"Sisters?"

by Brandy Dewinter


(c 2008, All rights reserved)





There were never such devoted sisters . . .



Chapter 1 - "Warming Up"


Bing, bing, bing, bong . . . . bong, bing, bing, bong . . .

The musical chimes from the doorbell faded away, leaving Nicole Pierce looking at her daughter Alexis expectantly.

"Don't look at me like that," Alexis said. "None of my friends would be out in this weather."

"Your legs are younger than mine," Nicole said with a smile that nonetheless required compliance.

"Better looking, too," Alexis said, but she smiled back and moved to the door just as the chimes started again. Strawberry-blonde, curvy Alexis took after her still-young-looking golden-haired mother and they often teased the other on their appearance, knowing each was pretty enough to turn any heads within range.

When she reached the door it turned out that it was indeed one of her friends, Adam Cristie, though he certainly shouldn't have been out in that weather dressed as he was. It was sleeting heavily - wet, frigid bullets of ice that were worse than snow at rapidly chilling anyone caught outside.

"Adam, what are you doing out in this weather?"

"Sorry," he said, teeth chattering. "It was s-s-sunny and looked like a nice day when I left h-h-home. I was at the park and d-d-didn't notice the storm building until it was too l-l-late. You know what they s-s-say about weather in T-T-Texas - if you d-d-don't like it, wait five minutes."

"Well, I certainly don't like this cold," Alexis said. "And you're like, totally freezing."

"Uh, yeah," he said wryly. "It was, um, c-c-closer here than h-h-home."

By this time Nicole had joined them and she started pushing Adam toward the hall. "Get out of those wet clothes right now. Take a hot shower to warm up. I'll call your mother. Alexis, help him."

Alexis had no trouble steering Adam toward the bathroom. She was an Omar Bradley High School jock, 5'-10" with legs toned from her favorite sport, volleyball. Adam was in the same high school junior class and almost as tall, only an inch or so shorter, but he had never been into sports - particularly the raucous energy explosions of competitive team sports. In an all-out, no-holds-barred match he might still have had the upper-body strength to resist Alexis, but he was far short of the strength of will to counter her assumption of control.

His hands were almost numb as he fumbled with his soaked knit shirt, trying to drag it over his even-wetter hair. Alexis grabbed the shirt-tail in her strong hands and almost ripped it getting it past the dripping mass of darkness. She pushed him to a seat on the commode and tugged at the soaked knots on his Nikes. Adam just hugged his arms around his cold chest until she started to work on his belt.

"I can take it from here, Alli," he said.

"Oh, yeah," she said, sitting back, then she grinned. "You're sure?"

"Yeah, Alli, now get out," he ordered, but he smiled, too. It wasn't like the implied offer was real. They had grown up together, and had stayed friends even after Alexis blossomed into heartbreaker status while Adam stayed . . . well, the generous word was 'studious.' Adam knew Alexis tolerated him because he was a good tutor for her tougher classes, though he hoped it was a bit more than that. But even if they weren't almost like brother and sister, the quiet, bookish Adam was had no real chance with the popular, statuesque teen queen.

It was a bit of a surprise that they were still friends. Their families had been close since before either had been born as each set of parents had pursued the 2.3-car, 1.7-kids dream in a generic yuppie hatchery. Then it had all come crashing down when the fathers had run off . . .

. . . together.

Painful memories of times that had seemed so happy could have forced the remainders of the families apart, but Nicole Pierce and Adam's mother, Sara Cristie, had found each other again in a divorce recovery support group and had drawn strength from their mutual need. The mothers were closer than ever, so the kids ended up almost as siblings, with a teasing sexual undercurrent thrown in just because - unlike real siblings - they could flirt with each other without anyone thinking it was disgusting, while at the same time knowing it would never lead to anything.

It took a while for the hot water to warm Adam up again, enough that he decided to wash his hair while he was under the stream. All he found was some sort of conditioning shampoo, and it was too late once he realized it had added a definite scent to his hair, something with a hint of wildflowers and a hint of musk. Alli's shampoo. It was nice . . . on her.

It did make his hair feel clean, and not as tangled as it usually was. Adam decided he'd have to ask his mom if there were a less-fragrant variant as he toweled his hair more or less dry. There was a lot of it to dry. One of the opportunities that had come with high school was a change in dress code, relaxing restrictions on boys' hair because of a prior sexual discrimination lawsuit. So a lot of the guys had let it grow out as a sign of growing up, demonstrating that they could make their own decisions. Of course, when 4 out of 5 guys were doing the same thing, it was hardly a major rebellion against authority. Adam had let it grow longer than most though, and it hung well down his back when he pulled it into his customary low ponytail.

When it was dry enough to push out of his face, he looked around and didn't see the band he had used before . . . and then he realized his clothes weren't on the floor, either.

"Alli," he called. "Where's my clothes?"

When he didn't get an answer he wrapped himself in a towel and went looking. He found her in the laundry room. "Where's my clothes?"

"In here, doofus," she said, pointing at the washing machine. "Did you like, roll in the mud deliberately, or just slip in all that slop out there?"

"How long is this gonna take?" he asked.

"Oh, probably an hour and half, maybe two. It takes a while to dry jeans."

"I can't sit around in a towel for that long," he complained.

"Oh, right, well, let's see what we can do."

Alexis led her friend up to her room, smirking a bit as she said, "Won't you come into my boudoir?"

"Said the spider to the fly," he replied. "At least I can say I've been in a girl's bedroom."

"Yeah, since we were both about 5 or 6," she said. She tugged on his towel, not enough to dislodge it but enough to make him clutch at it. "What's the matter, big guy, you afraid you'll scare me . . . or are you afraid I'll laugh?"

"Give me a break, Alli," he said, twisting away from her. "I'm getting cold again."

"Hmm," Alexis observed with a snicker, "from the look of that towel, you're not going to fit into any of my jeans. Not unless you want to sing soprano."

Adam's face showed that not all of his blood was busy elsewhere, but he didn't say anything.

Alexis smiled brightly and said, "I know . . . "

She pulled open a drawer and pulled out a long bundle of dark knit fabric. "You can wear my volleyball warm up suit."

"Only . . ," she continued, pausing before handing it to him. "I'm not letting you wear it without underwear."

"Geez, Alli, lighten up," Adam said. "I'll have my mom wash it."

"No way," she said, not even dignifying his suggestion by looking directly at him as she refused. She was too busy rooting through another drawer, from which she took out something shiny and delicate. "Put these on, too. They're old. In fact, I don't even want them back."

"I can't wear these," Adam said.

"Of course you can," Alexis said adamantly. "You may not want to, but they'll fit, and they'll protect my warm up. What's the matter, afraid that wearing panties will turn you gay like our fathers?"

"You don't 'turn' gay like that," said Adam with a snort.

"Exactly," Alexis said. "So like, what's the problem? They're even blue . . . midnight blue, like your eyes. You'll look totally fabulous, dahlink."

Adam looked at the thin, shimmering panties that had somehow ended up in his hand. "Geez, Alli, why bother? There's not enough to these things to matter."

Turning them over, he realized just how little they were. "Where's the rest of them . . . the back side?"

"Welcome to the wonderful world of sensual fashions," Alli said with a laugh. "I have lots of thong panties. I like them, particularly when I want to avoid VPL."

Her eyes demanded a response, but he laughed and said, "Nope, not gonna ask it."

"Oh, poo, you're no fun," Alexis said, a laugh of her own denying her frustration. "Okay, I'll tell you anyway. Visible Panty Line. So there."

"I'll make a note," Adam replied. "Now, get out so I can get dressed."

"Yes, Master. Whatever you say, Master," Alexis said as she threw the warmups in his face.

A few minutes later, when Adam went to look for Alexis, his new outfit was not quite working.

"Oh, Adam, that look is just divine!"

"It's stupid," he said. "Don't you have anything else?"

"Not unless you want to wear a skirt and heels . . ." Alexis replied, her voice trailing off.

The first problem was that the pants to the warmup were several inches too long. Adam had scrunched up the legs, but still looked like a kid trying to wear adult clothes. The second problem was that they were a tight, stretchy style designed to caress every curve of a young woman's legs. The shape they revealed (all too well) on Adam was smoothed just enough to hide any lumpiness along the trip from hips to the bunched up ankles, implying a sleekness that wasn't expected. The bright pink stripe up each leg did nothing to add to Adam's comfort level. Nor did the fact he still had only the towel wrapped around his shoulders.

"Where's the sweatshirt?" Adam asked, interrupting Alexis who was still looking thoughtfully at him. "Isn't there a top to go with these pants?"

"Oh, yeah, but I didn't want you to like, mess it up with your wet hair," Alexis replied, forcing her attention back from her distraction. "C'mon, I'll fix you up."

When they reached her room again, she said, "I have totally the right thing. They turned out to be a size too large for me anyway. I guess it was the wrong time of the month when I tried them on."

She pulled out a pair of knee-high black boots with a tapered heel - more Western style than narrow spike, but definitely taller and thinner than any of Adam's other shoes incorporated. "Get real, Alli. I'm not wearing high heels."

"These aren't really high, only three inches . . . or so," she said. "Besides, girls' legs are longer than boys' legs, in proportion anyway. That's why the pants are too long for you even though you're only a couple of inches shorter than me. Besides, you totally need something to keep your feet warm anyway, and these are all I have that will fit."

"Besides," she continued, "I think they'll look good on you. I think everyone looks better if their legs look longer and they're like, taller. You'd like to be taller, wouldn't you?"

"Well, yeah," Adam admitted, "but . . ."

"But nothing. Here, you put them on and I'll get my brush and dryer for your hair."

::At least they're not too small,:: mused Adam as he pulled up the inside zipper. He tried to rationalize what he was doing. ::A bit tight, but they're warm.:: That last rationale had some merit. Despite a hot shower, he still felt a sense of chill that might take days to bake out of his bones. Going barefoot accentuated that, so getting something on his feet was clearly necessary. Now for a shirt.

"Sit here," Alexis commanded. "You can use the towel for now to catch the hair."

"Catch the hair . . . ?" repeated Adam.

"Yeah, I'm gonna trim it a little. It looks . . . well, it just offends my sense of aesthetics - notice the SAT word - to have it look so shaggy. All I'm gonna do is like, even it up a little."

"I don't want my hair cut," Adam insisted. "I like it the way it is."

"It's already longer than mine," Alexis pointed out. "I'm only going to trim the ends. It won't look any shorter. No one will be able to tell the difference, except it'll look neater." Then she played the total unfairness card, "It'll make you look hot!"

"Yeah, right," Adam said dryly, but even the false hope was enough to make him stop resisting. Not many girls thought he looked hot. None that he knew of, in fact. If the prettiest girl he knew even pretended it would help, it was hard to say no.

True to her promise, Alexis didn't spend much time cutting on his hair. After a few minutes, she reached for a blow-dryer and a brush. He used a blow-dryer in his own hair all the time, of course, but usually just ran it back and forth while he ruffled his hair with his hand. So what Alexis was doing didn't seem all that unusual, except that it was her doing it instead of him. The warmth from the dryer and her gentle manipulations on his hair lulled him into drowsiness and he was almost nodding off when she finished.

"There," she said, "that looks much better."

"Wha . . huh? Oh, um, thanks," Adam replied, looking around for a mirror. Before he found one, he remembered that he only had a damp towel around his shoulders. "Alli, could I have a sweatshirt now?"

"Not on a bet," she said. I worked too hard on that to have you mess it up sticking it through a sweatshirt. Let me find . . . . oh, yeah, this will do."

She handed him a pink knit sweater with a floppy collar.

"Pink? Give me a break."

"It's the only one I have with a cowl neck, well, the only older one I won't mind having you stretch out a bit," she claimed. Then she giggled, "Besides, it matches your pants."

As she held it out to him with another snicker and added, "And your cheeks."

Now that the hair dryer wasn't blowing warm air around his shoulders, Adam was starting to get chilled again, as shown by an army of goosebumps marching over his exposed skin. He shivered almost uncontrollably, then reached for the sweater with a groan.

Alexis had to help him get the neck arranged. The opening was wide enough that they could get it over his hair without mussing it, but the thick, soft neck roll felt warm and cozy once she had it arranged.

"There, happy now?" she asked.

"Yeah, thanks, Alli. I'm finally starting to feel warm."

"Good, let's get something to eat," she offered, turning toward the door to her room.

Adam followed her and finally, literally in passing, happened to see himself in the mirror he had wanted earlier.

"Oh my God, Allie, what did you do?"

"I dried your hair, doof."

"But, it looks . . ."

Alexis interrupted him. "It looks good, for the first time since you let it get long and shaggy. And with the split ends trimmed, it's not as likely to shed on my clothes."

"But . . ," Adam started again, pulling at the shining strands. "It looks, like a girl's hair."

"Do you think so?" Alexis asked innocently. "I suppose I might have like, shaped it a little with the dryer and brush. After all, I only know how to do girls' styles."

"I'll say," Adam said, turning to see his back in the mirror. His normal ponytail kept his somewhat frizzy hair away from his face, and it didn't really matter to him what it looked like beyond that, except for the length being his sole claim to coolness - or at least, not-total-nerdness. Now it flowed well below his shoulders in a shining waterfall of darkness, turning under only at the ends like a wave breaking on a beach.

"How'd you make it longer?" he asked.

"I didn't," Alexis claimed. "It's just that the kinky - and I don't mean that in a fun way - tangle you normally wear didn't hang smoothly. Now that you used a decent shampoo and conditioner - you're welcome, by the way - and controlled it while it dried - you're welcome again - it looks the way it should look."

"Wow, Alli, that's amazing, but you gotta fix it."

"Fix it? I just got done fixing it!"

"No, I mean, it looks nice and all, but it's way too much like a girl's hair."

"Well it's too late now," Alexis declared. "Let it get all oily and kinky again on your own time."

Changing the subject, she stood next to him so that both of them showed in the mirror and said, "Y'know, with those boots, you're taller than me, and heels make you stand straighter. Believe me, I know. Anyway, they make you look way better. Now if you could just do something about your complexion."

"Ah, Alli, lighten up. You sound like my mom."

"Fine, pizza boy, do what you want," she sniffed.

"C'mon, Alli, I only have a few zits. I keep my face pretty clear."

"Well, it could be worse," she agreed grudgingly. "Anyway, let's go get some hot chocolate while we wait for the storm to blow over."

Nicole Pierce was a fashion photographer and had - as she usually did - disappeared into her darkroom soon after sending Alexis and Adam to get him warmed up. She was in there all the while Adam showered and dressed. When she emerged the teens were seated on the couch, watching a movie and sipping their hot chocolate.

"My, that hot chocolate looks good, Alexis. Where'd Adam go, and who is . . .? Oh my God!"

"Chill, Mother," Alexis said. "I just found something that would fit and was warm."

"Sorry, Mrs. P," Adam added. "It wasn't my idea, but my clothes . . ."

"I should hope not," Nicole said. "I didn't think you were . . ."

"Were what, Mother?" Alexis said, with a warning in her tone.

Nicole paused and visibly took a deep breath. Then a wry grin pulled up one side of her full lips. "Were that cold, I guess," she laughed. "God, Adam, your hair is fabulous."

"Alexis did that," Adam said, looking at the girl.

"Did a nice job," Nicole said. Then she grinned again. "And that pink sweater is so cute."

"It's the only one I had that he could borrow," Alexis explained.

"Right," Nicole said, not at all agreeing. Then she saw Adam's boots and her eyebrows went up sharply. This time she didn't say anything, at least, not about Adam's clothes. "I, um, think I'll have some of that hot chocolate," she said as she moved toward the kitchen.

Her entrance had expanded Adam's attention beyond the TV screen, and with her exit he looked outside and realized that the sleet had slacked off significantly. "I think I should be going. Alli, could you get me my clothes?"

"They're not dry," Alexis claimed. "I can still hear the dryer going, and I'll bet it takes at least one more cycle."

Nicole re-entered at her comment, and nodded. "I expect you're right. Our old dryer takes a while." She looked out the window and said, "But I'm not sure we should wait, if the storm is slacking. Adam, would you mind going home in those clothes? I'll give you a ride, and we can get your own clothes back to you later."

"I'll drive him, Momma," Alexis offered.

Nicole walked to the window and looked at the streets. Then she turned to her daughter and said, "Straight there and back, right?"

"Yes, Momma, of course," Alexis promised.

Nicole nodded. "Well, I've got some more pictures to process, and it looks like it's still above freezing out there. But be careful." With that, she picked up her hot chocolate and moved toward her darkroom, taking one last long look at Adam and snickering as she moved away.

"Sorry about that, Adam," Alexis said. "She can be a real pain at times."

"It's okay, I guess," he said. "Are my clothes really too wet to wear?"

"Totally," Alexis claimed. "Sorry."

"Yeah, well, I'm the one who got caught out in the weather. I guess this is all my fault anyway."

"Not, um, entirely," Alexis said. "But I don't want to talk about it now. Let me take you home."

Adam frowned at her cryptic remark, but shrugged. Alexis grabbed her purse and keys from a nearby table and without a lot of thought he found himself outside, stepping carefully past mounds of slush in his unfamiliar boots. He was inside Alexis' car before he remembered to worry about whether anyone had seen him, and by then it didn't matter.

"What is my mom going to say?" he sighed as Alexis pulled away from the curb.

Alexis said, "Your mom won't freak, and if she does, just tell her what happened."

"Hell, Alli, I'm not sure I even know what happened. Somehow I ended up dressed in your clothes, with my hair all fixed up, and . . . well, all of it."

"Should make a good story for your mom," Alexis giggled.

The roads as Alexis drove were wet but not too slick, aside from the piles of slush that accumulated where traffic didn't push it away. The car thermometer actually showed that it was below freezing, but the ground was warm enough to melt the falling icy pellets. At least for now.

"This stuff is going to get nasty if it freezes hard tonight," Alexis observed as she carefully pushed through a pile of melting gunk.

Adam just nodded, not wanting to distract the driver. There was another factor, too. The feel of the soft hair around his face, whenever he nodded, distracted him enough that he forgot anything else he might have wanted to say.

It wasn't far between their houses and it was still sleeting a little when Alexis reached Adam's driveway. She looked at the pellets being pushed around by the wipers and said, "If it's okay with you, I don't think I'll come in."

"No, of course not," Adam said, then scowled. "What about my clothes?"

"You can get them tomorrow, or I'll bring them by later," Alexis said.

"Yeah, I know, but . . . Anyway, thanks for your help today. I'd have made it home, but I'd have been a lot colder."

"De nada," Alexis replied.

Adam moved to open the door, then looked back at her. "And, um, thanks for, um, fixing my hair, and for the loan of the clothes and all."

"Happy to do it," she said brightly. "Any time. Oh, and if you'd like some help learning how to keep your hair looking good, just let me know."

"Uh, yeah, I'll, um, do that," Adam said, his face flushing again as he pushed the door open.

He ducked in through the garage as he usually did - only guests used the front door - and called out to announce his arrival.

His mother heard the garage door anyway, and was headed toward the inside entrance when he stepped through.

"Oh, good, Adam, I was worried about you. I'd have been frantic if Nicole hadn't call. . . Oh dear"

"Hi, Mom," Adam said, the blush resurrected on his cheeks. "My clothes were wet, and, um . . ."

"I see," Sara replied. "And so you borrowed some from Alexis? Interesting selections."

"I didn't choose this stuff, Mom. She did."

"Including the high-heeled boots?"

"It's all she had that would fit me, and they're warm," Adam explained.

"Indeed," Sara replied, then smiled. "I'm sure they are. Well, would you like something to eat, and some hot chocolate?"

"Alexis made us some, while we were waiting for the weather to get better."

"Good," Sara said. "Oh, where are your other clothes? Do I need to wash them?"

"No, Alexis took care of that, too, but they weren't dry yet."

"My, Alexis has been quite helpful. You'll have to so something nice for her, too."

"Yeah, I guess," Adam replied. By this time he had automatically grabbed a coke from the refrigerator and sat in the family room.

Sara noticed he didn't seem to be in any hurry to get to his room for some of his own clothes. And he seemed to enjoy twirling his fingers in his soft, flowing hair as he watched TV.



Chapter 2 - "Opportunities for Improvement"


Sara Cristie got a cup of the offered hot chocolate for herself before joining her son in the family room. "So, how'd you get caught in the storm?"

Adam sighed and turned the sound down on the TV. "Just stupid, I guess. I was watching people instead of the weather. Who expects an ice storm this late in the season? I was clear over on the other side of McKinley Park when the sleet started, and first thing I knew it was coming down in buckets. Alexis' house was closer, so I ducked in there."

"Watching people?" she prompted.

"Yeah," Adam said, ducking his head a little in embarrassment. His loosely draped hair hid his face for a moment, before he brushed it back behind his ears. "You know how much I read . . ."

His mother nodded, and he continued, "Well, I think I'd like to try writing stories as well as reading them, and it seems to me that I need to . . . I don't know . . . understand people better to make my stories more believable."

His mother nodded again, and said, "I expect you're right, both about the opportunity - you could be a wonderful author - and about the need to understand people. So, what did you observe?"

"Too much," Adam said, sighing again. "I never will get the 'jock cool' thing. There's too much, um, athletic ability in that. I guess it's like dancers who move gracefully even when they're not consciously dancing. The jocks move with like, power and a sort of . . . enthusiasm all the time."

He looked around and frowned. "Damn, I left my journal at Alexis' house, too."

"Adam, I don't want you to swear."

"Oh, sorry Mom. Anyway, I was making notes, and I guess I had my head down for too long to watch the sky."

"What else did you notice about the people you saw?"

"There's another thing I just don't get. They're always picking at each other, poking fun at each other, and they don't seem to mind! And it truly was different. When they were joking around, they didn't really want to hurt each other's feelings or anything like that."

"Who are 'they?'" she asked.

"Oh, mostly the in crowd, the jocks and the cheerleader types, you know."

"Were they in a group together?"

"Not really," Adam said, "but they were like, aware of each other all the time, y'know? Anyway, they were all friends. The guys were playing football, and the girls were just, y'know, talking and things. But I could overhear some of what the girls said, plus whenever the guys would yell out while they were like, showing off or something."

Sara could hear the frustration in her son's voice, so she tried to change the subject. "Did you have a nice time with Alexis, after you got warmed up?"

"Oh, sure, Mom. We get along fine."

"Isn't she one of the 'in-group' types? Like those you observed?"

"Well, sure, Mom, but she wasn't at the park. And it's different with her."

"How?"

"Well, we're just friends. I mean, we tease a bit and joke around, too, but with the guys in the park, there always seemed to be a, um, a sexual context. I mean, the guys would be dissing each other about their athletic abilities, but it was all showing off for the girls, y'know? And the girls weren't talking about the boys that were there, exactly, but they were always talking about how to be more attractive, and it seemed to me that they meant attractive to the guys. They'd giggle so loud the boys would look their way, then snicker and whisper together."

"And you don't feel there's a sexual context with Alexis?" she asked carefully.

Adam just shrugged.

Sara surprised her son with a direct question. "Why not?"

He ducked again, hiding behind his hair for a second. Then he looked up and said, "Get real, Mom. She's gorgeous, and I'm a nerd. She can have any guy she wants for that sort of thing."

"I think you could be very attractive if you tried a little. Like now. I think you look wonderful!"

"Alexis made me look like this. And I can't, y'know, do it all the time."

"Stand up, dear," his mother said. She led him to a full-length mirror. "Tell me what you see."

"I see a guy in girl's clothes," Adam said with a snort.

"I don't," his mother disagreed. "I see a person taking advantage of fashion to emphasize assets and disguise things that might be better."

"Yeah, right," he said, but she noticed that he turned a bit in the mirror, not a hipshot model pose, but something more natural than square-shouldered attention.

Then Adam shrugged his shoulders. "High-heeled boots and a pink sweater are hardly guys' clothes."

"Get past the colors for a minute, dear and think of shapes. How do your legs look?"

Adam frowned and looked at his mother. "What are you after, Mom?"

She hesitated in thought, then her face took on a look of resolution and she looked directly at him. "I think you could look better than you usually do, with your baggy jeans and slouching posture. Like now. I just hoped to help you see it, too."

"Ah, Mom, don't get on my case about my clothes again."

Sara sighed and shook her head. "I'm not trying to tell you what you have to wear. I've accepted just about anything you choose, if it's clean and decent. I'm just pointing out some things you can think about. If you don't like the way you look, then you can go change right now. But . . ."

This caused Adam to duck his head and blush. He didn't say anything for a minute, then looked again in the mirror, turning so he could see over his shoulder.

"The stretch pants make my legs look, um, thinner." He looked back at her mother, "but that's mostly the heels on these boots."

"The heels may be contributing to the image, but you can't really see them, can you?" she asked.

"No, the pants cover them."

"So what's the overall effect?"

Adam shrugged. "They make me look like I'm taller, and therefore that my weight is more appropriate for my height." He paused, then said, "Okay. I'll admit it. I like the way they make me look."

"Which is the reason heels have been worn for centuries, often by men," Sara observed. "What else?"

"The, um, sweater hides my stomach bulge?" he said, reaching for whatever she had in mind.

"Yes, it does. There are other things you can do that that are even more effective."

"Oh, Mom, I hate dieting and stuff like that."

"Actually," she said, "I was thinking of something a bit more artificial."

"Like what?"

"Well, there are waist nippers, and . . ."

Adam interrupted with a snort, "You mean, like a corset? Get real!"

"It was just a thought, though something like that would help your posture as well. What else?"

He shrugged. "What are you after?"

"What about your hair?"

"Oh, I meant to ask you something about that. Alexis had this nice shampoo and, um, conditioner. It was a little too scented for me, but my hair turned out okay. Do you think you could find something like it for me - with less fragrance?"

"I expect," his mother agreed. "But it wasn't just that your hair is clean and shiny, though that certainly helps."

"What d'you mean?"

Sara picked up a handful of his thick locks and let them trickle through her fingers. "When your hair is nicely shaped, like this, it has the same sort of long, smooth flow as your legs. And the way it moves accents your own motion, making it seem like you have more energy and bounce. I like it."

"Yeah, um, so do I," admitted Adam. "But I couldn't wear it out like this."

"Maybe not, but the first step in becoming more attractive is to visualize yourself as more attractive. I think your new hairstyle really helps, don't you?"

"Yeah," he admitted again. "I guess I should have Alexis show me what she did."

"If you want," his mother agreed. "Though I could help you, too."

"Really?" Adam asked, too interested to disguise the eagerness in his voice.

"Really," Sara confirmed, then gave him a hug. "Oh, Adam, I just want you to be happy. If something like the heels on those boots or a better shampoo can make you feel better about yourself, then I hope you won't . . . turn your back on the opportunity just because of, well, external things. Here in our home, you know I'll help you in any way you can."

"Thanks, Mom, really," Adam said.

As she walked back into the kitchen, Sara noticed her son turn again to look over his shoulder at his image in the mirror.

The next morning Adam wore his own clothes down to breakfast; baggy jeans and a sweatshirt with torn sleeves. His hair wasn't yanked into its typical ponytail though. Instead, it still hung loose about his shoulders, damp from his shower and stringy.

As he followed the inviting aroma of blueberry pancakes into the kitchen, Sara welcomed him. "Good morning, dear. Did you sleep . . . oh."

She had interrupted herself as she turned from the stove and saw what he was wearing.

"Sorry to disappoint you, Mom," Adam said. "But those other clothes were kinda silly. When I had them on, it was like, not worth the bother to change last night, but putting them on again this morning . . . ."

"As you wish, dear," she said, turning back to the stove.

Adam felt her sadness, and tried to salvage at least a little credit. "Mom, do you have a spare brush I could borrow? I tried to get a comb through my hair this morning and it was pretty tangled."

"I think so," she said, moving the skillet off the heat and walking toward her room. In a minute she returned with a round brush still surrounded in plastic.

"Thanks," Adam said, and started to pull it through his damp hair. Sara looked like she was about to say something, but she started to dish up their breakfast instead. Adam noticed her hesitation though, and sighed again.

"It just didn't seem right this morning, Mom."

Sara nodded. "I can certainly understand that. Eat your breakfast and I'll help you with your hair."

"Thanks, I'd appreciate that," he said, then started to eat. After a few minutes, he said, "You really didn't think it was, y'know, strange for me to wear those clothes?"

"I can understand if you felt uncomfortable," she said cautiously, "but it seems to me that if it makes you feel more attractive then it might be strange, but it's a good strange - better than your ordinary clothes. I know what you usually wear is the style so I'm not trying to nag at you, just explaining how I feel, but to me the baggy clothes are more of an issue than your shoes. I don't know how you can feel attractive when your clothes are so . . . incompatible with your actual shape?"

"It's not like my 'actual shape' as you said, is anything to be proud of," Adam said.

"I thought you looked very nice yesterday," Sara said. "It was a well-coordinated outfit, from your hair to your smooth, longer-looking legs. What's not to like?"

"For a girl, maybe, but I'm not a girl."

"I never said you were, dear. But . . . well, I've had my say. Let's move on. What did you have in mind for today?"

"I don't know. Maybe I'll go see Alexis and get my stuff."

"Have you looked outside?" Sara asked. "I don't think you'll find that such a good idea."

Adam stood for a moment and peered through the frosted window. "Oh, hell . . . "

"Adam . . .!" his mother said sharply.

"Oh, sorry, Mom. But it looks like you're right."

The weather outside was frightful indeed. The diminishing sleet had turned to freezing rain and returned with a vengeance. Everything had a thick coating of ice, enough that several fairly large branches were down. The street itself would make a good skating rink - for car or pedestrian.

"Come back and finish your breakfast," Sara ordered. "And then we'll dry your hair. I don't want you leaving it wet, especially after getting so cold yesterday."

"Yes, Mommy," Adam whined, but then he smiled and pointed his finger at her in a 'gotcha' gesture when she started to rise to his bait. He sat at his place and finished his pancakes, then started to pull the brush through his hair again.

"Let me help you with that," Sara said. She took the brush and began to work through some of the tangles that Adam had mentioned. "You really do need to use conditioner. I have some that you can use until we get some of your own."

"So, the conditioner helps how . . . ?"

"Well, it helps with tangles, for one thing. But a good conditioner helps with split ends, and adds shine, and several nice things."

"Oh, okay. Sounds good."

"Let me get my dryer," Sara said. The business of setting up the needed tools took a few minutes, but she was soon working the brush through her son's hair again. It was longer than she had realized, and she didn't really consider the implications when she rolled her brush from the ends to the roots before fanning the dryer across it.

While it was drying she said, "I wish I could, I mean, I wonder if I'm . . . if you have the right sort of influences in your life."

"Mom, I'm not going to turn gay just because I wore some girl's shoes one time."

"That's not what bothers me. Not at all. First off, you know I'd love you regardless of your orientation, don't you?"

"I guess so."

"Well, count on it. But what worries me is that you don't have any masculine, um, 'opportunities' I guess. I mean, we don't go to ball games, or hunting, or any of that . . . "

Adam snorted and interrupted. "Any of that macho crap! I don't care. I'm not gay, and I don't need to guzzle beers and fart a lot to prove it."

Sara laughed, then frowned again. "It's just . . . well, I worry that without a masculine . . model - and you know I don't mean macho - I mean, how do you know if you'd like that sort of thing or not?"

"Mom, look at me. I'm not your basic Adonis Mk 1." He pulled up his sweatshirt and looks at the roll around his waist. "I obviously like my creature comforts too much to enjoy freezing my ass off in some pre-dawn tree stand waiting to kill Bambi. And the same thing goes for watching guys who are into that jock stuff play something I'm not good at anyway."

"But you like to watch Alexis play volleyball."

"Geez, Mom, get a clue! She's gorgeous."

"I thought you said you don't, I mean, that it's not a boy-girl thing with her."

"Not on her side, anyway," he sighed.

Sara put her tools down and leaned forward to hug him. "Oh, dear. I wish I knew how to help."

"I know you do, Mom. I guess it's just something I'll have to put up with."

She smiled and said, "I guess it's, ah, proof that you're not, ahem . . ."

"Not a poof like dad? Even if I wore high heeled boots once?"

Sara yanked on a lock of his hair. "Your father was never a 'poof.' I'm sure there are all sorts of complex things going on with people who, um, don't fit in. But he always acted like a . . . like an ordinary sort of guy. He sure showed me that being masculine is not a sign of being straight."

"Being masculine? Don't you mean, 'acting masculine?'"

"No, I mean being masculine. He was, um, he is . . . Look, Adam, I don't want you to think the wrong things about your father. First off, he was never a 'poof' in any way, like I said. Second, I'm not going to judge him for his sexual orientation. That's for him to deal with. What I can't forgive is that he lied to me."

"Yeah, he told you he was interested in you . . . as a woman, I mean."

"That too, but . . . well, prettiness fades with time. All women know that. I could forgive him losing interest in me physically. For that matter, something might have happened - a car accident or something that made me, well, ugly, or unable to perform even if he was interested. Whether he was . . . attracted to me is not the issue. He promised to make a life with me for the rest of our lives - for better or for worse. That's not supposed to be only about sex. It's about integrity, and keeping your word. It's about . . ."

Sara sighed, and took a deep, calming breath. "I'm sorry, I promised myself not to run down your father to you. Let's just close it with the point that I was trying to make. I wish you had a more masculine role model around - something I can't do for you. So you'd have the choice on what to do, what sort of things to try that you might enjoy."

"It's a little late for that, mom. I'm really not into sports and stuff, and that's okay with me. I don't think I'm missing out on anything." His complacent statement was undermined when he looked off at nothing through the frosted-over window.

"Except?" Sara prodded.

He blushed, then grinned. "Well, I did like being taller, and feeling . . . um, I don't know . . . sort of balanced, like I was almost graceful."

"Oh. I did notice you seemed more relaxed, and more comfortable. I guess if being masculine doesn't make you straight, a little grace and even femininity won't make you gay. Would you like to wear those boots again?"

"You wouldn't mind?"

"Don't be silly. I don't want to see you hurt by what others might say, but here in our home . . . be happy!"

By now she had his hair essentially dry, and only then noticed what she had done. "oops," she said softly.

"What's wrong?" asked Adam.

Sara blushed and stammered a bit. "I, um, sorta did that on autopilot, and . . ."

"And what?" he asked, rising from his chair.

"Well, you might as well let me finish, now," Sara said, pushing him back down. "Look, it's no big deal, but out of habit I rolled your hair around the brush while I was drying it. So it, um, well, it's like you had a roller set."

Adam shook his hair and felt the bounce of curls against his scalp. "Ohmygod, what does it look like?"

"Right now," Sara said with a laugh, "it looks like you just took some rollers out of your hair. But in a minute I'll have it looking fine."

She worked her brush through Adam's hair, blending the curls into smooth waves, building it up for body and fullness yet keeping an overall impression of natural curves.

"Oh, my," she said softly. "You do have beautiful hair."

"I gotta see this," Adam said, standing up again. This time she didn't interfere and he quickly went to the mirror.

"ohmigod," he said softly. He shook his head, watching the thick waves flow over his shoulders. "That's . . . awesome."

"Yes, it is quite nice," his mother confirmed.

"But it's way too girly," Adam added, turning around to look over his shoulder at the back. "What am I gonna do for school?"

"Oh, this won't last," she reassured him. "Unless you get a perm, this will go limp by morning at least."

"Really?" Adam asked, smiling as he shook his tresses around his shoulders again. Without realizing he was doing it, or that his mother was watching, Adam raised up on his toes a little.

"Are you going to put your boots on again?" Sara asked. "There's no one here but the two of us."

Adam let his feet go flat, blushing. "I, um, don't know."

Sara asked, "Did the heels make your feet hurt? You wore them for quite a while yesterday."

"Not really," Adam said. "I think I was walking more carefully, with better balance." He grinned and added, "And I liked being taller."

"Well?" his mother challenged.

"Okay," Adam said, wearing a smile of inner happiness she had seen far too seldom of late as he headed toward his room.

When he came back from his room, she noticed that he had put on the stretch pants as well, and worked the pink sweater past his new hairstyle. It was only mussed a little, and Sara decided not to mention it so that he could feel comfortable in his success.

And when he turned around, she could see that he was wearing the thong panties as well - or at least, he wasn't showing any VPL.



Chapter 3 - "If I Wear Them, Will I Get Thinner?"


The Cristie's weren't the only housebound family following the ice storm, but the phones still worked. Adam was roused from a daydream - actually, distracted from watching the movement of his hair reflected in the blank TV screen - when the phone rang.

"It's for you, dear," Sara announced. "It's Alexis."

"Hey, Alli," he said when he reached the phone.

"Hi, Adam, what's up?"

"Nothing," he answered casually. At least, he tried to make it sound casual.

Alexis' voice dropped to a whisper. "So, what did your mother think of your outfit."

"She was cool with it," Adam said. "Surprised, but cool. And she understood the reasons. She was glad I was warm and dry."

"So, Adam, what did you think of your outfit?"

"What do you mean?" he asked guardedly.

"Did you like it, like wearing it?"

"It's, um, it was okay, I guess," he replied. "I mean, the clothes were warm - which I really appreciated - and comfortable."

"Even the boots?"

"Yeah," he said, blushing because he was wearing them again. "Once I learned to walk in them, they were okay."

Alexis giggled over the phone, "Made you taller, too."

"Yeah," he agreed.

"You liked that, didn't you?" Alexis asked, pushing for more.

"Sure," he said nonchalantly. Then he tried to change the focus. "I liked being taller than you for once."

Alexis put a teasing note into her voice. "I guess you better just keep them then . . . at least, if you'll wear them for me now and then."

"You mean that?" he said quickly, then tried to backtrack a little. "I mean, I'm not really going to need them again."

"I totally mean it," she said. "I think you looked hot with longer legs and your hair is just to die for when it's done nice."

It was a good thing Alexis couldn't see Adam's face. His blush threatened to light his softly swinging hair on fire. "Um, thanks. And, um, thanks for your help."

"I could show you what I did," Alexis offered.

"I don't, um, that probably won't be necessary. It's not like I can have my hair like that all the time or anything."

"Sure you could. If you put it in a ponytail after you styled it, it would still look great, but not too girly."

"Really?" Adam asked thoughtfully.

"Sure, I could come over and show you," offered Alexis.

"Not, um, not with all the ice out there. Maybe later," Adam demurred.

Alexis pushed again, trying for a reaction that she could be sure about, even over the phone. "You can keep the stretch pants, too. You'll need them until you get some longer pants of your own."

Without thinking about what he was doing, Adam smoothed his hands down the taut, stretchy material. Then he jerked his hand away guiltily, just managing to stop himself from looking around to see if anyone was watching. "I don't think, I mean, I really don't need to do that."

"Whatever," Alexis said, her tone obviously not agreeing, but not arguing for the moment.

They talked about the weather, and the closings that had been announced. It looked like they'd have at least one more day off from school. Adam had a better game system, so Alexis agreed that if things cleared enough they could travel the few blocks between their homes, she would come over and bring his stuff.

"Call me first, okay?" Adam asked.

"Sure," Alexis said, but something in his tone made her cross her fingers when she said it.

Nicole Pierce came into the family room where Alexis was just hanging up the phone. "Who was that, Alexis?"

"Just Adam," Alexis said. "We were figuring out how to get his clothes back to him."

"And to get your clothes back to you?" Nicole asked.

"Those old things? I don't wear them any more anyway," claimed Alexis.

"Those boots looked brand new," her mother complained.

"They didn't really fit," explained Alexis with a shrug.

Nicole laughed and said, "Then you should have given them to me."

Alexis laughed with her mother and said, "You're always borrowing my clothes anyway, whether I offer or not."

"Just like you do with mine. Don't think I didn't see the earrings you were wearing last Saturday."

She hugged her daughter, then sat down beside her. "Why did you dress Adam up in your clothes, Alexis?"

"It's what I had, Mother," Alexis said defiantly.

"You and I both know you've got any number of warm-up outfits, and they don't look nearly as girly as what you gave Adam."

"So maybe I just like the way he looked."

Nicole frowned. "Is that why you did his hair that way, too?"

Alexis giggled, "No, that just sorta, y'know, happened. I was drying it like I dry my own hair and . . . it ended up like my hair. Imagine that!"

Nicole smiled with her daughter. "It did look nice." Then she sighed and said, "I just don't want . . . oh, hell, I don't know what's bothering me, really."

"Worried about Adam turning out like his father? And mine?"

"Maybe," Nicole admitted. "Doesn't that bother you?"

"Not really," Alexis said. "It's not like there's anything between us. I mean, he's just a friend."

"Well, I don't think you should do anything like that again," Nicole said. Then she smiled to lighten the mood. "And if you just feel compelled to exercise your fashion skills, I'm always available."

"Oh, Momma, you already look terrific, but if you're interested, I saw this totally awesome new style in Glamour the other day. I wanted to try it out, but . . ."

"But looking over your shoulder in a mirror to get the pattern is a little confusing?" her mother suggested.

Alexis just nodded, with a smirky smile. Nicole smiled and said, "I'm bored today, too. Let's try it out. You can do me, and then I'll do you."

***

Being housebound was not a big problem for Adam. He had several books that were begging to be read, and when he needed a break, the satellite TV still worked. He even advanced an online RPG character a couple of levels.

His mother came into his room when he was in the game. That wasn't a problem because the violence in the game was pretty modest - good scenery graphics, but they didn't spend their processor throughput on lovingly detailed gore and mutilation.

She smiled and patted him on the shoulder. "It's a good thing you like to read, or I'd be worried about video game addiction.

Adam looked up at her and grinned. "No problem. This stuff is fairly repetitious, killing one mob of monsters after another, and it doesn't take long before I get tired of it. But it's fun to advance your characters and learn new spells and stuff."

Sara frowned at the display. "Which one is you?"

"This one here," he said, pointing.

"But that's a girl."

"Yeah, no big deal. I have guy characters, too. Most people do some of each."

"That's a very pretty girl," she observed.

"Yeah, well, the nerds who buy this stuff don't pay to hang out with ugly women," Adam said, laughing.

"Do you, um, 'hang out' with guys in this game?"

"Not really. I mean, sometimes you get into groups and part of the thing is to role-play like your character. But that's just, y'know, playing the part."

"Well, speaking of playing the part, would you mind helping me for a while?"

"Sure," Adam said. "What do you need?"

"It's such a cold day that I thought I'd bake something, and I wondered if you'd like to help."

"Chocolate chip cookies?" Adam suggested enthusiastically.

"I figured that's what you'd want," Sara said with a laugh.

They spent the rest of the afternoon baking cookies together. Sara watched her son while they worked, and was pleased to see that he moved in the boots as naturally as she did herself when she wore heels.

::I wonder if . . .,:: she thought to herself.

"Adam, honey, watch out for your hair," she said. "Here, use this clip."

Sara offered him a largish butterfly clip in a bright pink that matched his sweater. It was far different from his typical small clasp or band.

Adam looked at it for a minute, then at his mother. "What are you trying to say, Mom?"

"Just that you need to keep your hair back when you're baking. This was handy, but if you want to go get something else . . ."

"You think this is okay?" he asked. "I mean, it's not too strange?"

"Adam, we need to get past that point. If you're uncomfortable, don't do it. But if you're comfortable then I don't think it's a problem."

Adam shrugged, then smiled. "Okay, fine. Will you help me?"

"Of course, dear," Sara said. In moments she had his hair gathered up behind his head, and they got on with their task.

But the ponytail was quite a bit higher than Adam usually wore it, and it danced about his shoulders with more bounce than he was used to. Sara noticed that he seemed to swing his head around a lot more than normal, and added that observation to her building mental file.

The next morning the cancellations remained in force and it looked like they'd be housebound again. When Adam took his shower, he saw a different shampoo and a matching but separate conditioner. The scent was more herbal than flowery, and he decided he liked it.

A second surprise awaited him back in his room. A different pair of panties was lying on his stretch pants, as well as a small bag containing a new pair of pantyhose. Next to these items was another sweater, snowy white with a v-neck instead of the cowl, but still soft and fluffy.

"Good morning, dear," Sara said as he entered the kitchen. "Did you sleep well?"

"Yeah, fine," Adam replied. His hair was still wrapped in a towel, and he carried the brush and hair dryer. "Could you help me with my hair before we eat?"

"Of course," she said cheerfully. "Though if you're going to keep it looking nice, you'll need to learn how to do it yourself."

"That would be great," he said. "Alexis told me that even if I, um, do something better with it, I can still wear it in a ponytail and no one will really know."

"Actually," Sara said, "I think they'll know, but all they'll see is that your hair looks healthier and neater, not that it looks as . . . well, as nice as it does when you leave it loose."

"Oh, um, okay, I guess. So, what do I have to do?"

Adam's lessons in hair styling were pretty basic, consisting primarily of the simple task of rolling his hair on the round brush and drying it carefully. After a couple of examples, there was a break in the conversation, and he filled it with a question while he waved the dryer over his hair.

"Why did you leave the . . you know . . . stuff in my room this morning?"

Sara shrugged it off as inconsequential. "You can't keep wearing the same underwear every day, and you really shouldn't go barefoot in your boots, either."

"I guess I still think this is all a little weird," Adam said.

"Different, maybe," Sara admitted with a laugh. "But not that big a deal - at least, not for me."

"Meaning, it may be a big deal for me?" he asked.

"I don't know. I guess that's up to you to decide."

"Maybe I oughta just go put on my own clothes."

"Whatever you want, dear," she replied casually, continuing her work. "But perhaps you should do it after breakfast. The eggs are ready."

Adam finished the lock of hair he was drying and ate his breakfast. With his free hand, Sara saw that he was rubbing his legs and she knew he was wearing the pantyhose under his stretch pants.

After a few silent moments, he asked, "You're really all right with this?"

Sara nodded with a smile, but focused her attention back on her own meal without comment.

After another few minutes, Adam began, "Do you really think . . ?"

"Hmmm?" Sara said, after he didn't complete his thought.

