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“Merde,” shouted a man into the ear of the woman beside him, trying to raise his voice above the din of conversation. “This stuff is shit. Can you believe Clara Morrow got a solo show?”

The woman beside him shook her head and grimaced. She wore a flowing skirt and a tight T-shirt with scarves wrapped around her neck and shoulders. Her earrings were hoops and each of her fingers held rings.

In another place and time she’d have been considered a gypsy. Here she was recognized for what she was. A mildly successful artist.

Beside her her husband, also an artist and dressed in cords and a worn jacket with a rakish scarf at the neck, turned back to the painting.

“Dreadful.”

“Poor Clara,” agreed his wife. “The critics’ll savage her.”

Jean Guy Beauvoir, who was standing beside the two artists, his back to the painting, turned to glance at it.

On the wall among a cluster of portraits was the largest piece. Three women, all very old, stood together in a group, laughing.

They looked at each other, and touched each other, holding each other’s hands, or gripping an arm, tipping their heads together. Whatever had made them laugh, it was to each other they turned. As they equally would if something terrible had happened. As they naturally would whatever happened.

More than friendship, more than joy, more than even love this painting ached of intimacy.

Jean Guy quickly turned his back on it. Unable to look. He scanned the room until he found her again.

“Look at them,” the man was saying, dissecting the portrait. “Not very attractive.”

Annie Gamache was across the crowded gallery, standing next to her husband, David. They were listening to an older man. David looked distracted, disinterested. But Annie’s eyes were bright. Taking it in. Fascinated.

Beauvoir felt a flash of jealousy, wanting her to look at him that way.

Here, Beauvoir’s mind commanded. Look over here.

“And they’re laughing,” said the man behind Beauvoir, looking disapprovingly at Clara’s portrait of the three old women. “Not much nuance in that. Might as well paint clowns.”

The woman beside him snickered.

Across the room, Annie Gamache laid a hand on her husband’s arm, but he seemed oblivious.

Beauvoir put his hand on his own arm, gently. That’s what it would feel like.

*   *   *

“There you are, Clara,” said the chief curator of the Musée, taking her by the arm and leading her away from Myrna. “Congratulations. It’s a triumph!”

Clara had been around enough artistic people to know what they call “a triumph” others might call simply an event. Still, it was better than a kick in the shins.

“Is it?”

“Absolument. People are loving it.” The woman gave Clara an enthusiastic hug. Her glasses were small rectangles over her eyes. Clara wondered if there was a permanent slash of frame across her world, like an astigmatism. Her hair was short and angular, as were her clothes. Her face was impossibly pale. She was a walking installation.

But she was kind, and Clara liked her.

“Very nice,” said the curator, stepping back to take in Clara’s new look. “I like it. Very retro, very chic. You look like…” She moved her hands around in a contained circle, trying to find the right name.

“Audrey Hepburn?”

“C’est ça,” clapped the curator and laughed. “You’re sure to start a trend.”

Clara laughed too, and fell in love just a little. Across the room she saw Olivier standing, as always, beside Gabri. But while Gabri was gabbing away to a complete stranger, Olivier was staring through the crowd.

Clara followed his sharp gaze. It ended at Armand Gamache.

“So,” said the curator, putting her arm around Clara’s waist. “Who do you know?”

Before Clara could answer, the woman was pointing out various people in the crowded room.

“You probably know them.” She nodded to the middle-aged couple behind Beauvoir. They seemed riveted by Clara’s painting of the Three Graces. “Husband and wife team. Normand and Paulette. He draws the works and she does the fine detailing.”

“Like the Renaissance masters, working as a team.”

“Sort of,” said the curator. “More like Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Very rare to find a couple of artists so in sync. They’re actually very good. And I see they adore your painting.”

Clara did know them, and suspected “adore” wasn’t the word they themselves would use.

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