The lot of them were up to no good, and if Felice Larson could read her friends right, they were about to drop the trouble into her lap. What the zoology department laughingly called the graduate student lounge couldn’t hold more than five or six people in addition to the ratty couch and the Steelcase table with the ancient microwave on top. With Ben’s height and broad shoulders, which he at present was using to block the doorway, her buds from Professor Marc Fanley’s lab created quite a crush as they circled in on her. As they came forward, she backed up. And backed and backed until her legs hit the couch and she plopped down. “Okay, what’s up?”
Crystal took the opportunity to sit next to Felice, almost on top of her, actually. “We’ve come to a decision.”
“Why do I get the feeling it involves me?” Felice said. “And why are the butterflies in my stomach telling me I won’t like it?”
“Oh, you’ll like it.” Sandra sat on Felice’s other side, bookending her. Both women appeared ready to pounce if Felice so much as tried to stand up.
Alex nodded toward Ben. “Better close that door.”
Ben did and rested against it. For heaven’s sake, this was starting to look like a parody of a gangster movie. Next thing, they’d be threatening her with cement overshoes and speaking out of the sides of their mouths, even the women.
“Are you going to tell me what all this is about, or do I have to figure out what you’ve decided on my own?” she said.
Crystal dug her index finger into her hair and twisted a blonde curl tightly around it—a nervous habit of hers that manifested itself every time she didn’t have an answer to a question and had to stall for time. Felice glanced to Alex but got no more than a view of his faded jeans and university sweatshirt. His brown eyes gave nothing away. Ben wasn’t any more help. He simply crossed his arms over his chest and stared at the opposite wall.
Finally, Sandra took charge. She grabbed Felice’s hands and leaned forward. “You owe us. You said so yourself, remember?”
“Owe?” Felice searched her memory. She’d used that expression lately. Though she couldn’t recall what debt she’d incurred, she had a pretty solid feeling she’d paid it off.
“The research trip,” Sandra said. Though she was the smallest of all of them, her red hair made her stand out. She joked that no one should cross her because of her temper, but after getting to know her, you didn’t dare laugh.
“I can see I’m not getting through to you,” Sandra said. “Kangaroo rats.”
A shudder went through Felice at the mention of the word “rats.” Ever since reading the novel 1984, she’d had a terror of the miserable creatures.
“The trip we were all supposed to make to the desert,” Crystal tossed in. “The one we let you skip out on. The one when it rained for three solid days and we all came home covered in mud.”
“It’s not my fault you got stuck with the one week the desert got rain,” Felice said.
“We all ended up with colds,” Alex said.
“And I sat on a cactus,” Ben added.
Of course. Her mind hadn’t quite managed to block out the fact that she’d bailed on the rest of them and had stayed in her warm, dry apartment while they’d chased over half of the Sonoran desert counting the population of kangaroo rats. Awful, nasty creatures.
“She’s got it now,” Alex said.
“We’re connecting,” Ben said from his station at the door. A man of few words, but every one was important.
“I’m writing half the paper,” Felice protested.
“And you’re first author,” Alex said. “Not enough.”
“All right, all right. What do you want from me?”
“Well-ll.” Crystal let the blond curl loose for a moment, and then went back to twirling it. “You know Dev.”
“Of course I know Dev.” The new grad student was kind of an odd bird. A few years older than the rest of them, Dev came from a tiny European country, Latstonia or Bardstokia or something like that. He always mumbled the name when people asked. But then, he swallowed most of his words, making it difficult to know for sure if he was speaking English some of the time.
“He’s really nice,” Crystal said.
“How can you tell?” Maybe Crystal knew him better than Felice did. He glanced away whenever she looked at him. Poor guy. It had to suck to be that shy.
“I’ve talked to him,” Crystal said.
“We all have,” Alex added. “We spent six days in the rain with him, remember? If you’d come along on that trip, you’d know him, too.”
“I shared a tent with him. He’s a good guy,” Alex said.
“Well, I don’t know him,” Felice said. “He hasn’t said more than ten words to me, and he’s swallowed six of those.”
“He only clams up around you,” Sandra said. “Which makes you perfect.”
“None of you are making any sense,” Felice said. “Perfect for what?”
Crystal’s finger gave her hair a work-out, twisting and twisting. “You tell her, Alex.”
“Not me.” Alex glanced at Ben, whose face turned a bright pink.
“Oh, for crissake,” Sandra said. “You’re perfect to sleep with Dev, that’s what.”
“Sleep? Dev?” If Felice thought for a minute, she could probably put those two words into a sentence that would make sense – as long as they didn’t have “with” between them. Sleep with Dev. “As in have sex with him?”
“Why not?” Sandra said. “He’s a good looking guy.”
Maybe he was behind the glasses with the huge rims. If he combed his hair out of his face. And burned the corduroy pants. Lord, did he shop at Dorks R Us?
“Look, Dev’s been here for months, and he hasn’t interacted with a woman except for the ones in Marc’s lab,” Alex said.
