Nothing Like the Sun
Friday 30th April, 2002, 7.42 a.m
In the street below Clara's apartment, children were chalking up hopscotch squares on their territory. Early off-duty schoolgirls were rolling up their sleeves and hems, tying their faded school sweaters around their waists, wrenching off their stockings and tucking them in their schoolbags, walking slow and pleasured in ankle bracelets, mists of floral perfume and dark sweat. It was the first day of summer. Well, the first day that felt like summer on Canal Street, anyway.
When Clara tried to open her sleepless, sticky eyes, she could feel it. At twenty-nine, she still had the sun of Port Antonio in her skin, and she felt her spirits lift a little as she recognised its anaemic cousin in the English sky.
Under a faded photograph of Billie Holiday, Gemma slept, one hand brushing the floor, one hand on the sunken plain of her stomach, long lashes making shadows on her cheeks. The sun lit her silver earrings, forming constellations in her thick, dark, beautiful hair.
She's trouble, Clara thought, watching her lover sleep. It wasn't the first time she d thought this, and as usual it did her no good.
Propped on one skinny brown elbow, she stared down at Gemma's unconscious face like a storybook sweetheart with her eyes on the moon. And like the moon, Gemma provided no answers, no sustenance, and no comfort. She was simply beautiful, her face's years and storms rubbed out by last night's tequila.
Trouble, but not unredeemable. Nothing like the snake-hipped junkies her friends had warned her away from, not the scab-picking, gum-popping Lolitas who might have taken advantage of her, or even the wide-eyed slacker chicks who'd confined the word "commitment," to that When I Grow Up shoebox. Although Gemma almost slotted into the latter category, Clara could have chosen much worse.
Trouble, but dormant trouble. Crisis slumbering in the sun, like a well-fed panther.
The wind barely set the bedroom curtains trembling. The room was baking-hot, airless and painfully bright, dust motes thick and fat as snowflakes rising with each half-hearted breeze that the huge stuck window and the sluggish summer day allowed. Clara knew damn well that if she didn't heave her exhausted, hungover body out of bed soon, she was going to start sneezing. She rubbed her reddened eyes, dizzy with lack of sleep, her whole body aching with the onslaught of the blazing sun, the beautiful, demanding young woman lying next to her, another day of waiting. All this and allergies too, she thought tiredly. Cheers, God.
She needed to seek the safety of the bathroom, the only place in the house that was ever cold in summer, and the only place to survive Clara's antipathy to cleaning, as Leo insisted on a spotless bathroom. Having washed the night's bouquet of sweat, smoke and sex from her skin, and as she'd taken a week's holiday from work for a variety of painful reasons, Clara told herself she should make herself useful and go out, reappearing with the Guardian and a bag of breakfast bagels.
But she had, after all, been lying there for hours, thirsty to kiss her lover awake. Her mental tally of the bottles they'd gone through, even after that exhausting hurdle-session of bar-and-club-hopping in the Village and that marathon new-couple lovemaking session, meant that Gemma had to wake up in her own sweet time- she was due at work in two hours, but Charlotte was refusing to fire her, according to Alex, on the grounds that it might look girly. When she did wake up, Gemma would be grouchy and dramatic for a few minutes, but then she'd be throwing herself into her breakneck life, plunging right back into its paint-brightness while Clara was still yawning and wondering if she could contemplate breakfast. Gemma, though, was always hungry. She would dig into tins with forks, make finger tracks through the cheese, paint her name with greasy fingers on last night's bottles. Insatiable.
But now she slept in her old blue silk slip, allowing her body to be painted by the sun, pure gold striping her flat stomach and pointed breasts. Those breasts, with their dark, erect nipples, their full, firm, perfect roundness, were such a temptation- even for a stressed-out part-time lesbian insomniac with a bad hangover. Sleep? Why did Gemma have to sleep- she was perfect, wasn't she? Why did she have to sleep when her usually calmer partner was wide-awake and gagging for it? Clara was letting that beautiful body go to waste. It should be worshipped. Painted. Sculpted. Made love to.
But she stayed still and watched.
Coffee, she thought. No- a shower to wake her dead- feeling flesh. Then some coffee, maybe iced if she could be bothered, and a walk down to Ali's for cigarettes. Make Gemma a bit of toast if they had any bread left from last night's cheese-on-toast munchies, straighten her lapels, send her off to the world of work and lie around the house listening to her huge backlog of amateurish demo tapes, shouting at the big-haired trailer trash on Riki, Montel and Tricia, and coming close to tears during old episodes of Cheers, feeling excommunicated, defeated, badness rising up in front of her every time she closed her eyes. Yay.
Maybe Alex had the right idea, and therapy would be good; lay your money down. Make it stop. Clara was a self-made businesswoman- black, state-educated, and now, it seemed, a full-time diner at the Y. She'd endured storms of shit to get where she was, and now she wanted transactions, results; not just long expanses of unslept night.
Clara slid off her sheets on to the floor and tried to vault upright in her usual energetic style, but, still sleepy and groggy, she misjudged her distance, slipped on a pile of old Gil Scott-Heron 45's and slammed painfully into the doorframe. Rubbing her hip, which already felt as though it was blooming into a bruise, Clara mouthed, "fuck," and turned back into the room. Well, at least she'd forgotten about Charlotte for about two seconds, which might have been a record.
Gemma moaned, stirring gently, her ivory-soap body stirring awake. Her creamy cheeks, long lashes, damp, pouted lips and lean, delicate frame made her look like a sleepy child as she half-opened her eyes, made a little moaning sound and buried her face in the pillow.
"Sorry," Clara mouthed, as though the word would send Gemma back to sleep.
In the middle of her bedroom floor, Clara stopped like a child who'd been caught out, stood still and yawned hugely, stretching her skinny arms above her head, her body rearranging itself into a pulled-tight, erect column, her tiny, delicate breasts lifted upwards, muscles straining gently beneath the dark, satiny skin of her biceps and softly downed pelvis, hipbones protruding like a runway model's. She looked at Gemma stirring awake, her face showing partly guilt, partly pleasure. Clara was beginning to forget what being asleep felt like.
