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Sera left her tiny garret apartment in Montmartre when the sun was high overhead, illuminating even her small winding street. A malnourished ginger tabby cat stared at her from atop a battered cardboard box as she walked by on her way to the metro station at Abbesses. She emerged into the bustle of the boulevard St. Germain, crossing the street to her final destination. The cathedral of St. Germain-des-près had been her sanctuary since she’d first come to Paris. All the noise from outside fell away as the door closed behind her.
She made her way to the chapel of the Virgin, the walk to the furthest point of the church calming her. She took a couple of euros from her trouser pocket and deposited them in the donation box before she lit a taper.
Please let me find enough money to pay Royale, she thought, watching the tiny flame flicker into existence. She found herself a spot and knelt at the prie-dieu, taking her rosary from her bag. The jet beads glinted in the low light. She closed her eyes and made the sign of the cross, whispering the Apostles Creed and the Our Father before reciting the first Hail Mary, her fingers marking the spot on the bead. Her grandmother had tried to teach her the prayers in Latin, but she still preferred them in French. They felt more substantial in her mind, more powerful. Not that her grandmother would approve of her praying to the Virgin after what she’d done, and would have to do again. She repeated her wish between each of the rote prayers, slowly counting through the five decades. She let the beads hang from her fingers for a few moments as she looked up at the statue in the chapel. Mary’s serene face looked down on her, luminous in the sun shining through the stained glass windows.
Sera rose to her feet and tucked her rosary back into her bag, feeling rested and ready to face the rest of her day. She still had several hours before she had to be at work, and her time was her own. She squinted into the sunlight as she emerged from the church and nearly stumbled over a young woman with a sketchbook across her knees. She laid her hand on the girl’s shoulder.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you there.”
The young woman glanced up, brushing her auburn hair away from her face. Her movement left a smudge of charcoal on her lightly tanned cheek.
“It’s no problem.” She gave Sera a shy smile. Her French was hesitant and accented. She hadn’t been in Paris long.
Sera caught a glimpse of her sketchbook and couldn’t help gawking. The girl had nearly finished a drawing of the Deux Magots café in careful detail. She bent to look closer.
“You’re very talented,” she remarked. The young woman smiled again, seeming less shy.
“Thank you, Madame. I really should be working on my thesis, but the day was too nice to stay inside.”
Sera perched on the step next to her. The girl’s looks reminded her of Edouard’s Paula, slim and delicate, but she had a calmer mien. What would Edouard think of her? She couldn’t help being a matchmaker, especially with Edouard. If she’d had a brother, she’d have done the same.
“Are you studying art?”
“Art history,” the girl replied. “I chose my thesis especially so I could come to Paris.” She held out a hand. “I’m Sophie, by the way.”
Sera clasped her hand. “Sera.”
“Are you from Paris?” Sophie asked.
“Not originally. What about you?”
“Ottawa, though I wish I could have been born here. There’s just so much to see.”
“It’s a lovely city. Have you toured around a bit?”
“Not nearly enough. I’ve been here less than a week,” Sophie confided. “And most of that week has been work.”
“You should come to the club tonight, take in some music,” Sera suggested. Edouard would be working and it would be the perfect opportunity. Already she knew Edouard would like her; Paula had no interest in art and he’d complained regularly about missing exhibitions to make her happy.
“What sort of club is it?” Sophie looked down at her sketchbook, tapping her pencil against the edge.
“It’s a jazz club called Le Chat Rouge,” Sera replied. “Say you’ll come, Sophie. I’d love to have a new ear for my performance.”
Sophie looked at her with a kind of awe, her eyes wide. “You’re a singer?”
“I am. Will you come?”
“I could.” Sophie’s enthusiasm faltered. “Where is it? I don’t want to get lost.”
Sera dug in her bag for a pen and a scrap of paper. She jotted down the address. “It’s not too far from here, actually.” She wrote out directions from the metro stop. Sophie looked over the slip of paper.
“I think I can find it,” she said. “Should I wear something nice?”
“You could wear jeans, but there’s nothing wrong with something fancier,” Sera replied. Edouard would love her, even in jeans. He just had to.
“I’ll come up with something.”
Sera rose. “I’ll look for you tonight. The band starts around nine. À bientôt, Sophie.”
