Wydawca: Nell Goddin Kategoria: Kryminał Język: angielski Rok wydania: 2016

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Opis ebooka Murder on Vacation - Nell Goddin

Happy Valentine’s Day! Well, maybe not so much… Molly Sutton’s B&B is jam-packed for the holiday, but whatever romance is in the air is quickly snuffed out when somebody turns up dead. In addition to worrying that one of her remaining guests is a killer, Molly’s not feeling tip-top and spends more time napping than sleuthing. That’s no way to catch a murderer! Murder on Vacation is the sixth book of the Molly Sutton Mystery series. (Each mystery is standalone, though the relationships develop over the course of the series.) If you like page-turning cozy mysteries, rich characters, and a peek into French village life, you'll love Nell Goddin's tale of murder and duplicity.

Opinie o ebooku Murder on Vacation - Nell Goddin

Fragment ebooka Murder on Vacation - Nell Goddin

Murder on Vacation

Molly Sutton Mysteries 6

Nell Goddin

Beignet Books

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.

For a free short story set in Castillac, click here!

For my generous father, C. Hobson Goddin, for sticking with me even when he thinks I am nuts.

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Epilogue

Also by Nell Goddin

Glossary

Acknowledgments

About the Author

1

2007

The second week of February, cold and damp. Molly Sutton stood looking out the French doors of La Baraque at the frosty landscape, struggling with the feeling that she should be a lot happier than she was.

After all, her move to France had turned out even better than her wildest dreams: she loved her village, had good friends, and enjoyed a full and satisfying life. On top of that, she had recently solved a difficult case and been rewarded with quite a pile of money, and even though everyone knew the old saw about how money can’t buy happiness, did anyone really believe it? And there was nothing but good news in every direction. Usually a dreary time of year for bookings, her gîte business was booked to overflowing for the following week thanks to a marketing campaign she had sent out playing up what a romantic place La Baraque would be for Valentine’s Day. Benjamin Dufort, the handsome and complicated former chief of gendarmes, was back in town. And yet…

She stood at the window looking out, and moping.

Eventually Molly decided some company might help her out of her funk. So she bundled up, gave Bobo a pat, and hopped into her new Citroën coupe since it was too cold to use the scooter. The car had been a total splurge—and a silly one at that—since she didn’t actually care all that much about what kind of car she drove. There was something about suddenly being rich that had made her lose her head for just a bit, and the car was the least of it.

La Baraque now had three new guest rooms in a formerly dilapidated wing off the main house where she lived. A swimming pool was being put in, with work beginning next month. Her bathroom had been renovated to a level of luxury that sailed right past “lap of” and landed a little over the top. Next month, a part-time gardener was due to start work.

While all these things were delicious in many ways—and to be honest, she didn’t regret a single one of them—she nonetheless woke up every morning and, well, there she was. Same Molly, with the same ungovernable tangle of red hair, the same yearning for motherhood, the same uncertainty in the area of romance, and the same pants that were getting too tight.

She reminded herself on the ride into the village that it’s not exactly charming to complain about how coming into a sudden windfall isn’t as transformative as you thought it would be. After parking, she took a moment to look inside the big window of Chez Papa, the bistro that had become her second home in Castillac. She was friends—as everyone was—with the shaggy-headed owner, Alphonse, and knew she could count on knowing at least one person if she dropped by for a meal or a drink or a quick plate of frites.

That night, to her relief, her pal Lawrence sat on his usual stool, drinking his usual Negroni. He grinned when he saw her looking through the window.

“Trying to catch us up to no good?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye as she came inside.

Molly shrugged. “Oh, you know…I just like observing sometimes instead of jumping right in. So how are you? It’s so strange to be at Chez Papa without Nico, isn’t it?”

“I got a postcard yesterday, which pleased me inordinately. I didn’t expect to get anything but the odd text.”

Nico, the bartender, and his girlfriend Frances—Molly’s best friend from home—had taken off for a month in the Maldives.

“Frances sent me a few photos. I’m so envious. That beach! That crystal-clear blue water!”

“I know. Well, why didn’t you go with them? Something remains of your huge pile of gold, does it not?”

