Love in the second degree

(Note to readers: This short story, which I wrote in 1996, contains some mildly erotic passages. If such writing is likely to offend you, perhaps you might want to read some of my other writing on this website, instead. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!)

Mary Butcher and Teddy O’Shaughnessy were in love.

The Hoosier farm girl and the street-smart young Chicago Irishman met one night out on the town where Mary had journeyed to try to better her lot. A dance in a nightclub led to a long, warming conversation at a stage-side table; which led to their first formal date; which led to their becoming “steadies;” and in no time at all, Teddy, an impulsive young man who knew what he wanted from life, got down on one knee in a park where they were walking one pleasant afternoon and asked her to please, PLEASE be his wife.

Mary didn’t hesitate long, for she knew what she wanted, too, and that was Teddy. Wedding bells were in the offing, as soon as they could save up for a decent church wedding.

Teddy was a hustler, a beginner’s level sales rep in the Loop who didn’t intend to stay on the bottom for long. Mary had managed to get a job waiting tables at an up-scale European-type restaurant on the Near North Side. Her Aunt Jenny, a long-time Chicago resident, helped her land the position; she had once been an “item” with the maitre d’, Karl, and they were still on good terms.

Mary was petite, blonde, pretty and sweet, looking just like her high school cheerleader photos of a scant few years before. Teddy resembled a stocky leprechaun — red hair, freckles, and Irish charm. Their friends all said they made a “cute couple.”

One bright summer day during a busy lunch crowd, a stranger walked into the restaurant. Mary looked up, looked away, then did a double take. She had never seen this woman before, and was intrigued in a way she couldn’t quite understand.

Johnny, another young server, was intrigued, too. But he understood instantly. Mary heard him say, “Judas Priest!”
The newcomer was strikingly tall and drop-dead beautiful, a good six feet, her black hair cut in a wavy pompadour, her chic red dress as short as a Cubs’ winning streak. She had curves that were awesome on someone that tall. Her eyes were large and bold, her lips as scarlet as sin.

Please sit on my station. The thought flitted through Mary’s mind like an arrow whose flight was almost invisible.
Ms. Red Dress looked around the dining room as one who had never seen it before, then sauntered on those long, shapely legs straight to a four-top table and made herself comfortable, ignoring the “Please wait to be seated” sign inside the door.

Karl approached her, obviously a little intimidated but determined that his authority wouldn’t be flouted so.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but we normally reserve our four-person tables for at least two people. I’m sure you’ll be more comfortable at this table over here,” he said, and extended his hand smoothly toward the smaller one.

“And I normally reserve the right to sit where I please!” the new customer said to the maitre d’, with an icy smile that said plainly, “Don’t mess with me, you peasant!”

Karl backed away with a “Yes, ma’am,” obviously non-plussed. The stranger studied the menu, ignoring the stir her presence and their little exchange were causing among the other customers.

Mary stared, mesmerized, and then the young woman glanced up and saw her. The bold, beautiful eyes drilled into Mary’s and widened slightly, and a mysterious little half-smile settled on the full lips. Crossing her long legs, the stranger allowed one hand to drop limply from the table to rest on her thigh. Mary jumped, unnerved. What’s wrong with me? she thought, in a sudden panic.

Karl’s voice brought her back to reality. “Well, Mary, are you going to wait on her, or just stare at her? She’s on your station, you know!” The maitre d’ was still crestfallen at his loss of the little duel with the stranger, and was trying to reassert his authority in the quickest and most natural way possible.

Mary mumbled a reply, hustled to get pad and pen and hurried over to the stranger’s table. She could feel her face flushing, her heart pounding.

“Yes, ma’am, how are you today? Welcome to Andre’s; may I take your order, or would you like a little more time?”

“I’m fine, Little Sunshine; how are you?”

The voice was husky, deep, subtly insinuating. Mary flinched a little at being assigned a nickname by a perfect stranger, but goose bumps rose on her arms at the sound.

