Chris took a deep breath before he knocked on the door. There’s no reason to be nervous, he reminded himself. But reassurances had long since stopped soothing him.
Beth’s smile when she opened the door helped, though. She ushered him in. “C’mon into the den. It’s more comfortable there.” Then she turned and led the way with another smile over her shoulder to make sure he was following.
Chris let out another deep breath but forced a smile this time. By the time they settled into their chairs, he was sure everything would be okay.
“You wanted to talk?” Beth said. “Is everything okay?”
Chris nodded. “Something happened the other night and, well, you’re one of the few people I could discuss it with.”
“Ah, I think I understand. What happened?”
Chris sighed. “Elizabeth broke the rules. Again. About playing with the kids, I mean.”
“Oh. That is serious.”
“Yeah.” He paused and looked into her eyes, which were surprisingly calm. “And I’m not handling it well.”
Beth clasped her hands together. “Do you want to tell me what happened?”
“Kara and Victor were in town. He had an interview for a residency. We were celebrating and, well, we weren’t feeling any pain, if you know what I mean. In hindsight I probably shouldn’t have drunk so much.”
She nodded. “We’ve all done that.”
“So, we all ended up in the hot tub,” Chris said, “and Elizabeth and Victor started fooling around. I figured the rest of us would just watch, but then she motioned Kara over and ... she just went down on her.”
“Wow. Just like that?”
Chris nodded. “I objected, but she said that Kara was an adult and it was only oral. And then she kept going. I didn’t know what else to do. I certainly didn’t think that having a fight over it right then and there was a good idea.”
“Did you fight later?”
He let out another long sigh. “We did. I told her I wasn’t happy with what had happened, but she dismissed me. ‘We were just having fun, ‘ she said. ‘No one got hurt, ‘ she said, ‘so what’s the problem?’”
“But it’s a problem for you, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Chris said, “A big one.”
“Why? I mean, is it because she broke the rules, or is it something else?”
He grimaced. “Well, for one, we’d explicitly discussed playing with the kids before, and she said she wouldn’t do it. But then she did.”
“Okay, so it’s about the rules.”
He snorted. “She wasn’t too apologetic either.”
Beth nodded in sympathy.
“The thing is,” Chris said, “when I’m not mad at her, I’m mad at myself. I mean, I didn’t exactly stop things, and I could’ve. Worse, if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that it really turned me on...”
He met her eyes. “I think maybe you understand. Based on something you said last year in Utah.”
She furrowed her brown in confusion.
“That the taboo turned you on. You know ... of playing with the kids.”
Beth blushed and then nodded.
“So I thought maybe you could help,” Chris concluded.
Beth grimaced in thought. “I ... I don’t know exactly what to say. Susan’s much better at this than I am. Have you thought about talking to her?”
“I don’t think I could tell her about getting turned on watching my wife and daughter have sex.”
“Oh,” Beth said with one of her warm laughs, “I think she’d understand.”
“Why—?” A light dawned. “Has she... ?”
Beth shook her head. “No. At least not that she’s told me.” She took a deep breath. “But she knows about Paul and me.”
Paul? What happened with Paul?
Beth saw the question in his eyes and nodded. “Paul and I ... um ... sort of fooled around.” She followed up quickly. “It was several years ago, and it hasn’t happened since that summer.”
“Please don’t think less of me.”
He wanted to laugh at the irony. “I don’t think I’m in a position to think less of you.”
“Oh? Did something else happen?”
Chris sighed. “Yeah. I let Leah play with me. At least for a little while. I probably would’ve let her keep going, too, if Victor hadn’t glanced over and seen her doing it.”
“So you wanted her to keep going?”
Chris winced and slowly shook his head. “I don’t know. I really don’t. I mean, I’ve thought about it some, since that game in Utah. I’ve thought about what I would do, what I wanted and didn’t want. Elizabeth and I even talked about it. And it all went right out the window when she motioned Kara over.”
Beth nodded, her smile sympathetic. “It became real.”
“Yeah. It became real.”
They sat in silence. Chris let his mind wander and Beth seemed content to wait. Then he shook himself, as if awaking, and looked at her.
“Do you mind ... I mean ... would you tell me what happened with Paul?”
She blushed a little and shrugged. “It wasn’t much, really.”
“Maybe, but it helps to know I’m not alone.”
Beth shook her head and took a deep breath. Then she squared her shoulders and met his eyes.
“It wasn’t much,” she said again. “Paul had started having sex with Susan. She had this glow, and I could tell that she enjoyed being with him. David had been away for a long time and I was ... well ... feeling lonely. Susan figured it out too.”
