ASSAULT AND BERET
“You know everyone says that French waiters are rude, but I don’t think our waiter is rude at all,” I said to my cousin Vivian Tremont. “He seems very pleasant.”
“That’s because he’s trying to sleep with you, Scarlett,” Vivian said. “Why do you think our bottle of La Bodice Cheverny was on the house?”
“Seriously? Free wine for a tussle in the sheets, do I look that easy?” I asked. “Well, that is rude.”
“Uh huh,” she said. Which was only slightly better than I told you so but not much.
It was late evening in Paris, the city of light, and we were enjoying a nosh as Viv, who is British, would say. We were seated inside the Bistro Renee on Rue Saint Charles.
The bitter wind that whipped down the street from the Seine River could not get us here. We had ducked inside to eat but also to get warm.
Thankfully, the food did not disappoint. I ordered quail with roasted spring onions while Viv indulged in suckling pig with salsify, which is a lot like a parsnip, and we shared a baguette seasoned with the mellow heat of the espelette pepper from the Basque region, or so our waiter David informed us when asked.
He was very charming and quite good looking with his wavy dark hair and golden eyes. He told us his father owned the Bistro that was named for his mother Renee, who had passed away when he was just a boy. Honestly, he broke my heart a little with that story but not enough to have a sleepover with him.
The small restaurant was everything a late meal in Paris should be. Candlelight, soft music in the background, an exotic blossom of some sort in a blue bottle on our small square table swathed in a pristine white cloth with matching napkins.
The crumbs of the baguette and the near empty bottle of sauvignon blanc sat on the table between us. We had scraped our plates clean. We did share as only cousins who live together like sisters can with some squabbling over what exactly was equitable and over who had ordered the tastier dish. I had, but Viv refused to admit it because I am her younger American cousin and she refuses to acknowledge that I am just as cultured as she is.
I glanced out the window. It was beautiful but it was not exactly the Paris of my dreams. Instead of sitting on an outside patio enjoying the warm floral scented breeze of spring, we were swathed in scarves and sweaters, sitting inside a small café watching a January snowfall.
Why were we here? Here’s the short version. Viv is an acclaimed London milliner hired to teach a one-week hat making class at the local art school. I am Scarlett Parker, not just her cousin but also part owner in our millinery business housed on Portobello Road in Notting Hill, London, which we inherited six years ago from our grandmother Mim.
Now because I know you’re going to ask, since everyone does, the answer is no, positively, unequivocally no. I can’t make a hat to save my life. So what am I doing here with her?
I’m sorry, did you miss the part that we’re in Paris? Yes, even in January it’s still Paris. Besides, the fact is that while Viv is an amazing artist, she’s not the best with people. That’s where I come in.
Viv being a creative type is known to occasionally be impulsive. I am generally the voice of reason when this happens but unfortunately when she decided on a whim to elope, she neglected to mention it to me thus I couldn’t stop her. This was a couple of years ago while I was busy ruining my own life in a bad relationship.
In hindsight, we were both reeling from the loss of our grandmother Mim and neither of us were making good choices in our grief. Why is hindsight always so much clearer than foresight?
Anyway, after a few weeks of marriage, Viv ditched her husband without properly ending her marriage and last she knew he was in Paris, so my mission, if I chose to accept it which I did, was to find her husband and get him to agree to an annulment. Easy peasy, right?
Right. In the meantime, I needed to scrape off our waiter.
“Well, I’m not going to sleep with him,” I said. “But I will finish off the wine.”
“Naturally,” Viv said.
I poured the remainder into our two glasses. Viv raised her glass and I did the same. We gently tapped them together.
“To finding your husband,” I said. She blanched.
Okay, that was me being a buzz kill but also keeping her on task. Viv can by sly when she wants to be as is evidenced by the fact that she got married and never told me. I mean, honestly, who does that?
“How about to returning home happier than when we arrived,” she offered instead.
“I like that,” I said. “It leaves it nice and open ended for all possibilities.”
“Precisely,” she said.
We drained our glasses.
We declined coffee and a dessert, although I was tempted by the lemon cannoli, and a request for my phone number. In all honesty, I really felt that David must be vision impaired as I have the fiery hair and freckles of my dad’s ginger infused DNA while Viv has the milky complexion and long blonde curls of our grandmother. In a beauty competition, Viv beats me hands down every time, yes, even when I put in great effort. Good thing I learned to get by on my personality years ago.
When we stepped outside, the chill wind was relentless, pushing us down the street like we were wayward teenagers being forced home before curfew. I tightened the scarf about my neck and jammed the cuff of my leather gloves up into the sleeve of my jacket. I really despise the cold.
It was a short walk to Madame Leclaire’s apartment building where the Paris School of Art was housing us for the duration of Viv’s class. It was a charming place located on the edge of the fifteenth arrondissment within walking distance of the Eiffel Tower, it was built of white stone with a blue Mansard roof, it was four stories tall containing eight small apartments with the added bonus of a communal living room and dining room on the main floor where Madame Leclaire served a continental breakfast every day and a nightcap in the evenings.
The furniture in our apartment was a mashup of antiques with modern accessories. We each had a twin bed and a large armoire in our rooms which were connected by a sitting room with a kitchenette. We were on one of the upper floors and our apartment had large windows with narrow wrought iron balconies. Mostly, our view was of the similar building across the way and the street below, but if I pressed my body against the glass and angled my head just right I could glimpse a sliver of the Eiffel Tower to the north of us.
