There hadn’t been a delegation for some time, the Section had been busy in its own way, Geneviève had gone away and come back, he’d started to become used to it all – his work for the year was finishing up – in short, there were no major dramas.
And a group of women were not happy with that, so a meeting was scheduled at the Lodge, even Genie knew about it and had smiled.
Emma appeared with this Anaïs and she was different to the others. As they came in and made the morning tea ready, more like a brunch, he observed.
It struck him that Anaïs was a different item altogether in fact – the others all had at least a certain fixation about looking stylish as something de rigeur but she had these round-toed shoes and quite ordinary clothing and hair which spoke of things other than elegance – she’d be called a regular girl in America most like, a girl next door.
Nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong with not being a fashion queen but there was a level perhaps … well, he couldn’t quite nail what it was. She was clean and tidy, he didn’t mean that – he didn’t know what he meant but she was perhaps not totally with it, not as sharp as they were.
She even sat in a different way, hands folded on her lap – she certainly had something though – a softness of form and a manner about her. He’d not seen this type of French girl before and he was deciding if he liked this or not.
Everyone was aware of what was going on, everyone was scrutinising, only Anaïs felt uncomfortable.
‘I’ve seen you before, Mademoiselle.’
‘Yes, at the Conference.’
‘Right, yes, of course.’
Emma started the ball rolling. ‘We as a Section need Philippe’s money, he wants Mademoiselle, we are stuck there. That money comes at a high price in Mademoiselle’s mental health and it’s not good for you, Hugh. It’s an unhealthy relationship which does not follow the normal pattern and we think you’re either strange or else you just like Paris, the apartement, the life … or maybe even us -’
‘Guilty on all counts,’ he smiled but they weren’t smiling, they were women on a mission.
‘If you were juste un paillasson, a doormat, we would not bother but you seem to be much more than that, you’re not the doormat type, there was Ksenia … so we are puzzled. You meet women at the university, many of them, there are so many girls too although we would not recommend that. We think you must do something bold, decide on a course of action which takes you away from Mademoiselle for some time but not too long, as we need you here and you play a role in the Section.
‘Strategic, like me, security, a different perspective, Mademoiselle’s comfort. Franka is vital too but she is more a central hub around which everything revolves. The other two are administrators. Anaïs is learning and will join us once she knows how things are. You also help with our English.’
In French, Anaïs said, ‘I like your French. It’s different.’
He didn’t know how to take that. ‘I know Genie is on duty today, so … er … Nicolette is not?’ he tried.
Francine smiled. ‘Nicolette is working on Mademoiselle right now. Hugh, we can’t allow that – you and her I mean – it would get nobody anywhere. Whatever happens, we must have those two administering, they run things, they talk with each other all day, decide things, decide on who to tackle next. Nikki detests men as a species, she’s hard – if one day she decides to meet you, Hugh, then let it be her who decides, all right?’
‘Fine with me – you know best. So what’s your suggestion?’
‘To find a girl within the Section old enough and in tune with you, who sees you from a distance and starts an affair with you.’
‘No, I don’t like affairs, they’re a waste, so temporary, so artificial.’ Anaïs now looked at him with interest. ‘If I do anything more than kiss a woman, it’s to make her mine.’ Now Emma looked at him curiously.
‘Shall we all go for a walk now?’ Francine put in.
The new academic year had kicked in, things were busy, hard to know where August, September and half of October had gone. He was called into seminars and conferences more and more, there just hadn’t been time to do anything – the Terrible Trio of Nikki, Emma and Francine saw it all slipping away from them, they realized they had to make another move.
It had been two years and one month from Ksenia’s death, one year and five months from the first assignation with Geneviève. Unbelievable.
Emma had ascertained from Francine when he’d be alone down at the Lodge during the semester break and today she planned to strike. The car pulled up in the carport, she donned her coat and went straight to the forest, knowing he’d be at the two rocks where he’d sit on these days free and he was certainly pleased to see her.
Pretty-pretty was Emma, with that smile many would die for. Married was Emma.
She tried the formal voice. ‘As you know, Hugh, your affaire began at the Lodge one year and five months ago – that’s a very long time for no actual result.’ She was watching him like a hawk. When he didn’t reply, she asked if she could continue. ‘Do you want it to move forward?’
‘You know that.’
‘Mademoiselle has become too comfortable and while that’s good in one way, it’s not good for the Section. She’s not the only woman in Paris who’s shown interest in you, even within our circle, it’s perfectly obvious that you believe you could not find anyone else’s love but I believe you must try.
