June 1990, Montpellier, France
The two American co-eds stood at the apex of the tree-lined Esplanade, heads bent over their guidebook. Male passersby turned for a second glance, eyeing the youthful female bodies with lusty smiles. Tank tops, shorts, and Berkenstocks did little to cover the long shapely legs and tan skin. Some slowed, hoping for a glance at the faces hidden by the long cornsilk hair of one and the rippling chestnut curls of the other, both worn long and whipping about in the wind coming off the large open square sprawled before them.
“This is it—Place de la Comédie. See the Fountain up there?” The young woman with the red highlights sparking in the sun pointed to the far end of the square. “Let’s go up that way and find a café. It’s after one already.”
“But Gabby! The Polygone is right over there. It’s like an American mall.” The leggy blonde tugged her friend’s arm, pulling her to the left of the Esplanade and away from the square.
Gabby jerked her arm free. “Linda! You and your malls. I didn’t come all the way to France to shop. Come on. I’m hungry.” She ran forward a few steps, then turned around but kept walking backwards. “Come o-on! I’m going with or without you!” Then she ran on, laughing, backpack bumping on her back, threading through the other pedestrians filling the square.
Within moments she heard running footsteps and Linda’s whine. “Wait up, Gabby!”
Laughing, Gabby locked arms with her companion as they walked to the far end of Place de la Comédie and approached the Fountain of Three Graces. They stopped, staring. The three graceful female figures stood atop a rocky mound of moss and green plants with water spouts pouring water into first one shallow basin surrounding the fountain, and then another. Several families with children sat on the smooth paving stones around the fountain eating sandwiches, tossing crumbs to the pigeons that strutted about. A bald-headed guy seated on a canvas stool nearby played a guitar, his guitar case open for the occasional francs. But the majority of warm bodies milling about the square or sitting on the ground around the fountain were young—late teens, early twenties—and multi-national. University students.
“Mmm,” Linda said.
“I know. It’s beautiful.”
“I meant those two guys over there. Sitting by the fountain. Do you think they’re French?”
Gabby slapped her friend’s arm. “You are impossible!” She laughed. “Come on. There’s an empty table over there, see? At that café. We’ll have a great view of the Opera House and we can watch the fountain—oh! Oh wait! Look!” Gabby clapped her hands. “It’s a carousel!”
Linda rolled her eyes. “So?”
“I want to ride it! I’ve never ridden a carousel before!”
“Gabby! Don’t be silly! Those things go up and down and around. You get dizzy riding a stupid escalator . . . oh, brother.”
* * *
A pair of eyes shaded by sunglasses and a loose shock of dark hair followed the two young women as the curly-headed one ran up to the ticket booth, pointed at herself and her friend, paid their francs and climbed onto the prancing carousel horses. The young man poked his companion sitting on the ground near the Fountain of Three Graces, his nose in a book. “Hey, Cameron. Check out those girls.”
“Where? The carousel?” His light-haired companion shaded his eyes and watched as the carousel started up, the horses lifted up and down, and the girls’ laughter sailed over the square. “Silly Americans,” he snorted. “Present company excepted, of course, Philip.” Cameron went back to his book.
That got a laugh. “Stuffy Brit. Maybe we should go ride it, too. Be good for you, my man. Too much studying can ruin your youth!” But Philip’s eyes stayed on the young woman with the long curly hair as she came around, up and down, on her prancing mechanical horse, her head back, laughing . . . disappeared . . . and came around once more. But this time the American girl clung to the pole, eyes tightly shut.
The carousel finally stopped and the girl climbed off unsteadily and almost fell. Her friend grabbed her, and for a moment seemed to be holding her up. Philip started to his feet. Was she okay? But at that moment the young woman straightened and tossed her hair back, brushing off her friend’s attention with a laugh. The eyes behind the sunglasses followed as the girls headed for the outdoor seating of the café between the carousel and the Fountain of Three Graces.
“Hey, Cameron. Let’s get something to eat, okay?” Philip snatched the book out of the other’s hands. “Come on.”
His companion sighed, got to his feet, and grabbed for the book. By the time he got the book repacked in his backpack and slung it over his shoulder, Philip had already picked out an outdoor table at the same café.
* * *
Gabby sucked on the straw in her lemonade, and then sighed happily. “I could sit here forever watching people in this square. It’s like . . . so international!”
