“Underwear, check. Toothbrush, check. Brand-new cosmetics, check. Gin for Allie, check.”
“Gin for Allie?” Ellis, a friend since we were both shy, geeky kids in grade school, wrinkled his nose in the manner that a former boyfriend had told him was utterly adorable, and gave the bottle I held a scornful look. “Why are you taking gin to the Czech Republic?”
“I’m taking this bottle of expensive and hard-to-find gin because my aunt Roxy’s friend Allegra supposedly likes gin, and it’s my way of thanking her for hooking me up with whatever vampires are in the area.” I rolled a couple of pairs of yoga pants around the bottle, and wedged it in the bottom of the suitcase. “I figured it was the least I could do. OK, that’s it for me. Are you set?”
“Darling, I don’t leave for another week,” Ellis said, giving an airy wave of his hand. He was currently lounging on my recliner, sipping the bottle of wine he’d brought to bid me bon voyage, and offering criticisms of my wardrobe, packing technique, and general outlook on life. “I’m not the sort of person who makes lists like you do. I toss a few well-chosen and exquisitely cut garments in a bag, and then I’m off to face adventure with a style and panache not seen since the days of William Powell and Errol Flynn.”
“That 1930s movie class has really changed you,” I said, chewing my lower lip for a second over the last couple of items laid out on the bed. “Hmm.”
“What are you hmming about?”
“Swimsuit.” I said the word with the distaste it deserved .
“What about it? You know, this rosé is really quite drinkable. I wasn’t sure about it because rosés can be so temperamental, but this is tolerable.”
“The ‘hmm’ was whether or not to pack it. The swimsuit, that is, not the wine you brought.” I held up the swimsuit. “Do you think it’s too … revealing?”
“I couldn’t possibly comment unless you were wearing it.”
I stared in horror at him. “I’m not going to let you see me in a swimsuit.”
“Because!” I said, sputtering a little and turning bright pink at the very idea. “Because you’re—”
“Gay?” he asked.
“No! I don’t care about that. But you’re …”
“Well … yes, I guess that’s part of it.” I flapped my hands around helplessly, trying to think of how to explain one of the many weird hang-ups I’d had to deal with. “But mostly it’s because you’re my friend. What you think matters, you see, and if you think I look pudgy in my swimsuit, then I’ll be crushed.”
“Pudgy?” He tipped his head and considered me. Instantly, I sucked in my gut. “I wouldn’t say ‘pudgy’ is the word to describe you. ‘Titian,’ now, that’s a good word. You’ve got the red hair and the lush curves to stand up to the most nubile of Titian’s ladies.”
“That’s sweet of you,” I said, relaxing a bit. “I just … it feels weird to let a man see so much of my body.”
He snorted into the wineglass. “If I managed to keep from succumbing to your many and various charms in the tenth grade when we sat behind the gym and necked, I think you’re safe now.”
“That’s because you don’t like women in a sexual way,” I pointed out, and wadded up the swimsuit and stuffed it into a corner in the case. It was followed almost immediately by the oversized man’s shirt I used as a cover-up. “The necking was just you trying to figure out who you were. Rats.”
I sighed and dug out of my nightstand drawer a battered and somewhat dusty box. “If I’m going to wear the swimsuit, I’m going to have to … er … deforest.”
“Deforest?” Ellis did the nose-wrinkling thing again. “DeForest Kelley, from Star Trek?”
“No, deforest, as in prune the lady garden.”
He stared at me, the glass of wine held motionless at his mouth.
I sighed even louder, and waved the box toward my crotch. “Wax my pubes, you boob.”
Enlightenment dawned at last. “You mean you’re not already spruced up down there?”
“No, of course not.” I held a protective hand over my pubic mound, and consulted the box of wax strips. “That sort of thing is for special occasions, isn’t it?”
He shuddered delicately, and took a long pull on the glass of wine. “Darling, I couldn’t in a hundred years imagine being with someone without first removing everything unsightly.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, reading the instructions.
“There is no sensation quite as delightful as that of a shorn scrotum. You’re not listening to me, are you? Tempest. Tempest!”
“Hmm? What does this mean? ‘Once the strip has been applied, pull it off quickly in the direction opposite of the hair growth.’ Pull off quickly like pulling a bandage?”
He gawked at me. “You can’t possibly mean … when you said special occasion, you didn’t by any chance mean that you’ve never waxed?”
