Copyright © KARLA DOYLE 2012, 2016
All Rights Reserved, Karla Doyle
The soft music ended mid-song, replaced by a throbbing dance mix.
Calli glanced at her watch. Five on the dot. She’d gone to the back office when things died down half an hour ago. By the volume and singing coming from the front of the store, Caitlyn had already flipped the sign and locked the door. Calli followed the techno beat and found Caitlyn’s backside in clubbing mode, swaying and thrusting to the music as she refolded panties at light speed.
Excited about going out…must be nice.
“I’ll do that, you’re off the clock,” Calli said, pulling a tiny pink thong from her sister’s manicured hands.
“Hey, boss lady. Checked the till—another totally awesome day today. A thirty-percent increase over this day last year.”
Despite being relieved of duty, Caitlyn continued stacking underwear into organized piles. Every time the song’s chorus came on, she gave Calli a hip bump. Caitlyn was a force of nature, impossible to resist, and Calli found herself bumping alongside her before the song changed. Smiling, even.
Finished with the bottoms, they moved to the wall displays and began straightening bras, peignoir sets, nighties and robes. Calli had lucked out hiring her little sister. Caitlyn had the looks of a gorgeous plus-size model, the sex appeal of a centerfold and the dedication of a business partner—even though she wasn’t one. Customers loved her. Calli loved her. And by the never-ending pings and chimes coming from Caitlyn’s cell phone in her pocket, plenty of other people loved her. And were waiting.
“Get out of here, now. That’s an order.”
“Okay, I’m going.” Caitlyn practically bounced across the room with her purse and jacket. “You should come with us. There are soooo many hot guys there.”
“Sounds great. I’ll pass.”
“You have something against hot guys?”
“You know I don’t.” Calli turned away from her sister and continued straightening racks. Celibacy sucked. The toys she sold at Romance U were a sorry substitution for a flesh-and-blood partner. She’d happily trade their ability to go all night for a hit of hot manliness. If only it were that easy.
A reassuring arm folded around her shoulder. “Hey…I’d be with you the whole time. I promise not to leave you alone, not even for a second.”
Late-night clubbing with Caitlyn and her outgoing, fun-loving crew. The music, dancing and laughing would be fun, but it was just…impossible.
“Tell me all about the hot guys tomorrow. Take some pictures on your phone and text them to me.”
Caitlyn sighed, her lips drawing downward. “I’ll let you off the hook for now, but I’m not giving up on you. Not ever.”
“Even if I wasn’t the Wikipedia poster girl for fucked-up, I’d still be too busy to go out. It’s that time of year.” She waved off the incoming pity hug. “I’m fine.” Bullshit, and both of them knew it. “Go, have fun.”
The store in order a short time later, Calli double-checked the locks, turned out the lights, collected the day’s receipts and climbed the back stairs. Dancing of the four-legged variety was happening on the other side of the closed door. She opened it slowly, not wanting to send Prince Charming flying across the room.
“There’s my big boy.” She bent to scoop up all eight pounds of him. “I missed you too.” Bumping and grinding with hot men had nothing on cuddling with a Chihuahua that vibrated faster than the high-speed setting on her bullet. Right. Sure it didn’t.
By the time she’d finished with her spreadsheets and supper, the November sky was utter blackness. Her love for this time of year died with the closed sign. Business was fantastic, everything else made her want to curl up in a ball and rock until the sun returned. She shut out the night—and the nightlife of Belmont Village—with each snap of blinds in her little apartment.
She snuggled into the couch with her dog and her laptop. Not much had changed in the blogosphere since her last tea break. She logged into her game center and played all her moves within ten minutes. None of her book club buddies were online to return the favor—even they had lives after sundown. Saturday night television sucked. She could read, but her latest batch of romance novels was in a pile by her bed. Too far away.
She drummed her purple nails on the side of the computer. “This takes pathetic and desperate to a new low.” She keyed in the address one of her Scrabble pals had forwarded. Online games for the friendly and the flirtatious, the website’s banner bragged. Ha. Online games for the homely and pathetic was probably closer to the truth. And she was one of them.
She set up a user ID and entered a bunch of profile information. A few clicks later, a list of open games popped up. Lots of animated avatars with big eyes and bigger boobs stared out from the screen. Ugh, lame. A dramatic black rose caught her attention, the perfect counter to her red rose avatar. Travis—male, thirty-two, single, heterosexual, located in Southern Ontario, it read. Heterosexual her ass. Not with a flower as his profile pic. No sexy guys for her, not even in cyberspace.
Whatever Travis might be like in real life, he was an aggressive Scrabble player. Calli respected that. Hell, it was kind of exciting, sad as that was. Halfway through their game he played quartz for one hundred forty-five points. She’d been playing Scrabble since the third grade, probably had thousands of games under her belt, but she’d never scored that high with a single word. The move was smokin’, whether he was or not.