"Oh, it's nothing," he claimed. Sara just nodded and continued her breakfast, beginning to clean up the used dishes.

Adam picked up the brush and dryer again. After he had the next strands properly wrapped and the dryer going, he looked at his mother again. She could see the blush on his cheeks, but waited patiently for him to continue.

"These, um, stockings are, um . . . what does, 'control top' mean?"

Sara smiled and explained, "Those are pantyhose, not stockings, dear. And 'control top' just means they have some extra elastic in the top portion, to act as a sort of girdle."

"A girdle?"

"Yes," she repeats, and smiles a bit sadly. "I'm afraid I don't have the figure I once did, so I've 'graduated' to control top pantyhose. They're all I had to give you this morning."

"You mean, you weren't ragging on my about my weight?" asked Adam. "I mean, you're about the prettiest mom around. You don't look overweight to me."

"Thank you, dear. But looking nice takes a lot of work - like the time you're spending on your hair - and sometimes a little, ah, assistance. I suppose the reason I'd like you to take a little more pride in your appearance is because I work so hard to stay trim myself. Anyway, they're all I had."

"I could have worn some socks under the boots, if it was that important."

She frowned and shook her head. "Socks would be quite a bit thicker, and might bunch up. If the boots are snug barefoot, you need something fairly thin. In fact, your boots may fit better if you wear them." She looked slyly at him, though not that he could see as he held the brush and dryer over his hair.

When he finished that part of his hair, he said, "They, um, do . . . make the boots fit better, I mean."

"Good," she said easily, carefully not mentioning that she had already known he was wearing the pantyhose.

Adam worked on his hair for a while longer, then said, "If I wear them, will I get like, thinner?"

"Probably not," she replied, shrugging. "Control top pantyhose are not tight enough to keep you from eating too much - and that's what leads to fat."

"Are there other things - stronger girdles or something - that would work better?"

"Yes," she said, "though it's more likely to be an 'or something' than a girdle. But I'm sure we could work it out. If you're really interested. Of course, we couldn't get anything today in this weather."

Adam nodded and finished drying his hair. He shook his head, feeling the bounce of the thick curls. Sara smiled and pulled him to the mirror in the hallway.

"Okay, here's what you do next . . . "

In a few minutes, with his mother's help, Adam had arranged a soft, tumbling hairstyle that draped about his shoulders as a soft cape. "Thanks, Mom," he said softly. "I never would have thought . . ."

"Thank you, dear," she replied. "I can't tell you how much it pleases me to see your looking so nice."

"Ah, Mom, you know I can't do this, like for school or anything."

"I suppose not," she sighed, then she laughed, "but then I don't see you at school, just around here. So there."

Adam laughed as well, and said, "Okay, then, around here, I'll try my best to look 'nice' as you call it."

"Indeed?" she said archly. "Well in that case . . ."

"Oops," Adam said, laughing again. "I may have made a mistake."

"Oh, Adam, I'd never do anything to make you feel bad."

"I know that, Mom. I was just teasing."

Sara paused, then said, "Seriously, though, there is one thing you could do. While we're stuck here today."

"What?" Adam asked cautiously.

"Well, you could use some help with your complexion . . ."

"Ah, Mom, my face isn't that bad."

"No, not too bad," Sara agreed, but then she sighed.

Adam sighed as well, then had to laugh at their mutual distress. "Okay, Mom. Just for today. What did you have in mind?"

She smiled, then laughed herself. "You know, now that you've agreed, I don't really know. I just wanted . . . I don't know . . . the opportunity, I guess, but I didn't have anything specific in mind. Let me think . . ."

She took Adam by the hand and led him to her bedroom. An army of cosmetics was arrayed along the counter in the bathroom, and one portion of cabinet was recessed to allow one to sit at the counter. Sara pointed at the chair for Adam, then began to look over her potions.

"Okay," she said as she selected various items. "There are three stages to getting your complexion under control First and most important is to keep your face clean and moisturized so that it's healthy enough to take care of itself as much as possible."

Sara pointed at the sink and said, "Wash your face. Use this cleanser, and pat it dry, don't scrub it."

Then she interrupted herself. "Oh, wait, let me get your hair for you." She gathered Adam's soft tresses up in another butterfly clip, then added to it with a hairband to keep any strands from his face.

He washed his face with the soap she provided, though it obviously wasn't the normal deodorant soap from the shower. When he was done, she gave him a potion to wipe on that she said was moisturizer.

"Now, that wasn't so bad, was it?" asked Sara. When Adam shrugged, she continued, "If you do that morning and evening, you won't have any blemishes to fight. And no one at school will think you've done anything weird. They'll just notice the improvement, okay?"

Adam nodded, touching his face with his fingertips.

"Next," Sara continued, "if you have any zits, you can cover them so they don't show. It doesn't take a lot to do that." She had him sit down again and used a sponge to dab a bit of flesh-colored cream on the several blemishes on his face. Then she used the sponge to blend it in. By the time she had it all blended, most of his face had been covered.

"Okay," she said, "that part was simple . . ."

"Yeah, right," Adam interjected.

"Believe me, it was," Sara insisted. "Tell me what's wrong now."

Adam looked at his face in the mirror, and frowned. "Well, it looks like I'm wearing makeup."

"Exactly," Sara said. "That's exactly the point. Unless it's some specific glamour thing, it shouldn't really look like you're wearing makeup, except maybe for lipstick, which we won't use . . . at least not today."

"Mom . . ," Adam said warningly.

But Sara just sailed on. "The base, even blended in, is too uniform in color. Real faces have variation, where the blood flow is better, or due to the way lights and shadows play across them. What we need to do . . "

A few minutes later she was done. "What do you think now?'

"Wow," Adam said, turning his face from side to side. "It doesn't look like I've done anything, but you can't see the zits."

"Good, that's what we wanted," Sara agreed. "Do you like it?"

"Yeah, sure," Adam said. "But I couldn't do this for real. I mean, from ten feet away it may look perfect, but if anyone got closer . . ."

"Oh, I know that," Sara agreed. "But just for today, it's okay, isn't it?"

"Yeah, sure," Adam repeated, then he stood up and hugged his mother. "Thanks. Really. It looks better, and I really will try to do that moisturizer thing."

"Good," Sara said. "I think you'll find that you like looking better. And the girls will like it, too."

"Yeah, right," Adam said dryly. "That'll be the day."

"Oh, Adam, I'm sure you'll find the right girl one of these days, and she'll appreciate you."

"Yeah, sure," Adam said with a sigh. "But I don't think either of us should hold our breath until it happens."

"Maybe not," Sara agreed, "but I'm still betting on you, kiddo."

"Thanks, Mom, I appreciate that."

Sara helped him get the hairband off without messing up his hair, and then showed him once again how to brush it into a smooth, shining flow.

With the perfect timing of a television sitcom, the doorbell rang just as they were finishing.

"Uh, oh," he said.

"I'll get the door," Sara said. "Don't worry."

Adam went to his room, staying out of sight of the doorway. It didn't help.

"Hello, Alexis," Sara said, announcing their visitor.

"Hi, Mrs. C," Alexis said cheerfully. "I brought Adam's stuff. Where is he?"

"You didn't drive on that ice, did you?" Sara asked.

"No way," Alexis said. "I just walked. Now that the wind has dropped off, it's not too bad out."

"Adam!" she called. "I got your stuff."

She walked down the hallway as she had done so many times in the past. Sara moved to stop her, then stopped herself and waited to see what would happen.



Chapter 4 - "That's Not Fair


"Hey, Adam," Alexis called through the door. "You awake?"

"I'll, um, be out in a couple of minutes," Adam called back.

Alexis heard a clunk from the other side, and knew immediately what it was.

She pushed the door open, saying, "Adam, are you wearing my boots again?"

"Ohmigod," she said, seeing him struggle to get the second boot off his foot. His face had come up as the door had swung open, revealing more than just his boots.

"Adam, your hair, it's . . . wow. It's awesome! And are you wearing makeup?" She laughed and continued. "Not too much, which is good, because it's light enough I can still tell when you're blushing."

"I'll, um, be out in a couple of minutes, Alli. Let me get changed."

"Not on your life," she said. "I love it. I thought you looked hot yesterday . . . I mean, two days ago. And it's totally better now." She turned to where Sara had come to stand in the doorway to Adam's room. "Did you help him with his hair, Mrs. C? You did a great job."

"Actually," Adam's mother said casually, "today Adam did all the work."

"You go, dude!" Alexis crowed. "I'm impressed. It looks a lot better than when I did it."

She pointed at the boot on the floor and said, "Put the other one back on and let me see the whole picture."

Without waiting for a response, she turned to Mrs. Cristie and urged her back into her own family room. "So, Mrs. C, what do you think of your suddenly stylin' son?"

"I'm quite pleased, actually," Sara said as they walked down the hallway. "I think my son is quite attractive, and I'm glad he's finally starting to see a little potential in himself."

"Better lookin' than I gave him credit for, that's for sure . . ," Alexis said as her voice faded down the hall.

Adam just looked at the empty doorway, then at his boot, wondering what had just happened.

A few minutes later he joined them in the family room. Alexis gave him a big thumbs-up, and his mother smiled encouragingly. But they strangely continued to talk about him as though he weren't there.

"His hair is to die for!" gushed Alexis. "I wish I had that much volume, and it's so sleek."

"I gave him my shampoo and conditioner, today," Sara explained. "He mentioned how much he liked what you use."

"That must be your sweater, too, right? Where'd you get it?"

"Would you believe I've had that since high school? It's such a thick, soft knit that I couldn't bear to get rid of it, but the white is so hard to keep looking nice that I don't wear it very often."

Adam was about to say something, but then he shook his head and smiled. Without saying a word, he went and got a coke from the refrigerator and turned on the TV. If they were going to ignore him, then he'd ignore them.

His independence seemed to pass a test that probably none of them realized was ongoing. Once the TV volume came up, Sara stopped her conversation with Alexis and talked to Adam. "Dear, I'm sorry. I guess I just didn't know what to say."

"Me neither, I guess," Adam admitted. He looked at Alexis.

"Oh, goodness, me neither," she agreed. "I guess I was just like, trying to get my mind around the whole thing. You really do look hot."

"Thanks," Adam said, shrugging. "It's nice to be noticed."

Alexis blushed, then looked at Adam. "Um, yeah, well, sorry that I don't usually like . . . notice, I guess."

Adam laughed and said, "Oh, don't worry about it. I get that a lot."

Alexis laughed, too. "If you came to school looking like that, you'd get noticed all right."

"Uh, right, but that ain't gonna happen," Adam said firmly.

"Of course not, dear," Sara said, then she looked at both of the teens, but her words were primarily for Alexis. "This is just between us, right?"

"Oh, sure," Alexis said. "I knew that."

"Good," Sara said. "Well, can I get you some hot chocolate after your walk over here?"

The comfortable patterns of hospitality occupied them for a while, and then Adam and Alexis transitioned to video games and watching an old movie. After a while, Alexis had an observation she couldn't hold in any longer.

"Adam, if you keep twirling your finger in your hair, it won't hold its shape."

He snatched his hand down from its unconscious activity, and pulled a strand of hair forward to see what had happened.

"It's still okay," Alexis said. "But the way you keep twisting it, you'll give yourself little curls by the side of your face."

"Sorry," Adam said, "I didn't even realize I was doing it."

"Believe me, I understand," Alexis said. "I had that habit for years until my mother made me stop."

"I guess I never had to worry about that when I just wear it in a ponytail," Adam said.

"Yeah, like it will be tomorrow," Alexis sighed.

"Yeah," Adam said, and had to suppress a sigh of his own.

The weather the next day was good enough for school to resume, and so did Adam's normal attire. It actually felt a little funny walking without the heels on the boots when he went to school, and a couple of times he caught himself starting the hip sway that had seemed natural with them. ::Not a good idea,:: he warned himself. ::There's already enough jocks and jerks who think you're a wimp . . . or worse.::

::Yeah,:: he continued his internal dialog, ::and just what do you think you are, after a long weekend wearing heels and makeup, and doing your hair?::

He had no good answer for that.

Alexis was standing with her friends when Adam came into the building. Emily looked at him and sniffed. "I don't know why you let that geek hang around you," she challenged Alexis. "He's such a dweeb."

"That dweeb helps me get my homework done in half the time," Alexis explained.

"Well, Tony Avanti does mine for me," Annalee said smugly. "That doesn't take any time at all."

"Adam just helps," Alexis said, "so that I'll know the stuff for the tests."

"You're not going to turn into a brain like your nerdy boyfriend, are you?" Emily asked.

"First, he's not my boyfriend. He's a friend of the family who helps me with my homework when I tell him to," Alexis said sharply. "And I may not be a brain, but with his help I raised my SAT scores by a hundred points on each part, and that's gonna get me a full-ride volleyball scholarship to Baylor. Where are you going to college?"

"Geez, Alexis, lighten up," Annalee said. "We're just having fun. You'd think that loser matters to you or something. So, do you have a date for the game, Friday?"

"I'm not sure. I think Tom is coming home from UT for the weekend. If he does, then . . ."

"Then you're going to be fogging up the windows on his Mustang every night he's here, right?

"Maybe," Alexis said smugly.

Adam didn't get a chance to talk with Alexis until the end of the day, despite sharing several classes. It seemed like she vanished as soon as the dismissal bell rang. When he did catch up with her, it was Alexis who started the conversation.

"Adam, you need to come over to my place tonight."

"Um, sure," Adam replied. ::I guess she wasn't really avoiding me.::

"This homework from Mr. Bullis is just impossible. I'll need your help."

"Oh, okay," he said. "When?"

"As soon as you can. I'll get Mom to fix us something for supper, or maybe we'll order pizza."

Adam nodded, and then found himself looking at her back as she turned to her friends. ::Her real friends,:: he thought. ::I'm just convenient. Except, what about this weekend, and Monday when schools were closed? She seemed a lot more friendly then.::

A giggleburst from the crowd of girls around Alexis, coupled with furtive looks in his direction, suggested the worst in his mind. But no one said anything to him and there didn't seem to be any of the second-hand impacts he expected if Alexis told them his secret. No jocks came to hammer him for wearing heels or makeup, or yanked at his now-thicker ponytail. Whatever Alexis had said that caused the girls to laugh at him had at least not gone any further than her own clique.

Adam's mother agreed to the study session, so he arrived at Alexis' house not long after she did. He called out to her as he entered the house, and was directed by Nicole to her bedroom. When he got there he found her trying alternate styles for her hair.

"Adam, you have to show me what you did with your . . ," she began as she turned to look at him. When she saw him, she frowned and looked back at the mirror.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"Nothing," she said, but she didn't look at him.

"C'mon, Alli, we know each other better than that."

Alexis shrugged, then turned to look at him. "I guess I just forgot what you look like. Or maybe, I tried to forget. Every time I saw you at school today, I was so embarrassed."

"Embarrassed! Why?"

"You look like such a . . . mess," she said. "And now that I know how good you can look . . ."

"Yeah, well, this is what I really look like," he said.

"No it's not, Adam," Alexis said, suddenly animated. "My friends think I'm stupid spending any time with you at all, even for homework - though they all know you're a brain and that I depend on you for that. Yet if they could see how good you can look . . ."

"Well, they can't," Adam said firmly. "And you promised . . ."

"I know I did, and I won't say anything to them. But it's so disappointing."

"Yeah, well, welcome to my life," he sighed.

"Oh, Adam, I didn't mean to make you feel bad."

"Yeah, right. All you've done since I showed up is ride my case - Hell, all you've done all day is make me feel bad. If you weren't trying, then God help me if you ever do try."

"I'm sorry," Alexis said, but a tightness around her mouth said she didn't think she was wrong, for all that she may have been a little short on tact.

"Look, Alli, maybe we should do this another night. You can get through this stuff on your own for one night. I'll help you before the next test."

He stood to leave, and Alexis stood with him. "Please, Adam, don't go. I truly am sorry that I hurt your feelings. It's just that you were so cool at your house, really sharp looking. Cute."

Adam shrugged. "That was just clothes."

Alexis reached out to touch his still-soft hair below the band gathering it at his collar. "No, it wasn't. It was your whole attitude about yourself. You were just . . . neater, more . . . together, you know?"

"I guess. But that was sort of special circumstances y'know?"

"Not all that special. There's no need for your hair to look that scruffy. And those zits!"

"Damn it, Alli, get off my case. I'm going home."

"No, don't, Adam. I'm sorry. Look, how about a compromise? You show me how you did your hair, and maybe help me with mine, and then we'll get on this homework. Please?"

"All I did was like, roll it up on a round brush, and wave the dryer over it. Then I sort of brushed it together like my mom showed me."

"Great!" Alexis said. "If that's the case, then we can put our hair up in rollers and let it dry while we're doing the homework. Letting it dry naturally is better for hair anyway, and it won't take as much of our time."

"Rollers? I never used rollers," Adam said.

Alexis didn't accept this as a problem. "If you can roll your hair up on a brush, you can use a roller. I've got plenty."

She dumped a huge supply of rollers on her bed, then started pushing them into piles. "I know," she offered. "You do mine to show me how it's done, then I'll do yours."

Alexis selected out a dozen large rollers and a brush, then sat herself at the vanity in her room. Soaking her hair with a bottle of clear liquid, she looked back at Adam. "C'mon, let's get started."

Adam looked at the open door to the hall, wondering if Mrs. P would see.

"Oh, Momma's in the darkroom again. She'll be a couple of hours, anyway." Then Alexis giggled and said, "I guess it's a good thing she trusts, us, right?"

"Not really," Adam said. "I could wish she'd consider me more like, real or something."

"Well, let's not worry about that now," Alexis said. "Now, how do you start the pattern?"

Adam wasn't experienced enough to realize how much his mother's skill had contributed to his success at styling his hair, but he was a good student with a nearly eidetic memory. He couldn't have invented any variation on what his mother had done, but he could repeat it. It wasn't long before he had arranged an army of rollers in Alexis' hair, which meant it was time for the next step.

"You don't have to do that, Alli," he said as she pushed him toward the seat. "My hair is fine."

"No it's not," Alexis insisted. "I want to try out what you showed me anyway. Just hold still."

Adam tried to duck when she picked up her spray bottle. "What's that?"

Alexis laughed. "It's just water, Adam. Geez, lighten up."

After she had his hair nicely damp, she added, "Water, with a little holding gel mixed in. It'll keep your hair looking nice for hours."

"Hours?!"

She giggled at his concern. "Like it matters. You're going home, then to bed, and it'll be all flat in the morning anyway."

Alexis, unlike Adam, had spent countless hours styling her own hair - and on frequent sleepovers, that of her friends. She understood the purpose behind the practical application that Adam's mother had created and was able to get his own array in order quickly and efficiently.

"Geez, Alli, that's too tight."

"Geez, Alli, that's too tight," she repeated in a whiny, sarcastic voice. "Just be still, Adam. This will work out great!"

He'd have to take her word for it, at least for a while. All he saw when she declared herself finished was a very full head of large rollers pulled tightly against his scalp. Alexis was pleased though. She started to gather up her school books when she knocked over a (thankfully well-capped) bottle of some sort of makeup potion.

She picked it up, and then looked thoughtfully at him. "Hey, Adam, how about . . .?"

"No," he interrupted her, standing up. "I shouldn't even have let you fool with my hair again. I'm not letting you do anything else."

"Aw, c'mon," she wheedled. "Nobody's gonna know but you and me, and it's not like you haven't done it before."

"Besides," she continued, "the makeup your mom used is good, but it's not as good as mine for preventing zits. If you let me fix your face just for this evening, I'll bet it clears up the zits you have and keeps your face looking good for a week."

"Really?" Adam said, interested despite his reluctance.

"Totally," Alexis promised. "Let me do your face tonight. If you don't think it helps, then I'll never bug you about it again?"

"Promise?" Adam challenged now.

"Promise," Alexis said, and this time she didn't even feel the need to cross her fingers.

Adam saw the look of determination on her face though, and didn't want to put their friendship at risk over something that just might be a good idea if it really helped with his zits.

He never really agreed, not in any distinct way, but his refusal to argue any further must have been evident in his expression, at least to Alexis, because the next thing he knew he was being seated again. Not surprisingly, Alexis didn't just cover his acne. She lectured much as Adam's mother had on the importance of keeping his face clean and moisturized, using various creams to achieve that end. But when she started in on covering up his actual blemishes, she just rolled on through her normal routine. In fact . . .

"Ouch," Adam said sharply. "What's going on?"

He had, at Alexis' urging, closed his eyes for her to smooth the creams around on his face, and he hadn't seen her reach for her tweezers.

"I'm just cleaning things up a little. You don't want shaggy eyebrows. They're like . . . shaggy. I hate 'em."

"You're a girl," snapped Adam.

"Nice of you to notice," she said with a snicker. "Now sit still. No one will notice but me, and that's because I'm doing it. No one bugged you about your hair, did they, and it looks a lot nicer."

She ground down any further objectives he had in continued rationale. "As long as the changes are reasonable, nobody notices what someone does to get neater. They just notice that you're neater, or that your hair looks better, or that you've lost weight, or whatever. Cleaning up a few straggly hairs is not going to make you look like a movie starlet from the '30's. People will just think you look better. Trust me."

"Like I have any choice, now," he grumbled, but once again he didn't argue.

::In our sociology class they told us that whoever is less interested in a relationship controls it. I'm giving Alli way too much power over me because I don't want to lose her as a friend. But I don't. Even 'just being friends' is worth it with her::

After a few dozen repetitions of that rationalization, he almost believed it. And by that time she was done yanking his eyebrow hair out anyway.

Alexis continued with her normal routine. Her colors weren't really right for Adam, but a few of the sample sets she had picked up along the way had colors she never used, so he had enough to try some things out. Something in Adam's manner suggested he wasn't going to argue any further, so she didn't stop with skin preparation. At her direction, he opened and closed his eyes on command until he wore eyeliner, several coats of mascara, and softly blended shadow and blush. It was only when she reached for the lipstick that he balked again.

"C'mon, Alli. That's not necessary."

"Actually, it is," she claimed. "Oh, you could get by with a different color - this is what I have - but you need something on your lips to keep them from getting cracked and dry. It'll make them kissably soft!"

::Yeah, like I need to worry about that,:: he thought. But once again he let his argument drop.

Like a maestro unveiling a masterpiece, Alexis stepped back and said, "Ta daa!"

"Let me see," Adam demanded.

"Not yet," she said. "Let me check your hair . . ."

"Allie, just let me see what you did."

Alexis held his shoulders away from the mirror and asked. "Please, Adam, for me? Don't look until I get your hair right. I want you to see the full effect."

It was her eyes that did it. The soft pleading look was more than he could bear. Instead of saying anything - or forcing his way to the mirror - he reached up and patted the rollers on his head. "How much longer?"

"Not long," she said. "But not quite yet. About, oh . . . three of today's homework problems?"

Adam laughed. "Okay. Three problems."

Alexis gathered up her books and headed for the dining room table where they usually worked. Adam stopped at the door. "What about your mom?"

"Don't worry about her," Alexis said. "She'll be in there until we call her for supper. Say, you want your usual on your pizza?"

"I guess," Adam said, then poked at the tightly wound cylinders in his hair. "But you're answering the door."

The three problems ran into five, made longer than it would have taken Adam to finish all twenty by the need to explain things to Alexis, and it was in fact the pizza that interrupted them rather than her promise to brush Adam's hair out - and let him see the result. Alexis paid the pizza guy, but instead of eating it immediately, she told Adam to wait and ran to her room.

"Let me fix your hair before we eat," she called back down the hallway. "You can do the same for me." In truth it only took a few minutes. True to his own promise, Adam did not insist on finding a mirror until they were both brushed out. He was worried, though. The tumbling mass of heavy curls he saw on Alexis was going to be a lot more . . . styled, and more feminine, than the smooth cascade he had expected. Soft tendrils curved by her eyes, and by her throat, and seemed to dance around her shoulders with flirty energy. If his own looked the same . . .

Finally, with another 'ta daa' flourish, Alexis led her friend to the hall mirror.

Adam's mouth opened . . . and closed . . . and opened again . . . and closed again . . .

"See, isn't it just totally fabulous?" Alexis crowed.

"It's . . . oh my God, Alli, what did you do?"

"Earth to Adam: You were there the whole time," she reminded him.

"I look . . ." He couldn't finish.

"Fabulous," Alexis repeated. "There aren't three prettier faces in our whole high school, if I do say so myself."

"But . . . I'm a guy," Adam said.

"Not from the neck up you aren't," Alexis said. "At least, not tonight." Then as though this were no big deal, she added, "Let's go eat our pizza."

Alexis pulled Adam along, knocking on her mother's dark room door on the way back to the dining room. "Pizza's here, Mother," she called.

"I'll be right out," Nicole announced through the door.

"Ohmigod," Adam said again. "I can't let her see me like this."

"Well, you're gonna have to," Alexis said. "We're not done with our homework yet. Don't worry, she'll be cool."

"Can I at least wash off the makeup?"

"No way," Alexis declared. "It's part of the total image, and it's too cool to waste so soon."

Her irresistible energy carried him along - again - and he found himself seated at the dining room table amidst their homework, with a piece of pizza and a (diet) coke.

"I don't like diet stuff," he said.

"Well, you need to learn to like it," Alexis declared. "Besides, it's all we have."

Alexis took a bite from her own pizza and looked up the next problem. "Do we do this one the same way?"

Adam just looked at her for a long moment, not believing she could be so casual about the way he looked. And Alexis knew it, but she also didn't let it bother her. She just arched an eyebrow at him and pointed at the problem.

He didn't know what to do, so he did what he so often did, just letting himself be swept up in the flow. The way he looked was too much for him to understand, so he clung to what he could understand, and started to explain the math problem to her. Again.

Two questions later, math was the least of his problems.

Nicole Pierce came out of her darkroom and went to the sink to wash up. "What did you get on the pizza this time, Alli?" When she got to the table she added, "Who's your friend?"

Then the looked again. "Oh my God . . . Adam?"

"Hello, Mrs. P," he said quietly.

Nicole's face turned distinctly red as she choked back a laugh. In a tight voice, she managed, "That's an, um, interesting look for you, Adam. Considering your father's, ah, inclinations, I guess there must be something to the theory that there is a genetic basis for being . . ."

"Mother! That's not fair," Alexis interrupted her. "I'm the one who asked Adam to let me try out a few things on him. And I like it. I think he looks totally awesome. Totally."

"Your idea?" challenged Nicole, then she looked away and Adam felt there was guilt in her expression.

"Yes," Alexis declared firmly. "For your information, Adam is not gay. He likes girls just fine, don't you, Adam?"

"Yeah, um, sure," he replied.

But Nicole wasn't buying it. "Adam, I wonder if you're being honest with yourself. Who are you likely to catch looking like that, girls or guys?"

Alexis stood and pulled Adam to his feet. "Well, there's an obvious way to prove it."

She kissed him, firmly, and didn't hesitate to take it to the tongue level. At first, Adam didn't really respond, but as soon as his brain stabilized from its tumble, he started kissing her back . . . and very well indeed. One arm pulled Alexis closer, and one hand started to entwine itself in her tumbling roan curls. That was interesting enough that Alexis returned the touch, lightly running her fingers at the nape of his neck.

In seconds their passion built to the point neither was aware of Nicole's presence, not that either of them cared.

Nicole finally interrupted them. "I'd say you two should get a room, but damn, you're my own daughter."

They pulled back from each other, but neither spoke. They were too busy looking at each other, trying to decide if the other felt what they had just felt. Trying to decide what it meant if they did . . . or if they didn't.

Finally Adam said, "I think I should go home now."

Alexis nodded and said, "I'll drive you over."

He smiled his thanks, then said, "I guess I better go wash my face."

"No way," Alexis said defiantly, looking at her mother to make sure she was getting the message. "I like you this way."

"But my mother . . ," Adam began.

"Will understand," Alexis finished for him. "Unlike some parents, she's very understanding. She was before."

"Before?" Nicole repeated. "You've done this before?"

"No," Adam said quickly. "Just, y'know, what I was wearing when I went home from the ice storm. That sort of thing."

"I'll explain it to you later, Mother," Alexis said sharply. "All you need to know is that Adam didn't initiate any of this, and that I like him this way."

She snatched at Adam's things from the table and herded him out the door. He was in her car before Adam realized he was outside with makeup and very wavy hair, and then they were at his own house before he had a chance to worry about it.

The front of the house was dark when he got there, but he had a key and they were quickly inside. Not quite quickly enough though, because Adam's mother met them just inside the door.

"Oh my God," Sara whispered in what had become the evening's standard greeting.

"Mom, I'm sorry, I can explain . . ," Adam said.

"Dear God," Sara said even more softly. She looked like she was going to faint and Adam moved to support her.

"Mrs. C, this was all my fault," Alexis said. "I'm sorry."

"No, that's . . nothing to be sorry . . it's just . . ." Sara said, tearing her eyes away from her son. Waving her hands in a distracted way, yet with enough purpose to convey that they should follow her, she led them to her bedroom. There, she opened up a hope chest and moved things around until she found a high school yearbook. Opening it, she showed them a picture of Adam. Only it was the Adam that no on had seen before that night.

"That's . . . who is that?" Alexis asked.

Sara silently pointed at herself.

"Wow, this is like . . . too weird," Alexis said.

"Think about how I feel," Adam said, finding his voice for the first time in several minutes. "I better go clean up."

"No!" Sara said quickly, then stopped herself. "Of course, dear, if that's what you want."

Alexis looked at her sharply, then visibly decided not to say anything.

Adam missed the look from his friend, mostly because he was too fascinated by the photo in the yearbook to be aware of anything else. He finally looked away from the picture to catch his mother's watching gaze. "This really is weird," he said. "Doesn't it bother you?"

"I guess you could say that," Sara replied. "I was certainly bothered - at least - when I first saw you, but . . ."

"But what?" he prompted.

"But it's certainly intriguing, too," she answered. Sara tried to recruit Alexis to her viewpoint. "Don't you think so?"

"For sure," confirmed Alexis. "It's like, totally cool. I mean, who'd'a guessed?"

"Yeah," Adam said softly. "But still . . ."

Sara shook herself a little and then looked at a nearby clock. "We need to think about this a little, and it's getting late. So I suppose you really should go wash up, Adam. We'll have to talk about this tomorrow."

Alexis nodded, but asked, "Would you walk me to the door, Adam?"

Sara let them go. At the door, Alexis pulled Adam outside for a moment. "Adam, we have some things to talk about, too."

"Ya' think?" he asked wryly.

She leaned closer and whispered in his ear, her soft breath sending shivers down his neck. "Like, I never knew you were such a heart-stopping, toe-curling kisser!"

Adam blushed, but smiled at his own memory. That was enough of an excuse for Alexis - if she even needed an excuse - and she took him in her arms for a repeat performance of their kiss.

"Whoa," she said after a few long, delicious moments. "If wearing a little lipstick makes you so totally hot, we may have to experiment again . . . Eve."

"Aw, Alli," Adam said, blushing even more fiercely.

She laughed, then hugged him with a bit more friendship, and less passion. She reached up with a slender finger to fix a smudge in his lipstick. "Count on it, Eve."

Then she walked away, leaving Adam looking at her in shock, yet with his own finger lightly tracing out where her finger had touched his lips.


Chapter 5 - "New Interests"


When Adam came down to breakfast the next morning, he was dressed for school but not quite as usual. His jeans were still baggy, but he had found a nice sweater his mother had given him for Christmas the year before. His ponytail was still thicker than usual too, with a bit of wave to the free end. The differences were small, but noticeable, and caused Sara to smile.

But she didn't want to overplay her hand, possibly forcing Adam to become defensive. She just made sure he saw her smile as passed him his breakfast. Adam smiled in return, but his smile triggered a frown on Sara's face in place of her own smile.

"Oh, Adam, when you finish here, I need to help you clean up a little."

"Clean up?" he asked in disappointment. "What's wrong? I used the new shampoo and conditioner, and I even picked a better shirt."

"I noticed, dear, and thank you. I know you're trying to look nicer. But I can see a little mascara on your lashes, yet, and I don't think you want to go to school like that."

"Oh, god, no," Adam agreed.

"It's okay," Sara said. "We can fix it."

After they had eaten, Sara guided Adam into the bathroom where she showed him how to use makeup remover on mascara without getting it in his eyes. As she worked, she said, "Dear, we don't have time to talk about this now, but I do think you need to be careful. There are a lot of people out there who fear what they don't understand, and in particular, who feel threatened by people who don't fit into little niches that they think they do understand. So I don't want you getting hurt - and that means we need to keep your new, um, interests private for a while."

"For a long while," Adam agreed with a smile. "It's no big deal, Mom. Alexis was just playing around. It won't happen again."

"Perhaps," Sara said. "In any event, we'll work that out tonight. Why don't you come straight home? I have a couple of showings today, and hopefully one closing, but I should be home before you."

"Okay."

The residue of the previous night's activities might have bothered Adam, but in fact it energized him. It was a reminder of the time spent with Alexis, and in particular about kissing her. Twice. Soul-deep, blood-singing kisses that she had apparently enjoyed as much as he did. Maybe they could sneak in a quick repeat performance. God knows he'd seen enough other couples getting away with it. Adam couldn't wait to see Alexis at school.

Except, of course, that he had no choice but to wait. Running late already, he didn't have time to find her before homeroom, and when he did see her later she was surrounded - as always - by her friends. That was hardly an opportunity for a private moment. Finally, near the end of the day, he managed to catch her coming out of class before the rest of her friends arrived.

"Alli, I won't be able to, um, help you with your homework tonight. I need to go straight home."

She looked at her friends, then whispered, "Sorry Adam, but they just don't understand . . . us. Hell, I don't understand 'us' yet. But I just can't, I mean, here at school . . ."

Adam shrugged, trying to hide his disappointment. "Yeah, well, like I said, I have to go straight home."

Alexis shrugged as well, showing a guilty frown to Adam which disappeared as she turned back to her friends.

None of them said anything - at least, not while Adam was there - but as he moved away he heard a not-quite-muted titter of laughter behind his back.

::I should have known she wouldn't want to be seen with a geeky guy like me - even if she does think I'm a good kisser.::

That reason did little to ease the hurt, and the Adam that returned home was far less enthusiastic about life than the one who had left that morning.

Sara noticed it immediately - it would have been hard to miss - but she tried to keep her concern from being too intrusive.

"How was your day, dear?" she asked casually.

"Okay."

"Did you see Alexis?"

"Yeah."

Adam tried to keep his own thoughts private, but his mother could see his reaction to her question. It was too small to be a wince, more a small tightening of eyes and mouth, but she noticed.

"Is something wrong?"

"Yeah, like that would be anything new," he said.

"Want to tell me about it?"

Adam just shrugged and went to the refrigerator for a coke.

Sara realized that was a 'no,' but rather than pushing immediately she put a chipper note in her voice and said, "Well, supper will be ready in a few minutes. Why don't you go change clothes and then we'll eat?"

Adam looked up at her from his slouch in the comfortable family room chair. "Change? Why? I thought we were like, just going to talk about, y'know . . ."

Sara smiled encouragingly. "Oh, we will. But I took the liberty of getting a couple of things to help you decide. Put on the clothes I've laid out for you and come back down. I'll have supper ready."

When Adam came back, his clothes were almost typical for a teen-ager. Denim jeans and a polo shirt were hardly a dramatic fashion statement, and the jeans were long enough to conceal most of the decidedly unusual - for a boy, that is - heels on his boots. A slightly more perceptive look revealed that the jeans were quite low-riding and tight, and that the shape to which they clung had equally unusual - for a boy, that is - curves.

There would have been a further element of surprise for anyone who knew Adam. The waist revealed by his snug shirt was smooth and trim, quite different from the roll that would normally spill over if he wore such tight jeans.

Sara was concerned that she might be pushing him further than he wanted to go, though the fact he had dressed as she asked with hardly a word of complaint implied it wasn't something he truly found unpleasant. She breathed a sigh of relief when she realized he'd voluntarily taken his hair out of the low ponytail and brushed it into a shining cascade, pulling it forward so that it curved near the notch of his collar bones in a decidedly feminine flow.

Adam noticed her inspection and blushed, ducking his head. But there wasn't any way to hide the effect of the clothes his mother had provided, and no way to deny that he had willingly put them on. So he lifted his head and showed a wry little grin. "This, um, girdle thing is really like, tight. And high. It's riding up over my ribs."

"I know," she replied with her own grin. "Believe me, I know." A sly look tried to hide behind her smile, though she said nothing further.

Adam prompted her out of her silence, "So, why did you want me to put on these clothes?"

"Sit down, and we'll talk," she promised.

Adam got a full plate of Sara's delicious lasagna, along with several pieces of toasted garlic bread. Sara's sly small tickled her lips again, but she said nothing until they were seated.

"Just for the moment," she began, "assume there are no 'rules' about fashion and style. There is only your own self image and what you'd like to do, how you'd like to look, how you'd like to act. What would you choose?"

"Mom, it's not that simple.

"Of course not," she agreed. "But maybe it's not as complicated as you think, either. Anyway, just humor me and tell me what you'd like. For example, you told me you liked being taller?"

"Yeah, I do like being taller. I suppose part of it is the novelty of how things look different, but . . ."

"Yes . . ?" she prompted.

"I guess I really liked being taller than Alexis," he said, cheeks igniting again.

Sara nodded and asked, "Would you like some - what do they call them? - 'elevator shoes' with a thick sole and built-up heel?"

Adam quickly shook his head. "No, I don't want some clunky, heavy things that make me look clumsier than I already am."

His mother smiled and nodded her agreement. "So, the boots Alexis loaned you, they're about right?"

"I suppose so, except . . ."

This time Sara just waited patiently. After a moment, Adam's eyes met hers and he grinned sheepishly. "Well, now that I'm sorta used to them? I could, um, . . . maybe even higher heels?"

"Good for you," Sara said. "You know, the fact you handle them so well proves you're not as clumsy as you think, right?"

"Nice try, Mom, but every PE class has been a disaster for me. I can't play sports well, and that's a fact."

Sara shrugged and moved on. "Perhaps you just haven't found the right sports yet. But that's another issue. Is there anything else, besides the heels I mean?"

"Um, I guess the longer pants that go with that are sorta cool, and tighter ones make my legs look longer.

"Like you're wearing?"

"Yeah, but, um, why are there like, pads in the girdle thing? On my, y'know . . ."

"I'll get back to that in a moment," Sara said. "What about anything else - not necessarily just clothes things? If you could, oh, improve yourself in some way, what would you do?"

Adam laughed. "That list could take a while."

Sara smiled at his joke, but was insistent. "Don't try to hide behind generalities. All of us have things we could do to improve, and if we don't see any of them that just means we're prideful and arrogant. So . . .?"

Adam winced, then nodded. "Okay, I wish I wasn't so fat - but I just can't seem to get motivated to diet.

Sara noticed that for the last few minutes Adam had merely been picking at his food, yet was far from finished. She didn't point that out immediately, but she kept her eye on him to see if his pause was only going to be momentary.

After that moment passed without further comment from Adam, she smiled ruefully and addressed what he had said. "If I had a way to keep thin without diet and exercise, I'd make a zillion dollars. I guess the question is: What are you wiling to do to, ah, not see yourself as 'so fat'?"

"Any suggestions?" asked Adam.

Sara decided it was time to play the card she'd had in her hand since Adam had changed his clothes. "Well, I noticed you didn't eat as much tonight as you usually do."

Adam looked at his still-loaded plate. "That's just this girdle thingy. It's so tight my stomach can't hold . . . oh, that's a dirty trick!"

"But effective," Sara said, laughing.

"Yeah, but I'll just get hungry later."

Sara shrugged. "Maybe, though lots of times we eat more than we need to satisfy hunger. Smaller portions don't necessarily mean you get hungry sooner - at least, not enough you couldn't control it."

Running a hand down the smooth contour at his waist, Adam asked, "So, you want me to wear this thing all the time?"

Sara shook her head. "I think the most important question is whether you want to wear it. I've, um, noticed that you often snack later in the evening, and as I pointed out, you probably eat more at supper than you really need. If your stomach was, ah, squeezed at least in the evening . . ."

Adam frowned. "But this thing is padded, too. What's up with that?

Sara shook her head again. "Let me hold off on that for just another minute. You've, ah, experimented with a couple of other things in the last few days, too. What do you think of them?"

"You mean my hair? I just like, brushed it out because Alexis likes it this way."

"Just Alexis? She's not here right now."

Adam smiled and nodded a point to her. "Okay, so I like it, too. I've had my hair in a simple ponytail since it was long enough to hold in a rubber band. Either that or it was wet. I sorta like having it loose and - I don't know - swingy."

"I do, too, dear. I remember when I had longer hair. Seeing yours makes me wish I hadn't cut mine so short."

"You'd look nice with longer hair, Mom. And if you don't mind my saying so, you'd look younger."

"I know," she sighed. "It's a bother, and like a lot of women I decided it wasn't worth the bother once I got married. I sometimes wonder if that's part of the reason . . . well, that's another issue. What else?"

Adam shrugged. "What else what?"

"You've worn makeup twice now," Sara pointed out. "Did you like it?"

"That was just for my complexion," Adam claimed. "And Alexis just got carried away."

"So you didn't like it?" asked Sara.

"Well, I guess I do like the idea of having fewer zits. If it helped with that . . ."

Sara said, "We could just get you some clear creams, if you want."

Adam jerked with a reflexive dislike for the idea. "But, I thought the colors like, help cover up my zits. And y'know, keep me from looking like, flat."

"So," Sara said, following up on his opening, "you did like the way you looked. Not just the fact it might help with your complexion."

"Yeah, I guess so."

She added another argument to the pile, "And Alexis? Did she like it?"

Adam's breath caught for a long moment, and a smile he couldn't hide tugged at his lips even as his eyes got dreamy and distant. "Oh, yeahhhh," he whispered. Then he recovered and said, "I mean, yeah, she must have, since she's the one who wanted me to do it, and she wouldn't let me take it off before we left her house."

Sara smiled and looked thoughtfully at her son. Then, as though it were a signal that they were moving to another phase of the conversation, she started to gather up the dishes. "Okay, honey, enough with the interrogation. Let me explain a few things . . ."

"At first, I was worried about your self esteem," she said as she worked. "I'm very proud of you, proud of your creativity, and proud of how well you do in school. But I was worried that you were becoming too . . . introspective. That you were unhappy in your life, maybe even headed toward depression. You're very quiet, and pretty much of a loner except for your friendship with Alexis - and you told me that she doesn't see what you share as a 'relationship' so much as a convenience, or maybe even a habit. Childhood friends, not, well, you know. . ."

Adam just nodded, listening carefully.

Sara tried to lighten the tension of the moment by pausing to touch Adam's hand as she took his plate. He didn't pull away. Instead, he lifted a thumb to catch a part of her hand.

"Frankly," she continued, "the most energetic I've seen you - for much too long - was when you came in wearing Alexis' boots. And you were practically dancing through the house when I suggested you wear them again."

As she was putting leftovers into containers, Adam stood and began to help with the dishes. Sara said, "There are two possible explanations for that. Well, maybe a lot more than two, but two for now. One is that you simply liked the feeling of being taller, as you said. But the other option is that you like the feeling of femininity."

Adam stopped what he was doing and shook his head. "I really don't think I'm gay."

Sara nodded in agreement. "I did a little research today, and enjoying feelings of femininity is not automatically a sign of homosexual orientation any more than tomboy girls are all automatically lesbian. Sometimes it just means you enjoy things that are, um, not traditional."

Adam shrugged, perhaps a bit defiantly, but still paying close attention.

Sara said, "Anyway, after a day or so of the boots, I offered you a chance at a little more femininity.

"But there were like, reasons for that, for the clean underwear and pantyhose," Adam protested.

"Yes, dear, but the best excuses are always based in reality. Regardless of justifications, do you think most boys would have put on pantyhose when they didn't need to - when they could have just quit wearing high-heeled boots instead?"

"So you think I am gay?"

"No, Adam, I don't. I've seen the way you look at Alexis. But I also don't think you're like most other young men. That doesn't have to diminish you. It may even give you unique and valuable insights into what it means to be human - particularly valuable if you want to be a writer - but it is something we should consider carefully."

Adam looked puzzled, "So, are you saying I should quit? Until we like, figure something out?"

"Actually, no," Sara said. "As I said, the most animated and cheerful I've seen you for, oh, months was when you were wearing your boots, and then the other things. I just wanted to help you find out if it was just being taller - or if perhaps there are some underlying desires as well."

"I can just stop this, any time I want," Adam insisted.

"Yes, of course you can," Sara agreed quickly - too quickly, really, as though it were the expected response rather than one that had really been considered. "But my question is: Would you be happier if you did stop? Or if you continued?"

"I don't know," Adam said with a sigh.

"Neither do I," Sara said with a matching sigh. "I was planning on just making a few more opportunities available to you, as time went on, then last night . . . "

"Last night I came in looking like a girl," Adam supplied.

"Yes, and looking just like I used to look, when I was your age. It was, um, surprising."

"Tell me about it," Adam said ruefully. "I was freaked enough when I saw what I looked like in a mirror, and then you pulled out that yearbook."

Sara shared his wry smile, "In any event, it showed you had the potential to go a lot farther down the path to a feminine appearance than I had planned. Enough that it's time to decide if it's a path you want to follow."

"What do you mean, 'decide?'" Adam asked. "I'm a boy, Mom, not a girl. There's no choice to make. A pair of boots and some makeup don't change that."

"No," Sara agreed, "but you can't deny that you did look like a girl last night." At his nod she continued, "That's the reason for the padded girdle. It contours your hips, even as it trims your waist."

Adam laughed and twitched his hips a little. "Um, Mom, I don't want to burst your bubble, but boys and girls are different in, um, other ways."

