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Also by Nell Goddin
About the Author
Copyright © 2016 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.
This book was originally published as Red for Love.
For a free short story set in Castillac, click HERE!
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Molly woke up first, thanks to Bobo’s wet nose in her ear. The morning was warm and she had been sleeping without any covers, so it was easy enough to slip out of bed without waking Ben.
“Come, Bobo,” she whispered, to keep the speckled dog from leaping on the bed. Molly went straight for the coffee press and put the water on while Bobo danced around the kitchen hoping for something delicious to fall from the sky.
All things considered, it had been a blissful few months in Castillac. Order had been restored after the Valerie Boutillier abduction, and the village was its usual lively summer self, with fêtes and informal get-togethers and everyone in a generally sunny mood. Bookings at La Baraque were excellent.
And of course…there was Ben.
Molly had arrived in Castillac in part to recover from a divorce. It hadn’t been a dragged-out, mud-slinging, litigious kind of divorce, but still, it had been painful to have her dream of a cozy family shattered. Molly thought that a change of scenery—all the way from the suburbs of Boston to Castillac, France—would help her get over it. And it had, with the help of new friends and a lot of pastry.
She had most certainly not been looking for romance. She was nearly forty, after all, and already on the road to making peace with the fact that her love life (not to mention childbearing years) might well be behind her. Ben Dufort was a bit younger and the attractive former chief gendarme of the village. He had hardly swept her off her feet; instead, their friendship had deepened slowly, over time, almost without their realizing it. And now that they were together, with everyone in the village knowing about it—and mostly approving, villagers judging these matters freely—Molly was happier than she could remember being in a long, long time.
Just as she was pouring her first cup, she heard a quick rapping on the front door that she recognized as Constance, who helped clean the gîtes on Changeover Day. Quickly Molly slurped some coffee and drank it down, then again. It was wise to have a bit of fortification before facing Constance first thing in the morning.
“Molls!” Constance exclaimed, moving quickly into the foyer when Molly opened the front door. Her shoulder-length hair was pulled back into a ponytail, the hairstyle she wore when she was ready to get to work.
“Bonjour, Constance,” said Molly, drinking more coffee.
“Thérèse is out! Gone! Just like that!”
Molly blinked. “What are you talking about? Gone where?”
“Our gendarme, Thérèse Perrault!” said Constance impatiently. “Come on, Molly, wake up! I heard she got notice of a new posting but didn’t tell anyone. Didn’t want a fuss, I guess, though why anyone would pass up a going-away party is beyond me!”
“Are you saying she’s left the village already?”
“Yes, Molls, that’s exactly what I’m saying! Wake up, little cabbage!”
Molly frowned. Thérèse had said she wouldn’t be able to stay in Castillac much longer—the gendarmerie liked to move its officers around, in an attempt to keep them objective—but she hadn’t said a word about the move being imminent. Molly would sorely miss her. For one thing, Thérèse had respect for Molly’s sleuthing abilities and wasn’t shy about slipping her information in order to get Molly’s help on difficult cases. It was Thérèse who had told Molly about the note taped to the gendarmerie door saying that someone had seen Valerie Boutillier.
“Want some coffee?” she asked, a troubled expression on her still-sleepy face.
“No thanks. Any chance your guests have cleared out yet? I’d like to get going and finish cleaning early. Thomas wants to take me somewhere for a picnic,” she added, grinning.
“It’s not even nine, Constance.”
“Can’t we do something to pry them out of there?”
Molly laughed. “No, you goose. I want their last moments at La Baraque to be happy ones, so that they leave leave feeling wistful and want to come back! Not cursing the cleaner who was knocking on their bedroom window and playing loud music, or whatever it is you have in mind. And speaking of happy moments, I should zip into the village and get some pastry for their last breakfast. You have any other tidbits of news for me? Everything staying relatively harmonious in the village?”
Constance held her chin and looked up at the ceiling, thinking it over. “Yep! No divorces, no burglaries, and no dead bodies. Castillac is an ocean of calm!”
“It’s early yet,” said Molly, under her breath. Not because she was hoping for mayhem, but because she was learning that no place stayed free of it for long.
A Saturday night in July was more or less perfection in Castillac, thought Molly, for once taking a little care in how she dressed. The weather was exquisitely comfortable, the village blanketed in flowers, and the mood of the villagers buoyant. People were casting around for something to celebrate. One of Therese’s friends had decided to have a going-away party for her at Chez Papa even though the guest of honor had already left town, and the idea was so silly that almost everyone Molly knew was planning to go.
