Frank Ballard memorized the mane of chestnut hair, the slope of back to slim waist, and the way the mademoiselle’s hips moved under the fabric of her skirt. In his mind’s eye, he buried his face in soft curls smelling of lavender and explored forbidden territory. He enjoyed this pastime until she turned around.
Seillans, France, the sidewalk cafe, the iron balconies dripping bougainvillea, and the scent of cherry laden trees became background noise. A muddy stain spread across the white tablecloth as his coffee cup slipped from his hand.
Forty feet away in the town square the unattainable had materialized. Frank didn’t need pheromones to tell him that by some twist of the supernatural, he looked into the perfect features of an angel. Her oil painting, blazing with strokes of bold color, couldn’t match the shimmer of radiance surrounding her. She had been constructed in his mind many times, but as fate would have it, couldn’t have been more than a child of sixteen or seventeen.
Not one to dwell on life’s injustice, he got up from his chair. Purchasing her painting was the least he could do. Besides, a beauty of her magnitude wouldn’t give a man twenty years older a second glance.
He tucked his newspaper under his arm and strolled over. “Do you speak English?”
She shook her head no.
Motioning at her work, he spoke slowly, as if it would make a difference in her understanding. “I...would...like...to...buy...your...painting.”
She shrugged her shoulders.
He moved into her personal space. She did indeed smell of lavender. “Is your painting for sale?” he asked louder. She still looked puzzled.
A teenaged boy wearing hiking boots and a backpack sauntered up. “She’s not deaf, just French.”
“You speak the language?”
“Good. Ask her if the painting is for sale...no wait. Ask her what her name is.”
The kid lifted his lip in a sneer. “You’re kinda old to be hitting on her.”
“Just ask her.”
“Do you want her phone number too? Cause I can get it.”
He thinks he’s super-
Frank leaned toward the junior interpreter. “Listen closely.” He wrapped his arm around the kid’s neck and spoke quietly to emphasize his request. “All I want you to do is ask what her name is and can I buy her painting. That’s all, no more, no less.”
“Yeah?” He pushed Frank’s arm away. “I could tell her anything and you wouldn’t know what I was saying.”
“If she answers with anything but her name and yes or no, you’re a dead pimple popper.” Frank opened his jacket and flashed his National Security Agency badge. “Remember, you little bastard, you’re in a foreign country and by the bug-
The kid backed up a step. “Hey Dude, I was just messin’ with you.”
“Hey Dude. Ask her,” he said, his voice flat.
The kid turned to the beauty, flashed her a smile which reflected a fortune in orthodontic work, and rattled off a stream of French words Frank took to mean: The old fart wants to know your name. You don’t have to tell him. I’ll just get rid of him and we can go some place quiet for lunch. He placed a hand on Pimple Popper’s shoulder and squeezed. The kid winced. Her eyes met Frank’s. He leaned into the chocolate depths.
She spoke and the divine rejoiced. “Yes...for sale.”
“You speak English?” they asked in unison.
She held her thumb and index finger slightly apart. “Little.”
Frank pushed his translator away. “I won’t be needing you.”
The kid stumbled and then regained his composure. “Yeah? Then why didn’t she speak up before?”
“Did your parents send you here to find yourself or get rid of you?”
Pimple Popper gave him a one-
She smiled at Frank, obviously enjoying her own joke.
He smiled back and offered his hand. “Frank Ballard.”
She took it. “Gabrielle Bouchard.”
They stood holding the handshake a moment too long. She pulled her hand away and lowered her eyes. He cleared his throat. “Can I purchase your painting?”
Gabrielle looked up at him. “No finish...tomorrow...or next day.”
“I can wait.”
The clock on the tower chimed.
“Must go.” She tucked her brushes and palette into a small black case and folded the easel into a canvas carrier.
Where is she going? He tried to carry her things. “May I help?”
She hurried away and disappeared down a narrow street. The air was, all at once, ordinary, and the beauty of the place reduced to old buildings and uneven streets. He shielded his eyes and looked up. The cloudless sky seemed harsh. Tomorrow, Gabrielle had said. How could he wait that long?
The next morning Frank paced in front of the café. Patience had never been one of his strong qualities. He hurried across the square to the street that had swallowed Gabrielle the day before. No sign of her.
What if she doesn’t come? How would he find her again? What if she’s married? Couldn’t be. She’s a child. Maybe he should walk down the street. But wasn’t that sophomoric?
“Sonnava...I’m turning into a teenager.”
He could feel eyes watching him and looked up at the buildings. Every window had a head in it. He turned on his heels and walked back to the café. “Yes, I’m a crazy American with too much time on my hands,” he mumbled.
The café proprietor, Henri, a wiry man with a mustache and knowing smile, opened and started sweeping the sidewalk. Fresh-
The proprietor brought him coffee and a croissant. “Eat,” he said.