Mademoiselle is a typical administrator – always finding the comfortable way where everyone gets along. You need to challenge that, Hugh, do something at least – your fear of losing her is irrational.
If she feels anything for you at all, she will make moves to get you back, she’ll be forced to confront what she has to do – this is a woman talking to you, Hugh, will you accept that women know women? The funding is a big issue, yes, no question and you feel you owe her for your apartement, which you love. You know she’s the link to the Lodge too, which everyone agrees is a delight.
But you yourself must stop just accepting things which are not right – you’re losing the respect of the women and you live among women – I’m not suggesting Louise for you because that’s provocation and she’s not your type. I know the type of woman you like and I also know the type you have no resistance to – je suis sur le dernier type.’
She let that sink in, then went on. ‘She needs a shock but what kind of shock? Better it’s a controlled shock, one we all control, including you.
Most girls in the Section are too young for you – that would be an insult to Mademoiselle and frankly, they would not satisfy you … nor would you be on their wavelength either – we know our girls. If you went with me, it would be scandal and Michel would try to kill you. It would also threaten the Section. There is Nikki but we’ve been through all that. There is always your Anya in Russia but it’s probably too late there.
We have two girls in mind but one we now feel – possibly no. The other – Anaïs – we think she might be worth looking at. If you want, we can arrange that meeting again.’
‘She seems quite different to you two, different, I’m not so sure about her.’
‘Think about it, don’t close that door.’
Emma’s time was up, she had to be the other side of Fontainebleau so she took her leave.
Geneviève had some time herself later that day, so here she also was at the Lodge.
‘Shall we go for a walk first or eat first?’ Then she answered herself. ‘We’ll eat first.’
Half an hour later, stepping over outcrops, zigzagging between trees, the canopy of leaves now allowing through more of the weak October light, russet leaves wet on the ground, they were deep in thought.
He said, ‘So it all depends on the funding?’
She stopped and faced him. ‘No, of course not, I told you I was ready.’ She placed a hand to his cheek. ‘Mon pauvre, you’ve been so patient – how much longer will you allow me?’
‘One calendar year from today, Genie.’
She’d certainly not expected that, nothing as abrupt as that and it took the wind out of her sails.
Stepping up close, she willed him to put his arms around her and he did. She willed him to show some tenderness and he did. ‘Hugh … yes … one year … yes, that’s fair. Of course it will be so. You know it’s changed in your favour, you know I’m to be with you, this is how it will be. Don’t be cold.’
‘Is this cold?’
‘Stay close, I’m part of you. … aren’t I?’
‘Yes Genie, you are, you’re deep in my soul, very much a part of me.’
She relaxed at that. ‘I take so long on major decisions, I know I do. Be patient please.’
‘Do you think me heartless? I know you think Emma is behind this but I also ask myself if it’s fair to hang onto you as I do -’
‘You can’t have Emma – she has another life ahead of her.’
‘Yes she does, I know that.’
‘She’s thinking of Celeste or Anaïs for you, isn’t she?’
‘I think they’ve dropped Celeste, if that’s her name.’
‘Ah, good. You would not like Celeste, you might like Anaïs, you’ve met her, but she’s not really … well … you, Hugh. I know you and you fit in with unusual women … like me. Anaïs is very straight … I really mean this in a kindly way but she’s perhaps not the way to go. For now, I think your bettert choice is me.’
‘Not for now. Forever.’
New Year had come and gone, it was cold.
It was late afternoon when a car pulled into the Lodge carpark, Geneviève had been there earlier, now back up in town, he’d had a day free from Paris commitments which he was trying to increase to get it up to a decent salary but it was a hard slog and there were some sorts of business he was not allowed to get into for security reasons – Section security reasons.
The car door closed and he heard the voice calling – Emma. She let herself in, which was fair because that was the rule down here – he could have been in the Gardener’s or in the forest.
As it happened, he was in the Gardener’s where a small online concern was starting to bear fruit, he might need to hire a secretary. It paid for Francine’s internet for now so it suited both. He put the laptop on stand-by as Emma came through.
The last place he could be found with her was in that room, which was Geneviève’s or Ksenia’s room – something had to remain sacrosanct – so he suggested the forest – of course she was already in her walking jacket and those stylish boots of hers.
He jacketed up, locked the door and gate and off they went.
Once they got to the furthest point he’d ever been in this forest, she said she was going to take him further – to the place Geneviève had met Philippe and had suggested they be an item.
