From the New York Times bestselling author of The Paris Key comes the story of a mysterious work of art and the woman inspired to uncover its history in the City of Light.
After surviving the accident that took her mother’s life, Claire Broussard has worked hard to escape her small Louisiana hometown. But these days she feels something is lacking. Abruptly leaving her lucrative job in Chicago, Claire returns home to care for her ailing grandmother. There, she unearths a beautiful piece of artwork that her great-grandfather sent home from Paris after World War II.
At her grandmother’s urging, Claire travels to Paris to track down the century-old mask-making atelier where the object, known only as “L’Inconnue”—or The Unknown Woman—was created. Under the watchful eye of a surly mask-maker, Claire discovers a cache of letters that offers insight into the life of the Belle Epoque woman immortalized in the work of art. As Claire explores the unknown woman’s tragic fate, she begins to unravel deeply buried secrets in her own life.
Copyright © 2016 Juliet Blackwell
February 27, 1898
Sabine creeps across the dark studio before dawn, beseeching the silent faces not to betray her. They watch her every move, mute witnesses to her crime.
Slipping through the door, she winces at the scraping sound of metal on metal as she pauses to latch it behind her. Fog envelops her, the mist cutting through her threadbare blouse and underthings, wet needles of cold air piercing her skin.
Sabine thinks longingly of the two dresses she left behind in the cupboard. He’d bought them for her. They are the finest garments she has ever worn: one blue, one green. Made of the softest lawn, a material so lush and supple it beckoned to her the first time she donned the garments; often she would caress the skirt, reveling in the sumptuous sensations that tickled her palm. He teased her for that.
Take nothing with you.
She has donned the heavy black skirt and thin gray blouse she wore when they’d met in the square in Pigalle. When she thought he was her salvation. Before.
Her feet are clad in her ancient black boots. The dove gray shawl her mother had knit for her sixteenth Christmas is her only defense against the night’s chill. She wears her hair pinned back in the style he likes: an old-fashioned twist on either side of her head.
As though she stepped out of another time.
Also abandoned is a gold armband, still in its nest of fine black velvet, in a blue box upon the nightstand. The tortoiseshell comb for her hair. Her little hand mirror. The candle stubs and pocket-sized book of sonnets, her sketchbook and charcoal. She even leaves behind the pillowcase in which she had packed her few belongings when she’d fled her childhood home in the countryside so long ago.
Before Paris. Before she was an artist’s model. Before Maurice.
The damp air stings her cheeks with cold kisses. Dim light from the gas streetlamps casts an amber glow on the cobblestones, glinting off puddles from last night’s rain.
They seem to flash a warning: You will never get away with it. You will never get away.
Sabine keeps her head down, walking as quickly as she dares. Listening.
She hears water dripping from a gargoyle at the side of the church. A horse whinnying a block or two away. A dog barking behind a stout wooden door. The tapping of her boots on the paving stones, echoing the pounding of her heart.
Her own harsh breathing is the loudest sound.
And . . . something else?
She freezes. Holds her breath. Listens.
Sabine runs. Runs for her life.
She makes it as far as the quai du Louvre. To the Pont Neuf.
The bridge that crosses the Seine.
This was probably a mistake, Claire thought to herself as she wrestled her luggage cart—why did she always choose the one with a wobbly wheel?—out the exit of the New Orleans airport. The sliding glass doors whooshed closed behind her, cutting her off from the terminal’s unnatural coolness and leaving her mired in the soupy atmosphere of July, Louisiana-style.
Louisiana. It occurred to Claire that had she been blindfolded and her ears covered, she would still know where she was. She could feel it, smell something achingly familiar in the air. Humid tendrils of heat reached out and wrapped around her, dampness whispering along her skin, greeting her like an old lover.
A lover she’d left many years ago with a mix of regret and relief, an abstract fondness tangled up with the fervent desire to move on.
Claire took a deep breath of the hot, moist air, blew it out slowly, and searched the vehicles vying for curb access outside of baggage claim. When she’d cosigned the loan for her cousin Ty’s new rig, he’d told her it was “huge, black, and shiny.” One good thing about having more cousins in Plaquemines Parish than she could count: there was always someone to give her a ride to or from the airport.
