Saturday, November 1, 2008

Dare to Dream by Leigh Ellwood

Claire’s heart caught in her throat. He was still so handsome when he smiled. When that Cheshire grin slowly drifted her way she sensed the energy pulsing between them. Her pussy twitched in reaction to his hungry gaze, yearning for the tongue that now circled his lips.

“The J-man scores!” Cal bellowed to his band’s fanfare. “Okay, kids, you know what comes next. Let’s get our lucky lady on the dance floor…”

Hands pressed against Claire’s back, and she was moving, not of her own volition. Both Ellie and Brady nudged her into the spotlight, fueled by the crowd’s encouragement.

Before she realized it, J.J. palmed the garter into her hands, then draped his arm about her waist. “So, you’re next in line, eh?”

“What?” This, after nearly fifteen years apart? No “Hello?”

It wasn’t until J.J. gently eased her down into a chair brought up front, however, that she remembered the wedding tradition. Before the dance of the “betrothed” couple, she had to try something on first.

Which meant J.J. would help, and have access to a place that, attention though it needed, was not where she wanted him right now.

Not yet.

So much for cool, calm, and collected.

Seated before the entire wedding closing around her, Claire’s body responded to the growing encouragement. What she had hoped would be a dignified reunion had quickly spiraled into a reality-TV spectacle as J.J. kneeled before her, removed one high heel, and lifted the leg.

“Here’s how this works,” Cal egged on from the stage, “every inch up her leg equals one year of wedded bliss. What do you say, J? Go for the golden anniversary?”

J.J. smirked. “What do you get for a hundred years?” he said, more to Claire than anyone else.

“A hundred? Some kind of metal out of Star Trek that built the ship, I bet,” Cal quipped. “Aaand, we’re off!”

Claire felt a chilling spark as the garter slipped from her hands into J.J.’s and looped around her bare foot. Because the dress dusted her at mid-calf, and because the day was rather warm, she had opted not to wear stockings.

Due to her limited wardrobe, she’d forgone a more essential item of clothing as well. Claire cursed her thrifty nature. If only she’d checked one more aisle at the drugstore…

Bass strings vibrated and strained the ominous theme from Jaws as the garter snaked up her leg and over her knee, J.J.’s soft fingerpads leaving behind a trail of shivers. She tried not to let her free leg bounce with her anxiety, but involuntary nerves got the best of her, and that foot raised on the ball and began a lively springing. Thankfully J.J. edged closer to stop it, but that maneuver did little help for her senses.

She felt wetter underneath the dress, the delta between her thighs slick. A slight brush of skin and silk hitting a dangerous zone alerted her to J.J.’s discovery of the same thing, and the bouquet fell from her hands to the floor so she could grasp the sides of the chair for support.

Claire looked around her, at men and women dressed in fine clothes, all clapping and cheering and laughing along to a times-old wedding game. Cal’s teasing bass increased its urgent rhythm and shook the floor. Each vibration was torture, licking up her labia with flames. She’d read somewhere once about a woman who achieved orgasm by doing nothing but sitting near a bassist’s speakers at a concert. Claire had to commend Cal for his ability to please a woman without touching her, excruciating though it was.

A finger scraped her pussy and she looked down at J.J.’s bewitching smile. No sense trying to deny it now—he knew she wasn’t wearing underwear, and he had her in a position where he could take free advantage. How graceful could a bouquet catcher look leaping from her throne with a man’s hand up her crotch? It couldn’t be done.

So she closed her eyes and braced for the inevitable probing of her wet slit. To be honest, it would feel good to be touched, to have months of pent-up sexual frustration released. Given the way J.J.’s fingers expertly secured the garter around her thigh, he seemed a good candidate to assist.

But his hands retreated and he rocked away, sitting back on his haunches. He waggled his fingers in the air to indicate his mission was a success, and Claire’s head filled to capacity with the roar of an approving crowd.

“Hey, Jay, where’s your watch?” a slurred male voice shouted from the back. There was laughter, even a few gasps of dismay for the minors within earshot. Claire tried to zero in on that heckler but was distracted when J.J. jerked her upright and scooped her into his arms.

“What are you doing?” she cried, and kicked her feet skyward. Then she realized her nether regions might be made visible by the action. So she crossed her ankles and squeezed her thighs, but that seemed only to put more pressure on her throbbing clit and to heighten her enraged lust.