It meant turning left just before the hill fell away to their right, still heavily wooded, the weeping trees which gave so much shade in summer now stark and foreboding.
It had been a fair old way and now it was getting on a bit in the afternoon when she suddenly said, ‘Here it is.’
He looked about, it was a clearing – interesting sight but not his place and not Emma’s. ‘Let’s go, Emma.’
She was happy to and as they went back along the track, she allowed her hand to brush his, another test of his fidelity, then he became certain of it as she’d suddenly stop to take something from her boot, causing him to bump into her and he was sure she was engineering a fall so he’d collapse onto her, which he had to admit he was not averse to.
She knew he knew that, in fact he knew her whole ploy and it was a challenge she was laying down, then suddenly she turned left onto something which was not a real track but it went behind a large boulder, she led the way round, he came round and she was in the way, he knocked into her, over she went and he fell on top of her, as planned.
‘All right, Emma, you managed that, you know I went along with it. What now?’
‘We lie here together in this little space for a short time until it gets too cold.’ He looked around and it was bordered by boulders, clearly one of her discoveries and it was nice but the earth really was cold.
‘No, let’s stand.’ He got up and extended his hand but she had all the moves, she launched herself onto her feet, stood close, he would have been gauche and undignified pushing her away, it was not in his nature not to hold a woman, any woman and she knew that.
‘Tell me this is not where Michel proposed to you or anything else happened.’
‘This is not where Michel proposed to me and nothing else happened. Vraiment. It’s my place only.’
‘You didn’t need any of these ploys, Emma, you needed none of these tricks.’ He brought her face with both palms into a kiss which instantly deepened to the point her body had started to move, he pulled back, she gazed evenly into his eyes.
‘Yes,’ was all she could say. ‘Yes. I could not let it be innocent, just an innocent, whimsical kiss.’
He hauled her to him again, they stopped, turned and hand in hand went back to the path.
Utter silence on the way back, hand in hand – her phone went – text from Mademoiselle.
She looked, closed the phone and said, ‘Mademoiselle’s on the path, coming this way, we’ll be back at that junction soon. Hugh?’
He looked across and smiled a kind smile.
‘Nothing,’ she said, ‘nothing.’
‘There you are, you two,’ said Genie, ‘where did you go?’
‘To where you and Philippe became a pair,’ said Emma.
‘To give Hugh the full picture.’
‘Well, let’s get back now, it’s going to be dark soon.’
Emma had gone back up to town, the meal was in the oven, Francine and Jean would come back in an hour and a half.
‘Right, what was that really about … that walk?’
‘She wasn’t lying.’ He now described the clearing and how they hadn’t stayed.
‘And did she show you the place among the rocks?’ He nodded. ‘That’s her place, her special place. Don’t go there again, Hugh, not because I’m threatening you but because you don’t know everything about Emma. It took us a long time, Nikki and I, to get her to settle, just about everything depends on her being settled, that’s before we even start to discuss you and me.’
‘I’ll not go there again, with or without her.’
‘Thank you. It’s been a long time with you and me, things have got in the way, mainly work, I’m not finding it easy but I know where we’re going, I’m going to need you and I think you’re going to need me.’
‘May we go to bed and talk there, I’m tired and have to be in Paris by 09.30, I know you do too by 10.00 so you may as well go up with me.’
‘We kissed. Emma and I kissed, deeply, in that place of hers. We kissed and it was not innocent, it shocked me.’
She was dumbfounded. She was more dumbfounded that he’d told her, that could always have remained Emma’s and his little secret. ‘She’s … married.’
‘I know that, you don’t need to explain any of that. She tried some plays, I held her, I suddenly went deeply into a kiss with her.’
‘And you say you’re not seeing her again?’
‘I’m going to do everything to stay away from her but I can’t control what she does.’
‘I see. Thank you for telling me, I’m not going to abuse this and make a scandal, thank you for admitting it. Do you want her?’
‘As a man – who wouldn’t want her? In our situation – you and me – how? I can’t see it.’
‘Thank you. Now, I know you’ll be honest – tell me one more time so I’m clear in my head – did you actually make love, have you ever done that with her, do you intend to?’
‘No to all three.’
She took that onboard. ‘I – I think her strategy was to warn me. There seems more and more of this as time goes on, I can’t take a lot more of it, Hugh.’
‘I can only apologize, I know it’s not enough but that’s all I can do now.’
