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 ready to partake of the morning tea, more like a brunch, Hugh observed.
It struck him that Anaïs was a different item altogether in fact – the others all had at least a certain fixation on 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 caleld 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 that a person should look after herself. She was clean and tidy though, he didn’t mean that – he didn’t know but 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 scrutinizing, only Anaïs felt uncomfortable, the more so as he’d tried to disguise his interest.
‘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 -’
‘That’s it, 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 Nicolette is not,’ he tried.
Francine smiled. ‘Nicolette is working on Mademoiselle right now. But to be honest, 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, she’s not a girl-girl like us. If one day she decides to meet you, Hugh, then let it be her who decides, all right?’
‘Fine with me – you know best, you three. So what is 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 kissing a woman, it’s to make her mine.’ Now Emma looked at him curiously.
‘Shall we all go for a walk now?’ Francine defused the situation.
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 you met in summer – Anaïs – we think she might be worth looking at. If you want, we can arrange that.’
‘She seems quite different to you two, not as sharp, not an organiser like you. I’m not 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 it’s Emma 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.’
‘Aha, 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 kindly but she’s perhaps not the way to go. For now, I think your 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 computer 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, but of course she was already in her walking jacket and those stylish boots of hers.
He jacketed up, locked the door, then the 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 against his, he felt this was 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 too. 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 in pushing her away, it was not in his nature not to hold a woman, any woman, she knew that. That might sound pathetic but when a lady comes hard into your arms, you initially must at least hold her.
‘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 saw a boulder with an inclined surface and now took her across, he lay against the inclined surface himself so that she would have to straddle his legs but could pull away if she wished, she appreciated that move and ordered him to drop his jeans. ‘Quickly, it’s too cold.’
She lifted her jacket so that her thick tights were not thick enough not to feel his rigid heat and pinned him against the rock, rubbing up and down, the kiss knew no bounds, while she could feel the pulsing below.
Then he slightly pushed against her, she got up and let her jacket down, staring at him as he did up his jeans.
‘Yes,’ was all she could say. ‘Yes. I couldn’t let this be innocent, just an innocent, whimsical kiss.’
He got up, stepped over and hauled her into him again, they stopped, hand in hand they went back round the rock and stepped back onto the path.
It was utterly silent on the way back, hand in hand, and then her phone went – text from Mademoiselle.
She looked, closed the phone and said, ‘Mademoiselle’s on the path and 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,’ 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, you and I, 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 was very raw, 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.’
‘It became sexual.’
There was deathly silence. Then: ‘Sex? Intercourse?’
She eventually said, ‘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 terms of our situation, you and me – not at all, it’s a complication no one needs.’
‘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.’
‘I – I think her strategy was to warn me this way. There seems more and more of these sorts of things as time goes on. I can’t take very much more of this, 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 girls present. When they used the word ‘girls’ for themselves, they meant those within their own age range, into their thirties – the seniors of the Section but also the main members of the Anti-Philippe Club.
They didn’t immediately get down to it because Emma had kept it back until today, couldn’t any longer and had just told them in graphic detail about the forest – the other three were in shock, Nikki was unsure of him now and concerned that Emma was not going backwards, Francine ditto. Anaïs was mulling over it all.
‘He forced himself on you?’ asked Anaïs.
‘I brought him to that point and then he suddenly kissed me, I caused the second part. If I’d objected at any time, he would have stopped instantly.’
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 be 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 was too deliberate – they needed to devise a White Knight rescue of Anaïs, one that seemed genuine, one in which Hugh could not possibly refuse but go and rescue the maiden.
‘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 he live? How 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 remain your friends, the Lodge will always be open to you both. The only question is if you want him – if you don’t, then there’s an end of it and we do something else.’
‘I do want him, I do, 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 are you thinking of?’
‘Francine has a plan,’ said Nicolette. ‘ Anaïs, we’re not arranging a marriage for you, we’re creating an introduction – what happens then is entirely up to you two.’
Seen in that light, Anaïs was much 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, that it will then either blossom or die … and so it should be that way?’
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 would not be asking had there been enough men on duty tonight but there weren’t. They only had two available men – Hugh was one, the other was a man named Gerard, down in Barbizon, and he was already on a job.
