Searing pain shoots through Isobel’s leg as the rock slams into the back of her calf. Her ripped skin leaks blood onto the warm ground. She looks up into the eyes of a madman as he drops the slingshot and charges at her. She ducks and slips under his meaty, outstretched arms, his fingers skimming across her neck, leaving a trail of scratches. The world blurs as she turns and blindly pushes at him with the full weight of her body. He teeters, already off balance from missing his target. His arms flail helplessly, trying to stop his forward momentum. Loose rocks dislodge as his feet slip out from under him and he tumbles over the edge of the cliff. She stares in disbelief as his massive body disappears from sight. Isobel thinks the bloodcurdling scream she hears is coming from her own throat until she turns toward the sound and sees Heather—eyes bulging, mouth wide open.
The sun was just starting its downward trek on the other side of the lake, the air fresh from the recent rain. Still plenty of time to get the perfect shot. Delany Payton set up her tripod, attached the camera, and made a few adjustments. Streaks of pink and yellow faded into brilliant gold and reflected off the water in slivers of shimmering color. The Universe painted the canvas sky for Delany. Her job now was to capture it.
She enjoyed the solitude photography afforded her. After a long day of teaching, it was nice to have some peace and quiet. Of course, being single for the past several years afforded her plenty of quiet at home, too. But this was a different kind of quiet. The quiet contained within the walls of her house was sometimes lonely. No. Lonely wasn’t the right word. She sometimes felt alone, but she wasn’t lonely. It felt more like someone was missing who should have been there. She had no idea who she was longing for, or why. She was perfectly content—happy, in fact—being alone. Not that she would have resisted a relationship with the right person. She just wasn’t going out of her way to find it.
This evening, nature provided her with plenty of company. An occasional fish leapt out of the water aiming for a bug, coming down with a splash. Birds still flew overhead, not yet ready to settle down for the night. Crickets and frogs sang all around her.
Delany was hoping to get some decent shots that she could take to the Marcus Gallery on Monroe Ave. She wanted to see about the possibility of having her own show there. She needed more photos in her portfolio in order to approach them. If things worked out tonight, she would be one step closer.
She spent the next hour and a half taking pictures, making camera adjustments and framing her shots. She opened the aperture on the camera lens and lowered the shutter speed as the evening progressed into night and the moon took the place the sun had held. It was quite dark by the time she packed up her gear and headed back to her car. The flashlight she’d decided to stick in her back pocket at the last minute definitely made the walk easier than it would have been without it.
Once home, she debated whether to make herself something to eat or to forgo food in favor of uploading her shots to the computer to see what she had captured. She compromised by making herself a chicken salad sandwich and eating it at her computer desk in her makeshift office, otherwise known as the spare bedroom. She took a big bite while she waited for the pictures to transfer from her smart card.
Several of the shots held real promise. She marked them as favorites and moved them to another folder on her computer. She would play around with cropping and color adjustments over the weekend.
Her sandwich finished, she turned her computer off for the night and headed back downstairs with her plate. She needed to get some sleep if she was going to be any use teaching her first class in the morning.
One more hike up the stairs to brush her teeth, wash her face, and crawl into bed and her day would be complete. She was just pulling up the covers when her phone rang. A quick glance at the screen told her it was Abby.
She’d met Abby three years before when Abby had taken one of Delany’s writing classes. Abby didn’t seem to mind that she was the oldest one in the class, a good thirteen years older than most of the other students, many of whom were fresh out of high school. Abby was writing—or rather tryingto write—a book on holistic healing practices. She’d ultimately given up the idea, but she and Delany had become close friends in the meantime. Abby was the kind of person you could trust with your deepest, darkest secrets. Not that Delany had any of those, but it was good to know she could tell Abby if she did.
Delany hit the Answer button on her phone.
“Hey,” Abby said, before Delany even had a chance to say hello. “Get any good shots tonight? The sunset looked beautiful from my window. I’ll bet it was spectacular from the lake.”
Delany wasn’t sure when Abby found time to breathe. She seemed to talk in a rush at times. “It was great. I got some usable pictures. Surprisingly there wasn’t any ice left on the lake.” Rochester winters could be brutal, and ice by the shoreline could sometimes last well into May. The warmer weather had started with the actual arrival of spring on the calendar this year, a very unusual occurrence.
“Did you want ice?”
“Either way was fine. Ice would have made for some pretty interesting pictures.”
“Speaking of pretty interesting pictures, are we still on for ice cream after work tomorrow? Scoops and Cones in Panorama Plaza opened for the season.”
“What does ice cream have to do with interesting photos?” Delany asked.
“Nothing. Although pictures of ice cream would be interesting.”
Delany laughed and shook her head. “Sure. What time?”
“I have a client at three. How about we meet around four?”
