Love among The Unfallen at every wavelength of heaven’s light.

Today is the last day to get The Unfallen – my rom-com novel with real romance and real comedy – for free. Invest yourself in this extract, if you like, or just snag the book while it’s free. This is the just-plain-fun of a newly-won love, a fun way to meet Gwen and Devin.

Fair warning: This post is comprised of an extract from my novel, The Unfallen. If you permit yourself to read this, you will be exposed to romantic fiction involving sexually playful adults engaged in actual life-like grown-up encounters. If you’re not comfortable with that kind of thing, skip ahead now. The nets are awash in content, after all, and almost none of it is about grown-ups. This post is nothing but a tiny glob of glowing phosphor on the vast oceans of information. Feel free to swim away with my blessings.

But: If you do want to catch a glimpse of actual grown-ups in action, I might have what you need. The Splendor that is the grail of my life is a state of mind, a state of being, a mental fugue state where being and awareness of being and worship of and delight in being all become the same thing. The fiction I write – or the best of the fiction I write – is about people who live – and who know enough to love – that Splendor. The extract shown below is a snapshot of those kind of people at their best.

The Unfallen is a work of large ambition: I wanted to rescue romance from the Romance genre as a worthy subject of literature, and I wanted to rescue sex from smut. But more than both of those, I wanted – I want, continuously – to rescue the ideas of reverence and worship and rejoicing and adoration and exaltation from the grave, from empty pie-in-the-sky promises. I know that the ideas I treasure are real because I live them in my own life, in my very best moments. The self-adoring life can be yours, too. After all, who can stop you?

From The UnfallenChapter 3

Date: Fri, 28 Nov 1997 13:17:35 -0500
Subject: You

	you come to me by starlight
	in a gown of gauzy white
	your sacraments revealed concealed
	high priestess of the night
	you whisper vespers whisper prayers
	whisper vows of faith and fear
	in still and silent grace you stand
	as i in trembling awe draw near
	i kneel in worship grasp your hand
	press it to my searing lips
	pray god to know the endless peace
	flowing from your fingertips
	you come to me in night divine
	your glory lit by crowning gold
	you consecrate by hungry glance
	devotion's heat in evening's cold
	you come to me i kneel i stand
	you lay me on the dewy ground
	you guide my worship guide my hands
	lead my heart your heart to sound
	you speak to me with loving grace
	you catechize in passion's glow
	you reach you teach you seethe and burn
	and i am blessed by truth to know
	you come to me in gauzy gown
	high priestess of the night
	i lay in awe in faith in fear
	lifted to your heaven's light

The poem was waiting for Gwen when she got out of the shower. She had been checking the net habitually, fanatically, obsessively. She checked for mail from him even when she knew there would be none, when there could be none. She knew he was flying today and she felt certain there could be no mail, but she checked anyway.

She was naked, just a white shower robe half off her shoulders, and her hair was still wet. She could feel little droplets of water running down her back. But she was lost, too. She sat on the edge of her chair reading the poem over and over again. So chaste. So sexual. So reverent. So frenzied. So fearful. So courageous. So playful, yet so enthrallingly serious.

He was teasing her, of course. For his birthday, she had sent him three gifts. First was a very scanty pair of cobalt blue silk panties, a creation of breathtaking omissions. Next had come an off-white silk gown, very short. And the third present had been an ankle-length white nightgown in soft tatted cotton lace. No sleeves, of course, and a plunging back, but it did look like a sacramental gown, like a wedding gown almost.

She shucked off her robe and went back to the bathroom to dry her hair. It had been an awful two weeks, awful and wonderful. She had had him all to herself for those first ten days before he went to Arizona, all to herself by email at least. But then she had to share him, and he was attentive and solicitous and there was a note or phone call every day and it wasn’t the same at all. His notes were brief and hurried and she knew they had to be, but she had grown used to having great long letters from him, letters that she could read over and over again.

To compensate, she wrote to him at length, greater length than he had time to address, she knew. And her work suffered and she had begun adapting things she had written for him to her column and she knew they were too intimate, too vulnerable, and yet her reader mail seemed to double with each new column. He had cost her that, too, her professionalism, her cool detachment. She stood at the mirror, stopped, transfixed, the comb caught half-way down her hair. She stared through her own reflection, stared a hole through the universe. Him and his inverted sexual metaphors. She wondered if she had quite so many things stuck into him as he had stuck into her…

She shook her head and laughed at herself. She put down her comb and went to sit on the edge of the bed, her knees apart, her palms flat against the insides of her knees. It was a young girl’s pose and it made her feel very vulnerable. She pictured his hands there instead, coming at her the opposite way, prying her open. That thought made her weak and there was something burning in her throat and she threw her head back and the skin of her neck was stretched taut against the tendons. She lay back on the bed and touched herself here and here and here, not in stimulation but simply in recognition, in celebration.

