Whenever I see Arturo and Shay together, I smile.

  Carmen, on the other hand, scowls.

  After we work in the kitchen for a while, unpacking dishes, I glance sideways at Carmen. She’s staring out the window above the sink into the narrow backyard, where Shay and Arturo are giggling as they set up the charcoal grill. I say, “If you’re not careful, your face will freeze like that. ”

  She rolls her eyes at my dumb joke. “I’m just worried. That’s all. A baby . . . I mean, Arturo used to forget to feed our dog. ”

  I laugh. “He’s not a little kid anymore! And he’s got Shay to help him. ”

  “Vivienne, get real. They’re young. They don’t have a dime. Even with their part-time jobs, they can only barely afford to rent a place big enough for a nursery. ” Carmen gestures around us.

  The town house is modest, and I know Arturo and Shay already have to scrimp. That will only get tougher when the baby arrives in three months. Still—“Listen, if money solved every problem, my family would be the happiest in the world. ”

  “I’m not being materialistic. I’m being realistic. Marrying young, before he gets his degree—it scares me. ”

  “A lot of guys might drop out under that kind of pressure,” I admit. “But Arturo’s not ‘most guys. ’ He’d never let anything stop him from taking care of Shay and the baby. ”

  Carmen presses her full lips together. “I like Shay—I’m trying to love her, as a sister—but I resent what she’s done to Arturo’s life. ”

  “She didn’t make the baby on her own, you know. Remember, it takes two to tango. ”

  “Oh, oh, gross. ‘Tango’ in that sentence means ‘have sex,’ and I know you didn’t suggest my baby brother actually had sex. ” Carmen’s smiling now, which counts as a positive sign. “They got pregnant via . . . osmosis. ”

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  “Definitely osmosis. ”

  From outside we hear Shay’s laughter, and we look outside to see Arturo dancing her around the backyard. Arturo is the male version of Carmen: compact, dark, attractive in a way that has as much to do with charisma as appearance. As for Shay, her bare feet are almost hidden by the high green grass as she spins around; her pixie cut is dyed to a shade of red that’s almost maroon. She isn’t easy to cast in the role of Evil Temptress. Instead she’s straight-up Alternative Chick from her horn-rimmed hipster glasses to the roses tattooed around one ankle.

  Carmen says, “I’m trying harder with Shay these days. ”

  “Yeah, I can tell. ”

  That wins me a glare. “I am. I even asked her to invite a few friends along to my party Friday night. You’re still coming, right?

  “Are you nuts? Of course I’m coming to my best friend’s party. ”

  “Well. ” Carmen’s expression turns guilty. “I should tell you I invited Geordie too. ”

  I take a deep breath. “That’s fine. ”

  She gives me a look.

  “I swear. ” Geordie and I promised we’d stay friends. After a whole summer away from each other, we ought to be able to hang out again. The party could be awkward as hell, especially if he drinks too much—but I can handle it.

  “You agreed faster than I thought you would. ” Carmen grabs the box cutter to get us started on our next round of unpacking. “Have you been missing him? Thinking about getting back together?”

  “No. ”

  That isn’t entirely true. I miss Geordie, not as a lover but as a person. Plus I miss sex. I really, truly, definitely miss sex. Maybe the lovemaking with Geordie wasn’t the best, but at least it was something. Since the beginning of the summer I haven’t even had that.

  Our lack of chemistry in the bedroom isn’t the reason Geordie and I split up, but it didn’t help. Even though the sex was okay, he hadn’t given me what I really want. What I need.

  Once again I think of my rescuer—the tall, dark, dangerous man who’d had me at his mercy and walked away—

  I shiver.

  But Carmen doesn’t notice, and I start talking with her about school, the weather, whatever. I try to sweep away my dangerous thoughts along with the dust on the floor.

  •   •   •

  The rest of the week goes like any other for a doctoral student at the UT Austin School of Art. Tuesday, meeting with my advisor and then going to the undergrad art history class where I’m a “teaching assistant,” that is, the person who actually grades all the papers. Wednesday and Thursday, long hours at the School of Information downtown, where I’m doing some research on document preservation. F
riday, some actual studio time with my prints—and I get a couple of really good prints of my favorite etching I’ve done so far this year, one of a man’s hands cradling a dove.

  Why does this image speak so strongly to me? I’m not exactly sure, and in some ways I’d rather not know. Art is mysterious, sometimes; unconscious inspiration is often the most powerful. I need nothing more than the image itself: a man’s strong, large hands—rough, as if from years of labor or combat—cupped around the form of a dove, its bright eyes shining with both fear and life. The interpretation can come later, or not.

