Tommy hunched over the keyboard, brow furrowed and fingers flying, deep in the zone as he drafted the next scene of his current manuscript. Perhaps it was the creative influx of innovating a new corner of the genre, but he felt like a live wire, harnassed, all intensity and electric force funneled to a purpose.
He was focus distilled, passion refined, a towering inferno of zeal and concentration—
Behind him, stifled laughter exploded inelegantly against a suppressing palm, and Tommy blinked hard, sitting up with a sharp and startled breath.
Snapped abruptly out of the escalator of flowery synonyms that had been running in the back of his head, Tommy looked at the screen and frowned hard.
“Wha…? That can’t be right,” he muttered, incredulous at the three slim paragraphs gracing an otherwise blank page. He would have sworn he’d written thousands, pages of words.
Another muffled laugh ended with a snort, and Tommy rolled his eyes heavenward and swiveled his chair to direct his frown at the blonde lying on his couch. Felicity had her bare feet propped against the armrest, hair spread golden and curling across the cushion. Pink lips pressed in a bitten grin, cheeks red as she swallowed another giggle, eyes focused on the several stapled pages she held over her head.
“Okay,” he drawled dryly, “I know I’m a master of wit and all, but I know for a fact nothing that funny happens in that chapter.”
Felicity jolted like she’d forgotten about him, to his stifled annoyance, and she lifted herself on one elbow and lay the pages on her stomach. “Um.” She snuck a finger under her glasses to wipe dampness from her lashes. “Not intentionally funny, no.”
His head pulled back, brows jumping high in affront. “Excuse me?”
“Oh,” Felicity winced, but there was still a smile in it. “Do you want me to lie and massage your ego?”
Tommy’s mouth worked and cheeks burned, speechless for a moment with equal parts embarrassment and wounded pride. He swallowed it manfully and cleared his throat. “Of course not. You are here as an editor, and I am a fully grown man.” He made a wheeling motion with his hand. “Spit it out. What’s so funny?”
She pushed herself up and swung her legs around to fold them on the cushions, propping her elbows on her knees and leaning forward. She lifted the pages in front of her and cleared her throat before dramatically reading out, “‘Annie melted against the hard planes of the vigilante’s leather-clad body as his lips crushed against hers. Her skin was electric under his touch, the commanding press of his mouth intoxicating. Her lips parted on a gasp, and his tongue swept into her mouth, battling her own for domination.’” She looked up at him over her glasses, one eyebrow sharply arched. “Do you need me to go on?”
Arms folding defensively, Tommy leaned back in his chair, one leg sticking out long. “What’s wrong with it? That scene is barely even starting.”
Felicity scoffed, eyes rolling and lips curved sardonically. “Oh trust me, I know, it gets worse from here.”
His shoulders hunched and he would be lying if he said that didn’t sting, a little. “I’m gonna need you to be more specific.”
She sighed longsufferingly, her posture deflating and back collapsing into the couch. “It’s so…” her hand wheeled in the air, nose wrinkling as she chose her word. “Cheesy.”
Tommy’s jaw set, irritation and surprise tightening his shoulders and the fists tucked under his elbows. “You’re aware that this is romance. I know that’s not your preferred genre for personal reading, but cheesy is kind of part of the landscape. I’ve put up with plenty of condescending criticism about the lack of literary merits to my chosen field, but I have to say I didn’t expect it from you.”
Felicity’s brows raised, the look she gave him cool. “Are you done? Because that is not what I meant. This isn’t romance-genre-hallmark cheesy, it’s just… not good kissing.”
His reflexive genre-defensiveness dropped at that astounding pronouncement and he leaned forward, hands gripping his armrests, face incredulous. “What? What’s wrong with it! You usually like my kissing, you have specifically noted how hot my sexy scenes are.”
Felicity sat up again primly. “And most of the time they are, especially when you’re not falling back on outdated phrasing and boring gender tropes from the eighties and nineties.”
“Outdated…?” Tommy repeated, affronted. He pulled in a deep breath through his nose, pushing down his temper. “Okay. Break it down for me. Tell me exactly what’s so wrong about it.”
“Gladly,” Felicity chirped, raising the pages again. “I mean, firstly, the whole thing where all of a sudden Cris is super dominating and aggressive, it kinda really threw me. Especially since Annie is just, like, totally into it? Makes no sense for who you’ve been establishing them to be. It’s just totally cut-and-paste lead-couple dynamics. I’m not trying to say you phoned this one in, but I know damn well you can do better by them.”
