The Book Supremacy
It was our last day in Paris.
My husband (and yes, I was really loving that word—a lot) Derek and I had breakfast on the private terrace of the hotel suite, enjoying the spectacular view of the city that was spread out before us. Nearby, the tall, thin spire of the American Cathedral speared up into the sky like a javelin. The immense Eiffel Tower loomed impressively in the distance. There was a smattering of fluffy white clouds dotting the blue sky and the early morning sunshine reflected brightly off the windows of the surrounding buildings. The air was still cool but I could already feel it beginning to warm up. Lovely Paris was pulling out all the stops for our last day.
Derek watched me grab a thin slice of delectable Iberico ham from the small plate of charcuterie and I couldn't help but smile. Not because of the ham, which was utterly delicious and melted in my mouth, but because it had been three weeks since our wedding and I still felt a tingle up my spine whenever I saw his stunning face and thought about those three little words: my husband Derek.
I shook my head. Honestly, on any normal day I wouldn't be so consumed by such sappy, besotted thoughts. But who could blame me? He's so gorgeous, I thought. With those dark blue eyes, so intense, so intelligent. And his mouth, whew. His lips could twist into a sensual, roguish smile when least expected. He was tall, dark, and dangerous, and he was all mine.
Maybe I was suffering from some kind of honeymoon fever, because lately, with just the right look or tilt of his head, Derek could render me light-headed and woozy.
Who was I kidding? I'd been ridiculously smitten from the very first time we met. And oddly enough, according to Derek, the feeling was entirely mutual.
That first time had occurred about two years ago during a fancy charity gala at the Covington Library. It was the night my mentor was found—by me—dying in a pool of his own blood. Murdered. Derek had been in charge of a security detail guarding the priceless books and antiquities on display. I had seen him stalking the crowded floor, studying faces, observing body language, watching reactions, looking completely isolated despite the crowd. He was lean and muscular in a gazillion-dollar charcoal suit; his eyes were darkly compelling as he scanned the room. And when our gazes met, he frowned at me. Frowned! It was annoying, to say the least.
Days later, though, he had explained his reaction by saying that I had taken him by surprise.
"What's that supposed to mean?" I'd asked, still a little put out.
He had shaken his head, then grabbed hold of my arms and kissed me. "That's what it means," he had murmured.
I exhaled slowly at the memory of that first kiss and, still a little dizzy, reached for a slim slice of buttery Brie and a chunk of fresh baguette. Gazing around the terrace, enjoying the sight of dozens of cascading purple orchids trailing over the wrought iron railings, I sighed. Honeymoon fever or not, the man could still turn my insides to jelly.
Derek touched my arm. "What shall we do today?" With a grin, he added, "As if I didn't know."
"I'm so predictable," I said, smiling self-consciously. "But yes, I'd really like to visit the Bouquinistes one more time. I have a feeling that there's a fabulous old book just waiting for me to pluck it out of obscurity and make it my own."
The Bouquinistes were the bookstalls that lined both sides of the Seine River for several miles. And when your life revolved around old books as mine did, those bookstalls were like a siren song. I had to pay them one last visit before I left Paris.
My name is Brooklyn Wainwright and I'm a bookbinder specializing in rare book restoration. I considered the bookstalls my own version of panning for gold.
"I'm in the mood to do some browsing, as well," Derek said, his normally clipped British accent sounding sexy and mellow in the morning sunlight. "Perhaps I can find more of those tacky souvenirs you discovered. I'd like to bring some back to the office."
"Ooh, good idea. I'll need more of those, too." As if I hadn't already collected a few dozen, I thought.
He took a last sip of his café au lait. "We can walk along the river, hold hands, and watch the world go by. We don't have to be anywhere until dinnertime."
"That sounds wonderful." I reached my arms out in a big, lazy stretch, then relaxed and smiled at the man sitting across the breakfast table from me. "I love my life. And I love you."
"And I love you, too." He leaned over and kissed me, then ran his fingers along my cheek. "I see you also loved your French toast."
"It was delicious." I popped the last bit of Brie and baguette into my mouth, then rubbed my full stomach and frowned at all the empty plates on the table. "I can't believe we ate so much. But this was my last chance to try the French toast. I've been craving it for weeks, but I never saw it on a menu until, well, you know."
I'd had to learn the hard way that the French referred to French toast as something entirely different. Derek had taken pity on me yesterday morning and revealed the secret French code.
"They call it pain perdu," he had said. "Or 'lost toast,' because it's made with very dry bread."
It was mortifying to have made that typically American mistake. After all, I had visited Paris at least four times before this and naturally thought I knew everything. One of those visits had been to see my sister Savannah, who had been studying at the famous Cordon Bleu cooking school. With a fancy chef in the family, you would've thought I would know what pain perdu was.
