“I need to see the Mediterranean,” Olivia said.
The road from Marseille had taken them through a long claustrophobic tunnel and then into the sprawl of developments on the edge of the city. Boxy cement structures that housed apartments sprouted at the top of every hill. The roads were crowded, the drivers aggressive.
Something kept clicking in the rental car, a persistent, irritating sound that put Olivia on edge. She and Brody had tried to identify the source—a seat belt, the radio, an unlatched glove compartment—but nothing seemed connected to the noise. They drowned it out with bad French rock and roll.
“Should we take a beach detour?” Brody asked, pushing up his sleeves.
“Please,” Olivia said.
Brody followed the exit ramp until it deposited them on a busy street. Then he glanced at Olivia. “Is this better?”
No. McDonald’s on their right, a fast food pizza joint on their left. The air thick with the smell of grease. A long stretch of apartment buildings, many spray-painted with red devils holding guns.
“There’s a sign for Cassis,” Brody said, pointing.
“Take it!” Olivia said.
They followed a new road that climbed the hills, leaving the overdeveloped city behind. Soon mountains stretched ahead of them, white rock, red rock, pine forest.
“For weeks now I’ve been dreaming about the big blue sea and the waves washing against the sand,” Olivia said.
“There aren’t usually any waves here. It’s as calm as can be.”
“Don’t ruin my fantasy,” Olivia said, cuffing his shoulder.
“Look,” Brody said.
They crested the hill and the sea appeared before them. The sun glinted off Brody’s watch, momentarily blinding Olivia. She blinked. The car turned slightly, and finally she could see the bay, bordered by sheer limestone cliffs.
“My big blue sea!” she called.
“No waves,” Brody said.
“I don’t need them.”
“My wedding gift to you,” Brody said, opening an arm to the vista.
“You’re so generous,” she told him.
She loved his wide mouth, his deep-set eyes. She never got tired of looking at him. He was handsome in a rugged way; she could see Wyoming in his tall, lanky body, his strong hands, the crow’s-feet in the corner of his eyes.
The road descended quickly, leading them onto a small road that wound its way to the coast. Brody found a parking space near the beach path, and Olivia bounded out of the car, eager to feel the sea breeze against her damp skin. They climbed down a well-worn trail and stepped out onto a rocky beach.
Only a few people sat in the late-day sun, which perched on top of a jagged cliff, still dazzling. A couple of children played in the surf and one man swam out to sea, his body slicing through the water.
“It’s beautiful,” Brody said.
“It’s perfect,” Olivia said, taking his hand.
She heard a bark, followed by a fury of yelps and howls. She spun around. From a cove a few hundred feet to their left, two large dogs charged toward them. The first, a German shepherd, locked fierce eyes on her. Are they just chasing each other? she thought. No, they’re heading right at me.
Scream. Open your mouth and scream.
But her body tightened and no words escaped her lips. They’ll kill me, she thought.
And then in a rush of mad thoughts, she began to make wishes. What I want before I die: I want to marry Brody. I want a life with him, a long life. And my daughters! I want Carly to ditch her boyfriend. I want Nell to stop fighting against the world. I want to see what happens next in their lives, the men they marry, the women they become. As if time had stopped, the dogs still raced toward her, their enormous jaws wet with anticipation. The sound of her own heart pounded in her ears.
And then Brody stepped forward and she heard murmuring sounds, gentle coos, words that weren’t words at all. He kept walking toward the beasts, speaking some other language, animal language. The shepherd cocked his head, looking at Brody now, as if he just discovered the most interesting creature in the world. Just like that, Olivia was forgotten.
The German shepherd stopped. Brody put out his hand and the dog sniffed it warily. He kept talking and now Olivia could hear words: “Good dog, hey buddy, what’s going on, pal.”
The other dog, a lean black Lab, circled them but didn’t come closer.
“I thought I was dinner,” Olivia said in a small voice.
“He would have picked me first,” Brody said, petting the dog, which seemed to shrink in size. “I’d be much tastier.”
“I couldn’t scream,” she told him.
“Good,” he said. “Screaming would have been a bad idea.”
“You weren’t scared?”
He shook his head. “They weren’t going to hurt anyone.” He patted the dog’s haunches. “Were you, good boy?”
Of course, Olivia thought. It’s what he does. Or what he did. He had been a large-animal vet when they met over a year before. But he’d quit his job three months earlier, along with Wyoming, when he moved to be with her in San Francisco. She’d barely known him in his landscape of mountains and beasts.
“You need to do this,” she said quietly.
“Save you from puppies?”
She put her hand on his shoulder. “Work with animals.”
