"Holy crap!" Sarah compared the address in her notes to the brass plate on the elaborate wrought-iron gate. "This can't be right." On the other side of the gate was what could only be described as a mansion complete with pillars. It was huge
. The idea of driving her battered Celica up to that monstrosity for a job interview was daunting.
Sarah knew in a flash that she would never be hired. Servility was just not in her nature and her defiance usually manifested itself verbally. Accepting that she would be turned away, Sarah decided that this might be her only chance to see the inside of a house like this. She pulled up to the call box and pushed the Talk button.
"Yes?" The voice was an almost sub-audible bass and stretched the limits of the small speaker's abilities.
Clearing her throat, she said, "My name is Sarah Wylie. I have an appointment for a job interview."
The gate began to swing slowly inward. "Parking is available to the left of the house. You will be met at the front door."
Sarah stifled a laugh. "Thank you." She'd be lucky to make it through
the front door. Somebody was sure to come out and tell her that she was not what the owner had in mind and would she please get her piece of crap car off the estate.
She drove slowly, enjoying the landscaping. It was impossible to tell how much acreage was contained within the stone walls, but every inch of what she could see was carefully tended. The lawn could have graced a world class golf course and the trees appeared to have been groomed for effect. Off to one side was a charming little gazebo in the midst of flowering bushes. Sarah shook her head. She could have easily spent most of the day exploring the grounds alone.
She parked next to an expensive looking black Mercedes just for the fun of it. Her little red Toyota looked especially pathetic and she wondered if the owner of the Benz was watching out a window to see if she was going to dent the door. Sarah was grinning when she stepped out of her car. This had ceased to be a job interview and instead became a farcical adventure.
Figuring her purse would be safe, Sarah left it in the passenger seat of her car and headed for the front steps. The house was much larger than it appeared from the road and it loomed over her as she walked between smooth marble columns.
The door opened before she could knock and the open space was filled with the biggest, blackest man she had ever seen. At five foot five and 126 pounds, Sarah was dwarfed. He had to be closer to seven feet tall than six and she estimated his weight at well over 300 pounds. He wasn't fat by any means. His shoulders and chest were straining the seams of his black suit, but his hips were comparatively slim. His head was clean-shaven and he was so obviously meant to be threatening that Sarah couldn't help but giggle. She might have been intimidated but for his warm, liquid eyes.
She put her hand out. "Hi. I'm Sarah Wylie."
His hand swallowed hers and his voice rumbled more impressively than the gate speaker had allowed. "Mr. Crisp is expecting you, Miss Wylie."
"Oh, please," she laughed. "I just got here. I can't be in trouble already. Call me Sarah."
The big man smiled back. "Very well, Sarah. My name is Pete. If you'll follow me?"
Sarah stepped past him into the house and froze. "Wow." It was too much to take in all at once. A massive chandelier hung twenty feet or more above the tiled floor and a long, curved staircase of dark, polished wood ran along one wall. Antique tables with vases, figurines and flowers seemed to be everywhere. Prominent on one wall was a very old photograph of a nude woman blown up to near life size. As beautiful as the model was, Sarah was too overwhelmed by the opulence around her to really study it. "Wow," she repeated.
Rooms opened off to the sides of the entryway and Sarah went to the closest one. She stood in the open door and glanced around what looked like a living room. Not any living room she had ever been in before, granted, but she could imagine people sitting in it and visiting after dinner.
"Mr. Crisp is waiting," Pete rumbled behind her.
Sarah jumped to his side and let him lead the way. "Are you the butler?"
His chuckle reverberated off the walls. "In a manner of speaking, yes."
"I've never met a butler before," Sarah admitted. "Do you like your job?"
He nodded. "It's the best job I've ever had."
"What do you do when you aren't answering the door?"
Pete smiled down at her with his even white teeth. "I coordinate the staff and take care of scheduling."
As unlikely as it was, Sarah asked, "So, if I get hired you'll be my supervisor?"
Sarah kept one eye on the rooms they passed and the other on Pete. "Why aren't you the one doing the interview?"
He just smiled at her and stopped at a door. He knocked twice and opened it. "Your interview is here, Mr. Crisp."
"Show her in."
The voice was smooth and in the high tenor range. Sarah stepped inside and halted in confusion. A tall, slim woman was coming around the side of an ornate desk to shake her hand. She was dressed in slacks, shirt sleeves and a sweater vest and her hair was brutally short, but Sarah knew instantly that she was looking at a woman. She took the offered hand in her own and knew she was right from the softness of the skin. "Mr.
"Sarah," she corrected automatically.
"Sarah, then. Thanks, Pete."
"You're welcome, sir." The big man quietly left the room and closed the door.
Mr. Crisp pointed at a chair and Sarah used the time getting comfortable to rearrange her perceptions. If Mr.
Crisp wanted everyone to think she was a man it was none of Sarah's business. Besides, rich people were supposed to be eccentric, weren't they? It could even be that Mr. Crisp was transgendered. Maybe he used to be
a woman. Sarah relaxed. That had to be it and, as such, it would be inappropriate for her to continue to think of him as a woman.
"You have a beautiful home," she said as Mr. Crisp sat.
"Thank you. Perhaps, if things work out, you'll get a tour." Mr. Crisp opened a file on his desk and looked at it briefly before sitting back. "Why don't you tell me a little about yourself?"
Sarah nodded. "I'm an only child from a small town upstate and I'm a senior at the University. I'm majoring in Small Business Administration." She didn't know what else to say so she fell silent.
Mr. Crisp hesitated a moment. "I did a little checking," he said evenly. "You're an honor student currently ranked fifth in your class. You won a 'full-ride' scholarship on academics. Very impressive."
"Thank you," she said for lack of anything better to say. She hadn't known her ranking and it surprised her that she was so high.
"Why did you choose Business Administration?"
Feeling like she had nothing to lose, Sarah told the truth. "I want to be in control of my life. I don't like feeling that I don't have choices and I don't like being bossed around. I tend to shoot my mouth off and if I want steady employment, I'll have to be my own boss."
Mr. Crisp smiled. "That sounds reasonable. May I ask why you aren't in a sorority?"
"I'm here to get an education," Sarah explained. "There are certain advantages to being a member of a sorority down the line, but I decided I didn't need the parties and the frat boys taking time away from my studies."
"Why are you looking for work?"
Sarah folded her hands in her lap. "I'm tired of living in the dorm and trading my spare time working in the student union for meals. It's easy and convenient, but it lacks privacy and it makes me feel dependent. I graduate next summer and I'll be totally on my own for the first time. It seems to me that my future would be best served if I can get a foot out the door while I still have some security to fall back on. There won't be any place to go when I graduate and I'd just as soon be ready." Mr. Crisp was nodding with seeming approval. "I found your ad for a housekeeper posted on the job board outside the student union. I was interested primarily because of the flexible hours, the room option and the generous salary."
"You're very straight forward," Mr. Crisp said.
Sarah shrugged. "I don't have anything to lose. I can afford to be."
He cocked his head with interest. "Why don't you have anything to lose?"
Sarah gestured to include the house. "I can't see myself fitting in here, can you? I'm sorry to be wasting your time like this, but I really wanted an opportunity to see the inside of your house."
Mr. Crisp leaned forward. "Why wouldn't you fit in here? Why do you say that?"
"I'm not the servant type," Sarah admitted. "I have problems with authority."
Mr. Crisp laughed easily. "I don't need a servant. I need a housekeeper. If you aren't interested, I'll get Pete to show you around. If you are, I have some more questions."
Sarah suddenly realized that she was being awfully flippant to a prospective employer and she straightened up. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry, Sarah. I like
your attitude and moxie is a job requirement. I just need to know if you're serious about getting a job."
"Okay." He leaned back over the file and studied it. "I see you turned twenty-one last month. Congratulations." He grinned up at her. "Did you go out and get drunk?"
"No," Sarah admitted. She neglected to say that the friends she had were not the kind of friends she could go drinking with. They were her study buddies only. "I did buy a bottle of wine, but I haven't opened it yet."
"Saving it for a special occasion?"
Sarah grinned. "I forgot to buy a corkscrew."
Mr. Crisp chuckled. "I take it you don't have a drinking problem then."
"Not at the moment."
"I've never felt the need to do drugs."
"Good." He turned a page. "You're carrying a very full load of classes. Are you going to be able to juggle school, studying and work?"
"Absolutely. I started working at fourteen in a burger stand and managed to win a scholarship at the same time. The last three years have been almost too easy."
Mr. Crisp flipped through a couple of pages and pulled one out. "Jimmy's Burger Shack. He gives you a stellar recommendation."
Sarah frowned. She had only called for an appointment yesterday. The fact that Mr. Crisp already had a file on her was a little disconcerting. "Where did you get all of that information? What does it include?"
"I believe I mentioned on the phone yesterday that I would do a security check. The recommendation was received by fax only this morning, and the rest of this was taken from the Internet." Mr. Crisp went page by page and handed each to her as he read them off. "You've never had a ticket or an accident. Your credit is good, if sparse. This is your transcript from the University and this one is from your high school. Near perfect marks all around. In high school, you played tennis, belonged to all of the academic clubs, and you were captain of the chess club, but you haven't joined any groups or extracurricular activities at the University."
"I thought this information was private," Sarah said.
"Nothing is private anymore," Mr. Crisp replied. "It's scary, isn't it?"
Sarah nodded. "It's not that I have anything to hide, but it is a little scary." She handed the papers back to him reluctantly.
"Do you have any objections to housekeeping?" he asked.
Sarah shook her head. "It's not what
you do for a living that matters. Only that you take pride in doing it well."
Mr. Crisp closed the file and leaned back in his leather chair. "Do you have any questions?"
Sarah blinked. "Are you seriously considering me for the job?"
Leaning back with a sigh, Sarah put her mind to it. "I need to know more about the job. How many hours; which days; how flexible-that sort of thing."
"I have a handful of rooms upstairs that need to be cleaned after parties. In a normal week I'd need your services on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, but occasionally the party lasts all weekend and you'd only work after the party ended. My guests do a lot of the cleanup themselves. Your job would be to make sure it's done right. It's very detailed work and-depending on how many guests I've had-can take anywhere from two to eight hours per day to complete."
Sarah nodded. "What's the salary?"
She almost choked on her own spit when Mr. Crisp named a figure. "Of course," he continued, "that amount drops by a third if you elect to live on the estate. But it includes all of your utilities and cable and such. Pete has all of those details."
"I'd be living here in the house?"
"No. There are cottages out back." Mr. Crisp waved at the roof over his head. "They are nothing like this, of course, but they are clean, comfortable and, if you wish, fully furnished."
Sarah couldn't believe her luck. She briefly wished she could start the whole interview over. "What exactly is the nature of the parties? I mean, this seems a little too good to be true."
Mr. Crisp steepled his fingers. "Here's where it gets a little tricky."
Sarah waited for the bad news.
"I've interviewed four people for this job so far. All were students, by the way. You seem to be the most likely candidate. I'd be happy to show you the cottage that's currently available and allow you to talk to some of my employees to ease your concerns. But, before I can discuss the job particulars with you I'll need you to sign a confidentiality agreement. It does not bind you to any obligations in regard to the position; only to the information I need to provide you with regarding your duties here. If
you decide to accept."
Sarah felt suddenly nervous and unsure. "A confidentiality agreement?"
"Yes. Would you like to read it?"
Sarah nodded and a simple form was handed to her. It seemed pretty straightforward. She couldn't discuss Mr. Crisp, his employees, the guests or any activities of the house with anyone except those people. It also had a clause specifically releasing her from the agreement if she were to witness any illegal activities. That last bit eased some of her fears. "I've never had to sign one of these before. Did the other applicants sign them, too?"
"I didn't offer them the chance."
"Why me?" She couldn't help asking. "You've hardly asked me anything."
Mr. Crisp smiled at her. "As I mentioned before, I like your attitude. You have spirit. I like that in my employees. If I wanted people who would run around kissing my butt, I could have them by the truckload, but that kind of person usually tends to stab one in the back at the earliest opportunity. I'd rather have staff who aren't afraid to speak their minds: people who can think for themselves. People who stand up for themselves."
Sarah looked down at the paper in her hand. "How likely is it that I'll see something illegal?"
"Not very," Mr. Crisp said easily. "Privacy is highly
valued here. That clause helps to insure that my guests will be on their best behavior."
Curiosity prompted Sarah to sign the paper. Mr. Crisp's signature was all but unreadable. He ran it through a fax machine and gave her the copy.
"So, what's the big secret?"
Mr. Crisp picked up a pen and began weaving it dexterously through his long fingers. "How do you feel about BDSM?"
Mr. Crisp smiled with one side of his full mouth. "Sadomasochism. Dominance. Bondage. Submission."
"Um." Sarah tried desperately to think of a casual response and came up empty. "I don't think it's legal for you to ask me something like that."
"It's not," he admitted. "Your sexual proclivities are none of my business. But, the question is relevant. How do you feel about it?"
Sarah didn't want to appear as young and naive as she felt. "I suppose I don't really have an opinion as yet. Everything I know about it has been gleaned from television and veiled reference and I've learned to take that kind of information with a grain of salt." She swallowed nervously. "If participation in S&M is a part of the job, I'd like to know up front. I don't want to waste any more of your time."