But no. I sighed again. You learn something new every day, as my father always said.
We strolled down Avenue George V to the Pont de l'Alma, stopped to marvel at the Flame of Liberty monument and check out the lingering tributes to Princess Diana—who was killed in that very tunnel under the bridge—and then crossed over the Seine to the Left Bank. Staring down at the water, watching the tourist-filled Batobus cruise near the shore, I was surprised at how cold the river looked and how fast the current traveled.
The sudden chill had me rubbing my arms briskly. Despite the sunny skies, the air was cooler and breezier here by the river and I snuggled up close to Derek for warmth. He didn't mind, and wrapped his arm around me. We walked a little more quickly until we'd made it to the other side.
We ambled along for another mile, maybe two, gazing at shop windows and chatting easily about everything we had seen and done over the past three weeks. We had originally planned to spend only two weeks away, but as friends and family learned of our honeymoon destination, we began receiving requests to run an errand here, or pick up or deliver an item there, or look up someone of importance elsewhere. One or two requests turned into four or five. But only if we had time, everyone insisted, or only if we were in the area. No big deal. Except several of the requests turned out to be quite a big deal. So we extended the trip for a week. I couldn't say that I minded very much.
Walking along the river, we gazed at the expansive grassy park that led up to the imposing Hotel des Invalides, where Napoleon was entombed in stately splendor under the grand Dome des Invalides. I had been inside on a previous trip and had to admit that it was the most spectacular setting for a tomb I'd ever seen. Set on a green granite pedestal and placed on a mosaic tile floor that illustrated the main battles of the Empire, the highly polished red stone sarcophagus was surrounded by marble columns, statuary, and bas-relief sculptures that told the story of his many achievements. Years ago, one of my tour guides had called it "a simple soldier's tomb." They couldn't have been more wrong.
On the next block we passed the stately Palais Bourbon, constructed for one of Louis XIV's daughters and now the home of the National Assembly; and then the Musee d'Orsay, an old train station transformed into a popular art museum. On the opposite side of the river were the pretty trees of the Jardin des Tuileries, which led up to the impressive and historic buildings of the Louvre.
"If you'd like, we can stop for a light lunch at Cocorico." Derek pointed toward the next street. "They're right around the corner."
"I'd love to." I had fallen for the quirky little bistro the other day. Their onion soup was positively addictive.
Finally we came to the place on the Quai Voltaire where the Bouquinistes, or bookstalls, began. The tingle I felt was the same one I experienced whenever I got up close and personal with old books and the people who loved them.
"You know I'm going to look at everything," I confessed to Derek.
"Of course you are," he said lightly. "I'll move along at a faster pace, but I'll wait for you at the next corner."
"Is that Rue Bonaparte?" I asked, taking a quick glance at my foldout street map.
"Yes." He ran his hand across the back of my neck and kissed me. "Take your time."
Watching him walk away, tall and lean and confident, I let out a jagged breath. The man was compelling, no doubt about it.
Each of the bookstalls—as well as their owners—had their own personality and style. Some of them specialized in older classics with worn leather covers, their gilded titles fading but still readable. Other stalls were dedicated to paperbacks, many of them pulp fiction and noir mysteries with fabulously garish covers. Some owners sold wonderful posters that they clipped to their roofs and allowed to blow in the breeze. These mainly featured those familiar art deco French ad campaigns hocking everything from milk to gin, but there were also lots of stock studio photographs of famous movie stars. Marilyn Monroe was still especially popular.
The bookstalls were uniformly dark green in color and were highly regulated in terms of size, shape, hours of operation, and occasionally, content. Some historians claimed that they had been in existence since the seventeenth century and some of the stalls—and the merchandise—appeared to be about that old. When the simple green boxes were closed up at night and chained to the stone walls that overlooked the river, they looked almost coffin-like.
But for now, the bookstalls were very much alive and open for business. The avenue was crowded with cars, and the traffic noises mixed with the pedestrians' shouts and murmurs in French. The sounds made me smile with fondness. I loved this city. And I absolutely adored the Bouquinistes. After all, books are my life. My name is Brooklyn Wainwright—um, Stone. Brooklyn Wainwright Stone—and I'm a bookbinder specializing in rare book restoration.
I stopped at the very first bookstall and began to browse through the rows and rows of books on every subject known to man. I glanced up and noticed Derek moving down the sidewalk. He turned and I waved, knowing I would catch up eventually.
I was captivated by the collection of classic mysteries on display in the second stall. Most were written in French, but I still checked every title, hoping to be inspired, hoping to find just the right little treasure to take home with me. Every so often I would pull a book out from the stack to examine the cover and see what sort of condition it was in. These were mostly used paperbacks, but each had been carefully wrapped in plastic, so their condition remained fairly decent. There was also the occasional hardcover and I examined those even more closely.
