When I publish a new book, traditionally I post a free short story about the characters from my last book, based on reader requests. Because of Samhain going under last year and trying to get my backlist back in print, the Listen to the Moon story got put on the back burner for a bit, but I have never stopped being excited about this concept!
This is for Jasmine Stairs, who requested “One of those ‘bid on a dinner/kiss’ auctions used for a charity/political fundraiser! In a modern AU.” (AU stands for “alternate universe.”)
A million thank yous to my incredible Britpicker Kate Addison! Any remaining errors are of course all my own.
(Note: Sukey is “Suzy” in this story because I suspect that Sukeys-short-for-Susans are in short supply in the UK these days.)
If we be friends
Suzy applied the finishing touches to her mascara and eyed herself critically in the bathroom mirror. Not half bad, if she did say so herself. Her friend Phoebe’s sister Helen, a lifestyle blogger, had loaned her a bright red, high-waisted pantsuit with the advice, I know you’ll want to do a matching lip, but stick with a nude. After an epic internal battle, Suzy had listened. Beneath the blazer, a plunging black halter top echoed her dark gray manicure.
“Posh, Grimes, very posh,” she told her reflection as she snapped a picture for Instagram.
Her husband John, coming in to adjust the bow tie of his dinner jacket, whistled. “Posh indeed,” he said, sounding infinitely posher than she ever would, although when she teased him about it he always defended himself, Non-U at best. “What shoes are you wearing?”
She let him pick—open-toed black kitten heels—and let him kneel to slip them on her feet, too, and buckle the straps around her ankles. He kissed the second ankle as he set it on the floor. “How are you getting there?” He frowned. “I’m sorry I can’t drive you.”
The district council was holding a black-tie fundraiser to buy the church a new roof, complete with a date auction of local business owners, politicians, and first families. John, as personal assistant to the vicar, would be working behind the scenes all evening and also chauffeuring his boss, but he had arranged a ticket for Suzy. She’d been looking forward to the catering all week.
“Don’t be silly.” She gave him a shove with the hand she’d rested on his shoulder for balance. “I can’t pull with my husband right there. Maybe I should leave my ring at home tonight, what do you think?”
John shot her an apprehensive look as he stood. “You’ll be discreet for my boss, won’t you?”
In theory, they were polyamorous, but in practice, they were both very busy, plus working for Reverend Summers meant John had to act like he’d fit right in on Privet Drive. They’d only managed a couple of threesomes on vacation.
Suzy rolled her eyes. “It’s a date auction, dear, not a brothel. That was what we in the biz refer to as a ‘joke’. One of these days you’ll get the hang of them.”
“Unlikely,” John said gravely. “I was born without a sense of humor. My poor mother had hysterics when the midwife gave her the news.” He pulled something from his pocket and handed it to her. “Buy yourself someone nice.”
Her eyes widened as she counted out £500. “Can we afford this?”
His lips curved in satisfaction. “Yes.”
Suzy crowed and tucked the money in her bra. “A provider!”
“And you succeed.” She felt the money again, somewhat awed. “I married up, didn’t I? Who should I go for, do you think?”
John pondered, eyes gleaming. “Imogen Makepeace,” he said finally.
Suzy poked him. “Imogen is your type, not mine.”
He shrugged, visibly lost in pleasant daydreams.
“I like ’em tall and showy. I think I’ll try for Rafe Cahill.”
John stiffened, annoyed, and focused his eyes. He didn’t like to think of himself as showy. He was, though. “Rafe Cahill is going to go for more than £500.”
Suzy shrugged. “I’d better bring some Ex-Lax for the competition.”
John gave her a baffled look. “Is this another…‘joke’?” His hesitant air quotes were the funniest thing she’d ever seen.
“Can I take a picture of you in your dinner jacket for Instagram?”
He made a face. “I don’t know why everything has to be put on the internet for—”
He posed for the picture.
John made a few noises about how many people would probably be driving drunk tonight, so Suzy decided to walk to the community center, half a mile away. She knew she ought to wear trainers and change in the loo, but it would spoil the look, so she didn’t.
“Ms. Grimes,” Reggie Gilchrist—unrepentant Tory, hipster, douchebag, personal assistant to Lydia Cahill MP, and (alas) husband to the owner of Suzy’s suit—greeted her as he took her ticket. “Stunning tonight! I can say without hesitation that you should tell everyone my wife styled you. Where’s the Dirtmobile?”
“If you mean the Mobile Grime Unit, she’ssafein the garage at home.”Fear of the Unit being dented was part of why she’d walked. Suzy loved her big white van with the logo of her house cleaning service painted on the side—a take-off of the Bewitched logo, with a dark-haired witch riding a vacuum cleaner. John, the darling, took her to be washed twice a week.
Reggie nervously fingered his waxed mustache. “Do you think the valets will scratch my Beemer?”
“Don’t worry, you’re insured!” Suzy gave him a hearty pat on the back, feeling superior even though she was getting a blister on her left big toe.
