Copyright © 2022 Verena Key. All rights reserved. The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author. No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher. The cover has been provided by GetCovers (getcovers.com).
“Grab my hand!“ Lily shouted, reaching over the edge of a precipice and praying to all gods known to her that the man she was trying to save would listen.
“No, don’t look down!” she warned him. “My hand, take it. I’ll pull you up!”
The light of her headlamp, a tiny circle of brightness in the complete darkness of the cave, illuminated the pale face of the man below her. The sound of rushing water drowned whatever words he uttered. He was scared. Lily could see it in his eyes, the hardly contained panic of someone who had probably never been in an actual life-threatening situation before – in his world anything with a semblance of danger would require multiple safety features and additional insurance clauses. But here, there were no safety nets.
She was scared too but she knew how to control it. The same way she had controlled it all those other times when she’d been sure she would die.
“Listen to me!” she shouted over the din and signaled with her hand. “The water is rising. We need to get to higher ground. Now!”
He shook his head and remained glued to the rock. Lily was running out of patience.
“Listen, mister, if you don’t move your butt right now, I swear, once we get out of here, I’ll tell everyone what a pussy you are! Great Bruce Holt! The hero of action movies! Whining like a little girl! Stay there and you can kiss your reputation goodbye!”
The words seemed to have had an effect because his eyes became more focused. Of course, they would, thought Lily. The guy’s ego was probably the only thing bigger than his fear right now. He would remember the insults and retaliate later, no doubt, but she was okay with it if it meant that there would be a later for them. Still, to her annoyance, he didn’t move.
“I thought you could do something useful with all those sculpted muscles of yours! And yet, I’m up here, and you’re not! I’m safe and you’re hanging there like a…hibernating bat!”
This time, she saw a definite spark of anger in his eyes. Good, he was starting to see the rock, not only stare at it. He moved one arm, reaching above him. Lily quickly grabbed his wrist, stabilizing his grip on the slippery handhold.
“Now your foot! Carefully!” Lily urged, but he was not thinking about what he was doing, relying on his strength, and slipping a couple of times. She held fast as she commanded him, “I said carefully! Good boy! And up we…go!” She strained, pulling him up with all she had in her.
“Don’t let go of me,” he gasped.
“I’ll…never…let…go!” Lily uttered. The effort making her groan, she dragged him over the edge to safety.
As they lay panting next to each other, Lily thought how this was not the way things were supposed to be. Rewinding the past few days in her head, she tried to identify the exact moment when everything had gone south. Oh, baby, the past few days? How about the past few years? Or decades?
Was it her decision to become a scientist? Studying caves, what kind of a job was that? Her father certainly always laughed about it, bringing up her brother as an example – the brother with a job in a bank, a house, a car, and a pregnant wife. Was it her getting the leading position in the exploration and preservation team of this cave, the one that was threatening to swallow them alive? Or was it accepting the offer of the movie studio to let them film a part of their latest blockbuster, “Among the untouched beauties of an underground paradise,” as they had put it? Paradise, her ass. If they wanted paradise, they could have chosen any number of exotic locations rather than filming in this part of the Alps. It was rough terrain at the best of times, and right now, it was more like hell and getting worse. That was what you got when budget overruled sense. Or beauty for that matter.
No, she knew it. It was the moment in the second grade when that big bully had pulled her hair, and she had done nothing. If she had learned back then how to ascertain her position, how to dominate others, as her father often said, this whole mess could have been avoided. And maybe the movie people would have listened to her when she said that it was risky going into the cave with the storm brewing on the horizon and that she didn’t care that they had only one day of filming left before they exceeded the budget, no one was getting below the ground if she could stop it! But she’d been too quiet, and they had all understood it as a suggestion, rather than a decision. She had not insisted, remembering the conversation with her boss where he explained how important the money and the visibility that the movie crew provided were for their conservation efforts. She had relied on her luck, ignoring her most important personal rule of caving and life in general – never rely on your luck.
