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Authors: Jessica Brockmole

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BOOK: At the Edge of Summer
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“I was just drawing his face, Madame.” I fumbled in the grass for my pencil. I didn't even remember dropping it.

She didn't even look at me. “Luc, you have a visitor.”

It was then that I noticed the man behind her. He was tall, not much older than Luc, with smooth dark blond hair and a khaki suit. Draped over one arm was a motoring jacket and a pair of goggles. He looked rich and relaxed in his sporting duck, like a gentleman about to yacht or take the automobile out to shoot. Luc yanked off his striped scarf and stuffed it in his back pocket as he stood.

“Bauer, what are you doing here?”

“I was in the area,” the man said, with a raise of an eyebrow and a German accent. “I thought I would visit your château.”

Luc ducked his head. “We…we aren't prepared for visitors.”

“Luc, don't be impolite,” Madame said. “I'll have Yvette set for tea in the salon.”

In Madame Crépet's salon, each wall was a different color, like a riotous fruit bowl. Strawberry red, plum purple, pear yellow, the deep orange of a nectarine. Embroidered pillows piled on every surface, beneath paintings of long-haired women on tropical beaches, as bright as Gauguin. Her salon was like falling into a paint box.

“Mr. Bauer,” she said, with a sudden, coy smile, “I'm sure you'll permit me my Earl Gray. I am not wholly French, after all.”

He bowed, but Luc shook his head. “The salon, Maman, it's…the rugs are being cleaned.”

The rugs scattered throughout Mille Mots had been there since the Crusades, I was sure, faded, patterned things that always put me in mind of a Turkish harem.

“Today?” Madame blinked. “I didn't order that.”

“Papa did,” Luc said, which was a patent lie. Monsieur Crépet scarcely noticed if he was indoors or out. He didn't care a toss for the rugs.

“Well, then.” She tugged at an earring. “I suppose it will have to be the rose garden.”

“Perhaps Bauer doesn't have time for tea.”

“Frau Crépet, I am most delighted for tea.” Mr. Bauer bowed. “And Crépet, you may not expel me so quickly. My racket is strapped to my motorbike.”

“You've come for the afternoon, then?” Luc looked dismayed.

“If it is to be tennis, I will have Marthe send sandwiches and beer,” Madame declared.

Mr. Bauer grinned. “Beer? Frau Crépet, you may not be wholly French, but you are, I think, a little bit German.”

Madame Crépet actually blushed and set off to give her instructions to the cook and maid.

“Your mother, she is more charming than you, Crépet.” Mr. Bauer touched his hat and nodded in my direction. “As is the fräulein here.”

Luc ran a hand through his hair. His friend wore a tweed cap; Luc was bare-headed and in need of a haircut. “Mademoiselle Ross, this is Stefan Bauer, my
grand adversaire.
” This last was said with a raise of his eyebrows.

“Grand adversaire.”
Stefan Bauer laughed at this. “Do we have such a grand rivalry? Of course, I am usually winning.” He winked at me.

There was a set to Luc's jaw. “Not always. Sometimes I win.”

His friend still watched me, until I looked away. “For now,” he said.

I wanted Luc to follow me back to the chestnut tree. I wanted to finish my drawing. I wanted to finish whatever was begun when I took his face in my hands.

Instead he pushed ahead with his introduction. He didn't look at me as he did. “And, Bauer, this is…” He faltered.

This is the girl I almost kissed a minute ago,
I filled in.
This is the girl I fed honey and cheese, the girl I wrote letters to in Paris, the girl I waited for outside of a cave. This is Clare, my friend.

But “…this is Clare Ross, my mother's ward,” is how he finished. He looked away. “She is staying here…until…until another situation can be found.”

I blinked and, through stinging eyes, watched them walk away towards the rose garden. Stefan leaned towards Luc and said, “So that is what you have been hiding?” He looked back over his shoulder at me, a long, appraising glance.

“The demoiselle?” Luc didn't even turn around. “She's nothing.”

M
adame left me at the table in the rose garden while she went to give instructions to Marthe on refreshments. I pulled on my gloves, straightened my hat, sat back-straight on the crooked wooden chair. Not that it mattered. Luc and his friend didn't look my way at all. I could have been crying my eyes out and no one would have noticed.

On a rectangle of lawn, Luc had ranged out a net and pounded it into the ground, amid apologies that the grass wasn't clipped short enough.

“I thought you were joking when you said you did not have a proper court here,” Mr. Bauer said, opening a case with a polished racket. “At the weekends, do you not come here to practice?”

“I come…” He glanced at me, barely. “I come to help my
maman.

To help my maman.
I tightened my fingers on the sketchbook on my lap.

“I know why you really come each weekend,” his friend said. “Crépet, perhaps we can teach the fräulein to swing a racket, eh?”

