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Copyright © 2016 by Anna Adams
Published by Pronoun
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From the French Girl series
A French Girl in New York (The French Girl Series, #1-FREE)
A French Star in New York (The French Girl Series, #2)
A French Diva in New York (The French Girl Series, #4)
A French Voice in New York (The French Girl series,#5)
A French Song in New York (The French Girl series, #6-COMING SOON)
To Sarah, the real French princess
“I’ve decided to move back to France.”
When she spoke the fatal words, silence filled the room. Maude savored her sense of satisfaction to its fullest. Her glass was halfraised and halffull with clear, icy, mineral water, transparent and brilliant as the truth.
The glass slipped from her fingers, and as easily as crystal explodes in a million pieces, the shocked silence shattered.The reporters craved every detail of the decision, details Maude refused to give.
She grabbed a tissue and rubbed her dark pencil skirt furiously. She’d worn that precise skirt because she associated it with seriousness. Solemnity was required of her in the midst of a scandal. Her natural, dark hair was tied into a tight bun; she wore very little makeup on her smooth chocolate skin. Just enough foundation to hide that she’d barely slept a wink the night before.
She’d weighed the pros and the cons. But it all came down to one thing: her love for music.
Her passion for classical music had helped her years ago when she lived in a basement in Carvin in the north of France. In those days, she’d dreamed of becoming a concert pianist or an opera singer.
Dreams, like nature, change over time. When she was discovered by James Baldwin almost two years ago and whisked off to New York, she’d fallen in love with pop music and her ambitions had grown along with her love for music.
She wanted to show the world that classical and pop could make a wonderful combination. This dream had given birth to her first self-titled album. Success, praise, fame:all had ensued with impeccable timing.
How had her dreams turned into frightful nightmares? She’d lied, unwillingly to be sure, but the consequences had been disastrous. She’d lost her way.
She thought about this as her uncleled her out of the crowded room, the sound of her heels muffled by the wool carpeting. His grip tightened around her elbow. Security guards surrounded her on every side, but as they rushed outside to the dark sedan waiting for her, a crowd had gathered. Maude’s tenacious bodyguards contained the vocal, vociferating mob with difficulty. They held cardboard signs instead of pitchforks, yet their intentions weren’t so different from that of angry medieval villagers. The focus of public outrage may differ through time, but its force rarely alters.
“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Faking a relationship just to sell more albums?”
She might’ve argued she wasn’t the first to do so and probably wouldn’t be the last. Did it matter? She’d been caught, no one else had, and that was the only difference.
The origin of the leak remained a mystery although she had a pretty strong hunch it was Lindsey Linton, the blonde beauty who saw in Maude an unprecedented rival.
“Duck!” yelled her uncle James.Too late, much too late.
A ripe tomato landed in her dark mane and oozed down her neck, leaving a reddish trail of slime. Maude continued to advance to the car, swallowing repeatedly to push down her disgust. Her heart stopped when she noticed a girl, not much older than twelve, clutching a copy of her solo album. She was biting her lip with an unsettling fierceness, tears streaming down her face as she squeezed it against her chest.
Incomprehension, disappointment, accusation. Her eyes were the accumulation of all the feelings Maude’s scandal had unleashed. The little girl’s expressive distress tormented Maude more than any of the cardboard signs or rotten edibles thrown at her. She faltered at the car’s door, one foot inside, one foot out, prompting a bodyguard to push her head inside, entangling her hair with the tomato further. His grip hurt, and she caught one last glimpse of the girl before he slammed the door in her face. A rotten banana hit the window.
It was high time to go, and Maude was keener than ever to escape public fury.
While the pop world no longer wanted her, the classical world greeted her with open arms. After her performance in Aida a couple of days ago, in which she’d played the devious Egyptian princess intent on thwarting the purest love of all time,her talent had been recognized by the-Académie Nationale des Arts-the National Academy of Arts, the most prestigious French music school based in the Parisian area.
They wanted her.
No paparazzi, no scandal, just music. Going back to her classical roots. So what if her dream of bringing classical to the pop world was to be ignored henceforth?
