Read The French for Always Online

Authors: Fiona Valpy

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Multicultural, #Romantic Comedy, #Travel, #Europe, #France, #General, #Holidays, #Multicultural & Interracial

The French for Always

The French for Always
Fiona Valpy
Bookouture
Table of Contents

P
ublished by Bookouture
, an imprint of StoryFire Ltd. 23 Sussex Road, Ickenham, UB10 8PN, United Kingdom.

www.bookouture.com

Copyright © Fiona Valpy 2014

Fiona Valpy has asserted her right to be identified as the author of this work.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in any retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publishers.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events other than those clearly in the public domain, are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

ISBN: 978-1-909490-29-1

Acknowledgments

F
irst of all
, thank you (yes,
you
, Dear Reader) for choosing to read this book. I hope it makes you smile and tempts you to come and visit this corner of south-west France someday.

Some of the places mentioned here do exist and you’ll find them on any good map; others, such as the village of Coulliac, are figments of my imagination. I'm fortunate to live in a part of the world where there are many beautiful châteaux, and some of them are the venues for dream weddings. Château Bellevue de Coulliac, however, is not based on any of them and is entirely fictitious; any resemblances to real people or places are purely coincidental. The underlying limestone, which is the bedrock of much of this part of France, is famous for its tunnels and caves; if you’re intrigued and would like to visit some, then the underground church of Saint-Emilion and the caves around Les Eyzies (which include the world-famous prehistoric paintings of Lascaux) are magical and fascinating places.

I have very many people to thank, far too many to list them all individually. I count myself so lucky to have such a wonderful lot of friends and family. But I would like to say a big, public, wholehearted “thank you!” to my publisher at Bookouture, Oliver Rhodes, and my editor, Emily Ruston, who have steered me so competently through the writing process once again, as well as to Debbie Brunettin for her meticulous eye for detail and Lorella Belli for expanding the horizons of my books in languages other than English.

I’m immensely grateful to Joan Harcourt for her long-distance support and encouragement (and for Thomas’s slow smile); thank you to my gorgeous goddaughter, Nixy, and her mother, Pippa, for letting me borrow their names. Thanks and huge respect to James Valpy and Tracy Metz for the insights into life on tour and the technical details of sound and lighting. And love and thanks to all my family, who have been such loyal and enthusiastic supporters of my efforts: to Si, Jan, and Nick (a writer in the making); to Carin, as ever (sister
extraordinaire
, supporter
extraordinaire
) and her lovely daughters, Em and Tash—we are family; to Rupert (husband, best friend and inspiration for all my heroes), and our sons James and Alastair, who always make me smile.

And last, but certainly not least, to my mother, Aline (the best sales agent a girl could have), who has taught us that, when it comes to affairs of the heart, it’s always worth taking another chance on love.

F
or Aline Wood
,

a most elegant and accomplished Mother of the Bride,

with love.


D
ance like nobody’s watching
;

Love like you’ve never been hurt.

Sing like nobody’s listening;

Live like it’s heaven on earth.’

Mark Twain

The End

O
nce upon a time
, not so very long ago, nor so very far away, an ancient château sat on a hilltop among the vines, high above a golden river.

It was a hot summer’s night and, with a sigh of relief, Sara sank onto the bed and slid her aching legs across the cool smoothness of the sheet. Every cell in her body throbbed with tiredness. She reached across to set the alarm for tomorrow morning—or, rather, later
this
morning; the clock already showed one forty-seven. She’d been on her feet more or less continuously for—she counted on her fingers—over eighteen hours, and would be up again in five more. But tomorrow would be easier, now that the wedding itself was over; just the Sunday brunch, most of which the caterers would be bringing, and then some of the guests would start to leave, once they’d waved the bride and groom off on their honeymoon. Brittany and Gary would clatter off down the drive, their hire car covered in shaving foam and bedecked with tin cans and inflated condoms, heading for Bordeaux Airport and a week on a Thai beach.

Halfway through the first season at Château Bellevue de Coulliac, Sara was beginning to get into the swing of their new business. She enjoyed being part of the magic and helping make each dream wedding come to pass in their ancient stone castle perched on a hilltop above the deep valley of the Dordogne. It was picture-perfect, her new life out here in France with Gavin, beginning to build their business, following their dream...

So why, in the quieter moments, did she feel such a growing sense of suffocation?

It wasn’t just the stifling heat and the relentless cycle of arrivals, weddings, departures and then, immediately, preparations for the next event. When she stopped to think—which, admittedly, hadn’t happened very often during the past months as their first season got underway—she had a horrible niggling feeling that she’d made a huge mistake. Perhaps the biggest mistake of her life, so far at least. For Sara had burnt all her bridges coming out here, selling her tiny London flat and saying goodbye to her burgeoning landscape gardening business, leaving without a backward glance as she set her sights firmly on the seductive promise of a sunny future in France, married life with Gavin, a home, a family...

