This is dedicated to Vermilion, for the inspiration that her upcoming wedding gave me.
Fortunately, my college roommate and the ditz that he's marrying are "like, so totally sexually compatible" as to invite comparisons with the great romantic couples of history, real and otherwise. That's Kendra's take, anyway. She's the ditz. Among the couples she lists: Romeo and Juliet, Brad and Angelina, and Fred and Wilma. And as I say, I consider that a good thing. Without that sexual compatibility, or "seck-shool" compatibility, as Kendra puts it, my money would be on this relationship blowing up before the end of the year.
We're sitting in a bar, listening to Kendra — big surprise there — describe in minute detail the meeting that she and Dave just left with the minister who will perform their wedding in less than a month.
"And then he reads the part about speaking now or forever holding your peace? And I'm, like, what is that all about? And he explains it has something to do with marriage banns? And I'm, like, marriage banns? And he starts to explain about this tradition thing, but then he gets this phone call about one of his parishioners dying or something, so he has to leave. And meanwhile I'm thinking, look, I want to have the most traditional wedding possible. I mean, I'll be arriving at the church in a horse and carriage. I'm even promising to obey my husband."
Yeah. I could see that happening.
"So don't you guys think we should do these marriage banns?"
"You're the historian, Val," Dave says. "What do you think?"
Kendra turns on Dave with a fierce look.
"I am a historian as well, David."
"Art history," Val mutters out of the corner of her mouth. I stifle a laugh. I'm really starting to like Kendra's maid of honor.
This is the first time I've met Kendra, let alone Val. Dave and I went to school at Cal-San Luis Obispo. I stayed to do post-grad work in computers and artificial intelligence, while he took a flyer on a start-up here in the Boston area. That's where he met Kendra, who had gone to school with Val at one of what they call the "Seven Sisters." Val had since gotten a master's in history, and is about to start an assistant curatorship at the Boston Museum of History. Kendra taught elementary school for a while, but has apparently spent the last year planning her wedding to Dave.
"I definitely do," Val interrupts her former roommate's glaring. "You guys should definitely do the banns."
"So what do we do?" Kendra asks, her voice quivering with excitement at the thought of adding yet another element to her wedding.
"There are traditionally four banns," Val explains. "Three weeks before the wedding, you're completely banned from all sexual contact. With each other."
"But not with anyone else?" Dave asks in all stupid innocence.
"You've been banned from that since we met, sweetie."
Kendra's voice has taken on the tone of a glass-cutter.
Val snorts and continues.
"Two weeks out, you're banned from all romantic contact. Kissing, romantic touching, you know. Things like that."
Dave and Kendra nod sagely. I, on the other hand, was raised a Catholic, and all I really want to know at this point is how long Val can keep this up with a straight face.
"And one week before the wedding?" Kendra asks.
"No touching at all," she says. "In fact, either the maid of honor or the best man has to move into your apartment to watch you."
"You're kidding!" Kendra's eyes widen in surprise.
"No, Val insists. "It all goes back to the droits de seigneur."
"I've heard of that," Dave says. No doubt in the one humanities class he couldn't avoid taking in college.
"That's the right of the feudal lord to sleep with the bride on her wedding night," Val continues, nodding at Dave. "The banns were designed to re-purify her, in effect, for her lord's use."
"You mean I have to let someone else... ?" The very thought of it horrifies poor Kendra.
"No, no, no," Val assures her. "That part is long dead. But the banns continued, as a way of, um..."
"Ensuring that the happy couple truly loved one another," I join in. "And were willing to endure a symbolic separation. Absence makes the heart grown fonder and all that."
"Exactly," Val agrees, giving me a big smile. "The fourth bann, which is part of the ceremony, basically gives anyone a chance to object to the marriage on the grounds that the couple did not properly obey the earlier banns."
"Well, then, we should definitely do it," Kendra says. "Don't you think so, David?"
David's expression suggests that he thinks just the opposite. Three weeks without sex?
The return of the ice maiden. David smiles gently at his fiancée.
"Of course, Kendra honey. I just want you to be happy."
She smiles back and they turn back to us.
