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A widow in a mansion. Dark secrets. And poison, deadly poison.After amateur detective Molly Sutton stumbles on a dead body, she wastes no time before eavesdropping and elbowing her way into conversations all over the French village of Castillac. But when Chief Dufort is about to clap handcuffs on the wrong man, she’s got to do more than chat to save him. Will she have the stuff—and the skill—to pull it off?The Luckiest Woman Ever is the second book in the Molly Sutton Mystery series. (Though you learn more about Molly and her friends reading the books in order, the mysteries are standalone.) If expertly woven cozy mysteries, characters with depth, and detectives with a taste for French food are your thing, Nell Goddin's tales of murder will be right up your alley.Come follow the twists and turns of the case along with Molly--get your copy of The Luckiest Woman Ever today!
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Copyright © 2015 by Nell Goddin
A Beignet Books publication. version1.4
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Would you like a free short story set in Castillac? ClickHERE!
For my magnificent teacher, Helen Tanner
Also by Nell Goddin
About the Author
In the grand old mansion on rue Simenon in the center of Castillac, sitting in a deep armchair covered in a fabric so expensive it could have paid for a small car, Josephine Desrosiers was watching a game show. She was wearing a nightgown her husband, long dead, had bought for her in Paris thirty years earlier. She blinked as the host talked rapidly in his forced jolly tone, lights on the set flashing as a contestant managed to mumble out the correct answer.
Madame Desrosiers was seventy-one, and her hearing was as sharp as ever. She heard the door to the kitchen close three floors down even though Sabrina, the housekeeper who came each morning, was a quiet girl and not remotely a door-slammer. Josephine got to her feet and snapped off the television set, then smoothed the cushion of the armchair so it looked fresh and unsat-in. And then she nimbly climbed into her vast bed with its ornate posts and carved headboard, and squeezed her eyes closed.
Sabrina could not clean the entire four-story house in one day, even as young and hardworking as she was. That day she did all of the first floor and most of the second, but never came up to Madame Desrosiers’s bedroom. Madame Desrosiers had told her that she was very ill and did not have the wherewithal to see visitors, including Sabrina, so she was left alone. She had a box of crackers under her bed and a bit of Brie that was past its prime—quite enough sustenance thank you—so she never rang the servant’sbell.
When Madame Desrosiers heard the door softly shut at the end of the day, she slid out of bed and turned the television back on. Then she did her exercises in front of an enormous gilt-framed mirror, counting her movements, bending to the right and then the left, breathing heavily from the work of reaching for her toes. She was preparing for the best part of the day, when she sat at her desk and wrote letters. Each one was a harassing and maligning and instructing sort of letter, every single one of which, when opened, was greeted with the same feeling of deflation and even shame in its recipient, just as Josephine intended.
Josephine Desrosiers had been a lucky woman, in material respects. Her family had not been wealthy, but her husband had invented something that made him millions. (She couldn’t say what exactly—something electrical, she believed?) And now she was able to play the significant role of Rich Widow, complete with younger members of the family gathered at her feet, hoping for the odd crumb to fall theirway.
Well, there was one family member who did that, anyway: Michel, her nephew. He would likely come around tonight as he usually did late in the week, trying to butter her up. Very occasionally she wrote him a small check. She liked sometimes to think of herself as bountiful, and with impressive self-control, she denied any connection in her mind between Michel’s attentiveness and the money she gave him. As she thought of Michel, the doorbell sounded and she heard him let himself in. She was not quite dressed and she enjoyed making him wait. Josephine liked the idea of the young man sitting in her salon, twiddling his thumbs, with nothing to do but look forward to the moment when she appeared at the top of the wide, curving staircase.
A vanity table stood in a corner of the expansive bathroom off her bedroom, covered with crystal bottles of perfume and old tins of eyeliner and foundation. She sat gazing at herself in the mirror, brushing her wisps of white hair straight up. She dabbed her fingertips into a pot of rouge and reddened up her wrinkled cheeks. She applied lipstick and blotted it with special blotting papers. It occurred to her, not for the first time, that some music might be pleasant to listen to while she made her preparations, but the record player had broken decades ago and she had no wish for anything ugly and modern in the house.
