On the day of the last showing for the fabulously successful Broadway play, Marty’s Sister’s Lover, Leah Kleinschmidt, one of the leads, was bouncing off Michael Raney’s apartment walls, trying to maintain her excitement. After a three month run, everyone was talking about her hilarious portrayal of Marty’s sister, Christine. The critics loved her.
As a result, her agent had received several inquiries from Hollywood and was currently negotiating a development deal for her. After several long years of working her way up, Leah was finally getting what she’d always wanted—a shot at film.
“I mean, okay, a sitcom isn’t exactly film,” she’d said that morning, waving a toothbrush around. “But it’s one step closer, right?”
“Right,” Michael agreed. He was still in bed, watching her bounce around, talking and brushing teeth all at once. He wanted to always remember her like this always—vibrant and happy, her blue eyes shining as she padded around wearing nothing but one of his dress shirts and a pair of footie socks.
“Can you believe it?” she asked him for the thousandth time.
“Yeah,” he said, and leaned back, sprawled across the bed. “I can definitely believe it. You’re awesome.”
She laughed, tossed the toothbrush aside and gleefully pounced on him. “See? This I why I love you, Mikey. I can forgive your sock problem because you’re so wonderful to me.”
“Hey,” he protested, looking at the ridiculous footie socks she was wearing. “I don’t have a sock problem—youdo.”
“No, I have sock standards, which is totally different. And my standard is on your feet, in the laundry, or in a drawer,” she said, as she nuzzled his neck.
“But I don’t even get a fifteen second grace period,” he complained. “Once they hit the floor, the Sock Nazi appears out of nowhere, demanding I put them in the hamper.”
“You’re lucky! I haven’t said anything about boxers yet,” she said, and bit him on the neck.
“What are you doing?” he asked, his hand automatically going to her, stroking her back, her bare leg.
“Leaving a mark so you’ll know how much I’ll miss you when you’re gone.”
The remark made him flinch inwardly. Leah was used to his absence for a week, two weeks tops, but she had no idea that forever was around the corner. That was because Leah really didn’t know much about him at all.
Her head popped up; blonde hair whispered across his face, tickling him. “How long this time?” she asked.
He pushed her hair behind her ears, looked into her glittering blue eyes. “I don’t know, baby.” It was getting harder for him to work around the truth, because his frequent absences for work were a becoming a source of contention between them. He didn’t like that, for a lot of reasons. He didn’t like that he felt guilty every time he left. He didn’t like that he had to leave. And he damn sure didn’t like having such strong feelings for Leah when he knew that he had to leave her for good.
“More than a week?”
“Definitely more than a week.”
She groaned, pressed her forehead to his. “Stupid Austrians! Why can’t they just hire someone there to look after their finances? Why does it have to be you?”
“I don’t know,” he said, stroking her back. “Maybe because I’m good at it? And I speak German and English fairly well?”
“I know, I know,” Leah sighed. “I just really miss you when you are gone.”
“I miss you, too.” And he did, he truly missed her…but he’d always had a disquieting feeling that maybe he didn’t miss her as hard as she missed him, like deep in the gut. But he did miss her…only he’d get busy and forget the little things. Like how she talked with wildly expressive hands. Or how she would frown when she was trying to make the origami art she had been studying the last year. Or how she wiggled her fingers at him when she said good-bye every morning before disappearing into the bowels of the subway.
“And I miss the orchids,” she added, and suddenly sat up, straddling him.
He’d gotten in the habit of having fresh orchids delivered every week just to see her smile, because she always lit up like a Christmas tree at the sight of them. Many nights, she sat at his dining room table, trying to replicate one of the delicate blooms with the expensive origami paper he had given her.
She was not as talented in the art of origami as she was at acting—in fact, she wasn’t very good at all. But Michael would never admit it—he kept buying her paper and ignored her various attempts that now littered his apartment.
“But that’s okay,” she said, caressing his chest with her hands. “I’ll be very excited about the big batch or orchids I’ll get when you come back.”
He hated the disappointment in her eyes, hated it. He tried to smile, but he couldn’t, and instead, he reached up and touched the smooth skin of her face. He could hardly stand to be near her and not touch her. They’d been a couple for nine months now, and he just wanted her that much more.
Leah smiled, moved her hands over his chest.
He slid his hands to her thighs, beneath the tails of his shirt, and up, to her breasts.
