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"Alec Freeman, last of the clowns," Straker said, and struggled to sit up, entangling  himself further in his sheets and what had to be his friend's Christmas present. One of them.

His tone was but mildly irritated, and the struggle feeble. It had been a long day, an even longer evening, the last guests had left a few moments ago. The whole house was still redolent with the turkey he had cooked, and the usual trappings of the season, like beeswax candles, expensive wine, smoke of too many cigars, the tree in the living room, a first for his bachelor's home, though for some reason this year he had felt the need to have one.

There was the faint smell of cinnamon, oranges and cloves throughout the house. He had found himself making hedgehogs for the tree yesterday. Exactly the way he had done over thirty-five years ago with Missie, down below in the servants' kitchen, as a toddler barely able to poke the many, many cloves into the orange peel. The old cook had to help him with the cinnamon legs, he had not been strong enough to push those in on his own. That was her last year, he remembered, maudlin with too much brandy and a feast day he had come to hate more than he had once loved it.

With a last drunken, overly forceful tug sheets and duvet came clean and he could turn over, and grope the soft plastic. The smell it emanated was acrid, reminding him of the water wings he had blown up around John's arms. He gritted his teeth. Too many memories, too close to the surface, and he had allowed them to ply him with wine and spirits. They all had brought bottles as presents, friends of lonely people, each one of these colourful wrapped gifts.

He extended a wavering arm and flipped on the night light. It took a few moments before he realised what he was looking at. He couldn't keep the dry chuckle in when he did.

The sex doll was the full size, which was what had thrown him off, when he had slipped between his sheets. She also wasn't entirely made of cheap inflatable plastic. The face he had touched in the dark had been cool, but the skin had felt almost real under his fingertips. In the light he saw that her pretty features were made of a thicker, almost suede-like material which felt treacherously like human skin under his hands. Limpid large brown eyes, full lips seductively open, even a wig of long black hair, Alec had spared no expenses.

Straker pulled back the covers. She was rather complete, there were ample breasts made out of the same synthetic skin material, wide hips - and all the trappings. A Christmas card was tied to one of the hard, raised nipples. In spite of his inebriated state he found himself blushing as he fumbled it off.  

Among a flurry of pale blue snowflakes he made out Alec's handwriting, read it twice, then turned the card over. A gift certificate. For a day at the Turkish bath Alec had been so raving about all month. The full program. Straker groaned, and put the card on his night stand, then tried to push the doll out of his bed. She wouldn't budge, and he was too drunk to figure out how Alec had attached her. In the end it was just too much trouble, with a low grunt of exasperation he pulled the duvet around himself and drifted off to sleep.

--~o~--

He woke to the thin, watery light of a mid-winter morning, the hangover headache announcing he was alive and not well before he had more than slitted his eyes. Something was wrong, deeply wrong, and it took him several minutes to figure out that he was snuggling up to someone. Then he remembered the doll, and lifted his head much too fast. The pain behind his brow unfurled and came alive pulsing with violent rage, and for a moment he wasn't sure whether he would be able to contain the urge to vomit.

During his sleep he had sidled up to the doll, he now realised with a substantial measure of self-loathing, and cuddled her, held her closely. He clenched his teeth against the nausea roiling inside him, and pushed back, edging out of the bed. Wrong. So utterly wrong. He turned around, a little too fast, because this made him weave over to where he had put his warm, towelling bathrobe. He slipped it on, tied the sash with too much force, and made for his kitchen.

Someone had cleaned up, he didn't face the disaster he had expected.  Except for a couple of large pots and platters in the sink there was nothing left to show he had feasted a dozen guests the evening before and he felt deeply grateful to whoever had tidied up after him. If he had to make a guess he would have said it had been either Ms Ealand or Nina, or maybe both. He  filled the water kettle, and fetched himself a mug and some instant coffee while he waited for the water to boil. The headache had settled down again, a dull but insistent ache behind his temples and at the base of his skull. He had known he had been drinking too much while he did, but then there were so few occasions when that happened, and it had felt great to belong to the others for once, not apart, not the Commander. At least it had felt that way for a few hours, and if he had to pay the price in pain the next day, then it was worth it.

He poured the boiling water over the dry granules of coffee and idly watched the liquid swirl and blacken, then stirred some sugar into it. No milk yet, he wasn't sure he could keep that down. Cradling the mug in both hands, warming his fingers on it, he stepped up to the window and looked out onto the wet, foggy expanse of lawn and garden stretching all the way to the woods. Such large premises. He had bought the house while John was still alive, counting on his son spending a Christmas day now or then with him. And other holidays. Instead he had woken up embracing the archetypal companion of lonely, aged men.

