"Your shoulder," Ronnie said, in a strained voice, "didn't that hurt what you did to your shoulder?"
He shook his head, sending all that shining auburn hair flying. "No, I'm double-jointed."
Ronnie was having trouble with her face, like the expression that was wanting to come there wasn't one she was willing to have. "How double-jointed are you?"
"Ronnie," I said.
She shrugged and gave me a look like, Sue me, I couldn't help it. "Well, you won't tell me. You just told me today that he's moved from food to boyfriend."
"Ronnie," I said again, a little more urgently.
She made a face. "Sorry, sorry, I'm not myself today. I'm babbling more, like you usually do."
"Oh, thanks a lot," I said.
"You do babble when you're nervous or horny," Gregory said.
"Stop helping me, Gregory."
He shrugged, which looked odd on the leopardman shoulders, not bad, just odd. "Sorry."
"Do you want me to answer her question?" Nathaniel asked, in a careful voice.
"Answer the question, don't answer the question, I don't care."
He cocked his head to one side, the expression on his face clearly said that he knew that wasn't true. He was right, I'd have preferred him to not answer the question. He'd given me the opportunity to be his master and tell him not to answer, but I'd blown it. I'd abdicated the throne he seemed to want me to take, and if you're not in charge, you can't control what happens.
He walked over toward Ronnie, and he made sure he swayed that luscious ass at me as he moved. Sometimes I wondered if Nathaniel knew how beautiful he was, then he'd do something that let me know he knew exactly what he looked like. Like now.
Heat crept up my face just watching him walk, and I finally decided why the embarrassment. I'd promised to mark him, but what he wanted was intercourse, and watching him move across the room like an ad for a wet dream made me all squirmy and uncomfortable, like being a teenager again and having "those feelings" for the first time, and having no one to talk to about them, because good girls weren't supposed to have feelings like that.
He flicked his head and sent all that hair spilling over Ronnie, and away, like a curtain that she'd walked through, except she was sitting still. It looked as if he'd slapped her instead of teased. He stood up very straight, very tall, beside her chair and clasped his hands behind his back. "To answer your question, I," he began to raise his arms backward, "am," his arms went to the middle of his back, and kept on moving upward, "very," until his straining clasped fingers were even with his shoulder blades, "very," his arms rotated all the way up so they pointed at the ceiling, "double-jointed." Then he slowly put his arms back down, but it wasn't Ronnie he was looking at when he finished.
I didn't blush, I paled. I felt trapped. Trapped by what? That was the ten-thousand-dollar question. Even to myself, I wasn't sure I had an answer.
They left to repair Nathaniel's costume. The silence in the kitchen after they left was deep, long, and uncomfortable. At least for me. I didn't look at Ronnie, because I was trying to think of something to say. I shouldn't have worried, she found just the right thing to say. "Damn, Anita, I mean, damn."
I did look at her then. "What's that supposed to mean?" My voice was a little shaky to come off as indignation, but it was worth the effort.
Ronnie had a look in her eyes that I didn't like. It was way too discerning. We'd been best friends for years, just because we'd drifted apart didn't mean she still couldn't read me. "You haven't had sex with him yet." She sounded sure, and amazed.
"What makes you say that?"
"Oh, come, Anita, you're never quite this uncomfortable once that bridge has been crossed. For you, intercourse is permission to have a relationship, until that happens, you never really relax around them."
I was blushing again, arms crossed over my stomach, leaning against the island, using my hair to try to hide the blush, and failing. "So you've always known every time I made love to someone?"
"Most of the time, yeah, except with Jean-Claude. He messed up your radar and mine."
I glanced up then. "How so?"
"You stayed uncomfortable around him even after the two of you were ha**ng s*x together. I think it's one of the reasons I didn't like him. I guess I thought if you were that conflicted, then it wouldn't last."
I shrugged. "I don't remember being uncomfortable around him afterward."
She just looked at me.
I had the decency to squirm. "Okay, maybe I was. But it's not true that I stop being uncomfortable after ha**ng s*x just once. It takes a few sessions, a little 'monotonous monogamy' for me to truly relax."
She smiled. "Point taken. The best sex is after you've learned a few things about each other." She looked at me, very serious again. "You really haven't had sex with him, have you?"
I shook my head.
"Why not?" she asked.
I looked at her.
"Anita, after the little show he just put on, I'd do him."
I looked at her harder.
"You say he's been sleeping in your bed, with you and Micah, right?"
"For how long?"
"About four months," I said.
"Four months of climbing between your sheets, and you haven't f**ked him?"
"Pick a different word, okay? If we're going to have this talk, pick a different word."
"Sorry, okay, you haven't made love to him, that better?"
"Why haven't you made love to him? He obviously wants you to."
"No, I want an answer on this one. Has Jean-Claude decided to draw the line at sharing you with this many men?"
"No," I said.
"Micah has a problem with it?"
"Then why not?"
I sighed. "Because when I first let Nathaniel move in, he was like a wounded puppy, something to take care of and help heal. He was so submissive that he wanted someone to run his life and order him around. I've got enough to do to run my own life, so I sort of demanded he change, become more independent. He did it, he's doing really well."
"He's a lot more confident than the last time I saw him," Ronnie said. "I mean he's almost like a different person."
I shook my head. "He's a stripper, he has to have a certain level of confidence in himself."
She shook her head. "Nope, had a roommate in college that stripped her way through school on the weekends. She had a terrible self-image."
"Then why did she strip?"
"It made her feel like someone wanted her. Her childhood makes yours and mine read like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm."
"Ouch," I said.
"Yeah, stripping made her feel good and bad all at the same time."
"What happened to her?" I asked.
"She graduated, found a job, found religion, and is now married with two kids and an attitude so holy that you can't have a conversation with her without her trying to convert you."
"They say that no one is as holy as a reformed sinner."
"Stripping isn't a sin, Anita. Being na**d isn't a sin, it's the way God sends us into the world, how bad can it be?"
"Sex isn't a sin either, Anita."
"Intellectually I know that, Ronnie, but part of me just can't shake my grandmother's voice. Sex was evil, men that wanted to touch you were evil, your body was dirty. It was all bad, and the nuns didn't help change that attitude."
"I guess once a Catholic always a Catholic," she said.
I sighed. "I guess." Truthfully, I thought a lot of the damage had been my grandmother's doing, and my stepmother, Judith, who made every touch some sort of favor. Physical touch was not a big thing in my family after my mother died.
"You feel guilty about Nathaniel, why?"
"I'm supposed to take care of him, Ronnie, not screw him."
"Anita, you can take care of someone and still have sex with them, married couples do it every day."
I sighed again. "I don't know why he weirds me out, but he does."
"You want him."
I covered my face with my hands and almost yelled, "Yes, yes, I want him." And just saying it out loud like that made me cringe inside. "He started life with me on the I'll-take-care-of-him list, not the future boyfriend list."