“THE great honor we have awaited is here. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome an artist who needs no introduction, the supreme portrait photographer, Jean-Luc Montpluessy!” Museum director Maru Daniels stepped away from the podium. His reverent applause encouraged the cheering crowd.
On any normal day, gaining erudite Maru’s notice would rank high on Aidan MacLeod’s seduction list. The handsome director of Paris’s Museum of Photography appreciated closely mentoring young photographers. Aidan had met two of the previous lucky protégés and heard nothing but praise for Maru’s manly charms.
Today Aidan ignored Maru’s existence. He moved toward the low stage for another crucial reason. He ducked around a burly security guard, rushed past the first five rows to the stage’s edge, and raised his camera. Aidan wanted to capture special photos of his photographic idol before the security brutes shut him down. The excited ruckus reminded Aidan of the old days, pressing close against a low club stage to capture sexy Freddie Mercury’s onstage prance. Passion and impending hysteria filled the museum’s elegant lecture hall. Although Jean-Luc had hidden away from the world, in 1978 devotees still adored him.
He framed the first shot. Damn. He clicked. His heart beat in frantic triple time. At age seventy-eight, Jean-Luc Montpluessy still displayed a classic screen idol’s debonair demeanor. Long silver hair swept back from aristocratic cheekbones in a cock-teasing manner. The legend’s pale blue eyes reflected the flashes. Aidan clicked, advanced film, clicked, and advanced film.
Jean-Luc smiled and raised his thin hand to the audience in shy acknowledgement. Aidan focused and clicked. The crowd’s adoration rattled the old stained-glass skylights.
Click, advance, click, advance, click, advance, click, advance. Aidan lowered his battered Nikon. He whooped in wild delight. Imagine standing mere feet away from genius. He breathed in. He hoped a few genius molecules entered his lungs.
Excitement encouraged him to shout in delight, “Jean-Luc, you are the best!”
Jean-Luc froze. He whirled from stepping to the podium. He stared down.
The excited Aidan whooped again and waved in merry glee. Jean-Luc peered past the dazzling flashbulbs and focused on Aidan. Aidan clicked shot number twelve. Damn, he was acting moronic, but come on, he had acted the same way a year ago when pop legend David Peacock played a small Amsterdam club. Calling attention to himself had gained Aidan exclusive backstage close-ups. The photos netted him rent money for months. The sublime meeting had also scored a wild, lusty night. The singer’s passionate onstage moves had foreshadowed his inventive sexual prowess.
Aidan had no problem using his physical charms. He hoped his impulsive action gained Jean-Luc’s precious attention. Attention at the lecture’s start might grant Aidan personal time with Jean-Luc after the talk.
The idea of personal time with Jean-Luc thrilled Aidan. The legend’s silvery mane begged for his caress. Aidan appreciated older gentlemen. He understood how to please them.
Jean-Luc beckoned to Maru. Various hands pointed at Aidan. Yes! Jean-Luc had noticed him. Triumph sparked through Aidan’s tense muscles. Considering how much money he had spent to attend this two-day conference, he deserved compensation, even if it arrived via a mundane handshake. Aidan wanted to meet the amazing photographer whose groundbreaking portraiture had inspired Aidan’s struggling career. Montpluessy had ceased photography back in 1941, but his previous portraits still soared above any other photographer’s work. Jean-Luc’s amazing portraits opened windows into the subject’s soul. His art captured something beyond the norm.
Hard to believe thirty-seven years had passed since Jean-Luc had appeared in public or displayed any new photography. In 1941, he became a total recluse but never explained why.
Aidan hoped to ask Jean-Luc why in person.
Two imposing security guards approached Aidan. He arched his brows in delight. They grabbed an arm apiece, and instead of escorting Aidan toward the backstage area, dragged him away from his goal.
No! Aidan struggled against their determined strength. His head jerked up.
Jean-Luc watched Aidan’s removal. The sorrow tainting Jean-Luc’s patrician features bewildered Aidan. The sorrow merged with regret, despair, and worst of all, stunned recognition.
