Shadowland

by Radclyffe

Please see part 1 for all disclaimers and copyright information.


Chapter Six

Kyle looked up from the chair she was stripping and sighed.

"Nance."

"Hmm?" Nancy replied absently, her mind on the design she was outlining on a tabletop.

"About that party tonight—"

"Yes," Nancy murmured, still engrossed in her painting.

"I don't think I can make it."

Nancy looked up quickly. "Bullshit. You don't want to."

Kyle tossed her stripping knife onto the counter. "It's not that I don't want to; I just don't feel like meeting a lot of straight doctors from the hospital."

"Well, all those straight doctors have wives, you know."

"I don't want to meet somebody's wife!" Kyle said. "I don't even want to meet the doctors who are women. Roger does know a few female doctors, doesn't he?"

Nancy laughed. "There might be one or two of those! I don't usually notice! So, will you come?"

"Well—"

"It's been a month since you went into the city. I know, I've counted. You must be ready for a little diversion by now."

Kyle looked uncomfortable for a moment.

"Actually, there was something else I wanted to do tonight. I read about this meeting in the city. It's a discussion group. I thought I might go."

"Oh, that sounds like lots of fun!" Nancy said sarcastically. "You could spend Friday night sitting around talking about how tough it is being gay, or single, or green, or whatever tonight's topic is."

"Oh, give me a break, Nance!"

Nancy was suddenly serious. "Well, what is it about, then?"

"It's about power, and how we use it."

Nancy looked at her astutely. "You mean sexual power, like S/M? Right?"

"That's part of it."

"Are you serious about this thing?"

"I'm serious about finding out about it."

Nancy turned back to her design. "Well, I suppose I'll have other parties."

˛

Dane strode rapidly across the room, her voice tight, her back stiff with contained anger.

"There is no way, no way, that I'm going to some discussion group tonight!"

Caroline sighed resignedly and led the dog into the open crate.

"Why not?"

Dane turned toward her, blue eyes flashing.

"Because it's always the same thing. A bunch of intellectuals sitting around discussing the 'politics' of power and what they think about it. It's always what they think, never what they feel. It's an academic discourse by people who are afraid to do more than just talk about it. And they always have such a superior attitude about anyone who actually does something to find out what it's like."

Caroline looked at her friend in surprise. The vehemence in her voice was startling. Dane was usually so cool.

"That's not fair, Dane. Anne and I are going—and we do more than talk about it."

"Good! You can be the guinea pigs, then."

"How do you expect women to discover how they feel if no one who knows something will get it out in the open? It's like refusing to talk to straights about being gay. Ignorance doesn't go away by itself!" Caroline crossed her arms and sat down on the corner of the desk.

"Let them come to the bar, then, and see what it's all about if that's what they really want," Dane persisted.

"Maybe they're afraid to," Caroline said quietly. "It's as threatening to some of them to go to a leather bar as it used to be for all of us just to go to a regular gay bar. Just because you had to find out by yourself doesn't mean it still has to be that way. Maybe you can help other women understand."

Dane stared at Caroline. "I don't feel like telling a bunch of strangers what I do in bed!"

Caroline looked at her in exasperation. "You don't have to. But you could talk about why you do what you do in bed. Come on, Dane, what are you afraid of?"

"I'm not the one who's afraid!"

"Then why not come?"

Dane sighed. "I'll think about it, okay?"

Caroline smiled. "Okay."

˛

Kyle checked her reflection in the mirror for the tenth time. She couldn't believe how nervous she was about going to this discussion group. She had participated in group sessions on lesbianism a few times and it was fine. Tonight she felt different. She was a newcomer, not at all certain what to expect, and she was afraid she would stand out. Still, she wanted to go. She wanted to know if other women were as affected as she had been by her brief exposure to sexual power roles. The memory of that night still elicited an intense longing whenever she thought of it. And she seemed to think of little else! Her denim-clad figure stared back at her from the glass, the same person that always stood there. But, tonight she seemed different even to herself. Who was that woman in there?

