Sean whistled cheerfully as he and Andy strode up the sidewalk outside Ian McKellen’s Paris salon on the Avenue Montaigne. His arms were laden with bottles of chilled Taittinger champagne while Andy carried three string bags filled with freshly baked baguettes, wafer thin slices of ham, Neufchâtel cheese, Charentais melons and chocolate truffles.
Sean tried to tell himself that his current state of euphoria was due to being in his second favorite city in the world and waking up in a decadently luxurious suite in the Meurice, his absolute favorite hotel in his second favorite city in the world. But if he was being honest with himself, he had to admit that his current state of euphoria had a very different source: Elijah. What with photo shoots to squeeze in at the last moment and others to reschedule, requiring some major soothing of feathers ruffled by the news that he was skipping town, not to mention travel arrangements to make at short notice, Sean had been on the run practically non-stop, with no time to see Elijah since leaving him in the capable (if ruthless) hands of Cate and her assistants at the offices of Quality Magazine.
To say he was looking forward to the colorful butterfly that was about to emerge from Elijah’s faded-tee-shirt-and-jeans cocoon was an understatement.
He wondered if Henry Higgins had felt a similar childlike sense of anticipation at the unveiling of his creation, as well as a childish desire to say ‘I told you so’ to the doubting Thomases, or the doubting Cate, in this instance. All was not rosy with the Quality Man to judge from the text messages Cate sent Sean when he ignored her calls (‘sufficient unto the day’ being his motto when dealing with her).
Your protégé refuses to stay at the Ritz. According to sainted Uncle Ian, it would be bourgeois, criminally spendthrift, and a betrayal of everything a member of the working class stands for. He’s booked himself into a youth hostel in the Latin Quarter instead. A YOUTH HOSTEL, Sean. Dear god, have we really sunk to this?
A couple days later she sent another. Elijah doesn’t own a cell phone. Uncle Ian doesn’t approve of them. Something about verbal diarrhea and brain tumors. We are to communicate with him via semaphore, I take it.
And finally, Uncle Ian this. Uncle Ian that. If I hear Elijah utter that name one more time, I shall scream. I haven’t even met the man and I thoroughly detest him. This is all your doing, Sean, and don’t think I don’t know why you won’t return my calls.
Sean had read these messages with a measure of unholy amusement. It appeared that Cate had indeed met her match in Elijah Wood, as he’d suspected. A state of affairs that, in his opinion, would do her good. She was far too accustomed to bulldozing over people in her single-minded drive to make Quality Magazine the highest circulation fashion magazine over Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and getting away with it, as witness the storming of the bookstore.
Sean set his shoulder to the salon’s front door and pushed it open. Ian McKellen’s Paris salon was a reflection of its eponymous owner, a man renowned throughout the fashion industry as the epitome of elegance and taste. Not a single detail was left to chance, no expense spared to make the salon, as it was intended to be, the ideal setting in which to unveil the jewel that was Ian’s latest menswear collection and the young man who would model it for the critical eyes of the fashion world.
It was impossible not to compare its upscale decor with the gloomy interior of Embryo Concepts. Could any two places possibly be more dissimilar, Sean wondered. He could just imagine what good old Uncle Ian would have to say on the topic.
Not one, not two, but five superb crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, the floor to ceiling windows had sumptuous velvet drapes tied back to reveal a stone balustrade overlooking a lush garden, and the gilded marble-topped tables were adorned with Chinese export porcelain vases filled with white roses and hydrangeas. But there wasn’t a single book anywhere to be found.
At the rear of the salon was a small stage with a models’ runway that extended about two-thirds of the way into the room. Cate stood on the end of the runway. Ian and a handful of Ian’s assistants, holding fashion sketches in their hands, were with her. Notable by his absence was Elijah, presumably still being worked on in the changing rooms behind the stage.
“Hail and well met,” Sean announced gaily. He held up a bottle of the Taittinger. “I’m throwing a shindig to christen the Quality Man and you’re all invited.”
