Excerpt for Validite by , available in its entirety at Smashwords







Validité





Carol Anne Vick



Copyright 2017





As always, many

thanks to my husband, Ray

Other Books by the Author:



The Village of Gerard's Cliff

Copyright 2014



The Summer of Gauguin

(Sequel to The Village of Gerard's Cliff)

Copyright 2014



An Obscure Haven

Copyright 2015



A Pale Paradise

(Sequel to An Obscure Haven)

Copyright 2016



Perilous Assurance

Copyright 2016

Validité



"To know one thing, you must know the opposite."

Henry Moore, Sculptor



Chapter I



We've all heard that well-known phrase, "Look before you leap," which in French would be "Il faut réfléchir avant d'agir," translated to mean 'One must reflect before acting.' It had always been, in my mind, a very important bit of advice to remember. Or so I thought.

It all began with a phone call, as I'd sat on my tall metal stool, working on the life-size plasticine clay bust of the town's mayor, Gil Gardener, a nice commission from the small town of North Branford, Connecticut, where I've resided for the past two years. I picked up the phone gingerly, being careful not to get any clay on the receiver.

"Yes?"

"Paige, you have to come with me!"

"Laura?" I held the phone between my ear and shoulder as I wiped the oily gray clay from my fingers with the well-worn kitchen towel. "Go with you where?" I laughed as I turned myself back around and eyed my work, not sure now if I'd miscalculated the space between the mayor's eyes. I pulled a strand of my short black hair behind my ear, and it immediately fell in front of my eye, and I swiped it back again, taking out the clip and re-positioning it to hold my hair back. Something just didn't look right with his eyes. I picked up one of the black and white photos of the portly man and squinted at it, then looked at my sheet of measurements again.

"My company's convention is in Old Quebec City this year. Bill refuses to accompany me on another business trip. He says they're too boring, but you know him. He has no sense of adventure," she laughed. "And now Maggie is down with the flu, or something, and can't come with me."

My friend's voice sounded close to frantic. "I leave in two days - on the fourteenth, and return on the twentieth, and you know how I hate to travel alone."

"I know you do," I sympathized, and I took a deep breath and looked out the window at my lovely garden, now blooming nicely in the late afternoon May sun. "Sorry, I'd forgotten about your trip." I tilted my head as I swiveled the stand and checked out the mayor's nose. "Can't you just cancel her part of the reservations?" I pulled off a pinch of clay from the mound covered with plastic sitting on the work table and applied it to the upper cheek area, smoothing it down with my finger to match the texture of the rest of his face.

"Yes, I suppose I could," she sighed, and I stretched my neck muscles as I swiveled the bust around to its original position and waited for her to finish. "But, I'd really like for you to come, Paige. It's all paid for. Down to the meals and gratuity. You'd have your own room, of course. It would be a much needed vacation for you. Think of it. While I attend my dreary meetings in the hotel conference room, you could be basking in an outdoor cafe, drinking wine and watching the locals."

I paused at that comment, and pictured myself doing just that. Not a bad image. Hmm. Maybe I could spare a few days. Even if I were her third choice. The bust would be fine wrapped up for a week, and I was ahead of schedule as it was. The bronze casting at the foundry in Hartford was scheduled for a day that was, what? Three weeks away? I glanced at the calendar on the wall next to me and twirled the phone cord around my finger as I thought about it. I pulled my denim bib apron further down over my jean-clad legs.

"Well, what do you say, Paige?" Laura laughed. "Have I convinced you?"

"All right, I'll go with..."

"That's great! I'll pick you up Monday morning at eight sharp. The flight is out of Hartford International, and I'll drive us there. It's fifty miles to the airport, so that will give us plenty of time." Laura took a relieved breath and laughed. "Thanks, Paige. You'll love Old Quebec. This will be my second trip there."

"I've never been to Canada, actually."

"Pack long sleeve outfits and slacks with a sweater or light jacket for this time of year, and there's nothing dressy going on this year, thank goodness." I heard my friend laugh happily, and I smiled as I wiped off my wood tools, glad that I was able to help her out. "See you in two days then."

"All right. I'll be ready at eight, Laura. Bye."

"Bye."

After placing the beige receiver on it's cradle, I sat for a moment, staring at the bust of Mayor Gardener, but my mind was really on the trip ahead. Two days. Plenty of time to get more work done on the bust and pack for the trip. Seven days in Old Quebec City. I sighed and got up and tidied up my studio. Well, my studio is really the enclosed side porch of the old stone cottage I'd found, fell in love with, and rented quickly in the summer of 'eighty-one, not long after Dan's death. Leaving our home in Portland, Maine had been difficult, but necessary. As I wrapped Mayor Gardener's shoulders and head in plastic to keep the clay moist and workable, I thought about the night Dan had died. How surreal it all had seemed. My hands paused on the plastic as I conjured up the image of his gaze in my mind, his dark eyes watching me as I'd sat by his hospital bed. The determined sparkle he'd kept in his eyes throughout his many treatments, wholly for my benefit, I knew, finally became too much of an effort, and he'd closed his eyes and left this world. Our world. Our marriage of ten years had been as close to perfect as I could imagine a union being in this day and age of casual promiscuity and short term dalliances. I'd sat by his side for at least an hour more, loathe to leave, while my two sweet cousins, who'd stayed with me during my lengthy bedside vigil, packed up his things for me. I remember running my fingers softly down his arm, noticing the almost fascinating changes occurring in his body after his spirit had left, and I'd sighed heavily, as I had no more tears to shed.