When she pulled her cycle in between several cars at the address the notice had given, she realized it was someone's apartment. She hadn't expected the meeting to be in somebody's house. She hoped she wouldn't be the only one there who didn't know anyone. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.

A young woman in a tee shirt and blue jeans opened the door when Kyle rang.

"Hi!" she said, smiling up at Kyle.

"Hi," Kyle said, a little uncertain. "I saw this notice about a discussion group."

"Right," the woman said, extending her hand. "I'm Jean. Come on up."

Kyle shook the shorter woman's hand.

"Thanks, I'm Kyle. Uh—I guess I should tell you, I'm not sure I should be here. I mean, I don't know much about it."

The young woman laughed. "That's the idea. No one will ask you anything. You can talk or just listen. It doesn't matter."

"Okay," Kyle said, telling herself to relax.

Jean led her into a large living room where five or six women were already seated. To Kyle's relief, they all looked like regular dykes to her, the kind of women you might meet in any bar. Several women looked over at her and nodded before returning to their conversations.

Kyle sat on the floor with her back against a couch and surreptitiously took stock of the other women. There was a wide age range, and they were all dressed casually. Blue jeans and leather boots abounded, and she could see a few leather wristbands, mostly on the right. A few more women came in, one carrying several six-packs of beer.

"Hi, everyone. I'm Diane. Help yourself to the beer." She passed the bottles around and seated herself next to Jean. She looked around the room for a moment, and then began.

"There used to be a group in the area, some of you may have heard of it, which was started by some women who were interested in exploring alternative ways of relating to each other. Not everyone was gay, but everyone was interested in the exchange of power."

"You mean S/M, don't you?" one woman asked.

Diane nodded. "Basically, yes. Except that term is sort of limiting, because not everyone has the same ideas about it. Some women take it to mean B/D - bondage and discipline, some see it as rigid master/slave roles, while others mean only a polarity of power specifically around sex. There are lots of different ways of expressing power in a relationship, which is what we're here to talk about." She laughed. "Which is as good a place to start as any, I guess. Before we talk about specifics, I think we should find out how we see the central issue—power."

Kyle was intrigued to hear the differing opinions that the women in the group had about the role of power in relationships. At first it seemed as if everyone had a different idea, but as the discussion grew, it became clear that everyone agreed on one thing. All relationships were based on some kind of exchange of power, no matter what you called it. Sometimes it was very subtle, like who made the first move in lovemaking, while in other relationships, it was more obvious and often based on sexual roles. Kyle tried to sort out her thoughts as the conversation flowed back and forth. It was obvious that some of the women had more experience than others, and she noticed two women sitting across from her who seemed to have thought a lot about it. They talked easily about their own relationship and how they perceived the exchange of power in their own lives.

Kyle listened with interest as the older of the two responded to someone's comment that too much emphasis was placed on sex by 'power-oriented' women.

"Sexual feelings are a much bigger part of any relationship than most women care to admit. It's not just how you make love, or how often, but how you react physically to everything around you. Appreciating the way your lover looks in leather is sexual. Fantasizing about strangers in the subway is sexual. Feeling strong when you wear boots is sexual. Those feelings are there all day long; it's just that we don't call them sexual."

"Are you saying that women aren't sexual enough?" Kyle asked, intrigued by the woman's train of thought.

Caroline smiled at Kyle, who had been silent up until now.

"I'm saying that women are much more sexual, naturally physical, than we appreciate because we put too much emphasis on definitions. And our definition of sexual is very narrow. If we don't call something by a particular term, then it can't be. We end up limiting ourselves!"

Other women began talking, and Kyle found she was rapidly acquiring more questions than answers. Nevertheless, as she listened she felt she was making contact with an important part of herself. She was amazed when Diane said it was after eleven and time to wrap it up. Kyle was disappointed that the evening was ending. Most of the women agreed to meet again, and Kyle made note of the date.