“I remember that little black dress you wore to the I’Institut Degas gala,” said Ben, who was lying on the bed reading the news on his tablet and glancing at Molly as she got ready.
“I remember dancing the Hustle with you,” laughed Molly, and came over to ruffle her hand through his brush-cut hair and give him a quick kiss. “So you’re coming tonight? Our being together is old news now, so people won’t tease us anymore, right?”
“Stop teasing? Never,” said Dufort, rolling his eyes. “Yes, of course I’m coming. No better place to find out what’s on people’s minds.”
“So…you think of yourself as on duty, in a way? Even though you’re a detective without a case?”
“Without a case or a job. But no, I don’t mean it that way, exactly—it’s not like I’m coldly trying to sniff out information or anything like that. I’m just used to keeping an eye on things is all. And people do seem to tell me their problems.”
“Castillac needs a psychiatrist, maybe that can be your next career!”
“Ha. I’m just hoping you’re going to wear that black dress again….”
“It’s too hot for that,” said Molly, blushing. “And come on, get ready—we should be leaving by now.”
Molly was standing next to the bed and Ben reached for her hand and pulled her over. “I don’t feel like sharing you at the moment,” he said softly, kissing her on the neck. And Molly thought again, closing her eyes, that she could not believe her luck. Like so many women, she could fall into the trap of seeing only the ways she did not match up to supermodels in magazines—her legs were short and she was hardly reed-thin—and it was a delight to see herself if only for moment through Ben’s appreciative eyes.
She had never dreamed, back when she was selling off her furniture and saying goodbye to the house in the Boston suburbs where her marriage had ended, that she would ever feel this light again.
Moving to Castillac was turning out to be the best thing she had ever done.
An hour later Molly and Ben drove their scooters down rue des Chênes to Chez Papa. People were spilling out of the bar, standing on the sidewalk, laughing and drinking. A couple of dogs were underfoot. Alphonse had strung multi-colored blinking lights in the scraggly tree nearby and the villagers’ faces kept changing colors.
“Salut!” shouted Nico from behind the bar as they made their way inside. Frances was perched on a stool at the end of the bar, her black hair freshly cut in a Louise Brooks bob, her lipstick an arresting red. Molly put her arm around her old friend and they kissed cheeks. Ben wandered off to talk to a group in the corner, people Molly had met but didn’t know well.
“So how’s everything?” asked Frances, lighting a cigarette.
“You’re smoking again?”
Frances shrugged “No. In fact, anything you see that suggests such a thing is an illusion, a trick of the eye, simply—”
“Oh, Molly, don’t you ever feel like just kicking up your heels and doing all the bad things for once? Not caring about tomorrow but just living for the moment as deeply and pleasurably as you can?”
“Bonsoir, Molly dear,” said Lawrence Weebly, appearing out the crowd. He was holding his usual bright red Negroni and dressed in a beautiful suit, probably vintage.
“Frances is suggesting we throw all caution to the winds and live for the moment,” said Molly. “I’m thinking it over.”
Lawrence shrugged. “I lived for the moment for quite some time, when I was young,” he said. “I have to say it was overrated.”
“What a bunch of fuddy-duddies,” said Frances, taking a long drag on her Galois. “Okay, I won’t offer either of you a cig, though I bet deep down you’re desperate to be cool like me. Smoking’s not the only way to live for the moment. What about romance? Or throwing your life up in the air and doing something completely new and different?”
“Done and done,” said Molly, “If we’d had this conversation back in Boston, before my marriage broke up and I quit my job and moved here? Then I’d be with you all the way.” She shrugged. “But I’m…I’m really happy now. Content, even. Not looking to shake anything up. What about you, Franny? I would have said you already live for the moment pretty well. It’s not like you let the usual conventions put a damper on, well, anything you get it in your head to do. Doesn’t your family think you’re practically a monster?”
Frances laughed. “Oh, of course, but honestly, they don’t count. My family thinks if you wear linen in the wrong month you should be separated from polite society, perhaps permanently.”
“Her family is koo-koo,” Molly said to Nico, who grinned, then looked past Molly as more people were coming up to the bar.
“Au revoir, Thérèse!” someone outside shouted, lifting a glass.