The community center looked terrific, all flowers and swagged fabric. Better yet, the dessert was already on the tables and Suzy recognized the Honey Moon’s strawberry mousse bombes. Smirking to herself about their aggressively breastlike shape, she vowed to eat as many as she could. There was bound to be at least one person at her table on a diet, right?
Suzy found her seat near the back of the room. Inspecting the table’s name cards, she switched them so she was next to her friend Noor (the vicar’s personal chef) instead of Jemma Midwinter (the caterer’s wife’s intense best friend), who was obsessed with true crime and always wanted to look through your purse and tell you that one little can of mace wouldn’t keep you safe.
She made short work of her mousse boob, glad she’d gone with the nude lip since it meant she wouldn’t have to touch it up every five seconds. Now what? Why had shearrived so early? John was rubbing off on her.
Regretfully, she decided against going in the back to look for him. People-watching was no good either, since hardly anyone else was here yet. Just Caroline Sparks zooming around in her power chair taking pictures for the town blog while her husband Jack did an interview in the corner.
Ooh, but Suzy had Phoebe’s latest book! Putting her feet up on Noor’s chair, she dug her phone out of her purse.
…Well, Phoebe’s latest book was technically Ellie Elephant and the Case of the Empty Swimming Pool. Suzy’s youngest half-brother and -sister loved Ellie Elephant, who solved animal crimes with her photographic memory.
Suzy loved Phoebe’s other books, which she wasn’t supposed to tell anyone Phoebe wrote in case people stopped wanting their rosy-cheeked offspring to read about Ellie Elephant. The Billionaire’s Virgin Dominatrix was about exactly what it said on the tin, and Suzy was excited for Rex to show Maryam that getting fucked didn’t have to mean giving up control. Or—maybe Maryam would learn to relinquish control! Or maybe she would learn to relinquish control, but that was unrelated to getting fucked? Whichever way, it was going to be hot.
Rex’s eyelids fluttered shut as he sucked her clit into his mouth. With a small sound of contentment—almost relief—he smoothed his thumbs over her thighs. Maryam swallowed hard and dug the sharp point of her heel into his shoulder, pushing him away. “I didn’t say you could do that yet.” Luckily her voice didn’t break….
“Help me with this, will you?”
Suzy started, flipping the phone over and pressing her legs together. “Oh, hey, Noor.” She wasn’t ashamed of reading erotic romance, but she couldn’t talk about this book without probably revealing Phoebe’s secret identity somehow, plus she always felt a little dirty getting turned on by Phoebe’s porn. She wasn’t sure why. She’d never felt that way about her sixth-form friends’ One Direction fanfic, and that stuff was filthy.
Suzy maneuvered Noor’s purse and jacket off her arm, careful not to jostle the enormous raffle basket advertising her new meal kit service. “Let me put this thing over there and I’ll be right back,” Noor said.
Still blushing, Suzy closed her ereader app and tried to think about Rafe Cahill. Which was not a hardship. Had he played rugby in school? Probably, right? If she won, she could ask him. “Are you bidding?” she asked Noor.
Settling into her chair, Noor fished a crumpled piece of paper out of her purse. “Only if one of these people tries to buy dinner with Imogen.” She showed Suzy the list, an amount scrawled next to each name. “How about you?”
“I’m trying for Rafe Cahill.”
Noor raised her eyebrows. “How much have you got in the bank?”
Noor wavered between impressed and disapproving at Suzy’s extravagance.
“I hope he’s wearing a little bun tonight.”
“So much better than a ponytail,” Noor agreed.
“What do you think of Reggie’s mustache?”
“…Someone else might be able to pull it off?”
“Harsh but fair.”
As she and Noor chatted, Suzy keep seeing John out of the corner of her eye, managing things and politely bossing people around. With his tux and tablet he looked very dashing and efficient, and she was into it. When he brushed by her chair with one of the sound techs, she snagged his elbow—mostly to ogle him some more, but as a clever cover, she asked, “Have you seen Phoebe?”
“She’s in the back getting her hair and makeup done.”
“Oh, poor thing! Why didn’t she just have Helen do it?”
“Lady Tassell insisted.” A former stylist and personal shopper for the Dymond brothers, John looked as though he didn’t see the great tragedy in getting your hair and makeup done. Neither did Suzy, really—not that it came up often in her life—but Phoebe hated all that. Most days you were lucky to catch her in anything more formal than a skirt, trainers, and a sweater with a hole in it—and really, you were lucky to catch her in that. She wasn’t joking when she said the best perk of being a professional writer was working in her pajamas.
“Do you think we could go keep her company and provide moral support?”
John clearly wanted to say no but couldn’t think of a good reason. “Just don’t hassle anybody. And if you provide liquid courage as well as moral, please bring a straw.”
Suzy was grateful yet again for her nude lip. “You want to come?” she asked Noor.
Noor shook her head. “I should network.”
Ugh. Probably Suzy should do that too. Technically she had business cards in her purse…but John had had them printed for her, and mostly he gave them out for her too. Feeling a little guilty, she escaped to the back.
