“She’ll turn me to stone.” Panic rooted me where I stood as I stared at my nemesis. All four feet and eleven inches of impeccable…Frenchness, she worked her way across the room, stopping periodically, greeting people with a smile, a nod, a quick word. Yet, somehow, she kept the dagger of her attention buried to the hilt between my ribs.
The party in my honor whirled around me—a kaleidoscope of well-heeled French fashion and feigned disinterest. Yet, the woman headed my way left no doubt I was very much the American plat du jour.
Chef Jean-Charles Bouclet, my perfectly presented fiancé in his bespoke tux, cultured manners and delicious accent, pressed close, his shoulder touching mine. His favored cologne, Eau de Seared Beef and Browned Onions, wafted around him, telling me he’d been calming nerves in the kitchen before my last-minute entrance. A single bead of sweat trickled down the side of his face. “What?” He’d been only half-listening.
“Stone. One look from your mother and I’ll be a permanent fixture in this ancient ossuary.” I made a sweeping gesture that included all the statuary lining the room. Tucked discretely into individual alcoves they lorded over the festivities. “Maybe that’s where all these marble figurines came from, former guests who were found wanting.”
He raised an eyebrow. “At least three of them were gifts from various kings. A bit gaudy, but one never says no to a king.” Jean-Charles gave me the hint of a smile.
I followed his gaze which was locked onto the oncoming human missile, then leaned in and whispered, “Don’t look her in the eyes.”
Sheathed in expensive one-of-a-kind couture that hugged her every curve, she advanced on us with an expression worn by those intent on vanquishing their enemies. Before I looked away, I took a bit of delight in the few extra pounds that expanded the middle of what might have been an hourglass figure. And, her shoes were…sensible. A French fashion faux-pas. Her hints of human frailty lent me courage, albeit fleeting, but enough to stiffen my backbone.
Jean-Charles shook his head and finally gave me his attention. “You are making no sense. What do you mean she’ll turn you to rock?” His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed hard, then ran a finger around the inside of his collar, tugging it to allow blood to get to his brain. Apparently without the desired effect.
“Not rock. Stone. Like Medusa.” As I braced for the imminent encounter, I let my gaze wander over the gathered throng, looking for friends in the crowded ballroom. No joy. Not a friendly, recognizable face in the lot. In fact, they all looked pinched and judgmental, with a hint of fear, making me feel like I was guest of honor at my own evisceration.
Okay, overly dramatic, but the whole meeting-my-well-heeled-very-French-future-in-laws had me on the verge of apoplexy. Once I did the I-do thing, my options would be gone. How was I supposed to know if I’d picked the right one? God knew, Teddie had been an epic fail.
My heart still bore the scars, but it had healed. My confidence, not so much.
But who was it I didn’t trust exactly? Jean-Charles? Or me?
“Medusa?” Jean-Charles angled his head and looked like he was entertaining my analogy for a moment. Then he dismissed it with a quick shake of his head. “Don’t be silly,” he said, but he didn’t sound convinced. Instead, he adjusted his bow tie and swallowed hard. The normal robin’s egg blue of his eyes had turned dark and moody. Emotion pulled the skin tight over his cheek bones. Even still, with his full lips and soft brown hair that curled over his collar, and that body hugged by the Italian cut of his tux, he was delish. He could be kind, sensitive, demanding, churlish, enigmatic—a dizzying array, which I currently found endlessly entertaining, but worried might wear me out. Time would tell…if I survived.
Seriously, death-by-mother-in-law is a thing—I know it is.
“You’re scared, too.” I whispered to Jean-Charles, still unable to focus an unwavering gaze on my future mother-in-law.
“She’s my mother.” Repeating the obvious was his go-to when avoiding telling me something I didn’t want to hear. “And terrified would be more apt.”
I swiveled a wide-eyed look at the man I supposedly knew better than anyone.
His eyes caught mine for a fraction of a second before his gaze skittered away. His smile was tight and thin. “You and I, we share difficult mothers.”
“Now you tell me?” Despite whispering, my voice held a shrill note.
Jean-Charles side-stepped my accusation by focusing on a face in the crowd. Following his gaze, I found myself staring at a balding man, his sneer his only distinguishing feature. Jean-Charles looked a bit surprised and put out at seeing them.