Sentimental nonsense. He pinched the bridge of his nose and crushed his eyes shut, willing himself awake, alert, and able to decide what to do with a whole weekend off.

--~o~--

A shower, a couple of asprins and a breakfast later he had regained some of his usual composure. The headache had curled up in the recesses of his skull, satisfied with reminding him with occasional twinges of nausea that he had overindulged. Daylight and sobered hands instead of brandy-befuddled ones had helped him undo the cords which had held the sex doll in place inside his bed. He could but shake his head at Alec, the older he got, the sillier he became. When he let the air out of her, she did not deflate to nothing, head, breasts and her nether region stayed the way they were and it took him a few moments to find the large carton Alec had bought her in. Realistic doll Hot Lavinia: life-sized - inserts original cyberskin! Satisfaction guaranteed, all the companion you need!

The laughter died in his throat. Straker wondered whether Alec knew just how close he had hit home. Probably not. He swallowed, then quickly packed her and carried her outside, forcing most of the carton into his dustbin which already was overflowing with wrapping paper and remnants of the dinner. The lid wouldn't close, but the town always  collected the refuse right after Christmas anyway.

Two days to kill. He sat down on his bed, almost ready to slip back between the sheets and sleep them away. Past experience told him there was no sense in trying to go to work, he would have everyone tell him to leave, regardless of what was happening. Sometimes he wondered what his staff was thinking. That he had people or family stashed away somewhere that he might spend time with? Alec should know better, but then it was Alec who these past years had annoyed him by pointing out that it was good for the morale that the SHADO Commander could be seen enjoying holidays now and then. Not to speak of creating a real Christmas mood in headquarters, with him absent.

He picked up the coupon again and read it closer. Yes. Alec had bought him the full works, "Turkish Delight": half a day of Turkish baths and treatments esoterically called Hand & Feet Ritual, Spa Total Hydration Experience,  Classic Care Facial, Full Body Massage, Manicure and  Pedicure. If he remembered that well it was a proper old Victorian bathhouse, recently refurbished, complete with some spectacular architecture. With a quick glance at his watch he compared time with what was printed on the voucher. If he left within the half hour, he could spend the rest of the day there, no doubt losing his headache and the remnants of his hangover. There probably were worse things than spending most of Boxing day in steam and water.

While he packed swimming trunks, towels, his bathrobe and the paperback Ms Ealand had given him for Christmas into a small carryall, he idly wondered what kind of person would work such a shift outside of the typical professions. As much as his staff was conscientious and responsible, none of them were keen on duty during Christmas.

--~o~--

It was a short enough drive to the place, right behind Slough on the road to Eton, the Regency  construction looking just so much like a mansion straight from one of Jane Austen's novels. There were a few limousines parked in the customer car park, not what looked like the full workday or normal weekend contingent, but more than he had expected. Someone had invested a lot of money. The yellow sandstone buildings had been lovingly restored, as had been the airy interior, with its cheerful cream walls, delicate floral mosaics and high arched gateways.

There were indeed quite a few people working at the health spa on this day, he discovered, and that started with a distinguished older man at the reception who looked liked a butler from bygone times. Straker could not help the smile starting deep inside his gut at the Dickensian feeling spreading through his mind. It might be very calculated by the owners of the spa, but it was worth it.

Once he had showed the man his voucher he discovered that Alec had booked him in by his name, and had left instructions for a luxury treatment. On any other day he would have been annoyed, but today it felt right to just go along with what came his way. The concierge gave him a brochure to read before pointing him at the male changing room. By the time he had placed everything but the novel into one of the lockers and changed into trunks, a tellak, the  personal attendant of the classical Turkish bath, was waiting with a set of towels, ushering him on.

There was something ecclesiastical as well as distinctly oriental to the high, vaulted rooms, arching doorways and rows of columns and latticework. He felt stress and haste fall from him, much as he witnessed the languid movements of everyone he encountered, including the staff. It was as if nothing could shatter the sensation of quietude and peace this place created. He was steered into a wide, walk-in shower stall. Warm water started sheeting down onto him like rain; from high up in the ceiling, the source invisible. Bemused he got himself thoroughly soaked, before he soaped up and cleaned himself, then rinsed the suds off his warmed skin.

