A S.E.C.R.E.T novel
L. Marie Adeline
To Cathie James, for your wise words, always …
I LAUGHED. WHAT else was there to do? This was really happening. He was really here. And it seemed like the most natural request in the world, for a handsome man to be standing knee-deep in the warm Abita River, summoning me to get naked for him. The rolled-up cuffs of his jeans were darkened by the water lapping at his muscled calves, his lean torso naked in the hot April sun.
He extended a tanned forearm to me.
“Dauphine, will you accept the Step?”
Instead of giving him an immediate yes and splashing towards him like I wanted to, I froze on the grassy bank in my vintage green sundress, which I had shortened to just above my knees. And now I was regretting it. It was sexy, not like something I’d usually wear. Do I look terrible in this? What if he isn’t attracted to me? What if we get caught? What if I’m no good at this? What if I drown? I am not a good swimmer. In fact, I’ve always been afraid of water. We were well hidden behind the swamp roses and pink mallow that sloped towards the riverbank, yet fear surrounded me. Control and trust, trust and control. My two competing demons. Why now? Hadn’t I put myself through school? Started a successful vintage clothing business, even before graduating college? Hadn’t I made it through recessions and hurricanes, pulling my little store behind me with the ferocity of a war hero rescuing a wounded comrade? I had done all those things—and more—but they required discipline and control and a steady hand on the rudder.
Accepting this compelling stranger’s invitation to join him in the rushing water meant inviting my life’s current to change directions. It meant allowing myself to enter a new world, one filled with spontaneity and risk, desire and possibly disappointment. It meant giving up control, learning to trust. Still, for all my bravado that day at the Coach House, I was suddenly unwilling to let things unfold as I had been told they would, as I had sworn to myself I’d finally allow.
But goddamn, this man was fine—and much taller than me. Then again, at five foot three, I was shorter than most men. He had smiling eyes, a rakish build, with messy, brown hair that the sun had coated with a copper sheen. I couldn’t tell if his eyes were green or blue, but he didn’t take them off me. The sun grew hotter on us, making my own hair feel like a long, heavy veil. I slowly slipped off my sandals. The grass felt cool on my feet. Maybe I could wade in. Start slow.
“Will you accept the Step? I can ask only one more time,” he said, without a note of impatience.
Now. Go to him. You must. I felt my hands drift up to my shoulders, following the lines of the halter on my dress. My fingers paused at the knot behind my neck. Then my hands worked of their own accord and the straps suddenly fell limp. I peeled down my top and bared my breasts to him. I quickly averted my gaze. I had to move fast before my mind caught up to my terror. What if my body disappointed? What if I wasn’t his type? Stop thinking. Act. I unzipped the back of the dress and let it drop to the grass. Then I rolled my panties down my legs, and straightened again, standing naked save for the gold chain circling my left wrist.
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes,’” he said. “Get in, beautiful. The water’s warm.”
My heart started pounding. As calmly as possible, I made my way towards him, towards the water. As I moved, I strategically covered myself. I dipped a toe into the edge of the river. It was warmer than I had expected. I placed the rest of my foot into the gentle current, then navigated the path of flat, moss-covered rocks leading to him. And I could see the bottom. I’d be fine.
As I stepped closer, our height difference became nearly hilarious enough to change the mood from sexy to funny; he must have been six-four! But before I burst out laughing, before I even reached him, his hands moved to the button of his jeans, causing me to stop and go quiet. Do I watch him? Do I not watch him? My Southern upbringing made me turn around to hide how red I knew I was becoming. I fixed my eyes on a distant oak shading the plantation beyond.
“You don’t need to turn away.”
“Dauphine, you’re safe. It’s just us.”
My back still to him, I heard a slight splashing and the sound of cloth against skin. Then he tossed his jeans over my head, where they landed on the riverbank next to his well-worn boots, my sandals and my green dress.
“There. Now I’m naked too,” he said. I heard him moving slowly through the water towards me, until his warm skin pressed hard against my back.
I could feel his chin resting on the top of my head, then his face nuzzling my hair and down the side of my neck. Jesus. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and tilted my head to give him my neck and the skin there. I could feel how much he wanted this, and me. My senses were electrified. My skin, warmed by the water, cooled by the air, soothed by his touch, came tingling alive. The wind carried the smells of the South—cut grass, the river, magnolias. I want this. I want this. I want him! What’s the hesitation? Why can’t I just turn around and face him? This man is here solely to please me. My only obstacle is my inability to let him.
Then, as he placed his hands on my hips, I heard that inner voice again, loud, insistent, with my mother’s Tennessee timber. He thinks you’re too flabby. Too curvy. Too short. He probably doesn’t like redheads.
I squeezed my eyes shut against the voice. Then I heard a low groan, the kind I recognized as deep male approval. Okay, he likes what he’s touching. He placed his mouth by my ear, his hands tugging my hips backwards, pulling both of us into a deeper current.
“Your skin is incredible,” he murmured, as he walked me farther backwards until I was waist-deep with him. “Like alabaster.”
He’s lying. They told him to say this. I begged my own critical voice to get lost.
“Turn around, Dauphine. I want to look at you.”
My arms slowly fell to my sides, my fingers touching the water. I opened my eyes and turned around to face the expanse of his chest and the unmistakable evidence of his desire for me. This is happening! Let it! I tilted my head back to look up at his calm, handsome face. Then whoosh! He scooped me right off my feet, so swiftly and deftly that I screamed out of joy, even as my stomach fluttered. By the time I secured an arm around his muscled neck, he was cradling me in the sparkling river, teasing, slowly dipping me in.
“It’s cold!” I gasped, clutching him harder.
“You’ll soon warm up,” he whispered, lowering me all the way into the water. His arms beneath me, I let my body give in to him and to the river. I stretched out, floating, dipping my head back, letting my hair drift inch by inch into the river. Okay here we go …
“That’s right, just relax into it. I’ve got you.”
I felt marvelously buoyant. The water wasn’t scary at all. I closed my eyes and let my hair spiral out, and for the first time in a long time I knew a real smile was spreading across my face.
“Look at you, Ophelia,” he said.
With one arm holding me up in the middle of my back, he moved the other arm out from beneath me and traced a firm hand up my leg, past my thigh, pausing at the crest, then moving to my stomach where he stooped to kiss the water in the pool my belly button created.
“That tickles.” My eyes were still closed. You’re weightless and divine. You’re body is beautiful, Dauphine.
“Does this?” he whispered, letting his hand travel across my curves, cupping a hand beneath me, his fingers exploring my cleft. Oh god.
“A little,” I said. My body opened like a starfish, my waving arms keeping me afloat. I loved what the water was doing to me. The chill firmed my skin. My nipples were ripe and hard. I opened my eyes and found his face, and I could see desire there. I watched him stoop to kiss my breasts while his hand below nudged my thighs open.
“How about this?” he asked, slowly sliding one, then two fingers inside me.
“Nope,” I gasped, “that doesn’t tickle.” I felt pulses of hot pleasure course through me. This could happen so fast, I thought as his firm fingers warmed my insides. I clenched around him, as he gently teased my opening with this fingers, tentative at first, and then more insistent, deeper. I felt the water ripple across my skin—a combination that quickened my breath. Right then and there, I wanted to come, I could have … but I pushed it back to savor the floating feeling. I arched slightly to urge his fingers deeper still, my hair fully submerged so that it spooled around my head. I imagined it looking like a fiery corona.