Excerpt: Pure and Simple
Tom lifted the washcloth from his eyes, frowning at the sudden, ringing silence. The music had stopped. Was there a problem with the CD player or–
“Brooke?” It was Ally’s voice. Tom heard the floorboards in the hallway creak as she approached the bathroom. “How’d it go in Toronto?”
Tom sat up in the bathtub as the door swung open.
“Oh.” Ally gaped at him for a moment, her gaze shifting from his face to his bare torso, then back to his face. “Oh! Sorry,” she said as she pulled the door closed. “I thought you were–“
“That’s all right. I’m not shy.” Tom stretched out and laid the washcloth back over his eyes again. “How was your walk?”
She paused on the other side of the door, which was just barely cracked open. “Fine. Good.”
“You’re back sooner than I expected.”
“It’s gotten hot out there. I started feeling like I was gonna stroke out, so I turned around and came back.”
“You know what feels good when you’re hot and sweaty? A nice, long bath.”
“Looks like you beat me to it.”
He grinned. “Plenty of room in here for both of us.”
A long moment ticked by. Tom had just about decided she’d walked away when he heard the door creak open, then close and latch. He pulled the washcloth off to find Ally in the bathroom, stepping out of her sandals and laying her glasses on the edge of the sink. “Is the water still warm?” She pulled the rubber band out of her hair and shook it out.
“Uh… yeah…” He sat up as she crossed to him, laughed in disbelief when she stepped into the nearly full tub, still wearing that happy little gingham blouse and denim skirt.
She lowered herself into the water, clothes and all, and sat down facing him. And then she gave him a slow, hotly sweet, utterly incandescent smile that made his heart kick.
He grabbed her and hauled her to him. Their mouths met in a painful kiss, their bodies crushing together with awkward urgency. Water heaved up and cascaded onto the floor.
Tom clutched at her with a dizzying exhilaration that beat the hell out of anything he’d ever felt under the influence of booze. He gripped the back of her head to deepen the kiss, shuddering because he was impossibly hard already, aching with the need to push, to possess. He pulled her skirt up, tugged at her panties–
There came a knock at the door.
Tom and Ally stilled.
“Brooke?” Dorothy Turner asked from the other side of the door. “Is that you?”
Tom clapped a hand over Ally’s mouth before she could respond, and shook his head. If Ally’s mother thought it was just her in here, she might come in. “It’s me, Dorothy,” he said, making a heroic effort to keep his voice even. “Just taking a little bath.”
“Oh.” Dorothy sounded disappointed.
Ally slumped against him, biting her lip. Some devilish impulse made Tom ease her legs around him so that she was straddling his lap. She shot a glance toward the door and shook her head, tried to pull away. Smiling, he skimmed his hands down over her little cotton-panty-clad bottom and tucked her up against him, nice and snug.
“I thought it might be Brooke,” Dorothy said. “I’m so eager to find out how it went with Vic.”
“I don’t think she’s back from Toronto yet.” Another kiss–softer this time–as Tom caressed a breast through Ally’s sodden blouse and bra, feeling her nipple stiffen against his palm. She arched her back, dug her fingers into his shoulders.
“Do you know where Ally is?” Dorothy asked.
“Not a clue–sorry.”
“Liar,” Ally whispered, rocking sinuously against him. He groaned, his whole body bucking reflexively.
“Tom?” Dorothy exclaimed. “Are you all–?”
“Oh God. Y-Yeah, I’m…” He seized Ally’s hips to still her. “I just… I hit my knee. On the side of the tub. M-My bad knee.”
“Oh, that poor knee. What you need is some good, thorough physical therapy,” Dorothy advised.
“Don’t I know it.”
“I’m going to do some sewing in my room,” Dorothy said. “You’ll let me know the second Brooke comes home, won’t you?”
Tom listened to Dorothy’s footsteps recede down the hall. When he heard her bedroom door close, he yanked at Ally’s panties. “Get these off.”
“No.” She grabbed his wrists. “Not here. Not with Mom just down the–“
“God, Ally.” He was actually shaking. “I can’t–“
“Tonight.” She framed his face with unsteady hands. “After everyone’s asleep, you can come up to my room. Use the service stairwell and no one will hear you.”
“They’ll hear those bedsprings of yours.” Gripping her nape, he pulled her to him and kissed her. “Come to the potting shed.”
“Your bedsprings are even worse than mine. That old daybed?”
“Yeah, but no one will be around to hear,” Tom whispered hoarsely. “We can make all the noise we want.” He pressed tremulous kisses to the crest of her cheekbone, her temple. “We can break the damn thing and no one will hear.” Fisting his hands in her hair, he pressed his forehead to hers. “Please come. Please.”