As one every head swiveled in his direction. Cate, impeccably dressed in a slim black Dior skirt matched with a white silk blouse, pearl earrings and a retro chic black pillbox hat that might have (and probably had) belonged to Jackie O, set her hands on her hips and glared at him. Ian, as ever a vision of sartorial splendor in a perfectly cut black suit and dove gray silk tie, wasn’t glaring, but he didn’t appear particularly happy either.
Uh-oh, thought Sean. This did not look promising. He set down the champagne and stepped up onto the runway while Andy unburdened himself of the rest of their loot.
“Ian, it’s great to see you,” Sean said, extending his hand to the designer, who drew Sean in for a Parisian style double cheek kiss. Ian still wore the same outrageously expensive aftershave that he always had, and the scent roused some pleasant memories for Sean. He and Ian had a history, having enjoyed a brief fling years earlier from which both had fortunately emerged with hearts and egos and friendship intact—no small feat in the fashion industry, which was littered with the fallout from romances gone wrong. “Now, about the guest of honor,” he added. “Where is he and how does he look?”
“If he’s here, he looks invisible,” Cate said bluntly
Shit. “He didn’t show?” Sean couldn’t believe it.
“He did not.”
“I am jeopardizing my position with Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue,” Ian complained. “And all for a boy who does not show up.”
“You’re much too important for jeopardy, Ian,” Sean said.
Normally a dose of flattery worked to placate Ian, but this was clearly not one of those times, for instead Ian’s mouth tightened. “He was supposed to be here at ten and it’s now past five. Forget about this irresponsible boy and find someone else.”
“We’ve already started the campaign, Ian. We can’t find someone else,” said Cate.
“Did you try calling the hostel?” asked Sean.
Cate’s glare returned. “No, I tried reaching him using astral projection, only it appears he wasn’t inhabiting the same plane as I was at the time.”
Ouch. Cate was pissed all right. But with good reason. She’d put herself, the magazine and her reputation on the line by choosing a complete unknown to be the Quality Man—and on Sean’s advice. The buck stopped with him.
“These gentlemen are waiting to do Elijah’s face and hair,” Cate went on implacably, waving her hands. “Ian needs measurements. Where the devil is he?”
Something Elijah had said in the bookshop came back to him: If I went to Paris, it would be to go to Viggo Mortensen’s lectures.
It didn’t take an advanced degree in Empathicalism to figure out where Elijah must be. Sean would have sworn that Elijah was nothing if not conscientious, but apparently he’d been wrong. He hadn’t let the grass grow under his feet, but raced to worship at Mortensen’s altar practically the second his plane set down at Charles de Gaulle Airport. Sean felt a shaft of emotion that he told himself was annoyance.
“Well, I wouldn’t like to swear in court, but I have a pretty good idea where he is,” he said, hopping down from the runway and striding quickly towards the door.
“How nice,” Cate called after him. “Do keep it to yourself. Don’t let us in on it.”
“Don’t worry,” Sean assured her. “I’ll have him here tomorrow morning at ten o’clock without fail. In the meantime, have a glass of champagne on me.” He saluted Cate smartly and went to hail a cab.
By the time Sean disembarked from the cab that had brought him to the Boulevard Saint-Germain in the Latin Quarter it was dark out and the weather had turned cool and misty. He paid the cab driver then turned up the collar of his rain coat and set out in search of a likely watering hole for Empathicalists. It was some years since he’d visited this corner of Paris, with its crooked narrow cobblestone streets and abundance of outdoor cafés, flower stands, bookstores and boulangeries, but it appeared very much the same as it always had. Students from the Sorbonne passionately debating politics sat cheek by jowl with grizzled men smoking Gauloise cigarettes as they hunched over a chess board. Music spilled from the open doors of clubs, punctuated by the tinkle of passing bicycle bells.
There was a timelessness about the Latin Quarter that no amount of cell phones or ‘wifi gratuit’ signs could erase. It was still a haunt for intellectuals, the ghosts of Sartre, Camus and Hemingway very much present. Sean could easily imagine Elijah feeling at home here in a way he never could in the tonny Place Vendôme or on the touristy Champs-Elysées. Another flicker of that emotion Sean called annoyance passed through him. Well, whether Elijah liked it or not, he was now part of that other world. He had a responsibility to Cate and Ian as well as to Sean, too, damn it. After all, he’d stuck his neck out for Elijah, and while Madame la Guillotine might no longer be in use in Paris, that didn’t mean there weren’t other dangers, namely losing his position as principal photographer for Quality.