I wiped down the table top and arranged the wooden tools in the jar, then turned to look out at the dusky sky above my flower bed in the backyard. Since both of us had agreed at some point that we didn't want services if anything were to happen to us, I'd gone over to the shore one evening and scattered his ashes. We would have been in love the rest of our lives, but it wasn't what life had in store for us. For him. I would always be in love with him, death or not. Dan's spirit will never leave my mind and heart. For several months after his death, in fact, I'd continued to look over at his empty chair in front of his desk as I worked on a sculpture, actually carrying on a conversation with him in my head about my progress, and if he had an opinion on how it looked. He'd nod his head, smiling at me as he ran his hand through his short, dark blonde hair, and I'd smile back at the empty chair. It was a reassuring act of denial for a while, but as the one-year anniversary of his death neared, I discovered that the pretense was just too heavy. I couldn't carry it anymore, and that was the first tiny step for me as I slowly learned to separate myself from us as a couple. I donated his desk and black leather chair to a local charity in Portland.

I checked the back door lock, and left the studio, closing the French doors behind me as I entered the living room, letting my eyes roam around the soothing room. A little over a year after his death, I'd received a commission from the small town of North Branford, Connecticut, for a large bronze statue with the theme of dancing children to be set in the town's park, and that had been the perfect opportunity to leave sadness behind for a bit, and again, by chance, on my visit here, I'd driven down this street and noticed the For Rent sign in the front yard, and the house, set back a ways, appeared private and comforting. Something had clicked and I knew this was where I needed to be. Where I would start a new life for myself and separate myself from my grief. We'd decided early on that having children was not on either of our wish lists. We were so enjoying our careers and each other. I had cousins and other relatives to console me after his death, but no one closer. My parents had passed as well, and Dan had become my only family. We were all we needed, we both thought. We were so in tune with each other. I was a thirty-seven year old widow, moving to a new town, a new state. Trying to pick up the pieces. Two years later, and no matter how busy I am, my thoughts drift to him many times during the day, but more in a reflective way now, I suppose.

I sighed and turned on a couple of table and floor lamps as I walked across the rust and tan Oriental carpet to pull the white curtains across the large picture window. As I turned back, I let my gaze fall on the wall behind the brown leather sofa. I'd painted it a deep rust with white mouldings to contrast with the taupe walls in the rest of the room, and especially to accentuate the boldness of Dan's large abstract black and white nature photographs, which I'd framed in black with large white matts. I smiled. How fortunate we'd been that we could make our living being freelance artists, with my being a sculptor and he a photographer. How many couples get to do that, I thought. I sighed and headed to the kitchen to make myself a light dinner, with plans for the upcoming trip now occupying my mind.

******

All set. I checked myself out in the mirror one last time before heading downstairs to wait for Laura's arrival. I ran the brush through my hair, pulling the longer side strands of my straight hair so they'd curl towards my chin, remembering how, before I'd moved to North Branford, I'd stood before my mirror, the scissors poised for a brief reflective moment and resolutely cut my long, black hair. Sort of a personal statement of my hopes for a new era in my life. The next day I'd gone to the hairdresser for the final layering and styling, and I'd decided that I liked the new me. I'd smiled at myself in the mirror as the hairdresser removed the plastic cape and I'd left the salon, feeling a new sense of purpose for my life moving forward.

I added a touch more of the taupe shadow to my eyelids and stared soberly at my reflection, noting that my dark eyes appeared relaxed. Yes, I planned on enjoying this time in Old Quebec. The quick blast of a car horn broke into my thoughts, and I smiled at my reflection, and headed downstairs. I reached the front door and opened it just as Laura was about to ring the bell. She laughed as I picked up my beige suitcase and shut the door and locked it.

"This is going to be fun." I saw that she'd pulled her shoulder-length blonde hair back into a practical ponytail, and that she'd worn jeans and a long sleeved, purple tee shirt for the trip. She noticed that I was eyeing her outfit and laughed. "Lucky you, Paige. You can dress like this the whole week if you like while I'm bogged down in my business attire."

"That's true." I looked down at my black pullover and lightweight black slacks. "I did pack a couple of long skirts, though. And, yes, Laura, I'm really looking forward to this trip."

We headed to the curb and and she raised the back of her baby-blue, 'seventy-nine Dodge Dart and I set my suitcase next to her red one in the cavernous trunk.

The short trip to the airport in Hartford passed quickly, and we parked the car, checked in and were soon ensconced in our cramped seats, along with about a hundred other travelers, I estimated. The short flight to Montreal went smoothly and we had an hour stop there, then we were back on our way and continued on to Quebec where, after the total flight of three and a half hours, we landed at Jean Lasage International. We hailed a taxi and were finally on our last leg of the trip as we headed to the walled city of Le Vieux Québec.

Chapter II

I picked up my glass and laughed at my friend's droll description of her morning meeting, before taking a sip of the icy cold chardonnay.

"Aren't you having a fabulous time?" Laura smiled at me and took a bite of her chicken crêpe.

"I absolutely am, Laura." I nodded at her and tucked a strand of hair behind my ear as I gazed around me at the other diners sitting casually at the small black wrought iron tables and chairs clustered within the black railings in front of the Cafe Charlot. "It's beautiful here. It really is like being in Paris."