Her fingers hovered over the keyboard. To chat, or not to chat. Might as well…she was here to be friendly and flirtatious, right? She rolled her eyes at the screen, typed her message in the chat pane and hit the send key with gusto.
You’re kicking my ass.
A reply popped up immediately, one that made Calli choke on her root beer.
Want me to kiss it better?
His comment shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The site was for playing games of the social kind, not just the wordy kind. Truth was, she’d been hoping for something more exciting than triple-word scores and bingos. Now the dark rose, Travis, was inviting her to play a different kind of game. Her secret extroverted side jumped in.
Maybe. Depends on what type of kisser you are.
His reply came immediately. One who pays attention to the woman I’m kissing.
The number of guys Calli had kissed in her thirty-one years could be counted on her hands. None of those men could make that sort of boast. All the kissing she’d experienced belonged in one of three not-so-exciting categories—slobbery, dry as the Sahara, and look-out-here-comes-my-giant-tongue. Her dates had kissed a set of lips, not Calli the woman.
She sighed and hit send. Then you have a very lucky girlfriend.
Not currently. What I have are lonely lips. Help me out, pucker up.
Cute. Well, his humor was, anyway. Travis probably had a great personality and mutt-ugly looks, a diamond inside a lump of coal. Otherwise, why would he be hanging out online on a Saturday night? Playing Scrabble, no less. Since they were in cyberspace, though, all that mattered was the diamond part.
She typed in her message. Nice girls don’t kiss on the first game board.
That wasn’t exactly a no. Maybe you’re not so nice?
In reality, she was nothing but a nice girl. But this wasn’t reality. You’re right. Lay one on me…
What she expected to see was some silly emoticon with big lips that would make her cringe. She braced for it, ready to end their chat at the first sign of a circular, yellow face.
Not so fast. Before I kiss you, I need to know a couple of things.
Not what she was expecting, but it wasn’t a smiley, thank god. Don’t worry, I’m clean. No viruses here. Your hard drive is safe.
Very witty. I like smart women.
Even if they’re trolls?
His answer to that one ought to be interesting. Anything other than a no was a load of bull.
I bet you’re not.
Ha, he managed to worm his way around that question quite nicely. Putting herself down was so automatic, she almost started typing a list of her flaws. But this was virtually anonymous. Travis didn’t know she was a fearful, shy, pasty-faced wallflower. Online, she could be anything she wanted to be, all of the things she dreamed of being. Her true, inner self. No one would ever know.
Yep, she was going with that. Good save. So, what do you want to know?
Whatever you’re willing to tell. Start with your name. Does C Ya stand for something?
She tapped her fingers next to the mouse. Asking about her user name, huh? Telling him her actual name was risky—for more than the obvious safety reasons. Anything that could lead him to discovering the real, incredibly boring Calli Yates was out of the question.
Didn’t mean she couldn’t answer his question. Yes, it stands for something.
Funny girl. So literal.
She smirked at the screen. What did you expect? I’m a word nerd.
My favorite. Nerd girls are hot. Travis’ message popped up quickly, as the others had. He must have quick fingers…that could come in handy.
Lord, she really was desperate, fantasizing about a faceless man’s fingers. She flicked herself in the forehead and typed a message. My thighs are hot…from the laptop. Does that count?
Definitely. What else are you going to tell me, my hot-thighed, nerdy girl?
The possession in his question made her shiver. Even when she’d had boyfriends—fleetingly—they’d never done anything to claim her for their own. Not one time. She’d just been too insignificant. Travis had made her feel better in this stint online than any live, in-the-flesh man had ever done. Pretty pathetic.
So for Travis, she’d pretend to be hot. Even if went against her nature and the truth. I have very long, dark-brown hair. Fair skin and blue eyes.
Do you wear glasses?
Because all nerds wore glasses, is that what he thought? She tsked at the screen while hitting Enter. Only safety glasses.
Interesting. I’m picturing you as a sexy construction worker of some kind.
He’d never have guessed the truth, that she wore them while drilling tiny pilot holes through stones and other doodads for the jewelry making that satisfied her creative bent. But a female construction worker, really?
Close. At the club where I strip, my most popular routine involves a costume of safety glasses, a tool belt and not much else. She hit send on the enormous lie and giggled.
Nice. Work boots or high heels?
Work boots, for authenticity. But with hot-pink, sparkly laces.
I’d pay to see that.
Not a bad idea. Calli had the usual fare in the accessories area of her store—French-maid outfits, nurse costumes, bunny ears with matching fuzzy tails—but this construction babe thing might grow wings and fly. If she couldn’t find a kit in one of her wholesaler’s catalogs, she’d take a daytime outing to Home Depot and make one herself. Too bad she didn’t have a real man to test it on.
