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MIA ROSE CURRY LOOKED UP AT THE CROWDED CLASSROOM, at the rows of seats, full of expectant faces, at the others crowding in the door.
"This class is full," she told them. "If you're not already registered and you'd like to fill out a card to be put on the waiting list, please go to the registration office."
"This class is always full," a voice muttered from somewhere in the vicinity of the door.
Mia smiled. It was true. The Alternative Sexuality class she taught at San Francisco State was in high demand each semester. The students mostly came in looking for a cheap thrill and an easy grade, but she made them work for it. Made them do research, write papers. Tried to teach them something about the sociological effects of culture on sexuality. A few of them even learned something. And she always learned from watching them. From watching how they responded to the things they talked about in class, to the demonstrations, the films she showed them. She studied her students as much as they studied the class assignments. She couldn't help it. As a sociology professor, people were endlessly fascinating to her. Her whole life was about studying people, trying to understand them. Especially herself.
She looked over her classroom, making a quick assessment of each new student. She could usually tell which of them would work hard, participate in discussions. Who would hide in the back of the room and sneer. Who would leave as soon as any really controversial material came up.
Her eyes moved across the front row, drifting from face to face, and stopped cold.
God, he was too beautiful, this young man. Her student, she had to remind herself. A bit older than most of the others, maybe, but still . . .
Tawny skin the color of coffee with plenty of cream, dark, curling hair tipped with gold, as though he'd been in the sun. A close-cropped goatee framing a full, lush mouth. And the most startling eyes, a clear, crystal gray that contrasted with his dusky skin. Oh yes, too beautiful to be believed. And he was looking right at her, those clear gray eyes intense, focused. She shivered.
She tore her gaze away, but not before she caught his quick smile. Every bit as shockingly beautiful as the rest of him.
Pulling in a deep breath, she forced herself to concentrate on her job: evaluating her classroom, putting her notes in order. She had to command herself not to look at him so she could begin her opening lecture, but even knowing he was there, at the edge of her vision, made the back of her neck heat up, her entire body, despite the winter chill in the air.
She took a sip from her water bottle and began. "Welcome, everyone, to Alternative Sexuality. In this class we'll study the various avenues of sexuality that differ from what many might consider to be 'the norm.' We will be covering some controversial material. Some of you may even find it offensive."
She moved to the front of her desk and leaned back against it, watching the students as she spoke. "We'll discuss a variety of fetishes and alternative practices, including foot fetishes, cross-dressing, bondage and mummification, domination and submission, pain and sensation play, leather, rubber and latex fetishes, food fetishes, sploshing, which is a fetish involving various kinds of liquids, bestiality, amputee fetish, exhibitionism, voyeurism, infantilism, and perhaps a few more."
There were some requisite snickers from the back of the room. Certainly nothing she hadn't dealt with before. And she was entirely comfortable with her subject here in the classroom.
"Many of you might think of the people who practice these forms of sexuality as freaks, and I'll admit I find some of these practices repulsive, even harmful, and we'll discuss that, as well. But I'm going to ask you to keep an open mind. To put aside any prejudice you may feel and consider these subjects from an objective, scientific perspective. To view these practices as a response to the person's environment." She put her notes down and looked at her students, trying to catch an eye here and there. "This is what we're going to really focus on. What causes people to have these yearnings? And are fetishes a healthy response to certain stimuli? Or are they a psychological defect?"
"What do you think, Professor Curry?"
Ah, God, it was him. The beautiful one. And he was watching her again, so intently. Was it possible she was imagining it? She had to draw in a breath, pretend he was just any other student. She would question why he had such an effect on her later.
"I think . . . what's your name?"
"Jagger. Jagger James."
"I think, Jagger, that it depends on the person, the fetish, and what caused this response in their lives. We'll talk more about this, but you should all know that fetishes can often develop through an almost innocent event, one moment in which an object becomes sexualized. For instance, a common fetish for men is panty hose. Very often this one comes about because a boy in his sexually formative years, anywhere from ages eight through twelve, sees his mother's panty hose slung over the shower curtain after she's washed them. The boy is curious, so he tries them on or even sometimes simply touches them, and has a spontaneous erection. He may never touch them again. Or he may touch them every week. It's different in each case. But in the boy's mind, the panty hose are now an object connected with sexual arousal. This may manifest later in life in the sort of fetish where he wants to wear panty hose. Or he may simply love to see and feel them on a partner. He may even become aroused browsing through the hosiery department in a store.