I sighed. Dan would have loved it here. We would have loved being here together. Our table was next to the front railing, and masses of ivy and impatiens spilled over the flower boxes set at intervals along the railing. I glanced at the facade of the narrow, stone cafe, and its bright yellow paint made me smile, and the periwinkle shutters and trim and rustic sign over the rust colored door just added to its European-inspired charm. I turned my head and gazed at the people strolling leisurely down the narrow, cobblestoned street, bordered on either side by attached, multi-storied stone structures that had been renovated and transformed into hotels, boutiques or eateries, some with the original gray and tan stone, others painted in various shades of blue, lavender, and pink. Colorful umbrellas over outdoor tables dotted the sidewalks in front of other bistros, and there were flowers absolutely everywhere - in window boxes, hanging from street lamps. I was astounded at the sheer volume of colors that energized my senses. I ate a bite of my salad.

"I have to head back in a few minutes," Laura sighed as she sipped her water. I nodded as I glanced at her rose-colored Chanel business suit, glad that I'd worn my black slacks and long-sleeved white tee shirt with my white windbreaker tied around my shoulders in case the weather turned cooler.

"A two-hour lunch break is not bad, you know," I smiled at her.

"I know. I'm certainly not complaining." She propped her chin on her hand and gazed around at the other diners.

We chatted for a while as we finished our lunch and enjoyed the gorgeous weather. Our first two days in Old Quebec City had, unfortunately, been a bit foggy and damp, but today, Wednesday, our third day was perfect. Laura had chosen this out of the way cafe for our lunch date so she'd be less likely to run into the other attendees from the conference. She'd explained that after sitting and listening to speakers for hours on end, she couldn't wait to get out on her own.

"Hmm. Now, Paige," Laura tilted her head toward a table down from us as she raised her eyebrows. "That gorgeous man over there would make a hell of a model for one of your bronze sculptures, don't you think?" She lowered her voice. "I can see it now. Maybe you could get him to pose for you while we're here." She leaned her chin on her hand and laughed as she fiddled with her earring and glanced over at him again. "He could be your version of Adonis."

"Adonis?" I laughed in feigned disdain at her ridiculous suggestion and peered in the direction of her gaze, seeing a very attractive man seated about three tables from us. Hmm. In his early forties possibly, dressed in jeans and a black sports coat over a white shirt, open at the collar. His longish black hair was slicked back from his forehead, and I noticed that the back of his hair curled up slightly against his coat collar. "I believe the mythological Adonis was supposed to have been much younger, but yes, he's very good looking, Laura," I raised my eyebrows and laughed at her as I sipped my wine. "He does have good, angular bone structure, though, and a very strong jawline." This man was the polar opposite of the model for my current project, Mayor Gardener, that was a given.

"Well, Adonis, or Thor. What is that other one? Michelangelo's David? Any of those would apply," she laughed as she placed her napkin on the table and began rummaging in her purse.

I squinted my eyes back over at the man casually, only to see him glance over in my direction, and I started a bit as we made eye contact and I saw his narrowed blue eyes glint in the glare of the sun as he lifted his chin at me and swiped a strand of dark hair back from his forehead. Embarrassed to have been caught checking him out, I quickly lowered my gaze, then took a deep breath and returned my attention to my friend as she set her napkin down beside her plate. I resisted the urge to glance over towards him.

"Well, that does it for me." She sipped her water and eyed me with a truly disappointed look in her eyes. "I have to get back for the next presentation. Are you heading back to the hotel as well?"

I thought for a moment as I sipped my wine.

"No, I think I'll order some coffee and dessert, then roam around a bit."

"Lucky you," my friend laughed. "Enjoy yourself, and I guess I'll see you later this evening. Maybe we can check out that little bar down the street from the hotel."

"Hmm, perhaps." I tilted my head at her as she stood up.

"Enjoy your afternoon, Paige." Laura patted my shoulder and set the envelope with the bills for our lunch by my plate. "Think of me while you stroll leisurely around the gorgeous streets of Le Vieux Québec." Her voice was wistful and she sighed again.

"Thanks, Laura. I'll see you later."

She waved as she exited the enclosure and headed down the street. I could hear the sound of her black heels clicking on the cobblestones above the low chatter of the other diners. I slanted my eyes over to the man again, thinking about what Laura had said.

"Would you care for dessert, madame?"

I jumped slightly as the waiter's voice interrupted my thoughts.

"Oh, yes, I think I'll have the crème brûlée and coffee - café."

"Très bon." The black-clad waiter quickly gathered up the plates and glasses and headed back through the front door of the restaurant.

I sipped the last of my wine, closed my eyes for a brief moment, and then let my gaze roam over the flowers and then the diners, all chatting happily, mostly in French, from what I could hear, of which I understood very little, and I immediately regretted having taken Spanish in high school. I smiled to myself, and set down my wine glass, and that's when I caught the dark-haired man watching me. As quickly as I'd seen his blue eyes narrowed at me from three tables down, he'd turned his head back to his companion and engaged her in conversation, gesturing expressively with his right hand. Hmm. I could just barely hear his deep voice, as he spoke to the girl in French. I couldn't deny it. I'd seen several very attractive men in just the two days we'd been in Old Quebec. But, in all honesty, I had no interest in men right now. I was taking my time getting back into life, but it didn't hurt to look, I suppose. Hmm. I slanted my eyes back over to him.

"Here you are, madame."

I turned and peered up at the waiter as he placed the black napkin and white fluted ramekin in front of me, and I sighed happily as he set the small white cup of cafè to my left.

"Thank you so much. Merci."

