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Cocoon Gambler
__—— an eBook for the Kindle.  Paul Denning, a young electrical engineering student, is forced to drop out when his father, despite family contacts in the gambling industry, runs up huge debts, then suicides.  Paul’s mother, himself, his sister and his uncle – all with very strong anti-gambling sentiments – are saddled with a compulsive gambler’s colossal debt.
His girlfriend Suzie, an ambitious, newly-qualified lawyer, knows that Paul is basically decent, but wants to further shape him into the perfect partner to enhance her career plans... she intends to be a judge.  Paul also sees himself as unlikely to succeed on his own, since he regards himself as very average.
Paul’s one unique skill has been to create unusual brainwave patterns under biofeedback conditions, first discovered while participating in a university study.  In his hobby experiments, wearing a “stim-band”, he stumbles on a strange effect after prolonged stimulation in an unnatural brain state – he drops into a “waking dream” condition.  His body collapses into a comatose state, even though he is fully awake and aware, super-active mentally – this is quite frightening for an observer, and Suzie is alarmed.  When he tries moving around, she reports a faint “angel” apparition of Paul, while his sleeping body starts to show signs of fitting.
The “angel” is enclosed in a flexible membrane, and moving about is very awkward and clumsy – he can’t interact with the outside world in any way.  Maintaining the mental state is a great strain, and he starts to experience odd physical reactions.  He finds that pushing further into this mental state causes the membrane to suddenly thicken and disappear from normal view.  From Paul’s internal perspective, it solidifies and becomes a cocoon, and he discovers that a small space and time offset has been triggered.  Since he can’t interact with the outside world, and fears suffocation if he stays in the cocoon, the experiments once again grind to a halt.  More physical reactions show up – a nasty skin rash which reacts badly to normal cortisone treatment.
With his family gambling connections, Paul sees the possibility of using gambling to clear the gambling debt!  He decides to take current racing results into the cocoon and try to transfer them to his computer through the wall of the cocoon via wireless transmission – he hopes to remotely write results files before the results are known.
Experiments follow but, by the time he discovers a workable method, it has become obvious that his worsening physical state is directly caused by inducing and maintaining his abnormal Gamma-Theta mental state.  The aftermath of every cocoon session is severe, and will get worse.  His doctor finally diagnoses Lupus when his skin rash becomes discoid, scaly, and his joints start to redden and swell.  This is a dreadful condition, so Paul decides to use the cocoon to make some big wins quickly, before his physical deterioration makes it impossible to use the system.  He concentrates on multi-race, multi-match football and lotto bets, where the odds are long enough to yield big wins.
His relationship with Suzie worsens along with his physical condition, especially when it becomes obvious that he is regularly gambling, against her wishes, as well as those of his family.  He soon finds that he simply can’t get into the cocoon any more.  The pain threshold is too severe, so his brief gambling phase ends.
Determined not to cave in under social and family pressures, and encouraged by his physiotherapist, Paul stubbornly struggles to find a way to live a ‘normal’ life and discovers that he isn’t quite as average as he had thought...

Available for Kindle from Amazon, US$2.60 – 429 ‘Amazon pages’.  Interested?  Read the first Chapter of Cocoon Gambler here...


1:  Informal Understanding


At work, the shop assistants often asked each other probing questions.  It was natural to want to know something about work-mates, and it was usually all good-natured.  None of them had careers, exactly – they just had jobs.  The store had one manager and one accountant, who was also the buyer, so there was no career advancement path for others.  The usual job tenure was a few years before another job with better career prospects beckoned.  So they all wanted to know as much as possible about each other, and their plans.  Who dropped off the employment shuttle next was important – it was like a game of musical chairs.
Absolutely all of them were into hobby electronics – even Julia – since the shop was an electronic components store.  One among them had a dark past that he seldom discussed, so he was often asked questions designed to get him talking about it, and snippets of information had emerged over the couple of years that he'd worked there.  It wasn't that he refused to talk about it – it was just that he wasn't naturally very talkative.  Not exactly dour, but certainly reserved.  It took a bit to get him talking.
He was asked what was the hardest thing that he had ever had to do.
The slightly-gaunt, clean-shaven young man blew on his coffee, pursed his lips and pretended to think about it, and the group leaned closer to catch his reply...  but in reality it was an easy question.
