Saturday, January 31, 2015


Chapter 8.   A Mysterious Stranger

[Chapter 9 will be available on March 1, 2015]

Vanessa walked out the front door after breakfast to giveCharlie a quick run before she had another cooking lesson from Jack. A black Citroen sedan pulled in the drive surrounding the stone fountain. The driver, wearing a black cap, jumped out to open the back door. A tall, lanky man dressed in a light brown suit, brown and white striped business shirt, and shiny green tie stepped out and frowned. His prominent nose sniffed as if he smelled something bad.

Charlie who'd been struggling to pull the leash from Vanessa's hand, now turned and tried to scamper back to the terrace. She pulled hard and yelled 'heel', not that he'd ever paid attention to what she said.

The unknown man gave her a tight smile. “You must be Ms. Vanessa Tippett. I am Jacob Lay. I have come for my dog.” He extended a hand as if to take Charlie's leash.
“Charlie belongs to me.” Vanessa couldn't believe the nerve of this man. Even if he had flown there at considerable expense, that didn't prove he owned the dog.
He glared at her. “The dog was the property of my cousin, Raymond Carr, who died. As his nearest relative I inherited the dog and he now belongs to me.”
Vanessa's hackles rose. She did not like Charlie being called 'property'. “I was told Mr. Carr had no relatives and should be taken to a pound as an unclaimed animal. I claimed him and now he belongs to me.”
Charlie swiveled his white, furry head from one speaker to the other. When the stranger approached him again, the dog whimpered and pressed against Vanessa's leg. Charlie's negative reaction reinforced her outrage. He usually loved meeting people. She thought there must be seriously bad vibes coming off this man.
Jack came walking around from the back of the chateau. Vanessa was relieved to see him. She thought he must have been working in the garden because he had soil on his knees and hands. But he was a welcome sight.
 “Ce qui se passe? What's going on?” Jack demanded.

“I have come to claim my property, the dog. Le chien?” Jacob Lay seemed to stretch up on tip toes so he could look down his nose at Jack.

Jack looked at Vanessa. “Is that right?”

“No, that is not right. I own this dog.”

“Do either of you have papers for Charlie?” Jack bent to scratch the dog's perky ears.

Mr. Lay bristled. “I do not have papers with me, but I have flown at great expense to acquire this dearly beloved pet.”

Vanessa felt her heart thumping. “I love him, you don't. I don't know why you want him. Maybe to sell him to the highest bidder.”

“This woman is hysterical. As a reasonable man, I know you will support my claim.” Jacob Lay smiled thinly at Jack.

“I think you better leave now and come back with legal papers to support your claim.” Jack took Charlie's leash from Vanessa and led them back into the house leaving Jacob Lay gaping.

He snapped shut his mouth and shouted, “I will come back with the proper papers and she will give me the dog.”

The chauffeur opened the door to the Mercedes' back seat and waited for his client to climb in.

Once inside the chateau, Jack explained to Edmund what had just happened. He asked the butler to alert all the staff to keep an eye out for Mr. Lay or any other stranger who might appear on the grounds.

Edmund bowed stiffly and took Charlie's leash from Vanessa. “Messr Jacques, Mlle Vanessa, I will guard Charlie with my life.”

Vanessa frowned. “Oh goodness, I don't think that'll be necessary. It's probably just a big misunderstanding. Charlie doesn't seem to know or like this man. And although Charlie is adorable, I can't believe this man loves him.”

“Maybe there's another reason he wants the dog.” Jack suggested. “But come on, let's get back to the kitchen. We're too busy to worry about an fou, a crazy man.”

In the kitchen, after thoroughly scrubbing his hands, Jack made Vanessa swear an oath to never divulge the recipe he was about to give her.

“If all goes well and you win the contest with our recipe and our lavender, it could mean enough money to keep us from selling the farm.”

“What? You never told me if I lost you'd lose the farm. I can't be responsible for the future of your family.” Vanessa thought there was no way she could ever focus on cooking now. It was too much pressure.

Jack laughed. “I'm exaggerating. Trying to loosen you up.”

“That's not the way to loosen me up.” Vanessa felt like crying.

“Did I hear Jacques say he wanted to loosen you up?” Lucy wearing another blouse and pants of pink and orange swirly patterned fabric walked into the kitchen. “Vanessa watch out for my baby brother. He pretends he's not interested in anything but food, but it's a cover for his amorous activities.

Vanessa's felt her face redden. “No, no, we were just talking about the contest and how important it is to your family.”

Jack ignored his sister's comments. “Have you heard about the visitor Vanessa had this morning?”

Lucy nodded and put an arm around Vanessa's shoulder. “Don't worry, we won't let him take your adorable little dog.”

