by Catherine Maiorisi
After watching the woman she’s professed to love for more than twenty years marry someone else, Renee Rousseau vows to free herself of the unrequited love before she and her friends meet the married couple in Paris. In ten weeks.
Then Renee encounters Lady Constance Martindale—the only other woman she’d ever imagined a future with—and she’s sure the universe is playing with her. Sixteen years ago they’d agreed to a casual, time-limited relationship. But when it turned to love, they both panicked and Constance dumped Renee before Renee could dump her. A first.
But the past is the past and sixteen years is a lifetime. Can passion be renewed? And what about her love for the woman who just got married?
|Publication Date||December 12, 2019|
|Cover Designer||Judith Fellows|
The lights dimmed. A hush fell over the guests and all eyes followed the golden spotlight to the entrance of the tent. A drumroll. And the glowing brides entered to applause from the more than two hundred guests.
Tessa of The Tessa DeLong Band eased into “At Last,” and Darcy and Andrea floated onto the floor for their first dance as a married couple. The brides were so beautiful together, so obviously in love it was painful to watch. Yet Renee couldn’t take her eyes off them.
Except for a few pounds and a few laugh lines, Darcy looked the same as the young woman Renee had fallen in love with at first sight twenty plus years ago. But today’s more mature Darcy was even more beautiful. The intensity of Renee’s love and the power of her sexual attraction to Darcy were as strong today as they were then. Knowing it was her fault that she’d lost Darcy forever didn’t make it any easier. If only she’d—
“She looks beautiful, doesn’t she?” Tori’s voice in her ear pulled her back to the wedding in a tent on the beach in Fire Island. The guests were still cheering and clapping as the brides waltzed; waiters still circulated offering hors d’oeuvres and champagne, and candles still flickered on the tables decorated with bouquets of multicolored flowers, and white tablecloths and napkins. Renee blinked, trying to keep the tears blurring her eyes from overflowing. “That she does.”
Tori, one of only two friends taller than her, draped an arm over Renee’s shoulders. “And happy.”
“That too.” Flooded with memories of Darcy looking at her the way she was looking at Andrea, singing the words to the song in her ear the way she was singing to Andrea, Renee pressed her handkerchief to her eyes. Hopefully Tori and the several hundred other wedding guests watching the newlyweds would think Renee’s tears were tears of joy. She was happy for them. And, at the same time, sad for herself. She’d expected today to be difficult, but she hadn’t expected the lush romantic atmosphere of the wedding tent and the rituals of exchanging vows and dancing a first dance as a married couple to exacerbate her sense of loss and intensify her loneliness.
Tori squeezed her shoulder. “Are you ready to let her go?”
Renee stiffened. Was she misinterpreting Tori’s question? Or did she know? Feeling exposed, Renee looked up at Tori. She didn’t know what she was expecting, but she found love and warmth and sympathy. “How long have you known?”
“Since Darcy and I became a couple my freshman year in college. I could see the pain in your eyes. I knew you wanted to be with Darcy and I could feel you struggling to relate to us as a couple. I’d just come out with Darcy. I was light-headed with love and lust and excited about playing with the big girls, but I was barely eighteen, and though I wanted to reach out to you, I didn’t know how. Or whether I should.”
“And you didn’t feel threatened by me hanging around?”
“Oh, but I did. I was pretty sure Darcy was still in love with you when she and I first got together. And your friends and other upperclasswomen were only too happy to tell me how you and Darcy drifted in and out of being a couple, that you never stayed broken up for long, that Darcy slept with other girls while she waited for you. I felt the ax could fall at any time. After all, Darcy was attracted to my mind but visually and personality-wise, I was like a butterfly in the caterpillar stage, shy, awkward, and not fully formed. Why would the sexy, gorgeous, brilliant, and sophisticated Darcy Silver choose me over her equally gorgeous, brilliant, sophisticated, and sexy French ex-lover Renee Rousseau? But Darcy was never anything but attentive, loving, and kind to me. And after a few months I began to trust that she wanted to be with me.”