A small group of already inebriated twentysomething tourists, apparently intent on finding Mardi Gras out of season, jostled Claire on their jocular way to the taxi stand; she barely managed to grab her computer case as it was knocked from her shoulder. A drip of sweat rolled down the small of her back. She stood with one hand on her luggage; other than a few boxes of books and souvenirs she had sent through the mail, the two big suitcases, one duffel bag, and huge purse were all she owned in the world. She’d sold or given away the rest before leaving Chicago.
This was probably a mistake, Claire thought again. The phrase had become something of a mantra ever since her cousin Jessica had phoned the week before last to say their grandmother was at death’s door.
“Mammaw needs you, Chance,” Jessica had said. Claire’s relatives knew her as Chance; their grandmother went by Mammaw. “She’s speaking in Cajun; no one can understand her but Uncle Remy. And you know how he is.”
When Claire received the call, she had been sitting in her climate-controlled office in Chicago, wondering what a person wore to the opera. Was her standard black office garb—perhaps dressed up with some chunky ethnic jewelry and a colorful pashmina—enough, or was this more of a sparkles-and-tulle situation? From the vantage point of her desk she could see acres of taupe carpeting and a maze of cubicles, old brick factory walls chicly renovated with skylights, and steel-and-glass dividers for “No-Miss Systems: A Software Company.” She looked out over the muted officescape, imagining Mammaw’s house and thinking: If Jessica’s was a voice from her past, what was her future? A night at the opera? Really?
You’re getting pretty big for your britches, Chance Broussard.
As her newly ex-boyfriend Sean would say: in this, as in most things, Claire was just the teensiest bit conflicted.
Claire finally spotted Ty’s truck, looming large and new in a sea of smaller cars and dented pickups. Ignoring the blare of horns, he double-parked, hopped out, gave Claire a bear hug, then tossed her leaden bags in the bed of the truck like so much kindling.
Ty drove toward the small town in Plaquemines Parish where they had been raised. They chatted a little about her life in the “big city,” his new truck, the job situation out on the oil rigs, and the precarious state of Mammaw’s health, but further conversation soon fizzled out. Claire’s relatives worked hard, disdained complainers, saluted the flag, and enjoyed their football. When they started drinking, the young men might get raucous and the old folks were prone to spinning long, involved tales in which layers of fact and fiction, history and fantasy merged and overlapped. But unless they were in storytelling mode, her cousins remained largely silent, their thoughts and hopes and dreams kept locked away under sweat-stained New Orleans Saints or Ragin’ Cajuns ball caps.
So Claire was free to watch the scenery—flat, full of brush and low trees and crisscrossed by creeks and bayous—and to ponder.
After hanging up with Jessica, Claire had finished up the day’s work, talked to her team supervisor, and hurried to meet Sean for a drink at the latest trendy lounge, a former dive bar that had been revamped with an ironically 1950s décor à la Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. They ordered craft cocktails made with locally sourced ingredients that took about ten minutes apiece for the bewhiskered “mixologists” to produce and that cost easily four times as much as the drinks had in the bar’s former incarnation.
After their cocktails arrived, they settled in at a table and Claire told Sean she had given notice at No-Miss and was going home to take care of her grandmother.
“Just like that?” Sean asked, a stunned look on his handsome face, grapefruit-bitters-inspired cocktail held aloft halfway to his mouth.
“Well, as soon as they can replace me at work.”
“But . . . what about me? What about us?”
“I . . .” Claire trailed off. The sorry truth was, she hadn’t thought much about Sean’s reaction to her sudden news.
Of course he was important to her. Claire cared for Sean. A lot. They’d met not long after graduating college, and Sean—an Evanston native—had introduced Claire to the wonders of city life. Sean took her to fancy restaurants and cocktail parties; he taught her how to hail a cab and gripe about the El and stroll through the Museum of Art while making the appropriately erudite comments. With Sean by her side, Claire developed a taste for Thai food and Ethiopian food and learned to eat raw fish—who knew?—at sushi bars. She even became accustomed to paying the equivalent of an entire breakfast back home for a simple cup of French roast at the chic café on the corner near her downtown office. They were young and well paid; it was fun.
