Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Chapter 7 Delayed

I'm sorry but with all the Holiday bustle, I wasn't able to post chapter 7 on January 1. Please look for it on January 8. Thanks for your interest.  

Saturday, November 29, 2014


Chapter 6.  Too Many Questions
[Chapter 7 will be available on January 1, 2015]

Vanessa clutched the phone in her cold hand, waiting to hear if she had to give up the little scamp. Jackie, the vet's assistant, said the heir, Jacob Lay, had called their office looking for Charlie. When she told him that Vanessa had been given custody and had taken the dog on a trip to France, he got upset and hung up. Now they'd received a letter from his attorney demanding to know exactly where Vanessa was staying as Mr. Lay needed to contact her. Jackie asked, “Is it OK to give him your address and phone number?”
     Vanessa felt sick. If this Jacob Lay was Mr. Carr's heir he was entitled to the dog but she hated to think of losing Charlie. However, no matter how attached she was to the dog, she had to do the right thing.
     “It's all right. You can give them my contact information. Maybe he just wants to know if I'm taking good care of Charlie.”
     After hanging up, she sat in the little alcove to calm herself. Lucy walked up to her. “Is everything all right?”
     “Oh yes, someone just needed my address here. Let's get Charlie and go for that walk on the grounds.” Vanessa forced herself to smile. No point in worrying anyone else about her fears, which might be false—as most of her fears were.
     The stone chateau lay in the midst of a beautiful park, surrounded by acres, maybe miles, of sleeping lavender bushes. Vanessa kept the exuberant dog on a leash in case he decided to run off. It was the same sturdy leash attached to the glitzy collar he'd been wearing the night she rescued him. It was silly, but she felt superstitious about changing them. She thought the dog had brought her good luck since she got the invitation to France the same night she found him. Now he pulled her along the gravel paths that wound through the grounds.
     Lucy bent to shake a small stone out of the clog she'd put on for their walk. “If you were wearing roller skates, Charlie would move you like a train locomotive. You wouldn't have to spend any of your own energy. Just hang on.”
     “Do you have any pets here? I haven't noticed any.” Vanessa wondered if all French chateaus came equipped with French poodles.
     “No, we don't. When we first took over the running of the lavender farm and factory, we worked such long hours we thought we didn't have time for animals. And now that we have more leisure, I guess no one has felt the need for a pet.”
     “Did Michelle, you, and Jack all grow up here?”
     “Yes, but when our parents died, there wasn't much money. And we had to stick together to survive. The French inheritance laws are very strict. We did not want to have to sell the place at a loss and then just divide up the proceeds. Together we could build something, apart we had nothing. I think one of your states has that as a motto, United we stand, divided we fall.”
     Vanessa laughed. “That reminds me of American history in school. I think it comes from the time of our revolution, which if I remember correctly was helped by the French.”
     “France and America have always been friends, although sometimes we have our little disagreements, just as family members do.” Lucy pointed out.
     “Speaking of family members getting along, or not, do you all live here all the time?” Vanessa was curious how this extended family shared their lives. She knew back home everyone seemed to want their own space.
     “Yes, but the house is big and as we became adults we each took over a wing. But I don't want to bore you with all our housing arrangements.”
     “No, I find it fascinating. The ground floor with its large, comfortable drawing room and enormous dining room must be shared by everyone....Oh, and the kitchen, too, I suppose.”
     “Yes, that is correct. Also on the ground floor are several rooms for Edmund and the other live in help. On the first floor, which you call the second, are the family's rooms. Michelle as the oldest child took over our parents' suite in the central wing with two bedrooms and a study joined by a bath and dressing room. That suite overlooks the lavender fields, Michelle's very deep love. Her husband's mother, has her own two room suite with bath across the hall from them. She overlooks the entrance courtyard and loves being able to keep track of our comings and goings. The central wing is also where your guest room is.
