…I began working on what would become City of Lights: The Trials and Triumphs of Ilyse Charpentier. I can still see myself sitting on the floor in my spare room, rough-drafting the outline of the novel while listening to Lifehouse’s Hanging by A Moment:
This song ended up becoming Ilyse and Ian’s anthem to me and was a tremendous source of inspiration over the eight months I spent writing their story. It is still a huge inspiration to me a decade later. 🙂
As part of the 10th anniversary celebration, I decided to post a special excerpt from Chapter 2: In Which a Dashing Englishman Woos Mademoiselle Charpentier. Come along with Ilyse, Ian—and a most unwelcome third party—and share in an evening of burgeoning love and Parisian enchantment at La Tour Eiffel.
The dance hall was empty, save for Ian anxiously looking around so as not to miss his date. This is my chance to catch him unawares, Ilyse laughed to herself. The element of surprise was something La Petite Coquette had always thrived upon executing to the best of her sneaky abilities. She slinked across the hall, cast a glance into the bar’s mirror to make certain she looked absolutely dazzling, and tapped Ian on the shoulder.
“Looking for someone, monsieur?”
Ian turned and was visibly taken aback. “Il…Ilyse,” he stammered, “You look stunning!”
“Thank you,” she responded, looking down to hide her blushing face.
“Oh, I almost forgot.” Ian reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the most beautiful white rose Ilyse had ever beheld.
“Oh, Ian,” she gasped, “It’s breathtaking!”
Ilyse looked up into his eyes and knew he wasn’t speaking of the rose. “So,” she continued, once again blushing to her ears, “what adventure are you taking me on this evening, Monsieur McCarthy?”
“Well, my fair maiden,” he said, assuming an air of medieval gallantry, “the chariot awaits, ready to take us to La Tour Eiffel where, I promise, you will enjoy an evening of romance with a very charming Englishman.”
All doubts that this was mere infatuation had vanished and everything now became so very clear to Ilyse—Ian had won her heart completely. She found it impossible to believe, but it seemed as though she was falling even more in love with Ian than she had thought humanly possible, and the idea that the two of them might actually have a future together made her heart nearly burst with joy.
“Well, then,” said Ilyse, accepting Ian’s outstretched arm, “we mustn’t keep our chariot waiting any longer. On to La Tour!”
“To La Tour!” he chimed in. The exuberant pair bolted out of the club and dashed heedlessly down the Boulevard de Courcelles to where their carriage awaited. Casting a last glance at La Perle’s palatial exterior, the besotted couple scurried in and set off, oblivious to everything, especially the fact that a shadowed form had taken possession of the carriage parked directly behind theirs.
The boulevards of lamp-lit Paris were alive with the bustling of street vendors, ladies of the night, and pleasure seekers all rushing toward their respective destinations. As the carriage wound its way down the crowded streets, Ilyse found herself realizing for the first time how wondrously grand and beautiful the city seemed once daylight had been extinguished. She laughed at the peddlers trying to sell over-priced wares to unwitting tourists, and thumbed her nose at the saucy behavior of the rouge-encrusted harlots. Paris was buzzing with excitement, but all thoughts of the denizens of the City of Lights vanished when Ilyse beheld the majesty of the Tower—the lattice intertwining of its ironwork, the awesomeness of its form against the star dotted sky, and the French flag flapping in all its tricolor glory at the tower’s zenith.
“Oh, Ian,” Ilyse gasped, taken aback by the grandeur of the tower. “It’s magnificent!”
“Wait a minute,” he said, staring at her with a puzzled expression. “Do you mean to tell me that you live in Paris and you’ve never been to La Tour?”
“Well, who’d have thought you’d have to wait for an Anglais to travel all the way across the Channel to take you?”
Ilyse couldn’t help laughing at the absurd truth of this statement and saw that her mirth amused Ian. The infatuated Englishman clasped Ilyse’s hand and the two excited lovers rushed into La Tour, ready for an evening of romance and enchantment.
A rickety carriage pulled to a halt at the foot of the Tower. Seconds later, its door was forced open and a tall, Slavic-looking man dressed in black from head to foot stepped out. The stranger was just about to run for the hydraulic lifts when he was detained by his enraged driver.
“Just a minute, you!” the driver shouted as he stepped in front of the foreigner to block his path. “That’ll be fifteen francs.”
The stranger drew himself up haughtily and glared at the driver in disgust. “I will not pay that exorbitant sum. If you value your life, you will let me pass.”
But the driver would not be dissuaded.
“Don’t you threaten me. I’ll call the police, you lousy cheat!”
The stranger tried to remain calm but was finding it impossible to control his mounting rage. “Do you have any idea whom you are talking to?” he sneered.
“You could be the devil himself for all I care, now give me my francs!”
A smile flickered across the stranger’s lips. “Your assumption is not inaccurate, tovarich. I suggest you take your leave before the situation becomes unpleasant.”
