A French Affair by Catherine Daly
As Evie took five wide rollers out of the top of her hair, pulled a brush through the ends and blasted her whole head with a few bursts of a glossing spray, she watched her daughter playing happily with her own ‘make-up’ in front of a play-sized dressing-table.
You have no idea, sweetheart, Evie thought nervously, that our lives could be about to change forever. Because the week ahead, originally planned to be Evie’s first childless holiday since Holly was born, had suddenly developed the potential to bring her past rushing up to confront her.
Evie was in a hurry, having pressed her snooze button once too often after only four and a half hours’ sleep. But her colleague’s hen night the night before had been worth it – one of Evie’s best nights out in years – so good, it almost made her look back fondly at the days before Holly was born. The days when she was able to go straight from work to the pub, from there to a nightclub, sometimes on to a party, and, on occasion, straight back in to work the next morning. Now, as she struggled to keep her eyes open, she wondered where all her energy had gone.
“Yes, that’s right, good girl, Holly!” Evie smiled at her daughter who was smoothing the Velcro fastening on her shoe. “Now the other one.”
As she watched, she again marvelled at the wonders of genetics, which had given her a daughter who looked so unlike her. Evie was tall, strong-featured and had straight, mousey-brown hair (admittedly coloured an expensive glossy chestnut), while Holly was tiny, with fine, elfin features and dark brown, almost black hair which tumbled in unruly curls around her face. Evie’s eyes were blue and no amount of mascara gave her more than a few sad, stubby eyelashes, whereas Holly’s brown eyes were set off perfectly by long, sweeping, doe-like lashes, which made Evie think of Arabian princesses in children’s storybooks.
“Can’t find my other shoe,” Holly said. “It’s aaaaaall gone!”
“Like my energy,” Evie muttered, then out loud she added: “You had it earlier …” She took a deep breath. Please, she prayed silently, not this morning. We’re running late and I have a flight to catch. “Have another look, sweetheart, maybe it’s under the bed.”
Deciding to abandon her make-up – she could do it in the airport later – Evie diverted her all energy into finding Holly’s shoe.
Together they searched the living-room, the hall, the kitchen and the sparkly pink wonderland that was Holly’s bedroom. Evie retraced both their steps but it was no good. The small, size-eight, pink runner had vanished. Temporarily left this planet. It happened at least once a week – just as Holly and Evie were ready to depart for Holly’s crèche, one of her shoes or socks, her hair-band or some other item of (pink) apparel would disappear.
“Perhaps,” Evie suggested finally in a conspiratorial tone when it was clear that the pink runner was not going to reappear, “perhaps, just this once, I’ll let you wear your party shoes to school.”
Holly looked at her mother suspiciously. Her party shoes were her most precious possessions. Bought by Granny Marian, (in BT2 and Evie went into a cold sweat every time she tried to imagine how much they cost), they were bright and sparkly, patent ruby-red – just like Dorothy’s slippers in The Wizard of Oz. When Holly wore them she felt like a grown-up and she walked slowly and carefully, like a ‘princess’ with her toes pointed. In fact, as she had once confided to her beloved Granny, her party shoes were so pretty they could be called “jools for feet”.
And now Mummy was suggesting that she be allowed to wear them to school!
“I s’ppose I could,” the little girl offered, careful not to appear too enthusiastic, “but I’ll have to tell Miss Amy that I have to wear my wellies in the garden. Even if it’s not raining.”
Holly stood up and with the care and grace of a prima ballerina, stepped regally into her bedroom and waited for her mother to take the shoebox down from the top shelf. She waited until she was presented with the glittering treasures, then pointed at the chest of drawers.
“And white socks, Mummy. These pink ones don’t ‘go’.”
Suddenly, Evie felt all trace of impatience and worry at being late for her flight vanish. They disappeared in a puff of smoke worthy of the best efforts of Good Witch Glenda.
“Let me see you!” she ordered when Holly was finally ready, white socks and all. “Do a twirl!”
Her daughter obliged, and then stumbled happily into her mother’s waiting arms in a well-rehearsed move.
“Who’s the luckiest Mummy in all the world?” Evie asked, breathless with adoration.
“And who’s the bestest, most beautifulest, most wonderfulest girl in the whole wide world, and all the universe as well?”
“Holly is!” And as she smoothed down her dress, pointed one toe and admired her shoes, the little girl repeated with even more conviction and gravitas than usual: “Holly is.” And Evie felt that her heart would burst with love.
Soon Holly was safely fastened into her car-seat, and they were en route to Rainbowland.