Leah closed her eyes; he slid his fingers over the tip of her nipple. With a sigh, she swayed a little, braced herself against his chest. He sat up, quickly unbuttoned the shirt she wore, and pushed it from her shoulders.
This wasn’t what he planned, not how he wanted to end it, but he couldn’t resist her, and began moving his hands everywhere, sliding over her arms, caressing her breasts, her hips, her back. He would miss this, he would miss her body, would miss her laugh, her sigh, her smile.
He took her breast into his mouth and Leah seized his shoulders to steady herself. He a hand to the apex of her legs, his fingers gliding into her cleft.
It was he who groaned this time—she was hot and slick. He put an arm around her waist, tried to pull her off him.
But Leah laughed and resisted. “You said I could be on top this time,” she reminded him.
He grinned, pulled her off of him, rolled her onto her back and came over her. “I lied. If you want to be on top, you’re going to have to earn it.”
“Ooh, bold talk,” she said laughingly.
He kissed her laugh, felt himself floating, the feral sensations taking hold. With his mouth and his hands, he slid down her body, leaving a hot, wet trail on her belly. He pushed her thighs apart, kissing them tenderly, and spurred on by Leah’s gasps and moans. And then he moved slightly, so that his mouth was on her sex.
Leah gasped and clutched at his head. Michael loved that about her—she was a lusty lover, and he slipped his tongue between the slick folds. He held her firmly with his hand and casually stroked her, his tongue dipping in and out languidly at first, tasting her, exploring each crevice, moving up to the core, then down again, to where her body throbbed. As her groans and her writhing increased, so did his urgency. He was stroking her harder, his mouth covering her, and Leah began to press against him.
He licked and sucked her into a frenzy of delicious torment, until Leah was literally gasping for breath. And then she cried out. He came over her, his hands skimming her belly, her breasts, to her face. Leah laughed as he pressed his lips to the hollow of her throat. “Oh my god,” she said. “Oh my god.” She flung one arm above her head, smiling deliriously.
Michael reveled in the soft feel of her body, the tender pressure of her hand and her mouth on his chin. He had never in his life known lovemaking like he knew it with Leah. Each time it left him spent and powerless and hungry for more.
She was moving beneath him, guiding him to her. “What are you waiting for?” she asked him breathlessly.
Michael laughed, moved between her legs and spread them wider, so that the tip of his erection was touching her, moving slowly against her. “You’ve never been exactly patient, have you?”
“No,” she said, and fumbled for the drawer on the nightstand, grabbed a condom. She quickly tore the wrapper with her teeth, then watched his eyes as she rolled the thing on him, using both hands to do it, both hands to stroke and tickle and make him absolutely crazy. “Watch it,” he said with a smile. “You may get more than you bargained for.”
“Not at this rate.”
“Now you’ve gone and done it,” he muttered, and lowered his lips to hers as he eased himself inside her, moving his hips in small circles, until he had slid deep and wet into her, moving slowly, prolonging the moment, teasing her.
But Leah was in no mood to be teased. Her fingernails dug into his hips, urging him deeper and faster.
He smiled. “Where’s the fire?”
“You mean you can’t feel it?” she gasped, digging her fingernails into him even deeper. “Come on, Mikey, don’t make me beg.”
“But I love it when you beg,” he said, hoping she’d beg soon, because he couldn’t keep the teasing up. He needed to be in her. Really in her.
“Please,” she said, lifting her head and biting his lower lip. “Please fuck me.”
That was all it took, and he lengthened his strokes. They were so good together that Leah instantly began to move with him, her hips rising to meet each surge, her breathing as ragged as his, her knees squeezing him.
Michael groaned again; he was sliding deeper and harder, his hands in her hair, his eyes wildly roaming her beautiful face, driving into her, over and over and over again until he closed his eyes and found a very hot and very potent release with a strangled cry.
With one last, residual shudder, he collapsed on top of her and kissed her forehead. “Leah,” he whispered. He loved her, he knew he did, and the Three Big Words were on his lips, just at the tip of his tongue.
“That was fabulous.” She kissed him, raked her fingernails up his back. “You are so sexy, Michael. I just want to eat you up.”
He sighed. She wriggled out from beneath him, moving gingerly to dislodge him from her, and stood up. “I’ve got to have something to drink,” she said, and walked across the apartment into the tiny kitchen, completely and gloriously naked.
