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by Shira Anthony
Category: Gay Fiction/Romance
A Blue Notes Novel
Blame it on jet lag. Jason Greene thought he had everything: a dream job as a partner in a large Philadelphia law firm, a beautiful fiancée, and more money than he could ever hope to spend. Then he finds his future wife in bed with another man, and he's forced to rethink his life and his choices. On a moment's notice, he runs away to Paris, hoping to make peace with his life.
But Jason's leave of absence becomes a true journey of the heart when he meets Jules, a struggling jazz violinist with his own cross to bear. In the City of Love, it doesn't take them long to fall into bed, but as they're both about to learn, they can't run from the past. Sooner or later, they'll have to face the music.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: February 2012
16 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [341 KB]
Reading time: 217-304 min.
He leaned back against the headrest and watched the clouds beneath the wing of the airplane. Used to traveling business class, with all six foot three of him now wedged into the narrow coach seat, he cursed every aeronautical engineer who had ever suggested refitting wide-bodied jets to accommodate more passengers.
He eyed the center section of the cabin with longing, regretting that he had chosen a window seat. College students, clearly with more foresight than he, were already stretched out over three or four seats to sleep during the long flight from Philadelphia to Paris. In the final analysis, however (and, exceptional lawyer that he was, he always analyzed), he knew it was his fault alone that he should suffer the indignities of traveling like an eighteen-year-old again; it was his last minute, foolhardy decision that had landed him here.
What the hell were you thinking?
The thought had run like an endless loop through his exhausted mind for the past three hours. He knew the answer, of course: he hadn't thought at all, he had just reacted. He'd done a lot of that lately.
A female flight attendant--blonde, attractive, and in her midthirties--stopped at his row with a stack of plastic cups and a pitcher of water. "Something to drink?" she offered, her voice a sensual undertone. No doubt she appreciated the lone, well-dressed man amidst the myriad students wired to iPods, iPads, and other devices.
He had come to dismiss such attention; he had long engendered this kind of response from women. With his wavy auburn hair, strong jaw, and bright green eyes, he was, as his grandmother often reminded him, "Quite a catch." Add to that a salary well into the six-figure range and his job as an equity partner in a large Philadelphia law firm, and Jason Greene was a man any mother would die to have her daughter bring home. Except that he hadn't quite managed to keep the one woman he had fallen in love with happy.
"Yes--some water, please," he replied, offering the flight attendant the same pleasant, reassuring smile that he had offered his clients for the past ten years. The same smile that he had offered Diane upon his return home to their high-rise apartment each night, having missed dinner yet again. The smile was far more effective with the flight attendant.
She handed him a cup of water. "Business or pleasure?" she asked, mistaking his politeness for something more like interest. (He wasn't interested--he'd had enough of women to last him a lifetime, he reminded himself.)
"Neither," he answered, foreclosing any further discussion. She responded with a slight chuckle, then moved on to the next row back.
He closed his eyes and pressed the button to recline his seat. It only moved about an inch. He looked around. He hadn't noticed that his seat was right in front of an exit row. Figures, he thought with a snort and a shake of the head. Resigned to his fate, he grabbed the extra pillow off the empty seat next to his and pushed up the armrest to give himself more room. Pulling the slippery blue polyester blanket over himself, he shifted on an angle to tuck his long legs under the aisle seat in front of him. It was not comfortable, but it would do.
He looked out the window once more. It was dark now, and here, above the clouds, he could see stars. He closed his eyes and rearranged the pillows so that his head rested against the cool bulkhead. A few minutes later, he drifted off into an uneasy sleep with the drone of the engines in his ears.
* * * *
Only a day before, he had been dressed in a charcoal-gray Armani suit with a yellow striped Brooks Brothers tie, looking out a wall of windows at the thickening gray clouds over the city of Philadelphia. The forecast was for snow. Again.
"You want what?" Scott Reston, the managing partner of Halwell, Richardson & Dailey, leaned back in his chair and gaped at Jason as though he were an alien.
"I'm taking a leave of absence," Jason repeated calmly. "Starting tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" The other man's voice resonated with shock. "Jason, I know you're pissed that Diane--"
"I've worked my ass off for this firm, Scott," he countered before the other man could complete his sentence, all the while maintaining his calm resolve. In spite of his control, his jaw tightened. "I've been pulling in enough billables to more than cover a few months off."
