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It's dark, and there are hands on my naked flesh. The scents of incense and sex in the air, the earthy fragrance of fresh sweat. Stroking, stroking, fingers and tongues, on my belly, my breasts. I turn to offer my hardened nipples to those seeking mouths.
Ah, yes, hot and sucking and the pressure building between my legs. Silky hair fluttering like sensual wings over my parted thighs.
Yes, kiss me there
Soft fingers spreading the lips of my sex wide, then slipping inside my body. Pleasure like an electric current, humming in my veins, making me hot and shivery all over.
I'm going to come soon.
My eyelids flutter open. It's still half-dark, but there is a silvery cast to everything now, and I can see them. Bodies writhing beside me: men, women. Beautiful naked flesh against my own. And that lovely mouth at my breast, sucking, sucking. Fingers plunging into my wet pussy, my hips arching, heat racing over my skin. And then that mouth between my thighsoh, yes!pulling my hard little clit in, sucking, hot, wet mouth and silken tongue, sliding, sucking, harder Oh, yes, going to come!
My body gives a hard lurch and I am awake. I blink. Oh, yes on the train.
My body still buzzing with near climax, and I have to force a deep, calming breath into my lungs. Had I made any noise? Moaned as I slept? My clit pulses still with unshed need. I squeeze my thighs together. It doesn't help.
I pick up my bottle of water and take a long, slow sip, looking out the window as the train grinds to a stop in front of the tiny, old station house. Goleta, California. I could have been in any small town in the country, and suddenly wish I were. Why had I decided to come here?
A few other passengers are rising to their feet, gathering their belongings, but I can't seem to make myself do the same.
Stupid. You never should have done this.
But no, this trip is about forcing myself outside my comfort zone, the solitary existence that had begun to drive me crazy. When I'd agreed to come here, to the Santa Barbara coast, it had seemed the perfect opportunity, the perfect way for me to get out of my own head for once. To learn to interact with the human race, as my therapist, Terry, had been encouraging me to do for months. Who better to spend time with than other writers? A limited group on this yearly retreat, people I've spoken to online for some time. Safe.
But my pulse is thready, humming unevenly in my veins, a sharp, staccato beat. I push my long, unruly blond curls from my face, my hair suddenly too heavy, too hot, against my neck. I'm always threatening to cut it, but I never will.
Maybe I should have just stayed home. Everything is simple at home. Just write my books. Do my online promotions from behind the safety of my glowing computer screen. I don't have to interact with anyone but the girl at the Starbucks down the street from my apartment in Seattle, and the handful of friends I've known forever. They all thought this trip was a great idea, too. I'm not so sure.
Time for a change, Bettina.
Yes, that's why I came.
Just do it. Get up. Don't be such a chicken.
Grabbing the slouchy canvas-and-leather bag that holds my laptop, several books and my wallet, I stuff my sweater into the bag and move down the narrow aisle lined with blue vinyl seats, past the small squares of grimy windows. I step out of the stale air, my back and legs stiff from more than thirty hours of travel, and pull in a deep breath of cool and lovely sea air.
I see a row of eucalyptus trees to one side of the station and inhale once more, pulling their tangy, fresh scent into my lungs. See the silhouette of hills in the distance against a stark blue sky, the uncut grass scattered with tiny wildflowers in yellow and purple. Feel the space around me.
Maybe this is why I've come. Maybe things are going to be okay.
I smile, pleased with the concept. "Bettina, is that you?"
Viviane Shaw waves at me from the other end of the platform, impossible to miss with her deep, husky voice, her willowy height, and even more, her black-and-purple hair. My closest friend in the online writers' group where we met, Viviane had been the singer in a well-known punk band in the early eighties, and even now, at forty-six, she dresses in jeans and T-shirts and too much silver jewelry that looks exactly right on her. Her smile is warm, and as I approach her, she pulls me into a tight, lilac-scented hug.
"I'm sorry my train was so late."I step back, out of her arms, a little unsettled by Viviane's embrace, even though I liked it.
