Lily Johansson rested her leg on the railing of the balcony and slowly leaned forward, stretching her muscles as she gazed upon Boulevard Saint-Germain. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee and baked bread made her stomach grumble as the breeze danced around the trees, their leaves shimmering in the mid-afternoon light. On the wide avenue below, tourists and locals bustled in and out of clothes shops and bookstores or settled in for a long, lazy lunch at one of the cafés.
The sun warmed her skin as she pointed her toes and concentrated on each muscle, her body well acquainted with the rigours of being pushed to its limits. Lily repeated the process with the other leg then stood in first position, bending her knees slowly while moving her arms from first through to fifth position. As much as she hated using ballet as a way to keep the horrendous back pain at bay, she couldn’t deny that the movements she’d spent a lifetime perfecting helped immensely, though she’d have thought time would have healed most of the wounds by now.
Lily finished her routine then leaned against the railing and took in the view. Paris felt like a lifetime away from Rutherford Creek, her hometown in rural Australia, and since arriving here an array of emotions had come flooding back. She still found it crazy that a young country girl with stars in her eyes had won a scholarship to the Australian Ballet that had led her to a contract with the most forward-thinking and prestigious ballet company in Europe. When her acceptance into the Bohème Ballet of Paris became public knowledge, the Australian media had clamoured for interviews, but since that fateful night almost two years ago, she’d refused to speak to journalists. Even now, they still hounded her.
Dipping her head and letting out a long sigh, Lily knew she couldn’t stay in this anonymous apartment forever. It had taken an incredible amount of energy and soul searching to get on the plane in the first place, so holing up in a room, ignoring the world around her, would not get the results she desired. She had a job to do, and while she’d have preferred to be anywhere but in this city, she had little choice. Demons needed to be confronted. No twenty-nine-year-old should live like this, especially one who’d once had the world laying in front of her pink pointe shoes.
Going inside, Lily shoved her camera into her backpack and grabbed the room key. She closed the door, descended the stairs, and stepped out onto the street. Although tempted to put off the inevitable by procrastinating with a coffee, she picked up the pace, determined to reach the Jardin Marco Polo and take advantage of the best light of the day. Entering the gardens, she stopped to gaze at the four semi-naked statues holding up a globe of the world, their faces relaying the strain of their effort. After taking a moment to admire the craftsmanship, she rounded the fountain and carefully framed the subjects in the lens, snapping photos from different angles. Strength emanated from these statues and Lily hoped some of it might rub off on her. Since arriving in Paris her self-doubt had killed the strength she needed to endure the reminders of Aiden’s death and her sister’s abandonment.
She checked the screen of the camera, satisfied with the end result. Since quitting ballet, she’d used photography to deal with the long, lonely days. This pursuit gave her a sense of control; if the angle wasn’t quite right, or she wanted to zoom in on her subject, Lily could make adjustments to get the outcome she wanted, unlike her efforts in real life. Which was why she was here, instead of knocking on her sister’s door and having it slammed in her face.
Not quite ready to deal with the inevitable rejection from Natalie, Lily tilted her head towards the clear blue sky, and inhaled deeply. Gold, red and orange leaves clung to branches and the gentle breeze sent them drifting into large piles on the grass. Although the trees looked completely different from those at Rutherford Creek Park, she could easily picture herself as a kid laughing and running through the leaves with Natalie, basking in the beauty of childhood innocence. Those days of sisterhood were long gone, though, and no amount of wishing would ever bring them back.
Dragging herself away from sad memories, Lily studied the groups of teens texting as they hurried along the wide gravel paths, the elderly couples strolling arm in arm and mothers with young children in tow. Everyone was active, aside from a solitary figure on a park bench nearby.
Even from this distance, he intrigued her. His olive skin contrasted against the blue sky and his brown, shoulder-length hair had the faux-tousled look of someone who’d spent a lot of time styling it in front of the mirror. But it was the way he stared into the distance, pencil poised above a notebook, that really caught her attention. He oozed intensity, as if a lot rode on what he was doing. Or not doing, as was the case.
Her fingers itched to snap a sneaky shot of this handsome specimen but she refrained, not wanting to draw attention to herself or annoy him. Although, by the way he lounged on the bench, he gave the impression that he was accustomed to being ogled.
Bet he’s arrogant, she thought, then chastised herself. She’d spent years being judged on her appearance and how she moved her body, yet here she was judging a stranger. Feeling guilty, she looked over and gave him a smile. His eyes connected with hers but his expression relayed nothing.
Lily spied an empty bench under a tree on the opposite side of the path. Sitting down, she rummaged in her backpack for a bottle of water, twisted open the top and took a sip then turned her attention to the fountain. It truly was a work of art, especially the marine horses—they looked like they were about to leap clear of the fountain. She cast a sideways glance at the man. Whatever had blocked him had disappeared as he bent over the notepad and wrote with fervour. Every so often he looked in her direction, his poker face giving nothing away, then he’d return to his paper, lost in a flurry of inspiration. Curiosity wanted to shove her over his way so she could ask what he was working on but she didn’t have the courage.
