Sparkling like jewels, they came toward her, ten doubloons of various colors, thrown by the masked man riding on the huge Mardi Gras float. Turning end over end and reflecting light, most were snatched out of the air by practiced hands. However, several slipped though eager fingers to hit the pavement bouncing and rolling. One golden doubloon bounced and started rolling toward her. On her knees, Joanna reached for the treasure. She felt it under her finger tips. "OUCH," she screamed as a foot smashed her fingers into the pavement. Looking upward, she saw a face glaring at her. Quickly it disappeared, the owner moved on seeking other Mardi Gras treasure. Joanna looked at the golden doubloon and put it in her pocket. Her fingers still smarting when she looked toward the float. "THROW ME SOMETHING MISTER!" shouted the crowd. The float had stopped and a masked rider was teasing everyone with some large Mardi Gras beads. He held them in the air above his head, titillating and egging on the crowd, which encouraged even more entreating. Joanna had finally managed to work her way up front, where the riders could see her. This year's Bacchus parade was almost over and she still had not even caught one single set of beads. Oh, she had tried, but she was not nearly aggressive or tall enough. Someone else always grabbed them before they got to her. All she had for her efforts was the golden doubloon she had just pocketed. The float rider was still teasing the crowd with his beads when he spied Joanna waving her arms. Looking directly toward her, he held them out in her direction, then reaching down with his hands; he mimicked lifting his shirt upward toward his neck. Joanna was puzzled by his actions. What was he doing? "SHOW HIM YOUR TITS!" Shouted someone next to her. Joanna was shocked and looked down. She couldn't do that. Did he think she was some kind of an exhibitionist? When she looked again, he was handing them to another woman who was flashing him with her breasts. Joanna was disenchanted with the parade and this whole Mardi Gras thing. Now, she would never get any beads. She hated all the noise. She hated the suffocating crowds. She hated the pushing and rudeness. She remembered how that guy who had stepped on her fingers hadn't even apologized. "Why did I let Susan talk me into this stupid trip," she thought. "I could be back in Virginia, in my cozy apartment reading a good book or writing one." Feeling lost, out of place and all alone, she once again looked toward the float. Next to the rider who had wanted her to flash him, was a tall rider. He was looking directly toward her. All she could see behind his mask were deep dark eyes. Like deep pools, they drew her into them. They were the most intimate and intoxicating eyes she had ever seen. She just stared into them, and they seemingly stared back into hers. Slowly, he reached up and took from his neck the most beautiful set of beads she had ever seen. They were Bacchus medallion beads. Cast with the Krewe of Bacchus's crest and seal. Just as the float started moving, he reached down and handed them to Joanna. Shortly there after, the parade ended with the sweeping crews and fire trucks coming through and cleaning up the mess. People started milling about and leaving. Joanna was still in a daze when Susan found her. "How did you do Joanna? Great parade, huh? Heyyy what's that? Oh, girl you did well. What did you do, show him your tits?" "NO!" snapped Joanna. "Whoaaa, sorry girl, I didn't mean to," replied Susan, not finishing her sentence. "But, do you know how hard it is to get beads like that?" she continued as if nothing had happened. "Those are saved for someone special." "Really?" thought Joanna, surprised. "I wonder?" she never finished her thought. "Come on let's head to the French Quarter," urged Susan, as she took Joanna by the arm. "We can visit Pat O' Brian's. That's where the action should be" ************************************************* Pat O' Brian's, was beautiful. The courtyard with its fountain of fire and water was how Joanna had envisioned New Orleans in her mind. The piano player in the bar played a mixture of Mardi Gras, Jazz and contemporary love songs reminding her of its historical past. However, Joanna decided there were almost as many people jammed into the courtyard as the parade. The cacophony of their talking was distressing her. Joanna felt claustrophobic and for the tenth time, in the last hour, wished she were back in her hotel room. She took another sip from her fruity rum punch drink they called a Hurricane and debated whether she should just leave Susan and return by cab. "I see you are still wearing my beads," stated a rich voice behind Joanna. She turned and looked into those same deep eyes. "It's HIM!" she thought shocked and surprised. Her musing broken and flummoxed by his appearance, she struggled for words, "Err.err I'm sorry, I" "Oh forgive me, I am sorry," he apologized smiling. "I have forgotten my manners. Allow me to introduce myself, I am Paul de Strahan," he replied while offering her his hand. "You, you are the one who gave me the beads," stammered Joanna while shaking