“Great. See ya then. And, hey, get some sleep. You have to be up bright and early for work tomorrow.”
“That’s what I love about you, Abby. Always looking out for me.”
“Of course. I love you, too. Good night.”
Jade Taylor stepped out of the shower and toweled herself dry. She’d worked up quite a sweat playing tennis at the health club, but she enjoyed it. It was a good way to expel her pent-up frustrations. Of course, so was sex, but she hadn’t had that since she broke up with her partner last year. Hell, she hadn’t had sex in well over a year before that. The last part of her relationship with Sheila had been stressful and sexless. It wasn’t for lack of trying on her part. Jade had done everything she could think of to try to make things work: flowers, dinners, long talks, time together, time apart. Nothing seemed to work. She realized, after Sheila had moved out, that she didn’t even miss her, and all her efforts had been a waste of time.
Nine years of her life wasted. Nine fucking years. She never wanted to repeat that mistake again. No, she was fine alone and happy to stay that way. Well, except for the lack of sex part. Sure, she could take care of her own needs. She was quite handy with a vibrator, and giving herself an orgasm was no problem. But she couldn’t kiss herself. Couldn’t hold herself at night. Couldn’t whisper sweet things in her own ear. She missed that.
Maybe a friends-with-benefits situation was just the thing she needed. No messy, heartbreaking relationship. Occasional sex with someone she liked. What was the harm in that? Granted, she’d never had sex outside of a relationship before, but dammit, she was thirty-four years old. It was time to start doing what she wanted to do. And lately, what she wanted to do was have sex. Enough, she told her brain. All this sex talk without sex action was getting to her. She needed to cool her jets here.She wrapped the towel around her and made her way to her locker.
Nicole, her tennis partner, was slipping her shoes back on, already showered and dressed. The girl didn’t seem to sweat, even after the strenuous set they’d just played. Nicole would be a good choice for the friends-with-benefits thing—except for that pesky husband and the fact that she was straight.
Jade smiled to herself and shook her head. This was such a stupid idea and so far removed from anything she’d ever done. Her vibrator would have to do.
“What are you smiling at?” Nicole asked, pulling Jade out of her thoughts.
“Oh, nothing important. Good game today.”
“Sure was.” Nicole grabbed her purse from the locker. “See you next week.” She gave Jade a quick hug and walked away.
Jade watched her exit the locker room, doing her best to keep her eyes off the tight jeans hugging her rear end. Oh my God. Stop it. You’re acting like a teenage boy. You need to figure out a way to get this out of your system.
“Shit. What the hell was I thinking?” Jade said out loud. You weren’t thinking. You let your hormones get in the way of good sense.You did it now. You actually did it.She stared at the words on the computer screen. Email sent. There was no way to retrieve it. It had already traveled through cyberspace to her friend Abby’s computer. Shit.
Hopefully she’ll think it’s a joke. She had never done anything like this before. She wasn’t sure why she had done it now. Oh, who was she fooling? She knew exactly why—and that word started with a capital Hand ended with orny.
Even if Abby did take it seriously, Jade doubted she would be able to come up with anyone on such short notice. Her trip to Rochester was only four days away, and she would only be in town for three nights. Not much time for anything—especially what Jade had asked for.
She opened up her Sent Mail folder and reread the note.
I’m driving in from Buffalo next week. Hoping we can get together for dinner or drinks. Would love to catch up. Hey, I was thinking, I haven’t had sex in over two years. Wondering if you have any single friends I can maybe get together with. Just a thought. Talk to you soon.
A quick glance at the clock told her it was well past one in the morning. Maybe fatigue was to blame for her lapse in good judgment. She closed the lid on her laptop, rubbed her eyes, and wondered if anything would actually come of this. And if it did, would she actually go through with it? Her libido told her there was a good chance she would.
“Are you trying to pimp me out?” Delany asked.
“No,” Abby said, with a laugh. She handed Delany an ice cream cone. “I would have to get paid to be your pimp. No one’s offered me any money. Although I do accept tips.”
Delany licked a drip of chocolate ice cream from the side of the cone before it reached her hand. “Explain this to me again.”
Abby paid the young girl behind the counter, and the two women walked over to a nearby picnic table.
Delany pulled the pictures she had taken at the lake from her backpack and set them on the table before plopping down across from Abby.
“My friend Jade is visiting from Buffalo for a few days. She hasn’t had sex in a while and she asked me if I had any single friends. Interested?”
Delany tilted her head toward the warm sun, enjoying the early spring weather while trying to make sense of Abby’s words. “Is she looking for a blind date?”
Abby shook her head. “I’m pretty sure she was just asking about sex.”