“But what if he does have legal papers showing he's the heir and owner of Charlie.”

“Ah, but he doesn't know French law. And we have a lawyer who can tisser une toile de mots, spin a web of words around him that he will never break through.”

Jack shot Vanessa an amused smile. “That would be Claude, Lucy's long time suitor. He is still waiting for her yes or no. Right, Lucy?”

Vanessa flinched in embarrassment for Lucy. She thought she would never understand the French or French families or anything about the French. She had never been so grateful to be an only child.

Lucy shrugged her shoulders. “It just takes me a long time to make up my mind. And if he's willing to dangle so long, that's up to him, not me.”

Jack raised his eyebrows, “And is there a reason for the pleasure of your company in this working kitchen?”

“Yes, dear brother. I have brought a letter for Vanessa. It's from Chicago and I thought she'd be eager to receive it.”

Vanessa took the white envelope Lucy offered. “I'll wait until later to open it. It can't be urgent or the person would have called.” She was surprised to see from the return address that it was from Dumpy Dan, her former boy friend. Why would he be writing her? Oh, well, she thought, that could wait until later. She needed to concentrate on cooking. After all the fate of the Savigny family rested on her. Not that she expected her nonexistent cooking ability to save the day.

Jack shooed Lucy out of their work space. “Vanessa and I have lots to do. You've delivered the message, now sortez, get out.”

He tossed Vanessa another crisp white apron. “Enough fun and games. Now attendez we work. Today I will entrust you with the recipe that I know will be the prize winner. It uses all the most famous ingredients of our region.”

To be continued on March 1, 2015

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


Chapter 7.   What's a Marinade?

[Chapter 8 will be available on February 1, 2015]

