L as in Love (Book Two) - Ruth Gogoll - ebook

L as in Love (Book Two) ebook

Ruth Gogoll

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The ladies you love ... and the ladies who love each other ... come from the worlds of publishing, big business, journalism, and more - where they earn their livings by using their brains, their hands, or sometimes their naked bodies. In Book Two, couples re-arrange with other partners, singles search, and they all try to figure out whether sex really is that important, whether their relationships really are secure, whether friendship can indeed become love ... or whether ex-lovers can really be friends. Rick, Carolin, Anna, Rebekka, Marlene, Anita, Sabrina, Chris and all the rest converge at Melly's Sappho Café in the midst of their lives of pleasure and pain, laughter, lightheartedness, luck, and lust - but mostly, "L - as in Love"!

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Ruth Gogoll

L AS IN LOVE

Book Two

© 2011édition el!es

www.elles-books.com [email protected]

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form whatsoever.

ISBN 978-3-95609-180-3

Translated from the German bySusan Way

Cover illustration: © ag visuell – Fotolia.com

Chapter 1

   The World Keeps Turning   

Carolin sat at breakfast, alone, as she did every day – except for the weekends. She so looked forward to her weekends with Ina.

Her gaze fell on the toaster. The folding breakfast table barely big enough for one, which she’d gotten practically free from that indispensable Nordic furniture store, gave her just enough room to eat breakfast in the kitchen. But the appliance on the narrow countertop appeared so oversized that it made the room seem even smaller than it was.

She sighed. Accepting the toaster from Rebekka was wrong, especially under the circumstances . . . Rebekka had expected something in return that she hadn’t gotten. But Carolin had already used the toaster – her old one just didn’t do the job anymore – and only later did Carolin think about the fact that she could no longer return it.

The kitchen clock hanging above the door marked each minute with a loud click; that was good, in the morning, to remind Carolin it was time to go to work. That’s why she’d bought the clock with the penetrating tick – at this hour, she was frequently not quite awake yet and only halfway compos mentis. She looked at the dial. Rebekka would surely be in her office by now.

Carolin bit her lip. She couldn’t keep the toaster – nor could she return it. Tricky situation. She felt like a freeloader.

Resolutely, she stood up, went to the living room, and picked up the telephone. Rebekka’s number was easy to remember, but even if it hadn’t been, it would’ve been long since imprinted on Carolin’s mind. She had a good memory for numbers. She knew lots of phone numbers by heart that she didn’t dial often.

Yes, that’s all it was, her knack for remembering numbers, that made it possible for her to type in Rebekka’s number without hesitating. At least, that’s what she told herself while she waited for the phone to ring.

It rang a surprising number of times, and Carolin was about to hang up when Rebekka answered, somewhat breathless.

Carolin suddenly had a guilty conscience. What was she thinking, calling this early in the morning? She didn’t know Rebekka well enough to simply assume that she was already at work. She could just as well still be lying in bed – and maybe not even alone. Carolin noticed how uncomfortable that thought was for her. “Am I disturbing you?” she asked, somewhat uncertain.

“Uh . . . Carolin?” Rebekka seemed slowly to catch her breath.

“Yes, I . . . should I call back later?”

“No, it’s fine. I’m at a red light now.”

Carolin exhaled, relieved. That didn’t sound like bed. “You’re still en route, on your bicycle?”

“Yes. I was delayed this morning.” Rebekka seemed very relaxed, and Carolin could hear street noises in the background. Cologne was awakening.

What delayed her this morning? Carolin wondered. Did she stay in bed longer than usual? With whom? She shook her head. What business was it of hers? “Then maybe I really should call back later – if you’re still en route.”

“Is it important?” asked Rebekka.

“No, nothing . . . nothing important.” Carolin swallowed. “Just . . . the toaster . . . it’s too big for me, and . . . it had to be much more expensive than my old one. I want to make up the difference to you.”

“The toaster,” repeated Rebekka dully.

Carolin felt awful. It was as though she’d just hit Rebekka. “Yes, it . . . I mean, it has an outrageous number of buttons, and this display . . . I used to have just a really simple model.”

“It’s Gellert’s top of the line,” said Rebekka.

“It looks like it.” Carolin bit her lip again. Now that, too.

“You don’t want it?” asked Rebekka. It seemed like the question wasn’t meant to apply only to the toaster.

“I . . . I used it already.” Carolin swallowed hard. “So I can’t give it back to you, but at least . . . the difference – please, Rebekka.”

“There is no difference,” answered Rebekka tersely. “The light’s turning green, I have to go.” She was gone, off the phone and probably also off to a lightning-fast start from the traffic light.

As often as she hangs up, she could make a profession of it, thought Carolin.

Sighing, she set the phone back on the living room table.

