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A disturbed wife. A nanny. And a pack of cowardly, lying friends.Simon Valette, a cultured and successful Parisian, moves his family to Castillac looking for peace and quiet. Before they've had a chance to settle in, someone is found murdered in the library. Molly and Ben work double-time to disentangle all the lies--including those told by their own friends. Will they manage to trap the killer before another victim trusts the wrong person and winds up dead?
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Copyright © 2017 by Nell Goddin
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Also by Nell Goddin
About the Author
“Watch out!” Molly shouted, as she looked up from pulling weeds in the front border in time to see an impending disaster—Constance on her bicycle, Bobo the dog, and a small truck all converging at high speed at the end of the driveway.
The driver of the truck slammed on the brakes. Constance jerked the bike to one side and landed in the ditch; Bobo ran to her and licked her face.
“Are you okay?” Molly said, running over. She waved and smiled at the truck driver, who she hoped was bringing the first load of materials for a new renovation project at La Baraque, her two-year-old gîtebusiness.
“Yeah, but no thanks to that dude,” grumbled Constance, as she brushed off her jeans and then looked at the front wheel of her bike, which was no longer perfectly round. Her hair was pulled into a tight ponytail, her usual get-down-to-business hairstyle, and her young, fresh face went without makeup.
“Go inside, get something to drink, and relax. I’ve just got to talk to Boris for two seconds and then I’ll be right with you.”
Constance glowered. “I’m supposed to be on a day-trip with Thomas, you know. He wanted to drive over to Bordeaux and show me off. His words, isn’t that so adorable? But I told him no way can I miss changeover day, Molly is counting on me.”
“And I appreciate that, Constance. Nothing’s broken, no sprains? Go on in, I’ll be there in two seconds. Then let’s have a little gab before we start work.”
The prospect of a bit of gossip and hanging out in Molly’s living room cheered the housecleaner up a bit, and she went inside without further grumbling.
“So,” said Molly, turning to Boris, who was patiently waiting in the cab of his truck. “Bonjour! You nearly gave me a heart attack just then. My dog— like most dogs, I suppose—is not that smart when it comes to cars and trucks.”
“Bonjour, how are you?” said Boris, and without waiting for Molly to say how she was, which at the moment was rather irritated, added, “Tie it up, then,” gesturing to Bobo.
She opened her mouth to tell him what she thought about people who don’t like dogs, but then closed it again, realizing that her opinion was hardly going to change his mind. She took a breath and tried for better footing. “I’m having the old stone barn rebuilt, it’s back that way,” she pointed, “behind the house…it might be better to go back to rue des Chênes and then drive across the meadow from the road. Of course, the closer you get to the worksite, the better.”
“Is there going to be a separate driveway for the barn?”
She hadn’t thought of that. “No. At least I don’t think so. The building will be divided into three gîtes, and the parking is here,” she said, gesturing to the large area between her house and the cottage.
“People won’t want to carry bags that far,” said Boris.
How annoying it is when people you don’t like say sensible things! Molly thought.
“All right, well, I’ll sort all that out later on. For now, please go down the road to the left, away from the village, and go about two hundred meters or so. You can see the ruined barn from the road, though it’s so covered with vines it looks like a big green lump. If you get to the small stone building close to the road, you’ve gone too far. It’s been fairly dry and the meadow drains well in any case, so I’m not worried about the truck getting stuck or even causing ruts.”
Boris saluted and backed up onto rue des Chênes. That salute—it had to be ironic, right? Smirking? Molly felt like chasing after Boris and giving him a piece of her mind, but she squared her shoulders, called Bobo, and went to find Constance. They were old friends by this point, Molly having hired the younger woman to help with cleaning when Molly first arrived in the village several years earlier.
The main house at La Baraque was very old, by American standards, as well as rambling, having been added onto over the centuries in a haphazard way. But Molly had instantly fallen in love with its disorganized charm when she saw it listed on an internet real estate site, and had hustled over to Castillac and bought the place, just like that. What followed had, thus far, been the happiest years of Molly’s life: she had made good friends and solved a handful of crimes, and unexpected—and unlooked for—romance had bloomed in that sensual Gallic atmosphere.
Constance was lying on the sofa holding a glass of lemonade. “Who was that guy?” she asked, reaching down to rub her knee somewhat theatrically, and groaning softly.
“Never met him. He’s delivering materials for the work on the barn. Hey, I thought you knew everyone,” said Molly, pouring herself another cup of coffee though she had drunk two already.
“Pretty much,” said Constance. “I do have news on that score,” she said, throwing out a little bait and grinning.
“What score? About Boris?”
“No, silly, about someone new to Castillac. Two someones, actually. No, make that three.”
“My heavens, the floodgates have been opened! You’ve met these new people?”