“You okay there?” she asked.
Bruce Holt, the man millions of women throughout the world drooled over daily, stirred on the ground next to her.
“I guess,” he croaked.
“Good. Now, follow me. We need to get higher. And I mean without taking any drugs,” she chuckled.
Oh, my, that was so much more stupid than funny, but she had to give it herself, she was not in the best shape for cracking jokes right now. He tried to complain, but she silenced him. Where was she finding the gumption to talk to him like that, she wondered? Probably it was death breathing down her neck that gave her the courage to stand up to this spoiled macho. Too bad she hadn’t found such courage sooner.
“See that mud line?” she pointed to the wall of the cave on the opposite side. “That’s how high the water can get occasionally. Such an occasion is now. And we are still below it. Not much, but enough to get trapped and get our asses wet. Do you want to get soaked? I don’t if I can avoid it. Hypothermia is a bitch.”
“I’m coming,” Bruce sounded too exhausted to argue.
Lily felt a bit sorry for him. He was in alien territory, and here she was belittling him all the while. Sure, he could probably do with being taken down a notch or two now and again, but this certainly was not the time or place for it. She suspected that it was her own fear and frustration coming through and that there were other ways to motivate someone afraid and out of their depth.
Breathe in, breathe out. This was her world, the place where she felt at home. Right now, that home was not the safest spot in the universe, but her childhood home at the time when she had lived with her mother and a stepfather hadn’t been one either and she had survived. This here was fair, or at least neutral. Nature did not choose a victim to punish for no reason at all, like her stepfather used to do. It gave you a chance to escape if you were smart or strong enough. She needed to calm down and think. She knew this hall. She had mapped it only last spring with two students, in all three dimensions.
“The good thing, Mr. Holt, is that I’ve never seen any mud or debris on the ceiling of this hall,” she said as she led the way.
“Why’s that a good thing?” he asked, following obediently.
“It means it won’t fill up. Shouldn’t fill up,” she corrected herself. “There’s a first time for everything.”
Bruce Holt grabbed her arm to slow her down.
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” he asked.
She shook his hand off. “No. I don’t give a damn how you feel. Because this is all your fault. You and your stupid movie!”
Oh, crap. That was not entirely fair, but she was pissed off, if that was any excuse, and anyway he shared in the irresponsibility of the whole film gang.
“How can it be my fault that the cave has been flooded? Have I ordered the rain to fall?”
“No, but if the likes of you who earn millions thought about spending some of that money on nature protection instead of on parties or drugs, I wouldn’t be forced to prostitute myself and this precious cave, which, by the way, took hundreds of millions of years to form, to secure money to keep our projects running. And I wouldn’t have to do things against my better judgment and babysit your sorry ass, while all along for the past couple of days you’ve done nothing but made my life miserable. If you had stayed in the big hall, we would’ve had enough time to get out before the water blocked the entrance. But you had to go exploring, didn’t you, as if this was an entertainment park… So, yes, it is your fault!” she concluded, somewhat loud.
“I’m sorry, but we hired you as an expert. If you were not so incompetent, we wouldn’t be here in the first place. You should’ve said something before!” he yelled back.
“I tried. But nobody listened. Because you rich people seem to think that having money gives you control over everything, including the universe.”
“Well, you should have tried harder!” he was not giving up.
“Well, your life should have been more important to your producers than the money, but guess what, it was not!”
Lily looked down, noticing that the water was already sloshing around their feet.
“Shit!” she said and pulled him. “Enough squabbling. Over there, that flowstone. On the right side of it, there’s a crack in the wall, which we can climb to a passage. I think it’s high enough. Come on.”
They hurried to the large, impressive limestone structure, glistening in the light of their electric lamps. When they reached the wall, Lily adjusted her helmet and gloves.
“I’ll go first. It’s an easy climb. Use your back and your hands and feet to wedge yourself in the crack. Just look at me and do the same. Ready?”
