“You’re something to behold, Dauphine,” he murmured, the fingers of one hand gently moving in and out, his other hand keeping me afloat. Then he expertly maneuvered my floating body a quarter-turn, positioning himself between my legs. But before I could wrap around him to pull him into me, he bent down, his mouth meeting the water trickling over the inside of my thighs, now glistening in the sun, his other hand still beneath me. The heat of his lips married with the rushing water and his urgent fingers created a feeling so intense I slapped at the current to gain purchase. Then he slung my knees, one, then the other, over his shoulders, his strong arms underneath me, supporting my back, keeping me afloat. Both hands now beneath me, he brought his tongue to my soft groove, where my thigh curved into my short, red curls, and I watched as he nuzzled, the water like a million fingers across my body. For a second, I couldn’t tell the difference between the river lapping at my skin and his eager mouth, until his tongue, warm and insistent, found my perfect place, isolating it with a few talented strokes of his fingers. Ahh … I lifted my pelvis, my thighs opening wider, instinctively, hungrily, keeping my face above the gentle flow, my ears below the water. The rush of the current intensified the build as he drew circles on me, around and around, thrusting a finger in and out and … oh god. I felt his other hand, his wide palm spread across the middle of my back while his mouth and fingers did their dance. Then he reached up to tease my nipples. His mouth was liquid and warm, his tongue fluttering, lapping at me, drinking the whole of me in. I think he felt it before I did, the tension seizing my body, my knees clenching, my arms extending out at my sides, palms to the sun. Yes …
The first wave was warm and familiar. Ah this, I thought, I remember this. Then it intensified to something more, something deeper, with an urgency that made me cry out loud into the vivid sky. His fingers explored me deeper as his tongue traced faster and faster circles, and I was laughing when it happened, when I finally came, once, twice, in wave after wave of pleasure. I writhed, the backs of my knees clasping his shoulders, and we were, for a moment, one body. Then, after this blissful, floating moment, my breasts heaving in the sun, my own fingers on my cool skin, I came back to myself.
“So, so good,” he whispered. He moved me gently on the surface of the water like a paper boat, as I subsided.
“But … it’s not over, is it?” I asked, my thighs quivering, my legs now straddling his waist.
Nearer to the shore, I slid my legs off him, my feet finding stones to stabilize me in the shallower part of the river. I stood waist-deep as the water fell down my breasts in rivulets, my nipples still hard. I pushed the hair off my face, feeling dizzy, exhausted, satisfied.
“This is as far as I get to take you on this step, Dauphine. I don’t want to, but I have to give you back.”
He walked towards the pebbly beach where we had entered the river. Near our clothes was a pile of bright white towels. He released my hand and climbed the bank, the water shining off his back. Then he turned to pull me onto the grass. I shivered as he plucked a towel from the pile and swaddled me, pressing me to him, squeezing warmth back into my body, rubbing my arms hard.
“I feel so … I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything. The pleasure was all mine.” He turned to dry himself off.
I pulled the towel tightly around me, watching as he tugged his jeans over his muscled thighs and pulled on a crisp white T-shirt, which clung to his damp torso. He stepped towards me again, this time placing his big hands on either side of my face, pulling me into a lingering kiss.
When he pulled away, he said, “I mean it. The pleasure was mine, Dauphine.”
After planting a final kiss in the middle of my forehead, he walked backwards for a few steps. Then he turned to head towards the plantation, finally disappearing around an ivy-covered corner.
I wanted to scream a thank you for leaving me so beautifully shipwrecked. But the words were still underwater with parts of the old me, the parts that were afraid of surrendering, of wanting this, of simply receiving pleasure and trusting it was possible. Instead, I laughed out loud again, this time thinking, I did it. Something happened and I let it!
I turned to my dress and pulled it up over my damp, quivering legs. Smoothing it down over my hips, I felt something in my pocket and took it out. A small purple box. Inside, nestled in a cotton cloud, was a gold charm, pale and rough-edged. I picked it up. It had a Roman numeral on one side—I— and the word Surrender engraved on the other side. My heart leapt as I took the charm out of its nest, squeezing it tight in my palm. It felt like a warm, flat stone. It was mine. I secured it to my chain, the one I’d been wearing for three weeks.