Constance shrugged and sipped her lemonade, which Molly took to mean no.
“Well, who are they? What have you heard?”
“I can’t believe you’re not more plugged in,” sad Constance, wanting to prolong the pleasure of Molly’s ignorance.
Bobo stood by Molly’s chair and Molly fiddled with her soft ears while waiting patiently for Constance to get on with it.
“Okay,” Constance said, unable to hold back any longer, “I’ll tell you even if you won’t beg. Ben hasn’t said anything at all?”
“Okay, okay! What I hear is: Maron is out, and we’re getting a new chief!”
Molly’s eyes widened. “What?”
“Well, it’s no big surprise. You know the gendarmerie rotates people around all the time. They don’t want the gendarmes getting too cozy with the people who live in their district or whatever.”
“Right. I just…I was finally feeling like Maron and I were on pretty good terms.”
“You mean he let you muck around in all the interesting cases,” said Constance with a cackle. “You’ll be very lucky if the next person lets you get away with that.”
“You’re probably right,” said Molly, her spirits sinking. “I don’t think this is good news for Dufort/Sutton Investigations.”
“Why isn’t your name first, anyway?”
“Alphabetical order. And because Ben is the one who knows everybody, so it just made sense.”
“Does it bug you though, having to be second?”
“No! I swear, Constance, sometimes I think you work overtime just trying to stir up trouble.” Bobo jumped up in Molly’s lap, causing coffee to spill onto the arm of the chair. “Honestly, Bobo, you’re not a puppy anymore! Okay, who else? You did say three new people?”
Constance tapped her chin, thinking. “I’m not positive about that. Could be more. Let’s say: three with an asterisk. Because it’s a family and there might be children. My information is a little sketchy at the moment. You know that manor out rue de Fallon? It’s back from the road behind some trees, so you might not have noticed it. Really nice place though it could use some TLC.”
“That’s the new family’s house?”
“Am I so hard to follow? For an ace detective you can sometimes be a little slow on the uptake, Molls.”
Molly stood up and wrenched the stained slipcover off the armchair, the irritation she had felt at Boris coming back with a vengeance. “Okay, fine. I’m getting started. It’s already ten, and you know how guests are, they can show up at unpredictable times.”
Constance finished her lemonade, feeling equally annoyed. It was disappointing when you had some juicy tidbits and they went completely unappreciated.
“You hear anything about who the new chief is going to be?” Molly asked, as they gathered up pails, vacuum cleaner, and mop.
“Not yet. Sure wish Ben would take the job again. I mean, I didn’t hate Maron. But he wasn’t likable either, you know? You never had the feeling you knew what he was thinking.”
Molly shrugged. Dufort/Sutton Investigations solved an important case back in June, but there had been precious little going on since then. The news about Maron’s leaving put her in a sour mood, and she flung herself into cleaning as though getting every last speck of grime off a window would magically bring a friendly chief to the village, someone cheerfully disposed to collaborate with her and Ben.
But she was quite clear, even as she thought it, that it was only a wish, and unlikely to come true.
It was the same routine every Saturday, at least when Molly had new guests coming, which was most Saturdays now that business was steady. The changeover cleaning was onerous, the way any job was when there was no getting out of it and it repeated on an endless loop. But it was also satisfying, partly because the Saturday cleanings gave a rhythm to the weeks rolling by, and also because Molly found that making the spaces clean and welcoming provided a distinct pleasure. In a world that could be difficult, with so much tragedy in the news day after day, at least she could give her guests the felicity of a room with fresh flowers and a bottle of wine, crisp sheets and sparkling surfaces.
Constance’s performance with the vacuum had improved since Molly first hired her. It was still necessary, most weeks, for Molly to ask her to revisit a few of the rooms, where on final inspection dust bunnies were found still lurking. But the rooms were no longer strewn with used rags or empty bottles of cleaning fluid tossed aside and forgotten.
Most weeks, the two women enjoyed each other’s company, but on that particular Saturday Molly was glad to see Constance wobble out of the driveway on her bike, and Constance was just as glad to go. At this point, it’s almost like she’s family, thought Molly, as she did one final room check before any guests showed up. And family is going to get on your nerves some of the time, that’s just how it is.
Molly was no longer nervous on changeover day, worrying about whether anyone would show up and how to act around them. All of that was old hat, and she found herself instead looking forward to meeting the new people. Let’s see, she said to herself, sitting down at the computer to check the reservations so she’d know everyone’s name.
She heard the taxi in the driveway accompanied by Bobo’s barking, and after raking a comb through her tangled red hair, went out to greet the latest guests of La Baraque.
Christophe drove a Peugeot, and not a big one. But as Molly walked over, more and more people climbed out of it until there were five altogether, practically like watching a clown car at the circus.
