Chapter One

Rain fell in sheets over Hélène Dupont’s face, licking her glasses in smeary streams as she pedaled aimlessly through the slick streets of Brussels. Like a dizzy mermaid, she made her way through rows of drenched cars, not caring about a thing. Not herself. And certainly not her.

I’m ruining my life. She dragged her toe through a puddle. The midafternoon droplets slamming against her glasses reminded her of the day before, when she and Sylvie, her private swimming coach, had escaped to the Belgian coast for a secret dip in the ocean. The adventure had been on a whim, une folie; Hélène had let down her guard, allowing herself to be swept off her feet, literally, with waves crashing down on their half-naked bodies, their noses filled with the sea air’s salty spray.

As Hélène pedaled furiously, she remembered how roused her heart had been, pounding hard under her wet T-shirt when Sylvie, the sexy Greek goddess, first wrapped her muscular arms around Hélène, sealing their embrace like sweet honey. Then, with the sun’s rays highlighting Sylvie’s glistening body, she had cuppedHélène’s face in her handsand kissed her tenderly on the lips.

“I adore you too,” Hélène had whispered, before taking a deep breath and kissing Sylvie back. The sensation of their hot, mingling tongues had made Hélène’s heart pound even harder. Within seconds, their awkwardness had turned to tenderness, which blossomed into real passion.

Hélène shuddered at the all-too-fresh memory as she raced her bike down the glossy, cobblestoned street. What’s wrong with me?She searched the sky, but the response she was waiting for—some sort of explanation, anything at all—showed no signs of manifesting. So she wiped the sweat from her brow and pedaled on, feeling increasingly anxious. How could this have happened? I’m forty years old. I’m married. And she’s a woman… She shook her head to clear her thoughts, causing droplets to leak from her helmet into her eyes. What kind of straight woman kisses a woman? God knows I’m not the lesbian type. I must be bloody insane!

Hélène rode down an empty street until she spotted a large pine tree. With a defeated sigh, she discarded her bike and plopped herself beneath the tree. Raindrops trickled onto her shoulders and helmet through the thick branches above; she shrugged them off. Seizing the tops of her waterlogged socks, she squeezed the cotton until water oozed into her boots. The chill of moisture flooding over her ankles made her giddy. Je suis folle.She snorted and did it again. I must be nuts.

Suddenly, streaks of lightning flashed across the dark clouds. Hélène ducked her head between her knees and squeezed her legs. Despite the hardness of her helmet, she had high hopes she’d attract an electrical shock. Maybe this will crush the pain. The squeezing reminded her of crushing lemons as a kid—making fresh lemonade with her grandma’s old metallic lemon press.

After a few more thigh squeezes, Hélène admitted defeat. She wasn’t a lemon, and the fruits of her efforts smarted her ears. Hot tears mingled with chilly raindrops slid down her cheeks. She gritted her teeth, trying to block the intensifying beat of her heart, synced to the rhythm of her sobs, like ancient African drums before an ambush.

She was so soaked she hadn’t noticed she was sitting smack in a mud puddle. As her pants soaked in the pungent brown liquid around her, she experienced a sensory revelation: her chosen spot was probably where dogs congregated during their daily constitutionals. Forming tight fists, she glared upward. She had always wondered what it was like to hit rock bottom.

Now she knew.

“Is this a midlife crisis or what?”Hélène glared at the menacing sky. Yanking off her steamy lenses, she squinted at the mass of blurry clouds.

Alors, is it?” The response—a rumble of thunder, followed by a crack of lightning—confirmed her supposition. She took a deep breath. I can deal with this.

But inside, it hurt too much. Who am I kidding? I can’t deal with this right now. Why can’t I just rid my mind and body of all feeling and go numb? Why can’t I turn myself into a tree…or a flower? Why can’t everyone just leave me alone?

She glanced at the glistening leaves swaying in the wind. The bushes are waving at me. Is it the storm that’s wreaking havoc? Or me? How open-minded am I anyway? She squinted at the fuzzy yellow heads poking through the puddle her derrière was soaking in.

“You nasty little critters!” she shrieked, groping at the daisies. With their stems between her fingers, she ripped the flowers from their muddy roots. “You’ve no right to live in this beastly world.”

She shook the stems, draining them of vitality. When the feeble beings wilted in her palms, she felt better instantly. This sadistic act numbed her pain—at least for the time being.

Flinging the lifeless flowers over her shoulder, Hélène suppressed a cocky smile. So now I know what it feels like to be a murderer, she thought. What dreadful thing will happen next?

Just then, she heard a shriek. Mon Dieu, those blossoms were still alive!

Hélène cringed with horror.

“Are you completely mad?” erupted a shrill voice behind her. Hélène swiveled around, displacing her buttocks firmly planted in the mud. The voice came from an elderly woman leaning diagonally on a wooden cane, two paces behind her. Apparently, the muddy blooms had torpedoed her oversized, floppy pink hat, which now lay over the woman’s soiled rain boots, exposing a mound of gray hair bunched atop her head. A few lifeless, green stalks trailed down the front of her powdery pink rain jacket. With her jaw set, the elderly woman’s light blue eyes were aflame.

Désolée, Madame. I didn’t mean to hit you,” mumbled Hélène, looking away from the offending flowers.

The old woman seemed to detect suffering in Hélène’s feeble voice; she locked eyes with Hélène and stated matter-of-factly, “You’re experiencing quite a nasty day, n’est-ce-pas, ma chérie?

Hélène nodded while lifting her chin as a rush of tears flooded her eyes. How does she know how much I’m suffering? It’s like she can read my soul.

“Follow me.” The elderly woman in powdery pink rain gear extended a withered, bony hand and, to Hélène’s bewilderment, swiftly pulled Hélène to her feet.

 

v

 

Following the elderly stranger like an obedient pooch, Hélène pushed her bike in silence, except for the simultaneous squish, squish, squish of their rain boots mingled with the plop, plop, plop of a puddle-piercing cane. Muddy droplets cascaded off the old woman’s floppy pink hat as the rain relentlessly spat down on them.

After two blocks, the old woman stopped in front of a tiny brick house. It was quaint, with pale-pink awnings, and was graced with a small yet lush garden bursting with greenery: pines, palms, bamboos, bushes, hanging plants, and rows upon rows of pink and yellow roses. A wrought iron bench sat strategically in the midst of the lawn, facing the flower bed. Hélène drew an appreciative breath. On sunny days, so rare in Belgium, this miniature garden would likely be a delight for the elderly woman to spend her leisurely afternoons.

Entrez.” She opened the front door with an old iron key. She settled herself on a metallic bench inside the entryway, slid off her pink boots, and motioned for Hélène to do the same. She hung Hélène’s dripping coat on a wooden peg next to hers.

“Tea.” It was more of an order than a question.