Mr. Crisp nodded as if pleased. "Participation is not required and, in fact, is generally discouraged amongst my staff. I hate to go to all the work of hiring and training good people only to have to train their replacements when they decide to become players."
Mr. Crisp stood up and moved around the desk to sit on a leather love seat. He crossed one long leg over the other and set a boot to swinging idly. "I make a portion of my home available to select members of the community who wish to indulge in scenes of BDSM with other like minded people. We like to call each other 'players'." He was watching Sarah intently. "Such a mild, almost lighthearted word for the degenerate, morally reprehensible things we do together, don't you think?"
Sarah turned in her chair to face him more directly. "If that's how you feel about it, why do you allow it in your home?"
"It's not how I feel," he clarified. "It's how society teaches us to feel about it. Pain is perceived as bad, so those who engage in it for sexual reasons must be bad. Maybe our brains perceive pain differently and it feels like pleasure to us. More likely, we are all budding serial killers or rapists. Some think that we must have been abused as children and are incapable of giving and receiving love and tenderness to each other because we are emotionally handicapped. Perhaps we worship Satan. There are as many reasons as there are people. I'm sure you have your own preconceived notions."
Sarah wasn't sure why she was going to come out, but her instincts were screaming for her to do it. "It's not really my place to judge. I'm perceived as a pervert myself because I'm a lesbian, so I'm inclined to embrace those who are different. If for no other reason, then for the moral support. I will admit, however, that...BDSM... makes me a little uncomfortable."
"That's perfectly understandable. I appreciate your honesty."
"So." She had expected more reaction to her coming out, but he didn't seem to have any feelings about it either way. "The job is cleaning up the rooms after they play?"
"Yes, it is. Are you still interested?"
Sarah couldn't help a grimace. "Are we talking about blood and fluids everywhere?"
Mr. Crisp smiled gently. "It's not as bad as you think. You will
come in contact with a variety of bodily fluids, but most of the time you won't be aware of it. Bloodletting is not allowed here and condoms are required. If you take the job, you'll be trained to clean safely-not only for the benefit of the players, but for yourself as well. Everyone is screened every three months for sexually transmitted diseases and so far we've been extremely fortunate. Our continued safety will rest almost entirely in your hands. That's why it pays as much as it does. Peoples lives will count on you and your attention to detail. Are you up to that kind of responsibility?"
Sarah took a moment to consider. She knew the responsibility was not an issue for her. She had worked with people's food for years and had taken it very seriously. This wouldn't be much different. Her concern was that she was going to be exposing herself to a very different kind of life and she had to be concerned with how it would affect her future. Would it work against her at some point? The money was great. If the house were any indication, the cottage would be more than good enough. She was only twenty-five minutes from school and she couldn't beat the hours. But, was she willing to clean up after a sex club? How would that look on her resume? Everything else about it was perfect.
Taking a deep breath, she smiled at Mr. Crisp. "I'll be very good at this job. You can't afford to let me get away."
"Excellent," he chuckled. "But, before you decide, let's take a walk. You should see the rooms you'll be cleaning and I expect you'd like a look at the cottage."
Sarah had to trot to keep up as Mr. Crisp led her back to the entry hall and up the grand staircase. "I'm sorry if I was a bit belligerent earlier," she explained to his back. "It's just that I saw this house and I got it in my head that you would never hire me and I got defensive."
"No offense was taken," he said easily. Stopping at a set of doors, he considered her seriously. "This will seem frightening and intimidating to one who's never seen it before. I assure you that everything that takes place here is consensual. No one is forced to come here and no one is ever prevented from leaving. You
are completely safe here. If it will make you feel more comfortable, I'll stay out here and let you look around on your own. I tend to make people nervous."
Sarah smiled up at him. "It's sweet of you to offer, but I'm not afraid of you."
One of Mr. Crisp's eyebrows jerked upwards in surprise and he nodded. "Very well."
At first glance it was just a large room. Sarah made it about three steps inside before the bottom dropped out of her stomach and all of her hair stood up. Maybe it was the high ceiling that made the room look larger, but it was at least seventy feet on a side, if not more. In the center of the room was a sitting area with couches and love seats and that was the first thing Sarah saw. Once inside her eyes were drawn to other things.
Along the edges of the room was an odd array of devices. Work out benches, medical exam tables, gymnastic vaults, small tables and things she didn't know the names of filled up all of the empty spaces any normal room would have. Everything had cuffs, straps and tie-downs on it. It was perfectly clear to her what it was all for.
On the walls there were pictures of people in bondage and every imaginable kind of paddle, whip, cane and crop. In spite of being terrified, Sarah could appreciate that this was probably an impressive collection. Intimidating was a very mild term for what this room made her feel.
"Breathe, Sarah." Mr. Crisp's voice was low and gentle, but insistent. "Deep breaths. In through your nose and out through your mouth."
Suddenly aware that she was hyperventilating, Sarah shook the tension from her arms like drops of water and dropped into a breathing exercise she'd learned doing yoga. Born with a great deal of flexibility, she had started yoga on the advice of a high school gym teacher. She had kept at it because it made her feel good mentally as well as physically. Sarah started each day with a meditation/exercise ritual and she fell into the proper breathing patterns now with ease. Closing her eyes, she invited calm and balance in and expelled fear and conjecture.
"That's it," Mr. Crisp said quietly. "Nothing is happening and you are perfectly safe. You can leave whenever you like or you can stay for a while and look around. No one will touch you or harm you in any way. You
are in control here. Very good. Take your time."
He soothed her like he was talking to a frightened animal, but Sarah was too grateful for the sound of his voice to be insulted. "I'll be okay," she said in a shaky tone.
"Of course you will. You're doing just fine. I know it's a bit of a shock seeing this for the first time. It's meant to be as intimidating as possible. That's how we like it, but it makes it hard to prepare you for it. Even when you think you're prepared, it reaches into your primal mind and triggers things you haven't expected. What can I do to help you? Do you want to step outside for a minute? Would you like to sit down? May I offer you a sports drink or some juice?"
Sarah took a very deep breath and let it out slowly. She opened her eyes and headed for one of the love seats. "If I could just sit down for a moment."
"By all means."
Sitting helped a lot. She felt better almost immediately. Mr. Crisp handed her a small carton of orange juice a few seconds later. She felt a little embarrassed now. "Sorry about that. I didn't mean to freak out."
He perched on the edge of the couch opposite of her with a grin. "You didn't freak out," he said. "I've had people I was interviewing throw up, pass out, run screaming and dissolve in tears. By comparison, you handled it extremely well. Much better than I expected, in fact. I thought you'd be a crier, but I was wrong. I freely admit that I'm impressed."
Sarah tried to laugh and an odd strangled sound came out. "Are you trying to make me feel better?"
"Is it working?"
He looked like a kid trying to charm his way out of trouble. "Yes."
"Good." He slid back on the couch and crossed his legs again. He appeared to be totally at ease and in control.
Sarah drank half of the juice before realizing she had opened it. The tart/sweet taste cleared her senses. "Thanks for the juice."
"You're very welcome. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
Sarah rolled her head around on her neck. She couldn't sit there forever. "May I wander around a little bit?"
"Absolutely. And don't be afraid to ask questions."
Looking at the room again, Sarah noticed half a dozen archways in the side walls. Going to the first one, she looked inside and found a room with a platform type bed covered only by a white sheet, an easy chair and footstool, a pile of geometrically shaped cushions in a variety of sizes and eye bolts on and around everything. She assumed they were for tying things to. The second room was very similar. "These parties . . . ? I assume they are S&M parties?"
"You could say that, but not everyone plays with pain. It would be more accurate to call them fantasy parties. Players arrange carefully scripted scenes with each other to challenge their beliefs, to explore their hidden demons, to stretch their boundaries, plain old curiosity or because it feels good. They have fun with sex, pain, pleasure, drama, fetishes, exhibitionism . . . you name it-someone's done it here."
Sarah set a paddle on the wall to swinging with one finger and looked sideways at the handsome man on the couch. "Don't tell me these are just decorations."
His grin was naughty, yet sophisticated. "No, they're not."
One of the rooms Sarah found had an entire wall of shelves filled with dildos. She knew what they were regardless of the fact she'd never actually seen one. It felt like suddenly finding yourself in a room full of sleeping snakes. One false move and your whole life would change. The sizes, colors and shapes were a revelation. Sarah thought a dildo was a thing, but apparently they were a class
of things. Some of them even looked like glass! Others had knobs and pointy things on them that looked rather painful. A few were truly prodigious in size and made her stomach hurt just looking at them.
The opposite wall was a cabinet with a great many small drawers. Sarah pulled one open that said 'Alligators' and found what she'd always thought of as roach clips, except that these had some sort of black plastic on the teeth. It was a lot to take in all at once and her imagination needed some cooling down time before she started trying to understand, so she closed the drawer and backed out of the room. It would definitely take some time to get used to all of this.
"Are you doing alright?"
"I think so." There was an alcove on the back wall that held a refrigerator, a microwave and a sink. Beside it there was an unmarked door. "What's in there?"
"The cleaning station."
"Can I look?"
Inside was a room that finally made sense. Washer, dryer, dishwasher, vacuum, broom, duster, rags-these things she could understand. This room reduced all of what she had seen into terms she could deal with. This was about doing a job.
Out of sight of her prospective employer, Sarah rubbed her face vigorously and considered her situation. Great money, a place to live off campus, privacy and an easy job lay on one side of the scale. On the other was cleaning up after sex parties. She wanted all of the good things. All she had to do was find a way to deal with her preconceptions. She wouldn't be doing
S&M. There was no shame in cleaning up after them and Sarah was leaning towards taking the job. Surely Mr. Crisp wouldn't tell any future employers exactly
what kind of cleaning she would be doing. There was probably some fancy euphemism for it.
And then there was Mr. Crisp. She liked him. Maybe he was a woman and maybe he wasn't, but he was nice. It seemed like he had a good sense of humor. It might be fun to get to know him a little better. Pete looked like a fun time, too. Sarah might have some doubts about the nature of the work, but she had a good feeling about the people.
With a final cleansing breath, Sarah marched back to the love seat and sat down. "I think I'm okay with this. If you think I'm worth investing in, I'd very much like to be considered for the job."
Mr. Crisp smiled. It looked good on him. "No more questions?"
She was burning with questions, but she said, "Only work related ones. I assume those will be answered if you hire me."
He nodded and leaned forward to put his elbows on his knees. "I take my duties as an employer very seriously. Of all the positions I have on the estate, this one has turned out to be the most difficult one of all. Some of the people I've hired for this job can't take it. Men and women, both. Several of them claimed that the activities that take place here leave a 'psychic stain'. I know it sounds terribly new age, but I happen to agree with them. Some people are more sensitive to the aura than others. They find it difficult to cope with and they start breaking down. They can't sleep and dread coming to the house. They feel sick and start losing weight for no reason. Some get angry and start taking it out on others. Other people go through a brief period of confusion and then they suddenly come to terms with it and everything is fine. Everyone
has a reaction of one sort or another. You will, too. It's important to me that you understand a few things going in."
His face was dead serious and Sarah could tell that he meant every word that he was saying. "First, if it turns out that you can't handle it, it's not a weakness in your character. It's a sensitivity of the heart. It's a good
thing and you should not be embarrassed or ashamed by it. Don't let yourself become damaged emotionally because you're too proud to admit you need help. I'm available to talk whenever you need me. Second, I'm not heartless. If you can't do it, we'll either find you other work to do here on the estate or I'll help you find a job somewhere else that suits you better. You won't be put out on the street at the first sign of difficulty. You have my word. Third, as long as you do your best and honor the confidentiality agreement, you'll have a job here for as long as you want. But, if you put a word in the wrong ear or don't do your job well out of laziness, I'll fire you only minutes before I call my lawyers. I truly hope that I won't ever have to do that. If I thought it was at all likely, I would not be offering you the job. You seem like the kind of person we can trust."
Sarah nodded. It seemed to her that Mr. Crisp had just made a pact with her. If she did a good job and was loyal, he would look out for her and keep her best interests at heart. "It sounds like you take good care of your employees."
"If I expect them to be reliable, caring, honest and trustworthy, they have a right to expect the same from me. Money isn't enough. I need you strong, healthy and focused. If you're ever in trouble or in doubt, come to me. I'm not your daddy-I won't take care of you-but I can be a very good friend."
"Let's go see the cottage."
Sarah stopped running to keep up about halfway to the cottages. She let him stride on ahead and looked around. Trees hid the cottages from the house and gave them the semblance of a neighborhood. There were four cottages together, and each appeared to be nearly as big as the house she had grown up in. White picket fences surrounded them and she could see parking beyond. Mr. Crisp was headed for the one third in line and she was delighted to see it had a porch and a small lawn. She wanted to dance with happiness. It almost didn't matter what the inside was like. It would be her own little place-well, not so little-and she could hardly wait to move in. She thought it would be worth cleaning anything just to be able to call this place home.
He waited for her on the porch with the front door open. "You walk too fast," Sarah teased as she went inside.
"Sorry," he grinned from the porch railing. "It's a tall thing. I'm not in a hurry. Take your time."