“I’ll come. As soon as Mom’s in bed.”
It was past midnight by the time Ally made it out to the potting shed, her mother having sat up waiting futilely for Brooke to return from Toronto. She’s obviously not coming home tonight, Ally kept telling her. Go to bed. I’m sure she’ll be here tomorrow. You can find out what happened then.
After Dorothy had finally retired for the night, Ally took a quick shower, slid into her sandals and that yellow sundress Tom seemed to like so much, and stole down the service stairs and across the moonlit backyard. The night was warm, and so quiet she could hear the lazy grunting of frogs down by the canal.
Ally’s chest ached in nervous anticipation as she approached the potting shed, its windows glowing faintly with yellowish lamplight. This was a tryst–a sexual assignation. Ally couldn’t recall ever having actually sneaked away to meet a man for the sole purpose of sleeping with him. How did women manage these things without giggling?
As she approached the potting shed, she heard the airily exotic strains of Spanish guitar music through its screened windows–that and the muted prattling of Tom’s fingers on the keyboard of his laptop. Ally knew the sound well, having frequently watched him at work. He had surprisingly nimble fingers for a man with such enormous hands, and he was a rapid-fire touch typist.
Edging up to the window next to the door, she saw him sitting at the foot of the daybed, the laptop on his lap, typing away with an expression of hypnotic concentration. The pressure in her chest tightened when she saw that all he had on, besides his reading glasses, was a pair of frayed jeans washed pale with age, one leg split across the knee. Idiotic that his being half-naked should rattle her, given that she’d shared a bathtub with him today when he was entirely naked.
She appraised Tom through the torn screen, awed and a little unnerved by the sheer size and heft of him. Excluding Ethan, who had a fairly solid build, the men she’d had the most contact with in the past–her father, her brother, and her little handful of erstwhile boyfriends–had had the kind of lean, patrician bodies that might get ropy with exercise but would never bulk up. Tom Proctor was the kind of man who was just huge whether he wanted to be or not, with bearish shoulders out to there and a wall of chest lightly furred with dark hair. He was big and rugged and chock-full of testosterone–a real man, not, as Tom himself might say, one of these little dollar-store ten-for-a-buck kind.
Ally thought about the time she and Willow had gone to see the movie Lone Star; they’d been maybe sixteen. Matthew McConaughey in a cowboy hat; yes, please. Afterward, over pizza, Ally had gushed that McConaughey was, hands down, the cutest actor in Hollywood–the cutest living actor, her beloved Coop being much imitated but never duplicated.
McConaughey was more than just cute, Willow said; he was sexy.
What’s the difference? Ally asked.
‘Cute’ is just a pretty face. ‘Sexy’ is lots of things. Attitude’s important, but a killer bod’ll get me in the back of the knees every time. McConaughey works out. Don’t tell me you didn’t check out those shoulders.
Sure I did, Ally lied.
Willow had snorted with laughter. No, you didn’t.
It was only after that that Ally had started noticing men’s bodies. Willow had always been a few light-years ahead of her in terms of sexual development.
Ally’s gaze shifted away from Tom, taking in the length of the narrow daybed, tidily made up with a blue-and-white wedding-ring quilt, a feather pillow in a white eyelet case at the head. The pillow was puffy and wrinkle-free, as if it had been punched up, then carefully smoothed down. His leather dopp kit was tucked just under the edge of the bed, near the head; she’d never seen it there before.
We can break the damn thing and no one will hear.
Maybe she should have done it with him in the bathtub, like he’d wanted. It would have been spontaneous then, a little risky, a heady, illicit thrill. Stolen pleasures were sometimes the sweetest.
Trysts, on the other hand, were planned, deliberate, self-conscious. At least, she felt self-conscious.
She thought about Phil calling her frigid, warning Tom that she was the type to just lie there and let him do all the work. Was that what Tom suspected now, after she’d put him off in the bathtub? She really should have let him take those panties off.
The tin roof rumbled as a squirrel scrambled over it.
Tom looked up at the sound, saw her, took his reading glasses off, and smiled.
She swallowed down her trepidation and smiled back.
He lifted the laptop as if to rise, but she waved him back down. “Don’t get up.” Maybe that was the answer, she thought as she opened the door and let herself into the potting shed, lit by the glow from just a single oil lamp on the sea chest. If she acted normal, like this was just an ordinary visit, they might be able to ease into things and it wouldn’t seem so… forced.
“I was hoping you’d wear that dress,” Tom said, still sitting with his laptop at the bottom of the bed. “You know I want to jump you every time I see you in it.”
“I aim to please,” she said, lifting her skirt for a saucy little curtsy.
He grinned and leaned back against the cast-iron rails behind him. “That’s Brooke’s move, that curtsy. Speaking of which, is she back from Toronto?”
