Si Tu M'Aimes - If You Love Me
Nicolas Brassard eyed the crowd surrounding him and sipped his wine. Tolerable: a rather ubiquitous cabernet sauvignon, unremarkable, but pleasant.
Women in black dresses and men in suits with tails circulated around the gallery, chatting. Some eyed the paintings. Others eyed each other. See the art or be seen with it? Typical muddy motivations. Nothing unusual there.
He regarded a man in brown khakis who stared intently at the people. There’s the artist. I can see the drab, olive paint under his fingernails. What a strange color.
A woman dressed in a sparkly print stared at the artist with unwarranted attention. She’s more interested in him than the work. Interesting, as she’s old enough to be his mother—or maybe his grandmother.
Slowly crossing echoing wooden floors, he waded into a crowd around the snack table and wrinkled his nose at a sudden waft of body odor. At least one bohemian in attendance. I wonder if it's the artist.
Using tongs, he retrieved a bacon-wrapped fig and laid it on his plate, along with two strawberries, thankfully lacking a chocolate shell, and a small tart that appeared to be of spinach and egg.
Munching, he wove back out of the crowd. These snacks were prepared by someone who cares about what he’s doing. The salty bacon crunched around the sweet, sticky fig. Quite tasty. This is as good a party as I’ve been to since arriving in the United States. If only it had been in honor of something a little more… appealing. He turned again to the wall and sighed. Modern art is so strange. A thick layer of greenish brown paint into which other colors had been swirled at random frosted one canvas after another. The brush strokes interested him a bit, but on the whole, the paintings resembled decomposed leaves after the thaw.
Nicolas shook his head. The artist is going to make a fortune on these works… but not from me. I’ve seen enough.
He turned away from the garish paintings, heading for the door, when the sight of one of his favorite works of art—a pretty, brown-haired American woman—arrested his progress.
As long as Nicolas could remember, he had been attracted to Americans, and this had to be one of the best-looking specimens he'd seen so far. She had dressed simply, in a style that almost seemed French: a short brown skirt, cream-colored blouse and tiny, colorful scarf. Her straight, shoulder length hair had been pulled back into a clip. She wore a pair of glasses with elongated, rectangular frames in shades of blue and black. In contrast with her subdued clothing, her footwear—knee length brown boots with wicked heels—stood out. They boosted her rather average height a good four inches.
The woman, who appeared to be in her late twenties, stood near one of the paintings with a notepad and pencil in her hands, scribbling away. He approached, but she, intent on her note taking, didn't look up. I would like very much to introduce myself to this woman, but I don’t want to startle her since she so deep in thought.
He took another step, deliberately letting his shoe come down a little too hard on the wood floor of the gallery, so it made a soft sound. The woman raised her head, and turned, revealing lovely, dark blue eyes behind the glasses. She also had pretty lips, naturally pink and completely devoid of makeup. Her rather long nose, broad and sharply pointed, contrasted with her classical beauty, rendering her striking rather than merely pretty. That does it. Now I have to meet her.
“Good evening, miss,” he said.
She regarded him in silence for a moment, her head tilted slighted to one side, and then she answered him in French. “Bonjour, monsieur. Avez-vous besoin de quelque chose?”
I shouldn't be astonished, I suppose. Plenty of Americans study French, but her flawless accent is impressive. Delighted, he switched to his native language. “Oui, mademoiselle. J'ai besoin d'une camarade qui peut m'expliquer ces tableaux.”
She grinned. “Ils sont difficiles, n'est-ce pas?”
“D'accord. Euh, je ne sais pas si l'artiste parle français. Donc je vous donnerai ma propre opinion plus tard. Maintenant, je travaille.”
Not wanting to be rude by speaking a language people around them didn't know, Nicolas switched back to English. “Ah, I thought you were working. Are you reviewing this art for a journal?”
“Yes,” she replied, tapping the end of her pen on her notepad. “I'm the art critic for the university's newspaper, but I'm also researching this for my dissertation.”
“Bonne chance,” he said softly.
She grinned and he noticed her front teeth ever so slightly overlapped.
How adorable. “D'accord, mademoiselle. I will leave you to your work, but when you are finished, I would like it very much if we could… talk some more? Maybe you will let me buy you a cup of coffee?”
