Amy Spencer presses the button for the hotel’s ninth floor even as she tells herself it’s not too late to back out, as if she has a choice. Which she does, except she’s not the kind of person to bail at the last minute. If anything, she’s the opposite—the last one to turn out the lights, even in the most hopeless of situations. Disappoint someone? Fall short of fulfilling an obligation? Not in her DNA.
She unlocks the door and opens it, a rock settling into her stomach. Which of course is anatomically impossible, she reminds herself. It’s a hotel room that’s not unlike the endless hotel rooms she’s stayed in for medical conferences—a king bed, a dresser, a loveseat and chair surrounding a neat but plain coffee table. The familiarity dulls the edges of her anxiety for a moment, until a parade of questions stampedes through her mind, the biggest one being, what the hell am I doing here? She’s about to meet a stranger, a woman she met on a lesbian dating app with only a first name—Ellen—for an afternoon of mutually satisfying, hot sex. Well, sex anyway…the hot part and the satisfying part she can debate later. At thirty-nine, it’s a little too soon to blame a midlife crisis for this crazy idea. But she hasn’t had sex in more than three years and if she remains celibate for even one more month, she really will go crazy. This, she reassures herself, is the way to do it. No strings, no expectations, no demands on her time and attention, which lord knows she has so little of at the end of a long day at work.
She goes to the minibar and gives serious thought to opening an airplane bottle size of Jack Daniels, even though it probably costs ten bucks. It would calm her nerves, grease her introversion, but she dismisses the idea because it’s an hour’s drive home and she’s most certainly not spending several hours here, even though technically the room is hers—theirs—until tomorrow morning. The sooner she can slink away with her shame and her post-sex glow, the better.
She takes a long, deep breath. Reminds herself it’s only sex, and if this Ellen woman—which of course probably isn’t her real name, just as Amy is using the name Abby—is half as hot as her photo, it’s all good. Provided, of course, that Ellen is not a sadist, a nut job, or, like, some kind of serial killer. But really, what are the chances of that? And as for this Ellen’s motives for an afternoon tryst, well, who cares? It’s not like we’re going to become friends, Amy tells herself. After today, I’ll never even have to see her again.
A quiet knock on the door spins her around. Oh shit. She’s really here. She takes her time getting to the door because it wouldn’t do to answer out of breath, showing herself to be too eager (code for desperate). Plus, she still isn’t entirely convinced she wants to go through with this. And, oh yeah, what if this woman is nothing like her photo? The possibilities of what the real Ellen might look like play havoc with Amy’s imagination even as she places her hand on the door handle. Fuck, it never occurred to her before that her “date” might have used someone else’s photo.
When she opens the door, she’s dumbstruck—because Ellen looks exactly like her photo. Long, thick, reddish blond hair that’s like a flaming sun sliding into the horizon and viridian green eyes that her dark framed glasses can’t hide. At the edge of her left eyebrow, there’s a very small and very faint scar—the only flaw (if you could call it that), as far as Amy can see. Ellen is gorgeous, and Amy exhales her held breath.
“Hi,” the woman says in a low voice that somehow manages to sound sultry and sexy while also shy. “I’m Ellen.” She elegantly offers her hand and Amy shakes it like they’re conducting a business transaction. Which they kind of are, minus the exchange of money.
“A…ah… I’m Abby. Nice to meet you.”
Ellen sheds her bright spring vest and makes a beeline for the minibar. She roots around, grabs one of the little bottles of Jack, retrieves a can of soda water from the bar fridge. “Mind if I fix a drink?” Her nervousness is a good sign, because in their email exchange, she too claimed never to have done this before.
“Please do.” Amy watches Ellen take tiny sips by the minibar, shakes her head no when Ellen asks her if she’d like one too. “Should we, um, talk first or something?”
Lips that have been painted with a soft and slightly glossy pink lipstick curl slowly into a smile that seems equal parts flirtatious and bashful (how does she do that?). The woman tosses back the rest of her drink in two swallows, peels off her glasses, which land with a soft thud on the coffee table. A clear signal, Amy supposes, that pretenses and small talk are over.