Ally shook her head as she crossed to him, immeasurably grateful that he was making casual conversation instead of leaping up and dragging her by her hair to the bed. “That’s why I’m so late. Mom was waiting up for her.” She glanced at the bed, then detoured to the dresser to lift the CD jewel box that was lying open next to the boombox. “So, what is this you’re listening to?”
“I’m a little nervous, too,” he said softly.
She glanced over her shoulder and found him watching her with a smile so reassuring, she had to look away.
Flipping the jewel box shut, Ally read the title. “‘The Legendary Andres Segovia, Five Centuries of Spanish Guitar.'”
“Nice, isn’t it?”
“It’s exquisite. Haunting. Which piece is this?”
“‘Cancion del Emperador.’ It’s an adaptation of a song called ‘A Thousand Regrets.'”
“It’s about regrets? How sad.”
“Regrets are only sad if you don’t learn from them.”
Turning, Ally crossed her arms and leaned back against the dresser to find Tom sliding his glasses back on. Frowning at the computer screen, he held down the backspace key for a couple of seconds, then swiftly retyped the offending line.
“What are you working on there?” she asked.
“Oh–nothing,” he said, looking chagrined. “It’s nothing, just…”
“No, don’t do that,” she protested as he started to close the laptop. “I didn’t mean you should stop. I just wanted to know what you’re doing.”
He regarded her thoughtfully for a moment, his gaze so probing that he had to know she was just stalling for time. “All right, but you’ve got to uncross those arms and sit down. Or better yet, lie down.” He patted the bed next to him. “Right here is good.”
Kicking off her sandals, she did lie down, or rather reclined on her side, to the griping of the corroded springs supporting what passed for a mattress on this antediluvian bed. She braced her elbow on the feather pillow to prop up her head and tucked her legs up so as not to prod Tom at the other end of the bed. His jeans were button-fly, she saw; the top button was undone. “So, what are you writing that’s got you so engrossed?”
“It really is nothing.” He rubbed his neck as he studied the screen. “Just a way to kill time.”
“Read it to me.”
Tom toggled to another file and started reading, while gently chafing her foot. “‘It was on a Monday morning in early September, one of those sultry, buzzing Texas mornings when you’re soaked through with sweat by eight a.m., that Sheriff Mack O’Dwyer first heard about the witch who’d moved to Judas Bluff….'”
When he was done reading, Ally propped her head in her hand and met his expectant gaze with a smile. “Tell me again why you’re writing true-crime articles and tell-all bios for a living?”
“You like it?”
“It’s good, Tom. Really good.” She yawned.
“What did you think of that last part, where Mack knocks on Helena’s trailer door and introduces himself as the law in them thar parts? Too much sexual tension? Not enough?”
“Not enough. I think it should be explosive right from the start. I think they should get it on right then and there.”
“What–when they first meet?”
“Sure. Wendy’s not there, right? It’s her first day of school. And that trailer’s in the middle of nowhere with nobody else around. They’re all alone.”
“They don’t even know each other. It wouldn’t be credible.”
“You could write it so it would be. You’ve got certain authorial rights, Tom. You’re like the God of your fictional world. You control the horizontal, you control the vertical.”
“Think about Helena, about her feral brand of sexuality, her lack of inhibitions. And think about Mack, with all those pent-up tensions and no release valve, always doing the right thing and being what everyone wants him to be. Ooh! What if he suggests she pull up stakes and settle elsewhere, ’cause the townspeople are calling her a witch. And maybe she lets him assume she’s gonna do just that. If he thinks he’s never gonna see her again, he might be tempted to partake of a little hot, zipless action on a sweltering afternoon.”
“Not because it’s in character,” Tom murmured thoughtfully, “but because it isn’t.”
“Bingo,” Ally said through a yawn.
“She could ask him into the trailer for some iced tea.” Tom started typing.
“Uh-huh. Yeah. I guess.”
“Too soft-core porn?” Tom backspaced over what he’d just written.
“What if she’s out back taking her laundry off the clothesline?” Ally suggested. “She’s strung a rope between two trees to dry her sheets, and now she’s unpinning them. It’s a breezy day…”
“But a scorcher,” Tom said as he typed, “and heavy with the threat of rain. The breeze was like a hot breath, ruffling the sheets against them as they stood just a little too close.”
“Now you’re talkin’.” She yawned again.
“Okay. Good,” Tom said as the keyboard rattled softly. “Just let me get this down while it’s in my head. It’ll only take a minute.”
“No, it won’t,” she said as she rested her head on the pillow again. “But that’s all right. I’m enjoying the music.”
“This is the next-to-last track on the CD,” he said. “It’s a lullaby called ‘Nana.’ I’ll start it over when it’s done.”