The pop world didn’t want her. And as much as it hurt, as much as the crashing sales figures hurt and the dreadful names she was being called pained her (“a conniving little Frenchie”), she needed to step away from it all. To go back to a peaceful existence in France where no one had really heard of Maude Laurent anyway. Forget launching her international career.
She would live in blissful anonymity.
That was Maude’s plan. And she honestly hoped everything would go smoothly.
“Do you still speak French?” Ben asked.
Maude’s fourteen-year-old cousin lay on her bed while she packed the last of her things.Ben, now taller than when she first met him, still had the knack for asking pestering questions.
Maude’s departure was in a couple of days, and she constantly feared she’d forget something or the other. Her favorite piano scores were in her binder, her family photo album was tucked between her socks and clean towels. Of course they’d have clean towels at the school.Or would they? She was to live on campus and had no idea what to expect.
She wondered if she should take down and pack her posters of opera’s greatest divas, Maria Callas, Johanna de Forteville, and Cordelia Tragent, her stern yet oddly revered teacher.
“I’ve lived in New York for a year and a half and in France for sixteen years. I think I’ll manage,” she answered flippantly.
Maude caught Ben’s frown from the corner of her eye. She paused in her packing and turned fully towards him.His pouting mouthreminded her of the boy she’d met over a year ago.He was a boy no longer, but a young man with the hint of a mustache. Maude ruffled his dark curls playfully, but the unveiled sorrow in her cousin’s eyes forced her to rethink her gesture.
“Leaving is hard for me, too.”
“Why do you want to leave? We’ve just found each other. You’ve only lived with your family for a year.”
He was right of course. Ever since Maude had found her deceased father’s family, she’d never imagined leaving them.
But how could she explain to her cousin how her acceptance intothat school irrevocably changed everything.
Studying classical music, training to become an operatic singer everyday, not just a couple of hours a week with Ms.Tragent,these werethings her heart had always longed for.
And there was the location. The National Academy of Arts was inVersailles, in the very heart of that famous Parisian suburb.The school was right next to the Château de Versailles: the historical palace where kings and queens of France had lived, loved, and laughed for centuries, feasting flamboyantlywhile wrapped in ostentation and splendor.
Ben wouldn’t understand.
“I’ll call every single day,” Maude assured, pinching his chin. “We’ll Skype every weekend and email and use every technological device that allows our generation to view an ocean as a teeny tiny pond.”
Ben removed her hand from his chin.
“Don’t you see how everything is changing?” At his age, change was viewed as a tragedy not dissimilar from death. “Cynthia’s moving out to liveher so-called college experience, Dad is spending all his waking hours at Soulville Records to repair the damage Alan Lewis left, and Matt’s leaving for his Eclectic World Tour in a couple of weeks. Not like we get to see him anymore now he’s with Rebecca.”
Woolen white socks were given a far higher degree of attention than they are normally accustomed to, as Maude pretended Matt’s name hadn’t been mentioned with Rebecca’s.
Not that she hadn’t accepted Matt and Rebecca’s relationship. Rebecca, a prodigious soprano, was one of her dearest friends and deserved to be happy. But it still hurt Maude to think she’d ruined every chance she’d had with Matt because she’d let herself be pushed into a fake relationship with fellow pop starThomas Bradfield. Rebecca had always wished to revel in the limelight only the pop world could offer.Dating Matt had opened the doors to many private parties, mansions, and the jet-set lifestyle she’d always wanted.They were on every magazine front cover, the talk of every gossip website: the opera princess and the pop prince.Quite an engaging fairytale. More so than the pop prince and the lying Frenchie.
“Change is good,” Maude ascertained with a tight nod as she surveyed her neatly arranged suitcase.
Ben thought the exact opposite, but his sentiment remained unspoken as his mother’s voice rang out from downstairs.
“Maude! Ben! We’re headed for Elder Williams’ house.”
Maude and Ben rushed downstairs and joined the rest of the family. Cynthia, hair unfurled and bouncing joyously, showed Jazmine picturesof the new apartment she’d be sharing with her fellow law students. Jazmine raised her head when Maude and Ben entered the living room.
“Ready to say goodbye to Elder Williams?” Jazmine asked, rising from the sofa with the grace of a movie star. Though the same age as Maude she refused to resemble a schoolgirl and wore her hair short with a 1920s chic that made her appear more mature than she actually was.