She exhaled a short, exhausted sigh and rubbed her nose, wondering if therapists handed out Clarityn, or if Leo had any lurking in the bathroom. Her irritating summer allergies had just kicked in with a vengeance. The previous night, watching The Blues Brothers and guzzling popcorn on the couch with Gemma before they went out- the "new couple," thing hadn't quite worn off yet- her nose had got so stuffy that she couldn't breathe, and once Gemma fell asleep she'd paced the room trying valiantly not to sneeze while Gemma quietly turned her blue-satined back in bed, arms arabesquing silently in the hot, damp night.
Actually, that hadn't been it. She and Leo had been eating lunch yesterday in the Greek greasy spoon on the corner, ravaging the chipfat-soaked newspapers for snippets of celebrity orgies and fashion disasters, when she d suddenly become aware of a mildly irritating feeling, like she was inhaling dust every time she breathed through her nose.
"Clara, honey, what is it?" Leo had asked, watching her sniff and screw up her face in discomfort.
Clara had forcefully rubbed her nose. "Nothing. I'm just feeling a bit funny."
"My nose," she'd whispered.
"What about it?"
Clara had rubbed it again. "It's tickly."
Leo had instinctively moved back- he couldn't help it. "Um..." he asked softly, "what is it, love? Have you got the sneezes?"
Clara had groaned softly. "I wish. I know I'm going to sneeze- but I can't...caAHHH..."
Leo had remembered something about tempting fate, as Clara had convulsively grabbed for a wad of grease-stained napkins, her monkeyish little face working violently. She'd thrust her nose right into the midst of the thick mass of paper, letting loose with a barely-muffled, "AhHUH-TSSSSHHHOOOOOO!"
"Bless you," he'd said, his voice dwarfed in the sudden silence of the cafe.
A few of the harder-looking lorry drivers had turned around, probably expecting to see a real brick-shithouse specimen of dockerhood. They had been slightly surprised to see a lanky blonde bloke with a public-school smile and a T-shirt that had said "I Wanna Be Barbie- The Bitch Has Everything," and even more surprised to see that the tremendous sneeze had actually come from the tiny black woman who'd been sitting opposite him, her eyes damp and guilty above a sheaf of napkins.
The itch had grown steadily more uncomfortable, and by the time Leo had had to go back to the flower shop, Clara had been sneezing constantly, her eyes streaming and her head beginning to throb in sympathy.
Leo, eyebrows raised, had said, "Bless you," with varying degrees of concern as she carried on sneezing, unable to choke out a sentence- never mind analyse J.Lo's Oscar Night Planet of the Apes hairdo. Perversely, as she'd endured the curious stares on the walk back to her flat, she'd imagined that Charlotte was wreaking some sort of telepathic/kabbalistic revenge on her. But then again, she hadn't slept for a week and insomnia usually made her a bit paranoid. The weed wasn't helping either.
Gemma groaned expressively. Two slender mannequin-arms, lightly dusted with fine dark hair, rose from the muddled white bedclothes which swamped her.
"Clara..." she sighed. "What were you trying to do? Turn a cartwheel out of bed? You woke me up."
"You've got to be...uhhh-" Shit. She was going to sneeze- she could just feel it. "Uhh...up anyway, Gemma."
"Oh yeah. Damn!" Gemma rose from the bed in her long blue lace-bodiced satin slip, a cheap thrift-store find that she wore like an evening gown even in her sweatiest dreams. "You know Charlotte's not going to fire me."
Clara sniffed. "I wouldn't depend on Charlotte to do anything. If I were you...it's jus...jusss...hehhhh…"
"Clara, are you OK? I really don't need to be teased this early in the morning."
out of bed to head towards the bathroom to start the
Clara yawned. "I can't believe how horny you are when you wake up."
"Believe it! I'm going to need a shower. Mind if I go first?"
Clara thankfully shook her head. Gemma strolled across the dusty floorboards. Clara always loved to watch her walk like this- Gemma's bare breasts, pale with dark, delicate, pointed nipples, moved gently with the rhythm of her walk.
"Did you sleep?" Gemma asked from the hallway.
"Are you going to see that woman today?"
"Yes." Clara rubbed her nose furiously, squinching her teary eyes tightly shut.
Gemma could hear the tension stretching Clara's sneeze-distorted voice. As excited as she got in the morning until her first shower was over, Gemma knew that if Clara sneezed just once, she would never get to work on time. She felt hot and swollen- something about summer and the onset of her period had made her feel even lusher than usual. Her body sang a teasing blues as she closed the door to the tropically hot bathroom.
"Honey," she said from inside, "please have pity on me this morning, OK? Last night was bad- I mean, good- enough."
Experimentally, she touched herself and almost groaned. She had expected to still be hot and slippery from last night, but she was positively running wetness already. She wondered what on earth she could have been dreaming about- Jennifer Lopez and Beyonce Knowles in a sauna, or what?
Clara sniffled and said valiantly, "I'll try." Then a sudden rise of pollen tickled her nose ever so gently, and she knew her sneezing fit was closer then ever. She began to rub her nose.
Gemma went into the shower and turned the water on- the harder and colder, the better- shivering with mingled pleasure and pain as she stepped beneath the water, watched goose pimples rise on her slender, pale hips and thighs, her ultra-sensitive nipples shrinking up, painfully erect with the rush of the chill. Once she got used to the sound of the shower, her ears adjusted and she heard Clara padding around aimlessly in the bedroom, giving the occasional loud, wet, tortured-sounding sniff. She certainly sounded as if she needed to sneeze.
Gemma sighed deeply, her nipples growing even more painfully erect. Her hand began to trace down her hips, but stopped short. Not this time, she thought to herself, and turned the dial as cold as it could get.
Clara began to feel her eyes tear up. Before she could wipe them, tears started to run down the side of her face. Her nose crinkled up again and again with each sniffle and soon her eyes would begin to close, the sneeze gaining momentum, taking her over with agonising slowness.
Gemma came out the bathroom at that moment, butt-naked with thick lemony curds of shampoo still in her hair, and walked over to the radiator to grab her towel.
"Sorry, Clara, I forgot this-"
Clara couldn't answer her. The sneeze had her now.
One cautious look at her new lover, and Gemma was lost. She saw Clara bent over, slightly shaking, and trying to scrunch the sneeze out of her nose without success. All Gemma could do was drop the towel and hold her lover close. The crests of her bones felt as hollow as a bird's in Gemma's hands when Gemma put her hands on them to kiss her polished dark cheek- thin caps of bone, hunched in around the sagging column of her neck as she desperately fought back the urge to sneeze.
"It's OK," Gemma said gently. "I give up. Go for it."