But lately Sean had been pushing for more. Their friends were starting to marry, settle down and buy houses, have children. Claire liked Sean and enjoyed being with him. But there was something lacking.
For years she’d been driven: first to get out of her small hometown, then to finish college, then to get a job, then to make more money. Now what? Sitting hunched over her keyboard ten hours a day, going out to trendy clubs on the weekend, able to afford a nice place to live and new clothes, and getting her hair done in a salon . . . Was this what she had worked so hard to attain? Claire used to be able to lose herself down the rabbit hole of her work: writing code, beta testing, and resolving glitches. But now she wondered: Did any of it matter in the long run? Is this all there is?
And when she tried to picture herself settling down with Sean and starting a family, she felt the waters closing over her head, her lungs screaming for air. She felt like she was drowning.
“Tell me what’s going on, Claire.” Sean had covered Claire’s hand with his, squeezed gently. “You get one phone call and suddenly you’re ready to give up your whole life here in Chicago? I’m sorry your grandmother’s not doing well, but she’s getting up there in age, right? It’s not unexpected, is it? Couldn’t you just go for a visit, like a. . . ?”
Like a normal person, Claire finished his thought in her mind. But no matter how much she might enjoy expensive cocktails, Claire had never felt normal in Chicago.
When she’d first arrived at the University of Chicago, a scholarship kid fresh off the plane from Louisiana, Chance had stuck out like a sore thumb. She wore the wrong clothes, sported a frizzy home perm two decades out of fashion (according to the blunt but sympathetic assessment of her roommate Zoey, who was from New York City and knew about such things), and spoke with an accent as thick as a cloud of moustiques over the bayou on a warm summer evening.
At first she had found everything—the chatty students, the scholarly professors, the city traffic—intimidating. Just as she had at home, she spent her nights hiding in her room or studying in the library.
But after a few lonely weeks Chance had made a decision. After all, she hadn’t fought her way out of Plaquemines Parish just to let life pass her by. So she applied her formidable study skills to observing the behavior of the other girls: their wardrobes, their intonations, the way they giggled and joked about boys, and about life in general. How easily they reneged on promises, how they said yes when they meant no and no when they meant yes. How they never sat down for a full meal but ate only stalks of celery with peanut butter one day, huge bowls of ice cream the next.
She started introducing herself as Claire instead of Chance, and learned to drink and smoke, to flirt and “party.” She told long, rambling stories about her hometown that her friends found hysterical, and made a feature of her “quaint” bayou accent. For the first time in her life, Claire succeeded socially as well as academically. The poor little Cajun girl managed to make some friends, attract a few boys, and still graduate cum laude. She landed a good job as a software engineer in Chicago with a starting salary that was more than she had ever thought possible, a small fortune by the standards of Plaquemines Parish, where everyone had said: That Chance! Just look at her now! She’s the American Dream, that one—coming from nothing and making something of herself.
But it had been years now, and Claire no longer felt like she was living the dream.
Claire used to ask why she hadn’t died alongside her mother when she was little, when Lizzie Broussard’s ten-year-old Ford veered off the road and landed upside down on its roof in the bayou. And Mammaw always said: The Lord’s got something special planned for you, sha, you mark my words. Your mother’s voice reached out to rescue you—it was a miracle.
But now Claire asked herself: other than the size of her paycheck, was she really better off than if she had taken that refinery job back home straight out of high school and grabbed a beer with the gang down at Charlie Bob’s after work?
Claire knew what Sean’s answer would be: a resounding yes.
“Mammaw isn’t just a grandmother,” Claire found herself saying to Sean. Trying her best to explain. “She raised me. She saved my life.”
“I know how important she is to you,” he said, his voice gentle. “And, of course, you should absolutely go see her. Take a couple of weeks, claim some family time. In fact, I could do the same and go with you.”
Claire smiled and sipped her cocktail. “You said my hometown reminded you of that movie Deliverance.”
