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Authors: Jessica Brockmole

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BOOK: At the Edge of Summer
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“Oh, that's not what I meant.”

“It's what you said,” I shot back. “One more person who doesn't want the burden of having me around.”

“Now you're twisting what I'm saying.”

“I heard your
maman
say that she didn't think my place was here.” I swung my legs out of the window. “Don't worry. I'll find someone who does. I'll find someone who cares.”

I slid down the roof to my own window, only realizing after that Luc hadn't answered my question about the painting, the whole reason I'd gone looking for him. But what did I expect him to say? Confess that he'd kept things from me? Confess that, all along, my mother had been a train ride away?

I opened the door to my room. The little brown-eyed maid was in the hallway right outside my door, looking concerned. Clearly, she'd heard the shouting all the way from Luc's room upstairs. “Please tell Madame that I am feeling unwell tonight. I won't take any supper, thank you. Tell her I will be going to bed early.”

The maid left and I pulled my small travel valise from the wardrobe. I filled it quickly, watching the door, afraid she would come back in. I buttoned up my new gray jacket and tucked in my little purse of money. From the valise, I took a yellowed envelope. In the corner was an inked fleur-de-lis. I opened it and, in my coat and hat, read the short note inside, though I could recite it by heart.

My Clare, I must go, to see the world, to find the art that I lost long ago. It's no longer in Scotland. I'll wilt away here if I stay. Forgive me.

I folded the note, folded the envelope, and put it in my coat pocket. Maybe she found that art. Maybe I could find her.

I slipped from my room and down the back staircase to the kitchen. Marthe was out cutting herbs, so no one saw me leave the kitchen and Mille Mots.

I only had the faintest idea of how to get to the train station. When Madame had brought me to Mille Mots all those weeks ago, it had been in a borrowed automobile, my first. I retraced my steps as best I could, along the river, through a village, up a ridge, until I saw the gleam of train tracks in the distance.

The waiting room at the station was empty, but there was one more train to Paris due.

“You can wait outside on the platform,” the stationmaster said.

I patted my pocket to be sure I had my small purse and stepped outside.

But the station wasn't empty. I saw, in the shadow of the platform, a pale suit.

“Mademoiselle.” Luc's friend stepped from the shadow, wheeling a motorbike. “Or, as we say in my country, ‘fräulein.' ” He touched his chest. “Stefan Bauer.”

“Ah, yes.” I looked back over my shoulder. “How do you do?”

He followed my glance. “Are you being followed, fräulein?”

“Yes.” I shifted the valise in my hands. “I mean, no.”

“May I?” He gestured towards my bag.

I hesitated, then handed it to him. “I'm going to Paris, too.”

“How exciting for you.” His English was so correct, like I imagined the king's to be. “Visiting friends?”

Hands behind my back, I crossed my fingers. “Visiting family.”

He leaned forward, almost confidentially. “All alone? You are brave, fräulein.”

“I'm not alone right now, sir.” I hoped I sounded confident.

“No, you are not.” He offered an arm. “You are certainly not.”

S
tefan Bauer was a gentleman. After he loaded his motorbike, he led me onto the train. He found a quiet carriage and spread out a clean handkerchief for me to sit on. I watched as he hung his hat and patted his jacket pockets, finding a little candy tin. Though the car was empty, he sat right next to me and offered a sweet.

“The family you are visiting…Luc did not say you had family who lived in Paris.”

I pressed my pocket to hear the crinkle of the envelope. “My mother is there.” He glanced down at my hand over the pocket. “I just have to find her.”

“Fräulein.” He took my hand in his. It was cool and dry, like paper. “You have my help.”

“I do?”

He inched closer. “I told you before, you are not alone.”

His kindness unraveled me. Holding tight to his hand, I began to cry.

They weren't the sort of tears I'd been saving up since Father's death, but tears of frustration and loneliness that had been building since I left Mille Mots. I cried because maybe I could have found my mother weeks ago, if someone had only told me, and I cried because, for a guilty instant, I wondered if I really wanted to.

“Please no tears. I could not bear it.” Mr. Bauer cupped my face and wiped an eye with a thumb. “There, please.”

His hands smelled clean, like soap. “You're so kind, sir.”

“Please, I am Stefan.” He smiled. “We are friends now, aren't we?”

I bit my lip.

“I would very much like you to be my friend, fräulein.”

I decided. “Then I will tell you the truth. I don't know where my mother is, not exactly.” I sniffed. “You see, there's a painting.”

The story came tumbling out in bits and pieces. What I'd overheard, what I still didn't know, even what Luc had hurled at me in our last fight. Mr. Bauer listened gravely, shaking his head and exclaiming in all of the right spots.

