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Underwater Vibes

By Mickey Brent

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2017 Mickey Brent

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Underwater Vibes

How to survive that pivotal moment when admiration turns to attraction?

Hélène Dupont, a scientific translator in Brussels, Belgium, cherishes two things: flowers and her cat. She writes bad poetry to help her survive her painful existence with her husband, until she is forced to undergo a radical lifestyle change. Sylvie Routard, a young Greek photographer, enters Hélène’s world as her new private swim coach. During their daily lessons, Hélène’s admiration toward Sylvie turns to attraction. As unsettling feelings hijack Hélène’s mind and body, daydreams featuring Sylvie enter her world—even her poems. While the two athletes increasingly feel underwater vibes in the pool, Hélène questions her relationship at home, and everything else in life.

Underwater Vibes

© 2017 By Mickey Brent. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13:978-1-63555-003-0


This Electronic Original is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185


First Edition: November 2017


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Katia Noyes

Production Design: Stacia Seaman

Cover Design by Melody Pond

Acknowledgments

This book would not have been possible without the support of my close family, friends, students, and fellow writing partners. Throughout the years, you have encouraged me as I honed my writing skills and nearly pulled out my hair to get this story “just right.” Many thanks to Katia Noyes, whose editing expertise helped me polish the final manuscript, and to Melody, who designed the book cover, and Stacia, for production design. I am especially grateful to Radclyffe, Sandy, Cindy, Carsen, and everyone at Bold Strokes Books, who worked with such incredible dedication and professionalism during the publishing process. Lastly, to my readers, thank you for choosing Underwater Vibes—I hope you will enjoy hanging out with my characters as much as I do.

For C. TQM pour toujours.

Chapter One

One gray Saturday morning, Hélène Dupont held her breath while clutching her seat belt. The damp wind battered her cheeks as Marc’s new Ferrari tore around the streets of Brussels. She stared at her husband’s pale fingers grasping the wheel.

This was not the man she had married. That gentle, studious fellow had vanished, and a self-absorbed, flashy jock had surfaced in his place.

Marc whizzed past another car. Hélène pinched her lips.

Finally, the red Ferrari screeched to a halt.

Merde,” exclaimed Marc. “Why can’t they build parking lots in Brussels like other normal cities?”

Hélène focused her eyes on a blue bird perched on a fence while Marc wedged his car into a tight parking spot, nudging the Mercedes behind them.

How she despised these early Saturday morning outings.

Marc’s fingers tightened around her arm. “M’enfin, you’re getting heavy.” He thrust their fold-up grocery cart at her. “Don’t forget your little-old-lady-buggy.”

Resisting the urge to kick his prized Ferrari, Hélène squinted at the tight-fitting sports outfit her husband wore to show off his athletic body. She often caught him in the bathroom, admiring his muscles in the mirror. At home, it’s bad enough. Why does he have to do this here?

In comparison, Hélène knew she wasn’t exactly a beauty queen, but her closest friends led her to believe she possessed a certain bit of charm. At least she liked to think so. Especially when she dressed for special occasions, which were scarce since Marc hated to go out—except to the market on Saturdays, and the gym in the evenings.

Through her glasses, Hélène aimed her blue eyes at her husband’s chin, which was chiseled and hard, like a freshly cut slab of marble. She often calculated the angle at which it stuck out, depending on his mood. She shuddered. Speaking of things that stick out…She peeked at her stomach. C’est énorme. All I have to do is inhale, and I put on weight.

Hélène’s eyes followed Marc’s white sneakers streaming across the cobblestones. She struggled to move faster, but her grocery cart had other ideas. Its flimsy wheels kept snagging the cobblestones; the more Hélène resisted, the louder they screeched.

Hélène glimpsed a homeless man in tattered clothes on the sidewalk, with a stray dog snoozing in his lap. She could barely make out the man’s features under his long hair, scraggly beard, and sun-toasted face.

Marc slowed down. The dog growled. The man looked up. A dirty hand shot out toward Marc’s knee.

Bonjour, Monsieur. Got a coin to spare? I’d be much obliged.”

Mon Dieu, get a life!” hissed Marc as he stepped over ten soiled, bare toes.

Hélène fumbled in her purse. Blushing, she dropped a few coins in the man’s palm. “Je suis désolée, Monsieur. My husband appears to be in a bad mood.”

Merci, Madame.” The man’s weathered lips softened as he fingered the coins.

Smiling awkwardly, Hélène ran after her husband, cart in tow.

Marc whipped around. “Do we have to feed all the beggars in town?” he snapped, spitting into the gutter.

Hélène recoiled as if he had just slapped her. Bitterness filled her mouth as Marc stormed off. What had happened to the tender young man she had fallen in love with?

They had met in high school. Both bookworms, they would seek refuge in the school library. Elbows rubbing, the young couple would huddle with their textbooks on rainy Belgian afternoons. Hélène adored Latin; Marc preferred test tubes and lab rats. He sneaked her favorite Belgian chocolates, Côte d’Or noir, into the library—just for her. He was so shy then. With such a cute grin. He sat on the steps and waited—patient as a puppy—after her piano lessons, concocting silly phrases to whisper into her ear, to make her giggle.

This morning, Hélène had little time to reflect on her sweet past. She was too busy trying to keep up with Marc, zigzagging from stand to stand. Her husband had an agenda, and Hélène’s task was to follow it.

The hardest part was at the baker’s. Hélène’s nostrils sniffed the air like a stray dog, inhaling the just-baked aroma of fresh, crusty bread. Her mouth watered just like it used to on Sunday mornings when she was a kid. Maman would let Hélène peek at her homemade rolls, lined on the hot oven tray like puffy melted sailors in white uniforms. She would hand one to her daughter, slathered with fresh unsalted butter, “just to make sure they’re not poison.” And if Hélène reached for a second, Maman would remind her, “Only one today, chérie. These have to last us the whole week.”

Hélène grasped an appetizing loaf of pain de campagne. But just as she opened her coin purse, Marc swiped the crusty loaf from her. He grabbed another one, just like it, and placed it in the cart instead. Hélène shrugged and paid the baker, who flashed her his usual concerned look.

At the wine stand, Hélène spotted an unusual bottle. Its label had dainty yellow swirls around blue birds and tiny red flowers. The birds seemed to be jumping over the flowers. But before Hélène could place the bottle in her cart, Marc clicked his tongue.

“That’s too expensive. We’re getting these,” he ordered, shoving two bottles of vin de table into the cart.

