[Thanks to SB for cultural consultation and exegesis of all things tea.]
N.B. The misspelling of 'exegesis' as 'exigesis' in the original post was entirely the fault of the author. The draft sent to SB prior to submission did not contain the above notation. Thanks to the anonymous reader who found the error!
Pen glanced at her beer. About a third of the dark brew remained. "I'm ok for now," adding, "but if you're going ... some water, maybe?"
"Right back," he said. She watched as he turned and made his way to the bar. He had the most in-fucking-credible ass. It was so stunning she didn't even feel self-conscious about staring; how could anyone not? Some sights just grab hold of the eyes and won't let go no matter what.
When his backside became obscured by the other patrons, she sat back, scanning the room. Her ear was becoming more attuned to regional accents every day, but she still couldn't identify most of the local dialects she heard. She closed her eyes and stopped trying to sort through them; let them flow around and into her like a Philip Glass composition.
"Bit early to be falling asleep where you sit," Morgan teased her. Opening her eyes, she gave him a look. "Shut up."
He set her water on the table. Instead of resuming his seat across from her, he pulled the chair around in front of the bench she sat on. "Slide over. This way," he said, motioning to her, so she moved from behind the table, raising her eyebrows at him.
Setting the chair down directly in front of her, he sat. Put his hands on her knees, scooting the chair forward until his legs were between hers. One hand slid from her knee to rest atop her thigh; the other brushed the hair away from her face, his fingers moving gently behind her ear.
Her eyes were riveted on his face, his fingers rubbing along the line where her hair began, caressing her ear down to the lobe. More of his weight on the hand at her thigh as he leaned in, pulling her toward him.
Warmth. Firm, yet soft. Lips moving slowly on hers. Closer. One finger lightly down the back of her neck, reaching beneath her collar. The tip of his tongue touching inside her lip telling her that she'd opened her mouth to him. Oh. The hand on her thigh spreading out, his thumb on the inner seam of her jeans. Her own hand came up in check, instead found its way to his upper arm, settled there, feeling the muscles bunch and relax, bunch and relax, beneath the heavy cotton jersey. Determined softness came seeking between her teeth, finding her, sure, unhurried, stroking her response from her as her back arched and her fingers clutched for an instant before she stopped them and his mouth still exploring her all through a leisurely, lingering retreat, hands still holding her as they parted.
"Oh..." her voice going deep and dark, "You are... really... good at that."
"Likewise," the pair of them, suspended in each other's gaze, unmoving. Except for his thumb, the pad still brushing the seam of her jeans, infinitesimal circles gaining minute ground, almost imperceptibly, transforming her bones and muscles cell by cell into shimmering liquid. She swallowed. Covered his hand with hers.
Something needed to be said. Right now.
"Morgan." She took a deep breath. Lifted his hand and held it. She couldn't possibly string together a coherent thought while he was touching her that way; but she wasn't nearly so far gone as to let this proceed without making herself clear.
He didn't try to resist her movements; waiting, he watched her.
She smiled at him, more openly now; with a colossal effort, she scooted back behind the corner of the table, turning her body so she was still facing him straight on.
"That may well be the most amazing first kiss I've ever shared with a man. Well done, you."
He cocked his head. "Yes?"
"And... ok." She leaned her elbow on the table. "I am having a really, really good time here. If the evening ended right now, it would go in my mental scrapbook as something to remember. That kiss was particularly spectacular, but it's all been terrific."
Morgan shifted his chair nearer the corner of the table. "All right."
"Here's the thing." She thought for a moment. "Please don't misunderstand me. I think I'm cute as a button, and sexy as hell. I'd do me in a New York minute. But I also know that everyone's different, and people have different tastes, and that's great. Diversity makes the world go 'round. So, when I... when the total package of me... is not what happens to trip someone's switch, I don't take that personally."
His eyes narrowed. "What's this about?"
"I'm just saying--Look. You're an athlete, and we've never talked about it explicitly, but I gather from... everything... that you're attracted to athletic women. Which I'm not. I've lived a relatively sedentary life for the last decade. So it's ok if this... package... doesn't do it for you. I don't take that as condemnation, it doesn't damage my self-esteem."
