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Room 512, The Gloria Hotel, Hyde Park, London
An empty champagne bottle lay on the floor. A half-eaten box of Belgian chocolates scattered its contents to the left of the wastebasket. A dozen red roses dripped dying petals onto the dressing table.
"That... was... brilliant... " Daniel sighed as he rolled onto his side in the big double bed.
Kelly Elson grimaced, then jumped up from the bed and went in search of a tissue, straightening her uniform along the way.
"Want me to do anything for you?" Daniel asked as she returned from the bathroom with a fistful of toilet paper.
"You don't need to," said Kelly.
"Good." Daniel lay back against the pillows looking smug. He reached out and gave one of her nipples a tweak.
Kelly fought the urge to punch him.
Oblivious to her annoyance, Daniel nodded toward the bottle on the floor. "I'll bring you some of that next time I see you. If you're a good girl."
"Thanks," she said flatly.
"I don't think anyone will notice if one little bottle goes missing." He smiled.
Daniel Weston sold booze for a national wholesaler. He visited the Gloria Hotel once a month to sell his plonk to Montrachet the hotel's Michelin-starred restaurant. He liked to see Kelly after his appointments, if she could find an empty room. And he always brought along a little present. But it was never a bottle of vodka and some Diet Cokesomething Kelly actually liked to drink. It always had to be some fancy wine with a name she couldn't pronounce. Daniel was pretentious about wine. Always spouting on about it. Nose? Legs? What the fuck did that mean? Most of what he said went over Kelly's head. Except for the words "methode champenoise," which came to mind whenever she held Daniel's cock in her hand and went at it like a Formula One racing driver shaking a bottle of Mumm Cordon Rouge. That thought passed through Kelly's head again as Daniel squinted at the label on the empty champagne bottle. "Very nice," he said. "This house used to be legend."
"Uh-huh," said Kelly.
"Bugger." Daniel suddenly looked at his watch and jumped out of bed. "I should be at the Intercontinental in fifteen minutes."
He gave his penis a perfunctory wipe and pulled his trousers up.
"See you next month?" he asked.
He left the soggy wad of tissue on the bedside table like a tip. Next to the envelope he'd so neatly labeled with Kelly's name.
"Thanks a lot," said Kelly, counting out the five crisp tenners once he'd gone. She tucked the envelope into her pocket and surveyed the damage around her.
A patch of something unmentionable had dried into a patch the shape of America on the headboard. She would have to scrape that off. She got up, tugged her streaked brown hair back into a ponytail and pulled the dirty sheets off the bed. She threw the dying flowers that had been bought for someone else into the waste bin. She had just ten minutes to finish cleaning the room and get it ready for the next check-in.
Last of all, she picked up the champagne bottle that Daniel had so admired.
Champagne Arsenault declared the label.
"Champagne My Arse, more like," she muttered.
Then, not knowing quite why she did it, Kelly tipped the bottle upside down and caught the last drip of golden nectar on her tongue.
Actually, that's not bad, she thought. Not so bad at all.
Nine o'clock on a Friday night. Madeleine Arsenault could think of far better places to be than sitting in a restaurant in London, no matter how many Michelin stars the chef had garnered with his nine-course tasting menu. It wasn't that the restaurant itself was so bad. The space was wonderful. It had been decorated impeccably with the kind of clever lighting that took twenty years off the clientele. And situated as it was on the fifteenth floor of the newly refurbished Gloria Hotel on the edge of Hyde Park, Montrachet had an absolutely breathtaking view of the city. But Madeleine had her back to the view that evening. The privilege of having something beautiful to look at was reserved for her esteemed guests.
"The good news," said her boss, Geoff, when he'd presented that evening's date to her, "is that I've secured a table at Montrachet. The bad news... "
The bad news was that Madeleine would be spending the evening across the table from Adam Freeman, of the investment banking division of the Ingerlander Bank. Quite the most unpleasant man in banking, if not a candidate for the most unpleasant man on earth.
"But I'm booked on the seven o'clock Eurostar," Madeleine protested. She was supposed to be heading back to her family home in France for the weekend. "My father is unwell."
"He'll last another night," Geoff insisted. "Tough as old boots, I thought you said. Get Tina to book you on the first train tomorrow. I want you at Montrachet with me, Madeleine. With the Ingerlander bid in place, Freeman's arse is the one we should be licking."