Phoebe looked miserable and self-conscious in her finery, which made Suzy feel even guiltier about how she suddenly was having a little trouble breathing, and also a little trouble taking her eyes off Phoebe’s cleavage. “You look smoking hot,” she said honestly.
“Truer words were never spoken,” her husband Nick called from a nearby chair. Suzy knew he hated all this too, but since he was used to it from his society-page aristocratic youth, he was bearing up a bit better. Privately, Suzy was happy for John to get one last chance to glam him up—she knew her husband writhed inwardly every time he spotted Nick at Tesco with bedhead and a stained T-shirt.
“Thanks,” Phoebe said glumly as a woman brushed something onto her face.
“It’ll be over soon,” Suzy said, trying to be sympathetic. “Um. That dress, though.” Funny how variety really was the spice of life. John wore a suit every day, so she swooned when he wore a flannel and didn’t shave; Phoebe dressed like a slob, so Suzy was drooling over this…was it a gown? Or did a gown have to be long?
Anything that pretty had to be a gown.
Phoebe gave herself a half-hopeful, half-despairing look in the mirror. “It’s nice, right?”
“It’s bloody fantastic.”
Soft, hot-pink fabric scooped low, clinging to Phoebe’s curves. Dotted mesh in the same color flounced to her calves and stretched and gathered over her breasts, narrowing to a lightly sequined collar. Between the mesh panel and the top of the flirty half-sleeves were small but striking expanses of creamy bare skin.
Suzy poked one of them. “If my skin was as good as yours, I wouldn’t wear makeup either.”
Phoebe hunched her shoulders. “My skin is good because I’m not constantly smearing crap on it,” she said with disgust. The makeup artist’s lips tightened. Phoebe didn’t notice. “Do you think there will be paparazzi?”
Oh dear. Another problem that didn’t come up often—or ever—in Suzy’s life. “A few outside, maybe? Inside I haven’t seen anyone but Caroline.”
“It’s our first public appearance in forever.” Phoebe chewed her lip. The makeup artist looked despairing. “They’re going to be in my face trying to give me even more chins than I already have and speculating as to whether I’m…” She glanced at Nick and lowered her voice. “Pregnant.” Her face crumpled a little. “I’m not pregnant.”
“Oh, love.” Suzy squeezed her arm. “You will be.”
She could see in Phoebe’s face that she would have said more if they weren’t in a room full of people.
“Do you want some liquid courage? John said it was all right if I gave you a straw.”
“Yes,” Phoebe said gratefully. “A salty dog, please. With gin.” You couldn’t really drink a cocktail with a salt rim with a straw. Suzy hesitated, then went and got the drink. Phoebe downed it in about three swallows. “Do you want another?”
The makeup artist, grimly reapplying Phoebe’s lipstick, closed her eyes briefly.
“I shouldn’t, or I’ll embarrass myself.” She looked up at Suzy through smoky lashes. “Thanks. You’re too nice to me.”
Suzy scoffed. “Who, me? You know I stick to the bare minimum of nice. I’ve got to go, but you really look smashing.”
“Thanks.” For the first time, Phoebe took in Suzy’s suit.
Suzy preened and flipped her hair, newly dyed blonde.
“What? I love it.”
“Is that Helen’s?”
Phoebe wrinkled her nose. “Well, you look smashing too, obviously, but now I feel weird saying it.”
Suzy grinned at her, relieved. For a second she’d been worried she’d done her makeup wrong or something and looked like a prole, and John would be embarrassed. “My smoking bod making you feel a bit incestuous?”
“Ew! No. Go away.”
Lady Tassell’s speech was boring, maybe because Suzy had been hearing versions of it since she was approximately two days old. Or maybe Suzy would have liked it more if the countess wasn’t Phoebe’s difficult mother-in-law.
It was all right, though, because the salad was tangy and the rolls were soft, and then they brought out the deconstructed steak and potatoes and Ash Cahill got up to talk, tapping his mic and grinning crookedly at the crowd. Suzy took out a packet of Kleenex and set it on the table between her and Noor.
“Oh my god, thank you,” Noor whispered. “I forgot to bring any.”
Ash opened up a video, laughing sheepishly as “The Long and Winding Road” started to play. “Call me a narcissist, but I’d say this picture makes St. Leonard’s about the most important building in the world.”
It was his wedding photo with Lydia, one of those ridiculous magazine shoots rich people did when they got married. A few of them went by: Lydia slipping the wedding ring on his finger, Lydia shoving cake in his mouth and laughing, their first dance. Suzy started to feel a little sentimental. Who didn’t love wedding photos?
Then there was cranky Mr. Foley from the used bookshop, young and very seventies and beaming on the church steps with Mrs. Foley who died of cancer over a decade ago. Suzy didn’t recognize the next one, a black-and-white photo of a baptism.
The pictures kept coming, weddings and baptisms and confirmations of people all over town, and of their grandparents and great-grandparents. Some funerals, too. Oh, there were her and John and Mr. Summers! It was only a couple of years ago, had she really been so young and nervous?
