Nikki eschewed the right to her own bedroom and in light jacket and walking shoes, she and Thierry disappeared across the field in the direction of the small wood where they’d spent so much time over the years.
At the gully, he turned to her. ‘How many days and nights have we been together, Nikki?’
‘And yet I’ve never accepted it permanently, Thierry.’
‘The children adore you, I adore you, it’s the longest running relationship here today and the latest too.’
‘Thierry, do you think I’m not aware of that?’ She came straight into his arms, resting her hands on his shoulders. ‘Especially in your arms last night? But Hugh and I have a sort of agreement.’
‘You just saw his eyes, didn’t you?’ He felt her body tense up and knew he’d struck a chord. I would look only at you. I’m not attacking him, I like the man but one person who doesn’t plan ahead is enough in a relationship.’
‘That’s fair comment, Thierry and you know I even told him how good you were,’ oh he liked that one very much, ‘but now I’m going to tell you why Geneviève is your girl and why you’d better see her in the third round. She has troubles and she needs a temperament like yours more than anyone else on the planet. We’re not in these things just for ourselves and you know that, Francesca has taken to her and Olivier thinks she’s simply the best. You need a calmer person than me, less flighty – people call me that as you well know – you need a woman who’ll become an extremely loyal companion, I’m trouble with a capital T and you know it but Hugh is willing to accept that.’
‘Because he can’t find anyone else?’
She stepped back and dropped her head. ‘Thank you.’
‘I’m sorry, Nikki. I’m … sorry. It’s not so. I’m really sorry.’
‘Thierry – you need look no further than Francesca to see that she’s intrigued by Hugh and now the two of them are in negotiation in one of the rooms.’
‘But that’s an impossibility – she’s just seventeen. Over my dead body.’
‘Almost eighteen, Thierry and grown up, those were a woman’s eyes I saw trained on Jacques but I also saw them look straight into Hugh’s eyes and she liked what she saw.’
‘But he would never –’
‘Of course he wouldn’t, as he’s committed to me and I’m sure she wouldn’t either but don’t just dismiss these things out of hand so quickly. There’s definitely something there between those two. Look,’ she looked up into his eyes, ‘I was just shaking you up – Chessa has eyes for Jacques – and for you. Anyway, Thierry, don’t bring Hugh into it – just tell me why I should now make love to you in the next few minutes and then accept you as my man forever.’
He now relaxed even further and it was clear that he relished the idea of the two of them, even though she knew he had a ring waiting for Mademoiselle. ‘Because of the sheer weight of our experience together. We implicitly know, trust and understand one another, the thing is so right with us, Nikki, you know it’s so, I’m surprised I even have to put it into words. I don’t have the gift of rhetoric but do you not remember our nights, our jokes, our shared experiences?’
‘Thierry, Thierry, you’re just the best there is, here is my opinion of you.’ She then launched into a torrent of kissing which took him aback, her hands all over him and he responded in kind. ‘That’s what I think of you, Thierry Villeneuve.’
‘Look, I’m unsettled, Thierry, so is Hugh and I’ve always been one for chances – you know that. Don’t think for a second that this is an easy thing for me, it’s by no means a done deal with Hugh, I’m telling you that now, especially after what I just saw, even if he has a ring – he can give it to the next woman he sleeps with!’ He was delighted. ‘Yet that’s how I think it will be, how it must be and Mademoiselle is the better match for you. It’s not just a better match, Thierry, our Section depends entirely on how you handle her. I’ll still be visiting, I’ll still kiss you and the children, we’ll still laugh and talk but your lover will be Mademoiselle.’
She ran her hand over his cheek, then through his hair, looking into his eyes. ‘Please make her happy, Thierry. Please? Because that’s how you’ll make me happy.’
Deflated, he nodded and they had one last, long kiss. It was time to return to the farmhouse.
‘I’m a crazy woman, Jean-Claude,’ Geneviève opened, sitting in the first outhouse on the only chair in the room, but he was too old a campaigner to be put off by her opening gambit.
‘I have a lifetime to help you, do you remember saying you’d marry me tomorrow?’
‘A woman needs to be careful what she says, doesn’t she? It comes back to haunt her.’
‘If you hadn’t said it, I’d never have entertained hopes.’
‘What if I was deciding between two other men and neither accepted me? Would you accept me, having accepted you as my third choice?’
‘It matters little how we get there, as long as we get there.’
‘Would your pride allow that? You have august antecedents, Jean-Claude, I’m not sure I need such devotion from a man.’
‘What do you need then?’
‘Stability, excitement, strength – and I need it now.’