When their taxi drove them to Elder Williams’ house, the clouds had gathered,gray and brooding, hanging listlessly over their heads, shielding the sun from view.
Their eccentric grandfather went by the name of Elder Williams although not much of him was elderly. With a booming, accusing voice and a step full of youthful spring, his sepia-colored skin barely wrinkled with age, Elder Williams boasted hewould outlive even his grandchildren. Especially that frail French Granddaughter of his.
His house, however, bore an ancient, eerie gloom about it. Some murmured that it tilted on stormy evenings, and some whispered that it rocked at night.All considered it haunted, burdened as it was by a secret only Elder Williams knew.
His and Maude’s relationship had known a tumultuous beginning—what with Elder Williams’ strong dislike for the French—but his temper was no match for Maude’s, and they’d soon bonded.
With a heavy heart she entered the house for what would most certainly be the last time in months.
When she stepped into the house, the floor groaned, but Maude paid little attention to it. She was greeted with a joyous shout of “surprise!”while music from Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” emanated from the stereo near the chimney of the living room.
Maude jumped up and down with girlish delight, then realized the song “Happy Birthday” might not be appropriate since her birthday wasstill months away.
“You all came!” she squealed. “And happy birthday to all of you!” She laughed because what had been announced as an intimate farewell with Elder Williams had turned into a family reunion.
The great majority of the Williams’ family had gathered for her departure. Her aunt Pearl had dyed her hair purple for the occasion, but her eyes betrayed a sadness caused by the absence of her son, Rocky, gone off to the Caribbean islands on his first archeological mission. She nevertheless embraced Maude with warmth, waiting for an appropriate compliment on her new hair color, which was promptly given.
“We shouldn’t call this a farewell party,” Trey said. He winked at his twin brother. “We’ll be seeing you in Paris very soon, I think,” he added.
“Versailles is a very close Parisian suburb, but I’ll have little free time to party with you.”
Her cousins’ life was one endless festival. Their jet-set lifestyle allowed them to move easily from capital to capital, but they had a hard time understanding not everyone led such carefree lives.
Stephen and Loretta, Maude’s uncle and aunt, greeted her respectively with a stiff hug and a strange quiver Maude associated with a failed attempt at a smile.
“I’m glad you’re here.” Maude hugged them more than they hugged her, but they’d made the effort to see her go for which she was grateful. And this was more demonstration of affection than they’d ever mustered before.
“We wouldn’t miss the farewell party of our future opera diva now, would we?” Loretta smoothed back one of Maude’s curls and patted her head awkwardly. Ever since Maude had been accepted at the National Academy of Arts, Loretta and Stephen had agreed that Maude had a newly acquired French charm about her that had been less obvious to them at first. They found little to brag about her pop singer status to their country club friends. A future opera singer, however, was an entirely different story.
Harriet Longarm née Williams greeted her with her new husband at her arm. Her plaid skirt and silk blouse werestarched and ironed with no apparent crease. Harriet glowed with uncommon jubilation.
“Oh Maude, I’m so glad you’re going to train as a classical musician. Think of how well that will sit among Peter’s relatives and his friends in politics.”
“Friends” and “politics” represented quite an antinomy, but Maude nodded energetically as if pleasing Peter Longarm’s entourage was the sole ambition of her existence.
Peter Longarm might have agreed with that assertion, but having turned away from his wife and engrossed in a conversation, he enumerated his political ambitions so as to better stir a sense of regret from Cynthia,the only girl who had ever bruised his ego—by ending their relationshipin the most unceremonious manner.
Elder Williams struck his cane to the floor, and the house moaned.
“All right, everyone’s here.” He surveyed his living room, his eyes resting on each family member and finally settling on Maude with a hint of tenderness only discernible to the observant eye.
“Maude, there’s something we have to tell you. We have a special parting gift that we wanted to give before you traveled the seven seas back to your people. Victoria, would you like to proceed?”
Maude turned to her aunt Victoria with bewilderment.
Victoria and James stepped closer to Maude.
“A year and a half ago, we found out you were our niece. The proceedings for adoption are very long—”
“Especially when dealing with the French,” Elder Williams snorted.
Maude refrained from commenting. She knew firsthand what a hassle the French administration could be.
