It hit Lacey rather late in the competition that Karen didn’t necessarily have to actually confide anything to her for her to win. There were technicalities, of course, and reinterpretations of the rules that completely supported her newfound realization and she was positive that Brent would have agreed had she discussed it with him, but as things were she was going to have to act now and not bother asking for permission later. After all, telling him about it amounted to nothing less than giving up her competitive advantage and giving up her competitive advantage would completely undermine the act of having a competition and without a competition, she couldn’t win. Without winning, what was the point of even having a stupid competition in the first place? And even if it was all very confusing yet still somehow logical, in a circular kind of way, she didn’t have time to waste in unnecessary analysis.
The take home point was the only part of it all that mattered, of course, and that point was that she couldn’t tell Brent. She couldn’t tell Karen, either, because Karen didn’t seem at all inclined to cooperate. Actually, in that way, Karen was being, and had been thus far, completely uncooperative.
“Hey, I thought you said we were meeting for fondue group?”
Since the plan was already in motion, Lacey looked up to see Karen standing in the doorway to her kitchen looking puzzled, a triangle of Vacherin in one hand and a loaf of crusty bread in the other.
“Oh,” Lacey replied brightly, trying her best to look both apologetic and placating, “didn’t I tell you? Fondue group got moved to next Tuesday. Hank said he hadn’t had time to polish the fondue pot yet and Brent agreed that there was no need to impune the sanctity of fondue group just to adhere to a schedule that no one had ever really set in the first place.”
Karen’s look of confusion only deepened. “Hank said impune?”
“No,” Lacey corrected, smile wavering, “Brent did.”
“Oh.” The confusion cleared for a second before returning abruptly. “Brent said impune?”
“It did come as a surprise.” Lacey shrugged her shoulders, offered another bright smile, then clapped. “Anyway, no fondue group. But, that doesn’t mean that we can’t have a little girl time.”
Karen’s look of confusion morphed quickly into one of panic, and she started backing her way through the doorway immediately. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said hastily, eyes as wide as those of a deer trapped in headlights. “This cheese needs to be refrigerated, and besides, I don’t want anyone to think we were trying to have a clandestine fondue group. It could separate the original fondue group into factions. Then there would be a fondue group war and Hank’s got the only fondue pot and I don’t think it’s a good idea to put him in the middle of something like that. He’s not strong enough to handle the pressure.”
There was something about hearing the word fondue said multiple times in rapid succession that lulled Lacey into an almost trancelike state, but the screech of a chair against the kitchen floor pulled her back to consciousness. Karen was looking down at the offending piece of furniture as if it had betrayed her and Lacey could tell – just tell – that she was on the verge of dropping the cheese and the bread and making a run for it.
“We can put the cheese in the fridge here,” she suggested brightly, springing into action. She had the advantage of a plan and her gym coach had always told her that she had a quick first step, so it was no surprise that she managed to reach Karen before Karen reached the door. Her hand was already on the cheese, fingers sinking slightly into the soft outer shell even as she took a sliding step to the left, neatly cutting off Karen’s path. “And anyway, I’m not even sure it has to be refrigerated.”
“Of course it does,” Karen sputtered, not sure whether she should abandon the cheese as a casualty of war or to make a stand for it. It was expensive cheese, though, and she had been looking forward to the adulation she was going to receive from the fondue group for procuring it and if she left it, then Lacey might bring it to the next group instead and Karen wasn’t at all interested in having her adulation stolen. “You keep hot food hot and cold food cold, otherwise you can get food poisoning. You’re in the food service industry. You should already know that. Now, let it go.”
“But I think this is room temperature food,” Lacey began to argue before stopping and sighing in exasperation. “And I’m not letting it go. Just let me have it and I’ll put it in the refrigerator. What I need to do will only take a minute anyway.”
“What do you need to do?” Karen asked guardedly, giving the cheese another tug. The soft outer shell was beginning to crack and the cheese was beginning to stretch slightly, both things troubling enough to divert her attention away from Lacey’s look of almost frightening determination for a moment.
Lacey, realizing that this was another of those act first and don’t ask for permission later situations, took advantage of Karen’s distraction. She gave up her hold on the cheese to settle her hands firmly on Karen’s shoulders, and when the blonde looked up in confusion, she took full advantage of the opportunity.
Karen squeaked in surprise as Lacey’s lips met hers. Her eyes remained open, in fact they even widened, which made the sight of Lacey’s lashes fluttering closed even more disconcerting. It didn’t help when Lacey’s arm slid around her shoulders, pulling her in even closer, or when Lacey deepened the kiss. Karen jumped at the first tickling touch of Lacey’s tongue, so startled that she parted her lips to voice protest only to find that the move backfired. She had Lacey’s tongue brushing against hers and Lacey’s fingers tangling in her hair and it was weird and completely unexpected and yet still, somehow, she felt the need to close her eyes as well.
When Lacey finally pulled away, Karen looked a little shell shocked and vaguely well kissed but still, she looked mostly confused. There was also a little blankness mixed in with that, though Lacey kind of figured that blankness fell somewhere on the vast spectrum of confused, but it was the slightest, tiniest hint of interest that really caught her attention.
