Monday, August 31, 2015

INVITATION TO DESTINY

CHAPTER 15.  THE CONTEST SECRET


[Chapter 16 will be available on October 1, 2015 

Vanessa's loud cries of happiness brought everyone running to the sun splashed foyer. She introduced Sylvia to the family and Edmond. Vanessa was proud of her friend's appearance. Sylvia had flown across the Atlantic and looked like she had stepped off a fashion runway not a long distance plane. Her slim black trousers, caramel colored cashmere sweater with its artfully tied silk black scarf were tres chic. Vanessa knew the family and all the French thought a good appearance very important. 
      Unfortunately, she didn't feel she quite measured up to their standards. But they did approve of her cooking and right now that was the main thing.
      Michelle kissed Sylvia on both cheeks and insisted in heavily accented English that Sylvia come into the breakfast room to share their breakfast. Sylvia protested that she'd had a big breakfast on the plane. She laughed. “The airlines still feed their passengers on international flights, thank heavens.”
      Lucy urged, “But at least a cup of coffee and a croissant, no?”
      Vanessa worried Sylvia might feel overwhelmed by the family. “Do you need to freshen up, first?”
      But extrovert Sylvia shook her head. “No, I did that at the airport. However, I'd love to have some real French coffee.”
      The breakfast room which had been so quiet now exploded with laughter and chatter. Everyone seemed to be on their best behavior to present a delightful front to the visitor. Vanessa was grateful when Lucy stood up to offer some peace. “And now we should leave the two amis alone. I'm sure they have lots to discuss in privacy.”
      Edmond who had entered the room coughed discreetly. “I have taken the luggage of Mademoiselle Richmond up to the room next to Mademoiselle Tippett. The bed has been freshly made up and the bath of course has fresh towels.”
       Vanessa thanked Edmond who stood in the doorway, and added, “Michelle, thank you for welcoming my friend and for another delightful meal. I think I should go up and help Sylvia unpack.
      The friends unpacked with Sylvia admiring the beautiful, walnut armoire and antique dresser. She ran her hands over the soft, white duvet covering the huge canopy bed. “Maybe I should take a nap.”
      Vanessa replied, “In due time, but first we need a long, catching up session.” They plopped down on the matching, pink floral, down filled arm chairs. Sylvia told her the news from Chicago, and then Vanessa explained about the family and the cooking contest to be held on the next day.
       Sylvia said, “I just have to see this French kitchen you've been raving about.” They went down the stately staircase, through the hall and into the working kitchen.
Sylvia was suitably impressed by both the modernity of the appliances and the antiquity of the d├ęcor. “Do you really think you can cook an edible meal for this contest, let alone win it?”
      Vanessa shrugged. “Jack is a perfectionist teacher and chef. I don't have any natural talent for cooking, but he has tried to train it into me.”
      “Are you nervous?”
      “Of course not.” Sylvia's eyes rounded when she heard this, but Vanessa went on. “Of course, I am, silly. I'm terrified, but I gave my word and I'm trying to live up to it. I can't imagine I'll win, but I have to at least carry through.”
      Sylvia's skeptical attorney's mind showed. “Doesn't this contest seem a little too contrived? I mean, really, can lavender differ that much depending on who or where it was grown?”
      Vanessa put her fingers to her lips. “Shhh. Don't let the family hear you. But yes, I've wondered about that myself. They seem to take this so seriously and they've said they need to win the contest to ensure selling enough of their products to make their mortgage payment. But I can't believe all this is riding on a cooking contest and that they're trusting me to be the winner.”
      “Maybe there's another reason they've set up this situation. But they don't want to tell you.