Sarah looked around in extreme contentment. It was big. The furniture was pretty and clean. It had a desk big enough to hold her computer. It had lots of outlets, places to hang plants and there was a brand-new mattress-still in the plastic wrapper-on the queen size bed. There was no art on the walls, but Sarah was glad of that. It would have felt like a hotel room otherwise. The bathroom had lush white towels and a claw foot bathtub. The kitchen was ready to cook in and the dining room had an oak table and chairs that looked new. As a student, she didn't have much more than what she could carry, so having kitchen and bathroom stuff provided was a godsend.
"What do you think?" He asked when she finally came back outside.
"My parents don't live in a house this nice." She hugged herself happily. "Are you really offering me the job?"
"I'll take it."
Mr. Crisp nodded. "Are you free tomorrow for a physical?"
"Classes don't start till next week. I'm free all day."
"Okay," he said on an upbeat. "Pending the results of your tests, you're hired. I'll set up an appointment for you when we get back to the house and give you the doctor's address. The results should be back by Thursday. Provided you're healthy, you can start on Friday. Does that work for you?"
"Oh, yeah." Sarah wanted to dance for joy.
The physical took almost two hours. She had expected to have her blood pressure and temperature taken and probably a blood test, but she was checked out head to toe. The only really uncomfortable moment was the pelvic and PAP.
"Wait a minute," she said when she was told to lie back for it. "How much information will Mr. Crisp be getting about this exam?"
Doctor Danby was in her early forties and rather dry looking. "Mr. Crisp is paying for the results only. The details, if they do not impact on your ability to perform the job, are not part of what he will be provided. Is there something you wish to talk about?"
Sarah flushed head to toe. "I'm a virgin," she mumbled.
The doctor smiled with compassion. "Do you mean to say that you have never had a sexual partner or that you are intact?"
Sarah tried to talk out of the side of her mouth as if she could somehow deny that she was actually speaking. "I'm intact."
The doctor patted her knee. "Good for you." She nodded at her assistant who promptly left the room. "Mr. Crisp will not learn this from us. It has no bearing on the job. Have you had a pelvic exam before?"
"Yes. It was horrible."
"This one won't be. I promise. No one in their right mind enjoys these, but there's no reason in the world why it has to be a nightmare. The speculum comes in several different sizes and my nurse will bring one that shouldn't cause you too much trouble."
Sarah almost cried in relief when it was over. It had been only marginally uncomfortable. The last one she had gone through had left her bleeding for most of a day. This one was nothing in comparison.
Waiting until Thursday to hear back was hard. Sarah knew she was healthy and free of disease and she did everything she could to prepare for moving. All of her things were packed. She already had all of her books and supplies for the next semester and had notified her advisor and the dorm mother that she would probably be moving out. With all of the new students arriving, nobody seemed to care much one way or the other.
She was propped up on her bed in the late afternoon skimming the course book for her Business Ethics class when one of the new freshman girls-apparently under the impression that they were all just one big happy family-opened her door without knocking and stepped inside. "You're Sarah Wylie, right?"
"Didn't your mother teach you to knock?" Sarah asked with indignation. "I could have been naked."
"Don't get all excited." This from an eighteen-year-old girl who probably still slept with a teddy bear clutched under her chin. "You haven't got anything I haven't got."
"Except manners," Sarah shot back. "What do you want?"
"Fine," the girl said dramatically as she backed out of the room. "From now on I'll just take messages and leave them on the board."
Sarah bolted off the bed and the girl squealed in fear before tearing off down the hall. Once in the hallway, she could see the payphone receiver dangling and she raced for it. "This is Sarah," she said.
"Good news," Mr. Crisp said brightly.
Sarah sighed in relief. "I knew I was clean," she said, "but thank God anyway."
"You haven't changed your mind, have you?"
"Are you kidding?" Sarah looked around the dorm and could only think about getting out. "When can I move in?"
"Now, if you like."
"I'll be there in an hour and a half."
"Do you need any help moving?"
Sarah laughed. "I'm a student. Everything I own will fit in the back of my car."
"I remember those days," he chuckled. "Pete will meet you when you get here and see you get settled. He'll go over policies and procedures and get your paperwork started. He'll explain everything. Do you need an advance on your first paycheck for food and gas?"
"Nope. But thanks for offering."
"You bet. The first couple of days you'll be training with Emily. She likes to start at 9 in the morning. She'll meet you outside the dungeon tomorrow morning. I don't usually have parties on Thursday night, but it's a special birthday event."
"Hey, Mr. Crisp?" Sarah hunched over the phone for more privacy from the busy hallway. "I can't thank you enough. Really
. You don't know what this means to me."
"You're welcome, Sarah."
Sarah turned in a slow circle after hanging up and thrust her arms in the air. "You all can kiss my ass!" she yelled. "I'm outta here!"
She had all of her things in the car in seven trips and struggled to drive the speed limit to Mr. Crisp's estate. Pete gave her directions to the back gate and its code over the small speaker, then met her in the lot behind her new home. He helped her carry her things inside and they spent nearly an hour filling out forms for employment and the rental. He explained everything with great patience, gave her the house keys and her private phone number, shook her hand and left her alone.
Sarah didn't know what to do next. For the first time in her life she was really alone. Sure, there were people nearby, but she was in her own space and subject to her own rules now. No one was going to bust in unannounced and everything would be exactly where she left it. Aside from hanging her clothes up, she was reluctant to put anything else away. Things would find a place as she needed them.
She hooked her computer up and spent some time getting her study area set up with the printer. The bed was the next project and she pulled linens and blankets from a hall closet and put it together. Aside from the occasional sexual foray into motel rooms, she had never slept in a bed so large. She lay in the center of the bed and tried to envision inviting someone to share it with her.
Sarah had never been in love. Her entire focus since the first week of high school had been on getting a college education and away from her parents for good. Sex was a very satisfying distraction when stress built to an uncomfortable level, but a relationship was out of the question. She had learned in high school to be very up-front about the temporary nature of her liaisons. Girlfriends wanted more of her time and energy than she was willing to give. There would be plenty of time for love when she had her life under control.
At this point, sex was something she engaged in when the need arose. If she couldn't take care of her needs on her own, willing partners weren't hard to find. She could spot the dykes in bars and coffee houses that wanted sex free of involvement and could pretty much take her pick. She insisted on safe sex, which sometimes brought things to a screeching halt, but with the right attitude and enthusiasm most women were willing to try it. It amazed her how ignorant most lesbians were about safe sex. They seemed to think that they were immune to STDs because they couldn't get pregnant by accident. What the one had to do with the other Sarah didn't know, but she was determined not to be a victim of carelessness.
She couldn't remember when she had figured out that she was a lesbian. It seemed like it had always been who she was and it never occurred to her that she should question it. The subject had never come up with her parents. She had no idea if they knew, but suspected that they wouldn't have bothered caring. They had been only marginally less excited about her going off to school than she had been. Sarah had never been close to her parents or them to her. They never came to Open House in grade school or to her school plays. They never attended anything that had been important to her. Their disinterest had stopped bothering her by the time she was ten. She had figured out by then that she was an accident and that they were only together because it was the 'right' thing to do. She had always known that they didn't love each other and were not particularly fond of her either. She hadn't spoken to them since leaving for college and sometimes wondered if they were even still together.
The doorbell rang and Sarah bounced off the bed. Her first visitor! She expected it to be Mr. Crisp, but there was a woman who looked like someone's grandmother on her porch with a big smile and a foil-covered tray. "Hi," Sarah said.
"Welcome to the neighborhood! My name is Maggie and I live next door. I thought you might like something warm to eat. Moving is such a bother."
Sarah could smell pot roast and potatoes as she took the tray. "It smells wonderful. Thank you very much." She glanced at her living room and back to her new neighbor. "Would you like to come in?"
"Only for a minute, dear. I know you're still settling in." Maggie walked inside and looked around. "Oh, good. They took down the awful pictures Tina had in here. Frightful things they were, too. She was very sweet, but Lord, that girl had the worst taste in art."
Sarah set her dinner on the dining table. "I'd offer you something to drink, but I think all I've got is water."
Maggie smiled and pulled two tea bags from her apron pocket. "Why don't you eat while it's hot and I'll make us some tea?"
Sarah didn't have much choice. Maggie made herself at home and Sarah pulled the foil from the tray to see what she had brought. It was
pot roast with potatoes, carrots and pearl onions. There was also asparagus with a dollop of mayonnaise, buttered biscuits and a slice of apple pie.
The meat fell apart when she touched it with her fork and melted in her mouth. "Oh, Maggie, this is wonderful
"Thank you, dear."
Sarah tasted each thing on the tray with perfect enjoyment. "This is absolutely the best food I've ever tasted. Will you marry me?" Maggie waved her off, but her round face held a pleased smile. "Do you work here, too?" she asked between bites.
"I cook for the Master."
Sarah grinned in incredulity. "The Master?"
Maggie shrugged. "Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but he is
the Master of the house and the players."
"Does he prefer to be called that?"
Maggie snorted. "Lord, no! He hates it. Drives him completely crazy." She smiled with a definitely evil cast. "That's part of why I do it. He needs someone to keep him humble and I seem to have a knack for it."
Sarah laughed. "How long have you worked here?"
Maggie poured hot water into two mugs and carried them to the table. "Almost six years now. It doesn't seem that long really. Time changes texture as you get older."
"How did you come to work for Mr. Crisp?" she asked. "Don't take this wrong, but I'm surprised someone like you is willing to work for a man who runs a sex club."
Maggie patted her hand. "The Master didn't invent S&M, dear. It's been around since the beginning of time. Why, even I dabbled on the edges of it in my younger days. I admit I was shocked at first at how openly it was dealt with, but then-I've done some questionable things in my time.
"As to how I started working here?" She squeezed out her tea bag and set it on the corner of Sarah's tray before going on. "I worked as a secretary for nearly forty years in a construction company. I was all set to retire when the company up and went bankrupt. I didn't even see it coming. Personally, I think the son cleaned out the bank accounts and cooked the books, but I couldn't prove anything and my pension was gone."
"That doesn't sound legal," Sarah objected.
"I didn't think so either," Maggie agreed. "But, the lawyer I went to see said it was. I was already past retirement age so I knew I wouldn't be able to find another job, and even if I did, I wouldn't live long enough to earn another pension. I was left with Social Security and I knew I was going to end up in a rest home while I waited to die."
Sarah waved her fork in a circle to prompt her. "What happened?"
Maggie sighed. "I fell apart. I sat in the lawyer's office and started bawling. I didn't know what else to do. Everything I had worked for was gone and I felt more lost and afraid than I had ever felt in my life. I had no family or children to go to and the few friends I had weren't in positions to help. Security came and they carried me out of the office and left me in the hallway. I'm ashamed to say that I sat down on the floor and bawled my eyes out."
She smiled then and her eyes lit up. "Next thing I knew, a beautiful young man sat down beside me and let me cry on his shoulder."
Maggie nodded and there were tears in her eyes. "He listened to my story and asked me if I was a good cook." She patted her ample belly. "I used this as my reference and he hired me on the spot. He promised me that I would always have a place to live and people who would care about me. He takes care of all my medical bills and sends me on a two-week cruise every year, plus I get spending money. I'd do anything for him."
Sarah smiled. It was a lovely story. "Is he a good person?"
"Probably the best person I ever met," Maggie said tenderly. "I know what goes on upstairs. I've seen people carried out the front door because they're too weak or too hurt to walk. None of that matters. The Master has a heart of gold and he shares it at the drop of a hat. He pays for everything, you know. The players don't pay for a thing."
"But," Sarah said with a hitch, "I thought that's how he made a living."
"No, dear. I still don't know how he got his start, but he owns stock in computer games and game systems now. He's very shrewd that way. No one knows how much he's worth, but I know he's not losing money. The players are his hobby, not his livelihood."
Sarah relaxed. She had been concerned that Mr. Crisp was running what amounted to a brothel and hadn't been sure how to reconcile it. Her conscience sighed with relief.
Maggie visited with her long enough for her to finish eating and then left her alone with a warning that she shouldn't feel obligated to feed a large orange cat named Marmalade if he should come to call.
All of the wonderful food made her feel tired, so she spent an hour soaking in her very own tub and crawled into her very own bed to sleep.
Sarah woke up shortly after sunrise and stretched in satisfaction. She couldn't ever remember sleeping so soundly. It was still early, so she made a quick trip to the nearest supermarket and bought enough basic foodstuffs to hold her over for a couple of days. Home again, she made a short pot of coffee and toasted a bagel.
She sat on her front porch to eat and started to fret about the job. Everything depended on her ability to handle it. In spite of Mr. Crisp's assurances, she expected outright carnage. All of the images she had in her head were extremely violent and she wouldn't be surprised to find blood spatters everywhere. By 8:40 she decided it was time to face her demons.
Maggie waved to her from a door she hadn't been through and she went to say hello only to find herself in the kitchen. Her new boss was at the table with a newspaper and smiled at her. "Good morning, Mr. Crisp."
"Morning. Are you ready to work?"
She nodded. "Definitely." She looked over at Maggie. "Thanks again for dinner last night. It was excellent."