She threw her arms out wide, her palms flat against the bed clothes, basking in the heat of her longing. Open to him, ready for him, accepting of him, vulnerable to him, needing him, needing him, needing him. Hungry for him, hungry in a way she’d never known before.

She made herself get up because she didn’t want to. She went to her dresser and withdrew a pair of white cotton panties. She stepped into them, then fastened the gold chain around her neck. Then she sat down to write. She knew it would please him if he could see her this way. Her feet and her legs and her neck and her back and her belly and her chest and her breasts, all naked, with just a coy and token concealment of her better secrets. And with the gold chain there, catching the light and shooting it back in a warming radiance, to answer any doubts either of them might have.

Date: Fri, 28 Nov 1997 14:39:11 -0500
Subject: You

	I took myself to the vet at the zoo
	To measure my animal heat for you
	He sounded my skull with a rap on my head
	And said I might need psychiatry instead
	The shrink had no patience for gross physiology
	The shrink had no practical use for ontology
	He said, 'I ponder imponderables, both little and small
	I measure immeasurables that aren't there at all
	If it's fever or burning or a chilling condition
	Get out of my office! Go see a physician!'
	The doctor was kind for a man in a hurry
	I told him about you but he said, 'Not to worry!
	You think you're the first girl with this problem I bet
	Take this prescription you coulda got from the vet'
	I said, 'Doc, forgive me, the thing is I'm not ill
	It's my thoughts, it's my passions, my pastimes, my will
	He simply possesses me with love soft and sweet
	From the ends of my hairs to the soles of my feet
	I sleep him, I dream him, I wake him and then
	He captures my soul for the whole day again
	I seek no escape. No! I AM his belonging
	I just want to know, is this love or mere longing?'
	He started to speak then he paused then reflected
	He said, 'On its face this is oddly complected
	Here's my son-in-law's card, what an ass, what a jerk
	He's mostly no help but he sure needs the work'
	The son-in-law worked from a dingy apartment
	The off-off-off-off-campus physics department
	He called me an idiot, he called me a dope
	Then he took me to task with a spectroscope
	But the answer he found was an answer divine
	Not love, Dear, not lust, but the two locked in twine
		For he saw my passion burning bright
		At every wavelength of heaven's light

She got herself dressed and she was quite mercenary about it. A gray wool skirt, off the knee. No hosiery. A white cashmere sweater, vee-neck to show the chain, cuffs pulled up to the forearms. No brassiere. For shoes she wore a simple pair of flats in glove soft black leather. The outfit made her look young and ripe, like a college girl at a dance. The cashmere felt wonderful on the skin of her breasts, and she knew she would be aroused there all day. She knew she looked ravishing, and she knew she looked like a woman who wanted and needed and very much deserved ravishment. She gathered up Spencer and the food and they drove into Boston.

Bayview is a tiny little pocket neighborhood, the last of its kind. It consists of true townhomes, brick and stone and brownstone three-story houses, each one occupied by a single family. It’s bounded by the MassPike and the JFK Expressway and the New England Medical Center and the Combat Zone, by eminent domain past and imminent. When the houses were built, it was essentially a little middle-class suburb; all the fathers would walk or take the streetcar to their jobs in downtown Boston. Single-family townhomes in the city are a costlier proposition today, and Devin’s neighbors are all fairly prosperous people clinging to a small garden of civility against the onslaught of smoke and squalor.

Devin’s house was right at the end of the block, facing the play-yard of Saint Timothy’s. It was brick painted in a gun-metal gray with white trimming at the doors and windows. There was a wrought iron railing around a tiny little porch, more like a landing, and a wrought iron boot rail to harken back to the days, not that long ago, when Boston had been paved in mud. At either side of the door were two light fixtures in gleaming brass and frosted glass.

Spencer half behind her on the landing, Gwen pressed the doorbell.

The door was opened by a young girl in jeans and sneakers and a rugby shirt. “You must be Gretchen,” Gwen said. “I’m Gwendolyn Jones and this is my son, Spencer. I hope we’re not too early.”

Gretchen took a moment longer than necessary examining Spencer. She said, “No. Yes. Everything’s fine. Please come in.”

Stairway up, stairway down, right inside the door. Classic Boston architecture, to congest the entire family at one spot several times a day. To the left of the stairs was the living room, a great open space, very masculine but very warm. One whole wall was devoted to bookshelves, and the bottom two shelves of each had been given over to toys and action figures.

Gretchen said, “You can throw your coats on the sofa for now and take a seat. Can I get you anything?”

“No, thank you. Spencer, will you be a prince and bring the food in from the car?”

“I’ll help,” Gretchen said, and the two of them went back outside.

Gwen hadn’t worn a coat even though it was quite cold. Inside her sweater her nipples were knotted from the cold and from the tickling of the cashmere and from her longing and she was very much aware of them, could feel their motion in even the smallest breath. When Devin came down the stairs they seemed to grow even harder and they burned to be touched.