Sera could hear the murmur of the growing crowd. Friday nights were her favourite; she loved singing for a full house. It made her fantasies of success seem real, and her cut of the cover charge would give her enough to pay Royale for another week. €300. She’d just make it without leaving herself destitute.
A brisk knock at the door announced Benoît’s presence.
“Are you ready?”
“Just about.” Sera leaned forward, picking up her face powder. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
Benoît’s reflection grinned. “Two minutes,” he told her. The door shut behind him.
Sera applied her powder and made the final touches to her makeup. She rose and smoothed down her dress. It clung to her curves and dipped to give her more than a hint of cleavage in front, and left bare an expanse of her pale back. Perfect to impress the crowd, and Jeremy Gordon, if he decided to return. She’d spend the evening with him if she could. She gave herself a once-over in the mirror and put a sultry smile on her face before she opened the door.
She strode out into the club, scanning the crowd for familiar faces as she approached the stage. Benoît held out a hand and helped her up the short stair. Serge and Patrice were already there, talking in low tones. Patrice cradled his cello as he talked, gesturing with the bow as he made some point to Serge. Edouard came to the edge of the stage, holding a glass of water. She bent to take it from him.
“Look for a slim girl with dark auburn hair,” she told him.
“Just trust me. You’ll like her, I’m sure of it.” His aggrieved expression amused her. “You won’t regret it, Edouard.”
“I’ll watch for her,” he conceded. “What’s her name?”
“Sophie. She’s Canadian. And she’s an artist—just like you.” His expression softened and she thought she saw a hint of a smile. He nodded and headed back to the bar.
She set the water at the side of the stage, tucked behind one of the small speakers. As she stepped up to the microphone, she glanced at the band. Benoît gave her a nod and she heard the opening bars of ‘Le Vagabond’.
The first lines came easily and she saw the club’s patrons turn their heads to listen. Even Jean paused in his work, holding a snifter of cognac. Her confidence swelled and she allowed a small smile to hover on her lips between verses, widening as she saw Jeremy Gordon moving from the bar to a better vantage point. Perfect. Near him, Sophie waited her turn for a drink. Sera met Edouard’s gaze across the bar and knew he’d spotted her as well. She watched them until the song finished and she had to turn her attention back to the band.
Benoît had chosen a song by Dietrich for their next piece, one of her favourites. It seemed appropriate to sing about falling in love again as she watched Sophie hover by the bar with her drink, Edouard speaking to her every time he had a lull in his work. Satisfied, she let her gaze wander.
The flicker of a cigarette lighter in the gloom caught her eye. It flickered again and held, illuminating the face of a man she hadn’t seen in weeks. Marc Perron lit his cigarette and his features faded back into the shadows. Not that she needed bright sunlight.
He would be elegantly dressed—a suit, pressed shirts with cufflinks, and depending on his mood, a tie. For all his apparent fastidiousness, he was never a dandy. Even now, moving amongst the crowd to stand at the rail, clear to her gaze, he confidently filled his space. He had a certainty about him, even when they’d first met in that tiny bar years ago. He’d beckoned her over, introduced himself, and had her telling him all her troubles before the night was over. Tonight, he gave her a hungry look that caused her to catch her breath in the midst of the phrase she was singing. She saw that half smile of amusement as he sipped a glass of wine. No one else had noticed her distraction, but he knew.
She pulled herself away, looking anywhere but at him. She found Jeremy Gordon at a table to her left, tucked into a corner, and he looked relaxed, watching her. Sophie had found a small table for two. She’d see Sophie, and then spend time with Jeremy. He might be generous enough to buy her a few drinks, or dinner. That was where she would go at her break, she resolved, and she would ignore Marc completely.
The music drew to a close after several more songs and she bowed briefly to the audience to acknowledge their applause. She glanced at Marc before she could stop herself and he raised his glass to her. She looked away. A hand loomed from the darkness beside the stage and she let the man help her down to the floor. She looked up at him as her eyes adjusted and smiled at Jeremy.
“Bravo, mademoiselle.” He bent to kiss her hand.
“Merci. I’m so glad you came.”
“So am I.” He lowered their linked hands, but didn’t let go. “May I buy you a drink?”