“Come here,” Ellen says.
A low rumble begins in Amy’s stomach as she stands before her soon-to-be-lover, noticing instantly that while Ellen is tall, Amy is still a good inch taller in spite of the two-inch, strapless sandals Ellen is wearing. Amy’s height has always given her confidence, though nobody would accuse her of lacking any—at least, not at the hospital, where a simple glare is often all she needs to make her point. It’s in her personal life, in moments like these, that she’s a little lost. With her sophomoric gestures and words—lack of words, more like—she might as well scream out that she’s a loser when it comes to women.
But Ellen doesn’t seem to notice. She quirks a finely shaped eyebrow, tilts her chin up. God, Amy thinks, those eyes! They look like exotic jewels…emerald or jade or the rare green sapphire she once saw at a jewelry store—she’d been surprised to learn that not all sapphires were blue. “Kiss me?” Ellen phrases it as a question, and Amy almost declines because who said any of this was about kissing?
“All right.” She’s wrestled patients from the jaws of death, but saying no to a beautiful woman standing in front of her, asking to be kissed? She doesn’t stand a chance.
The kiss is tentative at first, their lips meeting as softly as the brush of a butterfly’s wing as they become accustomed to the taste and feel of one another. It’s been awhile since Amy has kissed a woman, but instantly the sensation is familiar, swamping her with a deliciousness that’s like a returning to herself. Oh, I’ve missed this, she thinks as she deepens the kiss, surprised by her newfound bravery. But it feels good, especially when Ellen’s hand slides up her back and presses softly. Such an intimate, affectionate gesture that is completely contradictory to the fact that they’re about to have meaningless sex. Amy’s only had casual sex once before and it didn’t suit her. And yet…there can be no other alternative, not if she ever wants sex again with another human being.
Sex. How easy it is when you’re young—when you think about it all the time without really reflecting on it. So concerned about when and how and with whom that you forget to wonder what it means. Well, this one is easy. This won’t mean anything, she decides, even though it feels…okay. Better than okay.
Ellen pulls her mouth away, traces a finger along Amy’s jaw, and it’s right there in her eyes that she’s trying to be brave too, that she’s playing a role that isn’t entirely comfortable. Her apprehension gives Amy the courage to take her hands and gently lead her to the bed.
“Should we…undress each other…or undress ourselves?” Ellen asks.
No way is Amy up to undressing a stranger, especially one who looks like she’s stepped out of a fashion magazine—her beauty as intimidating as a supervising surgeon calling on a medical student to answer a complex question. Oh, Amy remembers those days—her mouth as dry as her armpits were drenched while she struggled to make something out of the mush gumming up her brain.
Amy swallows and says, “Let’s do our own disrobing.” She unbuttons her dress shirt, her slacks, modestly turning her back to Ellen, who’s doing the same thing. She can see that the woman’s clothes, now folded in a neat pile, are expensive—the fabric fine, the shoes designer—confirming that she’s a fellow professional. Maybe another doctor, though Amy has never seen her before.
They both make a dash to get under the covers, as though it’s freezing cold, and Amy is tempted to ask Ellen why she’s meeting a stranger for sex—why in hell she needs to meet a stranger for sex looking the way she looks—at Windsor’s riverfront Hilton Hotel on a Thursday afternoon. She’s guilty herself of failing to fit the profile of someone into anonymous hookups. Women, men too, take one look at the stethoscope around her neck and her ring-less left hand, and she has to beat them off. But there’s an unspoken agreement that she and Ellen are not to ask personal questions. Probably a good thing, because she doesn’t need to take on somebody else’s burdens. She’s shouldered plenty of them in her life, some hers, mostly not, and it’s for damned sure she doesn’t need any more.
The first touch from Ellen ignites a trail of fire down the center of her chest, and Amy slams her eyes shut.