Sara frowned at his tone. "Yes, dear, I think I knew that." Then she relaxed and smiled as well. "But it does provide some new . . . options. I was thinking that this would be something we'd keep fairly low-key - and private. I'm worried about how people would treat you if you were, um, sort of half-and-half. But it's clear you can provide a convincing female appearance - enough that some of the limitations I was worried about go away. If you want to."

Adam said, "But . . . I still am a guy, Mom. I'll always be a boy."

"Yes, but you can look like a girl, and act like one, and your voice has plenty of potential as well. So the question is again: Do you want to? If so, I'll help you. If not, then go change into your regular clothes." With that ultimatum, she started the dishwasher and pointed him toward the family room.

Adam asked, "Do I have to? Choose, I mean? Is this because I said I didn't want to do like, macho things?"

"No, it's not because of that," Sara said. "Honestly, I'm still a bit worried that I've somehow limited you. But I never expected anything like this as a result. Every time I opened a door for you - a feminine door - you walked right through. And seemed happier doing it."

Adam had seated himself in his usual easy chair, an oversized recliner left over from when his father had lived with them. He didn't recline it this time though, and the arm was wide enough that his mother could lean a hip on it. She looked down into his eyes and smiled sadly.

"And I was, um, concerned after I saw you last night," she said. "The makeup made me face something I think I'd been denying to myself - maybe you have, too. Your features are . . . well, you're likely to get more than teasing, and from people a lot more dangerous than school kids. I'm worried about that. If exploring this side of yourself fulfils you in some way; if it allows you to find happiness, then it might well be worth the risk. But if it's just passive - just something you do because Alexis talks you into it - I'm afraid a mediocre compromise won't make you happy and might get your hurt."

Then she dropped another bombshell, "So if you don't want to pursue this, we probably ought to get your hair cut. If this fresh look we've had of you shows that you're so, um, ambiguous in your appearance, we probably shouldn't take chances."

"Cut my hair?" Adam repeated in dismay.

"That's one option," she said.

"And the other . . ?" Adam prompted.

"Well, we could see how much like a girl we can make you look. And if you pass, not just at night and in a sweatshirt, but in any situation, then you could . . . well, you could have that as an option. You'd have to work at it, though."

"But what about school?" Adam asked. "I mean, the rest of the time? Would I have to change over like, permanently?"

Sara shook her head. "I think school should be relatively safe. Of, course, you'd take off your body shapers and wear your regular clothes. You might get a little teasing. After all, your hair already looks nicer than it did, and it will look better yet. There's also what Alexis did to your eyebrows, and it's not bad, but it can add to the, ah, ambiguity. Some things will carry over even when you're dressed as a boy, but I wouldn't expect any real trouble - at least, not in a controlled environment like school. I'd arrange for you to be excused from PE, at least for the duration of our experiment."

"Geez, Mom, that's enough right there to get me to go along."

She laughed, and shook her head. "Oh, you'll find yourself 'exercising' plenty if you do this. Look, honey, I'm not trying to force you into anything. Like I said, I was just . . . offering you some options. Things went a lot further than I intended, and a lot faster. It showed you actually have even more options than I had expected. But it's still your choice."

Adam frowned. "How much like a girl, I mean, what do I have to do? When would we start?"

Sara patted her son on his shoulder and said, "Well, I think you'd be happiest if . . ."

Adam interrupted her. "Mom, sorry, but that's like the fifth time you've said this is all about my happiness. And I appreciate that. I really do. But are you sure this is all about me? I mean, you've been like, opening all this doors you talked about - and pretty enthusiastically. Are you trying to convince me this is all about my happiness, or convince yourself?"

Sara stood up from the arm of Adam's chair abruptly, and looked at him in shock. Then she frowned and went out to look through the window at the same-as-always view. After a moment, she turned back. "I don't know. I guess that tells me it's not all about your happiness, at the very least."

Adam got out of his chair and moved to stand by her. "Okay. I can deal with that. And it's really okay. Believe it or not, I'd like you to be happy, too."

Then he stood back and said, "But frankly, this sort of creeps me out. And what really bothers me is how much I do enjoy it. I guess I hadn't actually noticed that I was - what did you say? - practically dancing around the house when you told me I could wear these boots again. But now that you mention it . . ."

He concluded with a smile, and leaned forward to hug his mother. She smiled back, tears almost spilling from her eyes.

Adam continued, "I don't know why I was so, um, why I enjoyed it so much. But I have to admit I did. It was very satisfying to look nice, with my zits hidden and my hair thick and wavy. And I flat out love the boots. There is a sense of like, delicacy when I wear them. Maybe of elegance because I know I'm wearing heels. It's not something that I've ever felt about myself before."

Sara's arms had entwined with her son's, and she leaned into him. "So, what do you want to do?"

"Would you really like me to, um, dress like a girl, and y'know, act like one?"

Sara nodded. "I think so. I'm not sure exactly why, but now that you pointed it out, I realize that I was looking forward to it."

Adam smiled and tightened his embrace. "So, you always wanted a good-looking daughter instead of a geeky son?"

Sara twitched in his arms and frowned, then recognized he was teasing so she smiled and squeezed back. "You know that's not true, but if I can have both . . ."

Adam stepped away from her and pirouetted on his toes. "So, what's next?"

"Next we sleep on it," Sara said firmly. "Do your homework, and we'll pick this up again tomorrow."


Chapter 6 - "A Date?"


Another morning saw another small improvement in Adam. His complexion was looking much better even with no covering makeup, and he had pulled his ponytail just a little higher on the back of his head, which made it seem thicker and more lively.

And he was deliberately pulling in his stomach as he walked down the stairs. Sara noticed it immediately, and managed to change her incipient snicker into a smile of approval.

"You look nice this morning, dear."

"Thanks, Mom. I think that cleanser stuff is helping."

"Yes, it seems to be," she agreed. Then her expression became more serious and she said, "So, did you think about your, um, options last night?"

"Yeah," Adam said. "And y'know what made the most sense to me? Trying it. I mean, I can always stop, but if I never even try, I'll always wonder."

"Sounds reasonable," Sara agreed.

She gave him his breakfast, and if he noticed it was a bowl of bran cereal with skim milk instead of fatty foods he didn't say anything. As though it were a reward for his silent acceptance of yet another improvement, she made him an offer.

"How about, tonight, after you get home, we work on showing you how to do your own makeup? Obviously, our colors match pretty well so mine will work for you. And maybe we can try that wavy hair style that Alexis did for you."

"Really?" Adam said. "Cool!"

Then he laughed at himself and said, "I guess that's one way to get me to come straight home."

"Oh, there's no hurry," Sara teased him.

"Yeah, right," he said, laughing. "This is only a change to my whole life, my whole idea of who I am, and it's no big deal."

"I'll have everything ready," she promised with a laugh of her own. "Don't worry about a thing."

"Oh, yeah, like that's gonna happen," Adam said, but he couldn't control a smile as he walked out the door.

With that promise looming in his mind, Adam had one of the least productive days in school he'd had for a while, not that one off day would matter. It was even enough of a distraction that he didn't mind that Alexis seemed to be avoiding him again. At least, until she came looking for him right before the last period of the day.

"God, Adam, it's like you're avoiding me or something," Alexis complained. "Most days I can't turn around with out stumbling over you, and now that I need you I had to look all over the school."

Adam just smiled. ::Now that I have something else to think about, I'm not as desperate to sustain this friendship. So I really do have more power - or at least Alexis has less.::

Alexis pulled her World History homework from her notebook and handed it to him. "Adam, I really, really need for you to do this for me tonight. I'm desperate."

Adam's smile grew at her reflection of his own silent comment, but he shook his head. "Alli, you know better than that. I'll help you with it, but I won't do your work for you."

"But this is a special case, Adam," she claimed. "It has to be done tonight, and I just won't have time."

"Why not?"

Alexis looked away, a guilty flush on her face. She dropped her voice to a whisper. "Look, Adam, I really enjoyed kissing Eve. She's a killer kisser." She let her voice get husky and continued, "And I wouldn't mind doing it again." Returning to a more normal whisper, she said, "But Tom Brennan is back from UT this weekend, and it wouldn't look right if I didn't go out with him."

"On a Thursday night?" Adam asked.

Alexis blushed again, and shook her head. "No, my date is tomorrow night, but I totally have to get something to wear that has like, longhorns or at least Texas colors. I just have to!"

Adam found himself grinning despite the realization that what he had hoped was 'his' girl was actually trying to get his help to make a date with another guy go better. ::Or maybe it's because she's trying to get my help. And I have a valid reason to refuse. So it's petty. It's also satisfying.::

"Sorry, Alli, but I'm not going to do your homework for you. I'll help, but . . ."

"That is so not fair," she said angrily.

"Is it?" Adam asked. "Well, if you say so, but I'm still not doing it for you."

Alexis snatched the paper back, then sighed. "Oh, Adam, I should have known. You can be a real shit sometimes, y'know? I'd have thought - just once - you might make an exception."

"Nope," he said calmly.

"So, can you come over later, after I get back from the mall?" asked Alexis.

"I, um, don't think so," Adam said. "I don't have a car, and my mom doesn't want me out on the streets too late."

"Damn," Alexis growled. "My mom doesn't really want me to be out too late either. I'm sorta grounded for what we did, um, for what I did to you. She's given me this really tight curfew."

"I can meet you before classes tomorrow," offered Adam.

"Oh, god, no. I can't get up any earlier. I'll just die," she moaned. "Oh, damn, I gotta get to class. Look, I'll call you later. Maybe you can help me over the phone."

"Whatever," Adam said, already hurrying toward his own final class.

When he got home a little over an hour later, Adam called a quick hello to his mother and headed immediately for his room. He struggled into his pantyhose and girdle, then put on his new, tight, jeans and a bright blue polo shirt. ::This really does look neater,:: he admitted to himself as he took his hair down from its ponytail and brushed it smooth.

"Hello, dear," Sara said when she finally saw her fast-moving son.

Only now he moved with more grace than his usual headlong dash. The heels forced him to be careful about his balance and the high waist on his girdle reminded him of the need to keep his posture upright. The combination was unfamiliar enough that he had to think about his motion constantly, and the care that triggered showed in other, smaller ways. He held his hands up a little to keep them from riding on his enhanced hips as those same hips swayed with his need to keep his weight poised over a smaller portion of his foot.

"I can see we're going to need to pick up a few more things for you," she said.

"Like what?" Adam asked, revealing a lot more eagerness than he intended.

"Like another pair of shoes, for one thing," Sara laughed. "I know you like your boots, but goodness!"

"Aw, Mom, I already told you they're great," Adam said.

"Yes, honey, I know. And it's okay. I just think you should have some choices."

"Oh, okay. What's for dinner?"

"Nothing you'll like," she said with a grin. "And it's all your fault."

"My fault?" he asked.

"Yes," she said. "You've convinced me that I need to take a bit more care of my own appearance, so we're going to be more careful about what we eat."

"Aw, Mom, I told you I don't like to diet."

"I know, dear, but this isn't a real diet. I've just selected things that cut back on fats and sugars - mostly that means more vegetables, but you eat those okay, don't you?"

"Not if that's all I get," he grumped, but one hand slid down his smoother side, and he nodded.

Baked chicken and three steamed vegetables, none of which were potatoes, still filled all the room his girdle left to him. And he already had an incentive to get done as quickly as possible. Sara teased him a little by sending him to do his homework while she cleaned up the kitchen, but they both knew he was essentially caught up. Adam did look at his own copy of the worksheet that Alexis had tried to get him to do for her, and it was basically a geography quiz - looking up country capitals and rivers from clues provided by the teacher. The clues were fairly obvious ("Where would you go if you wanted to see the ancient city of Constantinople?") so he got through them before Sara was done with the dishes.

A fact he announced quite clearly. "I'm done with my homework, Mom."

"Good timing," she said from the doorway to his room. "I'm done, too."

She waved an inviting hand at Adam, and led him into her bedroom. The first lesson was the same as the last lesson - cleanse and moisturize first, last, and always. She even provided a hairband to keep his hair dry while he washed his face.

"Do you really clean your face like this every time you put makeup on?" Adam asked.

"Pretty much," Sara said. "One thing I did keep up from when I was younger was a good skin regime."

"Ah, Mom, you're not that old. Geez, with the right hairstyle, and maybe some better clothes, you could pass for my age."

"Thank you, dear. That's a wonderful compliment. Even if it's not true."

"Close enough," Adam claimed. "Darn, I wish you had longer hair."

"Well . . ," Sara started, then interrupted herself. "We'll see. In the meantime, here's what you do . . ."

It took about a half hour for Adam's first iteration. When he finally sat back and looked beyond the details to see the whole image in the mirror, he frowned.

"Not what you expected?" Sara asked.

"No," Adam replied. "I look . . . I looked a lot better when Alli did it."

"Yes, you did," Sara confirmed. "Now, can you tell me why?"

"Well, it's not . . . even, I guess."

"Right," she said. "One of the things I had the most trouble with, when I was learning how to use makeup, was keeping things even. The eyeliner on your left eye is much thicker, but you blended the eyeshadow better on that side. And your lips . . ."

"Pretty awful, huh?" Adam said.

"Not for a first try," Sara said. "But if you want to get to Carnegie Hall . . ."

"Huh?"

"Old joke," Sara explained. "Carnegie Hall is a big theater in New York, and the joke is that someone asks how to get to Carnegie Hall. The answer is: Practice, practice, practice."

"Oh, yeah," Adam said, smiling. And heading for the bathroom to wash his face.

A few iterations later he was doing well enough that Sara offered a variation. "Okay, dear, what you've been doing is about right for a girl going to the mall on the weekend. A bit more than might be right for school - at least, more than most mothers would want her to wear to school. And a bit less than she might wear for an evening in a dark and romantic restaurant. Do you want to try an evening glamour look?"

"Um, sure," Adam replied. "But I don't . . . I mean, I'm not expecting to go on a date, at least, not a romantic date with a guy!"

"I know," Sara said. "But it's a technique, and you might was well give it a try."

He nodded, and as soon as his face was clean he started in on yet another application. By now he understood what to look for to keep his makeup looking even on both sides, so he finished fairly quickly and with much better results.

"Wow," he said. "That's . . . interesting."

"Indeed," Sara said. "Do you want to try it again?"

"Do you think I need to," he asked.

"Frankly, no," she said. "Though you'll need to keep practicing because by tomorrow you'll have forgotten half of what you learned. But for the glamour look, you won't do any better than that."

"Yeah," he said softly.

"So," Sara said, "do you want to try a new hairstyle?"

"Oh, sure," Adam said, still looking at his reflection.

"Tell me what Alexis did," Sara said. Adam explained the use of large rollers and water with a bit of setting gel, which seemed unsurprising to Sara. "Good," she said. "That's about what I expected."

It took yet another half hour for her to roll Adam's hair up, and they decided to let it dry on its own while they shared a snack . . . if low-fat yogurt could be considered a real snack. Sara busied herself in the kitchen for a little while, and Adam turned on his game system.

Then the doorbell rang.

Adam looked at his mother in shock, and started running for his room. Sara let him get out of sight before opening the door to see Alexis.

And her mother, Nicole.

"Hi, Mrs. C," Alexis said. "I need to see Adam."

"Um, this might not be a good time," Sara said. "He's, um, washing up."

"It'll only take a minute," Alexis claimed, heading down the hall to Adam's room.

"Hello, Sara," Nicole said, distracting Adam's mother from any further intervention.

A girlish laugh drew their attention, followed by an enthusiastic, "Ohmigod, way, way cool Adam. I mean, Eve."

The two mothers walked down to see what had caused Alexis' comment, and found Adam with his hair half in rollers. And his face very elegantly made up.

"Goodness," Nicole said. "Here I've been blaming Alexis for what happened the other night, but now it looks like it was Adam all along."

"Mrs. P, I can explain," Adam began.

"I doubt it," Nicole said. "Alexis, I think we should go. Let - what did you call her? - 'Eve' get ready for her date."

"That's not fair, Nicole," Sara said firmly, unconsciously moving to stand between the woman and her son.

"Isn't it?" Nicole challenged. "That's hardly a normal look for a young man."

"Which still doesn't give you the right to ridicule him," Sara said sharply.

Nicole opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted by Alexis who moved to stand next to Sara. "No, Mother, don't say another word. You don't have the right to ridicule Adam. I did start all of this, and over his objections. If he found some of what we did to be interesting, then that's his choice to make."

"Yes, but he made that choice," Nicole said with a frown.

"Yes, I did," Adam said. "Mrs. P, I don't know where this is going, but when I realized that I can do something that most guys couldn't do even if they tried, I just wanted to give it a chance. Is it so wrong to want to be just a bit special?"

"By wearing makeup, and high-heeled boots, and a girl's hairstyle?"

"I guess so," Adam said weakly.

"Well, I don't think . . ," she began.

"No, Mother, you don't think," Alexis said, stepping forward angrily. "Adam is my friend. And if I told you some of what my other friends do, you'd be thrilled that I have at least one friend who only wants to look nicer than social customs allow."

She took another step forward, leaving her nose to nose with her mother. "And it's not like you have anything to talk about. How many woman photographers take so many pictures of naked women, or worse?"

"What?" Nicole said, blushing with guilt. "How did you . . .?"

"Mother, we share a computer. If you wanted to hide your kinky pictures, you should have done a better job of protecting your hard drive. And you never told me to stay out of anything. I've known about it for a long time."

"Nicole, Alexis, please," Sara said, laying a calming hand on each. "Let's not let this get out of hand. Nicole, why don't you and I go have a cup of coffee? Alexis, was there something you needed?"

"Oh, yeah," she said. "I need Adam's help on my homework."

"Very well," Sara said, then turned to her son, but glanced at Nicole as she said, "Adam, you can either finish what you were doing, or wash up, as you wish."

With that she politely motioned for Nicole to lead her toward the kitchen, leaving the two teens behind.

"Wow, Adam, that was fun," Alexis said heavily.

"I'm sorry, Alli," Adam said.

"Don't be," Alexis said. "My mother was totally not fair, and after all, I did start all this."

Then she giggled. "And you do look awesome, or will when we get your hair done."

"I should just go wash up," Adam said.

Alexis reached out to touch his contoured cheek, gently blending a bit of blusher. "Please don't . . . Eve. I do like it when you look like this. I'm not sure why. Maybe I'm as lesbian as my mother. But I truly like it."

She reached out and began to take the rest of the pins out of his curlers. Soon his hair was bouncing around his shoulders in thick waves. A few more minutes with a brush and it curved in graceful arcs down his back.

"You really look awesome . . . Eve," Alexis said. She watched her friend as she used a feminine name again, and his eyes quickly darted to meet hers. There was no derision in Alexis' eyes, and when he had seen that, Adam shrugged his shoulders, but nodded.

"Thank you, Alli," he said, softly, with just a hint of music in his voice.

Alexis smiled happily at his acceptance, and hugged him tightly. She buried her face in his lustrous hair, and whispered, "I'd kiss you until we both pass out, but we need to go get things straightened out with my mother."

Adam twitched uncomfortably in her arms, but nodded. When they reached the kitchen, Nicole frowned when she saw Adam, but her eyes showed surprise as well.

"You do look . . . amazing," she said.

"Thanks," he said.

"Your mother and I have been talking," Nicole said. "And I understand a bit better now."

Adam nodded, waiting for her to continue.

"I'm not sure I agree, but it is your choice to make. I'm sorry for what I said."

"It's okay, Mrs. P," Adam said generously. "It's a bit of a shock for all of us."

She smiled at his comment, then looked at her daughter.

Alexis looked down at her hands, then squared her shoulders and held her head up. "I'm sorry, too, Momma. I shouldn't have brought up your pictures. That's private, and I had no right to say anything in front of anyone else." Alexis looked at Sara and added with a hopeful question in her voice, "Not even in front of very good friends?"

"Yes," Sara said, "I hope we remain friends . . . the best of friends."

Nicole frowned, but she nodded as well, and then took a deep breath before letting it out slowly as she made a decision. "Adam, I'm not going to say that I'm comfortable with this, but I hope you'll let me try to make my apology real by helping out a little. I've learned a few tricks from professional makeup artists, and I can help you with a few touches here and there. Small things, because you really do look very good, but all gir . . . all of us could use a few, um, special techniques."

"Really?" Adam asked. "That would be awesome!"

"Yes," Nicole said, smiling more naturally at his honest appreciation. "But not tonight. I brought Alexis over because I didn't want her out alone this late, and I thought she had some homework to do?"

"Oh, yeah," the teens chorused, then laughed together in a way that sounded too much like giggles. They raced back to Adam's room.

"Thank you, Nicole," Sara said once they were one. "I know this isn't easy for you."

"No, it's not," Nicole said directly. "But Alexis is right. I do find more, ah, enjoyment in my photos than is probably right."

"What is right?" Sara asked. "If it harms no one, then I think you should be happy."

"Well, I'm not sure I am," Nicole said. "Do you ever wonder . . . why they left? Whether at some level it was our fault?"

Sara knew she was talking about their husbands. "Sometimes," she admitted. "And yes, I've wondered if what I'm letting Adam do is going to . . . push him toward something that . . . that makes him more like his father."

"Does that bother you?"

"Yes," Sara admitted again. "But he wasn't headed for happiness the way things were going. I felt that we needed to try something. Almost anything."

"I see," Nicole said. "And thank you for not bringing up the obvious. Alexis is clearly more interested in Adam as, um, Eve than she ever was in Adam as Adam. My own, um, inclinations may have influenced her as well."

"It's hard to bring up children, particularly in broken homes."

"Well," Nicole said with a sigh. "Maybe we can help each other."


Chapter 7 - "Growing Up . . . and Out"


The next morning Adam was tempted to do just a few little things to make his face look better before going to school. Some of the guys, even some of the jocks, used creams on their acne, so why couldn't he?

The answer came as soon as he tried it. Even a little medicated base left his face too uniform to be attractive and he knew he'd need to use some powder and blusher to give it contour. Yet, with his slimmer eyebrows and fragile-looking bone structure, even just the medicated base moved his face over into the way-too-feminine category. So he cleansed his face and remoisturized and went to school 'bare.'

While Adam was performing his unsuccessful experiment, Nicole Pierce was checking plans with Alexis.

"Do you have a date tonight?" she asked her daughter.

"Yes," Alexis said. "Tom Brennan is back from UT."

"So, that's why you had to go shopping yesterday instead of getting your homework done," Nicole observed. "Nice sweater."

Alexis blushed a little, but then grinned. "Gotta do what it takes to keep his interest."

Nicole frowned, and said sharply, "Whatever it takes?"

"Well, nothing illegal," Alexis said with a laugh, though she didn't meet her mother's eyes.

"Alexis, you need to be careful with Tom. He's a nice guy, but he's a boy - a man now, at college - and you know what he's after. I don't want that for you."

"Mother!" Alexis protested. "I'm a woman myself, and I can make my own decisions."

"Not all of them," Nicole said. "You're still young enough to make some pretty serious mistakes."

"Like you did?" Alexis retorted sharply.

"Alexis! That's uncalled for. Don't change the subject."

"Mother, I may not be a brain like Adam, but I can do simple math. You're 34 and I'm 17. That means you were already pregnant when you were my age!"

"And married when I wasn't much older," Nicole said. "Look how that turned out."

"Yeah, I can see how much of a mistake I turned out to be," Alexis replied bitterly.

Nicole's parental sternness collapsed with her daughter's bitterness. She took Alexis in her arms and hugged her. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. Of all the things I've done in my life, you are the one that is most certainly not a mistake. I'm very, very proud of you. I just wish . . ."

"That you'd picked a father who gave more to this family than a few genes," Alexis finished for her. "Look, Momma, I know Tom is not the love of my life, and I'm not going to get pregnant. I promise you. You know I'm on the pill because you took me to the doctor! It's just a date."

Nicole noted the limitation of Alexis' promise, but she sighed and hugged her daughter again. "Just be careful, okay?"

"You, too," Alexis said. "What's up with you today?"

"I have a photo shoot for Vivid cosmetics. They're launching a new campaign."

"Great. See if you can scarf some samples," Alexis said with a laugh. "We can always use more makeup."

"Maybe more than you know," Nicole said cryptically. Her tone didn't offer an opening for more and Alexis was familiar with the proprietary limitations on what her mother could reveal, so she hugged her mother without comment and headed off to school.

*****

Adam was pleased to see Alexis when he got to BHS, mostly because she actually seemed to be happy to see him.

"Morning, Adam," she offered as he approached.

"Morning, Alli."

"Thanks for the help with my homework last night," she said, loudly enough that her not-quite-congregated friends could hear.

"Sure, Alli," he replied. "Any time."

She leaned close to whisper to him, "We need to talk, but not at school. Can I come over sometime this weekend?"

"Maybe," he said, dropping he voice to match hers, "but you better call first. Mom said something about errands to run, and I figure that means I'll be expected to help. We may not be home."

"That's okay," Alexis said. "I'm going to the mall anyway. I can call you from there and if you're not home, I'll just keep shopping!"

"Good for you," Adam said dryly. They parted to go to their classes, and the rest of the day was same-old, same-old for Adam. Normally he liked school, but it couldn't compete for interest with the things waiting for him at home . . . and he didn't even really know what that would be.

His smile of anticipation was matched by the one on his mother when the school day was finally over.

"So, ready for something new?" Sara asked brightly.

"I don't know," Adam said. "I'm kinda nervous, actually. And . . . I mean, what's gonna happen?"

Sara's smile faded into concern. "Nothing that you don't want, dear. You know that, don't you?"

"Oh, sure, Mom, but I guess I just don't know what to want. I mean, what's left?"

"What's left?" she asked, then snickered. "Oh, dear, are you in for a fun evening."

She pointed at the living room, and they sat together on the couch. "Don't you have any ideas on what to do next? Anything you want to try?"

Adam shrugged. "I just don't know where to start. I like my boots best, so high-heeled shoes might be fun. And, um . . ."

"Yes?" Sara prompted.

Adam looked at his hands. "I guess . . . y'know, girls wear dresses, right?"

"Yes, girls wear dresses," Sara confirmed with a smile. Then she looked more seriously at her child. "Adam, what sort of girl do you want to be?"

"What?"

"What sort of girl do you want to be? Surely you've noticed that girls wear different styles. Some are tomboys who almost always wear jeans. Some are more feminine, with softer colors and more delicate fabrics. Some are trampy, and I'm telling you right now that's not an option. Some are - God help us - into that ugly Goth thing. You need to decide on the style you want to embrace."

"Mom, there are some really good looking Goth girls at school," Adam said, but the twinkle in his eyes showed he was teasing. She smiled back, not rising to the bait.

Adam grinned, nodding his head to recognize she'd seen through his teasing. Then his eyes got distant for a moment. "Maybe I'm too close to her," he sighed, "but I don't think there's anyone who looks better than Alexis. What style would you say that she is?"

"Sexy cheerleader, I suppose," Sara replied. "I know she's a volleyball player, not a cheerleader, but the style is similar. Jeans some of the time but often skirts that I think are a bit too short. Nice sweaters and blouses but not too many frills. Probably the most noticeable thing is that she really works hard on her hair and makeup."

"Sounds about right," Adam said, showing a dreamy smile as his mind wandered through remembered images of Alexis.

"There's one more thing," Sara said warningly. "Cheerleaders, like other good athletes, generally have a good figure."

"Oh," Adam said softly, with disappointment in his eyes as his hands unconsciously rubbed over his stomach. His too-big stomach.

"But we can work on that," Sara said positively. "In fact, that's primarily what I had in mind for this evening."

"Really?"

"Yes, really," she confirmed. "I was thinking that we might work on your figure and general body appearance tonight."

"Okay," Adam said. "It's not gonna hurt, is it?"

"One must suffer for fashion," Sara said pompously, then grinned. "But not too much."

The fun started, as so many of these new adventures seemed to do, with getting clean. Sara told Adam to get undressed and join her in her bathroom. There he found a steaming bath, frothy with scented bubbles.

Adam's pale skin flushed with some combination of eagerness and embarrassment at the luxurious sight, but he didn't say anything as Sara explained the array of cleansers and special sponges he was to use.

"And last but not least, use this on everything below your eyebrows," she ordered, pointing at a pink razor. She turned and rubbed her hand on his glowing cheeks. "How often do you shave, sweetheart?"

"Not very often," he mumbled.

"Your father only shaved a couple of times a week," Sara reported. "Which is a good thing, because as dark as your hair is, if you had a heavy beard this whole thing wouldn't work."

::A couple of times a month is more like it, for me,:: Adam thought with a sigh, then smiled at finally finding a good thing about not having very masculine features.

The bath was actually pretty nice. It was a lot slower than a shower, but that wasn't such a bad thing, once you were in it. He was playing with the bubbles, laughing at himself for doing things he hadn't done since he was six - when his mother poked her head into the room.

"Put these on when you're done," she said simply, setting a pile of clothes on the counter. But her voice held the smile her lips tried to deny at the sight of her child indulging himself in childish joy, for the first time in so very long.

With that interruption, Adam got to work following his mother's instructions. It felt strange to do what all the commercials showed, stretching a long, slim leg from the froth to erase rows of bubbles with the pink razor, along with the hair the bubbles hid. A few moments later he was wondering if he should have done his armpits first, because the razor seemed to be yanking rather than slicing away that hair, but he slicked them clean, too.

He finally got out of the bath when it started to cool down and looked at what his mother had provided for clothes. ::I should have known,:: he groaned inwardly. The panties were sort of nice, and pantyhose were okay. But the padded girdle with the waist-nipper was never going to be a fun item to wear. There was one brand new item, too: An almost liquid flow of nylon robe. Though this one was very short. And very blue, in the deep midnight color that Alexis said matched his eyes. And very . . . smooth. It felt as soft and light as air, cool and . . .

He hurried quickly out to the bedroom to find his mother waiting with something even stranger. Two squirmy blobs of flesh colored . . . something.

"Take your robe off and lie back on the bed, dear," Sara ordered.

Adam did as bid, then gasped as his mother spread a cold fluid on his chest. By this time he had figured out what the blobs were. Fake tits! And despite the constriction of the girdle, his hidden equipment tried to sit up and take notice.

The fluid on his chest had barely warmed up with Sara placed the fake breasts on his chest, and the shiver that followed had a legitimate excuse, though Adam knew it wasn't all from the coolness of the shapes. It was a good thing that it took a few minutes for them to adhere in position, because Adam's mind was becoming saturated.

Sara noticed that his breathing had become quite rapid, and that his face was even more pale than usual. "Are you okay, honey?"

"I, uh, think so," he gasped. "This is . . . I didn't expect this."

"I suppose I should have told you what I had in mind for tonight," Sara said. "But sometimes it's easier if you just jump in, rather than think too much about things. Is this too much? Should we take things back a step and go slower?"

"No!" Adam said quickly. He took a deep breath. "It's . . . okay."

Despite her offer, Sara was continuing to work while they talked, and soon the breast forms were firmly in place, with the edges carefully blended into Adam's own skin.

"Stand up," she said, offering him a hand.

"Ohmigod," Adam said, gasping again. His hands flew up to cup and hold the weights tugging at his chest, and then flew down again as he realized what it had looked like.

Sara had to laugh. "Well, we can tell where the real you ends. By the blush."

"Aww, Mom . . ."

"I'm sorry, dear," she said, still snickering. "You can touch them, you know. They're part of you now."

Adam's hands lifted slowly again, to cup and raise the forms. "They're heavy."

"And big," he added, blushing again.

"Not really," Sara said. "They're the same size as I have, and I'm about average."

Then she smirked a little, "Okay, a bit above average, but I've never had any complaints."

At some level, Adam had expected the next bit of newness, but that intellectual recognition was not quite enough to cushion the reality when it appeared in his mother's hand.

"Can you get that on, or are you just skilled in getting them off?" she asked with a snicker.

"I wish," he complained, then the fire in his cheeks flared up again. "I mean . . ."

"It's okay, dear," Sara said again. "I'm just teasing."

Also helping, when after a minute it was clear he didn't know how to get the satiny scanty around his chest. It needed adjustment anyway, which made an amazing difference as he tried to settle the new weights with a few tugs and shrugs.

"Wow," Adam said. "That's . . . better."

"A bra can get hot in the summer, and pinch at just the wrong time, but girls our size don't dare go without. For one, it's not proper. For another, without a bit of support these 'girls' will be riding on our belts before we're forty."

"Eeeuw, that's TMI, Mom. And you're not forty yet."

"I know, and you know," Sara sighed, "but I'm not so sure anyone else would believe it."

"Hey, beautiful, you could pass for twenty easier than forty," Adam said firmly.

"Thank you, sweetheart," she said. "I appreciate a flattering lie as much as the next girl."

"It's not a lie, Mom," Adam insisted. He moved to embrace her, fumbling as the new shapes got in the way, but working through the problem with determination even though his embarrassment showed with bright heat. "I'll make you a bet. If you give it your best shot, maybe with Alexis helping, we can get you looking young enough that you get carded if you try to buy some wine."

"What are the stakes?" she asked with a smile.

"Let's see . . .," Adam mused, leaning back to look at her. "If you do get carded, then you have to share the wine with me . . . and with Alexis if she helps."

"Contributing to the delinquency of a minor, huh?" she challenged, still grinning.

"Yep," Adam said.

"And if I don't get carded?" she asked.

"Then . . . I don't know, whatever you want, I guess," Adam replied with a shrug - which, like so many other things that evening, triggered a new blush as his shrug took on a whole new meaning.

"Deal," Sara said. She hugged Adam tighter for a moment, then let him go. "Put your robe back on, and then we'll eat dinner."

"Um, Mom, could we . . ," Adam began, tugging at the band holding his hair. "I mean, things we've already like . . . done?"

"Of course, dear," Sara said, smiling encouragement. "I didn't want to do so much you felt overwhelmed, but if you'll do your makeup. I'll set your hair."

At least these tasks where becoming familiar to Adam. It was a helpful interlude, allowing him time to react to the strangeness while immersing himself in skills he had learned, yet which took most of his concentration because they were not yet fully mastered.

With his hair up in rollers and his face prettily painted, he didn't look much like the old Adam any more. Nor feel much like him, either. Hunching his shoulders together - just a little, but Sara noticed - he used his upper arms to emphasize his new cleavage.

"Wow," he said softly.

"Yeah, wow," Sara repeated just as softly. And then she caused her child to twitch when she added, "You don't look much like an 'Adam' any more."

"I was just thinking that," the carefully drawn lips admitted. The voice that passed those full lips was light and soft, sweetly youthful.

"So, have you picked a feminine name?" Sara asked.

"Um . . . Alexis called me, 'Eve.'"

"Do you like that?"

Eve nodded, and a dreamy smile curved her lips. "Yeah."

"Then Eve you shall be, whenever . . . let's see, what's the threshold? Whenever your face is made up? Is that a deal?"

"Sure," Eve replied.

And if you're Eve, you'll be Eve," Sara said. "You'll do your very best to be a girl . . . the way you dress, the way you act, the way you speak. Everything."

Eve looked at Sara sharply. "Then what you're saying is that if I do my face, I also have to do my clothes and . . ." Her voice trailed off as she crossed her arms under her new bosom.

"Perhaps not everything," Sara said, "but enough that you can 'pass' as a girl. Even when we're just here alone in the house."

Eve nodded thoughtfully, then looked down at her bare feet. "I don't think my boots go with this robe. I'll change."

"Oh, I don't think that will be necessary," Sara said. "I got you something else."

She pulled out another box, and inside were high-heeled slippers with a pouf of midnight blue fluff and not much else. Even the heels were clear lucite. "If you want to get some more shoes, we may need to take Eve shopping. You were really lucky that Alexis' boots fit so well, but the marked size doesn't always work. However, these should be close enough, and fun!"

"Holy sh . . . sugar, look at those heels!" Eve exclaimed. She quickly slid them on her feet and then stood up, only to sway like she had already indulged in the wine of her bet with her mother.

"Ohmigod," she gasped. "These are . . ."

"Going to take some getting used to," Sara supplied. "Which you can do by helping me with dinner."

Eve gulped, but nodded, and began to learn to move in heels that didn't provide the tight grip and ankle support of boots.



Chapter 8 - "All A Girl Could Hope For"


Sara and Eve spent a 'girls night in,' watching old movies and sharing a bowl of popcorn. A few times Eve tried to discuss what they would do next, but Sara was adamant that they would proceed slowly and enjoy each step rather than worrying about the next one. She did finally agree to play with a few hair styles though, and Eve modeled a professionally tight twist, an elegant updo, and even kiddy pigtails.

While they were enjoying a new type of relationship, Alexis was renewing a relationship she had already experienced . . . several times.

That experience included the specifics of the situation, alone with Tom Brennan on a Friday night. Alexis had been cursed, or perhaps blessed, with very difficult menstrual periods. It provided a reason for her to go on birth control pills before she became sexually active. And she had been blessed, or perhaps cursed, with a very, very responsive body. There was no way that she was going to delay that particular pleasure until she met her once-and-forever Prince Charming.

So she had found Tom Brennan and helped him learn how to please her. In his sleeping bag, in a nicely thick grove of trees a few miles outside of town if that's what they could manage. As Adam had said, in Texas if you don't like the weather you only need to wait a few minutes, or in this case a few days. It was officially spring, and the ice storm of hardly a week ago was long gone. The weather was great - perhaps a bit chilly, but that's what sleeping bags were for. Plus exercise.

"Oooh, Tomcat," she purred, "that feels ssssooooo good. Do it again."

"Sure, Alley Cat, anything you want," he promised.

::I wonder if he means that,:: thought Alexis, then she giggled. ::I'll bet he wouldn't do what Adam did for me!::

Her giggle was followed by a frown. Pulling Brennan's head up out of the sleeping bag, she said, "Kiss me. Kiss me like your life depends on it."

Brennan did his best. It had all the elements, patience, tenderness followed by enough pressure to make it a real kiss, delicate tongue that became demanding. But it still wasn't enough.

Alexis smiled into her lover's eyes, then said, "Um, thanks Tomcat, now, if you don't mind . . .?"

Brennan grinned and returned to his interrupted task. After a few minutes he rearranged things for more mutual pleasure, which Alexis was glad to supply. She really liked sex, and Tom Brennan really liked sex. Until Prince Charming finally came along, it was all a girl could hope for, right?

*****

Sara woke to the aroma of fresh coffee the next morning. Pulling on a warm robe she walked to the kitchen to find Eve carefully studying a box of waffle mix.

"Oh, hi Mom," she said.

"Hello, sweetheart. Are you fixing breakfast?"

"Working on it," Eve said.

"Good, I'll watch," Sara said. She got a cup of coffee and sat at the dinette table. Eve puttered around with a series of stops and starts, making progress when she resolved some issue, stalling out when she had to consult the box again, or look for ingredients. It took her five times as long to make the waffles as it would have taken Sara, but she got the job done. Part of Eve's problem was that she was wearing the feathery mule slippers again, and had to be careful both to keep from slipping on the tile floor, and to keep from having the shoes slip off her feet.

"You know," Sara said with a smile, "for Saturday morning, in the kitchen, fixing breakfast, you don't really need to wear heels."

"I know, Momma," Eve said. "But my slippers just didn't look right."

"I suppose not," Sara said. "Not with satin lingerie."

"That matches my eyes, thank you very much," Eve said, dipping in a quick motion that might have been a curtsy - or a bow. The difference wasn't very clear to her, except that in a curtsy you were supposed to hold the hem of your dress or something, and her hands were full.

The motion was enough to start a jiggle that she was far from used to, and she stopped moving around for a moment. "Um, Momma, how long will these . . .?"

"Until you use the solvent on the adhesive," Sara supplied. "Do they bother you, even with your bra?"

"I wouldn't say they 'bother' me," Eve said with a giggle. "But I sure do notice 'em."

"So will the boys," Sara said cautiously.

Eve blushed, then said, "Only if they see them."

"So, you intend to stay in the house whenever you're Eve?"

"I don't know. Would that be okay with you?"

"Of course," Sara said. "Though . . ."

Eve stopped moving around again and focused her attention on her mother. A brow arched with a question.

"Well, dear, you could obviously pass as a girl. Even in public. If you wanted to," Sara said.

"You think so?" Eve asked.

"Goodness, girl, go look in a mirror. How could you even ask that question?"

"A week ago that would have been an impossible question, too," Eve pointed out. "But for a very different reason."

"Yes," agreed Sara. "So . . .?"

"I don't know," Eve repeated. "And part of it is just what you said. What about boys? It may seem conceited, but I think I look, um, good."

"You look H-O-T-T hot, dear, and you know it," Sara said with a laugh. She stood to hug her child and then looked directly into her eyes. "Would it bother you, if boys paid attention to you? I don't mean that you should go out on a date with one or anything, just knowing that they found you attractive?"

She stepped back and took the plate of waffles to the table. "Frankly," she said with a smile, "I always found it kind of exciting."

Eve didn't say anything. She took a waffle of her own - a single one, where normally she'd have piled at least three on her plate - as a way to stall for time to think.

"It would be a sort of, um, validation, wouldn't it?" Eve said finally. "A sort of proof that I was really succeeding at looking like a pretty girl?"

"Yes, I think so," Sara agreed simply, keeping her response mild.

Eve's eyes lit up and she giggled, lifting her foot to let the backless slipper dangle from her toes. "And it would be a way to get another pair of shoes."

*****

At the Pierce household, Nicole was up well before Alexis stumbled into the kitchen.

"What time did you get in last night, dear," Nicole asked, trying to keep her tone conversational.

"I was home by midnight, Mommy. I promise," Alexis said in a whiny child's voice.

"Oh, Alexis, I trust you, but things happen and I'm a mother. So I worry. That's what mothers do."

"I know, Momma," Alexis said with a smile, "but I really was in by midnight." ::Mostly because it was getting too cold outside, even for a sleeping bag,:: she remembered.

Nicole nodded, then slid a piece of paper across the table to her daughter. "What do you think of this?"

'This' was a flyer for a new reality-type show called, 'Sisters?' Alexis read the sheet first with confusion, then with amusement. Then with amazement.

"You mean . . ?"

"If you're interested," Nicole confirmed.

"Ohmigod, Momma, that would be like, totally awesome! We so have to do this."

'This' was compete for the chance to be the models for a new line of Vivid cosmetics, called 'Timeless.' The catch was, there would be two pairs of winners. One pair would be a mother and daughter, and the other would be sisters. The contest was to see who could fool the judges on whether they were a mother and daughter or sisters, which meant the mother had to look young enough to be the daughter's sibling, and both had to be pretty enough to sell the cosmetics. In the eventual ad campaign that was the grand prize for the contest, the theme was going to be that the cosmetics were good enough to make a mother and daughter look like sisters, so good that you couldn't tell which pair was which.

"This is really a pretty good idea," Alexis said. "Every mother wants to look as young as her daughter, and every daughter - at least the teen-age ones - wants to look as grown up as an adult."

"And we get free makeup, at least after the first round," Nicole pointed out.

"Well, in that case it's automatic," Alexis laughed.

*****

After breakfast, Sara sent Eve to take a shower. "Go ahead and wash your hair. We'll set it and let it dry while you're getting dressed."

"Oh," she added, "don't bother with your girdle. Just put on some clean panties and your bra."

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," Eve said happily.

When Eve came back into the master bedroom, Sara was waiting for her. She quickly rolled the teen's hair onto large cylinders, then said, "Now comes the really fun part."

"Uh, oh," Eve said with a smile. "What now?"

Sara took a long object from the box, mostly dark blue like the rest of Eve's clothes, but with lines of pale blue lace running along the stiff material.

When she unfolded it, Eve saw something that was only supposed to exist in historical movies. A corset.

"You've got to be kidding," she said.

"Nope," Sara said, showing a teasing smile. "Until you get your waist under control, you need a little artificial help. That girdle isn't quite enough."

Eve thought about protesting, but . . . if she was going to be a girl, she wanted to be a pretty one. And her current waist was not going to meet that standard. With a sigh, she stood and dropped her robe. Sara wrapped the corset about her waist, did up the busk, and started to pull on the laces.

And then she stopped.

"What's wrong?" asked Eve.

"Nothing," Sara said. "This is not about medieval torture. It's just to keep your waist in and start to build a good shape. A corset doesn't have to be uncomfortable."

"Really? I figured it was like, automatic or something. Pull until I pass out, then loosen it a half inch," Eve said with a giggle.

"Hardly," Sara said, matching her new daughter's giggle.

Eve twisted and bent a bit, tugging to pull the pretty shaper into a better position. She looked at her reflection in the mirror, and after a moment said, "Mom, could you . . ?"

"What do you need?" Sara asked, not really paying attention as she pulled out a few items of clothing.

Eve stammered a bit and looked down - which didn't really help, so she looked out the window for a moment - then asked, "Could you make it a bit, um, tighter? I don't mind, and I'd like to look . . . better."

"Of course, dear," Sara said. "Say when."

Then she contradicted herself by tying off the laces again without any guidance from Eve. "That's enough for now."

"You can go tighter," Eve protested.

"Yes, but I'm not going to," Sara said. "That's enough for now."

Eve looked at her revised shape in the mirror, and despite her desire for a quick and easy fix to her weight problem, she realized that the corset was beginning to draw in too tightly for a nice, smooth shape. It looked artificial, not badly, but enough to make it clear that it would take more than a single evening to achieve a figure to go with the apparently natural beauty of her face and hair.

::Of course, right now my hair looks like a hamster playground, with big tubes running every which way.::

"See if you can get these on," Sara said, handing Eve a pair of pantyhose.

It shouldn't have been that big a deal. After all, Adam had been wearing pantyhose several times already. But bending over in the corset showed another reason not to make it too tight. Eve managed, but only by holding her breath for long moments at a time as she worked the shimmery material up her legs.

"I thought girls wore like, stockings with corsets," she observed.

"We often do," Sara agreed, emphasizing the inclusive pronoun. "But pantyhose were invented when skirts got short, so that stocking tops didn't show. If you're going to look stylish, you'll have a hard time keeping garters hidden, and no daughter of mine is going to flash any part of her scanties in public."

