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"Did you say Mr. Darcy's pants?" Dinah asked, choking on her espresso.
Flip tucked a long strand of blond hair behind her ear, happy to shock her more upright friend. "Well, it's more polite than the first thing that popped into my head."
Eve grinned. "Which was?"
"Mr. Darcy's pants and a breath mint."
The women laughed loud enough to turn heads at the outdoor café.
"If I were Lizzy Bennet and the heroine of Pride and Prejudice," Flip said in only a slightly lower voice, "and had just bagged Darcy, the hottest man in literature, forget the engagement gift. I'd want his pants, coat, shirt and -- well, he could probably keep the boots -- for a hardy screw in the hedgerow." She considered the image forming in her head. "Oh, yeah. Definitely keep the boots."
Dinah put on her fiery high school English teacher look, the look that transformed her from a happy, bisexual Julianne Moore look-alike to Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. "Lizzy Bennet is not that kind of girl," she said hotly.
"And that, my dear Dinah," Flip replied, "is the trouble with Pride and Prejudice. Not enough hedgerow."
Eve, whose spiky black bob and sleek attorney suit gave her the look of an upscale punk rocker, considered the sandstorm of sugar she was stirring into her iced tea. "I think our friend Flip has a hedgerow fixation."
"You know what they say about hedgerows," Dinah said with a superior smile. "If you're not careful, all you'll end up with is pricks."
"What is it about divorce that takes all the fun out of that word?" Flip tapped a dollop of cappuccino foam from the end of her stirrer. "But it doesn't have to be a hedgerow. I'm just as happy with the deck of a sailboat, the parapet of a duke's castle or the front steps of the New York Public Library. I just like my heroines to get their due."
"Gee, I hope their due includes a pillow." Eve emptied a fourth packet of sugar into the glass. "My ass hurts just thinking about it."
"Gratuitous sex is the refuge of the uninspired writer," Dinah said with the smugness only a few gate attendants or omeone who majored in English Lit can muster. "With its figurative blank page on the matter, Pride and Prejudice allows a reader the ultimate flight of imagination."
"Oh, is that what we're calling it now?" Flip said. "I wondered why you were going through so many batteries at night."
The women's laughter filled the green space in which the café tables sat, but Eve's, Flip noticed, was more infectious than that of all of them. Once you've faced breast cancer, Eve told her, you never pass up the chance to belly laugh. Flip smiled. It was a wonderful sound, and the first man Eve had agreed to see since her mastectomy, Adam -- hold for the laugh -- seemed to like it too. Eve had been teetering on the "should I/shouldn't I" line for a month now.
The Columbia livia at Flip's feet cooed and flapped happily, bobbing for crumbs. She threw down a bit of her biscotti, then let her gaze slide across the street to the gleaming forty-two-story tower known as the Cathedral of Learning that dwarfed everything else on the University of Pittsburgh campus. The topic of sex never failed to reduce her and her friends from thirty-plus-year-olds with more than a decade of bad relationships behind them to a slumber party's worth of snickering teens. It was just what she needed after a long couple of weeks at the Aviary. She rubbed her aching neck.
"Tough day, sweetie?" Eve asked. Eve tended to mother.
"Ugh," Flip agreed. "And it's only half over. I'm supposed to be working on that damned presentation at the library, but Ninja's got a nodule on his wing, so I swung by work this morning to take a look, and, well...let's just say 'Bird Density and Diversity in Clear-cut Oak Forests' is not exactly writing itself." Unsurprising, she considered, given that instead of writing when she'd returned from the Aviary, she'd spent an hour daydreaming about the book she was reading -- specifically, a sink top sex scene in which, for once, the hero was the one who ended up with tile marks on his knees. Venice, she thought fondly. Who needed a gondola?
And now she'd have to tear herself away from what happened next to reread Pride and Prejudice for their book club on Thursday.
Not that she didn't enjoy Darcy and Lizzy's long, fitful submission into love. It was like waiting for two strongly repelling magnets to flip over and snap together with a bang. But given her own current state of carnal deprivation -- two years, three months, one week and 2,437 laps in the YMCA pool, but who was counting? -- what she really needed from her reading material was not a flight of imagination, but an intricately detailed charter excursion into cool sheets, silky boxers, and the snap of panty under insistent fingers. Darcy and Lizzy simply lacked sufficient detail.
Her Venice hero, sure to be literally spouting detail in the next scene, would have to wait, though Flip couldn't help but wonder in what form his reward would come. She tipped the chair onto two legs and let the various options curl through her thoughts....