Clara shook her head frantically. "N...no. "S'OK. Finish your shower. You're lahhh...hehhh..."
"Late?" Gemma kissed her other cheek, her wet, scented black hair brushing Clara's trembling nose in that way that always drove her to the limit. "Actually, I was thinking of quitting."
"Gemma." Clara struggled to caution her. "Really. Iaahhh..."
Gemma could tell that the look of concentration on her face had nothing to do with the availability of jobs in Manchester, and found herself wondering how long Clara could hold out.
"Sorry, honey, what was that?"
Clara glared at her, dark eyes reddened and overflowing. Even in her agony she couldn't fail to notice that Gemma looked absolutely beautiful, her usually alabaster body flushed from the shower's freezing water and beaded with drops, faint swirls of drying, caking suds smeared on her shell-like skin, her belly, her breasts, water dripping down from her hips, frosting her sleek, dark, dripping mound. The smell of Gemma's overpowering Gucci Envy bath-stuff, the pollen in the air, even the soft, musical sound of fresh, fat water-drops on the bare floor, seemed to intensify her terrible urge to sneeze.
"My poor baby," Gemma cooed, trying to sound as concerned and sweet as possible although her heart was thumping crazily. "Nose a bit tickly?"
What an understatement. "I- I...have to...Gemma..."
Gemma reached out and drew Clara to her, feeling her lover's sparrow-thin body heave helplessly against hers as a truly massive sneeze rolled and barrelled through Clara's delicate frame. Harsh gasps rose from the pit of her stomach. Gemma felt Clara's resistance slowly crumble as she stroked her lover's back with damp fingers, as though that would help her bring the sneeze to its climax.
"Sorry- I- I really-" Clara gave a deep, sharp gasp, and then Gemma felt the force of a powerful sneeze explode wetly against the sculpted hollow of her shoulder.
The end was stifled against Gemma's damp, unprotesting flesh.
Gemma gently patted Clara's shoulder. "Oh, honey, bless you."
"Jesus," Clara croaked stuffily, trying and failing to release herself from Gemma's grasp. "I'm so sorry...my allergies have been giving me hell all night... I just...jushdhadto-heeaaaAHHHSCHEEEEW!" she sneezed again uncontrollably, spraying Gemma's white-lathered breasts as she half-ducked her head.
"My my," Gemma purred, her concern overwhelmed by the melting sensation between her damp thighs. The ticklish sensation of scented bubbles bursting on her limbs, cool from the water, made her even more aroused, and when Clara's sneeze-mist hit her breasts she felt an ominous, hard-to-ignore twisting sensation down below, an aching complaint of lust. "That was a big sneeze!"
Clara snuffled. "They usually are."
"I'm sorry." Gemma widened her eyes in a pantomime of contrition. "I shouldn't have made you hold that back. Next time you need to sneeze, just go for it."
"I...I wod't. I'b fide." Clara's nose was streaming thickly like a little kid's, and her mouth had fallen open so she could breathe. She sniffed wetly several times and attempted to duck her head against her tautly muscled forearm, wiping her nose against her shoulder in an attempt to deal with the overflow. "I can deal with them...Gemma!" she snapped, made crabby by exertion and embarrassment, "Could you let go of me and get me a tissue?"
Gemma did so, smiling cheekily. "I love it when you're bossy."
Feeling a little tickle start to irritate her nose, Clara sniffed surreptitiously as Gemma, still streaming suds, obediently foraged for the tissues, which were half-buried under the bed. She wasn't quite distracted enough not to enjoy the sight of Gemma on her knees, the dark half-moon shape of her sex hanging plump and wet beneath the delicate cleft of her buttocks.
Gemma heard the sniff. Clara watched her back tense up momentarily in anticipation.
"Hurry up," she said, her voice deep and controlling, if slightly urgent. "I want to sneeze."
"Want to?" Gemma handed her a thick wad of white tissues and watched hungrily as Clara, naked and vulnerable, snuffled gratefully into them. "Or need to?"
Clara shot her a withering glance from above the tissues and let out a loud unrestrained sneeze into them. "HuREESSSHHHOOO!"
Gemma didn't bless her, just raised one exquisitely shaped black eyebrow and brushed her damp fringe out of her eyes, looking closer into Clara's contorted face. "Honey, really, you sound absolutely dreadful this morning. Have you got any allergy medicine?"
"It's just a tickle," Clara said defiantly, when she could speak again, her voice tight and clogged-sounding. "I'm fine."
"Of course you're fine." Gemma drew Clara to her again, and the last of Clara's butch top pose melted away as she felt her lover's damp, fragrant skin against hers, the titillating prickle of bush against bush, Gemma's wet hands running down her tense shoulders, comforting her. "You're so fine," Gemma whispered, listening with pleasure as Clara's breathing grew shallower with pleasure, and then with need.
Gemma looked down into her face and gently touched the tip of her twitching nose. "How's the tickle?"
Clara sniffed pitifully. "Terrible-ahhhh....huhAHHH-"
She already felt it beginning to expand in the very back of her nose, reaching slowly and deeply down to her throat, building and burning inexorably. It didn't work, and her lover's expectant, longing visage shutter-clicked away from her in a burning instant as she exploded again with a huge wet "AHSCHHHOOOO!"
"Bless you," Gemma cooed, her hand describing wonderfully gentle circles in the small of Clara's back.
Clara recovered gracefully, swiping her nose with the tissues. "You're looking at me like...that, Gemma."
"Like how?" Gemma teased, her voice slightly shivery.
Clara chuckle throatily, sliding her hand between Gemma's thighs and gently stroking her soft dark bush. "Like you're getting so wet you can t stand it, that's how."
Gemma swallowed painfully hard, and attempted to lower her eyelashes modestly. "I've got to go to work, haven't I?" She was trying to sound subdued and little-girlish, but her eyes showed that she was still a predator.
Clara's fingers stopped stroking and teasing, and dived between Gemma's thighs.
Gemma gasped with mingled shock and relief, as Clara smiled mischievously up at her.
"So much for the renegade," she said, withdrawing her damp fingers as sharply as she'd thrust them in.
"Well," said Gemma, taking a sharp hold of Clara's wrist, "It is Casual Friday."
