[ready for an all-nighter? hope you're drinking your fluids]
Elaine Ferguson blinked at the text that popped up on her phone, trying to make sense of it. She carefully set her paperback copy of Water for Elephants on the counter, picked up her mobile, and read it again. It felt dangerous to get a text like that, even if it was a mistake. She buzzed a little. Nice girls like her weren't supposed to get these kinds of messages.
Then she checked who'd sent it and that buzz turned nauseous. Hayden Carmichael. The Hayden Carmichael who'd been trespassing in her dreams so much. The one sitting at the other end of the counter.
"Really?" Elaine asked, tilting her head enough to feel the brush of her dark blonde ponytail on her shoulder.
Hayden looked over. He had a heavy brow that was currently as furrowed as her own. Of course he'd never send her a text like that. She just wasn't his type. The disappointment crushed her. "What?" he asked. Hayden had a scratchy way of talking that always made Elaine want to clear her own throat or offer him a glass of water. Coupled with his long, unkempt hair and he could have been the lead singer for a grunge band that had formed 20 years too late.
Elaine held up her phone. "We doing a distance run tonight after closing?" She put on the same indifferent face she'd been wearing for the past few months.
Hayden looked confused for a moment. Then his face fell. "Shit." He raked his fingers through his tangled hair, trying to cover his blush. At least he felt bad about it. "That wasn't meant for you."
Ouch. Ego bruised, she stumbled on, briefly considering asking why it wasn't. But she didn't ask questions like that. "Clearly," she said, flattening her tone. "Well, points for knowing the difference between 'your' and 'you're.'"
"Four years of college." He smiled, the blush replaced by that cocky grin that she wanted to hate but couldn't. He had such beautiful eyes--slate blue and fringed with thick lashes. Eyes she could get lost in if he'd stop letting them wander off to the nearest piece of spandex clad ass. Even as she thought it, his gaze trailed away to the front doors of the gym, where a couple of tight-bodied coeds were breezing through the opening. "Hey, Hayd," one of them flirted as she scanned her membership card across the sensor he manned. The other just wiggled her fingers at him, scanning in silence.
Elaine did the quick comparison--there was no stopping it. They were both taller than her. Bustier. There was no getting past that. And they had long hair, whereas hers just kissed her shoulders. But her body was tighter than either of theirs, toned like a cat's. And more flexible too, she knew, from the level two yoga class she taught and they attended. And, she secretly admitted, she had a better ass.
"Hey, Liz. Christie." His eyes followed them until they rounded the corner.
"Hey, Carmichael," Elaine snapped, drawing him back.
He blinked. "Yes?"
"Is it one of them?" She held up her phone when he gave her a blank look.
"Oh. No." He laughed. "Honestly, I don't even know who they are."
"You knew their names?"
He gestured to the computer that sat before him. Their names and faces would have popped up on screen as soon as they scanned their cards. "Wonders of technology."
Elaine rolled her eyes, but there wasn't much conviction behind her annoyance. He didn't even know them and yet they commanded more attention than she did. At the risk of being melodramatic, this was kind of the story of her life. Always the bridesmaid and all that B.S. A good friend had once explained it to her: she had the looks--blonde hair, compact body, peaches and cream complexion--but she lacked the "'tude."
It's not that she minded being seen as the nice girl. She was, in fact, a nice girl. It's just that every once in awhile, she'd wonder what it would be like to be seen differently. To be different. That errant text had her wondering.
"So does she work here?"
"She does," he said slowly. "Ferguson, why do you care?" She hated that he used her last name when talking to her, but didn't have the guts to tell him. It was the latest development in a cascade of events that were solidifying her status in his eyes as BFF.
She'd been working at City Fitness for the past couple months. At first, she'd done it just to have a little extra cash--law school was expensive and her student loans barely covered cost of living. They needed a yoga instructor, she qualified; it was close to campus and was only part-time. Seemed perfect.
She'd thought Hayden was cute the moment she saw him; he had this quiet charm about him that reminded her of a boy she once crushed on in high school. Or maybe it was the way his broad shoulders filled out his electric blue City Fitness polo. He wasn't the typical boy she went for--and in fact kind of hated the cliché of it all--but fuck it, she thought they had some nice chemistry.