When he saw her he stopped. He hadn’t meant to, he just forgot what he was doing, forgot where he was. She was so beautiful, so radiant, so perfect. He saw the gold of her hair answered in the gold of the chain and he saw her breast bone rising and falling with each of her breaths. He saw her nipples standing out so achingly hard and he assumed it was all for him and by then it was. He moved toward her and she moved toward him and they met in the middle of the room, not in an embrace but a collision. He hugged her so hard he lifted her from the floor, and when he realized he had he spun with her. He wanted to hook an arm under her knees and spin her all around the room, treasuring her in his arms.

Instead he set her down and stroked his fingertips along the downy fine hairs of her cheeks. He kissed her tenderly, longingly, enduringly. “I missed you,” he said softly, his lips brushing against hers. “I missed you more than I knew I could.”

She said nothing, just pressed her cheek to his chest and pulled herself more tightly to him. The burning in her throat was back, much worse, and her eyes were watery and wet. She wasn’t crying, not quite, but she was right on the line. She was amazed at herself, actually, amazed and mildly disgusted and very, very happy.

He pushed back on her shoulders a little and looked down between them. Her cheeks were flushed and her chest was flushed and he could see an artery throbbing, throbbing, throbbing on her neck. Her hips were locked to his and her nipples looked like they were going to burn through the cashmere at any second. He said, “I don’t know how you do it. You pick clothes that seem so chaste, so pure, so innocent. But when you wear them you look so sexy, so wild…”

“So hungry, Devin. It emanates from the core of me outward, so it doesn’t matter what I wear. And I am terribly hungry for you. It’s all I’ve been able to think about all day. And your son is here. And my son is here. And your young Gretchen is here. And your other guests will be here. And all day long, every time you look at me, you’ll know that I want nothing more than to sweep every bit of everything off the dining room table and climb atop you right there and take you until you make me scream. That will be the penance you will pay for having invited me, to know that I can think of nothing but having you, and to know that you can’t have me because you’ve infested your house with too many guests. You could teach Dante a thing or two, I’ll bet.”

He clasped his hands at her waist then pushed his way up the fabric of her sweater. He cupped her breasts in his hands and she drew in her breath quickly and forgot to release it. He said, “I like this bra. Do you have others like it?”

She laughed despite herself. “Just the one.”

“I’ll try not to wear it out, then.” Her nipples were trapped between his fingers and he was kneading them, kneading them, kneading them.

“What–” she started, then started over. “What are you doing to me?”

“It’s just a little something I learned from Dante…” He tried for a wicked smile but she knew he was as weakened as she was.

She moved his hands from her breasts, not because she didn’t love it but because she loved it too much. She was just in time, in any case, because Gretchen and Spencer burst through the door with the chests of food. Devin pulled away and tried to look proper, but he couldn’t hide the smile on his face. And he couldn’t take his hands away from her entirely; he hooked his fingers into hers and held onto her that way.

“Follow me,” Gretchen said, leading Spencer to the kitchen.

“I should help unpack that,” said Gwen.

Devin nodded. “I need to get dressed.”

“Whatever for? You look fine.” He was wearing a dark green cotton sweater peppered with little flecks of red and blue and black. And deep blue sweat pants. No shoes or socks. “You said this would be a very homey party. And you look to be a man very much at home.”

“You win. Hunter’s napping; long day, long night. I’ll go get him up and you can go help the kids in the kitchen. Can you find your way all right?”

“I’ll just listen for kids in a kitchen. Can’t go wrong, can I?”

He started to move away but they were still locked together at the fingers. She spun her hand around in his and pulled him back to her hard. She kissed him abruptly, explosively, enduringly. When their lips parted she let her head fall straight back and she seemed to speak to the ceiling. “I’m going to regret this, I know it. And I’m going to treasure my regrets for the rest of my life…” She laughed and kissed him again quickly and darted away.

In the kitchen the kids weren’t doing much of anything, just unpacking the chests of food and spreading carefully wrapped bowls and platters all over the butcher block center island. It was a gourmet kitchen: refrigerators under the butcher block, a pot rack overhead, two conventional ovens stacked one atop the other and a huge range with a convection oven. Plenty of counter space, plenty of cabinet space, big, deep sinks. Gwen said, “Someone must like to cook.”

Gretchen grinned. “It sure isn’t Doctor Dwyer. I think this kitchen was set up for his mother or his grandmother.”

Gwen was poking through the things that had been spread out everywhere. “Spencer, there’s a bag of utensils in the back seat. We’ll be needing them, I think.” Spencer walked back out toward the living room. To Gretchen she said, “I’m going to need one of those ovens. Can I just have my way with it?”

“Sure. Take the top one. It’s easier.” Gwen started working and Gretchen said, “I, uh… I’ve been wanting to meet you…”

“Has he told you about me then?”

“No. Not much. Not anything, really. I just guessed. He’s just been so different for the last month or so. Not even a month.”

