Claire was reluctant to get out of the cab, even after she'd checked the address on the door against what Eric had written on the card in her hand. The place wasn't what she'd expected, not a trendy boutique or high-fashion shop at all. It was deliberately, almost negligently understated, totally bare of any advertising among the exclusive little restaurants and expensive hair-stylists shoehorned into rows of ancient brownstones on this block of Ohio Street between Rush and Wabash where the real estate was priced by the square inch. The front was a series of glass panes swagged with luxurious fabric from behind, and that, along with the gold hand lettering on the door that said simply Goddess Within was the only sign that there was any sort of business being conducted here at all.
The cabbie waited and finally turned and looked back at her. "Eleven oh six east Ohio?" he asked. "This is eleven oh six east, lady. That's what the sign on the door says. Twelve dollars and seventy-five cents."
Claire looked out the window once more, nagged by a strange feeling of emptiness. This wasn't what she'd expected. The whole mission was kind of odd, this whole episode in their relationship. The fight with Eric had been familiar enough, the same subject, the silly superficial business of their lovemaking, but this time he'd suddenly dropped it as if simply unwilling to talk about it and further. Then he'd slipped her this card and told her he'd made her an appointment and that he expected her to go, and that was all. No further discussion, no negotiation. That wasn't like him, getting imperious with her like that, giving her orders, but soon enough he'd softened and made a joke of it, smiled, folded the card into her hand, and that's how he'd left it, as something of a gag, a lover's game, a surprise or some kind of gift. She was supposed to go down there at three o'clock on this snowy and glowering Tuesday afternoon and something special would happen; that's all there was to it. She wasn't sure just what. He said the people here would take care of her. They'd be expecting her.
"You wouldn't," she began as she fished out a twenty for the driver and leaned forward in her seat. "You wouldn't know what this place is, do you?"
The cabdriver craned his neck and looked into her face for the first time. She'd dressed carefully, and Eric had told her what to wear, or had approved her choices. He could be a stickler about things like that. The skirt and jacket were fine wool, bluish-gray and nicely feminine, and she wore stockings, boots, a blue crepe blouse, her long black coat and fine leather boots. The colors were somber but she felt the textures were almost too summery for this time of year, the blouse especially seemed meant to be lifted by a spring breeze. She was cold in the cab. She felt the cabbie's eyes on her body, picking their way between the folds of her coat.
"Honey, I have no idea. Don't you know?"
She made a face to show that of course, the question was ridiculous, then tipped him and smiled, returning the same thin bills he'd given her as change, then gathered her coat and stepped out into the street, closed the door and stepped back as the bulk of the cab pulled away, grimed with road salt. It left her standing in a deep cavernous space in the city street, hard among the brick buildings and the piles of cold and crusted snow.
The thick wooden window frames of the place were painted forest green. The fabric behind them was gold, but old gold, tired with time and age. There wasn't the slightest attempt at decoration or advertisement for the place; no sign of invitation. The sidewalk hadn't been shoveled and there wasn't a footprint in the snow as she walked up to the door. It was hard to locate the bell, just a simple plate with a black plastic button, cheap and make-do.
Claire hesitated. At three o'clock shadows already clung to the façade of the building and the wind swept down off the lake not two blocks away and sent spindrifts of snow whirling along Ohio Street, searching her out as she stood in the doorway. The winter was cold. She didn't know why that fact always surprised her. A girl could freeze if she didn't have someone protecting her.
She pressed the button and heard a bell ring inside. She pressed her forehead against the glass of the door and heard music coming from inside; warm, lush music—Vivaldi or something else Baroque and civilized. She pressed on the doorbell again.
The curtain over the door was pulled aside gently by a strikingly elegant Indian woman, impeccably dressed in a dark suit, a pair of half-glasses on a chain around her neck. Her black hair was pulled back in a bun, and a shock of white above her temple gave her eyes a penetrating depth and her features a most arresting cast. She looked at Claire through the glass, then opened a series of locks and chains and swung the door open a crack.
"You're Ms. Anselm? Then please come in, quickly, and do mind the draft."
