“Where are we, exactly?” Summer asks, her hand wrapped hard around the car door handle.
The car jostles down the small and narrow road, dirt rising in their wake. She doesn’t have to look at Luc to know he is giving her that slight smile of his, the one just for her. He spoils her with his focus and attention, by giving only her his heart.
“Outside of Mougins,” he says, voice low and steady.
“And where is that, other than south?” she says, pushing her hair off her shoulders and looking at him.
“Fifteen minutes from Cannes,” he says, the spring sunlight glancing off of his dark hair. It makes her think of the islands, the different shades of black and blue she found in his hair during their stay there, the sun soaking into him as if he belonged there. She feels a pang still for her island life, when she thinks on it too long; but when Luc reaches over to take her hand as it lays dormant on her thigh, and bring it to his lips, she knows what he said those months ago in the hammock rings true – sometimes, your heart must break to become wider.
“A little close to all those famous Hollywood types for you, isn’t it?” she teases. Her stomach heaves with the uneven jolt of the road.
He shrugs. “We will be close enough to the commune center to draw attention, but far enough to avoid tourists,” he says. “We will be the secret find of the area.”
When he says we, he speaks of the restaurant and his partner; they already have the space picked out, and are in the process of hiring staff and creating a menu. The first time he brought Summer to the new restaurant, a white-washed stone building of two stories and a large kitchen in the back overlooking a newly-cultivated garden, he didn’t linger in the freshly-painted dining room or the kitchens he will be in for twelve, fourteen hour days; no, he brought her to a small office space off of the pastry kitchen, and told her that it was her office, if she should want it.
An office of her own, in the heart of his world.
Summer blinks away tears at the memory, unable to keep from smiling. She had almost told him then of their surprise – but then a goat wandered in and Luc began hollering for assistance, and the moment passed. There is a part of her that worries, too; she is around eight weeks, and besides her own insecurities, she does not know how he will respond. To dream of four dark-haired children in lavender fields is one thing; to have the reality of it beginning is another. She knows this all too well.
So, a week past the doctor’s appointment that confirmed her suspicions, she waits to see the third house of the trip, smoothing her sundress over her belly and thighs and wondering if this will be the one.
“This house is pretty close to the restaurant,” she says as they take a left turn onto a sun-filled driveway. “That would be convenient.”
He squeezes her hand in his. Through the windshield she sees a smaller robin’s-egg-blue car; an older woman with greying straw-colored hair and smile lines at the corners of her eyes waits, waving to them. Their realtor, Georgette. She is a sweet woman, and has worked hard to find them a house for their needs.
“I want you to be happy, soleil,” he murmurs as he parks the car.
“I am,” she says, her mouth spreading into a soft smile she knows bears his name.
Leaning over the gear shift, he kisses her once, a promise of more once they return to their hotel in Mougins, and gets out of the car. He nods to Georgette as he comes around to help Summer from the car.
“Bonjour,” Georgette exclaims, smiling warmly. She and Luc immediately begin speaking of the house; the price, the landscaping, the condition of the front steps. Summer looks around the front of the house, into a copse of sweet-smelling pines edging the drive, and tips her head back to feel the sunlight soft on her face.
April in Paris is lovely enough, but since Luc’s departure from the Leuce two weeks ago, they have spent more time down here in the Provence area of France than in the city, and she can’t help but prefer it that way. Cade and Jaime are in Paris, but the city still scrapes at Summer’s skin, still makes her feel as if she is fighting tooth and nail against a world that refuses to understand her. Together she and Luc have rediscovered Paris – he takes her to Philippe’s patisserie, to Sylvain’s shop, to Dom’s, in the company of her cousins and alone – but she wants to start their life here, start fresh. She wants to have time to settle in and make a home full of love and warmth and strength for the both of them, so that when he is busy at all hours with the new restaurant and she is poured over account books and finding the right wording for her fellowships, they can always center themselves here.
They have spent too much time drifting, she thinks as she inhales deeply. Lavender fills the air, and ocean pines; they are close enough to the coast that a day trip would be no trouble. Here, April is mild and breezy, the pale cream cardigan around her shoulders perfect for the day. She continues to breathe and opens her eyes, taking in the front of the white-washed stone house.
She blinks, looking up at Luc. “Hello,” she says, a strange sense of belonging settling in her bones. The secret in her womb warms her through.