He made his move, took her hand and his was, as she’d hoped, a firm hand, warm but not hot, the fingers long, cultured and manly. She noted the gold ring. His touch was expectant, hopeful but not anxious – a very, very patient touch – the touch of a man who knows that when the play is all played out, he’ll still be waiting there, at the foot of the stage, to walk off into the sunset with the heroine.
Jean-Claude had certainty, charm, he was alluring in his own way and yet there was just some other factor in there which militated against it – was it his face, his manner, the fact that he was a policeman – somehow he wasn’t for her. She couldn’t identify this factor and resented whatever it was.
She allowed the kiss and there was no awkwardness – only devotion from him.
Francesca led Hugh by the hand, to everyone’s surprise, out of the door and presumably to the first guestroom. She was a good kid and he was bemused to see what she’d have in mind, she was also easy on the eyes. He waited.
‘Well?’ she said. ‘Aren’t you going to kiss me? I heard that’s what you do with women.’
‘From your father?’
‘Well … yes.’
‘I only kiss those who are close to me, Chessa.’
‘I’ve looked at you, you’ve certainly looked at me.’
‘ What, sexually? Really?’
‘Well … not exactly sexually … but you like me, I know. And I like you. Do you want to make love to me?’
‘Without a doubt, if you were 20 years older.’
‘15. All right … 10.’ She grinned and he smiled too. ‘You know you’ll end up with Jacques, don’t you?’
‘I might just surprise you … Hugh,’ she said in that light voice, ever the young coquette. ‘Do you think I should be in this game?’
‘I think your father is the one to listen to on that. He cares for you more than anyone.’
‘Naturally but you haven’t answered my question. Should I be in this game?’
‘From my point of view, I can’t see the problem. You’re grown-up.’
That one scored him multiple points, she came close and put her hands on his shoulders. ‘Please put your arms around me.’ He did. ‘Now kiss me … and kiss me properly.’
He did, then pulled back. ‘You’re delicious, no question about that but you do know this is ridiculous for us. I’m in this for a life partner, all right?’
‘I know you are, so am I. Thanks, Hugh, for believing in me. Is that Emma coming now?’
Emma tapped on the door, opened it, came in and observed Francesca in his arms – it was important Chessa stayed in his arms, she knew that too, various things had to be said in that touch. ‘Bye for now, Chessa.’
She kissed him again, just to make sure Emma got the message, said, ‘Bye, Hugh,’ and departed, also kissing Emma on the way out.
‘Out with one lover and in with the next eh, Hugh?’
‘Well, are you going to explain?’
‘Explain what – Chessa? She’s a nice kid, she deserves to be in the game if she wants.’
‘But not for you to make love to.’
‘Just as I told her, she knows the one I have in mind, I know who she has in mind. You saw the way it was so you’re being naughty, Emma, trying that on. Let’s sit on the bed.’
‘Already? Just what did you two get up to?’ They sat on the bed, she dropped her eyes and said, ‘There’s something between us, isn’t there?’
He sighed. ‘Yes and it’s wrong. I’ve done some bad things in my time but what I did with you the other day would have to be the worst. We’re not too popular at the moment, Emma.’
They stood up to go but at the door she stopped and turned, uncannily like in the forest clearing and in a flash his lips touched hers and it was on, he stroking her back, she with hands all over.
They suddenly stopped and got their breath back, she reached into her jacket pocket and extracted a package. ‘Francine says you’ll be needing this.’
‘You know what it is?’
‘Yes, I had no right to but I did look.’
‘Emma, I’m so terribly sorry that you had to give me this now, knowing what it was and then the way I kissed you now -’
‘No Hugh – I set this meeting up, not you, just as with the other meetings – the guilt is mine. Shall we go back?’
‘The guilt is both of ours, Emma, we have that together.’ She thought about that and bought it. ‘Yes, Emma, let’s go back.’
Francine saw Emma coming back, more subdued than normal, a little red-eyed, she put two and two together, she’d get it out of Emma during the next session. If what Francine thought had happened had actually happened, she was going to drastically revise her estimate of her erstwhile partner – downwards.
Jacques and Nadine had the longest trek to the far outhouse but once inside, she left him in no doubt he was in the game.
As she stood provocatively close and as he took her in his arms, he knew she was not unlike the girls at the gym – he’d had his chances with the type, he’d dabbled a few times and hadn’t been satisfied. It seemed to him that he needed someone more substantial, someone to start building a life with.