The stranger ordered, and Mary hurried back to the kitchen. Little Sunshine! She’s got her nerve. But she’s so … so …

Mary took coffee to the tall, beautiful stranger. As she did, a well-dressed young couple entered, passed her table, and said almost in unison, “Hey, Natasha! How’s it going?”

“Hi, Todd, Melanie; how are you?” she answered with that dazzling smile.

Natasha’s food arrived; as she reached for her napkin, her hand accidentally brushed Mary’s. The young waitress stammered an apology. “Why, it was my fault, Little One; so sorry,” Natasha replied, looking steadily into her eyes.

Mary went back to the kitchen on shaking legs, nipped into the ladies’ room, looked at herself in the mirror. What on earth is wrong with me? she thought, looking at her reflection, searching for clues. And why does she keep staring at me? Damn those eyes — it’s like she could see right through to my soul!

When the young waitress brought more coffee to the beautiful stranger, Mary felt herself being studied so brazenly in her little white blouse and black skirt that she finally had to look back. When she did, the woman gave her such a sweet, vulnerable smile that her apprehension melted.

“Will you have anything else, ma’am?” asked Mary, and this time her voice was warm and friendly.

“No, dear; just the check.”

The bill paid, Natasha rose, shouldered her purse, crooked a scarlet-tipped finger to Mary.

“Yes, ma’am?” the waitress said, approaching.

“Thanks for a lovely lunch, Little Sunshine,” said the woman, handing her a generous tip. “I’ll see you again.”

As she turned to go, she touched Mary lightly on the shoulder. Soft and gentle as an angel’s kiss. Mary’s head spun, and she couldn’t muster a reply. The woman strode gracefully out without a backward glance.

Mary looked down at the tip. It was more than the price of the meal. She started to fold the bills into her apron pocket, and a piece of white paper fluttered to the floor.

She glanced around quickly, bent and grabbed the paper, slipped into the ladies room again, unfolded it. A phone number; two words written underneath it: “Call me.”

Call me? What does she want? What would Teddy think?

When she met Teddy after work, at the little diner across the street from the high rise where his office was, Mary was shaking and emotional. “Oh, Teddy, I’m so glad to see you!” she cried, grabbing him in a desperate hug.

“Well, hey, I’ve sure missed you too, sweetie,” he said, hugging her back. “But here, what’s wrong? You’re crying! What’s happened with my baby girl?”

“Oh, I just had a bad day. Let’s don’t talk about it; let’s talk about us.”
——
Mary and Teddy went to her place after dinner, sat and talked, hugged and kissed, listened to some music on her stereo. After Teddy finally had to leave to go to his parents’ house in Bridgeport on the South Side (he couldn’t afford his own place yet), Mary sat curled up on the couch, the woman’s note in her hand, thinking, thinking, thinking …
I’m afraid of this woman. I’m afraid of what she might do to me. I’m afraid …

Suddenly a still, small voice said, “Are you really afraid of yourself?”

Mary was naive, but she was aware that there were women who formed romantic attachments with other women. And at the moment she first read the note from the strange customer that afternoon, the reality of what had just occurred hit her in the belly like a boxer’s punch:

That woman was flirting with me, just like a man would. And I was responding!

Lesbianism had never been any part of Mary’s life. She loved Teddy deeply in both a romantic and a physical sense. She loved his humor and his gentleness and the way his Irish blue eyes could light with friendly fire. She loved his thoughtfulness, and his willingness to work hard to get ahead.

And she loved the way they made love together, how his stocky body looked naked, the way his strong hands felt when they touched her skin …

She gazed at the note again, and it felt like a viper in her hands … a piece of loathsome garbage from the gutter.

“No! No! No!” she cried aloud suddenly, jumping from the couch to race to the bathroom, holding the piece of paper at arm’s length. She tore it into several pieces and flushed it down the commode.