"You're welcome, dear. Would you like some coffee?"
"I've already had some, thanks. How do I get upstairs from here?"
Mr. Crisp folded his paper. "I'll take you up. We need to get you some shirts as well." He leaned over to kiss Maggie's cheek before leaving. "Thanks for breakfast."
Their first stop was a small room that held supplies ranging from office products to cleaning solutions to sports drinks. He opened a cupboard and showed Sarah a variety of black shirts that all had STAFF printed in white on front and back.
"Take your pick. There are polo shirts, T-shirts, tank tops and French-cut T-shirts. Take five of whatever you feel comfortable with. If you ever rip one or it wears out, tell Pete and he'll set you up with a replacement."
Sarah went through them quickly, taking a variety of shirts in her size. "I haven't seen Pete or Maggie wearing these."
"They aren't a requirement really. They're more for your protection. In case there are ever players in the house, they identify you as mine-so to speak-and they know not to touch or harass you. I don't think Pete is in any danger for the obvious reasons and Maggie has been with me longer than most of the players. You, on the other hand . . ." his voice trailed off.
Sarah looked at him and saw that his head was cocked to one side and his eyebrows were drawn close together. "Me, what?"
He folded his arms. "Passions among the players run a little high in this house. Sometimes it affects judgment. Until I'm sure they all know that you're off limits, I'd appreciate it if you wore one of those in the house. Never assume there isn't a player somewhere in the house. Sometimes they come here just for a quiet place to visit."
"Okay." Sarah picked a French-cut T-shirt and laid it over a chair back. "Turn around and I'll put this on."
He turned around immediately. "By the way, call me Jordan. When people call me Mr. Crisp it makes me think my dad is nearby."
Sarah pulled her shirt off and dropped it in a chair. "Jordan, then." She pulled on a regular T-shirt and tucked it in. "I'm ready."
Jordan turned with a smile and indicated her shirts with a nod. "You can drop those off in the kitchen and pick them up after you finish working."
Sarah ran to the kitchen and left the shirts by the back door, then ran back to Jordan and followed him upstairs. Emily turned out to be a rather plain woman in her late twenties with the most vivid green eyes she had ever seen.
Jordan introduced them. "Emily, this is Sarah. Your replacement."
Emily smiled and Sarah warmed to her. "Hi."
Jordan put a hand on Sarah's shoulder. "I'll leave you in Emily's capable hands. See you later, Em." He walked away and Sarah resisted the urge to watch him go.
"You ready?" Emily asked.
"I'm a little nervous," she admitted.
Emily took her by the hand. "Don't worry. I was nervous my first day, too. There's nothing to it." She opened the door and led her inside.
Sarah relaxed almost immediately. There was no blood. In fact, it looked almost exactly the same as when she'd been here before.
"How are you doing?" Emily asked.
"I had this terrible image in my head," she laughed. "I can handle this."
"Good." Emily squeezed her hand and let go. "First, last and most important is your safety. Come on. I'll show you what to do."
Boiled down to simple terms, all she did was basically dishwashing, polishing, dusting and vacuuming. The beds in the side rooms only needed a single sheet changed and there were towels to collect that had stuff on them Sarah wasn't ready to think about, but it all fit in one washer load. The hardest part of the job turned out to be handling the toys, but only because she was embarrassed by them.
At least she didn't have to collect them. There was a basket outside the cleaning room and all of the used toys were in it. Clamps and clips were in another basket and paddles and such were left on beds and tables. When Emily opened the dishwasher and started laying the dildos in it, Sarah laughed until she got the hiccups. It made sense, but the image was just so incongruous.
Emily showed her how to do everything so she understood the why as well as the how and it helped cement the job in her mind. "I think you'll do just fine," Emily told her when they were done a few hours later. "Monday is my last day, so if you have any questions we've got a couple of days to address them."
"Why are you quitting?" Sarah asked as she tossed her latex gloves in the trash.
Emily blushed delightfully. "I'm getting married."
"Thanks. I found a great guy and he's really good with my son. We're moving to Philadelphia in a couple of weeks so he can take over his dad's furniture outlet."
"That's great. I hope you'll be very happy."
Emily sighed. "I'm going to miss this place. I've been here almost a year and everyone is so nice. It's almost like a family if you let it be. Can I offer you a piece of advice?"
"Sure. I'll take all I can get."
"Don't let this get to you. Nothing that happens here has anything to do with who you are. And there's nothing to be ashamed of in doing this work. They're going to do it anyway. If you look at it right, there's nobility in cleaning up after them. You'll be protecting them from each other. You help keep them safe. Jordan keeps them in line-you keep them healthy. I've met some of them and they're good people. They work hard, pay their taxes and treat their children with love. Okay?"
Sarah nodded with greater understanding. "Thanks, Emily."
"No problem. Now," she reached into her pocket, "we picked up $65 in tips." She grinned. "I worked harder teaching you so I'm keeping $35. Starting tomorrow we'll split it evenly. Deal?"
Sarah thought this was more than fair and she pocketed her cash. "Do you make much in tips?"
"Oh, yeah. This is a sweet deal. Tips are under the table and it almost doubled my income. You're living here though. You'll make more in tips than you do in salary." She looked at her watch. "I've got to go. My son has a soccer game today and I was hoping to be able to go watch him play. See you tomorrow at the same time?"
Sarah thanked her again and headed for the kitchen. Maggie hustled her into a chair and put a plate of cookies in front of her. "How are you doing?" she asked with obvious concern.
"I'm fine," Sarah said. She looked up at the older woman curiously. "Is Jordan aware of how much Emily makes in tips?"
"I imagine so." Maggie poured a glass of milk and set it next to the cookies. "Not much escapes the Master's notice. Why?"
Sarah squirmed in her chair. "It's too much money for the job. Even without tips I'm making more than I need. Especially with all of my utilities taken care of. It makes me uncomfortable."
Maggie pulled out a chair and sat down. "Listen, honey. It's never a good idea to tell someone that they are paying you too much for doing a good job. The Master is paying you what he thinks a good job is worth. There aren't many employers out there who will think that way. Most pay what they can afford without sacrificing what they want for themselves."
"I suppose that's true."
"Have some cookies, dear."
Sarah had her new job down pat after the second day. She asked Emily a lot of "what if" questions about things she might encounter and felt she had a good handle on the nature of her employer's expectations. The rest of her time that weekend was spent settling in, tentatively exploring her new surroundings, and meeting a few of her co-workers.
Snooping around in the massive house was out of the question, so Sarah explored the grounds. Introducing herself to a groundskeeper named Leroy (a quiet nondescript, middle-aged man who called her ma'am), Sarah learned that the Crisp Estate encompassed 480 acres. A bit more than two-thirds of it was a virtual forest of alder and birch. Leroy showed her where to find the beginning of a trail that wound through it and warned her not to walk it after dark. According to the shy man, it was quite easy to become disoriented in the dark and become lost. He suggested that there might even be predators in it from time to time. Sarah wasn't sure whether or not to believe him, but a small measure of caution would not be a bad idea.
The rest of the property was very precisely manicured. While the forest drew her with its free-spirited wildness, the gardens and lawns around the house comforted her with their structured elegance. Everything was just perfect. It was unnatural in its precision, but it felt good to look at it all. Leroy told her that it took six full-time landscapers to maintain it. She could easily believe it.
A long, low building sat off to one side of the mansion behind some trees. Sarah cautiously wandered closer to see what it was and met Cirenio. A few years older than herself, Cirenio was a dapper Latino man with a pencil thin moustache and a ready smile. He was charming, but didn't put any moves on Sarah. She liked him immediately. When she told him she was snooping, he took her inside the brick building for a tour.
It was Jordan's garage and the cars were lined up like they were in a showroom. Sarah counted nine shiny vehicles. She didn't know a lot about cars, but the ornamentation on each grill made them easy to recognize: Jaguar, Porsche, Hummer, Cadillac, Aston Martin, BMW, Rolls Royce, Maserati and Bentley. They were beautiful. Cirenio seemed to take personal pride in them. As the mechanic/chauffeur, it was his job to maintain them. With an excited air, he led Sarah to a shop containing an older sports car in the process of being refurbished.
Sarah wasn't particularly interested in the process, but she listened avidly as he explained what he was doing. Apparently, he had an arrangement with Jordan. There wasn't much to do in taking care of the other cars, so he rebuilt classic cars on the side. Jordan would buy old cars for him and pay for parts. When the cars were completed, Cirenio sold them and kept half of the money. He was proud of the fact that he had never lost money for Jordan and was planning to someday have his own shop and do nothing but restore old cars. Sarah was impressed with Cirenio's ambition and Jordan's willingness to help him achieve it. Not many employers would allow an employee to use company time and resources to pursue their own interests-even if there was profit to be made from it.
Marmalade introduced himself when she got home from her walking. Big and buff, the orange cat was sitting on her front porch with a large, dead rat at his feet. Sarah made a fuss over him and tried not to gag as she swept the rodent into a dust pan. Marmalade wound himself through her ankles as she walked his present out to the trash can. Securing the lid, she looked down at the purring cat seriously.
"I hope you don't plan on bringing me such things on a regular basis," she scolded. "Not that I don't appreciate the time and energy you put into it, but you don't have to impress me. I can see how strong and handsome you are." Leaning down, she scratched at the top of his head. "You can come visit me whenever you want, but no more presents, okay?"
"I see you met my cat."
Sarah straightened to see Maggie at the back of the house next door. "He brought me a gift."
"Did he now?" Maggie laughed. "Dead or alive?"
"Dead." Sarah grimaced. "Is he likely to bring me live ones?"
She shuddered. "If he does, I'm calling you to come and handle it."
"Fair enough. I just made sun tea. Can I interest you in a glass?"
Sarah's first impulse was to decline, but she over rode it. "Sure. That would be nice."
Maggie's house was almost identical to her own in structure, but it was quite charming and homey inside. It had the organized clutter one usually associated with grandmothers and Sarah thought it was like being inside of an emotional treasure chest. She just knew that every single thing had a story or emotion attached to it.
"Make yourself at home, dear. Do you want sugar?"
"No, thanks." Sarah smiled at a picture of Maggie on the deck of a boat with a festive drink in hand. "I like your house. Everything is so pretty."
"Why, thank you, dear."
Running her fingers briefly over a yarn doll, Sarah took a seat on the sofa and let Marmalade curl up on her lap. "How many people work here?"
"On the Estate?" Maggie held out a tall glass of ice tea. "Fourteen, I believe."
Sarah ticked off mental fingers. "You, Pete, Cirenio, six landscapers-that makes nine."
"You makes ten." Maggie adjusted a lumbar pillow at her back and settled. "Then there are the three maids and Joey."
"What does Joey do?"
"He works part time taking care of the solarium and the inside plants." Maggie smiled fondly. "He's the sweetest thing. Joey is . . . a little slow, but he's a genius with plants. He works in the afternoons on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays."
Sarah nodded. "I may not meet him then. I'll be in school on those days."
They spent a very pleasant hour talking about Sarah's schooling and the co-workers she had yet to meet. Maggie invited her to eat dinner up at the big house, but Sarah declined. She wanted to enjoy cooking for herself and it seemed to her that an invitation to dinner should come from Jordan. Sarah went home feeling like she had won the lottery.
About two weeks after school started, the stereo in the playroom gave her an idea and she started recording her lectures. She played them back while she worked and it not only helped her comprehension of the material, it distracted her from thinking about what had gone on in the room the previous night. She rarely thought about the players after the first few days.
She seemed to run into Jordan almost every day, either in the house or on the grounds. He claimed to be pleased with her work, but continued to express concern over her welfare. Even Maggie and Pete seemed to be watching her carefully and she began to feel a little impatient.
The first week of October, summer made a last ditch effort to stay around and it warmed up for several days. On a Sunday afternoon after working, Sarah took a cheap novel and headed for the gazebo out in front of the house. With all of the bushes and ivy it was quite cool and she was delighted to find a small gurgling fountain set in the center. Stretching out on a wooden bench with her sweater under her head, she opened the book and started reading. She desperately needed some time away from school and she was completely engrossed when Jordan's voice startled her.
"May I join you?"
Sarah jumped up in surprise and looked over her shoulder. "Sure."
Jordan held out a tall glass of icy lemonade. "I thought you could use this."
"Thanks." She sipped it and realized how thirsty she was. She drank about a third of it and sighed. "That hits the spot."
Jordan sat down opposite her and pulled a small flower through the lattice to smell it. Sarah was struck by the femininity of the act and wished that she could talk about her suspicions. "It's all right for me to be out here, isn't it?"
"Of course." Jordan stretched his long legs out and smiled at her. "I saw you come out here from my office window a couple of hours ago. I thought you might be taking a nap, but instead I find you reading . . ?" He cocked his head to read the title. "A romance novel?"
Sarah blushed. "I needed to escape for a while. Pirates and a kidnaped princess seemed like a good idea."
"Your secret is safe with me," Jordan chuckled. "Is that a good book?"
"Better than most, I guess. All of these are pretty predictable, but this writer doesn't let you take much for granted. And her imagery is quite good. I know it's trash, but it's fun trash." Sarah grinned. "Do you want to read it when I'm done?"
