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The Paris Secret
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PARIS, 12 FEBRUARY 1947
In a grand townhouse at 30 Avenue Montaigne, Margaux Jourdan is helped into an ivory silk shantung jacket with a padded and flared peplum, and a pleated black wool skirt. The skirt falls, shockingly, all the way to mid-calf—such an excess of fabric for a post-ration world. A strand of pearls is placed around her neck, and she is finished off with a wide-brimmed hat and black gloves. Even after the desecration of war, a woman's hands are still too startling to be left unclothed.
Madame Raymonde spins Margaux around as if she were a ballerina in a music box and allows her chin to fall just once into a satisfied nod. She indicates with her arm that Margaux should step through the doorway of the cabine and into the salon.
Thus, the legendary Dior Bar Suit is conveyed via Margaux's body to an unsuspecting world.
In the grand salon, a crowd of elegant Parisians—Jean Cocteau, Michel de Brunhoff from Vogue and Marie-Louise Bousquet from Harper's Bazaar—sit shoulder to shoulder with barely any room between them for breath. Some people are standing against the wall, and others line the staircase—such has been the demand for tickets to this show, which canny profiteers have sold to the clamorous for more than it costs to buy black-market butter.
The salon wears its muted palette of pearl gray and white as subtly as a concealed zipper. The Louis XVI medallion chairs, the gilt picture frames topped with fontanges bows and the Belle Epoque chandeliers all seem to declare that time has stopped and it would be best to pay attention. Unfurled fans rustle like premature applause, and the air is scented with perfume and Gauloises and anticipation. Everywhere, skins are atingle.
As Margaux glides along she hears gasps, sees heads lean forward and hands twitch as if they wish to skim the en huit curves of her suit. She completes her circuit and passes through the gray satin curtain, behind which stands Christian Dior—the man who stitches seams with magic, whose gowns transcend fashion. Eighty years hence, should one be asked to name a couturier, his will be the first name spoken. But that is all still to come.
Christian gifts Margaux a smile. The show continues. Nobody needs to declare that it is spectacular; it is a fact known without words.
The finale is, naturally, a wedding gown. Margaux stands perfectly still while she is dressed. Then she steps back into the salon and the collective intake of breath is so violent it almost depletes the room of oxygen. For Margaux appears to be wearing a full-blown white rose plucked at its moment of true perfection. Or at least that is the illusion she purveys in her voluminous skirt: a lavishness—no, a prodigality—of silk billowing like optimism around her before funneling in at the waist to a span of just twenty inches—a requirement for any Christian Dior model.
Of course, none of the spectators know that Margaux only possesses such a waist because of years of deprivation; that it is a legacy of a time when such a gown would have been as shocking as the sun appearing in the midnight sky. But it does no one any good to recall what can never be undone, so Margaux concentrates on her feet, walking slowly enough for the crowd to apprehend that what they are seeing is extraordinary, but also fast enough that she is gone too soon, leaving yearning cast behind her like a shadow.
There is hardly enough space amongst all the people for the gown's stupendous skirt and it brushes against one of the tall, white columned ashtrays. Nobody except Margaux notices the ash spill to the floor. Nobody notices either that it is minus fourteen degrees outside and that Paris has been shivering through a winter of postwar electricity rations and coal shortages. Christian's dress has the power of erasure.
As she exits the salon, the applause is so thunderous it could rouse the dead. But Margaux knows nothing will ever rouse her dead.
The mannequins return to the salon and stand in a line. Christian—or Tian as he is known to Margaux and a few select others—bows and accepts his congratulations.
He singles out Margaux, still wearing the wedding dress despite the fact that she will never be a bride, raises her hand to his lips and kisses it. "Magnifique," he says.
Christian's sister Catherine Dior kisses Margaux's cheeks. "You were magnifique, chérie."
Carmel Snow from American Harper's Bazaar steps forward. Her fingertips whisper rapturously against the silk of Margaux's skirt. "Dear Christian," she says, "your dresses have such a new look."