Lily shivered. The sun hid behind a bank of clouds with a dubious grey tinge. She placed her camera in the backpack, adjusted the straps, and took one last look at the guy on the bench. He chewed his lip as he wrote and she wondered how anyone could write that fast without getting a serious cramp.
Enough with the distractions, Lily, get your act together.
Taking a deep breath, she marched through the park and down Boulevard Saint-Michel until she reached Le Seine. Halfway across Pont au Change she stopped and rested her hands on the rails.
Lily studied the formidable La Conciergerie perched on the banks as storm clouds rolled above the grey turrets of the centuries-old building. Once a palace that had been turned into a prison during the French Revolution, La Conciergerie had been the holding place for prisoners before they were taken away and executed by guillotine—its most famous inmate being Marie Antoinette. Lily doubted Marie Antoinette could have envisaged her life turning out the way it did, just as Lily could never have imagined her ballet career would be cut short so tragically.
Refusing to get stuck in that dark place once more, she gazed up at the historic buildings. She doubted she’d ever get used to being surrounded by so much history. Then again, she didn’t plan on sticking around Paris for too long. Get in, do what she had to do then get out.
She powered down the street to finally arrive at Théâtre du Châtelet. Crowds of tourists stood out front of the theatre, cameras at the ready, capturing the imposing arches and balcony. But the beauty of the majestic theatre was lost on Lily. The last time she’d been here was with Aiden when they’d spend hours after rehearsals wandering through the theatre where the music of Tchaikovsky and Strauss, the sets of Picasso, and the incredible dancers of the Ballets Russes had once graced the ornate stage. History, culture and behind-the-scenes dramas lay secreted between the walls, just begging to be discovered. A new life in Paris had awaited Lily and Aiden and they’d soaked up every moment. Now, standing on the threshold of broken dreams, she could barely catch her breath.
Lily rubbed the small of her back, the ache increasing as her muscles tensed. She’d been lucky to get out of the accident alive, let alone still be able to walk. Some days she wished the car had finished her off because then she wouldn’t have to endure the ghosts and the guilt.
Staring off into the distance, she allowed her eyes to lose focus. In front of her stood Aiden with windswept hair, his smile enveloping her in love. His warm hand wrapped around hers as they ran down the halls of the theatre, laughing like lovestruck teenagers. Aiden flung open a door, hauled her inside the rehearsal room and pressed her against the wall, his hard dancer’s body slowly and sensuously moving against her. Aiden placed his lips on hers and—
A hard shoulder knocked her off-balance.
‘Excusez-moi,’ said a tall blonde woman. Lily must have looked upset because the woman stopped her hasty progress and asked, ‘Êtes-vous blesse? ’
‘Yes, yes, I am fine,’ she replied in English, unable to get back into her very basic French.
The woman patted Lily’s shoulder then continued on her way, her high heels clipping the pavement at great speed.
The vision of Aiden had thrown Lily off guard. It’s not like she hadn’t had them before, it was just that this one seemed more real.
Lily glanced up at the theatre. Of course it would feel realistic. What did she expect when she was revisiting her past?
Her chest constricted and even though she wanted to flee, Lily forced herself to walk to the theatre door. Trying to give off an air of confidence, Lily’s feet followed the familiar path even though her sweating body told her to turn on her heel and run. She couldn’t, though, because it would mean leaving Paris as a failure once more.
When she’d gone to her sister’s apartment the day before, Lily knew it had been a mistake. Natalie was alone so it was easy for her to slam the door in Lily’s face. But at the theatre, amongst the company of dancers, it would be harder to show her anger and maybe, just maybe, Lily could convince Natalie to listen. Natalie’s hurtful behaviour should have been enough to turn Lily away for good, but they were sisters and Lily couldn’t bear the thought of permanently losing her only remaining sibling. Once more, Lily erred on the side of optimism that, somehow, they could work things out.
Lily’s heart bashed against her chest when she realised the doorman, Bernard, was the same one from when she was last here. She doubted he’d remember her as she’d only been with the company three weeks but seeing someone from her days with the Bohème Ballet brought all the painful memories back to the surface. Determined to keep it together, she put on her best smile and said in cruddy French, ‘Bonjour je suis—’
He studied her from under a verandah of grey brows. ‘Lily? Welcome back! It is nice to see you! The last time you were here I didn’t get the chance to say I’m sorry for—’
‘Thank you, Bernard,’ she said. His English had improved dramatically since the last time they’d met, while her schoolgirl French had deteriorated rapidly. ‘How is Maryanne? Fabien?’
His wide smile lit up his face. ‘They are very good, thank you. Maryanne’s clothing business is doing well. Maybe I retire soon. Fabien is betrothed.’
‘Oh, that’s wonderful! I am so happy for them. For you.’ She fiddled with the strap of her backpack, her lips pursed. ‘So, I was wondering if—’
‘Your sister is in rehearsal room one if they have not finished already.’ He opened the heavy metal door with an ominous creak.