That was the final end to her nonexistent relationship with Rebekka. Presumably.

° ° °

“In principle, I have nothing against someone keeping silent around me now and then,” remarked Melly as she bent briefly over the counter. “I already have to carry on far too many pointless conversations with people who’re half drunk or freshly abandoned and want to cry on my shoulder. But the fact that you’ve been sitting here for an entire hour without saying a word, now that is making me a little nervous.” She regarded Carolin with a look of concern. “Is something up with Ina?”

“Ina?” Carolin looked up, as if she’d never heard the name before. Then she seemed to find her way back to reality. “No, it’s not Ina. She’s coming on Friday, and I’m looking forward to it.”

“Ah, not Ina,” repeated Melly, and a faint smile crept into the corners of her mouth.

“I should just go home,” murmured Carolin absently. She was so lost in her own thoughts, she hadn’t even noticed Melly’s reaction. “If I’m managing to annoy you just with my silence, I’ll come back when I’m feeling more talkative.”

“Oh, sweetheart, I didn’t mean it that way.” Melly shook her head. “You can sit here without saying anything for as long as you like. Do you want another milkshake? Or a cocktail? Half price for happy hour.”

“Is it happy hour already?” Carolin gave a perplexed look past Melly at the clock hanging behind the counter.

“It is, for you,” said Melly.

Carolin had the feeling she was missing something.

“And I’d also make an exception for those two,” laughed Melly, looking at the door that had just opened to admit guests. “If they cheer you up.”

“Cheer you up? How come? What’s up?” Rick, concerned, came over to Carolin, and Anita, following her, stood next to Carolin at the counter and frowned.

“Nothing is up. I don’t know what’s wrong with all of you.” Carolin reacted with irritation. “I’m a little bit overtired, overworked, over-something, that’s all. That happens sometimes. The book fair is coming up. We have tons to do at the publishing house.”

“Yeah, I know that feeling,” said Anita, smiling and wrapping an arm around Carolin’s shoulders. “You just need a good night’s sleep.”

Rick cast a doubtful glance at Melly, and Melly shrugged. “I was just saying, I’d treat you to a cocktail at half price if you’d put a little life in the joint,” she repeated. “Do you want to take me up on it?”

“What? Putting some life in the joint?” Rick laughed. “Anytime.” She looked around the relatively empty café. “The chairs look really good in here.”

“Yes, I think so, too. You did a good job on them.” Melly smiled. “I’ll make you two drinks, all right? With or without alcohol?”

“With,” said Rick.

“Mine without, please,” added Anita.

“And you, Carolin?” Melly tried again to wake Carolin from her trance.

“Nothing,” said Carolin. She looked up. “Or maybe I will after all. That tropical thing you invented recently.”

“I didn’t exactly invent it.” Melly laughed. “I just changed a couple of ingredients in the original recipe.” She glanced at the shelf behind her, where the distilled spirits were displayed. “I have to see whether I have any more curaçao around here.” She disappeared through the kitchen, heading for the storeroom.

Rick slid onto the barstool next to Carolin. “So, there’s that much going on at work?”

Carolin had known Rick long enough to know that that wasn’t the question she’d really wanted to ask. “Yes,” she said, not looking at Rick.

Anita walked around her and stood next to Rick. Rick automatically wrapped an arm around her, as if to protect her, while Anita cuddled up to Rick easily and smiled. She obviously felt comfortable there. “It must be interesting to work for a publisher,” she said. “I love books. That would be my dream.”

“Oh, take my job, please . . .” Carolin groaned. Everyone envied her her job, as if there were nothing better in the world. But lately, she doubted that a great deal. Thomas kept imposing more and more work on her that wasn’t in her area. It felt like he was giving her everything he didn’t feel like doing, no matter whether it was in her job description or not.

“I ‘d take your job in a second,” said Anita. “But I hardly think they’d take me. I’m only trained as a salesgirl.”

“That’s just as much of a business education as mine is, as a publisher’s assistant,” remarked Carolin with a shrug of her shoulders.

“It’s hardly the same thing,” replied Anita. “At least, employers don’t see it that way.” She sighed.

“Would you want to change jobs, then?” asked Rick, astounded. “I thought you liked doing sales.”

“Yes, I do, in a way . . .” Anita shrugged. “I enjoy making recommendations to customers, and I like fabrics, fashion accessories, that kind of thing. But being able to sit down for a couple of hours every day, there’s something to be said for that.”

“Oh, you can do plenty of that at a publishing house.” Carolin took a deep breath. “I never get to do anything else.” A thoughtful expression crossed her face. “Saleswoman . . .” she repeated musingly. “Does it really matter what you sell?”

“Well, theoretically . . .” Anita answered with a nod. “I’ve sold just about everything. We have to help out in the different departments, you know, and during my training, I went everywhere. But tools aren’t really my thing.” She smiled uncertainly.