So when they went out for some drinks after her first full day at work, she thought it was promising-- until she realized it wasn't just the two of them. No, Hayden spent most of the night flirting with Meredith, the statuesque spin teacher who was pursuing a degree in Sports Medicine. Elaine watched from the sidelines while Hayden chatted her up, making polite conversation with Natalie, her only other friend there.
After that disaster of a night, things only got worse. They did eventually hang out, one-on-one, but it was while they were doing laundry and she was too concerned with her dirty under things to think about flirting. They'd done that a few times, had a standing date to watch Top Chef, and Elaine knew that any day now, she'd have to suffer through the conversation that began: "So, Ferguson, can I ask you something? I need a girl's perspective..."
"Earth to Elaine. You there?"
"Just ... you were looking at me a little funny."
A blush climbed up her pale neck and blossomed in her cheeks. She looked away and cursed herself. "It's Meredith, isn't it?"
Hayden laughed, staring up at the corner of the ceiling. "You think I have a chance with her?"
As if on cue, the brunette swept through the lobby on her way to her spin class, already dressed in tight black shorts and a sports bra. "Hey, Hayd. Elaine," the perky instructor nodded to them.
"Hey, Meredith. We were just talking about you," Elaine said. Hayden looked at her.
Meredith traced his eyes, beaming her oh-so-perfect face at the petite yoga instructor. It really wasn't fair that the spin teacher got that body with that face with that skin. "Oh? Good things, I hope."
Elaine gave her a catty smile that she instantly felt awful about. "Depends on your definition of 'good, '" Hayden answered for her.
The brunette giggled and swept out of the room.
"What?" He could have at least looked guilty about staring at Meredith's butt. "What do you have against her, anyway? You two have never gotten along."
"Bad first impression," she muttered, thinking back to that first happy hour. Truth was, Meredith was nice enough. "She kind of scares me. Anyone who can be that perky while riding a stationary bike for an hour-and-a-half must be a sadomasochist."
Hayden snickered. "Some would say that about your class."
"No..." Really? "Yoga's about relaxation of body and mind. It's about finding inner peace. Not about techno music and sweating like a pig while the taskmistress yells at you."
"Sounds like my kind of night," Hayden grinned.
"Enjoy being a sweaty little pig, do you?"
He shook some hair from his eyes in a way that Elaine secretly thought was cute. "With the right girl." Hayden cracked up as Elaine pulled a face.
"So it was Meredith you meant to text."
Hayden really cracked up, only stopping when he noticed that Elaine wasn't following. "Seriously? You don't know?"
"Don't know what?"
"Ha. OK, well, hm ... You'd have more luck sending her that text than me."
"No way! Really?" Meredith was a lesbian?
"Really. And if you didn't realize that, you probably didn't realize she's been flirting with you for the past month."
Elaine's face warmed when she realized he wasn't just messing with her. "No ... I mean, I didn't but..." She didn't like the way he was looking at her. "I'm not like that, if that's where your mind is going."
He stood and stretched. The man really did have nice shoulders. "Look, I'm sorry about that whole ... fluids thing. I hope you're not too offended."
Why is he apologizing? Was the first thing Elaine thought. She wasn't that sensitive, right? So why did she still feel a little jealous? "Hey, don't worry about it. Just make sure you stop by the Smoothie bar to drink up."
Elaine caught the tiniest flicker of embarrassment before he doused it in bravado. Holding up his squeeze bottle, he puffed, "Already started."
"Did you know Meredith was into girls?"
Natalie, one of City Fitness's managers, was helping her fold towels in the laundry room. The single mom was a year ahead in her law program and had helped her get this job. Elaine admired the woman's strength, but had to laugh at some of the things that came out of her mouth.
"Aren't all women with enough alcohol?" That was the other thing about Natalie: you could never tell when she was serious. Especially when it came to sex.
"So that's a yes?"
"Yeah, I did."
"Hayden says she has her eye on me."
Natalie had a boisterous laugh and unloaded it on Elaine. "Did he?"
"Why are you laughing?"
"Look, no offense, but I don't think you're Meredith's type."
"Yeah?" Was Elaine anyone's type? Or was she doomed to always be 'the friend'?
"You're too stubborn to be her sub and too nice a girl to challenge her--at least on the surface. You're like the girl she might have experimented with in high school before she knew she was a lesbian. You're her straight, good girl friend."