His attendant handed him his towels and led the way through a set of hallways reminiscent of a cloister, guiding him into the steam room, from where he commenced his slow journey through the warm rooms, eventually arriving in the laconium. He gave up on reading the novel after the tepidarium, it was far too restful just to let the heat soak into his skin and muscles and warm him from the inside out, while outside another cold and wet Southern English winter day raged.

Sweat was running down his face, sliding along the muscles of his throat, held here and by the stubble he hadn't caught in his haphazard morning shave, until pooling above his collar bone. Droplets of sweat tickling, as they moved free and slick over his bare flanks to soak into his trunks. When he was sure he could not take any more of the dry heat, he rose and headed for the wide cold pool, gritted his teeth and plunged into the clear water, a small sound of pleasure escaping his lips. He splashed over to the fountain and ducked under the waterfall, turning this way and that under the massive sheet of water rushing down. He hadn't felt as clean as just then in ages, nor that much at rest, and the morning's headache had gone as well.

Outside the basin his tellak was waiting, carrying his towels and the novel and showing him into the frigidarium. He wondered idly how much this all cost, and how easy such enjoyment came to an epicure like Alec. It had been Alec's ability to enjoy himself under the worst conditions and even in the height of stressful situations which had attracted Straker to his friend in the first place.

Come to think of it, when he had met the much more experienced RAF pilot and military intelligence officer for the first time, all these many years ago in the stark barracks of Incirlik Air Base, Alec had also just been to a visit of the Turkish baths in Adana, the sprawling Turkish city close by. A rueful smile curled Straker's lips as he remembered his rather prim young self. He had been barely out of flight training. Of course he had refused to join his new friend at the time, much as Alec had tried to convince him into going to the hammam with him. He had declined all those invitations, whether to the baths, or to the clubs or the  bellydancers. Looking back it astonished him that Alec had even bothered to persevere and  befriend him. He hadn't made things easy.

Several men were already resting and cooling down on the comfortable loungers furnishing the rest room.  He got out of the wet trunks and let himself be cocooned into two large dry towels, drifting off, after the young man had told him in quiet tones he would be woken as soon as his spa assistants were ready for the treatments. It was quite obvious why Alec enjoyed his visits so much, and moments before he dozed off he decided that this wouldn't be his last time here either.

--~o~--

"Mr. Straker? Sir?" the voice was low, but insistent. As was the hand on his shoulder. "The barber is ready for you, if you please?"

With a groan he dug himself out of the embrace of soft cushions and terrycloth, and accepted a new towel to wrap around his hips. Two large, oldfashioned chairs dominated the adjacent room, another man already being seen to, while his own barber waited with a friendly scowl. He sat down and leaned back for the ritual of a thorough wet shave. Ages since he had had one of those, indeed ages that he had given that much attention to his physical well-being. He kept himself fit and trim, including a cut of his hair, sure, that was part of the job. But it was not exactly enjoyable. He hated the fumbling and constant chatter of his regular hairdresser, which emphasised the serenity of this place.

The skill of the barber was obvious in the smooth, almost silken scrape of razor across throat, the care with which his skin was stretched so as to avoid catching it against the blade, the spareness and elegance of movements, almost a dance. The custom-made afterlotion, fragrant of sage and lemon, felt fresh on his face and did not sting. Alec would be proud of him, the way he was taking it all, and even liking the attention given to him for once.

Outside night was approaching fast, casting its first vague feelers, darkening trees and turning shadows into cold places, the fog settling here and there like a belated Christmas ghost in the park beyond the mansion. His attendant accompanied him into a smaller, private room, intricately tiled and containing nothing but a flat and narrow massage couch, covered with a pristine fresh towel, and a small table with a variety of oils on it.

The tellak made him lie face down on the couch, placed a smaller towel over his buttocks and left. Water was burbling into a marble basin  on the far wall, the sound soft and natural, calming him, and he nearly dozed off again. He had been so young in Incirlik, so much younger than Alec, and that did not just mean in years. Now, two decades later, sharing so many stations of their lives with each other, he still had no idea why the older man didn't forsake him. He had never lost the feeling that one day Alec would tell him it had all been a mistake, or that he had gone too far. He knew it had come close a few times. Yet Alec had always been there, with him, often providing an anchor in humanity. Like now.

The door opened and before long he could feel warmed oil dripping onto his shoulder blades and along his spine. He turned, but without craning his head too far for comfort all he saw was a loose white medical tunic over a dark gray skirt. It came down to a handbreath below the knees of shapely legs, with feet inside sensible white clogs. The hands smoothing the oil over his back were sure and gentle, expertly hunting for sore, hardened muscle, rigid tendons and joints not moving as freely as they should.