She placed both her hands flat on the table. "What will hurt my feelings, though--Morgan?--is if we get entangled in something physical and you're just settling. For me. Or imagining you're doing me a favor." She looked him in the eye. "That's not a good way for me to feel, and I deserve better. So let's... take a breath, here. There's nothing that has to happen. Ok?"
He pursed his lips. Seemed to consider for a moment. "Are you not attracted to me?"
"Me? I'm totally attracted to you. I don't kiss back like that if I'm not."
"But you think I do?" his tone sharp, his eyes beginning to turn hard.
"Whoa! Whoa, slow down there, mister. I'm not saying that. I'm just"
"'Just' shut it." His hands gripped her arms. "Let me enlighten you, sweet Pen," biting off his words at the edge. "I've been sitting here for the last hour, chatting and laughing, trying to match your lightning wit, handicapped by the fact that all the blood that should to be going to my brain has been diverted to my roaring erection." His chin came forward. "Keeping up with the conversation, distracted by the overwhelming urge to take you right here and fuck you senseless, only I don't dare let on because I think if I did you'd leap up and run out the door as fast and as far as you can."
She opened her mouth, but nothing came out. He went on. "The more I look at you the harder I get, and I can't look away. That's the evening I've been having, and oh yes, I've also been having 'a really, really good time,' as you call it, but it's not been easy. And you... good god, your mouth..."
His voice suddenly became much quieter. "Now you benevolently condescend to grant me permission to not want you? Keep your kindness; that ship has sailed."
The seconds ticked by; the clap and clatter of the pub jogged on. It sounded strangely far away. She became aware that her chin was hanging loose and useless; she closed her lips together.
"Ok," she finally managed. "Well ... ok then."
He continued to glare. She shifted her eyes to locate her glass; wrapping both hands around it, she took a good slow draft of warm beer.
Focusing on her beverage, she saw him lean slowly back in his chair. He ran one hand over the back of his head. Looking up, she gave him a wry smile, shrugging.
Morgan squinted at her. "May we consider that question dispensed with?"
"Ah. Yes. I believe you've thoroughly dispatched the subject."
"Thank Christ." She watched as he authoritatively downed the rest of his pint in three impressively long swallows.
"Wow. At that rate, you'll be ready for another by the time I get back with it." She started to rise. His hand on her shoulder stopped her.
"Stay." He stood. "Don't move. Understand?"
The molten shimmering escalated in a hot rush. Rallying, she produced a smirk. "Ok, boss," trying for playful and nonchalant, as though she were just humoring him, really, as though she actually could have managed to stand at that point without her knees folding like paper. "A half for me, please."
Again, she enjoyed the view for as long as it lasted before wistfully allowing her attention to fall away. She attempted discreetly listening to the conversation at the next table, but she couldn't follow it. With gratitude, she spotted the water he'd brought her earlier. She had to use both hands, as she'd done with the beer. Willed them to stop shaking. She knew it wasn't fear doing this to her; still, she very much did not want him to see it.
"We could try putting a rubber nipple on that," his voice startling her. Dammit!
"Don't say 'nipple' to me, you lunatic, I'm barely maintaining control as it is." When you're busted, go for bravado, she told herself. "The last thing I need is to get arrested for public indecency. You lot probably still stone women like me."
"We lot have a number of things we like to do with a woman such as you. Stoning isn't one of them."
"Great. Thanks. That's comforting," as she took the fresh half-pint from him. She held up the glass. "Cheers."
"Saor Alba," touching his glass to hers.
"Not right here in front of God and everybody," she shot back. He laughed. Said nothing, his eyes bright.
Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Hang on. What did you just say to me?"
"Never mind. I like whatever's going on in your brain better."
"Mmmm... not right here before God and everyone."
"You are a terrible, terrible man."
"Ah, Penelope." A shameless, devastating grin. "You have no idea."
She thought of coming back with, "Perishing to find out," but couldn't quite muster up the moxy. Which was irritating.
Then, the bastard had the gall to wink at her. Chortling silently into his beer. She was seized with a sudden intense longing to give him a good smack. To make things utterly perfect, she could feel her face flushing hot. She couldn't look at him now. Oh, piss-balls-crap. "Fuck you," she muttered.