“Mm…” Closing her eyes, Ally let the tranquil strumming waft around her like balmy currents of air. The warmth drifted over her, through her, transporting her into a realm of pure peace, pure contentment…
The sky was so ethereally blue, it didn’t look real, the grass beneath her feet a supersaturated green, like right after a soaking rain. She floated up into the air, surrounded by cotton sheets trembling in the breeze, luxuriating in their airy embrace as they rippled around her.
They brushed her face, her throat, her breasts…stroked her arms, caressed the length of her legs…
She felt a tickle in her hair, another on her cheek, heard her name whispered on the breeze…
Opening her eyes, she found herself lying curled up on Tom’s narrow bed as he sat on the rug next to her, caressing her lightly through her thin linen dress. Everywhere his fingertips grazed, she felt electrified.
It was dark in the potting shed, except for a faint wash of moonlight from the windows; Tom had put out the oil lamp. The Segovia guitar music was still playing, quietly voluptuous and utterly mesmerizing. She wondered if he had restarted the CD a second time.
“I fell asleep.” Ally rubbed her face; her glasses were gone.
“I let you.” His smile was a little chagrined, his face luminous with moonlight. “Here I’ve been in an agony of lust for you, and you finally come to me, wearing the easy-peel dress–“
“Easy-peel?” Grinning, she rolled onto her back and stretched, quivering like a cat. He skimmed a hand down her chest to her stomach, and back up.
“That’s how I think of it when I fantasize about taking it off you, which is about a hundred times a day. And I let you fall asleep while I sat there and wrote that dumb-ass story.” He shook his head. “The He-man Womanizers knew what they were doing when they drummed me out.”
“It’s a wonderful story, Tom. How long has it been since you’ve written any fiction?”
“Oh God, I don’t know. Way too long.”
“Well, you’ve still got it. Did you finish the scene?”
“Yeah, I finished it. That was a good suggestion you had, about his coming around back where she’s taking the sheets down.”
“I dreamed about those sheets.” Ally sat up, twisting her hair off her sweat-dampened nape.
“Did you?” Kneeling on the rug, Tom pulled her toward him until she was sitting on the edge of the bed, her legs flanking him. Her skirt rode up to her thighs; she didn’t lower it. He caressed her all over with a languorous relish that made her feel starved for air.
She stroked his hair, his face, the hard-packed breadth of his shoulders. “Tell me about the scene.”
“Kiss me first.”
She bent her head to his; the kiss was deep and lingering and charged with sexual promise.
“Mack tells Helena there’s been talk about her, and she might want to move on,” Tom murmured against her lips. “She says there’s always talk about her, so she may as well stay in Judas Bluff. The breeze snaps the sheets and whips the skirt of this little lace-edged dress she’s wearing, which he realizes is actually a slip. She starts saying maybe she should leave if the sheriff himself is going to all this trouble to send her packing. Her hair’s flying all over the place as she unpins the sheets, but she doesn’t seem to care. He can tell she’s not wearing a bra.”
Tom cupped Ally’s breasts in his big hands, shaping them through her dress as a sculptor might shape clay. “Mack tries to keep his mind on business,” he continued, “but there’s this undercurrent he can’t ignore. He’s got a blue-steel hard-on just from the way she’s looking at him.”
“Like this.” Tom guided one of her hands between his legs, molding it to him. “He wonders if she notices. He thinks about licking the sweat off her breasts, and whether she’s wet between her legs, and how it would feel to shove deep inside her. He wants to make her come so hard she screams.”
Tom glided his hands under Ally’s rucked-up skirt, a little growl rising in his throat when he discovered she wasn’t wearing any underwear. She sighed as he explored her with gentle, dexterous fingers.
“There’s a rumble of thunder,” he said a little breathlessly, “and then it begins to rain, but not hard. Helena starts frantically taking down the sheets. Mack helps her. They make it into the trailer with the laundry basket just as the sky opens up. She walks down the hall into her bedroom, peeling the wet slip off over her head. He follows her.” Tom rubbed his cheek against Ally’s. “That’s it. What do you think?”
“I’d keep reading.”
Tom chuckled into her ear as he raised his hands to the shoulder ties of Ally’s dress. He tugged on both ties, releasing the knots. The dress went slack and slid downward, pooling at her waist.
“Oh, you are beautiful,” he murmured as he trailed his knuckles lightly over her breasts. Reaching under the bed, he pulled the dopp kit toward him and unzipped it. “If you’re havin’ any doubts at all, honey, this would be the time…”
“No doubts. I’m a little worried about your bad knee, though. Doesn’t it hurt, putting weight on it like that?”
“It should,” he said as he unbuttoned his fly, “but it doesn’t.”