“You’re even more attractive than your picture,” Ellen whispers, her breath ruffling the short hair above Amy’s ear. “I didn’t quite know what to expect, but…”
“You’re satisfied?” It matters, for some reason, and Amy opens her eyes to stare into Ellen’s.
“Yes, very.” Her smile appears nervous, but her dimples reassure that she’s being genuine.
“Good. Me too. You’re…beautiful, Ellen.”
It’s the most words they’ve exchanged, Amy realizes, and while the idea of lying naked together and talking some more has its appeal, she worries Ellen will get the wrong idea. Or, hell, that she will get the wrong idea and think this is some kind of date or something. A get-to-know-you session when the only thing Amy wants to know is the feeling of her orgasm ripping her apart. Gently, slowly, she climbs on top of Ellen, giving her a chance to back out, to protest, to say this isn’t at all what she wants. But she doesn’t. Instead, Ellen parts her lips, reaches for Amy’s mouth and claims it with another kiss. God, her mouth tastes good, Amy thinks as she loses herself in the kiss—a kiss that’s one part exploration and three parts lust. And then she remembers the fire raging in her belly as she slides her mouth down to Ellen’s throat, to her collarbone, where she plants little kisses, licks the tender, smooth skin, and tastes its faint saltiness. There will absolutely be no oral sex today, and she hopes there’s no need to spell out that it would be too risky, given that they’re strangers. Being a doctor sucks sometimes.
Amy brushes her hand beneath a breast. They’re fabulous breasts, perfect really, a little bigger than average but not too big. The curve of them, the slight heft, feels just right in her hand, and she can’t wait to put her mouth on them because she’s suddenly ravenous for them. Which comes as a complete shock because she’s not supposed to be so into this meaningless sex stuff. Amy prefers love to go with her sex, same as she likes cream with her coffee, butter with her toast. Sex is always sweeter when love’s involved. But there’s a flip side too, when the love dies, when it becomes an invasive disease that destroys the sex and mows down everything good in its path—ruthlessly, categorically. Yes, love is cruel, love is disappointing, which is why Amy is not going there again. Ever. Sex is sex now, a release. And since when did she become a breast woman?
She’s so hard and wet for this woman that she refuses to think about anything that’s going to throw cold water on her libido. She lets it all fade away as she takes a nipple into her mouth, stiff as a pebble, and when she sucks urgently, Ellen moans and nearly levitates off the bed. It shocks Amy how excited she feels making love to this woman, how much she’s getting off on the little touches, the little kisses, the taste and smell of Ellen. It should feel mechanical, weird, but it doesn’t. Perhaps it’s the illicit nature of it, the fact that they’re sneaking around in a hotel room in the middle of the afternoon, using fake names as if they’re cheating on a spouse, that kindles this fury of arousal in her.
Ellen moans louder, arches her body into Amy for more friction. Amy complies with the silent demand, moves her hand between them and dances her fingers over Ellen’s velvety wetness. She’s so swollen and slippery that Amy feels her own wetness coat her inner thigh.
“Oh God, yes!” Ellen cries out as Amy’s fingers lightly press on her clitoris, trace tiny circles over it, around it. She’s not sure if she should enter Ellen, because it’s an intimate gesture, almost as intimate as placing her mouth down there. She wants to go inside, but she’s not sure of the rules, other than no oral. Maybe they should have talked about it first? Maybe she should—
“Please, I want you inside me.”
The raw need in Ellen’s voice sends a quiver of excitement through Amy. She swallows a moan back down her throat. She can’t resist letting her mind go to that place where she imagines Ellen wants her, really and truly wants her, that it can only be Amy giving her such pleasure. It’s a fantasy, which is exactly what this whole thing is, one giant fantastical experience. She pushes a finger into Ellen, curls it inside her, adds another, and only then does she sneak a look at Ellen’s face, at the taut muscles of her throat, at her head thrown back. It’s a picture of pure ecstasy—her lips muttering unintelligible things, her eyes squeezed shut as she rides Amy’s hand hard, pushing against it, speeding up the pace, meeting her thrust for thrust. When she comes, she trembles violently and all the air whooshes out of her lungs. She calls out Amy’s fake name one final time before her body collapses, her muscles limp and quivering.
