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Prudence, Chapter 7

Kristen needed to get a few things from her house, so, with a few reservations, Mark dropped her off at her door and promised to pick her up after he dropped Kayla off, making sure that Kristen promised to arm the security system and keep all lights off in the house while he was gone.

Several times in the first minutes of the drive to Kayla's house, Mark glanced over at the girl. Kayla failed to notice, simply yawning and leaning her head back against the seat.

"So. What exactly do you feel for Kristen?"

Kayla jumped, startled by the sudden question, and looked at him in surprise. Mark raised an eyebrow. "As you've said to me several times, 'I'm not stupid, you know'."

"I'm not sure what you're getting at here," Kayla replied guardedly.

Mark sighed, shaking his head. "Come on, Kayla. I've been honest with you, even when it was about things that could get me arrested, or worse." He paused, and decided to take a gamble. "How long have you been in love with her?"

"Look...it's not what you think."

"You aren't in love with her then?"

"I...honestly...I mean... Shit." Kayla broke off and stared awkwardly out the window.

"You are, aren't you?" he asked quietly.

"Falling in love love with Kristen would have been just about the most stupid thing anyone could do, especially a girl, especially here."

"Or a teacher. Here or anywhere," Mark added wryly.

She shook her head. "What I mean is, it would have been asking for a broken heart. I mean, stray kittens and all that. Plus, she's always been that freakin' gorgeous."

"Yup. Sure would have been. And she sure is. And none of that made a bit of difference, did it?"

Kayla went on as if she hadn't heard him, "And I'm not a lesbian, despite rumors to the contrary. And those rumors were bad enough without me giving them any substance. And I couldn't save her from herself, okay? I didn't know how. So it was just a bad idea, all around."

She shook her head. "It was best to just stay unnoticed and not join the horde of slavering beasts snapping at her heels."

He nodded again. "About as bad an idea as me falling in love with her. And somehow I suspect you had about as much chance to resist as I did."

Kayla sighed. "Okay," she almost whispered, "So I've had a crush on her since first grade, alright?" She shot him an angry glare. "Before she started exuding sex from every pore, damn it."

"Tell me the truth, Kayla -- is it just a crush?" She hesitated. "First tell me why you want to know."

"Well, if you are in love with her -- and I strongly suspect you are -- we've got a potentially awkward situation on our hands, don't we?"

Kayla sighed again. "Yeah, I was afraid it was something like that."

"Hold on, Kayla. All I mean is that we need to work out how we want to handle it. Are you?"

"If I were, you wouldn't have to worry about it," she assured him. "You can help her, I can't. You're good for her. So I wouldn't do anything to fuck you two up. I really didn't mean to say that out loud the other night. It just slipped out."

"Looks to me like you are good for her too, Kayla. And I think you are making an assumption here. A reasonable one, given the culture you were raised in, but an assumption none the less. Can you tell me what it is?"

"Look," she insisted, "fucking is one thing, especially as it looks like she'll die without it, but you're talking about something else entirely different."

"Yup. I sure am," he said, quite unperturbed.

"Look, it would fuck things up. It would. People get jealous. Things happen." Kayla was starting to sound exasperated.

"Yes, they do," Mark agreed, "but you can work past that jealousy. You have to be committed. You have to be determined to make it work. And sometimes it doesn't work even then. But sometimes it does. I've seen it."

She still resisted the idea. "Plus, it would fucking confuse her. She has a hard enough time dealing with the fact that she has to have sex with people other than the man she loves."

"She's going through a lot of changes right now, Kayla. Of course she's confused. Although -- I'm not sure, after tonight, if she will have to have sex with others. Not if two times with us left her not feeling horny."

That hadn't occurred to Kayla, and she smiled, thrilled. "That would make her happy."

Mark noted the smile. _How did I ever miss the fact that she's in love with her? How did anyone? It's so obvious. _ "Now," he went on aloud, "ignoring whether it's possible or not -- what do you want?"

"I want her to be happy. She hasn't been really happy since she was eleven."