Gwen smiled. Almost she sighed. “Not even a month…”

“He’s in love with you. Did you know that?”

“I didn’t and I don’t. Love is an easy word to say. But it’s a very hard thing to live. Love that comes fast goes fast, don’t you think?”

Gretchen’s eyes were grave and a little teary. The skin at the sides of her mouth was stretched taut. “Don’t–” she said. “Please don’t…” She half turned and hid her mouth behind her hand.

“Whatever it is, just say it.” Gwen smiled warmly. “I learned that from him…”

Gretchen turned back and her face was wracked by grief and she was right on the verge of bawling. “Please don’t hurt him!”

Gwen held her arms open at her sides. “Come here, love.” Gretchen folded herself into her arms and Gwen stroked at her hair. She wanted to sing to her as she had sung to Spencer. She said, “You love him very much, don’t you?”

“Not that way!”

“I didn’t mean that way. You love him as a friend, as a brother.”

“As family. I come from a very close family and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it when I came to school. But Doctor Dwyer and Hunter gave me back some of what I’d lost. They’ve given me a lot more since then.”

Gwen said nothing, just hugged the girl and let her cry.

“I know she hurt him. Hunter’s mother. He’s never told me the story and I’ve never asked. But he was still getting divorced when I came here, and you’re the first woman in all that time. That says something, doesn’t it?”

“I won’t hurt him, dear. No, I can’t make a promise like that. I’ll try not to hurt him. I don’t want to hurt him. To the contrary.” She smiled a secret smile into Gretchen’s hair.

“How do… How do you do this?”

“Do what, dear?”

“We only just met and I–”

Gwen smiled. “It’s a gift I have. Almost everyone who meets me hates me on sight. The few who don’t tell me their deepest secrets almost immediately. I’m a catalyst of souls, I think.” She kissed Gretchen lightly on the forehead. “Come on, love. Dry your eyes and let’s get back to work.”

Gretchen wiped her eyes with a paper towel. “I knew you’d be beautiful.”

“Thank you.”

“He deserves someone beautiful. He’s so beautiful. Well, he’s not, but he is. Does that make sense? Sometimes I wish I could be beautiful…”

“But you are, dear, just as he is. Beauty comes from inside you. Your hair and skin are just there to contain it, to keep it from spilling all over. People who are pretty on the outside and empty on the inside aren’t beautiful. I find them very ugly, don’t you? A woman who is beautiful on the inside is simply stunning in the dark.”

Gretchen smiled and a little of her beauty leaked out.

Devin appeared in the kitchen, Spencer beside him and a little boy in his arms. He said, “Hunter, that blonde haired lady over there is Gwendolyn Jones, Spencer’s mother. You can call her Gwen. Gwen, meet Hunter.” Gwen gave a courtly half bow and Hunter giggled.

He wriggled out of his father’s arms and went to stand in front of Gwen. He said. “You should have come to Arizona with us. I saw a lizard this big.” He held his arms at about the width of his small shoulders. Across the room Devin held his thumb and forefinger about four inches apart.

Gwen picked the boy up and set him on the butcher block so they were almost eye to eye. His eyes were very much like his father’s, but gray, not green. He had thin brown hair and it hung loose and straight and very shiny on his head. His teeth were straight and white and perfect. He was a beautiful little boy in a beautiful blue Nike sweat suit. No shoes or socks and little round toes that looked good enough to eat. She said, “The next time you go, invite me. I might come. I’ve never been to Arizona.”

“We have horses. Can you ride a horse?”

Devin started to speak but she beat him to it. “It’s been a while. Maybe you could show me.”

While Gwen and Hunter chatted, Devin stepped over to murmur to Gretchen. If he noticed the tearstuff in her eyes, he didn’t say so. “That Spencer’s a good looking boy,” he murmured.

“He sure is…”

“He’s too young for you.”

She snorted. “He’s too everything for me. Hunter’s more my speed, I’m afraid.”

He put his arm around her and pulled her close to him. “I’m glad you could be with us this year.”

She nodded and her eyes welled up again. “I like her. I like her a lot.”

Devin smiled from his eyes to his cheeks to his chest. “Me, too…” At full voice he said, “Hunter, why don’t you and Gretchen take Spencer down to the playrooms and show him all your toys.”

“Playrooms?” said Gwen.

Devin chuckled. “An only child of too much money. There’s an exercise room filled with my toys. And a family room and a computer room and we’re thinking about building a train room, aren’t we, Hunter?”

To Spencer, Hunter said, “I have a Nintendo 64!”

Spencer’s eyes lit up and Devin said, “Here’s your chance to get your butt kicked at basketball by a five-year-old.”

“We’ll have to see about that, won’t we?” Spencer said.

Gretchen loaded Hunter into her arms and led Spencer back to the front of the house, to the basement stairs.

Gwen said, “‘Sun tanned, windblown, honeymooners at last alone…’”

Devin smiled. “Do you want to cook? Or just simmer?”