"Oh," Eve said, her dark lips forming a large 'O' at the thought. And her compressed secret straining once again in its captivity. She looked at her outfit with newly re-opened eyes, absorbing the satiny shimmers overlapping the end of the taut shine from her corset. The idea of someone else - some boy - seeing her outfit caused her hands to raise reflexively to a covering pose. It didn't help. At least, not if it were intended to reduce the naughty sensuality of the image in the mirror.

"Quit flirting with yourself," Sara said, laughing again. "And get dressed."

She explained as he handed Eve a skirt and blouse. "These are left over from when I was in high school. I think they're back in fashion again."

'They' were a short denim skirt and a royal blue poet's blouse with floppy sleeves and a elasticized neckline.

"Sorry about the color," Sara said. "On the new things I picked colors that match your eyes - I noticed that Alexis did, too - but this blouse is as close I could come. Now, just a few more things."

These 'things' were a wide belt, a sparkly tennis bracelet, and a delicate necklace with a shiny golden heart pendant. Eve opened the pendant to see a photo of Adam on one side.

"What goes in the other side?" she asked.

"I'll show you in a moment," Sara promised. "Your boots will work with that skirt."

Eve left to retrieve her beloved boots, immediately transitioning to an easier, yet still swaying gait once she was out of the dainty slippers.

Sara smiled and said, "Now, let's brush out your hair."

That as also a familiar ritual. It wasn't long before Eve was inspecting herself in the mirror again.

And blushing again.

But she was also smiling so brightly it dimmed the rest of the room.

"Eve," Sara called.

The pretty teen looked at her mother, then blinked in the flash. "Gotcha," Sara laughed.

On the tiny screen on the back of the camera, Eve saw an enduring record of the image she had seen in the mirror. complete with brilliant smile.

A smile that looked like it would be on her real face just as long as in the digital image.

"Okay, now you can flirt with yourself," Sara laughed, "while I get dressed."

"Oh, wait a minute," Eve said, tearing herself away from the mirror. She looked critically at her mother.

"Okay, now comes the really fun part," she said, deliberately throwing her mother's words back at her. "I want to see you in clothes like mine - short skirt, and all. If you don't have your own corset, then you better have a pretty good girdle."

"What?"

"You agreed to dress more attractively," Eve reminded her. "I'm still planning on winning that bet!"

"Oh, that," Sara said softly. Then she smiled. "Okay. Maybe I just needed a little encouragement."

"Well, plan to be strongly encouraged from now on," Eve said firmly. Right before she giggled again.

Sara didn't have another corset, but she hadn't really gained all that much weight. She rummaged through her old clothes, looking for another shorter skirt, then she pulled up sharply. "Oh my God, I almost forgot!"

"Forgot what, Momma?" Eve asked to her mother's fast-receding back.

"When I was younger, quite a bit younger," Sara called out from the back of her closet, "I was on the swim team and I had to keep my hair fairly short. I wanted to look good on the weekend, so I bought this . . ."

Bringing out her find, she showed Eve a long cascade of dark hair. "I bought this fall. It's a pretty good hairpiece, and my hair should be long enough to blend over it."

"Cool," Eve said. "I can't wait to see what it looks like."

*****

Alexis wandered the mall alone for the first time in what seemed like years. Emily and the others of her friends who were cheerleaders were at some sort of skills camp, and Annalee had some family thing she couldn't get out of. Even Tom was with his guy friends watching some game or another.

::I wonder if I could get Eve to come shopping with me,:: Alexis thought, stifling a giggle. ::I'd love to take her to Victoria's Secret!::

Thinking of Eve reminded Alexis that she had given away a pair of boots that she liked even if they were the wrong size, so she thought she'd look for another pair. It wasn't like shopping for boots was a hardship. She headed for one of the many shoe stores in the mall, hoping it wasn't too late in the season for boots. When she stepped inside, she saw a pair just like the ones she had given Adam, only these were next to a bench, obviously taken off while the owner tried something new.

"Ohmigod," she gasped when she saw the owner walk back to the boots. "Ad . . . Eve?"

"Oh, hi Alli," the dark-haired girl responded, her casual greeting undermined by the twitch in both her voice and her stride.

"Ohmigod," Alexis repeated. "You look . . . incredible."

"Why, thank you," Eve said, trying to make it seem like a response to a polite compliment even as her eyes glanced frantically around to see if Alexis was attracting attention.

"Are you here alone?" Alexis asked incredulously.

"No, Mother is here somewhere," Eve said.

"Right here, in fact," Sara said, coming up to the pair of teens.

"Ohmigod!" Alexis said again, then she blushed. "God, I'm getting repetitive, but . . . you are both so totally . . ."

"Hot?" Eve supplied with a laugh. "Cool? Gorgeous?"

Then she giggled and offered one more. "Crazy?"

"All of the above," Alexis said. "Mrs. C, you look . . . great!"

"Thank you, Alexis," Sara replied. "Blame it on Eve."

"I'll take that blame," Eve said cheerfully. "I told Mom she was dressing too old. Don't you agree?"

"Totally," Alexis said. "You look . . . . ohmigod!"

"What now?" Sara asked.

"You're so not going to believe this, but you have to see this new ad campaign contest," Alexis declared. She rummaged through her purse and pulled out her cell phone.

"Momma, what are you doing right now?" . . . "Could you come to the mall and bring that flyer?" . . . "I'd like it to be a surprise. Just say that I found some more contestants who you won't believe!" . . . "I know, but I'll bet you, let's see . . . a week's laundry that you'll be glad you came." . . . "Great. Food court in 20 minutes. We'll be there."

"What are you trying to get us to do?" Eve asked.

"I can't tell you yet, but I promise you, you'll totally love it!" Alexis said enthusiastically.

She stepped back and looked at Eve more carefully. "Ohmigod," she said again. "You are totally . . . beautiful."

"Thank you," Eve said again. "Momma said I really needed to try on shoes before we got any more, and all I had was your boots."

"Well, those are just darling. You have to get them," Alexis said.

"Do you think so?" Eve said, stretching her leg out to look at the shoes she had tried on, ankle-strap pumps with open toes. "You don't think the heels are a bit too . . ."

"Not if you're brave enough to, y'know, come out in public and try them on," Alexis whispered. Then she giggled and added, "But you'll totally have to get a pedicure."

"Oh," Eve said quietly, then she giggled, too. "I guess you're right."

"Momma," she said, turning to Sara. "I will if you will."

"On the shoes, or the pedicure?" Sara asked.

"Both!" Eve and Alexis said simultaneously.

"But after lunch," Alexis added. "We need to meet my mother."

Sara paid for their shoes while Eve put her boots back on. Alexis noticed they each had several boxes, and that the bags near their bench were theirs as well. She offered to help carry their loot as they made their way to the food mall.

Nicole was waiting for them. Alexis caught her attention with a cheery wave, and then she made the day's standard comment, too far away to hear, but so distinct they didn't need to be skilled lip-readers to recognize her words. "Oh . . my . . God!"

"Hello, Nicole," Sara said nonchalantly. "So nice that you could join us."


Chapter 9 - "Competitors or Colleagues?"


By the time the three newcomers had joined Nicole, she had managed to pick her jaw up and begin to breathe again. They all found seats and looked awkwardly at each other for a painfully silent moment. Nicole seemed like she had several things she wanted to say, and there was at least a little guilt on Sara's face, with a corresponding display of embarrassment on Eve's. Yet neither Eve nor her mother were going to make excuses for their choices, and in the end it was Nicole who broke the silence.

She looked at Alexis and said, "I can see why you wanted me to bring the flyer."

"What?" Sara asked, almost gasping at the stunning irrelevance of that comment.

Nicole had apparently used up all her words for a moment, so she merely handed Sara the announcement for the contest.


Sisters?


Are they sisters, or mother and daughter? Only they know for sure. Vivid's new cosmetic line - Timeless - makes the calendar so unimportant that generations can share the same youthful elegance!

Help us prove it! If you are a mother who looks young enough to be your daughter's sister, come see if we can tell you apart from true sisters. Or if you are true sisters you think we'll believe are mother-daughter competitors, come see us. One mother-daughter pair, and one sister pair will be chosen to model Timeless cosmetics, and we'll let the public see if they can tell which is which.

Contact Vivid Inc. at 800-555-9876




Eve was looking over Sara's shoulder as she read. They looked at each other and grinned when they wordlessly accepted the futility of pretending not to realize they looked like very credible competitors in this contest. Sara's fall gave her a hairstyle much like Eve's, and she had agreed to wear a short skirt that showed her legs were still very trim, shapely, and above all, youthful. Her face, with flashier makeup than she normally wore, looked very much like a college co-ed and certainly too young to be the mother of the stunning brunette next to her.

Then another realization came to Eve. "Ohmigod, you two are trying out for this, aren't you?"

Alexis grinned, and Nicole nodded with a blush. "Alexis convinced me to try."

"Mother!" Alexis said, slapping her lightly on the arm, but smiling. "You showed this thing to me! It was so your idea."

Nicole smiled back at her, "Like you were hard to convince."

"I think you two will knock their socks off," Sara said. "I can see why you're going to do it."

Then she looked at Eve and said, "But I don't see how we could do it."

Eve smiled sadly, but shook her head. "No way."

"Yes, way," Alexis said. "Look, Momma had a few more of the rules. They explicitly have 'Other' as a category - for like, cousins or aunt-niece pairs or something - so that means you don't have to lie and claim to be mother-daughter when they ask if their guesses are right. And they promise that they're going to keep your true situation private from the judges. Everyone is already expected to choose like, fake names and stuff."

She looked at Eve, in particular at the shapes filling her blouse, and giggled. "You'll just be a little more fake than some of the others."

"But we'd get killed when they did find out," Eve protested, then added, "if we tried out for this contest, which we're not going to do. We'd get sued or something."

"Actually," Nicole said, "I don't think they could do that. Did you know that most current fashion shows have at least one cross-dressed model? The point is that the clothes are supposed to make even a male look beautiful. For all you know, this Vivid company would be thrilled to have a boy wearing their makeup be so beautiful that no one could tell."

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, looking carefully at Eve, at her legs, and at her figure. "And I have to admit, you do look beautiful."

"Thank you," Eve said quietly. "But I don't know . . ."

"Why don't the two of you go get us something to eat?" Nicole suggested, fishing some money out of her purse. "Sara and I will talk about it."

The teens nodded and headed off to consider the various choices. As soon as they were out of earshot, Nicole leaned closer to Sara.

"What is going on?" she demanded in a harsh whisper.

"My child is enjoying life," Sara said blandly. Then she frowned and looked directly at Nicole, capturing her eyes with an unyielding gaze.

"Look, Nicole, a month ago Adam was a loner, withdrawn and way too quiet. Other than Alexis, I couldn't name two other students in his class. He had no friends, and no interests other than a few video games. I was seriously wondering if he needed counseling for depression."

She looked over at the two girls who were waiting in line for their food. "Now look at Eve. She's bright, cheerful, vivacious and - most of all - having fun. She's actually laughing! When was the last time you saw Adam really laugh?"

Looking back at Nicole, she said, "It may be wrong in a dozen different ways, but if it looking like a beautiful girl makes my child laugh, then I'll fight for her chance to do it."

"But, is she, I mean, is Adam gay?"

"Like his father, you mean?" Sara said dryly. "I don't know. Neither does Eve. She may be a true transsexual - I've been reading a lot of stuff on the internet - and if so, then she may be gay . . . because she'd be a lesbian. But if you haven't seen the way she looks at Alexis, then you haven't been paying attention. My child is definitely interested in girls."

"Then why does he dress like that?"

"Because she enjoys it," Sara said. "Look, we've agreed that when she dresses like a girl, she's Eve. And when he dresses like a guy, he's Adam. And regardless of how she's dressed, she - or he - is still my child and I love her."

Nicole sat back, chastened at an unassailable demonstration of a mother's love. She was still troubled though, honestly worried about her friends. "But what if the secret comes out - I don't mean as part of this contest, just that something happens? What will that do to Adam, or Eve, or whoever?"

"I'm worried about that, too," Sara admitted. "But I was even more worried about how withdrawn Adam was becoming. He was headed for unhappiness anyway. And with his fine features, I was already afraid the intolerant were going to do more than tease him at school. Is this risky? Of course. But a risky path may be better than a path headed for serious depression and . . . maybe something worse. This has got to be better than that, at least for now."

Nicole nodded silently, accepting Sara's arguments if not the situation that resulted from their decisions. "How long?" she asked.

"For as long as it makes Eve happy," Sara answered firmly.

Nicole slowly nodded again. "I can't say that I'm comfortable with this, Sara. But I have seen the way that Adam looks at Alexis. And the way that Alexis looked at Adam." She took a breath and continued, "And the way Alexis looked at Eve. They kissed, right there in front of me, and it was deeply passionate. Alexis never kissed Adam like that. Goodness, she's never kissed any of her boyfriends like that, at least, not anything that I've seen. I don't want Alexis to be led into . . . something she'll regret later."

Sara tried to say something, but Nicole held up an interrupting hand. "But what I want may not be what needs to be done. I know that. I'm not going to argue with you about it. But I am worried."

"So am I," Sara admitted. Then she took her own deep breath, noticed that the girls were coming back with the food, and reached out to pat Nicole on the arm. "Thanks, Nicole, for trying to understand. I appreciate it."

There wasn't time for Nicole to do anything but smile in return before the girls were back.

"Guess what?!" Alexis said excitedly. "Eve said she'd do the contest, if you will Mrs. C."

"She did?" Sara said in surprise. "Are you sure you know what you'd be getting into, dear?"

Alexis interjected a qualification, "At least for the first couple of rounds."

Sara still looked at Eve, her patience insisting on an answer from her own child.

"I think so, Momma," Eve said, then repeated, "at least for the first couple of rounds."

Sara looked at Nicole for an explanation. The blonde woman said, "The first round is just a personal interview. The judges will screen out those who aren't, as they say, 'model material,' meaning who aren't pretty enough for the ad campaign. They'll also weed out those who aren't sufficiently ambiguous on whether they're mother-daughter or sisters."

Then she laughed and looked at Sara and Eve, "You should have no problem with that. In fact, I'd lay long odds almost all the judges assess you as sisters, which - since you aren't - is automatically proof of sufficient ambiguity. And you're both pretty enough for models."

Eve blushed, and Sara smiled at Nicole. "Like we're any competition for you two."

"Of course not," Nicole said, smiling back and leaning over to put an arm around her daughter. "But we're not competing against each other . . . yet."

"Anyway," she continued, "for Round 2, you're expected to get a professional set of photos made in a variety of outfits, and then bring them to the interview. That round has a firm limit for this area of four pairs. There's some sort of referee who makes sure they don't select all real sisters and that's the only person who knows your real relationship. Obviously, the company is only including real sisters for the publicity angle; their interest is really in mother-daughter pairs. They have a disclaimer that says they will have at least one mother-daughter pair in the ad campaign. If you're a 'neither' then you actually compete against the real sisters."

Sara smiled. "Well, that should take care of us pretty quickly."

"Hardly," Alexis said. "You look a lot more like sisters than we do. And we can help with that."

"You'd help us?" asked Eve.

Alexis looked at her mother, who had frowned at Alexis' offer, but then shrugged and smiled. "Of course. I already promised, that, didn't I? And I know where you can get a pretty good fashion photographer for your portfolio. Cheap, too."

Sara protested. "Oh, Nicole, we couldn't ask you to do that."

"Which is why I offered before you asked," Nicole said with a laugh. "Truly, I'd like to see what I can do."

She leaned back in her chair, her eyes studying Eve intently. "I've actually been thinking about something like this anyway. There's a market for private transformation photographs - like Glamour Shots - and I've been looking into it. Helping you two would be a good way to get into that."

"Nicole!" Sara said. "Eve's, um, situation, needs to be kept secret."

"Of course," Nicole said, waving her hand dismissively. "But she's a good challenge and learning how to apply what I've already learned from professional models to her will help me later." Nicole smiled, and added, "Though I may use some before-and-after images of you."

"So anyway," Alexis said, "we figured . . ."

"We?" Eve challenged.

"Yes, we figured - you had your chance to back out," Alexis laughed, "that you could at least try it. If you got through a few rounds, you'd pick up some nice prizes. I mean, even Momma and I aren't going to like, win the thing. It's just for fun."

"Fun?" Sara echoed thoughtfully, looking at her child.

To find Eve's eyes looking at her. Without realizing she was conducting an inspection, the dark-haired teen's gaze looked at Sara from her long, wavy hair to her long, shining legs. It wasn't a leering sexual appraisal. It was a shared joy at Sara's attractiveness, now given the freedom to be expressed.

"Would you like to do this, Momma?" Eve asked.

"Would you like to do this, Eve?" Sara deliberately echoed.

Eve reached out and took her mother's hand. "Momma, this is very strange for me, but even if I didn't want to do it - and I guess at some level I do - I'd do it just so that you can let yourself be beautiful again. Like you are now."

"So this is all about me?" Sara asked with a smile.

"Well, not all about you," Eve admitted, fluffing her hair and batting her eyes.

Sara say the joy in Eve's motions, and smiled. That's all it took.

Alexis responded first. "Ohmigod! This is gonna be totally awesome!"

Eve didn't say anything. But she smiled at her mother, and then stood up so she could give her almost-sister a hug.

*****

"Pair Number 32, would you come in please?" the judge announced to the room of waiting applicants.

"Hello, I'm Aubrey James," he said, extending his hand to the shorter brunette of the pair.

"Pleased to meet you. I'm Shannon Curtis," the young woman said. "And this is Eve Curtis."

"So, Eve," the man said casually as he led them to two chairs before a table. "What do you think of your mother pretending to be your sister?"

"Pretending, Mr. James?" the taller girl said with a relaxed smile. "Isn't that for you judges to determine?"

They had expected some trick questions from the judges. They hadn't expected one quite so soon, though. Still, Shannon and Eve had been practicing with their friends, Monica and Ashley Peterson, who were also contestants. Now was when they would see if it helped. At least they got through the first question fairly well.

The lead judge introduced the others, but Eve didn't catch all the names. One was a tall, very thin man with straggly hair poking out in no particular order. She decided he was the 'Scarecrow' and the younger brunette next to him with a somewhat old-fashioned dress became 'Dorothy,' while the older blonde next to her was, 'Glenda, the Good Witch.' Now if Eve could just remember not to call them by her private names.

Eve and Shannon sat with perfect synchronization, both holding their (short) skirts in their right hands while lowering their purses to the floor with their left. They even gave their long, dark hair a matching toss before folding their hands demurely in their laps.

James laughed, and nodded at their little play. "Are you trying to convince us that you're twins?"

"We're not trying to convince you of anything, Mr. James," Shannon replied. "Except that we would make good models for your cosmetics."

"Indeed," he said. "Well, congratulations on a good start. I'm impressed."

They nodded, still in unison, but then they relaxed. Eve pulled her hair behind her ears, then started to twirl a lock in her fingers - but for only a moment. When she realized what she was doing she pulled her hand down again. Shannon caught the motion out of the corner of her eye and grinned.

That seemed to be a signal to the judges, and they started with their questions. There were several trick questions in there, some of which were intended to get Eve to look to her partner when asked about her mother, or for Shannon to reveal that she was actually older than she looked.

After a few moments, the woman Eve thought of as Glenda asked, "Why have you joined out little contest? Have you had dreams of being a model?"

"Not really," Eve replied. "I guess we got talked into it by some friends of ours, who are also contestants."

"Of course, the prizes don't hurt anything," Scarecrow said snidely.

"Prizes?" Shannon asked. "Our friends mentioned something about that, but we only know about the first two rounds."

Glenda said, "In the later rounds, Vivid provides the makeup and professional artists for more photo shoots. Consolation prizes start with the third round winners, and after the fourth round the prizes get pretty nice. Cruises, other vacations, shopping sprees, even a car for finalists who don't make the actual ad campaign."

"So is this like, a beauty contest? Is there a talent competition?" Eve asked with a snort of derision.

"Mostly," Glenda said, "but the only talent you need is acting well enough to hide your true relationship, just as all the competitors do. In each round there are three judges. Unless two out of three get your relationship right, you're qualified to advance on the 'ambiguity' side of the contest. They'll pick the prettiest of those who qualify, so that part actually is a beauty contest. In later rounds, one of the judges is replaced by a studio audience. They're going to air this as a reality show after the actual ad campaign has run, when they've made it clear who were the sisters and who were mother-daughter."

"So we're going to be on TV?" Eve gasped. "Oh, I didn't know about that."

"Perhaps it was in the information your parents reviewed, before signing the contract," James said, looking carefully for her reaction.

Eve recovered with a smile. "As it says on the information in front of you, Mr. James, I'm 21. I signed the appropriate papers myself. But perhaps I didn't read them carefully enough."

"Neither did I," Shannon added.

"Is that a problem?" Napoleon asked.

"No, of course not," Eve said easily, though on the inside, she was thinking of ways to kill Alexis, who had surely known about that little detail.

Despite the unexpected news about the TV, the rest of the questions went easily. It wasn't much longer until they were being escorted out, leaving the judges to consider their qualifications.

"Okay, first off: Does anything think they're not pretty enough for the campaign."

"Hell no," Scarecrow said. He had been quiet during most of the interview, but spoke up strongly after they left. "They're both beautiful, but the pair is just unbelievable. The shorter one . . . let's see . . .Shannon has that wholesome, cheerful, girl-next-door look that sells well in the flyover zone, yet the other one . . ."

"I agree," Dorothy said. "The taller girl - Eve - has this air of mystery about her. She has secrets she won't share . . . except with someone special. Yet there is an innocence there as well. I can't believe a girl as pretty as that could still be a virgin, but that's the impression I got. Though that's not her deepest secret."

"Goodness, Catherine, I think you're smitten," Glenda laughed, using the dark-haired woman's real name.

Catherine looked uncomfortable for a moment, then forced a smile on her face. "Hardly. But there's something about that girl that will sell. I'm more than a little tempted to lie about my assessment of their relationship."

"Me, too," Scarecrow said. "I suggest we see if we can get them anyway, even if not for this particular campaign."

"Good idea," James said, "but we do need to move on, and I have to remind you that we did all promise to assess their relationship honestly. So, does anyone think they're an 'Other' pair, neither mother-daughter nor sisters?

"As close as they look?" Dorothy said incredulously. "Except for the small apparent age difference - and the air of mystery on Eve - they could be twins. Cousins don't look that much alike even in West Virginia."

"That's vulgar, Catherine," Glenda said. "But I agree. They're definitely closer than cousins."

"Okay," James said. "And though I'm not officially a judge, I might as well say that I don't think they're mother-daughter." He smiled, and added, "I thought that little bit about sitting in unison was well done. By looking like they were trying too hard to look similar, I think they were hoping we'd think they weren't actually that close."

"I think you're right," Dorothy/Catherine said. "Their applications claims that Shannon is 27 and that Eve is 21. What's your real estimate?"

James thought for a moment, "Well, they're either highly skilled or have had professional help with their makeup, so that's hard to say . . . Maybe 3 years apart, maybe 9 tops, if Eve is quite a bit younger than she looks."

"Reasonable," Scarecrow agreed. "In any event, nowhere near enough for a parent-child relationship. Which is too bad. In any event, I vote 'sisters.' I'm afraid there isn't enough ambiguity here."

The others at the table nodded their assent, and with a sigh James made the appropriate notations on their application.


Chapter 10 - "Hotness"


The phone was ringing as Sara and Eve entered their house after the successful first round of the makeup contest. Eve looked curiously at the answering machine, waiting for it to screen the call. Sara pushed her at the instrument.

"It's for you," Sara said confidently.

"How do you know?" Eve asked as she moved to answer it.

Sara was proved right when Eve heard Alexis' excited voice at her ear.

"How'd it go? Did you make it?" she demanded.

"Yes," Eve said, trying to keep her voice soft and light. "They thought we were sisters."

"Well, Duh!" Alexis said with a laugh. "There was no way they'd think anything else."

"Then why were you so anxious to find out what happened?" Eve asked.

"Geez, girl, get a clue! It doesn't matter if you like, know what had to happen. It's not real until you talk about it."

Eve giggled and sat primly in the easy chair that had so often held Adam's sprawling form. "If you say so," she agreed. "Let me tell, you, it was tense. They tried to trick us the moment we entered the room."

"Oh, God, I know. I thought I blew it before we even sat down," Alexis confirmed. "Momma's lessons in how to walk and talk are the only thing that got me through the first part of the interview."

"Tell me about it," Eve agreed. "I owe her big time. Tell her for me, will you?"

"Totally," Alexis said. She paused for a moment, then asked, "Have you changed clothes yet?"

"Um, no," Eve said. "We just got home."

"Good," Alexis said. "Don't change until I get there."

"Why?"

"Because I so have to see you, ditz!" Alexis laughed. The phone went dead before Eve could say anything more.

Eve snickered at her friend's excited abruptness, then carefully stood on her heels and walked into the kitchen where Sara had vanished.

"Is she on her way over?" Sara asked.

"How'd you know?" Eve demanded. "Did you two cook something up?"

"No," Sara said. "I just expected she'd want to share the experience with you. It's something you have in common, now."

"Something we have in common, you mean," Eve said, hugging her mother.

"Well, that too," Sara agreed with a smile. Then her expression became serious. "I expect there's another question Alexis wants answered. So do I, for that matter."

Eve knew what it was. "Do we keep going with this?"

Sara's arched eyebrow confirmed the question, and told Eve she needed to answer first.

"Oh, Momma, I don't know," she sighed. "I had a good time. It's flattering to be considered so attractive, and I truly do like some of the . . . enhancements."

"Like your trim waist?" Sara teased.

"Yes, but not how I got it," Sara groaned, running her hands down the sleek curves enforced by the unyielding corset. Then she shook her head and said, "I think maybe I like the way my hair feels now best. And I know this is strange, but I kinda like wearing heels, too. I like being taller, and the . . . elegance they force into my motions. I've never felt graceful before. Not in my whole life."

Sara nodded in agreement. "There's a sort of - I don't know what to call it - transition point, I suppose, where you go from feeling like you're going to fall over any second to where you feel like you're floating along barely touching the ground."

"Yeah, that's it," Eve agreed. "And the rest is sort of like that. I mean, at first when I wore a skirt all I could think of was how much I was showing, and now I just love the look of my legs in shiny pantyhose, and . . ."

"And . . . ?" prompted Sara.

Eve blushed, but she said, "And I guess I sorta like showing them off."

"So," Sara asked, "do you want to keep 'showing them off?'"

"Would you mind?" Eve asked.

"Not at all," Sara assured her. "I'm having fun, too. I think my self-esteem was hurting worse than yours, after your father left. This is certainly flattering for me, too."

"I guess that settles it, then," Eve said, smiling and giving her mother another hug.

Any further conversation was interrupted by the doorbell. Eve "floated" to the door to welcome Alexis. The first thing the tall blonde girl did was whistle at her dark-haired friend.

"Rwwoaww," she growled. "You are one hot chick, dudette!"

Eve spun lightly on her toes and giggled. "Thank you. One can only try one's best, don't y'know?"

"Oh, babe, you ain't seen nothin' yet," Alexis promised. "This was only the preliminary round. Next we get serious!"

"Oh, god, don't remind me," Eve groaned, running her hands down her constricted waist again.

Then it was Alexis whose face took on a serious expression. Sara walked quietly into the room as though some sort of spider sense had warned her a more important topic was going to be raised.

Alexis asked, "So, what are you going to do on Monday?"

"Monday?" Eve repeated.

"At school, ditz," Alexis said, smiling with artificial humor.

"I guess I go back to being Adam," Eve said with a shrug.

"Can you do that?" Alexis asked.

"Sure. Why not?"

"Why not?" Alexis repeated. "Because Eve is a beautiful girl, and Adam is just . . ."

Sara entered their conversation, "Just what, dear?"

Alexis blushed. "Just, um, Adam, I guess," she said weakly.

"What's wrong with that?" Sara asked, a warning tone in her voice.

"Mom, lighten up," Eve said. "I know what she means."

"Darling, I don't want you feeling bad about yourself, even when you're Adam," Sara said.

Then she rushed to correct her own statement, "Especially when you're Adam. That's who you really are, isn't it?"

Eve shrugged, then waved her hands at the comfortable furniture. With her own attempt at humor, she said, "These shoes are killing me."

They found places to sit, allowing Eve the time to compose her thoughts. Finally she looked at her mother and said, "Momma, it's high school. It's shallow, and superficial, and appearance is important."

Sara nodded. "Well, yes, but . . ."

"But that's the way it is," Eve said, not allowing herself to be interrupted. "I suppose there's some justification for it. It's the time in everyone's life when their adult appearance is . . . appearing, I guess. When boys and girls are starting to look different."

She sighed and added, "At least, most of them are."

Alexis tried to support Eve's argument. "Mrs. C, it's not like, aimed at Adam. I mean, guys don't go out with fat, ugly girls, and girls don't, um, appreciate . . ."

"Short guys, who aren't very athletic," Eve completed.

Alexis just shrugged, but she didn't argue with Eve's characterization of Adam.

Sara nodded. "I know all that, but there are popular guys - movie stars - who aren't very tall. They just believe in themselves."

"It's more than that, Momma," Eve said. "But I suppose that's part of it."

Alexis blushed again, looking guilty. "Part of it really is like, perception. I mean, if you, y'know, hang out with like, jocks, or cheerleaders or whatever, then you sort of get . . . thought of that way."

"And vice versa," Eve said, looking at Alexis. The tall blonde blushed again.

Eve pushed the point home, the one she knew had been on Alexis' mind. "So if I go to school on Monday as geeky Adam, then babe-Alexis won't be able to hang out with me. But if I went to school as babe-Eve, then I could be part of your clique."

Alexis nodded, looking at her hands.

Sara leaned back in her seat as much as her own corset would allow, and looked at her child. "So, what are you going to do?"

"Go as Adam." The answer was definite.

Eve looked at Alexis and said, "I'm sorry, Alli, but Adam is who I am under all this disguise."

Alexis nodded again, still looking at her hands.

When she finally looked up, she saw Eve's sad eyes watching her. "I'm sorry, Eve. You really are a special person - however you're dressed. I'm sorry I just . . . took you for granted."

"But it's still high school, and when I'm Adam-the-Geek on Monday . . ."

Alexis looked like she was about to argue, but Eve held out a hand to stop her. "It's okay, Alli. I understand. I'll deal with it."

Alexis shrugged and stood up. "I'm sor . . ."

"It's okay, Alli," Eve repeated, standing with her. She ostentatiously fluffed her hair and struck a model pose. "If I were as gorgeous as you - I mean, really and truly - I'd probably be the same."

"If I were . . ?" Alexis repeated, grinning at the dark-haired girl. "What is this, some sort of English class? It's no wonder people think you're a nerd."

"Oops," Eve said, giggling. "I'll make a note."

She walked her blonde friend to the door. Alexis hesitated before stepping outside. "I truly am sorry, Eve. Adam. Whoever. I'm just like, confused right now. Okay?"

"Of course," Eve said easily, but the pain still showed in her eyes. She reached out to hug her friend, and Alexis willingly gathered up the smaller girl in her arms.

Alexis kissed the top of Eve's head. "Oh, god, why'd you have to be such a good kisser . . . and such a totally sweet person?"

"Just lucky I guess," Eve murmured, squeezing the soft curves her arms encircled.

************

Monday was - as forecast - different. When Adam approached BHS he saw Alexis with her friends. Emily frowned when she saw him looking their way, and pulled Alexis so that her back was to Adam.

"I don't know why you tolerate that loser," she growled to Alexis. "He's such a dweeb. I'll bet he has Star Trek bed sheets and can tell you all the fake science behind that whatchamacallit drive."

"He's not that bad," Alexis said, but she didn't look at Adam.

Annalee sniffed at the very idea, then changed the subject. "So is Tom Brennan coming back this weekend? Tony is, and . . ," turning to Emily, she continued, "Nick, right?"

Emily nodded. "We totally need to get together. I've got a killer new outfit and I need a chance to wear it."

"Yeah, like you needed an excuse to wear new clothes," Alexis said, snickering.

"Well, it's like, nicer than school clothes, or mall. We need to go somewhere special."

"Yeah," Annalee seconded the idea with a giggle. "Make 'em pay out before we put out."

"Oh, that's trashy," Alexis said, but she had to laugh. "If Tomcat doesn't show up - or is too cheap to take us somewhere nice - I'll cut him off for a month!"

"Bull shit, girl, you couldn't go a month without sex if your life depended on it."

"Sure I could," Alexis declared. "As long as my batteries last."

The girls sent an explosion of giggles down the hallway as they hurried to their first class.

*****************

By Wednesday Alexis knew Tom Brennan's plans, and the news wasn't good. She gathered her friends together before the first class.

"Tom's coming this weekend. . ," she began.

Emily interrupted her with a snicker. "Not until after they pay, I told you."

"Shut up, slut," Alexis said rudely, but her own laugh took the insult from her words. "But he's bringing a friend."

"Ooh, another college boy?" asked Annalee.

"Duh!" Alexis said. "But we need to get his friend a date, or Tom will spend the time with him, or just like, hanging at the mall or something instead of taking us to dinner."

"Oh, not good," said Emily. "And not easy. A blind date, three days before the weekend? And good enough to go out with us? I'm not going to let some dweeby girl who'd go on a blind date ruin my fancy dinner."

"Right," Annalee said. "So, who do we know who's free this weekend?"

"That's just it," Emily said. "Everybody we like, know well enough to take with us is already going with someone."

Annalee shrugged. "Somebody will ditch their guy for one night, for a fancy dinner. I would."

"Which is why you're going with Tony, instead of somebody as hot at Tom Brennan," declared Alexis.

Annalee slapped Alexis in the arm, but she couldn't stop her own wince of pain as the point struck home. "So, what are we going to do?"

"I don't know," Alexis said. "I'll think of something."

As she hurried to class, Alexis already knew the answer to her problem. She'd known it before she met the other girls. But just because the answer was obvious didn't make it easy.

The first step was handed to her when Mr. Bullis assigned some more math problems as homework. With that rationale displayed prominently in her hand, she had an excuse to talk to Adam even during the school day.

"Can you help me with this tonight?" she asked.

"I guess," Adam said with a shrug. "They're not that bad. I'm sure you can do them on your own if you try."

"Oh, you're probably right," Alexis said, dropping her voice. "But I really need to talk to you tonight."

"Oh, okay," Adam murmured back. Then he raised his voice, "Yeah, sure. Bring them by whenever you want."

"Thanks, Adam." Alexis tossed the words over her shoulder before hurrying off to her friends.

****************

"How was your day, dear?" Sara asked lightly as Adam dropped his things off and walked to the kitchen.

"Okay," he replied tersely.

"Anything wrong?" she asked.

"Nah, it's just high school," he said with a sigh. "Alexis is coming over later."

"Oh?" she prompted.

"Just for homework, Mom," Adam said.

"Eve is as smart as Adam," Sara pointed out.

Adam blushed, and asked a question with a just-slightly-too-well-shaped eyebrow.

"There's time," Sara said. "But I suppose you should just put your forms in your bra, rather than glue them on."

Adam's blush didn't lose any heat, but he was already pulling the band holding his low ponytail as he hurried from the room.

So it was Eve who greeted Alexis at the door after dinner. "Hi," Eve said softly.

"Oh, hi," Alexis said, a big smile lighting her face as she saw the pretty brunette. "I'm glad, um, you are here tonight."

"Well, Duh," Eve said with a giggle. "I mean, I do live here, y'know?"

"Really?" Alexis asked with her own laugh, then her face sobered. "We need to talk."

"What about?" asked Eve.

"I need you to do a monster favor for me, but it will be a good thing for you, too," Alexis said.

"Sounds like a win-win," Eve said lightly as she escorted the taller blonde to a comfortable seat.

"Oh," Alexis said, pausing for a moment, then enthusiastically agreeing. "Yeah, totally."

"So what's the problem?"

"Well, nothing really," Alexis said tentatively. "It's just, um, only Eve can like, do it."

"It?" repeated Eve cautiously.

Alexis nodded. "It would mean a lot to me."

"It?" Eve repeated again, now suspicious.

"I need you to go out with me on Saturday, to a nice restaurant."

"Like . . . a date?"

"Yeah, exactly," Alexis said with relief.

"Geez, Alli, if you wanted to go out with me, all you had to do was ask," Eve said with a coy smile. Then she frowned. "But you said . . . Eve?"

"Well, of course," Alexis said. "Tom's friend totally isn't going to want to go out with Adam!"

"What?!" Eve said, levitating to her feet so fast her heels didn't matter.

Her voice was strident enough that Sara came in from the kitchen.

"What's the matter?" asked Sara.

Alexis stammered, "I don't . . . ohmigod. I'm sorry, Eve, I just assumed . . ."

"Assumed what?" demanded Eve.

"When I said we'd go out, I meant, as a double with Tom and his friend. You thought I meant . . . Ohmigod, I'm sorry."

"My mistake," Eve said, blushing fiercely, and unable to stop her eyes from glistening despite blinking quickly.

"Let me get this straight," Sara said. "You're asking Eve - not Adam - to go out on a double date on Saturday, with two other boys?"

Alexis nodded. "My boyfriend is bringing a friend when he visits from college this weekend, and I told him . . ."

"No," Eve said tightly. "I'm not my father. I don't like boys, and I'm totally not going on a date - a blind date, no less - with one." She turned away from Alexis, picking at the hem of her skirt as she looked out the window.

"Please," Alexis said. "Besides, it's not like that, not really."

"Like what?" Sara asked, concern in her voice as well.

"It's not like, a date-date. It's more like a, um, a public party."

"Public?" Sara picked up on the word.

"Totally," Alexis confirmed. "The whole gang will be there. Annalee, and Emily, and me, and, um. . . ."

"No," Eve said, not looking back. Her voice was tight as she added, "I don't even like those girls, and you know it."

"Oh, they're okay," protested Alexis. "They're just, y'know, high school and all. The real problem is the boys."

"Ya' think?" Eve snipped.

"No, I mean . . ," Alexis said, looking frantically at Sara for support that wasn't there. "The boys just like, take us for granted. So we want to like, send them a message, by making them take us out somewhere nice instead of just hanging around the mall, or crashing at someone's house to watch some game on TV or something."

::Or just going parking somewhere,:: she carefully didn't add.

"But to do that, we need, y'know, someone for Tom's friend."

"Can't you ask someone else?" Sara asked.

"Not someone, um, right," Alexis said, prompting a snort of derision from Eve. "Someone, y'know, sophisticated enough for a nice dinner, yet . . . unattached."

"All in public?" Sara asked again.

"Totally," Alexis confirmed, but her response was stepped on as Eve whirled back to look at them.

"Mother!" Eve said sharply. "You cannot be considering this."

"Of course I'd never make you do anything you don't want to do, but . . ," Sara began.

Eve's eyes got very wide, and she took a step back as though her mother had suddenly become someone else.

"Eve, there is the contest to consider," Sara said.

"The contest?" repeated Eve. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"Suppose they ask you about a date, or something. It will be a lot easier to reply if you have real memories to call on."

"'Real,'" Eve said, sending a ripple through her dark waves with a shake of her head.

"But there's more than that," Sara continued cautiously. "I am so very proud of you. You're so smart it just amazes me, all the time. And this whole, um, experiment shows that you're incredibly creative, and adaptable in ways that I didn't even realize were in Adam."

She stood and walked over to her child. "But you're like a . . . a hothouse flower. You've only been out when I'm around. Is that all there is to Eve? Being a shadow of me?"

"What do you mean?"

Sara put her arms around Eve and leaned her head on her taller child's shoulder. "I don't know where this is going for you, sweetheart, but maybe you need to find out by . . . stretching yourself a little."

"By going out on a date?! With a boy?!"

"It would be a stretch," Sara said teasingly, but she pulled back to look Eve directly in the eyes. "I won't push you into anything you don't want to do. Ever. But going out is part of the girl experience."

"Yeah, right," Eve said, but she looked away. Her eyes fell on Alexis, and the wistful look in the tall blonde's eyes put a new shine in Eve's deep blue gems.

She sighed, and asked, "What would I have to do?"

"Oh, Eve, thank you. Thank you," gushed Alexis. "It'll be great! I promise. We'll get all glammed up, like for the photo shoots we're going to have to do anyway, and make the boys be perfect gentlemen all evening." ::For a change,:: Alexis added, once again only to herself.

"What will I wear?" Eve asked, triggering a snicker from her mother, which in turn let loose a fiery blush on her own cheeks.

"Something hot!" declared Alexis. Then she let an artificially catty tone on her voice as she added, "This will be your chance to totally dis those bitches Annalee and Emily. You'll make them look like little kids. I've seen how sophisticated you can look."

"Really?" Eve asked, a bit of interest sparking in her eyes.

"Totally," Alexis confirmed. "You'll be so hot it will melt the paint on Tom's car."


Chapter 11 - "Girls Just Want to Have Fun"


Saturday was to be Eve's day. All day, total immersion. However, it actually only started about mid-morning. Neither Adam nor Eve were early risers. And the time Eve had to spend in the bath ensuring legs - and all other parts of her improving figure - were sleek and smooth didn't help her catch up. Nor did the time spent waiting for her more-than-average forms to bond to her chest. Or wriggling into the padded panty that would keep anything from "showing" even in her tight jeans. Sara helped her with hair and makeup - and the ever-tighter corset - but even with that help Eve was nicely panicked when Alexis showed up just after noon. Per directions, Eve wore her jeans and a button-front blouse, with her party dress and shoes in a bag. For luck, she was wearing her favorite boots though Alexis was wearing casual flats.

"Did you eat anything yet?" asked Alexis.

"No," Eve said quietly. "I'm, um, not hungry."

"Chill, dudette. This'll be fun!"

"Yeah, right."

"No, really," Alexis said more gently. She reached out and hugged her friend. "Look, I won't lie and say this isn't important to me, but we can call if off if you want. Really."

"No, I said I'd do it, and I'm okay," Eve said, not very convincingly.

Alexis hugged her again, then pulled back to look into the shorter brunette's eyes. Without saying another word, she leaned forward and kissed Eve. Softly. Tenderly. Patiently.

When she finally leaned back again, Eve's eyes were closed and her lips remained languidly parted.

"Wow," she whispered, eyes fluttering open again.

"Yeah, wow," Alexis replied. "I've been, um, thinking about this. About us."

"Us?"

"Yeah," Alexis said. "No one - not anyone, ever - has kissed me like you do."

She took a deep breath and continued, "But I'm just not sure if that's . . . enough."

"Enough?"

"Look, Eve - Adam - you're my best friend. Ever. But I never thought of you - of us - as like, more than just friends."

"Oh, God, the dreaded 'friends' line," Eve murmured.

Alexis snickered, then said, "That's just it. Now that I've kissed you . . . I mean, I guess I can't just like, I mean . . . just friends? Get real."

"What are you trying to say?"

"That I'm not satisfied, I guess. With the way things were going for me. Don't get me wrong, I like boys. I like what boys and girls can do together. But you've shown me that what I have with Tom is not enough."

Eve waited for Alexis to start making sense, and Alexis winced as she realized how bad a job she was doing of explaining something that was important to her. "This contest thing, I think it's made me grow up some. Acting several years older, to be more like my mother . . . maybe it's like, rubbed off or something. I'm not satisfied with just a, um, physical relationship anymore. And Annalee and Emily are like, okay, once you get to know them, but they're . . . . they seem so limited, y'know? And no matter how good you kiss, or, um, other things, I need more now."

"What does that have to do with tonight?"

"Maybe nothing. Maybe everything," Alexis replied unhelpfully. "I guess I need to see Eve out in public, as part of a group without hovering parental units. Someone I could hang with. I guess that's why this is so important to me."

"So let's just go to the mall or something," offered Eve.

"No, that's not enough any more either," Alexis said. "This dinner is like, an adult thing. I mean, grown-up, not y'know, porn or anything. I need to know if Eve is as fun to be with as she is to kiss. And specifically in comparison with like, guys who I already know."

Eve looked away. "And what if she isn't?"

"I don't know," Alexis said. "I mean, Adam will always be my friend, but Eve . . . may not be, if there's nothing there but a few kisses."

She hugged Eve again and softly added, "And I may not be good enough for Eve, if all I can give her is a few artificial moments every now and then. If we don't have the compatibility to be more than . . . 'just friends.'"

Alexis shook herself and stood back. "Oh, God, Eve, this is too serious. Look, we just want to have fun tonight. Let yourself go and have a good time. Tom and his friend will be nice, or I'll personally kick their 'nads into next week for you. And if the girls get bitchy - which they might, when they see how gorgeous and sophisticated you are - then just take it to a higher level. Be the coolest - and hottest - college girl they ever met. Have so much fun they feel as inadequate as they try to make you feel. My money's on you, dudette."

"Oh, sure, no pressure at all," Eve said. She paused and asked, "This really is important to you, right?"

When Alexis nodded, Eve shrugged from her embrace and sent a ripple down her dark mane as she shook herself from shoulders to wrists. She closed her eyes and took as deep a breath as her corset would allow, and held it for a ten count. Then she opened her eyes and let her hips slide forward and a bit to the side. Smiling coyly at Alexis she added her own dare. "I will if you will."

"What?" asked Alexis.

"I'll take my lead from you. Anything you can do , I can do better."

Alexis gasped, and then giggled. "Ohmigod, the mind boggles."

Eve snickered too, then squeezed Alexis. "Look, Alli, I'll try. But I'm sorta new at this, y'know? I'll, um, need some like, on-the-job training. So I'll try to fit in with whatever you do."

"Deal," Alexis said. Then she leaned down to kiss her friend again, only this time she stopped it before it took off into celestial realms. "Sealed with a kiss. Consider it a down payment."

"Ooh, unfair. That'll keep me distracted all night."