     “And, if I'm not too nosy, where do you and Jack live?
     “I'm a morning person so I'm in the east wing to see the rising sun. And Jacques being a night owl is in the west wing with a view of the setting sun.”
     Vanessa felt she had been curious enough for one morning. She turned her attention to the gardens they were walking through. “It seems all the wings have beautiful views of these surrounding grounds. Even now, in autumn, when not much is in bloom, they are lovely.”
     “Well, since this is basically a farm, we felt we needed to spend our time, labor, and money on the income producing lavender fields. For our private enjoyment we focused on boxwood hedges and similar, low upkeep greenery and on stone garden features. We don't need a full time gardener to keep up with them.”
     “Do you have a kitchen garden?”
     “Oh, yes, and its Jacques' other passion. As a good cook, he wants fresh produce so took over developing and caring for it.”
      Jack was developing into quite the Renaissance man. Vanessa looked forward to getting to know him better during her after lunch cooking lesson.
Lunch was a casual affair. If you call three courses casual. Vanessa was relieved they didn't eat in the large, grand dining room. Instead the family, including Jacques, gathered in a small room, cheerful with white washed ceiling beams, salmon colored walls and yellow wooden chairs with rush seats. The window curtains were a floral pattern of yellow, salmon, and white. A small bouquet of green leaved branches was a simple centerpiece. Again, Michelle was at the end of the table opposite her husband Wilhelm. A carafe of cool, white wine and one of water were on the table.
     At each place, on a small white plate, was a hard cooked egg, thin sliced, and fanned out with a drizzle of what proved to be home made mayonnaise sauce. Family members discussed what their morning activities had been while concentrating on eating. Edmund and an unnamed kitchen helper removed empty plates and brought out a second course of fresh fish, lightly fried, on a bed of watercress and parsley, with a side of green beans and chestnuts. The plates were small and the amounts were tiny compared to American serving sizes. Vanessa had been worried about what three course lunches would do to her waist line. But she felt she could relax and enjoy the dessert, whatever that turned out to be.
     Before that was served, a disagreement grew between Jack and his brother-in-law, Wilhelm. Not knowing French, Vanessa didn't understand the problem, she could only hear the voices getting louder. Michelle murmured, “Assez,” and nodded towards their guest. The argument stopped.
     The fish plates were replaced with small crystal bowls filled with chopped apples and raisins, a dollop of crème fraiche on top. Vanessa never knew healthy food, except for the fried element of the fish, could taste so good. She later learned olive oil had been used for the fish, so even that was good for you.
     Lucy suggested she might retire to her room for a brief rest before she met with Jacques in the kitchen. Charlie wasn't up there. Edmund had probably put him in the enclosed area outside the kitchen door with a large bone for gnawing and a comfortable rug. Vanessa felt she was too keyed up to rest, instead she opened her computer to start her blog. When faced with an empty document page, her mind went blank. She finally decided she cold start by describing all the meals she'd had so far, and perhaps comparing them to what she normally ate. It'd be fun to e-mail her observations to Sylvia.
After Vanessa's 'rest', Lucy led her into the huge kitchen. Its size a leftover from when food had to be provided for a huge family and a huge staff. When Jack saw Lucy, he slammed his towel down on the wooden table in the center. “Keep that cochon, Wilhelm, away from me. If I hear one more time, his ridiculous suggestions, I shall bury a clever in his fat head.”
     Vanessa was startled. And then realized he had spoken in English to Lucy. Did he want Vanessa to know his feelings about Wilhelm? But why?