“Hey, Marbury, you’re supposed to marry her before you carry her over the threshold,” Cal called over to them. “Or at least over to the pet supplies aisle. Where you going, man?”

J.J. filed past wedding guests and wove around tables, into the aforementioned sales aisle. Claire watched over his shoulder as the wedding shrank with increased distance. A mixture of reactions were left in the wake—Ellie beamed proudly, Lauren cackled into Jake’s shoulder and toasted their departure with her champagne flute. Cal shrugged and motioned to his band to play. Over J.J.’s labored breathing she heard the bassist quip about J.J.’s giving the wedding a miss and going straight for the honeymoon.

Technically, he was taking them to the back of the store, down the hall and into a restricted area. When the world slowed to normal, and J.J. returned her to a standing position, she realized they were in the employee lounge. Standard minimum wage and safety posters Claire remembered from teenaged summer jobs lined the beige walls. A small table with mismatched chairs took up one corner, a refrigerator the other.

And J.J. locked the door behind them. He turned toward her, shedding his jacket. His darkened eyes reflected his passion.

“You know what, I changed my mind,” he said. “I want the garter back.”

Love My Way by Bridget Midway

“Let’s take a five minute break,” Phil said into the microphone.

Under the haze of the small desk lamp that illuminated their workspace, Eagan glared at his director as the workers and dancers milled around on the stage.

“What the hell are you doing?” Eagan snapped. “Did you forget your place here? This is my show. I’m running this.” He gritted his teeth so hard, he thought he would crack his molars.

“Then maybe you should get out of whatever funk you’re in and recognize crap when you see it.” In the darkness, Phil’s brown eyes looked black.

“Maybe we should take this conversation to another room.” Nina gathered the dancers’ photos and other notes in her arms and stood, waiting for Eagan to make a move.

When he glared at her, she kept her gaze down to the floor, only occasionally glancing up at him. Each time she brought her head up, she pushed her wire-rimmed glasses up her slender nose then instantly swept her stringy red hair behind her ear. Even in the darkened theater, her pale skin accentuated her dark hair and eyebrows.

When he stood, she took a step back, allowing him room.

“Follow me.” Eagan had been given the use of a professor’s office while conducting his auditions.

Eagan’s cell phone, which Nina carried, chirped an operatic tune. She answered it on the first ring, after juggling the pictures and papers in her hands.

“Um, sir, it’s your brother.” Nina held up the phone to Eagan.

“Thanks.” He took the silver-and-black phone and closed it with a loud snap, disconnecting the call. He only hoped the hang up rang as loud in his brother’s ears as the snap did in the empty corridors.

Some wounds Eagan couldn’t repair in a day, not even in a phone call. Why couldn’t his brother and the rest of his family realize that and leave him alone?

He handed the phone back to Nina. Like ducklings, Phil and Nina followed him to the assigned room. On the way, Eagan rolled up his sleeves. His heart pounded with each step. He shouldn’t have been there that day. From his actions, his crew must have picked up on his sour mood.

When they got to the office door, Nina raced around him and opened it for the duo. She kept her gaze cast down, not letting her sky blue eyes be seen as Eagan and Phil strolled inside of the room. Then she shut the door behind herself.

“What the hell is going on with you today?” Phil slammed his folder full of papers onto the cluttered desk.

“Take that tone out of your voice, Phil.” Eagan put his fists to his hips. “You’re my director, not my equal.”

Crimson shaded Phil’s pecan-colored skin. Eagan had been friends with Phil for over fifteen years, since he first had him directing commercials and music videos. It was a fast hop, skip, and a jump to the two feature films Phil directed, which had collectively earned well over five hundred million dollars. Since then, Eagan struggled for another hit, any hit. Unfortunately, the media knew that and grabbed onto that story like a co-ed accepting his first cool job offer.

Phil ran his fingers through his black hair, probably the reason the man, at the young age of thirty-six, had a receding hairline.

“I thought I was your friend.” Phil leaned against the desk and crossed his feet at his ankles.

“Outside of work, you are. Here, I’m your boss. I’m the executive producer of this damn show, and if I decide to pull it, I damn sure will.”

“Fine. Pull it. At the rate you’re going, your show will be off the air before you can get the first show in the can.” Phil braced his hands on the desk. “How could you pick that horse over the gazelle?”