“No, I was thinking . . . books.” Carolin looked questioning. “We’re still looking for hostesses for the book fair. Thomas is even trying to force that on me, and I’m fighting it tooth and nail. But if I don’t find someone . . .” She let out a distasteful sigh. “I hate the book fair. And during the downtime when everyone is there, I could update my spreadsheets ever so nicely. But if I have to go to the fair . . .”

Anita stared at her. “You mean . . . I could . . .?”

“It would only be a temp job,” nodded Carolin. “Just a couple of days. Not permanent. But if you’re so into books . . . I would be insanely grateful to you.”

“I don’t know if I can get vacation time that fast,” Anita reflected doubtfully, “but I can try. That would be a dream come true for me.” She beamed at Rick, then turned her gaze back to Carolin. “And you really don’t want to –?”

“Oh, no! No, thanks.” Carolin lifted her hands defensively. “How soon can you find out whether you can get the time off?”

“Tomorrow,” replied Anita excitedly. “I’ll ask first thing tomorrow morning.” She flung her arms around Rick’s neck in sheer enthusiasm and kissed her happily on the lips.

Rick looked at Anita and said, “Ina’s coming this weekend?” She scrutinized Carolin with a peculiar intensity.

Carolin nodded. “Yes, as always.”

“Isn’t that difficult, a long distance relationship like that?” Anita frowned. “What does that feel like, all week long?”

“It’s okay,” replied Carolin a bit hesitantly. “We talk on the phone every day, and right now I have a lot of work to do, so I hardly get a chance to think about it.”

“Maybe that’s good,” said Rick. Her gaze wandered to the ceiling. “Thinking about things too much sometimes just causes trouble.”

“I found it!” Melly returned from the storeroom brandishing a bottle of a dazzling blue liquid. “The last one.” She began mixing the cocktails. “Well, I thought we’d have a dancing bear in here by now,” she continued, laughing. “You all were going to inject some fun into the atmosphere.” She looked at Rick.

Rick screwed up her mouth. “Well, maybe I promised a bit too much.”

“Or maybe not.” Anita let go of Rick and went to the jukebox. She chose a song, and a moment later, its bright sound overwhelmed the soft background music that had previously lent the premises a more classical and sedate atmosphere.

Melly muted the stereo system and looked over at Anita. Then she grinned at Rick. “I believe she’s waiting for you.”

Anita’s facial expression did indeed indicate that. Rick got up, walked up to Anita, bowed, and smiled at her. “May I have this dance?”

Anita’s smile glided into Rick’s arms with the rest of her. “With pleasure,” she said.

Melly observed the pair as they began to dance, then lined up the cocktails she’d mixed on the bar, one of them in front of Carolin. “They’re a cute couple, those two,” she said, somewhat reflectively.

Carolin sighed. “Is that enough, being a cute couple?” She sipped at her cocktail.

Melly looked at her. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, it’s just a thought.” Carolin shrugged. “There are lots of pretty women in the world – and lots of cute couples.” Apparently disinterested, she sank back into her preoccupation with her cocktail glass.

“Just in general?” Melly raised her eyebrows and studied her. “Or are you thinking of any especially pretty woman in particular?”

“Ina is very pretty,” replied Carolin vaguely, without looking at Melly.

“That she is.” Melly pursed her lips. “And the two of you are a cute couple also.”

“That’s what I said.” Carolin was still avoiding looking up.

“Hmm.” Melly didn’t seem satisfied, but she said nothing further.

“Rick was with Thea, and before that with you – and now she’s with Anita,” continued Carolin, as though she were talking to herself.

“We weren’t together,” contradicted Melly immediately. “Only –” she looked over at Rick. “Only one night.”

“I know,” said Carolin. “You don’t get involved in long-term relationships.” She sighed. “Maybe that’s best.”

“How did you decide that all of a sudden?” Melly seemed astonished. “Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted: a permanent relationship? With a woman you love?”

“Yes, with one woman.” Carolin poked around in her cocktail with the straw. “What I was trying to say is that Rick has always ended things with one woman before she got involved with another, she was never simultaneously –”

“Oh, good grief, Carolin, you can’t be serious?” Melly stared at her. “How long have you been with Ina now?” She shook her head. “I always thought you were – well, I thought you wouldn’t want to have anything to do with an open relationship, the way I understood you.”

“And I don’t.” Carolin took a deep breath and another swallow. “This drink is outstanding.” She smiled at Melly.

“You don’t? Then what’s all this talk about?” asked Melly. “No diversions. I know the cocktail is good. I’m rather proud of it.”