She found herself following the couple who had been across from her all evening down the stairs.

"Hi," she said, catching up to them on the street. "I really liked what you two had to say tonight."

Anne turned toward her, smiling. "It's a start. I'm Anne, by the way. And this is Caroline."

Kyle nodded to both of them and then stopped in front of her motorcycle. They stopped with her, apparently in no great hurry.

"I'm glad that women want to get together and talk about it," Kyle said.

Caroline laughed and slid her arm around Anne's waist. "Some of us even like to do more than talk about it."

Kyle grinned. "I got that impression."

"We're going to the bar for a while. Are you?" Caroline asked.

"I was thinking about it," Kyle replied. "I’m still not sure what this all means for me."

Caroline shook her head. "Relax! It's just a bar. Besides, the only way to find out about anything is to go find out."

"Don't get her started!" Anne said affectionately. "Really, though, Kyle, you can meet us there. It's nothing heavy. We can all have a beer or something."

She didn't have any reason to rush home, and she agreed to meet them at 'Leathers'. As she started her motorcycle and buckled on her helmet, she admitted to herself that she was hoping to run into someone else there tonight.

Anne and Caroline were just getting out of their car as Kyle pulled up on her cycle, and they walked over to meet her.

"Have you been here before?" Caroline asked.

"Once. A month or so ago," Kyle replied.

"And—?"

Kyle shrugged a little sheepishly. "I had a great time."

Caroline looked as if she was about to ask another question, but Anne tugged her arm.

"Come on, hon. Don't put her on the spot," Anne chided gently.

Kyle laughed and Caroline joined in.

"She's right," Caroline said as they walked toward the door. "I never know when to quit. It's just that I'm really interested in how women feel about the whole thing."

Kyle nodded as she paid her cover charge. "That's okay. I feel the same way. If I didn't, I wouldn't have come to the group tonight."

They bought drinks and claimed one of the few unoccupied tables. Kyle looked around at the many women already there but saw no one she recognized. She had a fleeting wave of disappointment, but, at the same time, the old excitement returned. Her pulse stirred just being there.

"How come you went to the discussion group?" Kyle asked as they relaxed with their drinks.

"What do you mean?" Caroline replied.

"Well, you obviously know pretty much how you feel. I mean, you're not newcomers to these ideas. Why bother?"

Anne looked at Caroline. "I think it's because we still have things to learn about our own relationship, and ourselves. Sometimes sharing ideas with other women makes us see ourselves in a different light. And sometimes, it helps us to change things in our own lives."

Caroline nodded. "It's like we're always exploring new parts of our life together. How about you?" she continued. "Did it help?"

Kyle thought about it for a moment. "Everything is new to me. I feel like I'm coming out all over again. I haven't thought much about my own life for a long time. I never thought about whether I liked the way my life has worked out." She fell silent, surprised at her statement.

Anne and Caroline both nodded in agreement. Suddenly Anne turned to her lover.

"Are you ready to dance with me yet?"

Caroline laughed. "Sure."

Kyle watched them for a moment as they made their way through the growing crowd to the dance floor, and then returned to her beer. She was still thinking about the things she had heard earlier when a voice at her elbow startled her back to the present.

"Back again, huh?"

Kyle looked up into Dane's face, quite near as she bent over their table. She looked as good as Kyle remembered, only tonight she was dressed in full leathers, from her pants to the sleeveless vest that covered her otherwise bare chest.

"Hello. Yes, I'm back." Her voice was suddenly dry, and she hoped she wasn’t grinning like a fool. It was hard to hide her excitement at suddenly seeing her again.

Dane sat down in an empty chair next to Kyle. She drained her glass and set it in front of her, absently making patterns out of the wet rings it left on the tabletop.

"This your first time back?" Dane finally said. Have you found other lovers? Has someone else touched you the way I did?

"Yes," Kyle said, watching Dane carefully. She seemed so distant; Kyle wasn't sure how to approach her.