“Heck, he might never have been with a woman,” Ben said. “In fact, I’m pretty sure he’s a virgin.”
“How in heaven’s name could you know a thing like that about him?” Felice demanded. This whole conversation had gone from weird to bizarre to insane within less than five minutes. What man Dev’s age would be a virgin?
“We didn’t have much to do but talk at night in that tent,” Ben said. “I asked about women, and he shut right up.”
“I’ve tried to draw him out on the subject, too,” Ben said. “He won’t talk.”
“Think about it. You could be his first.” Ben nodded as if that settled the matter.
If Ben thought that made the whole thing better, he’d missed by a mile. “You want me to take a guy’s virginity?”
“Believe me, that’s one thing a man never misses.” Ben stood there, an immovable tower of certainty, and no one else in the room seemed eager to contradict him. True, the first time meant different things for men than women, but still…Dev ought to share that special moment with someone he cared about.
“It just doesn‘t seem right,” Felice said finally.
“We’re his friends,” Alex said. “We should do this for him.”
“Fine. If you all think that’s such a great idea, Crystal or Sandra can sleep with him,” Felice said.
“I’m taken,” Sandra said.
“So’s Crystal,” Ben added. The two of them had obviously paired off. They’d been giving off signs for weeks. That only left Felice, or the sane and logical choice, which was to let Dev find a woman on his own.
“Besides, he doesn’t look at us the way he does at you,” Sandra said.
Felice glared at Sandra. “And how is that?”
Sandra opened her eyes wide and imitated a kind of puppy-dog face. “Like he wants to follow you home.”
Good God Almighty. Felice rose and paced to the other side of the room. Her hip bumped the table, rattling the microwave. “You all must be out of your minds.”
“He’s thousands of miles from home. He only knows us,” Crystal said.
“He really needs to get laid,” Alex said. Always helpful, Alex.
Crystal’s expression brightened. “You could make him feel welcome.”
“It’s your patriotic duty,” Sandra concluded.
“Now, I know you’re kidding.”
Sandra gave Felice her best menacing stare. “Try me.”
“You mean this. You really mean this.” Felice glanced at each of her friends in turn, from Ben’s stern features, to Alex’s open expression, Crystal’s smile, and the look on Sandra’s face that said she knew she had Felice trapped.
“A little action might do you some good, too,” Sandra said.
Felice couldn’t stop the gasp from escaping, and she charged across the room to Sandra. “I told you that in confidence.”
“Everyone knows you’ve been…” Alex cleared his throat. “…lonely since whatsizname left on his post-doc.”
James. It had been three months, two weeks, and a day, not that she was counting. Even the e-mails were getting short and seldom as James slipped off into the ether of her past.
“Give Dev a shot,” Crystal chirped. “He might be good.”
“A virgin? Good? The first time?”
“Well…you could teach him,” Crystal said. “Show him all the things that turn you on.”
“I am not giving Dev VonRamsberg a crash course in the Kama Sutra.”
Sandra rolled her eyes. “Do it any way you want. Just do it.”
“Right.“ Felice planted her hands on her hips. “What am I supposed to do? Walk up to him and ask, ‘If you don’t have anything scheduled between seminars, want a pity fuck?’”
“Of course not. You’d scare him to death,” Alex said.
Alex reached into his pocket and produced a key tied to a loop of string. “He gave me this when I took care of his pet iguana when he was out of town. Sneak in in the middle of the night and ambush him.”
“That’s just great.” Felice threw her hands into the air. “You want me to assault him.”
“It’s not assault if he likes it,” Alex said.
“How do you know what he likes?” Damn, they had her shouting now.
“He’s a guy.” Ben counted off the points on his fingers. “He’s horny. He wants you.”
She turned to the two women for some logic. “You couldn’t ask me to do something so stupid.”
“We not only ask it, we expect it,” Sandra answered.
“You owe us,” Crystal said.
Well, shit, they meant it. She paced the room again, what little of it there was. She did owe them. She’d meant it as an expression, but they had her. Technically, she didn’t have to have collected the data to write the paper and be first author. But what would Marc think if he found out she hadn’t gone on that trip? He prided himself on putting out PhDs who’d had hands-on training. How could she explain to him that what he thought of as cute, little rodents were to her disease-ridden, blood-thirsty vermin just dying for the opportunity to put their fangs into her face? She stopped pacing for a moment. “If I do this, I don’t owe you anything more, right?”
“That’s it,” Sandra said. “Paid in full.”
“I only have to do it once?”
“Unless, of course, you want more.” Crystal smirked at her. Actually smirked. She could smirk easily enough. She didn’t have to skulk her way into a near-stranger’s apartment, get naked, and do the nasty with him.
But then, she’d only have to do it once, and Dev was a sweet person, except for his fascination with side winding rattlesnakes. If he’d never made love before, he might finish quickly, and she could go home to her own bed. Women had put up with worse in their sex lives. In fact, she herself had. She could face a few minutes in the sack with Dev a hell of a lot easier than she could face Marc’s disappointment in her.
“Okay,” she said. “Give me the damned key.”