“With the tournament next week?” Luc bounced the ball. He'd changed into duck trousers and a white shirt like Mr. Bauer, though Luc's were unpressed. He'd combed back his hair with pomade. He looked far too respectable. “I hardly have time to play schoolteacher.”

Though I hadn't the slightest interest in learning tennis, at that moment I wanted nothing more. “I didn't realize I was such an inconvenience.” I stood. “I'll try.”

Luc glowered but Mr. Bauer grinned. “Fräulein, if you will come and take this racket, I will show you what to do.”

“This is really a waste of time,” Luc said, but I walked out onto the lawn and took the offered racket.

“Now, two hands, please, like this. Hold tight.”

Luc rolled his eyes.

Mr. Bauer was explaining how to keep my back straight, how to extend my elbow, how to keep my arms just like
that,
when Madame came out of the house with her writing case tucked under an arm.

“Mademoiselle!” Her voice was sharp, and I jumped away from where Mr. Bauer held the racket.

“Madame, I was just…”

She strode across the lawn to me. “Perhaps you've been in the sun for long enough.” Madame, who dug in the rose garden until she was as brown as a Gypsy, didn't worry about the sun. And yet her brow was creased in a worry that I couldn't explain. “Please gather your things.”

“Fräulein.” Mr. Bauer touched his hat. “I regret your departure.”

Luc, concentrating on his shoelaces, didn't say a word.

Madame Crépet escorted me upstairs, leaving both me and my sketch pad in my tower room. She nodded, once, and said, “Perhaps it's best if you stay up here the rest of the afternoon. The day has grown warm.” With no other explanation than that, she left.

The windows were open and I threw myself onto the bench beneath one. The breeze cooled my face. I hadn't done a thing, and here both Luc and Madame were acting as though I'd done something awful. Why couldn't they just explain things to me? Why couldn't Luc just look me straight in the eye and tell me what I'd done? I leaned out and saw the stretch of green lawn and the river, but no sign of him or Mr. Bauer or their tennis match.

I took off my hat and gloves, pushed up my sleeves, and climbed out of my bedroom window.

I could hear the thwap of the tennis ball against rackets, punctuated by the occasional laugh and shout in French. I pressed my back against the wall and inched up the roof towards the ridgepole. The tiles were slick with moss, and my boots were worn on the bottom. I swallowed down any thoughts of how far it was to the ground and edged up, sidestep by sidestep.

But it was worth the climb. I could see clear around the house, from the river to the linden-lined drive in the front. Down the other side of the ridgepole was a window bordered in faded blue drapes. Through the window I could see a burnished tennis racket hanging on the wall. Luc's room.

Over there, down on the wide back lawn, was the impromptu tennis match. Mr. Bauer moved, loose-limbed and nonchalant. He was the one laughing and calling out French insults. Luc played rigid and intense. Even from my perch on the roof, I could tell that he was silent.

I didn't know what it was, why, in a breath, Luc had changed. When Madame and the sophisticated Stefan Bauer crossed the lawn, reminding us that the world was bigger than our quiet moment, Luc pushed me away. He acted the way he had that day he'd come home from the train station and saw me in my new white dress.

I didn't know why I cared so much. He was just a boy, a boy I'd only known for a couple of months. Luc turning away from me wasn't the same as Mother leaving. It wasn't at all the same as Father dying. It wasn't the same as Grandfather never coming home for Christmas. I balanced and let go of the roof. Then why did it feel the same?

I crept back down and into my room. I thought about finding Madame and apologizing for whatever it was that led her to send me there. I wanted to go back outside. I wanted to wait until Luc smiled again.

I hadn't seen Madame's blue turban down on the lawn, so I slipped from my room and down the hall to her morning room. Luc said it used to be her studio, back when she still sculpted. Now it was where she wrote letters, kept the books, and managed the business of Claude Crépet, artist.

The door was ajar, but I didn't knock, not when I heard Monsieur Crépet's voice within. He spoke softly, but Madame, her voice moving in the room as though she were pacing, did not.

“She's not mine to worry over, Claude, yet I do. She doesn't have a mother to do so.”

His reply, I didn't understand, but I did understand the edge that came to Madame's voice.

“If you'd seen her with her hands on Luc's face, on his friend's tennis racket. So like Maud.”


Ma minette,
you were always too hard on Maud. She had too much of her heart to share.”

“That wasn't all that she shared.”

He made a soothing noise. “Come, sit.” He murmured something in French. The sofa creaked. “It was so long ago. You've forgiven me, but you haven't forgiven her?”

“She did it to spite me.”

“She did it to best you. There is a difference.”

“It wasn't enough that she was one of the most talented in the school. She had to have you, too.”

I thought of the painting of Mother, tucked away up in Monsieur's studio. Only one, but he'd never gotten rid of it.