“But the day has come,” James continued. “You’re officially ours.” He held out adoption papers and placed them into Maude’s hands.
A tremor ran through Maude as her fingers closed around the stale gray file. Administrative files aren’t appreciated for their particular attractiveness. Only the documents they enclose can be of interest to its recipient. For Maude, the file held a lifelong wish, something most took for granted:family,a sense of belonging. All these were hers now. The moment she read her new name typed at the end of her document,emotion overtook her completely.
Maude Laurent Baldwin. Adopted by Victoria Williams Baldwin and James Baldwin.
She raised her eyes to behold an emotional Victoria, tugging at her light scarf nervously. The thunder’s clap at that instant might have sounded ominous had Maude not felt the greatest of all joys. When Victoria and James’ arms wrapped around her, they expressed feelings no word could properly capture. The rumbling thunder sounded like a celestial ovation crowning the supreme moment of her existence.
“Okay, Maude Laurent Baldwin. It’s time to party!” Trey blasted the stereo and once again Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” rang out.
“Oops sorry about that,” Jordan apologized. “We couldn’t find a song that said congrats for going to the National Academy of Arts.”
Despite the twins’ inability to find songs fitting the occasion, the party was a success. Stories of Maude’s first days in New York were told amid peals of laughter and imitations of her French accent echoed against a background of indignant protest—“I never spoke with that accent!”
Maude even managed to speak with her cousin Rocky via Skype, who told her he had a surprise for her before Jazmine snatched the portable, demanding he bring her a gift from the islands.
Maude’s gaze roamed bright with contentment. At the foot of the sofa where she sat, her arm entwined with Jazmine’s. Her grandfather’s house had lost its gloom and instead bore an aura of great festivity.
Elder Williams beckonedher toward the staircase. She rose from her seat with a cramp and hobbled towards her grandfather.
Silently, she followed him up the stairs thinking they were going to the first floor where she’d stayed a little while back. Instead, they continued their ascent all the way to the attic. She’d stayed clear from the attic since day one, having heard that the ghosts’ presence was stronger there than in any other in the house.
She hadn’t realized she’d closed her eyes until she opened them once more and let out a deep sigh of relief. No ghosts. Elder Williams had told her very solemnly that he believed ghosts existed. Maude doubted she should believe himbut preferred to stay on the safe side.
The attic was dark, filled with spiderwebsand boxes and dust, so that it took all Maude’s energy to hold back a resounding sneeze. Somehow she thought it would ruin the mood. The mood for what? She had no clue,restlessly waiting for Elder Williams to indicate the reason he’d brought her to the attic. Open boxes were strewn all over the room hurling half their contents to the dusty floor. Hopefully he wouldn’t ask her to help him clean the place as a parting gift. With Elder Williams one never knew what to expect.
“I have something for you, too.”
His remark piqued Maude’s interest, and she waited silently but impatiently for him to proceed.Yet Stephen’s voice interrupted the ensuing announcement,callinghis father downstairs about an important phone call he’d waited for all day.
“I’ll be right back. Don’t touch a thing,” he admonished.
“As if I would,” Maude answered with cheekiness.
Elder Williams hesitated but hearing Stephen’s insistent call, he turned and left.
At first she touched nothing as promised. The longer she waited, the more impatient she became.Her eyes fell on a box labeled Aaron.
Her father! Maude dove towards the box. It was more of a wooden chest made of oak. The clasp was unlocked, but the lid was heavy. Maude pushed with all her might. Now fully opened, she regarded its contents with wonder. Letters, photos of her father. Lots of them. He walked or talked with people, seemingly unaware of being photographed. There were dates on all of them. Women and men dressed in colorful, long, loose-fitting garments, the bright decor: everything indicated a Nigerian environment at the time the pictures were taken. On one, he played the djembe with a group of dancers. June 1986. On the next he sat with a group of smiling, kind-lookingcouples. June 1987.
Maude read one of the letters dated July 1987.
Here’s my update for this month. Aaron’s fine. He’s knee-deep in a lawsuit against Governor Daniel Pharell and his family.I sent you a couple of pictures as usual. I’ll keep you posted next month.
