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"If you ask me, sex is overrated. I'll admit that it's pleasant, but earth-shattering? Not even close. Frankly, I don't know what all the fuss is about." Elena de la Vega arched a challenging eyebrow at her sister before taking a sip of her white wine.
"That's because you haven't had sex with the right guy," Carmen replied with a secretive gleam in her eyes. "Yet."
"Oh, c'mon," Elena scoffed, telling herself she didn't feel the tiniest bit jealous of the self-satisfied smile on Carmen's face. "A m I really supposed to believe that every time you and Nick get it on, he makes your toes curl with lust?"
Carmen set her martini down and leaned across the small table they shared, glancing quickly around to ensure none of the other patrons at the cozy sidewalk café could overhear their conversation. "Let's just say that Nick has a talent for making each time seem like the first time. You know, incredibly arousing. Exciting. Like I'm the hottest thing he's ever laid eyes on. The way he looks at me, and the things he does " Her expression took on a dreamy quality.
Elena rolled her eyes. "Yeah, well, I'll take your word for it. Nick may be great in bed, but he's also incredibly jealous. I couldn't be with a guy like that."
Carmen's smile grew wider. "Nick just wants other guys to know I'm with him. So what if he glowers a little bit, or likes to stay close to me when we're out together? At least he doesn't ignore me. I'm a happy, satisfied woman. Can you say the same?"
Elena thought of her own boyfriend, Larry, and a small sigh escaped her. He wasn't physically impressive, like Carmen's Nick was, but he was smart and considerate. They'd worked in the same office together for three years and Elena had a lot of respect for him. Larry was a conscientious man who took his job as a cost auditor for the Defense Procurement Agency seriously. He was brilliant when it came to numbers. Elena told herself again that she didn't mind if he worked long hours, or that he chose to spend most Saturdays in the office rather than with her. He treated her well, and when they did go out, he was a pleasant companion. Their typical routine was to catch a movie or a bite to eat, and then return to her apartment where he could be counted on to give her a very nice orgasm. Not an earth-shattering, body-clenching, toe-curling orgasm, but a nice one all the same.
"Larry is reliable," she finally said, but didn't meet her sister's knowing eyes. Instead, she trailed the tip of her finger around the edge of her wineglass. "I know what to expect with Larry. We get together on Wednesday and Saturday nights, and if our love life is a little…predict able, then who I am to complain?" She raised her gaze to Carmen's. "I actually prefer it that way."
"What way?" asked Carmen archly. "Flat on your back, making all the right noises so that he feels like a real man, while you just wish he'd hurry up and finish?"
Elena stared at her sister, amazed. "How did—? No, wait. It isn't like that."
"Isn't it? Don't forget, you're the one who dubbed him Old Faithful. As in…he's predictable and lasts less than two minutes."
Elena groaned and took a hefty swig of her wine. "That's not fair. I was a little tipsy that night and said more than I should have. You're taking it out of context. I dubbed him Old Faithful because he's, well, dependable. Trustworthy. Faithful. All good traits for a man to have."
"Or a dog," Carmen muttered. Then, seeing Elena's expression, she was instantly contrite. "I agree with you. Absolutely. Those are all good qualities for a man to have, but they shouldn't be his only qualities. He should make your insides turn to mush and your pulse quicken just thinking about him." Her expression grew earnest. "Please tell me you're not going to marry this guy, Elena. You deserve so much more. Every woman should have one great passion in her life. Don't settle for mediocrity."
"He hasn't asked me to marry him yet," Elena grum bled. "And I said our love life is predictable, not mediocre."
"Oh, come on," Carmen scoffed, and sat back in her chair. "Your boyfriend is boring. Your life is boring. When was the last time you did something exciting?
Something that made your heart pound and your mouth go dry?" She leaned forward again. "You're almost thirty, Elena, and yet you've never done any of the wacky things that most people do when they're in their twenties. Nick and I had sex on the roof of his building last night, under the stars. It was amazing."