Jordan laced his fingers behind his head and relaxed. "It's not necessary." He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "It's nice out here. I don't get out of the house often enough."
"Winter is coming," Sarah pointed out unnecessarily. "There won't be too many more days like this."
"When it gets here," Jordan said in an easy tone, "there's a fireplace in the den. You're welcome to come in and curl up with a book any time. There's something very comforting about the crackling of a fire when there's snow on the ground."
"I'd like that."
With Jordan's eyes closed, Sarah grabbed the opportunity to study him. Male or female, his skin was flawless. She felt reasonably sure that a razor had never been used on his face and he didn't have an Adam's Apple. He also didn't appear to have breasts. She would have liked to put her hands inside his shirt to make sure, but she knew it was impossible. Her eyes dropped to his groin. It was hard to tell if there was a bulge or if it was just the way his slacks fit. From working with the toys upstairs, however, she knew it would be easy enough to fake having a man's genitals. Her gaze traveled back up to his mouth and she wondered if he was a good kisser. His mouth was perfect. She imagined his lips would be soft and sweet and she let herself fantasize about it.
Sarah looked away, suddenly uncomfortable with the direction her thoughts were taking her. Regardless of his true gender, Jordan was her boss and it was completely inappropriate for her to think about him as a potentially desirable woman. She wasn't choosy about size, race, shape or dress when she went hunting for a sexual partner, but sizing up her employer was out of line. Even if he had given any indication of interest, it was unethical in the extreme.
She wondered if it was time to go out to a bar and find a date. For some reason, the idea didn't provoke any response and she filed it away, intending to keep an eye on it and see if anything changed.
"You seem to be handling the job very well," Jordan said abruptly.
Sarah rolled her eyes and dropped her head back.
"What did I say?" Jordan asked.
She looked over at him and noticed how blue his eyes were. "I feel like everyone is waiting for me to have a nervous breakdown. 'Keep an eye on Sarah. She could blow at any minute
.' Is it so hard to believe that I'm really okay with it?"
Jordan raised an eyebrow. "Are you?"
"I haven't lost weight." She held up a hand and ticked off each point. "I'm sleeping better than ever. I'm doing very
well in school. I'm not afraid of you or the room. I'm fine
, but I feel all this pressure on me to feel something I just don't feel and it's frustrating. Everybody looks
at me when I walk through the house like something terrible has happened to me and I just don't realize it yet. I don't think I'm being unreasonable when I say that I'm getting a little tired of it."
Humor filled Jordan's eyes. "Fair enough. I'll trust you then to tell me if any problems come up and I'll quit nagging you about it."
"Thank you." Sarah had to smile now that it was over. "Maybe you can do something about Maggie and Pete, too."
"Pete, yes, but Maggie is a law unto herself. Maybe you could cry on her shoulder or something and she'll feel like you've finally gotten through it."
Sarah laughed. "She's always waiting for me with cookies, like a little sugar is going to make everything all better. I went out through the side door once to avoid her and she followed me home."
"Do you want me to say something to her?"
"No. I like Maggie. It's kind of nice to have someone caring for me so aggressively. I'll get used to it."
Jordan dropped his hands to his sides and looked confused. "Cookies are aggressive?"
Sarah opened her mouth to explain her childhood and suddenly thought better of it. She doubted Jordan would understand and he would probably feel like she was deprived and feel sorry for her. Sarah closed her mouth with a snap.
He put his hands up. "Sorry. None of my business." He stood up and put his hands in his pockets. "I've got to get back to work. I'll let you get back to your book."
Sarah turned to watch him walk away. She felt like she had just been rude though she didn't know exactly how. "Jordan?"
He turned instantly and shielded his eyes from the descending sun.
"Thanks for the lemonade."
"My pleasure, Sarah."
His smile seemed completely genuine and she couldn't help but smile back. She lay back and closed her eyes, listening to the fountain and the chirping of birds. Her desire to read seemed to be gone and she allowed herself the luxury of doing absolutely nothing at all.
"What are you going to wear to the party?" Pete asked her after work about a week later.
"The Halloween party."
Sarah shook her head slowly. "No one told me about a Halloween party."
Pete smacked himself on the head with a meaty hand. "My fault. We have it every year and I forgot you wouldn't know. It's the night before Halloween at eight. You are welcome to bring family or friends. Everybody else will."
I don't have any friends.
She hesitated as her inner voice made this announcement and she realized it was true. She shook her head more to clear it than anything else. "I have to study."
Pete looked disappointed. "It's only for a couple of hours."
Sarah felt embarrassed and tears were threatening to make an appearance. She just wanted to get away. "I'll think about it."
She went home in a daze and tried to think of even one person she had ever confided in, one person she could ask to the movies or to a Halloween party. She came up blank. In that moment she realized how truly alone she was. She was friendly with a great many people because it was expected of her, but she had no one she could identify as her friend. Sarah curled up on her couch with a pillow and called her entire life into question.
She had always felt that she lived on the outside of society. Everyone else seemed to be gathered around the warm fires of family and friends and Sarah watched them from the cool shadows. She had assumed that it was her sexuality that set her apart, but now she wasn't so sure. Even with other lesbians she felt left out. Though, if she was honest, that wasn't a fair statement. She recognized now that many people had tried to get close to her over the course of her life. People approached her just to talk all the time. They inquired about her health, her opinions, and her plans, or just tried to make her laugh. Through it all, she was friendly but remote. She held people off and pushed them away until they gave up and she hadn't even been conscious of it.
Sarah's life over the past seven years had been devoted to finding a way up and out of her parents' apathy. She came to the realization that all she had done was pretty life up a bit for herself. Sure, she was getting a great education and she would be able to provide for herself in a much more comfortable fashion than her parents had, but in the end, she had adopted her parents' emotional poverty as her own. She had wanted to be nothing like her parents and it turned out that she was exactly
It had been understandable when she was a child because it was all she knew, but now she was an adult and responsible for her behavior. She had used her schooling to isolate herself. Even moving out of the dorm could be seen as an effort to drive people away. She finally understood that without affection and love in her life, she would be no different from that which she had focused on escaping. Her hard work would mean nothing if she didn't find a way to educate her heart as well.
She looked over her sexual history with shame. She had been insensitive and cruel to the girls she had bedded in high school. They'd all had to overcome their fear of rejection to seduce her and she had walked away from them at the first sign of emotional intimacy. That she had given far more orgasms than she had received probably only made her rejection of them even more painful. At the time she felt that she had given enough. Now she thought she had probably done more harm than good.
What truly shamed her though, was how she had dealt with her needs since coming to college. It would not be far off the mark to say that she walked into a bar or coffee house and asked the patrons if anyone wanted to fuck her. She usually went with the first one to show a serious interest. She could not recall a single moment of intimacy with any of them. Most of them would reach for her as she began dressing, but all let her go when she thanked them for their time. Sarah wasn't sure that she had ever seen any of them as people. That's what made her feel ashamed now.
Her certainty that she would find someone to love when it was more convenient faded away and Sarah felt tears pricking at her eyes. After school there would be work and then she would be starting her own business and making it flourish. There would never be a good time and even if she did find someone, she didn't know the first thing about being close to people. A lifetime of this new loneliness stretched out before her and she started to cry.
Sarah wasn't good at crying. Her nose plugged up and her stomach ached. It made her feel angry and depressed all at once. On the one hand, she felt sorry for herself, but on the other she was angry that she was crying over something she had done to herself.
By the time she settled into sniffles, she was in a full-blown funk. She dragged herself into the shower in hopes that it would revive her, but it didn't. She pulled on a pair of sweats and slippers and went into the kitchen to eat lunch because it was her routine. Food just didn't interest her, but coffee sounded okay so she started a full pot.
Sarah sat at the table with her head on her folded arms while it brewed and groaned at the knock on her door. It was probably Maggie with her infernal cookies, but she really didn't want company right now. She couldn't just leave her out on the porch though. She glanced in a mirror on the way to the door and thought she looked okay.
It was Jordan. "Pete has informed me that he forgot to tell you about the Halloween Party. I just came by to apologize and to?" his voice trailed off and he looked at her closely. "Are you all right?"
Sarah couldn't take it. "Yes. Thanks for coming by." She didn't exactly slam the door, but it was a near thing. She winced as soon as it closed. Here she was crying over not having any friends and she had just slammed the door in her boss's face. She put her forehead against the door with a sigh and her funk deepened.
"Hi, it's me," she heard Jordan say outside. "I think we hurt her feelings. It looks like she's been crying." There was a brief pause and Sarah went up on her tiptoes to look through the peephole. Jordan had his back to her and a cell phone to his ear. "I don't know. She doesn't want to talk to me. Maybe she'll talk to Maggie. I think I make her nervous."
Sarah felt like dirt. "No, you don't," she blurted out. She saw Jordan's head turn toward her a little and then he leaned back against her door.
"I think I'll wait for a bit and see if she changes her mind about talking to me." Jordan dropped his chin to his shoulder and Sarah knew that he was hoping she would continue to talk to him through the door. "She might feel like we deliberately left her out of the loop."
Sarah settled onto her feet and pressed her hands and cheek into the cool wood. "That's not it."
"I know you didn't, Pete. Mistakes happen. I didn't think of it either. Maybe she's upset for some other reason. Maybe she's a Jehovah's Witness."
Sarah sighed. "That's not it either."
"Maybe she's just too chicken to dress up and party."
Sarah snickered involuntarily. She still had tears in her eyes, but there was something sweet and dear about what was happening.
"I hadn't thought of that. She probably thinks some horrible sadistic bash is going to take place. Did you tell her there would be kids?"
Sarah folded her hands over her heart to contain the ache she felt. Jordan was quiet for over a minute.
"Well, then, I just don't know what it could be. Maybe she really does have to study. You know how hard she works."
Sarah spoke before her throat could close up. "I don't have any friends."
"I'll get back to you, Pete." There was a brief moment of silence. "Of course you have friends, Sarah."
"No, I don't," she sniffed. "I don't have any friends. I never have." Tears ran down her face, but she felt too bereft to cry. "I've used studying to push everyone away and I don't have anyone to invite to the party."
"Maggie and I are going stag, too," Jordan said softly. "Maybe we could go together. We've been trying to be your friends right from the start. All you have to do is let us."
Sarah wiped at her face in an effort to get control of herself. She knew friendship couldn't be that easy.
"Can I at least come in and we'll talk about it?"
She almost said no, but if she wanted to change her life, there was someone on her front porch asking to be let in. She swiped at her nose with her sleeve. "Do you promise not to say I'm having a reaction to my job? Or that I'm imagining things?"
"Yes, of course."
Wiping tears away with the other sleeve, she opened the door. She couldn't look any higher than Jordan's knees. "Sorry I slammed the door in your face."
"I'm over it," Jordan said generously.
"Do you want some coffee?"
Sarah padded into the kitchen and pulled two mugs from the cupboard. Filling them both, she set them on the table. "Do you want milk or sugar?"
"I drink it black," Jordan said as he sat down. "My dad always said cream and sugar were for sissies."
Sarah sat down with one foot on the seat so she could hug her knee. "My folks said it was a waste of money and would make me fat."
"Have you ever watched Maggie doctor her coffee?"
Sarah smiled inadvertently. "I'm not sure why she bothers to put coffee in it at all. It's no skin off my nose if she wants to drink a cup of cream and sugar."
Jordan chuckled. "But she drinks tea straight. Go figure."
Sarah rubbed her face on her knee to scrub away any lingering traces of tears.
"Now, Pete doesn't drink coffee at all," Jordan added. "He claims it hurts his stomach, but he drinks a six-pack of Mountain Dew every day. It's a wonder he even has a stomach."
Sarah rested her chin on her knee and stole a glance at Jordan. He was completely relaxed and watching her patiently. "Sorry I'm such a mess."
"You're not a mess, Sarah. Some people get all blotchy when they cry. Their eyes swell up and their noses turn red and drip all over everything. It's very unattractive." His face was screwed up in distaste. "Trust me. I've seen every kind of tear there is. You still look relatively normal."
Sarah sniffed. "Thanks, Jordan," she said with amused sarcasm. "That means a lot to me."
"No one's ever said I didn't know how to compliment a woman," he said proudly. His attitude made her laugh and she started to relax in spite of herself. "That's better," he added. "Now, I seem to remember reading that you were Captain of the Chess Club in high school."
"I was," she admitted. "Do you play?"
"Now and then. Do you have a set?"
Sarah nodded and sipped at her coffee. "Why?"
"I'd like to see if you're any good."
Sarah raised her eyebrows in disbelief. "You want to play chess with me?"
"If you think you're good enough to take me on, yes."
Sarah went to get her set from the bedroom. As chess sets go it wasn't very remarkable, but it had been a graduation gift from her guidance counselor in high school and held some sentimental value for her. She set it down on the table as Jordan moved their cups. "I haven't played in several years," she warned.
"I'll take it easy on you," he promised. "Do you mind if I take black?"
"You don't want to flip for white?"
"Black fits my reputation better," he said casually.
Sarah squinted at him. "You do know that white goes first, right?"
Jordan snorted. "Please
. I wasn't born yesterday. I have played before. I just like to be black."