"So I could probably find more about this on the World Wide Spiderweb, couldn't I?" Kendra asks.
I blink at her a few times. Is she serious? Is there actually a twenty-four-year-old woman who thinks that the Internet is actually a giant spider web?
"Um, I tell you what," I tell her. "Why don't I do that tonight for you, and I'll just bring the printout to your house tomorrow evening? We're supposed to have dinner there, right?"
"Yes," Dave breathes a big sigh of relief.
"Are you okay, sweetie?" Kendra asks.
"Um, yeah, fine, honey."
"What's wrong, David?"
"Nothing," he insists.
"Sweetie, the wedding is three weeks from tomorrow. So if that first bann goes into effect tomorrow night, the last thing I want you doing is spending tonight on our computer."
Now it's Kendra's turn to blush.
"That's very true, David. Perhaps, if you guys don't mind, we'll just head on home right now."
They almost run out of the bar, David littering the table with twenty-dollar bills in his haste to leave.
Val and I nearly fall out of our chairs with laughter as soon the door closes behind them.
"Oh, my God," Val says after we recover. "How are we ever going to tell them the truth tomorrow?"
I'm busy counting the money that Dave left, more than enough to pay for dinner for the two of us.
"Tell them what?" I ask innocently. "You mean it's not true?"
"Well, I guess you'll find that out when you get on the World Wide Spiderweb," Val says as she starts laughing again.
"They're really just some sort of signs, right?"
"Yeah. Posted on the church door. Or more usually announcements they make in church."
"Still. Why spoil the fun? I'm sure I can produce a convincing web site printout in the next day."
"Oh, my God, are you serious?"
"Sure. I can put off my apartment hunt for a day. Now how about some dinner? Dave left us quite a pile here. I'm thinking of heading down the street to that seafood place I saw. Join me?"
"I'd like that," Val smiles.
It is hard for me to believe, as we work our way through clam chowder, salad, scrod, and strawberry cheesecake, that this girl doesn't have something better to do tonight than have dinner with me. It may be true that she doesn't have all of Kendra's advantages — the silky blond hair, the rail-thin figure with its obscenely out-of-proportion chest, the expensive, well-tailored wardrobe — but there's such life and wit behind those sparkling brown eyes that I can't help but wonder why it's not Val who's getting married.
"And so you're moving to Boston?" she asks.
"I have a post-grad fellowship."
Now it's my turn to blush.
"M.I.T." I whisper into my hand with a cough.
"What's that, Matt?" Val raises her voice. "I couldn't quite hear that. Did you say the South Hingham Institute of Technology?"
"The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, bitch." I say with a smile, taking the bait and spitting it back out.
She sits back in her chair and smiles.
"And so if you don't have an apartment where are you staying tonight?"
"Shit!" I look down at my watch. "I left my bag with the concierge and told him I'd be back there by now."
"Ooh, la-di-da, the concierge. At the Marriott? The Hilton?"
"Well, he's more of the guy behind the counter," I explain. "At the Motel Six."
"Come on," she stands and holds out her hand. I have broadband in my apartment. Let's put this thing together."
We hail a taxi, drop by the motel to pick up my stuff and leave a hefty tip, and finally arrive at her third-floor apartment in a working class neighborhood in the Boston 'burbs.
In addition to her sparkling brown eyes and her bouncy auburn hair, Valerie Jones has excellent taste in cheap wine. We start with a bottle of red, and by two o'clock in the morning have the outlines of a brilliant forgery. After we down half of the next bottle, a white, things become a little fuzzier, and we part with a chaste kiss, Val heading for the bedroom and me for her couch.
I awake the next morning to one of the best things in the world: the sound and smell of bacon sizzling in a pan.
"What time is it?" I ask groggily.
"Eleven. Come on, fella. We need to finish that website."
"Don't you have to work?" I ask.
"My job doesn't start for another month. So I'll be able to help when you move into Dave and Kendra's apartment."
"So how did you and Kendra, um... ?"
"What you're really asking is why are Kendra and I such good friends," she says with a laugh.