Molly noticed that Nico was smiling broadly at someone behind her, and she turned to see whom he was looking at. A foot away stood a stunning woman, smiling back at Nico. She had long dark hair that tumbled past her shoulders in loose waves, and lovely—really lovely—features. But the most arresting thing about her was her eyes, which were tipped up on the outer corners, heavily made-up, and a mesmerizing color of blue-green. Molly realized she was staring but did not want to look away.
“Everything well with you, Iris?” Nico was saying to the woman.
Iris nodded and smiled, but Molly did not believe her. She did not know this woman, had never even seen her before, but she knew a fake smile when she saw one.
Molly gave Nico the “introduce me” stare, but Nico did not get the message.
“So how’s everything in Benny-Land?” Frances asked Molly.
“Must you talk to me like we’re still in sixth grade?”
“Aren’t we?” cackled Frances, taking a sip of her drink followed by a long pull on her cigarette. “I’ll tell you, I’ve been absolutely swamped with deadline after deadline for the last three months. I’ve hardly been outside, I’ve done nothing but work. So I’m proclaiming that from here on, this will be the Summer of Fun. Starting….now!”
Molly turned away from Frances and saw that Nico had not heard his girlfriend rambling on, and that he was still looking dreamily into the eyes of the woman behind her, chatting as he slowly made her drink. He was going to be useless for an introduction, so Molly clumsily took matters into her own hands, moving back suddenly from the bar and nearly bumping into her.
“So sorry!” said Molly, turning to her.
“No problem,” said Iris.
Again Molly had the sensation of wanting to do nothing but look into Iris’s eyes and stare at her beautiful face. Her hair was streaked with gray but instead of making her look old, she looked wonderfully exotic, even wise. “Are you a friend of Therese’s?” Molly asked.
The woman looked confused. “Thérèse?”
“Thérèse Perrault, the gendarme? This is her going-away party. Even though she’s already gone.” Molly smiled. “Any excuse to celebrate, I guess, huh? My name’s Molly Sutton. I’m American, but moved to Castillac almost a year ago.”
“Hello, Molly Sutton,” said Iris politely. “Your French is not half bad.” She paused and thought for a moment. “I did know Thérèse, years ago, when she was a child. I cook for the school, at the cantine, so I end up getting to know almost everyone in Castillac that way. Let’s see,” she said, looking up at the ceiling, “I believe Thérèse was very fond of pâté and did not like mushrooms.”
“Heathen,” said Molly, and Iris laughed, though her beautiful blue-green eyes seemed sad.
“Iris! I told you I have to get up at dawn tomorrow, I’m starting the staircase at the Lafont’s. Why did you order another drink? We need to leave now.”
“Bonsoir, Pierre,” Molly said, loud enough to be heard over the din.
“Oh, salut, Molly,” said Pierre Gault, his expression not softening much. “I see you’ve met my wife,” he added.
“I’ve been meaning to call you, actually,” said Molly. “Would you swing by La Baraque when you have a moment? There’s a crumbling barn I want to show you, see what you think. Your husband did some very good work at my place, rebuilding a pigeonnier. Guests love what you did with it,” she said, looking back and forth from Iris to Pierre.
“I’ve got a big job now at the Lafont’s, building an extension to their house. Don’t know when I’ll have time for anything else, but I’ll come have a look.”
“Thanks!” said Molly brightly.
“Out!” said Pierre under his breath to Iris, and she took a sip of her drink and nodded to Molly before following him through the crowd and into the summer night.
July 7, only two more days of school. The children were wild with excitement and the heady anticipation of freedom, and the staff wearily looked forward to the summer break as well. Caroline Dubois, who worked in the office, was using her lunchtime to try to bring order to the principal’s desk, as futile a task as that was.
“Tristan,” she said quietly to her boss, “if you would just sort the email as you receive it, it would not pile up in such an ugly mess.”
“I don’t mind mess,” said Tristan Séverin cheerfully. “Which I suppose is a lucky thing, considering.”
“I suppose so,” agreed Caroline, shaking her head. She was a pretty young woman, dressed in tailored clothes that flattered her figure. “I understand if you don’t want to give me a play-by-play, but you did mention last month that you were trying something new for your…your trouble with focusing? Has it helped at all?”
She asked the question but was fairly sure she knew the answer, since Séverin’s desk was as messy as ever, and he still needed constant reminders of his schedule to keep from missing meetings. He was a very successful school administrator, beloved by many families in Castillac for his generosity and creativity in helping their children. But organized and focused he was not.
