Ebooka przeczytasz w aplikacjach Legimi na:
Odsłuch ebooka (TTS) dostępny w abonamencie „ebooki+audiobooki bez limitu” w aplikacji Legimi na:
Copyright © 2017 by Nell Goddin
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Would you like a free short story? ClickHERE!
To Nancy Kelley, editor extraordinaire.
Also by Nell Goddin
About the Author
Josette approached the house on rue Malbec with jangly nerves. She was eighteen and no stranger to work, but her new job as house-maid for Monsieur Coulon was entirely different from the farm chores she was used to. Monsieur Coulon was the mayor of Castillac, the most famous person she had ever met, which made her hands feel clammy whenever she thought ofit.
She stood on the street for a moment before ringing the bell, trying to gather her confidence. The house was built of the warm golden limestone that the Dordogne is famous for, and it was four full floors, the tallest building she had ever entered. She looked up and saw that the blue shutters were still closed and wondered if opening all of them each morning would be one of her tasks. Counting, she saw twelve pairs just on the street side of the building.
Josette reached to ring the bell but then paused. She smoothed the apron she had put on over her blue jeans while a sudden panic swept through her that she’d chosen the wrong thing to wear. What if Monsieur, no—Mayor Coulon wished her to wear something more proper, even a dress?
As the young woman stood on the sidewalk unable to summon the courage to ring the bell, the front door of the mayor’s house opened and the mayor himself appeared.
“Ah, bonjour, Josette!” he said, his voice booming as though he were making a speech to a crowd. He was balding, and his strategy for bucking this trend was to call in the classic comb-over, which Josette stared at before forcing herself to look away. The mayor was something of a gourmand, as his large belly indicated, but despite the belly and the comb-over he was not an unattractive man, at least that was what he told himself when he faced the mirror each morning.
Josette dipped a small curtsy, as her mother had taught her that morning, and mumbled a greeting, though she could not quite meet Coulon’s eye, feeling afraid that he might not approve ofher.
“Come in, come in,” he said, making a sweeping gesture. “And please, call me Maxime. I must check the mail for something I should have received yesterday. Wait in the foyer and I will be right with you.” He walked to the mailbox, his eyes on Josette, congratulating himself on finding such a very pretty house-maid. She had enviable curves, not the stick-straight boyish figure that seemed to be in fashion lately, and her hair fell in soft chestnut waves around her pleasingface.
Josette stepped into the house, marveling at the high ceilings and the small chandelier in the foyer. It was so bright compared to the dark farmhouse where she lived, and she squinted at the broad staircase curving up to the next floor and at the red carpet that unspooled down the center ofit.
When the mayor came back in, he showed Josette all around the four floors of the house, as well as the small backyard where the clothesline was, along with a neat vegetable garden that he tended on the weekends. He described her duties thoroughly and made it clear that if she had any questions, she had only to ask. She would be responsible for dusting, vacuuming, polishing furniture and silver, as well as laundry. As Coulon described each job, Josette nodded. He admired her reticence, much preferring the sound of his own voice to anyone else’s, and even more he admired her substantial backside as she went up the stairs ahead ofhim.
Those blue jeans, however…they were too modern, too casual, he thought. It was nearly an insult for her to be wearing them as a member of his staff, even if the staff was comprised only of Josette.
She was a country girl who had never been to a big city, and even Bergerac only rarely. Her life on the farm had been isolated, and she knew little about, well, anything but raising chickens and how to grow lettuce. The Barbeaus had no computer and the reception on their ancient television was poor. She had paid little attention in school and all she knew of the wide world was what her mother, Madame Barbeau, told her, along with stray tidbits from her younger brother, who went to the market in Bergerac twice a week to sell their poultry and produce.
But as of that beautiful July day she had left the farm behind, and with Madame Barbeau’s urging, Josette intended to make the most of the opportunity at 1 rue Malbec.
Promptly at four o’clock, Josette’s younger brother Julien pulled up in front of the mayor’s house in a beat-up truck. It was Wednesday, a smaller market day in Bergerac than Saturday’s but still quite lucrative; he had sold out of chicken in a matter of hours now that it was June and tourists were beginning to appear at the markets, swelling the pool of potential customers. For several months he had been skimming a little off the day’s take instead of turning it all over to his mother, and on that Wednesday, since he had to pick up his sister later in the afternoon, Julien had gone to a bar to treat himself to lunch.