"Ok. That's a good answer. Now, why don't you tell me what I've been trying to find out -- what do you want with her? Do you want to be just her fuck-buddy, or do you want to be her girlfriend." He paused for a deliberate moment. "Or her wife?"

"I don't honestly know what I want. I never considered that anything other than vague friendship was possible. Well, I pretty much knew she'd fuck me, but I did not want to be just one of the others." For once, Kayla sounded her age; a fourteen year old girl confused by the workings of the human heart.

"Kayla," Mark said gently, "I know of five people Kristen trusts. I know of one female among that five. That's you."

She nodded. "I know. She hasn't got any reason to trust anyone, and reason not to trust girls."

Mark shook his head. "I know, but what I'm saying is -- if you want more than just friendship, the possibility might be there. I'm not going to stand in your way. The question is, if it happens, do we have a V or a triad?"

"Oh." Kayla turned and stared out the window again. "Um. Okay, see, that's more complicated too. Because while it might not bother you for me to be with her, it might very well bother her for you to be with me, see?" "Yes. But we're talking ideal outcomes, here. Assume either one could happen, which one would you want to happen?"

Kayla swallowed hard. "This is fucking awkward, you know. I mean...blunt, very blunt."

Mark grinned. "I know. You seem like the kind of girl who'd appreciate that, rather than dancing around the subject."

"I would. I mean...I do, it's just...like, this is without any warning, and it's been such a...strange...night."

He laughed. "That, it has been."

Kayla sighed, smiling and shaking her head at her own awkwardness. "Okay, I'll try. See, it's like this. Yeah, I've been stuck on Kris for a long, long time. But I didn't think there was any real chance of it being anything special, but I tried to help her out when I could, even if she didn't know about it. I got that jackass who hurt her so bad when she was just a kid as best I could. But I'm not a lesbian. I don't think I'm even bi. She's just...special. So, I do like guys. But not boys, because boys are idiots. There's a reason I hide my boobs, okay? Bad enough being a pretty girl with big tits and not knowing if what they like is you or the meat, but when you're a plain girl with big tits you know all they care about is those two lumps of fat, y'know?" Mark nodded, listening quietly.

"But men...men are different. But most men won't even look twice at a fourteen year old girl, and if they do either a) they're looking at Kristen, or b) they're total scuzz of the earth."

Mark nodded again, unable to even vaguely disagree with her assessment.

"So I figured my libido could just wait until I was old enough to attract the kind of non-looks-obsessed, intellectual, honorable kinda man I could be interested in. Sure, I looked...I mean, y'all are pretty, y'know? But it was idle speculation, not anything serious. There was no way I thought I would ever meet a good guy who would do a 14 year old."

She looked at him out of the corner of her eye and grinned ruefully. "Then you came along, and you are tailor-made for teenage crushes, especially geeky teenage girls. Not only are you a seriously good-looking guy, you're not the kind of man we have around here. And you've got a seriously good-looking brain. So, yeah, I joined the cue of little infatuated twits, but I do like to think I had better reasons for it than most of them. I mean, your butt is nice, don't get me wrong, but I at least think it's more important that you can speak with words of more than two syllables. But still...theoretical, as nice guys don't, y'know. But then you did, with Kristen, and you were still a nice guy, and I couldn't get the traitorous little thought out of my head, see?"

"Um, I guess so," he answered.

Kayla sighed again, with a hint of relief. "But I did not...do not, want to hurt her. Because while I'm way attracted to you, and could get real attached to you, I've wanted to make her happy for years and years." She hesitated, blushing, before adding, "And...I'm a virgin."

Mark waited quietly, letting her finish without interruption.

"So...the thought is...intriguing, but there's a lot of stuff in the way of it being anything other than a thought," Kayla finished and looked at him expectantly.

Mark looked thoughtful. "So...ideally, you'd like it to be a triad, but you'd be just as happy with a V? Am I understanding you correctly?"

"Um. Yeah. I think so." She frowned, disgruntled by his ability to summarize things so compactly.

Mark grinned. "I can live with that. For the record, you've got a pretty damned good looking brain yourself. Now. I'm going to be talking to Kristen about this. How you feel about her may -- probably will -- come up. What am I allowed to tell her?"