And Margaux knows, as if she were suddenly able to divine the future, that this is how Christian's collection will be spoken of from now on. A New Look, for a new world. A world in which death and loss and heartbreak will hereafter become muted emotions rather than a rawness tearing always at one's skin. They will not be a way of life, as they have been throughout these last years of war. The New Look will be the perfect amnesiac for a generation that has survived the war and does not wish to recall anything of it.
Margaux is the only one who remembers. Skye and Liberty and Nicholas and O'Farrell are all gone now, in different ways. She will never say their names again, not to anyone. Nobody wishes to hear the names of the victims. Just as nobody wishes to understand that Margaux's waist is tiny because she is a victim too.
Catherine slips her arm into Margaux's. "Here, chérie. Let us raise a glass of champagne to . . ." She hesitates. "The future?"
That word will always have a question mark after it. So Margaux does not drink to the future. Instead she lifts her glass to all of them—herself, Catherine, Skye, Liberty, Nicholas and O'Farrell. As she does so, she feels the spirits crowding around her, pleading with her, as they do every night in her dreams. But just as there was nothing she could do the last time she saw each of them, there is nothing she can do for them now. Except drink champagne, smile and step forward with her New Look into this terrible new world that she cannot comprehend.
. . . in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.
—Madeline Miller, Circe
CORNWALL, AUGUST 1928
I can see your underwear."
Skye Penrose knew that the ordinary response of a ten-year-old girl to such a statement would be to stop cartwheeling along Porthleven pier like a gamboling star and restore her skirt to its proper position. Instead she paused to change direction, then turned two perfect cartwheels toward the boy who'd spoken. In the rush of her upward trajectory, she lunged at him and gave his trousers a swift tug, dislodging them from his waist and popping at least one button in the process.
"Now I can see yours," she said, giggling. She'd meant to run away immediately to escape his likely anger, but his face was so astonished—eyes wide, his mouth a well-rounded "O," just the right size for throwing in a toffee if only she had one—that she grinned and said, "I'm Skye."
He reinstated his trousers, stuttering, "I'm Nicholas Crawford. Pleased to meet you." He spoke oddly: his words sharp-angled rather than round, emphasis falling on different vowels so that the familiar became strange.
"I thought it only fair, if we're going to be friends, that neither of us should know more about the other," Skye said. "So I had to see your underwear too."
Nicholas Crawford nodded as if that made perfect sense. He was taller than Skye, with near-black hair and striking blue-gray eyes, like the sea on an uncertain day. His clothes were clean and pressed, not grubby with play like Skye's.
"Friends," he repeated.
"As long as you can keep my secrets."
Curiosity shimmered aquamarine in his eyes. "What sort of secrets are they?"
"The best ones. Come on, I'll show you."
She grabbed his hand and took off. He didn't hesitate, didn't protest that he ought to tell his mother where he was going, didn't say he couldn't be friends with someone who'd robbed his trousers of a button or two. He ran with her, keeping pace, even though, given his accent and demeanor, he must be from somewhere far from Cornwall—a place where, most likely, one didn't often run free. Together, they turned right in front of the town hall and raced along the sand until an apparently impenetrable rock wall blocked the way.
"Through here," Skye said, showing him a gap just big enough to crawl through.
On the other side of the wall, his mouth opened again, and she knew he was wonderstruck, just as she'd hoped he would be.
"You're the first person I've brought here," she said.
She considered how to say it: I've never met anyone so wide-eyed. It wouldn't sound right. "I thought you'd like it," she said.
They both turned full circle to take in the white-laced sea hurling itself against the cliff face to the left of them, the curve of the bay where the waves simmered in the dropped wind, the cave behind them, which was craggy and dark and promised feats of great derring-do.
"It's all mine," Skye said proudly. "See that house up there." She pointed to the clifftop, where a weather-thrashed cottage sank its toes into the ground, holding on, just. "That's where I live with my mother. And my sister. The only way you can get to this cove is through the gap in the rock wall or the path that leads down from the house. So it's mine. And now yours too."
