New Year, New Book

It’s been much too long, but I finally can see the light at the end of the tunnel for the second part of Goddess, my erotic romance trilogy. I’ve just printed out the manuscript and will do one final read-through before I send it to my first round beta readers.

I’m so excited and relieved that I’d like to share the first chapter with you. I hope you enjoy it, and I promise not to make my readers wait as long for part 3!

Kelee

GODDESS ASCENDENT (GODDESS, BOOK 2)

CHAPTER 1

I ran my palm along the hard, smooth edge of the lectern. Its dark, masculine finish was worn to a dull white by the countless hands that had rested here before me. Some of the most renowned names in archeology had stood here, confident in their grasp of the past and their ability to convey it to their young disciples.

He had stood here.

I imagined him gazing out at the throng of students lined up in expansive rows of vintage wooden chairs. Even his early Monday morning classes were full. His resonate voice and deep blue eyes commanded the room. His lectures held students spellbound, especially the young women who jockeyed for a seat in the front row.

But he was gone, on the other side of the world, out of touch, if not out of mind. I was the one standing here in his shoes.

Technically, I was standing in Dr. Chang’s shoes, until he returned from his daughter’s wedding in Hong Kong. I was just the lowly teaching assistant. It was highly irregular for me to even be in that position, as Marilyn, our department secretary, liked to remind me. Every other TA in the archeology department was at least a second year PhD student. But Dr. Chang, a visiting professor from Beijing University, either didn’t know or didn’t care about protocol. I had been part of the team that brought the ancient matriarchal civilization of Magoa to the world. Dr. Stewart should be teaching this class, he wrote in an email to me. You’re close to him, so you’re the next best thing.

Dr. Chang didn’t know how close.

“Professor Nelson?” Zoe Glassman waved her hand from the middle of the cavernous auditorium. I had recognized her on the first day of class. She was the redhead I encountered many months ago, telling her friend about a “gentleman caller.” She turned out to be a whip-smart sophomore who changed her major to archeology after reading about Magoa.

“Just Julia,” I corrected her. “It’s going to be a long time before you can call me professor.”

“Sorry.”

“When you’re a middle-aged grad student, it comes with the territory.”

“How did a matriarchal society like Magoa thrive for so long?” Zoe went on. “They weren’t the typical male warrior society that survives by conquering its neighbors.”

“You make it sound like there weren’t any men in Magoa,” a young man with carefully tousled hair interjected. “Somebody had to supply the sperm to make the babies.”

“That’s what it always comes down to,” said a young African woman with fiery eyes and natural curls. “Men and their penises.”

‘Maybe the women were the warriors,” another young woman spoke up, “It’s not just men who can kick ass.”

“Or they were just smarter than the men,” another young woman said. “They knew how to keep them in line.”

“That’s no big challenge,” Zoe said.

I smiled patiently. I’d been getting emails along this line from feminists, wiccans, and pagan worshipers, as well as misogynistic trolls, since Magoa was unveiled. “Dr. Stewart hasn’t found any evidence of weapons or city defenses,” I said, “and he hasn’t learned anything about the role of men in their society. There’s still a lot of research to be done.”

“What if their goddess was so powerful she was able to hold off invaders?” Zoe asked. “She was the reason Magoa was so successful.”

“What, like she shot lightening bolts out of her tits… I mean breasts?” another male student said.

A clamor of female voices immediately rebuked the young man. He slunk down in his seat.

Zoe raised her voice above the clamor. “People don’t laugh at Christians because they think their god is real and all-powerful. Why shouldn’t the Magoans be given the same respect?”

I picked up my phone to check the time and noticed a text from Lily. “I do think we should keep an open mind,” I said, “but you’ll have to continue this discussion in religion class because we are out of time.”

As students gathered up books and papers, the room was still alive with heated discussions. It was an exciting time in archeology and made me feel good about my decision to pursue an academic career.

I read my oldest daughter’s text. Bring chocolate ice cream and green olives! I smiled to myself as I typed out an answer: OK, but no cocktails.

I scanned my email and gathered up my materials as the room emptied out. When I looked up, I was surprised to see one seat still occupied.

He was sitting in the back row. He wore dark, fashionable sunglasses and a ridiculous floppy hat pulled down so tightly over his head that most of his face was obscured. The Chevron mustache under his nose looked like it was pasted on. He had no books or backpack. I didn’t recognize him, and he appeared older than my undergraduates. I’d heard about several campus rapes in the years since we moved here. I gripped my phone tightly, ready to call 911, and stood as tall as my 5’ 6” frame would allow. I tried to sound calm and authoritative. “Class is over.”