The bookseller approached after having allowed me to peruse on my own for a while. "Bonjour, madame."
"Bonjour, madame," I replied in kind, and took a quick look at her. She was probably fifty, wore a thin white sweater over black pants with little black flats. Her dark hair was short and straight. To me, she was quintessentially French.
"Ah," she said. "You are American."
I gave her a rueful grin. "Oui, madame." Even the best French accent couldn't fool a French person, and mine was so far from being the best as to be laughable. Or as the French would say, ridicule.
She gazed at the row of books I was going through. "You like the detective stories," she said in her thick accent.
"Yes." I liked them as much as the next person, I supposed. The fact that they were simply books had been enough to snag my attention. But to be honest, the long row of Agatha Christies had definitely perked me up.
"I don't know quite what I'm looking for," I explained lamely, "but I'll know it when I see it."
"Ah." She nodded in understanding and brought a little stepstool out from under the stall. "You will stand on this. You can see the books more easily from above."
I was touched by her thoughtfulness. "Merci."
She waved her hand at the books. "Please enjoy your search."
The stalls were high enough that the stepstool did make it much easier to look down and see the titles. I started on the next row and was intrigued to find several James Bond books written in French. I picked one up.
"Vivre et Laisser Mourir," I murmured. I had a feeling I knew what it meant, but just to be sure, I pulled out my cell phone to use my translator app.
"Live and Let Die," I said, delighted. "Cool."
The book next to that one was Casino Royale. No translation necessary, although the French version spelled it Royal, minus the e on the end.
I glanced around to see how far Derek had wandered. Much like the fictional James Bond, Derek had been a commander in the Royal Navy and had gone on to work for British military intelligence before opening his own security company. Also like James Bond, Derek was dashing, sexy, brave, and daring. One of these books would make a perfect, slightly silly, gift to give him as a memento of our time in Paris.
But which one? I continued to skim through the books, trying to figure out which title would be best. I leaned farther over to catch a glimpse of the books stacked near the back of the stall. There were hardcovers back there and it was always exciting to discover a hardcover gem.
And that was when I saw it. I reached out, lifted the book gingerly, and stared at it. I had to admit I was shaking with excitement. "It's too perfect."
The book was a hardcover English edition of The Spy Who Loved Me. Many years ago, I had stolen my brother's cache of Bond books and read them all. Since I was only about twelve years old at the time, I probably missed some of the nuances, but I distinctly remembered that this one had been one of my favorites. I vaguely recalled that it had been different from the others because it was told partly from the woman's point of view. I would have to look that up, though, because I couldn't be sure if I was recalling it correctly.
If nothing else, the title of the book made it the perfect choice for Derek. But as I examined the book, I was pleased that its dust jacket was still intact, although there were one small tear along the fold. The cover showed a red carnation and the book title written cryptically on a burned note with a stiletto stuck in it. The book itself was a bit cattywampus due to a weakened inner front hinge, a common problem in beloved, well-read books where the front cover had been opened and closed often enough to separate it from the spine. It would be easy enough to fix.
I opened the book to check out the title page. Published in 1962. I wondered briefly if it was a first edition. Probably not. The price, written in pencil on the flyleaf, was only seven euros.
Still, I was thrilled that I'd found it. I stepped down off the stool and found the woman who ran the stall. I smiled and held it up to her. "Perfect," I said. "Parfait."
"Très bon!" She clapped a few times, sharing my happiness. "It is a good find."
"Oui. Yes, it is." I handed her a five-euro note along with a heavy coin worth two euros. She slipped the book into a small white paper bag and thanked me.
"Merci, madame," I said. "Au revoir."
"Merci. Au revoir," she said cheerfully.
I spotted Derek almost three blocks farther down the Quai. He stood near another bookstall and I wondered if he had found his own little treasure as I had. I headed his way, but slowed down when I noticed that he was talking to another man. I didn't recognize the man but I was pretty sure he wasn't a bookseller. He sure didn't look like it anyway. This man wore a snazzy tweed jacket and khakis and appeared almost as tall as Derek. He had bushy gray hair that he covered with a sporty driver's cap. His wardrobe, body type, and gestures said "jolly old England" to me. The two men spoke to each other as though they were old friends. Derek patted him on the shoulder, said something, and the other man threw his head back and laughed.
Derek clearly knew him well. It had to be an old friend. Or at least a friendly acquaintance.
I was still two blocks away when I felt a shiver creep up my spine. I glanced around, trying to figure out where the vibe had come from, then stopped abruptly. Someone else on the street was staring at Derek and the other man. The stranger stood near the curb a block away, about halfway between me and the spot where Derek and his friend stood talking.
(Visit the Secret Room to read the rest of Chapter 1!)
© Kate Carlisle
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