“What are you talking about?” Eagan knew exactly what he meant. As soon as Eagan had told the last dancer to come back, he knew his mind wasn’t in the game. With everything that had happened to him recently, how could it have been?

“You let that incredible dancer go, the one with the graceful arms, who did that thing with her leg.” At a diminutive height of about five-foot-nothing, Phil attempted that same dance move, albeit in an awkward fashion, kicking his leg back until the man almost knocked over a floor lamp and a plant.

The dancer, that woman, Eagan knew exactly who Phil was talking about. Long, caramel-colored legs, high, rounded ass, full lips, and hair she kept in a ponytail. A beautiful Nubian goddess. He wondered what it would look like when it was all down and around her face, and over his body, and brushing his genitals.

“Perfect arabesque.” Eagan thought fondly of the woman. He allowed a slight smile to creep up at the corner of his mouth, something he hoped neither Phil nor Nina caught.

“What?” Nina craned her head toward him to catch what he’d whispered.

“The move. It’s called an arabesque.” And Ananda had executed it perfectly. He even knew her name.

“You do remember her.” Phil pointed to Eagan and his eyes widened. “I thought you barely looked at her before you gave her the boot. She was good. Damn good.”

“That’s right. She was good.” Trying to remain in control, Eagan took a seat behind the desk, forcing Phil to stand and make his way to a chair across from him. “She was too good. The show is supposed to be about amateurs dancing with professionals, not semi-pros dancing with pros.”

“So is that why you wanted to see the last girl again?” Nina asked.

“No.” Eagan brushed his pant leg. “I wanted to see her again because I wasn’t paying attention and I made the offer before I thought about it.”

Yes, that reason sounded plausible. If only Eagan could convince himself that the first woman’s look didn’t matter, he would be okay.

“So you are preoccupied today. Man, let’s just wrap this up and go home. We can finish the auditions another day.”

“No, I have to finish this. Besides, there’s nothing for me at home.” Eagan swiveled the chair around to look out of the window.

College students crawled over the campus. Ophelia was about their age. Young. Too fucking young. So much for the young being trainable.

“What are you talking about?” Nina asked.

Eagan kept his back to the duo. The news would have come out sooner or later. He was just hoping for later than sooner.

“About a month ago, I released Ophelia.” He didn’t have to look at his two closest friends to know they knew what he was talking about.

“Oh, God!” Nina gasped, then ran around the desk.

His hand in the air halted her. The last thing Eagan needed was a sympathy hug or gesture. Ophelia had been special. She’d been the perfect submissive. Attentive. Open. Willing.

He would get over her. He would have to.

“Ophelia? You mean Ophelia, Ophelia?” Phil’s small face squished into a ball as he contemplated who she was and why she would be important to Eagan. Within a matter of seconds, Phil’s face relaxed and he shook his head. “Your sex slave?”

“Submissive. Don’t call her a sex slave.” Eagan wasn’t defending Ophelia. He defended the Lifestyle and terminology.

For him, being a Dominant wasn’t all about sex. Hell, Ophelia even did that well. Being a Dominant meant he had control, control over his life, another’s and his world. Somehow his lifestyle and his life weren’t mirroring each other. Control slipped through his fingers. He had to find a way to gain it all back.

“No wonder you’re so upset.” Nina kept her arms wrapped around her body.

Eagan could feel her anticipation. She wanted so much to hug and hold him. Not now. He didn’t need anyone showing any type of affection.

“I’m not upset.” He stared pointedly at Nina. “She wanted to go and explore the world. Her heart wasn’t into the Lifestyle anymore. I’m better off without her.”

“Bullshit.” Phil slapped his hand on Eagan’s shoulder. “I don’t really understand all of this ABCD stuff—”

“That’s BDSM,” Eagan said, cutting his friend off. Then he brushed Phil’s hand from his shoulder.

“Whatever. I just know that you cared a great deal for her. Sorry it didn’t work out.”

Eagan jerked to his feet. “Like I said. It was for the best.”

“I’m sorry, sir.” This time Nina managed to touch his arm as he passed her. “I say we stop auditions for today and go home. Would you like for me to come over, Mr. Morton?”

Eagan shook his head. “Not tonight. Just not in the mood.”

As tempting as the offer was, Eagan didn’t want to get Nina’s hopes up. He’d trained her a little when her curiosity got the better of her. Even played with her on occasion. He could tell right away she wanted something permanent. As nice and as beautiful as she was, she wasn’t for him.

