The Love Thing

Cath UK & Angelis

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1. Making An Entrance

"So anyway," Charlotte Katz declared in her best raconteur style, her long, heavily silver-ringed fingers stretching out in a gesture of supplication to the gorgeous women surrounding her at the table, "It's the next night, and he says 'so, do you want to toss me off now, then? So, she says..."

Gemma, the most inebriated of the party, choked her wine-induced giggles at this schoolyard joke in a lurid pink napkin, her shoulders shaking violently as she tried to convince herself that it really wasn't all that funny. Charlotte grinned at her, contemplating how easy it would be to slip her foot out of her strapless kitten-heeled shoe and slide her toes inquisitively up Gemma's calf.

Gemma knew all about Charlotte Katz- the stories were part of Friday night's tenuous legend, and an integral part of Andy's particular brand of stand-up comedy. Charlotte was more of a queen than any of the blokes in stockings that usually surrounded her- this stately, model-like woman in the vampire drag, all eyes and cleavage, her lightly muscled arms clattering with beaten Mexican silver, didn't disappoint Gemma for a moment.

When Charlotte smiled at her, Gemma half expected the sharpest and brightest of fangs.

"And she says to him, all right, why not, you know, there's nothing good on telly until nine. So he gets them off, and-"

"...oh, for fuck's sake, just let me in already!"

Ruth, Charlotte's lover, was seized by a light spasm of annoyance at the sound of the loud, rich, lightly West Indian voice, shattering the calm predictability of the restaurant's quiet music.

Clara. It couldn't be anyone else.

Ruth sank her forehead into her long soap-white hands as Charlotte, forgetting everything, turned in the direction of the voice.

"Look," the voice foghorned at talk-show-host level, "just tell me where my friends are sitting and leave me alone! I told you, I'm meeting people."

The other women turned around to look at the source of the commotion, and smiled when they saw a statuesque shadow outlined near the door, animatedly gesturing towards them.

Gemma grinned at Ruth. "Isn't it fabulous to see your boss making a complete arse of herself on a Friday night?"

"Well, she's got class, I'll grant you that," Ruth muttered rebelliously, half under her breath, sarcasm twisting her Fire-and-Iced lips into a masklike grimace of jealousy. "Why the hell do these two go in for making such bloody scenes? Charlotte, if you go over there-"

Charlotte had gone. And taken her sequined evening bag with her.

"Is there a problem here?" she inquired coolly of the doorman.

"Do you know this, uh, person?" the big man asked, eyeing the sumptuous Charlotte and then, in turn, Clara, who was standing, bedraggled and wild-eyed, in the rain.

Everything about Charlotte- her jewelled throat, her impressive stature, her long, dark, freshly styled hair, the clutch of tasteful diamonds at her ears- screamed money. Clara, who was wearing a ridiculously expensive suit with a burnt-orange silk vest and a heavy necklace of stylised Egyptian squares nestling in cold silver against her jutting, sculptural model's collarbones, still managed to look as pathetic and miserable as a wet, bad-tempered baby crow.

Clara cast up her big, dark Please-Send-Your-Money-Now eyes, which were welling dangerously.

"Char," she said softly, every last bit of her bluster and bravado gone within seconds of seeing her friend.

Charlotte shook her head, rolling her eyes upward. "Nice entrance, Clara. You're almost as good at the old drama as I am."

Clara's swollen nose was running, and light snail-trails of mucus lathered the soft dark cup between her nose and full, sculptural lips. She gave a wet sniff, and actually wiped her nose on the sleeve of her jacket, which couldn't have cost her a penny less than three hundred pounds.

"I didn't..." Clara gulped dangerously. "I didn't mean... I just..."

She had clearly been crying for a long time, and, presumably under the influence of the potent white rum her sisters always offered in troubled times, she was about to cry again. Her trembling, strenuously contained face looked like a cup about to break and spill its contents.

Charlotte's immediate instinct was to scoop Clara up in her arms and cuddle her until she was calm again.

She just calmly nodded to the doorman. "Yes, she's my friend. Sorry about that, she's on this weird medication for her Tourette's syndrome, and sometimes she gets like this. You're lucky this isn't one of her nymphomaniac evenings."

Clara let out a convulsive laugh, unable to help it, and took Charlotte's arm. "You're a goddess," she snuffled. "What would I do without you?"

The doorman sighed, shook his head in resignation, and gestured for them both to enter.

Before anyone could get a better look at her friend, Charlotte put her arm around Clara and whisked her off to the ladies'.

"Girl, where've you been?" she asked when they reached the safe confines of the small room, which, like the rest of the restaurant, was a vivid Schiaparelli pink, scented with something potent which Leo would have undoubtedly known the name for, and hung with only slightly modified illustrations taken straight from the Kama Sutra.

Clara sniffed again. "I...I-" she sniffled, and cast her eyes up impatiently, "I need a tissue." Another sniff, heavier, her nose threatening to overflow. "Badly."