Maude’s hand shook. Her grandfather had been updated about her father’s whereabouts while he lived in Nigeria. She had alwaysbeen told that he’d cut off all contact with his son and hadshown no interest for his life abroad.
Maude’s heart leapt in her chest when her eyes fell on a picture of her mother and father together on their wedding day. She wore a white gown and the widest smile.
A letter was attached to it.
Your son has married. Her name is Danielle Laurent. Yes, as you can guess, she’s French. I know you hate the French but perhaps you could make an effort to contact your son. Harry.
Elder Williams had been apprised of her mother’s existence! Victoria had told her no one knew about her mother or her.
Maude searched frantically through the chest. She needed more answers.
And when she found them, she wished she hadn’t.
Danielle gave birth to a daughter in France. Here’s the picture. She’s staying with friends of the family while Danielle is in Nigeria, some people called the Ruchets in the north of France. I enclose pictures, an address and phone number.
“No,” Maude murmured as the horrible truth sank in. Rain drummed the rooftop,thunder boomed and the house shook, but not as much as Maude’s hands. A spider ran across the web over her head, the floor creaked again. Moans could be heard—whether inside or outside the house, Maude knew not.
The news of her birth had reached Elder Williams over seventeen years ago. He’d left her with the Ruchets.
“I told you not to touch a thing,” Maude heard behind her. She didn’t jump. Her fear of him had disappeared a long time ago. Had never existed, now that she thought of it. She’d been angry once. But this was nothing like that time.
She refused to look at him, instead bending her head over the chest, while she searched for her voice covered under layers of anguish.
“You told me once that houses were haunted because of people’s secrets. I now understand why your house is haunted.”
Elder Williams entered further into the attic, scraped a spider web off the wall with his cane.
“She was French.” He said the word as if it held the answer to the entire enigma.
“And that justifies you leaving me with people who mistreated me?”
“Their personality wasn’t information I possessed at the time.”
“That detective of yours, the one who followed my father all those years didn’t tell you that did he? I meant nothing to you? I’m your son’s daughter.”
Elder Williams aged with each word Maude flung. He struck the floor with his cane at the same time as a peal of thunder.
“Your auntie Vic doesn’t know; you can’t tell her.”
“I wouldn’t dream of telling her what an awful person her father truly is.”
“Maude.” Rare were the times he didn’t call her “French Granddaughter.” “I did what I thought was right.” Admitting it was difficult for him, and Maude could tell he was making a supreme effort. His eyes misted while her heart hardened. And his speech bore little resemblance to a genuine apology.
“I will never forgive you.” She threw the bundle of letters in the chest and hurried out of the haunted attic.
Spending another hour in the house proved overwhelming. The sound of her false cheerfulness grated her ears. She finally surrendered toher need for isolation, lied about a nonexistent stomachache, and was relieved when Victoria suggested they head home.
Elder Williams’disappearance from the party was chalked up to his idiosyncratic nature, sparing Maude an awkward farewell.When she left the house, the door snapped shut firmly behind her, as if it were dead seton refusing any future entry.
Maude needed to keep up a brave face for the next two days. Lie to her aunt, smile to her uncle, laugh with her cousins.Yet hiding her grief from her family was an acute form of torture.
The day before leaving, Maude was on the vergeof bursting, ready to spill the awful truth. Only one place could calm her nerves and that’s where she went.
Her feet naturally led her to Soulville Records.Fourteen floors dedicated entirely to music in the heart of Times Square. Soulville Records had seen artists grow, mature, rise, and fall for over ten years. On this Sunday it was empty.
Molded in James Baldwin’s image, it had gone through some drastic changes in the past year. When Maude walked by James’ office, she held her breath, a habit she’d developed when Alan Lewis had taken charge of Soulville and ousted her uncle James. It was irrational—Alan had been kicked out of Soulville and could no longer force her to do what he wanted, to be the pop star he wanted her to be. The office had been restored to its initial setup. Alan’s frills had been removed. Still, his influence on her career had been detrimental.
Everything she had worked for—her dreams—everything had turned against her. All that was left was a sour taste of defeat where her pop career was concerned. But she still had a new chance to start over in France. To launch a new career, to turn a new page.
She headed to the Steinwaygrand piano in the middle of the lobby. Soulville’s mascot. An ancient instrument only she could play.