It was the name that Eric had said he'd use for her, just as he'd be Eric Sperling, and so she walked in. Stepping into the room was like stepping into a florist's, the change in climate was that extreme. There was the same heavy humidity and the odors were almost as thick, but instead of the cloying sweetness of flowers there was the delicate smell of sachet and perfume, fine fabrics and polished leather. It was a shrine to Venus, to the feminine, to those elusive beauties that had to be sought and searched out. There was a rich sensuality beneath the teasing ambergris note that one didn't smell as much as taste. The odor was like a wine that the tongue tasted while the real richness went to work on the deeper centers of the brain.
The inside of the place was as sumptuous as the outside was plain, with oriental carpets and antique furnishings, subdued lighting and old, hand-carved display cases showing articles of lingerie lit discretely from below in jewelry-like settings. The place had the look of an old world library, complete down to the gas fire that burned in an ornate, lion's-mouth fireplace against the side wall. Fresh flowers were everywhere, and above the other smells Claire detected the heavenly aroma of freshly brewed coffee, warm and embracing.
"I'm Dr. Madhuri," the Indian woman said with a warm smile, and from the back came a young man in an immaculate blue suit, his straight blond hair framing a face that would almost be pretty except for a sensuous turn to his full lower lip that gave him a hint of delicious cruelty. "This is David. He's been especially chosen to assist you today. Please, let me take your coat. Can I offer you some coffee? And may I suggest that you sit by the fire to chase the chill away? Chicago winters are just awful, aren't they?"
Claire moved as if in a daze, letting Madhuri take her coat and guide her to a leather armchair by the fire. The city's winters might be cruel, but here in this place they'd found a way to keep them most comfortable at bay. This was an enchanted place.
"There's cream and sugar so you can help yourself," Madhuri said, pointing to the silver and jade service on the coffee table. "And this is our own special blend. I should warn you, it's fully caffeinated. We don't dabble with nature."
"Thank you. That's fine. It smells delicious."
Claire waited while David poured, her eyes fixed on that lip, so eminently biteable, then she opened a pack of sweetener and poured that in, followed by some real sweet cream from a silver pitcher. The black liquid blushed with exuberant clouds of milkiness she found strangely pleasing, and as her spoon worked in the liquid, the bell-like tone of the metal against the china slowly mellowed and lowered in pitch and the coffee released a sudden burst of aroma that kissed her face as she lowered her lips to it. It was excellent, one of those remarkable brews that tasted every bit as good as it smelled, warm and rich and bracingly bitter.
Madhuri watched her drink. "Now," she said, picking up a leather binder and glancing at the contents. "You're sent to us by Mr. Eric Sperling, who has some concerns about the way your romance is going. Is that right?"
Claire froze with the cup still poised at her lips.
"I beg your pardon?"
Madhuri smiled at her. "I'm sorry. You're familiar with Goddess Within Intimates and how we operate?"
"Er, no. I'm sorry, but I'm afraid not. My boyfriend Eric made this appointment for me without exactly telling me what to expect."
Madhuri smiled. "That's quite all right. About half our patrons come to us that way. I can explain rather simply. We are, in the most basic terms, a very exclusive, client-centered sexual boutique of the most sophisticated sort, dealing with our customers on a one-to-one, holistic basis. I'm a PhD in sexual physiology, and all our staff is equally qualified and fully professional. Our services aren't inexpensive, and, being holistic, we treat the entire client, body and spirit. We pride ourselves on our discretion and our results, which we guarantee. The fact that your Mr. Sperling has hired us to consult with you means that he thinks very highly of you, Ms. Anselm, and is very committed to your relationship. He's prepared to invest a significant amount of money in the two of your personal and sexual intimacy. We are here to facilitate the growth of that intimacy."
Claire stared at her in some bewilderment. A sexual boutique? Sex toys? Dildos? Vibrators? She felt her cheeks flush, yet it was hard to conceive of anything so tawdry being presented in such an atmosphere of refined dignity and sophistication.
"I know this comes as something of a shock at first," Madhuri said in a soothing, confidential tone. "But we often act as mediators between couples when normal channels of communication break down for one reason or another. David? Would you excuse us?"
David gave a slight bow and turned and left the room, and Madhuri poured herself a cup of coffee and sat down opposite Claire. She was a striking woman, and when she smiled and relaxed in the chair with her coffee she radiated a warmth that was most inviting and almost motherly. She also had the most perfect knees Claire had ever seen on a woman, and it was charming to see them displayed so casually, girl to girl.