“Fish oil,” scoffed Tristan. “I would much rather just eat more fish, you know? But the doctor insists I take the supplement. Can’t tell any difference at all, except that occasionally I have the most unpleasant burps.” Tristan grinned.
“More than I wanted to know,” said Caroline, gathering up a heap of files from a corner of his desk. “Well, your breath might be bad but I suppose you do have your charms,” she added, shaking her head and smiling.
“I’m glad you feel that way,” said Tristan. “I don’t know what I would do without you,” he said, waving a hand at his desk, from which papers were spilling onto the floor on one side and which held a number of empty coffee mugs. “Now let’s talk about the rest of the day, and then I’m going over to the cantine to have a last lunch with the children. This afternoon I’m meeting with those parents from Salliac, correct? And then the district video-call after that?”
Caroline nodded and sorted the files at the same time. “That’s right. Maybe that fish oil is doing something for you,” she said with a chuckle. Tristan beamed at her and took off, his shirt untucked in back and a flurry of papers falling off the desk as he went by.
The remainder of the school day passed without incident and Caroline got to leave a few minutes early. She would still be coming to work, school or no school; her vacation wasn’t until August. But nonetheless it felt like an achievement, getting through another school year, and even though there were still two more days left, she looked forward to getting home and making an effort to celebrate, however underwhelmingly: a kir royale, enjoyed by herself out in her small yard, with her dog and cat for company.
“If I were you, I’d just paint right over it,” said Molly’s old friend Frances, who had come to Castillac for a visit and never left. She was lying back on the old sleigh-bed, watching Molly work.
“I considered that. But see all these seams in the wallpaper? That’s going to look terrible painted over, unless I use some technique other than simply one color with a roller, and I don’t have the patience to learn anything new right now.”
“Don’t you think this wallpaper has some vintage charm? It’s faded in a pleasant, old-fashioned way.” Frances got up on her knees and ran her hand over the wall behind the bed. “Have any of your guests complained?”
“I’ve only had one guest stay here—Wesley Addison. He wasn’t…interior decorating was not one of his subjects. Blessedly. Now call me superstitious…but something about this room gives me the creeps. I call it the Haunted Room, though obviously not to the guests. I’m thinking that a little refreshing of the decor might help lift the creepy factor, you know?”
“Let me see,” said Frances, lying on her back and closing her eyes. “I’m communing with the spirits…remember when we used to do Ouija Board?”
“You mean when you would shove that thing around and try to scare me?”
“Yeah,” laughed Frances. “Man, I miss being a kid. Just thinking about those days makes me miss the Julys of childhood, because they lasted forever.”
“And your mom made really good lemonade.”
“Only homemade will do!” said Frances, imitating her mother’s voice.
Molly laughed. Then she took the scorer she’d found at the hardware store and scraped it over the wallpaper. Then dipped a sponge in a bucket of water and wiped it over the wall.
“Is that really going to loosen the glue?” asked Frances.
“Youtube says so. And youtube is never wrong.”
“So how are things with Nico going? Give me an update.”
Molly glanced over her shoulder at her friend, who was gracefully raising her arms and legs to imaginary music, as though dancing ballet while lying in bed. “I don’t know, Molls. Love is…tricky.”
“Indeed,” said Molly. She put down the sponge and scraped tentatively at the soggy wallpaper with a putty knife, then put some force into it, making heaps of the stuff go splat onto the old sheet she’d spread on the floor. “Boy oh boy, this is satisfying. Goodbye sinister faded roses that remind me of a horror movie!”
“I thought you were obsessed with roses.”
“I sort of am. But if you knew the movie I’m talking about, you’d be over here helping me get rid of the wallpaper as fast as possible, believe me.”
Frances made no move to get up. “Who’s staying in your gîtes now? I don’t think I’ve met them. Anybody I’d like?”
“I can’t really say. An artist is staying in the pigeonnier by himself—Roger Finsterman. He’s usually out early in the morning, sitting in the meadow with a sketchpad, although once when I peeked at his sketch it was a wild abstract drawing, nothing to do with the meadow at all that I could see. There’s an American couple in the cottage. I’ve barely seen them, though they’ve only been here a few days. They have a car and leave early in the morning and don’t come back until after dinner.”
“I think you should have a party every week for everybody. Nothing fancy, just like…an apéro so the guests can be introduced to each other.”