Nicholas furrowed his brow. His hand moved to his pocket and he pulled out a watch. "If you're going to share your cove with me, then I'll share this with you." He handed it to her. "It was my father's. And his father's too."
Skye ran a finger over the engraved gold of the case before opening the cover. Inside, she found dignified Roman numerals and a strangely misshapen half-moon.
"Where's your father?" she asked.
"Up there." Nicholas pointed to the sky.
"You don't need to share this." She passed the pocket watch back to him, understanding it was the most important thing he possessed.
"I want to. You can have it one day every week."
His tone was firm. This well-dressed boy who didn't seem to have ever set foot on a Cornish beach had strength of will. And he could run. And he liked her cove.
"That means you'll have to come back tomorrow to get it," she said.
"Do you want to see inside the cave?"
He nodded again.
* * *
Skye stood on the clifftop, Nicholas's pocket watch tucked safely inside a handkerchief, and watched her new friend squeeze through the gap in the rocks and trudge along the sand below. Just before he turned toward town, he looked back and waved. Skye performed a rapid series of cartwheels that she thought might make him smile. Then she went in to dinner.
Her sister, Liberty, who was younger than Skye by one year, pounced on her the moment she entered the cottage.
"Where were you?" Liberty whined.
"At the beach," Skye said.
Liberty screwed up her face. "You're always at the beach."
"Then you could easily have found me."
Before she could remind her sister that the kitchen, not Skye, was the source of food, she saw, over Liberty's shoulder, the Snakes and Ladders board set out on the table. Gold and green snakes wriggled toward illustrations of naughty children and Skye realized, her stomach twisting like the snakes, that she should be the subject of one of those drawings. She'd promised Liberty a game of Snakes and Ladders that afternoon. But she'd forgotten about it in the thrill of finding someone who loved the cove as much as she did—unlike her sister.
Liberty followed Skye's eyes to the game. She flounced over and thrust it off the table. The dice clattered to the floor, momentarily obscuring the gentle hum of voices from the room next door where their mother was busy with one of her clients.
"I'll make you a cup of tea," Skye said. "And then we can play."
Liberty didn't reply and Skye thought she might march upstairs and sulk in her room as she was wont to do. But then she nodded and peace was momentarily restored. They sipped their tea as they played and Skye said nothing when Liberty, in order to ascend a ladder, miscounted the number of squares she was supposed to move. She said nothing either when Liberty protested that Skye had miscounted and needed to slide down a snake. Liberty won.
* * *
The following morning, Skye was up at dawn and in her swimsuit, waiting impatiently for Nicholas, his pocket watch held tight and safe in her hand. She sat in the window seat in the parlor, staring at her beloved ocean, willing him to ignore propriety and come now, although it was too early even for breakfast. When Liberty appeared downstairs an hour later, she scowled at Skye's swimsuit and let fly with a spiteful foot, which Skye—who'd had plenty of practice—dodged. Then there was a knock at the door and Skye beamed. He too must prefer her cove to breakfast.
"See who it is, darling," her mother called from the kitchen where she was standing at the chipped blue Royal Windsor stove, stirring a pot of porridge. "I'm not expecting anyone until ten."
Skye was already sprinting down the hallway and throwing open the door. Nicholas stood there, alongside a woman with a possessive hand clamped on his shoulder. Skye's smile faltered.
"Is this the girl?" the woman asked.
"This is Skye," Nicholas replied.
"I would like to see your mother," the woman told Skye.
"Come in," Skye said politely. As she held the door wide, the cottage's colored glass oil lamps—they were too far out of town for electricity—flickered with the ill wind the woman had brought with her.
In the kitchen, which smelled as always of woodsmoke, French cigarettes and coffee, Vanessa Penrose turned to greet the visitors. She was resplendent in her long and gloriously ruffled black silk embroidered nightgown, which had draped sleeves and a low neckline. The woman beside Nicholas stared as if Skye's mother were cartwheeling through the house with her knickers showing.