“And an excellent class it was.” The man’s deep, polished voice resonated in the empty space. It sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place where I’d heard it before.

“This is a private university. If you’d like a tour, you should go to the visitors center.”

He tilted his head forward to observe me over the top of his sunglasses. His eyes were hazel and seemed to dance in the afternoon sunlight streaming through the tall auditorium windows. “But you’re the reason I’m here and I had no trouble finding you.”

I sensed he enjoyed unsettling me. “But I don’t know who you are, which is why I’m calling the campus police.”

I started to dial. He languidly peeled off his hat and glasses and flashed a charismatic smile women would immediately recognize. Certainly, Lily would. She must have watched The Burning Heart dozens of times, mooning over its drop-dead gorgeous star. “You’re Harlan Cassidy,” I said.

“I see you’re talented at uncovering more than ancient civilizations.”

I was so disconcerted by the sudden appearance of a man who inhabited a world I’d only seen on Entertainment Tonight that it took me a moment to respond. “Dr. Stewart deserves all the credit there.”

Feeling safer, I stepped down from the auditorium stage. “What are you doing here?”

Harlan stood and moved slowly down the empty row. His eyes met mine. “You should be asking why I wasn’t here sooner.”

I swung my bag over my shoulder and approached him. Up close, he was just as dazzling as his screen image. He was probably in his late 20s. His face was tanned and perfectly proportioned. A blonde tress hung sexily across his forehead. He was the quintessential, sun-drenched California heartthrob. “I know you quit acting and opened a spiritual retreat center, so my guess is you’re interested in Magoa like everyone else.”

We met in the aisle. He wasn’t as tall as Ashland. In fact, he was only a few inches taller than me. But he exuded self-assurance. “I don’t believe in guesses,” Harlan said. “I believe in intuition. I use my inner light to guide me.”

“Your inner light needs to read the news more often. You would have found out Dr. Stewart is still in North Korea. I’m afraid you’ve wasting your time coming here.”

He unexpectedly reached out and took my hands in his. I wanted to pull away, but his touch was magnetic, his palms pleasantly cool and smooth. I immediately relaxed, though I didn’t know why. “There was no logic involved in my decision to come. I didn’t understand why my spirit was guiding me here until I stepped into this auditorium and saw you.”

Now I was even more confused. “Me? Why me? I’m just a grad student.”

He offered a radiant smile. It was difficult not to be charmed by Harlan Cassidy, and I suspected he knew that. “I don’t believe that. I knew you were something much deeper and radiant the moment I laid eyes on you.”

###

In my dream, I was a teenager bagger at the IGA, back in my hometown of Bicknell, Indiana. But instead of standing at the end of the conveyor belt, sorting iceberg lettuce from Coco Krispies and Tampex, I was relaxing in a director’s chair next to my station while Cliff, our balding assistant manager, hustled groceries into paper bags. “Ready for your close-up?” Harlan Cassidy called from behind an antique, hand-cranked camera. Wearing a seersucker suit and bowler cap, he was Jay Gatsby without the ennui. A makeup woman hurried forward to pound a voluminous cloud of powder on my nose. Through the white haze, I could see Susan, my childhood best friend, making out in the chips and soda aisle with the boyfriend who eventually got her pregnant.

A cell phone played Beyoncé. A butler in coat and tails brought it to me, offering it up on a silver platter.

I woke with a start to realize that my phone was really ringing. Anna had changed my ringtone last week and I still didn’t recognize it. I fumbled for the device in the dark on the bedside table. There was no number on the screen. “Hello?” I mumbled, still half asleep.

“Sorry to wake you.” The voice was crackly, with an annoying echo.

“Ashland.” I caught myself. “Dr. Stewart. I wasn’t expecting your call.”

“And I wasn’t expecting to be in Pyongyang. We’ve had a lot of rain at the dig, so I decided to come here to chat with some government officials.”

Even the distant sound of his voice was enough to fire an erotic pulse down in my pleasure center. I longed to tell him how much I missed him, how much I wanted him. But I knew the North Koreans were probably listening to every word we said. “How’s it going?” I asked, trying keeping my arousal in check.

“We’ve made some amazing discoveries in the last few weeks. So far, they’ve confirmed all our theories.”

“That’s wonderful.” I pushed away the covers—the steam radiators in my depression-era apartment building always seemed to be going full blast. With no kids around, I had gotten lazy about putting on pajamas, preferring to drop my clothes in a pile on the floor and flop into bed wearing nothing but panties. “You know that all your colleagues here are thinking about you.”