Renee dabbed at her eyes again, glad that the lights were low and focused on the brides. “How did you know I’m still carrying a torch for her?”
“Kindred souls? Remember, I loved her too. And I carried a torch too. Until I met Elle.” She drifted off for a few seconds, remembering. “I believe you never fully let go of your first love. And maybe somewhere very far inside of me there’s still a tiny ember burning. But I’ve let go of Darcy in a way that I believe you haven’t. She was your first love, too, and, though you’ve dated hundreds of women over the years, it seems to me you’ve never moved on.”
Renee flinched. Speaking to be heard over the band, Tori seemed to be shouting, announcing Renee’s secret to the world. She eyed the people standing on either side of them at the edge of the dance floor, but everyone seemed focused on the brides. Everyone except Maman. Her mother’s concern was apparent from across the room. Renee forced a smile and waved, hoping to reassure her. “How does Elle feel about you loving Darcy?”
“Elle doesn’t doubt that I love her. She understands Darcy was my first and had a profound influence on the person I am today.”
Renee scanned the crowd again. Tori must have picked up on her anxiety because she put her arm around Renee and lowered her voice. “If it makes you feel better, I don’t think anyone else knows.” She raised her eyes to the dancing brides. “Except maybe Darcy.”
“Merde.” Renee pulled away and glared at her. “You think she knows?” She couldn’t keep the panic out of her voice.
Tori pulled her close again and spoke only for her ears. “I’m pretty sure she does. You know she’s sensitive to all of us in the Inner Circle.” Tori laughed. “After all, at one time or another just about every one of us has been her lover, and though I’ve never had the pleasure, your lover too. She’s always tender and loving with you, as she is with me. Our history with Darcy is special and sometimes we see things in her and she in us that aren’t apparent to others.”
“It’s true. I’ve always felt she could see into me.” What made her think she could hide her love from Darcy? “Do you think Andrea knows?”
“I don’t know. As an ER doctor she’s tuned in to people. And she knows you and I are important to Darcy so she pays attention to us. But I wouldn’t worry about her knowing. Remember she carried a torch for her friend Julie for twenty years after their relationship ended and was best friends with Julie and her wife Karin the whole time.”
“I forgot that.” Renee ran her hand through her hair. “What a sorry group we are.”
Tori snorted. “Sorry, yet wonderful.”
Renee smiled. “Did you ever try to get back with Darcy?”
Tori shook her head. “I was really raw when she dumped me. I eventually began to date, but it was Darcy I wanted. If the modeling contract hadn’t brought me to New York City after I graduated, I probably would have moved to Chicago to avoid seeing her. But, with the clarity that years of therapy bring, I know it was anger rather than love that propelled me to ask Nancy to move to New York with me. I knew we’d socialize with the Inner Circle and I wanted to hurt Darcy like she’d hurt me.”
Tori cleared her throat. “I’m not proud of myself but I barely noticed when Nancy got involved with someone else and left me. A few weeks later, I flew to the Caribbean for a two-week modeling job. Two days into the shoot, I was walking on the beach by myself thinking about Darcy and about my life and I realized my behavior was childish and self-defeating. Though Darcy was seeing someone, I decided to go after her when I got back.”
Tori grinned. “But life is unpredictable. The day after my walk, the other model on the shoot arrived.” Tori’s eyes wandered to the statuesque woman talking with a group of their friends. “We were in sync from the first hello. The electricity between us on and off camera was magical. Elle, the sexy black warrior goddess and me, the Nordic icy white blonde, were together in almost every shot. By the time we flew back to New York City, I was crazy in lust for the first time since Darcy. And before I knew what was happening, the anger and the pain had dissipated and my feelings toward Darcy had changed. I was madly in love with Elle. When I finally talked to Darcy, she couldn’t explain why she’d dumped me, so we had a good cry together and became great friends again. What about you, Renee, have you ever tried to get back together?”