Charlotte offered her some from her evening bag, and Clara grinned as she looked into the bag. "You always carry these, don't you?"

"Mainly because I know you don't." Charlotte squeezed her friend's shoulder.

Clara discharged an unashamedly thorough, snotty blow, causing the tissues to turn into a sodden pulp in her fingers.

"But you've got a whole other packet in there! Bit optimistic, isn't it?"

"I think Ruth's coming down with a bit of a cold. She's been sneezing all week."

"No wonder you look so good..." Clara laughed briefly and a tad bitterly, rubbing the damp tissues against her nostrils.

"Yeah, well, you look awful. And I want to know why."

"I'll be fine," Clara said, more to herself than to Charlotte.

"I know you'll be fine, but you're not, are you?"

Charlotte locked the door and turned, getting a clear look at Clara. Her usually neatly groomed Afro- Caribbean bob was a mess, what had obviously been a stunning coiffure ruined by wind, rain and God knew what else. She looked like an ebony-skinned raccoon, with mascara filets running down her face, her exotic makeup muddled and running along her cheeks in dark, unbecoming streaks. Her nose was reddish, as if she'd been crying. Or maybe she was just coming down with something, Charlotte thought hopefully. Come to think of it, she had heard Clara in the bathroom at lunchtime, having a wonderfully dramatic sneezing fit...

"You don't want to know," Clara said bitterly, tears beginning to pool in the corners of her slightly bloodshot, feverish eyes.

"Yes, I do. Come on. What is it, what's happened?"

"I," Clara said, trying to regain a bit of composure and not succeeding very well, "have just been dumped."

"Ohhh. That freakwad Tom?"

Clara rubbed her eyes like a weary child. "Who else? I don't think I really loved him, so I don't know why I'm letting it get to me so much. Maybe... Oh God, Char, I'm getting older; I just think I should settle down while I've still got some looks left. I'm sick of being on my own- and he... he said he wanted my children and that he thought I just might be what he'd always been waiting for, and then the wanker turned around and said, 'I'm so confused, I don't think this is working out, I need some time to myself'... And I...I..."

And then, Clara lost it, leaning against the wall and bringing her hands up to her face as a ragged sob shook her.

"Oh no, poor baby," Charlotte groaned, embracing her friend and stroking the tousled fall of her black hair. "When will women learn that 'You're The One, I want your children' means 'I'm pissed and will say anything to get in your pants'? And 'I'm so confused, I need time to myself' means 'I'm not mature enough to handle myself, let alone anyone else, so you're better off without me anyway'. Clara, darling, how many times have I told you that you should just stick to women?"

This, against all odds, made Clara smile. "I know, I know," she sighed, and then lowered her hands from her face, revealing fresh smears of dark makeup along her strong cheekbones. "I need help. Why do I do this to myself?"

"Why do others do this to you?" Charlotte corrected her, beginning to fumble with the clasp on her bag.

"I don't know." Clara blew her nose again into the handful of tissues, a strong, hard blow, and shook her head violently afterwards. "Ohh, that's better. My nose has been driving me crazy today... I'm such a mess! What, do I have 'use me' tattooed on my forehead, or something?"

"Honey, I've been hearing shit like this ever since we roomed together in college. This just won't do - we're grown women now, this shouldn't be happening. This is our girls' night out, and I think you should forget all about Tom. Tom is a jerk who doesn't know what he wants. You," she said, digging out another packet of tissues from her bag, "are going to let me fix you up. Then, you are going to come back with me to that table, where all your friends who love you very much are waiting, and you are going to get incredibly pissed on that gorgeous wine we're spending too much money on. After that, we are going out, and you, my dear, will be furiously on the pull."

"I will?" Clara asked, her gorgeous liquid eyes opening wide and shining with the beginnings of new resolution.

"You will," Charlotte assured her, moistening the corner of a tissue under the tap.

Silently, she brought the tissue up to Clara's face and began to clear her cheeks and eyelids of their ruined makeup. She dabbed at the corners of her friend's eyes, dropping a rain of gentle, affectionate kisses on her forehead, running competent hands through her hair to smooth it out. Within a few minutes of Charlotte's ministrations, Clara's dark skin was bare and shining once again, its fresh cleanliness contrasting with her still puffy eyelids and swollen, reddened nose.

"Now that that"s done, just hold still for a minute while I do your hair," Charlotte advised, digging out a small hairbrush and running it through Clara's hair until in ran down her neck in smooth, model-sleek strands.

Clara grinned at her. "So that Saturday job in the Déjà Vu Beauty Salon wasn't totally wasted, then."

"Well, just look at me, darling," Charlotte replied flippantly, stroking Clara's cheek. "And now, just a bit of this..."

Charlotte was almost talking to herself as she took up the scarce supply of makeup she'd brought along. She usually favoured dark, dramatic shades that suited Clara's dark colouring as well as her own pale splendour. Looking at Clara's face analytically as though it were a canvas, she began to paint expertly over the shadowed, swollen tissues of Clara's eyelids.