"Good," Alexis said. "See that you do the same to Tom and, um, what's his name? Oh, yeah, Mick."

Gathering up her purse, Alexis pulled Eve toward the door. "Now we've got to go get ready."

"Now? I thought they weren't picking us up 'til like, 7:00?"

"Right. So hurry," Alexis said, giggling again. "Oh, girl, you are in for a treat!"

That didn't do anything to calm Eve's nervous stomach, and it didn't get any better when - instead of heading toward Alexis' house - she drove to a small strip mall.

And parked in front of a beauty salon.

"Alli, I can't . . ."

"Sure you can," Alexis insisted. "Look, all we're going to do is hair, and a makeover, and y'know, things like that. No waxing."

"No way," Eve said.

"Right, waxing takes too long anyway, and you need to not shave for a couple of days, so that's out," Alexis said, deliberately interpreting Eve's rejection narrowly. She bounced out of the car and looked at Eve innocently. "C'mon, we're late."

"Oh, Alli, I am so gonna get you for this," Eve muttered to herself, but she got out of the car and followed the athletic blonde into the salon.

"Hey, Jo!" Alexis called as she entered.

A trim, thirty-something redhead turned at the call. "Hay is for horses," she said primly, then a bright smile broke across her face. "Hey, Alexis, how's my favorite jock?"

"Let me introduce my hick friend from Oklahoma," Alexis said. "Eve Curtis, meet Jo Southcliff. She'll be fabulizing you today."

"Any (hic) friend of (hic) Alexis is (hic) welcome," Jo said, faking hiccups. "Somebody get me a glass of water."

"Pleased to meet you," Eve said cautiously.

"Oh, hell, go back outside and find me someone fun!" Jo said. "If you're going to be all like, stuffy, we're in trouble."

"Oh, I might surprise you," Eve said, warming to the energetic beautician. She smiled, her eyes hinting at a secret that would certainly be surprising. She looked at Alexis and they both broke into helpless giggles at the secret they shared.

"Oh, god, now I feel old. Another joke I don't seem to get," Jo said. She didn't look old. She was an extremely effective advertisement for her own skills.

"Oklahoma?" Jo repeated. All Eve could do was nod. "I can see the hint of Indian - oops, Native American - blood in your gorgeous dark hair and those cheekbones."

"I'll have to tell my mother," Eve said, smiling again. "She thinks we're German - Aryan to the core."

"Uh, oh, is that why you're wearing Jack's boots? And where's Jack?"

"Parking the tank," Eve replied, laughing again because her boots were hardly storm trooper attire.

"Um, hellooo?" Alexis interrupted. "Are you two going to talk all day or . . ?"

"Oh, I expect we'll talk," Jo said, "but among my many talents is multi-tasking. So let's get started."

Eve looked quickly at Alexis, her panic rising again. The blonde girl leaned to whisper in her ear, "Trust me. Nothing will be permanent. By Monday Adam will look fine - better than fine, maybe, with a few more improvements, but they'll be subtle."

"Subtle?" Eve repeated, whispering back. "And you? Now I'm really worried."

But she smiled and followed Jo back into the salon.

::I suppose this really is part of the 'girl experience' that Mom was talking about,:: she mused as she settled into the beautician's chair.

Jo started by just staring at Eve for a while. Well, that and asking questions.

"Alexis told me this is for a fancy dinner. What's your dress like?"

"It's, um, midnight blue . . ," Eve began.

Jo interrupted her, "To match your eyes. Check. Good choice."

"And it has a halter neck, going to a sort of high collar with a bit of lace trim."

"Ooh, sounds elegant. Tell me more."

"Well, it's sleeveless, and, um, kinda short. And a bit, um, tight." ::Tight all right. It's one of Mom's dresses, and from when she was a size smaller than I am, even with this corset. And I can't believe she ever wore a dress that short!::

"Excellent. Tasteful, yet provocative. I like it and I haven't even seen it. Jewelry?"

"The, um, lace is a sort of cream color, and I have matching pearls. A double strand necklace and a matching bracelet. And earrings, except I can't wear them."

"Why not? Oh. Well, we can fix that, too."

::Uh, oh.:: "I thought you had to wear just starter earrings for a week or two after you get your ears pierced."

"Not really," Jo assured her. "You do need to be careful, but I am, after all, a miracle worker!"

She spun Eve around in the chair so that her head was draped into a carefully-placed sink, and began to run water into the basin. "Last thing. Shoes?"

"Oh," Eve said, then she blushed. "I like, um, heels. They're fairly high. Black, open-toed slings. Fairly plain, but with a sort of bow accented with tiny pearls, and . . . high." ::And it took us two frantic nights of power shopping to find them. Mom had a dress I could wear - if I can fit into it - but not shoes in my size to go with it.::

"Ooh, classy again. You have good taste. And that means we need a pedicure as well as a manicure."

::Oh, God. I'm getting in deeper and deeper.::

Jo didn't realize that her words were anything but reassuring as she launched into an explanation of her plan for Eve's makeover. "Okay. I like the natural look you're going with. It works well with your wide, innocent eyes. But for an evening of glamour we need to shape your brows just a bit more . . ."

::Holy shhhhhuugar, I am in totally deep doodoo,:: Eve thought as she looked at herself in the mirror several hours later.

"That good, huh?" Jo prompted with an ostentatious pat of her own back. "Speechless. I always leave 'em speechless."

"Ohmigod," Alexis said from her own chair where her stylist was puttering about with a few unnecessary final touches.

"I get that a lot, too," Jo said with a musing tone. Not that it diminished her smile.

Eve's hair was piled up elegantly, cascading in artful curls with delicate accent tendrils framing her face. Her makeup was well into glamour, and though her brows weren't really all that much thinner, they were definitely shaped, not natural. Pearls cascaded from her newly-pierced ears with Jo's assurance that, properly sanitized, they were safe.

And all of those things where still not the most dramatic change. Eve now had nails. Long, glamorous, shining nails.

::I wonder how long it will be before I do myself real damage with these things,:: she thought, looking at the elegant wands that made her hands look so slim and graceful.

"You realize," she said finally, twiddling her fingers at Jo, "that there is no way I'm going to be able to do anything with these."

"Which is why you'll have a big, strong man to do everything for you tonight," Jo said easily.

"Whose idea was that?" Alexis asked, pointing at Eve's hands.

"I thought this was all your idea," Eve said plaintively.

"Not me," Alexis said.

The two girls both looked at Jo, who blushed, then shrugged. "What can I say? I'm an artist. It's right for the image."

Eve's eyes were once again drawn to look at the impossible image in the mirror. "This is just . . . incredible."

"Glad you like it," Jo said smugly. "Now, are you putting your dress on here, or . . .?"

"At my house," Alexis said. "And we need to get on our way."

::At least Alexis has to pay for all this,:: Eve thought, but she still winced when she saw the bill.

Long nails made things that Eve thought she had mastered newly difficult, like putting on pantyhose. Her dress was way too short for stockings. But she managed (on the second pair of pantyhose, and thank God her mother had made her take a spare pair, in fact two spare pairs). She didn't even try to work her own zipper, partly because Alexis first had to tighten the corset another inch anyway.

::I'm glad my shoes are slip-ons,:: thought Eve as she carefully stepped into them.

Alexis also helped Eve with her necklace and bracelet, then the blonde cursed quietly as she chipped her own polish. Her nails weren't as long as Eve's, and she was used to them, but she was in a hurry, and sometimes that's all it took.

"I'll help," Eve offered. "At least I can do the nails on your right hand with my right hand."

"Would you? Thanks," Alexis said.

"I can use the practice," Eve said with a groan as her new nails caused her to fumble with the cap on the polish, but then she laughed. "You owe me one, beautiful."

"Payment on account," Alexis reminded her, blowing her a kiss with her own bright lips.

Then the doorbell was ringing and Nicole was answering the door.

"Alexis, Eve, your dates are here," she called. Eve didn't know what Alexis had said to her mother before they had arrived, but Nicole hadn't said anything about Eve going on a date. Her eyes had gotten very, very wide when she had seen the results of Eve's elegant makeover, but she didn't say anything.

"Ohmigod, Alli, I can't do this."

"Of course you can," Alexis said. "Just remember, you're a college girl - sophisticated and mature. If anyone makes a silly mistake tonight, it won't be you. And if it is you, then just pretend you're so with it that they just don't know how cool you are."

"Oh, yeah, that'll work . . . not!" Eve said. She closed her eyes and took another deep breath, or tried to. Letting it hiss out through her lips, she sighed. "But I'm armored so firmly that he couldn't find out my secret even if he tried, so let's go do this."

"That's the spirit," Alexis said. "I'll go first. Give me a ten count."

Eve was more than willing to spend the time on another deep breath. But she couldn't hold it forever. Eventually she found herself walking down the hall to see her - ohmigod - date.

He was big, a craggy grizzly bear with dark blonde hair and arms the size of bridge girders. Big enough that she felt positively dainty as she floated in on her spindly shoes. Big enough that for the first time, Eve didn't feel any lingering sense of comparison at all. It was a silly for Adam to compare himself to this guy as it would be for a rowboat to argue with an aircraft carrier.

In a funny way that actually made it easier. There wasn't any sense of overlap. His yang was so overwhelming that only yin was left for her. Like a weight slipping from her shoulders, she embraced a pure Eve in a world with no room for anything else.

"Wow," she murmured softly. And as though it were a sign of the evening to come, her huge date said exactly the same thing at exactly the same time. His voice was two octaves lower, but it was a sudden compatibility that caused them both to laugh.

His first words, though, were to Tom Brennan. They were delivered to the side, because his eyes never left Eve. "Remind me to tell the coach, when we get back, that I'm transferring to Oklahoma."

"He'll kill you," Tom said with a laugh. "Oklahoma, of all places."

"It might be worth it," he said. Then he finally spoke directly to Eve. "Hi, I'm Mick Sullivan."

"Eve, um, Curtis," she replied, holding out her hand. Per direction from Nicole, she held it palm down, with her long nails dangling.

And he kissed her hand.

He bent down, touched her fingers lightly, and kissed the pale ridge of her hand with delicate finesse.

"Ohmigod, this is getting deep," Alexis said, laughing.

Eve just stared at her hand, and at his hand, and everywhere but at his eyes.

The shocked brunette shook free of her bemusement with an all-too-noticeable twitch, then blushed fiercely.

"Eve, honey, watch yourself with this guy," Alexis cautioned.

::Totally,:: Eve thought, still shivering as ice tremors ran up and down her back. She twitched again, then tried to stop looking like a total idiot.

Mick's eyes were a long way up, but she managed to make eye contact. She smiled shyly, then changed it to a more genuinely amused grin and asked, "So, is it 'G'dy, myte' or are you Irish?"

He laughed and shook his head. "Nope, at least, not that I know. I just heard, 'Mikey likes it,' so often when I was growing up, or 'Let Mikey try it,' when my brothers had a dare, that as soon as I got big enough to make it stick, I had people call me Mick."

"Oh," Eve said archly, "so you use your size to intimidate people?"

"Do I intimidate you?" he asked with a smile.

"Nope," she claimed. It was a lie, but they both knew it and the ability to lie about it showed it was becoming true.

"Good," he said. "Anyone who is intimidated that easily is . . .not worth intimidating."

"Hey. You two, do we need to leave you alone for a while? Come back after dinner or something?" Tom asked.

Mick didn't answer. Unless the amused smile he showed Eve was an answer. She had to shake herself again to get back from the trap of his eyes and that led her to shake her head for real.

"I'm, um, ready," she said.

"Promises, promises," Mick said, but it was a whisper only she could hear. It did serve the purpose of renewing her blush, but he stepped back with a gentlemanly gesture for the girls to go first.

Though the girls wore elegant dresses that would not be out of place in a formal cocktail party, the guys had dressed up only as required by Texas styles. That is to say, they wore dress shirts and sport coats, and slacks instead of jeans. That was the way things were supposed to be where men were men and women were delicately glad of it. But some of the other social graces carried over despite their casual clothes, and Eve was quietly grateful for the assistance of his hand as she tried to sit in the car without showing more of her delicates than delicacy allowed.

"One presumes," she said to Mick as Tom drove, "that the coach you were talking about was not the debate coach."

"No, I play football," Mick said.

"No, really?" Eve asked, ostentatiously batting her eyes at him. "Is that the one with the funny shaped ball - that no one actually touches with the foot most of the time?"

"The same," Mick said easily, not rising to her bait.

Tom spoke up from the front seat. "Mick is a nose guard, but he's redshirted like I am this year."

"Pardon my ignorance," Eve said, fluffing her hair and looking suitably dense. "But you must not be a very good at guarding noses. Yours is, um . . ."

Mick's nose did indeed demonstrate a history of abuse, but it fit with the rough-hewn angles of his face, just crooked enough to emphasize his rugged strength.

He just laughed. "Why do I think you probably know more about football than I do?"

"Why, suh," Alexis inserted herself into the conversation with a fake southern-belle drawl, "Ah am sure we don't have any idea what y'all are talking 'bout."

Eve just batted her lashes at him again, wide-eyed and innocent.

Tom knew Alexis was into athletics, but wasn't sure about Eve, so when Mick didn't say anything, he felt a need to fill the gap. "A nose guard is a defensive lineman."

"Oh, good," Eve said. "I would be so disappointed if you were . . . offensive."

"I'll try not to be," Mick said. Then in a surprising show of tact, he tried to get her to talk about herself. "So, what's your major?"

"Darn," Eve replied. "Oh, well." She called forward to Alexis. "We might as well go home, Allie. If that's the best he can do we're better off watching a movie in our pj's and eating popcorn."

"Now, Eve, be nice," Alexis said, trying without much success to pretend to scowl.

"What's the fun in that?" Eve asked.

Mick laughed, but he didn't offer another conversational gambit. Eve nodded at his easy confidence, then casually declared, "Oh, I've got a double major - physics and math. Though they overlap so much it seems unfair to get credit for two."

"Yeah, right," Tom said from the front. "Say something in physics to me."

"The time rate of change of linear momentum is proportional to the vector sum of applied external forces," Eve rattled off quickly.

"I learned that in high school," Mick said, a friendly challenge in his smile.

"So did I," Eve admitted, laughing easily. "So, what's yours?"

"I'll have a boilermaker," Mick said, pushing his nose even further to the side with one thick finger. "And t'anks for offerin'."

"Oops," Eve said with a laugh. "Walked right into that one."


Chapter 12 - "Just Start Heading Up"


She never did find out what Mick's major was, because before she could follow up they arrived at the Stone Quarry, a better-than-steakhouse restaurant that a lot of couples went to on prom night.

"Ooh, good choice," Alexis said appreciatively. She already knew where they were going, and had told Eve earlier that the restaurant had been chosen by Emily. But she didn't have to tell the boys that she knew.

The other couples were already in the restaurant. Annalee's dark elegance matched well with Tony Avanti's obviously Italian heritage. There wasn't much doubt about how any children they had would turn out. Emily, on the other hand, was even paler than Alexis and didn't really seem like a good match for the florid Nick Farnsworth. The fact he was the richest kid in their high school didn't have a thing to do with why she dated him, of course.

Eve was introduced to everyone, repeating the 'friend from Oklahoma' bio, but the other girls immediately wanted to know more about their new competition.

"So, Eve," Annalee said as soon as they sat. "What's your major?"

Eve's eyes darted to see a twinkle lurking below Mick's heavy brow. She stifled a giggle and carefully put an innocent expression on her face as she looked at the other dark-haired girl. "I have a double major, actually. Home Economics and Interior Design, though they overlap so much it hardly seems fair to get credit for two."

Tom laughed and played along, challenging her, "Yeah, right. Say something in Interior Design to me."

Eve smiled demurely and replied in a lecturing tone, "When planning a house, closets in rooms for teenage girls should be at least 50% as large as the associated bedroom."

"Oh, at least," Alexis confirmed, laughing along with Tom and Mick. The other couples had a slightly perplexed look, as though they knew they were missing something but not really why. But the mood at the table was certainly light and cheerful, so they quickly joined in with the typical slightly mocking mutual insults that Adam had once upon a time noted jocks and cheerleader types seemed to enjoy. For once, Eve felt she could join in. And for once, her more erudite use of language didn't make her seem like an overly-intellectual nerd. She tittered with genteel laughter, and managed to say whole sentences without using the word 'like.'

The boys had gotten into a discussion of last year's Texas-Oklahoma game, and the prospects for the coming year, when Alexis threw Eve a curve by pushing her seat back and reaching for her handbag. "C'mon, Eve, I need to powder my nose."

Eve looked at her in shock and was about to shake her head when she saw a deeper request in Alexis' eyes. Annalee and Emily had already made a run to the powder room, and at that time Eve was glad that Alexis had declined, allowing Eve to do the same. Now that the other girls were back, it seemed like Alexis had something specific in mind.

Forcing herself to appear calm on the outside, and in particular holding her breath so that a deep gulp of air - with its all-too-obvious, corset-forced movement of bosom - wouldn't seem like a deliberate enticement, she rose and balanced on her stilt heels as she followed the tall blonde.

As they approached the door she hissed at Alexis, "I can't go in there."

"You better," Alexis said with a smirk. "Or everyone in the whole place will wonder why you didn't."

Thankfully, it was too far away for any of their party, or anyone else for that matter, to see the fires that comment ignited in Eve's cheeks, but then her full lips drew a thinner line of determination and she pushed past Alexis into the forbidden room.

It was not empty. One stall was closed and a set of painted toes peeked out of sandals beneath the door. Eve lost her transient courage and looked helplessly at Alexis. The blonde's lips whispered a quiet, "Go fix your face." Taking a few items from her own slim purse Alexis started to do the same.

Eve tried very hard not to look in the direction of the occupied stall as she started on her own repairs. She had learned most of what it took to keep her makeup in order, and she wasn't going to try to redo all the subtle shadings Jo had created earlier. Mostly she did just powder a few shiny spots and then start on her lipstick. That was moderately complicated because Jo had used both a base color and a gloss overlay that Eve had to replace in matching stages.

By the time she was running out of thing to do, the stall occupant flushed and walked to the mirrored wall. She smiled politely to the two girls, made a quick repair of her own lipstick, and left.

The door was still swinging shut when Alexis turned to Eve. "Oh, God, you are such a bitch!" Her words were harsh, but she smiled and reached out at the same time to embrace her friend. "I so totally hate you."

"What? What did I do wrong?"

"Nothing, ditz," Alexis said. "That's just the point. First place, you're gorgeous. Yet you are so cool, and you have those guys eating out of your hand. That bit about telling the guys you're a brain working on a physics degree, and then telling the girls you were in Home Ec. was just too perfect. They're so curious about you now that they can hardly think about anything else, and they're totally not taking you for granted as just another friend so hard up she'll take a blind date. Then you wave those big girls around like a flag - don't try to tell me it's just your corset - and they get so totally focused on you that the rest of us could strip down naked in front of them and they wouldn't even notice. I swear, if you asked Mick to jump, he wouldn't even ask how high. He'd just start heading up."

Alexis smiled and added, "I guess I found out."

Eve was confused enough that she didn't say anything, just looked a need for explanation at her friend.

"I found out whether there is more to Eve than just being a great kisser," Alexis explained. "Have I really been that blind, or are you just a whole lot more fun, more vivacious, more wickedly witty, and . . . totally awesome than Adam ever was?"

"I don't know," Eve said, eyes losing focus in a dreamy look. "I guess, um, being flattered . . . feeling attractive for once in my life . . . it makes a difference." Then her eyes cleared and she laughed. "And I don't suppose you ever noticed because you've always been one of the annointed, but a 'cool' person can say something and get a laugh, and if a nerdy person said the exact same thing, with the exact same delivery - they'd get pounded. Do you really think Mick would let a nerdy guy poke at him like we've been doing?"

"I suppose not," Alexis said, then shrugged without guilt. "Nobody ever said life was fair. So, are you disappointed at being one of the - what did you call us - the 'annointed' for an evening?"

"Oh, God, no, Alli," Eve said. "I am totally having a great time. I just don't know what it all means."

"Well, don't look at me, beautiful," Alexis said. "I sure don't know." Then her expression became serious. "Is it . . . because of Mick?"

"You mean, have I decided I like boys?" Eve interpreted.

Alexis nodded, and Eve's eyes got distant again as she considered the question carefully. "I don't know. I like his attention. He's really a nice guy, and he certainly fits society's image of what a man should be. And he's smart. As a guy, I'd really like to have Mick for a friend." She took a deep breath and held it for a patient moment before continuing. "And it's wonderfully flattering to think he finds me attractive. He makes me feel . . . desirable. God help me, but I like that. It is so nice to feel desirable."

"I, um, desire you, too, Eve."

Eve hugged her taller friend and looked into her eyes from a very close distance. "I know. And I've wanted you since the first time my body was able to want anyone. It's hardly been a secret. But who do you really want? Is it only Eve?"

"Oh, God, I don't know," Alexis moaned. "I'd like to think that I was never that unappreciative of Adam, but I certainly feel differently about you."

Disengaging herself, Eve said, "We have a lot of things to think about. Not the least of which is what in the world I can do to continue with this . . . whatever it is that I've been doing."

Now it was Alexis who got a thoughtful look on her face. "Y'know, the 'whatever' you've been doing is just like, awesome, but . . ."

Eve frowned at her blonde friend. She didn't say anything though, so after a second Alexis continued.

"You've been, y'know, flirty and fun and witty and all those things, but you haven't really been . . . sexy."

"Well, duh!" Eve said sharply.

"No, really," Alexis said. "You've been cute and fun, but you've been what my mother would call 'demure' all evening. Other than a few smart comments, but that's okay too, because demure doesn't have to mean weak. Does that make any sense?"

"I . . . guess so," Eve said tentatively.

"So you've got the 'cool' bit down. Can you do hot?"

"Hot?"

"Yeah, as in make-them-cream-their-jeans-with-just-a-smile hot," Alexis said, snickering.

"Oh, God, no. Why would I want to do that?"

"Because it's part of being a pretty girl," Alexis said firmly. "You came tonight at least in part so that you can understand about being a girl. And a big part of that is being sensuous and desirable, but not just as 'a friend.' Or as pretty arm candy. Can you make Mick want you? Totally want to take you to bed?"

"I couldn't do that. I don't want that," Eve insisted.

"You don't actually have to go to bed with him, doofus," Alexis sighed. "But you'll never get a better chance to see if you can turn a man on, and it's a big part of being a pretty girl."

Then something else came to her and she added, "Like, suppose one of the photographers wants you to do a sexy pose. Y'know, the bedroom-eyes, I-want-to-have-your-baby sort of expression. Could you do that? It might be important to the contest."

"That damn contest," Eve hissed. "Maybe I should just drop it all."

"Maybe," Alexis said evenly. "If you won't always wonder what you could have done. Will you?"

"Will I wonder?" Eve said, then admitted, "Maybe. But I'm not sure I could like, pretend to be hot for a guy, or that I want him to be totally hot for me."

"Wanna try?" Alexis asked, smirking. "What’s the worst that could happen?"

"Oh, God, don't even go there," Eve whispered.

"No, really," Alexis said, smiling. "Mick's a nice guy, but he's a guy. If you get all sensuous and sexy - but don't do it well - then he'll still be flattered because you tried to come on to him. On the other hand, Tom promised we'd go straight home after this, so you don't have to worry about it going too far if you like, do it well."

"Yeah, right," Eve said, but she looked thoughtful.

"Tell you what," Alexis offered. "Just follow my lead. You've been doing just fine so far."

With that she pushed open the door to the powder room and returned to their dates.

The guys were ready for dessert. Winking at Eve, Alexis said, "I'll split something with you."

"Okay," Eve said cautiously. They settled on something decadently sweet, and chocolate of course.

When it came, Alexis' eyes sent Eve a challenge, then she turned to Tom. What followed would probably get her thrown in jail throughout the Bible belt. And all she did was eat her chocolate. But the way her eyes closed in languid sensual fulfillment as she savored the sweet syrup made it a lot more than a simple after-dinner sweet.

Eve gasped, but then she looked thoughtful for a moment, stealing a sidelong glance at Mick who was watching Alexis with more-than-polite attention. The dark-haired girl took a small bite of her own, and tried to feel what Alexis was apparently feeling. The tangy sweet-sharp taste of the chocolate was something Adam had always liked, but something in the way Alexis had savored it opened up Eve's taste buds to the sensations anew, and it really was pretty enjoyable. She let her own eyes close for a moment as the confection melted on her tongue, then used that tongue to dart out and capture an errant drop. Her eyes met Mick's after they opened, to start a blush, and then a grin, and then take another bite. It was most unfair.

Alexis tried to match her, and the intimacy she had already shared with Tom meant that his attention was adequately captured. He had enjoyed the touch and taste of those ripe lips before. But for the objective, third-party observers - Tony and Nick and even Annalee to her shocked surprise - what Eve was doing made anything else irrelevant. Even breathing, when Eve's own breath caught as her throat slowly embraced the confection.

Mick was just hopeless. His own dessert puddled on his plate, and he neither noticed nor cared. It was a good thing they were in public. And that there was a table with a snowy cloth draped over his lap.

Alexis decided to up the scale a little, and she held her next spoonful to Eve's lips, not her own. Eve smiled and let Alexis feed her the dark tidbit, then offered a spoonful to the blonde as well.

That changed the focus of their little contest. Changed it utterly. The sensual pleasure that Eve had displayed to Mick - how much was real and how much faked even she didn't know - became unmistakably real when she focused herself on Alexis. She sent a promise with her gaze. A promise that was only for Alexis, that only Alexis could understand.

The others thought they understood what Eve was offering, or at least, seemed to be offering. It caused conversation to cease at the table, and for several tables around.

Eve realized it first. She twitched and then started to laugh, breaking the spell. She blushed a bit, then she looked at her empty spoon and said, "My, that's an, um, interesting dessert. What's it called again?"

Mick grunted, trying to laugh but in just a bit too much pain for real humor. Emily, when Eve looked at her, made it clear that she was not having a good time any longer. She elbowed Nick and said, "I think I'm ready to go."

"Yeah, um, me, too," Annalee said, taking a deep breath to recover from a focus on other things.

The guys worked out the damages, and at least that pain distracted them from other discomforts. The girls walked out into the spring evening to wait.

"You slut," Emily snarled at Eve when they were outside. "But do you have to like, advertise it?"

"Why Emily, whatever are you talking about?" Eve asked innocently. Then her eyes narrowed and she said, "Chill, girl. I'm not after your little rich kid." She looked at Alexis and shrugged. "We were just having fun."

"That kinda fun gets you a police record," Emily said. "Why don't you just hang out a sign with your price? What was it, about 50 bucks for dinner tonight?"

"That's enough, Em," Alexis said. Eve put out a hand to stop her friend.

"I'm sorry you feel that way, Emily," Eve said. "You might want to get some help to cope with those feelings of inadequacy - however well deserved they might be."

With that she spun gracefully on her needle heels and moved to greet Mick with a wide-eyed, appreciative smile. Waving an elegant hand at Emily and Annalee, she wrapped her other hand around Mick's thick arm and made it clear the other girls were no longer part of her world.

When they were once again in the car, she apologized to her escort. "I'm sorry, Mick. We were just playing around and I guess we got carried away. It was . . . wrong. Please forgive me."

"Yeah," Alexis said. "When we went to the, um, powder room I suggested we play a little prank. It, um, got out of hand. Sorry."

"That's okay," Tom said. "Frankly, it was hot. You two are amazing."

Eve was still looking at Mick, and despite herself she was hurt to see the disappointment in his eyes. But a part of her was relieved as well. In the long term, even if Eve continued to be part of her life, that overtly sexual person wasn't who she really wanted to be. It looked like she had messed up with her huge date, but when she thought about it she realized that was for the best as well.

When he didn't say anything, Eve lowered her eyes and shifted her weight away from him. There was a pause that seemed eternally long to her, but was really only a moment, before Mick's arm reached out to pull her back to his side. "It's okay. I have clearly been underestimating you all evening, and for that I am sorry, too."

He shrugged and dredged up a grin that might not have been totally natural, but that was a message, too. "So, what's your real major? I'm not buying Home Ec., but I wouldn't take a bet on it being Physics, either."

"Isn't this where we started?" Alexis asked with a snicker.

"Oh, I think we've come a long way since we started," Mick said, prompting another blush from Eve. But her eyes thanked him for accepting what had happened and working toward a lighter mood.

Eve sparred cheerfully with Mick about what would be a good major, for herself and for him. Alexis chimed in with increasingly improbable double-major suggestions, bringing a blush to Eve's cheeks whenever she wanted. No one noticed that Tom had passed the exit to Alexis' home.

At least, not until he turned off the paved streets into a graveled parking lot.

Alexis looked up sharply, then, and snapped, "Tom, you said you'd take us straight home!"

"Oh, the night is young, and you are beautiful," Tom replied with a leering grin. "I thought we might just sit and talk for a while."

"Talking is not what you want," she said.

"Well, if you're offering . . ."

"Not tonight," Alexis said, then blushed at she realized what she had implied about other nights. But she frowned again and said, "Take us home."

Tom put on a contrite air, and ostentatiously begged, "Please, Alleycat, please? For just a while? It really is a pretty night, and I don't want the evening to end so soon."

Alexis was ready to argue some more, when Mick spoke up. "Eve, it's up to you. I wouldn't mind talking some more. Maybe going for a walk. It really is a pretty night. I'll bet Oklahoma is still too cold to enjoy an evening like this."

Eve looked at him, and then at Alexis. The blonde shrugged, agreeing to let her decide. Eve sighed and said, "Okay, but just for a little while." She looked directly at Mick and added, "And we just talk. I'm not . . ."

Mick smiled at her first acceptance, then laughed at her caution. "Oh, don't worry. It's our first date and I'm not that easy."

"You're also not nice," Eve said, but she was smiling, too.

Mick started to get out of the car.

"Where are you going?" asked Eve.

"We can't walk in the car," Mick said with a snort.

"I thought we were just going to talk," Eve said, but once again she smiled, taking any real complaint out of her words. A moment later she was accepting his help out of the car.

"These shoes are not made for walking," she complained for real as she tried to catch her balance on the gravel.

Mick scooped her up in his arms and carried her to a path. At first, Eve squeaked in shock, then tried to cling to him with one hand while pulling her skirt down with the other.

Tom and Alexis laughed from the car where they still sat, which did nothing to reduce Eve's embarrassment. But the levitating girl was more concerned with her skirt than in retorting to their laughter, and by the time she was sure she wasn't being completely indiscreet, Mick was setting her down on the path, as gentle as the breeze that caressed her flaming cheeks.

"I know," Mick said, putting up a huge paw to forestall her comment. "Not nice. But we already established that. Please forgive me."

He put such a sad little puppy dog pout on his carved-granite face that Eve just had to laugh. Laugh so hard, in fact, that all she had the breath to do was wag her finger at him. Mick caught it, pulled his head down to kiss the shining nail lightly, then used the captured finger to pull the rest of her hand into his. "This way, milady," he said gallantly. "I know for a fact that the view is better over here."

"I thought you were just visiting town," Eve observed, but she didn't snatch her hand back.

"I am . . . but not for the first time," explained Mick.

"So, how many other girls have you brought here?" Eve asked archly.

"A few," admitted Mick. "But you're the first woman, and for sure the first lady."

That brought a fresh blush to Eve's cheeks, and she hoped it was too dark for him to see how his remarks had affected her.

::Damn, this guy is good at flattery . . . and God help me, but I do like to be flattered.::

A few steps down the path her heel caught on something and she found herself clutching at the hand she had somehow never released. Mick squeezed back and smiled down at her.

::Big goof ought to try walking on uneven ground in spike heels, then he'd know how hard it is,:: she thought, and then she just had to smile back at him as the image of the huge football player in stiletto shoes captured her mind.

In truth, the path wasn't that bad. It was packed hard enough that her narrow heels didn't really sink in too far, at least, not if she walked gracefully, keeping most of her weight on her toes. ::Which is why you like them, ditz,:: she reminded herself. And the evening really was pleasant. There was a three-quarter moon, and it provided a reasonable amount of light except when a cloud obscured it every now and then. At those times the world became dark and private, with only a looming sense of the other's presence - and the pressure of their hands - to remind them that they were together. Despite the supposed purpose of their nocturnal stroll, they didn't actually talk much. They both seemed content in the silence, listening to the occasional night bird or creaking insect.

It was a bit cooler, if only psychologically, when the moon went behind a cloud and with no warning Eve found herself shivering. Her bare arms and shoulders were just a little too good at dissipating heat into the soft breeze.

"Oh, sorry. I'm stupid," Mick said, quickly removing his jacket.

"No, that's okay. You don't need . . ," Eve protested, but the words died in her throat when the comforting warmth of his jacket surrounded her bare shoulders. It was big enough for three of her, but it was wonderfully warm.

::It has his scent,:: she realized, tasting the faintly acrid smell he had left in it. It wasn't a bad smell, but it had a definite hint of a smell she associated with locker rooms - not just the stereotypically stale sweat, but something deeply masculine. ::Probably loaded with testosterone,:: she mused. ::I'll end up with a hairy back.::

That image tickled her sense of humor as well, and she found herself once gain smiling at him.

"You're . . . amazing," he said softly, looking down at her wide eyes.

"Me? I'm nobody," she said in honest surprise.

"You're like no other woman I've ever met," he insisted, and again she couldn't help smiling at his comment.

::Ya' think?!:: she thought. ::Considering what's inside these padded panties.::

"Most girls would have felt the need to chatter on," explained Mick, "either making this into some grand romantic adventure, or covering their nervousness with words, wondering what I might do when we're alone."

He looked down at her and even in the moonlight she could see a little boy's mischievous grin. "Or afraid of what I might not want to do with them."

"But you just smile," he continued. "You have a very beautiful smile. It's full of joy, but there is always something else, too. Some secret amusement that none of the rest of us understand. What secretly amuses you, beautiful?"

"That you think I'm beautiful," Eve said softly, an honest answer that he would think was a deflection.

Mick snorted, as though my answer were too silly for comment. "What amuses me is that someone so pretty could be so modest. But you're so comfortable in your own self that you're content to be quiet. That's amazing," he repeated.

Then the little boy grin resurfaced and he added, "I don't know whether to be flattered that you trust me that much, or insulted."

"Maybe it's me," she offered. "Not worried because I know I'm not . . . sufficiently enticing?"

::Ohmigod! Did I just say that!::

"Fishing for compliments, pretty lady?" he asked. "Well, consider yourself complimented."

His huge arms gathered her up like a tiny child and lifted her off the ground. His great head bent to her trembling lips . . . and claimed them with implacable authority, ignoring any resistance as though it did not - could not possibly - exist.


Chapter 13 - "Pathways"


After some measureless time, Mick lowered her gently to her toes and stabilized her for a moment. He kept his head bowed near her cheek so that he wasn't pulling on her arms - when had they ended up around his neck, anyway? - and whispered.

"You can slap me now if you want."

"Wh . . . huh?" she said, eyes blinking open.

"That was a whole lot more than just talking," Mick said with a grin, lifting his head just a bit as her arms relaxed. "So I broke my promise. If you want to slap me, feel free."

By now Eve's arms were withdrawn enough that her hands rested on his shoulders. He pulled back just a bit further so that he could look her directly in the eyes and said, "But I'm not sorry, and I'm for darn sure not apologizing. That was worth it."

The mischievous little boy grin was back on his face, and Eve couldn't help but smile, too. She took one hand off his shoulder and lightly touched his cheek with the palm, then formed her long-nailed fingers into claws and skritched at the stubbly whiskers that were already showing on his face.

"Slap. Scratch. Kick," she said, tapping her toe on his leg. "Just so you admit I did everything I could to fight you off."

"Oh, absolutely," he agreed. "Over and over."

He bent to kiss her again, and for just a second she hesitated. That put the puppy-dog look in his eyes again, and she just had to giggle. Reaching up she put her arms around his neck and kissed him, but it was not a total surrender this time. She pulled back after just a second, then ostentatiously ran her fingers through is hair, whispering in his ear. "Don't forget that I pulled your hair, too."

"No, beautiful, I promise you that I will not forget any instant of this night. And that promise is one that I will keep."

"You never know," Eve said lightly. "Boys can be so fickle, y'know."

"Not this one," he said, bending forward again.

"We'll see," she replied, but she leaned back enough to make it clear she wasn't ready for a return bout just yet. Eve grasped his hand and squeezed it to show that she was not angry, nor even offended - just not ready for a new challenge to her modesty.

Mick shrugged, then smiled with good grace and looked back at the path toward the parking area. "I suppose we should be heading back."

"Yes, I think she should," Eve agreed, letting a hint of sadness into her voice. As they started back she whispered. "Believe me, Mick, I won't forget this evening either."

"I'm glad," he said, squeezing her hand.

Before they were in sight of the car, a pressure on her hand caused Eve to look up at Mick again. He grinned and said, "Since you're a visitor here too, why don't we show each other the local sights tomorrow?"

::Uh, oh,:: Eve thought. ::Shoulda seen that one coming.::

Then a convenient, and even true, excuse came to her. "I'm sorry, but tomorrow I have an appointment." She used that truth to excuse the following lies. "That's why I'm in town, actually. And then it's back over the Red River."

"What time is your appointment?" he pushed, not aggressively, but with a flattering determination.

"Basically all day," she replied. Then, realizing that sounded like an unearned rejections, the explained further. "I'm meeting with a fashion consultant. I'm - actually, Alexis and I both are - in a contest to become the model for a new line of makeup. I need to learn some tricks of the trade."

"Y'know," Mick said, an amused grin back on his face, "I'd have believed you right up until the last line. I don't have any trouble seeing you as a model - you're the prettiest girl I've ever met - but I can't imagine anything you could do, trick or otherwise, to get any more beautiful."

::My, my, that boy does know how to flatter a girl,:: Eve reminded herself, smiling again at the pleasure of his praise.

"Goodness, Mick, I may need you to carry me all the way back to the car," she said, laughing lightly. "It's getting pretty deep around here."

"Deal," he said, sweeping her up in his arms. But he was gentleman enough not to use that as an excuse to kiss her, and after a second her arms once again found a comfortable place around his neck.

When Alexis saw her being carried up the path, she disengaged herself from Tom's embrace and quickly moved toward them. "Did you hurt yourself?"

Eve smiled a private little smile at Mick and said, "I, um, stubbed my toe. Kicked something in the dark."

Now Alexis was closer and could see Eve's face in the dimness. "Musta brushed by some branches or something, too." Leaning forward enough to whisper in Eve's ear, she added, "Your lipstick is smudged."

Eve blushed, visible even in the moonlight, but then she smiled and looked directly at Alexis' lips, letting her know that the blonde was also displaying evidence of nocturnal activities. Alexis shrugged, but said nothing as Mick carefully placed Eve on the rear seat of the car.

The interior light showed that Eve was not the only one mussed. She giggled and handed Mick a tissue from her purse as she took another for herself. Then she winked at Mick before using the mirror in her compact to guide repair of gloss that had disappeared from her own lips.

Tom ostentatiously asked his friend about taking a girl into the woods and ending up carrying her back, while Alexis looked at Eve with less-than-amused curiosity. But Eve kept her comments light and innocuously uninformative until they were once again at the Pierce household.

The boys escorted them up to the door - at least, most of the way. Tom and Alexis disappeared into some shadows somewhere along the path.

"I've had a really nice time tonight," Eve said tentatively to her massive escort. She grinned and added, "Frankly, I haven't had much luck on blind dates, and I was afraid this would be - at best - a nice dinner and a chance to dress up a little. But I truly have had a nice time."

"I'm glad," Mick said. "I'd like to get together with you again."

"I'd, um, like that, too," Eve said, lowering her eyes. ::God help me, but I would like it! He's charming, and witty, and he does flattery so well.::

"When?" Mick asked, not one to let an opportunity slip away.

"I, um . . ," Eve said, stammering a little. "Could I like, have your number? I'm not sure when I'll be back in town."

"I could come to Oklahoma," he offered.

"Don't be silly," Eve said, blushing and ducking her head, but smiling at the interest embedded in that offer. "It's too far, and we've just met."

"I'd be glad to come," he insisted.

"Not yet," she said. "But if we're both in town, we'll, um, work something out."

"If you won't let me visit you in Oklahoma, then you can at least plan on me being in town any time you are. Just let me know."

"Okay," Eve said quietly, looking up from her half-lowered gaze to meet his eyes directly.

Mick smiled his little-boy grin, and stuck his chin out at her. "You might as well slap me now."

"Why? . . . oh," Eve said, very quietly. But her slap was again only her palm laid on his bristly cheek.

And once again he lifted her off her feet as his lips claimed her mouth with gentle passion. Once again her arms found their way around his neck, and she had neither idea nor care about the passage of time.

A voice coughed in the darkness, and they both twitched. Mick grinned and lowered her back to her heels and helped her to steady herself. Alexis was smiling at her, but with less humor than her smirking grin usually held.

"Say good-night, Eve," she ordered.

Eve's blush started as a muted glow, then was revealed in all its crimson glory as the porch light came on. But she lifted her head proudly and looked at Mick. "G'night, big guy."

"G'night, beautiful," he said, stepping back.

Tom gave Alexis one final kiss, just to show that his girl allowed the liberty, then he stepped back as well. They waved as they moved down the walk to the car, and Eve gave a small wave of her own as Alexis unlocked the door.

"One presumes you had a good time," Nicole said dryly as she looked at the two girls - notably mussed and with lipstick well smudged.

"Oh, yeah," Alexis said, smiling wryly at Eve.

Eve just gasped as deeply as her infernal corset would permit and walked uninvited to where she could sit. She closed her eyes and tried with only marginal success to get her tumbling thoughts to settle down. "Ohmigod," she murmured.

Nicole walked over to sit by her, and Alexis followed, standing to hover over the dark-haired girl.

"Ah, Eve, what happened?" Nicole asked. "Are you hurt?"

"Hurt?" Alexis repeated. "Not likely. She's just hot! Man, that kiss . . ."

"Eve?" persisted Nicole.

Eve lifted her eyes and looked at Nicole. Absent-mindedly she used one long-nailed finger to wipe near her mouth, looking at the red streak on her finger that confirmed the disarray of her lipstick. "Ohmigod," she whispered again.

Then, as though a sudden chill consumed her, Eve shivered and stood up abruptly. "I'm sorry, Mrs. P. I appreciate your concern. Nothing happened. I mean, I'm not hurt or anything. But I need to think about things before I can talk about them. I'm . . . confused right now."

"Indeed," Nicole said, but anything more was submerged behind honest concern at Eve's distress. "I'll run you home."

"I'll do it, Momma," Alexis offered.

"Not tonight," Nicole said. "You get ready for bed. We'll talk when I get back."

At her firm tone, Alexis just nodded. Looking at Eve she mouthed, "We'll talk." Eve shrugged and moved toward the door.

She didn't say anything on the short trip to her house, and neither did Nicole. It was only as Eve left the car that the looked at her friend's mother and said, "Thanks, Mrs. P. Thanks for giving me some space. I really appreciate it."

"You're welcome . . . Eve," Nicole said, then she softly added, "Be careful. You might be getting in deeper than you can handle."

"Yes, ma'am, you got that right," Eve agreed, smiling weakly. She turned and moved up quickly to her door, but before she got there it opened to show Sara's worried frown.

"Are you all right?" Sara asked.

"I wish I knew," Eve said tiredly. "But I can't talk about it right now, Momma. Okay? I'm not hurt or anything, just confused."

"Of course, dear. Let me help you get undressed."

"Thanks, but if you'll loosen my corset, I can get the rest," Eve said. Actually, since her breasts were glued on and her nails were . . . well, she didn't even know how to take them off . . . Eve just cleaned up her face, brushed her hair to get most of the lingering spray out of it, and put on a soft nightgown. It would be at least morning before Adam could return.

*********

The next morning - as had been happening so often lately - the world seemed to want Eve more than Adam. She still wore her breast forms, still had glamorous long nails, still needed to wash and condition her hair with more care than Adam had once required. Cleaning the rest of the previous night's styling out of her dark tresses was mindlessly relaxing and she let her hands do the work while her mind churned. She didn't want to let her hair air-dry because it would be all limp and shapeless, and she also didn't want to take the time to blow dry it over a styling brush, so in the end she decided just to section it over large rollers, something she could do automatically, and let it dry on its own.

A scarf knotted behind her neck provided a little window dressing over the hamster-run of hair control things, and with her hair in rollers and her shape still enhanced, it just seemed right to add a touch of makeup. Her beloved boots and low-rise jeans took care of half her dressing, while a long t-shirt covered the rest. At least, she thought it would, but her decision not to wear a corset made her artificial endowment wobble in ways that were so wildly inappropriate for an important talk with her mother that Eve grinned wryly at herself and added a bra.

She was sitting at the kitchen table, stirring more than eating her bran cereal, when Sara came in.

"Good morning, sweetheart," Sara said, fixing herself a cup of coffee.

"Morning, Momma," Eve replied. She quit pretending to eat and just let her spoon fill with skim milk as her mother sat at the table.

"Nice nails," Sara observed. "I've been thinking about having mine done. Are they a lot of bother?"

Eve looked at her hands as though they belonged to someone else, then shrugged. "Not really. At first, I felt really clumsy, but after a couple of hours I didn't notice them anymore."

"Did you have a good time?"

Eve looked out the window for a long moment, then murmured, "I wish I knew."

"You were very pretty when you came in last night," Sara said.

"Thanks," Eve said, absently smiling at the compliment.

"Were you attractive as well?"

"What?" Eve asked, looking sharply at her mother.

"Were you attractive as well?" Sara repeated patiently.

"What do you . . ," Eve started, but interrupted herself when she realized she already knew the answer.

It took another long moment of window-studying before she said, "Yes."

"And . . ?" Sara prodded.

Eve's eyes showed a complex combination of worry and wonder as she whispered, "And I had a good time."