She’d spent so many years loving Darcy. Yet she’d never broached the subject of getting back together. “The timing was always off. By the time I finally resolved to talk to her, she’d crashed her car, was bedridden with casts on her four broken limbs, and was already pursuing Andrea. Who could have predicted Darcy’s heart would be so bad she would need a live-in doctor to monitor her? And, it could only be fate that sent the beautiful Dr. Andrea Trapani to sweep Darcy off her feet.” She shrugged. “Maybe we weren’t meant to be together.” Her gaze flicked back to the dance floor where the brides were wrapped in each other’s arms for another slow dance.
Tori followed her gaze. “It’s been a long time, Renee. You were both so young and you’ve both changed over the years. Maybe you didn’t try to get together because you understood how difficult it would be to re-create a relationship you had when you were both eighteen years old. And maybe a part of you has used Darcy as an excuse to avoid committing to anyone.”
Renee had been in love with Darcy more than half her life. Had she been lying to herself all these years? “You think I don’t really love Darcy?” She’d tried to tamp down the anguish in her voice, but judging by the guilt on Tori’s face, she’d failed miserably.
“My bad.” Tori slapped herself on the hand. “I probably shouldn’t have said that, Renee. Only you know what’s in your heart. But as wonderful as Darcy is, she’s not the only wonderful woman in the world. You’ve been with so many women in the last twenty years it’s hard to believe you haven’t found another who touched your heart. Or maybe you have and I never heard about it.”
Renee hesitated. She rarely talked about her feelings, and though she and Tori were good friends, their friendship wasn’t in the bare-your-soul category. Until now. But as Tori said, their history with Darcy made them kindred souls. Besides, she trusted Tori and it was a relief to share all of this with someone. “Gina.”
“Our Gina?” Tori frowned. “Really? I didn’t know it was ever that serious.”
“Yes, our Gina, in our senior year in college. No one knew because we pretended to be casual sex partners.”
Tori scrutinized Renee’s face. “Why?”
Renee’s gaze skittered over the crowd standing around the dance floor and settled on Regina Octavia Gibson standing with her arm around her girlfriend Beth Braxton. She still had the grace and presence of the figure skating champion from the slums of Newark, New Jersey but she looked a lot more sophisticated in her sleek haircut and elegant pantsuit than she had in her dreads and jeans all those years ago. Gina, like all of the Inner Circle, had mellowed with age and her activist edges had softened. “A long story, Tori, and too painful to go into right now.”
“But you’ve managed to stay best friends.”
“Oui, cheri, that’s what we lesbians do, non?”
“Oh, oh, you’re slipping into French. It must be important. I’ll drag it out of you another time. Only Darcy and Gina. No one else in all the years since college?”
Renee shook her head, opened her mouth to deny there had been anyone else, but the smiling face of someone she hadn’t let herself think about in years, popped into her mind, followed immediately by a familiar longing and sense of loss. And just as she had since the day she’d been left without even a “fuck you,” she refused to acknowledge the still vivid hurt and want. “There may have been one other.” Saying it out loud made it real. She trembled, remembering.
Tori’s put an arm around Renee’s waist and pulled her close. “I’ve got you.”
Renee gripped Tori’s arm, steadying herself. “Mon Dieu, Tori, I can’t discuss this in the middle of Darcy’s wedding.”
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to stir up bad memories.”
“It’s not you, Tori. The wedding awakened memories and feelings I thought I’d dealt with, memories and feelings I’d rather not think about now.” Or any time. Renee loosened her grip and straightened. “I’m okay, thank you.”
Tori met Renee’s eyes. “So what are you going to do now?”
Renee shifted her attention back to the brides slow dancing to a fast song. Darcy always preferred to dance to the music in her heart, regardless of the music the band was playing. Memories of dancing like that with Darcy filled her with sadness. She needed to do something fast, before she became a weepy mess. “Right now I’m going to take you onto the dance floor and act like I’m having a good time.”
Tori pretended to pout. “You mean I’m not good company?”
“You’re wonderful company but I need to dance with the bride, so don’t be insulted if I turn you loose to dance with Andrea.”
“There are worse fates in this world.” Tori threaded her fingers between Renee’s. “Are you planning to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Paris with Darcy and Andrea and the rest of us?”
