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On Paris's eastern edge, north of Notre Dame Cathedral, concrete buildings reared up out of the Left Bank like stoic giants bucking to elbow out all that was good, familiar and charming about the City of Love.
Julianne Waterford glared at the incongruence from the taxi window, and tried to decide whether the jarring clash of new against old made Paris more approachable or if the contemporary intrusion simply ruined the magic.
She released a full-body sigh. Seeing this side of Paris on her first visit made her feel like Dorothy glimpsing the man behind the curtain.
This wasn't the Paris most first-timers toured. Because tourists didn't simply stumble upon this modern beast of a neighborhood. One had to have a reason to venture out to this part of the city.
Julianne's reason: an appointment. A significant, dreadful appointment. One glance at her watch made the wings of her heart drum a frantic staccato. She had about five minutes to arrive or she'd be late for that meeting—unless she changed her mind altogether and didn't show.
No. Being a no-show wasn't an option. She had to go through with it no matter how uncomfortable she felt about a face-to-face meeting with the louse who'd left her pregnant sister high and dry.
And, of course, Julianne would be on time.
As principal flutist for the Continental Symphony Orchestra, it had been ingrained in her that to be early was to be on time; to be on time was to be late; and to be late was to be fired.
Julianne Waterford was never late.
Because she'd been guarded about the reason for her meeting with Alex Lejardin, she at least owed him the courtesy of being prompt. Not that he deserved courtesy after what he'd done, but punctuality was, after all, Julianne's personal code.
She flipped through her French dictionary in search of words to ask the driver how much longer before they'd arrive. Despite the conversational French CDs she'd listened to when she learned the orchestra would travel to France, she'd never been comfortable actually speaking the language.
With that thought, she leaned forward to the driver. "Pardonnez-moi, monsieur."
The man glanced in the rearview mirror. "Oui?"
"Parlez-vous English, s'il vous plaît? "
Please speak English. Please.
"Oui—er— Yes, madame. I do."
Julianne sighed. "Merci. How much farther?"
"A few miles more." He scrunched up his lips in an oh-so-French way and shrugged. "Perhaps two minutes?"
Thank goodness traffic was light; otherwise, she might be late, and to be late was to…well, it didn't bear thinking about. Sometimes, bad things happened even to people who were on time.
As Julianne eased back into the seat, she opened the manila file folder on her lap and glanced at the address on the press release she'd printed when she organized her journey. Only then did she realize her hands were shaking. To take her mind off her nerves, she read the words on the paper:
iWITNESS Appoints New Executive Director Paris, France (June 25, 2008)—The Board of Directors of iWITNESS, the international watchdog of global human rights, takes great pride in announcing the appointment of Alexandre Lejardin as Executive Director.
Lejardin has a decade of experience in human rights law. Most recently, he served in Afghanistan as counsel for the World Human Rights Coalition (WHRC).
All it did was remind her that he'd left Marissa on the front line.
Lejardin: safe in a cushy desk job.
Marissa: dead in the line of duty.
Julianne folded the paper into a small square and closed her fist around it, training her attention on the ascending building numbers, which indicated that they might be farther away than a couple of blocks. She tapped a nervous cadence on the folded paper with her index finger.
Marissa trusted you, Alex. She loved you. How could you leave her like that?
Tears fogged her glasses and blurred the parade of contemporary architecture that whirred past the taxi window. If Julianne couldn't get through the first sentence without crying, how in the world was she going to say what she needed to say without breaking down?
She should be better at holding in her emotions. Sometimes she could. Sometimes she couldn't. It had been a challenge since the day three months ago when she learned her sister was dead.
Three months ago today, as a matter of fact. Killed by a suicide bomber while working in Afghanistan advocating for war victims…
How fitting that the orchestra would bring her to the same city as Alex Lejardin on this anniversary of Marissa's death. It was as if fate were shoving her to stand up to Alex.
In memory of Marissa.
She closed her eyes against the tears. Everyone said the first year was the hardest. So far, the first quarter had been a struggle, three months that were one dirty smudge of events, one bleeding into the next. She'd had to get State Department approval to travel to Afghanistan. Once there, she'd identified Marissa's body and met Marissa's son in the same day. Becoming Liam's guardian had made it imperative that she somehow find the strength to go on—to work and care for the sweet little boy her sister had left behind.
Today's appointment—today's confrontation— would be one more event to fade into the miserable smudge. She had to do it.