"I don't want you to be alarmed or put off, Claire—you don't mind if I call you Claire?" She smiled disarmingly. Her eyes were deep and kind, with just the beginning of laugh lines at the corners. "Yes, we're in this as a business, but it's a mission too, and we truly hope for our clients to become our friends and confidants. We are, I assure you, the very soul of discretion, and we perform what we consider an extremely important, even critical service, one that no one else can do."
She put her glasses on and opened her leather folder again. "Mr. Sperling has already discussed his feelings with us, what he feels are the delicate points in the relationship. Apparently he's very much in love with you, Claire, and at this stage it's merely a matter of adding some depth to your love-making. He feels you're a bit shy or reticent when it comes to touching yourself in bed, something he feels it would give him much pleasure to observe."
"He said that?"
"Yes he did. Are you surprised? He's never mentioned that to before?"
Claire colored again. "Well, maybe he did, I don't know. But it's not the kind of thing I thought he'd go and tell strangers about!"
"Not strangers, Claire. Therapists. He's looking for help with this problem."
"Well I don't think we need help. It's a personal issue and I think we can solve it ourselves."
Madhuri said nothing, just looked at her curiously.
"You've considered solutions to this problem, Claire? Would you like to tell me your side of it?" she asked.
"Side? There is no 'side'. Eric—Mr. Sperling—seems somewhat obsessed with watching me do certain things I'm not especially comfortable doing."
"And you have a method in mind to resolve this difficulty?"
After a time, when Claire had said nothing, Madhuri looked back down into her binder.
"It can be delicate, I know, and uncomfortable. In any case, it's not something we have to rush into. We are also a lingerie boutique, and we'd also like to show you some of the items Mr. Sperling selected for you. He'd like you to see them in any case. Would that be all right?"
"Really, I can't believe he'd come to you with something like this," Claire said. "It's quite embarrassing."
Madhuri made a dismissive face. "Oh, not really. Relationships are a grow-or-die proposition, Claire, and when one partner hits an impasse, it's often more critical than they usually like to think. I think Mr. Sperling was unusually caring and concerned to go through this trouble. Your own impasse isn't that unusual at all. I suffered from it myself, and it's found in about thirty-eight per cent of all women. There are three main causes, and treatment's almost always successful. Brief and successful and it's never a problem again. But let's not talk about that now. Let me have David show you the items. By the way, my name again is Madhuri. Some people have trouble remembering it."
Before Claire could object, David appeared with a stack of boxes and set them down and opened one. She didn't know what she'd been expecting—some sort of crotchless embarrassment of red leather perhaps—but what he showed her was a lovely gossamer baby doll of fabric so fine it seemed to be nothing but shadow. He held it out for her and from the way Madhuri inclined her head, Claire realized she was supposed to touch it. She put down her coffee and ran it between her fingers. It felt like a skin of cream, rich in butterfat, like something liquid. It was remarkable.
"Oh!" she said, genuinely surprised. "It's lovely. What is the fabric?"
"It's a special Venetian silk charmeuse woven from a rare variety of oak-fed tussah. Very hard to come by. Do you like it?"
"Do I like it? Well, yes, I suppose I do. I can't imagine wearing anything like this, but it's fantastic. I'm not really the lingerie type, Madhuri..."
"Oh, none of us are, are we?" Madhuri said. "David, the next one."
"Really, Madhuri, it's very nice, but..."
The next piece was out of the box—blue silk pajamas that would match Claire's eyes, with little green and pink flowers, cut tighter than normal pajamas. Claire could imagine how they'd fit, but again, it was the feel of the fabric between her fingers that took her aback: sensual and evanescent, almost melting into her touch. The thought that Eric had felt this fabric and thought of her made her weak in her stomach—that he in his strength and his sureness had linked her to the melting sensuality and dreamlike warmth of this fabric touched her someplace deep inside.