Oh god. Suzy made a noise and grabbed Noor’s hand.
There were her mum and dad getting married, back before everything went to shit. Mum was very pregnant and glowing, hair sprayed a mile high and four pounds of makeup on her face, right down to the bright blue eyeshadow. Suzy had seen that picture twice in her life. Mum gave Ash Cahill that picture? To show the whole town? What the hell did he say to her?
The presentation finally ended, to a chorus of people blowing their noses all over the room.
“I’m crying, and I’m not even Christian,” Noor grumbled.
Slipping a crumpled tissue into her blazer pocket as she climbed the podium, Lydia Cahill took her husband’s hands and gave him a quick kiss. “Thank you, darling.” The tabloids were always on about how she’d paid him to marry her to improve her public image, but Suzy, cynical as she was about almost everything, didn’t really buy it.
“St. Leonard’s is part of Lively St. Lemeston’s story,” Lydia said. “Our story. That old roof has sheltered us, and our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, at so many important moments in our lives. And if we all give generously tonight, not only do we preserve those stories, but we ensure that our children, and their children, will find shelter there too. On your table you will find envelopes…”
The rustling of checkbooks, wallets, pens, et cetera filled the room. After talking up the raffle baskets a bit, Lydia explained the auction and that winning bidders would be entitled to dinner but just dinner, let’s keep it classy everyone, Ash joked that he’d be up for auction but he recommended holding out for his much handsomer brother (“I am,” Suzy said audibly, and then felt bad), and the prospective “dates” filed out onto the stage like little lambs to the slaughter.
Phoebe looked awfully small and vulnerable sandwiched between lanky Nick Dymond and his even taller brother, with Suzy’s own giant of a husband hovering about and Rafe Cahill looming not far off. When Caroline rushed up to snap a few extra pictures, Phoebe tried to stretch her neck and tilt her head down like the girls on Britain’s Next Top Model. Her flirty pink skirt flounced and fluttered around her calves as she shifted anxiously. They were nice calves…
Don’t make it weird, Suzy told herself. You’re perfectly capable of being attracted to a friend without acting the fool and mucking things up. She’s married, anyway. Of course, so was Suzy….
She tried to decide if she’d always been attracted to Phoebe or if this was new. Sure, she’d always noticed Phoebe’s chest, but that didn’t prove anything. Cleavage like that was hard to miss. Straight girls looked at each other’s cleavage, right? Didn’t they? Oh, how was she supposed to know? Phoebe wasn’t her usual type—too short and frumpy—but that didn’t matter as much when you were mates with someone. And Suzy guessed she did like them cranky, introverted, and opinionated, if John was anything to go by.
Rafe Cahill did sell for more than five hundred. Suzy eyed the remaining options without much enthusiasm. It was all very well to enjoy bidding on a pretty young thing, but then she had to actually eat dinner with them and there was no way to tell if they were a creep or pro-Brexit or both. Maybe she should go for Imogen, except probably she couldn’t afford that either. Half the town got their morning coffee at Makepeace’s and half of them had a crush on Imogen.
While Suzy was dithering, her hopes for the evening souring by the second, Lydia Reeve went to an incredibly old man who had probably been a friend of her father’s, and her brother Lord Wheatcroft bought dinner with the nerdy little host of a PSB gardening show, blushing like a bonfire as he introduced himself.
One of Lady Tassell’s friends bought Nick’s brother, and then it was Phoebe’s turn. Phoebe wasn’t nearly as well known as most of the other people on the stage (unless you took your kid to library storytime, anyway) and she was scowling. The sudden painful thought struck Suzy—what if no one bid? Phoebe would never admit it, but she was bound to be humiliated and think it was because she wasn’t pretty enough. Suzy started to raise her hand—
“Fifty pounds,” a voice said. Phoebe started, looking around wildly.
Suzy followed the auctioneer’s pointing finger but couldn’t spot the bidder. “Sixty pounds,” she called, to smoke him out.
Oh no. It was Walter Fairclough, the defense contractor. He did take his kid to library storytime, and he’d made several passes at Phoebe around the same time she met Nick. She’d actually gone on a couple of dates with him before deciding the whole merchant of death thing was a dealbreaker.
Phoebe had spotted him too. She squared her shoulders, looking resigned. Suzy could imagine her saying, It’s my civic duty, there’s no use bitching about it, just as she did about taxes and jury service.
Suzy put her hand up.
She hadn’t done much bidding before tonight, unless you counted eBay, but she’d haggled plenty, and she figured the rules were more or less opposite. If she raised it in dribs and drabs, Mr. Fairclough would get competitive, and anyway he’d be able to keep telling himself, It’s only a few pounds more. Better to scare him away all at once. “Three hundred fifty,” she said loudly. What the hell, it was for a good cause.
Mr. Fairclough sat back in his chair. At the edge of the room, she saw John raise his eyebrows. Butterflies filled her stomach.
Going once, going twice, and sold to the young lady in the red suit.