“Great idea,” said Molly, “but maybe I’ll wait until I have a few more gîtes up and running. A party with 3 guests is a little hard to get moving, don’t you think? Or are you offering to come over every week and provide some entertainment?”
“I can dance,” said Frances, saying ‘dance’ in a terrible French accent. “Or maybe, given your not-so-secret love of detective work, you could put on one of those mystery evenings, where everyone dresses up and plays a part, and tries to figure out who the murderer is.”
“Always wanted to do that. But I’ve had my fill of detecting lately. Right now I want nothing more than to just work on La Baraque, hang out with you and Ben, and enjoy the simple pleasures of a Castillac summer.”
“Yeah, right,” said Frances, smiling to herself as she went downstairs in search of lemonade.
On Tuesday the rain came down in buckets and the sky was gray and forbidding. Molly spent the first few hours of the day scraping off the remainder of the wallpaper in the Haunted Room, and then, no surprise to anyone who knew her, she had a powerful hankering for an almond croissant. On the scooter it was just a quick trip to Pâtisserie Bujold—the best pâtisserie in the département—but did she want to risk getting drenched? The rain had mostly stopped for the moment but the skies had that not-quite-done look.
“What do you think, Bobo?” she asked the speckled dog, who was hovering under her feet as she stood in the front doorway. “I know you don’t like being rained on but I don’t really mind. Or maybe I’m just saying that because…there’s an almond croissant at the end of the rainbow. Wouldn’t you run through the rain for a big juicy bone? Yeah, I thought so.” She squatted down and gave the dog a long scratch behind the ears. Bobo flopped on her back and presented her belly, and Molly gave it a rub, trying and failing to get pastry off her mind.
So leaving Bobo safe and dry, Molly put on a slicker and hopped on her dented brown scooter, which looked a little better since the rain had washed most of the dust off, and zipped straight to Pâtisserie Bujold, the best pastry shop in the village, or even the entire Dordogne, her mouth watering all the way.
Not surprisingly, the shop was empty and Molly had the proprietor’s full attention. “Bonjour Monsieur Nugent,” she said, folding her arms over her chest without thinking about it.
“Bonjour, Madame Sutton,” Edmond Nugent answered, grinning broadly and giving her his usual avid once-over. He was not a tall man, with short arms and legs and a small round belly. That day he sported the beginnings of a moustache, coming in nicely.
Molly walked the length of the two cases, looking at all the kinds of pastry available that day. Sure, she had come in thinking definitely almond croissant, but now that she was there, she felt compelled to check out everything and then decide anew.
Then she was struck with an idea. “Monsieur Nugent, I’m wondering—just how difficult is it to make an almond croissant? It’s just puff pastry and almond paste, right? Not too many ingredients?”
Monsieur Nugent looked down at his feet and shook his head, “Oh, my dear Madame Sutton. Are you getting silly ideas in your head? Thinking that you might be able to do what it has taken Monsieur Nugent many, many years to learn?” He lifted his head then and looked into her eyes with such emotion Molly took a step back.
“Well, of course I would never dream that I could do it as well as you. Do you have a lot of helpers? I only ever see you here in the shop.”
“I…I hire, from time to time.” Nervously he paced back and forth behind the cases. “The fact is that my standards are extremely high, as I have always, from the first time you came in the shop, believed you comprehended and appreciated. I trust I have shown you—” Nugent waved a hand at a framed award on the wall behind him, the paper turning brown around the edges. “My pastry is award-winning,” he said. “Not just any old thing tossed out of an oven without care.”
“I don’t mean to cause offense!” Molly jumped in. “Of course your pastries are the best. The best! I tell all my guests not to even think of shopping anywhere else.” She paused, letting her gaze linger on an apricot tart, each rounded fruit glossy with glaze and vividly orange, not a crumb out of place. “But I just thought…if I were able to pull off even a much less accomplished version than yours, then on a day like this—” the rain thundered down on the roof of the shop and passersby hurried along the sidewalk, umbrellas angled into the wind— “I could just whip up a little something at home, you understand? Just to get by. Sort of like having extra candles for when the electricity goes out.”
Monsieur Nugent understood only too well. Every so often a wave of do-it-yourselfism swept through the village, and while his business was solid and never threatened as a result, still, it ate at Monsieur Nugent to lose customers, even if only for a week or so. He felt that he had earned the right to be the sole purveyor of almond croissants to Molly Sutton—earned it by his hard work, diligence, and artful talent—and was not disposed to look kindly on anything that might take that away.