He nodded seriously and left me to enjoy my dessert. I picked up the ornate dessert spoon and punched it carefully through the hard, thin layer of caramelized sugar, scooping up a mound of the creamy custard. As I savored the richness of the crème brûlée, I noticed that the man with the blue eyes and his companion were no longer at their table, and I casually scanned the street. Oh well. Returning my attention to the heavenly dessert before me, I contentedly sipped the strong, black coffee, then scooped another spoonful of the luscious custard, wondering how difficult it would be to learn a new language at my age. I sighed, totally enjoying the moment, and peered up just in time to see the man and his companion walk out of the restaurant door. The dark-haired young woman walked ahead of him, chatting back to him in French, and I noticed that she was carrying a small, white bakery bag. She looked to be in her upper teens or early twenties, and as they passed me, she continued to the gate, but the man, to my surprise, paused in front of my table. He nodded down to me, arched one dark eyebrow and gave me a very slight smile as he lowered his gaze and set a rectangular white card on my table. He tapped the card with his index finger and I stared at his hand, then looked at him and smiled ever so slightly, but with a tinge of puzzlement.

"Bonjour, mademoiselle." His voice was low as he gave me another quick glance through narrowed eyes.

I squinted up at his face, and could see a light tinge of silver in the hint of stubble on his angular jaw. I blinked as I eyed him, then peered down at the card as he lifted his hand and I picked it up and held it in front of me. Before I could say anything, they'd left the patio enclosure and were walking down the street behind me. I turned just in time to see them disappear around the corner to the right, down another narrow street, one of many in this maze-like labyrinth of quaint avenues.

It was a business card, and I sipped my coffee and tilted my head as I looked at the ornate black scrolling around the perimeter, and the line drawings of old books, and Chambre des Livres printed in fancy script diagonally across the card. Well, livre is book, I did know that much and the drawing made it pretty clear, so obviously, it was a business card for a book store. Chambre. Hmm. I thought perhaps it was French for chamber, or house, or room? House of Books, that made sense. A name written in the lower corner caught my eye. Theo Marchand, Owner. Hmm, an interesting name. I was curious about the book store, to be sure, but, if I were really honest with myself, slightly even more curious about this man named Theo Marchand. I continued to hold the card in my left hand as I finished my crème brûlée.



******

I peered down at the card in my hand and reread the address. This was the correct street, Rue du Temple, and I looked around me at the various businesses, looking for a store sign or number six, eighty-five. Honestly, I was feeling more than a slight bit of trepidation, not sure at all if this was a good idea. Curiosity killed the cat, right? And, unfortunately, I was indeed, more than a little curious. I adjusted my large, square sunglasses on the bridge of my nose and stopped short. There it was. Chambre des Livres clearly visible in black cursive on the white wood sign above the narrow brown door. I took a deep breath and pulled my white windbreaker more tightly across my chest as I stared at the three story stone structure across the steeply-sloped, narrow street from where I stood. On its right was an impressive looking flower shop, with a magenta awning and masses of every kind of bloom imaginable propped up in colorful buckets in front of the multi-pane windows on either side of the bright blue door. Several people were milling around, checking out the flowers as the owner, an older woman with gray hair piled up in a loose bun atop her head, and wearing a yellow bib apron stood by the door. To the book store's left was a small bistro, with three small white wrought iron tables and chairs in front of the windows. That building had been painted a pale blue-gray and sported a striped blue and white awning over the windows and white door. Two of the tables were occupied with a couple of patrons each, all absorbed in their conversations as they ate their meals and sipped their wine.

I brushed a strand of hair off my cheek and let my gaze return to the book store. Why had I felt the urge to check it out? Was it because a very attractive man had dropped his card on my table as he passed? Did he drop off a card at every table? Of course, he probably did, in all likelihood. I continued to stare at the book store, with the multi-pane windows, the sashes painted the same brown as the door, and the nondescript beige awning. So why did I feel a slight nervousness well up in my chest? As if there had been an ulterior motive in his leaving the card.

Deciding that I was over-thinking at that point, a trait that I knew was one of the least favorable in my repertoire of short-comings, in my mind, I was determined to just do it. I was just so curious, so very curious. What could it hurt? I would just go in and browse through the books, just stay a minute, and see what they had to offer. I hadn't been shopping in Old Quebec as of yet, and a book store was just as good as any other place to begin. I tucked the card in my shoulder bag and crossed the cobblestoned street and stared into the small window display. Several books were propped up on ornate gold easels. One on birds of Canada, another very colorful large book on local species of flowers, and another, a very antiquated-looking novel. A pale gold swath of material curled around the easels upon which several other books were nestled. I smiled as I peered at the large book on flowers, and decided that I would enjoy milling through the assortment of books and I took a deep breath and pushed open the door and immediately heard the jangle of a small bell above my head.

"Bonjour."

I heard her voice before I could actually see her and I shut the door behind me and removed my sunglasses as my eyes adjusted to the slight dimness of the shop. I nodded at the young woman behind the counter, the same one from the restaurant, as I placed my shades in my shoulder bag. I felt an immediate sense of relief.

"Bonjour," I smiled at her, then let my eyes roam around the narrow space, taken up by floor to ceiling dark wood shelves on either side and several rectangular wood tables down the middle and I noticed the pleasant musty smell of the place. This was how a bookstore should smell, I thought, and now I couldn't wait to look around. The walls were painted a pale gray-green tone and everything else was dark wood trim or wainscoting, which gave it a very cozy feel. I looked up and noticed the dark wood beams spanning the white plastered ceiling of the narrow shop, and the antique-looking chandeliers that hung evenly over the neat table displays of new best-sellers mixed with old texts. This had been a good decision to check the place out. The man from the cafe was not here, so I felt a little more at ease. I noticed that there was an elderly white-haired woman in a blue, checked dress, sitting in a floral, overstuffed chair situated near the desk, and I watched her for a moment as she pored over one of the several books piled high on her lap.