Dane looked up and caught her eye. She smiled slightly and pushed her glass out in front of her. "Want another beer?"

Kyle lifted her bottle and shook her head. "I'm still working on this one. I had a few earlier."

"Oh? Have you been here awhile?"

"No. I was at a meeting earlier. A discussion group."

Dane groaned. "Not you, too."

"What do you mean?" Kyle asked in surprise.

"Oh, my friends were trying to get me to go to one tonight." Dane sighed and looked around the bar. "Not for me. I'm tired of all the talk." Her expression said she was more than tired.

My god, we were as close as I’ve ever been with anyone and now I can’t reach her! Dane seemed barricaded by anger. Or was it something else? Maybe talking wasn’t the answer.

"Dane?"

"Hmm?"

"Want to dance?"

Dane smiled suddenly. "Yes."

They danced to one song after another, not talking. They let the music guide them into and out of each other's arms, first close, then moving apart to the rhythm of the sound. Finally, damp with sweat, they returned to the table. Anne and Caroline were already there, another round of beers in front of them.

"Glad you could make it to the group tonight, Dane," Caroline said caustically.

"Ran short on time," Dane replied tersely as she reached for a beer.

"I'll bet, Caroline said sarcastically.

Kyle looked from Dane to Caroline, confused. Anne appeared uncomfortable and tried to change the subject.

"I see you two have met," she began.

Dane looked up quickly as Kyle answered.

"Yes, we've met. Are you two all danced out?"

Anne smiled, her hand on Caroline's arm. "We're just taking a break, right, babe?"

When Caroline failed to answer, Anne followed her gaze. Her heart sank when she saw who approached. Oh, Christ, not tonight! And not with Dane here! She looked quickly at Dane, whose back was to the newcomer.

Kyle glanced up at the dark-haired woman who stood beside the table. A perfectly ironed white shirt tucked into tight-fitting leather pants outlined her thin, rangy figure. Her sleeves were rolled up to mid-forearm exposing sinewy tendons and taut muscles. Everything about her was austere, razor-sharp. She stood slightly behind Dane's right shoulder, slim, long fingers hooked lightly around a wide black leather belt, surveying the group.

"Hello Anne, Caroline." Her voice was smooth, yet somehow dangerous.

Dane's hands tightened around her bottle at the sound of the familiar voice behind her. She forced herself not to turn, but reached slowly into her pocket and pulled out a cigarette. Only Kyle noticed the slight tremor in her hands as she lit it carefully and inhaled deeply.

Caroline looked anxiously at Dane and then over at the new arrival.

"Hello, Brad."

"I thought you might introduce me to your new friend here," the cool, slightly husky voice continued, her hand resting lightly on Kyle's shoulder. Kyle shifted in her seat to face the woman, surprised.

Anne quickly said, "This is Kyle, Brad. Kyle, this is Terry Bradley, ‘Brad’ to most of us."

Brad pulled a chair from an adjoining table and sat down on Kyle's right. She stretched her legs out and tipped back slightly in her chair. She ran her gaze slowly over Kyle's face, lingering on the tanned triangle of skin exposed by Kyle's open-collared shirt.

"Hello, Kyle," she said softly. Suggestively.

Kyle stared back at the dark eyes which held her own, unable to pierce their cool veneer.

She nodded, acutely aware of Dane's stiff silence to her left.

Brad smiled slightly, a crooked grin, which softened her features for an instant. Just as quickly, the smile disappeared, and she turned her attention to Dane.

"And how is the legendary Dane Jorgensen these days?"

Dane acknowledged Brad for the first time by tipping her glass slightly in her direction.

"Same as always, Brad. Fine."

Brad laughed, her gaze shifting to Anne and Caroline.

"I haven't seen much of you two lately. Is the dog business keeping you busy?" Her voice was friendly, but Kyle thought she detected an edge to it.