He wondered whether Alec had known what he had done to him with that doll. He wasn't mean. Ruthless on occasion. When it helped his goals, even when it helped him force Straker into facing what he did not want to face. The dinner had been pleasant, inviting but those seven people he felt most like spending Christmas with. Including their spouses or partners, that had produced  fourteen guests.

He couldn't have said what or who had astonished him more, the fact that Ms. Ealand's staid banker husband of a mere eight months had been willing to come along, or the shy young man who had accompanied Waterman, understandably paranoid in the company of so many officers. Seeing Nina with her fiancé had stung, and was the reason why he had let his guard lapse. He snorted in exasperation.

As if he he'd ever have allowed himself to even contemplate what she had offered him time and again. Until even she had had enough of getting her nose bloodied. Seeing her so happy and warm and sheltered, had only augmented the sudden feeling of loneliness which had rushed through him at that moment. It hadn't helped that Alec, still not committed to anyone after all these years, once again had shown up with his longtime on and off girlfriend, as Straker called her. Cultured, classy and elegant and just as satisfied with their open relationship as he seemed to be. Straker had never asked him, though he had wondered. Just he had been solitary. Alone. He breathed in deeply. Why not call it what it was. Lonely.

All the companion you need.

What a bloody idiot.

The hands on his body were tender and kind, now, after stroking the kinks from his shoulders and out of his spine, they were almost caressing him. Smoothing one of the custom-made lotions into his skin. Sage again, spicy, and reminiscent of the Mediterranean, of sunshine and olive trees, of Ayran and Adana kebab on pide bread, and the hot wind blowing the scent of the spices into the air base.

He had been so young then. Walking the bazars with wide round eyes, drinking in all the strangeness, the differences, the wealth of a world he had not even begun to explore. Unbidden the memories surfaced, of risky missions up North along the Cold War frontier, in the middle of the night, only him and Alec inside those blackbirds, no one the wiser outside a circle of very few, no one missing them, had they failed to make it back to base. Memories of Alec then as today without any problems at dating nice, well-rounded girls, sloe-eyed and black-haired, full of zest and all that with the added, delightful danger of their families finding out they allowed the fighter pilots to steal their kisses. Not once had Alec been able to coax or wheedle him into going out along with him and the others. All he had been thinking of had been their missions. And space.

Hands on his naked buttocks and between his thighs, he became aware of all of a sudden, stroking lotion into his skin. Intimate and soft, pushing and kneading, slender fingers so close to his privates the knuckles grazed the tender ridge of skin between his legs, sending delicious and delicate sensations into his groin. When and why had the towel come off?  Need and shame rushed through him, flaring up from the embers of the night. With an unarticulated shout he was off the bench, clutching the large towel to shield himself, to shield the erection those gentle hands had produced while his mind had been wandering in the past, unaware and unwary.

"What do you think you're doing?" he blurted, his voice flat and harsh with shock and self-disgust. "I thought this is a... a legitimate place, not some lapdance joint! How dare you touch me like that?"

With the shame came a blush so fierce and hot he felt his ears burn, deepening even more when he saw just how young his masseuse was. And she wasn't reacting to his snarl in any understandable manner either. Straker saw her blanch until all the colour left in her face were her large dark eyes and hectic splotches of red on her neck and cheeks. For a moment he thought she might faint. As he watched tears welled up into her eyes, carefully trained at some place between his chin and his chest, and she was shaking with fear.

The door in his back opened, and the tellak entered, an eyebrow lifted in inquiry.

"Sir? Anything wrong? How can I help you, Mr. Straker?" the young man asked, trying to assess the situation. "Is something not to your liking?"

"It is my fault," the woman answered and gave a small shrug, still not looking directly at him. "Please, I'm not that kind of masseuse. I made a mistake, I thought I had been slow enough for you to react, if you do not like being oiled everywhere. I never..." She caught her lower lip between her teeth, chewing on it for a moment. "I'm really not that kind of masseuse."

"A misunderstanding, then?" the tellak suggested with a hopeful look at Straker. "If you prefer that, I can call our masseur instead, he should have time for you now. He can finish the massage for you, and of course we will not charge you."

"A misunderstanding," Straker nodded. Stiff British upper lip all around him. Embarassment on top of shame. He really shouldn't have left home today. Now all he wanted was out. He shook his head. "I'm done, no problem. I'm perfectly fine."