“As you should be.” Carolin looked over at Rick and Anita, who were still dancing. Anita rested contentedly in Rick’s arms, and Rick smiled down at her as though she were rocking a child. “Maybe it’s simpler when you’re not in love,” she mused.

Melly followed her gaze and hesitated for a moment. “Sure it is.”

“Why did you do it, Melly?” asked Carolin. “Holding Rick at arm’s length and letting her starve? You broke her heart.”

“I . . . no,” Melly replied tonelessly. “Just look at her. She’s much better off without me.” She turned around and went into the kitchen.

Chapter 2

   Intermezzo   

“If you keep staring into space so depressingly, I’m going to kill myself.”

“What? What did you say?” Rebekka looked up irritably, as if she were waking from a dream.

Svenja laughed. “I’ve never seen you like this before. You’re not usually so crabby. Is your bicycle broken or something?”

“My bicycle?” Rebekka looked even more irritated. Then she shook her head. “No. My bike is fine.”

“Then kindly stop making that face. It could spoil a person’s entire day.”

Rebekka breathed deeply. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know my facial expression had so much influence over your mood.”

“Well, I didn’t come by to have you drag me down.” Svenja sat down on one corner of Rebekka’s desk and tilted her head to the side. “More the opposite.”

Rebekka leaned back in her chair. “What did you have in mind?”

“Oh, sweetie. You’re not that unimaginative.” Svenja laughed, bent forward, and stroked Rebekka’s cheek with a finger. “At least not usually.” Her voice sank to a whisper and her eyes flashed.

Rebekka dodged the finger and leaned over her desk. “I have a lot of work to do.”

Svenja raised her eyebrows. “Oh?” She slid down from the desk and tossed her hair as she shook her head. “You and your work. You two should get married, to legalize your relationship.”

“Yeah.” Rebekka shrugged. “You want to go shopping?” She glanced briefly at Svenja’s City outfit.

“I know, I can’t have you for that.” Svenja sighed like a martyr, as if Rebekka were burdening her with a great weight she was barely able to carry. “It bores you to death.”

“I don’t have time,” corrected Rebekka reluctantly. “And no, I don’t find it particularly exciting, either.”

“Not as exciting as your files here, anyway.” Svenja tapped a stack of paper on Rebekka’s desk. She gazed uncomprehendingly at them for a second, then a sweet smile crossed her face. “How about going out, then? I mean, not today . . . this evening.”

“Svenja . . .” Rebekka rolled her eyes.

“Oh, come on . . .” Svenja bent over again and locked eyes with Rebekka. “You can’t work around the clock, can you? Sometime you have to go home, eat something, even amuse yourself a bit. Do you even know what that’s like?” She tilted her head once more, and it was clear to see that she knew exactly what that was like.

“Life doesn’t consist of pleasure alone,” replied Rebekka sharply.

“You should really think twice about that.” Svenja smiled slightly. “But I can see that right now I don’t have a chance with you. I’ll wait for a better time.” Her smile became seductive. “It’ll come, I’m sure.”

Rebekka sighed.

“Okay, okay, I’m going now.” Svenja lifted her hands slightly. “By no means do I want to keep you from your oh-so-important work. Otherwise you’ll die of withdrawal.”

Rebekka frowned at her.

“I’m already gone.” Svenja laughed. “But you’re not getting entirely rid of me that easily!” She disappeared, with an elegant swing of her seductively shaped hips, through Rebekka’s office door.

The doorframe was hardly vacated before Rebekka sank back in her chair and the same reflective expression that had bothered Svenja so much took hold of her anew. Depressing, Svenja had said. Yes, maybe she was right. Rebekka had rarely felt so bad.

But she couldn’t give herself over to that feeling indefinitely. There were other things that were more important. With raised eyebrows, she let her eyes roam across her full desk. Much more important.

Determined, she pulled her chair up to the desk and picked up a pencil.

Chapter 3

   In Purgatory   

“Well, you don’t need anyone to cheer up your place today,” laughed Rick. “It’s more full than it’s been in a long time!”

“Live music is always a hit,” agreed Melly, casting a glance around the premises, in which a crush of dancing bodies surged. “It’s fun to see so many people having such a great time.”

“And it makes the cash register ring,” Rick observed. “That’s for sure.”

“Once the band has been paid, there isn’t all that much left over,” Melly qualified, “but it’s worth it, I would certainly agree with that.”

“Saturday Night in the City . . .” Rick sang to herself, smiling at Melly.

“Where’s Anita?” asked Melly quickly.

“At the book fair.” Rick grinned. “She was so excited, she took five outfits with her, even though she’s only going to be there for three days.”

“Well, you know, one must have something to change into,” Melly nodded understandingly. “You didn’t go with her?”

Rick shook her head doubtfully. “It’s really not my thing. I could’ve gone and looked at a few technical books, or some travel books, photos . . . but all that fuss, just over some books . . .”