"Geeze...don't, Mark. I mean, shit, I don't want her to feel bad about it, either way. And she's the type who would feel guilty about not returning my feelings. Why do you think I've never said anything to her?"

"Ok. What if she feels the way you do, though?"

Kayla shook her head. "Not possible."

"Oh?" he asked with a raised eyebrow. "You do not understand how hard it was for her to admit to loving you, to let herself love you. You just don't. To even think that she loved someone else too...that would make her feel like she didn't really love anyone, and would cause her serious pain. So she won't. And even if she could, it would take time. You're something new and different and special in her experience, I'm not. I honestly didn't think she would ever say 'I love you' to anyone again."

Mark was quiet for a second before answering. "I see. Damn. That tells me that somehow I need to bring up the concept of polyamoury to her. Without making her think that she's not enough for me. This is going to be tricky."

"Look...maybe someday, but not now. Seriously. Let it wait. This is a hard time for her. Let her see that you can love someone and not have them totally rip your heart out and feed it to the crows before you try to alter social conditioning, okay?"

Kayla fell silent, deep in thought. Finally, she turned to look at him directly. "Listen, there's something you need to know, and she wont' tell you about it."

Mark glanced at her, concerned at her somber tone. "What?"

"When Kristen was eleven, she fell in love. She was already beautiful, already beginning to show signs of...being the way she is now. She already radiated sex. Every move she made was sensual. It wasn't irresistable like it is now, but you could see that it would get there eventually."

"Jason was seventeen. Tall, blond, blue-eyed; he was the most popular guy in school, and most of the girls had a crush on him. He was one of the counselors at the summer camp Kristen went to that year. It didn't take much interest from him to convince Kristen that she was in love with him. Within two days, she'd happily given him her virginity. After that, she was his. She would do anything for him." Kayla's voice grew tighter and tighter, her anger seeping into every word.

"She even asked her father to pay for an extra session at camp just so she could stay with him. She thought he loved her, too. If he'd really loved her, things might have been different. She was already becoming impossible to resist, and she was willing, but..." Kayla shook her head angrily. "Anyway, school started, and for a few weeks she'd meet him at lunch, or after school. He was in high school and she was still in elementary, so there wasn't much of a chance for them to see each other during school."

"Then it was October and time for the Fall Festival, when the entire school mingles. They snuck off under the bleachers and had sex. She went to the bathroom to clean up, fully expecting her 'date' to be there when she got back. He wasn't."

"She went looking for him, of course. She was worried about the bastard. She found him with a group of his friends, and asked him why he hadn't waited for her."

Kayla's grip on the car door was white-knuckled. She spit out the rest of the story. "All of his friends were in on the joke, of course. Sex equals status to teenage boys, and virgins count double, no matter how young."

Mark's own hands tightened on the steering wheel, and he pulled over, unable to see the road through the haze of anger growing before his eyes.

Kayla continued, "He answered her with his very first bit of honesty. 'Why should I? We're done for tonight.' She still didn't understand. She thought they were going to the dance together. 'Why would I take you to the dance? I have a real date for that.' She was devastated. She told him she loved him, that she thought they were in love, that she didn't understand, and he laughed. They all did. He made it quite plain that he'd never intended for her to be anything but a convenient fuck, and he couldn't believe how stupid she was for thinking he could actually love a little girl like her."

Kayla's voice broke, and she stopped, covering her eyes with her hands for a moment before going on. Mark gripped the steering wheel as if it were alive and he wanted to kill it, visions of finding that piece of filth and dismembering him surging through his head.

"The next day, she started working her way through the school, starting with his best friend. She told him...and everyone else..." Kayla smiled viciously, "that it was such a relief to finally have sex with a real man, instead of one who couldn't stay hard for more than three seconds and came the instant anyone touched his dick. It was a good revenge, and she doesn't know it, but I got the bastard for her, too. But she swore then that she'd never, ever fall in love again, and if she did 'make that mistake', she'd die before she'd let the guy know, because love gives people too much power over you."