Clara screwed her face up in mock-protest. "You think a little slap's going to solve anything?"

"Always does," Charlotte said calmly. "Besides, you're not about to pull looking like that."

Clara didn't bother to ask what this was about. Charlotte was a mysterious creature, even to her, and she was more worried about the slight, deep-seated itch that she'd had since blowing her nose, lodged firmly in her nasal passages, which didn't seem to be leaving her.
Clara was doing her best to control the tickle in her nose when, inhaling a great blast of Charlotte's strong perfume, her large, extremely sensitive nose started itching like crazy.

"How come you got so drunk, anyway?"

Clara tried her best to keep her face still as Charlotte applied dark matt powder to her eyelids, even though the sneezy feelings in her nose tortured her unmercifully.

"I was just mixing with medication, that's all. Disgusting. Don't try it."

"What kind of medication?"

"Just aspirin." Clara sniffed. "Have I ever taken anything stronger? I just had a bit of a headache."

She swallowed hard, and tried sniffing as quietly as she could to stop the itch in her nose from coming to its usual explosive fruition. Clara's dark eyes blinked rapidly and her nostrils began flaring and quivering as she concentrated harder and harder on holding back the sneeze.

Charlotte noticed, of course, and cursed inwardly as she felt herself beginning to get uncontrollably excited. There was nothing she loved better than watching Clara trying to hold back a sneeze- during meetings, she often checked to see if her friend was suffering from the dust in the room, and on the few occasions when she had been Charlotte had always made the most of it, although Clara had recently started playing her own game by kicking her shoe off under the table and sliding her ankle into Charlotte's lap. Even when it made the meetings slightly difficult, Charlotte generally didn't complain.

"You okay, honey?" Charlotte asked, trying hard to sound light and unconcerned. Clara nodded rather too definitely as Charlotte uncapped her richest, darkest lipstick, and took out a delicate little makeup brush. "Open wide."

Clara obeyed, her head tilting back and her mouth stretching to receive its paint, but she was still struggling with the sneeze- her strong dark eyebrows arced dramatically up her forehead as she took deep, gasping breaths. Clara's beautiful face contorted a little, as though at a momentary irritation, and Charlotte tried to keep the brush steady against her receptive, lightly quivering mouth as she watched Clara's nostrils widen. Charlotte's fingertip smoothed the edge of her sharply cut lower lip, tickling ever-so-lightly, and Clara eyes squeezed tightly shut, nostrils flared to enormous black circles, as Charlotte, torturously slowly, painted her lips to perfection. As she finished the job, Clara made a more definite face, distant-looking, eyes slightly glazed. A quick pulse of the nostrils, a short wet sniff, and then the most delicate suggestion of a frown settled softly over her strong features.

"I don't..." Clara paused for a moment, her nose twitching a little, "think I really want to pull tonight. I just want to get drunk."

"You're already bloody drunk. You stink of Captain Morgan. If I threw a match at you, you'd fucking explode. Who did you spend the evening with? It wasn't Leo- he'd never let you drink that."

"Maggie." Clara blinked, leaving behind light crescents of water, which shone in her dark eyes. "Why the hell would I have been with Leo? It's Friday night, isn't it? He's out with Alexander and the rest of the boys, of course."

Her nostrils arched more definitely, and her eyelids tensed and fell, though she struggled to keep them open. "I'm tragic. I'm a twenty-nine-year-old single bisexual living with a man who happens to be cosily married to another man. I'm fucking sitcom material. And I..." She rolled her eyes upwards, giving it up. "I'm going to sneeze."

Charlotte kissed her lightly on the forehead, moving back a little. "Go for it, sweetness."

Clara, turning all her attention to the matter at hand, took in soft little breaths, which graduated to deep, dramatic ones, flaring her nostrils, making her upper lip arch dangerously across the top row of her white teeth.

"Ah...aaahhhh... heaaaaAAAhHH..HAAAA-ISSSHOOOO!"

Knowing how much Charlotte loved to see her sneeze, Clara didn't cover her nose, although she nearly always did when she felt a sneeze coming- most people were disturbed enough by the volume of her explosions, but the sheer velocity and power of them could sometimes be held in temporary check.

Not now, though. She expelled the great, bellowing sneeze with every expression of relief and satisfaction, the intense follow-through rushing gracelessly out of her nose and mouth at once, enveloping her face momentarily in a fluorescent-lit halo of spray beneath the arc lights.

"Bless you, honey," Charlotte said tenderly, offering the sniffling Clara another Kleenex. "Better?"

Clara nodded. "Damn, that was a relief! Charlotte, being around you is the only time I ever enjoy this."

"It's reciprocal, believe me."

"Not just that, but..." Clara shrugged her delicate shoulders in their heavy suit-jacket. "I hate having to hold them back, that's all. Reminds me of being a kid in school. I had this absolutely torturous meeting this morning with some woman who was wearing enough perfume to knock people out at ten paces."

Charlotte smiled. "I know. I heard you in the bathroom afterwards."

Clara's brows arched. "And you didn't come in?"