“Who is that?”
“Someone who was not invited.”
“Gotta have some steel cajones to crash your mother’s gig. Personally, I would not tempt death that way.”
“He would’ve been wise to stay away.”
Christophe, Jean-Charles’ son moved from clutching his father’s leg to tugging on my vintage Bob Mackie gown.
Five-years-old, blond curls and large baby blues like his father’s, he most likely sensed our discomfort and needed reassurance. The kid was an emotional weather vane. My mother, a new mother to a set of twins, had told me many things about dealing with children were instinctive. My disbelief had drawn a knowing smile. I hated it when Mona was right. Thankfully, it didn’t happen that often.
After carefully disengaging his fingers from the delicate fabric, I squatted as much as I dared in the tight sheath, then lifted him. “Ooof! You’ve been eating too many happy-face pancakes.” Christophe still fit on one hip, but he would soon outgrow that perch, and my ability to fly him there. I nuzzled his hair which smelled of baby soap and warm memories.
“Grand-mere, she looks…different,” he whispered, one hand fisted in my hair.
“A woman on the warpath,” I muttered, then braced for the elbow to the ribs I knew would be coming. Jean-Charles didn’t disappoint. A soft nudge of displeasure which I ignored. “Girding her loins for battle to protect her sole and sainted son,” I explained to my future stepson despite his father’s glare. The hint of laughter in his eyes told me I was on safe ground. The laughter dimmed when I turned on him. “I thought your mother lived on a farm and named the cows.” Even with my limited functionality at the moment, I distinctly remembered that was how he’d described his mother—a charming story about his father’s irritation at not being able to butcher and serve the cows who, in the naming, had become pets. The woman advancing on us with the purpose of a bullet from a rifle could have killed the cows with her bare hands and thought nothing of it. My opinion, but the look on her face did little to convince me otherwise.
Jean-Charles shrugged. “The vineyard. The farm is more of a hobby. How do you say it, their men’s farm?”
“Gentleman’s farm?” Normally his trouble with American idioms, which I had a strong suspicious was slightly feigned for my benefit, charmed me. Today, not so much.
“Oui. This.” He seemed far too pleased with himself.
I resisted the urge to wipe the smug off his face. Probably bad form at a fancy French soiree. Instead, I narrowed my eyes. “Lying by omission.” Was that a capital offense? Punishable by death or just slow delicious torture? Either way, it was still a big check in the “con” column.
Yep, I was straddling the commitment fence. Uncomfortable to say the least.
And Jean-Charles’s mother was just more of what I didn’t need.
As she drew closer, the partiers formed a circle of interest, their intensity wafting off of them like cheap cologne. Activity and conversation stopped.
My future mother-in-law, Madame Jeanne Marchand Bouclet, stepped into my space. I resisted the urge to step back, reestablishing my boundary. The more I travelled the more I realized the American concept of personal space translated about as seamlessly as our humor. The English were equally amused and appalled by it, the Italians ignored it, the French invaded it, and the Asians missed the concept entirely.
I held my ground as Mme Bouclet gave me a rheumy-eyed once over. The pale bow of her mouth scrunched in only slight distaste—I took that as a win. Her brown hair, the color softened by invading gray, was cut in a stylish bob. Her gown, a golden chenille that changed hues where it wrinkled and flowed, was fitted and tasteful, yet provocative in its off-the-shoulder design. A long cocktail length, the dress exposed her ankles and the color-coordinated ballet slippers adorning her feet.
My shoes were French, but my gown shouted American chutzpah and not a little bit of Vegas showmanship. No doubt considered a bit bourgeois by this crowd. I envied the effortless style with which French women carried themselves. I also envied their figures. Of course, they didn’t have to ignore the Siren call of In-N-Out Burger every day.
Jean-Charles’ mother said nothing, so I clamped my mouth shut, too, thinking then it would be impossible to stuff my foot in it. We faced off, her appraisal and my fear a chasm of silence between us.
Jean-Charles leapt into the breach. “Mama, may I present Miss Lucky O’Toole.”
She flicked one stenciled eyebrow skyward and extended a hand, palm down.
I hadn’t a clue what to do with it. Kiss it? Not a chance.