“Don’t forget Granny will be collecting you today for your big sleepover,” Evie reminded her daughter, as she swallowed a lump the size of a small grapefruit in her own throat. “I’ll phone you every night I’m away and I’ll bring you back a really good present from France.”
She glanced in the rear-view mirror to see how Holly was taking this reminder of her absence, but the red shoes took up most of the little girl’s attention and she merely muttered, “’kay. I’ll have fun in Granny’s.”
Evie dropped her daughter off with a minimum of fuss. She had warned the crèche staff that Holly might be more clingy than usual this morning, but she sensed they thought she was being over-protective. And of course, they were right – Holly skipped off happily, babbling about her red shoes, while her teacher was left holding out a box of tissues to Evie. Although she had planned her holiday months ago, it was only now that the reality sank in. A whole week without Holly? She swallowed again, apologised to Holly’s teacher, and took refuge in the car to wipe up her tears.
On the way to the airport Evie counted up the reasons she was leaving her baby behind.
Firstly, Evie’s mother Marian was really looking forward to having Holly to herself for a whole week. Since Evie’s brother, his wife and their two boys had moved to New Zealand, Marian felt her recent widowhood all the more keenly. So Evie knew it would do her good to spend some time with her youngest grandchild – to take her mind off the fact that her two grandsons were on the other side of the world.
Secondly, it would do Holly good to spend some time away from Evie. Although she was a confident and unclingy child who had never had reason to doubt that her mother would always be there for her, Holly would be off to ‘big school’ in a just over a year’s time, and although she had settled well into playschool, it would do her good to learn to rely on her own inner resources.
And finally, it was a long time since Evie had spent time with her best friend Monique without Holly being there too. They needed a proper, child-free holiday. They had been promising it to themselves, after all, since before Holly was born. This fantasy holiday had of course involved long-haul flights and tropical cocktails – but as they were both low on funds, Evie’s first Holly-less holiday was going to be the rather less exotic option of a week in Monique’s house.
Monique had moved to France over five years ago, and since then Evie had taken advantage of cheap flights to visit her a few times a year. Raising a child on her own meant cutting back on other holidays, so Evie was doubly glad to have Monique to visit. But it also meant that she never got to go away entirely on her own.
And that was another reason this holiday was so important. Since going back to work full-time a year ago, she could feel the pressure build up inside as she tried to cope with job, house and child all on her own. She would be no use to anyone, least of all Holly, if she collapsed into a little heap of nervous exhaustion. So this week of not having to get up at sunrise, or cook and clean for the world’s tiniest mess-monster, promised to be something of a break for Evie.
Or rather it had promised to be, until Monique broke some rather earthshattering news a week ago.
“Evie, I wasn’t going to tell you about this at all,” she said on the phone. “To be honest, I was hoping it, or rather he, would go away … but, Evie, Alex Ryder has been looking at property in my neck of the woods, and he’s only gone and settled on a place just down the road from me.”
Monique went quiet then, as though she was waiting for Evie to explode. Because Alex was Evie’s old boss. The owner of a small computer software company, he had let her go not long before his company went public. If Evie had been working for him when the company floated, she would have been in line for a payout in the form of shares. Evie had refused to talk about it since then, but Monique knew she was very bitter.
“How on earth? Alex in France, near you . . . but why?”
“The Bristol flight into Bergerac,” Monique replied simply “He chose this part of France because he could get back and forward to Bristol easily. He chose our estate agency because he knew a few other people in Bristol who had used us. And of course, not all agencies have someone who speaks English.”
Evie was tempted to call off her holiday. The thought of running into him when she wasn’t expecting to …
But Monique read her mind: “You don’t have to meet him, Evie. I know his place is down the road from me, but he may not be in France at the same time as you. And anyway, all that’s in the past, isn’t it? If necessary, just let the air out of his tyres one day, and then forget about him.”
But forgetting about Alex wasn’t going to be easy – Monique didn’t know the full story.
You are one sad excuse for a twenty-seven-year-old, Evie scolded herself a few hours later as she changed terminals in Stansted. She hadn’t shaken off her depression at leaving Holly.
You are going on holidays, she told herself. Ho-li-days! Drink, dance and debauchery in the company your best friend.
But Holly had seemed so happy this morning despite saying goodbye, that although Evie knew she didn’t really have a concept of how long a week was (seven ‘big sleeps’ being more sleeps than you can count on one hand), she couldn’t help feeling just a tad unwanted and unloved.