And yet, this young lady here had now dropped to her knees and was proceeding to give him the sort of pleasuring he would have taken as a matter of course in days gone by, now he wasn’t so sure, she was clearly expert at the service too and he wasn’t made of stone, he touched her shoulders, she reached into her pocket and brought out protection, rolling it onto him, she rose, he laid her on the bed, pulling aside her slip and mounting her, they kissed with gusto but now he just lost interest and pulled out, rolling it off and flinging it in the bin.
He asked her about herself and listened to her tales of life, which saw them through to his tales of life, which saw them through to the end.
She was delighted and if she was aware of his own feelings in the matter, she didn’t show it.
The first round had been completed and people congregated in the main room to take a glass of kompote and eat some meringues. After they’d eaten and drunk, Geneviève said she’d take silence to mean they should continue and there was silence.
‘So,’ she concluded, ‘time for the second round.’
Nicolette knew she’d see Hugh in the third and nodded her acquiescence for him to go with Geneviève, who’d already gravitated over that way, to the shock of Nadine who clearly thought there’d been an agreement with him for this session, she went off in the direction of the outhouses, saying she wished to be alone.
Jacques eyed Nicolette who, though flattered, quickly said, ‘I want to speak with my grandmother,’ and she walked over in that direction. He joined Jean-Claude who’d stepped out for this round as well, Francesca had targetted her father and he very much wished to speak with her, Emma was back with Francine and Jean and so the second round began in earnest.
Nicolette spoke with her grandmother, there was no ceremony and they cut to the chase.
‘Oui, oui, I said liked him,’ commented Jeanette-Fleur. ‘He has kind eyes and he’d make a good father, he loves you very much but do look at his age, Nikki.’
Jeanette-Fleur looked at her granddaughter. Marcel, Nikki’s father, had never heeded her advice, he’d married the flighty bit from Lille, the result had been Nikki and so Jeanette-Fleur had been moderating her antagonism towards the girl’s mother ever since.
‘Oui, grandmaman?’ Nicolette was patient.
‘I was just considering, Cherie – you want to know if Hugo would be right for you. Only you can answer that, but for what it’s worth, I’ve noticed that M. Jensen does things that intrigue women and then he’s susceptible to their wiles.’
‘Don’t I know it – that’s how we came to be together.’
‘Hugo’s a good man and just interesting enough to keep you interested but he needs to be pulled into line now, by you – show him, Nicolette, that there’s every chance of losing you. Of course, that can only happen if you want him 100% yourself, nothing lacking. Will you marry him?’
Nikki wiped the remaining glass her grandmother had washed and suggested, lightly, ‘Who says we have to get married?’
‘You must marry – at his age and in your situation. Has he means, substance?’
‘Oh Nikki, you always were this way, I think the two of you are quite suited.’
‘How many of his many marriage proposals did you accept?’
Nicolette didn’t answer but kissed her grandmother, then went and sat down at the bench table. She didn’t want to sit with Emma just now.
Geneviève picked up the unmistakable fragrance of Emma and blanched. ‘Nicolette would be appalled, Michel would kill you. That’s … that’s adultery, Hugh … I’ve had to say this to you over and over.’
He sighed. ‘Am I allowed any defence?’ She nodded. ‘Firstly, Nikki warned me that if I slept with any other woman ever, she’d leave me and never come back. Then came these sessions – she forbade me Nadine but allowed me to make love with you one last time.’
‘Really. Emma was never to have been in the game, nor was Chessa, so they were never discussed. Truth is, I knew Chessa would want to kiss and we did kiss and that was all – I wanted to know how she tasted and I don’t apologize for that, neither does she – end of story. Emma came in halfway through the time, Chessa then left, Emma and I then kissed deeply, I have to keep her away from me.’
‘I’m glad to hear that but you still don’t seem to. You’ve been with us for a long time now but there are still many things you don’t know about us – all our girls are rescuees, even Emma, you already know this. We took her out of abuse and now you’re leading her right back into it – please let it go with her.’
‘I intend to.’
‘There’s nothing innocent about you and me though, Mlle. Lavacquerie, I still want you now.’
For him, if there’d been no Nicolette, this would now have been without restraint. For her part, Geneviève fiercely resented not being able to give her all but life moves on.
They eventually disengaged, she gave a nervous little laugh and they made their way back to the main room, neither pair of eyes dry, the question finally answered for both of them.
Thierry took his daughter’s hand and walked down the pathway towards the main road. Francesca couldn’t help but reflect that if he hadn’t been so infernally her father, she would have had absolutely no doubt whom she’d have chosen. They spoke earnestly and low, in half sentences, often no more than mere gestures and raised eyebrows, at least until the end of the track.
‘I wanted to kiss him.’