"I know she's shallow. I know she's not the sharpest knife in the drawer. But she took a very shy, small-town girl under her wing when we first got to college, and if it weren't for her, I wouldn't be here now.
"So yes, I love her like a sister. Of course, I play practical jokes like this on my sister all the time, too. Get to work, geekboy. You have a website to finish. Breakfast'll be ready in five minutes."
By the time we reach Dave and Kendra's place that evening, we're once again a little tipsy.
"The best explanation," I tell them as I extract the paper from the pocket of my jacket, "was on Wikipedia."
Or at least the Jones-Decker version of Wikipedia.
"Ooh, the Weekly Pedia," Kendra exults. "I've heard of that. Isn't it supposed to be unreliable, though?"
"It used to be," I agree. "They've gotten much better at fact-checking. They're practically the Encyclopedia Britannica now."
She and Dave eagerly study the printout as Val and I trade glances.
"This looks nasty." Kendra looks up at us for confirmation. We both know exactly where she is on the page. Val and I had had particular fun finding illustrations for our little "entry," including that picture of a medieval chastity belt. Still, Val makes a show of looking over to see.
"Oh, yeah. Well, some couples have a real hard time controlling themselves, particularly when you get into the second or third bann. That's why the best man and the maid of honor have to move in."
"Both of you?" Kendra squeaks. "I thought you said it was only one or the other."
"What can I say? I was wrong. I'm really more of an expert on American history, anyway. The colonies and the revolution and all that."
They finally finish reading the "printout" and look at each other. With a nod, they turn back to me.
"Thank you so much for finding this, Matthew," Kendra says. "You really are a good friend. I'm going to go get my planner, so I can put this inside it, and then we can start talking about how the wedding is going to go."
How the wedding is going to go is apparently according to a precise schedule that would make NASA envious. In fact, at exactly six o'clock, Kendra interrupts her executive summary of the wedding to turn to her beloved groom and say, "T-minus 504 hours, sweetie. Three weeks exactly."
"So the first bann is officially in effect," Val says, with a glance at her wrist. "As the maid of honor, I am synchronizing my watch."
All three of them look expectantly at me.
"Oh, right." I check my own wristwatch. "Got it."
"Great." Kendra is finally able to relax. At least until she starts the PowerPoint presentation after dinner.
"This is, uh, very professional," I tell her as we watch.
She flashes me a pleased smile.
"It should be, for what I'm paying my wedding planner."
To the accompaniment of a perfectly timed musical score, which for all I knew could have been composed specifically for purposes of this one presentation, we work our way through the pre-wedding, starting with the arrival in town of the groom's parents on the preceding Sunday, the arrival of the rest of the wedding party on Thursday, the bachelor and bachelorette parties that evening (including the time — ten o'clock?? — by which they were required to end), and the wedding rehearsal on Friday. And then the day itself: the visit to the hair stylist; the visit to the makeup consultant; the assembly of the wedding party at the church; the arrival of the horse and carriage at the bride's parents' home; the arrival of the police to block off traffic for the horse and carriage. And finally the wedding itself:
6:00 p.m. The procession of the groom's mother.
6:02 p.m. The procession of the bride's mother.
6:05 p.m. The procession of the groomsmen and the maids of honor.
6:12 p.m. The arrival on the altar of the groom and the best man.
6:15 p.m. The procession of the maid of honor.
6:18 p.m. The procession of the bride and her father, preceded by the flower girls and the ring bearer.
"Kind of goes beyond Bridezilla, doesn't it?" Val whispers.
"I think we're in General Omar Bridely territory now," I answer her, once again provoking that laugh I had grown so fond of over the past 24 hours.
The presentation ends, abruptly, although very musically, with the departure of the bride and groom from the altar, followed by the joyous wedding party. In fact, that is exactly how it appears on the screen: "followed by the joyous wedding party." In appropriate pairs, of course.
"Nothing about the reception?" I ask, my eyes twinkling.
Val digs an elbow into my side. Kendra simply looks up at me and blinks.
"I thought we'd save that one until after dinner," she says. "But we can do it now if you like. I don't think my reception planner did anywhere near as nice a job on hers."
