Authors: Cathy Quinn
by Cathy Quinn
All rights reserved
Copyright © 2010 Cathy Quinn
"Men are scum!"
The vicious snarl turned a pleasant dream into something he thought might be a nightmare, but the accompanying slam of his bedroom door shot through his slumber and jerked him awake. He bolted upright, peering through the darkness at the intruder.
Maybe it was one of those dreams where you thought you were awake, until something too terrible even for reality in the modern-day world happened?
He braced himself for the worst.
Then the light flipped on and he squeezed his eyes shut against the sudden brilliance. He really should get a shade for that bulb one of those days. It might help his love life too. He had a feeling many women might have something against a 90-watt light bulb hanging directly over a bed.
He pried his eyes open again, one after the other, and located the bad dream, pacing back and forth, not even looking at him.
Alice. Of course, Alice. His usual nightmare. Who else?
What time was it anyway? He grabbed his watch off the nightstand and squinted. Four in the morning. He fell groaning back against the pillow and dragged the sheet up to cover his face.
What was she doing here?
In his bedroom? At this hour?
It was dark outside, for heaven’s sake.
Of course, it was his own fault. He should’ve known it was a mistake to give her that key, but he’d needed someone to feed his fish while he was out of town last weekend, and Alice was one person he could count on to never, ever forget to feed an animal.
He made a mental note to ask for the key back as soon as she’d finished telling him all about what scum men were. He’d have to listen. It was his duty as her big brother’s best friend. Whatever trouble was too... delicate to bring to her brother, she brought to him.
Her tirades were usually piercing. Profane. Prolonged. That girl was his very own personal purgatory and had been since she was five years old. He had no idea why he put up with it. It wasn’t as if he had a little sister of his own to inflict on Michael in return.
She was still muttering something about scum and bastard and despicable. In resignation he peeked from under the sheet. There would be no more sleeping for a while. "Good morning, Alice," he rasped on a yawn and turned on his side, hugging his pillow. Couldn’t this have waited until dawn, at least?
He’d need coffee for this. Lots of coffee. And since she was here anyway, she might as well make herself useful. It had been ages someone had brought him coffee in bed.
There was just the small matter of figuring out a way to convince her that feeding coffee to scum was exactly what she wanted to do right now.
His greeting hadn’t gotten any attention at all. Alice was still pacing the floor, the tired floorboards creaking with every step and a cloud of indignant fury hanging over her. "Men are bastards! We should get that cloning thing perfected, and build a nice colony on the Moon for the male of the species. We can leave them there to become extinct. They’re good for nothing. Rotten bastards!"
"Shut up, Gabriel." It was a growl at least two octaves below her normal tone. Her voice sent chills through him, even under the warm covers. He hugged his pillow tighter as she stopped, hands on hips and gave him a look worthy of Prime Scum. Apparently he was now the scapegoat for the male gender as a whole.
What the hell. He could handle that. He was worthy.
He cuddled his pillow, opened his eyes wide and tried the innocent little boy look on her, but it backfired. She bared her teeth, and he was vaguely astonished to notice the lack of fangs. "You’re a man, aren’t you?"
Gabriel took that as a rhetorical question, as he’d always thought his gender was pretty obvious, but the ensuing silence and her waiting posture told him she was waiting for an answer.
It was a loaded question.
Although there did seem to be only one correct and honest answer, he was afraid to admit to this hideous crime. In fact, he was afraid to say anything at all.
"A man? Yep. Last time I looked," he ended up muttering, resisting the impulse to peek under the sheet just to check for sure. "Yeah, I guess you’re right. I am indeed guilty of a possession of an Y-chromosome. Felony or a misdemeanor?"
"Right." She looked him up and down and sneered. "Not only are you a man, you’re a man who’s broken a whole lot of hearts. You’re no better than the rest of them. If anything, you’re probably worse."
Gabriel sat up and contemplated mentioning that coffee. "Nah. I don’t think I’m worse. Just the average human male, that’s me. Just your average scum." The average coffee-thirsty scum. Alice before morning coffee was too much for anyone to handle. "It’s really early, Alice. Maybe we should talk about whatever is bothering you over some coffee?" he suggested hopefully. "You know where it is, if you want to start it brewing while I get dressed."
No such luck. Alice hopped into his bed and sat at the foot of it, legs crossed, arms crossed and lips pouting. She was wearing black pants and a black sweatshirt – presumably in mourning for the male gender. The color matched her raven curls, so there was only her pale and drawn face to break the monotony of black.
He looked away and bit back that protective feeling. Alice didn’t need protecting. She just needed to scream and yell at him – or the world in general – then have her back patted, cry a bit and be sent on her way. Yep, after twenty years he knew the pattern.
As he dragged his gaze to her again, he noticed that now her lower lip was trembling. He closed his eyes because that overprotective instinct was lassoing him again. He almost sent up a small prayer: Please, God, don’t make her cry.
It would be a futile one. Alice always cried. Like he would curse and swear and hit his fist against walls until the worst hurt went away – a recent episode involving a hammer and a loose doorstep came to mind – she would cry her way out of pain, be it a scraped knee or a broken heart.
"Why are men such scum?" she asked, and her voice, trembling with hurt along with honest inquiry sealed his fate. He was firmly back in protective mode. Sheesh. He was such a sap for Alice’s tragedies, had been ever since she’d demanded he kiss the scrape on her knee all better twenty years ago.
Grinning at the memory of five-year-old Alice, already bossy as could be, he almost missed one tear as it slid down her cheek. Cursing, he reached out and brushed it away with one of her dark curls.