“Not once?” Horror was rife in his voice, a fact that irritated me. It wasn’t as if my pubes had anything to do with him.
“No. You know what my life was like. Can you imagine what my father would have said if he found out I was waxing my pubic hair?” I shuddered at the rage I knew such a thing would generate in my late parent. “He locked me in my bedroom for three days just for shaving my armpits. Waxing pubes would have given him a coronary.”
“How you lived with that tyrant for all those years …” Ellis shook his head. “Why don’t you go to a salon like everyone else and have it done?”
“Ugh. And let some stranger touch me? No thanks. I bought this box of hoohaw wax strips when I turned eighteen, and I fully intend to use them. Finally.”
He made a face. “Are they even still good?”
“It’s just sticky wax. That can’t go bad, can it?”
“No clue, I’m afraid. Why didn’t you use it when you bought it?”
“I never found the perfect opportunity, and then I hid it away under a floorboard so no one would find it.”
He made a sympathetic moue. “I suppose I can see the wisdom in you hiding it. I can’t imagine that the cult would like you waxing things.”
“There wasn’t very much they did like. But that’s in the past. Let’s focus on the here and now.”
“Your bucket list?”
“My bucket list,” I said, nodding, and returned to silently mouthing the wax-strips instructions to myself.
“You’re the only woman I know who has tearing out her pubic hair by the roots on her bucket list, but then”—he rose and poured himself another glass of wine—“you’re also the only woman I know who is taking a sizable amount of her inheritance and using it to find vampires.”
I grinned at him over the top of the wax box. “Papa is probably rolling over in his grave at this very moment knowing that I’m using his precious money to enjoy myself.”
“No doubt, given how little enjoyment you’ve been allowed. I have to admit that I’ve always thought it was a miracle you didn’t turn out like the other women in your sect.”
“Browbeaten and mindless?” I shrugged one shoulder. “I probably would have been if it hadn’t have been for Mom. Her tying the custody terms so that I had to attend public school was the best thing she did. Well, that and pay to have her letters smuggled in to me. I probably would have believed everything that Papa and the Elders told me if it wasn’t for those two things.”
“I don’t know why you’ve never been angry for her not taking you when she left the cult,” Ellis said.
“Oh, I was for years. And then one day Papa told me that when she was getting ready to leave, the cult Elders threatened to hunt down her family and harm everyone if she took me, so he begged her to leave me with him.”
“Yes, but it’s a cult!” Ellis protested. “How could she do that?”
“There was one thing Papa never bad-mouthed, and that was Mom,” I answered, getting a bit nostalgic. “I think that’s why he never fought her slapping so many requirements on the custody ruling—it was his way of reassuring her that he would take care of me.”
“Different strokes,” Ellis said, shaking his head.
“Definitely. OK, I’m going to go do this before I lose my nerve. Have the wine ready for me. I have a feeling I’m going to need it!”
Ellis lifted his glass to me, and pulled over the spiral-bound notebook that served as my journal. I disappeared into the bathroom, leaving the door open a bit so I could talk to him.
“Just how many items is your bucket list up to now?” he asked.
“Over a hundred, but most of those have to do with the trip to Europe.”
“Number twenty-eight: fly on an airplane. Twenty-nine: sing to myself in public. Thirty-two: drink several airline bottles of booze. Thirty-three: mile-high club. Darling, I hate to tell you, but that last one isn’t going to be easy to do when you’re flying by yourself to the Czech Republic.”
“I know. I don’t have to do all the bucket list things right away. Besides, I’ve crossed off a bunch already. Grape juice!”
“No, no, not literal grape juice. Just … grape juice!”
“You know, now that your father is gone and you’re no longer a member of that weird-ass religious group, you can say actual swear words instead of substituting generic phrases.”
“Swearing like a sailor is number seventy-eight on my list, actually. Boy, this is awkward. How are you supposed to put these little strips on?” I twisted around on the toilet, where I was attempting to position the super-sticky wax strips in the manner illustrated on the instructions, but the strips kept adhering to the edge of the toilet seat.
“I sit on the floor to do it. It lets you get full access to the zone, if you know what I mean,” he said. “Where are your crossed-off—oh, here they are. Sell Papa’s house, and don’t give one red cent to the church. Get cute apartment. Spend vast quantities of money buying clothes instead of making shapeless dresses. Read books Aunt Roxy sent. Those were the vampire books, I take it?”