"I was with Ruth. We went out to Norwegian Blue for lunch."

Clara sniffled. "You two are sickening, you know that?"

"I know."

Clara, her exotic beauty enhanced by a coat of dark red lipstick and alluring strokes of dark eye shadow, looked at herself in the mirror, then made a face as she felt another tickle in her nose- a far more urgent one. "Ah... ahaaahAHISSSSHHHOOO! HA-ISHOOO!" Holding her hands over her nose, bending over in a state of pure relief, she stopped for a breath, but her nose was still burning and, "Ah...ASSHOO! AAH- AH-ISSHHOOO! ... fuck..." she sniffed.

"Better?" Charlotte inquired, raising a perfectly defined eyebrow. "As much as I loved that, Clara, you're going to ruin your mascara."

Clara gave a sigh of relief and contentment. "You," she breathed, "are a godsend. If you weren't already married to Ruth, I just might decide to lock you up inside my flat and keep your magic fingers all to myself. They seem to have many uses, besides just..."

Clara's eyes sparkled with mischief for the first time that evening as she trailed off.

"We're not married," Charlotte growled playfully. The commitment jokes about her and Ruth were really starting to really get to her, even though she tried not to show it. "So honey, do you feel ready to come out, face the world, and completely forget about Tom?"

Clara's eyes clouded over again, but Charlotte didn't give her the chance to feel sad- she grabbed her wrist, pulling her out into the restaurant.

2. So What Does "I Love You," Mean?

There were still a few pappadums left on the table when Charlotte and Clara returned, but the food they had ordered before Clara's arrival thankfully still hadn't arrived. Two new wine bottles were ostentatiously planted in the middle of the table, and a new glass had been brought and poured for Clara.

Clara gave her friends a genuine, if slightly watery, smile. Everyone's good cheer seemed a bit forced, as all of them sensed something was not quite right with Clara. She looked fresh and beautiful, but there was an uncharacteristic fragility in the way she held herself up, her head seeming oddly heavy on her slim neck as she struggled out of her jacket.

Not really thinking about it, Charlotte helped her. Like a mother, she eased the heavy jacket from Clara's shoulders and hung it neatly over the back of her chair, giving her friend's shoulder a comforting little pat. Ruth sighed quietly and snapped a pappadum in half.

Gemma, who was a relative newcomer to their group and trainee in Clara's department at E-Motion Music, asked, "Are you all right, darling?"

Clara pretended to scowl. "You're not meant to see me like this, you know."

"Are you all right, Ms. Johnson, then, for fuck's sake."

Charlotte stepped in, protectively, putting her arm around Clara. "She's fine, you gossip queens. Since you'll all die if you don't get the full story right now, Clara's just been dumped."

"Oh, no," Ruth cried (meaning it). "How long were you dating him again, Clara?"

"Two months."

Charlotte was into this now. "Yeah, it was just a thing she's finally got over-the guy was promising her the moon and finally took to his heels. So as of right now, she's over him, he's a jerk, and we're not even going to talk about him. And Clara's going to have a great time tonight, and she gets pulling priority over all of us, so if we see anyone really fit, he- or she- is hers."

Gemma grinned. "Yes, ma'am."

"Right," Ruth chirped, putting a possessive arm around Charlotte's shoulders. The position was awkward, but the look Ruth gave Charlotte was unmistakable.

Charlotte casually ignored it and picked up her wine glass, taking a sip of the dry red liquid within.

"I'm sorry," Gemma said to Clara, smiling tentatively. "But I have to say I'm glad I'm not in a serious relationship. Too much trouble. At least, I'm woman enough to know what I want, and I don't have to break people's hearts to get it."

"Yeah, right," Charlotte countered, giving her a knowing, sly grin. "'I don't want a serious relationship' means 'sex and no consequences' and you know that only too well."

"And you'd know all about that, wouldn't you?" Ruth replied archly, her tone impenetrably neutral.

"I know it's a tired line, but all men are bastards," Clara butted in, amazingly cool. "Charlotte's right; this time, I'm looking for a girl. I'm sick of guys telling me they love me, when all the time they're giving me what they think I want to hear. From now on, 'being with someone long-term' means 'the foreseeable future'. I'm not falling into the trap of believing and trusting someone when all they're doing is trying to deceive me and feeding me bullshit. Has anyone got a cigarette?"

"And the next time someone says, 'we'll always be together'," Charlotte said coolly, lighting a cigarette for Clara, "keep in mind that they just might be saying that because they're too scared to split up, and that they only suggest moving in together because they think that's what you want. They're often thinking you'll probably split soon anyway, so what's the harm."
Ruth wisely chose not to answer but only stared at Charlotte, her lips pressing tighter and tighter together.

"Open," Charlotte said quietly- seductively- and gently placed the burning cigarette between Clara's lips. Gemma, feeling Ruth tense against her, wondered what Freud would have said about that particular action.