“I’m not hungry, but thank you.”
“She will come.”
Frank studied his face. “Tell me about her.”
“Ahhh...she is exquisite, no?”
“Her papa is very strict. She is well past the age of marriage.”
“She’s a child.”
“No.” He shook his head. “Gabrielle will soon be twenty.”
“Twenty,” Frank echoed. That would make him seventeen years older. Doable.
Customers started filling the tables. The owner excused himself and went to take care of other patrons. Frank knocked the fire off the end of his cigarette, stuck it back in the pack, and took a big gulp of coffee. At the very moment he decided he wasn’t a pervert, Gabrielle appeared in the square with her painting and supplies. She looked in his direction and smiled. The way the air sparkled made it hard to breathe. He swallowed hard and waived Henri over. “How does she take her coffee?”
The proprietor wiggled his mustache and asked, “Take?”
Frank motioned to the cup. “Uh, what does she put in her coffee?”
“Could you bring me another and one for Gabrielle?”
He left and came back with a tray of coffee and pastry.
“The mademoiselle’s favorite,” he whispered in conspiracy.
Frank paid him double. “Could I borrow the table and chairs?”
“Oui,” he said and grabbed a chair.”
Frank laid the second chair on the table, picked up both, and followed Henri to the center of the square. He set the table beside her easel and bowed. It was the only thing he could think to do. When he straightened up and looked into her face, she grinned at him in amusement.
“What is this?”
“Mademoiselle needs nourishment so that she will not faint from her labor.”
He pulled her chair out and explained, “Please join me for breakfast.”
She sat down. “Thank you.”
He hurried around to his chair and sat down. Her killer smile hit him low and hard. He suppressed the urge to lean across the pastry and taste those lips, but drank his coffee instead and made a face. “I think I got yours.”
She tasted hers and nodded affirmative. He switched the cups and offered her a pastry. “Henri said they were your favorite.”
“He wishes for you to make a good...how you say?...uh...”
“Oui. That is it.”
“Am I succeeding?”
She leveled the full blast at him, teeth and all. “Oui.”
A strolling minstrel circled them and droned a French love song, stopping their conversation. Frank looked over at the café and saw the entire staff and morning coffee drinkers watching.
Is this a community affair?
The singer leaned over and continued his medley.
Gabrielle nibbled at a pastry.
The singer took a breath.
Frank used the lull as an opportunity to ask, “What is the name of my new painting?”
She put the pastry down and licked a dainty finger. He salivated unexpectedly.
“It is called Passion,” she said.
He tried to speak and swallow at the same time, choked on his own saliva, and couldn’t take a breath. Smiling weakly, he turned his head, and coughed. It didn’t work. Holes formed in his vision and needles pricked the ends of his fingers signaling a lack of oxygen. Embarrassment became the least of his worries. Dying on their first date turned into a possibility. His decreased lung capacity from years of smoking made him vow to stop, right then and there. Not another coffin nail would ever touch his lips.
Just let me take a breath.
He pushed back from the table and tried to force air into his lungs. His windpipe closed. The pavement rose to meet him. Thirty-
I can hear. I can’t be dead.
His eyes opened. He lay on a bed of cobblestones with his head in her lap and her mouth inches from his. This wasn’t exactly how he would want the date to progress, but it would do.
A crowd from the café had gathered to see if he would live. Satisfied, they strolled back to their tables, the day’s excitement over. She helped him get up and sit in the chair.
“You need to lie down.”
He shook his head. “I’m fine.”
“You come home with me. I take care of you.”
Did she say, come home with me?
“I am a little dizzy.” He clutched the edge of the table for effect.
Seillans was becoming his favorite assignment. He knew it would be a piece of cake. All he had to do was take a vacation on the government dollar and do a couple of hours of work each day. And now, Gabrielle, the girl of his dreams, was taking him home with her like a lost puppy. Could life get any better?
Gabrielle handed her black case to the minstrel, on medley standby, and motioned to the painting. “Bring it.”
She helped Frank up and put an arm around his waist to steady him. He draped his arm across her shoulders and let her lead him across the square and down her street. They stopped at a pale blue door set deep into a wall; the arched top was dissected into eight panes of glass. Lace concealed the interior of her home. Outside, flat against the wall, mahogany stained shutters could be closed to traffic for privacy. Large pots of geraniums graced either side. The flesh colored plaster walls gave no clue where one home ended and the next began.
The door through which she came and went everyday was exactly as he had envisioned. It had a beauty that deepened with time, as he knew her beauty would. He pulled out of her grasp, unable to go farther.
She looked at him with questions. “Come. I make for you food.”
“I don’t want to impose.”
“Yes.” She stood her ground.