A submissive who acted submissive didn’t appeal to him. His desired submissive would have to have a mind of her own, and know her limits and want to push them. With Nina, although she had been more than willing to please him, she also didn’t express her feelings, even after Eagan pressed her before, during, and after play. He didn’t want to collar her like he wanted to with Ophelia.

“Let’s just get back to work. No use wondering about my relationship woes.” Eagan headed to the door with Nina close behind him to open it for him.

“Hey, wait. I have an idea.” A grin as big as the school’s campus covered Phil’s face.

“This had better be good.” Eagan halted in his tracks, turned to him, and crossed his arms over his chest.

“Reality shows are all the rage now. Date My Dad, Date My Mom, The Bachelor. Hell, even that 80’s rapper has his own show. Um, Taste of Love or is it Spice of Love? I don’t remember. You get where I’m going with this?” With a faraway look in his eyes, Phil strolled around the office.

Eagan shook his head.

“We can do a reality show with you where you find your perfect sex slave.” He held out his arms like one of those game show beauties showing off a car or a refrigerator.

“Submissive,” Eagan corrected. A sex slave was what Nina wanted to be and he wanted no part of that.

Eagan waited to see if Phil would start laughing at any moment. What was Phil thinking?

“You’re joking, right?” Eagan reached for the door, but Phil quickly slithered his way in between him and the door.

“It could be the hottest thing on the planet.” Phil braced his hands on Eagan’s shoulders. “It’s not like the whole world doesn’t know about you and your Lifestyle anyway since you admitted it on that hour-long interview special.”

“The reporter asked. I answered.” Eagan felt no need to hide his true self from anyone.

Of course, coming out on national television to say that he had women strung up in his dungeon and he spanked them with paddles on a regular basis didn’t garner him a lot of female fans. Feminist attorney, Judith McClowan, wanted his head on a platter. Most women and some men wanted him strung up. Some didn’t understand him. The rest wanted to be the next submissive.

He suspected that his chosen lifestyle was why the numbers for each of his projects were plummeting. The Nielsen ratings for all of his shows couldn’t beat out rerun shows for other reality TV shows. The box office takes for his movies went from blockbuster to just above tanking. All of his projects were sure-fire winners. He didn’t understand how the public’s perception had shifted.

He did know this: He needed a hit and he needed it in the worst way. A fresh take on the old reality TV show market could boost his popularity again.

Picking someone to fill Ophelia’s spot couldn’t just occur on some cheesy reality TV show. It had taken months for Eagan to get Ophelia to trust him, and even longer to train her. A special bond like that couldn’t just happen over a two-month period in front of cameras.

“Since everyone knows that when you’re not producing Emmy-winning shows, you’re Master Eagan in your off time, I say we put on a show to find your next submissive.” Phil rubbed his hands together in a sinister fashion. If the man wasn’t wearing Dockers, an R.E.M. T-shirt, and loafers, the look may have worked.

“I don’t know,” Nina piped in. “Sounds awfully risky to me. What if you get weirdos or some woman trying to prove something to you or try to change you?”

“That will never happen.” Eagan crossed his arms over his chest.

“Dude, this could work.” Phil headed to the desk where he grabbed a pad and pen.

“It couldn’t, and I don’t want it to work even if it could. Finding a submissive or any romantic partner is not as simple as television makes it seem. There’s a lot of thought involved. You have to build trust. You have to get to know the person gradually. I can’t do that in a matter of weeks.”

“I’m thinking nine to ten weeks. Sound good?” Phil scribbled some notes on the pad.

“You’re not even listening to me.” The idea sounded ludicrous; Eagan paced the floor to hear more, just to be sure it was as crazy as it sounded.

“Where would I find the women to be on this show?” Eagan glanced at Phil as he marched back and forth.

“Let them be a mixed group. We’ll get half of the women from real TCB dungeons.”

“BDSM,” Eagan said with a heavy sigh. Next time his friend screwed up the name, Eagan would get a yardstick and discipline him like he would any of his submissives.

“Whatever. And the other half can be ordinary women who never thought about doing the Lifestyle, but are very interested in it.”

“And where would you find them?” Nina split her attention between Phil and Eagan.

“Around. I’m sure we could find five or six hot chicks willing to do this show. Do you see the crap people eat on that survival show and that other TV show that pushes contestants to conquer their fears? A little spanking should be nothing.”