“Yup. The Dark Ones series by C. J. Dante, who is a close, personal friend of Aunt Roxy’s. She promised me she’d introduce us.” I got comfortable on the plush blue bath mat, and with a hand mirror propped up against a knee, applied the sticky strips to one side of my groin. I had images in my head of what I wanted, a nice tidy pubic area without any of the wild, deranged red curls that matched the ones on my head.
“I’m surprised your father let you read those books.”
“Oh, he didn’t. He made the school district show him every book I checked out, so that he could have approval of my reading matter. The vampire books I read after he died.”
“Didn’t your mother smuggle some decent literature in to you?”
“A couple, but one of the Elders found them and made me burn them in a ceremony of shaming in front of the entire church.” I wondered if a razor wouldn’t be better, but figured I’d made it this far—I’d just soldier on.
“That must have been hair-raising, to say the least.”
“It was awful, but it wasn’t like I was a stranger to being punished in front of everyone. It seems like at some time or other I broke every one of the basic tenets of the True Believer Church of the Apostles of the Armageddon. I danced in my bedroom, and dancing was a sin. I wanted to join choir at school, but of course, singing was a sin. I tried to swim in the lake behind the compound, but all hades broke out at that, because swimming is super sinful. And I can’t count the number of times I was sent to sit in the corner with the punishment hood over my head while everyone ate dinner because I talked back to a male. Grape juice, this stuff is really sticky.”
“It’s a wonder you don’t need deprogramming, darling,” Ellis called.
“That’s what I have you for. I’m so glad I found you on the line after Papa died.”
“Online, dear heart, not on the line. And I’m glad, as well. It’s been a delightful three months getting reacquainted. How’s it going in there?”
“All right, I guess. I’m supposed to rub the strips in, then rip them off. Seems kind of … sinful. Wait, is that the church talking?”
“Absolutely. There is nothing sexual about ripping out your pubic hair. Hurry up and deforest, or else I’ll end up drinking the rest of this bottle.”
“OK.” I took a deep breath, grabbed one end of a strip, and, bracing myself mentally and physically, jerked the strip off my private parts.
The resulting scream that echoed around the bathroom almost deafened me. Ellis came running into the room, skidding to a stop at the door, one hand over his mouth as he stared at my crotch. “Dear god, what did you do to your coochie? Why is it bright blue?”
“Ack!” I screamed again, flopping over onto my front, my legs together tight. “What are you doing in here? You can’t see my naked parts!”
“Darling, I’m staring at your bare ass, and let me tell you, it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.”
“Eek! Stop looking at it! At me!”
“I can hardly help it, sweet thing. It’s a full moon rising from where I’m standing. Why did you scream?”
“Because it hurt like hades!” I said, gritting my teeth. I pulled a large bath sheet off the towel rack, and swathed my lower parts with it before rolling over, tenting the towel to peer in and see how bad the situation was.
“Well, of course it hurt. You’re pulling your short and curlies out. Do you want some medication?” He moved over to the mirror and flipped it open to look at the shelves inside. “Something soothing, I’d say, something aloe vera–ish. What do you have in here? Hmm. I don’t think menthol rub and a yeast infection cream will give you the relief you want.”
“I’ll … be … fine … ,” I said, grunting a little as I wrestled with the towel, trying to get to the affected area so I could assess the damage. Unfortunately, my thighs appeared to be glued together, and what was worse, the bath mat seemed to have adhered itself to my legs. “Oh, this is just what I need!”
“What is the problem—holy shit!” Ellis stopped speaking for a second and pointed a wavering finger at the floor next to me. “What the hell is that?”
I snatched up the furry red blob of tape that I’d successfully ripped off my nether regions, and instantly, my hair snaked out and got stuck on an exposed bit of waxy glue. “Ignore that! Oh, darned socks! Now it has my hair.”
Ellis doubled over, and for one horrible moment, I thought he was going to vomit on me. I tried to scoot backward across the bathroom floor, but stopped when the noise emerging from him was gales of laughter.
“It’s not funny!” I said, glaring at him as I tried to get a hand in between my thighs to pry them apart while still maintaining the decorum of the towel covering me. “My legs are glued together!”
“I thought you pulled the strip off?”
“I did, but that was just one side,” I said, scowling fiercely at the tears of hilarity streaming down his face. “Really, Ellis! A little empathy wouldn’t be out of place here!”