To be continued on January 1, 2015

Friday, October 31, 2014


Chapter 5. Michelle's Shocking Request

[Chapter 6 will be available on December 1]

Charlie, hearing the boom, began barking. He ran out of the bathroom where his food and water bowls were, and scampered to the door, his ears flapping. He braced his pudgy little legs and stood ready to defend Vanessa from whatever danger approached as sounds of the single boom died away.
     Vanessa finished zipping her skirt and bent to pat Charlie's head. He licked her hand and smiled up at her. Or at least he looked like he was smiling. “I think we're OK, Charlie. It must have been a one off, whatever it was. No one's screaming, so I guess I'll go on down to dinner. Why don't you finish yours?” She pointed back to his bowls. His eyes lit up and he went back to his meal.
     Entering the “large doors on the left” at the foot of the grand staircase, Vanessa's stomach clenched. Meeting new people was almost as much fun as going to the dentist. She walked into a formal, ivory paneled room hung with huge paintings of abstract art. Instead of the spindly, little French tables and gilded, silk upholstered chairs she expected, the room looked comfortable. Two large, cushy, chintz covered sofas faced each other in front of a pale rose marble fireplace. Several deep easy chairs were also in the room. But no one was sitting down. Four people turned to watch her entrance.
     Michelle glided over and took her hand, drawing her to the small group. “Cheri Vanessa, mon mari, Wilhelm Sevigny.” A portly older man with grey-blond hair man and mischievous blue eyes, wearing a dark suit, bobbed his head briefly over her hand, almost but not quite kissing it. He murmured, “Enchante.”
     Vanessa's knees felt weak. “Thank you. Merci.”
     Michelle turned to a stone faced woman with a hooked nose, her white hair pulled back into a tight bun. “La mere de Wilhelm, Madame Heidi Werner.” The tall, thin woman in an artfully draped, black silk dress, nodded.
     Vanessa stammered, “Je suis, je suis... heureux de vous rencontrer.” Words she'd memorized on the flight to tell someone she was happy to meet them, along with other important phrases such as 'Où se trouvent les toilettes?' to ask for a necessary facility.
     She had hoped Jack would be at dinner. None of these people seemed to speak English.
     “And I'm the black sheep of the family.” The last person, a younger version of Michelle, reached over to enthusiastically shake her hand. “I hope the dinner gong didn't scare the bejesus out of you. But Edmund, our butler, thinks it's how things should be done. But then he's from Asia where he worked for a billionaire who had delusions of grandeur.”
     Michelle interrupted the tidal flow of information. “Son nom est Lucy Sevigny. Ma plus jeune soeur.”
     Lucy laughed. “And she never lets me forget that I'm her younger sister.”
     Vanessa smiled and her tense shoulders dropped. “Enchante.” Finally, someone who spoke English. However, she was a little confused about their surnames. Oh well, different country, different customs.
     As they all held empty glasses in their hands, when Michelle asked if Vanessa would like an aperitif, she declined, “Non, merci.”
     Michelle nodded. “Bon. Passons à table.” She led Vanessa through the open, column framed door into the dining room. Wilhelm offered his arm to his mother and followed them, with Lucy bringing up the rear.
     Wilhelm sat at the far end of the white damask covered table with Vanessa on his right and his mother on his left. Michelle sat at the opposite end of the table with Lucy on her left and an empty place to her right. The table, set for six, did not fill the room, Vanessa thought that it probably had many leaves for when there were more guests, but they'd been removed for this more intimate occasion.
     Lucy murmured, “I'll try to translate during dinner, but if I don't it's because they're just discussing twiddle twaddle.”
     Vanessa smiled in relief.
     Wilhelm said a brief grace, which Lucy did not translate, and Michelle started to spoon up the creamy soup already in place. The signal to eat and talk.
     Michelle paused to say, “Vanessa, demain est entreprise. ce soir est pour l'amitié. Oui?”
     Lucy repeated, “Tomorrow is for business, tonight is for friendship, yes?”
     “Oui.” Vanessa agreed but wondered how she would get through the evening let alone the business of tomorrow.
     The family must have been used to entertaining jet lagged travelers who didn't speak French. Not much conversation was directed to her. And after presentation of several cordials, she was invited to have a good night's sleep.
     Someone, Edmund?, had already walked Charlie and he was sprawled on her bed when she came in. He opened one sleepy eye as if to ask, where have you been, but then slept on. She changed into a long T shirt nightgown with a touristy print of the Eiffel Tower and hung her black silk outfit in the beautiful armoire. Curled up under the cuddly duvet, the warmth from the crystal thimble of Cointreau, tasting of one thousand oranges condensed into liquid, lulled her to sleep. Exhaustion won out over anxiety and excitement.
     Before she slipped into unconsciousness, she had what seemed like a fantastic idea. She would keep a journal, especially of the meals. Maybe even a blog. Everybody likes to read about French food.