Hélène nodded. It wasn’t a habit of hers to enter a stranger’s house—even less likely since she didn’t know her name—but this elderly woman didn’t seem like a dangerous breed. Quite the contrary. She seemed to draw Hélène toward her like a magic wand.

Hélène glanced one more time at the delicate garden before the old woman shut the front door. Anyone who can care so lovingly for a garden like that must have a generous heart.

When they entered her tiny kitchen, the woman put a thick towel on a wicker chair for Hélène to sit on and gave her a smaller pink one to wrap her wet hair in. Humming a pleasant tune as if she were alone, she swiftly lit a match. Soon, her iron kettle was boiling. Hélène simply sat on the muddy towel, soaking in the peace that reigned in the homey kitchen.

Still humming, she prepared a tray with a steaming pot of tea; two pink, earthenware mugs; a pot of honey; and two silver spoons and motioned for her guest to follow her with the tray. Hélène acquiesced, glad to not have to think about anything on her own.

S’il vous plaît, set it there.” The woman motioned to an old coffee table before she lowered herself into her chair. She handed Hélène another soft towel. They sat in a dim, yet cozy room decorated with a womanly touch. On the table, a dainty metallic lamp separated them. When the woman flicked the lamp switch, a soothing light warmed the room.

Hélène first noticed the outdated, flower-papered wall, then a couch draped with a hand-knitted bedspread and round, pastel pillows. Above the couch was a small corner window with half-closed violet curtains overlooking the street. Hélène felt the coziness of the room as she wrapped her fingers around her hot mug of tea. Her mood lifted. This is so quaint and so unexpected. What would it be like to live in a place like this? To be as old as her living alone?

Abruptly, the elderly woman stopped humming. “Hilde.”

Hélène’s eyes darted back to her hostess and focused on the gray bun perched atop her head. Smiling politely, she cleared her throat. “Almost. It’s Hélène.”

Non, I’m Hilde.” The elderly woman nodded with a gentle smile. “Enchantée.

Hélène blushed at her mistake. “Nice to meet you too. I’m Hélène.”

They sat facing each other for a few quiet moments, sipping their herbal tea with honey. Instead of feeling awkward, Hélène noticed how at ease she felt in this elderly woman’s house, in this barely lit, tiny room. She wrinkled her nose. Here she was, sitting with muddy, soggy pants on the woman’s thick towel, with her wet hair piled atop her head. She doesn’t seem to care that I’m probably ruining her chair. It’s like I’m in a movie. Some sort of bizarre documentary. She hugged her earthenware mug to her chest.

She should’ve been at work. But she didn’t care.

I wonder why I don’t care? As she glanced around the room again, a tingle shot up her neck. I have the strangest feeling I should be here. Her hands went to her cheeks. At last, they were warm.

“Having one heck of a nasty day, weren’t you, ma chérie?”

Hélène nodded, still conscious of the tingle.

“No more worries. Hilde is here to help you.” The older woman’s face crinkled into a grin. “Have you ever met a psychic?”

“A psychic?” Hélène stared at the woman sitting across from her to see if she was joking. She seems serious. Where did this come from? Hélène was taken aback but not entirely surprised. She has a slight accent.Must be Flemish. With a name like Hilde…She scratched her chin. Maybe I didn’t hear her right. I hope she’s—

“You heard me all right.”

With this, Hélène leaned way back in her chair. Her neck was tingling again. Can she really read my thoughts?

“Yes, I can.” Hilde nodded so hard, her gray bun nearly toppled over. Then her wrinkled lips formed a genuine smile. “Welcome to my humble abode, ma chérie. Ours wasn’t a chance meeting.”

Hélène gulped. “It wasn’t?” She glanced at her forearm. The tiny blond hairs stood upright.

Mais non. You were in a most tormented state when I found you, n’est-ce pas?”

“I’ve had better days.”

Hilde nodded again, with her light blue eyes piercing Hélène’s. “You certainly have. You were at rock bottom.” She paused. “You were in so deep, you were even contemplating murd—”

“No, I wasn’t!” Hélène jumped up so fast her towel upset the tea tray. Hilde’s bony hand shot out to steady it.

“Sit down, chérie.You’re just upset. I’m here to help.” Hilde’s tone was soothing. “Besides, it’s raining cats and dogs outside. You don’t want to go out in that.”

Hélène glanced out the small corner window. Sure enough, rain was hammering the glass like a mob of angry protesters with sticks. She settled back in her chair with an apologetic grimace. “I’m sorry. It’s just…I’m not used to going to strangers’ houses for tea.” Her shaking hand tucked a few loose strands of wet hair behind her ear.

“Of course you’re not. But I’m not a stranger.” Leaning forward, Hilde peered deeply at her.

The motherly warmth radiating from the elderly woman’s soul had a soothing effect on Hélène. Her shoulders relaxed. She’s probably somebody’s grandma anyway. What harm can she possibly do?

Smiling timidly at her hostess, Hélène snuck another discreet peek around the dimly lit room. Dozens of religious icons of various persuasions adorned the faded, flowery walls. Hélène saw Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Islamic symbols. Even though she wasn’t familiar with all the others, it was clear that Hilde was some sort of spiritual connoisseur.

Hélène felt the tingle return. Maybe she’s just a quack.In any case, she sure is different from most grandmas. She downed her lukewarm tea.

“So, what do you want to know?” asked her hostess solemnly.

Hélène nearly choked. “About me?”

“About you.”

Is she pulling my leg? Hélène’s nostrils flared in defiance. Let’s see how far she’s going to take this. “Are you trying to tell me you know things about me that I don’t even know?”

Hilde retorted with a measured answer. “Let’s see…How open-minded are you?”

That’s ironic. Hélène set down her empty cup. I’ve been wondering the same thing lately. “Not very. Until now.” What do I have to lose anyway?

Before she could stop herself, she blurted, “So, if you really are a psychic, Hilde, tell me something interesting about my future.”

The elderly woman closed her eyes. “I will need a few moments of silence to connect.”

Hélène sat patiently, listening to Hilde’s deep breathing, which sounded more like a throaty rattle than a series of breaths. Through the diffused light of the tiny table lamp, she studied the crinkles at the corners of Hilde’s eyes and the deep creases in her pale cheeks. Her lips, faintly lined at their upper edges, were still well defined and generous. She must’ve been stunning when she was younger.

With nothing else to think about, Hélène’s palms soon grew sweaty with nervousness. I wonder where she’s connecting to? Empty seconds ticked louder in Hélène’s mind.

Just when Hélène was about to bolt from the table, Hilde’s eyes popped open.

She began to speak in a clipped, direct fashion, which accentuated her Flemish accent. “I see light. Then I see darkness. Then I see light.” As she spoke, the lamplight between them flickered.