Elaine sighed. Story of my life, she thought again. "Do you think of me as a good girl?"
Natalie fixed her with her emerald irises. "El, I'm not a huge fan of labels, but that's a pretty good summary."
"I don't know. Because you are!"
"What a winning argument! No wonder you got such a fat scholarship to law school."
"I thought I was a good girl."
"Eh, you still are, but I know you're capable of so much more." Elaine rolled her eyes. "OK, look. See how you're folding those towels? How perfect each tuck is. How the corners all lined up neatly? That's why I think you're a good girl."
Elaine looked from her own stack of towels to Natalie's. The red-haired trainer's folds weren't sloppy, necessarily, just not as precise. "So being neat makes me a..."
"No, you're missing the point." Natalie tapped a finger to her lips. "How did you learn to fold the towels? Like that, right?"
"You taught me to do it this way!"
"Whatever. My point is still valid. You're a rule-follower." She stopped folding and looked right at Elaine. "But you know all this. You even admitted to it in your interview, in a way. Something about being a perfectionist." Natalie snickered. "Why are you asking now?"
Because I'm tired of it? she thought. Because I'm worried that I'll end up alone, while people like Hayden and Melissa have all the fun? She bit her lip. "I got this text. By accident."
"A text. Wow. Riveting."
"Racy text. A sext?" Natalie started to laugh and Elaine hurried on. "From Hayden. And when he realized he'd sent it to me..."
"He acted like there was no way it was meant for you."
"So now you want the bad boy and you're all worried that you're a good girl and this is some kind of cliché." Natalie finished folding her last towel, set it on her imperfect pile and then leaned on it. "Don't sweat it. You're not a cliché. No one is."
Natalie shook her head. "Want to know who that text was for?"
Elaine blinked at her friend, understanding immediately but refusing to acknowledge it. "Nooo!" All Natalie did was smile and roll her eyes up and away, batting them cutely. "But he's too ... I don't know ... don't you have a son his age?"
"Christopher is only 16!"
"And aren't you, like, so much better than him? Single mom, working her way through school..." This wasn't the first time Natalie had been so forthcoming about her sex life, but all those other casual relationships were with guys Elaine didn't know.
Natalie laughed. "You act like I'm an old woman." She cocked her hip and rested a hand on it. Elaine had to admit, where she a strong woman who'd overcome a lot of adversity, guys probably looked at the sleek-bodied redhead and saw a MILF. "I'm 38. And I'm not a stereotype. And let me tell you something, Hayden's not either."
"Sounds like love." Elaine masked her jealousy with sarcasm.
"Just a little fun." The older woman brushed it off.
"You know, I can't believe you fell for his act. Some of the younger girls around here, sure." Like you? "But I just thought you were smarter than this."
"Oh, you mean that bad boy thing he's got going on? Didn't you get the memo, us good girls are supposed to like that sort of thing." She sounded a little facetious, but Elaine wasn't quite sure. "Besides," she paused, looking at the ceiling in thought, "I seduced him. Not the other way around."
"Natalie, you cougar!" That earned Elaine a towel in the face.
"Here's another secret--although I hope you figured this one out by now. The bad boy thing is an act. Well, mostly, anyway. Sometimes he forgets and lets his head get to him. The boy is pretty good looking."
Elaine's heart sang. She'd been hoping that was true. "Yes, yes he is."
Natalie's phone chirped. Fishing it out of the pocket of her training pants, she smiled. Her thumbs blurred across the surface. "Excuse me while this old woman 'sexts' her young buck," she snickered.
"Now who's the bitch?" Elaine said, although she wasn't sure Natalie even heard her. She was busy tapping out some new and probably sordid reply. Elaine shuffled a little, wondering if she should leave, wondering if she could somehow get a peek at her friend's screen. She didn't have to wonder for long.
"Curious, huh?" Natalie asked, cocking a brow at her.
"Na ... no..."
"Oh? We're talking about you, you know. Curious now?" She wagged the phone at her, screen out. "Go on, read away. Or maybe you're too much of a good girl?"
"Give me that." Her heart raced. The phone didn't blow up in her face, or denounce her as some kind of loose woman. It was just a phone...
[ferguson is there?]
[yeah, but she can't see me typing / she told me you accidentally texted her]
[oh god. / she did? what did she say?]