Using his exalted-son status, Jean-Charles competed with the raised eyebrow thing. I could beat them both, but now was probably not the time. The crowd eased even closer. I felt certain they’d drawn a collective breath and held it. The air didn’t move, hanging instead thick and stifling with emotion.
“Jesus,” I sighed, the dregs of my patience dried on the bottom of my empty flagon previously filled with the Milk of Human Kindness. I took her hand in both of mine. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. The men in your family have been singing your praises non-stop. Thank you so much for inviting me to your lovely home and having this amazing party. I am incredibly honored.” What can I say? Suck-up is my best thing—a skill well-honed through years in Customer Service at the Babylon, Las Vegas’ most over the top Strip Resort. And before that, at lesser properties in the wild and wooly parts of Vegas most well-heeled folks never see. When I began life at a whorehouse in Pahrump, who knew I’d end up here, in Paris, feted by those at the upper end of the social food chain? Certainly not me. This was so far from my normal that all I could do was make it up as I went…and apparently use too many superlatives.
Madame Bouclet inclined her head slightly.
The room filled with expelled air. The mood brightened. The fear skittered to hid in the corners. Jean-Charles visibly relaxed and the lady in front of me gave me a smile. “My dear, please ignore my son’s lack of manners. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you. You have captured my son’s heart and have enraptured my grandson—both very difficult tasks. I must learn how you have done such a thing.” Her English was flawless—infinitely better than my high-school French, which I had yet to trot out. In this crowd, being six-feet tall, curvy, and American was enough of an embarrassment. “Let me introduce you to my friends.” She turned on her heel.
Jean-Charles motioned for me to follow, then fell in behind me. Christophe gladly rode my hip, bobbing along high above the fray. Being tall was my cross to bear, but I figured it was infinitely better than staring at everybody’s thighs. So, I took pity on him, and on me, and let him ride into the fray, a human shield as it were…but he didn’t need to know that.
“Where’s Desiree?” I tossed the words over my shoulder as I followed in Mme. Bouclet’s wake.
Jean-Charles rested a hand lightly on my shoulder as he leaned closer to catch my words. “Pardon?”
“Your sister?” I was counting on her to be my wingman. Her absence left me flying solo. Of course, I’d been complicit in the death of her estranged husband, Adone Giovanni, who, with his mistress had conspired to steal Desiree’s business. So, maybe expecting her to greet me with a buss on both cheeks might be overshooting.
Frankly, I thought my assist in taking him out of the gene pool was a good thing, but love could be super complicated. Maybe Desiree was planning to plant a dagger between my shoulder blades. To be honest, I didn’t have a clue what transpired between her ears, nor what she held in her heart.
“She would not miss Mother’s party.” Jean-Charles made the prospect sound like doing so would mean the guillotine.
“Hope she’s okay.”
“Pffft.” He puffed in French derision. “It will be a man. It is always a man.”
“Rather evolved of you. Your man-card is in trouble. Don’t you Y-chromosome types always blame bad things on women?”
“I am not saying she is not at fault. She chooses the men.” He tugged a bit with the hand still on my shoulder. “What is this man card?”
“Only thing that keeps you guys in the game.” Mme. Bouclet yanked my attention back to the terror at hand. I so should’ve brushed up on the rules of French decorum. Vaguely I remembered something about not touching anyone, and for sure not smiling very much—the French think it makes Americans look like fools, and perhaps a bit insincere. Spot on, in my book.
She stopped in front of a couple waiting with expectant expressions. Tiny, perfectly turn-out, they gave her a thin smile. “This is Miss Lucky O’Toole, Jean-Charles’ fiancée.”
I painted on what I hoped was a pleasant expression that wasn’t a smile and tried to remember my fancy manners.
The names, unusual in their pronunciation, faded as one over-wrote the one before on my mental hard-drive. Christophe wriggled on my hip and my arms ached from corralling his weight, when a starched and unctuous liveried member of the staff hurried to Mme. Bouclet’s side. If the interruption bothered her, I couldn’t tell. Composure was something I strove for, failed at, and consequently strongly admired. Jean-Charles’ mother’s was impeccable. I wondered if she also had the regal wave down.
As the man bent and whispered in her ear, Mme. Bouclet’s hand moved to her throat, her fingers intertwining with her pearls, twisting them like expensive worry beads. Her face paled. Her jaw slackened revealing her age and her worry. The man stepped back, and Mme. Bouclet motioned to her son with a fluttering hand held close to her side, a subtle move to not draw attention.