Mon Dieu! A shiver raced down Hélène’s spine. She opened her mouth to say something, but Hilde put her finger to her lips and uttered a forceful shh. She continued speaking as if this flickering light were a normal occurrence—as normal as spreading butter on toast. “I see an angry man. A very angry man.”

Despite the warmth in the room, Hélène shivered. She’s right about that. How does she know Marc?

“He is yelling. There is a lot of fighting. I see a young boy. They leave. Never to return.”

A young boy? They leave? Hélène gulped. “Excuse me, but what young boy? Who is he?”

Hilde squinted at her. “You tell me.”

I don’t know any young boy. Marc doesn’t want any kids. He’s made that quite clear. “I don’t know,” stammered Hélène, fighting the sudden tightness in her chest. “I don’t have a son.”

Hilde closed her eyes again—causing Hélène’s chest to nearly explode with impatience—until the elderly woman’s lids popped up.

“Your brother,” she declared gravely.

Quoi? I got all worked up over nothing. Hélène stifled a laugh. This is a bunch of crap.“I don’t have a brother.”

“Yes, you do.”

Hélène studied Hilde’s wrinkled face. The lamplight flickered again. Hélène’s knees jumped. Enfin, she’s serious. But how could I? When Papa… Hilde’s words resonated in her mind, prompting her to consider other possibilities. Mon Dieu. That angry man must be Papa. Do I have a brother?

Hélène crossed her arms defensively. “Where is he? How old is he? What’s his name?”

“It seems that he’s your older brother. You were born to protect him,” stated Hilde matter-of-factly.

Hélène clenched her fists. So, I have a brother and a father who might be alive? Why didn’t Maman tell me this? She felt the anger rising in her throat.“Tell me. Where did they go?”

Hilde closed her eyes to contemplate the question.

“I see light. Then I see darkness. Then I see light.” Once again, the lamplight between the two women flickered. Hélène gripped her chair, fearing the obscure secrets about her life that would soon roll off this psychic lady’s tongue.

Hilde leaned forward. “You were a Catholic nun in a former life.”

Hélène instantly relaxed, chuckling at the idea. A vivid image popped into her head. There she stood, every night at bedtime in her decades-old, trusty flannel nightgown laced with a scratchy neckline, yawning before Marc, her husband.

So that explains why I’ve never been very excited about sex.

“Let’s see,” continued Hilde, ignoring Hélène’s suppressed chuckle. “It was during the time of St. Francis. You were an extremely studious, very religious nun.”

“That’s exciting and all, but let’s get back to this life, d’accord?” Hélène knew she was being rude, but she couldn’t help herself. “Where are my brother and father?”

“Patience, ma petite. I’ll see what I can find out.” Hilde placed her pale hand over Hélène’s tapping fingers. After a minute, she began: “I see a tall, dark person.” The crinkles in her mouth lifted. “He is most attractive, with lots of passion in his eyes. He is athletic, with a muscular body and a prominent nose. He is reaching out for you, Hélène.”

Hélène’s heart started beating faster. She wiped her clammy hands on her pants.

“You are in a bright living room with wide windows across the wall. It’s an apartment on an upper floor with trees outside. You are sitting on the sofa. There’s a cat at your feet, watching you. You are waiting for a drink…A cocktail. Music is playing; there’s a large bookshelf full of interesting literature, and several photos are on the wall.”

Hélène tried to imagine the apartment. Everything seemed foreign to her, especially the photos. She raked her mind. Who do I know who has photos on their wall?

“He is approaching the sofa. He hands you a cocktail and sits down next to you.”

Hélène felt the sweat break out behind her neck.

“He looks into your eyes. He has a most attractive face.”

“No mustache, right?” asked Hélène, conjuring up Marc’s face. He’s so proud of that dreadful thing. Too bad he’s the only one on Earth who finds it attractive.

Hilde closed her eyes again. Then she shook her head. “Non. No trace of a mustache. But he has a strong nose, with dark, glistening eyes.”

Hélène sighed with relief. I knew it wasn’t Marc. She’s talking about my brother. Feelings of joy flooded her heart. I’ve got a brother. I can’t believe I have an older brother.

Suddenly, Hilde stiffened. “Wait. Mon Dieu!He is putting his lips on yours.”

My brother? Hélène’s heart jumped. This is insane! “Who the heck is he?”

Hilde sucked her breath through her dentures, creating a high-pitched whistle. “I’m not sure how to tell you this, ma petite, but this dark, handsome person kissing you is actually…”

Hélène watched Hilde’s expression as her voice trailed off, and a flash of unease swept over her wrinkly face. She shifted in her chair. What’s she seeing?

Hilde’s eyes popped open. She pursed her lips as her gaze fell on Hélène’s silver wedding band.

What’s wrong? Wringing her hands, Hélène asked, “Who is it?”

“A woman.”

 

v

 

After her impromptu visit with the peculiar old woman, Hélène found herself once again squinting through water-streaked glasses while zigzagging through torrents of unyielding rain.

At last, she threw open her front door, flooding the hall with muddy rainwater as she squeezed Chaussette, her trusty pet, to her chest. The black-and-white cat meowed loudly.

Salutmon lapin! Sorry I’m a bit soggy.” Hélène planted a sloppy kiss on her kitty’s head. Hoisting the petite animal under her armpit like a load of chopped wood, Hélène hobbled up the stairs toward the bathroom, leaving mucky bootprints in her wake.

Voilà!This should do the trick,” exclaimed Hélène, facing the large, porcelain tub and turning on the bath water. She sat on the edge of the tub and yanked off her muddy boots. Next, she removed her wet woolen socks. This is better. Perched on the cool porcelain like a curious rabbit, she sniffed at the sterile bathroom walls. Sure enough, it was the same bathroom she had shared with Marc for twenty years. But today, it seemed different. More spacious. Less sterile. The tiny hairs stood up on her neck. I feel different too.

Her eye caught a bottle of cheap bubble bath a colleague had given her for her birthday years before. “Let’s throw in some of this.” She hadn’t found a good occasion to use the bubble bath—until now. Chortling with unexpected feelings of liberation, she held up the blue bottle, which was shaped like a curvaceous, nude woman.

If I’m hitting a midlife crisis, a bubble bath seems like a brilliant way to start!

This thought seemed even more out of character since she had never considered herself a bath-taking kind of gal. Hot water soaks characterized a glorious waste of time, water, and money. Her best friends, Cecile and Mathilde, had given up trying to convince her that baths would do wonders to soothe her nerves and boost her self-care habits. Yet she consistently ignored their advice, considering baths just another excuse to promote a hedonistic lifestyle. Even though she was a scientific translator by profession, she had written a savory report for one of her translation courses entitled: “Bubble baths: the epitome of frivolous behavior.”