She regarded him for another long moment. “Maybe… all right. I haven't practiced my French in a while. There's a café I like down the street.”
“Can you walk far in those boots?” He eyed her footwear doubtfully.
She grinned. “They're more comfortable than they look.”
“Good. How much longer?” he demanded, knowing he must sound like a pestering child, but not caring. If she knows how fascinated I am… well, the way she looks at me suggests she’s also interested.
“Fifteen, twenty minutes,” she informed him with a glance at her cheap, discount store watch.
“D'accord.” Okay. He lowered his eyes in disappointment. Wonderful. Another fifteen minutes at this stale party. I want to spend time talking to this intriguing woman, not linger among the weird paintings. It occurred to him what a whiny turn his thoughts had taken. Fifteen minutes and you're pouting? Grow up!
She leaned close to him, and the heat of her body set off a riot of tingles. “Listen,” her voice emerged as little more than a whisper, “if you go down the hallway and turn right, there's a room with some really pretty cityscapes. You might like those better.”
Nicolas grinned. He gulped the last of his champagne and set the empty glass on a tray with several others before taking her advice. I hope she won’t disappear while I'm out of the room.
The moment he entered the secondary gallery, all lit up and with only a few visitors wandering, he realized he agreed with her. These cityscapes are gorgeous, he decided, eyeing long canvases with different views of the downtown landmarks reproduced in loving detail, changing with the seasons and the time of day. One in particular focused on a massive glass skyscraper, the summer sunset reflecting gloriously off the panes. The building provided a stunning backdrop for an immature tree, whose leaves glowed a vibrant green.
Nicolas inhaled sharply at the sight. “I want that painting,” he breathed. Of course, the gallery is not selling these during the gala for another artist. I’ll have to come back tomorrow at lunch. A quick glance at the price tag told him the work, though expensive, did not exceed his ability to pay. Excellent. Now, when I return to France, I’ll have a little piece of America to bring with me.
He’d lost track of time, gazing longingly at the painting, when a soft voice sounded in his ear. “Vous aimez ça?”
“Oui,” he concurred with a grin, “but don't be so formal with me, chérie.”
The young woman responded with a matching smile, and Nicolas felt his heartbeat increasing as she formed a statement in French, softly accented with tones of the Upper Midwest. “Ce tableau est mon favori.”
“I can see why.” She’s as lovely as the painting. I don’t know where to look.
The woman’s expression turned wistful. “You're going to buy it, aren't you?”
“I'm glad it's going to someone who will love it, but I'll miss it.” She gazed sadly at the painting, and then back at him.
“Why don't you buy it?” he suggested. She certainly has first claim. “It should go to you if you love it so much.”
She examined her fingernails. “I don't have money. Certainly not enough to buy paintings. Not yet. Maybe once I finish my degree… but by then it will be too late.”
Poor girl. How sad. Wanting to see her smile again, he made a half-teasing offer. “I'll tell you what, mademoiselle. I will give you visitation rights, since you were the one who suggested I come in here. You can come to my apartment and see it any time you want.”
Mischief lit her eyes, so they sparkled behind her glasses. “Don't you think we should introduce ourselves before we get divorced?”
Nicolas blinked. Then he let loose a bray of laughter that would have had his mother scolding for hours. “You're right,” he admitted between wheezes. “Nicolas Brassard.” He extended his hand. She took it.
“Enchanté, Breanne.” His eyes touched lightly on hers, admiring the bright blue color, then moved to the striking nose, the soft, kissable lips. I wonder if she’d fancy a kiss… or if she’d allow it. Suddenly he knew he’d have to try.
“Enchantée,” she replied, her expression as considering as his.
Behind them, someone coughed, breaking the spell. Oh, dear. I really mustn’t pounce in the gallery. Conversation, Brassard. Talk about something. “So, Breanne, what did you really think of that… collection?” he asked at last, as though he hadn’t gotten a clue long since.
“I didn't like it,” she said bluntly. “Of course, I won't say so in my review. I always strive to be objective. People have different tastes, and it's my job to tell them what's out there, not what to think about it.”
Interesting viewpoint. I wonder how difficult it is to write about something you love or hate in an objective tone. “True.”
Her voice took on a teasing tone as she added, “I will admit that the color he’s obsessed with… it does nothing for me.”