“Eh, who wants to be a third wheel? Plus, I have a big week coming up—I’m fully booked for Valentine’s Day. Not that I’m not grateful. This time last year, I was about to start eating cat food, my income was so low.”

“Well, my dear, no one is more pleased than I that your financial picture has become so rosy. Are you feeling the letdown yet?”

Molly jerked in Lawrence’s direction. “Letdown?”

“Of course. Something big like coming into money, or winning a longed-for prize, finally accomplishing something you’ve worked for after years of effort, those sorts of things—I would imagine close to a hundred percent of the time—people get totally depressed afterwards. Ecstasy, followed by morosity. Because of course, getting the thing is wonderful, but it doesn’t actually change you.”

“Honestly, sometimes I think you live inside my brain.”

Lawrence just smiled and sipped his drink. “I hope at least you’ve continued to spend the money frivolously?”

“I need to invite you over so you can take a gander at my bathroom.”

Lawrence laughed. “Oh, I do love a bathroom makeover. Is it very trashy?”

“Lifestyles of the Rich and Not-at-All Famous allll the way.”

They laughed.

“And, if I may be so nosy…what about Ben? Have you seen him lately?”

Molly shrugged again. “I don’t know. It’s…unsettled. I was so glad to see him when he got back, and I’m pretty sure he felt the same way. But now…we’re being sort of careful around each other, you know? Friendly, interested…but a little…”

“Wary?

“Yes. If something’s going to happen, someone needs to make the first move, but we’re both waiting to see what the other one is going to do.”

“What do you want to happen?”

“If I knew that….”

Constance leaned against the doorsill, her arms crossed. “If you want my opinion, Molls—and of course I know you’re dying for it, haha!—you should just get over yourself and get back together with Ben. You’ve been moping around ever since he got back. What are you waiting for?”

“Okay, yes, I admit there’s been some moping. But I don’t think that’s why. Really, I don’t.”

“Then why do you get that pained expression on your face whenever I talk about how crazy-good things are going with Thomas now? I think it’s because you feel left out. I’m blissfully in love, your buddy Frances is blissfully in love, and where are you? Staying home to eat almond croissants all night and day?”

“I’ll have you know I’ve moved on from almond croissants. Haven’t eaten one in weeks.”

“Moved on to what, pain au chocolat?”

“I thought it was a nice change of pace.”

“Molly!”

Molly heaved a theatrical sigh. “All right, I’ll give him a call if it will stop your nagging. I do want things to work out between us, it’s just that…I don’t know, we’re just taking our time. Which is why I don’t think my grump has anything to do with him.”

“Call him!”

“I said I would, jeez. Here’s the mop, Mademoiselle Bossy.”

Molly picked up a bucket and the vacuum cleaner. “Let’s hit the cottage first,” she said. They didn’t bother putting on coats for the short walk over. The heat was only set at fifty degrees since no one was staying there, and they shivered as they came inside.

“Oops, sorry about the heat.” Molly sat down on the sofa and stared into space.

Constance put down the window cleaner and a pile of rags and looked at her friend. “Molly?”

“Yeah?

“Is it okay if I turn up the heat?”

Molly looked at her vacantly as though she had lost the ability to understand French.

“Molls, are you feeling all right?”

Molly sighed again. “Actually, now that you mention it, no. I don’t feel sick, exactly. But I’m so tired. Like I could sit here on this sofa pretty much into eternity and never get up.”

Constance felt her forehead. “You don’t have a fever.”

“I don’t feel sick. Just tired.”

“It’s probably your liver. You’ve got to go see Dr. Vernay. The village doctor—you’ve met him? He delivered most of us in Castillac. He’s very good, he’ll fix you right up.”

Molly’s expression didn’t change.

“Want me to take care of it? I’ll make the appointment and drive you over. In the meantime, why don’t you just get in bed and rest? The guests aren’t coming until tomorrow. I can do the cleaning in here by myself no problem.”

“You’re a doll.”

“I know.”

“I can’t believe I’ve got six guests coming tomorrow. I’ve never had more than four at one time. What if they’re all high maintenance?”