He nodded. It was a real action movie scene, thought Lily, and gave him an encouraging smile. Or maybe she was trying to encourage herself. She checked the wall in front of her again. There would be time to be exhausted once they were safe. She took a deep breath and started to climb.
A couple of minutes later, and she managed to drag herself into a small passage on the upper level of the cave. Bruce Holt followed, and after a short rest – in which Lilly bit her tongue, not daring to say, “There you go, wasn’t so hard now, was it?” – they explored their surroundings.
“If we continue that way?” Bruce pointed at the passage.
“Dead end,” Lily said. “This is the widest part of it.”
“So, what do we do now?” he wondered.
Lily turned around, checked if all her parts were still in working order, and then took off her helmet.
“We’ll sit on these, wrap ourselves in an Astro-foil to keep warm, and wait. I’ll check out the water level occasionally, although it seems it has stopped rising, or at least slowed down.”
“And that’s all?”
“No,” Lily said thoughtfully. “It will be warmer if we huddle together. And we might want to save battery power, so either we turn off one or both of the lights.”
“And sit in the dark?” he sounded nervous.
“Better than climbing down in the dark,” she replied. “Listen, calm down. This is a porous terrain, the water will recede within a day max, the passage is long enough that we can use a part of it as a toilet, and I have a candy bar in my pocket. What more could you wish for?”
He was still nervously looking down, but Lily was already making herself comfortable on the floor, so he followed her lead. She showed him to sit closer as she unwrapped the foil.
“You were serious about huddling together?” he asked.
“Of course. And I’ll be telling my children and grandchildren about it. And will preserve this foil we shared forever,” she scoffed at him.
He laughed, still somewhat tensely. “Does nothing of this scare you?” he asked, settling next to her.
“Of course it does. I’m scared to death. Me talking like this is the equivalent of a hysterical cackle,” she admitted. “No need to slap me, though.”
“Well, you sure had me fooled,” he observed with some admiration.
They leaned on each other and pressed in close. In contrast to the damp cold she felt on the cheek that was still exposed, it soon became warm enough within the foil wrapped around their shoulders for them to relax slightly. Slightly. It only took a couple of seconds for the discomfort of their closeness to set in.
Lily checked the situation below a couple of times, but the water level remained stable, and the rushing sound slowly faded into the background.
“I’ll turn off my light now if it’s okay with you,” she said after a while.
“I guess,” said Bruce.
“I have to warn you, though, the darkness is complete. It’s like going blind. So, if you find that you’re not comfortable, we could turn the light back on. I have a spare headlamp and some extra batteries. But I’ll feel better knowing that we haven’t depleted the first set.”
“It’ll be okay,” he assured her. “I’ll just focus on your voice.”
“Does that mean I’ll have to keep on talking?”
“I thought you liked talking,” he said. “Women like talking, don’t they?”
“This one doesn’t,” Lily replied and turned off the light. “I was thinking about taking a nap actually.”
Darkness closed over them like an infinite blanket. It was complete, just as Lily said, but it still didn’t fail to surprise her how overwhelming it could be, penetrating the soul and thoughts, confusing the senses, and tricking the mind.
“Wow, this is…incredible,” Bruce said quietly.
“You are not going to flip out on me now?” Lily asked.
“No, I…I actually feel fine,” he replied.
Lily smiled, to herself, since there was no way he could see it.
“Good. Now may I take my nap?”
He said nothing, so she carefully leaned onto him, and when he did not complain, lowered her head on his shoulder. It was not much of a pillow, because he was so tense, but his muscles were impressive, she had to admit. She closed her eyes, although it did not make much difference, and tried to focus her thoughts and calm down. Taking a nap was out of the question, she knew, at least until her adrenaline levels went down, but she needed to relax and think. So far, they were out of danger and there was not much more they could do anyway, but her body had to realize that and stop wasting energy it didn’t have on trying to escape.
“Miss…what’s your name?” she heard Bruce say.
“Lily,” she said grumpily. He didn’t even know her name. Go figure!