The masseuse had taken the attendant's suggestion as a cue and edged carefully past him, out of the room. The sound of her heels on the flagged stones quickly receded.

Alec would laugh himself silly over this.

--~o~--

It wasn't even five yet, but the sky outside was an unrelenting black devoid of stars or moon, suggestive of a much later hour. Shoulders hunched he walked across the parking lot towards his car, the gravel crunching under his feet. There had been nothing but leave immediately. He might have imagined the strained atmosphere, but all he wanted was out right then. So he had dressed and left a sizable tip, declining the offer for another voucher for a full body massage at a later date. He would not be coming back. Such ventures and he just weren't compatible.

He should have realised that right away and never have come here. He had embarrassed the young woman, he had embarrassed himself, hell, he had managed to get more egg on his face in one short moment than the average social klutz could aspire to do in a month. It wasn't really nice either to think about just how immediate and intense his reaction to her touch had been. He gave a bitter chuckle. What had he expected? He was so needy that he cuddled up to  sex dolls.

What had been strands and wisps of fog earlier had turned into a solid, thick wall, a cloud hugging tight to the ground, obscuring the landscape like a sooty burial shroud, pale only where the  headlights met with it, or the streetlamps cast an eerie glow. It took him a while to reach Slough, long enough to calm himself down again and decide that even if his afternoon had concluded less than acceptable, he might at least cook himself a nice dinner and finish the novel his secretary had given him.

In spite of it being a bank holiday quite a few of the smaller grocery shops were open, along with the supermarket on the main street. It might get to be a nice enough evening after all. A delighted smile on his lips he pulled into a parking slot in front of his favourite fishmonger when he saw the prominent advert for fresh blue mussels.

--~o~--

Cleaning mussels was an almost contemplative task, simple, repetitive, and setting the mind free. Under normal conditions something he enjoyed. Today however it made it all too easy to keep returning to what happened earlier, regardless of how much Straker tried to concentrate on taking off every bit of sand and algae or scraping off small barnacles.

He had fatally overreacted. Overreacted in such a hysterical manner that had he witnessed this in any line officer or staff he would have ordered that person into immediate furlough and a medical evaluation. No question. It didn't help at all that he was aware of the background and just why he had been so vulnerable. The bath, the rest, yes, even the initial relaxation from the massage, all had contributed to him lowering his guard. And while the girl's gentle touch on his shoulders, back and arms had created an aching knot of longing in his throat, it also had felt nice to be touched, again and at all after such a long time, and not as part of some test or treatment of an injury.

If he, ever, had talked about this with anyone, he would have pointed out that that was what he missed most living alone: being touched, or held. The warmth of another human being near, skin against skin, and falling asleep with the sound of another heartbeat close by. Something so many people took for granted. Suppressing the other physical needs, to the point that sometimes weeks, even months went by that he did not even think of it anymore, as buried as he was in the struggle and unrelenting fight, that was much easier than Alec tended to believe. Which most likely was the reason for the not so subtle stab at it with that doll, but it also was why he had been completely unprepared for his body's instinctive reaction this afternoon.

It had been the shock of his sudden, fierce sexual arousal that had made him lose it. But in hindsight she had been right of course, she hadn't latched onto intimate parts from one moment to the next. She hadn't touched his privates at all, not even indirectly. None of her handling had been indecent. What his body had made of that was a short circuit, though. What an idiot he had made of himself. But then he ought to have known better.

He had bought way too many mussels, but then he could always have a soup tomorrow.

--~o~--

Straker was setting the table when he noticed the car coming towards the house. It was one of the advantages of having large premises that you could see you got visitors long before they knocked on the door. The fog allowed for little more than observing the headlights scissor like search beams through the wide curve which would bring his guest to the front yard. Alec for a nightcap? With a shrug Straker went to get another plate, so maybe the mussels would be eaten up after all.

The bell rang at the same time that he saw the car heading back up his driveway, and realised it couldn't be Alec. He would have driven himself. Few others ever disturbed him on such a day and Ford would have used the phone or sent a company vehicle. His mind toying with the alternatives he opened the door and still he was unprepared for who his visitor was.

She looked different. Not just that the medical tunic and clogs were gone, replaced with a sober dark trenchcoat and elegant black pumps. She also wore thick, bookish glasses hiding   the large doe-eyes eyes behind circles of refracting bottleglass. It gave them an owlish and her a much more intellectual look. She was surveying his yard for clues, the way one does on visiting a complete stranger, when he opened the door.  

"Yes, please?" he said, quite at a loss for words. The last person he had expected to fetch up on his doorstep was the masseuse from the Turkish baths. She turned to face him.