“I’ve been looking. If I can’t find work as a vet I’ll find something else to do,” he said assuredly. But he hadn’t had any luck in three months of trying. She worried that he needed Wyoming in some essential way.
The German shepherd rambled over to Olivia and she stiffened.
“Easy, boy,” Brody said. “Be gentle with my bride.”
The dog sniffed and then pushed his nose against Olivia’s side. She petted him warily. He moved his nose to her hip and nipped her.
“He bit me!” Olivia said, though she wasn’t quite sure what it was. A love bite? A warning?
“Hugo! Lulu!” a voice yelled, and the two dogs ran off, bounding along the beach, heading toward the open arms of a teenager emerging from the sea.
Olivia rubbed her hip. There was no pain, just a wet spot where the dog’s mouth had been.
“Are you okay?” Brody asked.
Olivia nodded. “I’m fine. I’m wonderful.”
They watched as the black Lab knocked the boy back into the water and all three of them splashed through the waves until they were swimming, two dog heads and one boy head bobbing on the turquoise sea.
“You know what makes me unbearably sad?” she said, wrapping her arms around her body, suddenly chilled. “I wish we were twenty. I wish we’d never loved anyone before. I wish you didn’t have a dead wife and I didn’t have an awful ex. I wish we had fifty years ahead of us instead—”
Her voice broke. Brody stepped up behind her and took her in his arms. He pressed her back against his chest, leaned his chin on her head.
“It took all those years to bring us to this weekend,” he said. “We needed the wrong turns and the detours and the false starts. Look where we ended up.”
“My big blue sea,” Olivia said.
“Marry me,” Brody said.
Olivia walked into the garden of La Maison Verte, expecting to find Emily already there. She had told Brody that she’d head downstairs early so she could steal a few minutes with her best friend. She sat in one of the wrought-iron chairs and within a few minutes, Ulysse, Emily and Sébastien’s white retriever, padded over and dropped to the ground at her feet. This one’s not ferocious, she thought. She petted him and whispered “Bonsoir, Monsieur Ulysse,” into his ear. He put his head down but his wagging tail swept the tiny stones on the path behind him.
Olivia leaned back in her chair and looked around. The inn and gardens were exquisite, no doubt due to her friend’s remarkable sense of style. Emily had never run a country inn before, much less one in the south of France, but she had always been able to transform any space into a place that invited you to linger. Look around. Breathe. She even had that skill at twenty when they’d been roommates at Berkeley. Their small suite was every friend’s favorite hiding place thanks to Emily’s found art, wallpaper made from magazine collages, furniture covered with tapestries.
Now she had become mistress of the manor, though this place looked more like a hidden jewel. The house was covered with ivy, and the stucco walls were painted a rusted orange color as surprising as it was pleasing. The building twisted and turned so that here in the garden Olivia felt as if the house had taken her in its arms. And the garden itself was both lush and bursting with color, though somehow it calmed rather than assaulted the soul.
She considered the champagne bottle resting on ice in the glass bowl but decided against it. Linger. Look around. Breathe.
Soon she’d give up breathing. Her daughters were due to arrive tomorrow morning along with Brody’s mother and Jake, his best friend. Jake, the cowboy who hated marriage, would perform the wedding ceremony. Why had Brody insisted on that? Would the guy take it seriously? Give it up, Olivia told herself. You already agreed.
Now she felt an undercurrent of fear, like an itchy scalp, that this wedding in France was fraught with peril. For starters there were her daughters: One was a mess; the other wouldn’t mess up. Brody’s parents: His father had walked out on their fifty-five-year marriage a couple of months before and no one could understand why. Fanny was coming to the wedding but not Sam, who had cut off all contact with everyone. And then Brody’s best friend, Jake: Well, he had warned Brody against marrying Olivia.
Linger. Look around. Breathe.
The inn was tucked into a valley; vineyards carpeted the land as far as Olivia could see. Late evening light bathed the hills so that the many shades of green seemed to vibrate and shimmer. Towering above them stood Cap Canaille, a cliff of red rock that ran along the edge of the valley and jutted out into the Mediterranean.
Tonight they were alone at the inn with Emily and Sébastien, her French husband, whom Olivia adored. Tonight she’d sleep with Brody in that gorgeous room in the inn and they’d forget about everyone else. Tonight she’d drink champagne.
“The bride,” Emily said and Olivia startled, sending Ulysse into a flurry of movement and barking and flying stones.
“He’s me,” Olivia said. “That’s what I’d be doing if I weren’t so well behaved.”
“Since when are you well behaved?”
“Can we open that champagne without waiting for the guys?”