As she pounds on my back to try to help me with whatever has gone down the wrong way, Val assures Kendra that after dinner will be fine.
Sure enough, after dinner, there's another, much less elaborate PowerPoint presentation on the wedding party's procession to the reception hall, the receiving line, the food, the drinks, the cake, the seating, the band (excuse me, bands), the music (apparently you can't trust decisions about the music to the bands), the toasts, and the happy couple's departure.
"I see what you mean," I tell Kendra. "Still, it's probably too late to fire her at this point."
"You think?" Kendra asks in all seriousness.
I get another elbow to the ribs.
"Of course you can't fire her," Val says. "Not for a PowerPoint presentation. She's a wedding planner."
"A reception planner." Kendra corrects her none too gently.
"Sorry," Val says softly.
Val and I leave shortly after ten o'clock, and she once again offers me the couch. Because it's once again too late to go out looking for a motel, I accept.
The next morning, a Sunday, we spend in companionable silence, broken only by the occasional squabbling over sections of the Boston Globe. In the afternoon, she pulls an old beat-up Chevy Citation out of a nearby garage, and drives me out for my first visit to the Cape.
I treat her to dinner at a clam shack along the coast on the way back, and once again end up on the couch. At this point, because I plan to start looking for an apartment on Monday, we both figure that it really doesn't make much sense to check into a motel room.
On Monday, we get a newspaper and go in search of apartments. It's already a joint enterprise, for the search part anyway. She eliminates some as being in bad neighborhoods, and others as being too far off the bus lines that I'll need to use to get to school. On Thursday, I find a beautiful two-bedroom apartment in a great location within an easy walk of the bus line to Cambridge. The only problem is the money. I did make a little on the West Coast doing some consulting, but rent like this will eat that up in no time at all. The only way I'll be able to afford this place is if I advertise for a roommate. I ask the landlord if he can hold it until the middle of next week to let me make up my mind, and after giving Val the once over, he agrees. I'm tempted to tell him that it's not a package deal, but at this point, it's far and away the best place I've found.
By the time the weekend comes around, we're getting a little nervous that Kendra and Dave still haven't caught on to the whole bann fraud. We joke about the fact that we'll be banned from the wedding ourselves or, even worse, assigned some low, menial jobs by the wedding planner that will make us the laughingstock of the rest of the wedding party who are, for the most part, other folks with whom we went to school.
Friday night, though, is a significant test of our resolve to see this prank to its end: dinner with the Andersons. Kendra's parents are old-line Boston Brahmins, and when Val's Citation pulls up in front of their manse, I have the feeling that it would really rather park around the back if it had the choice, thank you very much, where none of the other cars could see it.
Val is an old friend, of course, and receives an air kiss from Mrs. Anderson from a distance of no less than six inches away from her cheek. I get the firm handshake, from both Mr. Anderson ("call me Jack") and Mrs. Anderson (no explicit instructions, but if she thinks I'm calling her anything but Mrs. Anderson, she's crazy), and then another from Kendra's younger brother, Todd, who is currently a senior at Hah-vahd, where call-me-Jack went to school.
We suffer through a fascinating dinner table discussion about the Federal Reserve's recent decision on interest rates, and Val and I nearly knock the others over in our eagerness to accept Jack's invitation to take in the view of the sunset from the back patio. Mrs. Anderson joins us after a bit, a very worried expression on her face.
"Dear," she asks Val, "do you think everything is all right?"
"It was an excellent meal Mrs. Anderson, ' Val says smiling.
Mrs. Anderson glances back toward the dining room.
"It's just that Kendra and David seem to be touching each other an awful lot. Do you see that?"
I stifle a snort.
"They're very much in love, Mrs. Anderson," Val assures her.
"As were Mr. Anderson and I, but I'm sure we had no notion of touching each other in front of other people quite so much."
"Probably just nerves then," she says.
I chime in.
"Dave comes from a very demonstrative family. Very Northern Californian."
"They just need to settle down a little," Val adds. "It probably helps them a lot to know that the other is there when they need them."