     The next morning Vanessa enjoyed croissants and strong, hot coffee in a round room, possibly the lower floor of the tower she noticed when she arrived. The leaded windows were curtained in cotton chintz and overlooked dormant lavender bushes. Savoring the flaky sweetness of the pastry, she thought again about a French food blog. Perhaps her first would be why French croissants are sooo good.
     After the petit déjeuner, Michelle and Lucy took her to a bright room facing the eastern sun. Michelle sat behind a fragile walnut desk with thin, curvy legs. Lucy and Vanessa sat opposite watching her fiddle with a file of papers. Michelle still looked like a fairy godmother, this morning dressed in a pale blue linen dress with sparkly star buttons down its front. Even casual Lucy wore a dress, although it was a swirl of reds and yellows. Vanessa felt like a church mouse in her plain black pants and cotton T shirt.  She was grateful no one, other than Jack, had mentioned the strange crimson color of her hair.
     Michelle spoke, Lucy translated, Vanessa listened.
     “I am so glad you were able to come at such short notice. I had planned to request your mother's help in this project, but, as you said, she is unavailable. On another adventure, this time in Thailand.” Michelle shook her head. “Oh, how I admire her adventurous spirit. But I am sure you will be most valuable in our present desperation.”
     Lucy paused in her translation. “Has anyone mentioned Michelle tends to be over dramatic.”
     Vanessa grinned. “Yes, Jack, said something about it.” She sighed remembering hunky Jack. She wondered if he was the chauffeur and lived above the garage never to be seen except in a car.
     Michelle coughed gently. Lucy turned to translate their conversation--into something more appropriate, Vanessa hoped.
     Michelle continued, “Every year the local Lavender Council sponsors an important contest. Our family usually wins the Grand Prize which of course causes some jealousy. So this year, the Council decided that only non-family members could enter the Council. Mon dieu! Where could we find a non-family member we trusted enough to do this for us. Your mother, of course, came to mind immediately. Or in this case, her daughter.
     Startled, Vanessa jerked to attention. “I can't win a contest. I can't even speak French.” Were these people crazy, she wondered.
     Lucy laid a calming hand on her arm. “Non, non, hear us out. You don't need to speak a word at the contest.”
     Michelle held out her hands. “S'il vous plaît.”
     Vanessa tried to relax and waited to learn more.
     “As you noticed this is the slow season for lavender growers. There are no tourists to bring in money. Many years ago the Council decided a good way to bring in off season money was to have a lavender cooking contest.” Michelle smiled as Lucy explained.
     “You can't cook and eat lavender,” Vanessa objected.
     “Oh yes, it's a very tasty and healthy seasoning.” Lucy smacked her lips in the universal, yum, yum, sound.
     Vanessa laughed. “OK, if you say so. But I can't cook. You didn't ask me if I could cook. And I can't.”
     “Not to worry, Jack will show you the simple steps for our new prize winning entry.”
    “Jack? Jack is a chef?” Vanessa squeaked. He didn't look like a chef and hadn't made chef-like remarks about the pastry or the sandwich she ate on their trip.
     “Yes,” Lucy confirmed. “He's our younger brother but prefers the kitchen to the lavender fields. He cooked dinner last night. He also likes to eat in the kitchen to avoid family squabbles at the table.”
     Vanessa's mind wouldn't stay focused. Maybe she was still suffering jet lag. But that did explain the empty seat at dinner. Although tired, last night she'd enjoyed the freshness and subtle flavors of the vichyssoise. She had thought the dried leaves on top were basil but perhaps they were lavender. And the roast lamb, which she didn't always like, had melted in her mouth.
     Michelle began again in French for Lucy to translate.
     “The contest is next week. This afternoon, after lunch, Jack will welcome you to his kitchen and explain what your performance involves.”
     Although anxious about what she'd signed on to do, Vanessa couldn't help feeling a trill of happy anticipation at seeing the taciturn, leather jacketed man again. Maybe he could figure a way she could get out of the cooking gig. However, the thought of her free airplane tickets made her squirm.
     Lucy stood up. “And now let's take a tour of the grounds. I need some exercise. Get Charlie. I'm sure he'd like a good run.”
     Edmund stepped into the room, gave a slight cough and inquired, in English.  Is Miss Tippett at home to telephone conversations?”
     Lucy turned to Vanessa. “You have a phone call. Do you wish to take it?”
     Edmund looked at the grey stone floor. “I think it concerns your dog.”    
     Lucy translated for Michelle, whose eyes widened.
     Worried, Vanessa said, “Charlie has his papers and his shots. There shouldn't be any problems. But I need to find out if there are.”
     She followed the butler's stiff black back to the dark hall alcove where a chair, shaped like a prie du, with a padded kneeler, was next to a shelf holding a phone with many buttons. She picked up the receiver, pressed the lit button and said, “This is Vanessa Tippett.”
     “Hi Vanessa, this is Jackie at Lakeview Animal Clinic. You said it'd be OK to call you at this number.”
     “It's OK, but is there a problem? Charlie's very happy here.”
     “I'm sure he is. We don't think there's a problem. But doc said I should let you know about the strange letter we got from one of Mr. Carr's heirs.”      
     “How strange?” Vanessa felt a clammy foreboding. Did they want her to return Charlie?

