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Isabel took a deep breath and thought Paris at Christmas was like one of the elaborate dollhouses she played with as a child. Everywhere she looked there was something wonderful: The holiday markets lining the Champs-Élysées with their snow villages and stalls of mulled cider. The carousel next to the Tuileries Gardens that spun around like a golden snowflake. And the Christmas tree that rose so high above the Place de la Concorde, Isabel had to crane her neck as if she was watching an airplane.
She rested her elbows on the creamy stone balcony and suddenly pictured her parents’ estate on the Main Line in Philadelphia. During the holidays, the living room was always decorated with a live fir tree that touched the ceiling. Christmas cards lined the marble fireplace and Bing Crosby filtered over the speakers. Even when Isabel was at Bryn Mawr, and the only music she listened to was classic rock and Beyoncé, she still loved coming home and hearing “White Christmas.”
She rubbed her hands and suddenly noticed the indentation in her ring finger. She flashed on Neil’s diamond-and-sapphire ring, and for the first time since she had arrived at the Hôtel de Crillon and the manager personally escorted her to her suite and showed her the heated marble floors and selection of caviars and soft cheeses, her mouth trembled.
She wrapped her arms around her chest and reminded herself she wasn’t going to cry. Why was her heart beating like a race car driver’s as he approached an impossible curve when she was the one who had called off the wedding?
A young couple in glittering evening wear entered the revolving doors, and Isabel thought of the months she spent planning the reception. The carpets in her parents’ grand salon had been rolled up and the cherry floor was scattered with round tables and gold filigree chairs. There was going to be a sixteen-piece orchestra and a carving station and a twelve-tier vanilla buttercream cake from Sylvia Weinstock in New York.
When she and Neil got engaged last fall, everyone assumed they would have a June wedding. Her mother led Isabel onto the porch and pointed to the green lawn and white gazebo. They would put a dance floor over the swimming pool and serve cocktails on the tennis court. The aisle would be lined with tulips, and the caterers would use her baby carrots in the summer salad.
But Isabel had always dreamed of a winter wedding with great bouquets of white and red roses. She imagined a satin Vera Wang dress and beige silk gloves that were soft as butter. A silver Bentley would wait in the driveway, and guests would arrive wearing wool overcoats and brightly colored cashmere wraps.
If they got married during the summer, she would be drenched in sweat the minute they took the photos. The groomsmen would complain they couldn’t possibly wear their white dinner jackets in the hundred-degree heat, and the leather upholstery in the Bentley would be so hot, she couldn’t bear it.
She inhaled the cold night air and remembered finding her mother in the kitchen three days before the wedding. Never mind the caterers had taken over the kitchen for days, shelling pecans and slicing green beans and asparagus. Adele loved whisking cream and decorating the pies with sugary frosting.
* * *
“EVERYONE IS SO health conscious these days.” Adele wiped her hands on her apron. “You have to use whole cream in the eggnog and butter and rum in the bread pudding, or you may as well celebrate the holidays in the steam room of the Red Door Spa. I fed you and your father baked yams and creamed spinach every year, and neither of you gained an ounce.”
“Your baked yams were delicious, but Dad took our plates of creamed spinach and hid them in the pantry.” Isabel smiled, gazing at the stack of polished silverware. “Didn’t you wonder why he was so eager to do the dishes?”
“Your father and I have stayed married for thirty years for one reason.” Adele tasted the whipped cream. “Unless something is going to cause mortal harm or financial ruin, it doesn’t need to be mentioned.
“Couples argue over who takes out the garbage or why no one brought in the newspaper when they could as easily do it themselves.” She sprinkled brown sugar into the bowl. “But I’m not going to stand here three days before your wedding and offer you marriage advice like a character in a 1950s sitcom. I’d much rather hear how the cake tasting went and if you stopped at Zabar’s and picked up chestnut puree.”
Isabel fiddled with the linen napkins and took a deep breath. “Neil thought the buttercream was too dry, so we canceled it.”