Mrs. Anderson casts another worried glance toward the dining room, and finally gives a prim, little nod.
"Very well, dear. Excuse me, now."
"You can stop holding it in now, Matt," Val whispers.
"Oh, God," I sigh. "Nerves? I'll say it's nerves."
"Shut up," Val answers in a hiss, "or we'll both be on the floor laughing in a minute."
I pull myself upright and we rejoin the others for dessert. After dinner, we adjourn, the men with port and cigars in the library, the women somewhere else. Maybe with a candlestick in the conservatory. In a house this size, we'll be lucky to ever run into them again. But we do, and by eleven, Val and I are on our way back to her apartment.
"You know," I tell her, "you could have warned me about them."
"I thought it was better to let you experience it for yourself. I'm not sure I could have done it justice."
"True. So, did it come up?"
"The banns? Not at all. And with the men folk?"
"Call-me-Jack remarked that David was looking a little peaked, and advised him to save up his energy for his honeymoon. He and the Toddster got a good chuckle out of that. It's not patricide when you kill your father-in-law, is it?"
Val gives me a big smile.
"Still," I say, we ought to tell them tomorrow, don't you think?"
"Tomorrow?" Val protests. "Tomorrow's the beginning of week two. No romantic touching. But if you're going to wimp out on me, we can tell them on Monday. I'll send 'em an e-mail. 'Oh, guys, I did a little more research, and it turns out I was wrong about those bann things. I'm soooo sorry.'"
"Yeah, I'll bet you would be."
By the time Saturday evening comes around, though, we're both feeling a little more charitable to Dave and Kendra. We're over at their place again, for supper, when the alarm on Kendra's watch — the cheap, wedding planner watch, not the expensive one she had worn to her parents — rings. She looks over at her fiancée.
"T-minus 336 hours, honey," she says.
Dave smiles back, and reaches his hand across the table for hers.
Their hands inches apart, they both look over at Val, their eyes wide.
"Second bann," she says. She looks under the table.
"And I think romantic touching also includes footsie, at least in my view. What do you think, Matt? You were raised in the Catholic church, weren't you?"
"Oh, we frowned on any premarital footsie," I say quite seriously.
They start to look more and more distraught through the meal, however, and shortly after the dessert, I look over at Val, a questioning look on my face as I plead for them.
She smiles and nods. Before she can open her mouth, though, Kendra opens hers.
"Now let's take our coffee into the living room. We need to plan the wedding week, and then talk about your fitting for the new bridesmaid dresses."
"I'm sorry," Val says coldly. "The what?"
"You remember, silly. The other ones were all wrong for the wedding scheme. So we decided to go with these."
From the inches-thick wedding planner, Kendra pulls out a picture of a dress that even I can see will make Valerie Jones look like a purple dirigible with puffy sleeves.
"But, but..." Val sputters.
"I'm sorry," Kendra says with a giggle. "I can't believe I didn't tell you before. The seamstress just took your measurements and transferred them to this dress."
"But the other dress was beautiful," Val protests. "I looked great in it."
"You'll look great in this one, too," Kendra says. "As Felicity pointed out, we need to have dresses that not only complemented the wedding scheme, but that also contrast more with my dress."
Val looks over at me, her eyes narrow slits, and slowly shakes her head back and forth. I smile back at her; apparently we won't be telling them tonight.
"So you just need to go in tomorrow for one last fitting," Kendra assures her, completely oblivious to the look that has passed between us. "'kay?"
She is awaiting Val's answer, and Val finally manages to push a smile onto her face.
"'Course it's 'kay, Kendra," she says.
We spend the rest of the evening — every minute of it — receiving our marching orders for wedding week, which begins only a week from tomorrow. That's the day that Dave's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Whiting, arrive from California.
"So you can pick them up from the airport, can't you, Matthew?"
"We'll be happy to," Val says. She is as aware as I am that I have no car.
"And then dinner here for six," Kendra states firmly, making a note in her book.
"Probably seven," Dave whispers, nowhere near softly enough to prevent Kendra from hearing.
"Seven, David?" she asks, a quizzical look marring her porcelain features.