Leaving the university study group more than two years ago was the hardest thing that Paul Denning had ever had to do.  Harder than telling his last girlfriend that they should stop seeing each other, just last month – that had been hard at the time, but necessary.  Leaving the study group had been harder than actually leaving university.  And it had been harder than attending his father's funeral – the actual reason why he had to leave – the week before that.  Everything had been difficult since his father's death, and the revelations concerning his debts.
Paul had been forced to tell Professor Cunningham that he was quitting the biofeedback experimental study at university, where Paul was an electrical engineering student.  More correctly, where he had been an electrical engineering student, up until his father's death.
It was especially hard because Paul had always thought of himself as very average.  That was not always a bad thing.  Paul never hesitated to take on new challenges with confidence and enthusiasm, but after a while he usually discovered that he was...  just average.  Relationships, health, studies, sports, arts, hobbies...  He was simply ordinary.  By now, in his twenties, he was quite resigned to it all.  He had never actually excelled at anything, except once.  He was never hopeless at anything, either, and that seemed a fair compensation.  His life was perfectly acceptable, and his...  what he thought of as mediocrity...  that didn't put a cramp on his enthusiasm for new experiences at all.
He had been scraping by in his university course, and that was typical of everything in his life.  Paul had expected to get through his course and graduate, but probably only with average grades, and probably only with hard and constant study.  But that was a huge gain – the course had offered him a chance to rise above the average by just a little bit, and had been important to him.  Whoopee!  Better than average!
The only time that he had ever been regarded as outstanding at anything at all had been in the biofeedback study-group.  It was a minor thing, but he could generate brainwave patterns that nobody else could manage at all.  It may have been a bit like being the only kid in pre-school able to make fart noises with his armpit, or roll his eyes right up out of sight, but it had marked him out as special.  That was priceless!  His enthusiasm had prompted him to build a crude electrical pulse generator mounted on a headband, and this device had first allowed him to enter a kind of waking dream state.  It was quite unique.  Professor Cunningham had been amused at Paul's enthusiastic input, but had to ban the use of his device in actual recorded study sessions, because it used fairly strong electrical pulses, and made the test results questionable.  Brainwaves were, themselves, merely faint electrical impulses, and electrical stimulation devices were suspect.
The accepted biofeedback stimulation devices were either recorded drum-beat patterns heard through headphones, with the pulse-speed controlled by the Professor's team, or strobe-lights built into goggles that shut out most other vision.  Apart from the small risk to participants prone to epileptic episodes, these devices were safe and scientifically acceptable.  Electrical pulse stimulators were available, but they were very expensive, and they certainly didn't use the hefty amperage that Paul's 'stim-band' did!  Other students had tried the stim-band, but it had been a standing joke that it helped to be as brain-dead as Paul before using it – it hurt enough to revive a corpse!
However, even with the audio or light stimulation devices, Paul had been an outstanding contributor to the study, and it had been extremely hard to turn his back on it.  It was definitely the hardest thing he had ever had to do, and he'd fouled it up completely.  Professor Cunningham had listened to Paul's explanation, and had expressed sympathy for the death of his father and the resultant need for Paul to leave university and start work immediately, then suggested that Paul stay in the group as a visitor.  The study group didn't have to comprise entirely of students.
Paul's state of mind at that time had been confused, angry, and very fatalistic.  The professor's suggestion was probably sensible, and surely offered in good spirit, but it simply jarred at the time.  Paul had already made his decision, wanted a clean break – needed a clean break.  He had wanted to drop out totally...
He had wanted to suffer, and to be seen to be suffering publicly and grievously for his father's sins – never to rise above his average future – that was really it.  He didn't understand that at the time, though.  He had simply reacted in a bloody-minded way and rejected the offer, claiming that he intended to continue studying the phenomenon privately, using his own equipment, and he might share his discoveries with the project team at a later date, or he might not.  That had gone down like a lead balloon, and the professor immediately replied that such actions would be unethical, using privileged information from his involvement in the study group.  Unfortunately, that was like a red rag to a bull for Paul.  He was spoiling for a fight, and subsequent years of reflection had been plenty to see the bitter parting for the stupid mistake it had been.
It took a while for that fact to sink in, though.  And, by the time he realized it, the deeds were all done.  He was out.  His student days were over.  He was working in his present job at a retail electronics store, serving his self-imposed sentence of atonement for the damage caused by his father's compulsive gambling, then easy-way-out suicide.