‘No it’s not enough but there was nothing else you could do – I’m desperately disappointed in her but I can do nothing to her, I can’t even discuss it with her. As for you, you’ve shaken me up.’
There was one main cafe the Section higher-ups went to when they wanted to discuss something away from work – it was on Avenue Jean-Jaures and kept changing its name with new ownership, so they called it by the street name.
Today Nicolette, Francine, Emma and Anaïs were the ones in conference. They didn’t immediately get down to it because Emma had kept it back until today, couldn’t any longer and had now blurted out in graphic detail about the forest – the other three were in shock, Nikki was unsure of him now and concerned that Emma was going backwards, Francine the same. Anaïs was mulling over it all.
‘He forced himself on you?’ asked Anaïs.
‘I engineered it.’
All four had different thoughts going through their minds – Nikki recovered first. ‘You’re defending him, excusing him, Emma. That speaks to me more than what happened.’ She was deep in thought.
In Francine’s opinion, it was getting vital now to wean him off Mademoiselle and the way she saw it, to keep it en famille so to speak, that could only mean Anaïs.
‘You’ve been the loudest about how Mademoiselle treats him, Anaïs, you’ve been through a very nasty divorce and if anyone is going to treat you right, it’s Hugo, plus you’ve said many times you like him.’
Nikki now pointed out that it would send Mademoiselle over the edge if it were too deliberate – they needed to devise a White Knight rescue of Anaïs, as genuinely as possible, one which Hugh could not possibly refuse.
‘I don’t like it,’ said Anaïs. ‘If he does rescue me, a bond will form and then I’d fight Mademoiselle and that would mean I’d be out of the Section and lose all of you too.’
‘You’d have Hugh.’
‘An Englishman in Paris – what could he do? Where would we live?’
‘Anaïs,’ said Francine quietly, ‘he earns enough, the computer business is expanding, he has the flat, it’s a nice flat, he would look after you, we’d remain your friends, the Lodge would always be open to both of you. The only question is if you want him – if not, then there’s an end to it and we do something else.’
‘I do want him, I do, at least I’m interested, he’s perhaps my best chance at this moment but my English is not good and you all live much … well … much harder than I do. And I don’t like that you need to arrange for me to get a man. What sort of rescue were you thinking of?’
‘Francine has a plan,’ said Nicolette. ‘We’re not arranging a marriage for you, we’re just creating an introduction – what happens then is entirely up to you two.’
Seen in that light, Anaïs was happier and now had to take her leave … and of course, when one leaves, the others speak of her.
‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ asked Francine.
Said Emma, ‘That Mademoiselle will not take the threat of Anaïs seriously, just as we don’t?’
Nicolette was strangely silent. She was thinking.
The call from Emma came to Hugh some days later on his landline, about 20:00. They needed his help, they only had two available men this evening, the other, named Gerard, was already out on a job, Anaïs‘s ex-boyfriend was looking for her, she was one of their rescuees, he’d been violent towards her during their marriage and now she was at Francine’s Lodge and needed to be taken away from there quickly, preferably to Paris, from where they could collect her. ‘She needs rescuing, Hugh.’
‘On my way. Car?’
‘Mine’s in your garage, remember.’
Emma clicked the mobile shut, looked across at at Nicolette, grinned and said, ‘Let events unfold.’
She phoned Francine and Anaïs at the Lodge but Francine now reported that there really was a man belting on the door, honestly – Emma could hear the noise in the background and the angry voice.
‘He’s gone between the two houses now. Jean’s in Neuilly, how long will Hugh be?’
‘You know how long it takes, can you survive that long?’
‘We have to. We’re packed.’
He got there in reasonable time and, turning into her road, saw that someone had pulled up in the carport, and whoever it was was bashing on the front door.
He stopped twenty metres past the driveway and looked to see what was in Emma’s boot. It was pretty sparse but there was a short length of strong rope – the man was pretty angry, calling out Anaïs’s name in a none too loving way.
He coiled and knotted the rope in two places, making a more manageable one metre length, strode up the path, the man saw him too late, the rope caught him across the face, strategic withdrawal seemed best, he piled into his car, reversed like a maniac and took off.
The two women now cautiously peered through the drapes, then opened the door, bags already packed and they were soon en route, Francine in the back, lying across the seat, Anaïs in the front, hands folded, headed for his place.
There should not have been any issue at that end, given the good security in their place – attack was best so he electronically opened the outer gates, then the garage door, then went in at pace, slamming on the brakes.
He phoned his most friendly neighbour and asked if anyone was on the landing.
