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 décor. “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.”
“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