He had read of the low-carb craze in America that left local bakeries in ruins, and he shuddered at the thought. And for the non-dieters, one could buy ready-made puff pastry at the supermarket. Undoubtably it was of loathsome quality, but Nugent suspected that do-it-yourselfers might be willing to make sacrifices for the satisfaction of independence. Fools and idiots, he thought darkly, not doing much of a job of hiding his displeasure from Molly.
“On occasion I have banned customers from my store,” he said in a low voice.
Molly took another step back. “What? Are you threatening me, Monsieur Nugent?” Molly had to suppress a giggle. It’s not that she didn’t take pastry seriously—hell, it was a mainstay of her new life—but seriously, he would ban her for wanting to cook something herself every once in a while?
Nugent put his hands on the counter and gripped tightly. He had been up since three in the morning, feeling extra stressed since the humid weather made for certain complications with dough. Of all the things he could have imagined happening that rainy day, losing one of his best customers was on the list.
“I have a better idea,” he said, forcing his tone to sound gentler. “It is not the lost business that concerns me, Madame Sutton. It is that you, a lovely woman who truly appreciates my art, should be reduced to eating the scraps and mistakes that are the inevitable result of trying to learn something so complex. What I suggest is this: that you allow me to give you lessons in pastry-making. That way, you will at least start off on the right foot.”
Molly’s eyes widened. Pastry lessons from a master would undoubtedly be an amazing experience. On the other hand, spending hours alone with Monsieur Nugent in a kitchen—without a counter between them—no. She quickly imagined the process would turn into slapstick, with Monsieur Nugent chasing her around the pastry table and reaching for her with his floury hands. It would never work.
“You are so kind, Monsieur Nugent, but really, it was just a moment’s whim. Would you give me six almond croissants and that delectable apricot tart? I think I will surprise some of my guests with dessert on the terrace this evening, if the weather clears up.”
Monsieur Nugent looked crestfallen. “As you wish,” he said, the light in his expression going dim. He put her pastries in a bag and the tart in a box, took her money, and said nothing further.
That evening the rain finally petered out, and Molly invited her guests over to the terrace for dessert and coffee at ten o’clock. The artist, Roger Finsterman, wandered over from the pigeonnier, his shirt stained with paint.
“That apricot tart looks incredible,” he said.
Molly smiled and handed him a knife to cut a slice. She wasn’t sure what to make of Finsterman—he spoke politely enough, but he always seemed to be thinking of something else, barely even present. “I hope you’re enjoying Castillac? I love this time of year. For one thing—having light this late in the evening is so wonderful!”
Finsterman ate a bite of apricot tart and looked out to the meadow without answering.
With relief Molly heard the chatty Americans, Olive and Josh Mackley, coming around the side of the house. “Hello!” she called out. “Where did your travels take you today?”
“We just got back,” Olive said enthusiastically. “We went up to Brantôme today. The guidebooks call it the Venice of the Dordogne, which is absolutely ridiculous since it has virtually nothing to do with Venice. But—it’s a charming town and we’re glad we went.”
“Thanks for having us over,” said her husband, cutting pieces of tart and then pouring cups of coffee. “Please tell me this is decaf? If I drink regular coffee at this time of night I’ll be up all night.”
“Oh, Josh,” said his wife, rolling her eyes. “You’re so high-maintenance.”
Josh rolled his eyes at Molly and gave her a wink.
Bobo barked and ran around the house. Molly thought she might have heard a car in the driveway and figured it was Ben. She hoped he would come out to the terrace but knew he was something of an introvert with little interest in entertaining her guests, and didn’t hold it against him.
“Bonsoir Molly!” said Pierre Gault in his deep voice, appearing in the dusky light. He walked towards them slowly and deliberately, as he always did. Pierre never seemed to be in a hurry. “Excuse me for interrupting. I’ve just now left the Lafont’s. It’s late but I thought I’d come over to see that barn you were telling me about.”
“Would you forgive me?” Molly said to her guests. “Pierre is the best mason in the Dordogne, and he’s so in demand it can be very hard to get a few minutes with him.”
Finsterman was chewing thoughtfully and still looking out at the meadow, and said nothing. Olive and Josh assured her it was no problem at all as long as she didn’t mind risking coming back to an empty tart plate.