[did you do it on purpose?]
[of course not!]
[you have a crush on el?]
[she's cute. do you?]
This was so weird. Hearing about Natalie's sexual escapades always made Elaine feel a little like a voyeur. This was like that, only much stronger. And more dangerous. "So I'm cute, huh?" she asked. She didn't hand the phone back immediately.
Elaine fingered the phone in thought before squaring it up in her hands and typing out a response.
"Hey!" Natalie protested, reaching for it. Elaine twisted away and hit send.
[i think el is hot!]
"Thanks for that," Natalie said, reading the text over Elaine's shoulder. "Now I'm really not going to get the threesome fantasy out of his head."
[too bad she'd never join us. we could have some real fun in the sauna tonight!!!]
"See, there you go." Natalie tossed her hands up and paced away.
"Someone's a fan of exclamation points," Elaine mused.
"What are you typing now?"
"Trying to dispel a stereotype."
[oh, never say never. maybe i could convince her... ]
Elaine laughed. "So the sauna, huh? How long's this been going on?"
"Couple weeks." Natalie had stopped trying to look, giving Elaine full reign of her phone. "Don't do that."
"Judge. If I were a man, this would be perfectly acceptable. But because I'm a woman, I must be a slut."
"Of course not." Of course she felt that way. And that made her feel a little ashamed.
"It's no big deal, anyway. We're not exclusive and both of us know we're just having fun."
"I don't get that. I don't think I could get into a guy if I didn't feel some kind of connection."
"Ever tried?" A vision of a shirtless Hayden danced before her eyes, his skin glistening with sweat like the centerfold of a beefcake magazine Elaine would never dream of ever picking up...
"You know the answer to that." She imagined the way Hayden moved, his muscles shifting beneath his slender body. A bead of sweat trickled around his pecs, riding the ripples of his abs before skirting the V of his pelvis into his shorts. Elaine almost licked her lips.
"You're thinking about him now."
"Am not." In reality, she was almost drunk on the thought. "Is he good?" Her heart was auditioning for The Little Engine That Could. "You know, in bed?" she added needlessly.
"You could find out. I'm sure he'd be willing to give you a live demonstration."
I think I can, I think I can...
Hayden's shorthand annoyed her, but didn't come close to overruling her rabid curiosity.
"If it makes a difference, he likes you."
There wasn't a whole lot of attitude behind her snort. "Hayden likes everyone with two legs and ... breasts." She'd meant to say 'tits' but the words just didn't come out. "And unfortunately, I'm pretty sure I'm the exception. Even lesbians seem to get more attention than me."
"No, you're not getting me. He really likes you. Like, wouldn't mind something more than fun with you. Go on, ask him." She nodded at the phone, which Elaine was still holding.
At first, the little blonde didn't think she could do it. Pretending to be Natalie to embarrass the woman was one thing. But this was just scary. Felt like a betrayal. Her fingers even shook a little when she typed it out, figuring that if she didn't, Natalie probably would. She handed it back without hitting send. The older woman did it for her.
[you never answered my question. do you have a crush on el?]
Natalie's lips cracked in a half-grin. "Want to see?"
Elaine could hear her heart chugging in her ears. I think I can... She looked.
Everything was dry.
"This is so sweet. Like high school or something." Natalie's green eyes went wide. "Maybe he'll ask you to homecoming!" she squealed.
"You really are a bitch." Elaine felt a little out of it.
"Would a bitch be willing to share?"
"Um ... I don't know about having a threesome..." Some level of curiosity was normal, right? But really, she couldn't--
Natalie laughed. "Well, I do. You're cute and all, but I'm not into women. No offense."
"But you could surprise him tonight. In my place."
The suggestion sent a shiver through her. Her first thought was: no way. But she wasn't entirely behind that first thought, either. And her heart kept pumping away. I think I can... "I don't know," she said.
"Think about it," the older woman said. She looked down at her phone and smiled, holding it up to share.
[i was kidding about the threesome, btw.]
"See, he really likes you."
Elaine thought about it. She didn't want to, but then she found herself back at the front desk, greeting patrons with a smile or a nod when all she could think about was Hayden and the heat of the saunas and how he'd look walking in with just a white towel around his waist...