“Lily,” he repeated, “have I really made your life miserable for the past few days?”
Did he really want to know? She sighed.
“Mr. Holt, I have to warn you, this darkness, it affects people. They say things they would’ve otherwise never said. So, be careful what you ask and what you tell.”
“I’m sorry if I treated you badly?” he said, a tinge of questioning in his tone. Lily could almost hear him scanning his memory to find her invisible presence.
“Well, you did. I mean, I’ve busted my ass to organize safe access to the cave for your people; I’ve ignored what the floodlights were doing to the bat population, as well as the number of stalactites the filming crew damaged, and you didn’t even remember my name. And you were not polite, not just to me. If you want things done, then ask nicely, even if you are paying the person who’s supposed to do it. No one will think less of you if you’re kind.”
“Okay. That was honest. I can see that the darkness certainly affects you,” he laughed, although it sounded a bit forced. Was it possible that Bruce Holt was embarrassed by his behavior?
“I’ve already called you a pussy to your face. How much worse can it get?” laughed Lily back.
There was a pause in which Lily could tell that Bruce was thinking. Here goes.
“I guess I should thank you for saving my life back there,” he added after a while. “And you can call me Bruce.”
Lily frowned. She did not want to get all chummy and confidential with him. She did not know why, but it could have been her ingrained distrust of other people, men especially. It was not as if her life experience could have taught her differently.
“Bruce, I’m touched,” she said sarcastically, “but I did not save your life. You could’ve climbed easily by yourself. You were just a little scared, but that’s normal.”
“I was scared,” he admitted. “But there’s more to it. I’m not a pussy.”
Oh, boy, thought Lily. Was he so bothered by that?
“I didn’t climb back there because I couldn’t,” she heard him say and something in his voice made her listen carefully. She remained quiet, knowing that he would continue.
“A couple of months ago I was diagnosed with unspecified muscle weakness. It comes and goes, but sometimes it gets so bad that I can’t grip things properly, or hold on, or even stand. And sometimes there’s pain as well. Back on the wall, one of my hands was starting to give out and I was afraid that if I moved, I would fall…”
“You’re sick?” frowned Lily. That did not sound good on so many levels.
“I…don’t know. They ran some tests, and I was supposed to go and talk to some specialists, but the shooting came in between and…I guess I just hoped that if I ignored it, it would go away.”
“So, you don’t know what’s wrong with you?” she concluded. “And…what about the film crew, do they know?”
“No,” said Bruce. “I tried to hide it from them. Mostly by being an asshole.”
Lily sat up straight. So much for her napping. Muscle weakness, it could have been many things and none of them was good. It made her almost feel sorry for Bruce Holt, but she snapped out of it quickly. Why should she feel sorry for him? He could not deal with his problems and now they were in this mess, and that was yet another thing to consider, and what if he had a seizure or something here, how was she ever going to be able to help him or get him out? And yet, before she considered what she was doing, she found and squeezed his hand. He squeezed back. Okay, his grip strength was not that bad, she registered, but then she realized he did not let go. She considered what to do and then decided to let him hold her hand a while longer.
“You are a grownup, right?” she said. “You know the drill? You don’t ignore bad things, you face them and deal with them. Otherwise, the shit just piles up.”
“I know,” he said quietly.
“So, I’ll do my best to get us out of here. And when we’re out, you will talk to the doctors, stop the film shooting and take care of your health. Okay?”
“I’ll try,” he agreed. “Of course, if you say a thing to anyone, I’ll just deny it. And sue you.”
“Oh, and I was just planning on making a fortune by talking to tabloids,” she faked a disappointment.
Lily turned and arranged the foil around them better. She felt Bruce move closer and put his arm around her so that she could close the foil at the front, but although it was warmer that way, it made her even more aware of his body. It had been a while since she was that close to anyone, let alone someone like Bruce Holt, whose whole purpose in life was to look and feel good. She was quite glad it was pitch black around them, so she could convince herself that none of it was real. It was not, anyway.