8. 00 a.m
Charlotte and Ruth sat at the table, silently and tensely eating breakfast- scrambled eggs and warm white toast saturated with butter, on dandelion-yellow plates. Their kitchen, a tiny amber cube, was saturated in gold light the colour and consistency of cooking oil. On the table, there was a feverish explosion of cheap lush daisies in one of last night's Chilean Chardonnay bottles, the butter was a gold bar and their glasses of pale apple juice glowed in the sun.
Charlotte and Ruth were too nervous to enjoy the beautiful morning. They felt fragile, stunned by the light. They'd had a bitch of a fight last night, and still hadn't made up.
Ruth looked gorgeous in an exquisitely tailored pale-green linen suit that draped her slim frame, flowing around her knees but cinching in her already tiny waist. Charlotte had only just got out of the shower and looked equally resplendent in her scarlet silk kimono, the ethereal (hungover) pallor of her skin contrasting sharply with the untamed riot of shiny, freshly washed black curls which trailed down her back, glistening with coconut oil against the wet towel she'd draped around her shoulders like a shawl.
Charlotte gulped her lukewarm coffee, and debated the diplomacy of lighting another cigarette. Chain-smoking was one of her many habits that drove Ruth insane, and her lover seemed particularly stern and immovable today, delicate silver glasses perched on her powdered nose as she buried herself in the business section. Charlotte's kimono, bought from a thrift shop when she was twenty and less curvaceous, barely restrained her voluptuous breasts, and she was wearing nothing beneath its teasing folds of silk. To be almost naked in front of Ruth- while Ruth was sexily armoured in her Chairperson-of-the-Board outfits- made her wet, even on this stress-filled morning after, when her groin was two steps ahead of her brain. But that was generally the case anyway.
She was imagining the slow process of undressing her lover- which She'd been too drunk to do the previous night- when her nose began to tickle. The bright light, although it was strained through the grease on the window, was still acute enough to bother Charlotte's delicate, hyper-sensitive nostrils. The car exhaust in the air, the dust motes floating thickly in the glaring sun and the fatly bursting, dusty-bedded daisies, discharging a cloud of suitably saffron pollen, were all playing hell with her nose. Charlotte scrunched her beautiful face up, nose burning with a persistent itch. She switched tactics and pinched her nostrils between her thumb and forefinger, breathing in through her mouth, but the tickle still didn't go away.
The sun streamed brilliantly over Ruth's shining blonde hair, giving her a tinsel halo, and triggered a long shuddery breath from Charlotte.
Ruth lifted her head, her marble-perfect features smoothed even further by the unforgiving light.
Charlotte had time to notice the predatory light in Ruth's green eyes, before her own watery blue ones squeezed shut, her mouth opened, and she sneezed convulsively with a wet, congested sound and a fine spray from her nose and mouth.
"aaaAAAHAAH...ahHSCHHEWW! uhh. Uhh...uhhhhUH...uh."
She sniffed soddenly and shook her head, as though trying to shake away the buildup, black curls bouncing vigorously. Ruth had abandoned all pretence of nonchalance, and was openly staring at her lover as Charlotte exploded with another huge wet, "uhehEHSCCCHHHEWWW! UhhkSCHOO! Huahhh...hihISHOO! K'SHOOOO!"
She sniffed again- the sneezes seemed to be winding down a little- and then her face screwed up dramatically, one long white hand waving frantically in front of her nose, as she looked around with slitted, streaming eyes for something to catch the next sneeze in- delicate trails of mucus were starting to dampen her reddened nostrils. "eehhhh...eeaaAAHHH..."
Ruth turned another page of her newspaper in an attempt to show disdain.
It was a huge, wet, throaty sneeze that snapped Charlotte's head forward, beads of fragrant water from her hair spraying Ruth's newspaper, mirroring the smaller- but still heavy- spray that exploded from Charlotte's nose in the unforgiving light of the window.
Ruth didn't say, "bless you." She was silent as a plaster saint, secretly replaying in her head and loving- reluctantly- the sight of her lover with her guard down. Even pissed, asleep or in flagrante delicto, Charlotte managed to act with a certain control. It was the idea that something else could overpower her that surprised Ruth, that something had actually dared to get up Charlotte's nose and tickle, forcing her to confront the impossible reality that her glossy pantomime Snow Queen was actually human. It aroused her, but she wasn't going to let on. The balance of power was too important to abandon, even though she felt her libido rise and stir in the sun.
Charlotte sniffed wetly and opened her streaming eyes. "Excuse me."
Ruth said nothing, watching her intensely.
Charlotte shook her head violently again. Then she sniffed several times, rubbed her nose on the humped back of her wrist and picked up her coffee cup again, fixing Ruth with a burning, indecipherable stare before raising it to her lips.
Having taken a sip, Charlotte cleared her throat. "Look, honey. About last night-"
"I was not flirting with Julie. Or that woman in rubber. Or-"
"Can we not talk about this now?"
Ruth took advantage of the moral high ground to lick her lips- they felt horribly dry. She felt so strange after Charlotte's urgent, irrepressible sneezes, and there was a disobedient little pulse beating insistently in her crotch. She swallowed hard, poured herself some more juice with an unsteady hand, and waited for her lover to speak again.
"All right," Charlotte said gently. "Later, maybe. But let's talk about something."
"Tonight, then," Ruth replied efficiently in her Miss Hollywood Secretary mode, decapitating a toast soldier with feral little teeth. "You had better ask Clara what time the gig starts. And have you even discussed Homelands with her? I met Alex in Branca yesterday and-"
"Ruth-" Charlotte allowed a note of caution to creep into her voice, but Ruth ploughed on.
"He said he'd had Rodney on the phone all day. It really is time you got this sorted out."
"It's not the right time, OK?" Charlotte sighed dramatically, her magnificent chest rising and falling beneath the kimono, which softly moulded itself to her curves as she sighed, making her breasts look like brilliant red fruit.
They ate quietly for a while.
"Have you talked to Clara?" Charlotte asked, not knowing why, and was amazed when Ruth nodded.
"Once or twice," she said quite guiltily. "Things aren't easy for her at the moment."
Charlotte sighed harshly. "And what does she have to say? When is she coming back in to work?"
"When her week's up. Don't be such a drama queen. You owe her two months holiday anyway."
"Since when is that your..."
"Besides, she doesn't usually answer the phone. I have to talk to Gemma."
Charlotte's knife became still. "And I suppose that's a real effort."
"Not really," Ruth said blithely. "She's a laugh."