"Don't you keep up anymore?" Caroline said nonchalantly. "Business has been good. We just wanted to come out for a good time tonight." She looked pointedly at Dane, trying to gauge her friend’s response to Brad's presence. She knew very well that Dane went out of her way to avoid Terry Bradley. And she knew why.

"Oh, yes," Brad said slowly. "I did notice that Baron took Best in Show in Georgia. Things can't be too bad. Still a one dog show, though."

Dane stared at Brad, her face tight. "Baron deserves it, and you know it."

"Oh yes, I know it." She regarded Dane contemptuously, her hand dropping onto Kyle's thigh. "And how about you, Kyle? Are you into dogs, too?"

"No--furniture," Kyle replied. She shifted slightly but Brad did not move her hand.

Dane stood up suddenly, her body tense. She looked down at Kyle and Brad, her eyes dark and impenetrable.

"You should be careful how you choose your company, Kyle. Some people aren't worth the effort."

Kyle looked up in surprise. "Dane--" she began. What the hell is going on?

"What's the matter, Dane? Lost your competitive spirit?" Brad asked, a hint of challenge in her voice.

Dane smiled tightly. "I'm not competing with you, Brad. I don't have to." She turned abruptly and walked away, disappearing quickly into the crowd.

Anne and Caroline looked at each other, and then turned to Kyle.

"We're leaving soon, Kyle. Would you like to stay at our place tonight?"

"Thanks, no," Kyle said quietly. "I'd rather head home, too."

As Anne and Caroline stood up to leave, Brad's grip tightened on Kyle's leg.

"You don't have to leave so early, do you?"

"I'm afraid I do."

"Some other time, then," Brad said lightly, removing her hand.

Kyle stood up. "Perhaps."

Brad sipped her drink slowly, smiling to herself in satisfaction.


Chapter Seven

Dane drove rapidly through the city, her mind careening from image to image—Kyle, her face soft with sleep, awakening by her side; Brad, so arrogant, so close to her, taunting her as only Brad could do. She shook her head and switched on the radio, hoping the music would drive her thoughts away. It had been months since she had last seen Brad, but the effect was still the same. Her mere presence made Dane feel helpless, impotent. And then she had put her hands on Kyle. So damn sure she could have anything she wanted! And Dane believed that she probably could. She hated her lack of control at these moments, face to face with her own weakness. Anger boiled close to the surface, threatening to consume her. She pulled her car abruptly into an empty space, realizing for the first time that she had driven almost unconsciously to the old familiar neighborhood. She sat for a second staring up at the three story Victorian set back from the street, majestic in its own particular way.

Even as she hesitated, she knew what she would do. There were too many emotions tearing at her—anger, despair, helplessness—memories so painful it hurt to breathe. She wasn't ready to face all the feelings pounding in her head, and there was only one sure way she knew to push them away. She carefully locked her car and tucked the keys in her pocket. She crossed the darkened street, slowly climbed the steps to the front door and knocked firmly.

The door opened to reveal a large woman, her features accentuated by the short, close crop of her hair. Her dark eyes searched Dane's face quickly, noting the agitation Dane tried to hide. She stepped back and motioned Dane into the large, well-furnished room.

"It's been a long time, Dane. Things must be going well for you these days." Her voice held a bite of sarcasm. She knew perfectly well that Dane visited her only when she was in the depths of some emotional turmoil. She also knew Dane would come to her only when driven to it. Only at the point of extreme stress could Dane tolerate exposing herself in quite this way to anyone.

Dane nodded, having nothing to say. In a way, she hated this woman. She represented Dane's failure. When she could not control her own life, her own needs, she was forced to look into the face of her own torment and see her failures reflected there. When she could not intellectually bring order to her world, she sought physical escape. When she could not live with her own hidden vulnerability, she sought physical punishment.

"What's your safe word?" the woman said sharply, having no desire for conversation. Already she felt the excitement that Dane's presence always aroused in her. Dane was so cool, so controlled, so perfect in everyone's eyes. But she knew; she knew Dane as no one else would ever know her, for she had seen the depths of her despair. And before long, she would witness Dane's surrender to it.