“The devil, I will!”
And with that, the driver lunged at the stranger and immediately found himself flattened upon the pavement. “Come at me again,” the stranger barked, brandishing his walking stick in the terrified driver’s face, “and you’ll be meeting him sooner than you’d like!” Without saying another word, the stranger straightened his top hat, spat at the disoriented driver’s feet, and made for the lifts.
The interior of “La Vue Dorée,” the Tower’s most affluent restaurant, was bathed in gold. Gilded bas-relief angels adorned its walls and every chair in the opulent dining salon boasted plush, honey-colored cushions.
Ilyse and Ian were sitting in an intimate corner of the restaurant and had been admiring the Palais du Trocadéro through the Tower’s panoramic windows. They had placed their orders some time ago, but try as they might, every time they succeeded in sparking a conversation, the innumerable officious waiters came poking in and extinguished the fire. Garçons are supposed to be attentive, of course, but how many times does one need to be asked if the baguette has been baked to satisfaction? It was infuriating! It seemed as though the waiters were deliberately trying to ruin the young couple’s chances. The evening was threatening to become a complete romantic waste, and Ilyse realized she had better speak up before the nosy waiters intruded once more.
“Ian,” Ilyse began, “thank you so much for bringing me here. I’ve been wanting to come for the past five years, but have never been able to, and now I know the reason why.”
“And why’s that?” he inquired.
“Promise you won’t laugh?”
“I promise,” he said sweetly.
“I believe it was Fate. I wasn’t meant to come with just anyone. I was meant to come with you.”
Ian remained silent.
“Oh, listen to me rambling on,” Ilyse chuckled, trying to dispel the awkward silence that had fallen upon them. “Fate and all, really.” But no matter how much Ilyse tried to resign her feelings to superstition, the more she thought it over, the more convinced she became, and it was obvious that Ian had started to believe it too—their meeting had been no mere coincidence.
Ian suddenly clasped Ilyse’s hand and leaned in to kiss her, but their intimate moment was broken by the thrust of a plate between their faces.
“Steak au poivre for you, Madame,” the waiter merrily chimed, “and the house specialty for you, Monsieur. Bon appétit!”
“Well, then,” Ian muttered, annoyed at the waiter’s untimely entrance, “shall we?”
“Bon appétit!” Ilyse mimicked. The pair chimed their champagne glasses and began to take part in their highly delectable yet ill-timed meal.
“Your aperitif and one plate of zakuski, Count Rakmanovich.” The waiter placed the refreshments upon the stranger’s table and gazed expectantly at his customer.
“Do not call me by that name in their presence,” the stranger growled. He trained his glare upon Ilyse and Ian and sipped his aperitif, although he had no interest in the drink. “Why are you still standing here? Can’t you see that they’ve started talking again? Get over there at once!”
The waiter shifted nervously and fiddled with his apron. “With all due respect, sir, I’m afraid I cannot intrude anymore.”
“And why is that?” the stranger demanded, his face enflamed.
“Because I have already interrupted them fifteen times and if I do it again, I’m afraid the monsieur won’t think too kindly of me when the check arrives.”
The stranger reached for his walking stick and would have brought it crashing down upon the waiter’s head, but he suddenly thought of the spectacle such a violent display would cause, and relaxed his grip upon the object. “Do not fear what the monsieur will think,” he said menacingly. “Fear me.”
The waiter was terrified by the stranger’s threatening manner and fearsome expression. “Very good, sir,” he quavered, and set out to once again intrude upon Ilyse and Ian’s evening.
“You know,” Ian said between mouthfuls, “I’ve never liked French cooking, but this isn’t that bad. I wonder what it is?”
Ilyse took a sip of champagne and forced herself to swallow the piece of steak she had nearly choked upon. Try as she might, she could not smother the giggling fit that had come upon her and placed her hand over her mouth in an attempt to decorously stifle her laughter.
“And what exactly is so amusing, Mademoiselle Charpentier?” Ian demanded playfully, looking up from his unknown feast.
“Do you mean to tell me you ordered that without knowing what it was?”
“Of course,” he said confidently. “I wanted to be adventurous and try something I had absolutely no clue about. So I opened the menu, closed my eyes, and chose the first thing my finger fell upon. I showed my selection to the waiter and ordered the dish without even reading what it was. I still can’t for the life of me figure out why that idiotic garçon went off laughing like a hyena.”
“Well, all right, then,” Ilyse snickered and returned to her meal.
After a few minutes of blissful munching, Ian’s curiosity finally got the best of him. “So what exactly is the house specialty anyway?” he asked, still thoroughly enjoying his mystery meal. “Pheasant, turkey, chicken…”
“Cuisses de grenouilles, commonly known as Frogs’ Legs.”