Until now, she’d always thought herself cautious and capable. But this certainty was wobbling, doubt creeping into her very fabric like dry rot, her confidence shaken. It had been an impulsive move, unlike her really. Who knew what other major messes she’d be capable of making in the years ahead?

It wasn’t the workload, although it had been harder than anything Sara had ever done before in her life—and, as a landscape gardener with her own embryonic business, she already knew a thing or two about hard work. In fact she’d loved getting on with the practicalities: the whirl of activity to renovate, decorate and tidy the buildings, make a start on the landscaping to create some stunning settings as backdrops for wedding photos and, at the same time, set up their website and get their marketing plan rolling. The sense of achievement made it all worthwhile. And, through it all, there was nothing more guaranteed to focus the mind entirely than the immovable, terrifying, brick-wall deadline of the first wedding of the season looming ahead of them in the diary.

She reminded herself that to have embarked on this adventure together in this wonderful part of the world and be creating something with the man she loved was the most amazing, exhilarating, fulfilling opportunity. It would have been completely terrifying, too, were it not for the fact that she and Gavin were in it together, supporting and encouraging one another through the occasional dispiriting days of that first cold, damp winter with builder’s dust clogging every pore of their bodies and hands blistered and scarred with unaccustomed labouring.

But as she reminded herself of this, unconsciously Sara raised a hand to her throat, as if to soothe the feeling of choked panic that seemed now to have lodged itself there.

It was only once their first wedding season had started that she’d noticed Gavin seemed to need to bolster his own ego by finding fault with her in hundreds of little ways, criticising her efforts and undoing her decisions. It had seemed insignificant at first, but, as time went by, subtly and inexorably since the move here two years ago, she’d felt her sense of self being eroded. It was nothing major, nothing concrete that she could put her finger on but, little by little, Gavin had taken over, their partnership morphing into a dictatorship as he began making unilateral decisions, disregarding her suggestions, overriding her plans. Of course it was her fault too. Maybe if she hadn’t let things go at the beginning, deferring to his superior knowledge of the events business, she wouldn’t now be lying here feeling that she’d lost her voice completely. Because that’s what it felt like, if she was being completely honest with herself: as though when she talked, no one listened. It had become easier just to do things Gavin’s way in the château and instead to channel her own creative energy into the garden, studiously avoiding the sneaking suspicion that the foundations of their relationship were anything less than solid. In any case, most of the time the two of them were so busy that there was no time to think. It was only in these very occasional, precious, solitary moments that the old, capable, confident Sara resurfaced, trying to make herself heard.

The trouble was, the only person listening these days was Sara herself.

So perhaps it was just as well she was kept so busy most of the time, keeping these panicked thoughts firmly at bay. She needed to reserve her energy for the guests, making sure each wedding was perfect. Every event had its own very particular character, a projection of the personalities of each unique set of participants, and she really did enjoy seeing how each couple stamped their own mark on the proceedings, making their own private fairy tale come true.

Today’s wedding had been particularly hard work though. The mother of the bride, Mrs Nolan, had been a Fusser, incapable of leaving Sara and Gavin to get on with their side of things, popping up at Sara’s elbow at frequent intervals to add some more requests to the already lengthy list of her daughter’s special requirements.

‘Ever so sorry, but have you got some pink ribbon? Only Brittany wants Melanie to have Bitsy accompany her up the aisle and we’ve only got the yellow lead with us. And yellow will clash with the bridesmaids’ dresses. No, not that pale pink, more of a cerise... Oh, well, if that’s all you’ve got, we’ll just have to make do. Brittany’s not going to like it though.’ Eventually Sara had managed to unearth a length of bright pink ribbon from a drawer-full of wrapping paper and Brittany’s own personal sun had re-emerged from behind that particular black cloud.

There had been a nerve-wracking moment in the chapel when Melanie, the maid of honour, had lost her grip on the length of pink ribbon tied to the diamante collar of Brittany’s handbag-sized Chihuahua, Bitsy, and the little dog had made a run for it, almost making it out of the door. Luckily Gavin’s fast reflexes had saved the day and, muttering, ‘Never work with children or animals...’ he’d returned Bitsy to the waiting arms and abundantly displayed cleavage of Melanie.

Mrs Nolan was not just a Fusser, she was also a Talker. Sara’s ears still rang with the stream-of-consciousness chatter that had accompanied her for much of the day. ‘Of course, we wanted Colchester but Brittany said, “No, Mum, this is my big day, it’s got to be somewhere really classy.” And with a name like hers, France it had to be. We named her after the place she was conceived, you see.’

‘How nice,’ Sara responded politely, only half listening as she stacked plates into the dishwasher. ‘So you named her after the region.’

Mrs Nolan had looked at her blankly.

‘No, love—the ferries. First night of our honeymoon, the crossing from Portsmouth to Santander and then we drove down to the Costa Blanca for a fortnight. Not so many cheap flights in those days, and of course it was before Derek’s business had taken off, so there was no spare cash back then. Our little princess doesn’t know how lucky she is, off to Bangkok and God knows where for
her
honeymoon.’