“I hope so,” He shifted his voice subtly to a more intimate timbre. “Please let them know that I’ve been thinking of them too.”

I touched one of my nipples. It was already erect. My index finger circled it slowly. It was a poor substitute for Ashland’s tongue, but it would have to do. “We’ve all missed how long and hard you worked when you were here,” I said.

Over the last five months, we’d learned to disguise our lust for one another behind an elaborate verbal subterfuge. It was too risky to let the North Koreans guess our relationship. They might find a way to use it against Ashland.

My hand moved downward until it rested on the soft curve of my stomach. “It’s been difficult, not being able to assist you with whatever you need,” he said. “I know how gratifying that is for all of us.” Of course, I couldn’t see him, but I could imagine what he might be doing, alone in his hotel room. That is, if he felt certain hidden cameras weren’t observing him.

My fingertips grazed the elastic on my panties. “I feel the same way. I can imagine the enormous work you have in your hands.”

“What about you?” Ashland asked. “Are you still working hard on your own?”

“Definitely,” I murmured. “In fact, I’m in the midst of some hands-on research right now.” I slipped my hand inside my underwear and caressed the soft mound of pubic hair. My fingertip grazed my erect clitoris, sending an amatory wave to the tips of my curled toes. “I’m so sorry it’s been rainy there. It’s turned very wet here too,” I managed to say as I moved a finger slowly down my saturated vulva.

“That’s wonderful. I know from experience how wet weather makes things grow.” I could hear the growl in the back of his throat.

I returned to my clitoris and moved two fingers rapidly across it. My pleasure increased exponentially. “I just read about a strange botanical phenomenon,” I said. “When it’s wet in Chicago, there’s a species of tree in Asia that grows a very large appendage, even though it’s on the other side of the world.”

I smiled at what the North Koreans must be thinking if they were listening to our conversation. “I’ve witnessed that first-hand,” Ashland said. “It grows a broad, firm branch that curves slightly upward, and if you caress it, a thick, milky substance emerges from the tip.” From the clipped intonation in his voice, I knew he was doing just that. Picturing him stroking his member released an uninvited moan from my lips.

I was so in tune with Ashland’s sexual signals that I could hear the subtle shift in his breathing on the other side of the world. I imagined his hand slipping up his hard shaft. He would pause at the top to caress the soft, round head, before letting it travel back down to the base. I pictured myself there, stretched out next to him, our naked bodies pressed together. I was the one pleasuring him with my hand, enjoying the ecstasy on his face.

I spread my legs wider. I could feel my juices drip between my thighs. If I were to look down, I knew my fingers would be a blur. Instead, I closed my eyes as I imagined Ashland’s talented fingers bringing me to climax. “I had no idea you had such intimate knowledge of conifers,” I said, no longer able to keep the heat burning in my groin from affecting my voice.

“When I’m alone on a mountain top, I spend a great deal of time contemplating the wonders of nature.”

I couldn’t keep jealous thoughts from disrupting my desire. “Does Elena share your interest in botany?”

Ashland’s breathing halted. I could almost hear him frowning across 6,500 miles. “Elena and I don’t discuss the local plant life. We’re completely focused on archeology.”

My hand stopped moving. I didn’t want to lose this moment. It had been too long since Ashland and I shared our hunger for one another. But I hated the thought of them together, every day and every night. “If I could see your face,” I said, “I’d know for sure.”

“Then I have good news for you. Elena and I are returning early. In a few weeks.”

I immediately forgot about my imminent orgasm. I sat up in shock. “Why?”

“The first snows will probably cover the mountain in a month or so. There’s a lot of cataloging and research I can do in Chicago.”

“But I thought you were going to stay until the weather got too bad to continue.”

“I’ve decided to change plans. As long as international relations remain reasonably stable, I can return next summer.”

I should have been overjoyed, but Ashland’s news troubled me. “That’s taking a big risk. What if you can’t get back?”

He was silent for a moment, as if gathering his words. “It’s been difficult being away so long, Julia.” His voice betrayed no emotion but I sensed it was there, hidden behind his even tone. “I’ve missed my colleagues. I miss the collaboration we’ve had. I need that to continue my work.”

“Ashland… Dr. Stewart,” I quickly corrected, “this is too important to make any compromises.”

“I thought you’d be pleased by my news.” I could clearly hear the disappointment in his voice.

“I am,” I said quickly, “but Magoa is important to me too.”

