Thank God, I thought, as Matilda stiffly approached us.

“Mr. Castille, what a surprise to see you here,” she said. Her voice was steady, but I knew her; I could tell by the way she fussed with her charms that this was throwing her for a loop. Sweat broke out across my brow.

“I bet it is. I can only assume my invitation was lost in the mail. I don’t think, considering my passionate patronage of S.E.C.R.E.T., that you’d have deliberately left my name off the guest list.”

“You’re kind to forgive the oversight,” she said, wincing at the smell of his breath when he leaned close to kiss her cheek.

She turned to Will. “And it is so nice to see you again, Will. And Cassie … why I hope you don’t mind my saying, but you do look a little flushed. Forgive me, but you might have the same thing Dauphine has. Poor thing just left. I hope it wasn’t the shrimp.”

Matilda’s face was imploring, her words sounding as though she were pressing them into firm clay. She placed her hand on my forehead.

“In fact, you’re quite clammy. I wouldn’t blame you one bit if you wanted to duck out of this shindig a little early too, before all the boring speeches. I know how much you hate these things.”

That’s what she said instead of Pierre’s here to do damage, serious damage, not just to S.E.C.R.E.T., but to you. Leave now. Take Will.

“Are you okay?” Will asked, picking up on Matilda’s concern. “If you’re not feeling well we can—”

“Yes, let’s. I am a little—”

“Thirsty?” Pierre said, grabbing a glass of ice water from a passing waiter’s tray and handing it to me. “If you leave now, you’ll miss the best part, Cassie. And I know you,” he said, poking Will in the chest, “you will be very interested in how the night unfolds. No more secrets. No more lies. They’re so toxic, wouldn’t you say, Will?”

“What the fuck are you talking about, Pierre?”

But before I had a chance to say, Will, please take me home now before you hear something that might kill you, kill us, Pierre drained his wineglass and deposited it on another passing tray.

“What am I talking about? I’m talking about the sexy little group these ladies belong to. Has Cassie told you how it’s financed? They sell off paintings. Valuable ones. I bought one recently for fifteen million dollars. But turns out they don’t want my money. And I’m not giving them the painting back. So they’re donating all of it. So generous. So magnanimous. So sanctimonious.”

“Pierre, you’ve said enough,” Matilda said, trying to signal Security. We were a small group, just Matilda, Will, Pierre and me, but ears around us were pricking up, and not those belonging to members of S.E.C.R.E.T.

“And they need the money. Sex fantasies are not cheap, Will. Especially when they come with little prizes in little boxes,” he said, snatching my wrist and holding my bracelet up in front of Will’s face. “Did Cassie ever tell you how she earned these charms? Or where? Wasn’t this one with me, in the back of my limo?”

His fingers were roughly digging through my charms, trying to find the one he was talking about. I wrenched free of his grip.

“Get your fucking hands off her,” Will hissed.

“Will, let’s just get out of here,” I said, my whole body now pressing him away from our little circle, this awful place. He must have felt it, me vibrating with anger and fear.

Matilda tried to calm Pierre, to shut him up, as though there were time to rescue the evening, as though the damage hadn’t already been done. But Will’s eyes were wild with confusion. Angela and Kit sidled over, using their bodies as shields to prevent onlookers from watching the drama, to keep more details from leaking beyond our group into the party at large.

“Sometimes at events like this, Pierre,” Matilda said, grabbing his elbow, “when the drinks flow more freely than the food, we say things we don’t mean, and we hurt people terribly, people who don’t deserve it.”

“And sometimes, Matilda, we tell the truth,” he spat, releasing his arm. Turning to Will, he said, “I hear the truth’s been in short supply in your life lately, buddy. Heard about old Carruthers and your little girlfriend, or rather, ex-girlfriend. Again my money backed the wrong candidate. Family values my ass. Not that you suffered for long. Must have been the happiest day of your life, Cassie, when you found out that his ex was a bigger slut than even you.

Wham came the punch, which sailed over my shoulder, landing hard, then sealed with a good kick to his ribs even before Pierre hit the ground. Will’s arm was cocked, loaded, about to launch, or so I thought. But when I got over my shock, I realized I wasn’t looking at the back of Will’s tux standing over Pierre’s writhing body, but rather chef whites belonging to Jesse Turnbull.