Even virtually, outright lying gave her a pang. She’d learned early on that her face gave everything away. Apparently her tendency toward full disclosure carried over to anonymous online conversations. Wordy she might be, worldly she was not. So she typed the truth and banged the Enter key.
Truth time. I’m not an exotic dancer.
So I’ll put my five-dollar bill away, but I’d still like to see your costume.
This was nothing more than fantasy talk from a faceless stranger. So why was her pulse jumping? Because she hadn’t been treated to this much flirtation since the ninth grade, when her fully developed thirty-six C cups earned her extra attention for a while, that’s why.
This was much more fun.
She hurried to type a comeback. For all you know, I might be the most hideous woman in the world, with three arms and a giant, hairy mole.
His reply appeared even quicker. The extra arm could have its advantages, so I guess it all depends where that mole is. Do tell.
Her laughter was startling against the silence of her apartment, making Charming jump off the couch, a totally disgruntled expression on his furry face.
Are you as cute as you are funny?
Not really. Still want me to virtually kiss you?
Huh. He could’ve said yes, she’d never know the truth. Yet he hadn’t. Now that was sexy. She typed, I’m waiting.
His message took longer to pop up than the previous ones—totally worth the wait. Your hair feels like silk around my fingers. I could touch it for hours. The back of your neck fits perfectly in my hand. You’re soft and warm…your pulse is pounding faster than before.
Calli’s hand moved to her throat. He was right, it was hammering like crazy.
Another message appeared on his side of the window. And now you’re blushing.
Her cheeks were on fire—he was right about that too. Everything makes me blush, it’s a curse.
No way. Blushing makes you irresistible. And that shy smile. Such pretty lips. Soft too. Sweet. Your mouth is smooth and warm. Delicious, like fruit.
Calli’s head fell back as she closed her eyes, letting the fantasy wash over her. She touched her lips. They parted slightly, as if the tips of her fingers were his lips, his tongue. It’d been so long since she’d had a real kiss. Even a sloppy one would be better than nothing at this point.
The computer beeped her back to reality. It’s your move.
Oh God, he was expecting her to reciprocate. This was bad. Very, very bad.
Give me a minute to think of something… Sorry, I’m a cyber-virgin. She slapped both palms over her face. God, how lame was that?
Another ping from the computer and she peeked out between her fingers to read Travis’ message. I meant it’s your move in the game, as in Scrabble. But thanks for sharing. It’s an honor to be your cyber-first.
She groaned. You must be laughing your ass off over there.
No, but I am smiling. You’re fun. Funny too, in a good way.
Well, that made another first. Responsible, mature, shrewd and dependable—those she was used to hearing—never fun or funny. So are you. Now sit back and get ready for it, because I’m going to rock your world…with my next word.
Their playful banter ended while they played a series of rapid-fire moves. He was a wicked opponent, demolishing any hope she had of catching him.
A gentleman would ease up and give a girl a chance.
Who said I was a gentleman? I prefer to dominate.
She snorted. Ballsy guy. I have no intention of resigning.
Good, I don’t want you to quit. Now submitting, that’s another story altogether.
A shiver rippled through her at the implications. Surely you don’t expect me to refer to you as Scrabble Master T.
Drop the Scrabble and the T.
So I should call you Master?
That works for me.
“Works for me too,” she said to the screen. Limited as her sexual experiences were, Calli knew one thing without a doubt—she wanted a man who would take charge behind closed doors. An experienced, confident man who would drive her wild with his carnal skills, introduce her to pleasures she’d only dreamed about. Too bad that kind of man would never want her.
What do you really look like, Master? She hit send, sat back and waited for the rock star description to roll in.
Short brown hair, hazel eyes. Giant, hairy mole on my stomach and a third arm growing out of my side.
Calli laughed out loud. Travis’ answer was perfect. Ooh, we match. I like a man who’s dangerously hairy and has a nicely positioned third arm.
Damn. Now I wish I really had that extra arm.
An automated message popped up, declaring Travis the winner. Game over. The end.
Saying congratulations seemed too formal after the chat they’d shared. And goodbye…well, she just didn’t want to say that. You won.
I did, mainly because you were on the other side of the board.
Come on, I don’t suck that much!
Not what I meant and you know it, C, though we can discuss how much sucking you should do another time. Regrettably, I have to go to work.
Calli grabbed a crossword magazine from the floor and fanned herself with it while pecking at the keyboard. Sure. Thanks for the game.
I’d like to play with you again.
All the boys say that. Or they had in the sixth grade, when she was the first girl to get breast buds.
I bet they do. Who do they ask for when they call you out to play? Give me a name to put with my memory of our first virtual date.
She got as far as typing it in the window, then backspaced the whole thing. You’re looking at it. C is my first initial and Ya is the beginning of my last name.