An assistant came out, a young man dressed all in black like a dancer—tight trousers, turtleneck, black ballet shoes, He carried more boxes, and Claire watched eagerly as he opened them and she gazed at more lingerie, and soon was caught up in the magic of the fabric and colors, the sensuality and excitement of peering into the layers of tissue and the handsome boxes. Eric had picked these out. These were the skins he saw her in, and even when he got the colors and styles wrong she suddenly realized what these garments meant—his hopes for her, his guesses about her.
At some point it occurred to her to ask, "Tell me, Madhuri, how does buying lingerie help me with my...er...problem?"
The Indian woman took the stopper out of a carafe and poured some liquor into Claire's coffee. "Here. Try this. A little Bailey's makes it an Irish coffee. So warming on a day like today."
She poured some into her own cup and sat back into her chair. "Oh, the lingerie has nothing to do with your problem other than to set the proper mood, one of relaxed sensuality, a kind of feminine atmosphere. They are quite gorgeous, though, aren't they? Drink your coffee, Claire. David, bring in the panties."
The coffee and liquor warmed her immediately and the fire seemed to grow a bit brighter, the room closer and cozier. It was such a clean and sumptuous place, and Madhuri such an elegant and beguiling hostess that Claire had no trouble relaxing back in her chair and asking for another coffee as David unveiled the panties—mostly thongs—each in their own individual pouch or delicate lace-trimmed box, each like an exquisite piece of jewelry.
"What Mr. Sperling wants," Madhuri said, "And do you mind if I call him Eric? We were on a first name basis when we talked—is for you to be freer with your body in front of him, more uninhibited. It's a common request men make of their lovers, but one that women are often unfortunately not always comfortable with. But let me show you some of the types of things we mean."
She reached over and took a lime green satin bag from David and opened it and shook it out into her hand. Within was what looked like a golden seashell—a scallop—with a thin waistband around it. Coming from the base was a slender penis-shaped projection of thin brass, and Claire saw at once what it was for. The projection was meant to go inside the vagina and hold the scallop shell over the mons. A crafty piece of equipment and beautifully made.
"Eric ordered this for you as well."
"He did?" Claire asked with something like pride in her voice.
"Yes. And this..."
She opened another bag and held up what was hardly a thong at all, just an array of jewels and stones like a Rajah's necklace, obviously made to hang over the female genitals. A fine feather hung from the bottom where it would certainly swing against and stimulate the labia and clitoris. For the third time, Claire felt herself blush, and this time there was a sense of excitement that went with it.
"Shall we see how it fits?" Madhuri asked.
"Oh, just a trial." Madhuri stood up and walked behind Claire's chair and easily reached around and lifted up her skirt and laid the necklace over the girl's panties. The weight of the cold stones and metal pressed against Claire's flesh through the thin fabric and the feather lolled tantalizingly against her naked thigh.
She was too shocked to speak. She looked down at her crotch, the tops of her stockings, her naked thighs supporting the weight of the jewelry. She should have been outraged, but Madhuri's touch was so skilled and expert and the weight of the thong so pleasant and arousing that she said nothing, even though David was standing right there, his face expressionless.
"Yes," Madhuri said. "You see the way that feels, how subtly exciting. This is where Goddess Within distinguishes itself from most sex stores. We offer a full spectrum of sensual experiences, from the mildly arousing to the fully satisfying, each one exquisitely fine-tuned.
"With women reluctant to pleasure themselves in front of their lovers, we often find that they've had upbringings that have taught them that autoeroticism is bad or not fit for a lady. Some even feel that it's insulting to their partner, that it implies that he's not doing an adequate job as a lover. But I assure you, men look at a woman's pleasuring herself differently. Men see it as a sign of a woman's arousal and desire for them. To them it's a supreme compliment. Can you see yourself in the mirror?"
Claire looked up at the antique mirror surrounding the fireplace and was shocked at what she saw. Sitting there with her fine wool skirt up around her waist, the skein of jewels in her lap, her legs spread, a look of sensual bliss on her face, she looked like some decadent queen.
"Can you see yourself as Eric sees you? As he pictures you, as he wants to see you, Claire? Touch yourself."
The spell was broken. "What?"
"Oh, don't be silly. Just touch your panties."
Madhuri took her hand and brought it down till her Claire's fingers rested on the heavy jeweled garment, then sat back and caught Claire's eyes in the mirror. Her eyebrows lifted suggestively.