“There! That’s done,” she said aloud, breathing heavily.
——
The mystery woman did not return to Andre’s. Days passed. Mary went on with her work. Teddy worked overtime in sales, reaching for a promotion.

Every night they saw each other, made love to each other, talked of their future marriage.

But …

Like a rock in her shoe, the memory of the beautiful stranger kept poking at her. At night, in her dreams, she would see those red lips; those long, tapering fingers which had touched her so gently; those beautiful eyes, asking a question she couldn’t answer …

And Mary would awaken suddenly, sweating, breathing hard, and afraid.
——
About a week later, as they ate their frugal evening meal in the diner, Teddy said, “Baby, I hate to tell you this, but I’m gonna have to be gone all next week. Jeff assigned me to attend this sales seminar on the west coast, then I’ve got to see several clients in different cities while I’m out there.”

“Oh, no!” exclaimed Mary, dropping her fork. “Next week the restaurant is closed for the annual vacation! What am I gonna do, with you gone all week, and no job to go to?”

“I’m sorry, Mary honey,” said Teddy gently, reaching for her hand. “I can’t turn it down — not if I want a chance at that promotion. It’ll mean a better life for us when we get married.”

“Oh, I know, sweetie; I’m sorry for being so selfish,” said Mary as she leaned forward to touch her forehead to his over the table. “Maybe I’ll take up knitting; or go home to the farm for a visit.”

Teddy flew out from O’Hare Airport early the following Monday. Mary drove him there in her VW, and both cried a little when they embraced.

“Got your St. Christopher medal?” Mary asked through her tears, trying to keep it light.

“It’s right here,” said Teddy, smiling as he pulled the chain up to just above his shirt collar so she could see it.

One final hug and kiss, and Teddy headed for the security line to start processing onto the plane. Mary watched him clear out of sight, waving whenever he turned around and caught her eye. Then she returned to the car, drove back toward her apartment, all of a sudden at loose ends. She sobbed again in frustration.

Passing a big department store in the Loop, she thought, “Well, I can window shop; that doesn’t cost anything.” Getting lucky, she found a parking space on the street, carefully locked the car, fed the meter, then pushed her way through the revolving doors, surrounded by dozens of other shoppers.

Mary rode the elevator up, floor by floor, browsing around, looking at all the beautiful merchandise she and Teddy couldn’t afford. Not yet, anyway, she thought. But some day …

On the 10th floor, her pleasure in just looking began to flag. She headed back to the elevator, saw the door starting to close, hurried toward it … and then …

Towering over the other women around her, in the rear of the elevator, stood the stranger from Andre’s. Mary froze, stared, was unable to utter a sound or move a muscle.

The woman spotted her immediately, and gazed into Mary’s eyes, raising her eyebrows and pursing her lips in a quizzical little smile.

“What? No call?” the smile said.

The elevator door closed, cutting her off from Mary’s view.

The huge store, the crowd, all seemed to whirl around Mary like a kaleidoscope. The next thing she knew she was racing down the escalators, bumping people without regard, trying desperately to beat the elevator to the first floor.
How she knew it would be the first floor, she could never say. But as she raced down the escalator between floors Two and One, she saw the stranger striding effortlessly through the crowd, toward the front doors.

The exotic woman didn’t dodge and weave as people in crowds normally do. She simply plowed straight ahead like a battleship under full throttle, forcing people to move to allow her to pass. Mary, much smaller, wasn’t able to do that, and she struggled desperately through the crowd as she saw the stranger going out through the revolving doors.

Mary spotted a hole in the crowd, ran for it, and broke through to and out the front doors. She emerged, panting, and looked up and down State Street.

Gone. The woman had absolutely vanished. She would have been easy to spot, and she was nowhere to be seen.

Mary rushed home, nearly frantic. Somehow, some way, she must contact that woman. To see her and talk to her had become an obsession with Mary the moment their eyes met at the elevator.