“Anita’s happy there?” Melly went back behind the counter.

“Oh, yes.” Rick smiled. “She thinks it’s thrilling. All the authors and publishers . . . it’s like an adventure vacation for her.”

Melly laughed. “Presumably not the image that most people have of an adventure vacation.”

“Definitely not.” Rick sat down at the counter. “Would you give me a beer?”

Melly reached for a glass and started tapping the beer. “Hey, Carolin and Ina.” She nodded toward the door.

Rick turned around. Once again, Ina’s model-caliber beauty almost knocked her over, but Rick still didn’t like her. She grinned crookedly. Probably I’m just jealous, she thought. Carolin is my oldest friend, and I don’t begrudge her finally finding the woman of her dreams, but somehow, I can’t escape the feeling that no woman seems to be good enough for her. Not even if she looks like Ina.

“Hello, Rick,” Ina greeted her with one of her indefinable smiles, the meaning of which was always ambiguous.

“Hello, Ina,” replied Rick coolly. She turned with a much warmer look toward Carolin. “Well, Linchen?”

Carolin bridled. “Have you lost your marbles?”

Rick laughed and laid a friendly hand on Carolin’s shoulder. “You’re just so sweet, I can’t help it.”

“You shouldn’t tease Caro like that,” said Ina, still smiling.

Carolin sighed. “My name isn’t all that long. I wish someone would use the whole thing and not just parts of it. I don’t like that.”

“Well, then, we’ll just say Carolinchen,” Ina suggested mischievously. “Then your whole name is definitely included.”

“Don’t you dare.” Carolin shook a playful finger at her. She snuggled up to Ina and looked at Rick. “Anita is representing me very well at the book fair, I hear. Thomas is very impressed with her.”

Rick made a face. “I believe that,” she said. When men get a load of Anita’s breasts, they’re always “impressed” with her, she thought.

Carolin understood. “Not just because of that, I think. She really is a good saleswoman; she has a knack for customers. She could sell refrigerators to polar bears, Thomas says.”

Rick nodded. “Yes, she has a very personable way with customers. I’ve noticed it in my shop, too. Whatever upholstery fabric she recommends to the customers, they buy it, no matter how expensive it is. Her consultations alone have already brought me a couple of new clients.”

“She is really nice,” said Carolin, with a look at Rick that had something quizzical about it.

“Yes.” Rick sipped at her beer. “She is really nice.”

Carolin looked at Rick for a moment longer, and turned to Ina. “Shall we dance? I’m surprised you could wait this long.”

“You just wore me out earlier. I’m still completely beat,” replied Ina with a wink.

Rick turned her head in the opposite direction. This was becoming a burden. Those kinds of references had never embarrassed her before, but imagining Carolin and Ina in bed together almost made her blush. She watched the mass of undulating bodies on the dance floor as Ina and Carolin went to join them. Those two were the absolute perfect couple.

“Have you seen Chris lately?” asked Melly. “You used to get together a lot.”

Rick shook her head slowly. “After she got back from Norway, I only happened to run into her once. But she didn’t want to – I mean, you know – talk.”

“So you don’t know what really happened, either? Why they split up?” Melly looked inquiringly at Rick.

“No.” Rick stared past Melly into space. “No one knows. I think Sabrina didn’t want to stay. The way Chris looked, anyway, she wasn’t the one who decided on breaking up. It must’ve been awful.” She sighed. “I can hardly imagine those two as single people, much less separate from each other. They were always such a . . . unit. You couldn’t slip so much as a sheet of paper between them. And now . . .”

“Yes.” Melly looked thoughtful. “Sometimes these things happen fast. And there’s nothing you can do to stop it. When she was in Norway, did Chris –?” She tilted her head slightly.

“Meet someone?” Rick shrugged. “I don’t know. No idea. She didn’t say anything. But somehow . . . no, I don’t think so.”

“What are you two talking about?” Carolin stepped up next to Rick. “A large glass of mineral water,” she tossed in Melly’s direction. “Admit it, you make the air in here extra dry so people will drink more.” She laughed.

Melly raised her eyebrows. “Of course I do. It’s my business.” She held up a one-liter mug. “Will this do?”

“For starters,” said Carolin.

“We were talking about Chris and Sabrina,” continued Melly as she let the mug slowly fill. “Sad story.”

“Yes, very sad.” Carolin took a deep breath. “But I suspected something like it. Sabrina’s been . . . funny lately.” She leaned on the counter.

“Sabrina?” asked Rick. “So it was her decision?”

“I don’t know exactly. I haven’t seen her again since . . . at any rate, since before Chris came back from Norway. And she was asking me questions – I mean, I really wouldn’t have expected it of her.”