"You don't need to be sorry, doll. Not your fault. Anyway, it gave me a reason to hang out in town and do some shopping."Viviane stands back and looks at me. "You're even prettier than your pictures, Tina. Wow, can you believe we've been talking online for two years? I feel like I know you. It's always so weird, isn't it, meeting people for the first time you've only known online. No matter how many years I've been hosting these writers' retreats, I never get over it."
"I don't really know. This is the first time I've met anyone from our online group. Or from online at all."
"Well, it's about time then, isn't it?"Viviane smiles at me, and I feel a little less uncertain. She's gorgeous, with high, curving cheekbones and enormous light brown eyes that tilt up a bit at the corners. She seems like an exotic creature to me, colorful and vibrant and more youthful than I am myself, somehow, even though I'm eighteen years younger. "You must be tired. Are you hungry? We can stop on the way to the house, if you like."
"No, thanks, I'm fine. I ate on the train."
"How was your trip?"
"It was long. Beautiful, when there was enough light to see by. And I loved the motion of the train. It was soothing. Mesmerizing. It felt like an adventure."
She smiles at me. "I think you've needed some adventures. Small ones, anyway."
"You're right, I do. Maybe I'll have some here. Small ones."I smile, the last of my nerves vanishing during this simple conversation. "Ah, I think I see my luggage."
We retrieve my two small black bags, and Viviane leads me through the parking lot to a silver SUV coated in a layer of dust. A large, black nose is pressed to the back window.
"I brought Sid with me,"Viviane says. "I hope you don't mind."
"I like dogs. I've always wanted to get one, but living in an apartment in the city isn't the best scenario for a dog."Sid has an enormous, blocky head and one of those toothy grins with loose, floppy jowls that make him look perpetually happy. He snorts and rumbles as Viviane opens the tailgate. "Is he friendly?"
"Oh, yeah, he loves everyone. He just looks vicious. Sid Vicious, get it? Stay there, Sid, good boy."
Viviane holds the barrel-chested bulldog back by his wide, studded collar while I pile my bags into the back of the car. I stroke Sid's head, making his stumpy tail wag at a hundred miles an hour, before I go around to get in on the passenger side. Viviane starts the car and music blasts from the stereo, some cacophonous metal song, as she pulls onto the street.
She turns the knob to lower the volume on the stereo. "My place is only about fifteen minutes away, so it won't take long. It really is good to have you here, Tina."
"Thank you so much for having me."
"No need to be formal, doll, it's just me, same as I am online."Viviane pats my knee. "Don't look so worried. This is a casual group. We're spending almost the entire summer together, they'll all feel like family before you know it. And you've been talking to all of us for so long. None of us are that different in person. Although you're even more shy, I think."
"I suppose I am. It's sort of the bane of my existence,"I admit, feeling a real sense of ease with Viviane. It's almost impossible not to.
"So you said when we talked on the phone. But I really think this will be good for you."
"I hope so. I've been feeling so.stuck. And not just with my writing."
Uneven rows of quaint old houses stream by outside the windows, separated by fields of grass, eucalyptus trees and a few ancient oaks among the stands of rock on the low hillsides where cows wander, staring at the road. It's as though they're watching us. Watching the world go by. Maybe that's what I've been doing all this time.
"I honestly don't know how you write that angsty women's-fiction stuff,"Viviane tells me. "I could never come up with enough high drama. Especially if there's no payoff at the end."
"And I don't know how you write romance, even your darker work. I'm not sure I even believe enough in love. I could never write about it."
Viviane's features go soft for a moment; I can see it even in profile, the scenery flashing by in a blur of green and blue behind her head. "Oh, I believe in love. I always have. I always will."
"You miss him still,"I say quietly, then immediately wish I'd kept my mouth shut.
"Malcolm? Yeah, I do. It's been thirteen years since I lost him, but once you love someone, it never really goes away."
"Yes, well, once you love them, I suppose."
Viviane turns to me, one dark brow quirked. "You've really never been in love, Bettina?"
"No. Never. I've had a few boyfriends, but none ever inspired any real passion in me. They were all.okay."I shrug. "No more, no less."
"Well, when it does happen, that's when you'll believe in it. Because you won't be able to do otherwise. It's a powerful force, love."
