By Anita Hughes
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2015 Anita Hughes
All rights reserved.
Serena reached the top of Baker Street and turned around to look at the skyline. She had been back in San Francisco for two years but she never tired of the view. It was early evening and the city was bathed in a pink and purple light. The Golden Gate Bridge lay wrapped in fog and Coit Tower rose above the houses like an ancient monument.
Serena smelled the hyacinths and daffodils filling the sidewalk and gazed at the outline of the Transamerica building. She remembered thinking as a child that it looked like an Egyptian pyramid in the midst of steel skyscrapers. Now she had her own office at Vogue's West Coast headquarters on the sixteenth floor. She still pinched herself when she nodded at the receptionist with her long blond ponytail and straight-off-the-runway Tory Burch platforms, when she walked down the hallway with its shiny Vogue covers and bright geometric carpet.
Serena flashed on her afternoon meeting with Chelsea Brown, her editor in chief, and the new assignment she offered her. She couldn't wait to tell her boyfriend, Chase, but first she wanted to sift through her mother's boxes of magazines and learn as much as she could about Yvette Renault, editor in chief of French Vogue for two decades.
Serena entered the iron gates of her parents' Presidio Heights mansion and saw Chase's car parked in front of the double glass front doors. Chase had bought the car last month: a shiny silver Fiat he had spent weeks agonizing over. Now that Chase was about to announce his candidacy for mayor, everywhere they ate, how they spent their weekends, and what books they read were going to be scrutinized by the public.
"Anything German is too flashy, something American would be too obvious," Chase had said, frowning as they sat at Betelnut one Sunday morning. Betelnut was one of their new rituals: Serena loved the strong black coffee served from an old-fashioned coffeepot and Chase loved the fact that every young Internet entrepreneur, hedge fund manager, and law firm partner passed the big front windows as they collected their Sunday New York Times and mocha Frappuccinos.
"My car has to reflect my vision for San Francisco: international, efficient, visionary." Chase drummed his fingers on the Formica table. He wore a yellow Georgetown T-shirt, running shorts, and red-and-blue Nike Air sneakers. His wavy blond hair touched his collar and his cheeks glistened with Tommy Hilfiger aftershave.
"You're going to be a fabulous mayor," Serena told him as she sprinkled salt on scrambled eggs. She had suffered through early-morning Pilates, followed by a two-mile run to Crissy Field, and enjoyed treating herself to eggs and toast and juicy strips of bacon.
"First I have to get elected." Chase furrowed his brow. "We're going all the way to the top, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."
"One step at a time," Serena said, laughing. "San Francisco City Hall is a wonderful address, and I haven't even begun to choose my gown for the inauguration. I picture a red satin dress with a scooped neckline and full skirt."
"You know I love you," Chase said. His eyes dimmed, and for a moment he looked like an eager little boy instead of a thirty-three-year-old corporate attorney perched at the beginning of his political career.
Serena ate a slice of bacon and thought how lucky she was to have found someone who enjoyed the same things she did. They both loved working long hours and getting away on the weekends. Serena smiled, thinking of the times Chase picked her up from work on Friday night with her overnight bag already packed. He wouldn't tell her where they were going until they arrived at a romantic bed-and-breakfast in Sonoma or a hotel perched on a cliff in Mendocino.
"A Fiat Spider," Serena said suddenly, watching a yellow Fiat maneuver into an impossibly tight parking spot in front of the restaurant. "No one could argue with you buying a Fiat, it's the perfect car for getting around the city."
* * *
Serena approached the stone entry and saw her mother stepping outside, wearing Jacqueline Kennedy sunglasses and a pink-and-white Chanel suit with beige pumps. Her strawberry-blond hair was covered with a silk scarf and she carried a soft leather bag.
"Darling, what a lovely surprise." Kate slipped off her sunglasses. "Chase is here. He and your father are sequestered in the library as if they're planning the invasion of the Bay of Pigs."
"Maybe they are." Serena laughed. "I was hoping to go through the attic; I'm doing some research."
"I'd love to help." Kate checked her watch. "But I'm late for a meeting of the Ladies Auxiliary. I wish I had a real job, instead of planning menus and flower arrangements and fashion shows."
"You're allowed to enjoy yourself," Serena said, and smiled. "You were a political wife for thirty years."
"The problem is I don't know how to enjoy myself," Kate said as she extracted her keys from her purse. "Neither does your father. The only place he's happy is on his boat; otherwise he prowls around like a caged bear."
"You'll find hobbies," Serena replied. "You could learn mah-jongg or Cajun cooking."
"I should be grateful that my daughter has a wonderful job and a lovely apartment and a handsome, caring boyfriend," Kate relented, slipping her sunglasses on her nose. "I like to feel useful; I never thought I'd turn into one of those women."