Claire had never seen the film but she understood the reference.
“For you, I’d be willing to risk it,” Sean said with a chuckle.
Claire knew he was glad to see her smile, that he assumed he’d won the argument. Sean was a nice man, easygoing and thoughtful. But he was used to Claire accommodating his desires. Honestly, she didn’t much care whether they went to the symphony or the opera, or ate Vietnamese or Thai food for dinner, or went to the museum gala or the festival of lights at the harbor. In all these things, Claire was happy to let him choose. But this was different.
“I’m not happy in Chicago, Sean. It’s not enough, somehow. It’s hard to explain, but . . . I want something else.”
“So you’re going to move back to Plaquemines Parish?” He was getting angry now, pressing his lips together, his words taking on a clipped edge. “You hate it there. How many times have you told me that you never fit in, that you wanted something more out of life? You worked so hard to escape—how can you even think about going back?”
“It’s just for a while, so I can be with Mammaw. Jessica says it probably won’t be long now. I’ll figure out something from there. I might even come back to Chicago—I really don’t know. I’m sorry, Sean. You’re a wonderful man. I just—”
“This is a mistake, Claire,” Sean cut her off. “You’re making a mistake.”
“You may be right,” she’d conceded.
Probably it was a mistake. But it was her mistake to make.
Ten days later Claire boarded a plane and headed to Plaquemines Parish, where they drank cheap coffee laced with chicory, no one even thought about attending the opera, and Claire—with her fancy college education and big-city ways—now stuck out like a sore thumb.
“Why is there a tree on the roof?” Claire asked as Ty pulled up in front of Mammaw’s house.
“Storm came through coupla days ago,” said Ty, peering at the greenery atop the little white clapboard bungalow. “Anyway, it’s just a branch.”
“Still,” Claire said. “It’s a very large branch.”
“First I seen it,” said Ty with a shrug. “I’d take care of it now but gotta get back to work. Prob’ly Remy’s on it.”
Uncle Remy came out of the house at that moment, smiling, gray haired and slightly stooped. In photos of him as a young man in his uniform, Remy had a broad smile and kind brown eyes. He had been a gifted mechanic, could fix anything ever since he was a very young boy; everyone said so. But he’d returned from Vietnam with a head injury, and even though it seemed like he’d healed on the outside, inside he had changed. He’d moved in with Mammaw and never left.
Mammaw always called him “slow.” She said it right in front of him, and Remy never seemed to take offense. It wasn’t until Claire had gone off to Chicago that she started to think there might be something wrong with saying things like that. Remy’s “slowness” had always seemed a fact of life, like being tall or having curly hair; she had never thought much about it as a girl. He was Chance’s best childhood friend—her only real friend. He was a hide-and-seek champion, and could even be talked into playing Barbies if she promised to play checkers in return.
“Hey!” Remy called out, shuffling down the broken concrete path. “Come see! It’s my Chance! We missed you, Chance!”
She jumped out of the truck and ran to give Remy a hug, holding on for a long time. He smelled slightly of mothballs and spices, an achingly familiar scent that spoke to her of home and gumbo and family.
Sean was probably right; this whole idea was likely a mistake. But this—this moment—was worth the trip.
“We’re gonna have to call someone ’bout that roof,” Uncle Remy fretted as soon as she pulled away. So much for the welcome home. Claire wasn’t surprised; Remy lived in the present. He started wringing his hands and shifting from one foot to the other. “Branch went clear through the tar paper, and what if it rains again?”
“Don’t worry, Remy,” Claire said. “I’ll take care of it. Isn’t cousin Hog in construction?”
“He’s on the shrimpers now,” Remy said, grabbing the duffel bag from the back of the truck. Ty brought the heavier suitcases in through the front door, bade them farewell, and hurried back to work.
“They’re all on the shrimpers these days,” Remy continued. “Them that’s not on the rigs.”
“I’ll call someone else, then. Don’t worry.”
“Jessica’ll know what to do. She knows everything.”
“Good idea. Let me say hello to Mammaw, and then we’ll figure it out. Okay?”
“Okay.” He nodded and seemed to physically relax. “Glad you’re home, Chance. Sure enough glad you’re home.”