“Afterwards? I promised my friend I’d see her at the break, and there’s not much time.”
“Later then. I’ll come find you.” He brushed her cheek with his lips and they parted. Sera wove through the crowd to Sophie’s table, where she was greeted with a look of outright hero worship.
“You were incredible!” Sophie clapped her hands together. “I’m so glad I came.”
“It’s not over yet. There’s a half hour break and then we’ll do one more set.” Sera took the free chair and glanced at Sophie’s empty glass. “We should get you another.”
“I would have gone, but I thought I’d lose my spot.” Sophie leaned forward. “That bartender is so sweet. Do you know him well?”
“Edouard’s a great guy,” Sera agreed. “He went through a rough spell and I know he’d love your attention.”
“He seemed to.” Sophie blushed. “I’ll try to get back there during the next set.” She craned her neck to glance at the bar. “He’s too busy now.”
“Things will slow down during the second set.” Sera moistened her dry lips and wished she had her glass of water with her, but she’d left it onstage.
“Looking for this?” A familiar hand set a glass of water in front of her. She would have known his hand anywhere, even without the silver cufflinks that glinted against his dark pinstriped jacket. That hand had bruised her, caressed her, comforted her, and had brought her to screaming orgasm more times than she could remember.
“Ma chère, you were lovely as always,” Marc continued, the low tenor of his voice husky with intimacy. “If I wasn’t away so often, I’d be here every night.”
Sera lifted her face as Marc bent and kissed her cheeks, lingering far longer than strictly necessary. She inhaled the subtle scent of his cologne before he straightened.
“Merci, Marc. Won’t you join us?”
He appropriated an empty chair from a nearby table, settling between her and Sophie. “Aren’t you going to introduce us?” His gaze rested on Sophie, who shifted in her chair under the unexpected attention.
“Of course.” She felt a sharp pang of jealousy and gave Marc a terse look. “Sophie, this is my friend Marc Perron. Marc, Sophie.”
“Enchantée, mademoiselle Sophie.” Marc held out his hand. Sophie hesitated, but finally placed her hand in his. Sera watched him lift Sophie’s hand to his lips. Sophie blushed furiously and as soon as she could, she took her hand back, clasping it under the table.
“Bonsoir, monsieur,” she replied politely.
“Where have you been?” Sera drew his attention away from Sophie, who glanced towards the bar again.
“Here and there. I was in Amsterdam last week and Florence the week before. And I had a quick jaunt to London for a few meetings. One of my clients was desperate for an altarpiece.”
“Isn’t that illegal?” Sophie asked, her eyes wide.
Marc smiled at her. “He saw sense and paid me to go looking for replicas for him, or for an artist who could paint in the old style.”
“Marc deals in art and antiques,” Sera remarked to Sophie. “His family’s firm has been around for a long time.”
“A hundred years or thereabouts.” Marc lit a cigarette, offering the slim case to Sophie, and perfunctorily to Sera, giving her a wink as he held it out. He knew she didn’t smoke, but he had noticed her response to his attention to Sophie.
“No thank you,” Sophie replied. Marc slipped the case back into his jacket pocket.
“Amsterdam wasn’t as worthwhile,” he remarked. “The items at auction were poor; much worse than I’d expected.”
“So it was a wasted trip?” Sera sipped her water.
“Not entirely.” He gave her a look that left no doubts as to what he was referring. Of course he’d entertain one or several women during his stay. Sophie’s attention had drifted again and she was glad Sophie had missed Marc’s lewd look.
“Have you traveled much, mademoiselle?” Marc inquired, bringing Sophie’s gaze back to the table.
“I wish.” She gave him a rueful smile. “I barely could afford to come here.”
“And what has brought you to our lovely city?”
Sera watched Marc shift closer to Sophie, intent on his new conquest. This was not what she had intended when she’d invited Sophie tonight. She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned.
“It’s time.” It was Benoît. Patrice and Serge were already waiting on stage. As she rose, she knew how to interrupt Marc’s flirtation. It would serve him right and give Sophie a chance to go see Edouard. And, though Sera didn’t want to admit it, he would spend more time with her instead.
“Would you play a song with me, Marc?” She turned to Benoît. “If Patrice doesn’t mind lending his cello, of course.”