She sat on the bench. Her fingers travelled lightly on the keyboard without making a sound. Keys yellowed by time, the wood a little damaged, less resplendent, less shiny than a concert-black exterior.
Her fingers placed on the keyboard, the notes came naturally to her. Chopin’s Prelude no. 4 in E Minorwas the saddest piece she knew and the one most appropriate to express her pain atdiscovering her grandfather’s secret.
Nothing was more romantic than playing a sad tune on a cursed piano. Searching for beauty in the midst of pathos was a skill she’d forged through tears.
“Beautiful piece.” The voice came from behind her back. His voice came from behind. Although Maude had sworn she would never, in any circumstance, jump at the sound of his voice again, she couldn’t help herself and placed the blame on the fact she had been certain the entire floor was deserted.
When she turned her head, Matt appeared in full view, leaning against the door of the room he pompously called his creation room—or Violetta—depending on his mood and audience. She had once called it a torture chamber, but had since grown fond of the room and adopted Matt’s pet names.
His stanceshowed a new seriousness foreign to the Matt she’d first met over a year ago. The paparazzi portrayed him with a smirk or a cool, nonchalant look more often than not. But the Matt that stood before her had lost something of his immature and boyish stance, his dark blonde hair was pulled backand hisgray eyes shone with a new reflectiveness.
Perhaps Rebecca’s influence on him, Maude thought with mild regret as she shuffled her scores and stashed them in her bag. She silently apologized to the scores she usually treated with the utmost respect.
“I was just leaving.” She rose and would have vanished swiftly had his voice not stopped her.
“Is everything alright?” he asked, moving towards the grand piano. “That was a pretty sad piece. Like a funeral march.”
His simple question could only give birth to a difficult reflection.Regarding him, everything had gone haywire. The sooner she could move to France and never see him again the better. But she couldn’t tell him that, not after everything she’d said right after her performance in Aida. The scene was still vivid in her mind,playing over and over like an unpleasant video. It had genuinelyseemed like a good idea at the time to clear the air. She’d run to him after her performanceand gushed about how jealous she’d been about him and Rebecca and that she was past all the madness and hoped they could be friends.
How stupid she presently felt! She’d come off the stage after a standing ovation, still in her Egyptian costume, had found him, and had made a complete fool of herself. He’d given her a single yellow rose, certainly out of pity for her frightful state. He probably thought she had lingering feelings for him because of all the nonsense coming out of her mouth that day. His assumption would be true, butshe’d die rather than let him in on her secret.
“I’ve learned something about Elder Williams. It could break apart my entire family.”
Matt didn’t press her with questions. He wouldn’t badger her with interrogations when answering them would cause an immense amount of pain.
“Chopin is perfect for the mood in that case.”
“You’re leaving tomorrow, right?” His eyes were on the piano, not on her, which was a relief. He pressed a random keyon the lower part of the piano, a signal of doom.
Maude nodded, though he missed the silent response. It was a question to which he already knew the answer.
“Good thing I caught you here, or you would’ve left without saying goodbye.” Matt pressed his elbow on the keyboard, propped his head in his hand, and stared straight into Maude’s eyes, unperturbed by the dreadful sounds coming from the instrument.
“I didn’t want to disturb the final preparations before the beginning of your tour. Or your upcoming biography by Lexie Staz. How did she convince you to sell her your story?”
Matt’s elbow slipped from the keyboard, and he turned his gaze away from Maude.
“I’m never one to shy away from publicity, especially on the verge of a world tour.”
Maude wondered at the truth of the statement.
“You and I have never seen eye to eye on the use of publicity.” Maude’s left hand played with the higher notes on the piano giving a lighter shade to the dark notes Matt’s elbow produced.
“Anonymity.Is that what you’re seeking in France? Are you leaving because of the scandal? What other reason would account for theinexplicable pleasure you feel at the thought of remaining locked up in a castle?”
“Locked up? If by that you mean immersed in a classical environment, eating, drinking,and breathing notes, Debussy, Chopin, and Beethoven, I agree.”
“I meant locked up in the traditional sense of the term. You’ll be stuck with stern professors who will find fault with everything you do. Why would you dream of going back to the classical world? Pop is freedom. You’ll be an opera princess stuck in a golden cell. Rules, decorum, and etiquette will be your jailers. I see little chance for happiness in your new school.”