Mark sat without speaking, trying to get his emotions under control. "You said you 'got' him," he gritted out between clenched teeth. "What did you do?"

Kayla smiled again. "Jason was into all kinds of things. Drugs. He was stupid, too. I got proof. I held onto it til he was 18. He went to jail thanks to 'an anonymous source'. I have an aunt who worked at that prison, a doctor. I told her about what he'd done to Kristen, and she made sure that everyone knew it. I think he died of AIDS last year. That's what I heard, anyway."

Mark looked at the girl admiringly. "Damn. That's a really attractive brain you have."

"Like I said, she got him pretty good...but it wasn't enough."

He nodded, feeling almost cheated at the fact that he wouldn't be able to kill the bastard himself.

Mark sighed, remembering what started the discussion as he pulled back onto the road. "Kayla, I know what you were saying. But what if she starts to fall in love with you before I talk to her about it?"

"Then be subtle as it happens. Let her know that it's okay if she does, but not in such a way as to make her feel insecure about it. Don't ever open up the subject of you sleeping with me. If she wants it to happen, she'll bring it up, if she doesn't, then it's not going to. Do not, under any circumstances, tell her I'm in love with her...you can make sure she knows that I care about her, but let her enjoy having a friend before anything more, and don't give her any reason to feel guilty."

Thoughtfully, he nodded. "I can tell her the story of Amy, Melissa, and Tanya. That might be enough to let her realize the possibility exists."

"If you do, then she'll think you want to have other people," Kayla cautioned, "and if you haven't noticed, she's got a bit of a self-esteem problem, y'know?"

"Right. I'm fairly sure that she'll be worried about how I feel about her making love to you, and so I can tell her about my friends the lesbians, and since they were a triad, well..."

"Just be careful," Kayla insisted, "I mean, look...if she wants you to be 100% faithful to her, and you're not, then I'd have to hurt you. I mean it. All bets are off if you hurt her, and I won't fight fair. I'd hate to have to kill you."

"Kayla, if she wants me to be faithful, I will. End of story. She's more than enough for me." He looked at her. "You do realize the same goes for you?"

"Huh?" Kayla was taken by surprise. "If she wants you to be faithful..."

She laughed. "I've been celibate all my life. Why would I cheat on her. I mean, it's not like I could find better! Besides... I was raised here. Not cheating is kinda plugged into my brain."

"I haven't been celibate, Kayla, and I can tell from experience -- you won't find better. You needed that warning exactly as much as I did."

"I'm not the one proposing threeways," she disagreed. "I'm not the one with triangular friends. I said, 'don't worry about it, it's not worth fucking things up'."

"I know," he grinned. "But I am not willing to deprive Kristen of something that would make her happy. That's the only reason I brought it up. I'm not going to touch you, or anyone else, without her permission. That's what I'm saying. Polyamoury isn't cheating, Kayla. Do you really think I would cheat on her?"

"I don't think so, but I'm not exactly Ms. Experience in these things. But I do think that you might do something that you don't think would hurt her but it turns out it would. You'd never intend to hurt her, but you just wouldn't realize you were doing it."

"Ok, I can understand that. And I can see your point; that's why I will never touch someone else without a clear statement from her telling me to. And I won't do it then if I think it would make her unhappy for me to do so."

"Yeah, but do you get that even hinting that you might want permission could be just as bad?" Kayla asked.

"Yes. But..." He glances over at her. "You do realize that we talked about me making love to you earlier today? And that she understands that I'm not going to do anything she doesn't want?"

"Does she? And do you understand that she might not tell you she doesn't want something? She might tell you just the opposite if she thinks you want it?" Her earnest voice held honest fear. "She's had four years of giving people what they want, Mark."

Mark said, very quietly, "She did tell me, Kayla. She told me she didn't think she could handle it right now. I said, and I quote, "That's fine, love."

Kayla let her breath out, relieved. "Good. It makes me feel better that she'd tell you that."

"Me, too. I want her to be her own person, Kayla. And I think, now that she's not being starved...she can be."

