He fondled my bracelet. “I haven’t seen this on you in a while.”
“I wear it only on special occasions,” I said, letting him examine it, knowing there was nothing to hide anymore.
“So let me get this straight—for every sort of good deed or challenge, or whatever, you get one of these charms?” he asked, reading some of the Steps under his breath, Generosity, Bravery, Trust. “Reminds me of Girl Scouts.”
“Ha. Sort of,” I said, sliding out of bed.
“What kind of charm do you get for having a restaurant named after you?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I’ve decided to call the new place Cassie’s. A sign’s going to be delivered tomorrow—and here,” he said, fishing a piece of paper from his jacket, which he’d retrieved from the floor where it was tossed with the rest of our clothes. He presented me with a folded-up prototype of the new menu, Cassie’s printed on a pretty scroll across the top. I gasped, speechless, fat tears falling down my cheeks.
“Are you serious?”
“Never more so,” he said, kissing me.
“I don’t … I can’t … no one has ever …”
“Cassie, just say thank you. And let’s get dressed and get this event over with.”
“I’m not going to say thank you now. I’m going to say thank you later, when I get you back here alone.”
“So I take it we’re not staying late?”
We showered, one after the other as my tub was too small for two, and later as he zipped me tenderly into my dress. I felt blessed, and, dare I say it … very loved. Had I known it would be the last time we’d be together, I would never have left that bed or that apartment, and I certainly wouldn’t have washed him off my body so quickly, before slipping back into that beautiful, cursed dress.
Latrobe’s was an intimate corner building, made of cream stucco, tucked in the heart of the French Quarter. With its curved Moorish ceilings and dim interiors, it was the perfect place to hold a private party or a small elegant wedding, something discreet and un-showy. So it was unusual to see a boisterous crowd of reporters lining the entrance. But fifteen million dollars was going to be donated to at least eight different local charities that worked to help women and children who were abused, hungry, neglected or who were in any other way disadvantaged. It was the kind of money that could change lives. So it was a big deal, deserving of big coverage.
Matilda was handling all the press, all the questions and all the follow-up. We were told to relax, mingle and eat. A Committee meeting was struck for the following day. That’s when we’d find out how much money was left in the S.E.C.R.E.T. coffers. That’s also when I planned to formally resign, but not before profusely thanking each and every one them for my good fortune and my lovely life.
We ducked past a throng with clacking cameras and into the narrow foyer that led to the main dining area. The room was filled with the highest echelons of New Orleans society, including, much to our shock, a very solo and newly re-elected District Attorney Carruthers Johnstone, mopping his brow and greeting guests in a too-snug tux, his PR person hovering close by, fielding questions.
“Are you going to be okay with him here?” I asked, pulling Will away from the greeting line, avoiding Carruthers. It had been almost a month, and while I’d been several times to see the sweet baby, and a very humbled Tracina, Will still felt like a chump. He still harbored some ill feelings I hoped would fade soon so Tracina could freely bring the baby to the café she was named after.
Eyeing Carruthers, Will said, “It’s okay. Mostly I feel sorry for the poor bastard. He has to take on all that crying and screaming … and a new baby on top of it all.”
News of Carruthers’ dalliance had come too late to affect his re-election, but its consequences were trickling in. There were a lot of questions, of course, most of which he was avoiding while his wife moved his things out of their mansion in the Garden District and into a lovely cottage on Exposition Boulevard, facing Audubon, where he and Tracina could raise the baby in relative privacy until the worst of the scandal blew over.
City councilwoman Kay Ladoucer was also there. She had chaired last year’s Revitalization Ball, and tonight she was behaving like a queen bee, greeting guests and posing for pictures, even though this was Matilda’s event. Will made a point of saying hello to her, knowing his final building inspection was soon, after which, assuming he’d pass with flying colors, the only things stopping us from opening Cassie’s (Cassie’s!) were securing the liquor license and cutting the ribbon. Kay had blocked every attempt he’d made in the past to expand upstairs, citing too much growth on Frenchmen Street. So he was taking no chances now, and even went so far as to compliment her hair and her dress, feeling my elbow in his side when he started in on her shoes.
We gathered with Dauphine and Mark for a minute, she in a stunning jet blue off-the-shoulder cocktail dress, her hair a Veronica Lake tribute; he in a tux, with jeans, of course, both wearing dopey grins, a match made in heaven if there ever was one.
“Cassie! So fucking good to see you,” Mark said, throwing his arms around me and lifting me off the ground. In my ear, he whispered, “I owe you big-time.”
I had long reassured Will of my “friends only” status with the “skinny boy” who had stopped into the Café that day to invite me to hear him play. And I think he believed me. But Mark’s enthusiastic greeting had Will instinctually putting a warm hand on my back.
“You look gorgeous, Cassie,” said Dauphine, leaning towards me and out of Will’s earshot. “And promise me you’ll come by the store more often. This isn’t goodbye. You changed my life.”
“And you two better be regulars in my restaurant,” I said, announcing its new name. Will looked as chuffed as I felt. “Congratulations,” they both said. And after Mark promised to hold court in the corner with a guitar on opening night, they left to navigate the crowd back to the bar. I turned to slide my arms through Will’s jacket, wending them behind his back in an embrace.
“You have nothing to worry about,” I said, looking up at him, my chin on his chest.
“What? I know that,” he said, moving a strand of stray hair behind my ear.
“I never thought you were the jealous type, Will.”
“I’m not. I’m just … I guess I’m a little sensitive these days. I’ll get over. And soon, I’ll start taking you completely for granted.”
“I’m looking forward to that,” I said, kind of meaning it.
The evening was unfolding so beautifully. Even after Angela Rejean strolled by in a criminally short silver mini-dress that tilted the attention of the entire room in her direction, including Will’s. Her legs had me spellbound, so much so, I didn’t notice the light hand on my shoulder. I assumed it was Will again, his touch becoming such a lovely constant, I almost noticed it more when he didn’t have a hand on me.
“Cassie Robichaud, how nice it is to see you again. And looking ravishing in black satin.”
I turned around and there he was, Pierre Castille, holding a glass of red wine, his frustratingly handsome face lighting up when I met his gaze. With his free hand he clasped an upper arm to kiss my two cheeks, my skin beneath his touch becoming goose-fleshed and chilled. He’d been drinking. Quite a bit. Oh God, what is he doing here?
“Hello, Pierre,” I said, my voice faltering. I looked around for Dauphine, suddenly worried for her.
“And that dress. Oh, and if it isn’t my old childhood pal, Will Foret. Seeing you in a tux—now that’s worth the price of admission!”
“Pierre, I see you’re still always happy to attend the opening of any old envelope,” Will said, giving me a what the fuck is he doing here? kind of look.
I shrugged, looking around frantically for Matilda.
“I could hardly miss tonight, Will, my man. After all, it is—or rather was my fifteen million that this organization is giving away.”
Will turned to me. “His money?”
“But what can you do?” Pierre continued, doing his best to camouflage a slight slur. “You try to support causes you care about and sometimes they just don’t want your help. Women! Am I right? A man can only deal with so much bullshit from them … Speaking of which, here’s our lovely Matilda Greene now.”