“Wow,” Ellen says slowly, like she’s emerging from a fog, and opens those unforgettable eyes to stare right through Amy. It’s almost unsettling, and then Ellen shifts until they are side by side, facing one another. She strokes Amy’s side, around to her rib cage, flutters her long and painted nails across her abs. “You’re very fit. And very talented.” If this were a real date, Ellen would surely start asking her questions, personal questions, but Ellen seems as intent as Amy to keep from going there. If sex isn’t considered too personal, that is.
Amy closes her eyes as a finger trails up to the underside of her breast, follows its natural curve. Oh, she wants Ellen to fuck her; she can almost taste the release now. But she doesn’t want to get ahead of herself. She wants to suck every last strand of enjoyment out of this because it’s most certainly the first and last time they’ll see one another. And the last time she’ll be having sex with anyone again for a long while. As fun as it’s been, she’s not going to make a habit of slinking around hotels with strangers. She’ll take this memory and wring every drop of pleasure out of it for days, weeks, months.
Ellen gently squeezes her nipple, and before long she’s sucking on it, moaning like it’s the tastiest thing she’s ever put into her mouth, and it drives Amy wild. She’s so turned on; she’s crazy with desire. She knows it won’t take much, and it doesn’t. Ellen’s hand moves down to her sex, and Amy traps it there with her thighs and grinds into it until the colors explode behind her eyelids, her orgasm thundering through her like a herd of wild horses. She feels like she’s splitting in half, coming apart, with only Ellen’s lips and hands keeping her together. And oh, it’s so glorious. Her heart rate continues to pound and the doctor in her counts its beats, estimating she’s at more than 140 a minute. Good God!
Ellen plants a final kiss on her chin, smiles at her before moving away because the spell that’s enraptured them both is broken now. It’s time to put an end to this little afternoon delight, and they both seem to sense it. The shutting down of this liaison is as sudden as the commencing of it was, and while it’s jarring, Amy doesn’t question the need for it. She knows it’s right to end this, and the sooner the better.
She climbs out of bed, her limbs still a little shaky from her orgasm, and reaches for her clothes. Ellen’s watching her, a question in her eyes.
“You’re welcome to stay,” Amy offers. “The room is ours for the night.”
“No need for that, but I’ll take a shower, if that’s okay.”
Ellen has the sheet wrapped snugly around her, as if Amy hasn’t seen her naked, hasn’t touched her everywhere, hasn’t been the architect of her orgasm. “Um, Abby?”
“Y-yes?” She can’t quite get used to her fake name.
“What are you doing next Thursday afternoon?”
Ellis Hall gives in to the urge to linger in the shower, even with the pressure of having to be somewhere else in about thirty minutes. The warm water sluicing down her arms and chest, and the surprisingly nice (for a hotel) soap that smells of lemon and rosemary make it difficult to leave. And then there’s the memory of Abby’s kisses—her strong body against Ellis’s, her sure but gentle touch, her uncanny ability to know exactly where and when and how much pleasure to give. God, those hands! They belong to a magician.
Ellis closes her eyes and luxuriates in the memory of her orgasm moments ago, its sweeping ecstasy that was like the slow but steady release of a pressure valve. It had been exactly what she needed, and oh, what a relief to not have to pretend they were embarking on a relationship. Relationships are past tense for her. Dating too, though that’s a more recent development. Her job sucks away all her attention and energy, and while admittedly her job is not as fun as it used to be, it doesn’t leave much time for anything or anyone else. Placing her work ahead of everything has become too much of a pain to explain and to excuse and too much to bear for potential partners. Even casual dating is next to impossible. Her long days, the distractions, the stress, and now a new city to call home for the next ten months or so have thoroughly convinced her that she’s far better off alone. Except alone no longer has to mean celibate, thanks to the enchanting Abby and her talented hands and lips.