Discovering Elijah’s whereabouts proved remarkably simple. Sean simply stopped the first likely looking Empathicalist he encountered, a young man in a faded tee shirt, sandals and jeans with a scruffy beard, overlong hair and an Elijah-like earnest expression, and asked him where the Empathicalists hung out.
“Le Cave des trois Graces in the Rue Laplace,” the young man replied.
“Merci bien,” said Sean.
“Pas de tout.” He gave Sean a curious look. “You are an Empathicalist?”
Apparently he wasn’t giving off the right vibrations. “Only in my spare time,” Sean said.
Le Cave des trois Graces was labyrinthine and poorly lit— in other words, a typical Left Bank café. A four piece band was playing atonal jazz and people were dancing, as well as standing on their heads, or having impassioned arguments that ended with an ‘Oh cherie!’ and an equally impassioned embrace. Oh, those crazy Empathicalists, Sean thought with amusement. A woman stopped him and asked him to dance with her, but even if he wasn’t there for an entirely different purpose, Sean preferred to dance to music that actually had a rhythm.
“Sorry, I’m here to pick up the wife and kids,” he told her, and continued on his way.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that in less than ten years,” a familiar voice said, “people everywhere will understand that Empathicalism, and only Empathicalism can bring peace.”
Bingo! The Quality Man was found.
Elijah was seated at a small table with three middle-aged men, three wine glasses, and two partially empty bottles of red wine. So engrossed was he in his conversation with them that he didn’t notice Sean approaching. This suited Sean just fine. After all the anticipation, he discovered that he needed a few moments to collect himself now that Elijah was finally in his sights. He propped his shoulders against a wooden pillar and feasted his eyes on Elijah. The reality far exceeded expectation.
Without braggadocio Sean could claim to have photographed the most beautiful men and women in the world, people like Orlando Bloom: tall, dark, with classic good looks. By comparison, Elijah ought to have looked small and unprepossessing, a Shetland pony among thoroughbreds. But Sean didn’t have to view him through a camera’s lens to recognize that certain elusive something that Elijah, all unknowing, possessed. He’d spent the day with Andy scouting for potential locations and he couldn’t wait for Ian and Cate to be done with Elijah so he could have him all to himself. Finally he would be able to indulge his longing to take picture after picture after picture of Elijah. He felt giddy at the prospect, like a kid in a candy shop. Never had he been so captivated by a face.
“Peace through understanding,” Elijah went on, “is the only possible...” Sensing that someone was watching him, he turned his head and saw Sean. Immediately a beaming smile overspread his face; Sean’s heart gave a queer little lurch. “Sean! I didn’t expect to see you here. How are you?”
“Just fine thanks, and how are you?” Sean replied then added sardonically, “And exactly how long have you been in Paris?”
The sarcasm went unnoticed. Apparently Elijah’s empathicalistic powers didn’t run to sarcasm. “This is Sean Astin,” Elijah, still beaming, said to his companions. “These are my friends,” he said to Sean, sounding proud.
“How do you do?” Sean said. “Gentlemen, would you mind if I had my own conversation with Elijah—in private?”
Elijah jumped in. “I’m afraid they don’t understand English,” he said apologetically.
Sean raised an eyebrow. “But you were talking to them in English.”
“It’s difficult to explain,” he said earnestly, “but it’s all part of Empathicalism. We don’t have to communicate in words. They understand me through the way I feel and the tone of my voice.”
“Sort of like a dog, you mean?” It was a cheap shot, and Sean knew it, but it aggravated him to see Elijah so clearly being taken advantage of and blissfully ignorant of the fact.
Elijah stiffened and the happiness vanished from his face like a candle snuffed out. “Obviously you don’t understand.”
Aggravation morphed into annoyance. Exactly why he was annoyed, Sean didn’t care to examine too closely. “Who’s buying the wine?” he asked.
“I am,” Elijah said.
“I understand more than you think.”
“If you’re trying to imply that it’s the wine...” began Elijah hotly.