Stop! her industrious side commanded. Clear-cut forests. Winter migration. Biodiversity. These are the thoughts you should be thinking.
But nothing even faintly ornithological popped into her head. Instead the Cathedral of Learning transformed itself from a stolid skyscraper into what could only be described as the largest literary device ever conceived, with the gently swaying trees at its base pillowy curls of hair, and Forbes and Fifth, the wide boulevards that ran on either side, a pair of creamy, muscular thighs.
Flip dropped the chair back onto four legs and took a deep breath.
She assured herself these spells would be entirely natural in a woman who hadn't experienced the real thing in over two years -- six if one were inclined to charge her ex-husband Jed with heroic underachievement in the area, and, in this case, one certainly was. Entirely natural, she repeated. Why fight it? The tower pulsed with gleaming, pent-up --
"Don't you agree, Flip?"
She jerked her attention back to the table, nearly toppling her cappuccino in the process.
A plain-faced young woman in a wrap skirt and a PANIC! AT THE DISCO T-shirt stood next to the table, smiling. Two mouse-colored pigtails snaked down the straps of her bright orange backpack, and she clutched an organic yogurt.
"I was saying the best stories appeal to our more noble desires," Dinah repeated, smiling encouragingly.
"Oh, sure," Flip agreed. "Like The Economist...or beets."
The young woman chuckled. If she were a bird, she'd be a killdeer, Flip decided, spindle-legged and slightly nervous.
Dinah said, "Flip and Eve, this is my friend Beth Olinsky. She's a senior in history at Pitt. We're in the choir at church together. Beth this is Flip Allison, an ornithologist with the Aviary, and Eve Bloomberg, a lawyer at Pilgrim Pharmaceuticals."
Beth gave everyone a lopsided grin. She bloomed when she smiled, Flip thought. Not quite a peacock. An oriole, perhaps.
"Flip?" Beth said. "That's an unusual name."
"Short for Philippa," Flip admitted. "Blame it on my older brother, who couldn't pronounce it. He also called elephants 'elphiniums' until he was about fifteen. You a Pride and Prejudice fan like your choir colleague here?"
Beth nodded, rubbing her nose vigorously. "I loved the book. My sister gave me the DVD for Christmas, but my boyfriend never wants to watch it."
"Uh-oh. Time for a new boyfriend."
"Yeah, well, I guess that's what he thinks too." She shifted her weight from one Teva sandal to the other. "We're, um, breaking up."
Flip shook her head. "Oh dear, idiocy starts early. Well, at least you can watch the miniseries now. Believe me, it's a worthwhile trade. Say, would you be interested in coming to our book club Thursday? We're discussing Pride and Prejudice."
Beth brightened. "Sure."
"We're not as old and wizened as we look," Eve assured her. "Some of us even text instead of having meaningful in-person relationships."
"Hey," Dinah said, "there's nothing wrong with a little text sex, I always say."
"Yeah." Flip gave her friend a gentle poke. "Why should your first two fingers be the only digits getting any action?"
"Thursday would be perfect, actually," Beth said. "My history paper's due Thursday, and I hate doing things at the last minute. This'll give me just the impetus I need to get it knocked off by Wednesday."
"Clearly you need to give Flip some pointers," Eve said. "She seems to be stalled on her particular assignment."
"God, it's true," Flip said. "This part's always the challenge for me. I like to be out in the field doing the stuff, you know, but writing about it?" She made a sour face. "I've been working on this presentation for two weeks now, shut up in that sterile library. I was also sidetracked by a fellowship application -- not that that's going to matter much now. So I'm -- "
"Not matter?" Dinah interrupted. "Why?"
Flip tossed more crumbs from her biscotti to the ground and groaned. "Jed applied too."
"That bastard," Eve said. "I thought he was absolutely convinced the ivory-billed woodpecker no longer existed. I thought you'd nearly had a shouting match over it on your birthday a few years ago."
Flip rolled her eyes. "We did, and he is. But that doesn't stop him from trying to get in on the most important bird expedition of the century. And Cornell's only looking for one more person on the search team, which means I've got no chance. You know his résumé is as long as my arm."
"I know it's the one thing of your ex-husband's to which the adjective long could be applied," Dinah said.
Beth laughed again, and Eve gestured for her to sit down.
"Don't give up," Eve said, patting Flip's arm. "God only gives opportunities to tromp around in the mud and cold for weeks at a time to those who really deserve it. Isn't Jed afraid he'll get his hair dirty?"