“I’m sure he’ll be fine with it.” Benoît ambled back to the stage where he had a word with Patrice.
“You play the cello?” Sophie asked.
“Not professionally.” Marc stubbed out his cigarette. “Bien sûr, ma chère; I would love to. Save my seat, Sophie.”
Patrice gave up his seat for Marc, who settled the cello between his knees. He played a few experimental chords and then tightened two strings minutely. “What shall we play?
Sera already knew. She had thought of it when she’d first seen him.
“Do you remember ‘Ma Chanteuse’?” She saw a reaction in his eyes, the slight tenseness of his form, but it disappeared before she could be certain.
“I wrote it for you. How could I forget, ma chère?”
The first few notes slid into the club and the crowd quieted. He played through the haunting introduction and Sera stepped up to the microphone.
You walked in and captured the impossible smile…
She hadn’t sung the song in years, but she hadn’t forgotten the words. She glanced back at Marc. His head lifted and he seemed to see right into her. Her chest felt tight and tears pricked the back of her eyes. She looked away, trying to focus on the music. Her voice rose and fell with the melody of the cello. The audience faded from her awareness and she and the music were in a world all their own.
As she sang the last line, she turned to watch Marc draw his bow across the strings for the final bar. The notes carried in the silent crowd. When he finished, they were immersed in applause. She barely registered Patrice returning to his spot, but suddenly Marc was beside her, giving a brief bow to the audience.
“Beautiful as always, ma chère,” he told her, giving her an affectionate smile before stepping down from the stage. She watched him resume his position next to Sophie, who looked at him with some of the same awe she had given to Sera. She glanced at Edouard, but he was busy behind the bar. She’d done what she’d tried to avoid—Marc had Sophie’s full attention.
Benoît’s piano resonated with the final dramatic chords of ‘La Vie En Rose’ and then he and the rest of the band rose to take their bows. Sera joined them, coming back to earth from her musical highs. She spotted Jeremy Gordon patiently nursing a bourbon near the bar, but a glance at Sophie decided her. Jeremy could wait. Sophie laughed at something Marc had said, and he leaned closer.
“You didn’t save me any wine,” Sera remarked as she pulled out her chair and sat across from Sophie. The carafe on the table was empty and only Sophie’s glass held any liquor.
“That’s easily remedied, ma chère.”
Before Marc could gesture for a waiter, Sera looked directly at Sophie. “Could you go ask Edouard for another carafe, and a glass?” She gave Sophie a conspiratorial wink and Sophie grinned.
Marc watched her go. “Was that really necessary?”
“I didn’t invite her here so you could seduce her.”
“That would have been a fortunate side effect.” He lit a cigarette. “Why does it matter?”
“She’s already interested in someone else.” At the bar, Sophie smiled up at Edouard, standing on her tiptoes to be heard over the crowd.
“Is that all?”
Sera couldn’t say more. Sophie came back to the table, Edouard in tow, carrying a fresh carafe of wine and a glass.
“You outdid yourself tonight, Sera.” Edouard set the glass in front of her and poured from the carafe. “And you also, Monsieur Perron. Jean told me that he wished you would play more often.”
Marc chuckled. “I’m sure he does, but he couldn’t afford my rates.” Sophie laughed, but her attention was still focused on Edouard.
“Didn’t I tell you she was fantastic?” Sera wasn’t sure that Edouard’s grin could get any wider.
“You were right,” Sophie replied, her cheeks flushed. Not from shyness, Sera thought. The pair seemed to have forgotten that anyone else was in the room. “I never doubted you.”
“And now that you know, you’ll have to come back again,” Edouard replied, gazing down at her. He finished filling Marc’s glass and set the carafe on the table, removing the empty one. He seemed reluctant to leave, but finally stepped away. “I have to get back. See you later?”
“Of course,” Sophie told him.
Sera glanced at Marc and found him watching her instead of Sophie and Edouard. He gave her a wicked grin as Edouard departed and turned his attention back to Sophie. “Did you know, mademoiselle, that Picasso and Dora Marr used to drink in this very club?”
“Really?” Sophie looked around the club with a new curiosity.
“It’s been an artists’ favourite for decades. Everyone who was anyone has been here.”
“Even Canadian artists?”
Marc shrugged. “Very likely. Is that your area of study?”