Hélène pursed her lips. Such a killjoy. But she wasn’t in a mood to argue. Marc always won anyway. Cringing, she handed some bills to the wine seller, a distinguished, elderly gentleman from India. She had never been to India, but if everyone there was like him, she knew she would adore the country. He always wore such crisp-looking linen outfits. And even in gloomy weather, a ray of warm light radiated from his eyes. Sometimes, when the noon sun emerged through the damp Belgian clouds, if she squinted hard enough, she thought she could detect a golden aura around him.

“Anything else, Madame?” the elderly man asked with his peculiar, gentle accent.

Marc replied curtly, “Non. We’re in a hurry,” and turned his back on the man. Hélène smiled apologetically.

Now that Hélène’s cart was loaded with groceries, it was even harder to maneuver through the marketplace. When she paused to catch her breath, her eyes smarted.

Marc raced ahead, oblivious of the sweat trickling down his wife’s face.

Then he spun around. “Non, Hélène. Pas encore! You do this to me every week!”

Hélène ignored her husband’s pleas and raced, cart in tow, to her favorite spot: the flower stand. She plunged into the rows of plants, popping her nose into the flowers’ tender bellies, taking in their sweet nectar.

Flowers had always brought joy into Hélène’s life. As she nestled her cheeks in their silkiness, her mind drifted back to summer nap times.

When Hélène was barely old enough to crawl, Maman would approach her crib and, to wake her sleeping daughter, tickle her stubby nose with flower tips. Even though little Hélène’s mind was still fuzzy from her afternoon snooze, her senses fully captured the enchanting experience. The sticky scents and cheery colors sparked such curiosity in the petite mademoiselle that by the time she was four, she was begging Maman to introduce to her each species in their local flower shop.

Hélène’s mother, a young housewife with a tight budget, did her best to honor her daughter’s wishes. They checked out botany books from the library; Hélène sat in Maman’s lap while the two pored over the pages, unraveling the secrets of nature.

Even now, when Hélène shut her eyes, she heard Maman’s soft voice as she recited scientific explanations for each species. Her youthful, tender ears had soaked up each Latin name with its botanical description. And at age four, when Hélène grew nearsighted, she would press her face to the books to memorize their glossy pictures. She could still remember the odor of the slightly mildewed pages.

Now, as Hélène drifted amongst hundreds of plant species, once more, she immersed herself in the mysterious world of floral sensations.

Marc rapped his knuckles on a wooden sign displaying various plant prices. “What a rip-off!” After no response from his wife, he rapped again. “You’re such a pain, Hélène. Je te jure.”

Hélène lifted her face from a tuft of orange blossoms. Gesturing toward the opposite end of the market, she proposed, “D’accord, Marc. Why don’t you go order your beer, and I’ll meet you—”

“Don’t take all day!” interrupted Marc, dashing off with the grocery cart. When it hit a jagged cobblestone, a ripe tomato bounced out. “Merde! he snarled as it rolled away.

“Be there in a minute!” muttered Hélène, ignoring her husband’s remarks as he stormed toward their usual café. The delicious orange flowers had captured all her attention.

* * *

Sylvie Routard, a young, dark-haired woman, happened to be standing a few feet away from the couple, behind the shadows of a massive tree. When the man raised his voice, she peeked to see who was hurling such offensive snarls, and at whom. When she saw the man hit the sign with his knuckles, she winced. What a brute.

Then her eyes fell on the blond woman in a loose skirt and glasses. The expression on her face resembled a lost bird. She doesn’t deserve this kind of treatment. Nobody does. Who does this jerk think he is, anyway?

Pressing her face against the rough tree trunk, Sylvie cocked her ear to catch the couple’s conversation. When she saw the man abandon his fallen tomato, she grew livid. Pick that up, idiot! In Greece, where she was born, her family never, ever wasted food, especially farm-fresh tomatoes—an essential ingredient for all the best sauces.

Her eyes narrowed as they scrutinized the thin, mustached man in a flashy sports outfit racing across the marketplace. She glanced at the woman, whose blond head was stuffed in a plant. La pauvre. I hope she’s not his wife…

As usual, Sylvie was wearing her favorite tie-dyed rainbow T-shirt, khaki shorts, and sandals. Unlike the majority of Belgians, Sylvie—a transplant from Santorini, Greece—couldn’t care less if her shirt wasn’t ironed to perfection.

Walking around smoothens out the wrinkles, she always told herself. Especially when it drizzles. She had the same nonchalant attitude toward makeup. Why clog my pores just to please others? She preferred the attitude of Yaya, her grandma: “Natural beauty is more than enough to make a woman glow.” This made her grateful to wake up each day and run her fingers over her smooth skin, which—to the envy of her Belgian students—remained naturally tanned, year-round.

Leaning against the tree, Sylvie understood that she shared something special with the blond woman she was spying on, whose head was still stuffed in a plant: a passion for flowers. Each Saturday, even in terrible downpours, she ventured to the farmer’s market to fetch her weekly bouquets. Friends visiting Sylvie’s apartment teased her; not only were the walls as yellow as tennis balls, but colorful flowers multiplied each week.

Sylvie peered around the tree again. Enfin! The guy with a temper had disappeared. Her eyes fell on his girlfriend. Curiously, Sylvie felt drawn to her. The woman seemed friendly enough, and she was certainly enjoying her orange flowers. What a contrast with Monsieur Tomato-loser.

Sylvie emerged from behind the tree just as Hélène lifted her head. The young, dark-haired woman stepped forward, flashing her objet d’attention a warm, inviting smile.

* * *

Hélène gasped inwardly. As if in a dream, a Greek goddess with a prominent nose, just like the ones in her high school history books, stood inches from her face. When Hélène jerked her head back, a flicker of light from the woman’s eyes seared her soul. Those dark eyes—intense and rich, like chocolate.

Hélène’s throat went dry. As if in a dream, she felt her body sweep in a whirlwind to the deserts of ancient Greece. A soft, sandy wind blew around her neck, caressing her skin. Just as her mind went numb, something inside her body cracked. The goddess’s eyes were mesmerizing. And her full yet delicate lips…Hélène felt a tug in her stomach. When she struggled to return the smile, to her horror, a ticking sensation engulfed her entire left cheek. It began with slow movements, progressing rapidly, denting the inner walls of her face.

Hélène often developed tics in her eyes, especially after long days translating at the computer. But she had never experienced a tic like this, mid-cheek. Lacking a more suitable alternative, she stuffed her head back into the plant, vowing to lay low until the goddess left or the tic wore itself out—whichever came first.

* * *

Quelle réaction bizarre. All I did was smile. Sylvie approached the plant and separated its broad, dark leaves. A pair of glasses gleamed back at her. Hmm. Pretty eyes, she decided, admiring the moist blue irises blinking behind thick lenses.

Sylvie spoke into the plant. “Excusez-moi.”

Instantly, the leaves shook.