  Once I’m done with my prints, I drive home to my little house, a tiny white one-bedroom place, small even among the modest, ramshackle homes just off First Street. Carmen says my place gives her claustrophobia, and Geordie always calls it “the dollhouse. ” But I like my snug little hideaway. Built-in bookshelves line the bedroom walls, and a freestanding brick fireplace divides the kitchen and the living room. My dream home, basically.

  Anyone who walked inside would know a few things about me right away. One, I’m a bibliophile—someone who collects everything from Jane Austen to John le Carré. Two, I’m a sensualist. Only someone in love with texture and color would buy a velvet couch on a grad-school budget, or drape richly woven throws over every other stick of furniture.

  Three, I very much love a little girl named Libby, whose coloring-book pages decorate my refrigerator. One original drawing of hers I even framed and put on the wall. In each corner is the scrawled dedication: To Aunt Vivi.

  No one could look around this room and guess that I don’t see Libby very often, much less why. That remains unknown, which is exactly how I want to keep it.

  What to wear tonight? I don’t want to look too sexy, in case that makes Geordie think I want him back. But I don’t want to look frumpy either. Finally I decide nothing matters more than the heat. In Texas in August, temperatures are scorching even after dark, and bare skin is your best friend. I slide into a denim miniskirt and a black camisole, trusting my silver strappy sandals and dangly earrings to dress it up a bit. Then I swing by the convenience store to pick up a six-pack of beer and head to Carmen’s.

  Page 7

  Her brick red bungalow is within walking distance of some of the great restaurants, clubs, and bars on Congress Street. I have to park my car more than a block away, because this party is one of Carmen’s rare blowouts; as I walk up, I see about ten people laughing and talking on her back patio. No doubt a pitcher of sangria is already making the rounds.

  Arturo shows me in, hugging me with one arm as he holds his beer with the other. Another two or three dozen people fill Carmen’s tiny house, all of them talking and laughing at once, without quite drowning out the thumping of the music from her stereo. The lights are turned down, and a few candles flicker from atop the speakers and the coffee table. Through the glass door that leads to the back patio, I can glimpse a few of the solar torches lighting the yard as softly as fireflies. “About time you got here!” Arturo calls over the din. “We’ll have to catch you up. Do you know everyone?”

  “I don’t think I know anyone. ” This is a little bit of an exaggeration—I recognize a couple of faces—but both Carmen and Arturo attract new friends with constant, magnetic appeal. Me . . . it takes me a lot longer to trust people. To let them in. I have my reasons, and I don’t think it’s a bad way to live, but it’s lonelier sometimes.

  Also, it makes parties awkward.

  Shay comes up to me then, hugging me from behind; the swell of her belly presses against my back. “Introductions time! This is Nicole Mills—hi!—she works with Arturo. Then I’m sure you know Anna Dunham, from Carmen’s department? And Jonny is one of Carmen’s neighbors. ” I try to at least wave to everyone as they’re introduced, but Shay is already guiding me toward the kitchen.

  Carmen’s tiny galley kitchen is cramped even for one person. In the middle of a party, with everyone trying to get to the fridge or the plastic cups, it’s a tight squeeze. Laughing, I try to shimmy between two figures in the darkened kitchen, get pushed right up on some guy—and then go completely still.

  Shay continues, oblivious. “And this is Jonah Marks. He’s a professor in earth sciences. You know that’s where I’m doing my work study this semester, right?”

  The last time I saw him it was late at night, and headlights shone from behind him like a halo. Doesn’t matter. I’d know him anywhere. Only one man ever made me go instantly hot and flushed and weak—or wore such a cool, appraising smile while he did it.

  He’s smiling at me like that right now.

  Tall, Dark, and Dangerous is named Jonah. He’s here with my friends, here in my life. And all my fantasies about the stranger on the road feel even scarier now that he’s not a stranger anymore.


  Our chests are pressed together by the crush of people, and I know he can feel my breasts through my skimpy camisole and the thin cotton of his T-shirt. He cocks his head slightly, and I know he recognizes me too. But he says nothing.

  Shay blithely continues, “Jonah, this is Vivienne Charles. She’s a good friend of ours, Carmen’s old roommate. ”

  I just nod. No words come to me. Once again that mixture of fear and desire surges through my veins, the same kind of fire I imagine injected heroin must feel like—an agony so sweet you’d do anything for it.

