Authors: Dianne Harman
After talking with Chief Lewis on the phone, Jordan’s head was spinning as he got ready to go to dinner at Elena’s. Seven paintings had been stolen from the Laguna Beach gallery. He’d seen one this afternoon. That left six. If Chief Lewis’ suspicions were correct, that meant the other ones had possibly been bought by small galleries in villages located in the Provence area. He hoped to spend about six more days in the area, which meant he’d have to find one a day. The chances of him locating the right gallery where the other stolen paintings might be displayed were not particularly good. At a minimum, he figured he’d better plan on visiting at least three or four villages a day.
He took his laptop out of his luggage and began making notes of villages and galleries. Within an hour, he had a clear idea which villages had galleries. He mapped a route from St. Victor la Coste north to Lyon. There were over twenty galleries in the region, with the majority being in Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, Valence, Tain-l’Hermitage, Vienne and Lyon. He also located three in very small villages located off Route 7. Jordan decided to start his search for the stolen paintings in Lyon. He smiled to himself. He knew he’d find good food there.
Jordan subscribed to a number of food magazines. The night before he left Los Angeles he’d leafed through several looking for articles about good restaurants in Provence, particularly Michelin starred restaurants. Saveur magazine featured a long article about dining along Route 7, and listed several Michelin restaurants he was determined to try.
Serendipity at its best. I can visit undiscovered art galleries and at the same time, get paid to eat some fantastic meals along the way. This really is the best of both worlds.
Jordan had put the two bottles of white wine he’d purchased in the large refrigerator in the chateau’s kitchen before he’d called Chief Lewis. He walked downstairs and retrieved the bottles, putting them in the cloth sack the vintner had given him.
Elena’s directions were easy to follow. Within minutes he could see the blue framed windows of her cottage in the light from the setting sun. As he turned onto the gravel drive leading to her cottage, he noticed large gardens on either side of the driveway. One looked like a nursery with beautiful brightly colored flowers fighting for attention. On the other side were rows of vegetables and herbs. Years ago several fruit trees had been planted along the stone fence which surrounded the property. He knocked on the blue painted door which was quickly opened by Elena.
“Welcome to my home. Please come in and make yourself comfortable,” she said, holding the door open for him and motioning him into the kitchen.
Before he entered the cottage, he stood for a moment, looking at the plantings. “Your gardens are simply beautiful! You must spend a lot of time out here. By the way, I brought two bottles each of red wine and white wine,” he said, following her into the kitchen and putting the sacks on the kitchen counter. “I didn’t know what you’d be serving, and I wanted to make sure we had wine to match.”
“I’ve fixed a beef daube which will go well with the red wine and the white wine will be perfect for the appetizer I’ve made. Why don’t you open the wine while I put the last touches on the appetizer and dinner? Let me get a wine opener for you.”
Although the cottage was small, it was tastefully decorated. The Provence region was known for its blue and yellow fabrics. Elena had covered the couch and chairs with it and then reversed the colors in the fabric for the tablecloth and napkins. It was evident that Elena loved candles. Everywhere Jordan looked there was the play of candlelight against glass. A fire was crackling in the fireplace, and bouquets of fresh colorful flowers from the garden had been placed throughout the cottage. The outdoor riot of color was reflected inside.
Doors to two bedrooms and a bathroom led off the main room which consisted of a living room, kitchen and dining room. It was one of the most inviting homes Jordan had ever been in.
She placed a platter of baguettes on the coffee table. She’d lightly toasted them and spread a seasoned goat cheese on top with fresh tomato slices, basil, and lightly sautéed anchovies. The white wine Jordan had brought was the perfect accompaniment.
“Elena, this is wonderful. I assume the baguettes are from Henri’s, but the tomatoes and basil must have come from your garden. You can taste the freshness. And the anchovies, they must be from Marseille. I’ve always heard that seafood from the Mediterranean is unequaled, and after the shrimp bisque at lunch and these anchovies, I’d have to agree.”
