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The French Riviera 1959
Annette Winston Reed hacked at an onion on the battered worktable in her airy, sun-washed kitchen. Although it wasn't her nature to fret, she noticed her hands were shaking and she was perspiring heavily. Her underarms and the small of her back were damp, and her eyes burned with lack of sleep. It's time to buck up, she silently told herself, annoyed by this betrayal of her inner turmoil. She wasn't going to let her troubles undermine her self-confidence or her sense of fun.
She refused to let Thomas Blackburn get to her. He and his four-year-old granddaughter had come down for the weekend from Paris, a typical presumptuousness on Thomas's part. Annette hadn't invited him. A Bostonian like herself, he had known her all her life. She had grown up around the corner from his house on Beacon Hill. But as much as she looked up to him, as much as she'd wanted him to admire her, she couldn't consider him a friend. He was too old, almost twenty years her senior, and perhaps knew her too well. With Thomas, pretenses were impossible.
He was at the breakfast table overlooking the rose garden, with a mug of black coffee at his elbow and the Paris Le Monde opened up in front of him so that Annette couldn't miss the latest blaring headline about the jewel thief who'd plagued the Côte d'Azur for the past eight weeks. He'd been dubbed Le Chat after the Cary Grant character in the popular American movie To Catch a Thief. Once again, the police promised the imminent arrest of a suspect.
This time they weren't just blowing smoke. Annette knew better.
Thomas hadn't said a word beyond a simple good-morning. He had come to the Riviera just to visit her, he'd told Annette with his wry smile, knowing she wouldn't believe him. As always, he had a loftier purpose in mind: to convince her Vietnamese caretaker, a mandarin scholar respected both abroad and in his own country, to return home. Thomas would go on and on about how Saigon needed credible centrist leaders and how Quang Tai could help save his country from disaster, and Annette would pretend a suitable neutrality, despite the prospect of losing her caretaker. She was only sparing herself one of Thomas's notorious lectures on not being shortsighted and selfish; she suspected he already knew she didn't want the bother of having to replace Quang Tai.
She sighed, frantically mincing one half of the onion. Her eyes had begun to tear, and if she didn't slow down and be careful, she'd likely chop off the end of a finger. Thomas wouldn't keep quiet for long. It wasn't a Blackburn trait.
The newspaper rustled as he turned a page, and she heard him take a small sip of coffee.
"All right, Thomas, you win," she said, whirling around with her paring knife. "What do you want to tell me that you're trying so hard not to tell me? You might as well spit it out, because you know you'll get around to it sooner or later."
Looking slightly miffed at her sharp-sighted observation, Thomas folded the newspaper and laid it on the table. Like all Blackburns, he was a man of impeccable moral and intellectual respectabilitythe kind of highbrow Boston-ian that Annette usually found boring and irritating. For two centuries, the Blackburns had been outspoken patriots, historians, poets, reformers, public servants and eccentrics, if not the best moneymakers. Eliza Blackburnthe patron saint of the familywas one of Boston's favorite Revolutionary War heroines. Her portrait, painted by Gilbert Stuart, hung in the Massachusetts State House; in it she wore the cameo brooch that George Washington himself had presented to her, in gratitude for her efforts at smuggling weapons, ammunition and information from British-occupied Boston to the patriot forces in outlying areas. The Winstons, on the other hand, had snuck off to Halifax for the duration of the War of Independence. Eliza had also been virtually the only mercantile-minded Blackburn in two hundred years. She'd been the driving force behind Blackburn Shipping, which made a fortune in the post-Revolution China trade, but folded in 1812 with the British blockade and the war. That was that for a Blackburn generating any substantial income. Eliza's descendants had been stretching her fortune ever since, and it was beginning to fray.
Annette had heard rumblings that Thomas, Harvard-educated and approaching fifty, was about to launch his own business. He was an authority on the history and culture of Indochina and spent much of his time there, but how he planned to translate that expertise into a moneymaking enterprise was beyond her.
He regarded her with a calm that only accentuated her own nervousness. "Annette, I'd like to ask you a straightforward questiondo you know this thief Le Chat?"