"Don't know what you're up in a twist about. That blush of yours," he leaned closer, "is making my situation monumentally..." drawing out the pause. If he said hard, she'd dump this beer in his lap.
"... challenging," he finished. Grinning again. She could swear she felt her palm itch.
Just in time, his grin softened and he leaned his crossed arms on the tabletop, his face below hers. Tilting his head to look up at her, he asked, "So tell me: what was your favorite thing in Newcastle?"
The shifting gears in her brain ground a little, but the relief she felt made up for it. "I didn't actually get around to see much," she told him. "The schedule was packed full every day. I had a long meeting this morning before I drove here." He nodded, encouraging her to go on. "The conference was excellent. The grounds were gorgeous. What would you recommend, when I go back?"
He had a fair few thoughts to share about that. The shakiness hadn't completely departed, but it had grown manageable. The desire to slap him receded. They got through their beers.
An inoffensive lull graced them with its presence.
She drank some more water. Looked around.
"Which way's the toilet?" He pointed, standing when she did. Pen wove her way around and through clumps of friends talking about the sorts of things people talk about in bars. She remembered meeting him for the first time, nearly a year ago, in a friend's kitchen back in San Francisco; one of those casual gatherings where people brought someone along because they happened to be around. He'd come with Eric, he said, and they spent the bulk of the evening locked in a deep discussion that started with the Maine Coon cat sitting on the counter--whose ears Morgan was assiduously scratching--and wound up at John Ball and the Peasants' Revolt, which Pen thought made a good name for a band. They exchanged email addresses.
When she emerged from the dim little room, Morgan was there holding her jacket. She hesitated before turning around, allowing him to help her into it. Facing him again, he reached down to fasten the zipper, drawing it up to the top.
Wordlessly, he took her hand. He led her back through the throng and then they were outside, the sharp wet wind tangling her hair.
His fingers behind her neck, thumb running lightly over her pulse to her collarbone.
"Come with me?"
She nodded. Made herself use her words. "Yes."
His place was quite close by, and it was tiny. Like, New York City tiny. Neat. Efficiently laid out. He took her coat, hung it by the front door along with his, and they both paused to get out of their boots. His hand at the small of her back, guiding her into the room, made her breath catch. She felt a wave of heat wash down her legs and up her spine, coming to full bloom in her face. She rolled her neck, trying to relax.
He switched on a light in the compact, seaworthy kitchen as they passed it. Pen set her bag down on a broad, hardwood countertop between kitchen and living area. Studiously avoided looking at the big sleigh bed in the corner.
Morgan's eyes crinkled a bit, though he wisely refrained from grinning in her face. "You're unusually silent. You all right?"
"Of course. I like your flat. How long have you been here?"
He looked around. Funny, how people always do that, she thought. Ask them a question and they look around as if needing to reacquaint themselves with a place they could navigate in the pitch dark. "Seventeen... nearly eighteen years. It suits."
"Thanks." He allowed himself a smile, which she returned.
She touched her purse. "Is this ok, here?"
"It's fine. Are you cold?"
Pen shook her head. "I'm good. The wind's brisk, isn't it? But that's a good jacket. Bought it in a consignment shop in Oregon a few years ago, brand new, thirty-five bucks, it's saved my life over here. People always talk about how cold it is, Americans do anyway, they go on and on about the chill that gets in your bones and never leaves, but that jacket's really stood up." She wondered what the hell she was yapping on about. "Sorry. Was I supposed to say, 'yes, I'm freezing, warm me up would you'? Give it to me again."
"No. Your hands are shaking."
"Oh." She hugged herself, fingers under her arms. "That." Damn him, the heat in her face had just begun to fade. Now it returned. "It'll pass. Ignore it."
"No, I don't think I will," his tone arch as he moved away from her into the kitchen. He filled a kettle at the tap and plugged it in. She watched his economical movements, forgetting for once to admire his sculpted butt, her eyes drawn to his hands as they retrieved spoons from a drawer, milk from the fridge, a porcelain teapot from a shelf on the wall.
