Containing a lot of alcohol and a little boy-talk.

"A figure fit for Playboy if I ever saw one," George drawled, sounding less enthusiastic than bored. George and his buddies were in their favorite restaurant bar, a place of dark wood and little lighting with a touch of fine about it; definitely not your average hole-in-the-wall. The quality and quantity of the female clientele was better too. Not that the buddies took advantage of it, but it gave them something to look at while they enjoyed the company of their own sex. Every now and then men needed a chance to discuss the Portland Trail Blazers and their women in peace. Since Mercy was out that night too, George had gotten a babysitter and was describing her to his friends.

"How old did you say she was?" Arnie asked.

"Seventeen," George said.

"Probably not a virgin," Phil commented. "These days they lose it at fourteen."

"Not my daughter," Ed said. "Before I see her go whoring around, I'll lock her up."

"You're in for it in a couple of years, Ed," Jack predicted.

"Maybe there's something in it for you if you get home early enough, George," Lance suggested.

George shrugged. "Naw, too risky. But what a looker! Mercy always had a generous figure too, but lately she's been spreading."

"You can say that again," Ed said. George gave him a poisonous look. It was every man's prerogative to criticize his own wife, but his buddies shouldn't do more than sympathize. It was an unwritten rule of the club.

"You know, though, I've had the impression Mercy's really improved lately," Arnie pointed out. "Her trip to Texas seems to have done her a lot of good."

George looked at Arnie sharply. What was he implying? Were these guys talking about him behind his back? George had noticed a change as well: Mercy had such a glowing look when she got back he almost suspected she'd taken a lover in Texas. But it didn't seem like Mercy to do something like that. Then how to explain the bright look in her eyes? She used to get that kind of expression when she looked at him, now she got it when she stared off into space and thought he wasn't watching her.

That would be pretty humiliating if his buddies were discussing Mercy's sexual loyalty or lack of it. George scratched his chin and jaw thoughtfully, a habit which years of beardlessness still hadn't eradicated. Better to go out in the open with his complaints, take the boys into his confidence, or his reputation would suffer for sure. The best defense was a good offense.

"A lot of good?" George repeated sarcastically. "Rebellious is what she's getting. I don't know what she was doing in Texas, but it only made it worse." At least that way they would know he wasn't being deceived, and whatever was wrong with Mercy, she wasn't pulling the wool over his eyes.

"Welcome to the club," Jack said.

"If you don't keep women in their place, you're in for trouble," Ed pronounced with the air of someone dispensing a gem of wisdom. Unfortunately, none of those present knew what one looked like.

"You've got to show Mercy who's boss, or it's only going to get worse," Phil advised.

George was pleased with the success of his strategy. Knocking Mercy a little more wouldn't hurt, and she would never know. Mercy was the sacrificial lamb on the altar of his ego: his need for male solidarity was greater than his loyalty to her, at least for the moment. Their relationship had long been more of a competition than a partnership anyway.

"I guess I'd better. I'm starting to get pissed off," George pronounced in his typical bored drawl. "A man has his limits. It's been months since I've had a good lay."

"When Eve tried that on me, that's when I divorced her," Jack said. Everyone at the table knew Eve had divorced Jack, but the fiction was tolerated. It was better for their mutual male pride that way.

"Mary started getting like that once and I just went and found somebody else," Arnie contributed.

"Mercy's already invited me to do just that," George said shortly. "I need another drink," he added, getting up.

"Me too," Arnie said, rising as well. Both were reasonably inebriated, but that didn't stop them. Reasonable inebriation was a state they strove to achieve with determination when they had a "night out."

"Sons of bitches," George muttered to Arnie beneath his mustache, but with a distinct lack of emphasis. He would have told a customer what was wrong with a vacuum cleaner in the same tone of voice. "Have you guys been talking about Mercy behind my back?"

"What makes you think that?" Arnie asked. "We're friends, aren't we?"

"You have," George confirmed as they reached the bar. "Friends, my ass. Screwdriver," he said to the bartender.

"Old-fashioned," Arnie added.

"You two don't need another drink," Joe the bartender advised.

"Who needs it?" George asked rhetorically with a superior shrug. He was so above the situation he could have floated, if a bladder full of screwdrivers weren't keeping him down.

"Another won't hurt," Arnie said, scanning the bar, checking out the women.

"Our livers are ruined already anyway," George said.

"Yeah, but what about your cars?" Joe asked.

Arnie punched George playfully in the ribs with his elbow. "Hey, George, take a look at that blond in the corner. I swear she's making eyes at you."

"Cut the crap, Arnie."

"Joe, George won't check out the blond in the corner. Can you believe it?"

"George goes for redheads."

"Few enough of those."

"Not any more, I don't," George insisted, and finally complied in staring at the blond.

"So what's the matter?" Joe asked. "Problems with the old lady?"

"We've been through that enough for tonight," George said.

But apparently they hadn't been through it enough. When George and Arnie returned to their table, their buddies were discussing women's sexual mores.

"You know," Phil was confessing, "when I started to get the feeling Linda might have someone else, it made her a lot more interesting again."

True enough, George agreed silently.

"Fascination of the hunt, hey, Phil?" Arnie joked.

"I think that's why they do it," Ed said. "They just want you to pay attention to them."

"Well, it works," Phil said, laughing.

"Women are basically teases," Jack complained. "They can't do anything up front, it always has to be roundabout."

"Exactly," Arnie agreed. "Like when they won't admit it when they want you just to maintain their moral superiority."

"Force you to force them," Lance chimed in.

"I think women actually like a show of force," Jack suggested. "It gives them the feeling you're getting carried away by passion."

"Linda reads these bodice-ripping historical romances," Phil said, chuckling, and several of the other men at the table nodded in agreement. "The heroine always gets raped, and she loves it."

"How do you know, Phil? You read them too?" Lance asked.

Phil shrugged. "They're lying around all over the house. I've taken a peek at them before."

"And read the rape scenes, I bet," George said.

"Sure. They're pretty steamy."

"Must be the morality business," Arnie said. "They're not supposed to want sex, so they have to be forced to get it."

"But it's different if it's a wife," Jack pointed out.

"Yeah, wives are less interesting," Ed said, and the buddies laughed.

"Well, interesting or not, I'd better be getting home to mine," George said.

"We thought she was getting more interesting again, isn't that right, George?" Lance teased.

"Shove it in your ear, Lance," George said nonchalantly and left.