Hélène had always proudly avoided all forms of self-indulgence with two exceptions: Chaussette, her cuddly cat, and her weekly drug: fresh-cut flowers.

But this afternoon was not normal. She had just learned deep secrets about her family from a psychic. I need to let this information soak in. Might as well do it in style.

With a naughty grin, Hélène brought the curvaceous, nude female filled with blue bubble bath liquid to her mouth. After uncorking the bottle with her teeth, she pointed the woman’s blue buttocks in the air. “Bottoms up!”

She dumped the contents of the entire bottle into the tub. Then she switched on the radio. Mozart’s “Overture from The Marriage of Figaro” swept into the bathroom.

“Be right back,” she informed her cat before racing down the stairs. Seconds later, she returned out-of-breath with an ice-cold beer. While Chaussette sat watching on the edge of the bathtub, Hélène flung her soaked garments at the steamy mirror.

Hélène giggled when lightning flashed through the skylight while sheets of rain pounded on the curved window; Mozart’s composition—with its swiftly changing moods—blended with the forces of nature to create the perfect setting for her clandestine afternoon soak.

Covered in tufts of steam, Hélène eased her limbs into the bathtub. Within seconds, an army of bubbles attacked her curvaceous body. Her feet, perched on the edge of the porcelain tub, escaped the scalding water. With her toes wiggling in delight, she reached for the cool beer. Grasping the bottle like a thirsty baby, she brought the suds to her mouth. Yeasty beer smells filled her nostrils.

“Santé!”she exclaimed, cocking back her head as the fizzy brew slid down her throat. Grinning, she lifted Marc’s one-liter bottle and took another hefty swig.

A few minutes later, she contemplated her soggy clothes littering the floor. Her tidy bathroom had become a stage, which was most uncanny, for Hélène didn’t even like the theater. She had never understood how grown people could pay good money to watch other grown people parade around in costumes, pretending they were someone else. And here she was turning into a drama queen in her own house. Bizarre.How did she get here? Why on earth was she taking the lead in this quirky, melodramatic play?

To figure it all out, Hélène took another long gulp of beer and, bottle lodged between her lips, slid her body under the soapsuds. She remained underwater for a few seconds, watching tiny bubbles float up. As soon as her lungs could no longer take it, she spat out a stream of foamy water and sat up.

“Come to Maman.” She extended her arms to Chaussette. But the cat—paws gripping the tub’s edge—refused to budge.

“Are you afraid of me, bébé?” asked Hélène with a feigned pout.

Wide-eyed, Chaussette twitched her whiskers.

Eh bien, I don’t blame you.” Hélène took another sip. “You know I never do this…Guzzling Papa’s beer, playing hooky in the tub. Tiens, this stuff ain’t half-bad. Wanna try?”

Hélène stuck the bottle under Chaussette’s nose. The cat sniffed, then licked the tip of the bottle. She wiggled her furry head and sneezed.

“Not your cup of tea? Tant pis! Too bad, more for me.” Hélène polished off the amber liquid with a grin.

When the bathwater became lukewarm and the suds turned thin, Hélène frowned at her pale, puckered fingers. I’m bored. She spotted a pink sponge. Might as well do something constructive. She began scrubbing her soft skin. Once she reached her chest, however, she released the sponge. Leaning back, she blew air kisses at the tips of her nipples floating between the tiny bubbles.

That beer is working wonders!The alcohol had miraculously stifled the raging storm outside while numbing the chaos tormenting her mind. “Ploup…ploup…ploup.Down you go!” She poked the pink tips of her nipples. But the little buttons refused to drown. Each time they resurfaced, she poked them down. When they came up for the fifth time, she slurred, “AttentionC’estJAWS!” Roaring like an infant, she splashed water at her breasts. Then she changed tactics: instead of poking, she pinched a nipple. Pain mixed with pleasure swept through Hélène’s body. She pinched the other nipple, then caressed it in little round movements. Instantly, her entire body was aroused. Her erect nipples transformed into tiny antennas. Hélène had never realized how sensual her body could become by simply caressing her breasts—something she had never dreamed of doing, since, of course, she was married. Marital sex was her only option—or so she had thought. And it wasn’t something she even liked. Not in the slightest.

Ever since she had been an adolescent, Hélène had concluded that her body was different from others’. She was convinced that when God created her, he had forgotten to equip her with the necessary components of a sexual being. When she listened to her friends’ experiences, her machinery seemed to be lacking an essential part. So, I function in safety mode. At least I still function, she had rationalized. Why try to fix something when it still works? She had never admitted to her friends that she had never felt anything even remotely close to an orgasm. Ever since her wedding day, she had feigned satisfaction with her sex life with Marc. It was easy; she had already convinced herself of this fantasy. But who was she really kidding?

It was embarrassing to admit, but she had never even been slightly curious—and certainly not envious—of women who took pleasure in describing their erotic escapades and erogenous sensations. That kind of discourse had always bored Hélène. Besides, “masturbation is a sin,” her Catholic teachers had always insisted. And she had believed their repertoire of stale theories—until now.Feeling the buzz in her head, she studied her erect, pink nipples.

I wonder. Do nuns ever take baths?

She lay shivering in the tepid water, contemplating the idea. Her thoughts returned to her unexpected afternoon visit with Hilde.

So, I was a super pious Sister. That’s bizarre. I’ve never felt compelled to go to church. At least, not in this life. Maman always said that…The tiny hairs on Hélène’s submerged arms bristled at the thought of her deceased mother. Why didn’t Maman tell me I had an older brother? And a father who’s alive? If this is true, where are they? And what about Hilde’s last words? That kiss? Hélène gulped. With a woman?

She caught her breath as her gaze fell on the empty bottle of bubble bath. She studied the nude woman’s sensual glass curves. Hélène’s mind drifted back to the wet, passionate kisses with Sylvie the night before as the two swam in the ocean waves. She licked her tender lips, relieved at how the beer buzz seemed to numb her guilt. At the same time, she felt new stirrings erupting from down below, but she would have to pursue further erotic aquatic explorations some other time. After such an odd afternoon—with her mind marinating in a full liter of beer and Chaussette staring down at her with inquisitive eyes—Hélène was too pooped to party.

 

Chapter Two

The familiar sounds of screeching gravel woke Hélène with a start. When she realized it was Marc’s latest Ferrari stopping a mere half centimeter from the garage door, like every evening, she felt her usual sensation of dread. She cringed, knowing that when her husband entered the house, like clockwork, he would drop his heavy sports bag, slip off his sneakers, and fumble with the wall switch until the lights came on. She imagined him sniffing the air to detect signs of dinner, then checking his watch impatiently. She knew he would sigh, then cross the hall and burst into the kitchen.

“Hélène?”