Sylvie recognized a frightened bird when she saw one. I don’t want to scare this poor woman. She’s already got her hands full with that testosterone-loaded guy.

She softened her voice. “Excusez-moi. Are you going to buy this plant?”

* * *

Mon Dieu! She’s speaking to me. Hélène tried to conceal her ticking cheek behind the foliage.

Sylvie spoke in a sugary tone as if coaxing a toddler out of her tree house. “If you’re not going to buy it, I will. I just adore these flowers.”

Hélène gulped. I can’t keep hiding in this plant forever, especially if she’s taking it home. Mustering up her courage, she extracted her head from the leaves. She thought she saw a halo hovering over the goddess’s head. I’ve got to clean these more often, she mused, fingering her glasses. “Vous avez raison, they’re magnificent,” she stammered, sticking her nose into a tuft of orange petals. Their sweet aroma made her giddy, prompting her to forget the nasty tic in her cheek.

* * *

Sylvie chuckled. She sure is one bizarre biscuit. Guess I would be too if I had a boyfriend like that. Some people should just stay single.

An identical plant nearby caught her eye.

Regardez, here’s another one,” she announced. But the woman was already hauling her plant toward the cash register. Sylvie grabbed the other plant. Mince, this bulky thing must weigh twenty kilos. She donned her yellow army backpack, bursting with groceries, and struggled toward the cash register. She tried to keep her balance, but her backpack—with tufts of celery dangling from its faded side pockets—had other ideas. As soon as she reached the cash register, she let out an “Aaaiieee!” and toppled over backward, straight into Hélène’s arms.

* * *

Like a surfer lugging her board through the waves, Hélène raced her plant toward the register. She blinked to keep the leaves out of her eyelashes as she ran; they tickled her face, and some entered her nose, but she didn’t care. Sooner I’m out of here, the better.

There was a shuffle behind her. Next, she heard a loud “Aaaiieee!”

Before she knew it, Hélène’s arms encircled the Greek goddess’s waist. Grunting like a sailor, she righted the young woman. Thick, green branches dug into Hélène’s ribs, but she didn’t mind. She held on tight.

Chapter Two

It began with her olfactory system. Hélène’s nose noticed a subtle yet delightful scent emanating from the Greek goddess. Is it her hair? Or her skin? Something about this striking woman inspired images of all the exotic trips Hélène had planned but never took. As a child, she had dreamed of voyages to faraway islands, tropical paradises—places where she would do nothing but lie on the beach and stuff herself silly with lavish dishes bursting with forbidden spices.

Forbidden…Hélène’s mind lingered on the word. With her hands clenching the goddess and her nose burrowed in her soft hair, a sea of foreign sensations swept through Hélène’s body, invading it like a tidal wave, sweeping away all that wasn’t secured. Hélène struggled to keep her feet firmly on the ground.

Then a burst of warm air caressed her cheek.

Merci,” uttered the goddess, whose shiny lips were millimeters from Hélène’s.

“No problem!” exclaimed Hélène, awkwardly removing her hands from Sylvie’s waist. “You’re sure loaded down,” she added, trying to sound casual.

“At least I’ve got a car.” Sylvie took off her heavy backpack.

Allez-y, go ahead,” said Hélène, lugging her plant behind Sylvie. “I’m not in a hurry.” She winced at her quivering voice. I’m such a bad liar.

“If you insist.” Sylvie moved her plant in front of the cash register.

“That’ll be fifteen euros, Mademoiselle,” said the florist, a sturdy man with tiny round glasses. Sylvie fumbled in her backpack. As she pulled out her surfer’s wallet, her keys dropped to the ground. She turned to the blond woman. “Au revoir.”

Au revoir,” replied Hélène, blushing as the Greek goddess marched off with her plant. Like a camera, her mind recorded Sylvie’s athletic silhouette. The woman’s youthful body radiated excellent health, with an intriguing blend of feminine and androgynous traits. Her slim waist and broad shoulders created a unique impression on Hélène, who wished she could have said something more to her. But what? she wondered, watching the young woman’s nimble legs stretch across the cobblestones before disappearing into the crowd.

“That’ll be fifteen euros for you too, Madame.”

Hélène hardly heard the florist. Her mind was still in overdrive. “Eh bien.” She glanced at her plant. Right. I’m buying a plant. “How often should I water it?” she blurted as she handed him the money.

Voyons. How often do you take a shower, Madame?” The florist chuckled so hard he grabbed his chest. Normally, Hélène made an effort to laugh at his remarks. Today, she stared blankly at him.

“About half as often, d’accord?

“Thanks.” Hélène took a step but stopped when she saw a shiny object nestled in the synthetic grass at her feet.

Excusez-moi. Is this yours?” She held up a silver keychain in the form of a fish, with the word “Greece” etched into it. Several keys hung from its metal ring.

“Hmmm.” The florist scratched his balding head. “Never seen it before. Might be your friend’s.”

“What friend?”

“The one who was just here with you.”

The Greek goddess? Hélène stammered, “I…I don’t know her.”

C’est bizarre. You sure seemed like friends. She’s here every Saturday, just like you.”

Hélène’s heart thumped. “Ah bon?” she replied, clutching the keys.

“I was certain you knew each other. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Just give me the keys. She’ll come back for them sooner or later.”

Hélène contemplated the florist’s outstretched palm, which resembled an heirloom tomato, with deep ridges and reddish, calloused skin.

Then she heard a tiny voice whisper: Keep them.

Non,” she stammered. “I’ll…I’ll go find her. She can’t have gotten very far.”

The florist looked at her quizzically as she lugged her plant away.

Hélène elbowed her way through the crowds. I’ve got to find her.

Twenty minutes later, after checking all the stands, she stopped to catch her breath. Squinting, she inspected the silver fish’s worn edges. This thing is ancient. Wonder how long she’s had it? She flipped it over. A few words were engraved on the back. It’s in Greek!

After wandering aimlessly around the market, Hélène finally gave up. She headed back to the florist’s stand. But when she got there, her face fell. All that was left was an empty concrete space. She glanced at her watch. Ah non, Marc’s going to kill me!

Just then, Hélène did something she never, ever did. She had always loathed exercise, even in school. Not only was she the slowest runner, she couldn’t throw, hit, or kick a ball. Due to her uncoordinated efforts, the kids christened her Hélène la Boulette, which translated to Chunky Hunky Hélène in English. Not surprisingly, she always concocted clever excuses to escape éducation physique classes. Today, however, Chunky Hunky Hélène grabbed her hefty plant and, huffing and puffing, dripping and slipping, ran, ran, ran as fast as her chunky legs could carry her.

* * *

When Hélène’s boots finally skidded to a stop at Marc’s table, her face had taken on the features of a frenzied dog. Pursing her lips to hide her frothing saliva, she thrust her hand over her pounding heart.

