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Authors: Jan Ellis

French Kisses (7 page)

BOOK: French Kisses
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Chapter 9: Something in the Post


Madame Piquot had been right: having a major project to focus on had helped to lift Rachel out of a rut that she had fallen into without even noticing it. She had been going through the motions, but the fun had gone out of her work. Now she felt inspired again and keen to get going. At 8am, she went down to the kitchen for coffee and a slice of toast. Irina had collected the post from the box at the end of the drive on her way in and handed it to Rachel who sighed.

“More rubbish,” she said, flicking through the brightly coloured stack as she finished her breakfast. “Junk, junk, junk,” she said, putting most of it directly into the recycling box. “Oh, what’s this? Not junk.”

Among the flyers for supermarkets and local traders was a large white envelope with her name and address carefully inscribed on the front.

“How exciting, real post,” she said to Irina, turning the envelope over and tearing it open. Inside she found several sheets of paper with lists of names, dates, contact details and notes. She squinted to make out the copperplate handwriting:

M. & Mme Reiss, 3rd visit, marmalade not Nutella

M. Neave, Scottish, 4th visit, snores so put him at the back

M. & Mme Holz, 2nd visit, will want breakfast at 6am

and so on for three more pages.

She laughed, waving the pages in the air. “Look Irina, we have the history of everyone who ever stayed at Madame Piquot’s guest house.”

Irina took the pages from her and carefully looked through them, before extracting the last one from the pile and holding it out for Rachel to see.

“Your first guests are coming very soon, Madame.”

Rachel spluttered with alarm and took the paper off her. “What? No, they can’t be.” She took the paper and scanned the list.

“Oh crikey, you’re quite right,” she said. “It says here ‘M. & Mme Karlsen, 15–23 November, 2nd visit. Monsieur can’t manage stairs.’ Can’t manage stairs, what are we going to do with him?”

“Bedroom 3, Rachel. On the courtyard.”

“You’re right, of course,” she said, tapping her head. “I must remember that the bike room is now Bedroom 3.” She ran her finger down the list.

“There are two more bookings for November then we’ve got ‘Professor Perry, 6
–13 December, 1st visit.’ The only note Madame Piquot has made about him is that he’s an American.” She slurped her coffee. “If he’s a professor, he’s probably ancient and decrepit too.”

She got up from the kitchen table and went to peer at the calendar next to the fridge. “Yikes, 15 November is only a couple of weeks away.”

Irina just shrugged. “All is ready, Madame. You tell Mr Claude to collect the people from town in taxi and bring them here.”

“Yes, I guess so. Unless they’re coming by car, in which case they’ll need a map and directions. Damn
– I’d forgotten the website!”

She grabbed her phone from the bowl by the door and called the number of the picture framer
’s shop. Much to her relief, Paul Callot was there and agreed to come over that evening.

“Perfect!” said Rachel, thinking that it would give her time to take the photographs that she had promised and then completely forgotten about. “And maybe you can stay for supper?” she added, realising that they hadn’t agreed a fee yet and she needed to be nice to him.

“That would be very nice.” Paul hesitated for a moment and she could hear him flicking through the pages of his diary. “So I ignore the vineyard, turn right – then who do I ask for directions if the
is closed?”

“Oh, it’s not that bad really. After the
you carry on up the hill past the pizzeria, then go left and carry on for five minutes. If you get stuck, call me and I’ll send out a Sherpa.”

“A Sherpa . . . ? Okay. See you later.”

“Right,” she said, draining her coffee. “Any idea where my camera is, Irina?”

“In box at bottom of wardrobe, Madame.”

“Great,” said Rachel. “Better get snapping.”

She went from room to room with the camera, opening and closing the shutters, shifting the furniture and moving vases of flowers around to make the place look fresh and inviting. She got quite carried away, snapping views from the balcony of the garden and the surrounding countryside.

In the courtyard she photographed the chickens and the cats asleep in separate patches of sunlight on the back terrace.

“I take picture of you, Madame?”

“Good heavens, no Irina! No one will want to come if they think I’m in charge.”