"The same," Dane replied tightly. She followed the woman as they moved through the spacious house toward a rear staircase. They climbed to the third floor where a single door faced them. Dane watched the familiar figure sort through a ring of keys and unlock the door. Dane entered first in response to the woman's gesture.

The room was surprisingly warm. She stood in blackness for a moment, knowing that the darkness was enhanced by the absence of windows. A soft, red glow suddenly suffused the room as a switch was turned on behind her. Dane began to sweat slightly, and her pulse quickened. She did not turn around when she heard the door close resoundingly behind her. She waited. The lights were arranged in recessed ceiling tracks in such a way that much of the space around her was in shadow. There was a deep carpet on the floor and some kind of soundboard on the walls, which absorbed almost any noise. No one would here her cries. No one would witness her defeat. Left alone with her own thoughts in the womb-like atmosphere, Dane quickly lost track of time.

"Take off your clothes."

Dane started slightly at the voice, which cut through the silence from somewhere in the shadows. She reached for her vest.

"Slowly."

Dane's right hand, trembling slightly, worked each snap free on the damp leather. She pulled it off and dropped it. She raised first one slender leg and then the other to remove her boots. Next she released the buckle at her waist and freed the buttons on her fly to bare her naked flesh. The heat, the soft red light, and the stillness closed in around her as she pushed the smooth leather down her legs to bare herself completely.

The woman in the shadows smiled triumphantly. Dane was physically exposed to her, helpless and without protection. Soon she would be emotionally naked as well.

Moments passed and still Dane stood unmoving in the center of the room. Her mind slowly emptied itself of all thought as the sound of her own heartbeat became louder in her ears. She tensed slightly at the touch of a hand on her back, but she did not turn. The darkness became total as a soft, close-fitting leather hood was pulled over her head and fastened snugly around her neck. Her eyes were completely covered, but there were ample spaces for her nose and mouth, making it warm inside but allowing easy breathing. Something was pressed to her nose.

"Inhale," the voice directed.

Dane did and almost immediately felt a wave of heat wash over her. Her head began to pound, and her skin tingled. She was aware of being pushed firmly forward, her body seeming to move without her guidance. The hood blocked her keenest senses, her sight and hearing, and isolated her from her surroundings. She was forced now to experience events through her skin—to open the natural barrier of her body and to feel through it. They stopped suddenly, and Dane felt thick, soft straps being buckled around her wrists and ankles. Her body was pulled off balance, first one way and then another as her limbs were secured to a scaffold. She hung suspended in such a way that her feet barely touched the floor. Her arms were stretched out over her head, the leather restraints taut, just verging on painful. She floated in the silent blackness.

Her master walked softly to the side of the room, seated herself on a stool at a small bar, and studied her handiwork. Dane's finely muscled back and small, firm buttocks looked tantalizing in the muted red light. She forced herself to wait for a few moments, knowing this would enhance Dane's sense of disembodiment. She poured brandy into a glass and sipped it slowly. Finally, she opened a small cabinet set into the wall and removed the largest of her braided cats, a treacherous whip when handled by someone less practiced than her. Her hand closed around the heavy leather-wrapped handle, her entire being focused on the pale, naked, hooded form before her.

Dane had drifted so far into her own inner world, that, at first, she did not recognize the odd sensation on her thigh. When the second blow, harder than the first, landed across her buttock, her head snapped up in response. She forced herself not to tense her back muscles, knowing from experience it would make the cutting strokes more painful. She tried to focus on the way her skin felt after the blow had landed and the immediate flash of pain had passed. There was a tingling heat left behind which felt like a bright, raw light. Soon she lost count of the strokes falling more rapidly and harder across her upper back and shoulders. Her mind, divorced from ordinary sensation, became suffused with the cumulative agony of the blows, releasing her deeply buried fears and terrors. As she opened herself to the physical pain, it seared through her mind with a cleansing flame, exorcising her demons. She held onto consciousness by a thread, dimly aware that the woman out there would not stop until bidden. Only someone as experienced as Dane would dare to go so far, or to ask so much of her body. She pushed herself, taking more than she ever had before, until at last her mind began to close, finally purged. Only then did she utter a single word, agreed upon by both of them long ago.

