Nadine had decided on red hair for the evening, in an attempt to sizzle and spark and forget all her woes.
She hadn't thought it through. Blondes were supposed to have more fun, and brunettes were supposed to be sexy Dark Ladies, but from her experiential data, no one got hit on – ineptly and irritatingly - like redheads.
Of course, it could have had something to do with the setting. She'd thought academic conferences would be serious-minded people with leather patches on their sleeves debating the authenticity of a new da Vinci sketchbook. Instead it was serious-minded people with leather patches on their sleeves bitching about college politics, gossiping about each other's failed marriages, and trying to get under her tight black Audrey-inspired dress.
Considering the circumstances, this should have cheered her up, but she kept making uncharitable and completely useless comparisons instead.
Plus, the wig was getting itchy. She'd thought Columbus was bad in the summer, but Miami had it beat.
She kindly rebuffed her TA, Geoffrey Sanderson, who she wouldn't sleep with even if all other factors had never come into play, because he hated music and always looked slightly baffled at movie quotes, and turned back to her martini. Someone else was approaching in her peripheral vision. She ignored him.
"Hello," said a smooth, cultured voice, with just a hint of a British accent. "I thought your dismissal of that young oaf was a masterpiece. May I buy you a congratulatory drink?"
Nadine gave the man points for style, and summoned the energy to turn around and tell him to go away.
Then she saw him. A little older. A little broader. Silver wings just starting to show in his hair. But still an elegant, gorgeous, extremely dangerous doughnut.
"Simon?" she said. "It's me."
Simon's eyes flickered sharply over her face, up to her hair, and down again to squint at her eyes. Then he dropped onto the barstool beside hers and buried his face in his hands.
"Little Nadine," he said blankly. "Hello. I am going to hell."
"I'm flattered," she assured him.
"And that would keep me warm if the purifying flames didn't. How old are you now, nineteen? Twelve?"
"Twenty-one," she said. Most people assumed she was older.
"I am going to hell, and Davy Dempsey is going to send me there. Or your Aunt Matilda. Or your father. Or his husband. Christ, you're not a woman; you're an army."
Nadine laughed, feeling much better about her evening. Simon was still fun to talk to and he'd keep the members of the All Star Sad Pick-Up Squad away. "Can I buy you a drink?" she asked, signaling for the bartender.
"Yes," he groaned. "I need one. Thank you for pitying the aged."
"You look very distinguished."
"I feel very old." He took the vodka the bartender handed him and gulped half of it.
"Why are you hitting on redheads anyway? I thought you liked brunettes."
Simon gave her an intimidating look. "Your Uncle Davy has a big mouth."
"Not really," Nadine said, refusing to be intimidated. "There was a discussion before I went off to school, that's all. How to scam the college mealplan. How to spot a grifter. How to avoid men who categorize romantic interest by hair colour."
"Hmm," Simon said, and swished his ice around a bit. "Well, I'm trying to broaden my horizons. Although not with you, obviously."
Nadine let him sit there for a moment, watching the question he had so far refused to ask press at his lips. He wanted her to volunteer the information, and she didn't mind giving it to him, but it was much more fun to watch him sweat.
Besides, he didn't have anything that she particularly wanted.
After some more ice-swirling, he broke. "And how is your mother?"
"Excellent," Nadine said promptly. "She got married again."
"And then she got divorced again. It was a rebound marriage."
"From whom was she rebounding?"
Nadine looked at him.
"Oh," Simon said again, and drank the rest of the vodka.
"But she's happy now. And Louise has a CD coming out. It's a minor label, but it sounds really good, I think it's going to get some attention."
"Good for both of them," Simon said, looking grim. "I wish them every success. And how are you? What are you doing here?"
"I'm at the conference. I'm an art history and business major." She gestured at the hotel lounge, full of serious-minded people watching her being chatted up by the smooth older man. "I had a paper presentation today." The youngest presenter, actually, and the only undergrad. She wasn't going to tell him that, though; he was obviously still thinking of her as a kid. She considered what Simon might be doing at an art history conference, and all the larcenous possibilities therein, and pinned him with her best steely gaze. "What are you doing here?"
"Ah, the family business," Simon said, tactically ignoring her. "And what crimes will you be committing?"
"None. I'm going to be the honest Goodnight."
"That's smart," Nadine said firmly.
He waved that away, and unerringly landed on the one question guaranteed to suck all the momentary joy out of her evening. "And how is Ethan?"
To her intense embarrassment, Nadine burst into tears.