"Months?" The word came in a half-strangled gasp. "You want months? Look, Jaz, if you need help, I can put the new kid--what's his name, Sanderson?--on some of your cases."
"It's not about the caseload. I haven't taken time off in years, except the trip with Diane to her sister's wedding. I need--"
"Then take a few weeks," Scott interrupted, hoping this settled the matter. "Go somewhere warm. You can use our apartment in Cancun, if you want. Maybe you can pick up some cute Mexican babe while you're--"
"Two months, Scott," Jason insisted as he lapsed into his commanding courtroom voice without a second thought. "The other partners won't question it if you're on board. Hell, if you want, I'll take a smaller draw this year." One of the paperweights on Scott's desk vibrated with the resonant baritone.
"Hell, Jaz Man. It's me, remember? The guy you pulled all-nighters with in law school? That lawyer shit won't work here. And since when do you let a bitch like Diane--"
"Drop it," Jason responded, his tone colder than the icicles that hung on the eaves outside of the building. "This wasn't her fault."
"The fuck! She cheated on you."
"I said, drop it. Whatever she did, she had her reasons."
Reason one: too many hours spent at the office. Reason two: too few hours spent at home. Both my fault.
"Jaz Man...." Scott groaned, leaning back in his chair with the same party-boy look that Jason remembered from law school. "Jaz, you're killing me. I'm up to my neck in depos in the Alvarez case, and TransAllied just sent me a class-action complaint in a race case out of Cleveland. You're the only one licensed up there."
"Nothing'll happen in the next two months on the Cleveland case, and you know it," he shot back. "I'll remove it to federal court, and one of your new hires can start on a motion for summary judgment and getting documents together for discovery. And if the judge wants a local guy in on the scheduling conference, you can call my buddy Phil Lane up there to handle it. He owes me one."
Scott's frown deepened. "I can't convince you that you're a crazy asshole, can I, Jaz Man?"
"Unlikely," he replied with a self-deprecating laugh. "You've had more than ten years to try." He took a deep breath, allowing his shoulders to relax a bit and softening his expression. "Look, Scotty... I need this. It'll only be for two months. I promise I'll come back and make it up to you. Just two months."
"Yeah, yeah," Scott acknowledged after a pause. He exhaled, sounding a bit like a pipe releasing steam. "Fine. You got it. I'll take the heat from the big guns. With all the money you've been pulling in for the past few years, they'll squawk a little, but they'll be more worried about losing you for good."
"Thanks," Jason answered, turning to leave.
"So, where're you going? Backpacking in South America? Some desert island in the Caribbean?" Scott asked. "Buddhist retreat in Tibet?"
"Paris," Jason responded, stopping at the door with his fingers curled around the handle.
"Paris in January?"
"Cold as hell, I hear."
"Yeah. Something like that."
* * * *
The plane touched down at Charles de Gaulle Airport on time in a misting rain. Pulling his small suitcase behind him and heading for the line of taxis, Jason laughed to himself--it was considerably warmer here than in Philly. It had snowed in this part of France a few weeks before, but nothing remained of the drifts that had paralyzed the region.
A taxi pulled to the curb, and the driver got out, putting Jason's bag in the trunk. "A 146 rue d'Assas," he told the driver in unaccented French.
"Oui, monsieur," came the curt response.
He leaned forward, elbow on one knee, and watched the dull procession of warehouses that stretched between the airport and the city. It didn't look all that much different than the outskirts of Philly except for the tiny cars and road signs in French announcing various autoroutes. It wasn't until he saw the white stone basilica of Sacre- Coeur perched high atop Montmartre that he relaxed back into the seat.
It's been too long.
The rain picked up as the taxi turned the corner onto rue d'Assas, affording a quick view of the grand fountain at the end of the Jardins du Luxembourg with its immense horses. The park looked gray, lifeless. He handed the driver a fifty euro bill, pulled up the door code on his smartphone, and entered it into the silver keypad, then walked into the tiled vestibule when the wooden door clicked open. Rummaging briefly in his pockets, he pulled out a set of keys and unlocked the door to the courtyard, his suitcase clattering across the uneven flagstones toward yet another doorway. Tiny vines of delicate yellow flowers climbed the side of the building in spite of the cold. In spring, the entire courtyard would be full of colorful blooms tended by the building's various residents.