Ruth, with studied composure, took her arm away from her girlfriend's shoulders and picked up her own wine glass, which was filled with pale, delicate Chardonnay that contrasted with the dark, bloody red in Charlotte's glass.

The two lovers were just as different as their drinks. Charlotte was all dark flowing locks, strong bones, curves and overflowing, slightly dangerous sensuality. Ruth was blond, slightly paler, and more delicate, ultra-feminine and soft-spoken. They were both infused with their own brand of beauty, often making other girls jealous of their supposed 'wedded bliss' every time they went out clubbing together, thinking about what they, as outsiders, were missing out on.

"I ordered for you, by the way," Charlotte told Clara, who was sitting with her cheek resting against her hand, looking tired and still miserable in spite of her exuberant makeup. "It's chicken bangalore phall, right?"

Clara nodded, a smile lighting her face for a brief moment. "Perfect. Thanks. But I'm not all that hungry."

Gemma, her agony-aunt tendencies kicking in with the strength of a vodka shooter, reached across the table and took Clara's hand.

"You're sweet to be concerned. All of you. I'm not upset, I just don't have much of an appetite."

"She eats like a fucking bird," Charlotte informed the table. "And it's not even real food. When I tell her to eat she eats chocolate bars and bags of bloody popcorn and that's about it. No wonder you're so skinny," she told her friend. "It can't be good for you."

Ruth rolled her gorgeous green eyes. "Well, start taking CARE packages of chicken soup into work with you, then. Jesus, Char, sometimes you are such a Jewish mother-"

She broke off suddenly, her finely sculptured face transforming into a mask of discomfort in a matter of seconds, scrunching up strongly and suddenly. Her eyelids fell quickly as unrolling window shades, her hand waved gracefully in front of her nose, and she whispered in Charlotte's ear in a tight, constricted voice, "Char...have you got a tissue? My... my nose is really- tickling- I... Ihhh....aah- aaahhtissshooo!"

It was a wonderfully delicate little sneeze, Clara thought, unable to help feeling slightly envious. It hardly seemed fair, for Ruth to sneeze like a Disney-cartoon princess and have a life almost completely free of allergies, colds and any kind of random tickles, and for Clara to have a sneeze that could shatter the sound barrier and an annoying tendency to catch every hothoused office bug in existence.

"Hey, bless you, Ruth," Gemma said, sounding concerned.

"Thanks." Ruth sniffled helplessly, one gorgeously manicured fingertip beneath her slightly damp nostrils to prevent the impending sneezes that showed in the slightly unfocused stare of her big green eyes. "I just don't know what's getting up my nose tonight! I'm so sneezy."

As if to prove the truth of this, in her customary, efficient style, she pressed her fingers to her nose and, bending over slightly, let out two more urgent-sounding yet polite sneezes- both, Clara observed wonderingly, actually sounding like written down, comic-book "achoo"s.

"Are you all right, honey?" Charlotte purred, finally taking a tissue from her evening bag.

Clara wondered- knowing she shouldn't, really- whether Charlotte enjoyed Ruth's tiny, perfectly formed sneezes more than her own great, messily spraying ones. She seemed to; for the first time that night, Ruth had Charlotte's undivided attention. Charlotte folded the tissue up into a soft pad and lightly brushed it against Ruth's nose, soaking up the light mist of wetness at her nostrils. Ruth would have ordinarily protested at such a strange public display of intimacy, but she was staring into Charlotte's eyes, seeing the desire there and loving it, before her face was contorted by another sneeze, a wet and less self-conscious, "Ahhh.... tissshhoooo!" which she discharged into the tissue that Charlotte held.

Charlotte, reluctantly tearing her eyes away from Ruth's, bestowed a sweet, "Bless you, darling," on her lover, and tenderly wiped her nose again.

"There's a dreadful cold going around at work," Charlotte said, taking a much-needed sip of her wine. "I think maybe I gave mine to you, honey."

Ruth flushed deeply, remembering the circumstances that had originally led to the scratchiness in her throat and tickles in her nose. Clara, remembering how she'd given the cold to Charlotte in the first place, also felt hot blood rising into her face as she grinned at Charlotte.

Charlotte shot her a "don't you dare," look.

Then- with absolutely dreadful timing- Clara felt a sneeze brewing in her own nose. She knew that thinking about Ruth's sneezes had been a bad idea, and knew that she absolutely couldn't give in to the urge that seized her nostrils. Charlotte was looking overheated enough already. She struggled with the slowly, inexorably building sneeze, but Charlotte only had eyes for Ruth.

Charlotte's passion flared up yet another notch as she cupped her lover's wrist in her fingers. "Mm. Bit of a temperature." She kissed Ruth's ear. "Poor baby. Do you want to go home early tonight?"

Ruth shook her head. "I feel fine... I just got a tickle in my nose, that's all. Anyway, I thought we were trying to find someone for Clara tonight."

Charlotte, beneath the ruched pink swags of the tablecloth, reached down and gently ran her hand beneath the hem of Ruth's gold embroidered skirt. "Well, just tell me if you do feel like you'd be better off in bed," she said quietly, her blue eyes boring into Ruth's with the intensity of a pure bolt of light.

