One Bite With A Stranger

The Others (Volume 6)

Christine Warren

St. Martin's Paperbacks

Chapter one

"GOOD LORD, YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN HER FACE!

I thought her eyes were going to pop right out of her head."

Regina McNeill laughed along with the friends gathered in her apartment for their semimonthly girls’ night ritual. As said ritual had already involved several bottles of truly exceptional wine, Reggie was currently stretched out on her living room carpet with her head resting on a sofa pillow and her gaze fixed on the ceiling, which spun in wide, gentle swirls overhead.

True to form, her friends noticed her distraction and reacted by setting her wine glass on the edge of the coffee table near her shoulder and continuing the conversation.

"Are you kidding? And miss one second of staring at that gorgeous hunk of a man? Our Corinne would never be that stupid." Danice topped off her wine glass from a nearly empty bottle of cabernet and grinned slyly. "Besides, if her eyes had popped out, they probably would have just landed on her chin. I think it was on the floor by that point."

Missy laughed. "That accounts for the puddles, then!"

"Hey," Corinne protested with mock dignity, finishing off the white wine in her own glass. "There were no puddles involved. At least, not that early on."

"And they didn’t consist of drool anyway," Ava quipped as she selected a chunk of havarti from the plundered plate of cheese on the table in front of her. "I hope those sheets of yours didn’t stain, Corinne, darling."

"If they did, I don’t want to know about it." Reggie laughed and pushed herself into a sitting position. It took enough effort that she figured she should forget another glass of wine.

Reggie wasn’t normally a heavy drinker, but if to night’s company hadn’t provided enough of an excuse to relax that rule a little, the damp, dreary spring weather had. She’d had three and a half glasses of pinot grigio, which was two more than it took to bring her solidly past tipsy. "There’s such a thing as too much information, you know."

"There is not," Danice protested, her pretty brown eyes sparkling with wine and mischief. "Friends share everything, Reggie!"

"Mm, especially the dirty parts," Ava purred. Her sleek, dark eyebrows wriggled suggestively and drew another laugh from the group.

Even Reggie laughed while she snagged a cracker from the coffee table full of munchies. Predictably, it had only taken four hours and a bit of alcohol to send the conversation among the five close friends straight to the gutter. As the self- acknowledged prude of the group, Reggie had been figuratively dragged along behind the others.

"I don’t get the dirty parts," she commented for probably the hundredth time to this particular audience. "I thought that’s what blue movies and romance novels were for. I mean, who wants to hear about the sex lives of people they actually know? It’s like watching your parents get freaky. Ick."

Danice gave a theatrically disappointed sigh. "Regina Elaina, where did we go wrong with you? All sex is interesting, sweetie, ’cause hearing about it is the next best thing to doing it."

Reggie rolled her eyes. "I’ve heard that argument before, Nicie, and I’m still not buying. If I’m not having the sex, I’m not interested in hearing about it."

"And that brings up something I’ve been wanting to talk to everyone about," Ava interrupted, her mouth curving in the kind of smile that always made the hair on the back of Reggie’s neck stand up. "Thank you for the lovely segue, Reggie dear."

Unease pushed Reggie into an automatic protest, but Ava characteristically plowed right over her like a Prada- wearing steamroller.

"It has come to my attention," Ava continued, "that you, Regina, are the only one of our little group who has yet to take part in her very own Fantasy Fix."

The suggestion was met with a half second of silence followed by a rousing cheer from everyone but Reggie; because she was too busy snapping into instant sobriety and experiencing a sudden and debilitating empathy for trapped lab rats around the world.

And were those cat’s whiskers she could see sprouting from Ava’s nose?

"Oh, no," Reggie protested, holding her hands out in front of her as if she could beat back her best friends’ intentions. "I’m not going to be your next victim. I was never wild about the Fix idea in the first place, but you guys ignored me back then. You said I was being a silly Puritan and that I’d get over it. Well, I haven’t. Pick someone else." The idea of the Fantasy Fixes had come out of a night Reggie would never forget. And she ought to know, because she’d been trying to do so for the past six months.

"You know, I don’t think we can do that this time," Danice said, leaping onto Ava’s bandwagon with an unrepentant grin. "I think Ava’s right. Every single one of us here has taken at least one turn so far. Ava and Corinne and I have even taken two each. It just wouldn’t be right if we kept skipping over you. Why, personally, I don’t think I’d be able to live with myself if we didn’t make it our first and foremost priority to get you Fixed just as soon as possible."