“Magoa has been here two thousands years. It will be here when I return.”

“Dr. Stewart, I…” A blaring tone jarred me. We’d been cut off, either accidently, or because the North Koreans thought we’d talked enough.

I set my phone on my nightstand and lay on my back, staring at the white ceiling above me. My clit still throbbed with desire. I wanted him so much. I reached down again. My index and middle finger manipulated my nob, working feverishly. But the orgasm that was once inevitable now seemed as distant as the Korean peninsula. I focused on vivid sensory memories—the warmth of his breath against my neck, his lips caressing my skin, his tongue dancing across my clit, the incredible rush when he entered me.

It was no use. I couldn’t recapture the charge I’d felt just minutes before.

What was wrong with me?

I lay quietly and slowly collected my thoughts.

Ashland was coming home.

Why wasn’t I thrilled?

I tried to wrap my mind around my contradictory feelings. I still loved him. I still wanted to be with him. I also wanted him away from Elena’s constant presence. But in the five months since he’d left, I’d discovered I was still happy. I had come through one of the most difficult periods of my life and had emerged stronger and more confident. Yes, Matt and I were still going through a divorce, and it was difficult spending half my time living separately from my children. But I loved graduate school. I loved getting the chance to TA a class. I loved my colleagues and new friends.

I loved my new life.

But something more was bothering me—my encounter with Harlan Cassidy. I didn’t understand why my spirit was guiding me here until I stepped into this auditorium and saw you. Magoa changed my entire life, but there was an important connection to it that I had never fully explored. I gazed downwards. In the darkness, I could barely discern the tattoo on my ankle, but its outline was as familiar to me as my daughters’ faces.

The Magoan goddess symbol.

Why had it appeared in a dream so many years ago? Why had it led me to Ashland? My own spirit wanted desperately to know.

My eyes drifted back to the ceiling. I imagined the spider I had first seen the night before this adventure began. It was waiting quietly in the corner. I watched for a telltale movement of whispery thread that signaled a change in its static life.

Was my life about to change again too?


 

 

Goddess Preview (Adult Content Ahead)

With two days to go before Goddess, Book 1 launches, I thought I’d whet your appetites by offering chapter 1 right here on my blog. Please note that this is an erotic romance, so if that’s not your cup of tea, now is the time to click away. For the rest of my readers, enjoy, and don’t forget to pick up a copy of the complete book on November 1.

Best Wishes,

Kelee

GODDESS, CHAPTER 1

I’ve tried to pinpoint the day when my life veered off its safe, rational, coherent course onto a path that became increasingly murky, unnerving, and breathtaking. When my mind drifts back, it pauses at various milestones until it reaches a fall evening and a king size bed caressed by percale cotton sheets. Finally, my memory lights on a small blemish in a far corner of the bedroom ceiling, where white ceiling meets pale blue walls.

It was black, or perhaps brown, nebulous without my glasses. I knew it was just a distraction, but my eyes kept drifting back to it like leaves drawn to shore by a persistent current. It was probably one of the fat little spiders that obstinately made their way into our 110-year-old house. In the morning, if it was still there, I would dispatch it with a tissue, sending it to an ignominious grave down the toilet before one of the girls freaked. It would be quick, efficient, and unemotional, like so many of the daily tasks that occupied my life.

“You okay?”

My eyes leapt back to Matt’s questioning face hovering above me. I knew every subtlety of it. In the dim light leaking through the shades from a streetlamp, I could just make out the tiny hairs under his nose that he sometimes missed while shaving, the luxurious eyelashes that I envied, and the scar above his eye that he received at age eight when his older brother hit him with an errant rock fired from a makeshift catapult.

He had stopped moving inside me. I knew he was waiting for reassurance before he continued. He was polite. Everyone said so.

 “I’m fine,” I whispered. I brushed his warm cheek with my fingertips.

He smiled, not wanting to know more. No distractions. Productivity was key, even with sex. It hadn’t always been that way, but life isn’t static.

He pushed deeper into me, exhaling his pleasure, bringing me back to the present. I dug my fingernails into his shoulders. He always liked that. “Oh god, Matt, yes,” I moaned—a little white lie to help him along. I had told him before we started not to worry about me. He was still exhausted from last week’s five-day business trip. Tomorrow he would leave again for O’Hare before I was awake. By the time I had my first cup of coffee, he’d be in Cleveland. Sometimes I felt like I was married to his dirty laundry. I knew that wasn’t fair. He worked hard. He loved his family.

Back to the present. “That feels so good, ” I murmured, careful not to be too vocal because I knew Lily and Anna were probably still awake.