The second door opened without a key, and he walked a few more feet to an apartment door painted a bright shade of blue, almost turquoise. He tapped the automatic lights, illuminating the corridor, and plunged his key into the lock. The apartment was cold--colder even than outside. It had been unoccupied for months, and the frigid air from the courtyard leaked in through the ancient windows.
He left his suitcase by the front door and flipped a switch to light the entryway. A burst of color on the dining room table caught his eye as he turned up the thermostat. Rosie, he thought with a smile. She must have asked the building superintendent to set the flowers there for him.
The edges of his mouth turned up as he inhaled the sweet scent of the bouquet. Freesia and irises. There was an envelope propped against the vase, with a typewritten message inside:
Looks like I'll be in Milan until late March. Call me on my cell when you get in. I'll take the TGV up for a weekend when you're ready for visitors. I've had Remy stock the fridge for a few days. The place is yours for as long as you need it. Remember to relax!
Three years older than he, Rosalie had purchased the Paris apartment years ago, having done quite well in her work as a fashion designer. Jason had stayed here once, more than ten years before, in between law school and his first job as an attorney.
She's right--you need to relax. That's what this is all about, isn't it? he thought as he showered a short time later. But he knew that this trip was about more than just needing time off to relax. He was running--running from everything that was wrong with his life: the long hours, the loving relationship that had slipped through his hands, the pain of betrayal, and the desire to do something with his life other than earn more money than he could ever find the time to spend. Toweling off a few minutes later, he clicked the remote on Rosalie's sound system. Fifties jazz filled the apartment and, for the first time in weeks, he smiled.
For a half an hour he lay on the couch, just letting the music wash over him. At last, drawing inspiration from the music, he threw on a pair of jeans and a warm sweater, shoved his wallet and phone into his pocket, and grabbed his jacket and umbrella. With thoughts of a long walk, something to eat, and perhaps even listening to some live music later on, he was out the door minutes later, damp hair and all.
* * * *
"Oy! Henri!" the dark-haired young man shouted over the din of clattering dishes. "You said you'd get your drums set up before you started working."
Henri, blond hair flopping into his eyes and up to his arms in soapsuds, shouted back, "You can do it for a change, you lazy ass! You want to get me fired, Jules? If I lose my job, you lose a place to sleep, remember?"
Jules Bardon scowled, walking over to the sinks and planting himself behind the lanky blond. "And whose fault is it that you're so late getting to work? You spent the night with Pascal again, didn't you?"
"Is that a problem?" Henri retorted without looking up from his task. "Maybe you're just jealous. Since you dumped"--he paused for effect--"what's his name...?"
"Philippe," Jules supplied.
"Right. Since you dumped Philippe, you haven't gotten any."
"Philippe was a shit," Jules countered, only half joking.
"I'm sure I could convince Pascal to let you join us, if you'd like," Henri added, smirking. A soap bubble rose from the sink and Jules flicked an angry finger by his friend's face to pop it.
"Not interested," said Jules. "But if you're going to spend the whole night fucking, the least you could do is set an alarm. What the hell do I know about putting together a drum set?"
"You've watched me do it a hundred times," the other young man shot back, laughing and plunking several plates down on the side of the sink. Tiny rivers of water ran from the counter down to the drain. More bubbles floated up toward the ceiling. The place reeked of grease, cigarette smoke, and soap.
"Maurice doesn't let us play here very often," Jules retorted, half tempted to throttle his roommate. "You have to take this seriously. You never know who might be listening."
Henri turned and put a soapy hand on Jules's shoulder, ignoring the look of irritation on the other man's face. "Dreamer," he said. Then, biting his cheek, he added, "Fine. I'll set up my drums if you finish the dishes."
"You got gloves somewhere?"
"Gloves?" Henri held up his bare hands and smirked. His fingers were puckered and white.
"If I do the dishes, my calluses will--" protested Jules.
"You're a fucking prima donna, Jules," Henri grumbled. He shrugged, turned back to the sink, and laughed again. "It's all right. There are gloves on the shelf to your left." He looked over his shoulder and winked.
Jules shook his head, reaching for the gloves. He snapped the rubber menacingly at Henri before giving him a shove in the direction of the nightclub's stage, just beyond the kitchen.