Jean-Charles touched my elbow with a gesture of understanding and I relinquished his son, my arms screaming their thanks. In one fluid movement, Jean-Charles took his son, lifting him high then dropping him on his shoulders. “What is it, Maman?”
“It’s Papa.” She wilted as her knees buckled slightly. With a flawless segue, Jean-Charles caught her arm, steadying her. “He’s not well. His heart.”
Jean-Charles skewered the butler with an unmistakable look. The man turned on his heel and disappeared through the doorway. Jean-Charles, now holding his mother’s elbow and his son, inclined his head, indicating I should follow him. I dug in my heels. “I should stay here.”
“Non!” His tone brooked no argument.
This was not the place to make a scene—I could feel the heat of the partygoers’ stares.
Jean-Charles ushered us through a doorway hidden in the paneling of the front hall, then down a hallway with multiple intersections with other hallways. The back of the house. As a hotelier, I was familiar.
Worry propelled Jean-Charles and I had to hurry to keep up.
At the third intersection, he turned right, then burst through swinging double doors. I followed, catching the doors on the backswing. Blinking at the light, I found myself in a cavernous, white and stainless kitchen, the workstations spotlighted by commercial-grade overhead lights. Delicious aromas wafted from ovens and burbling pots. My stomach growled. I cringed as the family clustered around me, afraid they might have heard.
But something was wrong.
Jean-Charles pushed into the kitchen. “What is going on here?” He kicked at a pot rolling on the floor. Utensils scattered on the tile, grown-up Pick-Up Stix. A pool of something that smelled delicious, oozed from under a prep table. “Where’s my father?”
“Over here.” A voice, indignant but weak, answered in a timbre that held hints of his son’s.
Jean-Charles kicked at a pot as he hurried toward the voice. His staff remained rooted. In full French bluster, he turned and shouted at them. “Back to work. And clean this up, now!”
They all jumped. Hell, I felt like grabbing a spatula at his imperious tone. Instead I followed Jean-Charles while the others held back. While food sizzled and steamed, they clustered together staring at the man slouched in a chair someone had pulled into the center of the kitchen. Long, lean, all angles and anger, he pushed away a young man pressing a cloth to his head, taking the cloth himself. When he lifted it slightly, I gasped at the long, red gash in his forehead. The man let loose a long stream of French I didn’t understand yet understood perfectly. His other hand drifted to the center of his chest where he pushed, then winced in discomfort. From the gash or his heart, it was hard to tell.
I glanced at Jean-Charles then again at the man in the chair. That apple hadn’t fallen far.
Jean-Charles shifted Christophe to his hip as he knelt by his father’s chair. Christophe, his eyes glistening, patted his grandfather’s face. Children and their empathy.
Why do we lose that as we grow?
“The pain? Is it bad?” Jean-Charles asked his father in a whisper.
Looking at his father, I could answer that one. The man was so pale his skin held a hint of blue. His cheeks hollowed below too-wide eyes. He panted as is if running a race, perhaps against Death himself. With a bullet in his chest and blood leaking out so fast, my father, had been as close to death as one could get without stepping into the Afterlife. Jean-Charles’s father was right there, toes curled over the edge of the abyss, his features donning a death mask as he sank into himself, his life force depleted. The man was way past “not-well.”
“Should I call the doctor?” Jean-Charles had seen the same as I had. Without waiting for permission, he nodded at his mother who eased away to summon help. “Did you take the nitroglycerin?”
He pushed his son’s concerns aside. “It will go away.”
With two fingers, Jean-Charles fished around in his father’s breast pocket extracting a small tin. With a thumb, he popped it open and extracted a tiny white pill. “Take this.”
One of the kitchen staff appeared with a glass of red wine. “It is the Lafite.”
Jean-Charles nodded his thanks as he took the glass, waving it under his father’s nose. As ammonia does for a fainter, the wine brought back the elder Bouclet, focusing him. “That’s the ’82,” he gasped, then sucked in more air. “One of the best vintages.” another gasp then pull-in of air, “A rare cult wine. We set aside a case for a special time. We wanted to toast your engagement,” a gasp, a wince, then a deep breath, “with something special.”