He really needed to keep some tissues around for Alice’s little visits. And if middle of the night visits to his bedroom were to become a part of the pattern, maybe he’d better start wearing pajamas so that she’d have something more absorbent to cry on than his naked shoulder.
"There, there," he said, for lack of something more intelligent to say and patted her knee.
"Why, Gabriel?" she hiccupped. "Why are men such scum?"
Gabriel took that as another rhetorical question until her gray gaze became insistent enough to dig through even his early-morning pre-coffee fog. He made a quick mental status report. They were over stage one: venting. Now they were on to stage two: talking. Now he’d have to pay attention. There’d be hell to pay if he misunderstood any little bit of her current crisis. Then, they’d be on to stage three: sobbing, and after that she’d be on her way, smiling again, ready to face the next barrage of cruel things the universe did to her.
And then, only then, would there be coffee. He cleared his throat as a mirage of a large mug of fragrant tar-like substance danced before his eyes. Yeah, he was a selfish bastard. Alice was crying, and all he could think about was coffee. "What happened, Alice?"
She sniffed. "A lousy date."
"Is that all?"
No reply. Just some more sniffing. Gabriel blinked, trying to jumpstart his brain. It was four in the morning. A lousy date? How lousy could a date be? "Alice? What happened?"
"He’s a jerk," she muttered. "I’ve gone out with him a couple of times, and he thinks that gives him an automatic ticket into my bed, and when I objected, he kicked me out of his car – on the other side of town. At midnight. Not a very nice part of town either."
Okay. He was awake now. And ready to kill someone. "What’s his name? Where does he live?"
She looked at him with wide eyes. "Why? You’re going to rush over there and defend my virtue? Challenge him to a duel, perhaps?"
"Nah. Just rearrange his face a bit." He tried to put his adrenalin on stand-by. The crisis was over. Alice was safe. "Are you okay?"
"Sure. I had my cell phone. I hid behind a dumpster with a nice old bag lady who thinks I should get married and have lots of kids, but not the mean kind, and called a cab. All in all, relative little trauma."
"And then you came here?"
She hiccupped. "No. I went home. And started thinking."
Gabriel leaned back. "Ah. Thinking. Not an activity I’d recommend after midnight."
"Then, after half a bottle of beer, I came here."
Gabriel fought a smile. Alice was the only person he knew who could get drunk on half a bottle of beer.
"That guy seemed nice enough. I liked him. What the hell is wrong with men? Or is it me?"
Okay. This talk was going to be deeper than most of them. He’d have to get that coffee, even if he had to make it himself. Gabriel eyed his clothes, in a heap on a chair on the other side of the room and pondered the logistics of getting dressed without providing Alice with a floorshow. Sleeping naked had its drawbacks occasionally. "Men are not all like that. You know that."
"Okay, this one was a bad example – but still, I’m not having any luck finding a decent guy."
Alice perked up a bit. "Yep. That’s why I came over."
Uh oh. She didn’t mean him, did she...? "Huh?"
"I need a man’s opinion on my new plan."
Phew! "New plan, eh?"
"Yes. I’ve decided to multi-date."
She looked at him as if he were dense. Which of course, he was, this time of night. He needed that caffeine injection so badly. "Yeah. Multi-date. You know. Like you multi-task on a computer, doing more than one thing at once? I’m going to date a whole bunch of guys, in the hope of one of them being the right one for me. Kind of like speed-dating, only it’s just me." The pout was back. "Every other female in the world seems to have found Mr. Right already."
"Stop worrying so much. You’ll find someone. What’s the hurry, anyway?"
"Do you realize how old I am?"
Gabriel calculated. He should know. He’d attended quite a few of Alice’s pig-tail birthday parties, helping her brothers torture the group of little birthday guests in frilly dresses. "Yeah. You’ll be twenty-six in a month."
"Exactly. And everybody I know has a boyfriend. Or two. Half my friends are already married. Do you have any idea how rotten it is to be the only single one among my friends? The only one who isn’t either obsessing about pregnancy tests or when their guy will propose? For God’s sake, I’m still practically living with my parents! It stinks!"
She was calming down. He knew from experience that when she got around to ranting over the fact that she lived in an apartment above her parents garage, they were approaching the end of the current crisis.
Maybe they’d even escape without the actual teary stage. That’d be nice. Alice’s tears always made him feel helpless, even if he knew she’d be bouncing happily away as always after crying it out. "Alice, you sound like a kid wanting a new toy. This isn’t such a big deal. Make new friends. Get your own place if that’s what you want. Concentrate on your career. Stop obsessing about finding a boyfriend. There is more to life, you know."
She looked at him with bright, damp eyes. "Yeah? Like what?"
Gabriel scooted back down into the bed and looked past the nova-bright light bulb at the white ceiling. Did any other man in the universe have to deal with questions like these? He didn’t think so. Maybe it was karma. Maybe he’d done something truly hideous in a previous life.
And he didn’t want to have this conversation. He wanted to sleep three more hours until his alarm rang. Failing that, he wanted to be in the kitchen, alone, reading the morning paper and drinking –
"I mean – it’s literally the meaning of life, isn’t it? Finding a partner in life? ‘Go forth and multiply’ and all that? And all I do is get dumped. Or, occasionally, dump. It’s probably sacrilegious."
"If we’re talking about personal mottos, I prefer ‘live long and prosper’," Gabriel muttered. He sighed. All this, and still no coffee.