Ever since that fateful night amid the silks in the atelier, Celine had longed for comfortable silence. It had been weeks since she'd felt safe in the presence of others. Safe with the riot of her own thoughts. The closest she'd ever come to wading through calmer waters had been in the presence of Pippa.
When the ship drew near enough to dock, Pippa took sudden hold of Celine's wrist, as though to steel herself. Celine gasped. Flinched at the unexpected touch. Like a spray of blood had shot across her face, the salt of it staining her lips.
"Celine?" Pippa asked, her blue eyes wide. "What's wrong?"
Breathing through her nose to steady her pulse, Celine wrapped both hands around Pippa's cold fingers. "I'm frightened, too."
A STUDY IN CONTRASTS
Twenty-three passengers disembarked from the Aramis, each bearing a simple trunk filled with their worldly possessions. After consulting the ship's manifest, the officer stationed in the customhouse allowed them onto American soil. An hour later, seven girls boarded a humble equipage and proceeded through the darkened city streets toward the Ursuline convent. The rest had their futures awaiting them at the docks.
The open-air wagon trundled along the cobblestones. All around them, boughs hung heavy with brightly colored blossoms. Cicadas and click beetles droned in the shadows, whispering of a haunted history. A tropical breeze stirred through the branches of a live oak abutting a small square. The warmth of its embrace felt strange against Celine's skin, especially when contrasted with the slight chill of a late-January evening.
But she knew better than to complain. Outside her home in Paris, snow likely dotted the pavers, and it would be weeks before she could don the comfortable muslin dress she now wore. Celine recalled when she'd fashioned it last June, from the remnants of an elegant tea gown she'd designed for a wealthy woman known for hosting infamous salons. At the time, Celine imagined attending one of these gatherings and mingling with the chicest members of Parisian society. She would dazzle them with her love of Shakespeare and Voltaire. She would wear this exact dress, its rich aubergine hue a lovely contrast against her fair skin, the overskirt replete with elaborate frills and flounces.
And she would style her black curls in a mass atop her crown, the latest coiffure to grace the city's fashion plates.
Celine laughed to herself, amused by the memory of the seventeen-year-old girl she used to be. The things this girl had dreamed of experiencing. The things she'd wished to have and hold: entrée into the society of elegant young women she fitted for gowns they would discard days later. A chance to fall in love with a handsome young man who would steal her heart with poetry and promises.
Now she sneered at the very idea.
After weeks at sea—buried deep in a timber trunk—the rumpled gown Celine wore tonight reflected the sharp turn her life had taken. It wasn't fit for Sunday Mass, much less a salon. At the thought, Celine adjusted her position on the wooden seat, her corset digging into her ribs. The whalebone pinched her breasts as she took a deep breath.
And was met with a scent so delicious, it left her distracted.
She scanned the square for its source. On the corner opposite the live oak stood an open-air bakery that reminded Celine of her favorite boulangerie on the Boulevard du Montparnasse. The smell of fried dough and slowly melting sugar wafted through the waxy magnolia leaves. Nearby, a set of balcony shutters slammed shut, and a trellis laden with bright pink bougainvillea shook, the blossoms trembling as if in fear. Or perhaps in anticipation.
It should have been beautiful to behold. But the lovely tableau felt tinged with something sinister. As though a pale finger had slipped through a drawn curtain, beckoning her into a dark abyss.
Wisdom told her to heed the warning. Nevertheless, Celine found herself enchanted. When she glanced at the six other girls in the wagon—seated four on one side, three on the other—Celine caught an expanse of wide-eyed gazes, their expressions a study in trepidation. Or perhaps excitement? Like the bougainvillea, it was impossible to be certain.