Linda took a sip of her iced coffee and frowned at the menu. “Yeah, well, I wish you’d sat here fifteen minutes ago, rather than ride that silly carousel. I thought you were going to throw up back there . . . Hey! Where’d the sun go?” Linda squinted upward as a shadow moved across the open square. “Better not rain,” she grumbled. “We haven’t ordered yet.”
“So what? If it rains this afternoon, we can go to a movie at the theater over there.” Gabby pulled the straw out with her teeth and pointed the dripping end at the domed building that said, “Cinema Gaumont.”
“Gosh!” Linda rolled her eyes. “Do you always have to be so cheerful?!”
Gabby giggled. “Yes. And I’d be even happier if Damien, the jerk, could see me now—in France, having a ball, with only one year to go getting my BA. Without him actually being here, I mean.” She tossed her hair back and snorted. “That would be a bummer.”
Linda raised her frosty glass. “To Damien, king of the jerks—”
Gabby clinked her lemonade on Linda’s glass. “—may he get seasick on that fishing boat with the captain’s daughter, who no doubt smells a bit fishy by now.”
The two young women collapsed into laughter—which stopped abruptly when a male voice said, “Excusez-moi, ma’amselles?”
“Ohmigosh,” Linda said under her breath. “It’s them.”
Gabby looked up, startled. A tall young man with dark hair and sunglasses stood beside their table, accompanied by another young man with sandy hair. “Yes?” Oh, dear. I should’ve said “Oui?” or something. He sounds French.
“May I introduce myself? Je suis Philippe Fairbanks, and this is Cameron Brewer, my housemate. Graduate students at La Faculté des Lettres.” He pointed at himself. “Business.” Then at his companion. “History.” He flashed a smile revealing perfect white teeth. “And you are—?”
His French accent rolled off his tongue like melted chocolate. Gabby cleared her throat, hoping her mouth hadn’t been hanging open. “Oh! Uh, I’m Gabrielle Shepherd—most people call me Gabby—and this is Linda Banks. University of North Dakota.” She had never seen such a beautiful man. Tall, dark, and handsome. Literally! And French to boot!
“Pardonne. May we sit?”
“Uhh . . . of course! Please. Sit down. Right, Linda?”
Linda nodded, eyelashes fluttering, licking her lips.
“Have you ladies ordered yet?” The dark-haired one pulled over another chair. “The lamb kebobs here are superb.”
“Mm,” the other seconded, sounding decidedly British. “Absolutely scrummy.”
Linda snorted. “Humph. Gabby needs a salad or something light. She nearly lost it on the carousel back there—ow!” She glared at Gabby. “What did you kick me for?”
The two young men laughed. Gabby flushed. “I am fine. Just a momentary dizzy spell. The lamb kabobs sound great.”
“Excellent.” The dark eyes gave an approving wink. “Lunch is on us—right, Cameron?”
And so they talked and laughed over succulent lamb kebobs and freshly-baked bread. Gabby was aware that the dark eyes seemed to feast on her, and she flushed at the attention. His English was perfect—unlike her French—and his lovely French accent gave her goose bumps . . . until Cameron pulled the plug. “Aw, ladies, don’t be fooled by this bloke. His name is Philip, not ‘Philippe,’ and he hails from Virginia in the US of A. I, on the other hand, am London born and bred.”
Gabby’s mouth dropped, then she laughed, grabbed a cloth napkin and whipped Philip’s arm with it. “You imposter!”
He threw up his hands and grinned. “Ah, well. Fun while it lasted.”
But she was actually relieved at the joke. It would have been charming to be romanced by a Frenchman, but her small-town roots in Minot, North Dakota were so . . . so provincial. She’d married her teenage sweetheart right out of high school, but a divorce two years later made her determined to “get out of Minot” and do something with her life. But until this junket through Europe with Youth Hostels International, the furthest she’d been was the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. Big deal.
However, an American in Paris—or, Montpellier, in this case—put this charming looker on more equal footing. She tossed her curls back confidently. “So, why did you decide to study in Montpellier, Philip?”
Philip’s grin was half grimace. “Oh, you know the story. Family business. Dad’s got my life planned, wants me to follow in his footsteps.” He shrugged. “It’s a good business, but I want to broaden my horizons, explore some new ideas to bring the business into the twenty-first century.”
Intrigued, Gabby leaned forward, chin resting on her hand as Philip talked. A slight shadow of a beard lined his strong jawline. His dark brown hair had a boyish way of falling over his forehead—though Damien had been drop-dead gorgeous, too, she reminded herself, and look where that got her. But . . . Philip was different. Damien was just a local pretty boy who’d swept her off her feet with empty promises. But this man . . . he had roots. A solid Southern family. (How romantic was that.) Heir to a family business. But he had new ideas. Vision. She liked that. He seemed so self-assured—the type of guy who would go places, do things—and that excited her.