Phoebe expressed her gratitude for Suzy’s selfless gesture about fifty times, which didn’t help the butterflies, and they agreed to meet for dinner on Wednesday.
“Where should I take her?” Suzy asked John. “Somewhere nice. I’ve got a hundred and fifty pounds left.”
John’s lips twitched, but he didn’t ask for his money back. “Is this…” He gave her one of his neutral I just work here, it’s not my place to judge looks. “Is this a platonic social engagement, or are you hoping for something romantic?”
Suzy felt inexplicably self-conscious. “I fancy her, I guess. But I want to stay friends. Do you think I should let it alone?”
“Sex changes things between people,” John said slowly. “Sometimes for the better.” He smiled at her.
It still took her by surprise, how happy it made her that she made him happy. She nudged him with her foot. “You old softy.”
“Sometimes it changes them for the worse, though. I don’t think you should do anything. You simply have to decide if what you hope to gain is worth what you stand to lose. Sometimes…I don’t mean to patronize you.” He looked uncertain. He was a lot older and he’d been accused of patronizing her on any number of memorable occasions (sometimes with justice, sometimes not).
“What?” Suzy crossed her arms. “I mean, go ahead, I won’t fly off the handle.”
“At your age I viewed the end of any friendship as a catastrophe. But sometimes friendships end. They run their course, or something changes, or you have a fight. The time you shared will still be what it was, and mean what it did. Just remember, she’s in a relationship, so if she says no, it doesn’t mean anything about you.”
Then, because he was the best husband in the world, he gave her a rundown of the expensive restaurants in Lively St. Lemeston. There were only two, plus one in Brighton and one in Arundel, and they were all either French or the kind of place that served half a new potato with vinegar foam and called it a small plate.
In the end, Suzy settled on the Argentinian steakhouse in Market Square. Back when Phoebe was scraping by on porridge six nights a week and fish and chips on Sunday, she used to go on and on about steak.
On Wednesday she dithered in front of the mirror for half an hour, then texted Phoebe, What are you wearing? 👠👢👡
Wait, are we dressing up? I can totally change but I was hoping for 👟👟👟👟👟, Phoebe texted back.
Suzy’s heart sank. That was a bad sign, right? But maybe not for Phoebe. When she’d first been trying to impress Nick, back when she was working for his little brother’s election campaign, it had mostly involved wearing red Converse and letting Helen fishtail-braid her hair.
Whatever. This wasn’t even a real date. Phoebe was married.
Suzy called the restaurant. “Do you have a dress code?”
“Casual is fine, but you won’t feel out of place in a dress or tie,” the disembodied voice told her.
I checked 👟 are okay 😘
Suzy sighed, wriggled into her best skinny jeans, and started trying on sweaters.
Phoebe was back in her sweater, skirt, and trainers uniform, but she was wearing pink Converse, bright yellow leggings, and a cute pullover with a treasure map on it that only had one giant hole in the shoulder. Suzy wanted to poke the hole, so this wasn’t some gown-inspired fever dream. She actually fancied Phoebe.
Phoebe’s hair was in a tucked-French-braid updo, too, one of those messy-in-a-fancy-way ones like you ought to wear a flower crown with it, so maybe that was a good sign?
“I love your hair!” Suzy said in a totally non-threatening friendly way.
Phoebe ducked her head, countless ethereal wisps fluttering. “Thanks. I was babysitting this afternoon and Helen insisted. She was filming a YouTube tutorial or something.”
Since Phoebe was perfectly capable of telling Helen to bugger off and had done so in her hearing dozens of times, Suzy didn’t take this too much to heart. “Lucky. John only knows how to style men’s hair.”
Phoebe laughed. “Nick looked really handsome at the auction, didn’t he? Not that he doesn’t always, but I forgot how coiffed he was when we met.”
“How is Nick?” Suzy asked politely. John would want to hear the answer, too.
“He’s getting more and more paid pieces,” Phoebe said proudly. She bit her lip. “His leg’s been bothering him. It’s not getting better, and it’s been three years. He thinks it might be getting worse, actually. He’s started talking about a prosthetic. Amputation really helps some people with the pain. Lady Tassell doesn’t want him to do it, though.”
“What about you?”
Phoebe looked scared. “I don’t know. I don’t want him to be in pain. I don’t care about the leg. You just—you never know what will happen.”
Suzy knew that look. “Have you been staying up late reading WebMD again?”
Phoebe put her head in her hands. “There are a lot of horror stories out there,” she mumbled.
Suzy couldn’t judge. Phoebe’s first husband checked into hospital for a routine procedure and never checked out. “Hey,” she said gently. “Will was a really unusual case.”
“Yeah, and lightning doesn’t actually check to see if it’s already struck you.”
“Do you want to talk about it, or do you want a bottle of wine?”
Before long they were scandalizing several nearby tables with their loud and inappropriate conversation. Just like old times.
“Can you believe we’ve both been married for two years already?” Suzy said, feeling warm and tipsy and nostalgic.