Thierry’s eyes almost popped out. ‘Whatever for? He’s an old man.’
‘I wanted. And no he’s not. He’s a very kind man and he’d be my third choice. He likes you.’
‘He told me to listen to your advice.’
‘Did he now?’ he smiled. ‘Well, well, well. Did he kiss you?’
‘No, I kissed him. I know what you’re trying on there.’
‘We’ll leave that for now. So, Nikki or Genie for your step-mother, Chessa?’
‘Which do you want?’
‘I’m going all out for Geneviève in the last round, I know Nikki has other plans.’
Francesca noted, ‘It’s Olivier’s decision too, Papa.’
‘Yes, but he’ll go along with me. It’s you – mon enfant terrible – you’re the one who can make or break it.’ She was so enormously flattered that she fell in love with him all over again.
‘Would you ever consider –’ she began and he waited for her to continue. ‘Would you ever consider –’ She was tongue tied. ‘Well would you ever consider –’
He laughed. ‘Come on, out with it, mon enfant terrible.’
‘Would you … ah … consider … me?’
He stared at her, then took her into his arms, stroking her hair. ‘Do you seriously think that I’d neglect you and Olivier, cherie? Do you think you’ll be any less now than before?’
In a quiet voice from his chest, she set him straight, ‘Non, Thierry Villeneuve, I wasn’t saying that at all, I meant – would you consider me as your partner?’
‘Francesca, you don’t know what you’re saying.’
‘I know exactly what I’m saying. I know you love Nikki and I do too but she stays three times a year. Who cooks for you and does some of the cleaning the rest of the time? Not all the time, I admit. Who’s the woman of the house when you’re alone and when you’re tired? Who knows you better than any other woman?’
‘You, Chessa, you but you really don’t understand what you’re asking.’ He kissed the top of her head. ‘It’s not just for housekeeping or company that a man needs a wife.’
By way of reply, she now looked up into his eyes and placed a kiss on his lips which shocked him, her arms went behind his back and her tongue found his, he was paralysed, dislocated, her mother appeared before his eyes, eyebrows raised in a severe question.
He suddenly pulled out of it, ‘Non, Chessa –’ and she went back to standing close in his arms.
‘When you found Olly and I watching Le Souffle au Cœur, you sent him to bed and read to him until he fell asleep, you left me watching it, then came back and watched the end with me. Why?’ He didn’t answer so she pressed on, from his chest. ‘When I came to your bed after breaking up with Denis, you held me and I pressed … this … against you. You said nothing.’
He was stunned. ‘You remember those things?’
‘What do you think? I know you wanted and couldn’t and I felt secure that night. I knew your feelings were not those. And yet, Papa …’ she now looked up into his eyes, speaking ever so softly, ‘they were those feelings … weren’t they?’
She continued. ‘Don’t you think I know I remind you of Maman? As you touched my jaw, my cheek, you were looking at her … weren’t you?’
She drew breath. ‘I know you think of Maman when you hold me, I know that and I’m happy. I want you to know that if … if you ever made a mistake … if you ever forgot who I was … I would never hate you for it, quite the opposite.’
There was utter silence, except for her breathing and the breeze in the trees. ‘There’s not one boy I know I’d accept now, there’s only you, Jacques and Hugh.’
‘I prefer you.’
‘Francesca, I have needs too – won’t you allow me to have them? I think Genie is the best chance in a long while – don’t you accept her?’ He sighed. ‘This is what I feared.’
‘I want you to know,’ she said, ‘that you and I will go on forever.’
‘Oui, Chessa,’ he was exhausted, ‘you and I will go on forever. But at this moment, I need your blessing to marry Genie – do I have that or do I not?’
‘Since when have I ever refused you anything, anything you really wanted?’
When all had returned to the main room, a different mood prevailed. Almost all were deep in thought, knowing full well that the last round was about to decide many, though not all, of their fates. There was a certain thrill to it, as there would be to a high speed car crash – a thrill they could well have done without.
Francine had decided to give Hugh the benefit of the doubt on Emma’s say-so but still – there was something curious about Emma today.
All through the refreshment break, Nikki had been observing her predator out of the corner of her eye and was intrigued – he kept subconsciously pressing the breast pocket of his shirt and avoided looking at her. She’d have said he was nervous, at which she felt enormously flattered. Francine and Emma had noticed it too and were quietly discussing, with amusement, how Nikki and M. Jensen were going to spend the forty-five minutes … and where. Francine put her money on the guestroom but Emma opted for Nikki’s own room on the upper floor.
