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Authors: Karin Kallmaker

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Lesbian

Substitute for Love

BOOK: Substitute for Love
11.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
 Substitute for Love


Karin Kallmaker

Part 1: Clay

Tenderness, roughness — delicacy, coarseness — sentiment, sensuality — soaring and groveling, dirt and deity — all mixed up in mat one compound of inspired clay.
— Robert Burns to Lord Byron, 1813

Holly, Now

All Holly could think was, “I wanted this to happen.”

Lips soft, as fragrant as her imagination. An insistent hand at her back pulled her into the embrace. Her arm wound around the smooth neck, hanging on so her senses could give way to a demanding mouth.

The music covered her moan but she knew there was no hiding the yes that swelled in her throat, a yes to a question that hadn’t yet been asked. This yes tightened her spine and opened her mouth to beg for the question.

Finally, air again. She breathed deeply and was dizzy while her body responded to a knowing caress of her shoulder blades, her ribs, forward, until her breasts ached with yes.

In her ear, over the music and the throbbing of her pulse, the question at last. “Do you want to go someplace where we can be alone?”

She nodded. The hand at her back guided her toward the door, but she stopped abruptly. Looking up, into fathomless eyes the color of melting ice, she murmured, “I don’t know your name.”

She had to repeat herself with her lips brushing against the warmth of a pale earlobe.

Those endless eyes regarded her for a long moment, as if struggling with a decision. Then breath at Holly’s ear sent a shock wave of gooseflesh down her spine.

“My name is Reyna.”


Holly, 2 months earlier

Rain spattered against the window again and Holly Markham glanced away from her work to consider the storm’s severity. High winds, streaming rain — a typical southern California winter storm. An inconvenience, but nothing more than that.

She took a moment to watch drops merging and separating as they wandered down the pane. It seemed like a random dance, but she amused herself by considering what equation would express the movement of raindrops down glass, taking into account the variable wind velocity, the accumulation of grime, and the mass of each drop. Very few things in nature were truly random.

With a sense of minor reluctance, she returned her attention to the actuarial data spread over her desk. It wasn’t nearly as fascinating as raindrop patterns, but anything to do with numbers never failed to hold her interest. Average medical expense for the most common workplace accidents, geographic incidence and regional health care prices were just a few of the variables that help set Alpha Indemnity’s worker’s compensation insurance policy pricing. Clay characterized her job as the underbelly of modern business. He was right. But it paid very well and made use of her bachelor’s degree in mathematics. She was not defined by her job. It was just a necessary evil.

A shadow blocked the light on her paperwork and she glanced up.

“The great man needs you. Same old, same old.” Tori had a stack of new printouts under one arm. Holly recognized them as the growing presentation deck for the pricing committee’s semi-annual meeting. It had been originally scheduled to be sent out next week, but late last night the deadline had been brought forward to tomorrow. Tori was swamped.

“I’ll be right there. Have some M&Ms,” she suggested, gesturing at the candy dish on her desk. Tori’s expressive brown eyes were full of stress.

“Thanks.” She munched appreciatively. “I don’t remember it ever being this hard to break in a new actuary.”

Holly shrugged. “His tension level is a bit high, isn’t it?” She’d noticed Jim Felker’s tendency to go into a tailspin every time some piece of information was unexpected, no matter how trivial or how easily resolved. Tori, in particular, had come in for more than her fair share of reprints and verifications.

“I’d give anything for your little trick with the numbers.” Tori took a couple more M&Ms and headed for her desk.

Holly fortified herself with a few of the little chocolate pills and walked up the row of cubicles to Jim’s office. Of all the failings Clay had helped her overcome, chocolate — the miraculous fusion of sugar, caffeine and fat — was the one she’d never conquered.

Jim was in a tailspin, big time. “Holly, you just have to look at this mess. None of these arrays look right to me.” What hair Jim had stood on end. His black-rimmed glasses were askew.

