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Unfurl: Chapter 8

BELLE

If this space is glossy, Rafe’s colleague Genevieve is glossier. We’re in a beautiful white room in a historic Mayfair building full of feature windows and sculptural staircases. These guys have gone for an approach not unlike what Mummy went for at home: keep it simple and let the spectacular original features sing.

Like the highly polished wood floor. Or the marble fireplace that’s surely a Robert Adam job. Or the luscious mouldings that line the ceilings and pick out the wall panels.

The furniture is bolder than at home, though. Smoke-grey velvet sofas on a huge monochrome rug. A multi-faceted chocolate sideboard lacquered to a high gloss. And, the only sign that I’m at a sex club and not some expensive cosmetic surgeon’s rooms, a sculpture of what I’m pretty sure is a vulva, crafted from pink onyx and perfectly up-lit.

Genevieve, who must be a similar age to Rafe, is blonde and expensive-looking. She’s in a black shift of complicated but stunning cut that I recognise as Roksanda, and she may have the best legs I’ve ever seen, showcased to perfection in sky-high heels.

She’s immaculate, but her smile is warm and reaches her eyes. As she sets the oat-milk latte I requested down in front of me and comes to sit with me on the sofa, I exhale.

And then I inhale a little more forcefully than I need to, because she smells amazing.

I definitely feel more comfortable with her than with Rafe.

It helps that I don’t know her, am not attracted to her, and haven’t had any inappropriate fantasies about her while touching inappropriate parts of my body.

Even so, I’m glad I’m wearing armour of my own. Today’s number is a navy Victoria Beckham sleeveless sheath. It says I’m a grownup, not some gauche virgin. I know my power, and I choose my outcomes.

Or something like that, anyway.

I hope.

Genevieve slides an unlocked iPad over to me and pats it. ‘I’ll leave this with you when we’ve finished our chat. The questionnaire’s a long one, I’m afraid. But I’d urge you to be as frank as you can bear to be when you answer it. Your responses will go a long way to inform the programme and make sure you get the most out of it.’

I nod and give the device a wary side-eye. ‘Okay.’

‘So.’ She reaches forward to stir some milk into her coffee, and I find I’m grateful for the break in eye contact. ‘Why don’t you start by telling me a bit about your upbringing and sexual history, or any personal information you think might be relevant, and we’ll go from there?’

I take a deep breath. The poor woman has no idea what she’s asking. My sexual history will be embarrassingly brief, but I could drone on for hours about the amount of baggage I have. Far longer than my lunch hour will afford me, anyway.

‘I was brought up Catholic,’ I say. ‘As in, not only did I go to a convent school, but I went to a convent boarding school from eleven. And my parents are really Catholic. They don’t just go to Mass on Sundays—my father goes every day. And he won’t let us donate money to any charities that supply contraceptives, even in the Third World.’ I exhale in frustration and flick a microscopic speck of white fluff off the skirt of my shift. ‘They’re completely hardcore.’

‘Does your mother feel as strongly as your father?’ Genevieve asks in a kind voice.

I shrug. ‘I’m not sure. I don’t think so, but she goes along with it all because he’s such a force of nature. It’s not worth speaking up.’

‘I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it sounds like a pretty patriarchal household.’

I laugh without humour and look over at her. ‘You have no idea. Patriarchal religion, patriarchal household… the main thing you need to know about my upbringing is that I’ve been taught what to believe, taught what’s right and wrong, from a very young age. And no one has ever said, or even suggested, that it’s okay for me to have my own views about everything. Quite the opposite.

‘Catholicism is so defensive. It’s comply or die, seriously. The church demands absolute conformity, and it feels like any kind of attempt to think for oneself is blasphemy. Or an outright attack, basically. So the only options are wholesale surrender or wholesale rejection. That’s how it feels, anyway.’

She hums thoughtfully before speaking. ‘You know, you sound just like Rafe.’

My eyebrows wing up in surprise. ‘I thought he had a very different take on it all?’ He owns a sex club, for crying out loud.