Jean had arrived from work during the last session, Jean-Claude, Jacques and he now returned with Yves from the outhouse where he kept his wood turning lathe, little canapes appeared from the oven and the first aperitifs were poured.
It was nearly time for the final round.
Emma addressed them in her most theatrical manner, enjoying every moment. ‘What’s happened so far has been extraordinary and it’s still not over. After this round, I have no doubt there’ll be tears of joy and also of anguish. We must agree now, more than ever, all of us, to stick by the rules. We come back for supper, we go to separate sleeping areas, we regroup tomorrow morning and we depart together – are there any dissident voices?’
No one spoke. Quietly, she looked from one to the other, then, ‘All right then, off you go.’
Nadine had tried to call Stefan, against Geneviève’s express orders but had not been able to get through, she’d try again this round. Jean-Claude had made his play early and was resting, albeit anxiously, in the main room, talking with Emma.
Hugh went over to Thierry and quietly said, ‘Bonne chance, I need you to have success.’ Thierry looked at him and smiled, Hugh walked towards Nikki now, whispered to her, she turned and said to Jacques, ‘Use the guestroom if you need it.’
‘But you’re there, Hugh can’t walk anywhere else.’
‘If I am allowed,’ Hugh turned to Jeanette-Fleur, addressing her in French, ‘the use of your granddaughter’s room for 45 minutes, Madame, and if she were also willing, I’d be more than grateful.’
She nodded her agreement, smiling.
This left Geneviève and Thierry, who felt the woods were the place to be, dusk now being upon them, both would carry battery lanterns which were kept at the back door – the woods were the proper setting for the final act of this play.
Hugh started the shuffle for the back stairs, Nicolette following dutifully behind, which is about all you can do when the person in front of you is only shuffling.
The final round began.
Nadine tried his landline. No success. She tried the club – no, he’d been there last evening but wasn’t there at this time. Damn – the most important few hours and he wasn’t even available.
She tried his mobile again. Success. It rang and rang and rang and then he answered, a strange tone to his voice. ‘Oui, Nadine.’ Then she heard a mobile in the background and a girl’s voice saying, ‘Oui, Hélène.’
She hung up.
Thierry took Geneviève by the hand as they left the farmhouse with the torches. The moment they were outside, everything became less intense, less crowded, clearer in their minds and they strolled towards the woods under the stars. The earlier rain had disappeared and even the moon was out, as if ordered for the occasion.
She felt more at home in Nikki’s galoshes than inside the house in high heels, and Thierry looked every inch the country magnate in Yves’ knee high wellingtons.
‘I never knew this pleasure would ever come to me,’ he smiled.
‘There was always something between us, wasn’t there, Thierry? Did you ever … well … think about me?’
‘Bien sûr, particularly about the time you went to Paris, everyone thought about you then.’
‘Did you, Thierry? I thought of you quite often, and then Philippe –’
‘Oui,’ he rescued her.
They finally stopped in the little clearing fifty metres further on from ‘Nicolette’s gully’, he took her in his arms and she liked the touch very much, his easy manner in loving her, playing on her womanhood – it was the first thing she’d noticed the night before and what was better, she felt her cares slowly slipping away with him, she felt she could always bring them to him, find a ready and sympathetic ear and a loving pair of arms.
One by one, all her questions were finding an answer and in the light of those two lanterns in the French wood, she felt she’d found a home, that’s if he would have her, of course.
It simply felt right.
They placed the lanterns on the earth either side of them, the smell of the grass and trees after the rain filled the air, he passed his arms around her, she feeling sure he’d be quite a dancer as well and he kissed in the way only the French kiss, inviting her to abandon herself and she nearly did so, slipping, slipping into him, her breathing shortening.
Emboldened, he started to explore a little further and she found herself resisting with her hand, then allowing him a little further, then resisting again. So it went until her jeans prevented further access, she wanted the talking to be done first.
‘Marry me, Geneviève, accept our family as your own, grace us with your presence. The children want you very much. We’ll work hard on your troubles and it won’t be easy, you’ll reject me many times and yet I’m a patient, obstinate man and I’ll just keep coming back at you until all is well again, if it takes until next week or until eternity. Do you accept me – will you become my wife?’
She looked hard at him and in her was no reluctance, the only reluctance was that Hugh now had to be placed on the shelf of her private cupboard, the door gently closed and the key turned. Philippe too.
‘Oui, Thierry, I do accept you, with all my love.’
He reached into the pocket of his jacket and took out a dark little box, he opened it and took out the ring, a beautiful stone and placed it on her finger. ‘Emerald,’ he said, as it wasn’t possible to see the colour and it had been cut differently.