But she had thrown away the phone number! And try as she might, she couldn’t recall the last four digits. “Oh, why, why did I do that?” she moaned to herself, pacing distractedly around the little apartment. How does one locate a person in a city the size of Chicago, without a name, a phone number or an address to even give one a start? There was a couple who spoke to her while I was waiting on her. What did they call her? Natalie? No — that’s not it. Nancy? No.

She slapped her palm against her forehead. Think, damn it, Mary!

Natasha — that was it! Natasha — Natasha what? For God’s sake, she had no idea of the woman’s last name! Mary sank down on the couch, almost crying in frustration.

But again, her memory came to her rescue. Wait! She was wearing big earrings, and they had a letter on them, in cursive! What was it? Something with loops, or A loop. “B”? No. “D”? Uh huh.

“R”! That was it! Natasha “R”.

But how many Natasha “R’s” do you suppose there are in Chicago? Mary grabbed her phonebook, turned to “R”, and began scanning. She jumped down to the “N’s”. She saw “Natasha Rackley,” and “Natasha Richards.” But they had South Side addresses; black women; not this Natasha.

Her eyes dropped a few more lines — and saw, “Romanov, Natasha, 4411 Lake Shore Drive.” The Gold Coast. Could that be her? thought Mary, hardly daring to hope. She did look like somebody with money.

Her hands shaking, Mary picked up the phone, punched in the number. The phone rang three times. On the third ring the receiver came up and a deep husky female voice said, “Hello?”

It was Natasha.

Frozen between exaltation at finding her elusive obsession, and nervousness at hearing her voice again, Mary couldn’t get out a sound. The voice said, “Hello?” several more times, then the line was disconnected.

Oh, no, you dummy! Mary thought to herself in despair. What if she thinks it’s just a prankster and doesn’t answer again?

She took a deep breath, tried to calm herself, then dialed again. This time on the first ring the receiver came up and the voice, sounding a little annoyed now, answered, “Hello!”

“Uh … uh … Miss Romanov?”
—–
Mary sat nervously sipping her coffee in the posh little eatery where Natasha had told her she would meet her. She glanced around uneasily, imagining that the affluent patrons were staring at her and saying to each other, “How did that little nobody get in here?”

She also kept checking her watch. The woman had said she would be there in two hours. It was now two hours and 15 minutes, and not a sign of her.

Then suddenly in she swept through the front door, staring straight ahead toward Mary’s table, ignoring everyone else in the room as she strode toward her like a queen.

“Uh, hi, Miss R-romanov!” Mary said, rising to greet her.

“Hello, Little Sunshine,” said the woman, sitting down gracefully. “And please call me Natasha.”

She ordered a drink, then regarded Mary and said, “So — you threw away the note, didn’t you?” She gave her mysterious little smile as she said it, and her eyes probed.

“How did you know that?” asked Mary, taken aback.

“I just knew. Excellent detective work you did, tracking me down, though.”

They sat talking and talking. The time flew by for Mary, so fascinated was she by her new acquaintance. She could tell Natasha was a regular and free-spending customer, by the way the maitre d’ hovered over them solicitously. Finally, Natasha turned to him and said, “Pierre, we would like not to be disturbed for the rest of our visit.”

“Yes, madam — anything you say,” Pierre answered, backing away with a slight bow.

Natasha wanted to know everything about Mary — her childhood on the farm, her coming to Chicago, her love for Teddy, her plans for their life together.

Finally, Mary was talked out.

“Well, Miss R — I mean, Natasha, I’ve told you everything there is to tell you about me. I’d like to hear about you. Where do you work?”

Natasha gave a short, bemused chuckle and looked at Mary. “I don’t,” she said shortly. She lit a cigarette and waited for more questions.

“Oh! Did you get laid off? You must have had a really good job, to be able to afford the beautiful clothes you wear, and to eat in these fancy restaurants.”