"Maybe I’m not broken," Reggie growled, but her protests fell on deaf ears. Not that she’d expected much else. No one could talk Danice Carter out of an idea, which is why the Fantasy Fixes had gotten off the ground to begin with.

Ava had thought it up, with Danice quickly throwing her support behind it, and since the whole thing had been born on another wild and wine- filled girls’ night, Corinne and even Missy had quickly jumped onto the bandwagon. At the time even Reggie hadn’t fought that hard against it. Six months ago, she couldn’t see the harm. Now she was considering applying for disaster relief funds.

The Fantasy Fix had exploded into being when one too many drinks had led the five women’s conversation to the subject of fantasies—in particular, to sexual fantasies.

"Have you ever acted one out?" Ava had wanted to know. "One of the really steamy ones you didn’t want anyone to know about?"

Danice scoffed at that. "When would I get the chance? And with who? Reggie’s the only one of us with a long-term relationship. I’m lucky if I can get lucky, let alone find a guy to act out the good stuff with."

"I don’t know if that makes Reggie lucky though," Corinne observed. "Sometimes it’s even harder to do the fantasy thing with a real partner than it would be with someone you don’t know as well. There’s more at stake. Personally, if I’m going to admit I want to dress up in red leather and have some hunk call me ‘mistress,’ I think I’d rather do it with a stranger."

"Mistress, huh?" Missy giggled and grinned. "You go, girl. I wouldn’t have pegged you for it, but I think I like this side of you. You’re right though; strangers might be easier."

"Exactly," Danice agreed. "Besides, you pull out the big guns with a lover, and he’s gonna want in on the fantasizing. Lovers want to get inside your head. At least if you were doing the fantasy thing with a stranger, you can do it all the way, not worry about him whining that he wants to be the emperor this time."

They had all laughed, except for Ava. She’d had that look.

"You know, Corinne," she said slowly, "I know a guy, a real hunk, who would love the opportunity to call someone ‘mistress’ without paying for it or doing the long- term thing. I could maybe hook you two up."

Missy laughed. "Playing matchmaker, Ava? You know, I’ve been looking for a nice mountain man to kidnap me and keep me in his cabin for a weekend or two. Know anyone like that?"

"I don’t know about Ava, but I do," Danice chimed in. "I could .x you up with that fantasy."

"In fact," Ava murmured, beginning to smile. "I would be willing to wager that if we put our heads together, the five of us could design a way for any four of us to .x up the other one. Make it possible for her to live her fantasies. Give her, as it were, a Fantasy Fix."

That had been the beginning of the end. A vote had revealed the five of them to be just drunk enough and just insane enough to agree to help each other find a way to live out their wildest sexual fantasies. They’d drawn up a plan, collected five fantasies from each member of the group, and plunged head first into round one.

By putting their heads together, the five friends found they knew an awful lot of men who .t each other’s visions of a fantasy lover. After that, making the arrangements had been easy. Round one had gone off like gangbusters, with each woman taking a turn at acting out one of her five fantasies with one of the eligible bachelors in the fantasy pool. Well, each woman had taken a turn except for Reggie.

At the time the idea came together, Reggie had still been seeing Greg—had still been living with Greg, unfortunately—so she’d been exempt. They’d skipped over her, and Reggie had told herself she didn’t need a fantasy lover when she had a real one sleeping by her side every night. She hadn’t realized that while Greg slept by her side every night, he also fucked his receptionist in his office every afternoon.

The relationship with him hadn’t made it past the beginning of round two. Their breakup had been four months ago, and while Reggie had finally reached the stage when she could admit she was better off without the scum- sucker, she still didn’t quite feel ready for a Fantasy Fix. Heck, she was barely ready for a shopping fix!

Of course, try to tell that to her friends.

And she was. She was trying really, really hard. They just refused to listen.

"Get the hat," Danice instructed Missy while Corinne returned from the kitchen with a fresh bottle of white. "Who’s got custody of Ms. McNeill’s fantasies? Missy? You’re our record keeper."

Four women looked at each other, and Reggie had the fleeting hope her fantasies had been lost to the ether. Maybe then they could just forget this whole insane idea.

"I didn’t bring them," Missy admitted. "I didn’t know Corinne was finished, so I didn’t think we’d be drawing to night."

Reggie started to grin.

"No matter," Ava dismissed. "Just get a pen and paper. She can draw up five new ones. Knowing our bashful, old-fashioned, and monogamous friend, her old ones probably all featured the Slimeball, anyway."