Ruth stared calmly down at her plate, her face composing itself into a prissy altar angel's once again. Charlotte put her knife down on the egg-smeared tablecloth and observed Ruth's waxwork expression, her full, well-carmined mouth falling open.
"Ruth Grace Lowndes," she said at length. "You slapper."
Ruth's own lips curved up into an grin, although she ducked her head to try and hide it, feathers of soft blonde hair streaking down her cheeks.
"You manipulative, stiletto-wearing, Tia-Maria-and-Coke-drinking slapper."
Ruth cracked into laughter, her face expanding in a burst of pleasure.
Amazed, Charlotte shook her head, her thick, damp curls bouncing. "And there I was," she said, enjoying Ruth's whooping laughter and hoping to prolong it a little, "thinking you were just about the only innocent, guileless woman in this lousy rotten world, and all of a sudden you're resorting to flirting with a girl barely out of high school, under the guise of burying the hatchet?"
Ruth nodded, her face held together with pantomimed calm.
They ate calmly for about five minutes.
"You do know," Charlotte said after a while, "that, as a punishment, this is completely piss-poor."
"It's not a punishment," Ruth said. "I wasn't thinking about what you want at all."
"That's me told," Charlotte said. "Pass the sugar, bitch."
She'd never been a romantic anyway. And now Ruth was coming round to her way of thinking, acting, living, after being the lesbian Doris Day for so long- well, things couldn't be better. She had no idea why she felt like shit.
Another tickle teased her nose. Damn it, what was this? Her nose was always a little more light-sensitive in the first few days of summer, but she never usually sneezed like this...she sniffed. No. She wasn't going to sneeze, not in front of Ruth. Fiercely, she pinched her nose, trying to make it look as though she was only lost in thought, staring out of the dusty, blazing window- which didn't help. She allowed herself a stretched, watery-eyed smile- Fate had a very strange sense of humour sometimes.
Then she saw the way that Ruth was watching her.
Her lover cleared her throat, colour rising in her cheeks again. "Um...are you all right, Char?"
Charlotte nodded, her eyes not leaving her lover's. "I just..." She realised her nose was running and gave a quick, harsh sniff. "I thihh...ihhhh...I gotta-"
Then the tickle seized her entirely- Charlotte knew this was going to be absolutely huge, and she had nothing to smother it in, so she seized the damp white towel from around her shoulders and buried her furiously twitching nose in it. She only just managed to choke out "-sneeze!" before bending over with a huge, bellowing "eeayAAHSHEWWW!" which she smothered in the towel's cool, comforting wetness.
Ruth laughed, sounding slightly nervous. "You know, Char, with those sneezes of yours, you should always have hankies that size."
Charlotte sniffed. "Whew. They are rather huge, aren't they? I just don't know what..."
But then she noticed something in Ruth's eyes- something secretive, sliding away under her heavy lids as she scanned columns of tiny figures. Experimentally, Charlotte sniffed and watched Ruth's eyes reflexively turn up to meet hers, before quickly looking back down again.
"Ruth," she said softly.
"Hmm?" Ruth's voice was too loud, and she flipped a page over-vigorously for good measure.
Charlotte gave another moist sniff. "Did you like that?" she asked, as though discussing a play they'd seen.
Ruth- pressing her lips together- finally met Charlotte's eyes. "You've lost me," she said curtly.
"Or is it just Gemma you're thinking about?"
Ruth- her fragile-skinned cheeks hot and blotchy- slammed the paper down onto the table, crumpling the page she'd been staring at for the last ten minutes.
"I'm going to work," she snapped. "I can't deal with your shit this morning."
"Fine." Charlotte made no attempt to hide the rising current of laughter in her voice as she picked up the discarded paper. "What have you done with the Arts section?"
Absolutely disoriented, her cheeks now blazing furiously, Ruth clicked over to Charlotte in her strict work-shoes and snatched the paper out of her hands.
"Will you just stop..." she trailed off, almost gulping with the force of her anger and longing.
"Stop what, love?" Charlotte's blue-black eyes ensnared her.
"Playing with me...playing games with my head..."
Ruth's voice wasn't as agitated as her actions. It was low and breathy, thick with repressed wanting.
"Why, what else do you want me to play with?" Charlotte spread out her now-empty hands in the air, as if sketching out some sort of promise- an I'm-innocent gesture contradicted by the passion in her widened eyes. She gestured to her lap, her long, bare, milky legs, only a fragile strip of scarlet silk flowing down between her thighs.
"Come on," she said, her voice coaxing and low. "Let's kiss and make up."
"I've got work," Ruth whispered, obediently perching her neat little bottom on Charlotte's thighs.
"Don't we all?" Charlotte bestowed a feather-soft kiss- almost a hum- on the stretched curve of Ruth's silky neck.
She felt yet another tickle building in her nose, and tried to fight it. This time she succeeded, fighting not to sniff as she pressed her lips to her lover's glossily painted ones.
Ruth complied, leaning in close, the softness of her breasts pressing tenderly against Charlotte's- both of them felt their breathing grow harsher, as they wondered at how something so reassuringly familiar could still be such a turn-on.
Ruth hoped Charlotte wouldn't feel how wet she was, how hot. The balance of power was with her at the moment, and no matter how much she longed for her beautiful lover to fuck her, she was loath to give it up.
It wasn't an ordinary goodbye kiss but a rich, deep, hungry one. Ruth felt Charlotte's tongue probing her mouth, the electric touch of her lover's fingers against the nape of her neck, tangling briefly in her perfect French-rolled hair and then wrapping protectively around her neck, pressing slightly down and infusing Ruth's china-pale skin with heat.
Then the tickle returned fiercely and Charlotte withdrew, turning her head to the side, as it grew so intense she couldn't begin to fight it. She let loose with a great, messy,
Damn! Was this some kind of horrendous karma thing?
Ruth laughed, deep and soft. "Bless you," she said sweetly. "Want your towel, Sneezy?"
Charlotte obediently held her face up as Ruth dabbed her nose with a corner of the damp, soothing towel. "Thanks."
Charlotte felt Ruth's nipples harden under the thin silk of her shirt- she was braless, and smelt of the wonderful, sweet musk that always rose from her when she was turned on. As they kissed, Charlotte snaked her hand under the delicate folds of Ruth's skirt and began to massage her thigh. Ruth let out a soft, half-suppressed moan and writhed against Charlotte, positively grinding her buttocks against the thin, damp silk at her lover's cunt.
