The men accompanying them, or playing games of cards or chess, wore suits and top hats. Some strolled around a large basin—a central reflecting pool—with canes. Children ran through and around the artists and their easels; women sat beside one another on benches, talking idly. It was not all that different from the Luxembourg Garden of her own time. At the head of the garden, past the large reflecting pool, was the palace itself, as stately as she remembered, standing like a section of Versailles that had broken off and wandered away.
“We should be all right,” Nicholas said, keeping his voice low. “The trick is not to meet anyone’s eyes—”
It was like he’d been caught on a hook—one minute he was standing beside her, as tense as any of the marble statues, and the next he was running, off like a shot, jumping over the nearest bed of flowers and ruffling their bright heads. Women shrieked as he passed, men screamed after him—Nicholas didn’t bother with the crowded path around the reflecting pool, but simply cut through the water, splashing through the shallow pool and leaping out on the other side. Two little boys attempted to follow him before being snatched back by their nannies.
For a moment Etta stood still, her arm still outstretched after him. Something cold was pressed into her palm by a passing, kind-faced old man: a few coins.
“Wait—no!” she began, trying to give them back. “I’m not—never mind.”
She pocketed the coins and ran after Nicholas, trying to let the sting of being mistaken for a beggar roll off her shoulders. First time for everything, and all that.
It was easy enough to follow his dark shape through the crowds as he ran past the statues of French queens, toward the path that would lead them to the nearest road. Finally he stopped, but his shoulders blocked out what, exactly, he’d been chasing until Etta was standing directly behind him, with the gawkers collecting there.
It was a woman—older, if the lines on her face were any indication, but elegantly tall. Her dark skin was the shade of deep earth, her hair hidden beneath a plain sort of hat. Compared to the other women around her, she was dressed simply, almost as if the outfit was a uniform.
An overturned basket had crashed at her feet. Etta moved quickly, trying to gather up the tins that had gone rolling out of it down the path. When she turned, Nicholas’s hand was still on her shoulder as he spoke in gruff French. “Je suis vraiment désolé. Je croyais…ma mère…”
At that, the look of terror on the older woman’s face disappeared. “De rien.” She smiled at him, patting his hand. “Tu es un cher garçon.”
Etta righted the basket, passing it back to her wordlessly. Nicholas looked stricken, as if the whole of his chest was caving in.
“Au revoir,” the woman said, with a small wave.
“Au—uh, au revoir,” Etta managed, watching her as she hurried away.
Nicholas stared after her, swaying on his feet. Water dripped off his pants, out of his shoes.
“It’ll be best if we go unnoticed, huh?” she said.
Nicholas didn’t reply—he just stood there, rooted in place.
Better to keep moving than risk being seen by guardians nearby, or by the police. Etta hooked her arm through his and led him off the path, weaving through the trees and picnickers until she found a spot she recognized—the Medici Fountain, and the long pool stretching out in front of it.
She negotiated his big body onto the nearest bench. “Are you okay?”
He shook his head, swallowing.
Etta looked through the bag at his side, digging through it to find some kind of food to give him. Nicholas was in some kind of shock. Turning up nothing, she said, “I’ll be right back.”
With the coins the old man had given her, and some careful gesturing, she was able to buy a loaf of bread and a small glass of lemonade from a vendor. A sympathetic man was willing to move the queue behind her along by translating, and giving her the last bit of money she needed.
By the time she had made it back to Nicholas and the fountain, he’d come back to himself and was on his feet, pacing—looking for her. The relief that crashed over his features made her rush over to him, careful not to let too much of the lemonade slosh out onto her hand.
He pulled the food and drink out of her hands, setting them aside, and wrapped his arms around her. She did the same, standing on her toes, arms locked around his shoulders, and did what she’d wanted to do from the moment she’d left him there: hold him until he finally stopped shaking.
She didn’t care about witnesses. When she rocked back onto her heels, releasing him, she gestured to the bread. “I paid good money for that! You’d better eat every last bite.”
“Every last bite,” he promised, even as he tore a piece off for her. He took his seat again with a sheepish look around them. “I have to confess, I’m surprised they haven’t marked us as vagrants and thrown us out yet.”
Etta decided not to tell him where the money for the bread and drink had come from. Instead, she watched his fascinated, puckered reaction as he took a sip of the lemonade.
“My God,” he coughed, pounding his chest. “When does it stop burning?”
“In all of your travels, you never had lemonade?” she asked. “What? Only beer and wine for you?”
“Better than diseased water.” He tore the small loaf in half, bringing his piece up to his nose to smell it. The obvious pleasure on his face gave her a flush of happiness, too.