Hearing that word, barely audible, Dane's voice was so hoarse, the woman wielding the torturous whip pulled herself up short. She shook her head, realizing she had been delivering her blows in a near frenzy. She was amazed for a moment to realize how nearly out of control she had become. She gazed at Dane's figure, slumped within the confines of her restraints, and felt a begrudging respect for her. It was only her own practiced discipline which had guided her during the last few minutes, and her considerable skill with the cat that had prevented the whip from flaying Dane's back open. Still, she knew that the deeper, delicate blood vessels had broken open. Dane’s back was a mass of welts, already beginning to darken from the blood pooling in the wounded tissue beneath the skin. Dane had been silent throughout, as she always was, and her master for the moment could not help but admire her.

Her head clear once more, the woman dropped the whip and strode quickly across the room. She released her restraints and laid Dane not ungently on the floor. She checked Dane's pulse, finding it steady and strong, and removed the hood. She left Dane there to find her own way out whenever she regained consciousness.

˛

The highway flashed beneath Kyle's headlights as the bike raced into the darkness. She drove the treacherous, twisting road by second nature, fleeing from her uncertainty without thought to her destination. When she pulled off the road, gravel flew behind her rear tire and the bike only stayed upright as a result of its own momentum. There were cars lining both sides of the long drive and lights blazing everywhere in the elegant house on the hilltop. She ground the bike to a halt, taking a long breath. She avoided the brightly-lit front door and went around to the rear, seeking the relative comfort of the shadows there.

It wasn't until she had mounted the steps to the deck that she saw the figures embracing in the semi-darkness. A woman pulled away from her partner at the sound of Kyle's step.

"Jesus, Kyle! Is that you?" Nancy cried.

Kyle halted quickly. "Yes. I'm sorry."

Nancy pushed the young man with her toward the house. "Go inside," she whispered. She took Kyle’s arm and pulled her across the deck, away from the crowds just inside. "What are you doing here?"

Kyle slumped against the railing. "I don't know."

Nancy took her friend's arm. "Never mind. Are you all right? What happened?"

Kyle laughed without humor. "Nance, I don't know. Everything is crazy. Is there anything to drink?"

Nancy searched Kyle's face with concern. "Of course. Come inside."

"No," Kyle said quickly. "I didn't mean to crash your party."

"Don't be stupid," Nancy said in exasperation. "It's a bore, anyway."

Kyle laughed again, this time meaning it. "I could tell."

"Oh, him. Just a diversion. Roger is deep in some heavy conversation somewhere. Sit down. I'll be right back."

Kyle sighed and lowered herself gratefully into one of the deck chairs. The moon was out, and the surf pounded somewhere far below. She closed her eyes, not wanting to think about anything.

"Here," Nancy said, settling herself at the foot of Kyle's chair. "Drink."

Kyle reached for the glass and smiled at Nancy. "Thanks."

They sat close together for a while in the moonlight. Finally, Nancy placed her hand on Kyle's arm.

"So, what happened? Did your discussion group turn into a free-for-all?"

Kyle smiled. "No. It was fine. I went to the bar afterwards and there it turned into—I'm not sure what. Dane was there, and she seemed fine when we were dancing! But then Brad turned up and everyone got uptight. And then Dane stormed off, and Brad came onto me, and…" her voice trailed off.

"My, my. Sounds like fun," Nancy said with the merest trace of envy. "Who's Dane? And who is Brad? I thought you'd quit men."

Kyle laughed, drinking deeply of her wine. "Dane is the woman I told you about—the one I met last month. And Brad is a woman, too."