The complex expression drove Aidan wild. What did it mean? He tried wrenching free from the human force hauling him toward a side door. The guards swept him out and deposited him on the ugly brown floral carpet. Aidan almost tripped over his feet. He shook his head in disbelief, straightened up, and clenched his fists.
The guards blocked the door in silent threat. Their stoic attitude offered Aidan no sympathy.
“Young man?” A husky French accent demanded Aidan’s attention.
Aidan whirled from glaring at the guards and almost knocked over the breathless Maru. Maru must have slid out the other door. Aidan snarled in fury. “What the hell is going on here?”
The director shook his head in agitation. He acted as confused as Aidan. “I’m sorry, young man, I know you are properly registered, but you have upset the master.”
“What? Are you kidding? I upset him? How do you think I feel? Those damned thugs dragged me from a lecture I paid a fortune to attend. Why did Jean-Luc seem like he recognized me? I repeat, what the hell is going on?” Aidan stalked toward the doors. He realized his aggression solved nothing, but the situation pissed him off.
He squared his slight shoulders. The hulking guards watched in contempt. “Get out of my way now!” He decided adding in “Or else” encouraged their rude laughter.
Fingers dug into his shoulders and whirled him around. “Monsieur—” Maru peered at Aidan’s badge. “—MacLeod, please, you will receive a full refund. I’m sorry, for some reason Monsieur Montpluessy does not want you near him.”
Aidan fired off one nasty word. “Why?”
Manicured fingers fluttered toward the ceiling. Maru sniffed in arch dismissal. “One does not ask a legend why, one obeys his commands.” Before Aidan could react, Maru unclipped Aidan’s badge from its silver neck chain. The director shook his head. “Monsieur, come to the registration desk tomorrow morning. Do not try to enter the conference again today. My guest of honor is too important to upset. Tomorrow morning you may enter as you wish. Jean-Luc is leaving tonight.”
Rage bounced around in Aidan’s mind. His pointer finger poked Maru’s expensively clad shoulder. “What about my full refund?”
“Yes, yes, don’t worry, I will still give you a full refund. Please understand, this situation baffles me as much as it does you.” Maru waved his hands in dramatic despair. “Now, I must put a stop to the photographing. Jean-Luc is already agitated. If he walks off the stage, I am disgraced.”
The infuriated Aidan watched Maru slip past the behemoths. Inside the lecture hall, Jean-Luc’s quiet voice whispered free. Flashes broke the darkness. The doors clicked shut.
The click sounded as loud as a rifle shot. Aidan’s breath emerged in panting gasps. What had just happened? He stepped toward the doors. The guards moved closer together and scowled.
Why had Jean-Luc looked at Aidan in such sorrow, in such recognition? Why had he dismissed Aidan from the lecture?
Aidan huffed and stalked toward the lobby. No use trying to defeat those big boys. In many situations, Aidan’s sexy smile and seductive chatter worked magic, but not in this case. Those guards valued their jobs.
Thinking about the lecture made his head ache. He stopped to catch his breath. Imagine his dream mentor tossing him from the lecture! Aidan couldn’t feel more shocked unless he licked his finger, leaned down, and tested an electrical outlet. What had he done aside from snap a few photos?
Stop. Aidan needed to move past that idea. Taking photos had not created the problem. Many other devotees also snapped the master’s photo. Think. Only Aidan had yelled in attention-seeking lust. His outburst had instead secured Jean-Luc’s rejection. Way to reverse the plan.
Another sullen security guard approached him. Right, today Aidan needed his badge to stand here. Damn it part one. Aidan held up his hands and escaped from the museum. Damn it part two waved its hand. Charming his way into the sold-out reception following the lecture suddenly turned impossible.
He paced before the museum’s red-brick Victorian bulk. His mind tried to understand what had occurred. Jean-Luc’s bizarre reaction astounded him. The young photographer hated complex puzzles and never appreciated existing in one.
He paced. The fresh air helped him think. A hazy plan formed in his mind.