The thought of being in Paris with Darcy married to someone else was nauseating. “If I hadn’t promised my parents a visit, I’d probably skip it. I’ll be there with you all New Year’s Eve, but how much additional time I’ll spend with the brides and the Inner Circle will depend on how I feel by then.” She swung Tori around so they were facing each other.
Tori squeezed her shoulder. “I found love on an island in the Caribbean. Paris is the most romantic city in the world. Who knows? You might find the love of your life there.”
Renee snorted. “I spent the first eighteen years of my life in Paris and never had a glimmer of a love life so I’m not going to hold my breath. But you never know. For now, I’m going to dance you over to the love of my life and claim her. At least for a dance.” She whirled them onto the floor and at the first opportunity she tapped Andrea on the shoulder. “May I steal Darcy for a dance?”
Darcy smiled as Tori spun away with Andrea. “You were gazing into the distance for so long, I thought you’d never ask.” Darcy moved into Renee’s arms.
Darcy tilted her head back to see Renee’s face. “Time for you to move on.”
Renee spun them. “I’m working on it.”
“Are you really?”
“Don’t rush me, Darce. It’s only been twenty or so years.”
Renee’s attempt at humor fell flat. Darcy’s eyes glistened with unshed tears. “Oh, Renee, I’m so sorr—”
“No, you don’t have anything to be sorry for. I’m the one who needs to apologize for using a joke to push you away. And for so much more. I promise to work on moving on. Soon.” God, what an ass. Causing Darcy pain on her wedding day.
Darcy looked up again. “You know for years I thought we’d end up together, but our lives always seemed to run on parallel tracks with no way to cross over.”
“I did too. I mean I thought we would end up together.” Renee sighed. “More accurately, I hoped. I guess it wasn’t meant to be. Tori just suggested that hanging on to you is my way of avoiding commitment. And she might be right.”
Tessa burst into “I Will Always Love You.” Renee laughed and brushed the tears from her face. “Ironic. Here I am baring my soul, saying out loud what I thought I’d hidden for twenty years, and this comes on. Did you tell her to sing it?”
Darcy flashed a mischievous grin. “I did. I told her to sing it when she saw me dancing with a tall, sexy, dark-haired butch with kissable lips and bedroom eyes, wearing a perfectly tailored black tuxedo.”
“You still think I’m sexy?” Renee couldn’t keep the surprise out of her voice.
“Hey, don’t cry, sweetheart.” Darcy tightened her arm around Renee’s waist. “You’re one of the sexiest women I know. I seem to recall telling you that often.”
“Maybe if I hadn’t been so selfish and self-involved, I might have been listening instead of running away. And I might not have—”
“Don’t.” Darcy put her finger over Renee’s lips. “You were my first love and I’ll always love you. But we’ve both wasted too many years wanting what we can’t have. I don’t mean to speak in clichés, but you have so much to offer someone, Renee. I hope you give up the ghost of our past love and find her soon.”
Renee blinked back tears. “Thanks, Darce. I’m going to try. Andrea is a very lucky woman. And so are you. I hope you know that despite everything, I really am happy for you two.”
Once again, Darcy leaned back to look into Renee’s face. “I do, love, I do.” She kissed Renee lightly on the lips. “Please come to Paris.”
A tap on Renee’s shoulder. “My turn.” Renee dropped her arms and watched Darcy waltz away with Dr. Julie Castillo, Andrea’s best friend and the cardiologist who had saved Darcy’s life mere months ago. It wasn’t until a couple danced in front of her, cutting off her view of Darcy and Julie, that Renee realized she was standing in the middle of the crowded dance floor, alone. Merde. She strode out of the huge tent erected on the beach in front of Darcy’s Fire Island house and stood on the boardwalk. The roar of the ocean and the pounding surf always put life in perspective for her. It was a mild evening for October and the breeze off the Atlantic was chilly but refreshing, the taste of salt on her tongue and the fishy smell familiar and invigorating.