 “Julia… yes.” He moved faster, overcoming the jetlag. I could feel him getting harder. “Oh yes…” And then he was finished.

He withdrew quickly, touched my cheek, stroked my hair, and gave my nose gentle kisses, just like he always did. The routine felt comforting. It reminded me of who I was and what I had.

“You look tired,” he said. I wasn’t, but I offered him a reassuring smile to make sure he knew I didn’t expect more. He rolled off me and five minutes later I could hear his soft, even inhale and exhale. He was asleep.

I lay awake for a long time afterwards, forcing myself not to look at the clock. Matt was a lump of clay beside me, with no desire to be molded into anything other than what he was. He was satisfied with his life… our life. At least, I thought he was. He never complained, except about the minor inconveniences and frustrations of marriage and family. The challenge of raising three girls didn’t faze him in the same way it sometimes got under my skin. I opened my eyes and studied the black spot. Had it moved since the last time I looked? I couldn’t be sure. I was that spider, if it was a spider, waiting, waiting for something.

###

Eight o’clock and chaos was in full swing. I prepared lunches. (Peanut butter, heavy on the raspberry jam, for Anna, ham and cheddar, crust surgically removed, for Mackenzie. Lily would prepare her own lunch, if she remembered.) Anna sat at the kitchen table, nonchalantly chewing a bagel while she watched some inane Disney Channel show on her phone. As she bent over the tiny screen, her unruly brown hair flirted with the thick coating of cream cheese. “Hair, Anna,” I said. She pushed it away, only to let it tumble down again. I turned back to my task, knowing that even if one of her friends pointed out the white spots she’d missed, she would just wash them out in the drinking fountain without embarrassment. I admired her approach to life—take things as they come, never worrying about what would arrive next.

“I can’t find any clean underwear,” Mackenzie screamed down the stairs.

“Look in the laundry basket,” I yelled back, forgetting my resolution not to shout between floors.

“I did!”

Anna looked up from her show. “She can wear some of mine if she wants.”

I smiled at her generosity. “She’s not really looking.”

“Big surprise.”

Twenty minutes later, Anna had run out the door to meet her friends for the walk to middle school and a clean underwear-clad Mackenzie had been hustled to the corner, where our forever-accommodating bus driver was waiting patiently to take her to elementary school. I leaned against the counter, considering whether to pour myself another cup of coffee, when Lily strolled in, still dressed in her leopard print pajamas. She had brushed and braided her long, auburn hair and carefully applied makeup, but otherwise seemed blissfully unaware that the first bell at her high school rang a half hour ago. “Why are you still here?” I asked, trying to hide my annoyance, knowing it would only alienate her further.

She shrugged her shoulders and moved to the coffee maker. She poured herself half a cup of the thick brew I favored and then filled the rest with milk and several spoonfuls of sugar. Finally, she spoke. “There’s nothing going on first period.”

“So they just let you show up whenever you want?”

“Pretty much.”

She tested the coffee. I admired her muscular figure, outlined by the thin fabric of her pajamas. She was a talented speed skater. Watching her smoothly power her way around a rink reminded me of her favorite animal.

I decided to strike a conciliatory tone. “Do you need a ride to school?”

“Greta’s picking me up.”

I nodded. I’d have to text Greta’s mom later to see if she knew the full story. God knows Lily would never tell me. I could call the school, but it would probably get back to her. She was a favorite of the women in the front office. It was difficult to know when she was doing something genuinely wrong because everyone else seemed to think she was perfect. She made straight A’s, never missed a skating practice, and was loved by teachers, coaches, and other parents. She even occasionally liked Matt. I was the only one she considered a pariah.

“I’ll be around if you need a ride.” I scooped up my coffee and vacated the kitchen. Matt had been telling me for months to give her space and she’d come back to me.

I was sitting on the living room sofa, staring at my resume on the laptop, when I heard hurried footsteps on the stairs, followed by a brief,  “Bye, Mom!” before the front door slammed. She’d actually said goodbye to me. I’d have to tell Matt about the progress we’d made.

I spent the rest of the morning trying to craft a career history out of an undergraduate degree in Comparative Literature, followed by a year in retail, a master’s degree in Spanish, eight months sowing wild oats in Barcelona with handsome but self-absorbed men, and two years translating deservedly forgotten Spanish literature for various professors. My lackluster career was followed in quick succession by marriage, three pregnancies, sixteen years of motherhood, and too many volunteer activities to count.