She examined the columns for a few minutes. Jim at least knew when to leave her alone. Arrays of numbers, grouped in regional sequences and presented with corresponding standard deviations — it was the simplest of math functions. Finally, she said, “The totals are fine. They seem reasonable based on the inputs.”

“How can that be? Look at this column. Fifty items, everything starts with one and yet the total is nearly one hundred. That just doesn’t make sense.”

Patience — her one virtue that Clay agreed she had in plenty — came easy to Holly. “It’s like the total at the warehouse store. I could get ten items, all of them under ten dollars. Statistically, given an even spread in the array with the assumption that nothing is under four dollars, I’d expect my total to be around one standard deviation — sixty-five to seventy-five. But it’s always pushing ninety. That’s because the spread isn’t even. The items are under ten, but by pennies instead of dollars. So my total is statistically high.”

Jim was looking at her as if she were telling him a long, involved anecdote about a vacation she’d taken as a child.

She pointed at the array Jim was using as an example. “The array is unusually weighted on the upper end. That’s what seems strange to me. You’ve got very few one-point-ones and a lot of one-point-nines.” It was no surprise to her that medical costs continued to rise on a per injury basis.

“So Tori didn’t pull the right data?” He made a noise under his breath and shook his head. “Some people…”

“The download descriptors look right to me,” Holly said quickly. “But these units might be moving up in a trend. Which means next quarter they could go up over two.”

He made a note, but so quickly he almost caught Holly rolling her eyes. He was the actuary — he was the one who was supposed to wonder why data was unexpected, not just assume that the totals on the report were wrong.

She smiled sweetly. “Did you need anything else?”

He gestured crossly at a stack of papers. “All these reports need to be reverified. I’ll get Tori to do it. Maybe she’ll get it right this time.”

Poor Tori, Holly thought. “Do you want me to look through them? Maybe they don’t all have to be reverified.”

“No, no, they’re all wrong. If she spent more time on her job than her personal life she might learn something.”

Holly didn’t quite know how to respond. She was the senior analyst and not exactly Tori’s peer, so it didn’t seem appropriate for him to be sharing his feelings about Tori’s work with her. Sue was the unit manager who acted as the buffer between the actuaries’ demands and the analysts’ complicated statistics gathering and reporting. “I’ve never noticed that Tori spends much time doing anything other than work.”

His expression grew conspiratorial. “Just look at the picture on her desk. It’s pretty obvious what occupies her mind all the time.”

Holly blinked. Whatever could he mean? Did Tori have something new on her desk? “I’ve always thought of her as pretty focused.”

“Pretty?” He shrugged. “That’s obvious, too. You have a boyfriend, right?”

Holly only had time to nod at this apparent non sequitur before his phone chirped and she was glad to leave him. She didn’t know what he was referring to, but the tone had been unpleasantly shaded with dislike for something in Tori’s private life. Was that why he seemed to be always on her case?

Her detour by Tori’s desk to see if she could divine his insinuations was cut short by the muted hum of her Palm Pilot. She hauled it out of her trouser pocket — yikes. She was having lunch with Jo today and had nearly forgotten. She was going to be late.

She arrived at their usual restaurant only half-sodden and was relieved to see that Jo was just settling into one of the booths they preferred.

“I was worried I was going to be late,” she admitted as she dropped into the seat across from Jo.

Jo’s easy smile was in full evidence. “You always say you’re worried about being late. I don’t know why you worry — you’re always on time.”

“I didn’t used to be, as I’m sure you well remember,” Holly reminded her. They’d known each other for eight years, since their freshman year at the Irvine campus of the University of California. Jo had known her before Clay’s attempts to cure Holly of her many bad habits — among them a poor grasp of the passage of time — had shown any real success.

Maybe it was the flick of Jo’s eyes to the window that warned Holly off the topic of Clay. It reminded her abruptly of how awkward last month’s lunch had been when Jo announced out of the blue that she didn’t want to talk about Clay anymore. Jo had never liked Clay. The feeling was mutual. But she’d never made an issue of it before.