Ellis shuts off the water, wraps a thick towel around her midsection, and tries to resist the pull of wondering who Abby is, of what brought her to this hotel room to meet a stranger, and what her actual name might be. She pictures Abby’s collar length, light brown hair with its roguish swoop over her forehead, the square jaw, the sharp nose, the prominent cheekbones that give her…not so much an air of severity as a statement of competence and singular focus. Abby looks the type who wants to be in charge and is good at it. Not unlike Ellis herself. But in Abby’s eyes, a shade of pearl gray that almost resembles translucent smoke, there’d been an unexpected shyness, a trace of vulnerability that had made Ellis do a double take. And then pretend she hadn’t noticed. In Abby’s defense, who wouldn’t feel a tad vulnerable, meeting up with a stranger in a hotel room for anonymous sex? Ellis certainly did. She almost hadn’t shown up, worried that she’d blow it with her sophomoric ways, her self-doubt, that she’d be unveiled as an amateur. It was a delight to see Abby act every bit the novice.
Ellis finishes drying herself, decides it is not necessary to wonder about Abby’s motives, because their deal was no personal chitchat, no questions. Aside from mild curiosity, it’s better this way, because Ellis doesn’t want to come under another woman’s microscope either. Doesn’t want to have to go through the motions of pretending to be interested in what her “date” does, thinks, who she is and where she’s been, what she wants out of life, what her politics are, and all that time-consuming drivel that’s more likely to drive a wedge between them than offer up common ground. This little arrangement is appealingly facile, exceedingly efficient. And Ellis, if nothing else, is all about efficiencies and bottom lines.
Slipping her watch on her wrist, she notices the time. Shit. She’s got fifteen minutes before she’s supposed to pick up Mia for their dinner date. She’ll have to step on it and hope that traffic is light, because she hates being late for anything. She also hopes that Mia, for a change, isn’t full of attitude. Or mute sullenness. It’s always one or the other, which doesn’t give Ellis much to work with and means their time together isn’t exactly pleasant.
Minutes later, when Mia slides into the passenger seat of Ellis’s car, Ellis can see that her mood is as black as the heavy kohl eyeliner she’s wearing. How can anyone think that crap is attractive, she wonders, and then reminds herself not to bring it up, because bringing it up will surely lead to an argument, and kohl eyeliner is definitely not worth the trouble. Ugh! She’s exhausted thinking about the next ninety minutes or so that this dinner’s going to take, finds her mind drifting to the glass of wine back at her apartment that she could be having right now. She’s almost salivating at the thought, can almost smell the chilled sauvignon blanc. Wait. She wrinkles her nose, sniffs in Mia’s direction. Marijuana. Faint, but there. Dammit.
She clamps her mouth shut, congratulates herself on not blowing up, which is exactly what she would have done a couple of years ago. Something about settling into her forties has softened the lines she used to so definitively and so quickly draw in the sand. Her way or the highway has become more “let’s share the road.” She’s more patient in her middle age, more contemplative, which, honestly, scares the hell out of her, because she knows she can’t do her job with the same zeal, the same sharpness, the same penetrating precision, if she pauses to consider too many other angles. Particularly the emotional ones. Getting soft is okay for the bedroom but not for the boardroom. And so she’s been carefully walking a line these days.
“The usual?” she says to Mia and gets a curt nod in return. The “usual” is a Chinese buffet restaurant on Windsor’s east side, where the food is passable, nothing particularly special, but Mia likes it. Or at least, she doesn’t complain about the place. It’s the third time they’ve met for dinner, though Ellis has also taken Mia to the mall a couple of times. She’s only been in the city for five weeks and trying to build a relationship with Mia has been…challenging.
What she wouldn’t give to still be in that hotel room with Abby, stretched out naked with her on the bed. And not in a hurry this time. Staying for a second round would have been…ooh, heavenly…but probably too much for their first hookup. They’ve agreed to a second time, next Thursday, and Ellis is already looking forward to it, though she’s not greedy enough to expect a third liaison.