"I think Lucy's going to be able to come after all," he says.
"Little Lucy?" I ask. "She must be what, eighteen?"
"Twenty," Dave answers, with a glance that tells me to shut up. Oh, come on, I want to say, your fiancée can't possibly be jealous of your sister. I mean, it's not like you and your sister were... But then of course, I realize that that's not what would matter to Kendra. Lucy Whiting was a babe when I first met her, I guess at the age of fourteen. As a twenty-year-old, with that long, blonde hair and that beautiful smile, she could easily eclipse the bride, even in one of those new purple bridesmaid's jobs.
"I thought Lucy was a 'no, '" Kendra says with soft savagery. She pulls a list out of her wedding planner.
"Yeah, it turns out that modeling job fell through," Dave explains.
"They decided to get someone prettier?"
We were getting catty now. Even Val was squirming in her seat a bit.
"Someone less expensive."
"And where exactly are we supposed to seat her?" Kendra demands, pulling out yet another list. "This seating chart is completely full, David."
"Yeah, it turns out that Aunt Billie's not going to make it, so I figured that Lucy could just have her seat."
The plan is simply too sensible to permit objection, and Kendra finally decides that she has none. No legitimate objections, at any rate. She icily extracts a red pen and slowly replaces Aunt Billie's name with that of Lucy.
"I hope you will consult me next time as soon as you become aware of any other changes in the wedding arrangements." Kendra's voice has taken on a velvet softness that barely contains the fist within.
"Sorry, dear," Dave mutters.
Later that night, right before the eleven o'clock deadline at which the schedule requires us to leave, Val asks if Kendra and Dave would like either of us to spend the night, in order to make sure there's no romantic touching going on. Kendra makes clear that our presence is unnecessary, and on the way home we agree. There probably wouldn't have been all that much romantic touching going on tonight regardless of the banns.
Valerie is furious when she returns from her fitting on Monday morning.
"I'm going to look like a big, fat plum," she announces. "Even Jane — she was a suite mate sophomore year — is gonna look horrible in that. And Jane is a fox. I can't believe Kendra is dropping this shit on us at the last minute."
"Sorry," I say with as much sympathy as I can muster. We guys have it much easier. We pick the tux up; we look great; we return it.
"So what have you been doing?" she asks.
"Trying to find a stripper."
"For the bachelor party?" she asks.
"Yeah. Originally, I was thinking of just going with the tape of Dave's old girlfriends, but now I think I gotta get the poor guy a stripper. But I haven't had any luck on the ol' World Wide Spiderweb."
She dug through her purse and pulled out a card.
"That's who I hired for Kendra's bachelorette party."
"Seriously? I thought that was all just talk. I thought that a bachelorette party was just a bunch of girls sitting around ragging on guys."
"Yeah, that's what the other two I've been to were. But can you imagine sitting around a bar listening to Kendra talk for three hours? Anyway, I think they also have... the kind of strippers you're interested in."
I make the call and learn that they do have a counterpart with girls, along with a website featuring pictures of the performers. Together, Val and I study them to decide which will be the best.
"That one." I point at one on the second page. "Anna."
"Really? You really think that she's the prettiest?"
"No," I admit. "I mean, there are five or six others that I guess most people would consider prettier."
"No shit. Like her. And her."
"But I like that one. And so will Dave. In fact, she reminds me of one of his old girlfriends. I had a bit of a crush on that one."
I pause, waiting a few beats to deliver the punch line.
"Right up until she figured out she was a lesbian."
It got the expected laugh, and before Val was able to get her breath back, I went for the kill.
"Yeah, she was the first one. Dave dated four girls in college, and two of them went over to the dark side."
Val is holding her stomach, desperately gasping for air.
"They're living together now, in fact. Kinda sweet, isn't it?"
"Stop it!" Val finally blurts out, slapping me on the arm.
"I have a tape of them making love. You wanna hear it?"
"Oh, get out," Val says, sobering up quickly.
"No, seriously. Dave actually ended up friends with all four, so I had them make a tape for his bachelor party. Linda and Ellen made theirs together, and well, one thing led to another..."