Michael rolled onto his side and propped his head on his hands, watching her. The Three big Words slid off his tongue, back into that place inside him he’d kept them all these years, all shiny and new, never used.
There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for Leah, but there was at least one big thing he couldn’t do—he just couldn’t seem to be the guy she wanted, the guy who could go the distance. He was like a marathon runner who would make it to within ten yards of the finishing line of full commitment, where he would inevitably peter out, falling flat on his face, gasping for air and wanting a drink.
He was doing the right thing. His job, his history, and his lifestyle said he was doing the right thing.
A half hour before the curtain went up on Leah’s last performance as Christine, a bundle of orchids arrived for Leah with a note from Michael. Break a leg, baby! it read. I need to talk to you after the show.
Leah blinked and read the note again. I need to talk to you after the show. A shiver of delight raced up her spine—what if her best friend, Lucy, was right? What if Michael was going to ask her to marry him?
“Nah,” she said with a laugh, as she arranged the bundle of orchids on her dressing table. The couple of times she had broached the subject, she had gotten the very serious vibe that Michael wasn’t ready to settle down. Maybe because words like, not ready, and commitment is a big step had come tumbling out of his mouth on the occasions she had tried to talk to him about it.
But what else could he possibly want? It wasn’t as if they hadn’t seen each other quite a lot the last few days. Maybe the tide had turned. It was obvious he loved her, wasn’t it? Granted, he’d never actually uttered those words, but what guy ordered in orchids once a week? Or had very expensive origami paper shipped to her when he was overseas? Or sat on the front row of her play, shouting bravo, bravo? Or made love to her like he’d just crawled out of the desert after being lost for twenty years?
Oh yeah, Michael Raney loved her. He might not say it, but she could feel it.
Of course she hadn’t said it, either. Lucy had warned her about that. “The guy has got to go first,” she’d said. “Otherwise, you come off as needy and end up with egg on your face.” Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but Leah hadn’t found the courage to say it yet.
She thought of him as he had been this morning after they’d made love. She was combing through trade papers while he lay sprawled across the bed, sleeping. The top sheet was wrapped around his leg, the rest of him wonderfully naked. His shoulder-length, thick black hair, which he often wore in a pony tail, was covering part of his face. He was beautiful—a strong, square jaw, high cheekbones, and a single dimple in his right cheek when he smiled. And he had beautiful penny-brown eyes with thick black lashes that made her absolutely melt.
But it wasn’t just his looks she—and most every other woman in New York—loved. It was that he was so good to her, so supportive. And witty. And smart.
Leah picked up the note again, which she had put down on a stack of reviews that called her “brilliant and exciting” and “a sure bet in Hollywood,” and a “genius comedic actress,” and read his note again. I need to talk to you after the show.
Maybe Lucy was right. It had been nine months. They were perfect for each other. And they hadn’t talked about the future in a long time. Maybe, she thought with a smile, that her career and her love life were reaching new heights. Maybe everything was coming together in perfect symmetry, a gift from heaven.
“It ten!” someone shouted outside.
She had her last performance, then the strike party. And then, tomorrow when she woke up, she would be headed for a new life altogether.
Maybe they’d get a new apartment, she thought as she tossed off her dressing gown and did one last check of her costume. Something bigger. Something uptown.
They play ended to thundering applause and the cast was brought back for three curtain calls before the lights came up. At the strike party, the cast was aglow—many of them would be touring with the production in the next few weeks. They were all excited for Leah. “You are so going to Hollywood, girl!” one of the crew shouted at the strike party, which prompted an eruption of cheers for her.
Leah felt so alive—she couldn’t imagine even sleeping again, much less coming down from the exhilaration. And there, across the room, leaning against a column, was the man of her dreams. He was nursing a drink, watching her as she flit from group to group, saying farewell, accepting their warm wishes and accolades.
Michael seemed nervous, Leah thought gaily. Like a man on the verge of a life changing event. He was usually the life of the party, famous for making men laugh and women swoon—he was always flirting—but tonight, he kept to himself, his eyes on her.
He was going to ask her. She just knew he was, and she was floating in anticipation of the moment, buoyed by the knowledge he was The One.
When Michael caught her by the elbow, kissed her cheek and said, “It’s getting late…do you think we could talk?” she beamed at him.
She grabbed her coat, kissed everyone goodbye, laughed at their calls for her to find a place in her new TV show for them, and left on Michael’s arm.