"You don't want me to play with you?" Charlotte heard her voice growing raspy and thick against Ruth's neck.
Ruth shuddered in response. "You're such a bitch."
"Oh, I'm a bitch? I saw the way you were looking at me."
An even fiercer blush licked from Ruth's neck up to her aristocratic cheekbones as she leant against her lover. "What...when?"
"Just then. And before." Charlotte kissed her neck again, harder and wetter. "When I had the sneezes."
"It's your fault," Ruth muttered, moving back a little as Charlotte spread her stockinged legs with one hand and caressed the soft white skin of her inner thighs. Ruth stiffened as she felt a disobedient finger resting idly against the damp, spread-open cleft of her lips in their fragile lace.
"My fault?" Charlotte was tracing slowly up and down the cleft, studiously avoiding Ruth s hardened, eager clit, concentrating on building up a delicious friction that barely touched her lover's cunt but which reverberated all the way through her, her whole body a sounding board for that tender, ticklish touch. "How so?"
"You...you gave this ridiculous fetish to me."
"I enlightened you. Still," the pressure of Charlotte's fingers was growing stronger as she cupped Ruth's lace-sheathed, velvety mound with practised fingers, "it's not very nice, you know...to take pleasure in someone else's discomfort."
Ruth moved her hips forward, longing for Charlotte's fingers to enter her, but moaned as she felt her lover teasingly draw back. "You seem to be taking a lot of pleasure in mine."
"Oh, I'm sorry." Charlotte laughed, gently sliding her hand up and inside the waistband of Ruth's lacy pants. She'd barely brushed her lover's hot, swollen lips when she realized just how turned on her usually chilly lover was.
"My my," Charlotte whispered. "Now, why is my little angel so damned wet? You feel..." she paused, manicured eyebrows furrowing. "You feel different."
Charlotte realised that her lover's flesh was smooth in her palm- not quite velvet, not quite silk or baby-skin, but something achingly tender and soft.
"Shaved?" She raised her eyebrows. Her lover's silent presumption turned her on. "Were you planning this?"
She plunged her fingers into her lover's wet, throbbing sex, enjoying Ruth's mingled pleasure and agony as much as Ruth had enjoyed hers.
"Or are you getting it from somewhere else?"
"No!" Ruth writhed as Charlotte experimentally touched her clit. "Ah- Char, not there! I've got to wear this skirt to work-"
"Then take it off."
Ruth obeyed taking off her skirt, shirt and jacket. She stood in front of Charlotte, mute and beautiful in her stockings, panties and high-heeled shoes. Charlotte felt her whole body screaming with hunger as she licked her lover's rich juices from her fingers.
Ruth sat on Charlotte's lap again, knees either side of her lover's, and practically purred with pleasure when Charlotte wasted no time in thrusting her hand down Ruth's panties, teasing her small, pale nipples with her tongue until they grew hard and flushed with blood.
"You watched me sneezing," she said again, once satisfied that her lover was ready to be fucked properly- Ruth's hips were bucking slowly and insistently against her hand.
"I was just-"
"It's something I can't help," she said quietly, stroking Ruth's clit with a terrible softness that made Ruth stiffen against her as though suffused with electricity. "I saw the way you looked at me and I didn't like it. You were getting all wet..."
"I wasn't," Ruth whispered hoarsely.
"Shush. You were, naughty girl." Charlotte massaged Ruth's cunt with the measured, up-and-down strokes of a true artist, not quite hard or fast enough to make her come. "I really had to sneeze," she whispered thickly. "My poor nose was tickling like crazy-"
Ruth moaned with guilt and passion, unable to hide the effect that Charlotte's words, her vulnerability, had on her.
"I couldn't control myself," Charlotte continued, "and you were staring at me. You were getting off on it. I don't like that."
"I'm sorry- ow!" Ruth shuddered, partly with pleasure, as Charlotte smacked her harshly on the luscious curve of her left buttock. "Want me to call you 'Mistress'?" she hissed.
"If you like." Charlotte nuzzled into Ruth's neck again as her hand went deeper into Ruth's soaking-wet pussy, starting to stroke her G-spot. She smelt Ruth's rising, musky scent, and then something else, richer, more elegant. Curiously familiar, but...
Ruth, her body seized by mingled lust and fear, felt a jolt of utter delight as Charlotte's aquiline nose twitched uncontrollably against her neck. She was going to come- and she was going to come now.
Charlotte felt Ruth's muscles squeezing her in a wet, hot, cradling embrace, felt Ruth shudder against her as she exploded in an involuntary, utterly helpless, "HeaaaaHHHCSHOOO!"
It was Charlotte's turn to shudder in the aftermath of that great, controlling sneeze. She would have withdrawn her hand, but Ruth's pulsating muscles held it there, quivering in an intoxicating rhythm. Charlotte realised that her lover had come, that the sodden handful of nude flesh and white lace in her hand was soaked with wet heat.
"You little cunt," she said, her voice hoarse with shock and admiration.
Ruth jumped off her lap, clutched her clothes in a crumpled armful and headed for the bedroom. Charlotte followed- she rarely ran, but she was very fast when she did- grabbed Ruth and forced her onto their bed, which took up most of the room, a great, sweaty, rumpled mass of sheets.
Ruth struggled beneath her, lips smudged and swollen, hair a mess, eyes full of lust and locked on Charlotte's.
"I've got work," she said feebly.
Charlotte was already undoing the belt on her robe. "You certainly do."
Alexander had barely made it through the impressive
"I know they're not IN, but where the FUCK ARE THEY?"
Alex made a show of drastic gulping. "I wish this'd been one of those things-go-better-with-coke days."
Leo laughed. Already halfway down the corridor, Alex thought bitterly, he could afford to. "You're going in, soldier boy."
Charlotte, meanwhile, had launched into a huge incoherent tirade, which was too fast and bilingual for either of them to make out, but one in every ten words was roughly audible- usually "bitch," "fuck," or "norespect/whothefuckdotheythinkIamanyway/fuckers."
"Y'sir." Alex touched an imaginary forelock (his hair, as usual, would have made a Ken Doll's look a mess). "Where's my bullet-proof vest again?"
Leo- practically out of the door- smiled cheekily. "Just put a Bible in your chest pocket, and wave some garlic at her if things get too hairy."