Hélène’s dramatic arrival amused the café locals relaxing outside, sipping espressos or Belgian beers, and munching on frites and mayonnaise. Conversations paused when Marc, crouched at a small table littered with empty Stella Artois beer bottles, sat up, erect as a pencil. His pupils shrank to pinpoints as his eyes drilled into his wife’s.

Marc’s eyes reminded Hélène of a feverish monkey she had once seen at the Antwerp zoo. She took a step back as her plant hit the ground.

C’est pas possible, Hélène! I’ve been waiting for at least an hour!”

Hélène collapsed into a plastic chair and wiped the sweat off her face. Marc leaned forward. The pilsner beers had reddened his eyes and soured his breath. His angry eyes zoomed in on his wife’s precious plant. He shook the trunk violently as if to strangle it.

Hélène shuddered as orange flowers flew past her nose. Glad that’s not my neck.

“How much did this pile of weeds cost?” hissed Marc, flinging bits of shrubbery onto nearby tables, to the coffee sippers’ delight. Ignoring him, Hélène salvaged the discarded bits at her feet. Before Marc could make more of a scene, a young waiter appeared. He had bushy eyebrows, black eyes, platinum hair, and a tiny bone pierced through his left ear.

“What can I get you, Madame?” he asked with a slight foreign accent.

Un grand café au lait,” replied Hélène, arranging the flowers in a neat pile. “And a croissant with jam and butter, s’il vous plaît.”

“We just had breakfast!” protested Marc, downing his beer.

Hélène peered at the lifeless flowers on their table. Stifling her anger, she blurted, “It’s Saturday. Might as well live it up!”

D’accord. Let’s celebrate, then.” Marc rose and swaggered into the café. “I’ll start by taking a piss.”

Instead of soaking up her husband’s insults, Hélène purged them from her thoughts. She took out the silver “Greece” fish keychain and fingered its strange inscription. Wish I could read this. The silvery fish, resting on her pile of discarded flowers, shimmered in the sunlight. Just like a holy shrine, she mused. But in honor of whom? Hélène’s eyes scanned the marketplace. The crowds had thinned. She felt her cheek twitching again. How can I find her?

Sneakered feet shuffled behind Hélène as the waiter appeared with her breakfast. He swept aside the pile of flowers and set down the tray.

Tiens, I’ve got one just like this!” he exclaimed, grabbing the shiny keychain.

M’enfin! What the heck are you doing?” Hélène jumped up. “Give that back at once!”

Ignoring her, the waiter squinted to read the worn Greek letters.

“‘To my dearest Joanna, with all my love forever. Théodoros.’” He cocked a pierced eyebrow at Hélène.

“You speak Greek?” she asked, surprised.

“Ain’t Yiddish, Madame. I’m imported. Direct from the islands. Don’t tell me you’re Joanna?”

Hélène gave him a blank look as she contemplated the words “With all my love forever.” Wonder who wrote that? Who’s Théodoros?

The waiter dangled the silver fish in front of her. “Alors, are you Joanna or—” he began in Greek.

“I said give it back! It’s my friend’s.” As Hélène snatched the keychain, her elbow hit something hard.

Putain!” yelled Marc, clutching his ribs. Stella Artois suds flooded the pile of flowers. He swiped the shiny keychain from Hélène’s fingers.

Alors, who’s your friend?” he demanded, dangling it before Hélène’s nose.

“Ah, nobody. I found it.”

Marc cleared his throat. “And I’m Father Christmas.”

Vraiment, chéri.” Hélène grimaced at her café-drenched croissant. “I found it at the—”

“I’m not deaf, Hélène,” hissed Marc. “You said it was your friend’s!”

Hélène leaned away to escape her husband’s brewery breath.

“So who’s this friend of yours?

“I told you. I found it at the flower—” Then something colorful caught her eye. “Ah!” she squealed. Her stomach grew queasy. The Greek goddess in a tie-dyed T-shirt was standing before their table, beaming at her.

Super! I’ve been looking all over for that!” gushed Sylvie.

Marc looked at the young woman in shorts, then at his wife, and back at the young woman. While his neck was busy swiveling, Hélène snatched the keys from him. She opened her mouth, but nothing came out. All she could do was keep from swallowing her tongue.

Je…” she stammered, avoiding Sylvie’s glossy brown eyes to focus on the younger woman’s muscular thighs. Underneath her khaki shorts, tiny blond hairs grazed their smooth, tan surface. How could these be blond if she’s Greek? My legs are as white as aspirin and as flabby as… She gulped. I’d die for a pair of legs like these.

Sylvie’s voice interrupted her thoughts.

“When I saw the florist was gone, I flipped. But I had a hunch I might find you here. And I was right! I can’t tell you how relieved I am.”

Hélène clenched the keys in a futile attempt to control her facial muscles. The tic was making its rounds again. She tilted her head sideways.

“I…I looked everywhere but couldn’t find you,” Hélène stammered, forcing a diagonal smile at the beaming goddess. She thrust out her hand. “Voilà.”

Sylvie lifted the keys from her sweaty palm.

“How sweet of you. I’m so relieved!”

Hélène nodded. “I bet you are. You couldn’t go home without them.”

Comment? The keys? I couldn’t care less about those.” The goddess chuckled. “My car’s a junker. This is what I was worried about.” Sylvie held up the silver fish with “Greece” written on it. She hugged it to her chest. “I’d die if I lost it!”

Hélène heard a snicker. Directly behind the goddess stood the waiter. He’s ogling the goddess. Makes sense. She’s stunning. Then Hélène remembered his words as he read the Greek message on the keychain: With all my love forever. Inexplicably, she started to feel queasy.

* * *

Sylvie could feel his eyes on her body. She could always tell when guys were checking her out, even from behind. It made her skin crawl. I should have put on the Bermudas.

After the waiter had fully examined Sylvie’s firm backside and shapely calves, he addressed her in Greek. “Hey, Joanna…” When she didn’t respond, he tried, “Joanna, my sweetheart…”

Sylvie pretended she couldn’t hear him as she gazed at the woman who had found her keys. She tried to ignore the stream of negative thoughts running through her mind: I’m so sick of guys. They’re such scavengers, scrounging around for a tasty morsel of anything female. She averted her eyes from the man whose eyes were red from drinking. He seemed to be glowering at her. This jerk wins the prize. She flashed an apologetic smile at the woman.

Eh bien, I’ve got to go. Merci encore. Kalí óreksi!” Sylvie said, skirting past the waiter before he could call her any more ridiculous names.