"It's OK," said Geoff. "I don't think he's into that. But if he is... "
Madeleine shook her head. "I pray," she said to Geoff, "that it's merely the language barrier between us that makes me think you're saying something offensive."
Geoff smiled. "Good girl, Maddy. Wherever I end up, I'm taking you with me, I promise."
"That's what I'm afraid of," said Madeleine.
Geoff gave her a wink.
The news that Ingerlander Bank was launching a takeover bid had sent shock waves throughout the tiny Bank of Maine. Geoff feared for his job and well he might. He was closing on fifty. He had an expensive ex-wife, and two incredibly ungrateful daughters to finish putting through private school. Recently, he had been coloring his hair in an attempt to fool the Ingerlanders that he still had years before his sell-by date. Madeleine suspected he might even have had a shot of Botox in the crevasse between his eyebrows. It was going to take more than that, she thought sadly as she looked at him now.
Madeleine's situation was altogether different. She didn't have so much as a goldfish in the cool, white-painted Notting Hill apartment that had been her home for the past ten years. There were no other signatories on her credit cards. If she lost her job in the big takeover, would it be such a bad thing?
Possibly not, if remaining in her position meant that she would be working with Adam Freeman. He leered across the table at her as she settled into her seat. He was the kind of man you saw all over the City: tall and broad-shouldered but running to fat. Middle age wasn't doing him any favors. His hair loss highlighted the softness of his facial contours. Chin blurring into neck. His personality didn't make up for it.
Geoff was studying the wine list like a student looking for easy questions on a finals paper. He scratched the side of his face absentmindedly as he did so. Madeleine knew her boss well enough to know that meant he was having a terrible time too. Panicking.
"Better pick something good, Geoff," said Freeman. "Could be the last time you get to wield the company credit card."
Freeman's cronies guffawed.
"Some champagne to start with?" Geoff suggested bravely.
"If you think you've got something to celebrate... " said Freeman.
"Madeleine knows all about champagne," Geoff added. Madeleine sighed inwardly.
"Is that so?" Freeman turned to face her.
"I grew up there," she told him simply.
"Are your family in wine?"
"They have a place in Le Vezy."
"That's a grand cru village," said Geoff.
"I know that. Worth a lot of money, land in Champagne," Freeman observed. "I was thinking I might buy myself a chateau when I get my bonus."
Madeleine nodded politely.
"I reckon I could make a pretty good wine."
"It's hard work," said Madeleine.
"Madeleine got out as quickly as she could," said Geoff. "For the easy life in the City."
"At least you've got something to go back to," Freeman told her.
A thinly veiled threat. Had Freeman already determined their fate? Geoff looked shaken. Madeleine merely raised her eyebrows.
Freeman plucked the wine list from Geoff's hands and passed it to Madeleine. "You better choose," he said. "Then we know who to blame if it's shit."
Madeleine took the wine list and began to read.
Beneath the table, Freeman's hand crept onto her knee. Pitying his wife and three small children, Madeleine picked his hand up and let it fall back into his own lap without betraying the slightest hint that it bothered her. It didn't do to show your emotions in this world.
However, Madeleine couldn't help but blink when she saw the name of the bottle at the bottom of the list. "Clos Des Larmes." It wouldn't mean a lot to even the most passionate wine buff but to Madeleine...
"Excellent structure and finish," claimed the sommelier's notes. "Champagne Arsenault produced this single vineyard champagne only in the most exceptional years."
Madeleine knew that. It was a bottle from her own family's estate.
The Arsenault family had several hectares of vines on the hills above Le Vezy, near Bouzy and Ay, where they made a well-regarded Blanc de Noirs. But the Clos Des Larmes was particularly special. It was the wine produced from the pinot noir in the eponymous walled vineyard right next to the house where Madeleine had grown up. A tiny vineyard, it produced just a few hundred bottles and only in the very best years.
Unbelievable. Madeleine had never seen Clos Des Larmes on an English wine list before. This was a bottle from 1985. A vintage made by her father.
Anyone else would have pointed it out to their dining companions, hoping to impress them. Geoff would have wanted Madeleine to flag it up, she knew. But the sight of that name just made Madeleine sad.