“I think I should like to sizzle. But I think I will, anyway, so let’s cook.”

Gwen continued loading things into the oven and the refrigerators. Devin dug out a huge bowl and began to tear lettuce and cut vegetables for an enormous salad. He felt very close to her, very comfortable, and it was nice just to be with her.

“Gretchen thinks the world of you,” she said.

“That’s mutual. Hunter thinks she made the stars.”

“You’re surrounded by love, aren’t you?”

He touched one finger – just one finger – to the back of her hand. “Almost enough…”

She felt the ground giving way beneath her and she pressed her palms hard to the countertop. “You really know how to make a woman feel needed…”

He grinned. “Homonyms. Is that ‘needed’ with an ‘N’, or ‘kneaded’ with a ‘K’?”

She grinned back. “First one, then the other.”

“No, first both, then both. The one is the other or neither is anything, don’t you think? Would my touch mean anything to you without your knowledge of what I feel for you? Would you want my feeling without my touch?”

She pressed still harder on the counter and she couldn’t look at him, but still she spoke. “I missed you very much, Devin. More than you can guess. I had your feeling but not your touch, but that wasn’t the half of it. You’ve become a part of me, a big part. Twenty days, twenty-five days? I can’t remember what my life was like before you. I think it must have been very dull.”

He laid his hand atop hers and squeezed. “This is what I want, Gwen. First both, then both. If you want it, too, we can have it together. If we’re strong enough, forever.”

She wanted to turn and kiss him. For a start. Luckily the doorbell rang.

“Our other guests,” said Devin. “I’ll be back.” When he returned, he was accompanied by a lovely black couple, still a little flushed from the cold. The woman was very beautifully pregnant, seven months gone at least. “Gwendolyn Jones, Xander Booth, my lab partner, and his wife, Winnie. Short for Alexander and Winifred, if you wonder how they’ve squandered their majesty.”

“The names shorten majestically, too.” She smiled warmly. “Please call me Gwen.”

“I inferred your existence,” Winnie said. She wore a white turtleneck sweater and a maroon maternity frock, very clean of line. And white hose, which must have been murder to get on. Her hair was down and flowing and her skin radiated the warmth of her pregnancy.

“Be careful,” said Devin. “Winnie teaches philosophy to scientists. She’ll trick you.”

Gwen said, “Another poet. How lovely.” She smiled impishly.

Xander chuckled. He was shorter than his wife by an inch or two, which was charming, and much darker. He was thick but very muscular, a wrestler’s body. His hair was cropped close with a salting of gray at the sideburns. “She kept going on about magnetic lines of force and how Devin’s diagrams had changed so suddenly and so radically that there had to be a woman in his life. I thought it was divination. Or worse, intuition. Damned if she wasn’t right.” He squeezed her hand. “Damned if she isn’t always right.”

“Xander was my lab partner in grad school,” said Devin. “In astrophysics, if you’re not Jewish, you’re nobody.”

“Unless you’re Asian,” Xander added.

“That’s right. I’ll admit that it rankled me. Here I was, busting my butt, and everybody treated me like I didn’t belong there. Then I hooked up with this guy and discovered I didn’t know the first thing about mistreatment.”

“It wasn’t that bad.”

Devin shook his head. “It was and it still is. It’s all math. Your math either works or it doesn’t, and your parents don’t have a thing to say about it either way.”

Xander half-smirked and gestured at Devin with his thumb but Gwen could see by the fire in his eyes that his mocking wasn’t serious. “He should be the philosopher of science.”

Gwen smiled. “So should we all.”

Xander and Devin went out to the Booth’s car to haul in their contributions of food while Gwen and Winnie finished the preparations. The men carried dishes out to the dining room and set the table together.

Xander said, “That woman is a knockout.”

Devin smiled. “Would you believe I don’t notice? I mean, I do. It makes me crazy every time I look at her. But then I look at her a second longer and I realize it’s her I’m seeing. Her person, her character, her soul. Not her body. She matches inside and out. But the inside is all I see after the first glance…”

“Buddy, you got it bad…”

“Buddy, I got it good.” Devin laughed.

“She gonna hurt you?”

Devin shrugged. “What if she does?”

“Yeah, right…”

“No. I’ve thought about this. What if she does? What have I lost, compared to what I’ve gained? When Nicole left me, that hurt. But it wasn’t because I loved her so desperately. It was because I didn’t, and I couldn’t admit to myself that I’d wasted her time and mine and robbed Hunter of the family he deserved. That’s what hurt, my failure, not her going. I need someone, Xander. I need someone for me, and I need to know that Nicole isn’t the last word on women in my life. And she’s so much what I need, what I’ve always needed. She makes me whole. She fills a part of me I hadn’t even known was empty…”

“Man, you’ve got to pull that thing in.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’re just out there, just hanging right out there. You’ve got to pull that back or she’s gonna cut it right off.”