“It’s Valentine’s Day. They’ll be busy with each other,” said Constance with a wink.

“Oh please, let that be true,” Molly muttered to herself, after thanking her friend and heading back to her house and bed. For once, she thought, let there be no drama. Just an easygoing crowd that gets along and needs no hand-holding.

She climbed into bed, and lacking the energy or commitment to protest when Bobo curled up next to her, fell fast asleep.

2

After a long nap followed by ten solid hours of sleep, Molly felt refreshed on Saturday morning and ready to face the influx of guests at La Baraque. She decided to skip the market—a first since moving to Castillac almost a year and a half ago—and instead made the rounds of all the guest rooms, making sure each was spotless and stocked with a welcome bottle of wine, along with a small booklet with suggestions for sight-seeing, restaurant recommendations, and some emergency phone numbers.

All in all, her gîte business was much more settled than it had been even six months earlier. The income was not substantial but it was steady-ish and improving. Molly now knew what to expect and felt ready for the odd questions guests sometimes came up with. And most important—she really liked doing it. The plumbing repairs, greeting guests and getting to know them, making improvements at La Baraque…there wasn’t any part of the business that Molly minded, and most of it she thoroughly enjoyed.

Valentine’s week was going to be a challenge, however. Fully booked, which at this point meant six guests: two couples and two singles. Darcy and Ira Bilson were due early Saturday morning; they had been traveling in the area and asked if they could check in early, which was fine with Molly since she had no guests currently in the cottage and the cleaning was long since done. By nine o’clock, Molly was up and caffeinated, expecting the Bilsons to show up any minute, and the rooms were all double-checked and ready.

Lately she’d been having a bowl of fruit in the morning instead of her usual croissants, not so much from any grand ambitions of self-improvement and control, but more for a change of pace. It had taken months to get over her habit of shoving food into her mouth while standing by the sink (or in front of the open refrigerator) instead learning to follow the French way, really taking time to make the meal an event even if she was eating by herself.

She sat at the table and sliced an apple into pleasingly thin and symmetrical slices. The orange cat streaked through the kitchen as though on a crucial mission from Satan, prompting Bobo to jump up in hot pursuit.

After polishing off the apple and her second cup of coffee, Molly got up to toss a few more logs into the woodstove. She heard a car pulling into the driveway. Slipping on a coat and grabbing a wool hat, she went quickly outside to greet the new guests.

“Bonjour, Madame Bilson!” she said, as a lean, dark-haired woman dressed in yoga pants got out of the small car. Her hair was cut short and her body so boyish that for a moment, Molly was confused, but she quickly got her bearings. “Monsieur Bilson! Welcome to La Baraque.”

“Ah, we are thrilled to be here. Just thrilled! We’re coming from three days at an organic farm north of here, not far from Limoges,” said her husband as he came to shake Molly’s hand. He was a big bear of a man, and stood with his chest expanded and hands on hips. His blond hair was shaggy and looked as though it hadn’t seen a comb in a few days, and his eyes were red, perhaps from the strain of traveling.

“A working farm, with gîtes too?”

“Sort of, yes, they have a work program. So our room cost almost nothing, meals were free, and we put in some hours working on the farm every day. I milked a goat for the first time!”

Molly laughed. “You have to come back in the spring after the baby goats are born. There is nothing in this world cuter than a baby goat!”

“Affirmative, Molly!” boomed Ira. He was dressed in black jeans and a ripped black T-shirt, sort of a thirty-five-year-old’s post-punk outfit. “This is a research trip for us. We’re planning to start a cheesemaking business back home in Oregon, with our own goat herd. That’s why we chose Castillac for this leg of our trip. Maybe you know Lela Vidal, who makes the incredible Cabécou de Rocamadour? She’s quite famous in the cheese world.”

“Yes, I do know her. Lela’s at the Saturday market every week, and I’ve bought her excellent cheese many times. I had no idea she was a cheese celebrity.”

Darcy shot Molly a dark look. “People who are good at their craft do develop reputations, you know. That is not in the least unusual.”