Natasha sighed. “All right, Little One, I must confess all. My parents are wealthy — very wealthy. On my 21st birthday I came into a trust fund of — let’s just say a very large sum of money. That was nine years ago. I’ve been living off the interest very comfortably ever since. Plus, I own a quantity of stock in my parents’ shipping company. So there you have it. I am what many people call ‘the idle rich.’ ”

Mary sat, stunned, trying to take it all in. A week ago I was just Mary Butcher, Hoosier farm girl. Now here I am hobnobbing with rich people!

“We’ve sat here long enough; let’s go somewhere else,” said Natasha in the tone of someone who is used to giving orders and having them obeyed. She rose, negligently tossed enough money onto the table to cover their orders and a large tip, and strode for the door. Mary had to hurry to keep up.

When they got to Natasha’s car, somehow Mary wasn’t surprised to find it a long, beautiful Lamborghini sports model,
painted fire-engine red.

“I bet I know what color your house is decorated in,” Mary said, emboldened enough to joke a little.

“Really? I’ll let you see for yourself.”
——
As they rode up in the elevator to Natasha’s penthouse apartment, she said to Mary, “I’m on the top floor. It’s a longer ride to get there, but I think you’ll find it’s worth the trip.”

Natasha unlocked the door, stepped in, switched on a light, and with a flourish of her hand said, “Voila!”

Mary entered timidly and looked around. The place wasn’t all red, as she had expected — but it didn’t need to be. The penthouse was complete with a spacious balcony, and was decorated like that of a Russian aristocrat of about the year 1900. Paintings of Russian composers and writers — and of Nicholas II, the last czar — hung on the walls. There was a huge grand piano; the most gorgeous furniture she ever saw; and one whole wall was lined with expensively-bound books.

The telephone on which they had talked was obviously custom-made — its cradle was an ornate depiction of an eagle with two heads.

The young waitress was literally speechless.

“Sit down, Little One, and let me fix you a drink,” said Natasha.
——
Some time later as they chatted and sipped from ornate wine glasses, Natasha explained the reason for her decor. “You see, Little Sunshine, my great-grandparents were young aristocrats in Russia just before the revolution. My great-grandfather was a cousin of the czar — that’s why our name is Romanov. When the revolution started they were able to flee the country with most of their money, and their children, including my grandfather.

“They settled in France, where my parents were born. My great-grandfather went into the shipping business, my grandfather later took it over, and my father and mother then came to America and started a branch of it here. I was born in New York City, but three years ago I decided to move to Chicago.”

“Why did you come here?”

“Why not? And I am still exploring her.”

She gazed at Mary, and the wonderful, warming smile that had appeared on her face that day at Andre’s returned. A shiver of delicious excitement, mixed with just a little fear, coursed through Mary’s body.

Oh, God … Oh, God, she thought, scarcely daring to breathe.

In a leisurely manner, her eyes never leaving Mary’s face, Natasha arose from her chair and moved slowly to the couch a few inches from her young guest.

“You know, I envy you, Little Mary, with your innocent nature, your Teddy, and the happy life ahead of you. With all my money, I can’t buy that.” Natasha moved closer, smoothed Mary’s long blonde hair gently with her hand, and the purr of her voice tickled Mary’s ear.

“But I can show you an aspect of life you have never tasted.”

The warmth of the drinks had spread down through Mary’s middle, then up to her head. She felt relaxed, a little giddy, and enchanted by Natasha’s nearness and seductive voice.

“Would you like me to show you, Little Sunshine?” Natasha murmured, and this time, Mary could feel the warmth and sweetness of the older woman’s breath on her cheek.

She turned her head slowly and looked into those bold eyes.