* * * *
The night sky had begun to clear as Jason left the small cafe where he had eaten dinner, and he wandered up toward Ile de la Cite, hoping to catch a view of the Eiffel Tower. Crossing the Seine at ten o'clock, he watched as the tower was illuminated in a shower of sparkles. His sister had told him that the Parisians had so enjoyed the lighting for the millennium that they had insisted the special effects continue for the foreseeable future. Leaning against the wall that ran along the river's edge, Jason sat back and thought of nothing but the lights, ignoring the damp chill of the evening.
When the light show ended, he headed back down boulevard Saint-Michel in search of some of the jazz clubs that he had discovered in this area years ago, hidden amongst the tiny streets.
He had nowhere to go, nobody waiting for him, no deadlines to meet. He could sleep later. A few drinks and some good music would help him sleep a lot better too. With a roguish grin he walked onward, cold hands shoved into his pockets.
Why the hell not?
He spotted a club as he turned the corner--a small, grayish-looking dive with a purple neon sign above the entrance, nestled between a bakery and a store that sold Japanese manga. Inhaling the fragrance of baking bread from the boulangerie, he walked over to peer inside. He couldn't see anything, but the sounds of modern jazz wafted onto the street. He glanced up and read the sign: "Le Loup-Garou." The Werewolf.
A fitting name for a hole like this, he thought with a chuckle. And just the kind of place where you'd expect to hear great music.
* * * *
Jules glanced over at Henri and their pianist, David. David grinned and nodded, caressing the keys of the upright piano, his touch so delicate that Jules could hear the man breathe with each phrase. David complained that the instrument was out of tune and a "piece of shit," but the sound he managed to coax from it was astonishingly sweet. Henri's mellow brush strokes over the surface of the snare drum joined the soft piano, much like the sound of the rain on the city streets--understated, yet insistent. Sexy.
Jules gripped the neck of his violin, placing the instrument under his chin and against the rough patch of skin there, much like the mark of a lover. He drew his bow above the strings, allowing it to hover there for an instant before lightly catching the D string. The sound of the violin flickered like a candle flame blown by an unseen breeze, then grew and melded with the muted piano, sultry and inviting. Jules closed his eyes, letting the sound wash over him, responding to the slow harmonic progression on the piano weaving the ghostly melody.
* * * *
In a dim alcove only a dozen feet or so from the musicians, Jason sat nursing his drink, transported by the sound of the violin. It wasn't jazz in the purest of forms--it was more of a hybrid, combining the traditional jazz rhythms of the fifties with a modern, yet classical approach. But whatever you might call the music, he found it transcendent. In between pieces, Jason glanced around the room to discover the group's name, but found no mention of it anywhere.
The set ended, and the club erupted in applause. The musicians nodded, their manner casual, aloof, even a bit embarrassed. The violinist's eyes met Jason's and, for a brief instant, lingered there. Jason's mouth parted slightly, his cheeks flushed. Breaking their eye contact to look down at his empty glass, he told himself that the heat in his cheeks was from the alcohol and the lack of sleep. He motioned to the lone waiter for a refill. When he turned back toward the stage, he found himself sitting face to face with the violinist.
"May I join you?" the violinist asked, a coy grin on his delicate lips. Jason figured that he might be nineteen, tops. As his companion brushed a stray lock of shoulder-length black hair from his eyes, Jason realized that he had one brown eye and one green. He was a waif of a kid, barely taller than Jason's own sister. His face was uniquely French, from the slightly pronounced nose to the sharper edge of his jaw, and his body swam in a large pair of jeans that hung low on his hips, exposing blue plaid boxers. On top, he wore a body-hugging black T-shirt with the word "Quoi?" splashed across the front in bright red.
"Be my guest," Jason replied in French, still unsure of what to think about the boy. "Seems as though you've already invited yourself."
"You're French Canadian?" the newcomer inquired, grin widening.
"American," came the gruff answer. Jason noted the homemade tattoo on the boy's right forearm.
"Really? Your French is excellent," the young man replied.
"Your music's good," Jason countered playfully. "What's your trio called?"
"Dunno. We haven't named it yet--we just don't play that much. Wouldn't have played tonight, except the group Maurice had booked canceled, and he couldn't find a replacement. My roommate's the dishwasher here." He gestured at the drummer, who was watching them with interest from the edge of the small stage. "So, do you live in Paris?" he added after a moment's pause.