Clara gave an unexpectedly wet sniff, attracting the attention of Gemma, who, seeing Clara's stretched-looking face and quivering mouth, worried that she was about to start crying.

"Are you all right?" she whispered softly into Clara's ear.

Clara nodded frantically. "Fine." Convulsively, she sniffed, the sensation in her nose yielding from ticklish to burning as wetness threatened to flood her nasal passages.

"You don't look it."

Clara's poor reddened nostrils twitched outwards just a fraction.

She gave another wet, experimental sniff. "It's all right. I'm over him already."

"Are you sure? I mean, I know it was only two months, but..."

Clara rubbed her large, eloquent nose, which had started to twitch uncontrollably. "It's good, I've got something sorted out. I'm through with men."

"So you're going for women now?" Pretending she wasn't really interested, Gemma reached for the last pappadum and bit into it.

Clara nodded, sniffling and feeling her throat closing slowly up. "Mm."

"Seen anyone you like here tonight, anyway?" Charlotte asked, turning to her. "Someone I should be chatting up for you?" She took Clara's hand in hers, squeezing it gently.Clara shook her head, fighting as hard as she could not to sneeze all over Charlotte.

She blinked, leaving behind light crescents of water, which shone in her dark eyes as they scanned the room. "No, I..." her nostrils arched more definitely, her eyelids tensed and fell a little. "Not really." Her breath was starting to hitch, and every second built the sneeze, making her eyes swim with irritated tears.

"Sure?" Gemma asked. "I've seen some talent."

Clara sniffled wetly, almost losing her iron control- as the tickle developed, her nostrils flared immensely for a fraction of a second and a slight hitch in her breath caused her chest, beautifully displayed by her low-cut orange silk vest, to heave slowly. Her hand in Charlotte's twitched slightly, as if resisting an involuntary mental message to move to her nose and alleviate its tickle.

"How about that one in the black lace dress?" Charlotte asked her.

"Her eyes set are a bit close together but she's pretty good-looking, otherwise."

"I-" Clara's hand twitched again, more urgently. She wrinkled her nose up like a child, her body positively vibrating with the need for release as the urge to sneeze reached crisis point.

"No," Gemma said to Charlotte, "that brunette in the cheongsam, with the red flowers- now she's a fox, isn't she?"

Clara lost it.

Her streaming eyes squeezed tightly shut, the skin around her eyes and nose screwing up into a crazed mass of wrinkles, her mouth slowly opening as though it were on a hinge. Clara's head reared back, her whole face distorted in readiness for the blast, upper lip tensing involuntarily, nostrils hugely receptive, her breaths high and tightening,

"haahhh... hahhhh..."

Charlotte licked her dry lips.


Conversation at the table stopped. Gemma's hand stilled on its way to the wine bottle. Charlotte froze with her eyes on Clara's face and Ruth stared coldly at both of them.

Even Clara, eyes slitted and nose seizing up for another explosion, was aware of the icy vibes that Ruth was sending in her direction, but at that point all she cared about was sneezing until she didn't have to sneeze any more.

And she did.

It was a truly impressive display, even by Clara's standards. The sneezes, all the more violent from being dammed back, exploded out of her until the tickle began to ease, by which time her eyes and nose were streaming dramatically and she was practically gasping for breath.

With one outspread hand, Clara caught most of the wetness her sneezes produced. The other was already held out mutely to Charlotte, who deposited a wad of tissues in her palm, avoiding Clara's damp dark eyes and wondering if she was in heaven or hell.

"Well," Ruth said, her voice chilly, "what can I say but 'bless you?'"

Clara nodded curtly in her direction, a wheezing, watery-eyed wreck, trying to regain some of her dignity. She looked around the table, taking in a few interested diners in her glance. Excuse me.

"This cold really is doing the rounds," Gemma said. "I hope you haven't given it to me, Clara."

"It's not a cold," Clara protested. "My nose is just a bit tickly. You know what I'm like around curry."

"Oh God..." Ruth sighed. "I'd forgotten that."

"Speaking of which," Charlotte swallowed hard, looking around her, "Where the hell is that food?"

3- The Love Thing

The extra-long remix of "Body Groove" finished and Gemma, wiping sweat from her forehead, made her way into the chill-out room where the music was slow, celestial- Moby's "Porcelain".

The gorgeous young woman let out a satisfied sigh of exertion as she threw herself down next to Ruth at one of the corner tables in the almost-deserted room, running both hands through her feathery black locks. "Damn, I needed that!"

The other woman looked up, her beautifully sculpted features flashing white in a burst of light from the dance floor, and tried a smile, but the light's momentary search into this otherwise carefully chosen dark corner illuminated the fought-back beginnings of tears which trembled in her eyes, blurring, distorting and threatening to spill.

The room was full of couples- men together, women together, men and women, all sensual knots of flesh. Ruth was the only one alone.