“Bonjour,” she said, reaching to shake a big man’s hand. “I’m Molly Sutton. Are you…did you all meet at the train station?”
Christophe just shook his head, smiling, and went to the trunk and began taking out bags.
“It was just good luck,” said a small woman whose pronunciation of French was very precise. “Todor and I were just leaving the station and we saw only the one taxi-cab, but this fellow here—excuse me, monsieur, I’ve forgotten your name already—”
“Arthur,” said a young man, brushing off his pants.
“Yes, of course, Arthur. As I was saying, Arthur had already engaged the taxi but we overheard him say ‘La Baraque,’ and so, though we knew we were being impolite, there was only the one taxi, so we asked the young man—Arthur, yes, I have it now—and just as we were getting our bags into the trunk, along come the Jenkinses and they too were headed right here to La Baraque, and so—”
“In other words,” said the small woman’s husband, “we shared the taxi.”
“Wonderful,” laughed Molly. She turned to Mrs. Jenkins. “I thought you were going to be driving a rental car? Am I confused?”
“No, no, our plans changed. Actually…” Mrs. Jenkins’s pleasant face colored just a bit. “Actually, I lost my license just before we left the States. I was driving to a meeting, I was late, I was going too fast…”
“And the cops nabbed her,” her husband said cheerfully. “My wife’s got a record as long as your arm, and this last time she crossed some kind of line, and they suspended her license.” He shook his head but was smiling. “If you’re ever in a hurry, put ol’ Deana at the wheel. But if you want to stay clear of the law, maybe not.”
Mrs. Jenkins’s face got redder. “Billy,” she said. “You don’t have to air all our dirty laundry the instant we meet someone.”
Before an argument had time to get going, Molly jumped in. “Well, I’m so glad you’re all here! Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins, you’re in the pigeonnier, down that way. If you could wait a moment, I’ll get the others settled before walking you over.”
“Please, call us Billy and Deana,” said Mr. Jenkins.
“I will,” said Molly. The sight of the Americans made her a little homesick, though she did not recognize it as the cause of a little stab between the ribs. Something about the way they dressed and their facial expressions were so American and familiar—Billy wearing a pair of khakis with boat shoes from L.L.Bean, and Deana in a wrap skirt printed in pineapples. Meanwhile, the Frenchman was beginning to look annoyed at having to stand in the driveway so long. “You are Arthur Malreaux? You’ll be in the annex, attached to the main house. And you must be the Mertenses?”
Todor and Elise Mertens nodded, their bags at their feet. They were both quite short, and looked to be in their seventies, with rosy cheeks and white hair. All of the guests were eager to see their rooms, and in a brisk half hour, Molly had all five settled in their accommodations.
So far, no one had any special requests, or had left anything critical at home, or presented any sort of problem for Molly to solve. It was an auspicious beginning for a somewhat large group. As Molly turned her attention to some overdue housework in the main house, she was thinking about having the new guests over for an apéro possibly the following evening, and enjoying the lack of drama and calm of a beautiful September in Castillac.
There was the matter of the new chief of gendarmes, and how important a good relationship with the person in that position was to Ben and Molly…but no use worrying about the future, she thought as she buffed up a side table in the living room. Anyway, how bad could it be?
Ben Dufort was up early as usual, and had gone for a run and showered before most of Castillac had opened one eye. He was not a tall man but quite fit, with a brush-cut Molly liked to run her hands through, with faint crow’s-feet on his perennially tanned face. Ben was often one of the first at the Saturday market, and this week was no different. He had bought a few things he knew Molly would like: prunes stuffed with foie gras never failed to make her whoop and dance around the room, and a new vendor had sold him a collection of flavored salts in small glass containers that he was pretty sure would be a hit. He was meeting a potential new client at the Café de la Place, and took a seat at an outdoor table, looking around for Pascal, the exceptionally good-looking waiter whose mother did the café’s cooking.
The café was packed as it usually was at the tail end of market day. Ben recognized most of the other diners and noted a few strangers, always glad to see Castillac graced by some tourists since they brought much-needed cash to the small village. Pascal was laughing with a table of teenage girls celebrating something over bowls of ice cream. A large family was finishing a late breakfast at the next table, the children well-behaved and in their seats.
Leaning back in his chair and staring into the middle distance, Ben mentally reviewed his notes on the potential client. Bernard Petit was from Bergerac. He’d agreed to the fee without hesitation, but refused to provide any detail on what the job in question actually entailed. Ben wasn’t sure whether he was encouraged by this display of discretion or worried about what he and Molly might be asked to do.
No point worrying about it either way, as the man was due to arrive any minute and would surely fill in the blanks. Ben’s mind jumped next to his dwindling bank account and he felt a slight chill, though the day was sunny and warm. Molly was kind-hearted to a fault, so the chill was not so much about fearing he would go hungry as about pride. It is not a foolish kind of pride that propels a man to want to be not only self-sufficient but able to provide for a wife, he said to himself, watching a large man make his way down the sidewalk and guessing correctly that he was the mysterious prospective client.