I finally closed the computer in frustration. It wasn’t likely employers were going to be clamoring for a 44-year-old mother with my background. There was no pressure—Matt was doing well—but imagining my present path stretching out in front of me made me feel like…

I remembered the spider or whatever it was lurking on our bedroom ceiling. Armed with a tissue, I went upstairs to perform my job as executioner.

The spider had vanished.

###

“You should start your own business.” Van plucked the olive out of my empty martini glass and slipped it between her full lips. We’d been friends long enough for her to know I wouldn’t be offended.

“Are we talking Mary Kay or a real business?”

“I would divorce you instantly if you tried to sell me any Mary Kay crap.” Van leaned back against the brightly polished bar railing, casually tossing one long, tanned, bare leg over the other. I didn’t look around, but I knew every straight man in close proximity was enjoying the view. “You’ve got outstanding organizational skills, you’re a leader, you’re poised, smart. You could do anything.”

“I can’t even get the principal to call me back.”

“He’s a dweeb, but you could work on being more vocal about what you want.” Van motioned with her glass to the young, hip bartender. He immediately abandoned the businessmen he was serving. “I’m buying the next round.” Van said.

I shook my head. “PTA meeting tonight.”

“The only way you’d get me there is with a triple shot of Hennessey.”

###

Vanessa Emerson and I seemed to have almost nothing in common except for our children, who both attended the same elementary school, and our love of a vodka martini. We’d met the fall Mackenzie and her son Jake started kindergarten. Van was an elementary school newbie, while I’d been around long enough to get sucked into every volunteer position imaginable. That morning, I’d been lugging oversized cardboard boxes out of the PTA storage room—junk that seemed to have accumulated unchecked since the school opened in 1921—when I heard a pleasant, meant-for-radio voice ask, “Need some help?” I managed to peer around the dusty container at the photo-ready face watching me with what looked like bemusement cross-pollinated with sympathy.

“Sure,” I said, expecting her to grab the other end of the load. Instead, she turned to two baseball-capped dads commiserating nearby.

“Some assistance, gentlemen,” she called to them. They turned, took one look at Van, and hurried forward to relieve me of my burden. I’m not sure if they even noticed me. Perhaps they thought Van had levitated the box for their amusement. I didn’t care. I liked her attitude. We became instant friends, even though Mackenzie had a strong aversion to boys and no interest in playing with Jake.

On Vanessa, jeans and a T-shirt looked like haute couture. Her home was an Architectural Digest spread. Trent, her tall, dark-haired, gorgeous husband, seemed to have been created by an ad agency. Even though he was extremely reticent, most people assumed a perfect marriage was part of the package.

So I was surprised when she asked, a couple of months after we first met, “How often do you and Matt have sex?” We were sitting on undersized chairs in an empty kindergarten classroom, packing up art supplies from a Halloween party the parents had thrown. I eyed her hesitantly. It wasn’t the kind of question most moms asked you.

“I don’t know. Once a month.”

She retrieved an errant marker from the floor, reappearing with a wry smile on her face. “Wow, that often.”

I rarely talked about sex with other women. My mother had many more commandments than the standard 10, and that was one of them. But I trusted Van in a way I never trusted my mother. “What about you and Trent?”

“Leap days and my birthday, if he didn’t get me another present.”

“I’m sorry. You guys seem so—”

“Perfect?”

“I know better than that. Nobody’s a perfect match.”

“I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing when I married Trent. I mean, I had never even had an orgasm. Maybe it was because he didn’t try, so it took the pressure off.”

I noticed her hand shaking as she matched up a red top with a red marker. “Do you think he’s gay?” I asked gingerly.

“He likes watching men’s swimming.”

“Have you ever asked him?”

“Once. He looked at me like I’d accused him of being a pedophile.”

I nodded. “So he’s a self-loathing homosexual.”

She laughed. Then Van poured her history into my lap.

She wondered if she unconsciously chose her boyfriends because their approach to sex was either incompetent or self-absorbed. She learned to fake orgasms for the former and not even bother with the later. She met Trent in the Modern wing at the Art Institute. He gazed at her as if she were a Cezanne. She wasn’t sure if she loved him, but she was tired of dating and ready for a family. Five months after their wedding night, they conceived a son. Trent seemed to consider his job finished.