Molly looked confused. “Sorry? I didn’t mean…I wasn’t being critical. Um, the Saturday market is going on right now. If you like, I’ll show you the cottage, you can put your bags away and I’ll take you to meet her.”

“Excellent!” boomed Ira.

Molly was so used to the softer voices of her village she nearly clapped her hands over her ears, but caught herself in time. She picked up an extra bag that Ira Bilson had taken out of the car and walked toward the cottage. “We’re still in late winter, obviously,” she said. “Today’s weather is very typical. Sometimes it seems as though we never see the sky in February! But the cottage is very dry and cozy, and you’ll find a stack of firewood under the eaves to the right of the door.”

“Is there an extra charge for that?” asked Darcy.

“Oh no,” said Molly. “Everything’s included, and I believe you’re paid in full, so no worries on that score.”

Darcy gave a brief nod but did not soften her expression. Although she was only thirty, a deep furrow had been carved between her eyebrows.

Tough nut, thought Molly.

“The bedroom is right through there, the bath is off to the left. Anything you need, just give a holler, I’m right in the main building. You can text me or just knock on the door. Would you like some time to settle in, or would you prefer to head straight to the market?”

“Let’s go! Er…is that what you want to do, lovey?” he asked his wife.

Darcy shrugged.

“If you’d like to do yoga beforehand, that’s fine too,” he said. “Though I do want to have a crack at Lela’s cheeses before they’re all bought up.”

Darcy sighed and shrugged again. “All right,” she said, her tone one of deepest martyrdom.

Darcy jumped into the front seat of the Citroën leaving Ira to fold his long legs into the back. Molly turned the car around and pulled onto rue des Chênes and headed into the village. “Well, maybe I was silly to drive,” she said, seeing that cars were parked far away from the village center, a sign that the market was crowded and parking places not easy to find. “I just got the car recently and I guess the excitement hasn’t quite worn off. It’s a perfectly pleasant walk, takes about fifteen minutes.”

Ira opened his mouth to speak but closed it again. Darcy looked out of the window and said nothing.

Maybe more pain in the butt than tough nut, Molly thought. Not that I should judge anyone after five minutes…

She spotted a family getting into a Saab and waited patiently before easing into their spot. “All right!” she said brightly. “Would you like me to take you around and make some introductions, or set you loose? Either is fine with me, of course.”

The Bilsons answered at the same time, with Ira wanting Molly’s company and Darcy wanting to be without her. Darcy won, which did not come as a complete surprise to Molly. She pointed to the section of the market where the cheesemonger usually set up, and fled for the Café de la Place.

“Pascal!” she said, slipping into a seat on the glassed-in terrace where a small heater was set up. The model-handsome server grinned and asked her how she was doing.

“Fine, thanks. But I’ll be even better if you’ll bring me the Special.” Pascal winked and disappeared into the kitchen. Molly was known in the village for her passion for French pastry, and croissants in particular. The café got theirs each morning from the best pâtisserie in the entire département—Molly’s holy of holies, PâtisserieBujold. In less than a minute, Pascal was back with the Special on a tray: a large cup of steaming café crème, a tall and narrow glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, and a croissant on its own small plate. Molly sipped the coffee and thought about the Bilsons. One crabby spouse whom the other constantly tried to appease—was that a workable arrangement? Were they happy like that, or was Darcy on the verge of leaving because Ira never quite managed to mollify her? Or was Ira on the brink of storming off, having had enough of his impossible wife?

Molly’s own marriage had ended years ago, but she reflected that she and Donnie had always seemed to get along, on the surface at least. They hadn’t revealed anything like the public tension of the Bilsons. Yet what had that mattered? They had split up anyway, and Molly no longer regretted it, not now that the whole painful thing was far in the past.

The orange juice provided the perfect mixture of tart and sweet, and after drinking most of it, she turned her attention to the croissant. Leaving all ruminations on marriage behind, she bit into the slightly hard tip, the crunch so buttery and satisfying, and then another quick bite to reach the soft, stretchy inside that tasted vaguely of cheese (even though she knew there was no actual cheese involved). She couldn’t help eating the whole thing more quickly than it deserved.