I smile at her. "So you say in all your books."
"Have you read all my books?"
"I try to read at least a few from everyone in the group. Patrice's historical mysteries, Kenneth's war epics, and I love Audrey's urban-fantasy stuff. I've even read some of Leo's horror comics."
"And Jack's thrillers?"
"I think they're brilliant. I think he's brilliant. But his work is too disturbing for me. I know we all write darkthat's what brought us togetherbut I'm a wimp at heart, I guess."
"No, I can hardly take it, either. His work is so psychological, it messes with my head. His stuff will give me nightmares even more than Leo's gore comics. Ah, this is my street."
The "street"is really a long unpaved road lined with more of the towering eucalyptus trees. Green fields give way to rockier terrain as we near the beach, and I roll down the window so I can breathe in the salt of the ocean.
"This is beautiful. Peaceful."
"Isn't it? I fell in love with this place the moment I saw it. I don't think I could write anywhere else. I think you'll like it."
"I think I will, too."
We bump over the end of the road and pull up behind a sprawling, two-story, Spanish-style bungalow with a tiled roof and high, arched windows. Bougainvillea climbs the white stucco walls, and more eucalyptus and a few cypress twisted by the wind shade the rambling house. We get out of the SUV, Viviane letting the tailgate down so Sid can jump out, hefting his brown-and-white bulk to the ground at a startling speed for such a heavy creature. I can hear the thundering of waves in the distance, and the air here is even sharper, cleaner, than it had been at the train station.
"We'll get your bags later,"Viviane says. "Come on and meet everyone. Well, everyone who's arrived so far, anyway."
She leads me around the side of the house and in through what turns out to be the kitchen door. Inside, the kitchen is a large, open space with terra-cotta-tiled floors, and thick, cobalt tiles on the counters. The ceilings are heavily beamed, and there's a fireplace at one end of the room, surrounded by chairs made of woven brown leather, a low table of heavy, raw beams in a dark wood. The place is like something out of a magazine, except homier. I love it instantly.
In the center of the kitchen is an island, and a thin, birdlike woman in her early fifties with short, mouse-brown hair stands there, chopping vegetables on a large cutting board.
"Bettina, this is Patrice Michaels, our historical-mystery author."
Patrice smiles, a small crooked lift of her thin lips. She has a narrow face, sharp, dark eyes, and I feel even more intimidated by her than I have talking with her online. Patrice is known for her blatant and sometimes brutal honesty, but she's a talented writer, and has been in the business longer than any of us. She's generous and an enormous source of information on writing craft and the publishing industry. Still, I don't know that I'll ever feel entirely comfortable with this woman and her dry, shrewd appraisal of me.
"Hello, Bettina. I see you've arrived safely."
"Yes, thank you."
"Dinner will be ready in an hour."
"Patrice is an amazing cook,"Viviane interjects, making the dour, older woman really smile.
Viviane can make anyone smile. I'm glad she'll be here to help me ease into this, that I won't be on my own with the rest of the group. Viviane is the one I've talked with the most, the one I trust. I would never have made this trip otherwise. "Bettina!"
I turn to find a heavyset man with a thick head of silver hair and watery blue eyes coming in the kitchen door, a happy smile on his face. Kenneth Bergen.
"Kenneth. It's so good to meet you."
He comes to me and takes my hand in both of his, a warm, comfortable embrace. "Oh, you're lovely. Isn't she, Audrey?"he asks over his shoulder.
She's standing in the doorway, a waif of a girl, although I know Audrey LeClaire is in her early thirties. She's all long, dark hair and huge, smoky-blue eyes fringed in the longest dark lashes I've ever seen. With her olive skin and tiny frame, she seems like some woodland sprite come to life. Except that her breasts, barely contained beneath her bikini top, are almost too large for her body.
Why am I even noticing?
"Yes, beautiful. Come say hello, Bettina. Don't worry, I won't bite."Audrey smiles, her lush mouth parting, a dimple appearing in one cheek, and she comes to wrap her arms around me.
She smells of lemons. And sex.
My body heats.
What is wrong with me? Must be that dream