As always when stepping through Mammaw’s yellow door, Claire was filled with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia mixed with a panicky urge to flee, to run back to her urban life of overpriced drinks and refined beauty and people who followed the international news.
Mammaw had quit smoking a decade ago, but still the house smelled of stale cigarette smoke, old books, and Dr Pepper. An ancient window-mounted air-conditioning unit rattled and spewed out enough cool to take the edge off the heat, but nonetheless the small living room, crowded with furniture and bookshelves, was stuffy. Beyond the front room was the kitchen, and to one side were two bedrooms and a bath. That was it. After Chance had come to live here, she had slept on the couch or, sometimes, with Mammaw in her bed.
“She’s awake and waitin’ on you,” said Remy. “She’s only speakin’ Cajun, so it’s good you come. You want a pop?”
“No, thanks. I’m okay for now.”
Claire was struck with a vivid memory of the first time she had walked into this house, age six, knowing she would be staying. That she wouldn’t have to go back to her father’s. That she was safe. Mammaw had been making salmon croquettes; she met Chance at the door while wiping her hands on a towel, then escorted her into the kitchen, lifted her onto the counter, and poured her a Dixie cup of sweet tea.
She’d declared to Chance that, starting the next day, they would speak only Cajun in her home.
“But . . . I don’t speak Cajun,” protested Chance, nervous at the thought.
“You’ll learn, just like I learned English. When I was little we spoke Cajun at home, and when I went to school they wanted me to speak English, ’cept I didn’t speak no English. If the teachers heard me speakin’ my language they’d make me kneel on rice.”
“Kneel on rice?”
“Yup,” she said, her gnarled, capable hands mixing canned fish, chopped onions, bread crumbs, egg, and spices for salmon croquettes in a huge periwinkle blue ceramic bowl. Chance watched as the pink goo squeezed through her grandmother’s fingers like lumpy Play-Doh. “Go on now and wash your hands. He’p me make these patties.”
“But . . . isn’t rice soft?” Chance had asked, jumping off the counter and pulling the stepstool to the old porcelain farmer’s sink, reaching up to turn on the ancient brass tap, wetting her hands. She picked up the huge bar of strong lye soap Mammaw bought down at the Piggly Wiggly and rubbed it between her hands while she sang the entire song of “Happy Birthday to You” in her mind, the way she’d been taught.
Chance was always careful to do as she’d been taught.
She rinsed her hands, then dried them on a faded towel, stiff from line-drying. It chafed, and the strong soap made her hands feel dry and raw. Clean, through and through.
“I’m not talkin’ ’bout kneelin’ in no cooked rice like in jambalaya, sha,” Mammaw said with a laugh. “That’d be like a pillow. This was raw, hard grains. They dig into your skin, feel like they goin’ right up on under your kneecap. You try it, see how you like it.”
“No, thank you, ma’am.”
Mammaw laughed again and scooped out a ball of the salmon mixture, slapping it in the palm of her hands to form the croquette.
“You a good girl, Chance. Yup, the good Lord’s got somethin’ special in mind for you, sha, mark my words. That’s how come he spared you, helped your mama to speak from beyond the veil.”
Claire reached into the bowl, took a handful of the goo, and concentrated on forming it into a patty. She tried as hard as she could, but when she set it on the platter it looked like a raggedy-edged lump next to her grandmother’s smooth discs. Her eyes flew to Mammaw’s.
“Now, you hadn’t ought to be so skeered all the time, sha,” Mammaw said, picking up the misshapen wad and smoothing the sides with a quick, practiced movement. “Everybody clumsy when they little. No shame in that. Takes time to learn to do things. Time and practice.”
Chance tried harder with the second patty, her tongue planted firmly at the corner of her mouth.
“’Sides,” Mammaw continued. “I don’t ’spect the Lord saved you to make you good at cookin’. There’s the rest of us for that. He had ’nother purpose for you. ’Nother purpose entirely.”
“What is it?”
“Don’t rightly know, sha. None my business, when it come right down to it. But it’s somethin’ special. Mark my words.”