“You wouldn’t understand, Mathieu.” Maude toyed with his real name, knowing only his aunt, Cordelia Tragent, dared to call him by his French name.
He ignored the deliberate taunting and peered into Maude’s eyes as if seeking confirmation her words matched the echoes of her thoughts.
“Won’t you miss it here? Will you dismiss every memory of us, the Baldwins, me?”
“Never,” Maude answered staunchly. “My happiest memories are here in Soulville.”
“As are your worst, I’m sure.”
“You couldn’t be farther from the truth.” Those memories were tied to the basement in the Ruchets’ house. Her worst memories of Soulville, no matter how bad, paled in comparison to the life she’d escaped.
“Is that so? How about learning to walk in heels, working for the hundredth time on songs on the verge of completion, working with Lindsey Linton?”
“Working with you,” Maude completed, a playful smile on her lips.
Matt acquiesced knowingly. “Right back at you, Miss Laurent.”His eyes lingered on her, his hand rested lazily on the piano’s first do.
“I think you should let that note rest.”
She pointed to his hand, which he immediately jerked away from the piano.
“You should say goodbye to Violetta.” He pronounced Violetta with care; one might have thought he spoke of the love of his life.
The room was special to Maude as well. A colorful room with green and orange sofas, a piano she’d spent hours on, a violin she’d never touched, and Matt’s guitar.When she walked in, the city greeted her through the large French windows. The summer sun with slow, deliberate grace set in an array of fiery colors. They stood in silence, neither wanting to speak for what seemed like hours. The city’s sunset bade a silent farewell in a harmony of colors Maude was unlikely to ever forget.
“I should go,” Maude said finally, surrendering to speech once more, relinquishing their private and silent viewing with regret.
“We’ll probably see each other in Paris.” He placed a hand in the pocket of his denim jeans and waited for her reaction.
“For your tour? You’ll be coming to Paris?” Containing her hope and excitement was an impossible task when thesun showered her face and revealed every hidden thought.
The mere mention of his coming to Paris conjured images of the evening they’d spent taking a stroll in the City of Lights. Back then, he’d never heard of Rebecca Sylvester.
“I will. You won’t get rid of me that easily.”
She closed her bag and faced him. He held the door open wide, waiting for her departure.
“Goodbye, Matt,” she said.
When the door closed behind her, Maude hesitated, took two steps towards the door, then turned back and left Soulville Tower.
Walking the illuminated streets of New York for the last time was like singingan encore. All the more precious because it would be the last time before her grand departure from the Manhattan scene.
In the cool July evening, Maude’s thoughts lingered on the new beginnings that awaited her.
Matt’s description of her future school was accurate. Her teachers would be tough. But she had never run away from a challenge—especially not one her heart had longed to encounter ever since she could remember.The difficulty of the task rendered it more beautiful still.
Coming to New York had been a challenge as well. Getting used to an entirely new culture, speaking a new language, learning to let her guard down and embrace new relationships.
She was still learning that last part.
When Maude returned home, James sat on the doorstep, waiting for her.Maude joined him and leaned her head against his shoulder. He brushed her head lightly, then spoke.
Maude’s head shot up. There was only one thing he could be sorry about. Had he heard about Elder Williams?
“I’m sorry I wasn’t around to protect you against Alan Lewis. I never should’ve let things get out of hand. If you’re leaving because of the scandal. . . ”
“I’m not,” Maude assured. She wrapped her arms around her uncle. “I’d stay if I could be of any use to Soulville. But I’m creating more harm by my presence. And classical has always been my dream. Pop ousts me, classical embraces me. The timing is perfect. Don’t you think?”
James squeezed Maude’s shoulder but didn’t answer her question. He lifted his head to the city sky,then turned back to his niece.
“Soulville will always be there if you decide to come back. If ever you want to carry out that beautiful dream of yours of bringing classical and pop together.”
“That was utopic at best.” Maude shook her head. “Someone else will carry that torch. I’m walking away.”
“Perhaps by walking away you’re only getting closer to that achievement. Life has a funny way of tying things together in a manner you’d never suspect.”