Devin nodded. “Hold something back, is that it?”


“Keep it all in? Always keep a little something hidden?”

“Come on, Devin. This isn’t new to you.”

“Is that what you’re going to do with that baby out there? Never let him know for certain where he stands with you? Always keep him a little off balance? Always keep a little bit to yourself, a little spot in your heart where he can never go?”

“You know it’s not the same thing.”

“I don’t know that. And I can’t see why it isn’t. And I can’t see why I’d want it if it isn’t. I’ve already had a woman I didn’t dare to love, more than one. I’ve already had women I wouldn’t let love me. I’ve had enough of that, more than enough. I want something better.”

“And what if there is nothing better…?”

Devin shrugged. “Then I’ll take nothing instead. You see me do it all the time at the Institute. ‘No compromise even if it means no funding.’ Hell, it’s on the wall in your office, too. Why should things be any different here?”

Xander shook his head and let the matter drop.

At dinner Devin had Hunter to his left and Gwen to his right. The Booths occupied the other end of the table, Xander and Winnie and baby makes two-and-three-quarters. Gretchen and Spencer were opposite each other in between. When they were all ready to eat, Devin spoke.

“I always feel myself at a loss at moments like this. I feel I should offer some sort of blessing, but I have no formal blessings to offer. My mother is Greek Orthodox and my father was Roman Catholic and my choice as a child was both or neither. I chose neither, with the result that such catechisms” – he looked straight at Gwen when he said that word – “as I might possess are too loosely attached to be of any use. But Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, because I get to see all of my family, the family of my birth in Arizona and the family of my choosing here at home.” He squeezed Hunter’s hand and looked from Spencer to Winnie to Xander to Gretchen to Gwen. “For old friends and new, I give my deepest thanks.”

While they were eating, Winnie said, “Why are we graced with your company this year, Gretchen? I assumed you’d be with your folks.”

“I would be, normally. But this year they’re taking a second honeymoon in Cancun.”

“And they didn’t take you along?” Xander asked with a smile.

“Didn’t take her the last time, either, I’ll bet,” said Devin.

Gretchen smiled brightly. “I’ll never tell.”

It was three or perhaps four seconds later that a light dawned in Spencer’s eyes. He blushed furiously and Gwen smiled at him with her own private delight.

After dinner, they shuffled seats by interest, not quite by gender. Gretchen and Hunter went to the living room to play a board game. Devin and Xander and Spencer congregated at the far end of the table to talk about math. Winnie sat where Devin had been so she and Gwen could talk.

Gwen said, “I envy you your pregnancy.”

Winnie nodded toward Spencer. “It looks like you did all right for yourself.”

“He’s almost grown, though…” She smiled a bittersweet smile.

“Is that what you want from Devin, another baby?”

Gwen shook her head. “I don’t know what I want. I won’t lie and say I haven’t thought about it.”

Winnie gestured with her head toward the kitchen and Gwen got up and followed her. Leaning against the counter, her belly low and full, Winnie said, “If you can’t take that man’s ring, you have to tell him now.”

Gwen simply looked confused.

“Can’t you see how he looks at you? Every time he sees you his eyes just melt. I’ve known Devin longer than I’ve known Xander and I have never seen him like this. Not through his whole marriage, and that’s pretty sad when you think about it. If you want a baby, you can have one in ten months. That man can’t say no to you.”

Gwen smiled mischievously. “He’s done pretty well so far…”

“He’s going to ask you, Gwen. He may not know it yet, but he is. When he does, you have to know your answer. And if you know you can’t marry him, you have to tell him now.”

Gwen stood silently for a moment. “…You love him, too, don’t you?”

“Like a brother I love him. Like a father sometimes. I have Xander because of him. Big risk; he could have lost both of us as friends. But he doesn’t do things that way, he just does whatever he thinks is right. I love that in him, and I’ve learned it from him. He used to send Xander out on the road all the time. Anytime someone from Ptolemy had to go out to lecture or demonstrate or install something or whatever, he’d make Xander go. I don’t know if Xander understood it, but I always did. He wanted to make it plain to those… assholes that Xander deserves to be where he is, that just because he’s black it doesn’t mean he’s not fully qualified. He did that with me, too, went to bat for me with the Institute. And I’ve got two strikes against me. I’m making him sound like some kind of bleeding heart, but that’s not it. All he cares about is justice, and he’ll fight for anyone who’s getting a raw deal.”

“He told me he fights for the… merchants in the Combat Zone.”

Winnie chuckled. “That’s funny, isn’t it? I know he hates everything about the Zone. He won’t let Gretchen drive down there, makes her go all the way around, through the thickest traffic. But free speech doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t mean the speech you hate. So there’s Devin, fighting for the speech he hates.”

“…What was that about lines of force?”