“What wouldn’t you expect?” asked Melly, sliding the full mug across the counter to Carolin. “That she would ask you questions?”

“Questions like the ones she asked me,” replied Carolin, taking a large swallow from her mug. “I mean, whether one person could fall simultaneously for two people –” She broke off.

Melly grinned crookedly. “Maybe she just wanted to hear an expert opinion.”

Rick stared at Melly, then at Carolin, then back at Melly. Uncomprehendingly, she let her gaze turn back to Carolin’s face at last. “Carolin?”

“I have no idea what Melly is talking about,” Carolin responded defiantly, and hid her face behind the giant mug.

Another wave of customers arrived, and Melly had to attend to them.

Ina came up to her friends from behind. “I asked the band whether they’d like to come to Kassel some time,” she said, laughing softly, “but I don’t think they’re particularly tempted.”

“Understandable,” said Rick. “Even though I don’t know Kassel well.”

“Yes, understandable.” Ina laughed, greatly amused. “Precisely because I know Kassel well.” She took the mug from Carolin’s hand and downed half of it in one swallow.

Rick surveyed the newcomers jamming the entryway. There were quite a few people among them she didn’t know. Live music drew people who didn’t otherwise frequent Melly’s café, people who only came to dance. Two women in particular, who were paying the cover charge just then, caught Rick’s eye. One blonde, one dark; both tall, slender, elegant – and they looked like they hadn’t had to stint on their wardrobes whatsoever.

One of the two was gazing intently in their direction, as if she absolutely couldn’t tear herself away from what she was seeing. Rick wondered whether they might know each other, but she soon noticed that the woman wasn’t looking at her, she was staring at –

“Carolin? Do you know that woman over there?” Rick nodded toward the entrance.

Carolin turned around casually to see who Rick meant, and her relaxed attitude changed quickly. Rebekka, she thought. Oh, my God! “No, uh . . . yes,” she stuttered. “One time, we . . . rode our bicycles together.”

“Bicycle?” Ina gaped. “You ride a bicycle? Didn’t you tell me you haven’t used your bike in years? That it’s collecting dust in the basement?”

“Yes, pretty much.” Carolin swallowed. “With the one exception.” She no longer knew where to look. She couldn’t look at Rebekka, and she couldn’t look at Ina.

Rebekka averted her eyes as soon as she saw Carolin recognize her. Why had she let Svenja talk her into coming here? She almost never joined the lesbian scene, and she could’ve figured that Carolin –

She straightened her shoulders. No, she couldn’t blame Carolin. Carolin had told her the truth, she’d never held anything back, at least not knowingly, and the woman she was standing next to – Rebekka raised her eyebrows – she must’ve found her on a catwalk. No wonder no one else had a chance with her. If I’d known what she looked like, I might not have bought the rose for her, she thought. Suddenly, she had to smile at herself. I thought she was a man. Of all people . . .

“Do you know anyone here?” Svenja asked, looking around with interest.

Rebekka cleared her throat. “No,” she said. “No one.”

“Then let’s dance.” Svenja summoned her with wanton eyes. “That’s what we came here for, after all.”

Rebekka nodded, and they gave themselves to the dance floor.

Carolin’s hooded gaze followed Rebekka. She hoped Ina didn’t notice, and that Rebekka wouldn’t approach her. But Rebekka didn’t. She went with her . . . girlfriend – Carolin swallowed once more – to the dance floor and disappeared among the other dancers. The crowd swallowed them like a fog.

Even though Carolin tried to hide it, Rick perceived her reaction to Rebekka’s appearance very clearly. Slowly, the puzzle pieces came together – first Melly’s comment, and now Carolin’s fright . . . “You should’ve gone to the book fair, after all,” she said, looking at Carolin.

Carolin tried to avoid her gaze. “Book fair?” she asked in a pointedly innocent way.

Rick reminded herself that Ina was standing next to them, so it wasn’t a very good time to speak of attractive brunettes who had piqued Carolin’s interest. “Oh, you know,” she answered. “Anita says there’s work enough for two.”

“There always is.” Carolin sighed. “Even just to make sure that the books don’t all get filched from the booth.” She grinned. “But then, Anita has much greater potential for distracting thieves and making them think about other things than I do.”

“Tsk, tsk, Carolin,” Rick admonished her with a playfully pointed index finger. “Weren’t you the one who reprimanded me for pointing out Anita’s assets?”

“There is a slight difference between a reference to particular assets and a certain kind of macho remark,” grinned Carolin. “Don’t you think?”

“Well, okay . . .” Rick shrugged somewhat guiltily. “That’s true. But I didn’t know her yet, then.”

“What kind of assets does she have?” Ina chimed in with interest. “You're making me awfully curious.” She grinned.