Chris couldn’t help grinning. “She’s good that way.”
Beth smiled back, a bit wryly. “She is. She also knows me too well. So when she suggested a way I could enjoy one of my fantasies, I just ... went along.”
She blushed and looked at her hands. “I ... um ... I wanted to give Paul a blowjob.”
“Well... ,” Chris said, his brow furrowed, “if it was a one time thing...”
“But ... um ... it wasn’t. Paul figured it out, and we did it a few more times. Only that summer, though.”
“Wow.” He let the images percolate through his brain. “Do you feel guilty?”
She sighed. “Sometimes. But mostly ... no. I feel a bit guilty about that, but even then ... not much.”
She nodded. “It’s clear that Paul’s okay, and it never really went beyond blowjobs.”
“Did you want it to?”
She actually squirmed in her chair before she met his eyes.
“I think it’s different. A blowjob, I mean,” she said. “It’s not as ... intimate.”
“So you agree with Elizabeth.”
Beth nodded, but it was slow in coming. “She hasn’t done anything I haven’t.”
“True.” Chris sat back and considered her nervousness. She’s not telling me something. But do I want to ask? He pushed the investigative reporter part of himself aside. This isn’t about Beth. She can tell me what she chooses.
“I guess that’s okay,” he said at last. “It’s not like I haven’t seen the girls go down on each other. And if I’m honest, I have to admit that I like watching. It’s ... incredibly hot.”
“It is, isn’t it?”
Chris sighed. “But then I feel guilty about being so turned on by it. So that’s why I wanted to talk to you.”
She smiled again. “I understand. Believe me, I do.” She paused and seemed to come to a decision. “Do you remember the blowjob bingo game? When we let the kids play, and Erin went down on Paul as part of the game?”
“I was going down on you and we were right next to them. I should’ve been paying attention to what I was doing, but I couldn’t resist peeking at them,” she admitted. “I was so turned on, because it was Erin doing it. Not Gina or one of the others.”
“Well, you told them it was okay. Beforehand.”
“I did, but was it for them, or because I wanted to watch?”
“I don’t feel guilty about it, though.”
“Guilty for getting turned on or giving them permission to fool around?”
Chris nodded, but his thoughts different. “So what exactly is okay?” he finally said.
Beth let out a long breath of her own. “I ... I don’t know if I have a good answer for that one.”
Chris slowly nodded. “I know. But at least you’ve been thinking about it too. That’s why I’m asking.”
Beth’s laugh was tinged with irony, but then she nodded to concede the point.
“I think,” she said at last, “that it’s different between siblings and parents and kids. A lot of kids play doctor with their brothers or sisters. It can be ... innocent. I mean, it’s just experimentation.”
Chris nodded. “That’s part of why I didn’t object when I found out the girls were fooling around with each other. It seemed ... harmless.”
“And I think that’s what it was with Paul and me.”
“So ... why’d you stop?”
Beth sighed. “Well, at first, it just didn’t seem appropriate. I couldn’t exactly ask Paul to stop by my bedroom. That wouldn’t’ve been right. I might’ve done something if the opportunity came up, but it never did.”
“But ... what about when they started partying with us?”
Beth shifted in her chair. “I guess by then I realized that we were on a slippery slope. Not only in what we did together, but for Erin and David too.”
Chris snorted. “You thought of David. That’s better than what I get. I mean, when Elizabeth thinks at all, it’s never about me, about the pressure I’m under. You have no idea how bold the girls have become lately.”
“I was lucky,” she said. “Paul was pretty good about that. He was never ... out of line.”
Chris rolled his eyes and laughed wistfully. “Now I’m jealous.”
“Don’t be. Erin more than makes up for it. Girls are ... more difficult, I think. More willful.”
“Tell me about it,” Chris said with a sigh. “And now Elizabeth seems to think that Kara doesn’t need her as a mom, that she’s all grown up.”
“That’s Elizabeth. But ... what do you think?”
Chris gave a rueful chuckle and shook his head. “They’ll always be my little girls.” He met her eyes. “But if I’m being honest, they’re gorgeous young women and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fantasize about them.”
They heard a door slam.
“Speaking of little girls...” Beth said with a grin.
“Mom!” Erin called. “I’m home!”
Beth glanced at the clock. “Okay, honey!” she called back. “How was studying?”
“It was totally fine. What do you think?”
“Whatever, Mom. I need to call Sean.”
They heard Erin’s bedroom door close a moment later.