  “We’ve met,” Jonah says, never looking away from me.

  “Oh, yeah? That’s UT Austin for you. ” Shay grins, still oblivious to the energy between Jonah and me. “Practically the largest university in the country, but somehow we all cross paths. ”

  “We met just the other night,” I finally manage to say. “On my way back from New Orleans, I had a flat tire. Jonah changed it for me. Thanks again, by the way. ”

  He inclines his head, acknowledging my words as little as possible.

  “Hey, hey. Our hero,” Shay says. “You never mentioned helping someone on the roadside, Jonah. ”

  “It was no big deal. ” With that, Jonah finally breaks eye contact, turns, and walks away. I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding.

  If Shay notices my reaction, she misinterprets it. “Don’t let Jonah get to you. He comes across as rude sometimes, but that’s just his way. I mean, he’s good to work for—doesn’t treat me like his personal servant, the way some of the professors do. But never once have I heard him laugh. ” Shay’s expression turns thoughtful. “Huh. I’m not sure he even can. ”

  “Why did you ask him here tonight? If he’s so—cold. ”

  “I asked a bunch of people from our department. Would’ve been mean to leave him out. ”

  Page 8

  That’s just like Shay. She’d invite someone she barely likes to a party before she’d hurt anyone’s feelings.

  Jonah’s out of sight, and—for Shay, at least—out of mind. She resumes pushing me through the kitchen crowd. “Come on. Time to get you some sangria!”

  It’s not like me, going quiet that way. I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to teach myself to be more assertive, and . . . let’s say I’m getting there. But seeing Tall, Dark, and Dangerous again—finding out that his name is Jonah Marks—he threw me off. Embarrassed me.

  Correction, I tell myself. He didn’t embarrass you. Your fantasies about him make you ashamed. Not the same thing.

  Sometime later on, I’ll find Jonah among the other partygoers. I’ll say something simple and stupid. Basic party chatter. Great song, huh? That kind of thing. Then I’ll thank him again, and it won’t be weird anymore. After that I can walk away from this man for good.

  Right now, though, I need to catch my breath.

  Shay gets me sangria and grabs herself a ginger ale, and starts going on about how she wants to paint the nursery green, but Arturo prefers yellow. I’m excited about the baby and everything, but there’s only so much nursery talk I can take. So I basically zone out, saying “Yeah” and “Of c
ourse” whenever she pauses for a moment.

  Almost against my will, I steal glances across the room at Jonah Marks.

  He’s even more attractive than I remembered. Not beautiful, or gorgeous—any of the adjectives that would apply to a Ralph Lauren model or a boy-band star. Jonah’s features are too rugged for that. Too stark. He looks like the work of a sculptor who didn’t believe in polishing rough edges, who wanted you to see exactly where the chisel had struck. In some ways, he’s aggressively masculine: the dark red henley he’s wearing is tight enough to reveal the powerful muscles of his arms. But in others, Jonah looks strangely vulnerable. His waist is narrow, and his neck is longer than most men’s. His whole body looks as though someone took the macho ideal of a masculine form and brought it almost to the breaking point. Strong—and yet strained, beneath the surface.

  This is a man who could be broken, I think. But he’d be more likely to break you first.

  Jonah moves deeper into the crowd, until I can’t see him any longer. At first I wonder if I could extricate myself from Shay’s nursery-decoration talk to find him; then I wonder why I feel like I need to do that this second.

  Maybe I shouldn’t seek Jonah out at all, if he shakes me up like this. Besides, what would I say? It was incredibly nice of you to help me out the other night. Remember how I treated you like you were probably a serial killer? Yeah, guys love that.

  Then distraction arrives, in the form of Geordie Hilton, aka my ex-boyfriend.

  “Vivienne!” Geordie’s smile is absolutely genuine. In his eyes there’s only the slightest flicker of doubt. He’s glad to see me, but he’s not sure I’ll feel the same.

  To my surprise, I do. “Hey, you. Come here. ”

  We hug each other, the one-armed friendly hug that clearly says We’re not fucking anymore. I’m aware of Shay studying us, and other people too; the first meeting of the exes is always an attention-getter. Right now they’re looking at us half in relief (no fight), half in disappointment (no fight?). Shay sidles away, giving us as much space as this crowded party allows.

  He says, “Did you have a good summer? You never post to Facebook, you know. ” Geordie is the kind of hyper-extrovert who considers avoiding social media nearly criminal.

  “I had a quiet summer, which is exactly what I needed. You?”

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