"Have you come for breakfast?" Vanessa said, which made the woman wrench her eyes away from the nightgown. "You must be Nicholas," Vanessa continued. "Skye told me all about you. I'm Vanessa, or Mrs. Penrose, whichever you prefer. Do you like porridge?"
Nicholas smiled at last. "I do."
"He does not," said the woman.
"I do and I'm hungry," Nicholas said with the same quiet determination Skye had heard in his voice when he'd said at the door, This is Skye.
"Skye has hollow legs," Vanessa said to Nicholas, "which means she's unable to stand up until she's eaten. You'll simply have to join us."
Skye giggled and Nicholas sat down.
"I am Finella Crawford and your daughter owes my nephew an apology." Nicholas's aunt had a voice like a fishhook: sharp and designed to hurt. It was accented like Nicholas's, but from her mouth it sounded abrasive rather than interesting.
"She ruined a perfectly good pair of trousers and stole a very valuable item," his aunt continued.
Skye reached under the table and pressed Nicholas's pocket watch into his hand, hoping it would help.
"Thanks," he whispered.
Vanessa took an orange from the bowl, cut it in half and juiced it. She poured the juice into a glass and passed it to Nicholas. "Skye told me about the trousers. I can mend the buttons. But Skye doesn't steal."
"You're wrong. She stole my nephew's pocket watch, left to him by his dear father, my brother." Nicholas's aunt dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief but Skye rather thought she was enjoying her performance.
"I have the watch," Nicholas said, holding it up.
"Mystery solved." Vanessa made quick work of three more oranges before sitting down.
"I'm sorry for making a button fall off your trousers," Skye said to Nicholas, using her best manners.
"Buttons and Skye go together like the sea air and smooth hair," her mother said, glancing at Finella's wind-ruffled coiffure.
Nicholas's aunt changed direction. "I was told that you divine the future."
"I do," Vanessa replied.
"My sister-in-law would like a reading." The words squeezed from Finella's mouth as if the idea were as repugnant as animal droppings. "She has suffered a great loss—the death of her husband, Nicholas's father. I've brought her from New York to the country of her birth under the instructions of my doctor; she requires sea air and repose. Given what she's suffered, I'm prepared to allow her to indulge this whim."
Skye's mother poured honey onto Nicholas's porridge. Liberty's eyes widened at the quantity and she opened her mouth to protest, but Skye shook her head furiously at her sister. That honey offered a solidarity that could not be spoken of, yet. Like Nicholas, Skye and Liberty did not have a father.
"I will take your sister-in-law on for readings provided you let Nicholas continue to play with Skye," Vanessa said. "I think they'll be good for one another."
Nicholas's aunt acquiesced with a nod, then turned to leave, forgetting her nephew, but Skye solved that problem by calling out, "Nicholas will be home in time for dinner."
* * *
Over the next month, Skye introduced Nicholas, who was a year older than her—eleven, rather than ten—and who came from a faraway city of skyscrapers, to her world. The world of rummaging in rock pools for hermit crabs and hairy crabs and seeing whose would scuttle away the fastest once put down on the sand. The world of scraping mussels and limpets from rocks, working alongside the red-billed oystercatchers. Of searching for cowrie shells, the fairy-sized, peach-colored slivers that were so easy to miss and therefore all the more precious, to add to Skye's collection.
Initially, Liberty joined them, trailing behind as they skidded down the path to the cove, bargaining with Skye. "I promise I won't kick you if you stay home and play with me."
"Come and play out here instead," Skye said, knowing she could usually avoid her sister's feet anyway and that summer wasn't a time to sit inside.
But rock pools and shells weren't to Liberty's taste. She sat on the sand, back turned toward her sister, glaring at Nicholas when he tried to give her the biggest and fastest crab to race. Eventually, Skye forgot that her sister was there and, hours later, realized Liberty had gone back up to the house to talk to her collection of dolls, who all preferred tea parties to limpets.