She heard him holler into the dark kitchen. He’s so impatient. Only a matter of seconds now. She shut her eyes tight as she heard him racing up the stairs three at a time. When he flung open the door to their bedroom, she tried not to jump.

He gasped, “Quoi?” and switched on the light.

This is kind of fun. Hélène imagined the scene as if she were watching her life on a movie screen: Her husband runs into the room to find an oblong lump protruding from under the bedcovers. He sees her curled up like a cat, sound asleep, the edges of her lips lifted in a smile. A black-and-white bundle of fur lays on the pillow next to her blond head.

A groggy thought seeped into her mind. Hope he’s in a good mood today.

Mon Dieu!What the heck is wrong with you?” Marc shook her shoulder. The bundle of fur flew off the pillow, scrambling under their matrimonial bed.

Hélène’s smile faded as she struggled to open her eyes; despite her efforts, her lids made it only halfway up. And when she tried to lift her head, it felt waterlogged. Swiftly, it dropped back onto the pillow.

“Mmm…” she mumbled, squinting at Marc. But as soon as she recognized his scowl, she squeezed her lids shut.

“Hélène, what the hell?”

She jacked up one eyelid while straining to perceive the tiniest hint of empathy from her husband. As usual, his hard eyes and gruff voice betrayed his most valued interests. She knew he cared more about his empty stomach than her health. Still groggy, she licked her teeth to buy some time. When she did this, her parched tongue, dislodged from the roof of her mouth, made an abrupt clicking noise.

Marc crossed his arms. “Answer me. What the hell is going on?”

What happened this afternoon? Hélène wondered, panicking. Enfin…I remember biking in a thunderstorm, soaking in a puddle, Mozart, a bubble bath, beer, and nipp—

Stifling a grin, she turned to avoid Marc’s face, growing redder by the minute.

“Hélène!” he bellowed in her ear. “What the…Explain yourself.”

Hélène winced into her pillow. Confusion took over as she searched for a plausible answer. She had always prided herself on her honesty—a quality she admired in others. And up to now, she had always told Marc the truth.

But today was different. As her mind slipped back to the afternoon’s events and especially those of yesterday, when she was at the beach with Sylvie, warning flares shot up. I’ll just skirt some of the details. Besides, her head was spinning. At this point, she wasn’t even sure if this was all really happening. Maybe I’m still in a dream?

She squinted again at Marc to see if he was real. Without her glasses, his face was fuzzy, but she could still feel his beady eyes boring into hers, hardening with rage. How she hated the way his beak-like nose flared when he got upset. He was the falcon; she was the prey.

He’s real, all right. So now what?

In a burst of inspiration, Hélène nestled her nostrils in the crease of her elbow and took a whiff. Her skin—soft and squeaky clean as a baby’s—smelled like cheap bubblegum. She stifled a snort of triumph. That was all she needed to explain her story.

“I wasn’t feeling well, so…I took a bath and went to bed.” Now fully awake, Hélène sat up. The covers fell away from her bare chest. “Mince!” She yanked them over her breasts.

M’enfin, you’re naked!” gasped Marc.

“Glad you noticed, chéri.” Hélène winked.

“What the…”

“I’m not used to taking baths, you know, and the bath water made me so hot, I—”

“Never mind,” said Marc. “So, now that you’re feeling better and you’ve had your little nap, it’s dinner time.” He thrust Hélène’s bathrobe at her.

“Actually, I was thinking…” she began. “Why don’t we go out tonight?” But as soon as she asked, she grimaced.

“You just said you were sick.”

“Hmm. Guess it’s my lucky day. I’m fine now.”

Marc’s eyes narrowed. “You know I can’t stand eating out. Reminds me of all those business trips, remember? How sick I was of—”

S’il te plaît?Just this once? We never go out. Besides, I’d be happy to pay for—”

“You know it has nothing to do with money. We’re not going out.” Marc pulled his sweat jacket over his head and stormed toward the bathroom. “Conversation’s over.”

Hélène watched his lanky silhouette in the doorway as he flung the jacket away. Voilà. She clicked her tongue. On the floor. When is he going to learn?

“What the…Attends, did you have one of my beers?”

His surprise made her laugh. “Ouais. It was pretty good, too. But Chaussette didn’t care for it, n’est-ce pas, chérie?” She caressed her kitty’s little chin.

Marc marched over to the bed with the empty bottle. “Since when do you drink beer?”

Eh bien…” Hélène’s eyes lit up. “Since today.” Her cheeks flushed at a naughty idea. “Tiens, why don’t you join me? It’s kind of chilly under here.” Hoisting up the covers, she flashed her husband a preview of her recently refurbished, fully naked body. At last—after dieting and working out like a maniac—she was proud to share the fruit of her efforts with someone. And the logical choice would be my husband,she reasoned with her hangover-induced buzz, rather than her heart. They hadn’t been sexually romantic in a long time, which was fine with her. Because of the feelings Sylvie had awakened in her, she knew deep down she deserved more than being treated like a mere appendage. Yet she still had an intense desire to be wanted.

Her mind flashed back to Sylvie’s gorgeous face. When they had finally separated at the pool after an unforgettable afternoon at the beach, her heart had ached with longing. Only yesterday, she couldn’t wait to see Sylvie again so she could kiss her sensuous lips, taste her tongue again, touch her silky dark hair, be squeezed by her strong, swimmer’s arms, and spend the rest of her life with her.

Yet today, she had woken with a heavy heart, filled with terrible guilt and regret. She was afraid to contact Sylvie. To make things worse, now she was literally throwing herself at her husband. What had happened to her in only twenty-four hours? She felt nauseous.

Grabbing the covers and pulling them against herself, Hélène rolled over. She squeezed her legs to her chest to lock in the warmth instinctively rising between her thighs.

Then she realized the gravity of her situation: she was lying naked before her husband, and she’d just made an offer.

Guess I better get this over with. She turned around to face him. To her relief, Marc gawked at her as if she were a wild ape in the zoo. Finally, he shook his head. “Some other time. I’m starving. Viens. You’re going to catch pneumonia like that.” She almost laughed when he held up her bathrobe again and ordered, “Put this on.”

Hélène waited until the shower was running before she slipped out of the sheets. Then she tiptoed over to an ancient oak closet, pulled on a fresh pair of black jeans and a white T-shirt, and reached for one of her worn sweaters. As she fingered the heavy wool, a knot formed in her throat. She brought the sweater to her nose. This thing’s got to be thirty years old. Its roughness tickled her upper lip; its worn wool smelled of old rain and Chaussette. Her eyes watered with emotions from the past—all those times she had worn that sweater and thought she was happy. Feelings of sadness were somehow woven into the gray yarn, piercing her soul.