Madame Barbeau believed that restaurant meals were hell on earth, or perhaps even that Satan himself worked in restaurant kitchens, spitting in all the dishes; Julien did not know the precise details of his mother’s objections because he had learned to tune her out years ago when she got started on one of her Subjects. In any case, he enjoyed the meal even more knowing its mere occurrence would be appalling to his mother, and availed himself of one more beer than he should have, arriving at rue Malbec rather worse forwear.
“Joseeehhh-tuh!” he called, singsong, leaning against the hood of the truck. When she did not immediately appear, he shook a Gitane out of a crumpled pack and lit up. Julien didn’t mind waiting. There was nothing to hurry home to except for a barn cat he was friendly with. And the barn cat was a biter.
He was halfway through his second cigarette when Josette let herself out of the front door, carefully closed it, and ran to thecar.
“So?” asked Julien. “How wasit?”
“Awesome,” said Josette.
“Really. Cleaning some guy’s house is awesome? You are simple-minded.”
“Not that part, you lunk. I’m talking about the house. You see it’s four whole floors? And each floor is huge, Julien. Room after room. Like for aking.”
“You didn’t do well in history if you think that a king would have spent even one night in a dinky house likethat.”
“It’s not dinky!”
Julien laughed, pleased at having gotten under his sister’s skin so easily. The farm was a forty-five minute drive from Castillac and they drove the rest of the way without talking, Julien daydreaming about the voluptuous waitress who had just served his lunch, and Josette imagining each room of the mayor’s house in turn, trying to remember the details, both for her own pleasure and because she knew her mother would have a pile of questions about all ofit.
They pulled up to the farmhouse just as a drizzle started. Dark clouds loomed up behind the barn and Josette saw that the chickens had all roosted, preparing for a storm.
“Hey, what time do I need to take you in tomorrow?” Julien asked. “If you would just learn how to drive, you could take the truck yourself.”
Josette shook her head. “Nine o’clock, and I can’t be late,” she said, running to the front door, anxious to tell her mother about the day before she forgot anything.
Madame Barbeau sat by the fireplace in the kitchen. The farmhouse was very old, and the fireplace immense, big enough to roast a deer. Three hundred years’ worth of soot blackened the mantel and ceiling. The windows were small and infrequent, the room dark and dingy.
“Sit,” said Madame Barbeau to her daughter. “Julien? Where are you going with that envelope?”
Julien stopped on his way through and reluctantly gave his mother the rest of the day’s take. “Sold everything early on,” he said. “On Saturday, give me more whole birds.”
Madame Barbeau nodded, thumbing through the bills with satisfaction. “So, Josette? Speakup.”
Josette opened a package of cookies and sat down, chewing. “It was awesome, Maman.”
“You say everything is awesome. I don’t even know what the word means anymore, and you certainly don’t either.”
Josette ate another cookie.
“First tell me about the mayor. Is he a good boss? Clear with his instructions? Not too harsh? Of course, you won’t really know until you make a mistake. That’s the test. You didn’t happen to make a mistake on your firstday?”
“No, Maman,” said Josette.
“All right. Good. Come on, girl, speak up. What is the inside of the house like? Does he have paintings? They can be very valuable, you know. How about silver?”
“I polish the silver, on Tuesdays. This was Wednesday.” Josette saw her mother was waiting for more, so she added, “It’s Wednesday so I didn’t do anything with the silver. I didn’t even see any, apart from some candlesticks in the dining room. I dusted the whole house, with rags and a big stick with feathers on the end of it. Big puffy feathers, like.”
“Ostrich,” said Madame Barbeau.
“Yeah, well, that took a really long time. It’s four whole floors, this house. A skyscraper, prettymuch.”
Madame Barbeau was struck by a fit of coughing but still managed to give her daughter a wilting look. “How can you be eighteen years old and know so little?”
Josette ate another cookie.
