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Excerpt

Excerpt

Sheet Music

He
is addicted to a certain look of pleasure I bestow upon him when he
brings me treats. And so he makes an effort with our postcoital
feasts. He knows I am always hungry. He doesn't know that, no
matter what I eat, I am never full.

Tonight after we make love he brings out a china white plate of
thin slices of apple and a pot of honey from Provence.

Apples remind me of home, a place that exists nowhere but in
memory. Closing my eyes, I get closer to the reminiscences: to see
and feel, smell and taste that past.

He thinks my contented sigh is for him.

Doesn't he know it's dangerous to make assumptions?

In the fall, my mother would take me upstate to an orchard to get
real apples--not the mealy substitutes sold in the supermarkets.
Those, she explained, were only good for applesauce. "Eating bad
fruit is a sin, a waste of a meal. And there are too many wonderful
meals to waste even one. Only fresh food, and only in its season,"
she advised.

Together we baked apple pies, apple turnovers, tarte tatins, apple
cobblers, and my favorite--Pauline Pagett's own invention--Apple
Humpty Dumplings.

For weeks after visiting the orchard, our Greenwich Village
apartment was redolent with the scent of the fruit.

I'd play a game with Maddy, my older sister, who didn't cook back
then, making her sniff the air and guess, based on the cinnamon and
nutmeg, or the vanilla and butter, what dessert we would be having
that night . . .

"Justine?"

He pulls me back. To Paris. To the night. To his bed. I watch him
slather another slice of apple with honey, and, instead of handing
it to me, he holds it to my mouth.

It is easier to be in this present than in that past.

My lips close over the firm flesh. I bite down. Smell lavender.
Feel sunshine. Taste a combination of tart and sweet. Hear the
crisp snap. I try to forget about remembering.

He offers more fruit.

The shining look of thanks I fix on him draws him nearer. He is
unaware that he is moving closer, as close as he can get.

I chew.

He listens. "I love the sounds you make when you eat my
food."

Taking another bite, I lean closer to his ear.

He smiles and licks his own lips.

I feel the rush of power. When did I learn that the easiest way to
be in control is to give it up? It doesn't matter. All that is
important is how well my pretense of submission manages to get me
what I need. With people I interview. With editors I work for. With
lovers. Though I seem to give up control and let the other set the
course, I can still navigate.

From the bedside table he lifts up the balloon of Calvados, swirls
the liquid, takes a sip, and then holds the glass out for me to
drink. The scent floats up and, for a moment, that is all there is.
The aroma of apples, the sting of brandy, the burn at the back of
my throat.

Leaning forward, he licks my lips, tasting them.

I shut my eyes.

This is how he seduces me--with food and drink--with tastes and
with tasting. And my gift back is to try to show him how I delight
in him. Knowing this makes him appreciate himself even more.

Our bond is not one of emotion but of common need. This tremulous,
fleeting feeling is why we are willing to go through these
charades. We manipulate and call it romance. We lust and call it
love and then pretend it will save the world.

I am not going to call anyone's bluff; I know better. Romantic love
doesn't rescue, it doesn't resolve. At best it's a buffer between
levels of loneliness. Oh, I suppose it's better to have than to
have not, but as an eternal quest? Not worth my time.

I've seen the remnants of those searches and seen the residue of
that kind of love when, as it must, it cools and calms.

Henri refills his glass with two more inches of Calvados, drinks
from it, and then holds it again to my lips. This time he tips it
too far: a trickle of the brandy slides down my chin. He grins,
suggesting he's done this on purpose so that he can do what he does
next--follow the path of the liquor with his tongue as it runs down
my neck and onto my breast.

My head falls back against the pillow; his head falls forward
against my chest. My fingers play with the blond curls that tickle
my skin.

Suddenly the sharp smell of cocoa beans wafts in on the air.

"Stay there. When I tell you, close your eyes and open your mouth.
I want you to taste it before you see it," he says as he gets
up.