"I interviewed a man for my master's thesis, a perfectly ordinary guy. Tall, masculine. He loved football, camping. But he also loved flowers. The scent, the sight, of them, a woman in a floral print dress or in floral lingerie was incredibly arousing. And this is how it started."
She moved across the room, watching her students, watching for their reactions to what she was telling them. Except for one. No, better to avoid his gaze.
"He took a bath when he was eleven years old. He liked to use Mr. Bubble, but the bottle was empty, so he tried his older sister's lavender bath salts, not knowing they wouldn't bubble up. During his bath, he masturbated to orgasm, surrounded by the strong scent of lavender. Now, in this particular case, he did it again and again, and developed a very strong fetish, which he has pursued into adulthood. But the same thing could have happened to another boy after only one incident. Or to another without any effect at all. There is only so much researchers understand about how these things work. But what we do know is that each situation must be evaluated on an individual basis."
Jagger spoke up again. "So you don't assume fetishes are a neurotic or even psychosocial tendency, necessarily?"
If they were, she was in very deep trouble.
"Not necessarily, no."
He smiled, and her legs felt as though they were suffused with a warm liquid. Melting. Yes, like melted chocolate. Milk chocolate. The shade of his skin.
She tucked a strand of her dark hair behind her ear. "This is exactly the kind of idea I want you to throw out the window until we explore the subject in detail. Here, we're going to stop making the usual snap judgments, rid ourselves of preconceived notions, and explore what truly goes on in a person's mind." She pushed off her desk and strolled across the front of the room, avoiding his gaze. Still, a small shiver raced over her skin when she walked past him. "We'll do research, assess data, witness certain events here in class, discuss others. And we'll have an opportunity to talk with some of the people who practice these things in their everyday lives. Please take a look at the class syllabus now to review the in-class activities. Then think about whether or not this is something you can handle. But I want you all to push yourselves a bit. To see these things, talk to these people, ask questions, and try to stretch your boundaries. To explore your own response to whatever the subject might be. To make yourself the subject of your own sociological study."
"Is that what you do, Professor Curry?"
Him again. Jagger. This time she looked him right in the eye. "Every day of my life."
It was the truth. Too bad she'd never been able to come up with any conclusive answers.
"Karalee, over here." Mia waved her friend to their usual table in the faculty lounge. She watched as Karalee crossed the room, graceful and lithe. Mia had always admired her elegant, willow-slender height, the way she carried herself.
"Hi. Sorry I'm late. A student had some questions after class." Karalee folded herself into the chair and opened a brown paper bag. "Tuna again. You'd think my mother packed my lunch."
"How was your class?" Mia asked her, spearing her salad.
Karalee pulled off her glasses, revealing blue, almond-shaped eyes, and tucked the glasses into her briefcase. With her height, her fine bone structure and exotic eyes, Mia had always thought she should have been a model rather than an English teacher.
"Class was fine. Good. I think I even have a few people who are actually interested in literature this semester. I like my night classes so much better. The students are older: people who really want to be there." Karalee paused, took a clip from her briefcase, and quickly twisted her shoulder-length, golden-brown hair into a neat bun. "But you don't have that problem with your class, do you?"
"With my regular sociology classes, yes. With the Alternative class, no. Never."
Karalee bit into her sandwich, chewed for a moment. "So, good group this semester?"
"Um . . . yes. They're fine."
"What was that?"
"What was what?" Mia stuffed a lettuce leaf into her mouth, but found it hard to swallow as her skin heated up.
"Did I just see you blush?"
Mia shrugged. "It's nothing."
"It's something, Mia Rose. Tell me."
"Okay. Okay. It's just . . . there's this guy in my class . . . God, I sound like I'm in high school. But he's no kid. An older student."
"Mid-, maybe late twenties." She took a sip from her water bottle, shook her head. "You would not believe how beautiful this man is. He has the most gorgeous skin, and his eyes . . . the way he looks at me . . ."