“You canceled the cake three days before the wedding?” Adele exclaimed. “I suppose the caterer will rustle up something. We have baskets of strawberries and cartons of eggs and fresh cinnamon sticks.”
Isabel’s large brown eyes flickered and she perched on a leather stool.
“We canceled the wedding.”
“What did you say?” Adele gasped.
“We can’t agree about anything. Neil wanted our signature drink to be Bellinis, but I suggested Manhattans,” Isabel explained. “I thought we could serve sorbets between courses, and he said, why would anyone want to eat syrupy ice when they could be enjoying Cornish hens?”
“Couples planning a wedding are like preschoolers playing in a sandbox,” Adele mused. “They squabble over who gets the toy truck and plastic bucket, but at the end of the day they share chocolate chip cookies and forget the whole thing.” She patted her hair. “In four days you’ll be reclining in the business-class cabin of an Air France plane and won’t think about anything except sipping café au lait and nibbling crème brûlée.”
“A month ago Neil announced he planned to quit Bell and Logan,” Isabel began. “His grandparents are retiring to Jupiter Island and asked if we wanted to take over the farm. He said the best part of his childhood was mucking out the stables and he doesn’t want to wait until he’s sixty with high blood pressure from taking clients out for martinis when he could own Whispering Arches now.” Isabel’s eyes were huge. “I do love the farm, but we’re too old to spend our days catching butterflies and too young to sit on a porch at night and listen to the frogs,” she continued. “I’d have to rent an apartment in the city. We’d only see each other on weekends, and I’d be so tired from working on the train we’d spend the first night back at each other’s throats.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Adele asked.
“I thought we were perfect for each other,” Isabel sighed. “We both have exciting careers in finance and love playing squash and eating lobster rolls at Luke’s Lobster in Rittenhouse Square.” She stopped and her eyes were dim. “I really thought this time I got it right.”
“Don’t even think about Rory.” Adele shuddered. “You were just out of business school and didn’t know what you wanted. Now you are a mature woman, but you can’t marry someone unless the thought of being apart makes your heart pound.
“Couples think they can conduct a marriage by Skype or emails. But the only times John and I have been apart for more than a week are when he got stranded in London during an airline strike and when I ended up in the hospital with tonsillitis.” She smiled. “And even then he convinced the nurse I could only get better if I was spoon-fed pecan ice cream and he slept on the linoleum chair in the waiting room.”
“I thought that was the way I felt about Neil,” Isabel wavered. “But lately, instead of imagining candlelit dinners or curling up on the sofa together to watch Netflix, I can’t wait to take a hot bath and read Time.
“What if I never find the right man to marry?” She gazed at the kitchen’s beamed ceiling and oak floors. “I’ll never have a mudroom crammed with rubber boots or a playroom overflowing with Dick and Jane books or a Christmas tree decorated with glitter snowflakes.”
“You’re twenty-eight and this isn’t the nineteenth century.” Adele squeezed her hand. “But you have to be in love or it isn’t worth it at all. It’s hard to face a laundry basket filled with dirty socks and smelly T-shirts every morning unless you adore the person who wears them.”
“Neil does his own laundry.” Isabel grinned.
“You know what I mean. You don’t get married so you can send a joint Christmas card,” Adele replied. “If the wedding is canceled, we’ll go to St. Bart’s. I’ll have the caterers clear away the spinach crepes and tuberoses, and when we return it will be as if nothing happened.”
“The holidays have to include roasting chestnuts and children caroling on the lawn,” Isabel insisted. “When have we ever missed opening our presents in the grand salon or sipping buttered rum in the library? Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure?” Adele asked.
“Perfectly sure.” Isabel sat up straight. “I am the one who called off the wedding.”
* * *
NOW ISABEL GAZED at the twinkling lights of the Eiffel Tower and the dim outline of the Luxembourg Gardens and wondered if she had been hasty.