"Let me know if I may be of assistance." The young woman behind the counter spoke with a soft accent and she smiled at me pleasantly, then returned to her paperwork.

"Thank you. Merci," I responded, and I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear, and adjusted my shoulder bag to a more comfortable position as I craned my neck, eyeing the various shelves, trying to decide where to begin.

Ah, there was a section on the arts, and I maneuvered around the first table and stood in front of rows and rows of every sort of book possible on various artists from every period of time and every country you could imagine. I eagerly pulled down a large book on Vincent Van Gogh and held the hefty book as I flipped through the pages adorned with prints of his colorful Post-Impressionistic paintings. This was what I loved, and I definitely could be very happy here for several hours. I slid the book back into its space, and pulled down another on Henry Moore, the English sculptor. I had two books on his work at home, but this one was outstanding. I turned and set the oversized book on the table, and flipped slowly through the volume, admiring the color prints of his large bronze castings. The undulating, abstract figures he was known for had always been fascinating to me, and just looking at the simplicity of form he'd achieved was a source of inspiration, and I vowed to incorporate some of his stylization in my next casting. As I scanned the pages, I could hear the girl and the elderly woman converse in French at the counter, and I smiled at the coziness of this book store. What a great decision to come here. I must get this book on Moore, and, perhaps one other. I lifted up and scanned the shop. My eye had been drawn to the book on flowers in the window display, and I spied the section on horticulture, and I shifted my shoulder bag and closed the book and carried it with me to that section, around the center table, and a little closer to the counter. As their soothing conversation wafted through the small shop, I happily scanned the shelves for just the right book, and reached up on tip-toe to pull down a large, thin book with the most beautiful jacket cover I'd ever seen. I turned and set down both books on the table behind me, being careful not to knock over the display and started to look through the colorful photographs of purple larkspur and pink gladiolus, thinking how beautiful they would look in my garden at home.

"Excusez-moi. Pardon."

I swung around to see the elderly lady smiling at me, her warm eyes crinkling as she held onto her purchase and tried to maneuver around me to get to the door.

"Oh, I'm sorry. Pardon." I smiled back at her and scooted as close to the table as I could to let her pass. I returned to looking through my book, then sighed and decided that it was time to leave. Why had I felt such trepidation? This had been a pleasant diversion, and now I had two great books to take back to the hotel with me. The idea of propping up in the comfortable bed with a cup of coffee and studying my new Henry Moore book seemed really appealing. I stacked the two books and set them across my left arm as I shifted my shoulder bag and made my way to the back of the shop, toward the large dark wood counter, at which the young woman was apparently cataloging some new arrivals. She turned as I approached.

"Have you made your choice?" She smiled at me and I laid the books on the counter and she picked up the Moore book. "Ah, I see you like sculpture?"

"Yes, I'm a sculptor by profession," I smiled at her as I rummaged in my shoulder bag for my wallet. "And I've always loved Henry Moore's work." And that's when I heard the deep voice call out in French from the back room.

"Nicolette, viens ici, veuillez."

"Je serai là," she called back lightly in response. "Excuse me," she smiled at me. "I'll be right back." I nodded and rested my hands on the counter, holding my wallet. The girl walked into the back room, and I could hear a low conversation in rapid French, of which I understood nothing.

I chewed the inside of my lip as I waited, and tilted my head to look down at the various books she'd been working on. I turned to look at the nearby display, and took a deep breath as I waited. The conversation ended and I turned back around when I heard her return. Except that it wasn't the girl.

"Bonjour. I'll finish the transaction for you." His warm voice matched his dark good looks and my eyes widened as he stood in front of me. "Nicolette has an errand to run."

His voice was startling in its deepness, his accent was intriguing, and I looked up into his blue eyes and all I could do was nod in silent acquiescence. He was no longer wearing the black sports coat, and the sleeves of his white shirt were rolled up to his mid forearms. I cleared my throat and reached up and tucked a strand of hair behind my ear as I tilted my head and eyed him warily.

"Yes, thank you. Merci." I murmured. I watched as he inspected each of my books, then turned to the cash register. He was probably six, three in my estimation, and much to my chagrin, slightly intimidating at this close range. I cleared my throat again, and raised my chin as I observed him. Despite his smile, which creased the corner of his mouth as he hummed slightly while he rang up my items, he seemed serious, almost stern. I stared at his expressive hands as he handled my books and wrapped the flower book in brown paper. Despite myself, I took a mental snapshot of his hands. I thought of Laura's comment at lunch, and I imagined his hands in that exact pose sculpted in clay with the finished product in bronze. My brows raised as I thought about sculpting them in plasticine in my studio at home. His hands would be exquisite in bronze.

"That will be thirty-two dollars, si vous veuillez."

He'd placed his hands on the counter and was tapping his thumb and I could tell that he was watching me now, and I found that I couldn't look into his eyes as I continued to stare at his hands. I nodded and opened my wallet and pulled out the bills. I lifted my gaze to his as I handed over the payment and I saw that his visage was indeed serious as he narrowed his eyes at me.

"You have a lovely bookstore, Mr. Marchand." I lifted my chin and my voice was soft as I eyed him. His eyes were expressive, even in their seriousness as he watched me, and I saw a slight crinkle appear on the sides.