Thanks for nothing. Where are you, and don’t say Ontario, I can see that much.
Temptation licked at her fingertips. Travis seemed great online, but she was no fool. Location is confidential. For all I know you could be a nutcase, prowling the streets with a beaten-up Scrabble board tucked under your third arm.
His reply popped up instantly. So you’ve seen me around.
This guy was awesome. And he was about to disappear. Don’t you have to get to work?
I do. I wish I could call in sick and do this all night.
“Oh, me too.” Her fingers flew across the keys, not wanting him to go before he read her message. So do it. Show me how dominant you really are.
You tempt me, C. Hairy mole and all.
Um, I forgot to mention that I’m mostly toothless. Does that change how you feel about me? She slapped her forehead. How he felt about her? Good lord, she sounded like a cyber-stalker.
But Travis came back with another cute and sexy line. I’ve heard stories about what toothless women can do, so, no.
You’re horrible. I like it. Why can’t you call in sick? Yes, she was totally fishing for information. Stupid as that was for so many reasons.
Because I’m irreplaceable.
Me too, it’s a burden. To her customers and her dog, if nobody else.
If you won’t tell me your name, at least tell me what your real job is. Some crumb to tide me over while I’m bored tonight.
Calli took a minute to think. A little information, nothing too specific, couldn’t hurt. And maybe Travis would give something in return.
Truth—I work in a romance store.
A romance store. What does it sell—flowers, lingerie, sex toys?
Pride in her business beat out her need to be secretive. The works. Something romantic for everyone, for every time. That’s the tagline.
So you’re perfect. A woman who likes both Scrabble and sex toys.
Perfect, her? Only in this corner of the internet. Such assumptions. I only said I work there, not that I like the products.
And here I thought we were the ideal couple.
“Sure, if you’re a neurotic introvert like me,” she said to the black rose on her screen. Her fingers said something entirely different. You tell me what kind of job you’re irreplaceable at on a Saturday night and I’ll tell you what I really think about sex toys.
I’m working at a bar. Big one, nothing fancy and no strippers, just rock music and dancing. Now spill.
This secret chat was the most excitement she’d had in…oh, her entire life. Telling intimate truths to a stranger was unbelievably liberating. She started typing, feeling her cheeks lift with a smile her mystery man would never see.
I’ve tried a few things. All in the name of market research, you know.
For a horribly long minute, nothing new appeared in the chat window. Oh shit, too much information. Way too much. Ten more seconds, then she’d logout and never come back.
I’m going to have a hard time focusing on music tonight. Good thing we’ll be playing a lot of covers and I can hide behind my guitar.
“Oh my god, he’s a musician.” The laptop nearly slid to the floor, her legs were vibrating so much.
Honestly, nothing was sexier than a man playing a guitar. Except maybe a guitar player with kick-ass Scrabble skills and a wonderfully naughty mind who also claimed to be the dominant type. Heaven help her. Full of shit or not, Travis was officially her dream man. Even with his hairy mole and third arm.
Name one song you’ll be playing tonight. Then, if I hear it, I’ll think of you and feel bad for your, um…preDICKament.
I’m not feeling your sympathy, C. This place is a straight-up rock-and-roll bar. November Rain is an old one, but it’s a crowd fave. Know it?
Honestly, was he reading her mind somehow? Did he have visual access to her apartment—a hidden camera that had scoped out her old CD collection on the shelf?
She shook her head while typing. Of course I know it. I deal in romance.
I’ve never heard that song described as romantic.
Then you’ve been hanging out with the wrong people.
Right on that one. Time to narrow down your location, Miss Ya-something.
A little narrowing couldn’t be all that dangerous, right? Between Toronto and London. And what makes you think I’m a miss, not a missus…or a mister?
I read your profile before I accepted the game.
Head, meet desk. If she were at a desk.
Another message from Travis popped up. Promise me we’ll talk again. Soon.
Could he be asking for more contact than an online Scrabble chat window? No, that was a desperate and ridiculous wish, and one she’d never be able to handle if it materialized in front of her, wrapped in pretty paper with a bow on top. At least he wanted to do this again. That was all she needed. Really.
You know how to find me. She rubbed her palms against her pajamas. Too desperate-sounding? Too indifferent? Ugh, this is why she didn’t date. Well…one of the lesser reasons, but still. Too stressful.
And I will. Have a great night, C. I’ll be thinking about you when we play that song.
Then he was gone. For tonight, at least. Tons of open games waited on the site’s homepage, but she wasn’t into it anymore. Somewhere out there was a brown-haired guitarist who, in ninety minutes and total anonymity, had made her heart race.
Travis might be that ordinary-looking guy nobody gave a second glance. He might be the ugly guy everybody stares at because they can’t look away. Whatever his appearance, she was totally into him. Totally, anonymously into him.