He couldn’t believe the words coming out of his mouth but felt if he crossed the threshold, his life would never be the same. Was it fear of commitment? No. Protection. The wall around his heart cracked. She inflicted serious damage to it with just a smile. He ran from emotional investment and learned at an early age that the returns were nonexistent. What she could take from him was far more dangerous than the one-
He turned and walked back toward the square.
“Frank Ballard,” she called after him.
His step slowed.
“You are afraid.”
He faced her. She walked up to him. Tears blurred his vision. He willed them to stop.
“You are alone because someone has hurt you.”
Gabrielle was amazingly beautiful. And now he recognized why. Her beauty went through to the bone. The sun had nothing to do with the light in her eyes. It originated from within.
She put her hand over his heart. “Mon Cheri, life waits. Should we begin?”
Frank couldn’t have walked away if he had been given a direct order from the President. He followed her through the door into her life, dragging the unfortunate parts of his own, his faults, his preconceived ideas, and his occupation. As far as he could see, she didn’t have any faults. Maybe one, she liked him.
Frank sat at her kitchen table and fell over the edge of infatuation into a hopeless quagmire of love. Gabrielle fed him beef stew made with wine, mushrooms, and black olives, a fragrant concoction called Estouffade A La Nicoise. She slathered butter on crusty bread and tempted him with red wine from the Var. When all his senses were in overload, her papa came home.
As Frank’s rival came into the kitchen, the room filled with animosity. Gabrielle’s father kissed her on the forehead and glared at him.
Frank stood and extended his hand. “How do you do? Frank Ballard.”
He almost said sir, but thought better of it. Gabrielle’s father appeared to be strong and agile with a fierce sense of possession, and about Frank’s age.
“Jacque Bouchard,” he said, and grasped Frank’s hand in a vice grip.
Unwilling to seem weak, Frank gave back as good as he received.
Gabrielle stepped between them and broke their tug of war as their knuckles turned white. “Papa, stop.” She pulled her father out of the kitchen by his sleeve.
Raised voices came from the hallway. Frank never knew a person could sound angry in French and it appeared Gabrielle was winning. She was so much more than he expected. Behind those eyes lived wisdom and knowledge of people. She knew him and still accepted him.
Frank decided to stay and swung a leg over the chair and sat down. Without a doubt, this stew was the best he had ever tasted. What else could she make? As he sopped the gravy with his bread a life of French cooking and making love to a beautiful woman came into view except that the one person standing in his way would not give in easily.
Jacque came back into the room, defiant but subdued with Gabrielle following close behind, pushing him along, victorious for the moment.
Frank wiped his mouth and stood. Several comments rolled through his mind, none of which would have diffused the situation. He settled on, “Thank you for your hospitality.” He took Gabrielle’s hand in his. “I will be forever grateful to your daughter for saving my life.”
Her father stared at their clasp hands. Frank let go and Gabrielle busied herself clearing the table.
Jacque sat down. “My daughter tells me you choked on your spit.”
“Papa!” She sloshed his bowl of stew onto the table.
Papa sighed. “Excuse my rudeness.” He motioned for Frank to sit.
He sat. “I’m afraid she’s right. We were discussing my purchase of her painting and....” He stopped short of finishing his sentence. She was shaking her head no behind her father’s back.
“You must be mistaken. Gabrielle’s paintings are not for sale.” He looked up at her as she filled her own bowl. “She paints only for the Holy Father and will someday be betrothed to the Church.”
“Uh...that’s what she said. Betrothed.”
Locking that face and body behind a convent door was inconceivable. Gabrielle’s father wanted to condemn her to a life on her knees counting beads. The man was a total nutcase. “Commendable. Giving up your hopes and dreams for the Church.” Frank directed his statement at Gabrielle. “Not many women make the sacrifice.”
She sat at the table and concentrated on the contents of her bowl. Sadness settled around her eyes. “Non.”
Jacque patted his daughter’s hand. “Not sacrifice, is privilege.”
Frank didn’t get the privilege thing, give up sex, take a vow of poverty, and spend your every waking moment in servitude to a church that tells you when to get up, how to spend your time, and when to go to bed. “I’m confused. How is servitude a privilege?”
“You are not Catholic?”
Frank wasn’t Catholic or anything else. Belief in the Almighty had never been fostered in him as a child. He never saw the inside of a church until his mother died. The impression of that day had burned itself into his sixteen-
“It is understandable.”
Jacques words brought him back to the present. “What?”
“Your confusion.” Jacque pushed his bowl away. “You are not Catholic. You are heathen.”
Her father’s look silenced her. “This man tricked you into letting him into our home. He is unprincipled and not to be trusted. Any union you have with him would be unholy.” He turned his back to Frank and softened his voice. “Cheri, what better life than one lived for God?”
“I do not know. I will never know if I do not experience it!”