This girl’s ex-boyfriend was looking for her, she was one of their rescuees, he’d been violent towards her and now she was at Francine’s Lodge and needed to be taken away from there, 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 and 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, Franka. 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. He got closer and whoever it was was bashing on the front door.
He stopped twenty metres past the driveway and looked to see what there was in Emma’s boot. It was pretty sparse but there was a short length of strong rope – this is when he became sure the whole thing was a set-up and yet that man was pretty angry all the same, calling out Anaïs’s name in a none too loving way.
Hugh coiled and knotted the rope in two places so that he now had a one metre length, came up the path, the man saw him too late, the rope caught him on the head and then once more on the rebound, he quickly felt strategic withdrawal was best, piled into his car, reversed like a maniac and took off.
The two women now cautiously peered through the drapes, then opened the door, they already had their bags packed and soon they were en route. Francine was in the back, lying across the seat, Anaïs in the front, hands folded, they were heading for his place.
About seven kilometres further on, he asked Francine if she knew a more complicated way back from there, to throw anyone off the track. Francine did know.
He was expecting trouble in the downstairs carpark although there should not have been, given the good security in their place – attack was best so he electronically opened the outer gates, then the garage door and went in at pace, slamming on the brakes.
He phoned his most friendly neighbour and asked if anyone was on the landing.
‘No,’ 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.’ Anaïs actually liked his attempt, she was weak on the English and Francine was the go-between.
‘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 meet Anaïs, you know that I think, but that attack was not part of it, I swear.
Anaïs really was abused, physically and she’s being stalked by her ex. 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 either 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 no 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 some days. 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 English bread for breakfast, 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. You 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. No, this is 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 making love 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?’
‘What 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 that 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 – those girls had packed those things in earlier of course – and he went in to do his things. He wondered what he’d wear, probably just his robe.
When he entered the bedroom, she was in bed, only the sidelamp on her side was on and her robe was 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 … 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?
He smiled, disrobed and went to climb in, she reminded him: ‘The drinks?’
He poured the cognacs, handed one to her and she sat up, naked to below her hips. He was just naked, holding his drink. ‘Here’s to your rescue, Anaïs.’
‘Yes, to my rescue.’ She waited for him to clink her glass, he did, 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 for me. Obviously you do but you don’t need to think like that – I’m more concerned about making you happy. We combine as a team, we learn from each other, that’s how I do it.’
‘Yes, I agree with this combining.’
‘Anaïs, I can’t just have sex like this from nothing, no background, 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 to have sex.’
‘I’ve heard you like a lot of sex.’
‘I like a lot of love, Anaïs, love is my hope, sex is just the end expression of it and it has to be with my woman. We have to first be on the same wavelength.’
‘There’s a wavelength with us here right now.’ Her voice, her expressions, went straight through him and she was pleased but still knew she had to get them to the point of it even being a possibility, otherwise he was not going to play.
‘Hugo, I saw you at the Conference, I met you in July and the only reason I was there was to meet you. I went away and thought about you, the girls asked me how I felt about you as a partner, so this is not just ce soir, it has been coming for a long time.’
‘What do you really want, Anaïs? I don’t just want casual sex, I’m not comfortable with that.’
‘Have I not just told you that, that I too am looking for something much more?’
The only thing he could think of was to begin the kiss – goodness she was pliable, yielding, surely everything a man could want. And he was horrified to find himself so hard down there and it was now up against her and now she was looking into his eyes.
She suddenly whispered, ‘Please do not put one on, I do not like them.’
Gulp. ‘ Anaïs, I’m not one for just putting it in, having my way and that’s the lovemaking for the night. For a start, you can see my thing, it’s not my main asset but within all the rest of the lovemaking, it does all right, my strength is more in the love part -’
‘I know all that, Hugh, do you think we do not talk?’
She ended the discussion by making an adjustment below and suddenly he was inside, he paused and whispered, ‘Listen, Anaïs, I’m not a steamtrain, I’m still not sure you understand my way, I make moves, we explore.’
‘So explore, Hugh, I am in your hands. I’ll see what you do and join in, maybe I can add some things.’
‘You’re too good to be true.’
He wasn’t even sure about taking his usual liberties – she seemed a bit, well … pure perhaps … she might be appalled. He started a soixante-neuf, very slowly moving to position to telegraph the move, to see how she’d react, ready to drop the idea instantly but she was clearly no newbie in the lovemaking stakes and she knew how to go about it.