“Let me show you something.” Sean straightened and came around to the table. He picked up one of the wine bottles and immediately Elijah’s three friends raised their glasses, like baby robins waiting for their mother to feed them. How apropos, Sean thought. “Gentlemen,” he said in a jocular voice, “may I take this opportunity to tell you that you look like a mess of worms? And that you not only look like a mess of worms, but you are a mess of worms, and I bet that you’ve been sitting here all these years because if you left, you’d be picked up on a vagrancy charge.” He ended with a chuckle, and his audience smiled, nodded and said, “Bravo,” as if he’d made an inspirational speech and they agreed with every single word.
Elijah’s disbelieving gaze went from one man to the other. Hurt replaced disbelief. It was very much akin to kicking a puppy, Sean thought, but he hardened his heart. It was for Elijah’s own good. He needed to understand how he was being duped.
“The defense rests,” Sean said, setting down the wine bottle.
“I don’t think this is funny,” Elijah said stiffly. “You don’t belong here.”
Sean was surprised by how much that remark hurt. “Neither do you,” he retorted, nettled and ready to give Elijah his comeuppance. “Which brings us to why I’m here. Tell me something, you talk an awful lot about this empathy stuff, but do you ever do anything about it yourself?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“How about throwing some empathy my way?”
Elijah’s brow wrinkled. “I still don’t know what you mean.”
“How do you think I feel when you don’t show up for the job? I’m responsible for you.”
“Show up where?” Elijah sounded honestly baffled.
“At Ian McKellen’s salon. They’ve been waiting for you there all day.”
“Oh no.” Elijah looked horrified.
“Oh yes. And I’m the one wearing egg on my face. Any good Empathicalist ought to feel me standing in line for unemployment insurance.”
“But I had no idea,” Elijah said. “Nobody told me.”
“Cate has been calling the hostel for hours trying to get hold of you,” Sean said.
“Oh no! I’ve—I’ve been here at the café all day.” Elijah jumped up from the table, almost upending his chair. He grabbed his jeans jacket from the back, shrugged into it and made a beeline for the exit, without even pausing to say goodbye to his friends. Although saying goodbyes was probably redundant if one was an Empathicalist, Sean thought.
“Is she very pissed at me?” Elijah asked as they exited the café and emerged into the misty night. He didn’t have to explain who ‘she’ was. It appeared that fear of Cate trumped every other emotion.
“Do you really need an answer to that question?” Sean replied to Elijah’s question with one of his own. “I’m pretty sure you already know what it is.”
Elijah fell silent. His head was bent, and he looked even younger than his tender years and touchingly vulnerable. But once again Sean hardened his heart. While Cate and Ian and the others had been fretting, Elijah had been hanging out at a café, seemingly without a care in the world, having given not a thought to his responsibilities.
“I’m terribly sorry,” Elijah finally said in a small voice.
“Tell it to Cate and Ian,” replied Sean. Hardening his heart was getting tougher and tougher, as was resisting the urge to put an arm around Elijah and comfort him. But instead he went on, “And another thing, I don’t want to sound like the personnel department, but you ought to be getting to bed early. You know, the camera picks up everything. I don’t want to spend my entire life retouching your pictures. When we’re done, you can spend all night in the café making small talk if you want.”
Elijah flung his head up. A combative spark lit his eyes. “Small talk?” he repeated. “I suppose you think the cut of a suit makes for world-shaking conversation. Anything you don’t understand you call small talk.”
The scorn in his voice stung. Elijah seemed to have a unique capacity for getting under Sean’s skin, pricking soft spots in his armor and reminding him that he, too, had once been young and idealistic. Not that he was ashamed of his work as a fashion photographer, far from it, but he’d aspired to be the next Dorothea Lange, not the next Richard Avedon.
Concluding that it was wiser not to belabor the point, Sean decided a diversion might be in order, “So what did you think of Professor Whatsisname?”
“Don’t change the subject.”
“It is the same subject.”
“I haven’t met Professor Whatsis—I mean Mortensen.”
“You haven’t?” Sean huffed a laugh. “By now I’d have thought the two of you would be best buddies.”