‘Non,’ the lady reported a minute later.
They were inside.
‘Francine, coffee please, there’s plenty to eat, could you make snacks for three, I’m getting the bed linen and then the drinks.
He went and got out double bedding for the bedroom, leaving it on their bed, came back, asked what they wanted to drink and poured them, one also for himself.
The ladies had unjacketed and found slippers which he kept there for guests, all the makings were ready for the late supper, they brought it to the living room and there they were, seated around the coffee table.
‘Phew,’ he said, smiling, and then in his not altogether ungrammatical French, ‘what a night. So,’ he asked Anaïs, ‘who was that man?’
‘Not mine, I’ve never seen him, I’m sure he was sent.’
‘Whatever did you do to your ex?’
Anaïs dissolved into tears, Francine looked daggers at him, he jumped up, went over, knelt down and put his arms around Anaïs. ‘I’m so sorry, can you forgive me?’
She kissed his cheek and again he was deeply suspicious but not averse, which was noted.
Francine decided to come clean. ‘Hugh, confession time – we set this up to get you to be with Anaïs, you probably suspected, but that attack was not part of it, I swear. Anaïs really was abused, physically, and she’s being stalked by her ex, this is true.
A man will always ask that question about how she provoked it but the answer is that she’s not very good with the wrong man – she comes over as soft but she can be as sharp as we are and a man, thinking he has a doormat, gets a shock. But she’s not physically strong and he can hurt her easily.
She gets annoyed, you see, if something is wrong and she speaks out as we would, defiantly. But she can’t fight and she doesn’t want anyone to know that. She’s a bundle of contradictions but I’ve told her it would be fine if the right man would take care of her.’
‘And the bit about only two men available this evening?’
‘Absolutely true – that can easily be checked tomorrow. Hugh, it had to be a genuine situation to get it past you – that’s why we had to wait, we thought a damsel in distress would bring the White Knight to us but we weren’t expecting it to be for real.’
‘Hello, White Knight,’ said Anaïs in English, giving a little wave and Francine noted that that one got right under his guard. This was auguring well.
‘Ladies – towels are with the new bedding in the other room, my recliner’s here, there’s enough sliced English bread for breakfast, yes I know, I know, best not to go down to the shop at this hour, will you be wanting to go to bed soon?’
‘Do you want us to?’
‘Er no, of course not, just do as you wish.’
‘What I wish,’ Francine smiled, ‘is to make my bed over here and get into it as soon as possible.’
‘Francine, that’s my bed. You two have fresh bedding in the other room. I only have my musty old bedding on the recliner.’
‘Your musty old bedding is exactly what I wish to be in tonight.’ She felt more was needed. ‘Hugh, please, hear me out. We did not go through all that earlier just for me to be with Anaïs in bed – she and I can do that anywhere, anytime. This is obviously for you and Anaïs to talk about possibilities and I’m out here as your chaperone for when the questions are asked tomorrow. Or are you thinking about Mademoiselle who at this moment is having sex with Philippe!’
She now spoke softly. ‘Hugh, darling, will you please take this lady now to the bathroom and let her do what she must do?’
‘Towels are in the bathroom, the lilac ones, what else do you need, Anaïs?’
‘May we take something to drink … and some water too perhaps?’
He grinned – water was clearly not to drink … fine. ‘Francine, you can call those two now and say your plan succeeded.’
‘Oh I will, Hugh, I will,’ she smiled and placed a kiss on his cheek. ‘From my bed here. Nighty night, mes enfants.’
Anaïs came out of the bathroom in her silk robe and he went in to do his things, throwing on his robe.
When he entered the bedroom, she was in bed, only the sidelamp on and her robe on the chair.
She was the softest-skinned person he’d ever seen, she was a type he didn’t know all that much about, not really in condition but not overweight either. She seemed so … well … so real, so human.
‘Hugo, I’m not comfortable if you wear that in bed. We can still talk but that gown is for outside the bed.’ All that had been said in English, so where was this ‘no English’ business?
‘We’re meant to just be talking, not naked together.’
There was silence, she waited, he disrobed and went to climb in, she reminded him: ‘The drinks?’
She now sat up, quite uncovered, he poured the cognacs and handed one to her. ‘Here’s to your rescue, Anaïs.’
‘Yes, to my rescue.’ the glasses clinked, she took two sips and set the glass on her sidetable. He did similar on his side and asked permission to get in.
‘Yes Hugo, the air is cold. Please get under.’