“You think it might take a whole day until we’re rescued?” she heard him say.
“Could be, but I don’t know for sure. Believe it or not, this is the first time I’ve been trapped in a cave. What I do know is that it’s best to stay put. Do you have a watch? We can keep track of time and in half an hour we can check what the water looks like.”
“And in the meantime? Nap? Or talk?” he asked.
“I’ve told you to be careful. Darkness makes people chatty. You’ve already revealed to me your most terrible secret. In an hour or so I’ll know enough about you to write your memoirs,” Lily said.
“So, maybe it’s time then you tell me something about yourself?” Bruce suggested.
Or maybe not, Lily thought.
“Now that I think of it, I’d rather nap,” she said curtly and closed her eyes.
Time passed. In the background, the murmur of water trickling sometimes sounded like people talking, but Lily knew better. The access to this part of the cave was still flooded and there was no chance they could have brought divers here that quickly. They would probably do the sensible thing and wait for the water to recede unless the movie people made a fuss and forced some action sooner. Well, divers or no divers, she was not getting wet just so that she could get out of here a couple of hours sooner.
“You awake?” she heard Bruce’s voice above her head and felt the warmth of his breath on her hair. She realized she did not remember the moment he had rested his head on hers, which meant she had fallen asleep at some point.
“How long was I out?” she asked.
He showed her his watch, which had luminescent hands. The darkness had made their eyes so sensitive that she could see the weak shimmer very well. Half an hour since the last check. She made a heroic but halfhearted effort to get out of his embrace and stand up.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t plan to fall asleep,” she said, knowing full well that she had actually said the opposite. Feeling a little awkward then, she added, “I should go and check what the water looks like.”
“If you have to,” he conceded without enthusiasm. “I was just getting comfortable and was enjoying the scent of your shampoo.”
“Well, that’s nice, I’ll send you a bottle of it when we get out of here. Now, watch out, I’m turning the light on.”
After their eyes adjusted, Lily went to the edge and turned on the reflector on her helmet to see the water. It gurgled unimpressed below them, the level pretty much the same as before, or so it seemed. However, the flow had slowed down and after checking the structures on the walls that she used as a reference, Lily concluded that the level was slowly starting to drop.
“Doesn’t look that bad,” she reported, acknowledging that Bruce had decided to join her on the edge.
“If you say so,” he said after looking down.
There was not much else they could do, and staring at the water was not going to make it recede faster, so Lily went back to the corner where they’d been sitting. Bruce stretched a bit and then joined her.
“Would you mind if I put my arm around you again?” he asked.
“I’m beginning to think you’re taking advantage of the situation we’re in, Bruce,” she said, feigning seriousness. He smiled at her. It was a nice smile, she admitted, one that would have made his female audience swoon and fall off their chairs. And it was all for her. What a lucky girl she was. But, putting sarcasm aside, he looked much more relaxed and in control than before. It would make any unpredicted situation easier to handle, she concluded with satisfaction and smiled back.
“And light off,” she announced when they settled once again.
“You know, I admire you”, he said after a while. “I’ve been just staring at the darkness for the past half an hour, having weird thoughts inside my head and you were actually able to sleep. You must have nerves of steel.”
“Oh, it’s nothing to admire,” she dismissed it. “I’m capable of sleeping at almost any place, any time. You should’ve seen me at university lectures.”
She settled more comfortably in his arms. Funnily enough, at some undefined point in time, them leaning on each other like that had stopped being awkward and became almost a source of solace to her. She was not entirely sure she liked that. Men in her life had never been a source of anything but trouble and Bruce was probably not any different, but Lily was also a realistic person. Right now, the situation was more bearable if they stuck together, and he was, anyway, wonderfully big and warm.
“But feel free to continue admiring me if you please. It boosts my confidence immensely,” she added.
He sighed. “I’ll try. But one thing bothers me. Fearless you are, but not fair. I’ve told you my most terrible secret, and yet you avoided telling me anything about yourself.”
