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TONIGHT, she felt sure, they were going to stay home and make love.
Maureen folded a sport jacket neatly into a bed of tissue paper, closed the top of the box and tried to keep from looking at her watch. A nervous flutter of anticipation tickled through her chest and made her fingers tremble as she took the bill from the customer, and reached into the register to make change. She must keep her mind on business, she warned herself, for the hundredth time. Difficult though it was, she had to get herself through the next couple of hours without losing her patience. The work was necessary and it had to be done. Even though this was their special day.
Their special day... just that thought was enough to place a sparkle in her pretty blue eyes and a smile across her soft, pink mouth. Being in love was even better than usual on special occasions such as this, she decided. It was enough to give anybody spring fever.
“Looks like this weather's got you in a good mood, too, eh?” The handsome young man winked, playfully. “Too bad you have to be stuck in this store.”
Maureen handed the change and the box to the man, without answering. She quickly averted her eyes from his appreciative smile at the sight of her well-filled blouse. How many people could understand the way she felt, she asked herself... the way she felt about another woman. Toby.
The little clock above the display rack reminded her that it was only three-thirty. Two-and-a-half hours remained before she could close the store and go home, she thought glumly. Home to where the best part of her life was waiting.
A familiar warmth of desire climbed up along the soft flesh beneath her skirt and fanned out around her hips. Maureen forced her thoughts elsewhere and turned toward the wall filled with neatly piled shelves of shirts and sweaters. Her glance darted from one pattern of brightly colored material to another, and she tried to memorize where everything was placed.
Last night Toby had re-arranged the order of the stock to accommodate the new shipment of summer clothing. Her parting words as Maureen had left the house this morning were for her to adjust herself to the new order. Now, Maureen stared apprehensively at the stacks of clothing and tried to concentrate. If she didn't have an up-to-the-minute count of the complete inventory, she knew Toby would be mad.
The front door opened, distracting Maureen from her count of medium-sized shirts. She shook her head worriedly and turned toward the customer. After he left, she'd have to start counting all over again, she realized. But anything was worth keeping Toby in a good mood, because if Toby got angry, she'd make Maureen suffer. And Maureen knew it would be with the worst punishment imaginable.
Four-fifteen. Nobody had been in the store for the last half hour. Maureen tested herself on the available colors in turtle-neck slipovers, and wished it weren't such a slow afternoon. She didn't want to be in the store... not on such a beautiful day... not when she was all by herself with nothing to distract her from what she was missing... and not when she could be out buying gifts for Toby. Anniversary gifts.
June first. One year.
Maureen leaned her elbows on the counter top and glanced down at her left hand. The narrow gold band on her pinky seemed to glisten brighter today. That was just slushy sentimentalism, Maureen told herself, not really disapproving. If only Toby would wear a ring too, she thought then... a ring that matched her own.
A group of tourists stopped in front of the window and peered into the shop. Maureen turned away and hoped the men wouldn't give her any trouble. She hated the convention-goers from out-of-town. Crass, loudmouthed men who came down to Greenwich Village to poke fun at the people there. She'd been the brunt of several unpleasant jokes when she and Toby were talking together near the apartment. Painfully, Maureen remembered the day she'd suggested that Toby put on some lipstick, and look a little bit more feminine when they weren't at the shop.
“If you don't like the way I am you can always get out .” The cruel words hurt her now almost as much as they had then. Maureen forced her attention back toward the clothing shelves and absently touched the ring on her little finger. She could never leave Toby, she knew.
Toby was her life.
Another half hour went by with no sign of a customer. Maureen fidgeted near the telephone and wondered if it would be safe to call home. Toby had been working on that inventory in the store till four this morning. Maureen had waited up until she got back to the apartment. If Toby were still sleeping now, and the phone call woke her, she'd have a conniption for sure. Maureen replaced the receiver and wished she had something with which to occupy herself.
The idea began as a little joke with which to amuse herself, but the more she thought about it, the more enthusiastic she became. Finally, grinning broadly, she reached for her pocketbook and decided she would close the store early, after all. Why not, she encouraged herself, as she locked the door behind her, and started down Seventh Avenue. There was never very much business this time of the week. And with the extra couple of hours, she could shop leisurely for Toby's anniversary gift.
A display of rings in a nearby jeweler's window caught her attention. Maureen paused in front of the glass and narrowed her eyes in concentration. She glanced fleetingly at a display of wedding bands, and then decided not to push her luck. Toby might not want to wear one, even if it were a gift. And that kind of rejection would hurt enough to ruin the day. Another kind of ring was the answer.