“No,” Phoebe said emphatically. “When we met we’d sworn off men, remember?”
Suzy debated whether or not to say anything. “Dating. I’d sworn off dating.”
“Oh right, sorry. We hadn’t sworn off drinking though, had we?”
“We were young! We didn’t get hangovers.” Suzy had been managing a couple of properties for the older women that owned them. Phoebe was already widowed, living by herself in an attic apartment trying to finish university. She kept losing her keys and waking Suzy up in the middle of the night to let her in. Finally Suzy told her, You’d better invite me in for a drink if you’re going to keep doing this.
“It was only four years ago,” Phoebe pointed out.
“How many times did we watch Hot Fuzz that year?”
“‘You want to be a big cop in a small town? Fuck off up the model village!’”
They both cracked up. “Let’s go back to my place and watch it,” Phoebe said. “Nick is in London for work. And he doesn’t appreciate Hot Fuzz. He says Shaun of the Dead is better, believe it or not.”
“Men are trash.” Suzy shook her head mournfully. “John did like Hot Fuzz, being a bit of a Nick Angel himself. He even bought me that peace lily for our anniversary, remember?”
Phoebe looked dubious. “I hate when people give me plants. I always kill them.”
Suzy waved her hand. “Oh, he waters it. Anyway, I’ve suggested we rewatch it a couple times and he keeps saying, ‘Let’s try something new, I heard about this great program on HBO…’ He’ll never just order his favorite at a restaurant either.”
Phoebe made a gagging noise, already signaling for the check.
Hot Fuzz was just as amazing as ever, but Suzy couldn’t concentrate. Phoebe wasn’t being careful how she sat, because after all they were just mates, and Suzy could see right up her skirt, which had never bothered her before but was now highly distracting and made her feel like a perv. Not that there was even anything to see but more yellow leggings, but on the other hand…thighs.
Really nice thighs that Suzy wouldn’t mind putting her head between.
“Listen,” she said finally. “I, um, this might sound a bit weird, but I’m just going to spit it out, okay?”
Phoebe turned to look at her.
“I fancy you.” Suzy’s face flamed. “Me and John are poly, so if you, like, wanted this to be a real date—it could be. If you don’t, just forget I said anything, obviously. Please forget I said anything.”
Phoebe hit pause. Simon Pegg froze halfway through leaping over a fence and hung there. “You know, um, I’ve wondered. About myself.” She sounded deathly nervous. “I mean, Martha Honeysett and I practiced kissing a few times in Year 8, but that doesn’t mean anything, I don’t think. And then I married so young, and after Will died I didn’t really think about anybody that way until I met Nick. But I, um, I mean, you’re really pretty. They say everybody’s a bit bisexual, don’t they? I like writing about women, um—” She hesitated, then blurted out, “—fucking. Nick and I…I don’t know, dating is such a lot of trouble, and mostly you meet assholes. I couldn’t imagine bothering when I already have somebody I like. But—” She flushed, trying to shove loose hair back into her braids and just making the mess worse. “Nick and I did talk about this date and he said…we agreed that so long as we always asked each other first and loved each other best and avoided sharing the juicy details, maybe…” She took a deep breath. “So it wouldn’t be cheating. I think we should kiss. I would like to, I mean. Or, I mean, I’m sorry, I’m so awkward at this. Can I kiss you?”
Suzy was melting into a little puddle on the sofa at all this earnestness and explanation. She winked. “Sure, give it a go.”
Phoebe slid over, her mouth looking very pink and inviting, and put her delicate little fingers on the back of Suzy’s neck. The butterflies started fluttering in Suzy’s stomach, and then Phoebe leaned in and kissed her in a much more confident, matter-of-fact way than she’d been expecting.
Suzy had got spoiled, being married. She’d forgotten how awkward first kisses were, and how awkward trying to kiss while sitting next to each other on a sofa was, and how awkward trying to change position without hurting someone’s feelings by breaking a kiss was, and all that. But somehow a dozen elbows and mortified apologies later, she was straddling Phoebe, and Phoebe was giving her a glinty, determined look and pulling her back in. Oh. Oh yes. Oh, this was nice, and Phoebe’s breasts and stomach were soft and solid against her front.
“Can I take your top off?” Phoebe asked, and Suzy very abruptly went from lazy-warm-this-is-nice to oh-my-god-please. Her boobs started to throb a little, eagerly.
“Be my guest.”
Phoebe pulled her sweater over her head, and her long-sleeved T, and her camisole. Suzy suddenly remembered she’d worn her padded Maidenform bra today, because it was mostly new and she liked the purple lace and she wanted to look alluring in her sweater. Phoebe laughed at her and stuck her fingers into the cup to see how thick the padding was, and Suzy was about to make a self-deprecating comment but Phoebe’s fingers brushed her nipple and she mewled instead.
Phoebe smiled, pleased. She didn’t take the bra off yet, shaping and pinching Suzy’s breasts through it, pulled one cup down to bare the nipple, dragging the lace across it. Suzy watched, the hot ache between her legs intensifying.