As she lingered over her coffee, reminding herself to pick up two other guests that afternoon at the train station, the Bilsons entered the café and sat down behind her. Molly started to speak but they did not appear to notice her, so she turned back around and edged her chair a bit closer, never one to pass up an opportunity to eavesdrop.

3

Not long after returning to La Baraque, two more Americans showed up: Ashley and Patty, two women from South Carolina who were celebrating Ashley’s recent thirtieth birthday, and were staying in the renovated pigeonnier.

“I’ve been wishing to get to France practically my whole life,” Ashley gushed, after giving Molly a warm hug. “My ancestors were French, you know. And the instant I set foot here, right in the Paris airport, I just felt…at home, in a way?”

“I completely understand,” said Molly with a smile. Ashley was medium-height and curvy, with an impressive bosom and small waist that Scarlett O’Hara would have envied. She wore a pile of bangles on each arm, trendy ankle boots, and an eye-poppingly pink dress. Her blonde hair came from a cheap dye job, Molly noticed, not judging her for it.

Ashley’s friend, Patty McMahon, did not hug. She smiled uncertainly when Molly welcomed her, looking embarrassed. She was very short, her pale skin scattered with freckles, brown hair in a long pixie cut. She dressed so plainly in jeans and a flannel shirt that Molly wondered what the two women had in common.

“So, how did you meet?” she asked.

“Back at Auburn? We were sorority sisters,” said Ashley, putting her arm around Patty and squeezing her close. “Were you in a sorority, Molly?”

“Afraid not,” Molly shook her head.

“Well, it’s not all candles and lace, you know. When you’re rushing, they put you through the most awful tests! I had to go to classes for an entire week wearing the ugliest pair of shoes known to mankind! Damn, I tear up just thinkin’ about it.”

Patty chuckled.

“Now Patty here?” Ashley continued. “She was a gift from God, I will tell you what. You’ve got to understand, if the girls catch you cheating on one of the tests, you’re out, out out! And I…well, I was cheating. I just couldn’t wear those hideous shoes everywhere I went. What would people think? And so one day I was walking to the sorority house wearing this pair of platforms that made my legs look like Elle McPherson’s. I was planning to switch shoes when I got close, you see? But Lord Almighty, here comes a sorority sister (and not one of the nice ones either) and I thought, Damn it all to hell, my goose is cooked!

“But Miss Patty appears out of the blue, sees what’s about to happen, and runs over to that sister with some story about a toaster being on fire, and I had time to slip into the ladies’ room and put those ugly shoes back on. Had to leave the platforms behind though—you can’t run around holding the evidence and not expect to get caught!”

“True enough!” said Molly, leading them to the pigeonnier and getting them settled just in time to go greet the next guest, Nathaniel Beech, dropped off in the driveway by Christophe, the taxi driver. Nathaniel looked lost, his gangly arms dangling at his sides, carrying his belongings in a high-tech backpack.

“Bonjour!” said Molly. “Are you Nathaniel or Ryan?”

“Nathaniel,” he answered, looking a bit alarmed.

“Sorry, we’re full up for this week and I’m expecting another single man to arrive any time. Welcome to La Baraque and let me show you to your room. Do you mind if I ask how you found out about the place?”

“Just web surfing. I’ve been wanting to visit France for a long time, and finally had enough vacation time saved up.”

“Glad to hear you stumbled onto my website. My marketing efforts could be a little sharper.”

“Oh, not at all. Your SEO wasn’t bad at all, and hey, you’re all booked up, so it’s working pretty well, eh?”

“SEO?”

“Oh, sorry, didn’t mean to get technical. Search Engine Optimization. It just means how findable you are online. Anyway, I’m happy to be here. If you need any help with all these guests, just give me a shout.”

“That’s very kind of you, Nathaniel, I may well be shouting!”

Nathaniel and the other single man, Ryan Tuck, were staying in the newly fixed-up wing off the main house. The rooms had en suite bathrooms, but no kitchens, and thanks to Molly’s suddenly fat bank account, the beds, linens, and everything else were of very good quality.

Tuck arrived soon after. “Molly,” he said warmly, giving her a quick hug. “I’m so glad to be here. Your place is incredible! Look at the color of that stone. How old is the house?”