* * *

Hélène watched the goddess’s nimble figure skip over the cobblestones despite her grocery-laden backpack. She can’t be real. When she shut her eyes, time skidded to a stop. Yet her heart continued to beat, furiously, like a powerful African drum. A mysterious force drew her in as her mind went into a trance. Matching the tam-tam beat, her chest’s jerky movements swelled, inflating her blouse. A tender spot surfaced beneath her heart. Through her soft pink eyelids, she saw an oblong blob. It turned into a tree—a familiar tree, a hollow tree. She understood the message: I am the tree.

Hélène’s body quivered in the midst of a flourishing grove, squeezing back the tears, braving the elements, camouflaging her emptiness. A gust of wind erupted. Her outer crust—the bark of her soul—scraped against her skin, like flimsy plywood flapping at a timeworn façade. Her roots, dry as ashes, had forgotten their purpose in life—to soak nutrients from the soil.

C’est ça. I’ve hit rock bottom. That’s why I feel all flaky and rotten inside. She could feel her body struggling to face the world. I’m a limp twig. And I can’t even float. A shiver ran down her spine.

Whenever Hélène felt the truth, the raw truth, about something important, her spine would tingle, like someone flipped a switch. Sparks of electricity would rip from the nape of her neck through the soles of her feet, toward the core of the earth.

Hélène’s eyes snapped open. Her face was still tingling. She had never seen that Greek woman before, but somehow she seemed so familiar. She watched her glide over the cobblestones like a potato chip floating in the wind. That’s it—she’s my exact opposite. I’m heavy and bland; she’s light and flavorful. I’m a lump, and she’s a goddess.

Just then, as if the goddess had heard Hélène’s thoughts, she turned and waved. Hélène wiggled her fingers timidly at the tiny figure on the horizon.

As soon as the goddess was out of sight, Hélène took a bite from her soggy croissant.

A gruff voice jolted her from her reverie. “Who the heck was that?”

Hélène swallowed. “Nobody.”

Marc’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean, nobody? You seem to—”

“Name’s Joanna,” cut in the waiter as he removed Marc’s empty beer glasses.

Hélène glared at the young man and flashed a coy look at her husband.

Pardon, chéri. Did I forget to introduce you?”

Chapter Three

It had been ten painful years. Ever since Maman had died, Hélène could no longer pick up the phone to release her troubles. She missed their long, intimate phone calls and endless chats over steamy cups of café au lait in Maman’s kitchen. Only flowers could comfort her now, drowning out these absurd scientific translations. Buried under piles of botany books, Hélène thrived in this secret world of poetry. Her innocent, flowery prose soothed her soul.

She had been writing her poems for years, yet she shared them with no one, and certainly not with Marc. She had a few friends but was more of a listener than a reciter of wants and woes. To make up for this, Hélène resorted to flower worship and clandestine poem dedications to exalt their beauty. This was her only real source of happiness in life, along with Chaussette, her dear cat.

Hélène chewed on another cookie as she perused her latest literary creation at work. She whispered as she read her latest poem: “The flower, a poem in itself, hides behind the dark, tangled leaves of life. It remains shy about who it is, never truly revealing itself but for great, unexpected moments. It envies the butterfly, free to roam…”

I’m no Keats, d’accord, but still…Hélène focused her attention on her orange flowers, whose wrinkly petals were finally perking up after their cramped journey in her purse. Suddenly, her eyes blurred. The yo-yo became a go-go as the petals danced before her eyes. The petals’ circular swirls hypnotized Hélène while her mind drifted back to the market café.

#

The Greek goddess was standing before her, hugging her keychain to her chest. “I’d die if I lost it!” she exclaimed, smiling warmly at Hélène.

#

The pitter-patter of footsteps in the hall roused Hélène from her daydream. Monsieur Lamie, Hélène’s pudgy boss, poked the tip of his waxy mustache into her office. Hélène’s nostrils sensed the familiar odor of old cigars and cheap toilet water. Swiftly, she switched screens. The aphid text, which she was supposed to be working on, popped up again. Hunching over her keyboard, she pretended to translate; her fingers churned out a strange concoction: “xjioptezomqhtoeirupqkm jkeopqthqmlsdtjçszem…”

This charade always satisfied Monsieur Lamie, whose chunky glasses wore a perpetual coat of mustache wax and dust. He trusted his ears; as soon as he heard Hélène’s fingers tapping the keys, his handlebar mustache folded upward, and he tiptoed away.

Hélène cast a look behind her to make sure he was gone. Relieved, she bit into another cookie and sipped her coffee. Hmm, bitter. After dumping in a sixth packet of sugar, she switched screens to work on her precious poem.

“It envies the butterfly, free to roam,” she repeated. As Hélène savored her syrupy coffee, her eyelids drooped. The caffeine wasn’t doing its trick this morning.

“How timely!” She yawned at a butterfly fluttering outside. The rapid movements of its yellow wings mesmerized her. Before she could stop herself, her yellow hair spilled over the keyboard, and she succumbed to the pleasures of temporary mental hibernation.

* * *

Hélène lifted her groggy head from her desk. I need some air, she decided, wrenching herself from her chair. In the ladies’ room, she ran an enormous pink brush through her mousy hair. She frowned at her mirrored image. As a child, the neighborhood kids had called her “dishwater Hélène,” her hair was so lifeless. Even now, despite dozens of daily strokes, her blond mop looked like it had gone through extensive dishwashing cycles. Some things never change.

Hélène searched her blue eyes for hints of liveliness. But all she saw was boredom. Removing her glasses, she squinted at the blurry face in the mirror. Time for our weapons.

She applied some foundation, then rouge, with a large fluffy brush. Powder flew into the air. She sneezed. Cocking back her head, she inserted a tube of nose drops into her nostrils and inhaled deeply. Next, she dabbed concealer under her eyes. Then she applied a sea of sparkly blue eye shadow. Cranking her mouth open, she lined her lids with teal blue, then topped them off with sticky black mascara.

Hélène’s routine in the ladies’ room never faltered. Twice a day, for the past twenty years, she had painted her face and brushed her hair in exactly the same fashion, always finishing her masterpiece with cherry lipstick.

She donned her glasses and scrunched her nose. I look better blurry.

* * *

The next afternoon, a smile lingered on Hélène’s lips. In her daydream, she had been wandering the beach on a tropical island, trying to make sense of her life. She could still feel the sand between her toes and the salty breeze in her hair. She glanced at her office clock. It was 4:15.

Time sure flies when you’re working hard. She chortled. But it’s not my fault. This scientific stuff is so dry…

She rubbed imaginary sand from her eyes and sipped her coffee. The cold, sugary liquid tickled her throat. She sneezed. With a quick snap of the head, she inserted her allergy drops.

Just as she began translating again, the phone rang.