The knot in her throat swelled. She felt an urge to let out a wild animal cry from the recesses of her belly. Instead, she sniffled. Forget the past. She thrust the old sweater back into the drawer and stood before her closet, contemplating what to wear. She settled on a brand new, cherry-colored sweater. Donning the soft, fuzzy garment, she smiled at her reflection in the mirror. This stretchy material does wonders to my breasts.Quite uplifting.

Just as Hélène made her way toward the stairs, Marc, wrapped in a fluffy beige towel, intercepted her. “What’s with the sweater? And aren’t those new glasses?”

Unable to meet his disapproving stare, Hélène’s eyes lingered on her husband’s bare chest. She opened her mouth to speak, but Marc held up his hand. “Shh.” He hissed through his teeth, glaring at her breasts. “I get it. New diet. New clothes. New glasses. Why don’t you shop for a new husband while you’re at it?”

He stomped away, and the bedroom door slammed behind him. Standing in the darkness above the stairs, Hélène listened to the creaking floorboards as Marc returned to bed. She hated how fragile and self-conscious she felt around his absurd reactions. No matter what I say or do, he always has the last word. Why does he always have to win?

It was so convenient to push him out of her thoughts. His irrational behavior turned him into a real pig. Hélène had relied on her natural defense mechanism for years: just close her eyes and shut him out. How many years had she been doing this? She felt her neck muscles tighten. Maybe Ceci’s right. My head’s been buried in the sand. Denial is certainly more convenient than reality. She contemplated the thought as she reached toward the wall switch. When the light flickered on, she felt a nudge at her ankles.

Oh là là!” she gasped. “Chaussette, ma chérie, you startled me!” She scooped up the cat. “Désolée,bébé. Papa’s in another foul mood.”

As they headed down the stairs, Marc’s final comment chipped at her heart. Instead of stifling her anger, as she normally would—today was anything but normal—she turned to face the bedroom door.

This should get him. Revenge had never been her forte, but he had gone too far this time.

Alors, Chaussette,” she hollered up the stairs. “Got any ideas where I can go shopping for a new husband? Where can I find a nice, decent man?” Listening for a reaction, she pulled Chaussette closer to her chest, comforted by the kitty’s tiny heart pounding against her own.

The floorboards creaked. Hélène stiffened. The doorknob turned, and she heard a click as the bedroom door locked. Sighing with relief, Hélène nuzzled the base of Chaussette’s neck. The warm, fuzzy fur smelled so familiar.This cat is my only family,she realized. “Looks like we’re spending the night on the couch, bébé.”

 

Chapter Three

A rare ray of Belgian sunshine trickled through the living room window, warming Hélène’s face. She felt it sweep tenderly over her eyes, nose, and cheeks, finally lingering on her lips, rousing them until they parted. Her eyelids fluttered as her subconscious mind coasted. As Mozart’s “Requiem” cascaded through the room, torrents of rain pounded the skylight. She could no longer contain herself. Her lips parted, and she emitted a silent scream as her body succumbed to an avalanche of feelings, unleashing years—decades—of pent-up tension. Oh, this feels good.When the avalanche subsided at last, she squeezed her eyes to savor the vestiges of pleasure. The opera softened as the raindrops subsided. She inhaled deeply. Wild tenderness. Her spent body trembled, bathing in the explosion’s aftermath.

 

Hélène stretched as the late morning sunlight filtered into the room. Then reality hit. “Mince!” she exclaimed, wincing at the pinch in her back. Their sofa was sagging over its springs—not the best option for a good night’s sleep. Chaussette, napping on Hélène’s stomach, woke with a start. Purring heavily, she rubbed her furry face against Hélène’s cheek until she sat up and scratched the kitty’s chin. With her other hand, she groped under the sofa cushions. “Ah non, not again. Where are they?”

When she got on all fours, her nose a centimeter from the floor, blood rushed to her throbbing head—a nasty reminder of the alcohol she had imbibed the day before. To make matters worse, her nostrils balked at the carpet stench. Génial—stale beer and dirty socks. She held her breath to block the foul odors as she scrambled around the sofa, sweeping her hand like a windshield wiper to find her glasses. After scouring the area, she sat on her heels, squinting at the blurry room.

“Great way to start the day.” Hélène shrugged. “I give up.” Chaussette hopped off the sofa and began sniffing one of her shoes under the table.

Eh bien, voilà!” Hélène thrust her hand inside the shoe. “Such a smart minou. What would I do without you?” She donned her glasses and hugged her pet. “You’ve certainly earned your breakfast.”

Moments later, Hélène sat at the kitchen table, scribbling in her diary. With a sigh, she set down her pen to sip her herbal mint tea. “Want to hear this?”

As usual, Chaussette started purring.

D’accord. Remember, this is just between you and me…so shh!” She began reading the day’s entry:

 

I thought about things all night long. He can be so mean when he wants to. I even had to sleep on the sofa, which is really lumpy. It was awful. I don’t even want to think about yesterday with the psychic and what happened with Sylvie the day before. I don’t feel like seeing her, but I’d better get it over with. We’ve got to talk. But something about her really disturbs me. Not only is it messing up my mind, but it’s messing up my relationship with Marc…

 

Hélène’s voice rose as she read her husband’s name. Just then, she heard footsteps on the stairs. Chaussette performed a flying leap while Hélène stuffed her diary in her backpack with her bathing suit and ran into the garage, not bothering to change out of the clothes she’d slept in. “Désolée, bébé, Maman has to go swimming now.”

 

v

 

She should be here any minute, thought Hélène, smiling at her figure in the mirror. The black stripes on her teal swimsuit made her silhouette seem thinner. She had never had any muscles before—even as a kid. Her flesh had formed one smooth blob, which had grown thicker throughout the years. She had always hidden her body so nobody could see it. Not even herself—until now.

With her excess pounds gone, Hélène looked and felt years younger, despite her dreadful night on the couch. Her body felt stronger. She looked at her chest. Fuller and firmer. Let’s see about here.She grabbed her buttocks. Less fleshy. More compact. She grinned. Then her eyes went to her face. The glasses are a huge improvement. But this is horrendous. She wet her hands under the faucet and slicked her hair back. I’m not such a disaster after all.

For once, Hélène felt good, really good. In fact, she felt so good that she forgot where she was. Reaching her arms high into the air, she began dancing on the tips of her toes. Just as she was performing a double pirouette, she heard clapping. Her heels dropped with a thud.

“You seem ready to roll.” Sylvie quickly kissed her on the cheek.

“I guess so…” Hélène stammered, pulling away. But it was too late. Sylvie’s soft skin—and distinctive scent—had already grabbed her senses. Her body remembered their passionate kisses at the beach the other night and felt weak all of a sudden.

Sylvie flashed Hélène a grin. “So, I guess you made it home all right?” She tugged the string to her sweatpants.