If Trent had minimal interest in intercourse, his desire to perform oral sex was non-existent. He never offered and she didn’t ask. Then, three years and two months into their marriage, Van met Dave Cellini. She’d barely noticed him behind the counter of the Starbucks she frequented. He was the curly-haired kid who often took her order and nothing more. One day she was sitting at a table, making her way through dull emails, when he appeared by her side. “You like bold, right?” he’d asked. He refilled her cup. Something about the way he looked at her with those green eyes that almost matched his green apron was enough to elicit an invitation to join her. He eagerly pulled up a chair.

Trent was a successful financial consultant. Dave had dropped out of college to play drums for various alt country bands. He spent his days mixing Frappuccinos and his nights providing a backbeat for rural transplants and wannabes in dark clubs with names like The Horseshoe and Buckaroos. He was shy; it took him two more months to invite her to venture outside Starbucks with him. But when she accepted an invitation to hear him play with his regular band, the Pine Needles, and then followed him in her car back to his neat, one bedroom apartment, she learned that Dave Cellini had a talent she decided was worth more than a portfolio filled with Apple stock and gas futures. He was amazingly adept at oral sex. Five minutes after kneeling before her as she lay on his faux leather couch, one leg thrown over the back, she had entered paradise for the first time.

She saw him as often as she could, experimenting with every sexual variant she could think of, though they never grew tired of his greatest talent. A year and countless orgasms later, Dave was accepted at Colorado State University. She had encouraged him. It was for the best. One day, when she was financially secure, she would divorce Trent. But she didn’t want the responsibility of Dave putting his life on hold for her.

When I met Van, she had gone two years without Dave’s services. A few days after her confession, I handed her an elaborately wrapped gift. She opened it, staring wide-eyed at the small red device resting on a velvet cushion. She gingerly picked up the vibrator and turned it over in her hand. “It’s already charged,” I said.

###

Van scrutinized me over the top her martini glass. “Before you figure out what you want to do, you need to figure out who you are.”

“I don’t have time to go on a vision quest.”

She drained her drink. “Then you’d better hope your spirit guide makes house calls.”

###

When four o’clock came, I was standing at the bus stop while CC, our excessively hyper dachshund, tugged on the end of his leash, attempting to urinate on a dead bird. (Mackenzie christened the dog Captain Chaos after she watched The Cannonball Run on some obscure cable channel. She mercifully agreed to shorten it after he escaped our backyard and I was compelled to walk around the neighborhood shouting his name.)

The school bus pulled up and I saw Mackenzie’s blonde head make its way unhurriedly towards the door. She gave me a little smile as she hopped off the bottom step. “Can Skyler come over for a play date?”

“Who’s Skyler?” I inquired, letting CC lead us home.

“A friend,” she said, annoyed by my ignorance.

“Is she in your class?”

Mackenzie rolled her eyes. “She’s in ‘fifth grade,’” she said, adding unnecessary quotation marks using four fingers in the air.

“A fifth grader wants to have a play date with you?”

“We both have Elizabeth. She wants them to meet.”

Elizabeth was Mackenzie’s American Girl doll. Thanks to it, her knowledge of life just before the Revolutionary War was extensive. I shook my head. “I’ve got a PTA meeting. Isabelle’s coming over to watch you.”

As we turned up our front walk, past our yard badly in need of attention, she took my hand and looked up at me with knowing eyes. “Isabelle’s a basket case,” she said with adult-like certainty.

After homework and what passed for dinner at our house (hamburger with pickles for Mackenzie, soy bacon sandwich with no accouterments for Anna, who was deep in a vegetarian stage, and a note for Lily suggesting she eat her leftover Panera sandwich after practice), I was in the Prius, making the ten-minute drive to Fremont Elementary School for the first Wednesday of the month PTA meeting.

The meetings were held in the library, where we could sit and admire the new beige carpet and the mural created by students with help from a professional artist, all funded by the PTA. Titled simply Kids!, the mural featured a multi-ethnic panorama of children playing traditional games. (One evening, after too many post-PTA cocktails, Van and I made up an accompanying call-and-response, sung to the tune of  “War.” (“Kids! What are they good for? Absolutely nothing! Say it again!”)

I called the meeting to order, then sat back while Helen Bartow, the PTA secretary, went through the minutes. It was an unusually warm fall evening and I was wearing a simple brown dress—comfortable, if not terribly stylish. I crossed one leg over the other, letting a sandal hang languidly from my foot.

The majority of the small gathering was the usual suspects who accounted for the bulk of Fremont’s volunteer hours. Most of the women here didn’t work, or had part-time jobs as realtors or yoga instructors. There were also a couple of faces that I recognized from the school hallway who hadn’t attended a meeting before. We always snagged a few new PTA members this way, though most of them subsequently disappeared back into the great, dark mass of parents who occasionally showed up for activities but never volunteered their time.