* * *
It turned out Simon did have something she wanted – a nearly full bottle of whiskey in his room. He made her drink a glass, poured her another, then leaned against the wall while she sat on the floor, and looked at her as if he could know what her cards were by the way she held her eyes.
For a moment she couldn't remember the quote, then placed it as Kenny Rogers. Probably time to stop drinking, said the sensible voice in her head. She took another swig and told the voice to shut up.
"Right," he said. "Did he break your heart? Do I have to break his fingers?"
"Why should you care?" Nadine sniffed, feeling much younger than twenty-one. "You're not my dad."
"That's as may be. But I have an interest all the same."
Nadine nobly resisted the urge to sic him on Ethan with no explanation and gave a long, shuddery sigh. All the tension of the last week, all that pretending to be fine so she could finish her presentation had drained with her tears, leaving her empty. And tired. She was so tired.
"No," she said. "We never dated, so he wasn't in a position to break my heart."
Simon looked politely disbelieving.
"We graduated together and went to Cincinnati together and stayed best friends, and last week, he just springs on me that he wants to be more than friends."
"Just springs on you," Simon said. "After visibly pining for at least four years."
She sniffled again. "And then he told me that he couldn't see me anymore until we could truly be just friends because he couldn't be the guy waiting for me to love him back."
"And what did you say?"
"I said, 'Don't go'."
Simon arched an eyebrow. "Not, for example, 'I love you'? Well, that was stupid."
"You know, you are really terrible at this."
"Poor baby," he said unsympathetically, but pushed himself off the wall to kneel and pat her shoulder. "Don't you love him, after all?"
Nadine gulped. "I'm not sure. I just feel awful. I wouldn't date him because I thought I might lose my best friend, and then I lost him anyway. It wasn't supposed to work like that."
"How awful do you feel?"
Nadine considered this, as she hadn't let herself before. Too much to do, too much work to finish. Too much fear that if she started to think about it she'd do something stupid, like… end up half-drunk on the floor of a smooth older man's hotel room.
"I feel like half my heart is missing," she said experimentally. "Like someone reached through my ribs and tore out a big chunk of it. I can't breathe properly. All my air is gone, my lungs are gone, and I can't eat-"
"If the man walks away with half your internal organs, Nadine, it's probably love."
"Or an incredible friendship," she pointed out. "What if that's it? Friendship is just as important – maybe even more. Love comes and goes, but friendship can be forever. How would you feel if Uncle Davy said he didn't want to see you until he could do it without feeling terrible and you thought, what if that takes him a lifetime? Worse than when women leave you, I bet."
Simon opened his mouth, and hesitated.
"Exactly," she said, and waved the glass at him. A little slopped over the side and she licked her hand. Simon took the glass, and she glared at him.
"Goodnights," he said, frowning. "You always make things so complicated. Fly back to Cincinnati, walk into his bedroom, take off that incredible dress, and let things proceed from there."
"Hey," Nadine said, but there was a little tingle at the back of her tongue, and the word didn't come out as sharp as she wanted.
"Unless you don't want him that way," Simon said, watching her carefully. "In that case, there's no point, and you'll just have to suffer until he works it out. However long it takes."
Nadine forced down her terror at the thought. "Well, I might. And he might know it. There was a thing before the springing."
"Really," Simon said, and stood up again, this time to move the bottle out of her reach. "Tell your Fairy Godfather Simon all about it, my child, and he will do his level best to make your wishes come true. Assuming they can be discerned."
"You're a big thieving jerk," she told him, but the scene had been going round and round her head for a week now, and it was just so easy to open her mouth and let it play to Simon, who wasn't really family to be hurt by Ethan leaving, and would still understand why this was important. "Well, there's this karaoke bar…"
* * *
"I know," Nadine said. "What makes every guy in a leather jacket think he can sing the Boss?"
"Not that," Ethan said, "Although now that you mention it, I'm pretty sure whoever added "Thunder Road" to a karaoke playlist should be shot. But my psych TA just walked in, and I owe her a paper."
"I'll protect you," Nadine said, and linked her arm in his. "Super Goodnight, defender of the weak and terminally tardy."
"Weak?" Ethan protested, and made a muscle. Nadine felt it bunch and grow under her hand, and blinked at the sudden warmth that prickled her skin. Then she dropped her arm and reached for her beer. It was a hot night, that was all, and the bar was packed.
"But I'll have to protect you before I go to Miami," she said. "Did I mention that I'm going to Miami in a week?"
"Maybe once or twice," Ethan said peaceably. "You can mention it again if you like."