his hand and trying to make sense of this sudden apparition. "Thank you!" "Oh you are quite welcome," he said gallantly. "May I join you?" "Yes sure," replied Joanna, wishing she had not drunk so much of her Hurricane. She suddenly felt dizzy. "Are you alright?" "Yes, thank you. I am fine. It's. it's just so sudden, your appearance. I mean.how did you know I would be here?" As Paul laughed lightly, Joanna noticed that his entire face lit up. He seemed so natural, so at ease; the opposite of how she felt. She couldn't help liking him. "Oh it was easy. well, actually it was just a guess. but, I was correct," He answered, laughing again. "One of the things tourists often do when visiting New Orleans is come here, to Pat O'Brian's and drink Hurricanes, just like you are doing now. So, after the parade ended I quickly changed and came here hoping to find you." "But why?" "Why? Because, well because, I guess I wanted to find you. After seeing you from atop the float, I could not get you out of my mind. I wanted to meet you. I do hope I am not being too forward or presumptuous? If so." "OH NO!" Joanna cried. "I mean, no you aren't; I am pleased that you came looking for me," she continued in a much more restrained manner, wondering if the alcohol she drank was making her feel so queasy. and yet happy. "Then," he smiled, "you have me at a disadvantage." "Oh?" "I don't know your name." "Oh my gosh!" exclaimed Joanna, embarrassed, "I am so sorry, it's Joanna Bryant from Richmond, Virginia. You are from New Orleans?" "Yes, I am. Born and reared in New Orleans," he told her, smiling. "So are you here alone?" "Yes err NO! I am here with my girlfriend, Susan," replied Joanna, pointing in her direction. "Are you here just for Mardi Gras or for business, too? Often, people use business as an excuse to come to Mardi Gras," he asked her. Because of the noise, Joanna did not hear everything he said. "I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you. What did you say?" "I was asking why you were here. Look, would you like to go somewhere else that's quieter? I know a little coffee shop not far from here where they make that wonderful New Orleans' style coffee. Would you like to go there?" "You mean that stuff you have to drink with a spoon?" chuckled Joanna while, wondering if she should go with this stranger. Her gut said yes, her mind said, be wary. "Yes!" It was after one thirty in the morning when Joanna finally got back to her hotel room. After, washing her face and changing, she lay in bed and relived the events of the past few hours. She could not believe this was happening to her. It was like being the heroine in one of her novels. Yet, here she was and, it was really happening to her. She knew that she should go to sleep. Paul would be picking her up at nine and taking her to breakfast at Brennan's. Later, he would give her a tour of New Orleans. Never before had she felt so alive. Her lips tingled where he had kissed them lightly. Her stomach fluttered when she thought about him. She wondered what it would feel like to hold and kiss him, feeling his body against hers. She fell asleep imagining his hands touching her body. ************************************************* Right on time, Paul met Joanna in her hotel lobby. After introducing him to Susan, who just had to meet this mysterious fellow, they took a short cab ride to Brennan's Restaurant on Royal Street. They walked into the paneled foyer and were greeted by the general manager of Brennan's. "Well, look who has decided to grace us with his presence, Monsieur Paul de Strahan." "Hi Gerald," said Paul, "It's good to see you again. Thanks for getting me a table on such short notice" "For you, Paul, anything," exclaimed Gerald while shaking Paul's hand and giving him a hug. "And who is this lovely and charming young lady, you have with you?" he asked. "This is Joanna Bryant. She is visiting from Virginia." Gerald turned toward Joanna, bowed slightly and extended his hand, "Virginia! Lovely state. Well, welcome to New Orleans. It is a pleasure to meet you." Then, smiling at her he continued, "Has this rogue told you any lies about us?" Joanna laughed, "No, I don't think so.only, that I would enjoy breakfast here." "Enjoy, ENJOY!" exclaimed Gerald in mocked mortification, "Just enjoy? See if I will pay him to advertise Brennan's next month." Then laughing, Gerald motioned with his hand. A waiter appeared. "This is Jerome; he will be serving you this morning. Enjoy, Joanna. It was nice meeting you." "Same here," replied Joanna. Jerome escorted Paul and Joanna to a table located next to a large plate glass window that offered a view onto a beautiful courtyard filled with lush plants and a fountain. She thought the setting idyllic. Jerome pulled Joanna's chair out for her. After she sat, he unfolded her napkin and carefully laid it on her lap. She felt pampered. Handing her the menu Jerome asked, "Have you dined with us before?" "No, I haven't. This is my first time. What would you suggest I try?" "My recommendation would be to start with a cup of turtle soup as an appetizer. For the entr‚e, you might try Eggs Sardou, which are