"Don't be ridiculous. How would I know him?"
Her mouth went dry, her heartbeat quickened and she felt curiously light-headed. She'd never fainted in all her thirty years; now wasn't the time to start. Trying to hide her trembling hands, she set down the paring knife and leaned against the counter. She was dressed casually in baggy men's khaki trousers and an oversize white cotton shirt, her ash-brown hair pulled up in a hasty knot. If she worked at it, she could look rather stunning at first glance, but she had no illusions that she was an especially beautiful woman. She was too pale-skinned, too large-framed, too pear-shaped, too tall. Her near-black eyebrows were mannishly heavy and might have overwhelmed a more delicate face, but she had a strong nose, Katharine Hepburn cheeks and big eyes that were a ringing, memorable blue her best feature by far. She'd hated her long legs as a teenager, but over the years she had discovered they had their advantages in bed. Even her husband, not the most passionate of men, would cry out in pleasure when she'd wrap them around him and pull him deeper into her.
"Annette," Thomas said.
It was the same tone he'd used on her when he'd caught her crossing Beacon Street alone at six years old. Nineteen years her senior, he was already a widower then, with a two-year-old son. Emily Blackburn, so quietly beautiful and intelligent, had died of postpartum complications, the first person Annette had ever known to die. She had only wanted to ride the swan boats in the Public Garden and had explained this to Thomas, assuring him her mother had said it was all right. He had said, "Annette," just that way admonishing, knowing, expecting more of her than a transparent lie. Feeling as if she'd failed him, she'd blurted out the truth. Her mother hadn't said it was all right; she thought Annette was playing alone in the garden. Thomas had marched her home at once.
She was no longer six years old.
"I promised the children I'd take them out to pick flowers," she said, pulling herself up straight. "They're waiting."
She was at the kitchen door when Thomas spoke again. "Annette, this man's no Cary Grant. He's a thief who has lined his own pockets with other people's things and driven a decent woman to suicide."
Annette spun around and gave him a haughty look. "I quite agree."
Shaking his head, Thomas rose to his feet. He was a tall, lean man with sharp features and straight, fine hair that was a mixture of dark brown, henna highlights and touches of gray. The scrimpiest of the notoriously frugal Blackburns, he wore a shabby sweater that had probably seen him through his postgraduate studies at Harvard and trousers he'd let out, unabashedly leaving the old seam to show.
"I would never presume to judge you," he told her softly. "I hope you know that."
Annette held back an incredulous laugh. "Thomas, you're a Blackburn. It's your nature to judge everyone and everything."
He grimaced, but there was a gleam in his intensely blue eyes. "You're saying I'm a critical old fart."
She smiled for the first time in hours. "Not that old. Let's just say people always know where they stand with youand you're a better man than most. Make yourself at home. I'll be back in an hour or so."
To her surprise and relief, Thomas let her go without another word.
Taking a gaggle of children flower-picking wasn't something Annette relished, even on a good day, but they quickly busied themselves plucking every blossom in sight. Surrendering to their enthusiasm, she abandoned her halfhearted effort to separate weed from wildflower and plopped down in the straw grass. It was warm in the sun under the incomparable blue of the Mediterranean sky, and the scent of wild-flowers, lemons and sea permeated the air, soothing her restlessness and feeling of inundation. Down through the small field and olive grove, she could see the red-tiled roof and simple lines of her stone mas, the eighteenth-century farmhouse where she'd spent a part of every year since she was a girl. It was as much home to her as Boston was. In many ways, more so, for it was here on the Riviera she could be alone, with just her son and his nannywithout Benjamin, without the pressures of being a Boston Winston and a well-bred woman whose idea of fulfillment was supposed to be making everyone's life interesting but her own.
The children's zeal for flower-picking waned faster than she'd hoped, but her nephew Jared, the eldest at nine, launched a game of tag. Quentin was reluctant and terrified, his mother suspected, the girls would beat him. He was seven, a sturdy, towheaded boy with a quiet manner and a head full of dreams and ideas whose execution defeated him. A game of tag was precisely the kind of open, raw confrontation he tried to avoid. He was his father's son, Annette thought, with a lack of affection she was becoming used to. Even Quentin, however, couldn't prevail against his cousin's strong will.