It would be different if she were leaving Holly with her father, Evie imagined. Then she would walk away like most other mothers she knew – with a large measure of relief and little smidgin of mischievous shadenfreude at leaving the other half to cope for a change. But Holly had never met her father and so far Evie had fielded all questions about him with vague mutterings of being ‘Mummy and Daddy all rolled into one’. She could never decide when would be the right time to explain it properly to Holly. Just as she had never decided when she should tell Holly’s dad.
Monique sat in the small outdoor café at the edge of the runway in Bergerac airport and waited for the flight from Stansted. She was sipping a small black coffee and scribbling the odd note into a blue folder open on the table in front of her. A few firemen were cleaning a fire truck outside a hangar on the edge of the runway, only a few hundred feet from where she sat. But in heavy suits their enthusiasm for their work was limited in this early summer heat. Like Monique they kept looking up to scan the sky for any sign of the incoming plane. A gust of wind blew across the tarmac and disturbed her papers. It was all the excuse Monique needed to tidy away the trappings of work, stretch out her bare legs to absorb the hot French sunshine and declare her holiday officially started.
It had taken the five years Monique had lived in France for her grandmother’s French genes to finally gain dominance over her Anglo-Saxon ones but she had finally achieved the separation between work and leisure that the French regarded as vital to civilised living. She switched off her phone at lunch hour and used her one-and-a-half-hour lunch break to eat, relax and meet friends rather than to scurry around shopping or to follow up on clients. And she rarely, if ever, worked during her time off.
She also looked more French than she had five years ago. Her small, manicured hands flew about in animation whenever she spoke and her heart-shaped face was more expressive when she talked in her grandmother’s tongue than when she spoke English. But it was her hair and her clothes that set her apart from her English compatriots in the small airport. Monique’s shiny bob skimmed her jaw-line with laser-like accuracy – it was clearly a hairstyle that could only be maintained by regular fortnightly visits to the coiffeuse. Her knee-length skirt and tailored silk blouse were just the right cut to flatter and look stylish without making her into a fashion victim.
Monique smiled at the middle-aged couple who came and sat at the table next to hers. They were overdressed for the early summer heat; they looked flustered and hot and were surrounded by plastic bags full of bottle-shaped parcels. They were clients of hers. An English couple who had spent the past week touring the area with her, looking at run-down properties to buy and renovate with a view to eventually semi-retiring to France to run a guesthouse. They had spotted the perfect farm complex, but it was above their budget so they were returning home to see if they could raise the necessary finance. Monique hoped, as much for their sake as for her own, that they succeeded. She had shown them several houses, from ready-to-go businesses with established reputations, to ruins that were little more than four tumbledown walls, and she had recognised the gleam in their eyes when she led them around the farmhouse near the quaint medieval town of Issigeac. Situated in the middle of several acres of fields (which luckily for Monique were planted with sunflowers this year), the farmhouse had already been restored, but there were several barns and a stunning dovecote (a typical Périgordian pigeonnier) waiting to be transformed into really special holiday accommodation. The couple had fallen in love with the place; it was now their gold standard, and if they didn’t manage to buy it, everything else would be a compromise.
Monique loved matching people to properties. Since moving to the Dordogne, she had worked with three estate agents, but her current job was her favourite. The other two had been too hard-sell for her. Ironically, the small local company she worked for now ended up making far more sales. And Monique made more commission.
The distant roar of a jet engine announced the arrival of the flight from Stansted and about half the customers in the café got to their feet – either moving closer to the glass barrier separating them from the runway, or going outside to watch for the arrivals who would soon be emerging onto the steps already being rolled into place. Monique’s couple, far too early for their Bristol flight, stayed where they were. Monique waited until she spotted Evie – one of the first passengers to emerge, blinking, into the sunshine. Then she went out to wait outside the baggage collection hall.
The two women met outside after Evie had collected her bags.
“Don’t bother looking for a trolley,” Monique said, taking the heavier of her friend’s two bags. “We’re just over here.”
Straight across from them, parked on the edge of a small grass verge, was ‘The Bug’: Monique’s beloved Citroen 2CV, painted to resemble a ladybird – shiny red all over with black spots the size of large dinner-plates scattered across the bonnet and doors. The soft top was folded back and the sight finally put Evie into a holiday mood. She began to relax as she threw her bags in the back, and she even managed to smile when Monique asked after Holly.
“She’s going to be spoiled rotten. And don’t worry – she’ll love it,” Monique reassured her when Evie went quiet after saying how much she was going to miss Holly, and how she didn’t seem at all bothered by her mother’s absence. “Of course she’ll miss you, but she’s got the prospect of a super holiday to distract her. A week’s sleepover with Granny Marian? Hell, a week of your mum’s pampering would be my idea of a luxury break!”