That year, 1985, was a great year for champagne but a very bad year for Famille Arsenault. It was the year Madeleine's brother died in an accident and the year that Madeleine left France for the first time. She hadn't properly been back since. Her mother swore that she and Madeleine's father always intended to send their only daughter to boarding school in England but how could Madeleine have seen it as anything but a consequence of their grief? A punishment even?
With those three words, "Clos Des Larmes," Madeleine was momentarily back home. She could see the Arsenault house, square and solid inside its white-walled courtyard. The dark green painted shutters. The bright red geraniums in her mother's cherished window boxes. The gates high and wide enough to drive a coach and horses through, painted with the words "Champagne Arsenault" in extravagant curlicued letters. Proud letters. The roses in the garden. The scrawny black cat sunning itself on the steps. Then the Clos itself. The wild strawberries that grew beneath the vines in the summer. She saw herself as a young girl, playing in the Clos with her older brother. The single apple tree right in the middle...
"Made your mind up yet?" Freeman interrupted. "I need people who can make quick decisions on my team."
"I'm sure Madeleine just wants to make sure she makes the perfect decision," said Geoff, rushing to her defense. This business of defending her was a fairly new development in their relationship. She knew it was only because he thought his job depended on the impression that if he went, his entire team went too.
"We'll have a bottle of the Jacquesson '96," she said to the sommelier as she snapped the wine list shut.
Freeman nodded as though impressed by her decisiveness. "Bring two bottles," he added.
Madeleine had hoped for an early night so that she might be up in time to catch the seven o'clock train to Paris the next morning, but four hours later they were still at the table.
They had moved from the champagne to a fine Bordeaux. Now the men were finishing off a bottle of port. Madeleine tried to disguise the fact that she had stopped drinking hours before by occasionally raising her glass to her lips and pretending to take a sip.
In Madeleine's handbag, her mobile phone vibrated like a dying bee. When she got the chance to slip away to the bathroom to check her voicemail, she recognized her father's number in the list of missed calls. At almost midnightone o'clock in the morning in Franceit was much too late to call him back. In any case, she was too tired to face the telling-off she probably deserved. She'd been promising to visit for months. She swore she would make it that weekend. The last thing she needed to hear right then was how she had let him down. Again. She would telephone him first thing in the morning.
"You haven't been keeping up with us," Freeman bellowed when Madeleine got back to the table. He filled her small glass to the brim, slopping port all over the pristine white tablecloth. "On in my team, we work hard. We play hard. We're the Tartars!"
"That's the name of our cricket team," said Freeman's henchman helpfully.
"Fascinating," said Madeleine.
"Come on, girl," said Freeman. "Drink up."
Madeleine gamely clinked her glass against his.
Beneath the table, hidden in Madeleine's gray snakeskin-trimmed Fendi, Constant Arsenault's name illuminated the screen of his daughter's mobile phone one last time.
Mathieu Randon, head of the eponymous Domaine Randon, was an impressive man. As soon as he walked into a room it was clear he was a force to be reckoned with. His bearing was the very definition of patrician. Though in his mid-fifties, he had the physical strength, grace and agility of a man half his age. He had a full head of silver-white hair, swept back presidentially in style. Naturally, as a Frenchman, he knew how to dress. Everything he wore was bespoke. Handmade shoes, handmade suit, handmade shirts. His ties were the only items he ever got off the rack. But then again, he did own the racks...
Mathieu Randon had inherited Maison Randon, the family champagne house with vineyards in the grand cru villages of Le Vezy, Avize and Verzenay, when he was just twenty-one years old. The upkeep of the champagne business alone would have been enough to occupy most people his age. And the results young Mathieu achieved in his first year at the helm would have formed a big enough pile of laurels for most older, more experienced men to rest upon indefinitely. But even in his early twenties Mathieu Randon was not a man who liked to laze about.
In his second year at the head of the family business Randon bought out two of the small houses with vineyards neighboring his family's land, enabling the expansion of the Maison Randon brand. Ignoring the thought of his father turning in the grave, Randon concentrated on promoting the Maison's non-vintage champagne. It sold spectacularly well overseas. It was the height of the eighties, when City bonuses were big and everyone felt like celebrating. Randon embarked on an aggressive sales push in the United States and Great Britain.