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.]