                                   [To be continued  on December 1.]

Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Chapter 4. French Road Trip

 [Chapter 5 will be available on November 1.  Scroll down for previous chapters or click label for specific chapter, i.e.,  aachapter 1.]  

Charles de Gaulle airport was a swirling whirlpool of people moving in all directions and speaking gibberish. But of course it wasn't gibberish, it was French. Vanessa felt she was drowning in a sea of French desperate for a life line of English. Maybe she'd made a major mistake coming to a country where she didn't know the language. How would she ever find her way to Michelle's chateau.
     Charlie was still drowsy, but whimpered at his unusual surroundings. With the help of a tranquilizer he'd slept through most the trip. Vanessa had followed all the suggestions from the vet and all the regulations of the airlines to get Charlie safely to Paris with her. Fortunately, he was under 13 pounds and could stay in the cabin. She smiled down at him telling herself to be brave for the dog's sake. It would be terrible if he became anxious, too.
     She kept him in his travel carrier until she'd gone through passport control, collected her luggage, negotiated through customs, and emerged in the ground transportation area. Most of the airport personnel spoke some English so, although frustrating, it wasn't too difficult to follow the required procedures.
     Charlie wiggled, trying to lick her face when she bent to open his case and clip on his leash. As she stood up she saw in the waiting crowd a rumpled, black haired man in his thirties holding up a roughly written sign, “Tippett”. Vanessa gave a little wave and tentative smile. He nodded and she made her way over to him. He looked a little rough in a collarless brown leather jacket, and black T shirt.
     “I'm Vanessa Tippett. Are you looking for me?”
His amused, cinnamon colored eyes opened wide as he looked at the beret attempting to cover her crimson colored hair. “Oui. Yes.” His slim hips swiveled as he looked around.  “And someone named Charlie?”
     Sylvia had warned her the beret was a bad idea. Vanessa, determined not to care if the first Frenchman she'd met thought she looked weird, just explained. “He's a dog, down here,” she gestured. He and Charlie stared at each other. The man shrugged.
     “And what are you called?” Scruffy, she thought. He looked like he hadn't shaved for days.
     He frowned. “Pardonnez-moi, I have no manners. Je suis Jacques—Jack.” Vanessa put out her hand to shake his, but he ignored it, grabbed her luggage cart and pushed it towards the exit. He hurried her and Charlie out to the car park and into a funny looking two-door, blue station wagon. It was old and wood paneled. Vanessa thought it looked like something in a foreign movie.
     “Charlie, the dog, will need a bathroom break as soon as we reach open land.”
     Jack nodded. “I understand.”
     He plunked the bags behind the back seat and left Vanessa to open which ever door she preferred. She chose to sit up front with him to have a view of wherever they were going. But first she pushed the passenger seat forward so Charlie could climb into the back.
     Vanessa traveled with pee pads for Charlie which she'd used in the plane and terminal bathrooms. But he needed the freedom of an open air relief station. As she settled him, she felt a flicker of apprehension about driving off with a stranger in a weird car. But Charlie wasn't suspicious. She decided to trust Charlie's instincts and believe that Michelle wouldn't have sent an ax murderer to pick her up.      
     She turned to sit in front but saw a white cardboard box and a bottle of water there. She put them on the floor while she buckled her seat belt.
     Jack shifted gears and pulled out of the space. “Michelle thought you might like a snack on the trip.” 
     “How long will it take?”
     “Seven hundred kilometers, about seven hours.”
     “Seven hours! Did you drive all that way today?”
     “Mais non. I had private business in Paris. I offered to pick you up on my way back to the chateau.”
     Vanessa relaxed. He spoke English. She wouldn't have to struggle to understand him although he wasn't talkative. A sweet, fruity aroma came from the petite box. She felt a shiver of anticipation as she slipped off the pink and gold ribbons and flipped open the lid. Nestled in a lacy paper doily was a beautiful pastry. But appearances could be deceiving. She'd had French pastries in Chicago and many times they hadn't tasted as good as they looked.
     Jack glanced at her. “It's called framboise...raspberry. I got it at a pastry shop Michelle suggested”
     “Would you like some of the framboise?”
     “Non, I'm good.”
     Vanessa looked at the gift. There were two delicate layers of cake soaked in a raspberry syrup. Instead of frosting, the miniature cake was topped with raspberry mousse sprinkled with bits of pistachios. Her mouth watered although she'd just had an airline breakfast before landing. Since she was in for a seven hour drive, she wondered if she should save it for later. No, she remembered what her mother always told her, 'Life is short, eat dessert first'. Perhaps unusual advice from a mother but then she had an unusual mother. And perhaps, based on how Jack was driving, she would not survive the trip.
     “There's what you'd call a rest stop a few miles up the motorway. The dog can stretch his legs there.”
     Vanessa was glad he told her. Now she could stop worrying about poor Charlie.
     She savored the last pastry crumbs. The car'd escaped the Paris suburbs and they were rushing south. She'd been disappointed when she learned she wouldn't be stopping in Paris, but since she hadn't paid for the ticket she couldn't complain.
    The views seen through the dusty windows were all she'd hoped for. An unfolding panorama of farm fields, forests, hills, river valleys, and small villages seen in the distance, were all connected by the highway strung like a rope connecting the varying landscapes.
     They stopped every two hours so Charlie could 'stretch his legs'. He enjoyed sniffing all the foreign smells. Vanessa was glad she'd brought him, even though it had been a challenge. Without Charlie, she thought Jack would have driven straight through to the chateau without a stop. The air was cool, but not harsh, as they drove south. Although it was the first of November, the south of France was warmer and sunnier than it had been in Chicago.