Hélène caught her breath as Sylvie removed her pants, revealing her smooth, muscular thighs. Shedding her sweat jacket, Sylvie pulled her T-shirt over her head. Masses of black curls tumbled onto her broad shoulders. A few untamed strands settled between her breasts, propped up firmly by her swimsuit.

Despite the locker room’s damp chill, Hélène felt her cheeks boiling. Her gaze remained riveted to Sylvie’s body. She cleared her throat. “That’s a nice suit. Enfin, I just love yellow.”

“Me too.” Sylvie grinned. “In case you haven’t noticed, nearly everything I own is yellow: my car, my apartment, my cat—”

Even your nipples, thought Hélène, eyeing the erect pair in Sylvie’s Lycra suit. Excuse me.” Hélène raced toward the nearest bathroom stall. She plopped herself on the toilet seat. Why do I always feel like such an idiot around her?The answer came instantly. Because I’m always acting like an idiot around her. Mais pourquoi? Another answer cropped up: Because I’ve never been exposed to such raw beauty, and certainly not on a daily basis. Nor on a touching basis. I’ve never even looked at women before. Consciously, anyway…

Hélène’s heart pounded as images of Sylvie’s body flashed before her. Now I see what men are talking about, she realized, squeezing her clammy thighs together. Just then, a light knock, followed by Sylvie’s sexy voice, penetrated the stall.

Hélène froze. She looked up at the ceiling, wondering what to do next.

Alors…You all right in there?” asked Sylvie.

“I’ll be right out.” Hélène tiptoed out of the stall, trying not to draw attention to herself.

Sylvie, in a white bathrobe, stood next to the sink, patiently waiting.

Hélène thrust her hands into the cold faucet water, hoping it would calm her nerves and other body parts. Sylvie’s dark eyes were staring at her in the mirror.

“Listen, I’m sorry about the beach. I’m not quite sure what happened—”

Ne t’inquiète pas. Forget about it.” Sylvie draped her arm over Hélène’s shoulders. “It’s freezing in here. Let’s go work out before we catch frostbite.”

If she only knew, thought Hélène, wiping the sweat off her brow.

 

v

 

Once they were waist-deep in the cool water, Sylvie handed Hélène a kickboard. When Hélène reached for it, their fingers touched. But this time, Sylvie noticed that Hélène didn’t pull her fingers away. They looked at each other for a moment that seemed way too long. This is awkwardReally awkward. She’s married. What have I done? Why do I always let my impulses take over? Such a great way to get hurt…Again.

Finally, she broke the silence. “I asked my boss about Saturday lessons. It’s no problem. We can start this Saturday, if you want. Did you talk to your husband?”

Hélène shook her head. “Didn’t have a chance. I wanted to, but…” She sighed. “I might as well tell you. Communication’s not the best between us right now.”

Vraiment?” Sylvie felt her heart leap. “I’m sorry to hear that.” Sylvie felt guilty as soon as the words left her mouth. Am I? Not really. Her mind went back to the softness of their first kiss, the warmth of their bodies pressed together, holding each other as the ocean waves licked their bodies. She could almost taste the salt in the air and Hélène’s sweet breath.

Then, with a jolt, her thoughts returned to the present.

“We used to be so close.” Hélène’s expression was sad and distant. “But lately I’ve been realizing just how different we are. We’re exact opposites.”

Sylvie looked closer at Hélène. Judging from her disheveled appearance and the dark circles under her eyes, she had weathered a rough night. Mon Dieu, I hope he’s not violent with her. She remembered the scene he made at the flower market the day they met, a few months before. He had acted like a complete idiot. She was glad Hélène was confiding in her. She looked as if she was suffering. That’s the last thing she needs. I’d love to knock that jerk around.She leaned closer. “How so?”

“I don’t know. You see who I am.” Hélène swept her hand over her body. “I’m just your average woman. I like the usual: cats, cooking, literature, poetry, nice flowers, pretty music. Guess you could say I’m romantique.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that.” Sylvie hardly considered Hélène “average,” but she wasn’t about to say so and make things awkward again.

“Not at all. In fact, when we first met, eh bien, we could talk about these things. Marc was interested in them. We used to have these long, fascinating conversations. We’d pull all-nighters in the library. We were really young, just students, but we had all these amazing things to say to each other. It was stimulating. Hewas stimulating.” Hélène’s eyes began to glow. “And was he romantic.” She glanced forlornly at the other end of the pool. “But that was twenty years ago. And now, all he does is work out at the gym, watch sports on TV, sketch race cars, guzzle beer, and…” Hélène’s eyes hardened as her voice trailed off.

Continue.” Sylvie gently tapped Hélène’s fingers on the kickboard.

“It wouldn’t be so bad, except…”

Sylvie gulped. Here it comes. “What?”

“He completely ignores me at the dinner table.”

Sylvie made an effort to keep from laughing.I thought she’d say “He smacks me black and blue every night at bedtime” or “He threatens me with knives in the staircase.” What a relief.

“That’s terrible.” She grabbed another kickboard. “Viens…Let’s at least pretend we’re here for a swimming lesson.”

Hélène followed the white foam bubbling in Sylvie’s wake.

Un, deux, trois…” Sylvie repeated as Hélène, grasping her board tightly, imitated her moves. Finally, Hélène caught up with her. Side by side, they propelled their bodies forward.

Sylvie was just getting used to kicking beside Hélène when she heard her gasping for air after their second lap. “Are you all right?” she asked, touching her board.

“Hanging in there.” Hélène nodded. “And sorry for blabbing.” She grimaced. “I know we’re here to swim, not gossip. And I rarely confide in people, especially about Marc. I’m not quite sure why I keep telling you these things.” As she kicked, she took a deep mouthful of air.

Sylvie looked at her with concern. I’d like to know that myself. The least I can do is bolster her confidence. “I wouldn’t worry about him. People change, you know. It’s inevitable.” Sylvie smiled warmly, trying not to show the disappointment she felt at the distance between them today. She’d hoped for something…else after their time together in the ocean. But it was her own fault; she knew better than to want what she couldn’t have. Just then, as Hélène thrust her ankles furiously, halfway down the pool, she lost control of her board, and her body rubbed against Sylvie’s.

Sylvie felt a tingling at her thigh where their bodies briefly touched. Mince. Wonder if she noticed that? She veered to the side. I sure did. She felt increasingly uncomfortable as warm sensations spread over her body.

Over the splashing, Hélène hollered, “What about you? You never talk about yourself.”

Ah bon?” Darn. I was hoping she wouldn’t get around to this. To appear casual about a sticky subject, Sylvie grinned broadly when they reached the deep end. “So, what do you want to know?” she asked, treading water.

Hélène pinched her lips while seemingly trying to keep her head above water.

“So, what do you want to know?” Sylvie repeated, camouflaging her anxiety with a confident tone. She hated these kinds of questions.