“That’s not all I do.” Eagan planted his hands on his hips and glared at this idea man.

“Good. Whatever it is you do in your special dungeon, you can do each show to eliminate the women one by one.”

“Anything? We’re talking paddles, canes, wax play, electric play, nipple clamps.”

At the mention of the last item, Nina sucked air between her teeth. Her body recoiled in response as though he had put the clamps on her just now.

Knowing that Nina still responded to the toys accelerated Eagan’s pulse. He glanced at his watch. Maybe he did have some time after the audition to unwind a bit.

“No actresses.” Strolling back to the desk, Eagan assumed the chair behind the desk again. “I don’t want anyone doing this to get a fucking part in one of my shows or movies. And I definitely don’t want someone faking her emotions as some sort of exercise. This is my life. I take this Lifestyle and my involvement in it very seriously.”

“Okay.” Phil scratched through something he’d written on his pad.

“Wait, wait, wait.” Waving his hands in the air, a crucial thought hit Eagan. “What network would air this? There’s no way in hell any network would broadcast me stringing up half-naked women and deciding which one would be the right submissive.”

“Hmm, good point.” As usual, Phil drummed his pen against the pad of paper.

“Phil.” It was all Eagan had to say to get his friend to stop his nervous habit.

“Sorry.” Phil stood up straighter. “Hey, I’m not your submissive. You can’t tell me what to do.”

“And yet you stopped.” The power to control tickled Eagan’s insides.

“You’re good, man.” Phil took one stroll around the room before stopping in the center. “Hey, doesn’t Skintastic owe you a huge favor for fucking up your broadcast of the Satellite Excellence Award show?”

“That’s Cine-tastic.”

“Whatever. As much soft-core porn as they show, that’s what they should be named.”

“And yes, they do owe me for cutting out the audio in the last hour of that live show.” Thinking about it, even two years later, made Eagan tighten his jaw.

Something in what Eagan said made Phil smile, laugh and jump around with joy. “You are a freakin’ genius!”

“I know that.” Eagan smirked. “But what for this time?”

“That’s how we’ll pitch it. The show will be completely live. That’ll cut down on production time. Skintastic is just doing reruns of that mobster show now. Plus, they do that show called Limousine Loving where couples have sex in a limo. And they’ve aired that stripper show called The Pole. I don’t think a BDSM show will throw off their programming.”

“At least you got the name of my Lifestyle correct this time.” So much for having to resort to the yardstick. “The show couldn’t all be live, though.”

Phil furrowed his bushy eyebrows. “Why not?”

“There’s no way I can adequately play with twelve women within an hour. The first show can definitely be live.”

“And the last show.” Phil quickly added.

“Of course. The grand finale. That would have to be live.”

“Everything else, we can tape a show per week and edit. Yeah, that would make sense. It’ll be hard as hell, but it can work. I’m sure you have a ton of set up for each one of your,” Phil waved his hand in the air, searching for the right words, “events.”

“Play. We call it playing.”

“Whatever. I would never let my kids play the way you do.”

Eagan chuckled. “Okay, so let’s pretend I’m a network executive.” To punctuate his point, Eagan leaned back in a swivel chair and rocked back and forth. “Sell me on this show idea. Right now, I’m not feeling it.”

“Fine.” Phil set the pad and pen on the desk. “Picture this. Twelve women come to your mansion in Virginia Beach and stay with you for nine to ten weeks.”

“All twelve the entire time?” Nina didn’t speak up much, but when she had something to say, she piped in very quickly.

“No, of course not. Every show, Master E. will eliminate one potential submissive. Just like on every other reality show, they’ll go through a reward challenge and a test to stay in the house.”

“Reward challenges?” Eagan shook his head. “I don’t want these women on the show if all they’re looking for are prizes. Shouldn’t being with Eagan Morton be enough?”

Phil rolled his eyes. “Yes, being Eagan Morton’s submissive is the ultimate prize, isn’t it?”

Nina took that moment to sigh loud enough that both Phil and Eagan stared at her for a moment before resuming their conversation.

“The normal set up for these types of shows has reward challenges. We’re already bucking the standard tradition with the whole BDSM thing. I don’t think we should eliminate this one thing for the show.”

“Who creates these challenges?” Eagan asked.

“You would.”

Eagan cocked his eyebrow. “I’m the TV exec right now, remember?”