The corner of Flip's mouth rose. Jed bore a strong resemblance to Matthew McConaughey, from his tequila Texas accent to his athlete's frame and golden Adonis-like waves. It was a resemblance Jed eagerly fostered, and without his blow dryer, he was unmanned. "Oh, no, didn't I ever tell you? When he's in the field he wears a beret."
Dinah's jaw dropped. "You're joking. Military or French?"
"H&M. He's very in touch with his inner urban hipster."
Dinah put her chin in her hands and let out a long, satisfied sigh. "Darcy would never wear a beret."
"I think we can all say our thanks for that." Flip grinned.
"Now if we could only get him into handcuffs and black cotton bikinis."
The women chortled into their drinks.
"I'm sure Lizzy and Darcy have a very satisfying physical relationship after they marry," Dinah said.
"Right," Flip said, "because we all know that's when the really hot stuff happens."
Eve frowned. "C'mon, Flip, I thought you liked Pride and Prejudice."
"I do, I do." She held up her hands. "It's just that...how do I say it? The book I'm reading now is filled with high-tension longing, just like Pride and Prejudice. But there's also hot sex on the bathroom sink in Venice to pay it off. Darcy strives to be a better man for the love of a great woman. Catnip for a woman's soul, right? But where does all that sublimated desire go?"
Eve lifted her cup. "Incredible hard-ons?"
"My point exactly," said Flip. "Where's the catnip for a woman's nether regions?"
Eve stopped mid-sip.
"Say, you don't suppose that's why the house where Darcy stays is called Netherfield, do you?"
"All I'm saying," Flip continued, "is that Darcy is all about mannerly silence. I happen to like the bathroom sink better. Look at Gone with the Wind. Ashley Wilkes, mannerly silence. Rhett Butler, sink."
"How about Casablanca?" Beth offered. "Victor Laszlo and Rick Blaine?"
"Thank you. We all know who we'd want to end up with."
"Darcy," Dinah said pointedly, "is no Ashley Wilkes."
"No, better breeches to be sure." Flip put down her stirrer. "But it isn't just in books, either. I honestly believe real men fall into those two camps too. And you don't even need to talk to them to figure it out."
"No way," Dinah said.
"You don't think so? Okay, look at that guy over there, the one with the thighs."
The women swiveled in unison to follow the easy stride of a shirtless fortysomething jogger in abbreviated yellow running shorts and abs so quilted they'd make a Chanel bag envious.
"Sink," Flip said definitively. "There's only one reason you develop thighs like that."
"One-hundred-thirty-pound leg lifts?" Eve grinned.
"You got it, girl."
Dinah tapped her finger on the table, unmoved. She lifted a thoughtful brow and tilted her head. "What about that guy?"
Flip turned her head. Two tables away, in a thin, black V-necked sweater and stone-colored trousers, was a dark-haired man in his midthirties. A scuffed backpack sat at his feet and a stack of journals lay on the table beside him. He removed the pair of Elvis Costello glasses he'd been wearing and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He had the body of a pass receiver, tall, with an easy agility to his movements, and fine-cut features that reminded her of the barn owl with its piercing, knowing eyes. But he was clearly all intellect and no action. He probably had a thesaurus next to his bed.
"Oh, please." Flip waved away the challenge. "Definitely mannerly silence. He practically screams 'underemployed graduate student.' You know they're not getting any."
Beth laughed, then covered her mouth.
"Actually," Dinah said, triumphant, "if he screams at all it's at underemployed graduate students, and he's actually getting a lot. He's a visiting scholar in literature and the reputed Lothario of the Rare Book Room."
Flip's eyes cut back to the man in question, stunned. She'd passed the high-security Rare Book Room in the university library dozens of times without the faintest spark of carnal inspiration. Had she lost her touch? How had this, this...seeming academic, this man who had all the manner of a theorist to him, managed a record of action worthy of, well, her?
The man in question returned his glasses to his nose, flipped open the journal and sipped his drink. As she watched his large, steady hands shape the pages into pliable submission, an unexpected shiver shot up her spine.
"The Rare Book Room?" Flip repeated abstractedly, still lost in this astonishing reappraisal. "There's no place to sit."
Eve cleared her throat meaningfully.
"Oh, right." Heat crept into Flip's cheeks. Good God, she'd forgotten real people can actually live like they do in novels. After the last few years with Mr. Missionary, it was like she'd been neuralized.