Tommy worked his jaw back and forth, trying to mull over her points and not just be annoyed at them. “So… you think their attitudes should be different.”
“Yes,” Felicity enthused, eyes alight. “Cris has all this trauma and these hangups about his self worth and, like, smoldering-but-wounded intensity, right? So why is he this hypermasculine dominator all of a sudden? And how is that a thing that gets Annie off? Everything you’ve done with her so far, even with you being all deliberately obscure about her personal history, I would have expected her to instantly and firmly rebuff this kind of aggression, not…” her nose wrinkled again, “melt .”
Tommy propped his chin on his interlaced fingers, squinting thoughtfully over her argument. He exhaled heavily, nodding. “Okay, I get where you’re coming from. I guess I was just trying to give the reader what I thought would excite them in a sexy-superhero-romance first kiss, and I sidelined the actual characters in that. So… I guess Cris would be less looming and more…”
He bit at his bottom lip, groping blindly in his head for the word he wanted.
“Sensual?” Felicity offered.
“Sensual,” Tommy agreed. “And maybe even kind of tentative. Not sure if she was feeling what he was feeling.”
“Right.” Felicity nodded excitedly. “Absolutely. Especially since she doesn’t even know who he is under the hood yet, and honestly I wasn’t gonna bring it up now, but it seems way too early for the first kiss to me, like the dynamic should grow more and be more push-pull for a bit?” She lifted her hands and shook her head, cutting off her runaway train of thought. “But that’s a different, plot-and-pacing conversation, and we are discussing the narrative mechanics of kissing.”
Tommy watched her flip through the pages, mentally shelving his questions about her issues with the pacing to focus on one thing at a time. “Speaking of, you said it was bad kissing. The gender dynamics and out of character stuff I get, but how is the actual kissing bad?”
The face Felicity pulled was almost pitying. “When was the last time you enjoyed someone trying to ‘battle’ your tongue for dominance?” She even made air quotes.
Tommy opened his mouth, tilted his head. Directed his eyes towards the ceiling and memory.
“Exactly,” Felicity supplied smugly. “Bad kissing. I mean, literally think about it. Are they surrendering to physical chemistry and an unspoken connection, or are they fighting over possession of a peppermint?”
Tommy grimaced. “Point taken.” Then, skeptically, “Is that all, though?”
The scrunch of her mouth was almost apologetic.
Tommy flopped back in his chair, head rolling as he released a groan. “What else?”
“Their staging is kinda weird?”
He lifted his head and squinted at her. “Staging?”
“You know, the positions they’re in.” She shifted her torso to one side, hands raised in some configuration she seemed to think was a demonstration. “Like, how they’re standing, the ways they’re touching.”
Tommy squinted more squintily, this time at the wall to his left. He tried to reconstruct the scene in question in his head. “But what’s wrong with it? It’s a classic up-against-a-wall scenario. It’s sexy and intense and it has been turning people on in books and movies and TV for...” he gestured vaguely at the air, “ever.”
“Eh,” Felicity shrugged one shoulder, instantly dismissing a staple of steamy kisses everywhere. “They’re in a chilly alley in the middle of the night, and earlier in the chapter you said it rained. And I mean, maybe a nice, plaster-and-paint indoors wall isn’t so bad, but bricks or cement or whatever? Ew, and also ow.”
“Fair,” Tommy conceded. He wheeled his hand at her. “I know you’ve got more, so hit me.”
The lip-tucked smile she shot him was attempting apology and utterly failing. “The standing thing. Like. Cris is what? Six feet tall? And how tall is Annie?”
Felicity stared at the carpet and poked the tip of her tongue out, thinking. “So roughly my height.” Her gaze pulled to the side, the purse of her lips following it. “That’s a really awkward height difference for that position, right? My neck hurts imagining it.”
Tommy frowned, humming. “I don’t know, I think it would work fine.”
She looked at him skeptically. “Is he bending at the knees or something? Is she standing on a box?”
“Okay, I think we’re getting too bogged down in the practical details nobody is reading this for.” He sighed at her arched brows. “Except you.”
“It can’t only be me,” she drawled, unconvinced. “Stuff like that totally takes me out of the story because I do end up bogged down in practical details that aren’t working. I’m trying to imagine the scene, I want to picture it in my head. Like, I should be caught up in envisioning the sexiness, right? Except I’m trying to block it on my mental stage, and all I can picture is his neck at a ninety degree angle and her head tilted straight back like a baby bird receiving a worm.”