She heard carolers singing and remembered creeping upstairs to her childhood bedroom a week ago. She glanced at her old trigonometry books and lacrosse trophies and thought she should have driven back to their condo. But she didn’t feel like seeing Neil’s L.L. Bean sweaters in the closet or his Burberry overcoat hanging in the entry. And she didn’t want to discuss who would keep the Pottery Barn sofa or the Krups espresso machine her parents gave them last Christmas.
Her phone buzzed and she picked it up.
“It’s me,” Neil’s voice came down the line. “I wasn’t sure if you’d still be up.”
“I was going to drive home, but it looks like it might snow.” Isabel suddenly felt her heart beat faster.
“I’m staying at my parents’, but I had an idea…” Neil paused.
“You did?” Isabel sat up.
“Do you remember when I proposed and you said you’ve been dreaming of a honeymoon in Paris since you were fourteen?” Neil continued. “You saw Gigi starring Leslie Caron and Louis Jourdan in your French class and wanted to ride in a horse and buggy in the Bois de Boulogne and stroll along the Seine.”
“At Christmas the barges are decorated with colored lights and it’s like watching a thousand fireflies,” Isabel mused.
“You should use the plane ticket and stay in the suite at the Hôtel de Crillon,” Neil suggested. “It’s too late to cancel and it would be a pity for an eight-hundred-foot suite with a private butler and view of the Champs-Élysées to go to waste.”
“You want me to go Paris by myself?” Isabel felt the room tilt as if she had drunk a glass of champagne too quickly.
“We have tickets to Swan Lake at Opéra de Paris, and you can see the Christmas displays at the Galeries Lafayette.” Neil paused. “When you come back it will be the new year and all this will be behind us.”
Isabel thought of her mother’s suggestion to go to St. Bart’s and wondered why everyone thought a change of scenery would make the last ten months disappear.
But Paris! Isabel had spent a semester studying at the Sorbonne and loved everything about the vintage boutiques on the Left Bank and Le Bon Marché with its windows filled with impossibly chic dresses and pumps.
At the end of the semester she came home and mooned around her parents’ house, wishing she could run down to a patisserie and buy an almond croissant and a copy of Le Monde. But she got accepted to Wharton business school and then landed a job at JPMorgan Chase. She couldn’t take more than a long Thanksgiving weekend or an extra day off at Christmas if she wanted to be a senior analyst by the age of thirty.
But now her boss didn’t expect her back until January and she didn’t want to drink crème de cassis and nibble canapés at the Ritz or watch the New Year’s Eve fireworks over Sugarhouse Casino alone.
“That’s a wonderful idea.” Isabel gripped the phone. “I’ll go.”
“Your Coach suitcase is in the hall closet and the ballet tickets are with our passports.” Neil paused. “One more thing.”
“What is it?” Isabel closed her eyes and thought Neil would say of course he wasn’t going to quit Bell and Logan and they wouldn’t live on the farm; they both had too much invested in their careers. Peach sorbet sounded delicious, and they could ask the pastry chef to use more cream in the filling.
“Send me a postcard,” Neil said. “I’ve always wanted to see the Arc de Triomphe decorated for the holidays.”
* * *
ISABEL GAZED AT the bright lights of the Champs-Élysées and thought it didn’t matter how she had arrived in Paris; she was glad she was here. She was going to ice-skate at the Hôtel de Ville and sip vichyssoise in the dining room at the George V. She’d buy a crepe evening dress at Givenchy and a bottle of French perfume from one of those dazzling salesgirls at Le Printemps.
The fog settled on her shoulders and suddenly she longed to climb into bed. She pictured the master bedroom with its canopied bed and blue velvet wallpaper and original Degas above the fireplace. The bathroom had a pedestal tub and gold lacquered dressing table and pink-and-gray marble floors.
She turned the handle on the French doors and grimaced. She peered through the glass and saw her phone tossed on the cream damask love seat. She had locked herself out and there was no way to call for help.