One morning, Liberty was particularly annoying on the way down to the beach. "Don't leave me alone," she whined, over and over.
"If you come with us, you won't be alone," Skye reasoned.
So Liberty did, but once on the sand, she shoved a crab down the back of Skye's bathing suit. It nipped Skye in fright.
"You're a beast!" Skye shouted at her sister.
Liberty threw a fistful of sand in Skye's face and burst into tears.
Skye watched Liberty run home. The sand scratched her eyes in the same way the words she'd yelled at her sister scraped her conscience. She would play two games of Snakes and Ladders with Liberty that night, she promised herself.
"Let's go in the cave," she said to Nicholas.
He nodded and followed her in.
They lay on their backs in the darkest, deepest part, where nothing could be seen. They were silent for only a moment before they began to tell stories that couldn't be told out in the light. Nicholas's story was about his father, who had died from "an excess of emotion," whatever that meant. His mother had then suffered an excess of emotion of a different kind, but hers had sent her first to bed and then back to England—where she had lived before her marriage—rather than up into the sky to join her husband.
"So my aunt looks after me now. My mother doesn't go anywhere, except to see your mother for readings," Nicholas finished, and Skye heard in his voice that he hated it: the loss of his father, the vanishing of his mother, and being subject to the custody of his aunt.
The Penroses would care for him, she vowed. But first she needed to tell him who the Penroses were.
"None of the children in town will play with me. Or with Liberty," she said. "It's because my mother tells fortunes." A gust of wind screeched into the cave, forcing more of the truth from Skye's mouth. "And because Liberty and I don't have a father. Not in the way that you don't have a father. We've never had one. My mother has never been married. But you're meant to be married if you have a baby."
All her life Skye had been told by sneering adults and jeering children that it was a sin to lose one's father in the way that hers and Liberty's had become lost. To die was heroic; to be merely absent was ungodly.
Nicholas said, "I like that your mother tells fortunes. I like your mother. And you're my friend."
* * *
Not long after, Skye was able to show Nicholas the best thing of all. Early one morning, Vanessa drove them to a grassy paddock that served as an airfield and pointed to a de Havilland Gipsy Moth.
"It's a beautiful day for flying," she said.
"Flying," Nicholas repeated, eyes fixed to the canvas biplane before them.
"You can go first," Skye told him.
"Don't leave me here by myself," Liberty sulked but Skye had no intention of sitting in the car with a sister who hated flying. Instead she ran beside the Moth as it bounced and then leapt into the sky. Nicholas, helmeted and scarfed and jacketed to withstand the chill, waved down at her from the front seat of the open cockpit, and her mother sat at the controls behind.
Then it was Skye's turn. Once the Moth ascended, Skye took over; her mother had started teaching her to fly six months ago. Vanessa's voice gave directions through the Gosport tube that connected front passenger to back, although Skye hardly needed them anymore.
She handled the turn, and then did what she'd seen her mother do hundreds of times before: she flew into the wind, giving the Moth full throttle, then climbed vertically until the plane inclined onto its back and she felt the stomach-roiling thrill of looping the loop.
She heard Vanessa say in a bemused voice, "Let me know if you get into trouble." But the Moth anticipated Skye's every move. At the right moment, she eased off the throttle and adjusted the ailerons to keep herself vertical. The plane arced downward like a gentle dove to complete a perfect circle.
Skye wanted to cartwheel along the wing, looping her own loop, but she'd pushed against her mother's equilibrium enough already. She let Vanessa take the rear controls to land.
As soon as the plane had come to a halt, her mother lifted her out, saying, "I don't know whether to shout at you or to laugh."
"I prefer laughing," Skye said. Then she called to Nicholas, "Did you see me?"
"That was you?" he said admiringly.
"That was most definitely my daughter," Vanessa said. "Trying to show me she's more than ready to handle a takeoff and a landing. Perhaps next year we'll have you looping the loop too, Nicholas."
Nicholas placed both hands on the canvas wing of the plane. "Do you really think I could do that?" he asked.