She waited while the jeweler removed several trays from a case and started back to her with them. An irritating sense of doubt crept into her outlook, and made her feel almost sorry she'd come into the store. She wasn't used to making decisions alone, she realized. Somehow, Toby was always there to tell her what to do... what was best... what would be most pleasing. And now, the thought of committing herself by choosing such an expensive item was frightening.
“It has to be something nice,” she told the man. “This is a special occasion.”
“How about this?” He pointed to a delicately-shaped ring. “It's a very nice gift.”
Maureen shook her head, no, and declined the pearl and diamond chip combination. Much too dainty, she knew immediately. Toby wouldn't be caught dead wearing that kind of design. “How about this?” She pointed to a heavier one, with a large oval stone.
“This is a genuine star sapphire.” He lifted the ring and held it up beneath a fluorescent lamp. “See the way it catches the light?”
Maureen nodded her approval and noticed the complimentary crescent of diamond chips on one side of the center stone. The ring was massive enough for Toby to feel comfortable in. “How much is it?”
“A hundred and seventy-five.” The man's tone implied respect for that amount of money. “However, if that's too much...”
“No, I'll take it,” Maureen said, despite the voice of common sense that screamed to the contrary within her. Nothing but the best for Toby, she repeated, to quell her instinct. There'd be a whole lifetime to replenish her savings account. She reached for her checkbook and wrote quickly before her conviction had the chance to slip away.
She hurried away from Sheridan Square, humming happily and fondling the ring box as she walked. Now she had two more reasons to be happy, she thought. Not only had she bought a beautiful gift, but she'd be getting some much earlier than she'd expected. That meant she'd have more time to spend with Toby. And more time to celebrate... in a very special way.
Her chest was pounding anxiously by the time she reached the front steps of the brownstone where they lived. Clutching the neatly wrapped ring box in her hand, Maureen opened the front door and started up the stairs. Just two more flights and she'd be there. Two more flights until her delicious fantasies became facts.
A warm, insistent ache of need throbbed around the tips of her breasts, and sent little shivers of arousal through her flesh. Maureen felt her eyes narrow as she allowed the desire to flood through her body and quicken her pulse.
She pictured Toby's firm supple body sprawled in sleep across the bed and how she'd awaken it and bring it to urgent life with that secret caress Toby always loved so well. She could practically feel Toby's soft, succulent breasts pressed against her own, grazing the softness of her cheek as Maureen kissed her way down the ripe, smooth body that would soon ripple with spasmodic ecstasy.
It was a perfect idea, Maureen told herself, as she slipped her key noiselessly into the lock. She'd tiptoe into the apartment and walk to the bedroom without a sound. Even Toby couldn't be in a bad mood if she were awakened with kisses... kisses well-placed... kisses skillfully arranged to inflame and incite... kisses that would bring other kisses in turn.
The living-room was empty. Maureen glanced down the hall, pleased at the sight of the closed bedroom door. Everything was going to go exactly according to her plan, she thought delightedly.
She ran her tongue hastily across her lips, as the vision of Toby's nakedness waiting just beyond that door made her mouth go dry. Her breasts strained eagerly against the confines of her lacy brassiere. She slipped out of her high-heels and hiked her skirt up, until her fingers closed around the tops of her stockings.
The warm, milk-white flesh of her thigh tingled at the touch of her own fingertips. Maureen quickly slid her nylons down over her shapely calves. Toby didn't like to be bothered with such things, she thought, gleefully. The woman believed in getting right down to pertinent business. No time-wasting for her. Which, so far as Maureen was concerned, was just fine.
She padded barefoot into the bathroom and reached quietly for a spray bottle of perfume. The sweet scent of lilac filled the room, and intensified her romantic mood. She touched her fingertips to her blonde hair, and pushed a stray wisp into place beside her ear.
She remembered how she'd wanted to cut it short a few weeks ago, but Toby had refused to let her. Now Maureen was glad. If long hair excited Toby, long hair was what she would wear. She felt sure that if two noses excited Toby, she'd arrange for that, too. Anything that brought them closer was right. Anything that strengthened Toby's desire for her was a necessity.
Her breathing became rapid and little tongues of flame darted over her damp, yearning flesh. Maureen reached softly for the bedroom doorknob, hardly able to keep herself from bursting into the room and throwing herself into Toby's arms.
The bright, expectant smile disappeared and her face froze into an expression of horror and disbelief. Maureen stared, wide-eyed, at the scene in front of her, and fought to keep from screaming.
Toby lay with her back toward the doorway and her arms wound around the undulating body of a young smooth-skinned girl with jet-black hair. The bronze light of late afternoon filtered through the shades and fell in slatted lines across the ripeness of their naked bodies. Lost in the pursuit of pleasure, they moved together, unaware of Maureen's presence. Their arms and legs twined around each other, their eager bodies pressed close in heated, intimate embrace.