They both went quiet as they remembered when Monique had last been in Dublin. Her engagement with long-term boyfriend Tom had just ended and she needed to get away from anyone who knew him to lick her wounds. France was out because he had met everyone over there so his permanent absence would leave a big hole in conversations. And besides, Monique knew that most of her French friends would be far from heartbroken to see the back of him. Bristol was where the two of them had grown up and they had too many friends in common. So Monique had fled to Dublin for a week. Evie had just started back at work but Holly hadn’t got her crèche place yet so Marian was minding her during the day. Monique joined her godchild on the couch and the two of them watched Teletubbies until the little girl dropped off to sleep and then the two women drank tea and watched daytime television together. Marian was still reeling from the loss of Joe, Evie’s Dad, so they took turns looking after each other.
“Don’t I sound terribly self-centred, wishing misery and sadness on a little girl, just so that I can feel more wanted?” Evie finally managed to grin, diverting conversation safely away from that depressing time. “I only hope you have enough planned to keep me distracted from missing her!” And from worrying about meeting Alex, Evie added silently, amazed that she had managed to resist raising his name. “You were able to take the week off, weren’t you?”
Used to having to negotiate every last hour of leave months in advance, Evie couldn’t get used to Monique’s cavalier attitude to her employer.
“Of course I was able to take holidays. French law is really strict on the subject of holidays for us, the proletariat. In fact, Céline,” Monique referred to her employer, the owner of the agency, “is relieved that I’m taking a week now. I’ve so much time owed to me that theoretically I could leave her high and dry for weeks on end, just when all the English holidaymakers are over here falling in love with the area.”
Evie smiled – Céline’s English was book-perfect, but her accent was appalling, and her tolerance of some of her more eccentric English clients was low.
“The only thing I have to do while you’re here,” Monique continued, as she veered wildly onto the other side of the road, onto the grass verge and almost into an orchard, to overtake a tractor, “is to let a surveyor in to re-inspect a property. Don’t worry,” she added, mistaking the reason for Evie’s pursed lips, and look of alarm as the car returned to its own side of the road, “I’m letting him in at eight thirty tomorrow morning, so you’ll probably still be eating breakfast by the time I get back.”
“Breakfast?” Evie said weakly, checking her seatbelt and wondering if Monique would take offence if she closed her eyes for the rest of the trip. “Hell, I won’t even be out of bed at that time! I hope to be suffering mild after-effects of an obscene amount of the local produce.” She waved her hand in the direction of a vineyard to make herself doubly clear. She’d been working too hard lately and needed to seriously let her hair down. It might take a few days to switch out of ‘Mommy mode’, but Evie had long ago decided that this week she was going to rediscover her mad, pre-Holly self. The Evie who didn’t think twice about staying up till dawn and who, in college, had been the undefeated champion of almost any drinking game her fellow students had challenged her to.
The friends chatted and gossiped during the drive from the airport. They had been best friends for nearly ten years, since college. Evie had been studying in Bristol University, and Monique, whose parents had helped her buy a small house near the university, had been her housemate as well as her landlady. So they swapped news of college friends many of whom, like Evie, were Irish and had moved back to Dublin. Of work colleagues from a brief time when the two had worked together in London. And of friends they had met since splitting up – Monique having moved ‘temporarily’ to France to improve her evening class French.
Soon they arrived at Monique’s old farmhouse on the edge of the small village of Ste Anne. Stepping through the front door was like stepping back in time; into a long salon that took up most of the whole ground floor. French windows at the back of the house led from the kitchen to a patio and a large garden. It was mostly laid to lawn but Monique’s interest in gardening was evident in several shrubs, a rose bed and a few flower-filled borders. Two smaller windows at the front of the house looked down over the other houses in the village, built mainly of sandstone with red tiled roofs. Beyond the village, fields were planted with sunflowers, or with ripening wheat dotted with brilliant red poppies. The hillside on the other side of the valley was clothed mainly in lush vines.
The big room was comfortably furnished and decorated with an eclectic mixture of second-hand and antique furniture and ornaments, which reflected Monique’s magpie-like interest in Brocante shops and flea-markets. The only obvious intrusions from the twenty-first century were a small yellow microwave in the kitchen end of the room, and a laptop plugged in beside the huge sandstone fireplace at the other. In the kitchen end of the room most of the space was taken up by a heavy oak refectory table covered in a yellow and blue flower-patterned oilcloth. On it were some coloured files in a pile and several loose photos of properties, which were scattered across its surface.
