Chapter 24

Seth had chided me for being late, but with five daughters, the Mortensens were always running late. So no one, except Seth, really paid much attention to my tardiness.

Likewise, with so much chaos, no one really noticed that he and I didn't talk much. The girls spoke more than enough for all of us, and I took some comfort in their presence. As always, they couldn't get enough of me, crawling all over me and tugging at my sleeve to make sure they had my undivided attention. I enjoyed it all in a bittersweet sort of way. Convinced Seth and I were on the verge of a break-up, I mostly kept thinking that this would be the last time I would hang out with this wonderful family.

Andrea provided us with an equally distracting birthday/Thanksgiving meal. Terry and Seth had helped her, it turned out, but I still marveled that they had pulled it off while still managing the little ones. I said as much to Andrea.

"Parenthood makes you the ultimate multitasker," she informed me. "You'll see what I mean when you have kids."


I smiled back politely, not bothering to tell her there'd be no kids for me.


"Besides," Terry said with a grin, "we understand you're already sort of a superwoman. Seth was telling us about some crazy shindig you threw together at the bookstore?"


"Uncle Seth said it was cool," added Brandy.

"It was a fest," I corrected, glancing at Seth in surprise. I couldn't figure out at all what his feelings were for me. He'd invited me over and had apparently been singing my praises. None of that jibed with the fallout I expected from the Bastien incident, nor his initial stunned reaction to it.

Seth opened presents after dinner, the bulk of which were books and more contributions to his wacky T-shirt collection.


"Where's your present?" Kendall asked me. "I left it at home."


We all hung out and talked after that, my apprehension mounting as I wondered where this evening would lead. When the party finally disbanded, Seth asked me if I wanted to go somewhere.


I took a deep breath. It was now or never. "Let's go to my place."

Once back there, we stationed ourselves on my couch—at a proper distance—and talked about everything except our relationship. I told him about my new position and got his congratulations. He told me about some interesting fan comments he'd received at the signing. When this had gone on for nearly thirty minutes, I couldn't take it any more.

"Seth, what's going on?" I demanded. "With us."


He leaned his head back against the couch. "I wondered when we'd get to this. Can't avoid it any longer, huh?"


"Well, yeah. This is a big deal. This isn't like a dispute over where to go for dinner…this is us. Our future. I mean, I…you know. You know what I did."

"I do." He studied my ceiling for a moment, then turned his amber brown eyes on me. In that moment, I almost understood why he always seemed to be staring somewhere else. When he turned his eyes directly on you, it was a hard and powerful thing. They were electric. "Aren't I allowed to forgive you?"

"Er…no. Well, I don't know."

This conversation echoed the one I'd had with Bastien earlier.He had said the same thing, and after weighing everything, I'd decided it wasn't worth being mad at him. Was it so easy to forgive the ones you loved?

"I won't lie, Thetis, it hurt. It still does. But, in some ways…well, it's only one step away from what you normally do."


"A big step."


He laughed. "Whose side are you on? Are you trying to turn me against you?"


"I'm just trying to make sure you stand up for yourself."


"You're always worried about that. Don't worry. I'm not a complete doormat."


"I didn't mean that. I just…I don't know. I'm not very good at this dating thing."

"I know that. Neither am I. I've done plenty of stupid things in my past relationships. I deserve a few karmic turnabouts. Of course, that doesn't mean I want this to become an ongoing thing, but one mistake…one mistake I can forgive. If I haven't had much practice dating, you've got to be even worse after, what, how many years of casual, uh, flings?"

"A lot," I replied vaguely. For some reason, I was reluctant to tell Seth my age. He picked up on that, his eyes narrowing ruefully. "And right there. That's another thing. Almost worse than what happened. You're doing it again."

"Doing what?"

"You don't tell me things. Things about you. It's like you're afraid to show me who you are. But like I said, that's what love is. You open yourself up. I want to know you. I want to know everything about you. Sometimes I feel like no matter how strongly I feel about you…I still don't know you at all."

"I'm not very good at that part either," I said softly.

