Today's Reading

His death was sudden, just as Mama's was, but unlike her, he wasn't struck by illness. Six months after our wedding, just after I'd discovered I was pregnant with Cosi, I awoke to the sound of him opening the closet door, then the rustle of fabric as he pulled on his trousers. The clink of a belt buckle, feet slipping into shoes. I opened my eyes with a yawn. "I'm sorry, darling," he said. "I didn't mean to wake you."

"Come back to bed," I said groggily. That evening, I'd planned on telling him the news of the baby I carried. First, I'd stop by the butcher and select a special steak to accompany his favorite dish, gratin dauphinois, a simple yet inexplicably divine mixture of thinly sliced and layered potatoes, garlic, Gruyère cheese, and cream. I'd watched my mother make it a hundred times, but it would be my first attempt in my own kitchen.

I remember the look on his face that morning. I always will. So handsome, his eyes filled with passion, just as much for me as for life in general. Pierre had such dreams, and a plan for all of them. When his business picked up, a little wine shop in Montmartre, he planned to open a second, and then a third, with the ultimate goal of becoming the most successful wine merchant in Paris. After that, he said, we'd buy a country house in Provence and spend our summers lounging beside a mineral-rich pool, breathing in lavender-scented air. Papa would come, too, of course. Pierre's success would allow my father to finally retire and rest his weary, arthritic hands. A beautiful life and future to look forward to, and it was ours, all ours.

That morning, full of all those big dreams and love, he'd walked back to bed, lowered his majestic body, and pressed his lips against mine, sending a rush of energy through me like only the very best espresso can. No man had ever had that effect on me, and sometimes I wondered if it could really be possible to love someone so much that you might burst.

"Don't leave," I said.

"I won't be gone long," he replied with a wink.

"But it's so early," I muttered from that foggy place between sleep and waking, glancing at the clock. Half past six. "Where could you possibly need to be at this hour?"

"It's a surprise," he said. "Go back to sleep, my love. When you open your eyes, I'll be back, and you'll see."

Just as he instructed, I closed my eyes and my exhausted, newly pregnant body drifted back to sleep in moments. But when I awoke an hour later, Pierre hadn't returned. The morning hours dragged on, and by afternoon, he still hadn't come home. I busied myself preparing dinner, pulling off the gratin dauphinois without a hitch, thankfully. I poured the wine. I set the table. And by a quarter past six, the apartment smelled heavenly. But Pierre still hadn't come home.

Panicked, I inquired at nearby cafés, the barber on the corner, and with Madame Benoît, who was just closing up her bakery. I still remember the bit of flour on her cheek. "Sorry, Céline," she'd replied with a shrug.

No one had seen Pierre.

Then the call came. The ring of the telephone had never sounded so loud or frightening. I ran to it, not a second to waste. It would be Pierre. He'd let me know that he'd taken a detour to check on the shop, just as a new shipment of Bordeaux had come in. His assistant, Louis, young and inexperienced, was not capable of categorizing the bottles and stocking them on the right shelves, so he had to do the job himself. The life of a business owner, of course. I knew it well. I would be mildly annoyed, but understanding. I'd encourage him to bicycle home as quickly as possible. '"Dinner is getting cold! I've made your favorite dish!"' He would calmly say, '"Sorry to keep you waiting, my love. I'll be home in a flash."' And there he'd be, fifteen minutes later, standing in the doorway, with that handsome, expectant smile. He'd beg my forgiveness and he'd have it, in an instant.

The voice on the phone was not Pierre's but a police officer's, calling from the sixteenth arrondissement. "I'm sorry to inform you, madame, that your husband..."

I don't remember what he said next, not exactly. The officer's words felt like bullets, but at one one-hundredth of the normal speed—so slow, I felt each one hit my body and tear through my heart. Pierre's body had been found wedged between a delivery truck and a brand-new gray Renault. When the truck hit him, he'd been thrown from his bicycle and pinned against the other oncoming vehicle. The medics said he died instantly. He hadn't suffered.

That night, I jumped on my bicycle and pedaled to the street where he took his last breath. I fell to my knees when I saw the most heartbreaking scene of my life: a badly mangled bicycle left lying on its side, and pink peony petals scattered on the cobblestone street like fresh snow, the remnants of what could only have been an enormous bouquet.

My surprise.

This excerpt ends on page 15 of the hardcover edition.
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