His mother had been dragged through court over the gigantic debt but, because it was really her late husband's debt – not hers – the family home was protected by Australian law as long as she remained living there.  It was nowhere near grand enough to balance the debt, and already had a mortgage anyway.  But she had been saddled with an additional fixed-interest loan imposed by the court and administered by the Justice Department.  The shock nearly killed her, and the family had rallied around, voluntarily agreeing to each meet part of the repayments – to each shoulder part of the burden.
There had been mixed feelings about that, since Paul's Uncle Ken, close to the family and a pretty decent man, naturally contributed, but some of the “outer family” surprisingly stepped up to the plate as well.  People who wouldn't normally dream of even talking to Jack Denning's widow – she'd been a bit of a thorn in their sides.  They'd made their gestures for Jack, not Nora.
His older sister June and himself had both been old enough to work, and there had been no question that doing so was the only decent and proper thing to do.  His little brother had still been at high school, but he would be able to contribute in due course, and his mother simply put all plans for personal retirement on hold.
And that was the way it had stayed for the past two turbulent years.  The debt was still huge, but was coming down slowly and steadily.  Some of the "outer" family members had already paid off their elected portion.  But then, most of them were fairly wealthy, and some had paid off their portion in one hit.  Not much of a burden to them.
Needless to say, any Denning family discussions that included the subject of gambling were fairly one-sided.  Gambling of any type was a no-go zone.  Especially since the family outside widow Nora Denning's immediate circle were all involved with either the racing or betting industries.
But what Paul Denning told his fellow shop assistants in the lunch-room was that talking to the current bunch of dead-beat losers was the hardest thing he'd ever had to do.  Hoots of laughter greeted his reply.  Typical Paul.  Tight as a clam.
*  *  *  *  *

The promise of romance could put a spring in the step of any young man, and Paul was no exception.  With his somewhat staid and methodical demeanor it had been an element experienced rarely enough of late – other, more outgoing guys impressed the girls more easily – but Suzie was coming home, and he was hopeful.  He had often dated Suzie before her parents moved to Sydney to better facilitate Suzie's education options, and she had started on her law degree, and they'd always got on well together.  In fact, they'd been an item!  Suzie had been his sister June's friend before he had met her.  June tended to see herself as her younger brother's keeper, a little to Paul's amusement, and often pronounced what would be best for Paul.  Suzie had been aged smack-dab between them, but quite content to date a guy a year her junior.
A decade ago, they'd seen each other regularly, and had been each other's first sex partners.  Such memories between any two people were usually precious.  June, Paul knew, had kept Suzie up to date with all family affairs, so there'd be no awkward breaking of the news of his father's suicide and his own university drop-out, and he was fairly confident that Suzie wouldn't attach any blame to him for what had happened.  It had just been his bad luck to be in his second study year when it all happened.  She would understand, and had resumed her correspondence with June as soon as she qualified.  A good sign.
June had just finished her degree course when the suicide happened, so she had her qualifications and seemed to be doing quite well as a physiotherapist.  Paul had been less lucky, but his job was interesting enough, fairly secure, and provided the chance to see all the new electronic devices and components that were available, so his fate hadn't been too bad.  He and June knew that they had no option but to knuckle down and attack that enormous family debt – they couldn't just leave it to their mother.  His Uncle Ken – his mother's brother, and a once-frequent partner on Jack Denning's visits to the races – also paid.
But Paul's financial commitment meant that he couldn't consider anything as permanent as marriage just yet, and he hoped that Suzie would understand, if she wanted to pick up the pieces.  It wouldn't be fair to any woman to plan a permanent relationship with that debt hanging over the both of them, even though women of Suzie's age, newly qualified and starting a new career, would certainly be looking for long-term commitment.  A steady relationship.
June was in a somewhat similar position, but her current boyfriend was quite well-off, so it wasn't such a bind for her.  She had reported, with some amusement, that Suzie had taken a job in a city legal firm, and was a bit miffed at having to start with boring property conveyancing and contract law, but knew that most junior lawyers started that way.
Paul met Suzie at June's rented house in an outer suburb – since Paul's rented place was very run-down and really not the place for such an important first rendezvous – and was greatly pleased at her reaction.  Suzie jumped up and raced to meet him, hugging him enthusiastically.  I'm sure she's deliberately rubbing up against me!  Whoopee!  This might be better than expected!  Oops!  Get real.  Watch your behavior.