The waiter deposited two drinks on the table and winked at the violinist.
"My name's Jules," the boy said. "Jules Bardon."
"Enchante." Jules took Jason's hand across the table. The gesture was far too friendly. Flirtatious. Jason pulled his hand away and raised an eyebrow. Jules was unfazed. "Here on business?"
Jules laughed--a soft, almost girlish laugh. "Do I make you uncomfortable?" he asked, his eyes fixed on Jason's.
"No," lied Jason, finding the boy's gaze a bit too intense.
"I could make this a pleasure visit for you," Jules said as he absentmindedly traced a long finger across his own lips.
"I don't bat for that team," Jason said, borrowing the American expression wholesale as his high school French failed him at last. It was not the first time that he had spoken the words, although it was the first time he had spoken them in French. They were also not entirely true; it was simply that the right opportunity had never presented itself.
The dark-haired young man looked at him for a moment, uncomprehending, then laughed again.
"What's so funny?" Jason demanded, noting a hint of licorice on the air as his companion replaced his drink on the table.
"Oh," he said, "I understand." He laughed again. "Sorry. I've just never heard it put that way before. At first I thought you were asking me about baseball." He took a swig of his drink and shrugged. "Too bad. You looked like you could use a good--"
"I have to go," Jules sighed, disappointed. "Time for the next set. It was nice to meet you, Jason." He tripped over the name, and it came out sounding something like "Jah-sohn." Jason chuckled in spite of himself, reminded of the various ways in which his name had been mangled by French speakers through the years.
Jules sucked down the rest of his drink in one swallow and stood up. "If you change your mind...," he began, but the blond-haired drummer grabbed him by the arm and dragged him back toward the stage.
Not likely, kid, Jason thought, chuckling again. He had enough shit to deal with.
* * * *
It was nearly two in the morning when Jason left the club--a full twenty-four hours since he had really slept well. The rain had begun to fall again, this time in torrents. In spite of the downpour, Jason decided against taking the Metro. He liked the rain; it helped clear his mind.
He headed down boulevard Saint-Germain toward boulevard Saint-Michel, past the darkened storefronts and the few cafes that were still open. He crossed a side street, glancing to his left to see the impressive Pantheon with its white stone surface still lit. In that moment, he realized that he had never taken the time to explore Paris as an adult--he had chosen instead to get wasted and hang out in clubs rather than do any serious sightseeing. No, most of his memories of the city were those from his childhood when his parents had dragged him and Rosalie around to all the museums and tourist destinations.
He reached the corner of Saint-Michel and waited for the light to turn. On the other side of Saint-Germain, he spotted a lone figure waiting at a bus stop. "Jules?" he called out as he stepped onto the other curb.
"Jason," the boy replied, looking surprised but pleased nonetheless. Jason noticed that he was shouldering a neon-green violin case with a few peeling Rolling Stones stickers. He had no umbrella and no jacket, and was soaked to the skin, his dark hair plastered to his pale cheeks as he shivered. His lips were already slightly blue.
"I enjoyed the music," was all Jason said. Damn, but the kid looks young. He reminded Jason of a street kid. How do you know he's not?
"Thanks," Jules mumbled as he wiped the rain from his cheeks.
"Missed your bus?"
"Yeah," Jules answered. "There's another in about an hour. They don't run often this time of night."
"You can spend the night at my apartment," Jason heard himself offer. "I've got a place nearby." He immediately regretted these words--what the hell was he doing, asking a kid who had been hitting on him just hours before to spend the night? But he was too tired to think straight, and the kid looked terrible. "In the guest bedroom," he added quickly to clarify the sleeping arrangements.
Jules's expression turned to one of astonishment. "I... I...," he stammered. "Sure." Then, "Hey, I thought you were visiting."
"It's a long story," Jason replied, motioning Jules under his umbrella. "Maybe I'll tell you sometime."
"I'd like that, Jason." Jules pushed the hair out of his face. Jason said nothing, but kept on walking. "Oh, and Jason?"