Nadine, who hadn't stopped talking about the Miami conference since she'd been selected three months ago, thrust her bottle into the air. "I'm going to Miami," she cheered. "Woo!"
"Woo!" Ethan agreed.
"WOO!" a table of frat-boys declared, and Nadine laughed as her Woo made its way around the bar, getting bigger as it went, and drawing a royally-pissed frown from the meathead destroying Springsteen's greatest work.
"Don't worry," she told Ethan. "I'm up soon. I know you don't like this place, and it's nice of you to come and listen anyway."
"It's not that," he cheerfully lied. "I just don't know why you gave up the band, 'Dine. You loved the band."
"Too many practices," she said. "I need to concentrate on school. And yet, music is the glue of the world. It's what holds it all together. Without this, life would be meaningless."
"Empire Records," Ethan said, and stole her drink. "Dreads Girl is pointing at you."
Dreads Girl was the permanently angry DJ, who refused to tell anyone her real name and wouldn't let Nadine sing anything made famous by Ella or Aretha on the grounds of cultural appropriation. "What is it this time?" she asked, when Nadine leaned over her booth and cupped her hands into the best auditory-enhancing position. Dreads Girl didn't bother raising her voice above the bar noise, which meant some people ended up hopelessly confused and singing Jagger when they'd wanted Jamiroquai. "Dusty? Duffy? Some girl group named after a fabric with you trying to be three people?"
"The Boss," Nadine said. "Your standards as gatekeeper are obviously slipping."
Dreads Girl had to quickly conceal something that was nearly a smile. "He bought me a drink," she conceded. "Okay, what do you really want?"
Nadine shot a look over her shoulder, where Ethan had spread his gangling limbs across their seats, saving her place. He was so good. He'd come to this place when she knew he hated it, and had a paper past due. And though he'd come close once or twice, he'd never once broken their friendship by saying the words you couldn't take back.
"Got it," she said, and as Dreads Girl tapped in her choice, she sauntered to the front of the stage and rescued her microphone from the meathead's sweaty grip.
"This one's for Ethan," she said before "God Only Knows" started, and if no one else heard that in the busy roar, she knew he had. He sat straight up as the French horns began the introduction, eyes narrowing at her across the room, and she felt that warm prickle along her skin again.
The first verse was okay, but when she got to the chorus, she was feeling hot all over. Ethan was just looking at her, but so intensely that she turned away and sang to the whole bar, who started to howl drunkenly along about God only knowing what she'd do without him, absolutely murdering the harmonies. She could feel Ethan's eyes still on her, and the bottom of her stomach dropped out. She'd meant it as a joke, sort of, but it was true. What would she do without him?
Survive, of course.
But it wouldn't be any fun.
These are the bad thoughts, the sensible side of her shouted. But other parts of her were shouting louder, and when the song was finished she handed over the microphone and jumped off the tiny stage, feeling dazed and confused and tingly all over.
That Ethan was walking towards her was not surprising. It was exactly what was supposed to happen.
He left our seat, the sensible voice thought. We'll never get another one now. The rest of her thought, very firmly, that she should stop being practical for once in her life, and made her hands go out to catch Ethan's upper arms as he set his hands on her waist.
"Hey," she said, breathless, because he was looking at her in a way she'd only caught him doing from the corner of her eye before. Straight on, the look made her weak-kneed and shivery and drove all rational thought away, and that was the only reason why, when he dipped his head and caught her mouth with his, she kissed him back.
It was like falling into a volcano, No, like drowning in chocolate, all warm and smooth and utterly sweet, like the molten core of a deluxe chocolate muffin. Nadine slipped in to that heat and surrendered to his mouth and the shiver-prickle of warmth spreading through her belly.
"Oh my God," Dreads Girl said over the mike. "Get a room."
Ethan pulled a millimeter away from her mouth, and she nearly cried out in protest. "There's a thought," he whispered, and Nadine felt her stomach swoop and bubble as every atom in her body said Yes and made her clutch him harder as his hands tightened around her waist.
Then her sensible thoughts struggled back into her brain. What are you thinking? they asked severely. You have plans. This is not Ethan's place in your plans. Do you want to ruin everything?
"No," Nadine said, horrified by how close she was getting to just throwing everything away, throwing Ethan away for one night of fun.
Mind-blowing, throat-shredding, incredible fun, her body told her, but she was back in control now, and her hands went up to grab his.
"No?" he asked, and she could tell his voice was heavy even in the noisy bar.
"Yes. Uh, yes, I mean no." She was babbling, but she couldn't stop. "I'm sorry. Can't we just be friends?"