"Theo, s'il vous plaît." he smiled ever so slightly and pursed his lips. "And merci."

"Paige."

His brows raised and he nodded as we continued to stare at each other across the counter for what was probably only thirty seconds or so, when the bell jangled as the front door opened and I blinked and smiled at him, rather relieved that something had broken the stillness. He nodded and smiled, and I noticed again the light scruff of beard as he rubbed his jaw.

"Ahh.." He looked past me and I turned my head to see the blurry, back-lit silhouette of a young man who waved as he entered the book store and shut the door behind him. "Bonjour, Michael."

"Bonjour, Theo," the young man replied amiably.

Theo turned his attention back to me.

"I'll wrap the other book for you."

"Merci." I cleared my throat and took a deep breath as I watched him wrap my Henry Moore book in brown paper and place both books in a brown tote bag. He picked the bag up by the handles and handed it to me across the counter. I smiled at him, and as I took the handles, he removed his hand and ran it through his dark hair.

"I hope you will return to Chambre des Livres in the near future, mademoiselle." He slung his hand loosely on his hip.

"I will. And it's madame." I smiled at him as I turned to leave. I couldn't help but notice that his eyes flickered down for just an instant to my left hand, and as his gaze returned to mine, he blinked slowly, appearing slightly puzzled. "Thank you again. Merci." The tote bag was heavy, and I adjusted my shoulder bag as I made my way to the door. I wondered if he was watching me. I reached the door and pulled on the handle.

"Au revoir, Paige."

He did have a deep voice. I turned back towards him as I was about to exit and I leaned against the edge of the open door.

"Au revoir." I replied in what sounded to me like the blandest enunciation of that beautiful language to have ever been uttered. He lifted his chin and smiled and I left the small book store and stepped out into the bright sunshine and it almost blinded me. I had to stop and rummage in my shoulder bag for my sunglasses, and I sighed after sliding them on. My goodness, that was more than I'd bargained for. What was my problem? Why had I let him get to me. I shook my head and turned to the left, maneuvering around the diners at the small cafe, and headed down the steep Rue du Temple toward my hotel.

******

A soft rap at the door caused me to jerk my head upwards and I stretched my neck, which had become stiff from reading for a while.

"It's me, Paige."

"I'll be right there."

I lifted the heavy Henry Moore book off my knees and laid it on the bed, as I disentangled myself from the blankets. I closed the small sketchbook that lay beside me and tucked it under the blanket. I glanced at the clock on the nightstand. Four-thirty. I pulled the hem of my loose gray sweatshirt down over my stretchy back pants, and opened the door.

"Long day, Paige. Much too long," Laura groaned as she entered and tossed her black briefcase on the coverlet. She plopped herself on the edge of the bed and removed her heels as I closed the door. She spied the book on the bed and the brown bag on the floor. "I see you've been shopping. I'm envious, you know."

"Well, it's been an interesting day, to say the least," I smiled coyly, my hands on my hips as I raised my eyebrows at her.

She squinted her eyes back at me. "What does that mean? You're being very mysterious," she laughed. "Sounds like you want to tell me something intriguing." She studied my face. "All right. Spill it. Tell me everything."

I sat back down on the bed and hugged my knees. "Well, you remember the man at the cafe that you pointed out to me?"

"Of course, who could forget him? Your next bronze Adonis." She rubbed her foot and laughed, then stopped short. "Oh, wait," she squinted at me. "You met him?" She looked at the books and bag again and gaped at me incredulously as I nodded. "You actually met him? In a bookstore? You're smiling, Paige. Tell me all about it." She laughed giddily in anticipation and turned to listen as I recounted my story.

"Well. What are you going to do now?" Laura twisted up her mouth. "It seems the ball is in your court, so to speak. He has no way to get in touch with you."

"I'm not going to do anything, Laura. I don't think I'm ready." I took a deep breath. "It was just nice to find out that I was able to feel something akin to attraction again. I'm actually just content with that right now. I don't think I'll be running into him again. I mean, we're in another country, right?" I hugged my knees. "I really don't think I care to. It will just be an interesting little memory from my trip."

"I know, honey. I understand." She patted my knee. "It was nice to have a bit of adventure already in such a gorgeous place as this, though."

"Have you eaten dinner?"

"No, and I can't wait to get out of this suit and into some comfy jeans and tennis shoes." She slipped her heels back on and eyed me. "Hmm. Let's go out and have a great dinner."

"Sounds good to me."

"How about that restaurant we passed on the way back to the hotel yesterday?"

"You mean the one with the yellow awnings?"

"Yes, it looked casual, so we can wear jeans, don't you think?"

"Yes, that sounds good. In an hour?"

"Okay, I'll go to my room and change and meet you in the lobby at..." She glanced at her watch, "five thirty." She slid off the bed, grabbed her briefcase and waved me off. "Stay put, I'll let myself out. See you soon." She closed the door behind her and I rested my head on my arms and sighed.

I changed into blue jeans, a long-sleeve black tee-shirt and my white tennis shoes, and went into the bathroom to brush my hair. I eyed my reflection in the ornate gold-framed oval mirror above the white pedestal sink as I ran the brush though my hair. Yes, it had been an interesting encounter, but that was enough. I'd felt my heart skip a beat when I'd looked into his eyes, I couldn't deny that, and that was a bit exhilarating in itself. Maybe, down the road, months down the road, I'd be ready to date again if I met someone I was attracted to, but not now. I set the brush on the shelf, and checked the time as I slid my slender gold watchband onto my left wrist.