“Hélène? C’est moi. Listen…Maman’s just flown in from Spain, so I’ve invited her for dinner. I’m on my way to the airport. Chérie, can you concoct something she won’t detest for a change? A good roast, or perhaps a…”

This is all I need. Hélène’s skin crawled at the idea of another dinner with Marc’s mother. How she hated her impromptu visits to their home. Her heart beat faster. She felt the blood pumping in her ears while the room began to spin.

* * *

Cecile Beaucils took her usual rounds during her afternoon pause café. After filling her mug with milky decaf, she headed straight to Hélène’s office. Not only was Cecile incontestably the most attractive secretary in the marketing department, she was Hélène’s best friend. As soon as Cecile saw Hélène—who was usually gazing out the window or typing frenetically at her keyboard—she gasped. Her best friend lay unconscious on the floor, legs splayed, with her telephone dangling from her desk.

Unceremoniously, Cecile stooped in her silk miniskirt and shook her friend’s shoulders.

“Hélène? Hélène! Ca va? Help, somebody! Help!”

Chapter Four

Sylvie Routard sat on her balcony outside her fourth-floor apartment. Light from the moon fused with the soft rays of a tiny lamp above her head, illuminating Sylvie and the plants thriving on her balcony. She wore her usual garb—denim shorts and a yellow T-shirt. There was nothing she would rather do than spend a quiet evening reading a good novel outdoors.

But she wasn’t alone in the cool summer breeze. As usual, she indulged in the warmth of Goldie, her orange cat, curled up in her lap. Evenings like this meant pure pleasure. Savoring her owner’s infinite caresses, Goldie purred while Sylvie hummed, creating a unique melody to enhance the soft Greek music emanating from the living room.

Sylvie reached for her Greek cocktail. When Goldie hopped off her lap, her bushy tail knocked off an orange flower. Sylvie stopped humming.

“Look what you did to our new plant!” She brought the severed flower to her nose, inhaling its sugary nectar. Then she plopped the flower into her Greek cocktail and brought her glass to her lips. Peering at the silvery moon, she started humming again.

Surrounded by so many plants, she felt like Jane of the Jungle, although the only wild animal in her midst was Goldie, purring at her bare feet. Suddenly, she felt an unexpected surge of energy. As she swayed her muscular hips, the impromptu nocturnal dance made her cat purr even harder. A tiny stream of cocktail landed on the ground. Before Sylvie could stop her, Goldie lapped it up.

“And I thought I was the wild one!” exclaimed Sylvie.

* * *

Sylvie sat with her sneakered feet dangling over a bar stool at her neighborhood hangout, Dionysos Taverna. Her white T-shirt and worn blue jeans blended into the Greek restaurant’s faded blue and whitewashed walls. A dark-haired waiter stood nearby, watching her contemplate where to next poke her fork. She was hesitating between three succulent dishes.

“This is so intense!” she exclaimed in Greek, inserting another forkful of eggplant soufflé into her mouth. She closed her eyes as her tongue detected the familiar spices from Santorini that rendered these dishes so special. Mmm…cinnamon. Her eyeballs rolled in their sockets.

“You’re exaggerating, i kopela mou.” The olive-skinned waiter blew circles of smoke from his cigarette into her hair.

“Stop polluting my air, Vassilios,” scolded Sylvie. “You’re ruining my appetite.”

“Come on, Syl. It would take a forest fire to separate you from your dinner. And that’s only if it started burning your luscious hair.” The waiter tapped Sylvie playfully on the shoulder. Sylvie tapped him back, harder.

“All right, you win.” Rubbing his rugged shoulder, the waiter stubbed out his cigarette and lifted his retsina wine.

Clinking her glass against his, Sylvie parted her lips, inviting the chilled white nectar of her homeland into her mouth.

* * *

Sylvie’s eyes snapped open. Orange light streamed into her bedroom, dancing through the soft curtains, illuminating her bed. She grabbed her cat from her perch and hugged her to her pajamas. “Mon petit chou!

Sylvie tied back her hair, threw on a sweatshirt, and jogged down the stairs of her apartment building. Outside, she took a whiff of fresh air and crossed the street. She was pushing on a tree trunk to stretch her Achilles tendon when a car approached with teenage boys inside. One rolled down the window.

“Push all you want, Madame. It ain’t goin’ nowhere!”

“How clever,” Sylvie announced over the boys’ ensuing sneers. The car sped away.

Twenty minutes later, she reached a grassy park. Catching her breath, she scanned the wide expanse of grass, dotted with tall pines and rows of freshly planted blossoms. Her heart pounded under her moist sweatshirt, matching her rapid breathing.

Belly first, she plopped on the lawn and furrowed her nose into tufts of grass.

Bet there’s a four-leafer around here. She weaved her fingertips through patches of dark green clovers. The scent of dewy grass mixed with dirt filled her nostrils. As her heartbeat decelerated, her body—splayed comfortably on the grass—relaxed. Her spirit felt in tune with the world.

Voilà! She plucked a four-leaf clover from the grass, inspected it, then tucked it into her shorts pocket.

Once home, after a hot shower, she ventured out to her terrace for a well-deserved, healthy breakfast.

“Look what Maman found.” She twirled the clover in front of Goldie’s nose.

“We’re getting lucky, bébé!” she announced, digging her spoon into a huge bowl of muesli.

* * *

Sylvie lay upon her spacious bed with her blue-jeaned limbs sprawled open. An orange ceiling light cast a warm glow through thin paper onto her face; her eyes were peacefully shut.

Dozens of black-and-white photos surrounded her immobile, athletic silhouette, peppering the silk orange bedcover. Purring on an embroidered cushion, Goldie lay next to her mistress, paws clinging to her thick, wavy hair. Sylvie’s lips softened as her ears absorbed the nearby purring mingled with her melodious Greek Gypsy music.

On evenings like this, after endless hours developing her week’s photos—Sylvie spent nearly all her free time taking pictures—she loved to chill. Her mind would wander, imagining she were a bohemian with no cares in the world. As her weary muscles sank deeper into the heavenly bedspread, she wished life could always be so comfortable. A lively Gypsy song from a Greek CD freshly unearthed at the market roused Sylvie’s placid thoughts. Her eyes went to the window’s lacy curtains flowing in the evening breeze. Matching the song’s rhythm, they spread full and collapsed, like sails adorning the ships from her native island.

With each powerful note, traces of Sylvie’s ancestors entered her mind, bringing back tender memories of Santorini, her colorful neighborhood, her family…

She smiled, thinking of her beloved grandma, Yaya, who used to grasp her fingers and proclaim in her throaty Greek voice, “Soak up the pleasures in life, honey. Every little bit of ’em. Make ’em seep through your pores till you burst.” She would stare into her granddaughter’s innocent eyes and continue, “And never be afraid of love. When it hits, make sure you grab it with both hands. ’Cause you never know when it’s going to leave you for good.”