"Oh, God, that's priceless."
"That's what we do at bachelor parties. Embarrass the groom until he's ready to crawl back to the girl he loves and commit to her forever."
"Got it," Val says with another laugh. "And the stripper?"
"Frankly, it's just not going to take that long to embarrass Dave. So we might as well get some entertainment out of it. So you don't mind if I invite this girl over this week for, um, a preview, do you?"
"Oh, no. I already had Rolf here for a preview. I'll make popcorn."
Tuesday and Wednesday are two more unsuccessful days in search of an apartment. So on Wednesday afternoon, I take the two-bedroom. Now all I have to do is find a roommate.
Wednesday night we set aside for Anna, the stripper. She arrives dressed as a businesswoman, and Val is as taken with her as I am. There'll be no popcorn tonight. Instead, we sit next to each other on the couch and watch Anna go through her routine.
"Well?" she asks. The tape has ended and she's been standing in her final pose for the last thirty seconds. We give her another fifteen seconds before I clear my throat.
"Yes, well, that was, er, very entertaining. So you're free next Thursday?"
Anna slumps into the chair opposite the sofa.
"I'm always free," she says, shaking her head.
"Seriously?" Val asks. "But you're incredible."
"Thanks, hon." Anna gives her a genuine smile. "But you've seen the website. I'm not the best-looking girl on there. I don't get that many calls."
"But I'll bet you get every job you do get called for," I tell her.
"Yeah, actually I do." It's my turn to get the smile.
"Like this one. Here's the address and the time. I'll see you there."
"So you like the businesswoman?" she asks eagerly. "I can do others."
"That one's fine," I tell her.
"Like what?" Val asks.
"What do you care? You're not going to be there?"
I turn to Anna.
"She's running the bachelorette party the same night. With Rolf." I put Rolf's name in air quotes.
"Ooh, he's a hunk," Anna tells Val. "All the girls like him."
She is, somewhat incongruously for a stripper, blushing.
"Anyway," she rushes on, "we have a lot of costumes. The businesswoman is probably my best, though."
"I think it's great," I tell Anna. "And her opinion doesn't count."
Anna dresses and leaves, and Val starts slamming things around in her apartment, ostensibly cleaning it up. It's an odd behavior, particularly at this time of night, and finally I ask her to stop and sit down.
She sits on the chair and crosses her arms in front of her chest.
"I'm sorry," I tell her. "All I meant was that —"
"My opinion doesn't count," she huffs.
"Well, it's just..."
She continues to glare at me, daring me to tell her the reason.
"She a stripper!" I point out. "For a bachelor party! How would it look if the guys found out that you were the one who hired her?"
I can tell from the twitch in her mouth that she's softening.
"And anyway, you know you like her," I add.
"Not as much as you did," she shot back.
I smiled at her.
"I've always liked girls like that."
"Like what?" she asks suspiciously.
"You know, she knows she's not the most beautiful one, but she still has this incredible sexiness about her. So even if she's not the most beautiful, she's somehow the most attractive. And she has this way of looking at you, even when she's dancing that makes you feel that she wants you. Not that she wants you to want her, but that she wants you."
"I felt the same thing," Val says softly, with a shiver. "It was strange."
"Excuse me?" Val asks.
"I didn't say anything," I say quickly. Did I?
"You said something," she says, waiting patiently for me to repeat it. I rack my brain, trying to think of something that I could have said at that point in the conversation that wouldn't get me into any more trouble. Finally, I give up and come clean.
"I said that you two were kindred spirits."
"How?" she asks, almost whispering. She is leaning forward in the chair now, as if I'm saying something very important. Perhaps I am. I look down at the coffee table between us and press on.
"Okay. First of all, I want to say how much I appreciate your letting me stay here and all for the past week. It's been great. You've been amazing. And when I told you that I like girls like Anna, the girl I had in mind was actually you."
It comes out like a breath.
"When this whole wedding thing is over, Val, I'd really like to get to know you better."
She takes two steps and vaults the coffee table, landing in a heap on my lap.
"You asshole," she says with a smile. "What makes you think I can last a whole 'nother week?"