Evie wandered over and flicked through some of the pictures. Every time she visited, she would look longingly at the houses on offer and fantasise about moving to France. She and Monique had spent many a wine-lubricated hour discussing it. There was a lovely little village school crying out for pupils, so Holly would be sure of a warm welcome. Property prices in this part of France, although rising rapidly, were only a fraction of those in Dublin – so Evie could sell her house at home, pay off her mortgage and be left with enough to buy something almost loan-free in the Dordogne. The climate was so much more pleasant and the country air was sure to help Holly’s asthma.
Evie’s fantasy was predictable – she would picture Holly skipping happily into the small school and growing up to be bi-lingual. She could imagine leaving her job in Dublin, and going back to working freelance, with the millstone of a mortgage gone from around her neck. She would learn to cook wholesome, imaginative meals with the wonderful local ingredients purchased during a friendly walk through the local market. And she might even take in Bed and Breakfast customers in summer to generate a little extra cash. (Evie was addicted to ‘new life in the sun’ television programs!)
But then being Evie, reliable and realistic, she would take a reality-check. She would ask how she could possibly cope on her own without her mum to baby-sit in emergencies. She would have no backup other than Monique, and although her friend was the best in the world, she wasn’t family.
“So! See any houses you fancy?” Monique teased when she saw what Evie was doing. She looked over her friend’s shoulder and saw that she was looking at the aerial photo of a large converted barn with several ramshackle outbuildings surrounding it. She took it back casually and handed Evie another pile to leaf through.“That house is way too big for you – if you’re going to play fantasy Place in the Sun you may as well be realistic! I’ll let you have a look at the properties I was loading onto the computer – I’ve some really nice ones at the moment. They’d nearly tempt me to move. And talking of computers – can you take a look at mine while you’re here? I know you set it up last time so that I could access the files straight off the server at work, but I seem to have screwed it up again.”
“Yeah, no problem,” Evie answered. She would be able to fix that in her sleep. “Just so long as I don’t have to go into the office and set up the whole system in there again!”
Monique blushed. She had been showing her friend around the estate agent’s office when she started this job, and Céline had asked her to take a look at their new website – they were having teething problems. Between language difficulties and the ancient system they were using, it had taken Evie the best part of a day to sort out some obvious problems, but she refused to give up.
“No, don’t worry,” Monique said. “The system in the office is working fine.”
Evie flicked her way through another few photos, while Monique took the one with the large barn complex and slipped it discreetly back into a manila folder.
“Give me that!” Evie snatched the file from Monique. She stared at it. Stared at the label which carried a series of letters and numbers followed by a pencilled-in name: Alex Ryder.
“Sorry,” Monique apologised. “I thought I’d put that file away …” She paused. “You may as well have a look at it now. I have to say he has taste, your ex-boss. I brought him around I don’t know how many other places in the hope of getting rid of him. Most of them cheaper, and all of them nice and far away from here, but Céline had already shown him this one and he came right back to it. ”
Evie nodded dumbly and flicked through the other pictures. It was time to tell Monique why the prospect of seeing Alex again was so terrifying, but she couldn’t find the words.
“Well …?” Monique prompted after a minute or so of silence. She seemed to have guessed what was on Evie’s mind. “It’s a long time ago, Evie. There’s more to the story than just losing a great job and a bonus, isn’t there? Did you and Ryder have a thing together?”
“Forget it,” Evie picked up her bags and made for the open stairs in the corner of the room. “And forget him. I’m here to enjoy myself. Sod him!”
She put her foot on the first step, then turned around.
“Oh, hell. I may as well tell you now. You’re bound to find out, or at least work it out for yourself eventually … You may even have guessed now that you’ve met him. Yes, I did have a ‘thing’ with Alex and we had … I mean … he …”
“He’s Holly’s father?”
“Yes. And he doesn’t even know she exists.”
“I know I told you Holly was the result of a one-night stand,” Evie said later that night over dinner. She had avoided talking about it for the rest of the afternoon, and she was grateful that Monique didn’t push her. “And, I suppose, I was fairly wild then. You and me both! Or rather you were if Tom wasn’t round. He was your ‘stabilising’ influence, your sensible older boyfriend. Well, a while after I started working for Alex, he became my stabilising influence! And it certainly wasn’t a one-night stand. It built up slowly, very slowly actually, over a few weeks and months. It was after you’d gone to France, so I guess I was feeling lonely. It started with some working lunches together. I kidded myself at first that he was ‘mentoring me’ and I really liked him. In fact, I fancied him like you wouldn’t believe, but I couldn’t imagine him ever being really interested in me. Then he invited me to a couple of films – he was big into Art Cinema and he said he’d love the company, and he didn’t know anyone else interested. Then we might go for a drink afterwards, and I began to realise that we were ‘dating’, or whatever you want to call it. I was afraid of what everyone at work would say – Rydercom was still quite a small company at the time, so it would have been impossible to keep it quiet. I mean, it was a great place to work, everyone got on so well together, and we all went drinking together – Alex included. But he was still the boss, and I was the last person to join the company.”