"ALEX," Charlotte screeched, "Get your RIDICULOUSLY OVERDRESSED ARSE IN HERE YOU USELESS GAYLORD."
"Bye," said Leo, rather feebly, legging it. "See you later," he called, "probably."
With a futile attempt at pushing back his hair, Alex entered the office. "Morning, darling. You're, um, looking fantastic today?"
"Of course I fucking am," Charlotte replied, slightly mollified.
She did indeed- her new Anna Sui suit with its liquid-smooth lines made her look even more statuesque than usual, her specially tailored blue blouse brought out her eyes, even though they were cobalt-dark with anger, and her feet were bound up in fantastic S and M sandals with spaghetti-thin leather and silver straps criss-crossing her ankles like the gateway to the seraglio.
The fact that she was slumped in her chair attempting, it seemed, to eat a cigarette, slightly detracted from her gorgeousness, but it was still enough to have silenced the poor young trainee she'd just paused from screaming at, who looked as though she was about to burst into tears.
Charlotte Katz was a beautiful woman. Everyone said so. She had a body that would have had Guess girls overdosing on slimming pills, legs up to her armpits and a beautiful butt higher than she was most of the time. But that wasn't the extent of her charm. Neither was her creamy skin, her deep blue eyes surrounded by a kilo of Smoky Night kohl, her scarlet, perfectly shaped lips, her mass of blue-black curls or the supermodel beauty spot at the edge of her perfectly sneering upper lip. Her charm lay in the fact that she didn't give a rat's ass about any of it; especially not today. Her role as self-obsessed diva- usually a pose- had finally blossomed into bright-edged reality. All that mattered to her was that for once, she couldn't get what she wanted. Who she wanted.
"Gemma called me," he said quietly. "She got held up on the train..."
Charlotte looked as though she was going to launch into another swearing marathon but he cut her off. "And I'll send her in to you when she gets here. Now calm down."
The trainee was playing with one dusty orange-threaded dreadlock while staring, shocked and inane, at Charlotte's own coiffure, which looked like it was about to topple. But as it was on Charlotte's head, it probably wouldn't have the chutzpah.
"Why should I calm down?" Charlotte snarled, grinding enough teeth to produce sparks. "I don't LIKE being calm. If God had meant us to be calm he'd never have invented cocaine, strap-ons or politicians."
"You'll give yourself wrinkles."
"Oh," said Charlotte, subdued. "Good point. Have you got your beta-blockers on you?"
Alex, thanking God for Hoffman La Roche, handed her two pills and looked at the sweating year-out merchant, who was staring at him like he was a fridge full of Evian in a thousand-mile desert. "Kate, you can go."
Kate made a non-specific noise and scuttled out.
"Champion of the Workers," Charlotte said cynically, gulping back the pills with a mouthful of Badoit (or something else in a Badoit bottle, Alex thought bitchily- Charlotte's vodka jones were legendary). "Someone's got to be a bitch, you know."
Alex shrugged. "And I'm too scared to upstage you, darling."
Charlotte looked at Alex and smiled sweetly, a big ass-kissing-is-a-job bless-me-father-for-I-have-sinned smile.
"I've got a joke for you," Alex said, abruptly changing tack.
Charlotte sighed- she didn't want one of her friend's inane gags to shatter her noire-villainess look.
"Can you tell it to someone else?" Charlotte lit another cigarette from the one she had in her mouth.
"No." Alex, despite his five-hundred-pound Armani suit, was practically jigging from foot to foot like a little boy in desperate need of the bathroom. "It's especially for you."
When Charlotte looked back at him with her Quadruple Force Death Stare, Alex broke into a great whooping laugh. "My God, someone's on the rag. What is it? Still Miss Clara?"
"Not at all. I'm just..."
"OK then. There's this businessman, right-"
"Alex!" Charlotte implored.
"I won't laugh."
"And he gets on a plane."
Charlotte was momentarily disoriented. "Who?"
"The businessman! He's going to, um..." Alex visibly trawled his memory.
"Does it matter?"
"I suppose not."
Charlotte sighed gustily and downed half of her suspect-looking mineral water.
"And he sits beside this really fine woman on the plane. In First Class."
"I'm sure that was relevant."
"It might be," Alex said defensively. "Anyway, at some point, the woman sneezes..."
Charlotte tried not to react, and made a mental note to tell everyone, under the guise of extreme drunkenness, that Alexander secretly fancied Tom Jones. He'd told her last Christmas when he was stoned and watching Jools Holland, and she was glad she'd kept it under wraps until now.
"Finally," she said coolly. "This is getting interesting."
Alex beamed knowingly. "Anyway, so she sneezes, gets out a tissue, gently wipes her nose, and shudders in her seat."
"The man isn't sure why she's shuddering, and he goes back to reading."
"You didn't say he was reading."
"He's got to be doing something!"
"Why?" Charlotte made a show of looking down into the street. "You never do."
Alexander doggedly persevered. "A few minutes pass. The woman sneezes again. She takes a tissue, gently wipes her nose, and shudders quite violently in her seat. The man's becoming more and more curious about the shuddering."
"I thought he was lost in his book."
"A few more minutes pass. The woman sneezes yet again. She takes a tissue, wipes her nose, and shudders violently-"
"Is there a point to this?"
"Yeah. See, the man has finally had all he can handle. He turns to the woman and says, 'Are you sending me signals, or are you going crazy?'"
"The silver-tongued devil."
"The woman replies, 'I'm sorry if I disturbed you. I have a rare medical condition, and when I sneeze, I have an orgasm.' The man, now feeling a little embarrassed but even more curious says, 'I've never heard of that before. What are you taking for it?'"
"And the woman looks at him," Charlotte finished, "and says 'Pepper.'"
Alexander smiled tightly. "Honestly, Charlotte. Who stole your lipstick?"
"She stole your lipstick?"
"No, dammit! She stole my..." Charlotte sighed. Alexander always did this Obtuse, Ineffectual Homosexual Bloke act when he was bored of her histrionics and too polite to say so. "I'm firing her when she gets in," she said, pulling herself up to her full height (plus hair and stiletto heels, which meant that Alex was suddenly looking up- rather cheekily- into her chilly blue eyes).
"And I'm polishing Robbie Williams' arse."
"What, for the July shoot?" she began, and then realised he was joking.