"Mr. Straker?" she started, then tried the ghost of a very careful smile. "I'm sorry, I talked the housemaster into giving me your address. I hope I'm not intruding on something important? I don't need long, I just..."

"No, not at all," he answered and shook his head jerkily with the onset of the adrenaline rush of understanding just what she may have looked at while waiting.  He resisted the urge to step outside to check. "I was about to eat, but no problem, do come in, please." He could not help a rueful smile. "Please, do. I won't yell at you, I promise."

He moved aside to let her enter, and cast a quick glance at what she had been staring at. He swallowed as shame and embarrassment washed through him. The bold lettering was readable even in the meagre light making it outside from his windows. And if that hadn't been sufficient to grasp what that carton contained, then the garishly coloured picture of Lavinia's head and torso would have been instruction enough.

Shades of Ebenezer Scrooge. Dickens had a lot to account for.

--~o~--

"But you're expecting someone!"

She had preceded him into his living room, and was staring at the two sets on his dinner table. Her tone was almost accusing.

"I'm  rarely expecting anyone," he said in a wry tone, then smiled to take the edge off that. "I thought you were the friend who... a friend. I've bought too many mussels on my way home, so..." The dark eyes were watching him, reminding him of something he couldn't readily pinpoint. "I'm sorry, I don't want to keep you. You must be knackered and in a hurry to get home? Especially after such stroppy customers."

She looked at her feet, hiding a smile, then shook her head.

"No. Not in a hurry," she answered. "This is no feast day for me. That's why I worked. And home is the other direction."

Quite a few things fell suddenly into place. "Eton?"

"Oxford. Anthropology," she answered, then pulled a deep breath. "Look, I... it bothered me, what happened. No, please," she shook her head when he would have interrupted her. "Let me get this out in one, or I won't be able to say it at all. It's no excuse, but I was distracted and I didn't pay attention. Not like I normally do. I've a paper to finish, and that's what I was thinking about. I'd have noticed your, your discomfort earlier normally. And I'd have... averted... I'm sorry!"

"Are you hungry?" he asked, as diffidently as he could make it. Somewhere between realising where she must come from and her haphazard attempt at excusing herself for what had not been her fault in the first place he decided he wanted her company for dinner, and learn more. Or, if he was honest with himself, maybe he simply didn't want to be alone now.

"Are you sure? I wasn't cadging for a meal," she said. "I'm really not... "

Straker didn't need to look at her widening eyes to know that he flushed a deep and noticable  red. He managed a smile and held up his hand before she could make matters worse.

"I don't think so," he said and straightened. "I never thought so, not really. Can't we just forget all that? Like right now?" He held out his hands and she slipped out of her coat. "I really bought too many mussels, there's plenty. So before everything gets cold, I mean it. Do sit down. It's me who owes you, not the other way round."

He moved the chair for her and waited until she had taken seat, her coat across his arm.

"How about an aperitif?" he asked over his shoulder, hanging the coat in the hallway.

"Yes, please."

--~o~--

"Can I ask you something?"

Straker nodded and set down the cups filled with steaming espresso, then folded himself into a chair at right angles to her.

They had moved to the comfortable three-piece suite of soft leather for a coffee and some brandy. Demir had been a pleasant and extremely intelligent dinner companion, talking about her studies, her youth in Istanbul and living in England as an expatriate with insight and humour.

"You don't have to answer," she temporised. "I don't want to embarrass you, but ever since this afternoon I'm... I don't understand. I would like to, and after this dinner I understand things even less." When he remained impassive she continued, feeling for the right words. "There's a... a sex doll in your rubbish bin."

"Yes," he said and leaned back. "She was a Christmas present." Her eyes widened, so he explained. "The friend, the one I mistook you for, he gave her to me yesterday. Put her in my bed and tied the voucher for the spa to one of her... to her. It's a joke."

"It's not funny."

Straker wasn't going to contradict her. It had not been funny, the whole bloody day had not been much fun. Except for this dinner.

"How old are you?" she asked and pulled the feet under her, blushing slightly. "You don't look old enough to need a sex doll."

"Is age a prerequisite?" he knew his voice had been far too sharp when he saw her expression change. "I'm sorry. It's a touchy subject." He looked down at his hands, gripping the brandy glass far too forcefully, knuckles showing white. "I'm not good at this. I'm sorry."