Before Ilyse could blink, Ian had spat the delicacy onto his plate and now had his hand wrapped around his throat. “Waiter!” he gasped. “Water! Quick!”
The waiter who had been conversing with the menacing stranger seized a glass carafe, dashed to Ilyse and Ian’s table, and was so rattled to see the young man apparently choking to death that he poured the entire decanter of water down upon Ian’s head.
Ian shot up from his seat, a dripping wet mess, and glared at the mortified waiter.
“Oh, monsieur,” the waiter shrieked. “I…I’m so terribly sorry! Please…I was so… You seemed to be… I can’t believe… Oh, mon Dieu! I’ll never forgive myself!”
“No, no,” Ian said, finding it difficult not to chuckle at the waiter’s overly dramatic ranting. “Just bring me something to dry myself off with, all right?
The waiter apologized profusely and bustled off to find a towel.
“So you let me order frog’s legs,” Ian said to Ilyse as he sat down upon his soaked seat.
“Well,” she said with mock pomposity, “I thought that a mature traveler such as yourself, who’s had such wonderful experiences in France, you know, meeting men without trousers and things of the like, would certainly know better than to take liberties with unfamiliar cuisine. I had no idea you were conducting a dinner experiment! I mean, if I were in a foreign country, and I…”
“All right, Coquette,” he interrupted, pretending to be annoyed, “I know when I’ve been outdone.”
The waiter returned with the towel and check and helped Ian out of his soppy dinner jacket. Ian pulled a wad of francs from his pocket, smoothed some bills, and handed them to the waiter. “I’m in a merry mood, ol’ duck. Keep the change and let’s let bygones be bygones,” he said, winking at the befogged garcon, and throwing the towel about his drenched shoulders. The young lovers bid adieu to the astonished, overjoyed, and well-compensated waiter and looked fondly back upon their intimate little corner of the world as they made for the lifts.
The wind was whistling violently through the lattice ironwork of the Tower and the air was filled with the scent of lilacs. Midnight was drawing near, and as the lift began to rise, Ian suddenly turned to Ilyse and took her arm. “Let’s not rush off just yet. I know the perfect way to dry off.”
“And what might that be?” she questioned, gazing lovingly into his eyes.
“A trip to the top.”
Ilyse was horrified. I get dizzy just standing on the second story balcony of Manon’s apartment and now he wants me to go to the top of La Tour? she thought to herself. I’d never make it through alive!
“No, Ian,” Ilyse protested, “I can’t go up there. Besides, it’s getting late and I…” “Please, Lyse,” he whispered, pressing her hand to his heart. “Don’t be afraid. Just trust me. I’d never let anything happen to you.”
Ilyse stared at him for a moment, unsure of whether or not to give in. But upon seeing the love and sincerity in his eyes, all her doubts and fears were destroyed. “Take me up.” Ian clasped her in his arms, ushered her into the lift, and watched the diminishing sights of Paris as they shot to the top.
“Isn’t it beautiful, Ilyse?” Ian gushed as he stepped out onto the platform. But Ilyse couldn’t budge. She was frozen with fear and stayed inside, clinging to the lift’s rail, silently refusing to take another step.
Suddenly, a light dawned in Ian’s mind. He reentered the lift, and clasped Ilyse by the hands. “Come on, I have an idea.” He led the frightened girl out onto the platform, and, placing his hands over her eyes, slowly guided her to the edge. “All right,” he coaxed, “now grab onto this here.” Ilyse did as instructed and grasped the iron bar, still not having the slightest idea where he had led her.
He let his hands fall and Ilyse grabbed her heart in amazement. There, from what felt like the top of the world, the sheltered young woman beheld the most magnificent view of Paris imaginable. Everywhere she gazed, her eyes caught sight of winding gas-lit boulevards and magnificent monuments bathed in moonlight. Exhilarated, she leaned over the railing and waved down to the people onboard the boats steaming across the Seine, not caring that they would never be able to see her from such a great height. Overjoyed, she turned to Ian and threw her arms around his neck.
“Thank you so much,” she whispered into his ear.
“For showing me how to live again.”
She released herself from their embrace but was immediately drawn back by Ian. His lips brushed against her cheek as he took her face in his hands. Ilyse wanted to share his kiss more than anything, but the thought of what consequences such a relationship might entail suddenly burst upon her mind and she pulled away. “I can’t.”
“This is all happening so fast and there’s something I must tell you.”
He stared at her worried face and drew her back into his arms. “No matter what you say, nothing in this world will ever change the way I feel for you.”
Ilyse caressed his cheek and reluctantly pulled away from him. She walked over to the edge of the platform, and, looking out into the beautiful star-glittered sky, began to reveal her tortured past to the man who had captured her heart.
©2005, 2013 Melika Dannese Lux and Books In My Belfry, LLC. Unauthorized use or reproduction of this excerpt without the author’s permission is strictly prohibited.