Delany squinted at her friend. How could she agree to have sex with a stranger? True, it had been a long time since she had enjoyed the company of a woman, and the thought of it sent a tingle through her, but sex with someone she didn’t even know? She wasn’t sure it was a good idea. “I’d be happy to have coffee with her.”
“Delany, she’s not looking to have coffee,” Abby said. “Look, she’s really nice. Beautiful. You’ll like her. I’ve known her forever. Jade Taylor. Look her up on Facebook before you decide. She ended a relationship last year with a total bitch. She’s not looking to get into another relationship. I think she’s a little lonely and would like to spend intimate time with someone.”
“What if I say no?” Delany trusted Abby with her life. She wasn’t so sure she wanted to trust her with her lovelife, although in this case, it would be more like her sex life.
Abby tucked a strand of short red hair behind her ear. It immediately slipped out and hung across her face again. She shrugged. “Say no if you want. I’m not forcing you. I have other friends I can introduce her to if you don’t want to meet her.”
A strange panic hit Delany in the gut like a punch. “I didn’t say I don’t want to meet her.” What the hell? She wasn’t sure she wanted to do this, and at the same time, she was sure she didn’t want Abby to give this chance to someone else. “I’ll check her out tonight and let you know.”
Abby finished her ice cream cone and grabbed Delany’s pictures. “Don’t wait too long. No pressure, but she’ll be here on Friday.”
“Oh, no pressure at all.” Delany shook her head. “That’s in three days.”
“I know. You have three whole days to get ready.”
“You know—shave your legs, buy breath mints, tidy up your bedroom. Trim.”
“Ha ha, aren’t you just so funny.” But Delany hadn’t shaved her legs in weeks. No need to when you aren’t wearing shorts or a skirt in public, and Delany rarely did that even in the hottest months of the summer, let alone the winter they had just left behind. It was amazing what you let slide when no one was around to see you naked.
“I’m not sure why this is such a big deal,” Abby said, turning her attention to the photos in her hand.
“Because, I don’t do one-night stands.” Delany broke off a piece of her ice cream cone and absently tossed it to a small bird that had landed on the end of the table.
“Oh, I like this one,” Abby said, turning the pile of pictures toward Delany to show her what she was talking about.
Delany nodded, more interested in the conversation than the pictures.
“You’ve done one-night stands. Besides. this would be more like a two-night stand.”
“They were never worth the effort. That’s why I don’t do them anymore.”
“Delany, I’m not trying to talk you into this. You can do whatever you’re comfortable with. She asked me, and I thought of you. You’re close in age. You’re kind, funny, and cute. I thought the two of you would hit it off.”
“Well, I am cute. And she likes cute?”
“Loves it.” Abby smiled. “Think about it. Could be fun.”
“Sure, it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.”
“It’s just sex. How is someone gonna lose an eye?”
“Oh, I don’t know. You get squeezed too hard. Someone loses control of a vibrator. You never know.”
“Jade Taylor from Buffalo. Look her up,” Abby repeated, and returned her attention to the photos.
Delany threw the last bit of her cone to the bird and let out an exasperated sigh. She would definitely look up Jade Taylor on the computer tonight. What could it hurt?
Whoa, Delany thought as she looked at the profile picture of Jade on Facebook. She’s pretty. Wow. Jade was beautiful. Her profile picture showed her with a racquet in hand. Oh, and look, she plays tennis. She’s probably super fit. She’ll undoubtedly think I’m a slouch. Delany had played volleyball her first year in college but hadn’t played any sport since. As her interest in photography grew, her interest in sports faded. Not enough time in the day for it all.
Delany studied the picture. Perfect features jumped out at her. Brown eyes—light, more like amber—long straight brown hair with a hint of red, a smile that seemed to take over her face, revealing perfect teeth. Perfect. That word seemed to sum up her looks. No one’s perfect. She must have something major wrong with her. No, Abby would have told her if she was some kind of bizarre freak.
Delany stared into eyes that seemed to stare back through the computer screen. She wonderedwhy Jade had to ask for help to getting laid.I’ll bet she has women lined up waiting to do her.Delany smiled at herself and her slightly vulgar thoughts. She never talked like that, but sometimes her own thoughts caught her by surprise. I could so do her.
She clicked the Abouttab on Jade’s profile and read out loud. “Lives in Buffalo. Grew up in Rochester. Oh yep. She plays tennis.”
She pulled her cell phone from her pocket and hit Abby’s number from her contact list. “Okay. I’ll meet her,” she said, before Abby had a chance to say hello.
“You slut,” Abby said with a laugh. “You’ll sleep with the first pretty face that comes along.”
“I’m kidding. I told her you would probably be calling her. I’ll text you her number.”
“You were that sure I’d say yes?”
“No. But I think you’ll like her.”
Delany shook her head. What had she just said yes to?