She raises her face to mine, and we kiss. It is a slow, thirsty kiss, and when we finally pull back, each of us no more than a fraction of an inch, it is clear from the way her eyes gaze into mine that we are on the same course.
It begins on the couch, as I tug her blouse to one side and begin kissing the soft indentations of her shoulder. She runs her hands through my hair, and then pulls me back to her for an even deeper kiss, our tongues tasting each other. At the same time, our hands are occupied with each other's clothing, unfastening buttons, tugging at sleeves, pulling on zippers. When we are down to cotton and lace, though, Valerie suddenly stops me.
"What?" I ask her.
"Can we turn off the lights, please?"
"I guess. All of them? Why?"
She pauses half a beat too long.
"Because I like to do it in the dark," she finally says.
"You can't honestly think that you're not beautiful," I respond.
"Of course I can," she says, a flush rising on her skin. "I'm not."
"Of course you are," I insist. "You're gorgeous."
"Wait until the wedding," she says. "I'm gonna look like a little donut. And I'm sure these aren't the biggest you've ever seen."
"Maybe not," I answer, planting a kiss at the base of her neck. "You noticed that Anna's weren't that big, either, didn't you?"
"No." She squirms, ever so slightly, as I continue on down her chest.
"You little liar. I saw you looking at them when she finally took her hands away. They weren't big at all. But they were beautiful, just like yours."
"Matthew," she whispers. I unhook the clasp between the two cups, peeling each away in turn with my middle fingers pressed just to the outside of her quickly hardening nipples.
"You noticed how hard they were, didn't you?"
She doesn't answer. Instead, she finally allows herself to lean back, and allows me to make love to her. I slowly push the bra over her shoulders, pulling it down her arms, and then turn my attention to her white panties. I am in no hurry, and I slowly kiss my way south, taking particularly delight in her response to my attentions to the sensitive area just below her navel. She is writhing beneath me now, seemingly oblivious as I slide her panties over her hips and down her thighs. As I work them down off her feet, I push between her legs.
"How turned on she was by the thought of other people seeing her."
I kiss her thigh.
"By the thought of someone enjoying her."
With an exhalation of warm breath, I lift my head up and cross to the other thigh, sending shudders through her as the air moves across her wet, shiny slit.
"By the thought of someone wanting her."
She may be ready now, but I am not. I want the buildup to last as long as I can make it, so I begin alternating, first one thigh and then the other, kissing slightly higher each time.
"By the thought of someone loving her."
Now. I slowly dip my head, pressing the sides of her cleft between the length of my thumbs and exposing the engorged clit at the top. I suck it between my lips, and begin teasing it with my tongue.
"Oh, honey, yes," Valerie whispers, once again holding my head between her hands. She is a full participant now, propping her hips on her arms to hold herself off the couch. Her feet are on the small of my back, my upper arms trapped delightfully between her strong thighs. I continue loving her, wanting to bring her to at least one climax before I take my own selfish pleasure inside her.
We pause a little later, while I slide off my own shorts and slide on a condom, and then we reunite, my hard cock setting a slow, even pace inside of her. And as I gradually began to move more quickly, I feel her strong internal muscles clutching at me, willing me to release even as I am willing her to do the same.
When it ends, it ends together, and we collapse onto the couch, her head resting on my chest.
After we have been lying there for five minutes, she finally speaks.
"So, um, maybe you don't have to use the couch tonight, Matt."
Our love affair lasts for one glorious night. On Thursday, we find a frantic message from Dave on Val's answering machine after we return home from a late breakfast.
"Valerie," he says, his voice quavering ever so slightly. "I need you guys to come over here. Right now. This afternoon. This whole bann thing is really starting to get to Kendra, and I know she'll regret it if she doesn't manage to see it through. Please give me a call as soon as you get in."
"Sounds like we'd better let her off the hook," I tell Val as we head for the car.
Val slides her arm into mine as we walk.
"You're probably right," she says. "I shouldn't be the only happy girl in town, huh?"
When Dave lets us in their apartment, however, we find our plans changing once again.
I clap him on the arm as he closes the door behind us.