Karalee set her sandwich down, covered one of Mia's hands with her own. "Mia, this is one of your students you're talking about."
"I know. Don't you think I know that?" She paused, immediately remorseful. "I'm sorry, Karalee. I didn't mean to snap at you."
"It's okay. I just . . . you're really attracted to this guy. I can see it all over your face. And if I can, someone else might be able to see it, too. Be careful."
"I will be. And it's not as if anything would ever happen with him. I'm just his professor."
"You're a young, gorgeous professor. You're only thirty-three, for heaven's sake. He certainly wouldn't be the first student to find you attractive. Stranger things have happened, Mia."
"Well, nothing's going to happen. He's my student, I'm his teacher, end of story."
But her head was full of other stories, and there was nothing innocent about any of them. Quick images of his mouth coming down on hers, his hands all over her . . .
She really had to put a stop to this insane attraction. Because that's exactly what it was: insane. Jagger James was off-limits.
She had a feeling she'd have to remind herself of that every single day until the end of the semester. And then she could go off on her summer vacation and not see him anymore, think about him anymore.
If only she knew what the hell she was going to do in the meantime.
Of course he was the only thing on her mind that evening, after her night class and a quick dinner with a few coworkers. The fog was rolling in when she pulled up to her cozy little house across the street from Stern Grove in Golden Gate Park, pulled her briefcase and her laptop out of the car, and went inside. Her shoes scuffed softly across the hardwood floors as she went to turn on the lights.
She'd always loved this house; it had been her grandmother's. She'd inherited it two years ago, and had moved right in, happily leaving her apartment in the Richmond District behind. It was small but neat, with the old stucco walls so common in the homes built around the park in the twenties. And it had a working fireplace with gorgeous tile work her grandfather had added before she was born. The tiny back garden, with its small patch of lawn bordered by her grandmother's lovely roses, was just enough to let her enjoy a bit of gardening without it being a burden.
It was January now, and miraculously, a few sparse roses still bloomed. Something about the magic of her grandmother's garden. And like her grandmother, Mia loved this time of year. She swore she could smell the tang of the nearby ocean better in winter.
She tossed her briefcase and her purse onto the pale, overstuffed damask sofa and flicked on the heat as she went down the hall to her bedroom. She quickly changed into her usual loungewear: vintage satin pajamas and a matching robe in a soft shade of peach that made her feel like a forties film starlet. She loved the feel of the silk against her skin, so smooth it was almost like liquid, like honey.
Oh God, don't think about that now.
But her body had been alive all day. And Jagger James' image was continually lurking behind her eyes, making her hot and trembly all over when she indulged herself for a moment, letting her mind wander.
She walked back down the hall and into the all-white kitchen, with its smooth, painted cupboards and white-tiled counters. This room she'd had redone last year, updating the appliances in order to indulge her passion for cooking.
Passion was one word for it, she supposed, her body giving a quick shiver at the thought. There was definitely passion where food was involved, much of which she'd never really allowed herself to think about, not consciously, anyway. She'd never found a partner whose interests lay in the same area, not since those early explorations with Ben. At least, that was the excuse she'd been giving herself for years.
She pushed the idea away before she had a chance to really examine it, opened the refrigerator, and took out a chilled bottle of Chardonnay, a nice white from the Napa Valley. She poured herself a glass and took it into the bedroom. Her big, antique brass bed looked all too inviting, with its fluffy, white down quilt and piles of pillows. Slipping out of her robe, she climbed in, intending to read. She sifted through the small pile of books on her nightstand; she tended to read several simultaneously. But nothing held her interest tonight. Instead, she found the remote and clicked on the television, flipped through the channels. No news, no talk shows. She wanted something peaceful, relaxing. She left it on the Food Channel with the sound down, idly watching a man sauteing vegetables. He had strong-looking hands as he stirred them, chopped a handful of chives, and added them to the pan. Nice. Even better when he started a sauce. Her body went warm, watching the sensual glide of the liquid as the disembodied hands stirred it in the pan, imagined they were Jagger's hands.
Her sex gave a sharp squeeze.