Jade settled down with a glass of wine and the latest copy of Tennis Magazine. She kicked off her shoes and pulled her feet up underneath her on the couch. She’d had a rough day at work, and it was good to be able to relax for a little while.
She jumped at the sound of her ringing phone. It was a Rochester number she didn’t recognize. Crap. Probably the woman Abby was setting her up with. Abby obviously didn’t take the email as a joke. Jade had tried to explain to her that she hadn’t been in her right mind when she’d sent the request, but Abby had already told her friend about her, and the friend, Delany, had agreed to meet her. Abby said she was sure they would hit it off. I can ignore it and not answer, Jade thought. This was a really stupid idea.The ringing continued. What would it hurt to talk to her? She could always say she had changed her mind.
“Um. Hi. Jade?”
“Yeah. Hi. Sorry. This is Delany. Abby gave me your number? I guess I’m a little nervous calling you like this.”
Jade doubted that Delany could be any more nervous than she was at that moment. But it was almost cute the way Delany was stumbling over her words. “Nothing to be nervous about. I’m the weirdo who put out that strange SOS,” said Jade, trying to reassure herself as much as Delany.
“Yeah, I guess that makes me the weirdo that answered it.”
“Well, I’m glad you did.” What? Am I really?Why did I just say that?Maybe because Delany seemed like a nice enough person. Of course, they hadn’t said much more than “hello” so far. But Abby said Delany was great, and Jade trusted Abby’s judgment. However, it was her own judgment she was questioning now.
“I hope I’m not calling too late. Abby said you would still be up. So if I woke you, it’s all her fault.” Delany laughed.
Jade warmed to the sound of it, much to her surprise. “No, I wasn’t sleeping. I’m a night owl. Not usually in bed until at least midnight, even though I have to be up early for work.”
“Me too.” Delany paused. “Abby told me you’re in customer service.”
Jade wondered if this weird situation was making Delany as uncomfortable as she felt. “Yeah. I lead a very exciting life. I manage that department at the Buffalo gas company.” Look at us talking like normal people. This doesn’t seem weird at all.
“Do you like it?”
Jade tossed the magazine on the table beside her. “It’s okay. It’s a lot of paperwork, and occasionally I have to field a phone call or two from an irate customer that one of the operators can’t handle. I had a customer call me a bitch today because I wouldn’t let him pay his bill over the phone.” She took another sip of wine. It actually felt kind of nice to be able to share her day.
“Is that unusual? Don’t you normally take payments that way?”
“We do. But this guy wanted to pay with cash. Not sure how he planned on stuffing the money through the phone. We get all kinds.”
Delany laughed. “I read on Facebook that you play tennis.”
Jade wasn’t surprised Delany had checked out her online profile. She had done the same.
“I love it. I’m not the best, but I try. Do you play?”
“No. Too much running for me. I usually only run when something dangerous is chasing me or when I shoplift.”
Jade smiled. She found herself actually enjoying the conversation. “Do you shoplift often?”
“Not a lot. I teach writing at the community college, and it doesn’t pay that well. I only steal to make ends meet. You know—a bottle of wine here, a container of cream cheese there.”
“I dream of a world where our teachers make enough money to afford cream cheese,” Jade said, playing along.
“I dream of a world where chickens can cross the road without having their motives questioned. I read that somewhere. I think it was on a T-shirt.”
“You’re very funny,” Jade said. She couldn’t help but smile again. “What else do you like to do besides shoplift?”
“Oh, just for the record, I don’t enjoy shoplifting. It’s actually a lot of work. I write a little. Nothing serious. I think it’s mandatory for a writing teacher to write. Oh wait. What’s that saying? ‘Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach’?”
“Yep, that’s it.”
“So I’m not sure if that means I can or I can’t. But anyway, I try. I’m also into photography, landscapes mostly. I love to take pictures at sunset, when the sky is on fire. In fact, I recently bought myself a new camera.”
“You can afford a new camera when you can’t afford cream cheese?”
“Hey. Don’t judge me. Photography is my passion. Cream cheese is not.”
Jade laughed. “I would love to see your photographs sometime.” Oops, there it was. She’d just invited herself to see Delany. She cringed. Did she really want to do this?
“Why don’t you plan on coming over when you’re in town this weekend? I could show them to you.”
Jade hesitated. Talking on the phone was one thing, but agreeing to meet in person was another. Going to Delany’s house meant she would be agreeing to have sex with her. Wouldn’t it? Did her email to Abby mean that it was a done deal? No. That was ridiculous. She could meet Delany in person and still have the option of not sleeping with her. Maybe that’s what she would do—meet her, and then decide. There were no rules set in stone here.
“Or not,” Delany said, dragging Jade out of her thoughts. Delany must have sensed her hesitation.
“Sure. That would be nice.” There, I said yes. God help me.