Sara waited patiently. Eve didn't say any more, but her eyes continued to look at her mother with a half-pleading, half-afraid message of need. After a moment, Sara decided on a gambit to get her child to start talking.

"What's the difference between pretty and attractive?"

At first, Eve wasn't sure what to say. "Hmmm?" After a moment, she shrugged and words started coming out.

"I guess the simple version is that pretty is something that shows in a picture, but attractive is something that involves the whole person. Personality, gracefulness, style, wittiness, all that sort of thing."

Sara nodded, and again waited patiently.

"And I suppose," Eve continued, "attractiveness means you . . . attract someone. That you are found desirable by someone."

"Anyone in particular?" Sara asked, and her tone said that was an important question.

Eve looked sharply at her mother, recognizing in the tone that a careful answer was appropriate.

"Mick . . . desired me last night," she said.

"And . . ?" Sara prodded.

Eve dropped her eyes and whispered, "And Alexis."

"Were you attracted to either of them?"

"Oh, God, Momma, I don't know," Eve moaned, then the words started to flow out as quickly as she could form them. "Mick kissed me, and I let him, and I let him do it again, and - oh, God - I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the feeling that he wanted me, that he thought I was beautiful and said so and that he wanted to see me again. He's so big and strong and yet sweet and nice and he's smart, too. And I told him I'd like to see him again. But I've kissed Alexis, too, and that's just cosmic - like lightning bolts are zapping every nerve in my body, but in a good - a great! - way. And she told me she wanted me too, but I don't know if she wants me - the real me - or just Eve. And even though she said she wanted me, she seemed happy to be kissing Tom, but who am I to talk? That's the same time that Mick was kissing me, and oh, God, Momma, I don't know what it all means."

By the time she was done Eve was sobbing into her hands, gulping breath that wouldn't quite meet her desperate need.

Sara's arms wrapped around her child, stroking lightly on her back, squeezing with gentle strength as though it would somehow add strength to Eve. Eve turned to her mother, burying her face in Sara's thick robe. Her arms clutched at Sara's waist and she squeezed with strength of her own, as though in turn her need could pull her mother's loving support physically into her heart.

When Eve's breathing became adequate to support her tears quietly, Sara relaxed her embrace, then squeezed again to show she wasn't going away. "Let me ask you something, sweetheart. Suppose your fairy godmother blipped in, and offered to do her bippity-boppity thing and make you a real girl, always was, always will be, and by the way your period is in two weeks. Would you take her up on her offer?"

Eve pulled back, wiped at her cheeks, and looked at her mother. "I . . . . don't know." She thought for a bit more, then whispered, "When Mick was kissing me last night . . . I might have."

Sara nodded, non-judgmentally, just accepting the truth of Eve's answer. "Now suppose she offered instead to bop you into a tux, have Alexis standing in the next room in a wedding gown, and a minister ready for you to say the words. Would you take that offer?"

"No," Eve answered directly, then frowned at how quick she had answered.

Now that Eve had recovered some amount of emotional control, Sara gave her yet another squeeze, then sat back down at her place.

"So Mick . . . aroused you more than Alexis?" she asked.

"No!" Eve answered sharply. Then she blushed and repeated in a much softer voice, "No. I felt cherished and very, very desirable when Mick kissed me. But it didn't really, um, arouse me. Certainly nothing like kissing Alexis does."

She found something out the window totally fascinating again for a moment. Then she softly said, "Last night, in the restaurant, Alexis wanted us to play around at being sensual. She got us a dessert, and when she tasted it . . . well, it looked pretty intense. So I tried to do the same, and it's funny, but pretending the taste was an almost-sexual pleasure . . . sort of made it like, arousing. Just from chocolate."

She winced a bit at the next memory. "Then Alexis fed me a bite from her spoon, and I did the same, and we, um, focused on each other. Oh, God, Momma, that was just insane. She was so hot, and I felt so . . . alive, when I thought of her. When I thought of, y'know . . . being with her, though I was just swallowing a bit of chocolate and ice cream. It was unbelievable."

"But you wouldn't want to marry her," Sara said.

"No," Eve said. "She's not, um, ready for marriage. At least, not the sort of marriage I want. The forever kind, where there's nothing in life more important than your partner's happiness."

"She can be selfish," Sara agreed.

"Yes," Eve said flatly. "But she can be loving and tender as well, at least some of the time. But not . . . enough of the time."

“And Mick? Would you marry him, if you were, um, genetically a girl?” asked Sara.

“No,” Eve said, understanding and sharing her answer not quite as quickly as when asked about Alexis, but firmly certain when she did.

Sara nodded. She patted Eve's hand, then looked out the window for a while herself. "Your father taught me some things about sexuality. Some things that I should have seen for myself, but . . . denied, I guess."

Looking back at Eve, Sara said, "I'm not an expert, but I think the whole gay/straight thing is too rigid for some people. Maybe even for most people. Since you, um, embarked on your journey of discovery I've been doing a lot of research on the internet. They've done a lot of studies where they showed erotic pictures - some man-woman, some woman-woman, and some man-man - to men and women who declared themselves to be straight, or gay, or bisexual. What they found out amazed me. Even men and women who said they were totally straight - enough to be a majority of the whole test population - would sometimes get aroused by same-sex images. Some might have been gay and in denial, but I think what it means is that most people can get aroused by a lot of things. That sexuality is not as bi-polar as a lot of people want to think."

"I never understood, until I looked at some of that data, how your father could ever pretend to love me – and be undeniably aroused by me - if he were truly gay. Or if he were ever aroused by me, why he now wants to be with a man instead. But if . . . desire is variable and based in part on the situation, at least for a lot of people, then . . ."

Eve said, "Then the way to keep myself from being interested in guys is to quit pretending to be a girl."

"Maybe," Sara said gently, though she frowned and it was clear this was not the message she wanted Eve to take. "But maybe you shouldn't suppress that, um, aspect of yourself, either."

"So you think I'm . . ," Eve began, but she interrupted herself, “. . . what?"

"I'm saying that I think a person's sexuality is a lot more fluid than a lot of people want to admit. That it's no longer shocking to me to think that you might be aroused by a girl, and sometimes by a boy as well. Sometimes a situation can influence how your body responds." Sara took a deep breath and continued. "I know, because sometimes . . . I've felt the same way."

Eve had a lot of questions in her eyes at that revelation, but Sara moved on.

"And most of all, that you aren't forced to follow a single narrow path. You can choose who you want to be, and I will support you in whatever choice you make. That's the bottom line."

"Thank you, Momma," Eve said softly, rising from her seat to hug her mother.


Chapter 14 - "Girl Lessons"


Eve, along with Sara, truly did have an appointment to refine her presentation and appearance the next day. By prearrangement, they would visit Nicole in her home where she had photographic equipment to test color schemes and to show them how a particular smile or makeup style looked on camera, and with intense lighting. It was quite an education to see how mannerisms that looked energetic and vivacious in real life could look jerky on motion cameras, or unflattering in still shots.

Alexis met them at the door. Her glance quickly took in Eve’s unremarkable appearance, which was quite remarkable considering what anyone who knew her whole story would have thought. And even more so, after what Alexis knew had happened the night before.

"We need to talk," Alexis said as soon as they were in the door. She tried to pull Eve’s hand to get the dark-haired girl to follow her down the hall, but Nicole interrupted.

"Not now, Alexis," Nicole said firmly. "I know you want to talk, but I want to get started. There will be breaks later, and she'll talk when she's ready."

"Thank you," Eve said appreciatively, and with a bit of surprise. Sara nodded her thanks as well.

The first step in their lesson was one all four shared. They had received the "Timeless" cosmetics, and each had to find the right combinations of colors and how to apply them most effectively. In this, the teens helped Nicole as much as she helped them, particularly as Jo Southcliff had shown them some new and useful ideas. Then Nicole coached them in techniques compatible with her plan for the specific photoshoot, including the filters and tones of light she expected to use. That required some very different techniques then a normal public situation. It was quite a while before they even started with any photography. And when they did start, things did not go particularly well.

"Smooth, graceful, and slow," Nicole said, a repetition that was soon well into the double digits. She smiled at the frustrated look on both Sara and Eve, and leaned back from her camera. "Let’s take a break for a while. In fact, Eve, why don’t you and Alexis fix us some sort of snack?"

"Sure thing, Mrs. P," Eve said. But a worried look belied her light-hearted tone as the teens left the studio area.

Nicole called up some of the digital photos on her laptop after they were gone. "Eve is very pretty," she said.

"Yes, she is," Sara said with quiet pride.

Nicole called up multiple images and arrayed them on her computer. "She has this amused look, as though she has a secret she's not sharing. It adds a real air of mystery to her. And yet, she has a sense of delicacy . . . of vulnerability. It makes you want to take her in your arms and cuddle her and comfort her."

The elegant blonde looked at her girl-next-door brunette friend and said, "We know why both of those little mysteries are there, but for one who doesn't, she is just incredible."

Sara looked at Nicole as though she were waiting for the point. Nicole smiled and then looked away. After a long moment, she looked back at Sara and said, "You look enough like her to be twins, except in that little air of mystery. You have a serenity that I don't really remember in you before."

"Maybe not," Sara said. "I've been worried about Adam for quite a while. And I guess I was worried about myself as well . . . what I might have done to drive Adam's father away. In what way I had been found wanting. I was worried about Adam sliding into depression, but I might have been on that path myself."

"I know," Nicole said softly. "Believe me, I understand."

Sara smiled at her friend. "I think Eve - and you - have done a lot to show me that I'm still attractive. I'm more at peace with myself now than I've been . . . well, since my husband left."

"Oh, you're very attractive," Nicole said softly. Her eyes met Sara's, and they looked at each other for a timeless moment, but neither said anything.

Finally, Nicole shivered as though she were shrugging off a damp blanket, and busied herself for a moment flipping through images on her screen. She ended up with photos of Eve and Alexis.

"I'm jealous of you, you know," Nicole said.

"Jealous? Of me? Why in the world are you jealous of me?" Sara asked in surprise.

"Because you seem to have what I wanted for Alexis," Nicole explained. "Her boyfriend is not . . . good enough for her."

She stood from her computer and moved over to shuffle photographic equipment around meaninglessly. "I expect it's because I wanted someone different from her father, but what I imagined for Alexis was a totally masculine man - big, and strong, and smart, yet gentlemanly and polite. I've always pushed her into sports so that she could be part of that sort of group, and I let her date a boy who I'm sure is taking advantage of her, because he's an athlete."

She looked at Sara and said, "Eve's date - her very first date with a boy - was all that I wanted for Alexis."

Nicole's eyes started to shine. "It was hard for me to watch your child walk out the door, looking so beautiful, and with the boy on her arm that I wanted for Alexis."

She sagged onto a stool as though she were too tired to stand. She looked at Sara and said, "And I'm jealous of you. Of your relationship with your child, who clearly loves you and trusts you and wants nothing more in life than to make you happy. I used to think that there was something wrong with Adam for wanting to be Eve. I see now that there is something wonderfully right with your child for accepting no limits in pleasing you."

Sara stood and moved toward Nicole, but the blonde held up her hand. "Let me finish. Please." Nicole took a deep breath, and then blurted out, "And I'm jealous of your own beauty. Your poise and your inner peace make my ex-cheerleader looks seem so superficial and . . . cheap."

"Oh, God, Nicole, don't say that," Sara said, moving to hug the blonde woman. "You don't know how many times I've envied you. And while I'm impossibly proud of how close Adam and I have become, I don't think you have anything to worry about between you and Alexis. She smiles when you smile, and in the same way that you smile. She frowns whenever you frown, and you can see her determination to make the cause of your frown go away."

Sara pulled Nicole's chin to get their eyes to meet. "I know you argue sometimes, and hurt each other some times, but that's because you see the world through its reflection in each other. From the outside, it's you and her against the world, and nobody better mess with either of you."

"Thanks for saying that . . ," Nicole said, wiping at her cheeks.

"Only because it's true," Sara promised. She hugged Nicole once again, then stood back. "I suppose we should see what's keeping the girls."

"Oh, sure," Nicole said, but she smiled at Sara with gratitude . . . and perhaps something more.

********************

As soon as they were out of the studio area, Alexis had pulled Eve to a stop. "We need to talk."

"I know, Alli. It's not that I've been avoiding you. Your mother told us to wait."

"Well, I've waited. What did you and Mick do?"

"Wow, just get right to the point, why don't you?" Eve said, smiling. "Actually, there's nothing to tell. He kissed me. I let him. End of story."

"Hardly," Alexis said. "I saw that kiss. Any more intense and they'd have been sending the fire department."

Eve smiled, and pulled her friend toward the kitchen. "Actually, that's not true." The dark-haired girl's cheeks lit in a dark flush that showed even through the studio makeup, but she added softly, "Nothing like when you kissed me, at least."

"I'm glad to hear it," Alexis said, but she smiled as well. They reached the kitchen and started preparing little cheese-and-cracker snacks, plus sodas.

"Really, Eve, what was it like . . . kissing Mick?" Alexis asked.

"It was nice," Eve said thoughtfully. "He made me feel cherished, and protected, and desirable."

"But . . ?" Alexis prodded.

Eve's cheeks filled with heat again, but she paused and looked Alexis directly in the eye. "But he didn't, um, reach me like you do."

"Ooh, tell me more," Alexis said, softening as her own desirability was confirmed.

"Oh, Alli," Eve said. "I liked kissing Mick. Don't get me wrong. But it was like . . . an intellectual thing. Does that make sense?" She giggled, then continued. "Y'know, if you think about it, kissing doesn't like, make any sense. I mean, none of the naughty bits are really involved. It's erotic because we think of it as erotic. Because sharing air is a sort of life-giving intimacy, yet it's not like, . . . not something animals do. The pleasure comes from your mind."

She concentrated on pouring sodas without letting them overflow for a moment. Then she looked at Alexis again. "At some point, there is some sort of . . . spillover that I don't understand, but it becomes physically arousing as well. I really enjoyed the sense of being cherished that I got from Mick, but it didn't . . . spill over."

"And it does with me?" Alexis asked. She was pleading for praise, and Eve realized she was actually jealous of Eve for her captivation of the big college athlete. And maybe even feeling a bit inadequate, because Tom took her for granted in a way that Mick clearly hadn't done with Eve.

"Oh, yeah," Eve said softly. Alexis came to her and it was clear what she had in mind. For the second time in less than twelve hours Eve found herself trying to damp down a level of intimacy she didn't want, at least, not right then.

She moved to meet Alexis, but quickly captured her in an embrace that had her lips by the blonde's ear instead of joined with those Alexis offered. Eve whispered, "I'll never get enough of kissing you, Alli, but I'm still confused right now. It's clear you set my heart on fire, but . . . I need to know whether it's Eve or Adam that's responding."

She leaned back and looked into Alexis' eyes again. "And whether it's Eve or Adam that you want to kiss."

"Oh, God, Eve, how should I know? I just know I want you, whoever you are," Alexis said plaintively.

"Do you?" Eve asked gently, and Alexis could not meet the direct appraisal in her gaze. She dropped her eyes, looking away.

Eve smiled and stepped back. "We'll find out, Alli. I promise. But not today."

Alexis frowned, but after a moment she nodded. "What are you going to do tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow?"

"Are you going to school?"

"Well, yeah, I guess."

"You, um," Alexis said, hesitating for a moment, then grinning. "You might have a little problem in gym class."

"Ya' think?" Eve said, glad that her friend was allowing the tension to ease. Not that the new problem was a lot easier to address.

"I guess I'll have to do something with my nails," Eve said, looking at them.

"Yeah," Alexis said. "And that's a crime. They are so awesome!"

"I know," Eve said, giggling. "Mick couldn't take his eyes off my hands."

"Like hell," Alexis said, giggling herself. "Every time you breathed . . . he wasn't looking at your hands."

"Really?" Eve said, taking a deep breath and arching her back.

Alexis reached out to pinch one of Eve's advertisements, even though they both knew it wasn't real. Still, Eve bent back and dodged the blonde's fingers. "Naughty, naughty," she said. She used the excuse of picking up a tray to turn herself away.

"I'm more worried about my eyebrows," Eve said as they moved back toward the studio. "I guess I can file my nails down, but what am I gonna do about my eyes?"

"Not much," Alexis said. Then she got an idea. "Hey, maybe you could get some eyeglasses. Tell everyone that you lost a contact and are wearing glasses until you get new ones."

"I don't wear contacts," Eve said. "And I don't have any glasses."

"We can get you some . . . some sunglasses, maybe, that aren't tinted too darkly." Alexis grinned and poked an elbow at her friend. "Believe me, dudette, everyone will believe that Adam really wears glasses."

Eve blushed, but she nodded.

The girls told their mothers about the plan, and with their agreement the break ended up being the end of the session. Alexis and Eve went shopping and found something that would cover enough of Adam's brows to keep him out of trouble. At least, they hoped so.

It seemed to work, at least to the extent anyone paid any attention to Adam anyway. He attended school, and except for a few minor things at home (he didn't keep his hair in a ponytail and he'd always wear heels - often his boots), Adam remained Adam all week. In particular, as they had agreed, no makeup meant that it was Adam, not Eve, whom Sara saw.

He hoped that Alexis would react differently in school, and maybe she did. She still didn't welcome into her circle of friends, but she seemed to feel a bit more guilty at excluding him. Or at least, he hoped she felt that way. She'd frown and give him a helpless look when her friends pulled her after them.

He did have one small triumph, of a sort. In the 'imitation is the sincerest form of flattery' tradition, he smiled when Emily sported long, glamorous nails on Wednesday. It happened that she and the others of their little clique were standing not too far from his locker so he had an excuse to eavesdrop a little. ::No pun intended,:: he thought, a grin showing that no one else understood.

"Ohmigod, Em, those are fabulous," Annalee said. "Just like Eve had the other night."

"No they're not," Emily denied. "Hers were shorter. And the tips were that dull, off-white instead of bright white. See?" she said, waving her hands in the light.

"Besides," she continued. "I don't want to talk about that slut. She was cheap."

Adam bristled a little at that slam, but then he smiled another secret smile. His smile was reinforced when Alexis rose to Eve's defense. "She was nice," the tall blonde insisted. "I'm the one who talked her into playing that little game with the dessert. I told you that."

"Yeah, well, what she did wasn't playing," Emily insisted. "I half expected Nick to ask me to like, dye my hair or something. It was disgusting how she threw herself at the boys. She was totally after anything with a swinging dick."

"Oh, I don't think so," Alexis said, and she couldn't help but sneak a glance at Adam, to find a shared grin. ::After all,:: Alexis thought, :: she has one of her own, if she's that 'hard' up. Pun intended. I'll have to tell Adam . . . or Eve::

Despite her inner thoughts, Alexis didn't make any advances toward Adam. He couldn't tell if it were because she was only interested in Eve, or whether she was giving him time to make up his own mind about things. And Adam - back to being Adam, and falling into old habits - couldn't seem to initiate anything romantic with the tall teen-queen himself.

As the next few weeks came and ran away, the chance to get with Alexis seemed to recede further and further. They were nearing the end of the school year, and Alexis seemed to be focused on studying when she was with Adam. When Eve came back - on the weekends usually, for photos and for shopping as they all needed to get outfits for the contest - Alexis didn't offer anything more than a sisterly hug. And Eve wasn't going to make an advance until Alexis showed whether she liked Adam "in that way" as well.

Not that Adam, or Eve, told Alexis that. And so Alexis was waiting for either Adam or Eve to let her know that the time had come to explore their feelings again. And Adam was waiting for Alexis to show some interest in him instead of just in Eve. And nothing was resolved.

"Guess what, dear," Sara said as Adam came home one evening.

"Oh, lordy, the mind boggles," Adam said with a grin. "The sorts of things you've surprised me with this spring . . . well, the mind boggles."

"It's nothing like that," Sara said, then paused. "Well, actually, it might be."

Adam frowned at the implication in her words, but rather than saying anything more, she handed him a letter.

It said their portfolios had been accepted, and that they were invited to the next round of the Timeless contest. Details of what to bring, and what would be provided filled up a page or so, and then Adam got to the zinger in the letter.

"Ohmigod, it says we need to be there for a full week of appearances," he gasped, unconsciously slipping into Eve's tones. "So-called, 'Candid' filming for the reality show broadcast."

"Yes, it does," Sara said calmly.

"That means I have to be Eve for a solid week!"

"Yes, it does," Sara repeated with a perfectly matching tone.


Chapter 15 - "There Were Never Such Devoted Sisters"


The announcer's high-energy voice brought the murmuring crowd to attention. "Ladies and Gentlemen, I'm Duke Jason, and I'm pleased to welcome you to the third round of 'Sisters?' - the selection of models for the new Timeless cosmetics by Vivid! And you are the judge!"

He began what seemed like a casual stroll toward a table, behind which sat two people. "As you know, the contestants have already passed through one interview round and one photography round of competition using all professional judges. However, tonight our studio audience will have a vote equal to the professionals! And now, let's meet our professional judges. First, fashion photographer . . ."

Jason went through the people behind the table. There were a man and a woman. The woman was trim, stylish, and attractive enough to look good on TV, while the man obviously made his fame behind a camera rather than in front of it. They were legitimately professionals in the fashion or entertainment business, though not quite at the celebrity level, so the applause from the audience was polite but not overwhelming.

Backstage, things were a lot closer to overwhelming, though not because of applause.

"Ohmigod, Eve, you are so gorgeous!" gushed Ashley Peterson. "That color is totally perfect for you."

"Thank you," the dark-haired girl replied demurely, swishing the folds of her deep red dress. Shannon and I flipped a coin for who got the red one." Then she laughed and poked her friend in the arm. "Though when they get a look at you, no one is like, going to know I'm in the room."

"Hardly," Ashley demurred, but she flipped the rich folds of her own shimmering gown, letting the light bring out hues from almost black to deep indigo. "It's fun to dress up so elegantly, isn't it?" she asked, a smirk at the hidden context of her question lifting her carefully drawn lips.

"Yes," Eve replied directly. "I never would have believed how much fun this has been."

Eve walked over to Shannon with a glide she'd been practicing for interminable hours. Her senior partner had been through the same training, driven by their own sense of competitiveness and the firm instruction of Ashley's partner, Monica. As had Ashley and Monica themselves. That same expert instruction had taught them poses and expressions both subtle and obvious - intended to exaggerate certain features while never seeming to be exaggerating anything except their own natural beauty.

In Eve's case, her beauty was a bit less natural than one might think, though the net effect, natural or artificial, was quite remarkable. More remarkable than anyone else realized. That was what brought this moment so close to the overwhelming category.

While the younger partners were gushing over each other's gowns, the senior partners were sharing their own tension.

"Oh, God, Ni . . Monica, I can't believe we're doing this," Shannon whispered to her blonde friend. "I'm a middle-aged mother, for God's sake."

"So am I," Monica replied. "Or at least approaching middle age, but we don't look it!"

"Thanks to you," Shannon said, touching her friend's arm. "You've helped us so much."

"Helped, perhaps," Monica said, reaching up to put her hand over Shannon's, "but it's still you under the paint and perfume. You've come a long way . . . perhaps back to where you belonged."

Shannon looked thoughtful for a moment, and then nodded. "Yes, and thanks again for helping me see it."

"Thank you, too," Monica replied with a laugh. "Competition brings out the best in all of us."

"Ladies," the staff woman called. "Places, please."

The friends were quite surprised to have made it through not just one, but two rounds of the "Sisters?" contest, becoming one of the four pairs from their region who had been invited to Las Vegas for the television taping. The first rounds had taken long enough that they were through the school year and into their summer break - but it seemed like only moments. A part of Eve was still looking over her shoulder for someone to shout out her secret.

Actually, she would have had more trouble convincing someone of her secret than not, unless she used the obvious demonstration. Her eyebrows were delicate arches, her ears held dangling earrings, her scent was sweet and delicate, and her hair was soft and energetically waving unless it was pinned into formality, as it was for their entrance.

And the figure below her features, though still aided by an unrelenting corset, showed curves that were more than merely convincing. She hadn't bothered to check her weight for a while. The constant corseting and mutual commitment with Shannon to get trim for the contest had 'fixed' that problem long before. For the last week she had lived full time in her new persona with no one noticing anything but her shining beauty . . . and her sense of mystery.

Their music came up and the bevy of twinned beauties flowed out onto the stage, smiling careful smiles that left their eyes wide and inviting - never squinty despite the bright lights - as though they seemed full of careless joy.

Duke Jason was informing the audience of the rules for this stage of the contest. "At each of your seats is a keypad. As you observe our contestants, give them a score between one and ten, with ten being best - though of course our ladies are all tens, right? - on their beauty, on their poise, and on how photogenic you believe they are based not only on your own observations, but on the photos which are shown on the screens."

In a carefully rehearsed parade, the array of young women glided across the stage, then arranged themselves on tiers of low risers. In turn, each pair was called to do a catwalk stroll while the announcer told the audience a bit about them - or at least provided some of the information they had submitted, whether it was really about them or not - with the promised photos providing a glamorous backdrop on huge screens.

The women were all stunning. None who were merely pretty had survived the earlier elimination rounds. And the Vivid makeup really was good at enhancing that beauty even further, a fact the fashion photographers had exploited in a flattering set of images covering a variety of styles for each pair. If some of them were 'enhanced' in ways that only showed below the neck, Vivid Cosmetics didn't care. Body covering was not what they were selling. And so the photos, though not strictly limited to portrait shots, included clothing that allowed hidden “help” for any who felt the need. Shannon would never have agreed to join the contest if she would be expected to wear some skimpy bikini anyway. Knowing her partner would also be exempt from such revealing clothes had removed an even more impossible obstacle.

But Shannon walked proudly now, still wearing her own corset for similarity with Eve, but reveling in a sense of personal beauty that had been missing from her life for far too long. Eve flowed along in carefully rehearsed counterpoint to her partner, more amazed than pleased at her own beauty, but recognizing a distinct sense of pride nonetheless. And Eve was genuinely happy that Shannon felt so good about her newly recovered attractiveness.

Their joy showed during their turn on the catwalk, and the audience responded with more than polite applause. Someone, some young man, caught Eve's eye and without thinking about it she winked at him. He blushed, but the crowd loved it and hooted their support. The rush of applause carried them through the rest of their stroll, now bordering on strut, and they took their places back on the risers.

"Slut," the dark-blonde contestant next to Eve hissed, never losing her smile.

If she hoped to make the beautiful brunette cower in shame, her wishes were not realized. Instead, Eve arched her back and slid her hips out just far enough to send a ripple through her flowing gown. It had the effect of emphasizing her more-than-average bosom, a feature the hissing blonde could not hope to match.

"Showoff," Shannon whispered, but she matched her pose to that of her partner, showing that they matched in other ways as well.

"Tramp," Monica hissed from the other side, but her smile was genuine.

"You're just jealous," Shannon hissed back, trying to keep her smile from breaking into a real laugh.

::It's a good thing this isn't a real beauty contest,:: Eve mused to herself. ::All this whispering would probably get us thrown out.::

As though in answer to her unspoken thought, they were all escorted off the stage to the sound of the announcer explaining yet another factor of the contest.

"While the referee is totaling up everyone's modeling score, we're going to ask each contestant in turn a few questions. They do not need to answer truthfully," he declared with a grin. "On the basis of the contestants' response to these questions, the judges - including, you, the audience - will try to identify their real relationship. We're trying to find out who are the sisters, and who are the mother-daughter pairs. If the majority of judges get it right, then the contestants - no matter how beautiful - are out. Oh, and we have a category for 'Other' just to stack the odds a little more in favor of the contestants . . . and to have a place for cousins or something like that."

"So, with no further yammering from the man with the microphone . . ," the host said with a self-deprecating grin, "let's have our first contestants."

The audience didn't know, and the contestants weren't officially informed, but the order in which the pairs were called out corresponded to their standings in the beauty contest. The production company wanted the responses to the most likely winners to be fresh and enthusiastic. It was only if the early ones were too easily picked as real sisters or mother-daughter pairs - and therefore eliminated - that the later ones had any chance. All would be called just in case a later pair had some particularly cute answers to the questions which could be shown on the TV special, but once again only four pairs would go forward to the finals. Four pairs out of 20 beautiful young women.

There was just enough time for the contestants to change from the formal gowns into whatever they chose to wear for the interview. None would pass up the chance to change their outfits, though some chose another elegant gown while others went all the way to girl-next-door cute with jeans and a crop-top. If the contest rules were followed, pretty clothes were no longer a factor. What mattered was disguising the real relationship between the partners.

The first pair called out included an absolute heart-breaker of a redhead whose impossibly full cascade of hair tumbled to her waist when she let it down. Her partner was an equally beautiful brunette, though with more conventional bra-length tresses. Most of the pairs - however artificially - had nearly matching hair styles and color, but these two had unabashedly celebrated their difference. It might have suggested a more distant relationship, but their voices were astoundingly similar. There was no way anyone could tell them apart over the phone, or even over pretty good quality studio sound systems. They chose to dress in youthful styles, very short skirts and cami tops, making them both look too young to have children of their own.

Monica and Ashley had gone for club clothes, glittery tight minis and impossibly tall heels. They tugged and twitched at their inadequate hemlines while they waited anxiously to be called.

Eve wandered over to talk with her blonde friend. "So, what would you call the first pair?"

"Bitches," Ashley said snippily, then giggled.

Eve's face flushed, then she giggled, too. "No, really. Do you think they're sisters?"

Ashley frowned, then smiled and hugged her friend. "Thanks for trying to distract me. Let's see . . . well, they've made it through the first interview round, so the obvious answers are likely wrong. I guess for this round I'd say 'Other' for just about everyone."

Eve gasped, then pouted. "Do you really think so?"

"No, ditz," Ashley said with a grin. "But I do think they're an 'Other' pair. I think they worked on their voice to compensate for the fact they don't really look that much like sisters, but I think they're about the same age."

"I hope you're right," Eve said. "And I hope others see it the same way. If they don't get eliminated we'll never have a chance."

"Oops, looks like you will, at least," Eve contradicted herself, pointing at Monica who was frantically waving for her partner to come forward.

Duke Jason welcomed the blonde pair onto the stage, smiling and taking advantage of the opportunity to give each a quick kiss on the cheek.

"Ladies," he began, "we're going to assume for the moment that you are sisters, not a mother and daughter. Okay?"

As expected, they nodded, so he continued, "Monica, describe for me your sister's perfect boyfriend."

One of Monica's carefully shaped eyebrows rose, then she smiled and looked at Ashley. Putting a Valley Girl lilt into her voice, she said, "Well, he'd be like, totally scrumptious, y'know, and like, totally cool." Then she laughed and added, in a normal voice, "And he'd have to be tall. Ashley is pretty athletic, so I'm thinking, oh, the quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys would be about right."

The audience laughed, and Jason nodded at her witty response. Turning to Ashley he said, "Tell us about your siblings."

"I'm an onl . . . oops," Ashley said. "Ohmigod, I mean, Monica is like, smart and really artistic. And has great taste, y'know. And she's gorgeous, don't you think?"

Turning the question back to the announcer to cover her fumbling didn't keep the audience from laughing at her distress, but it did give Jason an excuse to move on to the next part of the show. "Okay, audience, you've had a chance to meet these two contestants. You now have until the light on the display turns red to enter your vote for Sisters, Mother-Daughter, or Other."

He escorted the two young women over to the judges table, then looked at the referee across the stage. When he received an ostentatious thumbs-up to show that the audience vote had been entered, Jason looked to the first professional judge.

"So, Jordan Ames, are these young ladies really sisters?"

Ames was a fashion consultant to several Hollywood stars, and her own best advertisement. She was stylishly elegant, glittering in a combination of sequined dress and bolero jacket. She turned a practiced smile on the two beautiful blondes and said, "Yes."

"That's pretty confident," Jason replied. "What makes you so sure?"

"I'm afraid Ashley's slip was pretty hard to miss," Ames replied. "Too hard, in fact. It was practiced. I think someone gave them the questions ahead of time."

The audience oohed at this suggestion of cheating, then laughed at Jason's response. "That would be kinda hard, since I only made up the questions five minutes ago."

He mugged to the audience and then looked at the beautiful blonde contestants, working his eyebrows in a comic leer. "Not that I would turn down a little bribery to reveal my secrets . . ."

But then he sighed and said. "Unfortunately, I've been on stage the whole time, so I'm afraid they couldn't possibly have known what I'd ask."

The audience laughed, then murmured again, wondering if their own response would turn out to be right after all. Duke Jason played to the audience with practiced ease. Looking at the referee, he called out, "Tell us, Mr. Referee: How did the audience vote?"

On the screen behind the announcer a table appeared. On it, 'Mother-Daughter' showed just over 60% of the vote, with 'Other' claiming most of the rest.

"Well, that's interesting," Jason said. Turning again to the last judge, a fashion photographer more noted for the clothing his models did not wear, than what they did, he said, "It looks like you're our deciding vote, Tom. If you voted for Mother-Daughter, and you're right, then these pretty ladies are eliminated. Or if you voted for Sisters, and are right, of course."

Tom Weathers, the final judge, was a bit more than portly, with a straggly ponytail that didn't really work. It was a good thing he made his living behind the camera. He milked his moment in the limelight. "Well, Duke, it's a tough choice. But what I kept remembering is that these two have already made it through another interview round. Any obvious answer would have been tried, and been wrong."

A murmur of interest rose from the audience at his logic, wondering once again if they had made a correct choice.

He continued, "But these young ladies also know this." Looking at Ashley, he said, "So just how smart are you? Are you a ditz who let it slip that you're an only child, or are you slick enough to use that misdirection deliberately? So that we would think you were not sisters, when you are? Hmmm?"

Leaning forward in his chair, he grinned with triumph. "Or are you trying to play this even deeper? Are you thinking we'll see the ploy as a too-obvious attempt to make us believe you're playing a game, to cover the fact you really are an only child?"

"I'm getting dizzy here, Tom," Jason complained. "What's your vote?"

The audience seemed to hold its breath as Weathers looked back and forth between Monica and Ashley.

"I choose Mother-Daughter," he said at last.

Before anyone could look his way, the referee has pushed the button that set off a flashing display on the big screens. A display that said, "Correct!!"

"You judges are just too good," Jason said. "We won't have any contestants left to go forward."

If he expected the blonde pair to give him some emotional outburst at being eliminated, he was more disappointed than they seemed to be. Ashley hugged Monica with genuine warmth, and smiled at the announcer.

"We totally didn't expect to get this far, and I'm very proud of my mother. How many young women have such a beautiful - and young-looking - mom? We're going to have so much fun together now that we know we can pretend to be sisters!"

"That's very gracious of you," Jason said. "And you, Mom, do you have anything to add?"

"Just that I'm very proud of my daughter, too. Thank you for giving us this wonderful opportunity."

Duke Jason's smile seemed genuine, at least from the distance of the nearest camera. But Monica/Nicole saw a tightening in his eyes that said he was not going to spend any more time on losers - particularly losers who did not have the sense to get all blubbery and emotional for the TV audience. She smiled again and looked for their escort, Ashley/Alexis following with her own easy smile to the sounds of very appreciative applause.

Alexis lost her smile as soon as they were backstage. "Oh, God, Momma, I so totally screwed up!"

"No you didn't honey. It was a good try."

"But that's just it, Momma, it wasn't a try at all. I just like, forgot, and blurted out . . . what I said," Alexis cried, tears running down her cheeks.

Eve hurried over to console her friend, taking the taller girl in her arms. "It's okay, Allie. We didn't expect to make it this far anyway."

"That's what I said," Alexis said. "But . . ."

"But you know you were pretty enough . . . both of you . . . to be models. Totally. This stupid Mother-Daughter thing is silly anyway."

"Thanks, Eve, but . . ."

"But nothin', Stretch," Eve said, rising up even higher than her heels required so that she could kiss the blonde's cheek. "You done good. And you still get some killer consolation prizes."

"Yeah," Alexis said, trying to smile.

Then the staff assistant was calling more names and it was the brunette pair's turn to quell butterfly-stomp tremors. Shannon and Eve had chosen another fashion path, dressing as young professionals in pin-striped skirt-suits and pumps just as they had for their first interview. After all, that had worked. They had let their hair down though, leaving the impression of secretaries who were executive wannabes rather than real professionals. Or just about right for high-end real estate agents, which Shannon claimed to be. The outfits were still trimly tailored and flattering to their shapes, however enhanced, and the audience cheered appreciatively as they walked across the stage. Eve in particular had become a crowd favorite, and she waved with apparent shyness at the shadowed place where her new 'boyfriend' had been sitting.

Duke Jason went through a few bland jokes to settle the pair down, then got to the first question. "Eve, tell us about your sister's perfect date."

Eve smiled for just a moment, allowing herself the time to compose a witty reply. "He'd need to be someone who knew how to act like a gentleman . . . and knew when not to."

She waited for the audience titter to die down and continued. "And Shannon's perfect date would be so gorgeous it hurt, because, well, look at her!"

This roused another agreeing cheer from the audience. It ran long enough that the MC decided to move on to the next question. He smiled at Eve then turned to Shannon. "Well, it appears she thinks highly of you, which I can certainly understand. So, tell us about your sibling."

Shannon smiled in her turn, then reached out to touch Eve's elbow. "Eve is by far the smartest person I know, and despite the temporary and wonderfully flattering attention we're receiving right now, I expect she truly will become famous someday. And not just for her beauty. She's going to be a writer, and shows a sense of commitment to understanding people - to seeing and understanding things through different perspectives - that amazes me."

"Wow," Duke Jason said when she finished. "Sounds like you guys have a pretty tight family."

"Yes," Eve said, reaching out to take her partner's hand. "We're close." Then she smiled at the audience and said, "As long as she doesn't come between me and my boyfriends!"

That lightened the mood and triggered another round of laughter and applause from the audience. Jason looked at Eve with a small smile of gratitude, then moved on to the critical moment of the contest. He called for the audience to make their votes, then walked over to the judges. When the referee indicated the audience vote was in, he started this time with Weathers, and the portly judge milked his moment in the limelight.

First, by doing nothing. He just sat there for a moment, an amused smile on his face. Finally he said, "I just keep reminding myself that you have passed an interview round in this contest already. You are so obviously sisters that it seems like a non-decision. Except here you are. So I've decided to go with my least-likely choice: Mother-Daughter."

The audience groaned, but they applauded this logic, prompting Jason to ask that their vote be revealed. It showed that while they appreciated the judge's thoughts, they didn't agree. The audience had voted overwhelmingly for Sisters.

"Jordan?" Jason asked, offering the next judge a chance to make an input. "It looks like you're our decider for this pair."

Ames took her own moment in the limelight to look at the pair. "Tom is right. I can't believe they're anything but sisters . . . but then they can't be sisters or they'd have been eliminated already."

The audience murmured its agreement with this logic, waiting for her vote. She raised a new problem, though. "On the other hand, to be eliminated, we judges need two out of three correct votes, and we've already had a split. If I go for "Other" then they're automatically going to the next round."

The audience cheered at this announcement, for all that it meant their own vote was likely to be irrelevant. She smiled and said, "And if I'd have waited until now to make up my mind, I might choose Other on that basis alone." She spoke to the contestants. "You are both truly beautiful, and I'm sure you would be wonderful models for the Timeless line of cosmetics. But I decided before I saw the other votes, just as the audience had to do," Ames concluded, looking back at the audience. "My vote is 'Mother-Daughter.'"

Duke Jason looked in anticipation at the referee. "So, we have two votes for Mother-Daughter, and one for Sisters. Are the judges correct and they're the Mother-Daughter pair we hoped to find –though not so soon - or are they going to the next round?"

The referee paused, ostentatiously raised his hand poised over his control panel, then quickly dropped it to flick a switch.

The display board lit up with an explosion of electronic fireworks, surrounding a flashing "Incorrect." This announcement triggered a thunderous applause from the audience, and shocked screams from Shannon and Eve, who clutched each other even as they bounced with excitement. They had made it to the next round!


Chapter 16 - "Party Time"


Shannon and Eve were met by their blonde friends as they exited the stage. Ashley - now Alexis again - hugged Eve and squealed happily, "Ohmigod, you did it!"

"I can't believe it," Eve said in a daze. "I just can't believe it."

"Neither can I," Shannon said. Nicole had offered her a congratulatory hug as well, and Shannon was carefully not noticing that Nicole was not in any hurry to end the embrace.

"So, what are you waiting for?" Nicole asked as she finally stepped back. "Get changed."

"Changed?" Shannon asked.

"For the party, ditz," Nicole said with a grin. "Jeez, you two shoulda been the blondes."

"Party?" Eve asked in turn, looking suspiciously at Alexis.

"Don't ask me," Alexis protested, then turned to Nicole. "Mother?"

"To celebrate!" Nicole said. "We can't just go home after you made the finals. So get your club clothes on, we're taking you out for dinner and dancing! First two to snag hunky boys get the rooms and the others will drown our sorrows."

"Mother!" Alexis said in shock, then giggled.

"Oh, I couldn't . . ." Eve said softly, then her own cheeks lit with a fire that threatened to burn her warpaint away as she realized her protest sounded unconvincing.

"Why not?" Nicole demanded. "You look fabulous, and we're in Vegas. What happens in Vegas . . ."

Eve's blush became even more intense, if that were possible, and she ducked her head too quickly to see a pensive look on her partner's face.

"Stays in Vegas?" Sara completed the comment, and it was definitely Sara, with a mother's responsibility in her voice. "I don't think so."

"Oh, hell, Sara, I was just kidding about the boys," Nicole insisted. "But truly, let us take you out to a nice dinner - a last chance for us to be girls together before we lose our glass slippers. I'm genuinely proud that a lot of people think I'm young enough to be in the same age range as Eve and Alexis. I guess I want one last chance to bask in that reflected youthfulness."

Nicole had made going out a favor for a friend, but Sara frowned and looked at Eve. Eve was just looking patiently at Sara, not making the decision for her partner and friend. After a second Sara smiled at her daughter - more in appreciation for Eve's acceptance of whatever she might choose than in agreement with Nicole - but that was all it took. Suddenly the issue was not whether they would go, but where, and above all, what they would wear.

Though even that was obvious, because neither Alexis nor Nicole had changed from their interview outfits, which were glittery club dresses that made it clear what sort of party they wanted.

Sara and Eve had their own sparkly nightlife outfits, though they had chosen not to wear them for the interview segment. In fact, Vivid cosmetics had provided all the semi-final contestants with a range of clothing for the supposedly candid shots that had accompanied the contest round, though none of them had actually had enough time for any real bar-hopping since they had arrived in Vegas. A bit of added glam to Sara and Eve's makeup, incorporation of a carefully-tousled updo into their hair, and the brunette pair was clearly as ready to party as the blondes. Or at least they looked that way.

Their first stop was for dinner, and Nicole had arranged reservations at a trendy new restaurant in the Luxor. The four beautiful women had no sooner taken their seats when a waiter appeared - not to take their order, but to fill one.

"From the gentleman at the bar," he said with a rueful grin, placing champagne in front of each of them.

Nicole's laugh caroled out with genuine pleasure. Until she saw the 'gentleman' in question. Then her smile changed to something not as pleasant. She turned back in disgust, but then she sighed and lifted her glass. "To equality of the sexes . . . which won't happen until a woman can be forty, bald, and pot-bellied - and still think she's sexy."

"I'll drink to that," Alexis said brightly, picking up her own champagne. Her mother looked at her for a moment, then shrugged. "For tonight, I'm not your mother. I'm just Nicole."

Eve's eyes met Sara's, to find a gentle smile. "Okay, dear, for tonight, we'll be what our contest information says we are . . . but don't abuse the privilege."

"Thank you," Eve's full lips whispered, then she took a careful sip of the bubbly wine.

She pulled back in surprise. "It tickles my nose!"

The silver of Nicole's laughter sounded again, this time joined by Sara.

"Imagine that," Sara said dryly. "I don't suppose anyone has ever noticed before."

"Oh, M . . . Sara," Eve said. "Give me a break."

Alexis had managed to contain her own surprise at the effect of the bubbles, but she did make another observation. "It's . . . subtle. It doesn't taste like there's much alcohol, but I can feel the warmth once it's in my, um . . ."

Alexis interrupted herself when she saw how Nicole's eyes narrowed at the knowledge of drinking implied by Alexis' comment. Sara came to her aid with a caution delivered while looking at Eve, but it applied to Alexis as well.

"It is sneaky," she agreed. "You need to be careful, because you won't feel like you've been drinking much, then all the sudden you'll be decidedly tipsy."

"Sounds like fun!" Alexis said, unrepentantly taking another sip. Then, to her dismay, she hiccupped.

And then she did it again.

Her cheeks flared with mortification, but the other girls laughed without any sympathy at all. Though at least Eve was very careful to sip lightly at her cocktail, if only to prevent a similar embarrassment.

Eve and Sara wore their familiar-enough-to-be-comforting corsets, so they couldn't have eaten much even if their excitement let them. And Nicole had always been careful about her eating. Only the athletic Alexis could have done justice to a large meal, but she contented herself with a fairly complex chef's salad. Their obvious disdain for their original benefactor seemed to have prevented any repeat offers from him, but the waiter brought another round of champagne anyway, this time from someone 'who chooses to remain anonymous.' Eve and Alexis sipped at their second cocktails, but a stern glance from Sara kept Eve from finishing hers, and Alexis decided not to push her own privileges for the night, either. Sara nodded approvingly, and along with Nicole, only finished her own champagne as they were ready to leave.

Once again the evening festivities were pre-arranged by Nicole. She looked a little embarrassed as they rode in the cab to the next spot in their itinerary. As they pulled up, Nicole held the others back with her hand before they exited the taxi.

"I need to explain something," she said. "I truly was just kidding about picking up some boys tonight."

"I should hope so," Sara said, but her smile made it clear she had known that.

"Well, just so you know," Nicole said, "I, um, didn't even want to take the chance on that, so this place is, um . . ."