The game got off to an aggressive start, and Annette nudged the flower basket closer to her. She didn't want the children in their exuberance to knock it over. The flowers wouldn't suffer; they were mostly rot. But she'd hate to have to explain why she'd tucked a .25-caliber automatic under the calico cloth lining the bottom of her flower basket.
"Bon matin, ma belle."
She hadn't heard his approach. She twisted around, but he was concealed behind the knotted trunk of an olive tree, out of the children's view. Their game was already getting out of hand. Quang Tai's six-year-old daughter, Tam, a mite of a girl, was beating the socks off the two boys and loving every minute of it, teasing them in her mixture of English, French and Vietnamese. Jared boasted he'd get her next game, but Quentin, ever the sore loser, accused her of cheating. Tam was having none of it. Jared remained neutral in the ensuing squabble, but then they both turned on him. Four-year-old Rebecca Blackburn amused herself by throwing grass on the three older children, becoming more and more daring until they finally paid attention to her.
"You can't catch me," she cried jubilantly as the two boys and Tam chased her.
Blue-eyed, chestnut-haired Blackburn though little Rebecca was, Annette had to admire the girl's spunk. In another thirty years, she'd probably be as sanctimonious as her grandfather.
Mercifully, Tam's father called from the edge of the field, and all four little monsters scrambled toward him. Annette promised she'd be along in a while and pulled her flower basket onto her lap. The gun had added weight to it.
"You can come out now, Jean-Paul," she said.
He ambled out from behind the tree and squatted down, dropping a daisy into her basket. Annette tried to check the rush of raw desire she felt every time she saw him. It didn't work. From their first encounter weeks ago, she had been obsessed with Jean-Paul Gerard. She could never get enough of him; he could never satisfy her, sexually or emotionally. Whenever they made love she wanted more of him. Even after multiple couplings in one night, she'd awaken aching for him. He could tell her a thousand times he loved her, and she would long to hear it againand yet never believed him. Jean-Paul was twenty-four years old and one of the most popular men in France. She was a thirty-year-old married woman with stretch marks on her breasts and abdomen.
She hated to give him up.
She noticed the sun-whitened hairs on his tanned arms. He was so handsome, so arrogantly French. Leanly built, he was a dark, sleek, wiry man, his eyes a deep brown, soft and oddly vulnerableand keen. They had to be. He was one of France's premiere Grand Prix drivers, a risk-taking, desirable man who radiated a generous and unquenchable sexuality. He could have had virtually any woman he wanted. He had chosen Annette. She had never had any illusions that their affair would last, but she supposed she ought to derive some satisfaction at being the one to end it. He curled a loose tendril of hair behind her ear and brushed two fingers along the line of her jaw. "I missed you last night."
" For nothing at all she'd strip herself naked and make love to him right there in the grass under the olive tree. The children and her caretaker and Thomas Blackburn and her entire future be damned. She licked her lips, parched to the point of cracking, and squinted at her lover, sitting in the shade with the bright morning sun at his back. "Have you seen the papers?"
Nodding, he sighed and sat back in the grass.
"That's why I called you." Her voice quavered; she didn't like that. She cleared her throat and forced herself not to look away. "Last night I became Le Chat's latest victim. I was at the roulette wheel, wearing a Tiffany diamond-and-pearl bracelet"
He looked pained. "Ma belle
"No, don't. Let me finish. The bracelet was a gift to me from my husband on our fifth anniversary. There's an inscription. The police
" Her throat was so dry and tight she felt she would choke. "I gave the police an exact description."
Jean-Paul accepted her words without apparent surprise or concern. "What else did you tell the police?"
Annette hesitated, then said, "Enough."
He looked away from her, his soft eyes lost in the shade.
"They've gone to your house, Jean-Paul. I would expect they're there now and have already found my bracelet"
"You used the key I gave you?"
"Yes. Last night, while you were asleep."
He turned back to her, assessing her with the same alertness and intensity that had made him one of the finest race-car drivers in the world. This time, his craving for excitement and danger had led him astray.