She briefly pondered the possibility that she might have cheese on her shirt and wondered what, exactly, that meant in terms of her likelihood of success when it came to the new plan she had only just formed – that of a more purposeful seduction – but it was Karen’s cheese, after all, so she didn’t think that should really be held against her. Of course, having the cheese held against her was what had caused the clothing/cheese debacle in the first place, but she told her inner voice that she hadn’t meant that ‘holding against her’ thing literally and that it was all beside the point anyway.
“You’ve got cheese on your shirt,” Karen pointed out matter-of-factly, but since Lacey had already covered that tired old ground in her head, she choose to move past it.
“Oh, Karen,” she said, the words as earnest as they were impassioned, “I don’t need to win a stupid bet. Winning or losing or even being the best confidant doesn’t really matter when you put things in perspective and this, I think, is a perspective making moment.”
Karen slowly lowered the cheese to the table before crossing her arms, the movement made awkward by the loaf of bread she was still holding. “Wait a minute. There was a bet?”
“Inconsequential,” Lacey said lightly, waving the question away with a flutter of her hand. “Don’t you see, Karen?”
“No,” Karen said flatly. She looked down at the loaf of bread with something like hatred before laying it on the table alongside the cheese and recrossing her arms. The movement seemed to re-establish her equilibrium and she scowled, one brow arching in challenge. “You kissed me,” she accused.
“I know,” Lacey murmured dreamily.
“Was there some kind of bet involved? Is this some kind of weird…” Karen paused, not sure enough of the situation to accurately assess it, before finishing belligerently, “bet thing?”
Lacey frowned, working through the technicalities in her mind, before shaking her head emphatically and offering a wide smile. “The bet was about something else entirely,” she said definitively, mentally retrofitting her intent. “This was absolutely non-bet related.”
“But there was a bet.”
“Don’t concentrate on the bet. It was nothing,” Lacey reassured beguilingly, reaching forward to lay a comforting hand on Karen’s forearm. “It was just this silly little wager Brent and I had. He has this crazy idea that he’s a better confidant than I am and so we were going to try to get you to tell one of us a secret so that whichever one of us you told could keep your secret and be the best confidant, but that’s old news. Stupid, really.”
“Is that why you invited me to fondue group when there wasn’t a scheduled fondue group?” Karen asked guardedly, once again beginning to inch toward the door.
Shaking her head, Lacey offered her best, most innocent, “No.”
It only took two seconds of Karen glaring at her with all of the authority her background in law enforcement provided before Lacey collapsed.
“Okay, fine,” she said in exasperation, throwing her hands up in dramatic surrender. “Maybe I thought that there was a work-around. You certainly weren’t being forthcoming, even after I told you that embarrassing story about pouring gravy on a slice of apple pie, and there was no way I could keep your secret if you wouldn’t tell me one. So, I decided that if you weren’t going to tell me a secret then I’d just have to make you have a secret that I also knew and then keep that secret to myself. Hence, I invited you over here under false fondue pretenses and then kissed you. Are you happy now, Officer?”
Karen’s glare sharpened and she scowled. “No. Not really.”
“Well just get over it, because I’m going to kiss you again.”
“Why?” Karen questioned cantankerously. “Do you win the bet twice if you have two secrets?”
“No. Mainly I just want to.”
The look in Lacey’s eyes was open and honest, and as much as Karen had been surprised and confused by the first kiss, she was absolutely baffled by Lacey’s apparent heartfelt desire to do it again.
“Are you trying to tell me a secret about you?” she asked slowly, head tilting to the side as she scrutinized Lacey. “And if so, is it a general sort of secret, like you, in general, like to kiss girls, or is it a specific sort of secret?”
“I told you,” Lacey said breezily, “we’re past all of that silly secret nonsense, so just shut up and kiss me.”
“But you’re the one who wants to kiss me,” Karen pointed out. “I’m here under false pretenses. I was promised fondue. I brought cheese. Expensive cheese. Cheese you tried to abduct.”
When Lacey spoke again, her voice had an edge of annoyance to it. “Karen…” she said warningly, fists balled on her hips as she stared Karen down.
“What?” Karen asked defensively, throwing up her hands in innocence; at Lacey’s sharp look, she rolled her eyes and muttered, “Okay, fine. But, you have to make the first move. I still don’t even know if I know what’s going on here.”
Lacey shrugged. She was fine with that. Besides, she liked it when Karen was confused. Past experience had taught her that she was far more malleable that way.
The next morning, Lacey made breakfast while Karen looked through her closet in search of a shirt; her own, apparently, had gotten cheese on it. The black tank top she emerged wearing was one of Lacey’s favorites, but it fit a disgruntled Karen so well and showed off so much honey gold skin that she didn’t even think of complaining about its appropriation.
“You should really work on finding a better fitting uniform,” she blurted instead, then blushed deeply.
“I have,” Karen snapped grumpily, then added, almost as if embarrassed, “but they don’t make them in my size. Apparently most police officers are bulkier. And,” she finished grudgingly, “taller.”