I made my way slowly up the sloping hill towards the waiting car. As I passed a high stone wall covered with bougainvillea, I caressed the tiny pink petals. You did it. You gave up control. Now it’s time to take the rest of the Steps, however tentative, towards your new life—and away from those voices, away from that heartbreak, away from your sad past.
THREE THOUGHTS OCCURRED to me that morning while stretching awake across my bed in Marigny.
One, it had been six weeks since that incredible night with Will.
Two, I had fallen asleep with my S.E.C.R.E.T. bracelet on again, which hadn’t been a problem when it had only one or two charms on it. But there were ten now, so the gold pressed into the tender flesh of my wrists, leaving marks.
And three, it was my birthday. My cat, Dixie, blinked at me from the foot of the bed. I reached down and pulled her into an embrace, where she purred herself back to sleep, a skill I wish I had.
“I am thirty-six years old today, Dixie,” I said, scratching her ears.
Another year had snuck up on me like a bratty prankster. I hadn’t been paying attention to time passing until after my night with Will. It had been six weeks, and time had begun to slow. Some days ached past, work at the Café Rose being both a major comfort and the salt in the very wound I needed to heal. How could I get over Will when I saw him every day? How could I continue acting like nothing had happened between us the night I’d danced in Les Filles de Frenchmen Revue and we’d kissed our way back to the Café, up the stairs to that dusty room, where he tore off my burlesque outfit and tossed me backwards on a mattress lit by moonlight? Though he didn’t know it, I had chosen him that night as my final fantasy. He knew only how badly I wanted him.
For me the lines between fact and fantasy had dissolved and he became real to me. His skin felt like home. We kissed like we’d been doing it for decades. We fit, our bodies perfectly molded for the things we did to each other naturally, wordlessly. It was beyond fantasy. And to think that all this time he had been right under my nose and I hadn’t seen him, couldn’t see him. But after a year of S.E.C.R.E.T., after a year of pushing myself past self-imposed boundaries, I had unleashed something very real inside of myself. And when Will told me he and Tracina had broken up, I felt the universe finally aligning in my favor. The morning after our magical night, I thought Will was my reward for coming back to life.
I was wrong.
More than any other memory from that night, it’s Tracina’s face that haunts me—ashen yet hopeful, her steady voice delivering the kind of hard facts that kill fantasies. She told me she was pregnant with Will’s baby, and that he was thrilled when he found out.
What do you do with that very real information just when you think you’ve found the love of your life? You feel the final bubble burst around your fantasy and you walk away. That’s what I did. All the way across the city to the Coach House, where Matilda dried my tears. There she reminded me that embedded in every fantasy is reality.
“People love the fantasy,” she said. “But they ignore the facts to their detriment. And there’s a price to pay when you do that. Always.”
Fact number one: Will and I were finally together.
Fact number two: I was quite possibly in love with him.
Fact number three: His ex-girlfriend was pregnant.
Fact number four: When she told him, they got back together.
Fact number five: Will and I cannot be together.
Because Will was my boss, I had planned to quit my job right away, but Matilda urged me never to let heartbreak get in the way of very practical concerns, like work, paying rent, being responsible and fulfilling obligations.
“Don’t give men that much power, Cassie. Get on with the task of living. You’ve had a lot of practice this past year.”
I was such a tear-stained mess that morning. I wasn’t certain whether joining S.E.C.R.E.T. was the right decision. But at least I was making a decision. That was new for me. Prior to S.E.C.R.E.T., I always went with the most powerful force governing my life at any given time, usually my late husband Scott’s. He had brought us to New Orleans almost eight years ago, but his drinking erased any notion that we’d made a fresh start. We were separated when he died in a car wreck; he was sober at the time, but still a broken man. I was broken as well. And for five years after, I worked hard and slept fitfully, falling into a pattern of isolation and self-pity, until one day I found a diary detailing one woman’s journey through a mysterious set of steps that seemed to have a lot to do with sex—a journey that was transformative, to say the least.