“Depends on which part you’re talking about,” Molly laughed, pleased that he was taking an interest, and also pleased, if she were honest, to gaze on Ryan’s chiseled features and buff body. He was wearing a rather tight T-shirt that showed off his muscles, and had dark brown hair cut short enough to stick straight up. Definitely an attractive guy, and with several single women at La Baraque, and Valentine’s Day coming up, Molly thought there might be some interesting developments ahead.

After getting Ryan settled, Molly sneaked off to her bedroom for a breather. As much as she loved meeting new people, being responsible for the happiness of six guests all by herself felt a bit much at the moment. It was a dreary day with no sign of the sun, and her bedroom, far from the woodstove, was chilly. She pulled her new down comforter up to her chin, reached for her tablet, and dove into a new book.

After an hour of escaping to thirteenth-century England, she heard Bobo barking and got up to see what the dog was excited about. Glancing out a window in the hallway, Molly saw Ryan Tuck playing fetch. Bobo was dancing on her hind legs, waiting, and when Ryan threw the stick, she took off like a shot. Molly smiled. Of course, it was not at all the same as having a family, but still, it was very nice to have new acquaintances coming and going, and to see, in the short time they were there, they formed a sort of community. And she was, of course, always disposed to like anyone who made friends with Bobo.

It was 5:30 and time for a kir. She wandered into the living room, shoved another log in the stove to take the chill off, and reached for the bottle of crème de cassis.

A knock on the French doors.

“Hey Molly?” said Nathaniel through the glass.

“Oh hi, Nathaniel.” She opened the door and let him in. “Is your room comfortable? You’re the first to stay in that room since it’s been renovated, so please let me know if there’s anything amiss.”

“It’s very nice,” answered Nathaniel, seating himself on a stool and watching Molly make her drink. “Hope I’m not bothering you? I’m a little at loose ends from arriving so late. Maybe you could tell me a good place to have dinner?”

“Oh, no bother at all! Would you like a drink? I’m making myself a kir, a very popular French drink that in my opinion is the most delicious cocktail in the world. But I have…let’s see…I’ve got vodka, an open bottle of Bordeaux, Calvados that a guest left behind….”

Nathaniel tapped his chin. “I’ll have what you’re having,” he said. “I wish my girlfriend could have joined me on this trip—she loves champagne more than anything. It’s so much cheaper here, we could have had a bottle every night.”

“Indeed,” said Molly. “I’m sorry she couldn’t make it. It’s no good spending Valentine’s Day away from your beloved.”

Nathaniel nodded sadly. “I know. We haven’t been together very long, and I’d booked the plane ticket ages ago. So she told me it would be crazy to waste it.”

“Very understanding.”

“Yes. Miranda’s…well, she’s a wonderful girl.”

Nathaniel’s cheeks got very red and Molly almost teased him but figured she didn’t know him well enough. She put a kir in front of him and lifted her glass for a toast. “To Miranda!” she cried.

Banging on the front door. “Hold on, maybe someone else is thirsty,” she said.

The Bilsons barged in as soon as Molly opened the door. “Bonsoir!” boomed Ira, laughing at his terrible accent.

“How was Lela Vidal?”

“Very friendly, very generous,” said Ira. “We sort of invited ourselves over to her place tomorrow morning, right after the milking, so she can show us around. And in a stroke of luck, she’s doing a workshop later on that we might want to stay over for.”

“I’ve found people here to be really wonderful,” said Molly, unsure how she felt about an extended Bilson stay.

“As long as you aren’t killed,” sniffed Darcy.

Molly paused, trying to master herself before she insulted one of her guests. “Are you talking about the very few murders that have occurred in the last few years?”

“Last few months, more like,” said Darcy, with curled lip. “But no worries, Ira and I can take care of ourselves. I was wondering, can you recommend a place for dinner?” asked Darcy.

“Oh sure, Chez Papa is always open, if you’re okay with bistro food. It’s very good, just not fancy.”

“Where is it?” asked Ira, rubbing his expansive belly. “I am starving.”