“Same old O,” Emily said. Only Emily called Olivia O. Once Brody had tried it and Olivia silenced him: “Find your own nickname,” she had told him. Olivia is Olivia to everyone in the world except Emily. And Emily, of course, is Em.
“I’m rattled,” Olivia said. “I know you think this is a good idea. Want to let me in on the reason?”
“For a wedding?” Emily opened the champagne while Olivia held out two glasses.
“For a wedding with guests.”
“You want me to leave?”
“I want everyone else to leave. And they haven’t even gotten here yet.”
Emily poured the champagne. “It will be wonderful,” she said. “You don’t have to do anything but drink champagne for three straight days.”
Both women dropped into their chairs, side by side. Olivia leaned over and clinked glasses again with Emily.
“To you. To your beautiful inn. To your amazing generosity.”
“To our friendship.”
“You guys getting married?” someone called and both women spun around.
Brody walked down the path toward them, the sun low in the sky behind him. He wore a pale blue shirt, jeans, his cowboy boots. Olivia felt her heart ease.
“I’m pathetically straight,” she said. “Otherwise I would have run off with this woman years ago.”
“Thank God,” Brody said. “Have you finished the champagne?”
Emily stood and reached for the bottle.
“First, good evening,” Brody said. He leaned forward and kissed Emily on both cheeks. Then he walked to Olivia, pulled her up and into his arms.
“Good evening, my love,” Olivia said. “You look very handsome.”
“You’re just trying to seduce me into marrying you,” Brody said.
Emily handed him a glass and they all clinked and drank.
“I love you guys,” Emily said. “Who finds love at our age?”
Olivia was fifty-five, Brody was fifty-two. She had met him when her theater company was on tour across the country. As artistic director, she tagged along for the first few shows because a battle was brewing between the director and the actors. After a performance in Laramie one night, Olivia had gone for a drink at the Old Buckhorn Bar and ended up sitting next to a man who was reading a novel while everyone else was downing shots of whiskey. Now, they were getting married.
“Emily!” Sébastien called from the inn. Ulysse bounded toward him.
“Our master calls,” Emily said and headed back down the path.
Brody leaned over and kissed Olivia’s head. “Marry me,” he said. He’d been saying it for months, ever since he asked her and she said yes. He claimed to like the sound of it on his lips, her expression each time he asked her, and the certainty he had that she’d say yes. Yes.
“Et voilà!” Emily called.
She walked up the path, a tray of aperitifs in her hands, followed by Sébastien who carried two bottles of wine. Ulysse shadowed him, almost bouncing as he walked. Happy old dog as long as his people were near.
Olivia greeted Sébastien with a kiss on each cheek; Brody threw one arm around his back. Brody had met Emily and Sébastien a couple of months earlier when they’d closed down the inn and traveled to San Francisco for a week’s vacation. Olivia had loved the ease with which her old best friends and the new guy in her life forged instant friendships.
“I’ve come to tell you all about le mariage,” Sébastien said.
The others groaned.
“We have years of experience! We have wisdom! We have wine!”
“Spare me,” Olivia said.
She had been married for twenty-two years to a man who had lost himself in his work. After she finally left him seven years ago, she thought she’d never marry again. She already had kids; she was too old for more. Even after she met Brody she didn’t consider marriage. She lived in California—lots of people had a significant other or a partner in their lives. When Brody had proposed, on the top of a mountain near Tahoe, she was shocked and wildly pleased. Marriage? At our age? Yes!
“Who else will give you advice?” Sébastien persisted. “We’ll start with the wedding night.”
“No!” Olivia shouted. “Not that! My virgin ears!”
Sébastien poured himself the last of the champagne and toasted them. “To hot married sex!” he proclaimed.
They all settled into their chairs and Emily passed around the small bowls of olives, tapenade on toast, crisp potato chips.
“This is your life?” Brody asked. “Every day?”
“Not even close,” Emily said. “We wake up to breakfast for ten people. We spend the morning telling folks where to get kayaks, where to taste wine, how to score dinner reservations. If the cleaning girl doesn’t show, I’m in the rooms, seeing things no one should see. At the end of the day, if we’re still awake, we can share a glass of wine with each other on our terrace, hiding from the guests.”
“But you love it,” Olivia said, more a statement than a question. She so idealized her friend’s exotic French life that she couldn’t imagine otherwise.
“I love it,” Emily said wearily.
“We would not want to do anything else,” Sébastien said, more sure of himself. “After my mother died I needed to come home to France. Now I have lunch with my father in Marseille every Sunday. I will know when he is sick, when he is dying. I will be with him, not four thousand miles away.”
Excerpted from A Wedding in Provence by Ellen Sussman. Copyright © 2014 by Ellen Sussman. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.