poached eggs on artichoke bottoms with creamed spinach and hollandaise Sauce. If you prefer a more traditional meal, try the Eggs Benedict, which are poached eggs and Canadian bacon on an English muffin, topped with hollandaise sauce. For desert, I would recommend our famous Bananas Foster. Bananas saut‚ed in rum sauce flamed at your table and spooned over home made vanilla ice cream." "All that for one meal?" asked Joanna wondering how she would eat it all. "Don't forget the fresh baked French bread, coffee and wine," added Paul chuckling. The meal was fit for royalty and Joanna felt like a storybook princess. For two hours, she and Paul ate and talked. She found herself admiring Paul for his easy wit, grace and intelligence. Never before had anyone captivated her interest the way he did. She loved looking at him when he talked and seeing the animation on his face. It was obvious that Paul was comfortable with himself. Joanna hoped that she wouldn't wake up and find that everything had been a dream. Paul told her of how his family had arrived in New Orleans as mercenaries during the Battle of New Orleans and had stayed. She learned of the old warehouses his family owned near the river, and how he had been turning them into upscale apartments and condominiums. She also found herself telling him about herself. She told him about how she wrote historical romance novels. She mentioned her love of historical buildings and art, and it was partially because, of the history of New Orleans that she had agreed to come with Susan. She also mentioned how she hoped to write a novel with New Orleans as the setting. "Well, I for one am glad you came and I met you," said Paul, reaching for her hand. "So am I," replied Joanna softly, as she felt flush with the touch of his hand on hers. "Come let me show you the city and her elegant beauty," offered Paul rising from his seat and pulling Joanna's chair back for her. The rest of the day was a dream for Joanna. Paul gave her the grand tour of New Orleans and her rich heritage. Later that afternoon, he dropped her off at her hotel, so she could freshen up and change for the evening's Krewe of Proteus parade and dinner. "I have a special place to take you for dinner," announced Paul when he kissed her goodbye. Closing the door behind her, Joanna felt her stomach fluttering and her body begging for more of his touch. Closing her eyes, she savored the wonderful feelings and made a decision. Then, she heard Susan knocking with vigor on the door. ************************************************* Paul picked her up around six. He brought her to the Columns Hotel on St Charles St., where they had reserved places for the parade. "The owner," said Paul on the way over, "is a member of Bacchus. But, don't tell anybody, Ok?" "Why not?" "Because, membership in the Krewe is secret," he told her. "Very few people outside a Krewe know who the members are, especially in older more prestigious Krewes" Joanna knew that he could have easily added, "such as Bacchus," but didn't. She knew that Bacchus was one of the oldest and most famous Krewes of Mardi Gras. She was impressed that he did not act important or conceited about being in Bacchus. "One of the wonderful things about Mardi Gras," Paul continued, "is that everyone is equal during Mardi Gras. We are all the same. That is the reason for the masks. No one knows who the other person is. It is the largest free festival in the world and provided by the Krewes." "How do you do that?" asked Joanna. "Each Krewe exists primarily to put on its Mardi Gras ball and parade. Each Krewe stages its parade for the people of New Orleans. All we ask is that you come out and enjoy yourself," he finished. Joanna felt guilty as she thought how she had hated the parade last night. She was glad he had told her about their purpose. She felt happy and alive with him, and was excited that she was with him for this parade. When they walked up the Columns' porch, Charles Landrum, owner of the hotel, greeted them. "Hi, Paul, I missed you last night. You didn't attend the ball. What happened?" "Sorry, Charles, something came up and I could not be there. I should have told you I was leaving. Charles, this is Joanna Bryant from Virginia, she is visiting. Joanna, Charles Landrum. Charles owns and runs this beautiful hotel." "It's nice to meet you, Joanna," acknowledged Charles smiling, "I see why Paul was unable to attend the ball." Joanna blushed, "Thank you, it is nice to meet you too." The sirens drowned out anything else that she might have said. The leading edge of the parade had arrived. They headed toward the street and parade with everyone else. Joanna witnessed a parade pro in action. She laughed and giggled with delight at Paul's antics. He was all arms and legs as he positioned himself to catch tossed beads. He jumped with the best and grasped them out of thin air, just before they fell into someone else's hands. He would then place them around her neck. Joanna quickly found herself exuberant and enjoying the parade. Her inhibitions fell aside and she started yelling with the crowd, "THROW ME SOMETHING MISTER!" Soon she had two-dozen