“Let’s just say,” Carolin explained, amused, “if one were to put together certain parts of the three of us, we’d still have quite a job filling out Anita’s bra.”

“Wow!” exclaimed Ina. She turned to Rick. “And she’s your girlfriend?”

“She’s living with me,” evaded Rick. “Temporarily.”

Carolin’s brows rose. So she’d guessed correctly. Anita was sweet, but not sweet enough for Rick. Or perhaps too sweet. Rick needed a woman who could stand up to her, someone who’d contradict her now and then. Anita certainly wouldn’t do that.

“That can be very nice,” Ina remarked casually. “I had a girlfriend once, who also . . . um . . .” She glanced at Carolin. “. . . Or not,” she ended the sentence, somewhat muddled.

“I didn’t know you were attracted to that sort of thing.” Carolin’s eyebrows rose even higher.

“You’re the most beautiful woman I know,” Ina said immediately, wrapping her arm around Carolin. “You know that.”

“Have you ever looked in a mirror?” was Carolin’s mildly witty reply.

“External appearances are unimportant,” said Ina. “It’s what’s inside that counts.”

Carolin smirked. “You hear that a lot, but funnily enough, the women whose worthy insides don’t show on the outside rarely have hundreds of admirers at their feet, whereas the women –” She broke off and looked at Ina. “I think I’m talking my way into hot water. I’d better quit now,” she said, laughing sheepishly.

“You two really have nothing to complain about,” Rick said with a slightly cocky smile. “You seem to have an endless stream of admirers.”

“Which is, of course, completely unfamiliar to you, right, Rick?” Carolin’s eyes twinkled with amusement.

“I didn’t know you were such a ladykiller, Rick,” Ina added with an interested expression.

“I’m here alone,” said Rick, twirling around slowly with her hands in the air, “and I don’t see hundreds of women scrambling to make my acquaintance.”

“You’re only alone because Anita isn’t here,” countered Carolin. “That doesn’t count.”

“Oh, my goodness . . . it’s Chris!” Rick didn’t hide her surprise.

Carolin turned around. “She doesn’t exactly look like she came here to enjoy herself,” she determined after a glance at Chris.

“Can you blame her?” Rick nodded to Carolin and Ina. “I’ll go take care of her,” and she went over to Chris.

“What do you think, shall we dance?” asked Ina. “Or should we go over to Chris, too –?”

“No, no.” Carolin watched Rick as she greeted Chris, and it didn’t look to her like Chris could handle any more company. “Let’s dance.”

Carolin let herself sink into Ina’s arms and, for a moment, forgot where she was. Ina’s roving hands turned the dance into sweet torture and nearly put her mentally back in her apartment . . . in bed.

“Maybe we shouldn’t have gone out at all,” Ina whispered into her hair, her breath full of desire. “Whose idea was that, anyway?”

“Yours,” said Carolin. “You wanted to dance.”

“Why can’t we do both?” breathed Ina. “Dance and –?”

“We could, at home,” whispered Carolin. “But here . . .” She opened her eyes, which she’d closed as she rested in Ina’s arms, and recognized a few faces in the light flashing from the stage spots. She wanted to look over toward Rick, but her gaze caught on a couple she’d forgotten – or suppressed, more likely.

Rebekka danced in a tight embrace with her companion, the blonde nestled blissfully against her. When the music stopped, both remained there, and the blonde, slightly shorter than Rebekka, slid up along Rebekka’s body and kissed her passionately. She thrust her hips against Rebekka’s, and it was obvious that she wanted to do more than just dance. What Ina and Carolin had just been discussing was being put into practice, live, by Rebekka and her blonde angel.

Carolin noticed herself feeling the blonde woman becoming progressively more unlikeable. I have no right, she thought. I, of all people . . . I turned Rebekka down, and so she found herself someone else. Or – had the other woman been there already?

Carolin had always assumed that Rebekka was single, but that hadn’t necessarily been the case. After all, Carolin wasn’t single, and yet she’d still found Rebekka attractive. There was no reason for her to assume that Rebekka couldn’t have been exactly the same way. Dating two people at once was hardly a rarity these days; lots of people considered it normal.

But somehow . . . somehow, Rebekka hadn’t left that impression. But they didn’t just meet yesterday, thought Carolin, and became more sure of that the longer she observed Rebekka and her companion. She didn’t realize how intently she was staring at them. The sight sucked her in like an undertow from which she simply could not pull free.

Suddenly, Rebekka looked up and stared at Carolin. It was too dark to recognize the expression on Rebekka’s face, but Carolin imagined a certain spark of triumph in Rebekka’s eyes, a kind of this is what you get now.

So what was I supposed to have done? thought Carolin. Why didn’t you turn up a couple of weeks earlier? Then everything would have been simple. Or not, when she considered Rebekka’s girlfriend. She didn’t look like the type who shared gladly.