She laughs. ‘He does these days. Obviously.’ She gestures around the room. ‘It’s no betrayal of his confidence to say he went for wholesale rejection, as you put it. But it took him a while to get there. And if he was here, I suspect he’d agree with everything you’ve just said, even if he’s put all that behind him now.’

I take a sip of my latte to buy a little time while I process what she’s just told me. It would be easy to dismiss Rafe as a playboy. He’s gorgeous, he’s successful, and I shudder to think how much action he gets at this place. Being honest with him on that walk over the weekend was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. That he might understand where I’m coming from on a profound level is pretty comforting, actually.

‘I didn’t realise,’ I mutter. ‘I mean, I know he went to Loyola, but…’

‘Rafe curses his upbringing most of the time, but he credits it with most of his kinks,’ she says fondly, and oh my God.

Rafe.

Kinks.

I can’t even allow myself to think of what they might be. What desires may churn under that gorgeous, and not particularly forthcoming, exterior of his.

But even if my brain is determined not to go there, it seems the rest of my body’s way ahead of it, because a million pin-pricks of sweat wash over my skin.

I blow out a breath. ‘I…’

‘I didn’t mean to embarrass you,’ she says. ‘Let’s leave my colleague—and your neighbour—out of this. I want to know about you. So what did all this Catholicism from every angle mean for your approach to your sexuality?’

Oh God. Where to start? Against the odds, I trust this woman. I like her, and my instincts tell me she’s not just here to sign me up and get me laid. She wants to understand me fully. Understand what brings someone who’s abstained from sex for so long to the door of an actual sex club. ‘Right. Um. Well, it’s why I’m here, for starters.’ I throw my hands out wide.

She nods encouragingly. ‘Which is an incredibly brave move on your part, I hope you know.’

‘Thanks.’ I pause to really consider her question. ‘Obviously, I’ve had very little experience of… physical intimacy.

She nods again. ‘Ever been kissed?’

‘Oh, God, yes. Obviously. I’ve had a couple of relationships. But…’

She waits.

I inhale. ‘They were brief, because I wasn’t willing to… put out.’

Genevieve shifts slightly beside me. ‘May I ask—was that because you weren’t attracted to them? Or because you were scared, or you thought it was wrong?’

‘Probably a bit of all three. One of the guys was Catholic, so he got it, but he wasn’t going to wait around forever. I was worried it was wrong, that it was a sin, so that made me more tense. And, unfortunately, when you’ve bigged anything sexual up in your head as much as I have, you’re going to be more intimidated by it. It’s been this huge thing hanging over me for so long.’

‘How far did you get with these guys?’ she asks.

A flash of heat crawls up the side of my neck. ‘Um. Not very. They touched me a bit… through my bra and my pants, though.’

‘And that didn’t do it for you?’ she asks gently.

This is one of the things I’m concerned about. That it felt nice, but not amazing. That maybe they thought I was frigid. Maybe I am frigid, with other people, at least.

‘It felt good, but not good enough that I lost control and threw caution to the wind, if that makes sense,’ I explain. ‘I didn’t get carried away.’

‘Have you ever had an orgasm, to your knowledge, Belle?’ she asks.

I nod quickly. ‘Yeah. When I’m—you know—alone. There are no problems there.’

‘Excellent.’ She re-crosses her legs and says conversationally, ‘You know, I was sexually active for six years before I had an orgasm at the hands of another person.’

My eyes widen. ‘Seriously?’ It’s hard to believe. This woman, sitting in front of me, so confident and beautiful and with a job like this, looks as though she’d have orgasms coming out of her ears. She looks like she knows exactly what her needs are, and woe betide anyone who doesn’t meet them.

‘Yep. It’s very, very common, especially in our younger years, when guys don’t have a fucking clue what they’re doing.’

I giggle. I really needed to hear that. But it feels unfair to my exes. ‘I’d like to think you’re right, but I’m sure my hangups didn’t help.’

‘I’m sure you’re right. For us women, most of the arousal happens in here.’ She taps her temple. ‘So if you’re worrying, or feeling guilty, you’re not going to be able to get out of your head and relax enough to come. How do you feel about sex these days, morally speaking?’