It was past midnight when Francine began wondering if those two would ever stop – she now heard her get up and tiptoe out to the living room, over to the drinks cupboard.
Francine switched on her sidelamp and Anaïs swung round, ‘So sorry to wake you, we ran out of cognac.’ Her hair was matted and parts of her skin were glistening, she was calm and contented as she bobbed down, got the cognac and made to go back.
‘Francine, you would like a glass?’
‘Well, if you’re pouring.’
‘Come in next door to toast?’
‘No, I’m not doing that.’
The next morning there was much movement. Anaïs in particular had bathed and done what 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 passionate kiss.
Then she said, ‘You have my number, I have yours, do you want me back here later?’
He was nodding, looking stunned, to their amusement, unable to comprehend what was going on.
The two were then gone. Francine looked at him subsiding into a chair and took the other chair.
She was grinning. ‘I hadn’t expected it to go that way so quickly, I was expecting a couple of hours awkward conversation.’
‘I don’t know what happened, I don’t know where I am with her, she’s not a reticent lover. Do you think she’s serious?’
‘Oh she’s serious all right, she’s thought this one through … but are you?’
‘It’s so sudden, Francine. You three planned it, I knew it was on the cards but it was still like an ambush when it came. To answer your question – yes, I do want her as my woman, I think I do. But I don’t even know her properly, as I do Genie, as I did Ksenia, as I do Emma and as I do you, Franka. There’s something unknowable about her.’
‘Yes there is.’
‘So it’s just you and me now, Franka – do you mind me calling you Franka?’ She smiled. ‘What are your plans for today?’
‘Are you genuinely asking that? Is it a real question? Would you be shocked by my answer?’
‘Yes I am asking and I won’t know until I hear the reply.’
She grinned. ‘I’m first going to make us that thing you call ‘brunch’, we are going to take it to the bedroom and climb into bed. There, we are going to talk and get up for le déjeuner around 13:00. Mademoiselle will come back sometime around then and I must go with her. Anaïs will come back here about 14:00.’
‘The only concern I have is that we made a mess of the bed last night.’
‘We are capable of putting on new bedding, Hugh. Your washing machine works, you can do that when you have time. But your concern does not seem to include getting into bed with me when you are to be with Anaïs? Your concern is not for Mademoiselle? And what would Jean think of me being in bed with you? Do these things not worry you?’
‘Ah, of course, you were tricking me, testing me. And I failed.’
‘Yes, you certainly failed, very badly in fact, but no, I was not tricking or testing you – I outlined to you my plan, that is my plan, there it is, take it or leave it.’
‘I don’t know what to say.’
‘Then don’t say anything – go and get the new bedding and call out when you’re ready, I’ll help you put it on and then we’ll prepare the brunch together.’
‘Francine, this is bizarre, crazy, why am I in bed with you and by the way, why are we both naked?’
‘Because you did not disobey me when I told you to do this. Do I please you?’ she laughed, reprising Anaïs.
‘What a question – Femme-Fatale Franka, as we’d say in English.’
‘Not every man says it and means it, Hugh. You do and it has just got under my guard.’
‘Are you setting me up, showing everyone how faithless I am, that I’d sleep with any woman?’
‘All right, I see it’s time. We hear tales, we would like to sample some of that attention but maybe not all the way, you are susceptible, we are against it but also it’s not unpleasant. There is that, Hugh but there is also an agenda and I’m afraid I’m using you to provoke Mademoiselle, to do the Lodge in reverse so that the things we have planned will let you and Anaïs come together. Anaïs knows I am doing this, she does not like it but you two are not an item yet – so I’m pushing her too to move to secure you before you end up having all of us. Hugh, I’d love to have sex right now but I can’t – later I must face Mademoiselle and say I had no sex with you.
Now I am going to tell you a secret – five girls have decided we will resign from the Section en masse if she moves against you, against Anaïs or against both of you. We do not believe she would do that unless she really is under the control of Philippe. If Philippe controls her mind, she may well act against any or all of us. We must put an end to her own slavery, you see, it’s important what we’re doing. We’re using you, Hugh but in the end, even she will see the cause it serves and see that you are working closely with her Section, which she created.
Now, do you wish to hear our character profile of Anaïs?
‘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.’
‘Tell me more.’
‘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 already I love her.’