No one said anything for a moment. Nicole continued to look embarrassed, and the others were just confused. Then Alexis giggled as she 'got it.' "Ohmigod, Mother!"

Eve caught on next, and had a sudden coughing fit.

Sara didn't think anything was particularly funny, especially since she seemed to be the only one that didn't get the joke. But the others were now pouring out of the cab and headed for the surprisingly tall Amazon controlling the door to the nightclub Nicole had selected.

It didn't take Sara long to get the joke once they were inside. There were no men in sight. Not the bouncers. Not the bartenders. None.

"Nicole, I don't think . . ," Sara began.

"Please?" Nicole said softly. "Let's just have a good time, and don't worry about anything else. After all, what happens in Vegas . . ."

"It's okay, Sara," Eve said. "It might even be better. I mean, nothing's gonna happen, right?"

Alexis smiled and hugged her own partner. "Good for you, Nicole. Let yourself go."

It was clear from the clientele that this was club was favored by those who prefer pretty partners. Everyone was quite attractive, with a glittery edge that would have been rather tacky anywhere but Vegas. Nicole, Sara, and the others looked quite elegant despite the flashiness of their own tight dresses and towering heels.

They were escorted to a nice table by a buxom French Maid - complete with seamed fishnets and ruffled panties - who informed them in a charmingly fake accent that her name was Suzette. She curtseyed demurely, or at least pretended to, though the cleavage she displayed was anything but demure. One was led to the idea that at some point she expected dollars to fill the canyon she offered.

"Champagne, all around," Nicole announced. She slid gracefully onto a chair and put her little purse on the table. "Sit, ladies. The night is young and you are beautiful."

In this club, unlike the restaurant, women in even numbered groups were not assumed to be in need of escorts so they had to pay for their own drinks. Nicole airily waved a credit card at Suzette and then took a healthy sip of her drink. She looked around the room, and started to move her shoulders in time to the music.

"Geez, M . . . Nicole, I didn't know you were such a party girl," Alexis said, trying to laugh but clearly a bit uncomfortable.

Nicole shrugged. "A few weeks ago - okay, months - I was a middle-aged mother contemplating my downward path to oblivion. Now I'm an almost-model in the prime of my beauty. We didn't lose because we - and that includes me - weren't pretty enough. I'm . . . excited about feeling attractive again. Okay?"

"Um, sure," Alexis said.

Nicole finished her champagne and ordered another round. None of the others had done more than sip at theirs, but despite an exchange of shared glances at Nicole's exuberance, no one said anything.

That silence was a problem, at least as far as Nicole was concerned. She looked at Sara and said, "This supposed to be a party! These guys are no fun. Let's dance."

Pulling the dark-haired woman to her feet, Nicole led her to the dance floor. Sara frowned, but she didn't fight back. After looking at Eve to find amused approval in the younger brunette's eyes, Sara's frown changed to a not-entirely-convincing smile and she started to move to the music along with Nicole.

"I don't know what's gotten into Mother," Alexis said apologetically to Eve.

"I think she's scared," Eve said. "She's afraid of getting old and becoming unattractive. So she's trying to pretend she's still barely out of college - like we claimed for the contest. I think it bothered her a lot that we made it past this round and you didn't."

"But that was my fault," Alexis said. "It didn't have anything to do with her, and it was about whether we were sisters, not how pretty she is."

"I know that," Eve said. "And she probably does, too, at least in her head. But in her heart, she knows that in the end she didn't really pass as your sister."

"But that's my fault!" Alexis repeated, eyes starting to glisten as she looked at her mother cavorting on the dance floor.

"Oh, hell, don't worry about fault," Eve said, a bit of Adam's tones returning to her voice. "Let her have her evening of dreams. What will it hurt?"

Eve picked up her fresh champagne and poured most of it into Nicole's glass. Then she looked at Alexis and grinned. "Wanna dance?"

Alexis grinned at her friend and nodded. They joined their companions on the dance floor, and started moving to the music. After a moment, Alexis caught Eve's eye and winked, then began a much faster series of moves that caught a higher rhythm in the driving beat. Eve tried to keep up with her, but it was soon obvious that she couldn't sustain the energy of the blonde athlete, particularly when bound in her waist-containing corset.

Thankfully, the DJ chose that moment to change to a slower paced song. Nicole and Sara left the dance floor, but Alexis made an invitation to Eve with a wryly lifted eyebrow, and then held out her hands with an even more explicit offer. Eve blushed, but she smiled and lifted her own hands. Somehow, Eve's arms ended up around Alexis' neck, while Alexis held Eve's trim waist, and began a confident, easy-to-follow lead.

They swayed to the softer music for a while, neither really paying attention to the way their bodies moved gradually closer to each other, until Eve felt she was looking cross-eyed at her tall friend. She laid her head on Alexis' shoulder as they continued to dance.

Nicole finished her cocktail and looked around for Suzette. While she was waiting for the waitress, she prodded Sara and pointed out the nestled pair. "They look good together."

"Yes, they do," Sara said quietly, though her eyes showed more concern than appreciation.

"So did we," Nicole said softly, looking at Sara like she was half afraid of what the dark-haired woman would say.

Sara didn't reply for a long moment, covering her pause by appearing to study the younger pair. Finally she looked at Nicole and nodded. "Yes, we did."

"You look so much like Eve," Nicole sighed. "You really could be her sister."

"You and Alexis look just as good," protested Sara, prompting a snort of disagreement from Nicole.

"You know what I'm gonna do?" Nicole said, eyeing the untouched champagne at the other places on their table. "I’m gonna get nicely sloshed tonight. You can join me if you want."

She switched her empty glass for a full one already on the table. Sara took a polite sip of her own bubbly wine and smiled indulgently at Nicole. But there was a wary look behind her eyes, and she waved off Suzette who was finally approaching.

The DJ stayed with a ballroom sound, but picked up the tempo with something a bit too lively for a simple sway. Alexis laughed loud enough for them to hear, and she changed her hands to a traditional ballroom pose, though it was her left hand that captured Eve's right, and her right remained on the dark-haired girl's waist. She began a more active lead, demonstrating a sure command of the mechanics of the dance.

"Alexis has had lessons," Sara observed.

"Oh, yeah," Nicole said. "Well, actually, I had the lessons, and I just showed her. Y'never know when someone is going to want to take you dancing."

The blonde woman's eyes dimmed and she sighed. "Not that anyone wants to dance with me anymore."

"I'll dance with you, Nicole," Sara said with a gentle smile. "But I haven't done it for a long time."

"That's okay," Nicole said, swallowing the last of her drink. "I'll lead."

Nicole was, as always, quite competitive. Almost as soon as she and Sara started dancing, Nicole was guiding Sara through a twirl under her arm and back again, prompting a giggle of joy from Sara. Alexis had not become a star athlete without her own competitive streak, so it wasn't long before Eve found herself twirling in increasingly showy movements. It became a game of anything-you-can-do where Nicole tried increasingly tricky steps and Alexis matched her, using Eve as her compliant foil. With a flourish both no doubt expected to be unique, but was so nearly simultaneous it looked practiced, Nicole and Alexis each bent their partner back in a deep dip just as the song came to an end.

"Oh, god," Sara and Eve moaned in their own unplanned unison. Then they were lifted back to their heels to the applause of the others in the club.

As a reward for their energetic display, the DJ switched back to a much slower and more intimate number. It didn't seem like there was any decision to be made as Alexis once again wrapped her arms around Eve's waist. Eve's arms made their way around her the tall blonde's neck just as naturally. It was just assumed by both of them without thought. Sara's response was not as automatic, but she didn't complain when Nicole's arms found her own waist and they continued to dance.

"Do you think I'm pretty?" Nicole asked suddenly, but quietly, murmuring for Sara's ears alone.

"What? Sure," Sara answered. "Everyone thinks you're beautiful." She tried to make it a light-hearted comment by adding, "Even the professional judges thought you were beautiful. You scored higher than we did."

"No," Nicole said. "I mean do you, Sara Cristie, think that Nicole Pierce is pretty. Not somebody else. You."

Sara looked into Nicole's eyes to find an unhidden need for reinforcement. She spoke softly, but surely. "Yes, Nicole. I truly think you're pretty."

Now Nicole's voice dropped to barely a whisper. "Do you think I'm still attractive?"

Before Sara could answer, Nicole provided her own response. "Nobody else does, either."

Nicole dropped her arms from Sara and turned back to their table. She picked a random champagne flute and took a large swallow of the wine before slumping into her seat.

"Nicole, I think you're very attractive," Sara said as she joined her friend.

"Then why don't you ever do anything about it?" Nicole whispered.

Sara smiled gently, then gathered up the younger pair with a glance. "C'mon girls," she said. "It's time to go."

Nicole shrugged and downed the last of her champagne before gathering up her purse. She walked toward the exit with deliberate exaggeration of her hips, looking back over her shoulder with a smoldering invitation. Sara just continued her gentle smile, which caused Nicole's eyes to mist over and her walk to become as stiff as her spindly heels would allow.

There were several taxis outside the club, and the doorwoman was happy to signal one for the gorgeous quartet. Just as the cabdriver was happy to have them as a fare. Nicole was not happy, though. As soon as she slid into the cab she leaned her head on the far window and just looked outside. Her eyes glistened with denied emotion, but the reflection in the window revealed her distress. The other girls were quiet, giving the driver their hotel and sitting uncomfortably while they rode.

When they got to the hotel, they found out that Nicole's tears were not all due to sadness. In fact, the shine in her eyes wasn't entirely due to tears. It took only a moment when they tried to get her out of the cab to realize that she had finally succumbed to the champagne. Her eyes were more glassy with confusion than sad.

"C'mon, Nicole," Sara said patiently. "We need to get you upstairs."

"Need loss 'a thingssss," Nicole sighed, but she let herself be led to the elevators. She managed her stiletto heels quite well considering her state, but that skill was ingrained below the conscious level.

When they got to their rooms, Alexis tried to take over the task of guiding Nicole through the door, but Sara held her back. "I'll take care of her," Sara said. "You two go into the next room."

She twitched when she realized what she had invited -actually ordered - them to do, but she grimaced and just reinforced the directive with a glance. Her eyes warned Eve to be good, but at some level she seemed resigned to the fact they would make their own decisions. The younger girls had behaved so maturely all evening, and in fact during the contest as well, that she realized they were grown up enough to make their own decisions whether she wanted them to or not.

Alexis looked like she wanted to argue, but after a moment's frown, she shrugged. "Let me know if you need any help."

"I will, dear, and thank you. But I think she'd prefer to retain her dignity, at least with her own daughter. And I'm afraid what we have to do from here won't be terribly dignified."

Alexis blushed, and looked at her dazed mother with some concern, but then a little grin twitched the corners of her lips. "Well, at least the next time I get in trouble, I'll have some ammunition for my defense."

Eve snickered at that, then tried to look demure when Sara frowned at her. Their silent discussion was interrupted by a particularly unladylike belch from Nicole. "Oops. 'Scuze me," she added with an unfocused smile.

Sara shrugged and helped Nicole through the doorway. A moment later, Alexis and Eve found themselves standing alone in the hallway. Eve blushed, but Alexis smiled and moved to her own door.

"Won't you come into my boudoir . . .?"

Eve's blush gave way to an easier grin as she finished the line, " . . . said the spider to the helpless little innocent fly."

"Innocent, maybe," Alexis said, twirling an imaginary moustache. "But we can fix that."


Chapter 17 - "Patience"


"Could you help me with these buttons, Alli?" Eve asked casually, lifting her hair and turning to allow Alexis access to the back of her neck where the halter top fastened.

"Sure," Alexis said, stepping closer. Despite her showy nails, she managed to undo the little fasteners holding up Eve's dress. However, when they were loose, she didn't step back. Instead, her arms slid around Eve's waist and she leaned down to kiss the back of the dark-haired girl's neck.

Eve giggled, but slithered away. "Naughty, naughty," she said lightly, waving one of her own long-nailed fingers at Alexis while she used the other hand to hold up the front of her dress modestly.

Alexis sighed. "Don't be that way, Eve. I've wanted to get you alone for so long. Don't tease me now."

"Moi, tease?" Eve asked with a laugh. Then her wide, innocent eyes relaxed into a less artificial expression. "I've wanted you, too, Alli."

When Alexis stepped closer, Eve stepped back to maintain their separation. Sadness showed in the brunette's dark blue eyes as she sighed in turn. "But you haven't really wanted me," she declared.

"What? Of course I want you," Alexis said. "God, Eve, when we kiss . . ."

"There's more to love than kissing, Alli," Eve said softly.

"Totally," Alexis agreed enthusiastically, taking another step forward, "and with our mothers, like, occupied, I'll finally get a chance to show you. It's like you've been avoiding me or at least, avoiding any chance to be alone with me."

"I have been," Eve said quietly, taking her own step back.

"What are you trying to say?" Alexis asked in confusion. "Don't you like girls any more?"

"Oh, yeah," Eve said wryly. "Don't you like boys?"

"How can you even ask that?" Alexis said, "You know I like boys, but . . ."

"Yeah," Eve said. "Maybe not exclusively, which is okay, but . . . Do you like me, Alli?"

"Of course," Alexis said. "You're my best friend."

"Am I?" Eve asked. She paused, and looked around the room. "I, um, feel sorta stupid holding this dress up, and my feet are killing me. Do you have like, a robe or something?"

Alexis frowned at this obvious change of topic, but she trusted that her friend would get back to it eventually. She pointed at a hotel robe hanging in the closet, then immediately began to pull her own zipper down. Eve blushed, but she didn't say anything. However, she soon remembered she wouldn't be able to get the knots undone on her corset without help, so after a minute she moved to where Alexis had casually stripped off her glittery dress and was working at the straps on her stiletto heels.

It was the first time since they were little children that Eve had seen Alexis in her underwear. She'd seen the statuesque blonde in a bikini at the beach, and that had been just as revealing. But there was something about the forbidden peek at clothes not meant to be seen in public - and of course the exotic sensuality of a black lace garter belt holding up shimmery dark stockings - that made seeing this outfit much more intimate.

Eve's flushed face was at least turned away when she asked for help once again. "Alli, could you?"

Alexis didn't say anything. She did stand up, balancing on one spike-heeled shoe and the toes of her other foot, while she undid the knots holding Eve's waist so tightly. The dark-haired girl shrugged the laces loose and took a long, slow breath.

"Oh, God, that feels so good." Without turning around for another helping of forbidden vistas, Eve stepped quickly into the bathroom. When she came out a few minutes later, her own feet were bare and the fluffy robe hid whatever shape her body assumed without the unyielding control of her own underwear.

Alexis had changed too, but what she wore was not much more concealing than her previous attire. A filmy robe covered an elegant red nightgown that was a celebration of curves that needed no artificial assistance. The tall blonde was looking out the open glass door of the balcony to their high-rise room, apparently uncaring about the potential someone else would be looking in.

Eve blushed again at the sight of her friend in such revealing clothes. She tried to make it better by turning off the room lights, but that didn't really help. Now the only light in the room came from the open door, and the backlight made it abundantly clear which parts of the figure by the door were clothes. . . and which were girl.

"Why did you ask that?" Alexis asked quietly, not turning around to look at Eve.

"Ask what?"

"Ask if you really are my best friend," Alexis said tightly, finally turning to look at Eve.

Eve looked away from the taller girl's direct inspection, fidgeting aimlessly with the tail ends of the belt on her robe for a long moment. It might have been an invitation for a further comment from Alexis, but when none came she looked up and squared her shoulders. Matching Alexis in direct eye contact, she asked a seemingly unrelated question.

"How well does Adam kiss?"

"What?" Alexis said.

Eve just waited patiently.

Alexis started to show the frustration that Eve's behavior had caused. "Dammit, Eve, quit screwing around. You know it rocks my world when we kiss. Are you just fishing for compliments or something?"

Eve smiled sadly. "No, just making a point. You see, you've never kissed Adam."

"I have, too . . . oh," Alexis said. She looked at Eve for a long moment, taking in the tumbling waves of hair, the carefully arched brows, the full, dark lips, and realized that she hadn't even seen Adam for quite a while.

This time, her frown was more of introspection than frustration. After a moment she stepped away from the glass door and pointed at the room's easy chair in an invitation to Eve. Alexis sat in the desk chair and looked at her dark-haired friend.

"So this is about, um, my not kissing you when you're dressed like Adam?"

"Not 'dressed like Adam,'" Eve said. "That's who I really am. But you only kiss me when I'm dressed like a girl."

"Well, yeah, but we just haven't had the chance . . ," Alexis said.

"Oh, yes we have," Eve interrupted her gently, but implacably. "Believe me. I've noticed every single time we've had a chance to do something . . . and didn't." She sighed and added, "I know I've been Eve full time for the last week or so, but there were lots of times before that."

"Well, okay," Alexis agreed, "but it just didn't seem . . . I don't know, like the right time."

Eve nodded. "What would make it the right time . . . to be with Adam?"

"I don't know," Alexis answered sharply.

"We've had years and years, Alli, but you never wanted the real me. Only the fake me that showed up recently. And I just . . . it's just not enough."

Alexis sagged in her chair, but she nodded. "I'm sorry, Eve . . .or, um, Adam. I guess I understand."

"Hell, Alli, I'm not sure I understand," Eve said, trying on a not-very-convincing smile. "But I do know that if we're ever going to, um, get together, I want it to be . . . right. I need it to be me, not a fake, that . . . loves you."

Alexis nodded, then tried on her own weak smile. "So, do we just, y'know, go to bed?"

"I'd love to sleep with you, Alli," Eve said with a bit of real humor. "Emphasis on sleep."

She looked at the two queen sized beds in the room, and waited for an invitation from Alexis. The blonde smiled and pointed at the one closest to the bathroom, then a genuine giggle slipped from her bright lips. "Would you like something more comfortable than that bathrobe to sleep in?"

"Sure," Eve said lightly. Then she giggled herself when Alexis pulled out a wispy bit of dark blue mist that slithered through her hands when she lifted it up. "Good thing Mother is about your size."

"This is your mother's?" Eve gasped.

"Yeah," Alexis confirmed. "She has good taste, doesn't she?"

"Um, yeah," Eve agreed. Then she frowned and said, "Alli, I don't have my cleansers and things. Do you have . . ?"

"Ohmigod, Eve, you should know I have everything known to man - or woman - that is connected to makeup."

"Oh, yeah, sorry," Eve said, but she giggled at Alexis' artificial irritation.

The two cleansed and moisturized and did the other primping required for bedtime. They didn't bother to set their hair, which was at least one good thing about the contest being over. So it wasn't long before they were slipping into their separate beds.

It wasn't a conscious change, but in accordance with the long-standing agreement with Sara, when the makeup came off, Eve was put away and Adam returned despite long nails, a "more-than-average" bust, and smooth, sleek body. So it was Adam's voice that said good-night to Alexis. The blonde girl noticed the change, but didn't say anything.

Despite the excitement of the day, Adam didn't have any trouble falling asleep. The ample weights on his chest were cradled by the top of his nightgown in a way that had become familiar and he'd had long hair before this entire adventure began. A few glasses of champagne and the late hour didn't hurt his journey into slumber.

He woke up in the darkened room long before dawn, though. Something had intruded on his sleeping awareness. After a few long minutes listening in the dark, he realized Alexis was making some unexplained noise.

"Alli, are you okay?" he asked.

She didn't say anything, but the noise stopped.

"Alli?" Adam repeated.

"It's nothing," she claimed. "Sorry that I woke you. Go back to sleep."

Alexis was turned away from him so he couldn't see her face in the gloom. But her voice told him enough.

Adam slipped from his bed and moved over to his friend. "Alli?" he said again, gently.

He put his arms around her shoulders and slid closer to her. "Alli, what's wrong?"

"Nothing," she whispered, but the tears were clear in her voice.

Adam tried to decide what to say, but nothing seemed like it would help. So he just slid his arms a bit further around her and pulled her to him. Alexis resisted at first, but then she turned into the shelter of his arms. As though that motion released a cap on her despair, she started sobbing with great heaving gasps, her tears soaking the thin material of Adam's nightgown.

"Shhhh, shhhh, it's okay," Adam said, not knowing what was causing her tears, but wanting with matching desperation for his friend to get though her sorrow.

"Oh, god, Adam, I screwed everything up," Alexis finally gasped.

"Hmm?"

"I screwed up the contest," she claimed. "By being so damn dumb I couldn't even answer a simple question. And it broke Momma's heart."

"She'll be okay," Adam promised.

"But she'll hate me . . . maybe not right away, but she'll always be thinking about what my screwup cost her, and . . ."

Adam started to say something, but before he could, Alexis added, "Just like you hate me, for . . . well, for treating you like crap all these years."

"I don't hate you, Alli," Adam said. "I could never hate you."

"You do, too," she insisted. "And I deserve it."

"Hush, Alli, that's just not true. And I know your mother loves you, too."

"Oh, Adam," she wailed. "I totally screwed up. I thought I wanted you, but you're right - all I ever wanted was Eve. I never even gave you a chance. And you're so sweet and noble, and . . ."

She was interrupted by a bark of laughter from Adam. "Geez, Alli, give me a break. I'm just me. I wasn't particularly sweet or noble when I was slamming your friends after our dinner out with the boys. All it took was a sense, for once, that I was 'cool' and attractive instead of a geek. It's just . . . oh, hell, it's just high school. It's petty and shallow and it's all about looks and who is cool. Given the chance, I'm the same way. We know that for a fact because I have been."

"But . . ," she tried.

"But nothing," Adam said, squeezing her shoulders. "You're a nice girl, Alli. You're wonderfully pretty and you have such a bright, cheerful personality . . ." He wiped a tear from her cheek with a long-nailed finger and smiled at her in the dark. " . . . at least, most of the time. And despite a tendency to want things your own way, the things you want to do are good things."

"Oh, Adam," Alexis sighed. "You're lying through your teeth, but I do love you for it."

"I never lie," Adam insisted quietly. "Never to you, Alli."

"You truly are sweet," she said again, looking up at him. For a timeless moment, neither one moved, then she lifted her lips to his. "I owe you a kiss," she whispered.

Her lips were tender and tentative at first. Adam's were just as tentative, but the magical energy their kisses always created started to grow in the touch of their lips, and the passion that flowed behind it lifted them as it always did into something that neither understood.

One of Alexis' hands drifted lower to find burgeoning evidence that confirmed her attractiveness to Adam. She started to explore the dimensions of his interest, and sighed with anticipation and renewed confidence.

"Alli," Adam said softly. "We don't have to do this."

"Yes we do," she insisted. "I want to know if it's only Eve that excites me. I need to know, and to show you."

There was a slapstick moment of awkwardness at they tried to get on the same side of the covers, and then to get their long nightgowns out of the way. It could have broken the fragile opportunity, but it tickled Adam's sense of humor, and his laughter broke the tension instead. In a heartbeat Alexis was laughing, too, but that didn't stop her fingers from continuing their dance, soon joined in a duet with Adam's glossy counterparts.

His fingers stopped though, and he paused in the shower of kisses they were scattering about. "Um, Alli . . . I might not be . . . very good . . . at, um, . . . y'know."

"Is this your first time?" Alexis asked.

He nodded in the dark, and she smiled. "Oh, Adam, you truly are a treasure. I'll, um, let you know when you get it right."

Then she pulled a grunt of near pain from him with her whispered, "Even if we have to practice all night."

*****************

In the morning, robes from the rooms kept Eve and Nicole from showing too obviously that they had not returned to their own rooms the night before. Sara gave Eve a call to confirm that everyone was awake, and the young brunette passed a much less stylish Nicole in the hallway. Eve had awakened well before Nicole. Well before Alexis, in fact, and had already had her morning shower, taking advantage of a new brush she found in the bathroom along with a wall-mounted hair dryer to dry her thick, dark hair and pull it into a perky ponytail. She looked disgustingly cheerful to the pain-filled eyes Nicole allowed to peek at the world.

Sara had already arranged a brunch rendezvous with Nicole, and - however reluctantly - she and Alexis met them in the hotel's buffet at the appointed time. The younger girls both wore jeans and knit tops, though Eve persisted in wearing heels. That left her about the same height as Alexis. The mothers wore nice slacks and blouses, but they were all dressed more casually than the contest had generally required.

As Sara and Eve watched the blondes approach, it seemed that both of them were walking around in a daze. In Nicole's case, she was clearly paying a penalty for the night before and only a bit of nagging from her friends got her to eat a bit of toast and a blandly poached egg.

Alexis was in a daze of a different sort. She seemed to float through the buffet, a dreamy expression on her face as though she were in a slightly different plane of existence from anyone else. Only an occasional look at Eve brought her eyes into focus - along with an increase in her languid smile. But soon her eyes would drift again into a place only she could see.

After a couple of cups of coffee and at least a bit to eat, Nicole's expression changed from one of physical pain to one showing a pain of a different sort. She looked like she wanted to say something, but then she'd look back to her plate and pick at another bite.

"Is there something you want to ask, Nicole?" Sara prompted.

"I, um, don't think we should talk about it here," Nicole said.

"Talk about what?" asked Sara innocently.

"You know . . . last night," Nicole said, a flush rising to her cheeks.

"What about last night?" Sara asked.

"Later," hissed Nicole.

"Oh. Do you keep secrets from Alexis? I don't keep any secrets from Eve at all. And I don't expect she keeps many things secret from Alexis."

That wasn't entirely true, but the younger pair didn't contradict Sara. Eve was trying to hide a grin, and Alexis was . . . in her own space.

Nicole looked around the room, and had to admit that no one else was within earshot, particularly not of a low-voiced casual conversation. She looked at Eve for a long moment, then sighed. "I guess I'll have to accept that. After all, there's not much that Eve could say about me that would be more shocking than what I could say about her."

"Not that I expect you would," she added quickly at the look of dismay in Eve's eyes. "Nor would I. I guess what I was trying to say is that we've already committed to trust each other."

At this, Eve nodded, so Nicole took a deep breath and looked at Sara. "What, um, what did we do last night?"

Sara might have teased her by starting with a comment about the innocuous dinner, or the almost-as-innocent dancing that followed. Instead, a gentle smile lifted her eyes and she said, "I put you to bed last night."

"Is that all?" Nicole whispered. "Did we . . ?"

"What do you think?" asked Sara.

"I don't know," hissed Nicole. "That's the point. I seem to remember . . . something, but it's all so vague, like a dream. And . . " Again she looked at Eve, and again she blushed. ". . . and I wasn't wearing any clothes this morning."

At this Sara sat back in her chair and frowned. After a moment, she said, "All I did was help you get undressed, and into bed. If you remember anything more, it was only a dream."

If this was supposed to reassure Nicole, it seemed to have the opposite effect. She looked so wistful that it tugged at Sara's heart. There was a wry sense of self-deprecating humor when Nicole said, "Well, now I know." She reached an elegant hand out to pat the back of Sara's hand. "You're really a sweet person, Sara. I'm glad we're friends."

"Thank you, Nicole, and I'm glad, too."

Eve had twitched when the blonde woman told the brunette she was 'sweet.' Sara noticed, and her eyes first touched on Eve, then on Alexis.

"I'm assuming you two did more than just sleep."

"Ohhhh, yeahhhh . . ," Alexis said slowly, sighing with a happy little smile.

"Eve, I thought you had agreed . . ," Sara began, but Eve interrupted her.

Eve put her hand on Alexis' hand, then said, "I'm not going to say that I'm sorry, Momma. I truly did, um, resist Alexis. But we woke up in the middle of the night. And after that . . . well, things happened."

"It's more than that, Mrs. C," Alexis said. "I was really torn up last night. I screwed up our chances in the contest - don't argue, Mother, you know it's true - and . . . and I had screwed up my relationship with Adam. Eve turned me down, but Adam heard me crying, and . . . comforted me."

She placed her free hand on top of Eve's so that they made a little sandwich stack, and added. "At least, it started out that way. And I'm the one who . . . took it further."

Now her eyes fixed on Eve's alone. Alexis whispered, "But in the end, Adam took me to a place I'd never been before. Further than I thought it was possible to go. Adam was awesome."

"On Adam's behalf, I'm glad you were pleased," Eve said with a smirk she couldn't hide.

"Were you pleased, too?" Alexis asked.

"Yes," Eve said quietly, but there was a lack of depth in her words that said there had been something missing as well.

Alexis noticed. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Eve claimed reassuringly. She completed their little hand stack by patting the back of Alexis' hand with her own. "It was fine."

"Oh, god, not 'fine,'" Alexis groaned. "I really screwed up, didn't I?"

"No, Alli," Eve said. "You were wonderful, and I will certainly always remember it. And cherish the memory."

"But it was still only fine," Alexis sighed.

They had been ignoring the other pair, both of whom were listening with rapt attention and at least a little embarrassment at the intimate discussion flowing past them. Eve twitched a little and looked around, remembering their situation. Then she squeezed Alexis' hand and sat back.

"Sometimes, reading too much can be a dangerous thing," she said, prompting frowns of confusion onto the beautiful expressions of her table mates. She smiled apologetically and continued. "In the English language, we only have one word we use for love, but the Greeks recognized three distinct forms. I'm sorry, but that's the only way I can really explain what was missing."

"Alli, we had wonderful erotic love. You are a sensual, skilled, and beautiful woman. I was so far beyond satisfied that I can't begin to express it."

The praise reduced the despair in Alexis' eyes, but not the confusion.

Eve said, "And I truly love you like a best friend, one whose happiness is important to me."

At this, Alexis actually smiled, and squeezed back at Eve's hands.

But Eve's response was a frown. "But there is a third level to love. The Greeks called it 'agape' and it means self-sacrificing love. Last night, I don't think we shared that."

"Oh, but it was wonderful. . ," Alexis said.

"Yes, it was," Eve agreed. "But can you honestly say that my happiness, my pleasure was more important to you - to you! - than your own pleasure? Do you remember what you said, when you kissed me?"

"Um, that I wanted you. That I needed to . . . show you that I loved Adam, and not just Eve?" she said, not sure if she understood the point.

"Yes. Exactly," Eve said. "That you wanted . . . that you needed. Don't get me wrong, it was spectacular and I was fully satisfied - physically - and I wouldn't have missed it for the world. But it wasn't . . . complete."

"Alli, I do love you. I love you like a sister, with an added erotic dimension no brother and sister can share. Or sisters, for that matter." Eve blushed, then looked defiantly at her mother, and at Nicole. "And I'd love to share it again. But it's not something we can build a life on. And that's what I need."

"But," Alexis said, tears starting to fill her eyes, "it was wonderful. It was the best sex I ever had, and even more than that, it was the best cuddling and the best, most peaceful, like, 'after' that I've ever had. I can't imagine anything better."

"I'm glad," Eve said gently. "But you see, Alli, your happiness - and your pleasure - truly were more important to me than my own. Don't get me wrong. I was well pleased, but I would have been happy even if I never got any physical pleasure at all. Can you say that?"

"Well, sure . . . I think," Alexis said, then blushed as her answer showed her what the real truth was.

Eve stood up and walked around to hug Alexis. "I do love you Alexis. But like I said last night, there's more to love than kissing."

"Ohmigod," whispered Alexis. "Ohmigod. You are so sweet, so wonderful, so much better than me."

"Don't," Eve said sharply. "Don't put yourself down. Love is. Or it isn't. In all its levels. You don't have to apologize for not feeling something that isn't there. Just be happy for what we do have. The rest will come or it won't. In its own time."

"Oh my God," Nicole said, interjecting herself into the conversation at least. "Sara, your child is one in a million, and frankly, makes me feel like I have some growing up to do."

Sara's eyes were filled with tears of joy and pride in her child, and without words she stood to give Eve a fierce hug. In another moment, the blondes had joined the embrace.

And after another moment, timelessly long and way too short, they all broke into laughter at the sight of dark streaks trailing down from all eyes but Eve's.

"Waterproof mascara," Eve said with a giggle, pointing a long-nailed finger at her own flawless cheek. "Timeless 'Everlong'. You should all try it. We even get it free."


Chapter 18 - "Close Enough to Touch"


The black bear wasn't close enough to touch. But she was close enough to make eye contact. And she sent a clear message with her glare. "Hands off my cubs."

Eve was perfectly happy to leave her cubs alone, and soon leave them behind. The MV Kenai slid easily along a narrow channel between islands in the Alaskan inland passage. In some places it seemed narrow enough that Eve could reach out and touch an overhanging branch from the balcony of her surprisingly nice stateroom. She had found herself spending several mornings out there as the day came alive. This morning, she had been leaning over the balcony rail when she had seen first the mother bear and then her cubs working their way along a stony path at almost her level. The real distance was probably 50 feet, but that was too close for the bear's comfort and she had stared at Eve until the stern of the ship was well past the mother bear's position.

Eve almost jumped into the water when Sara's voice startled her. "What are you looking at so intently?"

"Oh, Momma, I didn't hear you come out."

"Sorry," Sara said, moving to stand by her child. "So, what was it?"

"A black bear, with two cubs," Eve reported, then she laughed. "And she didn't like me looking at her cubs . . . didn't like it one bit."

"How far away?"

"Too far to reach, thank God," Eve said, then pointed at the land that still flowed past. "Right at the edge of the shore on a little path that put them about this level. It was so cool."

"I'll bet," Sara said. "Maybe tomorrow I'll get up early with you."

"Yeah, right," Eve said. In the three days they had been on the cruise, Sara hadn't been up before the sun even once.

The cruise was one of the consolation prizes for the finalists in the Timeless cosmetics contest. The conclusion of the contest itself had been pretty much an anti-climax. By the final round, the remaining pairs all looked like sisters, at least enough to confuse any observer, so the relationship part of the contest had devolved into random guesses by the judges and audience and that made it hard to get the two-out-of-three right it took to eliminate someone. So it ended up being a straight beauty contest. On that scale, Shannon and Eve placed no higher than fifth or sixth out of the ten pairs still in the running. At least one of the pairs before them had been sisters, and another a mother and daughter, so by the time they were talking with the master of ceremonies he was just going through the motions.

Not that either was complaining. The consolation prized had included a wonderful Alaskan cruise, a new car, a lifetime supply of Timeless cosmetics, plus minor prizes that amounted to advertising for various products. And a fair bit of cash. Enough for at least one year of Eve's college, when she actually graduated from high school.

One of the conditions for the cruise was that it be taken before the television show aired. That way they wouldn't be targets for those looking for inside information on the winning pairs while the Timeless advertising campaign was running in the media. Not that they had any to offer. The two pairs who had won were from another region and neither Shannon nor Eve had known much about them.

In any event, Shannon and Eve had not been home since they had returned to Las Vegas for the final round. Eve had called Alexis and commiserated with her on their now-joint disappointment, but it had been almost a month of Shannon and Eve alone against the world - a situation that suited both of them just fine - and almost three months of full-time life as Eve for the young brunette. They had maintained their contest identities for most of that time, initially because the show required it, and then because it made things simpler. It provided Eve with documentation of her assumed identity, yet reduced the risk of some later crossover to their real lives.

"So, what's up for today?" Eve asked.

"Well, I'm thinking about not wearing my wig anymore," Sara said. "It's been almost six months since I cut my real hair, and I think it will be long enough for a 'youthful' style, don't you?"

"Totally," Eve said. "A day in the beauty parlor, then?"

"For me, at least," Sara said. "You don't have to unless you want to. We don't visit the next port until tomorrow morning. Maybe you'll see another bear."

"I can 'barely' wait," Eve said with a smirk.

She was almost dressed, needing only a little help in tightening her corset. The one problem on the cruise had been that there was entirely too much food. After a day of indulgence, Eve had asked Sara to help her with the aids to discipline that had started her on her weight improvement. Padded hips filled out snug jeans to accent her trim waist, and - as always - high-heeled boots added their magic to her apparently leg length. A fluffy but fitted sweater provided needed warmth without hiding the curves within. Sara - or Shannon as she was outside the room - dressed in a similar style though she had given up on her own corset. She caught her unstyled hair up inside a floppy souvenir hat so they could visit the breakfast buffet before her appointment at the salon.

Once Eve had eaten her oat bran cereal with skim milk - sigh! - she found a place where she could watch the bergy bits of floating ice as they sailed toward the Tracy Arm glacier. The ship had an enclosed observation lounge with a forward view and she settled in with her journal and a ubiquitous diet soda. Seeing the Tracy Arm Fiord was the Kenai's itinerary for the day, but it would be a few hours before they saw the actual glacier, assuming they could even get that far up the fiord. Sometimes, as the Captain had explained over the PA system, the bergy bits got too thick to pass through, and no one wanted to see what would happen if the ship hit a really big one. There had already been some shudders and groans as they ran over "small" bits of floating ice merely the size of Eve's new car.

"Pardon me, but is this seat taken?" she heard a voice ask.

"No, you're welcome to it," Eve said before she looked up. She assumed the speaker wanted to pull the chair over to another party, but instead he stayed at her table.

"I guess I'll just do the shipboard thing and intrude shamelessly into your privacy," he said, sticking out a callused hand. "My name is Tad Wyatt."

Eve's first impression of Tad was that he was thin. When he sat, that impression went away and she decided the apparent thinness was because he was actually quite tall. ::Tall enough for Alexis,:: she thought. His hair was a medium brown, and his features were average, except for two decidedly non-average distinctions. He had interesting blue-gray eyes that seemed to change color as Eve looked at them. And he had a pale scar that traced an uneven fishhook along his left cheekbone just above the jawline accent of his neatly trimmed beard. Eve fought to keep herself from staring at the scar, which caused her to lock her gaze on the sparkle in his blue-gray eyes instead.

After a moment, she twitched and blushed. "Eve. Eve, um, Curtis," she finally blurted out.

"Pleased to meet you, Eve-um," he said with a grin that showed more in his eyes than in his lips. Of course, they were partly hidden behind his jaunty nautical beard.

"That's not fair," she said, blushing again. "It's just Eve."

"Ah, like the innocence before the Fall, a simpler name from a simpler time."

"Oh, wow, that is totally over the top," she said, but she couldn’t stop a giggle.

"So, what are you writing?" he asked, leaning over to look at her notes.

"Just a journal," she said. "I'm trying to capture impressions and - I don't know - memories. More than just facts."

"Good," he said, leaning back to make it clear he wasn't trying to snoop in her private papers. "Real life has to be more than just facts."

"Yes, I think so, too," she said.

Then the light sparkled in his eyes again and he made his snooping explicit. "Are you traveling alone?"

"No," Eve said. "I'm with my sister." ::Got that out without a hitch,:: she praised herself. ::I've certainly had enough practice.:: Memories of how many times she had almost said 'mother' instead of 'sister' pulled another blush to her cheeks.

Tad misinterpreted the blush, and pursued his advantage, "Sister, but no boyfriend/ fiancé/ husband?"

"No," she admitted, not meeting his eyes.

"Meaning you're available for dinner?" he asked.

"Oh, no, I mean, I'm . . . my sister and I eat together."

"Even better," he said blandly undeterred. "It so happens that I have a brother on board as well. A fraternity brother, but that's close enough. Let's all meet for lunch to, ah, establish compatibility. Then, when your sister is as captivated by Steve as you are with me . . . dinner will be the natural follow on."

Eve blushed again, but then she tried to put a frown on her face. "What makes you think I'm 'captivated' by you?"

"Lots of things," Tad said. "Probably the most significant is that you haven't thrown your drink in my face yet."

"Do you get that a lot?" Eve asked.

"The past doesn't matter," he said grandly.

"Well, I'm sorry," Eve said. "But my sister is getting her hair done. I'm not sure she'll be out by lunchtime."

"Excellent," Tad said. "That means you're free for lunch yourself, so we can get to know each other without Steve hanging around."

"Why would I want to get to know you?" Eve asked archly, but she couldn't keep a smile from her own eyes. Tad just looked at her still-placid drink and spread his hands as invitation for her to demonstrate that his attention was unwanted.

"Why don't we just watch the scenery for a while?" she suggested.

"Okay," he said agreeably. Then he just looked at Eve - slowly and appreciatively.

She blushed, and ostentatiously looked out the lounge windows. But a few minutes later, when she couldn't help herself, she looked back to find him still regarding her. That didn't help her blush at all. Unless increasing the intensity could be considered "help."

The Kenai rounded a curve in the fiord to find the way forward filled with ice. It wasn't a solid sheet like the glacier that spawned the floes, but there was more ice than water and it was no surprise to feel the ship slowing. In a few minutes, the cruise director came on the PA to announce that this was as far up the fiord as they would be able to go. The ship began a ponderous pivot, using a bow thruster to swing around in the channel. After a couple of minutes it was obvious that the captain had things well in hand and nothing particularly noteworthy would happen for a while.

"So, fair Eve, are you ready for lunch?"

Eve looked at her slim watch and then in the general direction of the onboard spa and salon where Shannon was certainly still being pampered, and for quite a while to come.

"Yes," she said finally, smiling into his dancing, every-varying gray-blue eyes.

Despite the brashness of his self-introduction, Tad turned out to be a pleasant table companion. He was deftly courteous in helping her with her chair and bringing her another diet soda, yet he didn't try to dictate her own food choices or claim superior gourmet knowledge on the lunch buffet options. The only concern, and it was minor, was that he was equally deft at deflecting Eve's questions about his own background. Other than the implication that he had attended college, even after an hour of lunch time conversation she didn't know his major or what he would be doing after the cruise.

Eventually, despite a lot of time focused on Eve, he did manage to get his attention outside the ship. It turned out he had very sharp eyes.

"Look, there's a moose," he said quietly, though they were in an enclosed lounge and there was no way anything on the shore could hear them.

"Where?" Eve asked.

He leaned close and put his long arm around her shoulder, then extended it past her ear toward the shore. Eve's first impression when he moved so close was that, like Mick, he had a musky, masculine scent that was somehow comforting, as though it affirmed his ability to protect her from whatever life might throw at her.

"I don't see it," she complained, after a moment when she managed to get her own attention outside the ship again.

"It's about 20 feet up from the water, and - oh - 50 feet right of that big rock right at the waterline," he offered.

"Oh, there it is," she said, finally. "It must be a female. I was looking for those huge antlers."

"I think moose shed their antlers, so it might be a male," Tad said.

"How can you tell?" Eve asked.

"I can't," Tad declared. "I expect it's only important that the lady moose can . . . though I could guess."

"How?" Eve prompted.

"Well, I think this one must be a guy moose . . . because he can't take his eyes off of you."

"Oh, you," Eve said, blushing madly. "I guess I walked right into that one."

A new voice intruded on her embarrassment. "Just slap him if he bothers you. Everyone else does."

"I thought they threw their drinks at him," Eve said, looking up at someone out of central casting in Hollywood.

The man who had joined their conversation was entirely too good looking to be real. He was blond - a true, pale blond that seemed to glow like a halo and darkened only enough as it flowed into his beard to make that a strongly masculine statement. His eyes were a clear, cornflower blue. His smile was open and warm. And he had a combination of wide shoulders and trim waist that made one think of superheroes. The only flaw, if it were a flaw, was that he was might have been just under six feet tall, instead of several inches over like Tad.

"That does usually precede the slap," the man admitted. He held out a hand that showed some interesting evidence of past damage in hairline scars and a missing finger tip.

"Steve Forrest," he said. "I don't expect that he's told you about me - the dirty, selfish, dog."

"Eve Curtis," Eve said with a laugh as she shook his hand. "And he did mention you. Is it true you grow long hair and fangs whenever the moon comes out?"

"Only the full moon," Steve corrected her. "He always leaves that out."

"Ah, I'll remember," Eve promised.

Somehow, Steve hadn't released her hand after shaking it. And somehow, Eve hadn't noticed. Then she did and blushed again as she pulled her hand back.

"Cooties," Tad said with a laugh of his own at her abrupt gesture. "You touched him, and now you have cooties."

"Sorry," Eve said. "I didn't mean . . ."

"Oh, ignore him," Steve said. "I always do."

Eve tried to recover a bit of her composure by getting the guys to talk about themselves. "So, Tad tells me that you two are sorority - I mean, fraternity brothers?"

Tad laughed and deflected the question again. "I like the first idea better. Though maybe not, because any sorority that would take us . . ."

"Eeew," Steve said, crossing his fingers to ward off the thought. That pulled Eve's attention back to the scars on his hands. And that reminded her of the scar on Tad's cheek. She tried not to stare at either of them, but her curiosity wouldn't rest.

"In this fraternity you guys joined . . . did the initiation involve some sort of fight?"

"You might say that," Tad said with a grin, matching eyes with Steve for a moment of shared memories.

He looked back at Eve to find a frown of real concern on her face.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I don't generally talk about certain things, but I don't want you to worry. We're not some sort of whacked-out nut cases . . ."

"At least, I'm not," Steve interjected.

Tad blandly ignored him and smiled at Eve. "We were in the Marines together, in Iraq. And we shared a few . . . moments."

"Is that where you got your scar?" she asked softly.

Steve laughed again, though not harshly. "I like that. I end up in sickbay for three weeks, and lose a part of my anatomy . . ."

"No, not that part," he said quickly, pointing his missing finger tip at Tad, which happened to be a finger that sent an additional message as well. "And you end up with a scratch on the cheek, yet the pretty girls all want to talk about your scratch instead of my valiant wounds."

"All the girls?" Eve asked with another frown.

"Damn," Steve interrupted whatever Tad was going to say. "You've done it again. You've probably only known her an hour, and she's already jealous."

"Almost three," Tad said, but he was looking at Eve with a question in his steel blue eyes.

Eve pulled herself up with an internal twitch she tried to conceal. She realized that she actually was a bit jealous, and with surely less reason than any other girls would have. It tickled her sense of humor to realize how fully she had fallen for this tall man's charms, and that smile pulled at her lips and her eyes in an expression she decided not to squelch. Then another idea came to her.

"Two and a half," she said as a response to Tad to make it seem like she was reacting to his comment rather than implementing a plan of her own. Then she turned to Steve and her grin got wider. "So, would you like to go to dinner tonight?"