"Yeah," Dinah went on, "and the provost fought like hell to get him here too. He's a genius in the world of literary criticism, apparently. I forget his name. Something Knightley."
"Thrice?" Flip murmured. The women's laughter filled the courtyard again, and the man's commanding gaze immediately cut to her. She dropped her eyes in a flash, like a schoolgirl caught passing a note. Knightley? Kingly would be more appropriate. And forget the barn owl. This guy was an eagle.
"His name is Magnus Knightley," Beth said, rising. "I heard him speak last semester. He's an Austen scholar, actually."
"I'll be damned," Flip said.
"Are you off, Beth?" Eve rose, too. "I've got to get back myself. I can only make a meeting with outside counsel last so long." She winked.
Flip looked at the time on her phone and jumped to her feet. "Cripes! Me too. The library beckons. Hey, don't worry about that," she said to Beth, who had begun to pick up the cups. "I'll take care of it. Garbage can's on the way."
"Don't forget the book club Thursday," Dinah added.
"We'd really love to have you. I'll give you the address at practice tonight."
"Sure." Beth smiled.
"Will Claudia be coming?" Eve asked Flip.
Claudia was the absent fourth musketeer. Flip nodded. "She'd better be. She asked me to pick up the book for her."
"Pick it up? The book club's three days from now. How's she going to read it by then?"
Flip busied herself with the rumpled napkins. "That's more than enough time -- I mean, for some people."
"And she is going to read it, right? Not just watch the movie like she did the last time. I mean, who thinks watching Shakespeare in Love is the same thing as reading Romeo and Juliet?"
"Gosh," said Flip, who had watched it with Claudia, "no one I can think of."
Beth lifted her backpack over her shoulder and paused. "You guys are really funny. It's like watching an episode of Sex and the City."
"Better," Dinah declared. "They never discussed the classics."
"Oh yeah," Flip said. "We're nothing if not erudite."
Magnus sipped what passed for tea in the States. It would take a good deal longer than one term as visiting scholar here to learn to abide the overloud, underdiscriminating ways of Americans. But the university here had been willing to pay his salary -- enormous, just the way Americans liked things -- whilst he finished his book of criticism, and all he had to do in return was give a couple of lectures. A fair trade, he thought, given that his book was likely to put both him and the institution generous enough to underwrite him on the map.
A shriek of outrage cut through his solitude like a Howitzer, and the women at the table from which this annoyance arose dissolved into a cacophony of equally annoying giggles.
An odd lot, he considered as his eyes swept the group, with two dressed neatly and the third looking a bin woman of some sort in T-shirt, work trousers and scuffed trainers. She was an admittedly attractive bin woman, though, with high tight breasts and the blond hair of a Botticelli and whose unorthodox manner of screwing herself into a chair -- could that be bird shit on her shoes? -- gave her the look of a precocious and slightly naughty child.
He found the paragraph he'd been reading in The Cambridge Quarterly and returned to Macalister's mildly misguided analysis of gender roles in nineteenth-century British novels.
A moment later another round of hoots blasted him from reading.
This time he distinctly heard the words "Lizzy Bennet." His ears pricked up, and he caught "Darcy" followed by "Pride and Prejudice," and, most curiously, "hedgerow." " 'Hedgerow?' " He was virtually certain the word did not appear in Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps he'd misheard. The women laughed again.
He bristled. What could be so amusing? Pride and Prejudice was the crown jewel of the last two hundred years of objective representationalism, not the latest episode of Blackadder. He tried to pick up where he'd left off in Macalister, but just as he'd found "...Wollstonecraft's insistence on the female archetype as...," the bin woman bent her long legs against the arm of the chair beside her and tilted her seat back. The movement was earthy and unself-conscious, and something twitched at the base of his brain. The journal slipped from his hand.
She cocked her head, looking into the distance, and he found himself following her gaze up the length of the Cathedral. Her face -- an interesting confection of confidence and curiosity -- dissolved into...what? He sat up straighter. He'd seen the look before, but never in the observation of architecture.
"Excuse me, young man," a voice interrupted, "are you using that chair?"
"Pardon? Oh, yes, please. Help yourself." Magnus made an accommodating gesture to the elderly man carrying a waxed bakery bag and returned his attention to the blonde, but a student had joined the party now, and the woman's chair -- and expression -- had returned to earth.
He sighed and returned to the article.
He was deep in Wollstonecraft's mechanics when the phrase "incredible hard-ons" rose above the conversational din. Well, there wasn't much to misconstrue about that. He gave the group a preemptory look -- wholly unnoticed -- and redoubled his efforts at concentration, but when "nether regions" and "Darcy" followed in quick succession, his blood began to boil.