“Well, you don’t find him in cafés except on special occasions. Not everyone interested in Empathicalism gets to meet the Professor, any more than every American meets the President,” Elijah said. “An invitation to his home is a great honor, and as hard an invitation to get as an invitation to...”
“The White House?” Sean supplied tongue-in-cheek, when Elijah seemed stumped for a comparison. Had he ever been so painfully earnest?
“I don’t think jokes about Professor Mortensen are funny,” Elijah said, compressing his lips.
“All right, no more jokes. But let’s be friendly, okay? We have to work together, you know.” Sean recalled the beaming smile with which Elijah had greeted him earlier. He’d done a bang up job of transforming that smile into a frown.
“We don’t have to be friendly to work together. Acquainted will do.” Another prick at Sean’s soft underbelly. “Am I supposed to go over to the salon now?”
“I told them you’d be there at ten o’clock tomorrow morning.”
“I’ll be there,” Elijah said at once.
“I said I’ll be there and I will.” He spoke quietly, but with an edge to his voice.
Sean relented. “All right.”
“This is where I get off. Good night,” Elijah said, turning in the arched entrance to a courtyard. He clearly considered their conversation at an end.
“Wait.” Sean went after him. “Don’t go away mad. Can’t we take a walk around the block and get friendly or better acquainted or something?” He shouldn’t have allowed his annoyance with Elijah to get the better of him like he had. Ham-fisted, that’s what he’d been. Hard to believe that he, Sean Astin, renowned for his charm and his ability to get along with even the most temperamental of models, couldn’t have handled Elijah better. It was that damnable talent Elijah possessed for getting under his skin that was to blame. No one had ever affected him quite the same way, left him unsettled and off balance.
But Elijah kept right on walking. “No thanks. I’ve got to go to bed.” He paused on the doorstep of the hostel and glanced over his shoulder at Sean. “I don’t want you to spend your entire life retouching my pictures,” he added sarcastically.
“You are pissed, aren’t you.” Shit. Shit.
“No, I’m not pissed,” Elijah said, opening the door. “I’m hurt, and I’m disappointed... and I’m pissed.” He slipped inside and shut the door squarely in Sean’s face.
Sean stared at the closed door, feeling like a grade-A jerk. He wanted to make amends somehow, bring back Elijah’s effervescent smile, and he wanted to do it right this minute, now, tonight. But how?
He stepped back from the hostel into the center of the stone-flagged courtyard and took a look around him. As he did, lights came on in a room on the second floor. It had to be Elijah’s room. Suddenly inspiration struck; he patted his pockets and grinned. He knew exactly how to make Elijah smile again.
Elijah flicked on the light switch and closed and locked the door. He took off his jeans jacket and draped it over the back of a chair, his movements tense and jerky.
Anger was an unaccustomed emotion for him, but he was definitely experiencing it now. Uncle Ian would tell him that anger was self-defeating, that he should put himself in Sean’s shoes and try to understand why he’d come down so hard on Elijah for an honest mistake, why he’d ridiculed Professor Mortensen and trivialized Empathicalism.
But as he slumped down onto the bed and toed off his sneakers, anger drained away and hurt became his predominant emotion. When he’d seen Sean in the café, he’d felt only pure, undiluted joy. Sean had never been far from his thoughts during the hectic week leading up to his departure for Paris. When it all seemed unreal—he was going to Paris!—or intimidating—him, Elijah, a model!—he’d think of Sean, recall the flattering things he’d said and his conviction that Elijah had what it took to be the Quality Man, and it would calm him right down.
And never far from his thoughts, too, was the Kiss. Like Sleeping Beauty, he’d been awakened by a Prince Charming, and there was no going back to sleep. And the truth was that he didn’t want to. Sean was without a doubt the most attractive man Elijah had ever met, and despite the way he’d acted tonight, Elijah would welcome a repetition of what had happened in the bookstore. Only it didn’t seem likely to happen, given the events at the cafe. Which should be cause for celebration considering the way Sean had acted, but only left Elijah unutterably depressed.
You’re a shallow person, Elijah Wood, he told himself. Falling for a man like Sean.