I had another twenty minutes or so to kill before meeting Laura in the lobby, so I decided to check out my other new purchase. I got myself comfortable on the bed, and retrieved the sketchbook from under the covers and flipped the stiff cardboard cover over the metal spiral spine. I stared at the pencil drawing I'd made earlier from my mental snapshot of his hands. I studied it for a minute, imagining a larger than lifesize rendition first in plasticine clay, then in bronze. I nodded to myself, pleased that I'd captured the image of the book resting in his expressive, capable-looking hands just as I'd remembered. I knew that I was seeing him with an artist's eye, but honestly, the man had gorgeous hands. I leaned down and put the Moore book and the sketchbook into the tote bag, and I pulled out the other large volume and I quickly unwrapped and stuffed the brown paper in the tote bag. I pulled up my knees and balanced the book against my legs. After admiring the cover again, I opened the book and a small folded sheet of blue notepaper slid down the page. What...what was this? I picked up the notepaper just as the phone on the nightstand rang. Without opening the note, I picked up the phone.

"Yes?"

"Paige, you won't believe this, but the minute I finished getting dressed to go out to eat, the phone rang and it was my boss."

"Oh no, that doesn't sound good." I tapped the note against the page of the book, not wanting to look at it, but wanting Laura to finish her conversation quickly so I could.

"They're meeting in the conference room in an hour to write a proposal." I could tell she was extremely agitated. Who wouldn't be? "They'll have a buffet for us, and you're welcome to join us for that, at least. It sounds like I'll be there for several more hours. What a bunch of...well, I just can't say the word. I never could curse properly, but I'm thinking it."

"Thanks, but I think I'll just go out to eat, Laura." I kept my gaze on anything other than the note. "I'm so sorry you have to work. I know you're exhausted."

"I am, and I'm just going to go down in my jeans. I don't care if they don't like it, and I plan to give them my opinion of this ridiculous night session. We're supposed to have some time to ourselves, otherwise, why have it in a place like Old Quebec in the first place," she sighed in exasperation. "Well, I'm sorry I have to cancel our dinner, Paige. I guess I'll meet you tomorrow for lunch. How's that?"

"That sounds good. And I feel so bad for you, I do."

"You enjoy your dinner, and I'll see you tomorrow."

"All right, Laura, try not to work too hard."

"Ha. You guessed my plan. Don't tell anyone," she laughed at that. "Bye, Paige."

"Bye," I sighed and hung up the phone, then turned my attention to the blue notepaper. I held it lightly in both hands and stared at it for a moment, then slid my thumb under the flap and opened it. I held my breath as I read the sprawling masculine cursive.

Mademoiselle - Meet me tonight at seven o'clock at the carriage ride station in the park on Rue de St. Louis, s'il vous plaît. - Theo

I blinked in puzzlement. Why would he have written such a cryptic note to me? Was it even meant for me? I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear and turned the note over to check for more writing, but that was it. Was it an old note, stuck in the book and forgotten? I reread the note and tilted my head in frustration. No, no, it had to be meant for me. There was no note in the book when I was flipping through the pages in the bookstore, I was sure of it. And he'd called Nicolette, hadn't he, and had her run an errand so he could finish ringing up my purchases. I knew that. It was anything but subtle, now that I thought of it. And he hadn't known my name at that point, but had called me mademoiselle. He must have written the note when he heard me talking to Nicolette at the counter. My brow furrowed as I stared at his writing, totally taken by surprise over this strange turn of events. I glanced at my watch. Should I call Laura and tell her the latest? Hmm, no, I'd told her enough as it was. I'll keep this to myself. Now, what to do about it. Meet him at the carriage ride station. Well, that was just down the street, in the opposite direction from the restaurant Laura and I had been planning on eating at tonight. Our hotel, Manoir De L'esplanade, was on Rue de St. Louis, midway between the two, so it was a short walk. What to do.

Wait a minute. Why was I even considering it? And why did he have to be so secretive about all this? If he'd really wanted to see me again, why go about it in such an odd, clandestine way. Hmm. On the other hand, he had invited me back to his bookstore, but he probably said that to all the customers. He'd probably figured I was married after I'd told him I was madame instead of mademoiselle, and he'd already inserted the note. So he probably didn't plan on meeting me after that. I tucked a strand of my hair behind my ear and twisted my mouth to the side in aggravation. This made me very uncomfortable, to say the least. Why would I want to meet a total stranger, no matter how good looking he was, to go on a carriage ride at night in a foreign city? Why would I do that? It wouldn't be prudent.

I decided to enjoy dinner out on my own, and to heck with his note. It was just a little too strange. I tossed the note into the bag and decided to ignore it. I threw on my white windbreaker and grabbed my brown shoulder bag. A nice dinner out alone would be relaxing. I was actually looking forward to it the more I thought about it, and I shut the door behind me as I left my hotel room.