Once he was under, they both came to the centre of the bed at the same time and fitted into each other’s arms like a jigsaw. ‘Do I please you?’ she asked.
‘That’s a strange question. Anaïs, I can’t just have sex like this from nothing, no background to it, no build up, it’s not me, there has to be some basis for it, some reason, I have to start to feel softly for someone long before having sex.’
‘I’ve heard you like a lot of sex.’
‘I like a lot of love, love is my hope, sex is just the end expression and it has to be with my woman or at least the one who will be.’
‘Then we’ll just hold each other for some time, yes?’
He sighed, the only thing he could think of was to begin the kiss – goodness she was pliable, yielding, everything a man could want, he was horrified how hard he was down there, she approved of that.
Suddenly she pulled away, some of his distant early warning over her tummy. ‘I would have,’ she said, ‘but then I began to feel seriously about you and now I want to wait. Would you wait? Hugo, tu peux me courtiser, tu veux?’
‘Courtship, eh? After this?’ She nodded, he grinned. ‘All right, but how do we sleep now?’
‘You will be a gentleman and sleep on one side, I shall sleep on the other.’
It was past midnight when Francine began wondering what was going on in there, there was silence apart from his light snoring – Francine got up and tiptoed to their bedroom. by the light of the night sky, she saw two eyes beyond the covers, looking back at her, Anaïs beckoned her over, then put a finger to her lips. She whispered the explanation, Francine not sure whether this advanced the situation or set it back.
Francine went back to her recliner.
The next morning there was much movement. Anaïs in particular had bathed and done whatever was necessary, breakfast had been prepared by Francine, there were various phone calls.
Emma arrived to collect Anaïs who said not a word but went to him and dropped into a deep kiss. ‘You have my number, I have yours, do you want me back here later?’
Then they were gone. Francine looked at him subsiding into a chair and took the other chair. She was grinning. ‘I hadn’t expected it to go quite that way, what was that all about?’
He told her largely what she already knew from Anaïs.
‘Do you think she’s serious?’ he asked.
‘Oh she’s serious all right, she’s thought this one through … but have you, are you serious?’
‘It’s so sudden, Francine. You three planned it, I half knew it was on the cards but it was still like an ambush when it came. To answer the question – yes, courtship seems a reasonable way to start … but there’s something unknowable about her.’
‘Oh yes, there is, even to us.’
‘So it’s just you and me here, Franka – what now?’
‘We change the bedding and make love.’
She grinned. ‘You’d not be averse?’
‘Of course not, in principle.’
‘Principle, yes, good old principle.’
‘I don’t know what to say.’
‘Then don’t say anything – we’ll prepare the brunch together, then I have to go.’
Anaïs returned and they went out to see the city for the umpteenth time, ate in a cafe, walked the embankment, the things people do when they’re ‘courting’.
He’d just got back from work – a late pair at university – set down the briefcase, threw off the gear and put the coffee on.
There was a call, Francine. She was downstairs.
He went through the rigmarole to let her upstairs, in she swept with two bags, she saw the mess on the floor and added to it with her own, grinning, she could smell the coffee … literally.
He could smell it … figuratively … and his questioning glance had her saying, ‘Wait, over coffee.’
‘What went wrong?’ was her opener. ‘We never asked her.’
‘She put me on the spot, asked if I was prepared, in one minute flat, to give up Genie. To be fair, she didn’t ask me to call Genie immediately, it was just in principle. The horrifying thing was that I was prepared to … at least I was prepared to, period, but I was not really prepared for it to be Anaïs.’
‘Understood. Far too bossy for you, Hugh, far too bossy, wanted it all her own way, although she saw it as being both your ways. Also, doesn’t enjoy the cut and thrust … as you and I do.’
‘Ah … Franka … one of us had to spell it out.’
‘Let’s get down to it – you think I’m too tall for you, although I’m fractionally shorter but the way I carry myself – well yes, also you’re too fast for me in some ways but Jean and I are too fast and loud in others. We don’t need to be clones.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘I’m taking that to mean that I’m even discussing this, not about clones and things.’
‘We really are on the same wavelength, aren’t we?’
‘We always have been but I’d never have made a play with Ksenia there, nor with Mademoiselle in the early days.’
‘I know, I know.’