Time seemed to stop in that instant, allowing me to feel for a brief second like an observer, hovering eerily over the events, watching Angela and Kit holding Will back from completing the job that Jesse had started, seeing two burly bodyguards scoop up a bleeding Pierre, still yelling, despite the blood and the missing front tooth, “Just ask her, Will! Ask how she got those charms, how all of them did!” “Asked” sounded more like “asstht,” something that would have been funny, might one day, in some faraway future, still be funny, to other people unaffected by his drunken tirade. Even after he shook his arms free of the security guards, Pierre wouldn’t stop.

“Because they just use men, Will, they use them for their pleasure and then throw them away and she’ll do that to you too, buddy! So goodbye, whores,” he said, giving a flaccid salute, before getting hustled out the door and thrown into the back of his own waiting limo.

Everyone heard that, heard a drunken Pierre Castille sounding more like a jealous ex than a bitter man rejected by a group of women he now deeply resented. So beyond some whispers and stares, the party instantly recognized the sight, then healed over when the limo drove away and returned to their drinking and hors d’oeuvres. I silently thanked Jesse with teary eyes, then took hold of Will’s lapels, pushing him gently away from the crowd, down a dim hallway leading to the washrooms. There I pressed him up against the wall, holding him upright with my forehead in the middle of his chest for a second, where I left a little prayer, something to help him better listen while I desperately tried to explain things.

He was breathless.

“I’m very confused, Cassie,” he said, his voice up an octave. “I’m confused by some of the things that were just said by that asshole. Can you … enlighten me?”

“I don’t know. I think, I guess … Pierre wants to ruin us.”

“Ruin who?”

“Ruin S.E.C.R.E.T., our organization, me, us.”

“Why? What does he fucking care?”

“Because … I rejected him. We rejected him.”

Will laughed, genuinely laughed.

“Sorry. Let me get this straight. You rejected the richest man in the city, so he bought a fifteen-million-dollar painting from your … group. But you don’t want the money because he’s a bad man. So he’s mad and called you sluts and whores—”

“I know it sounds like a ludicrous story.”

“Not ludicrous, just incomplete,” he said. “You know, Tracina once said Angela and Kit did some freaky-deaky things in some mansion in the Garden District. Those were her words—freaky-deaky. I never pressed her because we’d been out and she was drinking. And I never thought it was any of my business. But tonight I see that Kit and Angela and you all belong to this same little group, this S.E.C.R.E.T. thing. Is that what Tracina was talking about?”

Tears that felt like shame started streaming down my cheeks. Why? I had done nothing wrong. But there it was in Will’s eyes: disgust.

“Will, don’t look at me like that.”

“Tell me, Cassie? Because I’m telling you this: one more fucking lie, one more secret, and I will snap directly in half. Yes or no. Do you belong to some kind of … sex group?”

Mortification set in, starting at my feet and inching up my body. I hadn’t lied to him. I had only shaded away parts of the truth that weren’t his to know, or that were beyond my ability to explain to him. In that moment I made a decision. If Will couldn’t accept the whole of S.E.C.R.E.T., what it did for me, how it brought me back to me, then it was better I know that now. I opened and closed my fists, pulling in the courage to tell the truth. I grabbed his hand and looked into his dark blue eyes, now churning with bewilderment.

“Will you promise to listen?”

“All ears, baby. I’m all ears.”

“Well … I have told you the truth. S.E.C.R.E.T. is a group that helps women. That part is true. But it helps them … sexually … by granting them a series of sexual fantasies, the kind that help them develop things like courage and trust and … confidence. Things I always lacked,” I said. His face remained still, but I could tell his brain couldn’t process the information fast enough.

“Throughout the year, I experienced several … scenarios. I felt terrified, I felt overjoyed. I was lost and I was found. And by the end of it, I was a different person, but the same too, just stronger, more myself. Even you said last year when we first slept together that I seemed different, yet very much the same. That was it exactly. That’s what S.E.C.R.E.T. gave me.”

I paused, waiting for him to chime in, waiting for him to say something, anything, but his face remained as implacable as an Easter Island statue.