“Gross,” Tommy belted, laughing. “Ah, god, you ruined it for me. We have to change it.”
“Well,” she offered, trying to compromise, “she could be wearing very tall heels?”
Tommy narrowed his eyes, another hum dragging out in his throat. “This feels like a trap. She was just running before this and I feel like you’ll give me hell if I make her do that in giant-ass stilettos.”
She gave him a corny wink and finger guns, at which he scoffed a laugh. “That’s an excellent point, and you thought of it all on your own.”
“I wrote before you, you know,” he warned playfully. “Whole novels. Many, many novels.”
She sighed theatrically. “It’s truly a wonder how you managed that before being graced with my genius.”
Tommy rolled his eyes and teased, “Ugh, shut up. Back on topic, genius.”
She rubbed her hands together like a cartoon villain. “Yes, the weird kissing pose. Stand up.”
“Why?” He dragged the word out suspiciously.
She stood herself, wiggling her hands at him in a “get up” motion. “Because I’m definitely right, but we should still be sure. You’re how tall?”
He slouched deeper into his chair, but reluctantly admitted, “Five-ten.”
She rolled her eyes at his petulance and waved a hand dismissively. “Close enough. Up.”
He heaved an aggrieved sigh and sat up, which was apparently signal enough for Felicity to take hold of his wrists and drag at his arms as if she could haul all 170 pounds of him out of the chair on her own. “I’m coming, I’m coming.”
She grinned cheekily as he stood. “Save it for the manuscript.”
“Har,” he deadpanned, lips twitching with the smile he refused to give in to. “Har har.”
“I’ll be here all night,” she shot back in a hokey comedian style.
Tommy snapped his mouth closed at the terrible, terrible sex pun that leapt immediately to mind, keeping it on the inside of his head by sheer willpower as she turned to look at the wall.
She held her hands up as if framing a picture, then turned and put her back against it. “Okay, come here.”
“This is getting a little weird,” he muttered, but did as he was bid.
Frowning like she was trying to solve a puzzle, Felicity took his hands and put them on her waist, then looked down at the inches of carpet between their toes. “Okay, you’re gonna have to step closer.”
He sighed. Shuffled his feet until they were awkwardly close. Her hands rested on his shoulders, and she tipped her head this way and that, looking at the angles of her elbows, measuring the tilt of her chin with her hand.
“Okay, bring your head down.” She frowned up at him, but her eyes were on his neck and not at all on his face.
“This is the least sexy kiss positioning I have ever, and I mean ever, been involved in,” he complained.
“Poor baby,” she crooned mockingly, curling her hand around the back of his neck and applying pressure until he lowered his head.
He stopped when he was close enough he could have brushed noses with her if he were being careless. Her eyes were distractingly close, but still not looking at his face. “My eyes are up here.”
“Huh?” She finally met his gaze, and her mouth—wow, so close—twitched with amusement. “So sorry to make you feel objectified.”
“I do,” he insisted teasingly. “Like a literal object. You want me to have a dressmaker’s dummy delivered for you? Might be even more useful.”
“Certainly less sassy,” she laughed, and adjusted his grip on her waist.
“Sassy,” he drawled. “Yes, the adjective that has dogged me all my life.”
Felicity just shook her head, tucking away the left corner of her grin and making a dimple stand out on the right. She looked down at their feet and examined every angle of their position, ending with tipping her head back as she kept her hand on the back of his neck.
His breath caught as the tip of her nose bumped against his, only briefly. Butterflies erupted stupidly in his stomach.
“See, this is fine,” she murmured, making him blink. “But it’s only five inches.”
Tommy choked, jerking his head to the side and bracing one hand on the wall. Laughter strangled in his throat, sending heat into his cheeks. “Only five inches,” he wheezed.
“Oh my god,” she groaned, humor tingeing it as she let her head fall back with a thump against the wall. “You are—you are the worst, you know what I meant!”
He snickered, straightening a little and smiling down at the flush in her cheeks. “Good to know this is the optimum height difference,” he enunciated with a wink, “for up-against-a-wall kissing.”
She shrugged with her mouth, humming uncertainly. “I’m still not convinced it’s comfortable enough to not be distracting from the sexy.”
Tommy raised an eyebrow and tilted his head to smirk at her. “It’s been plenty comfortable in my experience.”