     For her first meal in France, they stopped at a service area. She had grilled ham and cheese on a bun, but this was a Croque Monsieur made with thinly sliced jambon and fromage—gruyere, if her taste buds were working. And seasoned with nutmeg and Dijon mustard. It melted in her mouth. She gave Charlie a few pieces of her ham. Jack also fed Charlie when he thought she wasn't looking.
     Vanessa wanted to ask Jack the question she had forgotten to ask her mother. But she didn't really know his relationship to Michelle. Was he a friend, relative, employee, or maybe, since this was France, even her lover? He might think she was too nosy so she decided to wait.
     After lunch, jet lag caught up with her and she and Charlie were lulled to sleep by the rhythmic sound of the Michelin tires spinning on the pavement. ***
     “Mademoiselle Tippett, regarde. We approach.” Jack grinned as he nodded to the view ahead of them.
     Vanessa rubbed her sleepy eyes and gasped. The car was hurtling through a tunnel of trees their bare branches intertwined overhead like lovers' hands seeking contact. She shook her head. Her metaphors sounded like a romance novel, not that she ever read them.
     Behind the trees on either side she glimpsed barren fields with seemingly dead plants as far as her eye could focus. She realized she was surrounded by the acres of lavender fields Michelle had mentioned. And straight ahead, perhaps a mile away, was a magnificent gray stone building. It was wreathed by an eerie, undulating fog.  Forget a romance novel, now she felt she was the unsuspecting heroine approaching the mysterious house of terror.
     “While you slept, I called ahead to let Michelle know our ETA. She's really looking forward to meeting you.” He smirked. “Maybe you should ditch the beret before she sees it.”
     Vanessa glared. Now she would die before she took off the beret. Who did he think he was, making fun of her? So what if she'd had an unfortunate hair disaster and tried to cover it up with another unfortunate fashion disaster? She flew all the way from Chicago as a favor to her mother's friend. She should be treated with gratitude not ridicule. She vowed to keep her backbone straight up and not cave in to any inferiority feelings.
     Jack swung the blue car around the circle drive, surrounding a ten foot tall fountain, and stopped abruptly in front of gray steps leading up to a huge terrace guarded by man sized urns spaced around its perimeter. As the engine stopped, one of the colossal doors carved in an intricate ribbon design flew open. A tiny, white haired woman flew down the steps like a bird. In the fading sunlight her pale pink cashmere dress shimmered as if she was a fairy godmother come to rescue her favorite god daughter. All she needed to complete the picture was a golden, fortune-granting wand in her hand.
     Charlie, his paws braced against the side window, barked joyously. It seemed he had found his long lost home.
     Michelle tore open the car door and Vanessa nearly fell into her welcoming arms. “Enfin, vous êtes ici.”
     Jack translated. “She says, 'at last, you are here'. Michelle has a flair for the dramatic.” He pulled the baggage out of the car and carried them up the stairs and through the open door.
     Michelle kissed Vanessa on both cheeks, took her swiftly into the house, up a staircase wide enough for a horse drawn carriage, down a wide hallway and into the most beautiful bedroom Vanessa had ever seen.
     The heavily carved walnut furniture was old and nicked but beautifully polished and smelled divine. Of course they must use lavender oil on everything, she thought.
     Peach colored, silk brocade curtains hung at the windows and from the canopy over the bed, which was so high it needed a little step stool to climb into it. Vanessa smiled as she realized the walls were lavender lightened by ivory panels enclosing landscapes of lavender fields.
     Michelle asked, “You like?”
     Dragging up the little French she knew, Vanessa burst out, “Je l'adore.”
     Michelle smiled and let loose a volley of French. Jack bringing in her last suitcase translated. “She's telling you she will leave you here to rest and refresh yourself.” He nodded to a door across the room. “The bathroom's over there. And to please come down at seven for an aperitif before dinner. You'll have to unpack yourself as the maid's on holiday.”
     Michelle kissed Vanessa on the cheeks again and tripped out of the room. As Jack was leaving, he urged, “I'd really get rid of the beret. Nice women don't wear hats in a house.”
     Vanessa resisted the urge to stick out her tongue at him because she needed his help.          “Where, where am I supposed to go downstairs?”
     “The bottom of the staircase, through the large doors on the left.” He bent down to give Charlie a pat and left.
     Her American Flag watch, which her dad had given her as a joke, read six p.m. And she'd set it to French time. That meant she only had an hour to change out of her travel weary clothes. What on earth should she wear to her first dinner in a gorgeous French chateau? And what about her other unanswered questions? Perhaps they'd be answered tonight. Whatever she learned she vowed to enjoy life as much as possible in the luxurious room.
     Vanessa hung her long black silk skirt and a scooped neck top in the bathroom to steam out wrinkles. She hoped they would be dressy enough. She showered with lavender scented soap, used a lavender scented shampoo, dried with lavender scented towels and rubbed lavender scented lotion all over her body. Unfortunately, the lavender scented shampoo had not removed the crimson hair dye. She still looked like a carnival clown. Perhaps if she wrapped a silk scarf around her head like a turban, it would be a more stylish cover up. But she didn't know how to do that, so she just blow dried her hair as usual and ran a little mousse through it to calm it down.
     She was just zipping up the skirt when a loud boom rang out, shaking the room. She was from Chicago, she knew it wasn't gunfire, but could it be a missile? She'd never heard one fired so she couldn't tell. Were terrorists attacking the chateau?

