Since I last posted, I’ve spent most of my time completing a novel and jotting down ideas for additional novels. I’m about to send out query letters to agents, but I wondered what would happen if I started posting the novel here, chapter by chapter. For free. Would anyone read it? Would anyone comment? Would anyone look forward to the next installment?
What is it about?
Long-divorced psychotherapist, Gemma Strauss, is in Paris alone, where she should have been with her most recent boyfriend. At fifty-five, she’s tired of explaining her serial singlehood to friends and family. When she’s captivated by a tombstone photograph in the Montmartre cemetery, she invents a fake boyfriend to go with the name and the beguiling face on the grave. The lie is comforting. Until she meets the alleged dead man.
Over the span of a year, in Paris, New York, and London, Gemma hunts down the truth. Has she been swept off her feet by a conman? Is she suffering from an elaborate hallucination? Or, most inconceivable of all, what if the love of her life died ten years before she met him?
This book is for you if:
You love suspense and love stories. You need reminding that no matter how old you are, you are not invisible. You never give up hope for connection and a confirmation of the worth of your life.
Gemma Strauss hated to lie. The very thought of it was alien to her self-image. So the lie she told a stranger her first morning in Paris was not only out of character, it was destined to set off a runaway train of unintended consequences.
The day began with the sun streaming through the plate glass window in her boutique hotel lobby. She balanced a plate of scrambled eggs, sausages, and mini-croissants in one hand. A tiny jar of marmalade perched precariously at the edge. In the other hand, she held a cup of café crème rattling on a delicate saucer. She carried her breakfast to the long table by the window and took a seat at the end beside a little, blond-haired boy sitting with his father. Across from them sat an older boy with the same silken hair and a scowl.
Gemma met the man’s startling green eyes and they exchanged a smile. She guessed the family was Danish, or Dutch like the couple from Amsterdam she’d chatted with yesterday evening on her first walk along the Seine. When the boys began bickering in American-accented English, hope flamed inside her. She’d have someone to talk to without resorting to her woeful high school French and clumsy hand gestures. She desperately needed something good to happen.
“Don’t you want to see the lady without arms at the Louvre?” the scowling older boy asked his brother. “We should go there first. Later will be too crowded.”
“No,” insisted the younger boy. “I don’t want to see a Meanus de Milo. The ghostly crows at the graveyard would be funner.”
At the mention of ghostly crows and a graveyard Gemma wondered if Paris had a morbid amusement park she hadn’t heard of. She smiled. She’d prefer the amusement park too, but it would be more mature to contribute something conciliatory to this family’s conversation.
She leaned toward the younger boy. “The Mona Lisa is also at the Louvre. She has a mysterious smile. People always wonder who stole her eyebrows and eyelashes.”
“I know who,” he piped up, squirming in his chair. “Her picture’s so old, her eyebrows fell off. I’m the best in art and I have a copy of her in my book.” He glanced at his father who confirmed the statement with a solemn nod and a barely concealed grin.
“I’m impressed,” Gemma said.
“Me too,” said the boy. “But ghostly crows are spookier than eyebrows, and we love graveyards.” He bit off a hunk of his buttered croissant and spoke with a full mouth, spraying a few crumbs. “Did you read The Graveyard Book? It’s too scary for me, but I’m going to read it next year because I don’t get as scared as Aidan.” He stuck out his tongue at his older brother and cackled.
“Eww,” Aiden said. “Swallow your food before you talk. And you do too get scared.” He rolled his eyes, spread a gob of blueberry jam on the bottom of his croissant, and stuffed it into his mouth, mirroring his brother’s actions.
His little brother scraped his fork on his plate, scooped up a lump of scrambled eggs, and made a point of chewing with his mouth open.
The father bent down and murmured something into his younger son’s ear. The boy reddened, abruptly covered his mouth with his napkin, and chewed more primly.
At that point, the conversation died. Gemma racked her brain for a way to revive it. That’s how badly she craved human contact. But neediness was so unattractive. “Aidan,” she said tentatively. “You have a beautiful name.”
“Mine is Finn,” said the younger brother. “Like Huckleberry Finn.”