Sylvie often found herself pondering the implication of Yaya’s message. In her thirty-six years, it hadn’t made much sense so far. But her grandma never failed to utter it, especially on significant days like Sylvie’s parents’ anniversary or a birthday. Opening her weathered lips, Yaya would pronounce each sentence ever so slowly. Like a divine affirmation, she would gently lift her tongue and release her magic message.

Just then, Sylvie felt a presence as if Yaya were lying beside her. Searching for comfort, she stroked Goldie, who lifted her drowsy head. Wonder how she’s doing. Maybe I should give her a call. The thought lingered in her mind until fatigue won out and Sylvie’s eyelids folded again. Goldie snuggled up to her mistress and, within seconds, purred them both to sleep.

Chapter Five

I feel like such an idiot, thought Hélène for the fiftieth time that evening. Clad in Marc’s old sports clothes and a red cycling helmet, she straddled her new bike. Hope nobody can see me.

Hélène began to pedal. Marc gripped her side as she carved wide circles in the parking lot.

“You’re on your own,” he announced, letting go. Instantly, the front wheel wobbled.

“Aaaiie!” yelped Hélène, hitting the asphalt.

“You’ll be fine, chérie. Try again.”

Hélène shook her head. “Non, I’ve had enough for today.”

“But we just started.”

“I feel like such a loser.” I am a loser. “I quit.”

Her thoughts flashed back to a recent difficult conversation with her doctor.

After Hélène had fainted at work, Dr. Duprès gave her a pile of medical pamphlets, instructing her to change her diet and exercise more. “Why don’t you try running, cycling, or swimming—”

“I don’t exactly do sports.” Hélène blushed, staring at her chubby ankles, remembering how her teachers forced her to participate in gym classes. Nobody would pick her for kickball, or volleyball, or softball, she was so uncoordinated.

Dr. Duprès continued, “To start, I suggest you go walking or ride your bike, at least a half hour every day.”

“Every day?” Hélène’s voice had cracked.

Exactement. You’ll get used to it. You’ll even start to like it.” Dr. Duprès had smiled. “You’ll have more energy too.”

Hélène’s thoughts returned to the parking lot as Marc pulled his wife to her feet. “Just one more time.”

He held the back of her bike as she pedaled. “That’s great, chérie. You’re an athlete!”

An athlete? she thought. More like a toddler. Merde!” she yelled as her body flew sideways.

After practicing unsuccessfully each morning, instead of losing weight, Hélène was losing her patience. One rainy day, however, a voice inside her head whispered, Give it one more try. Hélène shrugged her soggy shoulders and complied. To her surprise, she pedaled down the street without falling.

Regardez-moi!” she yelled through the downpour. A feeling of triumph swept over her as tears formed in her eyes.

The voice told her: Tomorrow, you’re biking to work. And every day after that.

Hélène squinted at the swollen clouds. What are you trying to tell me?

In response, a drop of rain trickled down her helmet into her eye, mingling with her salty tears. She nodded solemnly at the clouds, oblivious of how this vow would forever transform her life.

* * *

The next morning, Hélène swung a leg over her bike. After a loud rrrriiiiipppp, she plunged toward the pavement. Quelle idiote. Nobody bikes in a skirt. Limping into the house, she reappeared in faded stretch pants. She pedaled slowly; each time a car passed, she veered toward the curb.

Then she spotted a figure jogging along the sidewalk.

The woman wore shorts and a white T-shirt, her dark hair bouncing over broad shoulders. Hélène gasped, recognizing the tan, muscular legs. It’s her!

She sped. Just before she caught up with the woman, she heard Honk! Honk!

“Aaaiiiee!” she screamed, swerving to the right. A school bus was heading straight at her. Struggling to control her wiggly front wheel, she caught a diagonal glimpse of the white T-shirt before her body soared over the handlebars.

Idiote! Trying to get yourself killed?” yelled the driver as his bus skidded past Hélène’s body, sprawled on the curb.

Hélène lifted an eyelid. What a spectacular move. She jiggled her head, just like she did with used lightbulbs, as she cautiously mounted her bike. Good. No broken bits.

Her smile faded as soon as the woman in the T-shirt waved.

Mon Dieu, it’s her. The goddess! Hélène cringed. Perfect timing.

The goddess hollered something that resembled a “bonjour” and continued jogging down the street.

Hélène scanned the sidewalk until the T-shirt disappeared. I hope she didn’t recognize me. I’m such a klutz. She wiped off the sweat trickling down her face. Wonder what they’ll think of me at the office?

* * *

Hélène ran straight into the ladies’ room. The mirror made her skid to a stop. Her wet face was unbelievably red—and glowing. I feel so alive… Her heart pounded under her sweaty shirt as she splashed water on her face. Huge drops ran off her chin. She hobbled into a toilet stall.

When she reappeared in a baggy skirt and blouse, tiny pieces of toilet paper stuck to her face. Giggling, she freed her cheeks from the sticky bits. Then she noticed moistness under her armpits. She dug into her bag. “Nothing a few squirts can’t fix,” she muttered, shooting eau de cologne under each arm. She brushed her hair vigorously and touched up her makeup, ending the makeover session with bright red lipstick.

Then something made her sneeze. She inserted allergy drops into her nose. Wonder if I’m allergic to myself?

As Hélène was leaving the ladies’ room, she ran smack into her best friend and colleague, Cecile.

“You’re all red,” Cecile exclaimed as they kissed each other on the cheek. “And hot!” Her fingers went to her face. “Ca va? Are you all right?”

Hélène flashed her pretty colleague a sweaty grin. “Guess what? I just biked all the way to work. Never felt more alive!”

Quelle horreur,” Cecile exclaimed, inspecting her moist fingers. “Your exercise addiction better not be contagious.”

* * *

Hélène yawned at her office computer and reached into her drawer. Mechanically, she opened her mouth to insert a chocolate-chip cookie. She stopped when its sweet, chocolaty scent invaded her nostrils. Extending the tip of her tongue, her taste buds caressed the cookie. Bits of dark Belgian chocolate melted in her mouth. As she savored their bitterness, conflict came: Non, non, non. You made a promise to Dr. Duprès. No more sweets! Before she could dissuade herself, she threw the saliva-covered cookie into the trash.

In fact, she chucked every single cookie—like mini pastry Frisbees—into the can. The dull, clunking noises against metal gave her momentum. When she had emptied all four packages from her drawer, she leaned back with glee. But her satisfaction was short-lived.