"You are the most useful person on the planet." Serena pushed open the twelve-foot-tall front doors. "Daddy wouldn't survive a day without you."
* * *
Serena walked through the foyer, past the family portrait hanging over the stone fireplace, past the living room with its dark wood floors and Oriental rugs, to her father's library.
She loved to see the house full of fresh cut flowers, the drapes pulled open, the bay shimmering past the stretch of green lawn. All the years her parents had been in Washington the house was closed, and Serena would stop by once a week to open the French doors. Now her mother's perfume wafted through the rooms and her father's newspapers were scattered on glass coffee tables and maple sideboards.
"Serena!" Chase jumped up when Serena entered the library. "I thought I was picking you up at your place at seven?" Serena smiled at her father and Chase, hunched over the polished walnut desk like two boys conducting a science project. Chase wore a navy Hugo Boss suit with a red power tie they had picked out together at Neiman's, and Charles wore his new uniform of dark blazer, khaki slacks, and boating shoes.
"You two look guilty," Serena said playfully. "Are you planning a political coup? Removing a third-world dictator or pushing a new bill through Congress?"
"I still have my uses," her father said as he rubbed his forehead. He had silver hair and green eyes and tan leathery skin.
"Your father was giving me campaign advice," Chase said, then kissed Serena on the mouth. He collected a stack of papers and jammed them in his briefcase. "I have to run, I have a meeting at city hall at six."
"We can eat at Greens another night," Serena said as she smelled Chase's mint shampoo. "I'll get a chicken from Whole Foods and toss a spinach salad."
"It's a perfect night to eat by the water," her father cut in. "There's hardly any fog."
Serena glanced from Chase to her father, sensing an undercurrent running between them. "What's going on, am I missing something?"
Sometimes she felt like Chase and her father belonged to a secret club that only accepted men as members. They loved to watch the Giants game and drink Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Whenever she mentioned it to her mother Kate laughed and said Serena should be pleased they enjoyed each other's company. Then she'd slip on her oversize sunglasses and suggest she and Serena have afternoon tea at the Fairmont or go shopping at Neiman Marcus.
"Nothing's going on," Charles said as he put on his reading glasses and attacked the pile of newspapers on his desk. "I was just saying it was a nice evening to eat by the bay."
* * *
Serena walked Chase to his car, lingering at the driver's-side door to kiss him slowly on the mouth. She watched him drive out of the gravel driveway down Pacific Avenue, then ran back into the house and up the three flights of stairs to the attic.
Serena heard her father close the library door and smiled. It was no secret that Charles loved having Chase around, that it made him feel thirty years younger, at the start of his own political career. They spent hours going over campaign funding and media strategy. When Chase was in the house, her father's voice was stronger, he walked more purposefully, the lines around his eyes relaxed.
Serena remembered when she met Chase, at one of her parents' salons. Serena had taken the train from Amherst to Georgetown and was holed up in her father's study finishing a term paper.
"You're missing some delicious crab cakes and steak tartar," a man said, standing next to her father's floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. He had blond hair and wore a tweed blazer over a yellow button-down shirt and khakis.
"Not hungry," Serena said, briefly looking up. "I have to finish this paper if I want to ace comparative literature."
"Beautiful and brilliant?" The man raised his eyebrow. "I thought girls who look like you spent their weekends at football games at Yale or Princeton."
"I'm a double French and comparative literature major at Amherst," Serena said, tapping on her laptop. "My studies are very important to me."
"Let me guess," the man said, and he moved closer. "You're going to go to Harvard Law School and become an international corporate attorney. You'll be the first woman who breaks the glass ceiling and becomes the president of the firm, and your name will be on Forbes' Top 100 Most Powerful Women."
"Why would you think that?" Serena blushed.
He stood on the other side of the desk and his mouth formed a slow smile. "Because you have that something special that lights up a room."
"You don't even know me," Serena murmured.
"I'm Chase Barnett." The man grinned, holding out his hand.
"Serena Woods." Serena felt his long fingers brush against hers.
She looked at him more closely. He had brown eyes and long lashes that belonged on a girl. His shirt was buttoned wrong, as if he had been in a hurry and missed a button.
"Serena Woods, born June fifteenth, 1986, at San Francisco Presbyterian Hospital. I've followed your father's career from the beginning: graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in political science, spent a year backpacking around India, married Kate Chisholm, became the father of a beautiful baby girl, ran successfully for mayor of Santa Rosa, then state senator, and California's youngest treasurer. Followed by a failed attempt at governor of California—the only race he ever lost—four years as the French consul general in Paris, and now the U.S. senator from California."