Ben stood up as the man headed to the terrace of the Café. “Monsieur Petit?” he said, and when the man nodded, Ben introduced himself and stuck out his hand. But Monsieur Petit ignored the hand and Ben let it drop, wondering what the man could possibly be offended about.
“This is terribly…public,” Monsieur Petit said. “Is this any kind of place for a personal conversation?” It was true that the Castillaçois were renowned busybodies, and Ben acknowledged to himself that Petit had a point.
“Let’s enjoy lunch,” Ben said, “and afterwards we can take a stroll together and discuss whatever it is you would like me to do. We certainly don’t want to ruin Madame Longhale’s delicious cooking with any talk of work.”
Monsieur Petit shrugged. He pulled out a cigar and proceeded to go through the elaborate process of trimming and lighting it. Taking a few deep puffs, he plumed the bluish smoke over the heads of the large family at the next table. The mother shot Petit a dirty look, gathered up her children, and left.
The man chuckled. “Works like a charm,” Petit said.
Ben kept a poker face but internally was grimacing. There’s no rule about having to like the client, he said to himself, though it didn’t make him feel any better.
Pascal made it over to the table and took their drink orders, but had too many tables to stop for much of a chat.
“Is anything good here?” Petit asked.
Ben took a deep breath.
“Madame Longhale is quite accomplished in the kitchen. Her confit is excellent, as is the cassoulet—”
“It’s far too warm to eat anything like that. It may be September but there is no chill in the air whatsoever. It would be ridiculous to eat a hot stew on a day such as this.”
Ben took another deep breath, trying to disguise his irritation by briefly holding the menu in front of his face. “Obviously, order whatever you like. I’m going to have the cassoulet followed by salad and cheese.” He hadn’t had a thought of ordering the cassoulet—and indeed, he would have agreed that the weather wasn’t especially suited for it—but Monsieur Petit had been so smug in his dismissal of Madame Longhale’s dish that now he was determined to have it.
“So how did you hook up with the American, anyhow?” asked Petit.
“In Castillac, as you might imagine, it is easy to meet the people who live here. Eventually everyone crosses paths.”
“I heard she showed you up. Solved a case right under your nose, and when she could barely speak French on top of it.”
He was not usually so easily ruffled, but Ben had to hold himself back from leaping up and punching Petit right in the nose.
“Molly is a very skilled detective,” he said, using a lot of will to keep his teeth from clenching. “I am very lucky that we are on the same team.”
“How’s her French now? Gotten any better?”
“I should say so. She’s been here almost exactly two years.”
“Eh, we both know people who’ve come over and gotten nowhere in that amount of time. They stick to their own kind, watch English television shows, make no effort at all.”
“I’m not sure I know anyone like that. But you are certainly not describing Molly. She has thrown herself into village life with much enthusiasm.”
Petit squinted his eyes in what Ben took to be a skeptical manner. The prospective client had not quite insulted Molly, not enough to excuse storming off from the table. But he was right on the edge, and Ben waited, perversely hoping Petit would say something so awful it would put Ben completely in the right for telling him to shove it and walking away.
At that moment, Pascal appeared with a plate of crudités, small toasts, and a generous pot of his mother’s pâté.
“Thank you very much, Pascal,” said Ben. “I could eat your mother’s pâté for lunch every single day and be a happy man.”
Pascal grinned and made a graceful bow. “I’ll tell her. Sorry to rush off, but we are packed today and the new waitress hasn’t shown up—”
Petit, as Ben knew he would, hmphed his disapproval of the missing waitress. Then he dipped the short knife into the pâté and spread a thick layer on a piece of toast.
Ben busied himself with a stalk of celery while waiting for his turn with the knife, making a point of not asking Petit what he thought of the pâté. The two irritated men did not even try to make polite conversation.
“Oh the hell with it,” said Petit with his mouth full. “I’ll just speak low enough that those people over there can’t hear me.”
Ben leaned towards him, curious in spite of himself.
“I have quite a nice house in Bergerac. Just a block from the church. Expansive backyard with a garden and a small pool. One of the best—if not the best—houses in town, if I do say so.”
Ben barely succeeded in not rolling his eyes.
“Someone is stealing from my house. Pilfering, I should say, if that word connotes stealing of a smaller monetary value.”
Ben needed to finish chewing before asking, “What kinds of things have been stolen, and how long has this been going on?”
“The first time was about six months ago. I noticed the shoe trees in my closet were missing. I have some expensive pairs of shoes and I take very good care of them. No point paying all that money and then simply tossing them down and allowing them to become misshapen and unsightly. It only takes a little bit of care and attention, you understand, to put them away with trees inserted.