“And please, stop making a pig of yourself with those packaged sweets. I don’t know why Julien insists on bringing them home. Those cookies are made in factories, you understand, not a kitchen. They are no better than food from a restaurant. And as I hope I have made clear…”
She was off, having found an entry point to one of her Subjects, and Josette arranged her expression to look as though she were paying attention, but was instead dreaming of the house on rue Malbec, touching the silk-covered pillows and the heavy curtains, running her hands over a sculpture of a swan that stood in the mayor’s bedroom, and leaving the sooty farm kitchen and her scolding mother far, far behind.
The mairie, where the mayor worked, was only a short walk from his house. His habit was to have coffee and toast with butter and jam at eight o’clock, and then stroll to his office right around nine. It was a pleasure to work at the mairie, since the various people who worked under him knew what they were doing and made his life rather easy. They knew which forms to fill out for what occasion—and there seemed to be an infinity of occasions, the French government being extremely fond of forms—but Monsieur Coulon didn’t have to worry about any of that, thanks to their abundant expertise.
At the moment, the end of a too-hot July, there was practically nothing for him to do. Sometimes he was asked by the examining magistrate to look into a matter, making inquiries and acting as a sort of policeman. When nothing else was going on he decided his main job should be the promotion of good spirits in the village, and he took that part of his job seriously, walking through the streets and greeting whomever he passed, even going so far as to keep notes in a small notebook he carried about how many people he had spoken to from day to day. At the office, he did not insist on formality, which the others liked himfor.
The week after Josette had begun to work for him, Coulon took a call from Charles Mangey, the mayor of Bergerac.
“Maxime, I just heard from a friend, an official in Périgueux who knows about such things, that there’s going to be clamping down on black market activity, just wanted to give you a head’sup.”
“Black market?” said Coulon. “Not sure that’s much of a problem in Castillac. I can’t imagine anyone trafficking in stolen kidneys or exotic drugs at the Café de la Place,” he said with a chuckle.
Charles took a deep breath. “You watch too many American movies,” he said. “The black market isn’t only for things like that. It covers an enormous amount of ground, from pirated software to cigarettes. Essentially, any transaction where the government is cheated out of taxes, that’s black market. How is it possible you do not know this, Maxime?”
“I didn’t realize that’s what you were talking about,” said Coulon defensively. “Perhaps a bit of the work in the village is under the table…ah, you can’t blame people, can you? The VAT has gotten ridiculous.”
“Maxime,” said the other mayor, “I needn’t remind you that we cannot hold ourselves up as protectors of the common good while turning a blind eye to illegal behavior, no matter what you might think of the policies coming out of Paris.”
“Yes, yes, of course, I wasn’t saying that. Though I don’t see how much I can do about the kind of thing you’re talking about. If a homeowner pays the plumber with cash, or partly cash, what am I supposed to do about it? I’m not present during the transaction and there is no evidence of its having taken place.”
“Bank records, Maxime,” André said patiently. “Look out for cash deposits. After all, cash doesn’t just appear out of thin air, doesit?”
“Ah, if only it did!” laughed Coulon. “Thank you for letting me know. As I said, I doubt there is much illegal activity here in Castillac, at least on any scale worth worrying about, but I will have a word with the bank manager in any case. Now tell me about the music festival next week—are you making any special plans about parking?”
The two mayors spoke for another ten minutes about upcoming events in their respective towns, and then cordially said goodbye.
After hanging up, Coulon sat for a moment looking out of his window. Rue Balzac was empty except for Madame Vargas’s dog Yves, who was trotting confidently down the sidewalk before turning onto rue Malbec. “Black market” sounded so exotic, like something in a stylish film, Coulon thought. Perhaps there is money to be made here in Castillac in more ways than I have figured.
A slow smile spread across his face as he contemplated a number of targets that instantly sprang to mind. Candy from a baby, he thought, suddenly hungry for lunch.