Finally, with a spritz of perfume, Josephine Desrosiers was ready to greet her nephew. She was spry for her age and she had no trouble with the stairs. She nearly hummed to herself as she descended, but stopped herself because she thought humming was a low-class pursuit. Her nephew, chewing on a fingernail, was sitting on the very edge of the sofa cushion, his brown hair falling down over oneeye.
“Ah, Michel, comment vas-tu?”
Michel jumped up from the sofa and kissed his aunt on both cheeks, murmuring the most polite murmurs he could come upwith.
He loathed hisaunt.
He thought her mean and narcissistic, which did not take an abundance of perception.
“What would you like to do this evening, my dear?” he asked her, so solicitous he almost believed himself. “How about a bit of television? I hear there’s anew—”
“Television is vulgar,” said Madame Desrosiers.
“Ah. Well, shall I take you out to dinner then? Are you hungry?”
She considered. She did like to enter a restaurant and see the people she knew jump up to come say hello. But on the other hand, the tiresome service! The expense! She had lost her appetite for food years ago, and she didn’t see the point in spending that much time and money on something she wasn’t especially interested in. “If you would make me my usual,” shesaid.
Michel sighed inwardly and went to a sideboard. He took a dangerously fragile cordial glass from inside the cabinet and placed it on a silver tray. Then he poured some Dubonnet from a crystal decanter and took the glass to his aunt. The stuff smelled musty like the rest of the house and he did not breathe until she took it fromhim.
He would have welcomed a drink himself, but had learned that helping himself, or even asking politely if he might join her, was a mistake. And with Aunt Josephine Desrosiers, you did not want to make mistakes. Not if you wanted to escape without a cruel dressing-down.
And definitely not if you wanted to inherit her money.
Molly Sutton rubbed her sleeve on the window trying to wipe away the condensation blocking her view of the meadow, but it was not fog on the window, it was ice. On the inside. Her first winter in France, and oh it was a cold one. Lowest temperatures in decades, and La Baraque—her beautiful, odd, old house—was not insulated.
She had moved to the village of Castillac at the end of the summer. A fresh start in a beautiful place: a life of gardening, eating fabulous food, running a gîte business, and talking to goat farmers—that was what she had imagined. Instead, she had discovered a corpse in the woods and gotten involved in a murder investigation, not exactly the peace and serenity she was goingfor.
But on the whole, Castillac was even better than she had dreamed: she had made friends, even good friends; the beauty of the village and the surrounding area never failed to take her breath away; and the pastry was sublime.
Molly was willing to pronounce any day that began with an almond croissant from PâtisserieBujold at least a partial success. Now of course, they were at their peak when utterly fresh, so that meant walking the kilometer and a half into the village to buy one first thing in the morning, still warm from the oven. And Café de la Place was only two steps away from the pâtisserie, after all—why not stop in for a café crème and say bonjour to that blindingly handsome server, Pascal?
She wasn’t flirting with him, not really. She was too old for him anyway. Nevertheless, they showed their appreciation for each other as he took her order with a twinkle in his eye, as if to say: in a parallel universe I’d have a romp with you, ohyes.
Molly allowed herself a twinkleback.
But that was a summer sort of exchange, all that twinkling, when sitting outside with the sun on your back felt so good, and the days were so long it was sometimes hard to fill them up. Winter was a whole other matter. Restaurants closed their terraces, and everyone wrapped themselves up in heavy coats and sweaters. It didn’t feel very sexy. Instead of warm, loose, and easygoing, life felt stiff and closedin.
Molly’s best friend in Castillac was Lawrence Weebly, but he had taken off for a month in Morocco, and December had begun to drag a little. She was lonely.
Instead of going into the village she booted up her computer and checked her email. No inquiries about booking the cottage. Make that lonely and anxious about money. But at least the first problem was easy enough to solve. She emailed Frances, her best pal from the U.S., and invited her to come for a long visit. The cottage was empty anyway and Molly would love the company.