He was jarred out of his unhappy musings by a noise. Something had struck a glass pane in the double doors that opened onto a balcony outside his room. He was about to dismiss it as a fluke when the sound was repeated, as if someone was trying to get his attention. Curious, Elijah rose from the bed and went to investigate. He pushed the doors open, stepped onto the balcony... and got a shock. Sean was below him in the courtyard. He’d removed his raincoat and stood with legs slightly apart and his arms held in front of him and bent at the elbows with his hands fisted.
“Sean,” Elijah hissed, “what are you doing?”
For answer, Sean shook his head slightly as if asking for silence, and the next instant he tossed a small red rubber ball into the air. It was joined by a second and then a third. Elijah stared in amazement. Sean was juggling! Unconsciously he moved forward and leaned his elbows on the black wrought iron railing, the better to watch Sean perform—and a performance it was. Sean juggled the balls not simply around and around, but in intricate patterns that left Elijah agog with wonder. Moving lithely as a dancer, Sean tossed the balls high in the air and twirled in a circle, catching them again as they descended without missing a beat and sending them soaring once more.
“Oh bravo!” Elijah said, smiling widely and clapping his hands in delight, and Sean grinned and said, “You ain’t see nothing yet!”
He pulled a fourth ball from the pocket of his sport jacket and sent it spinning into the air, and then a fifth. How he could possibly keep track of the balls and not drop them was a mystery to Elijah. Those deft hands that Elijah had admired in the dark room were moving so fast they were almost a blur. Glistening beads of perspiration had popped out on Sean’s forehead, proof positive of how demanding the exercise was, but despite Sean’s frown of concentration, Elijah sensed only buoyancy and joy emanating from him. Sean was having fun.
With a flourish Sean sent the balls high into the air one final time; as they came down he caught them and put them in his pocket. The performance was over. He placed a hand over his heart and bowed deeply as Elijah clapped enthusiastically, not caring if anyone was disturbed by the noise.
“Sean, that was fantastic,” he enthused.
Sean bowed again. “Thanks,” he said. “Juggling was one way I helped put myself through college.” He strode over to a fire escape ladder on the wall to Elijah’s left, and quickly climbed it. Then he crossed to the balcony using the branches of an ancient crab apple tree.
Elijah’s heart was beating fast as he watched Sean’s progress. What did Sean plan to do now?
“Another way I helped to put myself through college was this,” Sean said, and like magic a blue paper flower appeared in his hand. He offered it to Elijah. “Friends, Elijah? Please?” he asked.
His eyes were intent, serious. They held Elijah captive, but a willing captive. It would be churlish in the extreme to reject the flower and what it symbolized. And he didn’t want to.
Elijah took the flower; a tingle passed through him as his fingers brushed Sean’s. “Okay,” he said, smiling. “Friends.”
With Sean standing so close, there was no chance of missing the relief that passed over his face. “Thanks.”
Silence fell. Elijah twisted the stem of the paper flower nervously in his fingers. Friends, Sean had said, not lovers. Why then did he wish so fervently that Sean would kiss him again? But unlike in the bookstore, Sean didn’t appear to be using Empathicalism and putting himself in Elijah’s place, and Elijah wasn’t brave enough to make the first move.
“Well, it’s late and you need your sleep,” Sean said. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning at the salon. Good night, Elijah.” He stepped back onto the tree branch and crossed to the fire escape ladder.
“Good night, Sean,” Elijah called softly after him, and with an aching heart watched Sean descend to the ground, retrieve his raincoat, and with a backward wave disappear through the archway.
Elijah returned inside and shut the balcony doors. He set the flower on the bedside table and started to undress. As he pulled off his clothes he wondered what would have happened if he had been brave enough to initiate another kiss. Would Sean have followed him in here? Made love to him with those deft hands and sensuous mouth?
You’re crazy, he told himself as he lifted the duvet and slid into bed. Sean isn’t interested in you that way. He wants to be friends, that’s all. It doesn’t matter what flattering things he’s said. He works with the most beautiful people in the world, people like that Orlando Bloom guy. What would he see in a skinny, pale shrimp like you? Get real.
But Elijah didn’t immediately turn off the bedside lamp. He lay there staring at the blue paper flower, thinking of ‘what ifs’.