We’d better hope her first child isn’t conceived on the first night too then
, thought Sara, going out to meet the florist and oversee the flower arrangements in the chapel as per Mrs Nolan’s detailed instructions.

Mr Nolan, in contrast to his garrulous wife, was a man of few words. He’d made a fortune in the trucking industry, which his wife and daughter were now doing their best to spend. He’d spent the morning sitting in a deckchair in the shade of a cedar tree, with the desperate air of a man who’d been sentenced to deliver a wedding speech for his daughter when he’d really rather be drinking beers in the local bar with the rest of his mates. He’d risen to the occasion though and made a fond and funny speech, only once making reference to the dire fate, involving a locked room and a shotgun, that would befall Gary if he didn’t look after Brittany in the manner to which she’d become accustomed.

Sara stretched her aching legs and flexed her feet to try to ease some of the tightness out of her ankles. This heat was a killer. But perfect wedding weather, of course, and, after all, that was partly what people were paying for when they opted for a wedding in a French château, the odds of a beautiful sunny day more in their favour here than in Britain. But having to work in temperatures of thirty degrees or more was draining.

When they’d moved here the year before last, Sara and Gavin had sought out the sun, enjoying the novelty of the sensation of heat on their skin, tanned to a healthy glow as they worked to transform the château into the perfect wedding venue. They’d been so excited: who’d have dreamt that they’d be able to afford this beautiful place? But by scraping together every penny of their combined savings, Gavin’s inheritance and the money from the sale of Sara’s flat, and by haggling hard on the price, they’d managed it. As Gavin gleefully remarked, even a major worldwide recession offered opportunities for the lucky few. It was a buyer’s market and the château owner had been desperate to sell, having half completed the renovation project that the château so urgently needed and then discovering that he’d bitten off more than he could chew. And so, miraculously, Château Bellevue de Coulliac was theirs and they were well on track to their goal of establishing a successful events business out here, living the dream. And next year, at the end of what would hopefully be their second successful season, they’d hold their own fairy-tale wedding in their very own French castle, set amongst some of the finest vineyards in the world...

So, like all the brides she’d seen come and go this summer, Sara should have been fizzing with a sense of joyful anticipation—instead of these feelings of dread, this sense of voiceless suffocation. Not to mention a longing for the comfort of physical affection that had lodged itself under her ribcage like an ache. Of course, it wasn’t surprising that Gavin no longer had the energy to make love; he was working so hard and for such long hours. In the early days, intoxicated with the sunshine and the adventure of it all, she’d felt closer to him than ever before, as if she’d managed to outrun the shadows of her past—her unhappy childhood, her previous failed relationships—and finally escaped with him into a new world where love and joy were simple gifts, bestowed daily in this setting that was so beautiful it took her breath away. She tried to remember when they’d last lain together like that, the feeling of his sun-warm skin, his arms, strengthened and tanned a deep mahogany after days spent labouring outdoors, holding her...

Maybe things would be different again once they had their first successful season under their belts.

Sara massaged hand cream into her work-roughened hands, easing round her engagement ring, now slightly tight on her heat-swollen finger, and then reached over to switch off the bedside lamp beside her. She’d leave the one on Gavin’s side of the bed on, for when he finally made it back to the cottage. During the season, they moved into this basic little stone house, with its one cramped bedroom and single living area with a galley kitchen in one corner, tucked in behind the château next to the walled vegetable garden. At the moment the walled garden was a jungle of weeds set solid in the heavy clay which had been baked cement-hard by this stage of the summer, nothing useful growing there other than the ancient, lichen-crusted pear tree in the corner and some herbs that she’d planted up in an old stone trough. But this coming winter, Sara had plans to get to work to create a proper
potager
with neat raised beds of fresh produce in time for next year’s season.

As she lay waiting for sleep to come, the heat seemed to press in on her from all sides. A faint, sulphurous waft of French drains hung in the hot night air, a reminder that the sink in the cottage’s tiny bathroom was blocked yet again. Their priority had been to get the guest accommodation perfect in the time available: their own summer digs had had to wait, and so things in the cottage were still pretty basic. She’d need to sort the blocked drain out again tomorrow—another task to add to her already lengthy list.

The disco in the barn, which Gavin had been DJ-ing, had fallen silent about half an hour ago, so hopefully he’d join her in bed soon. As long as he didn’t settle down with some of the hardier wedding guests and get stuck into another bottle of whisky. It had happened a few times now. But when Sara had questioned the wisdom of this—after all, they had to be up early again the next day and back on duty—he’d just laughed and told her that socialising with the guests was an essential part of the business, good for public relations, it was all part of the job. She’d get up first in the morning to set out a few breakfast things for any early bird guests and leave Gavin to lie in for a precious extra hour or two of sleep.

She gave a little sigh of relief as she closed her eyes, sliding her legs onto a cooler patch of the cotton sheet and letting the tiredness seep out of her neck and shoulders, her whirling thoughts beginning to settle.

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