“Come to me, Little One,” whispered Natasha, and their lips met.
——
“Oh … oh Natasha I … Oh! oh that feels wonderful don’t st — Oh!! — Oh my God yes touch me there I love — OH! Oh darling that’s it oh I’m gonna — OH!!! … Aaaaahhh …”
——
Mary was a quick study. As the two squirmed and twisted on Natasha’s huge bed, her wealthy lover began to moan and gasp just as Mary had been doing a few moments before.

If you become a teacher, by your pupil you’ll be taught …
——
Finally exhausted after hours of Sapphic embrace, they lay spent, facing each other, touching and kissing gently, talking and giggling about everything and nothing.

“Natasha?”

“Yes, Little One.”

“You’ve gone to bed with other women before, haven’t you?”

“Yes. Many times. I won’t lie to you.”

“Well, have you … have you gone to bed with men, too?”

“Of course, Little Mary. Does that bother you?”

“Oh, no, no. But I was just wondering: Can’t you make up your mind?”

Natasha stared at her for a few seconds, open mouthed. Then she began to laugh. Mary had heard Natasha chuckle, and giggle, but nothing like this.

The laughter rippled up from deep in her belly, spewing forth as musically as if someone were shooting silver bullets at a golden bell. Mary leaned on one elbow and watched as Natasha laughed until she collapsed helplessly onto her back, holding herself with her hands.

Finally the spasm of mirth subsided. Natasha gasped several times, catching her breath, then reached out and drew Mary toward her lovingly.

“Little Sunshine, let me try to explain it to you this way. You like steak, don’t you?”

“Well, sure; only I can’t afford it very often.”

“Do you also enjoy seafood?”

“Oh, yeah; I used to love the salmon croquettes they served at school.”

“Well, then, why should you confine yourself to just one, when you can enjoy both?”

Mary lay in Natasha’s arms, thinking about it.

“I never — well, I guess there’s some truth to that,” she said finally. Looking down at herself, and at Natasha, she giggled and said, “There must be.”
——
The rest of the week with Natasha Mary would recall in future years as a kind of blur, as if it had occurred in a dream.

Certain images stood out:

Natasha standing naked in the living room, drying her hair after a shower, and Mary watching her and thinking, That’s the most beautiful body, male or female, I’ve ever seen.

The two of them shopping at a very exclusive women’s boutique, where Natasha was buying Mary a new wardrobe. A clerk made disdainful by Mary’s inexpensive clothing being rude to her, and Natasha turning on him with, “How dare you insult Miss Butcher? She is my friend, and I am a regular patron of this store! I could buy and sell this store many times over!,” before storming out with Mary in tow, the manager pursuing them with a string of frantic apologies — to no avail.

Mary and Natasha roaring down Lake Shore Drive in the Lamborghini, and Mary saying, “Natasha, I’ve noticed that most of the time you just sound like an American who’s had a good education, but once in a while I notice some kind of an accent in your speech. Why is that?”

And Natasha pulling her neck scarf up to hide all her face but the eyes, and hissing, “Becauss Eye haf a European zoul!”

And Mary cracking up with laughter at her beautiful, unflappable, witty friend. And thinking, Damn your eyes! I love them!

Natasha taking Mary to a Russian Orthodox church to show her the place of worship of her family’s tradition. Mary gazing in wonder at the icons, the iconostasis, and all the other rich, Byzantine decorations which were so different from the First Baptist Church of her childhood.

The two of them having dinner at Boris Goudonov’s, a fashionable Russian restaurant. Natasha casually chatting with the owner in her family’s native language as Mary sat by, thinking, This can’t be happening to little old Mary Butcher, farm girl from Porter County, Indiana! I feel like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz!

A long, leisurely bath they took in Natasha’s huge marble sunken tub. Soapy carasses, chatting, giggles, kisses, and sips of a rare Russian wine.

Mary asking Natasha after another of their lovemaking sessions, “Who was your first woman?”

“Our maid. I was 16, and had loaned her money. Her debt was unpaid, so I took it in trade, and got laid by the maid.”