Just when she tried to salvage a cookie from the trash, her conscience took over. Before she knew it, she was erect in the can, pounding cookies with her boots. So this is how you make a cookie crumble! she mused, swiveling her hips and grinding her heels.

At that moment, Cecile walked by. The two colleagues were complete mismatches, yet solid confidantes. Unlike Hélène, Cecile went to extreme efforts to enhance her petite, feminine appearance. She wore sexy, tight-fitting clothes and highlighted her dark hair with soft reddish tints.

Cecile hurried into Hélène’s office, slammed the door, and observed her best friend dancing in a garbage can with a hysterical look on her face.

Ca ne va pas du tout.” Cecile waved her scarf in the air. “I know you fainted the other day, but what in the heck did that doctor give you?”

Hélène’s lips parted, but she was laughing so hard, only honking noises came out.

Cecile shook her head. “I hate to tell you, ma puce, but it looks like you’ve got some serious side effects to that drug.” She cracked her chewing gum.

Hélène opened her mouth to reassure her, releasing a fit of giggles. She pulled Cecile into a hug as tears of childish glee rolled down her cheeks, moistening the cookie crumble at her feet.

* * *

After two weeks, Hélène’s efforts were finally paying off. Even now, in the middle of rush hour, she felt confident pedaling through the streets of Brussels.

I’ll just check out the neighborhood on my way home. She finally stopped at a grassy spot in Parc Cinquantenaire where teenagers were doing aerobics. I didn’t know they had classes here. Where have I been all these years? Then she saw an elderly group wearing starched white kimonos, practicing martial arts under a massive tree. They were performing slow, gracious moves with their hands.

C’est beau! Wonder what that is?

When she pedaled home, a wave of unsettling vibrations swept over her body, which was already shaking from riding over cobblestones. As the wind forced its way into her jacket, something told her these vibes stemmed from a deeper source. As they surged through her, they released physical and emotional tension stagnating inside for years.

Beaming, she filled her lungs with crisp air. She had done the unthinkable—venturing outside her comfort zone. These initial baby steps led her to unearth the world, starting with Brussels, her own city, creating a whole new field of vibrations. Without knowing it, instead of simply “turning over a new leaf,” her baby steps would become leaps. If she saw what was down the bumpy road, however, she would realize these vibrations were growing stronger, priming the soil and embedding the seeds for a radically new life.

* * *

As she was riding home the next evening, Hélène came across a sign blocking her usual route. Following the detour signs, she entered an unfamiliar tree-lined street. Halfway down, she rode past a building displaying a large banner advertising “Swimming Lessons.”

She muttered under her breath, who needs swimming lessons? Then it hit her. Maybe I do? She did a U-turn. The sign read: “Piscine Palace: private swimming lessons for adults. Give us a call!” She jotted down the phone number.

Once home, she downed two glasses of water and announced to Chaussette, “Guess what Maman’s going to do, bébé?”

Before she could stop herself, Hélène grabbed the phone. “Bonsoir. Piscine Palace?”

The man on the other end embarked on a long-winded tirade extolling the virtues of learning to swim, specifically as an adult. But Hélène hardly listened. As soon as he said the word “pool,” her mind gravitated to her childhood, when she systematically cried at the poolside to escape going into the water. The last-ditch antics usually worked. Ever since she was little, she’d been terrified of pools, swimming lessons, and drowning.

As the man continued, Hélène looked at her fingers grasping the phone. Those couldn’t be hers. There really must be two of me. The real Hélène would never, ever call this number and ask for torture. She was on the verge of apologizing and hanging up when the man said, “It’s never too late.”

That’s just what Dr. Duprès said.

She remembered sitting alone on the beach, watching her classmates race each other into the frothy waves. She had felt so lonely during that high school field trip to Ostende on the Belgian coast. She was the only one in her class who couldn’t swim.

Without quite realizing how it happened, Hélène agreed to private swimming lessons at seven o’clock every morning.

“One last thing…When do I start?” She gasped. “Tomorrow?”

Hélène’s legs were tingling by the time she hung up. “What do you think of that, Chaussette?” she purred, prancing around with the feline cradled in her arms. “Maman’s going to learn to swim! Like a fishy, fishy, fishy…” she sang, then stopped abruptly.

“Maman doesn’t even have a bathing suit! Mon Dieu! And the stores are going to close!” Whisking the cat to the floor, she snatched her purse and scurried toward the garage.

Chapter Six

Sylvie did her best to keep her sneakers on flat surfaces as she jogged through the capital’s bustling streets. This was not an easy feat, with summer roadwork and throngs of schoolkids cramming the sidewalks. When she reached Avenue des Nerviens, she felt better. No more whizzing cars. In Parc Cinquantenaire, she ran straight to a grassy spot, flinging herself under her favorite pine tree. Breathing hard, she spread her legs in a futile attempt to grasp her toes.

She knew she would never be as flexible as a gymnast. An ex had told her that her body was 80 percent swimmer, 20 percent jogger, and 0 percent gymnast. Her ex was right. Certain movements, like this one, made no sense. But she knew how sore she would be if she didn’t stretch. Only five kilometers, but still…

She pushed her nose at the ground, relaxing into the challenge as the moist odor of tender grass hit her nostrils. She held her breath at the sight of a ladybug balancing on a tip of grass, contemplating its glossy red and black form. Ladybugs had always reminded Sylvie of her grandmother: remarkable, yet vulnerable.

Ever so gently, she blew her breath on the critter.

A gruff voice interrupted her bliss. “I knew I’d find you here.”

Sylvie’s heart sank. Ah non, not again. She ignored the voice and kept on blowing.

Alors, still trying to be Superwoman? Or is it Superjock?”

Sylvie’s back muscles tightened. Moistness trickled under her arms. Before she could straighten, she knew she was cornered.

“You won’t mind if I join you,” ordered the voice. A blond woman with a synthetic smile and dangling gold earrings threw down a newspaper, which landed a foot from Sylvie’s head.

Attempting to kneel in her Chanel suit and sheer stockings, the woman grimaced at the sound of ripping nylon. “Merde!

Sylvie swung her legs together. “En fait, I was just on my way—”

“Come on, mon lapin, I saw you. You just got here. Hard to miss all that huffing and puffing. And you’re sweating up a lake.” The woman’s eyes bored into Sylvie’s.

“Isn’t it a bit late to find out you can’t hide things from Lydia?” The blond woman placed her hand firmly on Sylvie’s shoulder. Digging her long, silver fingernails into the androgynous woman’s T-shirt, she forced her to stay put.

“So you’ve been spying on me again.” Crossing her legs, Sylvie glared at her impromptu visitor.

Lydia laughed nervously. “You wish!” She scanned the grass. “I just happened to be taking a walk in the—”


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