He put the brandy back on the table. Better end it right there, before he got more egg on his face. So she had seen the doll, and thought he was too young to need it. Better she thought this, than having to tell her the real reasons for Alec's not so subtle hint. Or for the way he had reacted to her earlier. He got up. He wasn't Alec.

"Let me drive you home," he said, carefully schooling his voice into a noncommital tone. "It was a real pleasure having company."

He was in the hallway and holding out her coat with almost indecent haste before she could reply, avoiding her eyes. He had learned enough about her in the course of the evening to know she was perceptive, and probably realised he was trying to distance himself. Car keys.

"I'll just get my jacket. Keys."

Straker had left both in his bedroom, carelessly thrown across the bed along with his sweater and jumper in his earlier rush to forget all about this afternoon. A change of clothes had felt as imperative as cooking an elaborate meal and reading then. He left her in the hallway and made for his room, grabbed his jacket off the bed, turned and found her right in front of him, standing in the door and surveying the untidy room with an expression he couldn't attribute.

He opened his mouth, trying for the self-assurance which as of rights should be his, after so many years at least, negligent of the fact that it had failed him just this afternoon and also last night, and that command still had nothing much in common with everyday life.

Nothing came out. His stomach did a queasy roll of discomfort, as fear and shame constricted his throat, making it hard to swallow. There was no mistaking her, not the expression on her face, nor the calm with which she closed the door in her back. Thoughts flitted through his mind like birds on a wire, here and there, and inconsequential. Of that she could be little more than half his age, or that his bed was unmade. Of how he might extricate himself and of how desperately he wanted to not do that, to not do the logical, the respectable thing, to just let it happen. Of whether he even could still. It wasn't as if he had tested that any time recently, not for a long, long time. He didn't suppose it was like driving a bicycle.

In the end he just breathed out. She smiled.

It wasn't a triumphant smile. Instead it was sweet, and lopsided, and quite understanding. She shrugged out of her coat and closed the distance between them, and placed one hand on his cheek, the other on his arm, which made it quite too late. He could not help leaning into her, it was a natural thing to embrace her and give in to her caress. She smelled so nice.

"That was the wrong question, wasn't it?" she asked, so low it was a whisper almost. He nodded. "How long ago?"

This came out as if breathed, yet so compelling he answered before he could stop himself.

"Nine years," he said into the dark cloud of hair he was hiding in. She pulled back, framing his face in her hands and looked at him. When had she shed her glasses? Those large, soft eyes did their thing to him again, as did the slender fingers holding and caressing his face. He would not have been able to say who led whom to the bed, they arrived there. She unclothed him though, with gentle, skillful hands. Nothing she hadn't seen before. This time there was no mistaking the sensual tenderness with which she touched him. Her hands flat and possessive, smooth across the planes of his chest and down his flanks. The difference was shocking and he could not stop the trembling which came from deep within. She helped him sit, then slide between the sheets, separating for the brief moment it took to undress herself.

Demir did not resemble either of the women he had seen naked, or almost naked, making it quite impossible to look away. She was slender and muscular, the  breasts small and firm, the nipples inside their dark aureolae tiny. Open her hair cascaded in dark curls down to below her shoulderblades. She could not have weighed more than a hundred pounds. Everything about her delicate and of a bygone elegance, transporting him effortlessly back to those first days abroad and glimpses of women moving gracefully under the silken chador, a silhouette all you could see against the fierce sunlight at times.

He could not still the tremble of his limbs when she moved against him, skin to skin, her arms sliding around him, enfolding him. She pulled him close, until her face rested but inches from his on the pillow and their bodies met from shoulders to their entangling feet. He was desperate to keep his fierce erection from touching her belly, the pulsing within his already leaking member in time with his frantic heartbeat. Thus he moaned when she ran her left hand down to the small of his back and pulled him closer yet, while her other arm cradled his head, her lips softly brushing across his eyes before settling on the corner of his mouth. The lick of her tongue, along the length of his upper lip and against his teeth was slow and not casual at all. She breathed into him.

It was enough. More shame than he ever had thought capable of experiencing sliced through him, red hot and bitter, as her kiss triggered the premature release he had been fighting. He could not help the sobbing sounds of despair as he came, ejaculating against her smooth belly like an adolescent boy, drenching them both. He pulled back and got only so far. Hesitant and shy he opened his eyes, and she was regarding him, concerned, not disgusted. There was another quiet smile on her lips, the fingers of her free hand running over and over across his cheek and through his hair, deliberately taking the tears of shame with them.

"Shhhhh..." she made and kissed him again. "Everything is fine. Shhhhh..."