Sarah set her pieces up by rote and moved the Queen's Knight out. She sat back with her coffee and waited while Jordan finished setting up his pieces. He moved his Queen's pawn out a single space and leaned on his elbows. "What did you mean when you said you don't have friends?"
It was easier to talk while concentrating on chess. She didn't feel like she was going to burst into tears. It was almost like she was talking about someone else. "Pete told me I could bring a friend and I realized I don't have any, that's all. If I wanted to go out to a movie, there's no one I would feel comfortable asking to go with me. I've never had someone I could just talk to. At first I thought it meant that no one liked me, but I don't think that's true. I was sitting here thinking about it and I understood that I'm the one who pushes them away."
Jordan scratched at his ear. "Why do you do that?"
It helped that Jordan seemed more interested in the board than in her. She sighed. "Maybe it's because of how I was raised."
He put his fingers on a bishop and considered for a long moment before moving it. "Tell me about your parents."
Sarah studied the board. She couldn't figure out what Jordan was planning yet. "My dad worked in a plastics factory. He worked on the press line or something. My mom was a part-time waitress."
"Was?" He glanced up at her. "Are they dead?"
Sarah shrugged indifferently and moved a pawn. "I don't know. I haven't heard from them since I started at the University."
"Because they don't love me." It didn't even hurt to say that. She had accepted that fact when she was ten years old.
"I find that hard to believe," Jordan frowned. "They must be terribly proud of everything you've accomplished."
Sarah stared at Jordan over her coffee cup and tried to decide on the quickest way to convince him of the truth. "Do you want to know what the last thing was that my mother said to me? 'You're not coming back, right
?' My dad said, 'I get her room
Jordan's face was pale and hard. "Are you serious?"
"It's not worth getting upset about," Sarah said truthfully. "It's just how things were. It's your move." She waited for his eyes to move back to the board before she went on. "When I was ten, my mother spent a week at the end of the summer teaching me to cook and do my own laundry. My dad told me to stay out of trouble, to be home by ten every night, not get pregnant and keep my grades up. They promised me that if I didn't bother them, they wouldn't bother me. I've been on my own since then. It wasn't so bad really." She saw Jordan flinch. "My primary image of my parents is of them sitting on the couch with the television blaring. I think it was more real to them than I ever was."
Jordan leaned back from the board with both hands in his hair as if his head hurt. "Were they abusive?"
"No. I mean, they spanked me when I was too noisy or I broke something, but they never really hurt me." He relaxed with a sigh and leaned back over the board. "I cleaned up after myself and tried not to ask for anything and they let me do anything I wanted as long as I was quiet and didn't interfere with their plans. After I started making my own money, I hardly had to talk to them at all. I bought my own clothes and saved up for a car so they wouldn't have to drive me anywhere. Except for the noise of the TV it was almost like living alone."
"Where did you get your drive? Your motivation?"
Sarah took one of Jordan's bishops. "The first week of high school there was a guidance counselor who asked me what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I asked him what he meant and he asked if I would be content to have the same kind of life as my parents or if I wanted more. That's when I realized that I had a choice." She smiled at the memory of her epiphany. "He changed my life. I knew that if I wanted more I'd have to do it all myself, so I asked him what I would have to do. Mr. Daniels and I mapped out all four years of high school in an afternoon, including my job and my extracurricular activities. I followed it to the letter and here I am. The only thing I didn't allow for was a social life. I didn't know I was missing out on anything, but I think if I don't figure it out, I'll be just like my folks."
Jordan moved a pawn. "You really don't have friends at school?"
Sarah shook her head. She was pretty sure she was going to win the game, but she couldn't figure out what Jordan was doing. Whatever his strategy was, she couldn't see it and it worried her.
"What about lovers?" he asked. "Surely you've had girlfriends."
Sarah blushed. "Yes and no."
"You don't have to tell me anything you don't want to," he said quietly.
"It's just embarrassing," she admitted.
"You know what I do," Jordan said seriously. "Nothing you could tell me would make me think less of you. You must know that."
She brushed her hair behind one ear. "I've had sexual partners, but never a girlfriend. Whenever I need sex?I go to a bar and pick someone who looks as desperate as I feel and we?you know."
Jordan grinned. "You make it sound so easy. Most women want intimacy first. How do you get by that?"
She hugged her knee tighter, ashamed of herself. "I look for someone who looks?hungry. Someone who doesn't look at faces. I just go up to them and ask them if they want to have sex with me. Usually they do."
"That part doesn't surprise me," Jordan said as he moved his queen. "Aren't you worried about diseases or getting hurt?"
"I practice safe sex," she said. "I've been pretty lucky so far. I can tell if they're going to be trustworthy before we get to the motel room. If they make me nervous, I ditch them and try somewhere else."
"You should have someone looking out for you," Jordan said firmly. "It's dangerous out there."
Sarah dismissed his words with a flip of her hand and moved her own queen. "I'm careful. Don't worry about me."
Jordan was silent for a moment as he studied the board. "What about love?"
"I don't know anything about that. I think that's why I don't have friends. I don't know how to be close to?" Sarah frowned. "Why did you do that?"
He looked up in surprise at her tone. "Do what?"
"Your knight." She reached out and put her finger on the piece he had just moved. "Why did you move this here?"
"Because you were going to use your rook to take my queen."
"Probably," she admitted, "but I'm not after your queen. I'm after your king. By moving your knight you lost the game."
"Don't count on it," he said with bravado.
"I guarantee it," Sarah insisted.
Jordan frowned. "How?"
Sarah used both hands to show him. "I move my rook here to check you. You have
to move your king here and my bishop slides over here to checkmate you. By moving the knight out of play you made it easier for me. You saved me having to take it out. You've shortened the game by four moves."
Jordan scratched his head. "But, you would have taken my queen."
Sarah grinned. "You don't know how to play, do you?"
"Yes, I do," he objected. "I moved all the pieces correctly, didn't I?"
She started to laugh. "I thought you had some brilliant strategy in the works and I was looking forward to seeing it. But you didn't. All this time I was trying to protect myself from a surprise attack."
Jordan squirmed in his chair. "I did my best."
"I hate to tell you this, Jordan, but . . . you suck
He knocked over his king. "You played in high school
, for crying out loud. I didn't think you'd be a chess master."
"I'm from a small town," she teased. "I didn't have to be that good to excel."
He grimaced. "You're saying I'm really bad."
"You are." She laughed again as Jordan tried to playfully kick her and pulled her other foot up on the chair.
Jordan smiled at her. "You do have friends, you know. You might not know what to do with us, but we'll teach you. You just have to trust us a little bit."
Sarah felt scared and excited all at once. "What do I do?"
"Just let us visit with you. We won't take too much time away from your studies. Promise me you'll come to the Halloween Party."
Sarah bit her lip. "I don't know what to wear."
"Ask Maggie for help. She'll love it."
She rested her chin on her knees. "Are you going to dress up, too?"
"Of course," he grinned.
"What are you going to be?"
Jordan twirled an imaginary moustache. "You'll see."
Sarah frowned at her reflection. "I don't know about this, Maggie. It seems awfully risque for children."
"Don't be silly," Maggie said. "They'll think you're that princess in Aladdin
. What was her name?"
"I don't know." Sarah wrinkled her nose at the odd feeling between her eyebrows where Maggie had pasted a red dot. "But I think she had black hair. I look like 'I Dream of Jeannie'."
"Stop doing that with your face, honey. Do you want it to freeze that way?"
Sarah put her hands over her exposed belly. "I'm practically naked."
"You look lovely, dear." Maggie was dressed as a clown and made Sarah smile every time she looked at her. "One last thing and you'll be just about ready."
Sarah thought she was
ready and she jumped as Maggie put a sticky finger in her navel. "What are you doing?"
"Harem girls have jewels in their belly buttons." She picked up a round blue jewel and carefully pushed it into place.
Sarah gasped as the sensation shot straight through to her clitoris. "No, no, no!"
"Yes, yes, yes," Maggie replied. "I know it's weird. You'll get used to it and you won't notice it. Trust me. The costume won't be complete without it."
"But it feels so . . ." erotic
. She just couldn't say it to Maggie's face.
"Hold it there for a minute."
Sarah put her fingers on it and thought she might die of embarrassment. Maggie turned away and she experimentally pushed on it to make the feeling more intense. She pretended nothing was happening when Maggie turned back around and used tiny safety pins to hide her bra straps inside the skimpy top.
"I still say it's a mistake to wear a bra with this."
"There are going to be children, Maggie."
Maggie squinted into her face. "If there weren't, would you go without it then?"
"No," she said in horror.
"Then stop throwing them in my face. If I had your body, I'd walk around naked all the time."
Sarah snorted in disbelief. "I sincerely doubt that."
Maggie stepped back and pointed a finger at her sternly. "Don't think you know everything about me just because I'm old, Little Miss Smarty-pants."
Sarah blushed. "Sorry."
Maggie went back to work. "You know that picture that hangs in the main hall?"
"I love that picture," Sarah admitted. "I can't walk by it without staring."
Maggie smiled happily. "Thank you, dear."
Sarah stared at her in dawning comprehension. "That's you?"
"Don't look so shocked, dear. It's unbecoming."
"Sorry. Doesn't it bother you that everyone can see it?"
"Hell, no!" Maggie laughed. "I'd paste it up on a billboard if I could get away with it. I was gorgeous. Turn around."
Sarah obeyed. "I could never do that."
"That's too bad." Maggie worked at the back of her top. "You should be proud of the pleasure you give to others' eyes. People like looking at you. This thick blond hair, your perfect figure, your blue eyes-you're very beautiful. Okay! I think we're ready." She moved Sarah's hand and poked at the jewel.
"Don't do that," Sarah whispered.
Maggie cackled. "Gets you right where it counts, doesn't it?"
Sarah's ears were only moments from bursting into flame. "Yes!"
"It's a real sapphire, you know. I asked the Master for it."
"You didn't!" Sarah was mortified.
"Relax, dear." She shook out a cloak and threw it around Sarah's shoulders. "He doesn't know what I wanted it for."
She wondered all the way to the big house if Jordan would know how it made her feel and what she would do if he poked at it, too. The very idea made her weak in the knees and she found herself almost hoping he would.
He had taken to coming to her house on Tuesdays for a game of chess and Sarah had begun looking forward to it. He always took four of her chess pieces before the game started 'just to make it fair', but she beat him anyway. She had wondered if he was letting her win just to make her feel good, but his playing was too abysmal to believe that for long. She didn't understand why he kept playing if he kept losing, but she liked talking to him.
He talked just enough about himself that Sarah didn't feel like she was monopolizing the conversation, but she still didn't know that much about him. He had liked his parents, she knew. She could tell by his eyes that he still missed them. They had died of cancer within two years of each other about ten years earlier. He had no siblings, but he did have some cousins that weren't really a part of his life.
Mostly he talked about past and present employees as if they were his real family. She wondered if he would talk about her someday with other people and what he would say.
There were about forty people in the house, about a third of them children. A safety gate had been put up on the stairway that led to the play room and a banner with ghosts and pumpkins had been draped over Maggie's picture. Easy listening music was playing somewhere in the background and everyone was laughing and talking. Sarah had to smile at the variety and ingenuity of the costumes.
Maggie took her cloak before she could stop her and Sarah covered her belly protectively. "It's too late to hide," Maggie whispered. "You can spend the evening cringing or you can drink some wine and enjoy it. How do you want to remember this when you're old and can't get away with it anymore?"
Sarah elected to relax. She didn't know most of the other employees very well, but everyone was very friendly and they included her in their conversation as a matter of course. She met wives and husbands, and their scampering children were pointed out to her.
Pete stepped out of one of the sitting rooms with a stunning woman on his arm. She was almost as tall as he and easily as dark. Sarah thought she looked like an African Earth Goddess, especially since both of them were wearing what she assumed was traditional African garb. They were phenomenal and she was drawn to them like dirt to white slacks.
"You two look fabulous!"
Pete bowed to her with a smile. "Thank you. You look yummy."
Sarah giggled at his choice of words.
"This is my fiancee," he rumbled. "Amanda, this is Sarah. I told you about her."
"I remember," Amanda said peacefully. Her voice was like musk trapped between the sheets and Sarah's collarbones seemed to evaporate. "I believe Peter said you didn't have the sense to be scared of big, black men."
Sarah smiled. "His eyes are too beautiful for him to be scary."
Amanda looked pleased and she held her hand out. "Should I worry that you'll try to steal him away from me?"
Sarah put her hand in Amanda's and tried not to squeak. "No. But you
might be in trouble." Amanda laughed with her whole body and Sarah felt like she had done a good thing. She grinned. "I hope you two will have babies. They'll be magnificent
"All in good time," Pete chuckled. "All in good time."
A thin, silver stripe appeared over Pete's massive chest and he stepped back. Sarah followed it with her eyes to a black gloved fist and realized she was looking at a sword.
"What have we here?"
All of her awe at Amanda slithered into the cradle of her hips and her mouth went dry. Jordan was dressed entirely in black. He lowered the foil point to the floor and struck a pose. Sarah let her eyes drink him in. She was helpless to do otherwise. He wore knee-high black boots and tight black leather pants. A long sleeved black satin shirt was tucked in at the waist and a cape all but swirled at his back. He had a dark moustache and goatee that did nothing to hide his full mouth and a mask that covered the upper portion of his face. A wide brimmed hat topped it off. His mouth held a crooked grin and Sarah wanted to melt at his feet.