Seth pulled me into an embrace, crushing me against him. There was a fierceness in that motion, an unflinching sense of possession that stirred my blood. "You're my world right now, Georgina, but I can't go on with this…not if there's no honesty."

His tone was gentle and loving, but I heard the warning between the lines. I'd had my fuckup. The next time, I would not get such amnesty.

This terrified me a little, yet I was proud of him and realized I had a lot more to learn about him too. He had every right to be laying down the law. He was not a doormat. I regretted my mistakes, and while I was glad to be forgiven this time, I didn't want Seth to waste his life on me if I couldn't ever treat him right.

My young French lover,Etienne,had never recovered. I'd learned years later that he'd broken his engagement, staying forever single. He'd thrown himself into his painting, earning a small following. Several portraits of me—as a blond Josephine—still hung in private European collections.

Etiennehad not been able to get me out of his system, and it had made a mess of him. I wanted things to work with Seth so badly. I wanted us to be together and be happy for as long as we could manage it. But if we couldn't, I didn't want him to waste his life on me as that young painter had.

"I love you," I murmured into Seth's shoulder, astonished when the words just slipped out. And I realized then just how much I meant them. He inhaled deeply and held me even tighter, and I felt the love pouring off of him, even with no spoken declaration. "I'm pretty sure I don't deserve you."

"Oh, my Thetis, you deserve a lot of things. And honestly"—he shifted around and studied me—"as much as it hurts…I'm sort of glad that you, you know, had that chance with Bastien."


I frowned. "That chance to be with a copy of you?"

"Well, no. That's still kind of weird. I mean the chance to have sex and, well, enjoy it. Every time I think about what you do on a regular basis…" He closed his eyes a moment. "I just envision you being raped over and over. And I hate it. It makes me sick. I'm glad you were with someone you cared about…even if it wasn't me. You deserve to have good sex for a change."

"You do too," I said, overwhelmed by Seth's nonstop selflessness. "And you know…if you ever wanted to find someone and just, well, have sex for the fun of it…well, you could. You know, just to fulfill the physical need. I wouldn't mind." I didn't think I would, at least. I uneasily recalled my slight jealousy over his correspondence with Maddie.

He looked at me seriously. "I don't have sex just to fulfill a need. Not if I can help it. Sex may not be a requisite part of love, but it is an expression of love. It should at least be with someone you care about."


The answer didn't surprise me. In fact, it suddenly reminded me of something. "Hey, I've got something for you."

Despite our dire romantic status, I had nonetheless chosen twenty of the best pictures Bastien had taken of me and had Hugh print them this week. I hadn't known until now that I'd actually be able to give them to Seth. I found them in my bedroom, bound with a pink ribbon.

"Your birthday present." I started to hand the pictures over.

"Wait," he said. He opened up the messenger bag he carried his laptop around in. A moment later, he offered me several sheets of paper. I gave him the pictures. We sat in silence, each of us studying our respective offerings.

For half a second, I thought he was sharing a manuscript after all. A few lines into it, I realized it was addressed to me. It was the writing he'd promised me a while back. The detailed exposition of all the things he wished we could do.

Reading it, I sort of lost track of the world around me. What he'd written was exquisite. Some of it was like poetry. A beautifully crafted ode to my beauty and my body and my personality that made my heart swell. Other parts were brazenly explicit. Hot and steamy. They made O'Neill and Genevieve's elevator look like a kindergarten classroom. I could feel the blood rushing to my cheeks as I read.

When I finished, I looked up at him breathlessly. He was watching me, as the pictures had taken less time to peruse.

"I take it all back," he told me, holding up one of the shots. It showed me sitting crosswise in a chair, naked. My legs draped over the edge lazily, showing a nice view of my pink painted toenails. A hardbound copy of one of Seth's books sat on my lap. "Sex might be a requisite part of love after all."

I glanced down at the manifesto. "Yeah. It just might be."


We sat there a moment, then burst out laughing. He rubbed his eyes. "Thetis," he said wearily, "what are we going to do with ourselves?"


"I don't know. Do the pictures just make things worse?"