“That’s why you were referring to yourself in third person. Fine. Eagan Morton would. Since he’s most familiar with the Lifestyle and what tests he would want the women to endure, he would be the best one to make that call.”

“Fine.” He nodded.

“And we’ll get twelve of the most gorgeous women you’ve ever seen.”

Eagan waved his hand in the air. “I don’t base my decision on looks.”

“Really? I’ve seen some hot women on your arm. And Ophelia was the sexiest woman on two feet. What was she? Part black and part Japanese?”

“Half Filipino,” Eagan glanced at his friend, who suddenly got a smug expression on his face, as though he were Ophelia’s father, “and half African-American.”

“I knew she had to be part Filipino. She was gorgeous.”

“Anyway, I want all of the women to be hooded from the time they walk through the door to the time they’re eliminated. At that point, then they can remove their masks.”

“Ah, element of surprise. I like that.”

It may have sounded like an element of surprise to Phil. To Eagan it was a way of life. He never judged a woman by her appearance. He only looked at her by the way she carried herself. Tall, short, slender, or voluptuous. Size, shape, race, and age didn’t matter to him. As long as she had confidence in herself, he could accept her as his submissive.

“Any other requests?” Phil asked.

“Are you asking me as Cine-tastic exec or as the Master?” He stared pointedly at his director.

“The Master, of course.”

Eagan thought for a bit. The longer Phil talked, the more he could see himself actually going through this idea, that’s if they could get it past the network.

“What prize would the one lucky submissive get?”

“Well, for one, they would be your submissive.”

“For how long?”

Phil furrowed his eyebrows. “Isn’t this sort of a lifetime deal?”

“It could be. But if we find we’re not really compatible, she needs an easy out plan, and so do I. How about a year with me unless otherwise agreed upon between the two of us?”

Nina sighed again. If Eagan didn’t know any better, he would think Nina wanted to try out as one of his contestants.

“A year in your home? Sounds like a good deal to me.”

“Plus, she would get jewels and trips. All of that could be worked out later.” Eagan waved his hands in the air, hating fussing over the petty details. “And another thing. Each woman would have to be collared when they step into my house. I will own them and I will release them. And they cannot be collared by anyone else while in my home.”

“I don’t know what all of that means, but I’ll make sure of that.”

“I have a friend who owns a club. I’ll get him to pick out six women for me.”

“Cool.”

“So what about the other six women?” Nina asked.

A knock on the door stopped the brainstorming session.

“Enter,” Eagan called through the door.

Carter, one of Eagan’s assistants, poked his head through the opened door. “Are we going to keep going with auditions or stop for today?”

Phil glanced at Eagan. “Well?”

“Give us five more minutes,” Eagan said. Just as Carter ducked his head back, Eagan called for him again. “I’m going to be putting together another reality show. Do you think you can find six women who aren’t skittish about nudity and who aren’t actresses?”

Carter scratched his head. “What kind of show is it?”

“A reality show about a Dominant looking for a submissive,” Phil said.

Carter volleyed his gaze from Phil to Nina to Eagan, then back on Phil again. “I guess. That’s a pretty tall order, but I’ll try.”

“Don’t try. Do it or don’t do it.” Eagan rose from his seat. “If you’re incapability of handling this task, tell me now so that I can find a more capable person for the job. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

Eagan waved to Carter to leave. “Give us a minute and we’ll be right out.”

Carter shut the door on the trio.

“Hey, what are you all planning to call this show?” Nina asked as she gathered the photos and notes in her arms again.

“I was thinking Controlled Environment. How do you like that?” Phil clapped his hands in happiness.

“I don’t. It’s not very sexy or enticing. It sounds like a medical show or something that should be on The Learning Channel.” Eagan crossed his arms and stared out into the crowd of people below walking by them.

“What about The Eagan Morton Show?”

Eagan didn’t even have to look at his friend for Phil to know that he hated that show name. His hunched shoulders spoke volumes.

“Fine,” Phil said.

As Eagan stared at each young woman walking by, he wondered what they were really like behind closed doors. What did they really want? Their reactions fueled him.

“I got it,” Eagan said, still facing the window. “Love My Way.”

“Perfect.”

Yes, Eagan’s next woman would be just that. Perfect.