Maude remained pensive, wrapped in her uncle’s arms. No one would hug her in France, no one would love her in France. She squeezed him tighter and buried her head in the nook of his neck. He patted her head again as if reading her thoughts. He cleared his throat.
“I hope you realize how proud Victoria and I are of your achievements.” A muffled yes came from a hidden Maude. Her throat had tightened and she dared not look up for fear of ending their evening conversation in a flood of tears.
“We’re proud of you Maude Laurent Baldwin.”
He kissed the top of her head,and they sat on the stairs until the chill of the evening breeze prompted their departure.
The day finally came for all to say goodbye.
The drive to the airport descended into depths of moroseness, and Jazmine’s sniffling made it all the more depressing. No one spoke. They felt as if by holding their breath, time would move at a slower pace and delay the dreaded event.
Arrival at the bustling airport kept them occupied. It was easier to carry heavy luggage and search for the right terminal than face impending goodbyes.
The travellers in the airport moved with the frenzy that generally accompanies departures and arrivals. Youthful footsteps set out with backpacks, couples huddled together to find terminals.Noisy families were all around: pushing airport carriages, hurrying reluctant children, searching for plane tickets and passports. Fear, trepidation, and anger against delayed flights, but also hope and imaginations running wild. Some waited impatiently to board their planes, others gorged down doughnuts, anxiously huffing against inflated prices, or guzzled large bottles in haste knowing their fruit juice would never make it past security.
Soon, too soon, Maude’s luggage was checkedin, and she would have to pass security alone. Jazmine hurried a little further away, her nose in her handkerchief.
Cynthia stepped up first, tears streaming down her face. She tried to smile but failing miserably, hugged Maude.
“I’ll miss you so much,” she whispered.
Maude swallowed back her tears and answered as bravely as she could.
“So will I. I can’t wait for you all to come for Christmas.” Saying that, she realized a million years separated them from Christmastime.
“Skype us as soon as you arrive. Your school has Wi-Fi, I hope?”
Maude didn’t have a clue, but nodded anyhow. The fewer words she spoke, the less chance she had of crying.
She turned to Ben, but he pushed her away.
“I don’t understand why you have to leave,” Ben declared angrily. A couple saying goodbye turned their heads to listen.
“Ben, we talked about this,” Victoria frowned.
“We said we’d support Maude. But this is stupid! I don’t want to say goodbye and you have no business going back to France.” And with that Ben walked off, leaving Maude standing with her arms outstretched. She started after him, but James prevented her.
“Don’t listen to him. He’ll come around.” Jazmine rubbed her nose with her used handkerchief. “Come here.” And she wrapped Maude in a tight hug. “Don’t forget your mission. Find me a handsome French boy I can date when I come to France.”
Maude giggled and nodded.Little morecould be said in answer to her cousin’s request at the time being.
Victoria handed Jazmine a new handkerchief and turned to Maude. She opened her mouth to speak, changed her mind, and hugged her, sniffling.
She started speaking again, dabbing her eyes.
“Now, you’ve got me crying like a baby. Phew.” Victoria smiled. “You take care. And call as soon as you can. If you need anything, call me. No matter the hour. There will be someone to watch over you over there. Someone you won’t be expecting.”
Maude asked who at the same time that the call for her flight resounded through the airport.
She hugged James quickly and prepared to go. She waved to her family who waved frantically back. Ben had disappeared.
The big man sat behind the glass window and asked for her passport and plane ticket. As Maude handed him the items, she heard her name being called out.
She turned around just in time to receive a fierce hug from Ben.
“Au revoir, cuz.” His accent sounded terrible, and they both knew it, but it didn’t matter in the least. She ruffled his curls and received his three sloppy kisses with a laugh. A laugh quickly turned into a sob.She wouldn’t be able to hold back her tears any longer, so she pushed him away and faced the officer. The officer gave her back her passport and ticket, which she grabbed more aggressively than she’d intended.
She waved to her family, her face staring at the ground. She lifted her eyes once more and saw them waving madly through a stream of tears.
Victoria, James, Cynthia, Jazmine, and Ben, who had joined them once more.
They were getting blurrier by the second. She blew a kiss in their direction and turned her back on the only family she’d ever known.