sets of beads hanging around her neck and her small bag stuffed with doubloons and other trinkets. She started feeling guilty about Paul grabbing so much stuff until she noticed that no one minded. In fact, everybody seemed to have beads around their necks, stuffed in bags or in bulging pockets. After the parade ended, they stayed and visited. Paul introducing her to several of his friends; everyone was talking about parades and Mardi Gras. Some of them asked if Joanna was enjoying the parades. Considering the fun she had with Paul, she nodded yes. Soon, it was time for dinner. The Feelings Caf‚ was one of the most romantic places she had ever seen. Once someone's home, the building was two stories tall and built New Orleans style, i.e., long and narrow. A high stucco wall enclosed the yard. The entry led into a foyer, which opened onto a picturesque courtyard with tropical plants growing lushly and paved with flagstones. Soft piano music came floating out of the piano bar, while gas lanterns flickered from each wall, creating an intimate and romantic atmosphere. Once again, the food and service were delicious and impeccable. However, she barely remembered the courtyard and the wonderful food and wine. Instead, she was lost in the world of Paul. Never before had she found someone with whom she felt so at ease and comfortable. As they talked, she found they shared many interests. He was an avid reader and student of history and architecture. While at Tulane, he had spent a semester abroad where he discovered the architecture of Europe. Later he returned and spent two years studying in Europe. She told him how she took month long trips through Europe in researching her novels. Soon, they were sharing with each other, favorite places and fond memories. When the meal had ended and they were drinking coffee, a lull settled over their conversation and tension enveloped them like morning fog. Each knew what was coming next. "Joanna," asked Paul, "Would you like to come and see my place? It is in one of the warehouses I told about. The ones I am renovating." "I would love to Paul. However, I should tell you something first." She took a breath and steadied her composure, "I.I am a virgin, Paul." Shock and surprise crossed Paul's features. "You are kidding? At your age?" "NO! I am not and YES at my age!" replied Joanna tartly, upset at Paul's dismissal of her acknowledgement, her face reddened. Tears began to well in her eyes, as she felt the sting of ridicule. "Do you think I am some kind of freak or looser?" she continued, feeling put down and hurt. "Just because I don't sleep with every self-proclaimed stud, doesn't mean there is something wrong with me." She suddenly stopped when Paul laid his hand on her forearm. "I'm sorry, Joanna. I didn't mean to insult you or hurt your feelings," apologized Paul, "I was just surprised. No, I don't think there is something wrong with you. "Look Joanna, when I first saw you, I was captivated by your beauty. I meant it when I told you last night that I wanted to find you. Something inside of me drove me to look for you. I am glad I went searching." Then looking into her eyes intently he continued, "These past twenty-four hours have been very special to me. You have become special to me. "However, if you wish, I can take you back to your hotel." "No," replied Joanna softly, touched by his words. "I said I was a virgin. I didn't say I wanted to remain one. "The reason I am still a virgin is because I am a big romantic, can't you tell?" she said smiling. "I have never met a man with whom I felt close enough.intimate enough to offer my virginity. I did not want to give it to just any man. I was saving it for. well at this moment, I don't really know for whom or what I was saving it. "However, I do know that no one ever seemed worth it. until now. I am sorry for my overreaction. I was afraid to tell you. But, I knew I must," she finished. "I don't know what to say, Joanna," said Paul bewildered at this revelation. "Then say nothing! Just take me to your place and make love to me." ************************************************* They were quiet during the ride to his place. Each was lost in his or her own thoughts. Joanna felt close to Paul and, reaching toward him, she placed her hand on his forearm. Paul smiled at her then grasping her hand, he squeezed it gently. She laid her head on his shoulder and he placed his arm around her. She felt secure. His condominium was beautiful. Its hardwood floors and high ceilings along with period wallpaper and fluted doorframes made it seem palatial. In his apprehension and hesitation to not rush things, Paul showed her every detail of the place, leaving out only the master bedroom. She too, felt nervous. Along with her nervousness, there was an ache in her loins and her desire to be held and feel his closeness. "Paul, I need to freshen up. May I use the bathroom?" "Of course, I'm sorry. You may use this one. I will get us some wine." When she finished, she found Paul standing in the bedroom, waiting for her. He had lit a gas fireplace and pulled down the bedcovers. Paul pulled Joanna into his arms and chest. She