      Vanessa straightened the folded dish towels next to the ironstone sink. “Leave it to a lawyer to think of skulduggery in the scullery. I haven't given it a lot of thought. After all I'm a guest. I just follow directions.”
     “Hmm. Maybe we'll find out what's really behind all this tomorrow at the contest."
      An excited barking broke into their conversation as a scampering, wriggling mass of white fur came tearing across the flagstone floor. “Charlie! I'm sorry I'd forgotten all about you.” Sylvia bent over to catch him as he catapulted himself into her arms.
      “I can't believe it.” Vanessa complained. “He hasn't seen you in weeks but he sure hasn't forgotten you. I guess all males are alike. They can't resist a pretty face.”
      “He remembers that I always used to carry special dog treats for him. Sorry, Charlie, none today.” She put him on the floor where he looked up at her adoringly and asked, “You told me about his dog napping and safe return. Is everything all right now? Is he legally yours?”
      “I'm trying not to think about it. The local police were outraged about a dog napper in their community and very, very nice to me. They've assured me that everything will be OK.
      “What about the dog napper? Wasn't he the owner's heir?”
      “So he said, but who knows? All that information is back in the states. I'm just letting the local police and courts handle everything.”
      “You said Charlie's collar was set with precious jewels.”
      Vanessa gave a disgusted snort. “Yeah, Mr. Lay was only interested in the collar, not the dog. I'm just grateful he didn't kill Charlie once he had his hands on what he wanted.”
      “So who owns the collar?” Sylvia continued probing.
      “I don't know and I don't care. I don't need the money—well since I don't have a job maybe I could use some money--I just wanted Charlie and as long as I have him, we'll manage somehow.”
      Charlie whined.
      “Oh, he wants a walk. Come on, I'll show you the gardens. Even though most of the landscaping is in sleeping winter mode, it's still beautiful and you can stretch your legs after your flight.”
      After showing Sylvia the grounds surrounding the Sevigny Chateau, Vanessa suggested a walk out along the country road where Charlie had been stolen. Charlie didn't seem afraid and he bustled along besides them, straining on his new collar and leash whenever he caught whiff of a tantalizing odor.
      Sylvia continued with the Chicago news, including Vanessa's former beau, Dumpling Dan. His current girlfriend had dumped him when she realized he was dating her because she could get discounted tickets to the Chicago Bulls' games. “So you see, he hasn't changed much.
      A tinny bell sounded behind them and both women whirled around. Charlie rushed to attack a bicycle. It was the 'dangerous neighbor' Ricard.
      Vanessa introduced him to Sylvia and told her how he had rescued her after Charlie had been taken. She added, “He is also my main competitor in the lavender cooking contest. Lucy has warned me to stay away from him.” She gave him a shy smile as she said that.
       He ignored her remark about Lucy and gave Sylvia a slight bow over the handlebars. “I am happy to see you again and to meet your friend. It is good to see the little dog is OK.”  His dark hair clung in curls to his wet forehead and his beautiful eyes shone with good health. Vanessa told herself her heart was beating rapidly because he had surprised her, not because he looked delicious.
      As they chatted, Lucy's purple car pulled up alongside them. “Vanessa, you and your friend must come with me. You must not fraternize with the enemy. And besides Jacques needs you now.”
      Sylvia frowned at Vanessa. “Really?”
      Vanessa murmured, “Don't argue. Just get in.”
      Ricard shrugged and got back on his bike with a wave.
      From the look on Sylvia's face as she followed her friend into the cheerful little car, Vanessa knew she would soon be facing a thorough interrogation