Over the course of several months, Josette settled into the job at the mayor’s house happily enough, though certain aspects turned a little strange. At first it had been smooth sailing, with Coulon seeming to be the most genial of employers. Each weekday morning, Julien dropped off Josette, and she set about the day’s chores with enough enthusiasm and competence to please her boss. She was meticulous with silver-polishing, making sure to get every speck of tarnish even in the crevices of the ornate flower pattern on the flatware. She made the mayor’s bed fresh every day, plumping the duvet to cloud-like softness and making sure the pillowcases were washed and dried in the sunshine, as he preferred. Coulon set the schedule of what she was to do when, though he liked to fiddle with it, sometimes changing the day’s chores for reasons she did not understand. But what did she care? The job paid well and allowed her to spend the bulk of her day in a stately house, surrounded by beautiful things. It was ten times better than the chicken house, she told Julien, though the truth was that she missed farm life and preferred the company of the birds to that of Coulon by a wide margin.
In the third week, Coulon had led her into one of the guest bedrooms and told her to change into an outfit he had gotten for her to wear during her working hours. “It’s the least I can do, providing appropriate clothes for the job,” he said by way of explanation. Josette did not entirely understand the concept of ‘appropriate for the job,’ and with a shrug put on the black dress with a tiny apron hemmed with a frill. The bodice of the dress was tight but not so tight that she wanted to complain, and the skirt was full, short but not too short, and even had an underskirt of tulle, which Josette considered wonderfully fancy, having never had the chance to wear anything remotely like it before.
The outfit was not to last, however. After two weeks, Coulon led her into the guest bedroom once more, and told her that given the heat of August and the lack of air conditioning in his house, he thought it only kind to provide her with a summer outfit that would make her strenuous work more comfortable to perform. She looked doubtfully at the bed, where he had laid out a camisole and pantalettes made by La Perla, a name not familiar toher.
“They are the finest money can buy,” he said, trying and failing to sound casually authoritative. “It was cruel of me to expect you to run up and down stairs all day in this heat without any concession whatsoever to your comfort. This should go a long way to ameliorating the situation. And,” he added, going to the Empire chest of drawers and sliding open the narrow top drawer. “I have provided more selection, so that you may decide for yourself what you feel like wearing on any particularday.”
Josette was taken aback, as any young woman might have been, though other young women would likely have understood Coulon’s motivation more clearly. “You want me to…clean house wearing underwear?”
Coulon chuckled. “Oh, I don’t think of it as underwear,” he said, as though the suggestion was silly. “I think of it simply as something luxurious, something of great quality and high-class, that will make your day much more pleasant. Tell you what: try it for a week, and then decide. If you find there is anything about wearing La Perla that you do not like—if it impedes your work in some way, or you feel self-conscious, anything at all—then I will whisk it all away without another word. After all, the point is to make your day better, Josette. How does that sound?”
Josette did not feel she could go against him, and did not feel especially strongly about it in any case. She was used to the freedom of living deep in the country, where she could skinny-dip in the pond or strip off her clothes to feel the spring sun on her skin. And raising various farm animals over the years gave her that sort of matter-of-fact physicality typical of people whose early years are spent close to nature. Given all that, the young woman did not have an abundance of modesty, and while she regretted the loss of the fancy underskirt, these new items did look very beautiful, and were heavenly to touch.
She agreed to try it. And when Coulon left the room and closed the door behind him, she hurried out of her jeans and T-shirt and into the sumptuous underwear, marveling at its softness. It was like wearing nothing at all, she thought, taking a look at herself in the mirror in the armoire door, and liking what shesaw.
Thus the new normal began. Julien continued to drive his sister back and forth to work, even on the days there was no market at which to sell the farm’s bounty. On market days, he continued to skim a bit of the profit for himself and usually took himself out to lunch, and Josette spent the five days of the work-week cleaning the mayor’s house with industry, while wearing very expensive lingerie.
Neither of them said a word to their mother about what went on in Castillac. Madame Barbeau asked a thousand questions of them both, but without having to say a word to each other, they answered with a stream of blandness along with a nearly complete lack of detail, and the poor woman was frustrated to the point of apoplexy. She insisted Josette hand over her earnings when she was paid, bi-weekly, but Coulon paid in cash and Josette had learned from her brother to hold back a little each week, gently adding to her nest-egg, which was wrapped in plastic bags and hidden in the rafters of the chicken house.
Toward the end of September it was still hot, and Josette was grateful to be wearing something light, especially on the days when her work was strenuous. She kept the black dress hung up in the guest room armoire in case someone rang the doorbell, or she needed to put something on so she could go outside to hang thewash.