Natalie and Hayden were discreet, that was for sure. If she hadn't been privy to the texts, she'd have no idea. They'd pass each other with barely a nod, and when they talked, their tones were all business. "Hayden, I need you to take over the training session for Mrs. Blake." "Ooo, gladly." No playful winks. No friendly flirtations.
Elaine began to wonder if she'd imagined the whole towel folding episode. Then she'd bump into Natalie, who flashed her a mischievous smile--all bug-eyed and suggestive--and she'd remember that it had. And that she had a decision to make.
"Are you sure he won't mind? I mean, he's expecting you--" Elaine couldn't believe she was having this conversation. She'd meant to go at it as if it were a hypothetical, but by the time she worked up her nerves, she'd forgotten all about the what-if.
"Trust me, he won't mind." Natalie's face was aglow. Now that the older woman had been cast in a new light, Elaine had to admit she was quite attractive. It was weird how that happened. One moment, she was a mother and source of good advice, the next she was all cheekbones and bee-stung lips and glossy, red hair. Elaine shook her head, clearing it. "I just wish I could be there to see his face."
Elaine thought of Hayden's threesome fantasy and balked before Natalie could rescue her. "Oh no, not like that. I mean, you know, just ... I think it would be funny." Now it was Natalie's turn to blush.
Natalie went on to explain how this would work. Elaine let her, although she wanted to think that she was still in the decision making process. For the most dramatic entrance, Elaine would wait for Hayden in the sauna sporting a towel and a smile. Hayden usually locks up, so Natalie could easily slip out before then and do the switch.
Elaine started getting really nervous half-way through the plan when she realized that she was going to do this. Thing was, every time she felt like chickening out, she thought of Hayden accusing her of being a good girl and it strengthened her resolve.
"Now I want you to listen, OK? After the initial shock, Hayden's going to expect the girl who neatly folds the towels. I want you to show him that's not all you are."
"I'm not." Elaine was getting tired of this.
"Oh, I know. But Hayden's going to need some convincing.
Both the men's and women's changing rooms had sizable saunas near the showers. Hayden usually met Natalie in the women's--at the redhead's insistence--so when the employees began to clock out and all the patrons were gone, she slipped into the woman's locker room to prepare.
First order, a shower. She'd taught a couple classes of advanced yoga and Pilates that day, in addition to a few personal training sessions, and no matter what kind of reinvention of self she was trying to achieve, she held herself to certain standards of personal hygiene.
She worked efficiently, stripping as the shower heated up. She'd done the lock-up before and knew she had time. The steaming spray felt good. She stepped out not necessarily a new woman, but a fresher one. One that was about to have fun in a way she'd not thought she was capable of.
White terry cloth never felt so wicked. She wasn't a tall person and while she had dresses that covered less leg than the wrapped towel did--well, one dress that did--she still felt exposed. She checked herself on the way to the sauna room, letting her loose, wet locks of dark blonde hair drape around her bare shoulders. Pink skinned and bright eyed, she was as ready as she could be without throwing back an alcoholic beverage.
The wait in the sauna felt like an eternity. She was never a huge fan of the heat rooms and after about five minutes, she realized that she needn't have bothered with the shower. She was sweatier than a couple yoga classes could have possibly have made her.
Literally left to stew, doubts started to creep in. She liked the guy, but this was pretty extreme by anyone's standards. How had Natalie convinced her that this was a good idea?
Sweat beaded on her face and dripped down her neck before getting absorbed in the knot of towel nestled in her cleavage. She didn't do heat well. It made her light-headed. Was this even the sexiest way to seduce him? She thought of her own sauna/Hayden fantasies and admitted that it probably was.
If you come onto him like this, would he respect you in the morning? It was the one question she'd been trying not to ask herself. When she'd emptied the bottle of water she'd brought in here with her, she decided she'd waited long enough.
Just as she started to rise, she saw him through the fogged-up porthole window. He shoved it open without peering in, but stopped short of coming inside.
"Ferguson!" he yelped, a deliciously toned arm holding the wood-paneled door open. She frowned a little at the name, but couldn't maintain the disapproval. Not when it looked like something invisible had exploded in his face--eyebrows up, mouth frozen in mid-gasp.
"Hey, Hayd," she giggled, imitating Liz and Christie at the desk earlier.
"What are you doing here?"