Frank decided he was witnessing the continuation of an old argument. Any man who threatened Gabrielle’s induction into Nunship, or whatever it was called, was a threat. Jacque didn’t realize how big a threat. If anything, Frank was persistent. He drained his glass and filled it again. “I think she should make her own decision.”
Jacque whipped around to face him. “What you think does not matter.”
Frank decided against a snappy retort. Spontaneous combustion might be a problem if Daddy got any hotter and causing him a coronary would not endear himself to Gabrielle. Their relationship, if they had one, was too new to push it.
He changed tactics and stood up. “I am sorry for intruding. Thank you for the meal and the wine. It has rejuvenated my spirit as well as my body.” He offered his hand to Gabrielle and got the reaction he wanted. Her eyes glistened.
“You are not leaving.”
“I have caused an argument. I’m sorry.”
She ignored his outstretched hand and came around the table. “Non. You are not well enough.”
Jacque looked hopeful. “He is standing is he not?”
She touched his forehead. Waves of desire surged through his body. He felt the blood rushing to Mr. Woody. Not now! He leaned forward to keep the bulge in his pants from showing. His crotch was eye level with Jacque’s face.
“You have a fever.”
He took her hand away. “Fine. I’m fine.” He buttoned his jacket and shuffled toward the door.
Jacque said under his breath, “He moves like an old man.”
The look she gave her father would have boiled lobsters. She followed him to the front door. “I am concerned for your health. Please stay a while longer.”
At the door he took her hand and kissed it. “Tomorrow, Mon Cheri. There is always tomorrow.” He strolled down the alley, Mr. Woody leading the way.
His cell phone played the William Tell overture. He unclipped it from his belt and pushed the answer button. “Yo.”
“How very American of you. I assume “yo” means hello.”
His blood cooled at the sound of his French contact’s voice. “Yes, hello.”
“I see you are availing yourself of the local attractions.”
Frank stopped at the end of the street and glanced around. “Yes, the Café Chouquetterie serves good coffee.”
“Full bodied, no doubt.”
He ignored the implied insult of Gabrielle’s character. “What do you want?”
“Be in Paris tomorrow at one p.m. Travel north on rue Vivienne to boulevard Montmarte. Across the street from the Passage des Panoramas on the north side is Passage Jouffroy at number 12. Enter the passage and go to the shop Galerie Segas. Ask to see Clemenceau, the Tigre.”
He dug a Palm Pilot out of his jacket. “Say again.”
“One pm. The Galerie Segas. Specify Clemenceau, the Tigre.”
The line went dead. He opened the memo window and scribbled with the stylist. The time on the Palm Pilot read almost two o’clock. By the time he got a flight out of Montpellier, it would take seven or eight hours to reach Paris. He looked down the street at Gabrielle’s door. What were they thinking? His work in Seillans shouldn’t be interrupted.
Frank hailed a taxi at the De Gaulle Airport, got in and said, “Take me to a hotel close to the Passage Jouffroy.”
The cabbie grunted, “yes,” and took off faster than the 747 Frank had just departed.
He clutched the door to keep from being whipped side to side as the driver darted in and out of traffic. In a matter of minutes they pulled up to the entrance of Passage Jouffroy.
“The Hotel Chopin is close enough?”
“This will work.” He let go his grip on the door, got out and paid the fare. “Where’s the entrance to the hotel?” he asked through the passenger window,
The cabbie motioned at the passage, “Inside,” and sped away from the curb as if late for dinner.
Frank stood on the sidewalk clutching his bags and staring into the passage which looked more like an ally with shops crammed together side by side. He glanced at his watch, almost 10 p.m.
As he stepped from the concrete onto the tile floor of the passage, lights winked out as the shop owners shut down for the evening. The glass sky hovered close and black. Storefronts, decorated with ornate pilasters and cast iron, rose two stories. On the left he passed Le Royal Café and Boutique les Tuniques, a store stocked with blouses, shirts and scarves. Across the passage stood, Galerie Segas, where he would be expected at one pm tomorrow.
He moved close to the glass and peered in. There were canes everywhere, plain and intricate. Some sat in holders, others hung on walls. A few were carefully displayed behind glass, and half a dozen had been stuck in a French horn in the window.
They pulled me away from my work in Seillans to visit a cane shop?
He shook his head and moved past the Thomas Boog shop with its abundance of seashell art jewelry and furniture. On the left were three toy stores. A man hurried out of the door of Borte a Joujoux and bustled toward rue Montmartre. Frank called after him, “Where is Hotel Chopin?”
“Monsieur, I must hurry. It is at the end, next to Grenier a Livres.” His feet echoed on the tile until he reached the entrance.
Frank quickened his step after he watched the man leave and saw a guard at the street entrance close and lock the gate to the Passage.
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