On one wash-day, she had the dress on over the La Perla underwear and was on the point of opening the door to go out, holding a heavy basket of wet laundry, when she noticed a woman in the alley, lurking by the back gate. Josette set down the basket and moved out of sight, then peeked from behind the curtain. The wall to the back garden was high, but the woman must have found something to stand on because her head popped up; she was staring at the clothesline, at the silk pantalettes and camisole that Josette had hung out earlier that morning. Josette saw her reach a hand out—was she going to steal them right off the clothesline? The nerve of this strange person!
But one of the neighbors shouted about something and the woman pulled her hand back. She looked up at the house and Josette stayed very still, willing her to moveon.
What business is it of hers, she thought crossly, waiting a few minutes after the woman had walked on down the alley and out of sight. She yanked the basket up and went outside, pegging the wash to the line aggressively, then carefully taking the dry La Perla things inside, folding them, and putting them in the narrow drawer where they belonged.
“I’m still not used to village life,” she said to Julien on the drive home that day. “Can you imagine, a stranger about to reach out and touch the wash on the line? I didn’t know whether to run out and yell at her or say nothing. I don’t…I don’t know the rules.”
“Eh, it’s not that complicated,” he answered. “It’s just the same as you learned in school. How to greet people, when to keep your mouth shut. Just pretend—who was that teacher in primaire, Monsieur Séverin? Just imagine what he would tell you, and dothat.”
“I don’t like people being nosy,” she said, raking her fingers through herhair.
“You get that from Maman,” her brother said, rolling his eyes. “People are naturally interested in other people. Doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Of course, Maman thinks it is bad, but you do know she is crazy as aloon?”
Josette looked out the window and did not answer.
A stunning June morning, and Molly Sutton, proprietress of the gîte business at La Baraque, was pruning roses when her pal Frances rode a bicycle across the lawn, shouting and zigzagging all the way. Bobo ran back and forth barking her headoff.
“I don’t think I have ever seen you ride a bike,” said Molly, laughing, and kissing Frances on both cheeks.
“I don’t remember ever learning. I never had one single day of being sporty my whole life. But Nico dared me. Or not dared exactly, but he said he didn’t think I could do it. Can you imagine!”
“Wait, you’re insulted because he didn’t think you could do something that you can’t actuallydo?”
“But I can, Molly, that’s point number one. And number two, I never wanted to. So…well, a lot of good you are!” She crossed her arms and pretended to bemad.
“You must be about to die of thirst, picking the hottest day of the year to start exercising. Come get a cold drink.”
“I won’t say no,” said Frances, letting the bike clatter to the ground and sending the orange cat streaking for safety under the bushes. “So let’s see, it’s…what the hell day is it? Village life has me so relaxed I can’t keep track anymore.”
“It’s Thursday. I have to keep track because unlike some people, I work for a living.”
“I don’t know which people you’re trying and failing to throw shade on. I happen to have sent off a new jingle this very morning, for your information. And I expect the renumeration to be quite handsome, thank you verymuch.”
“A lot handsomer than the gîte business is turning out to be, though I shouldn’t complain. There’s a lot to be said about doing work you actuallylike.”
“Cheers,” said Frances, clinking her glass of Perrier with her friend’s. Molly had left Boston and her fundraising job when her marriage broke up, and come all the way to Castillac in search of a new life. A wild plan, some would say reckless, but so far it had turned out better than she had thought possible.
“So what’s your line-up this week? Anybody interesting coming?”
“I have my first repeat customer, which isnice.”
“I hope it’s that Eugenia Perry, I really wanted to get to know her better.”
“Afraid not. It’s Wesley Addison.”
“The weird dude? The one who killed hiswife?”
“He didn’t kill his wife. At least, I don’t think so. Sometimes the dead bodies pile up so fast around here that we think natural deaths aren’t even a thing.”
“Good point. I just want you to be a little more careful, after what happened last winter when La Baraque was fully bookedand—”
“I know, I know. I am more careful now. Much as I hated to do it, I had a lock put on my bedroom door, and a new one on the French doors to the terrace. And while I’ll admit that at first Wesley Addison made me want to poke my eyes out with forks, once I got to know him, I was wonover.”
“Because you are a marshmallow.”