“I’m focusing on Canadian artists that came to Paris to study, especially Paul Peel.”
“I’m familiar with his work,” Marc said. “At an auction in Montreal one of his studies for After the Bath was in a lot up for bid.”
“Did you buy it?” Sophie leaned forward, resting her arms on the table.
“My clients were looking for other works. That one went to a museum, if I recall.”
“You have a good memory,” Sera remarked. The corner of Marc’s mouth quirked up in a smile.
Sophie looked dreamy. “I’d love to own The Venetian Bather. It’s my favourite.”
“I’ve seen it at the National Gallery.”
Sophie smiled at Marc. “Me too. I went all the time when I was at home.”
Sera listened to their conversation, becoming increasingly irritated and bored. Marc took every new woman as a challenge, and though she liked Sophie, she was jealous. She made her tone sound amused as she rebuked them. “You two aren’t being very kind to someone who has no idea what you’re talking about.”
“The Venetian Bather is a painting of a young girl standing nude before a mirror. She has a towel, and it’s done in almost a Pre-Raphaelite style.”
“And there’s a small kitten chasing the frayed hem of the towel,” Sophie added. “I love that little detail.”
“You’re fortunate to be able to see it so often,” Sera said.
“I’d love to own it so I could see it every day, but that’s impossible.”
“Nothing’s impossible.” Marc said, his lips curving into an amused smile.
“That is.” She thought for a moment. “Unless I won the lottery, I guess.”
“If you were really wealthy you could just pay someone to steal it for you.” Marc lit a cigarette, taking a long drag. “Money opens a lot of doors.”
“Only to become a criminal,” Sera interjected.
“As if that ever happens,” Sophie said to Marc. “Theft-to-order? Really?”
“I have heard of it. There are more than a few stories that circulate the auction houses.” He glanced at Sera. “Another drink?”
Sera shrugged. Sophie looked at her watch. “Just a cab home for me, I’m afraid.”
“You need to give me your number before you go,” Sera told her. “Marc, do you have a pen?”
He pulled a pen from his inner jacket pocket. Sera took a napkin from the table and wrote her phone number. Sophie wrote hers, and Sera tore the napkin in half.
“Maybe we could meet for coffee next week?” Sophie suggested. She rose.
“Of course. Just call.” Sera gave Sophie a hug. “Bonne nuit.”
“A shame you have to leave so early.” Marc rose and bent to kiss Sophie’s cheeks. She became flustered and stepped back. “Bonne nuit, mademoiselle.” Sera raised a brow. He certainly hadn’t held back.
Sophie walked up the steps, turned to give them a wave and then disappeared into the crowd. Sera hoped that Sophie would stop to say goodnight to Edouard on her way out. She had a feeling she would. It would serve Marc right if Sophie completely dismissed his advances.
Marc turned to her as they seated themselves again. “She’s such an innocent,” he said. Sera gave him a sharp look.
“She’s not your type.”
“Of course she is. They all are.” He took one last drag on his cigarette before stubbing it out. “It wouldn’t take much.”
“Just leave her be, Marc.” Sera glanced towards the bar and saw Sophie and Edouard talking. “She’s interested in someone else.”
Marc followed her gaze. “She could do better than Edouard. Someone with more experience.”
“There’s such a thing as too much experience. And besides, weren’t you seeing Jeanne?”
“Not for weeks now. Too dull.” He leaned closer. “You would have loved the girl I met in London. She wasn’t as innocent as Sophie, but very close. And so beautifully willing.” He grinned.
“But only worth a night?”
“She was worth a second night, and I’d be tempted to see her on my next trip as well.”
“That’s quite unlike you.”
He gave her a knowing look. “I doubt it’ll be anything serious.”
Sera took a sip of her wine.
“So tell me,” Marc continued, “Where did you find our Sophie?”
“Our Sophie?” She shook her head, wanting to kick him for his possessiveness. Sophie wasn’t his, or hers. “I came out of St.-Germain-des-près and she was sketching the Deux Magots.”
“What a shame I didn’t meet her first.” Marc poured them more wine, emptying the carafe.
“You’d have scared her away.”
“I didn’t scare you away when we first met.”
“That was then. She’s smarter than I was. And I don’t think you’d be able to seduce her.”