“If you go down rue des Chênes—the road we’re on—and take the first fork to the left, it’s a few blocks past that. A string of lights in the tree outside, the door is blue…I’d say tell ’em I sent you, but my bartender friend is on vacation and I don’t know all the people filling in for him.”

Ira was staring at Molly’s refrigerator as though it were his only hope of survival.

“Or, I guess I could see what I’ve got here? I don’t have enough food to cook for everyone, but I might be able to throw together a few hors d’oeuvres, if you’re interested?”

Ira grinned broadly.

“Wonderful!” exclaimed Nathaniel, just as Ryan and Bobo came inside. “Now we don’t have to go out into the cold, at least not yet.”

Molly rummaged around in her cupboards and refrigerator; within ten minutes she’d put a tray of gougères in the oven, and placed a bowl of olives and one of marinated artichokes on the counter.

“I could live on hors d’oeuvres,” she said, spooning more cheese puff dough onto a second tray. “Oh, I think I may have some prosciutto too—”

Ira made small talk with Nathaniel while Darcy stood with her arms crossed and a disagreeable expression on her face. Molly put all the alcohol she had on the counter along with some bottles of mineral water, and asked the guests to make themselves whatever they liked. “You know, I think this has officially turned into a party. I’m going to go let the other guests know they’re welcome to join us. Ryan, will you take the gougères out in five minutes if I’m not back?”

Ryan grinned and saluted, and said he’d be glad to if she was willing to take the risk that he wouldn’t run off with the entire tray for himself.

“I’ll keep an eye on you,” said Ira seriously, appearing to take Ryan’s joke literally.

Grabbing her kir, Molly stepped out through the French doors and started down the path toward the pigeonnier. She breathed in deeply, enjoying the briskness of the cold air in her lungs, feeling a little happier now that her house was filled with people. Impulsively, she pulled out her cell and called Ben.

“Hello, Molly,” he said, his voice soft.

“What are you up to? My gîtes are overflowing this weekend, and an impromptu party is starting up in my kitchen. Want to come over?”

Ben paused, just for a millisecond.

“I can’t promise that the guests all get along,” Molly continued. “But still, it’s—” she was about to say “more fun than sitting home reading Napoleonic sea tales,” but thought the better of it.

“On my way,” said Ben, and Molly hung up, grinning like a schoolgirl.

Molly went around to the pigeonnier to invite Ashley and Patty. Every time she looked at the building, she remembered Pierre Gault and admired the exquisite work he had done. There’ll never be his equal when it comes to stonework, she thought.

She knocked lightly on the door. No answer, so she knocked again and called, “Ashley?”

“And you know I can’t stand the smell of that soap. Really Patty, do you want me to have a migraine this whole entire time? Because that is what you have just set in motion. I can feel the pounding starting up already, it’s like ocean waves gathering force, getting ready to crash on my poor little ol’ head.”

Ashley was talking so loudly that Molly did not have to rely on her eavesdropping superpowers to hear what she said. Was this going to be the Week of the Grouchy People? And I’m right there with them, she admitted to herself.

She rapped on their door. “Ashley? Patty?”

The door opened and Ashley greeted Molly with a wide grin, showing no sign of suffering from a headache. “Well, bienvenue darlin’, come right on in! Patty and I were just thinkin’ about having a little drink here in the room, and we’d be so honored if the chatelaine would join us! I took French in college, you know. Spent my junior year in Nice, and you know, going back in my family? We’ve got French people common as hen’s teeth. Just love any and everything French, as I’m sure you understand!”

“Indeed I do,” said Molly, thinking they had already had this conversation before. “Do you speak French too, Patty?”

Patty shrank back as though she wanted to be invisible, and Molly instinctively gave her more room.

“No,” Patty whispered.

“I do all the talkin’ around here!” laughed Ashley, fluffing up her hair.

“Well, I dropped by to tell you that the other guests are all downstairs in my living room. I’m making a few things for us to eat, and the party’s just getting started! Please come down and join us if you’d like to. Completely casual of course, and whatever you want to do is fine.”

“We were planning to have dinner in the village,” said Patty.