‘Well, that’s a loaded question.’ I aim for a nervous laugh and look down at my coffee cup. ‘I’ve rejected a lot of what I learnt at school, and at Mass, and from my parents. I think a lot of the Church’s teaching on sex is out of date and frankly ridiculous. I don’t think I should feel guilty about enjoying my body.’

I look up at her for approval, and she smiles encouragingly.

‘But… so much of it is still there. It’s like my conscious brain wants to know what all the fuss is about, feels angry about having missed out on so much, even. But my subconscious is still carrying around all that weight and guilt, and I catch myself making assumptions sometimes without even having been aware of making them. Like, sex should be an act of love. Or it should be with a faithful partner. Or that wanting anything outside of that is dirty. Wrong. Or… I’m diminishing myself slightly by even considering something like this place.’

I suppose one of the nice things about speaking to someone who runs a sex club is that they’ve presumably seen it all. Just as Genevieve presumably doesn’t judge people who want to sleep with anything that moves, she doesn’t seem to be judging my own judgemental, prudish baggage. She just nods and wrinkles up her nose like she gets it, and she knows it’s rough.

‘I’m not a psychotherapist,’ she says, ‘but I can imagine that when you’ve had such a clear message reinforced by every adult in your life, for the entirety of your childhood and adolescence, it’s incredibly difficult to throw off those shackles. But I can also see that you’re a smart, thoughtful young woman.’

She takes a sip of her coffee before continuing. ‘Belle, the only person whose viewpoint matters here is yours. Not your parents, not your former teachers, not the Church. Not anyone you might meet here. You have your own moral compass, and you are allowed to consider all the opinions around you and treat them as only that. Opinions. You get to decide for yourself what to do with your body.’

I laugh. ‘I’m pretty sure that last line is the antithesis of everything the Catholic church teaches.’

‘Well, that makes me angry,’ she says quietly, before visibly collecting herself. ‘But let’s look forwards, not backwards. What brings you here? What do you hope to get out of the Unfurl programme? Use whatever language you feel comfortable with. If speaking more broadly is easier for you, go for it.’

I squirm on the sofa. Because some of the issues at hand, some of my hopes and dreams, are concepts I feel uneasy articulating in my head, let alone out loud with crude, sexual language.

When I’m in my rational state, at least.

When I’m under my covers with my fingers between my legs, the language the faceless strangers whisper to me is as crude, as graphic, as it is terrifying.

And I love it.

But I’m not about to admit any of that to Genevieve here, in the middle of the day, over a civilised oat milk latte.

So broad brush-strokes it is.

‘I’m sick of not knowing what all the fuss is about,’ I tell her. ‘I made a New Year’s resolution this January to lose my virginity, but I haven’t found anyone I’m attracted enough to, and who I trust enough to help me with it.’ Except for your sex-god colleague, who I can’t stop fantasising about, but he terrifies me far too much, and I know he’d never go for someone as clueless as me. ‘Also, I don’t want it to be really crap.’

Genevieve laughs. ‘Yep. That’s a valid fear.’

‘Exactly. I know it’ll be painful, but I don’t want it to be awkward and horrifying. I want to be… in the moment, you know? There are things that… do it for me, and I want to find someone who can turn me on.’ I sigh in frustration at both my situation and my inability to articulate what I need in this context.

I wave my hand dismissively. ‘I just want someone to blow my mind and make me feel desirable instead of totally useless. Now I’ve waited this long, I think I owe it to myself to make it good.’

She’s smiling and nodding at me like she wholeheartedly approves of my answer. ‘Exactly. Exactly. Yeah, you can find someone in a bar, and date them, and allow them to take your virginity off your hands, and it might be nice, it might be meh, or it might be excruciating. Here, in the Unfurl programme, it’s all about you. You’re in the driving seat. You don’t have to worry about impressing anyone. It’s just about what you want and need. Does that sound good?’

I bite my lip. ‘Yeah.’