They pulled up at Kayla's house, and Mark's train of thought was violently derailed. In addition to the almost customary state of all the lights in the house being on and strange music drifting from an upstairs window, there seemed to have been an accident with the lawn. About a 10 ft. square of it was a sickly shade of puce.

Mark furrowed his brow. "Um...your yard..."

Kayla shook her head. "My. Family. Is. Weird. End of story."

"Okay," he said, but couldn't help staring at her curiously.

She laughed. "Later maybe. Go on, if you're late, she'll worry." She smiled shyly. "g'night Mark. I...had a good time tonight, whatever comes of it."

He smiled back. "So did I, Kayla. Night."

Mark headed back to Kristen's house as fast as he could without speeding. When he got there, the house was dark except for what looked like the dim glow from a couple of night lights here and there. He walked up to the door, ringing the doorbell.

Kristen opened the door quietly, and slipped outside with a duffel bag over her shoulder. She was still glowing softly, looking rather like a high-budget special effect.

Mark smiled. "Hey, love. Let's get home."

She smiled back, somewhat shyly. "You're sure this is okay?"

He shook his head. "No, it's wonderful. Better than okay."

She giggled and hopped into the car, sliding as close to him as her seat belt would allow.

Mark drove quietly for a moment before asking, hesitantly, "So. How do you feel about tonight?"

She didn't pretend not to understand him, at least, but her answer wasn't particularly informative. "Um. Weird."

"Oh?"

She smiled at him reassuringly. "I mean, I'm okay and everything, it's just that a lot happened y'know? And it's so strange being able to think about things."

"You've never been able to just think before? Wow." He hesitated. "I hope you aren't mad at me."

"Oh, Mark! Of course I'm not mad at you, why would I be?"

"Well, when you and Kayla were making love, I told you no. I hope you understand why."

"Oh. I'd forgotten that, actually. Well, I was kinda upset at the time, but once I was calmer, I understood. It's okay."

"Okay. I was really surprised that you had me...you know."

She blushed, the glow radiating from her skin acquiring a distinctly pinkish tint. "Um. Well. I was, too. But, it seemed like a good idea at the time. And I wanted to see if, y'know...it helped, having all three of us doing something."

"You do know...I wouldn't ask you to let me do that, don't you? I mean, I enjoyed it, but you are enough for me." He grinned. "More than enough."

"I...um...well, if this feeling lasts a while, you'll have more energy, more time, so..." She trailed off with a shrug.

Mark glanced at her. "So if I told you that once we got home I'd like to crawl between your legs and lick you, you wouldn't be interested?"

"Oh!" She blushed even brighter. "Well...If you want to."

He grinned broadly. "I'd love to. So are you going to want to get together with Kayla again?" He looked over at her. "With or without me; that will always be your choice. Well, hers, too."

Kristen didn't answer right away, and when she did, her voice was guarded. "I don't know. I guess it depends on how tomorrow goes."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I mean, she might be embarrassed and not want to talk to me, or she might want to pretend it didn't happen or something." She looked away, face troubled.

He smiled, glad to be able to ease her fears in that regard. "I doubt that's the case. Well, actually, I know that's not the case. She loved it."

Kristen shrugged, still unwilling to meet his eyes. "Yeah, but she might feel different after she has a chance to think about it. It happens."

He shook his head. "I doubt it, Kristen. Not in this case. Trust me. And if she's still interested tomorrow?" "Why?" she blurted out, then bit her lip. "I mean, what's the hurry?"

"I just want you to think about it, Kristen," he said gently, "so that you can figure out how you feel about things. It's always a good idea to think things through in advance. You do realize that it won't bother me if you get together with her again, right? That I don't have any problems with you sleeping with another girl?"

"Well, I didn't really think you would, since you don't mind me sleeping with other guys." She grinned knowingly. "I mean, lots of men like the idea of two girls."

"True. But around here...well, I can imagine guys being hung up on it. I'm not, though. Three of my best friends in college were lesbians. They were sickeningly cute together, too." He watched out of the corner of his eye to see if she caught the implication.

Kristen snorted. "Guys around here pretend to be, unless they're talking to a girl they think might do it for them. Girls really are, though, I think."