                                   [Chapter 5 will be continued on November 1.]

Saturday, August 30, 2014


                             Chapter 3.  Does Mother Always Know Best?

 [Chapter 4 will be available on October 1.  Scroll down for previous chapters or click label for specific chapter, i.e.,  aachapter 1.]  

The hands of the gods who were taking care of Vanessa's future must have been busy the day she sent the email to Michelle Savigny. Her boyfriend dumped her. 'Dumpling' Dan with the devastating dimples thought giving her the news after a Bulls game would be a sensitive way of handling bad news. She refused to cry until she was tucked in bed. Her mind churned through her faults, the reasons why no one would ever really love her. She was too quiet, her laugh was too loud, her thighs were too big, her mouth was too small. She was just too...everything. Charlie arfed and licked her hand. She fell asleep patting his head.
     The next morning, Sunday, over Dunkin's chocolate doughnuts, Sylvia commiserated with her but said, like a loyal friend, Vanessa was better off without Dan. Still, Vanessa felt she had half a broken heart. Unfortunately, Sylvia couldn't stay long enough to heal the other half. She was flying to Boston at one p.m. to take depositions for her ice cream defense case.
     As Vanessa closed the door on Sylvia, she felt abandoned but before she could sink into a well of self-pity, the phone rang. Her heart beat faster. Perhaps it was Dan saying he'd changed his mind. Not that she would ever forgive him.
     Hi honey. How are you?” It was her mother.
     “I'm OK. Isn't it awfully late for you to be up? What time is it in Bangkok?”
     “It's only ten p.m. We just got back from a terrific dinner, home cooked by a new friend. Prawn tom yam with yummy coconut milk. Remember I told you Thailand is twelve hours ahead of Chicago.”
     “Yeah, I guess I forgot. Did you get my message about Michelle?”
Mom's voice almost leapt out of my ear piece. I think travel revved her up even more than her usual effervescence. “She's a wonderful person. I'm so glad you're going to meet her.”
     “Well, I haven't heard back from her yet, so I'm not sure. And do you really think it's OK for me to visit some one I don't know?”
     She gave a deep sigh. “Vanessa, you've got to spread your wings if you want to get any place. And this is a great opportunity to try something new, to get out of your safe nest.” She paused. “Michele is sound in mind and body. You don't need to worry about her. I'm sure she won't put you in any danger, if that's what you're afraid of.”
     I tried to laugh. “Of course not. I'm not afraid. I just wanted your blessing before I went off to Paris, if I do hear from her again.”
     “Oh, you will. I know you will. Well, Dad wants to go to a bar down the street to listen to some Thai music. So I'll say goodnight. Have fun. I love you.”
     “I love you, too. Thanks for calling.”
     Vanessa knew her mother was a lot more adventuresome than she was, but she also knew she wouldn't give bad advice. She decided not to worry about the invitation and spent the rest of the day pretend shopping on the internet. She wished she had the nerve to start an on line dating account.
       On Monday morning the helpful gods were still occupied elsewhere. Vanessa forgot to bring in the soggy work papers she'd brought home during the storm Friday night and was fired, or at least that was the reason they gave her. She took the few personal items she had in her desk and a security guard escorted her out of the building. Wow, she thought, who knew the company considered her dangerous.
      At home she was too embarrassed to call and complain about another calamity to Sylvia, who was busy being successful in Boston. Instead she lay in bed watching afternoon talk shows with Charlie's comforting, warm body snuggled beside her.
     She'd resigned herself to being the care taker of the dog she'd rescued in the rain. The white fur ball was adorable but his taste for ground round, not canned dog food, was going to drain her meager financial resources. At least until her parents came home and possibly took over his care.
      Vanessa sighed. The thought of her parents learning about her failures made her cringe. She tried to follow the rules for success in self-help books her friends laughed at. Her friends must have been right. For her the rules were guidelines to disaster. She wanted to prove to her mother that her expensive college education wasn't a waste. Not that her mother ever said that. Vanessa just felt as if her mother was disappointed in her.
     When she snagged the job as travel concierge at the biggest consulting firm in Chicago, she thought she was on a jet fueled trajectory toward the top with an added perk of expense account travel. The icing on her three-tier cake was dating a Brad Pitt look alike. She hoped for Angelina's sake Brad wasn't the snake in the grass Dan slithered out to be.
     She drifted off to sleep, but Charlie woke her with sharp little yips. It was six p.m., time for the dog's next meal. Would he eat through her savings before she got another job? Was his adoring looks worth it? She decided she didn't know and didn't care. He was her responsibility and she wasn't going to fail him.
     As he gobbled up several dollars worth of food, she pulled back the sheer white curtains from grimy windows overlooking the dark street. An icy November wind off the lake careened past her building. Under the street lamp, bits of paper swirled around her bus stop. At least she wouldn't have to stand out in the cold waiting for a bus tomorrow morning.
     With that positive thought in mind, Vanessa perched on a kitchen chair to open her iPad and search for job openings. She gave a deep, deep yawn her yoga teacher would approve of for expanding her lungs. While she typed, she talked to Charlie.
     “I just want an interesting job that pays my bills, a boyfriend who thinks I'm more desirable than sports, and maybe some exciting—but not too exciting—travel. Oh, Charlie I don't want to wait until I'm retired like Mom to see the world. I want to see it while I can still enjoy it.”
     A beeping noise signaled a new email. It was from Michelle Savigny. Hope sprang in Vanessa like a desert cactus blossoming after a sparse rainfall.
     Michelle's new email, even with the help of Google translations, did not answer all of Vanessa's questions. The woman who'd invited Vanessa to a French chateau sounded distraught. She needed Vanessa as soon as possible, but only for two weeks at the most. Vanessa would fly into Paris and be met by a private car which would drive her down to the south of France, where their family business was located. She'd have a private room and bath in the Chateau which was surrounded by acres of lavender. Unfortunately, not in bloom at this time of year.