“I haven’t asked you to reveal any secrets. You chose to do it of your own accord,” she observed.
“Still, I’d like to know more about you. I’m curious. You saved my life, after all.”
She rolled her eyes, but as he could not see it, she clicked her tongue. “You are persistent. So, what would you like to know?” she asked.
“Your most terrible secret?” he suggested.
“A tit for tat,” she concluded. “Fine. Although, I don’t have terrible secrets. I’m mostly an open book. I have things that I don’t stick into everyone’s face, but when people get to know me a bit better, those things kind of reveal themselves.”
“Fine, then one of those self-revealing things about you,” he agreed.
Lily was quiet for a moment. Well, what the hell. After they got out of here, Mr. Bruce Holt would probably forget her name again, so it didn’t matter what she told him.
“I don’t like men,” she said, slightly surprised that of all the things she could have told him, this one came out first.
“You mean, you like women? As in, being gay?” he asked.
“No,” she replied. “I’m sexually attracted to men. I just don’t like them. As people. I don’t trust them and generally don’t like to depend on them or have to deal with them.”
“But you’re dealing with a lot of men regularly,” he observed.
“I have to. That doesn’t mean I like it.”
“And why?” he wondered.
Why indeed? She knew well enough why, but it was hard to explain without revealing too much about her past, much more than she wanted or even dared to delve into. But, still, it couldn’t hurt to give him a little. It was only fair, she thought.
“My father left our family when I was a little girl. My mom then got married to a drunk,” she offered, all the while keeping a safe distance from her feelings. “Eventually, I ended up with my real father again, and his new family. My father found fault in everything I did, contrary to worshiping everything my half-brother did. The list goes on and on. So far, I’m still waiting to meet a man who wouldn’t turn out to be a bastard in one way or another. Hence, I don’t like men.”
He was silent then. Lily was not sure, but his embrace might have become slightly tighter as if he wanted to express his sympathy. As appalling as it was to be pitied by a man such as Bruce Holt, his gesture was probably not worse than when she had squeezed his hand after he had told her about his health problems. If he could have accepted it and was perhaps even grateful for it, so could she. She tried to rationalize it like that, and yet a part of her tensed and cursed the darkness and the talkativeness that had gotten the better of reason.
“So, you don’t like me?” he concluded. “But you have to like me. You’re my target audience.”
And just like that, the tension dissipated. She smiled.
“I am a thirty-year-old Ph.D., not a teenage girl or a middle-aged housewife. I’m most certainly not your target audience.”
“Oh, I think you are,” he insisted. “And having a Ph.D. won’t make you impervious to my charm.”
“The one I’m oozing right now,” he proposed.
“It’s pitch black. What I can’t see, doesn’t affect me,” she concluded. “Anyway, my turn to ask questions.”
“So, that’s how we’re going to do it? Ask questions in turns?” he wondered.
“If you agree. It’ll help pass the time.”
His hand was still on her shoulder, so he could feel it when she shrugged.
“Just to make sure, are there any topics that are off-limits?” he asked.
“I told you, I’m an open book. You can ask me anything you want,” Lily said. “What about you?”
He did not respond at first.
“Okay, no limits. But what I say in this cave stays in this cave. You must promise,” he said in the end.
“You really have trust issues, don’t you?”
“I’m a public person. What do you expect? You’ve no idea how it is when tabloids watch your every step. And if people misinterpret things, which they love doing, it could affect my whole career.”
“Fine, I promise,” said Lily. “My lips are sealed. Anyway, I wasn’t going to ask you if you killed someone. I only wanted to know more about you. Your family, for example. Who are your mom and dad, do you have any siblings, that sort of thing, you know.”
“You can just google that,” he said.
“Right now, it’s sort of difficult, so you’ll just have to tell me,” laughed Lily.
So, Bruce told her about his parents and his brother and sister. Judging by the sound of his voice, he liked talking about them. He was the only one in his family with a career connected to the movie industry, and he tried to shield the rest of them from the negative effects of his fame as much as he could.
