It’s almost the turn of the century in Paris, and Géraldine Germaine is an independent woman. She rides a bicycle, scoffs at the ridiculous fashions in hats, and makes a living (barely) by writing a melodramatic weekly serial (published under a man’s name, of course). She loves her work, and life is beautiful – even if the ceiling of her attic apartment is so low she can’t sit up in bed.
Then she starts to notice certain coincidences shared between her life and her fictional heroine’s. Little things, at first.
But then she meets a painter who looks just like the hero of her story.
And he wants her to be his muse….
“Il est adorable! This romantic gem of a novelette will please lovers of Amelie and Chocolat. As vibrant as a freshly cut rose!”
—Celeste Bradley, New York Times bestselling author
Géraldine Germaine owned one fork, one knife, and one spoon. One pan and one pot, which served for both cocoa and soup. When not in use, this sad array of civilization sat, along with the jar of cocoa, on the single shelf above the little table that held a washbasin, a hot plate and her good sharp knife. Even when penniless, a Frenchwoman has a good sharp knife.
She had bought two plates, two bowls, and two cups originally, in an excess of hope, but had dropped one of the plates in years past and hadn't replaced it. The second bowl served when she was whisking eggs. The second cup she used as a flower vase—when she was able to afford flowers, which hadn't happened in a long time. For a while now, she had been making do with little sprigs of greenery from the bushy thing outside the landlord Mr Stubbins's window.
But now the roses were in bloom, torturing her with their gaudy gaiety every time she walked by the florist on Rue Saint-Honoré on the way to her editor's office. The shop had a cloud of scent around it like a bubble that bulged out the door and took over the sidewalk. She tried to limit the number of times she walked by lest she do something gaudy herself: like weeping. Or thievery.
She had the attic apartment, which had walls that sloped in so the table with the hot plate stuck out from the wall, and if you sat up too quickly in bed you would brain yourself. Other than the bed and the cooking table, the sole furnishings were a dining table and two chairs, very small, and a dresser, also sticking out awkwardly. The top of the dresser and the floor all around the edges of the walls were stacked with neat rows of books. They had recently taken over one of the chairs as well. Since she had not had a visitor in a long time, it hardly mattered.
On the ground floor was a milliner's, owned by the astonishingly old Mr Stubbins, an imported British antique. He lived in small rooms at the back of the shop. Géraldine had not seen him make a sale in months; day after day, the old man sat among the mannequin heads with a smile that was just one larger wrinkle amongst many. He was kind, and his concept of rent had calcified fifty years ago, so Géraldine was fond of him.
The middle floor was taken up by Mme Girard, a widow of a certain age. When Géraldine had first moved in she had watched for signs of romance between Mme Girard and Mr Stubbins, but it quickly became clear that, even in Paris, some things were impossible. Mme Girard was a completely grey woman—she never frowned, never smiled, never answered Géraldine's conversational attempts when they met on the stair with anything more than a resigned 'Ah, well. So it goes.' Mme Girard moved slowly though she appeared to have no lameness or illness. It was probable that Géraldine would have forgotten her entirely except that they shared a bathroom. And for the business of Lulu, Mme Girard's little dog. The only time Mme Girard bestirred herself to leave her apartment was the six times a day, five minutes each time, like clockwork, that she took Lulu to the park across the street to do her necessities and frolic genteelly at the end of her lead. Géraldine's desk was pushed up against the small dormer window that overlooked the park, so she had an excellent view. She had realized early on that she could either despise Mme Girard for her lack of a story, or have affection for her due to Madame's obvious love of Lulu.
Lulu did not bark, so Géraldine skewed towards detached affection for them both.
Today, however, she was paying no attention to the view outside her window. Her work was going well. She was ahead of schedule, in fact. Some weeks, she would turn in the latest installment of her serial novel Émilie Leclercq the night before the deadline; other weeks she was inspired, finished early, and could take a day or two to mull over the plot developments before she had to start on the next week's. So far, this seemed to be a week of inspiration.
It was thanks to the roses. That was what had done it. At the turn of last week she hadn't known how the rich M. Dumont would begin to express his interest; he was a showy man and she needed a showy method for him. But still it could not be something that the good but poor Émilie would feel it necessary to refuse. Or something that she would have to refuse, like a luncheon invitation, on the grounds that it would require a suitable gown. Géraldine had not quite got Émilie a decent wardrobe yet, though she was looking forward to it. In installment six.
(Géraldine herself possessed a black winter skirt, a black summer skirt, and three blouses—white, white and pearl grey for special occasions. And an olive-drab coat that was too much for spring and not enough for winter, sent by her mother in a half-hearted attempt to reach out.)