Maureen gaped, choking down hysteria, as Toby's mouth lowered toward the rigid, upturned tip of the girl's waiting breast, and mouthed it skillfully until a deep, guttural sigh of pleasure rose and thickened the air. Then, Toby's hand reached down and traveled the outline of the other girl's thigh, pausing here and there, to massage... tease... caress the soft, eager flesh that moved and thrilled beneath her expert touch.
Maureen sagged against the wall, unable to tear her glance from the sight of long fingers pressing pale, white striations across the skin of Toby's back. Silently, they reached down to pull Toby closer, to position her for more intense contact.
And suddenly the naked bodies on the bed seemed to erupt into uncontrollable, violent motion, as they writhed and strained within the grip of animal passion. They squirmed and rolled together, voluptuous round hips thrashing and pounding... softly curved thighs and legs twisting, stretching, fighting to bring about a greater, sharper release... hands and lips racing, hurrying, probing the secret pleasure places and stoking the fires of wild, relentless need.
Maureen's entire body shook as she saw her lover arch above the dark-haired girl and then sink into turbulent abandon of fulfillment. The stranger locked her fingers behind Toby's neck and pulled her head downward, fusing their lips together and moaning while her own spasmodic release made the bedsprings creak complainingly.
Then the sound of Maureen's agonized cry split the air and sent the two on the bed scrambling beneath the blanket.
“What the hell?” Toby's voice hoarse and weak. “What the hell are you doing home?”
The other girl sat, wrapped in horrified silence and clutched the sheet over her naked breasts.
Maureen met Toby's venomous glare with soft, tearful eyes. She waited, sobbing, for some word of explanation which would negate the obvious... some impossible word that would erase the horrible truth from her sight, and from her mind.
“I didn't expect you home for another hour, at least.” Toby's manner communicated more annoyance than apology.
“Can't you at least go outside until we've got our clothes on?” the dark-haired one piped up, nervously.
Maureen kept her eyes fixed on Toby, waiting for her to come to the defense of their relationship... to tell the girl that a year's sharing was more important than a one-night stand.
“That's a good idea, Maureen. Why don't you wait outside?”
Maureen turned and ran sobbing from the room. A sharp, searing pain bisected the back of her skull, and knifed a pathway down along her spine. Without bothering to put her stockings back on, she slipped into her shoes, grabbed her pocketbook and hurried blindly for the front door.
THE glaring white sunlight of mid-afternoon crashed against the greying curtains and filtered hazily through them and into the room. Maureen's swollen eyelids blinked open painfully and she stared numbly at the cracked and the vapid plaster above her. The little room seemed airless, and her lungs burned with each labored breath that she drew.
She dragged herself up to a sitting position on the narrow bed, and looked tiredly around her. Her mind struggled to comprehend the meaning of such horrible surroundings and to survive awareness as it approached.
The hotel room was sparsely furnished and hostilely impersonal, except for the familiar pocketbook lying on its side on the chair. She'd hardly glanced at the place after arriving exhausted and miserable at one in the morning. She recalled turning off the light immediately and throwing herself into bed with all her clothes on, desperate for sleep to come and rub out the terrible truth. But sleep was for the rest of the human race. Maureen had lain awake well past the first light in a sky barely visible through the dirty windowpane. It wasn't until somewhere amidst the sounds of morning rush-hour traffic that she'd drifted off into fretful, haunted dreams of Toby and that dark-haired girl wrapped in serpentine embrace, strangling her and laughing while they made love.
Maureen remembered the fifty dollars she'd taken when she'd closed the store yesterday, and wondered how long it could keep her going. A week or two at the most, she concluded, if she kept her expenses down to the bare minimum. She considered going back to the apartment, but the painful lump in her chest told her that it wasn't possible, at least not today. Not until she'd had a chance to organize her thoughts and make some sense out of a senseless, heartbreaking situation. For now she must survive on her own, without Toby.
Without Toby! The mere idea of such a state was like a vise to her skull, pressuring and torturing and threatening total destruction, without any hope of escape. Maureen dragged herself over to the small, grimy sink in the corner of the room and ran the cold water full force. Her red-rimmed eyes smarted from the salt-filled tears and the lack of sleep. The comfort of diving back underneath that pillow and hiding from reality was very inviting, but she knew that wasn't the answer, no matter how desirable. Sooner or later, she'd have to get up and the same seemingly insoluble problem would be waiting for her. She might as well start doing for herself right this minute.
The roll and coffee went down slowly and tastelessly. She sat in the last booth of a greasy luncheonette and read the column of “Help Wanted-Female” ads, one by one. The market for unskilled labor was meager and depressing. There wasn't much need for a twenty-three year old who didn't know how to do very much beside making love.