When I finished, he handed me a spare handkerchief. “Luc would not help you, this is clear.” He nodded. “He is not so much a man.”

Luc wasn't, was he? More a boy, as I thought of him. Stealing treats from the kitchen. Hiking through the woods, singing American jazz songs. Drawing when he thought no one was looking.

“Ah, but we are arriving in Paris.” He stood to take his hat down. “Come with me. We will find you somewhere to stay for the night.”

—

H
e had an aunt in the city, he told me. “She is a generous woman. She will have a bed for you for the night.”

In the dark outside of the Gare du Nord, I took a step backwards onto the pavement. “You do not live in Paris?” As little as I knew him, he was the only familiar thing in this city of cobbles and streetlamps and fog. “But I thought…”

He smiled and his teeth gleamed white in the dim. “I live at the university. There are no accommodations for young ladies there.”

“Luc's university?”

He nodded.

Luc. Suddenly I wasn't as angry with him as I'd been on the train ride. I'd always imagined that he'd be the one to first show me Paris. “Maybe I should go back to Mille Mots. For tonight, at least.”

He let me go to the window and inquire. He looked contrite when I came back to tell him that there were no more trains to Railleuse that day.

“A hotel?” I had seen a picture in a magazine once, of a hotel lobby, tiled and glittering with chandeliers and electric light. “Perhaps, sir, if I could only borrow some money…” I was instantly embarrassed by my request, but he seemed to consider this. With his smart suit and the motorbike he leaned against, surely he had the funds.

He touched his pocket, but then inclined his head regretfully. “I wish, fräulein, that I could help you more.”

“You've helped me already, Mr. Bauer. I shouldn't have asked for more.” His earnest gaze flustered me. “Already I am in your debt.”

Something in his eyes lit. “My debt?”

“Of course all I have to offer in return are a few sketches and some questionable French.” I tried for a joke, but it felt stifled. “Sir, if there is a way I could repay you, I will.”

“I think you are too kind to me.” He paused, suddenly thoughtful. “I mentioned Lili. My aunt. She lives nearby. Yes, that would be best, I think.” Again solicitous, he smiled. “She has plenty of rooms and welcomes visitors. It would only be for tonight, yes?”

I nodded. I had no idea.

“Fräulein, I do not wish to leave you friendless on the streets of Paris.” He offered his arm. “They can be a very dangerous place.”

I hesitated. I took it.

Mr. Bauer left his motorbike at the station and secured a taxi. His aunt didn't live far, he was right. In the time it took me to decide that, yes, I would return to Mille Mots on the earliest train, the taxi slowed in front of a nondescript building.

I waited in the dark taxi, ignoring the stares of the driver, while Mr. Bauer went to a door and spoke with a woman in an ice blue dress. She must have been on her way out for the evening, as she hustled us in and made us wait while she straightened her earrings in the hall mirror. She was a lovely woman, with a rhinestone comb in her hair and masses of chiffon flowers along the dipping neckline of her dress. Mr. Bauer introduced her as “Tante Lili” and kissed her on the cheek.

The front hall showed a house shabby but with a faded elegance. A chandelier in need of a dusting, a mirrored hat stand with a man's derby, and a somewhat bald velveteen sofa. A man in ill-fitting livery came through a swinging door balancing a tray with little glasses full of golden liquid. I'd never been offered an aperitif and certainly not in the front hall. I shook my head no, but Tante Lili took one from the tray and pressed it into my hands. I took a sip. Whatever it was, it was bitter and made my tongue feel warm. Mr. Bauer drank two in quick succession.

As Tante Lili pinched her cheeks, she spoke rapidly to her nephew in French. I wondered why they didn't speak German. It was all so strange and I was beginning to get a headache. I took another sip. Beneath the bitterness I tasted sweet oranges.

Finally Tante Lili broke off talking with a wave of her hand. She bustled away through the swinging door the manservant had used.

Mr. Bauer looked suddenly uncertain. “Would you please like to sit?”

“Here?” Was there to be no supper? No drawing room?

“If you would like.” He pulled off his cap. In the gesture he looked younger. “We could talk. We do not know each other well.”

I set my glass on the hat stand. “If you please, I would like to be shown to my room, Mr. Bauer. It has been a tiring day.”

He set his cap down next to my glass. “I had hoped for more time to become friends.”

Tante Lili returned then with a bottle to refill the glasses. I glanced up the dark staircase.

She smiled and called me a dear waif, or so he said. “She does not speak English, but she said you can stay. She asked if you would like to see the bedroom.”