Nancy leaned back against Kyle's knee and sighed. "Clearly, I missed the real party. So why did you dash madly out here?"

"Because everything went to hell. Something was going on and I didn't know what. Dane turned into ice as soon as Brad showed up, and Brad was—"

"What?"

"Insistent."

"And you weren't interested," Nancy finished for her. "Was she crude and unattractive, or what?"

"Oh, not at all. She's attractive. It was more than just the way she looked—which was great. She was so damned confidant. The way she came on to me--like how could anyone resist? She got my attention."

Nancy looked intrigued. "She was really that good, huh?"

Kyle sighed, "Yeah."

"So, why are you here, instead of somewhere with her? You're not getting all moral, are you? After all, you never minded one-nighter's before."

Kyle thought about it for the first time, acknowledging her attraction to Brad.

"Maybe I would have, if it hadn't been for seeing Dane first. I felt like I never got a chance to really connect with her; and then Brad showed up, and everything changed. Dane acted like I just automatically wanted Brad, just because Brad wanted me." She was suddenly angry. "Like I couldn't choose for myself. The two of them acted like I was some prize to be taken by the strongest." She drained her glass and refilled it from the bottle Nancy had placed beside them. "Fuck them!"

Nancy smiled, relieved to see Kyle getting her spirit back. "Oh well. Who needs any of them anyway? Men or women—it's all the same. One pain in the ass after another."

Kyle realized for the first time that Nancy wasn't having a very good time that evening either. "Things aren't going so well for you either, I guess," she said sympathetically.

Nancy laughed bitterly. "Oh, you know. Typical party. The men are all getting quietly drunk and eyeing every female in sight. And the wives are sitting off by themselves bitching about their husbands."

"Why do you bother with it then?" Kyle asked seriously. She knew Nancy could change things if she wanted to. She had everything going for her—looks, brains and a strong will. She didn't understand why Nancy continued in a life she obviously didn't find fulfilling.

"Oh, it has its rewards," Nancy replied in a light tone.

"Sure," Kyle responded, "that's why you were out here with some—what was he, a med student?"

"Busboy," Nancy answered. "And don't go getting so high and mighty with me, Kyle Clark. You're not all that much different from me. We're both casting about in the dark."

Kyle was surprised at Nancy's brief flare of seriousness, and nodded. "You're right," she sighed. "Great partners, aren't we?"

"We might be," Nancy said quietly. Why haven’t you ever tried, Kyle?

Kyle was about to respond when a male voice penetrated the darkness.

"Nancy? What are you doing out here?"

Kyle looked up at the solid male form beside her chair.

"Hi, Roger. Sorry, I dragged Nancy out here to keep me company."

"Kyle!" Roger said in surprise. "I'm glad you could make it. Nancy said you were tied up."

Nancy laughed, slightly drunk, "No such luck."

Kyle covered quickly. "No, I just had to be somewhere else earlier. How are you?"

"Fine, fine," he said heartily. "Great party, isn't it, sweetheart?" He looked at Nancy uncertainly.

"Oh, yes, great," she replied. She stood up and smoothed the soft material of her clinging dress down over her thighs. "I guess I should go check on our guests." She looked pointedly at Kyle. "You will come in, won't you?"

"I'm not really dressed for it, Nance," Kyle said.

"Oh, bullshit. You look great."

"Okay. In a minute."

Roger sat down as Nancy entered the house.

"How have you been, Kyle?"

Kyle looked at him fondly. "I'm fine, Roger. The shop is busy."

"I figured. Nancy spends a lot more time there lately."

Kyle wanted to avoid talking about Nancy with Roger. She had never wanted to be in the middle of her friend's relationship, no matter what she thought of it.

"I guess you've been busy, too," she said noncommittally.

He nodded and stood up. "Well, you know how it is. Why don't you come in?"

Kyle pulled herself up out of the chair, feeling the soothing effects of the alcohol at last.

"I guess I might as well."

Continue on to Part 4

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