“Yes, you can get very spoiled eating in this region. From what I’ve read, there are more Michelin rated restaurants here than anywhere else in the world. I’ve only visited a couple of them, but the food was incredible. You can tell from my garden that I love to eat and cook.”
“What else do you do? I don’t see signs of children, and you can only cook, work in the garden, and eat so much. I don’t even see a television. What do you do with the rest of your time?”
“I’m a voracious reader. The Kindle was made for people like me. Any book I want is only one click away, and you can see that I don’t have much extra space here for piles of books.”
Even though her voice was animated, he noticed she was slumped against the back of the couch, running her hand back and forth against the fabric of her slacks. He’d questioned a lot of people during the twenty years he’d been with the LAPD, and she was exhibiting classic signs of someone who was lonely and depressed.
“What about friends and family? Do you have visitors from the States? Do you ever get lonesome? Do you think you’ll stay here very long? You mentioned that you came here after your husband died. Have you thought about going back to California? I know that’s too many questions all at once. I apologize, but I find your being here in Provence absolutely fascinating.”
He didn’t mention that he was used to interrogating people and even in social situations, he found he had a tendency to do it. He’d been told by a number of people he could be overbearing.
“I enjoy it here, particularly now that I’m working at Henri’s. I think I’ll probably be here for a long time. It’s so beautiful and peaceful in Provence. I never want to go back to California,” she replied.
Jordan didn’t understand why, but he thought he noticed Elena’s eyes beginning to tear up ever so slightly. He decided to change the subject. “Well, tell me, what do you like best about living here in the south of France?”
“I love the quiet and being able to do exactly what I want. I love the trust Henri has placed in me, allowing me to cook whatever’s in season. He’s a very generous man and I’m very lucky to be able to work for him. But enough about me, tell me more about yourself. Uh-oh, there goes the buzzer on the stove. Please, sit down at the table and pour us some red wine to go to with the beef. I’ll bring the meal to the table.”
She carried a heaping platter of beef daube over rich buttered noodles to the table. Carrots in a honey glaze and more fresh baguettes completed the meal. He couldn’t believe his luck in being befriended by a woman who could cook like a Michelin chef and was breathtakingly beautiful as well
“Elena, I need to tell you something. I wasn’t completely candid with you earlier today. Actually, I’m a detective with the Art Theft Division of the Los Angeles Police Department.” He stopped, noticing the slight involuntary flinch when he’d said he was a policeman. “Is anything wrong?”
“No, no. I took a large bite of the daube and it burned the roof of my mouth. I should know better. Please, go on
I knew it. I never should have asked him here. He doesn’t seem suspicious of me, but maybe he’s tailed me here and he’s going to take me back to California. Dear God, a California detective!
Well, this isn’t for public knowledge, but I feel I can trust you. A couple from Laguna Beach who collect art recently spent some time in the Provence region, ate at Henri’s, and then wandered around the village. They were surprised to see a California Impressionist artist by the name of Mitchell featured in the window of the art gallery in the village. A painting of the Marseille harbor, yes, a painting of the California Sierras, no. Then they remembered there’d been a theft of several paintings from a prominent Laguna Beach art gallery several months earlier, and wondered if there was a connection between the painting and the theft.”
“I thought you said you worked for the Los Angeles Police Department. As I recall, Laguna Beach is quite a distance from Los Angeles.”
She’d served the food family style at the table. He paused, “Elena, would you serve me some more daube and noodles? I know I shouldn’t, but this is really delicious.”
“I’m glad you like it. It’s practically a staple here in France.”
“Anyway, back to why I’m here. Yes, you’re right. Laguna Beach is quite a ways from Los Angeles. I’m on loan to the Laguna Beach Police Department. The couple didn’t have any way to find out if the painting they’d seen was the one that had been stolen. I happen to know them personally and I’ve advised them over the years about purchasing various paintings for their collection. They are very sophisticated art collectors and if their suspicions were aroused, I knew the painting was probably the Mitchell that had been stolen from the gallery.”