"Zorro," she croaked.
He laughed. "How do I look?"
"Pretty damn good," she said before she had a chance to think better of it.
Jordan took her hand and pressed his lips softly to the back of it. "You look exquisite."
Sarah felt her entire body blush.
His eyes found the sapphire and it was almost like he touched it. "I wondered what that was for."
Sarah looked into his face shyly. "It feels weird."
"I know." His eyes said that he really did.
A small tow-headed boy dressed as a vampire slapped Jordan on the leg and took off squealing. "Come back, you scoundrel!" Jordan yelled. "Face me like a man!" He winked at her and smiled at Pete and Amanda as he excused himself to run after the boy, sword in hand.
Amanda's look was penetrating and Sarah went in search of something to drink before the dark woman could see things better left private. The wine was very good and she drank several glasses before she realized she should probably be careful. The boundaries of her flesh seemed to be dissolving and everything was funny. Cirenio and his wife, Connie, were telling a cute story about their son when Jordan joined them.
He waited until they were done and spoke with them briefly before taking Sarah's arm. "Would you like to dance?"
Sarah had watched him dancing with other women over the last hour and a half and knew she would never be so graceful as he was. She tried to sober up. "I don't know how to dance like that."
"Yes, you do," he said confidently. "You just don't know it yet." He took off his gloves and tucked them in his pocket. He hadn't taken them off all night and Sarah was lost in wondering why he had taken them off now when he stepped into her and his warm hand settled low on her back. Her lungs emptied themselves as he pressed into her and she looked up into his face. "I know how to dance," he said softly, his perfect mouth only inches from Sarah's thanks to the high heels she wore. "You don't have to do
anything. Just feel
. I will tell your body what to do and it will be beautiful."
Sarah couldn't feel her legs as he lifted her arm to his shoulder and held the other gently out to the side. Her heart thumped painfully and she yielded to him. Everything beyond his face became a blur of movement and she let it all fade away.
"I love your costume," he said quietly. "Are you having a good time?"
"Yes," she breathed. "I'm a little drunk, I think."
"You're doing fine," he crooned.
"I've never been drunk before," she admitted. His breath smelled like warm cinnamon and Sarah breathed it in.
His hand on her back held her more tightly and his breath tickled her ear. "You're safe, little one. Everything is all right now. Just relax and let me dance with you."
Sarah rested her temple against his cheek and closed her eyes. She felt like she was in a dream. Their bodies fit together in a way she had never encountered before and she felt at peace. It might have been frightening to her at any other time, but Jordan was her new friend and dancing with him was the most perfect thing she had ever experienced. She felt protected and cared for and beautiful all at once. He seemed to be inside of her skin with her and she found it both comforting and exciting.
Jordan came to a gradual halt and his hand rubbed the small of her back softly. "Thank you, Sarah. That was lovely."
She opened her eyes and he stepped back. "That was so easy," she said in wonder.
He smiled at her. "Thank you for trusting me."
Sarah took a deep breath as his hands left her. "You look good with that sword. Like you know how to use it."
"I do," he nodded. "I studied fencing in college. I'm really not that good, but I know enough to make it look like I am." He pulled out his gloves and began to put them on. "I think it makes me look dashing. What do you think?"
Sarah wanted to tweak his moustache. "You're very handsome and you know it."
He gave her a courtly bow with one hand on the blade's hilt and a smile on his lips. "You are too kind, milady."
Someone came up to talk to Jordan and Sarah slipped away to find a bathroom. She felt a little dizzy and she decided not to drink anymore. She didn't have to work in the morning, but she would still have school and she wasn't interested in finding out if hangovers were as bad as their reputation.
She ate a little from the buffet table and smiled at the children who followed Jordan around like he was the Pied Piper. When she unexpectedly broke into a jaw-splitting yawn, she found her cloak and worked her way to the door. She looked over her shoulder as she slipped out and saw Jordan's eyes following her. She smiled at him and his answering grin warmed her all the way home.
Snow finally fell about a week before Thanksgiving. It started shortly after she had gone to bed, but she hadn't noticed until she got up to make herself some warm milk. She wrapped herself in a heavy blanket and took her milk out to the front porch. It was still and quiet, but there was a whispering hiss as the flakes settled to the ground. She sat in the darkness and opened herself up to the beauty of it.
Sarah had been inexplicably happy of late. She was afraid to question it for fear it would go away, but she couldn't just let it be either. She thought it might be that she felt like she had found a home. A place where she belonged. She'd only been working for Jordan for three months, but it was hard to imagine being anywhere else.
She knew her feelings were primarily because of Jordan. She finally had someone she could call her friend. It was a little odd at times because he was also her boss and her landlord, but his friendship was the most important thing. There were a great many things she wished she could ask him-the least of which was his gender. It just didn't seem as important as it used to. It didn't matter whether he was a man or a woman. He was Jordan and that was enough. She would have liked to ask her friend why he didn't have a girlfriend, but she could never ask her boss.
She also couldn't talk to him about the dreams. Sarah dreamed about dancing with Jordan almost every night. All they ever did was dance, but she would wake up with the feel of his hand in the small of her back, his breath warm on her neck, his body fitting into hers like he belonged there. A few nights earlier, she dressed to go out with every intention of finding someone to ease her sexual needs, but she gave up after the second bar. No one had looked at all interesting to her. The dream that night was particularly vivid and she woke with an aching heart. She knew that the people you dreamed about were really manifestations of your own psyche and that it wasn't really about Jordan, but sometimes it sure felt like it was.
Maggie's cat, Marmalade, squeezed through the posts of her porch railing and Sarah reached out to him with a smile. "What are you doing, big guy? How come you're not in snuggling with your mother?" He walked up her chest and rubbed his face on hers and Sarah scratched the top of his head. He was surprisingly dry except for his feet and when she held open her blanket, he crawled inside, kneaded her lap a few times and curled up to sleep.
Even such a simple thing as a cat sleeping on her lap was a new and wonderful thing for Sarah. She wondered if maybe she could get a cat of her own, but she didn't know the first thing about taking care of one and how much time they needed from their owners. She decided to think it over for a bit before asking Jordan if it was okay.
With her hand buried in Marmalade's fur, she sighed and went back to reminiscing. Her parents had been on her mind a lot recently. It seemed like the happier she got, the more they nagged at her. It had been almost three and a half years since she had seen or heard from them and she didn't even know if they were alive and healthy. She had to wonder if they were even still married. They had not been good parents, but they had been all she'd known.
She felt sorry for them. They led such dreary, invisible lives and she wondered if she would ever see them again or if they would just pretend that they had no connection at all. Neither of her parents was over forty yet. They had been just teenagers when she had been conceived and it occurred to her that both were young enough to start over. It was even conceivable that her mother could still have children.
"Wow," she said softly as that possibility registered with her. They could also have gotten divorced and remarried. That opened up the chance of half-siblings. If her parents started a new family, either together or separately, it would be like Sarah had never existed. If she were not part of their new life, there would be no evidence that she had even been a part of their old one.
Would they be better parents the second time around? She shuddered to think of little siblings and what it would be like for them growing up as she had. She wished a happier life for them, but if they had one it would make Sarah feel somehow responsible for the loneliness of her own childhood. She hoped that whatever form of birth control her parents had used for the first eighteen years of her life was still in use. It was hard to imagine that they ever had sex at all, but she knew they must. She prayed that if they had divorced and remarried that their new spouses had more life and compassion to share with children.
She couldn't decide if she wanted to know or not. What if they were dead? How would she feel about that? Would it please her if they had finally found happiness? What if they were still sitting on the couch together watching other people's lives on television? And what would she do if they were sick or injured and needed her help?
Her past was a gaping black hole inside of her that made her newfound happiness seem rather precarious. She wondered what she would have to do to heal it. The hushed tranquility of falling snow and Marmalade's purring in her lap gave her no answers.
When Jordan and Maggie learned that she had nowhere to go on Thanksgiving they had insisted that she spend it with them. Sarah had eaten until she felt drugged. It was only the three of them, but Maggie had cooked enough food for an army. There were five kinds of pie alone. Even just tasting everything once was enough to fill her up, but Maggie had kept pushing food on her. When none of them had been able to eat another bite, Jordan led the way to the den and stoked the fire. Maggie stretched out on the sofa and Sarah sat on the hearth with Jordan.
"What are you thankful for?" Jordan asked Maggie.
"Well, it's nice to still be alive, especially since I got rid of that bunion on my foot." She reached for an afghan that lay across the back of the couch and Sarah stood up to help her cover her legs. "Thank you, dear."
"How about you, Sarah?"
She went back to the fireplace and sat down. "I'm grateful that I'm not still in the dorm. I love my house and my job." She hunched her shoulders and stared at her feet. "And you guys are pretty great."
"Aren't you sweet?" Maggie crooned. "You're pretty great, too."
"I'm thankful no one got hurt this year," Jordan said. "And that Maggie and I have your company today. It's nice to spend the holiday with people you care about."
Sarah glanced at his face to find him smiling at her. What he had just said was probably the nicest thing anyone had ever said to her. Her eyes filled with happy tears and she hoped that they didn't start running down her face and embarrass her.
Maggie spoke from the couch. "Did you ask her about Christmas, yet?"
"Not yet," Jordan admitted. "If you don't have any other plans, we want you to have Christmas with us. Usually it's just Maggie and I, but we talked about it and we hope you'll celebrate with us."
Sarah wiped away the tear that escaped. "What do I have to do?"
"Do?" Maggie asked. "The Master and I usually get each other a little something, but you don't have to do
"Please don't tell me your folks didn't celebrate Christmas," Jordan pleaded. He looked genuinely distressed.
"We did," Sarah reassured him. "I always got a new winter coat or socks and underwear. Sometimes I even got books." She smiled in memory. "One year I got a pair of skates. I used to sleep with them because I was so happy to get them. They never bought me toys so it was a real treat." Maggie and Jordan were both staring at her without expression. "What?"
"No toys?" Maggie asked in a disbelieving voice.
Sarah hesitated uncertainly. "We didn't have a lot of money. I needed clothes more than toys."
"Did you have any
toys?" Maggie asked.
Sarah was feeling embarrassed about her family and being grilled about it was making her feel worse. "Please, I don't want to talk about this anymore."
Maggie opened her mouth in protest, but Jordan stopped her. "Enough, Maggie. She said her word." Maggie sniffed and settled her head snugly on her pillow.
Sarah looked at him in confusion. "What word?"
"It just means that you don't have to talk about it if you don't want to," he said without looking at her. "Don't feel obligated to spend a lot of money. And don't eat first. I always make breakfast."
"Okay. Do I have to work that morning?"
Jordan sighed and rubbed at his eyes. "We have to come up with a better system of letting you know what's going on. Everybody else works at about the same time so they talk to each other. You hardly ever see anyone so no one is telling you what everyone else knows."
Sarah leaned back against the warm bricks. "What did I miss?" Jordan leaned back as well and pulled one knee up. He rested an arm across it and let his hand dangle. She thought it was a terribly sexy pose and berated herself for noticing.
"The house is closed and everybody is on paid vacation from December 23 to January 3. Maggie and I will still be here and you're welcome in the house whenever you like, but we're it. Except for New Year's Eve," he added. "There's a party for the players and select members of the community that night. A regular kind of party. If you want to work, there's a bonus."
"What kind of work?"
"Probably walking around with a tray of hors d'oeuvres. Pete's in charge of that and he's just now starting to work it out. If you want to work let him know. You'll have to wear a uniform and he needs time to order it."
"It won't be anything really outrageous will it?"
Jordan grinned. "Nothing like your Halloween costume."
Sarah grimaced. "That wasn't my fault. I didn't have any choice."
Jordan raised an eyebrow in feigned shock. "Are you telling me that one little old woman got the better of you?"
Sarah glanced at Maggie, but it looked like she was asleep. "She bosses you around all the time and you're The Master
. I'm just the chambermaid."
Jordan slapped his knee and hooted.
"Sh," she warned. "You'll wake her up."
"Relax," Jordan said, still laughing. "Maggie can sleep through tornadoes. She won't hear a thing. Just wait till she starts snoring."
"That's a mean thing to say."
Jordan's eyebrows lifted. "I give it about five minutes. Prepare to be impressed."
They waited in silence, all eyes on Maggie, and in less than five minutes the first snore escaped. Sarah's smile grew wider as the snores grew louder and she finally couldn't help but laugh. She wondered why she had never heard this at home. Maggie didn't live that far away and it seemed that she should be able to hear her at night.
Jordan was laughing, too, and he grabbed her hand to pull her out of the room. "It's not safe to stay in the room very long. You could get hearing damage."
"I guess that's why Marmalade scratches on my bedroom window at night."
Jordan closed the library door. "What do you want to do?"
Sarah rubbed her belly. "I'm too full to do anything strenuous."
"Me, too, but I feel like if I don't do something I'll slip into a coma." He stretched until he creaked. "What do you usually do on Thanksgiving Day?"