To be continued on October 1, 2015

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

INVITATION TO DESTINY

CHAPTER 14.  IS EVERY BODY CRAZY?

[Chapter 15 will be available on September 1, 2015]

Vanessa stood in the morning sunshine that fell through the leaded glass windows of the chateau's foyer. Charlie whimpered as his eyes flitted from one to the other of the upset family members. Jack had his hand on the ornate, brass door knob ready to storm out and confront their neighbor about the missing lavender. Lucy was pulling on his arm to hold him back. Michelle put both hands to her mouth, her jeweled rings sparkling as her fingers moved in agitation.
     A booming voice from the back hall cut through the air. “Vat is da matter? Vat is da problem?” Wilhelm strode in, his pompous belly leading the way. Everyone turned to face him.
     Michelle quickly explained to her husband in French. “The special lavender for the contest is missing.” Vanessa was grateful she was now able to follow most of what they were saying and noticed that Michelle had used the French word for 'missing', instead of 'stolen'.
     Wilhelm held up his hands. “Missing! Of course, it's missing. I worried it vas not in a safe place and put it away.”
     Jack's face turned red. “How dare you? It's not for you to safeguard or move my ingredients.”
     “Vell, you did not have dem in a safe place if I could so easily move dem,” Wilhelm blustered. “But come, I vill show you them, so you can stop your yelling.” He turned on his heels and Jack stomped after him.
     Lucy looked at Vanessa. “Well, the drama never stops in this family.” She laughed. “Don't the English call this a tempest in a teapot.”
     Vanessa didn't know what to say. She had been feeling relief realizing if the lavender was missing, she wouldn't have to compete in the contest. But she didn't like the idea of Jack confronting their neighbor about a possible theft. She blurted out, “I'm glad it wasn't stolen.”
     Lucy agreed. “It was silly of Wilhelm to pull a dirty trick on Jack and would have been worse if he hadn't told what he'd done before Jack rushed over to Ricard's.”
Michelle commented. “Now that the excitement is over, perhaps we should get ready for breakfast.
     Vanessa looked down at her robe covering her tattered pajamas. “Sorry. I rushed down stairs when I heard the commotion. I'll go up and get dressed.
     She leaned over to Charlie who jumped into her arms and they climbed back up the grand staircase. Before she dressed she plunked down on the edge of her bed, still holding Charlie for comfort. She thought, This is getting worse and worse. What have I gotten myself into? Are these people all crazy? Well, as her mother used to say to cheer her up, In for a penny, in for a pound. She was here and she had made a promise. She had to keep her promise. But her mother was going to hear about this.
     Vanessa wasn't sure what time it was in Thailand. She just knew she had to talk to the woman who had urged her to get involved with this flaky family.
     She took several deep breaths before dialing her mom's number. If she remembered correctly, Bangkok was five hours ahead of Paris. It was 7:30 a.m. at the Chateau so she calculated it would be 12:30 noon where her mother was. Unless she and Dad had taken off another fantastic journey. Wherever they were they were probably having another lovely lunch.
     Her parents both enjoyed Thai appetizers, especially chicken satay with peanut sauce and crab rangoon stuffed with cream cheese. While she waited, the phone half way around the world rang and rang, and her stomach growled. She still hadn't had breakfast. Another grievance about her situation. Of course, if she'd been back home in Chicago at 7:30 a.m. she'd be polishing off a cup of instant coffee and toasted raisin bread with peanut butter. At least here she had a delicious home made breakfast to look forward to. That is, if Jack had found his purloined lavender and was back in the kitchen.
     “Hello, darling. Is that you Vanessa?” Her mother's cheerful voice almost soothed away her frustration. Almost.
     “Mom! This family that you wanted me to help is crazy. I swear every one of them, including their in laws are bonkers.”
     “Now, honey. I know they can be eccentric, but they are good people at heart.”
     Vanessa seethed as she listed all the dramatic events she'd lived through since she'd arrived at the charming chateau, with its not so charming inhabitants. Well, to be fair, 
Lucy was OK, very helpful and lots of fun, but she brushed that aside as she rushed on with her complaints.
      “And this morning, Jack—well, the family calls him Jacques, of course—but he's Jack to me. This morning when he discovered his sacred lavender was missing, or stolen as he argued, he was raring to run next door and punch out Ricard, their neighbor, who has always seemed perfectly nice to me. And is even extremely handsome, not that that matters. But as it turned out, Wilhem, Michelle's starchy husband removed the lavender from where Jack had stored it to prove a point.”
      “What point did that prove?” Her mother sounded bewildered.
      “Why that Jack was too careless with their valuable, vital product.”
      “Oh, dear. That sounds like the Wilhelm I remember. A little too officious and too quick to take matters into his own hands. I think it comes from marrying an heiress, even taking her family name, and now feeling he needs to prove himself.”
      “Mother, I absolutely am not going to feel sorry for him, or anyone else in this family.”
      There was a pause. Then Vanessa's mother said thoughtfully. “When is this cooking contest?”
      “Tomorrow! So there's no way you can fly here in time to help me.”
      Her mother laughed. “Sorry, I was not thinking of leaving your father or Thailand. You're a big girl now. I just wanted to reassure you that in a short time, your misery wil  l be over and you can fly away with a good conscience, no matter what happens at the contest.”
      Leave it to her mother to look on the bright side. Vanessa didn't think there was a bright side. “Right. Well, thanks for listening. I go forward to my doom.” Her mother continued to laugh as she hung up the phone.
      Vanessa got dressed for another day of labor in the Chateau's kitchen. She tried to follow her mother's advice and tell herself, only 36 more hours and it will be over. Downstairs breakfast was a quiet affair. No one seemed to be speaking to anyone. OK, by her. Her head could use a rest from constant translation.
      She had finished eating and was refolding her napkin when Edmund came in and whispered in her ear. “You have a visitor.”
      Vanessa's full stomach clenched. She shouldn't have had that second croissant. Could that dreadful Mr. Lay be back about Charlie. Edmund saw the distress in her face and explained, “It is a young woman, whom I have not seen before.”
      Mystified as to her caller's identity, she walked into the marble tiled foyer.
      A voice shrieked, “Vanessa, it's me! I'm in France. I called in all my frequent flier miles and took planes, trains, and automobiles and I made it.
      Vanessa yelled, “Sylvia!” and lunged at her for a monumental bear hug. “You must have mental telepathy. How could you know back in Chicago that I needed my best friend right now.”
To be continued on September 1, 2015