“That’s another great name,” Gemma said. “And a great book.”
The father reached behind Finn to shake Gemma’s hand. “I’m Daniel.”
“Gemma,” she said, taking hold of his soft hand and noticing the fine blond hairs on his tan, lean arm. She had a sudden image of that arm wrapped loosely around her waist, and that was maddening. How old did she have to be before she outgrew the habit of imagining every attractive man as a prospective boyfriend?
“You sound like you’re from our neck of the woods,” Daniel said.
“New York?” Gemma asked.
“Almost,” Daniel said. “Connecticut.”
“I’m just across the water, on Long Island,” she said, sounding too eager.
She gulped her coffee and it went down the wrong tube. Tears sprang to her eyes as she sputtered and choked into her napkin. Daniel gave her a searching look, as if asking if she were okay. She waved him away, embarrassed, and he took the hint to politely turn away and give her privacy to collect herself.
When she was able to speak again she dabbed at the corners of her eyes, patted her chest, and croaked, “Spring allergies.” Which wasn’t true. It made her think of that song from Guys and Dolls. Adelaide’s squeaky-voiced, Brooklyn-accented lament. In other words, just from wondering whether the wedding is on or off, a person can develop a cough. When Gemma got home she’d work on eradicating this new stress symptom she’d developed in the past couple of days.
“So you’re on Long Island?” Daniel said, ignoring her frantic throat-clearing. “That makes us neighbors.”
“As the crow flies, anyway,” Gemma managed to squeak out.
At the mention of crows again, Finn’s head popped up from the tower of bacon pieces he was stacking on his plate.
“What are these ghostly crows you were talking about?” Gemma asked, finally regaining her voice.
“They’re right near here,” said Finn, “At the cemetery.” He leaned forward and jabbed his elbows on his plate. His croissant and bacon pieces went flying. He gasped. “Uh oh.”
Gemma laughed. Oh, how she missed her own boys. It was almost three decades since her sons Sammy and Ellis had been this young. Those memories seemed more vivid to her than her recent life. Was it only because her sons lived too far away now?
“Finn wants to visit the Montmartre cemetery,” Daniel said. “It’s a short walk from here.”
“That’s an interesting place for a kid to want to visit,” Gemma said. Ghoulish, she thought, but maybe just right for an overly imaginative child, like she herself had been.
“Cemeteries are popular with lots of people,” Daniel said. “Especially in Paris. They’re great places to walk and see sculptures and famous names.” He brushed his fingers through Finn’s golden hair.
“I never thought of it that way,” Gemma said. She stole a glance at Daniel’s left hand. No wedding ring. But it was irrelevant. Daniel must be at least ten years younger than her and he was too good-looking to be interested. He looked like an older Ryan Gosling, or a younger Harrison Ford. One of those sensitive rogue types that turned her, and every woman in the western world, on. Men always talked about women not being in their league but it wasn’t an expression that Gemma or her friends ever used. They were more likely to describe a man like Daniel as having too many options. In other words, out of her league. Especially now, on the rebound, only two days out from her last relationship debacle.
She looked up to see Daniel staring at her. Had he caught her examining his empty ring finger? She fumbled for her coffee without looking and propelled her own croissant off the plate the way Finn had done a moment before. At least she hadn’t upended her coffee, or set fire to the menu, as she’d been prone to do on stress-filled first dates. The silver lining in this bumbling first impression she was making, sputtering over coffee, klutzing through her pastries, was that she wouldn’t have to worry about fending off a new romantic disaster. She’d already turned him off.
Finn snorted. “It’s a day of flying croissants,” he said. “That’s a sign we should see the ghostly crows in the graveyard.”
They all laughed. Gemma plonked her croissant back onto her plate and it landed with a percussive thunk. “You still haven’t explained your ghostly crows to me,” she said.
“A crow’s a bird,” Finn yelled, flinging up his hands in exasperation.
“Finn,” Daniel murmured. “Inside voice.”
“A crow’s a bird,” Finn repeated in a stage whisper.
“I know that,” Gemma said, stifling a laugh. “But what makes it ghostly?”