She drew him closer yet, until he rested his face in the crook of her neck and relaxed, understanding that she was not going to ridicule him, nor leave. Rather than that she let her hands travel his body again, teaching him just how different it felt, when she caressed and stroked. When she made love. In the far recesses of his mind, where every touch, every gentle trace of her fingers blasted in fiery colours across the tapestry of emotions and regrets, burning deep into his self whether he wanted or not, he was idly contemplating the need to become active, to be assertive. That was what a man did, what he had to do, was it not? But all he could do was moan with her tenderness, lift his hips when she raised her thighs to encircle him and mirror her embrace, his own hands seeking to caress and please her silken skin, until he was quivering in response to her every move and breath.

And she liked him. Cherished him. Not rejecting any part of him, not taken aback at the stickiness he had left clinging to their skin, licking him clean instead, an impish grin on her face, which reached her large brown eyes, and then again not. They delved into his with a sensual invitation which left him gasping. The lashings of her small, pink tongue on his chest, sleeking his skin and hair, and that she showed no revulsion of any thing that was him, her straightforward acceptance made it past all his barriers. Simple, strong passion.

Her fingers traced across the sensitive skin of his engorging shaft, brushed through the fine hair on his sac and caressed the length of him, while she breathed encouraging words of endearment into the hollow of his throat. All around him. Wanting him. And when he would have fumbled, she guided him until all he needed to do was lower himself onto her, sheath  himself within her, feel her back arch until he was so deep inside her, that nothing could hurt or touch him anymore. The embrace whole and complete, she held him, waited patiently until he started moving again, reticent now and smiling up at him with delight when he sought her lips and tasted her while his body found its rhythm again and adjusted to hers.

Whatever had been his fears before, there was no mistaking her subtle trembling, when it came. Not just in her thighs, and the delightful small gasps she bit down on, but also against himself inside her, a ripple and release which triggered his own. He would have hidden himself against her shoulder, to spare her the sight of his lust, instead she kissed him and he could feel her eyes, watching him, warming him until he sank down onto her, heaving and spent. She would not let him out of her, making him stay inside her, as she turned them both onto the side again. She was caressing him again, trailing her fingers over sweaty, trembling  skin, smoothing the hair out of his face, there for him, until he had calmed down. Not something he was used to, and she took that in stride as well. Generously. Her lips were soft on his face as he drifted off into a content, dreamless sleep.

--~o~--

Straker woke with a start, disoriented until the tangle of warm limbs he sensed  sorted themselves into his and hers as his mind settled into his waking body. He opened his eyes, slowly and afraid of what he would see. Yet there was no reproach in her expression, nor any revulsion. She stretched with the abandon of a drowsy cat, squinting into the winter sun and curled back into his embrace with a contented murmur, a smile on her face.

He needed the feeling of her breath brushing against his throat for a few moments before he was sure he might wrap his arms around her again. Cautiously, ready to release her. She snuggled closer, one arm sneaking around him, holding him.

He became very still. Maybe if he committed everything to his memory, if he made himself remember every tiny detail, the soft powdery smell of her hair, or the weight of her head on his shoulder, how she rubbed her cheek against his bristles, the strength of her fingers and the musky smell of having made love which pervaded the bed and stirred him again, maybe then he could make it last. At least for a while. He wished there was no need for that. And fell asleep again.

--~o~--

The gravel crunched as the taxi pulled out of his yard. Straker watched it turn left into the road, then went back inside. She had not said anything about the night over breakfast, though there still had been no reproach and she had touched him, and held his hand for a brief moment when he had woken her to tell her the table was laid and coffee ready. Seeing her, sleeping in his bed and alone, had been a wrench. More than anything else. No one slept in his bed like that, no one who breathed and smiled when touched.

She had kissed him when she left, not on his cheek, on his lips instead. Gently, and with a startling tenderness. And then she had walked to where the taxi waited and waved and was gone. He wondered what he would tell Alec, for he was bound to ask about the visit to the spa. He didn't want to tell anyone about her. With a sigh he started clearing the breakfast off the table, stacked the dishes into the machine and put jam, butter and bread where they belonged, then went back into his bedroom to change into jeans and a sweater. He needed to stock up before work consumed every spare moment again.

He did not notice the card hidden under his keys right away, it took a moment to register in his mind that it couldn't still be the voucher, there on his bedside table, and it was much smaller. He picked it up. Her name, address and her phone numbers, in elegant print, and when he flipped it over, there was just one word written onto it.

Yes.

 

~~End~~