He nodded, trying again to test her reaction. "I think they had more trouble from girls than guys about being lesbians, although I think the trouble was about evenly split, as far as gender goes, for having more than two people in the relationship. They got a lot more trouble from that."

The light dawned. "Ah," Kristen said. "I can see that."

Mark went on, "I was pretty surprised when I figured out all three of them were involved. I mean, I'd never even thought of such a thing." He paused reflectively. "I learned a lot from them, though, about how to handle a relationship. They had to really work at it, to keep it going. I asked Melissa, once, whether it was worth the effort. She told me that yeah, it was a lot of work, but when it was working, it was wonderful -- each of them knew the others were there to help them, support them if they needed it. Made me realize that that's what I wanted, when I fell in love -- someone who would support me when I needed it, and would let me support them when they needed it."

Kristen sat silently a moment, absorbing what he'd said, before asking, "Have you ever been in love before?"

The pulled up in Mark's driveway and he killed the engine and turned to look at her. "Yeah. I have." He sighed, staring out at the dark fields. "Remember the friend I had who discovered she was a lesbian? Her. It was pretty hard, but...I had to let her go. We're still good friends. She's one of the few people I could tell about you, and trust that she wouldn't go to the cops."

"Oh," Kristen said, very quietly. "Did she love you, too?"

He nodded. "Yeah. It was one of those things where, well, it just couldn't work out. She's more like a little sister to me than anything else, now." He sighed again. "I honestly think that if she'd been bi things might have worked out differently. But once she figured it out, well...she didn't have any sexual interest in guys at all. She never had had, she'd just been trying to force herself because she didn't know the difference."

"Oh," she said again. "I'm sorry."

Mark reached over and squeezed her thigh. "Don't be. After all, if things had worked out with her, I wouldn't be in love with you." He looked at her seriously. "You aren't worried that I think you will leave me because you like girls, are you? I mean, I know better."

She smiled. "Yeah, I know. And I hope you know I'm not going to leave you...not for anyone or anything. I just...I don't know. I mean, this is the first time I've been able to actually talk to you without constantly thinking about sex." She swallowed, glancing away again, "And I got to thinking..."

Mark nodded encouragingly.

She looked at him with worried green eyes, and asked, "We don't really know each other very well, do we?"

He shook his head. "Not really. I know enough about you to know I love you, though, if that's what you are worried about."

She smiled, the fear not completely leaving her eyes. "Yeah, but what if you think I'm god awful boring when I'm not ripping your clothes off every five minutes?"

Mark squeezed her leg again. "I doubt that, Kristen. Let me point something out to you -- even distracted by sex, you were no worse than an average student. What are you going to be like when you can concentrate? And what I do know about you is interesting. Don't be insecure about that, love."

Kristen looked down at her lap. "I just thought-- I mean, it sounds silly, but sex has been my hobby. My job too, when I think about it. This is the first time I can remember when half my concentration hasn't been focused on who I was going to do next and how. I don't know what people do with all that time! I don't have anything to fill it up with."

He grinned. "Study. Imagine the looks on people's faces when you turn into a straight A student! Practice your art. Read. Write. Just about anything you want, love."

"You won't be disappointed if I don't need as much?" she asked nervously.

"Not at all, love. I love you, not your sex drive."

Kristen raised an eyebrow. "See, that's the point. All you've seen of me is my sex drive."

"Not true. I haven't seen much of you, but I have seen it. Now I'll get to watch you...well, blossom."

Kristen smiled, brightening slightly. Literally. Then she met his eyes soberly. "Serious question, love?"

"Okay, ask." He took her hand in his and squeezed it comfortingly.

"If you decide you don't like me, or think you're not going to...tell me? Please? Right away? And, um. If you decide that all you want to do with me is sex," she swallowed hard, voice shaking, "Then, that's okay, too. Just tell me, so I know."

He raised her hand to his lips, kissing it softly. "I will. But that's not going to happen." He looked at her questioningly. "Are we asking each other the hard questions, tonight?"

"I thought we already did?"