Forcing herself to move, Lily kept her head down as she navigated the narrow passageways she knew too well. Finally, she reached the rehearsal room and halted. Ballet dancers sauntered past. Classical music drifted through the thin wooden door and her fingers hovered over the handle. Could she deal with more rejection? Was it really worth all this trouble?
Of course it was. Even though Natalie had cast her aside like a broken doll, Lily missed her sister. They’d lived, breathed and loved ballet together since they could walk. How many hours a week had they travelled with their mother to attend ballet classes in the next district? How many nights had they stayed up late rehearsing or snuggled together in bed, talking about their dreams that only involved ballet?
Lily rapped on the door and it edged open. A tall, lean gentleman with salt-and-pepper hair raised an eyebrow. ‘Oui?’
‘Hello. I’m looking for—’
‘Tell her I’m not here!’ Natalie yelled.
Lily tried to pass but the man blocked her path. ‘Please, I’m her sister.’
‘You are the Lily?’ He stared down his nose. ‘She does not wish to speak with you.’
‘Listen, I’ve come all the way from Australia and—’
The door yanked open and Natalie appeared in her mauve ballet practice gear, a heavy scowl marring her delicate features, her blonde hair sticking to her skin. ‘I told you I don’t want to talk. Now go away!’
The door slammed with a resounding thud. Lily stared at it as the tiny ball of anger and frustration swelled within.
A couple of young dancers covered their mouths as they giggled and scurried down the hallway. She didn’t blame the dancers for finding amusement in the goings on; after all, temper tantrums from principal dancers weren’t uncommon. In fact, Lily had been considered an anomaly due to her lack of screaming and demands.
That was one of the reasons the Bohème Ballet had pursued her so intently. That, and her partnership on and off stage with Aiden. It had been a coup for the ballet company to sign them, especially as Bohème had been competing against more famous and affluent companies. But the allure of Paris, the City of Love, had been enough to convince her and Aiden to fly halfway around the world and start a new life—a life that had only been in existence for a moment before it was savagely ripped away. And it appeared life hadn’t finished doling out difficulties.
Wiping her hands on her jeans, Lily adjusted her backpack and negotiated the passageways one more time. There was no point in hanging around. She needed time to plan how to approach her sister—this stranger. Over the past couple of years, Natalie had grown bitter, selfish and accusatory; the pièce de résistance had been when she’d joined the Bohème Ballet Company. Natalie had deliberately pursued her sister’s dream, an act that sliced through Lily’s heart. There had to be a reason for her sister’s insane change of attitude and blatant disregard for Lily’s feelings. What had snapped in Natalie? Lily needed to find out, no matter how painful or traumatic it would be.
Fighting back tears of frustration, she smiled at Bernard, who opened the door.
‘I hope we will see you again soon, Mademoiselle Johansson.’
‘We will see, Bernard, we will see.’ She squinted in the bright sunlight, pulled out her sunglasses and took off down the street.
Lily hurried back across Pont au Change, happy the theatre was behind her. Reaching the other side of the river, she kept her head down, her feet pounding the pavement even though her lower back ached. Her legs and arms pumped and she revelled in the free movement of her limbs, something she’d once feared was lost.
The sun had dipped behind the tall buildings and Lily shivered, the perspiration on her body multiplying the effect of the cool evening air. She continued her rapid pace, barely glancing at the crowds exiting their workplaces and closing up shop. It wasn’t until she reached the neighbourhood of Vanves that she realised how far she’d walked. With all the twisting and turning down avenues and alleys she’d walked for at least an hour. Sure, her back ached, but the rest of her body felt so much better. Standing on the corner of Rue Jean Bleuzen and Rue Danton, staring at the gridlocked cars, she realised where her feet had led her. She sucked in her breath.
If she walked a few blocks from where her traitorous feet stood, she’d be at Avenue Victor Hugo, the site where she’d lost the man she’d planned to marry. Even Victor Hugo’s name made her shudder. Aiden had adored Hugo’s works, especially The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and he’d insisted, in his charming and convincing way, that they should go and check out the avenue named after the author. After a long day of rehearsals, she hadn’t been in the mood but decided to humour him. Perhaps if she’d dug her heels in they wouldn’t have gone and he wouldn’t…
A cacophony of horns drew her back to the present as stationary drivers rolled down their windows and screamed at each other. Lily turned and started the long trek back to her apartment. Even though she’d had plenty of time on her flight from Melbourne to Paris, she hadn’t given any thought as to how a visit to Avenue Victor Hugo would play out. She certainly hadn’t envisioned an impromptu visit during Parisian peak hour but really, what would be the perfect way to return to the place where she’d lost a piece of her heart forever? Her clammy skin and thudding heart told her she was far from ready to go to the avenue, and most likely never would be.
We hope you enjoyed this sample of Beneath The Parisian Skies by Alli Sinclair.
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