The house was warm and safe and Madame Leclaire who ran it was lovely and charming and always seemed to have the best wine and cheese on hand. That is a wonderful quality in an apartment building owner.
With our scarfs wrapped around our heads, conversation was impossible as we hurried down the street. The snow was getting sharper as it pelted my back, pushing me toward my fluffy soft bed. I really didn’t need the encouragement.
The lights were on in the front room of Madame Leclaire’s. Viv and I picked up our pace. We dashed up the steps and hurried into the vestibule. Viv pressed the intercom and called a cheery, “Hello, we’re home.”
The inside door opened with a click and we pushed through with the eagerness of school girls looking for cookies after a long day. Warmth washed over us and Madame Leclaire popped her head out of the communal sitting room on the first floor.
“Girls, you look frozen, you should come and sit by the fire.” She gestured for us to follow her. Honestly with her alluring French accent I would have followed her anywhere but the fire seemed like an excellent suggestion.
We did not need to be asked twice. Well, Viv might have, she’s British and they do hem and haw a lot in a show of good manners, but I am American and I do not. I walked right into the cozy room without hesitation and plopped myself in a darling chair right in front of the fire.
“This is heaven,” I said. I peeled off my short wool coat and let the heat from the flames wash over me.
“Would you care for some hot chocolate?” Madame Leclaire offered. “Usually, I serve something stronger in the evening but with the snow, I felt like chocolate was most appropriate.”
“Oh, we don’t want to trouble you,” Viv said at the same time I said, “Yes, please.”
Madame Leclaire glanced between us and smiled, amused no doubt by how different we were. She was much too polite to say so however.
Madame was tall and lithe, with a cap of dark curls about her heart shaped face that were just beginning to go gray. Her lips were wide and generous and her eyes a rich, trustworthy brown. I had liked her immediately when we arrived the day before and she had been nothing but gracious and kind to us which just reinforced my first impression.
This evening she wore tailored black slacks and a crisp raspberry blouse, which was mostly covered by the charcoal gray cashmere wrap she had draped about her shoulders, giving her a look that was both chic and comfy at the same time. You simply can not out dress the French and I would never be stupid enough to try.
Viv perched on the edge of the seat across from mine as if getting ready to bail the moment she felt her presence was an imposition. I burrowed deeper into my seat.
A silver pot with a random collection of mismatched china cups sat on the table in front of the couch, where Madame Leclaire resumed her seat. A cup of half drunk chocolate sat on a coaster and beside it a French novel was face down on the highly polished wooden table.
Now I wondered if we had intruded upon Madame Leclaire’s quiet time. But I thought not because the other cups on the tray indicated that she was open to company.
As if she was reading my thoughts, she took a delicate china cup and poured the piping hot chocolate into it. She placed it on a mismatched saucer and handed it to me. The steam rising out of the cup smelled a little like I’ve always imagined heaven would smell, assuming of course that there is one and that I am invited.
Madame Leclaire looked at Viv as if trying to determine if she wanted chocolate or if she was about to flee the room.
“Yes?” she asked as she held up the pot.
“Thank you, Madame Leclaire,” Viv said. “You are most kind.”
“Please call me Suzette,” she said. “Most of my tenants do.”
“Most?” I asked. “Which ones don’t?”
“The ones I don’t like,” she said.
Viv and I both laughed at the wicked gleam in her eye.
“We are very honored that you like us,” I said. Then I added, “Suzette.”
Viv sipped her hot chocolate and I saw her spine relax as she melted into her chair. There really is nothing a good cup of cocoa can’t cure.
“You start your classes tomorrow?” Suzette asked.
“Yes, bright and early,” Viv said. “Monsieur Martin said he would be by to escort me.”
“He is very attentive,” Suzette said. “Do you both teach millinery or do you teach something different, Ms. Parker.”
“Scarlett, please,” I said.
“And I’m Vivian, or Viv, if you prefer,” Viv chimed in.
“I don’t teach anything,” I said. “I have no artistic ability at all. The last hat I tried to make looked like a very bad brioche.”
Suzette covered her mouth with one delicate hand and laughed. “I am sure that is not true.”
“Oy, it’s true,” Viv said with the candor only a cousin could manage without it being a slam to the ego.
“What will you do with your time then, Scarlett, while Viv is teaching?”
“I am going to be looking for her husband,” I said.
Viv gasped and Suzette’s perfectly arched eyebrows rose almost to her hairline. Even surprise looked good on her.
“I am afraid I do not comprehend,” Suzette said. “You are looking for a husband for your cousin?”
“No, I’m actually looking for her husband,” I said. “She misplaced him.”
Viv glowered at me and I shrugged.
“What?” I asked. “You did. Besides maybe Suzette can help me figure out where to start.”
“But of course, if there is anything I can do to help, I will do so gladly,” she said.
“See?” I said to Viv. She continued glaring at me and I was pretty sure she growled deep in her throat but then she sipped her cocoa and seemed to settle back down again.
“But do explain to me how you misplace a husband,” Suzette said. She smiled over the edge of her own cup. “I may need to know how to do that one day.”