Frances must have been sitting at her computer at the same time, because in three seconds she emailed back: PACKING.
Molly grinned but had a pang of regret at her impulsiveness. Yes, Frances was an old friend and gobs of fun, and Molly loved her. But Frances was also, well, the sort of person trouble seemed to follow. Houses burned down, cars were stolen, epic misunderstandings—this was Frances’s daily life. Molly could only hope that her black cloud would stay on the other side of the Atlantic, or that perhaps by now Frances had outgrown it. They weren’t far from forty, afterall.
Someone banged on the frontdoor.
“Coming!” yelled Molly, wishing again for a dog. She always felt a spark of worry, opening the door when she had no idea who was on the other side. Was she too suspicious? Overly anxious? She made a mental note to ask Frances if she felt thesame.
Constance, the young woman who occasionally came to clean, stood on the front step with a toothy grin. She had her hair scraped back into a high ponytail that Molly knew was her ready-to-work hairstyle. They exchanged greetings and Constance came in and stood in front of the woodstove.
“It’s really cold in here, Molls,” she said. “Are you sure you don’t want Thomas to put in some electric heaters so you don’t freeze to death? I’d hate to come over and find you all stiff and icedover!”
“Nah, it’s not that bad. Spring’s right around the corner anyway.”
Molly shrugged. “I’m sorry I don’t have anything for you to do today. I knew bookings would fall off once the weather turned, but it’s worse than I expected. I guess anticipating something isn’t the same thing as going through it. No one’s set foot in the cottage since you cleaned itlast.”
Constance looked crushed. “Well, but—how about I clean your house instead of the cottage?” She looked around the living room and raised her eyebrows at the line of bark and twigs that had trailed over the floor when Molly brought in armloads ofwood.
“Sorry, Constance. Without bookings, I don’t have the money to pay you. Want a cup of coffee? How about you sit down and tell me all the news. I know you have news.” Molly smiled and gestured toward the livingroom.
Constance smoothed a stray lock of hair behind one ear. “Well,” she said, “have you heard about Madame Luthier? You know her, she lives in that decrepit house over on rue Saterne?”
Molly shook her head while getting another coffee cup. Constance was a terrible cleaner, no getting around that, but she did always have news, and she wasn’t stingy with it either—qualities Molly esteemed quite highly. At least as high as being adept with a vacuum cleaner, luckily for Constance.
“I think I met her at the market one day. Dresses all in black, with really thickhose?”
“Yeah,” laughed Constance. “And black shoes that, I don’t know, look like she’d like to kick someone?”
“Did she do something scandalous?” Molly handed Constance the coffee and sat on the sofa, leaning forward and hoping for a juicy tidbit.
“Depends on if you think cutting her daughter out of her will is scandalous.”
“Ooo, maybe not. But mean. Did the daughter do something horrible? Or is Madame Luthier just a controlling battle-axe?”
Constance tittered. “Well, maybe I shouldn’t say cut her daughter out, because in France you can’t do that. But she’s leaving only the portion required by law, which I think anyone would agree that if the daughter had to put up with Madame Luthier all these years she deserves more thanthat!”
“You mean there are laws about what you do in yourwill?”
“Oh, yes,” said Constance. “Your children automatically get half or something? Oh, I’m not good with the details,” said Constance. “Math was so not my thing, and it’s not like my parents are going to leave me anything but debts. But so anyway, I heard the daughter—her name is Prudence and everyone used to call us Pru and Con, although I don’t personally see what’s so funny about that—so Prudence is supposedly furious. But she better not kill her mother unless she changes her will!” And Constance slammed back against the sofa laughing hysterically at her former schoolmate’s predicament.
The next day was even colder. I knew Castillac wasn’t exactly the south of France, Molly was thinking, but I did think it was south-ish. She put on a heavy jacket and went out to the woodpile, grateful that at least the wood was dry. Constance had generously vacuumed the living room yesterday, and here Molly was dropping bark and sawdust all over the floor again.
That’s life, huh? An endless cycle of tidying up the mess you’ve made, she thought with a shrug.