"Nick's rooftop garden is amazing," Elena said drily, ignoring her sister's jabs. "I'm sure you're not the first girl he's brought up there."
Carmen narrowed her eyes. "So what if I'm not the first? I'll be the last."
Elena shrugged. "Well, it's your heart. Risk it if you want to."
"See? That's my whole point. You're not willing to take any risks, Elena. You'd rather settle for safe and boring than take a chance on something exciting. Something that could change your life." She shook her head in mock sadness. "You have no idea what you're missing."
Elena dabbed her mouth with her linen napkin before folding it neatly beside her plate, silently counting to ten. She refused to be baited.
"I don't feel as if I'm settling," she finally said, hoping that she sounded convincing. "And not everyone wants that kind of excitement in their life, Carmen. I've watched what great passion has done to Mom and Dad, and even to you." She fished in her pocketbook for some money and carefully placed several bills on the table. "I don't want that kind of chaos in my life. Larry is kind and considerate and I always know exactly what to expect from him. I'm happy with what I have." Seeing the disbelief on her sister's face, she stood up. "Really, I am. Look, I have to go. Thanks for lunch. I'll call you tomorrow."
As she walked to her car, Elena refused to feel guilty for prematurely ending their lunch. The whole thing was Carmen's fault, anyway. It seemed every time they got together, the conversation turned to Elena's love life. Neither of her two sisters could understand Larry's appeal, but they didn't know him the way Elena did. Admittedly, he wasn't adventurous in bed, but so what? Not everyone was into that kinky stuff, as Larry put it. And any therapist worth his salt would tell you that a successful relationship should be based on trust and mutual respect. Not sex.
All she had to do was look at her family for proof. Given the choice between a life of calm predictability or the blood-pounding, roof-raising drama that seemed to accompany her parents and her siblings wherever they went, Elena preferred the former.
She always would.
Even so, her sister's words rankled, partly because Elena knew that on some level, they were true. But she'd chosen her path with careful deliberation. Sure, there were times when she felt that she was meant for something bigger and more exciting, but she simply had to spend time with her parents and sisters to remember exactly why she'd opted for the conventional life she now led.
Her family might boast about the hot, Spanish blood that flowed through their veins, claiming it was the reason for their unpredictable and often volatile behavior, but Elena wanted no part of it. She'd watched her parents divorce and remarry each other twice; she'd spent countless nights with each of her sisters, lending both an ear and a shoulder as they'd wept and wailed about the failure of yet another relationship. Her younger sister, Sarita, actually enjoyed dating two, even three men at a time and then watching the fireworks when they found out about each other. That kind of excitement she could do without.
Granted, Nick Belcastro seemed like a decent guy, and he was both gorgeous and financially independent, but Elena wondered how long he'd tolerate Carmen's mood swings before he decided he'd had enough.
Elena glanced at her watch as she pulled out of the restaurant parking lot. Nearly one-thirty. Was Larry still at the office? They had plans to go out to dinner and a movie later on, but Elena suddenly had an urge to see him, if only to reassure herself that he wasn't as mediocre as Carmen claimed. She could picture him in his office, surrounded by papers, with his hair sticking up from where he'd combed his fingers through it in frustration. Deciding he could use a break, she swung the car in the direction of the federal building where they both worked. Even if he'd already left, there was some paperwork she could collect from her own office and bring home with her.
Twenty minutes later, Elena passed through the security checkpoint and walked through the darkened corridors toward Larry's office. The Defense Procurement Agency oversaw the purchase and delivery of goods and services for the military. Elena and Larry worked in the agency's headquarters, an impressive four-story structure of limestone and sleek marble, located on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.
After obtaining her law degree, Elena had spent the first few years of her career negotiating and administering contracts for the military, everything from nuts and bolts to major weapons systems. She was good at what she did. So good that she'd been offered a promotion to the DPA's legal department, writing policy and procedure manuals for the agency's contracting center. There was very little that Elena didn't know about contracting, both from an administrative and a legal perspective.