“Well, that’s a fine way to start the vacation,” she said aloud. “Freeze to death on the balcony of the Hôtel de Crillon.”
She considered shouting, but she was too high up and the valets in their gold uniforms and pointed red hats wouldn’t hear her. She noticed the light on in the neighboring suite and wondered if anyone would come outside. But it was almost midnight and the guests were probably asleep under embroidered silk sheets.
Why hadn’t she checked the door handle before she stepped outside? And why wasn’t there a key in the lock? Surely other visitors rushed out to admire the sights of Paris.
She wrapped her arms around her chest and wished she had worn a cashmere sweater and a pair of boots. But she had deliberately chosen the outfit she purchased for their honeymoon: a red Nina Ricci dress and a pair of ivory pumps.
Suddenly she had an idea. She took off a pump and cradled it in her palm. She aimed at the adjoining suite and tossed it on the balcony. She waited, but there was no movement behind the silk drapes. She took off the other shoe and threw it squarely at the French doors.
The lights flickered and a man appeared on the balcony. He was in his early thirties with dark hair and narrow cheekbones. He wore a long blue robe and felt slippers.
“If you’re having a party, please take it inside.” He rubbed his eyes. “I was fast asleep and dreaming about girls in grass skirts serving me frosty drinks on a desert island.”
“I’m not having a party and I can’t go inside. I stepped out to admire the lights in the Place de la Concorde and locked myself out. I threw my shoe on your balcony to see if someone would help me.” Isabel rubbed her hands.
“You threw your Ferragamos on purpose?” He picked up one of the shoes.
“I would hate to ruin them, but I can’t wear them if I have frostbite on my toes.” She tucked her hair behind her ears. “How did you know they are Ferragamos?”
“My fiancée has the same shoe in three colors.” He turned the shoe over. “She bought me a pair of Ferragamos for my birthday, but I refuse to wear loafers that cost more than a month’s rent.”
“I hope I didn’t wake her,” Isabel replied.
The man stuffed his hands in his pockets and his brow furrowed.
“That would be difficult. Two days ago she ran off to Melbourne with an Australian cricket player.”
“That sounds terrible, but could we discuss this inside?” Isabel shivered. “My eyelashes are frozen and I can’t feel my fingertips.”
“I’m afraid I have a healthy fear of heights.” He peered down at the yellow taxis lining the boulevard. “But I’ll call housekeeping and they’ll let you in.”
* * *
ISABEL SAT ON the brocade sofa and tried to stop her hands from shaking. Housekeeping had opened the door, and the man insisted on visiting her suite and heating up two brandy snifters.
“Thank you, I do feel better, I didn’t realize how cold it was, I was so excited to finally be in Paris.” She sipped the gold liquor. “Do you always dream about girls in grass skirts?”
“I was drawing a picture before I went to bed,” the man explained. “I’m a children’s book illustrator. I always dream about what I sketch right before I fall asleep. That’s why I never draw trolls or witches except in broad daylight.”
“That sounds sensible.” Isabel nodded. “Sometimes I keep a journal, but I never write anything sad at night. It’s like the old saying ‘Never go to bed angry.’ Even if I’m sleeping alone, I want to feel warm and happy when I climb under the covers.”
He perched on a velvet love seat and gazed at the crystal chandeliers and blue silk drapes and Regency desk. The suite had gold inlaid double doors and thick white carpet and a dining room table set with silver candelabras. There was a marble sideboard with a silver coffeepot and porcelain demitasses.
“I thought all the suites on the fifth floor were honeymoon suites.” He glanced at Isabel’s single Coach suitcase and the pile of paperback books on an end table.
“I was supposed to be here on my honeymoon,” Isabel explained. “But four days ago the wedding was canceled.”
“There seems to be an epidemic.” He scooped up a handful of pistachios. “Did your fiancé run off with a female soccer player?”
“Nothing like that…” Isabel hesitated. “Neil thought the vanilla buttercream filling was too dry.”