wrapped her arms around his waist and buried her face into his chest. One of his hands went to the back of her head and gently caressed her hair while rubbing the nape of her neck. After a few moments, he tilted her head back, lowered his lips and kissed her gently. Warmth spread throughout her body as his lips caressed hers. He took his time kissing her. She lost herself in his embrace and lips. When his tongue played with her lips seeking entry, she gladly parted them, and soon their tongues danced a dance of love. Breaking the kiss, foreheads touching, he silently began to remove her clothing. Her blouse, her bra, her skirt - each item he neatly folded and placed on an adjourning chair, to wait quietly until she returned. As each item of clothing was removed, he lovingly kissed the skin beneath, first sending shivers then fire coursing through her body. In her mind there was only Paul and her desire for him. When the final article had joined its companions, he looked her over with those deep eyes that now drank in her beauty. "Mon Dieu, you are beautiful!" he whispered. He lifted and carried her to the turned down bed where, he gently and tenderly laid her on the pure white Egyptian cotton sheets. Then, while looking at her, he slowly began removing his clothing. Watching his taunt body being revealed little by little was immensely erotic and exciting for Joanna. She found herself eager to feel his touch and his body pressed against hers. Still, the intense pleasure and desire that tore through her as she felt his weight on top of her and his chest and legs against hers, caught Joanna by surprise. He kissed her deeply and with passion. Their two bodies shifted, intertwined and shifted again, matching their tongues in the dance of love. Two days of emotional bonding drove their bodies toward the epiphany of human bonding experiences, two bodies and souls becoming one. She felt the touch of his skin on hers, his lips on hers, his maleness moving and rubbing against her, seeking entrance. Her body and emotions, soon wanted him completely. She was ready. "Please, Paul. I am ready, I want you in me!" Paul produced a condom, which he tore open and unrolled over his erection. Then he surprised her by rolling over on his back. "Here Joanna, get on top," he said, "That way it will be easier for you to control the entry. If it hurts, just stop." Moving to straddle his hips, she positioned herself over him, aligned him with her opening. She slowly and with some apprehension, allowed herself to sink downward. She was wet, and she was ready. He slid in easily. Surprisingly, there was only a little tightness and no pain. She allowed him to enter her about halfway, stopped, raised herself then lowered and received him totally. Never before had she experienced anything so wonderful. "Oh God!" she thought, unable to express in words her feelings. Like flashes from a dream; emotional images of relief, becoming a complete woman and finally exorcising her self-imposed stigma mingled with the physical pleasure and envelopes her consciousness. She slowly started rocking her hips trying to find out what felt best. Soon, she had the proper friction and her pace increased rapidly. Focusing on the pleasurable sensations, she felt them grow, radiate and flow throughout her body, building and growing higher and higher. So wrapped up in the experience was she, her climax caught her by surprise. Like water pouring through an open dam, to fill the fields with its life giving essence, the joy and pleasure rushed through her and filled every fiber of her body and by extension, her soul. When spent and finished, she looked down and saw the broadest smile beaming from Paul's face. She hugged and kissed him with total joy. Emotions of completeness, relief and love all combined to overwhelm her emotionally. She started to cry. "What's the matter?" asked Paul, suddenly anxious. "Did I hurt you?' "Oh no, It was wonderful! Thank you so much. I am just so happy," she cried. "Awwww honey," exclaimed a relieved Paul, who hugged her with tenderness. Still buried in Joanna, he slowly began to stroke in and out of her. "Oh my God," exclaimed Joanna, "you haven't come yet." "No but I will," replied Paul smiling, "Here, let's roll over." Positioning her below him, Paul reentered her and began to make love to Joanna. She again felt him spreading and filling her. She opened and gave herself to him totally. Her body received him and her spirit soared. When he tensed and changed his pace, she realized that he too, was experiencing the joy and pleasure she had just received. She was glad that she was a woman and that she had been able to give him back some of what she had received from him. Later that night she awakened. After going to the bathroom, she watched him sleeping while reliving the last couple of days. "Do I have a story to write or what?" she thought and smiled. She continued watching the rising and falling of his chest and wondered what would happen to them. She did not know if they would continue seeing each other, she hoped so. "However," she thought, "We still have tomorrow, Mardi Gras. Or, is that today!"