Beth gave him a “see what I mean” expression but then returned to the subject at hand. “Paul was never so rebellious,” she said. She glanced at the clock again. “At least this time she’s home when she said she’d be.”
Chris sighed and shook his head. “Don’t worry. It’s the age. I mean, Elizabeth’s still having problems with Leah. I swear, they fight nearly every day.”
“And how much more complicated would it be if they were also lovers?”
Chris nodded, and they sat in silence for a minute while he pondered.
“I really don’t want to screw up my girls,” he said at last. “But ... I just don’t know what it takes to do that. Or not to.”
“I guess it’s impossible to tell.”
Chris snorted. He stared at the floor and ran a hand through his hair. “It is hard. Working on some of the news stories I’ve done, I’ve met people that were truly broken. In spirit, in mind, or in heart. And most of them couldn’t point to when it had happened. Sure, they could point to the final straw, but when I drew them out, it was clear that there were all these little breaks that happened first.”
He shook his head and looked at her. “They were like windows. A crack or two might’ve been okay, but once they had too many, they shattered. So when were they truly damaged? The first crack? The last? Or sometime in between?”
Beth just shook her head in sympathy.
Chris could feel his gut churn. “I don’t know where those cracks are. You can’t always see them with people. And I’m not going to screw up my daughters. I’m just not.” He grimaced and stared into space.
Beth sat forward and put her hand on his knee. After a bit, he covered it and gave it a squeeze.
“Thanks,” he said when he looked up.
“Don’t worry, you’re not going to screw up your daughters,” Beth said. “You’re too careful, too in control.”
“But if I do anything, I could slide down a slippery slope to somewhere I don’t want to be. How do you stop that?”
Beth nodded. “Believe me, I understand. And that’s why we have rules.”
Chris snorted. “Which Elizabeth broke.”
“And you didn’t.”
He waved a dismissive hand. “I’m not sure about that, but it doesn’t matter. I just need to know what rules to set next time. I mean, I can’t exactly say, ‘no more family hot-tubbing.’”
He couldn’t resist a black grin.
“Besides,” he continued, “what good does it do if we set the rules and then Elizabeth just ignores them?”
“Then I guess you have to set rules for yourself.”
“Yeah, but I feel like I’m standing at the top of the cliff being cautious while she’s next to me waxing her skis.”
Chris nodded and smiled bleakly. “It’d be funny if it weren’t so true. I really don’t know if I can trust her anymore.”
“It was just one time, right?”
He shook his head vehemently. “No. Well, maybe just one time with Kara, but it’s not the first time she’s broken the rules we agreed to. And she breaks promises to me all the time.”
“Really? That’s more serious.”
He shrugged. “It’s mostly when she’s been drinking or she’s horny,” he temporized. “We’re not supposed to ‘play’ separately, but she’s done it a dozen times. Or at least a dozen that she’s told me about.”
“Mmmm hmmm. Not that I think she’s lying, you know? But ... the doubt’s there.”
“Still, she tells you after the fact.”
Chris sighed. “Usually, but ... how can I be sure? I mean, there’ve been a couple of times she didn’t tell me until some time later. A lot later a couple of times.”
Beth grimaced and stared into space. She wrung her hands before returning her gaze to his. “Have you talked with her about it?”
“I’ve tried. She’s promised to be better in the future, but...” He let out another long sigh. “More broken promises. How many of those broken promises are serious cracks in our marriage?”
Once again, they sat in silence until Chris had gathered his thoughts. Beth raised her eyebrows expectantly and he took a deep breath.
“There are other problems,” he said. “Work’s been really busy lately—lot of stuff going on in the world right now—and I haven’t been home much. And Elizabeth’s always off with her hobbies. So ... we don’t see each other much anymore.”
“You’re home every night. And we see you.”
He snorted. “Being out with you all isn’t the same. I mean, it’s fun, but Elizabeth and I ... well ... it’s not the same as when it’s just the two of us. And in the evenings ... um ... at least until lately ... that was mostly ... well ... sex.”
Chris bowed his head. “I ... um ... I haven’t been able to get ... you know ... to get it up since the night in the hot tub.” He paused. “Well, that’s not entirely true. I can get hard ... but then I ... I just lose it.”
“It happens to most men at one time or another, especially if you’re preoccupied, like with work.”
Chris took a deep breath and looked up. “I know why it happens. I start seeing Elizabeth and Kara together, and my brain looses the feed.” He shrugged dismissively. “The big head takes all the blood, when the little one needs it like some kind of sex vampire.”
Beth laughed at the visual, but then became serious. “So,” she said at last, “is there anything I can do?”