Ethan looked at her thoughtfully, and she looked back, at the bright eyes and the mobile face, and the quirky, adorable mouth that had just kissed her totally alive. "Not right now," he said, and she felt everything crumple. "I've got to work this out, Nadine. I can't be the guy hanging around hoping you'll love him back when you've said no. That guy sucks."
"I do love you," Nadine whispered.
"But not-" he flicked his hands wide, and she saw the tension in his long wrists and wanted to soothe him, kiss it all better, roll him over and over and take him for everything he had and let him take her-
Yes, her body shouted.
"No," her mouth said. "I don't know, it's complicated, Ethan. I'm sorry I did that. I promise I'll never do it again."
"That's the problem," he said, still calm, but she saw the pain in him, going right down. She'd done that, she'd hurt him. And if he couldn't heal, she might never have him back. "I'll work it out, and we'll be friends again," he assured her, but what if that was a lie, what if he was faking right now to make this easier on both of them?
"Ethan, don't go," she said, but he kissed her cheek and turned around and took half her heart with him out the door.
* * *
Simon silently handed her the whiskey bottle.
"Thank you," Nadine said, and took a long slug without bothering to retrieve her glass. It didn't burn on the way down, which was not a good sign. "Now. Wave your magic wand."
"I have got to stop making promises to Goodnight women," Simon said, and clicked open his phone. "Hello, darling, it's me. I need a flight for eight a.m. –" his eyes flickered over Nadine and then to the clock "- well, let's say ten, from Miami to Cincinnati. Of course. Yes. You are a treasure. Have a lovely Fourth." He clicked the phone closed.
"The rest of the conference is tomorrow," Nadine realised.
"Did Cinderella complain about having to leave her drudgery behind?" Simon demanded of the ceiling. "Tell them it's a family emergency."
She nodded. It wouldn't even be a lie. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"Look," he said. "I know it's very rare to find someone who's a part of yourself, and l…"
Nadine straightened. "Have you ever?"
Simon looked exasperated. "Goodness, no. I wander around vaguely hoping for it to happen, much like everybody else. Frankly, I'm incredibly envious. Get back there and fix it, for the sake of the hopeless romantic in all of us."
"That would be up to you. I'm still in favour of taking off your magical dress. Whatever you decide, good luck and Godspeed." He pointed at the door. "I have a meeting with a humourless Bureau representative in fifteen minutes, and you have a flight to pack for."
"Thank you, Simon," she said and kissed his cheek as she passed.
"Not Uncle Simon?" he said, looking vaguely disappointed.
It probably wasn't the right time to let him know she'd decided what place he ought to take in her peculiar family, but turn about was fair play. "You should come to Columbus this summer," she said sweetly. "See how it all turned out. Catch up with Uncle Davy. Say hi to mom."
Simon went stiff. "I thought you said Eve was happy."
"She is. She could stand to be more happy."
"Hmm. I might try a redhead now and then, but I still don't date mothers."
"Broaden your horizons," she advised him, and wafted out the door as smoothly as she could manage in the tight Audrey dress, carrying her shoes. She snuck a glance at him before she closed the door, and he was staring out the window, looking extremely thoughtful. Nadine allowed herself a smug little smile. That was probably going to be okay.
Now it was her own love life she had to mend.
* * *
The Audrey dress was just too boozy to be considered, but she put on her very best blouse and poodle skirt, and tamed her blonde curls into a sleek ponytail at the airport. The car Simon had arranged took her directly to the dorm Ethan worked at as an RA, and the students on his floor were so used to seeing her bounce in and out that they didn't even look up as she sashayed past.
Nadine felt that this was wrong. Surely there needed to be an admiring crowd, slow-clapping her on to his door. And then he would open the door, and gasp, "Nadine!" and she'd- do something. Something romantic and climactic that would make the audience reach for their Kleenex.
She reached the end of the hall, completely unapplauded, and knocked.
Ethan pulled the door open, saw it was her, and swung it nearly closed again. "Hi," he said through the narrow gap, and Nadine immediately abandoned Plans A through L and went for Plan M.
"I need to come in," she said, voice breathy with pain. "It's an emergency."
He fell away from the entrance immediately. "What do you need?"
Nadine closed the door behind her and took off her shirt.
"Oh," Ethan said. "Hello."
"Hi," Nadine said, and took some deep breaths. Ethan appeared to find this interesting. "Okay, here's the deal. We have sex, and if it feels good and I don't get pregnant, maybe we can see about a long-term thing."