“Would you like some?” Molly asked Pierre, but he shook his head, and they went off in search of the crumbling barn.
“The work you did in the pigeonnier has been a smashing success,” said Molly, who found Pierre a bit hard to talk to. “Almost everyone has commented on the windows you made out of the nest-boxes. I’m not sure you’ll be able to make magic out of this barn—it’s such a ruin I didn’t even realize it was here until Bobo led me over this way. Pretty sure the realtor didn’t know either since it was never mentioned when I was buying La Baraque. You’ll see—it looks like a small hill of underbrush more than anything.”
“The countryside is littered with broken-down stone buildings,” he said. “Some are worth repairing, some not. Have you considered building any new structures for guests?”
“Yes, I’ve thought about it. But people really seem to love the old buildings—which I understand, I love them too. If I built something new, it would have to stand out somehow—I mean, make a gain in another direction what I would lose by not having the character of the old, you see what I mean?”
Pierre nodded. “I suppose. A gimmick, in other words.”
“Yes! Like…gîtes off the grid, or with frescoes, or…or something.” She stopped and whistled for Bobo. “It’s right over there,” she said, pointing at a dark blob in the fading light. “I hope it’s not too dark to get an idea.”
Pierre waded into the underbrush, then ripped some vines off something that might be a wall. He walked farther, muttering something she couldn’t understand, and disappeared into the foliage.
“It’s a real wreck!” she called after him.
Molly stood looking around in the half-dark, inhaling the sweet summer air, listening to Pierre crashing around and the night-birds singing. Before long he was back. “Sorry to say—that would be quite a project, Molly. You’ve only got three walls and no roof, and one of those walls is only about four feet high. To get a really clear idea of what would be involved, I’d have to come back when the light was better and clear off enough of the vines to see the whole thing.”
“But the good news is that the part of the wall I got a look at is in decent shape. It was built right, and the stone has held up, as it usually does. Also, it’s a big structure, so have you thought about how you would want to use all that space? Do you just want to divide it up into rooms, with a standard kitchen and bath? Possibly two separate gîtes in the same building? Or do you have some other idea?”
“So you’re saying you could rebuild it?”
“I can rebuild anything, Molly. The only question is whether it’s worth it to you to pay for it.”
“When could you start?”
Pierre barked out a sort of laugh and they turned back towards the house. “I won’t be done at the Lafont’s for another six weeks at least. I’m making a circular stairway out of stone, it’s a bit problematic, and the first try didn’t work.”
“I’ll work on the design, and then we’ll talk again in a few weeks, maybe you could give me an estimate?”
“It was nice meeting your wife the other night,” she said, as Bobo snuffled nearby.
Pierre made a sort of grunt. “See you in a few weeks,” he said, and went back around the house to his truck, walking in his slow deliberate way.
“Pierre” means stone in French, thought Molly, watching him go. I can’t believe I never put it together that he has the perfect name for a mason.
The guests had disappeared to their dwellings and Molly found an empty terrace save for the orange cat licking up crumbs from the apricot tart.
It was after eleven. She wondered why Ben had never shown up. They hadn’t made a plan, but he had been coming over most evenings, and she liked it. She liked him. And this life in Castillac—it was turning out to be better than she ever would have imagined.
Iris Gault finished cutting up the potatoes and slid them into a huge pot of boiling water. It was the last day of school, and while she was happy to be getting off work for a few months, she always missed the children terribly. She checked her watch, always careful to time the cooking so the food would be ready all at once, and then stepped into the bathroom and used a paper towel to wipe the steam from her face.
The mirror over the sink was old and not perfectly clean. Iris looked at herself. She was forty-four and unhappy. She understood this was a common enough state for people of her age—the sudden realization like a thump to the side of the head that the end of life was zooming ever closer…and there she was, wasting time, still waiting for the good part to begin.
Her marriage was no comfort.
She still had her looks, she could admit that to herself, though she guessed their days were distinctly numbered. For a while, when she was young, she had believed that her beauty had significance somehow—that it was a kind of good luck that meant she was going to have an extraordinary life. There was no one she could talk to about these feelings, since, understandably, even her best friends did not want to hear about such things. But—briefly—the world had seemed so welcoming, so happy to have her in it! Where had that feeling gone?
Iris ran a finger down her nose, looking at herself in the spotty mirror. She wiped under both eyes to catch some errant flakes of eyeliner.
What now, she asked herself. What am I going to do now?