Nicolas wrinkled his nose at the memory. “I agree with you. It looked like a pair of olive trousers. Now, he did do some interesting things with his brush. In a nicer tone, they would have been worth looking at.” He fought the urge to smirk. I might be a banker, but I can still comment sensibly on art, chérie, he thought, willing her to notice.
She dipped her chin, acknowledging his comment. Then her cheeks turned pink as she added, “He didn't use a brush.”
The soft blush captured his attention, so he had to think to form the words, and even then, they emerged in his native language. “Quoi ça?” What was that?
Breanne's eyebrow lifted. “He used a woman's body. That's what he's known for. He finds a 'muse', brings her to his studio and has her slither naked across the canvas.”
Nicolas smirked. “Ah. Do they also make love on the canvas?”
She grinned at his naughty comment, and the soft rose in her cheeks darkened. “I haven't heard they do, but it wouldn't surprise me. That sounds… messy.”
He allowed himself to consider what that might feel like. Ugh. “Also uncomfortable.”
He could see their line of conversation made her uncomfortable, and so he felt no surprise when she changed the subject. “Yes. Okay. Enough of this. How about that cup of coffee?”
“Yes. Let's go.” He regarded her boots doubtfully for another moment, and then offered her his arm. She took it, allowing him to enjoy her hand’s warmth as it slowly sank through the sleeve of his shirt.
They exited the gallery and walked down a broad, tree-lined downtown street, the shops two or three stories high—not skyscrapers—and each one different from the others. “So, Nicolas,” she asked, “what do you do?”
I love how she pronounces my name, Nee koh lah, just as it was meant to be, and makes no attempt to anglicize. He rested the palm of his free hand on her fingers as he answered. “I work at the International Bank of Paris. I've worked at the branch near my hometown since I graduated from the university, and when I heard about the position here, I had to take it. I've always wanted to live in America.”
He could see the awning of the café now, its red and white stripes still dimly visible in the light of a cast-iron street lamp.
“Really? Why?” She stared at him, her blue eyes wide with amazement.
“Je ne sais pas,” he replied with a shrug. “I've always wanted to live abroad. Malheureusement, it's temporary. I have less than a year until I transfer back to the Caen branch.”
“Oh. Is that bad?”
She's so curious. How nice. “Yes and no. I like it here, but I admit I miss my parents,” he explained. “They live near Caen, in the town of Bayeux. We're very close.”
“Ah, I see,” Breanne replied as he opened the door of the café and escorted her inside. It looked as new as he had expected: white booths, white counter, and stainless-steel coffee makers. Behind the counter, bottles of flavored syrups stood on display in front of a mirror, like liquor in an old-west saloon.
Nick continued his statement. “But my daughter lives here, and I miss her even more when I'm in Caen.”
“You have a daughter?” A look of concern crossed her features.
And why did I feel the need to tell her that? But since she asked the question, he felt compelled to explain. “Oui. She lives here with her mother. She's fourteen.”
Breanne's eyes widened. “You don't look old enough to have a fourteen-year-old daughter.”
“I'm thirty-four.” I wonder how old she is. She can’t be that much younger than me. “I was only nineteen when she was… conceived. Her mother was a foreign exchange student at the university I attended. As you can imagine, I seldom get to see Isabelle, but I have been very glad for this opportunity to spend time with her.”
He watched all kinds of thoughts chase across her face. “She's fortunate to have you nearby too,” Breanne said at last. Her voice and expression spoke of openness and curiosity, not judgment. She laid her hand on his. “Fourteen is a hard age for a girl.”
He smiled at her, but when he turned his hand to capture hers, she withdrew. Slow and easy. Don’t rush, he reminded himself. “Spending this year so often with her has been excellent. Once I go back, she will have to come and visit. Have you ever been to France, Breanne?”
She broke eye contact, her gaze skating away as though the view over his shoulder—which he happened to know was of the condiment table—held great interest to her. “No. I've never been out of the city. I would love to go to France one day. Again, once I have the money.”
Never been out of the city? How can that be? Startled, Nicolas blurted thoughtlessly, “One thing I don't understand about Americans is this desire never to travel. America is not the whole world. Why did your parents never take you anywhere?”
One side of her mouth turned upward, but not exactly in a smile. “I don't have parents, Nicolas.”