She stoked the fire, put on some blues, and settled on the sofa with a blanket and some gardening catalogs she’d brought with her from America. It was less than practical to pack catalogs she wouldn’t be able to order from in France, but Molly loved looking at the photographs and imagining the plants in various combinations in borders on her property. She wasn’t shopping; she was looking for inspiration.
Certain plants she loved deeply: all the artemisias, definitely baptisias, most of the roses. And for some reason, other plants made her feel slightly ill to look at them—kniphofia, amaranth, and especially astilbe. She didn’t understand why this was so, because the revulsion she felt couldn’t simply be a matter of aesthetics, could it? Yet the aversion was pretty powerful. Half of them she’d only seen in catalogs anyway. Maybe if she saw them in a garden she would feel differently.
A slow hour passed. She put more wood in the stove, fiddled with the air intakes, swept up the mess. Had another cup of coffee. Thought about inviting her neighbor, Madame Sabourin, over for a cup of tea. Except Molly didn’t like tea. She considered calling Lawrence in Morocco but remembered he had said something about turning off his phone, taking a break from the electronic world. There had been a moment—and a night—when she thought maybe something had sparked between her and Ben Dufort, the chief gendarme, but the moment seemed to have passed and she didn’t know what to make ofthat.
Not that she was looking for romance anyway.
She had come to France in part to recover from a divorce. She hadn’t been especially happy in the marriage, but still, its ending had knocked her for a loop. And this French winter, with everyone hunkered down in their own houses and the village quiet as a tomb, it let some of those crummy post-divorce feelings come back, like a high tide leaving a line of detritus on the beach.
Thank God Frances is coming. I desperately need some distraction.
Eventually she shoved the catalogs under the sofa and went out for a walk around her property. She had two hectares, just shy of five acres, with a small patch of woods and a sloping meadow in addition to the lawn and gardens around the house. It was difficult to imagine lush gardens in that chilly weather, so she thought about buildings instead. At the moment she had only the one cottage to rent out, but to get anything close to financial security, she needed more buildings with beds in them. An old pigeonnier—where some former owner had raised pigeons for dinner—was starting to crumble but would make a charming gîte to rent out, if she could find a good mason.
When she returned to the house and peeled off her coat and scarf, she realized she’d forgotten to put more wood in the stove before going out, and now the living room felt like a freezer.
This is ridiculous, I might as well have stayed in Massachusetts!
But she had not moved to France for a change in climate. She had wanted calm and peace and pastry, and she couldn’t find them in her Boston suburb, where the crime-to-bakeries ratio was all wrong.
But the truth was, now that she had calm, she didn’t want it. She wanted stimulation and excitement. Maybe not as exciting as finding a corpse in the woods.
Josephine could not sleep. It was one of the insults of getting older, and she did not take it well. She got out of bed, took off the nightgown her husband had brought her from Paris, let it drop to the floor, and wandered around the house naked. The heat was turned way up so she was not cold, and the shutters were closed so she had privacy, with only the faintest moonlight coming through the slats to seeby.
She was looking for something, but she had no idea what itwas.
No one ever calls. All those cousins who live in Paris, do they ever come visit? No. My sister barely even calls anymore. All I’ve got is that mewling excuse for a nephew who has never amounted to anything atall.
She came into a sitting room on the second floor, a room where her husband Albert used to work on his inventions. Back then it had been a big mess of tools and parts and boxes of strange things he had ordered from somewhere, and books and papers in towering stacks, threatening to suffocate theman.
What a bore Albert had been, she thought. Always working. Always had his head in some manual or something. Never paying me, his wife, the attention I deserved.
After he died—out of nowhere, a heart attack and he was dead on the spot, she had no warning or time to prepare at all—Josephine had ordered all of his junk taken out of the room. Every last wire, every nut, every bolt. And she had bought a pair of sumptuous love seats and a stuffed ostrich, put candelabra on the mantel and tables, and hung thick brocade curtains at the windows. Following the transformation she found it an agreeable place where she liked to sit and feel tragic about being widowed when she was still so young.
She had been fifty-two when her husband had dropped dead—not exactly a dewy ingenue, but it was true that fifty-two felt like a very long time agonow.