She languorously slipped her arms around his neck, drew him towards her and abandoned herself in the kiss but now her body also longed for him – she released all the jeans buttons and wiggled the jeans down, took one foot from the rubber boot, slid the jeans leg off and put the boot back on. She lifted her leg and placed her foot on the tree stump – he moved in and took her.
He marvelled at how such a sharp operator who’d controlled his access to this point should now surrender so completely, be so wide open, so exposed, so vulnerable and now he saw why all those elaborate defences had been set up in the first place.
Time was already running out and they needed to start the trek back to the house, she pushed him out and laughed self-consciously. ‘Phew. My goodness.’
They walked back hand in hand – Jeanette-Fleur saw it from inside the kitchen. ‘Bon, bon.’
At the foot of the steps, Nicolette laid a hand on his shoulder and said quietly but with that new directness, ‘First you have some explaining to do, I think you know what I mean.’
He told her how Geneviève had also taken him to task, he spoke of Francesca and the kiss, of Emma and she was not happy with Emma. She narrowed her eyes and looked at him carefully. ‘And Mademoiselle?’
‘No holding back and no apologies for that, Nikki – there was no intercourse because we both knew Round Three was coming and we were going to need our strength, there was also the little question of hygiene … we both knew we had plans.’
She thawed and placed her hand on his cheek. ‘All right, what would you like me to do? Will you be able to get up these stairs?’
‘I’ve practised,’ he said. ‘I’d like you to go up and prepare yourself and when I get there, we’ll have just under 40 minutes. Do you want it with the French I’ve learnt or without?’
She laughed. ‘With of course, I’ll be waiting, mon amoreux.’ She touched his cheek and skipped upstairs.
When he eventually reached the top, the moonlight was streaming through the window, accentuating the rich, plush look of the room but the main light was from the candle on the side table, flickering in the slight draft. Good, the ambience was perfect.
She herself had done a rapid change of clothing, making it easy for him, standing on the sheepskin rug in only a long, loose, shimmering blouse with bell sleeves, the hem brushing her upper thighs, her hands clasped demurely in front, head down, the light of the moon spotlighting her, the toes of those lovely feet of hers wiggling – she’d arranged that to the centimetre – hell she was ravishing.
She saw he was as hard as a rock under his jeans and a smile played at the corner of her lips.
‘It’s perfect, Nikki – I adore this room, seriously, my heart’s beating like a schoolboy’s, I’m so nervous. Let’s go to the window, bathed by the moonlight.’
He picked up a cushion from the chair and that’s when he saw the CD player. She saw him look at it curiously and explained that she kept it there for when she visited her grandparents.
‘Really?’ he smiled and had a quick look at the CDs, took the second-top one out, looked at the player controls, saw he could programme up to six tracks, he put in the CD and tapped the button three times. The music began almost immediately, he turned the volume down enough to speak over comfortably and looked at her.
She was just staring at him. ‘How on earth did you know about Pendant que les champs brûlent?’
‘French girl I knew in the 80s – I’ll tell you sometime. You like it?’
‘Like it? Hugh, it’s in my collection, near the top of the pile – what are your other two songs?’
‘You’ll find out,’ he chuckled, taking the pouch out and putting it on one of the bedroom sidetables, his idea was to end up in that bed.
‘Wait, wait,’ she said, ‘we need flammes.’ She grabbed the remote, then lit a candle, he followed her with the cushion, almost a torchlight procession, she positioned the candle at the far end of the sill but far enough away from the heavy curtain, then she swung round and delivered the shock.
‘We should not be near this window for security reasons, I just remembered, also I don’t want to make love, we do that all the time, I want to lie in bed with you and just relax, I’m weary of all the stress, much which you’ve caused me, I want to just be held by you in my childhood bed. Plus it’s a bit cold in this room.’ She scrutinized him carefully.
‘As you wish it, Nikki. Just tell me how it’s to be, we haven’t all that much time.’
She grabbed the candle and remote and headed for the bed, he hobbled over behind her, she positioned them, turned and undressed him swiftly, this was now down to a fine art. She pulled the bedding back and nodded for him to get in.
From the CD player, Muriel Moreno sang: ‘Ce soir-là on s’est embrassés sans se parler.
Autour de nous, le monde aurait pu s’écrouler.’ [This night we kissed without speaking. Around us, the world might collapse].
‘All right, she said, now in position, ‘Speak your French nothings in my ear.’
‘Je t’aime, Nicolette, je t’adore, vraiment je t’adore, un jour sans toi est comme un jour sans soleil …’ and the moonlight flooded them.