Reggie felt the first stirrings of panic. Her friends had never liked Greg—neither did Reggie these days—but that didn’t mean she felt ready to hop into bed with a stranger. Even before Greg, she’d never done anything like that. In fact, he’d only been the third lover she’d ever had. She wasn’t the type for one- night stands, let alone for acting out sexual fantasies. Her friends might be all Sex and the City, but Reggie was more Leave It to Beaver.

"You know, I really think—"

"That you need to make these good, girl," Danice interrupted firmly, handing Reggie a pad and a pen. "Now is your chance to live it up. Get fantasizing."

Reggie shook her head and tried to hand the pen back. "No, really. I don’t have any fantasies."

"Don’t lie, Regina. It’s not polite," Ava said, pinning her with a hard stare. "Everyone has fantasies."

Missy returned to the group and held up the straw hat she had snagged from Reggie’s hall closet. "Who’s going to draw?"

"I will," Corinne offered, and set her refilled wine glass on the cocktail table. "Since I had the last Fix."

Reggie felt her already nebulous control over her own fate slipping permanently from her grasp. "No. Wait a minute, you guys. I’m not so sure this is really a good idea. I mean, I don’t think I’m ready for this. Maybe I need to finish getting over this thing with Greg—"

"Trust me when I tell you, darling, the best way to get over that asshole is to screw him right out of your memory." Trust Ava to lay it all out in black and white. She never had been one to beat around the bush. "And since I don’t see you going out and picking up an assistant to help you with that, it is up to your friends to pick one up for you."

"But—"

"Plant it, Reg." Danice pushed Reggie down onto the sofa and handed her a large glass of wine. "It’s your turn, and you are not backing out this time."

Reggie barely hit the cushions before Corinne took a turn with the browbeating. "No more stalling. You had your chance to veto this Fix in the beginning, just like we all did. But once you threw in your fantasies, and we started round one, you were committed."

Reggie scowled. "I ought to be committed."

"Actually, that’s a really good point," Corinne interrupted. "She was in this beginning with round one, right? But she never got a turn. So I think"—she paused to grin at the other women— "Reggie should get a double draw. Two fantasies for the price of one, so to speak."

"Yes!" Danice’s exclamation overrode Reggie’s protest. "It’ll be our job as the Fixers to find a way to .t the two fantasies together. Don’t worry, toots.

We’ll find a way to make it happen for you."

"Absolutely."

"It’ll be great."

"Just trust us."

Oh, God. She was doomed.

Reggie looked at the solid wall of sisterly unity in front of her, and knew resistance would prove futile. There was no getting out of this. Not with Ava leading the charge right over the edge of the cliff.

"Write!" the woman ordered, pointing imperiously at the blank paper on Reggie’s lap. "We need five fantasies, Ms. McNeill, the kinkier the better."

"But—"

"No buts. Concentrate on butts." Corinne grinned. "And pecs and abs and talented hands. And maybe one or two other things."

They all laughed, and Reggie knew her reprieve had come to an ignominious end. She could never get away without listing five fantasies and throwing them—and herself—on her friends’ nonexistent mercy.

"I don’t see the pen moving, Reg," Missy teased her, waggling her eyebrows. "Get going. This is your chance to do all the things you weren’t sure were even physically possible."

Reggie started to snap that she’d prefer the impossible, but she stopped when a thought occurred to her.

She pursed her lips and tapped the pen against the pad. "So were there any rules about these fantasies? I can’t remember all the particulars we decided on. I think I was too drunk."

"Anything goes, baby." Danice grinned. "You can ask for anything you want, and if we can’t get it for you, we have to pay the forfeit. One month of celibacy each."

"Which is not going to be a problem, darling. We can get you anything you want, Regina, so quit stalling and start writing."

Reggie narrowed her eyes and obeyed Ava’s command. She knew she was being vindictive with the first four slips of paper she filled out, but panic had taken over and she found the insistence of her friends only added to the tension. As far as she could tell, a month of abstinence would be good for them. Maybe it would get their minds off sex for sixty consecutive seconds.

Pushing down her conscience, Reggie quickly scribbled out four fantasies, each impossible for anyone to fulfill. Not even her resourceful friends could manage to find a vampire, an alien, Bigfoot or Elvis, still alive, in shape, and fully functional.

Take that, she thought, folding the scraps of paper neatly and setting them on the table.