“My dear, I’m as empathetic as I can be, but if you could just see you …” He burst into another round of laughter, collapsing onto the toilet, pulling toilet paper to mop at his face. “Sitting there like a burrito with enough red fur to cover a large mouse hanging from your hair … oh, where’s my phone? I must get a picture of this.”
“You do, and you’ll never walk straight again,” I threatened, looking as mean as I knew how.
It just made Ellis laugh harder than ever, and it took a full five minutes before he managed to regain his self-control.
“All right, darling, let’s see just how bad it is,” he said, kneeling next to me and reaching for the towel.
“It’s Papa! I just know it is!” I moaned. “This is his curse. He always said he wished he had a way to keep me pure, and I just know he’s done this from beyond the grave!”
“Deep breath, girlfriend, deep breath. I doubt that even your father has found a way to blight your coochie from the misty veil.”
“You don’t know how deranged he was,” I said, pulling toilet paper from the roll to mop up my face and nose. “I wouldn’t put it past him.”
“Going in,” Ellis warned, digging his fingers between my glued thighs. He didn’t get any farther than I did.
“What are we going to do?” I said, my words definitely a bit wobbly.
He got nose to pubic mound and examined the situation for a few seconds before getting to his feet. “Sit tight. I’ll be right back.”
“Where are you going?” I asked, panicking when he padded out of the bathroom. “You’re leaving me?”
“Just to get some ice and the phone. Calm down, darling. I won’t leave you in this destined-to-be-a-virgin-for-the-rest-of-your-life state. Hello? Are you the Girl from Ipanema Waxing Kit technical help people? I’m glad you’re still in business. What do you have for someone who was raised in a cult, and doesn’t know that you shouldn’t glom fifteen-year-old wax strips onto your choochita?”
A half hour later, Ellis returned from a visit to a nearby pharmacy to pick up bottles of baby oil and mineral oil, both of which we drenched over my parts and thighs, which luckily allowed me to get my legs separated. There were still bits of blue bath mat fuzz decorating my private parts, which were enlivened by red, angry welts from the glue strips, but at least I had the blasted thing off.
“I feel ridiculous,” I said a short time later, an ice pack pressed against the tender parts.
“Mmm. Well, if you ask me, it’s not so much ridiculous as gullible,” Ellis said.
“The vampires, darling. You don’t know any better because of your upbringing. Where the rest of us were growing up to Star Wars and Steven Spielberg movies and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you were stuck reading some misanthropic version of the Bible.”
“You don’t believe vampires are real, do you?” I asked, giving him a sidelong look.
He shrugged. “Does it matter if I do or don’t?”
“Not really.” I was silent for a moment, then added, “I can’t help shaking the dream I had last night. It had a vampire in it, and he needed me. I mean, seriously needed me. Life-and-death sort of needed me, and then he started kissing me, and after that …”
Ellis sat up. “And after that what? Don’t stop now, darling. I love a good erotic dream.”
I waved away the comment. “And then nothing. Just when I thought it was going to be good, poof, it was over.”
“That’s all vampires are, my precious. Just dreams.”
I shook my head, more to clear it of the remembered dream than to negate Ellis’s comment. “My aunt Roxy swears they’re real. She said there’s a whole group of them that no one knows about. Only a few people know who they really are, and she happens to know the head honcho of the vampire organization.”
“I’m sure you’ll have a very nice time in the Czech Republic, and will be relaxed and ready to enjoy yourself in Italy with me.” He smiled and, with a sigh at the clock, got gracefully to his feet. “I’d better get home or I’ll be just dead tomorrow. Smooches, darling, and I hope Miss Thang down there feels better tomorrow. E-mail me when you get settled with your aunt’s friend.”
“Thanks, Ellis, I will,” I called as he swayed toward the door, grateful that I’d picked an apartment on the same block as him. “Don’t get run over by one of those strange metal horseless carriages that you heathen folk use.”
He stopped at the door to give me a look. I giggled in response.
“I’d say you’re going to hell for that blasphemy, but I suspect it’s a little too close to what used to be home. Kiss kiss, darling. Happy flight tomorrow.”
I curled up on the couch after he left, an ice pack strategically positioned, and one of C. J. Dante’s deliciously wicked Dark Ones books at hand. I dipped into the book at random, and thrilled at the tall, dark, and decidedly sexy description of the hero.
“This is going to be the best vacation ever,” I sighed to myself, and gave myself up to the joy of sinfully desirable vampires.
I just hoped they’d be as good as the one in my dream.