Molly shrugged. “You and Nico want to come over for dinner next Friday night?”
“Who else is coming?”
“You have no manners.”
Frances laughed. “I mean, yes, we’d be delighted. Will it be you andBen?”
“I can invite Wesley if youbeg.”
Frances laughed. “Make that vegetable thing I adore so much? Listen, I’m glad you invited us, because there’s something we’d like to talk to you about.”
Molly raised her eyebrows.
“Good heavens, Franny, out with it! This isn’t one of your visionary business ideas isit?”
“No, no, nothing like that. It’s…it’s about the wedding. I’m just…one minute I’m all gung-ho, and the next, I just want to run for the hills,” she said, her voice so low Molly could barely hearher.
“For someone who’s been married as many times as you, you sure are skittish.”
“That’s exactly why. Duh.”
“Okay, what about it? Have you and Nico set a date? Are you going to have it in Castillac? You know I’d be happy to do it here at La Baraque, if you want to have it outside. Or I can help you find something fancier in Bergerac if that’s what you’ve got inmind.”
“I know I brought it up, but listening to you jump in with all those questions…well, you’re right, I am skittish about the whole thing. It’s not Nico, you know I love him to pieces. It’s just…my sketchy marital history, you know? Anyway, the idea of having a traditional sort of wedding, with me walking down the aisle and all that—I’m just…not sure I can go through that. Again. Seems like for a third marriage, you ought to do something different besides get a new dress.”
“The guy is different, Franny, that’s all that matters.”
“Maybe,” said Frances doubtfully. “But you can’t say symbolism means nothing or why would anyone bother? Anyway, Nico and I were wondering what you and Ben think about an out-of-town wedding. What do you think about going somewhere and celebrating, just the four ofus?”
Molly scrunched up her face. “I don’t know. Give me some time to think aboutit?”
“You’re not without your own marriage scars, Iknow.”
Molly nodded. Her only marriage had ended in divorce, though her new life in France had done a pretty thorough job of healing most of those old wounds. It was not another marriage she was desperate for, but a child. And as her fortieth birthday loomed on the horizon, her prospects were feeling dimmer and dimmer.
“Want an almond croissant?” she said abruptly, because almond croissants could make anyone feel better, even if they were a little on the staleside.
Frances had only just careened off, looking as though she were going to topple over any minute, when Molly heard a brisk rap on thedoor.
“Lapin!” she cried, surprised to see her friend on the front step. She almost always saw him at Chez Papa, the local bistro where she had meals or cocktails several times aweek.
“I’m sorry to bother you at home,” he said nervously.
“Gracious, Lapin, you look distraught! Come in and tell me what has happened. Can I get you something to drink?”
“A glass of something would not be amiss.”
Molly checked the half-drunk bottle on the kitchen counter. “Côtes du Rhoneokay?”
“Yes, yes,” he said, waving his hand in the air. “Oh, Molly, I hope you don’t mind my coming to you, but you’re the only woman I—I mean, you know I am fond of women, very fond, it’s just that—I can talk to you. Of course you are extremely lovely, I don’tmean—”
“Mon Dieu, Lapin. Relax. Just tell me what’s wrong.” She gave him the glass of wine and they sat down together on the lumpysofa.
“It’s Anne-Marie.” Lapin gulped his wine. “She wants…she wants to get married.”
Was it something in the water? Was the rest of the village going to come trooping through her living room expressing angst about marriage, or was Lapin the last inline?
Seeing his tortured expression, Molly suppressed a laugh. When she first came to the village and met Lapin, he had been the sort of guy who drooled over women but never got very far with any of them, partly because of his boorish behavior and also, Molly and others suspected, because he was actually too afraid for anything to happen. But then he had met Anne-Marie, and she had seen something in him that other women had missed, and they had been happy together for longer than anyone would have guessed.
“Okay, so she wants to get married. Is this actually a problem? From what I’ve seen, you and Anne-Marie get on like gangbusters.”
“Well, yes. Yes, we do. But that’s exactly my point. Why change something when it’s working sowell?”
“Do you want to have a family?” Molly asked, valiantly trying to put her own feelings aside.
“Family? You mean children?” Lapin’s eyes were like saucers.