“I talk to scientists all day long. I use a lot of analogies to help them understand. What happened was that I noted a change in the way Devin was interacting with me, with Xander, with his students and his grad students. All kinds of little things. He’d lose his place in conversations, forget what he was talking about. I’d walk in on him and he’d be sitting there daydreaming and he wouldn’t even notice me. His email got flowery all of a sudden. When did you two meet? The fourth? The fifth?”

Gwen smiled. “The fourth.”

Winnie nodded. “The threshold of science is prediction.” She grinned.

Devin stuck his head in the kitchen. “Gretchen and Hunter are looking for people to play Monopoly. Who’s interested?”

Gwen said, “I’ll do what you’re doing.”

“In that case, you’re doing dishes.”

“In that case,” Winnie said, “I’m going to go sit down and get this baby off my feet.”

Devin went back to the dining room to start gathering up dishes. On her way out, Winnie said, “It’s in your eyes, too, girl.”

Gwen smiled warmly. “I thought it must be.”

She went out and helped Devin load up the dishes. Back in the kitchen he scraped and salvaged while she rinsed dishes and loaded the dishwasher. He said, “Hold out your stuff and Winnie’s. We’ll do those by hand; the dishwasher takes forever.”

“I think there’s too much for the dishwasher anyway.”

They worked together like an old married couple, or as she liked to imagine an old married couple could work together. She washed and he dried and she kept getting way ahead of him because he would stop to stand behind her and stroke her hair and kiss her temples. He wiped down the table and the counters and she cleaned the sinks and together they repacked Winnie’s boxes and hers and stowed them in a walk-in refrigerator built into the back porch.

He stopped her in mid-stride and lifted her up and set her down on the butcher block. He stepped between her legs and she brought her face down to his, brought her lips down to his. She put her hands on his shoulders and kissed him hungrily and for a long time that was all they did.

He said, “You make a bad host of me.”

She grinned. “You make a delighted guest of me.”

He laughed and she hopped down and there was no room for her in the space left by his body and that was perfectly fine with her. They held each other for a moment then walked out to the living room, her fingers hooked into his.

Xander had built a fire and they sat by the fireplace with him and Winnie while Gretchen and Spencer got their butts kicked at Monopoly by a five-year-old. For Gwen it was very warming, very homey. It was a family, something she’d never known. She’d always been so responsible, responsible for her parents, for herself, for Spencer. She felt – at least for today – as though she were a part of a web of shared responsibilities. Responsibilities of home and hearth and health, of course. But also responsibilities of happiness, of joy and beauty and grace. It all came from him, she knew. He was everything he admired in his grandfather, and without him they might all be strangers, busy people bustling past each other on the street. ‘The family is who we say it is,’ that’s what he’d said. This was Devin’s family. It was made not of their love for him but of his love for them. She bit at her lip and held her eyes open very wide to keep from crying.

When Winnie and Xander got up to go she thought perhaps she should, too, but Devin asked her to stay. At the door, Xander tried to say something to her, but he couldn’t find the words.

“It’s all right,” she said. “Winnie’s already taken care of it.”

He smiled warmly and she felt very much blanketed by his love – not for her but for Devin. They stood together on the porch and watched as the Booths drove away.

Back inside, Devin said, “Gretchen, can you and Spencer take Gwen down and show her the basement while I put Hunter to bed?”

“I don’t wanna go to bed!”

“You don’t gotta wanna,” Devin began.

“You just gotta,” Hunter and Gretchen finished in unison. The three of them laughed together.

“Come on, sport. Say your goodnights and let’s motivate.”

Hunter went around the room saying goodnight, starting with Gretchen, of course. He hugged Spencer, which didn’t surprise Devin but may have surprised Spencer. Gwen picked him up and he snuggled with her like he’d known her forever. She whispered something to him and he giggled and kissed her wetly on the cheek and hugged her hard and Devin was very proud for both of them.

Gwen went to the basement with Gretchen and Spencer and she examined everything with a dutiful interest, but in truth her mind was elsewhere. The playrooms were interesting, but the exercise room was more interesting still. Gretchen and Spencer intended to demonstrate a basketball game on the Nintendo game machine, but they were clearly more interested in playing the game than demonstrating it. She left them to it and crept back up the stairs, crept up to the second floor landing, where she stood waiting, listening.

Hunter’s room was right off the landing. His door was half open and the glimmer of a nightlight leaked into the hallway. Devin was singing with a deep resonance and she could hear a rocking chair creaking on a hardwood floor. She leaned against the wall, just listening, just imagining what it must look like in there. Just loving him, she admitted to herself. Loving him for his family and his home and his son and for the love everyone rained down on him and for the love he rained down on everyone.

When Devin came out to the hall he saw her there and smiled with a wicked delight. He led her by the hand to his office and closed the door with his back.

“Not your bedroom?” she asked.

“If I take you to the bedroom, I’ll want to lay you down. And if I lay you down, I won’t want to let you back up.”