“You looked lost for a moment,” he says, those bright copper eyes fixed on her so intently, she feels the flush rise on her throat.
“Just breathing. All that pretty lavender,” she says with a smile, and takes his hand. “Can we go inside?”
White stone gravel crunches under their feet as they follow Georgette up the front stairs. The front porch is solidly built, and the roof replaced in the last two years, Georgette tells them. The porch has room enough for a hammock, or a swing, Summer thinks as Georgette unlocks the door.
Inside, the house is all hardwood floors and open spaces, wide windows to let the sunshine in as it creeps along the golden floorboards. No furniture, just cream walls and sunlight, dust motes fluttering in and out of the pockets of light. Summer takes a breath and sighs, the air cool and fresh. Her eyes flicker to the hearth in the living room.
“Does it work?” she asks, tightening her grasp on Luc’s hand.
Georgette nods, dark eyes wide and laughing. “Oui, of course. Fully functional. There is a functional fireplace in the master bedroom as well, upstairs.”
“Oh,” Summer says faintly, delight rising with every moment. Luc squeezes her hand tightly, and leads her through the house.
The dining room is large enough for a table seating eight, with a built-in curio for dishes, and opens up into the large kitchen. Luc thrums with pleasure under her grip, seeing the granite countertops, the new appliances, the ivory cabinets. Georgette takes them down the hall where there are two spare rooms and a small bathroom with just a shower, but all neat and tiled in ocean blues.
“The previous owners used one as an office and the other as a guest bedroom,” Georgette says, letting them take a turn around each room.
“For the fostered children,” Summer whispers to herself, her heart tightening with uncontrollable joy. Lavender and sea salt follow her everywhere, clean and fresh in her nose.
Upstairs, the master bedroom is large, with its fireplace and private bathroom. Again, cream-colored tile on the floors makes way for pale sea-blue walls and a blue-tiled shower. There is an ivory claw-foot tub, and Luc makes a low sound in his throat that sends a thrill and a laugh right through Summer. She turns into him and presses her cheek to his shoulder as they linger in the middle of the bedroom.
“It is nice, yes?” he asks, low against her hair. His hand rubs up and down the line of her spine, warm through her cardigan and her navy-blue dress.
“It really is,” she says, trying to mask her pleasure. She does not want to seem to eager; but every step inside this house makes her think it is their home.
There are two other rooms, possible bedrooms, all in the same soothing cream color and hardwood floors, as well as a third small bathroom with a shower, in those comforting ocean hues. Summer can’t help but imagine a nursery in one of them, seashell stencils and filmy curtains along the windows.
“It’s lovely,” Summer says to Georgette as they troop back down the stairs. “Really lovely.”
“You have not yet seen the yard,” Georgette says with a smile, and leads them through the kitchen to the French doors overlooking the backyard. They step through and Summer stops, blinking against the sunlight and sudden tears.
The yard is grassy and verdant, trees dotting the knoll. Ahead, there is space for an herb garden, and near that, an arbor, with a bench beneath it. Lavender and ivy curls up along the carved curlicues of wood. It is the picture they had in their minds’ eyes those months ago, the picture of where they could start their lives and raise their family – where they could be a family.
“I’ll wait for you in the kitchen, when you are ready, oui?” Georgette says.
As if dreaming, Summer nods and lets go of Luc’s hand to walk into the yard, her hands resting on her still-flat belly. A cool breeze curls around her ankles as the sun warms her bare legs, the long fall of her hair over her back. She walks to the arbor and rests a hand on it, almost near tears.
Luc’s hand rests at the small of her back as he edges up behind her.
“Soleil, you are quiet,” he says, kissing her cheek.
She turns and wraps her arms around his waist, burying her face in his chest. He is warm and solid and strong, the rasp of his uniform white button-down shirt familiar against her cheek. His arms go around her and he holds her tightly, his mouth soft at the crown of her head. She feels centered and whole, can picture family dinners and holidays with Cade and Jaime and their husbands, bringing the foster children out here on sunny days to practice their writing and reading and to play the childhood games with each other that she always played alone.
She can see Luc here, holding her. Holding their child.
A lump rises in her throat. Here, the distance from her parents and from a life lacking love seems like nothing. Here, she feels at rest. There is no need to run.
“You are happy?” Luc asks softly into her hair, stroking over the cool lengths of her hair.