Molly laughed lightly. “Yes, children. Has Anne-Marie said anything about wantingthem?”
“We haven’t talked about it.” Lapin took another large sip of wine. “Thing is—you remember, Molly, my mother died when I was just a boy. And my father, he was…difficult. Very tough.”
“One could saythat.”
Molly raised her eyebrows.
“All right, yes, abusive. I don’t want to complain, I’m quite aware that others have had it much worse thanI—”
“Lapin, that’s neither here nor there.”
“I’m just saying that the fact that others have it worse has nothing to do with how it was for you. It’s not a competition.”
Lapin’s eyes got wide again. “I have to think about that…but on its face, it seems quite wise. I knew it was a good idea to come see you.” He polished off his glass and placed it carefully on the coffee table. “But please, tell me how to get Anne-Marie to forget this crazy idea! I was so happy beforethis.”
Molly shrugged. “I’m afraid that’s beyond my powers. And yours, to be honest. My advice is to ask her for some time to think it over, tell her how you feel about her, and let the whole thing sink in a little bit. You’re freaking out now, but maybe once you get used to theidea…”
“I have never seen myself as a married man,” said Lapin. “A roué, perhaps, a man abouttown…”
Molly somehow managed not to roll her eyes. “Couples need to do what’s right for them. Maybe marriage is the thing, maybe it’s not. You’ll have to figure that out for yourself. Now, I don’t mean to rush you out, Lapin, but I’ve got a long list of chores to get through today.”
“Understood, understood. Gîte business treating you right?”
“Not bad. I’ve got four guests leaving, and three coming this Saturday, including a repeater.”
“Quite a compliment! It’s not as though Castillac offers a bounty of sightseeing.”
“There’s plenty within an easy drive,” Molly said, feeling defensive even though she realized Lapin was only making conversation and meant no insult. “And some guests come for the peace and quiet.”
“Ha! That’s what the village used to have, before you showed up. Now that the Master Sleuth is a resident of Castillac, seems like we have a murder every otherweek.”
Irritably, Molly said, “Not fair. There’s been nothing since February, and here it isJune.”
Lapin just laughed. “I think that proves my point more than yours!”
“Like I said, work to do,” Molly said, standing up and pointedly walking to the front door. All the talk of marriage had put her in a foul mood, and there was nothing to do about it but spend some quality hours in the garden, preferably hacking at things with a sharp object and working up a good sweat.
Mayor Coulon tapped his fingertips on the table at Café de la Place, stuck in the uncomfortable ambivalence of wishing his ex-wife would hurry up and get there while at the same time dreading her arrival. He signaled to the Pascal, the server with movie-star good looks, who strolled rightover.
“What can I do for you, Mayor?” said Pascal.
“I’m waiting for Odile,” Coulon said, not hiding his irritation.
“Would you like a drink in the meantime?”
“Just bring me…do you have a plate of something, crudités?” Coulon made intermittent efforts to control his waistline, and silently congratulated himself on choosing vegetables in such a stressful circumstance.
Just then Coulon caught a glimpse of Odile making her way down the sidewalk. It was Monday and the streets weren’t packed, but there were enough pedestrians that she ran into people she knew, stopping to exchange kisses and small talk before continuing toward the café. Coulon saw very well that she was not trying to be on time, was in fact purposely going to be late just to annoy him, and he tapped his fingertips faster and faster until an old woman at the next table shot him a look that made himstop.
“Bonjour, Maxime,” Odile said when she finally dropped into the seat across fromhim.
“Bonjour, Odile,” he said, forcing himself to sound more pleasant than hefelt.
“Did you order?”
“Of course not. I waited for you. Something that feels quite familiar, I mightadd.”
Odile laughed. She was a put-together woman dressed in a smart suit, her auburn hair in a neat chignon. As the owner of a number of successful beauty product shops, Odile was confident and independent. Her working habits—and failure to defer to Maxime—had been a great source of marital discord.
Pascal appeared with a plate of crudités, a basket of bread, and a pot of pâté. “Maman made her special recipe, don’t miss it!” he said with a wink as he passed them each a menu. He took their drink orders and then went on to the next table, where a harried mother and three young children were waving their hands for his attention as though on the point of mass starvation.