"No. They're wonderful. Thank you. They're a good way of having you…even if I can't have the real thing."

An idea slowly coalesced in my mind. The pictures just involved looking. Looking was safe. And one didn't just have to look at a two-dimensional image. "Maybe…maybe you can have the real thing." He gave me a quizzical look, and I hastily amended: "In a hands-off way. Come on."

"This seems dangerous," he said when I led him to the bedroom.


Sunset was filling the room with mood lighting. I pointed to a chair in the corner. "Sit there."


I moved to the opposite corner, hoping it was enough space. "What are you— Oh." He bit off his words, swallowing. "Oh."

I slid my hands slowly up over my hips and breasts, over to the top button of my blouse. Slowly, deliberately, I unfastened the button. Then, just as carefully, I moved down to the next button. And the next. Then I unbound my hair, letting it fall messily over my shoulders.

A striptease is all about letting go of self-consciousness. And it's about pacing too, I supposed. Admittedly, doing a show in front of Seth, whom I loved, moved into a realm I felt a little unfamiliar with. Nervous energy twitched inside me, but I didn't show it on the outside. I was on the stage, and I moved through my steps with sultry confidence, watching my own hands sometimes and making eye contact with him at others. This was part of my gift to him. He obviously liked seeing my body, even if, for the moment, he watched like one frozen, eyes wide and face carefully controlled.

The blouse eventually fell to the floor, followed by the skirt. I'd had bare legs earlier today but had covertly shape-shifted on thigh-highs while we walked to the bedroom. Left only in those and a cherry-red bra and panty set made of satin, I languidly moved my body in smooth and alluring ways as I played with edges and straps.

The stockings came off next, each one rolled down with delicate motions that let my hands slide against my own skin. Left in almost nothing, I savored the shining satin, trailing my fingertips over the bra and panty's surfaces. At last they peeled off too, and I was left in only my skin, left fully exposed and with a surprising heat burning in my lower body. I had turned myself on as much as him.

I stood there a moment, like I was taking in applause before an audience, then started to walk across the room.


"No," he said, voice thick and husky. His fingers dug into the chair's arms. "You'd better not get too close."


I stopped, laughing softly. "You don't strike me as the assaulting type, Mortensen."


"Yeah, well, there's a first time for everything."


"So you liked?"


"Very much." His eyes were drinking me in, ravenous and needful. "That was the best thing I've ever seen."

Pleased, I stretched out my muscles, holding my arms over my head a moment before exhaling and letting my hands fall. As they did, I ran them down over my breasts and thighs in a careless gesture I didn't really even think about. Yet, as I did it, I saw his posture stiffen slightly and that fire in his eyes flare up.

A slow, dangerous smile spread over my face.


"What?" he asked.


"I don't think the show's over yet."


I sat back on the bed, then slid myself up so I was propped up against the pillows in full view. Watching him and his every reaction, I moved my hands up to my breasts, feeling them. But these were not the touches that came with a sensual undressing. These were caresses of a different sort. A more urgent sort.

I want to see you in the throes of orgasm,Seth had written in his missive. I want to see your whole body writhing, your lips open as you drink in your own pleasure. Only yours, no one else's. Just you, completely given up to ecstasy.

I stroked my breasts, cupping them, feeling their softness and curving shape. My fingers moved and stroked my nipples, teasing them further, moving in lazy circles. I ran my thumbs over them, reveling in their sensitivity. When my breasts were finally taut and aching, I let my hands travel down over my smooth and flat stomach, examining and lingering on every part until I reached my thighs. Parting them ever so slightly, I slipped two fingers between the waiting lips so I could stroke that throbbing knot of nerves, moaning without even realizing it. Something about Seth watching aroused me more than I'd expected. I was dripping with wetness, aching and scorching.

I slid my fingers over and over that burning, swelling spot, stoking the rapidly growing need. Arching my body, hearing the soft cries escaping from me, all I could think about was Seth's eyes on me. Doing this for him, was in many ways, more genuine than actual sex with Bastien-turned-Seth had been. This was as intimate as he and I could ever be. It wasn't exactly the same as the honest communication we kept talking about, but in a way, I was opening myself to him after all. Exposing myself without inhibition.