“A delicious wedding cake is the first thing guests remember about the reception,” he agreed. “But surely you could have compromised: serve each slice with a spoonful of chocolate ice cream?”
“There were other things.” Isabel fiddled with her gold necklace. “He wanted to take over his grandparents’ farm, when we’d both spent years building our careers.”
“That’s more like it.” He shrugged. “I would hate to think he passed up a suite at the Hôtel de Crillon because of the lack of whole cream.”
“It was my idea to call off the wedding, we seemed to fight about everything.” Isabel sighed. “My parents have lived at the same address for thirty years. I always thought I’d get married and have two curly-haired children and a golden retriever. We’d live in a big house on the Main Line with a vegetable garden and a swimming pool.
“I’d hire a nanny, because I love my career. But on the weekends, we’d attend Phillies games and visit the natural history museum and Independence Hall.”
“Have you already picked out your children’s names and filled out their college applications?” He raised his eyebrows. “I’ve read Americans sign their children up for kindergarten while they’re in the womb.”
“I’m a financial analyst, I’m paid to think ahead,” she said. “I’m very good at what I do, I just can’t seem to get marriage right.”
“I thought Celine and I were perfect for each other. We both love skiing and eating dark chocolate.” He rubbed his forehead. “But she took one look at Patrick in his white cricket shirt and white slacks and couldn’t help herself. She was like a cat with a pitcher of cream, she had to have him.”
“You must be terribly upset.” Isabel fiddled with her brandy snifter.
“The first night I drank a bottle of scotch and watched classic romantic movies on cable,” he replied. “But then I started drawing. Have you ever heard of Gus the Cocker Spaniel?”
“The only children’s books I know are the Madeline books and Harry Potter.” Isabel shook her head.
“When I was a child I wanted a cocker spaniel, but my sister was allergic to dogs,” he began. “I drew a cocker spaniel with fluffy ears and fur as soft as a mink coat. Then I sent him off on adventures: to the Nile to discover the pyramids, or the Amazon to hack through rainforests. Whenever I did poorly on a test or my sister threatened to tell our mother I ate the whole basket of cherries, I ran to my room and drew Gus.” His face broke into a small smile. “Today I drew Gus hurling a ball at a man wearing cricket whites.”
“Why are you at the Crillon alone?” Isabel asked.
“My would-be father-in-law gave us the suite as a wedding present, and we decided to use it before the wedding.” He paused. “I feel terrible for Leon, he paid for the reception at the George Cinq and a classic Aston Martin. I told Celine I was perfectly happy having a luncheon of cream of potato soup and fresh baguettes, and then renting a Mini Cooper to drive to Avignon.” He ran his hands over a crystal ashtray. “Celine has very expensive taste. She brushes her teeth with Evian water and wears a diamond pendant to bed.”
“It doesn’t sound like you had a lot in common.” Isabel studied his worn slippers and plaid pajama bottoms.
“She has eyes like sapphires and is excellent at backgammon,” he mused. “And she has a wicked sense of humor. You can fall in love for all sorts of reasons, but it’s wonderful to be with someone who makes you laugh.”
“Rory and I used to laugh about everything,” Isabel agreed. “But eventually you have to get serious. Life isn’t a Saturday Night Live skit.”
“I thought you said your fiancé’s name was Neil.”
“I was engaged before, I told you I’m hopeless at love.” She walked to the bedroom door. “Thank you for rescuing me, but I’m very tired. Do you mind if I go to bed.”
“Of course, but you might want to wait until I leave?” He grinned. “We don’t want the maids whispering.”
Isabel selected a hazelnut truffle from the silver tray and popped it in her mouth. She gazed at the porcelain vases filled with pink roses and the eighteenth-century tapestry lining the walls and felt her heart lift.
“That’s a very good idea.” Her face lit up in a smile. “I’m Isabel, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“I’m Alec,” he replied. “And the pleasure is mine.”
Copyright © 2016 by Anita Hughes