"You all right, sweetheart?" Gemma asked, so softly she wondered if Ruth had heard.

Ruth sniffed heavily- her tiredness and misery had caused the slight runny nose she'd had all day to kick right back in. "I'm fine. Why wouldn't I be?"

"You sound a bit sniffly. Here-" Gemma reached for a tissue in her bag, and offered it to Ruth, who dabbed her eyes, blew her nose with surprising abandon and nodded her thanks.

"Where's the other two?"

"Clara's throwing up. She never could handle hard liquor. Charlotte's in there with her."

"Why?" Gemma asked, and immediately wished that she hadn't.

Ruth smiled tightly. "Making her feel better, I suppose."

Gemma- before she knew what she was doing- gently cupped her warm hand around Ruth's delicate wrist, feeling the icy links of her silver bracelet over Ruth's chilled flesh.

"Hey," she whispered. "What is it? You know, for the best-looking woman here, you don't seem to be enjoying yourself."

Ruth sniffed hard. "You recognised Charlotte," she said so softly that Gemma had to lean in to hear, "the minute you saw her. I'm right?" She shrugged lightly upwards in a gesture that Gemma had noticed Charlotte doing on the occasions she'd seen her before.

"Yeah, well I did just start working for her this week. And before that, we went to a lot of the same events, I sometimes saw her in Sarasota's at lunch... why?"

Ruth smiled humourlessly. "You think I don't know what she's like? In case you can't tell me apart from all the other women you've seen her 'doing lunch' with, I am actually married to her. We've got a bloody mortgage and two cats, not that you'd know to look at us."

Gemma tried not to react, but her dark blue eyes widened in the club's UV light.

"I know." Ruth said frankly. She let out a deep sigh. The two women had moved closer during this talk, and were now side by side on the dark corner banquette, the warmth of their arms and thighs touching.

"Have you got a cigarette on you? I'm dying here."

Respectfully, Gemma produced a pack of Marlboro Lights, "These all right?" and lit Ruth's cigarette humbly, already in awe of this amazing little woman who seemed to have tamed Charlotte Katz. Well, almost tamed her.


"Feeling better?" Charlotte called, staring at herself in the mirror as she finished off outlining her plushy lips, making them even more ridiculously full-seeming than usual.

She heard Clara swallow hard from inside the toilet stall, and then the sound of a protracted flush. "I think that's it."

"Right, sweetheart, let's have a look at you then."

Businesslike, Charlotte soaked a wad of paper towels in chilly water from the drinking fountain, and opened the door to the stall, which hadn't been locked in Clara's haste to get inside. Her friend stood up shakily, clutching the side of the stall, one hand scrubbing her forehead as she swayed dizzily, trying to remain upright.

Charlotte put the seat of the toilet down. "Sit."

"Thanks," Clara muttered, her legs giving way as she landed heavily on the toilet seat. She hiccupped once and gave a soft groan, gulping as though she had been crying.

Charlotte placed surprisingly capable fingers beneath Clara's trembling chin, lifted her tired face, and wiped the cool damp towels gently over its impressively beautiful contours. Clara took quick, shallow gulps of air, trying to catch her breath.

"That looked really good, didn't it?"

"There now," Charlotte said soothingly as she bathed Clara's face. "You were fine. And who are you trying to impress, anyway? Gemma?

Clara shook her head. "Nah... she's nice enough, but..." she shrugged.

"But nothing- she's absolutely gorgeous!"

"Ohhh." A ghost of Clara's usual wryness returned to her eyes.

"Sorry, I hadn't realised you'd stuck your flag in her yet. Or anything else, for that matter."

"I haven't! She's not even a previous conquest."

"Not even one of your lunchtimes?"

"Hardly remember seeing her. I'm with Ruth, remember?"

"Never stopped you before."


Ruth took a drag on Gemma's cigarette and her exhale was a sigh of pure relief, although the smoke got up her nose and tickled its sensitive membranes unbearably. After a long, tiring week fighting off the latest cold-virus mutation Charlotte had brought home with her, Ruth realised that even if she couldn't bear the idea of sneezing in front of this beautiful woman, composed even during this torturous conversation, then the reality was still inevitable.

Ruth's expressive face screwed up tightly and contorted into a dramatic grimace, eyes squeezed to agonised slits, soft eyebrows raising, nostrils flared hugely. Then she relaxed, her green, watery eyes looking upwards as she took a deep, gusty breath... "Ah-aaah-ahhhh...AHTISSHHOOOO!"

A thick, wet spray, visible in a sudden burst of yellow light from the floor, jetted from her nose and mouth. Gemma swallowed hard, unable to help enjoying the tremendous spectacle that Ruth had just given her, in spite of everything. She smiled sympathetically at Ruth and calmly offered a "Bless you," so sweet that Ruth looked up in surprise.

"Sorry about that," she said, her voice sounding thick and snuffly. "I really do think I'm getting a cold. You know that first day when you realise you're coming down with something 'cause you can't stop sneezing?"