Fortunately, Ina didn’t notice any of Carolin’s attention to Rebekka; she’d only stopped briefly when one song ended, then started dancing again as soon as the next song began. Ina’s hands caressed Carolin, so what Rebekka was seeing must have been comparable to what Carolin had observed of Rebekka’s girlfriend. It was downright perverse. The two of them stared at each other while their girlfriends toiled away on them.

Carolin felt like she was in West Side Story, when Tony and Maria met for the first time at the dance in the gym, and the world ceased to exist, except for the two of them. Everything around them blurred, and they had eyes only for each other, caught up in a private world that had nothing to do with anything else. Others danced and enjoyed themselves loudly, while Tony and Maria approached one another slowly, music playing softly in the background, completely different music from what was playing for the other dancers. Finally, they stopped in front of each other, looking deep into each other’s eyes.

Exactly like Rebekka was looking into her eyes now.

Carolin was no longer hearing the music; she only moved because Ina led her, while she tried not to lose sight of Rebekka.

Rebekka and her girlfriend kept moving to a blues beat so mellow that it was almost possible to stay fixed in one spot.

But the music changed suddenly, and a large proportion of the audience shouted out. A popular dance club song began, turning the dance floor into a seething cauldron. Everyone jumped in the air, their delight increasing the more hectic the music became, their movements increasingly athletic.

“Hey, sweetie, what’s up with you?” Svenja bounced around like a rubber ball, beaming at Rebekka. “This is your favorite song!” Once more, she threw her arms in the air and whooped in delight.

Rebekka felt like she had just woken from a dream – or perhaps she hadn’t quite. She was still trying not to lose sight of Carolin, even though it hurt her so. In the arms of another woman, and obviously happy.

Yes, Carolin had looked over at her, yes, she’d been watching her and Svenja, but surely just out of curiosity. Only because they happened to know each other and because she’d never seen Svenja before. They all did that. Who’s the new woman at her side? It was one of the reasons that Rebekka didn’t like to make the scene. She always felt like a visitor to an incestuous village.

Since their last phone call, she’d thought about Carolin a lot; sometimes it felt like she was thinking about her constantly. Staring at Carolin, she saw how her girlfriend’s fingers kneaded her bottom – and couldn’t stand it anymore. “I’ll be back in a sec –” She nodded to Svenja and disappeared in the direction of the bathroom.

Carolin had to follow Ina, who whipped her around enthusiastically since the beginning of the new song. In the process she lost sight of Rebekka. When she looked back over, Rebekka had vanished. Only her blonde girlfriend with the wildly flying hair was still dancing, with – if Carolin saw rightly – three other women at the same time, all of whom were vying for her attentions. She seemed to enjoy it a great deal.

Oh, Rebekka, thought Carolin. Is that the right woman for you? She looked around for Rebekka, to the extent that was possible while dancing with Ina, but she couldn’t spot Rebekka. Maybe she left, she thought. Because of me? I hope not.

The energetic tune sapped the dancers so much in a few minutes that they all seemed happy when it ended, and they could take themselves to the bar or to the drinks at their tables. The dance floor emptied, except for Rebekka’s girlfriend and a couple of other obviously athletic diehards who were kicking it up another notch with the next song.

“Are you as thirsty as I am?” asked Ina. She turned halfway toward the bar.

“Oh . . . oh, yeah,” nodded Carolin. “Definitely. But just water. Otherwise I’ll collapse.”

“Okay.” Ina bounded off toward the oasis and spoke to the bartender.

Carolin continued to scan the crowd for Rebekka, but it seemed that she had indeed left. With a sigh, Carolin went to the ladies’ room, to get rid of the old water before letting the new in.

In the back of the pub, it was very dark. As always, a few necking couples had ducked back there, to pursue activities that wouldn’t tolerate even the limited illumination of the dance floor. Carolin heard sighing and moaning sounds, as well as a zipper’s rasp.

Feeling herself getting hot, she smiled. Maybe later, she and Ina would step back here, too, if the way home seemed too far – quite probably, in fact. She got in line for the bathroom. It took a while for her to get in and back out again. Ina would be expecting her by now. She tried to hurry, but was distracted by a drop of water on her shoe. She hadn’t paid attention when washing her hands. Oh, well, it was only –

“Oops, excuse me.” She had just bumped into someone leaning against the pay phone alcove. The next moment, her knees started to shake. “Rebekka . . .” she whispered. She didn’t need to see her; she could smell her. Her scent was unmistakable.

Rebekka turned around slowly. “Carolin . . .” Her voice sounded toneless.

Carolin swallowed, cleared her throat. “Nice . . . nice to see you here.”

“You can see me?” This time, Rebekka’s voice sounded amused.

No, I can feel you, I can smell you