"Oh, you cannot tell me you don’t have enough fantasies," Danice glared, planting a hand on her hip and shaking her head at Reggie. "You are twenty- seven years old, girl, and the last two, you spent chained to Groping Gregory. You got time to make up for!"

"I’m thinking," Reggie snapped back. And she was, but unfortunately she’d just run out of Weekly World News headlines.

"Don’t think," Ava ordered, holding out the hat. "Fantasize. Now."

Reggie racked her brain for another ten seconds and came up blank, but when even softhearted Missy started in on her to finish, she dashed off the first thing that came to mind and tossed the five folded slips of paper into the hat. The last one really was one of her fantasies, and her stomach knotted at the prospect of it becoming common knowledge, but the chances of it being drawn weren’t good. If the gods loved her, she reassured herself, it would never see the light of day. She’d be cuddling a yeti before it ever happened.

"Fine. Do your worst," Reggie muttered, having no trouble projecting a tone of nervous resentment. "But I hope you all pay for this one day. One day soon!"

She drained her wine glass while her friends whooped their glee, then she reached for the bottle of pinot grigio and poured another.

Corinne settled down on the couch beside Reggie and patted her knee companionably. "Buck up, grasshopper. We love you, and I can guarantee that we will give you one hell of a Fix."

"That’s what I’m afraid of."

Reggie had never really wanted a Fix. She’d wanted a marriage and a family and a white picket fence, but Greg had ruined all that. And what was worse, her friends would probably have had a harder time believing that was her fantasy than they would with the alien abduction scenario. For Reggie, though, sex wasn’t just about sex. Sex was great, of course, but she’d never been able to treat it lightly. She wasn’t wired that way. For her, sex was about having a relationship with another person and allowing herself to be vulnerable to him, and who wanted to be vulnerable to a stranger?

Reggie wanted to be in love, not in lust.

"All right, ladies." Ava stood in front of the coffee table with Reggie’s hat in her hand and a wicked smile on her face. "If I may have your attention, let’s get started, since our Fix for this draw is already a bit behind the rest of us. Corinne, if you’d care to do the honors? Remember, we need a double draw for Ms. McNeill."

Corinne grinned and leaned forward to reach into the hat Ava held just above their heads. "Can I get a drum roll, please?"

Danice banged her hands on the edge of the coffee table. As if I don’t already have a headache, Reggie thought, crossing her arms and tucking her chin to her chest like a petulant two- year- old.

With a flourish, Corinne drew two slips of white paper from the inside of the hat and rubbed them together like a couple of crisp twenties before handing them off to Ava. "The envelope, ma’am."

"Thank you, Corinne, darling. Now, what do we have here?"

The other three women leaned closer while Reggie sulked into her glass.

"Let’s hear it!"

"Come on, what’s it say?"

"I bet it’s kinky. The quiet ones are always kinky."

Ava ignored them while she read. While one carefully sculpted eyebrow arched into a perfect bow. While her lips pursed. While she whistled long and low.

"I knew it!" Corinne blurted out, punching the air in emphasis. "I told you it’s the quiet ones."

"You have no idea," Ava purred, finally looking up to see Reggie turning a peculiar shade of magenta. "Why, Regina Elaina McNeill, I am shocked. You are quite the little vixen, aren’t you?"

"What’s it say already?"

Ava smiled. "It says that our dearest friend thought she’d be pulling a fast one on us. Sorry to disappoint you, Regina darling, but you are getting Fixed, whether you like it or not."

Missy frowned. "What are you talking about?"

Ava held up one piece of paper and read aloud. "Regina says she wants to be ‘seduced by a sexy, mysterious vampire.’ "

Corinne turned a glare on Reggie. "That is not fair, Reg! Your fantasies have to be plausible. You can’t hold us responsible for not being able to find you someone who doesn’t even exist!"

"Hush. Don’t get your pan ties in a twist, Corinne, dear," Ava soothed. "You are not destined for celibacy. We will provide Reggie with what she asked for."

Danice rolled her eyes. "You had a few too many glasses of that wine, Ava. Vampires aren’t real."

"I know that, and since Regina is perfectly sane—at least legally—she knows it as well. If Reggie actually wanted us to find her a genuine vampire, she would be cheating, and I know our friend would never do that. Which means we need to view her fantasy in a more creative light."

"Like how?"

"I’m so glad you asked." Ava purred her answer to Missy’s question, but her gaze never wavered from Reggie’s. "It just so happens I know of a certain club in the East Village that hosts a regular event on the last Friday of each month. They call it the Vampire Ball."