"I'll teach you," said Skye's mother. "I think you have the right temperament for flying—levelheadedness is actually more important than daring, no matter what Skye thinks. I'm sure you could teach her a thing or two."
"I don't think anybody could teach Skye anything," Nicholas said, whereupon Vanessa laughed, ruffled his hair and said, "Unfortunately I think you might be right."
* * *
- "This meticulously researched novel is about the lengths people will go to protect one another, and a love that lasts a lifetime. The Paris Secret is a tear-jerker, so stock up on tissues, sit in a quiet corner and don't move until you've finished this extraordinary book."—Marie Claire
- A "sweeping family saga written in elegant, evocative prose that is as carefully stitched together as a couture gown. Meticulous attention to period details, impeccable plotting, and rich characterization will delight fans of Kate Morton or anyone in need of a gorgeously wrought ... tale of love, loss, courage, and compassion."—Booklist, starred review
- "Lester's magnetic characters, lyrical writing, and extensive historical research breathe life into this riveting tale. This is a stunner."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
- "A stirring portrait of a daring and courageous group of women willing to risk it all in a time of war, The Paris Secret is historical fiction at its best. A beautiful love story coupled with an intricate mystery, richly detailed and impeccably researched history, and an homage to the strength of the human spirit makes this a poignant and powerful read. Natasha Lester has done it again!"—Chanel Cleeton, New York Times & USA Today bestselling author of The Last Train to Key West
- "Lester is a master storyteller. In only the way Lester can do it, these seemingly unlinked stories come together in a gorgeously satisfying way that will have you wiping tears from your face in the final pages."—The Daily Telegraph on The Paris Secret
- "Lester's talent shines in her new novel, THE PARIS SECRET, filled with spies and the French Resistance, vivid detailing, and a cast of courageous young women, intent on playing their part in a devastating war. A rich tapestry of fashion, family secrets, and love in war, it's the perfect escape." —Heather Webb, USA Today bestselling author
- "What could be better than flight and fashion, desire and Dior? Natasha Lester masterfully stitches together the stunning fabric of four women's lives into a heartbreaker of a novel that will keep you up late into the night." —Kerri Maher, author of The Kennedy Debutante and The Girl In White Gloves
- "Sweeping romances, daring wartime exploits, and haute couture combine in this thrilling tale of love, loss and mystery during the Second World War. In Margaux, Skye and Liberty, Natasha Lester showcases the unforgettable strength of women who served in England and France, bringing to life the voices of those lost in the fog of war. And the fashion... need I say more?"—Bryn Turnbull, author of The Woman Before Wallis
- "Sweeping and heartbreaking, Natasha Lester's The Paris Secret tells a story of fearless women, their unrelenting bravery in the face of war, and the endurance of love against all odds. Brimming with long-held secrets, engrossing characters, and rich historical detail, this is a riveting read."—Kristin Beck, author of Courage, My Love
- "Natasha Lester's writing is wholly and intimately transportive. Every time I opened the book, I fell into the world contained within its pages, and I didn't want to leave. The Paris Secret is a dazzling marvel of storytelling, a perfect blend of action, history, and emotional depth. Unforgettable."—Erika Robuck, bestselling author of Hemingway's Girl
- "An exceptionally atmospheric, beautifully written, impactful novel that sweeps you away to another time and place and immerses you into the lives of such enticing characters you can't help but be thoroughly moved and engrossed."—What's Better Than Books
- "Captivating characters. Breathtaking, emotional relationships... a dream novel worthy of a Dior tag and definitely one for your collection!"—The Grateful Reader
- "I was in historical fiction heaven reading this book. The fashion was to DIE for."—Hasty Book List
- "It kept me guessing until the last few chapters of the book."—The Girly Book Club
- "Beautiful, sad, and inspiring."—Reading by the Season
- “Keeps the reader riveted ... Lester pays tribute to the brave souls of the resistance and the triumph of the human spirit.”—Historical Novels Review
- On Sale
- Sep 15, 2020
- Page Count
- 496 pages