He smiled warmly, trying to counteract the alarming image the word “police” often caused in people’s minds. “I have to say this is definitely the best assignment I’ve ever had and meeting you has made it doubly so.”
“Well, have you seen it? Is it the stolen painting?” she asked.
“Yes. I met with the owner of the gallery this afternoon, and I’m certain it’s the stolen piece. In the next few days I’m going to visit other galleries in the area to see if any of the other paintings that were stolen were also brought to France to be sold. Care to accompany me? I can always use another set of eyes,” Jordan asked, hoping against hope she’d say yes.
“I really wish I could, but I don’t know anything about art. I would enjoy having someone teach me about what I’m looking at, but I’m already scheduled to work for the next three days. Henri has been so good to me, I can’t let him down. However, I’ll be off for two days after that. If those days work for you, I’d love to go with you.
Good God, now I’ve done it. I could have gotten off without ever seeing him again, but instead I just suggested we spend time together on my days off. What am I thinking?
He stopped talking and just looked at her. She was stunningly beautiful and when she smiled, the world seemed to light up. Elena’s figure was lush and filled with promise. Brown hair grazed her shoulders and her eyes were a mesmerizing shade of hazel. What Jordan didn’t know was that brown dye covered Elena’s natural jet black hair and green contacts over brown eyes created the unusual shade of hazel.
“Pick up your wine glass,” she said, “and get comfortable in one of the upholstered chairs. We’ve been sitting on these hard chairs long enough.” They spent the next two hours talking of this and that, simply getting to know each other. All too soon it was time for Jordan to leave.
“Don’t forget your wine bottles,” Elena said. “Let me get them for you.”
“No, please keep them. Actually, if you’ll have me, I’d like to come back tomorrow night for dinner. I love a good steak, and it’s one of the few things I make well. I noticed you have a barbecue. Why don’t I bring some steaks and potatoes? We can make a salad from whatever you have in your garden. I really want to see you again.”
Before she could process his words, she found herself saying, “I’d love that. Drive safely and I’ll see you tomorrow night about 7:00.” She walked him to his car and before he got in, he leaned down and briefly kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you for dinner and a wonderful evening. I’ve really enjoyed being with you. See you tomorrow night.”
Elena walked back in the house, for the first time acknowledging to herself that she was lonesome. She knew it was crazy to even think about it, but she wished she’d asked him to spend the night.
Oh yeah, that would really be smart. The best thing that could happen for me would be that he’d get hung up tomorrow and never come back here. How could I have met a police detective from California who came to Provence to investigate a crime, and I wind up inviting him to dinner? What was I thinking? And I just invited him for dinner again. I must either be crazy, or maybe I need to admit to myself that I really am lonesome. And I don’t think I’m crazy.
She knew she was playing with fire, but it was as if there was an unseen magnetic force pulling her to Jordan. He was very attractive with his dark hair and a physique that showed it was exercised regularly. It had been a long time since she’d felt the warmth of a male body next to hers and she realized how much she missed it. Then she remembered he was a policeman and she felt a small shiver of fear run down her spine.
Jordan got up early the next morning and decided to have breakfast when he got to Lyon. Although he’d found the Mitchell painting in a small village, he thought it would be prudent to begin his search for the other stolen paintings in a larger town. The thief might have started in Lyon and worked his way down to St. Victor la Coste, or perhaps he did it in reverse. It wasn’t that far to Lyon, and Jordan wanted to be sure he wasn’t missing anything. He planned on checking out a couple of galleries in Lyon, and then head to Vienne for a late lunch and more gallery hunting.
He awoke to a beautiful day, sunny skies, and just a nip of fall in the early morning air. The Renault started easily, and soon he was cruising north along Route 7. It was mid-September, the tourists were mostly gone, and the drive was beautiful. Although he’d read that July was the best time to see the fields of sunflowers and lavender in bloom, there were still hints of yellow and lavender carpeting the nearby hills.
Lyon was less picturesque than the countryside and was no exception to big-city traffic. Fortunately the parking structure he’d found was near the open-early, close-late restaurant he wanted to try.