It would be impossible to dislike this man any more than I do, thought Ben. “And how many shoe trees are missing?”
“All right, and then? When did the next theft take place?” Ben had pulled out a small notebook and was taking down the information with a fountain pen.
“I failed to write down the exact dates of any of this, which I realize was a mistake. But I had no idea it would come to this, that an actual investigation by a professional would be necessary. I suppose I thought once I fired the old hag who cleaned the house and got someone new, with impeccable references, things would go back to normal.”
“But they did not?”
“No. Probably three weeks later, I went to get in bed and found my pillowcase missing. When I looked around in other bedrooms, the pillowcases on the guest beds were missing as well. They were not in the laundry or anywhere to be found.”
“I’ll say it’s odd!”
“Does anyone live at the house with you?”
“I have two children, a son and a daughter. They are grown now, attending universities far from Bergerac.”
“And their mother?”
“Must you pry so dreadfully? Their mother and I divorced long ago. I don’t keep up with her movements any longer.”
“Do you know if she lives in Bergerac?”
“No, she does not. Last I heard she was finding herself in Tibet, or some such nonsense. If anyone wanted to find her, just follow the scent of incense when it rolls by, and eventually it’ll lead to her. Last place I saw her reeked of the stuff.”
Ben nodded his head slowly, looking carefully at Petit. He had a big head, big nose, wide mouth, and ears that were nearly half as long as his head. Everything about the man was oversized, like a cartoon drawing. His eyebrows were dark and thick, his lips fleshy…only his eyes were on the small side, though that may have only been the effect of being swamped by such large features.
Ben tried to imagine this man at home, with a wife and children, but struggled to make the image come alive.
“All right,” the detective said, flashing a sudden smile at the sight of Pascal headed their way with a heavy tray. He waited to finish his thought until Pascal had served them and gone off to deal with the teenage girls. “All right, so am I to understand that you want us to find who is stealing from you, and if possible to recover the items?”
“Yes. Brilliant conclusion,” said Petit, tearing a leaf from an artichoke with a degree of savagery. “I would like your full attention on the matter, and will pay accordingly.”
Dufort allowed himself an inward smile at that news, though the prospect of working with Monsieur Petit was unappealing to say the least.
I’ll probably smell like cigars until the case is over, he thought. But at least I’ll be motivated to wrap it up as quickly as possible, and hopefully other cases will soon come along.
And with a mostly satisfied sigh, he dug into the bowl of steaming hot cassoulet, his mouth watering at the sight of several nuggets of confit de canard and the whole thing covered with a thin and delectable layer of goose fat.
“Simon, I do not understand why you insist on coming into the house looking like that. You know it’s disturbing to me. Would it really be such a bother to rinse off first?”
Simon Valette grinned at his wife. He was a good-looking man with bright blue eyes, the crow’s-feet having the effect of conferring wisdom or kindness. His hair was thick, dark, and unruly. Along one cheek was a scar that gave him an air of mystery. “Oh, Camille,” he said, moving to touch her face but she pulled away from him. “I really like it here,” he said, still grinning.
“Apparently,” said Camille, with the very faintest hint of a returned smile. “I’m glad you’ve found something to do that you enjoy, truly I am. I certainly never would have guessed when we lived on Boulevard des Capucines and you were working at Byatt Industries that you would take to building stone walls like a common laborer, but you have, that’s it, and I have nothing to say against it. Except that you are bringing a cloud of dust inside with you every time you come in for a drink of water, and the girls’ allergies are going to be absolutely insane, not to mention who do you think is going to be running the vacuum every five minutes to keep on top of it?”
“Tell me,” said Simon seriously. “Are you feeling better? I know we’ve barely gotten here and still have boxes to unpack. But I’m hoping…hoping that already you feel…less stressed? Lord knows Castillac seems to be an easygoing place, as far as I can tell.”
“Oh, it’s easygoing, all right,” Camille muttered. She was dressed in a long cashmere cardigan in a particular shade of brownish gray that was popular that year with important Parisian designers. Her slacks were well cut and her jewelry quietly impressive, not ostentatious. She was pretty, in the way that plenty of money can polish a person up, but her severe bun made her look stern and her expression was tense. As she stood talking to her husband, her fingers plucked at one of the buttons on her cardigan.
Simon wanted to take her hand and hold it to make her stop plucking, but he’d learned that it only made things worse. “Well, so far I think the decision to leave Paris was brilliant. My father seems calmer, wouldn’t you say? And the girls are having a wonderful time! Who would have guessed that playing in a little grove of bamboo with some sticks and an old blanket would be so much fun?”
Camille waved her hand in the air as though to erase that particular vision. “If Andrea could see them…”
“But that’s the whole point, chérie. We left the city partly to get away from people like Andrea.”