She nods, flattening her hands on the taut expanse of his back. “Yes,” she says, looking up at him.
He watches her warily, his lips twitching upwards. Dark hair falls across his brow, his face glowing bronze in the sunlight. Sometimes he spends so much time in artificial light that she forgets how striking he is, just so natural when surrounded by fresh air and full sunshine.
“Forgive me for saying, soleil, but you have been acting somewhat… odd,” he says hesitantly.
The hesitancy strikes her. He is a brash, arrogant, confident man. Yes, she can break him into pieces, tear him wide open; but that vulnerability is for her and her alone, and she would never abuse the gift of having his heart in her hands. To be so hesitant, even just between them, is strange.
“Oh,” she says, blinking. “Well – “
“If you are having second thoughts – “ he pauses, voice tight and restrained. “I understand that this will be quite the change, and – “
Summer pushes up on her toes and kisses him to stop his mouth, her arms sliding up to wrap around his neck. He doesn’t hesitate now; he kisses her, deep and wet and warm, until she is shuddering in her wedge sandals and curls up right to the broad frame of his body, her mouth soft and malleable under his. He threads his hands into her hair and holds her hard to him, as if he fears she will disappear.
“I want this,” she says against his mouth, keeping his hot copper stare. “I want you. I love you.”
He quivers in her hold, his lips spreading into that small smile she knows belongs to her. “Ah. Good,” he says, his skin warm against hers. “Then – Summer, I know you. You have been quiet.”
She looks up at him, and then over his shoulder, to the house that she thinks is meant for them. This house, this yard – this life, it is meant for them to own, to possess, to cleave to.
“I know,” she says, blinking away warm tears. His hands are steady and reassuring on her spine, smoothing over her hair. “Luc – “
“We are honest together, you and I,” he says abruptly, his words strong as oak. “I will love you no matter what.”
In the end, that’s what’s breaks her silence. She smiles and smooths her fingers through his hair, her skin flushed hot. “You are going to be a father,” she says softly, her eyes fixed on his.
For a moment, he is utterly still. That control of his, she thinks in a moment of panic. That damnable control of his is so absolute, sometimes even with her. The sunlight glances off the dark waves of his hair, the bronze sheen of his skin. He stares at her unblinking, mouth unreadable.
Then, his hands flex on her back and she is pulled flush to him, his face buried in her neck, the loose fall of her hair. Dampness lingers on her skin. She kisses his temple, the curve of his ear, and holds him so tightly that he will never forget that she is here, she is his.
“Truly?” he rasps against her neck. “Summer, you mean – “
“Yes,” she says, voice thick. This is the most joyous moment of her life, to share this gift with him. “Luc, yes.”
He stumbles back away from her a foot or so, eyes wild, his cheeks flushed. “Did I hurt you?” he asks urgently, his gaze on her flat belly.
“No,” she laughs, hesitating for just a moment before she takes his hands in hers and places them on her lower stomach. “It’s apparently the size of a fingernail. Maybe. I – I wasn’t listening – “
She breaks off, tears clogging her throat. The doctor, utterly French, had paused in her results while Summer cried on the cool paper-covered table, alone in her stiff gown and utterly joyful and terrified. She hadn’t thought to bring Luc – she had thought it was just the flu, the stress of reclaiming Paris and her life with him – but then –
His hands cup her face and he rests his forehead to hers, his smile a match of her own. “Mon soleil,” he whispers, and she goes utterly to pieces. She cries as he kisses away the salt from her cheeks, strokes his hands through her hair, collects her against the wide breadth of his chest. There is terror and joy fighting in his gaze, the same as in her very bones; but they are in this together.
“Why did you tell me now?” he asks as he rocks her gently.
She sniffles and rubs a hand over her face, gazing up at him. “Because this is our home, Luc,” she whispers. “This is it.”
He glances around the yard, at the arbor so close to them now. His hands tighten on her, holding her ever closer. “Yes. Yes it is,” he says.
Wiping her cheeks, she leans up to kiss him, long and sweet. Now is a time to be gentle. “I love you,” she says, and means every syllable of it.
Brushing the hair from her face, he looks down at her with those bright warm eyes and holds her as if she is precious. “Je t’aime, soleil,” he whispers, and kisses her once more, with the scent of lavender and cyprus trees all around.