‘… vous êtes vraiment le femme le plus beau sur terre, je jure que ce n’est pas un mensonge …’
‘… et dans tes bras……c’est mon destin ……j’ai envie de toi, des……perement et je veux passer……passer ……ma vie avec toi ……non, avec Vous …’
Her body had started to move and he’d learnt Lesson 1 about surrender and victory.
‘… la douceur de ta peau ….. est comme une ….. caresse du vent …’
‘… le paradis n’est rien comparé à un des tes baisers.’
Her body was most distinctly in rhythm now.
‘Now comes the difficult bit,’ he switched to English. ‘Would you turn the music down, love.’ She thrust one hand out of the bedding and reduced the volume further.
‘Would you accept me as your man, Nicolette Vasseur?’
She laughed. ‘Oui, bien sûr, Hugh Jensen – je t’accepte.’
He visibly relaxed, reached for the little velvet pouch, it now being the right way up, she wanted to take in the label but couldn’t quite catch it in the half light. ‘Would you also accept this for now? If you’re not happy, we can go together to buy you the one you really want.’
He opened the pouch and took out a sapphire in white gold, surrounded by small diamonds, slipped it onto her ring finger and it fitted exactly – how had he managed – never mind, she’d ask him later.
‘I don’t want any other,’ her voice was now strained, ‘I want this one.’
Downstairs, Emma turned to Francine and smiled, ‘I like her choice of music.’
‘A bit soppy for mine,’ commented Francine but then admitted it was a good choice for the occasion. Jeanette-Fleur smiled at Yves at the noise going on in that room.
Just lying beside him again, Nicolette asked, ‘You have any more of that French?’
‘Et le ciel peut toujours attendre, j’espère que tu seras tendre, On s’est partagé les torts, tu te croyais plus fort, Le temps semble s’arrêter, tu sais je ne renoncerais jamais.’ [And the sky can always wait.]
‘I don’t want to go back down,’ she whispered.
They played Quand la Ville Dort again. He watched her singing: ‘Un peu plus tard après la nuit Et je n’ai pas encore dormi Un peu plus tard après la fin de l’aurore Mais est-ce que je t’aime encore. [A little later after the night And I have not slept A little later after the end of the dawn But I do love you still.]
It was the end of their allotted time.
‘I think we know one of the pairs,’ Emma nodded to Francine, Jeanette-Fleur checked the oven and Jean-Claude entertained hopes.
Francesca led Jacques by his hand to the second outhouse and he had Nadine on his mind. He began to dissuade the girl.
‘Francesca, you’re 19,’ [she appreciated the extra year and a bit he put on her age but it had actually been done to assuage his own guilt feelings], ‘and I’m 29. That’s simply too great an age difference.’
‘When you’re 49, I’ll be 39 and then you’ll appreciate the difference.’
He had to admit the force of that argument. ‘But I’m Parisien and you’re from Melun.’
He was out of words. She moved close, lips within reach, submissive, not trying to press her advantage any further than that and he was terrified. His lips took her lower lip and then it became a kiss and then it explored – he found a woman in the making, a family waiting to happen.
She now began on his member and the way she coaxed it had him losing his last resistance. Letting him go and stepping back in her peasant skirt and blouse, barefooted, having kicked off her slippers, she dropped her eyes and uttered, in her huskiest manner, ‘I am yours to command. I can do no other.’
He stood both stunned and bemused – from what school play had she learned that? So that was her angle, eh – the simple, vulnerable, naïve and receptive peasant girl – he had to admit it was a mighty good angle. ‘Francesca, you’re … very good.’
‘Do you respect me?’
‘Ah, yes. Of course.’
‘Then respect me, we’ve just had sex – marry me.’
‘You will?’ She hadn’t expected to win quite so suddenly.
‘But I’m only 17.’
‘I’d like to marry you, I’ve fallen for you.’
‘Then ask me properly.’
‘Marry me, Francesca.’
‘You’ll have to face my father.’
‘I haven’t pressured you into it?’
‘Well, it’s a shock but non – I want you to marry me.’
‘You really, really want, oui?’
‘Then come over here and let’s use our time.’
Geneviève, Thierry, Nicolette and Hugh went to respective bathrooms first and were some time getting back to the group, a point noted by all.
The first through were Jacques and Francesca, hand in hand and Nadine was so choked at the triumphant look on the younger girl’s face that she rushed for the guestroom and wouldn’t come out.
Next through were Hugh and Nicolette, holding each other close and though it meant not a lot to anyone except Jean-Claude who was delighted, nor was it a huge surprise and everyone wished them well.
Last through were Thierry and Geneviève – Jean-Claude dropped his head and sighed.