“And that is very special. Take a sip. See if it is aging well.” Christophe, his eyes wide with worry, clung to his father.
A little Nitro with your rare Bordeaux. Not a great paring but a terrific bribe. One that worked as the old man did as his son insisted. Jean-Charles’s mother returned. Her slight nod let her son know she’d found the doctor. I assumed he was on his way since no one made any move to relocate M. Bouclet.
“How is it?” Jean-Charles asked after his father had taken a few sips, savoring each of them. A touch of color returned to his cheeks. He breathed easier now, easing the force with which he pressed on his chest. “It helps. The pain is lessening.”
“The wine?” Jean-Charles asked as if that was what he’d meant. “How’s the wine?”
A smile passed between them. His father bestowed a look of love. “Not as special as you, but it is very good.”
“Papa? What has happened?” Jean-Charles used a soft, measured tone. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“The pain is almost gone.” His father waved his hand, a human flag of surrender. Jean-Charles had his father’s hands, long and narrow—artist’s hands that could concoct a variety of delights.
Jean-Charles pushed his father’s hand away from the cloth he held to his head. “Permit me.” A demand framed as a question, one of his best things…and most irritating. He snuck a peek under the now red cloth, then let loose a stream of low, guttural French.
Madame Bouclet swooped in, snatching her grandson to her chest. “Jean-Charles!”
Her offense was justified. If I were more of a lady, the bit I caught would have made me blush. One of the staff rushed to do his bidding, returning quickly with a first aid kit. Jean-Charles set to work. His hard expression brooked no argument. His father sat like stone, his hands on his knees, his back erect, his face flushed with emotion. “The wine,” he gasped.
His son brushed the comment aside. “Who did this?” He dabbed at the cut with cotton soaked in alcohol drawing a few epithets from his father, which he ignored. A quick glance around the kitchen. “Did you fight with someone? Who was here?”
Most of the staff turned from his question—apparently, they knew what happens to the messenger.
“Durand.” The word sounded like an epithet.
“Here? In our home? What did he want?”
“The wine.” His father repeated.
“He wanted the wine?” Jean-Charles closed the cut with two butterfly closures.
“He had a crazy story. I didn’t listen. I didn’t let him finish.” His father managed, then convulsed into a fit of racking coughs that he caught with a white napkin pressed over his mouth. His skin turned an alarming shade of red. “Uninvited in our home,” he managed between coughs and gasps.
Still a bit iffy on French protocol, I assumed from his inflection that was almost as grave a sin as disrespecting the women of the household, maybe more.
“Easy, Papa. Slowly.” Jean-Charles helped his father take a few more sips of the Lafite between spasms.
This stress, both physical and clearly emotional, only put more pressure on a bad heart.
“Philippe did this to you?” A hint of incredulity subtexted the question.
From Jean-Charles’s inflection, I took it Phillipe Durand might be scum, but he was no blackguard, and, as an honorable man he wouldn’t ever do such a thing. Men came in all types, and sometimes shifted from one to the other with the proper motivation. I guessed we all could. My mother often had me seriously considering homicide. I mean three-squares, a cot, and no Mona was almost irresistible at times. But jail would probably be incompatible with my serious authority issues, so I’d restrained myself…so far.
“No. A man. In the tunnels. I surprised him. He ran out the kitchen. I couldn’t catch him. The swine ran right by Phillipe. At my shout, he tried to stop him as well. His jaw may be broken for his efforts.”
“What did he look like?”
“Young. Dark hair. I didn’t know him.”
“Where is Phillipe?”
“I threw him out!” The elder Bouclet seemed offended at the question that, in its asking, suggested there was another course of action. “The wine,” he gasped as he grabbed his son’s lapel.
“What about the wine?” Jean-Charles asked again, looking at his mother who bracketed his father on the other side. Holding his hand in both of hers, she eyed her son, her eyes dark with worry.
M. Bouclet sat up straighter, his face clearing as he stared at his son with a look of pain and disbelief. “The wine, it is gone.”
This time it was Jean-Charles’s turn with the raised eyebrow trick. “What do you mean it is gone? The cellar is full. We even transported the entire winery library from the winery to show our guests. I checked it myself last evening.”
The truth in his father’s stare could not be denied. “It’s all gone.”