“Andrea is my closest friend.”
“She is a viper, Camille, for God’s sake.” Simon’s face was reddening and he smacked his dusty hands together. “Well, we’ve talked about this a hundred times. We’re here now, that’s what matters, and I think it’s going to be good for all of us.”
Camille stood with her arms folded, looking up at a stain on the ceiling. “I didn’t notice that when we came to look at the house. Was it in the inspector’s report? Look at it, Simon! Clearly there’s a leak in the roof, we’re probably going to have to rip the entire thing off and start over. It will cost a fortune. And you with no job.” She stood rooted to the spot, her eyes pinned on the small stain, a path of gray that extended about four inches down the wall, soiling the wallpaper.
“It’s not a worry, darling. Yes, it was in the report—it’s old damage and the roof was new just a few years ago. We can paint the ceiling, have new wallpaper, whatever you like.”
Camille shook her head, staring at the stain.
“It’s ancient history,” said Simon soothingly. “The damage is over and done with, and we don’t have to worry about it. And not only that—if a storm whipped through tonight and the roof was torn clear off the house? I have plenty of money, Camille. I’ll simply buy us a new roof and that’s it.”
The sound of shouting came in through the open window and the couple looked out. Their two daughters, aged ten and six, flew past as though being chased by demons.
“I don’t think they should be running with sticks,” said Camille. “They could easily lose an eye playing like that. Where is Violette? She should be keeping a closer watch on them.”
“I’ll talk to them,” said Simon, glad of an excuse to go back outside, having no intention of saying anything at all to the girls.
Camille spent another few minutes inspecting the stain before going upstairs to her bedroom. The house was an old manor, though not a particularly grand one as manors go. The bottom floor consisted of a living room, dining room, kitchen, library, laundry room, and a tiny little added-on half-bath. Upstairs were four bedrooms, two baths, and a large landing where the girls had already put on several puppet shows under the guidance of the nanny, Violette Crespelle. On the third floor was Violette’s room, and a large low-ceilinged area used for storage.
Simon’s elderly father was in his bedroom, sitting in a chair, looking down at the floor. Part of the reason for the move Paris was that Simon was dissatisfied with the care his father had been receiving at his live-in facility; their apartment on Boulevard des Capucines had been quite spacious, but any apartment is going to feel cramped with two young girls and a parent with dementia. After months of strategic conversation, Simon had finally convinced Camille to allow his father to come live with them, somewhere calm and peaceful, somewhere healthful for the whole family, all of whom suffered from the stress of the big city to various degrees.
“Bonjour, Raphael,” said Camille, having not seen her father-in-law yet that morning.
Monsieur Valette did not look up or answer.
Camille sighed and went into her bedroom, which was so neat it looked like a hotel room. An antique vanity stood between two large windows; on top was a straight row of bottles of perfume, then hairbrush and comb, and several lipsticks in classic shades. As she stood in her room, she felt a little kernel of something blooming deep in her chest and beginning to spread through her body. It was a familiar anxiety (mixed with doom), this time triggered because she had no appointment book filled with errands and social duties, and the phone was not ringing since she’d yet to meet a single person in the village. Camille had no idea what to do with herself until with a flash of gratitude and annoyance she remembered all the dust Simon had brought in and went back downstairs to find the vacuum.
She had always had housekeepers, her whole life; until they found one in Castillac, Camille was doing the work herself, which she found exotic and a welcome relief when she didn’t know where else to direct her energy.
Meanwhile, Simon had gone back to the ruined building on the side of the property where he had been working slavishly since they arrived the week before. It was unclear exactly what purpose the building used to serve, and equally unclear what use they would find for it in the future; yet Simon was purposefully working to rebuild the walls as though the survival of his family depended on it.
He had not reached the stage of actual masonry but was patiently dismantling the rubble on top of the walls, making piles of rocks of various sizes. This involved prying off old mortar, sometimes breaking apart rocks that were stuck together, and then wrestling them into a wheelbarrow so they could be carted to the proper pile. It was exhausting and exhilarating work. He took his shirt off and let the warm September sun wash over his body, which he imagined rather indulgently as Adonis-like, now that he was engaged in so much physical labor. As he pushed the wheelbarrow full of stones back to the piles, he kept an eye out for the girls and Violette, but saw no one.
And that was one of the very best things about their new place at the edge of town: everyone in the family had room to stretch out, in private, without bumping into anyone else. A person could pursue whatever interests he or she liked, without someone else looking over their shoulder, and to Simon this prospect was the most delicious thing of all.
Sunday morning started peacefully enough at La Baraque. The two remaining guests for the week, Darek and Emilia Badowski, had arrived from Poland late Saturday and been installed in the large room in the annex. Everyone was still asleep or at least not stirring, and Molly was enjoying a second cup of coffee and surfing the internet while Ben was out for a run.