Chapter III



"Merci," I glanced up at the waiter as he set my entree in front of me, then I looked down at the most lovely platter of crusted scallops, roasted red potatoes and asparagus. I sighed and buttered a slice of the crusty French bread, and set it on the side of the blue and white platter. Yes, I'd made the right decision. This looked so amazing, and I felt so bad for Laura, having to miss all of this. I sipped the chilled white wine, then picked up my fork and speared one of the scallops. As I enjoyed my meal, I gazed around the cozy, candle-lit dining room from my small table in the front corner of the restaurant, next to the large, multi-sashed window, while the lively sounds of an accordion wafted in from an adjoining room. I half-listened to the mix of French and English conversations and the laughter of couples that seemed to dominate the clientele. I felt a slight pang in my chest, somewhat jealous now of what I knew they shared. The bond of someone else knowing you so well, of easy companionship. The couple at the table next to me laughed as they held their glasses of wine and leaned in towards each other, as if they were the only two in the room. I returned my gaze to my entree and ate a small wedge of roasted potato and chewed as my mind drifted to the past. I missed that easy companionship. I missed Dan. I missed the comfortable romantic relationship with someone you know so well. But I did realize, if I were truly honest with myself, that I was slowly evolving from that grieving widow that I'd been, and I was finally emerging from the pervasive notion that the world had continued to spin as I was frozen in time. That all of mankind should have somehow halted their frenetic lives and acknowledge my loss. But my emergence had been gradual, and I wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

"Is the meal to your liking?" My waiter's thick French accent made him seem all the more appealing and I smiled up at him.

"It's wonderful. Merci."

He nodded pleasantly and left me to finish my meal, and I spent the next half hour finishing my entree and enjoying a dessert of cheesecake and coffee as I listened to the sounds of the accordion as the musician entered the dining room and wove slowly around the tables. It was with reluctance that I finally slipped on my jacket, paid my tab, and left the establishment.

The evening air was clear and cool, and I zipped up my windbreaker as I maneuvered around a middle-aged couple standing together on the sidewalk, oblivious to me, reading the restaurant's outdoor menu posted on the stone facade. I brushed my hair back from my cheek and continued up the steep incline toward my hotel, peering into the colorful, flower-laden windows of the various shops I passed, and I noticed the families and couples in the softly-lit park across the street, some sitting on the many benches dotting the park, or roaming around the statues further in.

I heard the leisurely clop-clop-clop of a horse and carriage on the cobblestoned street perpendicular to Rue de St. Louis and I paused at the corner as the ornate open black and gold carriage, pulled by two dappled gray horses passed by. The driver had turned from his high perch in the front to speak to the occupants of the carriage, two couples facing each other, a red plaid blanket tucked across their knees, and I smiled as I watched them laugh at whatever he'd said to them. The image of Theo, standing behind the counter, tapping his finger, suddenly appeared in my mind, and I frowned and lifted my chin and took a deep breath. Yes, it was a good thing I'd decided to ignore his note. There was no point in meeting him. I couldn't come up with one good reason to convince myself that I should join him at the carriage station, the gold lights of which I could now see in the distance as I neared the hotel. I didn't know the man. The very mild flirtation at his bookstore was enough.

I glanced at my watch as I neared the entrance to Manoir De L'esplanade. It was six, fifty-five now, and I dug my hands into the pockets of my jacket. I paused at the door to the hotel for just a second, and for some inexplicable reason, continued walking up the street toward the carriage station. Perhaps he wouldn't be there and I would just turn around and come back, climb into bed, and finish reading my book on Henry Moore. Or, it was such a beautiful night, perhaps I'd take a carriage ride on my own. I could do that. I was used to going places and doing things alone now. If he happened to be there, I could cut things short, and head back to the hotel, and be done with thinking about all of it. The more I thought about it the more I was sure that he'd been surprised when I told him I was madame, and even more certain that he wouldn't show up.

I was slightly winded as I reached the top of the street, and was glad that it leveled out in front of the carriage station, and I turned left and walked onto a brick path and under a metal arch that served as the entrance. There were several benches ringing a circular gravel drive, and a gazebo-type wood structure stood in the middle of a grassy area in the center. There was one carriage parked at the far back of the drive, and the two black horses snorted as they pawed the ground. I didn't see anyone, and I looked around me. There was a small building to the left of the entrance and I walked over to it, my hands dug in my pockets. I was glad I'd worn my jacket, as the air was starting to cool down a bit. Just as I approached, a burly middle-aged man, dressed in jeans and a blue plaid shirt, came out of the building and walked towards me, holding a white mug of what I assumed was coffee in his left hand.

"I am the owner. You are interested in a ride, mademoi...?"

"Madame."

"Madame?"

He seemed pleasant enough, and he spoke with a thick French accent, which I was beginning to become accustomed to, even in my short time here.

"I'm thinking about it," I smiled at him and he returned the smile, then took a swig of his coffee. "How much is it, and how long is the ride?"

"Forty-five minutes for the tour within and around the walled city, and the cost is twenty-five dollars. Canadian dollars." I nodded as he waved his large hand toward the carriage at the back of the circular drive. "We have one carriage available now, if you like. The driver will be right out if you are interested. It would be the last ride of the night," he added, as an extra incentive, I'm sure. He put his left hand on his hip and took another swig of coffee, awaiting my decision.

"Well, all right." I took a deep breath. "I'll take that carriage, then."

He looked past me toward the entrance.

"Will you be joined by any others?" he asked me seriously. "Our carriages seat four."

"No, no. It's just me." I reached for my purse. "Do I pay now?"

"Non, pay when you return from your tour."

"All right, thank you. Merci." I murmured, not quite sure why I was doing this. Well, Laura was working, and I'd had my fill of reading and sketching this afternoon, so a nice, calm ride around the city would be enjoyable. I was well aware that there was no Theo is sight, and of that I was actually quite relieved, and feeling a little foolish, in all honesty, for having been concerned about that in the first place.

We both turned as we heard footsteps on the gravel.


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