She waits until she and Mia have found a table and selected their food before she brings up the marijuana. Tread carefully and do not get upset, she reminds herself, taking a page from her parents’ book. They were academics—both of them professors—and older when Ellis was born. They never got too excited when Ellis went through her teenaged years of rebelling against the rules, figuring there wasn’t much they couldn’t reason their way through. They’d been mostly right.
“Mia, how often are you smoking marijuana?”
Brown eyes swing toward her, eyes as resistant as a brick wall. “What do you care?”
“I care, okay? Especially since you’re only fifteen.”
A shrug. “Sixteen in a few months. Besides, it’s not like you’re my mother.”
No, Ellis thinks, I’m not. But she was a stepmother to Mia for a while. So long ago now that Mia probably barely remembers it. “I don’t have to be your mother to want what’s best for you. And marijuana is dangerous, okay? It’s very harmful to developing brains.”
Another piercing glare. “Spare me. Like, you never do weed?”
“I don’t.” Honesty, Ellis. The kid isn’t dumb. She lets up her guard for a moment. “Not more than a couple times a year.” Sheesh. The last time was about seven months ago. She and a colleague she was chummy with were hanging out on his back patio when he lit up a joint. Ellis shared it with him. Took a cab home when he lit up a second joint.
“See? I knew it!”
“Recreational cannabis is legal in Canada. For adults. And as much as you’d like to think you’re an adult, you’re not. And I’m not trying to talk down to you, I swear I’m not.” Ellis takes a moment to gather herself, to reinsert some calmness. Dealing with a mercurial teenager is a lot of damned work. “I’m worried about you, Mia. I don’t want you throwing away your future, doing…things that you can’t always make up for later on. I know these last couple of years have been hard on you, losing your mom and all.”
“I don’t want to talk about my mom. Especially not to you.”
Ouch. Okay, I probably deserve that.
“Fine. We don’t have to talk about your mom. But I do want to talk about you. There’s so much waiting out there for you, so many good things, so many opportunities, experiences. You haven’t even scratched the surface yet. I don’t want you to be cheated out of anything, that’s all. I don’t want you to hurt yourself.”
Mia rolls her eyes, doesn’t even try to hide her derision. If Ellis could simply get up and walk out right now, she’d do it, because she really doesn’t need this bullshit, especially when she’s only trying to help. But guilt is a funny thing. Guilt makes you stand there and take it on the chin over and over.
“Can we cut the lecture on life, please? Like, what do you know about it anyway? You’re married to your job. Same as always.”
Indignation ratchets up the pounding of her heart, except the kid is right. Ellis is an expert at putting her job above everything else, at letting it consume her. Knows all about failing at personal relationships, too. But hell, they’re talking about Mia here. She’ll be damned if she lets a fifteen-year-old hijack the conversation and turn it into a judgment of her own life.
“I’m good at my job, Mia.” So good, that her services demand mid-six figures a year. “I only hope you find something you’re as good at. But this…” She makes a smoking gesture. “Isn’t the way to go about it. Look. Why don’t you tell me one thing you enjoy, all right? One positive thing in your life that makes you feel good.”
Mia exaggeratedly plows into her food and shovels it into her mouth. “I enjoy eating,” she mumbles around the food. “Happy now?”
No, Ellis thinks, I’m not happy at all. She decides to finish her meal in silence, before her frustration ruins everything, makes her say or do something she can’t take back. She can endure anything with enough willpower; she’ll endure this too.
An hour later, when she drops Mia at the curb in front of her grandparents’ house, Ellis reminds her that they’re seeing a movie together next week.
“Whatever” is Mia’s response, right before she gets out and slams the car door shut. She doesn’t look back.
Ellis eases the car away, resists the urge to squeal the tires and peel off in a cloud of dust. For not the first time, she wonders what the hell she’s doing here. And whether it’s worth it.
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