Josephine went to a small antique desk, bought long after Albert died. She opened the bottom drawer and took out three letters tied with a pink satin ribbon. They were tucked in yellowing envelopes without name or address. She slid the top letter out and began toread:
I am not a poet and words are not easy for me but I want so much to tell you how much our time together means to me. You are so lovely and I find myself thinking of you when I should be studying.
The old woman’s eyes burned with tears. She put the letter back in its yellowed envelope, retied the satin ribbon, and put the packet back in the bottom drawer of the desk. Though tears were spilling down her wrinkled cheeks, her eyes glared and her mouth turned down. On her way out of the room she caressed the stuffed ostrich’s neck, which was showing some signs of wear. She wished the candles were lit but did not want to search for matches.
She could not sleep.
Suddenly she clapped her hands and went down to the kitchen. It was four in the morning. She had not been in the kitchen in several years, so at first she had to turn on a light and rummage about, deep in the pantry, until she found what she was lookingfor.
Ah! I knew they must still behere!
And then she stood in the kitchen, fingers stroking her chin, pondering just where to set the rat trap so that Sabrina would catch her fingers init.
“It’s so totally beyond awesome that you really, really did it!” shrieked Frances, dancing around Molly’s living room and looking everywhere at once. “You moved to France!” She grabbed Molly’s hands and spun her around. “Hey, wanna put some music on? We can dance together just like in our wanton youth!”
Molly laughed but made no move for music. “Want me to show you around? House first?”
“Yes ma’am! I want to see it all! It’s so quaint I may die. Look at these itty-bitty little windows, they’re like something out of a fairy tale.” Frances reached out to a small leaded window in the foyer and put her hand right through the glass.
“Oh my God, Molly!”
“Jeez, wait, Frances—don’t yank your hand back through there, you’ll slice yourself to ribbons!” Blood was already pouring down the glass. “Stay right there, don’t move, I’m getting a bandage…”
A first-aid kit was on a list Molly had made of things she needed for the house. Somewhere. She got a clean rag from under the kitchen sink and trotted back to her friend.
“It’s nothing, really,” said Frances. “I’ve cut my hand a trillion times, you know that. I’m just—I’m so sorry about your window.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Molly. She got Frances’s hand back through the window without further cutting, led her to the bathroom sink and rinsed out the cut. Then she wrapped the rag around it and told Frances to push down onit.
“Oh, believe me, I know how to stop blood loss,” Frances said, laughing. “I’d be even paler than I already am if I hadn’t learned that pretty quick.”
Then, because of the bitter cold, she cut a piece of cardboard and fit it over the window, taping the edge tightly to keep drafts out, choosing warmth over aesthetics at least until she could get the pane replaced.
Molly and Frances had met in grade school. They had both been known for their white complexions—Molly a freckled redhead and Frances dark-haired and long-legged with unusually white skin. They had done everything together and been nicknamed The Pales.
Frances was undeterred in her wish to see every nook and cranny of La Baraque, so Molly took her up the front staircase and into every room, down the back staircase and into the pantry, the laundry room, and an odd little room in which the former owner had left some remnants of fabric and a pincushion shaped like a mouse.
“I love how ramshackle it all is—don’t take that the wrong way,” said Frances. “I mean…how it’s so asymmetrical, like one day the owner woke up and said Hey, I really need another room, let’s get busy! and that just kept on happening over decades, youknow?”
“I like that about it too,” said Molly. “I wish I knew its history, but the couple I bought it from didn’t seem to know anything. I don’t think they owned it for verylong.”
“You could probably find out a lot in the courthouse, or wherever they keep the real estate sales records, and deeds, that stuff.”
“Probably so. Though, uh, chances are pretty good I’ll never get around toit.”
“Yup!” said Frances. “Now let’s put on our boots and go tramp around your Property.”
“It’s not exactly Property,” said Molly, laughing. “It’s just a little over five acres.”
“Oh, that counts! That totally counts. You’re a châtelaine, Molls! Have I mentioned I love that you moved here! I bet your family is all pissed off, aren’tthey?”