“—been to Paris yet?” he was saying. “You must see the Eiffel Tower.”
Gabby let slip a wry grin and an exaggerated sigh. “Probably not. Uh, heights don’t agree with me . . . nor carousels, it seems.”
“Oh, nuts.” Linda jumped up, bumping the table and nearly spilling their drinks. “It’s starting to rain.” The leggy blonde joined the throng surging toward the inside tables of the café.
Gabby was feeling giddy and bold. “So what’s a little rain?” Instead of going inside, she ran into the square, laughing and twirling around slowly in the warm shower, arms outstretched, letting her damp hair twist up tighter like a crown of curly ribbons.
* * *
Standing under the awning of the café, Philip Fairbanks watched the sprite from North Dakota swirl, laughing, in the rain. “I’m going to marry that girl,” he murmured.
“Don’t be barmy, Philip.” Cameron hunched his shoulders against the damp breeze. “She’s just a ditzy yank from North Dakota. What would your mum do if you brought home a girl named Gabby?”
Philip laughed. “Probably have a hissy fit. I’ll tell her the girl’s name is Gabrielle—that sounds French, don’t you think? And I think she’s . . . charming. A free spirit. Different.”
Cameron snorted. “Different all right. Look at that hair. Little Orphan Annie grown up.”
Philip was looking at Gabrielle’s hair. The sun broke through the light rain, and raindrops sparkled on the mop of chestnut curls flying around and around. “Mm-hm,” he murmured to himself. “I’m going to marry you, Mop Top. You wait and see.”
Looking thirty-two floors down was almost enough to bring up my lunch. Philip knew I had trouble with heights. So what kind of sadistic joke made him buy a penthouse, for heaven’s sake! Not to mention floor-to-ceiling windows that curved around the living room, like putting a glass nose on a Boeing 747.
I groaned. It’d take me a week to wash the inside of those windows. And who in the world washed the outside—?! My knees wobbled. Uh-uh. Couldn’t go there or I’d lose my lunch for real.
But the view . . . oh my.
I stood in the middle of our new living room and tried to take it all in. Trees dotted the park along Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, wearing the fresh new wardrobe of spring. On the other side of the Drive, the western edge of Lake Michigan lapped at the miles of beaches separated by occasional rocky retaining walls and disappeared southward amid the misty skyscrapers of Chicago’s Loop. Tall, billowy thunderheads caught the late afternoon sun. Earlier that day, cars had hurried along the Drive, like toys zipping along a giant track some kid got for Christmas. But now, at the height of rush hour, the far lane was packed solid as commuters headed for the northern suburbs.
O-kay. Looking out at the view wasn’t so bad. I stepped closer to the window, keeping my chin up, refusing to look straight down. Near the beach, cyclists whizzed along a bicycle path, swerving around joggers. Dogs with their masters chased Frisbees or dashed into the water after a ball. No one was in the water—too early in the spring, I guessed. But the sand sparkled in the late afternoon sunshine. What I wouldn’t give to—
“Is that all, Señora Fairbanks?”
I jumped. The sweet face of the maid, who’d been setting up the catered buffet in the dining room the past hour, looked at me expectantly. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Plain white blouse with a nametag that said “Camila.” Black skirt hugging her chunky legs. A wedding band on her left hand. Obviously hoping to go home and take care of her own family.
“Oh. Yes, yes, I’m sure it’s fine, Mrs. . . . Mrs. . . .?”
She reddened. “Just Camila, Señora. Gracias.”
“Well, then, call me Gabby.” I glanced at the Fairbanks’ heirloom grandfather clock patiently ticking away in the corner of the large room. Almost six o’clock. Philip had said to expect him between seven and eight. “What do I need to do when the guests arrive?”
The short, stocky woman smiled with relief. “No problem. Cold salads in the refrigerator. Beef tips and saffron rice in the warming oven set at one hundred fifty degrees. Will be safe. Just take them out.” Picking up her bag, she disappeared quickly into the entryway—called a “gallery” in the Richmond Towers brochure—and out the front door of the penthouse condo.
Still standing in the middle of the living room, I suddenly felt bereft. I was alone. Again. Philip had been gone since seven that morning. The boys were still in Virginia at boarding school. Philip wouldn’t hear of taking them out so close to the end of the school year. And so we’d moved, lock, stock, and oriental rugs to Illinois so Philip and his new partner could hurry up and dream big dreams in their luxurious office in downtown Chicago. And here I was, not only alone, but stuck up here in the sky like an eagle impaled on a flagpole.