“In your—” she narrowed her eyes. “So you’ve done this?”
He chuckled, shrugging one shoulder. “Not especially recently, but enough for a decent sample size, and with people of varying heights.”
She huffed, instantly slumping against the wall. “Why didn’t you just say that instead of going through this whole exercise with me?”
“Well,” he answered, light and airy, “I’ve never been the one against the wall. You still might be onto something. I mean, I’ve never had any complaints, but…”
His grin was half leer, and she made an exaggerated face at him. “Maybe because it’s just five inches,” she replied tartly.
“Oh,” he laughed, raising his head. “Oh, really.”
For a second, the response poised on his tongue was an offer to call Oliver for a demonstration, since he was who Tommy had physically modeled his archer vigilante on. But then the image of it, of Felicity against the wall and Oliver crowded up against her, head bent over her and hers tilted up, soured the words in his mouth. He swallowed them.
With a little cough, he straightened and pulled his hand, forgotten and warmed from the heat of her, from her waist. “So I think the results of this experiment are ambiguous enough to go ahead with nixing the wall kiss.”
Felicity blinked at him as he stepped back, hands rubbing against his jeans pockets. She pushed herself off the wall and quickly past him, back to the couch and the abandoned and much maligned pages. “Right. Yes. So something else there, I think.”
She sat down, focused back on the words he had written, flipping from one page to another. “Okay, but come here. Look at this.”
Breathing in deeply, Tommy sat on the couch beside her, leaning to see the print. “What am I looking at?”
“I mean, you did it before too on the part I read out loud, when the kiss starts, but it happens again here. The whole ‘crushing’ or ‘bruising’ kiss thing. It just doesn’t sound sexy. It sounds ow.”
“Hmm.” His eyes traced the lines til he found the words she had mentioned, and now that he read them over again, he had to admit they weren’t especially stirring. “It was supposed to be kind of a heat of the moment kiss, so it seemed like, I don’t know, the right level of intensity?”
She clicked her tongue. “I could see that for a hard, quick ‘oh my god we almost died’ kind of kiss, but it just goes on like that. And that does not read as hot to me.”
He tapped his fingers against his lips in contemplation, brow furrowed. “Sensual,” he murmured, recalling their earlier discussion about Cris’s character. “So, instead kind of a slow, steamy sort of kiss.”
Felicity hummed, but it was a very different hum from the ones before it. “You are definitely good at those,” she said under her breath. Abruptly, her head came up and she turned a defensive look on him. “Writing. At writing those.”
He exhaled a short laugh, tongue curling over his teeth in a helpless grin. “Trust me, I’m good at both.”
She cleared her throat and looked at him over her glasses. “Well, you could stand to prove it here.” She tapped a finger against the paper.
“Well, I intend to,” he responded archly. “So break it down with me. They’ve just run for their lives and swung into this alley, kind of hiding but also finally pretty sure they’re at a safe distance. She backs up against the wall, he stands close in front of her to, like, human shield or whatever—”
“Didn’t we just say no up-against-the-wall?” Felicity interrupted.
Tommy pursed his lips. “Roll with me here.” He waited til she waved her hand in a magnanimous go on gesture. “So they’re up against the wall, breathing hard, and really close. They stop looking over their shoulders and then look at each other.” He waggled his eyebrows just to make her roll her eyes and do that smile-hiding thing. “The chemistry sky rockets. Heat, sparks, bolts of lightning and tingles in their bits, etceteras, etceteras.”
She smothered a laugh with her hand.
“But,” he bit the t off sharply, “instead of a bruisy-ouch battle of the faces, he leans in, drawn in, like a magnet.”
He leaned in closer, to illustrate. Lifting a hand, he let the fingertips hover just by Felicity’s cheek, not touching, just building the suspense. “They’re close enough to feel each other’s breath on their faces, hot, hurried. The surrender is slow, torturous.”
He bent over Felicity, her breath warm on his chin, her eyes fixed—finally—on his. “This way, the first, slightest brush of their lips is so built up it is itself almost orgasmic. An ecstatic explosion when the brush becomes a press, hot and wet and soft as a promise.”
His voice had lowered to a near-whisper, his chest on fire with the thrill of the tease, the unexpected delight of crafting each word and watching them hit his audience in real time, watching her cheeks flush and eyes darken, hearing her breath catch.