* * * *
Jason awoke to the enticing smell of strong French coffee and warm bread. He glanced at the clock on the nightstand--it was nearly noon. His first instinct was to curse himself for having slept in so late, followed by the quick realization that he was not expected at work--or anywhere, for that matter. He couldn't remember the last time that he had slept past 6:00 a.m., even on a weekend. He stretched his arms over his head and fell back on the pillow, dozing a few minutes more.
The haze of sleep began to lift as his eyes adjusted to the bright sunshine streaming in through his bedroom window. The smell of the coffee was now a siren call, and he got out of bed and stumbled, naked, down the hallway to the bathroom. That's when it struck him: the coffee aroma was coming from the apartment kitchen. Shit. He had forgotten about the kid. He turned around to grab his pants from the bedroom and came face to face with Jules. The young man grinned, biting his bottom lip and making no effort to turn (or look) away.
"Nice," he said, his eyes raking over Jason's body and fixing on his broad shoulders. For a moment, they just stood there in the hallway. Jules, Jason noticed, was wearing only a pair of boxers. Without the baggy pants and T-shirt, Jason saw that he had a youthful, well-defined body--the hint of a six-pack, a bit of definition at his shoulders, a silver belly-button ring. Jason realized now that the tattoo he had noticed in the club was a crude rendering of the logo from the Blue Note jazz club in Manhattan with its distinctive note set in the middle of the club's name.
Jason had always been proud of his body, with his muscular physique and well-toned legs. Now, for the first time in his life, he was intensely uncomfortable in his own nakedness. Scowling, he turned back to the bathroom without saying a word and emerged a few minutes later wrapped in a robe.
Jules walked out of the kitchen a moment later, holding a tray laden with two coffee cups and hot milk. He placed the tray on the dining table, which, Jason saw, had been set for two. There was a fresh baguette already lying there, along with a few croissants, jam, butter, and cheese.
"Hungry?" Jules asked, basking in his companion's stunned expression.
"Where'd you get the bread?" Jason countered. He knew his sister had not left any bread or croissants in the refrigerator--day-old baked goods were, Rosalie always said, a crime against nature.
"Went out while you were sleeping," Jules replied with a bright grin.
"How did you get back into the apartment?"
"I used the code and borrowed your keys."
"How did you get the code for the front door?" Jason demanded. He had a vague sensation that the kid was toying with him--teasing him--but was too jet-lagged to think straight.
"I've got a good memory. I watched you last night."
Jason sighed. The kid was definitely a brat, and a sharp one at that.
The cell phone on the coffee table rang, and Jason picked it up. Shit. He had forgotten to call Rosalie. He tapped the screen and said, "Hello?"
"Hey, sorry," he replied, looking a bit hangdog. "I meant to call you but...."
"No problem, Jaz," came her lilting voice through the phone. "I just wanted to be sure you made it in okay." It was good to hear her voice; she had become the calm in the midst of the storm that had raged about him for the past few weeks. She had done what nobody else had done: she had listened to him. Her only advice had been to take some time off for himself to think things over.
"Thanks for the flowers," he said with a quick glance back at the table. The few blooms that had been closed when he arrived were now fully open. Jules, he noticed, was now seated, elbow on the table, his chin resting in his hand.
"I'm glad you like them," Rosalie answered. "I figured you could use a little pick-me-up."
"Yeah." Throughout the conversation, Jules watched him with interest, and Jason wondered how much English he knew.
"Heard anything else from Diane?" Rosalie ventured.
Jason's expression hardened and his voice became tight. "Diane? No," he replied. "Why?"
"She called me."
For a full minute, Jason said nothing. "What did she want?" he asked at last. An image flashed through his mind--of Diane and the other man, their naked bodies intertwined on his own bed, sheets twisted in knots. He pushed the vision from his thoughts and forced himself to focus on Rosalie's words.
"She feels bad," Rosalie said. "She wants to talk to you."
"There's nothing to talk about," was his steely response. At the table, Jules shifted in his seat, pouring himself a cup of coffee. With heightened awareness of the other man's presence, Jason continued. "Rosie, it's over. We both fucked up."
"She said the same thing. I told her you needed time, but that I'd tell you she'd called."
"You know I'd be the last one to push you on this," she said. "After what she did to you--"
"Like I said," Jason interrupted, "we both fucked up."
"You're too hard on yourself, Jaz," Rosalie said with sadness in her voice. "Whatever you did, you would never have cheated on her."
It was true, and Jason knew it. The thought gave him no comfort.