"You sound like a walking history book." Serena giggled. Chase stood with his hands in his pockets and his brow furrowed in concentration.
"He's my hero," Chase said simply. "He's passionate about foreign policy and on the forefront of energy conservation."
"He drives my mother crazy with his periodicals and newspapers," Serena said, and nodded. "But he wants to leave the world a better place."
"I've wanted to be in politics since I was eleven," Chase said, gazing at the photos of Charles shaking hands with President Obama and Hillary Clinton. "I want to help change the world."
Serena studied him carefully. She had met many of her father's admirers over the years: serious men with short, slicked-back hair wearing pin-striped suits. Chase looked more like an overgrown surfer, with sparkling eyes and a dimple on his cheek.
Serena stood up and walked around the desk. She wore a knit dress she had slipped on because it wouldn't wrinkle on the train, and her blond hair was tied in a high ponytail. She wore ballet flats, and the top of her head reached Chase's chin.
Serena put her fingers on his shirt. She carefully unbuttoned the top buttons, feeling the smooth fabric beneath her fingers, then rebuttoned them and fixed his collar.
"If you're going to be a politician"—she stepped back, admiring her handiwork—"first you're going to have to learn how to button your shirt."
* * *
Serena gazed around the attic at boxes separated into neat stacks. The attic took up the third floor of the house and contained furniture, books, clothes, paintings from the cities where her parents had lived. Her mother said there was no point in owning a mansion the size of a city block if it couldn't hold all your memories.
Serena searched until she found the boxes marked "PARIS" and carefully removed the tape. She found French cookbooks and theater programs. There was a yearbook from the International School with a picture of her in a navy uniform and her hair in blond braids. At the bottom of the second box she found a pile of magazines tied with a yellow ribbon.
Serena picked them up and sat cross-legged on the floor. She untied the ribbon and spread the covers in front of her: gorgeous French models with impossibly long legs wearing impossibly short skirts.
Serena flipped to the Letter from the Editor and saw Yvette Renault's picture. She had silky black hair, large brown eyes, and a long patrician nose. She wore her trademark strand of black pearls and an oversize emerald on her finger. Underneath the photo were the words Vivez la vie au maximum and Yvette's spiderlike signature.
Serena sat back and thought about Chelsea's visit to her office that afternoon. Serena had been choosing photos for her interview with Jennifer Lawrence when Chelsea burst into the room.
"If I ate red meat at lunch I'd nap all afternoon," Chelsea said as she surveyed the remainder of Serena's roast beef sandwich on rye and a sliced dill pickle. "I have a green smoothie chased by a bowl of edamame. I'm afraid I'll glance in the mirror and look like Shrek."
"Hardly," Serena said, putting aside the photos. Chelsea had been a top runway model before she got a degree from Brown. She had long shapely legs and small, childlike breasts. She complained she'd never know the joy of owning a push-up bra, but every outfit she put on—Alexander McQueen dresses, Chloé miniskirts, Jil Sander cigarette pants—looked like a million dollars.
"How would you like to take a break from writing about the best way to wear a bustier and go to the South of France?" Chelsea perched on the edge of Serena's desk. She wore a turquoise Hervé Léger dress and Proenza Schouler wedges. Her brown hair was shaped in a pixie cut and her mouth was coated with dark red lipstick.
"Are you firing me?" Serena asked, flashing on her latest feature, on Cameron Diaz. Perhaps her questions had been too personal and Cameron's publicist called Chelsea in a rage.
"Yvette Renault, the legendary editor of French Vogue, is writing her memoir. She is looking for a cowriter and saw your pieces in Vogue."
"She wants me to write her memoir?" Serena gaped. She remembered seeing Yvette's face plastered in Vogue when her father was the consul general in Paris. She wore impeccably cut wool suits and towering heels. Serena read she was almost six feet in her stocking feet.
"You're fluent in French and you've written some brilliant celebrity profiles," Chelsea said as she examined her long red fingernails. "Plus she said she'd give American Vogue exclusive excerpts. It's going to be juicy. Yvette launched the careers of France's top models and had a relationship with Bertrand Roland. No one knew if she was his personal secretary or his mistress."
"Didn't he win the Prix Goncourt?" Serena frowned.
"He was even more famous for how many women he got in his bed," Chelsea mused. "Yvette was married, to a very Catholic husband."
"It sounds fascinating," Serena replied. "Why the South of France?"
"She's staying at the Carlton-InterContinental in Cannes," Chelsea said. "I'd give anything to stroll down the Boulevard de la Croisette and watch the yachts in the harbor. But I've got a staff of English majors, and if I leave the office they forget how to turn on the coffeepot." (Continues...)
Excerpted from French Coast by Anita Hughes. Copyright © 2015 Anita Hughes. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.