‘Then why are you naked in bed with me, why are you holding me close like this with me talking into your shoulder and why has your liquid started to go over my bikini line? And don’t even think about pulling away.’
‘I don’t know, I’m confused, it’s just so natural to me.’
‘I can tell you why. Because I told you to do this and there are three things going on in your brain – you want this with me for what it is, plus you obey a woman you are soft for and you are very soft for me, plus you feel you owe me so much and cannot refuse my request. So you let me take any outrageous liberty I want.’
‘Francine, I don’t think you three fully understand just how deep in the soul you go for me, I don’t think you understand how exciting you are, how pleasurable, how I admire you. I don’t think this is right with us now and yet I can’t get out of bed and break away.’
She placed her palm on his cheek and said, ‘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 lie here together.
‘Yes, that’s coming through loud and clear, it’s actually frightening.’
Her mobile went, a text, she nodded and put the phone down. ‘That was Nikki, we have forty minutes. Hugh, we really should get up and have a shower now, maybe even a bath, clean up, do you have any more bedding?’
‘Two lots – one for us but no liquid this time, all right? I see your plan.’
‘And the other for … later. Yes, I understand.’
He ran the bath, she removed the bedding and put it in the laundry basket, then prepared some snacks and poured two coffees.
The bath ready, they first made the bed up again, then climbed in the bath and it was a nice experience of mutual washing. Bizarre.
‘Do you have a spare gown?’ she asked.
‘Two.’ He went for them.
‘We’ll need those for when she arrives. All right, let’s get our snacks and get into bed.’
Geneviève came ‘home’ twelve minutes later, letting herself in with her key and calling 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 that it was an outrageous ploy of Francine’s, probably of all of them, that Hugh was their poodle, that it was hardly likely to be serious but the two of them were still naked, though there were no signs, no smells of anything having happened – the bed linen was fresh.
Yet horror won. She staggered back to the living room and sat down heavily. The two of them put on robes and came out, each taking a seat but she was going to have to do the talking.
‘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, staring hard at Geneviève, promptly phoned Nikki and announced, ‘Mademoiselle has 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, Anaïs and Nadine also give their notice now. Plus Melanie and you – right, I’ll tell her that. The same one month’s notice she has given Hugh? Yes, that’s fair. What’s that? You will now call Mademoiselle and tell her just what you think about all this? Fine.’
She snapped the mobile shut and looked at Geneviève. ‘Nikki is about to telephone you, there it is. We owe you everything, Mademoiselle, our rescue, all your help, all that support and friendship all these years and those are not just words.’ Francine was crying now. ‘We will always love you. I am dressing and going now.’
She strode over to her clothes, ready on the recliner, and dressed quickly, took her already packed bag and made for the door. Geneviève raced to the door and stood between Francine and it. Just then, her mobile went, Geneviève glanced down and it was Nikki, the last person she wanted to be harangued by right now.
There were tears in her own 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, we 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. Ciao.’
She grabbed her bag, then stopped and thought, went over to him and almost asphyxiated him, regrabbed her bag and almost bundled Geneviève out, leaving him just staring.
He literally dropped to the floor and a great sense of emptiness descended. He thought deeply about Francine – well, she had her Jean, she was just a bit OTT for him, Hugh, it would not be an easy life …
What the hell was he thinking? He went to prepare for Anaïs.
She arrived almost exactly on time and rang the bell, he opened the door and before she’d even come properly through, he was holding and kissing her, which answered her first question.
She was delighted as she came through with her bags, the comestibles, the milk and all the other bits and pieces. ‘Just let me take care of these and we’ll talk.’
When they sat down with a cognac and coffee, there was calm, they were conversing as adults and not as some teenage lovers in their first wild embrace and of course she knew about Francine and him in the morning.
She sighed. ‘I knew what happened anyway because Francine is on this new honesty policy, she got it from you – she told us every little detail, she also said there was no sex. Tell me to my face now – was there sex?’
‘No, there was not but the bed still had to be changed and I had a bath.’
‘You have much washing to do in the next few days,’ she smiled grimly. ‘I don’t like it, Hugh and I have to know you will not have any woman in your arms if you and I decide to become one. That should go without saying, I should not need to mention it. Now I have things to say and things to ask. Are you ready for these? Do you need to eat? No? Then let’s start.’