In memory of Marissa. For Liam.
The cab stopped in front of a tall building that looked just as generic as the others around it.
Bingo. With two minutes to spare.
She shoved thirty euros at the driver, steeled herself against the riptide of emotion pulling at her insides, and got out of the cab, dodging people as she raced up the steps to the building's glass double doors.
Inside, it could've been any office building in any city. Dingy white linoleum floor, a bank of elevators, and a black magnetic sign with small white letters listing the businesses combined to bear no hint that the magic of Paris was only a car drive away. The iWITNESS office was on the sixteenth floor. As she joined the small group of people waiting for the elevators, she listened to the lyrical lilt of the French accents, catching a word here and there, but most of the chatter went over her head.
Too bad she hadn't been able to devote more time to learning the language or taken a class.
Once Liam entered her life, however, she had no time for much other than work and caring for the boy. First there was the race to find a suitable sitter—one she could trust, one Marissa would've liked, although Marissa, the supermom, had found a way to do it all. She had nurtured a baby and simultaneously aided victims of war. Julianne freely admitted she was not as altruistic, nor as good at multitasking as her sister. The plunge into instant motherhood hadn't come as naturally to Julianne as it had for Marissa. In fact, before Liam entered her life, Julianne had decided she didn't want to have children of her own. The only way she had been able to adapt to sharing her life with this little being was to cut all distractions except for her job as principal flutist for the symphony and her work with A World of Music, the charitable foundation that brought music into the lives of inner-city children. The focus of her existence, however, was caring for her thirteen-month-old nephew, who, much to her surprise, had stolen her heart.
Just like that, she'd eliminated the extraneous from her life. No more going out with friends or dating—not that she'd done much of either. No more nights watching favorite movies on television. She'd plucked the superfluous from her life like weeds from a garden. There was no time for movies when evening hours were spent sterilizing bottles and doing a baby's laundry.
Not that focusing only on Liam and work was so noble a sacrifice—the baby brought her a lot of joy. It was nice to share her life with him. And there was nothing quite like getting lost in a piece of music. For the most part, being a musician was a solitary job at heart.
Her work for A World of Music brought her into contact with a lot of people when she arranged for underprivileged kids to have free music lessons and the use of instruments. And of course, in the orchestra, she was part of the whole that made up the bigger picture—a cog in the gear that turned the machine. But the practice to get where she was today was a solitary endeavor. Julianne had gotten used to feeling alone in the crowd.
She and Marissa were so different.
Marissa had always had to give Julianne a push when it came to being introduced at parties. Extroversion had been her sister's great gift. Not communing with an inanimate instrument, but being accepted as part of the group anywhere and everywhere she went.
The memory made her eyes sting and her throat burn.
As the elevator dinged and its doors yawned open on the sixteenth floor, she blinked a few times and pushed her glasses firmly upon the bridge of her nose.
Looking around, she spied the sign that read iWITNESS, and tried to ignore the ugly feeling that urged her to turn around and go back to the hotel, to take the boy and go back to Washington, D.C., and remain anonymous.
But she wouldn't.
No, just because Julianne hadn't fallen trippingly into motherhood didn't mean she loved her nephew any less. Because of that love, she would stay and do what should've been done a long time ago.
Alex Lejardin shoved aside the legal brief he'd been trying in vain to read all morning. Twice, he'd reached the bottom of the page and had no idea what he'd read.
His focus was nonexistent, which wasn't like him. He prided himself on his ability to shut out the world and zero in on his work. As the executive director of iWITNESS, he fought for people who had no other voice. People who deserved to have someone declare their trials, their injustices, their needs. The job demanded nothing less than all of him.
But today, he was distracted. Thanks to a faceless woman with a haunting last name.
He glanced at his watch. Julianne Waterford should arrive any minute.
He leaned back in his desk chair and laced his fingers behind his neck. He'd known one other person with the surname of Waterford.
The memory sent a thousand-watt jolt of grief coursing through him. His muscles tensed as a face came into focus from the far reaches of his memory. His friend. Marissa Waterford had been his friend. Never had he known a more selfless, magnanimous lady.
A living saint.
Once, they'd been as close as two friends could be—but still not as close as Marissa had wanted.
The memory made his gut clench, and he drew in a measured breath, grinding his jaw against the sadness.
Marissa had a sister back in the States…was her name Julianne? Alex racked his brain, trying to remember, but he came up empty.
All he could see was Marissa's face.