“What do you feel like having?” Jo was studying the menu after the short silence and Holly followed her lead.

“A burger, if you promise not to tell —” She bit back Clay and finished, “on me.”

“I won’t tell.” Jo was serious. “I’ll never tell.”


They ordered and then were left to sip at their mugs of herbal tea. Holly thought of five things to say, but all of them led to the topic of Clay. Jo seemed unusually contemplative.

“How’s Rod?” If they couldn’t talk about her boyfriend, maybe they could talk about Jo’s.

“I suppose he’s fine,” Jo said after a sip from her tea. “We broke up about three months ago.”

Dumbfounded, Holly could only stare.

Jo answered the unspoken question. “It’s not — I wasn’t ready to tell you why.”

Holly considered Jo one of her closest friends, even though when their schedules were busy they saw each other about once a month. They’d liked each other almost immediately, and always seemed able to pick up exactly where they left off. She felt selfish for not asking about Rod the last few months and realized now it was odd that Jo hadn’t mentioned him either. “And now?”

Jo shook her head with her lashes lowered.

“Is something wrong?”

The brilliant flare of Jo’s smile was unexpected and it negated the tears in her eyes. “Nothing. Everything is right.”

“I’m glad, then.” Holly was completely sincere. “You don’t have to tell me why if you don’t want to.”

“I’ll tell you all about it—just not right now.”

Reassured by the happiness in Jo’s expression, Holly let it go, even though she’ felt unsettled by the mystery. They chatted about movies — Jo seemed to have been out a lot recently. Holly assumed she was dating again, but didn’t pry because that would lead to the taboo subject of Jo’s breakup. Jo was positively glowing the entire time they ate their meals.

“I can’t believe you still haven’t seen Good Will Hunting. It’s been on video for ages. You’re the only person I know who’d get the math.” Jo pushed her unruly black curls back from her face.

“We don’t watch a lot of movies.” The plural slipped out before Holly caught herself. She munched on the kosher pickle and realized she’d inhaled the burger without even noticing. It never paid to skip breakfast. She eyed Jo’s unfinished French fries.

“I know — you’re involved in far more worthy pursuits, like reading deep books and weeding your organic cauliflower,” Jo scoffed. “You ought to see it, though. You’d be rooting for the kid all the way. It won an Oscar for the writing, too, so it’s not like it’s crap. Here,” she added, pushing her plate with the last of the French fries toward Holly. “Good thing I didn’t have the grilled veggies, too, huh?”

“Thanks.” She dabbed up some extra salt with a fry before biting off the end. “You haven’t mentioned your dissertation — are you still waiting for a new advisor?”

“Yes. I had one, but then we got word that her entire department is being cut at spring semester. The war on public education never stops.”

“That’s terrible,” Holly sympathized. “Now what are you going to do?”

Jo frowned at her tea. “Shit, I don’t know. I’m glad I’m teaching part-time because it keeps the roof over my head. Hey, did you know the part-timers are starting a union? It’s ridiculous that we don’t have representation like the full-time staff. There are more of us.”

“Maybe that will make a difference.” It seemed to Holly that Jo was in a constant state of flux in her teaching job in the business department at U.C. Irvine, and certainly Clay fared no better in social science at Cal State Fullerton. She’d tell him about the unionizing at Irvine because it was something he would definitely be interested in. Part-timers’ schedules were always being changed, classes added or taken away, or the number of students doubled or halved, all without notice.

“I don’t have a lot of hope,” Jo admitted. “But something has to give. They just keep firing the tenured people and expecting someone like me to provide the same quality classroom experience. It really cheats the students, particularly the undergrads. This is the University of California, for God’s sake. Not to mention that us part-timers are treated like widgets, getting stuffed into whatever hole happens to appear. They wanted me to teach business statistics next semester.”

BOOK: Substitute for Love
11.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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