“How about the truth?” blurted Hélène.

What? Sylvie was so surprised, she stopped treading and began to sink. It wasn’t until her chin dipped under the surface of the water that her legs kicked in. At once, her body rose, flashing her muscular chest. “What do you mean the truth?”

“You know, the truth about your love story.”

I can’t believe she’s asking me this! Sylvie looked away. “What are you talking about?”

Hélène grabbed her board and whispered, “You know, the love of your life.”

What nerve… Sylvie gave a nervous laugh and shot a sideways glance at Hélène. How does she know about Lydia? Sylvie forced a grin. “Now that’s a good one. What love story?”

Hélène looked serious. “I’ll give you a hint.”

Sylvie’s back muscles tightened. “D’accord, shoot.”

“Do the words ‘eternally yours’ mean anything to you?”

Sylvie hesitated. What the heck is she talking about? I never said that to Lydia. Her fingertips dug into her Styrofoam board. She shook her head. “Not really. Pourquoi?

How about Theodorós. Ring a bell?”

“What did you just say?”

“I said ‘ring a bell?’”

Non, I think you said a name. In Greek.”

“I did. Theodorós.”

“Théodoros.” Sylvie corrected her pronunciation. “How do you know that name?”

“You know who I’m talking about.”

“It’s an old Greek name. So old, en fait, that nobody uses it any more. In my country, it’s as rare and obsolete as our ruins.”

Hélène narrowed her eyes. “You sure?”

Bien sûr.” Sylvie nodded. “Wait,I take that back. I think a couple of famous Greek athletes were named after…” She gave Hélène a puzzled look. “But what’s that name got to do with me?” asked Sylvie, releasing the grip on her board. She knew that Hélène’s legs must be aching. New swimmers often got fatigued while treading in the water, beating their legs to stay afloat. Sylvie was also tired of beating—in the water and around the bush. It annoyed her, the way Hélène seemed to be playing games with her, trying to pull worms out of her nose, so to speak, to get to the truth.

Her thoughts kept seeping back to the day they met a few months before, at an outdoor Saturday market in Brussels. Their brief encounter at the flower stand had made a deep impression on Sylvie. By accident, she had dropped her silver Greece keychain on the ground. Hélène had found it and taken it with her to the local market café to meet her obnoxious husband.

Her precious silver keychain was in the form of a fish with the word “Greece” etched into it. The timeworn silver fish had To my dearest Joanna, with all my love forever. Théodorosengraved in Greek on the back.

Sylvie remembered every moment of the scene at the outdoor caféwhen she saw Hélène with her keychain as if it were happening again. Hélène’s flushed cheeks, wild hair, and sparkling blue eyes had mesmerized her. She’d been attracted to her instantly, and the feeling hadn’t gone away.

Sylvie’s thoughts returned to the present; she glimpsed Hélène’s red face as she furiously beat her legs in the pool.

Hélène raised her voice. “Enfin, Sylvie. You know very well who I’m talking—”

Non.” Sylvie shook her head. “If I did, I’d tell you. I promise.” And why does it matter to her so much? This is supposed to be a swimming lesson, not an interrogation into my private life. Belgians can get so complicated sometimes.

Sylvie tried to calm her nerves by breathing slowly as she pedaled her legs. A few awkward moments ticked by.

At last, Hélène said, “Just think for a minute. Isn’t there anyone who—”

Sylvie gave in. She clearly wasn’t going to let it go. “Well, if you’re talking about my grandpa—”

“Who? Your grandpa?” Hélène snickered. “Don’t try to tell me he’s the love of your life—”

“He certainly was Yaya’s. Yaya is my grandma. And in a sense, he was mine too. I’ve always admired him.”

Tiens, how sweet,” Hélène replied. “But the truth is—”

“The truth is, we’re here to swim. Non?” Sylvie said, exasperated. “And if you want to exchange life stories someday, that’s fine. We’ll go have a cup of coffee and…” Time is really running out. And we’re getting nowhere with this swimming lesson. She glanced at the clock. “Ah, dommage.Too bad, it looks like our lesson’s over.” Relief and disappointment swept through her. She was glad to be away from the personal questions, but it meant cutting off her time with Hélène, which was both a blessing and a curse right now.

Before Hélène could react, Sylvie began kicking toward the shallow end.

Attends!” shouted Hélène, struggling to keep up. Halfway to the end, Sylvie slowed down.

Hélène grabbed her board. “Promise?”

“Promise what?” Why should I promise her anything?She watched Hélène gulp for air.

“That we’ll go for a coffee?”

Startled, Sylvie stopped swimming. “Bien sûr. But after what happened at the beach, I thought—”

“Forget that ever happened. Today’s a new day.”

She shivered when Hélène placed her hand over hers. “Right. So it is.” Sylvie resumed kicking, harder this time. “Keep your legs straight and point your toes. And try not to splash too much.”

As their legs thrashed next to each other in the water, a single thought kept racing through Sylvie’s mind: Now we’re going out for coffee? What in the heck am I doing? I can’t get involved with a married woman again. And certainly not my student. Then she remembered their passionate kisses in the ocean, sending a bolt of electricity up her spine. Maybe she didn’t have to get involved. Maybe they could just be friends. She looked at Hélène’s face, beautiful even in exertion, and knew she was deceiving herself.

 

v

 

When Sylvie strolled out of a shower stall wearing crisp white jeans, black sneakers, and a tight, dark-brown V-neck sweater that made her feel sexy, she noticed Hélène wincing at the mirror while blowing her hair dry. Sylvie mentally rehashed their conversation in the pool. What does she want from me? Before she could stop herself, she flashed Hélène a boyish grin and moved beside her in front of the mirror.

She could feel Hélène’s gaze in the mirror as she added gel to her slick, wet hair with her strong, nimble fingers. She loved the feeling of cool gel oozing through her wavy locks.

All of a sudden, Hélène’s face flushed. Rising hastily, she averted her eyes from Sylvie’s amused gaze.

“Thanks for the lesson. See you tomorrow.”

But Sylvie had other ideas, even though she knew full well they weren’t good ones. Where does she think she’s going? She wants the truth and promises from me, and then runs off like a rabbit. Placing her hand on Hélène’s shoulder, she spoke in a deep, throaty voice. “Attends. Don’t go yet.”

Désolée, but I’m in a hurry. I need to get a blood test before work.”

“Weren’t we going to get a coffee?” Sylvie grinned, pressing her fingers into Hélène’s arm. “There’s a café around the corner. It’s not healthy to go off without breakfast, tu sais.”

“But I’ve got to go on an empty stom—”

“Why don’t you do your blood test another day? Say you’re on your period or something.” Sylvie cracked a prize-winning smile, knowing very well that Hélène didn’t have a choice. Like it or not, they were on their way to sip coffee together.