“They…weren’t in favor.”
“Just icing on the cake,” said Frances, grinning, and she opened up the kitchen door as she pulled on hercoat.
It had been a satisfactory day thus far, thought Josephine Desrosiers with more than a touch of complacency. Silly Sabrina had stuck her hand in the wrong place and had a rat trap go off. Definitely fractured one finger, maybe two. Josephine had waited at the top of the staircase, listening. She was prepared to wait a long time, but Sabrina had found the trap quickly, propped inside a bucket she used for mopping the kitchen floor.
The old lady had closed her eyes and listened to the howling with a serene smile on her face. Stupid girl, not to look where her hands were going.
The afternoon passed with one television program after another, mostly game shows. She felt more energetic than usual and went wandering into a room where several large chests of her old things were kept. Fancy dress after fancy dress, the lace, the taffeta! And what was the point, she thought morosely, running her fingers over the finery. It’s nothing now, useless.
She slipped one dress out of the pile and held it up. It was black lace, with a silk sheath underneath. Stunning workmanship. She vividly remembered how she had enjoyed spending her husband’s money, with no thought of bank accounts or overdrafts or anything else. And how when she would come out of her dressing room wearing a frock like this one, all would be forgiven.
Josephine decided it would be the perfect dress to be buried in, not that she had plans to go anytime soon. But it felt wrong to try it on. Wear a fancy dress all alone in the house? That’s ridiculous. Yet she took the dress back to her room, and stood in front of the mirror, looking at it. It fell just above the knee, not an outrageous length for a woman her age if she had the legs to carry itoff.
And I do, she thought, nodding at her reflection. Michel is coming tonight anyway, perhaps I will go ahead and put it on. Show the little weasel how a woman of sophistication dresses.
The dress still fit, although it was tight in different places than it had been when she was thirty. She selected some diamond earrings to wear with it, because black and diamonds are so natural together.
Her hair and makeup were finished before Michel arrived, so she was forced to flip through an old issue of Paris Match while he waited downstairs, but finally got tired of that and made her entrance on the grand staircase.
“Well, Aunt…” Michel was speechless. He desperately wanted to laugh at this ridiculous specter coming down the stairs like she was the star at a Hollywood premiere, her hair standing on end with Lord knows how much hairspray, eyeliner gone terribly awry, and stuffed into a dress that ought to be in a museum somewhere. “…you look magnificent.”
“Thank you, Michel. Sometimes I get tired of just throwing on any old thing.”
“You must have quite a closet full of treasures. Did Uncle Albert let you buy all the couture you wanted?”
Josephine smiled a girlish smile and laughed, “Nearly! Sometimes he could be fussy about money. But most of the time…most of the time he was shut up in his room fiddling with little bits of things, or on the phone talking to one of his colleagues. Such a bore,” she added.
“But that fiddling as you call it—that’s how you could afford a dress like that,” said Michel, who barely remembered his uncle, but felt someone should stick up forhim.
Josephine glared at her nephew. “What do you know about anything,” she sneered. “Have you ever made more than fifty francs altogether, in your entire excuse for alife?”
Michel sighed inwardly. Her barb did not hit home because he had long ago realized her poison was about her and not those at whom she directed it, and because she was so ridiculous standing on the stairway in what she imagined was an elegant pose, hurling thunderbolts down on hishead.
She was a tiresome, noxious oldhag.
“Oh, dear Aunt, you have such admirably high standards. I will redouble my efforts to try and meet them.” He bowed his head to hide his ironicgrin.
Josephine was momentarily mollified. She made her descent, clutching tightly to the handrail, her heels clopping on the stone stairs and sounding like a small pony. Michel went to the sideboard to pour his aunt her usual Dubonnet, which she drank off in two gulps.
“So this evening, my darling. Would you like me to take you out for dinner? I made reservations at La Métairie, if you would like togo.”
Madame Desrosiers pursed her lips. On the one hand, she appreciated that he had made an effort, in advance, to please her. On the other hand, she wanted to make whatever decisions were to be made about dinner, not follow along with whatever Michel wanted todo.