Claire stepped into Mammaw’s sky blue room. It was so small it barely fit the double bed with its chunky bedstead, World’s Best Mammaw in childish needlepoint covering one garishly colored pillow.
And Mammaw. Jessica had warned Claire that Mammaw wasn’t eating much, but nonetheless it was a shock to see her so tiny, as though she were shrinking in on herself, would continue dissipating until she disappeared into her smooth white sheets. She always used to be stout, her chubby arms and generous bosom a welcome refuge for a scared little girl. Still, Mammaw’s light sherry brown eyes were sharp as always, her smile unwavering.
“Ain’t you a sight for sore eyes, sha?”
Claire perched on the edge of the bed and hugged her grandmother, afraid to squeeze too tight. She could feel Mammaw’s bones and the rapid thudding of her pulse through the thin pink cotton of her nightgown.
Once, in the third grade, Claire found an injured bird on the way home from school. It felt like this in the palm of her hand: tiny, fragile, heart beating wildly. Remy had helped her build a little nest out of newspaper and leaves; they dug up some earthworms but the poor frightened creature ignored their offerings. It hadn’t lasted the day. They buried it in a shoe box behind the old Ford sitting, rusting and useless, next to the garage for as long as she could remember. Remy marked the spot with a crude wooden cross that still stood.
Mammaw pulled away, and Claire felt the sting of tears in her eyes.
“Don’t you dare be sad for me now, sha,” said Mammaw in Cajun, waving a finger. “I’m ’bout ready to go. All I need is two things: to finish up a few letters, and make the plans for my funeral. And I want to die here at home, ya hear? Don’t take me to no hospital. Promise me.”
Claire nodded, unable to speak.
Mammaw had never spent much time on sentiment. She took care of business; this was as much a part of her as her quick laugh, the way she ate with her mouth open and believed (and repeated and expounded upon) everything she read in the tabloid newspapers and—as she got older and had trouble moving around—how she would roll across the kitchen linoleum in an office chair, pushing herself off from the table to the counter and back again.
“I got some specifications for my funeral,” Mammaw continued. “But first, go help Remy with that tree what fell on the roof so he’ll stop talkin’ about it. I swear that boy could worry the birds out the trees. Move any of my treasures that might be in the way up there, will you, sha?”
“Of course I will,” Claire said. “I’ll get right on it. But can’t I get you something first, though? Something to eat, maybe?”
“I’ve got a hankerin’ for some gumbo. Maybe you could get the fixin’s for it for tomorrow supper.”
“I will. Nothing right now?”
She shook her head. “I’m gonna take me a nap. You go on now.”
Claire kissed her grandmother’s soft cheek—it smelled almondy, a mix of Jergens lotion and baby powder—and did as she was told. First she called a roofing company that agreed to come out the next day. Then she changed into old jeans and pulled on a T‑shirt.
Claire met Remy in his bedroom and asked for his help. She stepped into his closet, shoved her way past the musty army uniforms and the dark blue suit Mammaw insisted he keep for weddings and funerals, and, using her fingertips, pushed gently on one of the panels at the back of the closet until it popped open, revealing a wooden ladder bolted to the rear wall.
Claire wondered how she had managed to spend time up in this attic when she was young. It was sweltering. Sweat beaded on her forehead within minutes; it was so hot and close it was hard to breathe as she started moving boxes to the undamaged section of the attic. A few—the ones with correspondence and photographs—she handed down to Remy to stack in a corner of his bedroom. She worked as fast as she could, driven to escape the heat.
But when Claire got to a crate shoved up under the eaves, she slowed her frenetic pace.
“What’s this old wooden crate from Paris, Remy? Do you know?” she called down the ladder.
His head popped up through the trapdoor. “I don’t rightly know. I don’t come up here much. You should ask Mammaw.”
As soon as Claire approached the crate, the memories came flooding back.
Excerpted from Letters from Paris by Juliet Blackwell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About the Author
Juliet Blackwell is the New York Times bestselling author of the Witchcraft mysteries and the Haunted Home Renovation mysteries. She is also an author of women’s fiction. She lives in California.