“Why, Natasha, that rhymes!”

“Yes. It’s a family trait. My mother can do it, too.”

Mary lying silently for a while, then saying impulsively, “Oh, Natasha, I think I love you! Do you love me?”

Natasha stiffening slightly in Mary’s arms, then answering: “Love is not a word I like to use. It always complicates things. Let’s just say I’m fond of you.”

Their visit to the Art Institute, where Mary was all eyes, staring in bated-breath awe at beautiful paintings she had never imagined existed.

Natasha enjoying the experience of her special friend, besotted on culture. Her hand discreetly, lightly touching Mary’s shoulder, and the young Hoosier tingling all over each time she did it.

The last night they were together, when Natasha was playing Tchaikovsky on her stereo sound system for Mary, and they were snuggled on the couch, listening and occasionally kissing. Suddenly a severe thunderstorm blew in off Lake Michigan. Lightning began to flash, thunder to roll, and Mary to shake like a leaf.

“N-natasha, I’m terrified of storms,” she stammered.

Natasha’s eyes glittered. “I find them rather fascinating.”

After a few minutes of the thunder and lightning Mary had to excuse herself to go to the bathroom. When she returned she looked around and didn’t see her lover. Then she noticed that the doors to the balcony were wide open.

Natasha stood out near the railing, her legs apart, her hands on her hips, looking up and out at the storm. Mary ran to the balcony door, but could bring herself to go no farther.

“Natasha, honey, for God’s sake, come back in here! You’ll get struck by lightning!”

“I’m all right, Little Mary,” said Natasha, speaking under the thunder rather than over it.

Mary couldn’t stand to watch her friend courting certain death. She took a seat as far from the balcony as she could find, and with her back to it. With each “Boom!” of the thunder, she shuddered.

Finally there came a crash that shook the place, caused the lights to flicker, and Mary to shriek. From the balcony, she heard Natasha laugh loudly — not a musical laugh this time, but a raucous cackle that sounded positively maniacal. And her friend shouted, “My, you are angry tonight, aren’t you?!”

Mary ran for the bedroom, horrified, and slammed the door behind her.

The storm gradually ceased. A few minutes later, the bedroom door opened and Natasha slowly entered, soaked to the skin but exultant.

“Y-you scared me to death!” cried Mary, sobbing as she looked her friend over, then ran and grabbed a towel for her from the bathroom.

“I did not mean to, Little One,” Natasha answered calmly. “But — the thunder and lightning are my brother and sister.”

She put a hand gently on Mary’s shoulder, smoothed her hair, murmured, “I’m sorry I scared you, Little Mary.”

The younger woman stared at her, drinking in the wonders of this bizarre lover. Then she grabbed Natasha around the neck, crying, “Oh, come here to me, you crazy, wonderful Russian!”

Mary pulled Natasha down to the bed, nearly smothered her with kisses, and then, for the last time that intoxicating week, they made love …
——
The final day of their idyll came all too soon. Mary packed up her things, resigned to the end of her private little fairy tale. Teddy would be back from his trip tomorrow, and Andre’s would re-open.

Natasha called a taxi for her.

“It’s better that I not drive you back to your apartment,” she said soothingly, holding Mary close and looking down into her eyes. “It will be easier for you.”

“Oh, Natasha, this week’s been wonderful. But I’m afraid — I’m afraid –”

“You’re afraid you’ll be unsatisfied with Teddy, after what’s happened this week.”

“Yes! How did you know that?”
“Natasha knows everything, Little One. But don’t worry; your guardian angels are watching over your romance. You’ll be so happy to see Teddy you’ll soon forget about me. Go to your Teddy — he is like a good, solid beefsteak. He will fill you up, and stay with you. I am like a marvelously rich dessert. Wonderful for a week, perhaps, but a steady diet of me would make you very sick.”

“But I’ll never forget you or this week. Will I see you again?”