Phoebe leaned in and bit Suzy’s nipple through the memory foam. “Mmph.”
Ready to speed things along, Suzy grabbed the hem of Phoebe’s pullover.
Phoebe rapped her across the knuckles with the back of her hand. “Ask nicely,” she said with a cocky smirk, basically going full Han Solo, and holy shit.
Suzy widened her eyes. “Please, mistress, I’d be ever so grateful.”
Phoebe turned bright red and looked away. Watching her face kept Suzy’s own half-out boobs in her line of sight, which turned her on even more.
“Speaking of,” Phoebe said incoherently. “Can I—um—” She pushed Suzy out of her lap and went in the other room. Turning the TV off, Suzy tried to drape herself over the sofa in a casually erotic way, one knee drawn up to her chest.
Then Phoebe came back in with a flogger, and Suzy sat up so fast she almost tipped right off the sofa onto the floor. “So you and Nick are freaks, huh?”
“I’m not going to talk about Nick,” Phoebe said firmly, running the toy’s soft wide strips of leather through her fingers. “But I know what I’m doing. Well. Kind of. I’ve watched a bunch of YouTube videos and I’ve used it, but never on a woman.”
“So on Nick, then.” Suzy held up her hands. “Sorry! I would love to be Boob Test Subject Zero.”
Phoebe grinned, eyes sparkling happily. “Take off your bra and go stand with your hands on the wall.” She rushed to kick aside a pile of sweaters and books and a few dirty socks to clear a patch of carpet. “Here.”
Suzy didn’t wait to be asked twice. She twisted her head, trying to see Phoebe over her shoulder.
“Just relax,” Phoebe said.
Nothing about standing topless in Phoebe’s living room waiting to be whipped was relaxing, but okay. Suzy shivered with anticipation, and shivered again when the straps hit her lightly, just a faint brush against her back. She suddenly got why leather was always described as “kissing” the heroine’s skin in erotica.
The first few strokes were like that, a feathery, exploratory touch, and then they got firmer. Authoritative. Relaxing, even, Suzy admitted to herself. Her impatience melting away, she shut her eyes and stopped thinking about where this was going. The light, regular thud of impact vibrated in her bones. “You do know what you’re doing.”
Phoebe’s hand was cool against her warm back. “You feeling the endorphins at all yet?”
Suzy felt kind of like she’d smoked half a joint, warm through and through and happy about life. Shit like this must take longer than five minutes to have a physical effect, so maybe that was just her crush, but she nodded.
“You want to turn around?”
Half of Suzy wanted to stay right where she was until she fell asleep. The other half turned around. Her nipples tightened.
Phoebe looked a little nervous. “Tell me how it feels.” She gathered the leather thongs in one hand and brushed the ends over Suzy’s breasts, around, up, down. Then she flicked her wrist and a dozen light little stings hit Suzy’s left breast.
“It feels awesome.”
Phoebe laughed. She did it again, light and teasing, until Suzy was squirming.
“Does that thing feel as good on your clit as I think it might?”
Phoebe trailed the leather lightly over the seam of Suzy’s skinny jeans. Ohhhhh. “Yeah.”
Suzy’s hands were already going to the button of her fly.
“Look,” Phoebe blurted out. “I—I’m really sorry, but this is our first date. Our first date date. I definitely want to shag right now but I think maybe we should slow down.”
Suzy felt deflated, but probably not as deflated as she would have without all those endorphins or whatever.
“I don’t want to ruin our friendship or push you into anything, and this is still pretty new for me and Nick.”
That probably meant I’m freaking out and after I’ve talked it over with Nick this is never happening again. Which was okay, obviously, Suzy didn’t want to push Phoebe into anything either—except for how she really, really did. “I get it,” she said cheerfully.
Phoebe tried to run a hand through her hair and got her fingers stuck in all those braids for a second. “Okay. Okay, sorry. Thanks for understanding. I just don’t want to get carried away. Let’s, um. Let’s finish the movie and…if it’s not weird tomorrow and Nick doesn’t feel weird about it, maybe we can see each other again?”
Suzy licked her lips. “I don’t think I can finish the movie. Like, unless I go in your bathroom and wank first and that would definitely make it weird.”
Phoebe looked surprised, and a little smug. “Oh. Okay. Well, good night.”
Suzy reached for her bra. “I can tell you right now John is going to want to know the juicy details. Can I talk to him about what happened? If you’re not comfortable, I—”
“You got it.” Suzy saluted. Phoebe watched her tits bounce. That was a good sign, right?
When Suzy got home, John was sitting at the kitchen table with his tablet, wearing his reading glasses.
She snickered. “You don’t want to just make the font bigger?” John glanced up at her, warm and amused, and she felt much better about her evening. She was doing okay. Great, even. Someone wanted her. Someone awesome, even. “I didn’t mean it, you know those glasses make me wild. Are you in the middle of something or do you have a minute to fuck me?”
He took the glasses off and pushed his tablet away. “How did the date go?”