Pen found herself observing the ritual with as much fascination as she would an aboriginal rite-of-passage. Morgan poured a little boiling water into the pot, swirling it around a few times before dumping it in the sink; deftly measured out the loose tea and filled the pot. He reached behind him to the shelf for the lid and carefully placed it on top. Without looking at her, he asked, "Milk?"
Jolted from her anthropological study, she scrambled to reply. "Yes. Please."
Into one of the mugs went a precise measure of milk before the bottle was returned to the icebox. He turned toward her. "Something to eat?"
"No, thanks. I'm not hungry."
"No," she repeated, surprised. "I mean yes, I'm sure." He lifted one eyebrow, but did not argue. She sat down on one of the two high-backed stools on the room-side of the counter. Pressed her hands together between her knees.
They waited in the oddly not-uncomfortable silence for the tea to brew.
There was no inquiry about sugar, and when she saw the enormous spoonfuls he was putting in her mug she protested. Ignoring her, he added another, stirring it before putting it down in front of her.
"I'm expected to drink that?"
"Yes. Until your hands steady up, you'll take it good and sweet."
"I will, huh?"
Rounding the counter to take the stool next to her, he shook his head. "You might want to save some of that stubborn for later. Don't spend it all up front."
He blew across the top of his mug. "Sweet Pen, there may be things tonight that you object to more than sugared tea. Just drink it."
Using the spoon he'd left in the mug to gently agitate the steaming liquid, she waited for it to cool enough to not scald her mouth, concentrating on this small task so she wouldn't have to think about what he'd said. She gravely doubted the efficacy of the sugar, but having something to do with her hands helped.
"I'm teasing you. Stop looking so stricken."
She froze briefly before a laugh broke from her. "Bastard."
"Perhaps. But I'm ever so handsome. Please do drink it. You'll feel better, I promise."
"I feel fine," she muttered rebelliously, but she took a sip. He watched her relentlessly until she sighed and gulped the stuff, trying not to taste it, wincing as it seared her tongue despite her efforts. Morgan returned to his cup, clearly enjoying his own unbesmirched beverage, and suddenly she'd had enough. She didn't know whether he was honestly trying to be considerate or trying to drive her crazy, but either way, she'd had enough.
Sliding off her stool to stand between his legs, she took his face in her hands and kissed him. She heard his mug bang down on the counter and then he was on his feet, running his tongue over hers, one hand fisting in her hair as he asserted control... oh, no, you don't, she thought, dropping a hand to work up beneath his shirt, hearing his involuntary gasp with extreme satisfaction as her cold fingers touched the bare flesh over his ribs.
He straightened, withdrawing his mouth from her, out of reach. She found his nipple with her fingertips, dragging a short nail across it, biting his chest gently through his shirt, running her other hand around him to finally palm the ass she'd been admiring for hours, feeling the muscles ripple. She bit harder, searching for his other nipple through the heavy fabric, pushing him back and he let her, let her advance on him until his back was to the wall and both hands on him under his shirt now, spreading, touching as much of his skin as she could with every single bit of her hands, gods he was so warm and live she was ravenous for him pushing his shirt up so she could open her mouth on that flesh and he was helping her, pulling the jersey over his head to fling it away, groaning "rrrrggghh" the hardened tender point engulfed by her tongue, "god yes that's good" his voice rough and soft like sueded leather, hands at her back under her blouse, fingers stroking up her spine, releasing her bra, sinking into working muscle, urging her closer.
She felt his thigh between her legs as he braced one foot flat against the wall, lifting her slightly, weight on her toes and her crotch straddling the broad hard muscle of his quadriceps rising and she just managed to keep her toes touching the floor, balance gone, knew herself falling but for his hands now gripping her hips and pulling her tight to him, one arm like iron at the small of her back and the other hand running into her hair, pulling her head to the side, her teeth finding his shoulder as his mouth sought her out, finding the sweet defenseless curve, just there...
Held up still from below and above and behind, clutching at him, his voice rumbling softly, running into her and down and she was drowning, drowning in that voice saying, what? she could understand maybe one word in ten, he was speaking and she was drowning and afraid because she wanted to drown, even when he bit into the flesh of her throat she could hear that soft dark rumble coming from him, words she didn't know flowing around them as tongue and teeth searing, taking, tenderizing everything that held her together.