"I love you. I really love you." She took another deep breath, and started on her skirt buttons. "So can we just try this and see if it works? By the way, I'm pretty nervous because I've never done it before, so you have to promise to be gentle."
"Whoa," Ethan said, and she looked up to see him staring at her. "Never?"
"I thought you just didn't want to tell me," he said. "Because you thought I would – God, Nadine, really? Don't you want to take it slow?"
"Not really," she said. "I'm afraid I might back out if we do."
Ethan's lips thinned, and she recognised the stubborn gesture with total despair. He was going to turn her down. For their own good.
The darling idiot.
"You don't want me," Ethan said. "It's nice that you value my friendship this much, Nadine, it really is. I'm honoured. But it's no good if you don't-"
"Of course I want you," Nadine said. "You're yummy. You have those hands. And your mouth is a gift."
"I'm yummy? I thought I was a muffin."
"With a gooey chocolate centre. No one has ever kissed me like that. I thought I was going to melt right there. From one kiss."
"So if you love me, and you want me and I love and want you… Nadine, slow down. I just don't see the problem. Why did you say no?"
"The problem is that wanting is not enough," Nadine said the words spilling out of her mouth, rising from a deep place inside her. "Love is not enough. My grandmother wanted my grandfather, and then she got pregnant with my mother and had to marry him and he was a fake and a forger. And then my mother loved her gay best friend so she deliberately got pregnant with me so he'd have to marry her and then they got divorced. I have a legacy that I'm trying to avoid! Can you guarantee that you're always going to love me and never going to leave me?" She had to stop and take some more deep breaths, not sexy ones, just so that she wouldn't start crying. "Because if you can't, then I cannot risk it, I just cannot, because if I lose you for good I will die. This last week has been hell."
"For me too," he said.
"So? Can you guarantee it?"
"No," he said, and took her hand. "Not guarantee, not one hundred percent. You wouldn't believe me if I did. But for what it's worth, I believe in us. I believe we'll be terrific. I'm not a fake, Nadine. And no offence to your dad, but I'm not a liar, either. I'm not messed up about what I want, or who I am."
"You're Ethan," she said, and something exploded in the middle of her skull, a thousand little lights suddenly illuminating what she'd known all along like a Broadway marquee. "Oh my god. I know that. It's you."
"It's me," he agreed, looking vaguely puzzled.
"It's really you," she said, and then she kissed him, fast and sweet and fierce.
He made a low noise in the back of his throat and grabbed her arm. "Tell me you're not going to back away," he whispered, and his eyes were so intense on hers, his pupils swallowing up all the blue.
"I guarantee it," she whispered back. "One hundred percent. I'm yours and you're mine, forever."
He made that low, wanting noise again, and this time their kiss was more fierce than sweet, and they stumbled towards his bed. Nadine kept going out of herself, and coming back, and every time she did, Ethan was there, his hands, his mouth, meeting her thrusts with his hips and pulling at buttons and clasps until the poodle skirt was gone and her underwear too, and she lay naked beside him.
"Oh," he said, staring at her blindly, and she nearly cried, because he was so familiar and so beautiful.
"Now?" she asked, and he fumbled in his nightstand and then rolled back to her, hard and hot and eager, and he moved into her so slowly she thought she was going to die.
"More," she whispered, and he sped up, and hit something inside her that felt delicious. Nadine arched her back and clutched at him, utterly shameless, completely wanting, needing more of his mouth and his arms and his everything.
"Oh, God," he said, and moved faster, hitting that sweet spot over and over again until she wondered if she would just explode. "Oh, Christ, Nadine."
She did explode then, into lights and colour and music, like a Busby Berkeley spectacular. She spiraled down and down into the dark and after an eternity of tingling joy she remade herself into Nadine, breathless and voiceless and limp with pleasure in Ethan's arms.
Ethan was panting, his bright red hair a thick veil around his hanging head. After a second where all she could do was stroke limply at his back, he met her eyes and laughed, looking as sated and happy as she felt. "I think that was about four minutes," he said. "I'm sure we can do better than that."
"But the foreplay lasted fourteen years," she said. "Don't we get points for that?"
"Think of all the time we wasted," he groaned.
"We didn't. It had to be now."
He lay beside her. "You might be right. Man. Is your family going to kill me?"
Nadine yawned and snuggled against him. They were definitely going to try this whole sex thing again, but she had just let go of a week's worth of stress and pain, and they probably deserved a nap. "You are family. And no."
Ethan kissed her shoulder. "Are you sure?"
"Positive," Nadine said, and wrapped his arms around her. "At the very least, we have the approval of my criminal Fairy Godfather."