Grabbing the glass of brandy, he takes it with him as he pads
toward the kitchen, leaving his robe on the end of the bed.

He is modest when he's sober, but after a few glasses of wine or a
few inches of brandy, he relaxes into his nakedness. In this
gap--between who he is and who he becomes--an other emerges who
keeps me interested.

In my work, as a journalist, I have permission to search for these
hidden souls, and it is my conceit that I am good at finding and
exposing them. Certainly I am dogged in the pursuit. Strip away the
careful constructions and mythology we each create out of pride or
delusion or even hope, and there is the other, ready to either
ruin, illuminate, or enrich the public facade.

This secret self is often the key to how someone lives, explains
what choices they make, what drives them out into the world or away
from engaging in it. And if I do my job well and with passion, when
you read my profiles you will make discoveries. Sweet or foul, the
other fascinates me. By uncovering what individuates us, we grope
toward an understanding of those we know and, ultimately,
ourselves.

I'm not sure it's always a good thing, but understanding that
people have others secreted away keeps me from trusting my first
impressions of anyone. And not just first impressions. I have to
know someone for a long time before I take any personal chances.
Others can destroy relationships or build them, ruin friendships or
cement them, separate fathers and daughters, bring mothers and sons
together.

Others do damage or make repairs. Define our humanity. Or
inhumanity.

As for Henri, he has hidden his other self from me longer than most
and the search is what has kept me here. And that he feeds
me.

Usually I find my own stories and choose the people I want to
profile and write about. But I first met Henri because Kurt
Davis--my editor at the foreign office of the American magazine I
have been writing features for since I moved to Paris--had
suggested I interview St. Pierre to ascertain if he was a candidate
for a story about chefs who might qualify for the title--"Enfants
Terribles of Post-Nouvelle Cuisine."

Henri St. Pierre had come out of his restaurant's kitchen that
first afternoon holding a bottle of cold wine and two glasses in
one hand and a plate of hot pomme frites in the other. To his
offerings on the table, I added my notebook and pen.

"Mais non. You have to eat these while they are hot," he said,
pushing away the work supplies and offering me a sizzling potato
with his fingers.

I took it, ate it. Smiled. And before I could tell him how good it
was, he was offering me another.

He poured us wine. Took a potato for himself, scarfed it down.
Lifted one more and put it between my lips.

A bond--intimate and immediate--was forged.

A few days later I was more than a little relieved to tell Kurt
that St. Pierre wasn't the right chef for the article--there wasn't
a story. He was fair to his staff and welcoming to his
guests.

I moved on to other interviewees, and Henri and I moved toward each
other.

"You understand people who cook for a living and who live to cook,"
he told me one night while he offered bite-size pieces of freshly
baked brioche and sections of mandarin oranges soaked in
cognac.

Afterward he licked the buttery flakes from my fingers. His recipe
for good sex always includes amazing food and, after a month of
spending a few nights a week with him, I am now five pounds
heavier, rubbed raw and satiated from the way he devours me in bed.
There is no part of my body that he has not licked or tasted and no
food that he has offered that has not been delicious. And yet
despite that, he doesn't fill me up.

He compares the color of my hair to espresso and my skin to clotted
cream. He roasts chestnuts to show me the exact shade of my eyes.
And he buys different berry jams until he finds a raspberry
preserve that matches my lips. He charms me, cooks for me, makes me
laugh with the stories about life in a French kitchen, and treats
me like a piece of ripe fruit.

In return I take him in my hand or in my mouth or inside my body
and tell him how his pleasure pleasures me. I say it in the dark
but with my eyes open, looking far into him, as if penetrating his
soul with my eyes. He bows his head as if hearing gospel.

"Justine, close your eyes."

We have moved away from the apples and are on to the next delicacy
of the night. My mouth is filled with something hot, moist, and
intensely chocolate. Not a souffle. There is more crunch to this
dessert, and the center is creamy rather than breadlike.

I stick out my tongue to lick my lips, but his tongue gets there
first. We kiss, chocolate flavoring the embrace.