Her grin broadens. ‘Excellent. Now, you mentioned a second ago that you’re already aware of some of the things that turn you on. You don’t have to share what those are right now, unless you want to?’

I shake my head vigorously. No bloody way.

‘Got it. But I want you to think about what those things are, because those are the very fantasies we can make a reality for you.’

My face must be betraying my apprehension, because she hesitates and licks her lips. ‘Look, Belle. You’re female. It’s highly unlikely you’re going to walk into a room, take off your clothes for a complete stranger you have no connection with, and have spontaneous orgasms left, right and centre. Am I right?’

I let out a laugh of relief. ‘Yeah. Exactly.’

‘Especially since you may still have some legacy hang-ups that have you feeling a little—guilty about all of this, maybe? Or apprehensive, at least?’

‘Yes.’ The word comes out more forcefully than I intend.

‘Totally normal. Totally. Listen carefully. This is where your fantasies and your own particular kinks, no matter how mild or extreme they are, will come into play, because if we know what you’re into, that will help to get you out of your head. It will transcend what’s actually happening. Does that make sense?’

‘Yeah—I suppose so.’ Truthfully, it makes total sense. Because the vague pleasure I felt at the hands of my two main exes was nothing compared to the feverish, sweaty desperation I feel at my own hands when I give my imagination permission to override everything I’ve been taught and go along with the X-rated movies in my mind.

‘That will be an important tool for you,’ she says. She pats the iPad between us. ‘I have an idea. There are a few more fields I’d like to include in your questionnaire, now that I’ve chatted with you. How do you feel about me emailing it over to you later? I’d encourage you to carve out some time to do it, maybe have a glass of wine, or put on some nice underwear. Do whatever it takes for you to feel aroused and sexy and in control. And then listen to your body and take its responses to the questions into account. Does that make sense?’

I nod meekly and hum an affirmative.

She smiles mischievously. ‘Touch yourself before you get started, if that helps. But don’t allow yourself to come before you finish it. You’ll be truer to your desires if you answer those questions from a place of arousal.’

I nod again and press my lips together.

I cannot believe I’m having this conversation with a woman I’ve only just met.

I cannot believe I’m considering putting any of this stuff into practice.

Maddy is going to absolutely die when I fill her in.

As I pick up my bag, and Genevieve walks me to the door, I have a thought. ‘Can I ask about cost? Rafe didn’t mention it.’

‘Of course,’ she says. ‘I should have brought it up. My apologies.’ She names a sum so cursory I blink.

‘How is that possible?’ I ask. I have no idea about these things, but I’m sure somewhere like this must cost five or six figures a year for a full membership. What she’s quoting me would buy me a couple of spa days, max.

Genevieve stops and turns to face me. She’s smiling. ‘Firstly, consider it a kind of trial run. We’d love to see you as a full-time member after you’ve been through the programme. And secondly—I’m not sure how to put this delicately. You may have some misguided theory that we’re doing you a favour here. But a young woman like you, as stunning and desirable as you are, who’s never been properly touched? Do you have any idea how much of a turn-on that is for our members?’

I stare at her. The flash of red streaks up my neck and heats both cheeks. It’s instantaneous. We haven’t discussed the actual machinations of how the course might proceed. Apparently, that all comes after they’ve processed my interview and questionnaire. Obviously, I’ve wondered about who these men might be. The ones who help me. Who put their hands and mouths on me, as Rafe suggested.

But not once has it occurred to me that I’m a draw. That having some willing virgin lay herself out like fresh meat and submit to their desires might be something these unknown, carnal men may appreciate.

May pay through the nose for.

‘Oh,’ I say dumbly.

‘Don’t worry.’ She puts a hand on my arm. ‘We handpick everyone who interacts with you in this programme with the utmost care. Your wellbeing and satisfaction are our priority. Make no mistake about it. But if you do this, you’ll be every fantasy come to life for whomever is lucky enough to get chosen to take you on this journey.’ She winks. ‘Believe me, they’ll get just as much out of it as you will. Participation in the Unfurl programme is one of the greatest thrills we can possibly give our members.’


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