I kept expecting the succubus energy-need to pick up on this scam, but either the distance or the fact that I was doing this to myself continued to trick it. We'd found a loophole after all.

As my fingers continued to rub between my lips, bringing me closer and closer to that crest, I moved my other hand down and thrust a couple of fingers inside of me. This elicited a moan of yearning, and I opened my thighs further, letting Seth get a full view. Faster and harder both sets of fingers worked, touching everything, building and building up that delicious pleasure until I felt like I couldn't take it anymore. Like I was going to burst.

And then, I did.

Sparks and lightning shot through my body, radiating from my core outward until every part of me tingled with life. I cried out again, loudly, my body writhing against the sheets as spasms racked my muscles. What had started as an ostentatious show had become something more. Doing this for Seth—with Seth—had reawakened something sleeping inside of me. I had lost control; my own body had taken over.

When I finally calmed down, I lay back against the covers, my breathing shallow as I recovered myself. I could feel sweat all over me. And with that physical response, an emotional and almost spiritual one radiated through me as well. Like the experience had somehow lit a flame within me. One that hadn't died with the orgasm. One that had nearly gone cold once—long ago—but now shone fiercely.

A moment later, I heard Seth stand up. Gingerly, he moved to my side, just barely sitting on the bed. We stared at each other, neither of us speaking, our eyes conveying all we needed to each other. He reached out a hand, like he might stroke my cheek, then pulled back.

"I'm afraid to touch you," he whispered.


"Yeah. It might…might be wise to hold back on that for a little longer. Just in case it kicks in."


"I take back what I said earlier about the stripping. This was the best thing I've ever seen." He crooked me a smile. "No, you're the best thing I've ever seen. Everything about you."


I smiled back. "We might have found a workaround."


"For you maybe. As it is, I'm, uh, feeling a little…uncomfortable right now. I'm glad you were able to get a release, at least."


I suddenly sat up, energized. "Well, why can't you?"


His smile dropped. "What? Like in the bathroom?"


"No. Right here."


"You're joking."


"No." I could feel my lips turning into a mischievous smirk. "Fair is fair. Quid pro quo. I did it for you, now it's your turn."


"I…no. No. I can't do that."


"Sure you can. There's nothing to it."


"Yeah, but…"


"Nobuts.You're the one going on about openness and sharing. "


"Whoa. That's not even the same."

"It is." I rolled over so that I was not quite in a pouncing position, but pretty close. I gave him a smoldering look. "How do you think I was able to do all that? I thought about you. I thought about you being over me while I spread my body for you. I opened up to you. I let you see everything. I wanted you to have that part of me. Nothing held back. And now I want to see the same." I leaned close, starting to tug his shirt off. "I want to see you come. I want to see you give in to that desire. I want to see your face when you touch yourself and think about me."

"And they say I'm good with words." He closed his eyes for a moment. "I can't believe you can have this effect on me."


I pulled his Spam shirt over his head. "I'm waiting."

Seth stared at me, then carefully and hesitantly began taking off his pants. He tossed them on the floor and moved on to his adorable flannel boxers. He paused there, clearly nervous, and then removed them in a quick motion before he could turn back. I looked him over admiringly, seeing him naked for the first time. As my gaze lingered between his legs, I had to work to keep a straight face. Bastien hadn't done him justice.

"This is going to be hard," he observed.


"It already looks hard to me."

"Stop making jokes." "Sorry. Just relax, that's the key." I sat back away from him, putting some distance between us once again. "Drop the self-consciousness. Just give in to how you feel."

He nodded and took a deep breath. "Thanks, coach. Can you move over to your side—yeah. There. And then, the hand…yes, put it right there. Perfect." He shook his head, an almost comic look of misery and eagerness on his face as his hand slowly moved down. "I need a good view of you to pull this off, I think, so I can keep my eyes off me. If I pay too much attention to what I'm doing, the absurdity will hit. "

"Well then," I said, getting comfortable. "Don't look down."