Irina shrugged, but was not
– Rachel noted – disagreeing. “It is normal for you to look like this,” she said, indicating her boss’s clothes. “You are an Artist,” she added, putting great stress on the last word. Although she wouldn’t admit it to Rachel, Irina was actually rather proud of working for an artist.

Rachel was wearing a long tunic in swirly patterns of purple and green over cropped-off trousers and had a pair of paint-spattered plimsolls on her brown feet. She plonked the camera into Irina’s outstretched hand and sighed.

“Okay, but this is just for us – not the website.”

Irina made her move to a sunny spot by the side wall, close to a pot of roses recently planted by Philippe. Rachel held out the hem of her tunic like a little girl in a party frock and pouted at the camera.

“How about this?”

“Very beautiful,” said Irina, snapping pictures as her boss leapt around and adopted various silly poses. “You should be a model, Madame.”

Rachel laughed. “I think not!” she said, taking the camera. “Right. Better get on. I’ve got lots to do today.”


Chapter 10: Some Technical Assistance


Back in the studio, she spent the afternoon finalising the drawings for a range of Christmas cards she had designed. At 6pm she stopped and went downstairs to prepare supper. She had decided to make a gigantic lamb casserole for them all. She had just finished and had stashed the pans in the dishwasher when she heard a car on the drive. Looking out she saw Paul Callot approaching with a bottle of wine in one hand and a flat canvas bag in the other.

“I thought you might like to have this back,” he said, handing the bag to her as she ushered him into the cosy sitting room. Taking the bag and peering inside she saw that it contained the small seascape
– now with the ruby red mount Paul had picked out – and a pale oak frame.

“Goodness, I’d forgotten about this one! It looks lovely,” she said, walking around the room with it, holding it against different sections of the wall. “You know, I might keep it for us rather than letting it go to the guests.”

He smiled. “I’m glad you like it. I’ll have the last couple of pieces ready next week, if that’s okay?”

“Sure,” she said, thinking that it would be nice to see him again. “Shall we get started? I don’t want to keep you too long.”

Paul shrugged, “I’m all yours.”

She led the way to the office where the family computer lived. Paul sat in front of it and opened up the website template that he had chosen for Rachel.

“What do you think? Smart isn’t it?”

“Wow, yes!” she said, feeling completely out of her depth. “So what do we do now?”

“Well, we choose which of your photos to use and put in some words about the guest house. You know – where it is, what you offer, costs, contact details, directions,” he smiled. “Oh, speaking of which, I wasn’t sure that I was on the right road so I asked a guy in the village where you were.”

“Really? Who was that?”

“I didn’t catch his name.”

“What did he look like?”

“Chubby, about 60, pot-belly, stubble.”

“Hmm, that could be half the population of Pelette.”

Paul laughed. “He was sitting outside the grocer’s shop with an old gentleman in a serge suit.” He stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I’d no idea people really wore serge. And they had a three-legged dog with them.”

“Oh, that’s Fred the Bread, his father Monsieur Bertrand and Fifi.”

“‘Fred the Bread’? He’s the baker, right?”

She smiled brightly and handed him the camera. “You got it. Well, you make a start with that and I’ll fetch us a drink. Beer okay?”

“That would be great.”

When she returned with their drinks, Paul had all the house pictures on the computer, ready for her to look at. She peered at the screen as the slide show started and the images swept by.

“Kitchen, bedroom 1, bedroom 2, view from the balcony, back terrace, chickens, Fudge and Mousey – ooh, better delete those. We don’t want to frighten the anti-bird people and cat-phobics.”

“I think you should keep them,” said Paul, taking a swig from his beer. “It suggests that this is a homely place to stay.”

“Hmm, maybe. Ah, here’s bedroom 3, the big courtyard, more chickens. What’s next?”

The photos that Irina had taken of Rachel prancing around on the terrace flashed up in front of them.

“Oh definitely delete those!”

“They’re lovely. Keep them,” said Paul, putting them into the ‘Website’ folder.

“Are you familiar with the English concept of beer goggles?”