“But Mouse, there’s a party to go to! We don’t want to miss that!”

Molly smiled. “All right! I’ve got things in the oven so I need to get back. À tout à l’heure!”

When she came back to the main house, she heard Darcy laughing uproariously, and Ira looking on as though he didn’t get the joke.

“Ryan, you are just too funny!” Darcy said, her face now relaxed and open, her eyes even twinkling. Molly noted how a funny person would change the mood of a room in a blink of an eye, and she was grateful for Ryan’s good humor. She bent down to peek in the oven, which was temperamental, sometimes disobeying the temperature controls and burning things to a crisp if she didn’t keep an eye out.

“What are those delicious-looking morsels, anyway?” asked Ryan, standing at her elbow when she stood back up.

“Oh, gougères, one of my many French food obsessions. They’re like cream puffs, only savory. Lots of grated gruyère to give them plenty of cheesy goodness.”

Ryan laughed. “They sound amazing. And we’re going to eat them hot out of the oven? Already, this vacation is turning out to be the best decision I ever made.”

Molly eyed the young man. “Really? I hope you don’t think this is unforgivably nosy, but I was wondering about you and Nathaniel, young men traveling by yourselves. What brings you to this backwater village where nothing much happens, in the dead of winter?”

“Ah,” said Ryan with a quick smile. “Promise you won’t make fun?”

“I can never promise that.”

Ryan hooted. “Fair enough. Okay. My big secret is: I’m planning to start writing a novel. It’s always been an ambition of mine, ever since I was a kid. I saved up so I could take a long time off work, and figured a change of scene—in a calm, peaceful sort of place—would be the way to help me get started. I’m hoping Castillac will boost my momentum so that when I head home, I can keep it going.”

“Castillac looks a lot calmer than it is,” murmured Molly, before brightening. “A novel! I love the idea of your starting a book here. I wish you the very best of luck.”

“Thank you. No doubt, I can use every drop of luck you can send my way. You’ve already given me a good push in the right direction.”

“How’s that?”

“Well, I’m not really cut from the ‘starving artist’ mold, you know? I do enjoy my creature comforts.” He flashed a smile that literally dazzled her, and she leaned her elbows on the counter and smiled back. “You’ve made La Baraque a real showplace. My room is the perfect combination of serenity and luxury. Call me shallow, but that’s how I like to live. And I hope the atmosphere you’ve created will help me make a good start on my book.”

Ryan put his hand on Molly’s arm, and though she didn’t wish it and wasn’t looking for it, she felt a little spark of attraction. Their eyes met. “Please don’t say anything to anyone about it,” he said quietly. “It’s just…you understand…not something I want just anyone to know. I’d rather not answer ten million questions about it. Kills the creativity, you know?”

“Of course, no problem. I am pretty good at keeping secrets,” she said. “More or less.”

Ryan looked at her with alarm.

“Sorry! Something about you makes me want to tease you.” She laughed and took a sip of her kir and they looked at each other warmly and smiled.

“Darlings!” said a loud, Southern-accented voice, and everyone turned to see Ashley posing in the doorway with her arms open wide. “I want to know all of your names, starting with you!” She looked at Nathaniel and winked, and he stuttered out his name and moved away. Ashley spotted Molly in the kitchen and walked over with an exaggerated sway like she was on a Paris runway. “And who is this handsome specimen?” she said to Ryan, who introduced himself.

Ashley gave him a long look. “So,” she said slowly, “you’re the famous Ryan Tuck? The ladykiller known across all the southern states and probably up north too?”

“That sounds like a different Ryan Tuck,” he laughed, and Ashley shrugged and sat down next to Ira, whispering in his ear. Patty looked down at the floor, and Molly went to her quickly and asked if she would like a drink. Before Patty could answer, Bobo barked and Molly excused herself to go to the door. “Ben!” she cried, and fell into his arms as though he had been away on another long trip.

“Well, bonsoir to you too,” Ben deadpanned, hugging her tightly for an instant before letting her go. “I see you have a full house,” he added.

“I know, you’d probably rather be home in bed reading. But I…I just wanted to see you. To be with you,” she said, quietly so no one could overhear.