I’d already lost track of what Helen was saying so I continued to scan the room. That’s when I noticed a young woman sitting in the far corner, away from the other parents, under a poster featuring a cat improbably holding a book with “Read!” written underneath in bold, capital letters, as if it was an edict from a totalitarian government.

She was Asian. I guessed she was probably in her late twenties, which made her the youngest person in the room. That wasn’t surprising; a fair percentage of parents were graduate students or contract employees at the local university. Most of them didn’t live by the current middle class American norm of marrying late and having children at the last possible minute.

I suddenly realized she was staring intently at me. In the library’s bright fluorescent lights, I could see her dark eyes never wavering. Her youthful features were delicate, her skin unmarked by age. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She wore a neatly pressed, knee-length skirt and a blouse bleached to a blinding shade of white. She appeared completely harmless, yet she made me very uncomfortable.

“Julia?” It was Helen. She was watching me, amused. Evidently, she had finished the minutes and was waiting for me to call for their approval.

“Sorry,” I said, hopping up. “Senior moment. All in favor of accepting the minutes as written?”

“Aye.”

“Motion carried.” I stepped to the front of the room. “Mona is running late—she’s waiting on her sitter—so let’s skip the financials and move on to the fall carnival. How’s the volunteer sign-up coming?”

As various women (and the one man in attendance—Frank Branford, currently unemployed) went back and forth over the reasons why volunteers were down this year, I avoided glancing over at the woman in the corner. The way her eyes were riveted on me made me feel like I was somehow different from the other moms in the room—that I merited special attention. It was ridiculous, but her presence rattled me. For a moment, I had become unmoored from the comfortable world of school fundraisers and was drifting into choppy, unfamiliar seas. Over the next hour, as I hurried us through the agenda, the young woman never spoke. I doubted whether anyone else even noticed her.

When the meeting ended, two mothers immediately made a beeline for me. I focused intently on our conversation about the cafeteria recycling project as the room slowly emptied. I avoided locating the mystery woman, afraid that it would encourage her to remain behind. Finally, when I sensed that we were the last three left in the room, I excused myself. I knew if I didn’t get home soon, Isabelle would have to face the battle of getting Mackenzie ready for bed. I turned to pick up my notes.

She was standing behind me, a sparrow waiting soundlessly on a branch. I almost jumped back.

“Thanks for coming,” I said, a little too enthusiastically.

Her eyes were two calm pools. She smiled demurely and held out her hand. “I’m Nina Hwan.”

Her hand felt surprisingly strong. “Are you a new parent?” I inquired.

She nodded. “My son’s in first grade. Mrs. Stinson’s class.”

“She’s a good teacher. Is your husband at the university?”

“We both are. I’m a Ph.D. student in archeology.”

It was a stupid, sexist slight. “Welcome to Fremont,” I said, trying to cover my faux pas. “Let me know if you need anything.”

Her expression never changed from one of deep curiosity. “I’m wondering, may I ask you something?”

“Sure.” I was expecting an inquiry about teachers, classes, or the PTA. Instead, she looked down.

“The design on your ankle. Where did you get it?”

My eyes followed hers. The tattoo that had drawn her attention had faded over the course of more than twenty years and I rarely gave it a thought. At its center was what some people assumed was a moon, with two sloped lines above it like a roof. Two more lines of different thicknesses, one to the right, one underneath, completed the image. The lines looked vaguely Chinese or Japanese, but I’d never been able to ascertain if they meant something. “A tattoo parlor in Boston, where I went to college,” I said.

“That’s where you saw it?”

“No, I…” I hesitated. I usually explained to the curious that it was an abstract symbol I had made up, but something in her demeanor told me she wouldn’t buy that. I had never told anyone the full truth, not even my husband. “I don’t remember where I saw it. It was a long time ago.”

“Do you mind?” she asked. Without waiting for a reply, she knelt at my feet to get a closer look. I glanced around. One of the mothers I was talking to was still there, pretending to be engrossed in a flyer for Family Math Night. “It’s very unusual,” she said. She reached out an index finger as if to touch it, but she refrained, letting her fingertip hover an inch from my skin. “Are you sure you can’t remember anything about it?”

“Sorry, no. Does it mean something to you?”

She rose again, her cool eyes meeting mine. “It’s remarkably similar to a symbol at an archeological site where I was working this summer.”

“Really?” I said. “Where was it?”

“North Korea.” Her demure smile returned. “I’m sorry, I can’t tell you more.”