“That sounds like a challenge, ma chère.”
“It wasn’t meant to be one.”
She’d seen how Sophie had looked at Edouard, and she recognized the stirrings of first love. She had felt them herself once, and as she looked at Marc, lighting another cigarette, she had never managed to get over them.
He leaned back in his chair, one leg stretched out, his jacket fallen open. Sera knew he was teasing her, giving her something to look at. His trousers clung in all the right spots, highlighting the muscled line of his leg. Her eyes followed it upward, but he interrupted her perusal.
“How could she resist?” Marc caught her gaze. “You can’t.”
“No harm in looking,” she replied. “I’m not interested. And, I have someone else.” He smirked. “In fact, he’s sitting over there.” She gave a slight nod towards Jeremy Gordon, though she wondered how long he would wait.
“Impressive,” Marc said. “How long have you known him?”
“A little while.”
“As long as we’ve known Sophie?”
“And as easy to seduce. He’s been looking at you all evening.” Marc looked amused.
“Sophie’s not interested in you.”
He chuckled. “So you keep saying. Let me offer you a wager then, ma chère, since you seem so certain.” He ran a hand down her bare arm and she tried to keep from reacting. Goose bumps rose on her skin and she hoped he hadn’t noticed. “It’s been so long since our last one.”
“And that turned out so well for me,” she said dryly. “Why would I want to?”
“I’d give you the choice of terms,” Marc offered.
“Anything?” She tried to think of something appropriately damning and to get him back for having lost their last wager. She didn’t want to spend 24 hours on her hands and knees again.
“Whatever you like, ma chère.” He was so easily confident that he would succeed. She wanted to wipe the smirk off of his face.
“Your wager is nothing without a time limit. I’ll give you a week, starting tomorrow.”
“What am I, a miracle worker? That’s hardly fair.”
“Who said this was fair?”
“I’m barely in Paris this month. Four weeks,” he countered.
“Not enough. Three.”
Sera took a sip of her wine and tried not to smile. She knew what she wanted to wager. “I’ll give you your three weeks, but…” and she paused to make sure she had Marc’s full attention, “…if you lose, you’ll pay off my debts and give me enough to live on for half a year.”
Marc scoffed. “That’s excessive.”
“So is three weeks. It makes me think that you don’t have much confidence in your abilities.”
“D’accord. But if you lose, ma chère, you’re mine for those six months.”
“Yours how?” The wine was hard to swallow against the sudden tightening of her throat.
“For whatever I wish. You’d be bound to do what I required. I might make you clean my flat every day, or take dictation. I could use someone for when the receptionist at the firm is ill.” He became serious. “Or you could be tied to my bed for hours to serve my pleasure.” He gave her a keen look. “Do you agree?”
She stilled, not daring to take another sip of her wine. She could imagine it all too easily, but she wanted something more than just pleasure. “To become your indentured servant? No.”
“I’d still pay your six months living expenses,” he said. “I’d just be getting something for my money. And I might even pay your debts.”
“Six months is too long.”
“So make it three. With the appropriate reduction in your living expenses.”
Three months. She thought about how Sophie and Edouard had looked together, and weighed her chances of winning. Marc was a nearly unstoppable force when it came to women, but he’d have a strong rival in Edouard, along with Sophie’s accompanying reluctance. She took a deep breath.
“Oui, d’accord.” She held out her hand. He took it, but instead of shaking on their wager, he pulled her forward until they were inches apart. His hand cupped her cheek and she had to stop herself from leaning into his touch.
“We should seal this wager with something a bit more substantial, don’t you think, ma chère?” She met his gaze. There was something in his eyes that was more than just desire. He leaned forward that last inch and kissed her. She stiffened, but only for a moment. His lips teased hers, familiar and captivating. What would it hurt? She responded to his kiss and he took it deeper, conquering her mouth. If she’d been standing, her knees would have given out. She pressed forward, and when he broke off the kiss, she felt cheated. “But that’s not all. It’s been too long since we’ve played. I’ve missed you. On y va?”
Had he really missed her? She could still feel the imprint of his lips. She shouldn’t, but if it were only one night, she could fulfill her desire without getting attached. “Only tonight.”
“Until I win,” he said, giving her that amused half smile again.