One thing she loved about Sundays in Castillac: there was common agreement that it was a day for family and friends, for a big meal in the middle of the day, and that was about it. You could put whatever ambitions you had about pretty much anything aside for that one day. It didn’t matter whether you were religious or not, it was a day of rest for the body and soul.
Not so back in Boston, where Molly’s Sundays had been spent frantically trying to get ahead on housework and errands before the workweek started up again. As she sat drinking coffee (and wondering how in the world she was out of pastry) she looked back at herself in those days with a bit of sadness. Perhaps Boston was not the problem—it was me, she thought. But whatever, she was in Castillac now, and very grateful for it.
She was so deep into remembering that when someone knocked on the front door, she jumped up as though she’d been caught doing something wrong. Shaking her head, she went to open the door, Bobo at her heels.
The truck driver from the day before stood on the step, holding a clipboard. “Your contractor, Monsieur Gradin, asked me to finalize this list of materials. Can I have your signature, please?” He held out the clipboard and a pen.
“Yes. Monsieur Gradin intends to begin work tomorrow morning, and in order for that to happen, I’m going to have to get the truck loaded this afternoon so it will be ready to drive over first thing.”
“Do you generally work Sundays? I didn’t think anyone…” she trailed off, not sure whether it was worth it to argue. “And…I’m not clear on why I am signing for a list of materials. Monsieur Gradin knows what he needs, not me. I have no idea what should be on that list. Shouldn’t he be the one signing for it?”
“That would make sense,” Boris agreed. “But you are the one paying. So.” He held out the clipboard again.
The fact that only seconds earlier Molly had been reveling in the French tradition of relaxing Sundays made this nonsensical intrusion very annoying. “Okay, Boris,” she said with a sigh, just wanting to be done with it. She signed and said goodbye. It had been a vexatious couple of days for no reason at all. Maybe she could convince Ben to go to Chez Papa for dinner; she felt like she could use some cheering up, despite nothing having gone very wrong.
Molly had just settled back in the armchair with a gardening magazine, coffee freshened, when she heard shouting. Bobo instantly ran out through the terrace door, barking, followed by Molly.
The Jenkinses ran up from the pigeonnier and looked at Molly with wide eyes.
“Did you hear something?” Molly asked.
“Someone yelling,” said Billy Jenkins. Deana nodded.
Molly looked towards the cottage but so no sign of any movement that way. She walked around toward the annex just as the shouting broke out again.
“And I’ll thank you to stay out of my room and away from me altogether!”
Molly quickly went inside and into a large room that served as a sitting room for the two annex bedrooms. Arthur was standing in his doorway, his hair wild and standing up sort of comically, while Darek was in front of his wife Emilia, an arm out as though to protect her.
“What is the problem?” asked Molly, in what she hoped was a soothing voice.
“I caught her in my room, that’s the problem!” said Arthur, pointing at Emilia.
Emilia shook her head. “Yes, yes, I was in his room, but I was only opening a window so we can get some air.” She was tall and lanky, with a prominent nose and a dismissive air.
“You can open your own window if you want air! Don’t go into other people’s rooms without an invitation. All right?”
“Do not get rough with my wife,” Darek said, taking a step towards Arthur, who was half his size.
“Everyone, please,” said Molly. “I will have a word with Emilia,” she said to Arthur, hoping he would go in his room and close the door, which would hopefully calm the others down.
Instead, Arthur closed and locked his door and turned to Molly. “Do you have a safe? I have some valuables with me and I see now that I cannot take the privacy of my room for granted. I am very upset, Miss Sutton, as you can well understand.”
“She told you it was just to get air,” said Darek. “Nobody’s after any of your crappy ‘valuables’.”
Oh dear, thought Molly. “Okay. Emilia, would a fan help? It is warmer than usual this week, and I can easily bring a fan over.”
Emilia grudgingly nodded.
“Okay good. Badowskis, if you’d like to cool off more, why not take a swim? The pool is on the edge of the meadow as you walk towards the pigeonnier. Arthur, why don’t you come with me and we can work out a solution for the safety of your valuables. Come on, Bobo! Hope the rest of your Sunday goes well, Badowskis.”
She took Arthur by the arm and led him outside and into her part of the house by the terrace door. “I’m so sorry. Nothing like that has ever happened before. I would like to brush it off and hope that her excuse is legitimate, but to be honest, we don’t really know that, do we?”
“No,” said Arthur darkly.
“Do you have any reason to think she was in your room for another reason?”
“I have no proof. If I had to guess, I’d say she was snooping. Maybe trying to see if I have anything worth stealing. I don’t really care what her reason was—maybe in retrospect it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but I’ll tell you, when I came back from a short stroll in the meadow to find her in my room like that, it—it shocked me!”