Mary and the Bear by Zena Wynn

Mary Elizabeth Brown sat in the crowded church, numb with grief and an assortment of other complicated emotions she just didn’t have the energy to examine closely. The last few days had been a hellish whirlwind of activity, culminating today as they gathered to pay their last respects to the woman lying in the casket—her twin sister, Barbara Ann Brown-Remington, more affectionately known as Babs.

Every now and then, stray comments drifted to Mary Elizabeth’s ears above the softly playing music.

“Oh, no.”

“What a shame, she was so young.”

“She was such a beautiful person. An angel, really.”

That last comment almost pierced through the numbness and brought a smile to her face. An angel? If only they knew, she thought. Babs thrived on being wicked, on pushing the limits. Unfortunately, it was Mary Elizabeth who usually ended up suffering because of her schemes.

Mary Elizabeth allowed her gaze to drift around the church. The first two pews on the right were reserved for family. Her sister’s husband of seven years, Charles A. Remington, III, sat the end of the pew, near the center aisle and closest to the casket. Seated next to him were her mother, Susan Brown, and then her father, Richard. From where Mary Elizabeth was seated, at the opposite end of the pew, huddled in the corner, she could see that the knuckles of her mother’s hand were white from the grip she had on her father’s hand. Her other hand, which was placed on Charles’s knee in a silent show of support, was also clenched. There was no other family present.

Lying in the casket, Babs looked like the angel she‘d been compared to—long, naturally blonde hair, a porcelain complexion, and stunning blue eyes hid behind closed eyelids framed with long eyelashes. With her figure, she could have been a swimsuit model. She’d loved showing off her long, toned body and large breasts. She’d played the role of the naive, beautiful blonde so well that even now, not many realized that behind that china-doll appearance was a very, shrewd mind.

Only two people knew the true nature behind the angelic look, Babs and herself. Mary Elizabeth would be taking that truth with her to her own grave. No one would believe her stories any way. Babs had perfected her angelic act while still in the cradle. Her parents had certainly been fooled. They’d worshipped the ground she’d walked on. And her husband? Totally clueless as to the true nature of the woman he’d married.

As far as Charles was concerned, his marriage was the stuff of fairytales, with him in the role of the rich, handsome prince who rescued the beautiful yet poor princess from her life of drudgery, giving her a life of luxury. In return, the grateful princess had dedicated her every moment to showering the love she felt for the handsome prince by seeing to his every need.

If only that were true. The reality was that the princess died while sneaking away to meet her likewise married boss for an illicit weekend affair. There were only two people left alive in this world who knew where she’d really been heading, and neither one of them were talking. One of them, because he had too much to lose. As for herself, Babs had sworn her to secrecy. Just another one of the hundreds she’d kept for Babs over their thirty-two years of life.

Though they were twins, Mary Elizabeth was the exact opposite of her sister in appearance and nature. While Babs was tall, standing five-eleven in her stocking feet; Mary Elizabeth was short, only five-four. Babs had long flowing hair that was so fine it resembled a baby’s, while Mary Elizabeth’s hair was thick, coarse, and perpetually frizzy. So opposite were they in appearance that most people had to be told they were sisters, never mind twins. She couldn’t count the number of times she’d heard, “This is your sister?”

The service had started while she reminisced. Mary Elizabeth came to attention only to realize they were at the part of the service she dreaded most. It was time to walk around for one last view of the body. Time to say her final goodbyes. Charles was against having a graveside ceremony, for which she would be eternally grateful. First, the family would be escorted past the casket. Afterwards, they were to line up in the vestibule to greet the mourners and accept their condolences. Then, she would finally be able to go home, and hopefully get some rest.

She hadn’t had a moment to herself since she’d received the phone call informing her of Babs’ death. Charles called her first, leaving it to Mary Elizabeth to break the news to her parents. Upon hearing the news, her mother had to be tranquillized. Her father just sat there, gazing at nothing. She’d spent the last week at her parent’s house, running interference, answering the phones and taking care of her parents, scared to leave them alone for any length of time. When she wasn’t busy with them, she was helping Charles.

Charles went first. He stood stoically by the casket, the blank expression on his face masking his feelings as he took one final look at his wife. Mary Elizabeth’s heart hurt for him. If the last week had been hard on anyone, it was Charles. He’d been a rock throughout this whole ordeal, but Mary Elizabeth knew he had to be hurting, losing his wife so suddenly. When he’d stood there longer than seemed warranted, the funeral director discreetly urged him to move on. They were on a timed schedule and there were still a lot of people waiting for their turn.