“Good. I think. Well, I know it went good. I don’t know yet if there’s going to be a second one.”
He stood, unbuckling his belt. “Do you want one?”
She gave him a little shove. “Talk later. Fuck now.”
He obliged her.
Suzy tried not to wait for a text. Phoebe wasn’t always the most reliable texter, especially when she was in the middle of writing a book.
When her phone dinged at 11:30 the next morning, though (after three agonizing false alarms in the form of a bill reminder from the bank, an action alert from Liberty, and a text from her mum reading CAN I BORROW YOUR VACUUM? IT’S BETTER THAN MINE. HAVE YOU AND JOHN HAD YOUR FLU SHOTS!! LOVE, MUM), it was from Phoebe.
Are you working today? Do you want to meet at the Honey Moon? 🍦🍦
Two soft-serve ice cream cones were their symbol for Hot Fuzz. The emoji didn’t look like a Cornetto, but whatever, they weren’t going to eat Cornettos either. Suzy liked them, but they were way too sugary and artificial for Phoebe, who lived for the Honey Moon’s salty-sweet maple-bacon gelato.
Suzy tried to decide if the in-joke was a good sign or Phoebe trying to suck up because she was planning to reject Suzy. Once again she reminded herself that it didn’t matter.
I should be done by 3PM, she typed, nobly not ringing Mrs. Pengilly to cancel her spring cleaning. See u then?
Phoebe sent back a thumbs-up, and Suzy went off to take her anxiety out on Mrs. Pengilly’s Royal Doulton collection.
As soon as she walked into the Honey Moon, she felt silly for having spent forty-five minutes fussing over her look, trying for something equally appropriate for a date or casual snacks with a friend. Phoebe was just wearing wrinkled green jeans and an old sweatshirt with an owl on it, her hair pulled back with a scrunchie. She looked adorable, obviously, but not as if she cared whether Suzy thought so.
Their hug was awkward, and Suzy’s heart sank. Had she bollocksed this up for good? Stupid, stupid sex drive.
She ordered CorNOTto anyway and pasted on a bright smile, preparing to friend-flirt like this was fine. Totally fine, of course they were still mates. You know me, too horny for my own good.
Suzy felt like crying.
Phoebe stabbed her spoon into her ice cream in its undyed compostable cup and didn’t look at her. “It’s weird, isn’t it? Now it’s weird.” She pushed the cup away.
“It’s a little weird,” Suzy admitted, trying to remember what sage advice John had dispensed to her before she went right ahead and ruined everything anyway. She wished she were eating real junk food, instead of this artisan vanilla-bean-toasted-hazelnut-85%-cocoa upmarket bullshit in a homemade waffle cone. “John says…sometimes friendships run their course. But I don’t want him to be right. I like you. I don’t have that many friends.”
Phoebe glanced up at her, her brown eyes wide and her lashes dark and curling without any mascara at all. “You know how I used to lock myself out all the time?”
“A couple of those times I did it on purpose. I was so lonely and I’d never lived alone before…” Her voice got thick, her eyes reddening. “I just needed somebody to come over and watch a movie with me and I had no one else I could call in the middle of the night. I’m sorry, I’m such a mess.”
“It’s okay,” Suzy said, taken aback. “You always had the good boxed wine.”
“It was just a couple times. Look, do you want to try for a second date or should we call the whole thing off?”
Suzy blinked. “Do…do you want to try for a second date?”
“Well, yeah,” Phoebe said defiantly. “You’re really hot.”
Suzy grinned, her I-hate-rejection nerves fading into normal second-date jitters. Less buzzing, more humming. Possibilities opening up instead of closing off forever. “Why didn’t you just say so? So it’s a bit weird. The only way out of weirdness is through, right?”
Phoebe took in a deep breath. “Yeah. Okay.” She smiled. “Let’s do it. I should warn you I’m much better at being a friend than I am at dating, so sorry in advance about that.”
Suzy had got used to being with smooth-as-silk forty-two-year-old John. She’d got used to being the messy one, the uncertain one, the one who knew less about everything. This felt kind of awesome. Validating, even. And the ice cream wasn’t as awful as she’d thought. It was delicious, even, in its own pretentious way. She winked at Phoebe as she crunched happily into her cone. “I’m not great at being a friend or dating, so we’re off to a great start.”
Phoebe rolled her eyes and started in on her melty ice cream. “I guess I owe Lady Tassell for making me go to that awful fundraiser. Never, ever tell her I said so, though.”
They both already owed Lady Tassell, since Nick and John would never have been in this backwater in the first place if it wasn’t for Nick’s mum. Suzy didn’t point that out. “Fuck her,” she said instead, toasting Phoebe with her cone tip. “Your secret’s safe with me.”
Thanks for reading! If you’re interested:
- You can buy Phoebe and Nick’s story, Sweet Disorder, here:
John and Sukey’s story, Listen to the Moon, is here:
And if you want the whole series, there’s a boxed set and it’s a great deal:
4. Sign up for my mailing list to find out when I have new books and stories out.