They were closer now even than they had been against the wall, his body curved over her, hand hovering by her face, strands of her hair tickling his knuckles. For a second—too many seconds, both more and less than he could count—the words evaporated from his mouth like water under a scorching sun, and they just held like that, no sound replacing his voice in the absence of the room except the push and pull of their breathing.
His gaze dropped to her lips, parted and temptingly cherry-pink.
The desire to close the gap was followed by a mental bucket of water and he stiffened.
This was Felicity. His beta reader and copy editor. His friend, even. She was here as part of her job, not to be coaxed into—into—into whatever in the hell he thought he was doing here.
He swallowed hard and willed his eyes to move from her mouth. “Um.” His voice had dropped into a gravel pit, ragged on his breath. “So how does that s—”
Felicity’s hands snatched at his t-shirt collar and she surged forward, and it was, ironically, a crash as her mouth met his.
But only for a second.
Her lips softened against his immediately and his self-restraint snapped like thread, his own mouth an eager press in return.
She sighed. Her lips parted under his, inviting.
He couldn’t have written it better.
And then she was gone.
She pulled away so abruptly Tommy was left gasping, blinking stupidly with his hands raised and empty.
She scooted backwards like her ass was on wheels, eyes wide and face flushed. They stared at each other, him stunned and confused, her looking almost… guilty as she tucked her lips between her teeth.
“Sorry,” she said finally. “Um. That was just because you are a very good writer and and, um, whew, very, way too good, uh, with words and…” she trailed off, looking away and fanning herself with one hand. “It’s not nice to tease a girl who has only gotten to enjoy,” her hand waved back and forth between them now, “that vicariously through that very, very good writing for a really, stupidly long time. So. Uh.”
Tommy dropped his hands in his lap, still speechless.
Cringing, Felicity tucked her chin and looked up at him like she was bracing for a blow. “Am I like, super extra fired?”
Sitting up slowly, Tommy swallowed thickly and groped around for his voice. “You don’t actually work for me, you know.”
“Well, okay, technically we kind of both work for the publisher, which I guess makes us more like colleagues, but of the two of us, one of us is very valuable and the other is a highly disposable word-weed-whacker and I am pretty sure your editor would not hesitate to feed me to actual live snakes if the alternative was losing your contract, so…” Felicity frowned at her hands, seeming to suddenly realize that she had been embroidering her nervous run-on in obscure, twisting gestures.
She tucked her hands between her knees and took a fortifying breath before meeting his gaze directly. “I would like to repeat that I am very sorry.”
Tommy blew out an explosive exhale, running a hand over his hair and down his neck, his skin feeling both too hot and too cold. “I have to say this is a first for me. I don’t think anybody has ever kissed me before and then apologized for it like it was a murder.”
Felicity’s nose crinkled. “Do murderers apologize…? Right, totally not the point.”
“Okay, so, first of all,” Tommy started, desperately trying to rally. “You are very not fired. You still don’t work for me and one very nice if very unexpected kiss is absolutely not worth the fines I would have to pay for ending my contract. Which I don’t want to, before you go running away with that one.” He summoned a smile, only slightly stiff around the edges and hung just a little awkwardly. “And you’re still the absolute best sounding board and shit-caller I’ve met in my entire writing career, so please don’t leave me.”
“Really?” Felicity asked, tentative and almost hopeful.
Tommy drove a brutal spike through his ridiculously fluttering heart and softened his smile. “Really. I’m just gonna think of it as really excellent sketch work for a problem scene. Sometimes ‘write what you know’ is bullshit, but sometimes it’s good to get a little practical foundation.”
“Okay.” Felicity released a little nervous laugh. Or maybe it was relieved. “Sketch work. We’ll go with that, then. Considering the alternative is a sexual harassment lawsuit and I don’t actually look that good in orange.”
“I don’t believe that,” Tommy countered, a finger raised, “and I’m pretty sure sexual harassment lawsuits don’t end in federal prison sentences anyway.”
“Well that’s a relief,” she joked. “So, since we solved the problem with, um, the mechanics, should we move on to arguing about pacing, or should we call it a night here?”
He glanced at his watch, more to give him another beat to recover than for any concern about the time. “It’s pretty early yet, so if you’re up for another round of callously deflating my ego, I am prepared to hold back my tears and soldier on.”
“If you’re sure.” Felicity picked up the pages that had at some point dropped to the floor and smiled shyly at him.
It was devastatingly endearing.
With a flourish, he twisted at the waist to snatch a box of Kleenex from the end table and placed it precisely in his lap. “I’m sure. Hit me.”