Paul shook his head slowly. “‘Beer goggles’? No, I don’t think I am,” he said, tipping the last of the beer into his mouth. “But another of these small beers would be nice.”

“Coming up.”

They spent the next half an hour making pages for the website and choosing pictures for each of them.

“It looks great,” said Rachel. “We’re nearly done!”

“Er, not quite. You have to put some words in yet.”

She groaned. “I do pictures. I’m rubbish with words.”

“It’s not that hard. Just tell me about the rooms and I’ll write it down.”

So that’s what they did. They looked at the photographs and Rachel explained which room was which, how many people each of them could take, what the views were like, and so on. After another half hour they had filled most of the pages and finished their second beer.

Rachel, who was bored by this time, yawned and stretched. “Thanks so much Paul. I could never have done it without you.”

“Don’t thank me yet, you’ve still got to write a description of the guest house for the Home page that will persuade people to choose you.”

“Have I? Oh dear.” She blew across the top of her empty beer bottle making it whistle and gazed up at the ceiling. “What about ‘Nice house in the countryside’?”

Paul frowned. “Don’t you think that’s perhaps a bit boring?”

“Probably. What about ‘Peaceful country retreat . . .?’ No, that makes us sounds like Buddhists.”

“How about ‘Traditional guest house in, er . . .’”

“In the middle of nowhere? Hmm, I’m not sure that sounds right either.” She peered into her empty bottle. “I’m going to put supper on and get us another drink.” As she got up from her chair, she patted him playfully on the thigh. “You carry on.”

He gave her an amused look. “Okay boss.”

Feeling quite wicked she skipped down to the kitchen past her son, who was watching a film on the TV.

“Will you set the table for me, sweetheart? And tell Alice that supper won’t be long. I’m just finishing off with Monsieur Callot.”

Charlie grunted, stopped the film and hoisted himself up from the sofa. “Good. I’m starving.”

Rachel put the casserole in the oven and kissed her son as she headed back to the office.

“Why are you making that noise?”

“What noise, love?”

“You’re humming.”

“Am I?” she laughed. “Yes, perhaps I am.”

She was definitely humming when she got back to the office and sat down in her place next to Paul, who was concentrating on the screen.

“Okay, I think I’ve got it,” he said. “‘A warm welcome awaits you in rural France’. What do you think?”

Rachel screwed up her face. “It’s a bit cheesy, but I guess it will do.”

“Let’s put it up there for now,” said Paul, bending over the keyboard and tapping in the words with two fingers. “You can always change it later.” He gave her a sideways glance. “If you can think of anything better, that is.”

Rachel lent back in her chair and studied the back of Paul’s head, thinking that the separate curls of his hair were the colour of wood ash, ranging from black to the palest of greys. The evening was cool and he had put on a textured purple sweater that reminded her of moorland heather. She was thinking what nice shoulders he had, when he turned and caught her looking at him. He held her glance for a moment with his blue-grey eyes.

“Anything else?”

“Sorry,” she asked, realising that her mind had wandered far away from the matter at hand.

“Is there anything else you’d like to say about the guest house? Does it have a name, for example?”

“A name? Golly, I suppose we do need a name.” She spun on her chair, biting a nail. “Well, the house is called
– sunflower.”

Paul nodded and typed. “‘A warm welcome is guaranteed at the Tournesol Guest House.’” Next to it he put a photo of Rachel in green and purple smiling at the camera.

Rachel laughed. “How could anyone resist that!”

He span around to face her, his expression suddenly quite serious. “Impossible,” he said, quietly.

Rachel felt an unexpected thrill run through her as their eyes met and didn’t know what to say.

Paul smiled and clinked his bottle against hers. “Do I get supper now?”

“You do!” she said, coming back to reality. “I hope you like lamb casserole.”

“Love it.”

Rachel left Paul in the sitting room with Charlie while she went to make a salad. Alice joined her in the kitchen.

“Who’s that man?”

“That’s Paul Callot from the picture framer’s and he has been helping me with the guest house website.” Rachel looked nervously across at her daughter. “Is that all right with you?”