"Look, Rosie," he said, the smell of the coffee now more than he could resist, "I gotta run. I'll call you in a few days, okay?"
"I'll let you off the hook for now," she said, knowing full well that he was trying to get her off the phone to avoid continuing the conversation. "I love you, Jaz."
"Love you, too, Rosie." He tapped the phone and replaced it on the table, staring at it for a few seconds.
"Diane," Jules repeated between sips of his coffee. "Your wife?"
So the kid did understand English. Jason scowled at him.
"Tes oignons," he retorted, an expression that he had always loved. It meant literally, "your onions," as in "take care of your own," and was the French equivalent of "mind your own business."
Jules smirked. Then, changing the subject, he offered, "Du cafe?"
"Thanks," Jason said, his mouth watering. "Au lait, s'il te plait."
Jules poured a bit of the viscous liquid into one of the large cups, then filled the rest with hot milk. Jason took the cup from him, their fingers brushing lightly.
"Stop doing that," Jason told the boy.
"Doing what?" Jules countered, the now-familiar evil grin settling over his angelic features.
"You know damn well what I mean," Jason parried, inhaling the scent of the coffee. "You're a"--his French failed him once more, and he struggled to find the word he was looking for--"flirt."
"That bothers you? Are you a homophobe?" Neither prospect appeared to disturb Jules in the least.
"No," Jason retorted, "of course not." He sounded a bit more defensive than he had intended.
"Your coffee's getting cold," Jules said. He lifted his own cup to his mouth, taking a sip and licking the froth from his lips. Jason took a long drink, finding to his surprise that he was admiring the curve of the kid's Cupid's bow.
Jules picked up the plate with the cheese. Jason's stomach growled in response. "Comte, Gruyere, and a Saint-Marcellin frais."
Jason grinned. "Saint-Marcellin. My favorite."
"Ouais," replied Jason, using the slang pronunciation of the affirmative he had learned as a child. "I lived in Grenoble for a few years when I was in high school. My parents loved cheese, and this one was made nearby." He didn't mention that he had tried to get the fresh, unripened version of the cheese in the States without success until he had paid a hefty premium for overnight shipping via FedEx. But Diane had never liked the stuff, and he had stopped ordering it.
"So that's why your French is so good, Jason," Jules said, studying Jason's face. "I wondered. You have a funny little accent--sometimes I don't even notice it. That's why I thought you were Canadian."
"Call me Jaz," Jason answered, as the young man mangled his name once more.
"My nickname. It's easier to pronounce."
"Nice," Jules said, picking up the baguette and tearing a piece off, then handing it to Jason. "I like jazz."
Jason snorted and shook his head. "You never give up, do you?"
"Why should I?" countered Jules. "You're a very attractive man, Jas--Jaz."
"How old are you anyhow?" asked Jason, spreading the Saint-Marcellin on the hunk of bread he had torn off.
"Twenty-two," Jules replied. "Old enough, don't you think?"
"Old enough for what?" In spite of his forward manner, Jason realized that he liked the kid--although not, he told himself, in the way that Jules hoped.
"I could show you," Jules drawled, batting his dark lashes at Jason. Jason ignored this--at least he tried to ignore it--taking a bite of his bread and cheese. They ate in companionable silence for a few more minutes, then Jules asked, "So you really liked the music last night?" He leaned forward over the table and, for once, looked quite serious.
"Yes," Jason answered. "I really did. Who writes your music?"
"I do," Jules stated proudly.
"It's refreshing. Where did you learn to write like that?"
"I went to conservatory after lycee," Jules explained, using the French word for high school. "Classical."
"Really? Then you're still in school?"
"No." Jules's lips tightened. "It just... didn't work out."
Jason knew he had hit a nerve, and didn't press it further. We all have our secrets, he thought, watching his companion eat his breakfast with renewed interest.
"I'm going over to Trocadero this afternoon. You want to join me?" Jason asked, trying to keep his tone as casual as he could--he didn't want the kid to get the wrong idea.
"Sure," Jules responded between chews. "Why are you going there?"
"No reason," Jason answered. "Just thought I'd play tourist for once and check out the Eiffel Tower. It's been a long time since I've been there. You ever been to the top?"
"No," Jules admitted, refilling his coffee. "But I've always wanted to. How much does it cost?"