Corinne laughed. "So we can find Reggie a man there! Since she knows she can’t have a real vampire, she’ll have to accept a man who could pose as one. Ava, you’re brilliant!"

"I try, dear."

"Yeah, you’re very trying." Reggie scowled. "I can’t believe you’re going to pawn me off on some freak who is so out of touch with reality he pre- tends to be a vampire to get his kicks. That is so pathetic."

Ava’s Cheshire cat grin turned steely. "You agreed to the enterprise, Reggie, and you submitted the fantasy. You’re bound by the rules just like the rest of us, so unless you want to submit something more realistic, this is the fantasy you get."

"One of them, anyway." Bless her mediating heart, Missy stepped between the two women before they could come to blows. "What does the other fantasy say? Does she want to be abducted by aliens, or have Elvis’s love child?"

Missy tried to joke about it to lighten things up, which Reggie appreciated, but when Ava shook her head and smiled wider, Reggie felt every muscle in her body tighten with fear.

"Neither," Ava purred, holding up the other slip of paper. "She doesn’t want to be Bigfoot’s love slave, either."

Oh, no! In that moment, Reggie knew for certain the gods had abandoned her to an ugly fate. She knew which other fantasy Ava had selected. The need to escape suddenly overwhelmed her.

"I need a drink." Reggie pushed off the floor and attempted to head into the kitchen to hide. She never made it past the end of the coffee table. Danice grabbed her by the shoulders and forced her back to a seat on the sofa.

"Ah- ah, Reg. Sit your butt back down and prepare to get Fixed."

"Come on, guys. I’m sorry for making up the vampire thing," she stammered. "Can’t we just forget about it? I’ll write a real fantasy this time. I promise. Let’s start over. Please?"

"Not a chance. Now that we know you want to be"—Ava consulted the slips of paper—"as you say here, ‘seduced and overpowered by a lover,’ we are not going to let this go. Especially not when you also have this burning desire to be ‘bound, spanked, and dominated’ by a sexy, commanding brute."

"Oh, wow," Missy breathed, her mouth rounding into an O of surprise, and she stared at her friend through new eyes.

"Reggie, I can’t believe you never mentioned this. What else have you been keeping secret from us?"

"Nothing," Reggie insisted, though it came out kind of muffled by the hands in which she had buried her flaming face. "Not a damn thing. How could I keep secrets from you people? You’re worse than tabloid reporters!"

"Actually," Corinne offered, "I am a tabloid reporter."

Danice grinned. "Hey, it’s not like you want to get back together with Gregory the Grotesque. Now we just know you’re a wild thing in the bedroom. No biggie."

"Oh, not at all." Reggie drained her wine glass and refilled it, taking it with her when she curled into a ball in the corner of her sofa. "Humiliation never killed anyone. I’m sure I’ll get over it in another couple of incarnations."

Missy, always the softy, wiped the smile off her face and squeezed Reggie’s arm. "Hey, it’s not so bad. It’s not like you don’t know anything embarrassing about any of us. I mean, come on. You know about my mountain man thing. You know Danice got picked up by a marine on shore leave. You know Ava auditioned for a strip show. Let’s face it, honey. You’re not the only girl out there with . . . sophisticated tastes."

Seeing their words were maybe beginning to get through to their blushing comrade, Corinne perched on the arm of the sofa beside Reggie and topped off the other woman’s drink. "She’s right, you know. Besides, we’re your best friends. We’d love you even if you had secret fantasies about Dubya. We’d think you were insane, but we’d still love you."

That drew a reluctant smile.

"We would," Danice insisted. "A little kink ain’t nothing to be ashamed of, girl. If your fantasies were as vanilla as the rest of you, that’s when I’d start to worry."

Ava waved a hand to get their attention. "All true, of course. And, since our reluctantly cooperative friend has two fantasies that work so very well together, I think we can safely assure her that we are going to make sure they come true, and quite quickly as well. Next week happens to be the last Friday of the month, which means the five of us will be having a very interesting night in the Village. If I can propose a toast?"

The women reached for their glasses and held them aloft in anticipation.

"To our dear friend Regina," Ava said after a brief pause. "And to her very own Fantasy Fix. May they be very happy together!"

Excerpted from One Bite With A Stranger by Christine Warren

Copyright © 2008 by Christine Warren

Published in October 2008 by St Martin's Press

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.