An ad beginning Barmaid, experience unnecessary caught her attention and introduced a flicker of hope to her outlook. The idea of pushing drinks to a crowd of hungry-eyed men made her squirm a little inside. Still she knew she had to eat, and the sooner she found herself a job, the bigger the portions would be.
The hotel room was paid for until three o'clock that afternoon, so she decided to go back upstairs and freshen herself up a bit. She hoped that some bright lipstick and makeup would detract from the crumpled clothes she'd worn yesterday afternoon and then slept in.
The mirror above the ageless chest of drawers reflected a little more encouragingly by the time Maureen was finished. Nodding her satisfaction, she gazed along the powder-smooth planes of her cheeks to the ripe, coral richness of her mouth. Careful combing had made her silken blonde hair fall gracefully to her shoulders and accentuate her long, ivory neck. The primly styled white blouse couldn't contradict the rich abundance of her breasts. Maureen looked at where it nipped in around her tiny waistline and disappeared into a pale blue skirt which clung to her round voluptuous hips. She could pass, she decided, happily. All she had to do was buy a new pair of stockings. Nobody could tell just from watching her that she felt dead inside, drained, and existing merely out of habit.
The bar near Fourteenth Street reminded her of a deep, dismal cave. Maureen sneered at the replica of a four-leaf clover that hung over the entrance, and made her way down toward the end of the bar. The paunchy, balding bartender looked up from his racing form and lifted an overstuffed pastrami sandwich toward his mouth. “What can I do for ya?” he asked, the food muffling his speech.
“I saw your ad for a barmaid.” Maureen recoiled inwardly at the sight of his quick appraisal of her body.
“You ever done this kind of work before, kid?” His glance returned to the rising swell of her blouse-front and an unmistakable flash of interest brightened his eyes.
“No, I haven't,” Maureen said, “but I've been doing sales work for the last year,” she added quickly. She tried not to think of Toby's face and the way it looked when desire flooded it.
“Then you oughta be able to handle our customers okay,” he said. “When could you start?” The hungry look on his face made her hesitate for a minute, but she couldn't think of any alternative to this job.
“Right away, I guess.” She tried to ignore his leering smile.
“You get paid on Wednesdays. The salary's not too hot, but with your figure, the tips should be real good.” She winced at the inference, but was determined to at least give it a try. “I guess you don't have a uniform, huh,” he continued.
She shook her head no.
“That's okay for today,” he said. “You'll find something to cover your clothes in the kitchen.” He pointed his greasy finger at a “No Admittance” sign on the back wall.
She was glad to get out of his presence, even for a moment, and hurried through the dark paneled door into a dimly lit small hole that passed for a kitchen.
Maureen wrapped the apron snugly around her waist and wondered if it had ever been clean. Her glance roamed from its pink top to the stove. Wherever she looked, there was grease, and after a few moments she felt her own skin beginning to quiver with disgust. A vague sensation of dread arose and warned her again to get out of that place, to look for another job... a position that was safer.
“Don't be foolish,” Maureen told herself, irritably, as she glanced into a small cracked mirror over a small cracked sink. She must not let her feelings about men get the better of her. There was really nothing to be afraid of. Just because that bartender had liked her body didn't mean she was in mortal danger.
“You get lost or something?” He stood in the doorway, cleaning his mouth with a toothpick.
“Oh, I'm sorry.” Maureen looked startled by his unexpected appearance. “I was just looking the place over a little.”
“If you want to learn anything, you'd better hustle out front,” he said, in a bored tone of voice. “I can't waste all day with ya.”
Maureen tried not to let herself be shaken by his abrupt manner. Nodding as if understanding, she moved toward the doorway.
He stood there, his body remaining rooted in that position, leaving barely enough room for her to pass.
She tried to slide through the space, but she couldn't avoid rubbing against him with her hip. “Excuse me,” she blurted, aware of a rush of warmth and color to her cheeks.
“That's all right, honey. If we're gonna work together, we might as well be friendly from the start. Right?” He blocked her pathway with a thick muscular forearm. “Barney's the name. Barney Stone.”
Maureen felt the panic rise and constrict the muscles in her throat. A wild tremor fluttered through her chest and she felt sure he could hear her heart pounding. “We'd— better—get—out front.” She barely managed the words, her voice was trembling so.
“There really isn't that much of a hurry, now that I think of it.” His glance descended slowly towards the jutting ripeness of her breasts. “You're a good-lookin' number. You know that?” His voice was noticeably coated with lust. “You and I are gonna have a real good time together.”
“Look... I think you've got the wrong idea,” Maureen started.