Evie stopped and looked round; she looked as though she was studying her surroundings. The wooden riverside terrace, built on stilts over the edge of the water, amongst trailing willow branches. The yellow and blue ‘Ricard’ sunshades, folded up now that it was evening. The red-checked paper tablecloths fastened over the white cotton cloths below with steel clips. But Evie had eaten here often, and was only looking around because Monique’s scrutiny was making her uncomfortable.
“And Alex was married,” she continued after a while. “Separated, but not divorced. And he had three children.”
This last sentence came out more bitterly than Evie had intended, making Monique realise that Holly’s missing father weighed more on Evie’s mind that she had ever admitted.
“Everything made me cautious. So when Alex said he wanted to introduce me to everybody as his girlfriend, I said, no, we should wait, that he was moving too fast.”
The restaurant owner arrived herself with a dessert wine, interrupting Evie. She made a big ceremony of opening the bottle at the table, chatting to Monique in French as she did so. Out of politeness, she translated her first few remarks into English for Evie’s benefit, but soon realised Monique’s guest had retreated into a world of her own.
“So how did you get from ‘dating’ to … Holly?” Monique asked when she finally got rid of the Frenchwoman.
Evie smiled as she remembered. “Like I said, I really liked Alex, and I fancied him rotten. And he was … well, to put it mildly, he was bloody good in bed! Made me appreciate why a woman might be interested in an older man.” Evie grinned at that. When they were seventeen and starting first year, she had been shocked that Monique’s boyfriend, Tom, was so much older and an experienced soldier when the rest of them were barely out of school. But as the years passed and the age gap ‘narrowed’ she had just teased her friend about her ‘older man’. “Soon I began to realise that I loved him,” Evie continued. “So I began to feel silly about keeping him a secret from everyone. I felt that I was building the differences between us into something huge. Something they weren’t. So what if he had children by a former marriage? If I was going to exclude a man on that basis, I could forget a large proportion of the British male population. And I persuaded myself that twelve years was hardly a huge age gap between us. And if I didn’t want to go out with the boss – I was confident enough to think that a new job would be very easily come by. A lot easier than another man like Alex. I was just getting ready to tell him all this, I was waiting for the right time when …”
“When what? What happened? What went wrong?” Monique was impatient to find out how Evie had gone from moving her relationship with Alex up a notch to fleeing the country on the next Dublin-bound flight.
“He went back to his wife,” Evie spat. “We’d been ‘seeing each other’ a year. Sleeping together for six or seven months. I thought I was about to ‘do him a favour’ by agreeing to go more public with our relationship, and he decided to go back to his wife. ‘For the sake of the children.’ And he as good as fired me at the same time. Scrap that – he did fire me. Or rather he got his wife to fire me – she was a ‘partner’ in the business.”
Monique’s mouth dropped open. “But … I mean,” she shook her head in bewilderment, “they couldn’t have just fired you. Aren’t there laws against that kind of thing? And if you were pregnant by him …”
“If I wanted to invoke the law, yes, I suppose I could have crucified him. Or rather them, him and his wife. But it would have been too humiliating. Picture it – the young graduate falls for her suave older boss. She believes him when he says he and his wife are separated for good. His wife didn’t understand him, he said – he’d told me that they only got married because she was pregnant. And then, when he goes back to his wife, and she takes him back despite everything – the mistress tries to play the pregnancy card. It was too sordid to even contemplate going public with it.” Evie shuddered, but didn’t admit that one of the main reasons she didn’t go after him was that he had begged her not to. “So when I discovered I was expecting Holly, I didn’t tell him. I took their generous severance pay, hightailed it home to Ireland, put a deposit on a house, and swore I’d never, ever go near him again.”
“So Ryder doesn’t even know about Holly? You never told him in all these years?” Monique repeated, just to be sure She wasn’t sure whether to be shocked at Evie keeping it from him or proud of her friend for standing her ground. “Have you never wondered …?”