He took her to a coffee shop at the corner, which she thought was odd—but it didn’t matter where he asked her. The important thing was that he loved her.
He sat across from her, his penny-copper eyes dark as he gazed the orchids she was taking home. “You were wonderful tonight,” he said. “You’re going to be a huge star.”
“Oh god, I don’t know,” Leah said sheepishly. “I hope so.”
“You are,” he said adamantly, and reached for her hand. “You’re great, Leah. Everyone who meets you recognizes your talent. You will be very successful.”
“Wow,” she said, still beaming. “That’s so sweet of you to say.”
He smiled, too, but it was a strange smile—a smile like he was dying. “You’re going to be so successful that you won’t need me.”
“Oh, Michael!” Leah laughed. If only he knew that she was the one who worried she’d lose him. “I do need you,” she assured him. “I will always need you. You’re my rock.”
He sighed and withdrew his hand, and gripped the edge of the table so tightly that his knuckles were white, and Leah’s belly did a strange little flip. “What I’m trying to say is that you really don’t need anyone—you’re great all on your own. The world is your oyster.”
“Well maybe,” she said with a smile, “but I don’t want to be alone.”
“But you will be baby, because I am leaving.”
Leah laughed. “I know. We talked about that this morning, remember?”
He looked absolutely miserable. “But this time, I’m not coming back,” he added quietly.
Something thick and hard snapped inside Leah. Her mind couldn’t process the words, but her heart was reeling. “What do you mean, you’re not coming back? That’s silly,” she said with a flick of her wrist.
“Leah…I’m ending it,” he said, his voice depressingly soft.
“Ending it?” she repeated dumbly. “Ending it! Ending us? But…but why?” she asked as panic started to rise in her.
He looked away, shoved two hands through his hair. “My job,” he said simply. “It doesn’t leave room for a…a significant other.”
This could not be happening. This could not be happening! She loved him. She adored him. It felt as if her legs had been chopped out from beneath her. She couldn’t seem to find her balance, a center where she could even absorb the words he was saying, much less understand them. “Just like that?” she asked him breathlessly. “No warning, no indication? We made love today, Michael! What, is this about the Hollywood thing?”
“God, no,” he said, shaking his head. “No, Leah. I want that for you. I want you to go on and be as great as I know you are.”
“But…” She surged forward, reached for his hand. “But Michael, we have a great relationship. Why would you do this? Why would you hurt me like this? I don’t understand!”
He grimaced. “I don’t want to hurt you, I never wanted to hurt you. But in all honestly, I should never have entered this relationship in the first place. I’m not the kind of guy to settle down, and I knew, I…” He paused there, seemed to be searching for words. “I’m sorry, Leah,” he said again. “I am leaving for Austria in the morning. Indefinitely.”
The words fell like rocks between them, each one heavier than the last. Yet Leah could not believe it. She could not believe that nine months of a blossoming, fantastic relationship, that was, by all accounts, a match made in heaven was ending so abruptly with no warning, no clue. Just a blindsided blow. “I don’t get it,” she said, as tears began to well in her eyes. “I thought we were so good together. I had no idea there was anything wrong—“
“There’s nothing wrong. You’re an amazing woman.” He sighed again and looked very pained. “I’m so sorry I have to do this to you. I am sorry I ever let it go this far.”
“Let it go this far?” she cried, and felt the first tear fall. “What does that mean? You weren’t into it but you just strung me along for no reason?”
“No,” he said instantly. “It wasn’t like that. But I never thought…shit, I don’t know what I thought. I just can’t commit, baby.”
“Who the hell asked you to commit?” she cried.
He reached for her hand, but she yanked it out of his reach. “I can’t be with you, not any more. I have to leave. This is for the best—“
“Don’t you dare tell me what is best for me,” she snapped, swiping at the tears that fell from her eyes. “Just…just go, if you’re going.”
“Let me help—“
“No!,” she cried. “Don’t do anything except get the fuck away from me, Michael!” She turned away, fumbled in her bag for some tissues.
He got up and moved toward her, but Leah wouldn’t look at him. She couldn’t look at him. Her whole world had just been turned upside down in one stunning blow. He’d stolen her breath, crushed her heart, and now she lay bleeding and gasping for air. She hated him in that moment. She absolutely hated him. She flinched when he put his hand on her shoulder as if he had burned her; Michael removed his hand, and she listened to his footfall as he walked out of her life, leaving behind nothing but the ashes of what had been the greatest love of her life.