Next came her mother, supported on one side by her father and on the other by a funeral attendant. During the service, she’d held it together surprisingly well until she stood next to the casket. With a loud cry, she threw herself across the open casket, sobbing. “God, why? Why did it have to be my baby? If one of them had to die, why couldn’t it have been Mary Elizabeth?”

Her father and the attendant pulled on the distraught woman, struggling to get her to release the casket and move on. Her father whispered something into her mother’s ear that Mary Elizabeth couldn’t quite hear over all of the wailing her mother was doing. This continued for some time until her mother finally nodded at whatever he was saying and released her hold, allowing them to lead her away.

Mary Elizabeth went rigid as pain and embarrassment pierced through the shield around her emotions, making her want to crawl into a hole and hide. She was grateful for the veil she wore that partially covered her face. She could feel sympathetic glances sliding her way in the heavy silence of the church. She knew that she wasn’t her mother’s favorite, but it was something entirely different to hear her mother’s declaration, and to have everyone else there hear it as well. It was beyond humiliating.

With the ease of years of practice, Mary Elizabeth shoved the hurt deep down inside. Then, wrapping her dignity around her like a cloak, she stepped up to the casket. She looked impassively at the body lying there. She didn’t think of it as her sister. Her sister had been vibrantly alive, not this wooden thing lying here. A stray thought crossed her mind. Maybe now I can have my own life. She pushed the disturbing thought aside, ashamed to be having thoughts like that when her sister was dead. She walked away from the casket before she could be prompted and joined her family in the vestibule.

Standing in the receiving line with the others, she greeted mourners as they left the sanctuary. There were long-time family friends, friends of Babs and Charles, neighbors, co-workers, and country club members all wishing to express their sorrow at the family’s loss. There were so many people that they all began to blur. She shook hands by rote, with whichever person was standing before her.

That is, until she heard a familiar voice and looked into the face of the one person she was happy to see. Kiesha Morgan stood before her. Standing protectively at her side was an amazing specimen of manhood, clearly devoted to her. Kiesha was more than her boss. She was her friend. Kiesha owned a chain of consignment stores where Mary Elizabeth was employed as one of the assistance sales managers.

“Mary Elizabeth, I’m so sorry for your loss. I wish I could have been here sooner.” Kiesha was in the middle of relocating to a small town in North Carolina and was only back in Pirate’s Cove tying up a few loose ends.

“Thank you. Just you being here means more than you realize.” Of all the people here, Kiesha was the only person to whom she really felt close.

“I know this is neither the time nor the place, but when you get the chance, give me a call. I have some business I want to discuss with you.”

“Okay.” She wanted to know more but like Kiesha said, this was neither the time nor the place. Already the line was backing up and people were getting impatient. After giving Kiesha a final hug, she allowed her to move on. After about an hour, the church was finally empty and the family was free to go home. She was glad to see the last of them go. Her feet were killing her.

“Are you coming by the house to get something to eat, or going to your parents? There‘s plenty and you need to eat,” Charles said. Though they weren’t close, Charles took his role as brother-in-law seriously.

“Neither. I’m heading home. Tomorrow’s a work day and I have a lot to do between now and then.” Besides, if she didn’t get some time alone soon she was going to scream.

“How can you go to work as if nothing has happened?” her mother asked in a shrill voice. “My Babs is dead,” her mother wailed, bringing her handkerchief to her eyes again to mop up the fresh flood of tears.

“Susan, leave the girl alone. She’s got to earn a living. There’s nothing she can do for Babs now.” Mary Elizabeth was stunned that her dad came to her defense, something he’d never done before in her life.

Taking advantage of her mother’s shock, she gave her father and Charles a hug, and squeezed her mom’s hand before quickly walking out the door. God, she was glad that was over. These last few days had been trying. Maybe now things could get back to normal. Well, as normal as possible with Babs gone. It was still hard to believe. There was a hole in her heart where her sister used to be.

Unlike most twins, she and Babs hadn’t had the most loving of relationships. She’d loved her sister but couldn’t always say that she’d liked her. Mary Elizabeth never imagined Babs would die. Babs had always been there, and Mary Elizabeth assumed she always would. She got in her car and headed home. Like her father said, there was nothing she could do for Babs now. It was time to pick up the dangling pieces of her life.