There were few things worse than the sophomoric lunacy of some women on the topic of Darcy. As far as he was concerned, the damned BB C should have had their license revoked for reducing a complex socioliterary masterpiece into a pantalooned version of When Darcy Met Lizzy.
He considered making his way to the table and saying a word on behalf of the nineteenth-century literature class he'd seen on the university's adult ed schedule so these woman could begin to appreciate something farther north than Darcy's breech buttons, but when four heads whipped on their axes like spinning tops to ogle a passing jogger, he'd had enough. He threw down the journal and pinched the bridge of his nose, fending off both a headache and an overwhelming urge to turn one or all of them over his knee.
One for certain.
After a moment of relative quiet, he growled and reopened the journal, determined to complete what he'd started. But the raucous laughter rose again. He looked up, and this time the blonde was staring right at him. Her open, unabashed appraisal surprised him, as did her stunning Nordic eyes, and he managed only the barebones version of his famously lethal lecturer's glare.
Oh, yes, he thought. Definitely that one.
He realized his attempt to absorb Macalister here was going to be an utter wash. He unzipped his pack, stuffed the journals in and grabbed his unfinished tea, looking for the waste bin.
Cups and napkins in hand, Flip was headed for the garbage when a flapping flicker of white at the edge of her vision brought her to a complete stop.
No, she thought. Impossible. Instinctively she fell silent and turned slowly in a circle, letting her eyes trace the edges of the trees. At the same time her ears sorted through the different streams of input, easily filtering out the irrelevant urban soundscape and leaving only the critical notes for categorization: the dee-dee-dee of Parus atricapillus, the keedle-keedle of Cyanocitta cristata, and the familiar mocking caw of Corvus brachyrhynchos. It was everything one would expect in the middle of a city neighborhood, but nothing from a bird even marginally white.
She paused, catching the questioning eye of a gray-haired man several tables away. She realized she must look somewhat ridiculous, turning in circles, transfixed.
"I heard go-out go-out," she called to him in explanation. "It sounded like Lagopus muta -- er, a rock ptarmigan."
He smiled blankly.
He has no idea what I'm talking about, she thought -- and clearly neither do I, for one does not find an Arctic bird like a rock ptarmigan in the middle of southwestern Pennsylvania.
But whatever she'd seen or heard was gone, so she waved the old man a polite good-bye. She needed to get to work, and the laptop bag was making the crick in her neck sing with pain. She resettled it on her shoulder, which was not easy with her arms full of dirty cups, and swung back toward the garbage can, bumping hard into someone.
Oh God, it was Mr. Rare Book Room, and she'd spilled his drink all over his hand.
"Wow, throwing that out?" she said nervously. "You've hardly drunk it." She dug the cleanest napkin from the mess in her hand and offered it to him. "Hey, I hear you're an Austen expert, eh?"
He tossed the cup in the can and took the napkin with obvious reluctance. "Yes, I am."
A Brit. Hmmm. Dinah hadn't mentioned that. He sounded a bit like that guy on Blackadder. His eyes were the color of topaz, and he was a head taller than her, at least. What was it about that stare?
"You must pick up a lot of women with that." God, she felt like an idiot, and now she sounded like one too. "Not the accent, I mean," she said, speaking in the hurried tones of the criminally idiotic, "though I suppose that doesn't hurt, but the Pride and Prejudice stuff. Go to dinner with the man who can channel Mr. Darcy, that sort of thing." What blather! She dumped her garbage and rubbed the base of her skull. Say something intelligent, will you. "Hey, we're actually discussing Pride and Prejudice at our book club this week. Any suggestions?"
"Only one." The man's gaze was unwavering. "If your interest in Austen rises only so far as -- I do hope I've captured this correctly -- Darcy's 'nether regions,' I suggest you apply yourself to The Thorn Birds or Jackie Collins instead."
He deposited the napkin in the can, gave her a brief bow and walked away.
For a long moment, Flip stood unmoving, feeling enough heat in her cheeks to steam her own cappuccino. Then, with growing fury, she decided if anyone was going to feel like they'd just been frothed into submission, it ought to be him.
"Trouble, young lady?" the elderly gentleman called.
She was confused until she realized her hand was still rubbing the base of her skull. "Yeah. A big, freakin' pain in my neck." Seducing
Copyright © 2008 by Gwyn Cready