‘Hugh bebe,’ she sipped the last of her coffee and refused another, I’m afraid we’re using you again today, to provoke Mademoiselle this time. She’s been altogether too happy to allow this Anaïs charade to go on and on. We hoped it would work, it was obvious in so many ways that it wouldn’t, she doesn’t even care – she has Philippe to go back to because you refuse to take a stand,’ she raised a restraining hand. ‘Hear me out. Yes I know why you don’t, out of great loyalty and thanks for everything, plus you love her in your own way, but it is not healthy for her, not for you, and it certainly is not for the Section, not that we have a say – you have let us have our say in your life, so that says something about you.’
He did not reply, so she went on. ‘Mademoiselle always drags things as far as she can her way, she calculates. She calculates that she can afford to lose maybe one of us, maybe Melanie – you haven’t got to know that one yet, too young for you – but she can’t lose me because of the Lodge, nor Emma because she’s an ongoing work of Nikki’s and hers, she would be devastated to lose Nikki … and so she must lose us today.’
He gasped, she went on. ‘Not for real, at least we don’t think so but five of us are leaving the Section today, plus you are the other one. We’re upping the stakes and putting you on the spot – if you side with her, you lose us and your time in the Section draws to a close because you are opposing us all, plus you are opposing one half of Mademoiselle because the Section is her baby. And what does she gain? A puppy dog in Paris, a poodle.’
‘Point made, Franka, you needn’t go any further.’
‘Good. I’m sorry, Hugh, it’s not you, it’s our frustration. Personally, I want to do the Lodge in reverse so that she comes upon you and me in bed. Which brings us to Anaïs – tell me you think she’s the right one for you.’
‘I can’t but then there’s her.’
‘We know her view – she’ll do it with you, tie that knot if she has to because she sees no other way, Nikki introduced her to one of Marc’s friends and she likes him. I’m sorry but desperate situations … and who knows, maybe it won’t happen and you two will stay together.’
‘I’ve already told her, she’s told me, we’ve had our talk already.’
‘Ah, that makes it easier. Tell me I’m completely out of order on this.’
‘I think you’re in order, I can still go back to Genie later, maybe months later, not Anaïs of course – it’s definitely time for a reassessment, you girls know Genie better in one way, I do in another.’
‘That’s fair. All right, we do not believe Mademoiselle will let you go if she really has shut Philippe out, she will demand us or her. But if she really is under the control of Philippe or whoever controls Philippe, those who also control her mind, she may well act against any or all of us.
We must put an end to her own slavery as well, you see, it’s important what we’re doing,important for everyone involved. We’re using you, Hugh, definitely, but in the end, even she will see where this is going. Now, have you and Anaïs truly parted?’
‘You want to hear about her, now it’s over?’
‘She must have a man who is body and soul for her. The major thing with Anaïs is that she herself has nothing – no car, no house, no career – she has just her. She has done this job or that like most girls – in a pharmacy, in a cafe, you know the sort of thing. She is just her and I thought you could love such a girl if she really did love you.’
‘I think she’s not very good at things. You’re attracted to people who are – Mademoiselle, Emma, me, plus I think you could hurt her easily and how long will you be able to take that for? How long could she? She’s a real woman, Hugh, the rest of us are just damaged goods.’
‘Oh great and I loved her.’
‘Yes but you also love us – we haven’t much time now, she’s due to arrive and you know she can let herself in. To the bedroom, boy and let’s get in.’
He stared at her disappearing in that direction, then followed, clothes were removed and folded onto chairs, in they got.
‘Franka, this is bizarre. What am I doing in bed with you?’
‘Because I told you to, I put a sense of mission in your head, you’re a bit like me that way, plus you love me, plus there is always this curiosity – I knew about you but not up close so to speak. Now, men are always complex about that so I can tell you you’ll do.’ She grinned. ‘All right, you’re fine. Now, come over here and start this thing off.’
They had not gone all the way because, as she explained, after the shock of finding them in bed, Francine had to have the high moral ground, that is – no smell of that kind, no guilt from having done it. Not today anyway. Mademoiselle had to see that this was entirely a ploy.
‘Although it’s not, Hugh, is it?’
‘Franka, I don’t think you fully understand just how deep in the soul you go for me, I don’t think you understand how pleasurable you are, how I admire you. I don’t think this is right with us now, despite our mission … and yet I can’t get out of bed and break away.’
She placed her palm on his cheek and murmured, ‘Here we are arranging things for other people and the one thing we have not spoken of, Hugh, is just how well you and I get along together, you and me – just listen to how we converse, just look at the easy way we do everything.
‘Yes, loud and clear, it’s actually frightening.’