"Study," Sarah answered honestly. "The dorms are pretty quiet on holidays so it's an excellent time to concentrate. Living alone has been great for my school work, you know. No one is playing loud music or crying over their boyfriends or trying to borrow my clothes. It's always quiet."
Jordan chuckled. "I lived in the dorms, too. I'm sorry to say that I was the rowdy type. I didn't do as well in my studies as you're doing in yours."
"You've done all right for yourself since then," she pointed out.
Jordan shrugged, but there was a hint of irony in his eyes. "It appears that way, doesn't it?"
It was tempting to question his tone, but Sarah didn't want to pry. "You know, I never did get a tour of your house. I want credit for not snooping around on my own."
This brought a smile back into Jordan's eyes. "I'd be happy to show you around. Come on."
Sarah had become accustomed to the sheer size of the house in its exterior dimensions, but her mind had not been capable of grasping how many rooms such a structure could contain. Jordan had rooms for everything. Library, den, study, a home theater that could seat twenty, a music room with a gorgeous grand piano, a fully equipped gym, a bar complete with pool table, formal and informal dining rooms and living rooms, even a ballroom big enough to host a high school dance. There were no less than four guest suites. Each one had a living room area and basic kitchen in addition to the required bedroom and bath.
Throughout, the decor was classy, yet gave the appearance of simplicity. Nothing was overdone, but then, nothing was underdone either. Sarah was impressed. "You have good taste," she remarked.
"Oh, I didn't decorate this," Jordan said. "I paid someone to do this. I have the decorating sense of a toad. All I did was pay the bills."
The last room Jordan took her to was Sarah's favorite. It had been obvious from the outside of the house that Jordan had a solarium, but the reality of it was breathtaking. Sarah entered a warm green jungle of trees, ferns and ivy with a gasp of awe. The room was huge and very little of the walls showed through the climbing plants. The tiled path wound through and under branches and fronds to a waterfall that emptied into a pool large enough to support a small school of brightly colored fish.
"It's beautiful," she breathed.
Jordan ducked under a branch and stepped around a large rock. "There's a couch back here if you want to take a break."
Sarah followed and fell into one corner of the old, overstuffed sofa. "This would be a great place to read."
Jordan sat down at the other end and stretched his long legs out. "It is. Feel free to come here whenever you like. Pete eats lunch in here almost every day and in the summer I sometimes sleep here. You can see the stars and the water sounds make it very peaceful and comforting." He chuckled. "We tried having frogs out here one year. They sounded great, but they kept escaping into the house. Maggie found one in the kitchen once and had such a fit we had to catch them all and set them free."
Sarah could see it in her mind and she laughed. "I wish I could have seen that."
"It took weeks."
He was so relaxed that Sarah felt safe in asking, "When you don't sleep here, where do you sleep? I didn't see anything that looked like your room."
Jordan hesitated. "I sleep downstairs."
Sarah visualized all that she had seen. "I didn't see any stairs."
"Just because you can't see them, doesn't mean they aren't there."
She could tell that Jordan wasn't going to be more forthcoming. Sarah pretended to write a note on her hand. "Don't ask Jordan where he sleeps," she read aloud. "May I ask you a rather personal question?"
Jordan had half a grin on his face, but he thought it over before answering. "I reserve the right not to answer, but you are free to ask."
"Why don't you have a girlfriend? You're smart, rich, handsome and you have a good sense of humor. You could have any girl you want. It seems like some woman should have snatched you up already."
Jordan chuckled. "I don't snatch easily and I'm pretty choosy. There aren't that many women interested in me in any case."
"I find that hard to believe," Sarah snorted. "Most women are dying to meet someone like you."
Jordan sobered. "They don't see me
. They see what they think I am and what I have. I'd rather be alone than with someone who doesn't really love me. How come you
don't have a girlfriend?"
Sarah hugged herself protectively. "I've got to focus on school. I won't get a second chance with my education and a girlfriend would distract me."
"Sounds like an excuse to me," Jordan argued. "What's the real reason?"
Sarah's automatic defenses kicked in. "That is the real reason. Are you calling me a liar?"
"Yes. You gave me the justification that protects your real reason. Something else is behind your eyes and I want to know what it is."
Jordan turned a little and stretched his arm along the back of the couch. "I'll tell you what: answer my question honestly and I'll answer any question you have with equal honesty. What do you say?"
Sarah brushed her hair behind her ears and pulled her knees up. Jordan was asking her to bare her soul, but he was offering to do the same. She considered it for long moments. "You'll answer any
question without getting mad?"
"You have my word," he nodded.
"Okay." Sarah had learned young how to distance herself from her feelings. She let go of any personal involvement in what she was going to say and took a calming breath. "I'm afraid that there's a reason my parents couldn't love me and that if I had a girlfriend, she wouldn't be able to love me either. I don't want to risk my heart only to learn that no one can love me."
"Oh God." Jordan slumped and his eyes were filled with compassion. "You are not
unlovable, Sarah. Just because your parents were . . . "
"Do I get to ask my question now?" Sarah interrupted.
Jordan put a hand over his eyes for a second and murmured something inaudible. He took a deep breath and straightened. "Go ahead."
A million questions begged to be asked, but only one would do. "Why do you pretend to be a man?"
A collage of emotion drained the color from Jordan's face. "You think . . . I'm a woman?"
Sarah knew in that moment that she was right. She reconnected with her emotions in an instant and wondered if she had gone too far. "You said I could ask you anything. I answered your question honestly."
Jordan lay back on the couch and covered her face with both hands. "Jesus!
I didn't expect . . . How did you know? Did I make a mistake?"
Sarah relaxed. "I always knew. The first second I saw you I knew. How could anyone not
know? It's so obvious."
Jordan abruptly scooted closer and looked into Sarah's eyes as if searching for something. "But how? How do you see a woman when everyone else sees a man?"
Sarah could feel Jordan's body heat and it made her heart beat faster. "You haven't answered my question. Why do you do it?"
Jordan struggled visibly with impatience. "It's complicated."
"Of course it is. Tell me anyway."
Jordan spoke with difficulty. "I look like a man no matter what I do. All my life I've been defending my gender. When I was four, a woman in a grocery store told my mom that she should cut my hair or people would think I was a girl. My mom said, 'He is
a girl'. I know it was only a slip of the tongue, but it describes my entire life. I got tired of explaining myself. Letting people believe I'm a man is just easier and I don't have to deal with their anger and confusion. It also gives me more authority when dealing with the players. They're more likely to obey my rules. When people find out I'm a woman, they usually think I've had a sex change. It makes me feel like a freak. I love being a woman. There isn't even one tiny part of me that wants to be
a man, but I'd rather be thought of as a man than as some sort of monstrosity."
The insight into Jordan's life was painful and Sarah put a hand to the ruggedly handsome face before she could think about it. "You're not a freak."
"You're not unlovable."
Sarah pulled her hand back, but the feel of Jordan's smooth cheek stayed with her. "You don't have a girlfriend because she'll find out the truth."
"Something like that." Jordan's color was returning, but she looked uncomfortable. "It's my turn again. How did you know?"
Sarah fought the urge to touch her again. "I honestly couldn't tell you. I just did. It was very confusing. Pete kept calling you sir and you looked so butch and handsome, but I knew you were a woman anyway. I had to train myself to think of you as a man, but I never believed it. I thought for a while that you might be transgendered, but it didn't feel right."
Jordan slowly stood up and put her hands on top of her head like she was trying to keep it from exploding. "I forget sometimes, you know?"
"What I am. Who
I am. I'm surrounded by people all the time and it's like I'm invisible. My reality isn't real. I'm a construct in my own life. I tried to make myself easier to understand and only succeeded in making it impossible for anyone to know me."
"I know you."
Jordan bent over and started laughing. When she finally straightened there were tears on her face and she wiped them away with trembling fingers. "You can't know what a relief this is for me. After all this time, to be able to be myself with someone. To know that I'm not invisible? It's like being able to breathe again."
Having the truth out in the open hatched a new batch of questions. "Is it my turn to ask another question?"
Jordan chuckled. "Go ahead."
"How old are you?"
"Thirty-four." Jordan dropped back onto the old sofa with a grin. "Go on. I know you're dying to ask me all kinds of things."
Sarah was no fool. She didn't need to hear the offer twice. "This isn't where you grew up, is it?"
"No. My childhood probably wasn't much different than yours. At least, financially. My dad drove a garbage truck and my mom sold Amway products. We did all right, but we weren't rich."
"You're rich now," Sarah pointed out. "How did you do it?"
Jordan stretched her legs out and crossed them at the ankles. "Investing, mostly. I had a small windfall in my senior year of college and a buddy of mine convinced me to invest in video game development and computer animation technologies. It was rather scary to risk it, but he turned out to be right. Over the years, he's done very well for himself handling my money."
It seemed rather crass to ask how much money Jordan had, so Sarah picked up on something else. "What kind of windfall?"
Jordan's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "I'm not sure I want to answer that just yet."
Embarrassed, Sarah pulled back. "Sorry."
"Don't be. I'm just a little embarrassed by it. Ask me something else."
There was something else that Sarah really wanted to know, but she was a little nervous asking. "Um . . . How do you hide your breasts?"
Jordan ran her hands over her flat chest. "I went to school with a guy who creates special effects for movies. He makes special vests for me. Would you like to see it?"
Sarah sat up straighter, surprised that Jordan was going to show her. "Yes."
Jordan's fingers made quick work of the buttons on her shirt and pulled it open. She stopped to undo her cuffs and pulled her shirt off completely. Arms wide, she turned to face Sarah.
It appeared to be a contoured beige T-shirt. Except for the color and texture it looked exactly like a man's chest and biceps. Sarah could see what looked like ribs and muscles. "How much of that is you?"
"None," Jordan answered. She put a hand over a pectoral muscle. "This is the thinnest part, but it's still thick enough that I rarely feel anything underneath it. All together it adds almost seven inches to my rib cage. I'm actually quite thin. My friend had to design something to make my chest look larger and my hips smaller. Knowing that I would be wearing these for a good long time, he made the chest thinner so it would hold my breasts instead of compressing them. He didn't want me to end up with empty bags when I got older." Jordan blushed. "I probably shouldn't have said that."
"May I touch it?"
It was uncanny how real it felt. It was soft on the surface, but it was firmer underneath without being stiff or hard. Feeling it through a shirt was like touching real skin. Under her fingertips it felt like nylon. "It must get hot."
"Hot I can handle. It's the itching that drives me mad. Sometimes I think I'll go crazy if it doesn't stop and it's usually when I can't take it off."
Sarah sat back. "Now that I know, I'd be happy to scratch your back any time you need it."
Jordan reached for her shirt. "Thanks for the offer. I may take you up on it."
Sarah felt closer to Jordan now than she ever had before. Her heart felt like it was swelling and needed release. "I like you," she blurted out.
Jordan looked up from buttoning her shirt with a wide smile. "I like you, too."
Elation made Sarah feel silly and reckless. "Will you teach me to dance?"
"I've never felt anything like it," she explained. "Ever since Halloween I've been having dreams about it almost every night. Do you think I could be good at it?"
There was a strange look in Jordan's eyes. "I think you'd be a natural. It would be an honor to teach you."
Sarah bounced in excitement. "When?"
It was snowing heavily when Sarah left her last final exam of the semester, but the sense of freedom she felt made it seem like spring. Fourteen days stretched out before her-days in which she hoped to spend as much time as possible with Jordan and Maggie. Christmas was only days away and she still didn't have her gifts, but now that classes were over, she could concentrate on shopping.
All of Sarah's spare time over the last weeks had been spent in Jordan's arms. She was steadily improving in her dancing lessons, but it was having Jordan's body pressing hotly into her that Sarah secretly craved. Just last night Maggie had said they looked beautiful together. It certainly felt that way to Sarah. Dancing with Jordan was far more intimate than sex had ever been with anyone else. She didn't feel whole unless she was within the circle of Jordan's arms. Maybe it was wrong to indulge in secret sensual pleasures with her employer, but Sarah couldn't give it up. It felt too good, physically and emotionally, for her to even consider pulling back. Not having any experience at dealing with intimacy left Sarah completely defenseless to it. As terrifying as it was, she was addicted heart and soul.
Part of what she had come to find so exciting about dancing was learning to let go. In order for Jordan to lead, Sarah had to surrender control to her. Her entire life had been about taking control in order to be safe. To voluntarily relinquish control into Jordan's keeping made the dance incredibly erotic. The more she surrendered, the better they were together.
Sarah's hands were half frozen by the time she scraped all the snow and ice from her car windows and headlights. The snow was falling thickly and she quickly jumped in the car to get the windshield wipers going before all her hard work was obliterated. The battered Toyota didn't have a heater-it had died several years before-and Sarah blew on her fingers to warm them up. Not having a heater meant that moisture collected on the inside of her windows when it was cold. She worked for several minutes with a small squeegee and an old rag to make it possible to see.
Conditions were bad on the road. The streets were slick and treacherous with all the new snow, but it was the poor visibility that made it particularly hazardous. Sarah drove slowly, avoiding the highway. Taking the streets through town would take longer, but it would be safer and help would be easier to come by if she got stuck.
Sarah was waiting her turn at a stoplight when all hell broke loose.