At the moment, however, Géraldine did not care a fig about her coat or her mother. It was early summer, the window over her desk was thrown open, and she was passionately filling Émilie's cheap country-inn room with roses. Courtesy of M. Dumont.
Émilie was terribly embarrassed of course, but as there was no card, she could hardly say 'Send them back.' (M. Dumont could apparently be clever like that. Géraldine was finding him out as she went.) So the poor but beautiful Émilie could with good conscience bask, she could indeed glory in her room of scent. The top of her dresser rapidly filled with urns, the windowsill with vases, now the floor was full of baskets. Roses in shades of rouge, burgundy, pink, mauve, snow-white, and the most delicate peach; but Géraldine really preferred yellow above all, so she made the crowning glory a cut-crystal bowl full of perfect yellow roses. And she did decide there was a note after all, but an unsigned one: 'Never to challenge your beauty but only to pay homage to it.' Géraldine had previously assigned Émilie a wave of golden hair. She had always been perfectly happy with her own explosion of black hair (except when she had to comb it); but blonde was fashionable right now.
She finished up with Émilie wondering who could have sent her such a marvel. (Géraldine wondered cynically how she could have been sent such a marvel in the middle of the country, unless Dumont had had boys out in the middle of the night stripping the village's gardens.) Then on a whim, she made the handsome face of the innkeeper's son flash with jealousy as he turned away after delivering the cut-crystal bowl.
Géraldine threw down her pen with a lightness in her soul.
'I deserve some roses, myself,' she remarked to the air. She sprang up from her chair and bounced in bare feet across the naked wooden floor to the shelf with the cocoa jar. The jar was perhaps heavier than it ought to have been. She opened it and then fished under the surface of the cocoa. A small string-tied paper packet emerged, dusty and brown with chocolate. Impatient, she used the tip of the sharp knife to whip through the string.
Inside was her emergency fund. It was not very much, and generally she reserved it for things that really were emergencies—such as food, in that terrible week last winter she'd been unable to write due to an evil bout of what she swore was diphtheria. Oh, and the encyclopedia set (only a quarter-century or so out of date) she'd found last year for a cut-rate price at a bookstall on the banks of the Seine. It had helped her diagnose the diphtheria, so she considered it money well spent.
She chose out a coin, sloppily re-tied and re-buried the package, and wiped her cocoa'd hands on the towel beside the washbasin.
'But it's an emergency of aesthetics,' she said. (She talked to herself.) 'And indeed, morality. If I don't buy a rose, I might steal one. So you see, I'm protecting my immortal soul.'
She grinned. She dropped the coin into her handbag, which otherwise contained nothing but a hanky, a key and a cracked compact mirror; and then fought the daily fight to get her shoes on. Eventually she triumphed over the tiny hooks. She skipped down the top three steps and then made herself walk with quiet dignity as she passed Mme Girard's door. Her father said that a poor girl could be a lady in the country, but would fall quickly from grace in the city. Géraldine had no interest any more in showing him up, but she desired to be a lady insofar as she didn't want to irritate her neighbors.
'How may I help you, mademoiselle?' asked the florist.
At first Géraldine could not answer. Here she was, in Émilie's room, among the roses. Bushels of them, arranged with art throughout the shop, smelling of spice and lemon and peach and chocolate. The perfume curled around her with such intensity it was a physical thing, a caress. Her knees went weak. It was a passion as intense as that which had struck her at age seventeen for the milkman's boy, back in her village.
The florist was smiling. She was the only customer at the moment and her expression amused him. He shared her feeling. 'They are something, are they not? It is the peak of the season.'
Géraldine was rarely at a loss for words, but now she could only nod.
'Have you come for roses?' he inquired.
'Oh yes,' she breathed. 'Or rather, a rose. A perfect rose. With a strong scent. Very long-lasting. Yellow, preferably. Do you have it?'
The florist hmm'd and puttered around the shop, touching one bouquet and then another, sniffing, looking critically. After a moment he narrowed his choice to one variety, and then spent a moment finding the perfect specimens. He gathered three or four in his hand.
'Oh, no, just one!' Géraldine said, when she saw what he was doing. 'I can only afford one...or two.'
The florist clucked his tongue, continuing to search the big containers for strong, spotless blooms. 'You can't have two roses. One rose, three roses, five roses. After that you are fine with any number. But for small batches, odd numbers only or they will look wrong.'
'Well, one then. I really can't....I only brought enough for one because I knew I'd be tempted. I've just put them in a story, you see—' And she found her tongue again, and before she knew it she had confessed the whole business of M. Dumont's roses.
'Émilie. Émilie Leclercq. Ah! So you are Claude-Marie Becque?'
She stopped dead. 'You've read...my work?'
The florist laughed. 'I have no time for stories. Don't be offended, my dear, but I have wrapped a good many flowers with Mlle Émilie's exploits.'