And, as the evening wore on, all the hints were there.  He knew Suzie – she wouldn't have written directly to him.  She wouldn't see that as proper.  But she wrote to June knowing that she would tell him.
When they had first met, he'd been much more conservative than Suzie – he had always striven to be correct and non-aggressive with women, although no guy ever got any credit for that.  It was just something he had always done because he saw it as right, and he had simply accepted criticism from his mates for his old-fashioned values, at an age when they were all enthusiastically discovering girls.  They wanted as much as possible, in the shortest possible time, and to hell with the niceties!
But since Suzie had decided to follow her passion for law, she'd become a stickler for correctness.  More than himself, even!  She was full of frank stories about men she had dated while at uni, and how dreadful they had all been...  domineering, arrogant, sly, conniving – all the characteristics that she most disliked among practitioners of law.  How disappointing it had been that they all thought to get away with such behavior with her – another legal student!  It would be a pleasure to get back to people with sensible, steady values.  Responsible people she could trust, who treated her with respect.
She must mean me!  I can be steady and responsible – just try me!  You can decide what happens, and when – I'll be whatever you want me to be.  Just let's get back together.
It was a great success.  He invited her to a movie the following night, and she accepted eagerly, with June impersonating a satisfied Cheshire Cat in the background.  They exchanged addresses, phone numbers, and left June's house in the late evening, but Paul wasn't at all surprised to find Suzie knocking on his door an hour later.
*  *  *  *  *

For Suzie, the evening was a great relief.  Sex wasn't all she wanted from a relationship – far from it – but it was certainly important.  Paul had always been an understanding, caring partner, and teenage sex with him used to be fabulous and satisfying.  A lovely memory that she'd often dusted off for private satisfaction over the past few years.  And he looked distinguished, just those few years older than the last time she'd seen him.  A few lines on his face, she'd noticed.  He'd been through tough times lately, but was still the decent young man she remembered.  The dinner conversation had filled in a lot of gaps, but Paul was still the Paul of old.  He was just perfect, and he would mature into a good, reliable partner.
The Denning family...  brrrr, how he and June had managed to keep their high values she had no idea.  Their mother's influence, she supposed.  Nora was all right, but most of the other family members were out-and-out crooks.  And all those law students in Sydney had been the same.  They were all crooks, too, in their own, arrogant, so-superior way.  She was forging her career amid crooks posing as social stalwarts, upholding laws that they felt they could personally ignore with impunity.  It was disgusting – if only the public could know the full extent...
The male students had all been astonished that she hadn't agreed to provide casual sex on demand, at the drop of a hat or, more usually, any other item of clothing, and they hadn't been even remotely interested in any of her needs, desires, aspirations.  It was all a one-way street.  The female students had been acquisitive, dishonest, two-faced, determined to sleep their way to the top, taking no prisoners.  Bitches, prostitutes, every last one of them.  No moral principles at all.  It had been a very sobering experience.
So, no sex at all for five years.  That surely wasn't healthy at her age, but she'd prepared for tonight carefully, and she would have sex, on her own terms.  There was no longer any doubt in her mind that Paul would take her, and it was important, for her long-term career plans, that he did, and with enthusiasm.  Total dedication, no regrets at all.  He was the one.  So different from all those other domineering bastards, who just wanted to take, take, take, with no thought for her needs.  Paul could be carefully moulded into the man she needed, and he would appreciate her efforts, as well.  She would make sure of that.  And it should be fun for both of them, as well as mutually beneficial in the long run.  They'd make a good team.  A truly great team, in time.
There would be some difficult contract bargaining to negotiate tonight, but a bit of play would sweeten it for both parties.  It certainly would for her, and she had seen Paul's eyes and body language at June's place – he wanted her, without doubt.  She was still nervous, though, worried that he might back away when she explained, but excited by the sweet challenge.  She was also horny, she realized, and more than a little amazed at the strength of her bodily reactions.  Well, it had been five years, but she was acutely aware of her wetness, and a little embarrassed by it.  If he only knew...
She drove to the address that Paul had given her in a strange, surreal daze, and parked her car outside.