     Vanessa, tempted to accept Michelle's offer, given the state of her love life and employment, was worried. What kind of help would be required of her? That vital information was not included in the message. The email, riddled with exclamation points, indicated a hyper state. Was the woman going crazy?
     She sent back a cautious reply. Yes, she was able to leave immediately and two weeks would not be a problem but she needed to know what Michelle required of her since she might not have the necessary skills. If it had something to do with the lavender fields she would not be any help. She was not a gardener.
     For the next few days, a flurry of emails back and forth via the internet ether and across the Atlantic Ocean eventually confirmed Vanessa's trip. Although she still didn't know what she was supposed to do once she got to the Chateau or why time was short before irreparable disaster would fall on the Savigny family.
     As much as Vanessa wanted the excitement of travel, and as free as her time was now sans job and boyfriend, she worried. Of course, she always worried. Her mother hadn't seen Michelle in years, maybe she'd changed, maybe she was emotionally unhinged, maybe Vanessa would end up running for her life through the marble halls of Michelle's ancient chateau.
     But she accepted the invitation and was now sitting at her kitchen table making a check list of things she had to do before her trip. Charlie barked and looked at the star burst 50s clock on the wall, left from the previous inhabitants.
     “OK, Charlie, I know, I know. I've got to get a move on 'cause I still have to get over to the animal clinic to get your records.” She wondered if she should also ask for a dog tranquilizer. Would the dog be able to last through an eight hour flight? Too bad no friend could dog sit him while she was gone. When Charlie heard her call a kennel to keep him while she was gone, he laid on the floor, put his paws over his head and whined. So she'd asked Michelle if she could bring her dog.
     “But, of course, we French love and respect dogs. I'll include a ticket for him, too,” was her agreeable, translated reply.
     The evening before Vanessa's Air France flight, Sylvia, back from her depositions, came over to help her pack. She reassured Vanessa, “I'm sure Michelle's not a white slaver, so take a chance. Have some fun for a change.”
     Charlie, watching her pack, yipped in agreement. Vanessa glanced at him. He tilted his head and stared at her, as if to say, “Life's full of risks, what do you have to lose?”
     “I'm not a risk taker.” Vanessa said to both Sylvia and Charlie. She ran her hands through her hair. “Just look at my hair. I took a risk when I agreed to let Mario do what he wanted to help me fit into the French scene.”
     "Your hair looks fine. It's very chic nowadays to have dark crimson hair. And besides it'll grow out.”
     "I can't do anything about it now,” Vanessa wailed. “I don't have time. But I did buy a beret.” She plopped the black wool hat on her head and tried to tuck her colored hair under it.
     “Wear what you want, but I'm telling you, you look fine without the beret.” Sylvia rolled her eyes as Vanessa modeled the hat with a catwalk stride.
Charlie looked at her and growled.
     “OK, OK, I'll take it off.” Vanessa tossed it on the pile of clothes she planned to wear on the plane.
     Sylvia asked, “Do you have a color coordination plan for your clothes?”
     “Right. You know I couldn't plan my way out of a box of chocolate.” Vanessa frowned. “And nothing I own is fashionable enough for France.”
     “Wear what makes you feel good.” Sylvia suggested.
     “Just plain black. I always feel safe in black. And it's always stylish and since it's November it won't look like mourning and it won't show dirt. Very practical for long distance travel.”
     “That's a very wise decision,” agreed her friend.
     “And since I'm sick of making decisions, everything I own that's black is going. I'll worry about coordinating outfits when I get there.”
     When the bag was full, she zipped it up and put it by the door. Tomorrow she'd pack her cosmetics and last minute items. She gave Sylvia a farewell glass of red California wine, stating, “This may be the last Napa Valley I have until I get home in two weeks.”
     Sylvia raised the glass in a toast. “I don't think there will be a shortage of wine where you're going. Just have a wonderful time and don't forget to email or twitter me. Of course, if the crazy French woman has you in a dungeon you won't be able to do that.”
     “Very funny.” Vanessa emptied her glass. “I'll try not to miss your humor too much.”
     They hugged and Sylvia left.
     As she turned from the front door, Vanessa's email beeped. Michelle wrote, “J'Desolate. Forgot to mention another request. Please bring white dress, formal if possible.”
     “Why on earth do I need a white dress? It's November. I'm sure no one wears a white dress in France in November.” Vanessa groused to Charlie. “Oh, well, she's paying for our tickets, so I'll check out my summer clothes.”
      She found a white, frothy dress squashed in the back of her closet. It was an undesirable bridesmaid dress she'd worn to an unforgettable wedding. The quirky, artistic bride had wanted a 'different' wedding. The five bridesmaids had worn white, the bride had worn slinky black. It was different. The bride's mother was in tears, which could be explained away as sadness her 'little girl' was leaving her, but no one had warned the mother-in-law. Her jaw dropped as a bride dressed in what looked like mourning married her only son.
      Vanessa unzipped her travel bag and stuffed the dress inside, rationalizing her careless action, “If it's a chateau, there should be someone who can press it if necessary. I sure can't do it.”
     That night before her flight, she lay in bed, going over an endless checklist of things to do, that she had done. She had a valid passport, thank heavens, left over from her parents' graduation gift several years ago of a trip to Vancouver, safe, secure Canada.
She'd sent Sylvia a copy of her email correspondence with Michelle just in case Michelle turned out to be a phony.
     Charlie pushed his cold nose against her back. “I know, I know. I should get to sleep. We've got a big day tomorrow.” She ignored the funny feeling in her stomach. This trip had to be a wonderful opportunity. She couldn't screw up another chance at an exciting, worthwhile life. Just as she dropped off to sleep, she remembered the one thing she forgot to ask her mother. 

                             [Chapter 4 will be continued on October 1.]