He quickly left, as she burst into a rousing Marlene Dietrich-style version of "It's Not Unusual." Five minutes later, he realized what she was implying and wondered, not for the first time that morning, why he hadn't gone to work for someone nice and normal like Elton John or Donatella Versace.
"Do you think this is really a good idea?"
Not for the first time, Gemma patiently and irrationally replied, "Yes."
Lee sighed and smiled. This was what she loved about Gemma- she was a small-time, closet renegade. A legend in her own lunch-hour. There they were, pushing ten-o'clock on Casual Friday, gobbling sugar-saturated pastries and getting high on espresso in Costa, revelling in their freedom like two schoolgirls, giggling over the local Mafia-wannabe cugine types who were unashamedly eyeing them up and making phallic sign-language with their bottles of Pellegrino.
Lee Deaney, Charlotte's latest little cupcake, never usually missed work. And she certainly never did anything approaching what Gemma had suggested. Or, what she might be suggesting. It was hard to tell with her.
"I'm not your confessor," Gemma said mildly, delicately forking a portion of chocolate cake into her delicate, mulberry-frosted mouth. "If you don't want to go through with it, Lee- really, don't."
"What if it gets complicated?"
"Darling." Gemma's expression softened. "How would it Get...complicated?"
Lee moodily traced her fingertip through spilt coffee. That was the trouble with this whole business, it was all in hints. Nothing direct had been said since their first explosion of shared trust and relief, heavily laced with hilarity, at the height of allergy season.
"I don't know. Marie has this...thing for, um..."
Gemma's huge dark eyes sparkled. There was nothing she liked better Than 'things.' "For what?"
"Women who look like Clara."
Gemma smiled. "Oh, very PC, honeybunch. You mean, what? She gets Sexually aroused during Destiny's Child videos on MTV? She has a subscription to that disgusting 'Chocolate' thing on the Internet?"
"Gemma, not only do you have a subscription to that disgusting 'Chocolate' thing, it's all over your Favourites tab at work, and Charlotte's going to have a shit fit when she sees it."
"I don't discriminate," Gemma said mildly. "I also patronise Asian Babes, Catholic Schoolgirls and Jewish Princesses in White Socks. What's your point? So Marie has a thing for black women. I'm not surprised. It's the Sicilian blood, I swear. Like, why else would Italians look like they do if they didn't, as my old mother likes to say, have a touch of the tar brush?"
"She's not Sicilian."
"So fucking what?"
"You say that to her and you'll find out. Trust me. It's bad enough that you start singing derogatory crap whenever I mention her at work."
"I do not!"
"You do! When Kate asked what Marie's family did, and you started singing the theme tune to 'The Sopranos.' Badly, I might add."
"It was stuck in my head. I've got the album, y'know."
"But you do it all the time. When you're not occasionally varying it with a quick chorus of Kelis's 'Mafia.'"
"That's not racism, that's just a cheap shot at your girlfriend."
"Why exactly do you want to diss Marie, though?"
Gemma shrugged. "It's not every day I meet a woman who's capable of out-sexing me, that's all." Then she grinned slyly. "But don't worry. This is going to be a good night. Especially if what you tell me is true."
"It doesn't always work. I don't think."
Gemma waved it aside impatiently. "Nothing's for certain. I just want to see. It doesn't have to be tonight. We're doing it to have a good time, Lee, that's all. Chill."
"I can't believe you're so calm about it."
"I've done it before."
"But I can't believe..." Lee shook her head. "I'm telling you, Gemma, it takes some balls to do this to your boss!"
"Hey, I'm going out with her, aren't I?"
Lee licked up cappuccino foam. "You're a fast worker, that's all I can say."
"Life's too short for anything but fast work. And God, Lee...just wait! I mean, usually she's just so disciplined, so self-controlled, she never, ever lets her guard down, not even for a second, but this- it's just beautiful."
"She really...reacts the way you say she does? It wasn't just a one-off?"
"Trust me, no." She grinned cheekily at Lee. "Are you sure you've done nothing like this before?"
"We used pepper once."
"No, no, no. I mean," Gemma said softly, "in front of other people."
"No," Lee said softly, and swallowed hard, then changed tack swiftly. "Anyway, if Clara's still off work, where is she? You hiding her from me?"
Gemma shot her a chilly glance. "Therapy."
Her friend heaved a full-body sigh and drained her lethal-looking espresso. "What is this thing you have for crazy women?"
"No, no, this is like a one-off thing." Gemma shrugged. "It was murder convincing her to go."
"She can't deal with you, or something?"
"Ha! Look who's talking! Where the hell is Marie this morning?"
Lee shrugged like a mutinous adolescent. "Can I help it if I'm attracted to Italian stallionesses? She threw my Manolo fucking Blahniks out of the window last night?"
"Which Manolo fucking Blahniks?"
"The lime green ones."
"Oh, the bitch! Have you talked since then?"
"No, though she did considerately send me a text message at five in the morning. I can't translate it but I think it wasn't complimentary- I was going to show it to Giulia in the front office, but she might just laugh."
"So stop giving me shit about my relationships."
"Shouldn't that be in the singular?"
"You've got chocolate cake in your hair, bitch."
"What's Clara stressing about then? Is Charlotte breaking her back? Or is she just frustrated cause she can't get herself a piece of my undeniably fine arse any more?"
"You wish." Gemma picked up her own glass. "She hasn't slept for a week."
"Fuck." Lee's soft, blonde eyebrows furrowed. "This a usual thing?"
"On and off. She says it's never been this bad, though. Usually it happens when she's stressed, but sometimes for no reason. Clara reckons she was born with dark circles under her eyes."
"Damn. Sure you're not just keeping her awake? You said you practically jumped her bones while she was asleep that first time."
"That's the only time I've ever seen her sleep." Gemma was starting to look tired herself. "I mean, she's always been hyper. Lives on coffee. Her sister, you know Alice, she's into all that herbal shit- said to her the other day she should give up caffeine, so she tried it two days ago."
"Did it work?"
"Fuck no! By ten in the morning she was lying on the couch with a wet towel wrapped round her eyes. When Charlotte called from work to see where we both were, she burst into tears, crawled into the kitchen and started trying to snort the last six coffee grounds. In the end I just rolled her a huge blunt and went into work. When I came home she was still wide awake, she'd licked out the coffee tin and she was convinced the toaster was looking at her funny." Gemma smiled ruefully. "I thought I'd be the difficult one in this relationship."
"A change is as good as a feast."