"Umm. More," I say.

Another spoonful for me and then more brandy for him.

"I stole the recipe," he whispers as if it is a serious secret.
"From Andre," he names his mentor and one of Paris's gastronomic
treasures.

I open my mouth again, knowing how much he wants to feed me.

"I stole all his recipes," he says with a pinch of bravado as he
offers another spoon of melting chocolate.

I swallow. Licking my lips. "I'm glad."

He proffers more. My lips clamp down and I suck the spoon
clean.

"Smart thief," I say, watching him become erect. Again. So soon. I
lean in so my thigh presses against him. It is all the
encouragement he needs.

"Actually, I stole more than recipes from Andre."

My slow, warm sexual glow dissolves and is replaced with an
adrenaline rush. This isn't the way I usually react in a man's bed,
but the way I feel when I am following the trail of a story.

The fear hits. I don't want Henri to be a story. I like this man: I
don't want to investigate him. Or worse, expose him.

But I can't help wanting to know more. I'm a reporter and my career
has been standing still for a while. It could benefit from a
breaking story.

I don't like myself for how I'm reacting. I do not alert Henri that
his lover might be leaving and a journalist rushing in. But it
isn't criminal for me to listen to his bedtime confession--it can
only be wrong if I take advantage of this apres-sex repast.

I should remind him that I am a potential traitor, but I don't. I
continue treading this dangerous ground. And then I feel a flutter
of fear behind my chest: a familiar sensation my mother used to
call "trapped butterflies." The anxious foreboding that lodges
behind your heart, warning you that there is reason to be
afraid.

Despite the trapped butterflies, I don't remind Henri that I am not
just a woman in his bed, but a member of the press. I can't--I am
already imagining this story with my byline on it.

Keeping my voice husky, as if still in under his sensual spell, I
encourage him. "What else? What else did you steal?"

And as if it is just another component of the evening's seduction,
he feeds me the story of how he cheated his mentor by making deals
behind his back with both the food and wine purveyors, building up
a fat bank account and then using it to open his own
restaurant.

"First I stole his recipes, then his money, and then all his
clients," the other in him boasts.

It has been said that journalists are immoral because they win over
their subjects and then betray them. But I didn't intend or even
expect this to happen. Henri St. Pierre has not been my subject for
the last eight weeks. He has been my lover.

And he trusts me.

Except now he turns out to be exactly what my editor had hoped for:
a bad boy.

I should be horrified by what Henri did. This new information
should make me question my relationship with him. I should be
leaving him because he is a thief. I should be shocked--how could
he have done something so awful?--and this should lead to an
argument that ends with me walking out.

But I am thirty years old and my career can use a boost. I am a
good journalist, but I've never been a star reporter. People read
my articles without noticing my byline. This story might change
that.

So instead of disgust, I show curiosity and express admiration for
his brazen ambition.

"You did that? He never knew? How clever," I say in French.

He tells me more, sharing his recipe for thievery. What it felt
like, how long it took, how many hundreds of thousands of francs he
accumulated.

It disturbs me that my lover is a thief, but what leaves the sour
taste in my mouth is his pride in it. However, what I feel no
longer matters. Before I can walk out on this man, I have to get
the rest of the story.

"And Andre never knew, never suspected?"

Henri shakes his head. He smiles.

The first line of the story gets typed out in my mind. The lead and
then the beginning paragraph. I imagine going to Kurt's office and
handing him the article. I'll lean with my elbows on his desk while
he reads it, nodding, smiling, excited at the coup. "Yes," he will
say, "this is excellent. You've nailed it." He will rub his chin
with his right hand, thinking and planning. The story will make the
magazine cover with my byline beneath it.

Excerpted from SHEET MUSIC © Copyright 2003 by M.J. Rose.
Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books, a division of Random
House, Inc. All rights reserved.

 

Sheet Music
by by M. J. Rose

  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense
  • paperback: 326 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345451074
  • ISBN-13: 9780345451071