“No, don’t worry, I do understand. She had absolutely no business being in there. Now let’s see about your valuables. What size are they? I do have a small safe, but anything very large or even medium-sized is not going to fit.”
“I have some papers that are very important to me. It would be helpful if I could leave them in your safe while I am out during the day, so that I don’t have to carry them with me.”
“Certainly, I’d be glad to do that,” said Molly, very relieved that at least one small problem had been dealt with neatly.
Arthur thanked Molly and went back to his room.
“Bobo?” said Molly, and Bobo sat and wagged her tail, ears perked up. “Let’s go find some rabbits. I have a feeling some other things are going to go wrong and I’d like to be out of the house when they do.”
It was such a lovely evening that Molly and Ben decided to walk to Chez Papa for dinner.
“You know how sometimes you can’t stand someone the first instant you meet them?”
“That was Petit. He’s horrible. But I shouldn’t complain, at least he’s a paying client, and they’ve been a little thin on the ground lately.”
“Well, they always have been, to be honest.”
“Why are you laughing?” Seeing Molly laugh made Ben smile for no reason.
“I don’t know! Because it’s such a gorgeous September night? Because I’ve been in a bit of a foul mood for two days, even though nothing bad has happened? It feels like a big cloud just lifted, or got swept away by this lovely breeze.”
Ben took Molly’s hand and squeezed it.
“So,” said Molly, “you swear you knew nothing about Maron’s leaving?”
“Nothing. Why would I? It’s not like the gendarmerie is interested in my opinion about anything. And no, I have no idea who replaced him. Odds are I won’t know the person anyway.”
They walked in silence past the cemetery, both trying to imagine the new chief and praying they were going to like whoever it was…or failing that, be able to work effectively with whoever ended up in the job.
Ben sighed and pushed that subject from his mind. “Hey Molly, it’s been months now. How about we tell everyone about our engagement tonight?”
Ben laughed. “A less confident man might get the wrong idea from that.”
Molly gave him a light shove. “It’s only that it’s been so fun having this secret, just between the two of us. Not that it’s that big a deal to anyone else, I don’t mean that. But…let’s keep it only between us a little longer?”
“Whatever you want, chérie. No pressure from over here.” This time Molly squeezed Ben’s hand.
When the twinkling lights of Chez Papa came into view, she pulled Ben in front of her and kissed him, more than a peck but not so hard that anyone peering out of a window would have been scandalized.
“Bonsoir Molly, bonsoir Ben!” shouted a chorus when they finally made it inside the restaurant. The place was packed with friends—Frances, back from her honeymoon with Nico, who was behind the bar in his old place. Lawrence was perched on his usual stool, Lapin and his newish wife Anne-Marie sat at a table, even Rémy, the organic farmer was there, unusual since he went to bed before it got dark. Molly and Ben made the rounds, kissing cheeks and saying hello, finally ending at the bar next to Lawrence.
“You’ve been scandalously scarce lately,” he said to Molly. “I’m right on the verge of having my feelings hurt.”
“Oh, now,” said Molly. “You are not. And you are perfectly capable of coming over anytime, and you know it. I have all the ingredients for a Negroni so you can’t use that as an excuse, either.”
“Well, what in the world have you been doing with yourself? I thought you’d be in here the minute the new chief was announced.”
“Wait, there’s been an announcement?”
Ben shrugged. “Don’t look at me, I resigned over a year ago, remember?”
Lapin got up from the table, unable to resist being the center of attention. “I’ve met her,” he said, expanding his chest and pausing for the reaction.
“Her?” said about six people at once.
“Yes, her,” said Lapin. “I don’t know why you’re all in a state, haven’t you ever seen a policewoman before? Her name’s Charlot, Chantal Charlot I think. Sort of an elegant name for a crime-stopper, if you ask me. Sounds like she ought to be an actress or something, don’t you think?”
Molly ignored Lapin and turned to Lawrence. “Did you know about this? Do you know anything about her? Have you met her?”
“I’m afraid not. Yes, I knew she was coming, but that’s pretty much it. No details whatsoever.”
“Well, what good are you?”
“None at all,” Lawrence said cheerfully. “Though I have met the Valettes, if that’s of any interest.”
“The new family in town. They’ve bought the old manor on the edge of the village. Has a decent parcel of land with it, too. No idea what they’re doing in Castillac of all places. He was a big muckety-muck at Byatt Industries. Went to ENA and all that.”
“You’re such a provincial darling, you know that? École Nationale d’Administration is the elite school in Paris where all the highest achievers go to university. You’re more or less guaranteed an excellent career if you make it that far. And to be fair, the education is by all accounts extremely rigorous, so they’re not coasting their way through. We don’t as a rule see many ENAs down this way,” he said, lowering his voice a bit.
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