“Please.” I tightened my grip on the valise. “I would like that very much.”

Tante Lili laughed at this and then pinched my cheek.

I stepped backwards, but Mr. Bauer caught my arm and said, “She will show you to your room.”

She rolled her eyes at him and he followed up the stairs with my valise. We passed shadowed portraits on the stairway, portraits of couples, of dancers. Not as fine a quality as Monsieur Crépet's, I could tell that much, but when I paused to look, Mr. Bauer put a hand on my shoulder and steered me up. Tante Lili giggled, high like a girl.

The room was plain, with a narrow bed and none-too-clean blanket. A washstand and a stool with a pillow were the only other furnishings. Mr. Bauer put my valise on the bed as Tante Lili bustled out to fill the water pitcher. I was exhausted.

“You must rest, please. Tomorrow we will begin the search for your mother.”

Though I felt more alone in this place than I ever had at Mille Mots, I forced a smile. “Sir, I thank you.”

He frowned. “Please, Stefan. And I can call you Clare.”

I held my coat tight. “Maybe.”

He looked back over his shoulder at the open doorway. “Fräulein…Clare. You appreciate my help, yes?”

“Yes, very much.”

He turned back to me, took a step closer, and I realized how tall he was, taller even than Luc. “And if all I asked for in return was your friendship?”

Tante Lili pushed through the doorway in a slide of satin and a cloud of perfume. She glared at Mr. Bauer—Stefan—and set the pitcher on the washstand. He met her glare and something seemed to pass between them.

“I will leave you to your washing,” he said with a stiff bow, following Tante Lili out. I heard whispering behind the closed door, but then the hallway was finally silent.

I let out a breath I didn't know I'd been holding. It wasn't late, but the night already seemed too long. I slipped from my jacket and looked around for a wardrobe or, at the very least, a peg, but saw nowhere to hang it. There wasn't even, I realized, a chest of drawers in the room. Guests must not stay long at Tante Lili's. I tossed the jacket onto the bed. My hat I unpinned and set on the shelf of the washstand.

I filled the washbasin. I didn't see any soap, but there was a towel that looked clean and I washed my face and neck. My face in the mirror was pale. I unbuttoned my dress, one of the new ones Madame had ordered for me, with carved buttons that ran all the way down the front.

The dress, I smoothed out and draped on the bed next to my coat. I slipped from my petticoats and shook them out. I unsnapped the valise and found my folded nightgown. It was the only thing I'd packed apart from a clean pair of socks, my comb, and Mother's letter in the pocket of my coat. In only my combinations and elastic corset, I stood in front of the mirrored washstand. I untied my ribbon and ran hands through my hair. It was damp at the temples. My head ached.

In the mirror, with the door ajar, I saw Stefan Bauer watching me.

I whirled around and wrapped my arms around myself. “Stefan.”

He actually smiled at that and pushed the door open farther. “It is Stefan now?” He stepped into the room. “Ah, it is nice when you say that.”

“Don't come in here.” I backed up into the washstand. Water sloshed out of the basin against my back. “Please.”

“I am sure you don't think I would hurt you, fräulein.” He set an empty glass on the wooden stool. I wondered how many times it had been refilled. “I want only to say good night.”

My arms broke out in goose bumps. “Why were you watching me?”

“Clare.” He licked his lips. “You are nice to watch.”

I felt behind me until the hat pin scratched across my hand. I grabbed it and swung it out in front of me.

“Please!” he cried, but took a step back.

“I'll stab out your eye.” Holding the long pin in front of me, I circled back towards the bed. “I will.” He moved farther into the room.

“Please, I do not wish to hurt you.” He held up his hands, palms out. “You will see I have no weapons.”

The backs of my knees hit the bed.

“Clare.” He looked at my hat pin, then looked at my face. “We are friends.”

With my other hand, I felt behind me for the linen of my jacket and the cracked leather of the small valise.

“I wish only to become better friends.” He took two steps across the room. “Rotkäppchen, I am not a wolf. You are safe with me.”

I hooked fingers into the handle of the valise and swung it up towards him.

It wasn't a big swing, but I was near enough that it hit him in the face. Even almost empty, it made a thud. He cried out and stumbled back against the stool. The glass fell and shattered. My stockings slithered out of the bag. I swung it again, this time letting go. I heard a thump and a crack, but didn't stay to see where I had hit. Snatching up my jacket and dress in a bundle of cloth, I fled the room.

Downstairs, Tante Lili sat on the velveteen sofa with a man, her dress unfastened to the waist. She winked at me as I passed. Upstairs, I heard a string of German curses.

BOOK: At the Edge of Summer
9.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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