“Of course I’ve wondered how they’d get on. She looks like him – now you’ve met him, you can see what I mean.” Evie seemed to be talking to herself now. “They’ve the same hair, the same eyes – those lovely warm brown buttons. Same upturned nose. And when she giggles – you know those gorgeous dimples Holly gets? Pure Alex!”
Evie was smiling so fondly that for the first time Monique understood some of what she had felt for Alex before he dumped her.
“It didn’t work out,” she said carefully. Very gently, as if she were afraid of startling Evie. “Alex going back to his wife, I mean. They got divorced. Because of French inheritance law we had to have copies of his divorce papers before he could proceed with the sale. Despite leaving you to rescue his marriage, Alex and his wife got divorced anyway.”
That night, Evie couldn’t sleep. The knowledge that Monique had met Alex, and had been talking to him less than a week ago, was killing her. Monique had probably treated him just like any other client. Like any of the hundreds who arrived in her little corner of France to find their place in the sun. Monique would have been polite to him, friendly even. She had no doubt joked and chatted as they travelled around the Dordogne countryside together. She had laughed at his jokes. She had done her best to get to know him so that she could find the right house for him. And she had obviously succeeded because Alex wouldn’t be buying the house at the other end of the village unless he loved it.
When Monique told her about Alex buying the house, it hadn’t hit her just how close he was going to be. Just over a mile away. Twenty minutes’ brisk walk. How on earth could she go on visiting Monique when she ran the risk of running into Alex at any moment? In the village shop. In the café. In any one of the weekly markets she loved to stroll through when she was in France. She had always thought that one day she would go to Alex, to tell him about Holly. She would sweep into his life like some sort of avenging angel and wreak all sorts of havoc. She would arrive from the safety of elsewhere – somewhere she could retreat back to. It had never occurred to her that he would find his way back into her life first, riding on something as banal as coincidence. Or was it fate?
Because as far as Evie was concerned it was the wildest of coincidences. No matter how Monique tried to dress it up.
“I myself chose this part of France so I could fly back and forth to Bristol easily,” Monique had explained, “to see my folks, and my friends.” And Tom, although she didn’t mention him. “Alex must have thought along the same lines. He can drive to Bristol Airport, hop on a plane and be in his house in France in less time than it would take him to drive to London.”
But that didn’t explain why he had ended up in Monique’s estate agency, buying a house in her village.
“He probably tried everywhere else as well,” Monique suggested lamely. “Or he could have got our name from any number of solicitors in Bristol. We’ve sold to loads of people there since the direct flight went in – and we’re so brilliant that of course everyone recommends us to their friends.”
Evie decided to stop thinking about how Alex had come to be in Ste Anne and concentrated instead on how she felt about it.
Did she want to see him again?
Should she try to contact him to tell him about Holly before she ran into him accidentally?
How did she feel about his divorce?
Would she still fancy him?
To her surprise, she answered the last question with a resounding ‘yes’. If Alex was anything like she remembered him, he would still fill all the criteria of her ideal man. He was taller than she was (at five foot nine Evie appreciated tall men). He was attractive in a masculine way without being too good-looking, or requiring high maintenance (Evie didn’t believe in having to compete for bathroom time). He was fun to be with. They shared the same sense of humour. He was amazing in bed. Not that Evie had much to compare him with – a few fumbling college romances and then, after Holly was born, long periods of abstinence broken by the occasional mad fling with princes who turned into toads. Wearing the rosy spectacles of hindsight, Alex seemed like quite the hero.
Then a flush swept through Evie’s body. She was so hot that she had to get out from under the covers and stand by the open window to cool off. She poured herself a fresh glass of water from the bottle Monique had left on the dressing-table and she sipped from it slowly. She couldn’t believe the way her mind was taking her. Instead of fantasising about humiliating Alex in a sweet act of delayed revenge, she was remembering what he was like in bed. And wondering if he was still as good.
Monique finished laying the table for breakfast, scribbled a note to Evie and slipped out of the house quietly for an early morning walk. It was just after eight and the village was just waking up. The bread had already been delivered so she popped her head around the shop door and asked them to keep her a couple of croissants and pains chocolats as well as her usual baguette, and promised to pick them up on her way back.
She had heard her friend padding about the room next to hers in the middle of the night and guessed that she hadn’t slept well. She wondered if Evie was interested in Alex again, now he was divorced, and tried to imagine them together. To her surprise it wasn’t difficult. Especially if she included Holly in the picture. Monique decided to tread very carefully over the next few days – and avoid giving Evie any advice whatsoever about Alex. If she wanted to talk, fine, Monique would listen. But Evie might be better off not talking about Alex until she was used to the idea of seeing him again. Otherwise she might say something she regretted and then refuse to back down out of stubborn pride. Monique needed to keep Evie’s mind off Alex for the next twenty-four hours at least. And she knew just the person to help her with that. She took out her mobile and phoned her boss at home.