Lucy ignored Jack's outburst about Wilhelm, his brother-in-law. She looked at Vanessa, said, “Good luck,” and left the kitchen.
     Jack turned to Vanessa and gave her a tight smile. “Are you ready to win the Lavender Recipe Contest?”
     Vanessa stuttered, “I..I..don't think so. I don't know how to cook.”  She was afraid she was going to look like a fool.
     “Don't worry, all you need to do is learn to prepare one dish perfectly. I think you're smart enough to follow my precise directions, n'cest ce pas?”
      Vanessa bristled. “I'm not dumb, if that's what you're implying.”
      Jack rolled his eyes. “Maybe not, but you seem a little defensive.” He tossed her a huge white apron and instructed her to wrap it around herself and tie the strings across her front. “Today, you will learn to measure accurately.”
      “I know how to measure,” she seethed.
      “Ah, but the key word, is accurately.”
      “Oui, avec prĂ©cision. I may not be fluent in French but I'm not a complete idiot.”
      Jack nodded and said, “Of course not. Let me explain. Measurements in French recipes are given in grams and liters, not ounces and pounds. And I'm sure you already know to use glass measuring cups for liquids so you can see when the ingredient reaches the appropriate level and various sized cups for solid ingredients, like flour, so you can level off the top.”
      Vanessa calmed herself by remembering the beautiful room she was staying in, rent free, and the wonderful meals she had been eating, also free. She thought she could put up with Jack's boorish behavior to repay Michelle's hospitality. She also knew her mother was counting on her to help out her friend.
      After three hot and aggravating hours in the ancient but well appointed kitchen learning kitchen basics from an egomaniacal chef, Vanessa was ready for a bath and rest before dinner. At least during the lessons she hadn't had time to worry about Charlie and the man who was coming to see the dog.
      She sank blissfully into the lemon scented water of the enormous tub. She was glad she'd found there were bath products with scents other than lavender. She didn't want to end up hating one of her favorite flowers from over saturation. The warm water relaxed her body, but her ever churning mind went over the strange phone conversation.
      Now that this Jacob Lay, Mr. Carr's so-called heir, had her address would he actually come to France to take Charlie away from her? Well, she decided, he better have a lot of proof if he expected her to hand him the darling little dog.
      Vanessa looked over at the white bundle of fur lying on the lavender colored bath rug next to her bath. Charlie sensed she was looking at him, lifted his head to see her better and gave a happy yip. Her heart melted. No, Mr. Lay was not getting Charlie without a fight.
      Jack wasn't at the dinner table that night. He was probably fussing away in the kitchen as usual. Vanessa was glad because she wanted to talk to Lucy about the lavender contest.
      As the rest of the table talked rapidly in French, Vanessa leaned over and whispered to Lucy, “Jack won't tell me anything about the recipe I'm supposed to cook at this contest.”
     Lucy smiled. “Don't worry. Jack is a perfectionist where food is concerned. He is probably forcing you to repeat over and over basic cooking techniques, oui?”
      “Oui, indeed. He had me smashing garlic cloves, black peppercorns, and allspice berries. I think I could now smash them in my sleep.”
      “They sound like the ingredients for a very interesting sauce.” Lucy mused.
      “But he's said nothing about lavender, and I thought that was the whole point of the contest.” I protested which was hard to do as I savored the most delicately flavored duck breast in my life. Jack was definitely an excellent chef.
      Lucy shrugged, a very typical French gesture I think babies learn in their bassinets. “Remember this is a serious competition for our company and for Jacques. He doesn't want anyone finding out what our recipe will be until the day of the competition. You may find yourself learning bits and pieces of the recipe, until he trusts you enough with all of it.”
      Vanessa gave up. “Well at some point, I will have to do the entire recipe. There's no way I can put together bits and pieces and have the whole thing come out right without practice.”
      “Don't worry, there's no way he will let you fail.”
      Vanessa hoped she was right. She had planned to tell Lucy her worries that Jacob Lay might come to claim Charlie. But she didn't want to pester her friend with her problems. And why on earth would someone waste time and money to come to France, just to see a dog.
      The next morning, Vanessa met with Jack after breakfast. He said he wanted to practice with her twice a day. This morning, he would show her the proper way to peel and slice ginger, so she could do it perfectly without thinking about it. In the afternoon, she would learn to choose the ripest figs and to prepare them by placing a skin deep x on the flower end of each one.
      Jack explained, “Some of the techniques you are learning are not procedures you will do at the actual competition. The recipes may include steps that must be done a day ahead of time and then refrigerated in secured storage. However, you and all the other contestants will be required to perform any preparation work at the contest location and in the presence of the judges. That is why you must practice and practice. You must demonstrate familiarity with the recipe as if you developed it yourself.”
      Vanessa felt uneasy. “But I didn't develop the recipe. Is that a contest requirement? I don't want to do anything dishonest.”
      “Non, no. It is not a requirement. It just must be original and be cooked by someone not a member of the company. The most important requirement is that the lavender used must be grown on the farm of the contestant company. The day before the actual contest, lavender will be collected from each participant's store house to make sure there are no substitutions.”
      “It sounds very complicated to me.” Vanessa frowned. “Are you sure I can do this?”
      “Don't worry. Let me do the worrying.” Jack gave her a rare smile. “As long as you practice and do exactly as I say.”
      Before she left her afternoon session with Jack, she was surprised by a compliment. “Bon, you are doing well. We progress. Tomorrow, you will put together the sauce and marinade.”
      Vanessa knew it was silly, but she felt a warm glow from his unexpected praise. Of course, tomorrow might be a disaster. She had never made a sauce, other than to pour bottled chocolate sauce over ice cream, and as for marinade, forget it. She didn't even know what a marinade was.
      Outside the kitchen, she met Edmund. He had Charlie on his leash and from the way the little dog frisked around his feet, they were on their way outside.
      Vanessa reached for the lead. “Oh, let me take him. I've hardly seen Charlie since I started cooking lessons.” She knelt down to give the fluffy dog a hug, which was hard to do since he was wiggling with happiness to see her.
      Keeping up with Charlie on their walk around the grounds revived Vanessa's spirits. A brisk gait stretched and relaxed her muscles, cramped from anxiously following Jacques' precise instructions. She never saw any of the family on these walks, but they probably all had jobs that kept them busy, even in this slow time of year for lavender farms. And of course, late fall was when the lavender based products would be prepared for spring and summer consumption.
       They were approaching the fountain courtyard, when Wilhelm marched across it from his strange looking Citroen sedan to the chateau's front entrance. Lucy had told her the car was considered a French classic and had been inherited along with the house. But its sharp, pointed front looked like the prow of a speed boat to Vanessa. Maybe it made owners feel like they were flying over the waves on a carefree yacht. Wilhelm didn't look very carefree. His jaw jutted out and he didn't notice her which was fine since she still didn't know why Jack had the argument with him.
      To avoid Wilhelm, she turned Charlie around so they could go in the garden entrance. As she walked towards the staircase to go up to her room, Edmund intercepted her. He frowned and his lips were tight as he informed her that she had received a telephone message. “A Mr. Jacob Lay says he just flew into Nice and will be driving here tomorrow to see Charlie. I asked if you were expecting him and he said 'it didn't matter, what you were expecting.' ” Edmund sniffed and looked down at her.
      Vanessa's heart beat a rapid tattoo. The cost of a last minute international flight must be astronomical. Why would anyone be in that much of a rush to see a dog?

To be continued on February 1, 2015