"Me?" he asked in surprise.

"Well, Tad and I are going to eat together," Eve said blandly, as though it were well known around the ship. "And my sister will need an escort."

"Your sister?"

Eve nodded, and Steve looked at Tad. "Have you met, um, Eve's sister yet?"

"Nope," Tad said with a grin.

"Does she look . . . no, that would be stupid, wouldn't it?" Steve mused. "I suppose the question is: Does she have as fun and pleasant a personality as you?"

"Yes," Eve said. "And she's prettier, too."

Steve laughed, unable to hide his relief, and said, "Okay. Sounds like a deal."

They worked out the specifics of a rendezvous and Eve finished her soda before standing to go. As she walked away, she heard Steve say, "It's the damn scar. All the chicks dig that scar. Why couldn't I get a cool face scratch instead of dinged up hands . . ?"

When Eve got back to the room she found her mother admiring her new hairstyle in the mirror.

"Oh, Momma, that looks darling," she gushed enthusiastically. "It's totally perfect!"

"Do you really think so?" Sara replied, but her smile said she was very happy with her new look. Her hair was layered and tapered to frame her face in a very feminine style that was still long enough to show energy and graceful motion with every swing of her head.

"Not only me, I'll bet," Eve said, smirking behind her hand.

"What are you up to?" Sara asked suspiciously.

"Me? Nothing," Eve claimed innocently. "But you have a date tonight, and with that new hairstyle . . . you might 'get lucky.'"

"What?" gasped Sara, but her eyes darted to the mirror again to check her appearance and Eve could see a smile in her eyes that said the idea was not out of the question to her. For the first time in a long time, she felt attractive enough that she might indeed 'get lucky.'

"I met a guy while I was watching the ice floes," Eve said, interrupting Sara's bemused thoughts with another shocking statement.

"You met a guy? I thought you said that I had a date."

"You do, but so do I. We'll meet for dinner," Eve said, then she giggled. "After that . . . who knows?"

Unlike Eve's previous comment, this caused Sara to look at her daughter and frown. It was clear she was thinking about saying something, but after a moment she looked out the window instead, continuing to frown.

"Oh, Momma, I'm not gonna 'get lucky' tonight," Eve said, laughing again. "The guy I met is a nice guy, but he doesn’t do anything, y'know, like that for me. On the other hand, your guy . . ."

"My guy?" Sara said. "Just who are these guys?"

"A couple of Marines," Eve said, laughing again at the shock in Sara's eyes. "Or at least, ex-Marines - except I understand they all say there is no such thing as an ex-Marine. Anyway, they're both hunky as hell, and what happens at sea . . ."

"Stays between you and me," Sara said with a grin. She looked at her new hairstyle in the mirror again, tossing her head to send the sculptured locks into exuberant motion. Then she blushed and said, "Oh, Eve, I couldn't, y'know . . ."

"Why not?" Eve asked gently. "It's not like lightning is gonna strike you for hooking up with someone, just once, in your whole life."

She moved to hug her mother and added, "And you deserve it. You're beautiful, and you're still young enough to give as good as you get. I'm betting - just in case anything does happen - that he'll have a smile on his face in the morning. And if you do, too, then where's the harm?"

"Just like you and Alexis?"

"Well, probably not 'just like' what we did," Eve said with a smirk.

"Okay," Sara said after another moment of looking in the mirror. "We'll go out with your friends . . . but nothing more than dinner."

"If you say so," Eve said, still smirking.

Her smirk was not reduced when Sara started considering clothes for the evening. Their wardrobes were still dominated by the clothes for the Timeless cosmetics contest, which had been selected to portray their claim to be at the prime of their sexual attractiveness. That meant the skirts on their club dresses were shorter, the bodices a lot tighter, and the heels on their party shoes higher than Sara would have selected for a dinner out - particularly with a man she was meeting on a blind date - for more years than she wanted to remember. And what went under Sara's dress . . .

"Ohmigod, Momma, don't you dare tell me you're not on the prowl tonight. That's . . . wicked!"

"It's the only bra I have that won't show," Sara claimed.

"With that one, you might was well go braless," Eve said with a snicker. Then she picked up the dark cobweb that went with the bra. "At least this matches . . . what there is of it."

"You know I'm not wearing my corset any more, so I need something to hold up my stockings."

"Yeah, right," Eve said dryly. She tried to frown at her sister/mother, but she couldn't hold in her laughter for more than a moment.

"Truly, um, Shannon, you look awesome. But don't tell me you're not thinking about . . . after. Wearing that lingerie won't let you think about anything else!"

"Do you think it's too much?" Sara asked with a frown.

"Oh, God, no," Eve said. "First off, there's not enough there to be 'too much' of anything. But if it makes you feel more alive, and more desirable tonight, then it's just right."

Eve twirled around and lifted her own hair off her shoulders. "Now, tighten me down another couple of inches, and we'll knock these guys right out of the park."


Chapter 19 - "Sunset . . . and Sunrise"


The men were wearing nice suits, quite conservative in style, but with the little perfections that said they were tailored to their specific shape. That was particularly noticeable in Steve's case, because his combination of wide shoulders and trim waist was not something that could be fitted off the rack. It was a definite sign that they were more than idle ex-Marines blowing some money on a cruise.

Introductions followed, but then the conversation lagged just a bit. It was Tad who finally broke the silence.

"I'm sorry, but you two are just . . . incredible. I know I'm supposed to see past the external, but you two are just so gorgeous that you're blowing me away."

"Absolutely," Steve said, then he looked directly at Shannon's eyes - a difficult challenge because her dress demonstrated that there was a lot of girl inside its snug shape. "Eve is very pretty even in jeans and a sweater, but you are . . . awesome."

"Thank you," Shannon said quietly.

"No, thank you," Steve said gallantly. "This calls for something special."

He waved at the waiter, who hurried over.

"Champagne. . . oh, hell, Tad, you're better at that than I am. You figure out what to get."

The waiter called over the sommelier and Tad discussed the available options with them. While they were talking, Steve self-consciously tucked his shortened finger within his hands.

"I don't mean to pry," Eve said, "but you said you were wounded in Iraq?"

This made Steve even more self-conscious and he put his hands in his lap. "IED," he said tersely.

"Now it's my turn to be sorry," Eve said. "I didn't mean to make you feel bad about your hands. They're very, um, manly."

"Thanks," Steve said. He put his hands back on the table and grinned ruefully. "Y'know, earlier, when we were just talking over lunch, it didn't seem to matter, but now, when you two are so elegant . . . it just seems wrong."

"Never," Shannon said gently, putting one of her long-nailed and very elegant indeed hands on his rough one. She rubbed her hand on his for just a moment, then grinned.

"But if you're going to dance with me, I may make you wear gloves - not because of how they look, but because you have calluses on your calluses. It's like holding a wire brush."

"Dance?" Steve repeated.

"I thought you'd never ask," Shannon said lightly. She started to push her chair back. Before Steve could even get up to help her, one of the waiters was already guiding the chair out of the way. But Steve was now on his feet, and he grinned again. "Okay. But only because you're so beautiful it hurts."

"Oooh, tell me more," she purred.

By the time they returned, a few minutes later, any awkwardness between them had clearly vanished. Steve was bumping into chairs on the way back, so he looked clumsy in a way that belied his athletic form, but the reason wasn't because of any lack of inherent grace. It was because he had eyes only for Shannon, with a near-puppy-dog concentration that was both silly and charming at the same time.

As they approached the table, Tad spoke up just loudly enough for Shannon and Steve to hear. "It's the gnarly hands. Chicks just dig gnarly hands. Why couldn't I get gnarly hands instead of a dinged up face."

That set Eve and Tad off into laughter, and even Steve had to smile. Shannon looked confused and Tad came to her rescue.

"Steve often says that the scratch on my cheek is more interesting to women than his hands, but I think it's just the opposite. Women feel all motherly toward him with his hands, and the next thing you know, they're, oh, asking him to dance or something."

"Indeed?" Shannon said archly, but she smiled. "So, Steve, do you see me as ‘motherly?’"

"Ah, no," Steve said, "Drop-dead gorgeous, yes, with an intelligent, beautiful smile and a sunny disposition. But way too hot to be 'motherly.'"

Eve smiled, but Shannon blushed fiercely because Steve's eyes had locked on hers when he listed their virtues. Then she blushed even more brightly when he reached out to put his hand on hers, "And those are rare gems, to be treasured."

"Oh, my," Eve whispered. "Shannon, we need to watch these guys. They're way too smooth for Marines."

Tad was about to make some comeback comment, but he was interrupted by a diffident waiter bringing an ice bucket and some champagne. He looked embarrassed, glancing back over his shoulder at the maitre d’, who frowned and motioned him on.

"I'm sorry, but I need to check the lady's IDs," he said. "We can't serve alcoholic beverages to minors."

Eve broke out laughing, and made a mark in the air as though she had just scored a point. Then she frowned. Reaching for her small handbag, she looked inside. "All I have is my ID from the contest we were just in," she said. "I wasn't planning on driving the ship."

"Oh, yes," Shannon said, blushing. She looked in her own clutch purse for the ID in her contest name.

"Very good," the waiter said with relief. He launched into the ritual of opening the champagne, offering some to Tad, then filling the glasses.

"To beauty, and treasures beyond price," Tad said grandly.

"Smooth," Steve muttered. Then he smirked and looked at his friend, raising his glass yet again. "You can always tell an officer . . ."

He ostentatiously clinked glasses with Shannon and then concluded, " . . .but you can never tell him much."

"Okay," Eve said, smiling at Shannon as she sipped at her champagne, "you've hinted enough. That means you have to tell us about yourselves, for real."

"Only if you go first," Tad said. "I didn't mean to snoop . . ."

"Yes he did," Steve interrupted. "He always does."

"I know," Eve confirmed. "First thing he did was snoop in my journal."

"Of course," Tad said easily. "I needed to know if you spoke English before I addressed you. As I was saying, I didn't mean to snoop, but I saw on your IDs that you were with Timeless Cosmetics?"

"Only for a short while," Shannon said. "We tried out as models for a new line of makeup."

"And you didn't win?" Steve gasped. "I don't believe it."

"Thank you," Shannon said. "And I don't want to hear any more about how smooth Tad is."

Steve grinned, but waved his hand in a come on gesture to get more information. So the women told them a little about the contest, finding out in return that Tad had been a captain in the Marines, while Steve had been a lance corporal. Steve had been discharged as a result of his wounds, though in fact the only lasting damage were the scars and missing finger tip. Tad had completed his obligation and resigned his commission.

Shannon nodded. "So what are you two doing now? It must be something interesting, if you can afford this cruise and those suits."

"We started out own business, and it's doing okay," Tad said simply.

Steve smiled and added, "We make explosive ordnance disposal robots. Tad does the design and software, and I bang things together."

"Oh, so fewer Marines will find out about IEDs the hard way."

Tad frowned. "Unfortunately, we don't really have any better way to detect them than what is already deployed. We just help them disarm anything that they find . . . the good way."

"I'm sure that still saves lives," Eve said. "I think you should be proud of what you do."

"Oh, we are," Tad said easily. "But neither of us wishes we had to do it."

"Enough," Steve said abruptly. "Now you know why we dodge questions about our work. It always ends up being a downer."

He stood again and moved to Shannon's chair. "Milady Shannon, I believe this is our dance."

Tad looked at him in shock, but said nothing. Shannon and Steve left the table and Tad's shock turned to a smile.

"Wow, we're going to need to send out some search parties pretty soon," he said quietly to Eve. "Steve has fallen so far into your sister's eyes that he may never find his way out. I don't think he has ever asked a woman to dance with him before."

"So, despite his claim about officers, he's the one with manners, is that it?" Eve asked, leaning her chin on her hands and batting her eyelashes at him.

"Okay, okay," he said. "But only because you're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen. AND because you have the best smile."

They didn’t really dance that much. The guys weren’t really comfortable dancing, and the shoes the girls wore weren’t made for it either. But it served as it had done for hundreds of years as an icebreaker that allowed a couple to enjoy each other’s company in a way that was both discreet and personal. Somewhere in there was a meal that the women hardly remembered, in part because they hardly ate. Eve couldn’t in her corset even if she wanted to, and Shannon had distractions of her own.

Eve, mindful of Nicole’s example, sipped sparingly at her champagne. She was only on her second glass when the men recommended that they adjourn to a lounge with a nice piano bar.

"Good idea," Shannon said, "but we need a moment first.

She pulled Eve with her to the powder room, neither of them giving a thought to the once-forbidden nature of the room for one of them.

"Oh my lord," Shannon gasped, fanning herself with her hand once they were inside. "I thought you were just joking, but . . ."

"But Steve is so dreamy that you're seriously considering how the night should end?" Eve offered.

"Yes," admitted Shannon. "But, Eve, I'm your mother!"

"I won't tell if you won't," Eve promised. She hugged her mother with genuine affection. Putting her lips near the shorter woman's ear, she whispered, "Go for it, Momma. You deserve it. It's not really about love. It's not even really about sex. It's about knowing that you are still beautiful, and still attractive to attractive, handsome, men. What Daddy did to you was just wrong. Now's your chance to prove it."

"This isn't really about your father," Shannon said, but a haunting quality in her denial revealed deeper thoughts.

"Maybe not completely, but it is in part, and you know it," Eve insisted. The she giggled. "So, you want to make another bet?"

"Another bet?" Shannon asked.

"Yeah," Eve said. "I told you that you'd get carded at least once if you made an honest effort to look and act as young as you can be. That's one for me. So, wanna bet that even if you get down and dirty with ol' Steve that he'll never guess you're an 'older woman,' and a mother to boot?"

"No bet," Shannon said with a smile. "Because it's not gonna happen . . . and even if it did, I wouldn't tell you!"

"No fair!" protested Eve. "I want all the details. If you don't tell me, I'll ask Steve."

"He wouldn't tell," Shannon said righteously. "He's a gentleman."

"He's a Marine," Eve said, as though that settled things. Then she giggled again and added, "And a damned studly one."

"He is that," Shannon agreed with a snicker of her own. Then she frowned, "But . . . what will Tad think?"

"He'll think - correctly - that his friend got lucky and he didn't," Eve said. "But if he's an nice as I think he is, then we'll still be friends in the morning."

"Friends? Are you going to tell him that?"

"Of course not," Eve said. "But I'll show him. Believe me, after all the years with Alexis, I know how a girl treats a guy as a friend."

"Not all the years - not this one," Shannon pointed out.

"Yeah, well, this year has been different," Eve said, sweeping her hand down her shapely form.

"I guess you could say that," Shannon agreed. She sighed, then looked at her reflection in the mirror. After a moment, her lips twitched into a little smile and she let her hands trace down her own curves with languid sensuality.

"A different year for me, too," she observed.

"Totally," agreed Eve.

"If - and I'm not saying we will - but if something happens between Steve and I, will you really be okay with that?"

"Just as long as you don't have me start calling him Daddy," Eve said with a laugh.

"No way," Shannon said, laughing too.

"Go for it, Sis," Eve said. "I'll keep Tad busy. You can have either room."

"Oh, I hadn't thought about the details."

"Well, you better," Eve said. "I'll want a full report . . . sometime after noon tomorrow."

She snickered at her best friend's shocked expression, then picked up her purse and headed for the exit. "Coming, Sister?"

Shannon blushed at the double entendre, then giggled. "I just might."

They got sidetracked on their way to the piano lounge. Both couples. And it wasn't an accident in either case. As soon as they stepped out of the ship's restaurant, they saw that the sky was clear and that an aurora was dancing in the skies. Each man seemed to think he knew the best place to observe the spectacle, but their ideas did not match.

Which meant each man took his lady to a different spot on the ship. Both locations provided good views of the coruscating display, and both shared additional features. such as darkness . . . and privacy.

Tad made his move on Eve with the same deftness he had displayed within the ship. He ended up standing behind her, then leaning closer to point at a part of the aurora that was glowing with a unique color. And then, when Eve's bare shoulders shivered in the coolness of the dark night, his arms found their way about her to add some welcome warmth. Without consciously thinking about it, Eve leaned back into his solid strength. She let her head use his shoulder as support for her upward gaze, looking at him to smile her gratitude.

His kiss was as soft as the dance of light across her face. At least, it was at first. But when Eve accepted that first light touch without protest, he let his lips capture hers with hunger and passion. Eve felt a mounting passion in her own response as well. Thanks to Alexis, she was no longer an inexperienced virgin. She knew the pleasure her body could bring, and was confident in her own ability to give pleasure as well. Tad's kiss could - and did - arouse memories as well as her body, and she sighed appreciatively at the sweet joy of being close to someone who thought she was desirable.

She shivered again, this time with anticipation more than cold, but when Tad tried to get her to turn into his arms so that he could hold her more closely, it provided her an excuse she didn't even know she wanted until it was there for the taking.

"Perhaps we should go inside," she said quietly.

"Of course," Tad said. When they passed into the heated areas of the Kenai, they faced a choice. One passageway led to the staterooms, and the other to the public areas of the ship. Tad paused at the intersection, an looked at Eve with a question in his smiling blue-gray eyes.

Eve blushed, but her own eyes flicked toward the lounges, and Tad's smile added a decidedly rueful element, shading noticeably toward gray. His motions showed none of his disappointment, though. He merely touched her back lightly with one hand to escort her toward the same piano bar he had once suggested. Once they were seated, he offered another glass of champagne and Eve decided that if she sipped it slowly, she wouldn't risk making a fool of herself.

For a while, they just listened to the piano player, enjoying the companionable quiet. Then, with a timing that caused them both to laugh, they both tried to speak at the same time. Eve blushed, then nodded at him despite his own indication that she should go first.

"I was just wondering," Tad said finally, smiling that rueful grin instead, "if girls call it being a 'wingman,' too, like the guys do."

Eve blushed and ducked her head, then she looked up and grinned. "Well, not exactly, but . . ."

Tad laughed with honest good nature. "It's okay. I intended to run him at your sister so that he could be my wingman. If things worked out the other way, well, he deserves it."

"Oh, I hope so," Eve said with a sigh. "Shannon was hurt very badly by a man who made her feel . . . undesirable. She hasn't really enjoyed herself since. I'd feel just awful if he . . ."

"Don't worry about it," Tad said, not needing her to put her worry into words. "Steve is genuinely a nice guy. I'm not saying he'll propose before he does anything, ah, intimate, but he'll make sure she's happy with whatever they do. And after, too."

"Meaning he'd 'do the right thing' if she insisted in the morning?" Eve asked with a grin.

"Actually, I think he would," Tad said, suddenly serious. "I, um, don't think that best for either of them right now, but if Shannon really wanted . . ."

"Don't worry about it," Eve said, deliberately mimicking Tad's tones. "We did talk about what might happen, and I'm sure she's not looking for anything long-term either."

"Good," Tad said. He raised his glass and said "Best of luck to them both."

"I'll drink to that," Eve said cheerfully, raising her own glass.

The she blushed again and said, "But I'm afraid that does leave you as, um, the 'wingman.'"

"It's okay," he said, smiling again. "I'd like to think that I'm not so shallow that I only value the way a pretty girl looks - though you are wonderfully beautiful - and I'd also like to think I'm not so crass that the only reason I spend time with an intelligent girl is in the hopes of getting her into bed. I've truly enjoyed our time together tonight, even if all we do is kiss and say goodnight."

"Thank you," Eve said with relief. "So have I. And, um, I'm not really ready to say goodnight, yet, unless you are."

"Oh, no," Tad said, laughing. "I'm not going back to the room tonight. Unless your sister said she was going to use your room?"

"She didn't say, but I told her I'd stay clear, um, just in case," Eve said.

"Right, just in case," Tad repeated dryly. "Like there's really any question. If we could bottle the electricity that was passing between them, we'd solve world hunger, global warming, and the continuing crisis in the Middle East.

Eve giggled and nodded, relaxing back into her seat. They talked for a while - a long while. It was late enough in the season that it hadn't been dark enough to see the aurora until well after 10:00, and the extended morning twilight of the near-arctic region was already lightening the sky when Tad moved the topic of conversation back to where it started.

"Well, do you suppose they've, ah, defused their explosives?" he asked with a grin.

Eve found her cheeks heating up again, for what must have been a world record number of times, but she found herself giggling as well. "Must have been a pretty big blast."

"That I can believe. Your sister is - as Steve so delicately pointed out - hot."

He grinned and added, "Something which obviously runs in the family."

"Oh, Tad," she said. "I'm sorry we didn't . . ."

"Don't worry about it," he said easily. "I'm just reminding you, regardless of whether we hit it off ourselves, that you're a very attractive young woman. Don't ever let some guy do to you what you said the other dude did to your sister."

"But, on that note, I think I'm going to go find a place to get a few hours sleep. We're signed up for the Zodiac tour in the morning, and that's fast upon us."

"What if, um, . . ?"

"Then I might come knocking at your door," Tad said. "Would you have a couch to spare?"

Eve laughed and nodded. "I'm sure we could work something out."

"Then let me walk you to your room," Tad said. "If your sister is there, the coast is clear for me. And if she's not, then I might need that couch."

He stood up and offered a hand to Eve. "And I promise to be a gentleman, but I'm guessing that your sister won't be giving you a hard time about your reputation if I sleep on your couch, and it won't do anything but help mine."

"I'm sure you'll be good," Eve said.

"No," he sighed theatrically. "But I will be nice."

They reached Eve's stateroom after a leisurely stroll, something that Eve could manage even after wearing her skyscraper heels all night. A quick glance inside showed a shape beneath the covers on Shannon's bed - a single shape - so Eve eased the door closed and stepped back into the passageway with Tad.

"Thank you, Tad. I've had a really wonderful time, even if all we did was talk."

"I have, too," he said. "You're as witty and fascinating as you are beautiful."

"Oh, my, you are the charmer," Eve sighed. "I almost wish . . ."

"Keep thinking that," Tad said. "After all, the cruise goes for most of another week, and you never know . . ."

He slid his arms around Eve and found her ripe lips rising to meet his. The kiss this time started out passionate, and became intense enough that Eve felt her blood pounding in her ears and learned why ladies so often fainted in corsets. She didn't quite pass out while Tad had her wrapped in her arms, but she was decidedly dizzy when he finished.

"Ohhhhh,' she whispered. "You are way too wonderful to be real."

"Oh, I'm real," he said. "Very, very real." But he smiled and stepped back. Eve leaned against her door with a dreamy smile on her face as he slowly turned and walked away.

When Eve slipped again through her door, she stumbled around in the near-dark for several minutes trying to get her shoes off and her dress hung up, while still hardly able to bend in her stiff corset. After falling against the wall for the third time, Shannon stirred in her bed and looked up.

"What time is it?" she asked groggily.

"I don't know," Eve said. "Dawn, more or less."

"Oh," Sara said, and while she didn't add any words, her face told a further story.

Eve giggled and sat down on Sara's bed. "Since you're awake, tell me all about it."

"No way," Sara said. "In the first place, I don't kiss and tell. And in the second, I'm your mother, for heaven's sake."

"I will if you will," Eve offered.

"What? What did you do?"

"You first."

Sara looked sharply at her child, and even in the dimness she could see that Eve was lightly teasing, without any sign of guilt. Not that Sara felt particularly guilty herself. It had been much to satisfying for that.

"Okay, but I expect full disclosure in return," Sara said. "After we left the restaurant, we looked at the aurora for a while. I was a bit chilly, so Steve put his arms around me . . ."

"Yep, I know exactly what you mean," Eve said with a smirk.

"And then he kissed me," Sara said. "He's kisses . . . very well."

"Awesome," Eve said. "And . . . yep."

"Tad kissed you?" Sara asked.

"This is your part of the story," Eve said. "What happened next?"

"Well, he, um . . . we . . . went back to his stateroom."

"Good," Eve said. "I'd hate to think my own mother was pleasing her man right out in public."

"He's hardly my man," Sara said. "We just met."

"Yep, and you went to bed with him."

"Well, yes, but . . ."

"But nothing, Momma. I'm proud of you. You've totally still 'got it,' and that's pretty impressive for a woman with a grown child."

Sara blushed, but there was pride in her smile as well.

"So, do I win my bet?" Eve asked.

"What . . . oh," and Sara's smile grew. "Yes, I think you do. Even without my corset, I don't think Steve thought I was older than him."

"Absolutely," Eve said, hugging her. "Speaking of which . . . could you get my laces?"

She turned so that Sara could reach the knot on her corset, and lifted her hair.

Sara worked at the tangle for a moment, then abruptly stopped. "Wait a minute. You didn't tell me what you did."

"Actually, I did," Eve said. "We just kissed. It was awesome, and it made me feel deliciously desirable. But I couldn't let it go any further than that."

When Sara finished with the knot and her corset loosened, Eve took a deep, grateful breath. "In fact," she added with a giggle, "I couldn't have gone any further if I wanted to. Tad had me on the edge of passing out just from kissing me."

"Oooh, tell me about it," Sara said with her own giggle. "And I wasn't even wearing a corset."

Eve smiled and tugged at the covers over Sara in an unserious attempt to see what she was wearing. "So, did Steve like the naughty little scanties you were wearing?"

"Oh, yeah," Sara said with a smug grin. "He even, um, interrupted himself just so that he could appreciate them."

"Ah, a connoisseur, was he?"

Sara's eyes got dreamy and she leaned back on to her pillow, "Oh, yeahhh."

"Goodness, girl, you got it bad. So, when are you meeting him again?"

"Oh, we didn't make specific plans. I think they have something to do this morning."

"Well, as Tad just reminded me, there are several days left on this cruise," Eve said, laughing as she rose to finish getting ready for bed.



Chapter 20 - "Common Interests"


"Let me help you with that."

Natasha saw a hand and a slender wrist grabbing another handle on her heavy suitcase and lifting it over the edge of the baggage carousel. She looked up and saw a rather interesting looking young man smiling at her, and together they got the suitcase free of the moving panels and stable at her feet.

"Thank you," she said, smiling and turning back to the carousel. It wasn't really a rejection. Her body language allowed further comment because her shoulders didn't really shut the boy out. On the other hand, by looking back at the carousel she didn't require any further conversation, either.

The boy stood next to her for a few minutes, looking down the baggage mover, apparently waiting for his own bags. After a moment, she realized he was looking at her, but not at her eyes.

::I'm up here, fool,:: she snipped, but silently. ::Americans are so focused on breasts. It's not wonder this boy is alone.::

She looked at him out of the corner of her eye, and tried to decide what made him look so different. It wasn't that he was bad looking. Quite the contrary. He was more . . . tidy than most American boys. Neater. His hair was thick and a bit wavy, almost like he had a real hairstyle captured in his ponytail rather than just a straggly mop. And he was dressed nicely, with jeans that showed his slender hips and a polo shirt that demonstrated his surprisingly trim waist.

Then she had to rethink her judgment of him when he asked, "Do you like that book?"

Natasha looked down to see that instead of ogling her breasts, he had been studying the book under her arm.

"Yes," she said. "I'm only about a third of the way through it. Have you read it?"

"Yes," he said, surprising her again. Natasha had thought it was just a way to restart the conversation. "'Guns, Germs, and Steel,' by Diamond, right? I'm afraid I might have been staring trying to make sure I had the title right. Your arm is covering part of it."

"Oh, sorry," Natasha said, blushing in embarrassment at an unfair assessment only she knew about.

"Hey, it's your book," he said with a laugh. "Cover up any part you want."

She blushed again, then decided a minor gesture was in order to apologize for her silent insult. "I'm Natasha Andronova."

"Adam Cristie," he said in reply. "Where are you traveling from?"

"Everywhere, it seems," she said with a sigh. "I've been traveling a long time, but I started in Georgia."

"I'm assuming, from your name and your charming accent, that we're not talking about the US state," he said, smiling again.

::He thinks my accent is charming,:: Natasha thought suddenly, then tried to rein in her emotions. ::It's an obvious line, but it was nice of him to try not to make me feel inferior because my English is not perfect.::

Once upon a time, Adam would have been thoroughly tongue-tied after a few words with a pretty girl. At least, any girl other than Alexis. ::Hell, not too long ago, I wouldn't even have mentioned the book.:: he thought to himself. ::Being on the other side of the fence has taught me a few things, not the least of which is how to reject unwanted attention. And she's not sending those signals, so . . .::

Returning to the book, he said, "I thought his analysis of the importance of grains, and in particular of getting protein from grains so a society could transition to an agriculture basis was compelling," he said. Natasha nodded so he continued, "But I'm afraid I didn't find his analysis of animals convincing at all, and that's really the basis for his overall conclusions. In particular, those dealing with the 'Germs' of his title."

"Oh," she said, lifting an arched brow in invitation to continue.

"I don't want to spoil the ending for you," he said, grinning again. "But I think the first part is really the best part of that book. After you read it, you may want to read, 'Chaos and Culture' by Victor Davis Hansen. He has an interesting take on the question."

"Indeed," she said, eyes widening a bit to find actual scholarship in an American teenager. And on something outside their own celebrities, no less.

Adam watched her expressive eyes and felt a twinge of concern. He had quit plucking his own brows, except for a few stragglers, right after the contest and that had been almost a month ago. But they were still a bit too 'shaped' for most guys and he was wondering what she thought about him. In his own mind's eye, he was at least androgynous even with his no-prescription glasses, but he hoped not effeminate. At least, not in the beautiful eyes of this girl. Still, it had only been a few days since he had stopped being Eve full time, and the difference from Eve - which seemed so huge to him - might not have been enough for someone starting from a more typical standard of reference. Having a bare face, and no hips, and little stud earrings, and tied-back hair, and low heels . . . ::It's like I'm a different person,:: he thought laughing internally at himself. Then her frowned as he thought about all the things that hadn't changed, like his fine bone structure and those half-grown-back eyebrows, particularly since his dark hair made them stand out so distinctly.

Natasha was blonde, but it was a dark blonde, with lighter streaks that looked like the work of natural sunlight, not added-in highlights. It was hard to tell how long it was because she had it knotted up in a twist under a flat clasp, but he thought it might be medium-to-long - about like his, in fact. And she looked reasonably fit, though not particularly athletic like Alexis or one of the cheerleaders. ::She might want to get contacts,:: he thought, ::because her own glasses hide too much of her eyes. Green, or maybe hazel.::

"Oops," he said, blushing himself. "I'm afraid I'm staring again. You're really very pretty."

"Thank you," she said quietly, blushing herself. Trying to return the conversation to innocuous topics, she asked, "What was the name of that other book again?"

Adam told her, and they talked for another couple of minutes while they waited for the rest of their bags.

Adam pulled his mother's second bag off the carousel, which took away any excuse to stay at the machine. "So, you'll be going to Bradley High School?" he asked.

"Yes, I think so," she said.

"Good," he said. "Can I help you with your bags?"

"No, thank you. I'm meeting my uncle and his family. I'm sure they'll be here soon. The plane just got in a bit early."

"Yeah, imagine that," Adam said wryly. "I guess I'll see you around."

She nodded, smiling a bit shyly again.

When Adam pulled the cart with all their luggage over to Sara, she was smiling at him. "Goodness, you don't waste much time. You've only been Adam for- what? - two days now? And you're already flirting with girls?"

"I wasn't flirting, Mom," he said, blushing. "Just helping her with her bags."

"Ah, but we both know the very best flirting is done when it's not officially flirting," Sara said with a snicker.

Adam blushed again, and it flared even brighter when Sara asked, "So, did you get her name and number?"

"Just her name," he murmured, then he grinned and shrugged. "But she's going to be going to Bradley, so I'll see her again."

"Good," Sara said, hugging him quickly then moving to push the cart toward the exit.

Adam had it pretty well under control so she took care of their carry-on bags and they moved away from the press in the baggage claim area. They reached the curb and flagged a taxi, and in a few minutes they were on their way.

Sara sat quietly looking out the windows for a few minutes, then said, "Are you going to call Alexis when we get home?"

Adam didn't twitch at her question so she knew he had been thinking about the same thing.

"Yeah, of course," he said after a moment. "I mean, she's always been my best friend, but . . ."

"But she's still a little selfish," Sara finished for him. "I'm getting the impression there's something more, though."

"Yeah, maybe," admitted Adam. "The girl I met, Natasha . . ?"

"Nice of you to tell me her name," Sara teased.

"Yeah, well, she was in the middle of an interesting book on cultural development," Adam said. "And I was just thinking that I couldn't imagine Alexis reading a book like that, certainly not if it wasn't required, and even if it was, she'd skim it and ask me what it was really about."

"Yes?" Sara prodded gently.

"It's just . . . how much do Alexis and I really have in common? I mean, aside from growing up together. But in real interests, I mean."

"I don't know, dear," Sara said. "But it seems to me that's an important question."

"Yeah," Adam said quietly, turning to look out the window again.

After another few minutes, he looked back at Sara again. "But . . . you know we, um, what we did in the hotel. How is it gonna look if I just . . . pay attention to someone else after that? I don't want to hurt her."

"That's very nice of you, dear," Sara said. "Are you, ah, sure that she isn't paying attention to someone else herself?"

"Oh," Adam said. "I never thought about that."

"You might need to," Sara said. "I don't think Alexis was exactly a wallflower before you two . . . made love."

"Was it making love?" asked Adam. "Really?"

"I don't know, honey. I suppose only you know that."

"Yeah," he sighed. "And I'm afraid it wasn't. At least, not for both of us."

Sara blushed, and looked back out the window herself. She had shared several more intimate times with Steve, and thoroughly enjoyed them. But was it actually making love? If she had to ask . . . well, that was an answer, wasn't it?

Adam didn't need psychic powers to know what his mother had been thinking about as she looked out the window this time. It brought a smile to his eyes as he remembered his own times with Tad. They had never reached the level of intimacy that 'Shannon' had shared with Steve, of course. But it did progress just a bit beyond kissing.

The first time Tad had raised the level of the involvement, Eve hadn't even noticed. At least, not right away. They were watching some silly movie in the ship's theater - a classic date, but also an excuse to be away from their staterooms for the convenience of their roommates. Somewhere in the darkness, Tad had started lightly brushing Eve's full breast with his finger.

Except it wasn't really part of Eve. When she realized what he was doing, she almost laughed out loud in the theater. And then she blushed in the darkness, more because she had almost been found out then because the situation Tad knew about was embarrassing. In order to cover up her delay in realizing what he was doing, she couldn't really make him stop. And, true to the tradition of red-blooded American men, he pressed his advantage. Literally, by caressing the swell within her bra with gentle insistence.

Eve decided that she would let him go that far, but no further. It wasn't really her he was touching, and it if made him feel she was not rejecting him, only unusually demure for a 'modern woman' because she wouldn't go to bed with him, well, that was one way to keep him occupied while Shannon was . . . occupied.

Then Tad raised the stakes another notch, and this time she did react. He had been holding her hand during the movie when the onscreen scene shifted to one that was a bit racy. Specifically, the heroine let her hand drift down a bit and obviously stroke her lover's excitement through his pants, though just barely off-camera. In the darkness, Tad moved their joined hands so that Eve's palm was resting on his own thick bulge.

She twitched and leaned back, causing Tad to sit up straighter and put his encircling arm on the back of her seat so that he was no longer caressing her bosom, either. But, in a dance older than time, a few minutes later Tad's arm was back on her shoulder, then around her shoulder and lightly caressing the so-feminine swell he had explored before. And in the next steamy onscreen scene, his hand pulled hers once again toward his waist, though this time he held it there, allowing her to make the choice.

Eve had laughed again, though only on the inside. This time, she was laughing at herself as much as at Tad. After all she had done, was rubbing his hidden erection - through his pants - all that much worse than sharing soul-deep kisses? What would a real girl do?

That answer was obvious, so she let her hand move down and press lightly on the firmness she found. Eve never knew whether any of her caresses - and that was not the only time they were in a dark, secluded spot together - had actually caused Tad to fill his boxers. If he actually wore boxers, because she never found that out, either. But it had certainly been possible. It seemed that every time Steve and Shannon disappeared, Tad found some quiet place they could kiss and . . . do a bit more.

It never progressed beyond caresses through clothes, though. In her case, she couldn't let him go any further, and she wasn't interested in doing any more to him. So she ended up being a terrible tease for the rest of the cruise.

And Shannon ended up smiling an awful lot of the time.

After a moment Sara turned back to Adam. "I can hardly criticize you when Steve and I did essentially the same thing on the cruise. I trust you'll find an answer."

"I hope so," Adam said, then his eyes lit up with a teasing grin. "So, did I win our bet?"

"What bet?" Sara said, but her blush made it clear she remembered very well.

"Did good ol' Steverino ever figure out you were my mother?"

"I don't think so," she said, her blush maintaining its hold on her cheeks, but a bit of pride showing in her smile.

"Good," Adam said. "That's one you owe me."

"Yes, Adam, I do certainly owe you," Sara agreed, suddenly serious. "I love you so much."

"Thanks, mom," he said, hugging her in the back of the cab. "I love you, too."

*******************
5 Years Later . . .

*******************

"Goodness, Mr. Cristie, you could almost be the hero of your own stories," the woman said. She slid her copy of his book onto the table in front of him.

"Thank you, ma'am," he said politely. "But I think it's a lot easier to write about a brave and resourceful person than to be one."

"I'm sure you're right," she said, smiling indulgently. "But I have this feeling that with your imagination, you'd find yourself more like your hero than you think."

::More than you'll ever know,:: Adam agreed silently.

He was at a book signing for his second novel. The first had been moderately successful, never quite reaching the New York Times list, but profitable for the publisher who had contracted for a sequel - and quite profitable for Adam as well. The hero of the stories was an 18th century British spy; a master of disguise who just happened to be androgynous in appearance and could masquerade quite convincingly as a woman. About that part, Adam was indeed an expert.

His introspective smile was, in truth, a reaction to her comment if not quite in the way she might have expected, and she waited patiently for him to look up at her again.

"May I put anything special in the inscription for you?"

"Would you?" she asked with delight. "Please make it: To the other Chas."

"Oh, your husband is named Charles, too?" Adam asked. The character in his book was Charles Halliwell, or 'Chas,' . . . when he wasn't being Chastity Halliwell.

"Actually, my son is Chas," she said. The she leaned down to whisper in Adam's ear. "Though there are a few hints that he might like to be Chastity at least some of the time, too. I'm going to use your book as a . . . as an opportunity, so that if he has anything to tell me, it will be okay."

"Good for you," Adam said, quietly but not a whisper, so that those in line could hear the praise. The woman blushed and smiled again, finally moving on.

Adam was approaching the time for another break - as his cramped fingers were only too ready to tell him - when a well-worn copy of his first book slid onto the table. Before he could look up, the owner was whispering in his ear.

"Sign it: BFF - Eve."

"Alli?" he said, looking up in surprise.

"Hi, Adam," she said easily, though there was a tightness in her smile that he didn't remember from their high school days.

"Geez, Alli, I haven't seen you in forever."

"Seems like," she agreed.

Adam looked at the line and saw that there were only a few more people waiting to have him sign their books. "Look, Alli, can you stay for a few minutes?"

"Well, duh," she said, laughing. "Why'd'you think I waited until now to get in line?"

Adam blushed, but he smiled and turned to the next in line. In truth, it only took a few minutes to finish up, and he looked around again for Alexis.

"God, Alli, you are just as beautiful as ever," he sighed as she walked up to her.

"Geez, Adam, if you'd have had lines that good in high school . . ."

"It's not a line," he insisted, taking her gently by the elbow and steering her toward the little coffee shop in the bookstore.

"Thank you, Adam. It's nice of you to say so, but we both know it's not true," she said.

She wasn't really as pretty as the teen queen he had known for so long, but it wasn't because of any external changes. She was still tall, very shapely, and dressed in flattering, stylish clothes. But it didn't take someone with Adam's attention to detail to see the flat, grayness of the spirit that had replaced her prior exuberance.

They chatted innocuously, mostly about Adam's books, while they waited for their coffee, then found a seat. As soon as they were situated, Alexis said, "I suppose you heard that I'm divorced."

Adam nodded. Their mothers were still friends and they both knew that information passed through that conduit. "I'm sorry, Alli."

"I'm not," she said sharply. "Not about getting rid of that bastard, anyway."

Then she sighed and sagged a bit in her chair. "But, like most of the rest of the world, I'm sorry for what might have been."

She looked directly at Adam when she said that, but didn't add anything.

She looked away, and then started talking softly, almost as though to herself. "I thought it would be so perfect. He was a football star, on the way to a great career in the pros. Great personality. Lots of family money and even more on the way from the NFL . . ."

She looked back at Adam and blushed. "Y'know, to this day, I don't know if I let my birth control pills lapse by accident or on purpose. I got to the placebo interval - I never took those - and somehow I didn't get started up again when I should have."

"I think Freud had something to say about that," Adam said with a smile.

"Yeah, exactly," Alexis agreed. "In any event, I got pregnant and he decided he'd like a kid, so we got married."

"And then he blew out his knee," Adam said.

"Yeah," Alexis agreed bitterly. "Another 'what might have been.'"

Adam just sat quietly, waiting for Alexis to continue.

"I've tried to understand," she claimed with a sob. "I thought about what I might do for something, y'know, similar. Like if I was in an accident and my face got all messed up or something. Something that took away a big part of my self image."

He nodded his understanding, and she tried to smile at his gentle support, but the smile didn't work. She held her breath for a long moment, trying to get it under control, but that didn't stop the silent tears from running down her cheeks. Finally, in a tight, tiny whisper, she said, "He hit me."

"Oh?" Adam said, surprised at this. Then he frowned and a look of resolve showed on his fine-featured face. Someone looking at that moment would have had no trouble understanding the source for the ruthless assassin of his novels.

"He did it where it wouldn't show," Alexis said, still whispering. One hand went to rest on her abdomen. "At first, it was just my shoulders or my side, but then . . ."

She broke down in sobs and Adam moved to comfort her. She buried her face in his shoulder and the words were almost - but not quite - too muffled to hear. "I think he wanted to kill the baby. And in the end, he succeeded."

"Oh, Alli, I'm so sorry," Adam said softly, stroking her hair. Feeling it become damp as his own tears fell on her.

"Oh, God, Adam, I thought I had it so together, that I was so superior, and all I've done is screw up my life while you're . . ."

"Still your best friend forever," Adam said with a little smile.

He pulled her back and looked in her red-rimmed eyes. "Alli, you always have been, and always will be, special to me. I know you're a wonderful, capable person."

Alexis put a not-very-convincing smile on her face and caught her breath. After a moment the smile became more real, though with a bitter undertone. She tried to tease him, though it was just a bit too real for a tease.

"Is that why you started going with that Russian girl?"

"Georgian," Adam said.

"You're going with someone else? Mother didn't tell me."

"No," Adam said, smiling his own not-too-humorous smile. "Natasha was from Georgia. It's part of the old USSR, but not part of Russia."

"Oh," Alexis said, then she frowned and said, "Whatever. So . . ?"

"She was just an exchange student and we had some common interests. When she went back to Georgia, it wasn't the end of the world for either of us."

"You mean, she was smarter than me," Alexis said.

"Actually, no," Adam disagreed, surprising her. "I always thought you were as smart as any girl I knew. You just focused your intellect on . . . non-academic topics."

"Thank you, Adam, but I'm nowhere near as smart as you."

"Of course not," he said, grinning. "But you are as smart as any girl I know."

"Oh, wow, wait'll I tell the press you're a chauvinist pig," Alexis said, laughing despite her distress.

"My secrets have always been safe with you, Alli," Adam said, hugging her.

She looked at him for a while, then asked softly, "Is Eve still around?"

"Sometimes," he said calmly. "We never told Jake, so she couldn't really be around at home."

"Oh, yeah, I heard your mother remarried. Do you like him?"

"He's okay," Adam said wryly. "I don't know if I ever told you, but Mom was worried that I might not have had, um, access to like, traditional male activities. Baseball games and fishing trips, that sort of thing. Jake likes to do that, and she encouraged me to give it a try."

He sighed and added, "He's a nice guy, and doesn't try to be anything he's not, but that's just not where my interests lie. I think we're both happy that, after college, I got an apartment right away."

"So you can be Eve now, whenever you want?"

"Yes," he said. "But it's no big deal."

Adam smiled again, and said, "I suppose ol' Freud would have fun with me, too, because I tell myself that sometimes when I dress it's research for my books, but I know that's an excuse. I like being pretty. But when I get into writing a book, I might go a month at a time without dressing. And it doesn't bother me. I guess you can decide what it all means as well as I can."

"Hardly," she said. By now she had composed herself and somewhere in their conversation Adam sat down again, so she could talk without it being a major emotional issue. In a cryptic non sequitur, she said, "I looked the words up."

"Sorry?" Adam said.

"You said the Greeks recognized three different kinds of love, and I looked them up. Agape, philios, and eros."

"Oh, yeah."

"I looked into a lot of things, since we went to separate schools," she said, then she laughed. "I know now what you were talking about - how you were willing to give me philios and even agape, while I was stuck on eros. I had . . . a lot of growing up to do." Her eyes brightened and she said, "You know, you might be right - about me being smarter than people think I mean. I had fun in classes that were decidedly - what did you say? - 'academic.' Philosophy, history, that sort of thing. I'm going to go back to school and get my degree. I'm thinking history."

"Good for you," Adam said with sincere praise. He looked back into the bookstore and saw that a line was forming for the next signing session. "Look, Alli, I have to go. But I'd like to see you again. Are you free for dinner, say, Saturday night?"

"Why, Adam, are you asking me on a date?"

"Looks like," he said with a grin. "Seven o'clock okay?"

"Fine," she said. "I'm staying at my mother's house until I get started in school again."

"Great. At least I know where it is," he said.

"Should I expect you . . . or Eve?" Alexis asked with a teasing grin.

"Whoever you'd like," Adam said, not rising to her bait except with a grin of his own.

She looked thoughtfully for a moment, then said, "I think I'd prefer Adam. At least this time."

"As you wish," Adam said leaning over to kiss her lightly before going back to his signing.



Finis


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