First he wanted to develop his film. A helpful pedestrian directed him to a nearby drugstore with a photo lab. Perfect. Despite lacking finances, Aidan paid extra to guarantee overnight service.
He needed to see those photos. He also needed to see Jean-Luc again. Before those events happened, Aidan needed to wait. At least the warm spring weather encouraged walking. Brisk movement helped pound down his swirling thoughts.
The sorrow in Jean-Luc’s gaze continued to confuse Aidan. The recognition haunted him.
What did the puzzle mean?
Quick steps took him across the Pont Marie. He navigated around Notre Dame’s imposing vastness. Aidan swore the many carved figures looked down on him in silent pity. The people milling before the cathedral probably thought the same thing.
A long stroll along the Seine consumed time. Aidan popped in a new film roll and framed a few skyline shots. When he reached the Pont Neuf, he checked his watch. By now the reception would be taking place. He congratulated himself for not having purchased his London return ticket. What did he have to return to in London? His cousin’s couch and a few boxes of books?
The need to see Jean-Luc pushed past other thoughts, thoughts of needing more money, needing more photography gigs, and needing a real home. Too much sorry need littered Aidan’s life. Why had Jean-Luc ordered Aidan away from the lecture? The anxious thought spun forward in glittering demand. The recognition tainting Jean-Luc’s expression sliced Aidan’s heart.
Wandering through the Tuileries supplied Aidan with visual distraction. The many statues called to his artistic sense. Framing abstract compositions using marble muscles and grace worked to derail his anxiety.
The glowing sun dipped in the sky. Aidan noted the time. He estimated that the reception was moving toward an early conclusion. After all, Jean-Luc wanted to return home. The legend despised leaving his family château. Four biographies supported the claim. Three months ago, Aidan had met biographer Thierry Charac at a press party in London. Aidan’s old BBC photo credentials came in handy when he required a sneaky entrance. As they huddled in the corner, Thierry supplied good gossip. Later, he gave Aidan a great fucking. Sad that the old rake had never supplied Aidan with any positive job leads.
Aidan scolded himself. He needed to focus. Maru had also confirmed Jean-Luc’s desire to leave Paris. He turned back and hastened toward the museum.
Less than twenty photographic groupies lurked around the museum’s service door. One bored security guard watched in mild curiosity. Aidan hung back, leery of his new “Photo Enemy Number One” status. Maru might have circulated flyers with Aidan’s face on them.
A classic old Rolls Royce Phantom waited outside the door. Amazing. Aidan clicked a few snaps of the car’s classic lines. The wealthy legend owned a forty-year-old Rolls? Admittedly, the gray car suited its phantomlike, eccentric owner.
The museum door opened. Jean-Luc swept out, his tall body clad in a long black wool cloak despite the mild spring temperature. His silver hair flowed in the light breeze. He appeared unhappy. A frown deepened his wrinkles.
Waiting seemed futile. Aidan hurried forward and pushed passed the polite autograph seekers. He came to a halt inches from Jean-Luc’s startled face. “Why did you have me thrown out?”
The same remarkable sorrow shone free. Jean-Luc shook his head. “Seeing you pains me because it’s too late. You need to go back to me.”
The security guard brutally yanked Aidan’s left arm. No! Aidan lunged forward and almost fell on Jean-Luc. He smelled mint and something medicinal. “What do you mean?”
Jean-Luc pressed something small and hard into Aidan’s hand. “Forgive me. I’m sorry for doubting you.” He stepped back and allowed the two men glaring at Aidan to secure Jean-Luc into the car’s backseat.
Aidan let the angry security guard drag him back. His fingers clenched shut around the object. Whispers welled in his mind, louder, louder until they gained aural focus. What the—
“You saucy scamp, how did you afford this lovely ring?”
“Despite my display of abject poverty, I do have my secret ways.”
“I hope those ways never involve physical barter.”
“Monty, gosh, I would never cheat on you. You know I love you to the moon and beyond.”
“I feel the same, my dear Aidan. Now let me thank you for this splendid gift.”