"Point. I'm kind of surprised -- you didn't seem shocked that my friends were in a three-way relationship. I'd figure someone who grew up around here would be."

"Mark...it wasn't a good one, but I've been in a 237-way relationship for the past three and a half years."

He raised an eyebrow. "No, I don't think so, Kristen. You've been having a slow orgy for three and a half years, not a relationship." He licked his lips, pausing for just a second. "There's a reason I told you that story, you know."

"Oh?" She sounded very nervous.

"You can't always control how you feel. I wanted you to understand that it won't bother me if you end up falling in love with someone else -- Kevin, David, Aaron, Kayla, someone else entirely -- as long as they respect our relationship. I don't want you to feel like you are betraying me, okay?" He grinned. "Just remember that I am the one who asked you to marry him -- or her -- first." He sobered again. "I would like you to promise to always be honest with me about how you feel about someone, and if you do think that you are falling in love with them, tell me, okay? Don't let me be blind sided?"

"Ah...I don't know what to say, Mark." He took her other hand, too. "It may never happen, Kristen. Or it might happen next week. But I don't want you feeling guilty, okay? I love you too much to keep you from something that would make you happy."

"I don't want to love anyone else, Mark. It's scary enough just loving you."

"I know. Love is a terrifying frightening thing. And whether you want to love them or not, sometimes you do." He paused, thinking of the story Kayla had told him. "I know the idea of being in love scares you. That's why I brought this up. I could just imagine how you'd feel if you started to fall in love with someone else and I hadn't had this conversation...that's why. I couldn't do that to you. I can't bear the thought of you thinking you were...were being disloyal to me by falling in love with someone else."

They sat in the silent darkness for a few moments, holding hands, neither making a move to get out of the car.

After a while, Kristen asked, almost whispering, "Mark, you know you don't have to be that way, right? That if anything I do bothers you, you can tell me, and I'll stop. I want to know." "I know," he answered just as quietly, "and I will tell you. I'll be honest with you that way, just like you were honest with me when you told me you didn't want me sleeping with Kayla."

"I didn't say I didn't want you to," she corrected, "I just said that I couldn't handle it yet."

"I assumed that that was pretty much the same thing, love. Let me put it this way: I'll never intentionally touch a woman in a way that you haven't told me I can, Kayla or anyone else. Okay?"

"Okay, but you'd tell me if you want to, right?"

"I will. I have, remember? I told you that I'd love to make love to Kayla, and that I wasn't going to because you couldn't handle it. What I need you to understand is that not making love to her doesn't bother me. I'm not in love with her, I'm in love with you."

"When your...friend...broke up with you, the one you loved, did you stop being in love with her?"

He had to think about it. "Not immediately. Not at all, really, but the nature of that love changed over time, and like I said, she's like my sister now. Why?"

"I guess I don't understand love, really. I'm trying, but it just confuses me. I mean, I'm happy to love you...it feels wonderful! But at the same time, it's so scary, like this great big target is painted on me and thousands of guns are aimed at it, just waiting for the signal to fire." Kristen shivered. "And if you had stopped loving her, then you'd know how it felt when you stopped loving someone, and I wouldn't have to worry about you not realizing it if it happened."

His heart clenched at the fear in her voice. "Kristen, I would realize if it happens. I realized when my love for her changed, and that's a far less drastic change than stopping loving her. But it's not going to happen. Okay? I do love you."

"I know, Mark. I believe you. But I don't know how it happened! If you don't know what you're doing to make something happen, then you might stop by accident!"

"That's where you are making your mistake, love. You aren't doing anything to make me love you. I love you because you are you. It's not something you can stop, okay?"

She unbuckled her seat belt and slid up against him, sighing. "Okay. I'll cut the philosophy, lover. I don't think I'm very good at it anyway."

He raised an eyebrow. "Oh, I don't think you're so bad at it, love. I've just got more experience."

She snuggled up to him, smiling. "Um," she offered, shyly, "I brought something to show you. I haven't ever shown it to anyone. Can we go in the house now?

He tilted her chin up and kissed her tenderly. "Of course, love."



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