She rubbed her nose, which was scrunching and twitching still, giving her the look of an agitated child, her immense green eyes widening and watering beneath the soft golden fronds of her hair, makeup-free face seizing and trembling as she battled the tickle in her nose, trying valiantly not to let it turn into another full-blown explosion.

Gemma watched Ruth rub her nose lightly with her index finger, listened to the soft sniffles that punctuated her words as the hitches and gasps of the inevitable sneeze took her over.

"Please....ehhhh...excuse me..." Ruth scrambled out, holding a long finger beneath her flaring nostrils.

Gemma calmly carried on watching her, poker-faced, although not a single detail of Ruth s agony escaped her- particularly not the delicate hitches of Ruth's flawlessly formed, unsupported breasts, nipples drawing up and hardening like tiny walnuts beneath the chilly blue silk of her vest. "Haahh... AHHH... AhhhHAHSHOOOO!"

She smiled up at Gemma. "Damn. Sorry. That was such a relief! You don't have any more tissues, do you?"

Gemma nodded, offering her a wad from her handbag. Ruth reached for a tissue and gave her nose another long, unrestrained blow. Gemma pressed her fingers to her mouth reflexively, feeling the ominous twisting sensation in her crotch that she knew precluded the heaviness, the slow growth of wetness- she knew that if Ruth blew like that one more time, she'd get wet for sure.

Ruth had the luminous beauty of a seventeen-year-old, but was obviously fully aware of her power. Knowing that her attraction to the kind of women who used their sexuality as a weapon had got her into the situation she was in now, Gemma restrained herself, though she couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to plant her lips on Ruth's... and what Charlotte would say when she saw them. She sighed. Everything came back to Charlotte.

"Most of the stories aren't true," Ruth said calmly, and then looked harder at Gemma, who was trying her damnedest not to appear cynical.

"I said 'most'. I'm not stupid." Ruth looked towards the bathroom and said, with a fragile chill in her voice, "This one is."


Clara staggered out of the toilet stall and fellated the drinking fountain. She stood up, wiping her mouth and cursing at her haggard reflection in the mirror. Charlotte leant back against the sink and gently placed a warm, maternal hand in the small of Clara's fragile back.

"You sure you're OK, sugar pie?"

Clara stared blearily at Charlotte as she felt a sudden twinge in her nose, which exploded in an enormous, throaty, wet sneeze before she could bring her hand up to stop it, or even warn Charlotte that it was coming.

"Sweetheart," Charlotte purred, her pleasure obvious. "What was that?"

Clara shot daggers at her. "A bonus?"

"Damn." Charlotte pushed herself up and sat on the sinks like a teenager at school, grinning. "A little sharp tonight, aren't we?"

She reached in her embroidered black velvet shoulder bag and extended a handful of Kleenex. "Might I suggest a tissue, though... all that snot kind of detracts from your rapier wit, you know."

Clara, jacking up her glare to full strength, accepted the tissues and blew her nose vehemently. The pressure seemed to trigger a tickle, though, and she sneezed with a muffled sound into the wet tissues.

"Bless you," Charlotte said tenderly, and smiled. In college, Clara had caught just about every virus possible- she smoked too much, her diet was terrible, and she overworked, even then. Ruth had once remarked that Clara caught cold if someone sneezed three miles away, and Charlotte had to look after her every time she was ill. Still, if you love someone...

Affectionately, she touched Clara's forehead, and shook her head disapprovingly. "You're burning up! Another office bug, darling?"

Clara shook her head. "No... it's just a slight... hahhhh... ha slight- tickle-" She inhaled unsteadily, her eyes squeezed shut, and she sneezed convulsively with a wet, congested sound and a fine spray from her nose and mouth, jerking her head down. "ahhh... ahhh... AAhhhh... AHHH... AHHH-ASHOOOO! Oh my God, what a- ah- ahh- aahh- aaahhhh- AHHH- AAASSHHOOO! Uhh... there's one more...I can...I can feel it coming...HAAAH- HASHIOOOOOOO!"

The follow-through on the sneezes bent her double, causing tears to stream down her cheeks and ruining the last of her exotic eye makeup. Clara's strong body in its sophisticated outfit sagged, her capable posture collapsed as she miserably rubbed her nose, trying desperately to get rid of its tickle.

She looked up, watery-eyed, at Charlotte. "Oh all right, it's a fucking cold, then. Talk about particular. I know it's only because you want to go home and write it in your journal... well, I'm glad that my feeling like shit gives someone pleasure."

Clara suddenly sneezed again, so violently that the force of her sneeze thrust her head and shoulders forward, bending her comically at the waist. "HEAAAATSCHHOOOO!" Her cupped hands followed her head, catching the sneeze as it left her nostrils. Droplets of spray escaped
through the gaps between her fingers.

Charlotte swallowed hard. "Bless you."

Clara smiled wanly back at her, and then, as if it were an accident, their lips collided clumsily.

They stood there in the toilets of Paradise, kissing, both wondering why this was the only thing tonight which had felt exactly as it should.


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