When Céline had heard Evie was coming to France, she had offered the services of her son Laurent and his best friend Joël as tour guides. Without Holly, the girls should make the most of the region, she insisted, and that meant the visiting vineyards to sample the produce and long boozy lunches without worrying about the drive home. Joël had a convertible car that he was more than keen to show off – so he and Laurent could share the driving. When Céline made the suggestion, Monique had avoided giving her a definite answer because she knew that Céline was matchmaking. She wanted Monique to get together with Joël now that Tom was out of the picture.
But Laurent would be the ideal ‘distraction’ for Evie and what the hell, Monique wasn’t about to turn down the opportunity of a couple of days being squired about by couple of good-looking men.
“Céline, salut, c’est moi, Monique,” she said when the other woman answered. She continued to speak in French. “Is Laurent still available?” Then she laughed. “Yes, of course. Joël as well.” They spoke for a little while longer, Monique frowning at a mention of Alex Ryder, then she wound up the call by saying “Alright, Céline, I’ll call Laurent at home. I just didn’t want to put him on the spot, in case he’d made other plans.”
When Monique arrived back at the house a drowsy Evie, still in her pyjamas, was filling the kettle. Monique waved the bag of bread and croissants in her direction.
“Go and have a shower if you like, and get dressed. I’ll make breakfast. We’ll have it outside.” Monique went around opening the last of the shutters and then opened the windows to let in the day.
Suddenly Evie was wide-awake and a grin spread across her face. “Croissants and coffee in the garden? I think I can cope with that!” She knocked back her orange juice and skipped towards the stairs. “Give me ten minutes.”
Monique heard the electric shower hum to life above her head, and smiled as she heard Evie burst into tuneless song. Then she frowned and wondered whether to tell her the piece of news she’d just heard from Céline: Alex was flying into Bergerac tomorrow, to complete on the sale of his house.
When Evie came back down, she found Monique on the patio with a map of the area spread between the plates and cups.
“How about St Emilion?” Monique asked, clearing a space. “Touristy, but not too bad at this time of year, and anyway, you’ve never been there, so you have to do it at least once!”
“Can we visit a chateau? Buy some obscenely cheap wine?”
“We’ll definitely do a chateau. And buy some wine. But don’t forget you’re flying, so you can’t take much home with you!”
“That’s true – guess I’ll have to drink it so!”
“Do you remember Laurent, Céline’s son?” Monique asked as she poured coffee.
“Remember him?” Evie laughed. “How could I forget him? We drooled over him for a whole week when he was painting your office. I’ve never seen you show such enthusiasm for DIY as you did then! What’s he up to? He must be nearly finished college by now. Will he stay in Paris or move home do you think?”
“Evie, darling,” Monique held out the breadbasket and Evie’s hand hovered before choosing a pain-chocolat, “Laurent finished his PhD a year ago. He’s actually a few years older than us. We felt all grown up because we’d started real jobs while Laurent was still ‘at school’ – but you forget that at the time he was a qualified architect, and he was doing his doctorate in the environmental impact of modern materials. And yes, he has moved ‘home’, but not to Céline’s place. He’s bought himself a house on the outskirts of Bergerac.”
“Oh!” Evie tried to imagine a more mature Laurent, but it was no good. All she could see was a tanned, muscular, paint-splattered hunk laughing as he threatened to splash Evie and Monique with his brushes. A very pleasing image. “What about Laurent, anyway?” Evie asked, reaching out for a croissant while Monique topped up her coffee.
“Laurent and his friend Joël are going to chauffeur us around today.”
“Oh goody! I bags Laurent! You get Joël.”
Monique went pink, and Evie resisted the temptation to tease her. She had met Joël a few times and liked him. Maybe he’d made some progress with Monique since last time she’d asked her! About time too, Evie reckoned. It was all very well going into decline after breaking up with your fiancé, but a girl has to have some outside interests. And Monique had never gone out with anyone apart from Tom.
But if Monique and Joël were going to get anywhere, the relationship needed to be hot-housed; so if her friend wanted to double date, Evie was happy to go along with it. And from her point of view, if you had to double date, you could do a lot worse than Laurent. After getting hot and bothered thinking about Alex last night, Evie reckoned that maybe a quick holiday fling would do her the world of good. She’d been celibate for waaay too long.