Alice shrugged. “Okay.”

“Good,” said Rachel with a smile. She wasn’t sure why she cared what her children thought about Paul, but she did. “Can you call them in, please love?”

Charlie came in with Paul, the two of them in a dense conversation about computer games.

“I’ll show you sometime, if you like?”

“That would be great, Charlie. I’ve heard a lot about RuneScape but I don’t know how it works.”

Rachel smiled and handed Paul a plate, mouthing a silent ‘thank you’ as she did so.


* * *


After the meal, the children went back to their TV and texting, and the adults lingered at the table, nibbling on hunks of local cheese and finishing the wine.

Paul looked up at the clock. “We’re not going to get the map and the pricing information on there tonight, I’m afraid.”

Rachel nodded. “I guess I’ll manage the rest.”

“I don’t mean to be rude, but . . .”

“Okay, okay! I know I’m hopeless.” She looked at him, emboldened by the red wine and conversation. “I don’t suppose you’d consider coming back to help? For a fee obviously.”

He lent back in the chair and raised his glass to her. “For a supper like that and your charming company, I would be very happy to help.”

“Good, great,” she said, pouring out the coffee and offering him pralines. Was he flirting with her? She looked at the second empty bottle on the table.

“You know, I really can’t let you drive home after all the beer and the wine. You are very welcome to stay
– I mean, we have plenty of beds,” she added, in case he thought she was after him.

Paul hesitated for a moment then smiled and nodded. “If that’s no problem, it would probably be wise.”

Rachel stood. “Good. Well, pick a bed – er, I mean a room – and I’ll just tidy up here.”

“Don’t go to any trouble. I know the rooms are all set up for your guests. I’ll be fine down here.”

She was torn between being a generous hostess and the thought of having to strip the brand-new linen off one of the beds and remake the darned thing. Laziness won.

“Well, if you wouldn’t mind, the sofa in the sitting room is ever so comfortable . . .”

“I wouldn’t mind at all. Really.”

“And there’s a downstairs loo. So, okay,” she said, smiling nervously. “I’ll bring down some bedding. And something for you to wear.”

He caught her by the wrist and gave her a lazy smile. “I’m in your hands.”

she thought, skipping up the stairs. If the kids weren’t here I don’t know what might happen. She went to the linen cupboard and pulled out a single duvet, a sheet, pillows, towel and a toothbrush and threw them downstairs to where Paul was waiting.

“Sorry,” she said, wrestling with a pillowcase. “This is ‘house’ bed linen for the kids and me. I’m keeping all the good stuff for paying guests. God, that sounds awful!”

Paul laughed as he stuffed the duvet into its cover. “That’s fine. I’m just happy not having to drive home past the local gendarme.”

Rachel could have told him that the local gendarme was ba
sed 60km away and only came anywhere near Pelette on high days and holidays, but decided not to.

“I do hope you’ll be comfy,” she said, dislodging a plastic toy from down the side of the raspberry red sofa as she shook out a sheet and threw down a pillow. “I’m afraid the bed linen is rather garish.”

“It’s fine, really.” Paul lay down on the duvet, his hands folded behind his head. “I’m a big fan of ‘My Little Pony’.”

She handed him one of Michael’s old T-shirts to sleep in. “And Metallica?”

“My favourite band.”

She laughed. “You are a very easy house guest.”

He got up from the sofa and came towards her. She held her breath, half hoping that he’d press his mouth on hers, but instead she felt his lips against one cheek and then the other, his hands on her arms.

“Goodnight Rachel. And thank you for a very nice evening.”

She opened her eyes to find him ever so close. He had taken off his sweater earlier in the evening and she could see one or two curls from his chest through the gap in his shirt.

“Well, sleep well Paul.”

Controlling the urge to grab and kiss him properly, she said goodnight and went upstairs to her room. There, she couldn’t sleep for thinking of him lying below her. Okay, the ‘My Little Pony’ bed linen was a bit of a passion killer, but she still felt excited at the thought of a man who wasn’t Michael coming into her life.

BOOK: French Kisses
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