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Authors: Jessica Brockmole

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BOOK: At the Edge of Summer
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“Luc!” Maman came bustling from the kitchen door. “I thought you weren't coming until tomorrow.” She set a plate of cakes by Papa and wiped her hands on her skirt.

“I like to surprise you, Maman.”

I was sure she didn't believe me, but she walked heavily across the lawn, her gold earrings twinkling. “Even a cat is full of more surprises than you,
mon poussin.

“I was eager to be here.” I didn't meet the demoiselle's eyes.

I did see the look in Maman's, though, and it drew hard. “I see.”

“I was bringing Papa a new package of Conté pencils,” I said quickly. “Number threes.” I dug into my satchel for the wooden box. “The last time I was here, I saw he was out of them.”

Maman frowned at the elegant case, but held out a hand for the pencils.

The copy of
Tales of Passed Times
I left in my satchel, but I touched it once through the canvas.

“I should go to greet Papa,” I said, as though I hadn't walked from the Railleuse train station only to see Clare Ross again. Maman watched me with eyes inscrutable. I bowed, quickly and stiffly, and walked away.

I
'd waited for two weeks for Luc to come home from Paris. I wanted to hear more about Uncle Jules and his parrots. I wanted to talk about castles and ogres. I wanted to hear that funny, teasing Luc I'd found in the letters.

But the boy who came unexpectedly from the train station, buttoned up tight in his black suit with a school satchel over his shoulders, he was someone altogether different. He looked like a banker, not a pirate. Dark amid the breath and color of Mille Mots. I thought for a moment he looked happy to see me, but something changed in the time it took me to cross the lawn to greet him. He called me “mademoiselle,” as though we weren't becoming closer than that. And then he kept himself at a distance.

So when, early the next morning, I looked through my window and saw Luc stealing through the kitchen door with a small rucksack and Bede by his side, I didn't even think. I pulled my hat from the wardrobe and slipped from the house after him.

He'd been heading for the stand of trees that ran along the river, so I picked up my skirts in one hand and ran in that direction. There was no sign of him among the trees, but I jogged along the tree line, peering through the branches to where they thinned out along the bank. When a bevy of larks startled from a tree up ahead, where the staggering tree line met the denser forest, I knew I'd found him. I darted into the woods.

He walked and I followed for what felt like hours. I stayed close enough to see the back of his brown jacket but far enough behind that I could stay out of sight. As he hiked, he stabbed the ground ahead of him with a found walking stick and sang American jazz songs. Even though I didn't know the words, I wanted to sing along with him. I stepped over rocks, edged around trees, and stayed quiet. I didn't want him to turn around and send me home.

I was just wondering if he was ever going to stop when the trees opened up onto a clearing, bordered by a rock face. It was empty. The face was high—maybe as tall as it was up to my tower window in the château—and jagged, as though someone had carved it away with a chisel. I crossed the clearing and put my hand against the rock, but there was no way Luc could have climbed it.

To the right, the rock face curved down to, unbelievably, a railroad track, grown over with weeds. I peered down the track, narrow and straight as a ruler, but didn't see him or his rucksack.

So I followed the rock face to the left, past crumbles of rocks that soon began resolving themselves into old, battered-down walls and doorways. I was seeing the outlines of long-gone rooms butting up against the face, with charred stone and dirt floors grown over with matted grass.

The face sloped down and I passed more rooms and then little pockets, carved clear out of the rock. Shallow little caves, tucked in at regular intervals, with wood violets scattered in front. Overhead, trees spread shade over the entrances. Luc could be in any one of them. And I could be walking home alone.

But then I spotted him, stretched beneath a plane tree. He'd shucked his jacket and his hat and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. It was white, coarse, tucked into a pair of loose blue pants. On his feet, braided leather sandals. He lay on his stomach, surrounded by curls of orange peels. But he wasn't eating. With a wide pad spread out before him and a red Conté crayon in hand, Luc Crépet was drawing.

He'd once tucked a sketch into a letter, a quick, breathless Paris café scene, yet I'd never seen him with a pencil. I wanted to see more of his world, of the restless city where he lived during the week. It was the City of Light, the city of love, the city where revolutionaries stormed the Bastille and Impressionists stormed the Académie. I had been waiting, with each meeting, with each letter, for another glimpse of Paris. I had to be content with his words; they painted nearly as vibrant a picture.

I stepped closer, breath held. I wanted a peek at his sketch pad. Luc, away from his black suit, away from his studies and tennis, away from his
maman,
away from the château dripping with art, he was drawing. I wanted a peek at this private, stolen moment.

But it wasn't Paris or even Mille Mots, those crumbling stones I always drew. It wasn't the trees or the caves in this solemn little clearing or the carpet of wood violets. It wasn't the orange peels. On his paper, Luc drew me.

This drawing, it wasn't casual, like the inked Paris café, dashed off over, I imagined, glasses of wine and heady conversation. This one was careful, lines overlapped, erased, drawn in again. In sanguine, the drawing glowed. It was me and not me. My hair was pinned up, for one. My neck longer. My shoulders bare above a froth of lace.

I took another step and a branch cracked under my foot. “That's not me,” I said.

Luc spun at my voice. An elbow crushed into his sketch pad as he pushed upright, leaving a streak of red on his shirt.

“I said it's not me.” My face was hot. “You've made me look much older.”

Something about it—whether the upswept hair, the bare shoulders, the challenging expression—made me think of Mother and the painting I'd found in Monsieur Crépet's studio. A forbidden pose, something undoubtedly adult, and it made me furiously embarrassed.

Luc looked every bit as furious. He flushed, then scrambled to his feet, snapping the book closed so quickly the cardboard cover tore. “Who asked you anyway?”