“She doesn't have me now.”

Madame must have stood, because I heard her pacing again, quick steps around the edges of the room. “I should have written to John Ross when she showed up on our doorstep. Did you know he hired an investigator?”

“The investigator did not come here.”

“And why would he?” Her heel came down sharply. “Would he go to question all of her old
amoureux
to see who else she begged to run away with her?”


Ma minette,
I didn't go.” This was said almost wearily. “I wouldn't have gone, even if she'd asked me twenty years ago.” He sighed. “Maud always spent more time lamenting the past than changing the future. She wore her regrets like a hair shirt.”

I clenched my fists at my sides. They talked about Mother like they didn't know her. If she wasn't looking to the future, she wouldn't have left Perthshire, would she have?

“She said she'd paint her way across the world and not care what anyone else thought,” Madame said, the words rolled up in scorn. “I don't know why I do.”

“Because she was and always will be your friend, despite all the rest. You worry about her like the mademoiselle does.” He patted the sofa softly. “Now sit back down.”

The springs creaked again as she settled in. “Did I tell you, Luc saw a painting? In the Galerie Porte d'Or right along the Quai du Voltaire.”

“Maud?”

I covered my mouth.

“Painted by Arnaud Duguay. Do you remember him from Glasgow?” She made an indelicate noise. “Second rate, even as a student.”

“But the painting, it was in Santi's gallery?”

“Luc wrote to me. He thought it meant Maud was in Paris.”

I stepped back until I felt the edge of the hall table against my spine. Mother, in Paris? Could she be so near? Luc hadn't said a word to me. All of those weekend afternoons together, all of those letters, and he hadn't said a thing about a painting of Mother in a Paris gallery.

I inched back to the door in time to hear Madame say, “The girl needs a place, Claude. Is this really the best one?”

I ran back up to my room and out to the roof. At the top of the ridgepole, I could see over to the front of the house, at Mr. Bauer wheeling his motorbike down the linden-lined drive. I ducked into Luc's bedroom window.

It was as shabby as the rest of the house, with a sagging bed and cracked leather armchair, but somehow neater. No spiderwebs, no jumbles of knickknacks, no riotous confusion of colors. His room was more somber library than bedroom. An old, gilt-edged desk, monstrous and magnificent, stacked with books and drawing pads. That leather armchair tucked near the side, with a curved desk lamp next to it. Deep yellow bed curtains—the color of marigolds, of French mustard. The gray walls were unpainted and mostly bare. A tennis racket, its wood worn bright, hung like a work of art. Two watercolors of the crumbling château, signed
C. Crépet
were as soft and blotted as though viewed through a rainy lens.

One painting was done in haunting oils—a thin woman, all angles and edges. She wore a drapey dress, touched with gold where the light hit, and slouched against the armrest of a square throne with arms carved into dragons' heads, staring challengingly at the painter. She might be a queen, but she was no damsel in distress.

That queen, she wouldn't let anyone put her in a corner. She wouldn't let anyone leave her behind. She wouldn't be overlooked.

And, in the middle of this room, this room of books and art and attempted respectability, stood Luc.

For a moment I didn't say a word. He stood without a shirt on. His chest was thin and pale. A smooth brown stone, threaded on a thong, nestled beneath his collarbone. Standing shirtless, with head bowed, he looked so private and almost vulnerable. But I saw tacked above his desk that drawing of me, the drawing where I looked more like Mother than myself.

I stepped over the windowsill. “I thought you were my friend.”

His head snapped up and his eyes opened wide.

“I thought you were my friend, but now I can't even trust you. You saw a painting of my mother in Paris, and yet you never told me. Why?”

But he didn't answer my question. “You can't just…push in like this,” he cried. He picked up his damp white shirt from where he'd dropped it on the floor and yanked it on.

“Push in?”

“That's all you've been doing since you arrived. You've made me miss tennis matches and weekend studying. You made Stefan Bauer come all the way here and now he's met you and I'm hearing about it. And then I had a lecture from Maman, as though it were my fault that you held my face like that.”

None of what he said made sense. I'd been the one dismissed earlier, when he introduced me to Stefan Bauer, but now he was acting as though I'd done wrong merely by being there.

“Push in?”
I repeated.

“Into my room, into my life, into my mind, into my—”

“I haven't pushed into anything. I was
invited.
” Now I was furious, too.

“I didn't invite you.”

“But yet you come almost every weekend. You wrote me letters and brought me fruit under the chestnut tree. You've been always here.”

He angrily buttoned his shirt. “When Maman asks me to come to meet her newest stray, what am I to say?”

“I see.” I pulled myself back up into the windowsill. “I'm just another of Madame Crépet's dogs or cats. Somebody else's castoff. You're only here to be sure I'm walked and watered, no?”

BOOK: At the Edge of Summer
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