“Hm. Well, what sort of food is it? It’s nothing modern, is it? Not…not ethnic?”
Michel laughed at the way his aunt spat the word as though she had suddenly realized there was merde in her mouth. “No, Josephine, La Métairie is French, through and through. They specialize in duck, as a matter of fact. I’ve not had the pleasure of eating there myself, but all reports are extremely positive.”
“You mean you can’t afford to go on yourown.”
Michel inclined his head, and forced himself not to roll his eyes. “Yes, Aunt, true enough.”
In the end, Madame Desrosiers agreed, and she allowed Michel to fetch her fur coat and bundle her into the economy car she had bought him, so that they could drive the six blocks to the restaurant. Certainly she would have refused his offer had she had any way of knowing what would occur after she arrived, but that islife.
Claudette Mercier always had tea for breakfast, with a bit of stale bread left over from the day before spread with some strawberry jam. This had been her routine for close to twenty years, ever since her husband had passed away, and she no longer had to make the more substantial breakfast he preferred. While she waited for the water to boil, she stood in her nightgown and brushed her long white hair and then braided it. Most mornings she remembered how her husband, Declan (his mother had been Irish) had often told her that the long white braid was the hairstyle of an old woman. And she had replied that she was an old woman.
It made her smile to think she had only been in her fifties then, hardly old considering she was over seventy now. It had been so many years since Declan had passed away, but she felt his presence still. Even strongly so, from time to time, and she believed that some part of him was still there with her, though she could not explain in what fashion that might be possible.
After her tea and bread with jam she went to work in the kitchen, which took most of the morning. There was jam to make, and chutney, and silver to polish. The work was never-ending and she enjoyed the routine and sense of accomplishment. Her father had owned a prosperous hardware store, and her family had been well off by the Castillac standards of seventy years ago. Her parents had tried to keep her out of the kitchen and let the servants take care of those chores, but Claudette hadn’t listened. It seemed as though she had spent most of her life cooking and cleaning up, and except for missing Declan, that life had been mostly happy.
At least until the letters started coming.
By about 11:30 she was folding up the last dishtowel and ready to get the mail, before making her lunch. In earlier years, the mail had been such a source of pleasure! Her friends sent postcards and letters when they traveled, and she had some cousins who lived in Brittany who sent a birthday card every year. But people didn’t write letters anymore. She still got a few birthday cards, but the mail was almost entirely advertisements now. Except for these letters, written on expensive stationery, which came every few months. Vicious, hateful letters, with the sole intention of causinghurt.
When the first one arrived, Claudette had been excited to see the lovely stationery; it had been so long since receiving a real letter. She opened it standing by her front gate, not waiting to get back in the house, and began to shake and then to cry when she saw what it said. Later on, when others showed in her mailbox and she recognized the stationery and handwriting, she knew the prudent thing would be to throw them directly in the trash, but she could not make herself doit.
Five letters so far. Every word burned into her brain like ascar.
Everyone has weaknesses, or perhaps we can call them areas of sensitivity, where we struggle if prodded too roughly. For Claudette, her heart’s desire was also her weakness. All she had ever wanted was a simple life of making food and being with her family, and that was what the letter-writer attacked, telling her she had been adopted and was not the natural child of her parents, and she was lucky not to be a scullery maid which was all she was equippedfor.
Now, Claudette had nothing against adopted children, or even being adopted herself, but the idea that her parents had lied to her, never told her the truth, dying with the secret? They must have thought the circumstances of her birth terribly shameful. It was unthinkably painful to contemplate.
She was not a woman who was particularly gullible or dim, nor was she quick to take offense. It was only that the letter-writer had been able to divine the exact thing to say that Claudette could not defend against, finding the one bit of soft flesh showing under the social armor we all put on every day, and driven in the stiletto precisely at that spot. Now Claudette counted the days since the last letter, wondering if the next one would come on the same schedule as the one before, or just possibly there would be no more and it would all be over. But she sensed that the letter-writer would keep on as long as she was able, and Claudette was not wrong aboutthis.