Jason realized he hadn't considered that the kid might not have any money. "My treat," he said. "I hate sightseeing alone."
"Sure." Jason nodded.
"I'd love to," Jules answered. Jason could see genuine excitement in the young man's eyes and couldn't help but wonder how dire Jules's circumstances were. It had never occurred to him that a Parisian might never have been to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
* * * *
The weather was bright as they exited the Metro. Jules, wearing a sweatshirt belonging to Jason's sister (at Jason's insistence), had pulled his hair into a short ponytail at the back of his head, several shorter strands falling across his forehead. In daylight, the contrast between Jules's brown and green eyes was striking.
"I've never met anyone with two different colored eyes," Jason remarked as they climbed the steps to the platform overlooking the Seine and the Eiffel Tower beyond.
"My eyes are brown," Jules replied, appearing pleased that the older man had noticed. "I lost one of my contacts. I couldn't afford another pair, but Henri said he thought it looked cool, so I wear the single contact for the hell of it."
Jason was tempted to say something like, "Kids these days," but thought better of it; he had no desire to sound like his father. Instead, he heard himself tell his companion, "I like brown eyes." It was true, especially when they were flecked with bits of amber like Jules's.
A couple of teenagers on skateboards descended the shallow steps nearby, and Jason thought wistfully of his old board, sitting in his parents' attic in Ohio.
"You skate?" Jules asked.
"Used to," replied Jason, noting again how observant his companion was. "It's been a long time."
"I always wanted to try," Jules said as he watched the skateboarders with fascination. "I couldn't afford to buy one."
"You grew up in the city?"
"Just outside. In Nanterre." Jason knew the area well--a troubled Parisian suburb with a lot of high-rise, low-cost housing. In late 2010 there had been riots sparked by the French government's proposal to raise the retirement age from sixty to sixty-two. Students and other youth from the area had burned cars, destroyed bus shelters, and blocked roads, prompting the French government to send riot police with teargas to disperse the crowds.
"Your family still live there?"
"No." Jason sensed Jules's hesitation in answering the personal questions and let the subject drop.
They reached the top of the plaza. Below, the fountains were still, and across the Seine, the Eiffel Tower rose skyward. "I've always liked this view," Jason said, leaning on the stone wall. To their left, a few giggling Japanese girls in short skirts and berets were taking photographs. Jason offered (in English) to take a picture of the group, and the girls giggled some more, handing him their cameras and even asking Jason to pose with them. Jules watched all of this with amusement.
Jason rejoined Jules by the wall a few minutes later. A man approached them, holding a giant ring filled with Eiffel Tower key rings in various colors. Jason was about to wave the man away, but changed his mind and negotiated a good price on two--one in blue and one in green. Turning to Jules, he asked, "Blue or green?"
"Green," Jules replied, taking the key ring from Jason and clipping it onto one of his belt loops. "Merci."
They walked down the long steps and past the silent fountains. From time to time Jason got the impression that Jules was staring at him, as if the boy were trying to figure him out. An hour later, after a crowded ride up in the elevator (during which Jules managed to press his body as close to Jason's as humanly possible under the pretext of "making more space" for the other tourists), the two of them stood atop the Eiffel Tower, looking out over the city. Jules's face was flushed with excitement and for just a moment, Jason remembered the first time that his parents had brought him here. His younger self must have looked just like Jules.
"What do you think?" Jason asked as his companion leaned over the edge.
"It's incredible," Jules responded, sounding breathless. "I've been to Montmartre, and the view there is impressive, but this...." He stopped speaking and just stared. Jason put his hand on the Frenchman's shoulder without thinking, squeezing it lightly. He removed it a moment later, realizing that this would only encourage the kid to flirt with him again. It wasn't as though the flirting bothered him all that much; he was attractive, but Jason didn't want to lead him on, either.
The realization that he found the kid attractive left him feeling awkward and uncomfortable in his own skin. You're straight, he reminded himself, as if the thought would somehow insulate him from feeling anything but friendship for the other man.
"I remember thinking the same thing once," he told Jules, pushing the thought aside. Then, after a few more minutes had passed, he added, "Do you have to be somewhere today?"
"You mean like work?"
"No. I help Henri out at the club sometimes, but it's closed Mondays."
"Good. I've got something I want you to see."