Natasha raised her head and seemed to be looking at something far off, out the window. Finally she said, “Yes, but it will be some time. I have to leave tomorrow for a European trip. I won’t be back for quite a while. You’ll see me again when you least expect it.”

She embraced Mary and they kissed deeply and passionately.

“Now go, Little One; the taxi will be here,” Natasha said, pushing her gently toward the door. Mary went, reluctantly; then with one foot on the threshold, she turned back impulsively, tried to embrace her friend again and cried, “Just one more kiss!”

“No, dear,” said Natasha, holding her gently but firmly at arm’s length. “One more of my kisses and you would not leave.”

Mary turned tearfully and this time walked out the door.

“Good-bye, Natasha! I love you!”

“Good-bye.”
Mary trudged dejectedly to the elevator, her overnight bag in her hand. Going down toward the ground floor, she thought, Natasha’s so strong; she didn’t show any emotion at all.

Back in the room, Natasha leaned her bowed head against the closed door. The tears she would not permit Mary to see flowed freely now, and sobs shook her body.
“Good-bye, my Little Sunshine! I love you, too …”
——
Mary wore one of the new dresses Natasha had bought her when Teddy came to see her at home the next evening — their first meeting since his return.

She was shaky and nervous when she saw him come in the door of the apartment house three floors below. Was Natasha right? Would she still be in love with him?

But she needn’t have worried. When she saw him standing in her doorway, all the warmth and excitement flowed back as if it has never been gone.

“How’s my sweetheart?” he cried, as they hugged and kissed.

“She’s great! Did my big guy have a nice trip?”

“Oh, it was business, and I was away from you. Other than that it wasn’t bad. Say, do you ever look great in that dress!”

“Why, uh, thanks, honey,” said Mary, suddenly self-conscious about the obviously expensive garment. Teddy noticed, too.

“Say, that must have cost a bundle. You’re not seein’ some rich guy behind my back, are you?” He said it jokingly and grinned, but she could see a crease of worry between his eyebrows.

“Oh, it’s — a girlfriend of mine bought it for me. She’s — got money, and she wanted to give me a pre-birthday gift.”

“Whew!” exclaimed Teddy with relief, grabbing her again in a hug. “You had me worried there for a minute, baby!”

“Now you know you’re the only man in my life!” said Mary into his ear. She closed her eyes and hugged him some more. When she opened them, she saw — her own reflection, in the mirror on the wall behind Teddy.

She grinned at the woman in the mirror — and gave her a wink.
——
The re-united sweethearts made love long and passionately that night. Mary finally fell asleep, exhausted, in Teddy’s arms. After a while, he gently disentangled himself from her, and as she continued to snooze peacefully he tiptoed out of the bedroom, closed the door softly, and took his cell phone to the farthest corner of her living room. He dialed a number and waited.

“Hi, sweetie. Yeah, this is Teddy; just got back from that trip. Yeah, I didn’t realize how much I really loved her until I saw her waiting for me at the door. She’s the girl for me; I’m not in any doubt about that now.

“Yeah, hon, and that’s why I just had to call you. I know we’ve had fun with our little fling, but I’ve got to end it. I can’t sneak around any more. It’s tearing me up inside. I just can’t deceive Mary a minute longer. You sure don’t need me, anyway … even though you were the one who made the first move …

“Really? Gee, baby, it’s great you’re being so understanding about this. Can we still be friends? Well, yeah, I mean if we happen to run into each other you won’t slap my face or spit in my eye? Hey, that’s good. If we happen to see each other and Mary’s with me, I’ll introduce you two. You’d love her. But remember, we’ve always just been friends. OK?

“Well, I’d better get off here, hon. I’m at Mary’s place, and I don’t want to wake her up. What she doesn’t know, won’t hurt her. Hey, sweetie, it’s been fun. Glad there’s no hard feelings. Yeah. Bye, Natasha.”

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