“That's exactly it. Nobody asked me.” I rubbed my cheeks. “Did you? Did you ask if you could draw my likeness?”

He didn't look the least bit apologetic. Rather, just discomfited at being caught out. “You're the daughter of an artist, aren't you? You should be used to it.”

Maybe the son of Claude Crépet would be used to posing. I'd seen the hallways of portraits. But my own mother, she never let me near while she was at her easel. I asked her more times than I could count if she'd paint me, draw me, trace me in the dust on the piano, but she always refused.

I parroted the response Mother always gave. “Artists do not choose what to paint. They are chosen.” It's what she said as she sat in front of blank canvases, waiting for inspiration to strike. She looked so beautiful, so confident, so
artistic,
that what could I do but believe her?

“That's ridiculous,” he said. “The world is full of things to capture on the page. To say otherwise is to ignore a world of beauty.”

His scornful tone incensed me. As though, as a Crépet, he was the expert. “And how do you know what inspires someone?” I asked. “Are you the keeper of the muse?”

“If you wait for inspiration to strike, you sit before an empty canvas. And then what have you gained?”

“Greatness.”

“Wasted time.”

I shook my head. He was wrong. Mother knew what she was doing. Her empty canvases, her discarded studies, they were waiting for perfection. “The masters were patient. They created, they perfected, and they achieved.”

“Even the masters had to put bread on the table.”

“And where is the romance in that?” I protested. “In painting for money rather than painting for art's sake?”

“What is romantic about starving in a Paris garret? About begging rent from friends ‘for just one more week'? About waiting for that next big commission that might never come?” He tossed the crayon aside. “In the meantime, you eat soup and lentils, if that's all there is in the kitchen. You stop up the leaks in the roof with old canvases that you'll never sell. You chase your children out into the world to pick up education as they can.” He drew in a broken breath. “You tell yourself that it is all in the name of art. You tell yourself that it's worth it.”

I looked to the red crayon lying in the leaves. “Clearly we don't agree.”

“Mademoiselle,” he said, “I wouldn't expect you to understand.”

I left, before he could see hot tears in my eyes. I was upset by his secretive sketch, by his disagreement, by his assertion that, all along, my mother had somehow been failing. I furiously kicked a rock.

As I wound back around the stone face, past the dark openings of the little caves, he called out behind me.

“Wait, mademoiselle.” Dry leaves crunched. “Clare.”

Back to the “Clare” of that quiet moment in the hallway of paintings, the “Clare” of the letters. I turned.

“I'm sorry.” He exhaled. “Being an adult is sometimes exhausting.”

“Everything you said about the leaking roof, the children being sent out into the world…that's all real, isn't it?”

He rubbed at his eyes and nodded. “I work in a café, as a waiter, after my classes are done for the day, after my studying, after my precious few matches with Bauer. Something has to fund all of that.”

“But your parents…”

He shook his head. “It's all they can do to keep Mille Mots.”

I shifted. No one had ever talked to me about money.

“I do some tutoring. That's where I met Bauer. At the café, sometimes I sketch the customers. Mostly tourists. They buy the sketches as a little remembrance of their trip.” He shrugged. “It's not drawing what I want, but it buys my wine, my books, my coffee, new strings for my racket.” He touched his inside pocket. I wondered what else money bought.

“You must do what you must do.” I tugged at the sides of my skirt. “I didn't mean offense.”

“I know.”

“You startled me with that sketch. That's all.” It sounded inane when said aloud. What was there to be startled about? Being noticed? Being pinned to the page? “I don't look like that, you know.”

Softly he said, “To me, you do.”

He didn't see me as an insubstantial girl, like the rest of the world, chipping as easily as china, wilting like a hothouse orchid. He wrote to me like an equal, he talked to me like a friend.

“Luc,” I said, to remind him we were beyond the “monsieurs” and “mademoiselles.” “I didn't know.”

“I didn't tell you.” Bede darted through the clearing, tongue wagging, and Luc looked away.

“Did you want me to think you someone else?”

“I remember your house in Scotland. It was filled with real wallpaper, not cobwebs or disrepair. Your father wore smart suits, your mother had silverware that matched. I'm sure you don't want to hear about my woes.”

“You said you were exhausted. You said that you were weary with your life.” I took a step closer. “Can't matching silverware be exhausting? Starched dresses and governesses? Empty dining tables?” Overhead, a rook screeched and I wrapped my arms around my chest. “Do you think it's not exhausting to be a fifteen-year-old girl who nobody wants?”

“I want you,” he said quickly, unthinkingly, and something skipped in my heart. He closed his eyes, just briefly. When he opened them again, they were clear. “I want you around.”

I let my arms drop.

“Would you like to come sit down?” he asked, almost shyly. “I'll share my oranges.”

“We won't argue again, will we?”

There was a little flash of a smile. “Only if you won't try to run away again. If you do, I might start an argument to give you an opportunity to come back and shout at me.”

“Monsieur…Luc…it is a deal.” I held out my hand.

He hesitated for a handful of breaths. But finally he stepped closer and he took my hand. His was warm, rough, and sticky from the oranges. It was smudged red on the knuckles from his sketching. His bare wrist was sprinkled with freckles. It felt nice.

He noticed me noticing. “Right,” he said. “It's a deal.” He shook my hand vigorously, then loosened his grip. As he pulled his hand back, he unrolled his cuffs and tugged them back down over his wrists.

“Right,” I repeated softly.

He cleared his throat. “Anyway, this isn't a place to fight.” He tipped his head up, to the skim of sunlight falling through the trees. “It's a place of refuge.”

The clearing was as still as a cathedral. “It is.”

BOOK: At the Edge of Summer
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