She’d spent so much time here with Darcy over the years it almost felt like a second home. She smiled, remembering all the good times. But there were some not-so-good times too. The first time they’d been here together was the summer after their freshman year before Renee went home to Paris. They’d tried to repair the relationship Renee had broken, and it had been a painful and tender two weeks. They’d made love in nearly every room of the huge house, on the wraparound deck, in the pool, on the beach and in every position they’d learned in their first six months of experimentation. By the time Renee went home to Paris, they were hopeful they could work it out and were both looking forward to spending time together in Paris later that summer.
Renee walked out on the large wooden platform built on the beach for the wedding, past stacks of folding chairs that the several hundred guests had sat in during the ceremony, and stood under the flowered canopy where Tori had led the brides through their vows earlier today. She gazed at the pounding surf and breathed deeply, filling her lungs with ocean air. Her shoulders dropped as some of the tension left. She was still sad but she felt lighter than she had for a long time. Why hadn’t she talked to Darcy about her feelings before today? She actually was happy for Darcy and Andrea. What did that mean about her? About her feelings for Darcy? Was Tori right about her using Darcy as a shield? And what about…
A gust of wind pulled at her jacket and brought her focus back to the beach. She shivered. Music, laughter and the tinkling of glasses drifted out of the tent, reminding her she was here for the wedding of her best friend. Time to focus on celebrating and having fun. She took another deep breath, adjusted her tuxedo jacket and headed inside. As she moved through the tent, she noted women she’d slept with at one time or another. Some smiled and waved. Others cut her dead. She hated hurting the women she took to bed, or anyone for that matter, so she always discussed her no strings sex policy upfront, but inevitably some of her partners hoped for more. When at last she made it to the safety of the Inner Circle, she was surprised to see her mom and dad surrounded by her friends. Her dad put his arm around her waist and murmured in French, “I’ve never seen so many women in tuxes. Everyone looks marvelous, but you, my sweetheart, are the most gorgeous and sexy.”
“Merci, Papa. Perhaps you’re a little prejudiced?” They laughed together.
“What is this, you two?” Without waiting for an answer, Maman straightened Renee’s bowtie. “It’s all settled. Papa and I are hosting a gala New Year’s Day brunch for Darcy and Andrea and all of their friends and family who come to Paris.”
Renee repressed the groan that threatened. Her suspicion that her mom knew she was still in love with Darcy was confirmed during the exchange of vows when Maman had put her arm around Renee’s waist and held her close. And though Maman had always adored Darcy, Renee suspected the brunch was Maman’s way of forcing her to confront the fact that Darcy was now married to someone else. So much for her plan to limit the time she spent with her friends when they all were in Paris. “That sounds great.”
“May I have this dance?” Renee turned. Dr. Laurie Feldman, once a lover, now a good friend and her physician, curtsied. Happy to be rescued from hearing all the plans for Paris, Renee bowed. “You may, madam.” They danced a few fast numbers, then a slow dance. She hadn’t been body to body with a woman in almost a year and holding Laurie close felt good. Laurie was a perfect example of what Tori had described—an intelligent, independent, attractive woman, wonderful in and out of bed. Yet Renee had felt no spark past the initial sexual attraction and after a couple of months had backed away. Gently. But away. Renee would have been sorry if Laurie had been one of the ones who chose not to remain friends.
When the music turned fast again, Renee released Laurie and bowed. “Merci, madam.” She turned to see who had tapped her shoulder and was eye to eye with a grinning Gina. “May I?”
“My pleasure.” Renee led Gina onto the dance floor. When the music slowed and they were in each other’s arms, Gina spoke. “You looked sad earlier. Are you okay?”
Renee shrugged. “The wedding has brought up a lot of memories.” She pulled Gina closer. “Of Darcy. Of you. Of us. And…things I haven’t thought about in years. I was feeling sad about lost…opportunities. About seeing the women I most care about paired up with others.” She tickled Gina’s side. “I think I’m having a midlife crisis.” No way was she getting pulled into this discussion here. Again.
“I’m not surprised at the memories.” Gina touched Renee’s cheek. “I’ve been remembering too. But you’ve seemed down for a long time. I figured you’d talk to me when you were ready, but let’s get together soon, just the two of us, so I can get into that head of yours.”