I imagined Camila in the elevator, riding down, down, nodding at the doorman, going outside. Free.
Stepping close to the curved window, I steadied myself with my hand, daring myself to look down, hoping to see her emerge. The glass was thick and cool to the touch. Probably leaving a grubby handprint on the glass. Huh. I’d have to clean it before Philip’s guests arrived. Had to have a clean prison wall, right?
Stop it, Gabby.
A jogger caught my eye as she ran through the park below, ran past the trees, did a sharp turn, and then suddenly disappeared. Wait a minute. What just happened? I squinted . . . then a movement on the other side of Lake Shore Drive caught my eye. The same jogger was now running on the path by the beach!
There must be a pedestrian tunnel under Lake Shore Drive. My eyes widened. Why hadn’t I seen it before? We’d been here five days already, and all this time I thought the ubiquitous Drive cut us off from the sand and water unless we got in the car and drove somewhere.
I cast another furtive glance at the clock. Ten after. Philip wouldn’t be here for another fifty minutes at the earliest—maybe longer. I was already dressed in a white pantsuit and gold-strap sandals. The temperature was almost eighty—warm for April. What if—
On impulse I grabbed my keys from the wooden bowl on the table in the gallery and headed out the penthouse door. I felt slightly giddy as I stepped into the elevator and pushed the button for the ground floor, like the time I’d ditched classes in middle school back in Minot, North Dakota. When the elevator doors opened, I pushed open the security door into the lobby and breezed past the African-American doorman, not wanting to chat, and found myself on the narrow frontage street that gave limited access to several high-rise condos besides Richmond Towers.
But beyond the street, beyond the park, beyond the pedestrian tunnel was sand and water. Sand! Sand between my toes. Splashing in the miniwaves. The desire drove me on like an urgent hunger. How long, how long had it been since I’d even been barefoot?
I burst out of the pedestrian tunnel under Lake Shore Drive like a runner carrying the Olympic flame. Oh Gabby, you are so bad. I laughed out loud. Kicking off my sandals, I ran barefoot across the grass and stepped down a low concrete wall to the sand, sending a flock of seagulls hopping into the air and landing a short distance away. Delighting in the feel of the warm sand on my bare feet, I ran at the birds, sending them scolding and hopping again.
I giggled, turning around and around, arms outstretched to catch the wind off the lake, wishing I was wearing a princess skirt to whirl. Hardly anyone was on this strip of beach, so who cared if I looked stupid? No one knew me anyway.
On impulse, I rolled up my pant legs and waded into the water—and screeched. Ay ay ay. That was cold. Hurting cold! I splashed back on to the warm sand, but now wet sand clung like chiggers between my toes and up my legs. I sat down on the concrete bench to brush off the sand, when I felt the first drop. And the second. I looked up. The clouds now hung low and heavy and looked about ready to dump.
Grabbing my sandals, I climbed back up to the grass and started running toward the pedestrian tunnel, hoping the grass would clean off my feet. By the time I emerged on the other side, the rain had become a chilly shower. Forgetting the paved path, I made a beeline across the grass and between the bushes toward Richmond Towers—and the next moment pitched forward on my face.
“Hey!” A raspy voice shot out of the bushes two feet from my head. “Whatchu go kicking my cart for?” This pronouncement was followed by several hacking coughs.
I was more startled than hurt—except for my toe, which was sending stabs of pain up my leg. I rolled over and grabbed my foot, even as the rain soaked into my clothes and hair. Cart? What cart? I squinted in the fading light toward where I’d taken my fall, and vaguely made out something metal sticking out from under the bush. “Sorry,” I mumbled. “Didn’t see it . . . where are you, anyway?”
The bushes parted, and a head poked out, half covered with what looked like a black plastic garbage bag. “Keepin’ dry is where I’m at, tha’s what.” More hacking. “Leastwise I was till Orphan Annie came along . . . uh-oh. That foot’s bleedin’, girlie. Here, lemme see it.”
To my astonishment, an old woman crawled out of the bushes, holding the thin protection of the garbage bag around her shoulders like a Superman cape, and grabbed up my bare foot in a thin, sinewy hand, even as the rain steadied into moderate shower. “Aiya. Gotta stop that bleedin’ . . . hang on a minnit.” The woman dropped my foot and pulled out a metal cart from under the bushes, set it upright, and began digging through whatever was stuffed inside, her cough grinding away like a waterlogged car motor.