Oh!  What a dump!  It looks like it should just fall over.  And there's that wee moped that Paul uses to save money commuting.  It's that debt.  They're all committed to paying it off.  So like him, he's so earnest.  ...so he's home, the pet, this is the place, it's just like he said.  This is the time, Mizz Parnell.  Can I do this?  Yes, I bloody can!
Sitting in the car, she fiddled awkwardly with her underclothes – they went into her bag – and her dress until she was satisfied, then opened the door.  Once out of the car, though, a breeze fanned her in places not normally exposed, and it was like an electric shock – she was committed, she knew, and she felt a tiny dribble of moisture on her inner thigh, cold in the evening spring wind.  Looking around guiltily, she scurried to the door and knocked – ever so lightly.
The door flew open at once and Paul was there, in a dressing gown.  She took one step inside and his hand went up under her dress before the door was even properly shut.  Ooh!  The cat's out of the bag, now!  He'll know that I ditched the knickers.  She pulled back and held up her hands – he stopped instantly, watching her intently.  That's my boy!
"Don't want to ruin my clothes, Paul.  Here – pull this."  She held out the end of her sash and he tugged it gently.  Her wrap-over dress gaped at the front and she shrugged easily out of it, watching his eyes as it slid to the floor behind her.  Oh, yes.  Very satisfying.  Her skin suddenly pebbled.  Not from cold air, but from a heady rush of goose-bumps.
She felt light-headed, and grabbed his arm to steady herself – she seemed to be having trouble keeping her knees steady.  "What about you, then?"  Damn!  That sounded like a trembling little girl's voice!  Totally naked, and acutely aware of that, she held out one hand imploringly.
She grinned at the sight of Paul double-taking in an effort to tear his eyes away from her, looking puzzled, then...  "Ah, yes.  Pull this, I guess."  He held out the belt of his dressing gown.  He hadn't prepared it like she had, though, so she had to untie the knot and pull the gown open, revealing an enormous erection – it was her turn for a double-take.
"Oh.  Pleased to see me, I presume."  That was better...
"Understatement of the bloody century!  Come here."
His hands slid under her buttocks and she was lifted effortlessly into the air – hastily she grabbed Paul around the neck with both hands, and found herself involuntarily letting out a small, meaningless squeak, which made her giggle.  Ooh...  I'd forgotten how strong men are.  An aerial ballet, elegant – be elegant!  ...so she pointed her toes and stretched her legs out, arching backward to match Paul, who was leaning back to counter her weight...  My God!  If that's not an invitation, nothing is!  ...and he lowered her, sliding into her smoothly, then just stood there, eyes shut, mouth ajar, rapt.
Another involuntary noise – "hwhaaa" – and another giggle.  It's exactly like I remember.  He's in there.  Right inside.  I feel every little bit.  Oh yes, let's do this!  Don't just stand there!
"Do you have a bed, Paul?  Or do we just stand here and do it?  Jiggy, jiggy?"
"What?  Oh, yes, of course – this way."
He carried her away.  It couldn't be more than a minute or so since she had left her car.  Wham, bam!
*  *  *  *  *

Suzie wanted to make a deal with him.  He could hardly believe his ears, and they both ended up laughing uproariously about it.  Both relieved beyond belief.  He had started, between passionate sexual interludes, tentatively trying to break the news gently to her that he wouldn't be able to commit to a serious relationship for some years, even though she must want that – he had responsibilities that he just couldn't ignore.  He wanted to, he was aching to be with her, he'd never abandoned his juvenile love for her, but he just couldn't justify it.  And he was scared stiff that she would take this as a sign that he didn't love her – she shouldn't believe that for a moment!
After about the fourth attempt, he started to understand that she wasn't simply trying to counter his arguments, she was trying to break some bad news to him, too – that she couldn't commit to a relationship either...  just a minute!  What was all this?  She wanted to leave him already?  Why?  Aha!  Her career.  Yes, well, she actually had one, while his job was just a job.  It wouldn't matter if he left that, even if it was okay.
She couldn't risk a permanent relationship until her career solidified and she had some specialist direction to follow, where she could make a name for herself, she said.  Her partner would have to be shaped to enhance that career, not hinder it, and only Paul had ever seemed to fit the bill for her.  He could support her in ways she needed, instead of demanding that she fit in with his plans, like other men did.  But he would have to wait, and forgo the chance to marry and start a family, like other young men.  For a long time, probably.  At his age, that would seem a terrible burden, but they could keep up a casual relationship, if he wanted, and she certainly wanted that, although they would have to be extremely discreet.  A small compensation, but better than nothing.  She didn't want to lose him completely, but knew that men reached their mid-twenties and then changed completely – they wanted to raise a family, but she couldn't contemplate that yet, perhaps never could.