“You seem very fond of them,” observed Lily.
“I am. They are what grounds me. When I start getting ideas about my importance, it’s enough to talk to my dad. Or to my mom. They remind me to keep my feet on the ground.”
“Have you told them about your health problems?”
“No,” he sighed. “I didn’t want them to worry before I had at least some idea what was happening to me. As a matter of fact, you’re the only person who knows, besides my physicians.”
“That’s kind of…sad,” remarked Lily. “That you have no one to confide in. What about your girlfriend, what’s her name…Luna something?”
“It’s been ages since we split up,” Bruce said. “Haven’t you read about it?”
“I’m sorry, but no. I have other things to do than to read about the love life of this or that actor.”
“Even after you knew we were going to work together?” he wondered.
“Why would that matter? I work with a lot of people and their personal affairs don’t interest me one bit. Have you bothered to learn something about me before coming here?”
“No.” Lilly could almost hear the rest of the thought: “Why should I have?”
“Exactly. So why should I do anything else?” Lily said, annoyed by his attitude. “I think it might be time for you to call your parents. You’re starting to get those ideas about your own importance.”
She could feel him laughing silently and shook her head. He was irritating, but at least he could laugh about it.
“So, no shoulder to cry on?” she asked, cursing herself immediately for the pause before saying it that made her sound as though she was checking to see he was available.
“No,” he replied. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“I know you said you didn’t like men. But is there anyone you’re with right now? Purely fueled by sexual attraction, of course.”
“I’m not going to answer that. Why’s that important?”
“Because I want to know. And it’s my turn to ask a question.”
Lily kept silent for a bit, thinking about the sad excuse for the private life she had. She did not want to admit that to Bruce Holt. On the other hand, rules were rules, and she did say he could ask anything. And not replying would make it seem as if she were hiding something. Or even worse, as if she were embarrassed to talk about it.
“No,” she said curtly.
“Why? Waiting for the right guy?” Bruce asked.
“I’m not waiting for any guy, right or wrong. I thought I’ve made myself clear on that point. Why would I waste my time on that, when it’s a well-known fact that men prefer cellulite-free butts and perky tits over intelligence and loyalty?”
“How am I supposed to understand this sentence?” Bruce wondered. “That your butt is not cellulite-free?”
“The state of my butt is none of your concern. And neither are my tits,” she added, feeling that he was taking in a breath as if preparing to speak again.
Instead, he burst into laughter. “Okay, okay. Let me rephrase the question. Why do you think that all men are like that?”
“Asks a guy who has only dated models and actresses so far,” said Lily.
“Because I meet mostly models and actresses. That’s the world I move in. How can I date geologists, for example, when I’ve only met one so far?”
“And who might that be? Dr. Dunlow?”
“Who’s Dr. Dunlow?”
“No. I meant you.”
“I’m a speleologist,” said Lily smugly.
“Whatever. What’s the difference anyway? But you haven’t replied to my question.”
“What question?” Lily pretended she forgot.
Bruce sighed. “Okay, if you don’t have any arguments…”
“I do. I have my personal experience. It’s admittedly not as vast as yours, but I’ve been exchanged for a prettier, less outspoken model sufficient number of times to know what I’m talking about.”
“You shouldn’t let a couple of bad apples spoil your taste for fruit…” Bruce ventured.
“Thanks for the advice,” she interrupted, “And the comforting words. It means a lot.”
He was quiet at first, but then he said, “You’re mocking me, aren’t you?”
“What do you think?”
“It’s hard to tell. I can’t see you.”
“I am. Anyway, my turn to ask a question. And since we seem to have become personal with our inquiries, let me just say that from this point on, the gloves are off.”
Bruce wriggled underneath the foil, struggling to look at the watch on his left wrist, which resulted in Lily being pressed even tighter to his chest. The sensible part of her wanted to object, but there were plenty of other parts that silenced it.
“Shouldn’t we check if the water is receding?” he asked.
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