Lacey nodded sympathetically, then pushed a plate loaded with eggs, hash browns, toast, and bacon over to Karen. “Well, then, maybe this will help. Not with the taller part, though you can probably just ask Davis where he got his platform boots if it really bothers you that much.”
“It doesn’t bother me,” Karen said crossly around a mouthful of eggs and potatoes. “And Davis said those boots hurt his feet.”
“They would probably also be a liability in a foot chase,” Lacey offered understandingly, not at all surprised by the speed by which Karen was devouring her breakfast. In the span of less than two minutes, she was balancing the last piece of bacon on the single remaining triangle of toast before washing down the last few bites with half of a cup of coffee. “But, if it helps, I think you’re just the right height. At the very least, you’re just the right height for me, you know, comparatively speaking, but in a way that illustrates how well we fit together. Like peas. Or carrots. Or peas and carrots.”
There was a minute of tense silence following the compliment before Karen looked up from her coffee cup warily. “So, this is awkward now so I’m going to go.”
“Oh, okay,” Lacey murmured disappointedly, trying to hide any distress behind a slightly wobbly smile. Then, the question a mix of shy and hopeful, she asked, “Do you want to, maybe, come over again tonight?”
Karen studied her impassively for another few seconds before offering her best shrug of guarded nonchalance. “I don’t know. Maybe. I guess I can.”
Lacey beamed, as delighted as if Karen had declared her undying affection. “Good, then it’s settled. And why don’t you come by the Ruby first. I’ll make you dinner. Whatever you want, on the house.”
At that, Karen brightened considerably, and the smile she gave Lacey nearly made the brunette melt. “Okay, sounds great. See you tonight!”
Lacey stood in the doorway watching fondly as Karen disappeared into the twilight of the early morning, sneaking stealthily to her car before speeding away, leaving behind a cloud of dust even as her arm emerged from the lowered car window to offer a quick, almost shy, wave good-bye. It was endearing, really, when she was in her little law enforcement officer mode. So, so cute, Lacey decided, offering a shrug to the empty street in front of her, a sort of silent capitulation to the rather gooey feelings she was slightly surprised but absolutely not at all embarrassed to be having.
When Lacey saw Brent that afternoon, he looked insufferably smug.
“I know a secret about Karen,” he gloated before she could even ask.
The unexpected surge of jealousy that swept through Lacey was strong enough to give her pause. When had he talked to Karen? What had she told him? Why was she so bothered? “What is it?” she demanded, slapping her palms down on the counter by the cash register and leaning forward challengingly.
“She stayed at your house last night,” Brent crowed triumphantly, though he did take a step back, a slight look of fear on his face. Then, “Oh, wait. I didn’t mean to tell you that.”
“It wasn’t a secret anyway,” Lacey said dismissively, rolling her eyes and ignoring the sense of relief that pushed away almost all of the jealousy of the moment prior. “It was my house. I was there too.”
“Oh, right,” Brent said thoughtfully, then shrugged his shoulders. “Didn’t think about that part.” After a second, his look turned shrewd, and he asked her distrustfully, “Hey, what were you two talking about all night anyway? Did she tell you a secret?”
Lacey thought about all the secret things she had learned about Karen the night before. There was the way she kissed when she was no longer confused about things, with a great deal of intensity and an eagerness to please that was refreshingly enthusiastic in comparison to her response, or lack thereof, to the first kiss Lacey had initiated. And then there was the way she looked naked which was, all told, kind of breathtaking and honestly far more chesty than she had anticipated. That baggy uniform was hiding far more than the suddenly possessive Lacey wanted the rest of the town of Dog River to see. But those things, as fabulous and wonderful as they were, were still hard pressed to compete with the way Karen looked underneath her. And on top of her. And beside her. And behind her (though Lacey did mentally admit that she hadn’t actually seen that one). And… well, that was enough thinking about that. She still had a dinner rush to prepare for and those sort of distractions wouldn’t be in the least bit helpful.
“Nope,” she shrugged, focusing on Brent again and offering him a ‘what can you do’ smile. “She didn’t tell me a thing.”
“Maybe we should declare this one a tie,” Brent offered, a slight curl of distaste on his lips. “Trying to find a secret to keep is really a lot more work than I’d expected.”
“I do think we could find better ways to focus our energy,” Lacey agreed sympathetically, then smiled. “Besides, maybe we were being a little too ambitious when we chose Karen.”
Brent nodded. “Which is odd, since I usually try to avoid ambition.”
“It’s settled then. No more stupid bet.”
Brent waited until the door slammed shut behind Lacey before allowing himself a grin. Flicking open the paper to the funnies, he murmured, “Sucker. I’m so winning this bet.”
Lacey, smug smile firmly in place as she marched back over to the Ruby, congratulated herself on her ability to keep secret the new secret she’d initiated, then turned her attention to the evening’s dinner plans. She had the sneaking suspicion that Karen might really enjoy a good risotto, and as far as she could tell, Karen when she was well fed was just as malleable as Karen when she was confused. Even more so, perhaps, which made this another one of those competitive advantages that Lacey wanted to have. She wasn’t necessarily having a competition with Karen, but as far as she could tell, that didn’t really make winning any less important.