‘Because of Jean? Yes, I thought so. I have warned him about Charlotte, many times, he thinks I am not serious. I want you to know that this is in no way to spite him, as he will never know. But I have moved on.’ she reflected. ‘Yes, sadly, that is so.’
Her mobile went, a text, she nodded and put the phone down. ‘That was Nikki, Mademoiselle’s on the way now. Do you have a spare gown?’
Geneviève came ‘home’ twelve minutes later, let herself in and called out to him.
‘We’re in here, Mademoiselle,’ called out Francine. They heard the rush of feet and then there she was, Geneviève, at the doorway, horror struck, yet knowing at the same time, mainly from the uncrumpled bed and no smell, that it was an outrageous ploy of Francine’s, probably all of them were party to it, Hugh was their poodle … and yet the two of them were still naked in bed together.
She decided to let horror win, staggering back to the living room and sitting down heavily, they followed in robes.
‘I’m leaving you, Hugh. I helped you get this flat, so you need to think about where you’re going to live now. I’ll give you a month, I think that’s fair.’
Francine whipped her mobile out of her robe pocket, stared hard at Geneviève and promptly phoned Nikki, announcing, ‘Mademoiselle found me in bed with Hugh, she has now left Hugh, he has been given one month’s notice to leave his flat, I am about to leave the Section,’ Geneviève was goggle-eyed. ‘What’s that, Nikki? Oh, Emma and Nadine also give their notice, they’re with you now, understood. Plus Melanie and you too – right, I’ll tell her that. The same one month’s notice she’s given Hugh? Yes, that’s quite fair, we’re all being fair today, aren’t we? What’s that? You will now call Mademoiselle and tell her just what you think about it all? Fine, she’s looking forward to your call.’
She snapped the mobile shut and looked at Geneviève. ‘You heard all that, there it is. We owe you everything, Mademoiselle, for our rescue, for all your help, for all that support and friendship all these years and those are not just words.’ Francine was genuinely crying now. ‘We will always love you. Right, I’m dressing and going now.’
She strode over to her clothes, ready on the recliner, and dressed quickly, Geneviève in total shock, unable to move, Francine now took her already packed bag and made for the door, Geneviève got there first and stood between her and it. Just then, Geneviève’s mobile went, she glanced down and it was Nikki of course, the last person she wanted to be harangued by right now.
There were tears in her eyes as she opened the mobile and just said, ‘Wait.’
She then looked at Francine, knowing Nicolette was listening to all. ‘Franka, I’ve … been … I’ve been … hasty … I’ve been … under pressure … I wasn’t thinking clearly what I was saying. This is for Philippe and me last night, isn’t it?’ Francine did not comment. ‘All right, of course those things are not going to happen to Hugh – I would never tell him to leave his flat, not really. And all the other girls – I beg you to call them now and tell them.’ She now put her mobile to her ear and said, ‘Not now, Nikki, I couldn’t take it from you too. Later.’ She clicked it shut.
Francine opened her mobile and called each in turn, starting with Nikki, her eyes on Geneviève the whole time. That done, she had to get down to business. ‘As you know, Mademoiselle, you and I must both leave now, immediately, as per our procedure, we’ll continue this in the car. Hugh, thank you so much for the hospitality and for rescuing Anaïs, also for cuddling me. Ciao.’
She grabbed her bag and almost bundled Geneviève out, leaving him just staring.
He dropped into the nearest chair and a great sense of emptiness descended. He thought deeply about it all, especially about Francine – well, there was still the Jean factor, it would have to be an Anaïs type process he supposed.
The one thing he was sure of was that, though he could have gone anywhere – back to England, perhaps less so to Russia, to Italy, to anywhere really in his line of work, he didn’t wish to because he knew his partner had to come from among these ladies.
So he would wait and see how this would play out. Meanwhile, there were chores to be done.
It wasn’t until the next day, just before midday, that Francine called, then arrived, still without key, so she had to be allowed through the labyrinth.
She swept in and he asked, ‘Are we doing this in chairs over coffee … or in bed?’
‘In bed – have you eaten?’
‘Me too, let’s go talk.’
Within a minute they were in each other’s arms but she asked him to hold off until he’d heard all, he said he’d never intended to do otherwise.
‘So, it’s you, Franka, I wondered who would appear, I’m disappointed in Genie. Even if I returned or she returned … I’m still disappointed.’
‘I know. She doesn’t believe you can leave and frankly, I need to know that myself. The closer you and I get, the more we look to sealing this deal – I suppose you have courtship in mind as you had with Anaïs – well, the more I have to know the answer to that question.’