That morning there was no mail, and she was caught somewhere uncomfortable between relief and wishing a letter had been there, just to get it over with, because the anticipation of the pain had become almost as bad as the pain itself.
She kept the letters, for reasons she could not explain. All five were placed in a tin and nestled in her bureau drawer underneath her winter socks. The letters were unsigned with no return address, and no telltale markings or monogram on the fancy stationery. But Claudette had a pretty good idea about who was sending them, and she was not wrong about this either.
Molly and Frances had intended to make an extensive tour of Castillac before going to dinner, but the weather was not cooperating, and their feet complained before they had gotten veryfar.
“We lost our taxi driver—long story—so we have to walk,” Molly told her friend as they left La Baraque. They were dressed up and wearing heels, and looking forward to a meal at La Métairie. Molly had never been to the almost-one-Michelin-starred restaurant but figured her friend’s visit was the perfect opportunity to tryit.
“I don’t know about a fancy restaurant,” said Frances, limping a little from an incipient blister on her right heel. “If you’ll remember, my palate leans sorta toward the Cheetos end of the spectrum.”
“But don’t you want just once to eat in a serious French restaurant, where food is art? And yes, I’m regretting the shoes too. Let’s explore Castillac tomorrow, if it warms up a little. You don’t have to rush home, do you? I meant what I said about the open invitation. I have no bookings so the cottage is yours. And if a miracle happens and somebody wants it, you can always move into the big house with me. I’ve got a haunted bedroom upstairs that would be perfect foryou.”
Frances shook her head quickly, her straight black hair whipping around her face. “Haunted? Nope, not for me, thanks. I’m superstitious, Molls. Nuh-uh.”
Molly grinned. “Maybe the restaurant has a bar where we can wait—our reservation’s not until 8:30.”
“You trying to get me drunk?”
“Yup. Then I’m gonna take advantage ofyou.”
They laughed and hobbled arm in arm the rest of the way to La Métairie.
“Gracious heavens, that bartender could be on the cover ofGQ!”
“Ha, yeah, that’s Pascal. He’s usually at Café de la Place, I didn’t know he worked heretoo.”
“You know him? You’re friends with that specimen of manly perfection?”
“Well, sort of. We say hello and kiss, like everyone in the village. But we’ve never really had a conversation or anything.”
“I’d like to conversate with him right this very minute.”
Molly laughed. She was so glad she’d thought to invite Frances; she felt like she was twenty again.
The coat-girl took their coats, and Frances and Molly entered the ethereal world of La Métairie. The walls were painted a soothing dove-gray, and there were impressionistic paintings of the sea in the foyer. A small bar with four high chairs was off to the right, manned by Pascal, who really was almost too beautiful for words.
“I bet he’s gay,” whispered Frances, a little too loudly.
Molly shook herhead.
“No, really! When’s the last time you met a man that good-looking who was straight?”
Molly thought if she didn’t respond maybe her friend would shutup.
“Never, that’s when!” Frances said, her voice reverberating in the smallroom.
Molly shot her a look and Frances shrugged. “I’m just sayin’,”she mumbled.
“Salut, Molly,” said Pascal, with a dazzling smile.
“Salut, Pascal,” said Molly, leaning across the bar so they could kiss one cheek and then the other. In French, she said, “Allow me to present my friend, Frances. She doesn’t speak French, which is a blessing, believeme.”
Pascal laughed and winked at Frances. Frances gripped Molly’s arm so hard she left marks. They both ordered kirs and turned on their chairs to look out at the dining room and the other diners.
“It looks like the Early Bird Special in Florida out there,” Frances said, her voice thankfully lower. It was true that almost all the diners were gray-haired. Molly noticed one old lady in a black lace dress that looked like something you might wear to an opera singer’s funeral. Her white hair stood on end and she was holding the hand of a much younger man. Not holding it so much as gripping it like a raptor, digging in with her talons.
“Do you think they’re a couple?” Molly said to Frances in a low voice, gesturing with her head at the old lady inlace.
“No freaking way,” answered Frances. She had turned back around and was making embarrassing goo-goo eyes at Pascal, who was smiling at her charmingly.
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