“They fly over the graves.” Finn stood up from his seat, flapped his arms, and pranced behind his father’s chair. “When they hop on a gravestone, the ghost of the dead person goes inside the crow. Then the dead person flies around and visits their friends.” Finn hobbled away, flapping his arms before returning to his seat.
“Finn,” Daniel said, failing to stifle his laughter this time. “Careful.”
“I didn’t know that,” Gemma said. “It sounds scary.”
“It is!” Finn said.
Daniel stood up and brushed crumbs from his lap. “If we leave now, boys, we can get to the cemetery and then head to the Louvre before it’s too crowded.” He stretched out his hand to Gemma. “It was nice meeting you,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll run into each other again.”
Gemma smiled too brightly, trying to hide her disappointment at their abrupt departure. They were entitled to enjoy their vacation without having to worry about entertaining an older woman alone in Paris.
“It was nice meeting all of you too,” she said. “Have fun.”
Daniel took Finn’s hand, gestured to Aiden, and they shuffled away.
Finn twisted around to glance back once more at Gemma. “We’re staying at this hotel for a whole week,” he said. “We got here yesterday. How long are you staying? Are you here with your family?”
The little boy’s rapid-fire delivery reminded Gemma of her older son Sammy at that age.
“I got here yesterday too,” she said, “I’m staying the same amount of time.” She purposely didn’t respond to the question about whom she was with.
“Do you have kids?” Finn persisted. “Are they with you?”
“I have two sons,” she said. “But they’re grown men now and they’re home with their families.”
“How old are you? I’m five and Aidan is eight.”
“Finn,” Daniel said. He grasped his son’s hand and tried to lead him away. “It’s not polite to ask people their age.”
“Why not?” Finn turned back to Gemma. “My dad is forty-seven,” he added.
Exactly as Gemma had feared. Daniel was eight years younger than her. Everyone was younger than her. Or did she only meet younger men because she’d deducted an entire decade from her age on the internet dating sites? A wave of misery washed over her. Would she really have to begin that dismal process all over again?
“That’s a nice age,” Gemma said. She pulled her Paris guidebook from her bag, attempting to end the conversation.
“Enjoy,” Daniel said. He zigzagged with his boys through the breakfast crowd.
Gemma opened her book and tried to focus, but the fact of Daniel’s lack of a wedding ring distracted her. Was he divorced, like her? Tragically widowed? Irrelevant.
Jane Austen’s perfect first line popped into her head. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Daniel was probably not even a single man. Not all married men wore wedding bands. And there was no sign he had a good fortune, except for his looks and the financial ability to take his family to Paris.
But Gemma had made this trip to prove to herself she didn’t need a man to have fun. She could construct her own magical experience on this sunny April day. She wouldn’t dwell on the fact that this was a day she wasn’t supposed to be spending alone.
She bent over her book with her pen and was circling Notre Dame cathedral and Saint Chapelle church on the guidebook map when she felt a tap on her shoulder. Finn’s wide eyes stared into hers. Daniel and Aidan stood watching them, a few feet away.
“Want to come with us to the graveyard?”
“Now?” Gemma asked.
Daniel caught her eye and mimed, you can say no.
That’s when that first momentous lie, unplanned and unexpected, flew out of her mouth.
“I’m not alone,” she said. She sounded so defensive. “I mean, I’m with someone,” she stammered. “I’m…”
“Invite him along,” Daniel said, approaching.
It was flattering that Daniel assumed Gemma was in Paris with a man and not a woman friend. Despite her age, it meant he must have seen her as someone who could still attract the opposite sex. It made her immediately sorry she’d told the lie. And why had she? Was she ashamed of being alone, or was she just being cautious?
“My boyfriend is here on business,” she said quickly, weaving the web of deception a little tighter. Did she detect a shadow of disappointment flickering over Daniel’s face? “But he’s away for most of the morning,” she added quickly. “I’d love to go with you.” The nervous tickle in her throat started up again and she concentrated on taking deep, slow breaths.
“Super,” Finn said. And that’s how Gemma came to join Daniel and his sons on their morning walk to the Montmartre Cemetery. And set the stage for colossal lie number two.