"You mean, we both really want the same thing?  We both want to delay any firm commitment for five years or so?  And we both want to be sure that the other one doesn't go racing off with another partner?  Is that it?"
"More than five years, my darling.  More like ten, I think.  I'll know then where my future lies, and I'll want you to be here, to come with me, support me."
"And that's it?  What else?"
"No, there's more.  You'll have to do what I say.  This will be hard for you...  for any man, but I'll be good to you, Paul.  I promise you that.  I'll respect your sacrifices, and make sure that you never regret them.  I have to make career decisions with the absolute confidence that you'll fit in with them willingly – for me.  You'll do what's best for me, and that means what's best for my career.  I'm determined to make a mark in legal circles, and women have to be far more careful than men do.  We have to be perfect at all times.  Better than perfect – we need to excel in everything to even get noticed, and remain absolutely consistent before we get trusted.  I want to end up on the bench before I'm fifty."
"I've got a bench here – wanna try it?  Oh, shit, sorry.  That wasn't called for.  Look, I love you, Suzie.  I have since I was spotty, fifteen, and couldn't put two words together without yodeling.  I'll do what's best for you, without the slightest reservation.  Your career is important to you?  Okay, so I want you to succeed.  Of course I do.  You just say what, and I'll do it."
She stroked his face, studying him closely.  "I'll be a barrister or a judge, my darling, and there will be no trace of any impropriety attached to my life.  None whatsoever.  Not now, not in the future.  I can't afford any chinks in my armor, like all the other up-and-coming lawyers have.  They'll live to regret those, but I don't intend to allow any opportunity for criticism in my life.  You will be shaped into a suitable partner for a prominent legal figure, absolutely above reproach, able to move in the right circles and impress the right people, and we'll both live exemplary lives.  Better than exemplary."
"What does that mean, exactly?"
"There simply is no choice about this.  It means no scandals, no affairs, no outspoken social views or comments, no political bias, no eccentric behavior, no rough or coarse behavior or language, no ignorance of important legal or social issues, no faults that the media can seize on.  None at all.  Certainly for me, and it would be best if you could always strive for that, too.  And it really has to start now, while I'm still a junior.  Opponents have to be able to study my entire career, my entire life, and come up with nothing they can use to discredit me.  Nothing.  Zilch."
"Whew!  That's asking a lot of anyone!  I'm only human, Suze, and so are you!"
"It has to be done, so it will be done.  After tonight, we have to be very careful to keep our...  private times strictly private.  I have normal sexual desires and appetites, Paul – just like you do.  And I can't stress enough how fantastic tonight has been for me, after a five-year drought.  Just wonderful.  But that'll be strictly between the two of us, and never mentioned to others, not even in jest.  It's not a public subject.  We'll have a perfectly correct public relationship, and you have the core decency and honesty to achieve that, to carry it off.  I've never met another man so suited to take on this role – you emanate decency, Paul."
"Do I?  Most people see me as a bit boring, I thought."
Suzie laughed.  "It's not the same thing, but I suspect that sticking to the straight and narrow forces you to be correct, and many people do see that as boring.  More fool them.  You'll have to mingle with my colleagues, support all my causes, and offer no offense to anyone, and eventually become a judge's husband completely above suspicion.  Can you accept that sort of challenge?"
"Well...  I think I probably could.  Yes, probably.  I know I've never been a bad person, Suze, and I'm sure I could learn to be better, but I need to think through the implications."
She nodded, watching him intently, then looked around the bedroom, taking in the very masculine bachelor decor – stark and unadorned.  "I have to say, it looks a bit better on the inside than it does on the outside.  Out there, I couldn't understand what kept it upright.  Where's this bench of yours?  I might try sitting on it if you like.  Would you like that?"
"You mean you want me to come before the bench?  Ah yes, that sounds pretty good."
"Yes, I think you should come before...  Oh, gosh, no, Paul, you tricked me.  I didn't mean it that way."
"Well, I know what I meant."
But she snorted with laughter and allowed him to lead her to the bathroom anyway.
*  *    *  *

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