I scrambled up, standing on one leg, holding up the offending foot. “Oh, don’t bother,” I protested. “I really have to get . . .” Home? I couldn’t yet say the word.
She hauled out a long rag. “Oh, don’t get your mop in a knot. Siddown.” The woman practically pushed me down, grabbed my bleeding foot, and began wrapping the rag around it. I shuddered. How long had that been in her cart, collecting germs and vermin and who knew what—
“It’s clean, if tha’s wha’s botherin’ ya.” Hack, hack. She dropped my foot. “Now git on with ya an’ leave me be.”
“Wait!” The absurdity of the situation suddenly loosened my tongue. Me go home to my sky-high penthouse while she crawled back under that bush? “This is ridiculous. It’s raining, and you’ve got a terrible cough. Come on with me. I can get you dry clothes and some cough syrup.” What she probably needed was a doctor.
The old lady snorted, sounding more like a bullfrog than a laugh. “Nah, I’m okay . . .”
But she hesitated just long enough to bolster my nerve. I took her arm. “Please, I mean it. Come on. Just until the rain stops, at least.”
Rheumy eyes gave me a long stare, then she turned, grabbed the handle of her cart, and started across the wet grass. I caught up, steering her toward Richmond Towers. “My name’s Gabby Fairbanks. Yours is . . .?”
She didn’t answer, just plowed on with me hobbling along on my rag-wrapped foot. We crossed the frontage street and somehow wrestled her cart through the revolving door of the high-rise. And stopped.
The doorman loomed in front of us. His normally pleasant expression had evaporated, replaced by an enormous scowl that would have done justice to a bouncer at a skin joint. “Hey! Get that rickety cart outta here. Lady, you can’t come in here. Residents only.”
I waved timidly from behind the old lady. “Uh, she’s with me, Mr. Bentley . . . Mrs. Fairbanks.”
“Fairbanks? Penthouse?” The man’s eyes darted between us. “Whatchu doin’ with this old bag lady?” He suddenly became solicitous, though I noticed he kept a wary eye on my companion. “Are you all right, ma’am? What happened to your foot?”
“It’s all right, Mr. Bentley. I, uh, we just need to get up to the, uh, apartment and get into some dry clothes.” I beamed a smile that I hoped conveyed more confidence than I felt, took the “bag lady’s” arm, ran my ID card that opened the security door, and headed for the elevator.
I let out a sigh of relief as the doors slid closed behind us, and the elevator quietly hummed its way upward. Closing my eyes, I started to shiver. I really needed to get out of these damp clothes, get cleaned up and changed before—
My eyes flew open. Philip! Philip and his guests were due at any time. Oh Lord, Oh Lord, I pled silently. Keep Philip out of here until at least eight o’clock. A new absurdity was standing right in front of me. For the first time I took a really good look at the woman from the bushes. Matted gray hair . . . wrinkled, mottled skin, hanging loosely like a beige mask over her facial bones. Several layers of clothes topped by a shapeless shirt or blouse, hard to tell, hanging out over faded navy blue pant legs, rolled up at different lengths. And here in the elevator, she smelled . . . stale.
Oh God. What in the world am I going to do with this, this—
“Lucy.” The old woman’s eyes were closed, and it didn’t seem as if she had spoken at all, except for the raspy voice.
“Lucy,” I repeated stupidly. “Oh! Your name. Thanks.”
The upward motion stopped. The heavy doors glided open to reveal the glistening ceramic tile of the top floor foyer. Our apartment door was the only one to be seen, flanked by two enormous pots of silk flowers. “Well, come on, Lucy. Let’s get you into some dry clothes and do something about that cough.” And get you out of here—quick, I thought desperately.
I pulled out my keys and shoved one into the lock. Good. Got the right one on the first try. The lock clicked, and I pressed the brass latch to open the door. It swung wide and I hobbled into the gallery, Lucy huffing right behind me . . . and stopped.
There, through the archway, in the middle of the enormous living room, stood my husband, tall, dark hair, easy good looks even at forty-one, a glass of wine in one hand, talking in a big voice to a strange man and woman, gesturing as though showing off the penthouse view.
In the same instant, they must have heard us, because all three turned, staring straight at me. Silence hung in the air for a split-second. Then Philip took several strides in our direction, his eyes wide. Horrified, actually. “Gabrielle!” he hissed between his teeth. “What’s the meaning of this?!”