Her parents might be disappointed that she hadn't chosen to use her law degree in litigation, but striding up and down a courtroom while making impassioned speeches to a judge and jury held little appeal for Elena. Nope, she enjoyed researching regulations and statutes, and then applying them to how the agency did business. She didn't mind sitting through oversight meetings and briefing senior leadership on changes in federal procurement policy. She told herself yet again that what she did mattered. She was making a difference.
Elena stopped briefly at the mailroom and checked her box, flipping through the assorted envelopes and papers for anything that might require her immediate attention. Most of the mail was routine correspondence, including a letter from the Director's office requesting civilian volunteers—especially those with contracts and legal experience—to work in Iraq for six months, negotiating and monitoring the defense contracts there. According to the memo, such volunteer deployments were the agency's number-one mission.
Elena snorted. As if that would ever happen. This was the third such call for volunteers in as many months, and while most folks who did volunteer had only positive things to say about their deployment experience, Elena couldn't imagine working in Iraq or Afghanistan. While she had an extensive background negotiating military contracts, the agency couldn't pay her enough money to go over there. She disliked being hot, and having mortars lobbed at her wasn't a huge incentive, either.
Carrying her mail in one hand, she walked toward Larry's office. His door was closed and she had a moment's regret that she'd missed him, when she saw a shadow pass beneath the crack at the bottom. Just then, a crash sounded from behind the closed door and Elena heard Larry give a pained groan.
"Larry!" She thrust the door open so hard that it slammed against the wall, and then she stood there, speechless at the sight that greeted her.
Larry stood at the side of his desk with his pants and underwear crumpled around his ankles, his shirt open and flapping loosely around his pale buttocks and thighs. Sprawled facedown across his desk was a woman, her black skirt pushed up around her waist. Her legs were splayed wide, the stiletto heels on her shoes lending them extra length. Larry gripped the woman's hips as she bent forward over the desk, thrusting himself into her. His head was thrown back and the cords in his neck stood out in a way that Elena had never seen when he'd been with her.
The crash she'd heard had been Larry's alabaster paperweight falling to the floor as the woman swept it from the surface of the desk in her frenzy. The paperweight Elena had given to him on Valentine's Day last year.
In the instant before they both turned toward her, Elena recognized the other woman as one of the new interns they'd hired in the legal department. Her reddish hair fell forward over her face, and her eyes were hazy with pleasure. Her full lips were parted and moist as she gripped the edges of the desk and arched her back to give Larry better access. When she raised herself to look toward the door, Elena saw her pink blouse was open at the front and her bra was pulled down below her breasts, which had left a damp mark on the glossy veneer of the desk.
For a moment, the three of them stared at each other. Larry's harsh breathing was the only sound that broke the stunned silence, until he muttered an oath and snatched himself from the woman's body.
Elena didn't wait to see more. She turned on her heel and walked blindly back the way she'd come, unable to dispel the erotic images she'd just witnessed. She tried to recall when the woman—Claire—had first begun working at the agency. Five months ago, maybe? Six? How long had she and Larry been having an affair? Was this what he did every Saturday when he told her he was going into the office?
Larry trotted down the corridor after her, shoving his shirt into his waistband. Elena stopped and watched him approach, noting his flushed features and disheveled hair. She'd always thought he was attractive, but now all she could see were his white legs and thin buttocks, pumping furiously into another woman.
"What do you want, Larry?" She glanced at her watch, ignoring how her hand trembled. "I really can't stay. I only came by because I thought you needed a break from work." She gave a bitter laugh. "Little did I know."
Larry swiped a hand through his hair, looking both embarrassed and defiant. "You should have called. You always call first."
Elena gaped at him. "I should have called? Excuse me, but I work here, too. I don't need your permission to come by the office after hours, Larry." She ran a scathing eye over him. "It figures that the first time I do, this is what I find. You, in a sweaty clutch with the office intern. It's so cliché that it's actually pathetic. What if someone else had seen you? You both could be fired for this."