Francesca now went over and took her father by the hand to the foyer, Jacques dutifully followed.
‘I want to marry your daughter, sir.’
‘Don’t you realize her age?’
‘Ten years younger than me.’
‘And you still want to marry her? Why?’
‘I knew it immediately after the first – er -’ He stopped.
Thierry supplied the word. ‘After the first kiss – don’t worry yourself about that – there seems to have been a lot of that going on today. Can you support her?’
‘Papa!’ admonished Francesca.
‘I draw a government salary, sir, but I have prospects, offers. Maybe you could speak with the Inspector about those.’
He had already. ‘Well, if you’re crazy enough to want to join this family, then I say welcome.’ Francesca threw her arms around her Papa’s neck and kissed him to distraction, which had Jacques wondering, then they returned to the main room. The only one missing was Nadine.
Geneviève went to find her and there she was, weeping uncontrollably on the bed. Geneviève sat beside her, stroking her hair, holding her, saying whatever she could. Finally she said, ‘So we’ll see you in fifteen minutes, oui?’
They took their places either side of the table, with Yves at the head. The place to his left was occupied by Emma and the place to his right was left open for Nadine. Emma went to get her but she still wasn’t ready, so they chatted. Nadine said, ‘It’s OK – you go back, Emma, I don’t feel like supper.’
‘You know I’m not going back without you, you’re my dinner partner. Won’t you come with me and let me eat?’
Eventually she did and the last supper began.
After the main course – l’agneau provencale a la Jeanette-Fleur, Jean-Claude rose to speak. ‘For some today – happiness, for some – severe disappointment. Tomorrow we flee Paris and I hope and pray we all meet again happier than when we left. I’d like to toast ‘The Flight into Egypt’ and our hosts who have put on this magnificent repast.’
They all rose and turned to Yves and Jeanette-Fleur, the latter going red but beaming nonetheless.
Just before the men took their leave, Jean-Claude cornered Nadine and begged a word, she half knew what he’d ask and fiercely resented it – loser to loser. ‘Mademoiselle, tomorrow you ask your Stefan to fly with you, non? If not, will you fly alone? I’d like to offer you a place beside me, for companionship, if you like. Don’t answer now, tell me tomorrow. Bonne nuit, Mademoiselle.’
He turned to leave but she stopped him. ‘I’m not looking for a relationship, you understand.’
‘Companionship I said, Mademoiselle.’ He smiled and took his leave.
Nicolette showed her grandmother the ring and she was at first puzzled, then it dawned on her. ‘I know this ring – 18 carat white gold, dark sapphire, set in a bed of the tiniest of brilliants – this ring has a history, ma cherie and that history has to do with you. Your Hugo has been doing his homework, he must be the one to tell you.’
‘Is that good or bad, Grandmaman?’
‘If what I think has happened has happened – I think you might be happy at long last.’
Breakfast done by 08:40, after profuse thanks, they were away by 09:10 in the back of the same bakery van, onto the relatively straight N105 to Melun. Once there, Olivier was collected and received the double piece of news open-mouthed.
Nicolette rushed round to her parents with Hugh, they’d heard about him of course but the shock of their daughter presenting this middle aged man in gyps as her prospective partner left them without words. Then again, it was typical Nicolette.
Hugh rescued the situation by going for a stroll with Marcel, himself no stranger to capricious actions of this nature, and they spoke for the best part of forty minutes, in limited French, about things arranged, ways things could be done. Marcel was reassured by the man’s approach, knew he’d look after his daughter and now gave him an envelope, which Hugh slipped into his inside pocket.
They had a hurriedly scratched-together lunch, the mother with suppressed tears in her eyes, and then it was time to depart.
Typical Nicolette, her parents concluded, as her daughter was driven away with her new beau by their family friends – away into the afternoon sunset, in the direction of a disused airstrip.
Part of the game plan had been that close friends of the fourteen people had gone to their respective homes and apartments to do the administrative things which needed doing while twelve Section members now waited at their homes.
The largest of the four Safehouse groups comprised the Villeneuves and Jacques – five people in good physical condition, flexible and mobile.
The second group comprised Emma, Michel, Francine and Jean – a natural grouping, except that both Emma’s and Francine’s conditions would attract considerable attention.
The third group was interesting, comprising Jean-Claude, Nadine, Paul Fougeres from the Section who’d been running things while they were at the farmhouse and knew too much to be left behind, plus a local girl.
Nicolette and Hugh were the fourth, already underway and the ‘pair’ house would always be more stressful, no break, all the work done by two. This would be rotated every few weeks.