“I’m going to cut to the chase,” said Odile. “I know you enjoy the fruits of your position, Maxime, including hiring only the prettiest assistants you can possiblyfind—”
Maxime opened his mouth to argue but Odile held up one finger. “I’m not here to argue about that. I am merely pointingout—”
“Odile, how I run the mairie is none of your business beyond the interest of any citizen of Castillac. And I’ll have you know that every single person working in that office is highly qualified. Overly so, actually. And for youto—”
“—what I want is for you to allow the building permits to go through on my store on rue Picasso. All the paperwork has been filed, the staff should have finished its review last month. You know perfectly well you are blocking the project out of spite.”
“I haven’t the slightest idea what you are talking about,” Maxime said airily, though he knew quite well. She wanted to open a third store right here in the village, and Maxime took it as a personal affront. The whole reason for the Castillac shop, from his point of view, was for Odile to flaunt her financial success, as though to proclaim to the village how much better she was than he, even though he was mayor and had been elected, which certainly should count asmore—
He was snapped out of his internal rant by his ex-wife, who tapped him on the arm. “Maxime. Look, you’re a perfectly good mayor when you stick to your strengths. Go around the village and chat with people. Keep the mairie working efficiently so that we don’t all drown in red tape. But these manipulations and underhanded machinations, for revenge or profit or some other motive? Leave that alone, Maxime. I’m telling you. Leave it alone.
“Now tell me,” she continued, with a stiff smile, “where I can find a few more girls like your house-maid? I hear she’s quite the stunner. I could use help like that in my shops.”
“Josette? She’s quite diligent. I couldn’t be more pleased.” He was especially pleased that Josette obviously irritated his wife, a side benefit that only occurred to him now that he saw Odile’s dour expression as she continued to talk abouther.
“She’s probably stealing you blind while you stand there drooling,” said Odile, with an angry smile.
“I’m afraid your jealousy is showing,” said Maxime. “Indeed, it is sad when the bloom is off the rose, and there is nothing anyone can do to bring it back, no matter what creams or lotions you use. At least you have your work,” hesaid.
Odile had never despised him more than she did at that moment, which was saying something.
Odile did not stay but took off looking as though she had eaten something that disagreed with her. Coulon lingered at the table, savoring his victory as well as Pascal’s mother’s exquisite pâté, and then deciding to take a stroll around the village before going to his afternoon appointment at thebank.
“Bonjour, Mayor Coulon,” said villager after villager, as he made his way along. He was relieved that people seemed happy, as they often do on a beautiful June day, and did not approach him with an endless stream of complaints and problems the way they sometimes did on drizzly gray days with a chill in the air. He stopped to talk to Dr. Vernay, just as he was going back in to see his afternoon patients. He waved at Ada Bellard, who worked at the cantine at the primaire around the corner. He petted various dogs if their owners were around to appreciate it. All in all, he felt he had bolstered his chances at the next election by ingratiating himself with at least twenty people in a short hour, and went into the bank feeling pleasantly complacent.
The receptionist showed Coulon into a back office, where he sat with Monsieur Lachance, the bank vice-president, for about an hour. The conversation might have seemed rather dry to many, since some of it concerned the hated VAT and matters of taxation—but the local gendarmes would have been very interested to hear what the two men spoke about in low voices with the door closed.
Very interested indeed.
Saturday morning, changeover day. Molly had found, over several years of running La Baraque, that she got to know some guests pretty well during their stay, while others remained complete strangers. Which was fine by Molly, as she understood that people are different in how much socializing they want to do; some of the guests were dedicated sightseers and so barely spent any time at La Baraque except for sleeping.
The group leaving was entirely of the second type, and so the goodbyes were quick and without any promises to keep in touch. Molly hoped they were satisfied customers, and reminded herself to make up a short questionnaire and send it out to her mailing list of guests, to see if there was anything they might suggest if they had the chance to do so anonymously. That reminder joined a rather long list in Molly’s head of things she needed to attend to in the upcoming week: the faucet in the pigeonnier was leaking again; she needed to find a mason to talk about rebuilding the ruin in the back pasture; a window pane in the hallway was cracked, and she was sure there were about five other things she’d forgotten for the moment.