“Are you going to marry Beth?”
“She’s ready but I’m not. I’m sure she’s the one for me but I never thought marriage would be a possibility for us, the LGBT community, and it’s not something I ever wanted.” She stiffened. “You’re not thinking you want us to get together again, are you?”
Renee kissed Gina’s cheek. “I love you Gina but once was enough. I like us as best friends.”
Gina sighed. “Me too.” The song ended and they gazed at each other for a moment. “I’ll be out of town next week but I’ll call when I get back. We haven’t talked in too long.”
The fabulous cocktail hour was followed by a fabulous dinner but why wouldn’t it be? Darcy had hired the best lesbian caterer in New York City and given her carte blanche to create the menu. Of course steak, Darcy’s favorite, was an option but Andrea’s touch was seen in the vegetarian and fish choices available. Wine and champagne and beer were served at the tables and drinks of any sort were available at several bars placed around the tent. Renee had heard that the lesbian waitresses were willing to work for nothing just to be at the lesbian event of the year. Of course, Darcy made sure they were well paid.
In between courses, Renee danced with her mom, her dad, Darcy’s Aunt Maria, and her Uncle Carlos, as well as many old friends.
The reception was in full swing around midnight when Renee escorted her parents, Darcy’s aunt and uncle, and Andrea’s parents to the dock to get the next ferry to the mainland, where Darcy had a limousine waiting to drive the six of them back to New York City. Marveling at how good she felt after admitting her secret, she whistled as she walked back to the party, ready to really let go in a way she hadn’t for almost a year. She didn’t need to drink to have fun, but there was no need to watch her intake because, as usual, Darcy had thought of everything. She’d rented the ferries for the night and they were running every half hour; plus she’d hired a fleet of vans to drive guests from the ferry landing back to the City.
From the minute she entered the tent again until the music stopped, Renee danced with so many partners she could barely remember some of them. She left with most of the Inner Circle and the other dancing fools on the last ferry departing Fire Island at five in the morning. It was light when she tumbled into bed. Alone. She’d felt happy and free dancing, but she hadn’t felt even a glimmer of sexual attraction to any of her many partners. Her libido had never failed her before. From the first time she and Darcy made love their freshman year until just under a year ago she had been full-steam ahead whenever a woman caught her eye. She was starting to worry.
She slept until noon. Now she lay in bed. Thinking. For more than twenty years she’d stood on the sidelines watching and longing for Darcy but she’d never spoken to Darcy about her feelings. Darcy was one of the kindest and most caring people in her life, so it wasn’t as if she would have slapped her down or laughed if she’d tried to get back together. Instead, she’d jumped into bed with anyone who came onto her or any woman who attracted her. Tori’s comment bounced around in her head. Was she right? Had Renee used Darcy as a shield to keep anyone from touching her heart? But why? She was sure that kind of hang-up usually came from some trauma in your family or childhood. But her parents were still very much in love and they’d always been loving and supportive of her. And she’d had a happy childhood. Hadn’t she? Did it matter? She didn’t need to know why she was holding on to Darcy. She needed to figure out how to let go of her.
She checked the bedside clock. Time to get ready for lunch with her parents before their flight home but she needed to figure this out and continued to mull over the issue in the shower. Almost twelve weeks to New Year’s Eve but given she’d already committed to be in Paris with her family the weeks of Christmas and New Years, she really only had ten or eleven weeks to work through her feelings for Darcy. Not a lot of time but it had to be enough because she was determined to be free of Darcy when she saw her again in Paris.
Last night, thinking she needed to start putting herself out there to meet women again, she’d changed her mind about giving away the two tickets she’d purchased for the Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art next week. Instead, she’d invited her cruising buddy Maya to go with her, knowing they’d walk in together, then be free to circulate on their own and leave alone or with someone else. Were her feelings for Darcy holding her back? In any case, she would be forty soon. And Darcy was a married woman. Time to be done with her. If she was going to change her life she needed to do something different. And she knew just who to call.