He pulled her tight to him and kissed her hard. She was enveloped in his arms and he was holding her very tightly and her nipples were as hard as gemstones and she could feel them digging through her sweater and his, digging through to the heat of his skin. She grabbed one of his hands and thrust it between them, thrust it under her sweater. When the heat of his fingers grazed against her breast she gasped and collapsed against him. He was palsied by the touch, too, she knew it. She could hear it in his jagged breathing.

His other hand was under her sweater now, halfway up her back, his fingers between her shoulder blades. His hand was so terribly hot and she was sure his palm would leave a searing imprint on her skin. He pressed his hand down her back to her skirt to her behind to the back of her thigh then back up under her skirt to her behind. She reached behind her and pressed his hand more firmly to her, revelling in the heat of him through the thin fabric of her panties. His hand on her behind, his other hand tormenting her enflamed breasts, her head thrown back and her mouth open to the probing and parrying of his tongue – she had never been more open with a man, never more vulnerable, never less in control.

And then his hand left her behind and slipped around to cup her vulva and she knew her vulnerability had only just begun. She was already very wet and she soaked through the panties at his first touch. And he knew just how to touch, rolling and roiling in her enshrouded labia until he found her tender nerveflesh, already engorged. When he touched her there her knees gave way and almost she finished before anything had properly begun. It wasn’t his touch, she knew it. It wasn’t even his feeling for her. It was her feeling for him – in her head, in her heart, in her heat, in the endless, boundless heat flowing from his fingertips…

He bent his leg at the knee and put his foot flat against the door. He grabbed her leg and hung it over his and she was completely open to him, completely accessible, completely vulnerable. His hand left her breasts and he plowed it down to join the other between her thighs. He hooked his fingers into the crotch of her panties and ripped and then there was nothing at all in his way. One hand went back to torture the skin of her neck and chest and breasts and one remained to probe and plunder her better secrets. He slipped one finger then two inside her and it felt wonderful and it felt awful. It didn’t make her feel full, it made her feel horribly empty and the emptiness within her cried out to be filled.

She dug her hands under his sweater to his hips and pushed down on the waistband of his sweat pants and suddenly he was just there, full and naked in her hands. He said, “Now is when you’re supposed to say, ‘My god! You’re huge!’”

She convulsed in laughter and collapsed against him and it dug his raging need right into the soft skin of her thighs and he wanted to grab her behind and keep digging digging digging until he uncovered his perfect destiny.

“Yes, please, now,” she seethed.

He shook his head. “Your son is here and my son is here and Gretchen is here and we shouldn’t even be doing this except I can’t bear not touching you. You make me crazy. You make me hungry. You make me whole…”

His fingers were inside her and the flesh of his hand was just where it needed to be and she was blind and she was lost and she was found, so perfectly found. Her head was thrashing from side to side and she could feel herself clasping clasping clasping on his fingers and she needed to moan but she couldn’t so she bit his shoulder hard through his sweater.

He let his fingers slip out of her but he kept his hand where it was, cupping her vulva. It felt very good to her, very warm, very protective. With his other hand he stroked at the fine blonde hairs on her cheek. He was murmuring but she couldn’t understand him but it didn’t matter because she understood him perfectly. Between his murmurs he was nibbling and biting at her lips and her skin and she knew without having to be told that he loved her, that he loved her better than he’d ever loved anyone.

She knew she loved him, too, and she knew she’d never loved anyone before, not like this. But she didn’t tell him. She couldn’t, not yet. She was already too open, too vulnerable, too out of control…

Her hands were still dug into his hard manhood. She squeezed him gently and said, “Are we just going to leave it like this?”

He grinned. “Never was there a sweeter agony.”

“You haven’t said how you like my birthday gifts…”

“Well, they’re very pretty, but I don’t think they’ll fit me.”

She squeezed him hard enough that he winced, winced and lunged a little. “They’re receipts, darling. Like postage stamps or gift certificates. You redeem them for something you want more.” She shifted her weight slightly and suddenly he was nestled in her wet curls. “Just that much, no more, I promise.” She used her hips in ways that he had never imagined could be possible and there didn’t need to be anything more. “You’ve also never said how you liked that story I wrote.”

“I had the idea you were rather fond of that blonde woman.”

“Of course I am. Aren’t you?”

“…Fonder by the minute.”

She kissed him hard and he knew she wanted to finish him that way, everything but the deed itself, but he couldn’t let her. He said, “I’ll be keeping these panties.”

“Do you have a sort of trophy room, then? Walls covered with dated plaques displaying the torn and treasured undergarments of all your many conquests? You’ll have to show me sometime. I love that sort of thing.”

“Laugh at me if you want to, but these underpants are mine. You can squirm all the way back to Newton.”

“Do you think you can get them without my help?”

His two hands met at a side-seam and that was that. He pulled the panties out and left them dangling from a finger.

She thrust her hips at him hard and almost she enveloped him. She kissed him abruptly, explosively. “You – bastard!”

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